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February 2008 Archives

Our lonely galaxy

In the same issue of Scientific American that I read about Iowa Electronic Markets, I read an article called "The End of Cosmology?" (No online version.) The basic gist is that most of the clues we've used to determine the nature of the Big Bang, inflationary theory, etc, will be gone in 100 billion years. As the Universe continues to expand, all faraway galaxies will pass beyond the sphere of observability (as determined by the speed of light).

To any intelligent being in our galaxy in 100 billion years, it will seem as though we are the only galaxy in the Universe. Those Hubble Ultra Deep Field views will cease to exist! Unless they have records of our observations, they will not be able to make the same measurements that allowed us to determine much of our cosmological knowledge.

My immediate thought upon reading this was mentioned at the end of the article:

More important, although we are certainly fortunate to live at a time when the observational pillars of the big bang are all detectable, we can easily envisage that other fundamental aspects of the universe are unobservable today. What have we already lost? Rather than being self-satisfied, we should feel humble. Perhaps someday we will find that our current careful and apparently complete understanding of the universe is seriously wanting.

I guess this is just another notch in my continuing disillusionment in science. I still think science is great and often the only game in town. But that's the scary thing: It's often the best we can do, and yet it has fundamental limits. It's scary to think that some things are just plain unknowable. I still really hope that we'll figure out the hard problem of consciousness, for instance, but this gives me one more reason to be pessimistic. Science can't find out everything. Some things just can't ever be known.

In the meantime, appreciate what we can see today:


Unfortunately, after reading that article, I can't help but think about how, in 100 billion years, each of those galaxies will be in its own lonely little Universe, forever cut off from all the other galaxies, until its stars burn out and everything collapses into a black hole. Although, maybe it's less depressing if we think about the stars, and how they'll at least have other stars to keep them company as they flicker out together.

OBAM_NOM 0.822 (+0.008), CLIN_NOM 0.153 (-0.001)

I just read an article in Scientific American about prediction markets. The idea is to have "shares" that pay out when certain events happen. The University of Iowa was a pioneer in this field when they set up Iowa Electronic Markets. Their flagship market is predicting the Presidential race. The markets have had a better success rate than polls, apparently.

A typical "winner take all" market works like this: You buy a share in a candidate, and if the candidate wins, you get $1 (real money). So if you think their odds of winning are 60%, you'd want to spend 60 cents to buy a share. If the current asking price is lower, then you'll want to snatch those shares up (and the sellers will probably soon start raising their prices). And thus, market forces are supposed to indicate the odds.

Currently, in the nomination markets, OBAM_NOM has an average price of 0.822, while CLIN_NOM is 0.153. Meanwhile, MCCA_NOM is 0.911 and HUCK_NOM is only 0.012. (Btw, I had trouble opening the link in Firefox on Mac for some reason, but it worked fine in Safari.) In the general election markets the Democratic candidate winning the popular vote has a price of about 0.625, while the Republican candidate winning has a price of about 0.371.

It's interesting how we have all this debate about the Democratic election, but this market has pretty much decided Obama will win the nomination. But wait! Share prices do fluctuate with time as things happen; they're only as accurate as current data. Here's a historical graph of the Democratic nomination market:


Clinton developed a huge lead over the last year, peaking at about 0.75 in October. Obama had a big jump around the time of Iowa, but he settled down again to 0.3 below Clinton until Super Tuesday, when he started surging upward. Edwards never really made it past 0.2.

The graph for the Republican nomination market is even more of a mess:


For the latter half of 2007, Guiliani, Romney, and Thompson were all neck and neck (with Guiliani ahead most of the time), each in the 0.2-0.4 range, while McCain languished around 0.1. Then he basically started surging upward at the beginning of this year, and his numbers haven't looked back. Clearly all the people who thought Guiliani has a 40% chance of winning weren't all that prescient, and whoever bought those 10 cent McCain shares last year is riding high now. :) (Because of its research project status, though, Iowa Electronic Markets only lets you invest $5 to $500, so you can't really make big bucks. :P)

Finally, here's the graph for the general election popular vote:


The two parties were neck and neck in late 2006, but the gap started widening in early 2007 and hasn't changed much since. I expect that as we start shifting toward the general election, those numbers will start fluctuating more.

