All posts by Greg Laden

Beak of the Finch: cheep, er, cheap.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Reiner is right now cheap in Kindle form.

It is a very good account of the incredibly important work on evolution done by the Peter and Rosemary Grant on Daphne Major island in the Galapagos. This is the study that demonstrated real time evolution of birds among the group initially studied by Charles Darwin. Those observations by Darwin helped shape is conception of natural selection, and the more recent work by the Grants is a modern day demonstration that Darwin was right.

Imma let you get that training in the trades, but also … get your liberal arts degree!

This is the new mantra: “Not every kid has to get a college degree. It is a great idea to get training in the trades.” This is wrong. Everyone should get college level liberal arts education, and for most, in the form of a degree. And of course, the trades, variously defined, is a very good place to be. Our society should make the choice to do both the common expectation, and affordable.

To be clear, that “liberal arts degree” might be an AA, a BA, or a BS, depending on your particular situation. And you shouldn’t have to pay for it, or at least, not much. Or it might be something equivalent to a degree, and it might be obtained in any of number of different ways. But for the most part, when educators speak of the “liberal arts” we mean the classes one takes for an associates degree or to meet the distribution requirements for a bachelor’s degree. For some students, a good chunk of this can happen in high school.

This idea that a college education is only for some is a pernicious falsehood. The premises of the statement are largely incorrect, and it is the same kind of civilization ending policy that gave us Trump and McConnell. Maybe not everyone needs a college degree, but in fact, that is the status quo already. About 39% of Americans ever get a four year degree or higher. About 66% get some college. So, the number of Americans (and we are typical of industrialized countries) who get at least a portion of a liberal arts program may be about half, depending on how one counts. So, why are we speaking of “you don’t really need a college degree” like this is a new strategy that is going to save us from something? The truth is, the fact that so many Americans are not more liberal-arts educated than they are is a problem we need to address and fix, not one that we need to exasperate with platitudes.

Anyone can benefit from liberal arts learning. At a societal level, this is how a generation makes that transition from adolescence to thoughtful adults prepared to contribute in this complex world. The mantra in question tells us to separate our youth into two categories. One includes those what will be richly endowed with knowledge and ability sufficient to contribute to our various national conversations, to understand the law, history, civics, science, literature, language, arts, enough to have a meaningfully enhanced appreciation of the world around them. The others might achieve this state of contribution, or not, and if so, achieve it without the same resources and help everyone else gets, because we told them no, this is not for you.

Indeed, people may be excused in this educationally bifurcated future for assuming those in the trades have a lesser grasp of these important things, maybe even a lesser right to contribute to the conversation, a diminished right to be heard and, why not, no real claim to the voting franchise.

(Have you ever had the sense that a person “in the trades” who also has a high level of post secondary education has done something subversive? Well, that feeling is real because the subversion is often real.)

There is a window of time, of two to four years, when a person is both ready and available to engage in this liberal arts project. There is variation in when a student is mature in learning and can thus engage in this kind of education. Ask any experienced high school or intro college teacher. Variation among high school juniors, for example, in how well they do in a particular advanced subject is not explained by their native intelligence, but rather, by their stage of maturity with respect to learning. The high school junior who just does not grasp AP biology might be a biology wiz as a college frosh, and from there, be your next Nobel Prize in Biology recipient. (Oh, and there really needs to be a Nobel prize in biology, by the way.)

That defines the opening of that window: ready to learn in all the ways one normally would be. The closing of the window (and this is of course an oversimplification) comes later, when the individual is beyond the introductory level in their education, working on a major, or graduate work. Or maybe they are starting up a business and are fully occupied with that, unable to be taking two night courses. Or family matters, or some other thing. Very few people are set up to take two or three courses at a time for a couple of years at any arbitrary point in their lives. This tends to happen only during that window, in that age range.

(As an aside: I did not go to college. I got a college degree on my merits, graduated in the top of my class of 10,000 at the University of the State of New York Regents College, then went on to get my MA and PhD. So I’m very highly educated, but not traditionally so. At a later time, I was a principle in a program at the University of Minnesota to support adults who were decidedly past that window of maturity and opportunity, to get their as yet unfinished degree. I served variously on the board of advisers, as a faculty advisor, a student general advisor, and director of admissions. In that capacity I was among a handful of people across the country actively supporting and working in favor of non traditional education. I say this here and now so that you, dear reader, understand that I appreciate non traditional approaches as much as anyone, fully embrace them, and I demand that non traditional approaches be part of any education system.)

