Jamelle Bouie makes a seemingly indisputable point about Donald Trump:

Let's dispute this anyway. Bouie is referring to an interview by Lester Holt that's airing tonight on the NBC Nightly News. Here's a slightly cleaned up version of the portion he's talking about:

LESTER HOLT: You also made the claim that [Hillary Clinton's] e-mail, personal e-mail server, had been hacked, probably by foreign governments, suggesting that...she would be compromised as president. What evidence do you have?

DONALD TRUMP: Well first of all, she shouldn't have had a personal server, okay? She shouldn't have had it. It's illegal. What she did is illegal. Now she might not be judging that way because, you know, we — we have a rigged system. But what she did is illegal. She shouldn't have had a personal server —

HOLT: But is there any evidence that it was hacked other than routine fishing attacks?

TRUMP: I think I read that and I heard it and somebody —

HOLT: Where?

TRUMP: — that also gave me that information. I will report back to you. I'll give it to you.

HOLT: But you just said it with such certainty yesterday.

TRUMP: I don't know if certainty. Probably she was hacked. You know, you can be hacked and not know it, but she probably was hacked. The fact is she should not have it, she should not have had a personal server.

"I will report back to you." How lame! But before you scoff too much, think about what happened during this brief exchange:

  1. Holt repeated the claim that Hillary Clinton's email server had been hacked, "probably by foreign governments."
  2. Trump made a little speech about her personal server being illegal
  3. Holt repeated the claim, using the words "hacked" and "fishing attacks."
  4. Trump says he read that somewhere and he'll get back to Holt with the evidence.

To folks like us, who follow this stuff obsessively, this seems obviously ridiculous. But to the average viewer it's exactly the opposite. Trump has managed to maneuver Holt into spending 40 seconds of his evening newscast repeating damaging charges against Hillary Clinton. Between the two of them, in the space of that 40 seconds, you hear the words personal server four times, hacked five times, illegal three times, and compromised, rigged, and fishing attacks once each. When it's over, Trump promises to produce evidence backing this up. "I will get it to you," he says, in a tone that very much suggests he will indeed get it to us. (Click the link and listen to Trump if you don't believe me about this.)

This is the farthest thing from lame. It is an awesome display of media manipulation. The average person will come away from this with one and only one impression: Hillary Clinton probably used an illegal email server that was hacked by foreign governments. Period. Holt's skepticism doesn't even come through because he's too worried about trying to sound professional—and Trump took advantage of that to make Holt into yet another of his unwitting media dupes. This entire interview was nothing but a huge win for Trump. Holt served up every single thing he wanted on a silver peacock feather.

If you don't want to give Trump air time to make baseless charges, then you should refuse to air his baseless charges. This whole section of the interview should have been left on the cutting room floor. If everyone did that, eventually Trump would learn that making wild accusations won't get him precious exposure. But TV news loves wild accusations and pretends that airing them is OK as long as they follow up with a knowing, eyes-raised pronouncement that "no evidence was forthcoming from the Trump campaign." Haha. All of us who are in the know understand what that means.

This should stop. Period. Everyone is playing Trump's game, and it's way past time to knock it off.

Will increasingly intelligent automation eventually put humans out of work? There are some plausible reasons to think this might never happen. But there are also some really dumb reasons to think it won't happen. The dumbest, by a mile, is basically, "That's what everyone said about the Industrial Revolution and it just made us richer." This is such a phenomenally stupid argument that I can't even bring myself to waste time explaining why it's so dumb.

But there's another surprisingly common bad argument: "Look around, automation is opening up more jobs for people than ever!" I'm not especially trying to pick on Tim Lee here, but I'm pretty surprised to see him pushing a version of this claim:

Our collective obsession with job-stealing robots can cause us to overestimate the impact of automation — and obscure an important point about the economy. In many service industries, human labor is a mark of luxury. So at the same time robots destroy manufacturing jobs, the demand for labor-intensive services is soaring. We can see the signs of this all around us. There's the rise of Etsy, an online marketplace whose main selling point is that the products are not mass-produced. [etc.]

....One way to see this is by looking at the US Labor Department's projections of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States between 2014 and 2024. A bunch of slots are taken up by therapists and caretakers: physical therapists and their aides and assistants, occupational therapy aides and assistants, home health aides.

....In a sense, it's possible to automate many aspects of these jobs. Instead of having a therapist come to your home, someone could send you a video demonstrating therapy techniques....For someone who needed therapy care, this kind of semiautomated therapy service would probably be better than nothing. But it's a lot worse than having a face-to-face meeting with a human being...."Therapy" delivered by an app or even a robot is a different kind of service, just as coffee delivered by a vending machine is a different kind of service than a cup of coffee prepared by a human barista.

