Archive for category politics

Gerrymanderers may soon be sent packing for doing too much cracking

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his cohort of Republicans might have gone too far in redrawing their State’s political boundaries to their advantage. Last November, a federal district court declared these maneuvers, called gerrymandering,* unconstitutional. However, as discussed in this Chicago Tribune article, the Supreme Court might consider overturning the ruling—these gerrymanders being partisan, not racially discriminatory.

One of the most infamous of all gerrymandered districts—1992’s 12th Congressional District in North Carolina-is pictured here. It became known as the “I-85 district” due to being no wider than the freeway for stretches that connected the desired populations of voters.

North Carolina’s 12th was a kind of in vitro offspring of an unromantic union: Father was the 1980s/1990s judicial and administrative decisions under the Voting Rights Act, and Mother was the partisan and personal politics that have traditionally been at redistricting’s core. The laboratory that made this birth possible was the computer technology that became available for the 1990s redistricting cycle. The progeny won no Beautiful Baby contests.

— North Carolina Redistricting Cases:  the 1990s, posted at Minnesota Legislature Web Site

You may wonder, as I did, how gerrymandering works. The latest issue of Nature explains it with their graphic on “packing and cracking” here. Also, see the figures on measuring compactness. Mathematicians approach this in various ways, e.g., the area of the district compared to with that of the smallest polygon that surrounds it (called the convex hull). Quantifying the fairness of boundaries creates a great deal of contention–which measure to use being chosen for greatest advantage of whomever is wielding the figures.

Partisan gerrymandering, if not outlawed, will be catalyzed by the 2020 census. Keep an eye on this.

*A word coined in 1812 when Massachusetts’s Governor Gerry redrew a district north of Boston into the shape of a salamander.

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Finns giving up to $2000 per month at random to 2000 jobless citizens

It seems too good to be true, but the Finnish government started off this new year by giving 2000 unemployed Finnish people between 25 and 58 years of age an income of up to $2000 per month, according to this New York Times report.  They will monitor these lucky recipients to see how many squander their money on vodka versus investing it in something productive such as a business startup.  Their experiment will run for two years.

This initiative for a universal basic income has a broad appeal from leftist liberals to libertarians, who see it as a way to shrink stifling social services.  According to this CBS News report, an experiment by Manitoba to provide a “mincome” produced positive results.  It will be interesting to see if the Finns also find that it pays to provide free money.

“It always should be worth taking the job rather than staying home and taking the benefits.  We have to take the risk to do this experiment.”

– Pirkko Mattila, Finland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health

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The increasing oppression of soul-less algorithms

As I’ve blogged before*, algorithms for engineering and statistical use are near and dear to my heart, but not when they become tools of unscrupulous and naïve manipulators. Thus an essay** published on the first of this month by The Guardian about “How algorithms rule our working lives” gave me some concern. In this case the concern is that employers who rely on mathematically modelled ways of sifting through job applications tend to punish the poor.

“Like gods, these mathematical models are opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, are beyond dispute or appeal. And they tend to punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.”

– Cathy O’Neil

Of course we mustn’t blame algorithms per se, but those who write them and/or put them to wrong use.  The University of Oxford advises that mathematicians don’t write evil algorithms.  This October 2015 post passes along seven utopian principles for ethical code.  Good luck with that!

P.S. A tidbit of trivia that I report in my book RSM Simplified: “algorithm” is an eponym for Al-Khwarizm, a ninth century Persian mathematician who wrote the book on “al-jabr” (i.e., algebra).  It may turn out to be the most destructive weapon for oppression ever to emerge from the Middle East.

* Rock on with algorithms? October 2, 2012

** Adapted from Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy — a new book on business statistics coming out tomorrow by “Math Babe” Cathy O’Neil.

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How you can make statistics persuasive for your political cause

For a very unsettling demonstration of statistics being easily biased to whatever result you like, go to this blog by science journalist Christie Aschwanden and chart maker Richie King.  Scroll down to the Hack Your Way To Scientific Glory control panel.  There you can play your hunches as to how Democrats versus Republicans affect the U.S. economy.  With a few changes in how you define the factors and measure the response, the results can be manipulated as you like.  Print out the final statistics and use them to beat up your political opponents.  What fun!

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85 people have as much money as 3.5 billion

The 3.5 billion poorest people who account for half the world’s population can barely scrape up enough money to match the 85 wealthiest, according to the international relief organization Oxfam.  I await verification on this statistic but, if true, it really boggles my mind.

Oxfam teed this attention-getting shot up in prep for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week.  Let’s hope this convocation brings out the gnomes from Zurich who manage the gold from the hive of the weighty eighty-five.  Perhaps a few coins might trickle out from the greedy to the needy.

