Music Monday: The President Sang Amazing Grace

January 16, 2017

Small Brown Birds is done! Hurrah! The endgame was a ton of work over the winter break which, shall we say, interfered with some celebrations and visiting. But it’s well worth it! The Kickstarter rewards are going out and (I hope) should all be done by the end of the month.

To everyone who backed the campaign, a profound thank you. Both the cash and the support were incredibly helpful.

We didn’t finish the album as projected and one reason for that is that a new song came to Zoe in the fall and it really had to be on the album. It’s called “The President Sang Amazing Grace” and here’s a video of Zoe singing it at her CD release concert:

(Lyrics available on the YouTube page. There was a lot of YouTube/Google suffering.)

The concert was amazing with a wonderful space. Zoe’s voice was very strong. Attendances was somewhat depressed by the snow. For the first time in my life, I am mad at snow.

The studio version has a piano accompaniment which is truly lovely.

I’ll have more about the song next week and then dive into the rest of the album. Small Brown Birds will be available in the usual places soon (i.e., you will be able to get the physical disc from CD Baby and download from iTunes and Amazon). You can get a physical disc direct from Zoe if you’re in the US. See her website for details.

The Comey II Effect

January 16, 2017


US presidential elections are extremely complex events. There are a lot of a lot of moving parts from candidate selection to the Electoral College. The occur only every four years and there’s been under 60 in total, with maybe a third in a reasonably modern era (e.g., with mass communication). Furthermore, the US, in general and in the political scene, exhibit complex dynamics. It’s changing all the time! This makes them hard to study. This XCKD cartoon is a good reminder to be epistemicly humble.

However, this doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders. Predicting winners is going to be hard we predict because increasing polarization, plus some structural features, means elections will be close. When elections are close, they are hard to call (at least individually). That doesn’t mean we aren’t right to predict that they will generally be close and that gaps between the popular vote and the electoral vote will increase and tend to benefit Republicans. These seem quite true.

However, autopsy is different that predicting.  When we look backwards, we are dealing with one set of events, not many possible ones. Now, of course, we can’t go back in time and rerun stuff. Plus evidence degrades quickly with time. But we are looking at something static. And by careful study we can learn surprising things! For example, the consensus is that Ross Perot did not spoil the 1992 election for George Bush. See this excellent blog post by Samuel T. Coop that has good links to the literature as well as a nice discussion both of the direct and possible indirect effects of Perot on the 1992 and 1996 elections. Note that the kind of study one does (and confidence one has) depends critically on how one frames the question. “Did Perot spoil the election for Bush?” has one kind of answer if you operationalise it as “Were Perot voters such that they would have voted for Bush if Perot had been removed from the ballot the week before the election in numbers and patterns sufficient to change the election outcome?” A much harder question to answer is, “If Perot never entered the race, would Clinton still have one?”

The former question might nevertheless be unanswerable or difficult to answer if we don’t have good data. The latter question might well be simply unanswerable absent singularity level simulations.

In general, effect questions about events close to an election are more tractable than ones about events further away. This shouldn’t be surprising.

Comey had two big interventions in the election: The first was in July 2016 when he cleared Clinton of wrong doing, closed the election, and (wrongly and inappropriately) bad mouthed her. The second was when he released a letter a week before the election saying, “Hey! We might have something to look at!” (then another letter just before the election saying, “Oops, nothing here”). There is no disputing the wrongness and inappropriateness of the second intervention. The “best” interpretation is that he was trying to get ahead of rogue agents in New York. Of course, this is several levels of failure including that rogue agents shouldn’t be rogue and the way he did things was strongly biased against (a totally innocent!) Clinton. In any case, it was against policy and precedent, and it was definitely biased toward Trump. We can see this in his current refusal to discuss the FBI’s investigation of the Trump-Russia issue with congress even in private. This is the Bush v. Gore “We only intend this discussion/principle to hold for this one case where it steals the election” bit all over again.

One thing that is conclusively established is that Comey did some very wrong things and that Comey’s FBI is in the running for one of the worst FBIs ever (which is saying something).

But not all wrong actions have bad consequences. (Luck can intervene.) A critical question, thus, is whether Comey threw the election to Trump. Scott Lemieux thinks that the answer is yes, partly based on a recent Vox article by McElwee,  McDermott, and  Jordan which looks at 4 pieces of evidence that “the Comey effect was real, it was big, and it probably cost Clinton the election”.

Some Qualifications

Both Scott and the Vox folks try to disarm one of the standard counter arguments, to wit, that even if Comey II had an effect, it was dwarfed/only made possible by the badness of Clinton and/or her campaign. Their attempt is roughly, “Yes, the campaign made mistakes, but all campaigns do.” Meh. I want to see more affirmative evidence that the Clinton campaign was bad other than “it shouldn’t have been close enough for Comey to affect” or even “She lost to Trump.” The overall evidence is that Clinton is a pretty good candidate (nearly won against Obama and won the popular vote in a year when the fundamentals, the press, and the FBI and Russia/wikileaks, etc were against her). In 2008, we had very specific evidence that campaign competency was a problem (critically, they didn’t pay enough attention to caucuses and delegate math). There’s little such evidence this year. So, pfft. She ran a pretty good campaign in adverse circumstances. Qua candidate, she has vulnerabilities, but clearly also strengths: It seems that it took fundamentals, plus the press, plus Russia, plus Wikileaks, plus the FBI to beat her narrowly.

So, meh, to that.

We’re looking for a change in voter behavior from what it would have otherwise been without Comey II but with no new events. Thus, if some hackers held back some Comey II equivalent info because they thought Comey II was sufficient, then the counterfactual “But for Comey II, Clinton wins” is false. But this isn’t the right standard since we are trying to determine the effect of Comey II on the actual election. This is an autopsy. If someone gets hit in the brain by three bullets spaced three seconds apart, each of which were sufficient to kill them, we don’t say that the first bullet wasn’t the cause of death just because if it hadn’t been fired the person would still be dead.

