Fact Checking

OK, folks, please bear with me as I go on a bit of a rant about statistics and using data to basically lie (and end with a rant about why this might be happening).

I had been reading an article entitled Young White America Is Haunted by a Crisis of Despair and happened upon a graph. It wasn’t a remarkable graph, except something about it just didn’t make sense to me, and then I looked at the axis (which runs from 12% through 32%) and I began to question the data.

People put things on a truncated axis like this when they want to emphasize the data more than it actually warrants. OK. So, we can go through and type this into Excel and make up a bit of a graph to show us what it looks like on a more accurate axis.

OK, that lets us see the data a bit better (i.e., that there’s not much of a difference between Pennsylvania and the rest of the USA). But it still doesn’t tell us anything – I mean, there must be a reason the writer is all het up about whatever’s happening in Pennsylvania, right? So, let’s slap a trend line on things and see where they’re going – let’s put a 3-year moving average on both the US and Pennsylvania’s percentages and see if they’re radically different from one another.

OK, so, that one shows us the raw numbers as dotted lines and the moving average as solid lines. Yes, it does look as if Pennsylvania seems to be edging up. But this is weird, really, because we really don’t understand what we’re looking at: we’re looking at an arbitrary slice of the population (ages 25-34) across 16 years. So … what does this really tell us? Well, without knowing how the other age bands behave, we won’t know anything at all. So, let’s go see what the Kaiser Foundation tells us about that. Kaiser Foundation data pretty much says that, yes, this age range for Pennsylvania does, indeed, overdose on opioids more often … but it also says that ages 35 and above overdose on opioids far less frequently than the US population (which could be saying that people in Pennsylvania overdose earlier than the rest of the country, but at about the same rate).

So, is Pennsylvania doing worse than the rest of the country? Well, Kaiser will let us troll through the data, so let’s see if we can put together a chart to tell us just that. If we ask for non-age data (e.g. by going to Opioid Overdose Deaths by Gender and removing Gender) then we see something that paints a different picture entirely.

Looking at the data without including age as a factor, Pennsylvania has historically been a pretty decent place to be, in that their opioid overdose deaths have tended to be several percentage points lower than the national average. This has stopped being true as of last year … except that how do we know that there’s a trend, rather than this just being noise?

Also, there’s one thing that’s missing from all of this analysis: how do we know that it has anything whatsoever to do with race? Because, really, we haven’t had anything that shows race at all in here, and when I try to ask Kaiser about their data by Race / Ethnicity I get some interesting results … in that I get a handful of data that is “NSD: Not sufficient data. Data supressed to ensure confidentiality.” Try it yourself and see what you can make of it.

That last query brings up another problem in the article: the article says that the deaths of a particular age range and ethnic group are different from the same age range for different ethnic groups … but that data doesn’t appear to be readily available, nor does any of the data out there seem to support that, nor does any of this appear to be beyond the range of statistical noise.

Now, what happens if we ask for numbers rather than percentages?

The top line is the total US number, keep in mind. But, yes, there does appear to be a wee problem there in Pennsylvania among white people. Of course, we don’t know how many black or Hispanic people there are in Pennsylvania, so we can’t say what percentage is affected by “the opioid epidemic,” and this is particularly true because when you look at the trend of Pennsylvania it kind of seems like it’s rising very slowly, whereas there’s a jump beginning at 2013 for the national average. So, does Pennsylvania have a problem? We just cannot say. (We also haven’t looked at when the stronger variants of opioids came onto the market, but do know that those are having some effect, as people encounter drugs which are stronger than expected.)

The other thing to point out: we’re talking about some pretty small numbers all along. I’m sorry, but 27,000 white people dying in a year, out of a total population of 320 million people, just doesn’t seem like a huge thing to talk about, to be honest. I mean, sure, it’s a tragedy for the families involved. But how about the 614,348 people who died from heart disease in the same year? The 591,699 who died of cancer? The 147,101 who died of respiratory disease? Or 136,053 from accidents, 133,033 from strokes, 93,541 from alzheimer’s, 76,488 from diabetes, 55,227 from influenza, 48,146 from kidney disease, and 42,773 from suicide?

In case you missed it in those numbers (all of which are significantly greater than the number of opioid deaths): 55,227 Americans died from the flu last year, which is nearly twice the number who died from opioids.

All of this leads me to wonder: why do we place such importance upon this particular narrative? Why is it important to tell the story that poor white people who didn’t get college degrees are getting into heroin? Why are we, as a nation, accepting articles like this one, which are barely supportable by the statistics, and which are looking at a problem which, on the face of it, doesn’t seem to be a significant problem when compared to other things? (As an example: give everybody a flu shot and you’ve likely saved as many as overdose on opioids.)

