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Words, Meet Data

At lunch today (okay, by now it’s actually yesterday), I had some leftover time.  Not quite enough to play a shift on Radar Chaos: Hawaii Edition, sadly, but enough to run down the answer to a question that had been bugging me for a couple of days: if Mitt Romney is right that the 47% of people who pay no federal income taxes are all Obama voters that he needn’t worry about, what would the polls look like?

Finding out was as simple as hitting up Wikipedia, Gallup, and Excel.  Combining the two sources of information, I came up with this:

Income range% of pop.ObamaRomney
Less than $36,00040.1%56%37%
$36,000 to $89,99940.4%47%47%
$90,000 or more19.5%45%50%

I used those income bands because they’re the divisions used in the Gallup results, and I got the percentage-of-population numbers from Wikpedia.  For simplicity’s sake, I decided to assume that Mitt was off by a bit and that only 40.1% of the electorate was lost to him—meaning that any person (or household) making more than $36,000 a year but paying no federal income tax due to writeoffs, tax credits, and so on was still in play.

So once you combine the percentages in that table and add up the results, you get 50.2% of the vote for Obama, and 43.6% of the vote for Romney.  That was likely true immediately post-DNC but is a wider split than the most recent polls show, which are usually close to being tied at 47% each.  So we’ll note that I’ve given Obama 3% too many and Romney 3% too few, and apply that correction at the end.

The next step was to shift all of the 40% of voters below $36,000 a year into the Obama column.

Income range% of pop.ObamaRomney
Less than $36,00040.1%100%0%
$36,000 to $89,99940.4%47%47%
$90,000 or more19.5%45%50%

Once you do the math on those figures, the results are 67.9% of the vote for Obama and 28.7% of the vote for Romney.  Apply the ±3% correction from before and you wind up with Obama getting about 65% of the vote and Romney getting about 32%.  That’s substantially different than polls have been showing, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Mitt is mistaken about the composition of the electorate.

(Of course, as noted before, I spotted Mitt almost 7% of U.S. households by only shifting the bottom 40.1% to Obama instead of the bottom 47%.  You’re welcome, Mitt.)

Anyway, that was my every-half-decade analysis of public data, which I like to conduct both to look at things from a new angle as well as celebrate what the web has made possible: the ability to look deeper, to analyze, to ask questions and find answers, to verify.  Even hypotheticals.

Shock and Awe

I almost feel like the Presidential election didn’t happen.

You see, for the entire second half of Election Day, from almost noon until after midnight, Eastern time, I was aboard a Continental flight to Tokyo.  We had video-on-demand systems but not live satellite television, so as we arced over Canada, Alaska, and the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, we flew in ignorance.  As Jeremy Keith put it regarding his own flight to Japan, we were aboard Schrödinger‘s Airplane.

For me, the wave collapsed as we began the initial descent toward Narita.  One of the flight attendants, having announced that they were starting the initial-descent procedures and would like us to check around our seats for any personal items we might like to start stowing, added:  “And for those of you interested in the results of the election, we have a new President: Barack Obama.”

There was a burst of applause from the economy section of the plane.  In business class, there was silence.

Well, not quite.  I was myself sitting in business class, thanks to a great big pile of reward miles and some lucky timing in calling the airline.  As I heard her say Obama’s name, I let out an involuntary “Wow“.  Because until that moment, deep down I had believed, truly believed, that Mr. Obama would not win the Presidency.  That was not the outcome I desired, but it was the outcome I expected.

I am in many ways ashamed of my doubts and fears, because I had thought less of my fellow Americans than they deserved.

Since then, from here in Tokyo, I’ve felt weirdly disconnected from what’s happened.  In time zone terms, I’m fourteen hours in my home’s future, half a day ahead of everyone back home.  But because I received word after it was all over and soon after slept through America’s Wednesday daylight hours, I feel like I’m a day behind.  Time and distance combine to create a feeling of disconnectedness from the end result, as though I’m getting word of election results in Germany or India or Australia: interesting, but something seen at a remove.