Finally, even if Comey II had no effect, it would still be unjustified and a serious failing on Comey’s part. If it had some effect that doesn’t seem quite enough to throw the election, it’s still very bad. However, obviously, throwing the election aligns intent and horrific effect.

The Vox Case

The conclusion is:

the Comey effect was real, it was big, and it probably cost Clinton the election

The evidence is in four “exhibits” (and I grabbed their headings to make this list):

  1. “Exhibit 1: the state polls.”
    This is a weird one because it should say something like, “Looking at the state polls, we see a decisive, unusually large shift toward Trump in key states. Indeed, the average is from Clinton +3 on the 28th (Comey II day) to Trump +1.2…4 points! in a week!” However, they are focused on the “surprise” aspect of the election and how some polls just before the election undershots Trump’s actual win. I think this is important (see below), but it’s not part of the first order case for the Comey Victory. They are convincing that some states where the polling didn’t show the trend were underpolled. But this is sorta beside the point. The idea is that there was a swing in votes that was captured by a swing in the polls (and between the polls and the actual outcome).
  2. “Exhibit 2: the national polls”
    Basically, every account of the national polls showed a big hit (2-3 points) against Clinton in reaction to Comey II. Comey I also produced a direct swing in the polls against her. So Comey announcement affecting the polls seems reasonable. Note that this does not yet generate a Trump win…national polls still had Clinton up. But, she did win the popular vote!
  3. “Exhibit 3: The early voting numbers compared with the late deciders”
    Clinton led in a lot of the early voting. That could be a biased sample, but  Clinton had a huge drop between early and election day voting was in blue states like RI. Obama saw gains in such circumstances.
  4. “Exhibit 4: media coverage of email, email, and more email”
    EMAILZ!!! dominated the news coverage and, correlatively, voter perceptions of Clinton, “While 79 percent of registered voters had heard “a lot” about Clinton’s emails, only 23 percent heard “a lot” about Trump’s housing discrimination, 27 percent heard “a lot” about the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s illegal political contribution to the Florida attorney general, and, surprisingly, only 59 percent had heard a “a lot” about the Hollywood Access tape.”

Only 59% of voters heard “a lot” about the Trump tape?! Whoa.

We see some undeniable Comey II effects. 4 (media coverage) is just plainly evident. (Note: Obviously the media were complicit. They could have treated Comey II correctly and didn’t. How this absolves Comey is a mystery to me. He knew or should have known what would happen.) 1 & 2 seem probable both based on the timing and on past effects. 3 needs a bit of work to directly establish the relationship, but as a supporting consideration is quite alright. That all these things march together strengthens the story. As the Vox piece puts it:

Instead, the evidence is clear, and consistent, regarding the Comey effect. The timing of the shift both at the state and national levels lines up very neatly with the publication of the letter, as does the predominance of the story in the media coverage from the final week of the campaign. With an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign, the letter hugely increased the salience of what was the defining critique of Clinton during the campaign at its most critical moment.


Let’s recall what has to have happened for a Comey Victory:

  1. Before Oct 28th, Clinton had to have been really ahead. That is, enough people in the right places would have voted for her or, at least, not voted for Trump (e.g., by splitting their ticket or staying home).
  2. On election day, we have the result we have.
  3. People changed their voting behavior (e.g., stayed home, changed their vote, or came out for Trump).

And, of course, this change had to be caused by Comey II. But I think if we can establish 1-3 then we’ve done rather well. Direct polling on this (i.e., “Did Comey II change your voting behavior”) would be welcome but will get less reliable the further out we go (due to recall bias).

So, we have a shift in the polls with the right timing plus a mechanism (coverage). Isn’t this enough?

There are some possible alternatives.

  1. The shift was due to some other factor like awesome Trump ground game. (Unlikely.)
  2. Before or around Oct 28th, Trump was ahead or close to being so and the Clinton lead was a polling illusion.
  3. Trump’s mostly was ahead but there was a strong, consistent polling illusion.

1 suggests a different dynamic. 2 and 3 suggest that the race was more static than a Comey Victory requires.

Could the race have been more favourable to Trump than the polls suggested? Event driven swings in polling, esp. large ones in early polls, have been viewed with skepticism for quite some time. Convention bounces, for example, tend to be bounces: They boost the candidates polls for a short while then fade. The idea that voting intention would be so fickle seems improbable, esp. in this day and age. Recall the myth of the independent voter, that is, in spite of increasing numbers of Americans identifying themselves as independent, only a small fraction are “true” independents, that is, exhibit voting behavior markedly different than some partisan. (And of course, “independent” doesn’t mean “indecisive”.) One rising explanation of such poll volitility without real change is “differential response rates“.

Roughly speaking, given the low response rates typical of modern polling, shifts in polling results can come from a systematic change in who is likely to respond. Note that this is different than standard sampling issues and isn’t addressed by, for example, larger sample sized. It’s also different from problems in your likely voter models. (Assuming your likely voter model is stable, it could give a consistent error but is unlikely to yield big swings.)

Exhibit 3 suggests that the change was real: We have an unusual difference in actual voting behavior from early voting to election day. We have a large number of “undecided” who broke strongly for Trump. So we have a clear causal story.

One challenge with that story is whether the shift from undecided to Trump would have happened anyway. This is similar to the “shy Trump” effect sometimes posited. But basically, people tend to vote identity. Identity doesn’t tend to shift over a campaign, so who people will end up voting for is pretty predictable. But who people think or say they are going to vote for is more flexible. And this isn’t because they are shy (shy people lie) but because they are genuinely conflicted.

Imagine a Bernie supporting, Green curious Democrat. They might well flirt with the idea of voting Green the whole election season but when it comes down to the crunch they vote Clinton because, well, Trump! (I was that sort of Nader supporter in 2000. Even though I though Gore would win and had bought some of the “not a dimes worth of difference” line, I couldn’t risk being part of a Bush win.)

So it is possible that Republicans who were “concerned” by Trump always were going to vote for him. We saw this in a lot of “Never Trumper” elites who declined to support him until they did.

