Jeffrey Toobin: SCOTUS Hails Its True Constituency

Language tells. And the phrasing the conservative Supreme Court judges used in challenging the Affordable Health care act, as collected her by the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, speaks volumes about who they seem to feel they work for and whom law is supposed to protect. Again and again they speak of the problems the law might pose not for the American people or the uninsured, but for insurance companies.

Last week, however, the conservative Justices were showing no deference to Congress, especially on economic matters. The questions from the quartet of Kennedy, John G. Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., amounted to a catalogue of complaints about the Affordable Care Act. (Clarence Thomas, their silent ally, presumably was with them in spirit.) In particular, they appeared to regard the law as scandalously cruel to one party in the debate—and it wasn’t the uninsured. The Justices’ own words revealed where their sympathies lie. Roberts: “If you’re an insurance company and you don’t believe that you can give the coverage in the way Congress mandated it without the individual mandate, what type of action do you bring in a court?” Scalia: “That’s going to bankrupt the insurance companies if not the states.” Alito: “What is the difference between guaranteed-issue and community-rating provisions on the one hand and other provisions that increase costs substantially for insurance companies?” Kennedy: “We would be exercising the judicial power if one provision was stricken and the others remained to impose a risk on insurance companies that Congress had never intended.”

The mark of even the roughest society — almost a definition of society — is that it cares for its sick. The country’s populace has made it clear that it wants to do so. There appears a real danger a radically activist court will deny both this will and any recognition of humanity’s essential connectedness. Profoundly depressing.

via Donald Verrilli’s case for A.C.A. and the Supreme Court : The New Yorker.

Is Airport Security Killing 500 People a Year?

So asserts cryptographer and security critic Bruce Schneier in a recent smack at the costly security theater inflicted on us at airports. “Security theater” is actually too kind a term; it makes light of a heavy burden that includes not only enormous cost and trouble with little benefit, but the erosion of dignity, civility, personal liberty, and a healthy balance between government power and individual rights. (In disclosure I must say I feel this more keenly every time I fly.) Schneiier recently debated former Transportation Safety Authority administrator Kip Hawley on the issue, and finds Hawley’s argument unconvincing:

[Hawley] wants us to trust that a 400-ml bottle of liquid is dangerous, but transferring it to four 100-ml bottles magically makes it safe. He wants us to trust that the butter knives given to first-class passengers are nevertheless too dangerous to be taken through a security checkpoint. He wants us to trust the no-fly list: 21,000 people so dangerous they’re not allowed to fly, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested. He wants us to trust that the deployment of expensive full-body scanners has nothing to do with the fact that the former secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, lobbiesfor one of the companies that makes them. He wants us to trust that there’s a reason to confiscate a cupcake (Las Vegas), a 3-inch plastic toy gun (London Gatwick), a purse with an embroidered gun on it (Norfolk, VA), a T-shirt with a picture of a gun on it (London Heathrow) and a plastic lightsaber that’s really a flashlight with a long cone on top (Dallas/Fort Worth).

Additionally, there’s actual physical harm: the radiation from full-body scanners still not publicly tested for safety; and the mental harm suffered by both abuse survivors and children: the things screeners tell them as they touch their bodies are uncomfortably similar to what child molesters say.

In 2004, the average extra waiting time due to TSA procedures was 19.5 minutes per person. That’s a total economic loss—in –America—of $10 billion per year, more than the TSA’s entire budget.

So it’s ridiculous, insulting, stupid, dehumanizing, a sop to friends of those in power, an erosion of civil liberties, and a huge waste of time and money. But is it actually killing us?

Schneier says it is, by virtue of traffic deaths; he cites work by  security analysts John Mueller and Mark Stewart in their book Terror, Security, and Money. Here’s the passage:

The increased automobile deaths due to people deciding to drive instead of fly is 500 per year. Both of these numbers are for America only, and by themselves demonstrate that post-9/11 airport security has done more harm than good.

He doesn’t say how they got that figure. I’m assuming it’s from taking (hopefully accurate) estimates of how many miles are being driven by those who shirk the security lines for their cars, then deriving 500 deaths from the average number of deaths per 100,000 miles.*

If they’re right, though, then the inefficiencies of post-911 airport security, by putting more people on the road, have already killed more people right here in the U.S. than the 9/11 attacks did. In any case, if these measures do put people on the road, a sane, rational policy (I know that’s asking a lot) would take that into account.

via Schneier on Security: Harms of Post-9/11 Airline Security.

