Friday, November 19, 2021

 Perception is 9/10 of the law....


I rediscovered a book which I first read in graduate school about the use of numbers in public policy debates called Damn Lies and Statistics by Josh Best, a University of Delaware Sociologist.   Best's book argues that statistics are essential to discuss things we want to solve in the public 
arena AND that because so many people accept, often without question, numbers offered by public figures, newspeople and social media gurus - we live with a lot of bunk.

Let me offer one example that he offers at the start of the volume.  Some unnamed PhD candidate who had the good fortune to have Best on his guidance committee. The candidate made the absurd argument that the number of child murders had doubled every year since 1950.  Think for a moment about the power of numbers.   1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 and so on. (at 10 days the number is 512, per day)  In a very short period the number of annual childhood murders would be will beyond the number of children and perhaps very soon larger than the world population.   The student's gaffe was not caught until a scholarly journal had published part of his research.

The problem we face with numbers is that some people are either careless or malevolent with numbers.  All of us who have practiced in the public arena have been guilty of a bit of balderdash with numbers.  In the early 1970s I worked for a Michigan congressman who was a moderate environmentalist.   (That was when such things were possible.).  He had a constituent from Ann Arbor who had a summer home in Minnesota near Silver Bay on Lake Superior.   A company called Reserve Mining extracted low grade iron ore by crushing the ore into a slurry and then extracting out the iron.  The company offered jobs to people in the area but the remaining gunk, without the ore, was held in some holding ponds and then simply washing into the lake.   The pictures of the spillway were dramatic.

We were sitting around one night and wondered how much effluent was being dumped into the lake.  I was tasked to figure that out.  We knew the depth of the sluice and its width and the approximate speed of the water.   We made some assumptions about the carrying capacity of the water and Voila a statistic was created.  The other Voila was how quickly people of authority began to quote the number.  The basis had no real justification except a (poorly) educated guess.  Eventually Reserve Mining was closed down, in part because of that bogus number.   Lake Superior is exquisite and had Reserve gone on for (a very long time) while it would have become less beautiful.

Made up statistics are frequent.  For example, Mitch Snyder once claimed that the number of homeless in the US exceeded 3 million people - the Reagan Administration did the numbers and suggested that it was closer to 300,000 and Snyder immediately claimed that the number was reduced because the Administration wanted to deny the problem.   For me that was one of the first examples of "fact" shaming.   Similar outlandish numbers came up in all sorts of other policy debates - at one point the estimated number of deaths from anorexia in young women was claimed to be 150,000 annually - that number is highly dubious but the advocates were trying to push a point.

The good point about rediscovering this book is the clear way that Professor Best describes the terrors of statistics.  He has several "hazards" for stats - they can, like my effluent stat (yes indeed it was effluent!) be made up.   Others may consider apples and oranges.   And still others can be intentional distortions.   The book was written before there was much cable news and before social media were here - but he points out that even when the book was written many reporters are simply too lazy to chase down wild claims and many may be too innumerate to understand the implications of what they bandy about.   The problem is that many people listen to the "experts" babble on about some number and believe it may have some basis in fact - and indeed, sometimes it does.   But often a number is just a close cousin to luncheon meat.

We've heard all sorts of numbers behind the Administration's Build Better America plan which has a cost of several trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000 - a trillion is 12 zeros!) and even those estimates are bogus because of the bizarre way costs are estimated. Don't believe the number used in the House debate - it has so many tricks and dodges it might even be called slight of hand.  I was amused a few days ago when Senator Sanders grumped that journalists have not done a good enough job selling this boondoggle.   Perhaps another explanation is that a good number of us are skeptical of a massive expansion of both the deficit and mucking around even more deeply in our lives.  Last time I checked the Press is not supposed to be a mouth piece for any administration - but Sanders thought because he was for it, the forces of political correctness must defend the point - no matter how bogus.

SO what about the picture?  One fraternity brother was driving through a small town in Mono county and saw the Chevron prices for gas. (IN the Eastern side of the state - think REMOTE).  Another fraternity brother commented "Incredible gouge. Way over prices here in Oakland."   My immediate response was to question whether the huge increases in Federal debt and the Biden Administration's attacks on all forms of fossil fuels might have created this pricing spike.

But as you think about both of our reactions - they involved a lot of jerky knees.   Here are some other things one should think about.   First, Mono county is remote - their gas prices are always way higher than in other parts of the state which are closer to refineries.   Second, as we have come out of COVID lockdowns more people are driving thus putting more demand pressure on gas prices. California especially has artificially curtailed supply.  Third, the Year to Year increases between urban Oakland and rural Mono County are not the same - Oakland's gas prices have jumped 60+% over the last year while Mono's have grown only about 11%.

Understanding how things interact is tough.  This gas thing made me think a bit about being  more cautious in responding to images or posts.   Not a bad lesson.

UPDATE ON Of Course It's True, Except for a Couple of Lies - The book is now tripartite; the first on Family; the second on Life; and the third on Beliefs.  They will be published simultaneously - and will be roughly the same size.   The first "Stave" has been done in final edit and the next two are progressing.   Based on the amount of work left to do it will probably be available in Q1 2022.



