Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nate Silver

The paper of record

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One of my favorite conventions in suspense fiction is the trope known as Authentication by Newspaper. It’s the moment in a movie, novel, or television show—and sometimes even in reality—when the kidnapper sends a picture of the victim holding a copy of a recent paper, with the date and headline clearly visible, as a form of proof of life. (You can also use it with piles of illicit cash, to prove that you’re ready to send payment.) The idea frequently pops up in such movies as Midnight Run and Mission: Impossible 2, and it also inspired a classic headline from The Onion: “Report: Majority Of Newspapers Now Purchased By Kidnappers To Prove Date.” It all depends on the fact that a newspaper is a datable object that is widely available and impossible to fake in advance, which means that it can be used to definitively establish the earliest possible day in which an event could have taken place. And you can also use the paper to verify a past date in subtler ways. A few weeks ago, Motherboard had a fascinating article on a time-stamping service called Surety, which provides the equivalent of a dated seal for digital documents. To make it impossible to change the date on one of these files, every week, for more than twenty years, Surety has generated a public hash value from its internal client database and published it in the classified ad section of the New York Times. As the company notes: “This makes it impossible for anyone—including Surety—to backdate timestamps or validate electronic records that were not exact copies of the original.”

I was reminded of all this yesterday, after the Times posted an anonymous opinion piece titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The essay, which the paper credits to “a senior official,” describes what amounts to a shadow government within the White House devoted to saving the president—and the rest of the country—from his worst impulses. And while the author may prefer to remain nameless, he certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of humility:

Many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them…It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.

The result, he claims, is “a two-track presidency,” with a group of principled advisors doing their best to counteract Trump’s admiration for autocrats and contempt for international relations: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.” He even reveals that there was early discussion among cabinet members of using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove Trump from office, although it was scuttled by concern of precipitating a crisis somehow worse than the one in which we’ve found ourselves.

Not surprisingly, the piece has generated a firestorm of speculation about the author’s identity, both online and in the White House itself, which I won’t bother covering here. What interests me are the writer’s reasons for publishing it in the first place. Over the short term, it can only destabilize an already volatile situation, and everyone involved will suffer for it. This implies that the author has a long game in mind, and it had better be pretty compelling. On Twitter, Nate Silver proposed one popular theory: “It seems like the person’s goal is to get outed and secure a very generous advance on a book deal.” He may be right—although if that’s the case, the plan has quickly gone sideways. Reaction on both sides has been far more critical than positive, with Erik Wemple of the Washington Post perhaps putting it best:

Like most anonymous quotes and tracts, this one is a PR stunt. Mr. Senior Administration Official gets to use the distributive power of the New York Times to recast an entire class of federal appointees. No longer are they enablers of a foolish and capricious president. They are now the country’s most precious and valued patriots. In an appearance on Wednesday afternoon, the president pronounced it all a “gutless” exercise. No argument here.

Or as the political blogger Charles P. Pierce says even more savagely in his response on Esquire: “Just shut up and quit.”

But Wemple’s offhand reference to “the distributive power” of the Times makes me think that the real motive is staring us right in the face. It’s a form of Authentication by Newspaper. Let’s say that you’re a senior official in the Trump administration who knows that time is running out. You’re afraid to openly defy the president, but you also want to benefit—or at least to survive—after the ship goes down. In the aftermath, everyone will be scrambling to position themselves for some kind of future career, even though the events of the last few years have left most of them irrevocably tainted. By the time it falls apart, it will be too late to claim that you were gravely concerned. But the solution is a stroke of genius. You plant an anonymous piece in the Times, like the founders of Surety publishing its hash value in the classified ads, except that your platform is vastly more prominent. And you place it there precisely so that you can point to it in the future. After Trump is no longer a threat, you can reveal yourself, with full corroboration from the paper of record, to show that you had the best interests of the country in mind all along. You were one of the good ones. The datestamp is right there. That’s your endgame, no matter how much pain it causes in the meantime. It’s brilliant. But it may not work. As nearly everyone has realized by now, the fact that a “steady state” of conservatives is working to minimize the damage of a Trump presidency to achieve “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more” is a scandal in itself. This isn’t proof of life. It’s the opposite.

