Author: michaeljzoorob

Luminous Nonlinearity

Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking was a pleasant part of my winter break. I don’t really care for the title, and it’s somewhat difficult for me to articulate what the book was about. Broadly, it intertwined anecdotes about mathematicians with mathematical concepts and illustrated these concepts in action with pithy vignettes about selection bias among surviving war planes, the expected value of a prior iteration of the Massachusetts lottery, and regression to the mean among the sons of tall fathers. Somehow, it was a page turner.

Non-linearity was a concept described brilliantly early in the book: “Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.” Ellenburg applies this concept to the Laffer Curve (and provides a humorous counterexample of a writer with a sharply discontinuous utility function with respect to wages who is incentivized to work more hours if tax rates go up) and a conservative polemic that America should not try to become more like Sweden (tax and redistribute more) if Sweden is trying to become more like America (tax and redistribute less) (Ellenburg implies in rebuttal that there may be an optimal amount of government intervention in the economy straddling these two points).

Shortly after finishing this book, I encountered a clear example of nonlinearity in my own life. I was buying light bulbs for my standing lamp, which is my primary light source for my apartment when the sun is down. I had the bright idea to purchase slightly less luminous bulbs than I was using previously — more environmentally efficient, I thought, and maybe better at night as I’m winding down. As it turns out, this was not correct. It’s now not quite bright enough for me to read, so I also turn on a small table lamp. The net effect: because I decreased the amount of light emitted by my standing lamp, I now use two lights; reducing the electricity consumed by one light increased my total electricity consumption. Brilliant and definitely non-linear.

Profiling is a reality for Muslims in the US (Vanderbilt Hustler Re-post, 02/02/15)

While a student, I wrote several articles for Vanderbilt’s campus newspaper, but all of these were lost from the Vanderbilt Hustler website (along with all historic website content) sometime in the summer of 2016. I’m going to try to upload these articles here while I can still find scanned PDFs of the print issues that existed at the time. Since this particular article only appeared on the website, I found it through some crawling through the Wayback Machine with a url found on Facebook. Amazingly, this preserved the original links.

This article reacts to the inflammatory comments made by then Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain about American Muslims. 

Profiling is a reality for Muslims in the US

(Originally posted February 2, 2015; I had to disable Javascript to load the archived web page)

As we have all heard, Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain disparaged Islam in The Tennessean, saying, “Islam … poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration …” And later: “If America is to be safe, it must remove the foxes from the henhouses and institute serious monitoring of Islamic organizations.”

Amazingly, in an article bemoaning dangers to “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association,” Professor Swain calls in the same breath for government intrusion into the speech, assembly and association of American citizens precisely because they exercise their constitutional right to practice a faith different from hers.

The campus appropriately erupted against her callous words, but the actions Swain prescribed – chiefly, “serious monitoring of Islamic organizations” – are not just the daydreams of a strident Islamophobe. They are reality. For law enforcement and intelligence agencies, profiling is policy and, for Muslim Americans, harassment is routine.

This has been most infamously on display in New York. An investigation by The Associated Press reported: The NYPD has implemented “wide-ranging programs to monitor life in Muslim neighborhoods since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Police officers have eavesdropped inside Muslim businesses, trained video cameras on mosques and collected license plates of worshippers. Informants who trawl the mosques — known informally as ‘mosque crawlers’ — tell police what the imam says at sermons and provide police lists of attendees, even when there’s no evidence they committed a crime.”

The NYPD has placed undercover officers at local schools and monitored their Muslim student associations, and even monitored the websites of Muslim student associations in other states. One bizarre NYPD report leaked to the AP describes “an undercover officer … accompanying 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York on April 21, 2008. The officer noted the names of attendees who were officers of the Muslim Student Association” and tallied how often members prayed.

According to the AP, “in more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony.” Though the infamous “Demographics Unit” has been disbanded, discrimination against Muslims continues, wrote the Brennan Center, an outfit of New York University’s School of Law.

What has the Obama administration done about these kinds of surveillance? Nothing. Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan has praised profiling by the NYPD, saying it has been “responsible for keeping the city safe over the past decade.” The Obama administration’s 2014 DOJ guidelines nationwide authorize racial profiling by the TSA and border security and “allow the FBI to ‘map’ minority communities to place informants,” according to the Council on American-Islamic relations.

Most Muslims have experienced a “stressful event related to their Muslim identity” such as special airport searches, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. These instances of discrimination cause real psychological harm: The APA report linked them to higher rates of depression and anxiety among Muslims in the United States.