It’s odd.  I’m used to being an observer, but this is something else entirely.  I think it’s pure astonishment.

People and Places

I don’t know about you, but I find the results of the People magazine cover Ericsperiment (thanks for the term, Bob!) to be quite interesting.  The boiled-down version of the results is: just about everyone saw what I did, but nearly everyone drew the wrong conclusions about what I was saying.  (What?  I’ll explain.)

First, I want to address a couple of objections that were raised.  The first was: “It’s just a family photograph”.  No, it’s not.  It’s a magazine cover shoot.  Those things are planned, directed, and executed down to the tiniest detail.  If you think it’s just a family portrait, you’re either being willfully obdurate or else completely ignoring the context.  That’s a mistake, because context is everything.  I’ve been involved in a few portrait sessions of no public reach whatsoever, and the photographer is always telling people where to stand or sit, adjusting the angle of people’s arms, getting them to fractionally tilt heads one way or the other, shifting people an inch or two, and so on.  “Just a family photo” is when the magazine gets a real family photo, taken by an amateur using a consumer-grade camera during a vacation, and puts it on the cover in a white Polaroid-esque frame at a 15-degree angle.

The second was that the image is a Photoshop job, created either by assembling individual shots or altering a group photo.  Maybe, maybe not; either way, Photoshopping or a lack thereof is completely irrelevant to my point.  If it wasn’t Photoshopped, then the photographer is responsible for the arrangement of the shot; if it was, then it’s the Photoshopper who bears responsibility.  Either way, someone arranged the shot, and did so very badly.

So here’s what I saw: “large group” and “outsider”.  That was the immediate message.  Look at the cover again, paying attention to where the faces are.  There’s a blob of faces above the headline text, which is the group.  Then there’s a face to the left of the headline text, which is the outsider.

This is completely independent of the race, color, gender, creed, etc. of the people in the photo.  The visual message is “here’s a bunch of people, plus a hanger-on”.  Not because of color, which is what most people assumed I was talking about (and more on that in a minute).  Because of placement.

Though I think this unlikely, you may not quite be seeing it.  In that case, imagine a cover image with nine faces in the same places, only they’re of religious deities.  Or pop stars.  Or CEOs.  Or heads of state.  Or conference speakers.  Or browser-team leads; heck, even browser logos.  Whichever it is, imagine your favorite of each group is in the lower-left position, with all the others up above.  Feel good about that?  Even neutral?  Still think there’s no message being conveyed by that placement?

(And if you still aren’t seeing it, maybe a comparative example, courtesy George Butler, will provide some insight.)

Now, given that one of the people has been placed as an outsider, the natural next step is to wonder why they’ve been so placed.  And here, there are obvious visual differences that jump right out:  like being female, having darker skin, and being younger.  Already primed to ask “Why is this person an outsider?” we can find apparent reasons, and in this case they’re touchy ones.  If you know the background story of the family, then there’s a non-visual one as well: that she’s adopted.

But remember, I’m not saying Bridget (the young lady in that position) has been excluded for any of those reasons.  I’m saying that having been given a visual cue that she is excluded, we look for reasons to explain that exclusion.  That’s exactly what most of the people who responded to my post about the cover did.  All those people saw it, consciously or otherwise, and responded to the message… and then took that next step, trying to find reasons to explain the message.  Then, as per each individual’s feelings and experiences, they reacted, either accepting or rejecting what they thought I was saying.  Interesting, though, that so many people came to the same conclusion about what they thought I was saying.  That’s evidence of a strong message, whether or not said message was intended.

And that is the failure that occurred, one which I lay squarely at the doorstep of the magazine.  I might also toss in a head-slap to the campaign, if they saw the image and gave approval to use it—such pre-approval is sometimes, but not always, an option.  The problem with that composition should have been obvious from the outset, and avoided.  That it wasn’t makes me wonder a number of things about the magazine.  Taking a teenaged girl and putting her in the outsider spot?  Seriously?  How callous do you have to be to do that?

