Archive for November, 2012

Another Realm in Which Expertise Matters: GOTV Software Development

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Here are a couple of items I found interesting because they relate to what I do for my day job: web application development. It turns out that along with overpaying for advertising and buying a lot of polls that mispredicted the electoral outcome, the Romney campaign also hired a bunch of inexperienced technologists who made common mistakes on their way to under-delivering a custom get out the vote (GOTV) web application called Orca: Inside Team Romney’s whale of an IT meltdown.

Jumping to the end of the article:

IT projects are easy scapegoats for organizational failures. There’s no way to know if Romney could have made up the margins in Ohio if Orca had worked. But the catastrophic failure of the system, purchased at large expense, squandered the campaign’s most valuable resource—people—and was symptomatic of a much bigger leadership problem.

“The end result,” Ekdahl wrote, “was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of [get out the vote] efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that.”

What made this especially interesting to me is that for the past several years I’ve been learning a lot about the DevOps movement, which solves exactly the kinds of problems the Romney campaign experienced with Orca. If you look around at which companies have done best at iterating their web applications quickly and scaling up successfully (well-known companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, along with smaller start-ups like Etsy), they’re all using a particular set of practices.

Those practices are the result of an explicitly scientific approach. It’s the same process that Karl Popper described as conjectures and refutations. One can think of the old-school, non-agile, inadequately tested approach to software development that the Romney consultants used as the equivalent of a scientific conjecture. The failure modes that approach leads to are a refutation. If you’re proceeding scientifically, and are treating your ideas as falsifiable, you junk that approach and replace it with one that the people using science have found to be superior. If you’re the Romney campaign’s consultants, though, you ignore what those poindexters are saying and proceed on the basis of your gut feeling.

Contrast this with the Obama campaign, which actually hired people who knew what they were doing: When the Nerds Go Marching In.

We now know what happened. The grand technology experiment worked. So little went wrong that Trammell and Reed even had time to cook up a little pin to celebrate. It said, “YOLO,” short for “You Only Live Once,” with the Obama Os.

When Obama campaign chief Jim Messina signed off on hiring Reed, he told him, “Welcome to the team. Don’t fuck it up.” As Election Day ended and the dust settled, it was clear: Reed had not fucked it up.

The campaign had turned out more volunteers and gotten more donors than in 2008. Sure, the field organization was more entrenched and experienced, but the difference stemmed in large part from better technology. The tech team’s key products — Dashboard, the Call Tool, the Facebook Blaster, the PeopleMatcher, and Narwhal — made it simpler and easier for anyone to engage with the President’s reelection effort.

GOTV software isn’t very important in and of itself. In the rare case that it makes the difference in who gets elected, it would be hugely important (obviously), but that probably didn’t happen here. Obama probably would have won this election without his superiority in GOTV software.

But as a reflection of a fundamental difference in how Romney and Obama (and, to some extent, the modern Republican and Democratic parties that they represent) approach the business of actually governing, I think this story actually is important. Reality matters. Conforming your mental model of the world to the best available scientific understanding is a much better way to get difficult things done than just squeezing your eyes shut and wishing very, very hard that the universe will conform itself to your desires.

Kahan on the Need for a Science Communication EPA

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

From a talk Dan Kahan gave this past spring, summarizing his views about science communication:

Grantham’s Nature Op-ed: Be Brave

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Jeremy Grantham is not a scientist. From his Wikipedia intro:

Jeremy Grantham is a British investor and Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), a Boston-based asset management firm. GMO is one of the largest managers of such funds in the world, having more than US $97 billion in assets under management as of December 2011. Grantham is regarded as a highly knowledgeable investor in various stock, bond, and commodity markets, and is particularly noted for his prediction of various bubbles.

So: He’s a sharp business dude who has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to correctly identify when society is failing to properly process information about an impending crisis. Which makes his recent op-ed in Nature magazine worth reading: Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary).

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. I am a specialist in investment bubbles, not climate science. But the effects of climate change can only exacerbate the ecological trouble I see reflected in the financial markets — soaring commodity prices and impending shortages.


President Barack Obama missed the chance of a lifetime to get a climate bill passed, and his great environmental and energy scientists John Holdren and Steven Chu went missing in action. Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement. These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical.

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

The rest of it is worth reading, too.

