Essay Prompts: Correlation is not Causation

Here’s an interesting fact: Humans are stupid. I don’t mean to imply we don’t have intelligence (although some who claim to have a high IQ, well, let’s just say they get elected to public office on other qualities). Rather, we put our trust in things we shouldn’t (and not just politicians). We are horrible at judging risk. We often see things that just are not there. We often believe the most ridiculous nonsense about cooking, such as fresh ground salt is better.  Worst of all, we often confuse correlation with causation.

  • Correlation: a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things
  • Causation: the relationship between cause and effect; causality.

Here are two examples of this confusion I’ve seen in my news feeds and on FB:

One fellow wrote about a friend of his that got a good report from the doctor in a followup visit, stating: “He’s definitely living proof that God answers prayers.” No, he isn’t. It is wonderful that the friend is doing better, but there is no causality here. You can pray to God or a Saint and get better, but that is not proof that God or the Saint was *why* you got better, no matter what the Pope says. There is no proven or provable, testable, repeatable method of showing that one action causes the other.

Another fellow wrote about high tax states, citing a article that he believed said that “high state taxes cause people to leave those states, making it very difficult to actually increase tax revenue, no matter how high their tax rates get.” Again, there’s no causality here. Yes people leave high tax states, but they leave low tax states as well, for many many reasons. Taxes may be a reason, but typically it isn’t the precipitating reason. And in the absence of clear evidence that whereever taxes are higher, people leave, this is just correlation. There are many high tax states where people don’t leave (witness property values in California) and high tax countries where people don’t leave. Further, “people” is far too nebulous a category, for all people are not the same. Are you talking those with wealth? Those on fixed incomes? Retirees? People in particular industries? The issue is just too nebulous to attribute to causality.

Always remember storks and babies. I had a statistics professor explain it this way: You may think there is a causality between storks and babies, because whereever there are more babies, there are more storks. But that’s a spurious correlation: there are more babies where there are more storks because there are more babies in big cities, and big cities often have zoos, which have more storks. No causality there.

Keep this in mind as you read your papers.


Internet / Security

The never ending task of paring down my saved chum list brings you this collection of articles related to the Internet and Internet security. Pay attention folks — there’s some good stuff here. Also, remember the key adage: If you get a service for free, you are the product, not the customer.

  • Be Alert for Phishing. I’ve always opined that the key risk from the Equifax and other breaches is not identity theft, but phishing. Help Net agrees: they view phishing as a bigger threat than keyloggers or third party breaches. They researched the subject, and noted that “victims of phishing are 400x more likely to be successfully hijacked compared to a random Google user. In comparison, this rate falls to 10x for data breach victims and roughly 40x for keylogger victims. Keyloggers fall in between these extremes, with an odds ratio of roughly 40x”. The reason for this is that phishing kits also actively steal additional authentication factors (secret questions, phone number, device-related information, geolocation data) that can be used to impersonate the victim and bypass protections put in place by email (and other online service) providers.
  • So What is Phishing/Spearphishing? Here is a wonderful infographic/cartoon on how to protect yourself from Spearphishing. Along the way, it explains what spearphishing is, how it influenced an election (and potentially gave us President Trump) . It also contains some good tips about how to protect yourself from phishing. Note that, depending on where you work, this may be NSFW.
  • Lava Lamps and Security. Entropy. That’s “N”-“Tro”-“Pee”. Say it with me. Entropy is the property of how random your random numbers are. These numbers are usually generated by computers, and depend upon a random seed to start the process. A big issue is: how do you get the seed? Cloudflare does it in a very interesting and analog way: Lava Lamps. A lava lamp is a great way to generate randomness. Cloudflare videotapes its wall of colorful constantly morphing lava lamps and translates that video information into unique cryptographic keys.
  • Facebook Privacy. Remember my adage about getting a service for free? One such service is Facebook, and they don’t care about your privacy (and neither does that minx, Wendy). But you care about you, and that’s why you’re going to read this article about how to lock down your privacy settings on Facebook. Yes, you can make it so that when you go out searching for such-and-such for a friend (you know, that NSFW such-and-such), you aren’t suddenly deluged with ads on FB for that product.
  • Objectivity of Blog Sites. You’re probably familiar with them: all those blog sites that review this product and that product. Mattress blogs. Makeup blogs. Theatre blogs*. But there’s often a story behind the story about how manufacturers subtly influence them. Remember: if you get a product for free, what are you? Here’s a story I’ve been saving for a while about the Mattress Wars, where a bunch of new mattress stores started a war with mattress bloggers. *This, by the way, is one reason I do not accept free theatre tickets. I choose what I want to see and write about. I follow the ethical model of Consumers Reports. I will pay for tickets what I would have paid through the various discount ticket services I know about.



