Kevin Drum

Fiorina, Rubio Are Big Winners of Second Debate

| Sun Sep. 20, 2015 3:59 PM EDT

As usual, I'm more interested in which candidates are moving up and down than in which candidates are ahead—with one exception that I'll get to. After all, it's still more than four months before the first primary ballot is cast.

A new CNN/ORC poll shows that there were two clear winners from Wednesday's debate: Fiorina and Rubio. Trump was the biggest loser. And Scott Walker? I'll make an exception for him. Not only was he down five points, but he was down five points from his previous level of five percent. In other words, his absolute level of support is now officially zero. This has to be one of the fastest, most dramatic flameouts of a top-tier candidate ever.

Trump, Fiorina, and Carson are now the top three candidates, but I simply don't give any of them much chance of winning. So the next three are more interesting: Rubio, Bush, and Cruz. Of those, Rubio is not only in the lead, he's the only one who gained any ground this week. This makes him officially one of the front runners, and should mean that he starts getting a lot more attention. We'll see whether that's good or bad for him.

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WTF, Volkswagen?

| Sun Sep. 20, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

On Friday I saw a bunch of headlines about Volkswagen facing possibly huge fines for violating EPA rules. There have been a lot of headlines like this recently, so I sort of shrugged and moved on.

It wasn't until yesterday that I actually read a couple of the stories and realized what Volkswagen had actually done. Once I did, words failed me. So let's just hand the mike to Mark Kleiman:

The story reads like the most paranoid anti-corporate fantasy, until you get to the line where the firm admits what it did....In the VW case, code was written into the engine-control software to detect the pattern of pedal and steering operations characteristic of an emissions test. Then, and only then, the car’s emissions-control machinery would kick in. Once the test was over, the software noticed that, too, and returned to normal — that is to say, illegally and dangerously dirty — operations, at about 40x the permitted — and advertised — level of nitrous oxide emissions.

Now just think about the depth of corporate depravity involved. This wasn’t one rogue engineer or engineering group at work. People up and down the chain had to be party to the crime. And note that the conspiracy held together for six years, and was finally broken not by an internal leak but by the work of outside scientists at the University of West Virginia.

In a nutshell: A whole range of VW and Audi "clean diesel" models were spewing immense amounts of nitrogen oxides—a precursor to ozone formation—into the air we breathe. But if you took one of these cars in for a smog check, its engine-control software temporarily put it into a special mode that would pass the test. As soon as the test was over, the engine returned to its smog-spewing ways.

This goes far beyond most safety issues with cars. Whether we like it or not, car manufacturers always face tradeoffs between cost and safety. Having those conversations is a normal part of engineering life. Even in infamous case like the Pinto gas tank, what you have is a normal conversation that went way overboard. As bad as it is, it's understandable that stuff like this happens occasionally.

But that's not what this is. There was no cost involved. In fact, writing the code to do this cost Volkswagen money. Nor was it something that took place just among a small group of product managers with bad incentives. This was coldly premeditated. It required substantial testing to make it work right. It happened across not just different models, but across two different nameplates. It lasted for six years until it was discovered. And it was done not as a tradeoff of some kind, but solely to make the car peppier during test drives so that VW could sell more diesel models.

How far up does this go? It's hard to believe it doesn't go up pretty far. And it must have left behind a significant paper trail. So what's next? Given the calculated nature of the crime, and the fact that it almost certainly killed people, Kleiman doesn't think civil fines are enough:

When people conspire to commit a crime that harms the health of untold numbers of people, shouldn’t criminal charges at least be considered? And not only against the company, but against every official in it who can be shown to have known about the conspiracy....The most horrible thing about this case is that very few if any of the people involved will have lost any sleep over their guilt in making sick people sicker (and killing some of them) and none will lose face among their friends and neighbors. Even if some are found guilty of felonies, life won’t be nearly as bad for them as it is for someone who gets caught committing burglary: someone whose contribution to human suffering can’t hold a candle to what the VW conspirators pulled off.

In Georgia, a CEO is about to go to jail for a long time—maybe for life—because he approved the sale of tainted peanuts across state lines. The result was a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed nine people. The CEO's brother and a quality control manager at the plant also face prison time.

Did VW's actions sicken hundreds and kill at least nine people? A quick swag suggests that VW emitted about 3,800 excess tons of nitrogen oxides in Southern California alone over the past six years, which may have caused as many as a dozen or more incremental deaths. If we can put a peanut CEO in prison for this, why not an auto CEO?

UPDATE: My original spreadsheet used an incorrect value for the EPA NOx standard. It's been corrected now. The death rate is probably a bit higher than my original estimate, though the error bars are big enough that it doesn't change the final result much.

