TSA Pre✓Renewal

A simple questionnaire with a big flaw. Image from TSA Pre✓

by George Taniwaki

I recently received a voice mail message from the Transportation Security Administration. A woman’s voice told me that my Known Traveler Number (KTN) would be expiring soon and that I would need to renew it if I wanted to remain in the the TSA Pre✓ program. That’s the short line through security at the airport.

I haven’t been to the airport recently (and I hope you haven’t either) so I don’t know how long the lines are right now. But joining the TSA Pre✓ program is not expensive ($85 for 5 years) and has been worth it for me. So I pointed my browser to https://universalenroll.dhs.gov/ and started the renewal process.

Near the end of the process, I landed on a very unexpected page. It was a survey form asking questions about my flying habits (see screenshot at top of post). There are many problems with this survey that market research experts will immediately catch. But check out the fourth question. “How satisfied are you with your overall airport security experience?”

Geez, I hate airport security. It is intrusive, arbitrary, and time consuming. It also subjects you to radiation and chemicals of unknown safety. I guess it would be worthwhile if it effectively stopped violence and terrorism at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of efficacy and lots of evidence that it is really expensive.

Now, how should I answer this question? There is no explanation on the page about how your response data will be used. Specifically, there is no assurance that the responses will not be associated with your personally identifiable information (PII) and only aggregated data will be provided to the TSA.

Since TSA can make your life miserable, including revoking your KTN, the safest thing to do is to tell them you love your experience with airport security. Question 4 has 10 unlabeled radio buttons with the phrases “Extremely Poor” and “Extremely Satisfied” at the ends. I decide to pick the 9th button. High but not perfect. I figured anyone picking the 10th button will also be flagged for attention as either a liar or an obsequious bootlicker.

Anyway, as a marketer you may be tempted to increase response rate to your market research survey by integrating it into a customer transaction flow. Don’t do this. Your responses will be biased.

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Update1: Revised the third paragraph to clarify that there are many other problems with this survey. Thanks to my friend and colleague Carol Borthwick for reminding me that not all readers of my blog are survey experts. Below is a list of some of the obvious errors in this survey.

  1. In the first question, how should one respond if you fly for both business and pleasure? And really, you fly to a destination for pleasure, you don’t fly because the experience itself is pleasurable. Almost nobody flies for pleasure, unless they are a pilot.
  2. In the second question, what is the TSA trying to measure? My guess is the number of times respondents are screened by TSA in a year. A round trip usually involves two waits through the TSA line. However, one should not count trips on private aircraft where you don’t go through TSA lines or flights that originate outside the U.S., even if you go through U.S. immigration at the foreign airport.
    Further, if you have a connecting flight on a US domestic flight, you usually do not go through a TSA line again. If you arrive from an international flight and pass through immigration after the flight, you usually do go through TSA before boarding the next flight.
  3. In any event, this survey was probably designed before the collapse in travel due to Covid-19. Does the TSA want to know the number of trips respondents took last year, this year (zero for me so far), or how many they would have taken if there was no pandemic. It doesn’t say.
  4. What’s up with those weird ranges in question 2? And which radio button should respondents select if they fly exactly 31 times a year?
  5. In the fourth question, notice that the wording of the two end point labels for the scale are not parallel. The low end should read “Extremely unsatisfied”. Also there are no labels for any of the intermediate points, leaving the distance between points up to the respondent’s imagination.

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Update2: Getting back to question 2, if you have a KTN, the TSA records each time you pass through security. So it should already know the actual distribution of how many times a year KTN holders pass through security. So what will it do with the survey data? Compare the response data to the actual data for accuracy? Check for lying and throw out outliers? Who knows.

AdvocacyInAction

Five steps for advocacy. From WebJunction.org

by George Taniwaki

Sue and I attended a class on advocacy. It was an eye opening experience. If you want to get involved in your community and improve governance, you should attend an advocacy class and get going. The class we attended was sponsored by the Seattle/King Country Coalition on Homelessness. If you live in the Seattle area, other organizations that hold advocacy classes include Northwest Harvest and Arc of King County.

We learned a lot. Below are some details .

