We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Hearts of gold, ears of tin?

While driving down Virginia’s crowded Route 28 this afternoon, I heard a radio spot from our good friends at UNICEF that almost caused me to drive right off the road. The announcer solemnly intoned that with your help, UNICEF would create “a tsunami of love, a tsunami of hope” for children affected by the Dec. 26th disaster in the east Indies.

A “tsunami of love?” Even if these people have their hearts in the right places, just how tone-deaf is this organization? Apart from the fact that “tsunami of love” sounds like it could be the title of a song by Def Leppard, who actually thought that this was clever? Somehow, I cannot imagine soldiers liberating the German death camps of WWII telling prisoners, “We are going to build you a concentration camp of compassion!” or Amnesty International offering “a gulag of love” to political prisoners.

UNICEF must have gotten complaints about this, because the downloadable version of the ad available on their website now says “a wave of love.” Which isn’t a huge improvement, actually.

Of course, that still is not as bad as this Seattle Times column, from Saturday which dismisses tsunami victims as “clutter” apparently worthy of a tsunami of scorn for deigning to develop beaches into tourist attractions.

(A tip o’ the hat to Jesse Walker of Reason Online for the Seattle Times link.)

Did Blogs Tip The Election?

On Thursday night, Porter’s Dining Saloon in northwest Washington played host to a symposium titled: “Did Bloggers Tip the Election?” The event, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, drew over a hundred participants (crammed into a woefully under-ventilated room no larger than my living room.) Fortunately, I was able to infiltrate this event on behalf of Samizdata and report on the proceedings.

The panelists were (in rough order from ideological left to right): Henry Farrell, who contributes to the group blog Crooked Timber; Matthew Yglesias, who writes for The American Prospect, and contributes to both the TAPPED blog and his own blog; Ana Marie Cox, the inimitable Wonkette; Daniel Drezner, professor of political science at the University of Chicago whose blog, by an astonishing cosmic coincidence, is also called Daniel Drezner; and Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason. Drezner and Farrell were invited because they jointly authored this piece on the role of blogs in foreign policy; Yglesias was a last-minute replacement for his TAP colleague Michael Tomasky.

To answer the question posed by the title of the symposium, Nick Gillespie put it the most succinctly: “no, of course not, I think we can all agree!” All the panelists agreed, however, that the 2004 election had done more to blur the distinctions between alternative and mainstream media than it did to pit the two as adversaries.

The panel discussed at length the blogosphere’s role in Rathergate / Memogate. Yglesias dissented from the others on this issue, arguing that the Bush administration certainly would have defended itself against the charges raised in the forged memo, even if the blogosphere hadn’t attacked the documents. “It’s not like they were going after someone vulnerable with no defense network — this was the President of the United States,” Yglesias intoned. “He knows his own war record, and that something just wasn’t right about that story.” Cox suggested that if CBS had acted “more like bloggers” in putting the story out with feelers, asking for help in authenticating the documents instead of dogmatically asserting them as authentic, they could have avoided the scandal (she added that she did not believe CBS or any other news organization would behave this way.)

Other highlights: Drezner spoke at some length about his recent appearance on ABC news, in which he defended the blogosphere for posting exit poll numbers on election day. Finally, Ms. Cox may have delivered the most memorable line of the night: when asked whether the blogosphere was guilty of propogating bizarre conspiracy theories, she observed that blogs were about as likely to debunk conspiracies as promote them, “most famously the Mystery Bulge Scandal; you know, the one about President Bush in the debates, not the more recent Mystery Bulge of Dick Cheney. Besides,” she added, “evryone knows that Bush gets the alien transmissions through the fillings in his teeth, not through the bulge on his back.”

(photo coming soon!)

Another sign we are losing the language?

