Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Manna from Heaven, if you're starved for epistemology

Updated Jan. 10 (at end)

OK, so some of us have bizarre dietary needs...

In a comment recently I'd lamented:
We need an online course in practical epistemology.*

And lo, within the week one shows up on my radar screen, and you'll never guess who teaches* it: The CIA.
I've just skimmed the surface but here's the flavor - from Chapter 1:
Thinking analytically is a skill like carpentry or driving a car. It can be taught, it can be learned, and it can improve with practice. But like many other skills, such as riding a bike, it is not learned by sitting in a classroom and being told how to do it. ...
The disadvantage of a mind-set is that it can color and control our perception to the extent that an experienced specialist may be among the last to see what is really happening when events take a new and unexpected turn...[since those] who know the most about a subject have the most to unlearn...

And it came to light in comments on another beyond-outrageously-good-and-topical book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?.
Psychologist Philip Tetlock did the research to find out, and what he found was fascinating and not altogether expected.
[Tetlock] picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends," and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert.
Among the observations:
people who make prediction their business - people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables - are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they're rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. ... the better known and more frequently quoted they are, the less reliable their guesses about the future are likely to be.
When television pundits make predictions, the more ingenious their forecasts the greater their cachet.
...both their status as experts and their appeal as performers require them to predict futures that are not obvious to the viewer.
[as a result, those who watch them are not well informed]
We are not natural falsificationists: we would rather find more reasons for believing what we already believe than look for reasons that we might be wrong.
why some people make better forecasters than other people...has to do not with what [they] believe but with the way they think:
...Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who "know one big thing," aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.
"we as a society would be better off if participants in policy debates stated their beliefs in testable forms"-that is, as probabilities-"monitored their forecasting performance, and honored their reputational bets."
... we're suffering from our primitive attraction to deterministic, overconfident hedgehogs.
... the only thing the electronic media like better than a hedgehog is two hedgehogs who don't agree...
...[Most "public intellectual" hedgehogs] are dealing in "solidarity" goods, not "credence" goods. Their analyses and predictions are tailored to make their ideological brethren feel good - more white swans for the white-swan camp.

Bonus link: Daniel Conover proposes
The Intelligence Briefing model of journalism (Jay Rosen's response: "what's hard to convey to people is how different the transaction between "journalist" and "public" (readers, users) could actually be."*)
(Here's how it is now)

Jan 10 update:
in the comments to this post I'd said
Also - the review ended with reviewer suggesting a take-home message of "think for yourself" - but AIRC provided no empirical evidence that this actually would work better. I'd love to see someone do the research to find what method works best for ordinary people - and suspect the optimum would involve a lot of outsourcing.

And lo, we have corroboration from Tetlock himself, via Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journal Jan. 6:
The New Yorker's review of [Tetlock's] book surveyed the grim state of expert political predictions and concluded by advising readers, "Think for yourself." Prof. Tetlock isn't sure he agrees with that advice. He pointed out an exercise he conducted in the course of his research, in which he gave Berkeley undergraduates brief reports from Facts on File about political hot spots, then asked them to make forecasts. Their predictions -- based on far less background knowledge than his pundits called upon -- were the worst he encountered, even less accurate than the worst hedgehogs. "Unassisted human intuition is a bomb here," Prof. Tetlock told me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

what to do

Suppose you have a blog, and plenty of material at hand in the form of a local newspaper with Issues. Suppose the paper exhibits variation over time, and during the ups you think "well, maybe it's a new dawn and things are getting better" and during the downs you think "Nevada County needs to get a restraining order against this paper" and finally, after mishap after mishap after mishap, you come to accept that the paper is just uncouth by nature* and can't help itself.

But then they reprint this LA Times piece reporting John and Julia Doolittle's entanglement in the Abramoff corruption scandal, on the front page no less; and the publisher comes out with this column observing that maybe the Iraq war isn't worth the deaths of any more of our county's young men, and they print one of the best-written letters ever, on a proposed solution for maintaining the surfaces of Nevada City's so-called paved roads...

So what do you do? Do you hand out public accolades, hoping - yet again - that they're turning over a new leaf and things will be better now? Or do you gently close the door on the flowers-and-remorse and move on to new subject matter?*

Beats me.


