Case Selection and Bias in Clinton Foundation Coverage

Yesterday I tried to put the AP’s claims about the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s meetings as Secretary of State in context by loosely estimating the success that foundation donors had at landing appointments.

I should have pointed out the case selection problem at the heart of the AP analysis. If we really wanted to look at whether or not a gift to the Clinton Foundation increased the probability that a meeting2 with Hillary Clinton took place than we would need not just the cases of folks who had meetings (selecting on the dependent variable), but also the population of people who attempted to secure a meeting and were unable to do so. Only then would we begin to discern if giving money to the Clinton Foundation had a beneficiary effect on those seeking access to the State Department compared to those who made no contribution. Looking at the fraction of foundation donors who snagged some face time with HRC is basically beside the point.1 For instance, we don’t even know that those other folks who gave money even wanted or tried to get meetings.

But over on Vox, Matthew Yglesias explains why making sense of the AP’s report is a fool’s errand:

Serving as secretary of state while your husband raises millions of dollars for a charitable foundation that is also a vehicle for your family’s political ambitions really does create a lot of space for potential conflicts of interest. Journalists have, rightly, scrutinized the situation closely. And however many times they take a run at it, they don’t come up with anything more scandalous than the revelation that maybe billionaire philanthropists have an easier time getting the State Department to look into their visa problems than an ordinary person would.

In his article, Yglesias draws a connection with publication bias in academic journals, “[T]he AP’s basic reporting project here seems like it was worth a shot and probably also fairly time-consuming. But it did not come up with anything.”

But instead of falling prey to the file drawer problem, the AP published their null findings using a reporting frame which implied corruption between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation. In discussion on Twitter, Yglesias explained that the framing device used in the AP’s story was “a different manifestation of the same bias against null findings” which strikes me as an exceptionally apt way to put it.

Onward to the next scandal. Pseudo or otherwise.

  1. My analysis didn’t even look at donors, only the share of money. The Clinton Foundation apparently has received contributions from 7000 different donors, at least according to a tweet cited in this Washington Monthly article which is probably over the course of the whole existence of the foundation, not just the four years I looked at yesterday. So even from that flawed perspective if 85 of these folks received meetings with Hillary Clinton that’s only 1.2% of the foundation’s donors. Ho-hum, right?  

  2. A meeting mind you, not even a favor and note it seems that we have plenty of evidence that Hillary Clinton’s staff at State was quite capable of squashing requests which came via the Clinton Foundation. 

Clinton Foundation Contributions, A Denominator

The Associated Press seems apoplectic: Many donors to Clinton Foundation met with her at State. Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan write:

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

A friend emails to say, “More of that classic Clinton hubris.”

To be fair to Hillary Clinton, almost all of her political mistakes are procedural or failing to be on an ethical safe side. As opposed to Bill Clinton’s mistakes or any policy or ideological disagreements you may have with her.

And that’s what this AP report looks like at first blush. We don’t know that she was doing quid pro quos. Just because 50% of the people who met with her gave money looks bad, but it doesn’t actually show anything. The folks involved might have even thought they needed to give money to get seen, but could have been wrong! And then the mistake is more mild, Hillary Clinton probably should have disabused people of this notion, sure.

To build a case of corruption, I’d like to know what was the rate of people giving to the foundation who got to see her? If it’s a small number than I am really not that impressed. When did they give? Maybe these people were thanking her (tipping?) by giving this money rather than buying access. That might not be cool but it’s way less bad than the Secretary of State having a price list.

I don’t think information on contribution timings is public or even the number of donors, but we can easily examine the Clinton Foundation’s annual contributions. And that will give us a kind of denominator to gauge what might have been going on.

Clinton Foundation Annual Contributions, 2009–12

2009    $82,929,937
2010    166,315,275
2011    117,418,783
2012    113,199,518
TOTAL  $479,863,513

The AP report says $156m was contributed to the foundation by folks who visited Clinton while she was Secretary of State. If I’m reading the foundation’s reports correctly1, they received about $480m in contributions (unrestricted plus restricted) while Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State.

