Insight. Antics.

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Blue 60, Red 40?

In Politics on April 28, 2009 at 1:53 pm


Happy 100 days to Obama: Arlen Specter is switching sides of the aisle, affiliating himself with the Democratic party.  “I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans,” he explained.  Note the reporter in the khaki suit above is beaming with partisan joy.

Now this looks like a bold move at first, but it’s very pragmatic.  What’s amazing about this is not simply that the Democrats may reach 60 votes in the Senate, in a way they did not anticipate.  It’s that Specter must have seen overwhelming polling data persuading him that he could not win re-election unless he changed parties.  The GOP brand is in such dire disarray that he had to do this to be viable.  If a 29-year Senate veteran of your party thinks you have moved to0 far to the right, you might just be a “Red”-neck…

Diehard filibuster fans are mourning even though Specter suggests he will not be a rubber stamp.  He is rather independent-minded, so we’ll see.

So, if The O’Franken Factor can get Norm Coleman to pipe down then maybe we can have 100 senators again.

How will this affect Coleman’s thinking?  Franken’s triumph is virtually inevitable at this point, but will this redouble Coleman’s efforts and resolve to fight on?  There may be political expediency for him in being the last bastion of Republican fire left in the party: even though he will lose, he has made a statement, can wear it as a badge of honor, and has gained national attention.  That kind of thing helps if you run again.  The problem is that most Minnesotans want him to throw in the towel.

Day-trip To Afghanistan.

In War on April 27, 2009 at 4:09 am


This is incredible: it transports you to the frontlines (if that term even applies anymore) and colors in the things we haven’t been hearing or seeing about Afghanistan.  It’s far from being just caves and disorganized hostiles, by any stretch of the imagination.  As one of the soldiers says in the audio track, “It was a pretty complex ambush on their part.”  The troops are inspiring.  The terrain is brutal.  It also happens to be oddly beautiful.

Grand Funk Railroad.

In Politics on April 17, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Over the last year or two the idea of rail travel as a transportation alternative in this country has gained some momentum, aka any momentum considering it had almost none before (except from addictive jingle Senate candidate extraordinaire Gail Parker!)

NBC Nightly News had a great report Saturday evening adding context and specificity to the cost and approach of implementing high-speed rail.  Somehow, I caught this broadcast live.  It was a quiet weekend evening.  In the process, I single-handedly lowered the median viewership age to 28 from 68.  Maybe there will be fewer Flomax ads now.

If there is any doubt high-speed rail is much faster than what we have now, take this illustration.  Right now the fastest commuter train in the US is the Amtrak Acela and it travels from New York to Washington D.C. in 3 hours and 5 minutes, give or take.  Its average speed is 84 mph.  (It could go over 100 mph but the track it uses does not enable that.)  High-speed trains like the ones in Europe and Japan go 200 mph and higher.  If you apply that to the NY to DC route, we are talking about a traffic-less trip in an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.

Two other words that don’t come into play on those 5-hour automotive escapades between Gotham and the Potomac: bar car.


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Bo Knows Bailouts.

In Politics on April 12, 2009 at 4:53 pm


Obama’s chief diplomat to the animal kingdom has arrived: Bo Dogg is in the (White) House!  Little is known about Bo as of yet but details are emerging in real time.  Apparently, he used to hold dual citizenship with the kingdom of Fauna and Portugal but has requested asylum in the US after he was persecuted in Lisbon for being ridiculously adorable.  Unsubstantiated rumors also suggest Bo and President Obama both subscribe to a Keynesian economic dogma.

You’re Smarter Than the Experts.

In Politics on April 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Does being an expert matter?  Or having 15+ years of experience in something?  Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times says no.

His column didn’t get much attention, either because it wasn’t written by Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, or Maureen Dowd (honorable mention: David Brooks), or because it wasn’t a reactive commentary on the week’s political events.  Yet, it may reveal more about the core of political and ideological persuasion than any issue or event can.

It explains that the people with the most expertise, biggest microphones, and most emotional pleas are correct in their predictions very infrequently.  It’s based on the research of Philip Tetlock, a Berkeley professor who did what Jon Stewart did to Jim Cramer, except for 18 years and with almost 300 people:

“[His book is based on] two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.”

‘It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience.’ ”

So, basically, they’re no better than you or I.  And, “Conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists.”  (Hey Larry Kudlow, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity: bring it!)  The bottom line according to Tetlock: how you think matters more than what you think.

Tetlock breaks up thinkers into two groups: foxes and hedgehogs.  The root of the difference in the terms emanates from a Greek poem: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  (Note to self: refrain from lame Sonic jokes.  But Sega must have known something…)

Red Tailed Fox - PA Gaming Commission

Foxes are “self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence” and “were rather modest about their predictive ability.”  They’re also more centrist, pragmatic, prone to self-doubt, and inclined to see complexity and nuance, as Tetlock and Kristof describe them.


Hedgehogs - Mature Times UK

Hedgehogs were worse forecasters: “They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything.”

A practical takeaway from Tetlock is that” the media often loves hedgehogs” and you can get a hint whether you are listening to a fox or hedgehog by counting “how often they press the brakes on trains of thought. Foxes often qualify their arguments with ‘however’ and ‘perhaps,’ while hedgehogs build up momentum with ‘moreover’ and ‘all the more so.’ ”

This theory has the potential to have a big impact on political discourse if it makes the rounds.  If the experts can be wrong, the rest of us can be right.

Don’t get me wrong, we need experts, we need people who are willing, devoted, and intelligent enough to learn about and investigate things that the rest of us simply aren’t doing.  And their findings and insights are vital in informing our knowledge.  But from there, once a person has a reached a certain level, judgment trumps expertise.  I hope to strike a nice balance in the posts ahead.