Thursday, January 30, 2020

In the wake of ProPublica

The main purpose of this goingconcern article is to pan a TurboTax ad that will be aired during the 2020 Super Bowl. I agree the ad is pretty bad. Anyway, it seems the author couldn't resist another pot shot at TurboTax and its maker Intuit. Relying on ProPublica's deceptive and biased reporting about free filing income taxes (see this blog May 2019), the reporter says: "But that ad time cost is chump change for Intuit, maker of TurboTax and staunch proponent of charging millions of customers for tax filing services they should’ve gotten for free."

Should've gotten for free? Huh? Perhaps could have, but should have by what standard? That if a filer fails to heed the caveats, plows ahead anyway, and later learns that he or she doesn't meet the criteria for filing free, that Intuit and TurboTax should allow him or her to file free anyway? That Intuit put a copy of TurboTax on an IRS site that some lower income folks could use for free wasn't enough goodwill?

By the way, I recently learned something else about using the IRS's Free File site. Suppose the following. You proceed to use one of the software programs within the IRS's suite and later discover that you don't meet the eligibility criteria. The eligibility criteria aren't fool-proof and you might err. What happens? You are directed back to the IRS's Free File site to try another product -- which might get the same result. That's it; no other options. If you had selected, say, TurboTax, you could not be redirected to a paid version of TurboTax on a TurboTax website. That prohibition is the IRS's. Suggesting a pay version of TurboTax would be akin to advertising. Moreover, wherever you go requires starting again from scratch for input. The data you had entered up to the point of failure cannot be exported to another website. Would you be upset or pleased with the IRS?

In all its reporting about TurboTax, ProPublica never wrote about this feature of the IRS's Free File site. That's a double standard. If a person tries to file free yet fails to meet the criteria for doing so starting on a TurboTax website, ProPublica feels the need to bad-mouth TurboTax's maker. If a person does likewise starting on the IRS's Free File site, ProPublica is mute.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #7

Continuing about The Knowledge Illusion:

To run a company or any organization, a team with complementary skills is most likely to satisfy all the demands made by the division of cognitive labor.

As individuals, we know little. There's not too much we can do about that; there's too much to know. Obviously we can learn some facts and theories, and we can develop skills. But we also have to learn how to make use of others' knowledge and skills.

The idea that education is for increasing intellectual independence is not entirely correct. That idea isn't wrong so much as incomplete. It ignores the fact that knowledge depends on others. For example, a car mechanic relies on others for parts, diagnostic tools made by others, maybe co-workers, and manuals. 

Science is about justification, which comes in various forms. But most conclusions in science aren't based on either observation or inference. They are based on authority, on what is written in a textbook or journal or what your expert friend tells you. That's one role of the community of knowledge, to supply facts when direct justifications would take too much time or be too costly or difficult. Everyone's understanding is dependent on what others know.

But we shouldn't take faith in whatever a community believes or whatever a credentialed expert says. We should have enough skepticism and a keen eye for charlatans and those who are confidently wrong.

This is my final post about The Knowledge Illusion.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #6

Continuing about The Knowledge Illusion:

Chapter 9 is Thinking About Politics.

A community of knowledge can become dangerous. When a group of people don't know much but share a position, the members reinforce one another's sense of understanding, even when there is no real expertise to give it solid support. Group-think diminishes independent thinking and political opposition through propaganda and even terror.

The authors did experiments exploring people's understanding of specific political positions. With few exceptions, the subjects had little to say when asked to explain how a policy worked, its mechanics. Usually when people talk about political policies, they are not engaged in causal thinking. Causal explanations may be hard; they require people to go outside their belief systems. You can't consider the implications of a policy by ruminating on how you feel about it.

When subjects in experiments were asked about their feelings, they didn't change their positions. When the subjects were asked for causal explanations, they better appreciated the shallowness of their understanding.

Proponents of political positions often cast policies in value-based terms in order to hide their ignorance, prevent moderation of opinion, and block compromise. An example is health care. The debate shouldn't be about basic values, because to most people they aren't the issue. The issue is the best way to achieve the best outcomes.

