Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Someone Else Wrote It Better: On the Magic of Numbers and Subservience

I had planned to pen an overly-long blog post on this, but then I stumbled across an article here that makes the point I was getting after far more eloquently and with significantly more documentation. It's super and interesting and very much worth your time. So here's a short blog post getting at why I think it's so interesting and worth your time:

Not too long ago I was at a sociology conference on a panel with a well-known (well, for a sociologist) old timer making an argument about why economics is more influential than sociology (as evidenced by the number of times either is cited in the New York Times, a terrible metric for measuring such things, but that's a different argument). To drastically over-simplify his argument, he pointed out that while pretty much all sociologists are liberals (as measured by their affiliation to or ideological closeness to the Democratic party, a similarly terrible metric for measuring such things), while economics departments have a decent number of Republicans (though they'll still heavily outnumbered by Democratic-identifying peoples). As such, sociologists come across as partisan and biased, while economists appear to be objective and balanced, with a much greater diversity of thought.

To put it politely, I think this argument is dumb and wrong for many, many reasons, but two in particular stand out: 1) "right" and "popular" are often very different things!, and B) a major reason economists are granted more mainstream coverage than sociologists is that they've been better at cloaking themselves in the mantle of "pure" science. Mainly because they use more math than sociologists do (as a whole; plenty of sociologists rely solely on math in their research).

And this largely comes down to the fact that: A) math eduction in America is terrible, so B) most Americans don't understand basic math, so C) anything that has even slightly complicated math in it impresses most Americans, as they confuse complexity for meaningful knowledge or understanding.

You can see this in political horse race coverage: while all pundits are generally wrong in their predictions (and hilariously so!), those that use math, like 538, are seen as not just speculating, but scientifically predicting outcomes. Of course, 538 is just as hilariously wrong as everyone else, but look at all the complicated models they use! So complex! So many different letters and numbers! As such, 538 tends to be seen as sober political scientists rationally examining empirical evidence, other than just another set of political pundits spinning shit out of their ass.

And this is more-or-less how the field of economics has bamboozled so many, or in the words of this philosopher (which, again, you should really just go read): "world history tells a story of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy."

In this fascinating piece, we learn that apparently astrologers used to use this very same model of complicated mathematical bullshit signifying nothing to spin themselves as a legitimate scientific enterprise. At the turn of the previous century, many top leaders in politics and business used astrologers to "scientifically" plan their investments, production rates, etc. To make another snotty point about how much I disagreed with that presentation mentioned above, I bet astrologers outnumbered sociologists in the pages of the NYT during that period as well, but I also don't see that as a terribly big problem.

But in addition to the fact that this math-humping "imbues economic theory with unearned empirical authority," this article does touch upon the other problem I noted in that argument when it quotes a tenured economics prof on what influences the models he develops:
‘In economics and finance, if I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to write something favourable or unfavourable to bankers, well, if it’s favourable that might get me a dinner in Manhattan with movers and shakers,’ Pfleiderer said to me. ‘I’ve written articles that wouldn’t curry favour with bankers but I did that when I had tenure.’
And this, to me, is the real heart of the matter: basically, whatever a sociologist writes is not going to win them much political esteem or favor in the business world. However, an economist can add several hundred thousand a year to their bank account if their models just happen to be pleasing to those with a lot of money. Now, I'm not saying they simply invent complicated mathematical models that have no connection to empirical reality solely to please those in positions of wealth and influence, making them little more than modern court jesters, but...well, I guess I'm more or less saying that. But Dr. Levinovitz says it much better, so go read that.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Do You Live In A Bubble? Why Not Let Some Asshole With An Agenda Decide For You!

Recently a friend, whom I otherwise respect, posted this link to face book exhorting his friends to take this test and see if they live in a bubble. This is exactly the kind of self-flagellating thing liberals love to do, wherein they mistake punching themselves repeatedly in the stomach for meaningful social action. "Oh no! Do I live in a bubble?" they ask themselves, as if this is a question that a) has any actual objective answer, or b) would mean anything if it did. But by engaging with such a stupid conservative straw man they can feel smugly self-satisfied with their commitment to open-minded bi-partisanship, again as if that means anything.