Understanding advocacy

One of the first lessons is that advocacy is not lobbying. This is important since lobbying a government official can cause the nonprofit you are supporting to lose its tax-exempt status. Lobbying is approaching a politician or regulator and asking them to adopt a position that will directly or indirectly benefit you or the non-profit you represent, usually monetarily. Advocacy is asking a politician to do something that you think will address a social issue. It may benefit you or your organization, but only because it fills the unmet community need. Thus, all lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying.

Advocate for bills not positions

You vote for legislators based on their positions. But there often isn’t a clear path to convert positions into actual legislation, especially related to budget bills. Your legislators are busy and subject to competing demands. They will not have time to read each bill in detail. They rely on community feedback on individual bills to gauge what is important to pass or defeat.

Thus, if you want to have impact, you have to determine which bills you want your legislator to vote for and against. (I’m assuming you are a layperson and not influential enough to actually write the bills you want to pass.) However, you also do not have time to read each bill in detail either. Thus, you will need to rely on a nonprofit organization to read them for you and pick out the talking points to make when you contact your legislators.

How to find your legislators

Every state has different number of legislators and districts. In Washington State, the there is a senate and a house with identical districts. Senators serve 4 year terms and representatives serve 2-year terms. There are 49 districts and each district has one senator and two house representatives, so a total of 49 senators and 98 representative.

To find your district and the names of your legislators, go to the district finder.

When to contact your legislators

Every state has a different legislative calendar. In Washington, in even years (like 2020), there is a short session lasting 60 days. In odd years, when the two-year budget is debated, there is a long session lasting 105 days, or sometimes longer if the budget is not approved in time. So in short session years, it is critical that you contact your legislators in January and February on the dates when the bills you are concerned about are “read” on the floor.

You may want to contact your legislators multiple times during the session. First is when the bill is in committee. If your legislator is on the committee that is debating the bill, you want to give a detailed comment. If they are not, you want to register your approval or disapproval of the bill so that they can include your tally and forward it to the committee. Once the bill is out of committee, you will want to contact your legislators again to indicate how you want them to vote. Finally, at the end of the session, thank the legislators for their vote. If they did not vote in the way you wanted, express your disappointment but say you hope they are still open to your future advocacy.

To find the status of the bills you are interested in, go to the bill report.

How to contact your legislators

There are many ways to contact your legislators and register comments. You can write an email, call by phone, send a fax, letter, or postcard, fill out a web form, or post comments on their social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

The legislators may not read your comment personally, they may have an aide summarize them. Thus, it is important that you know which comments get summarized. Many legislators still do not get summaries of social media comments. So if you post something on their Facebook page, it may not get seen.

To comment by phone, call 1.800.562.6000

To send a comment by mail or email, go to the district finder.

To submit a comment on the web, go to Comment help.

Submitting a comment is fast and easy. If you want to get involved in advocacy, find a non-profit you want to support and get started now.

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Advocacy is cheap and easy and everyone can get involved. Lobbying is expensive and requires specialized skills as the story below shows.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. I realize this to a greater degree after taking the advocacy class. While moderately rich people like me often have the time and inclination to ask our representatives to vote for what we want at the local level, the very rich advocate at the national level.

I knew that many U.S. senate races involve out-of-state money. But I hadn’t realized why. A story by David Frum in the Atlantic (Apr 2020) gives a good explanation. Most very rich people live in big cities, located in coastal states, which tend to vote for leftish politicians. The rich tend to be more conservative and often find it difficult to sway their own senator’s vote. But every senator gets one vote. For the sake of efficiency, it makes more sense for them to contribute money to the campaign committees of conservative senators in small red states and then advocate or lobby for what they want by approaching those senators.

Says Frum, “United States senators from smaller, poorer red states… do not… primarily represent their states. They represent, more often, the richest people in bigger, richer blue States who find it more economical to invest in less expensive small-state races. The biggest contributor to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign and leadership committee is a PAC headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey…”

TrackThis

Track this. Photo from Bloomberg BusinessWeek by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

by George Taniwaki

In a Bloomberg Businessweek editorial (Apr 2020), Cathy O’Neil (mathbabe) explains why a Covid-19 tracking app won’t work. It’s all about self-selection bias.

