On Counting and Overcounting Deaths

How many people died in the US from heart diseases in 2019? The answer is harder than it might seem to pin down. Using a broad definition, such as “major cardiovascular diseases,” and including any deaths where this was listed on the death certificate, the number for 2019 is an astonishing 1.56 million deaths, according to the CDC. That number is astonishing because there were 2.85 million deaths in total in the US, so over half of deaths involved the heart or circulatory system, at least in some way that was important enough for a doctor to list it on the death certificate.

However, if you Google “heart disease deaths US 2019,” you get only 659,041 deaths. The source? Once again, the CDC! So, what’s going on here? To get to the smaller number, the CDC narrows the definition in two ways. First, instead of all “major cardiovascular diseases,” they limit it to diseases that are specifically about the heart. For example, cerebrovascular deaths (deaths involving blood flow in the brain) are not including in the lower CDC total. This first limitation gets us down to 1.28 million.

But the bigger reduction is when they limit the count to the underlying cause of death, “the disease or injury that initiated the train of morbid events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence which produced the fatal injury,” as opposed to other contributing causes. That’s how we cut the total in half from 1.28 million to 659,041 deaths.

We could further limit this to “Atherosclerotic heart disease,” a subset of heart disease deaths, but the largest single cause of deaths in the coding system that the CDC uses. There were 163,502 deaths of this kind in 2019, if you use the underlying cause of death only. But if we expand it to any listing of this disease on the death certificate, it doubles to 321,812 deaths. And now three categories of death are slightly larger in this “multiple cause of death” query, including a catch-all “Cardiac arrest, unspecified” category with 352,010 deaths in 2019.

So, what’s the right number? What’s the point of all this discussion? Here’s my question to you: did you ever hear of a debate about whether we were “overcounting” heart disease deaths in 2019? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. Probably there were occasional debates among the experts in this area, but never among the general public.

COVID-19 is different. The allegation of “overcounting” COVID deaths began almost right away in 2020, with prominent people claiming that the numbers being reported are basically useless because, for example, a fatal motorcycle death was briefly included in COVID death totals in Florida (people are still using this example!).

A more serious critique of COVID death counting was in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. The argument here is serious and sober, and not trying to push a particular viewpoint as far as I can tell (contrast this with people pushing the motorcycle death story). Yet still the op-ed is almost totally lacking in data, especially on COVID deaths (there is some data on COVID hospitalizations).

But most of the data she is asking for in the op-ed is readily available. While we don’t have death totals for all individuals that tested positive for COVID-19 at some point, we do have the following data available on a weekly basis. First, we have the “surveillance data” on deaths that was released by states and aggregated by the CDC. These were “the numbers” that you probably saw constantly discussed, sometimes daily, in the media during the height of the pandemic waves. The second and third sources of COVID death data are similar to the heart disease data I discussed above, from the CDC WONDER database, separated by whether COVID was the underlying cause or whether it was one among several contributing causes (whether it was underlying or not).

Those three measures of COVID deaths are displayed in this chart:

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AI Can’t Cure a Flaccid Mind

Many of my classes consist of a large writing component. I’ve designed the courses so that most students write the best paper that they’ll ever write in their life. Recently, I had reason to believe that a student was using AI or a paid service to write their paper. I couldn’t find conclusive evidence that they didn’t write it, but it ended up not mattering much in the end.

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Introducing Students to Text Mining II

In the Fall of 2020, I blogged about how I introduce students to text mining, as part of a data analytics class.

Could Turing ever have imagined that a human seeking customer service from a bank could chat with a bot? Maybe text mining is a big advance over chess, but it only took about one decade longer for a computer (developed by IBM) to beat a human in Jeopardy. Winning Jeopardy requires the computer to get meaning from a sentence of words. Computers have already moved way beyond playing a game show to natural language processing.

https://economistwritingeveryday.com/2020/11/07/introducing-students-to-text-mining/

I told the students that “chat bots” are getting better and NLP is advancing. By July 2020, OpenAI had released a beta API playground to external developers to play with GPT-3, but I did not sign up to use it myself.

