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.