Monday, November 30, 2015

Is doesn't really matter who's winning now

If you like politics, then it's fun/interesting to watch the horse race in the Republican primary (the Democratic primary lacks the same drama and has played out as predicted so far). But, if recent history is any guide, I wouldn't give the current polls a lot of value if you're trying to figure out who the 2016 nominee is going to be.

Looking at the last four contested primaries, the eventual nominee hadn't moved to the top of the national polls until January or February.

In 2004, eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry was behind in the polls until late January, 2004 - several days after the Iowa primary.
In fact, at this point in the year, and after this point in relation to the Iowa caucus, Kerry was in 4th place.

In 2008 the polling was similar on the Republican side. Two months before the Iowa caucus, McCain was in third place, and with less than a month to go, he would drop to 5th. Here again, he wouldn't become the front runner until a week after Iowa, and 3 days after New Hampshire.

The 2008 Democratic primary polling looked somewhat similar to the way it looks this year, with Hillary Clinton sitting comfortably ahead of the field, but then at around this point (two months prior to the Iowa caucus) Obama began to move up steadily in the polls. He didn't become the front runner in National polls until mid February, nearly 6 weeks after Iowa.

And of course, much has been made about the difficulty Romney had in 2012 consolidating the support of Republicans. After leading for much of the early part of the campaign, Romney lost the lead 5 times between June 2011 and March 2012 to 4 different opponents. He did lock down a lead in the national polling until the last day of  February, nearly two months after Iowa.

The 1992 Democratic primary was also late to develop. Back in 1992, Clinton didn't finally take the lead until early March (a few weeks after Iowa), and the person he was behind prior to that wasn't even in the race.

Of course, this is all in contrast to 2000 a year with no incumbent candidate and a year when both eventual nominees were front runners before they entered the race, and remained front runners to the end. Which is how the Democratic nomination is looking this year.

Similarly, in 1996 Dole led the Republican primary polling from early November, when he regained the lead from Colin Powell after Powell announced he would not run, until the end.
Will Trump or Clinton in 2015 be more like Dole, Bush or Gore in 1996 and 2000, or more like Giuliani and Clinton in 2008? At this point the only thing we can say is that the polling up to now doesn't really mean much.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

We really could all die

Clearing out the old blog post ideas here. Back in 2013 (I know, I know) Ezra Klein had a story on global pandemics that oddly didn't mention the worst disease to come along in modern times, by which I mean AIDS. It's odd, because HIV in many ways contradicts one of the key ideas in the article.
Diseases face a choice between spreading easily and being severe. If a disease is too hard on its host, killing quickly, it can’t spread. If it’s too easy on its host, it doesn’t much matter if it spreads. 
But HIV spreads pretty easily and is (or at least was until the "cocktail" for treatment was developed) as severe as can be imagined. If you were designing a disease to wipe out a large portion of the population, HIV would provide a pretty good model for two key reasons.

The first is that victims don't actually die of HIV. They die from something else because their immune system is so weakened that an opportunistic infection (like thrush and Kaposi's sarcoma) can spread and eventually cause death. This enabled HIV to hide for several decades as patients were assumed to have died from the other infections. Even after HIV made it to the United States, it took a decade to detect it.

The second reason is that it has a long incubation period. Klein was right that a disease that kills too quickly can't spread, but one that kills nearly 100% of the time can still spread - as long as it does so slowly. And the median incubation period for HIV is 10 years. The saving grace, if you wish to call it that, of HIV was that it was an STD, which significantly slowed down the rate at which it could be spread.

But imagine if HIV was a vector-spread disease like malaria, or could be transmitted via droplet spread or what if it had been airborne. In other words, if HIV had a Basic Reproductive Number that was closer to that of measles or whooping cough it would have spread very far and infected many many people before we even knew there was a new disease on the loose. And it took us nearly 15 years from HIV identification to effective treatment, during which time the disease continued to spread.