Note added 4/6/12: *The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says there are roughly 1.14 deaths per 100,000,000 traffic miles; thus it would require about 43,900,000 traffic miles to produce 500 deaths. That sounds like a lot of miles; it would be about 14% of the roughly 305 billion miles Americans drive each year. The NHTSA data I found does show an increase in miles driven after 2001, but  that increase seems roughly in line with prior annual increases in traffic. Then again, I believe those post-2001 surges took place amid massive drops in miles flown and despite hikes in fuel prices, which usually decrease driving. Doubtless other variables come into play as well, and I’m not sure how Mueller and Stewart parsed them. I’ve written Mueller and Schneier asking how those figures were derived, and will post that here if and when I get it.

4/6/12, 1:23pm EDT: John Mueller, author of the book from which Schneier cited the 500 deaths per year figure, kindly and quickly responded to an email request for the source of that information. It comes from a paper by Cornell University researchers Garrick Blalock, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Daniel H. Simon, “The Impact of Post-9/11 Airport Security Measures on the Demand for Air Travel,” published in The Journal of Law and Economics in November 2007. PDF here. Here’s the relevant passage:

If the inconvenience of security deters travelers from flying, some of them might choose to travel by automobile instead. As is consistent with our finding that the negative effect of baggage screening is greatest for trips of less than 500  miles, we expect this substitution would be especially likely on short trips, for which driving is most feasible. Because air transportation is safer than road transportation, the increase in driving could lead to more traveler fatalities. In fact, we have shown that the substitution of road for air transportation following 9/11 led to an increase in driving-related fatalities (Blalock, Kadiyali, and Simon forthcoming). As part of that analysis, we estimated the reduced-form relationship between air passenger volume and driving-related deaths. Using fatalities in commercial vehicles to control for time trends, weather patterns, economic conditions, and unobserved highway conditions, we found that a decrease of 1 million enplanements leads to an increase of 15 driving-related fatalities. Applying that relationship to the estimated reduction in originating passenger volume due to baggage screening, we estimate that in the fourth quarter of 2002 approximately 129 individuals died in automobile accidents that resulted from travelers substituting driving for flying in response to the inconvenience associated with baggage screening.  n16

Although both our revenue and fatalities estimates are very rough approximations, the numbers are of an order of magnitude that warrant attention. These costs must be weighed against the difficult-to-measure benefits of better security.

And here a related footnote:

n16  To calculate the number of fatalities, we multiply the estimated number of trips not taken because of baggage screening, 3.2 million, by the number of enplanements associated with each trip (2.7). This calculation gives us the total reduction in enplanements associated with baggage screening. Finally, we multiply this figure by the number of additional driving-related fatalities resulting from a decrease of 1 million enplanements, 15, to arrive at our figure of 129 additional driving-related fatalities.

The Mueller figure (500/year) that Schneier uses is extrapolated from the 129/quarter-year figure calculated for 2002. As Blalock et alia note, that figure is rough, but “of an order of magnitude that warrants attention.”

I’m certainly convinced of that.


The Cruel Curveball Science of Sandy Koufax

Koufax bringing the four-seamer. No pitcher ever used better body mechanics. In this photo, his hips, which were sideways to the hitter until his front foot landed a fraction of a second ago, have just completed most of a rapid, powerful spin toward the batter; they will now lock as the torso rapidly follows in its own rapid rotation, generating his tremendous arm speed. His back is bent sharply back at the waist here, like a leaf spring loaded; this too helped generate power as he came forward. His enormous stride — his feet are incredibly far apart, and his back knee will almost hit the ground with the force of his movement forward and down — makes it harder to control the body. This (and some mental adjustments) is part of why Koufax took several years after turning pro to fully control his pitches. During this period, the first five years of the 1960s, Koufax was almost unhittable. Every batter was overmatched.

In honor and anticipation of Opening Day, I bring you Sandy Koufax, which is really all any baseball fan should need.

This post mashes up two separate entries I filed three years ago about Sandy Koufax, who is — don’t argue, you’re wrong — the greatest pitcher ever.* I’ve taken parts of both those posts, one about the curveball, one just about Koufax, and combined them.

There’s some science here, about the curveball; Koufax had a nasty one, best one in the game, along with the best fastball in the game. Then there are a couple mind-blowing Koufax stories. If you want just the mind-blowings stories, scan down and look for the bold print that marks the beginning of each.

From Post 1: The Curveball Illusion, September 2009

I always look forward to the Illusion of the Year contest, but this year brings a special treat: a new explanation of how the curveball baffles batters.