Certain words, over time, have devolved from specific context to generic insult. ‘Fascist’ used to refer to a certain socioeconomic system involving nationalism and state control of industry; ‘racist’ used to denote a person who believed that his ethnic group deserved some privileges that other groups did not. In modern parlance, however, almost anything can be ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’; go to any protest or peace rally and you will hear that the war in Iraq is ‘racist’, that opponents of a Palestinian state are ‘fascist’, and so on. These words now mean “something I disagree with or wish to belittle” instead of their original connotations.

I am sad to report that we are in danger of losing another word into this sinkhole: pornography.

Full disclosure: I am as guilty of this as anyone; I wrote a piece back in January talking about financial pornography. But abuse of this word has become widespread. WordSpy.com, a site that tracks the use of buzzwords in pop culture, has listings for “debt porn” (lurid tales of people bankrupted by credit card abuse), “eco-porn” (corporate shareholder reports that rave about the company’s environmental record), “domestic porn” (Martha Stewart-eque magazines) and “investment porn” (fawning profiles of fund managers who ‘beat the market’ without regard to the fact that someone had to be above average.)

But now we may have witnessed the ultimate: sparing no rhetorical excess, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has denounced Hardee’s new Monster ThickBurger, a concoction that contains 2/3 lb of beef, four slices of bacon, three slices of a cheese-like substance and mayonnaise, as ‘food porn‘.

Of course, CSPI and its founder, Michael Jacobson, are not interested merely in educating the public that gargantuan fast-food hamburgers are unhealthful. CSPI has advocated the taxation of meats, dairy products, and sodas, among other things. The website CSPIscam.com has extensive documentary of CSPI’s various forms of activism: junk science, junk litigation and intimidation.

CSPI founder Michael Jacobson, according to the ActivistCash.com website,

… will not tolerate any of his employees eating “bad” foods. CSPI’s in-house eating policy is so puritanical that Jacobson once planned to permanently remove the office coffee machine — until one-third of his 60 staffers threatened to quit.

I guess in that sense, though, fast food is a lot like porn: it is the same group of neo-puritan busybodies who oppose both.


Samizdata: now a porn site?

Onion 1, IMF 0

The Onion does not always crack me up like it used to, possibly because it grows more and more difficult to effectively satirize an increasingly bizarre world. But this piece, Housemates Reject Third-Roommate Debt-Relief Plan, is just devastating. They manage to sneak in a reference to virtually every conceivable critique of the IMF, from both the left and the right, from moral hazard to environmental degradation. They even address the topic of “conditional” loans whose conditions have nothing to do with improving debtworthiness or economic performance:

Although the donor roommates supplied additional aid in the months that followed, the AMF placed strict conditions on the loans. These conditions were designed to accomplish three goals: to prevent corruption and misuse of funds, to ensure that the monies were spent wisely, and to reduce third-roommate economic isolationism, integrating the debtor’s personal economy more fully into the interdependent apartmental community.

“We only asked for three things, man,” Huygens said regarding the structure of the loan. “First, that Chad quit partying so much. Second, that he open a checking account so he can budget his cash. And third, that he bring his kickass stereo system out of his bedroom and into the living room where we can all enjoy it. It was only fair.”

The only way this could have been improved upon might have been to lampoon the “debt for nature” swap; Chad’s debt might be forgiven in exchange for certain herbal products, for example.

Well done, gentlemen. More like this, please.

The ’60s Candidate

Not only is Kerry the ’60s candidate, but he also apparently employed a campaign strategy that would have given the election in the ’60s. If Kerry had won the same bundle of states that gave him 252 electoral votes in this election, but the states were still valued according to the Congressional apportionment based on the Census of 1960, he would have won the election, 270 electoral votes to 268. The trend since then:

1960 census (1964, 68 elections) – Kerry 270, Bush 268
1970 census (1972, 76, 80 elections) – Kerry 270, Bush 268
1980 census (1984, 88 elections) – Bush 276, Kerry 262
1990 census (1992, 96, 2000 elections) – Bush 279, Kerry 259
2000 census (2004, 08 elections) – Bush 286, Kerry 252

This is indicative of a potential long-term problem for the Democrats: they are strongest in the parts of the country that aren’t growing anymore. Even since the 2000 election (which was still based on the 1990 Census) the states Kerry won this time around are worth seven fewer electoral votes than they were worth last time.

