Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Viridian Kitchen

I'm going to combine two things I've been thinking about lately: Bruce Sterling's Last Viridian Note (a twenty-first century version of William Morris's "The Beauty of Life") and a discussion among recent college grads of the best tools for setting up a new kitchen.

Update: I have in mind here setting up the post-school adult kitchen. See Sam's comment on this post for a great little take on the ultraminimal student version.

My goal here is to help myself and others reduce crapware. Since I moved out of my parents' house, I've bought a fair amount of stuff for my kitchen. Most of it has been thrown away, given away, or (worst of all) stored away. However, I've also come upon some items that I use all the time, that give me pleasure, and that offer great value--either because they are inexpensive or because they are so useful. If I got to start over, here are a few things I would get to set up a new kitchen.

Pots and Pans

I use a fair number of pots and pans, but I could manage almost everything I want to cook with three basic ones: a pot for pasta, soups, and such; a pan for sauces and small jobs; and a big pan for frying and sautéeing.

For the smaller pan, I would look to the Calphalon line. The key to shopping Calphalon is to know that they always have a few items available at huge discounts; they want to hook you into loving the brand so you buy the other stuff. For instance, you can get the Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick 10-Inch & 12-Inch Omelet Combo Pack for fifty dollars. This is the best Calphalon nonstick line--these would be great egg pans and small sauté pans. You won't be able to find a price much lower for one pan, so if you want only one, you can get this combo and give one away.

I have two big stovetop pans, one terrific one from Calphalon that's on the expensive side and an even bigger one that I'll recommend here as a great value: the Bialetti covered deep sauté pan. This holds a lot of food and never sticks. Its lid and handles are great.

For the big pot, I would choose the Lodge enameled cast-iron 6-Quart dutch oven. This pot looks great, is extremely sturdy, and holds enough liquid to make a good-sized batch of chili or soup. I have recently made two batches of the same soup, one in a cheaper aluminum pot and one in this: it was amazing how much the Lodge pot resisted burning and overcooking. The pot is a little heavy for simply boiling pasta water, but it's manageable, and you can always keep a cheap water-boiler pot around if you want one.

Cutting Boards and Knives

You don't need many knives, just great ones, and Cook's Illustrated uncovered the incredible value of the Victorinox Forschner line, with supersharp blades and comfortable (if slightly cheesy looking) synthetic handles. See the 8-inch chef's Knife and 10-1/4-inch curved blade bread knife. I have the bread knife and covet the chef's.

I admit to a special affection for the Epicurian Cutting Surfaces line of cutting boards because they used to have a pleasant ECS logo, which for me doubled as a personalized monogram. Even without that advantage, you won't believe how great these suckers are. I would not have thought any cutting board could be worth a premium price, but I got a small one as a gift, and now I want to get two bigger ones (or even bigger)--one for meat, one not--and throw away all my others.

Cooking Utensils

I got two high-quality silicon spoon-style spatulas as a gift, and I find that I use them all the time. They have become my main in-the-pan stirring utensils as well as the only spatulas I bother with. I don't know that the brand matters much here, as long as you get good, sturdy ones and not any old silicon spatula: these Rubbermaid ones look great. I know fifteen dollars seems insane for a spatula, but now that I've used these things, I think they're well worth it--really good ones make a lot of other utensils obsolete.

Contrarily, as long as you don't use metal utensils on nonstick surfaces, I think you can get away with pretty cheap nylon cooking spoons, ladles, and such. We have cheap ones and expensive ones: the expensive ones look nicer and match (they were a wedding present), but I don't notice any difference in functionality.

Electronic Gadgets

You know about food processors and coffeemakers and such, probably, but you may not have thought about getting a good immersion blender (a.k.a. stick blender or hand blender). This fellow is a lifesaver in soupmaking: instead of taking soup out of the pot, processing it, and putting it back in, you just blend it right on the stove. You can also use these for smoothies, milkshakes, and stuff; they are vastly easier to use and clean than regular blenders, and they take up almost no space.

Specialty Prep Tools

This Zyliss garlic press has transformed my garlic life: it makes using fresh garlic genuinely easy. And anything that encourages you to eat things that involve fresh garlic is worth cherishing.

Finally, though it's easily the lowest priority item on this list, I must mention this apple peeler, corer, and slicer. It claims to work for potatoes as well--I don't buy that--but if you're the type to make big-batch apple recipes, you gotta see this thing work. For me, it made apple-picking (and therefore apple cooking) worth the effort.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Joe Lieberman: Why does 60 in the caucus matter?

The question in this post's subject might sound dumb: 60 is the key number in the discussion of how Democrats are trying to keep Joe Lieberman in the Democratic caucus of the Senate while still spanking him for campaigning against Barack Obama and other Democrats. Virtually all the discussion I've seen takes the importance of reaching 60 members of the Democratic caucus for granted because 60 is the number of votes you need to achieve cloture and thereby break a filibuster.

But isn't there a serious logical break in that last sentence? To break a Republican filibuster, the Democrats don't need 60 members of their caucus. They need 60 votes.

The important numbers for membership in the caucus are 50 and 51. If you get fifty people in your treehouse, even if the other party controls the White House, you get enough leverage to share the power to organize committees and whatnot. If you get 51 people in your clubhouse, you get to control committees and office space and all that stuff--no matter how your caucus votes on any given bill.

But 60 isn't like that. At the cloture threshold, only votes matter. Lieberman has already shown that he'll vote with Republicans on important bills, so keeping him in the caucus hardly guarantees a 60-vote bloc. Therefore, the nature of Lieberman's leverage with the Democrats must lie in an implied threat to vote one way as a member of their caucus and another way if outside it. In other words, Lieberman's position must lie on a threat to change his votes for reasons other than conscience.

I realize that Senators sometimes vote for reasons other than the dictates of their most disinterested consciences. That said, we're giving Lieberman a free pass by describing his leverage as involving caucus numbers rather than voting.

Unless I'm wrong, and having 60 members of a caucus does confer procedural advantages to the lucky party that achieves it, regardless of votes on individual bills. If that's the case, I would love to hear the details from better-informed readers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

A little early this week, as I'll be offline tomorrow:

Harold McGee offers the most striking contribution to the turkey technique conversation I've seen in a long time. (My solution to the problem that the breast is always overcooked? Let the rest of the family eat it.)

Take your David Foster Wallace jauntily from 1987 or elegiacally from 2008. Steel your heart before clicking.

Michael Lewis on the end of the boom; this is an essential supplement to Liar's Poker and probably worthwhile if you haven't read LP.

Here's an unusually interesting entry on the groundbreaking blog of Paul DePodesta, the GM of the Padres, about the decisions regarding Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman in the offseason.

And I can't quite leave politics behind yet: the cotton vote.

Which Obama effects are durable?

Lots of people are talking about whether Obama's election is a sign of fundamental political realignment of the electoral map. I am generally skeptical of the biggest claims, given the strong structural forces boosting any opposition candidate in 2008. To the extent that there was a realignment, however, it seems mostly to be based on Democratic gains among educated voters, young voters, and African American voters.

Here is a Greg Mankiw post on the youth vote, and here is NBC's First Read on the college-educated vote:

The Graduate(s): Number crunchers have already unpacked the college split for this election cycle to show Obama's gains among grads. (In 2004, 42% of voters nationwide were college graduates, and they split equally for John Kerry and George W. Bush. This time, that number was boosted to 44%, and the vote broke 53%-45% in the Democrat's favor.) But consider this: In 2008, college-educated voters outnumbered non-college grads at the polls in eleven states (CO, VA, NH, PA, NJ, CT, MD, NY, MA, VT, and DC). Barack Obama won all of them -- by an average of more than 24 percentage points. In states that McCain won, on average, 42% of voters were college grads. In states that Obama won, on average, 47% had a college diploma.

