Monday, August 24, 2020

Data is the Story

In middle school English I remember we did a drama activity in which the class divided into groups. Each group wrote, produced, and performed a play. The point of the activity was that each part of the process – the writers, the actors, and the stage crew/promoters etc. was important to putting on a good play. I got it and when I talk to my friends in Hollywood, many of whom work on production (although I know a few writers as well) they emphasize how critical the sound engineer’s work (for example) is to making a decent movie. Conversely a bad sound engineer or video editor can absolutely ruin a movie. Many of these functions will go unnoticed – a prop-master has done a good job if the viewer never even thinks about the props because that they fit seamlessly into the story. 

All well and good, but I didn’t buy it: because without a writer, you have nothing. Seeing a tremendous production of a Shakespeare play is a sublime experience. But reading a Shakespeare play is pretty great in and of itself. The same cannot be said about the other components of the play (or movie.) The writing is the engine, the essential thing.

Go figure that I aspired to be a writer…


Now, in my data analytics adjacent professional world, this lesson has returned to me. AI/ML is all the rage these days. Yet, high-end analytics are useless without data. At the same time, with data, even simple analytics can be extremely useful and provide important insights. Mapping to the drama comparison: the data is the script, the analytics is the acting, and production is everything else – visualization, communication etc.


Analytics can play a critical role in bringing meaning from the data. Visualization and communication (the latter is my part of the business) are critical for making the findings interpretable to decision-makers and meaningful to the public. The importance of both of these elements should not be underplayed. But without data, there is nothing. I’ve been to meetings where potential users get very excited over a flashy visualization, not recognizing the dearth of substance beneath it.


To people outside of this world, it should be understood that in many cases, the data on a particular issue or problem is not collected or is not collected consistently. There are a range of social and policy issues around this. We are seeing it now in the pandemic response, where data on COVID-19 cases is collected inconsistently. There are divergences in timing, delivery, data format, and a plethora of issues that complicate obtaining an accurate read on the national situation.


Caveat: This is not to fuel conspiracy theories that COVID-19 isn’t a big deal. It is. The data we have is imperfect but undeniable – millions have been infected and over 170,000 people have died, most needlessly. The point is more accurate data would enable more effective policy response: identifying points of origin, trajectory of spread, and more accurate projections of future outbreaks.


In many cases, what is called algorithmic bias is really a matter of data bias. The data was collected improperly or annotated and curated improperly. This is a vast issue. The way data is collected reflects institutional priorities and the way in which instances are categorized as types shapes what kinds of analytics can be run. Bad analytics can generate lousy findings from good data, just as a lousy actor can ruin a great scene. Glossy visualizations and smooth patter can sell weak conclusions (who hasn’t gone to a lousy movie because of a great looking trailer.) But if you don’t start with good data – that as much as possible reflects reality and takes into account the multiple facets of reality – you are unlikely to end up with quality results.


This is hard to do, just like writing is hard: I complain about it constantly. But good writing and good data both share a quality of the real and can unlock deep truths.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Advice for Joe Biden's 2020 running mate in USA Today


'The vice presidency is a good gig': Here's some advice for Joe Biden's 2020 running mate


Aaron Mannes, Opinion contributor Published 5:02 a.m. ET Aug. 2, 2020

You didn’t become vice president just for future opportunities. You want to make a difference now. There’s good news and bad news.

Congratulations on being selected as Joe Biden’s running mate. If the polls hold, you’ll be the first female vice president of the United States. (Don’t take too much credit for the win, or blame if you lose. Research shows that the vice presidential candidate doesn’t make much difference.)

The vice presidency is a good gig. It comes with a plane, a nice house and lots of high-profile appearances. It provides a good chance of becoming president. Of the 48 vice presidents, 14 have become president (15, if Biden is elected). Again, if Biden is elected then in the past 14 presidential elections, three vice presidents have been elected president (Nixon, Bush and Biden) and two others came very close (Humphrey and Gore).

But you didn’t become vice president just for future opportunities. You want to make a difference now. There’s good news and bad news. Good news, first.

