12.21.2012

hasta luego


The wife and I are skipping town on Sunday for some R&R in Mexico D.F. and Oaxaca. I hope the NIH is still funding new science when we get back. If not...2013 could be kind of interesting.
Have a good Christmas, New Years, Boxing Day, and whatever else you find the time to celebrate.

12.18.2012

confidential to no one in particular

Good work.

quick review: the man with the iron fists

I blew off work one afternoon last week (something I can do with a pretty clear conscience every once in a while considering how many nights, weekends, and holidays I do work) to unplug my brain. After grabbing lunch downtown, I headed over to the multiplexes (there are two within a block, which is terribly convenient if you like making up your mind at the last minute). I don't care about hobbits, the timing was off for Argo, and I just wasn't up for anything too serious.

So I saw The Man With the Iron Fists.

This is basically a kung-fu movie written, directed by, and starring the RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame). If you have even a passing familiarity with The Wu, this should come as no surprise; he's obsessed with this stuff.

There's really no point in trying to summarize the plot, because it's basically the same as every kung-fu movie ever made. Clans are fighting, someone kills someone's father, the son goes for revenge, bad people kill more people, the hero emerges with some sort of special power or weapon (hint: it's usually in the title), evil is defeated--often at a great price--peace returns, the end. Either this works for you or it doesn't.

And it has to be said: either the RZA is a savant at imitating literally the style of a somewhat impenetrable story and dialog translated from Chinese into English, or he's just not a very good writer. And his acting is...well let's just say he didn't do his acting career any favors by directing himself.

BUT...I think he has real potential as a director.

The movie has its flaws, but it looks great. The fight scenes are elaborate, but not overly so. He lingers on some really nicely composed shots, but shows some actual restraint in the whole slowing-down-time department. He lets his best acting talent (Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu) carry their scenes. And perhaps most impressively in this era of every action film being a 2.5 hour assault on the senses: it clocks in at a well-paced 90 minutes.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think RZA is going to be the next Scorsese or anything. But I'd definitely shell out the $11 to watch something else from him long before I'd sign up for another CGI abortion by Micheal Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer.

it's not a war on drugs, part infinity


Matt Taibbi writes:

So you might ask, what's the appropriate financial penalty for a bank in HSBC's position? Exactly how much money should one extract from a firm that has been shamelessly profiting from business with criminals for years and years? Remember, we're talking about a company that has admitted to a smorgasbord of serious banking crimes. If you're the prosecutor, you've got this bank by the balls. So how much money should you take?

How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they've ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby's auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don't think twice. And then throw them in jail.

Sound harsh? It does, doesn't it? The only problem is, that's exactly what the government does just about every day to ordinary people involved in ordinary drug cases.
He does go on. Read the whole thing.

12.14.2012

Some days I look at the news, and I want nothing more than to tell the entire world to just shut the fuck up.

on "bigger fish" in washington and colorado

Washington Post:

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama said of marijuana smokers in Colorado and Washington, the two states where recreational use is now legal.
“It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal,” he said.
What is important here is what Mr. Obama doesn't say. By simply stating that the feds are not going to go after recreational users--something that they have never really done, anyway--he leaves more than ample wiggle-room for the DoJ to obstruct the implementation of state regimes to regulate the distribution and sale of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. I would be very surprised if they did not do so.

But even if Holder and company decline to fight that battle in the court, there is nothing in the president's statement that precludes going after anyone who attempts to open shop under state law on federal distribution charges. Indeed, this administration's aggressive stance on medical marijuana dispensaries suggests that this is exactly what they will do.


If I were a Machiavellian-minded drug warrior with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the drug war, this is exactly the course I would chart. The very real threat that drug warriors face right now is a shift in momentum against their highly lucrative enterprise. The absolute worst thing that could happen, from their perspective, is for a legal market in marijuana to flourish in the U.S. with little to no impact on overall use or crime rates, or even a drop in crime as the black market contracts.

If you render implementation of that legal market impossible, you perpetuate the criminal enterprise of distribution. You keep the criminal drug dealers in business. And if demand does go up as recreational users get comfortable with the idea they are unlikely to face sanctions, there is a good chance that crime ancillary to the (still illicit) trade will go up.

Then you get to say that legalizing pot increased crime, and you have the perfect argument to roll back reform.

This is a long way from over.

12.12.2012

this and that

I'm deeply ambivalent about unions and right to work legislation. I think that the ability of closed shops to extract union dues whether you join the union or not is ridiculous. On the other hand, the unions have a point about the free rider problem.

I can certainly commiserate with those who bemoan the dead weight overly powerful unions--and especially those in the public sector--can create. The mostly unionized (and entirely publicly employed) administrative caste at my current employer are merely frustrating to deal with on their best days. On a typical day they actually create work that (non-union, largely externally funded) people like me then have to deal with.

But on the other other hand, I am not sure that I can accept the notion that the labor movement (generally)  has achieved all of its worthwhile goals, and can safely cease to be. I'm not sure what the best "third path" here is, but I suspect that it would involve making both sides of the ongoing tension between labor and capital less intimate with wider political struggles.

I have no idea how one does that.

---

I haven't been paying much attention to the back and forth on the fiscal cliff. Not because it doesn't matter, or doesn't have tremendous potential to affect me personally--it does--but because 1) there is a not a great deal I can do about any of it, and 2) the 'negotiations' will proceed right up until the last minute. The reason for the latter, simply put, is that no one has any incentive to wrap this thing up early. Since both parties to the negotiations have a number of constituencies at their back, the only reason either would have to end the negotiations before they absolutely have to is if they got everything their constituencies wanted. That simply isn't going to happen, for anyone.

But if you stop too soon, someone can always ask why you didn't hold out any longer. Which is why this won't be "over" until people are already gathering to watch the ball drop.

No point in holding one's breath until then.

12.06.2012

12.05.2012

I love how (some of) the same people that complain about being "bullied" for saying that gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married because GOD! are calling for Bob Costas to lose his livelihood for suggesting that there may be a connection between having a gun and using a gun to kill someone.

Asteroid, humanity, etc.




happy repeal day!


Man, I love it when the scolds lose.

12.04.2012

coates on jefferson

If you would like to read something meaty (but short) I would commend to you Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent series of blog posts on Thomas Jefferson and slavery. An excerpt from the most recent installment:

When people say Jefferson was merely a "man of his times" they sell him short. I don't mean this as some sort of rhetorical jiu-jitsu. I find myself quoting these words when trying to explain slavery's problems. What Jefferson, the man, did doesn't make these words any less meaningful.

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it.
There is a great deal more here and here. He's also busily picking apart Lincoln and continues to write some of the best contributions to the ongoing discussion of head injuries in football. The dude is prolific. But I really hope he finds a way to spin this Jefferson stuff into a book, or at least a feature in The Atlantic.

marijuana and "brain damage"

Much has been made of this recent study (probably behind a paywall unless accessed via a university network, sorry) out of Australia that purports to show that adolescent cannabis usage leads to "serious brain damage".

Actually, the paper does not purport to show such a thing at all; the reporting on the paper and the occasional triumphalist conservative blogger do.

What the paper does show is a significant alteration in the connectivity of certain white matter tracts correlating to earlier onset of cannabis use in a fairly small (59 people) cohort of users compared with a smaller (33) group of non-users. These "connectivity maps" are based on an algorithm that is rather impenetrable even for a pretty well-educated non-expert in diffusion-weighted MR imaging (i.e., me), so I won't get into it...suffice it to say that they looked at the diffusion of water through white matter structures and made inferences about their microstructure--specifically, how many interconnections existed among the axons (think of them as the "cables" of the brain, if you like).

Here is what the paper does not show:

1. Any evidence of measurable cognitive impairment in their cohort (they did not test this.)

2. Any evidence of increased psychiatric disorders in their cohort, other than to say: "Cannabis users had significantly greater trait anxiety and depressive symptoms, and smoked significantly greater amounts of tobacco than non-users. However, no participant had ever been diagnosed with an anxiety or depressive disorder or had sought treatment for such symptoms." [emphasis added] In other words, those traits were sub-clinical. It is every bit as possible (if not likely) that people with sub-clinical anxiety and/or depression are more likely to be cannabis users, rather than the other way around.

