U.S. military… random thoughts

A former student is thinking of going to law school to then become a JAG. He shared with me some thoughts on a book Saving Sandoval, by Craig Drummond. According to the blurb:

Saving Sandoval is the true account of the defense of U.S. Army Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval, Jr. Sandoval, a 22-year old infantry paratrooper deployed to the forward operating base of Iskan during the enemy uprisings of 2007 in Iraq. Iskan was located in the “Triangle of Death,” which at the time was the most dangerous area in Iraq; arguably the world. Sandoval’s unit began to take heavy casualties during the increased violence in the region. As the unit began to respond and regroup from their heavy losses, Sandoval was re-assigned from his regular infantry team to his unit’s most elite group–the sniper section… On one of his first missions he was guided by the sniper section leader, Staff Sergeant Hensley… Sandoval was placed in the shooting position while Hensley served as his observer… Hensley spotted a man serving as a lookout for the enemy who had recently attacked U.S. and coalition units… The man was in civilian clothing, posing as a farmer cutting grass. This was consistent with most of the insurgents and enemy in Iraq, who often wore civilian clothing and were not easily distinguishable from the civilians who resided in the nearby villages….Given all of the information known at the time, Hensley directed Sandoval to take the shot. Sandoval complied… Many of the actions of the entire sniper section came under question, particularly an event two weeks later in which a suspected insurgent was shot at close range with a pistol by another member of Sandoval’s team… Eventually Sandoval faced a court-martial for murder, for his first shooting as a sniper…Saving Sandoval is the story of the trial … The book quotes testimony from both the pre-trial hearings and the trial itself, which took place in a makeshift courtroom on a U.S. military installation just outside of Baghdad.

My reaction was: Having read some summaries of Saving Sandoval… sounds like an interesting book…. I’d probably be more inclined to invest in reading if it were an analysis by someone more removed from the interests of the actors… Drummond as the JAG would seem to have been a full participant…. so it is more primary material than broader analysis it seems…. Newspaper accounts suggest this was not just some kind of anti-war trumped-up charge. It was members of the unit who were concerned about abuses, it seems.

Like many of my generation, my “prior” on the military as a culture was strongly shaped by My Lai, subsequent cover-up, subsequent pardon, and broader patterns consistent with that throughout the whole Vietnam war continuing all the way to the present where we have “swiftboating” as a word. The Abu Ghraib revelations, the many disclosures made public by Chelsea Manning, including the video of the helicopter shooting of Iraqis (insurgents and civilians) in 2007, and the audio that accompanied that, also suggested to me that 30 years later many units in the military continue to function with largely unchanged culture. MLK and Malcolm X, had much to say about the culture of militarization in the US back in the 1960s. The various sex and gender scandals in many branches of the military are not reassuring. I have also been very influenced by President Clinton’s missile bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and likely fabricated evidence to justify the bombing.

Generals might say “yea, but our culture is better than every other military” and that might indeed be true. I don’t have emotions about it, just impressionistic priors… I think there is much room for principled JAG’s to do good work, and room for reform, and for strong leaders with more integrity, and for more civilian oversight, and for more transparency, and for less hubris and more humility. Unfortunately, a sentence like that (and the whole blog) post, is likely to be taken by some (and perhaps even some relatives) as meaning I am anti-military, America-hater, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. But people who think that way are rarely concerned about truth and the critical thinking needed to discern truth.

Posted in United States | Leave a comment

Neuroeconomics of limitations of cognitive processing probably where all the action is… “attention” is the byword

From Neuroeconomic theory: Using neuroscience to understand the bounds of rationality by Juan Carrillo and Isabelle Brocas

“… research in neurobiology demonstrates that the brain cannot encode all the information contained in a signal. A decision is triggered when “enough” information supporting one alternative is obtained, and the brain uses a variety of biological mechanisms to filter information in a constrained optimal way. In a recent paper we show that these properties of the brain result in a behavioural tendency to confirm initial priors (Brocas and Carrillo 2009). Behavioural data reports precisely that individuals stick too often to first impressions. These confirmatory biases may all emerge from the same set of physiological information processing constraints. Further work in that direction may help uncover the causes of other biases and determine whether they are all related to the same physiological limitations.”

