A reason to support the electoral college?

While I have my doubts about this, here’s a background and summary of a forthcoming piece in Public Choice on the value of the electoral college (via politicaltheory.info).

“Alan Natapoff recalls, ‘I realized that I was the only person willing to see this problem through to the end.’ The morning in question was back in the late 1970s. Then as now, Natapoff, a physicist, was spending his days doing research at MIT’s Man-Vehicle Laboratory, investigating how the human brain responds to acceleration, weightless floating, and other vexations of contemporary transport. But the problem he was working on so late involved larger and grander issues. He was contemplating the survival of our nation as we know it.

Not long before Natapoff’s epiphany, Congress had teetered on the verge of wrecking the electoral college, an institution that has no equal anywhere in the world. This group of ordinary citizens, elected by all who vote, elects, in turn, the nation’s president and vice president. Though the college still stood, Natapoff worried that sometime soon, well-meaning reformers might try again to destroy it. The only way to prevent such a tragedy, he thought, would be to get people to understand the real but hidden value of our peculiar, roundabout voting procedure. He’d have to dig down to basic principles. He’d have to give them a mathematical explanation of why we need the electoral college.”

There are also in-between possible solutions, allotting electors according to only the number of Representatives a state has in the House and not, as is done, Representatives plus Senators.  In either case, reform is next to impossible, politically anyway.

Local Third World tailors now available on eBay

After a couple of years of thinking that it would be good idea to have the sorts of custom tailoring one can get done in Asia be available over the internet, I’ve come across this. (I only mentioned this to Sughra a few weeks ago.) Yes, it’s happened, through the chaos and miracle that is eBay.

Via Brad DeLong, making light has this post:

You can commission traditional garments from tailor shops in India and Pakistan, via eBay.

Doing this makes use of a polite fiction. You start by going to eBay and typing in a search string like women clothing salwar sari. This puts you in the land of Indian-subcontinent clothing makers. Now, the conceit of eBay is that it sells existing concrete objects; but if these guys sell you a salwar kameez (that is, the traditional Indo-Pakistani pantsuit plus matching dupatta or stole), and you send them the list of measurements they request, out of the kindness of their hearts they’ll throw in all the cutting, sewing, embroidery, etc., required for a complete outfit made to your measure.

I’m all for this. It means you can buy semi-directly from Third World suppliers, instead of having several rounds of importers and wholesalers taking their percentage along the way.

It’s only a matter of time before other garments are available this way.

Wash Your Hands and Leave It at That

“Where there is an irrational fear, there is a product-development team to fan it and feed it and exploit it.” A superbly commonsensical deconstruction of the anxieties that fuel the “anti-bacterial” products industry, by the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, in today’s NYT Science Times:Germs, Germs Everywhere. Are You Worried? Get Over It.. Read the thing.

Monday, November 8, 2004

Supporting McKinley

The Nation republished this amusing blast from the distant past (October 18, 1900) about the reluctant supporters of WIlliam McKinley right around election-time last week:

‘Everybody must have noticed how the men who come forward to announce their determination to vote for McKinley, do so with an apologetic air. They usually begin by saying that they hope no one will suppose that he is their “first choice,” or that they think him, per se, fit for the Presidency. This is especially the case with those who speak as representatives of the intelligent classes. To save their own reputation for intelligence, they have to include in their “support” of McKinley an amount of personal and political condemnation of their candidate which would seem positively insulting to a less meek man than he.’

Certainly food for thought for Dems struggling to understand Kerry’s defeat, although it might equally be read as a reason for Bush’s victory. Read the whole article here.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

The religious right targets the NIH

Gauging from the moods around me, as well as my own mood, worse than simply a Bush victory are the reasons why so many people voted for him–especially, a deep cultural conservatism that has at is base an aggressive religiosity. Unlike much of my atheist, liberal cohort, my understanding of religion in America is multi-faceted. For every account of anti-gay, anti-choice, authoritarian and paternalistic assaults by the religious right, I can point to anti-death penalty activities by traditional Catholic and Protestant ministries, help for the homeless, and support for human rights causes around the globe. But it’s clear that the former have been focused on the institutions of political power while the latter have not, at least not since the civil rights fights of the 1960s.

