Friday, December 14, 2012

The World Will NOT End Next Week

I've talked about this once before, but it bears repeating: the world will NOT end next week. December 21st will come and go, like all the other December 21sts have, and while something unusual or noteworthy might happen, most of us will be around for the 22nd.

Some people will try to tell you about the "freakish" accuracy of the Mayan calendar. And yes, while the Mayan calendar was very accurate, such accuracy isn't actually all that unusual. You see, calendars serve two important purposes for the cultures that use them. They tell you when you need to plant, and when you need to harvest. Cultures who screw that up tend to exit the History Highway via the "Mass Starvation" off-ramp, and no one ever hears from them again. So, of course every culture we have physical artifacts for had pretty accurate calendars. It's rather like being surprised that everyone at a Drive-In Theater arrived in cars.

But you need not take my word for it. Observe:

All that said, next Friday is a perfect day for a sing-along:

Friday, December 07, 2012

RIP, Dave Brubeck

If your music collection doesn't include any jazz, it's incomplete. I get that it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's one of the handful of genuinely American art forms. Modern American music, by any recognizable definition of the term, rests on a foundation that consists of country music, blues, and jazz. I bring this up because we lost one of the greats of jazz music this last week. Dave Brubeck passed away this last Wednesday at the age of 91. It's hard to overstate his impact on American music in the latter 20th Century.

I was about to say that the Dave Brubeck Quartet has finally been re-united in the hereafter, but that's not entirely correct. While it's true that Paul Desmond and Joe Morello have both passed on, Eugene Wright is still with us. It's worth mentioning that Brubeck cancelled several concerts, and even a television appearance, when stage managers of the late 1950s and early 1960s resisted the idea of an integrated quartet appearing together onstage.

To get some notion of how long a shadow he's cast, here's the Quartet performing Take Five in 1966:

And here's Al Jarreau performing Take Five in 1976:

And George Benson in 1986:

And Grover Washington, Jr. in 1992:

And Axis Mundi, in 2007:

Now to be fair, Paul Desmond wrote Take Five. And it was never intended as a stand-alone hit, it was meant to be a lead-in for a Joe Morello drum solo. (During which the other band members could, you know...) But fifty, nearly sixty years later, musicians still find it a rewarding piece to play, and audiences still love it.

The good news, insofar as there is any, is that his sons are carrying on the legacy.

That's Dan Brubeck on drums, and Chris Brubeck on saxophone, in the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. Performers come and go, but the show must go on.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Weird Worlds

The planet Mercury. At high noon, it's hot enough that lead would run like water. Just about the hottest place in the Solar System, excepting only the Sun itself. And just about the last place you'd go to look for ice cubes.

Except, of course, that you could keep a stash of them there. You'd just need to find the right place.

It's been a year for some really weird astronomy news. This week's highlight was confirmation of something long suspected. Like our own Moon, Mercury has polar craters that never, ever see sunlight. Even though the noontime sun is blisteringly hot, the eternal shadow of the polar craters gets cold, and stays cold. Vacuum is a very good thermal insulator. Radar data seemed to indicate it was a possibility, and that possibility was confirmed this week by the MESSENGER orbiter.

Not that this will ever have much practical use. Mercury is a horrible place to go for an ice run. In terms of energy, it's far easier to fling something into interstellar space than to put it into orbit around Mercury. But it illustrates nicely something Sir Arthur Clarke used to say: not only is the Universe stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine.

Going a little farther afield, earlier in the year we had some interesting news from Mars. Last month, the rover Curiosity found some shiny things in the Martian soil. What kind of shiny things, you ask? Well, we don't know yet. Possibly a fairly mundane mineral, possibly something metallic. It will take some time to sift through the results. And even if there is gold in them thar hills, it'll be some time yet before we'll be able to go out and get it.

Mind you, people are working on ways to do just that. Take Elon Musk, for example. While his immediate goals are slightly more modest -- haul cargo to the Space Station, and later on, crew -- his ultimate goal is far more ambitious. What he really wants is to plant a colony on Mars. While it's an ambitious goal, and beyond our current abilities, it's something we'll eventually be able to do. Recent studies have revealed that Mars' atmosphere, while thin, is dense enough to provide enough protection from radiation that we could live on the surface. The radiation environment was really the last unknown. Everything else that a settlement needs is there: water, oxygen, carbon, metals. It'll be hard at first, but it's an important insurance policy for the species.

Going farther afield still, we can start looking at planets around other stars. It's hard to believe now, but only twenty years ago, we were still debating whether or not they were even possible. One of the projects I considered working on for my dissertation, way back when, was a numerical study on the theoretical stability of orbits in a binary star system. I had a gut feeling that if a planet were close enough to one or the other of the stars, the orbit would be stable enough that the companion star wouldn't perturb it and fling it off into deep space. As we've discovered time and again over the last twenty years, my hunch was right. And just last month, it was announced that we discovered a planet circling one of our nearest stellar neighbors, Alpha Centauri B. The planet, called Alpha Centauri Bb, is about our size. The similarities end there. Its year is just over three days long. It's 25 times closer to Alpha Centauri B than we are to our own Sun. While Earth pokes along at 30 kilometers per second, this planet screams across the sky almost five times faster. And, as you could imagine, it's hot. Noontime on Mercury is hot enough to melt lead. Noontime there is hot enough to melt steel. Needless to say, building a lander would be ... a challenge.

But a flyby would be relatively easy. Relatively, I say; it'd still be damn hard. We've given some thought to how to get the job done, though. The first serious proposal for an interstellar probe was the Daedalus project, a design study run by (who else?) the British Interplanetary Society. The idea is being updated and refined under Project Icarus, named for the son of Daedalus, and run by the BIS and the Tau Zero Foundation. They began the design study in 2009, and expect to be finished with that phase in 2014. Not that they expect to have a currently-realizable design by then. We've got a long way to go before we have that capability. But they expect to be able to figure out what we need to do to get there from here.

It's a marvelous time to be alive. I know people who'd rather live in the past. Not me. This is my time: here, at the beginning, with untold wonders spread out before us, waiting to be uncovered. There's no place I'd rather be.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LVII

I have to say, I'm a big fan of deep-fried turkey. But you have to be careful if you do it. Really careful. Boiling hot oil and open flames are things that demand the utmost respect and careful attention, and even if you do everything right, stupid things can still happen. Case in point:

And speaking of turkeys...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LVI

Now that the election's over, I have more time for the finer things in life. One of them is Orbiter. It's a freeware spaceflight simulator that I've talked about from time to time.

You can do just about anything with it. Want to re-live highlights from spaceflight history? Want to try out one of the designs that almost made it? Or do you want to try something that might be just beyond the horizon? It's your choice. Plus, Orbiter can be as hard or as easy as you want it to be. Some scenarios, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. None of those involve the XR-2. The Ravenstar is definitely a pilot's airplane. I've flown it to orbit, but I've never managed to land the SOB in one piece.

But here's a guy who has:

And, as a bonus, an Apollo 11 re-do:

If you like flight sims, and you don't mind a bit of a learning curve, Orbiter is well worth a look.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Election 2012: Post-Mortem

I'm not entirely sure what to make of what happened yesterday and last night. I'm going to need a little help.

Dammit. I've already said that.

Anyway, now that it's too late to vote, early or often, let's see if we can't figure out what went down.

1) Intrade FTW! Once again, the betting market established the mark to beat, with one notable exception. Based on their guidance as of Friday, I predicted Virginia would go blue, but Florida would go red. That was a coin-flip, one that I just flat out called wrong. But with the exception of Florida, nothing happened last night that came as a surprise. At least, nothing voting-related.

2) Morning Crow: I'm not sure if he's said anything about it yet, but Nate Silver's site FiveThirtyEight also did pretty well last night. His final EV total came to 313, and I'm not entirely sure how he got that number ... but I'm guessing it was a weighted average of 303 and 332, the former being the total if Romney wins Florida, the latter if Obama wins that state. We just don't know which one it is yet, and may not for some time. But beyond Mr. Silver's acumen, polls in general have done really well this year. If you were going by FiveThirtyEight or Pollster last night, you wouldn't have seen many surprises either. The people who dissed the math nerds are eating a heaping helping of crow this day.

3) Not All Polls Are Created Equal: The guys who set up the Unskewed Polls website were convinced, utterly convinced, that the polling data was lying to them. So they fiddled with the data, using some weighted averaging of their own. Except ... the polls weren't lying. They were a very accurate picture of what was happening on the ground. Their final, definitive prediction ... well, it's just sad. Then, when you add pundits who take said prediction seriously...