For most, this window typically opens any time during the first year of Highs School (rare) and it can run as late as the last year of college (rare). For most people, this two or three year period happens somewhere between the start of the third year in high school and the end of the second year in college, and that is also when the “lower division,” or “liberal arts” courses, in both advanced high school (AP, etc.) and intro college, are most available to everyone.

Go into a trade, fine. Tell your kid into going into a trade, fine. Make sure to tell everyone in ear shot that this is what everyone should do after your careful study of education and society’s professional and avocational needs. Fine! The trades are where many, maybe most, people should be, and this should be a good way to go. And there should be more unionization, and more respect for the people that actually make civilization work.

But going into the trades should not sentence someone to a significantly reduced general education. At present, we don’t sacrifice high school for the trades, though there is a move to do that. What I’m suggesting here is that we embrace the basic liberal arts as part of our paid for and well attended to expectation for most people, regardless of the direction they have chosen, including trades, professional training, a military career, business, or any other thing.

But training in a trade with no liberal arts education produces a high proportion of adults who are not really ready to help us as much as they could in this whole civilization thing, and who effectively then become a burden on our system of government and politics. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that the ability of the people to self govern is closely linked to education. It is generally understood that public opinion is often simply wrong on the facts or easily manipulated by nefarious actors, and it is also understood that these effects are a product of differential education as much as anything else. (There are multiple factors, of course.) An education system that sorts out our children is a burden caused by policy intentionally and intentionally promoted, promulgated to produce a large angry, aka “populist,” middle and working class voting base that for the most part comply with the wishes of those who push for this policy.

Part of this is, of course, keeping college expensive, and using tax based funding to support private colleges that are generally out of reach of regular people. The 1%ers, the 10%ers, and the wanabee-%ers, strategize to make good education (at all levels K through PhD) deferentially available for the rich, mainly through private offerings, and to keep public education inadequate and use as little public money for it as possible.

The “go into a trade, it is the thing to do now” trope is simply more of this, and it is exactly what the Koch Brothers want you to say, think, and embrace.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to get that basic liberal arts education.

A few years ago I was tasked by the University of Minnesota to visit a giant military base where we expected thousands of troops standing down from the front lines in the Middle East to return for redeployment or homecoming. My job was to make contact with soon-to-be veterans or reservists who needed to fill out their education to obtain a BA/BS, certificate, or maybe a Masters.

It turns out that the large number of military personnel expected went to a different base, and only special forces soldiers arrived at my location.

Several had MAs. More commonly, though, they had PhDs or were working on their PhD. Most of the MA-only holders planned some sort of further graduate education, including law. Not a single one had only a bachelors degree or less. Not one.

Guess what folks. The most intense trade of them all may well be that of professional soldier. The top echelon of professional soldiers go way beyond a handful of liberal arts classes. This is not an accident, it is by design. It is also paid for.

Just like Medicare, this is a micro example of a way of doing things that is very very good but that we do not do. But we should.

Go into the trades. Meanwhile, society owes you a BA (or AA or similar). Good for you, good for all of us.

The Story of the Democratic Candidates: Final Chapter

Final chapter for now…

I made a very special graphic, have a look:

Following in part on the procedure discussed here, this analysis combines data from several time-overlapping polls to produce a neater and cleaner depiction of each of the top four candidates march towards the presidency … or not.

It turns out that polls come in clusters. There will be several days in a row with a bunch of polls coming out, and then there will be a few days with no polls at all. There are reasons for this I won’t go into now. And, these polls, in the clusters, tend to overlap in time. For this reason, it is easy to take a bunch of polls in such a cluster and average out the results to give a better than average snapshot of a candidate’s status for a given period of time, usually about a week. Then, these withing cluster estimates are somewhat independent from the other clusters because there is no overlap in time, for the most part. The power of each estimate is very high, the trends depicted across the estimates are very likely.

That’s what the graphic above shows for Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Harris. Trends I noted in the previous several blog posts are apparent, but more cleanly depicted.

Here is what this graphic, based on 38 national polls, shows:

1) Biden has had a steady decline, and the rate of that decline may have increased after the first and so far only debate, but he is still number one.