Here’s something that’ll chill your bones. Though it’s been publicized in the past, in the wake of the new Congress, it’s now placed in a different, terrifying context–the politicization of NIH research by the far right. (via politicaltheory.info)

[Chris] Beyrer, a Bloomberg associate research professor of epidemiology, recalls a meeting, after the list came out, of NIH investigators and program directors: “At that meeting, a project officer stood up and said, ‘We have to tell you that there is a new policy at NIH, and the policy is that if any of the following words or terms are in your grant title or abstract, we’re going to send it back to you to take them out.’ Then she proceeded to list the words: sex worker, injection drug use, harm reduction, needle exchange, men who have sex with men, homosexual, bisexual, gay, prostitute. It was unbelievable. We were literally looking around the room, like, You’re kidding me. Everyone sat in silence. I raised my hand and said, ‘We’re proposing to do a training program in harm reduction throughout Southeast Asia. That’s one of our main activities over the next five years because the data tell us that injection drug use remains a problem and there’s more injection drug use transmission happening in this region. I want to do that. It’s the right thing to do. How do we proceed?’ And she said, ‘Don’t make me speak to you about this in public. There are spies everywhere.’ This is at NIH! This is the United States of America! This is not China! I spoke to her afterwards outside the room and she said, ‘Look, you can say what you want in the body of the grant. We don’t think anybody is going to get to that level. But the title and abstract are part of the database that’s searchable by these people, and we’re trying to help you avoid not getting funded.'”

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Inuit Language Web Browsers

“Inuktitut speakers will soon be able to have their say online as the Canadian aboriginal language goes on the web. Browser settings on normal computers have not supported the language to date, but attavik.net has changed that. It provides a content management system that allows native speakers to write, manage documents and offer online payments in the Inuit language.”

From the BBC.

Censoring Ebadi

A report on the PRI/BBC radio show The World yesterday stated that the US Treasury Department will not allow Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to publish a book of memoirs in the United States because it violates the laws about doing business with Iran. (The audio of the report can be found here.) It’s my understanding that the laws are designed to keep outlaw regimes from gaining financially from exports. But in this case the indiscriminate application of the law means that Ebadi cannot publish her work in America unless she first finds a publisher in Iran, which is self-evidently absurd. Furthermore, Americans are forbidden to offer editorial advice to writers in Iran, as well as Cuba and Sudan. You can read a few excerpts from Ebadi’s other works at Bad Jens, an Iranian Feminist Journal, here. Back in February, the scholar and political commentator Juan Cole was outraged that the Treasury Department was attempting to stop Americans from editing and translating newspapers from Iran, even though no money was involved. Cole’s distressing plea can be read here. Keeping critical information about Iran from Americans at this moment in history – particularly from dissidents and those fighting for freedom – is craven and disgusting, another example of Draconian Creep. Cole’s essay includes an email address to protest, if you are so inclined.

China’s Mobile Phone Novel

“Meet the one you met for thousands of years, in the borderless wilderness of the time, neither a step before nor a step behind. Be there right on time.”

From Qian Fuzhang’s “Out of the Fortress,” the world’s first novel written for text-messaging. More info here at textually.org, a site dedicated to SMS and MMS. This happened back in September, so apologies if this is old news to the tech crowd, but I thought it was pretty amazing. The New York Times described the novel as a “marriage of haiku and Hemingway, twice daily in 70-character servings.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

What the electronic betting markets are saying about the election and what does it mean?

Well, it’s 4:00 p.m. and the anxiety is building. The last time I felt this anxious was watching the Bush-Clinton election. Since then, polling has been increasingly displaced? supplanted? complemented? by betting markets with large numbers of traders, which try to aggregate, as it were, the wisdom of crowds. This election has seen people track how well the candidates are doing through the Iowa Electronics Markets, Tradesports.com and the like.

