Friday, 31 October 2008

From the department of good but massively overpriced ideas

This thermostat sounded like a really great idea until I learned it costs $385. Surely someone can come up with a “dumber” digital thermostat that you can remotely adjust over WiFi much cheaper without the silly color touchscreen.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

QotD, embarrassing former APSA/US presidents edition

Radley Balko picks my least favorite American president for dishonor:

Woodrow Wilson. Jailed political dissenters, created the Federal Trade Commission, got us into World War I. He also enacted the first federal income tax, the first modern military draft, and the first federal drug prohibition. Wilson also re-segregated the federal government. When blacks protested, he told them to consider segregation a “benefit,” not a debasement. An all-around loathesome human being.

I agree with Balko’s assessment except on the World War I point, if only because I think U.S. involvement was inevitable based on rather boneheaded provocations by the Central Powers, most notably the Zimmerman telegram.

Le Weekend

How did I not know about the upcoming Texas Book Festival until today? I guess I now have a possible destination for my first “regaining my sanity” roadtrip of the year.

þ: Tom Vanderbilt.

Your new life as a guinea pig

In the last 24 hours, I’ve been asked to disseminate two survey links. So have at them:

A research team from the Psychology Department at New York University, headed by Professor Yaacov Trope and supported by the National Science Foundation, is investigating the cognitive causes of voting behavior, political preferences, and candidate evaluations throughout the course of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. This stage of the study focuses on the information people use to inform evaluations during the last few weeks before the election. They seek respondents of all political leanings from all over the country (and from the rest of the world) to complete a 15-minute questionnaire, the responses to which will be completely anonymous. The survey is here.

I also have a briefish survey from some students of a friend of mine at Auburn University, for those with less time to spare.

Standard disclaimers regarding the fact I know this is a convenience sample apply; complain at the principal investigators if you must.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

On investigation

I think James Joyner nicely captures the dynamics at work when trying to investigate whether or not someone can engage in criminal behavior—in this case, make a contribution to a political campaign under an assumed name. I would only make the point that I doubt Mark Kleiman would object to the use of similar tactics by those investigating airport security or, for that matter, that perennial local TV sweeps favorite of sending an investigative reporter undercover into the meat department of a local grocery store to document all the horrifically bad things that go on behind closed doors—or, for that matter, would object to anyone bragging about having done so, even if violating the law (which I am pretty sure both of these other examples involve).

Monday, 27 October 2008

Newspeak, Yglesias style

I think this quote (regarding the California High-Speed Rail Initiative) is far more revealing than Matthew intends it to be:

[I]t seems to me that the sad reality of politics is that it would be irresponsible for advocates of any large-scale infrastructure project to do anything other than present unrealistically optimistic measures.

Translation into English: it would be irresponsible for advocates of at least some policies Matthew Yglesias prefers to tell the truth. Oxford’s New American Dictionary defines “responsibility to” as “a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of.” So Yglesias believes it would be immoral for advocates of some of Yglesias’ preferred policies to be honest. I’m glad we have that cleared up.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Inside baseball

I’ve been remiss in pointing my readers recently to Zachary Schrag’s Institutional Review Blog, which patiently documents the overreach and misapplication of federal regulations regarding the protection of human subjects to the social and behavioral sciences, including research that by federal regulation is exempt from review by IRBs.

While Schrag is cautiously optimistic that the new head of the Office of Human Research Protections will be an improvement, the continued domination of the process at most levels by biomedical researchers—along with the general sense that, as Schrag notes, “researchers cannot be trusted to apply the exemptions themselves”—is still troubling to those of us who want to conduct human subjects research, particularly secondary data analysis. Technically speaking (even though I dare say most social scientists observe this requirement in the breach), even the analysis of secondary data collected by others and fully anonymized before we see it (e.g. use of data such as the General Social Survey, American National Election Studies series, the Eurobarometer series, etc.) requires IRB oversight and approval beforehand.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Say it ain't so: Joe target of database snoops

Via my Facebook updates feed, the Columbus Dispatch reports that records of “Joe the Plumber” have been looked up in various Ohio databases, potentially in violation of various privacy laws. As I noted over at OTB during the Obama/Clinton/McCain passport snooping controversy, the snooping in this case was almost certainly the result of what was called “imprudent curiosity” in those incidents rather than a concerted effort to dig up dirt on everyone’s favorite small-business owner. That isn’t to excuse the snooping, mind you.