The key question, it seems to me, is which of these effects are particular to Obama and which will carry over to other elections. Most of the commentary I've seen assumes that Obama's success among African Americans is due to his own race (and therefore particular to him), whereas the gains among educated and young voters are more durable. I'm not so sure about any of those assumptions: I wonder whether we are underestimating the symbolic power of the Democrats now being forever the party that first nominated non-white President, no matter the race of their future candidates. (Think of the enduring effects of the Dodgers' and Red Sox' involvement in the fall of baseball's color line.) Contrarily, I wonder whether we have underestimated Obama's special appeal to educated and young voters: this administration will feature a President, VP, and two spouses who have all worked in higher education, and the basketball-playing Obama seems even younger than he is.

I have no idea which of these effects will persist in future elections, but I do think the current conversation would be improved by peeking under our assumptions about all three factors.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What, exactly, was the joke?

I propose a rule of public life: if you say something appalling, and you defend yourself by saying you were trying to be funny, you must then explain what the joke was.

Michael Barone (who, sadly, shares the name of one of my best friends from high school) said the following to a group of academics:

“The liberal media attacked Sarah Palin because she did not abort her Down syndrome baby," Barone said, according to accounts by attendees. "They wanted her to kill that child. ... I'm talking about my media colleagues with whom I've worked for 35 years.”

Unsurprisingly, Barone was met with a chorus of boos, and some people walked out. Barone does not dispute the accounts of his words but says that he "was attempting to be humorous and ... went over the line."

Mike Allen and Andy Barr report this defense without comment. We are accustomed to cutting people slack for saying offensive things in jokes, which itself is a tricky matter, but in this case and many like it, isn't there a way to point out the obvious, which is to say, it's not a joke.

I don't mean that this is not a laughing matter--death is perhaps the most fundamental basis of humor. I mean that Barone made no attempt to transform the darkness of his sentiment into humor. Instead, Barone made a perfectly straightforward claim about the motives of his colleagues, with no indication of irony at any level. I can imagine a wide range of reactions to his comment, from my own disgust to the approval of a Palin supporter who suspects the worst of the media. What I can't imagine is that anyone would find the idea of reporters wishing Palin's baby out of existence to be funny.

I realize that Barone is probably calling his comments "humorous" because he is scrambling for any way to deflect attention from their obvious meaning. I still want to see him try to explain the joke.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day Special: Friday Five on a Monday!

All politics this time--what else would we be thinking about?

The Republican mayor of San Diego changes his mind on Prop 8

Nate Silver's final pre-election take on the cellphone effect

From Errol Morris, People in the Middle for Obama--I'm always interested in how Morris moves between documentary and advocacy

My Wife Made Me Canvas for Obama; Here's What I Learned

Finally, don't worry: my opinions aren't likely to influence my students'.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A shootout in the saloon while the honky-tonk plays on

Here is the Obama campaign's latest attack ad, which has been noted mostly for the winking Sarah Palin at the end.

I'm more interested in the bulk of the ad: the typographical representation of John McCain's ill-advised self-deprecation about his knowledge of economics, backed by a cheery piano soundtrack. I know it's easy to look clever when things are going well, but this approach strikes me as a clever way to operate within the current campaign, when McCain is being skewered for negative advertising. The Obama ad is an all-out attack, to be sure, but it doesn't sound like one.

This approach brings to mind Wordsworth's comments on the interplay of metrical language and traumatic content in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads:

This is unquestionably true; and hence, though the opinion will at first appear paradoxical, from the tendency of metre to divest language, in a certain degree, of its reality, and thus to throw a sort of half-consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the whole composition, there can be little doubt but that more pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

I love The Eyeballing Game. (From Kottke.) My first score was 3.20. Second, 2.92. Third, 2.64.

These days, who doesn't need a concise encyclopedia of economics written by bigshot economists?

TED brings us a charming story by John Hodgman

Malcolm Gladwell on big ideas--I'm especially interested in the distinction between artistic and scientific genius and what that distinction means for, say, a liberal arts college making a huge move in the direction of interdisciplinarity

Also via Kottke (sorry, but you gotta see this!), a lovely photo set of Obama on the trail. "I loved that he cleaned up after himself before leaving an ice cream shop in Wapello, Iowa. He didn't have to. The event was over and the press had left. He is used to taking care of things himself and I think this is one of the qualities that makes Obama different from so many other political candidates I've encountered. Nov. 7, 2007."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Categories into which you cannot put yourself

David Sedaris's charming little piece on undecided voters includes this line: "calling yourself a maverick is a sure sign that you’re not one." My wife and I had made the same point about "maverick" and have begun, with the help of friends, to construct a list of such terms--ones that, when applied to oneself, constitute strong evidence that "you're not one."

1. A maverick (important exception: NBA basketball players, who, if they say they are Mavericks, most likely are)

2. A raconteur

3. Not a racist

4. Not meaning to offend you

5. A crook

Any more, readers?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Intrade manipulation confirmed

Tim Jarret noticed this story before I did: the manipulation of the Intrade market to improve John McCain's standing has been confirmed. Tim has a couple of interesting insights about the situation, and I'll pop out a few bullet points of my own:

  • Intrade has institutional investors? Bwa? That term must have a different meaning in this context, but I have no idea what it would be.

  • A bunch of bloggers crowed about Obama's leap up on Intrade a few days ago, but what I saw was different: the Intrade market was simply allowed to catch up with the others.

  • And therefore, the lack of McCainflation created a little bubble of baseless extra confidence and perhaps contributed to the Obama camp's anxiety that its supporters are growing complacent.

  • But if that's true, why are Republican hacks so eager to make the case that McCain isn't so far behind after all?

Friday five: links to take you to the weekend in style

Via Very Short List: Alex Ross has opened an audio companion site to his much-ballyhooed book, which I have read a great deal about and need to read

A reader of Matt Yglesias does a cool little analysis of population density and partisanship

And Yglesias himself discusses the demographic electoral college--his point is simple in some ways but routinely missed. Obama's willingness to open offices in red counties of swing states strikes me as an indication that his campaign knows to avoid the DEC trap.

Jack Lynch, who likes him some moose more than anyone else I know, finds the bright side to Sarah Palin's campaign

And I was slow on this, but you have to see it if you haven't: Colbert and Greenblatt on Shakespearean candidates

Monday, October 13, 2008

Google knol, Wikipedia, and the ownership of ideas

I don't know how many people even know that Google Knol exists. It's a collaborative encyclopedia, kind of like Wikipedia except that the articles are more conventionally authored: someone writes an article about a topic, and if someone else doesn't like it, the critic writes a competing piece rather than editing the first one. Rumor has it that Google will eventually share ad revenues with the authors of the articles.

I hope Google puts some muscle behind promoting Knol and making it a lively complement to Wikipedia. The collective authorship of Wikipedia will always have strengths that a single-author model can't beat: one of the under-discussed miracles of Wikipedia, for example, is its ability to track fast-changing phenomena of popular culture.

Wikipedia tends to be mediocre and sometimes worse, however, in areas where scholarly expertise holds sway. Scholars usually don't apply their expertise to Wikipedia, even when those scholars (like me) are generally happy to share their thoughts in public for free. When I hear of my colleagues asking students to critique Wikipedia, I sometimes suggest that part of the assignment could involve making Wikipedia better. I don't think I've hooked anoyone on the idea, however, and I admit that I might hesitate to do the same thing myself, largely because the work of the class could be undone by subsequent editors.

