Thursday, September 27, 2007

Polling errors?

AzAce over at Arizona 8th has a short post up today discussing the latest fund-raising numbers, with Obama expected to top Clinton for the second straight quarter, and some polling figures showing Obama doing better than Clinton in some head-to-head match-ups against Giuliani, should he be the Republican nominee.

This ties in well with this blog entry from a New Hampshire journalist discussing the discrepancy between the fund-raising figures and the polling numbers. To wit: "If Obama is out-raising Clinton, both in over-all money and in numbers of individual donors, why is he lagging so badly in the polls?"

The author felt the difference came down to people who are donating to Clinton are committed to her, while many people making small donations to Obama are still reporting themselves as undecided in the polls. He also thinks young voters (who seem to favor Obama by large margins) were being under-represented in the polls, despite the pollsters claims that isn't the case.

I think there is another contributing factor too. This far out, the people who are donating to candidates are likely to be among those most actively following politics, and they still make a pretty small minority of the overall electorate. I just think poll sampling right now is largely polling people who aren't engaged with the races yet, and really haven't made up their minds. Among this set, most Democrats who express an opinion are going to favor Clinton based solely on name recognition.

Still, Obama is going to need to show, starting in November, that he can effectively translate some of his fund-raising into both getting he name and views out there among primary voters, and in getting young voters to ... you know ... actually vote. Failure in either area is likely to mean failure for his candidacy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What Democratic Congress?

A Greenwald post I read yesterday referenced this Gallop poll addressing Presidential and Congressional approval ratings. The poll showed a 3% uptick in presidential approval when compared to August, while Congress doubled that figure, showing a 6% rise in approval ratings.

The numbers themselves are not particularly surprising ... it's the details behind the Congressional numbers which might make one do a double-take.

As the poll analysis notes, Congressional approval among Independents actually dropped by 3 points (from 17% to 14%) and while approval among Democrats rose, it was by a statistically insignificant margin (21% to 23%) ... which leaves only one group to account for the net 6% rise. Hint - it's not the Green Party, or the Communists.

No, the gain in Congressional approval ratings rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Republicans, who more than doubled their support, going from 18% approval last month to 37% approval this month. That's a shocking figure. Voters of the party not in control of Congress have a better opinion of Congress than those that presumably elected the majority ... and it's not by some small, statistically insignificant figure, but rather by a whopping 14 percentage points.

On recollection, however, why not? After all, voters elected Democrats to the majority largely because they saw the country as headed in the wrong direction on a number of issues, most particularly the Iraq war. However, what exactly has the new majority done to address these issues? Some reform to Congressional lobbying statutes have been passed, but what else?

On wiretapping and other privacy rights, the "Democratic" Congress couldn't work fast enough to provide the administration with everything it wanted. Now the administration is pressing hard for legislation to absolve telecom companies which helped it break privacy laws in the past, and everything points to Congress acceding to this as well - even though a majority of citizens are opposed.

Attempts last week to restore habeas corpus rights failed in the face of a Republican filibuster, despite actually garnering a majority of votes in the Senate, and despite being supported by a majority of Americans.

Perhaps most obviously, Congress has done exactly nothing (nada, nil, zero, zilch) whatsoever to accelerate our exit from Iraq, which was most certainly the primary reason Democrats were restored to the majority in the first place. Instead, a supplementary funding bill was passed with some milestones attached, but failure to meet the vast majority of those milestones is apparently not viewed by the administration or most Republican members of Congress as a reason to leave, no matter what an ever-growing majority of Americans might want.

With a new funding bill needed as early as next month, and despite some moderately tough rhetoric, there is no reason whatsoever to think the Democratic majority will grow the necessary cojones to actually do something, such as pass a war funding bill with actual, hard limitations attached to it.