This is crazy. All he's saying is that automation isn't yet good enough to replace human caretakers or human baristas. But no one says otherwise. As for "handmade," that's been a mark of luxury for centuries, ever since "handmade" became a retronym in the first place.

It's pointless to argue that automation isn't currently taking away jobs. The evidence is just too ambiguous to allow a firm conclusion on that score, and at most it's had only a small effect anyway. The only interesting question is whether artificial intelligence will eventually get to the point where robots can drive cars and dig trenches and do your taxes and help old people get around. I happen to think the answer is yes, probably by around 2030 or 2040 or so—but I acknowledge that I might be wrong about that. Maybe it will be more like 2070. Or maybe there's some not-yet-understood reason that it will never happen at all. Arguments on that score are welcome.

But pointing to the present as evidence that automation is over-hyped is a non-sequitur. Nobody's arguing that robots today can make your coffee or keep the elderly company, so why even bring it up? In another few decades, though, I'll bet the elderly will prefer robot caretakers who are endlessly patient, willing to talk on any subject, and never screw up. There won't be a person in the country who'd prefer the crappy, ill-trained, and unreliable level of care and attention that most nursing home residents receive today.

Just to wrap up, then, here are the two worst arguments against the eventual job-killing rise of intelligent robots:

  • The Industrial Revolution didn't put us all out of work.
  • Automation today isn't putting us all out of work.

Neither one of these arguments offers the slightest insight into what will happen if and when AI becomes human level or close to it. If you come across either one, just back away slowly and move on to the latest cute cat video on YouTube.

<rant>I had a slight meltdown about an hour ago when a little ScreenTip® showed up in Excel. It was covering something I needed to see and I couldn't get rid of it and I'd finally had enough. I started pounding the keyboard and yelling and just generally scaring the hell out of the cats. This is probably a sign that I need to restart my meds,1 but it's also a sign that I'm so sick and tired of the endless crap that pops up on my computer that I feel like screaming sometimes. Seriously, does every goddam page on the internet have to feature some kind of popup either when I land or when I leave or when I mouse over the wrong thing or whatever? Can't I just read in peace? For a few minutes at least? Please?</rant>

The answer is no, of course. And surely one of the most hated popups on the internet is the omnipresent ForeSee survey popup. And just to piss me off even more, check out the gloriously buzzword-laden gobbledegook they serve up on their "About Us" page:

As a pioneer in customer experience analytics, ForeSee continuously measures satisfaction with the customer experience and delivers powerful insights on where organizations should prioritize improvements for maximum impact. ForeSee applies its trusted technology across channels and customer touch points, including websites, contact centers, retail stores, mobile and tablet sites and apps and social media initiatives. Executives and managers confidently prioritize efforts that achieve business goals because ForeSee’s proven methodology is predictive of customer loyalty, purchase behavior, future financial success and even stock prices.

Jesus Christ. Is there anyone left in the tech industry who can write in ordinary English? And more to the point, is there some cookie or something I can install that will prevent all ForeSee popups from ever sullying my screen ever again?</rant for real this time>

1Unfortunately, this is not a joke. My med-free experiment doesn't seem to be working well. It's probably time to start up the Effexor again.

From Vox today:

A new analysis published in JAMA this week looked at US eating habits from 1999 to 2012 and found that...there was no change in total fruits and vegetables consumed. (When Americans do eat vegetables, fully half of them are tomatoes and potatoes — often in the form of sugar-laden ketchup and greasy fries.)

Wait. Potatoes are a vegetable? Wikipedia skirts the question entirely by calling them a "starchy, tuberous crop"—and pretty much everything that grows is a crop. Britain's Department of Health dithers: "Potatoes are botanically classified as a vegetable, but they are classified nutritionally as a starchy food." The USDA just flatly calls them vegetables. As the chart on the right shows, potatoes account for 30 percent of America's consumption of "vegetables and legumes." And they aren't legumes, are they?

