All posts by Jeremy

Campaign Finance in Arizona

I’m super excited that FiveThirtyEight has relaunched. This article about why Arizona has a very conservative state legislature reminded me of another article I read about campaign finance a while back.

Public financing is seen as a way to get rid of the influence of money in politics, as well as a way to give legislators more time to legislate, rather than fundraise. Arizona has gone with full public financing of state-wide races.

Arizona has one of the most advanced clean election laws in the country. As long as a candidate for the state legislature reaches a minimum fundraising level ($1,250), the state essentially funds her campaign. (Only Connecticut and Maine have similar laws on public financing for state legislature candidates.) That allows candidates to stay viable even if they don’t have connections to the state party or local business leaders.

(emphasis mine)

With the example in Arizona, it seems that one of the consequences of that is a decentralization of power, and more extreme candidates. 

What about a middle ground, like financing floors, but not ceilings?

I used to believe that a campaign regime of floors-not-ceilings would help; by allowing candidates to raise money in larger chunks, they could reach their fundraising goals in far fewer hours of work. And given diminishing returns (that is, in that more spending produces relatively fewer and fewer votes), the incentive to just use the same time but raise more money wouldn’t be all that high. I think that was, alas, wishful thinking. The evidence seems to be that they all raise whatever they can, even if it’s a waste of their time. Moreover, if floors-not-ceilings succeeded in bringing viable candidates to more districts, even more incumbents would be even more obsessed with the theoretical possibility of a future plausible nominee who had to be scared away by building even larger warchests.

So it seems that financing floors wouldn’t help, full public financing results in more extremism, and campaign spending limits were down by the Supreme Court.

While I’m less sure that big money is a huge problem in politics than I was in the past, reducing the sheer amount of time that politicians spend raising that money is still something I want to see, and there don’t seem to be good solutions to that.

(As an aside, the FiveThirtyEight article can also be seen as a counter argument to “big money leads to polarization.” If public financing leads to polarization/extremism, then surely we can’t lay the blame on big money.)

 

Pollution and a Sort of Nuclear Winter

A nuclear winter would likely be caused by a nuclear exchange and not nuclear power. That aside, China has is headed towards a similar spot climate wise:

Chinese scientists have warned that the country’s toxic air pollution is now so bad that it resembles a nuclear winter, slowing photosynthesis in plants – and potentially wreaking havoc on the country’s food supply.

China does have nuclear power and is seeking to build out more plants, but they can’t increase capacity fast enough (including with other energy sources) to replace their current reliance on fossil fuels.

Hopefully solar energy keeps dropping in price, although it won’t help if we’re already in the midst of a fossil fuel inspired nuclear winter.

Universal Preschool and Language

As drawn by its students?

I read this article about universal pre-school (école maternelle) in France, and thought it could use a touch more history.

The French language wasn’t widely used throughout France up to the Revolution. The aftermath resulted in a short-lived policy of freedom of languages for all citizens, followed by pretty much the opposite, and forcing everyone to learn French.

I don’t deny that teaching the national language (for countries with a national language) in school is necessarily bad, but when a national policy can be construed as linguicide, it loses some of its luster.

Over here in the United States, there isn’t a national policy, although as the article points out, it’s a hot topic. When I started writing this post, I thought there could be some clever way to include early childhood education taught in English to perhaps make immigration reform somehow more appealing to conservatives. Given what I’ve read of the language policy in the US, it doesn’t seem likely.

With the Bilingual Education Act, we had a policy that was more inclusive than what I suggested. It helped states fund programs for students with limited English ability.

As the Wikipedia article points out, this changed somewhat with the passage of No Child Left Behind.

So with immigration reform a possible hot topic this year, what should language policy look like? This paper goes over the history of US language policy, and provides a list of principles to build future policy around.

One time, during jury duty

I read this article on The New Republic and it reminded it of the time I was called up for jury duty.

The most striking thing was the difference in appearance between the two lawyers. The prosecutor looked sharp, was well dressed, and was in great shape.

And his counterpart was the opposite. His suit didn’t fit well, he was overweight, and it looked like he’d been sweating, despite it being a relatively chilly fall morning.

When they stood up to introduce themselves, one was a lot more energetic than the other.

Judging things by their appearance is always a dangerous game, but it did not look like both sides had close to equal representation at all.

(As an aside, I’m struggling to think of where I read a defense lawyer deliberately dressed up more shabbily to gain sympathy points. Thought it was from To Kill a Mockingbird at first, but can’t find a relevant quote.)

A Basic Income Experiment Closer to Home

So there’s actually a case of a basic income of sorts in the United States. The short of it is that there’s a Cherokee tribe that decided to  distribute some of the profits of a casino to all the tribe’s members:

So when, in 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains opened a casino, Jane Costello, an epidemiologist at Duke University Medical School, saw an opportunity. The tribe elected to distribute a proportion of the profits equally among its 8,000 members. Professor Costello wondered whether the extra money would change psychiatric outcomes among poor Cherokee families.