Nearby Transitions and Impacts

For those that don’t know, my real job has me working down in the real South Bay (i.e., El Segundo and the communities south of LAX — any other “South Bay” is just a figment of your imagination). I’ve run across a few articles of late about changes in the area I’d like to share; at least one took my by surprise:

  • Wiseburn High School. Over the last two years, we’ve watched what was a technical office of Northrop Grumman (between two of our facilities) transform into … something. We now know what: a high school. More precisely: Three high schools that are sometimes one, and school district administrative offices. They gutted the office building, reinforced it, and transformed it into a school with three separate subschools, giving the small Wiseburn district their own high school. The story of the transformation is fascinating. The traffic? Morning isn’t a problem, but the afternoon there’s a mess when the folks attempt to make a left out of the Air Force Base while parents pick up their kids. I predict a light in the future there.
  • Creative Office Space. Down the street from the Air Force Base (actually, between the Base and Imperial Highway) is a large sprawling Northrop Grumman Aircraft manufacturing plant (which used to just be Northrop). I had noticed the fences had changed to opaque over part of the parking lot, and suspected something was happening. Now I know. The facility, once NG moves out in a year or so, will be becoming creative office space. The article on the transformation is interesting: manufacturing characteristics and old buildings are now in style, so this an adaptive reuse that is sure to snarl traffic. However, if it brings vanpool riders from the valley, I’ll be happy. It also reflects a gigantic transformation for the area. Were you to look here 40 years ago, you would have seen all the big Aerospace companies: Hughes, TRW, Aerospace, Northrop, and later Boeing and Raytheon, plus the LAAFB and other aircraft companies, with folks like Douglas down in Long Beach. Today, that work is a fraction of what it once was with more thinking than actual building going on. The creative talent is now entertainment and studio based.
  • Toyota. Down the road a bit, the US HQ of Toyota is decamping to Texas (leaving a bunch of good people who can’t go behind — I know some). There was an interesting article in the papers about the impacts of this transition on the area — in particular the restaurants. This is not something you think about when you hear about businesses leaving, but there are large impacts on the community. Restaurants lose the lunch and party trade (which is substantial). Local shops lose people picking up stuff at lunch hours. Local exercise facilities and repair facilities are impacted. Moves can have large footprints.



Things Come and Things Go

Today’s collection of news chum addresses two areas of interest to me: origin stories, and reports of things disappearing. Origin stories are interesting because we don’t often know where some popular things come from; many come from new or emerging trends. Disappearance stories, on the other hand, are often reflective or indicative — again — of trends in society.