More Scary Stuff About the Future by People with Actual Expertise

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

shcb will not find the credentials of the authors of this report compelling. He will imagine that their training and the level of analysis they bring to bear is roughly the equivalent of (or, if he’s being honest, slightly inferior to) his own. He may comment on this item, and if he does, it is likely his comment will strike me the same way it does when Nigel Tufnel stares at Marty DiBergi for a moment before explaining (yet again) that “these go to eleven.”

shcb will be wrong.

Nevertheless, here you go: From John D. Steinbruner, Paul C. Stern, and Jo L. Husbands, Editors; Committee on Assessing the Impact of Climate Change on Social and Political Stresses; Board on Environmental Change and Society; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council: Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.

From the report’s preface:

Core features of the climate change situation are known with confidence. The greenhouse effect associated with the carbon dioxide molecule has been measured, as has the dwell time of that molecule and its concentration in the atmosphere. We also know that the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently being added to the atmosphere substantially exceeds the natural rate that prevailed before the rise of human societies. That means that a large and unprecedentedly rapid thermal impulse is being imparted to the earth’s ecology that will have to be balanced in some fashion. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the consequences will be extensive. We do not, however, know the timing, magnitude, or character of those consequences with sufficient precision to make predictions that meet scientific standards of confidence.

In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means that significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will [be] encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.

This report has been prepared at the request of the U.S. intelligence community with these circumstances in mind. It summarizes what is currently known about the security effects of climate perturbations, admitting the inherent complexities and the very considerable uncertainties involved. But under the presumption that these effects will be of increasing significance, it outlines the monitoring activities that the intelligence community should be developing in support of improved anticipation, more effective prevention efforts, and more decisive emergency reaction when that becomes necessary.

A Dan Kahan Reader on Cultural Bias and Motivated Reasoning

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

As previously mentioned, here’s some Dan Kahan to liven up your day:

Shales on Obama on TV

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

I liked this essay by Tom Shales, in which he praises the job Obama is doing in his role as the person who plays a role: He plays the President on TV, too.

Talking about Sandy and Climate Change

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about whether Hurricane Sandy was “caused by” climate change (answer: it depends on what you mean by “caused by”). Also the related question: Is it kosher to leave off some of the nuance when explaining that issue to the public, if by doing so you can help overcome the impediments created by a toxic, culturally charged information environment that has left broad swaths of the public misinformed about climate change?

  • Probable Cause – Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist from MIT, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. Good, solid information on the question by an expert well-versed in the relevant science. Please note both parts of his argument: 1) It probably is at least somewhat inaccurate to say Sandy was the direct result of climate change. 2) A rational understanding of the risks posed by climate change would lead us to take a much greater collective response to mitigate that risk than we have so far done.
  • The moral logic of climate communication – David Roberts, writing in Grist. Roberts presents an interesting, and to my mind fairly apt, analogy involving a patient who has a serious disease that requires expensive treatment, but who is not yet feeling the effects of it. Then the patient has a flu that was not directly caused by the disease, but may have been worsened by it, and is similar to the effects that the disease can be expected to produce if left untreated. What should the doctor tell the patient about the nature of the disease?
  • Moral logic vs. scientific accuracy – David Appell, writing on his Quark Soup blog. Appell calls shenanigans on Roberts for the previously-listed article. He says, in effect, that Roberts is abandoning scientific truth in the name of winning the argument, but that scientific truth is the only thing our side has, meaning to abandon it is crazy. My personal take: Appell is guilty of arguing against a strawman version of Roberts’ argument. And I wish both authors would pay more attention to the distinction between scientists (who need to do their best to be scrupulously objective) and science communicators (who need to be aware of, and respond to, the ways in which their audience will interpret the stories they are told about what scientists believe).

Teller on Magic

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

From Smithsonian Magazine, here’s a fun article in which Teller (of “Penn and…”) takes our minds off politics by explaining some of the psychological principles he exploits as a magician: Teller Reveals His Secrets.

My favorite secret:

6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.

The 2012 Election Map, Adjusted for Population

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

We’ve all seen the red state/blue state voting map. Oh my god! Look at all that red! How do the Democrats ever elect anyone?

But then you can do county-by-county breakdowns, or shades of purple based on the popular vote in each county, and you start to get a clearer picture.