2) Sanders has had consistent, immutable, results the whole time, never changing. It is like there is a certain number of people who support him, and they are not budging, nor are they gaining allies.

3) Warren started to rise in the polls well before the debates. This seems to have corresponded with intensification of her campaign, and her issue oriented displays of knowing things and having plans. Most experienced candidates and campaigners will tell you that is a bad approach. For Elizabeth Warren, it may have moved her into second place.

4) Harris was steady in her just barely 10% status — remarkably flat in fact — until the debate, when she suddenly rose almost meteorically, but not beyond the first cluster.

Is Warren’s rise more stable and issues and candidate based, therefore long lived, while Harris’s rise is a temporary bump from going after Biden in the debates? Is Biden’s downward trend going to continue at its newly accelerated rate or will it flatten out a bit, as hinted in these numbers?

To find out the answers to these and other questions, stay tuned!

But seriously, the next cluster of polls will be available in less than a week from now, most likely. The current pattern requires that the average for Biden be 35% or lower. Warren needs to be a strong second with over 25%. Sanders, while looking very flat, is actually down at his lowest rate in this sequence at present. Sanders should drop below 20%. Harris is likely to stabilize at around 20 or drop back to below 20. Or, she will rise to the mid 20s at the expense of Biden, mostly.

In evaluating these projections, remember how they are calculate. The poll numbers you see will all be lower than those mentioned here because of this. I don’t have full confidence in these projections, but when I say it all out loud, it seems right.

The Story of Warren and Harris as told by the ever-loving polls

The Warren and Harris stories are similar to each other, when viewed using the data described here. Both are trending upwards from a respectable just under two digit position, menacing those in second place.

I put the polynomials (third order) on there to investigate consistency in this trend over time. They show that Warren’s upward trend is steady, and Harris’s is more stepwise. It is hard to know if this means one is stronger, or rising faster, or more likely to take a top position, than the other. Not shown here, but looking at only the last month or so, both trend up, and Harris overtakes or equals Warren 20 days out. But, the variance in the data for that shorter time period is high, so I wouldn’t put much in it.

Bottom line: Harris and Warren are moving into position to be contenders in the race for the Democratic Party nomination, currently moving past, or about to move past, second place Sanders, while at the same time Biden is sinking into the same range. For a brief moment, this may be a four way horse race, by the end of July or early August.

The Story of Booker, Yang, Klobuchar, and Castro, as told by the unforgiving polls

This could all be because of name recognition, it could all be because of insiders at the DNC deciding in advance who the candidates are going to be, or some such thing. But the variation among these four candidates does not correlate to their own levels of name recognition, and at least one of these candidates is very powerful in the DNC, so I’m thinking none of that is key. These are good people. They are impressive, and they impressed in the debates. These four candidates could provide the nominee, any one of them could rise up out of the very low numbers and become a key contender,the nominee, even the president. But for now, there is really only one thing to say about the polling numbers, using the same data set as described here, for Booker, Yang, Klobuchar, and Castro: Rounding errors.

That strange pattern you see there that looks like layers in a cross section of a pristine tropical rainforest, that’s rounding errors. All the internal structure of these data is from rounding errors. Even the ranking could be so affected by rounding that I don’t think we can say much about these candidates except to wish them well.

The Story of Beto and Pete, as told by the polls

Now that we have dispensed with Bernie Sanders’ and Joe Biden’s stories, let’s have a look at two very different cases, those of Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg.

See this post for a description of how the numbers are calculated for the following graphic:

Instead of using a straight line regression I used a third order polynomial to track the polling over time for these two non-linear candidates. Each shows a rise and fall, with the fall ongoing. Don’t pay much attention to the 20 day projection. Maybe one or both of these candidates is oscillating rather than descending. Only time will tell.

There seem to be two main conclusions that can be drawn from these graphs.

1) Buttigieg is more or less on the board with a consistent high one digit showing, but he did not surge after the debates, and he is not really surging anywhere. In contract, O’Rourke has been essentially a non factor. People blame much of the pattern of polling on name recognition. This is true to some extent, but this effect is a) overplayed and b) important in choosing a candidate, not something to be discounted. Given the possible role of name recognition note that an unknown small time mayor is beating the pants off (in this low digit world) the guy who was VERY famous running against Texas Ted Cruz. In the end, O’Rourke does not appeal, Buttigieg has some potential.

