Monday, December 27, 2004

C. Shalizi on crowds and algorithms; also further complaints from yours truly

C. Shalizi has many useful things to say, and to link, about "the wisdom of crowds", partly in response to something I posted a while back.

Shalizi includes a pointer to a Rational Herds: Economic Models of Social Learning (ISBN 052153092X). Aside from having really cute penguins on the cover --- reason enough to buy most books --- the book also looks intellectually fascinating, and instantly makes my to-read list, though with my recent binge of book-buying [0] I most likely won't get around to reading it anytime soon.

In related news, I actually read/skimmed large chunks of The Wisdom of Crowds whilst browsing during the aforementioned book-buying binge. I concluded that the book itself (as opposed to the publicity, or the vulgarized versions of Surowiecki's thesis that are making the rounds) is not exactly bad, but rather good, yet frustrating. Surowiecki's tackling an important subject. He writes with the fluency and accessibility you'd expect from a New Yorker writer. The book recounts many fascinating anecdotes, and it even lays out a set of criteria for organizing "wise crowds" that's sensible and convincing (though stated too vaguely for my tastes). But these strengths make the book's failures all the more disappointing. Each chapter contains at least a few things that get my ersatz-scientist hackles up: an overgeneralization from meager data, or an incomplete and vague summary of a more systematic study, or an example cherry-picked to support his point without adequate treatment of counterexamples [1]. The best ideas in Surowiecki's book aren't new, and the intellectual frame he puts around them often adds little [2]. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, as Shalizi writes in the post linked above, although Surowiecki does give a nod to the difficulties of crowd organization, in general he does not place enough emphasis on it.

My guess, therefore, is that readers genuinely interested in the ideas Surowiecki discusses would be better off reading the primary sources in Surowieki's acknowledgments. I don't have a copy handy, and I regrettably forgot to scribble them down. Oh well. Next time I'm in a bookstore...

Bonus link: Radio National interview with Surowiecki.


[0] At the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover in Denver, last week, while visiting a friend; the bargain shelves should be labeled with warnings for compulsive verbivores.

[1] For example, one form of "crowd wisdom" that Surowiecki returns to several times is the fact that groups of people appear, in aggregate, to be very good at estimating quantities. One of Surowiecki's stories in support of this claim: in 1906, economist Francis Galton found that crowd of people at a fair were collectively able to estimate the weight of a thousand-pound-plus ox to within one pound, better than any individual in the crowd. He has a few more examples in this vein, but almost no discussion of the abundant counterexamples. For example, experiments show that, on average, people consistently overestimate the height of men and underestimate the height of women, even when they're shown photographs of the subjects standing next to common reference points. Surely a trained surveyor would do much better than a crowd in this case. Surowiecki briefly mentions some studies wherein experimenters were able to skew estimation results by using explicit suggestion, but he ignores systematic, consistent, a priori bias --- which gives the reader the impression that estimation bias is something induced in relatively rare and peculiar circumstances.

[2] Returning to the collective estimation problem in the previous footnote: the success of averaged estimates would lead me to conclude that the human senses can measure accurately, but with a random error that follows a symmetric (Gaussian?) distribution. This is interesting, but it says little about the "wisdom of crowds". Instead, it testifies to the value of repeated measurement, a bog-standard part of scientific orthodoxy. You will get similar results with inanimate scientific instruments (e.g., a thermometer or a light-sensitive CCD) operating near the limits of their precision: measure many times, and you get a better, rounder bell curve than if you measure only a couple of times. Surowiecki's framing seems simply superfluous here.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Eolas v. Microsoft case grinds on

Via Politech, oral arguments at the Eolas v. Microsoft appeal were heard yesterday; but more interestingly, Declan points to Perry Pei-Yuan Wei's note on the Viola browser, which is clearly relevant to the discussion of prior art. I find it pretty astounding that the court decided not to allow the jury to see a demo of Viola, or to know that Wei had told Doyle about Viola.

Yet more evidence that the patent system, in this case, did not produce incentives for innovation, but instead supported an unwarranted "intellectual property" land grab.

Previous posts on Eolas: one, two, three.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Random tip for LaTeX users

On Unix/Cygwin boxen with the watch utility, open up a console and use the following command to extract a live, automatically updated outline of your paper:

watch --interval=30 grep '^\.*section\{' latexfilename.tex

where latexfilename.tex is replaced with your paper's filename, of course. This will refresh every 30 seconds; use a different value for the --interval argument in order to get a view that's updated more or less frequently.

The above assumes that, like me, you compose using a documentclass that uses the standard \section, \subsection, and \subsubsection commands, and that your section declarations start at the beginning of a line.

(Yes, I'm using this tip at this very moment. Sigh. Deadlines.)

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Stephen Prothero writes at least two stupid things

Here are two things about Stephen Prothero's Sunday Times review of James Ault's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church that are stupid, and betray a fundamental thoughtlessness.

First: In the first paragraph, Prothero drags out the shopworn "irony" that people tend to be intolerant of fundamentalists exactly because fundamentalists are intolerant. One can only assume he means to imply --- as do most people who point out this "irony" --- that those who are intolerant of fundamentalists are hypocrites.

Hey, that reminds me of a pretty similar "irony": if you decide to kidnap somebody and hold them prisoner against their will, then law enforcement will come and "kidnap" you, holding you prisoner against your will. Law enforcement: a bunch of hypocrites! Or, how about this: Nazis armed with guns were rounding up the Jews of Prague and killing them like dogs; "ironically", the Jews decided to gather up guns and fight back, shooting at the Nazis in return. Those Jews of Prague, they sure were hypocrites!

Prothero, like everyone who drags out this idiotic cliché about failing to tolerate intolerance, chooses to ignore the difference between initiating a wrong, and retaliating against that wrong. Sometimes, when you retaliate against a wrong, you must adopt some tactics that are superficially similar to the tactics of those guilty of the wrong.

Prothero also confuses the real issue, which is not "intolerance" per se. We are, all of us, intolerant of someone: pedophiles, rapists, con men, Al Qaeda members. The point of dispute is not "tolerance", but rather the thing being tolerated, or not tolerated. Fundamentalists hate gays and atheists categorically and irrationally; homosexuality and atheism are things that are essentially worthy of tolerance; therefore, fundamentalists are wrong. No such argument applies to the categorical, irrational hatred itself --- that is not essentially worthy of tolerance.

Second: About midway through the review, Prothero writes:

The stereotype, of course, is that fundamentalists are Manichean moralists. And the strict rules they follow certainly seem to be black and white. In the application of these moral absolutes, however, Ault finds plenty of gray. Shawmut River functions like a close-knit family, he argues, and the brothers and sisters in that kinship network demonstrate a "situation-specific flexibility" in morality that is difficult to distinguish from the situation ethics they so vehemently decry. Divorce, for example, is prohibited, and [Rev.] Valenti tries to talk his parishioners out of it. Yet when they call a marriage quits, he is the first to let bygones be bygones. "While fundamentalists' timeless, God-given absolutes may appear rigid from the outside," Ault writes, "within the organism of a close-knit community where much is known in common about persons and situations, they can be surprisingly supple and flexible."

But this doesn't upset any stereotypes at all. One of the most common criticisms about fundamentalists is that they're hypocrites, content to assail the degenerate lifestyles of others from afar while giving themselves and their kin a pass. Duh. I have little doubt that Valenti has sermonized against the degeneracy of people not in his congregation, without understanding that people the world over have lives just as complex and difficult as the life of any sheep in his personal flock.

A note from a paranoid consumer

My good friends know that I'm prone to a mild, generalized paranoia, which, to me, is just healthy skepticism. I take for granted that most of my public behavior and electronic communications are being surveilled, though perhaps not by any human being.1 A recurring feature of my dreams is a scene wherein the facade of reality gets stripped away to reveal what's beneath (waking up from these dreams is always an interesting experience). For me, The Matrix, The Truman Show, and the stories of Philip K. Dick weren't mind-blowing out-of-this-world fantasies, but rather variations on an old familiar theme. And I've never read a really convincing refutation of Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument.

Now, I don't believe that anyone cares about me enough to bother constructing some kind of pervasive, systematic deception specifically for me. But I do believe that large, well-organized, intentful forces are watching us collectively, and interfering with our lives, in ways that we generally ignore, for the sake of preserving the day-to-day fiction that we're living in a world hospitable and comprehensible to ape brains that evolved two million years ago on the savannah.

All this is to preface my saying that if I ever discovered that someone I knew was a "volunteer" or an "agent", I would do my best to eradicate that person from my life.