I am therefore interested in Knol's model of having authors own articles, not only in the sense that they might someday get a little cash from them but also in that (as far as I can tell) the site doesn't let other people mess with the authors' text. In Google's system, I can more easily imagine asking a class to invest time in creating a set of linked pages--or even doing a set of Knol articles and editing a parallel set of Wikipedia articles to compare the experiences. And I can much more easily imagine myself and my colleagues writing articles of more scholarly and interpretive interest on Knol.

I wonder whether any of my readers are Wikipedia devotees or critics who have opinions about Knol's prospects. Anyone?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

Here is the five-year chart of the TED spread--that's essentially the difference between the rate banks use to lend to each other (on the high side) and essentially risk-free short term treasuries on the other. In other words, it's an indication of how much default risk banks perceive in other banks. The normal TED spread until 2007 was between 0.1% and 0.5%. As I write, it's 4.6%, up almost 10% today.

There's a cuss word at the end of this amateur political ad. The ad is funny, but I link to it because I wonder every cycle why more political ads don't work like this one. (I wonder seriously--I assume the political folks see some problem with this lighter approach.)

I hadn't realized that Tyler Cowen has a short version of his wonderful book chapter about choosing restaurants on this page of his dining guide site.

Many people have linked to George Packer's fascinating article on Ohio voters. I think there's an untold story to be told in the answer to a question the piece does not invite us to ask: why is Barbie Snodgrass making thousand-dollar mortgage payments? That amount buys a lot of house in Columbus if you're talking about a standard 30-year mortgage. (The loan amount would be a little shy of 200K--and reader, if that amount sounds small to you, be sure to check out rust belt house prices). Is this about predatory lending? A gimmick loan? Or is it a manifestation of American housing ambition, a working-class analog to what Michael Lewis is starting to write about?

If you don't get the Lewis reference, here you go: Michael Lewis's Mansion

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Joe Biden, nuance, and same-sex marriage

Headline! Palin, Biden agree on gay rights at debate!

They most certainly did not.

In all the political commentary I've seen since the Biden-Palin debate, I haven't seen anyone take up Biden's comments about gay marriage in detail. Perhaps this is because he was prompted to avoid nuance; in fact, he gave an extraordinarily nuanced answer. I'll put the entire exchange on the subject at the bottom of this post, but here's the bit I want to focus on:

IFILL: The next round of -- pardon me, the next round of questions starts with you, Senator Biden. Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?

BIDEN: Absolutely. Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.

The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution we should be granted -- same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, et cetera. That's only fair.

It's what the Constitution calls for. And so we do support it. We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do.


IFILL: Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it.

If I were a politician who supported same-sex marriage--or at minimum had no strong feelings opposing it--and I also wanted to lower the profile of culture-war issues by sounding as if I opposed same-sex marriage, this is precisely the way I would frame the issue.

The debate's discussion of same-sex marriage resulted in apparent agreement between Biden and Palin: both said they opposed it, and Palin--in a way that clearly surprised Biden and Ifill--seemed to agree with Biden in favoring full legal equality for same-sex couples.

Biden, however, added a crucial and instant clarification of what he meant by saying "No" to Ifill's question about allowing same-sex couples to call themselves married. Quoth Biden, with my emphasis: "Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it."

This is not Sarah Palin's position, or anything like it. In fact, this logic, if implemented, would be fatal to the religious right's effort to stamp out same-sex marriage.

The problem for conservatives on this issue is that they have to win every fight. To keep same-sex marriages from continuing to spread, they need to keep the laws of every state on their side. As we have already seen, that's a tough thing to do, and any failure makes the job tougher, not only by getting people used to sharing the country with same-sex married couples but also by opening up the middle ground that New York now occupies in recognizing same-sex married couples from other states.

The only way to stop this is to redefine from the civil side what constitutes marriage, by means of a federal constitutional amendment or a series of amendments to state constitutions. And that, of course, is precisely the measure that Biden says he and Obama oppose. This step is important in itself: if I read it correctly, it amounts to the statement, "No, I don't support same-sex marriages, but they're already happening, and we're not going to do anything to stop them."

The second step, however, is even more interesting. After stating clearly that he advocates full equality in everything but the term "marriage," Biden says that he would leave the terminology in the hands of "faiths and people who practice their faiths." We're so used to high-profile religious opinions opposing same-sex marriage that we can miss the implications of that statement. If you give same-sex partnerships full legal equality and then let churches decide what those partnerships are called, then to abolish same-sex marriage, conservatives need to keep every religious organization on their side--which is patently impossible. There are already liberal religious groups with clergy sympathetic to same-sex marriage, and if there aren't enough of them to serve the purpose, more would surely spring up.

Therefore, the position Biden articulated was, in defiance of Ifill's prompt, packed with nuance. Various commentators, from Carl Bernstein to the right-wing CNSNews, have suspected (and in the latter case, documented) that Biden and Obama actually want to create more opportunities for same-sex couples to marry. What they have not realized is that Biden signaled that desire in the very comments to which they refer.

As a supporter of gay rights, I am pained to hear politicians say no, they don't support gay marriage. But if Biden must do that, I am heartened that he seems in the next breath to articulate a strategy of resistance to and, before long, victory over the right's opposition.

"Palin, Biden agree on gay rights at debate"? No, they didn't. Good thing, too.


IFILL: The next round of -- pardon me, the next round of questions starts with you, Senator Biden. Do you support, as they do in Alaska, granting same-sex benefits to couples?

BIDEN: Absolutely. Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.

The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution we should be granted -- same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, et cetera. That's only fair.

It's what the Constitution calls for. And so we do support it. We do support making sure that committed couples in a same-sex marriage are guaranteed the same constitutional benefits as it relates to their property rights, their rights of visitation, their rights to insurance, their rights of ownership as heterosexual couples do.

IFILL: Governor, would you support expanding that beyond Alaska to the rest of the nation?

PALIN: Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And unfortunately that's sometimes where those steps lead.

But I also want to clarify, if there's any kind of suggestion at all from my answer that I would be anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners, choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves, you know, I am tolerant and I have a very diverse family and group of friends and even within that group you would see some who may not agree with me on this issue, some very dear friends who don't agree with me on this issue.

But in that tolerance also, no one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties.

But I will tell Americans straight up that I don't support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go round and round about what that actually means.

But I'm being as straight up with Americans as I can in my non- support for anything but a traditional definition of marriage.

IFILL: Let's try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it.

The bottom line though is, and I'm glad to hear the governor, I take her at her word, obviously, that she think there should be no civil rights distinction, none whatsoever, between a committed gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple. If that's the case, we really don't have a difference.

IFILL: Is that what you said?

PALIN: Your question to him was whether he supported gay marriage and my answer is the same as his and it is that I do not.

IFILL: Wonderful. You agree. On that note, let's move to foreign policy.

Monday, October 06, 2008

No-risk free money in the presidential betting markets

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the divergence between Intrade and in their estimates of the probable results of the upcoming Presidential election. In the second of those posts, I linked to Nate Silver's recognition that the betting markets themselves did not agree: Intrade consistently leans Republican relative to the Iowa Electronic Markets.

As it happens, I paid close attention to the two markets on Saturday, and I saw the prices converge, with the IEM probability of a Democratic victory steady around 71 and the Intrade probability drifting up to that level from the sixties. That evening, a hammer dropped: a huge, sudden sell order of the kind Nate had identified reinstated the Republican lean of the Intrade markets, and it has remained intact since, even growing. At this writing, the probability of a Democratic victory (which creates a slightly neater comparison than the Obama-only price) is this:

Intrade: 68.1 (ask 68.3)
IEM: 76.4 (bid 75.0)

That's spread of 8.3 points between the prices of the most current sales! (Incidentally, the Nate Silver model has the probability creeping closer to 90% now.) That spread is the kind of problem that arbitrage should be fixing, and I hope people who understand these markets better than I do can comment on why it's not. But here's how the arbitrage trade would work, and this is why I included the current ask (selling) price for Intrade and bid (buying) price for IEM as a more realistic estimate of what a trader could do right now.

