Sunday, 24 August 2003

Why Windows is so insecure

Kevin Drum has a lengthy post about his nightmare updating his Windows XP home system to fix the vulnerability exploited by the Blaster worm. At the end of the post, he writes:

POSTSCRIPT: Feel free to do all the Microsoft bashing you want in comments, but please don’t turn it into yet another tiresome Windows vs. Mac thread. Most of us Windows users actually have excellent reasons for our choice of operating system, and hearing about the alleged superiority of Macs for the thousandth time won’t change that. So please please please: just don’t do it. OK?

POSTSCRIPT 2: That goes for Windows vs. Linux too.

This is exactly why Microsoft operating systems and applications have so many security problems. No matter how bad it gets, Kevin is not going to switch to a competitor. You can bitch and moan all you want, Kevin, but as long as you’re giving your money to MS, they have no financial incentive to improve their software.

Obligatory disclosure: I’m president of the Memphis Linux user group, GOLUM. And before I became a Linux geek, I was a Mac geek.

The Carolene Media

Walter Cronkite’s first column has been online for two weeks, but apparently it took this Eric Burns piece for for it to garner much publicity. The “bombshell”: Cronkite concedes most journalists are liberals. Why?

I believe that most of us reporters are liberal, but not because we consciously have chosen that particular color in the political spectrum. More likely it is because most of us served our journalistic apprenticeships as reporters covering the seamier side of our cities – the crimes, the tenement fires, the homeless and the hungry, the underclothed and undereducated.

We reached our intellectual adulthood with daily close-ups of the inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all. So we are inclined to side with the powerless rather than the powerful.

Perhaps we should just call it the Footnote Four justification for media bias.

Speaking of media bias, if you want to see some testable, positivist political theory, try this blog post on for size. Ah, if only I had a research grant…

Open source FUD

Kevin Aylward at Wizbang! blames Sendmail, and by extension the Open Source movement, in part for the spread of viruses on the Internet. Specifically he claims:

Here’s the kicker – Sendmail had no capability to drop messages that contain viruses.

Sorry, Kevin, but I call bullshit.

  • Sendmail can scan for viruses using the “milter” (mail filter) facility, which has been present for several years. Get up to date on the technology before you start spreading crap.
  • There are numerous alternative mail transport agents (MTAs) to Sendmail that also have hooks for virus scanning, including Postfix, Exim, and (if you can stand DJB-ware) qmail.
  • Virus scanners can also be hooked into procmail, if you don’t actually want to futz with your MTA configuration.
  • Specifically, Debian and other Linux distributions include a complete, free anti-virus scanning suite that integrates with almost any mail server (specifically, clamav and amavisd); it also includes hooks for spam trapping. I had it set up and running within an hour on the box I administer at work. It’s catching all of our Sobig.F messages, and not even spamming unrelated parties with bogus “you sent me a virus” messages like certain commercial systems I could mention.

Yes, I freely admit that sendmail is a piece of bloated, outdated shit that I won’t run on any server I administer. But blaming sendmail, when you should blame lazy admins and ISPs who can’t be bothered to avail themselves of the available free virus scanners (not to mention the ample commercial offerings), is just silly, and exactly the sort of crap you’re complaining about in the behavior of some open source advocates.

Brock has more on this theme here.

Perestroikans and the obsession with "rational choice"

Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry notes trouble brewing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government between “rational-choice theorists” and “more traditional political scientists,” according to NYT Magazine writer James Traub.

This description belies a lack of understanding about political science. We can generally break the history of political science into two eras: the pre-behavioral period and the post-behavioral period. During the pre-behavioral period, political scientists basically did two things: descriptive analysis of political institutions and what I’d term “normative political theory,” a nebuolous field that generally involves the study of political phiolosophy, with a nice dash of prescriptivism thrown in just for entertainment value. Woodrow Wilson did a bit of the former, when he wasn’t being a prescriptivist or a racist (the three occupations kept him fairly busy).

Then came World War II, James Gallup, and the sample survey. A bunch of folks at Columbia and Michigan (among other places) decided that it might be a good idea to test whether all these theories people had come up with about the behavior of voters during the “pre-behavioralist” period were valid (and it turns out that they basically were wrong). Thus was born the behavioral revolution in political science—and, arguably, the entire idea of the study of politics using the scientific method (or empiricism).

Note that this account has not used the words “rational choice.” That’s because rat choice really has almost nothing to do with behavioralism. The roots of rat choice come from economics (notably the work of Anthony Downs and Mancur Olson), and in particular the idea of “utility maximization”; rational choice theory generally argues that people behave in a way that has the maximum possible benefit to themselves (“utility”). Utility has proved rather annoying to quantify in political science (in economics, utility maps rather nicely to monetary units; in political science, about the best we’ve done is OxPoints).

However, there are plenty of other ways to explain behavior in political science other than rational choice. Many behaviorists today—including myself—incorporate rationalist explanations with sociological and psychological explanations to formulate their theories of political behavior, which they then test empirically using either experimental or survey-based data with statistical techniques (usually, although not always, borrowed from other fields, including mathematical statistics, economics, psychology, and biostatistics).