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2018 at 8:59 am

The war of ideas

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Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a pair of tweets. One is from Susan Hennessy, an editor for the national security blog Lawfare, who wrote: “Much of my education has been about grasping nuance, shades of gray. Resisting the urge to oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. This year has taught me that, actually, a lot of what really matters comes down to good people and bad people. And these are bad people.” This is a remarkable statement, and in some ways a heartbreaking one, but I can’t disagree with it, and it reflects a growing trend among journalists and other commentators to simply call what we’re seeing by its name. In response to the lies about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—including the accusation that some of them are actors—Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote:

When people act like cretins, should they be ignored? Does talking about their misdeeds merely give them oxygen? Maybe so. But the sliming—there is no other word for it—of the survivors of last week’s Florida high school massacre is beyond the pale…Legitimate disagreement over policy issues is one thing. Lies, conspiracy theories and insults are quite another.

And Paul Krugman went even further: “America in 2018 is not a place where we can disagree without being disagreeable, where there are good people and good ideas on both sides, or whatever other bipartisan homily you want to recite. We are, instead, living in a kakistocracy, a nation ruled by the worst, and we need to face up to that unpleasant reality.”

The other tweet that has been weighing on my mind was from Rob Goldman, a vice president of advertising for Facebook. It was just one of a series of thoughts—which is an important detail in itself—that he tweeted out on the day that Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals for their roles in interfering in the presidential election. After proclaiming that he was “very excited” to see the indictments, Goldman said that he wanted to clear up a few points. He had seen “all of the Russian ads” that appeared on Facebook, and he stated: “I can say very definitively that swaying the election was not the main goal.” But his most memorable words, at least for me, were: “The majority of the Russian ad spend happened after the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election.” This is an astounding statement, in part because it seems to defend Facebook by saying that it kept running these ads for longer than most people assume. But it’s also inexplicable. It may well be, as some observers have contended, that Goldman had a “nuanced” point to make, but he chose to express it on a forum that is uniquely vulnerable to being taken out of context, and to unthinkingly use language that was liable to be misinterpreted. As Josh Marshall wrote:

[Goldman] even apes what amounts to quasi-Trumpian rhetoric in saying the media distorts the story because the facts “don’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.” This is silly. Elections are a big deal. It’s hardly surprising that people would focus on the election, even though it’s continued since. What is this about exactly? Is Goldman some kind of hardcore Trumper?

I don’t think he is. But it also doesn’t matter, at least not when his thoughts were retweeted approvingly by the president himself.

This all leads me to a point that the events of the last week have only clarified. We’re living in a world in which the lines between right and wrong seem more starkly drawn than ever, with anger and distrust rising to an unbearable degree on both sides. From where I stand, it’s very hard for me to see how we recover from this. When you can accurately say that the United States has become a kakistocracy, you can’t just go back to the way things used to be. Whatever the outcome of the next election, the political landscape has been altered in ways that would have been unthinkable even two years ago, and I can’t see it changing during my lifetime. But even though the stakes seem clear, the answer isn’t less nuance, but more. If there’s one big takeaway from the last eighteen months, it’s that the line between seemingly moderate Republicans and Donald Trump was so evanescent that it took only the gentlest of breaths to blow it away. It suggests that we were closer to the precipice than we ever suspected, and unpacking that situation—and its implications for the future—requires more nuance than most forms of social media can provide. Rob Goldman, who should have known better, didn’t grasp this. And while I hope that the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas do better, I also worry about how effective they can really be. Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed recently argued that the pro-Trump media has met its match in the Parkland students: “It chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.” I want to believe this. But it may also be that these aren’t the weapons that we need. The information war is real, but the only way to win it may be to move it into another battlefield entirely.