The way the arbitrage trade works is that you short sell the commodity where it is priced high and buy shares where it is priced low. The principle is incredibly simple, although its application is often wickedly complicated: it's like buying a bag of peaches for eight dollars and then selling them for ten.

In this case, let's say you start by selling 100 DEM shares on IEM, where the price is higher. Buy low, sell high. (This is short selling, so you sell first and pledge to buy later; a short sell makes money if the price goes down.) At $75 each, that gives you $7500. At the same time, you buy 100 DEM shares on Intrade. at $68.30, that costs you $6830.

In a month, you're going to get the value of 100 Intrade DEM shares (the ones you bought) in exchange for the value of 100 IEM DEM shares (the ones you sold short). And this is the key: at that point, the values will necessarily be the same. Either all those shares are worth $100, or they're all worth nothing. Either the Democrats will have won, or they won't have won. The share values must converge.

So if Obama wins, you get $10000 for the 100 shares you bought on Intrade (now worth $100 each), which nets you $3170 ($10000 minus the original cost of $6830). That's balanced by your loss on the short sale of $2500 (buying back shares for $10000 that you sold for $7500). The net is $670.

And you get the same amount if McCain wins. In that case, you lose the $6830 you paid for the Obama shares, but you get to buy back your short sell for nothing, which means you keep the original $7500 you received by making the sale. The difference is again $670.

Your balance on November fifth, no matter who wins: $670.

That's a fantastic guaranteed return for a month, even if you add in the transaction costs, and even if you don't compare it with the current behavior of the equity markets.

So why on earth is this difference persisting? There seems to be a serious issue with market manipulation--as Nate suggested--or with some other kind of market inefficiency. My sense is that the problem is more with Intrade with IEM, which is important given that a lot of serious people, such as Greg Mankiw, use Intrade to represent the voice of betting markets as a whole. Something is not working as it should here.

Note: this post does not constitute investment advice. I am not a professional. If you make investments based on blog posts by English majors, well, you figure out the end of the sentence.

Friday, October 03, 2008

How to find a paper topic: general principles

This post is a call for collective wisdom. I'm not teaching this year, but a former student wrote to see if I had any general advice about choosing a topic for a paper. I told him that I'm not used to answering that question in the abstract; I usually talk about the process with specific references to an assignment I've given and the readings for a course I'm teaching. However, I like to attempt formulating useful advice that applies to contexts other than my own classroom, so I said I'd take a shot at my own answer and then put the question to you, my wise and delightful and, may I say, attractive readership. Let loose in the comments! My answer, below, has in mind an advanced undergraduate assignment in English, but you don't have to limit yourself to that case.

Here was my first shot at an answer:

1. This page from Purdue is a decent starting point. It basically takes the idea of a good thesis and works backwards to some tips on finding a topic.

2. In my humble opinion, however, that page might be too quick to tell the writer to rely on his or her own thoughts. Much of originality comes from borrowing, and as long as reading outside sources is not forbidden, I recommend doing some reading as early as possible in the process. Seeing what published critics have said about a text can be a good way to find out what issues and questions are settled and which ones still provoke useful exploration. I am not suggesting a full research process, just the idea that research and topic generation can happen simultaneously.

3. Finally, I think that at this early stage, decisiveness is good in itself. You can leave yourself room to change your mind, but lots of topics can create good papers if you devote a lot of time and creativity to the process, leaving yourself space to rethink your own ideas and have other people react to them. Picking a topic early, even if the choice involves a little bit of forced decisiveness, can focus your attention in useful ways. I learned this primarily by means of a graduate seminar outside of my field in which the professor made every student choose a play to write about almost immediately (before we had read most of them) and write a project proposal only a few weeks later. It felt crazy at first, but then we all had a solid couple of months to research and execute the papers, and that was fantastic. Sometimes it's worth forcing the issue.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Sarah Palin, Katie Couric, and the art of the softball question

“Softball question” is a silly metaphor: any anybody who has played softball seriously knows, softballs can be wickedly difficult to hit solidly when tossed by a skilled pitcher. This fact is obvious at the upper levels of fast-pitch softball, but I know those pitches aren’t what the metaphor calls to mind. Rather, it means to conjure the image of the high-arcing slow pitch.

The magic of a good slow-pitch tosser lies in the ability to require hitters to do something very hard that seems reasonably easy. If you can throw a low pitch that catches the front outside corner, then a high one that arcs through the back of the strike zone by the batter’s hands, you can humiliate a whole lot of hitters, including the present writer. Part of the humiliation comes from the knowledge that to the crowd, the task seems easy enough, and often, it seems manageable to the batter, too. It’s hard to pop out on a slow pitch and admit that you were just beaten.

It is in this sense that Katie Couric’s most devastating questions to Sarah Palin have been softballs. We are used to thinking of interview questions in the same misguided way we think of pitches: we think the toughest questions are the ones that regular people couldn’t even foul off. But in an interview, those questions create sympathy for the person trying to answer. If Couric had asked Palin to describe, with specific examples, her sense of the editorial differences between the Washington Post and the New York Times, everybody would have seen that to be a tough question. Palin could refuse to answer such a question, and many—probably most—people would react only by thinking less of Couric for asking it.

And that’s why such questions are not the hardest kind to answer. Instead, the very hardest questions seek out your weakest points and then give you all the flexibility you want in answering them. This approach cloaks the difficulty of the question with the apparent (but entirely false) generosity of flexibility. I’ll call this approach the Nasty Softball Question. I’ve seen a few masters of the NSQ, especially in graduate schoo, but Couric has outdone them all in her interview with Palin, and in a series of NSQs, the wickedest one Couric tossed was this:

And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

My goodness, that is a thing of beauty. It seems reasonable, even coddling. Every serious person reads some periodicals, right? And Sarah Palin has a degree in journalism! What could be more fair and friendly than asking her for some titles of newspapers and magazines?

But this is genuinely tough for someone in Palin’s position. Think of the answers she might give for newspapers. Modern Republican electoral strategy depends on the demonization of the most obviously authoritative papers, especially but not only the New York Times. I’ve seen some people accuse McCain of hypocrisy, for example, because he demonizes the Times but also crows when the paper agrees with him. But that’s the point of the strategy: if you frame the paper as giving a Democratic interpretation of every issue, you discredit the stuff you don’t like and increase the propaganda value of the stuff you agree with. But the Rovian undermining the most journalistically authoritative newspapers put Palin in a bind: she couldn’t cite the obvious choices, and naming anything else would risk reinforcing the impression that she is provincial and unready. The best newspaper I can think of for Palin would be The Wall Street Journal. And how do you think Uncle John McCain would have liked his campaign to be linked more closely with Wall Street right now?

(Later update: Bingo! given another shot, Palin offers the NYT, the WSJ, and the Economist. Then she adds a defensive bit about economic successes as a governor to head off the problems with the financial publications. An excellent strategic answer, given breezily but showing the precise calibration of days of backstage prep.)

I can imagine effective answers for Palin to give, answers that would establish her as a serious reader but add a bit of aggressive irony—I read the Times because I need to know what you journalists are doing to us, that sort of thing. But that’s an answer people like McCain or Giuliani can get away with; it’s much harder to pull off that attitude when introducing yourself to a national audience. Again, I’m not saying good answers weren’t possible, just that this was a ferocious NSQ.

