Monthly Archives: October 2012

One Week To Go: Margins & Momentum

This, apparently, is my 29th posting on the election over the past year! We were all so young and innocent when I kicked off my coverage, and followed with my first bit of electoral numerology. And now here we are, with a week to go.

At the moment, the popular vote looks like this:

Or this:

Or this:

All of which doesn’t really tell us a lot, for two reasons:

1. RealClearPolitics, as you’ve seen above, currently has Romney in the lead by 0.8%. But the 8 polls that average is made up of currently have an average margin of error of 3.13%. Even if you assume that pooling them together cuts the collective margin of error, say, in half, it would still be around 1.5%. So Romney and Obama’s separation is well within that margin of error. I.e. the margin we’re seeing could just as easily be the product of statistical noise.

Similarly, HuffPost Pollster’s numbers have Romney ahead by 0.7%, but their estimate of their model’s margin of error is around 1.2%. Once again, Obama could just as easily be ahead. Or Romney could be further ahead than he seems. Or they could be nearly exactly tied. The point is, the numbers are so close together that they aren’t really useful in distinguishing which of these it is.   

2. As David Rothschild helpfully reminded all us poll junkies today, the popular vote doesn’t actually matter. The electoral vote determines who is elected President. RCP, the aggregator of the three featured here that currently has the widest Romney margin, has a no toss-up electoral map that looks like this:

So, that’s that for margin. But what about momentum? We’re looking at what the numbers look like today, but what matters is what they’ll look like a week from now. Does one of the candidates have significant momentum? To get a handle on this, I crunched some numbers.

If we compare the popular vote numbers at RCP, HuffPost Pollster and TPM for today versus a week ago, we see:

If you average the three (which are themselves averaging multiple polls, and adjusting their mix in various ways), it would seem that both candidates have, at best, a smidgen of momentum, and Romney’s is a bit larger. If you rolled the change over the last week forward another week, we’d be at Romney 48, Obama 47.4. Then it would all be about how the remaining undecideds split. Even if they split disproportionately toward Romney (and there’s good historical perspective and recent analysis that casts doubt on that), we’d probably still be looking at something that’s within one percent.

But wait, you say, didn’t I just maintain that the popular vote doesn’t really matter? Why yes, yes I did.

So let’s do a similar analysis on the swing states. The below looks at the swingiest of the swing states, where current margins are withing 3%. I took numbers from RCP and HuffPost Pollster, since both have nicely updated state by state projections, and did the same analysis of today’s numbers versus a week ago. For compactness, I’m representing the margins between Obama and Romney here, with plus Obama as a positive number and plus Romney as a negative number:

Looking at the average, Iowa and New Hampshire have the most significant-looking potential swings (>0.5%), but in opposite directions, New Hampshire toward Obama and Iowa against. The others don’t show a lot of evidence of momentum beyond what might just be statistical noise. Let’s say you take all the swings over the past week, and roll them forward another week. Even if you build an electoral map where you only assign Obama the states that would be projected to be for him by more than 1%, the map looks like this:

And 270, of course, wins it, even if nationally you’re behind by 1 percent. And if Iowa, Colorado and Virginia squeak past the line for Obama too, it could even get up to 303.

My take? I learned a hard lesson in 2004. I consumed loads of analyses about how Kerry might be stronger than it looked in the home stretch, polls might have sampling biases that underestimated his position, the undecideds might break more for the challenger. I convinced myself that it could be true. In the end, it turned out just as the numbers were saying: final polling averages for Bush indicated a 1.5% lead, and he ended up winning by more than 2%.

I believe what the numbers are saying now too. Obama will likely lose the popular vote, or, at best, finish ahead by the tiniest fraction. Either way, the margin will be within 1% or so. But Romney will equally likely lose the electoral vote, even if he leads Obama nationally. Exactly 7 days from now, we shall see if I was right!

Election 2012: It’s all over but the shouting (oh yeah, and the voting)

So here we are, having finally cleared the last debate, with less than two weeks standing between us and finally, actually, choosing the next President. When I wrote my first post-primary review almost five months ago, this day seemed wearyingly far away. I was expecting one of the longest, nastiest campaigns ever. Instead, we’ve gotten one of the most vapid. And this is where it’s left us, a VP-pick, two conventions and four debates later (map from HuffPost Pollster):

For those of you just joining us, here’s what’s happened so far:

Mitt Romney ran a pretty uneven campaign and Barack Obama ran a pretty good one throughout June and July, during which Obama usually held a  2-3% lead. Then a combination of Obama doing Romney in with a neo-Swift Boatian barrage of advertising tearing down his business past and Romney doing himself in with his mouth during his foreign trip led to an early August gap that reached 4 points at its height. By virtue of a VP pick that galvanized the Conservative base and a solidly serviceable convention, Romney deflated the Obama bubble and inflated his own numbers, bringing it to a tie by the beginning of September. The Democrats then had a very good convention (though, shades of trouble to come, Bill Clinton made a better case for Obama there than Obama made for himself) that shot Obama back up to a 3+ point led. Then, incredibly, by opportunistically pouncing on the Libyan attack and standing behind his “47%” comments when they were leaked, Romney let Obama hang on to that lead for about a month, and grow it even further. Enter talk of a Democratic blowout victory.