Worse, experientially, many of these folks will take Comey II as the causal reason for their vote. But, the argument goes, that’s a cognitive illusion. In reality, they would have always found a way to vote for Trump. This distinction will be hard to sort out, if even possible.

What Should We Believe About Comey II?

Scott advances a strong (but slippery) version of the Vox conclusion:

As I’ve said before, at this point to deny the effects of Comey’s interventions is essentially trooferism. There is no serious alternative explanation that can account for the data. The “durrrr, correlation is not causation, durrr” argument loses any plausibility when you consider that every Comey intervention caused a wave of negative media coverage about Clinton and was followed by a significant decline in national polls numbers. The “polls can’t account for Trump being a celebrity” response fails to explain why Election Day voters were more affected by Trump’s celebrity status than early voters although he didn’t become more famous in the interim (but people were treated to an obsessive wave of negative coverage about Clinton.) Even if Comey had not sent the letter on October 28, we can be as confident that Clinton would have won as we could ever be confident in such a counterfactual.

The strongest line against it is that voting intentions are fairly stable and we have some mechanisms to explain that polling produced shifts are illusory.  But, let’s not, that there is no direct evidence for this in the current situation. Yes, differential response, shy Trump, and dithery Trump could explain everything, but even for early event responses evidence is thin on the ground. It’s mostly the general thesis that voting intention is stable. And clearly, there’s some truth to that! I was never going to vote for the Republican candidate, ever, in 2016. Ever. There are lots of similar sorts. The general closeness of elections is suggestive as is the research on nominally independent voters.

One interpretation of the election is that campaign quality doesn’t matter at all, given Trumps weak traditional campaign. Specifically, campaign quality doesn’t have a causal effect (as opposed to a balance of causes). However, given Russian hacking, Wikileaks dribbling, Comey, and a compliant press, a rival interpretation is that narrow Republican campaign quality matters less because the Republican campaign includes parts of the US government as well as state and non-state actors as well as the press.

The very closeness of the results in key states is also suggestive. Comey doesn’t have to swing or consolidate a lot of votes in the Clinton firewall to break it. Unlike conventions which are 1) standard, expected events and 2) way early in the campaign before voter intentions have solidified, Comey II was imminent to the election. So it’s more reasonable to suspect real changes rather than differential response.

So, I lean toward the Comey II effect was real and likely made the difference.

Now, there are some definite bias risks here. Confirmation bias (partly due to anchoring) is strong. I’ve been a proponent of a version of the stability hypothesis (though, usually of the “polls far out aren’t super reliable; polls in Nov tend to be” sort). I think differential response rates are fascinating and provide an elegant explanation of convention bounces. (I think all polls should publish their response rates!) I feel Trump is illegitimate on many fronts. Comey’s actions (and the press reaction) are clearly indefensible. So there’s a lot of room for motivated reasoning here.

That being said, it’s clearly possible to swing too far the other way. The evidence for a Comey Steal are more direct and multifaceted. (Early to late voting behavior isn’t subject to polling illusion!) The idea that that coverage had no effect seems pretty bonkers. You’d want some very strong evidence for that.

So, trooferism? Maybe? The Vox picture (however awkwardly put) is pretty compelling. We’ll see how the evidence evolves. It’s still the case that saying, “Pretty compelling, but we still need some details to know how big the Comey effect was” is reasonable, but perhaps on the edge of reason. The “you can’t know!!!!!” folks are clearly way out of line.

Music Monday: Welcome In Another Year

January 3, 2017

Happy (this calendar/culture) new year!

Zoe has a surprising (to me) number of holiday tunes. It’s surprising because we don’t do the holiday thing very systematically or thoroughly. But we do visit people during the winter holiday season and we try, at least, to celebrate Noruz, the Iranian New Year (in March). And we vaguely pay attention to the Chinese New Year. Etc!

(The one time I was in Iran, I was dropped trying to jump over a bonfire at the ancestral farm. I burned my pinky and really wanted to go to a “real hospital”. I suspect that that emphasis was due to earlier encounters with the scary squat toilets.)

Thus begat “Welcome In Another Year” which is my all time favourite New Year’s song. It’s also just a wonderful banjo tune.

The chorus (plus an advocacy campaign by me) led to the title of the album:

Build up the bonfires
now the season’s turned
welcome in another year
and let the old one burn!

I really want 2016 to burn.

While looking for a video of the song, I found a surprising (to me) number of pretty interesting covers, including this really wacky one by the Mighty Kelltones:

They did a lot more dorking with the melody esp. in the chorus than the other covers. It’s lower, faster, and has different emphasis. In spite of the up tempo, it feels more low key, probably because the vocal doesn’t soar like Zoe’s and the instrumentals are more textural and rhythmic. (It reminds me a bit of Eva Cassidy’s “Wayfaring Stranger”.)

The next (by Blanche Rowen and Mike Gulston) is a more straightfoward cover:

Instead of banjo, we get some pretty cool guitar. It shares with the Mighty Kelltones’ version that Eva Cassidy feel to me. I think it’s the moodiness of the guitar compared with the brightness of Zoe’s banjo. (Their a cappela chorus has some interestingly warbly intonation.)

Our Morals is a Liverpool band who did a performance at the Lymm Festival in 2013:

This is worth contrasting with the Rowen/Gulston version. We have a guitar with male/female vocal combo (thought here the male voice does the verses). Our Morals is much more upbeat and I think a closer approximation of Zoe’s version. It’s clear that they are having a good time!

Lynn and Will Rowan have a piano (and penny whistle) arrangement that’s pretty lush:

Weirdly, this seems even closer to Zoe’s in spite of the greater difference in the individual instruments. Maybe it’s the vocals? I’m not sure!

There’s another cover (by Four Shillings Short) but I couldn’t find a video with decent sound quality. And rumours have it that Nowell Sing We Clear have an arrangement for four voices that rocks. When Zoe is on the same bill as the Bailey Sisters, they tend to do a very nice version together.

