Student Loans Driven by Professor Salaries? Bullshit.

So, over at the Jubilee Now blog, there’s a new post that calls bullshit on the idea that skyrocketing college tuitions and student loans are driven by (the completely understandable and unavoidable) rise in faculty salaries.

Of course, there is a much more straightforward connection between tuition and the availability of student loans. The post includes a nice explanatory analogy:

You don’t need a smoking gun to understand the relationship between access to loans and rising tuition prices. It’s not necessary to prove that colleges made the decision to raise tuition because they knew students could just take out loans. You can see it all right there in the market incentives. It goes back to the concept of “third-party payments”  – that is, that if there’s a third party involved a transaction, someone other than the buyer and the seller, it’s going to skew the incentives influencing both.

To see how, let’s do a what-if. Imagine you took an 18-year-old into a grocery store and said, “Okay, you have to decide right now what food to buy for the next four years. Now keep in mind that without food, you’ll die. And that the best food, though it may be expensive, will keep you the healthiest in the long run. If you’re super-healthy, you’ll be successful and paying off the cost of the food will be easy.  Here’s a big bucket of money. Now, what do you want to buy?”

What do you think this would do to the cost of food? Do you think stores would rush to stock rice and beans so as to efficiently meet the demand for healthy food? Or would we see a proliferation of gently braised filet of farm-coddled salmon, garnished with an aggression of hand-picked asparagus and a frisson of Himalayan fennel?

An aggression of hand-picked asparagus, indeed! Preach it!

Relationships among Univariate Distributions

So, this is pretty awesome nerd crack. From College of William and Mary Mathematics Professor Larry Leemis, here is a chart that shows the relationships among most of the univariate distributions you are likely to encounter. Here’s what the overall chart looks like, but if you go to the original (here), you can zoom around. Also, if you click on one of the distributions, it zooms in and highlights the neighbors. Note that the different arrow types indicate different types of relationships (limiting case, transformation, etc.).

Now you can finally adjudicate that game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’s Discrete Weibull”!



Big Data

So, whenever claims that they are going to solve a difficult problem by using “Big Data”, I want you to think of this definition.

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Also, remember that “Big Data” is the title of Star Trek: TNG themed slash fiction that is being written right now.

Swarm-Based Legal Action

So, last Thursday (June 20), the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case of American Express Co. et al versus Italian Colors Restaurant et al.

The basics of the case are this. If you are a merchant who accepts American Express cards, you sign a contract with American Express. One of the clauses of that contract is that you can not participate in a class-action lawsuit against American Express. Instead, if you think they are doing something wrong, you commit to going through individual arbitration.

A group of merchants wanted to file a class-action lawsuit against American Express because they felt that it was violating antitrust legislation by using its monopoly status to charge merchants elevated fees.

So, if the contracts these merchants signed agreed to individual arbitration, and waived the right to file a class-action suit, why did they go ahead and file a class-action suit anyway?

Well, their argument was that compiling the legal documentation and expert analysis required to prove the anti-trust case would cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. On the other hand, the payout to each merchant, should the suit prove successful, would be only in the tens of thousands of dollars. Therefore, even if they won, each merchant would have to spend more than they were awarded. So, they argued, because of the economics of the situation, they should be allowed to file a class-action suit, where those legal costs could be shared.

The court ruled (5-3) that no, the fact that you will spend more on arbitration than you would earn in a settlement is not sufficient reason to invalidate the class-action waiver in the contract.

Now, I don’t have a legal opinion on that ruling — other that that, despite the fact that it was authored by Scalia, it actually sounds reasonable — however, I do wonder what the consequences might be down the road, and what could be done differently.

In particular, I would expect this type of waiver clause to proliferate. Worst-case scenario, such a waiver would effectively immunize companies from all legal action where (1) the payout to individual litigants would be low, and (2) where some non-trivial level of legal and/or technical expertise was required to substantiate the complaint.

Enter the Swarm

So, here’s an idea for you: swarm-based legal action. Here’s roughly how I imagine it would work.

The simplest version would be just a pooling of resources outside of a formal class-action suit. You collect your litigants together. Someone (the collection of litigants, or maybe a law firm working on some sort of contingency basis) pays to put together the expert documentation, and each litigant takes that documentation separately into their own arbitration process. You could imagine some sort of sharing agreement: 25% of the proceeds from each arbitration go to the individual litigant, 75% goes to a common pool. The common pool is used to pay costs, and whatever is left over is divided among all litigants.

