The Day the World Ends – Maybe

Thursday, September 22, 2135. Put it in your calendar. The scope of the actual event is a bit uncertain at this time but we will shortly know more when our space mission to asteroid Bennu sends back data. What we do know is that Bennu is on its way. The current chance of a collision with Earth, while far from certain, is big enough to be really scary. This is especially true because its orbit is not exactly known at present.

Bennu isn’t large enough to do the dinosaur thing on us, but it could wreak large-scale destruction. Surprising perhaps, this is particularly true if it struck somewhere in an ocean, as the odds favor by about two to one. Bennu is several times the size of the object that struck near the Stony Tunguska River in Russia on June 30, 1908. That event had the estimated energy of a 10-30 megaton nuclear blast and was the largest impact event in recorded human history.

NASA is taking this very seriously. Right now their Planetary Defense Coordination Committee – yes, there is such an organization – is developing the beautifully named HAMMER program. This stands for Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response, at least that’s their story anyway. If it becomes necessary, this will be our attempted defense. Basically it would fly up there and smack Bennu on the noggin, hopefully with a force sufficient to divert this monster. If it were up to me, I would respectfully call this the Bruce Willis Mission.

When the time draw near, defense or not, we should expect the crazies to be out in their multitudes, standing on hilltops flapping sheets or exhorting everyone to make their peace with God. I wish I could be there to watch the fun.


Comey’s Firing: The Real Story

The media are in a frenzy over President Trump’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey. The original reason provided to the press was that new Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose job includes supervision of the FBI, had decided that Comey had lost his way and no longer could properly fulfill his job. Specifically, Comey’s several public announcements concerning Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign and his disobeying then Attorney General Lynch were cited as prime causes. This didn’t pass the laugh test for so many reasons that the very next day the White House simply announced that Trump had fired Comey because “he wasn’t doing a good job.

A more plausible story now making the rounds is that Trump wanted Comey gone because his loyalty was in question and because the FBI’s Russia probe was intensifying rather than winding up as the White House desired. The whole issue of Russian interference with our election has long been a sore point with Trump because it places a question mark around Trump’s entire presidency.

But in my opinion all of this misses a fairly obvious point. Comey was summarily fired shortly after his recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. During this hearing, Comey commented, “It makes me mildly nauseous to think I may have affected the election.” This astonishing remark by a careful bureaucrat has been widely interpreted as a process criticism. In other words, so it is believed, Comey was distraught that his public announcements may have skewed the election process in some way, even though he believed that he had no choice in the matter.

However, think how this statement surely must have impacted our notoriously thin-skinned President. Another quite plausible interpretation, and one that I believe is dispositive in the firing, is that Comey was making a criticism of the election result itself, that this was what was making him “mildly nauseous”. If I am right, Trump would have turned white-hot in anger. An employee, for that is how Trump views executive branch members, was not merely showing disloyalty but also contempt. Moreover, he is a key employee directly involved in the investigation that bedevils Trump at every turn.

That is why Comey was fired and also why it was done without notice either to Comey or to any key White House aides. Characteristically, Trump didn’t consult anyone in lashing out at Comey and thus his staff was left foundering when they attempted to deal with the quite predictable backlash.

Ig Nobel Prize for Inane Questions

I keep hearing a specific type of question in congressional hearings, television interviews, town hall meetings and news conferences. It grates on me like fingernails scratching a blackboard. Typically the question begins, “Can you guarantee that not a single … ?” This is so stupid that there should be a free pass to smack the questioner sharply on the head with a large stick.

Essentially nothing in human affairs is 100% certain, even with the best of intentions. No one should be asked any question that precludes an Act of God or even any unpredictable circumstances. It is certainly fair to inquire what specific actions someone is taking to avoid negative outcomes, or at least those that are at all likely. And the answer can be reasonably challenged on the basis of verified facts or even plausible predictions based on experience. But going beyond that is unfair, wrong and – worst of all – it annoys the hell out of me!

Of course the standard reply could be, “No. I cannot make a 100% guarantee.” But you know as well as I that this will be misinterpreted as callous disregard or even evil intent. In fact, that is often the entire purpose of such questions in the first place.

Take any bill offered before Congress. Can anyone be absolutely sure that it will work exactly as intended when implemented by fallible human beings? Can anyone be confident that it will not cause harm to even a single individual – ever, under any circumstances, and even if the individual is complicit in the damage? These are unreasonable standards and a recipe for inaction, which itself can be very harmful. Moreover every Congressional action or Presidential initiative involves a balancing of competing priorities. A sensible standard for ethical action was proscribed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham two centuries ago: the greatest good for the greatest number. But we must always be mindful that there are limits to what burden anyone can be asked to accept for the general welfare.