And it was all the more ferocious for one more crucial reason: it’s an easy question for Democrats to answer. The question is an NSQ for Palin precisely because she’s a creation of the right-wing base. Couric has taken advantage of this factor repeatedly: I mean the idea that a question seems fair if you ask it to both sides. (This campaign has featured this false fairness more than previous ones, I think.) The Supreme Court question illustrates the point. Yes, it’s a question Palin should be able to answer, certainly better than she did. The standard question she was probably ready to answer--“What do you look for in a Supreme Court justice?”--would have allowed the kind of generalities she was ready to state, and the request for a specific case shouldn’t have thrown her so badly. At the same time, there was no chance that the question would phase Biden, whose experience would give him a variety of ready answers. The fact that Couric asked both candidates the same question did not make it equally difficult, and I see in Couric’s questions a pattern: Couric used the surface appearance of fairness and generosity to hit Palin’s weak points, in ways precisely calibrated to accentuate the Democrats’ strengths. And all this in a way that the McCain people can’t argue against directly.

When you watch a debate or see questions asked to job applicants, speakers, and so forth, keep an eye out for these properties:

1. Does the question seem to relate to the person's declared interests or ambitions, but actually shift the ground slightly away from where he or she feels solid?

2. Does the question then let the person pick his or her own example, thus raising the expectations that the person will sound authoritative?

3. Does the question invite an obvious answer that is or seems to be a trap?

If the question meets two or (especially) three of these standards, you're witnessing a Nasty Softball Question. Be ready to witness a humiliating pop out to the catcher.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

When McCain knows he's lying

I don't hide my love for, but to be honest, when I read Sean Quinn's post on the "tongue jut" yesterday, I was disappointed. Sean was arguing that McCain has an odd mannerism with his tongue that might reveal certain emotions, and I'm prepared to buy that, but I didn't find his video evidence compelling.

But THEN. This morning, I woke up to find this clip of McCain on Talking Points Memo. I tell you, it's astounding: at the moments where McCain knows he's most full of it, that lizard tongue pops out every time. And when it's not popping out, it's trying to pop out.

Check it out. If you don't find the TPM video mind-boggling, I'll give you double your money back.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More on the obscured ceiling

I've fielded some questions, on and off the blog, about my post last week on obscuring the ceiling--that is, on the ways we sabotage our own performance to avoid the pain that might come from discovering our limitations. Off the blog, an alumna asked what we do with this knowledge. In the blog comments, Katherine wrote that the post "reminded me of what people invariably say when you talk about applying for something: 'What's the worst that could happen?' This obviously implies that rejection is the worst that could happen, and that rejection isn't that bad. In fact, as you point out (without being flippant) rejection really IS the worst thing that could happen." Hilary wrote in response, "I would say then, Katherine, that the worst thing is not rejection, but a paralyzing fear of that rejection that keeps us from trying, learning and growing." And then Hilary added two questions for me: "who defines the ceiling (and, relatedly, success)? and is the ceiling ever actually a ceiling?"

Hilary has already hit upon the primary thing I would say in response to the alumna who asked for actions to take to avoid self-destructive obscuring of ceilings. I'm working all of this out for myself, but my sense is that the key lies in redefining the "worst that could happen," as in the question Katherine quotes.

Rejection is not the worst that can happen. Failing to know the best you can do, wasting your time, missing an opportunity to get valuable responses to your best ideas: these are worse. To paraphrase Yeats--Adrienne Rich reminded me of this notion in a reading last week--the worst case is failing to have the courage of your own thought.

Hilary's questions establish the ways in which having the courage to reveal your ceiling becomes a complex and fluid process. Who defines your ceiling? You do, you must, but you will do well to incorporate the honest criticism of trusted others. And is the ever ceiling actually a ceiling? Yes, in some ways--even Bolt isn't running the hundred in eight seconds--but in most circumstances, most of us have plenty of space to grow. Perhaps the best thing about refusing to obscure your own ceiling is the discovery that it's harder to hit than you imagined.

Rejection is not the worst that can happen.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Obscuring the ceiling: how good students strategically sabotage themselves

How is a procrastinator like Usain Bolt--in a bad way?

After I wrote this post about Usain Bolt on my sports blog last week, Grinnell alum Hung Pham initiated a conversation about the post in which Pham used the idea of obscuring the ceiling to describe what I was commenting on in Bolt's pre-finish line celebration in the 100-meter dash.

Obscuring the ceiling is what I think Bolt successfully did in his race: I argued that by celebrating before the finish line, Bolt let everyone imagine how much faster he might have run--and those imaginings have, in fact, credited him with being even faster than he is. If obscuring the ceiling can make perhaps the fastest human who has ever lived seem faster, it is a powerful tool indeed.

Pham's phrasing helped me articulate something that had nagged at me since I praised the power of Bolt's maneuver: I've seen this before. And after a few days, I got it. Obscuring the ceiling is what a lot of my students do--and a number of people I know in other ways, but I think of this phenomenon primarily through my teaching.

To the best of my memory, when I started teaching about 15 years ago, I thought of student motivation like this: every student is more or less self-motivated, and every student has positive and negative external forces that affect performance. That is, I imagined intrinsic factors to be neutral or positive--at worst, the absence of positive motivation. What surprised me, therefore (and I've seen it surprise other new teachers), is the extent to which students will actively sabotage themselves in all manner of small and large ways: doing work well but handing it in late, making flamboyantly bad choices about time management, and so forth. I slowly came to realize that many of my students were choosing to incur penalties consistently so that I never got a chance to judge their best work in a straightforward way. That was the point. If you never try your hardest, nobody can ever find your limits. Like Usain Bolt, you have obscured your ceiling.

When I started articulating this idea, Molly Backes, an alumna of Grinnell's education program, pointed out the similarity of my thinking to Martin Covington's failure quadrant, which, as she put it, goes something like this:

* if you try really hard and still fail, you feel the worst
* if you try really hard and fail -- but you have an excuse, like
your grandmother just died -- you feel less bad
* if you don't try at all and fail, you feel better
* if you don't try at all and you have an excuse, you feel best

Another alumna pointed me to Homer Simpson's more concise formulation: "trying is the first step toward failure."

I had brought up this subject through the words of Malcolm Gladwell, who put the point yet another way in an interview with Bill Simmons, discussing sports:

Why don't people work hard when it's in their best interest to do so? Why does Eddy Curry come to camp every year overweight?

The (short) answer is that it's really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn't work hard. It's a form of self-protection. I swear that's why Mickelson has that almost absurdly calm demeanor. If he loses, he can always say: Well, I could have practiced more, and maybe next year I will and I'll win then. When Tiger loses, what does he tell himself? He worked as hard as he possibly could. He prepared like no one else in the game and he still lost. That has to be devastating, and dealing with that kind of conclusion takes a very special and rare kind of resilience. Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don't study for tests -- which is a much more serious version of the same problem. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you're stupid -- and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare. People think that Tiger is tougher than Mickelson because he works harder. Wrong: Tiger is tougher than Mickelson and because of that he works harder.

I return to the subject now because the exaggerated glorification of Bolt's run has reminded me of the profound effectiveness of obscuring the ceiling. If the fastest runner in history can make most people think he is even faster by obscuring his ceiling, how tempting must it be for the rest of us to use the same method when we can protect our self-image?

We are starting to understand how to avoid the temptations of obscuring the ceiling: valuing the produce of work rather than the aura of talent, seeking the lessons of failure instead of making excuses, trying to improve even upon apparent successes.