Anyway, I found this pretty fascinating, though it's probably old news to a lot of you. :P

Students march against disenfranchisement

According to this Houston Chronicle article, the students of (historically black) Prairie View A&M University in Texas have been at odds with their county officials over difficulties voting. (The Texas Attorney General's office is currently investigating complaints by black leaders of attempts by the county to disenfranchise black voters.) This year, while there will be a polling place on Prarie View A&M's campus on election day (March 4), the only early voting location is 7 miles away from the school. So the students decided to march there last Tuesday to submit their early ballots:

YouTube link

Congress wants to help banks pay off a patent lawsuit with $1 billion

A company called DataTreasury has patents on methods of storing digital copies of checks. Since pretty much every bank does this, they've been suing banks for the last few years. Some banks have settles, and others haven't. (See details in the Wikipedia entry for DataTreasury.) Supposedly the total proceeds from the lawsuits could go into billions of dollars.

Now Congress has decided to step in [WaPo article]. They've appended a section to the upcoming Patent Reform Act to protect banks from lawsuits and licensing fees based on these patents while compensating DataTreasury with $1 billion over ten years, effectively asserting eminent domain over the patents.

Dude... What?! Regardless of the merits of case, why are they paying these guys $1 billion of public money?! DataTreasury claims that the banks knew about technology and ripped them off. If they're right, then the banks should pony up the dough. The banks claim DataTreasury is just being a patent troll. If they're right, then Congress could add some, you know, patent reform to the Patent Reform Act. Unless they think the banks will collapse and ruin our economy if they have to pay? But doesn't taking $1 billion out of our national budget hurt us, too?

Oh right. The banks have lobbyists. I almost forgot. :P

(And yes, I do know that the Patent Reform Act as it stands does do some nice things to combat patent abuse, like making it easier to contest patents and forcing patent applications to be public sooner. I just don't think it's enough.)

* * *

P.S.: On the bright side, it seems that the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (which made the 1998 ruling that opened the floodgates for software and business method patents) is going to look at a case involving the scope of patentability and potentially reconsider the validity of business method patents. Here's a more legal-jargony article that I don't really understand. :P

I like to watch Björk cry

So I was chatting with a friend, and the subject of Björk came up. Our conversation, paraphrased from memory:

Me: So I loved Björk's performance [YouTube] at the Oscar ceremony a few years ago, when she had that swan dress. She was so emotional that by the end of song, she was on the edge of tears. It was AMAZING.
Friend: Yeah, that was pretty good.
Me: That reminds me. I should get around to watching Dancer in the Dark some time. I heard it's really emotional.
Friend: Yeah, it's EXTREMELY depressing. I was totally crying by the end of it.
Me: Hm. Okay, maybe I don't want to watch it after all then.
Oo, I've got it. I'll just have Björk watch it, and I'll watch HER. Then I won't have to watch the movie, but I'll get to watch Björk cry! Score!
Okay, I'm probably getting a little bit creepy.
Friend: Just a tad.

Credentials Committee appointees

Ah, so here's a list of the 3 chairs and the 25 other members of the Credentials Committee that will decide whether the Michigan and Florida delegations get seated. And here's a brief bio of each member [PDF].

Much hoopla has been made about the fact that all three chairs have served under the Clinton Administration, but I think that's overblown, since Bill was the last Democratic President, and these are party elders, so of course they served under him. Also, as my first link points out, two of the three chairs are co-chairs of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee that stripped Michigan and Florida of their delegates in the first place, so they have some incentive to insist on keeping things that way. (That is, of course, unless you're a conspiracy theorist who thinks that they intentionally stripped the states of their delegates to give Clinton an advantage, planning to re-instate her afterward. :P I still have a bit more faith in people than that.)

