When organizational hierarchy matters

I have always believed in a flat organization. I have managed big teams in high pressure situations when a positive outcome is not guaranteed. Information is capital and it is my experience that individuals will respond well when everyone starts with same amount of it. When everyone knows the challenges as well as the stakes, they head off in the same direction, and they work as a team. And it doesn’t stop there. When flat hierarchy and open dialog are core values, when they become habit, cohesion can be maintained indefinitely.

Yet hierarchy-refusal can be taken too far, as I once learned. I was so once committed to a flat structure, that, I decided no one on my team would have any title. For reasons outlined above, this seemed like the right thing to do until one of them pointed out, that for all my horizontal preaching, the organization wasn’t flat. There was one person on the team that had a hierarchical title – me. When I looked at my business card, I realized how disingenuous I had been. But I also realized how much I liked my title. It had been given to me by my boss and it meant something.

It’s weird, hierarchy is important outside the office. It is a yardstick that tells the world how far one has come. Titles open doors, impress the ladies (or men), lead to greater sales, and can ensure a better salary at the next job. But teams work best when hierarchy is eliminated inside the office. People can make different amounts of money, have different skills, and have different words on their business cards, but when in the office, when part of that team, everyone is held to the same standard, everyone is expected to work hard, and everyone is expected to do everything they can to ensures the success of their teammates.

Why I Changed the Name of this Blog

When I started this blog 6 years ago, I had a clear mission to share common sense ideas positioned to the right of many of my Chicago peers. As my bio states, I am an economist at heart and that perspective often unearths challenges with otherwise well-meaning progressive policy ideas.

Back then, the term conservative fit. It didn’t mean right winger, zealot, or evangelist. Those far right of center subscriptions each had their own labels, and conservative was a term with which I was comfortable – at least when it came to non-social issues. I still believe that the cost of big government is personal freedom, that building one’s station through personal productivity is one the clearest paths to happiness, that contemporary unions are wolves in sheep’s clothing, that history matters, and that there are just too many darned laws.

Because everything that works, happens in the center.

But the former President and his attention-drunk followers co-opted the word conservative into something else. Now it leans toward anti-maskers, isolationism, good-old-days, and social justice insensitivity – concepts just as dangerous as their left wing counterparts: hyper-maskers, pandering to our international enemies, the tyranny of woke, and defunding the police. Idiots on both sides of the spectrum are equally in need of a slap.

My gut feeling is that there has never been a more equitable, more just, and more opportunity-filled time to be an American. The foundation of society, as we come out of this rule-breaking shut-down, is more pliable than ever before. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to make changes for the better. But we’ve been through a boiler of a year and it’s bubbled a lot of nasty things to the surface. These things need to be addressed openly and without fear and I look forward to exploring them on this site.

So welcome to my site, A Card Carrying Centrist. Same content, same mission, new and improved name.

The Day I Was Chef

On about a decade ago, I received a day in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen as a gift from some friends. They had purchased it for me at a charity auction. I like to cook for my friends and do so often. I also worked in restaurants through my teens and college so I have nearly a decade’s experience at the prep and line level. As far as home cooks go, I consider myself a pretty good one, but by no yardstick a chef.

Charlie Trotter’s, if you do not know, was – maybe still is – one of the most important restaurants in culinary history. Following Alice Water’s legendary focus on highest quality dill for salmon and chocolate for cakes, Charlie Trotter blew it up by putting the chocolate on the salmon. Chicagoans were lucky that he built his practice in Chicago. His was the spear tip that drove culinary innovation. His protégés sparked countless award-winning restaurants and turned Chicago into one of the finest restaurant cities in the world.

More purple, damnit!

By the time of this story, these kitchen certificates were standard fare and had been given to charities for years. They were more special to the recipient and less expensive for the restaurant than a gift certificate. Hundreds had gone before me, and the program was well established. I was greeted at the door by the sommelier and escorted into the secondary dining room where lunch was awaiting me. He explained the day which included some time in the kitchen, the pre-shift meeting with the manager and servers, some front-of-the-house time, and some other experiential but out-of-the-way activities. He also asked about my expectations. I told him I wanted to experience the true Charlie Trotter’s working environment. “How are your knife skills?” he asked. “Pretty good, I think, but you can be the judge.” With that I was sent down to change into my awaiting restaurant-supplied whites.