Another thing to consider is a disease that alters the hosts behavior like toxoplasmosis does. The life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, requires the disease to be passed between rodents and cats. Rodents infected with the disease will have their behavior modified so that they are less fearful of cats and so that they behave in ways that are unsafe, thereby increasing the chances that they will be eaten by a cat and continue the cycle. Even humans infected by the disease have been shown to be involved in a higher rate of car crashes and other risk-taking related deaths, indicating that their behavior has been changed as well.

Imagine an HIV that changes peoples behavior, making them engage in more sex and/or riskier sex. Such behavior could increase the transmission rate considerably over what was observed. Or imagine a flu-like disease that makes someone become more gregarious and outgoing during their peak contagious period, allowing them to come into contact with more people and spreading the disease more quickly.

It is unlikely, but a disease really could cause a world-wide pandemic that threatens human civilization. What would such a disease look like? It would be a disease, like HIV, with a long incubation period and low survivability rate, and one that masks it impact and is hard to understand, but with a higher transmission rate more like the measles. Such a disease could very well create a movie-like disease-based pandemic that would infect and kill 5% or 10% or 20% of the world's population. And how large an infection would it take to strain the civilization that we have now? Probably lower than 20%. Like I said, it's unlikely, but then so was HIV.

The scary thought is not that something like the AIDS crisis could happen again, but that perhaps, as bad as it was, we got lucky.

Friday, April 17, 2015

You could be living next door to one of the Oklahoma City bombing conspirators, and have no way of knowing.

(This was supposed to publish some time ago. Whoops)

It's the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. For me it was one of those "I remember exactly where I was at the time" moments. I was driving to the dentist in Austin to have X-rays taken as part of my Peace Corps enrollment process. Later that week I found out that an acquaintance of mine had a cousin who was one of the victims and for some reason it became much more tangible to me at that moment, and I remember that it was then that I got emotional about it and feeling odd that my response was triggered by such a convoluted connection.

It's always been odd to me that, in light of the white supremacist motivation of the perpetrators, that we never talked about white supremacists in the same way we do "radical Islamic terrorists" despite the frequency of domestic terrorist plans and acts by white supremacists.

Anyway, there were three main conspirators in the case of which two are in custody or dead. Timothy McVeigh, of course, who was the mastermind of the whole thing. He was executed for his crimes on June 11, 2001. Terry Nichols who helped acquire the bomb materials, hide the get away car and provided other material support. He's in prison in Colorado serving 161 consecutive life sentences (just a little more than 160 to go!)

The third accomplice was Michael Fortier. He knew of the plan and helped scout the building and his wife laminated McVeigh's fake ID. Fortier agreed to testify against the others and was convicted with a reduced sentence. He was released from prison in 2006, and placed in the witness protection program. Which means he could be living literally anywhere.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The "Interstellar" Paradox is only a paradox if we believe Dr. Brand. And we shouldn't.

Warning: Spoilers to the movie Interstellar below.

I finally watched "Interstellar" and thought it was fantastic, even if there are some parts that don't make sense.  [Why did they have to send people to these planets, when they had such amazing robots? If some data (thumbs up, thumbs down) could be transmitted through the wormhole why can't they send more? Why does no Plan C seem to exist (more on this later)? etc...] But the biggest hole in the story is the central paradox. Namely, if humanity is going to die without the wormhole created by Future Humans, than how did Future Humans build the wormhole?

I think that I've worked out one possible, if absolutely incredible, way for that happen, and it starts with this: humanity doesn't need the wormhole to survive.

Dr. Branch tells us that humanity is doomed without Plan A (getting everyone off  Earth with an equation-powered spacecraft) or Plan B (Populating new planet with frozen embryos) working, but he later proves to be an unreliable source, he isn't likely to be privy to every plan by every nation and its a prediction about which he could just be wrong. In fact he has to be. If humanity can't survive without the wormhole, then there is no wormhole, so humanity must survive without it.

Below I attempt to work through the minimum number of timelines to get to what we see in the movie. One thing about influencing the past that I've assumed: each time that Future Humans influence the past, a new timeline is created from the point that they influenced and the current timeline ceases to exist (making any other influences impossible from that timeline). In that way a little information moves from one timeline to the next, but a lot of information is lost forever.