Just a few days ago, during BP, my friend Bill Perreault threw me one of those really nasty curves of his, and though I read it about halfway in, I was still ahead — and still unprepared for the sudden slanting dive it made at that last crucial moment. The good curve does that: Even when you have that millisecond of curveball recognition beforehand, it still seems to take, atop the curvy movement you’ve already detected, a sharp, sudden bend just before it reaches the plate, as if some invisible hand gave it a tap.

This wonderful “illusion” put together by Arthur Shapiro, Zhong-Lin Lu, Emily Knight, and Robert Ennis explains how that happens. I can’t link to the illusion, so for the full story you have to check it out yourself. But the gist is that  the curveball kills you two ways: first, through actual movement; and second, through an extra perceived movement — illusory — that further complicates the task of getting the tiny strip of sweet spot on your bat onto the ball. (The sweet spot on a bat is about a half-inch tall and maybe 4-6 inches long. You have to get that tiny oval, which is over 2 feet away from your accelerating hands, onto the ball …. at just the right moment, and with the bat accelerating, or you’re probably out. Which is why you’re usually out.)

The extra perceived movement rises from a difference between the neural dynamics of central vision and those of peripheral vision. This effect of this difference is that a baseball that is rotating horizontally but falling straight down as it comes toward you will appear to fall vertically if you’re looking straight at it — but appear to move sideways if it’s in your peripheral vision. So the little sideways jump that messed me up so bad when Bill threw his curve occurred when the ball moved out of my central vision and into my peripheral vision. This in turn happens because your eyes simply can’t keep up with a pitch as it approaches you and effectively accelerates its path across your field of vision. The ball goes from moving at you to moving past you. At the crucial moment — the last few feet of the ball’s half-second, 60-foot trip  to the plate — you must of necessity switch from seeing the ball with your central vision to seeing it with your peripheral vision.

To add to your troubles, it is in this tenth of a second or so that the curveball also moves the most in reality. On TV you can see this late break in shots from the center-field cameras. As a pitcher, you can see this late break from the mound. (Life offers few satisfactions so great.) So just as the ball’s real downward and sideways motion is greatest, the curve’s apparent break is exaggerated by visual dynamics. That’s why Bill’s curveball was so untouchable. That’s why hitters who’ve been fooled by a curveball often wear a look and a posture that suggests they think the world unfair. It is unfair: Their own visual dynamics have just multiplied a nasty trick the pitcher played on them.

Continue reading →

Rachel Maddow Gets Depressed

Rachel Maddow. Photo courtesy MSNBC

So she describes in the midst of a long, fascinating interview with Terri Gross, which I had the pleasure of listening to during a rare long drive last week. (The video above is from Jon Stewart; quite entertaining.) The entire Terri Gross interview is splendid. But a high point — an unexpected stretch amid a conversation with many small surprises — is Maddow’s description, during a short, remarkably chipper exchange about her depression, of several of the black dog’s most defining features. A lucid, engaging concision seems to come naturally to her.

Essentially ever since puberty, every since I was 11 or 12, I guess, I’ve had cyclical depression. That’s, you know, something that has been a defining feature of my life as an adult. And it’s manageable, but it’s real. And doesn’t take away from my joy in my work or my energy, but coping with depression is something that is part of the everyday way that I live and have lived as long as I can remember.

Maddow loves her job, and she’s clearly a confident person. Yet she sometimes labors under the imposter syndrome that many depressive types have — the feeling, as she put it,

that  [her success] is going to go away at any moment. People are going to realize that I’m a great fraud and it’ll end, so I better make sure this is a good show because it’ll be my last. Part of me feels that way every day.

GROSS: Does the focus that you need and the adrenaline surge that you get doing your show help with depression when you have it?

MADDOW: No. Depression for me is you can’t distract your way out of it, and I think people can understand the difference, if you’ve never been depressed, you can still understand the difference between sadness and depression. It’s like the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. And the opposite of happiness isn’t necessarily sadness, it’s disconnection. And you know, when you are depressed, it’s like the rest of the world is the mothership and you’re out there on a little pod and your line gets cut, and you just don’t connect with anything, you sort of – you sort of disappear.

This sense of disconnection she describes is a central feature of depression, in many ways its essence, along with the feeling of deadness: a sense of isolation from your own life and from others. You’re cut off even if you’re surrounded by people who care about you. This amazes those around you; they can’t believe that you can’t feel their wish to help you.

That said, Maddow is clearly a pretty high-functioning depressive; she gets the job done (with help from a staff) even when she’s down.

GROSS: Does it affect your performance when you’re depressed?