The results were impressive:

When the casino opened, Professor Costello had already been following 1,420 rural children in the area, a quarter of whom were Cherokee, for four years. That gave her a solid baseline measure. Roughly one-fifth of the rural non-Indians in her study lived in poverty, compared with more than half of the Cherokee. By 2001, when casino profits amounted to $6,000 per person yearly, the number of Cherokee living below the poverty line had declined by half.

The poorest children tended to have the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders, including emotional and behavioral problems. But just four years after the supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor. Already well-off Cherokee children, on the other hand, showed no improvement. The supplements seemed to benefit the poorest children most dramatically.

So, add another bit of research that says increasing the incomes of poor people helps in many ways.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with problems of implementation. The tribe got the money for this from a casino. There’s no equivalent income that we can tap into for the entire United States.

It’s also worth it to note that, as far as I can tell, this added to, and didn’t replace, parts of aid the tribe was already getting.

It takes less than a second

… to fall in love. At least, it takes less than a second for some of the right chemicals to flood your brain. Link

It takes a fifth-of-a-second for the euphoria-inducing chemicals to start acting on the brain when you are looking at that special someone.

That’s one of the conclusions of Stephanie Ortigue, who has co-authored a review of neuroscience research on love.

And an interesting bit about kinds of love:

One common distinction is between passionate love and the companionate kind, with the latter growing between couples over time.

My eighth grade Spanish teacher talked to us about this, over the distinction between “being in love” and “loving” someone (I think) that also was about the difference between just falling in love with someone, and having loved someone for years.

It seems like a lot of research into human behavior confirms things that we already know, but haven’t had fully categorized, or explained, by scientific means.

Different words for love? Makes sense, there’s different kinds of love that we’ve found.

Love at first sight? It’s the chemicals in your brain.

Does confession work? Looks like it does, even a non-religious one.

It’s sort of cool that science is confirming some of our past practices. We know more than we think we do.

Exploring the Boundaries of Science

Here are a few more articles I’ve read recently exploring the boundaries of what science can tell us.

In case you were wondering if scientific realism was a thing that scientists themselves were unsure about, here’s a blog post (via @realscientists) by a physicist about it, which concludes as follows:

So where does this leave us? Pretty much with the concept of realism in science in tatters. The internals of models changes in unpredictable ways when science advances. Even within a given model, the internals can be changed with mathematical tricks and for some definitions of realism, experiment has largely ruled it out.  Thus we are left with our models that describe aspects of reality but should never be mistaken for reality itself. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), the great German philosopher, would not be surprised.

I wouldn’t go so far to say the concept of realism in science is “in tatters,” rather that it’s not a solid assumption as many think.

Next, this article (via @EpicureanDeal) talks about a new approach to quantum mechanics that uses Bayesian methods to interpret the probabilities:

His [Christopher Fuchs’s] view arises from a relatively recent interpretation of quantum mechanics called Quantum Bayesianism, or QBism for short. It’s an approach long championed by quantum physicist Christopher Fuchs, developed with collaborators Rüdiger Schack and Carlton Caves.

Their view is that quantum theory’s conundrums stem from banishing the subject — the scientist or whoever — from the facts about “objective reality.” When a physicist calculates the odds of finding an electron in various locations, or the probability that a radioactive atom will decay today, those probabilities are generally taken as objective facts about nature. So reality is like dice. Einstein didn’t like it. Nevertheless the world respects the probabilities that quantum mechanics provides, and never defies them.

Some of the weirdness in quantum mechanics stems from the fact that it seems that observations “create” reality.

Much of the supposedly inexplicable quantum weirdness dissolves when this view is adopted, the QBists contend. When a measurement is made, for instance, multiple possibilities encompassed by the wave function all disappear, except for the one corresponding to the result of the measurement. This “collapse of the wave function” has elicited all sorts of philosophical hand-wringing about measurements “creating reality” instead of just recording it. But from the QBist perspective, a measurement is just an experience for an “agent” acting as an investigator of nature. What gets created is merely a new experience for the agent.

Any such agent can use the rules of quantum mechanics to calculate the odds for various measurement outcomes on a system described by a given quantum state. But those odds are the agent’s personal judgment. That means that the quantum state in the first place is also a personal judgment of the agent. “The notorious ‘collapse of the wave-function’ is nothing but the updating of an agent’s state assignment on the basis of her experience,” Fuchs, Mermin and Schack write.

This interpretation of quantum mechanics places the agent in the center.

To a QBist, the personal experience of an agent is the most important thing about quantum physics. Quantum states cannot be objective elements of reality because they are subjective, personal information, used by an agent for calculating the odds of future experiences.

Which I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Lastly, another piece from Michael De Dora about philosophy and science:

Yet an increasing number of people believe philosophy is useless or obsolete, and that all our efforts should be focused on science. This is deeply problematic, mainly because whether we realize it or not, we all must engage in philosophy before we engage in any kind of science. As Daniel Dennett has said, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.” To deny this is to oversimplify.

Philosophy deals with the base assumptions about how we interact with the world. Everything else is built on top of that.