A cool explanation and praise of Nate Silver's election forecasting

(via Reddit) Annmaria's Blog at thejuliagroup.com has a post up explaining how Nate Silver's election predictions worked, and why it was a really brave thing to do.   I thought this post was really cool, because I didn't quite understand any of what was going on at Silver's blog -- all I knew was that he was forecasting an Obama victory, and that was comforting.

Well, I got a little more than that.  I understand that when someone has a 90% chance of winning something, and that thing only happens once, it's still totally possible for the other person to win.  In fact, roughly one tenth of unique 90%-probability events go the way of the 10% margin.

I didn't know, though, whether Silver was partisan, or whether his math was any good.  The conversation about it was mostly over my head, and taking place in venues I don't closely follow.  (Although I've been barely following anyone in the past couple weeks -- been kind of busy and flustered.)

It turns out, there's this thing called the Central Limit Theorem, which says, according to Annmaria's Blog, 

the mean of an infinite number of reasonably large random samples will be the population mean.

No idea how you prove that, but apparently it's well-accepted statistical theory.

So, more realistically, the more reasonably large random samples, the more likely that their mean will be predictive of the actual result.  Which I think means that about 90% of polls added up to an Obama victory in the electoral college.

Annmaria's Blog (sorry I keep referring to her by her blog's title, but I can't find her name) explains that Silver's forecasting was extraordinary -- she says heroic -- not just because he applied good statistics, which many statisticians could have done, but that he put that prediction out there, took the risk of a misunderstanding public and an (at the end) 8% chance of ruining his own career, to stand up for good applied math.

I agree -- it's a heroic thing to do.  He elevated the quality of public discourse, and provided more vivid, undeniable evidence for the usefulness of data to reach conclusions.  I think his contribution will have a genuinely substantial positive effect on political discourse in the next 4 years.

Last-minute thoughts on the election

It's about 11pm, and I just realized that after I posted about heading out to vote, I never got around to writing anything else for the rest of the day.  Instead, my partner and I (after going to both of our polling locations then to the mall for an after-voting lunch) have been watching TV shows and occasionally checking up on the results so far. As of writing this, according to Politico, it's 186-174, Romney winning.  But California hasn't reported yet.  That's 55 votes in the bag for Obama, right?  (California reported while I was writing that sentence, for Obama.)

And I'm not scared.  Honest.  Because these are both reasonable people, running for the head of a reasonable government.  Right?

No, that's not true.  Honestly, I am scared.  I wish I wasn't, because it feels kind of hype-y and out-of-proportion.  I'm not going to try to leave the country if Romney wins, I don't think he's one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  But I'm scared.

I'm scared because the role of the president isn't one of radical change, no matter who gets it.  It's one job in a huge bureaucracy.  An important one, but just one.  And while the president of the United States may not pilot the future of the world, the president does lean, and the direction of the president's leanings affects more than nearly anyone else's.

When I lean in a bad direction, I risk hurting someone's feelings, doing a small amount of economic damage to someone or something, maybe even -- at the worst, most extreme -- costing some people's lives.  But the president's leaning has so much more power than that.  An aggressively fiscally conservative president has the ability to create an America where (at the very least) hundreds more Americans literally starve to death.  A president who has the chance to appoint a supreme court judge has the ability to tilt the justice system to more aggressively punish people for differences in lifestyle like sexuality, drug preference, or religion.

When the president leans toward the progressive end, we see happier people, a kinder government, a civilization where more things work out for more people.  When the president leans conservative, we see a more cutthroat, antisocial civilization.

And I really do think that the political philosophy that says people who fail should suffer as much as circumstances allow is antisocial.  It's anti-civilizational.  We don't work together as a species to build civilizations so we can let each other suffer.  We do it to make things better for each other and for ourselves.

As of this point in writing, Obama's almost got it in the bag.  But I'm going to keep going for a bit ranting.

There's a type of person, or, rather, a type of behavior, that really pisses me off, that I've been thinking about a lot lately.  It's when a person justifies doing something awful to someone else by saying "That's just the way the world works, you need to get used to it."

Because the world they're talking about is the world insofar as it's made of people.  It's the world that consists of people interacting with each other and doing nice or bad things to each other.  So the way that world works is made entirely of the way people choose to act to each other.

So, it's begging the question, for one thing.

But beyond that, when you make that excuse, you're admitting that what you did is shitty, and you're admitting that you could have acted differently, but chose not to, and the reason you chose not to is that the world sucks, and you don't feel personally responsible for taking a little of the sting out of that.

