Saturday, July 28, 2007

Proud to be a Partisan

As you know, Firedoglake did some of the best reporting on the Scooter Libby trial of any news source in the nation (superior even to the NY Times and CNN accounts of the trial).

But just this week I've become a regular reader and find that they consistently produce really original, thought-provoking content.

This week, Jane Hamsher the founder of Firedoglake, did a brilliant piece called, I'm Proud to Be a Partisan. It describes her recent trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. with her friend Linda, who is the child of holocaust survivors. Jane describes learning about Jewish Partisans, who went underground and fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis in World War II, and what we can learn from their courage.

Please read Jane's piece (here), it's extraordinary.

Also, after Sam Waterson's ridiculous statements on Hardball with Chris Matthews this week, I'm officially calling B.S. on Unity 08.

Wacky video!

Hat tip to Donita Sparks at Firedoglake for finding this video on YouTube.

The video consists of hundreds of prisoners at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre in the Philippines recreating the dance number from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.

These guys are incredible. Makes you wonder if crime will INCREASE in the Philippines as people try to get in to join this dance troop.

But do check out Donita's post (here) for valid concerns that she raises (and links to more CPDRC videos!).

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 3, A Case for Impeachment

This is the final installment of my three part series on The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

In the first part of the series, I explained that, according to Surowiecki, in order for a group to be "smart," that is, in order for groups to make accurate predictions and decisions, the group needs to be diverse, independent, and decentralized.

Diversity brings in new ideas, independence insures that those new ideas get expressed, and decentralization prevents the sort of small minded group think that can lead a herd over a cliff.

Now here's where it gets interesting: In the months leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--the U.S. intelligence agencies were organized in exactly this manner--diverse, decentralized, and independent. As Surowiecki writes, the U.S. intelligence community was, "a collection of virtually autonomous, decentralized groups, all working toward the same broad goal--keeping the United States safe from attack--but in very different ways." (p. 67)

In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies had all of the necessary pieces of information to know that an attack was coming. The CIA monitored and took pictures of a 9/11 planning meeting of Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in January 2000. The CIA knew that two Al Qaeda operatives moved to San Diego in January 2000. In fact, the Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing for August 6, 2001 was titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S" and Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft.

So if we had all of the relevant pieces of data to prevent the attacks on 9/11 then how did they happen anyway.


In order for diverse, independent, and decentralized groups to make smart decisions there has to be someone to aggregate the information. Think about the example of a crowd at the state fair guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar--the aggregator is the person who adds up all of the guesses and finds the average. In a stock market, the aggregator is the New York Stock Exchange which collects all of the buying and selling information and shows the price of the stock (which reflects the collective wisdom of the group). For sports betting, the aggregator is the bookmaker in the casino who sets the point spread for the game.

In every Presidency before George W. Bush, the aggregator was the President of the United States. Think about how John F. Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. He gathered all of the different viewpoints from all of the different defense and intelligence agencies in one room, had them all make their best case (which reflected the collective wisdom of their group), and then came up with a plan that reflected the collective wisdom of the entire group.

With President Bush, there simply is NO ONE at the top who is sifting through all the information to figure out the collective wisdom of all of the intelligence agencies. As former Bush administration counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke indicated, the Bush administration simply wasn't interested in counter-terrorism. Despite the warning the the Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, the President continued his vacation in Crawford, Texas.

After 9/11, again there was no aggregator of the information to figure out who did it and how to prosecute them. Cheney had already made up his mind to invade Iraq. Bush had already made up his mind to invade Iraq. Never mind that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. If you've already made up your mind, the evidence never gets examined, the collective wisdom of the group is never identified, and poor decisions are the result.

In this case, the failure to aggregate the collective wisdom of the U.S. intelligence agencies has led to 2,974 American deaths on 9/11 and 3,646 (and counting) soldiers' deaths in Iraq. For all his talk of being The Decider, Bush has never fulfilled his responsibility as The Aggregator.

Speaking of collective wisdom, a poll by the American Research Group shows that 45% percent of Americans support impeachment proceedings against President Bush and 54% support impeachment of Cheney.