Discriminatory profiling also makes us less safe, since Muslim Americans reaching out to the police have helped stop several terrorist plots, and cooperation requires trust. As Sahar Aziz, a law professor and former policy advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, asked: “Can we reasonably expect Americans who are themselves targets of surveillance and suspicion to trust the very agencies spying on them?”

Not even public intellectuals who have condemned terrorism are safe. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed that the FBI and NSA have tracked the emails of several prominent Muslim American professors, civil rights attorneys and even a Republican political operative and former Homeland Security official named Faisal Gill.

In an interview with The Intercept, Gill was baffled by revelations that his AOL and Yahoo accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates: “I just don’t know why … I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community — I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.”

Gill’s only crime, like that of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who have been singled out, is to have practiced the wrong faith. To borrow Swain’s words, this reality is an insult to the freedoms that most of the world covets.

Equality in name only? How Vanderbilt promotes a discriminatory insurance policy (Vanderbilt Hustler Re-post)

While a student, I wrote several articles for Vanderbilt’s campus newspaper, but all of these were lost from the Vanderbilt Hustler website (along with all historic website content) sometime in the summer of 2016. I’m going to try to upload these articles here while I can still find scanned PDFs of the print issues that existed at the time. Unfortunately, the articles’ original links to sources are lost. 

This article did end up prompting a conversation about the tuition insurance policy. Vanderbilt Student Government passed a resolution encouraging a policy change. The Bursar (who was very genial when I met with him about this with the Student Body President) negotiated a new tuition insurance policy that reimburses mental and physical illness equitably, which took effect the following year (2015-2016).

Equality in name only? How Vanderbilt promotes a discriminatory insurance policy

(Published August 27, 2014)

Like many universities, Vanderbilt aspires to promote diversity and inclusion. The university requires its first-year students to discuss racism and the importance of pluralism, and its official policies include a promise to not discriminate in university programs. There is even an Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department whose “core values include equity, diversity, inclusiveness, accessibility and accommodation.” In light of the university’s seeming commitment to equality, I found it particularly vexing to receive a letter from Vanderbilt, accompanied by a signed note from the bursar, promoting a policy that is patently discriminatory.

Vanderbilt offers a “tuition-insurance” plan issued by A.W.G. Dewar, Inc., which provides reimbursement of education fees should a student withdraw from the university for medical reasons. The plan explicitly specifies that withdrawals caused by “mental health conditions” are given a 60 percent refund while a 100-percent refund is given for “injury and sickness.” The plan also indicates that withdrawals precipitated by addiction or substance abuse receive zero compensation.

On the face of it, the plan suggests either that mental illness is equivalent to three-fifths of a physical illness or that 40 percent of doctor-certified mental illnesses are feigned. Neither of these claims is borne out by any evidence. Rather than aiding a vulnerable student, the plan adds another layer of financial stress to a person likely facing a cascade of problems, possibly impeding his or her return to Vanderbilt.

This practice makes for an incoherent insurance policy, since it provides significantly less coverage for the illnesses most likely to warrant withdrawal. A 2009 study at 10 universities found that having clinical depression was the strongest predictor of withdrawing from college. So giving less coverage for mental illness is rather like having car insurance that provides 40 percent less coverage when your accident involves another car.

Moreover, distinguishing between mental and physical illness to provide unequal service perpetuates stigma against psychiatry and psychiatric illness — the idea that mental illness is “less real” than physical illness, or worse still, that someone is more blameworthy for having a mental illness than a physical one.

The practical implications of this policy are jarring to the point of ineffability. Why should a student suffering from depression because a person raped her receive a 40-percent-reduced reimbursement compared to a per-son struck by the “kissing disease”? Is post-traumatic stress caused by being robbed at gunpoint a less valid reason for withdrawing from college than a football injury?

The policy also violates the spirit, if not the letter, of federal law. In 2008, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which requires equal coverage for mental illness, including substance abuse, in health insurance plans. Hence, as The New York Times writes: “This would probably be illegal if tuition refund policies were deemed health insurance, instead of insurance that just happens to be based solely on your health.”

Since 2010, Vermont has required that colleges in the state provide equal coverage for withdrawal due to mental illness. Prompting the change was a complaint by a University of Vermont student named Sherry Williamson, a registered nurse who suffered from depression. “I couldn’t believe that UVM, which tries to promote diversity and be all-encompassing, would take on a policy that was clearly discriminatory,” Williamson said in an interview.