2) Neither of these candidates really seems to be going anywhere.

In case you think me unfair or a statistical scoundrel of some kind for using a third order polynomial (and you should think that) for making the trend lines, there’s more.

The following graphic has the third order polynomial extended to fifth order. To illustrate the absurdity of it all, not this: There are some 38 data points here. A 38th order polynomial line would run through all of them. Anyway, using the high order polynomial, both candidates are doing great! But that is just for fun.

More important is the straight line regression line that shows both candidates as flat lining or slightly declining across this entire period, down below 10%. I suspect both of these candidates will be out of the race by the end of this November.

The Story of Bernie and Joe, as told by the polls

Here is a graph showing polling for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. See below for some important details.

The numbers used for this graph come from 38 national polls asking for voter preference about a varying number of candidates. There is a large variation across the polls in how many answered something other than a particular candidate (like “none”). These two factors cause useless and distracting variation in the actual percentage value given to a candidate for a given poll. You can imagine that if a certain candidate gets 23% of the “votes” in a given poll, that number could change a lot if non-answers were excluded, or the total number of candidates was different. An imperfect but still improved way to calculate the percent value for a given candidate is, then, to only look at a subset of the candidates across all the polls, and recalculate the percentage of polling for each candidate using only those numbers. That is what this graph shows, for these candidates only:

Biden
Booker
Buttigieg
Castro
Harris
Klobuchar
O’Rourke
Sanders
Warren
Yang

Why that particular list? Well, I noticed that if you look across all the polls, one minor candidate (minor in terms of percent in the collection of polls) seemed to vary from the middle of the middle tier to the bottom of the middle tier, but was never in the lowest lowest tier, and also, was polled from early on: Klobuchar. So, I took the RCP average at about the time of the debates, and applied the Klobuchar Factor. If you were below Klobuchar, you were out of consideration. Since then, the candidates have moved around a bit, and a present day Klobuchar Factor would produce a different list. But I don’t really care, because I just needed to have a cutoff somewhere.

The regression analysis suggests that about 56% of the variance seen in each canidates’ polls is explained by time (i.e., there is a pretty robust trend where time matters). I’ve extended the regression line out 20 days into the future, which would be the end of July.

So, getting back to the story of these two candidates. I want to consider each candidate separately. The reason they are both in the same graph, and blog post, is because they are the two candidates with the highest number across the entire data set, so the graph makes sense for their scale, and the process is cleaner of we separate out candidates by scale.

The story of Joe Biden is this: He started off high, around 50%, and ended up much weaker, closer to 30% with some of the most recent polls showing 25%. He halved, almost. Or at least, looking at the extended projection, he is in the process of measuring out his polling half-life, as it were. He was probably artificially high partly due to name recognition, and lost ground as other candidates gained. He also started out in a different sort of artificial high, as a well known and widely loved guy where policy had not been vetted, and has lost among Democrats in that way as well. But this is Biden, and this is how he has performed in his earlier presidential campaigns. Biden watchers are not surprised. Biden watchers will not be surprised if he isn’t really a factor in this campaign by the end of the year.

The story of Bernie Sanders is interesting. His numbers show the second lowest amount of variance, scaled by magnitude, of all the candidates. He started of around 20%. He is still around 20%. Bernie is not moving up, Bernie is not moving down. Well, maybe a tiny bit down. What he seems to be doing, really, is slowing down just a bit as Elizabeth Warren is passing him, much like a car going 45mph slows down a bit when a faster car is passing them on the highway. Though that is of course a bad analogy because the intentionality of events is very different.

In short, Biden is gliding to a campaign ending landing, while Sanders is flat-lining. The latter observation is, I think, the most significant. It tells us something, maybe, about Sanders campaign. His base is unmoving. This is expected, I think. I just hope that should Sanders not get the nomination nod, that base sees fit to support the nominee in 2020, all of them, different than what happened in 2016.

A treasure trove of cheap books

For some reason there is suddenly a larger than usual number of excellent highly encheapened kindle version books that I know many of my readers will be interested in. Chances are you already have them, but just in case. Some of these prices may only last a while, but all should be 2.99 or less.

The Joy Luck Club: A Novel

Extraterrestrial Civilizations

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

A Severed Wasp: A Novel by Engle.

Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography