Archive for Uncategorized

Bryan Cranston and Creeping Moral Standards

There is a complaint about the latest Bryan Cranston movie that he shouldn’t be playing a quadriplegic because that role should go to someone who is actually disabled. Jane Coaston points to a decent summary of the argument.

This is one of those perfect examples of what people say when they are complaining about “political correctness”. Political correctness isn’t about being polite or kind, it’s about advancing a new moral standard and then judging everyone by this new standard that you just made up, condemning them for a thing that, 2 weeks ago, was perfectly fine.

This combines the moral certainty of religion with the evolving standards of post-modernism. It doesn’t even allow for the fact that people in the past might have had a different standard and maybe that’s ok. It says “Here is my new standard that you didn’t know about before and against which you’ve never lived your live and I will now judge you and all of history against this standard and I find you guilty. There is none righteous, except for me and my friends who are making up the standards.”

It also, I think, speaks to the frustration and antipathy people have toward “political correctness”. It’s not that they like being impolite or making people angry… it’s that they find it disingenuous and annoying when the thing they were doing last week is suddenly morally unacceptable and the moral scolds of our age titter about what we should and should not be saying based on their ever-evolving, self-serving standards.

How Polygamy Becomes Normalized

Reading this piece on what the world looks like 20 years from now and my interest was caught by Kate Julian’s prediction “There Will Be A Lot Less Sex and More Masturbation”

In the future, the ebbing of romantic and sexual connections will continue. People will have sex less frequently than they did in the pre-internet era, which will be remembered as a more carnal time. They will have fewer lifetime sexual partners, and they will be more likely to be abstinent. Only a minority of teenagers will have sex of any sort. Masturbation and other varieties of solo sex will continue to be more prevalent than they were before; porn aficionados will enjoy VR sex and sex robots. Like many other aspects of our world in the decades to come, the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue to grow. Those who have many advantages already will be disproportionately likely to find romantic and sexual partners if they desire them and to have fulfilling sex lives. There will be good parts of this: Nonconsensual sex will be far less common than it is today. There will be little to no social stigma attached to being unattached. Those who approach singledom with psychological and financial advantages will flourish. It will be the best time in human history to be single. But there will be less unambiguously positive developments as well: For better and for worse, the birth rate will continue to fall, and those who are less suited to solo life will suffer from profound loneliness.

I think that, if this is likely, we’re probably heading for a culture where polygamy is legalized and normalized. The legalization will come in time (both from people who come from countries where polygamy is legal and from the polyamorous who want legal protection and benefits, like health insurance, for their multiple partners and children).

Once the legalization is here, normalization will come simply because there aren’t enough men to go around. Men will, I think, opt for the life of individual single-ness with a plethora of sexual options that doesn’t require another complicated person to be involved. Women will not look very kindly on these men (they already don’t) and will want more healthy, responsible, social men than are available.

This will lead to a tipping point where these kinds of men are at such a high premium that women eventually decide, in the spirit of “something is better than nothing” it’s ok to share a man.

I don’t think this is a particularly happy or healthy future, but it’s the one that I think flows from this prediction.

New Bloggy Home

An FYI for 2016: I have, for the most part, shifted my blogging over to The Paradox Project, where I’ve been writing about…

Is There Any Reasonable Climate Denial

Meat Causes Cancer (Just Like Hiking)

Is Public Policy Polling a Reliable Source? No.

A Big Bang and a Big God

Rubio on Immigration: We Don’t Trust the Government

Reading the Internet Is a Medical Device: The FDA and 23andMe

If you’re inclined toward podcasts, I’ve been doing podcasts with the Paradox team and also with Andrea Ruth, Grant Gambling, and Dillon Honcoop at Far Beyond the Beltway.

Fetal Pain And Neuroscience

This is a piece that I put up on Tumblr last year during the Texas fetal pain legislation. I didn’t know at the time that Tumblr is terrible for blog posts so, as we once again get into the questions of fetal pain due to the impending federal legislation, I thought it would be a good piece to bring to blog form as the discussion renews.