Oh, and there are several studies that have correlated tobacco use with white matter abnormalities.

The authors did do a post hoc analysis of their data and found that the correlation between cannibus use and decreased axonal connectivity "remained significant" when taking these possible confounding variables into account. All well and good, but the fact that they do not show the actual results of this post hoc analysis (i.e., we don't really know how much of an impact taking those variables into account had) is possibly telling. I'm kind of surprised the reviewers let them get away with that.

3. Most importantly: the relationship between axonal connectivity and any particular functional deficit is...more or less completely unknown. The authors write: "Disturbed brain connectivity in cannabis users may underlie cognitive impairment and vulnerability to psychosis, depression and anxiety disorders (Lim et al., 2002), all of which are significant public health concerns." Trust me, because I've written no small number of these things: this is science-speak for "we think that A leads to B, but nobody's proven it yet and we don't here, either, and there is potential public health relevance so please continue to fund our research."

I want to emphasize here that I think the researchers have made an important contribution, and that I do not think that they've done anything in bad faith, except possibly fall for the temptation that far too many in our profession do of talking up their results to the press. And there may very well be clinically important effects here; that certainly merits further investigation. However, these data (as always) must be taken in the context of every other data set addressing the same general question, which--as the authors themselves point out in the very first sentence--are "equivocal".

As to how or whether this ought to inform policy vis a vis the legal status of marijuana: no one is seriously lobbying for it to be legal for adolescents to use.

And of course, parents have much more compelling reasons to steer their children away from marijuana (and drug use generally, including alcohol) in adolescence than any possible developmental effects. Those are the years you should be doing your homework, learning new skills, learning how to interact socially, and generally learning how to be a responsible decent human being...which includes developing the skill set necessary (if you are so inclined) to indulge in the occasional intoxicant while remaining a productive member of society...as an adult.


11.27.2012

quick hits

--Situational libertarianism: gated communities in New York suddenly very interested in having the state and city involved in their infrastructure, for some reason...

--We may owe single moms (especially those that raised their kids through the late 80's and 90's) an apology.

--I was interested to learn that despite the fact that Mexico's murder rate has nearly doubled in the last decade, there are many parts of the country that are statistically a lot safer than many cities in the US. For example, the murder rate in Mexico City last year was 8.7 per 100,000, about the same as Nashville. Guess which one I'm spending Christmas in?

--In case you were wondering: there is an outside chance you might be able to outrun a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but you wouldn't have a prayer with any of the smaller carnivorous dinosaurs.


11.23.2012

black friday and the heart of darkness

(re-posted from 11.25.2011)
 I have participated in exactly one Black Friday in my entire life.

The year was 1994. I had just turned 17, and was working my first part-time job at a certain Jesus-y chicken joint at the local mall. Having started there the previous December and worked 3 nights a week for the better part of the year, I had worked my way "up" from washing dishes (which I hated) to working the grill (which I actually kind of liked) to working as a cashier (which I hated more than washing dishes.)

The next step was management, one which I had no intention whatsoever of taking.

Suffice it to say, I had through a completely ill-considered combination of work ethic and generally pleasant demeanor made myself sufficiently valuable to the management of the store that my presence was considered indispensable when the mall would open at 7AM the day after Thanksgiving. My shift would start at 6AM.

A digression is in order. If a mall-based food vendor serves breakfast at all, it is generally a very small part of their business. Most fast food outlets stop serving breakfast around 10:30 or 11, and most malls don't typically open until 9 or 10. Also, (typical) weekday morning traffic is a trickle; when and where I grew up, it was mostly old folks doing laps to exercise in a climate-controlled, safe environment. They might have stopped in for a coffee afterward, but that was pretty much it. Saturday mornings were much busier, but the mall didn't open until lunchtime on Sunday, and our store never opened on Sunday at all.

As such, the oven in our store that we used to bake biscuits--our one and only breakfast item at the time--was actually smaller than the ovens found in most homes. I think it could handle two trays of maybe 20 biscuits each. It takes about 20 minutes to bake biscuits properly. So the maximum biscuit generating capacity of our store was about 2 per minute on average, but of course this actually meant a batch of 40 coming out every 20. (You could stagger trays and get 20 every 10.)

As I walked up to the storefront a few minutes before 6, I saw a crowd of about two dozen people lined up, apparently, for chicken biscuits.

We didn't open for another hour. The crowd only got bigger.

Never mind that there was  a  McDonnald's out in one of the lots that ringed the mall, that surely could crank out breakfast biscuits at 10 times the rate we could, or that (being suburban Atlanta) there were no fewer than 3 Waffle Houses within a mile (one right across the street) that had been open all night, as they always were every day of the year. Never mind that if one were a halfway competent southerner, they could themselves whip up a batch of biscuits, and have time to do bacon and eggs on the stove while they baked, in far less than the hour plus they were willing to stand like a bunch of assholes in a not-yet-open mall so that we could do it for them.

When we opened the gate at 7AM, all 12 registers were manned. I didn't stop taking and filling orders for the next 9 hours. By lunchtime, it was fine--pretty much like a Saturday shift on crack, but manageable. But breakfast was pure hell.

I look back at that morning as the day I entered adulthood. I don't think I really understood man's bottomless capacity for entitlement and general depravity until I saw it etched on the angry faces of a thousand middle-aged women demanding a chicken biscuit in a timely fashion on their way to buy Nintendo games at 25% off.

Since that morning, I've found myself in genuinely life-threatening situations a couple of times. I've watched somebody I love die. I've had guns pointed at my face. Strangely, none of these experiences haunt my dreams.

But the hordes of people demanding breakfast on Black Friday still do, and I have a feeling that they always will.

The following summer, I got a job selling swimming pool supplies, and I never looked back.


Been pretty busy on the home front. Last weekend four very good friends surprised me by showing up (three of them from the other coast) to help me celebrate my constitutional eligibility for the presidency. Next week I am squeezing into the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas travel (which I find hateful, not to mention expensive) to go meet my brand-new nephew in Georgia. Pressures of work and career are mounting in ways that I cannot really get into, but suffice it to say I spent yesterday in the lab to make all these other diversions possible (we still had dinner with friends yesterday evening, so it was not a total loss.)

So I dunno. Consider this an open thread. Or don't. Hope you are well. Talk at you later.


11.15.2012

seattle pop quiz

Apropos of nothing: match the name of the business to the type of business that it is (each answer will be used only once):

1. Dick's                                   A. sports bar
2. Auto Battery                        B. hardware store
3. Diesel                                   C. coffee shop
4. Fuel                                      D. gay bar
5. Tool Town                           E. hamburger joint

First person to submit the correct answer in the comments section (without using Google to cheat--honor system) wins a pint of Manny's on me*.

*Must be in Seattle to collect. 

11.13.2012

the authority, the boys, and the future of the superhero genre (part 1)

[NB: Once I really got to working on this, I realized it was just too long for one post.]

In the last decade or so, Hollywood has gone through two Spider-Mans, three Hulks, and a whole lot of X-Men. Christopher Nolan just finished a trilogy of Batman movies that re-invented him as a "darker, grittier" character, a couple of decades after Tim Burton re-invented Batman as a "darker, grittier" character, just three years after Frank Miller re-invented Batman as a "darker, grittier" character in The Dark Knight Returns (which, as noted in this space recently, has been recently re-made as a surprisingly good direct to video animated feature.) I didn't watch Green Lantern because I don't care to have green CGI pixels projectile vomited at me for two hours. (I'm told it was actually slightly worse than that.)

Marvel is poised to make approximately 73 Avengers and Avenger-tie-in movies in the next week alone.