Friday, October 15, 2021

Social Media and Me

I have been struggling with a problem where I hope Five Cent Thinking's readers will offer some advice either as a response to this post or via my normal email.   NOTE #1 - As the owner of this blog I have control over what appears here; so if you want to respond but not publicly please put that in your response and I will not publish your comments.

I joined Facebook in its early stages(2004), at the time it seemed like an interesting platform which could provide two benefits.   First, as someone who spent a career working on public policy issues I thought it might be a place to participate in engaging discussions about key issues.   Second, it seemed like a way to communicate with friends and acquaintances many of whom I have not been able to keep up with over the years.

About the time I started being on Facebook I also set up a Twitter account.  But I have never used it much, if this blog has proven anything, I am not prone to short form writing!   But part of my aversion was based on the need to not react to events instantaneously.  

I continuously avoid watching any of the cable channels because of their absurd need to fill every waking minute with "news".   I first recognized the trend when I was coming back from a trip to Mexico at the time that Princess Diana died (1997).  My Spanish at the time was much more limited than now but even without understanding all the words, I noticed a pattern of commentary and images that I found disconcerting.  

Soon after I joined FB, a friend who I knew from both politics and because she was a doctoral student at SC when I was there, invited me to join a group of political types her dad had created (but this time the group was digital).   I knew a lot of the people in the group and  met some interesting people through it. The politics of the group was diverse.  But the "Wheelspinners" deteriorated after a couple of people on both sides of the political divide substituted invective for argument.   In a valiant attempt to continue the positive notions from the original group it revived it under a new name.  But that also deteriorated somewhat quickly.  

One consequence for me, if I decide to leave FB, is that I will no longer be able to exchange  insights with the half dozen people on the group who constantly help me understand nuances on a wide range of issues.  In the time I have been on FB I have been periodically surprised by a someone's different take on something I had thought quite settled.  In the Bismarkean sense part of the "politics is the art of the possible" for me is the ability to consider all sorts of options.

Both Facebook and Twitter seem to fit what a good friend in Sacramento used to call Kabuki politics.  We watch contending sides put on their makeup and join the political fray with masks or makeup on - not wanting to contend but more wanting to engage in stylized discussions where the genuine opportunity to think about things in new ways is scorned.

Let me add that I believe that the key people at FB and Twitter have absolutely no scruples.  They have consistently censored substantive ideas which do not fit their worldview.  

From my perspective the country needs to have some reasoned debate about a lot of issues including (for me)  the big four of 1) Climate change, 2) Wealth and Income Inequality, 3) Racial Reconciliation, 4) Fiscal Policy (come on, when one wrote his dissertation on Tax Theory that one is essential).   But serious discussion does not seem to be forthcoming.  You are not a "denier" or a "deplorable" because you have a different understanding of both the nature of a specific problem and the best way to handle it.

In my mind the current system of identifying political leaders is not serving us well. When I started in the political arena there were politicians on both sides of the aisle that I admired.  Now the number of politicians in that group from either party is very limited.   IF you believe that in at least the last two presidential elections we had what David Halberstam called the "best and the brightest" as the standard bearers for either party, I guess we are going to have to disagree.   Dick Tuck, who was a thorn in Richard Nixon's side for a good part of his career had the great quip that the "lesser of two evils is still evil" (I know that many attribute that to Jerry Garcia) and I think in trying to defend our choice for President that we ignore that maxim.   

For the last year and a half, the country has devolved into discussions which I believe have been structured to evidence virtue signaling rather than exchange of views.  I will admit that I can get on a high horse too.  But quite frankly, I am tired of engaging in these kinds of yammerings.  As long as we are relegated to retreating into tribes, we won't make progress in discovering the best of options.

A bit more than a year ago, a good friend who had been a distinguished college president and a keen analyst of our political environment posted on Facebook that she was leaving it.  She is a certified FOB (Friend of Bill) having gone to law school with both Clintons.  She actually taught a course with an economist of my persuasion in the Claremont Colleges.  I would have liked to been able to audit the course.  I am sure it was a good set of exchanges.  When she announced her intention to dump FB I wrote her (outside of FB) about the decision.   She replied that the cost of participation in FB far exceeded any benefits.  Over the years I have had some superb discussions with her about a wide range of issues.  We often do not agree on solutions but the exchanges have been fun.

About a decade ago a Georgetown computer science professor, in his blog Study Hacks offered a simple equation to discern the value of technologies - “ Technologies are great, but if you want to keep control of your time and attention have the self-confidence to insist that they earn their keep before you make them a regular part of your life.” FB fails on that equation.

One final comment;  an obvious solution would be to use the Wildavsky Maxim (Aaron was a professor at UC Berkeley) He quipped that politicians should "NO, thyself" - so I could simply quit responding to political posts. Quite frankly, I am pretty sure that would not work for someone who spent more than 4 decades working in the vineyard of politics.

