Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

We’ve known since at least 2012 that Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics:

In that year, a combined University of California, San Diego and Facebook research team led by James Fowler published a study in Nature, which argued that Facebook’s “I Voted” button had driven a small but measurable increase in turnout, primarily among young people.

Rebecca Rosen’s 2012 story, “Did Facebook Give Democrats the Upper Hand?” relied on new research from Fowler, et al., about the presidential election that year. Again, the conclusion of their work was that Facebook’s get-out-the-vote message could have driven a substantial chunk of the increase in youth voter participation in the 2012 general election. Fowler told Rosen that it was “even possible that Facebook is completely responsible” for the youth voter increase. And because a higher proportion of young people vote Democratic than the general population, the net effect of Facebook’s GOTV effort would have been to help the Dems.

The research showed that a small design change by Facebook could have electoral repercussions, especially with America’s electoral-college format in which a few hotly contested states have a disproportionate impact on the national outcome. And the pro-liberal effect it implied became enshrined as an axiom of how campaign staffers, reporters, and academics viewed social media.

In June 2014, Harvard Law scholar Jonathan Zittrain wrote an essay in New Republic called, “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” in which he called attention to the possibility of Facebook selectively depressing voter turnout. (He also suggested that Facebook be seen as an “information fiduciary,” charged with certain special roles and responsibilities because it controls so much personal data.)

In late 2014, The Daily Dot called attention to an obscure Facebook-produced case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. Working with a tiny budget that would have allowed them to send a single mailer to just 150,000 households, the digital-advertising firm Chong and Koster was able to obtain remarkable results. “Where the Facebook ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t,” testified a leader of the firm. “Within that area, the people who saw the ads were 17 percent more likely to vote our way than the people who didn’t. Within that group, the people who voted the way we wanted them to, when asked why, often cited the messages they learned from the Facebook ads.”

In April 2016, Rob Meyer published “How Facebook Could Tilt the 2016 Election” after a company meeting in which some employees apparently put the stopping-Trump question to Mark Zuckerberg. Based on Fowler’s research, Meyer reimagined Zittrain’s hypothetical as a direct Facebook intervention to depress turnout among non-college graduates, who leaned Trump as a whole.

Facebook, of course, said it would never do such a thing. “Voting is a core value of democracy and we believe that supporting civic participation is an important contribution we can make to the community,” a spokesperson said. “We as a company are neutral — we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”

They wouldn’t do it intentionally, at least.

There’s much more.

Hosting experiments in governance styles

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

The Seasteading Institute and its for-profit spin-off, Blue Frontiers, have racked up some real-world achievements in the past year, Nature (!) reports:

They signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia in January that lays the groundwork for the construction of their prototype. And they gained momentum from a conference of interested parties in Tahiti in May, which hundreds of people attended. The project’s focus has shifted from building a libertarian oasis to hosting experiments in governance styles and showcasing a smorgasbord of sustainable technologies for, among other things, desalination, renewable energy and floating food-production. The shift has brought some gravitas to the undertaking, and some ecologists have taken interest in the possibilities of full-time floating laboratories.

But the project still faces some formidable challenges. The team must convince the people of French Polynesia that the synthetic islands will benefit them; it must raise enough money to actually build the prototype, which it estimates will cost up to US$60 million; and once it is built, the group must convince the world that artificial floating islands are more than just a gimmick. Producing solid science and broadly useful technology would go a long way towards making that case.

Secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Razib Khan recommends Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth — but with the novel addition of these four modes of atheism:

  1. Personality (low social intelligence)
  2. Hyper-analytic cognitive style
  3. Societal apathy toward religion
  4. Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.


Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history.


Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or several years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.

Successful games yield “a-ha moments”

Monday, October 16th, 2017

A national security game designer at RAND describes how games can help America take advantage of different potential futures:

[A] recent RAND project designed a game-theoretic model of conflict in space to identify conditions that support deterrence. The research team developed an initial model of possible decisions an actor could make to escalate or de-escalate a budding conflict in space, but given the costs of building and running a program that could examine thousands of cases, they wanted to make sure that the model accurately reflected human behavior before they began programing. The team designed a short manual game where subject-matter experts were asked to manage a conflict that could easily escalate into war in space. We watched the players to see if they would behave the same way as the model predicted. For example, we hypothesized that players would be more aggressive when they felt themselves at a disadvantage. Over and over players acted out of a concern that they needed to “appear strong” — escalating the conflict exactly as the model predicted.


