10 Tips to being a better advocate

1. Do it. That’s the first thing. Just like voting, you have a voice and you should use it. Nothing I say here should act as discouragement in any way. You want to write the president? Write the president! You want to contact Speaker Ryan? Contact Speaker Ryan. No one can listen to what you don’t say, no one can read what you don’t write.
That being said, the following 9 tips are to help you make the most of your limited time.
2. National policy is important. You should follow it and encourage the representatives of your districts to vote your way. But local elections are won and lost by very small margins and one voice makes a much larger difference at that level. Follow municipal policy and try to influence local decisions. If a city ordinance cannot be passed (because of county or state sovereignty issues or for political reasons) then move up the scope of your campaign.
3. If national is the way to go, remember your state senators and representatives maintain local offices. Some people will tell you to contact these offices instead. I say contact them in addition to. More precisely, the local office is your default contact. CC the national office.
4. Know who your representatives are. That’s a no-brainer, so let me take this advice up a notch. Know which committees your rep serves on. Are any of these committees important to the cause you’re advocating for?
5. Connected to the above: know which committees are the gatekeepers for the policies you care about. Who chairs them? Who is the lead opposition? You should be contacting them as well. It is a double-win if your local rep is either of these two people. You should be writing them all the time.
6. You can write leading national figures if you would like, but if Speaker Ryan is not your elected official, you’re probably wasting your time writing him. Ryan isn’t going after your vote, so he doesn’t really need to care about your opinion. At the national level, Speaker Ryan does need to gauge the feelings of his fellow Republicans. So change their minds.
7. Following the above, when you write your reps, let them know you’re a voter and that you’re active in your community. Then share with them the story of why you care about this issue; bonus point if you are personally and directly affected by the issue at hand. They have thousands of people shouting statistics and ideology at them all the time. Personal stories matter. This is true…and maybe even more true if your rep agrees with your position. They are always looking for local, personal stories to hold up to justify positions they already hold for mathematical or ideological reasons. Be their pathos.
8. Don’t forget the CC field. It’s sort of a lost art, but if you’re writing an actual letter and not an email, then remember to add a cc: after your sig (like in olden days!) and include other pro- and/or con- groups that are involved in the fight. Not like a snotty “And I’m going to the press. Nyah!” sort of thing. But rather in a “I’m an informed person on this issue and I’m not alone.” Obviously do this is you are writing an email. (But don’t overdo it. If you have a personal contact at these organizations, then it’s good to name drop. Don’t litter your CC field with a bunch of “info@…” emails. You’ll just look like a crazy person.)
9. Following on the above, join organizations that are fighting your fight and don’t forget to join any professional groups that pertain to you. Those groups hire lobbyists, they organize Hill Days, they follow legislation and will update you on a bill’s progress. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll be part of an organized effort. Your voice matters, but so does your $$$. Besides, getting personally in front of a rep is often more impactful than a series of letters. (Although letters are awesome, keep writing).
10. Finally, get in front of your rep, following on the above. If they are holding town halls, get out to them. Join the local party that most closely aligns with your views and attend their fundraisers. BE A PRECINCT COMMITTEEPERSON. Seriously. It may be crass or sad or whatever, but politicians pay attention to people more when they are both more active and more effective at their advocacy. That’s part of their job.
Criticism, corrections, or additions welcome in the comments.

Republicans and Democrats are Different

One of the recurring sentiments in the discussion of US politics is the notion of the “Republicrat,” this idea that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. I’ve hated this idea for a very, very long time. We can score this thing and every time we do, we find pretty stark differences between Republican and Democrat public statements and Republican and Democrat votes.

Trump proposes a new challenge. He is not a Republican. He’s a conservative nationalist. For the most part, those with conservative nationalist tendencies have been in the Republican party, have voted Republican, run as Republicans etc. But they are not particularly well-aligned with the party’s leadership. So it remains an open question where Trump’s coalition will be found.

538 tackles this question with some quick back of the envelope scoring. Good article. Simple methodology. It’s got issues. One major problem is that one thing is pretty clear, even from this read and that’s that it matters which issue is under discussion to really determine the for- and against coalitions. Silver is aware of this issue. He makes it clear he’s looking for aggregate affinities. This just gives us a general picture of the possible coalition-building space.