Timeline 1: No influence from the future.

Here we have the blight, the wars, the impending doom on Earth, but no wormhole, no Cooper crash, no ghost and no watch message. It's hard to say what happens, but clearly humanity won't just roll over and die. There are two survival techniques here. The first was hinted at in the movie - build an enclosed biosphere and try to survive on Earth despite the problems. We'll call that Plan C. The other is to build spaceships and send people out in the hopes of someday finding a habitable planet - a slowly moving biosphere. We'll call that Plan D. It's possible that both would be attempted. What's important is to accept that at least one of them worked. Humanity survived and evolved into 5-dimension Future Humans. Hooray!!

Considering all that happens afterward, and how much harder Plan D would be, it's easier to believe that Plan C works

Despite surviving and thriving even, Future Humans 1 don't like the outcome. Perhaps the dark times were very long and very miserable and Future Humans 1 would like to alleviate that suffering. Or perhaps they are now facing a new threat that's so dangerous that even they can't overcome it - but they calculate that if they had not wasted thousands of years drifting through space/living in a hole that they would have been more able to do so.

So they want to change the past, to shorten the dark ages and/or to save Future Humans from this unknown threat. Regardless of why, they decide to create the wormhole (perhaps at an exact point that Plan D survivors reached before they made it to Edmond's planet?) back in the past and wipe out their timeline.

Timeline 2: Wormhole

Now things become much more similar to the bulk of the movie. The wormhole appears and NASA sends people into it to save humanity. But in this timeline Cooper never crashes, there is no ghost and no watch message. This would mean that all the farm scenes don't happen, but we can assume that Cooper would pilot the same mission he does in the movie and that perhaps things continue as we saw in the film. Then either Plan B or Plan C succeeds, but Future Humans 2, still want to try and change the past. Again, I think it's cleaner if Plan C is what works (since it probably worked before) but it doesn't have to be C.

If they're  Plan C descendants, they still want to short circuit the dark ages just as Future Humans 1 did and so they want to make Plan A or B work. [if they're Plan B descendants, then perhaps they're motivated by the urge to save humans on Earth.]

Regardless, they try to communicate with humans to help and there are a lot of failed communication attempts (each one resulting in a new, very slightly changed timeline, so this is really Timeline 2 to Timeline N). These failed communication attempts are the other gravitational anomalies that NASA talks about with Cooper when he first arrives at NORAD. None of these failed attempts significantly changes the events on the timeline until they try to communicate with Cooper and cause the crash from his dream at the beginning of the movie and wipe out their timeline from the crash on.

Timeline 3: Failed Communication/ Crash over the Straights

This is where things start to get hairy. The plot remains much the same as the movie, except that Cooper almost surely stays on the farm. There is no ghost and no co-ordinates so Cooper never goes to NORAD or rejoins NASA. The mission with TARS, Amelia Brand and others has a different unknown pilot (although it is possible that Cooper is recruited anyway, but that requires a big leap and the next steps make less sense if so). Perhaps Mann is successful in his plan to force them to take him to Edmond's planet. Perhaps not. It's all kind of irrelevant, what matters is that either Plan B or Plan C succeeds, but Future Humans 3,  still want to try and change the past - and that the change they want is to get Cooper back into the mission.

Future Humans 3 can probably figure out that humans on another timeline built the wormhole, and that they tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with humans causing Cooper's crash. And they also know about Plan A and why it's doomed - Brand and Murph need data from inside the black hole.

As is suggested in the film, love plays some sort of roll in the communication from within the Tesseract and so Future Humans 3 (again, perhaps after numerous loops and attempts with other combinations. This is a loop that has to happen but it need not be the 3rd one. This is really Timeline N+1 to N+n) decide they need Cooper so that he can communicate with his daughter who they know is working on the math (which only works if they're Plan C descendants). They hatch a plan to get him.