Good news for the potential next VP

In 1976, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter revolutionized the vice presidency. Historically, the office was mostly the butt of jokes, what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called a constitutional "appendix.” Carter viewed this as waste. The former Georgia governor chose Walter Mondale, a respected Democratic senator from Minnesota, for their personal and political compatibility. This was an innovation in its own right — previous presidential nominees hadn’t given it much thought. Carter ensured his vice president would have access to the president and the White House policy process. This included a weekly private lunch with the president and entrĂ©e for the vice president and his staff to White House meetings and paper flow at every level. Most important was giving Mondale a West Wing office. In the White House things happen on the fly, but unlike his predecessors, Mondale could look in on the national security adviser or chief of staff — whose offices are right next door, or see the president in the Oval Office down the hall.

These vice presidential perquisites have continued and expanded. Mondale’s chief of staff was also made a member of the White House staff, giving him access to the White House. By 2016, the final full year of Biden’s vice presidency under President Barack Obama, eight people from his office were also on the White House staff.

Biden, as a two-term vice president, chose you for the ticket because you are “simpatico.” Biden won’t cut you out of the process, like President Richard Nixon did to Vice President Spiro Agnew, who he despised. You will see the president often and know what’s going on in the White House.

There’s stuff you should do to keep things this way. Presidents hate leaks. You can give the president unvarnished advice, even disagree with him, but do it privately. Stories of president-vice president disagreements will be bad for both of you. Don’t let your staff leak either. Dan Quayle didn’t have a great hand to play as vice president in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, but his staffers leaking White House dirt didn’t help. And when the president makes a decision, like it or not, publicly support it.

Bad news for Biden's VP candidate

Now the bad news: Biden knows how to “president.” The expansion of the vice president’s role has coincided with a string of outsider presidents who came to office with little or no experience in D.C.—governors (and also Obama who had only been in the Senate for four years). They turned to their vice presidents when they faced new issues such as national security, and unfamiliar Washington institutions, like Congress.

Biden was vice president for eight years and a senator from Delaware for 36 years. What can you tell him about Congress or world affairs that he won’t already know? Further, Biden has plenty of experienced advisers. Outsider presidents have turned to the experienced staffers of their insider vice presidents. When incoming President Ronald Reagan saw his team needed more Washington experience, he turned to James Baker, campaign manager and close friend of his GOP primary rival-turned-vice president, George H.W. Bush. As White House Chief of Staff the uber-effective Baker played a critical role in making the Reagan Revolution a reality. 

Serving an insider president puts you in a similar position to Dan Quayle, who found the job mostly fundraising and funerals.

All is not hopeless. One presidential resource is finite: time. Find areas that are important, but the president lacks the time to address. Quayle did useful diplomacy in Latin America and Asia, where the president’s national security team — focused on Europe and the Middle East — didn’t have time. Alternately, the president may have an issue in which he is heavily invested and assigns you to reinforce this commitment. President Bill Clinton was deeply interested in Russia and assigned Vice President Al Gore to oversee a bilateral commission to strengthen those ties. 

Unattached to any bureaucracy and with a unique convening power, vice presidents can be a force multiplier and bring focus to key issues. George H.W. Bush oversaw regulatory reform and a counter-terror task force. Besides several bilateral commissions, Gore ran the reinventing government initiative. Biden managed the stimulus spending for Obama. Biden will probably give you a few such assignments. 

Biden is famously friendly, you’ll get along great with him. But that doesn’t mean that your efforts mesh politically with the White House, which is a big bureaucracy in its own right. Having some of your staffers in senior White House positions would be great, but unlikely. Encourage your staff to get close to their White House counterparts, and consider bringing experienced Biden staffers onto your team.

Your job is to help the president any way that you can. Everything you know about the president — what he’s worried about, what he needs, what he doesn’t know that he should — can help you help him.

Congratulations and good luck. We all are wishing you every success — we’re all counting on you.

Aaron Mannes is a lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He wrote his dissertation on vice presidential influence. Follow him on Twitter: @awmannes

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Independence Day: The Morning After

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. Today we woke up to a complicated, messy reality. The ideals of the United States of America, so eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence, are inspiring. But we see, almost constantly, how we fail to live up to them. The national failure of COVID-19 has exposed so many ways in which the United States is failing to secure the inalienable rights of the American people. From poor public health infrastructure to the weakened social safety net – the rest of the economically developed world has managed the pandemic (at high cost to be sure) and is ready to go back to business. The United States is wallowing in an ongoing and at least to some extent avoidable crisis.

