Monday, September 29, 2014

Political Polling - Season of the Witch

It's a desire as old as humanity, the wish to know the future. That's why palmistry and tarot card reading are still things even though the only thing palm readers can tell is whether I work with my hands and and tarot decks can only reveal how well I shuffle. Modern, scientific polling is more accurate than reading goat entrails but that is not saying much.

Pollsters will acknowledge that their polls are accurate, within a margin of error, except for those times they aren't. Pollsters like to claim to be masters of an arcane craft or, like Nat Silver, genius statisticians. What they are is educated guessers. Out of over 1,000 polls in the last week before the 2012 election, some pollsters were supernaturally accurate while others missed by a country mile. But, hitting your number in roulette does not make you prescient, just lucky.

When you look inside the magic box of pollsters you find a rather clumsy set of gears.
  • Margin of Error -  Assuming all other factors are equal, this is the range that a poll encompasses. A standard 1,000 person survey has a MoE of ±3%, meaning that 19 times out of 20 the actual result will be within that range. So, a poll claiming a 52% win could really be showing a 49% loss. Most of the time the "momentum" polls reveal is nothing more than MoE noise. But, this all assumes all other factors are equal and they never are.
  • Survey Structure - I once had a pollster explain to me how he could manipulate the results of a survey just by the order he asked the questions. Professional pollsters are aware of this but not even the best of them can catch all the subtle biases created by survey structure.
  • Response Rate - Pollsters are annoying and in this era of cell phones and call screening they are an avoidable annoyance. To get 1,000 responses requires over 20,000 attempts. This lead to....
  • Sampling Bias - Polls tend to under sample younger, poorer, and minority people. This means the results are not random. This leads to....
  • Weighting - When I was in high school my science teacher had what he call "Stowell's Constant," which was the number you added or subtracted from the result you got to get the correct answer. Pollsters do the same thing. They adjust the raw results they get to mirror what they believe is the electorate. Rasmussen Reports notoriously believes there are more Republicans that actually exist and their results tend to skew Republican.
  • Weighting Small Samples -  A problem with weighing is when you start parsing polls you get some really small sample sizes. A standard 1,000 person survey would expect 70 African-American males. If the poll only actually reached 30 black men then the MoE is approaching 18%, an error that is magnified by applying weighting adjustments. Pollsters hope the accumulations of these small sample errors will cancel each other out but there is no science to that, it is just hope.
  • In Hindsight - Pollsters always come up with explanations for when they screw the pooch but whenever they get close to the mark it is because of their mastery of the art of polling.
I'm not saying that political polls are worthless. They are amusing and, if taken with an appropriate number of grains of salt, mildly illuminating. They can tell you if an election will be close, but so can common sense. Polls are most useful for people who lack any common sense which is why politicians cling to them so desperately.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mercs R Us

Conservatives have a new (old) idea, hire mercenaries to do America's fighting in Iraq and Syria. Bill O'Reilly and Cal Thomas have both opined on what a really fun idea that is, just like in the movies.

Middle East Mercenaries
Professional warriors have been called the Second Oldest Profession. The most famous mercs in the Middle East were the Khwarezmiyya who were hired by Genghis Khan after he had destroyed the Persian Empire. They were also hired by the Kurdish Ayyubid Empire to drive the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in 1244. Wait. That's not at all what Cal and Bill want.

Post-Colonial Mercenaries
What Bill and Cal want are white, Christian mercenaries. Men like 'Mad Mike' Hoare. Hoare hired himself out to quell bush rebellions in the Congo during the 1960's. Later in life he and a troop of South African soldiers of fortune were hired (through a variety of shell organizations) by the CIA in 1981 to overthrow the government of the Seychelles. Their war never got any farther than the airport tarmac and they had to hijack a plane to escape.

Commercial Mercenaries
Of course, modern mercs are big business. G4S Solutions has the seventh largest army in the world with over 650,000 employees. Blackwater (they change their name every few years) along with her many sister forces within Constellis Holdings boast a fighting force in excess of 30,000 mercs who are not afraid to murder, rape, and maim.

I suspect O'Reilly and Thomas are examples of pundit payola. They were probably paid to promote the business of corporate mercenaries.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stop and Frisk Explained in Pictures

The detention of Daniela Watts on suspicion of kissing her boyfriend in public and her arrest for refusing a police command to "show me your papers," has led to yet another edition of "The American Police State."
In Nazi occupied Europe a Gestapo command of "Papers, please" was a common street encounter. The Gestapo had a simple philosophy that everyone they encountered is a potential enemy.
These teens were walking to school when spotted by cops.
American police have a very similar philosophy. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg defended that city's Stop and Frisk policy by declaring that police and the general public are in constant danger from people walking on the street, anyone of which could be a potential threat.