Future Humans 3 figure that Cooper needs the time with Murph on the farm so that the bond between them can grow. And that if there is no crash and he's focused on flying for NASA that may not happen. So, they choose a time after the crash to get him back on track. THEY are the ones who initially intervene with the binary message of dust on the floor, choosing a moment that gives Cooper enough time on the farm to build the necessary bond, but leaves enough time before the mission for NASA to feel comfortable sending him. This wipes out their timeline from the dust storm on.

Timeline 4: Dust message and Tesseract

Finally we're getting to a timeline that looks almost identical to the one in the film. We have blight, wormhole, crash, binary dust message to Cooper, Cooper goes to NORAD and then flies mission exactly as we see it and falls into the black hole with Amelia going on to Edmond's planet.

What we don't have are all the ghost manifestations, the "STAY" message or the watch.

But Cooper falls into the black hole and time for him slows down, considerably. Humanity survives and evolves into 5-dimensional beings who eventually figure out that  humans on another timeline built the wormhole, and that they tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with humans causing Cooper's crash, and that they sent him a message to get him back into the mission. And they also know about Plan A and why it's doomed - Brand and Murph need data from inside the black hole.

Finally,  they realize that Cooper and TARS are still alive and still falling into the black hole. Time for Cooper and TARS has slowed down so much that humanity is able to evolve into 5 dimensional beings before they're killed/destroyed. But of course to them it seems only like seconds.

So Future Humans 4 build the Tesseract as a way for Cooper to transmit the data gleaned from within the blackhole back to Murph. While in the tesseract, Cooper behaves exactly as we see. He knocks books off the shelves, sends the "STAY" message, creates the co-ordinates dust message (incorrectly believing that he had done that before) and transmits the data to the watch. This is why the dust message is the only one in binary - because Cooper is replicating what Future Humans 3 did, not initiating his own communication. This may take several loops, with him wiping out his timeline and then repeating behavior over and over until he does all of these things. But when he sends the watch data, then he's done.

Timeline 5: Plan A - The movie

Now everything is in place. We have blight, wormhole, crash, ghost, binary dust message to Cooper, Cooper goes to NORAD, Murph gets the "STAY" message and Cooper flies mission exactly as we see it and falls into the black hole with Amelia going on to Edmond's planet.

Once done,  Future Humans 5 - who are now definitely not descendants of Plan C - put together all of the pieces of what has happened, find Cooper and TARS in the wormhole, build the Tesseract for them, pull them out of the black hole and back through the wormhole to be found by space station Cooper, with no more interference in the past necessary.

It's convoluted and unlikely, but it works.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What the NCAA should do about UAB players

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) recently cancelled their football program, thus leaving all of their current players adrift, among other things. Some will get scholarship offers elsewhere in Division I-A and others at lower Divisions, but some likely will not.

The NCAA should try to do what it can to accommodate these kids. There is room in college football for them to be absorbed, but the NCAA may need to help that happen.

The NCAA permits Football Bowl Subdivision schools to offer 85 football scholarships and Football Championship Subdivision schools to provide 63. The NCAA could allow schools to add UAB players without them counting against their scholarship cap. If that doesn't sweeten the pot enough, they could allow teams who add a UAB player to not only give that extra scholarship, but an extra scholarship in the year after they graduate (but only if they graduate).  I'm sure there are a lot of schools who would love to help these kids out, but not if it might cost them a player they really want. Removing the cap for them would take that away.

A last thing they could do is to agree to pay for some or all of the scholarship - with UAB pitching in. That would make it even more likely that everyone of their players would end up someplace where they can be on the football team with a scholarship - if that's what they want. Maybe some players will choose to stay at UAB.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Democrats should support DC Statehood because it's morally right and because it gives them more power

Earlier this month, a Senate panel considered a bill to create a new state out of most of DC, and though the bill is unlikely to pass, or even be voted on, it was in and of itself an accomplishment since it was the first time a congressional committee has considered DC statehood in over 20 years (the last time was a 1994 "informational hearing" in the Senate).

The last, and only, time Congress took a vote on DC statehood was 1993. Similar to the bill now, no one expected it to pass, despite the fact that President Clinton had voiced support for it and Democrats controlled both houses. But even though a majority of Democrats (and one Republican) supported it, more than 100 Democrats voted against it.

