Archive for November, 2010

Freedom and DNS

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Any time the Motion Picture Association of America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Screen Actors Guild agree on a piece of legislation, it is time to grow concerned. On November 18, the Senate Judicial Committee reported out the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) to the full Senate for consideration, by 19-0 vote. The bill represents an overt disregard for due process, probably violates the First Amendment, and is an embarrassing surrender to monied interests.

The COICA grants the Attorney General the discretion to determine if the primary purpose of a website is the illegal distribution of copyrighted material and to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to remove the site from domain name servers (DNSs). A DNS is the service that maps the name of a site to its IP address. For example, if you want to visit the web site to find a copy of this malicious bill, your computer asks a name server what the IP address for this site is (in this case Your computer then connects using this number. Without DNS services most people would not be able to find the sites they are interested in.

The bill is wrong on many levels and at best will only make it difficult for innocent non-copyright infringers to navigate the Internet. First, the COICA grants authority for the Attorney General to punish the owners of a site without any judicial determination of wrong doing. The rough equivalent would be if the Attorney General could arbitrarily remove your listing out the phone book or refuse to grant you access to highways without bothering to have to prove to a court that you had committed a crime.

One can conceive of useful sites like Dropbox that let people share files for legitimate purposes being effectively unreachable if an Attorney General decides that such sites are too useful for copyright infringers. The genius of our democracy is that does not allow individuals such summary authority. The COICA ignores this principle.

Removing a site’s DNS listing might make it difficult for average people to find the site, but IP addresses could easily be transferred between people serious about illegally passing around copyrighted materials. The bill would not even be effective at stopping the most serious part of the problem it is purported to alleviate. It is the honest who will be most inconvenienced.

Perhaps most significantly, without a judge in the process, an unscrupulous Attorney General could effectively silence a site to the general public by using charges of copyright infringement as an ostensible excuse. It is, therefore, not likely that the bill would survive First Amendment scrutiny, especially in an age when more and more content is moving to the Internet.

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has said that he will block the bill from coming to a vote this year, so perhaps the bill’s submission to the full Senate was just a costless way for Senators on the Judiciary Committee to offer up a bill for powerful constituencies. If this was their motivation, we should not be quick to forgive them. Rather than engaging in pandering, the Judiciary Committee should be especially sensitive about such overreaching bills

There are already legal and effective remedies available to stop copyright violations. The First Amendment and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty’’ should not be scarified at the altar of the Motion Picture Association of America or even the US Chamber of Commerce.

Palin’s Problem

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

It is hard for Conservatives to not like Sara Palin. It is not so often that there is such a match between Conservative ideology and charismatic appeal. Sarah Palin is a political rock star. She demonstrated this by her ability to raise funds and draw crowds for candidates in the mid-term elections a few weeks ago. Though the historic Republican sweep cannot be said to be her doing (there was substantial help from President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi), Palin deserves credit for vigorous labor on the behalf of candidates. She certainly was able to make substantial deposits in her bank of political favors, ready for withdraw later.

It is also easy for Conservatives to feel protective of Palin. She has been unfairly depicted as being a dim bulb by people of limited wattage themselves. This line of political attack is part of a broader critique of middle-class America by the self-anointed elites of the blue states. However, is precisely because Palin has been somewhat successfully caricaturized as unserious that she should spend more time as a policy wonk and less as a lightning rod.

Palin should learn from the experience of Ronald Reagan. He changed careers from actor to politician, and was dismissed as “just an actor’’ for his entire political career. Overtime the criticism lost its saliency because Reagan led a large state for eight years. Palin unfortunately withdrew from the governorship of Alaska, probably for personal financial reasons. The decision may benefit her family, but not her prospects for higher political office.

Reagan spent years providing regular radio political commentary where he thought through his ideas and nutured his political voice. Sarah Palin has exploited the new social media with a presence on Twitter and Facebook, but in not quite the correct way. She needs to twitter less, and use Facebook more as Reagan used radio.

Palin would be well-served by thinking through and regularly writing serious political pieces on Facebook and perhaps even delivering her ideas on a regular podcast. Palin has the star power, she needs to persuade others that she can back up with policy credentials. She should use social media in much same way as Congressman Paul Ryan does: less for political attention and more for explaining ideas. The public elected a novice pretty political face for president in 2008, who hid is political radicalism. In 2012, the public will be more concerned with ideas.

Palin took a step backward this week with Sarah Palin’s Alaska: a show on the TLC channel. If the show had focused entirely on Alaska in documentary fashion, it might have helped Palin.