I want to focus on the partisan divide. Even with this index score, it becomes clear that most Republican senators are closer to Trump than almost all of the Democrats. There is a space where 5 Republicans and 6 Democrats share a space near the middle. The remaining 89% of Senators fall on different sides of the spectrum. And Trump’s coalition is squarely among Republicans.


In traditional measure of partisanship using votes, Collins (ME) and McCain (AZ) regularly fall to the left of the median Republican. And I don’t think McCaskill (MO), Warner (VA), and Donnelly (IN) will surprise anyone as being to the right of the median Democrat. The others? Maybe?

I’ve already assumed that McCain will be a loud voice against Trump and this confirms that his discontent with the president elect exists in more areas than just torture and Russia. I also thought Paul since he’s already been pretty outspoken on some of Trump’s picks (Bolton). So it seems clear to me that those two represent the definite end of his coalition space and it could extend deeper into the Republican party.

So There is a question of which Democrats might jump ship to join him. If Paul-McCain is the actual boundary (4.8), that only leaves Campbell as a potential frequent cross-party-lines Trump voter. (538 thinks Campbell will lose to his run-off challenger Kennedy anyway–both Kennedy and Campbell were scored by 538). Depending on the issue, Warner, Donnelly and Manchin are possible, but unlikely supporters that will need extra convincing–especially Donnelly since he won’t be doing himself any favors in Indiana voting with in-state rival ex-governor and now VP-elect Mike Pence. Collins is running pretty deep into blue team territory (the northeast is weird).

Hashtag slatepitch: In the Star Wars Universe Good is Good and Evil is Bad

Another confused political reading of the Star Wars universe, this time trying to prove that the Star Wars universe is a “neoconservative” one. The author has three main points of comparison:

  1. A believe in stark contrasts between Good and Evil
  2. Only force can be used to defeat Evil (compromise is disaster)
  3. Mixed feelings about democracy

The author is an expert on neoconservatism, so I tread here cautiously. The question I would have is, provided these are three characteristics of neoconservatism, are they the three most critical? That is, are there *other* -isms to which any or all of these three apply?

Take # 1 and #2 for example.Naive binary thinking (is an essential starting point of all analytical thinking–only after recognizing there are at least two groups can we begin to think there might be more than two. Only in recognizing there are two groups can we begin both contrast –and comparison.) The idea of Ego vs Alter is a flawed but standard way of discussing hypothetical first civilizations). So the idea that there is a stark contrast between good and evil predates neoconservatism. The idea that only force can defeat Evil (and that force is the only true source of morality at all) goes back at least as far as Plato (an certainly predates him). The “neo-” part of neoconservative is anachronistic at best. Philosophies or ideologies that share these characteristics are not all neoconservatism. In fact, philosophies/ideologies that do not share some form of this view are the minority.

On #3 in all cases where total war is present, democracy can be said to be treated ambivalently. This is true even during such times when the democraticness of warring states is unquestioned. Militaries are not democratic. The process of war is not democratic. When countries are fighting wars they are, by definition, not practicing democracy. They have, by definition, set democracy aside for the moment –in their dealings with the enemy. However, it sounds like the Republic (previously the Rebellion and prior to the that The Republic) made it a priority to re-establish democracy in all reclaimed territory after the fall of the Empire. It also seems that the decision to continue to support the Resistance is being made democratically in the newly re-established Republican Senate. It may be true that in the Star Wars universe compromise has been disastrous but that also was true in the real world. The famous example of course is the famous appeasement of Hitler in the run-up to WWII–which happened well before “neoconservatism” was a thing. Point being, the war here is just further evidence that democracies do not fight each other. Had the First Order been a democratic state, it’s possible that the idea of diplomacy would have been appealing to them. They were not and it was not. War was inevitable.

