Praying I am bad at math

Update: @LizSpecht does some similar math projecting the implications on the healthcare system.

I like to think I am pretty good at math. Day to day stuff like calculating tips in my head, but also more obscure things like calculating surface areas of 3D objects, doing basic calculus and developing basic math models to fit data. I’m still in awe when someone on the academic team I coach evaluates a quadratic integral with a log thrown in in less than 5 seconds, so I am by no means extraordinary, but pretty good. And yet, I am absolutely terrible at statistics. I have gone as far to say that since I am pretty good at math and bad at statistics, that statistics must not actually be math, which is no doubt some taxonomical form of the fundamental attribution error.

I suppose I can take some solace in the fact I am in good company – or at least there are a lot of other people equally bad at statistics. I would argue one the main points of Thinking Fast and Slow (still one of the best books I have read in the past 5-10 years) is that many of the problems we face, both personally and communally, come from the shortcuts we create because we are bad at thinking statistically.

Remembering that I am bad at statistics, it seems to me that we are all suffering from a bit of being bad at statistics in some of the discussions that are going around about COVID-19 / Corona Virus. I’ve seen a few posts from credible sources that are trying to downplay the potential impact of a COVID-19 pandemic by stating how many people have died from the seasonal flu vs how few (comparatively) have died from COVID-19. I’ve even seen a few (from perhaps less credible sources) that are making comparisons to the number of people that have died from cancer, diabetes and even car crashes.

In one way, these sorts of arguments are doing some good in that they are fighting against one of the heuristics that Thinking Fast and Slow mentions: since we are such bad statistical thinkers, we substitute the ease that we can recall something from memory as a proxy for how likely it is. With all of the news coverage we are likely all overestimating the chances of dying from a raging case of Corona.

What these arguments miss is the population size. While its true that the total number of people that have died from seasonal flu is much greater than the number that have died from Corona, it’s equally true that the number of people that are infected with seasonal flu is also much higher…for now. What matters here is the rate, which a real statistician would argue is barely statistics, but we still seem to be getting wrong.

There are two rates that matter: The infection / transmission rate and the mortality rate. The latter seems to be hovering between 1% and as high as 3.4% depending on which model you use, which is between 10 and 20 times more deadly that seasonal flu. The former is what seems to be the big question. Infection rate depends on things like virulence, how quickly and how often symptoms show and actually mortality (if it kills you more often / quickly, it is less likely you will transmit it to others). If we have an infection rate that is 10 to 20 times less than seasonal flu, then statistically we will get the same number of deaths as seasonal flu. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case so far with some officials stating that between 40 to as much as 70% of the worlds population ultimately destined for infection. If the low end of both numbers are right that’s 30.8M people dead by the time this is all over. Let’s really hope I am as bad at statistics as I think.


Boy problems

I’ve been deep into a few books, so have let my stack of periodicals get a bit out of control. I decided to tackle it a bit this week and was reminded why I subscribe to The Atlantic: articles like this.

In The Miseducation of the American Boy, Peggy Orenstein chronicles her interviews with college bound / college enrolled boys about their relationships with other boys and how that informs their relationships with girls. The challenges she finds are existed on the edge of my awareness, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t want to stare at directly. Part of that reason is that I’ve raised my boy (and girl). They are both over 18 and doing well at adulting. I think we were able to give them a wider view and better models of masculinity/femininity as well as a basic foundation of respect with open hearted questioning on top. But I also know what this article represents is more representative of the water they swim in and that leaves me with a number of thoughts:

  • Not to sound old, but geez was it easier when I grew up. I have what I feel is a healthy dose of compassion and an inquiring heart/mind for the conversations around gender, identity and relationships that today’s youth get to have (I’m failing at not sounding old), but still it seems inordinately complicated.
  • I’m thankful for navigating this with our two children, now adults, in what seems to have been a healthy, effective way. Especially since I had no idea what I was actually doing at the time. At the same time I feel somehow responsible for providing something to those that are still trying to make their way through this, but am not sure how or whether to act on that feeling. Teaching the faith and sexuality class one way I am doing this, but that will only be a few weeks. Then what?
  • I do wonder if some of this is a (mostly) unintentional byproduct of the important work to build up female identity and power. In a well intentioned and much overdue attempt to right past wrongs, most recently in the form of the #metoo movement, have we built up and women, expanding the Overton window of what is allowable for girls, at the cost of tearing down and giving increasingly limited options to boys? This is not to say that I feel or have experienced anything remotely resembling a backlash for being a white, cisgendered male in my life. But the stories in the article seem to me to be related to not replacing all the things we rightly removed from masculinity (misogyny, patriarchy, etc) with something to aspire to. A model to emulate.
  • Now here’s the part that I will likely get into trouble for: I think that these boy problems will (or maybe even are) cause problems for girls, at least for hetero / cisgendered ones. This is totally colored (i.e. biased) by my own experience, but I have been made immeasurably better through the relationship I have with my wife. And I think she would say the same about her relationship with me. That improvement is not because we are the same, but in fact because we are different, we know each other and we see each other’s blind spots. It seems to me that the boys described in this article will struggle to be a good mirror to the girls they manage to build a relationship with. Those girls will miss the opportunity to see themselves through the mirror of their partner and vice versa.