Note: The conversation below is neither a political nor a moral discussion. This is strictly about what nueroscience tells us about the experience of pain and how that sense of pain develops in a fetus.

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Back in June 2013, a Texas GOP congressman said something about how fetuses feel pleasure and pain and was roundly mocked. The congressman was a former OB/GYN, so we know he had some experience and training with pre-born infants and I wondered how accurate his statement was.

So I turned to my brother, a published neuroscientist currently going through med school. He actually might object to being called a neuroscientist since he doesn’t have a PhD, but he did years of graduate research exclusively in the field that has resulted in several peer-reviewed publications, so I feel pretty comfortable with the title.

Anyway, I asked him about it and we had a big discussion that I felt really informed my understanding of the topic. I meant to compile it into a blog post, but the mockery faded and so did my interest.

Then Salon decided they wanted to throw on their “It’s science, bitches!” baseball caps and prove that “their side” is using science while “the other side” is using nonsensical pseudoscience for dummies.

This is a thing I’ve noticed too many people like to do: Simplify the science to a point where they are conveying no valuable information or understanding (check), find a technical voice willing to confirm their bias (in this case, a second-trimester abortion provider who, I’m sure, has no dog in this fight), and generally act like second graders who found that the science textbook phrased something in such a way that they can titter to themselves and feel intellectual about their ignorance.

It’s juvenile, it’s arrogant, and people deserve to understand the complexities of the matter a little better. Journalism is supposed to do this. Actually… decent, intellectually curious human beings are supposed to do this, whether or not they work in journalism. But journalists are supposed to get paid for it and they have failed miserably to present the science here, instead giving us a pre-baked conclusion backed up by an abortion provider while yelling “SCIENCE”.

So here is my discussion with an actual neuroscientist who actually wants people to understand things that matter. Keep in mind, this discussion stems from the original congressman’s statement, not from the Salon piece.

Me: You know something about embryology, is the congressman’s statement here about fetal pleasure correct?

Bro: It’s highly inaccurate. It’s straight up wrong because of his definitions.

Me: Inform me.

Bro: Let’s back up a bit and define our terms, the words “feel,” “pleasure,” and “pain”.

“Feel” can be simply mean a response to environmental stimuli not necessarily requiring a level of processing indicative of intelligent life. For example you poke microorganisms and they can recoil because they don’t like getting poked. It “felt” that poke.

“Pain” suggests a different and higher level of processing capable of suffering in response to environmental stimuli. This is a much more complex neurological process and also much harder to cleanly define.

Me: OK. For context, the political argument on the right regarding abortion (at the moment) is “a fetus of a certain gestational age can feel pain”. So what would you suggest is a good benchmark for measuring pain (in the sense that humans or higher level organisms experience it)?

Bro: That gets way trickier. Again, our terms aren’t clearly defined in a way that I, as a scientist, can really give a “yes” or “no” answer. I don’t know whether you mean “at what point do we know something is feeling pain?” or “What level of processing is required to feel pain?” or even “What level of neurological pain processing is close enough to what we call ‘suffering’ that it would matter from a moral point of view?” 

Keep in mind that while “pain” and “response to stimuli” are commonly grouped together, they are not necessarily bound together. You can feel pain but be unable to respond to it. For example, there are cases of anesthesia awareness where a patient is fully non-responsive but also fully conscious and capable of pain. In a situation like that, the only way we know pain happened is because the patient reported it after the fact. So a lack of response to stimuli is no guarantee of a lack of pain. (for more on anesthesia awareness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anesthesia_awareness )

If I were making a pro-life argument, I would take a similar stance as the guy in the article, although I would absolutely not use the word pleasure. Pleasure comes from a far more complex form of brain processing than pain. Take that statement out of the discussion completely.

The main issue (it seems) is that at some point a developing human is capable of processing pain. There is no difference in terms of brain processing 2 minutes before a child is born and 2 minutes after. The question then becomes when is the fetus (or pre-born infant or whatever we’re using these days) capable of processing pain. The answer is that we don’t really know. But here are the neurological boundaries for the discussion that might give us some groundwork for trying to answer that question.

Me: Hooray for philosophy.