To say that “The Star Wars universe is a neoconservative one” is to claim that the laws that govern (political) action and reaction are the laws that are derived from a neoconservative interpretation of history. The point in restating that is this: “neoconservatism” isn’t derived from nothing. The appeasement of Hitler really did happen. World War II really did happen. So it is possible to derive neoconservative principles from the events in Star Wars–because it isn’t what happens, but how one interprets what happens.

Let me see if I can say it a different way. Neocons would have predicted that the First Order would back out of the compromise and use the Republic’s compassion against it. And then that’s what happened! Neoconservatism!

There are already plenty of real world examples where compromise did not lead to the rise of a Hitler like creature. And yet, neoconservatism came into existence and persists. That’s because neoconservatism espouses general laws, not absolute ones.

It is also true that if Star Wars were built on neoconservative principles, the Republic would never have offered a compromise–much as real neocons are always warning policymakers of the dangers of appeasement.


It’s gotten so bad, that the superficial reading of Star Wars is the contrarian view. For the love of the Force, people, stop trying to reread a fairy tale. It’s Good vs Evil; and, the Good is Good and the Evil is Evil. That’s how it works and that’s why it works.


GlitterBeard Me!

glitter-beards_1As you may have heard, I’m actively fundraising to find a cure for blood cancers and you can help out. And here’s my first fundraising “event.” Glitterbeard Me.

The goal is raise TWO-HUNDRED AMERICAN DOLLARS between now and December 31. If I do, I will make a mess of my beard and likely mine or someone else’s house by traipsing around on New Years Day with a Glitter Beard.

I can hear you asking, “How can I make a shiny mess of some random Denver bar/One of Jim’s Friend’s Houses?” And the answer is “It’s EASY!!!”

  1. Go to THIS LINK and hit the Donate Now button on the right.
  2. Pick an amount.
  3. In the Comments section, please reference “glitter” or “glitterbeard” in some way. I plan on having several fundraising things happening at once and to make sure your funds go to the appropriate thing, I’ll need *some* way of knowing where you want your funds to go.
  4. Funds raised between today (11-23) and December 30th and labeled with any reference to glitter, will be applied to the $200 goal.

First to donate $50 or more gets to pick the color. (After that, larger donations can outbid for color. For example, first $50 bidder calls “gold,” a later bidder at $51 can choose “red” instead and, if not outbid, red it stays.) Put the color in the comments as well.

To get a taste of what this entail, check out the video below.

I’m a Bad Swimmer

This expressionist painting of M. Phelps makes him look like he swims about as well as I do.

Can I share something with you? I am bad swimmer. I mean really bad. Full disclosure: for someone who works out as much as I do, rides my bike and hikes as much as I do, and runs as much as I do, I am a miserable athlete altogether. But I am the most miserable of all the miserable swimmers out there.

Let me prove it to you.

Some of you have heard this story, but it’s a good one and everyone likes a story that makes a pompous, intellectual dilettante like myself look foolish. So heal yourself with laughter at my expense.

My very first triathlon—in fact my very first “competitive” event of any sort was in 2010. I had just recently started dating the wonderful human who is now my wife. She is an anxious sort who likes running for its therapeutic effects (sort of, I’ll leave her to define her relationship with running). I don’t remember what possessed her to do a triathlon, but I do know that I like to think of myself as the kind of person that runs triathlons. I was 35 years old.

Thirty-five, for those of you who are math deficient, is one year younger than 36…which is the beginning of the second age bracket in the Mighty Mississinewa Sprint Triathlon. So when I showed up on race day I was pleased to find out I would be a member of the first wave:  18-35 year olds and those competing at the “elite” level.

Oh. I should mention that I worked out extremely hard so they I would not qualify for “Clydesdale” status. What is a “Clydesdale?” you ask. That’s the name for somebody who is racing at over 200 pounds. You can put “Clydesdale” on your race status so that those who see your abysmal ranking will know to convert their snorts of derision into sympathetic sighs. I weighed 198 on race day.

