Spammers Ruin Yet Another Cool Thing

This is sort of fascinating. Google has decided to withdraw its language translation tools from public use (though the Google Translate site itself will stay around), and the reason, as with so many things internet-related, is that it's a victim of its own success. Google's translation engine improves over time by comparing side-by-side samples of translated text that get scooped up by its search robots, but this continuing improvement depends on the translations themselves being high quality. So what happens when spammers and link farmers flood the internet with text translated by Google's own tools? Kirti Vashee of eMpTy Pages explains:

The higher the quality of input to this training process, the higher quality the resulting engine can translate. So the increasing amount of “polluted drinking water” is becoming more statistically relevant. Over time, instead of improving each time more machine learning data is added, the opposite can occur....This results in potentially lower quality translations over time, rather than improvements.

....What Google did not anticipate was extent of abuse of the Google Translate API in a manner prohibited by its Terms of Use. This has resulted in such a significant mass of poorly translated content that the impact on Google’s core search business is notable and poses a significant threat to the quality of Google’s search results and the quality of its future translation initiatives. Given how important search and translation are to Google’s current and future business, this is most likely the “Substantial Economic Burden” and “abuse” that Google refers to in its shutdown announcement. With this realization, it makes sense that Google is taking action to rectify the problem.

This comes via James Fallows, who says, "This is the computer-world equivalent of sloppy overuse of antibiotics creating new strains of drug-resistant bacteria." It just goes to show, once again, that there's hardly anything that spammers and other internet leeches can't ruin.

The State of American Conservatism, Part 874

Jon Chait is right: this rant from David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard has to be read to be believed. I think it should be preserved in amber as a type example of Homo Derangus circa 2011.

Of course, Gelernter is the author of possibly my favorite sentence ever from a piece of opinion writing. Behold:

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina seems like a decent and likable man, the political equivalent of a handsome, slightly under-ripe bunch of bananas, just the thing if you are looking for bananas and can't find any ripe ones, or don't know the difference.

Actually, given what we now know about Edwards, this sentence is even funnier than it was back in 2004. Meanwhile, Media Matters presents us with this example of the "all-but-eradication of race prejudice" that Gelernter thinks we liberals are unwilling to acknowledge because we hate America so much. It's from Glenn Beck wannabe Eric Bolling over at Fox News. "Can Gelernter or any other conservative explain this video as the expression of anything other than race prejudice?" asks Chait. "And does the fact that it can be featured on a mainstream news network, passing muster among a host, a producer, and any other number of staffers responsible for approving it, without objection, tell us anything important about the acceptability of such prejudice?" Answer: yes it does. At Fox News, anyway.

Fighting Back on the Economy

E.J. Dionne on the economy:

For the moment, Republicans have no interest in moving the nation’s debate toward investments in job creation because they gain twice over from keeping Washington mired in discussions on the deficit. It’s a brute fact that Republicans benefit if the economy stays sluggish. And despite their role in ballooning the deficit during the Bush years, they will always outbid Democrats on spending cuts.

I wonder if this is ever going to become a serious talking point? It gets batted around now and again by the odd newspaper columnist or blogger, but that's about it. No serious person in a position of real influence really wants to accuse an entire party of cynically trying to tank the economy, after all.

But it would sure make headlines if Obama decided to take up this ball and run with it. He'll never do it, because it wouldn't be postpartisan or pragmatic. But Republicans are all set to turn the next 18 months into the World War III of political campaigns, and this would sure be a way of showing them that two can play at that game.

A team of researchers has reported in Science on a long-term study of intensive preschool intervention in Chicago, and the results are pretty impressive. The study group is a cohort of mostly African-American children born in 1979-80, and the followup study was done when they were 28 years old. Here's the headline set of charts:

The results were especially good among children born to mothers who never finished high school: high school completion rates were roughly ten percentage points higher and rates of substance abuse and felony charges were roughly ten percentage points lower. Overall, the preschool groups had higher high school graduation rates, higher on-time graduation rates, higher college attendance, higher economic status, and higher incomes compared to the group who didn't attend preschool. Interestingly, the positive effects were limited to boys. Girls, however, responded more positively to school-age interventions.

