Saturday, August 23, 2008

It is Your Civic Duty - Lie to Political Pollsters

It is your civic duty to lie to political pollsters to make polls as unreliable as possible. It is not enough to refuse to answer the questions, you have to lie.

The rest of this article deals with why, but I want to take a moment on the practical - how to lie. There are several amusing techniques for this. Here are two. The most reliable one is to pretend you are someone else, but completely stereotype their views. Choose your crazy Aunt Myrtle or your grandmother who votes for the "most handsome" candidate. The important thing is that their views do not agree with yours. This technique has the advantage of a coherent, if mildly insane, point of view. That makes it hard for pollsters to simply discard your answers as nonsensical. I suspect that most polling techniques do not allow for throwing out responses. That allows for more extreme techniques. I choose random numbers, the digits of pi for example, and use those to determine my answers. If the next digit is 3 and there are three choices, I answer with the third one. If there are only two answers I choose the first because 3 and 1 are both odd numbers. The other day I owned a company with over 100 employees, but made less than 20 thousand a year and had no health insurance.

At first you may find it hard to give an answer that you absolutely and positively disagree with, but I assure you, you get over it and it becomes fun after a while.

Here is what I want from political candidates and the media that covers elections. I want to know how the candidates think about the world and our place in it, and how they are likely to vote on issues I care about. Political polling makes it less likely that I will get what I want from the media, from political parties, and from the candidates themselves. Each of us should do what we can to remove polling from the political landscape. Lying is the easiest and most effective way I can think of to make the polls disappear.

The Media:

Media coverage of elections is bad and not getting better. From "A First Look at Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign".

Just 12% of stories examined were presented in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election, while nearly nine-out-of-ten stories (86%) focused on matters that largely impacted only the parties and the candidates. Those numbers, incidentally, match almost exactly the campaign-centric orientation of coverage found on the eve of the primaries eight years ago.

Here is what we get from the media

  • Horserace coverage. Candidate Smith is 3% up in the polls, candidate Jones is gaining in a final stretch surge in the polls. Candidate McMurry wins by a nose. Candidate Rostnikov outdid candidate McMurry in fund-raising in the month of June.

  • Political strategy coverage. Polling shows 27% of the electorate is "very concerned" about issue "Horses that have left the barn". The Animal party intends to take advantage of this with a direct mail campaign to people who do not own horses emphasizing their position that barn doors should be self closing.

  • Discussion of the polls. After a poll proves unreliable, the media spend a lot of time talking about why. This is particularly corrosive because it uses up time that could be used discussing something of importance. It is also completely vacuous because if the pollsters knew why they were wrong they would have corrected for it before the poll was published. My goal is to stop this discussion by making ALL political polls unreliable.

  • Reporting of partisan polls. Many polls are commissioned by people with an axe to grind. Questions are created that invite a particular answer, then it is reported that "By a vast majority, the electorate oppose beating dead horses."

  • Nonsensical explanations. Poll results are often analyzed as though the polls were answered by a single person and that person had a coherent set of beliefs. This invented person if often called "the electorate". For example, "The electorate seem to feels that taxes are too high." In fact, poll results do not reflect anyone's views. They are an aggregate measure.

  • Parties and Special Interest Groups

    Here is what we get from the parties and special interest groups:

    • Attack ads on targeted, hot-button topics. "Candidate Rostnikov voted to allow horses to escape, often to be killed". These ads invariably inflame passion, distort the candidates views, and cheapen the debate. Here is a simple rule. There is nothing meaningful that can be learned about a candidate in 30 seconds.

    • Feel good ads. These are essentially selling the candidate with the same techniques as Coca Cola. There are some general techniques: attractive smiling people doing good things, flags waving, children and a better future. Polling and focus groups allow the political machines to tune these ads like a drug formula.

    • Pandering. Here is a definition of pandering: "To cater to the lower tastes and desires of others or exploit their weaknesses." Pandering is often subtle, but sometimes not. If someone offers you money "A $1000 tax rebate" or "repeal/suspend a tax", they are pandering. "Lower tastes and desires" are easy to figure out. In politics, money usually does the trick. But, effective pandering requires some excuse so you feel justified in receiving the the largess. That is where polling comes in.