Fine. Technically they're a vegetable. You learn something new every day. And I'm not just saying that. You really can learn something new every day from the USDA. Following the link to this little pie chart led me to ERS Charts of Note, a daily chart from the USDA's Economic Research Service. And it's great! Here are some recent charts:

  • Supermarket shrink varies by type of fresh fruit and vegetable
  • Most U.S. farm estates exempt from Federal estate tax in 2015
  • U.S. milk production continues to grow
  • India is the world’s leading importer of soybean oil
  • U.S. honey consumption per person has risen in recent years
  • U.S. stocks of natural cheese are at the highest levels since 1984
  • A growing number of school meals are served at no charge to students
  • Avocado imports grow to meet increasing U.S. demand

They're not kidding about the avocado imports, either. In the past 15 years, per-capita avocado consumption has increased from two pounds per person to seven pounds per person. Virtually all of that increase has been supplied by imports from Mexico, which are probably super cheap thanks to NAFTA. If Donald Trump had his way, your typical guac-drenched fast-food burrito wouldn't exist. What kind of a world would that be?

Weekly Flint Water Report: June 10-16

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 137 samples. The average for the past week was 7.05.

Should the Press Call Donald Trump a Liar?

The LA Times headline for Donald Trump's big attack speech yesterday is on the right. Trump called Hillary Clinton a "liar," but his own speech included "falsehoods." Here's a small sample of other headlines:

  • New York Times: Donald Trump Returns Fire, Calling Hillary Clinton a ‘World-Class Liar’
  • USA Today: Amid campaign troubles, Trump blasts Clinton as 'world-class liar'
  • Wall Street Journal: Donald Trump Attacks Hillary Clinton as ‘Corrupt’....Presumptive Republican presidential nominee accuses Democratic rival of using State Department for ‘personal profit’
  • CBS: Donald Trump's speech on Hillary Clinton filled with distortions

The traditional media has something of a taboo against using the word lie. Generally speaking, this is for the best. But now we're faced with a new situation: a presidential candidate who uses the word constantly while spouting obvious lies himself. This is not a partisan complaint: Virtually everyone who covers Trump agrees that he lies constantly and with gusto.

So should the old custom still hold? I'm not so sure. If Trump is going to loudly call Hillary Clinton a liar at every opportunity, perhaps his own lies should be called what they are. Not falsehoods. Not distortions. Lies.

The Supreme Court upheld affirmative action at the University of Texas today, but deadlocked on DAPA, President Obama's executive action on immigration:

The Supreme Court handed President Obama a significant legal defeat on Thursday, refusing to revive his stalled plan to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and give them the right to work legally in this country. The court’s liberals and conservatives deadlocked, which leaves in place a lower court’s decision that the president exceeded his powers in issuing the directive.

What does this mean? A district court in Texas issued a nationwide injunction against DAPA, which was upheld by the appeals court and now by the Supreme Court. Or, to be more accurate, it wasn't overturned by the Supreme Court. So it stays in place. But can an appeals court rule for the whole country? What happens if a similar case goes forward in, say, California, and the 9th Circuit rules differently?

We shall have to wait and see. Ruling against a president on immigration is unusual to say the least, so this case suggests either (a) Obama really was out on a limb with DAPA or (b) nobody cares very much about precedent or the law anymore. Liberals rule for Obama and conservatives rule against him, and that's that. I'm not entirely sure which I believe.

Donald Trump Is Frying My Brain

Here is Donald Trump talking to an evangelical audience on Tuesday about how he raised his children:

I always tell people, “No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.” And I add to some — if it’s appropriate: I say, if they go to church and if they start at a young age, that’s a tremendous asset.... I went to Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica.... It was like, you go to Sunday school, you have to do that.... Today, I don’t think it’s so automatic. And maybe we can get back into a position where it’s automatic.

I know I'll never get an answer, but I have to ask: Did any of Trump's kids go to Sunday school back in the day? Does Barron go to Sunday school now? Does Trump ever attend church? How about his grown kids? Just asking.

You might have noticed that this item is from yesterday. So was the picture of Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr. My post this morning about Utah v. Strieff is two days late. What's going on with that? Well, you know how your inbox can get filled up and you just get behind on everything? That's how I feel. My brain is hopelessly backed up and I'm behind on everything. Sometime tomorrow I'll finally figure out what happened today.

I blame Trump for this. He's brought a level of gobsmacking idiocy to the news that worms its way into my brain and won't let go. I get obsessed with what he's blathering about. Did he really say that? And people believed it? There has to be something more to it. But what? Has our national bullshit detector suddenly gone pear shaped? Why? How is it that 45 percent of the country apparently doesn't realize that he's basically just a talented used car salesman? It makes no sense. There's no way that anyone with even the slightest experience of real life could fail to see that he lies practically every time he opens his mouth. That he can't be trusted to do even the smallest thing he promises. What's going on? WTF. IS. GOING. ON?