4) The Epic Meltdown: Some things must be seen to be believed.

Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time on live television, paradigm shifting without a clutch! One can almost feel sorry for people like Karl Rove. They've bought in so thoroughly, so deeply, into the mental model they've created of the world around them that they've forgotten that the map is not the territory. Now, here's an interesting question, one that we can answer by stages in 2014 and 2016: will the smarter consumers of conservative media begin to ask the hard questions? Some will, because some already have: Andrew Sullivan being one, and David Frum being another. Some of the leaders will tire of losing. They'll stop paying attention to the outlets who merely tell the listeners and viewers what they think they want to hear.

5) The Twilight Of An Era: The Goldwater-Reagan era of modern conservatism is now well and truly over. It's too early to tell what will take its place, but the Reagan coalition has hit the reef, hard, and is taking on water. It won't last much longer.

6) Handicapping the 2016 Field: I've said before that "It's His Turn" is powerful mojo within the Republican party, which puts Rick Santorum in the pole position for 2016. Except that that's not always true. The exceptions are illustrative. Only three times in the last sixty years has "It's His Turn" failed. It failed in 1952, when Eisenhower won the nomination. It failed in 1964, when Goldwater won. And it failed in 2000, when George W. Bush won. The 1964 case is a bit of an outlier, since the GOP had a bit of a civil war that year between the hard-line conservatives and the moderates. That, in my view, was the beginning of the Goldwater-Reagan era. But let's look at 1952 and 2000: both occurred after multi-term Democratic administrations. In 1952, a 21-year-old casting his first ballot did not have a Republican President in his or her living memory. The Republicans were desperate for a win. Ordinarily they'd never give the nomination to a neophyte who'd never even voted before ... but this neophyte was the victorious savior of Europe. Not everyone liked Ike, but even most of those who didn't respected him. Then, in 2000, you had Clinton's two terms, and he was still fairly popular even at the end. The Republicans wanted a winner. I kind of expect this to repeat for 2016. Except, that I also kind of expect the kind of scrum that broke out in 1964.  We'll have to see how the 2014 mid-terms shake out. It'll be interesting, if nothing else.

7) And How'd Those SuperPACs Work Out For You? Six billion dollars were shoveled down the bottomless maw of the Media Beast, to no noticeable effect. The people who expected Mitt Romney to surf a tsunami of SuperPAC cash to the White House have been bitterly disappointed. The Air Game has squared off against the Ground Game, and lost decisively. Now, it may not always work that way, but at the end of the day it's the ballots at the polling place that count. Ads won't get those feet to the booth. The good word of someone you know and trust will. It'll be interesting to see how politicians react, once they digest how utterly useless SuperPACs seemed to be this time around.

8) The People Have Spoken! But what the roaring purple Hell have they said? They re-elected a Democrat to the White House. They also re-elected a Democratic majority to the Senate ... but returned a Republican majority to the House. I think John Boehner might have been right this afternoon, when he basically said that the American people expect them to hug it out and make this $&!@ work. If they wanted Obama to drive on with full force, they'd have given him a majority with which to do it, which they didn't. But, by returning him to the Presidency, they've basically said that they want to keep the Affordable Care Act in place. And they've said that they trust his vision better than Romney's, but they don't want him going crazy with it. Eh, it ain't the worst of results. And, they've also approved same-sex marriage in several states, and a major liberalization of drug laws in a few others. Like I said, I'm really not sure what to make of all this. TNC has a round-up, and I kind of agree with his assessment. The templates are shifting, and I don't entirely know what that means. It'll be interesting to find out.

9) Best Live-Blog Line Ever: Speaking of TNC, he had a beaut -- "9:55 To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their bloggers..."

10) Eight-Year Bloggiversary! Or near enough as makes no difference. I started this thing in the aftermath of the 2004 election, when I thought that someone ought to start talking the Democrats down off of the ledges. There were some pretty unhelpful things being said, back when. Things have gotten better.

And, that's a wrap. Election 2012 is now in the books. When historians write their thoughts of our times, I think one of the things they'll say of 2008 and 2012 is that while a majority of Americans were ready to elect an African-American President, a sizable minority were not yet ready to be governed by one. But they'll also write that we muddled through it, somehow. Because we're Americans, and that's just how we roll.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Election 2012: Joe Scarborough Fails Statistics Forever

On August 6th of this year, the Mars Science Laboratory touched down in Gale Crater. It was a feat of celestial navigation that's hardly had any equal. Not only because it was able to hit such a small target after flying three hundred fifty million miles, but because of this:

Entry into Mars' atmosphere had been timed with such exquisite precision that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was in position to take a picture of Curiosity floating down under its parachute. Modern guidance and navigation techniques are sufficiently precise that even after a flight of ten months and hundreds of millions of miles, one spaceship can look over its shoulder and snap a photo of another. Part of the mathematical tool kit that makes it all possible is Bayesian analysis, a statistical method for reducing unknown sources of error. The same kind of analysis can be performed on any data, including statistical data, and Nate Silver does this with polling data over at FiveThirtyEight ... and, for what it's worth, it's a mathematical tool kit that Joe Scarborough has gone on public record describing as "a joke."

Mind you, I enjoy his program greatly, and my wife watches it every morning. But Joe, if you don't understand what Bayesian analysis is or how it works, could you kindly shut the Hell up about it?

We're down to the last four days, my friends. It's the two-minute warning. Either man could win at this point, obviously, but the probabilities are beginning to narrow down. Nate Silver's analogy of Barack Obama being ahead by a field goal is an apt one. If he can get a first down, he can run out the clock. About all Romney can hope for is for him to fumble, or throw a pick-six. And it's important to note that either of those two things could happen. It's all coming down to a handful of states, and even a handful of counties within those states. With fewer than a hundred hours to go, every second counts.

And now, over to the part of the program that Joe hates: the numbers. As usual, my data sources are Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. Incidentally, I'll answer a question, in case you're curious: why those three? I like Intrade, because it captures that whole "wisdom of crowds" thing. And it was freakishly accurate last time. Until it gets something important horribly wrong, it's in the mix. And I like FiveThirtyEight, because it uses techniques I learned during my time as a GN&C weenie in graduate school. Pollster, on the other hand, uses a more traditional "poll of polls" approach. If three different methods reach more or less the same answer, then it's probably a pretty dependable answer. Anyway, for the last time this season, here they are, current as of Friday afternoon.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 66.9%, 290 EV (+3.1%, +14 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 33.1%, 244 EV (-3.2%, -14 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 81.1%, 303.3 EV (+6.7%, +7.9 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 18.9%, 234.7 EV (-6.7%, -7.9 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 237 EV (+/- 0)
Lean D: 44 EV (+4)
Tossup: 66 (+11)
Lean R: 0 (-15)
Strong R: 191 (+/- 0)

There's no good news here for a Republican. The closest thing to good news for Romney is that he's got a firm floor of 191. That hasn't budged in months. But his "lean" support has bounced into and out of the "toss-up" column all along. Now, I think that a fair bit of that will end up in his court. But from that firm floor of 191, he needs all of the toss-ups, plus at least 13 from Obama's "leaning" column. And I don't think he's going to get all of the toss-ups. Some of those are going to bounce Obama's way, and that's all gravy anyway, since if all his "strong" and "lean" support proves out, that's all he needs.

What Mitt Romney Must Do: He's got to get every last one of his people to the polls. Every. Last. One. And even that might not be enough. But that's what it comes down to, now. His campaign has to execute, and get their people in to vote.

What Barack Obama Must Do: See above, except that he's working from a slightly better position. As I said earlier, all he needs is a first down and he can run out the clock. His main enemy now isn't Romney, it's Complacency. He can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, if he works at it. Execution, and a strong ground game, those are the keys.

And The Winner Is... Unemployment is down. The housing market is entering a real recovery. Gas prices are stable. Incumbent Presidents almost never lose unless the economy is totally dead, the international situation has gone south, or both. While the economy isn't what anyone would call good, it's better now than it has been, and that's good enough for the advantages of incumbency to work their magic. So, I'm going to make my semi-official prediction: Barack Obama wins re-election, with 303 votes in the Electoral College. The popular vote will probably be 51-49, or something very close to it. It's a closer race than last time, and Mitt Romney has run a pretty good race for someone who has always come across as a collaboration between the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and Disney's Animatronics. But this was always Obama's race to lose, and in that first debate, he sure gave it the old college try. If you can still find someone willing to take the bet, I'd take 2-1 odds, and I'd take 300 for the over-under in the Electoral College.