In all of this, only one thing is clear: There are no clear diagnosis or easy prescriptions. I only hope we have reached some sort of local minima and can improve from here. I hate to think about what worse relationships between boys and girls could look like.


Feb tech updates

Writing this from the simply amazing keyboard on the 16″ MBP I picked up the day they shipped to Apple stores. I have a 13″ MBP for work with the first gen butterfly keyboard and the difference is night and day. I had planned to get a dock setup at home with an external display, monitor, etc, but honestly the keyboard is so good on this and the display does everything I want that I’m sort of loosing motivation to spend the extra cash there. I waited a long time to upgrade and now that I have I wonder why I waited so long…but then again, not sure I would be as satisfied with anything other than what this.

I think I got the blog hosting platform on AWS worked out. The upgrade to the $5 a month plan seems to have worked out the crashing issues I was experiencing on the $3.50 a month plan. It’s still half of what I was paying for GoDaddy with better performance and more control (SSH access for instance). The addition of the certificate seems to be having some of the intended effect on search performance as well.

I switched my home video surveillance system up at the barn from Zoneminder running in a Jail on my FreeNAS to an Apple HomeKit based solution running the cameras through a homebridge instance I added to my spare Ubuntu server that is mainly running automatic ripping machine to post all my CDs and DVDs to FreeNAS for access via Plex. That seems to be working well also, although I found out after I did the conversion that while the cameras work for live viewing, they don’t work with the Secure Video features which means the video isn’t recorded and I don’t get notifications when there is motion. The home bridge guys are working on it, so may just be a matter of time.

Lastly, I switched up VPN providers, at least for the next month. I moved from Private Internet Access to Mullvad. PIA got acquired by a company with a less than stellar track record, having been accused of distributing malware, so I decided to look elsewhere. So far so good, with essentially the same performance on fiber as I had with PIA – about 220 MBps down / 110 MBps up on a 300/100 MBps connection. The switch over on pfsense was fairly simple although I did have to retrace my steps on how I had setup the partitioned my network and setup the guest network to get everything working the right way.


The great divide

My wife and I “volunteered” (we might have been under the influence of a few cocktails at the time so the question of consent comes into play here) to help teach a faith and sexuality class at our church. All kidding aside about whether we were taken advantage of at a time of weakness, I am actually glad we are doing it. It’s a great chance to get to talk with some of the youth in the parish that I don’t know as well (and how better to get to know them than an hour long conversation about the terms we want to use as a group for body parts and “verbs”) and it’s also a great example of why I love my faith: the kinds of conversations we are having in these classes are both critical AND I just don’t see happening in many other faith communities.

What we discuss in these sessions is of course confidential, but there was one exchange that we had last Sunday that I can relate generally enough to keep confidence and explore the point here. It had to do with conversations that the youth are having with their parents. They expressed that although they know their parents are trying to connect with the times and be sensitive, sometimes they can say things that seem insensitive.

There’s a lot here.

One thing this makes me realize is the need for compassion when trying to communicate across generational divides. The older side of course needs to have compassion for the younger side by realizing that what defines them as different generation is a different set of foundational experiences. Growing up in the 70s was fundamentally different than growing up in the 90s which is fundamentally different than growing up now. These different experiences shape us in ways that most don’t even realize and are in fact what makes one generation different from the next. The younger side also needs to have compassion for the older because of this same difference. The things the youth today are sensitive to don’t occur “naturally” to those that grew up in a different time, so when something insensitive is said, the youth need to do some more work to not simply react as they would if one of their peers said the same thing. They need to get curios when they might otherwise get furious and ask what is behind what was said – what’s in their heart? This can be hard and painful because sometimes they’ll find something that is actually troublesome. Some real hate or disfunction. But I think equally often they will find honest intent and this can lead to learning.

And that’s the another thing this has made me realize. That while some portion of generational divides (and perhaps divides of all sorts) is a lack of compassion and willingness to go deep and mutually discover intent, another major portion comes from lack of interest in teaching and learning on both sides of the gap. The older side has to be willing to learn how things have changed and the younger side has to be willing to teach. Similarly the younger side has to be willing to learn from the experience of older side to avoid past mistakes. Both sides loose when they assume that they know it all and the other side has nothing to teach them. Both sides loose when they close themselves off to learning.


Anxiety Loops

I saw a few write ups of this study on test anxiety. The study itself uses some pretty technical language (perhaps an artifact of the “scientization” of the humanities), but here is the gist as I understand it:

  • The standard theory concerning the cause of test anxiety is that students both value the outcome of the test while at the same time feel they have less control than they would like in getting prepared (i.e. a lack of self efficacy).
  • This lack of self efficacy leads to procrastination resulting in a perfect storm / self fulfilling prophecy: I don’t think I will do well because I can’t learn the material and since I can learn the material, why should I bother to study, which of course results in…not learning the material.
  • The study found something that I think is a form of CBT called “inquiry-based stress reduction” (IBSR) as an effective means to overcome the feeling of non-effectiveness.

