After taking a low-key approach to the killing of Osama bin Laden for most of the past year, the Obama campaign released a video on Friday taking credit for green-lighting the operation and questioning whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call. Conservatives scoffed, claiming that the raid was a no-brainer that any president would have approved. I don't know who's right, but if you want to decide for yourself you probably ought to know just how the entire operation was planned and what part Obama played. David Corn explains in detail in Showdown, his recent book about the Obama presidency during 2011. Here's a small piece:

Five months into his presidency, he sent a memo to Leon Panetta, then the new CIA chief, signaling that he considered finding bin Laden a high-priority task. He requested a detailed operation plan for locating and “bringing to justice” the mass-murderer. Yet for a year, Panetta did not have much to report to Obama on this front. Then in the summer of 2010, the agency informed Obama there was a lead: bin Laden might be in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about 35 miles north of Islamabad. He could be within Obama’s reach.

....As the planning meetings proceeded—the president and his aides often had a model of the compound before them—a critical point about a unilateral U.S. assault caught Obama’s attention: How would these covert warriors return safely from the compound, especially if they were to encounter hostile Pakistani military forces?....McRaven had based the planning on an assumption that if his commandos were confronted by the Pakistanis, they would protect themselves without attempting to defeat the Pakistani forces, while waiting for the politicians in Washington and Islamabad to sort things out. He calculated that his team could hold off any Pakistani assault for one or two hours.

Obama nixed the idea of commandos hunkering down to await diplomatic rescue. He worried that the Navy SEALs conducting the mission could end up as hostages of the Pakistanis, and he told McRaven to ensure that the U.S. forces could escape the compound and return to safety, whether or not they encountered Pakistani resistance.

“Don’t worry about keeping things calm with Pakistan,” Obama said to McRaven. “Worry about getting out.”

The rest is at the link. I don't know what Mitt Romney would have done in similar circumstances, but there's not much question that Obama played an active and ultimately crucial role. Without his leadership, things might have turned out quite differently.

A recent study suggests that computers can score student essays about as well as human beings. Les Perelman, a director of writing at MIT, isn't impressed:

While his research is limited, because E.T.S. is the only organization that has permitted him to test its product, he says the automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.

The e-Rater’s biggest problem, he says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945,” he said.

Sounds like another win for e-graders to me! An excessive deference to facts is just an obstacle to success these days, best left to the little people responsible for the drudge work of implementing plans and tactics. If you have higher ambitions, an ability to bullshit persuasively is far more important, and apparently our robot essay scorers know that. Besides, they can grade nearly a thousand essays a second. What's not to like?

On a more serious note, I suspect that Perelman's criticisms are off base. He says that electronic grading programs can be gamed, and I have no doubt that he's right. But here's the thing: the study that started all this didn't say that robot graders have discovered some cosmically valid measure of writing quality. The study just said that computer graders handed out the same scores as human graders. In other words, apparently humans don't care much about facts either; are easily impressed by big words; and have idiosyncratic likes and dislikes that can be easily pandered to. The average human being, it seems, can be gamed just as easily as a computer.

If you want a broader moral about computer intelligence from all this, I've got one of those too. Here it is: People who don't believe in "real" artificial intelligence natter on endlessly about their belief that computers will never be able to truly replicate the glorious subtleties and emotional nuances of human thought. The problem is this: most of them overestimate just how impressive human thought really is. Human beings, in most cases, are just a bundle of fairly simpleminded algorithms that fuse together in enough different combinations that the results seem ineffable and impossible of reduction. But that's only because most of the time we don't really understand our own motivations. We aren't nearly as impressive as we like to think.

In the end, this is my big difference with the AI naysayers: I'm just not as impressed by human intelligence as they are. All those human essay graders probably think they're making use of deep human values and intelligence as they score those essays, but in fact they're mostly just applying a few hundred (or maybe a few thousand) linguistic algorithms they've learned over the years and spitting out a number. And before you scoff about the poor drones doing this grading, who are nothing like you because you have subject area knowledge and do care about facts, well, how long do you really think it's going to be before robo-graders have that too? If a computer can win Jeopardy! and act as an expert system for medical diagnoses, how long will it be before their judgement of factual material is as good as ours? Ten years? Twenty?