The kitchen was abustle when I entered. Bright lights, colorful ingredients, and a dozen rapidly moving chefs gave the room a magical intensity. I was set-up on a prep table and handed 2 dozen sous-vide artichoke hearts. I was instructed to quarter them and carve each part into the shape of a flamingo – the choke making a colorful beak. I’m sorry what? The chef picked one up, pulled a raptor knife from his pocket, and with one deft slice, turned the vegetable into a bird.

I wasn’t deft but I figured it out. I guess I did a passable job, because when I was finished, they let me stay. Next came in an overflowing tray of morels. You could have bought a used car with what these mushrooms were worth. I cleaned and cored them for maybe an hour. “Next?’ I inquired?  Out came 4 flats of strawberries – each to be cored, cut in half, and then sliced onto 32 equally thick pieces, which would then be added to the maceration solution. On this task I spent the next two hours.

Another give-back that Charlie Trotter created was a program that hired inner-city high-school kids to work in the kitchen. They cleaned, prepped food, and assisted the chefs. I am sure that many of them went on to successful careers in the culinary industry. I wish I remembered the name of the fellow in this roll the day I was there, because he is important to this story but for that I apologize. We had been working side by side for a while, chopping away, when he referred to me as “Chef Curt.” I chuckled humbly and informed him that I was just renting the spot for the day and a chef by no means. For the first time that day, he stopped moving, looked straight into my eyes and asked me, “are you working in Chef Charlie Trotter’s kitchen today or not?” I agreed I was, and he informed me, “then today you are Chef.” This soon turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.

I had been working at the team’s disposal for so long – and perhaps so quietly – that the front-of-the-house staff forgot I was there. I missed the pre-opening meeting and the shift meal with the wait staff. In fact, by the time I proudly lifted my head from that glorious vat of liquifying strawberries, the kitchen was buzzing in a whole different way. I ventured to the front of the room and found a safe place to observe. Dinner had started and the staff had moved to their action positions around the line. Well-dressed waiters were coming in, grabbing plates, wiping the edges, and heading out. Charlie had not yet arrived, but the chef in front, likely the sous chef, controlled the room like a conductor directing an orchestra. There was commotion, but also a sense of forced, busy quiet.

As entrees started going out, the appetizer dishes started to pile up. I noticed with interest that there was not person assigned as dishwasher.  This organization was so flat that every chef was expected to do everything of which he was capable. I also noted that the institutional dishwasher was a brand I recognized from my own high-school restaurant days. It was many decades newer but worked basically the same. I set to work rinsing the plates, placing them in the racks, opening the door, running the machine, and removing them to airdry. The process took about 60 seconds per load. I had no idea where they went, so I just stacked the dishes on the counter and prepared the next load. After about 10 minutes of this, I heard a sharp request. “Chef Curt! Did anyone tell you to wash those dishes?” “No sir” I replied, “but I know the machine and figured I would help.” “Chef Curt,” he now ordered, “I need you behind the line at the sauté station!”

“More caviar! No we can’t charge them for more, we just do it! That’s what we do, the right thing. Anything less would not be enough!” 

World Famous Chef Homaro Cantu quoting Charlie Trotter

You want some context? Imagine, you are sitting at Wrigley Field in some hard-won front row seats. Anthony Rizzo has been yanked, and David Ross approaches you and tells you that you are needed at first base – right now! My job was sautéing salmon – four to six pans at a time, moving between them, ensuring that none stick, and flipping when ready. Once to temperature (no thermometer, you tell with a touch), they were plated and garnished. I was getting along surprisingly competently when Chef Trotter arrived and asked what I was doing there. I learned later that in all the years of the charity certificate, I was the only recipient who had ever received this honor. I was sprinkling brightly colored flowers across a plate while I introduced myself, and he responded with, “well, welcome, now, damnit, more purple!” I absolutely beamed.