Update: Michelle identifies a broader issue at work here.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Satisficing or incomplete information?

It occurred to me this morning, as I was pondering our forthcoming ads for two political science positions and a conversation I had yesterday with some other social scientists, that had I accepted either of the tenure-track jobs I was offered before coming to TAMIU, I’d never have even applied for this job even though on most dimensions, at least in my personal judgment, it’s a better position than either of those were/are.

I’m not really sure what this all means, but I figured letting my readers engage in something a step above dream analysis might be more interesting than not posting anything today.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Bust a move

I enjoyed last night’s episode of Mythbusters for a variety of reasons. For starters, I now have Smart Board Envy™, projectiles and explosions are always fun, and seeing Adam, Jamie, and Kari drunk was a hoot.

The social scientist in me, though, really enjoyed the “beer goggles” experiment. In fact, the show, edited down to just include that section, would make a great primer on “how social scientific experiments work” for my undergraduate methods course when I teach it again, presumably next fall. On the other hand, I was less thrilled with the “sobering up” experiment, but the comedy factor of drunken Adam trying to run on a treadmill without a handrail, with all-too-predictable results, made up for the scientific shortcomings therein.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

QotD, Tversky found exceptions to the rule edition

A commenter at Kids Prefer Cheese demonstrates the application of heuristics to Internet dialogue:

You know how people use cognitive short-cuts to make sense of the world? For example, I could go read Ransom’s entire blog, probably do a bunch of background reading on Austrian business cycles, and then figure out whether he’s right about Cowen. Or I could use a simplifying heuristic which goes like this: people who post in all caps in blog comments are usually wingnuts. Sorry, Ransom, maybe you’re right, but in my book you’ve already lost on style points.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Half baked robbery

The bakery I used to live across the street from in New Orleans was the target of an attempted armed robbery last week; thankfully, the perps were caught.

Going the full Krugman

The Economist says Larry Bartels’ recent effort to claim Democrats are better for the economy than Republicans is “a political case masquerading as economic analysis.”

Update: Meanwhile, “Michael Walzer would be happier with foreign policy if Obama were president, which is fine, but the article is not as objective as he wants to make it out to be.” Fellow political scientists: there’s only 13 shopping days left to prostitute your reputation forever in the service of a guy who’s going to be elected anyway!

It would be so nice

IHE today has an article on whether or not faculty should give their students Election Day off to go vote. While I’d certainly excuse a student who was working as an election clerk all day, given the ample opportunity for early and absentee voting here I really don’t think I could justify a blanket election day holiday for all students in my courses.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Electronic voting machine injunction in Laredo

The GOP challenger in the local state senate contest plans to seek an injunction against the use of electronic voting machines, and in the meantime has gotten the county elections administrator to require paper ballots for non-disabled voters during early voting. While I’m not very convinced by the fear of widespread vote fraud, having worked as an elections officer over the last year in New Orleans (where we used electronic machines) I can’t say that I’m incredibly confident in the workings of most electronic voting systems as a practical matter, especially given the limited training that most election workers get and the generally low level of technical expertise of those workers. And, particularly given the problems with the recounts in the Webb County sheriff contest earlier this year, serious caution with electronic machines would seem to be advised.

At least for non-disabled voters I think the best solution I’ve seen to date is to use optical-scan ballots with at-precinct scanning (which is what was used in my precinct when I lived in Oxford); that method ensures a paper trail that can credibly be recounted later, along with reasonably fast counts and instant feedback to the voter if their ballot cannot be recorded.

Friday, 17 October 2008

I'd better have plan B ready

If the networks are planning for an Obama blowout, I suppose I need to dump some notes on my PDA about key Senate and House contests so I have something intelligent to say on election night when 7 pm rolls around and the election is effectively over.

By way of explanation: I have been invited to speak at an election night gala being hosted by the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, which will be my first foray into real-time election night commentary (along with being my first foray into Mexico and, for that matter, the developing world). I never figured on being plunged into the deep end with an audience who probably understand about as much about U.S. politics as the average American understands about Mexican politics, but at least that keeps things exciting. And it gets me out of teaching my graduate public policy class that night, so there’s a small bonus there.

