Living in End Times

August 15, 2017

Climate change is scary. The sixth extinction is scary. Trump, North Korea, and nukes are scary.

Hans Rosling would do great presentations about how things are getting better. And in many ways they are.

And yet.

People have thought they lived in the end times throughout human history. Sometimes just a few. Sometimes large parts of a society. We can easily fixate on the negative.

And yet…the end times happen once. That they have not happened is not proof of future performance.

In the 20th century, we acquired the capability to destroy the world in less than a day. Real end times became possible.

Catastrophic ecological change is slower moving, but we seem to be hitting a rapid phase with multiple possible tipping points.

Of course, it’s not over until it’s over, but given the demonstrated capacity of our existing institutions to handle complex phenomena, it’s hard to be confident.

People who falsely believed that the world was ending were still living with that believe. Many of them lived out their lives so we know it’s possible to survive the stress of “knowing” you are living in the end times.

It seems to be a skill we need to culture.

Quick GE2017 Lessons

June 16, 2017

Some thoughts on larger lessons to be drawn from the surprise result of the UK 2017 general election.


Brexit is, thankfully, at risk. Hard Brexit is probably off the table and the difference between most soft Brexit’s and staying in is that we’re worse off. A Norway style deal means most of the obligations (including budget contributions) but no say.

But hard Brexit is worse than all these. The best deal for the UK (indeed, a wildly unfair deal) would be to stay on the old terms. This is unlikely.

Was it a Brexit election? Did the Remainers fail to get their revenge? The LibDems campaigned on a second referendum and lost! vote share (while gaining a few seats). Does this mean Remain is dead?

We can’t quite use the LidDem failure to say Remain is dead. I’m a hard core Remainer and I voted Labour. I may still vote against Corbyn in a leadership election on Remain grounds. I’d guess that most Remainers are not single issue and a lot of Remainers are anti-Conservative/hope to avoid hard Brexit types. Clegg probably lost in spite of his excellent Remoaning, not because of it.

Furthermore, LibDems are a third party. In a two party consolidation election they are likely to do poorly. And this is roughly what we see from the Ashcroft post election survey. Consider the party shift graph:


What’s striking is that both Labour and the Conservatives held onto around 80% of their 2015 voters. There wasn’t a lot of coming home of 2015-Conservative-voting 2010-Labour voters. UKIP collapsed mostly into the Conservatives (but they feel more like a generally spent party). LibDems held on to only 50% with a contingent hitting Labour. SNP had main party level retention, but few gains.

Compare with the party split of Referendum voters:


Labour is the party of Remain while the Conservatives are the party of Leave. But in neither case was it dominant. It seems that Labour is underperforming (compared to the Conservatives) for Remain voters who seem to defect to the LibDems (seems!).

The depressing chart is the “feeling toward Brexit” (enthused, accepting, resistent):q6-brexit-enthusiast-1024x923

The “all” line is the problem…only 28% are resistant. The Conservatives are definitely the party of Brexit, but Labour has a mixed bag.

Events may change things, but non-Brexit is a long shot given these results.

Bernie woulda won

I don’t go so far as Scott in saying that all “x woulda won arguments are useless”. Counterfactual reasoning is tough and the more divergent the counterfactual from the real would the weaker the possible evidentiary constraints. Analogical evidence from across different elections and election systems is also weak. Combine them and you are in speculation land.

Many of these arguments (pro and con) that I’ve seen are facile: “Corbyn did better than expected so Bernie would have done better than expected and won”. “Corbyn lost so Bernie woulda lost”. None of these are great. Trump was a much better campaginer than May. Republicans were structurally favored (a bit) whereas I think the Conservatives were structurally disadvantaged.

The interesting analogical argument (and I don’t have a source ready to hand, so perhaps I’m making it up) would be of the following form:

  1. Corbyn started from a ≈20 point hole.
  2. Corbyn ran a Bernie style campaign with a Bernie style manifesto and youth enthusiasm.
  3. Corbyn made up a big chunk of that 20 point hole.
  4. So Bernie would have seen a similar gain and won a landslide.

Of course, the problem, in general, is that in polarised two party systems, each marginal gain gets more difficult and acceleratingly so as you get to the rough party parity mark (50% in the US, 40-45% in the UK). Roughly, making up large amounts of ground from a low mark can be much easier than gaining a lead from near parity.