This is one of my favorite stories and not without lesson. The whole day turned with an earnest and insightful request from a teenager that I reconsider how I view myself. I had hoped for a terrific spectator vantage leading to improved understanding of people I admired. But when my heart and mind opened, the experience carried me beyond my expectations. I came to observe the show, but in the end I was part of it.

Following my 10 minutes behind the line, I was handed a glass of fantastic Brunello and sent downstairs to change out of my whites. My wife and another couple were meeting me there for dinner, and I had brought a change of clothes. In my excitement, I accidentally (I swear) put my restaurant supplied whites into my backpack with my own dirty clothes. I meant to return them, but the restaurant closed several months later. Those whites have hung proudly next to my suits, for the past 9 years as a reminder of the time I got yelled at by Charlie Trotter for not putting enough purple flowers on top of a piece of salmon and was able to live-out a real-life fantasy because a kid told me to be more than I thought I was.

Service Over Self-interest, an Ameritrade Story

This story is going to sound a bit like a western, so my apologies for that.

You see, I used to run internet products for Ameritrade. I am the guy who brought the Company to the Internet. Maybe it was right place, right time, but, man, did I love that job. The tools that my team and I built for an initial audience of dozens grew to support millions of users by the time of this story.

True leaders measure success through the success of all of those they serve, including customers, employees, shareholders, and communities. And they live by a fundamental tenet, that service to others is the highest honor and greatest obligation of a true leader.

Henry S. Givray
Creator & Lead Facilitator – Leadership’s Calling®
Former Chairman, President & CEO – SmithBucklin Corp.

But wait. Some background is important for the rest of this story to make sense. Most companies have three different data handling departments: backend, middleware, and frontend. The backend is the customer and transactional databases. This story isn’t about them. The middleware determines what information can be shared, keeps the bad guys out, and directs the traffic. This story is about them. And the frontend delivers pretty applications and pages to users. Frontend. That’s where I worked.

And we were dependent on the middleware. Unfortunately Ameritrade’s middleware was really old by the time the internet came along. We struggled to work with it, but an application is only as good as its data. That middleware had to be replaced.

The middleware team was also long in the tooth. There had been few new requirements for years, and they had grown complacent. They resisted change on procedural grounds and were viewed as uncooperative. When the mandate came to rewrite it, they were not prepared for success. Deadlines came and went, attrition skyrocketed, and even the new requirements started falling out of date. The danger the company was in because of this can not be overstated.

This is where the story ties into the quote above. My team was terrific. Because we did the fun stuff, we could hire the best people, and many of the best technologists in the Company had chosen to join us. I realized our talent, our understanding of customer needs, and our productive attitude could solve the middleware problem. But I also knew that pulling my team off frontend development would temporarily hurt us in the competitive standings and direct a lot of negative pressure towards me – from the encroached upon data services teams, from the business units, and even from the financial press. Just so you know, I am the guy in the white hat here. Guess what I did?

Marshall Will Kane is not part of this story, but he’s still cool.

I offered up my best project manager and all my senior developers. But it got worse than I predicted when those folks were assigned to another VP. Not only would I lose their productivity, but I would not receive the spotlight of their success.

Following this, my options appeared limited. My crippled team was living off scraps, our competitors pulled away dropping us to dead last in some standings, and my once bright star was fading fast.

But as clearly as I knew my days were numbered, I also knew that I still had control of the future. Three powerful things were left in my pocket. First, my remaining team, having written the middleware requirements, knew what to expect when the project was finished. Second, my knowledge of the customers allowed me to predict what an industry leading application would look like in the future – even if I could not build it yet. And third, the rewrite had not taken my graphic designers, that creative core that turns good data into great applications. Together my scrappy band would design the application that the Company would need at the other end of this dark, 8-month, tunnel.

My professional capital fell far into the red. I had a terrific boss who tried to shield me, but there was only so much he could do. His boss, a man for whom I have great respect, chose a different path – which must have been very difficult for him. He knew what I was doing, and he got out of the way. He protected the necessary resources to ensure the success of our future knowing it might be the last thing I did with the Company.

