Getting Out the Trump Vote Again

Canvassing doesn’t work in wooing uncommitted voters — here’s the evidence.

It does seem though that systematic efforts to get out the vote have some impact. That’s partly what happened in the 2016 presidential election: Republicans were persuaded to vote for Trump, even if they didn’t much like him, in order to prevent Clinton from winning. Meanwhile Clinton generated only tepid enthusiasm and turnout among Democrats.

Trump seems particularly vulnerable as the 2020 campaign gets underway, losing support from the swing states and the suburbanites who made the difference last time around, and not even factoring in the Mueller reveal that’s yet to come. You’d have to think that a lot of the people who voted Trump’s way last time are going to sit this one out.

So what can Republicans do to jack up the turnout? The traditional hot-button issues are still in play  — abortion, drugs, illegal immigrants, Obamacare. Terrorism? Trump himself just pulled that plug by declaring victory over ISIS and amping up negotiations with the Taliban, but maybe he’ll juice the anti-Iran sentiment.

What seems likely is that the Republicans will spotlight the new wave of left-wing Democrats, even if they lose the nomination to a more moderate candidate. The Democratic tent harbors radical leftists, increasingly strident and influential, who are pushing America inexorably toward socialism and infanticide while opening our borders to roving hordes of Mexicans who kill us with their drugs, rape our women, and take our jobs. Sure Trump is an asshole, but you already knew that when you voted him in last time and — thank God — prevented Hillary from ruining our country. Buck up and get yourself out to the polls!

 

 

 

 

De-Turing Test

Let’s invoke the boilerplate frontispiece disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

In my story, a big high-tech company has developed a self-learning AI system that can carry on natural-language conversations online, by text or by voice, spanning a wide array of topics. Would the AI pass the Turing Test? The tech company arranges for a number of university professors to enroll the company’s AI in their online classes. At the beginning of the semester each participating professor announces to the students that one among them is an AI and that it’s their task, individually and collectively, to identify the android in their midst.

Already within the first week several students have come forward, confessing to their classmates that they are the androids. Pranksters no doubt, budding philosophers playing with the idea that humans aren’t all that different from machines. But what if the self-confessed androids are telling the truth? Maybe it’s a ruse, the AI system deploying reverse psychology in order to throw the humans off their scent. So now the Turing Test gets turned around: can an intelligent entity prove that it’s not an android?

 

 

From the Frying Pan into the Future

A month or so ago I received a jury duty summons in the mail. Only once before had I been called — it was while we were living in Boulder — but one of the attorneys eliminated me during voir dire. A lot of people try to avoid jury duty, but I’d been looking forward to it. A couple of years earlier my wife Anne had been seated on a jury for a horrific alleged crime, and while finding it stressful to sit through the testimony and presentation of evidence Anne had been fascinated by the trial proceedings and the jury deliberation. When it was over she felt that she had contributed something to the greater civic good, and had received something meaningful in return. I’d wanted in, and was disappointed when they gave me the boot.

The summons, issued by the Office of the Sheriff, instructed me to report for duty in the Jury Assembly Room at the Durham County Courthouse at 8:30 this morning. However, the letter further informed me that “sometimes jurors may no longer be needed by the date for which you are summoned.” I was told to call a number after 5:30 on the evening before my service date to see if they still wanted me to come in. I called, and they didn’t. “You don’t need to report for jury service,” the recorded woman’s voice informed me. “The court’s juror requirements have been met. By being available you have fulfilled your service. Thank you.” Well, a little bit of a letdown. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s felt disappointed. I’d been available for future service, which would have become present service today. But the recorded message informed me that I had already fulfilled my service in the past merely by being available. Now I suppose I can hold my head high: I fulfilled my civic duty, received my honorable discharge, no need to thank me for my service, I count it a privilege. I wonder if the Courthouse sells “I Served” t-shirts. My Badge Number and Juror Number are printed in the upper-left heading of my summons– the t-shirt could leave blank lines where the purchaser can write in his own numbers.

With time on my hands and blueberries and buttermilk in the fridge I decided to make pancakes for breakfast. I cracked the egg and slid it into the bowl — two yolks! According to the Egg Industry this is a one-in-a-thousand occurrence. The dual-yolk eggs used to be pulled from the production lines during candling because they tended to freak out the cooks, presaging either good luck or pregnancy or twins or death. I guess when you’re making pancakes you don’t want to look much further ahead than breakfast. Nowadays though the double-yolk eggs just pass on through — it’s probably just a cost-effectiveness thing, though superstition seems to have lost potency to shape destinies over recent decades. In any event, the pancakes turned out nicely — I’d like to thank that hen for her service. Now we’ll see what the rest of the day holds in store.