Look, I have some potentially partisan feelings about the superdelegates, but I think the issue of Michigan and Florida is totally cut and dried. There's no way you can re-instate their delegates right now and consider it anything remotely fair. I hope that the Credentials Committee sees that, regardless of who the individual members support.

P.S.: What I think both the Michigan and Florida fiasco and the superdelegates demonstrate, though, is that the primary system clearly needs some reform in both schedule and delegate selection, and I anticipate a lot of debate about that after the election.

Rules, an open letter to Senator Clinton

I decided to write a letter to Senator Clinton. I used this site, which will email, snail mail, or fax the letter for you. They recommend against snail mail because increased security measures greatly delay their receipt, so I chose the fax option.

* * *

Dear Senator Clinton,

Please stop arguing for the seating of the Michigan and Florida delegations, going against the wishes of the DNC and attempting to overturn a decision made months ago after the outcome has already favored your campaign. If you continue to press for their seating, I fear that many otherwise loyal Democrats will abstain from voting or even vote for Sen. McCain in November in protest and cause the Democrats to lose this crucial election.

I myself have been a loyal member of the Democratic Party ever since I registered to vote. I believe in the values and the positions of the Democratic Party, and I have always voted for the Democratic candidate at the general election. I truly want the Democrats to retake the White House.

I've been closely following the Democratic primary race this year. While I have my own thoughts on how the superdelegates should vote, I do ultimately respect their right to vote for whomever they want to vote for, because those are the rules. Regardless of how we think the system should be set up, the rules as they stand allow the superdelegates to follow their own beliefs as to who would be best for the Party. Rules are rules.

This is why it truly angers me to see you supporting the seating of the Michigan and Florida delegations. While the other major candidates pulled their names off of the Michigan ballot, you steadfastly kept yours on, clearly in hopes of hedging your bets while paying lip service to the DNC by agreeing not to campaign. And now that the situation favors you in those states, you are arguing to overturn that rule ex post facto.

This position you hold goes completely against the spirit of fair play. It reminds me of the worst of dirty politics. If you hold this damn-the-rules, win-at-all-costs attitude now, during the primary campaign, showing a lack of good sportsmanship even when competing against members of your own party, how can I trust your judgment as President of the United States? How can I trust that your administration will act lawfully and not just bend the rules whenever it deems convenient? How can I trust that you will help repair the good name of this great nation rather than further damage its reputation?

Senator Clinton, I will respect the wishes and the votes of the superdelegates, but if you win this election by overturning the decision against Michigan and Florida, you would force me to abstain in the general election, and I would urge my Democratic friends to do the same. I would hate to contribute to the defeat of the Democratic Party, but I would not be able to vote for you in good conscience.

Senator Clinton, for the good of the Democratic Party, please respect the rules of the party and refrain from insisting on the seating of the Michigan and Florida delegations. Thank you.


Kenneth Lu

"He moved Thuy from the quarter-circle to the service-circle. We both know that's not an easy decision to make."

Why have I not been watching Onion News Network videos? I think this is my favorite:

Ngyuen Thi Buch Thuy: 'Just Give Me The Damn Sepak Takraw Ball'

It's an ESPN-style report on Sepak takraw. :)

I seriously cannot stop watching this video over and over. I'm just fascinated by how they've totally nailed the rhythm and attitude of sports reporting.

Averages and medians

So the WGA strike is hopefully ending soon, and the deal seems to give the WGA most of their demands, but reading about it lead me to the AMPTP homepage, which has an animated gif that proclaims, "The average working WGA writer makes more than a surgeon." My immediate thought was that I bet this is a case where the average is significantly different from the median, but they're attempting to let you assume that "average" means "typical". Seriously though, do they really expect people to believe that a typical working writing makes as much money as a doctor?!