There are other failures, beyond those linked to COVID-19. The criminal justice system, institutional racism and sexism, and the way in which the financial industry preys upon those who have the least are just a few of the issues highlighted in recent years.

We are in an era of what Samuel Huntington called Creedal Passion in which the American people seek to bring American reality into alignment with our core values – our Creed. These are periods of enormous ferment and tumult – like the Sixties or the Progressive Era. In such times, the nation’s history comes under scrutiny. 

We have never lived up to our values. Building the United States involved massive crimes against the Native Americans, the slavery of African-Americans, and other terrible depredations.  Reputed golden ages – such as the Fifties were built on systematic repression of African-Americans, women were constrained in their choices, while corporations were able to harm the environment and consumers with limited oversight.

But this bleak view is not completely fair. Our values are not just a sham. We do in fact strive for them. It took too long, but slavery was destroyed. It took too long, but women received the right vote. The United States has accepted immigrants from around the world and allowed them to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a way they could not in their nation of origin.

I have a personal stake in this. My people were at the bottom rung of the latter across Europe for over a millennium. Here in the United States we have prospered, been accepted, and have been safe in a way unprecedented in our long history.  I love this country for what it has meant for me, my family, and so very many. I want all Americans (and ultimately all people) to enjoy their inalienable rights.

There is much to be done.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Note of Hope on Anti-Semitism in America

Today is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish year. It is the day we remember the destruction of the ancient temples. It is a day of mourning, fasting, and contemplation. As it ends however, it turns to a message of hope, that what was lost will be rebuilt and renewed.

As it is nearly over, let me offer a message of hope.

I too am horrified by the seemingly endless cycle of massacres, and sadly, American Jews have been an all too frequent target. The massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history and has since been followed by shootings at synagogues in San Diego and Miami.

Where's the hope?

At synagogue, after one of these incidents, the rabbi asked for thoughts. When the room was silent, I offered this:
None of us have any illusions that anti-Semites are out there and want our blood. But they are a fringe. Unlike so many times in our history, there are no mobs gathering the streets calling for our blood. And the government is not complicit, it is absolutely opposed. When anti-Semitic incidents occur, does anyone doubt that the police are committed to protecting us? When an incident occurred here, and the FBI became involved, was there any question that they were not investigating diligently? When incidents occur, do our neighbors say - like they may have said in Germany or Poland (where our ancestors fled) - "Well, Jews, what can you expect?"
The answer is: No. I am sad that we have felt the need to hire a policeman to sit outside our synagogue on Shabbat. But I do not doubt that he will do his uttermost to protect us. If something did happen, our neighbors, of every faith or none would be here to support us. Our political leaders would condemn it vehemently.
I am horrified by the violence, like all of you, but I am still heartened, that in this country, we are not alone.
That is my message of hope. For those observing, I hope you had a meaningful fast.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Political Violence in an Age of Creedal Passion

My regular readers and pretty much everyone I talk to knows that I am trying to write about some deep cycles in U.S. history that are shaping our current political environment. I want it to be a book, and am writing academic papers for various conferences in an effort to make it happen.

To that end, I submitted a paper entitled Political Violence in an Age of Creedal Passion to the Southern Political Science Association. The abstract is as follows:
This paper will explore patterns of political violence during periods of Creedal Passion, and how this type of violence might manifest in the coming decade. In “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” Samuel Huntington identified the second and third decades of the 21st century as a period of Creedal Passion in which the American people seek to bridge the gap between their institutions and their ideals. The previous periods of Creedal Passion include the American Revolution, the Jacksonian Era, and the Progressive Era, and most recently the Sixties and Seventies. The present day evinces the characteristics of these eras including public opposition to hierarchies and concentrations, questioning traditional sources of authority, and a focus on long-standing sources of social inequality.
Each of these eras was accompanied by significant political violence, from the outright revolt against British rule, to the rioting during the Jacksonian Era, the anarchists of the Progressive Era, and the leftist extremism that accompanied the Sixties and Seventies. These eras were not necessarily more violent than other epochs in U.S. history, however the political violence was a manifestation of Creedal Passion. This paper will examine each of these eras and to understand how political violence emerged from and interacted with the broader reform movements and with society at large during eras of Creedal Passion. The paper will then apply these insights to better understand political violence in the United State today.
There has been significant violence in our current era of Creedal Passion already. Much has been on the political right, although there have been notable incidents of political violence on the left as well. There have also been a proliferation of just strange events like the Comet Pizza attack. This was not, strictly speaking, a political event (although it was linked to outrageous political rumors). But it reflects the general discontent and energy that characterizes eras of Creedal Passion.

