Friday, March 30, 2012

Election 2012: March Madness

Monopoly is one of those weird "family" games that just about everyone's played, but hardly anyone's ever actually finished. One problem with it is that it's a brutally long game, especially if you have six to eight players. Another is that, given that your goal is to drive all the other players into bankruptcy, it tends to be a fairly harsh game to play to completion. Once one player gets a solid lead, everyone else starts saying, "Screw this, let's find something else to do." But anyhow, there are several winning strategies. Some involve getting key color groups early. Another method involves first making sure that no one else can win. How do you do that, you ask? Well, first, you have to get one property in every color group. That ensures that no one else can develop a monopoly. Then, get one monopoly. It really doesn't matter which one, so long as you can afford to build it up. Then, it's a long slog of attrition.

Electopoly, the fine game the GOP is playing right now, is actually very similar. What brought Monopoly to mind is a new feature over on Nate Silver's site, the Romney Magic Numbers Calculator. Because the path to winning the GOP nomination -- indeed, any party's nomination -- entails doing three things. First, you must win enough delegates to ensure that no one else can gain a majority on the first ballot. Second, you must win enough delegates to ensure that you will win a plurality of delegates on that first ballot, thus making your case that much stronger on subsequent ballots. And here's the clincher -- the final goal is to win enough delegates to ensure that you win on the first ballot.

The race for the GOP nomination is just about over. Nate Silver estimates that Romney has a 100% chance of sewing up enough delegates to keep anyone else from a first-ballot victory, a 99% chance of guaranteeing himself a plurality of delegates, and a 91% chance of winning outright. It's taken three months, and we'll probably go through two more of going through the motions, but it's just about over at this point. And now, the numbers from Intrade, current as of 6PM Friday evening:

(By the way, Intrade has a spiffy new feature for primary-watchers: a scoreboard. This would have been nice to have three months ago, but still, better late than never. Hope they keep it for the general election...)

Mitt Romney, 93.1%: Sometimes, I wonder if the man truly wants the job. He does the damnedest things. Every time he gets ahead, he says something truly astounding to alienate either part of his base, or part of the electorate. "I was a severely conservative governor ... and by the way, I drove 1,200 miles with my dog in a box on top of my car. I'm against the individual mandate ... but you know, it's all like an Etch-A-Sketch, I'll just shake it up after the convention." I mean, what is this dude's major malfunction? Whether he wants it or not, he's liable to be the Republican nominee, try as he might to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His opposition is so sad and pitiful that they won't be able to get out in front of him, no matter how hard he tries. He may as well get used to the idea.

Ron Paul, 1.1%: And it's a signal of just how sad and pitiful that they've gotten that Ron Paul is now in second place, probability-wise.

Rick Santorum, 1.0%: And here's the man who puts the "sad" in "sad and pitiful". Even if you gave him all of the delegates from the "pitiful" side of the race for Not-Romney, he still wouldn't be ahead. Both the "sad" and the "pitiful" sides of that race are pinning their hopes on a brokered convention. But first, they somehow have to pull enough delegates to keep Romney from winning outright, something I no longer believe either of them can do. Brokered conventions are to politics as bunch sprints are to professional cycling, and both tend to happen only when someone's screwed up. As much as Romney seems to keep trying to throw the race, no one seems to be able to capitalize.

Newt Gingrich, 0.3%: That's partly because Newt's kind of mailing it in at this point. Theoretically, he's also counting on a brokered convention. He's still touting his "debating" skills against Obama, which has always sounded kind of bizarre to me. Because, you see, the debates? They're not really debates. They're a weird kind of dual press conference where both guys have to answer the same questions put to them by a moderator. The rules of engagement don't allow them to speak directly to one another. So how do mad debating skills get you anywhere? Beats me. But Gingrich has always been full of strange ideas.

Veep Watch: I don't put much stock in Veep-guessing. But that's an important thing to watch. Once Romney has it well and truly sewn up, he'll start canvassing for a running mate, and he'll probably spring that on us the Friday before the GOP convention opens. As I've said before, it's important to watch because that's his first Presidential decision, and that will give us a huge window into his thought processes. Who he chooses, and why, will give us a better measure of the man than anything he's said so far.