Syllabi: creating excuses for professors to read what they need to read

Our book orders were due ridiculously early, so I didn’t slip in everything I probably should have added from my “to be read” list, but at least I got in The American Voter Revisited, The End of Inequality, and Partisan Hearts and Minds between my graduate political behavior course and the senior-level course I’m using to shoehorn political behavior, parties, and interest groups into our (radically in need of some overhaul) undergraduate major.

Now I have to make up some fake syllabi for two courses I’m unlikely to ever teach—but since I put in the proposals for our new graduate methods sequence, writing the syllabi for the curriculum committee is my job even though I’ve deferred to a PA person and a sociologist to teach the sequence regularly (which lets me focus on undergrad methods, which the PA person doesn’t want to teach and which I’d rather teach than the graduate sequence).

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Hey, you ignorant rednecks! Vote for me!

Rep. John Murtha (D-Racist Part of Pennsylvania) further confirms his idiocy. There is certainly an undercurrent of anti-black racism behind some of the opposition to Obama, just as there is/was an undercurrent of sexism behind some of the opposition to Hillary Clinton and Palin, and much of that undercurrent is concentrated in the Appalachian homeland of (some of) my ancestors, but surely a sitting House member facing reelection could articulate that sentiment in a way that doesn’t insult all of his constituents.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

QotD, five miles uphill each way to school edition

Jacob T. Levy on his introduction of photos at his eponymous blog:

I hear that the interwebs are now capable of handling things that aren’t even text. (In my day, we browsed the interwebs on lynx in UNIX and read e-mail on Pine and we liked it!)

Heh; while my first exposure to true Internet access (in the summer of 1992, before the invention of the img tag and widespread use of the web) was rather more slick due to the wonders of NeXTSTEP, the ancient ancestor of Mac OS X, even that was an incredibly texty experience by today’s standards. Over the intervening years, I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time with lynx and Pine and their more modern siblings (elinks and mutt).

Friday, 10 October 2008

I've been waiting for a miracle

Via Dale Franks, the only political commentary that will be appearing on my office door this election season:

Campaign fail

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The dark side

Steven Taylor is considering going dual-boot. For better or worse, I think Ubuntu is probably the best choice for a newbie these days, although my last lenny install was surprisingly painless (except for the whole “MacBooks have very funky partitioning” issue which I’ve never really been able to resolve to my satisfaction).

Monday, 6 October 2008

Choosing the wrong denominator

Matthew Yglesias demonstrates innumeracy in action:

We got an interesting experiment this weekend as Bill Maher’s anti-religious screed Religulous and David Zucker’s right-wing satire An American Carol both opened. The two films were about tied in terms of total revenue but Carol was on three times as many screens, so basically Religulous was far more successful.

I think this mostly reflects something I wrote about a couple of years ago — the moviegoing audience is very demographically similar to the Democratic Party voting audience. It’s disproportionately young, disproportionately childless, and tilted toward residents of big cities and away from residents of rural communities. Conversely, the audience for television news is demographically very conservative (older, white, and a bit more prosperous than average) which is one major reason TV news coverage tilts right. The big screen audience for what looks like a witless screed against God is just a lot bigger than the big screen audience for what looks like a witless screed against Michael Moore.

Actually, since total revenue for both movies was about the same, it would appear that the “big screen audience” for crappy polemical Bill Maher movies is about the same as the “big screen audience” for crappy polemical David Zucker movies. Further, since I’d guess Carol probably played in theaters with lower ticket prices on average than Religulous, the former probably did a little better in terms of the total audience.

Yglesias also makes the rather faulty assumption that the per-screen average revenue would remain flat as screens increased. This result only obtains if moviegoers don’t select theaters based on what movies are playing at them or if screens are very distant from each other geographically; while surely there are some people who just go to the movies to see something without deciding beforehand which movie to see, I doubt there are enough of these people to ensure Maher’s movie would gain a substantially larger audience, except in the relatively uncommon cases where the film just isn’t on at any theater in a metropolitan area and there is a substantial number of people who want to see it.

Besides, all the discerning moviegoers were at Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist this weekend anyway.