Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Anatomy of Indecision

This 2004 article about undecided voters by Chris Hayes (of the Nation) is worth reading. He lists his findings under these bullet points:
  • Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think.
  • Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics.
  • A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists.
  • The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush.
  • Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues.

This adds up to a pretty sharp picture. In short: undecided voters are politically very close to Pat Buchanan. Pity (for him, not for us) they don't care enough about politics to vote for him in the primaries.

For more details, read the article.

Richard Dawkins and the Goblet of Idiocy

I've cast a cold eye on much of Dawkins's recent work; while in the abstract it's good to have some militant atheists out there, I'm dubious that his stuff has been helping the cause. I think his fatal flaw is tone-deafness, as exhibited in (e.g.) that "brights" campaign.

Now this story confirms my sense that he's gone off the deep end. He's apparently decided (like the fundamentalists) that the Harry Potter books are evil because they make kids believe in witches. To counteract this,
"The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking."

What's a pity about this is that I think one of the few points on which Dawkins was utterly sound -- that it's wrong for parents to have arbitrary rights over the education of their offspring, and that it's wrong for kids to be labeled as Christian or Muslim -- is going to be collaterally discredited by this campaign.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Empson on Educating the Proles

"Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem … And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society would prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy."
-- William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral

("The poem" is Gray's Elegy.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Paul Muldoon: Quoof


Paul Muldoon

How often have I carried our family word
for the hot water bottle
to a strange bed,
as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
in an old sock
to his childhood settle.
I have taken it to so many lovely heads
or laid it between us like a sword.

A hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smoldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.

Friday, October 24, 2008

They should require an IQ test...

for campaign staff. This is hilariously dumb. I love that -- for fear of seeming insensitive -- the press took the default line that the woman had been assaulted by a dyslexic robber who carved a backwards B on her face, until she basically confessed to doing it herself.

There has been a lot of campaign activity in PA. McCain seems to want to go all in there, but a fairly wide range of polls shows Obama leading by 10+ points -- which is not surprising, really, given these historical trends. (Cost is very good on PA, being from there.) Democratic candidates do 3-5 points better in PA than nationwide, and Obama has a 7 point lead nationwide.

FiveThirtyEight Watch

As I might have mentioned I'm a little wary of Nate Silver's analysis; his statistical model is overloaded with bells and whistles, he tweaks it too often, and I don't entirely trust him to keep partisanship out of his model. Nevertheless he's generally sharp and well-informed, and I was surprised to see him say this in his new TNR column:
Bill Clinton--running as an outsider in 1992--won Montana, and came within single digits of George Bush in states like Wyoming and Alaska. By 1996, however, when his incumbency had transformed him into an insider by default, Clinton lost Montana, and was crushed in Wyoming and Alaska by 13 and 18 points, respectively.

Here's some data from the site he links to.

Montana: Clinton 38 Bush 35 Perot 26
Wyoming: Bush 40 Clinton 34 Perot 26
Alaska: Bush 40 Clinton 30 Perot 28

Montana: Dole 44 Clinton 41 Perot 13
Wyoming: Dole 50 Clinton 37 Perot 12
Alaska: Dole 50 Clinton 33 Perot 11 Nader 3

Montana: Bush 58 Gore 33 Nader 6
Wyoming: Bush 68 Gore 28
Alaska: Bush 58 Gore 28 Nader 10

Montana: Bush 59 Kerry 39
Wyoming: Bush 69 Kerry 29
Alaska: Bush 61 Kerry 35

If you aggregate the Perot/R vote and the Nader/D vote, these states were stable over the period, with Montana going roughly 60/40, Wyoming between 65-35 and 70-30, and Alaska steadily bluing from 70/30 to more like 60/40. Clinton in fact did anomalously well in 1996.

What really happened in 1992, of course, was that Perot siphoned off a lot of Bush votes. In 1996 he was no longer a particularly interesting third-party candidate, so he siphoned off fewer votes and Dole won even though Clinton's 1996 showing was better in absolute terms. (Clinton generally dominated that election.) Kerry did about as well as Clinton '92, and better than Gore, which can largely be explained by the Nader vote.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gladwell is a Blinking Idiot

It's difficult to appreciate how half-baked and awful Malcolm Gladwell is until he writes about something that's up your alley. (I think Dice made this point once.) His new piece on artistic genius is one of the most irritating things I've read in a long time. There are two immensely misleading statements in the piece -- 1. contrary to widespread belief, late bloomers exist in literature; 2. literary (and generally artistic) prodigies are a different kind of writer from late bloomers, being more intuitive, quicker, and less painstaking. He says:
“Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

I don't know who these idiots are, or where they came from. (I think Howard Gardner said similarly dumb shit in Gladwell's previous article about scientific creativity.) But their claims are utterly risible and anyone who knows anything about lyric poetry, or literature, knows this. This point is important because he uses the counterintuitiveness of his result to launch the (very silly) claim that he and his favorite researchers have discovered a new type of late-flowering artistic genius.