More importantly, this ignores other techniques used in other subfields of political science. In international relations (and some other parts of the discipline), many theories are formulated using game theory, which has some links to rational choice (mostly in terms of the institutions the procedures were developed at, most notably the University of Chicago and University of Rochester), or more advanced mathematical modelling techniques; sometimes these techniques are linked with rational choice under the rubric of “formal theory.” Some of these techniques (ironically, like normative political theory) have not historically been subjected to any real-world testing; however, now there is some interest in doing this through the NSF’s promotion of a series of EITM (Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models) workshops and works like that of Rebecca Morton.

So describing what I do as “rational choice” is something of a misnomer. It would be like describing all normative political theorists as “Plato scholars,” or all economists as Keynesians. The truth is that there’s room for many different perspectives on the study of politics in our discipline.

The problem is that I’m not sure most Perestroikans are aware that there are multiple empirically-based perspectives. For example, the book the Perestroikans hold up as validating their point of view comes from two political scientists grounded in the empiricist, Michigan school tradition. Now, I’ll agree that some leading journals often mistake sexy methodology with substantive importance; like in specifying any theory, simpler methods are preferable to complex ones—given similar explanatory power. (This also goes for theoretical articles; if the APSR is to be a journal that everyone with a graduate education can read, surely we should expect prose that is penetrable to non-specialists.) But to reject empiricism outright in a discipline that has science as part of its name is, in my view, a bridge too far.

Daniel Drezner has more on the Summers piece this morning, which will no doubt spark an interesting discussion, while this post (inexplicably) makes John Jenkins is glad he’s a theorist. He writes:

While I'm certain that good work can, has, and will continue to be done this way in political science, more often than not we end up with analysis so blatant in its biases that it's entirely useless. I am reminded of a study that we looked at in one of my methods classes that determined that, on the whole, those who were of [M]exican descent were paid far less than those who weren’t in some city in Texas. It failed utterly to account for how long the people had been in America (i.e. first-generation immigrants tend to work in low-paying jobs because of lack of training and lack of facility with English) and resolutely concluded that the disparity was due exclusively to racism. Anyone think there was a foreordained conclusion there?

Can you say omitted variable bias? Bad research is bad research, whether it’s empirical or not…

More to the point, I don’t think empirically-oriented political scientists claim to be able to make predictions on a par with those made by sciences solely governed by physical laws. In any event, that’s fundamentally not the point of science, which seeks explanations rather than predictions. Just because, as John puts it, “people will do stupid shit sometimes” doesn’t necessarily mean that their behavior isn’t at least somewhat explainable.

What can political science tell us about the recall?

At first glance, the nation’s first statewide recall election in modern history seems like a fairly bad testing ground for past theories of political behavior. Yet there are a few things worth considering from the body of knowledge we already have from over 50 years of behavioral research (starting with Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee’s famous Elmira studies and the National Election Studies conducted at the University of Michigan):

  1. The psychological effect of Duverger’s Law should be strong. As we’ve seen with the dropout of Bill Simon, it affects not only voters but also contributors and candidates themselves. Seemingly paradoxically, this effect will be stronger among the “non-gadfly” candidates: someone who wants to vote for Arianna Huffington, Larry Flynt, or (my personal fave) Georgy Russell may find Cruz Bustamante or Arnold Schwarzenegger a poor substitute for their preferred candidate, but a Ubberoth or McClintock voter may find the “mainstream” candidates more appealing. The longer the polls indicate a close election, the more likely this election is to shape up essentially as a two-candidate race. (This even holds in situations like Democratic presidential primaries, where the proportional nature of delegate selection is a fairly well-kept secret from the electorate.)
  2. One interesting question is how the voting on the two-stage ballot will shape up. There are two groups of voters who are likely to vote no on the recall: those who want Davis to remain in office (probably around a quarter of the electorate, judging from his approval ratings) and those who believe that the second-stage winner will be a worse governor than Davis. Polls leading up to the election may determine how people vote on this question; if there is a sizeable contingent of hardcore Republicans who think Bustamante will win the second ballot, they may vote no on the recall, to retain the lame-duck Davis in office. Similarly, a Bustamante lead may encourage Democrats to vote yes on the recall, so a (potentially) strong incumbent can be on the ballot for the Democrats in 2006. The “no, Bustamante” strategy only makes sense for Democrats (at least, Democrats not named Gray Davis) in the context of a Republican (Schwarzenegger) lead; how long will they stick with it?
  3. How much can Bustamante divorce himself from Davis’ coattails without alienating Democratic voters? In 2000, Gore ran to the left, thinking he really needed to stop Democratic voters from defecting to Nader (which he actually didn’t need to do), and generally didn’t run on the Clinton record. On the other hand, Clinton’s approval rating was much higher than Davis‘, and the economy was doing significantly better too. Assuming it’s in Bustamante’s personal interest to win the election, it’s probably in his best interest to run away from Davis’ record. More importantly, in the absence of any credible challenger from the left, he can run to the right—which makes his announced tax hike package seem like a rather boneheaded move, suggesting more is at work in his campaign than a simple desire to win the recall election.

The one thing political science can’t do is forecast this election; there’s simply no precedent for it. The big question remaining is whether or not the “no” strategy on the part of the Democrats persists much into September; if it does, the election isn’t effectively Bustamante vs. Schwarzenegger; it becomes Gray vs. Arnold. My belief is that the former election is probably much more winnable for the Democrats than the latter.