The test is designed to see how much of a sheltered bubble you live in versus how much you interact with other people. Which, in theory, is not such a bad idea. It's good to know people with different perspectives! It's not a particularly great thing to live in a tiny echo chamber!

But you can take one look at the author of this quiz and know exactly where it's going. It was created by Charles Murray, who works for the American Enterprise Institute. While the name sounds fairly neutral, it should more properly be labeled "Incredibly Regressive Billionaire Thinktank About How The Gubmit is Bad And Anything to the Left of Attila the Hun is Communism and Should Be Destroyed For the Sake of America's Future." But I guess that isn't as snappy and would probably lead to really expensive letterhead.

Anyway, I took the quiz myself and it would surprise anyone who knows me, and therefore knows how carefully I cull my circle of friends and avoid at all times interaction with anyone who doesn't agree 100% with me on every possible issue, that I actually have a pretty large bubble! Crazy, right?

Well, not really. Because of the many, many problems with this quiz, it assumes whomever is taking it is a big city liberal (which, given that it's being hosted on NPR's website, is probably a fairly safe guess, but it purports to be for everyone). So it doesn't actually measure how much you interact with people who are genuinely different than you in anyway, it measures how much you interact with working class people in small towns (who are assumed by this quiz, and the assholes who write these sorts of things, to be the exact opposite of big city liberals). The reason I supposedly have a much larger than average size bubble is because I grew up in a rural small town and have had my share of manual labor jobs over the years. That's it, that's why my bubble is so much bigger than most other people's.

Hell, if you live in a small town and have a working-class job, even if every person you knew was exactly like you, thought exactly like you, did all the exact same things you do, and were in every way what we would think of as living in a bubble, you would score as having a giant bubble. Which makes this a fucking terrible test from a measurement perspective, since it doesn't even come close at all to measuring what it purports to measure.

But an even bigger problem is the way this is just a gussied-up version of the "real America" versus...well, they never say what everyone else is living in. "Fake America?" "Unreal America?" "The Loose Federation of States Formerly Known as America?"*

I mean, they could have saved a lot of time and trouble if they just asked what they're clearly getting after. Instead of a 25 question quiz, Murray could have just written "When's the last time you left your vegan cafe and changed your own oil, faggot?!?" and that would have just as thoroughly gotten to the point he's trying to make without wasting nearly as much time or involving nearly as much obfuscation.

To make it even funnier, it turns out the hypothetical all-white, working-class, small town, Reagan masturbation fantasy that Murray is using as his comparison point for real American is actually, statistically speaking, a terrible representation of "real America."

So in a turn no one could have predicted**, this quiz is not actually about encouraging people to examine their possibly-cloistered lives to see if they couldn't include more and different people in their social circles, but is instead just another completely-inaccurate fantasy of the right-wing culture wars. And while it's at it, it fails both in terms of science and ideology! What a great quiz! Take it right away!

*Unrelated fun story: whenever assholes go on about "real America" I always feel compelled to ask them if Manhattan is part of "real America." Of course it is not, they'll gladly let you know. NYC generally, but Manhattan specifically, is pretty much exactly what these assholes are trying to juxtapose "real America" against. Once that is established, I tell them I assume they must not be too upset about the September 11 attacks, since they didn't happen to America by that logic. This usually ends in that person getting very angry at me.

**Just kidding! Literally anyone with a functioning adult brain could have easily predicted that!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Lesson in Empathy

I grew up in Iowa, but have little warm feelings toward the place. It's not that I actively dislike it, I just don't really care about it. My parents moved away from the hometown where I grew up about 5 years ago, and I don't think I've so much driven through the state since then, and I can't for the life of me conceive of when I would ever end up back in my hometown for basically any reason. Again, I don't feel any over antipathy toward the place, I just don't feel any meaningful connection. Even though I spent the first 23 years of my life in Iowa, and it undoubtedly shaped me in many ways, I just don't really care about it.

I moved to Minneapolis shortly before my 23rd birthday and immediately felt at home. My dad hails from Northern MN, and trips to Minneapolis were often the most exciting part of my childhood growing up. For whatever ineffable reasons, I always felt much more connection to and affection toward Minnesota. I remember once having a talk with my brother over some beers about how it just made so much sense to move to Minneapolis as we both did, because we both always felt much more like Minnesotans than Iowans. And now that my folks have moved up to Minneapolis from my childhood home, pretty much all of my connections to Iowa are severed.

