Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Some of the best things I read on the internet in 2014


Here are a few of the best or most influential of the thousands of articles I read on the internet this year:

The Case Against Early Cancer Detection


If a thousand women have annual cancer exams throughout their 40s, more than half of them will get a false positive test at some point, 60-80 will get unnecessary biopsies, about 10 will be "cured" of a cancer that wouldn't have killed them, and perhaps 1 life will be saved.  The case that everybody should get screened all the time is not a clear-cut one.

Gird Gigerenzer's 2002 book about risk enlightened me about how our brains tend to process statistics in a way that amplifies the damage of false positives in medical testing.  I learned that we should be far more skeptical of the benefits of many kinds cancer tests.  One piece of this is that five-year cancer survival rates are misleading for most things we want to use them for.  The relevant questions are, will detecting this cancer early improve my chances of survival, and is testing for this cancer accurate enough to give me useful information?  Gird strongly suggested that these questions were more up for debate than the pink fundraising brigade would have you believe, but my sporadic searches never managed to find the specific data to finish the argument.  A decade later, FiveThirtyEight finally provides some of it in this article.

Racism in America.

These two sentences are probably the most important corrections I would make to the story of American history I learned in school:
Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.
and

The Case for Reparations
In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”
It hasn't stopped.  The collective wealth of the United States, which mostly accrues to the richest white people, is in large part stolen from African Americans and from Native Americans.

Why Psychologists’ Food Fight Matters

At least 10 of the 27 “important findings” in social psychology were not replicated at all. 

The link between the first two topics is, a big area of modern life in which the conventional wisdom is very firm and demonstrably wrong.  Increased cancer screening is not always or even usually a good idea; racism in the US was not "resolved" by the Civil War or at any time since. Why are these ideas so strong?  I suppose that as an atheist I'm already used to living in a civilization in which things that are obviously false are believed by 50% or more of my fellow humans, but I'm still surprised that this pattern of disagreement on fundamental aspects of reality is so pervasive.  (Ubiquitous violent sexism in computer culture, such as video games and Silicon Valley companies, was another area in which conventional wisdom started to break up in the last few years.)  This article about (not) replicating experimental results is not as well written as other picks.  But it touches on many fascinating flaws of truth-seeking in modern science, our best truth-seeking institution.

The Judgement of Paris

The Judgement of Paris, as I assume you are aware, is one of the most popular and also the best themes in classical European painting, because it’s based on a legend where three supremely powerful goddesses asked a worthless male mortal to rank them in order of attractiveness in order to win a sculpture of a fruit. Which says so much in such a short amount of time about ancient Greek sexual politics, I think; Yes definitely the Queen of Heaven wants to know if some Trojan shepherd thinks she’s still hot.
I finally discovered The Toast this year.  I don't know what was wrong with me before, but it's fixed now.

Want better, smaller government? Hire another million federal bureaucrats.

We have too few federal bureaucrats monitoring too many grants and contracts, and handling too many dollars. ...  progressively fewer federal bureaucrats have been progressively more responsible not for managing government programs, but for managing proxies who manage programs on the government’s behalf.
On how the US government functions or fails to function, an argument for reversing the trend toward contracting out the bulk of federal duties.

Healthcare.gov: Ineffective Planning and Oversight Practices Underscore the Need for Improved Contract Management

An analysis of how Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) botched Healthcare.gov's development.  Since I do IT development management for the federal government, I'm particularly interested in how the federal government does IT.  If you combine this article with the previous one, the strong suggestion is that having federal employees manage contracts to get IT development has been a disaster. 


I view IT contracting as similar to teaching, in that both teaching and the subject being taught are separate skills, and the most successful teaching requires the teacher to have both.  Managing an IT contract is a skill, involving knowing the regulations, the ways the regulations are abused, the shortcomings of the regulations and how to overcome them, and so forth.  On top of that, a great contract manager needs to know as much about development as the contractors.  And on top of that, they need to be an expert in the subject.  So that's three separate skills.  I haven't had much direct experience with federal IT contract managers, so I don't know myself, but I suspect that the typical federal IT contract manager was promoted from line work in their subject, and is, at best, skilled in only that one of the three areas (subject, IT development, contract management). 

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