  1. This would mean that research costs involved in proving the case would be shared, making arbitration economically feasible.
  2. This would provide a sort of hedge for the participants — under the assumption that there is some noise in the arbitration process, depending on factors ranging from the individual personalities involved in a particular arbitration hearing to what everyone had for lunch.
  3. But, by not communalizing all of the proceeds, you make sure there is an incentive for individual litigants not to phone it in.

Now, the question is, would this be legal?

The dissenting Supreme Court opinion suggests that it might not be (hence their feeling that the class-action waiver should be voided):

The agreement’s problem is that it bars not just class actions, but also all mechanisms – many existing long before the Sherman Act, if that matters – for joinder or consolidation of claims, informal coordination among individual claimants, or amelioration or arbitral expenses. See supra, at 7. And contrary to the majority’s assertion, the Second Circuit well understood that point: It considered, for example, whether Italian Colors could shift expert expenses to Amex if its claim prevailed (no) or could join with merchants bringing similar claims to produce a common expert report (no again). See 554 F. 3d 300, 318 (2009).

The point about a common expert report in the Second Circuit ruling (here — follow-up 2012 ruling here) relates to another clause in the Card Acceptance Agreement, which they quote:

The arbitration proceeding and all testimony, filings, documents and any information relating to or presented during the arbitration proceedings shall be deemed to be confidential information not to be disclosed to any other party.

But surely there is a way around this. For example, the merchants could reach their agreement about cost-sharing in the preparation of the report, and, once they had committed to this agreement, would gain access to it. Then, they could use the information in that report in their arbitration (or not — with the confidentiality clause there would be no verifying it).

The only question is whether or not the outcome of the arbitration would be subject to the confidentiality clause. If it were, you would have to structure it as a straight-up purchase of expert documentation, with the expert and legal fees paid at a flat rate (not contingent on the outcome of the arbitration), and divided among all of the merchants. You would lose the benefit of being able to hedge outcomes by partial sharing of the proceeds, but you would still be able to make it work.

The Smart Swarm

But, what if you can report back with the outcome of the arbitration process — at least a win/lose outcome, or, preferably, a dollar amount? Then, you could open up a new set of possibilities, where you turn the requirement for individual arbitration from a handicap into a collective advantage.

Instead of producing a single expert report and legal filing, maybe you produce a diversity of documentation — versions that perhaps vary in their framing or emphasis. Then run though the first set of arbitration procedures — see what works and what does not work — discard ineffective strategies and build new diversity around successful ones.

Basically, use the fact that you have a large population of individuals or businesses to optimize your arbitration strategy using an Evolutionary algorithm.

For this to work, the only real requirement would be the ability to report back out of arbitration what the outcome was. This is critical for two reasons:

  1. For the evolutionary learning to take place, you have to know the outcome of each experiment.
  2. A common pool, where proceeds are shared, would be required to get individuals to buy into the scheme, particularly at the early stages, where you are explicitly asking some people to go into arbitration with what you suspect may be sub-optimal strategies, for the purpose of improving the function of the swarm as a whole.

In fact, I think this might be a winning strategy more generally, not just in circumstances where class-action suits are prohibited.

What do you think, armchair legal scholars?

Snowden in Russian Airspace, Eventual Destination Unknown

So, the Guardian is reporting this morning that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong — legally, since the Hong Kong government had not yet agreed to requests from the US to detain him. As of 5:20 this morning (Eastern Time), he was “over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors”. This was sourced to the WikiLeaks twitter account, meaning that the only way this story could be more of the moment is if Snowden married Zooey Deschanel and returned with her and three hand-raised dragons to reconquer the Oval Throne (ICYMI).

Update: Sorry. Should have made clear. The flight Snowden is was headed for Moscow, and was scheduled to land about now (9:25am Eastern). The WikiLeaks legal team is working to find a democratic country that would be willing to offer asylum.

Rumor is that his target destination may be Venezuela.

Update #2: Snowden has applied for asylum from Ecuador.

What you missed at Edward Snowden’s AMA

So, earlier today, the Guardian hosted a question-and-answer session with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Sort of like a Reddit AMA, but with less ham-fisted sexual innuendo. People were able to submit questions via comment, or via Twitter.

I thought the whole thing was excellent. Like many people, I’ve been trying to withhold judgment on Snowden’s motivations. But after reading this, I’m strongly inclined to believe that his motives are pure, and that he is displaying the type of heroism that our country desperately needs.