In April of 2022, I added some slides inspired by Alex’s post about the Turing Test that included output from Google’s Pathway Languages Model. According to Alex, “It seems obvious that the computer is reasoning.”

This week in class, I did something that few people could have imagined 5 years ago. I signed into the free new GPTChat function in class and typed in questions from my students.

We started with questions that we assumed would be easy to answer:

Then we were surprised that it answered a question we had thought would be difficult:

And then we asked two questions that prompted the program to hedge, although for different reasons.

It seems like the model is smarter than it lets on. For now, the creators are trying hard not to offend anyone or get in the way of Google’s advertising business. Overall, the quality of the answers are high.

Because of when I was born, I believe that something I have published will make it into the training data for these models. Will that turn out to be more significant than any human readers we can attract?

Of course, GPT can still make mistakes. I’m horrified by this mischaracterization of my tweets:

Thankful List in 2022

  1. I was able to get a free Covid-19 booster shot reformulated to fight new Omicron strains. This was easy to schedule at Walgreens, and I got a flu shot at the same time to save time. Vaccines for all types of diseases are advancing.  
  2. I didn’t lose money on crypto.
  3. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, I ordered Potassium Iodide tablets. I have not needed them.
  4. The shrinking ozone hole shows that the world can actually solve an environmental crisis
  5. NASA can save us from an incoming asteroid
  6. Bringing one over from Dynomight (HT: Tyler) “That there’s been a 93% decline in stomach cancer deaths over the past 100 years—from by far the biggest killer among cancers to one of the smaller ones—and mostly this was an accident, it happened because better food refrigeration reduced infections of H. pylori, a bacterium that wasn’t even identified until 1982 after most of the decline had already happened.” 

My BlockFi Crypto Account Is Frozen Due to Monster FTX Exchange Blowup

About a year ago, I posted some articles touting the use of BlockFi as an alternative checking account. It paid around 9% interest (this was back when interest rates were essentially zero on regular savings accounts), and allowed withdrawal or deposit of funds at any time. Nice. BlockFi is associated with respected firm Gemini, and (unlike many crypto operations) is U.S. based, with consistent formal auditing. They earned interest on my crypto by lending it out to “trusted counter-parties”, always backed by extra collateral. What could possibly go wrong?

In July I wrote about a big cryptocurrency meltdown, in which a number of medium-sized players went bust.  At that time, BlockFi assured its customers that its sound business practices put it above the fray, no problemo. They did make it through that juncture OK. But I withdrew a third of my funds, just to be on the safe side.

The huge news in crypto this past week has been the sudden, total implosion of major exchange FTX (more on that below). FTX is a major business partner with BlockFi. No worries, though, as of Tuesday of last week,  BlockFi COO Flori Marquez tweeted that “All BlockFi products are fully operational”.  Then the hammer dropped: On Thursday (11/10), BlockFi froze withdrawals, due to complications with FTX. My remaining crypto is stranded, most likely for years of legal proceedings, and I may never get it all back. I’m not going to starve, but the amount is enough to hurt.

In this case, I don’t really blame BlockFi – by all accounts, they have been trying to run an honest, responsible business. Before last week, nobody had much reason to think that FTX was totally rotten.  My bad for not connecting the FTX-BlockFi dots earlier, and pulling out more funds when I had the chance.

The Great FTX Debacle

The star of this show is Sam Bankman-Fried, the (former) head of FTX:

James Bailey posted here on EWED on the FTX crash last week. CoinDesk author David Morris summarized the downfall of Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire:

FTX and Bankman-Fried are unique in the stature they achieved before self-immolating. Over the past three years, FTX has come to be widely regarded as a reputable exchange, despite not submitting to U.S. regulation. Bankman-Fried has himself become globally influential, thanks to his thoughts on cryptocurrency regulation and his financial support for U.S. electoral candidates – not necessarily in that order.

Facts first uncovered by CoinDesk played a major role in the events of the past week. On Nov. 2, reporter Ian Allison published findings that roughly $5.8 billion out of $14.6 billion of assets on the balance sheet at Alameda Research, based on then-current valuations, were linked to FTX’s exchange token, FTT.