Writing this stuff down it starts feeling like the beginning of a novel…

“You have fulfilled your service.”

John hung up the phone. He’d already mapped out the route and planned what to bring along to keep himself occupied while waiting to be called. Though he’d never entertained any inclination to study the law, though he had found himself gravely disappointed in his only brush with the system, small claims court having meted out its lazy injustice on what he deemed arbitrary and capricious grounds, not to mention the outright lying of his duplicitous adversary, John had long been intrigued by the legal process, by the all-rises and the swearing-ins, by the evidence bags and the depositions, by crime scene photos and forensic expert testimony, by the contrasting narratives spun by prosecution and defense, stories that to the jury would sound clear and convincing beyond a shadow of a doubt…

Mind-Body-Mind

Here’s a summary of a couple of recent experiments demonstrating deep placebo/nocebo effect. It’s not too surprising that, when told that their DNA test results reveal a particular genetic predisposition, study participants demonstrated attitudes, feelings, and behaviors consistent with that genetic marker, even when the DNA results are fake news. But the participants also underwent physiological changes consistent with the fake genetic news.

This work comes out of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, which “focuses on how subjective mindsets (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, and expectations) can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms.” They’re tracing a causal cascade that runs opposite from but complementary to that of contemporary neuroscience, which explores how brain physiology shapes subjective mindsets. Then there’s this earlier study from Harvard demonstrating that placebo responsiveness might itself be genetic.

These sorts of findings tend to stimulate extravagant inferences.

MSU by 4

Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Michigan State a 2½-point favorite over Purdue in this afternoon’s basketball game. How did they come up with that spread? Mostly it’s an algorithmic simulation, a multivariate statistical equation built up from analyzing massive amounts of data collected about all the teams’ past performances in all of their games. But the bookmakers make their money not by betting on the games but by collecting the vig — the house’s cut on each bet placed, typically 10% of the amount bet.

Suppose Purdue, in a mild upset, wins the game. Vegas will pay off on bets that went under the predicted 2½-point MSU margin of victory. But they’ll also collect from bets that went over the spread. As long as the total amount of money bet on the “under” doesn’t greatly exceed the “over,” Vegas breaks even on the betting money while still making a 10 percent profit on the vig.

The point-spread algorithm isn’t deterministic, cranking out a single prediction of which team will win and by how much. It’s probabilistic, generating a Bell curve’s worth of possible outcomes of varying degrees of likelihood. Each of the factors going into the oddsmaking algorithm has a plus-or-minus confidence interval associated with it.

E.g., in the 18 games it’s played so far this year MSU has scored an average of 83.8 points, while Purdue has yielded to its opponents an average of 68.2 points. So you’re first best guess might be that MSU will score halfway between its average score and Purdue’s average points allowed: (83.8 + 68.2)/2 = 76 points. But there’s also the variability to take into consideration: MSU has scored between 106 and 63 points, while Purdue has allowed between 89 and 46 points.

The same idea holds for pace of play, rebounding margin, shooting percentage, and all of the other relevant variables: an average score is surrounded by a plus-or-minus halo of variation. These probabilistic variables are combined and differentially weighted in an equation that, like its components, generates a probabilistic average and a range of variation.

Only one actual game between MSU and Purdue will be played this afternoon; when the buzzer sounds only one actual final score will be posted on the scoreboard; some betters will have won while others have lost. But from the algorithm’s standpoint the game that’s played this afternoon is only one of an infinite number of MSU-Purdue games that could be played — a practical application of multiverse theory. The algorithm runs a series of simulations on maybe a thousand hypothetical games, systematically tweaking the plus-or-minus variabilities in the model to generate what-if scenarios, then cranking out a final score for each simulated game. In some simulations MSU wins by a dozen; in others MSU loses by a dozen. What Vegas wants to know is the midpoint, where half of the simulated game results fall on left tail of the distribution, the other half on the right tail. That’s where Vegas wants to set the point spread.

But not so fast. Just because the algo cranked out the average point spread for its simulated games, that doesn’t mean that the betters are going to fall 50-50 on either side of that spread. People who bet on games might have a system and do analyses; they might even have an algorithm of their own that they’ve built or a service they’ve bought into to help them beat Vegas at its own game. But betters also play hunches, follow instincts, play favorites.

MSU has won 21 straight Big Ten games: aren’t they about due for a loss? And MSU has beat the Vegas point spread in 8 straight times: surely things are due to even out. That sort of thinking is called the gambler’s fallacy — that the longer somebody has been on a lucky streak, the greater the likelihood that the streak will come to an end. Still, just because it’s a fallacy from an empirical standpoint doesn’t mean that bettors stop believing it.