I can accept that my friends might deceive me, or at least keep secrets, for the sake of their dignity, or their reputation, or to spare my feelings or somebody else's feelings; there are all the ordinary human deceptions that knit together our social fiction. They make us human. However, deceive me in the service of an organization --- a business, a church, a government, whatever --- and you're no longer human, exactly, but rather a cell in some larger organism, trying to feed itself by extracting my money and labor; and let us remember that money and labor are abstractions for the output of our minds and bodies. In a precise sense, these agents lie in order to turn us into food; they are the glowing bulb on the forespine of the anglerfish.


1 I'm talking about computers, not aliens. Between ECHELON and the pervasiveness of surveillance cameras, you can basically assume that you're being recorded whenever you send email or walk down any commercial street. It doesn't have to be in a large city: after the Oklahoma City bombings, they used recordings from surveillance cameras all over the city to track down the van.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Another name for the "wisdom of crowds"

I just read yet another online essay that, at one point, referenced "the wisdom of crowds". This phrase has been getting a lot of attention lately from the chattering classes. I don't have time to give this idea a fuller treatment, and in fact I have not read James Surowiecki's book (which started all the ruckus), but I will say something that I've wanted to get out there for a long time:

"The wisdom of crowds" is just another name for "the behavior of distributed algorithms".

When you think about it, "Let's exploit the wisdom of crowds!" really means: "Let's set up a whole bunch of independently acting, loosely federated entities, each with an incomplete view of the system, and let's make them do some cognitive task." In other words, if a crowd ends up having any wisdom, it will have arrived at it through a distributed algorithm.

Why does this matter? Two reasons.

First, it de-mystifies the concept. "The wisdom of crowds" is a phrase precisely calibrated to mystify the thing it denotes. Consider the diction: "crowds", suggesting spontaneous, informal, natural gatherings; and "wisdom", suggesting a folksy knowledge born of experience, as opposed to, say, "intelligence", "cleverness", or "expertise". The phrase "wisdom of crowds" carries within it the seeds of the message that gosh darn it, if you just got those elitist social engineers out of the way, and let everybody alone to act on their common sense, everything would be just peachy. In fact, if you read the blurbs from the publisher's page, this is exactly the message that's being pushed --- if not by Surowiecki himself, then by his promoters, with his tacit assent.

By contrast, the phrase "the behavior of distributed algorithms" is a more forbidding thing, one that highlights a crucial fact: all systems for extracting knowledge from "crowds" are, in fact, intricate constructions that achieve their results through precise engineering of the rules governing the crowd.

This leads into my second point. Any computer scientist who has tangled with distributed systems knows that designing a distributed algorithm that actually does what you want it to do is extraordinarily tricky. On the other hand, it is really easy to design distributed algorithms that, for deviously subtle reasons, end up prone to behaviors like wildly unpredictable, bizarrely pathological oscillations, race conditions, deadlock, livelock, network floods, etc., etc., etc. Until you have studied the Paxos algorithm, or at least hacked on a distributed system (and I doubt very much that James Surowiecki has done either), you probably lack the humility and skepticism needed to evaluate distributed algorithms accurately.

Naïvely lauding the alleged "wisdom of crowds" obscures the critical issue, which is the design of the distributed algorithm --- i.e., the social organization of the crowd. What are its mechanisms for passing information? For reaching consensus? Where are the possibilities for feedback loops? What happens in the obscure corner cases that result from the interactions of all its features? Etc., etc.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, and gathering together a large number of independent actors does not magically make problem-solving any easier. In fact, it can make problem-solving incalculably harder. After you gather the crowd, you have to figure out how to make it do something useful, and it is by no means the case that you'll always get acceptable outcomes by letting each individual make decisions that "look sensible" (whatever that means) based on locally available information.

Now, as I said, I have not read Surowiecki's book. It is entirely possible that I'm being utterly unfair to him based on the yammerings of others. On the other hand, the publisher's excerpt is not encouraging.


UPDATE 2007-09-29: If you're coming from this ycombinator blog, then note that I wrote a followup after reading most of the book and my opinion of Surowiecki himself has only marginally improved.

Also, in retrospect, it seems to me that this post is more about the "wisdom of crowds" meme --- how and why it's been successful, what's wrong with it, and the role of Surowiecki's publicist in promoting it --- than about Surowiecki's book itself.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Random thoughts on capitalism

As we head into the weekend that traditionally inaugurates our year-end orgy of consumption, our thoughts inevitably turn to the nature of capitalism. I woke up this morning with the following three thoughts in my head (like most before-breakfast thoughts, these are hardly novel, but nevertheless I am taking this occasion to contemplate them):

  • As far as I can tell, from reading newspapers and economists' blogs, the current world economy is supported by Americans' buying the world's goods on credit, and thereby accumulating unsustainable amounts of debt. Yet if Americans were to stop buying goods on credit, and start paying down this unsustainable debt instead, the resulting hit to the Asian export economies would drag the whole world economy into depression. Conversely, if Americans don't pay down their debt, then eventually either Asian banks will stop extending their credit lines, or America will default on its debt, either of which will also be a disaster. I'm not an economist, but something's wrong with this setup.
  • The theory of free markets is a beautiful collection of mathematical constructions, but the conditions under which markets are maximally efficient --- e.g., high symmetry of information, low transaction costs, low barrier to market entry, low network effects --- have, in practice, only been achieved under highly artificial (highly regulated) conditions.
  • Central economic planning is nearly-universally acknowledged to be a disaster. However, as far as I can tell, a nontrivial fraction of the American economy is centrally planned by Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart is a spectacular success by all the usual capitalist measures.

I think what I'm suggesting by the sum of these thoughts is that there's something rotten in the state of markets. The industrial Communist nations fell, so everyone assumes that Capitalism proved its merit and won. It seems more accurate to say: Communism fell, and Capitalism is still awaiting judgment.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Gmail POP and SMTP: yee-haw.

My previous recipe for filtering/forwarding/archiving using gmail is now obsolete. Gmail now supports both POP (for receiving) and SMTP (for sending), including TLS-encryption for the connection, for free. I had asked for POP/SMTP support, and even said that I'd be happy to pay for them. Google just raised the bar again for free email providers.

Monday, November 22, 2004

A Proposal: The Peer Review

Briggs Seekins describes the incestuous, careerist nightmare that is the current poetry publishing scene. Now, Seekins sounds like a rather unpleasant individual to be around (how many alcoholic depressives with inferiority complexes aren't?); and as for Dan Schneider (the owner/operator of the site publishing Seekins's essay) --- well, just look at his site's front page. Still, the dysfunction in the literary community seems real.

As an ersatz scientist, I can't help but observe that one of the major problems with the poetry business ("PoBiz") is that there's no effective system to encourage publication based on merit instead of nepotism. Therefore, I propose a new poetry journal: The Peer Review.

Editorial staff: Unlike today's poetry journals, the Peer Review will not have an editorial staff as such. Rather, the Peer Review will be run by two entities: a general chair, who is responsible for administrative matters, and a program committee (or, as we call it, a PC) that is responsible for substantive editorial judgments. The PC shall be led by an individual, called the program chair, who shall be responsible for twisting the arms of PC members to get their reviews done and such (see below). The composition of the general chair and program committee shall rotate from issue to issue; serving on the Peer Review shall be considered a service to the poetry community. PC members may not serve on the committee for two consecutive issues.

Rules for submission: Work by PC members or their current students shall be barred from submission to the issue over which they preside. Works shall be submitted with the author's name attached, but these names shall be concealed from the program committee throughout the review process. Authors must disclose any personal or professional relationships with program committee members.

Review process: All PC members shall be responsible for at least skimming over every submission. Additionally, each submission shall have no fewer than three written reviews by PC members (the PC chair shall distribute the burden of writing reviews equitably among PC members). Each review shall be several paragraphs long, discussing the work's merits and weaknesses, and recommending "accept" or "reject". Once all submissions for an issue have been collected and reviewed, the whole program committee shall arrange to convene in person, over several days, to discuss the relative merits of each poem. The program chair and committee shall cooperate beforehand to discover conflicts of interest between poems and committee members (poems written by former students, etc.), and committee members with a conflict of interest shall be asked to leave the room while the rest of the committee discusses those poems. If a committee member fails to disclose a conflict of interest, and a poem gets in regardless, then that member shall be shunned from the Peer Review forever after and he or she shall be pilloried within the poetry community.