This finding, based on leaked internal documents, was explosive because of the very close relationship between Alameda and FTX. Both were founded by Bankman-Fried, and there has been significant anxiety about the extent and nature of their fraternal dealings. The FTT token was essentially created from thin air by FTX, inviting questions about the real-world, open-market value of FTT tokens held in reserve by affiliated entities.

Negative speculation about a financial institution can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering withdrawals out of a sense of uncertainty and leading to the very liquidity problems that were feared.

Customers started a “run on the bank”, withdrawing billions of dollars of assets, leading to total insolvency of FTX:

The Financial Times reported that FTX held approximately $900 million in liquid crypto and $5.4 in illiquid venture capital investments against $9 billion in liabilities the day before it filed for bankruptcy.

If FTX had been run as an honest exchange, this withdrawal should not have been too much of a problem – – just give customers back the coins they had deposited with FTX. Apparently, though, FTX had taken customer assets and transferred them over to a sister company, Alameda, to trade with. The valuable customer crypto assets left the FTX balance sheet, and were largely replaced by the self-generated (and now nearly worthless) FTT token:

It remains worryingly unclear, though, exactly why even such a dramatic rush for the exits would have led FTX to seek its own bailout. The exchange promised users that it would not speculate with cryptocurrencies held in their accounts. But if that policy was followed, there should have been no pause to withdrawals, nor any balance sheet gap to fill. One possible explanation comes from Coinmetrics analyst Lucas Nuzzi, who has presented what he says is evidence that FTX transferred funds to Alameda in September, perhaps as a loan to backstop Alameda’s losses.

It doesn’t help that on Friday (11/11) some $477 million was outright stolen from FTX wallets. (The Kraken exchange said it has identified the thief and are working with law enforcement).

Where does the FTX saga go from here? There seems little in the way of assets left for the bankruptcy judge to distribute to former customers and creditors. In the case of BlockFi, they are dependent on a $400 million line of credit extended to them by FTX back in June, to keep operating. And who knows how much of BlockFi assets were stored with FTX – – since FTX was to be their white knight, BlockFi would not be in a position to withdraw deposits from FTX like other customers did.

I predict that nothing really bad will happen to Bankman-Fried and his buddies who ran this thing. Although its operation was apparently dishonest, it is not clear how much is subject to U.S. federal or state legal jurisdiction. Bankman-Fried and friends ran their empire from a big apartment suite in the Bahamas. Plus, he is pretty well-connected. Beside his massive campaign contributions, his business and sometimes romantic partner Caroline Ellison (she is CEO of Alameda) is the daughter of MIT professor Glenn Ellison, the former boss (as colleagues at MIT) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler. These relations were captured in an impish tweet by Elon Musk:

Two Types of News: Elections vs Crashes

Some events are like elections: it was obvious that some big political news would break on Election Day, we just had to wait to find out what exactly would happen. Others are like market crashes: you might know in principle they’re a thing that can happen, but you don’t really expect any particular day to be the day one happens, so they seem to come out of the blue. As it turns out, for one of the largest crypto exchanges the day of the crash also happened to be Election Day.

FTX.com is facing a bank run sparked by competitor Binance tanking the price of the token that backed some of their assets. Customers are having issues withdrawing their money, Binance has withdrawn its offer to bail out FTX by taking them over, and bankruptcy seems likely. Supposedly this doesn’t affect Americans using FTX US, but I’d be nervous about any funds I had there, or indeed with funds in any centralized crypto exchange or stablecoin (Tether and even USDC seem to be having issues holding their pegs). All this was especially shocking because many considered FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried one of the most trustworthy people in the often sketchy world of crypto. He was always meeting with US regulators and lawmakers, and seems not to be motivated by greed; he had already begun to give away his fortune at scale.

After any surprising event like this, some people claim it was actually obvious and they saw it coming (despite usually never having said so beforehand), while others start looking back for warning signs they missed. The most interesting one is something that shocked me when I first heard it March, but I never considered the risk it implied for FTX until the crash:

Going forward, red flags to watch out for seem to be topping a list of youngest billionaires (as Elizabeth Holmes also did) and buying naming rights to a stadium.

