Kevin Drum - February 2014

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 February 2014

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 1:00 PM PST

Quelle horreur! After two weeks of lovely weather, suddenly Southern California is in the middle of a monsoon. Domino is not happy about this state of affairs and blames me personally. In this, she takes after Petronius the Arbiter: "Pete had worked out a simple philosophy. I was in charge of quarters, rations, and weather; he was in charge of everything else. But he held me especially responsible for the weather."

And please do not bore Domino with your petty human concerns over "drought" and "reservoir levels." Here she is looking disdainfully through a rain-soaked window into a rain-soaked backyard that just yesterday was all sunny and beautiful. It is simply a nightmare.

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Here's Who the Money Men Are Backing So Far in the Republican Field

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 12:02 PM PST

Wesley Lowery takes a look today at who all of Mitt Romney's donors are supporting these days. As Lowery says, this shouldn't really be taken as a look at "Romney money." It's more a look at who's getting some love from wealthy mainstream Republicans. The answer, it turns out, is unsurprising:

  1. Jeb Bush
  2. Scott Walker
  3. Paul Ryan

This makes sense to me. If I had to pick a top three, this would be it, with the order depending a lot on who decides to get serious about running. I think Paul Ryan would be very formidable, with strong appeal to both tea party types and mainstream types, but it's unclear if he has any interest in 2016. Jeb Bush is a classic candidate who, again, has some appeal in both camps, but has to decide if he thinks he can overcome the obvious baggage of being a Bush. Scott Walker has to win reelection this year—and show that he can do it handily—before he takes any further steps.

As for the rest of the field, I continue to think that (a) Chris Christie is toast, (b) Rand Paul is a vanity candidate, and (c) the rest of them are going to tear each other limb from limb fighting for the title of king of the wingnuts. Naturally I reserve the right to change my mind later and pretend that I never wrote this.

STANDARD CAVEAT: Yes, it's ridiculous to be talking about this so far ahead of the election. I apologize. But my excuse is that this is invisible primary stuff, and that really does matter this far out. Besides, talking about the "invisible primary" marks you as a sophisticate, and I wanted an opportunity to do that.

Wait a Second. I Thought Bitcoins Were Unstealable?

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 11:26 AM PST

I don't really care about Bitcoin—really I don't—but I guess I'm curious about something. How is that cyber thieves were able to steal a million bitcoins from Mt. Gox? I understand that Mt. Gox had inadequate security, but I thought the whole point of bitcoin was that it was protected by its very nature: every transaction is stored in a block chain; the block chains are mirrored by thousands of bitcoin miners; and you can't screw with the block chains unless you apply galactic amounts of computing power. So even if you managed to steal some bitcoins, you couldn't get anyone else to accept them unless you could demonstrate proper chain of custody, so to speak. Since this is more or less impossible, all the stolen bitcoins are of no use to anyone.

Obviously I'm missing something fundamental here, since I assume thieves don't bother taking stuff they can never use. And yes, this is just academic interest in the deep geekery behind bitcoin. But can anyone point me to an explainer that tells me exactly how a theft like this could be successfully pulled off?

UPDATE: Judging from some links in comments, apparently the problem is that Mt. Gox had a bug in their software that allowed thieves to create seemingly legitimate transaction changes which were propagated throughout the block chains. There is a known problem with the bitcoin protocol that allows this, and Mt. Gox didn't properly protect against it:

Many exchanges use the Transaction ID to uniquely identify transactions, but as it turns out, an attacker can change the Transaction ID without changing the actual transaction, rebroadcast the changed transaction (effectively creating a double-spend) and if his altered transaction gets accepted into a block instead of the legit transaction, the attacker receives his coins and can complain with the exchange that he didn't. The exchange will then check their database, fetch the Transaction ID from it, look it up in the blockchain and not find it. So they could conclude that the transaction indeed failed and credit the account with the coins. ... A simple workaround is to not use the Transaction ID to identify transactions on the exchange side, but the (amount, address, timestamp) instead.

I don't know that I actually understand this, but then again, I'm not sure I want to. In any case, apparently it's a known bug that Mt. Gox should have handled in its internal software. But they didn't.

UPDATE 2: Emin Gün Sirer, who sure sounds like he knows what he's talking about, says that the problem above, known as "transaction malleability," is almost certainly not behind the Mt. Gox theft. Nor was it lost keys, hackers, web server problems, or US spooks.