MADDOW: It affects my ability to focus and my preparation. So because I tend to know sort of – I can tell it’s coming – my depression isn’t all the time, so if I’m coming up on a bout of depression, a few things happen, so I can tell it’s happening. Like I just – I’m used to it. I lose my sense of smell and some other things like that happen. And… you know it’s coming; it has nothing to do with anything else in your life. It’s like a train and you just ride until it slows down enough that you can get off. And if I know it’s coming I will try to schedule my work life around not having to, for example, read a complete book. Because it will be hard for me to – with my schedule I will often need to read a book, as I’m sure you know, in a day and getting a book read plus a show done on a day where I’m pretty low and I can’t focus is a hard row to hoe. And so I try to adjust my schedule around it to accommodate.

GROSS: Well, you would never know watching you.

MADDOW: Oh, good.

GROSS: Never. Never know.

MADDOW: I’m not embarrassed. I’m not embarrassed by it. You know, I mean, it’s no – I don’t see it as having any moral component. I’m not embarrassed by it and I know that a lot of people live with it and cope with and treat depression in different ways. And I’ve been able to be a high-functioning person with depression all my life. And I expect that – I don’t expect it to ever go away. It would be great if it did but in the meantime, I can make a life around it.

I don’t watch any TV, and very little streaming video. But this interview makes me want to make time to watch Maddow work. She comes across not just as highly intelligent but as someone with an extraordinary level of deep empathy and — something really hard to summon — a social and moral courage: the courage to confront people and differ with them, including some people I find intolerable and don’t feel I could be civil with, and treat then respectfully, all in front of an audience of millions. Really quite something. This is a great listen.

via » Rachel Maddow: The Fresh Air Interview.

Upstate NY: Good Place to Talk Genes & Writing

This coming Monday and Tuesday, March 26 and 27, I’ll be giving talks on science and writing at Binghamton University, hosted by David Sloan Wilson and the Evolutionary Studies Program as well as the Dean’s office.

First I’ll talk about the orchid gene hypothesis; that’s Monday at 5pm. On Tuesday afternoon I’ll talk about using music as a model for structuring longform nonfiction. Full program and details here.  If you’re thereabouts, come and join the discussion. It seems a civilized place, so possibly there’ll be a pub crawl at some point.

Many thanks to David Sloan Wilson and Binghamton University for hosting.

This is How We Think: We Make Constellations From Stars

International Space Station passing under Big Dipper

A recent conversation on Twitter between @TimCarmody and @RobinSloan alerted me to this brilliant post from Tim Carmody (who can also be found at Wired’s EpiCenter). It’s a lovely description of how we make sense of things, finding patterns in what’s presented to us, both in science and in everyday life.

The thing is, even the semi-random shapes, the so-called patterns, prior to seeing them as a constellation and then an element of mythology, are accidents. They’re not real.

After the Copernican revolution, a constellation isn’t even a constellation. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional flattening of a three-dimensional reality. Actually, we should probably say a FOUR-dimensional reality. The light from stars at varying distances, leaving their sources at various times in the distant past, gets mistaken, from our earthbound point-of-view, as a simultaneous two-dimensional pattern.

BUT! That distortion, that accident, produces something extremely powerful — both imaginatively and practically.

Take “constellational thinking” and apply it to something besides stars in space. Let’s say — history.

Over here, you’ve got the Roman Republic, over there, the French Revolution. Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them.

But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.

Now you begin to see the French Revolution the way part of the Revolution saw itself, as an explosion of the continuum of history.

*Actually this ‘post’ is a comment in a thread started by Robin Sloan, Carmody’s blog buddy at SnarkMarket, but the comment became the heart of the post. In most places that’s not supposed to happen, a comment taking over a post. But in this case it reflects, among other things, the wonderful conversational chemistry that often holds at Snarkmarket, where Sloan and Carmody and Matt Thompson have weaving it like the old Celtics for some time now. Who hit that three-ponter? Carmody hit this one. But it was all the passes before, and the games before that, that set it up.

Astronomy, basketball, and the French Revolution. You don’t get that every day.

From Explosions in the sky « Snarkmarket.

Image: The International Space Station passing under the Big Dipper. By Otto Phokus via Creative Commons license.

The PTSD Trap: Our Overdiagnosis of PTSD In Vets Is Enough to Make You Sick

Standing Watch
Standing Watch. Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Author’s note: This story originally appeared in Scientific American, April 2009. As the suggestion of U.S. Army medical student Petulant Skeptic (see below), I am re-publishing it here, open access, because the return of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars renews the importance of examining our ideas about how most soldiers react to combat. As noted in Petulant Skeptic’s preface below, the U.S. press and populace seems all too ready to attribute every trouble suffered or made by combat veterans a sign of searing trauma. We can do better.    – David Dobbs

Preface by Petulant Skeptic, U.S. Army.