The way the waves work is that one cadre of, in my case, extremely fit young men and seasoned racers (and me) enter the Mississinewa Reservoir at the sound of a starting pistol. Every few minutes, the starting pistol cracks again and a new wave of progressively less competitive swimmers enters the reservoir. A sprint triathlon is not very long. The swim is 500 yards (for MMS), or .4k if you’re metric. Point Four K. The average swimmer should be able to complete POINT EIGHT K in less than 14 minutes. So that means, worse case scenario, I should have heard my own wave’s pistol, the pistol for the wave behind, and the wave behind them just as I was about to exit the lake. Which makes that silver capped matron who swam over my sinking body an 20 minutes later…disconcerting.

I don’t know how many waves there were. But I know there were at least 2 waves of men behind me and at least 3 waves of women. I know that the last wave of women were women over 50, denoted by (and I am not making this up) silver swim caps.

That’s right, readers. The average swimmer…not the elite crowd with which my nearly horse-sized body entered the lake …should swim that length in, at most, 14 minutes. But I was nearly drowned by the forceful strokes of a woman who entered the lake no less than 10 minutes later and who caught up with me, presumably no earlier than 9 minutes after that. Indeed, later records show that I finished the race in a staggering 21:54. Which is a score so miserable that I came in last, not only in my own group of the elite and young, but also in the group of all males 30-44. In fact, dear readers, in a field of 197 racers, men and women of all ages, I was 192nd. The only people too come in behind me were a 43 year old, a 49 year old, two 53 year olds, and a 55 year old. The guy (or gal) in 191st place was 60.

I also want to take a moment to reiterate. Some woman in a silver cap swam over my body. I had gone into a backstroke because, basically, after 21 minutes in the pool at 490 yards (give or take) my body just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to rest and another human being swam over me like I was …jeez…I don’t really know…you don’t really swim on top of anything the way she swam on top of me.

I went under. I literally thought that this was how I was going to die: 10 yards from shore, in a reservoir in northern Indiana, during a race I clearly had no business in.

I’m not sure if I fully appreciate the distance between “humbling” and “humiliating,” but I got closer to understanding that day.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear readers, I need what Team-in-Training is offering. No joke. And Team-in-Training needs your support. How about following this here hyperlink and helping me raise money to end blood cancers (and also not ruin an otherwise beautiful bay with my drowned body in April).

What’s with the Countdown Timer?


I will be asking for your help.

Left-Wing Media Bias?

I have been following the science of determining (or disproving) the “left wing bias” of the media for a long time. I have seen lots and lots articles on the subject with many many charts and graphs in them. And they all basically look like the one here [PDF]. I’m linking to this one because it’s new and…if you’re following this whole “Lying Liar Political Scientist Published an Article with Lies” story, it has the benefit of being relevant to that discussion as well.

If you are following the whole LaCour fiaso read the whole thing. Basically, LaCour probably faked data on a 2nd article as well (and this essay is written by the guy that LaCour jocked the data from). If you’re only interested in the “media’s left wing bias” angle, then direct your gaze to page 5. What that chart is telling you is that, while there does seem to be an apparent “leftish slant” this is far from certain and could actually be flat wrong.

  1. Most of the studied channels appear to be inbetween the moderate left hump and non-partisan 0.
  2. There are two channels to the left of moderate left and no channels to the right of moderate right.

However, and this is critical, with the exception of Lou Dobbs’s show, all the confidence intervals (Bayesian credible intervals) overlap 0…which means they aren’t statistically different from “centrist”…and some of them could be “conservative.” Those CIs are huuuuuugggeeee. They basically run the entire gamut of the base dataset. I’ll also mention that most of the CIs (all but three) run most of their difference to the right. I think that’s difficult to interpret, but the consistency of this right skew across channels implies meaningfulness.

Some of this is a limitation to the types of methodologies available to this kind of research. But some of this is likely due to the fact that…well….most channels aren’t interested in 100% alienating 50% of their potential audience and thus…at the very least…attempt to appear neutral if not being, in fact, neutral. In the words of the author:

In the replication, only one show, Lou Dobbs Tonight, has a credible interval that does not overlap zero. Applying LaCour’s criterion, Lou Dobbs Tonight would be classified as “conservative news,” while all the remaining shows would be classified as “centrist news.