Finally, here’s a live Zoeversion with a version of her intro:

The moral of all this is 1) don’t drop your kid in a fire and 2) if you do, hope that 35 years later a good song comes out of it.

Quantitative Social Sciences vs. the Humanities

December 29, 2016

Post Mortems

As we inch closer to realizing the Trump disaster, the election post-mortem’s continue. Obama has claimed that he would have beaten Trump. I’m unsure about the wisdom of that from either an analytical or political perspective. Qua analysis, it could be banal, reasonable, or silly:

  1. Banal: Your take on the election could be, roughly, while the fundamentals favored a generic Republican, Trump was an unusually bad candidate running and unusually bad campaign so that, absent extraordinary intervensions esp. from the FBI, a reasonable Democrat would have won. A bit more subtly, he could be claiming that Democrats can win when they aren’t also running against the press plus FBI plus Russia plus Wikileaks and he is a candidate that the press (a key enabler of the others) doesn’t run against.
    This isn’t quite as banal as “A major party candidate always has a good shot in this polarised age” in that it posits that Clinton specific features strengthened the Trump campaign just enough. However, it doesn’t posit any Obama specific features, hence the banality.
  2. Reasonable: Your take on the election could be, roughly, that given the closeness of Trump’s victory, a bit more juicing of Democratic turnout would have been sufficient (esp. when combined with all the items under the banal scenario) for victory. Obama has a good record of turnout which seems to be some combination of his personal qualities as well as his GOTV operation. If we posit that Clinton had the equivalent GOTV operation, then we’re left with his personal qualities which are a superset of “not having the Clinton failings”. I think you can probably make a case like this based on the exit polls. While reasonable, it’s highly defeasible. What’s more, it’s not clear that you add much over the banal case. You need something like what’s in the reasonable case to distinguish Obama vs. Sanders.
  3. Silly: Obama would have crushed Trump because Trump is an extremely bad candidate while Obama is an extremely good candidate. I feel like both those statements are true but we really need to take seriously the idea that candidate quality matters at best at the margins. It’s not just that fundamental models tend to do well empirically, but that the causal mechanisms for candidate or even campaign quality mattering are opposed by a lot of evidence and a lot of alternative causal stories. What voters hear, how they come to make decisions, the small number of “true idependents” etc. tend to point toward the partisan identity thesis of voting, to wit, voters tend to vote their party identity regardless of the policy implications or political behavior of the candidate. Voter attributions of decision making based on campaign specifics can be plausibly attributed (for many voters) on things like (supported) rationalisation.

Politically, all this seems to do is set up Clinton as a scapegoat or perhaps, better, set up Obama as the leader of the opposition. The former is pointless. The latter is perhaps worthwhile. It’s clear that Obama campaigning on the behalf of others isn’t effective (he’s not had notably strong coattails, for example). More significantly, I rather suspect he’s going to take a traditional ex-president role an be relatively quiet about Trump. If that’s the case, it would be bad for him to become leader of the opposition.

There’s lots to unpack about the election and we have the problem that, on the one hand, good analysis and data gathering takes time while, on the other hand, the further the election recedes into the past, the more evidence evaporates. This is all next to the fact that post mortems serve political goals thus are subject to motivated distortion.

The Loomis Hypotheses

Ok, that was a digression. What prompted this more directly is Erik Loomis’ latest entry in his war/trolling on the scientific status of social sciences like economic and political science. This is a bit more general than attempts to use the election outcome against specific models/prognosticators/etc. and, of course, Erik is provocatively overstating:

It’s time to put my humanities hat on for a bit. Obviously there are political scientists and economists who do good work. And we need people studying politics and economics, of course. But the idea that there is anything scientific about these fields compared to what historians or philosophers or literature critics do is completely laughable. As I tweeted at some point right after the election, the silver lining to November 8 is that I never have to even pretend to take political science seriously as a field ever again. Of course that’s overstated, but despite the very good political scientists doing good work (including my blog colleagues!) the idea that this field (Sam Wang, Nate Silver, etc., very much included) had some sort of special magic formula to help us understand politics this year, um, did not turn out to be true. They are just telling stories like I do, but with the pretense of scientific inquiry and DATA(!!!) around it. It’s really the same with economists, far too many of whom are completely deluded by their own models and disconnected from the real life of people.

Before trying to structure these a bit, I want to point out that we have some serious challenges to  making either a defensive or offensive claim about methodological validity or superiority based on prognostic outcomes of elections: All the models are probabilitistic with extremely small test cases. So, even Sam Wang’s prediction of a 99% chance of a Clinton win is consistent with what happened. Silver’s higher odds for Trump aren’t necessarily validated by Trump’s winning! You have to dig into the details in order to find grounds for determining which one actually overstated the odds and your arguments are going to be relatively weak. But conversely, your arguments that these models serve no useful purpose has to do more than say, “They got the election outcome wrong!!!” Highly accurate models might be only “empirically valid” that is, they succeed but provide no insight and don’t track the underlying causal structure. Highly uncertain models might tell you a lot about why certain outcomes are easily predictable.

Overall, I think the burden of argument is on the model proposers rather than the skeptics. First, this is the natural placement of burden: the person making the claim has to defend it. Models need content and if you rely on the fact that both Wang and Silver had a Trump win as a possibility, then you risk making them all essentially equivalent to coin toss models. In which case, Erik’s attack gets some purchase.

There seems to be three rough claims:

  1. (Quantitative) Social Science is no more scientific than history, philosophy, or literary criticism.
  2. (Quantitative) Social Science wrongly claims to have a “formula” that provides superior understanding of politics. Instead, they are “just telling stories.”
  3. The problem (Quantitative) Social Science is that they are deluded by their models and thus disconnected from the real lives of people.
    This could mean many things including: current models are oversimplistic (i.e., disconnected) yet treated as gold, models in principle are oversimplifying so will never be a good tool, or models are only useful in conjunction with other (qualitative) methods.