We Are Programmed to Receive

| Sat Sep. 19, 2015 1:26 PM EDT

It's Saturday, and I am oh-so-tired of Donald Trump. (The latest: he finally coughed up his favorite Bible verse, but it doesn't actually appear anywhere in the Bible. Since this was an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he knew this had to be coming but still didn't bother to look up a genuine verse. I swear, he's just taunting us. He's actually a Democrat with an IQ of 300 and he's running a test to see just how far you can bamboozle the press corps and the conservative base and still lead the Republican primary race. Judging by Wednesday's debate performance, he's finally tiring of the gag because it appears you simply can't go too far.)

So: no more Donald. Instead, prepare yourself for a ridiculous topic explored at ridiculous length. Here's the background: the iPod in my car is set to permanent shuffle play, and yesterday the Eagles' "Hotel California" came up. I've heard this song hundreds of times, I suppose, but this time one word in the final famous lines suddenly struck me as odd:

"Relax," said the night man,
"We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave."

Programmed? This song was written in 1976, before the PC revolution and the rise of Silicon Valley conspired to make programming into a common word. [See update below.] Even cheap programmable calculators had just barely started to hit the market. It was certainly a common word among techie types, which is probably why it never seemed odd to me before, but was it common among shaggy rock musicians? It doesn't seem like it would be. Did Don Henley take an intro CS course at North Texas State? Or is the word being used in a different sense?

Naturally, I went to my favorite source for word usage over time, the Google Ngram Viewer. Here's what it shows:

There are two notable things here. First, the use of programmed peaks in 1984. That's odd. You'd think it would have kept on rising into the stratosphere. It's in common use today for everything from building a space shuttle to setting up your toaster oven. [In comments, weirdnoise suggests that this is because coding is used these days rather than programming. Could be.]

More germane to my question, however, is the fact that its use starts to rise around 1940. What's up with that? This is obviously a non-computer usage, since digital computers hadn't been invented at that point. So let's go to Google Books and check things out. Programmed appears to have been commonly used in four basic senses. Here are examples of each:

War Housing: Hearings Before the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, 1942: "The 20,000 units in item 5b and the 100,000 additional Government dormitories yet to be programmed and financed, as shown in item 5c...."

Variety Radio Directory, 1940: "National Broadcasting Co. Owned and/or Managed and/or Programmed Stations—474...."

Health and Its Maintenance: A Hygiene Text for Women, 1931: "She has always programmed her work. She never undertook more than she could do and do well...."

Life magazine ad, 1949: "IBM products using electronic principles: Card-programmed Calculator...."

In order, the four senses in which programmed was used are: (1) in construction and engineering scheduling, (2) in radio scheduling, (3) as a generic synonym for scheduled, and (4) the IBM sense, which is a precursor to the common computer programming sense of today.

The first three of these are all variants of scheduled, or else used in the similar sense of verbing the noun program. The final one is the source of the contemporary usage of the word in the software biz.

So what were the Eagles thinking of? It doesn't make sense that it was used as a synonym for scheduled. That doesn't read right, and anyway, why not just use the word scheduled instead? The computer sense works in context, but somehow seems unlikely. That leaves us with the radio programming sense, and I suppose that's the right one. Musicians would obviously be familiar with this usage, and so would their audience.

I warned you that this was a ridiculously long post about a ridiculous topic. Don't blame me if you read all the way to the end. But now that you have, feel free to comment if you think there's a possibility I've left out.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow) reminds me that programmed—in the computer programming sense—was fairly commonly used in science fiction TV and movies in the 60s and 70s. For example, here it is from 1965 in the first episode of Lost in Space:

DR. SMITH: I have reprogrammed the robot. His power has been activated. Exactly eight hours after launch the robot will destroy the spaceship with all hands aboard.

Here it is from 1967 in I, Mudd, an episode in the original Star Trek series:

KIRK: Who sent you?
NORMAN (an android): I am not programmed to respond in that area.

Here it is from 1968 in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

INTERVIEWER: Do you believe that Hal has genuine emotions?
POOLE: Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions. He's programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.

And from 1972 in Silent Running:

LOWELL: Hey, that's really excellent. Now, see, what I've done is...I've reprogrammed both of you so that now you'll respond directly to me.

And of course, from 1977 in Star Wars:

OWEN: You, I suppose you're programmed for etiquette and protocol.
THREEPIO: Protocol? Why, its my primary function, sir. I am well-versed in all the customs—
OWEN: I have no need for a protocol droid.
THREEPIO: Of course you haven't, sir. Not in an environment such as this. That is why I have been programmed—

OK, I'll stop now. The point is that perhaps the computer programming sense of the word was actually pretty common in popular culture by 1976. So I guess there was no real mystery to be solved after all.