It’s a little awkward to say (and think through too), but let’s do the math because that’s easy. A third of of the money donated to the foundation ended up in meetings (32.5% to be precise).

While we can’t say something straightforward like a third of donors got to meet with Clinton (presumably there were many small donors so the average gift is lower than the average gift examined by the AP), 32.5% is a higher rate of money receiving an audience than I would’ve guessed.

I mean this is Wade Boggs territory (.3279 lifetime batting average).

Still, it’s not evidence on its own of quid pro quos. It’s just gross.

Parting Thought

While Clintons are beset by a vast right-wing conspiracy and have been for a longtime2, they really seem to be unable to stop themselves from providing the ammo to be used against them.

This is too bad. The stakes in 2016 are so high.

Hey reader, make sure to read the next post too: Case Selection and Bias in Clinton Foundation Coverage. I try to clarify some things.

  1. tbh we should not assume this. 

  2. Only Batman has a larger gallery of villians. 

Has Apple Been Neglecting Politics?

Apple has not used lobbying and campaign contributions as much as might be expected by one of the largest companies in the world

Although many Americans support Apple’s decision not to help the FBI and Justice Department unlock the iPhone of the murderer and alleged terrorist from the December 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting, the majority disagree and say that Apple should unlock the iPhone.2 And while Apple has received some public support1 most elected officials – including President Barack Obama and the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination – seem to have sided with the Justice Department.

With the political tide turned against Apple, future product decisions might be made in courtrooms and the floors of legislatures and not Jony Ive’s famed white room. The threat of politically-imposed constraints for Apple and Apple’s customers might stem from the company’s own past decisions on how to explain their products to consumers, and encryption technology to elected officials and bureaucrats. In particular, while Apple may have mastered issues of fabrication and global markets, but the political process poses a different set of challenges which by certain measures they could be considered to have been paying too little attention.

Apple spends less money on political activities than rivals like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.

As detailed below, Apple has a political footprint which is less than a fourth the size of Google’s. In fact, Apple stands out from most large U.S. companies by not even organizing their own PAC (political action committee).

If lack of political activity has stunted Apple’s relationships with key government officials, the most troubling result of the unlocking debate might be in the longterm prospects for policy change. The current battle over encryption and “backdoors” is not likely to be resolved with a favorable ruling for Apple in judicial proceedings. Senators such as Tom Cotton (AR-R) are already calling for legislation which would empower the government to decrypt. Entrenched opinions against Apple are also shared by the leaders of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

These opinions may arise from conflicting understandings and assumptions about technology rather than ideological beliefs.

Apple CEO Tim Cook argues: “Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.” And security experts like Bruce Schneier agree, “Make no mistake; this is what a backdoor looks like. This is an existing vulnerability in iPhone security that could be exploited by anyone.”

In particular, Apple’s view that unlocking this one phone is tantamount to creating a backdoor for all iPhones is not widely held.

While Senator Ted Cruz (TX-R) at last week’s Republican Presidential Town Hall in South Carolina suggests he understands the competing interests at-play, yet insists the government deserves access to this single phone:

I think Apple has a serious argument that they should not be forced to put a backdoor in every cell phone everyone has. That creates a real security exposure for hackers, cyber criminals to break into our cell phones. So, I think Apple has the right side on the global don’t make us do this to every iPhone on the market. But, I think law enforcement has the better argument. This concerns the phone of one of the San Bernardino hackers, and for law enforcement to get a judicial search order, that’s consistent with the Fourth Amendment. That’s how the bill of rights operates.

Similarly, but on the other side of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton imagines a robust technical solution which would let only law enforcement unlock iPhones:

I would hope that, given the extraordinary capacities that the tech community has and the legitimate needs and questions from law enforcement, that there could be a Manhattan-like project, something that would bring the government and the tech communities together to see they’re not adversaries, they’ve got to be partners.