I have only begun to recognize and struggle with the means of obscuring ceilings within myself, and I feel I have even farther to go in understanding how to help my students find, reveal, and shatter their own ceilings

Comments are most welcome. Especially critical ones!

(This post is crossposted at Sports Guy Talkin' Crazy Again.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Obama's chances: an update

After I posted about the divergence between Intrade's and FiveThirtyEight's estimates of Barack Obama's chances of winning in November, I wrote to the FiveThirtyEight gang to see whether they had any thoughts about the matter. They didn't reply directly, but they responded to the issue with this very interesting post about the Intrade betting.

The other markets, while favoring Obama more than Intrade, still consistently rate Obama's chances as being lower than FiveThirtyEight's estimates, so my point is largely unaffected by this new information, but this new context is essential for interpreting my first post.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What are the current odds of an Obama victory?

Reader, I know not what to think!

Like a lot of other people, I have for a while had the sense that Nate Silver and friends at and the gloriously impersonal markets at Intrade gave me my best reading of the winds of political opinion.

The two sites use radically different methods, but they attempt to answer the same kinds of questions, and for present purposes, the question is precisely the same: what are the chances that Barack Obama will win the election in November? (Naturally, I could use McCain's name throughout this post, but I find it easier to use the numbers for the current favorite.)

FiveThirtyEight is driven by Nate Silver's attempt to aggregate poll numbers and to interpret them based on the history of polling and election results. The site combines state and national polling, tweaking the model along the way and running simulations to estimate the most likely results given current conditions.

Intrade, however, uses the emergent collective wisdom of a market to answer the same question. In theory, the simplicity of the market might do as well or better than Silver at taking all information into account. For example, Silver has been trying to model the distortions of cellphone usage in this year's polls. Because the possibility of cellphone distortions is well known, a real-money market has the potential, at least, to account for their effects without relying on a controlling modeler to estimate them: in many cases, the aggregated crowd can be sharper than the market. (See the work of Robin Hanson for more on the power of markets in politics.)

In spite of these differences, the two ways of answering the questions have produced similar predictions, with small variations due in part to Silver's model deliberately reacting slowly to new developments. Until now.

As I write, FiveThirtyEight's "win percentage" for Obama has rocketed up to 74.4%, although Obama was a slight underdog shortly after the Republican convention. Intrade's bettors also made Obama a slight underdog at that point, and they too think that Obama has regained his status as the frontrunner, but only barely: there, Obama leads 51.5%-47.4%. (For reasons not worth explaining here, FiveThirtyEight's win percentages add up to 100, whereas Intrade's probabilities will be slightly lower.)

I do not see an easy explanation for such a huge divergence. Both sites attempt to look beyond a current snapshot to project the November result, and both attempt to use all the relevant public information (Silver explicitly, Intrade by means of the market).

I welcome correction on this, but I think the plain-language way to sum up the difference is this: the market is making a big bet that McCain will perform better than candidates who had similar poll results at this point in past campaigns.

The difference must rest on a claim about the present or a claim about the future. A claim about the present would involve something like the Bradley effect--the notion that polls will artificially favor Obama because voters don't want to admit they are voting against the Black candidate. Silver has written a series of posts discounting the Bradley effect in this election, however, and even a strong belief in the effect would not explain a divergence as sudden as what we've seen.

If the implicit claim is about the future, the logic might run something like this: we're seeing a close race, and the spectacle of the current Wall Street meltdown has directed the race in a direction favorable to Obama, but this is a bubble. That is, the polls we're seeing today are like post-convention polls, which involve a predictable but fleeting bump. Today's polls are a parenthetical remark, not the story itself.

Whatever explanation you favor, this is certain: the wisdom of the betting crowd sees something behind the numbers that favors McCain--not enough to make McCain the favorite, but enough to keep the race close to a coin flip. The divergence between FiveThirtyEight and Intrade has given us a window into the differences between analytical modeling and market mechanisms.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why you might root for yourself to lose money

The current economic problems are very serious and will continue to cause a lot of suffering. I say that to clarify that I'm not forgetting it when I point out that I'm always mildly amused to see news stories assuming that rising stock prices are good news and falling stock prices bad.

Here's the famous (in some circles) Warren Buffett passage on this issue:

A short quiz: If you plan to eat hamburgers throughout your life and are not a cattle producer, should you wish for higher or lower prices for beef? Likewise, if you are going to buy a car from time to time but are not an auto manufacturer, should you prefer higher or lower car prices? These questions, of course, answer themselves.

But now for the final exam: If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period? Many investors get this one wrong. Even though they are going to be net buyers of stocks for many years to come, they are elated when stock prices rise and depressed when they fall. In effect, they rejoice because prices have risen for the “hamburgers” they will soon be buying. This reaction makes no sense. Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise. Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices.

I don't think this is knowledge people want to recognize. It means that you need to root for your own assets to fall in value, and it means that you may have rooting interests that conflict with those of your parents or children. I have no idea what the stock market will do, but I would definitely bet on a prosperous future for the good news-bad news convention of reporting on its progress.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and the race of folk wisdom

I'm going to spend a few sentences explaining why I think Sarah Palin's place in politics is oddly and vexingly like Barack Obama's, so let me foreshadow the end of the argument by illustrating the profound difference between them. Imagine Obama saying at the Democratic National Convention,

Before I became a senator of the great state of Illinois, I was a community organizer. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a community organizer is sort of like a small-town mayor, except that you have actual responsibilities.

As I'm sure you know, this is a reversal of Palin's famous zinger from the RNC, with a similar level of sneering inaccuracy. While Palin's line about community organizers immediately stood out as unusually inflammatory and mean, this Obama version would, I think you'll agree, have ended the campaign in an instant: hello, President McCain. I'll return to this.

Lots of Democrats, including me, are feeling their heads explode anew every time Palin reveals her ignorance of the fundamentals of federal policy: she doesn't know what the "Bush Doctrine" is (OK, it's complicated, and an informed request for clarification would have been fine--but not a look of uncomprehending fear), she doesn't know how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac work, she doesn't know how countries get admitted to NATO--this last in a way that brought her alarmingly close to arguing for a war with Russia that even McCain wouldn't seek. And pointing out these problems seems only to prod Palin's supporters to new levels of defensive loyalty.

Obama's supporters have a similarly defensive loyalty. The defensiveness does not arise from policy-related gaffes, which Obama avoids with wonderful deftness: as M. J. Rosenberg has said (supported by details that are worth reading), Obama "knows his sh*t." But when his rivals challenge Obama's experience, the defense lies not in his knowledge, exactly, but in his "judgment," which partly means judgment but is also politically acceptable code for curiosity and, yes, utterly extraordinary intelligence--not only the possession of such intelligence but the unapologetic willingness to display it.

In other words, Obama supporters want someone with that kind of mind running the country: dispassionate, probing, academic. Big issues require elite capabilities, the kind of extraordinary talents that may be visible in a young candidate. This fact explains part of Obama's longstanding education gap among Democrats, which is more widely known than when I first noted it but remains underanalyzed. This valuing of the extraordinary young candidate works directly against the logic of blue-collar unions, which tend instead to value experience and credentials.

The logic of the Palin candidacy holds that big issues require the expansion of common sense: a connection with regular people and a certain set of values trump policy and elite rhetoric. As David Brooks points out today, this conflict between Obama and Palin has deep roots in American political rhetoric--or, I would say, in a longer, more European line of thinking about the potential sovereignty of the people. The arguments about Obama and Palin reflect centuries of debates about the relative powers of individual intelligence, personal experience, and collective (or folk) experience.