It's too late now to vote early. But, it's never too late to vote often! I'll check in Tuesday night, and see how things turn out.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Election 2012: Into The Last Lap

And with the last debate in the can, the campaign rolls past the starting gate into the last lap. In only eleven days, we go to the polls to elect the next President of the United States, the entire House of Representatives, and a third of the Senate.

The last debate didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. There were a few good zingers about horses and bayonets, and "The '80s called, they want their foreign policy back" is ... well, not a classic, but still pretty funny. Romney does seem pretty fixated on Russia. It sure looks like he wants to have a Navy built to take on the Red Banner Northern Fleet, an Air Force equipped to take on Soviet Frontal Aviation, and an Army ready to bust up an assault from the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. Never mind that none of those things have existed in the last twenty years. We've gotta be ready for those sneaky Russian bastiges.

I do have to say a word in defense of bayonets, though. There are going to be times when having a stabby bit to put on the end of your rifle will come in pretty handy. Case in point:

We'll probably never see horse cavalry again, but a blade plus mechanical advantage will never go entirely out of style.

Now, with both campaigns beginning to pursue their endgames, we get to see how it plays out. The Republicans have bet heavily on the SuperPAC-funded advertisements, while the Democrats are relying on saturating the important "battleground" states with more campaign offices. Air superiority versus ground superiority, if you will. It'll be very interesting to see how this one ends. And there are liable to be more than a couple of frustrated billionaires, if it proves that they couldn't buy the election outright, after all.

And now, on to the numbers. As usual, my sources are Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. Information is current as of Friday evening.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 63.8%, 276 EV (+2.3%, -16 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 36.3%, 260 EV (-2.1%, +18 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 74.4%, 295.4 EV (+6.5%, +7.6 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 25.6%, 242.6 EV (-6.5%, -7.6 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 237 (+20)
Lean D: 40 (-20)
Tossup: 55 (+/- 0)
Lean R: 15 (+/- 0)
Strong R: 191 (+/- 0)

First, it looks like the only movement on Pollster was a firming-up of Democratic support. If all they do is hold onto what they've got, Pollster has Obama winning 277 votes in the Electoral College. Team Romney's performance is essentially flat. That's bad. He really needs to start pulling some of those toss-up states into his Lean column, and then pull some of that into his Strong column. That hasn't happened, despite his strong showing in the first debate. If there's no movement, soon, that's a really bad sign.

It may already be too late. The time for plans and policy is over, now it's all about execution.

What Romney Must Do: Team Romney faces a daunting mathematical proposition. They have to have all of the toss-up states, all of Obama's weaker support, plus 24 EVs worth of Obama's stronger support. It's doable, particularly if Team Obama screws up something important in the next week and a half, but it's virtually impossible without outside help in the form of an international disaster or major unforced opposition error. Moderate Mitt has to hit the trail, hard, and try to win the center. That's his only path to daylight.

What Obama Must Do: Really, he has to approach the endgame as if he were in Romney's position. He has to go for each and every one of the tossup states, Romney's softer support, and even some of his core support. But the truth is, he doesn't need to win all that much of any of the above categories. Going by the Pollster map, all he's got to do is keep what he's got, and he's in. His worst enemy at this point is complacency. He's got to avoid it like Death itself. He's got to run hard, every day, until the polls close on November 6th.

And The Winner Is... I'm really tempted to copy and paste last week's entry. Nothing important has changed. The odds are still hovering around 3-2 in favor of re-election, and the solid over/under in the Electoral College is still 290. It's creeping upwards, though. There's still a case, getting better by the day, for 300. But I don't think there's going to be much movement from that range. We'll know more by Tuesday.

As always, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Election 2012: T-18 And Counting

A pretty big week, all in all. There's a lot that I'm saving for after Election Day, which is less than three weeks out, now. Consider this a preview of coming attractions.

 First, an Austrian named Felix Baumgartner rode a balloon up to 128,000 feet, then took the short way down:

Second, the hits just keep on coming for Lance:

Third, Alpha Centauri has at least one planet! That we can see! And it's about Earth-sized! But holy moley it's hot:

Fourth, the rover Curiosity has found some shiny stuff on Mars. Dare I say it? Dare I? I think I do ... THERE'S GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS! Maybe. It could be something else. But, seriously, it'd be pretty odd if Earth wound up with all of the inner Solar System's share, don't you think?

Oh yeah, and there was another Presidential debate this week. Some of you may have watched it.

In the last two entries, I've said that Obama had to bring his "A" game to this second debate, or he'd be in real trouble. And, that's exactly what he did. He turned in as good a performance as I've seen from him in a debate. He didn't let any of Romney's assertions go unchallenged. And he got in some pretty decent jabs of his own. Plus, it looks like we got a brand new meme out of the deal.

I swear, future historians are going to look at our time, and wonder exactly what the Hell we were smoking.

Still, this was a really good debate. Neither candidate gave the other any room to hide. Both men were able to showcase their best qualities. And that was far more important for Obama than for Romney, since it partially offsets his poor performance from the first debate. I say partially, because that bell just can't be un-rung. Look at it this way: if we score this as a best-of-three series, it's one each now, with one more to go. It's a far closer race than it was four years ago, that's for sure.

How much closer? Well, let's have a look. As usual, our data comes from Intrade, from FiveThirtyEight, and from Pollster. It's current as of Friday evening.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 61.5%, 292 EV (+2.0%, +11 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 38.4%, 242 EV (-2.4%, -6 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 67.9%, 287.8 EV (+6.8%, +4.7 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 32.1%, 250.2 EV (-6.8%, -4.7 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 217 (+7)
Lean D: 60 (+13)
Tossup: 55 (-20)
Lean R: 15 (+/- 0)
Strong R: 191 (+/- 0)

To an extent, this represents a reversion to the mean, as far as the odds are concerned. The really interesting thing to me is that Romney's figures on Pollster are unchanged from the last time we checked, a week ago. And that's pretty bad news for Team Romney. Possibly worse news is that his "strong" support is unchanged over two solid weeks. Although you could argue that's good news, insofar as it means his base is rock-solid. But the base won't win him this election. The center wins this election, for whoever stakes it out and holds it. There's not a tossup state that Romney doesn't need ... plus, he has to pry off some of Obama's "leaning" support. That's a bad place to be, with only two weeks to go. I mean, it's possible, but the odds are against it.

What Romney Must Do: Reversion to the mean is a bad sign. He needs to knock it out of the park Monday night, and hope for some blunders from the other side that he can exploit. The good news is that he's nowhere near as bad off as McCain was at this point in 2008. Then, it was pretty much over for all intents and purposes. The McCain campaign was in an inverted flat spin with all engines on fire, with his odds of success somewhere around 5-to-1 against. This is still close enough that a strong Romney performance could convince enough voters that old Mitt might be able to do the job, especially if Obama falters.

What Obama Must Do: Prepare. He's sitting on a fairly solid foreign policy record. Bin Laden and Qaddafi are dead, we're out of Iraq, we're winding up our affairs in Afghanistan, there's a lot of good to tout. But he cannot take any of that for granted. He's got to come out swinging on Monday, just like he did last Tuesday. He's got to defend his record, vigorously, and point out his opponent's weaknesses. He's got an easier job than his opponent does. In some ways that's a curse, because it invites complacency. Complacency kills.

And The Winner Is: The odds are holding pretty steady at 3-2 in favor of re-election. I think they'll hold there for about another week, unless Romney utterly implodes on Monday night, which would surprise me. The hard numbers say that 290 is the over/under for Electoral College votes, but if you're bold, there's a pretty good case to be made for 300.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Election 2012: VP Debate Update

There's an adage that says: Age and treachery will always triumph over youth and enthusiasm. I think that provides a fairly adequate explanation of what happened last night.

I do think it's important to say that Ryan was far better prepared, and gave a far better account of himself, than did the previous Republican Vice-Presidential nominee. But that might be damning with faint praise. The previous VP debate was ... bizarre, to say the least. Ryan was able to participate in a coherent argument. I'm still not entirely sure whose questions Palin was answering. Although, I did see something a few weeks back that gave me some food for thought. As it turns out, there's a technique that most candidates use called the "pivot", that allows them to "answer" a question they don't actually want to answer, while giving the appearance of having answered it. If you watch closely, you can see them do it. But not everyone is good at it. Biden and Ryan pivot with the practiced ease of Olympic-class gymnasts. Palin simply wasn't in their class, and it showed. It's quite likely she was trying to do the same thing they do, but just didn't have the verbal sleight-of-hand to pull it off.