It doesn’t do anybody any good if terrorists can move toward encrypted communication that no law enforcement agency can break into before or after. There must be some way. I don’t know enough about the technology … to be able to say what it is, but I have a lot of confidence in our tech experts.

The disturbing imagery of the Manhattan Project aside, politicians’ faith in an implausible tool which would be able to unlock this one phone or just phones which the FBI really, really deserves to be able to open are probably a result of good usability design decisions made by Apple (as well as Google’s Android operating system and others) which safely conceal the complexity of data privacy behind a friendly veneer of techno-magic.3 Our leaders don’t understand that digital security requires both computer science engineering and social engineering in order to be upheld. Giving access away to authorities might very well lead to giving access away to everyone. There are no technical wizards who will be able to solve this problem for them.

But while the choice to hide complicated details of encryption from users might be understandable or even the best practice, Apple (and other tech companies) has a responsibility to explain their position on technical matters to legislators and bureaucrats. When politicians retain novice user sensibilities regarding encryption and other issues, at least some of the blame lies at the feet of large tech companies who by now should be sophisticated enough with respect to the policy process to promote their message via lobbying.

With some mix of the technology relatively youthful companies or just California techno-libertarianism, the tech sector has previously earned a reputation for not fully embracing the gritty reality of the political process, such as lobbying as much as other industries. However, their recent increases of effort have attracted attention, but Apple appears to be underperforming when compared to both other large U.S. companies and its tech brethren.

Apple’s 2015 Political Footprint in Perspective

To understand Apple’s efforts at persuading legislators of various issues, I compiled a measure of political footprint which combines a company’s own federally registered lobbying expenditures from 2015 with the campaign contributions they made during the 2013-14 election cycle from their corporate PAC as well as any employees who made campaign campaign contributions (and listed their employer). This data comes from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2015, Apple spent $4.48m on lobbying efforts and while they don’t maintain a PAC for campaign contributions, Apple employees gave a combined $130,579 in FEC-regulated campaign contributions. This adds up to a $4.61m political footprint.

In contrast, Apple’s main rival in the market for smartphones, Google, spent $16.7m on lobbying in 2015, gave $1.65m in campaign contributions via its PAC, and another $2.25m via employees during the 2013–14 election cycle for a combined $20.5m political footprint – over four times the size of Apple’s.

Apple’s political footprint is also on the small side when compared to other large companies (as measured by market capitalization on on December 31, 2015 as reported by YCharts).

Of the companies researched worth over $100b, the average political footprint is over twice that of Apple’s at $10.14m – only Visa and Cisco Systems come in with figures lower than Apple’s with footprints of $4.2m and $3.77m, respectively. Politically, Apple throws its weight around like Walt Disney, a company which is no lightweight, but still less than 3 times the size of Apple and not much like what we witness from companies like Google, Exxon Mobile, or AT&T.

Political Footprint by Market Capitalization

Since it’s well-known, among political scientists at least, that “industries with greater potential benefits from government assistance contribute systematically more [money],”4 and the tech sector has typically faced less regulation and depended on fewer government contracts, I added several other large technology companies to the analysis as a way to create a quick baseline of what we might expect from Apple. I’ve used blue markers to indicate tech companies in the Political Footprint figure. A positive relationship between company size and political footprint is quite visible. Throwing caution to the wind, we can estimate the simplest possible linear regression which would suggest that we might have reasonably have been able to expect that Apple might have a political footprint somewhere in the neighborhood of $17m to $21m which is quite a bit more than the observed amount of $4.61m.

