Uncertainty, Probability, and Q-tips

July 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Uncertainty and probability are really hard for people, even undergraduates in statistics classes, to understand. I mean, really understand – grok (do people still say “grok”?).

“The polls were wrong,” our president is fond of saying. “They said Hillary would win.” No. What the polls said is that the probability of Hillary winning was 65% (or whatever). That is, sixty-five percent of the time when we get poll results like these, Hillary will win. And 35% of the time, Trump will win. The result is uncertain.

In most of their reporting of results, the pollsters don’t emphasize or even explain the idea of probability. They hope that the people who read their reports will know what “65% probability” means. But they also know that most people, including political reporters, will reduce the message to, “Hillary’s gonna win.”

Maybe it would help if the pollsters included some boilerplate about probability and uncertainty – you know, down at the bottom of the page where they put the sample size and dates and margin of error. Nah. That probably wouldn’t help. It’s like Q-tips. That’s Ezra Klein’s a wonderful analogy. You can hear it in this clip from his recent conversation with Julia Galef. (The excerpt is four minutes long, but the Q-tips part starts at about 0:45. The rest is context and further explanation.)   



Here’s an approximate transcript:

You know how on the packaging of Q-tips they say, “Please don’t put these in your ear”? And ... the only thing ... people do with them is buy them and then immediately stick them into their ear as far as they possibly can, because that’s what you use a Q-tip for. And the Q-tip company knows this perfectly well.
 
What the political forecasters ... are saying is, “We’re giving you an accurate probabalistic forecast, and what you really need to understand is that this is fundamentally a tool to show you that there is uncertainty in elections. And what everybody is doing – and they know this perfectly well – is running to ... get certainty, to get the one thing that they’re told they’re not supposed to use this for.

We can accept uncertainty and probability in other areas. Last night, ESPN broadcast the final round of the World Series of Poker. With only one card (“the river”) unseen, Ott’s Ace/8 would beat Blumstein’s Ace/2. The only way Blumstein can win is if a deuce turns up on the river. The screen (upper left) shows these three “outs” – the only cards that will help Blumstein. If any of the other 39 cards left in the deck turns up, Ott wins the 128,000,000 in the pot.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

As ESPN showed, Ott’s probability of winning the hand is 93%. Blumstein has only a 7% chance. Most viewers – and certainly most poker players – knew what ESPN meant. ESPN was not saying “Ott’s gonna win.” It was saying that if the hand were played from this point 100 times, Blumstein would lose 93 times. But he would win 7 times. Seven times in hundred, he’d get the deuce.

You can guess what happened.


Blumstein got his deuce and won the tournament.

Nobody said, “ESPN got it wrong. Fake percentages. Never believe ESPN.”

We understand that poker is about uncertainty and probability. But we find it much harder to think this way about human behavior – voting for example. Suppose pollsters remind us that their polls show only probability.  “We told you that tf the election were run 100 times, Hillary would lose 35 times.” My reaction is, “That’s ridiculous. The same people would vote the same way, so she’d lose every time. Voters are not cards – you don’t shuffle them up and then turn over one voter on the river.” 

No. But that’s exactly what polls are – samples of the deck of voters. The results give us probabilities, not predictions. Unfortunately, most of the time, most of us ignore that distinction. And we stick Q-tips in our ears.

Cleaning Up After the Jamboree

July 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you apologize for someone else’s bad behavior, especially when that person will not apologize, does not even recognize his own impropriety, and is the president of the United States?

Traditionally the president’s address to the Boy Scouts jamboree is non-political. It stresses the good deeds of the organization and the virtues it espouses.* Trump’s speech, by contrast, was what he usually delivers when he goes off script – attacks on his enemies (Hillary, the media, Obamacare), recountings of his electoral victories, dog whistles shout-outs to White Christians, and stream-of-consciousness irrelevancies.

The kids in the audience loved it. They cheered, chanted, and booed in all the right places.  No surprise there. Trump’s persona, like that of Howard Stern, plays well to the adolescent-boy sensibility. But some of the grown-ups felt uncomfortable with the campaign-rally speech, and the organization received many complaints from Scout parents. 

Apparently, the Scouts were not prepared. It took until today, Thursday (Trump spoke on Monday), for the “chief Scout executive” Michael Surbaugh to issue a statement. Here’s the key paragraph.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

The problem is how to apologize for the president without offending him. (The president of the Boy Scouts, Randall Stephenson, is also CEO of AT&T. His company wants to gobble up Time Warner, and the deal needs the approval of the Justice Department. Trump’s remarks about loyalty  – “we could use some more loyalty” – may have caught his attention. Perhaps that’s why the statement came from the chief Scout executive.)

