Monday, September 29, 2008

Data Blogging: the Electoral College

Defenders of the Electoral College claim that it serves to amplify the popular vote margin of victory and therefore (theoretically) enhances the legitimacy of the elected president. I was curious what the data looked like so I plotted it up. (Data courtesy of wikipedia - god help me caveat emptor - here and here.)

This is a plot of percentage of electoral votes vs. the popular vote margin for presidential elections in the past 100 years. Sure enough, the trend shows that the electoral college 'saturates' at somewhere around a 20 percent margin. That is, a 60-40 split in the popular vote will more or less win you a landslide, although there is a fair amount of scatter in the data.

Which is all well and good if you're Reagan in '84 or FDR in '36 (the two largest electoral college landslides on the right end of the trendline), but some of the outliers are pretty interesting too. The two largest popular vote margins (Harding and Coolidge) didn't exactly run away with the electoral college. And for the really close elections (the ones where the winner might want some legitimacy amplification) the effect tends to be pretty small.

And then of course there's poor Al Gore - the only datapoint, in this century, to fall below the x-axis.

[Update: Barack Obama beat John McCain by 6.5% and received 365 electoral votes, which puts him right on the trendline (red dot), and quite close to Bill Clinton's first election.]

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Golden Age

TV on the Radio has a new album out called Dear Science. I can't say I was blown away by the first single ('Golden Age') or its goofy 'cops turn into Care Bears' video, but it's growing on me. It reminds me of Prince or early Michael Jackson filtered through Peter Gabriel. Anyway, here it is - enjoy.

Half the appeal of TVOTR are the beautiful soundscapes they create, so I imagine the actual CD track sounds better than the youtube version. Another track (the raucous 'Dancing Choose') is available streaming from their website.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Strategy and Tactics Redux

James Fallows has some interesting thoughts on the subject, following last night's debate. Worth a read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Has John McCain lost his mind?

Some things that happened today in the campaign:
  • Obama is up by as much as +9 points in some national polls
  • The NY Times reports that McCain campaign manager was, until recently, receiving $15,000 a month to provide Freddie/Fannie execs with "access" to McCain
  • McCain decides to "suspend his campaign" to focus on the financial crisis and calls for postponing Friday's debate (and the VP debate!)
It really is fascinating to watch these two campaigns because they are total mirror images of each other. The McCain campaign is all tactics, no strategy. They focus on winning the news cycle, attacking and scoring points--which makes perfect sense for an underdog. On the other hand, Obama (the front-runner) is pure strategy. They've got their plan for victory mapped out to the precinct. They keep their head when crises rear up and rarely change course. Sometimes it seems they could care less about the news cycle.

So: a few weeks of bad news and McCain hits the panic button. I'm sure McCain's advisers are high-fiving each other over their latest brilliant move. But I'll bet your average swing voter will see this as McCain trying to get out of turning in his homework. We'll see.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Random Thought about the LHC

So the Large Hadron Collider has turned on, and weirdly, every time I read something about it I am reminded of this exchange between Gandalf and Saruman:
"For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman the Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!"

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

"I liked white better," I said.

"White!" he sneered. "It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."

"In which case it is no longer white," said I. "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."

[J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, p. 252]
It always struck me as a weird thing for Gandalf to say. Is he really worried about "breaking" white light to understand how it works? Does it count if you learn enough to put it back together again? Still, I guess it fits with the platonic and pre-scientific feel of Tolkien's universe.

So, anyway, let's raise a flagon of mead, smash some atoms and give a toast to reductionism! Good luck to the LHC - it would be cool if they found the Higgs, but even cooler if they found supersymmetry, or something even wackier.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I thought Barack Obama's response to the Sarah Palin family craziness was typically classy:
“Let me be as clear as possible,” said Obama, “I think people’s families are off-limits and people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin’s performance as governor, or her potential performance as a vice president.”

Obama said reporters should “back off these kinds of stories” and noted that he was born to an 18 year-old mother.
Hell of a lot classier than John McCain's ugly joke about Chelsea Clinton from back in the 90s, that's for sure (to be fair McCain did apologize, but that's a lot to apologize for).

I've been meaning to post something about Obama's awesome speech last week, but the unrelenting nuttiness of McCain's veep selection process has really been too distracting. Did he seriously just pick someone with a pending ethics investigation and ties to a party advocating for Alaska's secession from the union? Did his team know about this stuff and just think it was no big deal? Or did they - as has been reported - just wing it and go with a clever pick figuring the time had come to take a chance? I mean, she seems like a genuine person, but still. Just. Weird.

As for how this will play out politically, pundit-y types are split on whether it is a bold, game-changing moment from the original maverick ... or a desperate, Hail-Mary ploy from a losing campaign. I'm gonna say that Palin, like virtually all VP picks, will make very little difference in the eventual outcome. Most people vote the top of the ticket. She'll play well to the religious right, but her extreme social conservatism will cost McCain with moderates and her thin resume will blunt his attacks on Obama's experience. I seriously doubt she'll have much appeal to grumpy Hillary voters.

But, honestly, I have no idea how it will play out. This presidential race continues to be exciting and bizarre.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Words Creep Up Inside

In the last week or so Quinn has started talking. Her first real word is "bye" and she loves to repeat it whenever someone leaves the house, or the room, or just looks like they might be going somewhere. She pronounces it "bah," which according to a co-worker is a very southern pronunciation.

The other word she has been saying is "daddy." A few days ago she pointed to me and very clearly said "da-ee." Then she pointed to me in our wedding photo and repeated it.

I was of course totally blown away by this! But since then there has been some evidence that she has a more expansive definition of the word than others do. A variety of other things sometimes get called "da-ee" as well (e.g. Mama, the doorframe, a candle, random other pictures, etc.).

There are other words on the cusp too, like "mama" and "baby." This is just another reminder that there is no bright line between speaking and non-speaking and that we evolve into it gradually. But there is no doubt that Quinn absolutely wants to communicate and will probably be talking up a storm before we know it.