I read through the entire study since it reminded me of how I can feel when facing a big project. I have a perfect idea of what the result should be in my mind, but I struggle to start because I know that no matter how hard I work, whatever gets realized won’t be as perfect. Steven Pressfield called this feeling “resistance” and he correctly observed that you only really feel it for things you care a lot about. I’ve gotten reasonably good at noticing resistance, but I’m interested to try the ideas in this study to give me something to do about it when I do.

The two opening questions seem like CBT classics:

  • “Is this thought true?”
  • “Can you absolutely know that this thought is true?”.

But the follow-ups are a little more interesting:

  • “How do you react, what happens when you have this thought?”
  • “Does that thought bring peace or stress to your life?”
  • “What images do you see, past or present, as you think this thought?”
  • “What physical sensations arise having these thoughts and seeing these pictures?”
  • “What emotions arise when you have that thought?”
  • Do any obsessions or addictions begin to appear when you have this thought (e.g. alcohol, drugs, shopping, food, and television)?”
  • “How do you treat others when you have this thought? How do you treat yourself when you have this thought?”

House Cleaning

The house cleaning of the blog continues. I finally went back and fixed the display issues that cropped up in one of my past WordPress upgrades having to do with the display of Latin-1 characters from a UTF-8 database. Followed these instructions and it seems to have worked like a charm.

I also went through and re-organized the categories, simplifying to the things I seem to write on the most: podcasts, books and a catch-all miscellaneous. I also set all of the work related posts I did here in the PLM category to private. I put them here at a time when the business wasn’t blogging, but now that they are I can focus on non-work stuff here, making the purpose a little clearer to everyone – most of all me 😉

Lastly I moved to the new default WordPress template which seems to have some cool things supporting blocks. I may eventually buy or build my own template, but this will do for now.


Neil’s mushroom hunters

Love Neil Gaiman and love collaborations with his wife even more.


Which call?

Listened to the most recent episode of Making Sense on the way into work today. I continue to be fascinated with the guests that Sam Harris finds.

A few things that stuck with me:

  • The connection between poetry and good thinking. I am not an expert in poetry, but I do find myself more attracted to it over the last few years, purchasing and browsing through TS Elliot and Wendell Berry collections over the past few years. Part of my interest is that it seems to act for me as a mental reset. When I need to reset on something, I can switch to some good poetry and get the reset I need.
  • The idea that your identity is not made up of your beliefs, but actually the attention you pay to those others than you. I think there is a lot to unpack here, but this idea alone has me looking to add David Whyte’s writing. I stopped by my favorite local bookstore on the way home to order a copy of The Three Marriages. Yes I could have gotten it tomorrow from Amazon, but that entirely misses the point.
  • The “conversational” nature of reality. The idea that whatever you have in mind for the world will never be fully realized. Nor will whatever the world has in mind for you will be completely realized. What will be realized is the mediation (or a frontier) between the two, just like a conversation.
  • The poem he explains and then reads, The Bell and the Blackbird. The story behind the poem with both the bell AND the call of the blackbird BOTH being the most beautiful sound the monk ever heard on the base level is a wonderful allegory on the power of non-dualism, or more simply put the value of avoiding either / or thinking. At a deeper level, when coupled with the story he tells about the meaning of both being the most beautiful sounds he has heard, the idea that you have to choose, but at the same time have no choice ;-), between practicing your skills and getting better and living out your skills in the world and trying to make things happen really spoke to me. Both choices take courage. Both choices mean leaving the other aside for at least a while. Both lead to more beauty in the world.

Which call did you heed today?



Moving to Lightsail is already paying dividends.

One of the things on my wish list for a while now has been to add a SSL cert to my blog. This is a little for the geek factor / knowing how it works, but also since I know search engines give some extra juice to sites with SSL. Since I am not going to post updates to Facebook or Twitter I need all the discovery mechanisms I can get.

On GoDaddy it always seems either (a) too expensive or (b) to convoluted. Following this simple tutorial I was able to get a free cert setup and installed from Let’s Encrypt, a cool project from the EFF. I have to renew it every 90 days, but that’s only a minor hassle for free.


A little more memory

After deactivating all plugins and finding the log files, I determined that the nano instance of Lightsail is just too small to run the Bitnami WordPress image on. I just upgraded to the next largest size that has 1GB of RAM so we’ll see if that solves the database connection / crash errors that have kept this site down for most of the last few weeks.

This will bump my monthly costs from $3.50 to $5 a month, which is still half of what I was paying for GoDaddy hosting. It’s true that I had a few sites running there and can only reasonably expect to run this one on this plan. But those other sites are dormant for now, so I can live with that.

In addition to saving money, I wanted to learn a bit about the amazon cloud, which I have. I also wanted the monthly billing to remind me to post here now and again. I have let this site sit relatively still for a long time as I have focused on other things. My hope is that I can use this site as my social media outlet and much the same way that I am encouraged to read “real” news by subscribing to print periodicals, actually paying for my social media outlet (not to mention having it directly associated to my name) will change how I think and how I behave compared to using the “free” platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, not as many people will see it here…something I have accepted.