Bro: By the way, I know this is from a neuro heavy perspective of embryology… but that’s what I got.

First, there’s response to stimuli. A fetus responds to stimuli around 15-20 weeks. We could imagine how we would feel in response to the stimuli so we might transpose our imagined experience to that of the fetus. If they respond in the same way we think we would respond, we think they feel the same way.

That’s as a result of things called “mirror neurons” that help us to enjoy watching football games cause we can imagine ourselves catch the football. It improves things like empathy/sympathy. But just because a goldfish recoils from being poked with a sharp object doesn’t mean that it processes that poking in such a way that it leaves emotional scarring for years to come. We might be emotionally scarred, but the goldfish won’t be. It feels, i.e. responds, but it doesn’t process.

Second, there’s pain. This means that it responds to *and* processes pain stimuli in a way that we do, but that doesn’t mean that it processes the experience of pain. By that I mean that we have higher processing capable of recalling, discussing, analyzing, philosophizing, considering (etc.) experiences. We can do that but a frog wouldn’t do that.

Third is the mental recall and analysis of pain. We might try to rescue someone who is in pain, because we know how pain feels and it sucks and you empathize with someone and we don’t want them to experience it. We see pain, recognize it, empathize, and respond. We’re processing the experience of pain in a recollective and complex fashion.

So that’s 3. 1. Feeling, 2. Processing, and 3. Complex processing of pain

Me: So, if I understand correctly, 1 (feeling) isn’t something we would normally care about. And the fetus does that pretty early on. 2 (processing) is something we care more about, but there’s a lot of gray area. Fetuses *probably* have that in the 20ish week range, but it’s hard to say. 3 (complex processing) is something we care deeply about but it’s pretty much impossible to say whether a fetus or even a baby under 1 month has that in a way we would recognize.

Bro: Mostly right. Processing is actually something that might not really be happening until like… a year old. It almost certainly doesn’t happen prior to birth.

With 3 you can definitely suffer. With 2 you can maybe suffer. With 1… well, if suffering occurs with that we might as well not even eat plants.

The pain line of argumentation is useless for someone who wants to focus on conception. If you want to use pain as a moral sticking point and you want to do it grounded in science, you should focus on either the grey area of 15-25 weeks or sometime around like 6 months or a year after birth. Is anyone making the case abortion should be legal at 56 weeks? If they base the right to life on pain processing, they’re going to have to give up on 38 week abortions too. At least if they want to be intellectually coherent and base their argument on science. Is that a big concern on both sides?

Me: Not usually.

Bro: OK. Well, back to the neuroscience. I’m not boring you, am I.

Me: Nope, continue.

Bro: OK, the brain is kind of like computing. A single neural connection doesn’t really mean a whole lot just like if you have one transistor that doesn’t really do a whole lot. Neurons are building blocks. When you have 100 billion, then you can build something pretty awesome. But it’s hard to attribute meaning to individual neurons.

The brain is divided by function into gyruses and sulci. Gyruses are the ridges and sulci are the folds or wrinkles. Different gyruses have different functions.

Fetuses younger than 24 weeks have almost no gyruses. Fetuses older than 35 weeks have virtually all their gyruses. The prefrontal cortex is what controls the executive function, where the mirror neurons are found, that lets us sympathize, empathize, philosophize, understand society. That’s the last to develop. We’ve got the largest pre-frontal cortex, monkeys have a good sized one and on down the evolutionary chain. Most mammals have one, while invertebrates don’t

The neurons located in a gyrus have the function that we expect it to have, so when the pre-central gyrus first forms, there we can find the motor neurons that control voluntary movement. Before the brain folds to make that ridge, there might be some of those neurons and the infant can move a little bit, but once it folds then where the neurons are ceases to be gray area where that gray matter is (or if it is present).

We can say “There’s the precentral gyrus! Well, he’s definitely processing muscle movement and that’s where it’s happening.” But the gyrus is a folding to making space for neurons that are multiplying in order to make room for them, not a magic appearing of neurons for the first time. So the folding is happening at 5 months, but the infant can start purposeful movement at 18 weeks (or right around 4 months).