How these markets work and if they efficiently aggregate information are of course subject to debate, though most people seem to think that in these markets people are less willing to engage in cheap talk since they’re putting their money where their mouth is. I admit that I was more heartened by this afternoon’s Iowa Electronic Markets prices on election outcomes than by the early exit polls (also since I have no idea where these polls come from or who did these polls). And just now I was completely heartened by the price changes at tradesports.com on a Bush victory (falling) and a Kerry victory (rising). In fact, the move up of a Kerry victory by more than 52% by a tenth of a cent cheered me up further. Then I begin to feel like a stock trader in the 1990s.

Last the IEM was showing,


(click here for the latest IEM prices)

and tradesports.com was showing something similar; (here for the latest tradesports.com prices on the election.)

All excitement from price movements aside, the question of if and how markets predict elections is an interesting one. It’s premised on the idea that markets can aggregate information in settings characterized by many people with different sets of knowledge and that the aggregation in the form of prices represents the best information available. Here’s an article that addresses the pro side of markets in election bets, unsurprisingly from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. And Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber has a couple of posts that are more skeptical of the value or at least significance of these prices–here and here.

Also if you’re interested, the latest issue of The Economists’ Voice has some results from an experiment on election betting markets where contingencies (of the what if Osama bin Laden is captured in October-type) are offered, in a paper by Justin Wolfers and Eric Zitzewitz.

Monday, November 1, 2004

How Technology Failed in Iraq

“On April 2, 2003, army lieutenant colonel Ernest ‘Rock’ Marcone led an armored battalion with about 1,000 U.S. troops to seize ‘Objective Peach’, a bridge across the Euphrates River, the last natural barrier before Baghdad. That night, the battalion was surprised by the largest counterattack of the war. Sensing and communications technologies failed to warn of the attack’s vast scale—between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi troops and about 100 tanks or other vehicles. The U.S. success in the battle was the result of superior tactics and equipment.”

From a totally intriguing new piece by David Talbot, “How Technology Failed in Iraq,” in MIT’s Technology Review.

Redskins and Republicans

The great Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter, now a football commentator, reminds everyone about the real reason why Bush will lose tomorrow:

Redskins and Republicans. There was bad news for both the Washington Redskins and the Republican Party. The Redskins’ loss means that the White House will have a new tenant because the incumbent party has lost every presidential election since 1936 that immediately followed a Redskins home loss.”

Well, you can breathe easy now. From Carter’s weekly round-up of football analysis at Yahoo Sports.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Speaking of the vote

Changes in voting practices and in the enforcement of voting rights are widespread. From the LA Times, registration required:

“Bush administration lawyers argued in three closely contested states last week that only the Justice Department, and not voters themselves, may sue to enforce the voting rights set out in the Help America Vote Act, which was passed in the aftermath of the disputed 2000 election.

Veteran voting-rights lawyers expressed surprise at the government’s action, saying that closing the courthouse door to aspiring voters would reverse decades of precedent.

Since the civil rights era of the 1960s, individuals have gone to federal court to enforce their right to vote, often with the support of groups such as the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters or the state parties. And until now, the Justice Department and the Supreme Court had taken the view that individual voters could sue to enforce federal election law.

But in legal briefs filed in connection with cases in Ohio, Michigan and Florida, the administration’s lawyers argue that the new law gives Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft the exclusive power to bring lawsuits to enforce its provisions.

. . .

In one case the Sandusky County Democratic Party sued Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, arguing that the county’s voters should be permitted to file provisional ballots even if they go to the wrong polling place on election day.

The Justice Department intervened as a friend of the court on Blackwell’s side.

Saturday’s decision in that case, and in other recent cases from Michigan and Florida, gave the department a partial victory. On the one hand, the courts agreed with state officials who said voters may not obtain a provisional ballot if they go to the wrong polling place.

However, all three courts that ruled on the matter rejected the administration’s broader view that voters may not sue state election officials in federal court.