Game designers and participants in successful games often describe an “a-ha moment” — an unexpected game event or a statement made in the game that offered new insight on a familiar problem. For example, in the space game, participants took actions not for their operational effect, but rather to signal intentions. While the game designers had not previously included signaling actions in the design of the model, as soon as we heard it we knew it must be included. Similarly, in the RAND Baltic Games, players realized again and again that the short distance between the Russian border and Baltic capitals required forces to be prepositioned in order the have a fighting chance.

Labour repression & the Indo-Japanese divergence

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Indian and the Japanese textile industries had similar levels of wages and productivity, and both were exporting to global markets:

But by the 1930s, Japan had surpassed the UK to become the world’s dominant exporter of textiles; while the Indian industry withdrew behind the tariff protection of the British Raj. Technology, human capital, and industrial policy were minor determinants of this divergence, or at least they mattered conditional on labour relations.

Indian textile mills were obstructed by militant workers who defended employment levels, resisted productivity-enhancing measures, and demanded high wages relative to effort. But Japanese mills suppressed strikes and busted unions; extracted from workers much greater effort for a given increase in wages; and imposed technical & organisational changes at will. The bargaining position of workers was much weaker in Japan than in India, because Japan had a true “surplus labour” economy with high rates of workers ‘released’ from agriculture into industry. But late colonial India was rather ‘Gerschenkronian’, where employers’ options were more limited by a relatively inelastic supply of labour.

The state also mattered. The British Raj did little to restrain on behalf of Indian capitalists the exercise of monopoly power by Indian workers. Britain had neither the incentive, nor the stomach, nor the legitimacy to do much about it. But a key element of the industrial policy of the pre-war Japanese state was repression of the labour movement, which kept the labour market more competitive than it otherwise would have been.

We presume that we can depend on Texas

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Hegemonies, alliances, and neutral areas continually change, Techniques of Systems Analysis warns:

We must keep our system sufficiently flexible to meet these changes. This means, for example, that we cannot rely on any particular set of foreign bases, though presumably we can place a fairly high reliance on having at least a portion of them available to us. It also means that we have to worry, for example, about the Russians taking over or influencing some countries which we have counted on as being allies or neutrals. We should not therefore make ourselves too dependent upon any particular group unless we have reason to believe that they are just about as reliable as one of the forty-eight states. (We presume that we can depend on Texas.)

There is little that’s quiet about a firearm with a silencer

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

The Washington Post is willing to print a fact-checker column noting that there is little that’s quiet about a firearm with a silencer, unless one also thinks a jackhammer is quiet:

The Environmental Protection Agency developed the noise-reduction rating (NRR), which explains how much a product might reduce noise in decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic, rather than linear, so a difference of a few decibels is important.

Of course, different ear protection has different ratings. We found that the range for ear plugs ranged from 22 to 33 NRR, over-the-ear muffs between 22 and 31 NRR and suppressors were also in 30 NRR range, although some may go higher.

(In all likelihood, the level of noise reduction is overestimated, especially for ear plugs because tests are done in a laboratory setting and people using them often do not achieve the proper fit. 3M advises cutting the NRR by more than half to reflect this problem, so 29 NRR would translate to 11 NRR.)

Katie Peters, a spokeswoman for ARS, supplied an article that stated: “The average suppression level, according to independent tests done on a variety of commercially available suppressors, is around 30 dB, which is around the same reduction level of typical ear protection gear often used when firing guns.”

If that’s the case, we’re not sure why the group would say that ear plugs protect hearing “better” than suppressors.” It seems the answer is that they are about the same, give or take two or three decibels. And if that’s the case, ARS is especially wrong to claim that legislation to make it easier to buy such devices “does nothing to protect hearing.”

Peters acknowledged that gun enthusiasts recommend that even with suppressors, other hearing protection is necessary. Hearing damage begins to occur at about 85 decibels, about the sound of a hairdryer.

This gets us to the other issue — whether a suppressor makes it “quiet,” as Gillibrand tweeted, and harder for law enforcement officials to detect, as she and ARS suggested.