People looking at Bernie’s approval numbers (compared to, say, Clinton’s) might take as a cautionary note how May’s absurdly (we now know) approval numbers didn’t save her. One lesson is that approval (or disapproval) may be more tricky and less sticky than we thought.

My modest conclusion remains: Being Bernie/Corbyn left on policy, rhetoric, and perception just isn’t electoral poison in either the US or the UK and we should stop thinking that it is. Trump made lefty (if lying) noises! It doesn’t mean that left policy alone means victory…as we have direct evidence thereof. It just means that arguments about policy shouldn’t be dominated by a “if left, then unelectable”.

Interpreting the 2017 UK General Election

June 15, 2017

We had yet another election that was yet again rather a surprise, though in a good way this time. The Conservative government intended and were expected to extend their majority in Parliament, perhaps by quite a bit (400 seats seemed possible). They would have 5 years with a commanding majority to execute Brexit and ride out some of the aftermath. The humiliating defeat of a Corbyn-led Labour party would reify his unelectability and might lead to his replacement with someone more electable…probably from a somewhat more center part of the party. This would, of course, depend on Corbyn stepping down and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) not having enough Corbynites to renominate them.

Well THAT didn’t happen. Instead, the Conservatives lost their majority. Labour is back up to around 2010 levels in number of seats. Third parties either lost (SNP) or had only minor gains (Liberal Democrats…big relative, small compared to their 2010 levels). May will try to form a government, but it’ll be tricky. The Conservatives are damaged. Mayesqe Brexit is damaged. (Yay to both.) We have a second own goal/absurd folly by a Conservative PM in as many years.

Excitement! In 2015, the pollsters said, “hung parliament” and we got a Conservative majority. In 2017, the pollsters (mostly) said “Conservative majority” and we got a “hung parliament”. Whatever else, this shows the dangers of mixing polling with time travel.

Corbynites claim vindication! Some Sanders supporters do too! Grouchy people say, “Well, Labour didn’t win!” The anti-Corbynites and Corbyn skeptics in the PLP are making friendly noises! Lefty folks are talking about how the party is Blairite no more!! YOUNG PEOPLE!!!

Here’s my 1.5th take. My 0.5-0.7th takes can be found on various LGM threads.


We don’t yet know what happened. The data hasn’t been synthesized or in some cases gathered. So there’s a lot of speculation. This post is mostly speculative or “frameworky”, that is, I’ll try to articulate ways of thinking about the election rather than make specific claims about what happened.

Analyses are emerging and quickly. I started to try to sort through them but they are coming a bit too quickly and voluminously.

I’m pretty left tempered with serious commitments to harm mitigation or reduction. Thus, I am generally against heighten the contradictions strategies or attempting for (unlikely) maximal results. I therefore tend to be a two partier side taker (Labour in the UK and Democratic in the US). In the pre Bush area I experimented with third party politics but that’s largely done (esp. in the US).

I have technocratic inclinations…I care a ton about policy. I have a strong antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn because of his pro-Brexitness and esp his horrible campaigning unto sabotage for Remain. (That is likely the most consequential act he’ll ever do and it’s for a lot of harm.) That being said, the Conservatives are so much worse on everything, I will reliably support (and vote for) Labour. I formally joined the Labour Party a couple of days before the election (when I thought that the  best likely result was “only” a 30-70 seat gain for May).

I don’t have a big hate for the “Blairite” wing of the party, to the degree there is one, even though I disagree with so much of what Blair did (even things that weren’t as harmful as supporting Bush in Gulf War II). I think Brown did some great things including keeping us out of the Euro (I’m super pro-EU, but the Euro has severe problems; cf Krugman) but also a more stimulus based response to the Great Recession (both of these things are what kept Cameron’s contractionary policy from screwing us).

Final caveat: that’s a lot of caveats!

What Happened?

Short answer:

  • Labour didn’t win, but it wasn’t destroyed. The pre election bet was Labour would be hurt through destroyed. We exceeded expectations by a lot.
  • The Conservatives lost their majority but remained the largest party by seat (by a lot) and vote share (by a little). They fell short of expectations by a lot.
  • May is seriously damaged, having lost a majority in a snap election she called.
  • Third parties are on the decline even though the LibDems made some gains. Scottish Tories did very well.
  • We are not in a stable situation. A Conservative minority government with DUP support is unlikely to last 5 years.

Even with my loathing of Brexit loving Corbyn and McDonnell, I’ll take this result over a Labour crash that dislodged them (and definitely over a Labour crash that did).

