Democracy for Realists – space and time

Some more about this book, Democracy for Realists: …

If we accept that voters do not vote for their policy preferences (and you can read the book if you want to see the evidence) then what is driving their voting behavior.

Here are two models that Political Scientists have put forward – space and time.  Both model presume that voters, being humans, lack the time or talent to engage in a very subtle or complex analysis of what to do with their vote; so they simplify things.  They approximate.

The spacial model: all of politics is boiled down to some simple metric: left-wing v.s. right-wing say.  Or maybe a few two,  like both an economic and social variant of left/right.  The voter then “merely” asks the question how close are these candidates’ metrics to my personal metrics. He then votes for the one closest to him.

In the time based model the voter need only look at his personal experience over time.  He then aligns that with who ever is change during various time frames and votes for the candidates that deliver better outcomes.  It’s feedback loop, and presumably the statistics of large numbers of voters might make this work out nicely.

Again this is Science.  A theory is only interesting if we can proceed to try and disprove it.

The spacial theory is easy to disprove.  You just ask.   Compare the voter and the candidate he selects on the metric.   Questionnaires can dependably tease out where they are on the scales.  For example: Support for lower taxes verse more government services? What the data shows is only the lightest correlation.  In fact in some cases voters do the opposite of what they prefer.  So this theory isn’t helping us.

The problem with the time based theory is two fold.

The first problem: The usual ones found in feedback based systems.  These systems only work if (a) the signal the feedback is based on is accurate and (b) the feedback’s timing is adjusted correctly.  In Engineering school I spent a few years learning how to get that right for simple electronic systems like amplifiers.  In that context if you get it wrong you get nothing or horrific feedback noise.  Big social systems are even harder.  So first off voters get a signal (they lose their job, the weather is lousy, the crop fails, the town has an awesome fair,  the kid gets a lovely teacher) and they sum that up and vote for against the current candidate.   Then we have timing.  This model rewards the politicians for taking actions that have short term benefits; i.e. they show up in the voter’s impression before the next election.   Worse, long term benefits will accrue to the account of some other guy.

Like the spacial model voters have a very noisy model of the candidates.  In this case the their model of credit/blame is very poor.

So what are two models worth anything?  Turns out yes.

The spacial model is the gold standard for understanding legislatures.  While it’s useless for discovering how a voter will pick his candidate, it useful for predicting how Bob, your legislator, will choose to vote on any given bill.   This is good news:  Bob is fairly well informed about the position taken by the bill.  On the other the voters who elected Bob do not have a good model of Bob.

The time based model is actually quite predictive of how voters will behave.   But, oh my, they are largely miss informed about blame/credit and their sample is narrow minded.  They only look back a few months.  This is not good if you want responsive government.   It is useful if your placing bets on an election.  You can do a damn good job of predicting the outcome of elections by measuring just GDP growth over the last few months.

While these models are not as useless as the folklore model ( i.e. that voters give their votes to candidates who reflect their personal policy preferences).   But if your goal is to explain how Democratic governance is responsive to the voters preferences; they they aren’t going to help you.

More to follow…

Democracy for Realists – acting on falacies

Part 2 – So let’s step into this book a bit.

The reason to prefer a realistic view of politics is fear.  Fear that your unrealistic premises will lead to unfortunate outcomes.  So political scientists have spun up models for voter behavior. And then, tested them!  if you want to win elections it’s probably best to pay attention.

Personally my thinking about politics was entirely up-ended by the work on the voting patterns in Congress.   This book may be forcing a major resorting in my head.  I’m not sure how that will settle out.   It’s very discomforting to think that the model I took on board from that book might be wrong, that I’ve been extremely deluded.

Books that are attempting to force a painful dose of realism into their audience probably need to spend a lot of time addressing their audience’s bogus beliefs.  Scientists to this with studies, data, statistics.  It takes years to convince people that the world is not flat, the sun doesn’t spin around us, that punishment is effective, that bleeding out the bad blood doesn’t help.

So let’s start with the most most popular model of how democracy works.  It’s widely presumed that voters vote their preferences.  Say Sam is extremely concerned about Global Warming.  We’d assume he’d seek out the candidate who is most aligned with his concerns and then vote for him.   What the data say?  The data says:  NO!

If you take that to heart you really need to stop taking seriously sentence like:  “The voters, outraged about X, voted for Mr. P.”  Because it’s not true!  Talk of the “will of the people” is aspirational, but it too is not true.  The whole idea of a mandate splits thru your fingers like sand.