So there’s still a seat in the back room for the guy with the green eyeshade smoking a cigarette. Let’s say that the algo runs a thousand simulations of the game and the average prediction is MSU by 5 points. The savvy bookmaker might have reason to expect that gambler’s fallacy will play a role in the betting and consequently nudge the spread down a little bit. But the bookmaker needn’t rely solely on intuition and experience. There’s plenty of historic betting data to be mined; simulated bets can be placed online or in focus groups days before the actual odds are to be posted. Almost surely Vegas relies now on a self-learning AI to predict human betting patterns for each game, using its findings in tandem with those of the point-spread prediction algorithm.

The open-access college basketball algorithm website I pay attention to is Kenpom. According to that algo, MSU is about 9 points better than Purdue. However, the game is being played on Purdue’s home court, and according to Kenpom’s analysis the home court advantage is worth on average about 3½ points. So MSU should be expected to win by 9 – 3½ = 5½, covering the Las Vegas spread of 2½.

I have rooting interests in MSU, having graduated from there. On the other hand, I do tend to think that MSU has been playing over their heads lately and are due for a bit of a comeuppance. However, I acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of gambler’s fallacy bias creeping in there. So I’ll split the difference between Las Vegas and Kenpom.

My prediction: Michigan State by 4 — I’m taking the over.

——

UPDATE… Final score: Purdue 73, Michigan State 63. One of those wrong futures showed up in the present. Good thing I didn’t put my money where my mouth was.

 

Knowledge-Resistant Strains of Belief

According to recent research findings, people who are strongly opposed to genetically modified organisms tend to know the least about food science, but believe that they know the most about it. And their negative opinions about GMO safety aren’t influenced by exposure to relevant research findings. One of the principle investigators in the study hypothesized that “people might feel extremely about genetically modified food because it’s very unnatural in a way they find almost morally upsetting.” The article cites a 2001 psych research study that concludes:

Beliefs tend to persevere even after evidence for their initial formulation has been invalidated by new evidence… People spontaneously generate explanations for events as a way of understanding events, including their own beliefs. If an explanation is generated, this explanation becomes a reason for holding an explained belief, even if the belief is eventually undercut by new evidence.

I find these sorts of findings disturbing. It’s not that I know a lot about GMO safety, because I don’t (and I admit it). I’m disturbed by the resistance of belief to knowledge. What I believe about some aspect of the world is never the same as the world itself, any more than your belief about what I’m presently drinking is the same as the drink itself. But if you believe that I’m drinking a gin and tonic, I’d expect you to hold that belief loosely in your hand, ready to set it down and to pick up another depending on what I tell you I’m drinking, what you see in my glass, what it tastes like when you take a sip.

For what it’s worth, I’m less concerned about GMO safety than about corporate monopolistic control over food production by patenting their engineered organisms. But Big Ag has for a long time been patenting hybrid organisms developed the old-fashioned way, through systematic cross-pollination rather than genetic engineering.

Time for a refill.

The Democratic Party’s Incredible Concern for the Future

If you’re like me, you’re incredibly concerned for the future of our nation.

That’s how Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez begins his personalized “Dear John” letter introducing the Official 2019 Democratic Party Survey. I’m not a card-carrying party member but my father John Sr. was — the Survey form even includes his DNC membership number in the upper left corner — and I still get mail meant for him even though he passed away nearly five years ago.

If you’re like me — pulling the empathy string; incredibly concerned — heightening the affect; our nation — invoking tribal identification and ownership. The future — not the present, which is already a source of concern; not the past, as in “make America great again.” The future is, presumably, a code word for progressive.

I’m not accustomed to posting on political topics here on Ficticities. But the future is fictional, a temporal vector that exists only in the imagination. Not just thinking about, worrying about, and predicting the future but actively attempting to shape an alternative future according to policy specifications — that’s a kind of Ficticity, the attempt to craft a future ecosystem whose reality depends not solely on material conditions and forces but also on collective imagining. So I’m curious about the contours of this ficticitous future that’s purportedly being shaped by DNC operatives and Party members.

The Survey consists of ten structured questionnaire items, followed by a short free-form space in which you, the respondent, are invited to share your ideas on how the DNC and Democratic candidates can win in future elections. The survey wraps up with an appeal for financial contribution — A gift of $25 would be a tremendous help!.