UPDATE: Or maybe the song is using the word in the new-agey sense of cult programming. That would make sense on multiple levels.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 September 2015

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 3:05 PM EDT

This is how I often take a shower: with an audience of one trying to figure out what I'm doing. Hopper is, by turns, fascinated (movement! sprinkly stuff!) and appalled (he's covering himself with water! on purpose!). When I'm done, she peers suspiciously into the shower stall and eventually hops in. This gets her delicate little paws wet, so she sort of dances around as if she's walking on hot coals. A few days later she's forgotten all about this and we go through the whole routine yet again. With cats, nothing ever gets old.

Carly Fiorina Keeps Digging a Hole She Never Should Have Started

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 2:43 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Sarah Kliff asks the Fiorina campaign to back up Carly's claim that the Planned Parenthood sting videos show "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain." On the first try, they emailed her a YouTube video that doesn't show any legs kicking and isn't one of the sting videos anyway. So Kliff asked again. On the second try, they did send her one of the sting videos, but it also doesn't show any legs kicking or hearts beating. There's a former organ harvester on the video who claims to have seen this, but no actual footage to prove it. As Kliff says, "there's no moment to 'watch,' as Fiorina urged debate viewers."

But here's an interesting thing. A long time ago I posted my personal guideline for gauging how misleading a statement is. I can't dig it up at the moment, but it was basically this: How easy is to fix the offending statement? And how badly does this change its meaning? If it's easy and doesn't change much, then it's not really all that misleading.

So let's try that with Carly. Here it is, with my additions in italics: "I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a former organ harvester describe a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

I hate to say it, but that's a pretty easy change, and it doesn't change the impact of her statement very much. This kinda kills me, but I have to conclude that although Fiorina's statement is clearly wrong, it's only mildly misleading. She should have just gone with the more accurate version in the first place. She wouldn't be in hot water now, and it wouldn't have weakened her debate statement by more than a smidgen. Unfortunately, not only did she not do this, but she doubled down the next day by assuring George Stephanopoulos that she had seen the "images" she talked about.

Bad move, Carly. You just made a bad situation worse even though there was no need to do it. But I guess that's no surprise. I gather this is one of your signature MOs.

PBO vs. BHO: The Twitter Differences Between Democrats and Republicans

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 1:40 PM EDT

James Pethokoukis points me to a paper in PLOS ONE about different word usage on Twitter among Democrats and Republicans. Some of it was unsurprising. Democrats curse more, use more internet slang, and are more touchy-feely. Republicans are more religious and like to emphasize group identities.

The authors also report on the results of an algorithm (too complicated for me to understand) that ranks the top words among Democrats and Republicans. Some of them are just products of the time the tweets were collected (June 2014). The Kenya references among Democrats, for example, were related to the Kenya hotel bombing on June 16. We also learn that Republicans refer to President Obama as bho while Democrats prefer pbo.

But here's an interesting tidbit. Compared to Democrats, Republicans appear to tweet much more about specific political figures, and to tweet about things they're mad at. Five names make their top 20, and (by my count) 16 things they're outraged about. Among Democrats, one political name makes the top 20 and two things they're outraged about. I can't really account for either of these results. There are plenty of Republicans that Democrats don't like, and plenty of things they're outraged about. But apparently Dems don't tweet about them much.

One caveat: despite being a registered Democrat myself, there are a whole bunch of top Democrat words that I can't make sense of.  What is qampa? Is journey the band, or do Democrats just like to talk about travel? What about maya and nene? Are those the poet and the singer? Or the Mesoamerican civilization and the bird? And what's up with arsenal? Is this the football club or the place where weapons are stored?

Conversely, the top Republican words are all too easy to understand. I'm not quite sure about loi, but that's it.

To summarize: Republicans are pissed, and Democrats are young enough to use lots of words I don't get. Sigh.

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Why Did Carly Fiorina Accept $500,000 From a Ted Cruz Super PAC?

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

Ted Cruz has a stable of super PACs supporting him. One is called "Keep the Promise 1" and it did something odd a few months ago: it donated $500,000 to Carly Fiorina. I missed this at the time, but an FEC letter has brought it back into the spotlight:

Keep the Promise 1 had a healthy $10 million on hand from a $11 million donation from hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer as of the end of June. But it only spent $536,169. A little for legal services. A little for surveys. And a whole lot for Fiorina.

....The donation to Fiorina was made June 18, which shows tremendous foresight. Fiorina was barely registering then, not yet revealed as the scrappy underdog with killer debate skills. And Donald Trump had yet to steal most of Cruz’s disenchanted voters.

