The Fallacy of information omission

Folks, some of you are posting links to stories on websites that assert that 95 million Americans over the age of 16 are not in the labor force i.e. they are not working. This is being used as information with which to claim that the US unemployment rate is far higher than the claimed figure.
Now, like most people who didn’t come down from the hillside with the last rainstorm, I know that unemployment numbers are not aligned with practical reality. I have written about this in the past.
However, the “95 million not working” claim is an example of a fallacious assertion, in that it (deliberately in my opinion on many websites) omits crucial information and analysis. A less polite summary would be that it is BS.
Politico analyzed the claimed number a few years ago when it was around 90 million. Their analysis shows how the real number of people who should be working but are not is a whole lot less than 95 million.
I would also note that the websites trumpeting this finding fall into two groups:
1. Headline clickbait sites run by popular media outlets (including the tabloid newspapers)
2. Fringe authoritarian sites specializing in bullshit stories about the Democratic party, including all manner of conspiracy theories and general all-purpose nonsense (World Net Daily being a good example)
There are no serious, analytical web sites pushing this story, for the simple reason that once you strip away the hyperbole, there aren’t 95 million people sitting on their hands doing nothing. That headline number, quite simply, does not pass any sense check or smell test. If there really were 95 million employable people in the USA unable to find work, we would have seen riots in the streets and towns a long long time ago.
If you fasten on to big numbers just because they match your preconceptions, and don’t bother to ask “how is that number comprised”, you are guilty of engaging in confirmation bias, and quite frankly, you deserve to be duped. Some of you need to wake up and engage your critical thinking skills.


Mutual understanding and agency

All through the recent electoral cycle, I grew wearily used to reading breathless exposes from reporters sent out from the coasts (where most of the major media outlets are headquartered) to The Heartland with the instruction “find out why all of those people are angry and why they like Donald Trump”.
The reporters would seemingly pick towns off a map, go visit them, talk to a cross-section of townspeople, dutifully record their thoughts, opinions and rants, and write the required article, usually beginning with a lede like “In Upper Squitville, they’re mad as hell…and they love Donald Trump” or similar.
This sort of formulaic cookie-cutter reporting is easy to satirise. So somebody did, to hilarious effect.
To get any sort of real insight, you need to dig a lot deeper. For example, go read JD Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”, the story of his upbringing in Appalachia and Ohio, in a dysfunctional family struggling to survive in an economic environment decidedly unfriendly to lesser-educated people and families in depressed areas.
Vance has also been doing the rounds of the radio and media interview circuit, partly to promote the book, but also partly to explain the reasons why Donald Trump is so popular with rural voters, although he is at pains to point out that Trump is not the answer to their prayers.
Patrick Thornton pointed out that there is a mutual obligation on both sides to understand each other. Like Vance, he escaped from a rural start to his life to move into IT in New York. Also like Vance, he became exasperated with the idea that it is entirely up to the coastal folks to understand and indulge the heartland folks, and that the heartland people are somehow helpless. So he wrote about it.
Now Patrick is back on Twitter, pointing out that heartland people have agency, and that the idea that everybody else needs to accomodate them is not realistic:

The tweet storm that he wrote basically expands on JD Vance’s point that people in these areas do have agency and choices. One of the choices is to fight to improve. Another choice is to wait for some savior (in the case of many people, they imagine that Donald Trump is their savior).
UPDATERude Pundit has a take similar to Patrick Thornton’s, but rather more obnoxiously expressed. Although it is still a lot milder in tone than the babblings of the self-identified Deplorables on Twitter.


A reminder about the word “lie”