So here is the ask.  I am thinking of dropping Facebook by the end of the month.  Here are my three questions.  1) do you have any thoughts about stepping out of social media?  2) For many of my buddies on Facebook is there a good way to stay in touch without FB? I really do enjoy hearing about families and trips.   3) Do you have any other suggestions about how someone who would like to continue to discuss public policy issues can do that in without being stuck in the mire of virtue that both sides of the spectrum try to hold us in?

NOTE #2  - If you do not have an Email address for me (outside of FB) and want to communicate privately or simply stay in touch after I leave FB,  please use messenger and I will get back to you.

NOTE #3  - On October 4, Facebook went down and Joanna Stern - the ACE technology reporter for the WSJ had suggestions for getting your data from Facebook and ideas for alternative platforms to use to stay in touch.   If you do not subscribe to the WSJ - send me an Email and I will send you a Pdf of the article.

NOTE #4 - And I realize this might sound contradictory.  Even if I dump Facebook - I will continue to use the FB product called What's Ap - it is an essential, and at least for me, non political tool in Mexico.

Friday, October 1, 2021

 E Pluribus Meum

We went to Costco this week to pick up some things - Costco has upped their game with great fresh fish (like Steelhead) and Prime beef and even great veggies and fruit and they still have monster proportions of many good products.   Plus we wanted to get toilet paper and paper towels.   Evidently, after a local news story claimed paper products were under pressure, the hoarders descended  and cleaned out every Costco in the area.   The story also mentioned  that water was facing a run and indeed we encountered a woman with a basket full of about 10 40 bottle packs of water.

We seem to have lost sight of one of our founding principles - E Pluribus Unum - which is based on the idea that we have some common principles that bring us together.   I am not a complete pessimist on this problem - there are counter examples.   But the trend line based on the amount of me first, is troubling.

The same afternoon, while Quinlan was going to pick up a prescription, she found that booster shots were available, so she got hers. No line.  By the time she got home and got me back there a substantial line had formed.  But she dragged me back and  I had to stand in line for almost an hour.   The line was convivial.   Each of us waiting patiently (no pun here!) to get the third stab.  One lady ahead of us was much older than we and a couple of people found her a chair while she waited.  So in spite of our Costco experience we got some hope from the booster line.  I began to think about what has caused this seeming increase in selfishness.  I came up with three possible types of people who might be likely to be ignoring our interrelationships  - (these are presented in no order) ....

1) Those who immigrated to this country from despotic regimes.  This is not a statement about immigrants - the American tradition of welcoming people who want to join us is a good one.   We benefit from their contributions.   But those who have had to live under totalitarian regimes understand the absolute irrationality of them and they have had more experience negotiating with scarcity.  One of my favorite movies is Robin Williams’ Moscow on the Hudson.   It tells the story of a Russian circus performer who before he defects at Bloomingdales is forced to wait in line for everything - he accepts a pair of shoes which don't fit because that is the size they have. He can trade the ill fitting shoes for some other favor.   Before he defects he celebrates with his family because he was able to stand in line for toilet paper.   When Paul Mazurzky wrote the script I am sure he did not think that snip would become prophetic almost 40 years in the future.   When the circus performer defects to the US he is confronted with the range of choices and a lack of lines.   At first he dislikes all those choices.  But he soon learns that with freedom comes sometimes daunting choices.

But again there is some reason for hope - in the University board I chaired for seven years we heard from a student.  He was a physician from Venezuela and told a compelling story of his flight from his country.  He did not have a  chance to "pursue happiness" in his own country as totalitarians destroyed a vibrant economy.  So he came to the US.  Even though he  could not get his transcripts from his home university and is now working on a degree as a Nurse Practitioner.   That kind of initiative is something we should celebrate!

2) Those sucked into entitlements.  Entitlements are those programs where eligibility is not limited - you get the benefit often without a demonstration of need.  Student loans are a good example of the risks of entitlements.   Students who need to borrow (or want to borrow) for their education can use a number of programs which provide subsidized rates and terms.   In this case, when the Obama administration took over the programs (which previously had private sector participation), and transformed loans into a program run by the Department of Education - the number of loans grew substantially and concurrently so did defaults.   (Reminds me of a saying in one of my favorite saloons in Stockton - they had a sign that said "We have an agreement with the bank, they don't sell beer and we don't cash checks.")  The feds proved incompetent at running the program and defaults soared.   The revision in the program was foolhardy  - in recent years there has been a clamor that a student can borrow money, default on the loan and then have it forgiven.   That creates some truly perverse incentives.   If you are entitled to one set of things - why not everything?   A few years ago at the Democratic National Convention we heard the story of a cartoon character who derived all her benefits in life from the support she derived from government.   For me at least that was a bizarre picture contrary to things which made the country great.  

 Let me offer another entitlement that is closer to me.  The Social Security Trust Fund will go bankrupt as the number of recipients is rising and the number of tax payers paying into the fund is diminishing.  The fix is pretty simple.   In 1983, some very modest adjustments to the age of retirement and the tax base, funded the program for almost 40 years.   That could be done again - but the Senior Meums think as long as they get their check they don't need to worry about the next generation.