What Grounded Expectations?

There are two points-in-time to consider:

  1. Pre-calling the election (i.e., before April 2017).
  2. During the election esp. close to the date.

1 is relevant because it grounded May’s decision to call the election. There were two key poll numbers that made calling an election with an expectation of strengthening her majority reasonable:

  1. Overall opinion polls which showed the conservative with around a 20 point lead and gaining.

    UK opinion polling leading up to the 2017 election. The top blue line is the Conservatives and Labour is the red line. Note the vertical line is the moment the election was called. (From Wikipedia.)

  2. Corbyn, specifically, had poor polls esp as a possible Prime Minister, wheres May had really good polls on those.

Traditionally, the opposition party has high polls between elections which narrows when the election is called. Approval of a party leader as possible Prime Minister generally is seen to have a substantial effect (or at least be predictive of) final seat total.

(Remember, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. The only way to vote against someone as PM is to vote against your local MP.)

In 2015, Corbyn started out with the worst initial approval rating of an opposition leader since such polling began (after WWII). He was at -8 net approval. Contrariwise, Ed Miliband started out in 2010 at +26. (Check out this opposition polling at midterms (whole article).)

Note, I’m not offering any explanation of why. Unfair press. PLP backstabbing (though that wouldn’t explain his initial approval per se). It wasn’t clear that it could be overcome. For example, the press wasn’t going to change absent an exogenous event.

Add in his lackluster performance in the referendum, and it wasn’t clear that Corbyn wasn’t electoral poison.

2017 showed that he wasn’t. But it was a surprise.

Why Did Expectations Get Overturned?

In US presidential elections, we have evidence that campaigns and candidates have, at most, marginal effects. Structural factors, esp. given strong polarization and party identity voting pattern, tend to dominate. I’m not sure that this is as true in the UK, but I think we can say that the UK is seeing some hardening of party idea (in the respective bases), but there’s also a lot of party migration/leader sensitivity going on (cf “traditional Labour voters” who voted Leave and speak heavily against Corbyn).

So, I don’t know, but I think looking at structural factors is a bad idea. Brexit is a big deal. The economy and recovery is a big deal. May was never elected as Prime Minister and the winning leader, Cameron, resigned after a wacky defeat. We’re into a second, eventful term.

Let’s look at the seat/vote spread from the last three elections (with some structural points):

Election Lab. Vote Lab. Seats Con. Vote Con. Seats Structural Factors
2010 29.0% 258 36.1% 306 Labour was 3 term govt and were in charge during the Great Recession
2015 30.4% 232 36.9% 330 Re-election campaign of a 1 term govt with a popular leader; Labour collapses in Scotland to the (very left) SNP because Scottish nationalism
2017 40.0% 262 42.4% 317 Snap election (3rd in 2 years) for replacement PM after popular PM suffered a epochal defeat; worst/most botched Conservative campaign in quite some time; UKIP collapses post-Brexit (and Scottish Conservatives do very well on anti-Scottish Nationalism)

If we look at the structural factors, the election looks less exciting. Indeed, if we had a generic Labour leader (with normal opposition Leader numbers in April) this could be seen as an expected or even weak result. But with a generic Labour leader with normal numbers, May would never have called this election. Some combination of polls and perhaps personal underestimation of Corbyn prompted May’s folly.

So Corbyn is Super Awesome, Right?

It’s still inconclusive.

What this election proved is that he’s not electoral poison. Given the right circumstances, he can perform at least as good as a generic Labour leader with normal numbers. Unlike lots of prior performances, almost everything after the first week or two of the campaign was very strong, from the manifesto to his personal campaigning. May refused to debate him, which may have been to his advantage (his PMQ sessions aren’t so wonderful). Hi campaign was strong while May’s was really bad.

There’s some thought that Corbyn mobilised the youth vote to turn out. If so, he didn’t do so on top of bringing back traditional Labour voters, as far as I could tell. That would have been victory, I’d guess. I’m waiting for numbers that show a substitutional effect…making up in increased youth turnout what we lose in traditional Labour voters.

Also, many MP candidates ran away from Corbyn. Or at least kept quiet.

So, it’s not conclusive. But we do know that 1) Corbyn wasn’t poison (that’s good), 2) there seems to be a chance for a hard left to centre intra-party unity, and everyone’s making the right moves (also good), and 3) Corbyn is a different figure than before the election. Success tends to breed success.