Which brings us, in a curious way, back to Robert Mueller, who seems to have assumed the same role for many progressives that Nate Silver once occupied—the one man who was somehow going to tell us that everything was going to be fine. But their differences are also telling. Silver generated reams of commentary, but his reputation ultimately came down to his ability to provide a single number, updated in real time, that would indicate how worried we had to be. That trust is clearly gone, and his fall from grace is less about his own mistakes than it’s an overdue reckoning for the promises of data journalism in general. Mueller, by contrast, does everything in private, avoids the spotlight, and emerges every few months with a mountain of new material that we didn’t even know existed. It’s nuanced, qualitative, and not easy to summarize. As the coverage endlessly reminds us, we don’t know what else the investigation will find, but that’s part of the point. At a time in which controversies seem to erupt overnight, dominate the conversation for a day, and then yield to the next morning’s outrage, Mueller embodies the almost anachronistic notion that the way to make something stick is to work on it diligently, far from the public eye, and release each piece only when you’re ready. (In the words of a proverbial saying attributed to everyone from Buckminster Fuller to Michael Schrage: “Never show fools unfinished work.” And we’re all fools these days.) I picture him fondly as the head of a monastery in the Dark Ages, laboriously preserving information for the future, or even as the shadowy overseer of Asimov’s Foundation. Mueller’s low profile allows him to mean whatever we want to us, of course, and for all I know, he may not be the embodiment of all the virtues that Ralph Waldo Emerson identified as punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness. I just know that he’s the only one left who might be. Mueller can’t save us by himself. But his example might just show us the way.

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 1

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Over the long weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published lead articles on the diminishing public profile of Jared Kushner. The timing may have been a coincidence, but the pieces had striking similarities. Both made the argument that Kushner’s portfolio, once so vast, has been dramatically reduced by the arrival on the scene of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly; both ran under a headline that inclined some version of the word “shrinking”; and both led off with memorable quotes from their subject. In the Times, it was Kushner’s response when asked by Reince Priebus what his Office of American Innovation would really do: “What do you care?” (The newspaper of record, proper as ever, added: “He emphasized his point with an expletive.”) Meanwhile, the Post, which actually scored an interview, came away with something even stranger. Here’s what Kushner said of himself:

During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly. When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex—and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before—and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change.

The Post merely noted that this is Kushner’s “version the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing,” but as the Washington Examiner pointed out, the real source is Isaiah Berlin’s classic book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which draws its famous contrast between foxes and hedgehogs as a prelude to a consideration of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

Berlin’s book, which is one of my favorites, is so unlike what I’d expect Jared Kushner to be reading that I can’t resist trying to figure out what this reference to it means. If I were conspiratorially minded, I’d observe that if Kushner had wanted to put together a reading list to quickly bring himself up to speed on the history and culture of Russia—I can’t imagine why—then The Hedgehog and the Fox, which can be absorbed in a couple of hours, would be near the top. But the truth, unfortunately, is probably more prosaic. If there’s a single book from the last decade that Kushner, who was briefly touted as the prodigy behind Trump’s data operation, can be assumed to have read, or at least skimmed, it’s Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. And Silver talks at length about the supposed contrast between foxes and hedgehogs, courtesy of a professor of psychology and political science named Philip E. Tetlock, who conducted a study of predictions by experts in various fields:

Tetlock was able to classify his experts along a spectrum between what he called hedgehogs and foxes. The reference to hedgehogs and foxes comes from the title of an Isaiah Berlin essay on the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—The Hedgehog and the Fox…Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs. They had come closer to the mark on the Soviet Union, for instance. Rather than seeing the USSR in highly ideological terms—as an intrinsically “evil empire,” or as a relatively successful (and perhaps even admirable) example of a Marxist economic system—they instead saw it for what it was: an increasingly dysfunctional nation that was in danger of coming apart at the seams. Whereas the hedgehogs’ forecasts were barely any better than random chance, the foxes’ demonstrated predictive skill.