* * * *

Update: For a good non-technical description of how the Apple and Google contact tracing API works, including the encryption method, see Economist, Apr 2020. The article also suggests that even though using an app for contact tracing is imperfect, its low-cost and passive nature makes it worthwhile.

FlattenTheCurve

Can a partially effective vaccine flatten the curve?

by George Taniwaki

During this Covid-19 pandemic, we want to know when we can stop sheltering at home and go back into public spaces again. Further, we want to know which actions can speed up the time before that can happen.

One thing we do know is that when dealing with a novel disease (one that no human appears to have immunity for), the entire population cannot go back to pre-epidemic behavior at the same time before it is safe. Doing so will cause a spike in infections and deaths. This will terrorize the population leading to another round of isolation. If the public loses faith that the government knows when it is safe to change behavior, then when it finally is safe, people will still be afraid and time will be lost during the recovery, causing additional economic hardship.

So when can we go back to normal? I think that can happen only after herd immunity is achieved. This can take a very long time as a trickle of individuals become infected and recover with resistance or die, a process called flattening the curve. Or it can happen pretty quickly after the wide-spread inoculation of individuals with a safe and effective vaccine.

An effective vaccine may take 18 to 24 months to develop. Many people, including President Donald Trump, think staying home this long is unrealistic. Is it possible to shorten that time by releasing a partially effective vaccine sooner? Doing so may help flatten the curve without requiring social distancing.

Partially effective vaccines

An intriguing paper by Eduard Talamàs & Rakesh Vohra, entitled “Free and perfectly safe but only partially effective vaccines can harm everyone” pretty much contains the answer in its title.

The idea is that a partially effective vaccine will cause people to change their behavior too much, too soon, causing the spike we want to avoid. The conclusion is similar to the analysis popularized by Sam Peltzman of the Univ. Chicago (a microeconomics professor while I was a student there) who suggested that stricter automobile safety regulations could lead to increased deaths (of pedestrians) as drivers felt safer and became more reckless (J Polit Econ, Aug 1975).

The most important conclusion in Talamàs et al., is that with overlapping social networks, even those who do not increase the size of their networks after the introduction of the vaccine can be harmed by those who do. This conclusion is slightly different than those of most epidemiological models that assume random contact between individuals rather than strategic networks. A good description of the paper is given by one of the authors, Vohra, at The Leisure of the Theory Class (Apr 2020).

FacingLeft

Everyone, face left. Screenshot from The Atlantic

by George Taniwaki

Which side of your face do you show when someone takes a photograph of you? Most people naturally turn right which shows the left side of their face.

The Atlantic Feb 2014 features a video by the science writer Sam Kean that discusses this observation and a theory about why it occurs. It may add insight into the right-brain, left-brain debate. Or it could be completely unrelated.

I usually turn left, showing the right side of my face, though that isn’t a natural behavior for me. I learned it as a child. My natural inclination is to face directly at the camera. But in grade school, on picture day, a photographer told me not to look straight at the camera and to turn my head. When I do that, I naturally want to look left, which shows the right side of my head. This is true even though I part my hair on the left.

When asked to turn my head to the right and show the left side of my face, I feel like I am showing off.

by George Taniwaki

Back when I was in high school, every summer my friends and I would go to the amusement park. One of the attractions we visited was the hall of mirrors. Ten points worth of tickets allowed you to go through the hall once. The goal is to go in through the entrance and find the exit before you starved to death. ( I’ve been told that there are numerous bodies of lost patrons still stuck inside the hall, but I digress.)

The hall of mirrors consists of a room with a series of tracks on the floor and ceiling laid out in an equilateral triangular array, called an isohedral tiling pattern (Fig 1).

Isohedral_tiling

Figure 1. Isohedral tiling. Image from Wikipedia.org

Each triangular cell is about 3-foot to a side. The tracks on some of the sides have a floor-to-ceiling partition inserted in them. The partitions form walls creating a maze with a single entrance, a single exit, and exactly one path between them. Solving a maze of this type is a great mathematics problem.

The maze is called a hall of mirrors because the partitions are not just solid opaque panels. Instead, they are all of one of two types, either mirrored on both sides or clear plastic.