Last year, I wrote this posting about the use of the word “lie” and how it relates to the political process.
I am adding some comments based on what is happening in the USA about now.
It is quite clear to me, based on a careful reading of his interviews, pronouncements, speeches, and tweets, that Donald Trump, a significant percentage of the time, talks bullshit. Not just standard-grade bullshit. Fine, fragrant, weapons-grade bullshit.
Many of his comments consist of assertions and statements that are clearly false, and can easily be shown to be false with only a minimal amount of analysis.
A good recent example is the claim that the singer Jackie Evancho saw her album sales “skyrocket” after she agreed to sing at Donald Trump’s Inauguration. However, as a careful reading of this article makes clear, there is next to no factual basis for this claim, based on an analysis of sales of her most recent album. This analysis by Billboard points out that the sales bump of her most recent album can easily be explained by the normal Christmas sales spike, and none of her previous albums have re-entered the charts, which is what one would expect if an artist gets a general sales boost.
Many people who dislike or despise Trump are now in the habit of labelling every utterance he makes as a lie.
It is far from clear that Donald Trump is lying. My own opinion is that, in keeping with a man whose entire business career and public persona to date has been based on self-aggrandisement and hype, he has long ago mastered the art of talking bullshit. During the election cycle, his opinions on the same issue would change, seemingly often daily. He would pick up and drop issues at random. Unlike most campaigning politicians, who usually have a tightly scripted collection of static talking points (the “stump speech”) that they give at most of their events, Donald Trump could, and often did, talk about almost anything at his events. This, of course, assured continual media attention (if you are a media organization, a Donald Trump event would be infinitely more likely to generate new soundbites than a Hillary Clinton event).
But does Donald Trump actually say things that he knows are untrue? My take is…probably. However, I strongly believe that a lot of the time he is, to use an old phrase, simply Making Shit Up. He says what he thinks will get him attention at any point in time, preferably something that will confuse and distract opponents, often without even thinking about it in advance. He also likes to use Twitter, since Twitter allows him to talk in short soundbites without having to engage with any questioners or interlocutors. For him, Twitter is the perfect communication channel. It is easy to use, simple, and scrutiny-free.
These kinds of scattergun, confusion-inducing communication tactics rely more on bullshit than outright lies. This passage from Harry Frankfurt’s book “On bullshit” summarizes the difference:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point
occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller
of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the
truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie
at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie,
he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand,
a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His
focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a
certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths
surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well,
so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must
submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of
the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less
deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and
independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and
imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar
notion of the “bullshit artist”.

Lying requires too much sustained attention to detail for a person like Donald Trump. Once you start lying, you have to remember exactly what lies you told in the past in order to avoid tripping over your own past falsehoods. I doubt that Donald Trump has the patience or focus for that, and, as a narcissist habitually surrounded by sycophants who rarely contradict him, he probably never had to face the level of scrutiny that he will now start to experience.
So…this is a long way of saying that I believe that most of what Donald Trump talks in public is BS and tosh. However, I have yet to see evidence of sustained lying. I simply think that is beyond him at present.


The 49ers trainwreck – and a volunteer

So it comes to this. The son of the titular owner of the 49ers, asked the obvious question at a press conference, responds by essentially sticking out his tongue at the media and the fan base.
The more I read about Jed York, the more I become convinced that he is the second coming of Tony George.
Yes, that Tony George. The man who, suffused with resentment and hubris after (as he saw it) being frozen out of decision-making in American open-wheel racing, took his ball and stick away, starting the Indy Racing League in 1995, a move that ultimately crippled top-flight US open-wheel racing for over 20 years. The sport has still not recovered to this day. Many years ago, somebody nicknamed Tony George “the idiot grandson”. The nickname stuck. Eventually in 2010, George’s own family tired of his spending family money on his crusades, and took away his stick and ball, but not after immense damage had been done.
The arc of the decision-making of the 49ers is looking more and more like the days of the CART_IRL battle. After hiring Jim Harbaugh and watching him coach the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance and (almost) a second one, the ownership decided that they could not tolerate Harbaugh’s behavior, and parted company with him. Having decided that they could not tolerate a strong-willed coach, they then promoted Jim Tomsula from within to be the head coach. Tomsula had a long and distinguished coaching record with the 49ers, but he had no previous team leadership experience, and the feeling was that the 49ers ownership had hired him because he would be compliant and non-confrontational. They were essentially following a classic model where a respected but confrontational and demanding leader is replaced by a more collegial leader.
What is interesting is that this is not even the first time that the 49ers parted company with a successful head coach. Back in 2003, the 49ers, with John York leading the ownership, fired Steve Mariucci after a season where the team had made it to the second round of the playoffs, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the SuperBowl. The reasons for the firing were never revealed publicly.
Jim Tomsula proceeded to prove that he was in over his head in the 2015 season, including rambling press conferences where he sometimes seemed confused. The 49ers finished 5-11 and the ownership fired Tomsula, paying him $14m to sit at home and tend to his garden, while they then hired Chip Kelly, who had been fired by the Eagles before the end of the season, his grand experiment of bringing college tactics to an NFL team seemingly at an end.
At the same time, players voted with their feet, leaving in free agency or retiring. That should have been an indication that things were about to get much worse. In the NFL, poorly managed teams always have trouble attracting and keeping free agents, who have been around the game long enough to sniff out dysfunction, and, with limited playing lives, they want no part of it.
Kelly, beset by the lack of good players, proved unable to coax any better performance out of the team, who finished 2-14. Now he has been fired, along with General Manager Trent Baalke.
The 49ers have, in the usual way, cleaned house.
That was the easy part. The much more difficult part is beginning. How do you attract a high quality General Manager and coach to a franchise where the ownership leader (Jed York) behaves like he is out of his depth? York appears to have no established leader in the organization with a solid football background at present. Unless he is able to tap into advice from elsewhere, it is difficult to see how he is going to be able to make insightful and informed decisions about who to interview and who to hire.
The 49ers situation has been described in multiple media outlets as the least desirable coaching/GM vacancy in the NFL, so it is not likely that any of the top-line names are going to be interested.
One man has already volunteered his services. Former player Jeff Garcia.
This might superficially be a daft idea, but the 49ers could do a lot worse than to hire a former player who, rejected by the NFL because he was perceived to be under-sized, went to the CFL and built a career there before returning to become the starting quarterback of the 49ers for a number of seasons. Garcia was a fiery personality on and off the field in his playing days, but one thing he could not be accused of was lack of effort and intensity.
The 49ers may have to get creative and hire a non-obvious candidate. Maybe they should interview Jeff Garcia…