Does that all help?

Me: I think so. From a medical/neurological stand point there are a couple key “dates” that we could use to determine what might be a helpful guideline for the “pain” discussion. If we want to say that newborns are people, we would have to track that concept back to at least 35 weeks.

And then there is a gray area back to about 24 weeks and then another one back to about 18 weeks based on neurological development and “what it means” in terms of pain processing.

Bro: That’s about right. 18 weeks, 24-25 weeks, 35 weeks (which is before birth, but not by a lot), and then the next major milestone to be months after birth. Those are estimates because some fetuses can be 1-2 weeks ahead or behind schedule. So if we’re going to track back to 24 weeks, we probably need to back up another 2 to cover the range of fetal development.

So to sum up, the fetus can respond to stimuli at like 8-9 weeks (recoil and movement originating in the spinal cord), it can’t process responses until 18 weeks (purposive movement originating from brain), 24-25 weeks you’ve got significant differentiation going on, and by 35 weeks we can actually identify the part of the brain where experiences are processed. We’re talking not just stimuli, but actual complex and higher thinking.

That’s why calling it “pleasure” or “pain” at 15 weeks is a little bit misleading, because the processing of the stimuli for the fetus at 15 weeks is very very different from how we would understand pleasure or pain. The neural processing might be closer to the response a fish would have to being poked. It would swim away.

Please keep in mind, it’s not a scientists job to make moral decisions. It’s our job to figure out how something works, not to say what it means.

I could say that the neural processing of a grown pig or a cow is capable of the same degree of executive functioning as an infant of say… 6 months, but that doesn’t mean we should stop eating meat or that we should start eating babies. A good scientist will not say “This is what happens, so therefore we have a moral imperative to do that.” He or she will merely describe the phenomena as it is observed. So don’t interpret this to mean “there is no moral issue with a 14 week abortion because they don’t process pain” or “we have a greater moral obligation to a 3 year old monkey than to a newborn infant because the monkey processes pain in a more complex way”. Pain is obviously only one component of the moral discussion here.

This Is How We Disappear

(Skip to point 5 for my personal post-mortem on the Romney campaign)

I haven’t posted in 6 months and my Twitter presence (where I’ve usually done most of my interaction) has slowed to a crawl. I missed the last #BLSFriday (my monthly data-dig into the BLS employment data) and I haven’t made a decent chart in ages. Several people have asked what happened and I hate to just disappear without any explanation, so I wanted to put something up here.

I love being able to make a contribution to the political discussion. I love digging into data and asking questions that too much of the data community prefers to ignore. I love the people I’ve met and become friends with and my chances to speak and educate. But for a variety of reasons, I’ve had to pull back. I don’t like to just disappear and leave people in the dark (we miss you @Cubachi!) so I wanted to elaborate here.

1) I moved to the west coast

I didn’t think it would make a big difference, but moving into a time zone just 1 hour further from DC has really limited my Twitter engagement. By the time I get on at night, a lot of east-coast people I like to interact with have called it a night. I still try to check in frequently (and @stephenkruiser and @politicsofamy make the evenings pretty awesome) but it’s not the same interactions that I loved.

2) My new job requires my personality

Some of you know what my new job is, but for people who don’t, I’ll just say that it requires my personality. Whereas all my previous work relied on my ability to deliver a good product, this job requires that I put my face on my work in a big way. I’ve never been super-secret about my identity, but the nature of my new job requires that I keep my name and personality squarely in the professional sphere.

3) Baby + 2 year old

We just had our 2nd kid and our 2 year old is a delightful little time suck. As much as I love digging into data, building charts, making videos and arguing with the internet, I like spending time with my kids more.

4) This is a hobby

My political data work was fun, educational, engaging, and some of the best stuff I’ve ever made. I have gotten job offers by the dozen. But I have a career in which I make money. It’s not a huge amount of money but… well, let’s just say this conversation actually happened (although it is paraphrased):

Fox News: “Hi, this is (so and so) with Fox News. We’ve seen your stuff and we love it. What do you think about doing a regular piece for (show X).”