Author notification: Along with notification of the program committee's decision, the written reviews shall be sent back to the poets in full, promptly and predictably after the program committee meeting.

In case it's not obvious: to someone coming from the world of scientific conference publication, all of the above is utterly boring and standard. But someone coming from the world of literary journals, considering the above measures, will probably be caught somewhere between laughter and tears. Anonymized submissions! Rotating editorial staff! Program committee members and their students barred from submitting! Disclosed conflicts of interest, and procedures to eliminate them! Prompt and transparent notification of acceptance or rejection! If only the world could be so fair and bright!

Would the Peer Review work? There are practical concerns: a poetry journal receives an order of magnitude more submissions than a top scientific conference; poets may not be able to afford to fly off to a program committee meeting several times a year; since the poetry world doesn't have a tradition of "professional service", it may be difficult to convince people to serve on program committees. I think these obstacles and others could be overcome by someone with determination. I just doubt that anyone with influence in the poetry world would actually be willing to try it.

Excerpt from an email sent to a friend yesterday

Right now I think that if I could get some kind of low-stress job coding four days a week and write free software in my spare time, I could be happy. I mean, why do I think I should do anything more anyway? It's because I have some belief, well-founded or not, in my abilities, and it would therefore be a waste to do something like that. But the vast majority of humanity doesn't use its talents to the utmost. They get jobs that pay the rent, put food on the table, and sometimes they buy little baubles and toys to keep themselves entertained. I could do that kind of job while hardly even trying. I could find some adequate woman (no need to be burningly, passionately in love; a comfortable and domestic sort of love would suffice for this purpose) and get married and raise a family. It would all be terribly easy. I've had every advantage --- I'm genetically gifted with intelligence and good health, and I come from a comfortable socioeconomic stratum of the most powerful nation on Earth, with all the educational and vocational opportunities that implies --- and the American dream, which for the vast majority of people suffering throughout all of history would have approximated paradise, would be trivial for me to attain. But here I am, sweating myself half-mad over a paper that, ultimately, may or may not advance the world's understanding of my abstruse field by some small increment. I add one more stone to the cathedral, because to do otherwise would be a waste. This is my life.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Eduardo Porter on wealth, religion, and America

Today's Times Week in Review has an article by Eduardo Porter on the relative prevalence of religion in America, vs. other wealthy industrial democracies. Porter questions the standard assumption that religiosity decreases as prosperity increases:

In economic terms, demand for religion drops as its perceived benefits diminish compared with the cost of participating. Or, as stated by the famed anthropologist Anthony Wallace in the 1960's: "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction."

The industrial democracies in Asia and Europe seem to bear this out. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project two years ago, only 20 percent of Germans, 12 percent of Japanese and 11 percent of the French say religion plays a very important role in their lives. In a 1991 multinational survey, a quarter of all Dutch said they were atheists.

"If you take the United Nations' Human Development Index and look at the top 20 countries, 19 of those are very secular," said David Voas, a demographer and sociologist of religion at the University of Manchester in England.

But this line of analysis cannot account for the most modern and rich country of them all. According to the Pew survey, 60 percent of Americans said religion had a very important role in their lives; 48 percent believed that the United States has a special protection from God; 54 percent said they had an "unfavorable" view of atheists.

The article goes on to quote some sociologists who are concocting "supply-side" theories of religious devotion:

That is, Americans are more churchgoing and pious than Germans or Canadians because the United States has the most open religious market, with dozens of religious denominations competing vigorously to offer their flavor of salvation, becoming extremely responsive to the needs of their parishes.

"There's a lack of regulation restricting churches, so in this freer market there is a larger supply," said Mr. Finke.

The suppliers of religion then try to stoke demand. "The potential demand for religion has to be activated," said Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University. "The more members of the clergy that are out there working to expand their congregations the more people will go to church."

Mr. Finke notes that this free-market theory also fits well with the explosion of religion across Latin America, where the weakening of the longstanding Catholic monopoly has led to all sorts of evangelical Christian churches and to an overall increase of religious expression.

The supply-siders say their model even explains secular Europe. Europeans, they argue, are fundamentally just as religious as Americans, with similar metaphysical concerns, but they suffer from a uncompetitive market - lazy, quasi-monopolistic churches that have been protected from competition by the state. "Wherever you've got a state church, you have empty churches," Mr. Stark said.

The free-market argument is not absolutely watertight, however. Islamic states, for instance, have very strong quasi-state churches and high religious participation. And some European sociologists argue that there is much more religious competition in Europe than the supply-siders acknowledge.

And in the United States, the most religious states and counties are those most dominated by a single denomination -Mormon, Baptist or Pentecostal- not those where there is most competition, Mr. Voas said.

But Porter never asks the obvious question. Forget all these fancy-ass hypotheses about "supply-side religion" and "competition among denominations". The alleged anomaly of America's combination of religiosity and prosperity can easily be explained by something much simpler. Unlike the other prosperous industrialized democracies, America is both a wealthy nation in aggregate and home to massive income inequality, widespread poverty, economic insecurity, and a relatively weakly state-subsidized higher education system. The bottom quintile of the American population lacks adequate housing, health care, and access to education. America's religiosity parallels that of Latin American nations and Islamic theocracies because, as with those nations, there are lots of poor people. Conservative Christianity may be strongest in America in regions dominated by single church denominations, but it probably correlates even more strongly with regions where there are lots of poor people.

This alternative explanation seems blindingly obvious to me. It's parsimonious, and it explains available data points well, including data points that are anomalous under the "supply-side" model. That doesn't mean it's right, of course. Perhaps the "supply-side" model advocates have a good rebuttal, but we never find out from the article. It seems to me that a reporter writing about the effect of economics on religion ought to (1) be familiar with basic economic facts (like, say, that American poor live qualitatively worse lives than the poor in other developed nations), (2) think critically, and (3) ask the obvious probing questions. But for Porter, America is "the most modern and rich country of them all", and that's enough.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Bruce Schneier, David Dill on e-voting

It's the 15th again, and November Crypto-Gram contains several good short essays on voting technology. Worth reading.

After you've done that, go to UW-CSE's Information Technology & Public Policy course Fall 2004 lectures archive and check out the David Dill lecture on electronic voting from Oct. 14. If you're using Windows and have a fast connection, you'll probably want to install WebViewer so you can get synchronized slides and video.

Actually, if you're at all interested in IT and public policy, you'll probably want to watch all the course lectures. Ed Lazowska, one of our profs and our former dept. chair, has teamed up with UC Berkeley's Steve Maurer to plan a really terrific syllabus (course home page). By the time the course is over, there'll be about 30 hours' worth of lectures.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Paul Freedman analysis

Last post of the night: Paul Freedman's Slate article, which I've already sent to some of you, breaks down more numbers on the cause of the election. His principal conclusion is that there was a "terrorism gap", wherein more voters trusted Bush exclusively than trusted Kerry exclusively to handle the terrorism problem. Which, basically, I consider even further evidence for my working hypothesis that many Bush voters were not operating in reality.

Bob Herbert: Ignorance, not "values"

Bob Herbert has long been my favorite Times Op-Ed columnist. In his Monday column, which I originally missed, Herbert makes the point that Bush supporters were simply not in touch with reality:

I think a case could be made that ignorance played at least as big a role in the election's outcome as values. A recent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that nearly 70 percent of President Bush's supporters believe the U.S. has come up with "clear evidence" that Saddam Hussein was working closely with Al Qaeda. A third of the president's supporters believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. And more than a third believe that a substantial majority of world opinion supported the U.S.-led invasion.

This is scary. How do you make a rational political pitch to people who have put that part of their brain on hold? No wonder Bush won.

...[deletia]...

You have to be careful when you toss the word values around. All values are not created equal. Some Democrats are casting covetous eyes on voters whose values, in many cases, are frankly repellent. Does it make sense for the progressive elements in our society to undermine their own deeply held beliefs in tolerance, fairness and justice in an effort to embrace those who deliberately seek to divide?

My interpretation of the election results was basically the same. The victory of the Republicans was built on deception and ignorance, not on any policy stance or rhetorical device worthy of emulation. The Democratic Party should disregard calls to move to the right on social issues. Not only would this be asinine, cowardly, tactically ineffective, immoral, unprincipled, and inconsistent with the Constitution; it would also be a non sequitur: you don't cure ignorance by embracing bigotry.