Among independents, 50% favor starting impeachment proceedings against President Bush, to only 30% opposed. And 51% of independents are also for starting impeachment proceedings against Dick Cheney, to 29% opposed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 2, The Republican "Circular Mill" of Death

In a previous post, I mentioned that I just finished reading The Wisdom of Crowds by New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki.

Today I want to focus on what the Wisdom of Crowds teaches us about the sorry state of the Republican Party.


It seems to me that the Republicans' greatest strength is that they are hierarchical and extremely good at following orders. It's also their greatest weakness. When Republicans have good leadership at the top, they are incredibly unified, agile, and focused. But when they have bad leadership at the top (or incompetent people as they do in this adminstration), their follow-the-leader mentality is an absolute disaster.

The Wisdom of Crowds illustrates the dangers of being a blind follower with a brilliant example:

In the early part of the twentieth century, the American naturalist William Beebe came upon a strange sight in the Guyana jungle. A group of army ants was moving in a huge circle. The circle was 1,200 feet in circumference, and it took each ant two and a half hours to complete the loop. The ants went around and around the circle for two days until most of them dropped dead.
    What Beebe saw was what biologists call a "circular mill." The mill is created when army ants find themselves separated from their colony. Once they're lost, they obey a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The result is the mill, which usually only breaks up when a few ants straggle off by chance and the others follow them away.
    ...[T]he simple tools that make ants so successful are also responsible for the demise of the ants who get trapped in the circular mill. Every move an ant makes depends on what its fellow ants do, and an ant cannot act independently, which would help break the march to death." (The Wisdom of Crowds, p. 40 & 41)

Surowiecki is illustrating the dangers of "information cascades" where decisions are made sequentially (and each additional decision is dependent on the prior decision). I think its also a perfect description of the current state of the Republican Party. A circular mill of death where they all march in a circle, thinking they are following the leader, but actually just going around and around until they all (and many more of our soldiers) die.

To paraphrase, 'Every move a Republican makes depends on what his fellow Republicans do, and a Republican cannot act independently, which would help break the march to death.' When it comes to the Iraq war, Republicans in the House and Senate just march around and around in a circle (filibustering, delaying, denying), thinking they are following their leader when in fact, they never had one.

I'll finish my 3 part series on The Wisdom of Crowds in a subsequent post.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why Secular Society Makes Better Moral Decisions than Organized Religion (The Wisdom of Crowds, Part 1)

A few weeks ago I was talking with friends, and announced that I wanted to write a book that asks (and answers!) the questions: why is it that secular society seems to find the best answers to big moral and ethical questions so much sooner than the world's great religions? Why is it that secular society is, more often than not, ahead of religion in figuring out pressing moral issues?

It seems to me that over the last several centuries, secular society, not religion, led the way in toppling monarchies and starting participatory democracies, abolishing slavery, and granting women the right to vote. Today it is once again secular society (and even corporations!), not religion, that is leading the way to granting equal rights to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

In each case there were religious supporters of these positions (democracy, abolitionism, universal suffrage). But for the most part, my understanding is that these were secular movements that influenced religion, not the other way around.

The only counterpoint to these examples is the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s where the religious community (as led by Dr. King) was out front on the issue of ending Jim Crow laws and insuring that African Americans had the right to vote and go to school and participate fully in society.

I imagined that it would take years of research to answer these questions satisfactorily. But just this week I picked up The Wisdom of Crowds by New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki and it is absolutely brilliant.

The thesis of the book, is both stunning and exhilarating:

If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, that group's decisions will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual, no matter how smart or well-informed he is.

The classic example is to ask a crowd of people (say, at a state fair) to judge how many marbles are in a jar, or how much an ox weighs. The average of all of the guesses from the crowd will tend to be more accurate than the guesses of even the best experts.

But it's not just true in connection with guessing the number of marbles in a jar. It's also true of stock market mutual funds.