And The Winner Is: The percentages are running 60.8% that the Democrats will keep the White House, versus 38.8% that the Republicans will take over. These have held steady for a while, and will probably stay there until the conventions. I'd still take 3-2 odds on Obama/Biden for the win.

Primary season isn't quite over, though. Lots of states haven't voted yet, and even if the Presidential nominee is just about a foregone conclusion, there are plenty of other races on the ballot. And if you've never attended a precinct caucus, this is as good a year to go as any. Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LIII

(or, Crazy Austrian Watch)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. Air Force was developing aircraft capable of flying at extreme altitudes. While some of the aircraft had already been built, such as the U-2, and others were in production, the ability of a pilot to eject safely at such incredible operational altitudes wasn't yet firmly established. So, the Air Force undertook Project Excelsior. And on August 16, 1960, Captain Joseph Kittinger rode a helium balloon up to 102,800 feet above the desert, and then stepped out into the abyss. It was the longest distance a man had ever fallen, and lived to tell about it.

Now, an Austrian skydiver named Felix Baumgartner wants to kick it up a notch.

Why? Kittinger, who is a technical adviser to Baumgartner, says it's about building a better space suit. I'm thinking that's hogwash. Baumgartner wants the record, and the bragging rights that go with it. And Red Bull wants the publicity that will go along with nailing said record. They've built the suit, the chutes, and the balloon. Now, they're testing them out.

On March 15, 2012, Baumgartner made the first test jump from 71,000 feet. There will be another test jump from about 90,000 feet, before the Real Thing from 120,000 feet. While Baumgartner is known for risk-taking, he's not known for stupid risk-taking. Unless something weird happens, the record is liable to be his sometime this summer.

One thing is certain, though. The view on the way down is going to be spectacular no matter how it ends. And, maybe, that was the point all along.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XX: The Tides Of Change


It's a fairly common misconception that wars are times of rapid technological change. You'll often hear someone say that the submarine came out of World War I, or that jet engines and atomic energy came out of World War II, but that's not entirely true. Submarines and aircraft had been around for years prior to World War I. Jet engines had been invented immediately prior to World War II, and they had a fairly good idea of what atomic power could do, even if they didn't know exactly how to go about doing it.

There is one thing wartime does do, though: it greatly reduces institutional inertia. An active enemy tends to focus your attention closely. New ideas that had once butted up against an obstinately conservative Quartermasters' Corps would now fall on far more sympathetic ears. A case in point: ironclad warships.

Three technological trends were converging: steam power, high-power naval guns firing explosive shells, and iron armor. The first ship that combined all three was a French ship, La Gloire, launched in 1859. The new high-power guns proved to be a huge problem for purely wooden-hulled ships. This had been proven at the Battle of Sinope where a numerically-inferior Russian force annihilated a Turkish squadron, using their superior gunnery. Explosive shells could turn even the stoutest ship into kindling in fairly short order. The obvious answer would be to bolt iron armor onto the ship's exterior ... the problem being, sails couldn't move such a heavy ship very easily. Enter our third element, steam power. With the invention of the screw propeller in the 1840s, steam power became a practical method for warship propulsion. Coal-fired boilers could easily provide the raw power to shove hundreds of tons of iron plating through the waves.

But, as I mentioned, these were slow coming to the Western shores of the Atlantic. The U.S. Navy had adopted steam power, but was slow to combine all of the elements together. The secession of Virginia, and with it the loss of the Norfolk Naval Yards, began to force a re-evaluation of affairs.

Upon the secession of Virginia, orders were issued to destroy all useful items at the Naval Yards lest they fall into secessionist hands. Unfortunately, the orders were bungled, and the USS Merrimac partially sank into shallow water before she had burned completely. The Merrimac was salvageable, and could be put back into service. It was decided to rebuild her as an ironclad warship, the CSS Virginia. It would be an expensive undertaking. But the combination of steam propulsion, high-power guns, and sloped armor would make the Virginia more than a match for her blockaders.