Still, the issue may resurface and prove significant next week if disputes arise over voter qualifications. Some election-law experts believe the administration has set the stage for arguing that the federal courts may not second-guess decisions of state election officials in Ohio, Florida or elsewhere.”

Machiavelli would’ve been proud, I’m just revolted

The large number of challenges by the Republican Party of registered Democrats based on undelivered mail appears to be based on, well, a sort of, er, truly disgusting anti-democratic tactics. (Via Crooked Timber)

“When Catherine Herold received mail from the Ohio Republican Party earlier this year, she refused it.

The longtime Barberton Democrat wanted no part of the mailing and figured that by refusing it, the GOP would have to pay the return postage.

What she didn’t count on was the returned mail being used to challenge the validity of her voter registration.

Herold,who is assistant to the senior vice president and provost at the University of Akron,was one of 976 Summit County voters whose registrations were challenged last week by local Republicans on behalf of the state party.

She went to the Board of Elections on Thursday morning to defend her right to vote and found herself among an angry mob — people who had to take time off work to defend their right to vote.

After hearing some of the protests, the board voted unanimously to dismiss all 976 challenges.

The move, ironically, came from Republican board member Joseph Hutchinson and was seconded by Republican Alex Arshinkoff after they determined that the four local Republicans who made the challenges had no evidence to back up their claims. [I’m glad to see that there are Republicans in Ohio who aren’t willing to subvert the equality of the vote to gain power, but still . . . from the party of abolition to this?!?!?.]

. . . . .

The challengers, all older longtime Republicans — Barbara Miller, Howard Calhoun, Madge Doerler and Louis Wray — were subpoenaed by the elections board and were present at the hearings. Akron attorney Jack Morrison, a Republican, volunteered to represent the four.

Democratic board member Russ Pry suggested that the four could be subject to criminal prosecution for essentially making false claims on the challenge forms. The form states that making a false claim is subject to prosecution as a fifth-degree felony.

On Morrison’s advice, Miller then refused to take part in any hearings after Herold’s, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.”

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Anthony Hecht, 1923-2004

The American poet Anthony Hecht died on Wednesday, October 20th.


“Mr. Hecht, who was 81, had won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards when he moved to Washington in 1982 as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — one of the nation’s highest honors for a poet. In 1985, after his two-year term expired, he became a professor at Georgetown University, from which he retired in 1993. He continued to write poems until near the time of his death.

‘Anthony Hecht is indisputably one of the greatest poets of his age,’ said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a respected poet. ‘He wrote unabashedly in the high style, but he did so with such emotional force and exquisite musicality that his poems went directly to your heart.'”

A poem, in memorium:

Chorus From Oedipus At Colonos

What is unwisdom but the lusting after
Longevity: to be old and full of days!
For the vast and unremitting tide of years
Casts up to view more sorrowful things than joyful;
And as for pleasures, once beyond our prime,
They all drift out of reach, they are washed away.
And the same gaunt bailiff calls upon us all.
Summoning into Darkness, to those wards
Where is no music, dance, or marriage hymn
That soothes or gladdens. To the tenements of Death.

Not to be born is, past all yearning, best.
And second best is, having seen the light.
To return at once to deep oblivion.
When youth has gone, and the baseless dreams of youth,
What misery does not then jostle man’s elbow,
Join him as a companion, share his bread?
Betrayal, envy, calumny and bloodshed
Move in on him, and finally Old Age–
Infirm, despised Old Age–joins in his ruin,
The crowning taunt of his indignities.

So is it with that man, not just with me.
He seems like a frail jetty facing North
Whose pilings the waves batter from all quarters;
From where the sun comes up, from where it sets,
From freezing boreal regions, from below,
A whole winter of miseries now assails him,
Thrashes his sides and breaks over his head.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Mind controlled robots

From Wired (via DeLong):


“If a monkey is hungry but has his arms pinned, there’s not much he can do about it. Unless that monkey can control a nearby robotic arm with his brain.