Now this certainly isn’t the most sophisticated analysis and I don’t mean to say that registered federal lobbying and campaign contributions represent all political activity that a company might engage in. For instance, Tony Podesta claims that a vast amount of lobbying goes unreported and due to federalism many companies probably aim efforts sub-nationally. Uber Technologies, which is often considered a political powerhouse, mostly engages in state and local efforts, has recently spent a comparatively small amount on federal lobbying (less than $500,000 in 2015) and campaign contributions (only $20,750 in the 2013–14 election cycle). Apple also belongs to trade associations and industry groups which engage in lobbying activities (e.g., the Consumer Technology Association, Retail Industry Leaders Association, Download Fairness Coalition, etc.). So this is not to say that I’ve captured all of what Apple has been up to inside the Beltway, but the company does seem to have put fewer resources toward politics than we might have expected when comparing them to their peers with respect to size and industry. We might in fact say that when it comes to politics, it’s clear that they “think different.”

Apple Is Punching Below Their Weight

While many might regard choosing to forego campaign contributions and intensive lobbying as virtuous, they’re wrong to dismiss the value of all such political activity. Spending money isn’t about bribing corrupt Washington politicians.5 Persuasion can be difficult, but it might be impossible in the absence of new information. Apple has probably been foregoing fairly affordable (to them at least) opportunities to purchase access to legislators and bureaucratic decision-makers. By purchasing access through campaign contributions and lobbying efforts they’d be purchasing a chance to convey political knowledge and policy information.

Without clear signals from interest groups, politicians are likely to continue turning to law enforcement officials for guidance. Law enforcement officials have a different set of priorities from the computer security experts and users who agree with Apple’s current position on backdoors and iPhone unlocking. Ignorance of the tradeoffs at stake seems like a potential stumbling block rather than impassible ideological dispute.

A large increase of effort won’t necessarily help change the current framing of encryption away from issues of national security, terrorism, and concern over child pornography let alone guarantee a desired policy outcome for privacy activists. However, those of us encouraged by Tim Cook’s strong stances for gay rights, environmental policy, and this position against the FBI and DoJ should probably hope that Apple is also responds with an increase in lobbying and campaign contributions commensurate with their corporate size. “At a minimum it makes it more difficult for politicians to criticize you when they have taken money from you,” says political scientist Michael Ensley.6 And for the foreseeable future, it looks like Apple needs all the help they can get not getting criticized by policy makers as they press the case for their users’ privacy and security.

DATA the data used in this analysis has been made available for download as a CSV file. It was collected by the author from the Center for Responsive Politics and YCharts.

  1. Supporters have included The New York Times Editorial Board, civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), tech bloggers like John Gruber, and even Senator Ron Wyden (OR-D). 

  2. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey

  3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Clarke’s Third Law 

  4. Grier, Kevin B. Michael C. Munger and Brian E. Roberts. 1994 “The Determinants of Industry Political Activity, 1978–1986.” American Political Science Review 88(4):911–26. 

  5. Outright corruption in D.C. is both pretty rare and probably well-hidden from a political scientist like me downloading data over the Internet. 

  6. Via private email as he does. 

Big Cannon, No Aim

Over a century ago, some congressional Republicans joined with the minority party Democrats to rebel against Joseph Cannon, a Speaker of the House with an actual (if still metaphorical) iron-fist over the policy-making process.

The anti-Cannon insurgents hoped to refashion the Rules Committee and remove Cannon from servering on it. From Susan M. Miller and Peverill Squire’s “Who Rebelled? An Analysis of the Motivations of the Republicans Who Voted Against Speaker Cannon”:

For the progressive core of the insurgency against Speaker Cannon, our analysis documents that policy differences largely drove their behavior. Although they were disgruntled about committee assignments and the undemocratic manner in which Cannon controlled the legislative agenda, their real grievances were directed at the way the House operated in a broad sense. The core insurgents believed the system was rigged against their policy preferences and that it prevented majorities from working their will. Voters back home seemed to be on their side.