But back to last night ... By most accounts, Biden kept Ryan on the defensive most of the night. The question is, how does this affect the overall race? Odds are, not by much. The VP debate hardly ever shifts the overall race. There are several examples where the VP debate was a total massacre, but the "winning" ticket nevertheless went down to defeat at the polls in November, Bentsen vs. Quayle being one prominent example. While yesterday's performance by Biden should give Democrats some cause for hope, it's going to be far more important what Obama does on Tuesday. He's got to bring his "A" game that night, and come out swinging. Otherwise, things could get grim for Team Blue.

And now, the numbers. As usual, our data comes courtesy of Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. The information is current as of Friday night.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 59.5%, 281 EV (-7.8%, -36 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 40.8%, 248 EV (+8.1%, +18 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 61.1%, 283.1 EV (-23.8%, -34.6 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 38.9%, 254.9 EV (+23.8%, +34.6 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 210 (-41)
Lean D: 47 (+8)
Tossup: 75 (+18)
Lean R: 15 (+15)
Strong R: 191 (+/- 0)

At first glance, you'd be tempted to say that the post-Debate 1 slide continues unabated, but a look at the time histories on Intrade says otherwise. The slide has stopped, pretty much at the same point it's been for the last year or so, with a few excursions here and there. Again, it's interesting to note how closely Intrade and FiveThirtyEight correspond to one another. Between them, they're liable to converge on the "truth" value before Election Day ... but there's a lot of volatility in those numbers at the moment. Last week, we saw a big pro-Obama swing from the previous check, post-DNC; and this week, we see a big pro-Romney swing. The undecideds are just now checking in, and trying to figure out who they're going to line up behind. Post-DNC, they really didn't like Romney so much, and after the first debate, their confidence in Obama took a hit. This is why next Tuesday is so important: it's a chance for Obama to re-establish confidence.

That said, it's interesting to note that Romney's core support is essentially unchanged, since early summer. He's had the same 191 electoral votes firmly in his column for ages now. While Obama has had states wander in and out of the "strong" zone, Romney hasn't had that problem. Also, one thing to keep an eye on is the fact that by Pollster's estimate, Obama falls short of 270 for the first time since we've been looking at Pollster's data. This isn't a chime of doom, necessarily; Obama only has to win Ohio or Florida, or Virginia plus one other toss-up state. Romney has to have them all. Well, almost all. He could probably do without Nevada or Colorado.

Still, this is the closest things have been in quite a while. This is liable to be the week that makes or breaks the campaign.

What Romney Must Do: He's had a week of solid good momentum, what he needs to do now is not screw it up. He has to avoid unforced errors. He has to avoid being painted as an extremist. And he really needs to win all the toss-up states. His core support isn't big enough to deliver the race, he needs all the help he can get. A month or so ago, I'd have said his odds were pretty slim; but they're looking better now than they ever have. He needs a strong performance on Tuesday night. That won't seal the deal by itself, but he has to hit another one out of the park to demonstrate that the first one wasn't a fluke.

What Obama Must Do: He owes Biden, big time. And the best way to pay him back? Put on his best game face for Tuesday night, and pin Romney to the mat. While he's had an awful week, he still enjoys a lead in the polls, and a strong comeback performance in the second debate will go a long way towards restoring people's confidence in him. What he can't afford, though, is another lackluster job. He can't make any serious gaffes. He needs to be able to sell his record to the public. If he can do these things on Tuesday night, not only can he stop the slide, he can reverse it.

And The Winner Is... We're back to 3-2 in favor of re-election, where we've been for most of the last year. Yeah, I'd take those odds. If you're feeling brave, you might even go for 2-1. The over-under sits at about 280 today, the lowest I've seen it, but I think going as high as 310 might not be totally unreasonable. We'll know far better in a few weeks' time. I think the projections from one week out from Election Day should be pretty solid. Last time, the projections from three weeks out were pretty good, but I think we have far more volatility this time around. We'll take a one-week sounding, and see how that compares to the actual results. That will be interesting to see.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Election 2012: Debate 1 Update

His side had led the contest throughout the spring and summer. He had been confident of victory. Early this week, some troubling signs began to emerge, and then on Wednesday, disaster. Poor play put his prospects, and his team's, in grave doubt.

But enough about Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers. There was also this year's first Presidential debate on Wednesday. And unlike the Rangers, who face a Wild Card Thunderdome tonight in Arlington (two teams enter, one team leaves), President Obama has two more debates to go. Panic is unwarranted at this point.

Just about all the observers awarded the night to Mitt Romney, and justly so. His style and delivery were outstanding. And it may well be that Romney's "October Surprise" will turn out to be his sudden, heretofore unannounced tack to the center starting with the first debate. This Mitt Romney didn't look like a far-right Tea Party lunatic. This is the Mitt Romney that convinced a majority of Massachusetts voters to elect him Governor. He's also the Mitt Romney that's been mostly AWOL for the last eighteen months, while his body double has been courting the fanatics of the hard right for all he's worth. And that brings up an interesting point ... just how will his hard-right base react to this slide to the center? Isn't that what they were afraid of all along? We'll just have to see how this plays out over the next few weeks.

The Big Day is just over one month away.

And now, the numbers. As usual, our data comes from Intrade, from FiveThirtyEight, and from Pollster. All data current as of late Friday afternoon.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 67.3%, 317 EV (+9.6%, +32 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 32.7%, 230 EV (-9.2%, -17 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 84.9%, 317.7 EV (+5.8%, +3.5 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 15.1%, 220.3 EV (-5.2%, -3.5 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 251 (+40)
Lean D: 39 (+3)
Tossup: 57 (-43)
Lean R: 0 (-16)
Strong R: 191 (+16)

On the one hand, the numbers tell a pretty encouraging story for Team Obama. His post-convention bounce has legs. He's made ground on every indicator we watch since the DNC closed up shop. But ... Intrade had him at nearly six-to-one on Monday. His performance Wednesday hurt him. Not seriously, not yet, but another one or two like it could put him in serious trouble.

Interesting point: Intrade's EV totals are converging on FiveThirtyEight's EV totals. If you remember, last time around, this happened about three weeks out, and were within one or two of the actual totals. Historically, the debates haven't really changed the trajectory of a race much, but this one may break the mold ... all the same, 317-230 is beginning to look pretty solid.

What Romney Must Do: Stay on this target and fire for effect. The pivot to the center is what John McCain utterly failed to do last time around. It's vital to look sane and Presidential in the remaining two debates, and equally vital for Paul Ryan to look non-maniacal in the VP debate next week. It's also vital to look and sound more centrist than during the primary campaign. It looks like Mitt Romney understands this, which will make this an interesting scrum indeed.

What Obama Must Do: One shanked debate does not a disaster make, but two could. He has got to do better week after next, and he needs to avoid unforced errors as well. When they next meet, he has got to look relaxed, confident, and on top of his game. He's the incumbent, and the economy is improving. But he can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, either through inattention or through mistakes.

And The Winner Is... As bad as his week's been, Intrade still has Obama as a 2-1 favorite for re-election. I like those odds. I sure wouldn't go any higher at this point in the game. But I'd go up to 310 for the over/under.

Remember, it's just about early-voting time, depending on where you live. Vote early, and vote often!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XXII: The Bloodiest Day

It's extremely hard to adjust to having the rules changed on you in mid-play.

That's really the thing you see when you study the Civil War close-up. These men trained extensively in Napoleon's tactics. It's axiomatic that you train for the last war, because for so very long, things didn't change much, if they changed at all. And many of the most important things don't change. That's why we still read Sun Tzu's Art of War, Miyamoto Musashi's A Book of Five Rings, and Clausewitz's On War. (Although I'd advise finding a Cliff's Notes version of the latter.) But with every change of technology, what a commander can do on the battlefield changes with it, and the Civil War brought with it a fairly broad range of new technologies that had never been seen before on such scale. And the learning curve was fairly horrifying.

As I said last time, I'm finding it difficult to come down too hard on most Civil War commanders as a result. Most did the best they could with what they had. It was mostly no fault of their own that they were found wanting. But only mostly. There were still a few good old-fashioned character flaws that came boiling to the fore. And our man George McClellan wasn't immune.

If the spring and summer of 1861 were the apex of McClellan's career, the spring and summer of 1862 were the nadir. I've said before that I excuse what some would call McClellan's temerity, because he was acting fairly reasonably given the information he thought he had. If he'd attacked in the face of those odds, he'd have been reckless, and it wasn't necessarily his fault that Pinkerton was giving him bad information. But I refuse to excuse his overweening pride, and stubborn refusal to allow another general to take any credit for victory. This is what turned the Second Battle of Bull Run into the debacle that it was.