Oh, and special postscript to all the people who took the time to share their pitying sorrow over how “you Americans” are so race-aware:  I know it’s a tragedy, but remember, we’re still a young country and have not had the same lengthy maturation time you’ve enjoyed.  So please, try to remain patient with us while segregation, anti-immigrant violence, race riots, tribal warfare, and ethnic cleansing uniquely wrack our poor, blighted country, and continue to hope that one day we’ll join the rest of the world in the tranquil harmony that so characterizes your enlightened societies.

Placement

I was in line to buy a few groceries and spotted the latest issue of People magazine in the point-of-sale magazine rack, the one with the McCain family on the cover.  Something about the cover just seemed a little bit… off.  Do you see it, too?

There’s a metaphor there, but I’m having trouble deciding exactly what it is, or perhaps more accurately to whom it applies.

Seriously, I’m not generally one to read messages into things—in fact, I probably lean too far the other direction—but on this?  Somebody needs to be fired for gross negligence, because there’s a message being sent here, intentionally or otherwise.  In fact, it’s worse if it’s unintentional.  The question is who was negligent.  The photographer for not seeing what the placement communicated?  The editor for approving use of the image on their cover?  The McCain campaign for approving the image in the first place?

Maybe all of the above.

I’ll be very interested in people’s responses on this one… and even more in People‘s response, should anyone ask them about it.

Caption Hunt 2

It’s been very nearly two years since the last time, and that’s way too long.  So: it’s time for another caption hunt!

A picture of Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush, bearing facial expressions I'm not sure can be described.

Leave your caption(s) in the comments.  Who knows?  There might even be a prize or two involved.

(Update: comments are now enabled.  Oopsie.)

Jackals and HYDEsim

Long-time readers (and Jeremy) probably remember HYDEsim, the big-boom ‘simulator’ I hacked together using the Google Maps API and some information in my personal reading library.

Well, with North Korea setting off something that might have been a nuclear device, it’s starting to show up in the darndest places.  Everyone’s favorite millenial talk show host, Glenn Beck, not only mentioned it on his radio program this past Monday, but also put a link on the main page of his site for a couple of days.  Then it got Farked.  I suppose it’s only a matter of time now before it gets Slashdotted as well.

With the increased attention, some old criticisms have arisen, as well as some misunderstandings.  For example, on Fark, someone said:

I thought it was funny how people are playing with this and think they were “safe” if they weren’t in the circle.

Here’s a mockup I did of the kind of blast damage you could expect from a single 1980’s era Russian ICBM carrying 10 MIRV warheads, each capable of 750KT yield.

Oh my yes.  That’s something that the HYDEsim code can theoretically support, since every detonation point is an object and there’s no limit on the number of objects you can have, but I never managed to add this capability.  That’s because trying to figure out the UI for placing the MIRV impact points broke my head, and when I considered how to set all that in the URI parameters (for direct linking), a tiny wisp of smoke curled out of my left ear.  Still, one of these days I should probably at least add a “MIRV ring impact” option so the young’n’s can get an idea of what had us all scared back in the old days.

The interesting challenge is that a strategic nuclear strike of that variety is going to involve a whole bunch of optimum-altitude air bursts.  HYDEsim takes the simpler—and also, in this darkened day and age, more realistic—approach of calculating the effects of a ground burst.  The difference is in no sense trivial: a ground burst has a lot of energy, both thermal and radiological, absorbed by the ground (oddly enough!).  On the other hand, its highest overpressure distances are actually greater.

This is because shock energy drops with distance, of course.  An optimum-altitude air burst would be a mile or two above the ground, so the highest pressures would be directly beneath the explosion, and would be smaller than if the same weapon exploded on the ground.  With an air burst there’s less ground and man-made clutter to attenuate the shock waves as they spread out, so the total area taking some degree of damage due to overpressure is actually greater.  (There are also very complex interactions between the shock waves in the air and those reflected off the ground, but those are way beyond my ability to simulate in JavaScript.)