It seems to me that's kind of the ethos of the republican party right now.  The idea that success means and requires hurting other people. If left unchecked, it will lead to a shitty world -- and not to be too preachy about this, but when you alienate 99% of the people for the benefit of 1%, it gets kind of shitty up there, too.  You lose inspired diversity.  You're the victim of the best art. You have a smaller range for potential friends, and you've cornered yourself in an inevitably self-destructing class.

So, like, fingers crossed for Obama and stuff.

The minutiae of politics

The first time that we set out to collect data on this and associate it with political or moral beliefs, we found a general pattern -- this is with the psychologists Yoel Inbar and Paul Bloom -- that in fact, across three studies we kept finding that people who reported that they were easily disgusted also reported that they were more politically conservative. Another way to say this, though, is that people who are very liberal are very hard to disgust.

It's getting very close to the election, and I wanted to do a post about politics.  I had a long conversation with my father earlier about immigration and poverty (which was fun...) and I've been trying to stay on top of the issues, but all that I keep coming back to focusing on is how ridiculously big a deal an election is, and how trivial we make it.

This popped up on Reddit earlier today:

The TED talk above is about how stuff like being near a sign reminding you to wash your hands makes you answer questions more conservatively.  I wonder if that means a biological outbreak is good for a conservative candidate?  Did swine flu sway an election?

Not that I can come up with anything better.  I often paraphrase Winston Churchill (who was himself paraphrasing someone or other): Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the other ones we've tried.  I'm terrified of the consequences of next Tuesday's election, because it seems ridiculous to put the future of the country in the hands of the people of that country.  I'm just more terrified of everyone else we could give the power of that decision.

Here's an idea we could try:  Let's swap it around -- rather than Americans electing the American president, everyone in every other country should vote for it.  Same standards: has to be an American, at least 35, and so on and so on, but everybody in a Democratic nation gets to vote for America's new president, except Americans.

We could do the same thing in reverse:  all the other countries' presidents and prime ministers could be elected by the rest of the world around them.  It would force everyone to start paying attention to world politics, and being nicer to other countries -- I think.  If your only way to improve your own country is by putting other countries in a position to do better by yours, I imagine a lot of people would do a better job of looking out for the rest of the world.

But maybe that would backfire horribly.

Oh well.  I'm voting for Obama on Tuesday, and I hope everyone reading this does, too.  Or at least votes.  Please at least get out and vote, if you're allowed.  There's nothing better to do.

Endless War: TMMTO

The first time I read this book,I was mostly focused on the language,the politics being a little outside my range. I'm not sure I understood much of Goldstein's book. This time,though,I couldn't help but draw parallels between American foreign policy and Oceanean(?) foreign policy,the way Goldstein laid it out. The super-expensive floating fortresses,which are themselves an extraordinary implicit waste of resources,remind me of American aircraft carriers,which I've heard many pro-military Americans argue aggressively in favor of,but which no one has been able to make a particularly sensible case for. (I've heard it argued that oceanic battle has become an absurd fantasy now that most countries have ships with guns that can shoot past the horizon,so no ship could ever successfully fire at another while remaining safely out of reach.) That made me think of the war on Terror,and the war on Drugs,and in general America's proclivity for concept-wars,and that made me think of Ze Frank's "TMMTO [That Made Me Think Of]" video,"Unfair," in which he talks mostly about the Power Law curve,or the Perreto distribution,and the ways societies justify the inequality within themselves.

Technology and industry showed us that the top spots could be occupied by people other than  kings. That resources can be accumulated in other ways. But regardless of whether it's a democracy, or a dictatorship,or a socialist state,that curve seems to creep back in. Rank wealth today in democratic America or quasi-communist China and there it is. So how do we rationalize this unfairness today? ... One way is to say that the top spots are occupied by the hardest workers,the smartest,the best. But after a few generations of the wealthy handing down money to their children, this logic seems to fall apart. We know ... that rags to riches is possible,however unlikely,but that's a very different thing than thinking we can change the shape of the curve itself. I think of the difference in the views of our political parties. To me,conservatives seem to see the shape of the curve in terms of  talent and effort,and that in some ways it's justified. While liberals imagine the shape in terms of greed and seek to flatten it out a bit. The difficulty with the first view is the tension and anger that arises when smart people work hard and don't seem to get ahead. The difficulty with the second might be that trying to change the shape of the curve is like trying to push back the tide with a million hands.

1984's IngSoc (and all three major powers' political positions,according to Goldstein) is very conscious of the impossibility of changing the curve,and the efforts of the party to solidify it. But they also encourage a belief that it can all be overturned. Ze Frank ends "Unfair" with an encouragement that the point of life might be to make an effort against that impossible monolith; "To try, even if it's absurd." And that makes me think of Winston and Julia's absurd effort to find a way to strike a blow against the party,and the party itself and its absurd effort to push for military dominance and a future of unity and equality while simultaneously pursuing exactly the opposite,and all the while encouraging its citizens to pursue the ability to fight for both simultaneously.