And that’s exactly what the monkey in Andrew Schwartz’s neurobiology lab at the University of Pittsburgh can do, feeding himself using a prosthetic arm controlled solely by his thoughts.

If mastered, the technology could be used to help spinal cord injuries, amputees or stroke victims. ‘I still think prosthetics is at an early stage … but this is a big step in the right direction,’ said Chance Spalding, a bioengineering graduate student who worked on the project.”

And then one day, we can implant our brains into well-armed robots that can fight wars in outerspace.

Another branch to human ancestry found

A new species in homo tree reveals that the pliestocene period was characterized by signifcant diversity in humanity.


“Scientists have discovered a new and tiny species of human that lived in Indonesia at the same time our own ancestors were colonising the world.

The new species – dubbed ‘the Hobbit’ due to its small size – lived on Flores island until at least 12,000 years ago.

The fact that little people feature in the legends of modern Flores islanders suggests we might have to take tales of Bigfoot and the Yeti more seriously.

Details of the sensational find are described in the journal Nature.”

One apparent consequence:

“‘The whole idea that you need a particular brain size to do anything intelligent is completely blown away by this find.’ Dr. Henry Gee, Nature”

Is it common to attribute cognitive biases to others while being blind to our own?

The study of cognitive biases has come a long way since Francis Bacon began it. Since Bacon, Marx and his succesors gave an enormous amount of effort to the study of ideology, fetishes, local-global fallacies, and fallacies of composition and division. Despite their often illuminating insights, many of them came to suffer from what they analyzed. Some cognitive psychological studies suggest that this tendency may be itself a common cognitive bias.

“Psychologist Frank J. Sulloway of the University of California at Berkeley and I [Michael Shermer] made a similar discovery of an attribution bias in a study we conducted on why people say they believe in God and why they think other people do so. In general, most individuals attribute their own faith to such intellectual reasons as the good design and complexity of the world, whereas they attribute others’ belief in God to such emotional reasons as that it is comforting, that it gives meaning and that it is how they were raised.”

The Subway turns 100

Subway_gif Today is the 100th birthday of New York City’s subway system. While I am snapped out of my occasional, OK regular, frustrations with the subway only by a recognition that it has held up well for its age, I do have a sense of comfort every time I stand on a platform late at night. For me, it’s one of the city’s true social spaces where some image of unity without conformity is played out daily.

The New York Times has some pieces, written, visual, and audio on the subway.

“Paul Schneider, 24, a headhunter from TriBeCa, was getting off the 6 at Canal Street, along the route of the original subway line that ran from the old City Hall station through Midtown and up to 145th Street. Though his daily routine has blurred his appreciation of the great institution through which he travels, he grew almost patriotic when thinking about the landmark the subway would reach the next day.

‘It epitomizes New York City,’ he said, and then added, taking in the station, ‘Look at all the trash people throw around. They wouldn’t do that in an old church.’

As midnight approached last night at the Jamaica yard, a tower operator, Marianne Kreuter, was ending her shift. She was pulling the big levers in the room overlooking the yard, preparing to send trains out into a new century. ‘It’s like choreographing a ballet,’ Ms. Kreuter said as she flipped the switches on the control panel. ‘And you can call me Georgette Balanchine.'”

Also for the sake of history and celebration, here’s the mta’s site on the centennial.
And while we’re at it, here’s the page for Poetry in Motion, my favorite subway feature.

Hitchens flip-flops . . . back to a sort of saner position

Hitchens, after endorsing Bush “(slightly)” in The Nation a few days ago, now appears to have changed his mind (sort of) supporting Kerry, in Slate.

“Subjectively, Kerry should be put in the pillory for his inability to hold up on principle under any kind of pressure. Objectively, his election would compel mainstream and liberal Democrats to get real about Iraq.

The ironic votes are the endorsements for Kerry that appear in Buchanan’s anti-war sheet The American Conservative, and the support for Kerry’s pro-war candidacy manifested by those simple folks at MoveOn.org. I can’t compete with this sort of thing, but I do think that Bush deserves praise for his implacability, and that Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty.”