Fastforward to today. While the grievances remain the same, it’s not progressives, but the right-wing whack-jobs who seem able to muster enough angst for a revolution. Now, Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) has filed a motion to vacate the chair and remove John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House. With our increasingly internally homogenous congressional districts, today’s insurgents can probably still claim to be doing their voters justice. But oddly, it sure seems like this legislative weapon/temper tantrum is aimed at one of the only people who focuses on keeping the G.O.P. from shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis. Of course, Boehner has escaped conservative onslaughts before, even this year. But attempts to dump him as Speaker make for good TV and headlines, so why stop now?

Besides allowing for ample opportunity to preen for conservative talk radio, it’s hard to see how a more conservative House (or Senate) leadership would accomplish anything given the current occupant of the White House and our divided government. But like Donald Trump and his devastation of any hope for decorum in the Republican presidential nomination contest, Meadows and his would be coup co-signers will hopefully help drive the 2016 Democratic turnout machine and remind the dwindling number of moderates out there that the Republican Party has pretended to be anti-establishment for so long, they’ve left themselves without the ability to govern.

So here’s to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Mark Meadows – A.K.A. The Committee to Elect Hillary Clinton.

Star Wars Episodes IV through VI: Revenge of the HD

With all the recent Star Wars talk, I’m ready to revisit the classic movies of my youth, but I’ve found there is no civility, only rent-seeking. As a non-Blu-ray owning, but still mostly law-abiding American, the best way to watch Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI might be to buy the Blu-ray + DVD combo pack ($45 on Amazon).1

Maybe I am being silly or gravely mistaken, but that means watching the DVDs which by the way only seems marginally less clumsy than trying to find and then set up my old VHS machine to watch the versions of the films I already own. Gnawing at some part of my inner nerd would be those Blu-ray discs; I’d own, but be unable to watch perfectly reasonable HD versions trapped on a format I have no device to access.

Or I could buy the combo and also a $40 Blue-ray drive and rip the disks — DRM and ancient weapons are no match for a good tutorial from Jason Snell. This lets me watch in 720p via my not-so-trusty, but still mostly elegant Apple TV 2. Plus, I can always rip it into 1080p and more or less feel future proofed (b/c 4k, pfffff). However, the need to put “rip discs” on my todo list is kind of annoying and maybe there is crazy droid-based DRM making this impossible? I mean, I know better than to trust a strange computer program like handbreak, right?

Or I could try to go the “easy” route, buy the combo and a $75 Blue-ray home theater component and watch the films off the discs, but then like an animal, I am stuck for always and ever after watching the films off the discs and needing that damn Blu-ray player for only these films. Or worse, what if owning a Blu-ray player leads to more Blu-ray discs? The last thing I want is to start collecting plastic boxes and shiny things again, but if I never use the Blu-ray for anything else spending $55/film seems quite gratuitous.

If my lack of faith you find disturbing, let’s be honest… the main problem is that some time between when I buy a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack and watch the first film, inevitably Disney will announce the upcoming sale of the Star Wars films via iTunes (and almost as surely for $20 a pop). Such a development will certainly cause the hate to flow through me.

Sigh. The Force – it awakens – but so far it brings nothing but sadness.

UPDATE: Everything is fine now. Of course.

  1. I have Episodes II and III on DVD and feel no compunction to upgrade or acquire Episode I. 

Do a Lot of People Pay for iCloud?

Answer: Yes, it seems like many, many people might be paying for iCloud.

I’m asking and trying to answer because recently, Horace Dediu has been trying to figure out, “How Big is iCloud?” It might not be the most important question in the world, but it’s interesting to watch someone make out an answer.

In a blog post and a related discussion on his podcast The Critical Path, Horace estimates that around 2/3 of iCloud users are paying for extra storage.

I [Horace] realize that this attach rate to a paid service is astronomical. Anything over 10% is unheard of. I would say the error in my estimates could be 20% but that still leaves a huge gap to what seems reasonable.