And it was. But it was also a homerun. The data streaming through the new middleware coupled with our visionary application design put us back atop the competitive rankings and painted my team in great light. I left proud of what I had accomplished and knowing that my superiors valued my efforts. Ride off into the sunset. End credits roll.

So, here’s the lesson. For years I have viewed this story as me self-sacrificing a job I loved for the betterment of the Company. But through recent introspection I have reached a different conclusion which is made clear by understanding the true options I faced:

I could take on another department’s problem. I was confident my involvement would facilitate the best outcome for the Company but also understood it would lead me out the door. I could hope that the act would end with the Company back in its preeminent competitive position, my team – a group of people I loved – once again positioned to build fantastic things and maintain their position at the top of the corporate cake, and me exiting in a super strong position to go build wonderful things for another firm.

or

I could do my job and let the middleware do as it would. It was not my problem to fix, and my head would not be on the block if it failed. My team and I could still build new applications, but the opportunities for building groundbreaking things would continue to diminish. Ameritrade’s competitive advantage might slide and eventually turn us into a takeover target – at which point I would be viewed as an average manager, and either be let go or receive a position appropriate to an average manager.

You see, I was faced with two options and neither was perfect, but my genuine desire to serve others, to improve the standing of the Company, and to make my team successful, led me to the best outcome – for all of us, me included- even if it appears to have been against my self-interest.

Find Your Not Audience

They say that embarrassment requires an audience. And it’s true. If no one sees something there is no reason to feel embarrassed about it. We can all re-imagine the horror of tripping in the lunchroom, tray aflying – even if we never actually did it. But envision the same thing happening alone at home. It may be frustrating and an ugly mess, but it is not embarrassing.

Now imagine – in either case – someone rushing to your assistance. Someone who helps you up and makes sure the mess is righted. A friend who knows you so well, that their reaction is compassion not schadenfreude. Someone who knows this shit happens to everyone but genuinely feels bad that it happened to you this time. 

We need these people. We need friends with whom we can share everything. Not just the awesome, but also the awful, ridiculous, and gross. These are the people who can see us stumble and not illicit our embarrassment. These are the Not Audience.

Our not audiences can help us when we set ourselves on a difficult life journey. If we need to lose weight, go through rehab, kick an illness, or mourn a loved one, having a not audience can make the difference between getting it done and failing. We don’t just tell these people about all the awful shit we are dealing with. They make us feel stronger for having shared it. they remove the obstacles in their control. They lend their ears, their arms, and their shoulders so that we may struggle through, be stronger, and succeed.

Tasks in life are often too big for one person. Our need for help can not be undone by our fear of being embarrassed. That is why we need our not audience.

NFT Soaring Prices Explained

Did that headline hook you? Well, I was kidding. I can’t even come close to explaining the recent prices paid for NFTs. But I am pretty good at questioning what I see and can perhaps shed some light on their true values. And if you have never heard of an NFT, keep reading. I will explain them in a bit.

This whole quandary started when Nyan Cat (see image) sold for $800,000 in March. That’s right, a digital gif that was created a decade ago and until recently would have been considered absolutely worthless by everyone from a seasoned investment manager to my 9-year-old daughter, sold for nearly a million bucks. In explanation, the Wall Street Journal paraded a crypto expert who explained that much like da Vinci’s signature on the Mona Lisa guarantees its value, a digital file associated with Nyan Cat guarantees that this is the original Nyan Cat sold by the original artist and hence has value.  Many investors bought this pile of cheese. I only saw holes.

This digital file is called an NFT. It is a nonfungible token or blockchain-based digital device that is associated with an asset. This device stores the data about the asset in a permanent and noneditable ledger somewhere. That data will include originator and date of creation as well as records of subsequent ownership and information specific to the asset. The asset is generally but not necessarily digital itself.

An NFT is like a label in a sweater. It tells the manufacturer, country of origin, cleaning instructions, maybe the collection year, and if your mom is doing her job, it has your name on it. It is all valuable information, but if the label comes off, you can still wear the sweater just fine.

