Utah Does A Good Job Responding To Homelessness

Utah has a reputation, rightly earned, for being a conservative state.

But, Utah’s Mormon heritage can give this conservatism a populist twist.  It is tops in the nation in its funding of elementary education, and it is also notable for its commitment to the “Housing First” approach to responding to vagrancy (also known as “chronic homelessness”).

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Lightning Strikes

A tree that is a half a block from my house made the TV news when it was struck by lightning on Wednesday night in a very weird way.  The strike spiraled around the trunk, rather than going straight down.  These kinds of lightning strikes are not unheard of and sometimes spare the tree entirely.

When you have a prophet in the neighborhood, weird things happen.

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Cutting Off Methadone For Incarcerated Individuals Is Counterproductive

One of the main ways to end a destructive addiction to opium class drugs like heroin is to get methadone treatment, which prevents withdrawal but doesn’t provide the same high.  But, the predominant policy in the American criminal justice system is to immediately cut off methadone treatment for people who are receiving it, or to do so in a quick phase out.

A new study in Rhode Island confirms that this policy is a bad one.  Cutting someone off from methadone while incarcerated dramatically reduces the chances that they’ll keep trying to quit when they get out.  It also greatly increases the chance that they’ll suffer a heroin overdose when they return to using a drug they’ve lost tolerance to at the doses they used to use.  Reduced post-incarceration ER costs alone more than outweigh the cost of providing methadone to inmates.

Methadone treatment is also highly effective, reducing the death rates of people in treatment relative to those who remain addicted by 70%.

Also, the knowledge that methadone treatment (which is harder to withdraw from than heroin use itself) will be withdrawn if you are incarcerated, reduces the number of people who try to get off heroin using the treatment.

In addition to all of this, the painful withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping methadone treatment are themselves a form of punishment often inflicted on people incarcerated while awaiting trial, and a form of coercion to force inappropriate guilty pleas for criminal defendants receiving methadone treatment (who are, of course, the ones who are at least trying to fix themselves).

The policy of withdrawing methadone treatment immediately, or phasing it out, for incarcerated individuals is wrong in pretty much every respect and should be reversed immediately.

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“Good Character” Is A Function of Nuture

Some traits have more of a hereditary influence than others. As a parent or teacher working with children, the sensible thing to do, at least naively, is to focus your efforts on the traits that have little hereditary influence, where what you do makes the most difference.

What are these traits?

It is widely recognized that the specific religion and language that a person acquires are a product of nurture, although more generalized traits like respect for tradition, religiousity, and learning disabilities that impact language acquisition are significantly hereditary.

According to a December 2, 1986 article by Daniel Goleman of the New York Times, reporting on results from the Minnesota Twin Study:

The need to achieve, including ambition and an inclination to work hard toward goals, also was found to be genetically influenced, but more than half of this trait seemed determined by life experience. The same lower degree of hereditary influence was found for impulsiveness and its opposite, caution.

The need for personal intimacy appeared the least determined by heredity among the traits tested; about two-thirds of that tendency was found to depend on experience. People high in this trait have a strong desire for emotionally intense reltionships; those low in the trait tend to be loners who keep their troubles to themselves.

”This is one trait that can be greatly strengthened by the quality of interactions in a family,” Dr. Lykken said. ”The more physical and emotional intimacy, the more likely this trait will be developed in children, and those children with the strongest inherited tendency will have the greatest need for social closeness as adults.”

A study in 2006 also affirmed the environmental basis of traits identified in the 1986 study such as need for personal intimacy (called “love (valuing close relationships)” and “prudence (choosing actions with care)”.

A 2006 study added:
* “humor (seeing the light side of life, liking to laugh”),
* “humility/modesty (not overvaluing self)”,
* “citizenship (being a good team member)”,
* “integrity (presenting oneself in a genuine way)”,
* “kindness (helping and taking care of others)”, and
* “vitality (feeling alive and excited)”
to the list of environmentally influenced traits.

To generalize, while many aspects of personality are influenced very little by parenting and education, a group of traits that can be generally described as “good character” are not very heritable at all and have a strong nuture component.


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Denying The Establishment Clause

A Colorado teacher is suing his school district claiming the district’s only high school “operates largely to promote the evangelical Christian ideals” of a local church that operates in the school. Robert Basevitz’s lawsuit against the Fremont Re-2 School District was filed Tuesday in federal court in Denver. . . . Randy Pfaff, the pastor of The Cowboy Church at Crossroads, said he will not apologize for being in Florence High School. 