Which is all a long way of saying I consider Minnesota my home.

I've also never understood why people get so incredibly upset about celebrity deaths. I mean, I get why people are sad when some artist or performer they enjoy passes, but I never understood getting legitimately upset about it. After all, it's not like you've ever met. That celebrity doesn't know you,  doesn't know shit about you, and doesn't care about you. Getting upset over their death just seems...odd. In fact, I'm pretty certain I lost some friends for life when I gently suggested it was weird how upset people got over the death of David Bowie, someone they've never even met.

But then Prince died.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Frankly, it was fairly confusing. I mean, I'd long been a Prince fan and appreciated everything about his musical genius. But it genuinely felt like a close relative had died. I don't know that I've ever been more homesick for the Twin Cities than I was seeing all the spontaneous dance parties and tributes and all other forms of collective mourning happening in the immediate wake of his death. It felt like I was missing a relative's funeral in that way that I felt like I should be there. Like I needed to be around friends and family just to process this.

In trying to figure out why the death of someone I've never met affected me so much, especially given my previous stance of thinking this was an insane way to react, I think I've settled on the fact that we shared a hometown.

Prince loved Minneapolis and Minneapolis loved Prince. Here's a pre-fame Prince in 1979 explaining that Minneapolis is his home and he'll always stay. And stay he did. Paisley Park right there out in the burbs. While pretty much every other famous person runs away to find their fame and fortune in more glamorous environs, Prince stayed. He could often be found at Vikings games. After the Lynx won their last WNBA championship, he brought them back to Paisley for a post-championship concert. He wasn't just a celebrity from Minnesota, he was a celebrity of Minnesota.

It's a pretty strong contrast to the state's other famous musical export. Dylan pretty famously got out of Minnesota fairly quickly, landing in the NY folk scene before he was out of his teens. And he never really came back, not in any meaningful sort of way. While there's a lot about him that clearly stamps him as being a Minnesota product, you get the feeling the place is no more than a tour stop to him. Minnesota seems to be to Dylan as Iowa is to me -- a place you're from, not too much more.

And I think that's what makes Prince's passing so intense. We both claim Minneapolis; I as an immigrant who fell in love with it and have more connection there than anywhere else, he as the most favorite native son. It's a pretty tenuous connection, sure, but I'm obviously not alone in feeling it, if the thousands who spontaneously poured into downtown last Thursday are any indication.

So now I get it. I get why people can be so saddened by the death of someone they don't know or ever met. I mean, I'm not a monster -- I understood the basic process of it. But as with so many things, actually experiencing it is a hell of a lot different than understanding it on an intellectual level.

So in addition to eating this big ol' slice of humble pie, I think I've got a little bit more empathy in my angry, withered heart. That's Prince for ya, still teaching us all valuable lessons we didn't even know we needed to learn.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Minnesota's Patron Saint

Grief. Sadness. Heartbreak. The day sex died. It's hard to put it into proper words.

One of my greatest regrets in my short life is that I never got to see the Purple One perform live in person. The only Prince story I really have involves specifically not getting to see him play -- I was at some sort of showcase type show of local music (I want to say it was one of the Doomtree blowouts, but I honestly don't remember) and suddenly there was an insane buzz all through the venue. Now, I have to assume that anywhere in the world, if Prince is in the house, people start to go crazy. But when Prince is in the house in Minnesota, people go even crazier. But when Prince is in the house in Minnesota and furthermore it's in First Avenue, a place nearly synonymous with his funkness, it's truly insane. As soon as the first person sighted Prince lurking in the wings, every person in the place knew within moments. In the greatest tease I'll ever experience, Prince stood in the wings for awhile, before eventually strapping on a (unplugged) guitar and beginning to noodle around as if trying to figure out the songs. It was only a matter of moments before he would join the performers on stage, surely. But, as is his beguiling way, he instead simply took the guitar off and disappeared back into the ether of the wings.

Really, this might be the most fitting anecdote I could have. After all, Prince is one of the few people to ever exist where you repeatedly tell the story of the time you kinda sorta could see him offstage. That's the kind of presence the man had.