Here's an excerpt from the pavement letter:
[Adams St. in Nevada City]Nevada City streets have deteriorated to the point of being non-streets...Probably the most cost-effective fix is to rip up what’s left of the asphalt and contact the Department of Public Works in Lovelock, Nev....experts at building and maintaining gravel roads...wonderful gravel roads, the kind that would add historic ambiance and make driving Boulder or Nevada streets feel like riding on a cushion of air...
The anonymice in comments are not sympathetic; leads you to suspect that they don't travel Boulder or Adams St often. And something tells me they've never tried weaving a 10-speed bike around the craters either; I have, and it's almost enough to drive you to driving.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Don't be disintermediated; become a blogger

The Union's editor Pat Butler recently described a problem the paper's having with an official who won't talk:
...A person who was appointed to fill an elected official's position insists that all questions be submitted in writing or that person refuses to talk to the media. We, of course, like to do live interviews so we can do follow-up questions and then quickly write our stories... What do you think?...

In comments, a pair of anonymice believed the official should be 'shamed' into talking to the paper, and Russ and I said s/he could have valid concerns about being misrepresented.

The win-win solution, of course, is for said official to get a weblog, get the paper to commit to printing its URL, and use the blog to explain any comments or misquotes at length. And then keep on using it, to inform readers as to what's going on; when you blog, you control whether your positions can be found online, vs helplessly watching them creep behind a "registration-required" wall or - for whatever reason - not get posted at all.

None; a blog on is free.

None; I'd be happy to create the blog and get you started.

Greensboro city council member Sandy Carmany.

A constituent's view of Carmany:
Politicians are famous for being these distant, vague figures who supposedly represent the rest of us.

But most of us don't really ever get to know these public servants as fellow human beings.

Carmany has removed the curtain and provided us a glimpse at the wizard. ...

Value to populace:
Allen Johnson, editorial page editor for the News and Record, calls out by name other Greensboro public officials and figures who ought to be be blogging, and, for each, explains why. Take a look, and apply to Nevada County.

So? Get in touch; email's on the sidebar, I'm in the phone book, or you can leave a comment below.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Draw your own inferences

Sunday update:
According to Wikipedia, Abramoff's troubles involve his dealings with four tribes, which do not include the Viejas. So whatever inferences you wish to draw from the following are completely up to you; I'll draw mine later, when I actually know something.


I just ran across these two pieces; the conjunction looks interesting.

From Raw Story, another Mormon serves Mammon*:
A friend and former colleague of fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff who rose swiftly through the ranks of the conservative establishment quietly advanced the interests of former clients under the cloak of a vocally anti-gambling Utah congressman
David Safavian, appointed in 2004 by President Bush to oversee $300 billion of annual federal purchasing as director of the Office of Management and Budget, has largely flown below the radar in his relationship to a massive lobbying scandal surrounding a lobbyist [Abramoff] who siphoned millions of dollars from Indian tribes and gambling interests into conservative coffers.
...[Congressman] Cannon received a $1,000 donation from the California-based Viejas Tribal Government. In December of the following year, he cashed a check for another two grand.

Though pennies in the Washington lobbying landscape, the donations bought face time in Congress. Cannon took the tribe’s side during a hearing over the location of a casino—for a tribe that wasn’t even in his state.

The Viejas kicked in another $2,000 in 2004.

The Nevada County angle - from last fall, Is local GOP laundering money or just supporting fellow Republicans?
In the past month, the Nevada County Republican Central Committee has twice funneled large amounts of cash - including one donation from a casino-operating American Indian tribe - to Republican candidates outside the county.
The second check [for $26,600* ] came in on Oct. 19 and was from the Viejas Tribal Government, which owns two lucrative casinos outside San Diego. It then left the coffers of the Nevada County GOP two days later as a donation for Paul Betancourt....

Betancourt and Podesto were chosen by the local party from a list Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico*....

John Doolittle on the hot seat?

Nov. 30 updates:
The apparent attempted murder of the chief investigator for Finance Committee chairman Chuck Grassley earlier this month:
Grassley is known for his aggressive oversight of the public and private sector. Over the past year, he has scrutinized healthcare fraud, organ-donation procedures used by hospitals, drug-safety matters and the use of nonprofit groups related to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
(although there are allegations...)

From today's Sacramento Bee article on Doolittle:
Doolittle's office has described Abramoff as a "close friend" of the congressman.

This could get interesting.

Via Washington Monthly:

From yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
Prosecutors in the department's public integrity and fraud divisions...are looking into Mr. Abramoff's interactions with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Bob Ney (R., Ohio), Rep. John Doolittle (R., Calif.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R., Mont.), according to several people close to the investigation.
[unlike DeLay and Ney] Spokespeople for Messrs. Doolittle and Burns said they haven't hired lawyers.
Mr. Doolittle's spokeswoman said the lawmaker hasn't been contacted by the Justice Department. Prosecutors often contact the subjects of investigations only after gathering significant information from others. The spokeswoman added that any suggestion that Mr. Doolittle "may have had some improper involvement in matters recently disclosed about Mr. Abramoff and others comes as a complete surprise and is simply ridiculous."
It isn't clear what involvement, if any, Mr. Doolittle had with Mr. Abramoff. The Justice Department subpoenaed documents more than a year ago from Mr. Doolittle's wife, a Republican fund-raiser. Mr. Abramoff also hired Kevin Ring, a top Doolittle aide. Mr. Ring declined to comment. It is unclear whether he or Mr. Doolittle are targets of the investigation.

