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June 5th, 2018:

Checking in on the Congressional forecast

Now that our November lineups are finalized, I thought I’d check in once again on the 2018 Congressional race forecast, from G. Elliott Morris of The Crosstab. I last wrote about this in December, at a time when the generic ballot preference was consistently showing a double-digit lead for Democrats. The polls are closer now but the Dems still have a sizable lead. Here’s how things project in Texas, according to this model:


Dist  Flip%  Margin  16 Marg  14 Marg
=====================================
CD02  14.3%   -10.6    -18.6    -33.7
CD03   7.4%   -14.4    -25.1    -37.1
CD06  19.2%   - 8.7    -16.0    -21.3
CD07  49.1%   - 0.2    -11.5    -31.4
CD10  19.0%   - 7.5    -16.1    -22.6
CD14   5.5%   -13.8    -20.7    -22.8
CD17   4.6%   -14.7    -22.4    -28.9
CD21  19.3%   - 8.6    -18.6    -26.0
CD22  18.6%   - 7.7    -16.0    -33.3
CD23  86.8%     9.7    - 0.5    -15.5
CD24  26.1%   - 5.5    -16.4    -30.9
CD25  11.3%   -10.5    -21.1    -22.5
CD27   4.3%   -17.1    -23.6    -30.3
CD31  10.8%   -10.7    -19.5    -27.7
CD32  39.9%    -2.2    -12.1    -23.7

These data points are from Sunday; there are daily updates, which move things a bit one way or the other. “Flip% is the probability that the Democratic challenger will win that district. “Margin” is the difference between the projected Republican share of the vote and the projected Democratic share, so a positive number is a Democratic win and a negative number is a Republican win. (Obviously, that’s a point within a range, not a gospel truth, hence the Flip% probability.)

“16 Marg” and “14 Marg” are my additions, as earlier versions of this table had similar values. As with the Margin column it’s the difference between Republican and Democratic performance. However, while Margin compares Congressional candidate percentages, we can’t reliably do that for 2016 and 2014, since some of these races were unopposed. As is my custom, I used Court of Criminal Appeals races – CCA3 for 2014, CCA6 for 2016. This provides another illustration of my point from that post about the CD07 poll. You can’t have tighter Congressional races up and down the ballot and not have tighter statewide races. It may be that Morris’ model is wrong, and it may be that the totality of statewide polling data will make it clear that he’s being too bullish on the Dems. All I’m saying is that stuff like this has to be taken into account as well.

The differences in the margins fascinate me. For the 2014 to 2016 shift, most of that reflects the kind of turnout pattern we have been used to seeing in Presidential versus non-Presidential years lately. The effect is much more pronounced in urban areas, and in this case it was greatly enhanced by the Trump effect, with a side of demographic change and voter registration efforts. Projected shifts from 2016 to 2018 are nearly all about the national atmosphere. It’s kind of amazing to me that the district projected to be the most flippable outside the top three is CD24, which has gotten maybe one percent of the attention that even some of the second-tier districts have gotten. Maybe that’s a blind spot in reporting, and maybe it’s a non-optimized opportunity on the Dems’ part. CDs 06, 10, and 22 all had smaller 2016 margins than CD24, so maybe they’ll catch up when all is said and done.

I’ll check in on this again in August or so. In the meantime, here’s a story about G. Elliott Morris, the guy who’s doing these projections. One way or another, his work will be closely scrutinized on November 7.

Remember the (gross mismanagement by George P. Bush’s Land Office at the) Alamo

Maybe remember this in November.

As the election season rolls on, keep this in mind when Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush opens his mouth: The officeholder from the state’s best-known political family certainly knows how to spin a story.

Back in February, Bush was in a noisy Republican primary fight with his predecessor, Jerry Patterson. Among other things, Patterson is an Alamo buff. He has made it abundantly clear that he thinks Bush has mismanaged things at that monument. And he got some support of that view from a draft of an internal audit critical of the “structure and funding model” at the Alamo put in place by the General Land Office.

“Internal” is an important word in the previous sentence. That draft audit — along with the final version that came out this week — was issued by the internal auditor in Bush’s own agency. That’s what internal auditors are supposed to do, to tell you when there’s spinach on your teeth, toilet paper stuck to your shoe, oddities in your accounting and so on.

They point things out to management. Management is supposed to clean things up.

The draft audit was first revealed by the Austin American-Statesman in early February, and other reporters caught up with the land commissioner to see what he thought about it. “I can’t really comment on the document,” Bush said at the time. “I cannot disclose, but we do have evidence that it was a doctored memo.”

Here’s the lead paragraph from the draft audit — also the lead paragraph of the final audit:

“GLO should reconsider the structure and funding model it uses for operating the Alamo. A contractor performs the daily operations, but it uses state resources to do this, as it does not have its own funds or other assets. This is an unusual situation that has created complexity and a lack of clarity regarding the nature and the use of the funds used for Alamo operations. It is also the root cause of several of the observations in this report.”

