Archive for the 'the_usa' Category

McCardle on New Gun Laws

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Megan McArdle is a libertarian journalist who occasionally makes waves by being intelligent and independent-minded and willing to say publicly what she thinks. Her latest wave-making exercise: There’s Little We Can Do to Prevent Another Massacre.

I saw it satirized by Kathleen Geier in Political Animal, who wrote:

McArdle is the libertarian super-genius who thinks training little kids to gang-rush crazed gunmen, kamikaze-style, would be a far saner and more effective policy to stop gun violence than some latte-sipping liberal conspiracy like stricter gun laws. The idiocy of this suggestion is so perfect it’s downright inspiring. A zillion points for Gryffindor!

Yeah, well, no. McArdle may be wrong, but she’s not wrong in the way mocked by Geier. Personally, I’ve been avoiding the week-long national outpouring of televised grief-and-outrage porn. I’m deeply offended by the media’s response to the shootings, and don’t feel like lending it my attention. And I think gun control makes a lot of (obvious) sense, and the thinking that underlies the Second Amendment is no longer valid. But I also don’t have an answer to annoyingly intelligent and rational gun-enthusiast McArdle, when she argues that “the things that would work are impractical and unconstitutional. The things we can do won’t work.”

I think the point McArdle is making is animated at some level by the same disgust I feel with the media response. Yes, I get that you feel really, really badly about the senseless killing of lots of innocent children and their teachers. Guess what? Everybody else feels exactly the same way. But the problem of an event like the Newtown shooting is an actual problem in the real world. It will be solved (or not) by reasoned action, not by your outraged feelings.

Toward the end of her piece, McArdle writes this:

There’s a terrible syllogism that tends to follow on tragedies like this:

1. Something must be done

2. This is something

3. Therefore this must be done.

. . . and hello, Gulf War II.

Yup. Emotion is a terrible guide to action, because emotional outrage is such a ready handle for manipulation by the irrational and unscrupulous.

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.

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!

Fact Checking the Hurricane Sandy Photos

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

If you haven’t seen it, definitely check out this cool piece of fact-checking of some of the photos allegedly of Hurricane Sandy that have been floating around: Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes.

I especially liked this one:

Dunham’s Obama Ad

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Reminding me why I’m really looking forward to season 2 of Girls, Lena Dunham made this ad for Barack Obama:

Also, Mary Elizabeth Williams has fun commentary on conservatives’ response: Conservatives flip out over Lena Dunham Obama ad.

Holland on ‘Nate Silver Truthers’

Friday, October 26th, 2012

From Joshua Holland at Alternet: Republicans Desperate to Spin Romney as the Front-Runner Are Becoming ‘Nate Silver Truthers’. The T pretty much SIA, but the details are still pretty fun.

Drum on the Romney’s Continued Willingness to Lie about His Tax Plan

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Kevin Drum: Lies, Damn Lies, and Mitt Romney’s Tax Plan.

We all struggle trying to explain why Mitt Romney’s tax plan is….inconsistent with reality. Here’s another crack at unpacking the basics behind the famous TPC study that originally made this point. It’s actually pretty simple:

[snip basic arithmetic]

Needless to say, Romney knows all this. The guy ran Bain Capital for years. If there’s anything he knows his way around, it’s a spreadsheet. So is it fair to say flat-out that he’s lying about his tax plan? I guess reasonable people can disagree, but I’d say it is. There really aren’t any reasonable assumptions under which his plan can work, and he obviously knows it. But he keeps saying it anyway. If that’s not a lie, what is?

I’m not sure I see any way around the “L” word here. It’s a knowing falsehood, spoken with the hope of deceiving. shcb? You’ve been pretty limber in the past at construing things I call “lies” as being some other sort of thing notquiteactuallyalie. Is there a better word for what Romney’s doing here?

Friedersdorf: Why I Won’t Vote for Obama

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic: Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama.

To hell with them both.