So how much does this kind of preschool intervention cost? Let's do some rough back-of-the-envelope figuring. The cost per student was about $10,000, and nationwide there are about 4 million kids each at ages 3 and 4. So if you implemented this for the entire country for two years of intervention, it would cost about $80 billion. More realistically, if you limited it to, say, the third of the population most at risk, it would cost something like $25 billion. And if you count just the amount over and above what we already spend on existing preschool programs, it's more on the order of $15 billion.

Is that worth it? Well, out of 4 million kids, 2 million are boys and about 250,000 are children of mothers who didn't complete high school. Within this group, about 30,000 more would complete high school and 30,000 fewer would commit serious crimes and become drug abusers. That's per year. Fast forward 20 years from preschool and that adds up to about 300,000 kids between the ages of 16-25, the prime problem years. Just on the grounds of reduced crime and substance abuse within that group alone, this is money well spent. Add in all the other benefits, and doing something like this on a nationwide scale is a no-brainer.

And note that none of this is because this preschool program increased anyone's IQ or SAT scores. It probably didn't. But it did teach its students better cognitive habits, better impulse control, helped their motivation and social adjustment, and provided them with better family and school support behaviors. What's more, this is no outlier or statistical fluke. This study joins a long list of others showing that habits are set in early childhood and intensive preschool programs are one of the most effective ways known to improve those habits for life.

None of this means we should stop trying to improve our schools. There are all sorts of reasons why better grade schools and high schools are important, and we should keep plugging away at figuring out how to make them more effective. But what it does mean is that in an environment of limited resources, our highest priority ought to be programs that we already know how to implement and that have proven bang for the buck. Intensive preschool fits that bill, and it's simply moronic not to be directing big-time funding in that direction. Unlike the ed reform battles, it doesn't provide endless fodder for the culture war bickering that we adults seem to love so much, but it sure seems to work pretty well for the kids themselves.

Obama and Wall Street

Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times reports that President Obama is trying to woo back Wall Street donors who supported him in 2008 but have since turned against him:

Last month, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, traveled to New York for back-to-back meetings with Wall Street donors, ending at the home of Marc Lasry, a prominent hedge fund manager, to court donors close to Mr. Obama’s onetime rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Mr. Obama will return to New York this month to dine with bankers, hedge fund executives and private equity investors at the Upper East Side restaurant Daniel.

“The first goal was to get recognition that the administration has led the economy from an unimaginably difficult place to where we are today,” said Blair W. Effron, an investment banker closely involved in Mr. Obama’s fund-raising efforts. “Now the second goal is to turn that into support.”

It's hard not to have dueling reactions to this. On the one hand, I pretty much want to retch at the idea of Obama begging Wall Street for alms once again. Wall Street! On the other hand, Effron has a point: are Wall Street tycoons really so damn thin skinned that they're letting the odd public reference to "fat cats" overwhelm the fact that Obama bailed them out with virtually no strings attached; proposed about the weakest set of financial reforms he could get away with; relentlessly batted away the hardline suggestions of the Democratic Party's liberal wing; and has presided over a phenomenal rebirth of Wall Street profits over the past two years? Seriously?

Well, yes. After all, even weak financial reforms are more annoying than no financial reforms, which is what Republicans are offering — along with soothing reassurances that Wall Street's masters of the universe had nothing to do with the financial crisis, no matter what that mean Mr. Obama keeps saying. Plus Obama also wants to raise their personal income tax rate by 4.6 percentage points. That's unforgivable.

More Art, Less History?

Adam Ozimek braves the wrath of the history mafia and asks why art instruction is always the first to be cut when schools have their budgets reduced:

Why should art be on the chopping block before history class? I believe we romanticize history, making it seem practically and ideally more important than it is....If we want students to know the most important facts and stories about history for the sake of those facts, then having them watch a few documentaries should cover the bases pretty well. As Will Wilkinson pointed out to me, history is something anyone with reading comprehension can teach themselves, in contrast art is a skill that in most cases requires careful instruction.

....There’s also a large cognitive dissonance whereby we view art as being something soft, idealistic, unpractical, and unserious compared to other school subjects. Art is a fun distraction, whereas history is serious business. But of the two art is clearly the more practical real world subject. Many serious, button downed, grown-up careers require artistic skills: architects, marketing, graphic design, engineers, web designers, city planners… the list goes on. Which careers require knowledge of history?

In defense of Adam's view, it certainly seems to be the case that most history teaching goes for naught. Among the part of the population that knows history only from school, knowledge of history seems to be nearly nonexistent. So one might well wonder what the point is. Maybe we should just give high school juniors a year of watching History Channel documentaries and leave it at that.

What's more, teaching art probably isn't as hard as you might think. I have exactly zero aptitude for drawing, but about 20 years ago I suddenly got the notion that maybe I should try to learn to draw. So I bought a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and started working through it. And it turned out that with just a tiny bit of instruction it was surprisingly easy to become minimally proficient at freehand drawing. Two weeks after starting, I created the lovely drawing of a shoe that you see on the right. It's no Rembrandt, but it's surprisingly legible. You'd know what it was even if I hadn't told you.

Was this because I was tapping into the right side of my brain? Not really — although I think there actually was a bit of that involved. Mostly it was just instruction of the kind that seems like head-slapping common sense after you've read it. For example: Don't look at the shoe as a shoe, look at it purely as a set of arbitrary lines and shadows of certain relative lengths and angles to each other. (Thus the stereotype of an artist with his arm outstretched and his thumb turned up.) Stuff like that.

As it turned out, I quit shortly after I drew the shoe. It turned out that I wasn't really interested in becoming a good artist, I was just curious to know if I could learn to draw. When it became obvious that the answer was yes, I got bored and stopped.

Still, this goes to Adam's point: you can teach pretty much anyone to draw tolerably well in a semester or so. Is this a skill that would continue to be handy throughout your life? Maybe. Unfortunately, one thing I learned in my short foray into art is that freehand drawing takes a helluva long time. That shoe took two hours to finish, according to my notes. But maybe if I'd kept at it for six months or so my speed would have increased.

Anyway, I'm just rambling. I don't have any real point to make here, aside from thinking that maybe Adam has a point. Or not. I'm not sure. There are an awful lot of things that it might be useful to teach our kids, after all, and we can't teach them all.

Bored of 3D

Atrios:

Count me as someone who thinks 3D films can be neato and occasional gimmicky fun, but they're only something I'd want to see every now and then. In other words, a fun visual show when you're in the mood for that kind of thing, but mostly a bad way to see a movie.

I liked Coraline in 3D, and thought that it was ok for the new Tron movie (didn't think the movie was very good, but the 3D was an ok fit), but mostly it'll make me less, not more, likely to see a movie.

I have a slightly different reaction. It's not so much that I think 3D is a bad way to see a movie (though the glasses are annoying for those of us who have to wear them over real glasses), but more that I think it brings nothing to the table.

Here's the thing: there seem to be two basic types of 3D movies. The first is the kind that ostentatiously yells 3D! at you over and over. You know what I'm talking about: spears tossed toward the audience, monsters suddenly looming out of the background, etc. If you like that kind of thing, fine. But I just find it ridiculous and distracting.

Then there are all the others, the movies that basically do 3D right. It's a natural, unforced part of the visual experience, and perfectly enjoyable. Except that when it's that natural, I don't even notice it after the first few minutes. My brain — and yours, I imagine — does such a good job of perceiving 3D in a 2D movie that there's very little difference in the two experiences. Except for the annoying glasses, of course.

I saw a bunch of 3D movies around the time Avatar came out, and then I just stopped. There was no point. I don't hate it or anything, I just don't really get anything from it. So why bother paying?

(But you know what rocks? Closed captioning for the hearing impaired. I accidentally went to a couple of shows with captions a few months ago, and it was great. I actually caught all of the dialog, even the parts that were barely whispered against a background of machine gun fire. I won't pay for 3D anymore, but I'd be all in favor of some technology that placed invisible captioning on all movies that could be made visible with special glasses.)