In contrast to this crash, the election happened right when we all expected, and at least largely how I expected. Like markets, I underestimated Democrats a bit; polls overall were impressively accurate this year, though they of course missed on some particular races. Votes are still being counted, and as of now we don’t even know for sure which party will control Congress (PredictIt currently gives Democrats a 90% chance in the Senate and a 20% chance in the House). But here are some early attempts to assess forecast accuracy. As I said, some polls were quite good:

Some polls weren’t so good, which means its important to weight better pollsters more heavily when you aggregate them. Some attempts at that were also quite good:

Oddly, some no money (Metaculus) / play money (Manifold Markets) forecasting sites seem to have done better than the real-money prediction sites:

Svante Pääbo: The Surprising Science behind Who We Are and How We Got Here

Its Nobel Prize season- the economics prize will be announced Monday, while most prizes are announced this week. My favorite so far is the Medicine prize being awarded to Svante Pääbo “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution”. He figured out how to sequence DNA from Neanderthal remains despite the fact that they were 40,000 years old.

As recently as 2010 it was controversial to suggest that Neanderthals might have mixed with humans, until Pääbo’s DNA definitively settled the debate, showing that “Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred during their millennia of coexistence. In modern day humans with European or Asian descent, approximately 1-4% of the genome originates from the Neanderthals”

While the Neanderthal genome settled an existing controversy, Pääbo’s other big discovery came entirely unlooked for. The Nobel Foundation explains:

In 2008, a 40,000-year-old fragment from a finger bone was discovered in the Denisova cave in the southern part of Siberia. The bone contained exceptionally well-preserved DNA, which Pääbo’s team sequenced. The results caused a sensation: the DNA sequence was unique when compared to all known sequences from Neanderthals and present-day humans. Pääbo had discovered a previously unknown hominin, which was given the name Denisova. Comparisons with sequences from contemporary humans from different parts of the world showed that gene flow had also occurred between Denisova and Homo sapiens. This relationship was first seen in populations in Melanesia and other parts of South East Asia, where individuals carry up to 6% Denisova DNA.

Pääbo’s discoveries have generated new understanding of our evolutionary history. At the time when Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa, at least two extinct hominin populations inhabited Eurasia. Neanderthals lived in western Eurasia, whereas Denisovans populated the eastern parts of the continent. During the expansion of Homo sapiens outside Africa and their migration east, they not only encountered and interbred with Neanderthals, but also with Denisovans

The same techniques that enabled these discoveries have been applied much more widely throughout the field of Paleogenomics, which continues to rewrite what we thought we knew about history and pre-history. The field has been advancing so quickly over the last decade that its hard to keep up with it. I’ve found the best introduction to be David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, though again the field is moving so fast that a 2018 book is already a bit out of date. Razib Khan is always writing about the latest updates at Unsupervized Learning. If you haven’t kept up with this stuff since school, this post and diagram give a quick introduction to how much our understanding of human origins has recently changed:

The Bank of England Bought Bonds Last Week to Keep UK Pension Funds from Imploding

The ups and downs of the U.S. stock market are largely driven by the degree to which the Federal Reserve makes easy money available. After (ridiculously) insisting for most of 2021 that inflation was merely “transitory”, chairman Powell has finally put on his big boy pants and started to attack the problem by raising short term interest rates, and (only now) starting to reduce the Fed’s holdings of bonds. Massive buying of bonds is termed “Quantitative Easing” (QE), and its opposite is known as “quantitative tightening” or QT. QT can be accomplished by outright sales of bonds into the open market, or (as the Fed is doing) simply letting bonds mature and not replacing them with purchases of new bonds.

The specter of Fed tightening drove stock prices down all year, to a low in June. Then a new mantra began to circulate on Wall Street, that the Fed would relent at the first sign of economic slowdown, and hence would “pivot” back to easy money (low interest rate) policies. Stocks enjoyed 15% rise until stern speeches from the Fed in August convinced the Street that the Fed was going to stay the course until inflation is broken, and so stocks slumped back down to their June lows. Other major central banks like the European Central Bank and the Bank of England have likewise pledged tighter money policies in order to curb inflation.