Why shouldn't Republicans be happier with the performance of Congress? On what substantial issue this year has the administration and Republicans not had their way? The only thing that comes to mind is immigration reform, and that was because the administration and Congressional Republicans were on different sides of the issue, so one or the other had to be disappointed - and, hey, the Congressional minority ended up "winning".

For some reason Democrats seem worried about filibusters and vetoes. Senate Republicans threaten to veto something, and Democrats agree to simple cloture votes. The President threatens to veto something, and Democrats refuse to challenge him on it. They seem to have entirely forgotten they were elected precisely because the majority of the electorate wants someone to stand up and say "enough is enough".

Make Republicans filibuster. So what if things get held up while they are taking turns talking themselves blue - nothing substantial the majority wants is getting done anyway because Senate Republicans are blocking votes in history-shattering numbers, all in an attempt to protect the President from being forced to veto legislation they know the majority of Americans want.

With any luck, enough of them will get sufficiently tired of their own voices to actually let a bill through for the President to veto ... then we can in plain black-and-white who really doesn't support the troops.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Surging downward

Alan Greenspan has a new book out today, and as is often the case with new books small excerpts are leaking out as agents and publishers attempt to build up demand for copies. However, even by such standards the one-liner making the round over the weekend seemed explosive:

"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Coming from a source such as Greenspan, this remark could be taken as particularly telling about the administration's real reasons for invading Iraq. Usually the people making such comments are left-wing, anti-war, anti-administration bloggers such as ... well ... myself. Or Liza.

Suffice to say, Greenspan doesn't fit the template.

Having thought about this some, however, and recognizing I have not read the book yet, I find it unlikely Greenspan is claiming the primary reason we invaded Iraq was oil, but rather that the reason we care about the region at oil is the oil reserves there, and Saddam was seen as a destabilizing force in an area we cared about. It's a small, but important distinction - had Saddam existed in, say, central Africa, he may still have been a destabilizing force but we likely wouldn't have invaded his nation, simply because there is nothing there we care about as much as we care about middle-Eastern oil.

Update: Greenspan seems to support this take in a Wall Street Journal interview available here.

Regardless of our rationale for the initial invasion, however, the supposed rationale behind the escalation this year took another body blow over the weekend when the faction of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced Saturday it would withdraw its support for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Considering the Sadr faction had a significant hand in al-Maliki's being able to establish a parliamentary majority in the first place, this is another real body blow to the ability of the Iraqi government to continue to rule at all, much less effectively, at least as it is currently constituted.

The underlying purposes for sending more troops to Iraq was supposed to be to provide the government there "breathing space" to make some hard, but necessary, decisions regarding the future of the country. Instead, the government continues to spiral into chaos. I'm sure the administration will see that simply as further justification to keep troops there - if things are going well we need to keep troops there because things are going well, if things are going poorly we need to keep troops there because things are going poorly. Staying in Iraq is a tautology.

Meanwhile, there is an interesting new research paper (hat tip to Freakonomics) analyzing the data from the Iraq surge from an economist's stand point. The entire paper is worth a read, and the author concludes the signs are mixed, with casualty data (both civilian and military) pointing to the surge making some progress, but other data pointing toward a deteriorating situation.

However, the most interesting point, and most telling, is the author's analysis of the Iraqi bond markets - he determines that since the surge began, confidence in the ability of the Iraqi government to repay bonds it sells has fallen by 40%. Given the generally well-established track record of financial markets in predicting the future, this is pretty damning.

Combine it with the news last week that Hunt Oil Co., who's CEO Ray Hunt is on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, has struck a deal with the Kurdistan National Assembly to explore and drill in the Kurdish region, without the Iraqi government being included in the negotiations or contract, and it becomes increasingly clear which way the smart money is betting - against the administration.

Given the respective track records, that certainly seems the way to go.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Identity Problems

New Scientist magazine announced yesterday two independent teams of researchers had developed quantum computers capable of implementing Shor's algorithm. This is a real problem for internet security.

