I Guess I’m Talking About Benford’s Law

The US Presidential Election isn’t just a river in Egypt, it is also a series of bizarre claims. One of the many crimes against statistics being thrown about in what is likely to be a 5 year (minimum) tantrum about the election is a claim about Benford’s law. The first example I saw was last Friday on Larry Correia’s Facebook[1]

“For those of you who don’t know, basically Benford’s Law is about the frequency distribution of numbers. If numbers are random aggregates, then they’re going to be distributed one way. If numbers are fabricated by people, then they’re not. This is one way that auditors look at data to check to see if it has been manipulated. There’s odds for how often single digit, two digit, three digit combos occur, and so forth, with added complexity at each level. It appears the most common final TWO digits for Milwaukee’s wards is 00. 😃 Milwaukee… home of the Fidel Castro level voter turn out. The odds of double zero happening naturally that often are absurdly small. Like I don’t even remember the formula to calculate that, college was a long time ago, but holy shit, your odds are better that you’ll be eaten by a shark ON LAND. If this pans out, that is downright amazing. I told you it didn’t just feel like fraud, but audacious fraud. The problem is blue machine politics usually only screws over one state, but right now half the country is feeling like they got fucked over, so all eyes are on places like Milwaukee.I will be eagerly awaiting developments on this. I love fraud stuff. EDIT: and developments… Nothing particularly interesting. Updated data changes some of the calcs, so it goes from 14 at 0 to 13 at 70. So curious but not damning. Oh well.”

So after hyping up an idea he only vaguely understood (Benford’s law isn’t about TRAILING digits for f-ck sake and SOME number has to be the most common) Larry walked the claim back when it became clear that there was not very much there. As Larry would say beware of Dunning-Krugerands.

The same claim was popping up elsewhere on the internet and there was an excellent Twitter thread debunking the claims here:

footnote [2]

But we can have hierarchies of bad-faith poorly understood arguments. Larry Correia didn’t have the integrity to at least double check the validity of what he was posting before he posted it but at least he checked afterwards…sort of. Vox Day, however, has now also leaped upon the magic of Benford’s law [3]

Sean J Taylor’s Twitter thread does a good job of debunking this but as it has now come up from both Sad and Rabid Puppies, I thought I’d talk about it a bit as well with some examples.

First of all Benford’s law isn’t much of a law. Lots of data won’t follow it and the reason why some data follows it is not well understood. That doesn’t mean it has no utility in spotting fraud, it just means that to use it you first need to demonstrate that it applies to the kind of data you are looking at. If Benford’s Law doesn’t usually apply to the data you are looking at but your data does follow Benford’s law then THAT would/might be a sign of something going on.

That’s nothing unusual in statistics. Data follows distributions and comparing data against an applicable distribution that you expect to apply is how a lot of statistics is done. Benford’s law may or may not be applicable. As always, IT DEPENDS…

For example, if I grab the first digit of the number of Page Views on Wikipedia of Hugo Award finalists [4] then I get a set of data that is Benford like:

The most common digit is 1 as Benford’s law predicts. The probability of it being 1 according to the law is log10(1+1/d) or about 30%. Of the 1241 entries, Benford’s law would predict 374 would have a leading digit of 1 and the actual data has 316. But you can also see that it’s not a perfect fit and we could (but won’t bother because we actually don’t care) run tests to see how good a fit it was.

But what if I picked a different set of numbers from the same data set? Here is the leading digit for the “Age at Hugo” figure graphed for the finalists where I have that data.

It isn’t remotely Benford like and that’s normal (ha ha) because age isn’t going to work that way. Instead the leading digit will cluster around the average age of Hugo finalists. If the data did follow Benford’s law it would imply that teenagers were vastly more likely to win Hugo Awards (or people over 100 I suppose or both).

Generally you need a wide spread of numbers across magnitudes. For example, I joked about Hugo winners in their teens or their centuries but if we also had Hugo finalists who where 0.1… years old as well (and all ages in between) then maybe the data might get a bit more Benfordish.

So what about election data. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The twitter thread above cites a paper entitled Benford’s Law and the Detection of Election Fraud [5] but I haven’t read it. The abstract says:

“Looking at simulations designed to model both fair and fraudulent contests as well as data drawn from elections we know, on the basis of other investigations, were either permeated by fraud or unlikely to have experienced any measurable malfeasance, we find that conformity with and deviations from Benford’s Law follow no pattern. It is not simply that the Law occasionally judges a fraudulent election fair or a fair election fraudulent. Its “success rate” either way is essentially equivalent to a toss of a coin, thereby rendering it problematical at best as a forensic tool and wholly misleading at worst.”

Put another way, some election data MIGHT follow Benford’s law sometimes. That makes sense because it will partly depend on the scale of data we are looking at. For example, imagine we had a voting areas of approx 800 likely voters and two viable candidates, would we expect “1” to be a typical leading digit in vote counts? Not at all! “3” and “4” would be more typical. Add more candidates and more people and things might get more Benford like.

Harvard University has easily downloadable US presidential data by State from 1976 to 2016 [6]. At this scale and with all candidates (including numerous 3rd, 4th party candidates) you do get something quite Benford like but with maybe more 1s than expected.