On the other hand, maybe I should not bring up any of this, out of fear that someone will accuse Bush of stealing the election through the Census. Bush 2004: enumerated, not acclamated!

(Source for old electoral college apportionments: Statistical Abstract of the United States Table #402 – this link opens a .pdf file.)

Final pre-election drivel

Unlike our Dale Amon, I am not going to endorse a candidate – in fact, I am rooting for a 269-269 electoral tie, just for the sake of making history – but I still find the horse race intriguing. I was overwhelmed with requests (okay, two people asked) to run one last version of the election monte carlo that I offered last week. Apart from updating the probabilities, I did a few things differently this time:

– if the price was greater than 90 or less than 10, I changed it to 100 or 0, so that only the swing states impact the model.
– I kept track of which states were most likely to end up in the winners’ column; I wanted to know which states were the kingmakers. (Well, we already knew which states, but I wanted a way to quantify it.)
– I ran a few different scenarios, taking different swing states off the table (i.e. setting their probabilities to 100 or 0.)

Scenario I: every swing state up for grabs

BUSH: 5972 wins, avg. 275.82 electoral votes
KERRY: 3843 wins, avg. 262.18 electoral votes
TIE: 185

Florida ends up in the winner’s column 7578 of the 9815 scenarios where there is a winner. After that, the most ‘decisive’ swing states are Ohio (6515), Wisconsin (5636), New Mexico (5606) and Iowa (5521.)

Scenario II: Bush wins FL, everything else is up for grabs

BUSH: 8227 wins, avg. 287.70 electoral votes
KERRY: 1586 wins, avg. 250.30 electoral votes
TIE: 187

So basically, Kerry almost has to have Florida at this point.

Scenario III: Kerry wins FL, everything else is up for grabs

BUSH: 3083 wins, avg. 260.46 electoral votes
KERRY: 6692 wins, avg. 277.54 electoral votes
TIE: 225

Bush has more ways to win without getting Florida than Kerry does. Let’s try one more …

Scenario IV: Bush takes OH and WI; FL and other states are contested

BUSH: 8313 wins, avg. 291.05 electoral votes
KERRY: 1515 wins, avg. 246.95 electoral votes
TIE: 172

If Bush can take these two Midwestern states, he becomes a prohibitive favorite.

A few other desultory remarks:

– who says the country is more divided than ever? My favorite political story of the week: South Dakota, except for the Indian reservations, is a conservative state, and it is tough for a Democrat to win. So Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, in the heat of a tough reelection battle, has pledged that, should the election end in a 269-269 tie, she will vote for Bush when the House of Representatives has to choose the president.

– Since I’m rooting for the 269-269 tie, here’s one way it could happen:

source: World66.com

– Finally, Megan McArdle, guestblogging for Glenn Reynolds, offers the best election day advice of all: use the electronic political markets to hedge, just like a farmer would use the grain futures markets to hedge against the possibility of low selling prices at harvest time. If you don’t want Kerry to win, bet a few bucks that he DOES win, so you can at least drown your sorrows with some hard-earned beer.

Election Monte Carlo

A lot of bloggers (e.g. the indefatigable Stephen Green) have been posting electoral maps and trying to anticipate who is going to win based on the latest and greatest polling data. But Green, who had posted many such maps over the past few months, finally threw in the towel on Tuesday, declaring:

Say it with me now: It’s all a bunch of crap.

The polls all suck, for reasons gone into by people way smarter than I am. The predictions all suck, because everybody is working from the same assumptions, based on voting patterns from the last election.