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as “the lesser of two evils” is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

If not?

So long as voters let the bipartisan consensus on these questions stand, we keep going farther down this road, America having been successfully provoked by Osama bin Laden into abandoning our values.

Lewis’ ‘Obama’s Way’

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

Here’s my favorite paragraph from the shockingly good Obama portrait by Michael Lewis in the upcoming Vanity Fair, Obama’s way. It’s March 2011, and Obama is meeting with his top advisors to decide what, if anything, to do about Qaddafi, who is advancing toward Benghazi with the stated intention of going house to house to cleanse the rebel city in what will surely be a bloodbath. In the meeting, the advisors focus on two choices: do nothing, or impose a no-fly zone. But Obama doesn’t like either option. The generals from the Pentagon admit that the no-fly zone would not stop Qaddafi; it would basically be a butt-covering move. Unusually, Obama opens up the meeting, soliciting opinions from the people who normally don’t speak, the staffers and speechwriters and whatnot who don’t have a seat at the table.

Public opinion at the fringes of the room, as it turned out, was different. Several people sitting there had been deeply affected by the genocide in Rwanda. (“The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room,” as one puts it.) Several of these people had been with Obama since before he was president—people who, had it not been for him, would have been unlikely ever to have found themselves in such a meeting. They aren’t political people so much as Obama people. One was Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell, about the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides. Another was Ben Rhodes, who had been a struggling novelist when he went to work as a speechwriter back in 2007 on the first Obama campaign. Whatever Obama decided, Rhodes would have to write the speech explaining the decision, and he said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t. An N.S.C. staffer named Denis McDonough came out for intervention, as did Antony Blinken, who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, but now, awkwardly, worked for Joe Biden. “I have to disagree with my boss on this one,” said Blinken. As a group, the junior staff made the case for saving the Ben­gha­zis. But how?

The whole thing is very compelling. Like an Aaron Sorkin version of the Obama presidency, with hyper-articulate and self-aware people making pithy observations about their roles as they stride purposefully through the corridors of the West Wing.

Does that mean it’s necessarily fictional schmaltz, like a Sorkin teleplay? I don’t know. Maybe?

Metaphors and stories convey meaning in an otherwise random, chaotic world. They’re how we think. To a significant degree, they’re what thinking is. That’s how our evolutionary investment in our ridiculously big, expensive brains pays off. Reading this story paid off for me. If you hate Obama, you might think you see the scaffolding. The story’s fake! It’s tugging on your heartstrings because it’s designed to tug on your heartstrings. Jesus; wake up, sheeple!

Not me. I choose to believe it’s true. At least to the limit of what this writer, with this access and this deadline and this editor, was able to pull off.

Update: David Atkins and digby at Hullabaloo disagree with each other about the piece. According to Atkins, it’s a very personal, nuanced view of an imperfect but thoughtful man in the crucible of some very difficult decisions. digby, on the other hand, thinks it’s bullshit.

John Scalzi on the Romney Implosion

Friday, September 14th, 2012

One more item on the embassy attack aftermath, this time from sci fi writer John Scalzi: You never go full McCain.

Here’s the thing about Mitt Romney: He’s a Republican candidate for president in the unenviable bind of not being able to run on any sort of record at all.

Scalzi goes on to describe the pernicious circumstances that prevent Romney from running on his record as a businessman, or as governor of Massachusetts, or on his economic plan. All true.

Constrained as he is, he’s got nothing he can actually use to make a case for himself but himself – Mitt Romney, with that genial smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, that head of hair strategically left to gray at the temples, and that paternal aura of competence that says, hey, trust me, put me in the job and we’ll deal with all those silly fiddly details later. And you know what? With the economy still farting about and Obama still being as cuddly as a prickly pear, and Romney having a bunch of SuperPACs willing to shovel money until there’s not a swing state that’s not carpetbombed with ads, this had a reasonably good chance of working. But ultimately it only works if you actually trust Romney – or alternately, have no reason to distrust Romney – to make sane, responsible and intelligent decisions.