I have heard such questions aggressively tossed at the Director of the CDC on the topic of inoculations, at congressmen relating to some bill they support or oppose, and recently at an airline executive discussing overbooking and the FBI Director with respect to telephone eavesdropping. The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, regularly gets such questions from a press corps that surely must know better. I am grudgingly beginning to sympathize a bit with his lot in life.

“Yes Virginia, There are Alternative Facts!”

20170122_todd1Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway was universally condemned for using the term “alternative facts” while defending President Trump’s claims of attendance at his inauguration. Everyone scoffed. Surely there are just facts, falsehoods and unknowns. Indeed when this occurred in an interview by NBC’s Chuck Todd, his face became red and he expostulated, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods!

It’s too bad but he is wrong, as are all those who are ridiculing poor Kellyanne.

What is a fact? It is something believed to be true. But that belief can be based on a proof from fundamental principles or it can derive from competent data analysis. Generally speaking, mathematical facts are of the first type, while economic facts are of the second. The certainty of our belief is usually higher for the first type. Interestingly, religious facts are of that type, but they are distinguished by applying non-scientific fundamental principles.

To demean or even reject the second type of facts is a crippling intellectual mistake for human endeavor. Perhaps they could be labeled theories, conjectures or hypotheses, but that would reduce their force and utility both in science and in the public discourse. One would need constantly to apply confidence levels that would be confusing to all but experts, and the resulting convoluted terminology would impede the general understanding.

The second type of facts are conditional, because new data or refined analysis may alter conclusions. Moreover, at any given time there are often reasonable alternative analyses of the available data, leading to – you guessed it – alternative facts! Does this mean that these facts are nonsense? I don’t think so, and neither should you.

The preceding may seem too abstract, so let’s take an example or two. Consider the U.S. unemployment rate. An official announcement by the Labor Department put it recently at about 4.8%. But closer examination reveals that it was computed by ignoring people who have simply given up looking for work, while it includes many who work part-time because they can’t find full employment. It is entirely reasonable to reverse both of those decisions and arrive at a much higher unemployment rate, well north of 10%. These are alternative facts. Neither is a falsehood. They simply represent different analyses of the same basic data.

Even the representation by Kellyanne Conway deserves some reconsideration. Let us suppose that she was including people watching the inauguration on TV. Surely this isn’t an absurd analysis. In this age of technology, actually being present at events is hardly the usual circumstance. Is the audience of the Golden Globes merely those who had tickets to the event? I have read estimates of the watching audience that would actually support Trump’s claim that his inauguration was seen live by more people than any previous one. This would be a justifiable alternative fact. Of course, we don’t know that this was what she meant and it would have been smart of her to say so if it was.

Does this mean that all alternative facts are equally persuasive and deserve equal weight? Of course it doesn’t. One must examine the quality of the data that are used and the applicability and certainty of the analysis. This requires expert review and isn’t something casually performed. In the end, this devolves into a dependence upon expert opinion. That brings into question the quality of this opinion, which is largely a peer-reviewed process. Finding some expert or even small group of experts who believe an alternative analysis is insufficient. Strong consensus is the gold standard.

In Honor of Hilaria

It is time for my annual celebration of this day for harmless pranks and jokes. Some might say that it seems like every day is All Fool’s Day if you are watching our Presidential contest. But harmless? I doubt it. Still, perhaps this might lighten your mood.

I am sure that many of you have seen photos or videos on the web of unusual animal companions. The compulsion to give and receive comfort is universal and we should not be surprised that it isn’t restricted to humans. But when the association is between predator and prey or between vastly different animals, it is still amazing. Look at this odd pairing. And no, Simba isn’t just taking a preliminary taste. They really are longtime buddies.


Next, you may have to look closely to notice the stranger in the midst of this colony of meerkats. Make no mistake, these adorable little mammals of the Kalahari have a mean streak and are very territorial.


Well, I have one more to offer, almost as unusual even though both are arguably of the same species. Do you think Laura and Bill have reason to be concerned?


The Cost of Higher Education

Stei111202Higher education is fast becoming essential for a comfortable future life, and it is even faster becoming unaffordable except for the rich. Horror tales abound of students graduating with crushing debts. Just today there was a story of a student approaching graduation with a good degree in a STEM field but with $190,000 in debt. When asked about her feeling about the future, she answered succinctly, “I am scared.

However there is a problem with this picture. In fact, overwhelming debt is not the price of a good education. It is the cost of poor choices. This might be excusable if the information needed to avoid this problem were hard to find, but it is not. Can you use a computer to search the Internet? If not, you aren’t prepared for college anyway. But if so, you can easily find excellent colleges that are relatively affordable, at least in the sense of minimizing your debt load.