… And yet everyone – myself included – still bases all their predictions on a tight race? I don’t know how this thing is going to pan out. Neither do you. But right now, I feel as though the electorate is going to play all of us pundits – amateur and professional – for fools.

And I think he’s 100% right about that … coloring states red or blue based on poll results is of limited use when there are so many conceivable outcomes, when we have such a hard time extricating sampling biases from polls, etc. Here is one possible way out of the dead end – instead of thinking deterministically and trying to project a winner in each state, let’s look at everything probabilistically, and run a Monte Carlo scenario to see each man’s chance of winning.

For this exercise, I assumed:

– that each candidate’s probability of carrying a state was equal to the current selling price on TradeSports.com. For example, if the price of “Bush carries Iowa” is quoted at 58, then Bush has a 58% chance of carrying Iowa in any given trial.
– No third-party candidates had any chance of carrying a state.
– Colorado and Maine are treated as all-or-none propositions.
– no “faithless electors” shun their commitment to vote for their candidate.
– all 51 events (50 states + DC) are independent.

I ran 10,000 trials, and this is what I got, based on today’s TradeSports prices:

Bush averaged 279.99 electoral votes to Kerry’s 258.01. The standard deviation of the vote was 30.78 electoral votes.

Bush got a majority of the electoral vote in 6283 trials; Kerry got a majority of the electoral vote in 3583 trials, and 134 times the race finished in (gulp) a dead heat, 269 electoral votes to 269.

In 10,000 trials, the most electoral votes Bush got in any one trial was 419; the most Kerry got was 357.

This approach is not perfect either, because it is not true that all 51 events are independent. If Bush’s 6% chance of carrying California comes through, he is probably going to win everywhere else in the country too. It would be possible to build some positive correlation into the model, but I have no idea what the correlation coefficients might be, and just saying that they round down to zero probably isn’t unreasonable.

What I find really interesting is that right now there appears to be greater than a 1% chance that this thing will finish in a tie. (In that case, the House of Representatives breaks the tie, of course, and would presumably re-elect George W. Bush, since the House has a Republican majority. My understanding is that the House vote would take place BEFORE the new Congress was sworn in, so that lame duck Reps who had already lost or retired could cast a vote to determine the presidency.)

If anyone finds this line of thought remotely compelling, I will update this (with current prices from TradeSports) a few times between today and election day.

UPDATE: An astute reader points out that the new Congress would cast the vote in the 269-269 tie scenario … the new (109th) Congress will be sworn in on 1/4/2005, and we need a new President by 1/20/2005, so there’s a two week window of opportunity there. A few of you also noted (correctly) that the House vote goes by state — the California delegation gets one vote, the Wyoming delegation gets one vote, etc. Right now, there are 31 states that have more GOP Congressmen than Democratic Congressmen … and everything is so gerrymandered now, I just cannot see that number changing much no matter what happens on election day. Of course, GOP Congressmen would be under no obligation to vote for Bush.

There has been one instance in US history where no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote and the House had to pick the next president — the election of 1824. But we have come close a few other times — in 1968, for example, if Wallace had carried one or two more southern states, Nixon might well have been unable to get the needed 270 electoral votes. Since the House had a huge Democratic majority at that time, they would have elected Humphrey even though Nixon had more popular and electoral votes.

A few of you asked a question that I had thought of myself — the individual state prices on TradeSports suggest that Bush has a 62%+ chance of winning, but you can buy a “Bush is elected” contract for about 60 or 61. So is there an arbitrage opportunity? In an ideal world, you could buy a Kerry contract for all 51 states and buy 51 Bush Wins Overall contracts, and you could expect to make money, net-net, off that, except of course that transaction costs would certainly render that unprofitable.

