RIP Phil Hartman

I loved this profile of Phil Hartman written by Jack Handey, who was an SNL writer for decades (and the source of the infamous, “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey”).

He could do any accent. He could play menacing or frightened.

He could basically do it all. You’d hand him the ball and he’d punch it over the goal line. If he couldn’t, the ball you handed him was probably slippery or flat.

I believe Phil Hartman was one of the greatest comedians of his era, and like a future Hall of Famer cut down by injury, we’ll never know what kind of legacy he could have built with a lifetime body of work.

I searched around for some clips and found a huge treasure trove at Yahoo.

The Attraction of Random T-Shirts

I’ve always loved this cartoon about the making of a t-shirt. Scientists are shown using random methods to pick out elements – a specific place (“San Jose”), a generic place (“Disco Club”), a year (“1983”), and a number (“3”).  The result is this:

And this is so true.  I see this all the time. Why?

At the risk of over-analysis —

Does the combination of elements invoke some kind of mental response from us?  Do we envision this person playing flag football, sponsored by a local dance club in the Bay Area somewhere in the early 80s?

Perhaps we buy into that perception thinking that we can be a part of some inside joke or secret that we don’t even understand? If we saw someone wearing this shirt, we’d evaluate it on the visual appearance, certainly, but also on the idea that it meant something to someone, somewhere. And perhaps we find comfort in that?

Do we think that the person wearing it knows what it means, and there’s exclusivity in that? Do we hope that people we think we know what it means, and thus think we have some magic insight on the world that they don’t?

Or is it just nostalgia? Do we think that this combination of elements meant something at one time – meaning it had value when taken literally – and it doesn’t anymore, so this is a celebration of a time gone guy, like an antique radio or can of New Coke?

The U.S. Economy is Complex and Slow-Moving

I saw two animated statistical graphics recently that reinforced and sharpened a belief that I’ve had lurking in my head for years.

Links to the graphics are below (I would embed, but they’d both be useless unless full-size):

Both are fascinating to watch – each has colors which indicate a value, and they change over time as the years and corresponding presidential administrations tick by.

It’s fun to look at certain color combinations, consider the president who was in office at the time, and think, “Well,he obviously did a great (or crappy) job.”  Look at the unemployment rate during Clinton’s administration, for instance – at one point, the entire country turns some shade of blue (which is good).  It’s good during Bush II’s term as well, right up until the recession hits in 2007.

What it reinforced to me is this: it’s disingenuous to correspond the welfare of the country at a specific time to the sitting president.

Everyone wants to do this, of course, because we love to play right and wrong, especially when we’re taking sides. “Things suck right now, so it much be the fault of our current president.” Or “Things were awesome back in [insert random year here] because that president was great.”

I don’t think this works. The cause and effect chain of the U.S. economy is just too great and too delayed for the direct correlation that we’re trying to pretend is so simple and obvious.

When considered as a complex system, the U.S. economy is likely the second most complex in the world (the first being the Earth biome). The number of potential inputs, processes, and outputs is so great as to prevent simple correlation. Doing Thing A might result in Thing B years later, or it might result in Thing C immediately, or it might result in Things D-Z three decades from now.  We pretend that this is easy to predict, but I suspect we’re kidding ourselves because the truth is scary: often, we just don’t know.

The U.S. economy defies granular projection. We can make gross projections (“if we raise interest rates, the stock market goes down”), but finer-grained forecasts get far-fetched, and even more so when we’re tying to project an output multiple steps removed from the input:

If we lower tax rate A, it will increase investment of type B, which will improve businesses of type C, which will employ of people of type D in region E, which will require training of type F, which will improve the market for higher education of type G.

A direct correlation from A-G is absurd. The only people who can say this with a straight face are people who stand to make money from it.