Or, if he is actually a villain with some sort of mysterious ulterior motive, he is the sort of charismatic genius supervillain you never see outside of the movies, and I look forward to seeing the schematics for his secret volcanic undersea lair.

I’ve posted a few of the highlights below. If you’re really short on time, here are the highlights of the highlights:

the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.

Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American

This country is worth dying for.

And here are the more extended highlights

Q (Glenn Greenwald): Why did you choose Hong Kong to go to and then tell them about US hacking on their research facilities and universities?

A: First, the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime. That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.

Second, let’s be clear: I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets. I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses because it is dangerous. These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash. Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries – the majority of them are our allies – but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people. And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we’re not even fighting? So we can potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own Police? No, the public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the “consent of the governed” is meaningless.

Q (Gabrielaweb): Why did you wait to release the documents if you said you wanted to tell the world about the NSA programs since before Obama became president?

A: Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.

Q (MonaHol): Ed Snowden, I thank you for your brave service to our country.

Some skepticism exists about certain of your claims, including this:

I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email.

Do you stand by that, and if so, could you elaborate?

A: Yes, I stand by it. US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it’s important to understand that policy protection is no protection – policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection – a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the “widest allowable aperture,” and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn’t stop being protected communications just because of the IP they’re tagged with.

More fundamentally, the “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.”

Q (Spencer Ackerman): Edward, there is rampant speculation, outpacing facts, that you have or will provide classified US information to the Chinese or other governments in exchange for asylum. Have/will you?

A: This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk “RED CHINA!” reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.

Q (@KimberlyDozier): US officials say terrorists already altering TTPs because of your leaks, & calling you traitor. Respond?

A: US officials say this every time there’s a public discussion that could limit their authority. US officials also provide misleading or directly false assertions about the value of these programs, as they did just recently with the Zazi case, which court documents clearly show was not unveiled by PRISM.

Journalists should ask a specific question: since these programs began operation shortly after September 11th, how many terrorist attacks were prevented SOLELY by information derived from this suspicionless surveillance that could not be gained via any other source? Then ask how many individual communications were ingested to acheive that, and ask yourself if it was worth it. Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we’ve been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.

Further, it’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school.

Q (Ryan Latvaitis): What would you say to others who are in a position to leak classified information that could improve public understanding of the intelligence apparatus of the USA and its effect on civil liberties?

A: This country is worth dying for.

Sunday Morning Google Poems

So, as I have written previously, one of my favorite things in poetry is the poem sequence: a series of poems written in the same style, or on the same topic, or with some other feature that co-constrains them and links them together. This is different from a long poem broken into sections, where the relationship is more temporal or narrative. What I love is the sequence where each poem stands on its own, but then when you bring them into proximity with one another, you start to generate resonances and cross-reactions that add an N+1th dimension to the whole thing.

Anyway, with that as prelude, here, for your Sunday morning reading pleasure, is a sequence of Google poems (the latest hot nerd trend in found poetry). This sequence, if it were to be titled, would be titled something like “How long until . . . ”

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If there are any screenwriters out there reading this, those last two could form the basis for an awesomely horrible romantic comedy.

Gene Patents Overturned — and Scalia’s Weird Dissenting Opinion

So, the Supreme Court just ruled that Myriad Genetics does not, in fact, have the right to patent two naturally occurring human genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. This is good news, because . . . well, because patenting a gene is total bullshit.

If you’re not familiar, these two genes are important because genetic variation in their DNA sequences has been linked to breast cancer. So, the sequence of your DNA in these two genes can reveal if you have a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer. It was exactly this sort of test that prompted Angelina Jolie to undergo a preemptive double mastectomy.

The problem is that the tests were really, really expensive, because of Myriad’s patents. So, the immediate consequence of the ruling should be that the prices for these tests should come way, way down.

The opinion (PDF here, if you’re interested) focuses on the difference between “discovering” something — like the sequence or location of a gene — and “creating” something — like a thing that can be patented. So, a gene is a naturally occurring thing that can not be patented. However, if you take the mRNA from a gene and reverse-transcribe it to make cDNA, this new thing might still be patentable. But, the ruling explicitly notes that the cDNA would be a creation because of the removal of introns. So, cDNA from a single-exon gene might not be patentable.

The ruling explicitly states that it offers no opinion on the patentability of genes that have had their DNA sequences deliberately altered — leaving that question for another day.