Item #187273 on the "It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing" list

I'm somewhat late to the party on this one, but via Atrios comes Salon's "Down with the Kerry Haters". Many choice bits therein, but the one that bothered me the most was the following:

"I'm definitely gonna vote for him," [22-year-old Ohio resident Nick] Karnes said of Bush. "Because he's been the president for four years and nothing bad has happened since Sept. 11. He's kept me alive for four years." If Kerry becomes president, he said, "We'll be dead within a year."

Now, I was living in uptown Manhattan in September 2001. I have never viewed the threat of death from terrorism as an abstract fear. The fear is quite specific. I recall sleeping fitfully through the night of September 12, waking every so often to the boom of thunder --- from the lightning storm wrought by smoke and dust from the smoldering ruins --- and wondering whether this time, this time it was a bomb.

Most of my family lives in the New York metro area; my brother still lives in Manhattan itself. Al Qaeda has struck New York twice (1993 and 2001), and Washington, D.C. once. They clearly intend to hit America where it hurts most, which means the centers of American economic, political, and cultural power: New York, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago. Seattle, which is where I live now, might make the list only because it's a major port city.

Columbus, Ohio? Get real.

And this is not mere Northeastern regional snobbery (although I harbor no guilt about feeling snobbish towards the likes of Nick Karnes). The invocation of the terrorist menace since 9/11 has always bothered me, for a variety of reasons, and I have never been able to articulate them all completely. But when I read the paragraph above, one of those reasons became clearer: for most Americans, the fear of terrorism is an abstract and nebulous fear. 9/11 was something they watched on television.

I don't believe that residents of Columbus seriously think they will be hit next, rather than New York, L.A., or D.C. They feel afraid, and their fear is genuine, but at the same time, on some conscious or half-conscious level of awareness, they also feel safely insulated from the truest, keenest danger. And so when people like Karnes invoke the threat of terrorism, I can't believe they're really being honest, rather than using terrorism as a rhetorical club to beat their political enemies.

Furthermore, I can't help but think that the spectatorial abstractness of their fear is partly responsible for the ease with which they embrace abstract solutions: a distant war whose rationale bears only the most tenuous relationship to our national security; a President whose cheerleading and manly "resolve" supposedly strikes some vague, paralytic fear into the hearts of terrorists; the embrace of torture to extract unspecified information from unidentified persons for inscrutable objectives.

Who cares about the nuts and bolts of securing Russia's loose nuclear material, or training a new generation of intelligence operatives and analysts conversant in Arabic language and culture? Bruce Willis would never do any of that. He would go out there and kick ass. The terrorists might scoff at his humble everyman attitude, but pretty soon he would be impaling them on meat hooks and electrocuting their genitals (not that he would enjoy any of that, mind you, though he would have some punchy one-liners to mark the occasion). Who cares if rules get bent or even broken? Who cares whether all the death and cruelty even accomplishes a recognizable concrete policy objective, by any credible logic? It's enough that America kick swarthy heathen foreigner ass. The inexorable plot mechanics of action movies dictate that the toughest man inevitably wins. Since the War on Terror is an action movie, it is enough that we be "tough" (whatever that means) in order to prevail.

Is this a caricature of Bush supporters? Yes, but not by much.

And given the seriousness of the consequences, the laziness of this thinking borders on criminal negligence. It makes me furious. If the attack comes, will it be Nick Karnes who dies? No, it will be my brother. And yet I and my brother live at the mercy of Karnes, his fellow-idiots, and the bungling, dishonest President whom they elected.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Mass hysteria

The emerging buzz seems to be that the Democratic Party needs to re-examine itself. A lot of commentators think that the Democratic Party needs to figure out how to pitch its message in a more religious way. Some observers, including some whom I respect, even point approvingly to Amy Sullivan's nonsensical blathering about the Democratic Party's alleged hostility to religion.

The outcome of this election was determined by mass hysteria and insanity. People who cited "terror" as their top issue voted for the President who refused to testify before the 9/11 Commission under oath; and who, when he ultimately appeared before that commission, needed Papa Cheney to hold his hand. People who cited "moral values" as their top issue voted for the adminstration that winked at Abu Ghraib, and that commissioned memos defending torture as a matter of principle. I define insanity as belief incompatible with consensus reality. Bush voters acted from inside a collective hallucination.

Red America is Winston Smith, strapped to the table. Red America is seeing O'Brien hold up four fingers, which transmogrify on command into five. And as the music announcing our glorious military triumph plays from the telescreen, a bullet is entering Red America's brain, a tear is trickling beside its nose: Red America loves Big Brother.

The Democrats' job is not to pander to this insanity, but to help cure it. The way to cure it is not by figuring out how to walk and talk like the sanctimonious assholes on the other side of the aisle. It is to bring reality back to the voters --- at least, to those voters who are not so far gone as to be unreachable (I happen to think that much of the evangelical Christian population is, in fact, gone past the point of no return; we'll just have to wait a generation for them to die, and hope their children rebel).

Also, it is worth pointing out that when people talk about "religious" voters, they mean white rural and suburban Protestant voters. Black Christians vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Muslims voted, in this election, overwhelmingly for Democrats. I don't know for sure, but I would venture a guess that Buddhists, Hindus, Rastafarians, etc., vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Even Catholics still vote Democratic more than Republican. So we are not talking about "religion", but about one particular religious bloc which doesn't even constitute a majority of the population anymore (the current CIA World Factbook says that 52% of Americans are Protestants; white rural and suburban Protestants must necessarily be a minority).

And in calling these voters the "religious" bloc, we reveal an underlying assumption that this minority demographic somehow has values that are more genuine, more worthy, more really religious, than anyone else's. Nonsense. Our message reaches every other religious demographic just fine. The question is not how to make our message more religious. The question is, why does this one demographic bloc have beliefs (about both reality and morality) that diverge from those of every other religious bloc? Which is a good question.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Though they go mad they shall be sane/Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again

It is at times like these, when all else fails, that poetry alone can speak. The second stanza of Dylan Thomas's "And Death Shall Have No Dominion":

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Prediction: 284-254

It is time to nail one's colors to the mast, if only for the fun of gambling. Ex post, I will probably look dumb, but ex ante my decision procedure's no worse than anyone else's, given that nobody really knows how things are going to land.

I am, however, still hoping for a 311-227 blowout, which I think is not out of reach. Call it faith in the American people; or, anyway, the citizens of Iowa and Ohio.

On the third hand, there's always Jeb's Surprise.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

"Learning to stimulate the sex drive of crocodiles has proved more difficult."

This article is brilliant. Funnier than anything The Onion's written in the past year.

"Tomorrow, I will go back to being funny, and your show will still blow."

I've been thinking more about Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance (video mirrors via Lessig and Lisa Rein), and his followup on The Daily Show.

It's telling that Tucker Carlson's main rejoinder is that Stewart didn't ask "pointed" questions when John Kerry appeared on The Daily Show. On its face, this seems a clear enough criticism, and even a fair one. But in order to understand Carlson fully, you have to examine his words closely in the wider context of Washington journalism. From the CNN transcript (emphases mine):

CARLSON: It's nice to get them to try and answer the question. And in order to do that, we try and ask them pointed questions. I want to contrast our questions with some questions you asked John Kerry recently.

...[deletia]...

CARLSON: Kerry won't come on this show. He will come on your show.

STEWART: Right.

CARLSON: Let me suggest why he wants to come on your show.

STEWART: Well, we have civilized discourse.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: Well, here's an example of the civilized discourse. Here are three of the questions you asked John Kerry.

STEWART: Yes.

CARLSON: You have a chance to interview the Democratic nominee. You asked him questions such as -- quote -- "How are you holding up? Is it hard not to take the attacks personally?"

STEWART: Yes.

CARLSON: "Have you ever flip-flopped?" et cetera, et cetera.

STEWART: Yes.

CARLSON: Didn't you feel like -- you got the chance to interview the guy. Why not ask him a real question, instead of just suck up to him?

Now, this exchange has a clear enough "secular" meaning --- i.e., the meaning it conveys to laypeople --- but I think it has an additional layer of "esoteric" meaning --- i.e., its meaning among people who, like Tucker Carlson, inhabit the peculiar world of Washington journalism. Admittedly, I'm not one of those people, but I read about it here and there, so bear with me as I speculate about it.

In this world, news organizations reward journalists for breaking "scoops" and "exclusives", which requires access to sources --- the more highly-placed the sources, the better. But, of course, all highly-placed sources have powerful incentives to influence news coverage, and so they use "access" as carrot and stick to reward complaisant journalists and punish independent ones. Journalists therefore engage in a perpetual and carefully calibrated balancing act, trying to please their editors without offending their sources.