2 can be seen as a refinement of 1, that is, that the way that (Quantitative) Social Science is no more scientific than history, philosophy, or literary criticism is that it doesn’t do anything more than “tell stories,” albeit with a quantitative gloss. Obviously, there’s some difference in what they do as a novel about lost love is topic-distinct from a history of glass blowing in Egypt. Even when topic congruent, we expect that a novel about the Civil War to be a different kind of thing than a history of the Civil War. Not all stories have the same structure or purpose or value for a task, after all.

A Standard Caveat

Many debates about the “scienciness” of a field are prestige fights and as a result tend to be pretty worthless. That something is or isn’t a science per se doesn’t necessarily tell you about the difficulty or significance of it or much at all about its practitioners. There are sensible versions but they tend to be more focused on specific methodological, evidential, sociological, or ontological questions.

Comparative Scientivisity

(I’m not going to resolve this issue in this post. But here’s some gestures.)

While there’s some degree of “qualitative humanties is superior” in Erik’s posts (cf claim 3 and, wrt 1 and 2, the idea that they at least know their limits), let’s stick to the comparative scienciness claim. These points (the categorical and the superiorness) aren’t fully separable. (I.e., science is successful in certain enviable ways thus other fields try to glom on.)

Let’s pick a distant pair: election forecasting and interpretative literary criticism. It does seem that these two things are really different. If the literary criticism teases out a possible interpretation of, say, a poem, then the evaluative criteria for  the interpretation is whether it is “correct”, or “valid”, or “insightful” and the evaluative mechanism is (typically) either brute human judgement or more criticism (i.e., the presentation of other interpretations either of the criticism or of the original poem). The most obvious evaluative criterion for election forecasts is predictive success (and usually rather easy to verify predictive success). Prediction, of course, is a key indicator of science, so the fact that election forecasting (inherently)aims at prediction might be enough to cast a sciency feel on its parent discipline, political science.

Of course, astrology and tarot also aim at prediction. Their lack of science status doesn’t solely rest on their predictive failure. Indeed, predictive failure alone won’t give us a categorical judgement (science/nonscience) since it just as easily indicate bad or failing science. Throwing in some math won’t do the job, as astrology and numerology are happy to generate lots of math. The fact that the math tends to generate models that reasonable cohere with other knowledge of the physical world is a better indicator.

If we move over to history, it’s tempting to say that the main difference is analogous to autopsy vs. diagnosis: It’s much easier to figure out what killed someone (and when) than what will kill someone (and when). Even that there are epistemically or ontologically ambiguous cases (i.e., we can’t tell which bullet killed them or multiple simultaneous bullets were each sufficient to kill them) doesn’t make autopsy harder. (For one, it’s generally easier to tell when one is in such a situation.)

But there’s plenty of backward looking science. Cosmology and palentology and historical climate studies come to mind. They do try to predict things we’ll find (if we look at the right place), but it’s hard to say that they are fundamentally easier. What’s more, they all rest on a complex web of science.

I feel confident that history could (and probably does) do a lot of that as well. Surely more than most literary critcism would or perhaps should (even granting some literary critcism, such as author attribution, has become fairly sciency).

What does this mean for Erik’s claims?

I’m not sure. A lot of what we want from understanding of phenomena is how to manipulate those phenomena. But one thing we can learn is that we don’t have the capacity to manipulate something the way we’d like. This goes for buildings as well as elections.

(Oops. Gotta run to a play. But I don’t want to leave this hanging, so I’ll leave it with a hanging ending. But I’m also genuinely unsure where to go with this. I still have trouble interpreting Erik’s claims that leads me to any action.)

Music Monday: Small Brown Birds Endgame

December 19, 2016


Small Brown Birds inches toward completion. All the tracks are “engineering/mix complete” and are in the process of being mastered, which is the last step before going to manufacturing. Zoe is also busy finishing up the album art.

The path to an album is more complicated than one might expect. Consider the many stages:

  1. Writing the song!
    Zoe usually describes this as a process of discovery. Songs “find her” or she “finds them”. A lot happens while walking. But we can describe the essence of song writing as the creation of a melody and associated lyrics, if any.
  2. Arranging the song.
    (Bits of this happen at stages 1, 3, and 4. It’s not typically a discrete stage.) This is the process of deciding how the song is to be performed. Deciding what instrument(s) will be played, what singers, harmony, where to pitch it and in what key all are part of arranging, the tempo, etc.
  3. Recording the arrangement.
    While this list makes all this seem like a highly linearly staged process (first you write the song, then you arrange it, then you record that arrangement like a performance), it doesn’t have to work that way and often doesn’t. You might have the tune and a basic version with just voice and guitar that you record. With that in hand, you might start thinking about what other lines and instruments would be interesting. Or you might experiment with another instrumental line against the basic track. Or you bring in a session musician to add some texture. Mostly, you try to build up a mass of material representing a number of possible final arrangements.
  4. Mixing the recording.
    This is where you finalize the arrangement and the recording thereof. It might be as simple as slapping through recorded tracks together and adjusting the balance and positioning. Or it might be as complex as pulling individual notes from separate attempts to make one you really like.
  5. (Repeat 1-4 for all the other songs.)
  6. Mastering the songs.
    Mastering is a sort of mixing/engineering, but instead of being for the purpose of getting the arrangement it aims at a holistic texturing of the song (and of the songs relative to the whole album). This is closer to the sort of thing you do with your own stereo when you adjust the volume or play with EQ. Probably the most important (and often controversial) modification applied during  mastering is applying compression. Essentially, compression is a reduction in the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a recording (i.e., the dynamic range). Radio (and other typically ambient playing) is a big driver and is why you generally don’t have to fiddle with the volume knob very much. Without compression, if you set your overall volume high, you run the risk of distortion (and other unpleasantness) on the really loud bits. If you set it low, then you run the risk of not hearing the soft bit.
    Of course, volume dynamics is part of what makes music interesting! It’s a critical tool in the composer and performer toolkit. Appropriate compression tries to preserve the…dynamic flow? dynamic structure?…of the performance while restricting the dynamic range. But this is tricky, eh? There’s a tendency to just make things louder (to get the “excitement”) just like there’s a tendency to push things faster.
  7. Making the discs/uploading the songs!
  8. PROFIT!!!!