It also points out limitations of the ruling with respect to plants. The goal here seems to be to ensure that this ruling is not interpreted as invalidating any plant patents covering plant strains that have been developed through selective breeding.

That all seems pretty straightforward. The ruling does seem to leave a number of issues surrounding the patenting of genetic material unresolved, but it is quite clear about which issues it is kicking down the field.

But then there’s this bit of weirdness at the end.

The opinion is pretty much unanimous, which is always nice. Except for a little, tiny bit of dissension from Antonin Scalia. Here is the complete text of his dissenting opinion:

I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.

I actually thought Part 1-A of the ruling was a little weird when I first read it. Not because it said anything strange or controversial, but because it read sort of like a Wikipedia entry on basic genetics, and contains a lot of details that don’t seem particularly relevant?.

Here’s the full text of the part of the ruling about which Scalia says, “I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms. See generally Association for Molecular Pathology v. United States Patent andTrademark Office, 702 F. Supp. 2d 181, 192–211 (SDNY 2010). The human genome consists of approximately 22,000 genes packed into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Each gene is encoded as DNA, which takes the shape of the familiar “double helix” that Doctors James Watson and Francis Crick first described in 1953. Each “cross-bar” in the DNA helix consists of two chemically joined nucleotides. The possible nucleotides are adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G), each of which binds naturally with another nucleotide: A pairs with T; C pairs with G. The nucleotide cross-bars are chemically connected to a sugar-phosphate backbone that forms the outside framework of the DNA helix. Sequences of DNA nucleotides contain the information necessary to create strings of amino acids, which in turn are used in the body to build proteins. Only some DNA nucleotides, however, code for amino acids; these nucleotides are known as “exons.” Nucleotides that do not code for amino acids, in contrast, are known as “introns.” 

Creation of proteins from DNA involves two principal steps, known as transcription and translation. In transcription, the bonds between DNA nucleotides separate, and the DNA helix unwinds into two single strands. A single strand is used as a template to create a complementary ribonucleic acid (RNA) strand. The nucleotides on the DNA strand pair naturally with their counterparts, with the exception that RNA uses the nucleotide base uracil (U) instead of thymine (T). Transcription results in a single strand RNA molecule, known as pre-RNA, whose nucleotides form an inverse image of the DNA strand from which it was created. Pre-RNA still contains nucleotides corresponding to both the exons and introns in the DNA molecule. The pre-RNA is then naturally “spliced” by the physical removal of the introns. The resulting product is a strand of RNA that contains nucleotides corresponding only to the exons from the original DNA strand. The exons-only strand is known as messenger RNA (mRNA), which creates amino acids through translation. In translation, cellular structures known as ribosomes read each set of three nucleotides, known as codons, in the mRNA. Each codon either tells the ribosomes which of the 20 possible amino acids to synthesize or provides a stop signal that ends amino acid production.

DNA’s informational sequences and the processes that create mRNA, amino acids, and proteins occur naturally within cells. Scientists can, however, extract DNA from cells using well known laboratory methods. These methods allow scientists to isolate specific segments of DNA — for instance, a particular gene or part of a gene—which can then be further studied, manipulated, or used. It is also possible to create DNA synthetically through processes similarly well known in the field of genetics. One such method begins with an mRNA molecule and uses the natural bonding properties of nucleotides to create a new, synthetic DNA molecule. The result is the inverse of the mRNA’s inverse image of the original DNA, with one important distinction: Because the natural creation of mRNA involves splicing that removes introns, the synthetic DNA created from mRNA also contains only the exon sequences. This synthetic DNA created in the laboratory from mRNA is known as complementary DNA (cDNA).

Changes in the genetic sequence are called mutations. Mutations can be as small as the alteration of a single nucleotide—a change affecting only one letter in the genetic code. Such small-scale changes can produce an entirely different amino acid or can end protein production altogether. Large changes, involving the deletion, rearrangement, or duplication of hundreds or even millions of nucleotides, can result in the elimination, misplacement, or duplication of entire genes. Some mutations are harmless, but others can cause disease or increase the risk of disease. As a result, the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs.

So, what do you think Scalia is objecting to? Is he just signaling that he thinks that the details of the molecular biology are not important here? Is it the claim that “Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms”? Is he unable to affirm with his own belief that G pairs with C? That uracil substitutes for thymine in RNA? That humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes?

Please share your most outlandish conspiracy theories in the comments!