Good science is all about disconfirming models   Postulate a theory/model and then see if you can prove it’s wrong.   The audience may hate that, they may love the model, but science doesn’t care.

So this first model of politics in the democratic states is wrong.  The authors call this the folklore theory.

Once it became clear that the folklore theory doesn’t fit the data the political scientists went looking for other theories.  But that’s a story for another day.

<X> for Realists

I’m currently reading a book titled “Democracy for Realists: …”   It’s triggered a bemused fantasy about a series of “… for Realists: …” books.  In the tradition of those “… for Idiots: …”

I remember books stores.  They had lots of shelf space for self help books.  A popular genre. Let’s imagine some titles:   Schooling for Realists, Vacations for Realists, Project management for Realists, Home brewing for Realists, Gardening for Realists.

So’s why not?  I have my theories.  For example picking up a book of this title would seem to signal one’s appetite for disconfirmation.  Where’s the fun in that?  Or possible like the Monty Python argument skit it implies your shopping for a scolding or abuse.  At minimum it would seem to signal that the author is war weary, scarred, old, cranky?

One take on self help books is that they are selling a treatment for stress.   Realism doesn’t sound like a miracle cure, more like chemo.

 

Dice

I think the #1 thing i’m embarrassed about is that I didn’t take seriously the one in three chance that the best pollsters gave Trump of winning.   As John Hobo wrote: “I’ve never played Russian roulette – don’t intend to – but I think I know enough of tabletop games to know that sometimes a six-sided die comes up 6.”

So I really didn’t have a contingency plan; still don’t.  I’d chatted about hedging.  I.e. placing a largish bet that Trump would win, so then at least I’d have some winnings – either way.  But the consensus was that it’s difficult to hedge against an existential threat.

Back around the turn of the century I read “Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting.”   Which revealed the shocking trend in polarization.  Back then it was all on the Right.  Still is, to first order.

So, I came to form opinions about how that was likely to unfold over time.  Models of possible destinations.  For example the last time this happened we got the Civil War.

My best case scenario was (maybe still is) that the party of the right would implode; go insane.  That the voters would look at that and run away.  The George W. Bush administration gave some confirmation to that hope.   But, also a taste of what a terrifying journey that would be.

What I didn’t know until recently is that that political scientists tend to think about voter behavior and preferences.   For example, voter preferences flow from the party to the voters, mostly.  Not the other way around.  It’s unsurprising when you think about it.  How is the typical person to form an opinion about complex issues of governance except to turn to those around them.

It’s not as simple as to say the consensus of the party members flows top down.  It’s a social network thing.  But for a party  member to step away from the consensus accepting a huge about of collateral damage.  He has shred his entire social network.

 

Narwhale distribution

Amusing neologism: the narwhale distribution.  i.e. the statistical distribution with a horn.

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That’s taken from a lovely essay in “Small Things Considered” about how some viruses operate in two modes.  In the mode your probably familiar with they infect the cell, repurpose things to reproduce, and the blow up the cell to go in search of more prey.  But in another mode they are more like a parasite.  It seems that when in this second mode they can provide a benefit to the cell, i.e. a defense against the first mode.  Oh nature!

An Argument for Centralized Systems

Open systems have their good points and their bad.   Their weak governance makes it hard, or impossible, to move the installed base.   The communities around an open system are more likely to evaporate that reengineer.   They can only make slow evolutionary changes, so instead one by one they switch to revolutionary alternatives .

HTTP or JavaScript are fine examples of this.  Both, once adopted widely, it has taken Herculean efforts by very large players to shift the dial.  That only happened because the installed base was so locked in.

I’m reminded of this by an essay by Moxie Marlinspike.  It’s a fine example of how a blog let’s you give voice to the spirit of the stairwell.   Somebody provoked him.  And it appears to have taken him a while to pull together his response.  That guy said:

“that’s dumb, how far would the internet have gotten without interoperable protocols defined by 3rd parties?”

At first blush that seems pretty freaking obvious.  We have a boat load of stories we tell about why open protocols are potent.  Some examples.  Open systems help to commoditize things, enabling those that stand on them to thrive; i.e. they help limit the power of the platform vendor to tax all the air we breath.  Open systems solve a search problem, i.e. what is this good for; no platform vendor can possibly know the answer that question because only end users can comprehend their problems.

But yeah, I’ve a long have a list of these arguments/models about what open systems are about.  Moxie isn’t arguing that side of the question.  The Open Systems tribe tell stories and other tribes tell other stories.  Moxie is trying to tell one.