CBD Maybe not a Miracle Cure for Childhood Seizure Disorders

One of the stories that got a lot of media time during the fight to make recreational marijuana a legal reality was the one of Haleigh–a young girl who, prior to adopting a CBD regimen to treat her seizures, was having 200 episodes a day and now is closer to 10. That is a huge success. We read a lot out here about all the families that are moving to Colorado to obtain marijuana for their children’s seizure treatment. I would say that, aside from treating chronic pain…especially chronic pain in association with chemotherapy…marijuana’s miraculous power in treating seizures in children is the driving narrative of why marijuana should be reschedule, why every state without a medical marijuana law should get one, and why recreational marijuana should be far more widespread.

I have no doubts that Haleigh’s story is a true. In fact, a recent study (abstract here) found that 33% parents of children taking CBD reported their  children’s seizures drop by half. That’s huge.

However, that same study found that 44% of children taking CBD were suffering negative health outcomes from the treatment including (and this is important) increased seizures.

In a more objective measure of seizure-related brain health, only 3 of the children in the study showed any actual improvement (which indicates that some portion of those 33% of children who saw their seizure decrease by half, may have have been over-reporting the benefit, or may be operating under some placebo effect).

In any case, those last two points are crucial and they will no doubt be completely, and tragically, overlooked.

Medicine is weird; it works for whom it works. The way we determine if a medicine works is to get two groups. Individuals are randomly selected into one of the two groups. One group receives the treatment, the other receives a placebo. If possible, even the administrators don’t know which individuals are receiving which medication and which the placebo. Then we look for improvements in both groups. For various reasons, some people in both groups will get worse and some people will get better and some people may see no change in their condition at all. Ideally we will see more people get better in the medication group and less people getting worse. In either case, the differences observed within each group will be compared to the differences observed in the other group to determine if those change are “statistically significant.” That’s a real rough description of the “double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, trial.”  Basically if the improvements in the medication group are better than the natural improvements seen in the control group, researchers conclude that the medicine “worked.”

But something peculiar happened up there. Something that researchers know about but doesn’t always get translated out. The medicine didn’t seem to have any effect at all on some people. And worse, some got worse.

Some of those differences might be chalked up to an inability to precisely measure changes in the condition. We tend to think of illness as a thing you either have or you don’t, rather than thinking of it in terms of how much of it you have. So it might be that very minor improvements in condition were beneath a threshold where those improvements were observed and reported to researchers. It’s also possible that declining condition in the medicine group would have been more pronounced had the medicine not been present.

But it’s also entirely possible that the medicine helped some people in the medicine group and harmed other people in the medicine group. Humans are all different. Diseases manifest differently in different people, medicines react differently to different people. So when we claim that a medicine “worked” it’s not always entirely clear what is meant. So the medicine works for whom it works and not on anyone else. Ideally, we would give medicine that works only to people that it works on…and maybe even prescribe medicine that “doesn’t work” to the people it works on as well even if it doesn’t “work” any better than chance at the group level.

I’m not saying that the story linked here proves that marijuana is a crappy medicine for children with seizures. It’s entirely possible that marijuana is very good for some children, and maybe not quite as good and possibly harmful for others. The problem is that the rhetoric of these “miraculous” cures is problematic. Parents desperate to find any cure for their children may overlook problems with marijuana in their child, they may see signs of improvements that don’t exist. And worse, they may forego other, effective, treatments while hoping that the marijuana miracle works out.

I think this is an area where we definitely need more research. And marijuana is cheap and, compared to many traditional treatments, safe. So I’m glad that it’s available for parents to try. But I also wish that the conversation we were having didn’t involve the word “miracle” quite so often. And that the potential for no- or bad outcomes was more appreciated.

Where’s the Rest of The Rest of the Story?

Generally I am a fan of Dr. Siegel, but I do not always agree with him. Here is one example. I am not a fan of the kind of analysis offered in yesterday’s post.

Siegel has picked an enemy…The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and he grabs a hold of a recent press release of theirs where they are encouraging states to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. The central component of his rant is that the Campaign supports this law even though it was the Campaign itself that helped prevent the FDA from gaining that power. He calls them disingenuous. That’s it. A charge of hypocrisy and nothing more substantive.