In today's LA Times:
His onetime friendship with super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has come back to haunt Rep. John T. Doolittle of Northern California, a member of the House Republican leadership, as the Justice Department continues its probe into Abramoff's dealings with lawmakers.

...the Washington Post reported late last year that the eight-term congressman from Roseville — a Mormon and staunch opponent of casino gambling — used Abramoff's luxury sports box in a Washington arena to host a fundraiser and then failed to report its value, as required by law.
Doolittle subsequently paid back Abramoff's firm for the use of the skybox and reported it on federal disclosure records.
...[The Justice Department did] subpoena documents from Doolittle's wife, Julia Doolittle, who hosted a fundraising event for an Abramoff charity, the Capital Athletic Foundation.
Doolittle has served in the House since 1990, after 10 years in the California state Senate.

Here's some background on Abramoff, including his days with the College Republicans. And here's background on the murder of the previous owner of the company Abramoff co-owned.

Previous post on Doolittle.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Events and Commemorations

Yesterday was both Thanksgiving and World Peak Oil Day, maybe, more or less, according to a prediction by Kenneth Deffeyes from back in Jan. 2004.

Today (or yesterday, or tomorrow; lots of variation on the internets) was International Buy Nothing Day.

  1. Gave thanks and gluttonized
  2. Tried out Bruce's E-Bike (product review available upon request)
  3. Bought a food and a beverage

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Testing The Union's error-correction process

Wed. Nov 30 update: received reply from Kady[The Union's web editor] explaining how corrections are supposed to work.[in this case, they didn't]

April 2006 update: 5 months later, the column remains uncorrected.


In a recent post The Union's web editor, Kady Guyton, gives instructions on how to report errors in the paper:
If you - the reader -see something in the paper that you believe is false, picking up the phone and calling the reporter or Editor... will go a lot further to getting the the right information out there [than sending anonymous, hyperbolic and utterly nonspecific rants]. Email will also work...

Here's a test case, with emphases added. The error I reported is clear-cut, but not major; I reported it as much to test the process as to see the error corrected.

So far, the results have been interesting.

A recent column contained a misstatement:
...remember the Spanish Flu of 1918?
In case you missed that class, one of every five humans on Earth died during that pandemic.

This didn't sound right, and didn't match what I found with a quick check on Wikipedia, so I emailed the columnist that same day:
[some other questions which seem to have caused high blood pressure*, then:] said that it was estimated[oops,no-was presented as fact, not as estimate] that 1 in 5 people died in the 1918 pandemic - is there a source for this? Wikipedia and other sources typically estimate that 5% died, i.e. 1 in 20.

The columnist's response:
[responses to the other questions indicating raised blood pressure*, then:]
... There's a great book on the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza.
If you are interested.
[nothing else related to the pandemic mortality numbers]

So if I ask "is there a source for these numbers?" and am told "The Great Influenza is an excellent book on the topic", this is saying that the numbers came from the book, right?

Apparently not: from p. 397 of The Great Influenza* (which is a great book on the 1918 pandemic; I've read it):
... the upper estimate [of mortality] would mean that [during the pandemic] excess of 5% of the people in the world died.

I emailed him back, asking straight out:

I [had] asked
> > ... you said that it was estimated that 1 in 5 people died in the 1918 pandemic - is there a source for this? ...

you [had]replied:
> There's a great book on the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza.

was this in answer to my question, or was it just a tangential comment?

He backtracked:
They really don't know how many people died from the 1918 pandemic. I think it's sufficient to suggest that the numbers were more than significant.
I suggested the book by John Barry because you seem to be interested...

The columnist is The Union's publisher; the rhetorical maneuver* is a dishonest implicature; it's not the first (and not the second).

To quote Jay Rosen out of context: "It's a small thing, but it's a small thing that speaks to an attitude". And to an M.O.

Resolution of error: as yet unknownNone. I next reported the error to the editor, which was somewhat cruel/unfair given that his boss had committed/excused it; the editor suggested that its being within a black-humorous column might make it less significant, and said I should take it up with the writer/publisher, which* I had already done, as recounted above.