That being said, Corbyn still needs to show that he can be a functional parliamentary leader. The great PLP rebellion and leadership challenge was as much about his shambolic management and leadership as ideology and worries about electability. Some moves look good and maybe he’ll do better now. But we need to see.

So UK polls are worthless, then?

UK polls are definitely less accurate overall. Though YouGov was predicting a hung parliament. I suspect Corbyn will turn out to be an outlier.

Approval is odd. In a polarized setting it doesn’t necessarily tell us too much about voter intention. So who knows?


There’s lots more to say even before we get some more data. The short answer remains: Good news for Labour; very good news for Corbyn. May and the Conservative are seriously damaged. They situation is more dynamic than before the election. May screwed the pooch, however rational it may have seemed at the time. It shouldn’t have seemed a no brainer esp given that she had promise no election until the term was up. Breaking that promise “just because” adds an insane amount of uncertainty. The fact that it was structurally a bit unfavourable meant she was relying on Corbyn Numbers and Personal Contempt for Corbyn and didn’t bother to assemble a proper campaign. She knew it was coming but didn’t put one together!

May and Cameron…two of the worst Prime Ministers…ever.

The Great Unraveling

February 18, 2017

(I’ve not been very productive. My nearly year long cough is gone, but the dizziness, light-headedness, and exhaustion persist. Oh and I’m having hand surgery on Wed…yeek!)

I’m not sure that “The Great Unraveling” is quite the right phrase, but in the US and the UK we’re at the cusp of massive transformations that, to be frank, are going to suck. Both involve attempts to dismantle much of the corresponding states in a very short time. (The Great Dismantling? Perhaps what’s Unraveled is the consensus which leaves us open to dismantling?)

Brexit at all, much less the hard and hostile Brexit we risk, is not a simple matter. For ≈40 years we’ve been a member state and that has consequences to everything we’ve done and how the whole constitutional order was structured. Note that I don’t think Brexit will net us more sovereignty, but it will net us more local “control” and responsibility. I don’t think it nets us sovereignty because while we get more local say we lose EU say. We lose power, in general.

We had an outsized influence in the EU and were shielded from the worst bit (the Euro). So, this will be a pretty big loss.

Trump and the Republican Congress (and likely Republican Supreme Court) and the Republican states are, with varying degrees of effectiveness, trying to break down the post LBJ welfare state and the international order (well, the latter is mostly President Bannon). The badness of their aims is matched only by their general ineptness at governance. Since destruction is the goal and they’re pretty happy with a lot of collateral damage, this isn’t a big deal for them except it might result in a counterbalancing wave elections (I hope, I hope).

There’s no attempt to produce a better alternative. The ACA repeal and uh…something…something there’s a replacement but it’s a secrete move is pretty telling. There are no positive goals, no acknowledgement of strengths of the ACA, or accurate assessment of the weaknesses (and ways to fix them). It’s just hack it and give the money to rich people. The end.

Let’s not even get into the norms of governance that Trump blithely shits on.

So here we are. Two “conservative” governments engaged in a destructive spree with barely any recognition that what they’re doing is destructive at all. Strange times.

Countering (Massive Numbers of) Lies Doesn’t Work

January 25, 2017

Lies are dangerous in a number of ways. Putting aside that there are lots of situations where a false belief leads to very bad action (e.g., believing homeopathy is an effective cancer treatment leads to forgoing treatment that would have saved one’s life or mitigated suffering). They are also dangerous because people with bad agendas tend to resort to lying because they can’t win on the merits. And they don’t just resort to a bit of deception, or even clever deception. It turns out that wholesale, massive, shameless, easily rebutted lies are pretty effective, at least for something.

Consider the decades long attack on the EU:

But Britain has a long and well-observed tradition of fabricating facts about Europe—so much so that the European Commission (EC) set up a website to debunk these lies in the early 1990s. Try our interactive quiz below and see if you can spot the myths.

Since then the EC has responded to over 400 myths published by the British media. These range from the absurd (fishing boats will be forced to carry condoms) to the ridiculous (zippers on trousers will be banned). Some are seemingly the result of wilful misunderstandings.

Sadly, for all the commission’s hard work, it is unlikely to be heard. The average rebuttal is read about 1,000 times. The Daily Mail’s website, by contrast, garners 225m visitors each month.