In fact, very few poets produce their best work at first, and by far the most common type in English poetry is the "prodigy" that turns into a "late bloomer." Yeats was a talented minor poet who randomly turned at 50 into a very major poet. A lot of Eliot's best stuff is in Four Quartets, which he wrote when he was over 50. There are a couple of cases of "late blooming," like Stevens, but these are mostly cases of people who took a little longer to find their voice -- or, more plausibly, started later. But all major poets take a few years to find their voice -- even freaks like William Blake and prodigies like Auden, whose juvenilia (200 pp. written age 15-19) Gladwell would have done well to read. The normal course is for poets to start off good, then get better, then get senile and die. There isn't anything remotely mysterious about this.

I haven't got the energy to debunk the rest of the piece but I wish someone would. In particular, I hate how the examples are cherrypicked. Here's a contrast to set against his two writers: Shakespeare was a late bloomer who wrote all of his greatest plays after 35 -- most after 40 -- while Ben Jonson was a prodigy who wrote his last great play (with one possible exception) when he was 35. As to the amounts of research they put into their efforts, and as to their relative sloppiness, I refer you to the historical record.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Just Obambulating...

Ann Althouse points out that "obambulate" is a word -- actually a straightforward Latinate word. Here's the OED def'n:
intr. To walk about; to wander here and there.

1614-15 J. BOYS Wks. (1622) 597 Soules departed..doe not obambulate and wander vp and downe, but remaine in places of happinesse or vnhappinesse. 1633 EARL OF MANCHESTER Al Mondo (1636) 100 In the interim the Soule doth not wander and obambulate. 1694 P. A. MOTTEUX Wks. F. Rabelais (1737) v. 231 We..must still obambulate, Sequacious of the Court.

Life is obambulous.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Man Bites Squirrel

This story via Althouse:

A Massachusetts man has been charged with catching and killing a squirrel and then roasting it with a blowtorch in his backyard.

Odum Chaloeurn's neighbors in Lowell reported him to the police, the Boston Herald said. He was charged with animal cruelty Wednesday.

Chaloeurn reportedly argued to police that he was not cruel to the squirrel since it was dead before he began cooking it. He allegedly pursued the squirrel on foot, grabbed it by its tail and then knocked it against a tree to kill it.

Squirrels are actually legal game in Massachusetts to licensed hunters. But Lowell is in a district where the squirrel season opens Saturday.

Friday, October 17, 2008

13 Ways to Kill a Baby and Save Five Others

You might be interested in the Moral Sense test. It's less awful than the average cognitive neuroscience survey though as usual the questions are irritatingly restrictive. The questions come in linked pairs or triples, which (if you're a consequentialist) are basically identical.

There was one interesting quartet of scenarios. 1. You're a construction worker and you're not supposed to throw bags filled with rocks off the roof, but you do and no one gets killed. (It's assumed that you're highly unlikely to hit anybody.) 2. Ditto, but someone does get killed. 3. You get drunk, drive into a lawn, and kill a little girl. 4. Ditto, but you hit a tree instead. The only form of punishment available is a fine. What should the fine be in each case?

My (immediate) intuition was that 1. and 2. should have the same (large) fine, but 3. and 4. need not. The thing is, one could construct 5. you shoot someone and hit, and 6. you shoot someone and miss; if 5. and 6. are inequivalent and 1. and 2. are equivalent, one has to interpolate between them, and I think 3. and 4. are nearer the 5. and 6. end than the 1. and 2. end.

The difference is in the likelihood of the bad outcome. If people were perfectly linear, it wouldn't, as it were, matter whether they were fined $1 with probability 1 or $100 with probability 1/100, so you could split up the expected values any way you like. However, in fact people tend to disregard very unlikely outcomes, so you have to spread out the damage somehow. Assume that the law is omniscient. Given total damage X, you need to split it up into a piece Y, such that

fine = (Y) p(disaster) if no disaster,
fine = (Y) p(disaster) + (X - Y) if disaster occurs.