Now look specifically at Donald Trump in 2016 and compare that with the proportions predicted by Benford’s law:

Oh noes! Trump 2016 as too many 1s! Except…the same caveat applies. We have no idea if Benford’s law applies to this kind of data! For those curious, Hilary Clinton’s data looks like (by eyeball only) a better fit.

Now we could test these to see how good a fit they are but…why bother? We still don’t know whether we expect the data to be a close fit or not. If you are looking at those graphs and thinking “yeah but maybe it’s close enough…” then you also need to factor in scale. I don’t have data for individual polling booths or whatever but we can look at the impact of scale by looking at minor candidates. Here’s one Vox Day would like, Pat Buchanan.

My eyeballs are more than sufficient to say that those two distributions don’t match. By Day’s misapplied standards, that means Pat Buchanan is a fraud…which he is, but probably not in this way.

Nor is it just scale that matters. Selection bias and our old friend cherry picking are also invited to the party. Because the relationship between the data and Benford’s law is inconsistent and not understood, we can find examples that fit somewhat (Trump, Clinton) and examples that really don’t (Buchanan) but also examples that are moderately wonky.

Here’s another old fraudster but whose dubious nature is not demonstrated by this graph:

That’s too many twos Ronnie!

Anyway, that is far too many words and too many graphs to say that for US Presidential election data Benford’s law applies only just enough to be horribly misleading.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/larry.correia/posts/4864622073548683

[2] Sean S Taylor’s R code https://gist.github.com/seanjtaylor/cd85175055e66cdc2bb7899a3bcdf313

[3] http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-attack-on-benfords-law.html

[4] https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1lL9bm3I7yrkKxSAZwN1NhWr6OB8-s10IkV1g_MSSGXY/edit?usp=sharing

[5] Deckert, J., Myagkov, M., & Ordeshook, P. (2011). Benford’s Law and the Detection of Election Fraud. Political Analysis,19(3), 245-268. doi:10.1093/pan/mpr014 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/political-analysis/article/benfords-law-and-the-detection-of-election-fraud/3B1D64E822371C461AF3C61CE91AAF6D

[6] https://dataverse.harvard.edu/file.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/42MVDX/MFU99O&version=5.0

Pandemics & Politics

The soup of conspiracy mongering about the covid-19 pandemic has never truly settled on a clear story. Even as the virus began spreading internationally, reactions ranged from claims that China was exaggerating the numbers of people infected to China was hiding the ‘true’ scale of infection. The common theme with conspiratorial thinking is that genuine doubt, genuine ignorance and genuine shifts in opinion about a novel situation are actually examples of deceit. There is a paradoxical relationship with authority and expertise in any conspiracy theory as the claims of deception always imply that the authorities genuinely do know a lot more about the true state of affairs than everybody else but are lying about it.

The most recent iteration of covid conspiracy-mongering is the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy video which has sprouted out of anti-vaccine conspiracies. You can read more about it here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/14/plandemic-movie-discredited-dr-doctor-judy-mikovits-how-debunked-conspiracy-theory-film-went-viral but there is also a good analysis of conspiracy-theory thinking which uses it as an example here https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-plandemic-and-the-seven-traits-of-conspiratorial-thinking-138483. The conspiracy is being promoted among some sections of the media in the usual just-asking-questions/exploring-the-controversy way:

“Local television stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group are set to air a conspiracy theory over the weekend that suggests Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, was responsible for the creation of the coronavirus.The baseless conspiracy theory is set to air on stations across the country in a segment during the program “America This Week” hosted by Eric Bolling. The show, which is posted online before it is broadcast over the weekend, is distributed to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s network of local television stations, one of the largest in the country. A survey by Pew Research Group earlier this year showed that local news was a vital source of information on the coronavirus for many Americans, and more trusted than the media overall.”[1]

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/24/media/sinclair-fauci-conspiracy-bolling/index.html

What the various conspiracy theories have in common is a belief that pandemic fears and public health measures are specifically a plot against Donald Trump. The details vary (or even contradict each other) but they aim to support a motive for the imagined conspiracy i.e. that the ‘ruling classes’ have manufactured pandemic fears as a way to undermine Donald Trump. To support this idea conspiracy-theorists point to pre-pandemic articles discussing how Trump might cope with a pandemic (e.g. this one by Ed Yong in 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/outbreaks-trump-disease-epidemic-ebola/511127/ ) as evidence that people were ‘planning’ to use pandemic fears against Trump.

Ironically, across the world many political leaders have gained popular support as a consequence of the pandemic (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/05/13/some-world-leaders-popularity-grows-along-with-coronavirus-case-numbers/ ). This pandemic poll-boost has helped politicians both on the left and right and isn’t tied to any particular policy measure nor even whether the covid-19 response was particularly successful. Clear messaging and decisive policy appear to be the main factors but even the shambolic Boris Johnson gained an initial popularity boost (although he eventually squandered it https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/14/poll-uk-government-losing-public-approval-over-handling-of-virus ).