This last factor deserves more attention. Every major candidate must make a populist claim to the wisdom of the folk. Among the four major candidates now, Biden makes the most conventional claim: he has experienced a working-class childhood in Scranton and a terrible tragedy within his family. The other three candidates' claims are more interesting. McCain has used his military experience to express his solidarity with others' experience of battle, a routine political idea in itself but remarkable in its ability to cover for McCain's otherwise entirely unfolksly and occasionally sordid personal life.

As ever, though, the truly fascinating cases are those of Obama and Palin. Obama does speak convincingly of his family's financial difficulties, but his signature piece of folk experience has always been his move from editing the Harvard Law Review to doing community organizing on the South Side of Chicago: this is the folk connection of an elite man. And his rhetorical populism was until recently characterized by the call-and-response tradition of American Black churches. His DNC speech was essentially an artful reworking of old material with the call-and-response sequences removed.

Palin, however, identifies strongly with a "small-town" background. Other parts of her RNC speech have attracted more attention, but this theme was dominant: she claimed to represent a small-town culture that Washington and media elites could not appreciate, but the folk can.

The oddity of these identifications is that, taken narrowly, they are losing electoral identifications. A Democrat doesn't win an election by winning the Black church vote; a Republican doesn't win by winning the small-town vote. In the politics of folk identification, therefore, Obama and Palin are targeting the popularly marketed fantasies of these identifications, the fantasies that have made hip hop and country music into "popular" genres.

The difference is race.

Palin can mobilize the small-town identification explicitly, even relentlessly. The notion that rural people can represent the purer form of everybody is authorized by centuries of cultural products. While the identification with urban culture may be as powerful as that with rural folk, it must be hinted at and hedged against. In the conventions, Palin emphasized her rurality while Obama dropped the most racially-inflected elements of his rhetoric.

Palin played up her rural roots most memorably in the sequence I referenced at the beginning of this post:

Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.

This statement was, from the beginning, obviously extreme. As Nate Silver put it based on the advance text before Palin spoke, "it seems awfully petty for a party campaigning on the theme of service .... If you want a punchline that underscores liberal 'elitism', why not go after Obama's time as the President of the Harvard Law Review instead?"

My answer: this line was always about the reaction it would inevitably produce, which is the retelling of the well-known story that includes the Harvard Law Review and the South Side of Chicago. Palin's sneering portrayal seeks to reframe Obama's story of selfless service in a way that emphasizes simultaneously his elite education and his blackness. Thanks to the obvious demographic differences between small-town Alaska and South-Side Chicago, Palin's speech carefully mapped the common-elite opposition onto a white-black opposition.

Now consider my reversal of Palin's statement at the top of this post, its unspeakable mirror image. Unlike Palin's, it privileges mobility over rootedness and urban experience over rural experience. In the reversal, you can see what kinds of elitism are (and have long been) acceptable and unacceptable in American politics.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

James Fallows gets precisely the importance of Sarah Palin's blank look in response to the Bush Doctrine--and also usefully corrects Charlie Gibson's definition of the Doctrine. (See also Palin's total misunderstanding of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and of NATO.)

This is another Palin thing, but that's not why I post Thomas Merton (via Timothy Morton) on the theology of the devil.

Via Lifehacker, an academic calendar template for Excel

I'm looking forward to the next act of Errol Morris.

Sarah Vowell on presidential uncertainty

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Galvanize me: Reanimation and the logic of piano recreation

How much is recording fidelity worth to you? And how much the fantasy of a musician performing just for you? Technology is now letting those values battle each other for your music budget.

In this TEDTalk, John Q. Walker (so close to being John Q. Public!) describes the astonishing technical achievement involved in his method of recreating and then re-recording great piano performances. As you can see, the talk culminates with a piano, guided by a computer, "performing" for the live audience. And Sony is selling the recordings of these performances.

I'm guessing that the conventional highbrow response to these recordings is to find them amazing but unattractive: given the choice between a recording of Art Tatum and a recording of the reconstructed keystrokes of Art Tatum, who wouldn't prefer the latter? I'll admit, however, that poor sound quality detracts significantly from my enjoyment of recorded music. I suspect that I would strongly prefer listening to Walker's recreations as long as I didn't know what I was hearing. What does that mean for the relationship between technology and beauty?

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

A twofer, because the Daily Show is on fire. (Let's face it: Republicans aren't used to the gender politics game, and the Daily Show folks are just the ones to say how.) Bristol Palin's Choice and, even better, Republican hypocrisy.

Jason Kottke's Olympic moments on YouTube

How to wrap meat

10 words that will help you win at Scrabble

The real meaning of college access

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Intentional or unintentional humor?

Alberto Gonzalez has driven the Washington Post headline writers to despair of direct objects:

Report Describes Careless Handling of U.S. Secrets
Gonzales Says He Does Not Recall

Emphasis mine.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The way to huge, lifelong productivity

A reader of Marginal Revolution has provided Tyler Cowen (and now Jason Kottke) Walter Benjamin's rules for writing. I am most struck by this sequence:

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea -- but there may well be weeks.

All of these are variations on the simple theme that dominates all useful advice about accomplishing long-term tasks: don't stop.

Every long-term project will see cycles of productivity as inspiration, competing demands, and incoming resources vary. In other words, everybody slows down. And as Benjamin's ninth rule jokingly hints, pretty much everybody stops, too. But when somebody keeps the low points in the productive cycle just barely above zero, then takes the high points as they come, stuff gets done. When just barely above zero falls to zero, and zero starts to feel maybe a little OK, it's over. I've experienced both sides.

Moral: control your low points for long-term results.

Following up on Sarah Palin

Since I've already written about the underappreciated upside of Sarah Palin's nomination, I now offer the contrary view of why the relatively minor problems that have surfaced in the last few days seem to have unusual traction.

Reporters have information about candidates that they want to share but feel constrained not to. The constraint may come from ethical concerns, from editors, or from peer pressure, and it may be controversial: if you read any left-leaning citizen journalism, for example, you probably know that John McCain has said appalling things to his wife in front of reporters, but mainstream journalists have shown no inclination to recall that fact in the context of McCain's policy positions that relate to women's rights and issues. Many Republicans feel that Barack Obama has similarly been let off the hook for statements he and his proxies have made.

Now may observers are noting that the press seems unusually tenacious in examining Sarah Palin. I've seen some potential explanations and can imagine others, from sexism to religious bias to media resentment.

I suspect something a little different: my guess is that reporters have been struggling for a while with how to convey the fact that John McCain has been screwing up major points of foreign policy, making impetuous decisions, and generally exhibiting a lack of managerial control. This information dribbles out here and there, but no story has brought it all together in the way that the Palin appointment has.

On the heels of a Democratic Convention that, among other things, displayed the Obama team's formidable managerial and logistical skills, the Palin appointment highlighted McCain's impulsive hotheadedness in a way that had nothing directly to do with foreign policy. Suddenly, reporters who felt they could not ethically say, for instance, that McCain's reaction to the Georgian crisis was ludicrously belligerent and ill-considered, could say instead that it seems awfully strange to choose a Vice President at the very last minute with very little information in hand.

Hence the McCain campaign's furious efforts to defend the vetting process--a process that, after the announcement of the result, seems much less important than McCain's alarmingly shaky grasp of the geography and ideologies of the Middle East. Everybody involved understands that the argument over the vetting process is the publicly acceptable proxy for the argument over McCain's stability.

I could be wrong about this case, but I am more confident in the general assertion that many times the press seems hung up on a relatively minor political story, we are seeing journalists attempt to convey something they've been uncomfortable about keeping quiet.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Underestimating Sarah Palin

Based on what I've read in a number of venues, I venture to say that if you support Barack Obama, you may well be underestimating Sarah Palin's potential benefits to John McCain's candidacy. Here are four reasons why:

1. Many people see this choice as a pander to Hillary voters and think it won't work. I agree that the pick won't work especially well in that way. But half of the electorate doesn't like Hillary Clinton, and a solid majority of independents don't like her. A lot of people who like the idea of seeing a prominent female politician will be very happy to see someone other than Hillary Clinton play the role.