I still find that there’s a mastering stage a bit weird, esp. as it is typically done by specialised engineers after all the recording and mixing is done (at least, in my experience).

Music Monday: My Neighbors are in Love

December 5, 2016

As 2016 draws to a close (FINALLY!!!!), both Zoe and I have a huge backlog with horrible (or missed!) deadlines to sort through. Small Brown Birds is nearly done (and overdue…ish). Zoe is in the studio (again) today to try to sort out some last issues. Most of these are pure engineering, that is, dealing with the mixing.

For those of you who’ve never recorded, it’s more like making a movie than you’d expect. The performers generally come in and do their bit a billion times against various scratch (or real) tracks (sometimes just a click track!!). One startling thing for me is how even really excellent musicians who can handle the roughest of performance situations with aplomb just fall apart in the studio. Studio performing is really different. Conversely, good studio musicians are amazing. They will come in and knock it out in no time flat. Over the past five albums I’ve grown increasingly convinced that professional studio musicians are the way to go. Even people who record a lot of their own stuff often and well have trouble with being a session musician.

(The classic Doonesbury sequence about the recording of Ginny’s song is spot on. You want a Jay “Wah Wah” Graydon there going “You mean, like, something in an F?”)

Anyway! Lots of good stuff going on even if I did spend my Saturday and part of Sunday tracking down wind chimes. The songs are sounding really good and getting better. Alas, some things do end up on the cutting room floor for a variety of reasons (e.g., you just can’t get the recording you want). It seems like “My Neighbors Are In Love” will have to wait for a future album. But I will taunt you with it anyway!

Starting to Sort Out the Election

November 29, 2016

There’s lots to sort out. Obviously, that it was a disaster is not something we need to sort out: We know that it was a disaster. The precise contours of the disaster will only become clear over time, but it will be pretty damn bad.

We do need to come to an understanding of what happened, including what we can or cannot know about it. Joe from lowell suggests that the election was analogous to the Iraq war from a punditry (and maybe political science?) perspective: That is, people got it very wrong and those people should have some humility and be treated as at least somewhat unreliable.

I said stuff before the election about the election outcome, so I need to figure out if I’m unreliable (or to what degree I’m unreliable). Note that this isn’t a flagellation exercise, or at least, not intended to be primarily one. If I’m relying on flawed models I should update my models! This election does seem to potentially provide some interesting new data, in any case.

Before the election:

And I really don’t think Karen24’s Llama Drama is because she’s a Rat Rogerer. I think she’s a Nervous Nellie who keeps panicking in the comments here at least partly because she can be so authoritatively reassured by other commenters. For those of us who are freaked out by the reminders that it’s not an automatic total blowout even with Donald Trump on the ballot, because (1) the MSM won’t do its fucking job and (2) so many American voters are still such horrid reactionary dumbshits, I think you underestimate how soothing it is for Bijan Parsia et al. to set us straight.

Here’s an example in that thread of me “setting them straight” with “authoritativeness”:

Look at the pattern though. “Trend” doesn’t mean “current slope”.

And look at several:

It’s annoying, but there’s no evidence that he’s winning or that his line will cross hers. If it does, that will be a surprise.

I think that what I said is consistent with what happened, so I guess I would say it again in relevantly similar situations. Should the people who trusted me before trust me in the future? I…guess? I’m not going to overpredict worst case scenarios, but I don’t think I was overconfident.

One thing that did come out of this election was the idea that many aspects of campaigns matter even less than we thought. The classic view about “fundamentals” based models of elections is that modern campaigns are fairly evenly balanced so tend to cancel each other out. So all that’s left are things like the state of the economy.

One thing that was clear in this election was that the campaigns were very lop sided on some key features like get out the vote operations. This suggested that it would be a powerful natural experiment!

I would guess this range underestimates Clinton’s chances, because the models can’t account for Trump’s unusually unprofessional campaign

I’ve felt this a few times, but then I start to worry that perhaps an unusual (or unusually unprofessional) campaign might not be the sort of drag we’ve thought it would be.

Just consider two factors:

1) Advertising, esp. television
2) GOTV, esp. day of ground game

Up until now, HRC has had the airwaves to herself. It’s not clear that it’s done any good. Or, I’d like to know how it’s done good. Maybe it’s too early. Maybe it just hasn’t shown up in polling. Who knows. In the primaries, the rest of the candidates held off and Trump never collapsed. So we don’t really know what advertising will do to this heavily exposed, extremely strange candidate.

What is the effect of GOTV efforts? I believe that it will have an effect, but it might be pretty small compared to random turn out effects. It’s good bit of body english, but it doesn’t seem to be the makings of a blow out. (I’d love pointers to literature on this.)

Maybe campaigns *really* don’t matter?

wtjs formulated an interpretation of possible outcomes:


But what would show us that the inept vs. ept campaign didn’t matter?

Certainly a Trump win (absent a major exogenous shock like 9/11) would. A win for Clinton along the lines of Obama’s reelection might. A convincing win for Clinton in the popular vote plus a sweep or near-sweep of the toss-up states and a win in one or two “lean R” states in the Electoral College would be pretty good evidence that campaigns do matter.

So, there we go?

One potential confounding factor is “the media” and, frankly, the FBI. One alternative story is that the last minute Comney letters were fairly strong events (given all the media priming on EMAILZ!!!) that worked to the Trump campaign’s advantage.

In general, Democrats seem to have a disadvantage in turn out (as we see dramatically in midterm elections). There are almost certainly loads of factors, but that might start the scales strongly against them. This would explain that the “vote against Trump” effect wasn’t so very strong.

Of course, the simplest explanation is just that fundamentals set the stage and a certain amount of randomness completes the job. If you make it to a major party nomination, you can win. Trump was slightly favored by the fundamentals, strongly hampered by his campaigned, but had a bit of luck.