The current cycle of comic book movies is certain to play out, eventually. And joking aside, there have been some good ones: The Dark Knight was a seriously good film. X-Men: First Class, Iron Man, and The Avengers were all a lot of fun. But for every one of those, there's a musical number from Spider-Man 3.

And really, we ought not call these "comic book movies" because comic books are not just about superheros anymore. (Non-superhero comics have a similarly spotty track record of translation to other media: The Walking Dead is pretty amazing, and Sin City is a great guilty pleasure, but Keanu Reeves as freaking John Constantine..?) Anyway, the appeal of superheros to movie studios is obvious: well-known characters with a large, built in audience is about as safe a box office bet as a studio can make these days.

But I cannot help but wonder if there is an untapped market for--if I may clumsily coin a phrase--indy superhero movies. The main barrier to making decent superhero movies for the longest time was special effects. Digital technology has cursed us with the ability to literally make anything we can imagine happen on film, if you just have a big enough budget (which is why so many movies are so big and stupid now.) But the upside of this is that special effects are now really accessible to independent filmmakers; off the top of my head, Iron Sky was made for about $10 million and District 9 for about $30 million. That's not "cheap", exactly, but it's chump change compared to the $220 million it took to make The Avengers.

In the next installment, I'll talk about a couple of comics that have done much more interesting things with the superhero genre (even more interesting than Watchmen!) and how they could maybe serve to rejuvenate the genre at the movies.

"a surveillance state run amok"

I don't have anything remotely unique or interesting to add to the discussion of l'affaire Broadwell, but I have to agree that Glenn Greenwald has a good point here:

So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell's physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime - at most, they had a case of "cyber-harassment" more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people - and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court.
Anyone who has been paying attention for the last 11 years knows that the capacity that exists for monitoring electronic communications is essentially limitless. But what we have here is a high-profile, concrete example of how readily it is used on the thinnest of pretexts.

That this led to some salacious news and/or (serendipitously, it would appear) uncovered a possible breach of national security ought not distract us from this fact.


11.12.2012

future of the left


 Despite the title, this is not a post about politics.

 FotL is a band from Cardiff, Wales, that I saw at Neumo's last night. They kicked some serious ass, and they weren't even headlining. I didn't stay for the last band because I didn't want to sully the experience.

Also, it was the first time I'd seen someone trash the stage at the end of their set since (I think) I was in high school.

11.09.2012

dusting off the black things in my wardrobe...

...otherwise known as "my wardrobe".

My buddy's Depeche Mode cover band has a gig tonight, and I'm really looking forward to it. Between me and it is a crazy busy day of actual work, so in the meantime...

11.08.2012

3 suggestions for the gop

This is more of a jot list than a well thought-out proposal. Here are three (serious) ideas for how the Republicans--especially those in the House--could actually govern better and regain some political credibility for their brand. From most to least plausible:

1) Work with the president on immigration reform. Seriously, this is a no-brainer. Our system provides no legal means of migration for unskilled workers, a byzantine, slow, and expensive process for permanent residency even in the "easy" categories (trust me on this one), and cruelly punishes children for their parents' choices. Specifics could be tough to hammer out, but a robust guest worker program and something resembling the DREAM Act (though I am not a fan of the college/military requirement) would be a damn good start.

And there is that elusive Hispanic vote. Putting a Cuban guy at the top of the ticket isn't going to solve that for you.

2) Work with the president on entitlement reform. Again, the specifics could be tough, but we already have a perfectly tenable starting point: the Bowles Simpson commission's recommendations. We don't have to scrap Social Security and start over: raise the retirement age, raise the cap on income subject to SS taxes (this hasn't happened in a long time, making it the most regressive federal tax), and means-test benefits. That is the very definition of a conservative (in the original sense of the word) reform.

3) Repeal DOMA. Hear me out on this one. The only thing left for those of you opposed to marriage equality is to fight a war of attrition for as long as you can. The rest of us--not to put too fine a point on it--will outlive you.

I often hear from my friends on the right that they aren't opposed to gay people per se so much as having a change forced upon them by the courts. Well, here's the thing: there are now states that have approved equality through your allegedly preferred channels. (And there are others that while regardless of how they got there, have it.) There will be more. And eventually someone is going to sue for federal recognition of their marriage and/or full faith and credit recognition among the states. This will happen. It will go to the Supreme Court. And eventually, they will win.

If, however, DOMA is repealed, then you pave the way for federal recognition via a legislative process. You leave open the possibility that states may decide to recognize same-sex marriages from other states without having to license them themselves. Most importantly, you head off the contentious Supreme Court decision that you (rightly) worry will leave the country divided and a substantial minority feeling completely disenfranchised.


quoteable

"What bothers me is that I don't hear Republicans asking themselves, 'what do we need to change about what we believe?' but rather, 'what's our strategy to do a better job of hiding what it is we really believe?'"

--Dr. Mrs. Dr. B

"enthusiasm"

It's just one data point, but very, very liberal King County is probably going to top 85% voter turnout by the time all of our ballots are counted.

11.07.2012

why obama won

I don't want to spill too much ink on this, but I do want to make essentially one point: postmortems on the right today are circling the idea that the demographics of the country have changed, and the GOP has failed to respond adequately to that. Both of these things are true, but I think they point to a more fundamental truth.

Obama won this election because he was running to be president of the country that actually exists. Romney lost because he was running to be president of a country that does not.

Obama was running to be president of a country that is getting browner, yes. But it's also a country that is becoming more secular and less moralistic. It's a country that has passed a tipping point on marriage equality (an issue on which the president himself has had to be dragged along.) It's a country that is about see the beginning of the end of prohibition here in Washington and down in Colorado.

It's a country that is tired of war, and has no appetite for a new one. It's a country that is catching onto the fact that supply-side economics is a fantasy. It's a country that has realized that there is no good reason for people to go without healthcare in the wealthiest civilization in human history.

I do not think one man or one party has all the solutions. But I know that simply saying "no" is not a solution at all.

The president has his work cut out for him. He always has. And I sincerely hope the Republicans left standing can find a way to bring their party into the 21st century.

the egghead election

It turns out there was a consistent skew to the polls in battleground states after all: they consistently underestimated Obama's share of the vote.

Above are the results (some of which could still change a bit, but probably not much) plotted against the corresponding RCP averages from the fifteen most contested (and most polled) states. The dotted line is the line of identity (x = y). Data points above the dotted line are where Obama or Romney outperformed their poll numbers, and below where they underperformed.

It should be said that the general tendency is going to be towards underestimating either candidate's share of the votes, because the polls include undecideds and vote tallies, obviously, do not. Still, in only one case was Mr. Obama's share of the vote overestimated, and that was in AZ, where perhaps not coincidentally only two polls figured into the RCP average (there were 7 for OH, by contrast).

There's a fair amount that could be said about this, but for the moment I think I'll just let the numbers speak for themselves. 


11.06.2012

quoteable

Coates:

Dylan Byers endorses the notion that Nate Silver's rep will "take a severe hit" if Romney wins. But if Silver is exactly right Byers, who implied that Silver was overrated, will take no hit whatsoever. Joe Scarborough will still have his show. And Peggy Noonan will still be able to assert the significance of her feelings. And I will go into class tomorrow and try to explain to 19-year-old kids why this sort of journalism can give you a plum place in the world of media but can't get you out of an undergraduate writing seminar.


11.05.2012

Well it's about 10:30 here on the left coast and I'm off to bed in a minute. I haven't got a whole lot left to say about tommorrow except that I hope we have a clear outcome by about this time, if not earlier. And regardless of what happens on the national level, I hope we make some history here in the Evergreen State.

Back to comic books and obscure European metal bands on Thursday.

G'nite.

11.02.2012

"a tax on bullshit"

The inimitable Alex Tabarrok:

Overall, I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit; and it is a just tax, tribute paid by the bullshitters to those with genuine knowledge.
A good friend of mine in grad school was (and still is) an experimental economist. I always knew to quit arguing with him when he said "bet me."