However, stocks had a short-lived rally last Wednesday, when the Bank of England intervened in the markets by buying up long-term bonds. Aha, the central banks are caving at last! QE is back!!

It turns out that the reason the BOE intervened was not because of tight money conditions affecting general employment and income. Rather, there was a specific, technical reason. Many pension funds in the UK had entered into so-called “liability-driven investments” (LDIs), which involve interest rate swap agreements. I won’t try to explain the mechanical details of these beyond showing one figure:

Source: https://twitter.com/MacroAlf/status/1575542737725968385

In a stable world, these instruments allow pension funds to take money that they would have invested in boring, stable, low-interest bonds, and allocate it to (hopefully) higher-yielding investments such as stocks. But there is a huge catch, involving posting collateral, which in turn involves margin calls if the market price of long term bonds declines (as always happens when long-term interest rates go up).

The world has become less stable in the past six months, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. UK finances are shaky in the base case, and a proposal by the new prime minister for an unfunded tax cut that would exacerbate the budget deficit pushed the markets over the edge. Yields on British government bonds (“gilts”) surged, which would have triggered forced disastrous selling of assets (margin calls) by the pension funds at ever-lower prices.  This death spiral would have imperiled the solvency of these nationally-important funds. See here and here for more explanations.

Typical commentary:

…according to Cardano Investment’s Kerrin Rosenberg, most UK pension funds “would have been wiped out” were it not for the bond buying.

“If there was no intervention today, gilt yields could have gone up to 7% to 8% from 4.5% this morning and in that situation around 90% of UK pension funds would have run out of collateral,” Rosenberg told The Financial Times.

Will other central banks be forced to abandon money-tightening because of imperiled pension funds? The consensus seems to be probably not. The UK funds had a relatively high exposure to these derivatives, and British finances are in worse shape than most other major economies. That said, this is a cautionary example of the vulnerabilities of cleverly engineered financial instruments. In the end, there is no free lunch.

Putin as the New Hitler: The Russian Political Philosophy Which Justifies Unlimited Atrocities (To Save the World)

When the Nazis in the mid-twentieth century carried out schemes to kill millions of people (soldiers and civilians), they did not say, “Yes, we are evil, but we have the most guns.” Rather, they espoused a political philosophy to justify their actions. According to this Wikipedia entry, the Nazis held that they were simply carrying out normal, healthy, natural selection (the strong eliminating the weak) by having the “superior” race kill and displace the inferior races of humans. Germans therefore felt justified in occupying lands in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine, to provide “living space” and agricultural production for the master race.

It seems that a somewhat similar political philosophy has taken hold among Russian elites. This became evident early on in Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, when the Russians bombed a children’s shelter and a maternity hospital. Since then, there have been innumerable bombings of apartment buildings, shopping malls, etc., as deliberate murderous attacks on civilians, rather than having any direct military benefit. The Russians are killing  Ukrainians with the sort of callous abandon displayed by the Nazis towards “undesirables”. The initial Russian complaints about Ukraine joining NATO have disappeared; it is clear that Russia wants to simply erase Ukraine as an entity. It seems that this has been Russia’s plan under Putin for many years. Reportedly, Russian textbooks since around 2014 have deleted discussion of Ukraine as a separate nation.

Where did this toxic outlook come from? According to many observers, a chief architect for this view is political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. German professor Antony Mueller has summarized some of Dugin’s positions:

Russians are “eschatologically chosen.” They must stand against the false faith, the pseudoreligion of Western liberalism and the spread of its evil: modernity, scientism, postmodernity, and the new world order. This is the thesis of Aleksandr Dugin, the prominent Russian philosopher, and a mentor of the Russian president Vladimir Putin…His theory is a “crusade” against postmodernity, the postindustrial society, liberal thought, and globalization… For Dugin, America is a threat to the Russian culture and to Russia’s identity. He makes his position unmistakably clear when he declares:

“I strongly believe that Modernity is absolutely wrong and the Sacred Tradition is absolutely right. USA is the manifestation of all I hate—Modernity, westernization, unipolarity, racism, imperialism, technocracy, individualism, capitalism.”