I would like to have full access to the data set, to see if I can slice it and come up with something compelling about Pennsylvania White People, but I just can’t see it in the available data. What I do see is a story being told without the data to support it, and I wonder why it’s an important story to the nation, at this time.

My answer to that question? We’ve seen that the war on drugs does not work, and this is a narrative which can be accepted (by White People) as a reason to change our national strategy. Spinning the story this way, though, ignores the generations of minorities who have been incarcerated for drug offenses. It lets White People continue to think that mass incarceration of minorities for drug crimes was OK. Making “the opioid epidemic” about Poor Whites allows a change in drug policy without addressing racial injustice.


No Recipes for Mexican-Like Food

Peppers for the Pot 2

Beyond having delayed our fermentation, most recently we had also stopped making batches of food in any sort of quantity, because batches have to be divided and stored in the fridge or freezer, and this is not your best move, when you think you’re moving house. So, this week found us reversing our attempt to live solely out of the cabinets and freezer. Shopping had to be done, bread needed to be baked (which isn’t all that interesting to photograph any more – it’s bread, it gets thrown together, there’s no recipe, etc.), and ironically, furniture had to be moved to close up the gaps of what we’d given away – more on that later. We also needed to replenish staples like pinto beans (which D. picked up at the Mexican market when he picked up all those peppers). Like many Californians, we almost always have beans on hand, so as to make our versions of Mexican food.

As with many “home” foods, there’s no real recipe for beans: 4 cups of beans, a handful of the hottest peppers you can find (in this case, 5 habañeros and 3 Scotch Bonnets, nearly the last from last year’s garden), and a good couple tablespoons of minced garlic. Enough water to keep them covered, cook in a slow cooker for maybe 8 hours, et voila.

Baked Burritos

Similarly, there’s no real recipe for baked burritos: mix 2 cups of beans with your meat-like product of choice and some green enchilada sauce and cook most of the moisture out, wrap this in tortillas (with some cheese if you feel like it), cover with more of that enchilada sauce, bake for 45 minutes, top with some guacamole and plain yogurt. If our fermented salsa were done, we’d have used some of the paste form in making the filling for the burritos (it’s also good for soups and Thai food), and would have dressed the top with some of the sriracha-like form. Alas, we’ve still got a week and a few days to wait.

Is it time for lunch yet? It seems like it’s time for lunch. Happy rainy, stormy Friday to you.

-D & T

More Fermented Salsa

The massive preparation of peppers for fermented salsa continues. Below is what the fresh, hot-sweet Manzano pepper looks like, as compared to the an Habañero pepper: three times as large, thicker walls, more bell pepper than hot pepper. But tasty and fiery sweet, nonetheless.

Fermented Salsa 3.2

In this batch are roughly equal weights of Manzano, Habañero, and Serrano peppers: 5 pounds of them total, with 5% salt by weight of the water in the brine (weight measure is more accurate in big batch fermentation like this). They’re shown below, ready to be prepped for fermentation, along with a fist of garlic. This time, in order to preserve the brightness of the color, we’re not fermenting the lime juice along with the peppers, but adding it to the finishing sauce prior to reducing that sauce on the stove (and we’re cooking outside – on the camp stove – we learned our lesson, choking for hours on pepper oils and fumes the last time).

Fermented Salsa 3.1

Five pounds of peppers was a bit much for our current fermentation crock – it was nearly impossible to get the stones in, to weight down the peppers, there was that little room left. On the other hand, D. wasn’t about to pull them out and chop them more finely, as he was already courting disaster with this particular pair of pepper-saturated gloves.

Next up is the two week wait before we uncrock the ingredients, followed by cooking them down to reduce the juices, adding lime and possibly some cornstarch or agar, depending on how juicy the fermentation process leaves the peppers. Until then, we’ll make do with our imported Encona “West Indian” sauce (made in Hertfordshire, England!) which … isn’t nearly as good as ours. Truly, folks: fermented salsa beats anything we’ve found so far, and we’re really into salsa. You don’t even need an official fermentation crock; if you’ve got a couple of Mason jars, you’ll want to give this a try! The bacteria does all the heavy lifting and as its been reported for years – there’s really something to the whole fermented foods thing.

-D & T

Well, that was briefly interesting.

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Finnieston 248

Life is nothing if not full of surprises. A week ago we’d thought we were going to Washington. Now, though … nope, we’re staying put for the time being. In the interest of not burning any bridges, we’ll just say it was a misunderstanding of monumental proportion. Suffice it to say, though, that we very narrowly escaped moving two states away, only to end up frustratated and angry. Let this be today’s lesson: always read the fine print. Carefully.