Ballot measures voted on directly by citizens can bypass politicians in power, but neglect the knowledge illusion. Individual citizens rarely know enough to make an informed decision about complex social policy issues even when they think they do.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #5

Continuing about The Knowledge Illusion:

Like it or not, the Internet has become a major player in our lives. It is our main source of information, a centerpiece in our community of knowledge. Technology is quickly transforming our lives. Humans are made for technological change. Our bodies and brains are designed to incorporate new tools into our activities as if they were extensions of our bodies.

There are some worrisome consequences. The Internet's store of knowledge is so accessible and vast that we may be fashioning a society where everyone with a smartphone and Wi-Fi connection becomes a self-appointed expert in multiple domains.

But notice what these machines don't do. They do not have intentions and hence do not share intentions with us the way people share intentions. Machines without the basic human ability to share attention and goals will never be able to read our minds and outsmart us because they won't even be able to understand us.

A chapter on science describes how the average person knows so little compared to the experts. Example topics given are (1) genetic engineering, and (2) bacteria, viruses, and antibiotics. What is actually in our heads -- our causal models -- are sparse and often wrong.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #4

Continuing about The Knowledge Illusion:

In nature we often see complex behavior arise through the coordination of multiple individuals. When multiple cognitive systems work together, group intelligence can emerge that goes beyond what each individual is capable of. The authors give a beehive as an example. Wolves in packs and lions in a pride after prey are others. Historically hunting was a communal enterprise requiring a level of cooperation unique to humans. Consider the variety of trades that participate in building a home.

Living in a group also demands certain cognitive abilities. It requires the ability to communicate in sophisticated ways, to understand and incorporate the perspectives of others, and to share common goals. Humans have an ability that no machine or other animal does. They can share their attention with someone else. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky made pioneering insights into the idea of a community of knowledge.

There is teamwork in many human efforts, such as the medical health professions. People tend to remember what they have to within a particular community to best make their contribution to the division of cognitive labor. They rely on experts to remember everything else. In a community of knowledge, what matters more than having ready knowledge is having access to knowledge.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #3

Continuing about The Knowledge Illusion:

Causal reasoning serves as an infrastructure of thought, but that doesn't mean people are ideal causal reasoners. We shouldn't berate ourselves for not being ideal. Think about what it would take to make correct causal inferences in every situation, even unfamiliar ones. People do excel at causal reasoning, but tend to do it superficially outside their expertise.

The decisions we come to quickly and intuitively aren't the same as those we come to through careful deliberation. Intuition gives us a simplified, coarse, and usually good enough analysis, and gives us the illusion that we know a fair amount. But when we deliberate, we come to appreciate how complex things really are, and this reveals how little we really know.

Reasoning isn't limited to the brain. Our bodies support it. The authors use the example of a baseball player catching a fly ball. The trajectory of a ball can be calculated with mathematical equations, but the player doesn't do that (and hasn't enough time to). External aids support reasoning, too. Example are doing arithmetic on a chalkboard and writing things down to help develop and fine-tune one's thoughts.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #2

Chapter 1 of The Knowledge Illusion is titled What We Know. To illustrate how we can believe we know more than we actually do, the authors describe experiments in which people tried to draw a bicycle. Some couldn't draw the pedals and chains correctly.

Deliberation is only a tiny part of what goes on when we think. Most of cognition consists of intuitive thought that occurs below the surface of consciousness.

Chapters 2 and 3 are about why and how we think. We mainly think in order to act. Just as people don't think only by association, people do not always reason via logical deduction. We think about how causes produce effects, what kinds of things disable or prevent effects, and what factors must be in place for causes to have their influence. Rather than thinking in terms of propositional logic, which tells us whether a statement is true or false, people think in terms of causal logic, which incorporates knowledge about how events actually come about in order to reach conclusions. Sometimes people ignore alternative causes when thinking about cause and effect because their mental simulations have no room for them.

Stories may be communal entities, but telling them requires that individuals possess a cognitive system that's up to the task. The cognitive system's ability to represent and reason about causal systems is limited, and we can't as individuals deal with all the complexity of the world. This is surely why stories tend to simplify and sometimes oversimplify events.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Jeopardy GOAT

On Tuesday night (January 14) Ken Jennings won the trophy for Greatest of All Time (GOAT) Jeopardy player. He also won $1 million. He, James Holzhauer, and Brad Rutter were the contestants. The design was that the GOAT would be decided by the first to win three matches. That would require a minimum of 3 matches and a maximum of 7. Each match was two regular Jeopardy contests in length. The questions seemed a little tougher than usual. Ken's performance was impressive. He won 3 matches while James won one and Brad none.