11.01.2012

the cat is both alive and dead until tuesday*

Nate Silver really is pretty close to the middle of the road. If you want to see the edges, look here and here.

*If we're lucky.

10.31.2012

about neither hurricanes nor politics

My initial reaction to the news that Disney has agreed to purchase Lucasfilm and will be making Star Wars Episodes 7-9 (and beyond) was horror leavened by dread. As a lifelong fan, I am still stinging from the awfulness of Episodes 1 and 2 (3 was OK, if only by comparison). I was happy and ready to let the film franchise fade into memory. I imagine I am far from alone in that sentiment.

Of course, given that every other big-budget Hollywood movie today is either a sequel, a re-boot, or a shitty remake, it was completely unrealistic to expect a multi-billion dollar franchise to remain fallow for long. And while I am far from excited about the prospect of the Force being in the hands of Mauschwitz, the one bright spot in all of this is that George Lucas won't be writing and directing any more Star Wars movies.

This presents a great creative opportunity--should someone be wise enough to exploit it--to bring in some top-shelf creative talent and approach the galactic saga from a fresh perspective.

Here are some modest proposals for directors for Episode 7:

Alexander Payne--Luke returns to Tatooine in his 60s, wonders what life is all about. Feels empty and untethered. Has an an affair with an inappropriately young woman (Dakota Fanning).

Lars von Trier--Han and Leia's marriage has settled into a dull, soulless routine as Leia pursues her political career on Coruscant and Han tries to make a living as a novelist. Their love has long since given way to mutual contempt, explored in excruciating detail through the first hour of the film. Then, Han returns from a book tour early to find Leia in bed with Chewbacca, and attempts to kill them both. Chewbacca breaks Han's neck in the ensuing struggle, paralyzing him but leaving him alive. Grieved by what he has done to his best friend, Chewbacca jumps to his death from the balcony of their high-rise apartment. The movie ends with a black hole destroying the galaxy.

Daren Aronovsky--Set in the new Jedi Academy, this taut, often hallucinatory exploration of obsession centers on the extremes the young students are willing to push themselves to in order to fulfill their dreams of wielding the Force. Critics love it. Audiences mostly hate it. The soundtrack is awesome.

Joel and Ethan Cohen--This prequel follows a young Han Solo and Lando Calrissian as they double-cross their way across the galaxy in a desperate attempt to scam a motley cast of characters from Greedo (John Turturo) to Jabba the Hutt (John Goodman).

Eli Roth--Basically just two hours of Jar Jar Binks being tortured to death.

10.30.2012

revenge of the nerds

I had jotted down a few points of what I'd hoped to be a short post on the bizarre backlash against Nate Silver, but Ezra Klein has already made every single point I'd wanted to make. So, over to you, Ezra:
If Mitt Romney wins on election day, it doesn’t mean Silver’s model was wrong. After all, the model has been fluctuating between giving Romney a 25 percent and 40 percent chance of winning the election. That’s a pretty good chance! If you told me I had a 35 percent chance of winning a million dollars tomorrow, I’d be excited. And if I won the money, I wouldn’t turn around and tell you your information was wrong. I’d still have no evidence I’d ever had anything more than a 35 percent chance.
I wouldn't get on a plane if you told me it had a 25% chance of crashing, either. Would you?

Also, this:
The answer to this is simple enough: If Silver’s model is systematically biased, there’s a market opportunity for anyone who wants to build a better model. That person would stand to gain hugely if they outpredicted punditry’s reigning forecaster (not to mention all the betting markets and all the other forecasters). The math behind what Silver is doing isn’t that complicated and the polls are easily available.
If you sincerely believe that numbers guys are actually just in the can for Obama, get thyself over to Intrade and put your money where your mouth is. If you buy shares in Romney right now at ~$3.66, you can nearly triple your money by this time next week if he wins.

Funny how nobody seems to be doing enough of that to move the prediction markets further away from Silver et al.

Finally, a little self-awareness from Mr. Klein:
Come to think of it, a lot of the odder critiques of Silver have been coming out of Politico. But that makes a kind of sense. Silver’s work poses a threat to more traditional — and, in particular, to more excitable — forms of political punditry and horse-race journalism.

If you had to distill the work of a political pundit down to a single question, you’d have to pick the perennial “who will win the election?” During election years, that’s the question at the base of most careers in punditry, almost all cable news appearances, and most A1 news articles. Traditionally, we’ve answered that question by drawing on some combination of experience, intuition, reporting and polls. Now Silver — and Silver’s  imitators and political scientists — are taking that question away from us. It would be shocking if the profession didn’t try and defend itself.

10.26.2012

more of this, please

Seattle Police held a community meeting yesterday to discuss their intended use of aerial drones in the city. It did not go well:

The first community meeting seeking public opinion on the department's plans to use unmanned aerial systems, or drones, for law enforcement was taken over by protesters who prevented McDonagh from talking for more than half of the two-hour meeting.
The meeting, held at the Garfield Community Center, was attended by about 100 people. A few sat quietly and tried to listen, a few wanted to see the drones for themselves, but the majority were there to challenge police powers.
"We don't trust you with the weapons you do have," shouted a man who said his name was General Malaise. "We are not going to tolerate this in our city. This is unacceptable," yelled Emma Kaplan from The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. "NO DRONES!"
Some days I really do love this town.

Most troubling (besides the fact that they would be used at all) is that the guidelines that SPD claims will limit how drones will be used in the city will be a matter of police policy, rather than city ordinance. In other words, completely unaccountable to the public.

This is also disappointing:

That causes concern for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has called for police and city leaders to tightly regulate what kind of information can be collected by drones, who can collect it, how the information can be used and how long it will be kept.

Screw that. If anyone should be taking a hard line on drones, it's the freaking ACLU. "Tight regulation" means little more than letting the camel's nose under the tent, especially when we are talking expansion of police powers. The ACLU ought to know that better than anyone.

10.24.2012

lightening round

--This, this, a thousand times this.

--Turns out, God can be a real dick sometimes.

--Great piece on the late George McGovern.

--I'd call Donald Trump and Gloria Allred attention whores, but I don't want to insult them. (Whores, I mean.)

my life as a republican: epilogue

It only occurred to me yesterday, while hearing a story about how sophisticated political campaigns have gotten in terms of identifying likely voters and targeting them specifically for mailers, emails, and phone calls, that I haven't gotten a single solicitation for my vote* by any of those means.

The email doesn't surprise me; I have spam filters for my spam filters.

However, I know for a fact that the King County Republicans have my name, address, and phone number, thanks to my participation in their pooled caucuses and in the 43rd Legislative District caucus. I know this not only because I had to give that information to them in order to participate, but also because I got about 30 (seriously) phone calls from the Ron Paul campaign up to and even during the 43rd's caucus. Voter records are public, and I have voted in every election since moving to Seattle (even local primaries).

If I'm not a "likely voter" I don't know who would be.

Other information they have about me: I live in a moderately affluent zip code, I'm in my 30s, and I'm male. I live in Seattle and have an English surname, so it's a reasonably safe bet that I'm white.

Of course, I also live in an LD whose candidates for the state house this cycle are a Democrat and a Socialist.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Not at all. But I do think it is funny, since they made such a big point of encouraging the young(er) Ron Paul delegates to continue to be engaged with party after the caucuses, and of saying that they wanted that influx of youth and enthusiasm, that they seem to have decided to forget that we exist.

*By which I mean I'm surprised no one has tried to get my vote for the governor's race, which is a dead heat. Romney and Ryan have only come to WA once each, and both times it was just for private fundraising events. They know where not to waste their time. 

american football could be the next generation's smoking in hospitals

Ta-Nehisi Coates, longtime football fan--but more importantly, football dad--shares a pretty jarring story:

Six plays into the game, another Brave was removed after a hard hit. An official with the Tantasqua team said the eyes of one of the boys were rolling back in his head.
But the game, an obvious mismatch between teams from neighboring towns in central Massachusetts, went on, with Southbridge building a 28-0 lead in the first quarter. The game went on without the officials intervening. It went on despite the fact that the Braves, with three of their players already knocked out of the game, no longer had the required number of players to participate. Even with what are known as "mercy rules"—regulations designed to limit a dominant team's ability to run up scores—the touchdowns kept coming, and so did the concussions. When the game ended, the final score was 52-0, and five preadolescent boys had head injuries, the last hurt on the final play of the game.