Furthermore, some “projections” are only accurate in hindsight.  Forty years from now, we might look back at Decision X and say, “well of course we got Outcome Y, what were we thinking?”  This is clear only because Outcome Y is removed from Decision X by those four decades. The U.S. economy doesn’t turn on a dime.  We can make a change and not have that change actually do anything for a long time, and in the meantime it might have created 10 different side effects that we never saw coming.

So, is four or eight years of a presidential administration enough time for a president to enact policies that have a measurable, culpable, and significant effect on the U.S. economy?  If a president does something in his first year in office, will it have had a big enough effect by the time he leaves for us to draw absolute judgment?  And will this judgment hold?  Looking back fifty years from now, will we draw the same judgment?

I doubt it, yet we do this all the time.  The economy boomed during Clinton. Was that his doing?  Or was he just benefiting from a natural delay before the wise policies of Bush I took effect?  The recession hit hard during Obama’s term. Was this his fault, or was it the sins of Bush II coming due?

(I especially hate it when one side tries to spin it both ways. The Right has often said that Obama should stop blaming his predecessor and accept the Great Recession as his own problem. Yet they’re quick to say that Clinton simply rode the wonderful economic wave created by Bush I and Reagan. You can’t have it both ways.)

I absolutely think the president can have a dramatic effect on the U.S economy. I’m just not sure it will happen while he’s sitting in office.  We like to pretend it does, but to think that the U.S. economy is this nimble and immediate is just naïve.

What is Newsworthy?

In college, I took Journalism 101 (actually 110; Augie’s numbering scheme is weird), which I just loved. I maintain it was the best class I took in college, and the one that has provided me more practical value than anything else I took.

In it, I learned about the gatekeeper effect, which is the idea that the media – newspapers, TV, radio, etc. – are the gatekeepers to the collective news consciousness. They have a huge impact on a population just by deciding what to publish and what not to publish.

To form an opinion about something, we have to be exposed to it, and the mainstream media (to use a pejorative term) largely controls this. I’m not going to find out about the police shooting someone in Ferguson, Missouri unless the media tells me about it. If the media deems it non-newsworthy, then an entire movement might never start.

I just finished Doris Graber’s classic “Processing the News”, in which she conducted an experiment in 1976 to determine how people process the news. She determined many things, not the least of which was the fact that someone’s access and exposure to the news was one of the largest influences on how they feel about it. And the gatekeeper effect bears heavily on your access.

This all boils down to what we consider to be “newsworthy.” How does the media decide whether or not to “reveal” something to the general population by covering it?

To this end, I enjoyed this article which listed all the things a media outlet might consider when decided whether or not to run a story. Things like:

  • Insufficient or unsubstantiated information regarding a story
  • How much coverage is the story currently getting from competitors or is it an exclusive
  • Competing stories
  • Fast and slow news days
  • Budget and time constraints
  • Instinct that a story will not be well received or is incomplete
  • Influence from a publisher or advertiser (e.g. – the conservative bent of Fox News, the claimed liberal bent of dozens of outlets)
  • Proximity
  • Prominence
  • Usefulness
  • Future impact
  • The underdog (“Who doesn’t like the little guys coming from behind and winning?”)

(Note: no mention of Missing White Woman Syndrome.)

The number of different variables and combinations is enormous. In summary:

Newsworthiness is not as straight forward as when, where, what, why, who, how. Ultimately, journalism holds itself to a well-tested criterion of news values to determine a story’s newsworthiness.

Why Johnny Can’t Find a Job

This video was shown at a Rotary lunch by the president of the local technical school. It lays out a solid (and entertaining) case that college isn’t for everyone, and you shouldn’t go “just to go.”

Rather, you should find something that (1) you like doing, and that (2) has a good income potential, whatever that might be, and free yourself from limiting expectations of “success” (which is usually, did you go to college?).

Another point, which I think is absolutely crucial: sending everyone to college doesn’t automatically create jobs for them. If we doubled the number of college graduates tomorrow, we wouldn’t magically have jobs for them all (hint: there is no “skills gap”). We’d just have a bunch of under-employed college graduates, and we’d still have trouble finding a good electrician.