The reality of natural disasters, including pandemics, is that they can often boost the standing of national leaders. Nor is it difficult to gain support because it is mainly a halo effect from the leader being seen in the company of competent people doing their jobs at a time when people will naturally hope for national unity. It actually takes some effort to mess up. Notably, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, managed to do this during the 2019/20 bushfire crisis leading to a rapid plummet in support and humiliating scenes of firefighters refusing to shake his hand. Conversely, Morrison saw his poll numbers boosted during the pandemic, mainly by not repeating the same basic errors he had a few months earlier.

In short, natural disasters are more likely to boost a national leader than undermine them. As a plot against Trump, a pandemic would be a terrible idea: all Trump would need to do is look presidential, let experts speak and pat them on the back. Of course, there is a counter-argument here. A pandemic may well be an actually electoral boost for most politicians but specifically a problem for Trump. As we have seen, Trump has spectacularly failed but this was entirely due to his own incompetence and the incompetence of his cronies. Even so, in late March, the pandemic led to Trump’s approval numbers steadily improving, only to be undermined by Trump’s inability to handle a crisis.

In short, as a plot against Trump, a pandemic would only undermine Trump’s popularity if Trump was actually a uniquely bad president. Of course, he is actually a uniquely bad president, so I guess that is one thing the conspiracy theories have going for them.


[1] Apparently Sinclair media have since changed their plans https://twitter.com/WeAreSinclair/status/1287110687093714944

Tying up old plot lines

There is a lot of noise amid the right-SF social media sphere currently. It’s very free form and the broader cause is that in mainstream SF&F communities there has been the recent cases of some very prominent and well connected men being held accountable for the way they have been treating other people (earlier coverage). Although post-Puppies, the world of right-wing science fiction claims to have separated and living an idyllic SJW-free life, in reality ructions in mainstream SF&F are felt keenly in the breakaway bubble. The problem they have is working out a clear position. On the one hand various authors they dislike are having a bad time of things but on the other hand, powerful men are being held accountable for their actions against women. Bit of a tricky dilemma and hence we get to see various diversions attacking the ‘wokeness’ of mainstream SF&F (e.g. Dave Freer recently).

Another recent example is Cirsova magazine. Cirsova was, in many ways, a better attempt by the right-wing SF&F community to challenge their energies into something a bit more positive i.e. an on-going story magazine. Up until recently, it had largely avoided outrage marketing techniques. However, that changed on June 29 with the unintentionally funny announcement that they had declared that the SFWA was a terrorist organisation (File 770 coverage). Cirsova’s stance on terrorism had been notably absent during their long association with Vox Day’s Castalia House despite Day’s infamous support of convicted terrorist and mass-murderer Anders Breivik. (“Virtue signalling” could be the term for it if we could find any virtue signalled…)

I draw two big inferences from this:

  1. This is another example of the diversions I talk about above
  2. Sales/income must be bad for Cirsova. There is always a grift with right-wing SF&F. Always, and this is classic outrage marketing. [That observation got me instantly blocked on Twitter by Cirsova…]

On the second point, right-wing SF&F publishing has been contracting. There are still some big sellers (i.e. Larry Correia) but in the time since the Puppies stormed off with their own football from the field, Castalia House has stopped publishing new science fiction and Superversive Press has closed, various at attempts at alt-SFWA have fizzled and Sarah Hoyt is claiming she can’t get published by Baen any more. There’s still a right wing audience out there but it’s just not big enough to maintain a large number of authors and outlets and much of it is catered to by more generic military SF provided by less partisan groups like LMBPN.

On the first point…well the SFWA statement on Black Lives Matter was June 4. Cirsova’s counter-terrorism unit didn’t make its deceleration until twenty-five days later i.e. not until mainstream SF&F was having its own ructions and right-wing SF was trying to find a way to join in.

Let’s throw in a few other bad actors (n both senses of the term). So I was watching a video by Jon Del Arroz…that’s never a good start to a story nor is it something I would recommend. Anyway, JDA’s video was about another charmer Richard Fox. Remember Richard? Fox got a story nominated for a Nebula award courtesy of the 20booksto50K/LMBPN slate in 2019 (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/nebula-shorts-going-dark-by-richard-fox/) and then had a bit of a melt-down in the comments section here partly when people noticed the similarity between him and a Goodreads commenter called “John Margolis” who wrote racially abusive comments to people who gave Richard bad reviews on Goodreads.

Fox would go onto behave in even more odd ways (to put it politely) https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/09/15/authors-behaving-badly-episode-1234543-richard-fox/ accusing Mike Glyer’s File 770 of “piracy” because it had a link to the SFWA public Nebula reading list to a PDF of his story that he had uploaded. No, that made no sense but it was enough for the axis of Jon Del Arroz and Larry Correia to try to spin into a scandal.

Where was I? Oh!…a video by Jon Del Arroz. [Here for reference but seriously, it’s just trolling. You can skip it https://delarroz.com/2020/07/01/nebula-award-nominated-author-pulls-story-from-sfwa-anthology-because-of-their-racism/ ]

JDA was proudly announcing that “Nebula nominated” author Richard Fox was withdrawing his story from the Nebula Award anthology (yes, that story mentioned above) in solidarity with Cirsova. Notably, Fox’s author Facebook page and author website say exactly ZERO about this brave stand against ‘terrorism’. It’s not something Fox wants his regular readers to know but…well he’d like some of those Dragon Award votes from the people who are most likely to vote in them.