And, of course, the Leave campaign, itself, was almost wholly lie based. Remain made some (economic) predictions that were falsified (and that needs to be understood), but it didn’t traffic in wholesale lies, to my knowledge.

Similarly, we have a decades long campaign, almost entirely easily-debunked-lie based, against Hillary Clinton. Just take claims about her honesty (esp. next to Trump). Robert Mann produced a very interesting graph of Polifact’s fact checking of a selection of politicians:

It isn’t even close! HRC is one of the most honest politicians (in terms of telling falsehoods) and Trump is one of the most dishonest.

Yet, when I was debating folks on Democratic leaning blogs, I had people saying that Clinton was a pathological liar. When presented with this chart, they stuck to their guns. (Note, they didn’t think Obama was a liar.)

You can quibble with the methodology (see Mann’s blog post for a discussion), but Polifact’s fact checker tries to be evenhanded. One should be at least a little struck by this evidence.

But correction often just doesn’t work, backfires, or isn’t effective in changing attitudes and behavior. For example,

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Or consider Emily Thorson’s concept of belief echoes:

However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction–even when it is fully believed–does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects,which I call “belief echoes,” are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking.

Belief echoes can be affective or cognitive. Affective belief echoes are created through a largely unconscious process in which a piece of negative information has a stronger impact on evaluations than does its correction. Cognitive belief echoes, on the other hand, are created through a conscious cognitive process during which a person recognizes that a particular negative claim about a candidate is false, but reasons that its presence increases the likelihood of other negative information being true. Experimental results suggest that while affective belief echoes are created across party lines, cognitive belief echoes are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person’s pre-existing political views

We see this in the various formulations of the Clinton Rules.

One major harm of such mechanisms is that it opens up a line of defense for very bad people, e.g., Trump, to wit, that there are “Trump rules” and the bad things pointed out about him are fake. They aren’t, but why trust a gullible media about it?

I’ve had personal experience of this. I used to comment a lot on LGM. One commenter with a propensity for persistently saying very silly things (about, e.g., statistics, causality, politics, and even the law (they are a lawyer)) got to a point where they couldn’t stand my repeated refutations (including pointing out how they’d been refuted before). They embarked on a pretty systematic campaign to lie about me, primarily about my mental health and that I was “stalking” them, on the verge of a breakdown, that they were frightened of me, that I had no sex life or other kind of life, that I spent large period of times looking things up on them (stalking!), etc. These were transparent lies and obvious gaslighting. No one took them directly seriously, but they did have effects. People would see an exchange and assume that there was some fault on my part (however mild). This would pop up elsewhere, in other comments.  Some of these people were more sympathetic to a gaslighting liar than they had any right to be.

So, pretty exemplary behavior and a sterling reputation vs. transparent lies and extremely bizarre slanders and…well, I’m the one not commenting any more. It worked, in a way. (Trump winning had an effect too. It’s not solely due to this bad behavior.)

Given sufficient shamelessness and no structural counter (e.g., moderation) and no big effort on my part (e.g., an active campaign), there’s little penalty for such lying and it advances their noxious cause.

These examples can be multiplied easily (anti-vaccine, pro-tobacco, climate change denial campaigns come to mind).

It’s very difficult to deal with. We need to.


How severe is the problem? I just saw a report on a survey using Trump’s and Obama’s inauguration crowd photos:

For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.

But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.

The article discusses the idea of “expressive responding”:

Why would anyone give the wrong answer to a pretty simple question?

To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation and how many are knowingly giving the wrong answer to support their partisan team (a process called expressive responding).

Expressive responding is yet another form of lying with potentially far reaching consequences.

On Calling Out a Lie

January 24, 2017

Given the massive amount of un-, anti-, and non-truth spewed by Trump, his minions, and the Republican Party, the media has had a lot of trouble coping with it. Trumpsters and their ilk even have started complaining about “fake news” by which they don’t mean actual fake news, but instead they mean true news that they don’t like.

The media needs to deal with the situation better. There are lots of vulnerable points (e.g., the need for access, the cult of balance, the shamelessness of the deception). But one problem is a strong unwillingness to call a lie a lie (well, except for the liars, who are quite willing to call anything they don’t like a lie).

There’s a fairly narrow idea of a lie making its way around that’s used to justify this. Take Kevin Drum (who’s on the pro-call-out-lies side):

The problem with branding something a lie is that you have to be sure the speaker knew it was wrong. Otherwise it’s just ignorance or a mistake.