And that makes me think about how subtle the difference is between the views,because I don't think Ze is wrong, and I don't think it's an act of doublethink to believe that Ze's belief in the value of absurd effort,and Winston's belief in the value of absurd effort,is good,while IngSoc's encouragement of the value of absurd effort is wrong. (In fact,on second thought,I think I can make the case that IngSoc doesn't value absurd effort,they value belief that one's effort is not absurd,while deliberately undermining one's own ability to achieve one's ends.)

One of the many great values of this book is, I think,that understanding what's going on requires accepting that the differences between good politics and bad politics are (a.) the value placed on truth,and (b.) the details -- it requires accepting that two parties otherwise apparently identical could be fairly placed on opposite ends of a spectrum from good to bad,based solely on the way they choose to use language,or their relationship to truth,or some vague philosophical difference. Winston is placed in a position to choose between the absurd goal ofthe party towards perfect equality (which they themselves admit they won't achieve within their lifetimes) or the Brotherhood's absurd goal of bringing down the party (which they themselves admit they won't achieve within their lifetimes).

But we're led to feel (not wrongly,I think) that Winston makes a correct choice -- that,even though it's pointless, that even though he's not even actually a part of the brotherhood, if such a thing even exists,it's right for him to pursue ending the party, and what he did was productive even in the most minor of senses that he was able to live and think for himself for a longer part of his life than the party would have preferred, and he gave encouragement and pleasure to at  least one other party member who should also have otherwise been denied it.

Live Blogging the Third Debate

I'm not as late showing up this time as I was for the last one -- and I didn't miss it altogether, like I did the first one.  Yay, me!  Alright, snacks ready, stream running, and I'm ready to live blog this thing. 9:22pm

Okay, I like that Romney is saying he doesn't want to put US soldiers in Syria.  But I don't know how he thinks you can give an insurgency weapons that can't be used against us our our allies.  And he still wants to increase defense spending.


"Our purpose is to make sure the world is peaceful."  That's a nice sounding idea, but it's not really America's job. We're not capable of it, no amount of making us stronger is capable of it.

Crossed that bit out, because it's not a nice idea: it's White Man's Burden.  America's Burden to Police the World is imperialistic, colonial and wrongheaded.


"America has the responsibility and the privilege..." Jesus Crap, Romney is the most entitled sounding person ever.  Nothing is anyone else's problem.  All the wrong in the world is his, and he's the only one who can fix it.  Romney seems to think that what the suffering people of the world really need, deep down, is for him and his businessman friends to be nice to them.

That said, Obama's "America is the one indespensible nation" is also pretty douchey.  But he talks about alliances, not about charity, and he talks about the needs of America.  You know, the country he governs.

Obama is right -- America is not a platonically powerful nation.  We need to work on ourselves if we're able to help other countries -- and we should approach helping them as equals.


Romney: Obama promised 5.4% unemployment, we're 9 million short of that.

There should be a rule in debates that requires all sets of related figures to be presented in the same format.  How much less than 5.4% is 9 million? 2%? 0.024%?  I have no idea.

Would you quit saying "The road to Greece?"  God.  You're such a douche.


Romney is seriously bragging about being the best in education compared to the rest of America?  I don't care if they're better than the rest of America.  I care whether they come near any of the other industrialized nations.

Cutting 5% of everything apart from the Military?  Awesome.  That's roughly no money.

"We spend more on our Military than the next 10 countries combined."  Is he lowballing?  I think he's actually lowballing there.

About Romney's vague budget: it seems like he's asking to be elected by telling everyone who might support him, but stands opposed to the other people who might support him, "Don't worry.  I'm only lying to the other guys."  Either he plans on getting the office and screwing over all his rich friends (which, fine, great) or he plans on getting into office and screwing over the poor.

EFF YEAH -- We have fewer planes -- we also have fewer horses and bayonettes!  I LOVE OBAMA.  THANK YOU FOR RECOGNIZING THE EXISTENCE OF CHANGING TECHNOLOGY.


"Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States?"  Damn, that's super-imperial.  And we make that promise to other countries?  Ick.

Okay, I don't like it, but it's kind of funny to see Obama side-stepping the question like that -- "will stand with Israel if attacked."

Hahaha, Romney's going to stop America from taking a country's oil.  That's hilarious.


"America has not dictated other nations.  We have freed other nations from dictation."  Damn, Romney's platform really is all about Jingoism.

Romney: We wouldn't get that call.  My budget does balance.  Everything I say is true.  All the problems I'm not prepared for don't exist, la la la la.