Book Review: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth
Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Andrew Thomson
Miramax Books, 2004

It is a shame that many readers will dismiss this book as outlandish or flippant simply because of its, uh, provocative title. Much of the press the book has received has been related to the “expose” angle of the book, with its promise of seamy tales of corruption, incompetence, sexual license and even drug abuse by UN officials. This is also a shame, because the book is so much more than an expose. If you have already made up your mind that the UN is hopeless, this is NOT the book to pick up in the hopes of gloating over UN policy failures in Rwanda, Bosnia and Haiti. Instead, Emergency Sex is an incredibly moving book and an addictive read, documenting tragedy, love, heartbreak, adventure and the friendship of the three co-authors.

The authors take turns telling the narrative, but their gifted writing meshes together so seamlessly that one often forgets whose turn it is to develop the story further. The authors met in Cambodia in the early ’90s, as part of a team that was monitoring the election there. Heidi joined the UN after leaving her husband, a successful Manhattan modeling agent, in search of adventure. Ken, youngest of the trio, hires into the UN as an attorney after graduating from Harvard Law School – he is the book’s most intriguing character, vacillating between cynicism and naivete, at times brutally critical of the UN but at the same time remaining on board with the program. And finally there is Andrew, the New Zealand-born doctor who went to work at a Red Cross hospital in Phnom Penh after meeting a survivor of the Khmer Rouge holocaust while in med school. → Continue reading: Book Review: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures

“No Exit” for LP?

The Libertarian National Convention may have reminded a few observers of Sartre’s “No Exit” – each faction selected the candidate that would deny their rival faction victory, producing a nominee with little broad-based support. Or maybe it was more like the 1969 blaxploitation classic Putney Swope, in which a wildly unlikely darkhorse emerges out of similar circumstances at an advertising agency’s board meeting. At any rate, the Convention certainly produced an unlikely candidate, Texas-based computer guru Michael Badnarik.

Badnarik entered the convention as a distant challenger to two better-financed candidates, Hollywood producer Aaron Russo and Ohio-based talk show host Gary Nolan. But acrimony between Russo’s and Nolan’s camps led Nolan, who fell behind in early balloting, to withdraw and endorse Badnarik, with the intention of tilting the election away from Russo. Badnarik finally carried a majority on the third ballot and became the LP’s unlikely nominee.

Badnarik’s campaign website, as of the time of this post, apparently has not been updated in ‘weeks’, as you are greeted with this message on the home page:

With the National Convention mere weeks away, we owe it to you to finish up our drive to the presidential nomination in style. Please consider NOW to be the optimum time to make a difference! (emphasis mine)

Moreover, it appears that Badnarik has not raised much money to date, and has not even had a professionally managed campaign, although I understand that a team is being mobilized rapidly. Candidate websites can be powerful fundraising tools, but right now, the only way to contribute online is (egad) via PayPal.

Badnarik’s website also contains a link to a speech given at Washington University in St. Louis that contains, well, comments about the United Nations that he would probably rather have back. But there they are, out on the web for the whole world to see. (Scroll down toward the bottom, or just do a Ctrl-F search for “detonate.”) Astute readers may find other causes for concern as they read through his position statements.

The election is still five months away, and Badnarik will have time to refine his campaign between now and November. I will keep an eye on the situation and provide updates (with the best intentions of objectivity.)

Doug Pappas 1961-2004

Sad news: Economist / baseball analyst / blogger Doug Pappas has passed away at age 43, the victim of heat stroke while vacationing in Texas.

Pappas chaired the Business of Baseball committee for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), and his work on the history of baseball’s finances was consistently intelligent and provocative. I mention this in Samizdata because Pappas was also one of the foremost opponents of taxpayer funded facilities for professional sports and was thus a friend of liberty as well. Pappas relentlessly criticized commissioner Bud Selig’s claims that Major League Baseball needed corporate welfare to survive.

I am a SABR member, but never got to meet Doug Pappas; for more in-depth tributes from people who knew him, see the excellent baseball / war blog Baseball Crank and David Pinto’s Baseball Musings, another excellent baseball-only blog.