Yet through it all, Prince remained a fairly...well, normal guy, as much as you could ever apply that word to a pansexual little person funk god. After all, he was a huge Vikings fan and regularly attended games. He continued living in Minnesota most of his life, despite being a world-famous rock star. He beat the siblings of celebrities at basketball and made them pancakes.

This is one of those times when I really wish I was in Minneapolis to join in the collective mourning for the hometown boy done good. I've got nothing to say that will compare to the inevitable countless eulogies and obituaries penned for the man by writers much more insightful and loquacious than I. I just know that I, like a lot of folks right now, feel like I lost a family member and it'll take a good while to recover.

Good night, sweet Prince.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What An Hilarious Failed Thievery Attempt Can Tell Us About Crime

Last night the weather was finally nice enough to sleep with the windows open for the first time this Spring, which is one of my favorite nights of the year (ahead of it on the list: the day we set clocks back and all sleep in, the night before Christmas, the night of my birthday, the night when Brigadoon comes out of the fog). Anyway, around midnight, as I was finally beginning to drift off to sleep, I heard a car door open and for some reason thought someone was breaking into my car. As I sat listening to the noise, I tried to somehow magically determine if it was just my neighbors coming home much later than usual, or if my paranoid first thought had indeed been correct. As I pondered whether I'd remembered to lock the car doors after bringing my groceries in, I had a trio of thoughts that prevented me from caring too much:

1) I leave nothing of value in my vehicle at any time. Mostly because I own nothing of value, but also because I've had my car broken into roughly 857,349 times and have learned my lesson (one of the few downsides to city life).
B) My car has a factory-installed CD player, which is both worthless and really difficult to remove. Given that non-factory CD players comprise the only things ever stolen from my vehicles, I could safely conclude there ain't nothing in there worth taking (or, just as accurately, that I would give a shit if it was taken).
III) What was I going to do? Hop up in the dark, throw some clothes on, find my glasses, run downstairs and then...I dunno, fight them? Yell at them? Explain in detail this is a prime factor in eroding the social trust networks that improve so many life outcomes? Plus, my bed is super comfy and I was super sleepy.

So I went to sleep and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Until I was walking the dog this morning when on the way home, about 50 or so feet from my car, I saw a little black object that looks exactly like my CD carrier. Which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the CD carrier I keep in my car. Unrelated to the point I'm making, this is by far my favorite part of the story*. After taking the dog home and feeding her, I went out to assess the damage. Fortunately I had left the doors unlocked so they didn't break a window (more on that in a bit). They emptied out the glove box presumably looking to see if I had anything worth taking, but they left everything. Including the nice GPS unit an ex's rich parents had given me for Christmas several years ago. Much like the CDs, this stands as a comical aside of how quickly the value of certain things has deteriorated with the technological changes of the past decade or so.

But as I looked around the car, it became increasingly clear they had taking nothing. Not nothing of value, but just straight up nothing (though, again, I don't keep anything at all valuable in there). Until I remembered that last night after getting groceries, I didn't have a free hand to carry in some of the non-perishables, so I just left them in the trunk figuring I would grab them later. "But surely they didn't," I thought to myself. "Why would they even want that?" I wondered with increasing curiosity as I rounded the back of the car only to open the trunk and find a true horror scene. I had found the one thing they did take from my vehicle:

A 24-pack of Diet Pepsi.

Humorously enough, there are some things of minor value in the trunk -- tools and the like -- which would probably fetch zero dollars but have some utility. But none of that was taken, either. Just the Diet Pepsi. So I have been keeping my eye out for people who look like thieves who don't use tool sets and are watching their figure, but have yet to ID the culprits.

But the question remains -- what does this teach us about the reality of crime? Short answer: a shitload!

For one, this bears all the marks of the crime of convenience, by far the most common type of street crime. Unlike the super intelligent super criminals of the television world, or the clever and always-plotting criminals of bourgeois imagination that lead to ever-hilarious "how to avoid crime" pamphlets, most people who commit these kinds of property crimes don't really plan them out ahead of time. They may have a general plan of "let's test the handles of parked cars," but they don't case vehicles for days scoping out the choicest prize (after all, if they did, they would have known not to bother with my car).