So what was it? He doesn't know. He concludes with this: "Chances are that this is a simple case of theft, involving at least one insider." So I guess we still have to wait and see.

Chart of the Day: Attitudes Toward Gay Marriage Have Changed About as Fast as Attitudes Toward Interracial Marriage

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 10:39 AM PST

Jon Cohn wonders how it is that attitudes toward same-sex marriage have changed so rapidly:

The change may seem inevitable now, but it didn’t always. And it’s happened with breathtaking speed....It’s easy to assume the change represents nothing more than a generational shift....[But] pollsters have found that, over time, support for same-sex marriage has risen even within generations.

One likely reason for this, according to most social scientists, is the contact theory. As more people realize that they have a gay neighbor or friend or family member, the reality of that relationship crashes into—and destroys—their stereotypes and preconceptions....But even that explanation is inadequate....The real mystery here, or at least a big part of it, is what suddenly made the environment more hospitable? At this point, social scientists admit, they have no answers they can verify—only theories that seem roughly to fit the facts.

For what it's worth, I want to suggest that attitudes haven't changed any more quickly than we should have expected. It's just a fact that social change comes pretty quickly these days. Take a look at the chart on the right, for example. Based on Gallup polling, it shows attitudes toward gay marriage vs. attitudes toward interracial marriage among whites.1 Favorable attitudes toward interracial marriage increased 28 points between 1978 and 1997. Favorable attitudes toward gay marriage increased 27 points between 1996 and 2013.

Everything Cohn talks about in his post could apply to interracial marriage too: generational changes, network effects, popular culture, and so forth. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that public attitudes toward gay marriage changed at about the same rate as attitudes toward interracial marriage. With the right pressure and the right tailwinds, this is simply how fast cultural change can happen in our modern media era.

1Note that I compressed 19 years of data on interracial marriage into 17 years on the chart. Gallup didn't poll interracial marriage frequently enough to produce an exact 17-year span that would line up with their polling on gay marriage.

Note to Media: Please Stop Writing Dumb Articles About California

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 9:36 AM PST

I have a wee request for the national media: will you please stop writing about Tim Draper's idiotic plan to split California into six states? I know it's a slow news week and all, and I know everyone loves an excuse to talk about how much Californians all hate each other, but California is not going to get sliced up. Reporters know it's not going to happen; Draper knows it's not going to happen; everyone knows it's not going to happen. So can we all stop feeding his ego on this just for the sake of some dull, pro forma thumbsuckers about how California is really big (duh) and features political conflicts between its different regions (double duh)? Thanks.

US Economy Remains Even More Sluggish Than We Thought

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 9:03 AM PST

Some bad economic news today:

The U.S. economy grew at a 2.4 percent annual rate last quarter, sharply less than first thought, in part because consumers didn’t spend as much as initially estimated....The Commerce Department on Friday reduced its estimate of economic growth in the October-December quarter from an initial 3.2 percent annual rate.

....A key reason for the downgrade was that consumer spending is now estimated to have expanded at a 2.6 percent annual rate, below the initial estimate of 3.3 percent though still the strongest quarterly spending by consumers in nearly two years.

Analysts are trying to blame this on the weather, but I'd take that with a bit of skepticism. Bad weather is the last refuge of economic scoundrels, so to speak. The starker truth is that the American economy just remains sluggish, full stop. Why? Because that's the path we've chosen. This is a political decision, not the inevitable hydraulic workings of either the economy or Mother Nature.

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Poli Sci Profs Say Poli Sci Wizardry Didn't Help Obama In 2012 After All

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 5:51 PM PST

Ryan Enos and Anthony Fowler have a new paper out that tries to figure out if the Obama campaign's widely reported techno-wizardry in the 2012 election really produced a big get-out-the-vote advantage over Mitt Romney. Apparently not:

The Obama campaign of 2012 has been championed as the most technologically-sophisticated, evidence-based campaign in history while the Romney campaign was more traditional. Does this difference manifest itself in the data? Did the technological sophistication of the Obama campaign lead their GOTV efforts to be significantly more effective than Romney’s?

.... [Our] analysis, while admittedly crude, allows us to roughly compare the effectiveness of the Obama and Romney campaigns in mobilizing their respective supporters. Despite the technological sophistication of the Obama campaign and its devotion to a data-driven, evidence-based campaign, we see similar mobilization effects on both sides of Figure 2. It appears that the two campaigns were roughly comparable in their ability to turn out supporters.