Long story short: various right wing science fiction people are generally agitated by the fact that some specific male SF authors (who happen to people they don’t like but are also powerful men…so a bit of a dilemma) are being held to account because of misogynistic behaviour and so are finding various random ways of acting out.

Vox Day’s ‘Replatforming’ Backfires

Vox Day has managed to have a large number of his supporters legally doxxed in court documents with the help of his even less competent side-kick former comedian Owen Benjamin. A case filed in the Superior Court of California by crowdfunding tech company Patreon, cites seventy-two people whom they are suing due to a ‘lawfare’ campaign instigated by Day and Benjamin. I’m not linking directly to the court documents but the case “PATREON, INC. VS. PAUL MICHAEL AYURE ET AL” (Case Number: CGC20584586) can be found online via the Superior Court of California’s page https://www.sfsuperiorcourt.org/

The case connects with Day’s struggles with crowdfunding (see past coverage from me here and here) but specifically connects to Owen Benjamin (see past coverage from me here and here) who was kicked off Patreon last year according to the court documents:

Patreon Terminates the Individual Account of Owen Benjamin Smith

18. On October 9, 2019, Patreon terminated the creator account of an individual named Owen Benjamin Smith, a self-described comedian who had repeatedly engaged in hate speech, in violation of Patreon ‘s Community Guidelines. For example, over the course of approximately 18 months, Smith made offensive public statements in which he blamed black people for AIDS, mocked Hollywood rape survivors, and targeted Jewish people for scorn on the 25 basis of religion. 19. Soon after the account termination, Smith, though his attorney … filed a JAMS demand for arbitration against Patreon, asserting claims for breach of contract and tortious interference with alleged contractual relations between Smith and his former patrons on the Patreon platform. Patreon denies, and is presently litigating, these claims in arbitration….20. Smith has an online fanbase, and he responded to his termination by appealing to that fanbase to file abusive claims against Patreon for the purpose of driving up Patreon’s litigation costs and extracting a settlement unrelated to the merits of his claims.

Court documents Exhibit A in DECLARATION…IN SUPPORT OF PLAINTIFF PATREON, INC.’S EX PARTE APPLICATION FOR ORDER TO SHOW CAUSE RE PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

The idea as outlined by Day elsewhere is that tech companies like Patreon often have an arbitration clause for disputes. Day’s scheme involves individual subscribers/members/sponsors/patrons/etc also demanding arbitration when a notable member of the far right is kicked off a platform. The tech company then faces not just one manageable arbitration process but potentially hundreds e.g. the Castalia House Patreon account has 1,634 patrons – a number that hasn’t changed by much (if at all) since the initial push last year and which averages as $4 per patron.

Unfortunately, according to the court documents Patreon filled in that potential hole in the terms and conditions:

6. The Current Terms of Use provide that individual users “may not bring a claim against [Patreon] for suspending or terminating another person’s account.” Exhibit A at 11-12. 8 Users expressly agree they “will not bring such a claim[,]” and they are “responsible for the damages caused, including attorneys fees and costs,” if they do bring such a claim.

ibid

The court documents claim that the seventy-two Owen Benjamin supporters had agreed to Patreon being able to amend the Terms of Use when they signed up and by not deleting their account and by signing in this year under the revised Terms had effectively agreed to them.

According to Patreon’s court documents, Benjamin’s lawyer used the possibility of Benjamin’s followers making arbitration claims as a lever in the negotiations:

“On November 15, 2019, Mann made a settlement demand: he would proceed with the threatened 83 additional Patron Claims unless Patreon agreed to pay Smith $2.2 million and reinstate Smith’s Patreon account. Mann made clear that the payment to Smith would resolve the claims asserted by the individual patrons, stating “[o]ur intention is to address all claims -Smith’s and the individual patrons’ – in any discussions with you based upon the required relief described above.” Patreon rejected that demand”

ibid

Instead, it seems the individuals may end up liable for Patreon’s court costs. According to Day this is Patreon “playing dirty” (warning: link to his blog http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/06/patreon-plays-dirty.html )

“Since a lawsuit is a matter of public record whereas an arbitration is not, the Owen-haters on Reddit have just published all the names of the Bears being sued by Patreon. Needless to say, the Legion is on it and we will be legally retaliating very strongly in order to see that Patreon and their lawyers are severely punished for this despicable and unexpected tactic. But the doxxing has already taken place, so if any of you experiences any blowback from this, please be sure to document everything and let us know right away so that the Legion can include everything in their future filings concerning this element of the matter.”

Vox Populi “Patreon plays dirty”

Day is also reassuring the Owen Benjamin fans (aka “Bears”):

“If you’re one of the Bears concerned, please don’t worry about anything. It’s going to be fine. The Legion – and more – are on it, and everyone will have your back, just as you have had Owen’s. This is an absolutely desperate move by Patreon to try to further delay your arbitrations against them because they are losing very badly. And if you’re wondering how this joke of a lawsuit can be a matter of public record when you haven’t even been served, exactly. As you can see here, Patreon’s lawyers are not following any of the rules of either the legal or the arbitration processes, which is one of the reasons they are losing so consistently and comprehensively.”