Also, direct thermal radiation is spread over a much greater area with an air burst than with a ground burst—again, there’s less stuff in the way.  The amount of fallout depends on the “cleanliness” of the warhead, but for an air burst it can actually be expected to be less than a groundburst.

People also claim that radiological energy (X-rays, neutron radiation, gamma radiation, etc.) will be the deadliest factor of all.  Actually, it’s just the opposite, unless you’re discussing something like a neutron bomb.  The amount of harmful direct-effect radiation that comes directly from the explosion is far, far smaller than the thermal energy.  And yes, I know thermal radiation is direct-effect, but there’s a large practical difference between heat and other forms of radiation.

Put another way, if you’re close enough to an exploding nuclear warhead that the amount of radiation emitted by the explosion would ordinarily kill you, the odds are overwhelmingly high that the amount of shock wave and thermal energy arriving at your position will ensure that there won’t be time for you to worry about the radiation effects.  Or anything else, really.

Remember: I’m talking there about direct radiation, not the EMP or fallout.  That’s a whole separate problem, and one HYDEsim doesn’t address, to the apparent disgust of another Farker:

The site is useless without fallout and thermal damage.

Well, I don’t know about useless, but it’s admittedly not as representative of the totality of nuclear-weapons damage as it might otherwise be.  Of course, HYDEsim is not specifically about nuclear detonations, as I showed when I mapped the Hertfordshire oil refinery explosion and djsunkid mapped the Halifax explosion of 1917.  But I certainly admit that the vast majority of explosions in the range the tool covers are going to be from nuclear weapons.

The problem with mapping fallout is that it’s kind of weather dependent, just for starters; just a few miles-per-hour difference in wind speed can drastically alter the fallout pattern, and the position of the jet stream plays a role too.  Also, the amount of fallout is dependent on the kind of detonation—anyone who was paying attention during the Cold War will remember the difference between “dirty” and “clean” nuclear warheads.  (For those of you who came late: to get a “dirty” warhead, you configure a device to reduce the explosive power but generate a lot more fallout.)

Thermal effects are something I should add, but it’s trickier than you might expect.  There’s actually an area around the explosion where there are no fires, because the shock effects snuff them out.  Beyond that, there’s a ring of fire (cue Johnny Cash).  So it’s not nearly as simple as charting overpressure, which is itself not totally simple.

And then there’s there whole “how to combine thermal-effect and overpressure rings in a way that doesn’t become totally confusing” problem.  Get ambitious, and then you have the “plus the show fallout plume without making everything a total muddle” follow-on problem.  Ah well, life’s empty without a challenge, right?

Okay, so I went through all that and didn’t actually get to my point, which is this:  I’ve been rather fascinated to see how the tool gets used.  When it was first published, there was a very high percentage of the audience who just went, “Cooool!”.  That’s still the case.  It’s the same thing that draws eyes to a traffic accident; it’s horrible, but we still want to see.

However, I also got some pushback from conservative types:  how dare I publish such a thing, when it could only be useful to terrorists?!?!?  Rather than play to the audience and inform them that I simply hate freedom, I mentioned that it was desirable to have people like you and me better understand the threats we face.  It’s not like the terrorists can’t figure this stuff out anyway.

Now I’ve seen a bunch of people from the same ideological camp use HYDEsim to mock the North Koreans’ test, which apparently misfired and only achieved a yield of about 0.5KT.  Others have taken that figure and plotted it in American cities, giving some scale to the dimension of this particular threat.  Still others have done that, but with the yield the North Koreans had attempted to reach (thought to be 4KT), or even with yields up to 50KT.  In most cases, these last are shown in conjunction with commentary to the effect of “now do you understand why this is a problem?”.

This is why I do what I do, whether it’s write books or publish articles or speak at conferences or build tools or just post entries here:  to help people learn more about their world, and to help them share what they know and think and believe with others.  Sometimes that’s worth saying again, if only to remind myself.