As intriguing as we might find this reference to Russia, which Kushner presumably read, it also means that in all likelihood, he never even opened Berlin’s book. (Silver annoyingly writes: “Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay.”) But it doesn’t really matter where he encountered these classifications. As much as I love the whole notion of the hedgehog and the fox, it has one big problem—as soon as you read it, you’re immediately tempted to apply it to yourself, as Kushner does, when in fact its explanatory power applies only to geniuses. Like John Keats’s celebrated concept of negative capability, which is often used to excuse sloppy, inconsistent thinking, Berlin’s essay encourages us to think of ourselves as foxes or hedgehogs, when we’re really just dilettantes or suffering from tunnel vision. And this categorization has its limits even when applied to unquestionably exceptional personalities. Here’s how Berlin lays it out on the very first page of his book:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels…without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit [experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The contrast that Berlin draws here could hardly seem more stark, but it falls apart as soon as we apply it to, say, Kushner’s father-in-law. On the one hand, Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by harping monotonously on a handful of reliable themes, notably white nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment of liberal elites. Nothing could seem more like the hedgehog. On the other hand, from one tweet to the next, he’s nothing if not “centrifugal rather than centripetal,” driven by his impulses, embracing contradictory positions, undermining his own surrogates, and resisting all attempts to pin him down to a conventional ideology. It’s all very foxlike. The most generous reading would be to argue that Trump, as Berlin contends of Tolstoy, is “by nature a fox, but [believes] in being a hedgehog,” a comparison that seems ridiculous even as I type it. It’s far more plausible that Trump lacks the intellectual rigor, or even the basic desire, to assemble anything like a coherent politics out of his instinctive drives for power and revenge. Like most of us, he’s a mediocre thinker, and his confusions, which reflect those of his base, have gone a long way toward enabling his rise. Trump bears much the same relationship to his fans that Emerson saw in the man who obsessed Tolstoy so deeply:

Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses…If Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.

Faced with a Trump, little or big, Berlin’s categories lose all meaning—not out of any conceptual weakness, but because it wasn’t what they were designed to do. But that doesn’t mean that Berlin doesn’t deserve our attention. In fact, The Hedgehog and the Fox has more to say about our current predicament than any other book I know, and if Kushner ever bothered to read it, it might give him reason to worry. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

The back matter

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“Annotation may seem a mindless and mechanical task,” Louis Menand wrote a few years ago in The New Yorker. “In fact, it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands.” Like most other aspects of writing, it can be all these things at once: mindless and an exercise of meticulous skill, mechanical and formally challenging. I’ve been working on the notes for Astounding for the last week and a half, and although I was initially dreading it, the task has turned out to be weirdly absorbing, in the way that any activity that requires repetitive motion but also continuous mild engagement can amount to a kind of hypnotism. The current draft has about two thousand notes, and I’m roughly three quarters of the way through. So far, the process has been relatively painless, although I’ve naturally tended to postpone the tricker ones for later, which means that I’ll end up with a big stack of problem cases to work through at the end. (My plan is to focus on notes exclusively for two weeks, then address the leftovers at odd moments until the book is due in December.) In the meantime, I’m spending hours every day organizing notes, which feels like a temporary career change. They live in their own Word file, like an independent work in themselves, and the fact that they’ll be bundled together as endnotes, rather than footnotes, encourages me to see them as a kind of bonus volume attached to the first, like a vestigial twin that clings to the book like a withered but still vigorous version of its larger sibling.