As America rushes to understand SSgt Robert Bales’ alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians there will be, and already is (see: here, here, and here), a renewed interest in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) among those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the media have been more restrained in blaming Bales’ purported PTSD or TBI than they were with Benjamin Barnes—the Mt. Rainier Shooter three months ago (see here for a recap)—there continues to be precious little examination of PTSD’s prevalence and persistence among veterans. As a soldier, a medical student, and someone interested in these “invisible” injuries of war I find myself often paraphrasing David’s article in order to elucidate the confusing nomenclatures, conflated diagnoses and backwards incentives of how the Department of Veteran’s Affairs handles PTSD. Rather than rush to understand Bales, let’s use this time to let the facts of that case settle and resolve — and take this as an opportunity to reexamine a broken system for the good of those who suffer below the radar of national calamity.


The Post-Traumatic Stress Trap

by David Dobbs

In 2006, soon after returning from military service in Ramadi, Iraq, during the bloodiest period of the war, Captain Matt Stevens of the Vermont National Guard began to have a problem with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Stevens’s problem was not that he had PTSD. It was that he began to have doubts about PTSD: The condition was real, he knew, but as a diagnosis he saw it being dangerously overemphasized.

Stevens led the medics tending an armored brigade of 800 soldiers, and his team patched together GIs and Iraqi citizens almost every day. He saw horrific things. Once home, he had his share, he says, of “nights where I’d wake up and it would be clear I wasn’t going to sleep again.”

He was not surprised: “I would expect people to have nightmares for a while when they came back.” But as he kept track of his unit in the U.S., he saw  troops greeted by both a larger culture and a medical culture, especially in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that seemed reflexively to view bad memories, nightmares and any other sign of distress as an indicator of PTSD.

“Clinicians aren’t separating the few who really have PTSD from those who are experiencing things like depression or anxiety or social and reintegration problems, or who are just taking some time getting over it,” says Stevens. He worries that many of these men and women are being pulled into a treatment and disability regime that will mire them in a self-fulfilling vision of a brain rewired, a psyche permanently haunted.

Stevens, now a major, and still on reserve duty while he works as a physician’s assistant, is far from alone in worrying about the reach of PTSD. Over the last five years or so, a long-simmering academic debate over PTSD’s conceptual basis and rate of occurrence has begun to boil over into the practice of trauma psychology and to roil military culture as well. Critiques, originally raised by military historians and a few psychologists, are now being advanced by a broad array of experts, including giants of psychology, psychiatry, diagnosis, and epidemiology such as Columbia’s Robert Spitzer and Michael First, who oversaw the last two editions of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-III and DSM-IV; Paul McHugh, the longtime chair of Johns Hopkins University’s psychiatry department;  Michigan State University epidemiologist Naomi Breslau; and Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally, a leading authority in the dynamics of memory and trauma, and perhaps the most forceful of the critics. The diagnostic criteria for PTSD, they assert, represent a faulty, outdated construct that has been badly overextended so that it routinely mistakes depression, anxiety, or even normal adjustment for a unique and particularly stubborn ailment.

This quest to scale back the definition of PTSD and its application stands to affect the expenditure of billions of dollars, the diagnostic framework of psychiatry, the effectiveness of a huge treatment and disability infrastructure, and, most important, the mental health and future lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat veterans and other PTSD patients. Standing in the way of reform is conventional wisdom, deep cultural resistance and foundational concepts of trauma psychology. Nevertheless it is time, as Spitzer recently argued, to “save PTSD from itself.”

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Are You Part of Steven Pinker’s “Science-flunking Intellectual Elite”?

In a passage highlighted by Flip Chart Fairy Tales, Stephen Pinker, in an interview in The Observer last week, argues that statistical ignorance is our intellectual culture’s great failure.

I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.

I largely agree with him, though the English major in me rebels — and I think a world where everyone understood stats but no one read good literature might still be a less moral place. (I could be wrong on this.) But Pinker is not pressing us to dump Milton, of course, but to gain competence in understanding statistics and scale. He’s dead right, and what makes his argument interesting is that he’s insisting our ignorance of statistics, amid our joy of reciting flabby or misleading numbers, can make us ignorant about moral questions.

It’s a good interview, as most with Pinker are. He’s smart, articulate, and complicated in ways that lead to surprises. You get a chance to see him talk, do so.

Trivia find: Pinker has a profile and several entries at IMDB, the movie database, where he is listed as “miscellaneous crew” (and adviser) on several films. He also shoots some nice photos.

Our science-flunking intellectual elite | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

Steven Pinker: fighting talk from the prophet of peace | Science | The Observer