Will Redistricting Save California? Part 2

More analysis of California's new redistricting map, which was drawn, for the first time, by an independent commission:

Between now and next year's elections, Republicans must scramble to reinvent themselves, recruit more moderate candidates and find common ground with more Californians if they are to be at all relevant in Golden State politics, according to independent experts and partisan analysts alike.

....The GOP sought to maintain its numbers in the last redistricting, in 2001, when lawmakers controlled the maps. Republicans cut a deal with Democrats to protect incumbents by cushioning both parties in safe seats across the state. No seats switched party in the next two elections.

....Redistricting protection over the years had emboldened the party's conservative wing....In 2009, for example, after a cluster of Republicans joined Democrats to pass temporary tax increases in Sacramento, two members lost their leadership posts, another retired in the face of a recall and another lost a bid for statewide office. But the new maps, which will be further refined before they are ratified in August, seem to have changed the calculus, especially for Republicans such as state Sen. Tom Berryhill of Modesto. The district he now represents was drawn into a majority Democratic area.

Berryhill is one of five senators who have bucked party leadership — and the majority of his GOP colleagues — this year to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown on a proposal to renew billions of dollars in expiring tax hikes. The new districts' potential makeup could provide a final push for Republicans and Democrats alike to agree on the taxes and pass a budget as they face the deadline for doing so Wednesday.

Two points. First: if this actually happens — and it's still a big if — it would be a monster success for the commission. It was the hope of its sponsors that it would primarily do two things: reduce the number of super-safe seats and give challengers a better opportunity to unseat incumbents, and in so doing, force both parties to move a bit to toward the center. For the past decade, California's districts have been among the most lopsidedly partisan in the nation, safely electing a steady stream of extremely liberal Democrats and extremely conservative Republicans. Moderates became practically an endangered species. It will be a big win for the state if this changes. (And, as the story notes, there are some additional mechanisms now in place that might also help this transformation along.)

Second: last week I wrote a post about a friend who said that the Sacramento lobbyists he worked with were pretty confident that Gov. Jerry Brown would manage to peel off a few Republican votes for his plan to extend some tax increases in order to help balance the state budget. Their reasoning was that a bunch of Republicans would get redistricted out of their seats, and with no plausible reelection chances anyway they might be willing to commit political suicide in the service of the greater good by voting for Brown's plan.

But this story suggests a different mechanism: that at least a few of the moderate Republicans in the legislature will be faced not with certain death, but merely with districts that are a bit more centrist — or perhaps modestly Democratic leaning. Still winnable, but only if they demonstrate their moderate bona fides. And that, not a fatalism born of impending doom, will prompt a few of them to work with Brown.

I guess we'll see. The new district lines aren't set in stone yet (that happens in August), and as usual, there are almost certainly court fights to look forward to. But the shape of the river seems to be getting clearer: California's legislature is going to have a bigger moderate bloc after next year's elections, and at least a few incumbents are going to have to move to the center if they want to survive. That's going to be especially hard on the California GOP, which has been almost suicidal in its lurch to the far right at the same time that the state has grown increasingly liberal. In the end, though, it will probably be good for them. Democrats are likely to be the short-term winners from this redistricting, but in the long term life might actually get a little more difficult for them. I sure hope so, anyway. They could use a little shaking up too.

Libya and Its Sweet, Sweet Crude

Did we go to war in Libya over oil? Glenn Greenwald makes the case here. As usual, I'd say the right answer is "sorta." I doubt very much that President Obama and his trusted advisors sat around a table in March and talked about how the growing unrest in the Middle East was a great opportunity to seize a few oil fields in Libya. On the other hand, would we give a rat's ass about the rebels in Libya if there were no oil there — or if it were under the control of a friendly autocrat instead of an unreliable one like Muammar Gaddafi? The question pretty much answers itself.