That's a Pop Warner game, based on the description in the article, in the "Peewee" division (9-12 years old, 75-120 pounds!)

A lot has been made over the ill health effects of repeated head traumas suffered by NFL players. But it is looking more like the problems of concussions are not at all limited to the extremes of size and speed.

I've mentioned a couple of times that I saw a presentation a few months back that gave me pause about my own football fandom. I'm still not at liberty to discuss the particulars of the study. However, I do think I can mention a few things, and they really do bear mentioning sooner rather than later.

1) It's a longitudinal study, meaning that they are following a cohort over time (which is why the data aren't published yet, and probably won't be for a few more years.) This is a really powerful study design, because you have baseline data for every person in the study--much better than the standard epidemiological type study in which you look at groups of people after the fact (e.g., "people who played football for X years" and "people who played soccer for X years") and make inferences about relative risk based on how many people in each group have a particular health outcome. If 5% of your football players have (say) migraines* and only 2.5% of your soccer players do, then you can say playing football is associated with doubling your risk of having migraines. But it doesn't tell you anything about an individual's risk of migraine, or what specifically leads to that outcome.

2) Early data on the outcomes they are looking at are astonishingly robust, and they  correlate almost perfectly among the subjects with how many hits they take over the course of their playing careers. 

3) The cohort are high school players.


*This study does not look at migraine, at least to my knowledge.

10.23.2012

the math (final edition*)

Two weeks out, the debates are behind us, and we throw ourselves on the mercy of low-information voters in Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Florida, and Ohio, and maybe Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada.

I'm going to stick my neck out and make a real prediction, here, because what's the fun in equivocating until it doesn't matter anymore? I correctly predicted that the Dems would take the House and Senate in 2006, when everyone was saying that GOP would hold on to the latter. I also famously** predicted sometime in 2007 that "there is no way in hell the first black president is going to be a guy whose name rhymes with 'Osama'". So caveat emptor, and all of that.

I think Obama holds onto his leaners (PA, IA, OH, WI, and NV), ekes it out in NH and CO, while Romney holds onto FL, wins handily in NC, and just barely takes VA. Obama gets one district in NE. The Electoral College goes to Obama, 291-247.

If you want to stick out your neck too, put it in the comments. If you don't do that, you don't get to come back and gloat about me being wrong on November7***.




*unless I change my mind
**not really famously, more of a comment on RW's blog, a couple of blogs ago
***obviously, you could still do that, but it would be kind of a dick move, don't you think?

10.21.2012

the limits of bootstraps

Too many Americans, goes the common complaint, want other people to pay for them. Yet the same is true in generational terms. We have been able to live well, and do well, because we inherited a rich, well-functioning country, but for a long time now—I’m thinking of the tax revolt that began in 1978—we have refused to do our share to keep it going. Essentially, the bootstrap crowd is living off the civic-minded willingness to sacrifice of those who came before. The problem, in India, isn’t simply that the country is poor, but also that it has a very weak idea of the public good.
Read the whole thing.

For me, a few days in Cambodia undid more of my youthful, reflexive libertarianism than a thousand editorials or blog posts ever could. Infrastructure matters, a lot. Public goods exist. And Americans in this era are much more used to having them than we are to the idea that we actually have to keep paying for them.

10.19.2012

(don't criticize it)

Things are looking good for Washington's Great Green Experiment of 2012:

First, a survey conducted by SurveyUSA and KING 5 NEWS showed 55 percent of voters were planning to vote YES on I-502, which would decriminalize and regulate marijuana use in the state. Only, thirty-six percent said they oppose it and 8 percent remained undecided.

Other data just released by KCTS9 Washington, has I-502 ahead among both registered and likely voters. 50.9% of registered voters support the measure, with 40.8% against it. Likely voters back I-502 by 47.1% with 40.1% opposed. Unlike many marijuana initiatives, I-502 has strong support among female voters, 49.5% of whom support the initiative and only 39.9% oppose it.
OK, folks: whatever you do, don't space out and forget to send that ballot in!

what did thomas jefferson sound like?

I'm a little bit obsessed with accents, perhaps in part because 85% of the time I meet someone, I have some version of this exchange:

"Where are you from?"

"Atlanta, originally."

"What happened to your accent?"

[Explanation that variously includes me pointing out that regional accents tend to be muted in large metro areas, that I've moved around a lot, that I work with people from all over the world, and that I'm married to a Canadian. Some of which may or may not even be explanatory, in fact.]

In historical movies about the American Revolutionary period, or in documentaries where actors read the words of various historical people "in character", Thomas Jefferson is frequently given the genteel, upper crust southern accent most people would associate with a wealthy Virginia farmer. George Washington, on the other hand--who fits the exact same demographic--almost never is. And I cannot think of an example in which John Adams or John Hancock are made to sound like they are from Boston.

Of course, we have no idea what any of these men really sounded like. In fact, we can really only make an educated guess about what anyone sounded like in 18th century America. But I'd be willing to bet that we would have a hard time recognizing their regional accents today. After all, if you listen to how people spoke in movies from the early 20th century--or even better, in "man on the street" type interviews from the early days of radio, it's pretty clear that Americans now don't even really sound like they did 70 years ago, much less 240.

Given the years he spent in the British military, I'd be willing to bet Washington sounded a lot more English than Jefferson did. But then again, there's really no reason to assume that English accents in the 18th century sound like they do now, either.

10.18.2012

small screen, small reviews

I got an iPad (more precisely, I got my wife to get me an iPad) primarily for use as a reading/storage device for scientific papers (if you read/scan/at least look at 300-400 papers a year, the paper can really, really pile up.) And to be sure, I use it for that, quite a lot.

But it's also a great way to watch movies on airplanes.

Since I logged just shy of 13 hours in the air this last week--and since I wasn't traveling for work--I took in a few flicks. Here's a quick rundown:

Iron Sky--A Finnish film, mostly in English and German, with a completely ludicrous premise: at the end of WWII, a contingent of Nazis escaped earth and set up base on the dark side of the moon, plotting their eventual return and revenge. This is a film that makes no attempt to be taken seriously, yet manages to be incredibly smart satire at the same time. Equal parts Battlestar Galactica (2003 version), Dr. Strangelove, and Hogan's Heroes. I loved it. (If the trailer appeals to you, you probably will, as well.)

Cabin in the Woods--Written by Joss Whedon, this might be the most innovative horror movie I've seen in a very long time. Both genuinely scary and genuinely funny. To get into the plot would be to ruin the movie. Horror movie geekery is rewarded. I recommend it highly, as long as you don't have a problem with horror movie gore.

Sound of my Voice--A small indy about a couple who infiltrate a cult to make a documentary. Some very good film making of the "get a lot out of a little" school. The pace is deliberate and the tone is understated, but it works at an hour and a half. It's a long way from being a "thriller" but they manage to milk an awful lot of tension out of some scenes. Brit Marling (who wrote it and stars as the cult leader) pulls off ethereal and menacing at the same time, which strikes me as a bit of a feat.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I--Though this animated adaptation of Frank Miller's classic graphic novel is a direct to video release, it's actually quite good. It's very faithful to the plot and and overall look of the book, though the animation is much cleaner than Miller's characteristically dirty-to-the-point-of-grotesque style of drawing. Some scenes--particularly those involving contrasting light and rain--are quite beautifully done. The rougher edges of the content are reigned in a bit as well to give it a PG-13 rating. Personally, my favorite thing about the comic was the first-person narration that was often superimposed on the action--I guess it wouldn't be practical to do this with an action scene moving in real time--the timing would be off--but I would have really loved to hear a few lines like "It was tough work, carrying 220 pounds of sociopath to the top of Gotham Towers — the highest spot in the city. The scream alone is worth it," in Peter Weller's voice.