Arrrgh! Even Drum falls into a pretty obvious error! Just because you don’t utter a deliberate, explicit, knowing falsehood doesn’t mean you are innocently making some sort of error (i.e., acting from ignorance or making a mistake)! Just simple contemplation of lies of omission reveal that. Or recall standard tricks such as:

Is there anything else material that you want to tell us?


But it says here that you did X and X is material! Why did you lie?!

I didn’t lie. I didn’t want to tell you about X.

Lots of people have come to rely on Frankfurt’s notion of “bullshit” (utterances made without regard for the truth) and “lie” (utterances made with a regard for falsity). I remember when Frankfurt’s article came out and I enjoyed it. It’s a nice distinction, but it’s been misused. A bullshitter is a kind of liar (or, if you want to be annoying, a deceiver). (Wikipedia correctly puts Frankfurtian “bullshit” as a topic on the “lie” page.)

Frankfurt spends a great deal of time trying to suss out the distinction between lying and bullshitting:

The elder Simpson identifies the alternative to telling a lie as bullshitting one’s way through. This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involves a of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require. This is a key, perhaps, to his preference. Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

Meh. When you have enough fabrication and one of your targets is yourself, this idea of focus isn’t pertinent. One way of lying is being a shameless liar most of the time so when one speaks the truth one isn’t believed.

It is sometimes worth figuring out the etiology of someone’s false (or otherwise wrong) utterances. It can make a difference in how you counter them. If someone is mistaken, they may be amenable to correction. If they are a “true believer”, it may be quite difficult to merely correct them (so maybe you don’t bother).

But, with the Trumpians and other Republicans, come on. There needs to be some strict liability here. Lying so well that you convince even yourself that it’s true is a kind of lying. Coming to believe your own lies (supposedly) doesn’t get you off the hook for all that lying nor does it make it not lying.

I’m sorta ok with Drum’s desire to focus on deception rather that (narrow) lying. But…in ordinary vernacular, deception is lying. A lie of omission is a lie. If you bullshit me, you are lying to me. If you lie to yourself, you are lying.

With Trump, it’s super easy: it’s almost all straightforward lies.

Update: LGM caught up with the NYT finally putting “lie” in the headline with appropriate skepticism.

Music Monday: RIP Maggie Roche

January 23, 2017

Maggie Roche, of the Roches, died.

I learned about the Roches from Zoe and we had a fair number of their albums, alas all on cassette so I haven’t listened to them in quite some time. Her death is a sad prompt to get it together.

Anyway! Some of her song. Hammond Song is a classic. Thought for years I thought it was “If you go down to heaven”. It completely make sense as a death song!

If you go down to Hammond [ed: try not to hear “heaven!”]
you’ll never come back
In my opinion you’re
on the wrong track
We’ll always love you but
that’s not the point


The eponymous album is probably my (and a lot of people’s) favourite.  Quitting Time is also terrific, maybe better than Hammond Song and features Maggie’s deep deep voice on the vocals. (The recording of her is not ideal, imho, but still, overall, a standout recording.)

Maggie and Terre had an earlier album, Seductive Reasoning, that has two of my favourite songs, Malachy’s which I think is one of the best “performer” songs ever:

It’s a lightly melancholy blend of things that went wrong at a performance and of at least absent (perhaps lost) love:

Eddie said the lights were low
Tom said the treble was high
The boy with a beard in the corner
Laughed in the middle of a sigh
Don’t think we ever even caught his eye

Sometimes I used to find
I’d be singing to you
As if you were sitting
At the table by the door

The other is Underneath the Moon:

Aside from a jaunty piano riff, the lyrics we surprisingly important to me:

I overheard a wise gal say
Whose gentleman was her ruin
“Sweetness gets me nowhere
‘Cept, underneath the moon.”

Good men want a virgin
So don’t you give yourself too soon
‘Cept in an emergency
Like underneath the moon.

I heard this for the first time in the early days of my feminist evolution. I won’t say it’s super-feminist, but I found the casual defiance of an oppressive norm (keep your virginity!). It’s not a full defiance as it’s framed as an exception, but it charmed me nevertheless.

Maggie gave us so many great song. She will be missed.