But Glenn points out something else interesting: the Washington Post ran a story on A9 today under the soporific headline "Oil firms wait out Libya conflict" that spells out just how upset U.S. oil companies have been with Libya's increasingly truculent attitude over the past few years. And pretty much the entire source for the piece was the cache of diplomatic cables released last year by WikiLeaks. Here's a sample in the order they show up in the story:

In late February 2008, [ConocoPhillips chief executive Jim Mulva] was “summoned to Sirte for a half-hour ‘browbeating’ ” from Gaddafi, according to a U.S. State Department cable made available by WikiLeaks....A State Department cable in December 2004 said, “Conoco characterized the agreement as ‘not good,’ but said the company views it as ‘dues-paying’ in order to return to the Libyan market.”....By the time Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited in 2008, U.S. joint ventures accounted for 510,000 of Libya’s 1.7 million barrels a day of production, a State Department cable said.

By November 2007, a State Department cable noted “growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism.”....The Libyan leader was livid, evident in his scolding of Mulva. The equivalent of the deputy foreign minister told U.S. officials that the Lautenberg amendment was “destroying everything the two sides have built since 2003,” according to a State Department cable at the time....The U.S.-educated Libyan oil minister Shokri Ghanem — who recently left Libya and defected from the Gaddafi regime — in 2008 warned an Exxon Mobil executive that Libya might “significantly curtail” its oil production to “penalize the U.S.,” according to a State Department cable.

Was oil a significant factor in the eagerness of France, Britain, and the U.S. to go to war with Libya? It's impossible to say for sure. But thanks to WikiLeaks, we certainly know that Libyan oil had been on a lot of minds in the months and years beforehand.

Wall Street's Strange Allies

Yesterday I wrote about financial industry demagoguery over new rules that will force issuers of mortgage securities to keep a 5% stake in the securities they create. The idea is simple: if they have to keep a small stake, they'll have an incentive to make sure their securities aren't loaded up with piles of crappy mortgages of the kind that helped supercharge the housing bubble. However, there's an exemption for securities that contain only ultra-safe mortgages, and now the mortgage industry is trying to scare everyone into thinking that this is a death knell for any mortgage that doesn't qualify for exemption.

In fact, there's little reason to believe this: the effect on normal mortgage rates is unlikely to be more than a tenth of a percentage point or so. But while Wall Street's kvetching about this is predictable, Harold Pollack points out they've teamed up with some strange bedfellows:

It turns out that the N.A.A.C.P. and the National Council of La Raza are important industry allies in this fight.

This is part of a concerning pattern, too. In many cases, respected civil rights organizations and advocacy groups become involved in the political process on behalf of firms whose practices within minority communities raise serious concerns. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation exemplifies many of these concerns. As the New York Times reported last year, the Foundation’s backers include (among others) Altria, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Anheuser-Busch, and rent-to-own furniture enterprises. The accompanying problem speaks for itself.

The NAACP and La Raza make legitimate arguments in the current fight. Perhaps some adjustments should indeed be made in the proposed regulations....Still, I can’t be the only person concerned about what anonymous federal regulators label “the unholy alliance” between the financial industry and some consumer and civil rights groups. If our nation fails to establish strong and enforceable financial regulation, we know whose communities will be left holding the bag.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as Harold. I'm not going to swear that the proposed rules are sacrosanct and shouldn't be modified one bit. But they shouldn't be modified much, and I don't think the NAACP or La Raza do make legitimate arguments. It's simply not the case that anyone without a 20% down payment will no longer be able to buy a house, as they suggest. All the new rules mean is that the cost of loans that aren't ultra-safe will go up slightly — as they probably should, since recent history suggests they're riskier than we thought.

Alyssa Katz, arguing against the new rules, says:

In effect, the costs of managing financial risk that were once borne by the government are now moving to the private sector.

I'd rephrase that:

In effect, the costs of mismanaging financial risk, which were once borne by the government and have cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts to Fannie and Freddie, are now moving to the private sector.

These risks exist, whether we admit it or not, and consumers end up paying for them one way or another. That being the case, it's better for them to be accounted for in the loans themselves than to be hidden away in government accounts. Helping low-income home buyers is a worthwhile endeavor, but as Harold says, "This should be done explicitly and carefully, not implicitly by perpetuating industry practices that have proven so disastrous." Roger that.