By choosing to contract with A.W.G. Dewar, Inc. under these terms, Vanderbilt University is complicit in unambiguous discrimination against people with mental illness. This is unacceptable for an institution that claims to be forward-looking and antithetical to the welfare of its students. Renegotiating a nondiscriminatory plan is essential if the university’s commitment to equality is more than skin-deep.

Suicide is not inevitable (Vanderbilt Hustler re-post)

While a student, I wrote several articles for Vanderbilt’s campus newspaper, but all of these were lost from the Vanderbilt Hustler website (along with all historic website content) sometime in the summer of 2016. I’m going to try to upload these articles here while I can still find scanned PDFs of the print issues that existed at the time. Unfortunately, the articles’ original links to sources are lost. 

Suicide is not inevitable
A look at how small changes can make all the difference 

(published October 23, 2013)

The decision to commit suicide may be the most important choice a person could ever make. Suicide is unrivaled in its finality, permanence and, of course, tragedy. Death is forever, unknown and unknowable, surely a state a person would want to think about carefully before embracing. And to kill oneself may be the only decision one cannot take back. As a result, it is commonly understood that suicide is a deliberate act, the capstone of years of unrelenting suffering.

But this characterization of suicide is almost always wrong. In the spring 2013 edition of
its seasonal magazine, the Harvard School of Public Health called the notion that suicides
are “long-planned deeds” the “biggest fallacy” about the act. The magazine reports: While “people who attempt suicide often face a cascade of problems,” empirical studies suggest that “they act in a moment of brief but heightened vulnerability.” In 2001, epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interviewed 151 people who nearly died while attempting suicide. Shockingly, a quarter of interviewees reported that less than five minutes elapsed between the decision to commit suicide and the attempt itself. Half said less than 20 minutes had passed. Seventy percent said less than one hour, and 86 percent said less than eight hours. Suicide thus tends to be an impulsive reaction to a crisis. Many people kill themselves, for example, on the days they get fired, get divorced or fail a test, and the availability of suicidal means is often the trigger for suicide.

The suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge demonstrate this fact. As described in a recent Slate article, the bridge’s “mythic beauty, easy access, and promise of near-certain death” beckons many to suicide. To jump off the bridge, one need only surmount a 4-foot barrier; suicide notes left on the bridge often ask, “Why did you make it so easy?” More than 2,000 people have leapt off the bridge to their deaths since it opened in 1937. Nevertheless, efforts to erect a barrier on the bridge have not gained traction, largely because of the belief that it wouldn’t prevent suicide. But there is good reason to believe that stopping a person from attempting suicide very often saves his or her life. A famous 1978 study at the University of California Berkeley tracked down 500 people who were restrained just before they leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971. At the time of the study, 94 percent were alive or had died of natural causes.

Furthermore, there is ample evidence that even simple measures can stop suicides. A meta-analysis of the effect of bridge barriers at suicide hotspots around the world found
that, on average, they reduce suicides on that bridge by 85 percent; though in some cases
suicides shifted to nearby bridges, barriers still decreased the number of local suicides by 30 percent. Gun-owning households in the U.S. are at least three times more likely to be the site of a suicide, but simply using gunlocks or securing ammunition can reduce the risk of suicide by two-thirds. As the Harvard School of Public Health reports, whether those who attempt suicide survive “depends in large part on the ready availability of highly lethal means, especially firearms.” (More than half of the 40,000 Americans who kill themselves each year do so with guns.) In the U.K., a 1998 law restricting the pack size of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) reduced the number of suicides by 200 in the first three years alone.

Hence, restricting access to suicidal means is an effective way to prevent suicide. Heeding this fact, as Cornell University did, can save lives. Between 1990 and 2010, 27 people committed suicide by jumping off one of the five bridges on Cornell University’s campus. In 2010, responding to three student suicides in a month, Cornell installed safety nets on campus bridges.

Moreover, the Golden Gate Bridge example shows that suicidal thoughts, even when acted on, are often fleeting. Only 30 people have survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge; of those, 27 lived out the rest of their lives without killing themselves, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation. In interviews with The New Yorker, many survivors of attempted suicide reported that they felt regret the moment they jumped. Ken Baldwin, a survivor who later found his calling as a high school teacher, recalled: “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable —
except for having just jumped.” Perhaps many of the thousands who did not survive felt the same way.

These findings echo nationwide studies, which suggest that 90 percent of people who attempt suicide and survive ultimately do not kill themselves. Nevertheless, many people cling to the erroneous idea that suicide is inevitable, an opinion commonly held even by psychiatrists, the people trusted with caring for the mentally ill. How many people must die on the altar of fatalism before that belief fades?