The future success of AI doesn't fundamentally hinge on the fact that computers will someday be far more impressive than they are today. It hinges on the fact that human-level intelligence isn't all that high a bar in the first place. My guess is that we don't have very much longer to get used to that.

My hometown of Irvine, California, is mostly famous for being one of the most heavily planned communities in America. We are not just boring, we are deliberately and proudly boring. But it turns out that we're #1 in more than municipal planning. According to the Daily Mail, we are also the most fashionable large city in America. My sister is properly skeptical and asks what's going on here. "None of the Real Housewives lives in Irvine," she points out, and the accuracy of the Mail piece is also called into question by the suggestion that Irvine was "made famous by the hit show The OC," which, as I recall, was set in Newport Beach, not Irvine.

So here's the scoop: the Mail has its facts, such as they are, right. A site called Bundle, which promises "unbiased, data-driven ratings," says that Irvine is indeed "an unexpected number one" in its fashion rankings:

We selected the 50 largest cities by population in our data set and created a fashion-conscious index, with 1.0 being average. We based our index on the percentage of "fashion-conscious households" in our sample, which we defined as households that had at least four transactions at top-end designer merchants in the past 30 months.

Okey dokey. Basically, if you have lots of people who buy clothes at expensive stores, that makes you "fashionable." This is, needless to say, a debatable proposition. What's more, if you click on "50 Places in the OC that the Fashion-Forward Frequent," you get lots of shops in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles and virtually none in Orange County. And it turns out that the Bundle folks are also the source of the Mail's confusion about American TV, calling Irvine "Home of the OC." So I think we can all take this with a grain of salt. I suspect that even the Irvine Chamber of Commerce will have a hard time making a silk purse out of this particular sow's ear.

I know Israeli politics is even crankier and more partisan than ours, but even so it's hard not be impressed by the number of national security figures who have recently suggested that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is basically a nutcase. Here's the latest:

“I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” said Yuval Diskin, who stepped down last May after six years running the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the F.B.I.

“I have observed them from up close,” Mr. Diskin said. “I fear very much that these are not the people I’d want at the wheel.” Echoing Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, Mr. Diskin also said that the government was “misleading the public” about the likely effectiveness of an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

....Ronen Bergman, an Israeli analyst and author of the 2008 book “The Secret War With Iran,” said in an interview that Mr. Diskin’s comments were significant because he left the government in good standing with Mr. Netanyahu — unlike Mr. Dagan, who was forced out — and because he was widely respected “for being professional and honest and completely disconnected from politics.”

In somewhat related news, the LA Times reports that President Obama is playing good cop to Netanyahu's bad cop:

U.S. officials said they might agree to let Iran continue enriching uranium up to 5% purity, which is the upper end of the range for most civilian uses, if its government agrees to the unrestricted inspections, strict oversight and numerous safeguards that the United Nations has long demanded.

....A senior administration official said that if Iran fulfills U.S. and other world powers' demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, "there can be a discussion" of allowing low-level domestic enrichment, "and maybe we can get there, potentially." But the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, emphasized that such discussions remained only a small possibility because Iran has shown so little willingness to meet international demands.

Like Diskin, I continue to have my doubts that Israel could effectively take out Iran's nuclear facilities on its own. I say this with a keen appreciation that I don't know squat about operational military affairs, but even so, I still don't see it. They could unquestionably do a bunch of damage, but given the distances involved and the size of the Israeli Air Force, it's really hard to believe that they could do much more than set back the Iranian program a year or so.

All of which keeps me wondering what's really going on here. Is Netanyahu really hellbent on a military strike? Or is there some kind of complicated Israeli-U.S. bluff unfolding? Neither option quite seems wholly believable, so I don't really know what to believe. Stay tuned.

On the left we have a rare action shot of Inkblot. This isn't rare because he never walks around, it's rare because I'm not a quick enough photographer to catch him very often before he either flops onto the ground or else rushes up to nuzzle the camera lens. But this time I did, right in the middle of all our glorious spring foliage. And on the right, we have a classic: a cat in a bag. It never gets old, does it?