Ken's winning the 4th match was in suspense until the Final Jeopardy responses were shown. The points after the first half were Jennings 65,600 and Holzhauer 34,181. The points immediately before the second half Final Jeopardy were Jennings 23,000 and Holzhauer 44,000. Jennings bet 0 for Final Jeopardy and answered correctly. Holzhauer bet 44,000 but answered wrongly. That made the final points Jennings 88,600 and Holzhauer 34,181.

If both had bet the maximum and answered correctly, then Ken's score would have been 2x23,000 + 65,600 = 111,600 and James' score 2x44,000 + 34,181 = 122, 181. James would have won and there would be a Game 5. But James could not answer what non-title character in a Shakespeare tragedy had the most speeches. The correct answer was Iago (in Othello).

Holzhauer won $250,000 and Rutter $250,000. Rutter remains the winner of the most money on Jeopardy. In large part that's because he won $2.1 million in the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which he defeated Jennings. It's merely my opinion, but I believe Brad would make a great successor to Alex Trebek as host of Jeopardy. His Wikipedia page shows him as a TV host. His Final Jeopardy response was "Who is you're the best, Alex!"

The TV ratings were great, better than some World Series games and NBA Finals games.

Details of the GOAT tournament are here. In game #6 I was very surprised when one clue stumped all three players. The clue was: 'Beware of these types of programs that track every stroke you make while typing in an effort to glean your password.' The correct response was 'keylogging programs.'

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Knowledge Illusion #1

I read this book. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is relevant. It doesn’t claim that all knowledge is illusory. The subtitle doesn’t mean we cannot think alone. It may sound wrong to some people, since in some sense we always think alone. That is, nobody can think for me is analogous to nobody else can digest the food I swallow. Adding to the analogy, we assimilate knowledge and ideas produced by other people similar to eating food produced by other people.

The rest of this post will be from the Introduction and provides an overview of the book.

“The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, individuals store very little detailed information about the world in their heads. ... To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within their skulls but also knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people. When you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive. But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

“Our point is not that people are ignorant. It’s that people are more ignorant than they think they are. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from an illusion that we understand how things work when in fact our understanding is meager.”

We all have domains in which we are experts, but in most subjects we only abstract bits of information, and what we know is little more that a feeling of understanding we can’t really unpack. While the function of thought might have evolved to represent the world, it could also be to communicate, for problem-solving or decision-making. The authors’ thesis is that thought is for action.

“Because we think communally, we tend to operate in teams. This means that the contributions we make as individuals depend more on our ability to work with others than on our individual mental horsepower.” Examples are a space vehicle launch and a large, complex business.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A case for socialism

I am against socialism, but this article and podcast give an informative, modern perspective on the views of people who approve of and even advocate socialism. I have wondered why so many young people favor socialism, what they believe it is, and why they hate capitalism so much. The audio interview is sort of long, near 100 minutes. I listened to over half, but skipped some parts.

The person interviewed is Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, author, and a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders. He identifies as a libertarian socialist.

He says that for many of its supporters socialism isn't about government ownership of the means of production (which Karl Marx advocated), or even any business being wholly owned by its employees. It's about power, democracy, and solidarity with the many less fortunate when a few others have so much wealth, income, and power. There is a segment starting around 46:00 about Bernie Sanders. He says Bernie Sanders has a "deep moral compass." Huh?? Echoing Ayn Rand, by what standard? There is no mention of his fascist* morality of government bullying and coercion. The sort of democracy they want is in effect a dictatorship by voters, a mobocracy. Of course, a small minority of the population -- politicians -- would do the legislating.

*Fascist economics supported a state-controlled economy that accepted a mix of private and public ownership of the means of production. Industries must uphold the national interest as superior to private profit (link). State control is paramount for fascism and Sanders, and Sanders revels in berating profit.

Robinson doesn't say so, but it seems to me that how much income governments take, how much they spend, and how much power they amass to bully and coerce other people doesn't bother them.