The attempted bombings of former presidents and other politicians is something new. Eras of Creedal Passion have, sadly, featured assassinations of political leaders. The first assassination attempt on a president was against Andrew Jackson. The man was mentally ill, but again, there was a madness in the air as well. The Jacksonian Era also saw the sudden rise of the anti-Masonic party, after Masons murdered a man who threatened to reveal their secret rites.

Eternal Flame at JFK's Grave, photo by Tim Evanson
In the Progressive Era, William McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt was only saved by his extremely long speech folded in his pocket. The Sixties saw a string of assassinations: JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King.

It is worth remembering and putting things into perspective on this awful day. In the 1960s massive urban riots swept through American cities. In the Progressive Era, violent bloody confrontations between labor and business. We aren't there - and I don't think we'll get there. But sadly, things will get crazier. I'm trying to figure out how.

UPDATES: Events keep overtaking me. Now, we have the horrific news from Pittsburgh, where a monster with a gun committed the worst act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. I love this country, it has been amazing for the Jewish people (my people!) I am heartsick, but I am also heartened that the people of Pittsburgh - and almost everyone - are rallying around their neighbors.

I would also say that both in responding to the bombings and the synagogue shootings, our law enforcement agencies have acted with utter professionalism. There is still a commitment to rule of law in this country.

I ended the initial post (above) saying things are not as bad as they were in previous eras of Creedal Passion - but that the madness we are in is nowhere near over. I stand by that.

I don't have any hot-takes, but I'll make this observation. At some point some forms of serious gun control will be passed. The NRA has been winning battles for a very long time. Eventually it will lose - possibly soon. This will be to the good. There is simply no way to ignore the simple reality that access to firearms enables individuals and small groups to do absolutely terrible things.

However, the forces of Creedal Passion cut in many different directions - it is not simply left or right. For some Americans gun control threatens a sacred right. Most gun owners are law abiding, and they may grumble, but they will obey the law. For some however this gun control will be an enormous offense and lead them to more radical positions - and yes - to violence.

The only way out of this is through.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Could Saudi Arabia Collapse?

I used to do Middle East. Not so much anymore. I haven't followed the ins and outs of the Saudi royals either. That's its own real world. If you are interested, I can send you pointers to people who know this stuff well.

But, I do know this: every single Arab country, without exception, is built on sand. I don't mean this literally (although it seems true in many cases.) Rather, I mean that the societies are fragile, they are run by unpopular dictators, and their economies do not meet the needs of their people. All of these states (as we saw in the Arab Spring) were dry tinder waiting for a match.

I write this thinking that we need to consider seriously that the Jamal Kashoggi affair could bring down the Saudi government and replace it with a terrible civil war. The Saudis themselves are clearly concerned about this.

Smart Middle East hands, who may not like the Saudis much, will probably say we use this carefully push them towards reform - but we don't want to dump them. They are valuable allies (if morally dubious ones, but hey, welcome to the Middle East.) I don't like the Saudis much either. But, this is probably the smart play.

Putting aside this administration's competence to pull of the smart play, things can get out of hand. The opprobrium heading towards the Saudis can set a serious set of cascading events into motion. The Saudi regime cannot take care of itself. It relies heavily on foreign technical support. What happens when no one wants to provide that support because of public pressure? When the Saudi people lose confidence in their corrupt dictatorial regime, they are done for.

I'm not saying that this WILL happen. They've weathered a lot so far. But right now, nothing is impossible.