American Airlines screws us over baggage transit

American Airlines is rapidly sinking down our list of airlines for leisure flying.
We checked 2 bags into DFW on Monday for the trip to Belize
When we arrived in Belize city, only one bag came off the conveyor
So once it was clear from talking to the baggage handlers that there were no more bags to be unloaded it was off to the AA office.
It soon became clear that no, our bag had not made it onto the flight. It was still at the departure gate in DFW. There was no reason advanced for the bag having not made it onto the flight However, we were not alone, a whole bunch of people were also in line for the same reason.
AA said that they would send it to BZE via MIA overnight,, which meant it would arrive at BZE at lunchtime today.
They said they would send it down to Plancencia later in the day via one of the regional airlines (Maya AIr or Tropic Aiir) that flies to Placencia.
This is our biggest bag, containing our snorkelling gear and most of mary’s shoes.
As of now, we still do not have the bag. It is still at BZE, awaiting space on a feeder fight. Missing bags can only be sent down on a space available basis, and the bag only cleared customs at 4.45 pm today, which was too late for a flight with baggage space.
So we will not get the bag until tomorrow at the earliest.
This is not good. We have had to shuffle trips around because of this. The AA agent at BZE told us that there are nearly 100 bags that have been lost that they are trying to route to the owners.
I am pissed. This was a stateside SNAFU in DFW and now our Chrstmas is being impacted.

UPDATE – The bag finally came down from BZE to Placencia on the 11.30 TropicAir flight and we picked it up from the airport at 12.30 CST. Only 2 days later than we should have taken possession of it…

UPDATE 2 – To add insult to injury, our medium sized bag came off the conveyor at DFW on the return leg missing a wheel. The missing wheel is on the wrong side, so it makes the baggage non-wheelable in any orientation i.e. unusable. GRRRRRR.


The sad decline of RG III continues

Back in 2015, I wrote this article about the decline of Robert Griffin III as an NFL quarterback.
His decline, and the impact on the Redskins, was documented in this article, featuring a film breakdown by former Redskins player Chris Cooley. The article shows that Griffin’s skills at reading NFL defenses were so deficient that even operating with a simplified playbook, Griffin was unable to move the Redskins offense down the field.However, the article also makes the point that, even more than 2 years removed from his injury, Griffin had not only lost his speed, he had also lost the ability to rapidly move left in the pocket. Cooley explains how this has had a profound negative impact on his whole game:

“He can’t move left, he can’t slide [his feet], he always turns to run. When he’s moving in the pocket, it’s always a running gesture, it’s always a tuck-ball-and-run gesture. It’s not keep poised, keep shoulder back, keep ball pressed back ready to throw, shuffle and slide. It’s a tuck-ball-run, then look to throw. This takes all vision off the field for Robert. When he takes all vision off the field at this point, he loses where he wants to go with the football. Which means unless someone’s coming across the field, directly into his vision, he is not able to find them or throw to them.”

