(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Congress

“Torture the data, and it will confess to anything”*…

Source: @piechartpirate

Add movement to a bar chart, and you’ve got yourself an audience-pleaser. These so-called “bar chart races” are not popular with data visualization experts– but what do experts know?…

I’m not a betting man. But I do enjoy a good bar chart race — a popular way to visually display and compare changing data over time. Bars lengthen and shorten as time ticks away; contenders accordingly hop over each other to switch places in the ranking. Will your favorite keep their lead? Look at that surprise challenger rush to the front! Meanwhile, furious battles are waged for the middle and even the lower spots on the list.

Bar chart races are a spectacular way to animate certain types of information, but the so-called dataviz community is skeptical. Many data visualization specialists complain that bar chart races are like a sugar rush: a lot of entertainment, but very little analysis. Big on grabbing attention, small on conveying causality. Instead of good seats at the data ballet, you get standing room only at the information dog track.

Well, all that may be true. But when is the last time you’ve been glued to a statistic about global coffee production? Bar chart races are fun to watch, not least because you can pick a favorite early on and get to see them win — or lose. In other words, you’re emotionally invested in the animation in a way that’s lacking from static stats.

Bar chart races are used for just about any dataset that can be quantified over time: best-selling game consoles, most trusted brands, highest grossing movies…

Any dataset that can be quantified over time can be turned into a contest that is both exciting and (a little bit) enlightening: from @VeryStrangeMaps, 10 examples of “Bar chart races: short on analysis, but fun to watch,” for example…

Ronald Coase

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As we ruminate on representation, we might check our watches: it was on this date in 1918 that the Standard Time Act (AKA, the Calder Act) became effective. Passed by Congress earlier in the year, it implemented across the U.S. both Standard time (the creation of time zones anchored in UTC, the successor to GMT) and Daylight Saving Time.

U.S. Time Zones (somewhat revised from the original division)

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“When transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a rejiggered caterpillar.”*…

Mail trucks, with mostly short and predictable routes, are naturals to lead the electrification revolution. But as Aaron Gordon explains, the USPS, as an institution, is not…

A year ago, the USPS announced it was buying between 50,000 and 165,000 new delivery trucks over the next decade from Oshkosh Defense, a defense contractor based in Wisconsin, as part of the long-awaited replacement of the current iconic mail trucks. The USPS provided few details about the vehicles, except to highlight key features like air conditioning, automatic emergency braking, and other safety technology, none of which the famous boxy neighborhood delivery vehicles have. The USPS also said the trucks would be a mix of both battery electric and internal combustion engine vehicles, but didn’t specify the ratio. 

At first, the new vehicles, whether gas or electric, were a hit. They’re rather cute for a truck, with a low front grill and huge windshield, giving it the unmistakable likeness of a duck. And your friendly neighborhood postal worker desperately needs them, since the USPS’s current fleet of trucks is 30 years old on average, far longer than the USPS expected them to run. It costs the USPS $5,000 per vehicle per year in maintenance alone to keep them running. And despite that exorbitant expense, it still can’t stop dozens of them from spontaneously combusting every year

But what began as mostly good-natured celebration over a cute, much-needed truck went downhill fast. It increasingly became clear the massive order was utterly unfit for the modern age. In a legally-mandated environmental review, the USPS revealed the gas version of the truck will get essentially the same miles per gallon with the air conditioning on as the current truck gets, or about 8 mpg, worse than the RAM ProMaster, which the USPS also uses, which gets roughly 14 mpg. It also revealed the truck’s weight was selected to be precisely one pound heavier than the “heavy duty truck” cutoff which frees it from various environmental regulations, including getting better gas mileage. And, most controversially of all, only 10 percent of the trucks will be electric, even though the USPS itself said in the environmental review that 95 percent of its routes are fit for EVs.

Why? Well, part of the reason is internal…

“The Postal Service made individual decisions that might have been rational,” said Michael Ravnitzky, chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2015, “but taken as a whole, they don’t seem explicable to the public because the public is judging it by today’s standards, rather than the standards of when [the postal service] started this, like 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”…

Starting in the 1980s, the USPS had to pay its own bills, received no subsidies from Congress, had no mandate to consider environmental or social issues, and mostly heard from Congresspeople when they were getting complaints about their local post office reducing its hours but were nowhere to be found when it came time to discuss the $56 billion in made-up debt the agency had been saddled with. If politicians weren’t publicly rooting for the USPS to go away as an antiquated institution from a bygone era, they at least weren’t going to stick their necks out for it, because they could no longer see to it that a local political supporter got a job at the post office. For most politicians, the post office had become a non-entity in ways that both helped and hurt the postal service. The USPS was going alone and would have to make do with what it had.