The American Revolutionaries might have been Thugs

It’s really odd, actually, how the myth of the American founding that I learned in elementary school is reasonably transparent about the fact that this country was founded by thugs who had no respect for the rule of law or other people’s property.

The canonical example is the Boston Tea Party — Americans (disguised as Native Americans as they were too cowardly to show their faces) boarded British ships in the dead of night and threw their cargo into the harbor. In other words, rioting thugs destroyed an innocent capitalist’s property to advance their radical (maybe even revolutionary!) political agenda.

But turns out that’s not the only example. There’s also this lovely case of Americans literally burning a merchant’s ship in Maryland for trying to bring British Tea to shore (“The Annapolis Tea Party”).

Here’s a list of about ten other such incidents in which American rioters  vandalized tea merchants. From Charleston to Maine to Maryland to  New York City, the American way was to disobey the law and smuggle tea from the Dutch and loot and burn the British boats.

Also, there’s the whole, George Washington and the Continental Army crossing the Delaware to kill British soldiers while they celebrated Christmas. I remember learning this fact more or less as a testament to the cunning and bravery of Washington. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a person who really believed that Jesus’s Birth was the transformative moment in human history could disrespect Christmas so much.

(Godless thugs, I reckon.)

There’s a Facebook meme going around about white people’s attitudes towards destruction of property in reference to the Boston Tea Party, which of course prompted me to write this. I’m not really sure what the political ramifications of this are. I think riots are scary as hell, but they are also a foreign language to me. I don’t want anyone’s boats or CVS’s to be burned. But God damn, surely Black Bodies are worth some tea.

Nashville’s Policing Data Show Uneven Racial Burden from Operation Safer Streets

Operation Safer Streets (or OSS for short) has become the epicenter of Nashville’s debates over policing and racial justice. Every weekend, the MNPD funnels police officers to hotspots for gangs or crime, arguing that a visible police-presence deters crime. Since 2011, OSS has resulted in more than 5,000 arrests and 50,000 vehicle stops, according to WKLN.

Racial justice activists have criticized the program as disproportionately targeting black, immigrant, and low-income neighborhoods. As Nashville Black Lives Matter has said, Safer Streets “mostly targets innocent people for doing the same things that people in Green Hills do without punishment.”

MNPD touts OSS in regular press releases reporting the number of vehicle stops, arrests, and drug seizures they (in their words) “netted” each week. After extracting the text from these articles with some code, I identified which streets, blocks, and intersections have been targeted. [1]

And after looking at the numbers, what BLM and others have been saying is right: Nashville Safer Streets is not color-blind. Its burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.

In total, seventy-percent of Census Block Groups in Nashville are majority-white, according to the 5-year estimate of the American Community Survey. Yet 60% of areas targeted by Nashville Safer Streets were mostly non-white, and 25% of targeted areas were more than 90% non-white.

Plotting OSS actions alongside the racial composition of Nashville’s neighborhoods is striking. They are concentrated in three mostly black areas (North Nashville, the remaining black neighborhoods of East Nashville, and the Chestnut-Hill Area of South Nashville) and one mostly immigrant community (Antioch along Nolensville Pike).

Racial Burden of OSS

This matters. As Michelle Alexander notes, America’s syndrome of mass incarceration begins with overpolicing and ends with the economic and familial disruption of communities of color. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be arrested for drug-crimes despite lower drug use, and more likely to get jail time. They are more likely to be stopped in part because of policies like OSS.

My experiences as a Vanderbilt student highlight this disparity. On the weekends, I saw plenty of drug use. But the police didn’t regularly stop our vehicles and search us on the weekends, like they do in low-income, predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

And I’m glad they didn’t. Because plenty of us, who are now going to graduate school or law school or working good jobs, would have had our future prospects shattered if drug use was treated the same way on Greek Row as Lafayette Street, which has been targeted 77 times in the last few years by OSS.

The traditional response from the Police is that they target these predominantly black and low-income areas because they are known to be hubs of “gang-activity.”  But this is self-fulfilling. If police systematically stop cars in poor neighborhoods, that is where they will find cars with drugs.

At the end of the day, the question is, does Operation Safer Streets actually make us safer? I don’t think it does. OSS neglects the root causes of gang violence. It extracts tax revenue from the poorest neighborhoods in the form of citations and court fees. And it subjects tens of thousands of Nashvillians to arbitrary stops, undermining trust in law enforcement and, as recent events have shown, opening the door to a potentially violent encounter with law enforcement.

After all, what starts with a traffic stop ends too-often with a dead black man.