It all began after the collapse of McClellan's Peninsular Campaign in June. With Johnston's death at Shiloh, Robert E. Lee was advanced to command in the field, and he was able to push McClellan's Army of the Potomac back to the James River. With the threat against Richmond removed, Lee was able to turn his attentions back to the north. This caused Lincoln to appoint John Pope as commander of the newly-formed Army of Virginia, with the mission of finding and engaging Lee's army. Pope requested reinforcements from McClellan, who refused. The reason McClellan gave was that he didn't want to leave Washington unguarded. It's widely suspected that the real reason was that McClellan didn't want Pope to succeed where he had failed.

The result was that the Union and Confederate forces met for a second time at Bull Run, on nearly even numerical terms. In such an engagement, what counts more than anything else is leadership and coordination. And as I've said before, the Confederacy still enjoyed an advantage. Not as much as the first time around, but still enough to win victory on that day. The defeated Union forces were able to retire in good order, though, so the humiliation of another rout was avoided.

Now, this left Lee with a bit of a problem. What to do next? His basic problem was always one of supply. The Confederacy's basic problem in general was always one of supply. This is because the Confederacy could raise an army, and it could equip an army, but it really couldn't do both of those at the same time. Part of the problem was finding trained, skilled men: machinists and mechanics. Those men were needed with equal urgency in the factories, and on the firing line. But there was also a material problem. The Union blockade was hurting, and severely. The "King Cotton" strategy had failed. Europe, far from being destitute without Southern cotton, had found other sources. And England wasn't going to risk war with the Union over those supplies in any event. The Confederacy got dribbles of supplies in via blockade runners, but this was never going to be enough to supply whole armies in the field. But Lee found a radical solution to his supply problem.

For the same reason that bank robbers rob banks, Lee went north: because that's where the supplies were.

But that wasn't the only reason. There were two other goals. First, he wanted to attack the North's will to fight, by showing that their armies couldn't keep him out. This might have a salubrious effect on the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Second, he wanted to show the Europeans, and England in particular, that the Union army couldn't keep him out. If he was able to demonstrate the Confederacy's military viability with major victories on Union soil, maybe they'd weigh in to stop the bloodshed as a humanitarian gesture. It was a long shot. But it was the best shot the Confederacy had at that point.

And so it was that Lee drafted Special Order 191, detailing his plans for the invasion. Copies were made for each of his senior commanders. Most of them safeguarded those orders closely. One, Major General D.H. Hill, wrapped them around a couple of cigars and forgetfully left them behind at a campsite.

You know, I think my first impression was actually correct. They really hadn't invented operational security yet.

This was like McClellan getting the Prima Strategy Guide to the Civil War. If you ask how he knew that the order was genuine, you have to remember, back in those days orders weren't typewritten. Orders were written by hand, and the veteran officers of the Union army generally knew one another's handwriting. It wouldn't have been hard to find an officer who'd served under Lee. It took maybe five minutes to assess the authenticity, and maybe five minutes more for McClellan to figure out what needed to be done. You see, the order not only gave him an idea of where Lee's army was headed, it also gave him for the very first time a truly accurate idea of its strength.

Knowing Lee's target let McClellan get there first, and dig in. It also let him get some forces in place to exploit Lee's flank. When Lee got to Sharpsburg on September 17th, McClellan was there waiting for him.

This time, McClellan had a decisive advantage, nearly two to one. This time, he held a clearly superior position. This time, he knew precisely what Lee had in mind. And still, he was mortally fearful of what Lee might do to him.

Yes, I mostly don't hold McClellan's timidity against him, except for this. When you have your enemy in a vise, you spin it down and squeeze. You lay to with every tool and weapon at your disposal. You do your damnedest to break him utterly. But McClellan? Fully a third of his men at Sharpsburg never fired a shot.

And for all that, it was still the bloodiest day in American military history. Commanders still hadn't come to terms yet with what rifled muskets could do. Companies marching to attack a prepared defensive position quite often simply ceased to exist, withered away by a veritable rain of steel. And this went back and forth on the field for most of the day. Until, finally, a Union attack managed to break the Confederate center. This forced Lee to withdraw, as his position was no longer tenable. A more alert, more vigorous commander might have pursued. McClellan ... didn't.

I still think that commanders were shell-shocked to some extent by the numbers of casualties. This was something beyond anything they could ever have imagined. It was, and still is, the bloodiest day in American military history. Some 23,000 men had fallen, on both sides.

Nevertheless, it seemed as if an opportunity had been squandered. Lee was allowed to escape. His army would live to fight again another day, having seized enough supplies from Maryland farmers to keep on going.

But for all that, it was still a victory. The Confederates had been beaten in open battle, and sent packing. That was good enough for what Lincoln had in mind.

Lincoln had drafted a proclamation regularizing what Union armies had already been doing. If you'll recall, Union armies had been confiscating slaves in Confederate territory, mainly to deny their labor to their masters. Emancipation began as an economic measure, designed to hurt the finances of the Union's enemies. Lincoln merely took that one step further. His proclamation summarily dispossessed all slave-owners of their property, in all territories then in rebellion. He had drawn this up shortly after learning of what his field commanders had already been doing, but didn't release it immediately. It would have sounded like a measure of desperation. He needed a victory, in order to give the order authenticity. The Battle of Antietam gave him that victory.

And at a stroke, any real possibility of foreign intervention died. Because whether or not it began that way, the war was now becoming one of liberation. It was becoming a war to settle the slavery issue once and for all. And now that this was out in the open, the odds that England would weigh in publicly for slavery and against emancipation were as near to zero as made no difference. If the Confederacy were to win, they'd have to win with whatever they had on hand. And much of what came in from abroad had to come in through Mexico, then through Texas and Arkansas, and across the Mississippi. And that was beginning to be a real problem.

It took a few months after the Battle of Shiloh to realize what would eventually become an important fact: with the fall of New Orleans, the Confederacy's only stronghold on the entire Mississippi River was the city of Vicksburg. While this is obvious in hindsight, it went essentially unnoticed for several months, while the other battles of the summer of 1862 played themselves out. But realize it they did, the Union with anticipation and the Confederacy with dread. This would be the hinge on which the whole thing swung.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Chasing the Dragon, Revisited

Mark your calendars, ladies and gentlemen. October 7th, at about 7PM EDT, the first of 12 regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station will get underway. That is, if everything goes according to plan. Those of you who were here last time may remember that the launch window is pretty damned short. (I don't think I'll live-blog this one.) Still ... even with all of our problems, some pretty great things are happening. Despair is a sin. Here's how it finally went down last time:

And again, some music while we wait:

By the way, here's another date to mark down on your calendars: October 16th. Our man Donald has a new album coming out called Sunken Condos. He's been kind enough to put a preview out there for us:

This is good stuff, it really is, but I'd kind of like to see him get together with Mr. Becker again. It's been too long since Everything Must Go.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Election 2012: Post-DNC Update

Now, it's all official. The two parties have confirmed in convention what we've all known for months. The Obama/Biden ticket has been officially nominated by the Democratic Party to face the Romney/Ryan ticket of the Republican Party in November's Presidential election. The conventions have been illuminating. Not always in the ways that the parties expected, but illuminating nevertheless.

For one, Peter Beinart noted at the Daily Beast that the Democrats have acquired the knack for message discipline. Once upon a time, that was a Republican knack. Under Reagan, the Republicans reliably fell in line, heeding his half-joking commandment that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill Of A Fellow Republican. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone at the 1984 Republican convention going rogue. The 2012 convention, on the other hand, consisted of almost nothing else, with the possible exceptions of Ryan and Romney themselves. The Democrats, on the other hand, all looked like they were pulling in the same direction. Sure, they were interested in making themselves look good. The Democratic National Convention has, historically, been the debut venue for the party's rising stars. The last two Democratic Presidents, after all, used their keynote addresses as springboards to launch their national presences. But their speeches were primarily touting the virtues of their ticket, as opposed to polishing their resumes for 2016. I don't know that it means anything in particular, but I just find it curious that the characteristically disorganized Democrats have discovered unity of message at the same time that the characteristically regimented Republicans seem to have lost it.

The other interesting difference, and one that I did not anticipate, was that Biden and Obama gave their speeches on the same night. Which is why I said last week that I'd be missing Biden's address. Instead, I missed Bill Clinton's. This leads to an interesting national variation in television ratings. Bill Clinton's speech won the ratings battle in most markets, with the exception of Texas. It's not that Texas hates Bill Clinton. It's that the Dallas Cowboys were playing the New York Giants. We'd probably skip a live broadcast of the Second Coming if the Cowboys were on the other channel. So, while most of the nation was watching Bill Clinton do what he does best, most of us were watching Tony Romo tear the Giants' secondary a new one. While I'd make that choice again with no regrets, I do kind of wish I'd seen it. Clinton was in rare form. He showed his skill, not just at communicating but at connecting, and reminded us how he won two terms.