Opposition was varied, with some similarities and differences with today. Opponents argued then, as they do now, that statehood is unconstitutional.

Others argued that the new state would not be able to support itself without federal assistance, an argument that DC's balanced budget and full coffers makes less relevant today, even with the nearly $600 million in federal aid the District gets. "Should we be granted long overdue statehood, the District will be prepared to take on any responsibilities and mandates associated with being a state," Mayor Vincent Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy recently stated.

Another argument against statehood came from members like Rep. Tom Delay R-TX, who argued that DC was too mismanaged, "The District hasn't even shown the ability to govern itself as a city, let alone as a state" and added "The District is a liberal bastion of corruption and crime. Let's take it back and clean it up" and while DC's recent corruption issues have not helped, DC is a long way from the days when the control board took over.

Others were concerned that the District was too small, geographically and economically, to make it as a state and a few Republicans were openly worried that DC statehood would only add more Democrats to the House and Senate.

Among Democrats, most of the opposition was of two types. There were Congresspersons from Virginia and Maryland who voted against the bill out of concern that DC would institute a commuter tax, "They would take hundreds of millions of dollars from suburbanites to help the state of New Columbia," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., D-VA. And then there were Democrats from the south, the same group that had opposed home rule in 1973, some of whom, like Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, have since become Republicans.

What if the DC Statehood bill had passed? How would things have been different with New Columbia?

In addition to New Columbia's right to full home rule and the end of Congressional interference in local affairs, the other major difference would have manifested itself, as Republicans feared, in the Senate.

One more Democratic representative would have never changed control of the House from Republican to Democrat and likely would have had little impact elsewhere, and though the Electoral College would have lost one member, that wouldn't have changed the outcome; but in the Senate, adding two, almost surely Democratic seats would have swung the body to the Democrats for one period and changed the outcome on votes on many others.

During Bush's first term, Republicans controlled the Senate from the end of January 2001 to the beginning of June in 2001. With 2 Democratic Senators From New Columbia, Democrats would have controlled the Senate during that time, and that's the time when the first Bush tax cuts passed, which would have significantly strengthened their hand during those negotiations.

Furthermore, throughout Bush's presidency, Vice-President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote on 8 occasions, but with New Columbia's Senators those would have surely not been ties. These votes were not trivial issues either
These are things Democrats widely opposed and represent causes they care deeply about. With DC Statehood, these outcomes or the laws passed, would have been changed.

Finally, during Obama's first term, DC's Senators would have extended the time that Democrats had a super-majority from three scattered periods totaling about 5 months, to one, continuous 10 month period.

Two additional Democratic votes would have even helped during the super-majority period. Concessions made to gain the individual votes of conservative Democrats to break the filibuster for the Affordable Care Act would not have been needed. The public option, for example, was dropped in order to get the vote of Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, and concessions on abortion funding and what was later known as the "Cornhusker Kickback" were made to get the vote of Ben Nelson.  With Senators from New Columbia, one of these deals would not have been needed.

Opposition has been partisan, and so has support, but Democrats need to unite in seeing it that way

Not since the 23rd Amendment was passed in the early 1960's and the DC Home Rule Act passed in 1973 have Republicans shown much support for DC voting rights or home rule, and in most cases they've shown outright opposition. Only Democrats, lukewarm though it may have been at times, have been moved by the cause.

In the last three periods during which Democrats have had full control of the legislative process (House, Senate and Presidency) some sort of DC voting rights legislation has been seriously considered or passed.

In 1978, the DC Voting Rights Amendment was passed by the Democratic House and Senate . But it was only ratified by 16 states before it expired in 1985.

The next opportunity came in 1993-95 when the Statehood vote failed. By that time DC had held a constitutional convention (in 1982), passed a state constitution and chosen the name New Columbia for the proposed state.