If the disaster is likely, people do the math correctly and get the "just" expected value X p(disaster). If it's highly unlikely, they get the reduced expectation value Y p(disaster) (as opposed to 0 if no fine). However, the minimum fine that will actually deter people is nonzero, so Y p(disaster) is bounded below, and as p(disaster) goes to zero, Y approaches X. Say a life is worth $1,000,000. The "correct" fine for something that would kill a person once every million times is $1, which is worthless as a deterrent. If you wanted to deter such acts you would need Y > X, a punitive fine, which shouldn't care about whether the disaster actually happened.

As for justifying the other limit: if no one was hurt, why (apart from the above logic) punish?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Geoffrey Hill: The Orchards of Syon XXXII


Black, broken-wattled, hedges appear
thinned through, fields an irregular patchwork,
the snow businesslike. I can record
these elements, this bleak satiety,
accustomed ratios of shine to shadow
reversed; inflected if not reversed.
Closer to nightfall the surface light is low-toned.
This is England; ah, love, youmust see that,
her nature sensing its continuum
with the Beatific Vision. Atemwende,
breath-fetch, the eye no more deceived,
beggars translation. Her decencies
stand bare, not barely stand. In the skeletal
Orchards of Syon are flowers
long vanished; I will consult their names.
Climate, gravity, featherlight aesthetics
pull us down. The extremities of life
draw together. This last embodiment
indefinitely loaned, not quite
the creator's dying gift regardless.
Clear sky, the snow bare-bright. Loud, peat-sodden
the swaling Hodder. Of itself
age has no pull. Be easy. With immense
labour he can call it a day.

-- Geoffrey Hill

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dreams from My Weatherman

This post, arguing that Bill Ayers wrote Obama's memoir for him -- as well as references cited therein -- is just wonderful. I love the not-so-hidden racism behind it; clearly the book was too well-written to be by a black man. (Ann Coulter, who called the book a "dimestore Mein Kampf," might agree with this take. Or not.) Note that NR is purportedly a mainstream right-wing publication.
There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is. And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book. Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Townhouses vs. Birthrates

Ross Douthat's WaPo column defending homeownership/suburbia gets really halfassed at the end:
But there's a reason George Bailey's vision won out over Mr. Potter's. It offered the average American something no country on Earth had ever offered its citizens before -- the promise of an equality rooted in ownership, a citizenship rooted in self-sufficiency and an entrepreneurial spirit rooted in security. America has a higher birthrate than other Western societies; we take more economic risks; our patriotism, our optimism and our willingness to volunteer and give to charity exceed what you find in Canada and Europe. And our exceptionalism begins at home, in a way of life that we take for granted. It's easy to forget what a hard-won achievement something as simple as a private backyard or a spare bedroom looks like in the sweep of human history.

You know an argument is falling apart when it cites "the sweep of human history" to imply that Americans would suddenly stop having kids and being patriotic if they lived in townhouses. Time to pull out the 19th cent. fecundity data...

On the Bradley Effect

NYT piece on the Bradley effect:
The results tended to correlate with the black population in a state: blacks made up 15 percent or more of the population in almost all the states where the polls showed less support for Mr. Obama than there actually was; in the three states where polls showed more support than there was, less than 10 percent of the population is black.

The differences are too great to be explained by just high black turnout, said Anthony Greenwald, one of the researchers. Nor were people necessarily lying. Instead, he sees a cultural dynamic at work: the states where polls underpredicted support for Mr. Obama were generally in the Southeast, where the culture has more stubbornly favored whites, so the “right” answer there was to choose the white candidate. In the three states where polls in the study overpredicted support for Mr. Obama — Rhode Island, California and New Hampshire — “the desirable thing is to appear unbiased and unprejudiced,” Mr. Greenwald said. (Many polling experts also believe that Mr. Obama was benefiting from an Iowa bounce in the late New Hampshire polls, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had been ahead for months, and that therefore Mr. Obama’s loss there was not a true Bradley effect.)

I don't know about this. Here's the data. I think the NH/MA/RI "Bradley effect" quite possibly existed, but was more specific -- i.e. it had to do with the sense that Obama is like Deval Patrick, which he is -- than general racism. Note that Obama overperformed in CT and NY state. MA/RI aren't in play even with a Bradley effect, NH I wouldn't count on. As for the reverse B.E. in the south, I think the deal is that all the white racists there are Republicans, and Obama outperformed among black people. I really don't buy the closet white liberal theory.