“I don’t believe the Constitution was meant to keep God out of the schools. That’s absolutely absurd,” Pfaff told The Denver Post on Tuesday in a phone interview. “This nation was founded on Christianity.”

From the Denver Post.

This case is typical of church and state separation lawsuits, and arises in one of the most conservative counties in the state that is home to one of the largest prison complexes in the country.

The striking point of the story to me is that Reverend Randy Pfaff shares the common Evangelical Christian conservative view that there is no such thing as a First Amendment establishment clause, and that: “This nation was founded on Christianity”, which are deeply at odds with the legal and historical reality respectively.

The First Amendment, with a free exercise clause, but not the establishment clause, however, is a very different balance of freedom of religion that the one that the United States has adopted.

This disregard for reality extends beyond law and history.  Among scientists, many have some form of religious belief, but very few, relative to the general population are Evangelical Christians, because the bridge between theology and scientific truth is particular wide for this religious group.

For better or worse, Evangelical Christianity of this type is largely an American invention.  It is almost entirely absent from Europe and probably makes up a minority of non-European, non-American Christians.

It is, however, a vital faith, suffering far less of a decline than mainstream Protestant Christianity in the United States and Europe in recent decades.

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Against Consensus

L.A. Kauffman has a fascinating historical and practical article about the use of consensus decision making by grass roots activists, together with related notions like Feminist process, something I am familiar with from my college days at Oberlin College, and its antecedent, consensus decision making by Quakers.

The bottom line conclusion, that consensus decision making can be dysfunctional outside of small groups, is correct, but I do fault her for failing to recognize that extent to which some of the other decision making processes are fellow travelers with consensus decision making, but do not actually involve a consensus requirement.

She states:

The complex liturgy of consensus process — from the specialized language and roles (“facilitators,” “vibes watchers,” “progressive stack,” and more) to the elaborate hand signals (“up-twinkles,” “down-twinkles,” and the like) — has functioned as much to signal and consolidate a sense of belonging to a certain tradition as it has to move decisions forward.

But, many of these specialized features of “Feminist process” aren’t necessary consensus based and weren’t used in connection with a consensus requirement most of the time when I used them.

The “progressive stack”, for example, applies to how discussion was organized.  In a progressive stack, people who want to speak are identified so that they don’t have to keep their hands raised, but rather than being called upon to speak in chronological order, someone who has said less in the conversation is given priority over someone who has already participated in the conversation a great deal.

The hand signals are nothing more than a “straw vote”, used in all sorts of consensus decision making forums (like juries) and in all sorts of non-consensus decision making forums (like political caucuses).

The notion of divorcing the role of a “facilitator” from that of the true group leader, is an idea as old as having a Speaker Pro Temp in the U.S. Senate, which is certainly not a consensus based organization, although Senate rules like those of grassroots groups, often place greater importance on giving everyone a full opportunity to participate than the parallel rules of the U.S. House of Representatives or Robert’s Rules of Order.

Feminist process norms that are widely followed in activist groups are more a rejection of Robert’s Rules than they are an affirmative endorsement of true consensus based decision making.

Also, even traditional rule based decision making systems that call for votes in the ordinary case, often acknowledge that the process can be speeded up on many matters with “unanimous consent” (another U.S. Senate favorite), with decisions by “acclimation” (used for example, in rare instances, in electing a Pope), and in voice votes, all of which can function as consensus matters.  For example, many decisions in political conventions involving thousands of people entitled to speak and vote are made by unanimous consent in practice.

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Sleeping Beauty Papers

Most academic papers are published and get most of their citations (if any) in the first five years.  But, a few papers are published, go unnoticed for many years, and then get a surge of citations.  These are called Sleeping Beauty papers.

Some papers have languished more than a century unnoticed, only to then get a surge of citation popularity.

The study doesn’t mention the case of fractals, but something similar happened to that entire discipline.  The papers making critical insights were published in obscure Russian journals by a lone investigator and then picked up many decades later to give birth to what is now a thriving subdiscipline within mathematics.

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Phase Of The Day: “A Goldilocks Problem”

* A “Goldilocks Problem” is one where the solution requires finding middle ground that avoids to opposing extremes.  You don’t want too much, or too little, but only the “just right” amount of the targeted quantity. Here is an example from Vox.com:

In other words, national age is a Goldilocks problem. Country populations shouldn’t be too old, and they shouldn’t be too young. To avoid demographic problems, a country’s age needs to be just right.