Ideally, journalists would all be brilliant and hard-working enough to fight the pernicious enfeebling effects of the "access" trap. Ideally, journalists would respond to punitive access-denial by redoubling their efforts and digging deeper to find independent sources. Ideally, the press corps would show some solidarity by collectively blasting politicians for playing the access game in the first place, even though the game gives certain individual journalists a competitive advantage.

In practice, journalists are often dimwitted, lazy, and selfish, and hence they become captives of the game.1

Talk shows operate under similar incentive structures: your producer wants you to get high-profile guests, so you have an incentive to kiss ass. Meet the Press's Tim Russert was able to get Bush for a rare exclusive interview because Bush's handlers knew that Russert wasn't going to be confrontational or ask hard followup questions.

In this context, Carlson isn't merely accusing Stewart of asking Kerry lame questions. Look at the transcript: Carlson's accusing Stewart of playing this game, of asking lame questions in exchange for access to Kerry --- or, more precisely, of acting like a pushover for certain (liberal) guests because that will increase the likelihood of getting more guests like them.

And in making this accusation, Carlson makes a fundamental error, because The Daily Show isn't playing the access game at all. Under Jon Stewart's leadership, The Daily Show's mission has been simple and twofold:

  1. Be funny.
  2. Enlighten your viewers. (This clause is what separates TDS from the likes of Jay Leno, who is intermittently funny but whose jokes rarely reach beyond dragging out a dozen variations on the conventional wisdom's caricatures-of-the-hour.)

Neither of these goals requires high-level access or high-profile guests. The Daily Show operates outside the whole world of incentives familiar to Carlson's colleagues. Jon Stewart et al. can chug along merrily, season after season, simply by mocking the previous day's newspaper headlines and cable news clips. In fact, Stewart's sharpest barbs tend to lacerate the media rather than politicians. Gaining "access" simply doesn't constitute a significant part of The Daily Show's winning strategy. No doubt the show was happy to get John Kerry, Richard Clarke, and other high-profile guests, but the vast majority of the audience would watch even if the show never had such guests. Or, indeed, if the show never had guests at all --- the guest segment, which only occupies the last third of the show (after the second commercial break), is usually the least funny part.

And so The Daily Show operates in tremendous freedom, a freedom that they use to powerful effect. Carlson's criticism, by its esoteric meaning, is just plain wrong.2

Now, suppose we give Carlson the benefit of the doubt and consider the secular meaning. In this case Carlson isn't wholly wrong; he's just trivial. Sure, Stewart should have asked Kerry better questions. However, even if we grant this point, it's a pretty minor one, compared to the devastating hits Stewart lands on Carlson. First of all, I think Carlson misrepresents or misunderstands parts of the interview --- when Stewart asked Kerry, "Have you ever flip-flopped?", he was satirizing the silliness of letting an empty catch-phrase set the terms of political debate. In other words, he was making fun of people like Carlson. Second, as I've already said, the interview segment of The Daily Show has never been terribly important to its success. Finally, although Stewart's interview questions may not always be "tough", his interviews generally reflect a combination of respect, curiosity, and an earnest desire to get past shallow talking points. Given the comedy/talk-show format, and given that the interview only lasts about seven minutes, Stewart does a terrific job. "Toughness" is a phony measure of journalistic and comedic integrity. The true measure is whether the journalism and the comedy honor the truth.

Now, admittedly, Stewart's reply to Carlson --- that Crossfire shouldn't hold itself to the low, low standards of The Daily Show --- is a dodge (as my man AJ notes). Obviously, The Daily Show ought to bear some responsibility for its coverage, just as Crossfire does.

Stewart's reply should have been: "Maybe I wasn't as tough on Kerry as I could have been, but our comedy is fundamentally honest, whereas your debate show is fundamentally dishonest. When we make fun of something, we're very careful to do it in a way that respects the truth --- whereas when you criticize something, you're generally engaging in hackery. We're not hurting America. You are."

So why didn't Stewart come back with this statement? Probably some combination of modesty and a reluctance to admit publicly to taking himself seriously. It's popularly assumed that comedy is the antithesis of seriousness; at least, comedians and others often claim that comedy works best when it doesn't have an agenda and skewers everybody equally. But in fact, much of the greatest comedy (1) has a deadly serious agenda, beneath the laughter, and (2) advocates against the powerful and for the powerless. These are two facts that most comic writers, artists, and performers understand on a gut level. The alleged value-neutrality of comedy is a social fiction that serves the dual purpose of allowing its targets to save face ("Well, they really make fun of everybody, not just me.") and giving comedians plausible deniability in the face of power. Court jesters have always lived by the king's sufferance, and they require cover to do so.

So Stewart should be forgiven for employing this dodge. I'd argue that the substance of his criticism remains valid, and the substance of Carlson's criticism is (depending on your reading) either incorrect or inconsequential.

I do, on the other hand, agree with Nick Confessore, who writes in TAPPED:

As a side note, I do think Stewart misdirects his ire. Personally, I'm less concerned with vapid cable chat shows -- which very few people watch and not many people take seriously -- than I am with vapid print and network news coverage, which many more people see and take seriously.

My friends should find my agreement no surprise. I bitch on this blog fairly regularly on Sundays about something or other that I find in the Sunday Times. Stewart's right that bad cable chat shows hurt America. But bad news coverage hurts America more.

On the third hand, I think that people find Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance satisfying partly because they understand it as an attack on shallow hackery in general, and not merely the particular shallow hackery of debate shows like Crossfire. Stewart's been declaiming from his little alcove on Comedy Central for years. This appearance was, to some extent, a coming out: Jon Stewart, tossed among the lions, telling them off to their face.


1 In fairness to journalists: reporters work under tremendous deadline pressure; reporting without high-level access probably requires a lot more labor; and individual news organizations don't really have enough "boots on the ground" to counteract the superior firepower of a modern political spin operation. This is not to excuse the ridiculous reporting of people like Elisabeth Bumiller, but merely to acknowledge that reporters operate at a structural disadvantage.

2 And, as further evidence that Tucker Carlson really intends the esoteric meaning, observe the note of catty jealousy in Carlson's remark: "Kerry won't come on this show. He will come on your show." A similar note of jealousy appeared during Stewart's appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show, wherein O'Reilly said: "OK, when you get a guy like Kerry on... and again, he bypassed me, so I took it personally, he went over to talk to you..." In the universe of talking heads, landing a high-profile guest is a status symbol: it signifies your influence in the national dialogue, or at least your exalted place in the chattering classes' pecking order. Carlson and O'Reilly cover their jealousy with humor, but it's nevertheless recognizable. I submit that it simply doesn't occur to Carlson and O'Reilly that Stewart isn't playing the same game that they are --- that The Daily Show doesn't especially care about access, or star-guest one-upmanship.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"The wrong war, at the wrong place..."

It's probably not widely known where this quote originated.

You may also be interested to know that Dick Cheney was quoting Spiro Agnew when he questioned Kerry's judgment ("not his patriotism") in the debates. When do you think the Republican Party's finally going to get over its Nixon administration nostalgia?1 Agnew and Nixon both resigned in disgrace. And that's just what they got caught for --- the greater outrage of lying about our actions in Vietnam was arguably more serious, and seems even more frighteningly relevant today.

I ♥ Wikipedia.


1 As I've written before, my guess is: when the last white man who hit puberty before the 60's dies.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Moving to my gmail address

Attn. all: I am experimenting with using my gmail.com address as my primary personal email address. Please direct future email to (myrealfirstname)@gmail.com. The email address in the sidebar now forwards to this address. I will still be able to receive email at my old personal address for the near future, so don't worry if you've sent me email recently.

FYI, this change is prompted by the fact that gmail.com now supports filtered automatic forwarding, which means users can now get the best of both worlds: I can read and compose email using my preferred local mail client, and I can also use the archiving and search features of gmail. This should also make future ISP transitions easier, as I can just change the target forwarding address.

Details of my mail setup, for the excessively geeky and curious:

  • For outgoing mail, I have my mail client set the From: and BCC: fields to my gmail.com address. This way gmail receives a correctly labeled copy of my sent mail for archival; which, among other things, is critical to keeping gmail's "conversations" feature useful.
  • I have a filter that matches email that appears to be from me --- using the query from:myname@myisp.net OR from:myname@gmail.com --- and labels and archives it, so that I don't have all my BCC:'d outgoing mail cluttering up my inbox.
  • I have a filter that matches email that doesn't appear to be from me --- using the query -(from:myname@myisp.net OR from:myname@gmail.com) (note the minus sign) --- and forwards this email to myname@myisp.net, archiving a copy on my gmail account. This way all email from other people gets forwarded and saved, but I don't get my self-sent outgoing mail forwarded back to me.