"Between 1984 and 1999, for instance, almost 90 percent of mutual-fund managers underperformed the Wilshire 5000 Index [which basically represents the entire U.S. stock market]. The numbers for bond-fund managers are similar: in the most recent five-year period, more than 95 percent of all managed bond funds underperformed the market." (p. 33)

Groups don't always reach the best answer. Depending on how they are set up, groups can lead to a dumbing down or a lowest common denominator solution rather than excellence. According to Surowiecki, in order for a group to be smarter than the experts it needs 3 things--diversity, independence, and decentralization.

Diversity brings in new ideas, independence insures that those new ideas get expressed, and decentralization prevents the sort of small minded group think that can lead a herd over a cliff.

The section on diversity is amazing:

...[G]roups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives. Or, as March has famously argued, they spend too much time exploiting and not enough time exploring. Bringing new members into the organization, even if they're less experienced and less capable, actually makes the group smarter simply because what little the new members do know is not redundant with what everyone else knows." (p. 31)

Diverse teams come up with better answers than homogeneous teams, diverse nations are stronger than homogeneous nations, and Google is smarter than the world's smartest man.

Which brings us back to our original question. Why is it that secular society seems better than religion at addressing the biggest moral and ethical issues of the day? Because secular society, if set up properly, has all of the features of smart groups--diversity, independence, and decentralization. If a society is set up properly, it also has avenues for aggregating these opinions (e.g. elections).

Religions, it should be noted, tend to be characterized by all the factors that makes groups less able to come up with good answers--they tend to be homogeneous, hierarchical, and centralized, and lack both the mechanisms and the will to aggregate the opinions of a broad swath of people.

The Wisdom of Crowds also explains why the Iraq war is such a disaster, which I'll explain in a subsequent post.

The difficulty in turning around

At some point,
they had to realize
they had a problem in Woburn.
The mounting birth defects
the weird illnesses
the cancers and leukemia.
But school teachers teach
and realtors sell houses
and merchants sell goods
and mayors eat chicken dinners
and tell everyone everything is okay.
There is no mechanism in our society
to say stop
not enough union members
to call a general strike
no mothers of the disappeared
who can afford to bang on pots
all day in the streets.
And so the chemicals seep into the ground
and into the water
and into our blood streams
and into our babies.
And all of our same hopes and
dreams and striving are still there.
But it doesn't work anymore,
because the chemicals have done their damage
and there was no mechanism
by which
everyone could say stop, what's
going on here?
it ain't right and
I don't know what is
but we aren't going on
until we figure it out.

Sometime a couple years ago,
it became apparent
that Iraq wasn't going well.
It had become a horror movie
house of sadism into which
we send our healthy young men
and women
in one door
and they come out the other
maimed and terrorized
and not alive anymore.
And yet, recruiters recruit
and soldiers fight wars, and
contractors build things
for a price.
And so people continue
to slowly walk
into the meat grinder
long after it was obvious
that someone
should throw the switch
to stop the assembly line.

But there is no switch.
There is no pause.
People just do what they do
even when all of the inputs
and the variables
and the outcomes
and the early scenarios
have changed.

Great quotes

I stumbled across a couple great quotes this week and thought I'd pass them along:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” --Ghandi

"Conservative principles" are marketing props used by the Conservative Movement to achieve political power, not actual beliefs. --Glenn Greenwald

I'm also loving Chris Pureka's cover of the Gillian Welch song, "Everything's Free." You can listen to Chris Pureka and buy the song (here).

Chris Pureka, photo by Sebastian Renfield

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

5+ Political Burglaries, Are the Plumbers Still at Work?

Over the past several years, I've read several stories about politically motivated burglaries. But I've never seen anyone put them all together in one place. The strange thing about burglaries at political offices is that they are often reported as local news, even when they potentially impact national political races.

So over the last few weeks, I've tracked down as many of the stories as I could remember:

December 31st, 2000, burglars broke into the Embassy of Niger in Italy. They stole letterhead and the official stamp bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. These stolen materials were later used to forge documents claiming that Iraq acquired uranium from Niger--which became the cornerstone for the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq. Remember this is one month after the U.S. Supreme Court appointed Bush President and nine months before the attacks on the World Trade Center.