There are good schools, with representatives in virtually every state, where a high quality education can be obtained for less than $11,000 per year, and many for much less than that. I picked this limit for discussion because it results in a workable debt load while truly opening the field for a quality education in any field of interest. This is the “net cost of attendance“, which is a far better measure than the published tuition and fee costs.

Total cost of attendance” is the yearly sum of tuition and required fees, books and supplies, room and board, and incidental expenses. The net cost subtracts from that the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid. Even accounting for inflation, this may result at worst in a large but manageable debt, especially if the college major is chosen with a judicial eye on earning potential. And this doesn’t even account for any contributions that a student can make from work or savings.

This claim is not an idle boast. Here are just a few examples. The University of Massachusetts – Boston, actually in Amherst, has a national recognition and vast resources. Its net cost is $10,575. University of North Carolina – Charlotte has a similar academic reputation to the better known campus at Chapel Hill and is the state’s principal research university. Its net cost is $10,442. Stanford University is one of the nation’s elite universities and it deserves this reputation. Its net cost is $10,109. San Diego State University is well-regarded and is considered by Forbes to be among our most entrepreneurial universities. Its net cost is $9,856. Indiana University – Kokomo is smaller than its Bloomington counterpart but offers a similarly top-class education, with a student-to-faculty ratio of just 18:1. Its net cost is $9,834. As I’ve said, this just scratches the surface.

Advanced degrees, often almost essential in certain fields, entail more than the standard 4-year course of study and hence add to the debt burden. However it is usually possible to obtain graduate fellowships or other university-sponsored work that will minimize this cost. Moreover, there is the possibility of using the baccalaureate degree as entrance to your field in a company that helps sponsor graduate education for its employees.

If you are a good student with the grades and resume that can gain you entrance into our elite universities, the picture is even rosier. Both of the two top 10 universities that I attended make a firm offer that no qualified applicant will be unable to attend for purely financial reasons. They will make up the shortfall no matter how large, with the understanding that the student and her parents will contribute what they reasonably can.

The bottom line is that, as is often the case, financial difficulties are often self-imposed. But there is a hidden but important issue. Don’t just assume that this major investment of money and time will necessarily lead you to a life of plenty and the ability to support a family. A major in Elizabethan literature is its own reward but not likely in financial terms. Even some STEM majors are now at risk to technology advance, as I have discussed before. Make smart decisions.

Wealth Inequality: Causes and Remedies

Economists at the Federal Reserve are constantly investigating diverse aspects of our economy. One of their recent results reveals interesting aspects of the impact of education on wealth disparity. Much is currently being made of the increasing inequality in wealth between the top and bottom segments of our population. In fact this is the defining issue on the Democratic side of our presidential contest. But remedies, assuming they are appropriate, need to be based on facts rather than ideology or surmise. Look at this comparison of how education affects the accumulation of wealth by different segments of our population. But keep in mind that for Asians and Hispanics, these data don’t discriminate between recent immigrants and those whose family heritage is now mostly native American.


The broad picture is unsurprising, but if you look below the surface it tells us quite a lot. The quality and availability of education varies significantly between the affluent and the poor. Whites and Asians preponderate in the former, while Hispanics and Blacks constitute most of the latter. But even when higher education is achieved, the poor don’t appear to benefit as much as the affluent. Education helps but it isn’t a cure-all. In fact, for Blacks in particular, it has at best marginal impacts. On average, Blacks with a college degree have lesser prospects than Whites with only a high school education. While not ignoring this useful aspect of life, we must look elsewhere to achieve major changes.

Notice the small dispersion of the results for Whites, as represented by the narrow confidence bands. For them, the level of education is almost a perfect indicator of their prospects for prosperity. This explains why intellectual leaders, almost wholly White, grasp for this method of equalizing wealth for everyone. The results for Asians vary widely at any level of educational attainment. I think this derives from the diversity of our Asian-American population. Quite likely, those of Chinese and Japanese ancestry fare better than some from other East Asian regions because of differences in family resources. The odd reduction in prospects for those who only attain an Associate degree is a bit of a puzzle, although I could hypothesize an explanation based on resource limitations preventing further education and variations in innate individual capabilities.

Once the kick-start of education is passed, differences in life and work experience continue to affect wealth prospects. Getting off to a good start is important, but as with education apparently other factors are crucial. Look at this examination of the effects of age and experience on attaining the same marker for prosperity.

IMG_0425Once again, Whites and Asians are better situated to exploit their initial advantages. For many Asian-Americans this effect is even more significant. But for Hispanics and Blacks, their prospects not only don’t increase but appear to erode as they grow older. Those advantages some initially derived from higher education disappear as opportunities are blocked and/or hopes wane. Of course, another factor is that improvements in the prospects for the poor in recent decades haven’t helped our current older population. Thus, perhaps this disappointing trend will diminish in the future.