Also, it's not like they broke a window to get in there -- that's probably a level more than this particular group of kids was willing to do. Had I remembered to lock my doors (which I do 99% of the time!), they more than likely would have just moved on down the street. And I say "kids" intentionally, because I can all but guarantee this was a group of teenagers. Not only because I'm now over 30 and therefore do not trust any teenagers for any reason, but because it's been well-documented that these kinds of street crimes are almost exclusively the domain of people in their mid-teens to early-20s, and more often than not, boys rather than girls.

All this speaks to the most important point, which is that people aren't "criminals," they're people. That is to say, I think a lot of folks who aren't criminologists (so, you know, everyone) view people who commit crimes as if that's like their 9-5 or something, like they wake up in the morning and punch the crime clock, trying to work their way up the crime ladder so they can get a big enough crime 401(C)** to retire early and raise some little criminals in the suburbs.

Instead, people who commit these types of property crimes (who most people are referring to when they use the term "criminal") turn out to be not terribly different from most people. Maybe these kids were out specifically trying to steal things from cars that night, but there's also a pretty decent chance this was on a complete whim. But in either case, it's not like they identify as people who occasionally steal things from cars, as if that's what is central to their sense of self. Instead, that's more than likely just one of many things they do during the copious amount of free time teenagers have.

Also fun and related -- this is why official crime stats are not very good. Or are often, pardon the highly-specific scientific jargon, pretty damn shitty. What's often referred to with the super-metal-sounding-for-a-fairly-boring-concept name of the Dark Figure of Crime is the notion that probably well less than half of all crimes committed are ever reported to the police (whether those crimes reported to police ever actually end up in official stats is a whole other story). This story is a prime example of one of the many types of crimes that goes unreported -- even if they had stolen anything of value, it would have to have been very valuable for me to bother reporting it to the police, and then I'd only do that because I assume my insurance would require me to. But in every previous case I've had my car broken into and things actually stolen from it, I never bothered reporting it, because I knew exactly what would happen -- eventually a very polite officer would stop by my house, listen to my story, write down a report, and that report would be filed away somewhere to never be seen again (which is a quite reasonable thing for the police to do, as there is less than zero point to searching for a stolen car CD player, at least of the kind I could afford).

So in the end, this is all just a no-harm, no-foul reminder to lock your car doors when parking on the street. But it taught us some valuable lessons about criminology, and I'd like to think, the importance of taking all the groceries directly inside and putting them away.

*Why is this my favorite part of the story? Because what explains not stealing my CDs, but simply moving them a bit down the road? Like seriously just moving them roughly 50 feet. None were missing, they weren't broken, it doesn't even appear like they were thrown. Just moved. So here's my current theory: one of the guys rooting through my car grabbed them against the protestations of the other fellas. "Come on, these have to be worth something!" he tried to argue, while they all just laughed at him for his naivety (this was his first attempted theft). Now just trying to save face, but having already snatched them up, he carries them for awhile, waiting until all the other guys aren't looking, and then gently sets them down so they don't hear anything and look at what he's doing. Now there are no more CDs, and he can claim he was just kidding the whole time and was, like, never planning on stealing them for real! Shut up, guys!

**The C is for Crime!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Social Forces Exist and People Are Sometimes Just Shitty People

Many people hate them for the wrong reasons,
others hate the for the right reason
As a young(ish) white man, I am constitutionally required to #feelthebern. As such, I find this tweet hilarious. Not hilarious in a "Rita Rudner funny" kind of way, but hilarious in a "US Government Simultaneously Lecturing Cuba About Political Prisoners While Literally Operating a Lawless Prison on Cuban Soil" kind of way.

I find this tweet endorsement so insanely apt because Courtney Love is the Hilary Clinton of popular music. The parallels are simply too many: for one, both have always been and seemingly will always be overshadowed by their more famous husbands (regardless of how undeserved it may be). They're also both regularly accused of being willing to discard and discredit anyone who stands in the way of what they want. But more what I'm getting at is how they're spoken about, regarded, and just generally understood by so many people.