3) Heavy consumers of social media.  When I first got back to San Miguel in March of 2020 I went to my doctor and asked him what I should do special - being a recently cleared cancer patient.  He offered all the normal things about masks and distance and hand washing but then suggested the most important health devotion was to "avoid social media."   That was good advice.   The old story of Chicken Little is one that anticipated the bizarre range of opinions that came out on Covid.   Who the hell thought that a highlight of social conversation would be about “spittle distance?”   Moral certitude and virtue signaling have been substituted for common sense.

Clearly, the threat of COVID is real.  But in reality the constant “if it bleeds it leads” for both social media and cable news has diminished our ability to separate the real horribles from the imagined ones.

What concerns me is that we’ve seen a huge increase in a perspective which does not serve us well.  

So what are the consequences of moving from Unum to Meum?

The Meum world is very close to what Hobbes described in his description of life as "cruel, brutish and short."   The Meums look at the world as a zero sum game - if you get something I am deprived of it - so there is every incentive to get mine NOW.  In my mind, positive sum games are closer to reality.   If that is the case we should think about ways to devise methods where if each of us contributes a bit we are all a lot better off.   Cass Sunnstein and Richard Thaler wrote a book called Nudge which tried to tease out the implications of this type of thinking.

If we do not turn back from Meum, we will be following a sad path divided into warring tribes with an increasingly narrow range of choices.  That seems both sad and stupid.

Update on the book ----- This week my editor got me a final draft to work on.  My next step is to get a copy editor to clean up the draft and then to get the final to a publisher.  I've also retained a design editor to make the manuscript fit into the constraints of publishing.   The good news is that almost anything that traditional publishers once did can be done in the DIY world with very seasoned professionals.  I spent some time this week on Reedsy - which is a great site which has tons of resources for authors.   I attended (ZOOM) a seminar to learn about the range of alternatives to print and distribute books.   There are some exciting options from Amazon and Apple Books - to Ingram Spark - which actually can print on demand AND can help new authors distribute their work.  Like other parts of the economy the web has forced a very hierarchical business model to change.  That has democratized the process of creating a book.  The complexity for me is that to be effective I need to tread through these elements to get to where I want to go.   I hope to have a copy editor identified in the next couple of weeks; have my final edits to that person after that and then get this project into production.   One of the best pieces of news I got from the Reedsy Zoom meeting (led by an author who has done traditional and DIY publishing) is that the DIY world, once you understand the elements is much quicker.   The Author had a  book which went to his traditional publisher at the beginning of September and expected to go into print in Q3 of 2022 and his DIY book should be in bookstores and on the web by the end of November.   That is quite a difference.


Saturday, September 4, 2021

In Quest of Conclusions

So this week was a momentous one.  I sent a final edit to my editor.  Well, as you may have noticed final in the publishing world is a lot like many other finals in life. I will come back to the book at the end of this post.

This week our president, finally pulled us out of Afghanistan.  That was a conclusion I believe that most Americans thought was appropriate.   There was an uproar on his lack of consultation with our allies and his “strategies” (I believe both were justified in spite of the need to leave) to withdraw.  The chaos at Kabul airport was horrific.  I think if one is charitable this was not the USs finest hour.   But we are out of this 20 year involvement, or are we?   Babylon Bee joked that the Taliban had opened an Army surplus store with all the military equipment left behind.   For me I am more concerned about the people we left behind.   News reports are that the Taliban has not treated those who helped our effort but could not get out well.  One wag described the evacuation as a Blunder-Bus.

From my perspective the  lessons we should learn from this - which we do not seem to be very good at -a) is to follow one piece of advice my mother gave me - "Just because you can doesn't mean you should" and another which suggests that if you don't have a pretty clear plan when you get into something you are not likely to succeed (if you fail to plan you plan to fail).   In several instances of foreign policy in the decades since WWII - we have violated both rules and paid the price.

It turns out that Sacramento will be a large venue for the Afghani refugees who were able to get out ,many of whom worked in support of the American mission(s),  And in one of those odd turns of technology - we got an appeal from a friend in SMA (a former State Department employee) who worked with an Afghani who worked for the American Embassy (and she had worked with) who will be coming to Sacramento.  Soon after we got that, our Priest in Sacramento convened an interfaith meeting to think about how we could help these people as they are resettled to our area.  IMHO that is the least we owe them.   At the meeting we heard from a couple of remarkable people who have helped to coordinate including one amazing woman who is in charge of collecting and distributing food and other kits to new arrivals.   Her husband commented that their lawn is a bit shaggy because their garage is full.  Two local charities The Rescue Center  and the Sacramento Welcome Center seem to be working hard on accommodating our new arrivals.   At the meeting we had Episcopalians, Latter Day Saints, and Muslims represented.   It was heartening.