 

Moxie has few arguments in his essay.  For example he argues that the classic open protocol examples of Internet mythology all bloomed decades ago and have since resisted much, if any evolution.  SMTP for example.   That’s fair, and it’s not.   One counter-point to that argument is that these protocol evolved fast as the problem they solved was discovered and they are good enough.  The switching costs v.s. the benefits of switching became such that we can and in fact ought to bear those costs rather than switch that even a dictator wouldn’t bother.  My point isn’t to say that’s the case, only that it’s would be work to be sure one way or another.  Another counter point is that to say, no those protocols have not stagnated.  That we have layered on lots and lots of technology that extend and address new problems as they became apparent.  A glance as the number of headers in a typical email gives a glimpse of that for SMTP.  SMTP is still a damn good default choice if you need a robust distributed low latency messaging system.

Moxie argues that if you have an open protocol you are going to have a hell of a time getting the client side software to deliver a consistent experience to your installed base.  Well yeah. That’s why for decades Microsoft’s embrace and extend tactics make it so damn frustrating to use email.  And many argued, and often insisted, that the solution to that frustration was to that we should all just get on board the train to Seattle.   Google’s extensions clever use of IMAP and Jabber are more modern, though possible less conscious, examples of the same pattern.

But Moxies core argument, it seems to me, is that we haven’t the time.  That democratic (sic) open systems aren’t able to meet the expectations of the industry we are now in.

That deserves more thought.  It is certainly the case that they don’t meet the needs of the VC, product managers too.  The open system processes frustrate individual developers – the consensus building requires skills they despise; they’d rather be coding.  The whole enterprise smells like politics, because – well duh – all consensus build is.  For 90% of users they don’t care any more than 98% of your co-workers cared that Microsoft Exchanges is/was a closed system.  These issues are below their radar, below the facade of the “product” where they never go.  Making that case is like activating voters, again it’s politics.

To my eye Moxie’s essay is part and parcel of the swing back toward centralized computing.     Maybe it’s a pendulum, maybe it’s a one-way street.  Either way I suspect only 10-20% of the way along the way.

The personal computer was the primary artifact the tribe of decentralized computing gathered around.  We have a lot of stories that tell about why it’s awesome.  The new tribe, for whom AWS is the principal totem, will tell their own stories.  Moxie’s essay is an example.

Never Expires

Given this raw material there is something to be said here.  But I can’t quite pull it together.

Something about how coupons are are a way to overcome the buyer’s impulse control?

Something about how no market is immune to discriminatory pricing?

This may well be the most evil thing I’ve yet encountered in my hobby around pricing games and shaping consumer behavior.

… Valeant’s business model.

They bought an out-of-patent drug (Sodium Seconal) which is used in physician assisted suicide – and after the California government passed laws to make the above legal they jacked the price up to $3000. … consistent with Valeant’s business model there is a copay coupon so that you, dear patient, are not out of pocket, whilst your insurance provider takes the hit.

via Bronte Capital.

Let’s Encrypt Everything

I renewed the SSL/TSL certificate on one of my little cloud servers over the weekend.  I had been using StartSSL for this.  This time I decided to try out the services of Let’s Encrypt Everything, which worked out nicely.

You can read their website for the background story.  This posting is about the details of how I proceeded.

Let’s Encrypt Everything will sign TLS certificates for your website.  It uses a scheme called ACME.  That scheme involves running some software on your end that talks to their servers.  During that conversation a transient page is created on your website, this is used to prove that you control the site.  That proof of control how they validate that you control the site and thus it’s ok for them to sign off on the cert.

What’s nice about this scheme is that you really don’t need to know much, if anything, about how all this works.  You only need to install some software on your machine – the ACME client – and then follow the instructions.  The better the ACME client the less work you need to do.  This posting has a nice review of various ACME clients.

I first tried the client that the Let’s Encrypt folks are working on.  It didn’t work well for me.  I then moved on to acme-tiny and it was great; though it certainly required more hand work.

The proof of control step/scheme requires that you let the ACME client add a page to your web site, i.e. put a file into your sites http files.  That page is served using HTTP, not HTTPS.

The certificate they give expires in three months, so they presume your likely to run a crontab to renew the certificate, montly say.

The largest hick-up I ran into was that the page wants to be served via HTTP.  My site is setup to to immediately redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS.  So I had to adjust the configuration to leave a small hole in that behavior just for the proof of control page.  I do the redirects with Apache’s mod_alias; and it required a bit-o-thought to get that hole build.  I now redirect all URL’s, except those that begin with a period, it’s lame but it works and was easy.