Digital security is built upon various mathematical algorithms. Without going into a whole lot of detail (for the detail-curious, information about the RSA public key encryption algorithm can be read here; RSA is just one of many different algorithmic approaches), many algorithms tend to rely on using prime factorization of very large numbers. To break down a given key, you would need to be able to quickly compute all the prime factors for that number. For very large numbers (several hundred digits), the computation time necessary for this has been such that keys remain essentially secure.

Now that changes.

Shor's algorithm is an approach which allows for non-random determination of the factors of very large numbers (i.e., you don't have to "guess" at factors). It's computationally heavy, but use of quantum computers allows the algorithm to run in polynomial time. I.e., the amount of time to break a given key using a quantum computer would be, at most, the square root of the amount of time it takes now. This speeds things up hugely.

Example: Let's say a given key on Sept. 11 took 1 million seconds to calculate the necessary factors to break. 1 million seconds is roughly equal to 11.5 days. In polynomial time, that takes, at most, 1000 seconds ... or about 16 minutes. Maximum. It could be much faster.

There is a lot of personal data out there being held by banks, businesses, governments which is protected with public key encryption. Names, birth dates, addresses, mothers maiden names, bank account numbers, ssn's, credit cards, etc. Two days ago, that data looked pretty secure.

Today, that data looks pretty vulnerable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Failing the test you created

Back last spring the administration agreed to accept establishing some "benchmarks" in return for receiving a no-strings-attached military spending addendum. These benchmarks were set to help determine what progress, if any, was being made as a result of the new surge of American troops sent to Iraq. They were set by the administration, in consultation with the Iraqi government and the US military.

In other words, these are the 18 guidelines which the administration itself said progress in Iraq , or lack thereof, should be measured by.

1. Forming a Constitutional Review Committee and then completing the constitutional review.

2. Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba’athification reform.

3. Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to the people of Iraq without regard to the sect or ethnicity of recipients, and enacting and implementing legislation to ensure that the energy resources of Iraq benefit Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens in an equitable manner.

4. Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions.

5. Enacting and implementing legislation establishing an Independent High Electoral Commission, provincial elections law, provincial council authorities, and a date for provincial elections.

6. Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty.

7. Enacting and implementing legislation establishing a strong militia disarmament program to ensure that such security forces are accountable only to the central government and loyal to the constitution of Iraq.

8. Establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad Security Plan.

9. Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.

10. Providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions in consultation with U.S. Commanders without political intervention to include the authority to pursue all extremists including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

11. Ensuring that Iraqi Security Forces are providing even-handed enforcement of the law.

12. Ensuring that, as Prime Minister Maliki was quoted by President Bush as saying, “the Baghdad Security Plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation.

13. Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.

14. Establishing all of the planned joint security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.

15. Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces units capable of operating independently.

16. Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.

17. Allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis.

18. Ensuring that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the ISF.

The administrations own analysis, by people with self-interest in presenting the most optimistic and positive view possible, found that only half of these guidelines had been met.

The non-partisan GAO, which has no stake in making things look optimistic or positive, found only three of the 18 benchmarks had been met (8, 14, 16), another four partially met (4, 9, 12, 17).

One can debate how difficult meeting these guidelines might be - heck, considering how wonderfully well all the training of Iraqis was going way back in 2004 according to Gen. Petreaus (who, after all, was in charge of said training at that time), meeting 9 and 15 should have been "gimme's" - but no one forced these on the administration. These were goals it set, and said "judge by these standards".

Well, the administration and the surge have been judged ... and they have been found wanting.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The bitching of legless men, an organization with liberal inclinations, ran a full page ad in the New York Times this morning, titled "General Petraeus or General Betray Us." For those who managed to sleep through the news somehow, General Petraeus is on Capitol Hill this morning testifying before Congress about the state of affairs in Iraq.

I'm not going to defend the ad - regardless of what one thinks about the war or about Petraeus himself, he remains a dedicated career soldier who has given his entire adult life to the service of this country. I disagree strongly with his views, but he has earned my respect. He has done nothing to betray this country, or the soldiers under his command. Insinuations to the contrary are abhorrent.

What I do not need to hear, however, are remarks such as those posted today at Arizona 8th titled "On Questioning Patriotism". If there is a party in this nation who are the absolute experts on questioning the patriotism of their opponents, it is indisputably the conservative one with an elephant logo.

Those who have expressed concerns about the need to invade Iraq, or the need to have warrentless wiretapping, or the need for torture and rendition, or whatever else, have been regularly reviled as "unpatriotic". Such slander has been freely thrown about from members of the administration, Republicans within the House and Senate, conservative talking heads, conservative periodicals such as The New Republic, and conservative blogs.

So if you're going to get up in arms about having someone's patriotism questioned, fine - but start at the fucking start. Where were your shrieks of outrage in 2002-2004? You don't get to cherry-pick. I'm perfectly happy to castigate MoveOn, but conservatives as a whole have a whole lot of catch-up work to do before they get to cry about this one and have it be taken seriously.

So just stop talking. Seriously. The outrage of Republicans over this ad is both making me sick and setting me off on gales of derisive laughter such that it makes it hard for me to finish the nasty email I am composing to MoveOn.

Come back and open your mouths on the subject when you have a leg to stand on.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A really big brush

George-Pierres Seurat has always been my favorite of the Impressionist or Neo-impressionist painters. Of course, all the famous names (Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, etc.) are famous for a reason, but the originality of pointillism and the amount of attention to detail it seemingly requires always appealed to me. Perhaps his most famous work can be seen here.

Recently Liza, a regular commenter at various blogs who does not, so far as I know, have a blog of her own, has been bemoaning the lack of real difference between the various presidential candidates. It's not just her - a anonymous commenter at Arizona 8th said the same, claiming Hillary Clinton, in particular, was a "corporatist", not significantly different from the Republican candidates. Art Jacobson, proprietor of The Data Port posted a comment recently at x4mr's blog agreeing with Liza. So the view is getting around some.

I've been pondering about this for a few days now, maybe a week ... I don't think they're correct.

Oh, there is certainly a lot of validity to the argument. At some recent debate, Hillary claimed her vote couldn't be purchased by lobbyists. It's a laughable claim. All those corporations, lobbies, PACs aren't donating money just to hand it out. People (generally - there are exceptions of course) donate money to those they think can win, and a lot of people think Hillary can win. If she does, they are hoping to have some influence on her decision-making, influence purchased with money.

Of the Democratic candidates, Hillary is most clearly a corporatist, and in that sense it's true she's the liberal candidate most similar to the Republican line-up, or to the current White House occupant. It's a reason why she's most certainly not the favorite among Democratic Progressives. She's certainly not my first choice.

However, if you get up close and look at the details, the comparison breaks down.

Regardless of what you might think of her, if she is elected we are far more likely to see real health care reform, reform which doesn't just provide more money and power to the HMOs, than if any Republican wins the Presidency.

With Clinton in office, we are far more likely to see the government promote real science, whatever the result, rather than squash research that doesn't support certain pre-defined conclusions than we are if any Republican wins the Presidency.

If Clinton becomes President, we are likely to still have cronies appointed to high political office, but they are more likely to be competent cronies than if any Republican wins the Presidency.

If Clinton wins in 2008, we are far more likely to get out of Iraq than if any Republican wins the Presidency. I know Liza has her doubts about this one, but Clinton has consistently this year stated she favors withdrawal time lines attached to spending bills, and that if we are still in Iraq in Jan. 2009, her first action would be to get us out.

I could keep going, but point should be made - if you are painting with a really big brush you can make a case there is little different between Clinton and the conservative crew. If you get up close, though, and look at the points that make up the picture ... well, it's a different picture entirely.