Something to Chew On

Time for some more food related news items to chew upon:

  • Best Oils for Frying. Here’s something you don’t see everyday: Me using a link that someone sends me in email based on an old post. But this link was sufficiently interesting to pass on, and I thank Sebastian Beaton of Two Kitchen Junkies for doing so. It concerns the best and healthiest oils for frying, listing their pros and cons. The site itself looks interesting: a father-daughter duo looking into cooking and cookware.
  • Demonization of Gluten. My wife is gluten-free. She has to be for medical reasons; she has celiac. But there are many many others for whom this is the fad of the day, and they have gone on gluten free diets for no discernible benefit other than the placebo effect.  Freakonomics, a podcast I used to subscribe to but didn’t have the time to listen to, had a recent episode on this subject. By the way, it turns out there is also a Celiac Project Podcast.
  • Food Waste. One of the reasons I could never run a restaurant is all the food waste. But households waste even more; the amount is staggering. Much is perfectly good, more would have been good had we not forgotten about it in the back of the refrigerator. Here’s an article that puts a number to just how much food Americans waste, including what type of food is most wasted where.
  • Less Nutritious Food. When you think about climate change, what worries you? Rising sea levels. More intense weather. How about less nutritious food. It seems that the increase in carbon dioxide is making our food have less nutrients.  From the article: “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

P.S.: I also have a fascinating post on the history of Cinnabon that I thought about including, but decided to save it for an origins post, combining it with a post on the history of Powerpoint and a yet undiscovered origin post.


Design Origins

One of the podcasts that I really like is 99% Invisible. This podcast explores unseen design. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the categories of news chum that catches my eye has to do with design. Here’s some that I’ve seen recently:

  • Orange Handled Scissors. We all have them, if not multiple pairs. I’ve got two staring at me from my desk: one real, one a knockoff. Yet have you ever wondered who invented them. Two recent articles, one from Mental Floss, and one from Co.Design, provide the answer. You probably remember the scissors that were common before the orange wonders: either silver or black handles, all metal, and heavy. This changed in the 1960s, as plastic was just starting to become a popular material. Fiskars began using the light, strong compound to make tabletops and dishes, but one of the company’s industrial designers, Olof Bäckström, sensed an opportunity to completely reinvent one of the company’s signature goods. Using plastic, he created a lighter scissor handle that was curved to fit the hand, thus making them easier to hold. Ultimately, this tweak also helped make the scissors easier to manufacture, helping them become affordable to the masses. Why Orange? At the time, Fiskars was making orange juicers from orange plastic. The first prototype for plastic-handled scissors was created with plastic from a juicer that was left in a machine. Fiskars employees ended up liking this original look so much that they ultimately voted to stick with it.
  • Common Typographic Symbols.  We use symbols like “@”, “#”, and “&” every day, but do you know where they come from? Mental Floss did an article recently on the origins of 6 common typographic symbols: “@”, “0”, “#”, “&”, “…”, and “+”.  Now you know will know why & == “and per se and”.
  • The Barcode. You likely think grocers invented the barcode. But you would be wrong. The original bar codes were invented by railroad companies to keep track of railroad cars.  The US rail industry, due to its large size and the sheer amount of stuff being delivered on its tracks at all times, had a fundamental challenge: Tracking where an individual car was going was really hard, and cars would often get lost.  The industry needed a solution that workedwhile the train was moving, perhaps as fast as 60 miles per hour. No delays allowed. No stopping, either. And because trains travel through all sorts of elements—rain, snow, wind, light, dark—that tracking has to work in basically any setting. And because it had to go on so many train cars, it had to be cheap—no more than, say, a dollar per device. The solution: KarTrak. Using a series of reflective color bars as a layer of abstraction from the complicated codes, the codes were then optically scanned using helium-neon lasers that were intended to pick up the details of the codes, no matter the weather. It worked, and was a success for a while, but soon petered out because of the cost of the scanners and lawsuits.
  • Craigslist. The site is ugly and text-based. Trades are risky and often prone to fraud. Yet it is highly successful, with numerous less-successful imitators. Why is Craigslist so successful. Wired explored the history and the reasons. First there were garage sales and the Recycler. Then came the internet, and with it, so many new ways to buy and sell used furniture. It was a serendipity engine that made it infinitely easier for people all over the world to exchange old lamps. One of the most useful tools was a list maintained by a guy named Craig. Craig’s list wasn’t a list so much as a collection of listings—a free online classifieds service that made its inky predecessors seem obsolete. Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995 as an email list of interesting events in and around San Francisco. The list soon mutated into a stand-alone website. Why is it successful?The site is whatever its users need it to be at any given moment in time: a housing agency, an employment office, a matchmaking service, a lost-and-found board, a town square. Or an ideology.