And what it had, in the late 2000s, was some 142,000 decaying delivery trucks, most pushing 20 years old then, with no air conditioning or power steering, that didn’t comply with any environmental regulations because they had been built before such regulations existed, got terrible gas mileage, and needed replacement parts that manufacturers were no longer making. USPS engineers were taking the body from one truck and the parts from another to make a new one, stacking safety hazard upon safety hazard as it created more and more Frankentrucks. 

The engineering department knew it desperately needed new vehicles but that it wasn’t going to get them any time soon. So it became intimately familiar with the 142,000 of the ones it had. Internal combustion engines were what the engineering people knew. If a part broke, they knew how to get a new one, or how to fashion one together if new ones didn’t exist. The fact that they were able to stretch the useful life of these trucks beyond the planned 20 years and push 30 years or more has been considered by the engineering department as nothing short of heroic. 

For the people who “bleed blue,” as the saying in the USPS goes, electric vehicles may have been better in theory, but gas was better for the realities they faced. Because when Congress inevitably screws them again and makes them stretch the lives of the next trucks a decade or two longer than planned, they’ll need to duct tape and glue those trucks together, too. And they don’t know how to glue an EV back together…

And part of the reason goes to rules imposed by Congress. EV’s are more expensive upfront, but promise lower overall expenses (maintenance, fuel, etc.) overall; still…

After a 2006 law saddled the USPS with made-up debt to help balance the federal budget, the USPS acts as if it lacks the financial flexibility to make any mistakes, a fear that results in an organization so tepid and conservative it ends up making many of them…

The USPS, like many large government bureaucracies, have two different budgets: operating and capital expenses. The operating budget of some $80 billion a year is the one that goes towards delivering mail every day: paying people, fueling trucks, fixing trucks, running their equipment and facilities, and so on. The capital budget, which is just a couple billion dollars a year at most, is the one that pays for investing in upgrades to all that stuff: Buying new trucks, purchasing a new HVAC system for a post office, and the like. 

While any individual USPS employee easily understands that paying $5,000 a year to keep 30-year-old trucks running makes no sense, the USPS bureaucracy can’t. To buy new ones would be a capital cost, for which the USPS would have to borrow money, something it legally could not do for the last decade.

It had reached its Congressionally-mandated borrowing limit. If the USPS had been able to borrow more money, it would have had to give it to the federal government as part of the terms of that disastrous 2006 law, which mandated the USPS pay it $5.5 billion every year. The USPS did so, amassing some $18 billion in an account managed by the federal government, until 2011, when it stopped because it could no longer afford it. So while the USPS could continue to run up deficits in its operating budget, it couldn’t borrow any more money for capital expenses, the kind that saves an organization money in the long run…

Why the USPS bought expensive, environmentally-unfriendly mail trucks: “Who Killed the Electric Mail Truck?,” from @A_W_Gordon in @motherboard. Eminently worth reading in full.

* paraphrase of George Westerman

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s epoch-making tale of a man-made monster, Frankenstein, was published.  Shelley had begun writing the story two years earlier, when she was 18 and on vacation near Geneva with her soon-to-be husband (the poet Percy Shelley) and their friend Lord Byron.  The house party set itself the task of each writing a gothic story; only Mary finished hers.  The first edition was published anonymously; Shelley was first publicly identified as the author on the title page of the 1823 second edition.

The work has, as Brian Aldiss argues, a strong claim to being the first true science fiction novel.  As the sub-title– “The Modern Prometheus”– suggests (and like most great sci fi), it treats the philosophical, cultural, and psychological ramifications of scientific and technological progress.

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“The right of voting for representation is the primary right by which other rights are protected”*…

The state of state redistricting, so far…

One of the most insidious obstacles to fair representation is gerrymandering, the practice of re-drawing congressional districts to favor one party or another– long a feature of American politics. With the completion of each decennial census, states redraw their their district boundaries, a process that’s underway now and that will define Congressional elections in 2022.

FiveThirtyEight is maintaining a updated interactive tracker of proposed congressional maps — and whether they might benefit Democrats or Republicans in the 2022 midterms and beyond (pictured above). Explore it to watch national governance shaped before your very eyes.