  1. There are two things to point out here:
    Either raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products is a good policy or a bad one. There are good arguments on both sides, but Siegel presents none of them. He seems to support it, so he should ally himself with organizations that also support it, regardless of how they felt about it last week, last year, or ten or twenty years ago. When organizations or individuals come around to your way of thinking, that should be applauded, not used as another opportunity to vilify them. This raises the specter of ulterior motives on Siegel’s part, which makes his stance appear to be the disingenuous one. I’m not making any accusations here. I wouldn’t know what accusations to make. I normally consider Siegel an authentic and committed voice in tobacco control. This doesn’t feel like what’s happening here.
  2. If it is a good policy, that does not imply that it is equally good if implemented by either the states or the federal government. In a federalized system like the US has, one could easily advocate for all 50 states adopting a policy but combat the federal government adopting that same policy or overseeing its administration. There’s no hypocrisy there. I don’t know if the Campaign’s stance was that this would be better as a state decision or not–it doesn’t really make any sense in this particular instance to support state-level decision making over federal action–but it’s possible and without exploring that possibility, Siegel performs a disservice.

Siegel always calls the second half of his posts “The Rest of the Story,” but I think this is an instance where The Rest of the Story needs its own The Rest of the Story.

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Is Red Wine the Miracle Fat-Burning Miracle Cure You’ve Been Waiting For?

r0eThere is a debate among scientists, researchers, and journalists that goes something like this:

  • Scientific community: We need better science reporters.
  • Science journalists: Don’t blame us, science is pretty freaking tough and we rely on good press release writers to give us the skinny.

I think there’s some truth to both of these statements, but they are almost certainly incomplete. A recent flurry of new stories on the benefits of wine drinking is a good example of where it falls short.

In a recent press release from Oregon State University they claim: “The findings suggest that consuming dark-colored grapes, whether eating them or drinking juice or wine, might help people better manage obesity and related metabolic disorders such as fatty liver.” Which, of course, earned OSU and the scientists in question many accolades and clogged up my Twitter and Facebook feeds for days with people claiming they can finally start skipping the gym.

But is that what they said? While the headline writers seemed to concentrate on the “fat burning” sentence above, the reporters were pretty keen on adding this line from later in the press release. “‘These plant chemicals are not a weight-loss miracle,’ cautions [study team member Neil] Shay. ‘We didn’t find, and we didn’t expect to, that these compounds would improve body weight,’” he said.”

I have a tendency myself to take science reporters to task, but here’s a good example of science reporters more or less getting it right. Of course, if the story was truly understood from the get-go, it’s hard to see it getting much coverage. So it’s clear that something went wrong, but what? And what has been people’s takeaway? Most of my friends took to Facebook and Twitter in jest, but it was a jest that relied on a misunderstanding of the truth of that first sentence. Can we say that the reporter’s were “at fault” for this misunderstanding?

A part of me says, sure. If a failure to communicate is large and consistent, then it must be the communicator’s fault to some degree. On the other hand, the reporting seems accurate enough that the misreading seems willful, and no reporter should be held accountable for willful misreading.  And in this case, even the press release was not explicitly overblown. The bolded sentence above, the cautionary corrective to the italicized sentence above that, was drawn directly from the press release.

In this case, there was potentially an effort on the part of the press release writer to deliberately persuade reporters to lead with the “fat burning” bit–and to use that in the headlines as well. And this is what seems to have occurred, deliberate or not. (It was deliberate.) In this case then, maybe there’s some room for criticizing the reporters for falling prey to their incentive to make a splash with the headline–an incentive played to by the press release author.

To say “we need better science journalists” in an instance like this, is to say, “we need people who work for newspapers to not care about the incentives of the newspaper business.” It’s true, but it’s also extremely infantile a wish. Most of science isn’t truly headline worthy, in the sense that newspapers look for headlines. To cover science at all we must expect errors like this. It’s up to non-reporters to carry the weight of explaining what is going on and spread the word. Speaking of which…

Thomas Lumley’s post on Stats Chat can help shed some light on what was actually found in this study.