Me: Sound great. So… compensation… I was thinking [2/3 my going rate as a programmer].

FN: Yeah, that’s never going to happen. How about [1/6 my going rate as a programmer].

Me: Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Ha.

I think I actually laughed at them on the phone. The number was really that low.

We tend to think that people in DC make stupid huge money. But that’s true for very few people (usually corporate lobbyists and maybe some organization directors or higher-ups). Bloggers, media content creators, journalists… all these people get paid crap (with the exception of the very top-tier, let’s call them the 1%).

So, if there is a blogger, writer, video creator, podcaster, Twitter personality, etc who you enjoy, donate something to them. Anything is helpful.

5) Disillusionment

OK… now for the real reasons. In the last election, I was approached by someone in the Romney campaign to do some visualization work, charts, videos, that kind of thing. We agreed upon a reasonable rate for my work and I got started working on some concepts. The first visual I produced for the team was a variation of this visual, showing job growth by presidential terms.

The version I made for them was cleaner, better designed, conceptually a bit firmer, but the point was the same. After a number of iterations, I felt I had a great visual that I’d be glad to see be a point of conversation.

And then the approval process began. We spent weeks trying to get an OK on the visual. They asked for references for my data which I gladly included. (The only time I deny references to data is when people on Twitter refuse to do basic research and I want to know they’re willing to do basic research before I engage them.) The approval process for the most basic inoffensive visual showing how mediocre Obama’s jobs record was required the approval of a vast number of message managers, PR managers, researchers, etc. A single veto would kill the iteration and I’d have to resubmit with changes. Sometimes I knew what those changes should be, sometimes I didn’t.

After enough time it dawned on me: These people didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe my numbers (even though they were the most basic BLS numbers out there). I felt (and this is just my intuition talking here) that they had bought, hook line and sinker, the Obama teams “I created X million jobs” line (easily shown to be little more than a flimsy propaganda line based on selective data). I believe they were more willing to swallow the line being promoted by the opposition than a friendly voice with a history of dedication to the truthful portrayal of data.

At a certain point I said “screw this” and gave up.

And I never got paid.

I liked Romney. I voted for Romney (which, incidentally, marked the first time the candidate I voted for didn’t win). There are all sorts of reasons we can point to about why Romney lost. But from my perspective, I saw an over-managed campaign untrustful of their own side and unwilling to take the smallest risks for fear of being butchered by the media. Which, of course, happened anyway.

There’s actually one more reason, but it requires it’s own post. Suffice to say I’d love to keep making data beautiful, engaging the issues, digging into charts and making videos, but my life has changed substantially and for the foreseeable future

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

Medical marijuana was associated with some pretty impressive improvements in complete resolution of nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy a rare condition called chemo-spastic colitis. Patients treated with medical marijuana reported improvements in bowel motility, bowel function, weight, appetite, and appetite satisfaction, as well as decreased appetite and weight gain. This is one of the reasons why people are interested in growing some marijuana.

Marijuana advocates target state prohibitions as session set to begin

What else?

The biggest advantage for those who use cannabis is the ability to get them to think differently.

If you think you’re stuck, maybe this will help you think differently.

It’s amazing how many thoughts you can’t shake that won’t go away with medication. Even the thought of “smoking” in front of the kids or taking a vape to keep up their energy is enough to make you shake in your boots.

But, marijuana isn’t a one-size-fits-all.

Medical marijuana, like any substance, can be very effective depending on who you are and your unique circumstance.

I am a person that has worked hard in the last 20 years to understand myself and I am constantly searching for that understanding with everything I do. I am not a simple person and it is more than just about my marijuana use. I believe I am working towards a better understanding of myself. In fact, my biggest struggle in life is now with understanding my own self. I am more in tune with my own heart than ever before, even though my heart is constantly going through my veins. Marijuana is the ultimate tool to find understanding, self improvement and happiness. You will find happiness in life that you never could have imagined.