We were bummed on the weekend, and we’re still certainly a bit confused, as we’re sure you all are as well. On the positive side, we helped out a few college students furnish their first apartment via Freecycle, and cleaned out and sorted many of our possessions, so we’re well on our way to only hanging on to the things we honestly use or care about. Nothing is really lost, except a bit of time, and we had some to spare.

Maybe we’ll take a wee holiday, somewhere warm and sunny dreich and rainy (Scotland, we’re looking at you, with maybe a diversion to Reykjavik along the way), because once work begins again – officially – wherever that will be, holidays will be a bit scarce at first.

In the meantime, having made our way through the last of the fantastic fermented salsa we made in early February (!), we’re off to the Mexican market to see if we can find some more manzano peppers, and to begin the cycle of fermentation again. Next time we think we’re moving, we won’t be letting the batches run this low – or giving any away until we’re absolutely, positively, entirely sure.

Fermented Salsa 2.1

Lesson – this and so many others – learned.

Yes – we did make all that salsa back in early February, and it’s all gone as of maybe 2 weeks ago. We shared a pint of the finishing sauce with friends, but we managed to make it through basically two quarts of salsa in about 6 weeks. And it wasn’t hot enough! Back to the market…

-D & T

Representative Democracy

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Vallejo 235

With all of the political chaos going on in the US, there’s been quite a lot of political engagement, particularly with people going to “town hall” meetings between the representatives and their constituencies. Well, I went to one the other day, here in Vallejo, for Congressman Mike Thompson.

I should have brought knitting.

It was like going to the most horrible, boring, irrelevant church service ever, except they didn’t even have singing.

Dear Politicians: do not tell us the same old schtick. We have this thing called “the internet?” It tells us all of these things. It’s how we knew where to track you down. We do not need for you to tell us these things. We know them. We want to ask you questions. We want to know what you are going to do. We want to know that you hear us, which means you need to actually listen to us.

Of course, at least the congressman had the guts to meet with us (in the Vallejo Senior Center, which is why there’s a permanent Bingo board behind him). This is unlike Senator Dianne Feinstein, who apparently doesn’t meet with you unless you cough up a bunch of cash. And I guess he was interesting enough, if you’re used to listening to the radio or watching TV – you know, low-bandwidth information consumption.

To put this into context: I either read my news or I listen to podcasts … and the podcast app I use lets me turn up the playback speed, so I can adjust it so the information comes at me way faster than having to listen to someone’s natural speaking voice. This is me: I consume information rapidly. Listening to a speaker drives me crazy unless I have something to do, and playing games on the phone isn’t quite enough to make me OK with the hard chairs and the repetitive information.

Representative democracy. Bleh. It’s either doomed or it’s entirely irrational. (Go read those articles, please – yes, the author is probably a liberal, but these are about political science rather than policy.)

Lesson learned: politicians are a low-bandwidth form of information delivery, and deliver information which can be easily consumed elsewhere, and they choose places with hard chairs. Oh, and they don’t want you to bring signs.

On a totally different note, we’ll be off to the Tri-Cities area of Washington State next week for interviews. We’ll be off sometime the following week to Seattle for interviews. And my current client has apparently realized that I’m seriously going to be going somewhere, so they want me to come and and do some work and, oh, would I be available to support them remotely through to the end of the year at least.


Fermented Salsa

Fermented Salsa 2.1
Fermented Salsa 2.3
Fermented Salsa 2.4
Fermented Salsa 2.6

So, some of you may have subscribed to our photography and have seen the pictures of hot peppers going by. We’ve basically been able to make our own Sriracha-like pepper sauce, along with a coarser pepper paste for cooking. There’s not a recipe for this, more like a series of steps:

  1. coarsely chop a whole bunch of peppers (and some garlic, and lime juice)
  2. ferment them in a 5% saline solution for a couple of weeks
  3. puree them
  4. run them through a sieve
  5. boil the liquid portion until it’s as thick as you’d like
  6. refrigerate both portions

This gives you two portions of hot peppery goodness: one to use in stir-fry and the like (the coarse one) and the other to use as a condiment.

We, of course, had to include quite a few habañeros in addition to serranos, jalapeños, manzanillos, and pasillas. The manzanillos / manzanos were a new one to us – we saw them at the Mexican market and thought we’d give them a try. They’re surprisingly fruity, almost like a very mild habañero. I looked for them a few weeks later and couldn’t find them again, so they may be very seasonal – there were certainly only about 50 there when we saw them, so perhaps they just ran out. We’ll look for them again, though, because they’re yummy!

The fermentation gives the sauce a tiny bit of sourness (on top of the lime juice) and helps to soften the peppers so they’ll blend. Sourness really helps the flavor, and probably makes this more digestible as well. We just like the heat, and go through so much of this that making our own is a necessity as well as just plain fun.