10.17.2012

the math

Ballots are being in mailed out in Washington state this very morning. Early voting has already started in several states. This is the proverbial wire, and we are down to it.

I thought about altering the criteria for the "true toss-up" category to a margin of less than 1 point in either direction, but I decided to keep this thing consistent. (It is worth pointing out that both CO and VA would be in that category, were such a change to be made, though.)

At this point we can maybe say what the most significant effect of the first debate was: Obama may have lost Florida. And as I mentioned in the very first in this series of posts, Florida likely signifies the difference between Obama walking away with the election before polls close on the west coast (which seems very unlikely at this point) and a nail-biter.

Romney has narrowed the margins in the states leaning Obama's way, but he has yet to consolidate any of this into moving a single state into his "likely" category, leaving his baseline of 191 electoral votes exactly where it was when we started tracking this 6 weeks ago. He may be able to do so with NC.

Regardless of whether you think Obama "won" last night's debate or not, there's no question that he did much, much better than in the first. It is unlikely that we are going to see the any other swings like we did with Florida after the first one (in either direction) as a result of the second debate.

Where I'm sitting, Romney still has to do something extraordinary (or benefit from some extraordinary inaccuracies in polling) to win the Electoral College, or Obama has to really step in it.

I can't wait for this shit to be over with.

jet lagged debate blogging

I've been back in North Carolina the last few days helping a couple of dear friends celebrate their undermining of my marriage by promising in front of family and friends to be faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. Didn't spend a lot of time in front of screens, except to watch a few movies on the iPad during some long flights.

We got home in time to catch the last 25 minutes or so of the debate, so what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis (though is it ever, really?)

-I'm glad to see Obama get angry over the politicizing of Benghazi, and stand up for his State Department.

-I thought both candidates' answers to the China question (it was technically a question about jobs moving overseas) were unsatisfactory, but Obama's was closer. What they both missed is that China's competitive advantage *now* isn't really lower labor costs--those have risen and are largely offset by the costs of shipping--in fact, the reason things are made in China now is because that's where all the manufacturing infrastructure is. They are bigger, more flexible, and closer to their own suppliers. They can re-tool in a matter of weeks. American plants, by and large, simply cannot do that anymore. You could slap a 20% tariff on Chinese goods tomorrow and this would still be true.

-The common thread through both Fast and Furious and an awful lot of gun violence here is the drug war, which of course neither candidate mentioned. One of them is going to have to deal with at least one state legalizing marijuana, possibly as early as next year. It would be good to get a sense of what they are actually going to do about it.

-If you find yourself complaining about the moderator, your guy lost.

10.09.2012

soundtrack to the obamacolypse


(This song doesn't really have anything to do with the post; I just heard it over the weekend and really liked it.) 

I thought Dave Weigel's response to the responses to polls was pretty dead on. And I kind of just want to give Andrew Sullivan big old hug right now.

One of the joys of political ambivalence (and I use the term loosely*) is that even when things look grim for your chosen horse, it's relatively easy to shrug it off and get on with your life. That said, I think it is worth considering for a moment the Big Swing. I'd offer up three (not mutually exclusive) hypotheses: 

1) Polls really aren't that accurate after all.
2) The number of persuadable voters in this election has been vastly underestimated, by me and damn near everyone else.
3) This is an outlier election.

Addressing (1) is kind of a Schrodinger's Cat sort of situation, in that you only ever get to test the accuracy of any given poll once.  Looking retrospectively at the data, it's pretty clear that poll accuracy (globally) is a roughly inverse function of time before the actual election. (Of course exceptions exist, particularly with exit polls.) But this doesn't exclude the possibility that polls are in fact very accurate snapshots of the electorate at the time they are taken. We just can't ever really know if this is true or not. So let's leave it.

Personally, I think that we're looking at roughly equal parts (2) and (3), and these are interrelated. The theme that could run through them both is that we have an incumbent that a lot of people are really unhappy with and a challenger that a lot of the same people are also really unhappy with. To my mind, that leaves a lot of people on the fence just waiting for someone to give them a reason to break one way or another. And the president's lousy performance in the debate may very well have been just the thing.

The Romney camp has been trying to paint this as a replay of 1980; Obama, as 1996. It's not hard to see why each would pick those years. But I actually think the best precedent in the modern era is 2004. Plenty of people were highly motivated to unseat GW Bush; very few of them (us) were terribly excited about voting for John Kerry. And we know how that went.

Obama would do well to learn from that election, and by that I do not mean taking heart in the result. This is the rare time when I would admonish him to emulate his predecessor--get out there, defend your record like you mean it, and act like you want to be the fucking president for another four years. 


*Joy, I mean.

10.07.2012

programming note

I stopped paying attention to blog stats a while back, and actually "unplugged" the Sitemeter I'd had for ages. Haven't really given it much of a thought since.

Blogger now has limited traffic stats built in, but again, I usually just zip right past all that on my way to the composition page.

Except today, when it caught my eye that this post has just south of 800 page views, which is (I think) about 750 more page views than anything I've ever posted (or at least for a very long time.) Moral of the story: if you want more traffic, write about obscure comic books.

Which reminds me of a draft post I started about The Boys and The Authority that I really ought to finish sometime soon...

the math (if you find that you don't like my ways...)

Things continue to get tighter...most notably, CO and FL are now dead ties. Margins are tighter still in OH, VA, and WI, and NC is now just barely (RCP average 0.8 points) leaning in Romney's favor. The only race that seems to be moving in Obama's direction right now is Missouri, which still has a way to go before we can really consider it a toss-up.

Before you go chalking this up to Mr. Obama's lackluster performance in the debate, it is worth pointing out that while this reflects polls reported through today, only the latest from Wisconsin and Colorado actually include sampling that took place after the debate. So the real effect of the debate (if any) won't really be seen until next week.

(Headline assistance for the hip-hop impaired here.)


10.04.2012

I'm very happy to see that Kerry Howley is blogging more regularly at Slate these days. She's been on a roll this week. Check her out.

congratulations, michael baumgartner

You just won my vote.

Other Republicans, make a note of it. 

fair ≠ balanced ≠ objective

The Stranger has given its news and politics blog Slog over to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and his campaign today. That approximately half of the commentariat there are completely convinced this is an elaborate joke  should give some hint that this is not exactly friendly territory. So, kudos to Mr. McKenna for taking his licks today. [Ed: as the day has gone on, I am starting to wonder whether this is a joke, myself. The first few posts seemed totally legit. Some of the later ones are reading a bit more like parody, to me. Anyway, I think the larger point here still stands.]

[UPDATE, 1:50PM--it is indeed an elaborate joke.]

This is timely, because in the ongoing discussion of media bias, I have wanted to make the point that fairness, balance, and objectivity are not all the same things. Dominic Holden makes a very good point of one distinction in introducing Mr. McKenna this morning:

It's no secret to readers of The Stranger that we're in the tank for Jay Inslee, the Democrat running for Washington State governor. Hell, writers on our staff have donated to Inslee and even filed a No ROB PAC.
...
The Stranger isn't always balanced, but we do try to be fair. And in the interests of fairness and balance, Rob McKenna will be blogging in this space today. We were actually impressed when McKenna agreed to post on Slog—maybe he is a different kind of Republican after all?—and we encourage readers to engage with McKenna respectfully in the comments threads.
Thus, one can be fair, without necessarily being strictly "balanced." [And, it turns out, this is the case of The Stranger being neither fair nor balanced, but definitely making their biases clear.]

"Objectivity" is, to my mind, both the highest ideal for a news organization and the most difficult to achieve and maintain; simply put, humans are not actually capable of being truly objective. In the journalistic context, objectivity tends to refer to presentation of independent facts without judgement, and in as neutral a way as possible.