Party Contacts

Dear Democratic Party:

I have a few suggestions on how you might improve your relationship with centrists who would like to support you.  Well, all right, it’s really all about how to improve your relationship with me.

The primary rule is this: stop annoying me.

You might wonder which of your policies, pronouncements, or other points of politicking have triggered this reaction.  In all honesty, none of them; from what little attention I’ve paid to political debate in America, you’re batting about even with the Republicans, though I tend to give you a slight edge due to my internal biases.  No, what’s raised my ire is the one-two punch of clueless marketing you served me today.

The first one was a fund-raising letter sent to me by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.  It’s nice to know that Mrs. Clinton is interested in involving her constituents in the political process, at least as far as their wallets go.  Slight problem: Mrs. Clinton is not my senator.  She doesn’t even represent a single person in my state, as I live in Ohio, not New York.

Of course I realize this was a national campaign, not a matter of local politics.  That being the case, though, the name on the envelope should have been that of your national party chairman, Dr. Howard Dean.  If he’s not popular enough to be attached to such an effort, then you need a new chair.

The follow-up fumble was a telephone call I got early this evening which also exhorted me to donate to the cause.  Now, part of the reason I get these calls is that, as a political entity, you’re free to ignore the Do Not Call list.  Both parties took shameless advantage of this oh-so-convenient exception last fall, as I observed at the time, but since the election you’d both pretty much shut up, thankfully.  The other part of the reason is that I gave a small donation to a chilly, rain-soaked young woman who rang our doorbell one evening.  At the time, I did it because I was marginally less opposed to your Presidential candidate than I was to his opponent, and because I can be a sucker for young idealists caught in the rain.  What I didn’t reckon, though I should have, was that it would put me on the “contact this guy a lot” list.

Where “a lot” isn’t usually more than twice a month, I admit, but still.

Anyway, your telemarketing temp launched into her spiel, which was nicely written, but I decided to inform her that I wasn’t interested since the last time I’d made a donation, it had gotten me onto a bunch of mailing lists.  Her response was that what actually happens is when you go out on the Internet and use search engines, they hang onto that information.

So here’s my last tip, which comes in two parts.  It goes like this.  If you’re going to give your marketdroids some kind of response for complaints like mine, try to make sure that it’s:

  1. Not a lame attempt to shift blame to some other quarter; and
  2. Not complete bull[censored].

If you haven’t written a response for that kind of complaint, then you should at least instruct your temps that ad-libbing their own bogus responses isn’t kosher.  Tell them to try a little sympathy and understanding—and, even better, have them tell prospects that their name won’t be put on every liberal-leaning mailing list in the universe!

Although please only have them tell people that if it’s actually true.  Leave the lying to the politicians.

Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell.  Remember that I’m only saying all this because I care.  Good luck.

Sincerely,
Eric

P.S. to the Republicans: stop looking so smug, because you know damned well you’d be doing the same stuff if I’d given you any money.  In fact, last year you sent me two surveys soliciting my opinions as a representative of “a select group of Republicans” in my area.  Leaving aside the pathetically transparent lie it represented (that you were only contacting a few select people in every area, as opposed to sending one to everyone you could find), it was at best insultingly biased to anyone who possesses more than an milligram of functioning brain cells.

You’re no better than the Democrats; in many ways, you’re a lot worse, and I occasionally toy with the idea of donating some small amount just to see how awful your subsequent mailings and phone calls would get.  You know, do a comparison with what the Democrats are sending me.  But honestly?  I’d really rather not hear from either of you until you learn to behave like adults.

Caption Hunt

Over the last two days, some… odd pictures of the President and his new appointees have made the rounds.  Here they are:

I could use some cheering up, so if you’d like to help out, write funny captions for one or both pictures.  Extra credit for captions that don’t make sex jokes.  (Anything really foul will be deleted.  You have been warned.)

For those who wish to contribute two captions, I think we’ll be daringly original and refer to the first picture (of Bush and Rice) as #1, and the second (of Bush and Spellings) as #2.  Got it?  Great.  Knock yourselves out.

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