I had never been in the hall of mirrors. While waiting in line, one of my friends urged us to go twice. The first time would be figuring the maze out. The second time we would race through. He then bet me he could get through it faster than me both the first and second times.

I eagerly accepted because I knew a trick for solving simple mazes called the wall follower algorithm. In the wall follower algorithm, you place one hand (say your left hand) on the wall as you enter the maze and never take it off. As you move through the maze, if you reach an intersection, keep your left hand on the wall, meaning you take the leftmost turn. If you reach a dead-end, keep your left hand on the wall, meaning you will return to the intersection and take the next path. Eventually, you will reach the exit.

If you remember the series of correct paths you took, the next time you enter the maze, you will not need to keep you hand on the wall. You just need to remember the turns you took at each intersection. For example, left, right, center, right, right, left, right.

Seeing how eager I was, all my other friends also made the same bet and I accepted. After giving our tickets to the operator, my friends ran into the maze. I was surprised that they would dash off without caution. I was determined to show them that I could beat them and solve the maze faster by simply walking through the maze using my logical skills.

What I didn’t know were three facts. First, because of the mirrors and clear walls, as you stepped into each triangular cell, you couldn’t be sure which direction would lead you to an adjacent open cell and which led you into a wall. Using the wall follower algorithm by placing your hand on the wall definitely helped, but it was slow going moving around.

Second, the maze was crowded. There were lots of other people who were moving around, sometimes in the opposite direction as me, and it was difficult to navigate around them. To do so, I often had to take my hand off the wall and as I was getting jostled, I couldn’t be sure I placed my hand back on the same wall. Similarly, it was difficult for me to remember if I had returned to the same point as before. This meant I couldn’t memorize which turn I should make at each intersection.

After a few minutes of trying to solve the maze, I noticed that all of my friends were already outside the maze watching me. I began to panic and became disoriented. Eventually, feeling sorry for me, they began shouting and pointing the directions for me to take. Finally, with their help, I reached the exit of the maze and stepped out to be with them. Except, I wasn’t quite at the exit yet and bam, I walked right into a clear wall mashing my eyeglasses into my face. So much for my superior maze solving skills.

Upon exiting the maze, I learned the third fact. My friends had all been to the amusement park previously that summer and had memorized the path through the hall of mirrors.

As we agreed, we went through the hall a second time. I did a lot better, but still made several wrong turns and became disoriented a couple of times. I was the last one out of the maze again. I had to pay off on two losing bets with each of my friends that day.

However, I did learn an important lessons about gambling (and investing in the market too). First, don’t place a bet on a game of skill simply because you know something your opponent doesn’t (like the algorithm to solve a maze). Only place a bet if you have actual experience winning the game you are betting on (like having run through the maze before). Second, if someone challenges you to a contest (who can run through the maze fastest), they probably already have the skills needed to win and you should avoid the bet.

****

Solving a maze using pencil and paper is another interesting problem. And is one that should not induce panic attacks about getting lost. One way to study a maze is to first identify the walls. A maze with a single entrance and single exit must have at least two separate walls as shown on the left of Figure 2.

In the case of a maze with exactly two walls, you can solve it using the wall follower algorithm described earlier. But a faster solution exists. Notice that any path where the wall on both sides is the same color ends in a dead-end. By following the path that has one wall of each color on each side you will quickly find the solution. Notice that this technique is faster only if the walls are already color coded.

MazeSimple

Figure 2. Three simple mazes with two walls (left), three walls adjacent to each other (center) and three walls where one is enclosed (right) Image by George Taniwaki

A maze may have more than two walls. If there is only one entrance and exit, there will still be only two exterior walls. Any additional walls will be totally enclosed within the exterior walls. If an interior wall is at any point adjacent to two walls that are part of a solution, then a path following this wall will also add a solution. A wall that is adjacent to only a single wall (is totally enclosed within a wall) will not add another solution. An interior wall that is adjacent to one or fewer walls that is part of a solution will not add another solution either.

In Figure 2 above, the center maze has three walls and has two solutions. You can turn either left or right at the blue wall. The right maze has three walls but only a single solution since the blue wall is totally surrounded by the red wall.