Because, frankly, both have gotten so much shit their entire careers. In many cases, it has been completely undeserved and obviously only heaped upon them because they are women who dare to exist and be successful in what stubbornly remain male-dominated industries. And while both have plenty of examples of staunch and vocal defenders, even those who greatly dislike either or both of them simply have to admit they've also gotten a lot of shit for things that would not have been a problem if they were men. It's an argument so self-evidently obvious it doesn't even need to be made.

So to sum up: Courtney Love and Hilary Clinton both get a ton of undeserved shit exclusively because they are women. Pretty undeniable.

...and yet you can already hear the obvious and obnoxious "however," right? Well, in this case, the obnoxious however is that both Courtney Love and Hilary Clinton also have some pretty major faults. Like...really major faults. For instance, pretty much everyone who has ever met Courtney Love seems to very much dislike her. Heck, here's a collection of 11 Diss Tracks That Are Probably About Courtney Love and you can peruse the comments section for suggestions of dozens more songs that are varying degrees of being clearly about the songwriter's distaste for Love. These songs are all written by people who have interacted with Love, and the sheer number of them all coming to the same conclusion seems to strongly point to there being something about Love beyond her gender that is causing this reaction. After all, while plenty most all women in the music industry suffer ridiculous levels of sexism, few come anywhere close to the level of vitriol Love seems to inspire.

Similarly with Hilary Clinton -- there are many, many reasons to dislike her as a candidate for President that have nothing to do with her gender. For instance, the horrid things she's said about black youth, her support for the disastrous and illegal Iraq war, her continued hawkish stance on the entire Middle East, her completely uncritical support of Israel, the fact that she is "stalwart friend of of World's Worst Despots,"  her continual leading from behind such as when she conveniently forgets everything she previously said about the TPP or her convenient about-face on gay marriage, or hell, just her inability to correctly pour a beer. Again, the point is that none of these are gender-based issues (unless you were to excuse male politicians for these same behaviors, in which case, totally sexist).

So it makes a ton of sense that Love's and Clinton's supporters would view any and possible all criticisms of these two as motivated at least in part by sexism, and why their detractors would feel like they're being unfairly accused of sexism due to the fact there are many reasons they dislike one or the other (or probably for a lot of people, both) and none of those reasons are necessarily gender-related.

In the end, it simply had to be. How could Courtney Love Cobain endorse anyone other than Hillary Rodham Clinton when Courtney Love Cobain is Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Prince Auction Is Exactly What You Think It Would Be

Would you pay a minimum of $1,500 for this?
What if you were assured someone ate lousy wedding
venue food off of it while making small talk with a stranger
and also Prince was somewhere in the building?
Apparently needing money and/or space in what I can only assume is a very ornate, very purple garage somewhere, Prince Nelson Rogers is having himself a good ol' fashioned yard sale. Well, less a yard sale and more a curated online auction, but that's about as close as Prince would ever get to a yard sale, I imagine.

While everything is ridiculously expensive, there is some interesting stuff for sale there. An old Gibson Prince wrote many of his early songs on would be pretty cool to own (if you have a spare 60 thousand dollars or so lying around). Ditto for some of his early masters and demo tapes. Hell, if you've got 6 figures to blow, you can have the engagement ring he used to propose to Mayte Garcia, as well as a series of notes comprising the handwritten marriage proposal that sealed the deal. In true Prince fashion, the person who pays over $100,000 for these items does not also get the right to reproduce or distribute the content of said notes. I would not be terribly surprised if they're not even allowed to let anyone else see them. Which is a shame, because I have to believe a Prince marriage proposal is either the most romantic or most fucking ridiculous (or both!) thing ever set to paper.

In addition to a lot of his old clothes and jewelry (you can own the scorpio necklace worn by Prince when he met Prince Charles for the low, low starting bid of $30,000!), by far the most interesting (and affordable) part of the auction is where you can buy various bits of the wedding china from Prince and Garcia's wedding. For $50,000 you can have a whole set, but for only $1,000 you can get a single plate. Granted, that's a shitload of money to spend on a single plate, but can you imagine the kind of conversation that would start? Well, it would most likely just be about why you spent so much money for a single plate. But you wouldn't care about your friends and their inability to understand why such a purchase is necessary, because you will be busy eating off of a plate someone who once was standing near Prince for a little while ate off of, and you can put a fucking price on that kind of history...