This isn’t very satisfying! It’s particularly unhelpful for any future planning. (Lots of post mortem analysis is actually quite worthless for future planning. “Nominate a better candidate” doesn’t really help as no one is really in control of the nominations! This conclusion suggests that Bernie would not have done better. If campaign effects are small they are small in both directions. My guess is that he would have been “as likely” to lose…that is, not very likely, but it would be possible.)

Turn out is obviously critical, but our understanding of how to goose turnout is really poor. Voter suppression efforts are pure evil, but it’s unclear that they are turning elections (yet). I can’t find the reference, but apparently the Clinton campaign contacted twice the voters that the Trump campaign did. Now, some are suggesting that they ended up turning out Trump voters, but I don’t think we know the actual effects yet. If we go back to Romney-Obama, we see a large gap in effort but not a dramatic advantage:

We estimate that the presidential campaigns increased turnout by more than 10 percentage points among targeted subgroups, indicating that modern campaigns can significantly alter the size and composition of the voting population.

In this paper, we exploit the 2012 presidential campaign to assess the aggregate effects of a large-scale campaign on the size and composition of the voting population. We take advantage of variation in ground campaigning across state boundaries, extensive information on Romney and Obama campaign tactics, and detailed information on every voter in the United States to estimate the effects of the entire campaign. Our results suggest that the aggregate mobilizing effect of a presidential campaign is quite large. We estimate that the 2012 campaign increased aggregate turnout by approximately 7 percentage points

This analysis also allows us to compare the relative effectiveness of the Obama and Romney campaigns. The Obama campaign of 2012 has been championed as the most technologically-sophisticated, evidence-based campaign in history while the Romney campaign was more traditional (e.g., Issenberg 2013). When we began this project, we surveyed 46 academics, and they predicted that Obama’s campaign was almost 3 times as effective as Romney’s in mobilizing supporters.17 Do these perceptions manifest themselves in the data?

As discussed above, this analysis allows us to roughly compare the effectiveness of the Obama and Romney campaigns in mobilizing their respective supporters. Despite the purported technological sophistication of the Obama campaign and its devotion to a data-driven, evidence- based campaign, we see similar mobilization effects on both sides of Figure 3. The two campaigns were roughly comparable in their ability to turn out supporters.

One interpretation of the Romney campaign’s slight advantage with their own partisans is that Democrats are simply harder to mobilize than Republicans. Indeed, previous research suggests that, on average, GOTV interventions are more effective for conservative and high-socioeconomic- status citizens (Enos, Fowler, Vavreck 2014). The amount of effort and resources needed to mobilize Democratic supporters may be greater than that needed to mobilize Republican supporters. With this in mind, even if the Obama campaign was more advanced than the Romney campaign, this difference was not great enough to overcome this structural disadvantage

If this is confirmed in the 2016 data, it points a direction, at least, for the Democratic party: It needs needs needs to solve the GOTV problem. This would solve all sorts of problems including midterm elections, statehouse controls, etc. etc.

The problem is that we really don’t know how.

On a related note, Nate Silver is sorta claiming that his prediction was more accurate because it gave more weight to Trump’s chances of winning (plus some details of why his model gave such weight…roughly, the scenario that played out was one his model could and did contemplate). I thought that 538’s coverage and the Silver models were poorer than alternatives, esp. Sam Wang‘s. Now , Wang’s prediction was much more heavily weighted toward Clinton (i.e., 99% chance vs. ≈70% in Silver’s).

I need to think more about this.

Music Monday: That’s a Pretty Good Love

November 28, 2016

Zoe has a song called “Pretty Good Love Song” that was one of the very first songs she wrote as a singer-songwriter. It may or may not make the next album (I hope so!). I’ll explain more about it if and when we get a release, but for some reason I went a-searching for songs about pretty good love and came up with this wonderful track by Big Maybelle:

It’s a call and response song which is fun, but there an overarching lyrical structure. It starts with superlatives describing the (by contrast) understated “pretty good love”:

Baby my love is deep (How deep?)
Deep as the bottom of the ocean (How pure?)
Pure as the new born baby (How bright?)
Outshine’s the sun above
That’s a pretty good love.

But then it transitions to a more personal and direct appeal:

Baby, please come on home (Why?)
Wanna put my arms around you (Oh Yeah?)
Squeeze you till you’re ol’ black cold cream (That’s black)
That’s the way I feel about you
That’s a pretty good love.

I’m not sure what the heck “black cold cream” is doing there. It’s not clear to me whether we’re talking about the moisturiser or…well…what, exactly!

In any case, a rousing tune, beautifully and powerfully sung…what’s not to love?

Epistemic humility and existential dread

November 25, 2016


I’ve been under the weather for months. Fatigue, light headedness, limb tingling, coughing, phlegm…all in different mixes. I date it to February which makes it about 10 months.

Some of this is “standard” for me. I’m immuno-strange both due to my arthritis and my arthritis meds (or so we believe). But this period has been noticeably worse. The past few weeks have been particularly annoying as the “cough/flu” symptoms have been particularly continuous (i.e., runny nose and productive cough and just so tired).

Back in February, we thought it was just some bacterial infections. My sweetie had a respiratory one (confirmed by culture) and we both had some antibiotics (two rounds for me!). There seemed close correlations between the medication and (some) improvement of the symptoms, which is some sort of indicator.

But then I didn’t get any better. And I didn’t get better. And still no. And so on.

We went through a battery of tests. We ruled out diabetes (which I was scared of having for a few weeks while waiting for the results). We also ruled out thyroid problems and B vitamin deficiency. We did a lung xray (it was clear). We did a testicle ultrasound (it was clear).

After a battery of tests we concluded that I was perfectly healthy except for all the crap I was experiencing. These could be partly stress related so I’m on a beta blocker. That’s helpful, but the symptoms have persisted through two months of beta blockers. One might have thought that the regulation of stress the beta blockers bring would have mitigated the symptoms to some degree, but no. The past few weeks testify otherwise.