Anyway, it appears to work pretty smoothly. I had to spend about an hour today updating all my mailing list subscriptions though, which was kind of annoying. I wish there were some kind of (appropriately authenticated and extensible) protocol whereby an ISP could notify mailing lists and other service providers about email address changes. Email really is dumb.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Dick Cheney's So-Called Competence

It's become conventional wisdom that Dick Cheney is, for all his flaws, a highly competent manager with a deep background in defense and military affairs. Well, check out this Suck.com gem, by infantryman Ambrose Beers, from back in 2000, wherein we learn:

In his book It Doesn't Take a Hero, retired U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf describes the evolution of the plans he and his staff made following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. As his mission to defend Saudi Arabia quickly grew into an offensive plan to drive Iraqi troops out of everyone's favorite oppressive rococo emirate, Schwarzkopf developed a four-step course of action intended to grind his enemy down into miserable fighting condition before finishing him off with an overwhelming and elaborately staged ground attack. Problem is, all of that grinding and staging took time - and quite a few of the people Schwarzkopf worked for wanted to see the lion eat the fucking gladiator already. Following one White House meeting at which he'd asked for more time and more troops, Stormin' Norman reports, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell called to warn the Desert Storm commander that he was being loudly compared, by a top administration official, to George McClellan. "My God," the official supposedly complained. "He's got all the force he needs. Why won't he just attack?" Schwarzkopf notes that the unnamed official who'd made the comment "was a civilian who knew next to nothing about military affairs, but he'd been watching the Civil War documentary on public television and was now an expert."

And then, twenty pages later, Schwarzkopf casually drops the information that he got an inspirational gift from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney right before the air war finally got under way. Cheney was presenting a gift to a military man, and he chose something with an appropriate theme: "(A) complete set of videotapes of Ken Burns's PBS series, The Civil War."

The remainder of the essay has several other juicy bits. And they aren't just cheap shots: consider that the complaint of military planners, from the very beginning, has been that we didn't have enough troops in Iraq to win the peace. Cheney's had a hard-on for ill-planned, undermanned military escapades involving the deaths of other people for years. His central role in the Iraq war, and its disastrous outcome, reflects Cheney's thorough incompetence as a civilian commander of military efforts.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Gwen Ifill is terrible

"Global test"? "Trial lawyer"? "Flip-flopper"? Halliburton? Ifill is like a farce of a parody of a Bob Somerby caricature of a White House press pool reporter, recycling the greatest hits of the gotcha catchphrases from the past few months of campaign coverage. I was surprised that she didn't bring up the Swift Boat Veterans.

Actually, from my past viewings of NewsHour, I've been thoroughly unimpressed with everyone on the show besides Jim Lehrer. Is it too much to ask that talking heads be (1) adequately informed about the substance of public policy --- at a very minimum, better informed than I am, given that talking about it is their full-time job --- and (2) able to speak about it clearly and in detail?


ABC "who won?" instant poll: Cheney 43%, Edwards 35%, Tie 19%, though their polling sample was 38% Republicans, 31% Democrats, with the balance independent.


The NBC "Truth Squad" fact-checkers missed the point of the Cheney vs. Edwards disagreement on counting combined coalition and Iraqi casualties, versus counting coalition casualties. Edwards's point was that, unlike the 1991 Gulf War, the ongoing Iraq war has the United States bearing the lion's share of the burden among "coalition" forces. Iraqi deaths aren't relevant to this argument. Or are we now counting Iraq as part of the coalition that invaded Iraq?


NBC, post-debate "let's see what bloggers think!" segment: John "Hindrocket" Hinderaker (of Power Line) and Ana Marie Cox (of Wonkette). Somehow AMC resisted the temptation to make fun of Hindrocket's nom de plume on network TV, and instead stammered out a comparison of Cheney to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (roughly: "you can hit him, but it's just going to sink in and your hand's not gonna come away with much substance") and giggled. Oh, Ana! A rather tame snark! I'm so disillusioned. Nevertheless it's clearly unbalanced for NBC to tap one partisan Republican blogger, and one blogger whose political affiliation is best described as "pro-dick-jokes".

OTOH I think there is something to Cox's assertion that it's hard to land hits on Cheney. There's plenty of facts to nail him for, but he's such a low-affect speaker, and such a shameless liar, that he can just pull more falsehoods and non sequiturs out of his ass and roll on with scarcely a noticeable interruption. It's up to journalists to fact check his ass in the days to come. Let's see if it happens.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Slideshow testimonial

Matthew Flatt gave a couple of talks at our dept. last week. One of them was on Slideshow, the very cool cross-platform Scheme-based presentation package which most PLT Schemers have been using for conference talks for the past couple of years. Today, emboldened by Matt's tutorial, I used it to give a presentation to my research group, and I'm happy to report that it went off relatively well.

I'm not sure if Slideshow will wean me off PowerPoint for conference talks, but for quick intra-dept. presentations I've mostly been using LaTeX's slides package; and Scheme's a much better programming language than LaTeX. After hacking around with LaTeX's pathetic \newcommand macros for so long, it was a huge relief to have real data structures and functions. On the other hand, Slideshow's support for mathematical formulae is much weaker than LaTeX's, although I suppose I could hack up some Scheme code to call out to latex and generate a bitmap (the moral equivalent of George Necula's TeXPoint)...

Anyway, Slideshow's definitely worth a try if you have similar needs. Since Matt may not be visiting you anytime soon, the bundled tutorial on the examples page will get you up and running fairly quickly.

p.s. One thing that's cool if you're giving talks with Scheme code: you can cause the code displayed on your slides to get evaluated at presentation time, eliminating the annoying problem of maintaining internally correct and consistent code examples over many revisions of your presentation --- a problem that invariably bites me unless I proofread each slide about a dozen times (and sometimes even then). This feature is almost cool enough to make me want to hack up an interpreter in Scheme for an S-expression-ized syntax of my own language.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Asia Times roundup

Much good stuff from Asia Times lately...

  • Bruno Giussani explains why it will be difficult even for Kerry to get Europe to contribute ground forces in Iraq. MoJo also blogged this recently.
  • Conversely, Stephen Zunes analyzes why Bush's recent UN speech was received rather frostily by the international community. Whatever problems Kerry will have in drumming up international support, Bush will have it worse; and there are other forms of international support besides "boots on the ground".
  • David Isenberg reports on the difficulty of securing Iraq's oil infrastructure --- one reason that "Iraqi oil money will pay for reconstruction" plan hasn't panned out.
  • Syed Saleem Shahzad reports on the highly alarming possibility of significant latent al Qaeda forces in Pakistan. In related news, Shahzad also reported recently that Pakistan's recent assassination of terrorist Amjad Farooqi may have been stage-managed to produce the illusion of progress in the war on terrorism.
  • Indrajit Basu reports on why Kerry's leading among Indian-Americans, despite the unpopularity of his anti-outsourcing rhetoric amongst the business classes of India. IMO these two factoids aren't terribly surprising.

    More surprising, and alarming, is the article's final suggestion that some conservative Indian-Americans support Bush because they oppose Kerry's strong nuclear non-proliferation stance. Can they really be oblivious to the fact that, in a world with abundant nukes, a nuclear terrorist attack in Madras, Mumbai, or Delhi seems at least as likely as a nuclear attack on downtown Manhattan? America's protected from the operational and recruiting centers of the Islamic fundamentalist jihadists by two oceans and friendly neighbors. India shares a long, twisty border with Pakistan, and... well, see the previous bullet.

Debate the first

Now, I am hardly an objective witness, but one hour into the debate, Kerry is reaming Bush in every way imaginable. Bush's flop-sweat, hunched-monkey posture, nervous stuttering, head-rolling, and awkward, prolonged silences are playing terribly on television. (Then there's all the facts, but I'll be shocked --- albeit pleasantly --- if the media gives a shit about fact-checking any more this time than in 2000.) Bush is recapitulating his broken-record non sequitur repetition tactic from 2000 (remember how many times he said "fuzzy math"?) and Kerry is landing some very palpable hits.