When you spend weeks at a time on your notes, you end up with strong opinions about how they should be presented. I don’t like numbered endnotes, mostly because the numeric superscripts disrupt the text, and it can frustrating to match them up with the back matter when you’re looking for one in particular. (When I read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I found myself distracted by his determination to provide a numbered footnote for seemingly every factual statement, from the date of the Industrial Revolution to the source of the phrase “nothing new under the sun,” and that’s just the first couple of pages. Part of the art of notation is knowing what information you can leave out, and no two writers will come to exactly the same conclusions.) I prefer the keyword system, in which notes are linked to their referent in the body of the book by the page number and a snippet of text. This can lead to a telegraphic, even poetic summary of the contents when you run your eye down the left margin of the page, as in the section of my book about L. Ron Hubbard in the early sixties: “Of course Scientology,” “If President Kennedy did grant me an audience,” “Things go well,” “[Hubbard] chases able people away,” “intellectual garbage,” “Some of [Hubbard’s] claims,” “It is carefully arranged,” “very space opera.” They don’t thrust themselves on your attention until you need them, but when you do, they’re right there. These days, it’s increasingly common for the notes to be provided online, and I can’t guarantee that mine won’t be. But I hope that they’ll take their proper place at the end, where they’ll live unnoticed until readers realize that their book includes the original bonus feature.

The notion that endnotes can take on a life of their own is one that novelists from Nabokov to David Foster Wallace have brilliantly exploited. When reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. As D.T. Max recounts in his fascinating profile of Wallace:

In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to [editor Michael] Pietsch…He explained that endnotes “allow…me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns…5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.

What’s particularly interesting here is that the endnotes physically shrink the size of Infinite Jest—simply because they’re set in smaller type—while also increasing how long it takes the diligent reader to finish it. Notes allow a writer to play games not just with space, but with time. (This is true even of the most boring kind of scholarly note, which amounts to a form of postponement, allowing readers to engage with it at their leisure, or even never.) In a more recent piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller offers a defense of notes in their proper place at the end of the book:

Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff. That’s partly true…Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.

An index turns the book into an object that can be read across multiple dimensions, while notes are a set of tendrils that bind the text to the world, in Robert Frost’s words, “by countless silken ties of love and thought.” As Heller writes of his youthful job at an academic press: “My first responsibility there was proofreading the back matter of books…The tasks were modest, but those of us who carried them out felt that we were doing holy work. We were taking something intricate and powerful and giving it a final polish. I still believe in that refinement.” And so should we.

The Comey Files

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About a month ago, for some reason, I decided to write a blog post about James Comey. I was inspired by an article by Nate Silver titled “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the Election,” which outlined its case in compelling terms:

Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. The letter, which said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College…At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by three or four percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than one point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.

Silver added that this fact has largely gone unacknowledged by the media: “From almost the moment that Trump won the White House, many mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey’s letter…The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result.” He concluded:

One can believe that the Comey letter cost Clinton the election without thinking that the media cost her the election—it was an urgent story that any newsroom had to cover. But if the Comey letter had a decisive effect and the story was mishandled by the press…the media needs to grapple with how it approached the story.

Of course, there’s more than one way to read the evidence. Silver’s doppelgänger, Nate Cohn of the New York Times, looked at the data for “the Comey effect” and argued against it:

These polls are consistent with an alternative election narrative in which the Comey letter had no discernible effect on the outcome. In this telling, Mrs. Clinton had a big lead after the third presidential debate…But her advantage dwindled over the following week, as post-debate coverage faded and Republican-leaning voters belatedly and finally decided to back their traditional party’s nontraditional candidate…In such a close election, anything and everything could have plausibly been decisive.

The italics are mine. No matter what you believe about what Comey did, it’s that “anything and everything” that haunts me, at least in terms of what politicians—and the rest of us—can hope to learn from the whole mess. As Nate Silver said at the end of his piece, again with my emphasis:

In normal presidential campaigns, preparing for the debates, staging the conventions and picking a solid running mate are about as high-stakes as decisions get…If I were advising a future candidate on what to learn from 2016, I’d tell him or her to mostly forget about the Comey letter and focus on the factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump.

When you think about it, this is an extraordinary statement. Comey’s letter may have been decisive, but it isn’t the kind of development that a candidate can anticipate, so the best policy is still to concentrate on the more controllable factors that can cause a race to tighten in the first place.