So far, I've seen no correction. Tonight I've emailed Kady the web editor, whose "how to report errors" post led her unwittingly into the fray, to ask how corrections are typically handled, but this too is unfair as I'm putting her in a position where she'll be implicitly criticizing her manager(s) if she were to answer*.
(her reply)

there comes a point when to continue is just being brutal...Sorry, all.


(What is it about fives and correction-resistance, anyway?)

Another thing that struck me was the possessive pronoun the publisher used in email: it's his paper, not Nevada County's paper. Which, when combined with a fairly absolutist conception of property rights, explains a great deal.

What the Nevada Press Association was told last year:
Based on conversations across the country...people believed newspapers were unfair when they get even the smallest facts wrong such as age and name spelling, refuse to admit errors, use anonymous sources who criticize or attack ....
Shelby Coffey, Freedom Forum senior fellow and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, discussed how leadership qualities could bring positive changes in the newsroom....
"Management is about doing things right," Coffey said. "Leadership* is about doing the right thing."

Bonus link - former NY Times reporter Doug McGill has questions for and recollections of its publisher.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Awards ceremony - halos and dunce caps

Halo to Reinette Senum and the folks at APPLE for putting together the Heinberg event this week. Get a blog, APPLErs!

Dunce cap to the veritable genius who got all three vaccinations (in two arms) from the visiting nurse, when planning to paint the garage the next day.
(Corroborating evidence for the suitability of this award: if you were to read
Screw trigger firmly onto the [expanding foam] can valve. Be careful not to activate valve.
you'd probably notice that the first word was not "Push"; results using the latter approach are impressive, though perhaps more suited to the 4th of July.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Synchronicity, meet Littlewood's Law of Miracles

Great minds think alike...*
The most recent Xark post features xarker and Janet addressing the human tendency to seek pattern. Strange, since I was about to post on my own recent trompe l'cerveau* experience - a few days ago, after learning that the SR-71-sweatshirt clad neighbor was a Beale buddy of blogger Britt Blaser from back in his SR-71 refueling days, this bedside table sight suddenly registered:
[still entropic life on bedside table; note 'SR-71' mug holding pens (also note rolodex)]
Miraculous, no? SR-71s popping up all over - it's enough to make you a little nervous about what Santa might try to land on your roof.

Except that the neighbors have been there for years, as has Britt, and the mug has been there for months...the only change was in my attentional focus.

oh, and the address rolodex? it was open, through no conscious intent, to Grizzly Woman.*

It's starting to look like Littlewood's Law of Miracles in action...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Richard Heinberg in Grass Valley tonight

[blurry photo of Heinberg speaking]

A good presentation to a full house at the Center For The Arts in Grass Valley; I'd also say "a convincing presentation" had there been anyone present who'd been unconvinced at the start.

Take-home messages:

(Reality is that which, when you refuse to look at it, doesn't go away; we are in trouble.)

Demand will be exceeding supply of oil sometime soon; maybe next year, likely 5-7 years from now, possibly not until 20 years from now.

We are highly dependent on oil (almost 100% of our energy use is now fuel-based, compared with maybe 20% 150 yrs ago, much of which was wood); 1 gallon of gas is the energy equivalent of 6 weeks of human labor; the energy I use in a year is equivalent to having 300 people working for me around the clock

countries' "proven reserves" are clearly fradulent

the industrial revolution was like winning the energy lottery; the resultant "population bloom" has done to the human population what a 10% sugar solution does for the yeast population, in winemaking (before said population poisons itself and crashes)

"Are humans smarter than yeast?"

Economists (and those from other disciplines equally unfamiliar with actual physical limits) in government aren't suited to recognize the magnitude (and implacability) of the problem. Much of the solution will need to come from community organizations like APPLE ("we need to move forward with lifeboats"*).

We need to reduce both world population and per-capita consumption

The "solution" won't just be renewables; it has to involve demand reduction.

Solar is currently 1% of renewables, which are themselves a small fraction (?%) of total energy use

Economists' knee-jerk response is "price signals will save us" (high prices will spur conservation, and development of alternatives) - but the timing's wrong, the signals will come too late.

Authoritative sources - the Hirsch (SAIC) report (peak oil, wars, destabilization...), Chevron's; U.S. legislator most actively speaking out on Peak Oil is a Republican.

Comparing the U.S. economic condition in 1950 vs. 2005 (from foremost creditor and oil exporter, to foremost debtor and oil importer) is sobering, and perhaps the inevitable result of our oil "balance of trade".