Looking around the Internet, I see bloggers who complained about this very thing claiming that the median WGA writer's salary is closer to $5000/year. That might be biased in the other direction, though, because I think it includes unemployed writers, while the AMPTP stat was for "working writers". But still, I'm sure the median income is way lower than a surgeon's.

It sucks when people abuse math like that. :\

My predictions for November

McCain is going to win. Here are the scenarios I see:

1. Clinton wins the most pledged delegates by the end of the primary season (or if Obama concedes at any point). That's still quite possible. Although Obama's been winning states left and right this weekend and will probably win a couple more this Tuesday, Clinton's got a good shot at getting a lot of delegates in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, coming up in the next couple of months. Plus, even if she wins by a few delegates, it would be enough.

If she gets so many that Obama concedes, or she otherwise goes into the Convention with the most pledged votes, that would probably be the best among likely outcomes for the Democrats. We won't have to worry about the superdelegates or Michigan and Florida; since Clinton's winning anyway, no one's going to object to the superdelegates' votes, and the delegates from Michigan and Florida will probably just get seated. Obama supporters will for the most part acknowledge that she won fair and square, and her race against McCain will probably be close.

I personally think, though, that because McCain is so popular among independents, Clinton will have an uphill battle. The last two elections were very evenly divide along partisan lines, but McCain probably has more ability to cross those lines than Clinton. Not only that, but I know there are many people who are typically Democrats who would consider voting for McCain, but I doubt the reverse is true.

My politically incorrect side wonders how many female Republicans will vote for her (and how much of the female independent vote she'll get). I certainly know plenty of female Democrats who openly acknowledge that they're voting for her in large part because she's a woman, and exit polls show that she leads handily in the white women vote. I think her ability to capitalize on that could be key. So yeah, I think McCain's got the edge, but she's still got a shot. Moving on...

2. Obama gets the most pledged delegates based on the primaries, but only by a narrow margin. If this happens, the unpledged superdelegates will probably swing the election to Clinton, because she's got more connections. Michigan and Florida will be irrelevant. Still, many Obama supporters will be pretty pissed about having their voice taken away from them. Many Obama supporters who would otherwise have been loyal Democratic Party voters may choose to abstain or even vote for McCain in November. Historically, just about every time there's been a split decision like this at a party convention, that party has lost. Some Obama voters getting pissed may just be enough to lose Clinton the general election.

3. Obama not only wins the most pledged delegates, but he even gets so many that it will likely overcome Clinton's advantage in superdelegates. That's when Michigan and Florida will come into play in earnest. Even though the DNC stripped their votes for moving their primaries early in disregard of DNC rules, and even though the candidates then agreed not to campaign in those states, the states are playing hardball and will send their delegates to the Convention anyway and demand to be seated. Clinton has offered them her support because she won the most votes in those states. (Obama wasn't even on the ticket in Michigan.) Obama obviously objects. Whether they will be seated will be a decision for the "credentials committee". I'm not sure how that gets formed, but my understanding is that it will be crazy ugly if this happens.

If Clinton wins, and the delegates are seated, then many Obama voters will be even more upset with her than if they lost just because of superdelegates, and it will seriously hurt her chances in November.

On the flipside, if Obama wins, and the delegates are not counted, he's also screwed. It would really piss of voters in Michigan and Florida, and we all know how important voters in Florida are, so that would become a major hurdle for Obama to overcome in November. Either way, it'd be bad for the Democrats. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. Again, this is probably why disputed conventions usually suck for the party in question.

In an attempt to avoid this, the DNC is urging Michigan and Florida to hold caucuses, essentially nullifying their primary votes and selecting delegates anew, and giving the candidates a chance to formally campaign, etc. But the states aren't budging. They're standing firm on the delegates they're selecting based on those primaries. Anyway, McCain will be very happy if scenario comes to pass.