But then we are also coming to a conclusion on the Recall effort against Governor Newsome.  The polling at this point seems to be going in favor of retaining Newsome.   As often happens in the last two weeks before an election there is an awful lot of hyperbole being thrown about.  The leading candidate to replace the Governor has had a bunch of wild charges made against him.   But then you look down at the choices that Californians are being offered to replace the Governor and you don't need to wonder why the state has a flaky reputation (even if we did not have a Governor who in the middle of the COVID lockdown chose to have an unmasked dinner at a fancy restaurant in Napa which one of my democrat friends charitably described that action by Newsome as “tone deaf”).   The range of talents is quite limited while the depth of aspirations is mind-boggling.  Well actually the talent is in short supply. Perhaps four or five of them could actually do the job.  As one long time democrat campaign guy said, skills here should not be considered.  If the governor is recalled the sages in the legislature are likely to greet the budget proposal with two words “and those are not likely to be Merry Christmas” - as a native Californian I would wish that we could get a group of us who could get off the Kabuki politics we’ve lived through for the last couple of decades and begin to tackle issues like homelessness, water, improving the schools and things that really matter to Californians.  

The fire season also started early this year and much of the Northern part of the state has enjoyed AQIs (Air Quality Indexes) of well over 200 for several weeks.   Not to make a bad pun but we are not out of the woods yet.   The combination of terrible forest management, idiotic water policy combined with whatever effects their might be from climate change offer real risks through the next couple of months.  The good news, to the extent there is some, is that most of these fires, so far, have not produced significant damages to homes like the 2017-18 fires did.   When we left SMA the AQI there was 28; when we arrived in Sacramento it was 226.  I don’t think anyone can tell you when we will be out of this fire season or more importantly when the “leadership” of the state will be inclined to tackle the real issues that leads us to move to “smoke without mirrors” in each of the last half dozen summers.   Presented at the bottom of this post is a primer on AQI.  

One other odd comment about disasters.  Are you as puzzled as I am about the news coverage on Ida?  The number of deaths as a result of the 2005 storm Katrina was more than 1800 - this year in the south is is fewer than 5.  Sure power went out.  But because of a new system of levee reinforcement since Katrina hurricane alley was relatively safe.  Compare that the the news coverage o deaths in the northeast (46) where the coverage has produced comments like this from the AP "A stunned U.S. East Coast faced a rising death toll, surging rivers and tornado damage Thursday after the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped the region with record-breaking rain, drowning more than 40 people in their homes and cars." (Yes I did add emphasis)

The AP goes on to comment "In a region that had been warned about potentially deadly flash flooding but hadn’t braced for such a blow from the no-longer-hurricane, the storm killed at least 46 people from Maryland to Connecticut on Wednesday night and Thursday morning." If you ever wondered about the regional biases of the MSM - look no further.


SO what is going on with the book?  As noted at the start of this Ramble (the apt name of my original blog) a final draft went to my editor this week.  But what does a “final draft” actually mean?   First, I have two chapters still out with reviewers.   The comments I have received on all the other chapters have been stunning; very very helpful.  For example, in the chapter I did on Values - a good friend helped me understand that the Bible does not mention luck.   He commented that if God is either omnipresent or omnipotent he does not get surprised - but humans do.   Second, I have spent some time working on photos.  A key part of this project for me has been to include photos.  But there are some quirks in getting photos printed.  As noted in the last post, they need to be of a high enough resolution to be useable.  But I may actually be able to use color photos in the Kindle/iPad version but will probably need to use black and white photos in the paperback.   Getting those organized for my design guy is a bit of a task.   Third, one of my sources offered me two dozen publishers who can get something into a paperback edition.   Over the last two years I have consulted with some of those but there are still half a dozen leads to run down from Kindle Direct to a bunch of smaller presses.   Finally, there are two unresolved issues in the manuscript.   My editor suggested that I include a visual timeline at the end of the chapters on Family.   I do not like what I came up with (visually) and I may just leave that up to my design person.   But there is also one chapter that I am still undecided on whether I will include it - which originally came when this was a Storyworth project. It is a musing on my reading habits.  I’ve already cut several chapters (ones on Critical Race Theory - called Plessy v Diangelo - which I liked and my reviewers also liked; on on how I dealt with COVID; and one on media influences when I was a nipper which was restructured to a speculation on whether I am a person of my times).   My goal is to get comments back from my editor by the end of the month; spend some time in early October doing final final revisions; get the manuscript to the design person so that by about the first of November we will begin to getting the project to final publication.


As I was researching the book I re-read Huckleberry Finn and came across his epithet for his book  “so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more.”  Who knows whether I will follow Huck’s standard.

What is the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI)?

Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.

For each pollutant an AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to an ambient air concentration that equals the level of the short-term national ambient air quality standard for protection of public health. AQI values at or below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. When AQI values are above 100, air quality is unhealthy: at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher.

Daily AQI ColorLevels of ConcernValues of IndexDescription of Air Quality
GreenGood0 to 50Air quality is satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
YellowModerate51 to 100Air quality is acceptable. However, there may be a risk for some people, particularly those who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.
OrangeUnhealthy for Sensitive Groups101 to 150Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is less likely to be affected.
RedUnhealthy151 to 200Some members of the general public may experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
PurpleVery Unhealthy201 to 300Health alert: The risk of health effects is increased for everyone.
MaroonHazardous301 and higherHealth warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Back to the Book

When last I wrote I discussed an increasing tendency to be super cautious.   This post is different.  You see, I've done a couple of things in the last two weeks which I think are progress.   First, I completed the final chapter in the section on philosophy - that is focused on values.  It proved more difficult to write in part because the subject  is not an area where I have spent a ton of time studying the issues.  The ratio of economics and finance books and articles in my library to religious texts is perhaps 879:1.   (That is not because I only have 879 books on finance, economics and tax issues.).  I sent it to three friends more qualified than I to look at the draft.