Vox Populi “Patreon plays dirty”

Day predicts that Patreon’s actions will lead to its destruction (where have we heard that before?)

“So, it is increasingly looking like there either won’t be a Patreon by the end of the year or Owen and the Bears will own it. It’s rather like finding yourself fighting a duel with someone who genuinely believes his most effective attack is to disembowel himself.”

Vox Populi “Patreon plays dirty”

In an earlier post this month, Day made a similar prediction:

“Of course, literally all of the relevant law and case law, both state and Federal, points to this being either a) Patreon attempting to commit suicide by law, or b) Patreon’s lawyers desperately trying to convince Patreon to keep writing them the checks that it shouldn’t have written in the first place. This legal “strategy”, to the extent that one can call it that, is so obviously futile that if you’re financially dependent upon Patreon in any way, I would not count on it being around in 12 months.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/06/patreon-ups-ante.html

Quite what will all happen at the end of this, I don’t know. Day has a long history of starting or threatening to start legal disputes. However, I can’t say I have yet to see an actual clear resolution to any of them (the closest in the time I’ve been running this blog has been the Indiegogo dispute whose resolution is unknown). It is worth noting that just because Day has a very flexible concept of what counts as a victory and Owen Benjamin thinks the world is flat and that bleach is medicine, that doesn’t mean they will definitely lose.

The topic is being discussed on various subreddits hostile to Day and Benjamin as well as in Day’s and Benjamin’s own videos.

[ETA the court website also has dates for when the next steps will happen:

2020-11-04 10:30 AMCASE MANAGEMENT CONFERENCE
2020-07-13 9:30 AMOrder To Show Cause Re Preliminary Injunction [Opposition – 6/29; Reply – 7/06)
2020-06-30 9:30 AMNotice Of Motion And Application For Order To Show Cause Re Preliminary Injunction

Looks like this will drag on for months.]

The Virus, The Lockdown and the Wingnut Eschatology

A post really wasn’t coming together on all this stuff on the anti-lockdown ‘movement’ among the US right. However, I wanted a bunch of links in one place to come back to later. The whys and the hows and whos and how it all connects to money, oil and denial is sort of there. I intended just a list of links but you get a rambling post instead. Somehow Jonestown and the Last Jedi get connected in here. More after the fold.

Continue reading “The Virus, The Lockdown and the Wingnut Eschatology”

Hoyt’s Covid Denial Hits the Big Time

Sarah Hoyt wrote a new version of her critique of epidemiological models (see my post A Study in Denial) for her column in the far-right outlet PJMedia: https://pjmedia.com/blog/modeling-covid-19-and-the-lies-of-multiculturalism/ It’s basically the same points she made in her original essay, nobody really knows and therefore Hoyt knows and therefore she knows that it is all down to culture or population density etc. It is at best wild guesses and half-formed opinions where her credentials are established like so:

“However, as the mother and wife of STEM people for whom physics is a game and who create such models for fun, I know that the accuracy of the model depends on how much you put into it and how much of the real factors on that day, in that place, you can put in.”

Her theory is, of course, another kind of model and it shares with any model all the flaws plus the additional ones of being half-arsed opinion based on a weak grasp of the news.

“For instance, my friend in Albany, Georgia, tells me he assumes part of the reason it got so bad in his neighborhood (the worst per capita in the U.S. last I looked) is that “we are the touchiest, most social people I know,” i.e., there is a lot of touching and hugging. At a guess, this is the reason it got so bad in Italy, too, but not nearly as bad in Germany, where, frankly, people aren’t that touchy/feely/huggy.”

Quite how the UK fits into the Hoyt-Covid-Hugs model of infection I don’t know but I can’t say us Brits have ever been accused of being a very hug-prone nation. It does help resolve what Hoyt things ‘culture’ might be: national stereotypes. Maybe France has a high infection rate because they wear berets whereas Brazil has a different pattern because they wear bikinis? That’s about the level of Hoyt’s analysis.

So if there is nothing new in Hoyt’s PJMedia piece (one of four, two behind paywalls) why am I mentioning it. Well Rush Limbaugh (who apparently still exists even though I’d forgotten about him sometime around 2010) has been praising the column by Hoyt.

“Now, this is a tough case to make. And Sarah Hoyt does a great job in the piece, a very long piece. We will link to it at RushLimbaugh.com. It was published yesterday. But I want to try here because her point is that we get these models projecting how many people are gonna get sick, how many people are gonna die, assuming everybody’s identical, everybody’s the same, gonna behave the same.”

https://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2020/04/13/the-covid-19-models-cant-account-for-culture/

Hmm, so what would Mr Limbaugh or Ms Hoyt suggest instead for a pandemic response? Now consider, neither of them deny that there is a pandemic even if they question the severity of it. Yet consider, there is no reason to believe that Covid-19 is the worst possible novel viral disease that could occur. Notably, the measures that have been seen to work require them to be implemented BEFORE the full severity of the pandemic is known – the earlier the better. So there is no viable scenario in which the response to a novel pandemic can be made with full and accurate models. Nor is there any possible way of creating models that account for every person’s unique individuality (and what a rabbit hole that would be — implying a level of surveillance state of dystopian proportions).