A 30-decibel reduction in theory means an AR-15 rifle would have a noise equivalent of 132 decibels. That is considered equivalent to a gunshot or a jackhammer. A .22-caliber pistol would be 116 decibels, which is louder than a 100-watt car stereo. In all likelihood, the noise level is actually higher.

Maybe we should call them mufflers?

What’s killing us?

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Mike Huemer looks at what’s killing us:

The top causes of death almost never appear in political discourse or discussions of social problems. They’re almost all diseases, and there is almost no debate about what should be done about them. This is despite that they are killing vastly more people than even the most destructive of the social problems that we do talk about. (Illegal drugs account for 0.7% of the death rate; murder, about 0.6%.)


Hypothesis: We don’t much care about the good of society. Refinement: Love of the social good is not the main motivation for (i) political action, and (ii) political discourse. We don’t talk about what’s good for society because we want to help our fellow humans. We talk about society because we want to align ourselves with a chosen group, to signal that alignment to others, and to tell a story about who we are. There are AIDS activists because there are people who want to express sympathy for gays, to align themselves against conservatives, and thereby to express “who they are”. There are no nephritis activists, because there’s no salient group you align yourself with (kidney disease sufferers?) by advocating for nephritis research, there’s no group you thereby align yourself against, and you don’t tell any story about what kind of person you are.

Just three percent of adults own half of America’s guns

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog notes that just three percent of adults own half of America’s guns but has the sense to note that this is the same pattern we see everywhere.

It’s frankly terrifying that so many guns are concentrated in the hands of collectors who have no interest in killing anyone.

A close examination makes the precise imprecise

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis notes that there are almost always large uncertainties when it comes to costs:

At first sight, costs look like a pretty concrete thing. You just grab an accountant and put him to work. However, as always, a close examination makes the precise imprecise. As we will explain later, when we talk about time-phasing, there is a real ambiguity in deciding the dollar cost of a system. Roughly speaking, this occurs because a military system is not bought at one instant of time by going into a department store and ordering it. It has to be built up over the past years and it is expect to have a continuous existence in the future. Under such circumstances one must always ask himself what it costs to use facilities which are already owned, and what will be the salvage value of any expenditures made this year in future years. Also, if one is procuring or developing a new system, he may have had no experience on which to base cost estimate.s It is surprising, in practice, how inaccurate even careful estimates of the costs of new systems have proved to be. Careless estimates tend to be out of this world.

There is another ambiguity in costs which the Analyst generally ignores but with which the policy make is sometimes concerned. Some dollars are harder to come by than others. Research and Development funds, for example, are ordinarily tighter than procurement funds. In the U.S., expensive gadgets are often easier to buy than high grade, but relatively low cost, people. Public works funds, for obvious reasons, are often easy to get and, of course, traditional expenditures are almost always easier to justify than new ones.

Finally, there are many costs which are not usually measured in dollars, such as crew lives, dislocations, political effects, etc.

He does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate

Monday, October 9th, 2017

I recently shared a video about how American animated films have progressed from conservative fairy tales to liberal allegories as CGI technology has transformed the filmmaking process:

T. Greer doesn’t quite agree with the videomaker’s characterization:

Perhaps a better phrase for these films would be “Mencian fairy tales.” Ancient China nerdery is strong among my readers, and most of you probably understand the reference. For those who don’t, an explanation: Mencius is a famous philosopher who discoursed his way across the central Chinese plains back in ye olde ancient days. In the textual record he is depicted as the first great Confucian after Confucius himself. One of his big ideas was that the most important way to ensure stability and happiness of a kingdom is cultivate virtue in its ruler.


For Mencius, politics is ultimately personal. The rise and fall of kingdoms and countries is a matter of character. But this is hardly an idea unique to the Chinese tradition. When Hamlet struts onto the stage and declares that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” he does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate, or that it the bureaucracy is overstaffed and inefficient, or that the Danish peasantry are being oppressed by the yoke of entrenched intersectional prejudices embedded in its structures of power. Hamlet means that the court of Denmark has nosedived into moral decline, and that the stench of the court’s moral depravity poisons all of the kingdom around it.

So it is with most of these Disney stories.

He was a very different person than when he wrote “Imagine”

Monday, October 9th, 2017

Today is John Lennon’s birthday. What most people don’t realize is that by 1979 Lennon was embarrassed by his former radicalism, according to Fred Seaman, who was his assistant at the time:

John, basically, made it very clear that if he were an American he would vote for Reagan because he was really sour on Jimmy Carter.