The $40 guitar

Ed Driscoll wrote a piece about evolving guitar technology in Friday’s installment of TechCentralStation, and after searching desperately for any thinly-veiled excuse to write about it, I stumbled across an angle.

With a lot of manufactured goods, their production tends to get ‘outsourced’ to the third world because (1) eventually everyone figures out how to do it and (2) capital markets can finance production almost anywhere on the globe. The only thing more predictable than this evolution is that politicians will never stop whining about it.

One trend that Driscoll does not pick up on is that this is also happening with guitars. Just as American streets are filling up with Korean-made autos (more Korean cars are sold here than German cars) the American guitar shops are filling up with Korean-made (and now Chinese-made) guitars. The Korean manufacturer Samick now accounts for almost half of the world’s guitar production. Even Gibson, best known for its estimable and pricey Les Paul (see photo below) is offering high value from its Epiphone series guitars (which Samick builds for them in Korea.)

If you have ever picked up a surviving ‘bargain’ guitar of the ’60s in a pawnshop or a secondhand guitar store — a Harmony, Kay, Eko, etc. — you would likely find cut-rate construction, weak intonation, mediocre playability and thin-sounding pickups. But today’s ‘bargain’ brands offer workmanship and playability that sometimes give the premium brands a run for their money. Danelectro, for example, makes hip, great-sounding guitars that are easy to play and can be had for about US$200.

To give you an idea as to how far this trend has already gone, I personally own a $40 guitar. I was ordering the Line 6 Guitar Port (the guitar-to-PC interface that Driscoll mentions in the article) when I discovered that the vendor was offering the device a la carte for $160 or packaged with an electric guitar for $200. My curiosity got the best of me – how bad can this $40 guitar be? – and I ordered the package deal. And you know what? The cheapo guitar is terrific. It does not hold its tune as well as my main Gibson, but it is easy to play and sounds good to boot.

Driscoll is right that we are not going to see a lot of major innovations in electric guitars anytime soon, in large part because the players themselves are somewhat resistant to change. (Even the most avant-garde noisemakers tend to prefer traditional guitar designs.) What we are seeing instead is global capitalism commoditizing electric guitars and making quality instruments more affordable than ever for a generation of young players.

Nigel Tufnel

The sustain, listen to it!

Reflections on NASA’s grim anniversaries

This post is not going to be about “NASA screwed up, how come after 40 years we still have a space ‘program’ and not a space industry, NASA is drifting off focus and no longer has a clearly defined mission, etc.” I will leave it to someone else to write that column, because Rand Simberg (or our own Dale Amon) could do it a lot better than I could anyway.

What I do want to talk about is: how the way information is organized and presented can make a difference in how it is received – and how bureaucracy can sometimes stand in the way of effective data organization and promote cluttered thinking. When we lost the Challenger in ’86, it should have been clear that it was unsafe to launch the shuttle on that cold January morning. NASA had plenty of data to suggest that it was not prudent to launch that day – the problem is that the data was not refined into a conclusive answer, but rather was shrouded by poor communication and bureaucratic ass-covering.

Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale and author of several brilliant texts on graphic design and the visual display of quantitative data, has made the Challenger accident a centerpiece of his traveling seminar. His exegesis of the Challenger disaster is available in his book Visual Explanations (Graphics Press, 2001).

In hindsight, it was quickly determined what caused the Challenger to fail: the poor cold-weather performance of the rubber O-rings in the field joints that held sections of the solid rocket boosters together. In a memorable session of the Rogers Commission (the group that investigated the Challenger disaster) the late Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, conducted a dramatic experiment. He affixed a C-clamp to a sample of O-ring material, dropped it into his glass of ice water, and then removed the clamp, revealing that the O-ring rubber lacked resiliency when cooled to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. (See photo below.) → Continue reading: Reflections on NASA’s grim anniversaries