But you know what else we get in spring aside from glorious foliage? Spring fundraising! Over on the right Clara and Monika have 15 reasons you should help support our investigative journalism, and it's an impressive list that includes pink slime, Vivian Maier, exploding Pintos, redefining rape, and our invention of the po' boy. But I'll add two more right below, because there's more to life than investigative journalism, right? Here's how to donate:

As always, many thanks to those of you who throw a few dollars our way. It's what keeps us going, cats and humans both.

Burt Likko has today's Complaint of the Day™:

Why is it that I need to create a not-less-than-twelve-character username, consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and then create a unique password of not less than twelve characters, also consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and go through a 258-bit double-encryption process to get my water bill from the County of Los Angeles online?

Impressive! Congratulations, DWP! I just went through my annual ritual of changing all my online passwords because, you know, it seems like a good idea, right? And I didn't find a single site that wouldn't accept an 8-character password with at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, and one number. That includes three or four passwords for various financial institutions. But I guess water is super special or something.

Rolling Stone's latest interview with President Obama was pretty dull, and in any case I nearly became ill just from reading the cloying, self-congratulatory introduction by (of course) Jann Wenner. I made it up to "Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks...." and had to get up and take a break.

But David Roberts reminds me that although Obama made no news, he did make a worthwhile point about the Republican electorate:

Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they'd like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way.

....But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream — and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

....I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

This isn't the biggest insight in the world, or anything, but it's something I try to keep firmly in mind. Mostly I fail, but it's still worth keeping in mind: lots of conservatives may very well be true believers who inhale Drudge and Rush and Fox News, but lots of them aren't. They're just ordinary, non-fire-breathing folks who happen to be a little more conservative than me. This presents an opportunity for liberals, of course, and David suggests that one area ripe for wedge making is clean energy:

Obama’s contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I’m not sure how many genuine “wedge issues” there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

Read the whole thing to get the details of David's argument. My guess is that this is unlikely to become a major campaign issue on its own, but you never know. If the right event comes along, it could push this into the spotlight and force Romney to take some unpopular hardline positions. Ideally, I suppose we'd discover a huge shale deposit in Yosemite National Park and then demand that Romney disown all the folks on the right who would immediately pop up to insist that the Obama administration is anti-growth for opposing a drilling rig on top of Half Dome. That might do it.

It's pretty hard to keep up with the faux outrage these days. Just this morning I read that Darrell Issa is getting ready to hold Eric Holder in contempt over the right's favorite endless whipping boy of the past year, Fast & Furious, but I guess this is already old news. Yawn. Apparently the latest ginned-up outrage comes from a video in which an EPA official recaps a pep talk he gave to his team two years ago:

It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

Ouch. Maybe not the best analogy to use. But let's hear the rest:

And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don't want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it's time to clean up.

Ah. So he wants his team to go after people who break the law and hit them hard. Set an example. That sounds very....conservative. James Q. Wilson would approve, no? Unless, of course, it's environmental laws we're talking about. In that case, I guess it's better just to ignore them.

Here's some heartwarming news from the LA Times today:

Less than a year before the 2008 collapse of Lehman Bros. plunged the global economy into a terrifying free fall, the Wall Street firm awarded nearly $700 million to 50 of its highest-paid employees, according to internal documents reviewed by The Times.

.... The rich pay packages for so many people raised eyebrows even among compensation experts and provided fresh evidence of the money-driven Wall Street culture that was blamed for triggering the financial crisis. "Many people are going to be stunned at how well some people were being paid," said Brian Foley, an executive compensation expert in White Plains, N.Y. "This wasn't a matter of five or six people being paid a lot."

....The records illustrate that enormous pay wasn't limited to top executives but was dished out to a wide range of traders and others who sometimes took home even bigger paychecks than the CEOs who ran their companies.

It's nothing to get upset about, though. Just a few bad apples. The exception that proves the rule. The black sheep of the family. Surely you don't believe that all of Wall Street was doing this, do you?

I suppose I should do a pro forma post about today's GDP announcement, so here it is: GDP increased 2.2% last quarter. The general consensus is that this is "meh." It's not great, especially for an economy supposedly coming out of a recession, but it's not horrible either, and it might get revised upward next month anyway. Bottom line: if it's a blip, it's no big deal. If it's the first sign of a slowing economy, it's pretty bad news. But we'll have to wait and see. More details here.