I also saw John embark in some really brutal arguments with my uncle, who’s an old-time communist… He enjoyed really provoking my uncle… Maybe he was being provocative… but it was pretty obvious to me he had moved away from his earlier radicalism.

He was a very different person back in 1979 and 80 than he’d been when he wrote Imagine. By 1979 he looked back on that guy and was embarrassed by that guy’s naivete.

The full transcript doesn’t feel like the edited trailer

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

I don’t closely follow Mike Cernovich or Vice, but it is interesting to contrast the full interview transcript against the heavily edited trailer Vice put out:

Mass shootings are a bad way to understand gun violence

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Mass shootings are a bad way to understand gun violence:

First, they’re rare, and the people doing the shooting are different. The majority of gun deaths in America aren’t even homicides, let alone caused by mass shootings. Two-thirds of the more than 33,000 gun deaths that take place in the U.S. every year are suicides.

And while people who commit suicide and people who commit mass shootings both tend to be white and male, suicide victims tend to be older. The median age of a mass shooter, according to one report, is 34, with very few over 50. Suicide, however, plagues the elderly as much as it does the middle-aged.

Second, the people killed in mass shootings are different from the majority of homicides. Most gun murder victims are men between the ages of 15 and 34. Sixty-six percent are black. Women — of any race and any age — are far less likely to be murdered by a gun. Unless that gun is part of a mass shooting. There, 50 percent of the people who die are women. And at least 54 percent of mass shootings involve domestic or family violence — with the perpetrator shooting a current or former partner or a relative.

The historical trends for different kinds of gun deaths don’t all follow the same course. While data suggests that the number of mass shootings similar to the Las Vegas event has gone up, particularly since 2000, homicide rates have fallen significantly from their 1980 peak and continued on a generally downward trajectory for most of the 21st century. Meanwhile, suicides are way up, with the biggest increases among women. The trends are different because the situations are different and the people are different. Maybe different solutions are warranted, as well.

Over time it became too intellectual

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Jerry Pournelle had some thoughts on think tanks:

RAND was a think tank, and over time it became too intellectual for General Schriever and Air Force Systems Command. Schriever, who built the modern Air Force and who understood megamissions very well, caused the creation of the Aerospace Corporation, which was to be “practical” rather than theoretical. Schriever ordered two major studies of the future of the Air Force: Project Forecast, which dealt with winged aircraft, and Project 75, which was a study of missile systems. Both were intended to answer the megamissions question. For more on megamissions see my lecture at the war college. Colonel Francis X. Kane was the Director of Project Forecast. Project 75 was done at Aerospace with Bill Dorrance as Director; I was the Editor of the study. Both were very influential in the development of USAF weapons systems.

RAND and Aerospace Corporation worked together. RAND considered Aerospace a bit too rough and ready, too operations oriented with too little regard to matters intellectual. Aerospace people thought of RAND as too theoretical with too little regard for practical matters. The Air Force generally required RAND critiques of major Aerospace studies, and most RAND Air Force studies required similar participation from Aerospace before the final report could be written. This cross fertilization was often useful and sometimes very much so, but it could lead to considerable frustration as well.

RAND had managed to establish the principle that RAND people were always on duty thinkers, and thus should fly first class when on company business since they were expected to work during the flights. This sometimes meant that a RAND intellectual would be flying first class while the spouse sat back in steerage with the Aerospace troops when we all went to a major conference. (In those days families often went to major conferences, paying their own way while the staffer got a paid ticket.) Aerospace Corporation staff were also expected to work while on the road, but weren’t authorized first class tickets. In practice, at least in my case, we did so much travel that we got upgrades from the airlines, so the RAND first class privilege wasn’t as important as it might have been.

There were other major government owned think tanks, mostly on the East coast. MITRE and Lincoln Labs were the two I worked with.

RAND published a wide variety of documents on many important matters. Herman Kahn’s Techniques of Systems Analysis, a RAND document, was the best (indeed nearly the only) systematic introduction to systems analysis/operations research in publication for some years, and remains one of the best even today. RAND did studies on such matters as “hostile trade”, a study of Japanese economic warfare in previous centuries.

Everyone used to enjoy visiting RAND in Santa Monica, and the Indonesian rijsttafel restaurant down the street.