As far as takeaways are concerned, this one isn’t too bad. It’s basically a reworking of the familiar advice that we should behave as prudently and consistently as we can, independent of luck, which positions us to deal with unforeseen events as they arise. I was preparing to write a post on that subject. Then a lot of other stuff happened, and I dropped it. Now that Comey is back in the news, I’ve been mulling it over again, and it occurs to me that the real case study in behavior here isn’t Clinton or Trump, but Comey himself—and it speaks as much to the limits of this approach as to its benefits. Regardless of how you feel about the consequences of his choices, there’s no doubt, at least in my mind, that he has behaved consistently, making decisions based on his own best judgment and thinking through the alternatives before committing himself to a course of action, however undesirable it might be. This didn’t exactly endear him to Democrats during the election, and afterward, it left him isolated in an administration that placed a premium on other qualities. Comey’s prepared testimony is remarkable, and as Nick Asbury of McSweeney’s points out, it reads weirdly in places like a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, but this is the paragraph that sticks with me the most:

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.”

Comey adds: “It is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term—honest loyalty—had helped end a very awkward conversation.” And many of his actions over the next few months seem to have been designed to avoid such awkwardness again, to the point where he reportedly asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump.

Comey, in short, was behaving like a man who had arrived at the uncomfortable realization that despite his adherence to a personal code, he was stranded in a world in which it no longer mattered. If he had managed to hang on, he would have endured as the least popular man in Washington, distrusted by Democrats and Republicans alike. Then Trump fired him, which was an unforeseeable event in his life comparable to the havoc that his letter had wreaked on the election. The logic behind the move, to the extent that it had any at all, was expressed by Jared Kushner, a strong advocate of the firing, as the New York Times outlined his alleged reasoning: “It would be a political ‘win’ that would neutralize protesting Democrats because they had called for Mr. Comey’s ouster over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.” That isn’t quite how it turned out, and there’s something undeniably funny in how quickly progressives like me rallied behind Comey, like Homer Simpson deciding that he’s been an Isotopes fan all along. Yet this was also when Comey’s strategy finally paid off. It wouldn’t have been as easy for liberals to flip the switch if it hadn’t been obvious that Comey was fundamentally a decent man, regardless of how badly he misjudged the political environment in which his actions would be received. (The evidence suggests that Comey made the same mistake as a lot of other rational actors—he simply thought that Clinton would win the election no matter what he did.) It’s a moment of vindication for the unfashionable virtues of punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness, which have been trampled into the mud over the last six months, in no small part because of Comey’s letter. If anything undermines Nate Silver’s argument that political candidates should focus on “factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump,” it’s Trump himself, who has handled countless matters as badly as one could imagine and still fallen backwards into a position of incomprehensible power. If you were to freeze the picture here, you could only conclude that everything you believed about how to act in life was wrong. Maybe it is. But I don’t think so. The story isn’t over yet. And if there’s any lesson that we can take from the Comey affair, it’s that we should all act with an eye on the long game.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2017 at 8:27 am

The poll vaccine

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Gravity's Rainbow

Over the last few days, a passage from Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon has been rattling around in my head. It describes a patient at “The White Visitation,” a mental hospital in southern England that has been given over for the duration of the war to a strange mixture of psychological warfare operatives, clairvoyants, and occultists. See if you can figure out why I’ve been thinking about it:

At “The White Visitation” there’s a long-time schiz, you know, who believes that he is World War II. He gets no newspapers, refuses to listen to the wireless, but still, the day of the Normandy invasion somehow his temperature shot up to 104°. Now, as the pincers east and west continue their slow reflex contraction, he speaks of darkness invading his mind, of an attrition of self…The Rundstedt offensive perked him up though, gave him a new lease on life—“A beautiful Christmas gift,” he confessed to the residents of his ward, “it’s the season of birth, of fresh beginnings.” Whenever the rockets fall—those which are audible—he smiles, turns out to pace the ward, tears about to splash from the corners of his merry eyes, caught up in a ruddy high tonicity that can’t help cheering his fellow patients. His days are numbered. He’s to die on V-E Day.