4. Finally, Obama may get such a lead by the end of the primaries that neither the superdelegates nor Michigan and Florida will matter. Unlike Clinton, he would have to win in pledged candidates (excluding Michigan and Florida) by perhaps a couple hundred delegates in order to totally overcome her advantage outside of those delegates. It doesn't seem to me like this is likely. If he does win by such a wide margin, it'd be a huge boost to his campaign, and I think he would have a very good shot against McCain in the November.

Actually, not just that, but I think it would be a really exciting campaign because both are candidates who have shown a lot of appeal to the critical independent voters and potentially even to voters from the opposing party. So it would be a campaign that may feel less partisan and more intelligent than is typical.

On the race issue, and again to be politically incorrect, exit polls do show that he doesn't do very well among white people in traditionally Republican states, though in California he did very well among white men. But I think that since he's not likely to carry many of these Republican states anyway, the real question is how much his race will affect him in swing states among independent voters. And I have no idea what the answer to that question is.

Of course, I think it's kinda moot, because I think the odds of Obama winning the Democratic nomination are slim because of the superdelegates and Michigan and Florida.

* * *

P.S.: As for my personal views, I prefer Obama over both Clinton and McCain. Between Clinton and McCain, I am definitely still a Democrat on the issues and would prefer Clinton. And if we have a Republican Congress again, I'd certainly prefer Clinton to be the President. But yet, as long as we still have a Democratic Congress, I don't think McCain would be so bad, and he might even be better than Clinton because he'd be better at getting the parties to work together (whereas the Republicans despise Clinton). I think my nightmare scenario, though, is Huckabee becoming McCain's running mate, McCain winning, and then McCain dying in office. If McCain does pick Huckabee as his VP, I'd be a big supporter of Clinton for that alone.

Awesome Spider-Mans

I'm not sure if the plural of Spider-Man is Spider-Mans or Spider-Men, but I am sure these are awesome.

Pigs fly: TSA listens to blog comments!

A little over a week ago, the TSA actually started a blog. They've answered questions rather openly about the logic and details behind bands on shoes and liquids, that sort of thing.

But here's the crazy thing: Some commenters complained about airports that were asking travelers to take all electronics out of their bags, not just laptops, and it was a huge pain. The TSA actually fixed it! They said it was "set up by local TSA offices and was not part of any grand plan across the country", and that they have now asked the offices not to do that any more.

I'm impressed. The TSA actually listening to the people, on the spot, with a reaction time of under a week! I applaud them. Hooray for transparency in government and open communication! Perhaps there is hope for us yet. Let's hope this can continue, and let's hope that the Customs office learns from their example.

P.S.: I noticed that one commenter who claims to work for the TSA said that it wasn't some "rogue" program as the post somewhat implied, but that it was a pilot program at a small number of airports. So maybe the blog post spun things a little, but it's still awesome that they acted on blog commenters' complaints.

We need Miranda rights for airport searches

Here's an article about searching laptops at airports. Sometimes they copy down your passwords (wtf?!) and even hold your laptop indefinitely. They note your search history and make you pull up your email. This is all stuff that would normally require reasonable cause and a search warrant if it were done anywhere else in the country. They say customs officials "are trained to protect confidential information," but of course there are no guidelines or laws as to the limits of their power.

Some companies are already asking people to clear all confidential data from their laptops (accessing it on the corporate network instead) before international travel.

Oh, and of course they tend to go after brown people.* They claim not to do racial profiling, but a training manual says, "it is permissible and indeed advisable to consider an individual's connections to countries that are associated with significant terrorist activity." Right... Is there any evidence that these searches even work? (And even if they do sometimes find bad guys this way, I'm not convinced that it's worth the loss of Fourth Amendment rights for many of our law-abiding citizens and residents.)

Some of my family members get excited about the idea of this being "China's century", but I'm personally nervous of the prospect. I mean, I have my concerns about the Chinese gov't, but I'm also concerned that China rising in power will increase the odds of some sort of conflict with the US. Once that happens, my own gov't will treat me as badly as it treats my brown friends today. I have friends who get "randomly" searched almost every time they go to an airport because of their skin color. We really need to make more people read Nineteen Eighty-Four, or at least the Cliff Notes version. It's sad that it's so easy to let fear drive a nation.