Second, I got out the conclusions chapter which I finished almost a year ago.  The opening meme (A glass is neither half full or half empty but refillable) is still on point.  But believe it or not since I got that first draft done my thoughts have modified, a bit, in many areas.  Writing a book like this is an iterative process - and thanks to the people who have read chapters also an interactive one.   So I have begun to redraft that last chapter.

Third, then there is Filomen.  One Sunday night two years ago as  Quinlan and I were going out to dinner with some friends  we encountered a burro parked on the street, standing there calmly.  I thought the photo was evocative of many issues raised in the book and thought it could be a perfect cover photo.  I went to the guy who is doing design and he said my photo was a bit thin. (Not enough pixels). So I tried a bunch of techniques but could not get to the density needed.  So I called a bunch of friends in SMA who gave pointers to the Burro Guy in SMA (Armando Rivera).  I found him, talked him into coming up to the original site of the photo. He spends many Sundays with Filomen posing for pictures around the Centro.  He noticed my facemark and remarked "Tu cubraboca es Filomen!" (Your mask is Filomen).   We walked up - I shot several pictures.  They may not be enough. If not I will ask him again to help me so I can shoot one more shot in RAW image. (Which is 25 Megapixels).   When I started this project one friend told me based on his experience of writing a book - that at one or more times you will become obsessed with a detail - either running down a fact or something like this photo.  Ok, so that obsession thing seems to have passed, for now.

Fourth, a book written by two friends came out this week, called Mitka's Secret, which is about Mitka Kalinski. At the beginning of WWII Mitka was orphaned from his parents and then spent all of the war either in concentration camps or as a slave of a Nazi sympathizer.   He then spent a couple of years in post WWII relocation camps and eventually was relocated to the US.   He started in the East, married and then made a life in Sparks, Nevada.  He never learned to read and write.  But he worked hard and became comfortable retaining an indomitable spirit.   The book is hard not to read it in one setting - It is an inspiring story of the indomitable human spirit.  Mitka's Secret has a much different focus than Of Course It's True" but it showed me there is light at the end of tunnel.

Finally, beginning next week I will go through the entire draft one final time before sending it off the my editor and the designer.  With luck, Of Course It's True Except for a Couple of Lies (Por supuesto que es verdad, excepto por un par de mentiras - if there is ever a Spanish version), will be in print by the end of the year.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Belts and Suspenders

For a good part of my career I worked on insurance issues.  That came about because of some odd events, described below.   First, there was a suggestion by one of my doctoral advisors who argued that if we were going to become a part of the club we owed it to send them a copy of any paper which mentioned their work.    I sent one of those papers to Aaron Wildavsky, at Berkeley (an issue not related to insurance).  He responded quickly.   But then for about five years he would send me preliminary manuscripts of books he was working on.  I was so flattered that I would read up on the issue and write him a substantive critique, perhaps 15 pages of notes.  Soon after I had written the response, one of SCs professor's told me that was the way Wildavsky would explore a new area.  He would cobble together a manuscript and then send it out widely.  One of the books he sent me in preparation was the beginnings of his thinking about risk.  He published a series of papers and then a wonderful book called Searching for Safety which described the essential mix we need to have between anticipation and resilience in thinking about risk.

In the late 1980s the independents in California were facing a crisis on D&O coverages (indemnifying the actions of boards of directors) because of some bad decisions by the insurance industry earlier in the decade.  It was what is called a very "hard" market.   I assembled a group of financial types to explore solutions.  We soon found that even with the number of our institutions we could not generate enough premium volume to interest companies.  A national group formed and as it developed I  soon became the founding chair of the new board.

Finally, in the early 2000s I joined the Advisory Board of a reciprocal Casualty (auto and home coverages) Company where I served for more than 15 years.  I had managed our joint program for Worker's Compensation coverages until the legislature created something called open rating which made our cooperative venture no longer viable.   A host of terrible companies swooped in to offer coverage at ridiculous rates and several of our members got burned when after a year they got a seeming bargain they suffered huge premium increases as the fly by nights withdrew from the market.

Insurance is an odd business because it attempts to manage risk based on a small number of principles. People who study risk (actuaries) look at two major variables - frequency (how often something happens) and severity (what is the cost of the loss).  They then try to price the relationship of those variables so that the money they take in with premiums and investment income (before they have to pay out losses) will actually exceed losses and administrative costs (that is called a combined ratio m- a ratio above 1 makes the company profitable).  Auto accidents happen with relative predictability and are relatively minor in cost compared to the sinking of ocean liners which can be very expensive but don't happen often.  Essentially the only other variable in the transaction is how much risk you want to share with the company - those decisions are called deductibles or retentions.  

