Sunday, August 28, 2016

One man's nuclear fears helped create today's San Francisco housing crisis

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain. The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.

The story of Oppermann—who did not send the residents of San Francisco packing but merely crippled growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums—comes down to us via a San Francisco Bay Area cartographer, programmer, and amateur historian named Eric Fischer.
--Mark Gimein, New Yorker, on the power of a single bureaucrat. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, August 26, 2016

Foreign intervention has made Syria's civil war endless and more brutal

Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey....

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. ...

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.” ...

Whenever one side loses ground its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. ...

These foreign powers are strong enough to match virtually any escalation. None can force an outright victory because the other side can always counter, so the cycle only continues. ...

In most civil wars, the fighting forces depend on popular support to succeed. This “human terrain,” as counterinsurgency experts call it, provides all sides with an incentive to protect civilians and minimize atrocities, and has often proved decisive.

Wars like Syria’s, in which the government and opposition rely heavily on foreign support, encourage the precise opposite behavior, according to research by Reed M. Wood, Jacob D. Kathman and Stephen E. Gent, political scientists at, respectively, Arizona State University; the State University of New York at Buffalo; and the University of North Carolina.

Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.

The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.

Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The to-do list lifehack worth $400,000

[Charles M.] Schwab (oddly enough, no relation to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation) was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in the U.S. at the time. ... day in 1918... Schwab—in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done—arranged a meeting with a highly respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. ...

As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, "Show me a way to get more things done."

"Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives," Lee replied.

"How much will it cost me?" Schwab asked.

"Nothing," Lee said. "Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you."

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for achieving peak productivity:

1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
5. Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.

A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2015.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Science is about feeling stupid

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. ...

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it ... doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. ... I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did.

That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. ...

...we don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. ...

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. ... The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.
--Martin Schwarz, Journal of Cell Science, on the Peter Principle in research. HT: JK

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why does swimming time only to one-hundredth of a second?

Tonight three legends of swimming—Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos, and László Cseh—turned in identical times to share silver in the 100m butterfly. Last night, Simone Manuel tied for gold with Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100m freestyle. Modern timing systems are capable of measuring down to the millionth of a second—so why doesn’t FINA, the world swimming governing body, increase its timing precision by adding thousandths-of-seconds? ...

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim. (Attempting to construct a concrete pool to any tighter a tolerance is nearly impossible; the effective length of a pool can change depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature, and even whether or not there are people in the pool itself.)
--Timothy Burke, Deadspin, on the limits of precision. HT: JF

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Trump's Android tweets are angrier than his iPhone tweets

But this weekend I saw a hypothesis about Donald Trump’s twitter account that simply begged to be investigated with data:

... Trump himself does indeed tweet from a Samsung Galaxy. But how could we examine it quantitatively? I’ve been writing about text mining and sentiment analysis recently, particularly during my development of the tidytext R package with Julia Silge, and this is a great opportunity to apply it again.

My analysis, shown below, concludes that the Android and iPhone tweets are clearly from different people, posting during different times of day and using hashtags, links, and retweets in distinct ways. What’s more, we can see that the Android tweets are angrier and more negative, while the iPhone tweets tend to be benign announcements and pictures. Overall I’d agree with @tvaziri’s analysis: this lets us tell the difference between the campaign’s tweets (iPhone) and Trump’s own (Android). ...

Which are the words most likely to be from Android and most likely from iPhone?

Trump’s Android account uses about 40-80% more words related to disgust, sadness, fear, anger, and other “negative” sentiments than the iPhone account does. (The positive emotions weren’t different to a statistically significant extent).
--David Robinson, Variance Explained, on the ghost in the Trump machine

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The first North Americans didn't cross the Bering Land Bridge

According to the traditional story, the first people to settle North America arrived around 13,000 years ago near present-day Clovis, New Mexico, having crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia and traversed a recently opened, 1,000-mile-long corridor between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets that covered much of the continent.

Well, that story is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, DNA and archaeological evidence from a number of sites in the United States and Canada demonstrate that humans not only inhabited North America at least 15,000 years ago, but were by that point pretty much spread throughout the continent.

But it’s a different aspect of the story that University of Copenhagen researchers Mikkel Pederson and Eske Willerslev take issue with. “Whether the ice-free corridor could have been used for a Clovis-age migration depends on when it became biologically viable,” Pederson, Willerslev, and their colleagues write in Nature. In other words, it depends on whether there was enough to eat along the way from Alaska to the heart of North America.

To see how much food might have been available, the team took core samples from lake beds in the Peace River basin, right in the middle of the path the ice corridor once took. The researchers searched those for fossils, pollen, and other biological materials. ... The team’s analysis suggests that the region was largely lacking in plant life prior to about 12,600 years ago...

Although the results do not preclude the possibility that people did at some point travel through the corridor, it’s most likely the first people to arrive in the present-day U.S. came via the Pacific Coast, the authors argue.
--Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard, on another scientific folk story on the ropes

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Stochastic terrorism

What Trump said was that a particular group – those who are defined by rallying around guns – should do something about Clinton and her judicial nominees. What can people who rally around guns do that's different than others? Use those guns.

But it's really irrelevant what Trump actually meant, because enough people will hear Trump's comments and think he's calling for people to take up arms against Clinton, her judges or both. Though most of the people hearing that call may claim he was joking, given what we know about people taking up arms in this country, there will undoubtedly be some people who think he was serious and consider the possibility.

In other words, what Trump just did is engage in so-called stochastic terrorism. This is an obscure and non-legal term that has been occasionally discussed in the academic world for the past decade and a half, and it applies with precision here. Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication "to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."

Let's break that down in the context of what Trump said. Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible. But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.

Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn't know which dog.