The most recent opportunity came in 2009-2011, and this time voting rights proponents were focused on the DC Voting Rights Act. The DC Voting Rights Act would have given DC one representative in the House. After failing three times in Republican-controlled Houses, it first passed in 2007, when Democrats were in control. But it failed in the Senate, despite support from a majority of members, because it could not overcome a Republican filibuster. Finally in 2009, with Democrats again in control, the bill passed in the Senate. Republican Senator John Ensign, however, had successfully attached an amendment that would have gutted DC's gun laws and removing that amendment proved impossible, so it was never submitted to the House.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has said that one thing preventing DC Statehood is that it is "not a national issue," but the chance that New Columbia would have been able to preserve the public option, stop the Bush tax cuts and/or prevent cuts to Medicare makes it very much a national issue.

There are all kinds of moral reasons to support DC voting rights. It is a civil rights issue and those who oppose it are on the wrong side of history. There's even a practical reason to support it, namely that DC Statehood, and the end of the 23rd Amendment, would reduce the chance of a tie-vote for President by changing the number of electoral college votes from an even number to an odd one. But so far those non-partisan reasons have been crushed under the foot of partisan politics by Republicans. Perhaps it's time for advocates to use partisan politics to its advantage.

DC Statehood is good for America and the right thing to do, but it also means that Democrats control the Senate more often. It means Democrats get an extra half seat in the House. DC Statehood means that Democrats pass more of the laws they want, and stop more of the laws they oppose. That's why every Democrat should support DC Statehood.

The upcoming midterms are turning into a battle for control of the Senate, and one would have to suspect that right now Democrats were wishing that they had two DC Senators seated among them. If they should lose control of the Senate, DC voting rights advocates should remind them of the chances they've already squandered and prepare them to vote for DC Statehood the next time they get the chance.

**For those concerned with a Commuter Tax, the solution is simple. DC could earn about $1.2 B from a commuter tax. Currently the federal government pays for DC's criminal justice system at the cost of about $600M. Simply add a line to the DC Statehood law that ends this relationship if DC enacts a commuter tax and then sends the savings to Maryland and Virginia in proportion to their lost tax revenue from a commuter tax. Or increase DC's payment by $600M to make them whole.

***DC Statehood would change the Electoral College from 538 members to 537. In some years, when the state that lost a seat in the House to give one to DC is "Blue" that would hurt Democrats by changing a tie to a loss, in other years it would hurt Republicans when that state is "Red." This is random and it's likely a 50-50 proposition. And it's unclear how a tie would play out. So it's possible that DC Statehood will change the outcome of future presidential elections, but to whose advantage it's impossible to say. It's a coin toss.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tiger Woods and the difficult path to 19 Majors

Tiger Woods set the goal of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors. For 14 years, he has been on track to do just that, with each of his major victories coming earlier than Nicklaus', but late last month Tiger did something he rarely does. He fell behind. If Woods wins his 15th, he'll be older than Nicklaus was when he won his 15th.

Tiger needs four more Major wins to tie Nicklaus, and 5 to pass him. How hard will that be? 5 Major wins alone would give a player the 20th best career total. So, he now needs to have the 20th best Major golf tournament career in golf history - starting at 38. He needs to win more majors from this point than Ernie Els has over his career. Starting now, he needs to have Byron Nelson's entire Majors career. Not easy.

There have been only 10 major winners over the age of 43, and none of them have repeated. If Woods is limited to the same total,  he needs to win 4 majors over the next 5 years. Early in his career that would have been easy, from the time he was 19 until he was 29, there was never a 5 year period where he failed to win 4 majors. But that was 8 years ago. This is the real testament to what Nicklaus did - not that he won 14 by the time he was 38 (though that is still an incredible feat, only matched by one person) but that he then went on to win 4 more. Even if Woods does do that, then he still needs to win one more over the age of 43. The oldest major winner in history was 48. So the window closes in about 10 years.

If Woods can't win 4 over the next 5 years, then he needs 2 wins over 43. That would be a first.

So, in order to break Nicklaus' major record, he will likely have to break other records, like oldest Major winner, most Majors over 40 etc...He's still the tour's top player - last year's Player of the Year with top 5 finishes in two majors, but his injuries and the steady march of time are working against him.

I think 10 years ago I would have bet on Woods to break the record, but now I'd bet against it.