October 11, 2004, The Lucas County, Ohio Democratic Headquarters was burglarized and three computers, including the party’s main system, were stolen. The burglary occurred 3 weeks before the Presidential election in the swing state that decided the outcome of the national election.

February 25, 2007, break in at the New Hampshire Democratic Headquarters. The New Hampshire Primary is the first in the nation (coming right after the Iowa Caucuses) and is often pivotal in determining who wins the nomination for President.

March 17, 2007, break-in at Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party headquarters. The intruder smashed an exterior window and stole the computer belonging to Communications Director, Nick Kimball, but passed up other valuable electronics, including a video camera and a high-end digital camera. No other computers were taken and it appears Kimball's laptop was the sole target of the robbery.

March 27, 2007, Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party headquarters broken into again
. This time, the burglars "broke into the office of Andrew O'Leary, the DFL's executive director, stealing a computer that was not visible from outside of the building and going through materials in his desk."

That's an awful lot of burglaries don't you think?

Now maybe political headquarters (and embassies) are just easy targets for petty criminals.

But I wonder if perhaps this is evidence that The Plumbers are still at work? (For those who don't know, The Plumbers is the name given to the White House Special Investigations Unit in the Nixon Administration. The Plumbers included E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy who were later involved in the Watergate break-in.)

What if The Plumbers was actually a much larger operation than we were led to believe? And what if The Plumbers just went underground after Watergate but then re-emerged years later? It'd make sense in a way, both Cheney and Rumsfeld are former Nixon administration officials--what if that's just how they do business?

UPDATE: A reader who goes by the screenname hubbird on noted that Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in Davenport, Iowa was burglarized last Friday. The burglars took two laptops and some campaign literature.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: Readers at DailyKos also pointed out:

The Democratic Party headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire was also burglarized on the weekend of January 20-21, 2007.

The burglary on February 23, in Concord, New Hampshire list above does not appear to be politically motivated.

The Republican Party offices in Spokane, Washington were burglarized in 2004 (although I think it's interesting to note that, in this case, cash was stolen not computers.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

I've got a question for Barack Obama

I like Senator Obama's post-partisan, 'can't we all just get along,' 'bringing America together again' themes as much as the next guy. But my question to Senator Obama is, what are you gonna do when they come for you?

Because the one thing we know from past presidential campaigns is that if you get the nomination, they (Republican media operatives) are definitely gonna come for you. They're gonna run some sort of Willie Horton, Swift Boat, call me, Playboy! ad against you. That sort of hit piece is GUARANTEED to appear in the campaign--so don't act like you didn't see it coming.

And when they come for you, are you gonna sit around with your thumb up your ass like Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Harold Ford, saying, 'aw shucks they shouldn't have done that, it's racist' and meekly ask your opponent to pull the ad, or are you gonna go nuclear and take the mutherf*ckers out?

Because that's really the question facing every Democratic candidate--not are you competent, can you govern, do you understand policy--every single Democratic candidate can do all of those things. The question that needs to be answered is, do you have that killer instinct, can you finish, if they come for your family will you do WHATEVER you have to do to save them? Will you order Sherman's March to the Sea in order to win the civil war or do you not have the stomach to do what it takes to actually govern and win?

As long as we're talking, I've got a question for Terry McAuliffe and Howard Dean--yeah you guys know how to raise lots of money but HOW COME IT'S ALWAYS REPUBLICANS GOING ON OFFENSE in the presidential election? How come I can name an infamous Republican hit piece from every single freakin election and I CAN'T NAME A SINGLE DEMOCRATIC HIT PIECE!!!!!!???????

Interestingly enough, when I survey the Democratic field, Hillary Clinton stands out as the only candidate so far who gets this concept. In fact, her Sopranos spoof (announcing the winner of her campaign theme song) was a pitch perfect tell to let voters know that she understands that politics isn't pretty and she understands how to play hardball along with the best of them.

A Democrat who knows how to go on offense will win this election. I like Barack Obama a lot--I get goosebumps every time I hear him speak. But in order to win this election he's gonna have to learn how to play hardball.