So the Nyan Cat sale included the original artwork as well as a permanent record of the date created and the name of the artist. Or that is what we are told. Neither of those things is fully true.

An NFT offers no guarantee that this asset was created by anyone in particular. All it purports is to know is the name of the NFT’s creator, and when the NFT was associated with the artwork. Nyan Cat’s NFT only works because it echoes the pre-existing trademark, something decidedly low-tech.

Second, the NFT offers no guarantee that this is the original Nyan Cat. “Original” is a tricky concept in digital art. Many copies are created and sent around during creation and the final original version is not the same as the one that is optimized and distributed. Furthermore, the internet is rife with authentic variations of Nyan Cat in all sorts of different costumes and situations that predate the NFT. The NFT promises to know when it was created and associated with the artwork, but not when the artwork was created or if it’s the original version.

Similarly, an NFT does not guarantee Nyan Cat’s value. To point out the problems with the WSJ’s example, the true value of the Mona Lisa is a function of the quality of the painting, the name of the artist, and the work’s importance in history, not a verified signature. Nyan Cat exhibits no artistic quality. It is cute and ironic but lacks artistic merit or conceptual depth. And the artist is certainly not as famous, nor has the cultural significance of many artists whose work sells for far less – take Salvador Dali or Frida Kahlo for example.

The NFT doesn’t even solve a needed problem. Like an authenticated signature, Digital art has had a mechanism for guaranteeing authenticity since the late 90s (and a Sol Lewitt wall painting decades earlier). When a video painting by digital artist Jeremy Blake was purchased in 1999, it came with a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist. There are many ways to view and share his work. Some may even be available on YouTube. But only holders of the certificate of authenticity can sell the work. This is an equally faithful guarantee of the artist’s hand and the work’s origin. Unfortunately, there is no stampede to collect digital artwork with a paper certificate of authenticity (said the guy who owns several Jeremy Blakes).

Since we are running out of explanations, one might wonder if the actual NFT and its connection to a rare blockchain has value. Like how gold from an ugly piece of jewelry can be melted down and used to make a nicer one. This is a reasonable explanation until one remembers is that NFT stands for non-fungible token. Nonfungible means it cannot be exchanged, and this NFT, by intent of creation, has no other possible appropriation or value outside of its designated context. So nope.

In the end, I am pretty sure that the price realized by Nyan Cat was a function of NFTs being novel and some unwarranted purchasing momentum for crypto-based assets. In other words, it is a bubble. If you are considering jumping in, beware. Fundamentals might not be the thing that drives an investment’s price in the short-term, but they are always what drives its value in the long term. Understanding the difference is not hard but anticipating when it will pop can be.

Leveraging COVID-Created Opportunities

COVID has sucked. If you are involved in the hospitality industry, supporting workers in their offices, or in a face-to-face service role, it is likely that your position has been upended or eliminated. Many of our favorite restaurants have not been able to weather the reduction in cash flow and closed their doors. The dry-cleaning industry, only recently recovered from the impact of municipal smoking-bans, has seen 50% of its stores shutter. And elegant office buildings cannot give away office space.

A telling, if bizarre, poster hung outside one of our favorite COVID-closed restaurants.

Yet there are opportunities in COVID. Many companies are rethinking the changing needs of their customers or identified emerging markets and making clever pivots. The element that most success stories have in common is the elimination of intellectual obstacles.

The more common physical obstacle does not care about COVID. The speed of light has not changed. Trucks cannot carry any more than before. Solar and wind energy have not gotten any more efficient. And the human body still breaks down in the same ways. But obstacles that existed because people believed they should exist have been turned on their heads.

The most obvious example is the previously maligned and decades old video-meeting industry. Sales managers used to be adamant that a face-to-face meeting should never be replaced with a phone call. Executives were certain that zoom-meetings were unreliable and ineffective. Yet now both have been forced to learn, embrace, and acknowledge the efficacy and efficiency of phones and computers to conduct live meetings.