At the end of all this I’m left in the following state: I don’t know what’s going on; I feel like crap; but I’m probably not going to die or have a severe hospitalisation or anything like that. I do have to figure out how to function, but it’s not the first time I’ve had some long term, debilitating, mysterious condition I had to cope with.

Epistemically, I’m at a loss. No one has any ideas or interest in pursuing further investigations (including me, at this point). Existentially, I’m pretty calm. I don’t feel any acute dread, but my ennui levels are high.


Trump won the presidential election. Unlike Brexit, I’m hard pressed to think that there will be any way out of it. The Brexit vote was  disaster, but it wasn’t the event itself. The referendum is advisory and didn’t present a specific deal. We have some further legal groundwork which supports the need for more consideration. There are people who are determined to make it happen come hell or high water and the loser opposition continues to be loser (the Labour leadership should be ashamed of itself). But it’s not wholly unreasonable to hope for the longshot.

The Trump adminstration and, thus, unified Republican government is coming. There’s no reasonable hope here. The electoral college is not going to install Clinton. There will not be an overturning recount. There’s not a shadow of a chance. Trump is the next president and the next Congress is Republican and the vacant Supreme Court seat will be filled by them (shameful though that may be procedurally).

I don’t know the precise mix of bad things coming, just that there are lots of bad things coming. Unlike in George W. Bush’s first term, there isn’t a big foreign policy idee fixe a la Iraq. But we have Ryan and the Assault on Medicare (as well as the ACA) to look forward to. Governance (i.e., the basic execution of governmental functions) is likely to be very bad, i.e., Michael Brown FEMA bad is going to look pretty good. We have a dangerous tendency toward personal profit and favoritism that goes well beyond mere incompetence.

Scary stuff.

We learned some stuff in this election, perhaps. Campaigns don’t seem to matter very much. Fundamentals based models did ok (but that’s sort of boring; the Republican won and most predicted a Republican win). Disentangling the causal picture is going to be tricky and take a while (to the degree that we can do so at all), but I think it’s fair to say that, absent some internal campaign data that dramatically shows otherwise, advertising and ground game are not big movers. Clinton’s campaign was far ahead on both of these and it didn’t do the job.

The result wasn’t “impossible” given the polling…just unlikely. The fact that Clinton has a huge popular vote win is rather surprising (FiveThirtyEight consistently gave very low probabilities (≈1%-5%) to this outcome).

It goes back to what I was saying all along: If you are the nominee of one of the two major parties, you can win. Polarization  and voting identity makes this fairly inevitable. The big issue is whether the elite interventions (esp. by the FBI and media follow up on email non-scandals) against Clinton were decisive or just noise.

With both the Brexit vote and the US election, there was reason to believe that the better outcome was coming. I’m trying not to feel too broken about that.

The outcomes are bad enough, but the knowledge failures (even if not strictly failures, due to hedging) are adding a level of additional pain. I strive to be epistemically humble. I’m well aware of the vast panoply of cognitive biases. Furthermore, I’m acutely aware of my own (specific) limitations.

And yet.

Core to my identity is being a knower, however humble, fragmentary, and fallible. “Know” has many shades of meaning and many of them are under assault in the world we are making (even if against our will). I don’t want to know the bad stuff if only because my individual capacity to resist is so limited. People with with positions and platforms a thousand times larger than mind have nearly zero ability to even mitigate these bad things.

Being a witness to disaster is terrible. Not as terrible as being the target of that disaster, but terrible enough.


In both cases, we have complex phenomena that resist successful manipulation. There’s a sense that if we just knew the right levers to pull, we could fix things. For health issues, that almost surely is the case. With enough knowledge about the whole of my body, we should be able to alter how it works to fit a desired profile. That level of knowledge and control is far beyond us now, but it seems a bit more possible.

With the political world, it’s less obvious to me. Perhaps we’ll have a wave election in 2018 that sweeps in a Democratic congress, but this is very hard to ensure…maybe impossible. It might still happen, but it’s hard to see what we can do to further it. (Well, other than the bad things happening…but even bad things don’t seem to motivate people in the right way, i.e., against the real causes.)

It is bewildering.

Scott Eric Kaufman (SEK), RIP

November 25, 2016

It’s worth your time to delve into SEK’s writings. So much is amazingly funny, I mean laugh laugh laugh funny.

I’m fond of his visual rhetoric work but more in conception than in execution. I would have liked to take his class because he clearly had a well articulated analytical framework that enhanced his understanding and enjoyment of visual expression. I got the fact of that from his writing but never managed to internalize or adapt it from those writing.

He should have had an academic position where he had the support to develop and disseminate this work.

Much loss is challenging to deal with, even distant or indirect loss. Attenuated relationships become proxies for close ones, or perhaps resonate with the close ones.

There are no holes in our lives. Every waking moment is as encountered after a death as before. But before, the possibilities of that person — of future deed and encounters — infuse those moments with bright, happy colours. After, those imagined, no-longer-possibilities blight our experiences.

Of course, you can transcend the blight. Things that are over can inform different things to come.

Thinking of all my dead people, near and far.


Well, more of an addendum. I wrote the above on my Facebook wall and republishing here made me think more about the academic life.

For a long time I didn’t have a PhD or even an academic position. I settled in one form of precarious academic existence (there are lots of such forms!), but was, thanks to Jim Hendler and Ian Horrocks, able to get out of that precariousness into a fairly secure academic existence and even (thanks to Jeff Horty) accumulate the associated credentials and promotions (thanks to Uli Sattler).

Obviously, being an academic is not the only worthy form of existence and academic precariousness is only one sort that workers everywhere feel. I obviously think it’s a valuable form of existence and I wish we, as a society, would make it available to a wider set of people. Similarly, we should be striving to reduce all people’s precariousness or at least reduce the consequences. Things like Universal Basic Income would produce a less precarious world for nearly everyone.

Universities are (still) rich and powerful institutions. Instead of pushing further into modes of organization that exacerbate inequality and precariousness inside and outside their walls, we should be bold and strive for better ways of being.