This is my brain on Trump. It wants answers. But there are no answers. Just endless, endless spinning. It is trapped in a world gone haywire.

How are our big cities doing when it comes to educating their students? It's easy to look at overall test scores, but that doesn't tell you much. In general, whites score better than Hispanics and Hispanics score better than blacks on the "gold standard" NAEP test. This means that some cities will do better or worse than others depending on how many kids of different racial groups they have, and nearly all cities will do worse than the national average, which is whiter than most large urban areas.

What to do? Matt Yglesias points us to a study from Kristin Blagg of the Urban Institute, who controlled for a whole bunch of factors1 and then produced "adjusted" scores for 23 different cities. (Spoiler alert: Boston is best, Detroit is worst.) That's useful, but there's an easier way to look at this—cruder, admittedly, but still useful: just look at the scores for a single ethnic group and see how they do in different cities. Here, for example, are the scores in 8th grade reading for black kids in our four biggest cities plus Washington DC:

By 2015, all four of the biggest cities were doing about equally well, and they were all right around the national average. This suggests that the underlying quality of schooling is roughly average in all four. Washington DC, however, is an outlier. Black kids perform a full ten points worse than black kids in other cities. By the usual rule of thumb, that's a full grade level.

But how about improvement? Here's how scores have increased since 2003:

This time, the big outlier is Los Angeles, which has improved by about 6 percentage points. The others have all improved by about 1 percentage point—except for Washington DC again. Basically, the DC school district looks like a disaster. Its absolute quality is low and its rate of improvement is abysmal.

I picked this example more or less at random. You could look at math scores instead, or a combination of both math and reading. You could look at 4th grade scores. You could look at Hispanics or whites. I chose reading because I think it's a better indicator of learning; 8th grade because later grades are more important than earlier grades; and blacks because there are big issues with well-off white kids self-selecting into private schools at different rates in different cities. If you want to look at things differently, the raw data is easily accessible, and it only takes a few minutes to turn it into a colorful chart.

Bottom line: If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston, your school district is probably OK. Not great, necessarily, and obviously there can be big differences from school to school. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it's probably OK. Go ahead and send your kids to public school.

As for Washington DC, I don't know what the deal is. But if you have the wherewithal, avoiding the public school system might be a good idea.


1Blagg controls for gender, race and ethnicity, eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch, limited English proficiency, special education status, age, whether the student was given a testing accommodation, the amount of English spoken at the student’s home, and the student’s family structure (e.g., two-parent, single-parent, and foster). This is obviously far more sophisticated than merely looking at a single ethnic group, as I'm doing. On the other hand, I confess to a vague unease with studies that try to control for so many variables, especially when a lot of them are collinear. But that's just me.

On the other hand, income—and, in particular, concentrated poverty—are pretty important. Just looking at a single ethnic group doesn't control for that. On the other hand, eligibility for the school lunch program is the only income proxy available, and as a measure of poverty it's pretty lousy and getting lousier over time. We just don't have a very good way of comparing levels of poverty between school districts.

Can brain-training games increase your IQ? Some studies suggest they can, but a group of George Mason psychologists were suspicious. Maybe IQs increased only because participants knew they were engaging in a study of intelligence, with the placebo effect doing all the heavy lifting. To test this, the GMU researchers recruited two different groups of students: one was told they were participating in a brain-training study, while the other was told it was just "a study." Brian Resnick tells us what happened:

The researchers had 25 participants in each group. They then tested their fluid intelligence, had them play a memory training game for one hour, and then tested their intelligence again.

It’s important to note that there’s absolutely no reason one hour of training should make any reasonable difference when it comes to enhancing IQ. But amazingly, the placebo group’s IQ jumped, while the other group’s IQ remained flat....The placebo group grew "smarter" because they expected to grow smarter. (Perhaps they were more focused and concentrated on the tests, which increased their scores. It’s also evidence for how important motivation can be for cognitive performance.)

The conclusion is that brain-training games don't really do anything to increase intelligence and that brain-training research should be rigorous. But that sure seems like it's burying the lead. If this research is reliable, it tells us that a mere expectation of brain training will increase your IQ by a whopping five points. And I don't mean "whopping" in a sarcastic sense, either. An IQ of 100 means you're smarter than half the population. Raising that to 105 makes you smarter than 63 percent of the population. All that from mere expectations.

Sadly, the research probably isn't reliable. It's based on two groups of 25 students. I'll bet ten dollars that it doesn't replicate if someone else tries it.

But I'd sure like to see someone try to replicate it. If it pans out, we've just discovered the easiest way ever to increase IQs.