Dugin apparently believes that the world, or at least Eurasia, can only be saved from the ravages of “modernity” and American influence by uniting under Russian leadership  and returning to the Sacred Tradition of “religion, hierarchy, and family.”

An independent Ukraine stands in the way of this grand vision. From the Guardian:

Dugin’s worldview is most clearly articulated in his 1997 publication “The Foundations of Geopolitics”, which reportedly became a textbook in the Russian general staff academy and solidified his transition from a dissident to a prominent pillar of the conservative establishment.

In the book, Dugin laid out his vision to divide the world, calling for Russia to rebuild its influence through annexations and alliances while proclaiming his opposition to Ukraine as a sovereign state.

“Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning, no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness,” he wrote.

… Twenty-five years later, Russia’s president repeated some of Dugin’s views on Ukraine in his 4,000-word essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which many saw as a blueprint for the invasion he launched just six months after it was published.

And as far as Ukrainians resisting Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions, Dugin said, “I think we should kill, kill, kill [Ukrainians], there can’t be any other talk.”

There you have it. The exact influence of Dugin on Putin is debated, but there is no doubt that Dugin’s views are influential in the circles of Russian decision makers. Many Westerners thought early on that Putin would be satisfied with conquering the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east, and a narrow land bridge to connect that with the Russian-occupied Crimea. His attempts, foiled by heroic Ukrainian resistance, to take Kiev and to take Odessa in the southwest showed that he wants the whole enchilada.

This could be a long war.

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Addendum: Dugin’s daughter was killed by a car bomb near Moscow on August 20, 2022. Reportedly the bomb was aimed at Dugin himself, since he was expected to be in the car with his daughter. Moscow accused Ukraine of the assassination, which Kiev plausibly denies. There is also reasonable speculation that a Russian government agency (presumably with Putin’s tacit approval) was aiming to bump off Dugin, for some Byzantine reason.

Dog Cartoon Information Warfare for the 21st Century

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has generated a lot of attention. Many people care deeply about this unfolding crisis. I wondered back in March 2022 where all this energy would end up getting channeled?

What I had in mind was not an army of “cartoon dogs”, and yet here we are. Official coverage of the #NAFO dog memes this week has come from the Economist and Politico.

The North Atlantic Fella Organisation (spellings vary) is a tongue-in-cheek label adopted by a virtual army that champions Ukraine’s cause and harangues its foes on social media. Its members don the avatar of a cartoon shiba inu dog…

When your enemy is as humorless as Putin, there is an advantage to being funny. After circulating in internet backwaters for weeks, official Ukrainian accounts have acknowledged the help offered by the movement.

The effects of #NAFO are 1) to influence the flow of information/opinions and 2) raise money for Ukraine defense.

For example, you can buy a “ticket” to a “beach party” in Crimea: https://www.saintjavelin.com/products/crimea-beach-party-early-bird-ticket-sale-1-entry

Mike posted earlier about donating to the Kyiv department of Economics.

And this is a just an aid organization that is not very funny but helps refugees in Lviv.

An explainer of a different Very Online thing is https://www.slowboring.com/p/dark-brandon-explained. Dark Brandon and #NAFO are similar in the sense that supporters are made to feel like they are part of a brotherhood of winners who share fun jokes.

Balaji Srinivasan recently released a book called The Network State suggesting that online communities of likeminded people are so powerful that they could supplant what we have known as “countries” for a few centuries. From what I can tell, families want to live in a real place that has tangible services and security. The interesting thing about #NAFO is that it’s purpose is to support an old-fashioned country defending its physical borders.

Meanwhile, in the country of Russia, as reported by the WSJ, “The chairman of Russia’s second-largest oil-and-gas giant, Lukoil PJSC, died Thursday after falling from a hospital window in Moscow, according to Russian state media agency TASS.”