Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jamming about Stats

I have a hard time imagining anything that could be better for the Pragmatic Idealist household. E.'s favorite band jamming about statistics! No, I'm not kidding. Really, I'm not. Check it out (h/t Mark Blumenthal):

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Moving on from Cambridge

I have to admit, I have become very weary of hearing about the Gates incident in Cambridge. I hate the vitriol that this discussion causes and makes people instantly react and assume that those involved acted in bad faith and were out to "get" the other one. I don't like it because it so often turns into an argument about the veracity of claims or the impugning of character that draws on entire histories of caricatures of peoples positions on certain groups. "Cops are all racists" and "There 'they' go again, playing the race card." Yet, in placing these caricatures on both the sergeant, it is a convenient way to avoid talking about the underlying historical role that these forces play. Instantly, we (the public) assume a narrative that we believe to be the case and impose it on the situation.

How is it that an officer that had taught a class on racial profiling ends up being caught in a media firestorm over a racially-charged arrest? On the one hand, some say that it is "proof" that there was nothing racial about this incident whatsoever. Or, that a black officer supporting the sergeant's arrest must be evidence that race has no role whatsoever in this. On the other hand, there are those who argue that really, the cop could still harbor subconscious racism and "had Gates been white, this wouldn't have happened."

What I think we need is a greater understanding of each other and knowing that we all make mistakes, but also the vast majority of act in good faith. I find this debate tiring. Not because I don't believe that race is important in shaping the experiences of all people, particularly in the United States. Nor do I believe that we should just say that everyone made mistakes and this was troubling, and then move on. In some way, the mistakes were perfectly predictable. The fact that racial profiling happens a far greater proportion of the time than it should provides the basis for mistrust. The fact that the officer teaches classes on it doesn't mean that the situation might have been handled differently had Gates been white. At the same time, it doesn't take away the fact that police officers face dangerous situations and, on a regular basis, have people lie to them. That it seems like Crowley escalated the argument rather than trying to diffuse it was a mistake, but it was an understandable human reaction to the situation. The fact that Gates was, by all accounts, heated didn't help the situation but, again, it was an understandable human reaction to the situation. I have little patience for people who say, "I would have done this or that in the same situation." One, it is impossible to tell—I have been surprised by the way I have reacted in many situations; and two, just because I would react in a certain way does not mean that every person acts differently in a situation does so in a way that is unreasonable or not understandable.

That is why, in all of this, I find this surprise press conference by the President refreshing. First, he admits that he didn't help the situation—he admits that he did something wrong. Let me tell you how much of a relief that is after President George W. "I make no mistakes" Bush. There can be no understanding and dialogue if people are not willing to admit that they would, if they had the opportunity, to do or say things differently. But second, and I think more importantly, Obama doesn't give in solely for political expediency. He could have apologized and said that everything was blown out of proportion; instead, he said:

...where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other, and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.

In other words, I did something that I wish I hadn't done and didn't help the situation. At the same time, let's not pretend that there is not a situation of minority profiling/discrimination that requires dealing with because I did something I wish that I hadn't done. It should also mentioned that the consequences of this racial discrimination and profiling can be truly tragic for the police as well. Obama's final statement:

There are some who say as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all, (which) I disagree with. The fact that this has become such big issue is indicative of fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.

speaks to this.

Ultimately, I am not arguing that Crowley or Gates should have necessarily acted differently. It is in fact my very point—I know nothing about the situation other than how it fits into a larger narrative that requires assuming bad faith on one or both sides of the incident. By playing into that narrative and personalizing a structural situation into these two individuals leads to nothing but mistrust and hot air that ultimately gets us nowhere. I truly hope, if Sgt. Crowley and Dr. Gates are both interested in moving race relations forward—as much evidence seems to indicate—that they can then work together over beer, with the President, to actually make this a more constructive dialogue.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sans Computer

Earlier this week, pitse1eh posted some valuable dissertation advice so that you could learn from her and hopefully not make what she perceives to be her mistake (although something that combines that many things is bound to be interesting!). Let me add another: back up your files often.

As you might guess, there is a very good reason that I am sharing this advice. In the course of my dissertation, I almost lost one computer and totally lost another. Fortunately (for me), the computer that I almost lost was the one with my dissertation on it. "Almost" losing it means that I didn't actually lose anything on it, but it caused quite a scare. The second computer was E.'s and died while I was on a trip to San Diego; that one is completely gone—mechanical failure of the hard drive. Beyond my guilt at having everything on there gone (including some really sentimental photographs and our entire address book), the reason I was using it was because on my previous trip to San Diego (this is true, I only wish I was making this up) was when my computer had almost died.

Luckily for my dissertation, I had all of my work backed up (after the initial frightful scare of my computer almost failing the first time). At most, I lost a couple hours and probably a few months off of my life due to my dramatically increased stress level. But, the fact that I had two computers fail in a span of three months after having zero fail for four years seemed really odd to me. That was, until I realized that both of these computers (which were bought in our respective first couple years of grad school) were old and were getting more use than they had received in years. Suddenly, I was asking old machines to do a lot more work for me, and they were giving in.

Although this was a truly frightful and aggravating experience (particularly not backing up our personal files on E.'s laptop, which was just stupidity on my part), I learned in talking to people that it is not all that uncommon to have computer problems at the last stages of your dissertation. This could be a perfect manifestation of Murphy's Law or partially explained because it is easy to become careless as you are harried and stressed at the end of the dissertation. But, I think that it is also largely for the reason I mentioned above: the machines that we typically purchase in our first couple years of grad school just wear out by the time we finish. I would suggest delaying the purchase of your own machine as long as you can stand it (particularly laptops since they are especially prone to wear and tear) and, no matter what, always back up your files.