I loved the 1:2:7 ratio – for every one job requiring an advanced degree (doctor, lawyer, etc.), there are two jobs which require a bachelors, and seven jobs which require neither.  This ratio will not magically change just because we have a glut of college graduates. After the video, the technical school president said the South Dakota ratio was actually 1:3:6, which is similar.

It’s a long-ish video (9+ minutes), but the first three minutes alone are worth every second.

The video also introduced me to a new term: “gray collar jobs,” which either means jobs that require a certificate or associates degree (but not a bachelors), or person who is over-educated for the job they’re in (so, a bachelors degree holder in one those jobs).

I do worry about the lack of overall breadth in technical education.  I believe in liberal arts, and I worry that technical school students have tunnel vision – they know how to do a job, but don’t have larger education around things like history and culture. But I’ll concede that this might be me being elitist, and I shouldn’t try to make those decisions for someone else.

Adventures in Litigation Financing

This New York Times article has introduced me to something I didn’t know existed: litigation financing.  Lawsuits are expensive, and investors will fund your legal fees if they think you can win, and then take a cut of the proceeds.

The article in question is about the AIG bailout, and how someone from AIG is suing because they thought the government got too much of the company.  (Seriously…)

With the legal bills mounting in the three-year case, Mr. Greenberg sought support from a certain breed of investor — those who have misgivings about the government. […] The investors, who are entitled to a cut of any damages Mr. Greenberg collects from the government, contributed about 15 percent of the tens of millions of dollars in legal costs, according to people with knowledge of the arrangement.

This is apparently an established thing.  There are litigation financing conferences, a Wikipedia page, and even payroll loan-ish type outfits (“We provide immediate cash advances for lawsuit funding during pre-settlement”).

The more I think about it, the less I should be surprised. Contingency fee attorneys are essentially the original litigation financiers – they’re “investing” their fee in the hopes of a future return, so why wouldn’t other people do this?

What I find odd is that lawsuits are apparently an investment vehicle. Hedge funds invest in them – in January, a firm raised $260 million for a new fund:

Gerchen Keller invests only in litigation between institutions, including contract disputes and intellectual property feuds. The firm and its rivals steer clear of consumer class-action lawsuits or personal injury cases.

In March, a case was dismissed over the usage of Marvel characters by Disney that had been bankrolled by a hedge fund. Another fund is coming together solely to bankroll a single lawsuit – one which will attempt to force Iran to pay for the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing. They’re going to throw $100 million at it, in the hopes of billions of dollars in returns.

(If you don’t know what a hedge fund is, read this primer. TLDR: they are essentially mutual/investment funds, but (1) they can’t advertise, (2) can only take money from “certified” investors who can presumably afford to lose it, (3) operate without much regulation so they invest in sometimes bizarre things, and (4) take large amounts of money in management fees.)

Risk Compensation: Why We’re Not As Safe as We Feel

Another note from Jeff Speck’s book: risk homeostasis, or risk compensation.

Risk compensation is a theory which suggests that people typically adjust their behavior in response to the perceived level of risk, becoming more careful where they sense greater risk and less careful if they feel more protected. Although usually small in comparison to the fundamental benefits of safety interventions, it may result in a lower net benefit than expected.

This is why advances in safety don’t necessarily make us all safer. More safety means people will take more risks, thus compensating negatively for some of the safety gained by the advance.

The example the book used was childproof medicine – people are apparently less careful with their medicine if it’s perceived (and marketed) as “childproof,” thus negating some of the safety achieved by said childproofing. (I searched for some reference to a study on this, and all I found were lots of references to Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw,” where he apparently discusses it.)

But the Wikipedia page (linked above) has a bunch of examples –

  • Condom distribution programs make people riskier with sexual activity
  • Skiers wearing helmets go faster than skiers without helmets
  • Drivers wearing seatbelts drive faster than drivers without
  • Drivers with anti-lock brakes follow other drivers more closely

One of Speck’s main arguments is that wider traffic lanes and streets are counter-intuitively less safe because they simply prompt drivers to go faster.