Solutions (or steps toward) -

Heinberg's Oil Depletion Protocol (countries agree to reduce their oil imports, exports to match the world depletion rate)

Community re-localization - support local agriculture, try various strategies to increase energy efficiency (car pooling,sharing, "community-supported hitchhiking"...), communicate with other communities on how to make this work...

Best question: "How many County Supervisors, City Council members and Planners are in the audience?
Answer: No supervisors, 3 city council members (out of 15?)

(If the people lead, the leaders will follow...eventually)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Property rights

[hawk photo]
Owner of the airspace over No Man's Land. The ground-level owners have no respect for the neighbors' property rights; am told (by neighbors) that one of the cats killed a deer on their deck.

Large cats. I've seen deer carcasses in the past, but hadn't made the connection; would love to see the consumer, just once, though preferably not preparatory to becoming dinner.

Speaking of dinner, if you get a chance to go see Grizzly Man, take it (but not your children). No visual gore, no audio gore, although the story itself is, well, grisly. Best overheard summing-up: "I walked out of that movie feeling perfectly sane."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Blog-related ethical quandary - what do you think?

Suppose you were a regular contributor to the discussion on a local institution's weblog, and in your own weblog you linked to their posts - and to your and others' comments on their posts - frequently.

Suppose the institution - and some individuals - behaved badly, in part toward you, and that their blog made this obvious.

Suppose that - framing the change as a move to be more reader-friendly - they took the weblog offline altogether, redirecting all the old "perma"links to the front page of a new, reader-and-commenter-unfriendly pseudoblog (discarding the old blog's posts and comments).

Suppose that, although you emailed the publisher and (twice) web editor asking if they'd archived the old WordPress blog and if so was there any chance they could put it back online, your questions were never answered*.

Suppose you had access to an archive of the old posts and comments.

Would it be a breach of ethics for you to put it up online somewhere else?

with proper attribution, of course

Monday, November 07, 2005

That "push poll" you got from FEC Research?

Post-election update:
Thank you, fellow California voters.
Arnold, you oughta be in movies.

It's even worse [than being a 'push poll']; it seems it's not anonymous, they're storing your answers.

(What were the questions? I reflexively hung up after the first automated sentence; funny how you can recognize the voice of sleaze...)

In any case, it appears (from Daily Kos piece today) that "drown it in the bathtub" Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform is behind it; the 'poll' was conducted by FEC Research which is the same as ccAdvertising which is the same as; they do push polling for Republicans and Republican propositions in several states (here are October accounts from Oregon's Portland Communique and from the Daily Kos).
From ccAdvertising's "about" page:
ccAdvertising utilizes its patented (patents pending) Interactive Voice Response- Speech Recognition (IVRSR) method to ensure that our political, public policy and service organization clients have their messages reach the households they have targeted.

From today's Daily Kos piece:
Sources have confirmed that these push polls are being paid for (at least in part) by the Grover Norquist related "issues" group Americans for Tax Reform.
[contains this quote:]
As the computer gathered the answers, it stored each one individually, making it possible to retrieve them later by phone number, household name or address for other purposes.
[end contained quote; if correct, this is very sleazy]

when you say you're doing a poll, people assume they are anonymous. And if you're giving a poll that is not going to be anonymous, then the person taking the poll must be told their answers are being record in any sort of way before any question is asked.

But Grover isn't doing that...

Friday, November 04, 2005

As the world shrinks

In a post from last November, I linked to New York City blogger Britt Blaser's view of conservatives and liberals as conformity enforcers and diversity enhancers; to which Britt emailed this reply*:
...It was nice to visit your blog, since I have warm memories of Nevada County.

I flew tankers out of Beale AFB 1968-71, refueling the SR-71 [*]. My kids
were born there and we have happy memories of the many great towns between Smartville, where we lived, up to the Snow Bowl, where we had a great military discount.

At that time, my address was midway between Timbuktu and Rough and Ready:

Captain Britt Blaser
Star Route
Smartville CA 95903

You wouldn't make this stuff up!

This afternoon I was out on No Man's Land communing with nature* when a neighbor approached the barbed wire to see what was up. Pat's sweatshirt said "SR-71"...we got to talking...and, curious, I asked her if she'd known a pilot named Britt Blaser, at Beale...

So Britt, which of your children did you weigh on the scale at the Smart(s)ville post office?

and it seems your BMW made quite an impression...

Real life intervened, but Octobers of Avian Flu (1918 and 2005) may get filled in at some later point. Apologies for the appearance of having abandoned the series on a cliffhanger, although it's actually a ploy to get you to stop by the historical library (on North Pine St in Nevada City, open 10-4 weekdays) and dig for yourself.*