To my friends, neighbors, family and fellow pot smokers out there, I want you to know that I have you in my heart. I have made huge strides in my life with the use of marijuana. I have gone from being a teenager with a little something that I smoked, to someone that is married, a father and full of life. I hope that it has helped you to understand yourself and your own inner thoughts. If you do not want to be stoned all day, you do not have to be a stoner and you will never be stoned all day. But I know many of you are looking for ways to get over your stoner phase so you can get out of your comfort zone and live a more fulfilling life. So that is what this is all about, relaxation and getting away from all of the stress, worries and worries in your life. It is something I will have a lot of fun with.

After I take off my clothes I will get very relaxed and then I will start to enjoy the fact that all I have to worry about is getting high, instead of the stress of worry.

After I am naked and relaxed, I will just sit and just do whatever I want to do and everything will be great. You will not have to worry about what you are going to do or what you should be doing, just sit back and relax, it is all up to you. You can go have a shower and maybe do some reading, or just stay in bed and relax, it is all up to you. What you do or don’t do, I don’t know, but I think I will enjoy the experience that much more. You will never have to wonder if you are being too fucked up, and you will never have to worry about if you are getting too high, either. After you are naked I will tell you what to do. For now you will just sit back, relax and watch

BlogCon CLT Slide Deck

Yesterday I spoke at BlogConCLT on telling stories around data. I wanted to put the slide deck up, so attendees could go back and relive the dream. I have all the text for the presentation in the notes, so if you prefer, you can just imagine your favorite speaking giving this presentation instead of me.

BlogCon CLT Dramatic Visualizations Presentation (PowerPoint file, 44ish MB)

It is so large because I embedded videos into the presentation. The video I didn’t embed is the one that I used as an example:

Federal Tax Rates & A Fair Share

There has been so much talk recently about millionaires and billionaires not paying their “fair share” of taxes, I decided to look up exactly how much they end up paying. Tim Carney pointed me to this CBO paper on average effective tax rates for 2007 (published in 2010).

This is unfortunately the latest data I can find, but it is useful to me because it gives data that can be extrapolated. If I know the average  pre-tax income, the average after-tax income and the number of people the top 5% and the top 1%, I can extract the top 1% from the top 5% and calculate that data for people in the top 1.1%-5%. This means I can update my Not All Money Is Created Equal chart.

(click to enlarge)

This is a chart of the effective tax rate, so it includes income, payroll, corporate, and excise taxes. It covers all practical sources of income (see the “technical information” at the bottom, since I’m guessing this will be the first objection raised).

I love this chart because I think it summarizes so many important things very easily. We can immediately get the scope of how much the top 1% makes, (it’s a lot) but also easily see that they pay more as a % of the tax burden than they make as a % of the national income. We can see that the US tax system is actually fairly progressive, with the top 20-10% paying the closest to a “fair share” (if by fair you mean every dollar made is taxed at an equal proportion to all income as a whole).

Warren Buffett is an anecdote, but one that has been repeated so often that many people think that the rich, as a whole, don’t pay very much in taxes. This chart shows that this is entirely untrue. When viewed through the lens of effective taxation (which is a very appropriate lens to use) the top 1% of income earners pay a much higher rate on their income than any other income group.

Technical information from the CBO on this data:

Comprehensive household income equals pretax cash income plus income from other sources. Pretax cash income is the sum of wages, salaries, self-employment income, rents, taxable and nontaxable interest, dividends, realized capital gains, cash transfer payments, and retirement benefits plus taxes paid by businesses (corporate income taxes and the employer’s share of Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment insurance payroll taxes) and employees’ contributions to 401(k) retirement plans. Other sources of income include all in-kind benefits (Medicare and Medicaid benefits, employer-paid health insurance premiums, food stamps, school lunches and breakfasts, housing assistance, and energy assistance).

Individual income taxes are allocated directly to households paying those taxes. Social insurance, or payroll, taxes are allocated to households paying those taxes directly or paying them indirectly through their employers. Corporate income taxes are allocated to households according to their share of capital income. Federal excise taxes are allocated to them according to their consumption of the taxed good or service.

March 2012 BLS Employment Data in CSV (Excel) Format

A Table (Employment/Unemployment)

B Tables (Employment By Industry)