P.S.: The Customs office has refused to release any information about the rules or limitations of searches. (A Freedom of Information request went unanswered.) This reminds me of how the Chinese gov't censors the Internet. If you know what your rights are, you can fight back or at least stand your ground. But if you don't, you have to play it "safe" and just let them walk all over you, in case you piss them off and get into even deeper water. We need Miranda rights for airport searches.

* Btw is it PC for me to say "brown people"? My Indian friends say it all the time, and I say it to them sometimes, too, but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to? Thing is, "brown" generally includes both South Asia and the Middle East, so I'm not sure it even has a convenient synonym?

Why referanda are stupid, and rough delegate estimates

During this primary election, the California ballot contained Proposition 91, a measure about restricting use of the state gasoline sales tax to transportation projects. Anyway, the odd thing was, the argument IN FAVOR of Prop 91 said, "Vote no on Proposition 91. It's no longer needed." There was no argument against. Very strange.

It went on to explain that this measure was qualified for the ballot in 2006, but then the Governor fast-tracked Proposition 1A onto the November 2006 ballot, and it accomplished the same thing. So this Proposition 91 was now obsolete and unnecessary. You'd think they'd be able to just get it pulled. Weirdness. Anyway, there was clearly no point in voting yes. Here's that argument.

Guess what? With 32% of precincts reporting, it has 43% yes votes! Wtf?! Given that Prop 1A won with 77% of the vote, I'd estimate that a proportional 13% voted no without reading the voter information arguments. That means that over 50% of voters voted for the ballot measures without even reading the voter information pamphlet and thus didn't even have a modicum of informed opinion when voting on them.

Now, as a software engineer, I've learned to blame user interface design before blaming the user, so we could probably improve the process somehow to better inform the voters, but it's clear to me that, as the process stands, most voters have no idea what they're doing when they're voting for propositions.

Direct democracy sucks. We should let our elected legislators do their jobs and get rid of propositions.

* * *

On a related note, I got really annoyed tonight by how the news media was calling states left and right, but they were making no attempt to estimate delegate counts.

I know that delegate counts aren't perfectly proportional to the popular vote, and a lot of votes haven't been counted yet, but I just dumped the numbers into a spreadsheet and assumed proportionality and got this:

1706 total delegates selected from Super Tuesday Democratic contests.

847 for Clinton, 859 for Obama

These numbers are shifting around every minute as precinct results come in, and they're totally imprecise. (I just recalculated them with the latest results; when I calculated them an hour ago, it was 859 Clinton, 847 Obama. I'm sure they'll be different again by the time you read this.) But the gist is that the delegate count from tonight will be neck and neck.

Clinton had an estimated lead of 232 to 158 delegates before Super Tuesday, though. Given that the superdelegates seem to skew toward Clinton 2 to 1, Obama will need to definitely beat Clinton in primary-based delegates going into the convention. The pundits are predicting that Obama will do better than Clinton in the post-Super Tuesday contests, and he'll need that, but we all know how accurate the pundits have been. :P

* * *

P.S.: Saheli sends me this link: If you really can't decide who to listen to, why not listen to the endorsements of a pro-government newspaper in Belarus, which had a rigged election in 2006? They prefer Obama and McCain. :) (The Belorussian editorial is actually satirical and kind of amusing.)


If I were voting based solely on the awesomeness of a candidate's commercial, there'd be no question I would be voting for Mike Gravel:

YouTube Link

Oh my god I think that even beats "Wes" Clark's ad from four years ago.

Update: He also made another one called Fire, but I don't think it's as good.


A couple hundred people suddenly freeze in place at Grand Central. Pretty awesome:

YouTube Link

About February 2008

This page contains all entries posted to the klog in February 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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