[ETA: For a better discussion of the limits and value of models in this pandemic see this extended cartoon/discussion at FiveThirtyEight by Zach “SMBC” Weinersmith https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/a-comic-strip-tour-of-the-wild-world-of-pandemic-modeling/ ]

A study in denial

I could have written a post like this one every other day for the past few weeks. Highlight one of the right-wing blogs I read and talk about their reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. The story would be the same over and over: a mix of genuine confusion, an even more irrational faith in free market economics than usual and the now standard belief that genuine expertise is the hallmark of deception.

But I’ll highlight the inevitable one: Sarah Hoyt https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/03/assume-a-spherical-cow-of-uniform-density-in-a-frictionless-vaccum/ The truth of the general statement I made above would also be nearly true of Hoyt’s blog. Not quite every other day but nearly so, there has been a post about the virus offering a close to fact-free dissent about the wider view of the pandemic.

The denial isn’t hard to understand. There really is no doubt that measures to reduce social contact reduces the spread of the disease – indeed, that’s almost axiomatic about communicable diseases. There’s also not much doubt that reducing social contact has a negative impact on the economy. Which takes us straight to the dilemma of every nation on Earth currently: saving lives will hurt your economy. A corollary to that is that there really is no immediate free market solution to the pandemic. Give it time and yes, there are fortunes to be made from vaccines and treatments but this current situation is genuinely a big-government kind of problem and hence even conservative governments are trying to buy time with quite severe laws restricting our movement.

For libertarians and pseudo-libertarians this must be nightmarish. OK the actual situation IS nightmarish but for the pseudo-libertarians like Hoyt the world has turned on its head. The route through the next months has narrowed to variations on the same basic policy: massive government efforts to keep the health system running, laws massively restricting human movement, massive government spending (based on borrowing) to stop the economy from collapsing. This is not a war (the pseudo-libertarians quite like war) but it is not unlike a war-footing but without the militarism that the pseudo-libertarians enjoy.

For the piece linked above the frame is a standard denialist line: models are simplifications of complex things and hence don’t capture the complexities and hence must be false and wrong and bad etc etc. Part of that is true. Models are simplifications of complex things and have aspects that are known to be both false and misleading. The simplest example (and analogy – which is cool that an actual example is also a metaphor for itself) is a map. Maps leave out details. A roadmap exaggerates the width of roads for the purpose of visibility. Any model must contain such simplifications and errors because that is the purpose of models.

The situation is even more dire than that though. Not only is every model ever wrong (to some degree) but we have no choice but to use models. Unless you are omniscient being, you can’t know everything. So you HAVE to use models. Your brain uses models, your basic SENSES use less than perfect models that approximate and fill in missing details. It is not unlike the version of the laws of thermodynamics (attributed to either Allen Ginsberg or C.P.Snow – take your pick)

  • You can’t win
  • You can’t break even
  • You can’t leave the game

People get that the first two must be true about any kind of model (cognitive, mathematical, computer-based) i.e. that the model is a simplification and that there will be aspects of the model that are misleading. People don’t always get the last one: you can’t escape models. Which takes me back to Hoyt:

“This came to mind about a week ago as I was stomping around the house saying that anyone who relied on computer models for anything should be shot.  My husband was duly alarmed, because as he pointed out, he has designed computer models. At which point I told him that’s okay because his models do not involve people.  Which is part of it.  Throw one person into a model, and you’ll wish the person were a spherical cow of uniform density in friction-less vacuum.”

The question Hoyt raises unintentionally is if people are not to rely on computer models then what SHOULD they rely on? What is the alternative? Because not relying on models at all is an impossibility. The virtue of a formal model is that they are examinable. Hoyt uses the old joke about the mathematician given the task of helping a farmer but the joke itself reveals a strength of a mathematical model as the butt of the joke. The simplification and hence the way the model departs from reality is overtly stated. The alternative is situations were we use models without realising we are doing so an without understanding how the cognitive model we are using departs sharply from reality.

Luckily for me (if not for the health and safety of her readers) Hoyt provides a perfect example of exactly that kind of unexamined model:

“It’s hard to deny the disease presents in weird clusters. I have a friend whose Georgia County is about the same level of bad as Italy. Which makes no sense whatsoever, as they have no high Chinese population. And while the cases might be guess work (with tests only accurate AT MOST 70% of the time, it’s guesswork all the way down) the deaths aren’t. The community is small enough they all know each other. And they’re losing relatively young (still working) and relatively healthy (no known big issues) people.”

Hoyt is still stuck with a mental model of Covid-19 as a “Chinese” disease — as if somehow the novel coronavirus has a memory of where it first infected humans. Spread of the disease has long since moved well beyond travellers from China. For example, I believe in Australia more cases originated directly via travellers from the USA than from China. Mind you, remember this a person who puts every effort into refusing to believe that there can be such a thing as unconscious biases (at least among people she approves of).