Personally, I pay for iCloud because I want at least minimal remote backups of my iPhone and iPad, but I always assumed that I was weird. I’m pretty sure that of my family, only my dad pays for more storage (he’s a photo nut, selfie’s mostly). And I don’t think any of my friends who use me as their de facto IT department pay for storage.

Thinking Horace might be way off, I decided to try a quick poll on Twitter.

Of course, asking an opt-in question like this is not anything like a scientific survey. However, it’s reasonable as sanity check on Horace’s financial statement-based estimates since it doesn’t seem like there is any way to measure iCloud usage via API and a full-blown survey would be too costly.

Do you pay for extra iCloud storage?

YES 74% (242 tweets).
NO 26% (86 tweets).

And the results definitely suggest Horace isn’t crazy which quite frankly anyone who reads his blog or listens to his podcast already knows.

This also scratches a longtime itch of mine. I’ve been wanting to learn how to use the Twitter’s API for a while. But I needed an excuse to do something useful (or at least useful to me). With hundreds of answers, I wasn’t going to count them by hand and I couldn’t find any existing service to simple tally up replies to a tweet. Plus, not to get all Heisenberg, but blogging about the question might generate more responses and I’d like to be able to update this post accordingly b/c nerdery.

There were only a couple of tweets which were clearly not answers to the question, but the rest I could easily classify. Unlike some other people I spend most of my time with, I haven’t done practically any work with natural language processing, but I was able to classify most of the tweets just by checking the first word against 'y', 'yes', 'yeah', 'yea', 'yup', 'yep' and 'n', 'no' , 'nope' , 'not'. Still, people who responded with anything other than the “yes/no” I asked for are the world’s greatest monsters.

It also got me wondering, where is the Twitter Card for Simple Surveys? I guess that isn’t something “brands” are clamoring for. But grabbing and analyzing replies to a specific tweet might make for a nice little web app or even a service that could be generalized for more people besides me.

Let me know (on Twitter, naturally) if you find this sort of thing useful, maybe I could have a holiday season project.

The 2014 Midterm Was about Some Things

With all due respect, I don’t think this has been an election about nothing. Instead of a nationalized midterm election, we’ve had many elections about many issues. High levels of polarization were with us in 2006 and 2010 and those elections were deemed to be about issues because of foreign policy failure (Iraq) and massive partisan policy change (Obamacare) and the continued national effects of the housing crash. Polarization is not the reason nothing big happened to nationalize around and create a feeling of a single election.

During a midterm, it’s hard to appreciate that the relative calm on the surface probably hides ripples below. Our media coverage is built for the big national campaigns for the presidency. Not having big national themes makes them confused. Pundits are too lazy (and/or political reporters are too thinned out) to dive into the state and local races. Why bother when the polls show their aren’t many of those anyways? And of course, lack of competition doesn’t imply a lack of issues.

But even someone wanting to dig into sub-national politics has it rough. By many accounts campaigning has been shifting from broadcast and into personalized mailings, phone calls, GOTV-oriented door knocking, and targeted internet advertising. For instance just today, Derek Willis reports:

Spending on digital platforms like Facebook is now normal; nearly 500 federal candidates and committees reported direct payments to the social media company this cycle, and the national party committees paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on it. But other, smaller services that have sizable audiences are attracting attention, and money, from political campaigns.

Social media advertising and other targeted campaign techniques are all hard for pundits and researchers to see and almost certainly less likely to generate the appearance of big issue debates even if they are going on.

Also the Republicans found some self-respect (or common sense) and clammed-up about Obamacare and Benghazi and whatever else. But that seems like it has only happened in the last couple months. Clearly the GOP of June was trying to tackle policy issues the “Seinfeld view” would assure us have been settled. I’d agree that the Democrats don’t seem to have galvanized around a positive agenda but why should they when…

On the supply-side, it seems like a campaign season based on a realization that no result will move the needle very much. Divided government (particularly in the age of the filibuster) with a “Republican Senate” just isn’t that appealing to at least some or many activists. Better to keep the powder dry for 2016 when things will really matter and some of the advantages of the last redistricting are starting to wane. That’s ambition keeping issues down, not polarization.

