Review of the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism”

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m a political junkie.  And, I’m a “progressive” or “liberal”, or if you are a conservative, I’m a communist-marxist-Nazi.

Anyway, I like political books, but not the typical polemic books on the right or the left.  Like, I don’t consider Ann Coulter a political writer.

For those who follow politics, you’ve probably heard of this book.  It is written by two gentlemen who work for think tanks, one a conservative and one a liberal.  They’ve written books together in the past, and have set up lots of working groups within Washington DC.  This book created a bit of a stir because they said something nobody likes to talk about, and that thing is that the Republican Party has gone off the rails and is harming the country.

Republicans and conservatives have been utterly dismissive of this book, for obvious reasons.  They wouldn’t want to admit to this.  But most of the media has been dismissive as well.  This is partially because these guys are not entertainers but wonks, so they aren’t going to get much play, but it is also because the media, despite all the claims by Fox that it is “liberal”, doesn’t like to take sides.  If a Republican says something that is factually incorrect, the media scrambles to find some Democrat that says something incorrect, and thus “balance” or something.

I think the big point to make about this book is that, while pointing out how bad the Republicans are behaving, they aren’t saying it is bad because these are bad people (although they do highlight crazy people like Alan West).  What they take the time to do instead is to say, “hey, the Republican Party is behaving like a parliamentary party, which is fine, except that our system of government doesn’t work the way a parliament works, and this causes severe problems.”

In essence, the Republican party behaving this way in, say, England or Australia or Germany would be no big deal – this is how parliamentary parties work – you stand together as a party, you get voted in based upon that party affiliation, and you do what party leadership says.  But American political parties can’t work that way.  We separately elect a President and a Congress, as opposed to electing a party, and if they get the majority, pick the leader (prime minister).  That separation of powers aspect of our Constitution means that being a completely united party in Congress isn’t going to get you much if you don’t have the presidency, and even if you do have the presidency, the President can do things whether you want him to or not, so he (or she) doesn’t really have to listen to you.

Because this is the focus of the book, you can’t really look at it and say “oh, but these guys are just ignoring the Democrats because they want to bash the right and are secretly both liberal”.  No.  These guys do point out areas where Democrats have been somewhat obstructionist, (notably the filibusters of Bush’s judicial appointees), but they also show how what the Democrats have done is nothing like what Republicans are doing now.

Rather than just point fingers and give data as to what is wrong, however, the authors do look for some solutions.  Unfortunately, these solutions are hard, so it can be very hard to see how many of them can work.  The one I liked the best, however, was the concept of “mandatory voting”.  Australia, for example, mandates that you vote (and this is a pretty recent invention – maybe the last 40 years or so).  If you don’t, you pay a fine (small, like $15, and it goes up for repeat offenders, but it is still small).  When you vote, you don’t have to vote for a particular candidate (you can vote for “none of the above”).  In their interviews with Australian politicians, the politicians told them that it completely changes the way they campaign.  They don’t have to work at pumping up their base (because their base is going to vote as required by law), and they don’t have to try to discourage their opponents base to keep them from showing up (because, again, they will show up by law).  Thus, there is less of an appeal to the “wings”, and more of an appeal to the center.

I found this to be a fascinating idea.  If we had mandatory voting, for example, all the crap we went through in 2012 with “voter ID” laws, which even Republicans are now admitting were about  dampening turnout for Democrats, wouldn’t have happened.  That whole fight – gone.  Also, it seems like the power of talk radio, or partisan media like Fox (or if you like, MSNBC), would also lose its appeal – you don’t have to spend 24 hours a day trying to keep your base excited to vote because, well, by law they will vote anyway!

The authors do admit that this would be a hard thing to pull off.  There would naturally be challenges based upon “freedom” (I shouldn’t have to vote if I don’t want to) and all of that.  But the idea was very intriguing.

Now, the book is a little dated – it was written in the spring of 2012, I think, and so there is a lot of looking ahead to the 2012 election, and now that we know what happened, some parts can be skimmed over (not much of a need to even read chapter 7, which is about what we can do in the short term).  Additionally, these guys are wonks.  So, the book has some graphs.  And they speak in somewhat dry language – there aren’t going to be funny anecdotes.  Think about reading a very, very long term paper.

However, even if you don’t think the Republican Party has gone extreme, or even if you do think its gone extreme but the Democrats are “just as bad”, I think you will get something out of the book, as long as you are willing to be driven by data and not a preconceived ideology. It’s not incredibly long (240 pages), but at least 40 of those pages are footnotes.