I don't like that Obama is proud of killing Bin Laden.  I don't like the idea of anyone being proud of killing anyone else.  But pragmatically speaking, I do think it was probably the right thing -- and he's at least appropriately respectful about the gravity of the thing.

I like that Romney just tried to talk the moderator out of moving forward and the moderator was like, "Nope.  You just did what you're complaining about."


Wasn't paying attention for about five minutes.


Obama brings up China and "Playing by the rules."  I still don't get that.  What rules?  Where is this rule book?  Why is it cheating?  Why is it not promoting injustice?  Breaking treaties?  Rules are the shit that govern classrooms.  Laws, treaties, international agreements -- that's the language of the national stage.  Why is it being reduced to a childish jargon?


OH GOD ROMNEY QUIT WHINING.  Oh no, they're stealing intellectual property.  Because it's fucking 1950 and there's no such thing as the internet.

Economic future is not in retaining dominance over scarce objects.  That's absurd and nonsensical, that system has been theoretically dead for about five years.  I'm voting for Obama because he understands that 2016 is going to be radically different, technologically, than 2012, just like 2012 was radically different from 2008.

Heh.  Obama said America is a Pacific power.  I thought for a second that he'd mispronounced "Specific."


"Attacking someone else is not a plan."  Starts attacking Bush.

Is Romney complaining about the government investing in Tesla?  Now I want to punch him.  In the face.  With a brick.

I feel about Romney right now the way I feel about Joffrey Baratheon.


Romney: Let's make America the most attractive place in the world, and kick everyone else out.

Caitlin sez:

I love Big Bird.  I love women.  I love teachers.

Still, definitely, totally voting for Obama.

Signing off now.

1984: new work in ENG102! Yay!

We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984.  Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas.  And I'm only 12 pages in.  So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight.  It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.

This is the Shard.  It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far.  I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.

That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing.  It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels.  We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy.  The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices.  Come put your Corporate Offices Here."

The Reactionary Anti-1984

I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true.  We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.

What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction.  The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane.  But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you."  Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest.  In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it.  Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression.  (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)

Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen

We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned.  More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting.  See, for example, this blog.

Some of us are hopefully using this for good.  I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence.  But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.

As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward.  Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded.  You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.

And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.

The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party.  But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools.  Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life.  Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak.  In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.


I don't have any ultimate point here.  Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic.  I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  More information is available at www.txwatson.com/school-license.

Liveblogging the second debate

Okay, I came to this late.  I was out for the last several hours, and didn't get to see the first half hour.  But now that I've started watching, I have some stuff I want to say. 9:35pm

First of all:  Romney bragged about the fact that he balanced the budget every year he was in office in Massachusetts.  This is from the Massachusetts budget website:

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ budget allocates state resources for the operations of state government and for cities and towns.  Under Massachusetts law, the budget - or General Appropriations Act - must be balanced.  The budget must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by the Governor.

Emphasis mine.

Maybe I don't understand, but it sounds like what that means is the legislature isn't allowed to give the Massachusetts government a budget to sign that isn't already balanced.


I guess it's a type of progress that Romney's description of pro-women policies is a watered down version of affirmative action as it existed in the 1970's.  I think he's winning unfair points, though, for saying out loud stuff that ought to be "no shit" territory.


"Every woman should have access to contraceptives" isn't the same thing as "Every woman should be allowed to get their contraceptives covered on their insurance."

What the hell does cracking down on China mean?  I want more details on that.  I want to know what he thinks they're doing that counts as "Cheating."  Are we going to force them to institute a minimum wage?  Take away their oil until they start making it cleaner?   Because that stuff isn't strictly in the power of the United States president.


Oh, so that's what cracking down on China means.  Not letting them flood our country with unsafe products, and stuff.  Weird that it was Obama explaining that, and that Romney was against it.

"The toughest Wall Street reforms since the 1930's" sounds like a kind of a low bar, since that's the last time we did anything other than loosening the restraints on Wall Street.



This is like one of those movies where there's a clone, and one of them is a real person and the other one is the clone, and they're both trying to convince you that they're the real one.

The look in [Romney's] eyes when he walked up was like, "I'm the real president."


Reagan?  Really?


There was a big chunk here where they were all (Romney, Obama and the moderator) talking over each other, arguing about who was allowed to talk.  This debate system needs a temporary dictatorship -- the moderator should be allowed to kick people off the ballot after sufficient transgressions.


"These actions, taken by a leader, have symbolic significance."  Damn, Romney, you don't want to make this race about the symbolic resonance of a president.