We can’t have nice things

January 22, 2017

Like the Conservative 2015 win, Trump’s win and the Republican control of government will lead to lots and lots of bad things and the destruction of lots of good things. Some of the loss is direct and immediate (e.g., people will lose their health insurance). Some of the loss is less direct and immediate (e.g., people will die unnecessarily because they lost their health insurance). And some of the lost is indirect and diffuse (e.g., the economy will suffer because health insurance and health care is messed up).

You can hope that breaking things as hard and as fast as the Trumpublicans seem anxious to do will result in accountability from the voters. But this isn’t a net good:

The one silver lining here is that all this is certain to be spectacularly unpopular. This combination of spending-side austerity and huge tax cuts will likely create major economic problems, as similar policies at the state level (and during Bush’s time as well) have shown. Trump is already the most disliked president-elect in the history of polling, and what little support he does have is partly the result of a campaign whose major message was the precise opposite of what’s about to happen.

Bush took a budget surplus and turned it into giant deficits, something we still are dealing with. Breaking things tends to lead to more broken things and easier to beak things.

Plus, voters seem to have short memories. Trump looks to be worse than Bush by some orders of magnitude and this didn’t deter lots of people from voting for Trump and the Republicans. Austerity in the UK imposed pointless misery and the Tory’s won 2015 on austerity.

Conservative parties have been taking fairly narrow wins of dubious contests wherein they lied like hell and decided to go maximal in their execution of disastrous policies. In the UK, it seems very unlikely that the electorate will turn on them anytime soon for this. In the US, it will be challenging to get one house of congress, much less both, in 2018. There’s a lot more amok that can be run.

The GPL Won

January 18, 2017

It seems like GPL and related licenses dominate open source projects, by a lot:

At the beginning of his talk, DiBona said that according to Google’s net crawlers, the web now contains over 31 million open source projects, spanning 2 billion lines of code. Forty-eight per cent of these projects are under the GPL, 23 per cent use the LGPL, 14 per cent use the BSD license, 6 per cent use Apache, and 5 per cent use the MIT license. All other licenses are used with under 5 per cent of the projects.

So, GPL variants govern 71% of 31 million projects. Daaaamn. That’s a lot. A lot more than the rest, which are less restrictive.

I confess to being a bit surprised given the hostility (or exasperation) one often encounters by e.g., business folks when dealing with the GPL. Of course, it has two strong factors: it’s viral (so derived projects must use it) and it’s has a lot of advocacy, both dedicated (think Stallman) and more incidental (think Linux in general).

Ooo, I really have an itch to find out whether virality is a big factor….


On Facebook, Dan Brickley (thanks Dan!) points out that 1) this survey is from 2011 and 2) more recent surveys point to a shift away from GPL to more more permissive licenses, to wit, MIT and Apache:

Indeed, if we contrast each license’s share of the repositories surveyed by Black Duck [January 2017] versus January 2010, the shift is quite apparent….

In Black Duck’s sample, the most popular variant of the GPL – version 2 – is less than half as popular as it was (46% to 19%). Over the same span, the permissive MIT has gone from 8% share to 29%, while its permissive cousin the Apache License 2.0 jumped from 5% to 15%. What this means is that over the course of a seven year period, the GPLv2 has gone from being roughly equal in popularity to the next nine licenses combined to 10% out of first place.

All of which suggests that if we generally meant copyleft when we were talking about open source in 2007, we typically mean permissive when we discuss it today.

Read the whole thing, esp. the bit about the rise of unlicensed projects on Github.

Now, methodologically, their survey is smaller:

This open source licensing data reflects analysis of over two million open source projects from over 9,000 global forges and repositories.

So, it might be the case that the Google population wouldn’t show this shift. But, ex ante, a focused crawl is more likely (perhaps) to be dominated by “high quality” repositories, thus may reflect best or active practice better.

This all still cries out for some causal investigation.

The Concentration of Web Power

January 17, 2017

In the early days of the Web (and the Internet in general), there was a believe that it was a different kind of system. Distributedly anarchistic, that is, the was no central authority. No one organisation owned…or could own the whole network. Oh we worried about some centralising tendencies…browser makers had a lot of power. DNS is pretty centrally controlled. But the decentralised, distributed nature was also supposed to be resilient against various sorts of attack, including attempts to control it. The internet “routes around damage”, including control freaks. The contrast class were closed “walled gardens” like Compuserve and AOL. These were behemoths of online activity until they were crushed by open systems. Internet systems just scaled better because they were open and decentralised…so the story went.