In case it isn’t obvious, the patient is me, and the war is the election. There are times when it feels like I’m part of an experiment in which all of my vital organs have been hooked up to Nate Silver’s polling average—which sounds like a Black Mirror spec script that I should try to write. I go from seeking out my equivalent of the Watergate fix every few minutes to days when I need to restrict myself to checking the news just once in the morning and again at night. Even when I take a technology sabbath from election coverage, it doesn’t help: it’s usually the last thing that I think about before I fall asleep and the first thing that comes to mind when I wake up, and I’ve even started dreaming about it. (I’m pretty sure that I had a dream last night in which the charts on FiveThirtyEight came to life, like August Kekulé’s vision of the snake biting its own tail.) And the scary part is that I know I’m not alone. The emotional toll from this campaign is being shared by millions on both sides, and no matter what the result is, the lasting effects will be those of any kind of collective trauma. I think we’ve all felt the “attrition of self” of which Pynchon’s patient speaks—a sense that our private lives have been invaded by politics as never before, not because our civil liberties are threatened, but because we feel exposed in places that we normally reserve for the most personal parts of ourselves. For the sake of my own emotional health, I’ve had to set up psychological defenses over the last few months that I didn’t have before, and if Donald Trump wins, I can easily envision them as a way of life.


But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’ve come to see this campaign season as a kind of vaccine that will prepare us to survive the next four years. If there’s one enduring legacy that I expect from this election, it’s that it will turn large sections of the population away from politics entirely as a means of achieving their goals. In the event of a Clinton victory, and the likelihood of a liberal Supreme Court that will persist for decades, I’d like to think that the pro-life movement would give up on its goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and focus on other ways of reducing the abortion rate as much as possible. (Increasing support for single and working mothers might be a good place to start.) A Trump presidency, by contrast, would force liberals to rethink their approaches to problems like climate change—and the fact that I’m even characterizing it as a “liberal” issue implies that we should have given up on the governmental angle a long time ago. Any attempt to address an existential threat like global warming that can be overturned by an incoming president isn’t an approach that seems likely to succeed over the long term. I’m not sure how a nongovernmental solution would look, but a president who has sworn to pull out of the Paris Agreement would at least invest that search with greater urgency. If nothing else, this election should remind us of the fragility of the political solutions that we’ve applied to the problems that mean the most to us, and how foolish it seems to entrust their success or failure to a binary moment like the one we’re facing now.

And this is why so many of us have found this election taking up residence in our bodies, like a bug that we’re hoping to shake. We’ve wired important parts of our own identities to impersonal forces, and we shouldn’t be surprised if we feel helpless and unhappy when the larger machine turns against us—while also remembering that there are men, women, and children who have more at stake in the outcome than just their hurt feelings. Immediately before the passage that I quoted above, Pynchon writes:

The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it…Perhaps the War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may be only some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

Replace “the War” with “the Election,” and you end up with something that feels very close to where we are now. There does seem to be “some cruel, accidental resemblance to life” in the way that this campaign has followed its own narrative logic, but it has little to do with existence as lived on a human scale. Even if we end up feeling that we’ve won, it’s worth taking that lesson to heart. The alternative is an emotional life that is permanently hooked up to events outside its control. And that’s no way to live.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2016 at 8:44 am

The Watergate Fix

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Gore Vidal

“I must get my Watergate fix every morning,” Gore Vidal famously said to Dick Cavett in the final days of the Nixon administration. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Isaac Asimov writes: “I knew exactly what he meant.” He elaborates:

I knew we had [Nixon]…From that point on, I took to combing the Times from cover to cover every morning, skipping only the column by Nixon’s minion William Safire. I sometimes bought the New York Post so I could read additional commentary. I listened to every news report on the radio.