Nobody knows why a Ted Cruz super PAC would donate half a million dollars to Carly Fiorina's campaign. But that's not what I'm really interested in. What I want to know is why Fiorina's campaign accepted the donation. Fiorina has shown an impressive aptitude for tap dancing and misdirection, but I don't think even she can pretend that a gigantic check appeared out of nowhere and they didn't bother asking any questions about it. So what's the deal, Carly?

Punters Agree: Bush Won, Trump Lost on Wednesday

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 11:16 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore is aghast that Politico ran a story using prediction markets to figure out who won Wednesday's debate:

I've been known to joke that at its worst Politico gives you a snail's-eye view of American politics. But this is self-parody: hourly variations in betting market!

Obviously Ed is a killjoy. But I kinda think he's wrong too. Betting markets are an interesting and sometimes useful tool for getting real-time feedback on high-profile races. For example, here's a chart from PredictWise, a Microsoft research project that aggregates several betting and prediction markets:

The winners: Fiorina, Rubio, and Bush. The losers: everyone else. Since this precisely matches my own post-debate judgment, I declare this an excellent analytic tool.

Media Advisory: Don't Help Turn Vaccines Into a Political Football

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

During Wednesday's debate, Dr. Ben Carson was very clear that vaccines don't cause autism. "But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time," he added. And Dr. Rand Paul agreed: "Even if the science doesn't say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines a little bit at the very least." Carson's answer was flat-out wrong and Paul's was misleading. In fact, the medical community is pretty much unanimous in saying that the standard vaccine schedule is both safe and effective.

So a big thumbs down to Carson and Paul. But Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula are unhappy that CNN even brought up the subject in the first place:

If CNN, and other media, continues on the course of unprecedented politicization of vaccine safety by treating it as a campaign issue, the societal consensus on the safety and efficacy of vaccines may be eroded at tremendous cost. Here’s why.

....Notwithstanding the quackery on stage at the GOP debate on Wednesday, Republican voters are just as likely to believe in vaccine safety as Democrats, at least for now. That may change if party elites become polarized on the issue, and if this is communicated to the mass public through the national press.

....Until recently, party elites were in consensus on vaccines. While some cues were present in the press, these did not have the potential to polarize the public. We fear that if party elites continue to polarize, the cues present in the press could begin to undermine the societal consensus on childhood vaccinations. Why are we reasonably sure this is the case? Because we have seen this movie before, with global warming.

....It would not be surprising if Democratic elites leap at this opportunity to solidify their own science-based credentials and make it a campaign issue, particularly if someone like Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination. These cues are then communicated to the public through the press, and we may be off to the polarization races.

Merkley and Stecula are noting something that's gotten a lot attention over the past few years: the mere fact of politicians taking a stand on an issue can polarize that issue on a national scale. There have been times when President Obama has stayed quiet about something simply because he knows that speaking up can turn it into a political circus. Global warming is the biggest obvious example of this polarization effect, but there are plenty of others. Obama took this to heart during last year's Ebola scare and mostly let others take the lead in talking about it.

Merkley and Stecula are pleading with the press not to aid and abet a similar dynamic with vaccines. It's bad enough that the anti-vaxers continue to get a lot of media attention. It would be much, much worse if it somehow becomes a Republican vs. Democrat issue.

Obama Needs To Take Responsibility For Syrian Training Failure

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 10:01 AM EDT

With a grand total of four—or maybe five!—Syrian rebels in the field following a year of training efforts, it's obvious that things aren't working well. President Obama apparently thinks it's not his fault:

The White House says it is not to blame....At briefings this week after the disclosure of the paltry results, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, repeatedly noted that Mr. Obama always had been a skeptic of training Syrian rebels. The military was correct in concluding that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed and that we need to make some changes to that program,” Mr. Earnest said. “But I think it’s also time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.”

Most of the comments from Republicans are pretty ho-hum partisan bellyaching. But this one seems on target:

Ryan C. Crocker, a retired career diplomat who was an ambassador to Afghanistan under Mr. Obama, said the president was right to think a train-and-arm program would not work. But the president, Mr. Crocker added, should have either continued to resist it or at least taken ownership of it rather than blame others for its failure.

“How un-presidential that sounds — ‘We didn’t want to do it, we thought it was unsound but you made us do it,’ ” said Mr. Crocker, now dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “It’s just indicative of their whole approach to Syria, which is not to have a policy. This is the worst thing they could say.”

When he's right, he's right. Maybe supporters of the training mission ought to take some lumps too, but the buck stops in the Oval Office. Once he agreed to do it, it was Obama's plan. The failure is his too.