Griffin signed with the Cleveland Browns in the offseason, and seemingly won the starting QB job, but his injury bad luck returned again in his first game, when he suffered a broken bone in his shoulder which landed him on injured reserve. Prior to suffering the injury, some of his old issues were clearly still present, although other Browns players did not help the offense.
Returning to the starting line-up last week, Griffin posted another poor performance, with a completion percentage of just over 40% and a QB rating in the 20s.
Increasingly the career arc of RG III resembles that of Jason Sehorn, who for a couple of seasons was a genuine shutdown cornerback for the Giants, with blazing speed that allowed him to beat any wide receiver in the league to the ball. However, Sehorn ruptured his ACL and suffered other knee damage while returning a punt in the 1997 pre-season. When he returned the following year, it soon became clear that the injury had robbed him of his speed. He went from being a top-tier cornerback to an average, then mediocre cornerback, and ended his career as a mediocre safety, beset by other injuries.
RG III is now at the point in his career where he has to either show that he can operate usefully as a pocket passer, or be rejected by NFL teams. The era of offenses built mostly around the read option is temporarily over in the NFL. Teams now know how to shut down that type of offense, and RG III lacks the running speed to even stretch a defense if he keeps the ball.
So far, the evidence is that RG III lacks the ability and/or willpower to make the change. To be fair, other running quarterbacks also failed to adapt.
If RG III wants to make the leap before he lands on the scrap-heap, he might want to arrange to spend some time with Steve Young picking his brains. Young arrived to the 49ers as the heir-apparent to Joe Montana, but with a completely different playing style. Montana was the classical pocket passer, with incredible poise under pressure, great accuracy and the ability to bring the team from behind in games – his fourth quarter comebacks are the stuff of legend. Young, at that stage of his career, would take off running at the first sign of trouble and try to make things happen on the run. As he explains:

…when Bill got hold of me I remember him pulling me aside and saying ‘Steve, nobody knows where you are.’ And I’d go run for 10 yards, or I’d scramble around and throw the ball for a nice completion or something and he’d say, ‘That’s great. But nobody knows where you are. And the truth is, if you really want to make the most of it — get everything out of the play that I call. You left early. You didn’t explore every avenue or option. And people need to know where you are.’ And I remember thinking ‘Oh, crap. I better be where everyone expects me to be. And do everything that everyone expects me to do with this play. I’ve got to exhaust it.’

Note the key repeated message in the paragraph – “nobody knows where you are”. If the offensive line does not know where their quarterback is, they cannot protect him effectively. As the 2014 film breakdown from Chris Cooley showed, RG III was not only failing to pass the ball to the planned receivers for a play, he was also moving all over the place behind the O-line, but not in a useful-slide-around-the-pocket way. He was either running all over the place, or standing like a statue a long way behind the O-line. The first approach takes you out from behind offensive line protection. The second approach allows defensive players to run around the corner straight at the quarterback. As a result he was sacked a lot.
RG III operated like Harry Houdini for a season, but was injured doing so. Now he has a limited time to re-tool his approach, before the Exit door snaps shut on his NFL career.


Today’s Round Up

1. Sid Miller cannot stop spreading lies and bullshit
Another posting on Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s Facebook wall has been shown to be BS. Either a lying asshat has hacked Miller’s Facebook, or he is a lying asshat. I know what my selection is, your selection may be different.

2. Donald Trump’s lies have a purpose
This article, like an earlier one from George Lakoff, explains that Trump’s lies, far from being directionless and random, exist to serve a purpose (mostly related to the self-aggrandisement of Donald Trump). As the article explains, the media has to decide if they want to pander to Trump, or report correctly on his utterances.

3. The media fallout from the 2016 Election
The election has been a mess for the US mass media, who had no coherent response to an electoral campaign where misinformation, bullshit and fakery became the norm. This consolidation of 86 articles provides some interesting and sobering reading.
While we are on the subject of media performance, here is a withering article by Rick Perlstein about the asymmetry in media coverage between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the 2016 election.