There are several similarities between the Gestapo and the US police street interviews.
  • Both stops are random with nothing resembling cause (probable or improbable).
  • Both require the victims to raise their hands in humiliating submission.
  • Both demand ID papers.
  • Both include the clear threat to ruin or even take your life if you do not meekly comply.
  • Both pretend politeness, the Gestapo famously said "please," to mask the clear menace. 
  • Both frequently execute their victims on the street for the slightest sign of resistance.
  • Both target minorities. 
There are also differences.
I'm not saying that US police are as bad as the Gestapo. They are not, at least not yet. As US police become more paramilitary and less citizens battling crime, the differences are narrowing. "Land of the Free" is becoming less a rousing national anthem and more a cruel joke.
St. Louis SWAT.
"Home of the Brave" is farce too.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A World Full of Duh

So much of the news this past week has bounced between transparent lies, through merely naive, to downright stupid.

NFL Sees No Evil. Really, Justice Is Blind and So Are We.
When the video of Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator became public the NFL was all "naughty, naughty," boys will be boys, take a couple games off and be nicer. The NFL used its prodigious legal resources to get charges dropped and waited for it to be forgotten.
Pudge Heffelfinger may have beat his wife, too. Or not.
This week, when elevator security footage became public and showed Rice brutally cold cocking the girl, the NFL panicked. They made the ludicrous claim that  no one in the NFL has seen the tape. They saw it. They just didn't want to have seen them. They now have hired a career sycophant, Robert Mueller, to apply a thick coat of whitewash.

Bombing ISIS Will Only Get So Much
Berlin, 1945. All this bombing destruction yet Germany only surrendered after Russian ground forces captured Berlin.
I don't know how much of President Obama's speech last night was empty rhetoric and how much was naivety. I support the details of his plan (provide logistical and aerial support to local forces fighting ISIS) because ISIS is, on the scale of genocidal evil, between the Rwanda Hutu and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. The rhetorical goal, "degrade, and ultimately destroy," cannot be achieved with air power alone. At best, bombing can force ISIS to scatter their assets making it easier for opposing forces to chip away at  ISIS occupied land. That paragraph about industrial might is right out of the 1940's and sounds like this ISIS fight is, foremost, about growing US armaments companies.

Insult the Shit Out of Them, Why Don't Ya
Ted Cruz had a slam dunk speaking appearance at an "In Defense of Christians" banquet composed mostly of Arab Christians whose brethren are being butchered by ISIS. It was a perfect setting where he could support persecuted Christians who are being murdered by Muslim extremists. But no, that would have required someone with the IQ of a goat. Cruz is far dumber than that. Cruz started attacking all Arabs as terrorists and belittled the plight of Arab Christians by instructing them to stop being haters and start supporting Israel. Arabs in the room were strangely insulted by his hostility towards them and began booing. Cruz then doubled down and implied that if they didn't support Israel they deserved their fate with ISIS.

It was the kind of diplomatic sensitivity that will make Ted Cruz such a totally terrifying president.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Send Duck Dynasty to War

Here's a plan. It's a good plan that will kill two birds, so to speak, with one stone. Send the Duck Dynasty Klan to fight ISIS.
They have a plan (convert a few, kill everybody else). Republicans are always complaining that President Obama doesn't have a plan. They already have guns so it won't cost taxpayers anything to arm them.

But, don't just send those four wackadoddles, that wouldn't be fair. Recruit an entire army of the "convert them or kill them" crowd. Yes, including Anne Coulter. We could call it the Jesus Brigade. Who wouldn't want to see Sen. Lindsey Graham in combat fatigues backing up his words.
Sen. Graham used to claim to being a Desert Storm veteran until somebody pointed out that he spent the war hiding under a National Guard desk in South Carolina. Still, he did get a shitload of medals for heroic filing and stapling. 
There are problems. People like Ted Nugent, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney (why not send him, too?) are notorious cowards who love seeing other people do the fighting and dying as long as they can stay thousands of miles from the bloodshed. A call for volunteers to fight, without pay, for Jesus and America would go completely unanswered. Their confessed love of God and Country only goes as far as Sunday football services. President Obama should his executive powers as Commander-in-Chief to draft all the warmongers into the Jesus Brigade and send them to the front.
Of course, we know what will happen. The Duck Dynasty troop is only brave when killing unarmed water fowl. Faced with an actual ISIS soldier shooting back they will shit themselves, drop their guns, and quickly convert to Islam.