Review of Nate Silver’s – “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail but Some Don’t”

I admit it… I’m a Nate Silver junkie.  I love his stuff.  He’s a geek.  I’m a sucker for people who use data.  I read Nate’s FiverThirtyEight blog all the time.  I was looking forward to this book.

And this book didn’t disappoint.  This book is about predictions, which Nate does for a living, and why some are good and some are bad.  He covers so many topics in this book.  How weather prediction works (and how it has gotten much, much better), how earthquake prediction works (and how it hasn’t gotten better and probably won’t), and his life as a professional poker player during the poker bubble.

The overall theme of the book is how one should make predictions.  The “signal” is the thing you are looking for – the thing you want to measure, model, and use to make predictions.  The “noise” is all the other stuff that also happens that could be an example of the thing you are looking for, but actually are things that are just random occurrences.

Because this book covers how to separate the two, Nate does use a lot of math.  It isn’t incredibly complex math, but if you really, really, really hate math, you might get lost and bored.  There are a lot of graphs in the book to make the math easier, and if you can just power through some of the text he uses to describe the math and just use the pictures, you’ll be fine.  But for some folks, this just isn’t their cup of tea – you might feel like you are back in high school.

Having said that, I love math, and enjoyed the descriptions.  It gave me a new appreciation for how weather forecasting has gotten better over time, and why it might be impossible to make earthquake predictions, beyond some basics (such as, there is an x% chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake in the San Francisco region within the next Y years).

The earthquake prediction stuff was actually very fascinating.  This was a case where people ended up creating very complex models based upon past historical data, and used that to make some very specific predictions.  And, some of these predictions happened, making the people who created the model look like geniuses.  However, almost all their other predictions failed.  this was a case of people creating a model based upon the “noise” (past earthquake s) and thus their model was overly complex and mistook the “noise” for the “signal”.  As a guy who has to spend his days predicting what we should do next based upon complex historical data and current data points, I really, really appreciated this.  Not only do you have to know what the data is to use, but you have to be able to identify the data not to use.

The pièce de résistance of the book is the end.  After showing past examples of predictions that worked and didn’t, and using Bayes theorem (which he describes in great detail – remember how I said if you hated math you might have a problem with the book?) he tackles climate science predictions.  This was fascinating.  He acknowledges the critics of climate change, and how there is good science and math that can be used to show how some of the predictions are off, but then shows how accurate the science behind climate change is, and how many of the predictions have been true.

Once you have the past data on how weather predictions have improved, and earthquake predictions haven’t, it is very fascinating to then look at climate science predictions in this light.  Very, very cool.

So, my general recommendation is – if you like Nate Silver, and/or you like math, you will love this book.  Even if you aren’t a math geek, but you are a logical thinker, you will probably really like this book.  if, however, you want to stay away from math as much as possible, you probably won’t care much for this book.

Sgt. Pepper Pantheon – Review of “Check Your Head – The Beastie Boys”

Like a lot of people of a certain age, The Beastie Boys in 1986 were one of those silly things that you ended up loving. You played the cassette until it became all muddied and eventually snapped. Their first album, “Licensed To ‘Ill” became the thing that changed rap from this vewy scawy thing that nice suburban kids shouldn’t listen to something, if not loved, at least “acceptable”.They were a cultural phenomenon, but then just as quickly as they came, they seemed to disappear. By the time this album came out, I think a lot of the “kids” that liked them no longer admitted they *ever* liked them. They thought the BBoys were posers, some sort of manufactured pop-creation like a boy band. Their second album didn’t do so well (even though many years later I got it and wow… very good).But this album was amazing. This was one of the first rap albums I remember coming out after the age of “sample whomever you want for free” ended. Prior to that, rap was all about sampling a beat or a hook and rapping over it, and after that, you were frowned upon for sampling (Vanilla Ice, for example) and had to start paying royalties.

The BBoys were originally a punk band, and they really took rap and hip-hop seriously. This album had them playing all their instruments and inventing their own hooks, and many of the tracks didn’t do their staple hand-off where each one said part of a verse. Some tracks only used one of them, or two of them.

They also put some (new I think) punk tracks onto the album, and did some very cool little instrumental interludes.