Tele-medicine is another example of an industry that has taken advantage of the removal of intellectual obstacles. The American Medical Association and government regulators consistently blocked this industry’s advance on the grounds that face-to-face medical conversations and state-specific licensing of doctors were superior and required. But both of those written-in-stone objections dissolved like Berry-Blue Jell-o in a swimming pool once it was realized that patient visits spread the disease and placed doctor and patient at risk.

Intellectual obstacles have fallen in the medical industry in the past. Once the idea of a home pregnancy test was opposed. It was well-regarded that a positive test needed to be accompanied with a conversation on prenatal health and best practices. But a private little revolution happened in the early 80s and health experts came to realize that early pregnancy detection was more important than informed pregnancy detection. Still, most tests that can be done at home are not allowed. Expect advancements in COVID home-testing to pressure the elimination of that obstacle across the field.

Another observable example of the elimination of intellectual obstacles is the relaxation of laws surrounding outdoor dining. Restaurant owners and politicians once accepted the agreement that sidewalks should never be blocked by tables, bus stations or any private business’s object of necessity. Table distance, property lines, and fencing were written into law and fiercely regulated.

But with COVID came the upset of that intellectual obstacle. Even the fiercest regulators understand that haphazard outdoor dining may be the only chance most restaurants have to survive – and they agree that their community is better off with restaurants! The creative things restaurants in my neighborhood have done would have been unthinkable a year ago. Plastic igloos completely block sidewalks sending pedestrians into the street or they sit in the street sending traffic around. Others have placed tables on land they don’t own or was inappropriate for dining. Non-code garden sheds, portable cabanas, and makeshift tents now house space heaters, picnic tables, and cute wintery decorations. In some cases (i.e., Camp Lottie’s) what restaurant entrepreneurs have come up with is better than what they had before COVID!

These examples do not just represent a few specific changes to age-old ways of doing things. They represent a change in the way business leaders should think about improving sales, efficiency, and finding new markets. Almost every rule that was once sacred is now open for discussion. 

What should you do? Question, Try, Invest.

Successful leaders will not pass on this opportunity. Look at your business model, the way you produce, and the way you sell. Where are the intellectual obstacles in your system? What rules might not matter any-more? Engage your regulators and learn where they have moved the lines. Then consider challenging them to move the lines further. Think about how once unacceptable technology interfaces or automation can be implemented.

Once you have identified potential soft spots in the metaphorical walls limiting your operation, try to pierce them. Build a cheap app that avoids face-to-face contact and coincidentally also reduces costs. Try an automation idea that prevents COVID transmission even if it displaces a job. Test the waters vertically and horizontally. Throw a picnic table onto the sidewalk. Break some rules. See what takes.

And finally, make bets on what you have learned. The successful companies are going to come out of COVID with a business model that takes them in fundamentally different directions. They will discover that once half-baked acquisitions are now clever. They will learn that the time until positive ROIs, once measured in years, can now be measured in months. 

You know that adage “change or die?” It’s never been truer. There may only be three paths forward: become a change leader, become an acquisition target, or go away. Which road should your company be taking as you navigate your way out of COVID?

If you would like assistance with your business’s strategic direction, email me. and we can set up some time to talk.

The Boss that Smelt like Rotting Fish

You know the fish is rotting when the only thing keeping the head on is the self-protestation of the most powerful man in the State that he has “not been charged with any crime.”

Today, Mike Madigan announced he is suspending his campaign to be re-elected Illinois Speaker of the House. Apparently, if I read the Crain’s blurb correctly, the House Democratic Caucus has been unable to find the 60 votes needed to reelect him and has suspended his campaign.

But he is not gone yet. He still plans to keep his seat on the legislature and pulls the strings on just about every other foreseeable candidate. Furthermore, his wording suggests that as the only viable candidate, he may retain the position even without a campaign.

But that’s not the worst of it. His power is not limited to any of his offices. He will continue to hand select the majority of Illinois lawmakers until his death, and even after that, his cronies and purchased allegiances will keep the wheels of his machine running for as long as the benefits and money keep flowing their way.