Speaking of sports, James Fallows did a compare and contrast between political reporters and sports reporters. And he's right. You know who's brutally honest? Who tells it like it is, no matter if he's talking about friend or foe? The guy on your local sports radio station. You do find the occasional "homer", who finds no fault with his favorites, but they get no respect and hardly ever last long. People complain about our reporters covering elections like they were sporting events. Oh, would that this were actually true. Journalism would be better for it. We need for our political reporters to be more like sportscasters, not less.

Another interesting compare-and-contrast data point has come out of the conventions: the Romney campaign's heavy investment in air time versus the Obama campaign's heavy investment in the ground game. Romney's Super-PACs are producing ads and buying time like there's no tomorrow. Obama's campaign has far more local offices and workers in the swing states. It will be interesting to see how these divergent strategies play out against one another.

And now, let's have a look at the numbers. As usual, I'm drawing my information from Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. The data are current as of Friday evening.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 57.9%, 285 EV (+0.5%, +4 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 41.9%, 247 EV (-0.7%, +15 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 78.1%, 314.2 EV (+6.5%, +11.8 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 21.9%, 223.8 EV (-6.5%, -11.8 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 211 (+/- 0)
Lean D: 36 (+16)
Tossup: 100 (-16)
Lean R: 16 (+/- 0)
Strong R: 175 (+/- 0)

I wish now that I'd pulled a set of numbers immediately prior to the RNC. Then, we'd have a better idea of exactly what the effect of each convention was. Obama has definitely gotten a poll boost, as seen in the Pollster data, but the Intrade numbers haven't moved much. Granted, Intrade is still giving him 3-2 odds for re-election. But FiveThirtyEight is quoting 3-1 odds at this point, with the convention giving Obama a quick +6.5% jolt. Another interesting point is what Pollster seems to be telling us this week: that Obama has picked up sixteen electoral votes from toss-up states as part of this boost. Even with a relatively lackluster economy, he's still chugging along.

What Romney Must Do: He basically has to run the table in the toss-up states. Add his "strong" and "lean" votes together, and he's still eighty electoral votes short, with only 100 on the table. Which is to say, all of them but Ohio. That's a pretty tall order. Not impossible, but he's got to run a flawless, error-free campaign from here on in. There's no margin for error. And one of the go-to tropes for Republicans, weakness on national security, is simply laughable now. Obama hasn't exactly been shy about handing out the explodium Candygrams and bullet fiestas for people he thinks need killing. They might try painting him as a weakling pacifist ... but Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi would probably disagree. If they could, which they can't. So, Team Romney has to hit the economic message hard. Without reminding the voting public that he looks like the guy who fired them.

What Obama Must Do: But this is no time for Team Obama to be complacent. If the electorate gets sufficiently discontented, they may well give Mr. Romney a tryout. And he's facing a pretty steep differential in available cash for advertisements. But he's got a few things that Romney doesn't. For one, he's got the Oval Office, and Air Force One. All the advantages of incumbency. And the public's deep distrust of Mitt Romney, the man. He's also got to run a fairly error-free campaign, but he's got more of a margin for error than Team Romney does. While Romney has to win 80 out of 100 toss-ups, Obama only has to win twenty-one. That's Florida, by itself. Or Ohio, plus any one other state. He's betting on his superior ground game to even out Romney's money advantage. That may prove the way to bet.

And The Winner Is: Obama still enjoys 3-2 odds on Intrade, much like most of the last year and a half. The next month bears watching. By the end of September, we should have a pretty good idea of how the air-versus-ground strategies are working. By the middle of October, we should have a really good idea. But for now, I'd take 3-2 odds on Obama/Biden for the win, and I'd still take 290 electoral votes for the over/under.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Election 2012: Post-RNC Update

Well ... that was certainly interesting. Given what went down last night, I think it would be appropriate to recap the Republican National Convention with the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good: I have been saying for some time that Mitt Romney's Vice-Presidential pick would give us a bit of a window into his decision-making. It's the first Presidential decision that the nominee makes. What, why and how gives you the template for their decision-making, and some idea of how their Administration would go. We saw Reagan and Clinton both pick former rivals as running mates. We saw Bush the Elder pick a non-entity. Bush the Younger picked Dick Cheney, who was the chair of the search committee, and who became a virtual shadow President. And do we need to rehash McCain's choice? Mitt Romney ended up picking Paul Ryan. And yes, I think that's a good thing. And yes, I think that reflects credit upon Romney as a candidate. He didn't pick someone to be a media-wowing "game changer". He picked someone with serious policy cred. Even if you don't agree with him (and in a lot of ways I don't) you can't dismiss him out of hand. Not only does he have some policy chops, and some legislative experience, he also comes from a swing state. That's a pretty canny choice. It brings me a bit of relief. The world probably won't end if Romney were to win.

The Bad: But ... what on God's green earth was Team Romney smoking last night? I mean, I like Eastwood as an actor. I like him as a director. But dear Lord, improv is not his form. And that was a huge speed bump in what could have been a perfectly stellar nomination night. The video got rave reviews, and was a great starting piece. If they'd slid from that into Rubio's speech, and if Rubio's speech has been more about Romney than about Rubio, then the lead-up to Romney's acceptance speech would have been an ascending crescendo of splendor. But no. Which makes you ask, who's driving this bus, anyway?

The Ugly: The purified, distilled crazy at the bottom of the pot, that would be my suspicion. The incident with the CNN camera operator -- you know, the one where they threw peanuts at an African-American and said "this is how we feed animals" -- tells you just about all you need to know about the sorry state of the GOP today. This is why I can't be a Republican. They can claim they were just random guys, but you know that they had to have been either delegates or alternates, which means that their home state party vetted them and sent them as their representatives. No one gets out on the convention floor that's not a delegate or an alternate. This is distilled, concentrated ugliness. The very idea of an African-American President utterly unhinges them. Republicans don't like it when people say this, but... Pray tell, where was the Tea Party, alleged "libertarians" that they claim to be, when the Patriot Act was being passed? Where was the Tea Party when Bush was spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave? Nowhere, that's where. They didn't show up until November 5, 2008. I find the timing suspicious.

And now, the numbers. As usual, my data sources are Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. Information is current as of Friday afternoon.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 57.4%, 281  EV (-0.4%, -6 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 42.6%, 232 EV (+2.8%, -18 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 71.6%, 302.4 EV (+0.5%, +2.8 EV)
Mitt Romney(R): 28.4%, 235.6 EV (-0.5%, -2.8 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 211 (+20)
Lean D: 20 (-79)
Tossup: 116 (+59)
Lean R: 16 (+16)
Strong R: 175 (-16)

The Pollster map is fascinating, as always, but I'm not really sure what it means. Both sides' support is softening in the negativity of the campaign. But the negativity is hurting Romney far more than it's hurting Obama. Romney is softening in places he can't afford to, and still has to clean up all but one of the toss-ups. Obama only has to pick up two or three of the toss-ups, so long as he can hold onto his "lean" states.

And I'm still curious about the divergence between the gambling public and the pollsters. I'm pretty sure it comes down to the fact that a man might lie to a pollster, but won't lie to a bookie.

What Romney Must Do: That last-day bobble at the convention was unfortunate. They needed a more coherent message. They're going to have to go at it hammer-and-tongs over Labor Day weekend, then there's a week-long blackout while all eyes are on Charlotte. There's really no option for them but the nuclear option: go negative, and go big. Negative advertising sickens independents and rallies the base, at least in theory. It probably won't work. But that's about the only card they have to play.

What Obama Must Do: Avoid major screw-ups in their own convention. Draw the public's attention to their accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, such as they are. Obama never did a very good job of selling health care reform, this is his chance for a do-over. And Biden's idea for a slogan is still a pretty good one: "General Motors is alive, and Bin Laden is dead." (But sorry, Joe, I won't be watching your speech. You're on opposite Cowboys/Giants. I'll read the transcript later.)

And The Winner Is: Odds are holding steady at 3-2, as they have for months. I don't expect much movement in the next two weeks. I'd take Obama/Biden at 3-2 for the win, and I'd probably take 290 EVs for the over/under.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Enter Robespierre

If Lance Armstrong was the King, then Travis Tygart is his Robespierre.