Which is why Romney blew up his chance to be president this week: He showed, manifestly, that he’s indeed capable of making horrible, awful, very bad, no good, terrible choices. First, by deciding that a foreign crisis, generally considered to be off-limits for bald, obvious politicking, would be an excellent time to engage in some bald, obvious politicking. Second, by making a statement slamming the president while the crisis was still in the process of developing and getting worse. Third, by blaming the president for an action he had no hand in (the press release from the under siege embassy) and which his administration had disavowed. Fourth, when after the facts of the events became clear, and it became clear that Romney’s statement had some serious factual holes in it, for doubling down at a press conference on assertions everyone knew by that time weren’t correct.

Scalzi goes on to talk about the tie-in to McCain’s goofy attempt to “suspend” the campaign in 2008 so he could duck the debates and return to Washington to solve the financial crisis. And for all that they’re completely different scenarios, the two events really do feel to me like they vibrate at the same frequency in terms of domestic politics.

Maybe I’m jumping too hard on the “this is the end for Romney” thing. We’ll see. And coming out of the conventions it was going badly for him already, so even if he does crash and burn from this point forward, it will be impossible to tie it to this incident alone. But sometimes something really does look so obvious that a collective, shared response emerges. And the collective, shared response I’m expecting to come from this is, “gah. This man has no business at all being President.”

More on Romney and the Embassy Attack

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

I liked this summary from digby: There’s a good reason why the country is polarized. Most of the major US daily papers, and an assortment of lesser ones, ran editorials today condemning Romney in the strongest terms. The thirteen different pullquotes really are amazingly harsh; taken in aggregate they’re kind of breath-taking. Meanwhile, in “Bizarroworld”, as digby puts it, an assortment of strained defenses were offered up by people like Rumsfeld and Rush and the various make-believe journalists at Fox.

I’m sure it makes a certain kind of sense for the more extreme elements in the right-wing media and punditry to make the best case they can; their audience is, after all, substantial, and I’m sure they’ll be able to sell lots of gold coins and adjustable beds or whatever else it is those poor suckers have coming to them. But the rest of the country is under no obligation to view it with anything but disgust and disdain, and I expect the polls coming out in the next week will show that they’ve done exactly that.

Swing voters may be unhappy about the economy, but that doesn’t mean they’re suicidal. Romney isn’t fit to lead, and his actions over the last 48 hours have made that starkly clear.

A couple of longer items I liked:

A recurring theme of some of the best commentary I’ve seen is this: In trying to muddy the facts and gin up tribal animosity aimed at Muslims (allegedly) and Obama (particularly), Romney is allying himself with the same sorts of religious extremists on both sides who want nothing so much as to provoke more violence, since their cynical analysis tells them that in a more violent world their own message will win more converts.

Screw that.

Convincing the Other Half

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Mitt Romney had already convinced half the country he was unfit to lead. In the last 24 hours, he’s making a strong run at convincing the other half. Kind of nauseating, but also impressive on a certain level.

When I previously observed that he was not going to let an unwillingness to Go There prevent him from having his shot at being president (not an original thought, I realize), I assumed it was going to get uglier. But there’s a difference between believing something is coming and actually experiencing it firsthand.


Craig Newmark on Fact Checking

Monday, September 10th, 2012

I enjoyed this item that Craig Newmark (the Craigslist guy) posted to his site recently: Fact-checkers are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. I particularly liked it because it called my attention to the full version of Chris Wallace’s interview of Jon Stewart that happened a while back. Making this version particularly interesting is that it’s the full interview, with a dimming/brightening effect used to show which parts were edited out or included when the interview aired on Fox. (Not trying to suggest that there was anything particularly nefarious or dishonest in the editing process. I just think it’s an interesting layer on top of the already-interesting discussion.)

Anyway, here’s part one:

And here’s part two: