Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sunstein's Colorado Experiment

A Harvard lawyer, Sunstein is also deeply steeped in behavioural economics and has applied those theories to law and politics. In a delightful talk at Rotman, both instructive and entertaining, Sustein described some of his latest research studies that put a theoretical foundation to the understanding of the growing political polarization in the US.

Sunstein started by laying out the results of a 'Colorado experiment'. Here's how it went. Boulder is a left-leaning community in Colorado while Colorado Springs is right-leaning. Groups were pulled together from these two separate communities to talk about climate change, affirmative action and same sex marriage. Their views on these topics were measured before the discussion. In private, many people tended to be uncertain and tentative about their opinions. Then Boulder people had a short discussion about this topics with other Boulder people while the Colorado Springs people talked to others from Colorado Springs. After these discussions with like-minded people, they become more confident, more unified and more extreme. As Sunstein said, this was not all that surprising, but it was useful to verify the process of people being influenced by others in a group experimentally rather than relying on intuition.

Sunstein went on to describe the effects of mixed and homogeneous composition of judicial panels. A laborious analysis of the decisions of three-person judiciary panels, comparing homogeneous (as to who was the President when they were appointed) and mixed (people appointed by different presidents of different parties) panels showed a rather surprising result. The best predictor of their decisions was not their own political leaning but the leaning of the others on the panel.

He gave many examples of people's resistance to new data, when they have firm opinions already. Add to that the fact that most Americans get their news from Facebook, which filters news to suit their tastes - this generates more clicks and more opportunity to sell advertising. He showed us a quote from an earlier FB statement of how their NewsFeed works:

Our success is getting people the stories that matter to them most. If you look through thousands of stories every day and choose the 100 that were most important to you, which would they be? The answer would be your News Feed. It is subjective, personal and unique - and defines the spirit we hope to achieve.

It's easy to see how this approach would solidify extreme positions and lead to polarization. Facebook is now making moves to modify how News Feed works, under considerable public pressure. Sunstein made a strong point that we shouldn't be algorithmed into being extreme, which the original Facebook algorithm certainly did. He got a good laugh when he said we needed to made algorithm a verb, but we needed a shorter word. Unfortunately algored wouldn't really work.

Sunstein was discussing topics from his latest book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. I'm looking forward to reading the book and hearing more about his research, because I'm sure I haven't done justice to what he talked about. 

After the talk I made a suggestion to Sunstein. The New York Times often runs a section entitled What the Conservative Media  that it might be interesting to see the relative click rate on The New York Times' section called What the Conservative Media are Saying (or some such title). Compared to the laborious research on the judiciary panels, this would provide simple quantitative results. I know what I'd be betting. But Sunstein was scrupulous in not claiming positions for which he didn't yet have experimental verification. His book should be a good read.

Monday, January 29, 2018

This Movie Could Make You Weep

Ben Rhodes, Samantha Powers, John Kerry, and Barak Obama

The Final Year delivers an overview of the final year of Obama's second term, and how he and his team carried on foreign policy. As well as Obama himself, the story focuses on three people nearest the President: the passionate, idealistic, committed Samantha Power, Ambassador to the United Nations, the experienced and dedicated John Kerry, Secretary of State, and blunt-spoken behind-the-scenes Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.

The segments cover activities in Syria, Laos, Viet Nam, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Cuba and the UN, dramatizing the scope of US concerns around the world. We see Kerry's dogged persistence in seeking a deal in Iran. We see Obama interacting with young people wherever he goes. We see Power barely holding back the tears when meeting mother of the  girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.  We see Rhodes mind-morphing with Obama to craft drafts of his speeches.

It's heart-wrenching to compare the high ideals and global empathy of this cast of characters with the venality and self-interest of the current US president. Power's women's party to celebrate Clinton's expected victory deflates like a sad balloon. Rhodes, the wordsmith, cannot find words to express his desolation on the night Trump is elected.

The movie ends with the ultimate irony:  The Times They Are a Changin', once a chant of hope and progress, is a dirge for the death of principled US diplomacy. Or if you feel hopeful, it's just a blip in human progress.

I highly recommend* this movie, but take a tissue. It'll make you cry.

* The movie gets a low rating on rottentomatoes. I can only believe the ratings were stacked by Trump supporters. It's a great movie.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Making Pencils


Manufacturing pencils must be a dying industry.

New York Times memorializes it with a  beautiful photo essay of the processes involved. It's worth a look.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Vietnam War


If you have a chance to watch Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's 17 1/2 hour documentary about the folly of the Vietnam War, take it. I never thought I would watch that much footage about Vietnam, but my husband and I were riveted as we binge-watched the entire series. It was incredible to see the hubris, the ineptitude, the political self-interest and sheer lunacy of the war unfold in one vast sweep. We were educated, horrified and moved.

Ten years in the making, boiled down from interviews with hundreds of people - both Americans and Vietnamese - 24,000 photos, and 1500 videos. Through a feat of phenomenal editing, the series flowed smoothly, weaving together political machinations in Washington, battle scenes,  deftly chosen music from the era, and interviews with combatants, advisors, diplomats, protestors,  journalists and family from all four factions (Americans, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese.  Sometimes documentaries can be too clinical, and you don't even glimpse the human side. Others swamp you with mawkish individual stories without giving a sense of the big picture. This film was perfectly balanced between the two approaches, and they all blended harmoniously. It was a tour de force.

Vietnam was an ignominious war from the beginning, and this was highlighted in the ignoble flights of helicopters rescuing marines from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. The end would not have been so shabby if it weren't for the obduracy of the ambassador who refused to accept the inevitable fall of Saigon and prepare for it. And so the end came as the war had begun and proceeded.

I thought the film would end with the pathos of the Vietnam memorial with the strains of Bridge over Troubled Water playing in the background. But it went on to show American vets reconciling with Vietnam vets back in Vietnam, this time with Let It Be as background. It's hard to hold on to that feeling of hope, as we watch the American political scene. Did you know that Nixon influenced the 1968 election by doing a back-room deal to get the Vietnamese to refuse to attend the Paris peace talks until after the election, promising they'd do better with Nixon as president? Plus ├ža change. . .