Why am I mentioning this now? Well, this week, my computer finally got too tired and passed onto the place where all good computers go—to join E.'s computer in the big computing center in the sky. Now I am sans computer at home, which means that posting is likely to be light from yours truly for a while. But, until I can offer more pearls of wisdom, please learn from me as well, and back up all of your files!

Friday, July 17, 2009

We Were Never at War with Eurasia

Seriously, I thought that this had to be some masterful hacking hoax. The kind that would get you arrested and sent to jail, but for your name to be forever remembered as the mastermind that pulled off one of the greatest stunts of all time.

Last night, Amazon pulled the digital copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle devices. That's right, freakin' George Orwell is the book that our new digital Big Brother decided to delete from its Kindle devices. So forgive me if I really did think that this was a masterful hoax by some ingenious hacker to embarrass Amazon's corporate behemoth.

Unfortunately, I would be wrong. Amazon really did pull the digital copies of George Orwell's books from users' Kindles:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned. (h/t Josh Marshall)

It turns out, the copies that were distributed on Amazon were illegally distributed by a company that didn't own the rights to the book that it put online. And, from the discussion board linked to in the story quoted above, Big BrotherAmazon decided that it was not important to inform customers of what happened. I don't know who is running the ship over there, but given that this is their second major publicity blunder in four months doing things that showed complete arrogance, I'm not sure that they are competent enough to be Big Brother.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Practical Research Problems

One area of my research studies how much physical activity people perform and how those factors might be related to the physical environment in their neighborhoods. One of the "gold standard" methods to complete this kind of data collection is to use accelerometers to measure how much physical activity people do during the day. There are obviously problems, people forget to wear them, or they occasionally malfunction, but overall you expect pretty reliable physical measurements from them. One particularly innovative intervention is to use an automated text-messaging system to remind kids to be active based on their accelerometer readings.

Proving that you can take nothing for granted in research, there is one way that several industrious kids (in a different, London-based study) figured out how to get around the read-outs of the accelerometers, attach them to their dogs!:

The Health Blog was impressed by the cleverness of some 11- and 12-year-old obese children in east London, who were participating in an exercise research study.

The kids were supposed to be wearing pedometers to measure the number of steps they were taking each day. But some of those in the study got the bright idea to clip the pedometers to the collars of their pet dogs, upping the distance the youngsters appeared to be moving each day, according to the BBC. (WSJ Health Blog)

I've got to hand it to those kids, that's a pretty smart idea.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Statistical Inference

Have I mentioned lately that I love xkcd?

xkcd - 'Extrapolating'

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Healthy Eating: Easier Said Than Done

This article features a Milwaukee farmer, Will Allen, who, through hard work, natural charm, and, of course, ability, sustains a thriving farm a mile away from a Milwaukee housing project.

My heart gets all melty on the subject of our failure to provide quality food to the poor - not only because of the tragedy of people in poor areas having access only to the crappiest of food and sometimes dying because of it, but until recently, I found it hard to believe that obesity and other problems related to eating poorly are sometimes out of the control of people who suffer from it. Turns out not everyone lives in the suburbs near a grocery store and owns a car.

First, the disbelief. It used to be the case for me that when I saw obese people, I assumed not that they were malnourished, but that they were simply eating too much - of whatever, I didn't really know or care. But often what is actually happening is that they are not eating the right foods because they can't afford to buy the right foods. In the Will Allen profile, Mr. Allen claims that the Pick n' Save nearest to the housing project is a three-mile trip. If you don't have a car, you're going to march to the nearest place, which is likely to be a fast food joint or convenience store. Imagine making meal after meal of 7-11 products. You'd get few vitamins and you'd probably put on a few pounds. But when we see an overweight person, the first thought for many of us is not usually, "you need to be eating more foods that are good for you." It's "you need to eat less."

Also, I think our country has kind of a screwed up political narrative about this. For example, I've heard it argued (but am too lazy to do the actual research to confirm) that food stamps largely cover not-so-nutritious food. If that's true, I think it's because of tax-haters and also because the words associated with "urban farming" are not "healthy," "job creating," and "fun," but rather "out-of-touch," "liberal" and "organic." So, if someone were to buy locally-grown organic romaine lettuce at a farmers market with food stamps, a politician may get up on a dais and scream, "This is an excess and an outrage. I pledge to save the taxpayers of this great state millions of dollars by reforming the program so that we all have to make sensible choices." Or, "providing children with free and reduced lunch is a waste of taxpayer dollars. We need to take responsibility as a society and pack nutritious meals for our children, or pony up the cash to buy them." Meanwhile, parents working for low-wages and long hours do not have time to pack their children healthy meals, and corporate suppliers are paying and lobbying the same characters to guarantee that their white bread and peanut butter are food-stamp-eligible and/or sold in public schools.

What I find most disheartening is the child obesity risk presented by unequal access to healthy food, because it leads to horrible problems like heart and kidney disease. But as demonstrated above, it's not always a matter of "laying off the cookies and chips." It's often an access issue, and that's what farmers like Will Allen are trying to get to - access.

It would be an interesting experiment to use state or federal funds, or even private grants to start up more urban farms in currently vacant lots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Jackson, and elsewhere. It would create jobs, a marketplace, healthy food, and a great sense of community.

Other than that, much better qualified people than myself have proposed policy solutions. Organizations like Grist, Wholesome Wave, and the Philadelphia Food Trust seem to be doing a lot of interesting and good work towards equity and access to healthy food.