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Poll says no MOE to the current Congress—83 percent disapprove

I just saw this NBC/WSJ poll graphically displayed on the nightly news.  In the small print I saw “MOE +/- 3%” which threw me for a moment wondering if this data was being disrupted by the leader of the Three Stooges.  But then I realized this was the margin of error.  For a helpful detailing of MOE that breaks things down to simpler terms—a giant jar of a 200 million jelly beans—check out this white paper by Roper Center.  Despite the inherent uncertainty of polls (estimated by MOE), the politicians in Washington cannot discount this clarion call (a record percent!) for change.


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Issues on inflation, such as 79.6 billion percent in one month

May’s National Geographic pictured a very impressive One Hundred Trillion Dollar bill from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which in November of 2008 hit the 79.6 billion percent level for inflation before stabilizing their currency.  Check out the 100T note here.  You can buy one of your own for less than ten bucks USD!

Meanwhile back home in here in the USA everyone is up in arms over a measly 0.1 percent difference in inflation caused by “chaining” our CPI.  The gist of this is explained in this recent Time-magazine personal-finance column.  It seems like much ado about very little.  However, those who get cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) fight like crazy over anything that reduces their income.  Here’s a spin on statistics:  A 0.1 percent reduction from 1.5 percent is actually a 7 percent loss in COLA.  No wonder seniors want to throw off those chains!

The fiddling with money supply and shenanigans on inflation computations reached a new low not long ago in Argentina when the government forced out statistician Graciela Bevacqua for rounding rather than dropping decimal points, which made the government look better with their official rate.  It’s all reported here by The Economist.  Now working in private industry Bevacqua continued to present a truer calculation on inflation and got fined $100,000 for her honesty.  After an uproar from far and wide, including the American Statistical Association (ASA), the courts in Argentina overruled the government and spared this outspoken statistician, according to this news from Buenos Aires Herald.  Someone ought to give her a medal for speaking the truth.  But as the great statistician George E. P. Box said:

“Whenever we see virtue rewarded, we are completely surprised.”

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Speak softly but carry a big statistic

I heard on CBS Radio radio today this play on Teddy Roosevelt’s famous words. It was quoted by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar as her secret weapon (statistics, that is) for women politicians. Searching internet I think it originated from Anne E. Kornblut in her book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling in a section dedicated to Klobuchar. She (the Senator) figures on making an impact on the impasse over the coming “fiscal cliff”. I have no doubt that Senator Klobuchar and scores of other politicians, male and female, will be slinging a lot of statistics during this debate on how to avert financial disaster for us taxpayers. It will take some work to ferret out what’s really true out all the partisan hyperbole.

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Statistician mines poll results to come up with odds-on fav for President

CBS News this morning reported the prediction by New York Times statistician Nate Silver on who will be our next President.  OK, now that you know (presuming you could not resist following the link), how sure are you that it’s accurate?  After all Silver is the author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t—published only a month or so ago.  My hunch is that Silver does as well as anyone—given so many unknowns that cannot be known, not the least of which is the fickle nature of undecided voters who might en masse switch allegiance the day of the election.  Anyways, I am viewing his prediction the same as a weather forecast two days out, that is, with a good deal of skepticism but, nevertheless, appreciation for the science behind the modeling.*

PS.  A friend asked me this week whether averaging polls is really valid.  I suppose so based on Silver doing it.  See how he does it at this detailing by him in his “538” blog (538 is the number of electors in the United States Electoral College).

*For example, within 72 hours of a hurricane’s landfall, meteorologists now predict the bulls-eye within a 100-mile radius—compared to 350 miles 25 years ago.  They did really well forecasting Sandy as reported here by The Washington Post.

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Probability of vote being pivotal is so small it’s not worth voting

That was the view of 2nd-year PhD student Douglas VanDerwerken up until this Presidential election.  He abstained on the basis of the lack of return on investment for spending the time to vote when it really cannot make a difference.  VanDerwerken lays it all out for statistics magazine Significance in an article for their current (October) issue.*  According to his reckoning, there is less than one chance in a million (4.5×10^-7 to be precise) of any person’s vote having an impact.  This would be a situation where the voter lives in a swing State and the election comes to a dead heat.

Fortunately (in my opinion—being one who views it as a civic duty) VanDerwerken had an epiphany based on moral reasons, so he shall vote.  Thank goodness!

“If you think about it, voting in a large national election – such as the US Presidential election – is a supremely irrational act, because the probability that your vote will make a difference in the outcome is infinitesimally small.”

– Satoshi Kanazawa, rational choice theorist**

* “The next President: Will your vote decide it”

**See Kanazawa’s three-part series on “Why Do People Vote” for his blog “The Scientific Fundamentalist” hosted by Psychology Today. Start with Part 1 posted here and continue on to the end for the answer.

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