It gets complicated, however, when objectivity becomes conflated with balance. In some arguments, the objective facts really do favor one side. To pick (what at least ought to be) an easy example: there is a mountain of scientific evidence supporting the general notion that the earth is a couple of billion years old, that life arose in single-cell form here about a billion years ago, evolved into progressively more complex forms, and that the first hominids arose from this process  about 15 million years ago, the first anatomically modern humans 200,000 years ago, and the first behaviorally modern humans about 50,000 years ago.

An alternative view exists, which posits that the world and mankind were created by God in the space of a week about 6000 years ago.* The evidence for this view consists of very old mythological texts, dubious pseudoscience, and the fervent beliefs of some people.

To give equal weight and time to both arguments would certainly be balanced. It may even be fair. But it is not objective.




*And of course, a host of views exist which posit theistic evolution with the biblical account being a metaphorical description of the scientific one, which is fine and good. These generally aren't the people who go to school board meetings and bitch about "teaching the debate".


this

If everyone who has spoken highly of Simpson Bowles on the campaign trail had actually acted on that plan, we'd be cutting the deficit to a sustainable level by now.
--Scott Horsley on NPR this morning

10.03.2012

on intelligence

This accusation [that the administration is lying about Benghazi] not only misses the mark but also demonstrates how profoundly the accusers misunderstand how intelligence works. In fact, the White House's evolving timeline for what happened in Benghazi is proof of precisely the opposite of what the breathless accusers suggest -- it is a sign of a normal, healthy intelligence process.
To believe that the initial statements about what happened in Benghazi were a lie, one has to assume: (1) The administration had all the facts, even as the situation was evolving; (2) the administration chose to tell a deliberately false story about those facts; and (3) the story it told was consistent, with no administration official contradicting the official line. There is little evidence to support any of these three pillars of the Republican case against the White House.

...
 
First, it's clear that Obama was presented with a changing and muddied intelligence picture. The administration still hasn't finished gathering the evidence, and it had even less in the hours just after the attack.
Second, the criticisms of the administration's response are limited to parsing, not refuting the facts as they've stated them. Were the assailants "extremists" or "terrorists"? Either way, America is committed to finding them and bringing them to justice.
Third, the evolution of the explanation itself is an indication of candid and careful re-assessment, not of a consistent lie. An administration forthright enough to tell the world when its first findings were wrong should be applauded, not pilloried.
Finally, our government is too vast and far too leaky to support such a conspiracy. We aren't seeing a cover-up; rather, we are seeing the mundane workings of the intelligence community as it is attempting, however imperfectly, to keep up with fast-moving events.
 --Aki Peritz, tool of the left-wing media former CIA analyst during the Bush administration

the master

(Been meaning to get this on the page since I saw The Master a couple of weekends back.)

It's a pure coincidence that I happened to be reading Janet Reitman's very good book Inside Scientology just as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master hit theaters. However, I did make it point to get through L. Ron Hubbard's death in the book before I saw the movie.

Anderson has been a bit coy about the extent to which the plot of his movie is informed by the events surrounding the founding and growth of the Church of Scientology. I have to say that it is pretty clear--at least inasmuch as Reitman's book is accurate--that the extent can be accurately described as "quite a lot, with the names changed".

"Processing" looks a great deal like auditing. There is the general idea that negative emotions arise from previous traumas, going back into previous lives, and that by repeatedly confronting these traumas one can reduce their reactivity to them, thus lessening their power. Adherents spend hours trying to alter their perceptions and their environments with their minds. The Xenu myth is referenced obliquely, in Lancaster Dodd's assertion that these past lives go back "trillions" of years. And even some biographical details--such as Dodd's dubious business of sailing other people's yachts around, his exile to England, and his strained relationship with his son--look an awful lot like Hubbard's.

That said, I think it is fair to say that The Master isn't a veiled takedown of the CoS so much as a meditation on how trauma and alienation can lead people to embrace some very odd things. The story focuses not on Dodd, but on Freddie Quell (Joachin Phoenix), a WWII vet who is utterly shredded by his experiences in the war, who encounters Dodd and "The Cause" when he drunkenly stows away on one of the aforementioned yachts.

The movie is bleak and atmosheric (much like in Anderson's There Will Be Blood, this is helped along considerably by a haunting and unsettling soundtrack by Radiohead's Johny Greenwood.) The camera work is gorgeous, and solid performances are delivered by Phoenix, the always-excellent Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Plot is very nearly an afterthought, but that really isn't the point. We're not working towards resolution so much as peeking in on something much bigger and more complicated than we can unravel in a couple of hours.

This is probably not a film for everybody, maybe not even everybody who likes Anderson's previous stuff. But I liked it, and perhaps more importantly...I'm still thinking about it.

10.02.2012

i'd like to hear this question asked tomorrow night, too

Sullivan:

What are the main differences between your domestic and foreign policies and those of the last Republican president, George W. Bush?
 Of course, I'd like to hear this asked of both participants in the debate.

10.01.2012

the math (pre-debate baseline)

Margins have shrunk sufficiently to warrant reclassification of Iowa, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Missouri. Arizona is also creeping towards the middle.

I'd expect that trend to continue. But the thing I'm still struck by is how stable the overall picture seems to be in post-conventions month. I don't expect the debates to move things much. And at this point, if you think there is enough volatility left in the system to swing the election to Mr. Romney, you also have to accept that the same level of volatility could give Mr Obama a victory in the range of 350+ electoral votes. That's certainly not 1972 or 1984 territory, but it is decisive.

Just to be clear: I personally expect a regression to the mean. But the mean is on the left hand side of the graph.

denialism, summarized

"This is the world now. Just talk to doctors. They all spend half their time explaining themselves to patients who looked stuff up on the Internet and think their doctor is wrong.”

--Mike Murphy, presumably acting his part in the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy of 2012.

9.27.2012

america's finest news source

They've still got it.

the math (short update)

No graph today, but it is worth mentioning that the RCP average now has Obama up by more than 5 points in Ohio, which puts the president over the magic number of 270 electoral votes in the patented Super-Simple (ith) Model for the first time. Poll master Nate Silver analyzes this in excruciating detail.

9.26.2012

against the lesser evil

Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent piece up at the Atlantic today making the left-libertarian* case against voting for Barack Obama. There is frankly not a great deal with which I can argue, there, but especially not this:

How can you vilify Romney as a heartless plutocrat unfit for the presidency, and then enthusiastically recommend a guy who held Bradley Manning in solitary and killed a 16-year-old American kid? If you're a utilitarian who plans to vote for Obama, better to mournfully acknowledge that you regard him as the lesser of two evils, with all that phrase denotes.

But I don't see many Obama supporters feeling as reluctant as the circumstances warrant.

The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans -- along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers -- just aren't valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama's tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man's transgressions, have done over and over again.  
Cue the quadrennial bemoaning of the inadequacies of the two-party system, and why if we will just get behind the most viable third-party candidate, it really will be the start of something different, this time.

To be sure, the game is rigged. It's rather hard to fault Gary Johnson for failing to break through into the public consciousness, when the Big Two so effectively control the structure and form of presidential politics, from the free media coverage of the "conventions" (read: three-day infomercials) to extremely restrictive debate access to ballot access itself.

I won't fault Gary Johnson, but I will lay some blame on the Libertarian Party.

The LP has been around for four decades. Local and state parties have had some success (according to the LP site, there were 154 Libertarians in elected office at the end of 2010), but in most of that time, they have expended an awful lot of time and money (for an organization its size) in running presidential candidates every four years. Candidates who, by and large, lacked credible experience in government. In the last two cycles, this has changed, in that they have nominated former Republicans.

Successful presidential candidates don't just materialize out of the ether. If the LP (or any third party) really wants to be a player in national politics, they have to take a longer view. No one is going to sue their way into presidential viability. They're going to have to work their way in from the ground up. To my mind, that means stop wasting time on symbolic presidential runs. For that matter, stop wasting time on symbolic governor and senate runs, too. What needs to happen is a focused, coordinated, and well-researched identification of cities, counties, and (maybe) congressional districts where the LP could become the second party. And with that, a focused and coordinated recruitment of good candidates to run in those races. Candidates that, if they actually won, might do a good job in the office to which they are elected. Candidates with an interest in actually governing, rather than just "getting the message out".