Syria, The Night Watch by Briton Riviere (1840-1920), painted in 1880. A favorite of mine at the wonderful Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Listening to Women, Learning Empathy

Somehow this Rothko captures the mood.
I am not writing this to advertise myself as some wonderful "woke" guy who really gets all of the indignities and awfulness that women suffer. My hope here is to share my path to at least a glimmer of empathy in the hope that it will help and inform other well-meaning men and boys to also be understanding and better.

So I'm writing about me, but it isn't about me, I'm just trying to set the stage.

First, two decades ago, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was the big news I worked in a small office with two women. When we began discussing current affairs I made the argument that perhaps Ms. Lewinsky was just a tiny bit responsible for what had happened.

My colleagues rounded on me. They adamantly stated that this was a situation between a powerful man and a powerless woman, it was not her fault. I dropped my argument because a light went off in my head - both of my colleagues had been in a comparable situation!

And if that were true, it means that many - most - women have also been in a comparable situation. This meant that most women had been ensnared in a fraught, sexualized, if not sexual, relationship with a more powerful man.

This is on top of the constant  harassment and judgment to which women are also subject. I haven't surveyed women I know to find out how true this is. But between listening to my wife and just paying attention - it's pretty clear how pervasive these situations are. Women worry about situations to which I would not give a second thought (such as whether an Uber ride in a strange city could become an assault.)

This was the beginning of a great sympathy towards women. I don't think I was ever a bad guy, I was nice and courteous. But this first realization helped me develop a sense of compassion about what women have to go through - but not empathy, I couldn't claim to truly grasp their experience.

Now, with the questions around Kavanaugh's behavior - his alleged attempted rape - my sympathy has deepened. Reading Caitlin Flanagan's article on a similar incident that happened to her as a teenager is a reminder that huge numbers of women have had a similar experience of physical assault. Even more women were in bad situations that could have become an assault, but that they somehow evaded. Let's be very clear, that still leaves a scar. The fact that rape or assault did not occur does not mean that nothing happened or that the experience was not terrible and frightening.

Anyone who thinks that the outpouring of women supporting Dr. Ford is cynical politics is fooling themselves. They believe her because they have been there.

A Mile in Another's Shoes
Sympathy is generally understood as compassion towards, while empathy is understanding another's situation - putting yourself in their shoes. Empathy is harder. Science fiction writer Jonathan Scalzi, in an epic blog post wrote that if life were a video game: "'Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting there is."
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
This straight white male does not always understand what those unlike myself have to go through. But I'm trying. To show how I got there, I need to talk about myself a little.

A Glimmer of Empathy
When I was a kid I was bullied, a lot. I was an awkward, strange, nerdy kid. This happened at school, in my neighborhood, (oddly) at Hebrew school, even at (can you imagine) a summer program for gifted and talented kids. That's right, I was so nerdy that other nerds picked on me. I was insulted and taunted. I was pushed around.

I was never really beaten up. I took steps to get out when the situation got threatening. It was often humiliating. But I was weak and uncoordinated. Attempts at violence were not going to go well for me. On TV, the victim slugs the bully in the face. And it turns out the bully was just a coward. Maybe so, but I'm not sure it would have worked out so well. In my experience, the bully was just looking for an excuse. Also, lots of times the bully had a bunch of friends. There was no honor, they would have piled on and beaten the crap out of me.

I have a great life now. None of this should matter. But I can still get mad about these incidents from three or four decades ago - in an instant. I still wake up at night with elaborate revenge fantasies.

But this is not about me. 

What I dealt with was chump change, small potatoes compared to an attempted rape. Thinking about my own open wound, made me realize just how massive the hurt that must be left by a sexual assault.

I don't want to equate my being pushed around at the playground with an attempted rape. It is not, not even close.

Update - A wise friend wrote to me:
I'd add here a caution of false equivalency. You left the playground/summer school--women must be vigilant wherever they are, every moment of their lives. The threat never stops. One is a fixed incident in time and space and the other is persistent through time and space. 
So if I consider my still festering anger and pain, and then try to imagine it extended many orders of magnitude into multiple dimensions, then maybe I have glimpsed just a shadow of what most women are carrying with them. The fact that despite these deep wounds, women carry on - raise kids, work jobs, write articles and PhD dissertations - is simply amazing.

That is the beginning of empathy.

Try it and extend it to everyone - people of color, LGBTQ, and the disabled.