Having robustly asserted how people aren’t spherical cows, Hoyt then promptly spends multiple paragraphers generalising about New Yorkers and Italians and so on. More flawed models.

That takes us to Colorado. Colorado, Hoyt assures us, is different. Now that is clearly true. Colorado is not Italy and it is not New York and some of those differences do matter for the spread of the disease. It is a less densely populated state without a doubt. Hoyt argues that because Colorado is different then the rules should be different.

“So, why are the same rules being applied to both places? AND why are both places treated exactly alike? And why are both places assumed to be on the same curve as Italy or Spain or Wuhan, places and cultures, and ways of living that have absolutely nothing to do with how we live or who we are? And here’s the kicker: if you allow states like Colorado and others that naturally self-distance to go about their lawful business, not only time but more money will be available to study the problem clusters.”

Here is the real kicker. Models are imperfect (by definition) and those imperfection can be misleading (by their very nature) and you can’t NOT use models of some kind or another BUT we have a way of minimising the mistakes we make. The method is simple but it has taken us millennia to work it out: we check the outcomes of our models against data and observation. Now even with data we still have models (sorry, they are inescapable) but we have ways of checking our conclusions against others.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA.

Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor). Colorado does have major ski resorts* and I suspect we’ll get a better sense of the role they played in the pandemic in the future.

Yes but…as I said, even data relies on models of one kind or another and maybe Australia and Colorado are using vastly different diagnostic criteria or maybe it is due to vastly different testing regimes. I might genuinely be comparing apples and oranges. Sadly, we can reduce (but not remove) disparities in reporting by looking at a more sobering statistic: deaths.

According to the John Hopkins University dashboard New South Wales has 12 confirmed deaths. That’s a tragic and worrying amount. Yes, many more people die from all sorts of other causes but these deaths add to that total or mortality and the progress of this pandemic is far from over. That’s just the beginning of the numbers.

Let’s compare with Colorado (there is also state specific data here also https://covid19.colorado.gov/case-data). From the same data source Colorado has had 97 deaths so far. It’s when I saw that number that I shuddered and decided that I’d write this post rather than just shake my head at Hoyt’s nonsense. I knew things were bad in some parts of the US but I’d assumed that some of the denial I was reading was because the writers of this toxic nonsense were in states were the wave of the pandemic was still to hit. Ninety-seven deaths, shit. I keep looking at that number and knowing that there other places in the US where the numbers of deaths are being under reported particularly for vulnerable communities and shuddering at what might be the true scale of thins.

Now sure, maybe the differences in testing and diagnostic criteria and data collection are so different between NSW and Colorado that the number of cases is incomparable BUT they would have to be significantly different in two different directions simultaneously. That is, if NSW are under-reporting the number of cases compared to Colorado then the case-fatality rate in Colorado is even worse when compared with NSW. I’m not making the comparison to say which state is somehow doing ‘better’ (it’s not a race or a competition) but simply trying to get a sense of what I can see HERE and compare it with where Sarah Hoyt is. It is undoubtedly a crisis here and we’ve got a conservative government in power at the state level and the national level and heck, both of them if they had an excuse to cut spending and pull back on entitlements and let business run wild they would and you know what, they aren’t and in fact they are doing the opposite. That’s not because they have had a sudden ideological conversion to policies they have derided for years but because massive government spending is the ONLY way to keep the economy going. When conservative ideologues rush to implement free government funded childcare it is safe to assume that they felt they had no other choice.

The morbid irony here is that Hoyt is ignoring her own advice. Rather than just look at Colorado and consider whether that state, regardless of what is going on anywhere else, is in the midst of viral outbreak and in grave danger and what action in such a circumstance the state government should take (hint: major restriction on movement and social contact to keep hospitals going and to give time for treatments and vaccines to be developed) she is insisting that because Colorado is not New York it can’t need the same measures as New York. It’s a compounded level of illogic.

Strip everything away from that piece by Sarah Hoyt and what you are left with is the common theme that captures so much of the train of political thought that joins Ayn Rand to Trump to Jordan Peterson: the desire to dress up wishful thinking as something other than a demand that reality should accord with their personal desires.

There’s no conclusion. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Think of others. Be kind. Don’t spread nonsense.

*[To be fair New South Wales does have ski resorts as well but during the start of the pandemic it was 1. summer here and 2. they were on fire.]

Timothy Presents: The Real Shape of the Earth

From the desk of famed director, author, bon vivant, registered realtor and cult leader, Timothy the Astronomical Cat.

Only a fool thinks the Earth is flat but only BINARY thinkers, their heads full of ones and evil zeroes think the only other option is some sort of ball, like the Earth is just some stupid plaything, a child’s toy if you will. No, no, the Earth is wonderful and delicious and ours for consuming like a tasty treat that we must gobble up until there is nothing but crumbs, indigestion and a lingering disappointment in ourselves.

NO! WAKE UP! Forget the lies you were taught by people who are slaves to BIG TEXTBOOK. Don’t listen to the naysayers and nincompoops, the scoffers and scrofulators. The truth as revealed by these images I made Camembert Felonious make, SHOW THE TRUTH that the CEOs of the multimilion dollar scam that is BIG TELESCOPE don’t want you to see.