Theoretically, I don’t think the authors have made a case that polarization nationally (and dimensional collapse) implies that Riker’s heresthetics are dead. Quite pointedly, Riker would probably argue the opposite should be happening. Which again makes me think the ambitious are waiting for 2016. That doesn’t explain the behavior going on in say the individual senate and gubernatorial races, but it could easily be the case that whatever is going on in the 8-10 interesting ones does in fact look like heresthetics and not merely turnout games.

With respect to Wisconsin I’d never call Walker/Burke a campaign about nothing and I doubt anyone in Wisconsin would either. It would belittle Walker’s tangible accomplishments at changing the status quo to do so. It’s a fair point to say this election might not be about new issues though. And that’s what the media wants (new new new), but it’s not clear the electorate needs to be fed something novel every two years. But since the Walker/Burke contest is about old issues, I’ve seen more national coverage about the Walker/Ryan ambition dynamic than the ideological struggle going on inside the state. And again, covering presidential politics is more fun for the national media or a pundit than picking through each states’ political debates to find all of the different campaigns about issues.

TapCellar — an App for Enjoying Beer

Maybe you’ve seen some of the postcards of beer I’ve been dropping on Twitter lately. They’re all from a new app I’m in love with – the beer journaler TapCellar.

Even though I didn’t know it, I’ve probably needed TapCellar for a long time. You see every few months, Dave comes over and we drink a few beers in a semi-organized way and listen to some hipster-ish indie music. Some of our standout nights have been a vertical tasting of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout and a flight of Mikkeller’s Black Hole Barrel Aged Editions. And when Dave gets back from teaching in Ann Arbor each summer, we end-up with whatever oddball finds he brings back from Michigan breweries.

You’d think we take some notes. Just that we’d record our preferences. I mean I like to call myself a data scientist sometimes, but Dave is a real deal political methodologist.

Our lack of measurement is embarrassing.

And really, I’m the kind of guy that scrupulously rates every album in iTunes, rates every film in Netflix, but here I am not doing any job at all to keep track of what beer I’ve enjoyed. And I guess I figured I never would. Maybe I’d keep beer an activity free of my inner nerd.

Oh, was I wrong.

A couple months ago, Gabe Weatherhead, of Macdrifter and Technical Difficulties fame, invited me to join the beta test group for a new beer app he was working on. And I was blown away by what he and Jeff Hunsberger (the other half of the Gravity Well Group) had cooked up with their app TapCellar which bills itself as a premium beer journal app for iPhone.

With TapCellar, Gabe and Jeff have produced an app that invites learning about beer, rating beers, journaling your notes and saving with them any photographs. At the same time, TapCellar helps you maintain a shopping list of what you might want to try or buy next. It’s an incredibly thoughtful app with little details that stay out of your way, but still make it easy to do things like keep track of different vintages of the same beer or save a smart search.

One of my favorite details about the app isn’t so small, it’s how sensitive TapCellar is to user privacy. Gabe and Jeff realize that you might not want every beer you ever journal instantly broadcast to the world or stored in a database to be sold sooner or later to advertisers. Your behavior and your data remain your own.

Of course you can make those cute little postcards – or Mug Shots in TapCellar parlance – to share with friends by email. They are also a great way to take the discussion out of the app (or the pub) and onto your favorite social networks too.

Earlier this week Gabe asked me if I wanted to contribute an endorsement to the TapCellar website. Here’s what I sent him:

I try to be thoughtful about what I drink, but I have a terrible memory. TapCellar helps me keep tabs on beers I’ve enjoyed, which ones I have at home, and a list for anytime I’m shopping for more. How did I live in Wisconsin for almost a decade without this app?

