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?

No.

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.

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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….

Update:

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.

Update:

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. WordPress.com itself isn’t super dominant and it’s very easy to break free. There seems to be a material difference in the situations.


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

Background

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.

Challenges

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

ALMOST THERE!!!

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).