Oh crap, assault weapons.  "I believe in the 2nd amendment."  I don't like Obama on this topic.  But, I mean, I don't like anyone who panders to the NRA, and that includes all the politicians, everywhere in the US.


Holy crap, Romney went worse than Obama right out the gate.  "Change the culture of violence we have -- how are we going to do that?" I have an idea.  Let's quit canonizing the 2nd amendment as a moral truth of the universe rather than a quirk of a 200+ year old document.

Augh.  The pro-gun and anti-gun people came together. THEREFORE it's not an assault weapon ban?  I wish the auto-subtitles had someone diagramming the logic of the statements to see if they violate the basic constructions of coherent thoughts.


Jobs.  Jobs.  Jobs.  Also: what he just described is not trickle-down government.  Trickle-down government isn't high-taxation, high-regulation.  Trickle-down is giving rich people loads of money and pretend that they'll give it to everyone else.

"The president has a regular opportunity to label China as a currency manipulator."  Hey, something specific! Tariffs. I liked Obama's requiring quality standards thing better.


More jobs. More jobs. More jobs. Income is down because unemployment is high. I have a plan, here's one part.  It sounds like he wants to bring jobs back to America by turning the American people into chum for his shark buddies.  Enh, I'm not sure if that metaphor works.

What the crap?  China steals our patents is irrelevant to American patent holders having their legal goods produced in America.  That had nothing to do with the question.  At all.  What the crap.


Government does not create jobs.  Government does not create jobs.  Say it one more times and click your heels together, maybe you'll make it true.


Would you quit saying you spent your life in the private sector not in government?  Oh, hey.  Religion.  Is being a pastor a private sector job?  100% of the people in the nation insured.  All my kids.  98% of the adults.  Those statements are incompatible.

You served as governor in a state where the legislature gave you the opportunity to sign good laws, jackass.

Unrelated-ish but I would vote for a president who created a state-style representation in the House and Senate for every college major group that has more than 100,000 degree holders.

Hey, look: copyright law used to silence bloggers for no reason!

TechDirt writes about a woman who wrote a blog post, covering her experience at a training exercise her company held.  She wasn't critical of the company, or the exercise.  She didn't reveal any of the secret punchline-style information that usually follows these exercises.  All she did was quote this portion of the description at the beginning of the scenario:

You’re on a plane that crashed in the Sonora desert. The pilot and copilot are dead, but you and your classmates are unharmed. Your plane was 70 miles off the course that was filed prior to take off and you crashed 50 miles southwest of a mining camp. You have 15 items with which to survive. Rank them from most important to least important.

For that, 2 years after she wrote the post, the company issued a take-down notice.  She pointed out that it's obviously fair use, but didn't fight it, because, at best, she could win back the costs of the fight.


the debates that I haven't seen yet

I didn't get to watch it last night, and I'm not going to have time to watch it tonight.  Or, probably, all weekend.  But I'm really looking forward to seeing the presidential debate. Thing is, I'm already hearing references to it all over the place.  Tumblr is covered in jokes.  I know that Romney barreled over the moderator.  I know that his points are compelling and reasonable, and that the problem is that his argument doesn't mesh with anything he's been saying for weeks.  I know Obama's debating was unsatisfying for a lot of people.

The other day, I saw a graph that showed that the coverage one watches during or after the debate affect the outcome of the debate more than the choices or statements of the debaters themselves.  I've also been reminded, several times recently, of the Nixon/Kennedy debate -- the one where having a TV or not having one massively affected who you thought won the debate.

So I wonder what it's going to be like, for me, watching this debate with all this pre-existing content floating around in my head. l I still think it's worth watching, because it's worth getting the additional information.  But it's going to be weird.  It's going to be sort of not-the-way-it's-meant-to-be.

They should update debating to the Internet Age.  I vote webcomic-debates.  Or vlogbrother-style exchanges.  They could stretch out over the course of the entire election cycle.

The point of participating in civilization is to add value

It's an election season, so I've been having a lot of arguments about my basic philosophical positions.  (I also recently got a job, so I've had to deal with a certain amount of frustrating snark from people who live extremely close to me.)  So, I want to take a minute to spell out what kind of obligations people have to their civilization. Here are some things that aren't your obligation to civilization:

  • To make money
  • To have a job
  • To have a family
  • To practice social normative behavior

Not saying you shouldn't do any of those things.  If you want to, they are often good ideas.  But here, this next thing, is the only thing you should feel obligated to do in civilization.

  • To use the resources and opportunities your civilization provides you in a way that creates new value for the people you're sharing the world with.

Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Make money ethically, participating in useful social constructs and maintaining an economy
  • Have a morally legitimate job, that involves doing something of genuine value at a fair charge
  • Love and care about the people in your life, have a family if you want one, and generally express love and try to add value on a personal level to the world you live in
  • Support productive social norms, like kindness, honesty and good faith, and resist destructive social norms, like sexism, racism and rape culture.

There are loads more.  In fact, a lot of the things that seem like obligations to society boil down to that core, "Add value."  But the focus, if it ever was there, seems to have drifted away from that point, because the argument I often find myself having is one in which I'm defending my desire to add value to the lives of the people around me, against the position that my priority should be to extract as much value from others as possible, and give as little as I can in return.

That kind of participation in civilization -- the kind that focuses on rights but ignores responsibilities, demands that taxes never be raised and wages never be cut, insists that anything a person can squeeze out of the financial system as it exists is not only fair play but morally admirable -- it's corrosive, and it's culturally irresponsible.

Of course, I don't have the ability to reach into other people's minds and mess with the switches.  I can't stop other people believing that the highest morality is self-interest.  But I'm also not going to pretend that I agree with anyone who makes that case.

I'm sure these arguments aren't over this season.  They probably won't start to ebb until a month or two after the election.  But having this written out here will help, I think.  And that's the note I'm leaving the blog on for the weekend, I guess.

Romney's current popularity

(via Tumblr) The best news I've seen so far today came in the form of a graph from Newsweek, posted on Tumblr:

Romney's current popularity suggests that, if the election were held today, there's less than a 4% chance of his winning.  Now, things could dramatically change in the next month, but I don't think they will.  (If it gets any worse, it would be pretty cool to see Romney actually drop out of the race -- but I don't think that's going to happen.)

This doesn't mean Obama has 96% of the votes -- it just means that the gap between people who intend to vote for Romney and people who intend to vote for Obama is big enough that Obama's victory is nearly guaranteed.  This is not likely to be a close race.

His comments in the recently linked private fundraiser tape seem to line up with the big drop down from around 25% chance to around 4%, which likely pushed a lot of undecided voters toward Obama, and motivated a lot of people who weren't likely to vote to get out and vote not for Obama but against Romney.  (I am not a political expert.)

Of course, these kinds of predictions aren't guarantees.  In 2009, Question 1 on Maine's ballot passed despite over 60% of the state's population supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage.  (Question 1 in 2009 sought to repeal the bill that had formally legalized gay marriage.  In this year's election, Question 1 on the Maine ballot seeks to overturn that decision, so passing would be a positive for the LGBT community this time.)

And, the election isn't today.  Romney has a while yet to get his chances back up.  But, he keeps saying horrible things all the time, so I don't think his odds are that good.

Political Lies

Cynicism bothers me for a lot of reasons.  The big one is that it's easy to feel like you don't have any responsibility if you assume that the government is totally corrupt.  I mean, obviously the government is at least a little corrupt. The one I want to talk about now is the argument that it doesn't matter who gets into office, because their promises are all lies anyway.  First of all, lying is hard -- the number of politicians who would have to always be doing it is beyond reasonable.  But more importantly, even if they are all lying, they're telling different lies.

What the lies are does matter.  If you're being cynical because you want to avoid having to think hard about the future of the world, you'll pretend that it doesn't.  But if you want to believe that the whole system is so corrupt that there's nothing that can be done to clean it up, then the only thing that can be done is to nudge the lies in a better direction.

If we're living in a police state, the government doesn't want us to know that.  In a dystopian government, how they lie matters.

If you think America is a dystopia, and you think that better lies aren't not good enough, become a revolutionary.  But "All politicians lie" is a crappy reason for cynical indifference.


(via Reddit) I'm pretty far left, and I'm a philosophy major. That combination tends to leave me leaning closer to conspiracy theories than I'm comfortable with.  One of the ones that makes me feel a bit funny is the National Defense Authorization Act.  Specifically, Section 1021(b)(2).


(a) IN GENERAL.—Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107–40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.

(b) COVERED PERSONS.—A covered person under this section is any person as follows:

(1) A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks.

(2) A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

Bold emphasis mine.

TruthDig.com reports on a US District Court out of New York that ruled section 1021(b)(2) unconstitutional.  I guess it says that somewhere in the linked 112 page ruling.

When Obama signed the bill into law (noting that presidents don't get a line-item veto) he issued a statement stating that his administration would never interpret the law to mean that they could detain American citizens without trial.  But his administration has stated their intent to fight the New York ruling that the section was unconstitutional.

I don't tend to believe the type of people who believe, for example, that FEMA has prison camps hidden throughout the US.  But the government does sometimes do horrible, horrible things.  Tuskegee, for example, or Guantanamo Bay.