Surbaugh (i.e., his writers) hauled out two familiar rhetorical strategies to downplay Trump’s trampling on the norms of Jamboree speeches. First, rather than say that Trump’s speech was offensive, Surbaugh shifted the spotlight to “those . . . who were offended.” It’s not about Trump, it’s about those sensitive snowflakes who took offense.

Second, it wasn’t even Trump who made the speech, at least not as far as anyone would know from reading that paragraph.** Thanks to the passive voice, Trump disappears from sight. Instead we get “the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree” and “politics were inserted” with no hint of who might have been the insertor-in-chief.

You have to have some sympathy for the Scouts brass. Trump dealt them a bad hand. What else could they have done? They could have claimed that Trump’s speech was not political, just good, clean American fun. It’s the sort of thing you might hear from Republicans in Congress. And after all, the credo does not say that a Scout is honest.

--------------------------------
*
A Scout is ...trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent

Oh well, four out of twelve ain’t bad. Maybe five if you allow that our president can also be helpful, at times, to some people. Of course, if Trump himself were scoring this one, he’d give himself 100%.  At the jamboree he mentioned only one of these virtues – loyalty. He complained  that “we could use some more loyalty,” and since most of the speech was about his political accomplishments, it was pretty clear that he was using the royal “we” and that he was referring to Washington politics and perhaps more specifically to the Attorney General.

** In the entire statement – nearly 500 words – Surbaugh never mentions Trump by name. He refers once to “remarks offered by the President of the United States.” 

Inhumane, Cruel . . . and Self-Righteous

July 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

You have probably by now heard about the teenagers in Cocoa, Florida who taunted a drowning man rather than trying to save him or get help. They even made a video of the event.

In the clip, the teens can be heard in the video heckling Dunn as he fights to stay above the water. In between bursts of laughter, one of the kids behind the camera can be heard shouting: "Yeah b---- you shoulda never got in there!" Another says, "Let him drown, what the heck." [NBC ]

Law enforcement is trying to figure out some crime to charge them with. In Florida, there’s no law against letting someone drown.

The police chief says that they were “utterly inhumane and cruel.” And he is hardly alone in that reaction. The kids were young and Black, and they had been smoking weed.

The attitudes of the teenagers had a familiar ring. Six years earlier, also in Florida, several Republican presidential candidates were on stage in Orlando for a debate sponsored by Fox News. It was called “The Tea Party Debate.” The tickets were distributed so as to assure that much of the audience would be Tea Party supporters.

At one point, Wolf Blitzer posed this hypothetical to Rand Paul: if a 30-year old man who has chosen not to buy insurance gets in an accident and will die without medical treatment. “Should we let him die?” Blitzer asks.

Paul starts to say no, but before he can, several people in the audience enthusiastically shout “Yes.”



I don’t recall whether there was a national outcry about the Tea Partiers in the audience being “utterly inhumane and cruel.” Their basic premise is the same as that of the Cocoa teenagers – “You shoulda never got in there” and therefore we have no obligation to save you. And both groups of males obviously enjoy the idea of letting the man die. But the older White men of the Tea Party seem to have something the boys lack – moral self-righteousness.

It was the same moral self-righteousness that inspired Republicans just a few days earlier when Brian Williams was asking Rick Perry, governor of Texas, about the 234 executions he had signed off on. When Williams mentioned that number, the crowd interrupted the question with cheers and applause. (A blog post with a video clip is here.)

So far, no Tea Party or Freedom Caucus spokesperson has issued an official statement about the Florida teenagers. It’s a tough call, I guess.

Giant Steps - by Jerome Kern

July 17, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Coltrane died fifty years ago today. (The rest of this post is a bit technical. My apologies.)

The “Giant Steps” album of 1959 was a turning point in jazz. The title tune represented a new idea in chord sequences.  “What are those chords, man?” everyone seemed to be asking.  “B D G Bb Eb - how do you play through that?” Even the great Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the “Giant Steps” date, seems to be struggling with the changes.

As Wikipedia says, “The ‘Giant Steps’ cycle is the culmination of Coltrane's theories applied to a completely new chord progression.”

Instead of the usual progression (C, Am7, Dm7, G7) and its small variations, “Giant Steps” is based on the augmented triad B, G, Eb, with passing chords in between. Wikipedia charts the usual ii-V-I sequence against the Coltrane version.

That progression soon became part of the jazz vocabulary.

Of course, nothing is totally new. One night as I was sitting at the bar at Bradley’s, the guy I was talking to said, “You know, the ‘Giant Steps’ are in the verse to ‘Till the Clouds Roll By.’” That song was written by Jerome Kern (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) in 1917 – the earliest days of the golden age of the American popular song.  I was skeptical. Coltrane’s revolutionary changes. Eventually I found the sheet music, and there they were.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Here’s the classic recording, with Coltrane’s solo transcribed and animated.