The Earth is a donut people or, if you are British, a doughnut, or if you are Cam, a duohgnut. Perfectly round and yet differently round. Alt-round, if you will.

“Boo hoo, waah wahh” that’s what my critics sound like. No, you people wouldn’t be able to tell when they were on the inner bit of the donut. That’s nonsense because the inner bit has the north pole and the south pole and NOBODY is allowed to go there except the military and penguins. Why do you think the north pole and south pole look EXACTLY the same people? Why does RUSSIA have BASES in the south pole? Because they are north pole bases! How do penguins get to Canada, people? Seriously, just google for pictures of penguins in Canada. Oh, sure, they’ll say “that’s a zoo” or “that’s just a logo on a paperback book” or some other slim excuse to hide the truth.

*[Note from Camestros: The wonderful Earth texture was from here http://www.shadedrelief.com/natural3/pages/use.html ]

Cat psychology

A reader asks me:

“Hi Cam,
You are lucky that your cat can talk and is so ready to share his views. I never know what my cat is thinking. Can you share some of your experience with Timothy and give us all some insights into the inner lives of our cats?”

I’m always happy to help and I’ve compiled this chart to help you match your cat’s facial expression to their thought process. Obviously this is based on Timothy and your own cat maybe different.

Springtime for Bialystock and other stories

More than one person has asked me about Vox Day’s move into the movie business. I considered writing about it the other day but it’s always a fine line between keeping an eye on the alt-right and inadvertently helping whatever con game is going on. Specifically, crowd funding a film that never gets made is a simple way for an unscrupulous person to make money out of gullible people and if you can blame the film not being made on evil SJWs then a cynical person can even avoid getting blamed for not delivering. Is Vox Day such a person? I don’t know but I believe his ethics are dubious in other ways.

In the end curiosity got the better of me and so I went to see who and what is going on just in case other things happen.

So a short summary. Vox Day released a ‘trailer’ for a film version of one of his publishing house’s comics: “Alt-Hero: Rebel’s Run”. The trailer is in two parts. The first part is a mix of some footage of a woman in sunglasses in a car (presumably the Rebel character from the comic). This is edited together with bits of stock footage to give an impression of an action movie. After that is a pitch about a possible movie based on the property with interviews with the comics writer Chuck Dixon, Vox Day and the proposed producer and director of the film.

The film hasn’t been made yet so the actor and the footage is neither here nor there currently. It’s the start of a crowd-funding campaign to get investors to fund the production of the film.

looking for investors

The production company Galatia Films appears to be a real company that is involved in real films. The man named as producer, Daniel McNicoll, main claim to fame is a documentary about swords in films which mainly features lots of clips from other films as well as interviews with Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban. The film was promoted by Alex Jones of Infowars [https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Alex_Jones] who had McNicoll on his show. The proposed director, Scooter Downey, is also a real person whose main credit is producing a propaganda documentary for the dodgy right wing ‘journalist’ Mike Cernovich.

In the middle of the scheme is a company set up specifically to make the film called “Viral Film Media“. Regular readers will note that the initials are “VFM” i.e. ‘vile faceless minions’ Day’s nickname for his followers. Having said that Day himself is not part of the company as such.

Details about the company are available from the crowd-funding platform that is being used. This is a somewhat obscure platform called “Silicon Prairie” based in Minnesota, which was Day’s home state until he fled abroad. The specific VFM page is here https://vfm.sppx.io/ [archive link]

VFM has been set up as a limited liability company [an LLC https://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/llc.asp ] and currently has assets of $297,423 which is all as cash or cash equivalents. It has a set of directors which include Daniel McNicoll who is also Executive Director of Galatia Films. Vox Day isn’t a director or an officer of the company, which is interesting.

The aim of the crowd funding is to raise between $750,000.00 and $1,070,000.00. Which is both a lot of money and hardly any money at all depending on how you look at it. There’s a nifty breakdown of how the money will be spent.

  • Creative: Writer, Producer, Director and Actors:
    • $174,250.00-$273,490.00
  • Production: Production Staff, Art Department, Proceeds Camera, Food, Lighting, Sound, Wardrobe, Make-up, Props, Travel, Locations, Production Office:
    • $209,100.00-$308,530.00
  • Post-Production: Editing, Music, Sound, Title, CGI, Graphics, Deliverables:
    • $209,100.00-$308,530.00
  • Marketing:
    • $41,820.00-$41,820.00
  • Contingency expenses:
    • $41,820.00-$41,820.00
  • Professional fees (legal, accounting):
    • $20,910.00-$20,910.00

The company boast of already having secured the services of a scriptwriter for the film, a certain Vox Day.

Securing a writer is an important step

The company hasn’t spent much money yet although it did spend $3,054 on the trailer. People have made successful films for less than a million dollars but there aren’t many examples. Notably, Vox gets paid as a writer so long as the film company starts production. Which makes this definitely different from the plot of The Producers, as the incompetent Nazi writer in that film doesn’t get paid.

[ETA: If you visit the Galatia website you will see a trailer for the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Obviously this isn’t one of the company’s films. The connection is that, according to IMDB, one person in the company was an uncredited “development executive” for the film.]