It isn't about black turnout so much as margins. All over the south, 40-60% of Dems are black. The difference between Obama winning 85% of the black vote and 95% -- which the media treat as equivalent -- is quite substantial, it's a five-point boost overall. See Jay Cost's old post for more.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In which I randomly win a book

Mitch Sisskind offered a prize for an explication of this poem:

Earth took of earth
Earth with woe.
Earth other earth
To the earth drew.
Earth laid earth
In earthen trough.
Then had earth of earth
Earth enough.

I offered two, and (astonishingly) won a book. Below, my second take on the poem:

Actually, here's an alternative take. The first four lines are, as before, about procreation. However, the "earthen trough" is a vagina rather than an urn; 5-6 describe coitus; what the poem is saying is that after their childbearing years, the couple had prodigious amounts of sex (hence "earth enough").

To which Deborah Overmeyer aptly responded:

"Come to my dry den and we'll moisten the cave of nakedness for thee, O sultan."-- Mac Flecknoe

Gail Collins Strikes Again

Her latest column is pitch-perfect. Read it.


Remember how we used to joke about John McCain looking like an old guy yelling at kids to get off his lawn? It’s only in retrospect that we can see that the keep-off-the-grass period was the McCain campaign’s golden era. Now, he’s beginning to act like one of those movie characters who steals the wrong ring and turns into a troll.

During that last debate, while he was wandering around the stage, you almost expected to hear him start muttering: “We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious.”

Remember when McCain’s campaign ads were all about his being a prisoner of war? I really miss them.

Now they’re all about the Evil That Is Obama. The newest one, “Ambition,” has a woman, speaking in one of those sinister semiwhispers, saying: “When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied.” Then suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, she starts ranting about Congressional liberals and risky subprime loans. Then John McCain pops up to say he approved it. All in 30 seconds! And, of course, McCain would think it’s great. For the first time, the Republicans appear to have captured his thought process on tape.


I don't remember who pointed this out, but the reason the Ayers ad wandered off on a Congressional tangent is that it was partly funded by the GOP Congressional campaign, so it had to mention the House elections.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Training the Candidates

via Cosmic Variance, from fark.

Anne Stevenson: The Suburb

from The Suburb
Anne Stevenson

No time, no time,
and with so many in line to be
born or fed or made love to, there is no
excuse for staring at it, though it's spring again
and the leaves have come out looking
limp and wet like little green new born babies.

The girls have come out in their new-bought dresses,
carefully, carefully. They know they're in danger.
Already there are couples crumpled under the chestnuts.
The houses crowd closer, listening to each other's radios.
Weeds have got into the window boxes. The washing hangs,
helpless. Children are lusting for ice cream.

It is my lot each May to be hot and pregnant...

[The poem falls off after this point.]

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Some Reading

  • Silencing the Students, by Max Fisher in the New Republic, and the related NYT article, discuss various attempts to disenfranchise this year's new (and other) voters. I've been following this story for a while; the most egregious bit, if true, is that Michigan Republicans intend to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters' residency in Michigan. I do not know how much credence to attach to this because the HuffPo is my primary source.
  • David Samuels has a fine article about Obama, Ralph Ellison, and race. I soured on Obama somewhat during the Wright affair, when it became apparent that being in Trinity wasn't entirely opportunistic on his part. Colm Toibin has a much weaker attempt along the same lines in the NYRB, comparing Obama to James Baldwin. Up next -- why Obama is like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Benjamin Banneker.
  • Freeman Dyson writes about environmentalists and the Galapagos. He has turned, of late, into a full-time dissident on global warming, but I think his point here should be less controversial. Dyson's perspective on this is interesting because his immense enthusiasm for technological progress makes him something of a visceral anti-environmentalist, sometimes against his better instincts.
  • Finally, you should read George Packer's wonderful New Yorker piece about Ohio's undecided voters. Packer's a wonderful reporter, and it's telling, I think, that he has three fewer Pulitzer prizes than Tom Friedman.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"The Leathery Extremist Phyllis Schlafly"

James Wood devotes some fine writing to the analysis of Palinism. The transcripts really are horrifyingly weird, btw, even for the otherwise uncomplaining Joycean.

At times, even Hannity looked taken aback; his eyes, slightly too close to each other, like the headlamps on an Army jeep, went blank, as if registering the abyss we are teetering above. Or perhaps he just couldn’t follow.


“I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

McCain (Also) Leaves Michigan

McCain's pulling out of Michigan, according to Politico. This is biggish news because Michigan was the best/only realistic hope for a GOP pickup. Unlike the automobile industry, though, he will not bequeath the state a pink sock.