And that’s why it is in the pantheon – the tracks seemed to flow together really well, and the little instrumentals were both nice breaks and things to look forward to. One of the best tracks, “Stand Together”, has a 30 second lead-in called “The Blue Nun”, which is like, an ad for wine that goes well with the chicken – “delicious again, Peter”. Then there’s “Live at PJs”, which invokes an R&B dance club in the late 70’s or early 80’s. And “Professor Booty” which has three verses, each done by a single Beastie, all different, but all amazing – especially MCA’s (may he rest in peace).

But the most amazing thing is – you just have to put the whole album on and listen to it straight through. Any track by itself might be good, but together it is amazing.

True story #1: I saw the Beasties with a friend of mine when they opened for Public Enemy in 1986. A 16 year old and a 15 year old going to downtown Detroit in the mid-80s to see a rap concert. Two kids that were whiter than white and very scrawny down in the mosh pit of a rap concert. It…was…awesome, until my 15 year old friend got punched out by some guys who looked like they didn’t care much for scrawny white boys being there.

True story #2: As I said at the top, by the time this album came out, I had, like a lot of people my age, turned away from the Beasties (“who, the Beastie Boys? Naw, they’re a joke”). I heard the first track of this album (Jimmy James) while some friends of mine and I went down to San Francisco. I was in my second internship at Intel at the time. Where in SF do four single 22 year old males go in SF when they aren’t from California? If you said “the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art”, then you don’t know 22 year old males very well. If you said “the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater to see strippers”, then you are right on the mark. I have three memories of that experience: (a) spending all my money, (b) apologizing to a transvestite outside the theater who thought we were making fun of her (we weren’t – we were just a bunch of stupid boys giggling about seeing “nekked girls”) and (c) saying “wow, that new Beastie Boys song sounds really good!” God I love San Francisco.

The Sergeant Pepper’s Pantheon of Awesome Albums

Late last night as I was about to drift off to sleep, my brain decided to screw me over, and said to me: “You know what you need to do? You need to make a list of all the albums you like that are in the pantheon of all the greatest albums ever, and you can’t put Sgt. Pepper’s in that list, because that’s like putting ‘The Godfather’ in a list of all-time greatest movies.”

I told my brain to shut up, because i needed sleep, but it wouldn’t listen. “You should call this list the “Sgt. Pepper Pantheon” so that you acknowledge the awesomeness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And then, over the course of the next few weeks, you should occasionally list why you like them, as if you were a record reviewer.

Unable to shut my brain off, I started compiling a list in my head. And then did more at lunch.

(For you young’uns who only know listening to music as an iTunes one-click experience… albums are collections of songs that used to be laid down on plastic. The limits of the plastic limited how many songs you could put on a single album, unless you went “double album”, and then you had to fill two of those things. Some artists used to look at albums like a project, to either tell a story or explore a theme, or where creative energy just burst out of them. Before the age of CDs, people like me would have to listen to the whole album just to get to one particular song, and so developed a taste for specific albums where the songs, while not singles, were amazing nonetheless. An album full of hits is not necessarily a “great” album and a great album may not have many (or any) hits.)

So, without further ado, here is my list (in alphabetical order). Some of these you may know/like, others not. I will give little mini-reviews over time, because you people love reading my brain droppings.

The Sgt. Pepper Pantheon of Awesome Albums (alphabetically)

  • The Beastie Boys – Check Your Head
  • The Beatles – Revolver
  • Billy Idol – Cyberpunk
  • Cake – Motorcade of Generosity
  • The Clash – London Calling
  • The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
  • De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising
  • Erasure – Chorus
  • Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  • George Michael – Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1
  • Green Day – American Idiot
  • Ice T – O.G. Original Gangster
  • Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV
  • Lenny Kravitz – Let Love Rule
  • Living Colour – Time’s Up
  • Max Q – Max Q
  • Midnight Oil – 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1
  • Morrissey – Your Arsenal
  • Nick Drake – Pink Moon
  • Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
  • Paul Simon – Graceland
  • Pete Townsend – White City: A Novel
  • Phish – Billy Breathes
  • Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon *and* Wish You Were Here
  • Public Image Ltd. – Second Edition
  • R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant
  • Radiohead – OK Computer
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik
  • Rush – 2112
  • Seal – Seal
  • Smashing Pumpkins – Gish
  • Steve Winwood – Back in the High Life
  • The The – Mind Bomb
  • U2 – The Joshua Tree *and* All That You Can’t Leave Behind
  • Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes
  • Weezer – Weezer (first album)
  • 24-7 Spyz – Harder than You