* Thomas Paine

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As we fish for fairness, we might send culture-capturing birthday greetings to Norman Percevel Rockwell; he was born on this date in 1894.  Famous as a painter and illustrator in the U.S. through much of the 20th Century, Rockwell created such iconic images as the Willie Gillis series, Ros ie the RiveterSaying Grace (1951), The Problem We All Live With, and the Four Freedoms series.

Perhaps because he published in such settings as Saturday Evening Post and enjoyed so much popular acclaim, Rockwell was dismissed by serious art critics in his lifetime.  But as The New Yorker ‘s art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews in 1999: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.”

The Problem We All LIve With, depicting an incident in the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s, when Ruby Bridges entered first grade on the first day of court-ordered desegregation of New Orleans, Louisiana, public schools (November 14, 1960). Originally published in Look magazine.

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“24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence?”*…

Social distancing makes a soul thirsty– and as the Journal of the American Medical Association reports, that has had consequences…

Alcohol consumption has substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic… We examined national changes in waiting list registration and liver transplantation for ALD and the association with alcohol sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. We hypothesized that waiting list registrations and deceased donor liver transplants (DDLTs) for alcoholic hepatitis (AH), which can develop after a short period of alcohol misuse, would disproportionately rise…

This cross-sectional study found that waiting list registrations and DDLTs for AH increased significantly during COVID-19, exceeding the volumes forecasted by pre–COVID-19 trends by more than 50%, whereas trends for AC and non-ALD remained unchanged. While we cannot confirm causality, this disproportionate increase in association with increasing alcohol sales may indicate a relationship with known increases in alcohol misuse during COVID-19. Since less than 6% of patients with severe AH are listed for transplantation, increasing waiting list volume during COVID-19 represents a small fraction of the increase in AH, a preventable disease with 6-month mortality up to 70%.

Pandemic drinking is up– way up. So, it turns out, is serious liver disease: “Association of COVID-19 With New Waiting List Registrations and Liver Transplantation for Alcoholic Hepatitis in the United States.”

And lest we think think that waning COVID-19 pressure will be the end of all of this, a warning: “The Coming Age of Climate Trauma.”

[Image above: source]

* Steven Wright

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As we muse on moderation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Charles Darwin received about 4,000 write-in votes in the election in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District. Republican Paul Broun, an M.D. who was running unopposed for re-election, had given (the September before) a campaign speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet in which he said “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

In response, radio talk show host Neil Boortz and University of Georgia plant biology professor Jim Leebens-Mack spearheaded a campaign to run the English naturalist and evolutionary theorist against Broun, a young earth creationist. They had no expectation of unseating him (and indeed, Broun carried his district handily) but hoped to draw attention to these comments from the scientific community and to have Broun removed from his post on the House Science Committee– at which they also failed.

Paul Broun [source]

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself”*…

 

The 93rd U.S. Congress, 1973-74, considered 26,157 bills; it made 738 (3%) of them law.  The 103rd Congress, 1993-94, enacted 458 (5%) of the 9,746 bills it considered.  The current Congress– the 113th, 2013-14– has so far introduced 7,980 bills, and passed only 100 (just over 1%) of them.

The Legislative Explorer, from researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for American Politics and Public Policy, allows readers to follow the lawmaking process– over 250,000 bills and resolutions introduced from 1973 to present– in action.

The left half represents the U.S. Senate, with senators sorted by party (blue=Democrat) and a proxy for ideology (top=liberal). The House is displayed on the right. Moving in from the borders, the standing committees of the Senate and House are represented, followed by the Senate and House floors. A bill approved by both chambers then moves upward to the President’s desk and into law, while an adopted resolutions (that does not require the president’s signature) moves downward.

Each dot represents a bill, so one can see them move through the process.  The drop-down menus at the top allow a shift of focus to a specific Congress, a person, a party, a topic, and several other categorizations; and there’s search to allow one to examine specific bills.  Counters across the bottom of the screen keep track of the action… or the lack thereof.

Give it a try.

[TotH to Flowing Data]

* Mark Twain

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As we yield, Mr. Speaker, to the gentleman from the District of Columbia, we might think expansionist thoughts in honor of Thomas Jefferson, whose emissaries Robert Livingston and James Monroe  signed the the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, called by some “the letter that bought a continent,” in Paris on this date in 1803… and in one stroke (well, three strokes– Livingston, Monroe, and French representative Barbé Marbois all signed) doubled the size of the United States.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 30, 2014 at 1:01 am

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