This is a great app that I think I will be enjoying much longer than the next pint of beer I drink, in-part because it will help me remember and enjoy that pint far into the future. If you’re the kind of person who ended up on my website, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll enjoy TapCellar far into the future too.

Go buy it on the App Store today.

P.S. Want to really geek out? Backup your database and dig into the database for the JSON file. It has all the data you’ve added to the app, including the grades. Collect the files from some of your friends and Go hop wild with R. I’m pretty sure that what Dave and I’ll be doing once we collect enough data which really isn’t an excuse to just drink a ton of beer except that it might be.

P.P.S. Gabe and Jeff also have a cool new podcast Nerds on Draft. Each episode they drink a couple of beers. They talk about the beers for a couple minutes and talk about whatever else the rest of the time. Check that out too. No app required.

UPDATE: In the interest of full disclosure, asoxial (that’s me!) was hired by The Gravity Well Group for a brief marketing consultation at the end of December, 2014. I stand behind this blog post unabashedly though.

Experiments, Institutions, and Outcomes

John Patty was on to something when he mentioned social choice problems, but he really strikes a chord in the discussion of the recent judical election experiment controversy in his post Ethics, Experiments, and Election Administration:

[A]n experimental manipulation of an election is–in practice–equivalent to a “reform” of election administration.

If the implementation of field experiments can be considered changes to electoral institutions (and I think they certainly could be in many circumstances), then we should admit that experiments are potentially threatening to electoral outcomes as well.

Discussions of election experiments aren’t really about preference neutral scientific ethics, they are about election outcomes with everything that entails. It doesn’t matter how much IRB approval is granted or how much agreement political scientists share on the value of experiments; there is no ideology-free, politically frictionless safe space for us to play in.

Thrown-in a healthy dose of risk aversion on the part of voters, interest groups, parties, candidates, non-voters even and admit the fact that plenty of people don’t like to be messed with by scientists – social or otherwise. It’s no wonder that the Montana controversy has stirred so much strong resentment. The seemingly botched use of the state seal compounds the problems, but didn’t create them all.

Scholarship generated by field experiments conducted during elections (and also on elected officials) has been incredibly useful, interesting, and enlightening, but there is no reason to think that the public appreciates being a part of that process as much as political scientists enjoy the fruits of this research.

To date, researchers have benefited from ignorance. Going forward, they may very well be forced to either pause while they persuade more people of the value their interventions produce for society as a whole, or develop methods which more closely resemble the opt-in nature of a clinical drug trial which presumably leave no doubt about subject consent.

In the short-run, it may be difficult to implement an experiment, but hopefully in the long-run, political science will have benefited from such a public discussion of research.

Specialization and Multiplication Are Next


Seriously, why did it take so long for someone to do this camera-as-phone instead of simply including another a camera in the phone? Kudos to Panasonic.

That’s one big honking bulge in your pocket… for an everyday carry phone, sure. Is innovation in handsets on the horizon? Handsets can’t get much thinner without neutering the camera. Real battery improvements aren’t out there (yet). The bottlenecks to getting stuff done aren’t going to be solved with new any new chips, or even more RAM or flash storage. Most people probably don’t need 128GB of storage on a phone. This puts most of the constraint at the network level broadband speed, cellular data speed, etc. and the OEMs can’t solve that kind of thing.

So I think the next jump in phones will be more people getting multiple phones.

Not this year, but in 2015 maybe or maybe 2016 or soon more nerds will start loving all over the phablets. But they will also complain about the size of these beasts for their pockets, their sports, or whatever. And the avalanche of so-called wearables? The watches are pricey compared to phones and can’t do X and won’t do X for a while. Some people can justify having a phone and a tablet and a laptop. So why can’t similar people justify an extra phone or maybe two phones and a laptop in the near future?

You’ll swap the SIM or something even easier. Data syncs across platforms and the apps sync within-platform where appropriate. And size is only one dimension to specialize on.

After size, the next dimension to specialize on? Probably, cameras.

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