I have not read his book, but peaked at it using Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature. It's fairly short, so I requested it via inter-library loan. Based on what I saw inside, I will not buy it. He will not profit at my expense. He is critical of profit several times in the book. I suspect he hasn't yet realized that workers' wages are profits, like I showed here. Anyway, reading about how capitalism works in his view -- an army of psychopathic androids -- and why I am wrong to oppose socialism -- he says every opponent is wrong -- should be worth a few chuckles. I expect another pied piper of socialism. That's alongside Bernie Sanders, Michael Moore, Larry Sanders, and many actors and actresses.

Robinson is hypercritical of corporations at the start of Chapter 3. Does he believe what he says applies to his Current Affairs LLC? 😉 To nonprofit corporations?

P.S. Shortly after writing the above, I saw this article from the Ayn Rand Institute. It's longer with more criticism of socialism. The spokesman for socialism is Bhaskar Sunkara.  It includes the following about socialism's appeal to many people:  "In the debates, Sunkara argues that socialism is the system that protects people’s “basic rights” to goods and services like health care, education, and nutrition. He also argues that workers should be given democratic control of the firms they staff by being given the right to elect their managers and receive a share of the profits.  This, he says, is necessary to protect freedom from the “tyranny” in the workplace: from the “coercion” of having to take a job under terms set by others."

Addenda 1/18/2020  A Wall Street Journal article (paywalled) includes the following:
"Mr. Glaeser cites polling that suggests most young people’s vision of socialism might be better described as “hyperredistribution.” They don’t seek state control of the means of production, but punishing taxes on the rich to fund programs like free college for all. “They say, ‘Well, there are a whole bunch of projects—a whole bunch of government spending that helps old people. I want mine. If we’re going to spend a huge amount on Medicare, why aren’t we spending a whole lot on education for me?’
       The obvious answer is that redistribution takes money out of the productive economy, which diminishes collective wealth over time. Young socialists dismiss that point, and equate capitalism with greed." [end]

Another answer not in the article is that the elderly on Medicare and Social Security paid taxes to fund them for decades. A young college student doesn't have such a history.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

ProPublica is finally helpful

Only four days ago I summarized ProPublica's past efforts to smear income tax software vendor Intuit, maker of TurboTax. This was done without trying to inform readers about how to file for free. ProPublica has done the latter here, finally!

Kudos to them. Regardless, their article missed three ways.

1. There is no mention of AARP Tax Aide. This service's target clients are low- and moderate-income taxpayers and, of course, those who are retired. The criteria they use to decide who they can file for and who they can't aren't as simple as the other free services. It's based on specific IRS Forms, sometimes specific sections or lines on such Forms, and the filer's specific data. The service is in person. Trained volunteers at the sites file online for you. You need to call to make an appointment.

2. There is no mention of the IRS's Free File Fillable Forms. I can only give a "signpost" to the Forms now since the IRS is not allowing filing yet. Regardless, the signpost page gives some info about the capabilities and limitations. The programs in the Free File Program (or Alliance) guide the user's input and complete the tax forms in background, but this one does not. Generally speaking, you need to know what IRS Forms you need and have the ability to do the job almost like using the IRS's paper Forms directly. Like the signpost page says, it won't help you file a state return.

3. There is no mention of CreditKarma. It is not part of the Free File Alliance, but it is as easy to use as the programs on the Free File Alliance and without their limitations.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Paying higher taxes

This article about the wealthy paying higher taxes got my attention. It features Disney heir Abigail Disney. She is a member of Patriotic Millionaires that advocates raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy. She doesn't like the low wages of some Disney employees. The following are questions I would like her to answer.

1. Why does she want the government legislation to in effect coerce her to pay higher taxes? Why doesn't she simply start writing checks to the U.S. Treasury? Or is her desire more about forcing other people to pay more?
2. Why does she want the government to legislate minimum wage laws and enforce them on all employers, even struggling ones? Why doesn't she write checks to Disney, Inc. with strings attached, so that the money will be used to pay bonuses to low-paid employees?
3. Why does her urge to help the less fortunate so often lead to wanting more government bullying and coercion?  Rather than the voluntary ways I suggest in #1 and #2?

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

News about free filing income taxes

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) signed a new agreement with an alliance of income tax software vendors (TurboTax, H&R Block, etc.) that will allegedly make it easier for filers with simpler tax returns to file for free. Forbes has an article about it. The Wall Street Journal has an article (paywalled) about it.