Two critical cautions:

  1. Wear gloves any time you’re handling any of this stuff.
  2. Ventilate the kitchen when cooking down the sauce, or cook it outside (which is what we’ll be doing next time). Honestly, cooking this sauce down means you’re evaporating quite a few volatiles and your house will make your eyes water for the next several hours even running the whole house fan, so … definitely, cook it outside, and don’t breathe near the vapors.

Honestly, you do not want this stuff – raw or fermented – to get under your fingernails and visit your eyeball some time hours later. You also don’t want your house to make you cough and your eyes to water. Or maybe you do – up to you.


Santa Barbara … Nope.

Well, that was one of the stranger interview experiences I’ve ever had! Long story short: I’ll not be taking that job in Santa Barbara!

So, I went down to Santa Barbara to interview with this company after having had a few phone interviews, including a technical interview. Before going down it had seemed like things were really going well, like we were a great fit (albeit with a few things I’d have to get used to). I get to the interview at 11:00, we chit chat, go out to lunch, and then settle in for interviews. At this point, I’m expecting to meet people, talk with people – basically, to see what things are like and have them sell me on what a great company they are and how much of a nice place it is. Hahahaha, Nope!

Instead of selling me on them, they proceed to ask me tricky programming questions. Which, OK, fine, yes, people do this. They usually do it earlier in the process, but whatever, I can roll with it. The questions are usually idiotic, so that’s not unusual, even though I thought we were past this point, but hey, not getting hung up on that. Did I expect each of the three different interviewers to demonstrate odd personality traits that I would find distasteful to work with? No, certainly not. Did I expect to be pushed to answer when I had stated that I did not know the answer? Nope. Did I expect someone to mimic my body language? Like, I was fiddling with an earring while thinking about a coding question and the guy goes and tugs on his earlobe? Oh, no, I did not expect this. Nor did I expect them to be rude to other employees (a lady asked to change the thermostat in the conference room, since it was freezing in their space outside the conference room, to which the interviewer responded that he didn’t care).

After this strange day, wherein I sell myself to them and straight up do not respond to complete rudeness, I go back to the hotel basically exhausted and play some mindless games on the phone (frozen bubble is fabulous for not having to think, by the way). As I’m playing, I’m thinking over all the little things, and I’m adding them all up, and I’m reaching the conclusion that these are not nice people, and this is not going to be a nice place to work.

So, we drive home, and I talk it all out with T, and I write the recruiter a politely worded response to say that I don’t think it’s going to be a good fit.

And then I get a call from the hiring manager, wanting to talk it over.

Santa Barbara 82

The hiring manager tells me that these behaviors were intentional. They had intentionally done these things to see how I would react.

Let that sink in for a minute.

A potential employer essentially conducted psychological experimentation with a candidate. Over the course of 6 hours, and by 3 different people, they attempted to see whether I would react negatively to their behavior.

Here’s a little secret, people trying to hire: if you act like someone with whom the candidate would not want to work, that candidate is going to decide that they do not want to work with you. If you later try to tell them it was all a test? Well, that says that you felt entitled to know how the candidate would respond to stressful situations … which says that you intend to subject them to those types of situations, else why subject them to the test? If you do not intend to treat them poorly, why would you need to know how they will react to being treated poorly?

I don’t think there can be any ethical justification of such a test.

In talking with the hiring manager I told him that maybe, if he’d told me what they’d been doing before I left the interview, I might have reached a different decision. Thinking it through, though, I do not think so; I think that even knowing it was a test I would be offended because, again, If you do not intend to treat me that way, Why do you need to know how I will react?

I think I find this especially frustrating because I feel like it was a lie: that I wasted my time going down there because they were not being honest about the purpose of the meeting. Whatever they learned, I hope that they learned that some people react to macho BS by being polite and then removing themselves from the situation as quickly as possible.

I have a few more interviews lined up for the coming weeks, one of which I think looks like it could be quite interesting, the other of which is more “let’s talk more and see what kind of a company you really are.” We’ll see.


Santa Barbara

Well, folks, we’re heading down to Santa Barbara this afternoon, as D has an interview there on Monday. We’ll also hopefully take more pictures of the actual city of Santa Barbara, as, looking back, we only really have good pictures of the Mission, but not of Santa Barbara itself. So.

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-D & T


And if sun comes

How shall we greet him?

Shall we not dread him,

Shall we not fear him

After so lengthy a

Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,

Though we have prayed

All through the night-years—

What if we wake one shimmering morning to

Hear the fierce hammering

Of his firm knuckles

Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—

Shall we not flee

Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter

Of the familiar

Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it

To sleep in the coolness

Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily

Over the eyes.

      – gwendolyn brooks