But here is Chris Howard’s even-better version of those maps, and this time I think it’s actually getting pretty close to representing how “red” or “blue” the country really is. What he’s done in this case is to do the county-by-county blended-red-vs.-blue thing, but then he’s adjusted the color saturation based on how populous each county is, so that the lightly populated “red” states fade to a more-accurate light pink.

So, here you go: America in the 2012 election:

Martin: Republicans on Their Closed Media Universe

Monday, November 12th, 2012

I think Politico’s Jonathan Martin must have been told, “write a piece in which prominent Republicans find as many possible ways to say ‘epistemic closure’ without ever actually using that phrase.” The result is pretty impressive: The GOP’s media cocoon.

Bring on the thesaurus:

  • “a political-media coccoon that has become intellectually suffocating and self-defeating”
  • Pauline Kaelism
  • “the hermetically sealed bubble — except it’s not confined to geography but rather a self-selected media universe in which only their own views are reinforced and an alternate reality is reflected”
  • “‘an era of on-demand reality‘”
  • “‘We have become what the left was in the ’70s — insular.'”
  • “…this reassuring pocket universe
  • “Like a political version of ‘Thelma and Louise,’ some far-right conservatives are in such denial that they’d just as soon keep on driving off the cliff than face up to a reality they’d rather not confront”
  • “the choose-your-own-adventure news world
  • “‘Social media has made it easier to self-select…a universe… that is wedded to its own self-fulfilling prophecies‘”
  • “‘Unfortunately, for us Republicans who want to rebuild this party, the echo chamber [now] is louder and more difficult to overcome'”

The article goes on to talk about the market forces that create and sustain this hermetically sealed information space, and how Republicans concerned with winning future elections might work to transcend it.

Frum: The conservative followership has been fleeced, exploited, and lied to by the conservative entertainment complex

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Listen to David Frum’s part of this, especially the part about 12 minutes in when he (twice) says the line I pulled out for the headline:

I do occasionally find myself listening to David Frum say something, and think, huh, that guy is actually speaking truth.

Rightwing Media and the Election

Friday, November 9th, 2012

A couple of interesting articles I read over the past few days:

  • Fox News’ dark night of the soul – Andrew O’Hehir apparently got the assignment of watching Fox News’ coverage on election night and cataloging what took place. Sounds… awesome.
  • How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File – Conor Friedersdorf on how Nate Silver and his ilk at actual news outfits reported the race honestly and accurately, while those in the echo chamber pushed happy-gas and ended up shocked — shocked! — to find out that those egghead number-crunchers were better at predicting a complex phenomenon than they were.

So: The lesson of the day is that some experts actually know what they’re talking about, and a good way to tell them from those who don’t is to ask how they know what they know. Also, epistemic closure is a poor substitute for knowing statistics and consciously seeking to minimize bias.

Why Romney Lost

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Is it tempting fate to go up with this headline now, before any polling places (except Guam) have closed? Maybe. But I kind of believe Nate Silver’s model is not biased (because it’s intentionally designed to eliminate bias), and short of a really effective conspiracy in several states to impede access to voting or fudge numbers in the voting machines, neither of which seem at all likely, I’m happy going with the headline for now. If I turn out to be horribly wrong, y’all can immortalize it in a “Dewey Defeats Truman” kind of way.

Anyway, a thoughtful and to my way of thinking accurate take on this question is here, from Michael Brendan Dougherty at The American Conservative: How to Explain Romney’s Loss to Shocked Conservatives.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be squee-ing at the thought of what was in the letter Darcy handed Lizzie at the end of yesterday’s episode. See you in the second term!

The Mended Soul’s P&P&Z Cosplay

Monday, November 5th, 2012

As you may (or may not) have heard, I’m hanging out online with a bunch of people obsessed with the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And whether or not your own interests trend in that particular direction, I think we can all agree that this is awesome: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

More from The Mended Soul’s description of creating her costume:

I was so pleased with how the hem turned out! Although next time I will make sure to apply the blood and chocolate the night before. Otherwise the nice lovely dark red fades a bit. A small note to remember when doing the mixture of chocolate and blood, it soaks up much faster into the fabric. My handprint spread out quickly which works because I wanted to try to make it look like someone had grabbed my skirt.