For a more complex example, consider a maze (Fig 3a) that is included in a recent advertisement for Dropbox, a cloud file sharing service.

DropboxMaze

Figure 3a. Dropbox print ad. Image from Dropbox

It is hard to see the solution to this maze just by inspection. But if we color code all the walls we will discover there are four separate walls (Fig 3b, to save time I only added color at the turns and intersections). The two interior walls (in blue near the top of the puzzle) are both completely contained within a single wall (in red), so they do not add any new solutions, so there is only one solution. The solution is the path that stays between the two exterior walls (green and red). The solution is easy to recognize when the walls are color coded (assuming you do not have red/green color deficient vision). Try it and see how easy it is.

DropboxMazeSolution

Figure 3b. Dropbox print ad with color coded walls and enclosed paths highlighted. The solution is the path that keeps walls of different colors on each side.

Notice that there are two errors in the maze. There are two paths (filled in yellow) that are completely enclosed, meaning they are not connected to the entrance or exit and so cannot be reached. Despite the errors, this is a nice maze. A good maze has the following attributes:

  1. The path for the solution is quite long and traverses all four quadrants of the grid, meaning that finding the solution path is not obvious if the walls are not color coded
  2. There are many branches off the solution path, meaning that there are many potential places to make an error
  3. Many of the dead-end branches are long and also have branches, meaning that discovering whether a path is a dead-end branch or part of the solution takes a long time

Nearly every state in the U.S. maintains a registry of people willing to become deceased organ donors. The intent of an individual to be a donor is stored as a Boolean value (meaning only yes or no responses are allowed) within the driver’s license database. Nearly all states use what is called an opt-in registration process. That is, the states start with the assumption that drivers do not want to participate in the registry (default=no) and require them to declare their desire (called explicit consent) to be a member of the registry either in-person, via a website, or in writing.

One of the frequent proposals to increase the number of deceased organ donors is to switch the registration of donors from an opt-in system to an opt-out system. In an opt-out system, all drivers are presumed to want to participate (default=yes) and people who do not wish to participate must state their desire not to be listed.

Let’s look at the logical and ethical issues this change would present.

Not just a framing problem

Several well-known behavioral economists have stated that switching from opt-in to opt-out is simply a framing problem. For instance, see chapter 11 of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge and a TED 2008 talk by Dan Ariely using data from papers by his colleagues Eric Johnson et al., in Transpl. Dec 2004 and Science Nov 2003 (subscription required).

The basic argument is that deciding whether to donate organs upon death is cognitively complex and emotionally difficult. When asked to choose between difficult options, most people will just take the default option. In the case of an opt-in donor registration, this means they will not be on the organ donor registry. By switching to an opt-out process, the default becomes being a donor. Thus, any person who refuses to make an active decision will automatically become a registered organ donor (this is called presumed consent). This will increase the number of people in the donor registry without causing undue hardship since drivers can easily state a preference when obtaining a driver’s license.

However, these authors overlook two important practical factors. First, switching from opt-in to opt-out doesn’t just reframe the decision the driver must make between two options. It will actually recategorize some drivers.

Second, it changes the certainty of the decision of those included in the organ registry, which affects the interaction between the organ recovery coordinators at the organ procurement organization (OPO) and the family member of a deceased patient.

There are more than two states for drivers regarding their decision to donate

Note that the status of a driver’s intent to be an organ donor is not just a simple two-state Boolean value (yes, no). There are actually at least three separate states related to the intension to be an organ donor. First, upon the driver’s death, if no other family members would be affected, would she like to be an organ donor (yes, no, undecided). Second, has she expressed her decision to the DMV and have it recorded (yes, no). Finally, would she like her family to be able to override her decision (yes, no, undecided). The table below shows the various combinations of these variables.

Category

Driver would like to be organ donor
Driver tells DMV of decision
Driver would permit family to override decision

Comment

1a Yes Yes No Strong desire
1b Yes Yes Yes or Undecided Weak desire
2a No Yes Yes or Undecided Weak reject
2b No Yes No Strong reject
3a Yes No Yes, No, or Undecided Unrecorded desire
3b No No Yes, No, or Undecided Unrecorded reject
4 Undecided Yes or No Yes* Undecided

*No or Undecided options make no sense in this context

Opt-in incorrectly excludes some drivers from the donor registry

Now let’s sort these people into two groups, one that we will call the organ donor registry and the other not on the registry.