* Off topic, but still relating to language, a heard a recent radio account for someone who had determined (it doesn’t really deserve to be called a “study”; a pre-existing online calculator was used) the reading level of the lyrics for 225 recent number one Billboard hit songs (that were at number one for at least three weeks) by band and by genre using software applying standard reading level tests.

The most sophisticated song had a reading level of 5.5 (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California”) (readable by a mid-year fifth grader); the most sophisticated artist was at grade level 3.95 (readable at the level of a third grader at the end of the academic year). The most sophisticated lyrics by genre was country music which was in the low 3rd grade level. Some hits (e.g. Three Day’s Grace’s “The Good Life”) were below the first grade level.

By comparison, Charlotte’s Web has a reading level of 4.4, an ordinary daily newspaper is typically written at a 5th grade reading level, the first Lemony Snicket book (“The Bad Beginning”) has a reading level of 6.4, and the standard for “functional literacy” which is also often used as a standard “floor” for people who want to set a rigorous reading level standard for high school graduates, is frequently set at the 9th grade reading level, about the same reading level of George Orwell’s book “1984” which is reading level 8.9.  Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has a reading level of 10.0.  An unabridged translation of “Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra has a reading level of 13.2. (All references to reading levels for books from here).

For what it is worth, I think that this is mostly a function of reading level tools that are insufficiently sophisticated themselves to accurately measure the reading difficulty of poetry (which is what music lyrics are), because these metrics place undue weight on factors like short sentences, insufficient weight (for poetry) on word difficulty, and typically no weight on subtle factors like the use of metaphor, double meaning, and references to experiences that children may lack.  After all, the average song ranged from an average of 250 to a bit less than 700 words each by genre (rock has the least; R&B and Hip Hop which includes rap, has the most), so there isn’t much room for long sentences by the virtue of the lyric form.

The Flesch-Kincaid readability level score, for example, depends entirely upon the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word in a piece, which may be correlated with readability in ordinary prose, but is a poor instrument for measuring the sophistication of music lyrics.  (The song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from the musical Mary Poppins, in contrast, would by treated as profoundly sophisticated by this measure, since a large share of the words in the song have fifteen syllables.)

Of course, another factor dumbing down the analysis is the focus on number one hits, which by definition must be accessible to maximally large audiences.  Songs with smarter or more difficult lyrics, like art movies relative to blockbuster movies, tend to have smaller audiences.

This 652 word blog post has a reading level of 10.3.  Yesterday’s renewable energy post had a reading level of 13.2.

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Renewable Energy Almost Price Competitive With Oil And Gas

Outside of Alaska and Hawaii, oil hasn’t been used in meaningful amounts to generate electricity in the United States for decades.  Two of the main climate friendly alternatives: nuclear power and hydropower have stalled for independent reasons related to their perceived environmental impact and safety (and inherent limits on how much hydropower can be generated from geography).

Natural gas has increased its market share largely because it makes meeting environmental regulations easier and is cheap to use to produce power once you buy it, but natural gas is more expensive to harvest and more scarce than coal, although its prices have been less subject to geopolitics because it has historically been hard to transport without pipelines.  The residual is coal, for the very simple reason that it is cheap because it is abundant and inexpensive to strip mine.

Until a decade or two ago, other renewables made up a negligible share of the electricity generation mix.  But, in places like Colorado and New Mexico there has been a dramatic upturn in wind and in solar use.  This has both driven and been driven by, falling prices for solar and wind powered electricity generation.

Over the last 5 years, the price of new wind power in the US has dropped 58% and the price of new solar power has dropped 78%. . . . Utility-scale solar in the West and Southwest is now at times cheaper than new natural gas plants. . . . 

We see the latest proposed PPA price for Xcel’s SPS subsidiary by NextEra (NEE) as in NM as setting a new record low for utility-scale solar. [..] The 25-year contracts for the New Mexico projects have levelized costs of $41.55/MWh and $42.08/MWh. That is 4.155 cents / kwh and 4.21 cents / kwh, respectively. Even after removing the federal solar Investment Tax Credit of 30%, the New Mexico solar deal is priced at 6 cents / kwh. By contrast, new natural gas electricity plants have costs between 6.4 to 9 cents per kwh, according to the EIA. (Note that the same EIA report from April 2014 expects the lowest price solar power purchases in 2019 to be $91 / MWh, or 9.1 cents / kwh before subsidy. Solar prices are below that today.)