    • Very specific targeting of particular people. Based on your answers to political polls, you will categorized. This allows you to be targeted very specifically. If a candidate Hernandez knows that it is very important to you that koala bears remain a symbol of affection and comfort, you may be targeted with a koala bear ad. It will paint the opposing candidate, Walenski, with some plausible evidence, as someone who just doesn't care about koalas. Hernandez is counting on your affection for koalas to motivate you to support him and oppose Walenski. A closer examimination of the candidates voting records may show that Hernandez is likely to vote for a measure that will cost you your job, but he does like those koalas and Walenski seems to hate them.

    A few interesting links to follow if you are interested in the topic:

    Friday, August 15, 2008

    Nanny nanny boo boo

    Some time ago when I both had and worked with young children I noticed an interesting thing. Kids of particular ages have their own expressions that are not used by either adults or children of other ages. My favorite example is from kids under about six years old who chant "Nanny nanny boo boo." This is a shortening of the full expression "Nanny nanny boo boo. Stick your head in doo doo." This taunt is typically used in chasing games and means "You can't catch me you ...". I have heard this chant in multiple locations thousands of miles apart, and I have heard it over a period of years. As far as I can tell it is: persistent, widespread, and completely restricted to young children. I don't think I have ever heard an adult use the full expression.

    Other age groups seem to have similar cultural artifacts. Junior high kids who would never dream of being so immature as to say "Nanny nanny boo boo" may tell you the joke about the pygmy tribe called the fakawi. In tall grasslands, people of this tribe can be found jumping up and yelling "We're the fakawi". Say it with a Brooklyn accent - its an aural joke. I had an adult neighbor repeat this one to me the other day, but I believe it is largely confined to junior high aged kids.

    This is anecdotal and I have no real conclusions about the phenomena, I just find it fascinating that culture can be transmitted horizontally through an age group without the mediation of adults or even family.

    Mangled Alphabet

    There are times when it is important to have the correct spelling of a spoken word. Because many English letters are difficult to distinguish when they are spoken (c, g, z), it is common to distinguish them by using a word. There is a standard word alphabet for this: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo...

    But suppose your desire is not to be understood, but to be obscure. For example, the Internal Revenue Service calls to track down your offshore bank account. You don't want to be convicted of perjury, but you don't really want to be helpful either.

    Here is a mangled alphabet for your pleasure. Just imagine being on the phone and saying "My name is Jim, J as in jalapeno, i as in ingenue, m as in mnemonic. What do you mean repeat myself, don't you speak English?".

    The alphabet is a combination of spellings that do not match sounds, sounds that say a letter that is not the one of interest, accents on a misleading syllable, and obscure words that distract from the task at hand. With some letters I found it hard to be truly misleading. Suggestions are welcome.

    A - Aoife (EE-feh) Irish female name
    B - byssus (BIS-uhs)
    C - cent (sent)
    D - Django (JANG-oh) Django Reinhardt jazz great
    E - elephant (EL-uh-fuhnt)
    F - feign (feyn)
    G - gnostic (NOS-tik)
    H - honor (ON-er)
    I - ingenue (AN-zhuh-noo)
    J - jalapeno (hah-luh-PEYN-yoh)
    K - knife (nahyf)
    L - llano (YAH-naw)
    M - mnemonic (ni-MON-ik)
    N - nigeria (nahy-JEER-ee-uh)
    O - opossum (POS-uhm)
    P - phrenology (fri-NOL-uh-jee)
    Q - quran (koo-RAHN)
    R - Rhone (rohn)
    S - sent
    T - tsar (zahr)
    U - umbilical (uhm-BIL-i-kuhl)
    V - verisimilitude (ver-uh-si-MIL-i-tood)
    W - whole (hohl)
    X - Xerox (ZEE-rox)
    Y - Ysolde (ee-ZAWL-duh)
    Z - zakat (zuh-KHAT)