I read and listened with greater attention and fascination than in even the darkest days of World War II. Thus my diary entry for May 11, 1973, says, “Up at six to finger-lick the day’s news on Watergate.”

I could find no one else as hooked on Watergate as I was, except for Judy-Lynn [del Rey]. Almost every day, she called me or I called her and we would talk about the day’s developments in Watergate. We weren’t very coherent and mostly we laughed hysterically.

Now skip ahead four decades, and here’s what Wired reporter Marcus Wohlsen wrote earlier this week of a “middle-age software developer” with a similar obsession:

Evan is a poll obsessive, FiveThirtyEight strain—a subspecies I recognize because I’m one of them, too. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t shower or eat breakfast before checking the Nate Silver-founded site’s presidential election forecast (sounds about right). He keeps a tab open to FiveThirtyEight’s latest poll list; a new poll means new odds in the forecast (yup). He get push alerts on his phone when the forecast changes (check). He follows the 538 Forecast Bot, a Twitter account that tweets every time the forecast changes (same). In all, Evan says he checks in hourly, at least while he’s awake (I plead the Fifth).

Wohlsen notes that the design of FiveThirtyEight encourages borderline addictive behavior: its readers are like the lab rats who repeatedly push a button to send a quick, pleasurable jolt coursing through their nervous systems. The difference is that polls and political news, no matter how favorable to one side, deliver a more complicated mix of emotions—hope, uncertainty, apprehension. But as long as the numbers are trending in the right direction, we can’t get enough of them.

Princeton Election Consortium

And it’s striking to see how little the situation has changed since the seventies, apart from a few advances in technology. Asimov had to buy two physical newspapers to get his fix, while we can click effortlessly from one source to another. On the weekend that the Access Hollywood recording was released, I found myself cycling nonstop between the New York Times, Politico, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Post—where I rapidly used up my free articles for the month—and other political sites, like Daily Kos, that I hadn’t visited in years. (I don’t think I’ve been as hooked on political analysis since George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, which still stands out as a golden age in my memories.) Like Asimov, who skipped William Safire’s column, I also know what to avoid. Instead of calling a friend to talk about the day’s developments, I read blog posts and comment threads. Not surprisingly, the time I spend on all this is inversely correlated to the trajectory of the Trump campaign. During a rough stretch in September, I deleted FiveThirtyEight from my bookmarks because it was causing me more anxiety than it was worth. I still haven’t put it back, perhaps on the assumption that if I have to type it into my address bar, rather than clicking on a shortcut, I won’t go back as often. In practice, I’ll often use a quick spin through FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and Talking Points Memo as my reward for getting through half an hour of work, which is the only positive behavior on my part to come out of this entire election.

Of course, there are big differences between Vidal and Asimov’s Watergate fix and its equivalent today. By the time Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, Nixon’s goose was pretty much cooked, and someone like Asimov could take unmixed pleasure in his comeuppance. Trump, by contrast, could still get elected. More surprising is the fact that the overall arc of this presidential campaign has been mostly unresponsive to the small daily movements that analytics are meant to track. As Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium recently pointed out, this election has actually been less volatile than usual, and its shape has remained essentially unchanged for months, with Clinton holding a national lead of between two and six points over Trump. It seems noisy, but only because every move is subjected to such scrutiny. In other words, our obsession with polls creates the psychological situation that we’re presumably trying to avoid: we’re subjectively experiencing this race as more volatile than it really is. Our polling fix isn’t rational, at least not from the point of view of minimizing anxiety. As Wohlesen says in Wired, it’s more like a species of magical thinking, in which we place our trust in a certain kind of magician—a data wizard—to see us through an election in which the facts have been treated with disdain. At my lowest moments last month, I would console myself with the thought of Elan Kriegel, Clinton’s director of analytics. The details didn’t matter; it was enough that he existed, and that I could halfway believe that he had access to magic that allowed him to exercise some degree of control over an inherently uncontrollable future. Or as the Wired headline put it: “I just want Nate Silver to tell me it’s all going to be fine.”

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