Even with those limited number of variables, most consumers don't think much about the contract they are entering into.   When American insurance companies began to sell life insurance in Japan in the latter part of the 19th Century, agents were in great risk because many of the clients thought that by purchasing life insurance they would escape death.  An example closer to home comes from son Peter who works for a major casualty insurance company.  He frequently gets calls from indignant policy holders who wonder why their rates have gone up.  When he looks up their records he finds that have multiple accidents.  When he explains that, they ask plaintively "Isn't that is what insurance is for?"  NOPE.

So what does all this have to do with the title of this post.  As we have come out of the COVID pandemic I have increasingly wondered how many of the conventions we accepted during the pandemic will become permanent.   And I am reminded of Franklin's maxim - "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

As the pandemic developed I discovered several things which bothered me.  First, many public officials (including California's Governor and our former President) put on the emergency windbreaker and began to speak mostly nonsense about how well they had this problem in control.  In reality, there was a reason this was called a novel virus. Those politicians refused to acknowledge that we were in a learning curve.  At the same time, we quickly adopted some precautions which seemed odd at best.  We were in San Miguel a year ago March and we soon found city workers going around the Centro in hazmat suits spraying down the sidewalks with some unknown substance.   Some friends and neighbors began to adopt an almost religious fervor for isolation.  Because of my own situation, having at least a partially compromised immunity system, I consulted all of my physicians.  The best advice I got came from my Mexican doctor - "become a hand washing nazi (Apple now actually includes an APP on their watch which counts how many seconds you wash your hands and yes I have continued to work on that standard); maintain reasonable social distance; wear a mask where you might come in contact with strangers and; finally (and I thought most importantly) avoid social media.  (I wish I had done that even more than I did - I saw too many hyper discussions of spittle distance - a term I had never heard before March of 2020).    As a militant individualist I tried, sometimes successfully, to not react to what I thought were extreme reactions.  Occasionally I could not resist.  At one point I was in a market in SMA and saw some hand wipes, which were in short supply in the city.   There were six packages and I wondered whether it was appropriate to buy one or two packages, when I decided to get only one, a San Miguel swell (It is a distinctive type in SMA - that fits the epithet of a person who thinks they are "all that an a couple of chips") immediately swooped in and grabbed the remaining packages. I asked her (Not at all innocently) "trying to snap these up before the hoarders get them?"  To which she shrieked "This is a health emergency!!!!!!"

But here is where I begin to wonder.  There are at least two realities that will come out of COVID 19- First, it is likely that in the next few years we will  experience additional pandemics, perhaps not as severe as the most recent one.   But as Niall Ferguson explained in his most recent book (Doom, the Politics of Catastrophe) the period between the 1918 Flu (which in many ways was more terrifying) and COVID was had several pandemics of varying proportions including the polio one in the mid-1950s and the 1957 Flu - which was a big deal I had forgotten about.

We need to think creatively about what we did in this very real crisis that was ultimately an overreaction and what we did well. The scientific community was, with some regulatory relaxations, able to create new vaccines (some based on very recent science) very quickly.   That confirms a bias of mine that the US oversight of medicines is expensive and not helpful. So if we modify the FDA protocols we might get cheaper drugs. But  I also look at the current requirements of the CDC (which require a COVID test for passengers re-entering the country, even if they have received a vaccination) and think that does not make sense.

The President of Purdue raised in the very question in his address to graduates in 2021.  Mitch Daniels commented "This last year, many of your elders failed this fundamental test of leadership. They let their understandable human fear of uncertainty overcome their duty to balance all the interests for which they were responsible. They hid behind the advice of experts in one field but ignored the warnings of experts in other realms that they might do harm beyond the good they hoped to accomplish. 

Sometimes they let what might be termed the mad pursuit of zero, in this case zero risk of anyone contracting the virus, block out other competing concerns, like the protection of mental health, the educational needs of small children, or the survival of small businesses. Pursuing one goal to the utter exclusion of all others is not to make a choice but to run from it. It’s not leadership it’s abdication." ( Emphasis added).  Daniel's address won my best commencement address of 2021 award (I always read a dozen or so commencement addresses each year - the entire text can be found at https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2021/Q2/purdue-president-daniels-biggest-risk-of-all-is-that-we-stop-taking-risks-at-all.html - it is well worth the time). What we seem to need here is a careful review of what we did without the "Science is settled" hype or the assumption that there is one best way.   I hope we can figure out as a nation to do that intelligent review.  But I am not altogether confident that we can which leads me back to Franklin and the worry that Belts and Suspenders are not useful.


The BOOK - I am down to doing a final edit of the last chapter in the fifth section (Family, Work, thoughts about life, Mexico and Philosophy). That chapter is about religious values that have motivated me.   When that gets done, I will send the full draft to my editor for a review and then to my designer.  Timing seems to be looking at the end of the year to actually get Of Course It's True, except for a couple of lies into print.  I appreciate your patience.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Reflections on Guns and Internment

 For the past couple of years I have gotten together with my two brothers for a couple of days each summer.  Last summer we went to the scout camp that they went to from Berkeley and we based that trip in Murphys which is a cool town in the Gold Country.

This summer, at the invitation of my oldest brother, we flew to Twin Falls where he lives part of the year and where his medical practice was.  