Followup: PBS commentators: Mark Shields says "narrow split decision for Kerry"; David Brooks says it's a draw; the three historians (Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, and Ellen Fitzpatrick) spout platitudes about both candidates, with their verbal remarks on balance displaying (in my opinion) a narrow pro-Bush bias. Michael Beschloss says Kerry projected the demeanor of "the smartest kid in the class" whereas Bush looked like the "world-weary older teacher" (hey Beschloss, does your definition of "world-weary teacher" behavior include freezing up for several seconds with a panicked look on one's face, whilst trying desperately to remember the talking points?).

Now, when I was flipping around among CBS, NBC, and ABC right after the debate, every single instant poll gave Kerry a large margin in the "who won the debates" question (CBS News: Kerry 43%, Bush 28%, tie 29%; ABC News: Kerry 45%, Bush 36%, tie 17%; note that the CBS poll was among uncommitted voters, whereas the ABC poll was among debate viewers). Every single person on NBC's panel of six hand-picked undecided voters said Kerry did better in the debate. KIRO 7 Eyewitness News at 11 ran a clip of an undecided voter from North Seattle saying that Kerry clarified his position more than Bush did.

I think it's pretty clear what's going on here. Right-leaning pundits are shameless, and liberal pundits are gun-shy, and so the obvious outcome of the debates gets obscured. Yeats comes to mind. It will be interesting to see how media coverage in the coming days pans out.


Day-after followup (1 Oct.): M. Yglesias points to Democracy Corps memo (3.17KB PDF), summarizing thusly:

Republicans think Bush won, Democrats think Kerry won, and Independents think Kerry won. That's the way elections are won, provided we don't see a Gallup-esque oversample of Republicans at the voting booths.

Who won the debate? Kerry 45%, Bush 32% among all viewers, and Kerry 51% vs. Bush 20% among undecided voters. Solid gains all across the board for Kerry on a variety of issues. Even Bush's "mexed missages" [sic.] label didn't stick: 11% fewer independents viewed Kerry as a "flip-flopper" after the debate; or, in other words, Bush's single biggest talking point, the one his campaign has been flogging for months, and the one that he hammered on at every opportunity during the debate, actually lost traction among independents. That's called a win for Kerry, folks. Admittedly, this is a Democratic source --- James Carville, no less --- so it should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. But it seems to confirm, mostly, the trailing polls I note above.

p.s. Pudentilla rounds up press links on the debate.

p.p.s. Garance Franke-Ruta of TAP reports that CNN/Gallup polls say 53% think Kerry won, with only 37% for Bush.

p3.s. On the other hand, USA Today shows that Bush still leads on many important questions.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Michael Shamos voting testimony

Michael Shamos's July 2004 testimony before the House of Representatives regarding electronic voting machines. He is obviously a longtime electronic voting proponent. I link the testimony here in the interest of fairness, but I don't have time to rebut all his claims now, beyond saying that most of the arguments he attributes to DRE voting machine opponents are straw men (albeit subtly constructed straw men).

Most thoughtful DRE voting machine opponents acknowledge that electronic voting machines, in some form, can be superior to other forms of voting. We object to the bad design and lack of verifiability in the current generation of DRE voting machines, as well as the lack of transparency on the part of the voting machine manufacturers.

Unfortunately, Michael Shamos's testimony reads as a full-throated defense of electronic voting, with calls for verifiability and trustworthiness only coming at the very end. It therefore gives a misleading impression to lay readers.

p.s. Michael Shamos is a professor at CMU's School of Computer Science (though not, it is worth noting, in the Computer Science Department itself); but the list of computer scientists who have endorsed the contrary Resolution on Electronic Voting is rather more impressive. The older, hand-maintained version sorts by rough seniority and, well, if you recognize any of the names on that list, you'll see what I mean. Yes, OK, the appeal to authority is a fallacy, but Shamos seems to like putting "Ph.D., J.D." after his name, and his testimony is full of logical problems itself, so it's worth pointing out that we should not accord Shamos any special credibility because of his own credentials.

Electronic election idiocy from Tom Zeller Jr.

A few months ago, I wrote, regarding journalistic reactions to F9/11:

...perhaps subtle concepts like "common interest" are lost on most journalists. Perhaps their imaginations are delimited to the much simpler movie logic of "sinister white-haired men smoking in darkened conference rooms and plotting world domination". Perhaps if you don't have incontrovertible video evidence of a claque of sinister white-haired smokers in a conference room, then you have no point.

Now, I really hate to quote myself, but Tom Zeller, Jr. demonstrates, in a Week in Review article on trustworthy voting, how utterly right I was. He writes:

In fact, while most experts appear to agree that electronic voting has real problems, few argue that they could completely undermine the November election, or that they are products of a dark conspiracy.

And:

The fear that electronic voting represents a corporate conspiracy is probably overblown, experts say. Too many people would have to cooperate on too many levels - from the programming labs at each company to the warehouses where machines are stored to precinct floors on election night. "It would be a heist on the order of 'Ocean's Eleven,' " said Michael I. Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who spent 20 years testing the integrity of election systems. "It would make for a fascinating movie, but it's not reality."

What a load of crap. Just because there isn't some massive world-spanning conspiracy to rig the election --- just because there isn't a sinister claque of smokers convening in a darkened room --- that doesn't mean we should trust these electronic voting machines. Evidently, the concept of "shoddy engineering" is as foreign and inscrutable to journalists as the concept of "common interest". It didn't take a conspiracy to produce hanging chads, and it won't take a conspiracy to produce "hanging bits" (contested or untrustworthy votes in a critical district) with electronic voting machines.

Furthermore, CMU prof Shamos is either wrong, or being misquoted (somehow, given Zeller's evident cluelessness, I suspect the latter). As any working programmer knows, in the absence of extremely tight code review procedures, it is, in fact, trivial for an individual programmer to sneak a few lines into the code for which (s)he has primary responsibility. And the nature of computer code is such that the addition or deletion of a few lines --- even, in many cases, a few characters --- is sufficient to make a machine vulnerable to attack. All the publicly available evidence about Deibold's software engineering should make any competent programmer very skeptical of claims that their code review processes are tight enough to catch such a hack.

And once the exploit exists in the software, it's irrelevant how many people can inspect the physical machine --- unless you think that the guys who operate the forklift at the warehouse have magical X-ray vision and other mutant super-powers that enable them to (1) penetrate the machine's case, (2) read the magnetic bits off the hard disk, (3) decode the raw binary data into machine code, (4) reverse engineer the source code from the machine code, and (5) derive the semantics of the entire program and prove it correct in their heads.

Note that computer scientists who work in program verification find (5) by far the most hilariously impossible of these five steps, which gives you a sense for how tricky it is to determine whether a program is correct, even given access to full source code.

No computer scientist whom I know, who has thought hard about direct recording electronic (DRE) voting for more than a few minutes, has come away with a strong confidence in these machines or the companies who sell them. Zeller's article massively misrepresents the evidence and the conclusions that scholars draw from them. The Week in Review editor really should not be assigning this sort of article to somebody who's so clueless about software engineering.


My friends know that I've blogged this several times before; links: one, two, three, four, and a bonus link from South Knox Bubba.

Times Magazine highlights

However, aside from Tierney's douchebaggery, this week's not a bad issue:

John Tierney: Credulous stenographer for right-wing think tanks

Today's Times Magazine has a really infuriating article on the "social, moral, and environmental case for driving more", penned by John Tierney, which approvingly cites ideologues such as:

all without ever mentioning that all these policy institutes are right-wing think tanks. The slant of these organizations may be well-known in public policy circles, but general readers will be utterly in the dark. For example, how many readers will know that (from Disinfopedia):

Robert D. Tollison, Richard E. Wagner and Thomas Gale Moore are members of the Board of Advisors at [The Independent Institute], Gary Anderson, Robert Ekelund, Dwight R. Lee, Mark Thornton and S. Fred Singer are Research Fellows at TII and Richard Vedder is Senior Fellow at TII. Most of them have a long history of working for the Tobacco Institute (TI) and/or Philip Morris and all nine were also members of the 'Academic Advisory Board' for the pro-tobacco junk science report 'Science, Economics, and Environmental Policy: A Critical Examination' published by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (AdTI) on August 11, 1994. AdTI received money from both TI and Philip Morris. (See: AdTI-Funding)

This doesn't necessarily mean that Randall O'Toole is a fraud, but how far would you trust someone employed by a think tank that's run by, and employs, scholars who take money from the tobacco industry to publish junk science about the environmental effects of tobacco? How far would you trust an organization that takes money from Microsoft while Microsoft is under antitrust investigation, then publishes a book about antitrust regulation, and then lies about how much money Microsoft gave them?