Word of this conversion reached Washington in early summer of 1861, and was not received happily. The Union could not afford to fall behind in this kind of arms race. But, as I have said before, the Union was far more able to keep pace in this kind of competition than the Confederacy ever was. The Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, issued an order for a review of ironclad designs, and three were accepted. One of these was a ship designed by Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor, laid down on October 25, 1851, and completed 118 days later.

This would not be a day too soon.

On the 8th of March, CSS Virginia sallied forth to break the Union blockade. Ordinarily, it's foolish to think that a single ship can break a blockade ... but this was not an ordinary situation. The guns of the Union blockade squadron had almost no effect. The Virginia rammed and sunk the USS Chesapeake, and had forced the USS Congress to beach itself prior to hammering it into surrender with her own guns. The Virginia was not entirely unhurt, sustaining significant damage to her smokestack, and having several armor plates loosened. But her appearance had thrown the entire Union blockade into disarray. The first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads was over, and it looked like another Confederate victory was in the making.

During the night, the USS Monitor arrived from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the odds were evened out.

On paper, the Virginia had more guns than the Monitor, but that doesn't tell the whole story. While Virginia's guns were laid out in a standard fixed arrangement, the Monitor's guns were mounted in a turret. That meant that while Virginia would have to maneuver carefully to bring her guns to bear, the Monitor could fire upon anything she could see. This day's battle, the very first of ironclad-on-ironclad, would show which was better: more guns, or more easily aimable guns.

And the answer was a resounding "Beats Me."

Neither ship could get a conclusive advantage on the other. While either ship could reduce a wooden ship to kindling, neither one could score a telling hit upon the other. They pounded one another unmercifully for hours, to little avail. Hit after hit glanced off of stout iron plating, doing no real damage to the ship underneath. Virginia scored a brief advantage when a lucky turret shot temporarily blinded Monitor's captain, forcing Monitor to briefly withdraw. The day had already worn on towards late afternoon, so Virginia took this as an opportunity to withdraw, herself. She returned to her base, for badly-needed repairs.

On the one hand, the results of the Battle of Hampton Roads were inconclusive. The Union suffered far heavier losses and casualties, owing to Virginia's rampage on that first day. But on the other hand, the blockade wasn't broken. Within a month, two more Union ironclads would join the blockade, and within a month after that advancing Union troops would occupy Norfolk itself. But the conclusiveness or lack thereof was beside the point. Ironclad had fired upon ironclad, and naval warfare would never again be the same. Sailors had seen the future, and it was full of metal.

The days when "the ships were wood and the men were iron" were over.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Election 2012: Spring Is Coming

The second month of the 2012 Presidential primary season has drawn to a close, and we've narrowed it down to a four-man race on the Republican side. As much as everyone's saying that this primary is dragging on far longer than it should, I have to remind them of that one salient fact: This IS only the second full month of voting. Most states haven't even weighed in yet. Now, if we get into April and it's still a three- or four-man race, things could get ... interesting. I expect a bit of a down-select to happen come Super Tuesday. (As always, figures from, current as of Friday afternoon.)

The Year Of The Super-PAC: The various Super-PACs aren't a party per se, but they're having a huge effect on this campaign. It's difficult to over-state the effect that they're having this year. Without Super-PACs, Newt Gingrich would have sank without a trace months ago. Without Super-PACs, Rick Santorum might well have done likewise, or would at least be struggling for support. With Super-PACs, both candidates are struggling for the coveted "Not-Romney" spot ... and don't forget that Romney has that particular card up his sleeve, as well.