But back to the top. What sorts of future-oriented question are posed in this survey? Most interestingly to me, do the questions reflect the futuristic concerns and plans animating the progressive wing of the Party? I used to write questionnaires for a living so I know that, by posing questions about certain topics while simply ignoring other topics, a survey can bias the results even without cheating on data collection and analysis. Each question in the Party Survey follows a similar format: Which of the following items is most important to you, do you find most troubling, etc.? Respondents have about 10 options for each question to choose from, with the opportunity to check up to 3 or 4 options for each question. So the general impression is that it’s a fairly comprehensive and open-ended instrument for polling the Party membership. But I’m particularly interested in options that aren’t included in the checklists  — options that are either ignored or suppressed in an attempt to mold the Party platform.

First question: Which domestic issues are most important to you? Okay, without looking at the options, what are the domestic issues of particular importance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Achieve universal healthcare via Medicare for all or some other single-payer system.
  2. Reduce climate change via rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  3. Reduce economic stratification and increase equality by raising taxes on the ultra-high income brackets and/or on the ultra-wealthy.
  4. Reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
  5. Open borders for immigrants.
  6. Make college education free.
  7. Establish guaranteed universal income.

No doubt there are more progressive planks, but that ought to do for present purposes. Also, these seven issues are merely progressive, modifying the status quo incrementally. They’re not radical agenda items in the sense of overhauling the political or economic system, not full-on socialistic or communistic or direct-democracy anarchistic.

Now let’s look at the actual response options listed in that first survey question about domestic issues. How well do the options address my sample menu of seven left-wing concerns?

Universal healthcare and single-payer. There are two relevant Survey response options. The first, Securing universal health care and reducing prescription drug costs, goes partway, but it stops short of the single-payer idea. Universal healthcare could be achieved via patchwork changes in the status quo combination of private sector employer-financed insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket. It could be argued that universal health care is a concern whereas single-payer is a specific policy intervention for addressing that concern. Maybe so, but reducing prescription drug costs is a specific intervention, and it’s bundled into the Survey response. The second Survey response relevant to universal healthcare, Protecting Medicare from privatization, again reinforces the status quo rather than calling for systemic redesign.

Climate change. Relevant Survey response option: Combating climate change, building a clean energy economy, and securing environmental justice. Okay, that’s pretty good, though something like “averting imminent climate change disaster” might be more reflective of being incredibly concerned for the future. What about building a clean energy economy: does that mean creating government jobs in wind and solar, or extending subsidies and low-cost government loans to for-profit energy companies? Probably the latter. And what is environmental justice?

Redistribute wealth. The Survey item says Raising wages and restoring economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s not a progressive position.

Equal opportunity. Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is okay. No mention is made of women or race.

Open borders. The offered response — Fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring families aren’t separated at the border — is decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Free college education. Relevant Survey item: making debt-free college a reality. It’s gesturing in the right direction, though debt-free isn’t the same thing as free-free

Guaranteed universal income. This is an issue that’s not addressed in the Survey responses.

What other issues are addressed in the Survey response options? Voting rights, gun laws, reproductive rights, Social Security, public schools, criminal justice and incarceration — mostly these are calls for securing prior gains while extending them incrementally. To be fair, there is room at the bottom called Other, which is fill-in-the-blank rather than checkbox. But the blank space is big enough to write in maybe half a dozen words.

I’ll not continue with the rest of the Survey questions and response items. The general tenor is clear: the Democratic Party road to the future will be built largely from middle-of-the-road planks, with limited gestures directed toward the left wing. I wish I’d kept last year’s Survey so I could compare response options to see if there’s been any discernible leftward tilt. My recollection though is that the 2018 Survey was pretty similar to the 2019 edition.

Clearly the DMC’s main agenda is getting Democratic candidates elected. The 2018 elections saw a swing to a Democratic majority in the House. While some progressives won, they did so in districts that were already strongly progressive; for the most part the shift in balance of power was achieved through nominating and electing moderates. Trump’s popularity remains strong among his core constituents, but it has declined across the board since he took office. For the most part Trump won by taking states that nearly always vote Republican in presidential elections, while taking enough swing states — WI, MI, PA — to achieve Electoral College majority. Given Trump’s declining popularity, the DNC probably figures that it can recapture those key swing states, plus a few more, merely by riding along with popular disenchantment with Trump and his cronies. There’s no need to champion a radically more progressive agenda when the moderate platform is likely to turn the trick. Trot out a few media-savvy and attractive progressives who can placate the left wing of the Party, keeping them from splintering off into third-party territory. Find at least one presidential candidate who conveys a modicum of charismatic appeal. But the Party’s tacit expectation is that the future is going to look a lot like the present and the past. Based on recent trends it’ll likely be the Dems’ turn next time around. Play it safe, hit the swing states with moderation, and start planning the inaugural gala.