Enough about the "Independent" Institute. As for CEI and AdTI, I'm a computer scientist, and I can say that basically everything I've ever read coming out of the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the Alexis de Toqueville Institution about computing technology issues has been bullshit (for example, the AdTI's recent hacktackular critique of open source software).

And Heritage? Don't make me laugh.

Throughout the article, Tierney frames the debate as one between (1) woolly-headed feel-good liberals who love cities because of their elitism and desire to control everybody else's lifestyle, and (2) serious scholars who've done the "number-crunching" and debunked the "myths" and favor automobiles. Tierney never mentions that all the people he quotes in category (2) are employed by self-consciously ideological, structurally dishonest institutions.

BTW this is the same John Tierney who wrote, regarding the fake, Republican spin-driven NASA bunny suit pseudo-fiasco, "If there was anything Senator John Kerry's strategists were hoping to avoid this week, it was the image of a Massachusetts liberal in funny headgear." I'm not sure whether Tierney's a right-winger himself, or he's just a totally gullible moron who lets himself get spun by right-wing operatives because he doesn't know any better. Either way, to borrow Jon Stewart's phrase, he's a douchebag.


Holy shit, I just turned to the Week in Review, only to find another John Tierney byline heading up an equally ridiculous article that pounds repeatedly on the "John Kerry is a flip-flopper" line while masquerading as news analysis. Shallow horse-race campaign coverage ahoy! America would objectively be a better place if somebody briskly paddled the Week in Review editor's ass with a cricket bat every time (s)he ran an article on the tactical maneuverings of a political campaign instead of the substance of the issues.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Fetching your blogspot blog to your local hard drive

In the name of writing something useful for once, here's a magical wget incantation, useful on *nix boxen or Windows machines with a port of wget (e.g., via Heiko or Cygwin), for fetching the entirety of your blogspot blog to your local hard drive:

wget -m -k -nH -p --domains=yourblog.blogspot.com http://yourblog.blogspot.com

Now you can poke your blog with grep and all the other neat-o tools on your local machine.

UPDATE 20 April 2006: Since Blogger now supports uploaded images, here's the new recipe (which will fetch photos as well; note that the following should all be on one line):

wget -m -k -nH -p -H -e robots=off
    --domains=yourblog.blogspot.com,photos1.blogger.com
    http://yourblog.blogspot.com

Note that Blogspot puts my photos on photos1.blogger.com, but you may need to substitute whatever host Blogspot puts your photos on.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Quick movie notes

Saw a rash of movies last weekend with SL and AM...

  • Collateral: Michael Mann brings us another slickly glittering, trashy thriller that nevertheless manages to surprise with bursts of lyricism. Also, great soundtrack. p.s. My brief experience with Los Angeles nurtured no love for that city in my heart, but Mann makes it look gorgeous, mysterious, compelling, even to this jaded expat New Yorker. Quite a trick.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Pretty visuals. Snappy dialogue. Acceptably entertaining story, which faithfully replicates the plotting of an old-fashioned pulpy comic book. Absolutely featherweight, with not an ounce of pretention to be anything else, and therefore unobjectionable in itself; however, I suspect that the movie's success augurs the rather odious prospect that writer/director Kerry Conran will be given free rein to produce a string of even more comic-book-geeky, obsessively detailed, and thoroughly empty reconstructions of his fantasies. One movie of this sort is harmless fun. Ten movies of this sort, without a single idea or even a genuine emotion among their pretty little heads, would be a colossal waste of animators' talent and labor.
  • Also caught the tail end of Seattle's first annual Independent South Asian Film Festival:
    • Autumn's Final Country: a deeply affecting documentary, shot in bare-bones style, in the format of four 15-minute face-to-face interviews with South Asian women. The women directly address the camera and matter-of-factly tell their stories of displacement, violence, abduction, slavery, etc. in Kashmir.
    • Above film was preceded by the short Battle for Blue Gold, a no-budget 20-minute short about how Coca-Cola's Indian subsidiary is illegally polluting and draining a local village's water supply. I found this film interesting but ultimately frustrating, as the budget limitations prevented the filmmaker from doing much research beyond interviewing the village women. The BBC and others have covered this issue in greater detail.
    • Indian Cowboy: the festival's closer. Most festivals reserve the closing spot for a film that's expected to be a big draw, to send the festival out with a bang. So it's probably understandable that they chose a rather conventional romantic comedy feature that allegedly sends up Bollywood conventions. (All the hipsters know that Bollywood movies are fun! It was in Ghost World!) Unfortunately, Indian Cowboy sucks. It's probably one of the worst movies I've seen this year, which is saying rather a lot, since I watch a lot of movies. Boring, interminable, predictable plot, triter-than-trite dialogue, sloppy pacing, lackadaisical and confused character development. Gaaaagh.
    • Above was preceded by Portrait of an American Hostess, a low-budget short that, although rather obvious at times, still had effective moments, plus a generally deft feel for character that was sorely lacking in the feature that followed it.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Windows worm vulnerabilities

Just to followup the news from the last Crypto-Gram that most Windows PCs get hacked within 20 minutes of connecting to the Internet, here's a story that my friend SL told me yesterday.

Our advisor recently bought our research group a brand-new ThinkPad, with Windows XP Professional, fresh from the factory, for SL (and others) to use on the interview circuit. SL plugged the laptop in, connected to the UW-CSE wireless network, and immediately went to the Windows Update web site to download the patches. After it finished downloading, he rebooted. Crash. The notebook was already infected with a worm.

He had to wipe the ThinkPad and restore its original configuration (fortunately IBM provides a fairly convenient way to do this), and install Service Pack 2 from a burned CD-ROM.

This is amazing. You read the studies, but you think: "Well, OK, it won't happen to me." But it does happen to you. The vast majority of Windows users worldwide who aren't served by an active IT support team --- which is to say, basically all home Windows users --- are probably infected already.

Microsoft Windows: Unsafe at any speed.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Friday, September 17, 2004

Digby: Too soft on Bush, for once

Digby writes:

You know, I don't know why Atrios is so upset about people like Woodruff and Gergen and Carlson obviously spewing RNC talking points about how Kerry has to come up with a plan for Iraq in order to win, but Bush doesn't. The logic is obvious.

Suppose you hired a contractor to put on a new roof and he ended up creating a huge hole in it instead. The contractor simply denies that a hole exists and keeps telling you to relax that your new roof is coming along just fine. The other contractor in town drives by and says he can fix that hole in your roof. You ask him how and he says, "well, I'll have to take a look at it and see how much damage is done but I have years of experience and a lot of good workers and I can get the job done for you. I'll tell you one thing, that guy you've got working on it doesn't know what he's doing. The hole's getting bigger while we stand here looking at it."

Gergen, Woodruff and Carlson would pick the first contractor because they know his work. (And he's a blast to have a beer with at the end of the workday.) The second guy refused to say exactly what he would do without looking at the damage up close so he can't be trusted.

But actually, even this analogy is too easy on Bush. Iraq didn't have anything to do with al Qaeda. Iraq didn't have nuclear weapons or even an active nuclear weapons program, and the U.N. inspection process was functioning perfectly well in preventing it from developing one. And now, because we've simultaneously damaged the international nuclear inspections process (by showing that compliance won't spare you from U.S. invasion) and tied down our military in Iraq, we're in an incalculably weaker position w.r.t. defense against nuclear proliferation, and hence nuclear terrorism.

What Bush has done is more like if you hired a contractor to put on a new roof, and the first thing he does is blast a huge hole in your basement, blowing into a nearby water main, flooding your basement, and creating dangerous water-filled cracks in your walls that are going to be a big headache when they freeze next winter.

"Oops!" he says. "My bad... wait, no, I mean, my good! It's all good!" You remember having reservations when he hauled the dynamite into the basement, but he assured you that it was necessary to fix the roof, and that it would basically pay for itself. This struck you as a non sequitur, but he went ahead anyway. After a while, the flooding damage starts to get out of hand, so he asks you for more money, which you reluctantly give him, and a few months later under continuing flooding, you find out that he hasn't even spent the money you asked for. You even find out that he took some of the money you gave him to fix the bathroom and spent it buying dynamite. Now, at this point, you get really fed up and call in an independent auditor, who estimates that it will cost three times as much money to fix the basement as Bush told you it would. You ask Bush if the roof's ever going to get done, and he says "I don't think about it much anymore." And the water in the basement just keeps rising, and the outlook just keeps getting worse.

But even this analogy isn't tough enough, because, although a flooded basement is bad, it doesn't involve killing anybody.