Donald Trump would have destroyed our Nation’s democracy, but he did not. In the end, he made a hell of a mess, but will leave Washington without spoils. The Constitution of the United States is a tough boss.

Mike Madigan on the other hand has been riding the Illinois Constitution to his advantage his entire career. He uses his position as State Finance Chair to enforce his political agenda. He has purchased the allegiance of major voting-blocks with taxpayer-funded promises. Large corporate and union donors have repaid his favors with a war chest that keeps detractors out of office and punishes those who fail to toe his line. He controls the legislature’s ethical investigations and ensures that they never point toward himself. And he has been instrumental in eliminating the two-party system in Illinois – a handicap of which my left-leaning friends fail to appreciate the significance. No one has been more successful in undermining democracy anywhere in the United States than Mike Madigan has been in Illinois.

It is time for a couple new bosses here in Illinois.

Infection Rate, Selection Bias, and Hats

We all know the famous Mark Twain line: “There are three kinds of lieslies, damned lies, and statistics.” That and the adage that one can find a statistic to prove anything may suggest that statistics are just untrustworthy.

In fact, measurement and analysis – the fundamentals of statistics – are the only honest way to understand a full story – with the caveat that the numbers and the methods for their collection are understood and sound.

Stand-alone numbers rarely help one understand an event. If I told you that 7 people in the room had hats, you would know almost nothing about the situation I describe.

A nice hat.

But ratios are more descriptive. If I told you that 7 out of 100 (7/100 or 7%) of the people in the room had hats, you would know that most people were not wearing hats. The picture is more clear.

Even better is the time series. If I told you that 7% of the people in the room were wearing hats and that at last year’s event, 14% of people wore hats, you would know that the number of people who wear hats is small and fell year to year. You would have a a story about what was happening with the hats.

But this still isn’t enough. We also need to know how the numbers were collected if we are to trust the story they tell. If the number of people in the room was measured at lunch time one year and during the heart of the event a year later, we would have little confidence in the number of people the room. Similarly, if the hats were counted on heads one year and inside the coatroom the other year, we would not have confidence in the number of hats.

Some fellows have hats. Some do not.

Furthermore, it is important to discount any data that may be biased. If our hat statisticians offered a reward to ensure participation, they likely introduced selection bias (as mentioned in yesterday’s post). They likely missed the number of hats in the room and ended up with the number of hats worn by people who liked the reward. Imagine how different the results would be if the reward was a hat pin (a bias toward those who liked hats) or a tube of sunblock (a bias toward those who do not wear hats).

Back on point, here’s a great example demonstrating how COVID Infection Rate will be impacted by selection bias. As we approach this year’s flu season the infection rate is likely to go down even though the number of people infected with COVID stays the same or increases. The reason is that flu symptom confusion will lead more people to seek out COVID testing. This bias could dramatically increase the number of tests (the denominator) leading the infection rate to fall irrespective of the number of people infected.

Summing up, the clean numbers are, fatality rate, hospital beds (available and filled), and population size. Ratios and time series that include these numbers will help us correctly analyze the situation. However, ratios that include biased numbers such as COVID Infection Rate should be avoided. No matter how often the Governor repeats it, it does not describe the picture we are seeing.

Also, hats are cool.

Understand the Statistics of COVID – please?

Recently we have been hearing a lot of talk about the infection rate in Illinois. The growth in this number is quite shocking. Where it was 3% a month ago, it was 5.7% last Thursday, and it is 8% as of this writing!

Figure 1 New cases in Illinois (Bing's COVID Update)
Figure 1 New cases in Illinois (Bing’s COVID Update)

One might be led to believe that this means that 8% of Illinoisans are infected with COVID, but it does not. It means that 8% of those tested were positive. Those are wildly different things and the actual percentage of Illinoisans with the disease is something different. It could be higher and is likely much lower. Its rise could indicate a growth in the general infection rate or nothing at all. Residents of Illinois – more than almost any other state – need to be able to read between the lines recited by your officials.