The nonprofit newsroom ProPublica played a big role in getting this new agreement. ProPublica published several articles alleging that makers of tax prep software, especially TurboTax, tricked people into using its own pay products rather than sending them to the Free File Alliance. Also, ProPublica alleged that TurboTax, etc. hid the Free File Alliance from search engines. There is a grain of truth in this. It happened if the searcher used search terms such as {free file income taxes}, but it did not occur if "IRS" or "Alliance" were also included.

A class-action lawsuit was filed against Intuit, the maker of TurboTax. It was probably inspired by ProPublica.

I wrote about ProPublica's articles a few times, mostly in May 2019. The first one is here. It was clear to me that ProPublica's main goal was to smear Intuit, and that ProPublica's reporting was very deceptive.

1. ProPublica gave several examples -- some of real people and some pretend -- attempting to file for free using TurboTax's free version not on the Free File Alliance and learning they didn't qualify. Every time they ignored the caveats -- which could be read before using the software -- for using that particular free version.
2. The user in ProPublica's examples was always blameless; TurboTax got all blame.
3. ProPublica never tried to advise readers about how to find the Free File Alliance.
4. ProPublica  never gave alternative ways of filing for free, e.g. the IRS's VITA program, AARP Tax Aide, or the IRS's Free File Fillable Forms.
5. ProPublica never explained that the free versions of TurboTax, etc. not on the Free File Alliance had been fit to the qualifying criteria for using Form 1040EZ, and that the IRS eliminated Form 1040EZ effective for the 2018 tax year.

This article about the new agreement features an interview with one of the major authors of the ProPublica articles. He says that only about 3 million filers use the Free File Alliance, whereas about 100 million filers are eligible to do so. Why the big difference? He doesn't offer an answer. Mine is that a lot of filers (1) don't have the computer skills, (2) use VITA or AARP Tax Aide*, (3) believe they lack the knowledge to use the software, (4) are very willing to pay for software, or (5) are very willing to pay another person to do the work and file for them. Contra ProPublica, I much doubt it is because TurboTax, etc. "hid" the Alliance and "tricked" filers. We will see how much the number of filers using the Alliance increases in the next couple years.

*About 5 million people combined use these.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

NY Times climate change editorial

The NY Times published this op-ed titled "So You Want to Convince a Climate Change Skeptic." In my opinion -- clearly not the publisher's -- it violated the publisher's motto 'All the news that's fit to print.'  At the end is a note that one correction was made. Undisclosed is that the title was also edited -- "Denier" was changed to "Skeptic." For proof see the URL, and "deniers" is still used five times in the body.

Nobody I know of denies climate change. Firstly, there are the four seasons. Secondly, average global temperatures have risen over the past few decades. Thirdly, there have been record cold temperatures in Bangladesh and India recently (link1, link2). But I wouldn't expect the op-ed author to report that. His aim was obviously to make a straw man to burn.

What about science? The author presents absolutely no science or even links to it. He likely expects any reader to grant that the existing science is entirely on his and the climate alarmists' side. He says don't try to convince a skeptic/denier with science. That's a waste of time. Instead appeal to the interlocutor’s values and how they differ from his or another alarmist's. Does the author give his values? No, but I bet they include substantial bullying and coercion by governments aimed at achieving his and other alarmists' climate goals. I have no problem with individuals or organizations trying to reduce their carbon "footprint", but not by using or encouraging force against others.


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Bernie's Medicare for All Megamillionaires

Bernie Sanders' proposed Medicare for All provides "everyone in America with comprehensive health care coverage, free at the point of service." "No networks, no premiums, no deductibles, no copays, no surprise bills."

Why does BS want government-paid, taxpayer-funded comprehensive health care coverage, free at the point of service for megamillionaires and billionaires? Supposedly the legislation allows for private contracts between health care providers and individuals for services for which the provider will not seek reimbursement from the government.  In such cases the healthcare providers would have to operate outside the universal Medicare system, with patients who could afford to pay out of pocket. So people such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos could do so. Still, I believe the question warrants repeating. Why does BS want government-paid, taxpayer-funded comprehensive health care coverage, free at the point of service for megamillionaires and billionaires?

Does he believe voters are too stupid to grasp this consequence of his proposal?