2. Attacking Palin is going to be very dangerous. A great many people will see her primarily as an amazing woman: a dedicated mother who stands by her principles and has launched an impressive career while raising a bunch of kids. This is all accurate: I think Palin's policy positions are terrifying, but I hope the Obama people are thinking very carefully about how to respect Palin's personal accomplishments as they attack her policies. Getting the tone of this wrong will seriously rile up the right-wing base.

3. A point related to #1: I see a lot of commentary assessing potential reactions to Palin based on the opinions of college-educated women. But at least initially, men like the Palin pick better than women, and to the extent that choosing Palin involves targeting ex-Hillaryites, I'll wager the swing group is the less educated, more socially conservative, more Appalachian core. I can easily imagine people from my Appalachian hometown (where my mother has long been amazed at the resistance of Democratic women to Hillary Clinton) connecting with Palin, especially if, say, Biden says something that sounds condescending and eggheaded and dismissive about her.

4. Palin's background is in journalism, specifically broadcast journalism and more specifically sports journalism. I've only seen a couple of her TV clips, but she seems to handle that environment very well, and (unlike McCain) she should be very good at reading a teleprompter, which will be important next week.

All that said, I think such a cynical, pandering, precipitous choice should ultimately hurt McCain's chances. But if Democrats think it will be easy to dismiss Palin's appeal, they could pay dearly for the mistake.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Book review: Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

I started reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion after Tyler Cowen called it "one of [his] favorite social science books." I can see why: although some of Cialdini's points have become relatively commonplace since the book's initial publication in 1984, Influence still provides an engaging blend of social scientific scholarship, anecdotes of Cialdini's undercover ventures as a "compliance professional," and something like the self-help genre in Cialdini's advice on resisting each of the compliance techniques he describes under the headings reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

I'll supplement this main review post with some snapshot reactions to a few of Cialdini's points that prompted me to think of specific tangential issues. For now, two overarching thoughts:

First, this book provides a valuable counterpoint to works of behavioral psychology and economics that emphasize the internal biases that affect individual decision-making. Although those works sometimes address social factors and Cialdini sometimes touches on the classic behavioralist issues (loss aversion, endowment effects, etc.), Cialdini's focus on influence and compliance is still refreshing.

Second, the more practical side of Influence, especially the information that flows out of Cialdini's undercover work, raises issues akin to those of publicizing methods of picking door locks. Cialdini is handing out the keys to human consent. Cialdini's direct advice is almost entirely defensive--he tells the reader how to ward off the tools of compliance, not how to deploy them--but it is easy enough to imagine ways to gain influence. For one example, I am highly confident that the techniques Cialdini describes, carefully applied, could help professors positively influence students' evaluations of their courses--an extremely valuable skill. I leave the reader to consider the implications of that possibility.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

Back from a vacation week, and published on Saturday, but that lacks the alliteration I require:

I know I shouldn't link to Nate Silver every week, but I blame him for writing something irresistible every time. This time around it's the best strategic analysis I've seen of the Biden choice.

Merlin Mann on kicking ass with outcome-based thinking. I especially like the Foo for Bar formulation.

Via Very Short List, a great little accent identification game, with creepy patriarchal and colonialist undertones brought to you by Rudyard Kipling.

A good piece on humiliation, China, and the Olympics: "In 2001, the National People's Congress even passed a law proclaiming an official 'National Humiliation Day.'"

And following an impeccable pass of the baton, Errol Morris runs the anchor leg analyzing photography as a weapon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What if classical music were popular?

In this lovely little TED lecture, Benjamin Zander aims to sell his audience on the idea that every one of them--and indeed, everyone else--secretly loves classical music and needs only a little guidance to discover that love.

Near the end of the talk, Zander says that people in the classical music business always think along these lines: two percent of people already take an active interest in this music. What can we do to raise that to three or four? Zander says that the approach should instead be to assume that everyone does love or will love classical music and to take the actions that flow from that assumption.

Zander thus evokes one of my favorite thought experiments: what if classical music (broadly defined, but of the "serious" rather than "pops" variety) became truly popular? Specifically, how would the 2% of, say, Americans who currently identify themselves with classical music react? Some, I presume, would revel in the spread of their preferences to a larger number of fellows. Many, I guess, would feel dismay at the loss of the cultural capital that we confer on exclusive forms of high culture. I would predict that this group would find ways to create new mechanisms of exclusivity: we might, for instance, see a certain kind of chamber music gain new clout, with its patrons building extremely specialized concert halls whose performances would not only be costly to attend but also impose daunting conventions of dress and behavior. If this happened, I would further predict that the devotees of this music would lament that it commanded such a small audience and suspect that, in their hearts of hearts, everyone truly has a taste for it.

Do you, reader, have a different and perhaps happier vision?

Bonus question: what has the evolution of jazz, which has frequently seen its more popular branches defined out of the category of "jazz," told us about this imagined scenario?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

Beyond overconfidence: Tyler Cowen reports on new views of ability bias

Find out why last week's ruling on executive privilege is such a big deal. This is worth understanding.

Zombies reciting haiku

Nate Silver strikes again: a lovely little contextualization of Evan Bayh's politics

San Diego Padres General Manager Paul DePodesta, on his blog of unprecedented GM transparency, runs down how trading after the deadline works in baseball

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Conclusions, part II: so what?

Can we do better than "so what"?

Last week, I posted some thoughts about teaching the art of the conclusion--that is, about explaining the elusive something more that teachers often ask their students to provide. Here I continue my search for the language and examples that will help my students write conclusions. The next and probably final installment of this series will address the journalistic kicker, a subject Michael raised in the comments last week.

Today, however, I ponder the question, "so what?" When I was a student, I saw many teachers tell students that papers should convey answers to that question. When my undergraduate thesis adviser, Patricia Meyer Spacks, received a set of term paper drafts that disappointed her, she gently explained what she was looking for and wrote on the chalkboard in dramatically ungentle four-foot letters, "SO WHAT?"

When essays do find ways to answer the question, the effects can be wonderful. Take, for example, this striking little essay by Phillip Davis about the neurological effects of reading Shakespeare. Having set up a series of problems at the beginning of the piece, Davis shares a few data points in the middle, and about two-thirds of the way in, he writes--as its own paragraph--"so what?"

Davis answers the question powerfully, with a series of insights that expand in scope until they culminate in this final paragraph:

It is early days. But I am getting a greater sense of how and why Shakespeare really does something to our inner reality, making me feel more alive in more unpredictable mental ways when I read or see his work. I am also getting a sense of an underlying shape to experience, as though the syntax in front of my eyes were keying into mental pathways behind them, and shifting and reconfiguring them dramatically in the theatre of the brain.

Yes, that will do nicely as the something more.

All this said in favor of the "so what" approach, however, I must come to an anticlimax: in my own teaching, I have not found that asking "so what?"--or suggesting that students ask it of themselves--does much good. The question may be too vague, or it may be too hard to unburden it of its commonly dismissive inflection: "Yeah, well, so what if it is?"

My current idea is to revise the "so what" approach in two ways: first by switching the language to "and what does that mean?"--with the suggestion that the best essays will find ways to answer the question multiple times. And what does that mean? And second, I want to make the function of the conclusion more concrete by saying that it releases the pain the introduction has inflicted--an approach I'll explore when I come to ponder introductions within the next week or two.

A cliffhanger!