I am not a conspiracist or an anti-science guy. Furthermore, I believe that the number of people catching COVID in Illinois in increasing rapidly and is cause for concern. However, my knowledge of science (and statistics in particular) leads me to worry that our elected officials are incorrectly interpreting “positivity rate” and ignoring more appropriate statistics altogether when making policy decisions.

Let us return to the early days of COVID. Initially the positivity rate throughout the Rush Medical System started in the 8% range. Within a couple weeks, that number had spiked to 25% This was consistent with what was reported in the press. The overall rate of infection in the state was unknown, but this number jumped because, given the shortage of tests, doctors began screening for symptoms before allowing a test to be administered. So, if a patient was asymptomatic or wanted a test to placate personal or professional curiosity, the request for a test was denied. Only the people who were likely sick or front-line were tested.  The infection rate of all Illinois was well below 1% at the time, but the 25% (and rising) infection rate measured meant that the tests were being used more effectively.

Post-it note captured at a Rush nurse’s station in April 2020

At some point the purpose of the this statistic was corrupted. The number is easy to track and regularly reported and it has come to be used in a way that was never intended. Testing issues have improved since then, people who are sick are still more likely to seek out testing and doctors are more likely to prescribe testing to symptomatic patients. Further complicating the issue, certain professional and demographic groups get tested more than others leading to overall results that do not match the population. In statistical terms, this is called selection bias. So, when you hear that the infection rate is 8%, understand that there is no scientific or even commonsense reason to equate that to the whole of Illinois, Chicago, or any geographic group.

Even though the positivity rate has risen 1300% since June, the fatality rate has fallen by 80% since the first peak

Still, there are important stats worth watching. My favorite (as macabre as this sounds) is fatality rate which – due to research, improved medical infrastructure, and improved treatment – has fallen consistently throughout COVID. On the first pandemic peak on May 13, 4100 people tested positive and 141 people died. On the second peak in October, 6100 people tested positive and 63 people died. This stat is not perfect either, but still, a positive test in May represented a 4.7% chance of death and a positive test in October represented a 1.0% chance of death. So even though positivity rate has risen 1300% since its low point in June, the chance of dying has fallen by 79% since the first peak. This is a reason to rejoice, not retreat further into our fears.

Figure 2 Fatal cases in Illinois (Bing's COVID Update)
Figure 2 Fatal cases in Illinois (Bing’s COVID Update)

Perhaps the best statistic available is deaths per 100,000 people. This stat cleanly identifies one’s likelihood to die from COVID and is calculated using the relatively bias-free numbers of population and COVID deaths while avoiding the sample bias of testing. Illinois’s current D/100K number is 78. That number sounds arbitrary but makes sense when used for comparison purposes. Remember our Mayor villainizing that COVID hotbed, the State of Wisconsin, a few weeks ago? Yet Wisconsin’s number is only 32. For whatever reason, Illinoisans have over twice the chance of dying from COVID than their neighbors to the north. Iowa’s number is 53, Indiana’s is 62, and Missouri’s is 47 – suggesting that all neighboring states are safer than Illinois. In fact, Illinois is and has been one of the top 10 most dangerous states as a function of COVID. Pile crime, politics, and taxes on top of that and start wondering why anyone lives here – but that is a subject for another day.

Figure 3 Death rates from COVID-19 as of October 28, 2020, by state (Statistica.com)
Figure 3 Death rates from COVID-19 as of October 28, 2020, by state.
For the complete chart, follow the link above. (Statistica.com)

I have been frustrated by misdirected, arbitrary, or politically motivated COVID policy since the beginning. I am not arguing that COVID is not dangerous. I am not arguing that people should not be diligent. I am arguing that Illinois officials are looking at the wrong data, looking at data incorrectly, and in too many cases expecting the public to accept “because science says so” without understanding the science themselves.

This issue has unfortunately been politicized. Please, do not reject my logic because it coincidentally aligns with the politics of others you oppose – some of whom you view as idiots. All the links to these numbers are included above and none of my sites have any political bias. If you wish not to believe me, click through and do your own research.