There are both good things and bad things associated with this. On the positive side, it's going to cause the campaign to go on longer than it might have otherwise. That's a good thing, because it gives the voting public more time to get to know these men, and to examine their strengths and weaknesses in some detail. But that also touches on a down side ... maybe the voters get to know them a little too well. The longer and more negative the campaign becomes, the farther to the right the candidate has to shift to win the nomination, and the harder it becomes to tack back to the center for the general election. That's going to be a hard pivot for the Republican nominee, whoever that ends up being. That's going to be more like a slight veer for the Democratic nominee, who will be ... well, let's just get on with it:

The Democrats: Yes, we all know it's over. It's just about official, now. Over here, Megan McArdle has an article about an upcoming Obama fundraiser. Said fundraiser's promotional e-mail has this picture as a logo:

That sure seems to settle it. Vegas seems to have caught up, giving Barack Obama a 96.7% chance of re-nomination, with only a handful (3.0%) of holdouts backing Hillary Clinton. And for the VP spot, Biden isn't quite getting that much love, with only an 91.0% chance. A full 10.0% are still betting on Hillary Clinton for VP, even though we all know that ain't gonna happen. Biden's on the campaign literature, people. It's a done deal. As I've said all along, unless one of them takes a ride on a tornado, it'll be Obama/Biden in November for the Democrats.

The Republicans: But on the other side of the aisle, the four-way knife-fight in a phone booth continues in full force. Only one man will be left standing, but he cannot fairly be said to have won, only to have lost less severely than his opponents. They're running to the right so fast, the winner will have a very hard time tacking back to the center for the general election.

Mitt Romney, 83.0%: Vegas still loves him, although he's got some hard sledding between here and the acceptance speech. And, some sources are hinting at money problems for the Romney campaign. It turns out that there's a disadvantage to hitting up the deep pockets first, for the maximum amount ... once they're tapped, they're tapped. If you draw less than the maximum from a broader pool, you can hit them up again later. Plus, as I've said before, Romney has a pair of serious problems that stand between him and the nomination. First, health care reform. I'm not saying Obama swiped his plan ... actually, I am. When someone does have a good idea, you should steal it shamelessly. The problem is, the GOP electorate remembers this, and will probably hold it against Romney to some extent. Also, there's the problem that a fair number of Southern Evangelicals aren't entirely convinced that Mormons are Christian. That will also come into play down South. Still, Romney still has money and organization, and those are two nice friends to have.

Rick Santorum, 6.1%: I was spectacularly wrong last time about Santorum's prospects. He has indeed found traction with the religious fundamentalist wing of the GOP, and is the current front-runner in the "Not-Romney" subclass of this year's Republican primary. He's not doing too badly on the fundraising front, either. As I mentioned above, if you collect smaller amounts from a larger donor pool, you can go back to that well again and again. That was a good strategy for Obama in 2008, and it's proving to be a good one for Santorum in 2012. The betting public isn't sold on his nomination prospects, but that could easily change with a strong showing down South. He could hit it big on Super Tuesday. If he does, then the fight could go all the way to the convention floor.

Newt Gingrich, 3.6%: While Romney has both money and organization, and while Santorum is finding lots of funding, Newt Gingrich has neither. His campaign has rather spectacularly deflated since his early surge. He's pinning his hopes on a big Super Tuesday showing, especially since his biggest base of support is in the South. But he's failed to get on several ballots, including Virginia's, so his organization's basic ineptitude is liable to do him in, if his mouth doesn't beat them to it. Right now, I'd lay odds that Gingrich punches out after Super Tuesday, but I'm not sure I'd put money on it.

Ron Paul, 2.3%: Now, I'd bet an arbitrarily large amount on Ron Paul's candidacy going all the way to the convention. Dr. Paul isn't leaving the race until they pry his candidacy from his cold, dead fingers. The thing I like about Ron Paul is that he's not running to the right like the other candidates. He's saying the same things he's said all along. There are plenty of reasons not to like him, but you know where he stands. He's stark staring blazing-midday-Sun-on-Mercury crazy, but at least he's dependably consistent about it. To an extent, I respect that.

And The Winner Is... As of Friday afternoon, they're giving the Democrats a 60.1% chance of keeping the White House, versus the Republican Party's 38.8% to take it away. If you can find someone willing to give you 3-2 odds, Obama/Biden for the win would be a good bet.

Remember, kids, vote early, and vote often!