We went to the Japanese internment camp near Twin Falls.  No doubt about it Minidoka and the other nine camps established during WWII are a blot on our common history.  The two I have visited were in desolate places. Minidoka is not as impressive as Manzanar, which Quinlan and I visited several years ago.  Manzanar, after the Japanese reparations bill was signed, was substantially restored.  In one sense both of these sites should be akin to Pearl Harbor - solemn places.  Both camps need to be preserved to remind us of the excesses that government can engage in - we should approach them with reverence and awareness.   One of the impressive stories out of both camps is how many young men left the camps to join the 442d which was the legendary battalion made up of former internees after FDR authorized them to join the Army.  They fought with valor in Europe - gaining a ton of decorations (4000 Bronze Stars and 4000 Purple Hearts).

The next day we went out to Hagerman to do a day course on handguns at Shaw Shooting.  Shaw Shooting has two locations - the Idaho one is in Hagerman.  My oldest brother is a gun enthusiast, my middle brother is not and I been mostly indifferent to firearms. Even with that indifference I feel very strongly about the efficacy of the Second Amendment.  It is important to remember that the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, they are designed as negative not positive rights.  Most all of the language in those first 10 Amendments were intended to limit government activity, not encourage it.   The language is pretty clear - “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.“  When the Amendment was written the context was clear, both the creation of a militia AND the individual right to own firearms was seen as a deterrent to an out of control government.    But beginning in the 20th Century some began to interpret the first clause (A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State) as defining the second (the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed) - that argument has never been persuasive to me.   But it also has never meant to me that any civilian can possess any kind of firearm.

I have lots of friends who, if they could, would prohibit private ownership of any firearm.  I strictly disagree.   At one point a professor published an article arguing that firearms were not important in colonial America by claiming to have reviewed colonial probate records. Luckily a researcher asked to verify the “data” and when the first author obfuscated and then refused to offer proof went back to the same records and found the first researcher had made up his data.  The first guy was trying make the case that the Second Amendment is limited to arming militias. It was a great example of politically inspired research, which in this case was exposed.    The most recent decision by the Supreme Court (which involved a horrible law in DC) called the Heller case made a pretty clear statement that the syntax supports individual rights to possess firearms.  

I have one revolver but have never been much of a shooter - although in college a fraternity brother and I would sit on the back porch of our fraternity and hand launch clays out over the Calaveras river.  There always seemed to be a bottle  of Jack Daniels involved.    For someone who is relatively indifferent to firearms, I seem to have been pretty wordy about my thoughts!  But back to the course at Shaw Shooting….

Shaw Shooting is legendary - they train everyone from rookies like me and my middle brother to military and police.  Shooting a pistol with any skill begins with figuring out how to sight the weapon but also how to squeeze the trigger.   Our instructor was absolutely superb.  He spent an hour in the morning explaining hand gun and range safety.   After the safety discussion we went out on the range and practiced with paper targets. I  got the chance to shoot a 40 caliber, a .22 and a Sig Sauer 226 although I liked the 9MM best.    In the last part of the day we went to shoot at metal targets.   By then I was getting tired physically and mentally so my accuracy declined

At the end of the day I was surprised that the process of learning how to shoot a pistol requires both physical and mental capabilities; one might say it is a like golf with bullets.  The picture is of a cluster I achieved with a 9MM at 7 yards.  The target I was shooting at was about 5-6" - with the center white space about an inch.   Our instructor used those smaller circles as his target.  While I was relatively pleased at my clusters - he added a couple of handicaps (shooting the pistol upside down).  Even with those handicaps he could shoot out the little white circles with one clip of 10 shots.   It was a good way to establish just how far an amateur like me was from proficiency.

While I was in Idaho I started a book by a UVA professor named Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) where he created a typology of six moral scales which animate our feelings and thoughts about politics.  For example he discusses a continuum of care >>> harm and liberty >>>0ppression ; fairness >>>cheating.   Haidt argues that liberals, conservatives and libertarians value the individual variables with different weights. They also consider some of the variables more important than others.  That helps to explain why we have such a hard time talking civilly to each other.    Haidt’s matrices remind me a lot of Thomas Sowell’s  landmark work A Conflict of Visions where he argued that liberals and conservatives may use the same terms but with fundamentally different meanings.

There are many examples where we seem to be stuck in thinking about solutions to problems which most Americans would acknowledge.  The day after our class at Shaw there was another shooting in the US.  Immediately many in the political class came up with utterly predictable and completely useless statements trying to hook their constituencies but not doing anything to think about how to reduce the number of incidences like the one on that day.    Haidt's book gives one a good idea about how we could potentially improve our civil communication.   What concerns me is that with the 24 hour media cycle, social media and politicians who may well gain from keeping us apart - there may be no incentive to creatively think about getting back to civil talk.

UPDATE on the Book - I have one more chapter to edit from my editor’s comments.  I will then spend the rest of this month and July re-reading the manuscript and formatting the pictures in it. The first section of the book has a ton of pictures.   Each needs to be checked for quality and then a placeholder needs to get added to the manuscript.  The designer then places each in their proper place.