(He also points to the interesting case of Sweden in 1967, when the country switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. Traffic fatalities dropped 17 percent, only go back to their prior levels three years later. The theory is that this is risk compensation in reverse – driving on the other side of the road freaked everyone out, so they felt less safe, and acted more cautiously because of it. As time wore on, they got used to the change, their fear lessened, and they went back to being as careless as they were before.)

Another example that occurred to me is in American football vs. rugby.  Rugby players don’t wear pads, while American football players are completely armored up. Yet, my perception is that injuries are lower in rugby.  This might be due to the fact that, without pads, you’re going to take as much damage as you inflict, so players moderate their behavior considerably. Put another way, when you put enough pads on a football player, he thinks he’s invincible, and acts accordingly.

Neighborhoods are for Cars

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Jeff Speck’s book led me to this essay from a former civil engineer, in which he opines that his job was fundamentally spent in service of the automobile. When he designed neighborhoods and streets, he did so first and foremost so that auto traffic was not impeded, and only then did he think of the people – they were completed secondary to the cars.

We go to enormous expense to save ourselves small increments of driving time. This would be delusional in and of itself if it were not also making our roads and streets much less safe. […] narrower, slower streets dramatically reduce accidents, especially fatalities.

And it is that simple observation that all of those supposedly “ignorant” property owners were trying to explain to me, the engineer with all the standards, so many years ago. When you can’t let your kids play in the yard, let alone ride their bike to the store, because you know the street is dangerous, then the engineering profession is not providing society any real value. It’s time to stand up and demand a change.

Speck’s book has taught me a simple truth that I see proven more and more everywhere I look: today’s cities are designed around cars, not people.

Road Capacity, Traffic Problems, and Induced Demand

I’m reading Walkable City, by Jeff Speck (who recently spoke at the Plain Green Conference, part of which I attended).  In it, he talks of “induced demand,” which he says is the thing that everyone in city planning understands but doesn’t talk about.

Basically, if you build it, they will come. He mentions a meta-study called “Build More Highways, Get More Traffic” by Randy Salzman (I could not find it online):

[…] on average, a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10 percent – the entire new capacity – in a few years.

Here’s a Wired article which says much the same thing:

If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.

I remember reading an article in the local paper about traffic problems in Sioux Falls.  I was struck by one of the quotes from a city planner – something to the effect of, “if it gets bad enough, people will find another way.”

I think this was an end run around the fact that he knew if they built more capacity, people would just suck that up too, and perhaps the right answer was either (1) find a different way to get to work, (2) travel at a different time, or (3) work from home.

Later in the chapter, Speck makes a counter-intuitive claim: “road congestion saves fuel.”  Basically, idling in a traffic jam ultimately saves gas because the frustration of it causes people to drive less.  Or, more clearly, not being stuck in traffic – so having lots of road capacity – is so pleasant that people drive more and use more gas in the process.

[…] the threat of being stuck in traffic often will [keep us home], at least in larger cities. Congestion saves fuel because people hate to waste their time being miserable.

The solution, it seems, isn’t to just throw more roads at traffic and environmental problems, because we just end up with the same problem later on, at greater magnitude.

Did IS grow because of recruitment or counting method? Should we care?

Why Counts Of Islamic State Fighters Are So Uncertain: The U.S. government is trying to figure out how big Islamic State is.  They recently raised their estimate of its ranks from 10,000 to between 20,000 and 31,500.  But why?

“When you have a rapid doubling or tripling of estimates, it is almost always associated with a new way of counting,”

So, it’s probably methodology that made the number bigger, not actual growth.

This gets left out of headlines, which causes me to wonder if we should be concerned about (1) growth (in which case the above reasoning matters, because it didn’t actually grow), or just (2) sheer size (in which case it doesn’t, because by methodology or growth, IS is still bigger than we thought).