[1] I converted each street to a latitude-longitude coordinate that represents its central location, using the Google Maps API. (I deleted from this data some streets like Old Hickory Boulevard and Dickerson Pike that were too vague to make any real inferences about where police activity occurred.) Next I matched each of these areas with its Census Block Group (the smallest Census area with data, comprising, on average, about 2000 people) to see whether non-white communities were disproportionately affected.

When Knowledge Becomes Power—Academics who became politicians

Since I’m studying (or, really, am about to start studying) academic political science towards a PhD in Government, I get asked a lot if I want to become a politician, which seems like a strange question to me. Anyhow, it raises the interesting question of how often academics become politicians. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find other pre-compiled lists, so I made my own (obviously-incomplete) one.

Short answer: probably not that often, at least in electoral politics; there are tons of academics appointed to technocratic positions in government. As the Harvard Crimson writes in a piece about Elizabeth Warren:

As advisers and appointed officials, professors often lend expertise to a perpetually fluctuating brain trust that waxes and wanes with the fate of each party. They are the force behind many of the commissions and agencies that make the government run.

Very few, however, actually run for office. In the past 100 years, the list of prominent professors who ran and won national office is brief, and the list of those who ran and lost is not much longer.

For certain offices, it’s not hard to find academics; Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Condoleeza Rice, for examples, were political science academics, or Solicitor Generals like Elena Kagan who were law Professors (or Federal Reserve Bankers like Bernanke who were Economics Professors). According to this Economist article, academics comprise a fair-share of politicians, especially in Egypt (though the article doesn’t detail how it defines politician, such as whether high-level bureaucrats are counted).

Powered by some vigorous, if not terribly systematic, searching of the internet, I made the following list of academic-politicians.  Here are some academics who tried electoral politics:

  1. Elizabeth Warren – The liberal Senator from Massachusetts and a well-known brand, Warren was a prestigious Harvard Law Professor before entering politics. She was head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her election as Senator.
  2. Barack Obama – Speaking of law Professors who became Senators, the President comes to mind.
  3. Pablo Iglesias – He was a political science lecturer at the University of Madrid, before becoming a member of the European Parliament and leader of the nascent leftist, anti-establishment party Podemos in 2014.
  4. Alexander Van der Bellen, the President-elect of Austria from the Green Party after winning a run-off election in May 2016, is a retired Economics Professor at the University of Vienna.
  5. Woodrow Wilson (American President in from 1913-1921) was a Professor of Political Science before entering politics.
  6. Harold Laski – A bit less impressive than the people so-far; Laski was an economist at LSE and chaired the British Labour Party in 1945-1946.
  7. Robert Reich, the liberal economist (affiliated with Brandeis and UC Berkley) and author, ran (and lost, placing second in a crowded field) in the Democratic-primary for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. (Reich was also Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton).
  8. H. Stuart Hughes, a liberal academic, ran and lost an election for Massachusetts senate seat in 1962.
  9. Phil Gramm, once a Professor of Economics, served as a Democratic Congressman (1979–1983), a Republican Congressman (1983–1985) and a Republican Senator (1985–2002) from Texas.
  10. Enrique Márquez Jaramillo – I don’t think he falls into the “boring academic technocratic appointees” category but neither was he elected. Jaramillo, a Mexican politician, poet, and academic, was involved in municipal government in San Luis Potosi and a professor of sociology, among other political projects. Seems pretty left of center.
  11. Greg Rabidoux, a political science Professor at Austin Peay State University, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) in 2010.

Many of these people are quite new, which is probably a recency bias of some kind. Or we academics are only beginning to flex our muscles in the realm of state power, haha.

Beautiful Etymology

  1. Anandamide, the endogenous cannabanoid neurotransmitter; name comes from “the Sanskrit word ananda, which means ‘joy, bliss, delight.'” (I guess Vishy Anand, the chess player, gets his family name from this word too!)
  2. Coprolalia, the word for clinical profanity. Coprolalia comes from the Greek κόπρος (kopros) meaning “feces” and λαλιά (lalia) from lalein, “to talk”. Literally means to talk shit.
  3. Orthodoxy means “true/correct belief” (a normative claim, really, which makes it really interesting that sects of some religions are described as Orthodox). Relatedly: Orthogonal, meaning of right angles, comes from the same “ortho” root meaning correct. That means that “right” angles more generally means “true” or “correct” angles!

I’m sure there are dozens of interesting etymologies like these. Semi-related: the word velleity is really neat. Also this rebuke of the word “problematic.”