A Hostile World

Hostility. It seems to be growing in our society, from the hostility we see from our leaders towards the lower and middle classes, from the hostility we see from “the other party” to our party, from the hostility and name calling that seems to commonplace on social media. The amount of hatred and hostility in society is growing, and we seem to be doing little to stop it. It’s hidden and unacknowledged, almost like climate change.

What got me thinking about this was an interesting article in LAist about Hostile Architecture. I’d heard the term before — 99% Invisible did a piece on the subject back in July 2016. What is Hostile Architecture? The LAist article summed it up well: “You know those pigeon spikes to stop pigeons from congregating? Imagine that, but for humans.” To put it another way, Amber Hawkes, Co-Director of Here LA, defines hostile architecture as “any streetscaping element or design move in the public realm that is unfriendly to the human being.”

[ETA: This article from CityLab highlights more hostile architecture: The MTA in NYC rehabbed some stations in Brooklyn, removing benches and replacing them hostile architecture: “the leaning bar. A slanted wooden slab set against the wall at about the height of a person’s rear end, the bar was meant to give passengers a way to take some weight off their feet as they waited for the next train. What it was not, however, was a bench.” As that article notes: “Despite the MTA’s protestations, some New Yorkers saw the bar as the latest salvo in what could be called the War on Sitting. As cities around the world tear out benches in an effort to deter homeless people from sleeping and drug dealers from hovering, or to force loiterers to move along, pedestrians and transit users may find fewer and fewer places to sit down and take a load off, or hang out and watch the world go by—and that’s bad news not only for tired feet, but for city life itself.”]

Essentially, hostile architecture are those bumps and arms in the middle of benches that make it hard for the homeless to sleep, the bumps on the walls that stop skateboarders. There are spikes, pig ears, bollards, grates and other elements (like bolted vents making it impossible to sleep near a heating vent in winter in colder climates, for example) to dissuade homeless individuals from resting or sleeping in alleys, near store fronts, or in parks.  Some are less obvious. The 99% Invisible piece notes the following examples: Some businesses play classical music as a deterrent, on the theory that kids don’t want to hang out or talk over it. Other sound-based strategies include the use of high-frequency sonic buzz generators meant to be audible only to young people. Housing estates in the UK have also put up pink lighting, aimed to highlight teenage blemishes.

99PI notes: “Unpleasant designs take many shapes, but they share a common goal of exerting some kind of social control in public or in publicly-accessible private spaces. They are intended to target, frustrate and deter people, particularly those who fall within unwanted demographics.” The LAist pieces commented: “The idea seems to be that if an exterior space becomes anything more than a place to walk or commute through, it’s a problem.”

That last line really brought the concern home to today. We have leaders that are creating a hostile society — a society where those not of the social or economic strata they want get pushed away, our of their spaces. The proposal yesterday about raising the fees for popular public parks is an example of that. The changes being made to our refugee policy. The changes to the tax code are hostile architecture. Our media has conditioned us to believe that hostility is the answer to problems, and as we’re all passive-aggressive, we’re letting our benches and laws do it for us.

That’s wrong (and if you disagree, I think you’re stupid 🙂 ). We have to make the choice to turn away from hostility, and move towards acceptance.

P.S.: I’m surprised no one commented on my previous post, asking what was in common between the recent incidents at Telsa and Solar City, when compared to past SpaceX. Another example of passive-aggressive hostility?


Deja Vu, All Over Again

Reading the news today, a headline caught my eye:

This seemed so familiar. Then I remembered:

Hmmm, I wonder if these events have anything in common.

Or anyone.