Does schooling change this (for better or for worse)? Acquiring information via oral sources or via reading? Reading fiction and children’s picture books from an early age?  Has the “twist ending” of the short story and much of modern storytelling (cliffhanger at the end of every chapter-episode) increasingly conditioned people to prioritize disconfirming information rather than confirming information? When we see shows that confirm, confirm, confirm, don’t we say, inside, “boooooring.”

Posted in Development thinking | Leave a comment

Importing an Excel file that is too big for Stata

The hivemind and Google leads to the answer immediately.

There is an undocumented setting

set excelxlsxlargefile on

which will allow -import excel- to bypass the size checking. But Ricardo should be warned, the library we use to import Excel files has a large memory footprint when dealing with large new xml based xlsx files. Also the library currently has no ability to allow user to break during the middle of loading an Excel file. Hence if Ricardo’s do file attempts to load a large Excel xlsx file, his Stata session will become unresponsive until it finishes. During this time, Ricardo will not be able to break out using the break button.

Source: Re: st: import excel-file too big

Posted in Burkina Faso

Effect of distance to polling place on turnout by Enrico Cantoni

From a 2016 working paper by Enrico Cantoni.  Below are the abstracts to the August and November versions of the paper; I like how the writing was tightened up and extraneous phrases dropped. Fewer words conveying the same information more clearly. The standard deviation of distance is given in the second version, rather than making the reader search for the value in the paper. Also, “turnout” is replaced by the more precise “number of ballots cast, ” which has the extra virtue of eliminating the earlier ambiguity about whether “reduces … by approximately 2% to 5%” referred to turnout percentage points or percent (which the paper did make clear in the text).

August 2016 version abstract: In a sample of municipalities in Massachusetts and Minnesota, I use a novel, quasi-experimental design based on geographic discontinuities to study the turnout effects of voting costs. I compare parcels and census blocks located in close proximity to boundaries between adjacent voting precincts, which determine assignment to polling places. Geographic units that share (on either side) a precinct boundary also share observationally identical attributes. At the same time, the discontinuous assignment to polling places across boundary sides provides quasi-random treatment variation. I find that a 1-standard deviation increase in distance to the polling place reduces average turnout by approximately 2% to 5% in the 2012 presidential, 2013 municipal, 2014 midterm, and 2016 primary elections. I also document a negative but imprecise effect on census block voter registration, which suggests that higher voting costs reduce registration directly, by dissuading eligible voters from registering, or indirectly through the removal of inactive voters from voter rolls. During non-presidential elections, the effects of distance to the polling place concentrate disproportionately in high-minority, low-income, and low-car-availability areas, while no differential impact emerges in the higher-salience 2012 election.

November 2016 abstract: I study the effects of voting costs through a novel, quasi-experimental design based on geographic discontinuities. I compare parcels and census blocks located near borders between adjacent voting precincts. Units on opposite sides of a border are observationally identical, except for their assignment to different polling locations. The discontinuous assignment to polling places produces sharp changes in the travel distance voters face to cast their ballots. In a sample of nine municipalities in Massachusetts and Minnesota, I find that a 1-standard deviation (.245 mile) increase in distance to the polling place reduces the number of ballots cast by 2% to 5% in the 2012 presidential, 2013 municipal, 2014 midterm, and 2016 presidential primary elections.

Cantoni also develops an algorithm that redraws precinct lines; “the algorithm reduces the average parcel-to-polling-place distance by approximately .03 mile.” In case you were wondering, .03 miles is about 158 feet, or about 50 steps in you have a long stride like mine. So the cost of redrawing all lines seems likely to exceed the fairly modest increase in turnout, and one has to wonder whether other, cheaper alternatives to get out the vote, such as SMS messaging and targeted public service announcements or Facebook campaigns would not be more cost-effective (not that Cantoni is advocating redrawing, it is just an exercise). All in all, the paper confirms that relatively inexpensive changes in the implementation of elections can generate more participation, especially for already more-marginalized voters.