Cities like (say) Seattle, where the Republican turnout for caucuses was literally zero in some precincts, should be fertile ground for a well managed LP campaign. And I've no doubt that there are provinces in Red America where the Democrats are just as inconsequential. Get a Libertarian on the city council, the county commission, and maybe in a few years they make a run for mayor or congress. If they do a good job, maybe they find their way into the Senate, or a governor's mansion. And, then, the presidency looks a lot less like a long shot.

In a lot of ways, the LP could arguably be the greatest impediment to getting libertarian ideas infused into the political debate, because the small group of people actually inclined to put their time, energy, and lives into this stuff are all working on a model that doesn't work, hasn't worked, and is never going to work. And whinging about how the Dems and Reps have made it unfairly difficult--however correct that assessment may be--is pointless.

Which brings me back to Conor's point, that one who cares about civil liberties and peace should vote for the candidate that actually reflects those values, rather than the viable one who is only a hair better by comparison than the other guy. Fine and good. Like I said, I really cannot argue against that point. But I have to point out that by voting for Johnson, you are also giving tacit approval to the LP and its woefully inadequate approach to politics. Certainly, that is a lesser moral compromise than giving tacit approval to murdering children with flying killer robots.

But what good is the moral high ground, if you cannot reach the levers of power from it**? Sure, we get to feel better about ourselves, I guess, but that feeling isn't going to take any drones out of the sky.


 


*My description, not his. 
**Apologies for the tortured metaphor. 

9.25.2012

the math: the big sort

Here's the good news for Mitt Romney: new numbers from Tennessee and Georgia indicate that those states aren't up for grabs (as though they ever were.) That's about where it stops.

The conventional wisdom is that there are 8-10 swing states. At this point, it really looks like there are only 7, and they are all leaning towards Obama. Ohio and Virginia are approaching "likely" territory (RCP averages are 4.4 and 4.5, respectively.)

Note that Romney has to win FL, OH, NC, VA, and one of the other three (NH would get him to 270 votes, exactly, assuming that the votes from ME and NE are not split).

Right now, the electoral map looks like a near-exact repeat of 2008, with only Indiana [Ed: and Missouri] changing hands. This, along with the fact that Romney's lead in many of his safe state s in the neighborhood of 20 points, really points to how sharply regionalized our politics have become. I don't know what that means for the future, but it probably isn't good.

Anyway, if you don't like these results, you can still get different ones from opposite-land, at least for the next few weeks. 

UPDATE--I actually didn't realize exactly how much media attention Unskewed Polls is getting. Paul Constant makes a really good catch:

I think giving all this attention to Unskewed Polls is kind of dumb. The other sites advertised on Unskewed Polls—MittRomney2112, GOP 2112—are basically just click bait waiting for old people to mistype a URL. That doesn't make me believe they're very confident in their brave new polling model.
Me neither.

9.22.2012

foreign policy still matters, a lot (still)

I've been saying this for years. Where is my NYT column, huh?

Most of the time presidents don’t pick the foreign policy issues they want to tackle — the issues choose them.
America remains the world’s pre-eminent power. This means that whenever something happens somewhere in the world, the expectation is that the United States will be part of the policy solution. When presidents are reluctant to intervene, they are attacked by domestic and foreign adversaries as being weak, passive or “leading from behind.”
It’s precisely because presidents have so much more leeway to do what they want in the global realm that I now vote based on foreign policy. Mistakes in international affairs can lead to incalculable losses in blood and treasure. Paradoxically, if Americans suddenly started to vote based on national security issues, presidents would have to start to care about the domestic political consequences of their overseas actions.
Who knows, they might just start redirecting their efforts to problems at home.

more coordinated actions in libya

But not the kind you are probably thinking of.

To borrow a phrase: know hope.

9.20.2012

walter white, jennifer blood, and anti-heroic family values



In case you've been hiding under a rock for the last 5 years: Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a brilliant and underemployed high school chemistry teacher that learns he has terminal lung cancer. In a desperate attempt to provide long-term financial security for his family (wife, teenaged son with cerebral palsy, newborn baby daughter), he puts his chemistry background to work by cooking methamphetamine--the extreme profitability of which he learns about from his brother-in-law, a DEA agent.

The arc of the series bends not--as MLK would have it--towards justice, so much as towards the utter corruption of Walter, the feeding of his long-held resentments, and the destruction he visits on everyone around him, including the family that his love for supposedly put him on this path to begin with. By the end of of the fourth season, Walter has (spoiler alert!) committed murder and made hundreds of millions of dollars, and has no intention of stopping, even though his cancer has been in remission for nearly a year.

Less well known is the comic book Jennifer Blood, created by Garth Ennis (famous for a lot stuff, but mostly Preacher) which follows the story of Jen Fellows, a suburban housewife by day and brutal vigilante at night. The initial story arc (issues 1-6) by Ennis constitute a solid entry into the "hot badass chick dishes out righteous revenge" genre (see also: Kill Bill, Dollhouse, La Femme Nikita, et al.), in which Jen systematically murders her four uncles, gangsters who conspired a decade earlier to murder her father, leading to the suicide of her mother. It'd make a great movie with a Hollywood ending, in the right hands.

But it's what happens from issue 7 on that makes the story really interesting.

Unlike Kill Bill, in which the Bride (spoiler alert!) succeeds in killing everyone on her list, is happily reunited with her daughter (who gleefully hops into the car with the woman who just murdered the only parent she has ever known), and drives off into the sunset (Hollywood ending!), Jennifer Blood actually deals with the aftermath of the violence to which Jen has dedicated her adult life. Even though she has disposed of her (considerable) arsenal, and considered her "mission" complete, it turns out that one does not simply stop drugging her husband and children to venture out into the night on a murderous rampage cold turkey. When she feels her marriage threatened by her husband's ex-girlfriend moving in down the street--all the more so when it is revealed that she and her husband are swingers and they've invited Jen's husband to join them--Jen does what any devoted spouse would: she stabs the husband to death, ties up the wife, and sets her (and the house) on fire.

Believe it or not, it actually gets worse from there.

The thread running through both stories is that the nominal protagonist justifies the evil that they do with a willingness to do "anything to protect [their] family." It would be easy to dismiss both Walter and Jen as simply being much more selfishly motivated than either is willing to admit. When asked by his partner whether he is in the meth business or the money business, Walter replies that he "is in the empire business". A long way from a meek chemistry teacher, indeed. For her part, Jen's violence creates problems for herself that the only way she can see to solve is with more violence...with ultimately devastating results. But really, I think there is more at work here than obvious morality plays.

One could argue that there is a subversive undercurrent to these kinds of stories: not that a noble impulse to protect one's family is warped by...something...but that the absolute nature of that devotion is, in and of itself, quite dangerous. At the beginning, Walter simply wants to provide for his family. But he is not stealing bread to feed his starving children. He is manufacturing a dangerous drug to maintain a very cushy upper-middle class lifestyle that includes a pool, a nice house, new cars, and full tuition to (presumably) the universities of his children's choosing. (That's nice and all, but there is such a thing as financial aid...) His obligation is not to his family's well-being, but their comfort. For her part, Jen is so devoted to her dead parents (whom we meet through her childish eyes in flashbacks) that she is oblivious to the fact that her father was every bit the violent psychopath that his brothers are, and that she has become. To avenge him is to merely add a few more tributaries to the family's river of blood. There is no balancing of the moral scales.

Are Vince GIlligan and Al Ewing (who took over from Ennis after #6) trying to tell us that family is overrated? I doubt that either would put it quite that way. But it is difficult to refute the notion that the Whites and the Fellows would probably have been a lot better off with a somewhat less devoted patriarch/matriarch, respectively.