Under the opt-in process, only drivers in categories 1a and 1b are listed on the organ registry. These drivers have given explicit consent to being on the registry. Drivers in categories 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, and 4 are excluded from the registry. Thus, we can be quite certain that everyone on the registry wants to be a donor. (There is always a small possibility that the driver accidentally selected the wrong box, changed their mind between the time they obtained their driver’s license and the time of death, or a computer error occurred.)

In most states the drivers not on the organ registry are treated as if they have not decided (i.e., as if they were in the fourth category). When drivers not on the registry die under conditions where the organs can be recovered, the families are asked to decide on behalf of the deceased.

Under an opt-in process, drivers in category 2a are miscategorized. They don’t want to be donors and didn’t want their family to override that decision, but the family is still allowed to decide. The drivers in categories 3a and 3b are miscategorized as well. The ones who don’t want to be donors (3b) are also forced to allow their families to decide. The ones who want to be donors (3a) are now left to let their families decide.

Opt-out incorrectly includes some drivers in the donor registry

Under an opt-out process, drivers in categories 1a, 1b, 3a, 3b, and 4 are grouped together and placed on the organ registry. If the donor registry is binding and the family is not allowed to stop the donation, then the process is called presumed consent. (Note that many authors use opt-out and presumed consent interchangeably. However, they are distinct ideas. Opt-in is a mechanical process of deciding which driver names are added to the registry. Presumed consent is a legal condition that avoids the need to ask the family for permission to recover the organs.)

Drivers in category 3a who wanted to be registered are now correctly placed on the registry. But any drivers in category 3b who don’t want to be on the registry are now assumed to want to be donors, a completely incorrect categorization. Similarly, all drivers in the fourth category who were undecided are now members of the definite donor group and the family no longer has a say.

Only drivers in category 2a and 2b are excluded from the registry. We can be quite certain these people do not want to be donors. But some (category 2a) were willing to let the family decide. Now they are combined with the group of drivers who explicitly do not want to donate.

The distribution of categories into the registry under the opt-in and opt-out process and how they are treated are shown in the table below.


Categories added to donor registry
Categories not added to donor registry

Implications

Opt-in process 1a, 1b both treated as if in category 1a (explicit consent) 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4 all treated as if in category 4 (family choice) Drivers in registry are nearly certain to want to be donors. Actual desire of drivers not on registry is ambiguous
Opt-out process 1a, 1b, 3a, 3b,4 all treated as if in category 1a (presumed consent) or 1b (family choice) 2a, 2b both treated as if in category 2b (explicit reject) Drivers not in registry are nearly certain to not want to be donors. Actual desire of drivers on registry is ambiguous

 

Ethical implications of misclassification

If there are no drivers in categories 3a, 3b, and 4, then switching from opt-in to opt-out will have no impact on the size of the donor registry. However, if there are any drivers in these categories, then some will be incorrectly categorized regardless of whether opt-in or opt-out is used. This miscategorization will lead to some ethical problems.

Under opt-in, there may exist cases where the drivers has made a decision to donate (category 3a) or not (categories 2a or 3b) but family members overrules it. These errors are hard to avoid because they are caused by the lack of agreement between the drivers and other family members.

However, under opt-out combined with presumed consent, there may exist cases where neither the driver (category 3b) nor the family want to donate, but cannot stop it. Similarly, the driver may want to let the family choose whether to donate (category 4) and the family does not want to donate but cannot stop it.

It appears that from an ethical perspective, opt-in is less likely to create a situation where the respect for individual’s right to make decisions about how the body should be treated is denied. For further discussion of the ethical issues see  J. Med. Ethics Jun 2011, and J. Med. Ethics Oct 2011 (subscription required).

Next we will look at the impact switching from opt-in to opt-out will have on the interaction between the organ recovery coordinator and the family. See Part 2 here.

[Update: This blog post was significantly modified to clarify the “decision framing” issue.]