The thunderbolt that struck the cycling community yesterday was the news that Lance Armstrong was, for possibly the first time in his life, giving up. He would not take the USADA's case against him to arbitration. He still maintains his innocence, but no longer wishes to contest the matter.

The evidence will come out, sooner or later. There are other tightly coupled cases coming forward. For example, Armstrong's long-time team director, Johan Bruyneel, will be taking his defense forward. In this matter, the two are practically joined at the hip. But...

But in the back of our minds, many of us always knew. Or at least suspected.

For over a decade, from 1996 to 2007, every winner of the Tour de France was either found guilty of doping offenses, or admitted to doping offenses. Bjarne Riis admitted to taking EPO during his 1996 Tour victory. Jan Ullrich's career ended in disgrace after Operacion Puerto. Marco Pantani was expelled from the 1999 Giro d'Italia, ostensibly for "health reasons". In 2006, Floyd Landis' title was stripped after he tested positive for testosterone, and the 2007 winner Alberto Contador has just finished serving a two-year ban. What were the odds that Lance Armstrong would be the only clean one?

But even so, his achievements were singular. No one disputes the fact that he contracted near-fatal cancer. And no one disputes that he clawed his way back to the top of his chosen profession. In a strange way, this may have been his key advantage. From the wastage of chemotherapy, he was able to forge for himself the ideal cyclist's physique. For most of a decade, he prepared himself monomanaically for those three weeks each summer. No one worked harder, or longer, or suffered more deeply. Whatever other pro cyclists were doing, Armstrong turned it up to eleven: training, diet, equipment, he was an innovator in all these areas. It stands to reason that if he was using performance-enhancing drugs, he'd be using the very latest and the very best.

And that's the last bit I'm still curious about. How did they manage to hide it for so long? How did they skirt the testing protocols? It's telling that so many of his former colleagues fell afoul of the tests after leaving his team. They tried to repeat the doping program, but failed to keep the parts that helped them evade detection.

That's why the case is still important. We need to know how. We need to know how, so that the testing protocols can be updated to account for it.

There's reason to think that some of the "how" has already been discovered. The new "biological passport" program has made large-scale cheating much harder to accomplish. And if you've watched the races year by year, you can tell that the riders are having a much harder time on the climbs now than six or eight years ago. It's a much cleaner sport now than it was then.

There are no winners here. The closest anyone comes to having "won" here is Greg LeMond. LeMond was one of the first to raise the flag of suspicion, and he was a virtual pariah for years as a consequence. But he was right. He was right, all along. So far as I know, he's said nothing in public. He probably isn't overjoyed at having been found to be correct.

The King, after all, has been found guilty of treason.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Election 2012: Let The Games Begin

A man who's legally blind, who can barely read the morning paper, has recently set a new world record in archery. Another man, born with no feet, is competing as a sprinter. For only the fifth time in history, a weightlifter has cleaned three times his own weight. I love the Olympics. You see the very best of humanity on display, and you see the barriers of the impossible pushed a little farther back each time. But, as awesome as those Games are, those aren't the ones I'm talking about today.

In just over three weeks, the Republican National Convention gets underway in Tampa, Florida. In just about a month, the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Charlotte, North Carolina. And in 95 days, just over three months, we go to the polls to elect the next President of the United States.

The so-called "Silly Season" is just about over. The fall campaign is about to commence for real. Ladies and gentlemen, it's on like Donkey Kong.

As always, our numbers come courtesy of Intrade, from Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, and from Pollster.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D) 57.8%, 287 EV (+1.9%, +/- 0 EV)
Mitt Romney (R) 39.8%, 250 EV (-1.2%, -9 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D) 71.1%, 299.6 EV (+2.8%, +/- 0 EV)
Mitt Romney (R) 28.9%, 238.4 EV (-2.8%, +/- 0 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 191 (-30)
Lean D: 99 (+80)
Tossup: 57 (-50)
Lean R: 0 (-10)
Strong R: 191 (+10)

General Impressions: Pollster tells a fascinating story here. Obama and Romney have exactly the same amount of "strong" support in the Electoral College, but Obama has a ton more "leaning" states. Romney has none. That's an interesting point -- Romney goes straight from "strong" to "toss-up", with no states leaning in his direction. I don't know what that means yet. One thing it could mean is that the Bain attacks, and the mess with the tax returns, seems to be getting some traction. But it also shows a vulnerability in the Obama camp, his "strong" support has softened considerably since the last time we looked at the figures. One way to read this is that Romney has firmed up his soft support, while Obama's firm support has slipped. But, how does that scan when stacked up to the fact that the tossups seem to have broken all one way?

It's a confusing picture, but a very interesting one. It may well be that the people who like Romney really like him, but there's an awfully wide canyon between that and the undecideds.

I'm also curious as to the reason between the wide gulf between Intrade's percentages and Nate Silver's. Mind you, they both predict the same result. But the gambling public is giving Romney more love than the pollsters are, just right now. It'll be curious to see how closely these two sets of data converge, as we get closer to the big day. And, it'll be very interesting to see what the overnight trade volume does, the night before Election Day.

What Obama Must Do: His "You Didn't Build That" remark was a huge unforced error. He can't afford too many of those. The economic recovery is still very weak. Unemployment is still fairly high. The relatively good news is that gas prices aren't sky-high, and home prices seem to have bottomed out, and are on the rise again. What he needs to do at this point is sell the idea that he's on the side of the middle class, and also sell an agenda for sustainable economic growth. At the same time, he also has to convince the public that the Republicans either can't or won't do a better job. He's got a considerable advantage, even with the relatively soft economy. But the race is going to tighten, depending on how Romney plays the next three weeks.

What Romney Must Do: Diplomacy, not to put too fine a point on it, isn't his strong suit. Fortunately for him, though, the election isn't being held in London. Irritating foreigners not only isn't something that's likely to offend his base, it's liable to be something that endears him to his base. Which is helpful, since Romney is still running for the whole-hearted support of the hard right. If I were one of his advisers, the Pollster data above would be very troubling to me. With his "strong" and "leaning" support, Obama has enough EVs to win re-election. Romney simply must run the table in the toss-up states, and pull at least 21 EVs of Obama's current support. That may well be doable. Hell, it is doable. But it's going to be hard sledding for this particular candidate, who isn't overly blessed with warmth. I'm not saying he's a bad man, but he's got a fairly stiff public demeanor. For all his faults, George Bush was someone a lot of people could have a backyard BBQ with. But Romney looks more like the guy who just fired you. That's when he's not looking like a collaboration between the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and Disney's Animatronics. And I'm not sure we've seen the real Mitt Romney stand up yet. But in three weeks' time, we'll get an unparalleled glimpse into his thought processes. As I've said before, the VP selection will speak volumes for the man's judgement, and how he goes about making decisions.

The VP pick is absolutely vital for Romney. His best option is someone personable, who's also palatable to the centrist voters out there. But he may feel stampeded into going hard-right, to cement the support of his base. If he does the former, we'll have a real race on our hands. If the latter, he's probably toast.

And The Winner Is... Intrade is back to giving 3-2 odds in favor of re-election. Nate Silver's numbers work out to 7-3 in favor, just shy of 2-1, but as I said last time, I'm not comfortable jumping into 2-1 territory yet. I want to see how the conventions go, and how the economy's shaking out come Labor Day.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Watch That First Step...

If plummeting were an Olympic sport, Felix  Baumgartner would be a leading contender for a gold medal. On July 25th, he made the second test jump for the Red Bull Stratos project. He rode a balloon up to 96,640 feet, and jumped. Several minutes later, he popped his chute and floated down to a safe landing. Next up: the free-fall record.

I couldn't find an embeddable video, but here is the clip they posted on their own site. This is what they're aiming for, though:

But, I have to give an honorable mention to a man whose story I read about earlier this week. Cliff Judkins was a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, ferrying an F-8 Crusader fighter across the Pacific. What should have been a routine tanker rendezvous went horribly wrong. In short order, he experienced just about every kind of mishap you can have in an airplane. First, his engine failed. Then, it caught fire. If that weren't bad enough, his primary ejection handle failed, as did the backup. The manual canopy jettison worked, though. But his parachute didn't. Amazingly enough, he lived to tell the tale. Yes, you heard that right, he fell FIFTEEN THOUSAND FEET with NO PARACHUTE, and ... well, you don't exactly walk away from that, but after six months he was flying again.

