Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 23rd, 2021

The Texas Mask Mystery

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“Who was that masked man?”‘

“I don’t know, but it sure as hell wasn’t Gov. Abbot.”

Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic:

In early march, Texas became the first state to abolish its mask mandate and lift capacity constraints for all businesses. Conservatives hailed Governor Greg Abbott’s decision, while liberals predicted doom and death and President Joe Biden disparaged it as “Neanderthal thinking.”

Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.

How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little?

One possible interpretation is that lifting mandates did almost nothing because masks in particular do almost nothing. This viewpoint enjoys widespread popularity among conservative outlets such as Fox News, and is likely behind Abbott’s more aggressive decision to ban mask mandates in Texas.

This explanation has a few holes. Plenty of evidence suggests that masks almost certainly do something, even if they’re not perfect. Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found that masks “limit both exhalation and inhalation of infectious virus” and that universal masking “can help reduce transmission.” A meta-analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “places and time periods where mask usage is required or widespread have shown substantially lower community transmission.” And several analyses published in Nature reported that surgical masks and unvented KN95 respirators reduce particle emission by up to 90 percent.

A subtler possibility is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter very much because other factors—such as weather, accelerating vaccinations, and a bit of luck—mattered more at the time. The coronavirus seems to spread less efficiently in hot and humid environments, which could partly explain why states such as Texas and Florida have managed to avoid higher-than-average COVID-19 deaths, despite their governors’ famous aversion to restrictions. Add this to the pace of vaccinations in March, and it’s possible that Abbott just got lucky, by lifting restrictions at a time when cases were destined to decline, no matter what.

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In November, for instance . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 May 2021 at 3:38 pm

Labor shortage? or wage shortage?

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It’s as simple as black and white — and reflects the law of supply and demand (basic economics): as demand increases and supply remains the same, the price increases. If the demand for labor increases beyond the supply, the price goes up. Businesses certainly understand that if the demand for their widgets increases, they can change more. That principle also applies to the labor required to make the widgets. Don’t businesses understand this basic principle?

Written by Leisureguy

23 May 2021 at 8:25 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Math

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A better way to picture atoms

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Written by Leisureguy

23 May 2021 at 8:09 am

Posted in Science, Video

“I watched the GOP’s Arizona election audit. It was worse than you think.”

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Jennifer Morrell, a former local election official and national expert on post-election audits, writes in the Washington Post:

When Arizona’s secretary of state asked me if I would serve as an observer of the Arizona Senate’s audit of Maricopa County’s ballots, I expected to see some unusual things. Post-election audits and recounts are almost always conducted under the authority of local election officials, who have years of knowledge and experience. The idea of a government handing over control of ballots to an outside group, as the state Senate did when hiring a Florida contractor with no elections experience, was bizarre. This firm, Cyber Ninjas, insisted that it would recount and examine all 2.1 million ballots cast in the county in the 2020 general election.

So I figured it would be unconventional. But it was so much worse than that. In more than a decade working on elections, audits and recounts across the country, I’ve never seen one this mismanaged.

[I counted votes in Michigan. There’s no way to commit fraud.]

I arrived at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the morning of May 4. Security was conspicuously high: At three stations, guards checked my ID and my letter from the secretary of state. No bags were permitted on the floor, and I had to surrender my phone, laptop and smartwatch. I was allowed a yellow legal pad and red pen to take notes, and provided with a pink T-shirt to wear so I would be immediately identifiable. The audit observers hired by Cyber Ninjas, in orange T-shirts, followed me wherever I went and reported random things about me they found suspicious, like that my foot had crossed the tape perimeter separating the work and observation areas. Several times someone asked to test my pen, to ensure it really had red ink. Once, they even demanded that I empty my pockets, in which I carried that pen and a pair of reading glasses. I was allowed to ask only procedural questions of the Cyber Ninjas attorney; I couldn’t talk to anyone else performing the work. The atmosphere was tense.

I was stunned to see spinning conveyor wheels, whizzing hundreds of ballots past “counters,” who struggled to mark, on a tally sheet, each voter’s selection for the presidential and Senate races. They had only a few seconds to record what they saw. Occasionally, I saw a counter look up, realize they missed a ballot and then grab the wheel to stop it. This process sets them up to make so many mistakes, I kept thinking. Humans are terrible at tedious, repetitive tasks; we’re especially bad at counting. That’s why, in all the other audits I’ve seen, bipartisan teams follow a tallying method that allows for careful review and inspection of each ballot, followed by a verification process. I’d never seen an audit use contraptions to speed things up.

Speed doesn’t necessarily pose a problem if the audit has a process for catching and correcting mistakes. But it didn’t. Each table had three volunteers tallying the ballots, and their tally sheets were considered “done” as long as two of the three tallies matched, and the third was off by no more than two ballots. The volunteers recounted only if their tally sheets had three or more errors — a threshold they stuck to, no matter how many ballots a stack contained, whether 50 or 100. This allowed for a shocking amount of error. Some table managers told the counters to recount when there were too many errors; other table managers just instructed the counters to fix their “math mistakes.” At no point did anyone track how many ballots they were processing at their station, to ensure that none got added or lost during handling.

I also observed other auditors working on a “forensic paper audit,” flagging ballots as “suspicious” for a variety of reasons. One was presidential selection: If someone thought the voter’s choice looked as though it had been marked by a machine, they flagged it as “anomalous.” Another was “missing security markers.” (It’s virtually impossible for a ballot to be missing its security markers, since voting equipment is designed to reject ballots without them.) The third was paper weight — the forensics tables had scales for weighing ballots, though I never saw anyone use them — and texture. Volunteers scrutinized ballots for, of all things, bamboo fibers. Only later, after the shift, did I learn that this was connected to groundless speculation that fake ballots had been flown in from South Korea.

The fourth reason was folding. The auditors reasoned that only absentee voters would fold their ballots; an in-person, Election Day voter would take a flat ballot, mark it in the booth and submit it, perfectly pristine. I almost had to laugh: In my experience, voters will fold ballots every which way, no matter where they vote or what the ballot instructs them to do. Chalk it up to privacy concerns or individual quirks — but no experienced elections official would call that suspicious.

At one point, I overheard some volunteers excitedly discussing a stain on a ballot. “It looks like a Cheeto finger,” one said. “Like someone’s touched it with cheese dust!” That had to be suspicious, their teammate agreed. Why would someone come to the polls with cheese powder on their hands? But I’ve seen ballots stained with almost anything you can imagine, including coffee, grease and, yes, cheese powder. Again, when you have experience working with hundreds of thousands of ballots, you see some messes: That’s evidence of humanity’s idiosyncrasies, not foul play.

Their equipment worried me more than their wild theorizing. At the forensics tables, auditors took a photo of each ballot using a camera suspended by a frame, then passed the ballot to someone operating a lightbox with four microscope cameras attached. This was a huge deviation from the norm. Usually, all equipment that election officials use to handle a ballot — from creating to scanning to tallying it — has been federally tested and certified; often, states will conduct further tests before their jurisdictions accept the machines. It jarred me to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

23 May 2021 at 8:06 am

Sinuous: Free web-based fun game

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Try this game. You are the white dot. Use your mouse to avoid the red dots. Dots of other colors you should hit because they give special powers. (Mouse over the title of the page and you’ll see what special dots do.)

Written by Leisureguy

23 May 2021 at 7:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Games

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