Logic and conventional wisdom suggest that you should concentrate your GOTV effort on strong partisans, since these are the people most likely to vote for you. These are the voters Enos and Fowler analyze, and they conclude that both campaigns mobilized strong partisans about as well. Strongly organized precincts showed a 7 percent improvement in turnout on both sides.

Now, it could well be that the Obama campaign spent more money on GOTV and was thus able to influence more voters. It's also possible that Obama was able to perform sophisticated targeting that went beyond just the most rabid partisans. So take this with a grain of salt. But if Enos and Fowler are right, the poli-sci-driven rocket science of the Obama campaign didn't actually make much difference. The core GOTV efforts of both campaigns were about equally effective.

Quote of the Day: People Sure Use Their Webcams for a Lot of Kinky Stuff

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 1:38 PM PST

From Britain's GCHQ, lamenting the images they got when they tapped into Yahoo webcam chats:

It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.

Imagine that. On a more serious note, GCHQ was tapping into Yahoo webcam chats:

Britain's surveillance agency GCHQ, with aid from the US National Security Agency, intercepted and stored the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing, secret documents reveal.

GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.

In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery — including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications — from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.

Unsurprisingly, Yahoo was not amused when it learned about this.

Do People Really Dislike Jeopardy Champ Arthur Chu Because He Hits the Buzzer Too Hard?

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 1:07 PM PST

Let's talk about something completely trivial for a bit: Arthur Chu, the polarizing Jeopardy! champion currently on a 7-game winning streak. Caitlin Dewey explains why so many people don't like him:

Since time immemorial — read: September 1984 — “Jeopardy!” has followed a simple pattern: Contestants pick a category; they progress through the category from top to bottom; they earn winnings when they, through their hard-earned and admirable intellect, get the questions right.

Chu has turned that protocol upside down ... and shaken the change out of its pockets. For one thing, he sometimes plays to tie, not win, thereby guaranteeing he brings a lesser competitor to challenge him the next day. He skips around the board looking for Daily Doubles, gobbling them up before competitors find them, in the process monopolizing all the high-value questions. Most unforgivably to many, Chu tries to squeeze in the most questions per round by pounding the bejesus out of his buzzer and interrupting Alex Trebek.

It's the bolded comment I'm curious about. I understand why people could be annoyed by Chu skipping around the board so aggressively. Aside from a sense that he might be taking unfair advantage of his experience vs. a pair of newbies, it makes it a little harder to follow the game at home. I also get why some people might not like the idea of playing to tie. Both of these complaints may be overstated—Chu isn't the first guy to go searching for Daily Doubles, and playing to tie only affects a few seconds of game play—but I understand them.

That said, what's up with the complaint that he tries to ring in aggressively? That doesn't even make sense. Everyone tries to ring in aggressively. Being fast on the buzzer is one of the cornerstones of the game. It might even be more important than knowing lots of answers. (Pretty much everyone who makes it onto the show knows lots of answers.)

So where does this come from? Am I missing something?

POSTSCRIPT: I myself initially found Chu a little annoying, though mostly for his affect more than his actual game play. But I've warmed to him just because he's so damn good. He's a serious buzzsaw at the game, and it's hard not to admire that. I noticed last night, though, that the other contestants were starting to mimic his strategy. I wonder if that will be his undoing before long?

Chris Christie's Aides Sure Did Joke About Traffic Jams a Lot

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 11:29 AM PST

I haven't written about Bridgegate lately, figuring that MSNBC's saturation coverage is probably plenty for anyone who's truly interested in every last jot and tittle of speculation about what happened. Today, though, the New York Times adds something concrete to the story: yet another exchange between two of the people at the center of the scandal. For some obscure reason, they appear to have gotten annoyed with Rabbi Mendy Carlebach of South Brunswick Township, which prompted this exchange:

“We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, then a deputy chief of staff for Mr. Christie.

David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, suggested that they should think bigger. “Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed,” Mr. Wildstein wrote. (Again, he appeared to be kidding.)

This came a few days after Kelly's infamous email to Wildstein that gleefully declared, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Apparently these two were pretty pleased with their little traffic jam idea and joked about it repeatedly. This adds to the evidence that they considered traffic jams a form of political retaliation, and that this was what motivated the lane closures at Fort Lee.

There's still no evidence that Christie knew what they were doing, but Kelly and Wildstein sure seemed to think they were working in an environment in which this kind of thing was just another day at the office. It probably was.