The New Mexico plant is the latest in a string of ever-cheaper solar deals. SEPA’s 2014 solar market snapshot lists other low-cost solar Power Purchase Agreements. Austin Energy (Texas) signed a PPA for less than $50 per megawatt-hour (MWh) for 150 MW. TVA (Alabama) signed a PPA for $61 per MWh. Salt River Project (Arizona) signed a PPA for roughly $53 per MWh.

Wind prices are also at all-time lows. Here’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the declining price of wind power . . . : After topping out at nearly $70/MWh in 2009, the average levelized long-term price from wind power sales agreements signed in 2013 fell to around $25/MWh. After adding in the wind Production Tax Credit, that is still substantially below the price of new coal or natural gas.

Wind and solar compensate for each other’s variability, with solar providing power during the day, and wind primarily at dusk, dawn, and night.

Energy storage is also reaching disruptive prices at utility scale. The Tesla battery is cheap enough to replace natural gas ‘peaker’ plants

Via Marginal Revolution.

In general, renewable energies are seeing technology and mass production drive price reductions that are better than those in the oil and gas industry.

We’ve seen a modest slump in oil and gas prices due to the advent of fracking and reduced demand in a slumping global economy, but the long term trend is still the inexorable march towards Peak Oil.  The issue is not so much that we will run out of oil and gas reserves, as it is that we will run out of cheap to exploit oil and gas reserves, driving the price of oil and gas ever higher until it reaches a natural limit when extracting oil from recently farmed crops becomes price competitive with oil and gas drilling as a way to produce hydrocarbons.

Coal is a tougher nut to crack.  It is priced where it is not just due to production costs, but because as a product, it can capture the lion’s share of the market at whatever price is just a little bit lower than the alternatives.  Falling renewable prices are likely to reduce coal prices which have more room for downward movement than natural gas prices, given production costs.

On the other hand, environmentally and in other respects, coal is awful.  It makes petroleum look good.  Coal produces lots of conventional air pollutants (in addition to toxic and radioactive pollutants that are present in coal in trace amounts) leading to lots of pollution related deaths and permanent harm to the environment including climate change, and it leads to large numbers of production and transportation and generation related accidental injuries and deaths.  If coal were forced through regulation and taxation to bear the full share of the externalities generated by its use, it would be significantly more expensive than what utilities now pay for it.

This is a huge deal.  A shift in the relative prices per kilowatt-hour of electricity generation by different means doesn’t just shift the market a little.  It is the economic equivalent of a phase change in a substance that crosses a critical pressure-temperature threshold.

Unlike individual consumers of other kinds of energy, electrical utilities are extremely well informed economic actors driven almost purely by economic incentives.  A major shift in preferences by a few hundred firms driven by a transition in relative electricity generation prices, particularly in places where electricity demand is expanding due to urban growth, can dramatically and quickly change the mix of fuels used to generate electricity in a matter of a decade or three.

The author of the piece quoted above, based upon historical trends, argues that “Every doubling of cumulative solar production drives module prices down by 20%.” I’m deeply skeptical that this is a sustainable trend, but I don’t disagree that there are meaningful economies of scale that are yet to be realized in solar and wind power, and that there is room for at least one or two more major scientific breakthroughs that meaningfully reduce cost or otherwise make solar and wind power more attractive.  Still, we don’t need many rounds 20% reductions to make solar power generation much more economically attractive; one or two would be enough to make a huge difference.  So, the trend doesn’t really have to be sustainable for very long to make a big difference.

Certainly, we have already come along way.  I remember as a child reading Popular Science in the 1970s during the energy crisis, reading stories about how solar power cost three or four times as much per watt as conventional sources and hoping that someday it would reach parity with conventional sources in cost.

It has taken four decades to reach that point, which is far longer than the optimists thought it would at the time.  But, we have now just about reached that point and that is a big deal, especially in the West and Southwest of the United States, where the natural conditions are best for solar, and where the most important source of energy demand (air conditioning) closely tracks the availability of solar power to meet that demand.

It turns out that almost all of the price reduction has actually come in the last decade:

Graphic from here.

A utopian world with a very large share of renewables in its power grid seems more attainable now than ever.

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Church Attendance v. Religious Identification

Ed Stetzer, writing at CNN in an opinion piece entitled “No, American Christianity Is Not Dead” on May 16, 2015, in response to a Pew Report showing a surge in people who identify as religiously unaffiliated and a 10% decline in 10 years in the percentage of people who identify as Christian in the United States, makes some valid points, but also provides some shocking (to me) new statistics of his own.