I don't know how to find that line -- how to figure out which crazy-sounding claims are true and which ones are, you know, crazy.  I like to think I'm getting better at it (In high school, I briefly thought that 9/11 was an inside job) but it's still not easy.

I don't know of any American citizens being held without trial (apart from Bradley Manning), but I wouldn't, would I?

Political lies :)

I've been seeing a lot of political ads on YouTube, and I've been casually fact-checking them looking for something to do a big post about.  There have been quite a few good starts, but I haven't had enough time to actually write any of those long, fact-based posts.  I'll be coming back to that point about time later tonight. Just now, though, I saw one I didn't have to fact-check.  A Romney ad for New Hampshire just said that gas prices have doubled since Obama took office.  Doubled.  Holy crap, right?

Total crap, though.  I live in New Hampshire.  I remember paying for gas when I voted for Obama.  I remember paying over 4 dollars a gallon.  Gas is not eight dollars a gallon.

Gas is about 60 cents lower than it was at the worst of the prices when Bush was in office.  It's lower than it was at the end of the Bush years, and it's just gone up -- so, it's been even lower than that for the majority of Obama's time in office.

This was an ad that had Romney's name on it.  There was some other bull in it, too.  They said that taxes in NH for the middle class have gone up, which they haven't.

It's terrifying that we've developed a political atmosphere where the politicians are willing to just lie to get into office.

New internet law could protect our email like it was, you know, mail.

(via Boing Boing) There's a bill going before congress that might get the basic civil protections for privacy that Americans are supposed to enjoy up to date with the state of technology:  

When Congress passed the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a time when massive online storage of e-mail was essentially unimaginable, it was presumed that if you hadn’t actually bothered to download your e-mail, it could be considered "abandoned" after 180 days. By that logic, law enforcement would not need a warrant to go to the e-mail provider or ISP to get the messages that are older than 180 days; police only need to show that they have "reasonable grounds to believe" the information gathered would be useful in an investigation.

Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the ECPA's authors, wants to revise that law to keep up with the change in the basics of email -- most people don't use offline email programs anymore, so all our communication is, legally, accessible without a warrant.  But his proposal, which "will be incorporated into a larger bill aimed at revising the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA)," would amend that problem.

The Ars Technica article I've linked and quoted points out that many tech companies have already taken to demanding warrants to protect their customers' data.  Gmail, for example, is as protected as it ought to be.  But not all companies are that ethical, and none of them are required.

Leahy is also selling the amendment on the basis that it's still leaving a lot of holes in citizens' protection -- all the meta data attached to an email is still available to the police. This is to sell the bill to the conservatives who tend to  vote against anything that makes the police's job harder.

Political battles like this always make me nervous, because it's disappointing to see that we still have arguments in congress about whether it's a good idea to enforce the spirit of privacy and to protect the citizens from their government.  But if I wanted to come at this from a starting position of pessimism, it's at least good that there are people fighting to keep the law up to date with the world it's legislating.

Essentialism and Racism via Psychology Today

David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., published an article today on Psychology Today's website called The Roots of Racism, which examines the idea of race, and the way it contributes to the idea of racism.  After clearly separating the biological definition of race from the "folk-conception," the popular understanding of the concept of race, he begins tearing it apart.

The idea that members of the same race resemble one another is very widespread and intuitively compelling.  The only problem with it is that it’s dead wrong.

Consider the fact that any two people resemble one another in all sorts of ways.  [... therefore], it’s vacuous to say that members of the same race resemble one another.  I think that what people who say that members of a race are similar to one another really have in mind is something like this: “Members of the same race resemble one another in more ways than members of different races do.” But this doesn’t work either.  Michelle Obama and the late Barry White are ostensibly members of the same race, but does Michelle really look more like Barry than she looks like, say, Ann Romney?

If your knee-jerk response is, “Of course she does!” I urge you to think again, because your response suggests that you are in the grip of a powerful illusion. Did you evaluate all of the observable features of Michelle, Barry, and Ann before you came to your conclusion?  Of course you didn’t. You considered only very few traits—primarily skin color.

He then points out that there's a popular conception, the idea of "Passing," which completely undermines the premise of visual resemblance.  "[E]ven virulent racists tacitly admit that a person’s race isn’t determined by how they look.  In the folk-conception, appearance is diagnostic of race, but it’s not identical to it."

Finally, he brings it around to the subject of Essentialism, which I've written about before.  The idea of race, he points out, is the idea that there are groups of people defined by some inherent trait, that they all share and that no other group of people possess.

[This idea] doesn’t entail anything of moral significance about either group. However, the idea that another group of people are not of our kind situates them as what social psychologists call an “out-group.”  When this happens, [... w]e develop an “us and them” mentality that leads us to consider these others as a homogeneous mass rather than a group of individuals, and to think them as our moral inferiors.