But the world has changed. While we have more online activity than ever before, the capability for single organisations to control it all has also increased. Many organisations (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon to name a few) have the technical wherewithal and economic resources to build a global infrastructure that could handle the traffic of the current Web. (More orgs could do it if we reuse the current communication infrastructure. Google experiments notwithstanding, it would be a heavy lift for them to build out broadband and cell towers across the globe. These organisations could, of course, buy mobile carriers and backbone providers…)

Furthermore, governments have been rather effective in controlling the internet, cf China. The ability to route around such breakage on a mass scale is proving fairly limited.

As a result, power is getting increasingly concentrated in the online world (which, given the economic gains, is translating to power everywhere). We are pretty close to the Compuserve/AOL walled garden world. Even nominally distinct organisations rely heavily on the same high level infrastructure, which is why you see the same awful ads everywhere.

Google seems to be trying hardest for vertical integration. They push Chrome relentlessly and that lets them play with protocols specific to Chrome and their servers. Sure, they generally push them toward standards…but this is a new capability. Facebook tried this a bit (Facebook phone anyone?) but didn’t do so well. Mobile apps make this true for everyone.

Strangely we’re getting some refragmented experiences. I was trying to debug Zoe‘s new YouTube Channel (a bad experience, to be sure) and some things were different in the iPad app than on the website. Fine fine. I mean, terrible, but ok. But I tried to debug it on my iPad and I could not open the YouTube website in a browser. It forced me into the app with no other options (“Open in YouTube App? Ok. Cancel.” where “Cancel” means don’t open the page!). (Ok, I eventually “googled” how to modify the URL (from “www.” to “m.”) to make it work but holy hell that was wrong.) I was trying to share a page from the Guardian and got stuck in AMP hell. I could not get rid of the AMP/Google URL to get to the Guardian one (without string hacking).

That AMP page sure loaded fast…

…but the URL, server, connection all belong to Google.

It is interesting that mass phenomena are easier to control that small scale ones, in some respects. There’s more money available and most people are not very technical sophisticated. Hell, I’m not. I don’t want to be. I leave a lot of things broken because while I could suss it out, I just don’t have the time or energy to fight through all the nonsense. (And there is a ton of a ton of nonsense.)

So, this is the world we live in. The problem is that the big players will never stumble and fall…they might! Yahoo died. If Facebook dies (depending on how it does) it will be traumatic. If Google dies (depending on how it does), it will be very bad. But, these are probably survivable in most scenarios. They’ll degrade slowly and other big players will grab some and some new players will get big.

However, it’s hard to see how it won’t be big players from here on out.


Ruben Verborgh has a related discussion. My quick hit on the key difference is that Ruben isn’t focused on the centralisation and web architectural aspects, but on, roughly, publishers vs. consumers. A world where every site has a preferred app and directs you to it is still (potentially) a decentralised and distributed one. He’s more focused on a different sort of power, i.e., the power of individual site owners over their viewers. Now, obviously, this is related to the concentration of power I focused on since one of the bad things an “owner of the web” can do is exploit the rest of us in a myriad of ways. But I think it’s important to note that concentration and centralisation have not been “app” driven. Network effects (plus quality!) seem sufficient to explain the rise of Google and Apple. Facebook and Twitter rose by network effects alone, I’d say. Once you have a ton of cash and a big user base, you can exploit those in a variety of ways to gain more power. Though this isn’t trivial, witness Google’s persistent failures in social (Google+!?).

Kyle Schreiber writes about AMP lock in (via Daring Fireball):

Make no mistake. AMP is about lock-in for Google. AMP is meant to keep publishers tied to Google. Clicking on an AMP link feels like you never even leave the search page, and links to AMP content are displayed prominently in Google’s news carousel. This is their response to similar formats from both Facebook and Apple, both of which are designed to keep users within their respective ecosystems. However, Google’s implementation of AMP is more broad and far reaching than the Apple and Facebook equivalents. Google’s implementation of AMP is on the open web and isn’t limited to just an app like Facebook or Apple.

AMP (and other URL/browser behavior hijackings like search result URLs) is extra offensive because it hits deep into the working of the Web. But if we all end up living in Facebook all the time, it won’t matter if the URLs “look” independent.

Note that I  host my blog on WordPress, for “free.” WordPress is a pretty popular Content Management System with an ecosystem that is hard to rival. But the results are pretty vanilla Web. itself isn’t super dominant and it’s very easy to break free. There seems to be a material difference in the situations.