Long distance migration experts #2 – The European Eel

I wrote some time ago about a species of bird, The Bar-Tailed Godwit, that migrates an astonishing distance every year.
Today, I am writing about a species of fish that engages in an equally arduous migration. The species is the European Eeel.
The Eel spends most of its life in fresh water, but when it reaches sexual maturity, it migrates back from its home body of fresh water to the ocean. This pattern of return to the ocean to spawn is the exact opposite of the life cycle and breeding action of the Salmon, which begins its life in freshwater, matures in the ocean, then returns to fresh water to spawn and (like the eel) to die.
What happens to migrating eels after their return to the ocean has never been entirely clear. In the late 19th Century, scientists finally established that juvenile eels were in fact the second larval stage of the species, developing from the first larval stage before the juvenile eels reached fresh water. By a process if extrapolation, scientists postulated that eels spawned in the Sargasso Sea, and that the larvae then traveled back to Europe via the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents.
This recent scientific paper, using modern tracking technology, largely confirms prior scientific theories about the reproductive process of the European Eel. Eels migrate up to 5000 km back to the ocean to spawn, living off stored food reserves. After spawning, they die, since they cannot feed any more.


The fallacy of the Great Person theory of leadership, accountability and personal agency

Over the next 4 years, if it becomes apparent that Donald Trump was the wrong choice for POTUS, we can expect to see people who voted for him attempting to deny accountability in several different ways:

1. They will forget or deny that they voted for him or supported him in the first place (The Amnesia approach)
2. They will protest “when I voted for him I didn’t think he would really do all of That Dumb Stuff!”
3. They will blame Other Actors for sabotaging his presidency (“those Other Forces did not allow him to do what he really needed to do so it’s not his fault”)

(1) is not particularly sustainable in the internet age. I can, for example, fairly easily mine Facebook postings to determine which of my Facebook friends were Trump supporters in the election cycle. (2) and (3) are more arguable, but I usually respond to (2) with some variant of “if you didn’t take him seriously when he promised to do that stuff, more fool you”.
Currently, I am part way through reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance, which is a memoir of a guy who grew up in Appalachia and Ohio in a deeply dysfunctional family, embedded in areas of the United States that have lost out to the last 40+ years of globalization and employment shift.
While the areas that JD Vance grew up in are indeed economically deprived, and many people are suffering badly financially and socially, one of the points that Vance makes consistently in interviews and articles is that the blame does not rest entirely with the “outside forces” that many people in those areas rail and rant against on a daily basis. He was also totally unimpressed by Donald Trump’s candidacy, describing his promises to “bring back coal” as part of a pattern of what he calls an opiate fix for the people in Appalachia.
One of Vance’s central points is that people have agency, and the victim-centered attitude of what he terms “learned helplessness” reduces the chances that the economically deprived areas of the USA and their populations can improve their conditions.
The idea that people are not responsible for what happens to them and their country is also a viewpoint that many historians outside of Germany have focussed on when dealing with the history of the rise of Naziism in Germany. The view outside Germany tends to focus on the claimed charisma, oratory and power of a few bad men (Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Josef Goebbels et al) and rather less on the underlying reality that Adolf Hitler came to power by being elected democratically, and that Naziism was wildly popular in Germany right up to the point that it began to become obvious to the German people that they were losing World War II. Inside Germany, historical analyses of Naziism focus rather less on the individual Nazi leaders and more on answering the awkward question of why and how the German people collectively signed on to the Nazi worldview and philosophy.
Most Germans have learned the hard way that their ancestors, for a period of a dozen or so years, enabled great evil. They are, by and large, determined to not allow that to ever happen again.
This leads us back to today, with Donald Trump as the President-Elect. While people and the media focus to a great degree on Trump’s personality, worldview and policies, the underlying reality is that his espoused views do reflect the attitudes of a lot of Americans, and he was elected by a significant percentage of Americans who thought he was the best choice to be President.
Those people, whether they want to see it that way or not, had agency when they voted, and voted for Donald Trump. They are therefore accountable and culpable, collectively, for the outcome of that decision.
The bottom line is that electors who voted for Donald Trump are culpable for enabling not only his actions, but also the worldviews and attitudes underpinning those actions. And if the outcomes for the United States are negative, I will have no hesitation in pointing that out to them. We all own the consequences of our decisions.

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