A couple quick remarks. I enjoyed the welcome reintroduction of the word “Alas” into mainstream economics on page 10. The last line of the draft paper,

However, the noticeable potential for higher turnout and lower turnout inequality – especially during less salient elections – should be both a memento and a goal for future research on the determinants of voter participation.

has the oddest use of the word memento I have ever encountered. Not really sure what he meant. Some kind of archaic usage?

Posted in Voting

Reading Enrico Cantoni while listening to Steve Reich’s Four Organs.

Reich, Steve: Four Organs (1970) 19′  for four electric organs and maracas

Composer’s Notes: Four Organs is composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation (lengthening) of individual tones within a single (dominant 11th) chord. The tones within the chord gradually extend out like a sort of horizontal bar graph in time. As the chord stretches out, slowly resolving to the tonic A and then gradually changing back to the dominant E, a sort of slow-motion music is created. The maracas lay down a steady time grid of even eighth-notes throughout, enabling the performers to play together while mentally counting up to as much as 256 beats on a given cycle of sustained tones.Four Organs is the only piece I am aware of that is composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations. This process of augmentation was suggested by the enormous elongation of individual tenor notes in Organum as composed by Perotin and others in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral. Tenor notes that in the original chant may have been equivalent to our quarter- or half-notes can take several pages of tied whole-notes when augmented by Perotin or Leonin.Four Organs was composed in January 1970. It was first performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City by myself and members of my own ensemble later that same year.

Told you I would.  Source: Steve Reich – Four Organs

Posted in Burkina Faso

Reading Guy de Maupassant stories in Contes du jour et de la nuit

I picked up a copy of Contes du jour et de la nuit at our local San Jose second-hand bookstore, Recycle Books, and have been enjoying reading one of the early masters of the short story form. In some ways it is interesting to see how much the form has evolved.

The themes in the stories are surprisingly (to me) relatively simple. (For the five stories I have read so far.)  L’Aveu is about the miserliness of bourgeois peasants, as a young woman trades sex for free transport of her farm products. Rose must have been a daring tale in its time, about a mysterious maid-in-waiting of a noble lady, ending with a classic short story “rueful look out the window”. Le Crime au père Boniface is a “aren’t peasants fun” type story. Le Père is a very sentimental story of anonymity in urban life. La parure is the well-known story of the diamond necklace lost at the grand ball.

I had thought de Maupassant somewhat more complex in tone and construction. Presumably he was tremendous innovator at the time, but hard for someone like me to evaluate his place in the timeline of the form. Here’s Charles May with some very good analysis (especially of the horror stories):

However, Maupassant’s real place as a writer belongs with such innovators of the short-story form as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry. Too often, whereas such writers as Turgenev and Chekhov are admired for their so-called lyricism and realistic vignettes, writers such as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks. Maupassant falls somewhere in between. On the one hand, he indeed mastered the ability to create the tight little ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending, but on the other hand he also had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus keenly on a limited number of characters in a luminous situation. The Soviet short-story writer Isaac Babel has perhaps paid the ultimate tribute to Maupassant in his story “Guy de Maupassant” by noting how Maupassant knew the power of a period placed in just the right place.

The French vocabulary is a challenge for even a pretty fluent reader like me, with unusual words in practically every sentence. Easy to guess meaning from the context, but still one worries that maybe the whole story is hinging on nuance in the meaning of a word!

Posted in Book and film reviews

Gone fishing! Goodby 2017

Postage stamp Burkina Faso 1983 Boy fishingActually gone skiing, in the miserable snow of Bear Valley… what’s that you said about global climate change Donald Trump? C’est faux!

And anyway, gone fishing? I’m a vegetarian. So not likely.  But it is just an expression. And I liked the stamp. And I want to try to meet Lougue Kou, the illustrator, if he is still alive, in Burkina Faso.

A couple of end of year book notes.

Yasmina Khadra, Double blanc. Police procedural, hard-boiled, tons of Algerian-French. Interesting but the plot was not very compelling and the super-integrity commissaire not that believable.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Telling. Truly atrocious, the telling was not worth telling. I have always enjoyed her ethnography-informed science-fiction, but this new-agey claptrap had almost no plot (eventually, wander into the mountains of wisdom) and must have disapprovingly noted that bad people burn books about 100 times on the way.


Posted in Book and film reviews