The combination of essentialist thinking with outgroup bias makes for a particularly nasty cocktail, for we not only think of the outgroup as having morally despicable characteristics, we also think of these characteristics as essential to them. This explains why racist beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. Even if a person’s behavior doesn’t conform to a negative racial stereotype, there is a tendency to assume that these dispicable traits are somehow latent in them, just waiting to be realized.

(Emphasis mine)

He concludes that those who oppose racism should concentrate their efforts on "undermining the very idea of race," which is the only point at which I disagree -- only because I don't think it's his place to dictate the course of progressive politics.

I do, however, agree that, as a cause all on its own, Essentialism needs to be combated.  It's a component in every awful way that humans interact with each other and the world, and we gain nothing by it that we would lose by understanding that it isn't true.

The parties and the internet

ArsTechnica wrote a breakdown on Obama's and Romney's "Internet freedom" positions, focused primarily on Obama's, titled For Dems, "Internet freedom" means "vigorously" protecting copyrights. The basics:  Conservatives say freedom, but really want to crack down on porn and gambling.  Liberals say freedom, but really want to crack down on copyright infringement and breach of patents. (That's pointedly not to say cracking down on patent trolling.)

I have to admit that, unfortunately, I can't vote on the basis of this single issue.  It's true that copyright is -- or, should be -- a fringe issue.  It happens to be the biggest-deal fringe issue of our generation, but it's still not more important than LGBT rights or socialized medicine.

But even if I were to stake my vote on this one issue, I wouldn't know which guys to side with.  They both want to try and break the internet, but they want to do it in different ways.  The conservative side is pro-censorship and China-like national firewalls.  The liberal side wants to enforce a dying business model to avoid hard times for profitable, but nonessential, American businesses -- in the process, damaging the usefulness of the internet and creating so many laws that will be broken so often that anyone could be thrown in jail.

Then again, if porn is illegal, anyone could be thrown in jail anyway.  If there's one thing I am 100% on, it's that internet porn will die the day that the internet dies.  (Not the other way around -- nothing's killing the porn first.)

It's unfortunate, but it looks like whoever I vote for (Obama) is going to try and break the internet over the next four years.  I hope our next president doesn't do too much damage.  I hope it's too fringe for them.

Paul Ryan is a crazy person

It's been widely reported that Paul Ryan's acceptance speech for the Vice-Presidential nomination was full of crap.  Even Fox said so.  That's the sort of thing I tend to expect from conservative politicians these days, though.  Jay Smooth went into detail about how the GOP deals with facts just the other day:

I mean, I was surprised when I found out that Mitt Romney believes that global climate change is happening.  He's still being useless about it -- complaining that we shouldn't have to do anything because China keeps using fossil fuels -- but it's a big step that he's at least acknowledging the observed fact of climate change.

Paul Ryan, on the other hand, took his denial of reality a step further when he defended his acceptance speech, claiming that the things he said weren't actually lies.

"Read the speech. What I was saying is the president ought to be held to account for his broken promises," Ryan said in a reference to a closed GM assembly plant in his hometown.

In his Republican National Convention speech in Tampa, Fla., Ryan pointed out then-candidate Obama's visit to the plant in 2008 but did not mention the plant had already been closed when Obama arrived.

I do wonder whether there was once a time in American politics when both parties believed true things, and who differed on real, core philosophical positions.

Another thing wrong with voting in America

MentalFloss has an article up about the Diebold Accuvote system, which is the electronic voting machine that a quarter of Americans will be using to vote this coming election.  It turns out, they're distressingly easy to hack.

In 2006, a Princeton computer science professor and his students were testing the system’s security when they discovered a decidedly low-tech way to crack the Accuvote. Each machine logs its votes on a memory card housed behind a locked panel, but the lock is the same type used on hotel minibars and jukeboxes. The universal key that opens it is widely available. Whoops!

In September 2011, even more terrifying news emerged[. ... A] team of computer scientists on the lab’s Vulnerability Assessment team built a little gizmo that could latch onto an Accuvote’s circuitry and automatically change voters’ ballots. The kicker? The parts needed to build [it] cost only $10.50.

Stuff like this is why I'm getting real sick of hearing people describe America as "The world's greatest Democracy."  We're probably closer to the bottom than we are to the top.  Close to half of Americans don't vote.  A quarter of Americans will be voting on machines that are trivially easy to hack.  22 states in the US have voter ID laws that disproportionately prevent poor people from voting.  Done right, a candidate only needs 22% of the popular vote to win the presidency.

I'm not looking forward to the rest of the election season.  It seems unlikely that it will stop annoying me.