Instead of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,’’ the show would be more aptly named “Alaska’s Sarah Palin.’’ There was beautiful scenes of Alaska and Palin’s family in Alaska. Unfortunately, program devolved too much into a reality show. Sarah Palin may be attractive to look at walking in shorts around her expansive new house, but the view of her family was just too intimate. It was not that there was any pathological present. On the contrary, the Palins were dealing with children and other family issues, much as we all do, in an appealing – if contrived – manner.

However, we want leaders who, as in Kipling’s phrase, “can talk with crowds and keep [their] virtue, [and] walk with kings’’ while not losing, “the common touch,’’ there needs to be an emotional distance for leadership. Sarah Palin’s Alaska shrinks that distance.

There is a saying that no man is a hero to his valet. Similarly, it is hard to entrust weighty issues to your next door neighbors, no matter how appealing. Palin’s show is making her more a neighbor we might like, and less a leader we would believe in.

It’s Not Self-Regard But Condescension

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

A healthy sense of self-regard and confidence are necessary personal attributes for any successful leader. Under what other circumstances would anyone desire the scrutiny and loss of privacy associated with becoming an national leader?

However, even given the high bar set by recent leaders, President Barack Obama’s self-regard approaches a historical highs.

In 2008, Obama explained, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.’’ Either he selected a mediocre speechwriter, policy advisers and a political director or Obama is apparently convinced he is always the smartest person in the room.

When it looked liked the Republicans might enjoy a hugely successful mid-term election in 2010 that rivaled 1994 when Republicans earned a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in a generation, Obama dismissed these concerns by saying, “Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’’

Whatever, on thinks about former President Bill Clinton’s policies, he is universally acknowledged as the most masterful politician in memory. For Obama to cavalierly declare that he could avoid political losses that Clinton could not, betrays self-regard bordering on what others have called “narcissism.’’

Obama’s self-regard may eventually prove politically fatal, but his recent problem is not been the regard in which he holds himself, by the dismissive and condescending regard with which he holds his fellow Americans. We received a glimpse of this during the 2008 election, when Obama said of Pennsylvanians in hard times, “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations’’’

While Obama now concedes that his party suffered a “shellacking,’’ he chalks it up to a recovery that has not yet really kicked in. Obama has only acknowledged that perhaps he has not been able to explain to Americans the soundness of his policies. The implications is that if only Americans were smart and aware enough they would appreciate Obama’s efforts.

When Americans were focused on the pain caused by a struggling economy, Obama and the Democrats thought that it was necessary to pass a sweeping and costly health care reform bill. They crammed it through despite the fact that a clear majority of Americans were against it and now want its repeal. In addition, Obama and the Democrats increased the debt by trillions to stimulate the economy while most people believe that the policy has not worked. Obama was saying, in essence, we know better than the American people, so we are going to pass the health care reform and stimulus bills anyways.

Americans will tolerate and perhaps even celebrate a leader with overweening self confidence, but not one who has comparable low regard of Americans as a whole.

Election Prediction Recap

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

In trying to model any phenomenon, it always possible to bring in too many correlated independent variables. With enough variables, it is always possible to fit past data. However, the question is whether the true dynamics have been captured. The simplest model that can reasonably explain the data is usually the safest.

The professionall analysts in this past election did not fair too well. As it looks now that there will be a net 65-seat pickup for Republicans in the House of Representatives. Larry Sabato, Director of the University Center for Politics, predicted a gain of 55 seats. Nate Silver, political statistician supported by the New York Times, used elaborate simulations to predict a 54-seat gain. The Rothenberg’s Political Report faired better with a 55-65 seat gain prediction.

Using a simple linear regression model, we were able to predict a 69-seat gain with a +/- 10 seat standard deviation. The plot below shows the advantage in the actual Democratic vote versus the pre-election Gallup generic preference poll. The indicated point shows the result of this past election. Note that the linear fit very closely predicted the outcome. We submit here the humble thesis that some rather simple models have been adequate to explain events like the House election, where the 435 seats available allow the statistical means to prevail.

Final Prediction

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Using their traditional model for the generic preference between Democrats and Republicans, Gallup finds a 15% advantage for Republicans as of 2010 Nov 1. This result is outside the experience of Gallup polling in previous elections. However, using a linear fit between Gallup generic poll and outcomes for all midterm elections since 1950, we make the following prediction:

Republicans gain 69 seats in the House. The standard deviation on this estimate is 59 to 79 seats. That is, there is a 60% chance the final value will fall in this range. The 95% range is 39 to 99 seats.