He excludes from his analysis Roman Catholics and historically black Christian denominations, focusing instead on trends in Protestant and non-denominational Christianity.

One of his core points is that the people who no longer identify as Christians were mostly not drawn from the population that regularly attend church.  This percentage was 23.2% in 1972 (according to the General Social Survey) and was 19.8% in 2014.  Thus, while there was a 3.6 percentage point drop (a 15.5% decline in “market share”) over the 42 years that coincide with most of my life, the decline has not been nearly as dramatic as the decline in identification as Christian.

The long term trend, however, has been very different for Evangelicals, and other non-Roman Catholic Christians.


The percentage of people who identify as Evangelical Christians and attended church regularly in 1972 was 7.9% of the people surveyed (46% of the 17.1% of people who identified as Evangelical Christians at the time), and in 2014 it is 12.5% (55% of the 22.7% of people who identified as Evangelical Christians in 2014).  Thus, over 42 years the percentage of people identifying as Evangelical Christians, the percentage of people regularly attending Evangelical Christian churches, and the percentage of Evangelical Christians who attend church regularly have all increased.

It isn’t all roses for Evangelical Christianity.  It peaked in 1994, declined steadily through 2004, bumped up a bit in 2006, and has declined again since then.

Mainline Christians

The percentage of people who identified as Mainline Christians and attended church regularly in 1972 was 8.6% of the people surveyed (29% of the 28.0% of people who identified as Mainline Christians at the time), and in 2014 it is 3.6% (30% of the 12.2% of people who identified as Mainline Christians in 2014).

This picture is decidedly less rosy. Over 42 years the percentage of people identifying as Mainline Christians has dropped by 15.8 percentage points (a 42% decline in “market share”), the percentage of people regularly attending Mainline Christian Churches has dropped by 5 percentage points (a 42% decline in market share), and the rate of church attendance for people who identify as Mainline Christians has remained constant.  The decline in Mainline Christianity has been steady with the exception of a small bump in 1990.


Thus, in 1972, a narrow majority of regularly church attending white Protestants were Mainline Christians (as I was from 1970 to 1992 with the exception of a year in New Zealand where I didn’t attend church while I was an exchange student).  Regularly church attending Mainline and Evangelical Christians combined were 16.5% of the population.

In 2014, regularly church attending white Protestants combined are still 16.1% of the population, barely changed over 42 years (the decline in the overall church attendance rate probably comes mostly from white Roman Catholics whose trends tend to mirror those of Mainline Protestants, but have been masked by rising numbers of Hispanic and other immigrant Roman Catholic populations in the U.S.).

But, in 2014, 77.6% of regularly church attending white Protestants (more than three out of four and on track to be four out of five soon) are Evangelical Christians.

There is a discrepancy between the GSS figures and the Pew survey results for 2014.  GSS says 22.7% identify as Evangelical Christians v. 25.4% for Pew, while GSS says that 12.2% identify as Mainline Christians v. 14.7% for Pew.  But, most of these discrepancies come from the fact that Pew is including historically black denominations in its Evangelical and Mainline Christian percentages, while GSS is treating all of the historically black denominations as a separate category (which is probably a more accurate way to describe the reality for most purposes).

Just 1 in 27 Americans identified as Mainline Protestant and regularly attended church in 2014.  And, as I’ve noted previously in other posts, this trend shows no sign of stopping any time soon because the younger you are, the less likely you are to consider yourself a Mainline Protestant, and the regularly church attending population that remains in these churches has been steadily getting older and older.  The gradual death of denominations without children and young people is nearly inevitable.

In contrast, 1 in 8 Americans identified as Evangelical Protestant and regularly attended church in 2014.

Meanwhile, 22.8% of Americans in 2014, not quite 1 in 4, but more than 1 in 5, no longer even identify a Christian at all, a number that exceeds the percentage of self-identify as Roman Catholic (20.8% in 2014), whether or not they regularly attend church.  Another 5.9% of the population identifies with a non-Christian faith (including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarian Universalists).

People who do not identify as Christians now make up 30% of the U.S. population, and 80% of the U.S. population does not attend church on a regular basis.  Mainline Christians in predominantly white denominations who do not regularly attend church, who tend to be culturally very similar to the “nones” culturally and in their political beliefs, make up another 8.6% of the population.
About 63% of all people who attend church regularly (including historically black denominations and Roman Catholics) are Evangelical Christians in historically white denominations.

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