Go here to read it. It's an amazing story.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Real Space Age

Forty-three years ago today, we saw one of those moments that are true watersheds in history. Before July 20, 1969, humanity had only known one world; afterwards, it would forever know two. That said, for all its accomplishments, Project Apollo was always going to be a dead end. It was never going to lead to a long-term human presence on the Moon. There were a number of good reasons to go. One was the fact that no one had ever been, another was the fact that we didn't want the Soviets to get there first. But there just weren't very many good reasons in the early 1970s to stay.

One day, perhaps one day soon, that will change. The problem was always that there wasn't a clear way for anyone to make a profit out of it. Or if there was, the operating costs were so absurdly high that it just wasn't feasible. That's changing, slowly but inexorably. I've been saying for a while now that the center of gravity of the American space effort was shifting towards private industry. The successful mission in late May was an important signpost on that path. There will be more to come.

A while back, I made the statement that the real Space Age had just begun. Now, I'd like to take a few minutes to expand on why I think that's the case. SpaceX and companies like it are going to bend the cost curve to the point that proposals that were once ludicrously ambitious will become feasible. By way of example, let's look at two different proposals, one from about twenty years ago, and another more recent.

It's been speculated for a long time that ice could be hiding out in craters near the Moon's poles that never see sunlight. Vacuum is a very good insulator, and polar craters that are never sunlit can be very cold indeed. Water vapor that finds its way there somehow or other will freeze out, and never escape. The speculation was fanned to high heat by results from the Clementine probe in 1994, when a radar experiment returned reflections from polar craters that were consistent with ice sheets. Within the space enthusiast community, this solved one of the big problems attending lunar habitation: water. Hauling enough water up from Earth to sustain a settlement is hideously expensive. If there's a significant amount of water already up there, it simplifies things tremendously. But the problem remained, how do you finance the voyage to begin with?

Someone hit on the idea of financing it as an entertainment venture, at least initially. Sell the film rights. There'd be plenty of gripping, exciting footage from the mission. Then, once you're there, you can start up a mining operation. This was the beginnings of the Artemis Project, and of the Lunar Resources Company. I was never directly involved, as I was up to my earlobes in grad school at the time, but I kibbitzed on the discussion boards they had on GEnie. One suggestion was fairly well-received: I said that they should time the first mission to coincide with a lunar eclipse. I still think that's worth doing. It's a perspective no one's ever seen before. And, I think it'd be awesome to be able to see every sunset and every sunrise on Earth, all in once glance. They got an impressive amount of planning and preliminary design work done. That's about as far as they got.

What killed them, in the end, was transportation costs. With high-lift launches costing upwards of a quarter-billion dollars, there was no way on (or off) Earth that they were going to be able to drum up that kind of money. This is the same wall that every effort has run up against to date. Every time you have a plan that requires the fabrication of a lot of equipment down here that needs to be put up there, you run up against the fact that the cost of moving it from here to there puts the cost out of reach.

And that's the thing that's changing. New entrants into the launch market are going to bend the cost curve down to the point where ambitious projects become practical.

Earlier this year, a company calling itself Planetary Resources unveiled their plan to mine nearby asteroids for both metals and for water. They're not going to jump right into it, of course. First, they have to be able to spot likely candidates for exploration. Then, they have to get a close-up look. Finally, they have to develop an automated mining and processing unit. Accordingly, their first product is a small space-based telescope. It can be used to look both ways, down towards Earth and up towards space. That's their first revenue stream: people will pay to look at stuff. Universities will pay for telescope time for a variety of reasons. Not just astronomy departments, you can do a surprising amount of archaeology work from a high vantage point. But what Planetary Resources actually intends to use the Arkyd-100 for is to find and prospect likely mining targets. Then, the next step is to fit a small engine to such a telescope, and maneuver it towards such a target for a more detailed look. The last step is obvious: land, and begin digging up goodies. Metal for sale Earthside, and water for fuel.

The reason that they haven't been laughed out of the room yet is that the Arkyd-100 is small enough that it's going to be damn cheap to put one into orbit. They're piggybacking on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic project for their initial launches, from what I hear, and even if they weren't the Arkyd-100 doesn't weigh a whole lot. Maybe 100 kilograms. They can ride along on just about any satellite launch, for a relatively tiny fee. Eventually, they'll have to be the primary customer, because the mining plant isn't going to be especially small. But by then they'll have a nice bankroll to work with. And they'll have a choice of powerful and relatively inexpensive rockets to choose from.

If successful, they'll attract investors to the market looking for other angles to exploit. That's where things will get really interesting. Because many of our problems are problems of scarcity: not enough materials, not enough energy. There's plenty of both out there, once we learn how to get at it.

Forty years ago, we crawled out of our cradle. Now, we're learning to walk. Soon, we'll learn to run. I wonder what kind of adults we'll be, when we've grown up?

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Last One

The Universe is a very weird place. But one of the weirdest things is also one of the most subtle.

Mathematics is a thing of pure logic, something that people built up over the centuries by deducing its principles starting from a handful of axioms. It is pure abstraction. Ostensibly, it has no actual connection to the real world. Teachers of geometry in ancient Greece were actively offended if their students suggested that their studies might have practical benefit.

How very odd, then, that mathematics should be so very useful for describing the world we live in.

Isomorphism is the word for it: if two systems are sufficiently similar to one another, then insights gained in one can be applied to the other. Gradually, natural philosophers came to understand that for reasons that no one adequately understood, mathematics and physics were isomorphic. The first fruit of this insight was Isaac Newton's masterwork, Philosophiae Naturalis Prinicipia Mathematica, which laid the groundwork for both differential calculus and the science of physics as we know it today. Ever since then, advances in physics have always been preceded by advances in mathematics. Before physicists could find the words to describe new phenomena, they had to learn nature's syntax in its own native tongue.

No one knows why the Universe works this way. It just does, and we go along for the ride.

The latest stop on this road began with Einstein's discovery of Special Relativity in 1905 and his discovery of General Relativity in 1916. It continued with the development of Quantum Mechanics by Max Planck and others, in parallel with Einstein's work on Relativity. The mathematics got more and more complex, but the predictions kept bearing fruit. Scientists began to plumb the secrets first of the atoms, then of their nuclei, and at last of the protons and neutrons themselves. They began to see clues that these weren't fundamental particles after all, but were themselves made up of smaller parts.

Then, in the 1960s, Sheldon Glashow discovered an internally-consistent way to describe a unification between the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. The only problem was that this method predicted that all of the particles would have zero mass. This was obviously not true, so the problem was then to figure out how to get around that issue. Later on in the decade, Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam found a way to apply the Higgs mechanism to Glashow's theory, which then allowed the particles to gain mass. This paved the way for what we now call the Standard Model: a list of all of the Universe's fundamental parts. The Standard Model, as of 1967, was able to describe all of the sub-atomic particles then known. But it predicted a whole bunch of particles that hadn't been seen yet. Theoretical physicists then settled in for a long wait, while experimental physicists worked feverishly at ever-larger atom smashers to discover them.

Most of the quarks were found fairly early. The heavier ones took longer. The bottom quark was discovered in 1977, but the top quark wasn't discovered until 1995. By then, only a handful of holdouts remained. In 2000, the tau neutrino was discovered at Fermilab. That left one last piece to find.

Leon Lederman wrote a book about it in 1993, with the famous title The God Particle. His original manuscript had another four letters in the title, but of course they'd never publish it that way. He never meant to imply that the search for the Higgs boson was akin to finding God. He meant that it would be excruciatingly hard to find. And he was right. It would take an absurdly powerful scientific machine, straddling several national borders, to reach the staggering energies required to summon it out of its hiding place. A machine so mind-meltingly powerful that some people were afraid that if it ever ran at full power, it would mean the end of the world.

Nonsense on stilts, of course. The Large Hadron Collider is an incredibly powerful instrument, but it won't bring about the end of everything. Except, that is, for the end of the hiding place of that most elusive of particles. On July 4th, the announcement confirmed the rumors that had been flying around for a while. Not quite four years after it had been first turned on, instruments in the LHC had detected the prey for which it had been built.

Mind you, they're not quite calling it a capital-D discovery just yet. They need to do some confirmation tests, and comb over the results to be absolutely, totally sure. But they did call it a five-sigma result. To me, that says that unless someone on their team has discovered a brand-new way to screw up experiments, they've got the sucker dead to rights.

So, does this mean the end of physics? Not hardly. There's still a rather impressive list of unsolved problems in physics. They've found the Higgs boson, they still don't necessarily know why it works. And there's also dark matter and dark energy, about which we know next to nothing. What this probably does mean, though, is an end to new particle discoveries for a while. Quite probably a very long while. Unless the Standard Model is incomplete, and quarks themselves have constituent parts, that was the last one.