[…]

Auditors typically give space to the people and organizations under the microscope, a place to make arguments, to disagree or to point out things the auditors might have missed. In this audit, the top line sort of slams the door: “Management concurs with the recommendations.”

Here’s a copy of the audit report, with more recent news coverage from the Statesman and the Chron. You have to admire the gall it takes to claim that an audit report by his own agency, signed off by his own management, is “fake news”, but that’s how stupid Baby Bush thinks you are. Here’s the key takeaway:

Bush faces Democrat Miguel Suazo in the fall. Suazo said Thursday the audit “clearly demonstrates that George P. Bush is in over his head and lacks the competence to manage our state’s most historic landmark.”

There’s a reason why Jerry Patterson came out of retirement to try to win his old job back. I hope you’re still committed to bringing change to the GLO this November, Jerry.

Who’s gonna clean up that self-driving car?

Here’s a question I hadn’t pondered before.

Who will clean self-driving vehicles?

I found myself wondering this recently as my son and I tidied the family car after a road trip. We’d been driving for only five hours, but we had produced two grocery bags of trash: water bottles, parking stubs, wrappers from lunchtime hoagies, reading material, a roll of Scotch tape, and a ping-pong ball among other miscellany that had accumulated over the short time. It wasn’t unusual. In my family, I’m the one who remembers to clean out the car, so I’m all too familiar with the volume and medley of mess that can be generated in vehicle regularly used by adults and kids.

Yet with companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft planning to launch their first generation of self-driving cars as shared taxis, it’s not yet clear who or what will be there to clean up the half-drunk Starbucks cup, wipe down the mystery stickiness on the seat, or handle even less hygienic situations. It’s not just a trivial matter: it’s an issue of sanitation and rider well-being—one more pressing for future users than you might imagine.

Consider the many dimensions of mess. As I thought about mess in cars, I wasn’t just thinking about cleaning up the slightly gross piece of lettuce from my son’s hoagie that had fallen on the floor mats. I was thinking about cleaning up an even grosser kind of mess—the kind that you make if you are carsick.

[…]

I spoke with Molly Nix, the UX lead for self-driving Uber cars, and one of only two product designers working on what the company deems the “self-driving Uber human experience,” which includes everything from the app interface to the logistics of motion sickness. As it turns out, Uber’s haptic feedback technology might not become reality. Nix explained that the patent is a reflection of the kinds of things the Uber team is thinking about, but that, “It’s important to remember there is such a thing as overengineering a solution to a problem like motion sickness,” she said. “Nothing beats windows.” Staring outside may be the best remedy for passengers, and choosing when you need to open a window may be better than relying on a hyperdesigned haptic feedback system giving you bursts of air.

But even less thought seems to have been put into cleaning. When I asked Nix what would happen if someone made a call on a porcelain telephone in a self-driving car, she declined to answer. I asked if she and her team talk about it at the office. She again declined to answer. What will any kind of self-driving car garbage cleanup look like in reality? “We are still envisioning what it might look like,” said Nix.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, said that the company doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the aftermath of people getting sick or making other serious messes in self-driving cars, in part because the vehicles Uber’s testing now still have backup human drivers. “Since we have an operator in the car, we have not really explored exactly what that looks like,” Abboud said. She added she imagines that such messes would probably be handled in the same way the company plans to handle general cleaning: dispatching the car to a facility for a human to clean it and get it back on the road. There are currently two operation centers that clean the driverless cars Uber is testing, one in Phoenix and one outside Pittsburgh. Perhaps Uber would create more of those, Abboud suggested.

The same seems to hold for other companies. Waymo, for example, has partnered with rental car titan Avis for routine maintenance of its self-driving vehicles in Phoenix—though the few available details a Waymo spokesperson sent to me simply suggest that cars will “need to be charged and refueled, cleaned, and presentable for riders.” The overview did not include information about how, exactly, this happens. (Lyft did not respond to a request for comment on the cleaning issue.)

It’s possible that companies could program cars to return to a home base for upkeep after every ride. But it’s an unlikely solution considering the potential for wasted time, wasted energy, and increased congestion. Instead, as of now, solutions still seem to rely on human intervention. Someone will likely need to alert Uber or Waymo to any mess in a car. Then someone will need to clean it. (No Roombas for car interiors yet.) Abboud alluded to a potential mechanism that might help Uber’s systems identify such messes in the future, but wouldn’t say if that would be a video camera inside the car or something else. “We don’t really have that figured out yet,” she said.

There are other categories of mess that will surely appear in the self-driving cars of the future, some of which you won’t be able to get out of your head once you’ve been forced to think about them. I apologize in advance, but these are the questions we must grapple with. Self-driving cars are supposedly going to eliminate traffic and provide a superior option to mass transit and car ownership, but not if everyone is grossed out by the user experience. If your response to that is “well, buses and rail cars are often dirty, too”, then my response to you is “yes, and that’s one big reason why many people who could use transit choose not to”. There’s more to this than just engineering, and if the companies that are vying to bring us this future don’t solve these other problems, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.