Except, in contravention to all conventional wisdom about debates having minimal impact, Obama had just about his worst night ever on the same night that Romney had one of his best at the first debate. This turned what was a natural rebound for Romney and cooling off of Obama’s highs into an out and out surge for Romney and collapse for Obama. Enter talk of Obama being toast. Any time you see a sudden swing you can expect it to back off a little, and it’s done so, no doubt aided by Joe Biden proving the party still had some fight left in it at the VP debate, and Obama deciding to show up this time for the second debate. The new normal now appears to be Obama stabilized, and Romney much stronger, giving Romney a small but persistent polling lead. You could make a case that the third debate will further attenuate this, but probably not much further in Obama’s direction than an even closer near-tie.

It’s good to keep in mind that current numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. For one thing, RealClearPolitics builds its average off of whole numbers, such that, for example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released today is listed there as Romney 49%, Obama 48%. But, in fact, far from being a 1% difference, it was actually a .07% difference, with the raw numbers 48.51% to 48.44%. RCP hasn’t done anything deceptive by doing this, they just have a rounding standard, and they followed it. Issues of which polls they select to list and which they don’t are potentially more troubling, and have led to accusations of bias in the past. Rather than saying yea or nay to them specifically, we can observe an alternate data point, both in wider poll selection and precision of presentation, from Mark Blumenthal at HuffPost’s Pollster:

Grains of salt 2 and 3: The election does not happen today, and it is actually 51 separate elections, in 50 states + DC. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight takes this into account by doing a projection based on current polls, past trends, and balancing national polling with state by state totals. His model was very accurate in 2008, and his current forecast for Nov. 6th is a 1.1% popular vote victory for Obama:

By far the largest grain of salt, however, is that the popular vote doesn’t determine who becomes President, who gets 270 votes in the electoral college does. This is, of course, well know, but it can be dramatic how much the two can differ. Al Gore was ahead by 0.5% nationwide in 2000, but lost due to narrowly losing Florida. If John Kerry had gotten about 60,000 votes more in Ohio in 2004 and George Bush around 60,000 less, Kerry would have become President even while losing the popular vote nationally by almost 3 million votes. And the current state of the electoral vote? Even as it shows Romney ahead by 0.6% in polling, RCPs “no Toss Ups” map of all current leads looks like this:

Similarly, over at HuffPost Pollster we have an estimated current lead of well over 270 with the most likely states, and a total of 303 with all leads:

Over at 270 To Win, they run 10,000 simulations a day based on current state polling numbers. Their electoral college results for today:

And on the forward looking side, Nate Silver’s electoral college forecast current shows:

Any way you slice it, Obama looks like he has a narrow, but totally sufficient, electoral college edge even with national polling that puts him slightly behind. In the June 2nd post I mentioned in the opening above, I wrote:

“I don’t see anything fundamentally changing the picture that points to an ongoing nearly break-even that eventually (and narrowly) breaks for Obama.”

It’s even narrower than I thought it would be, but I still stand by that prediction today!              

Book Reviews: The Gambler, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, The Song of Eve, At The Drive-In Volcano

All right, so, on the downside, I haven’t updated my Goodreads 2012 reading challenge progress in a while (currently 26 out of the 52 goal by the way). On the plus side, though, my delay has given this review some range. For a couple of years now I’ve had the practice of rotating my reading between fiction, nonfiction and spiritual. I also am reading at least one poetry collection at any given time. Today’s review will have examples of all four!

The Gambler  (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1867, 100 pp.)
Some years ago, I was taking a writing workshop. When it became my turn to present excerpts of a novel I was working on that involved sexual and romantic addiction, one of the other participants commented that she almost stopped reading, because it seemed too prurient. But then she continued, and said it reminded her of The Gambler. That was both one of the most gratifying things I ever heard in a writing workshop, and the source of a mental footnote to check out Dostoyevsky’s- Really long short story? Rather short novel? Novella? -one day. And what a great day it has turned out to be! I always marvel at his ability to write from the point of view of a thoroughly un-admirable character and yet remain sympathetic and compelling. That is in fine display here, and in fact the whole piece seems to be devoid of any admirable characters at all. And yet the descent into obsession (and one could argue that a love addiction precedes any gambling addiction for him) of the young Russian tutor and the tangled fortunes of the Russian aristocrats he works for as they vacation at a German resort is so tenderly and accurately rendered that it works. Nobody presents the darkness of the human heart with as much love and forgiveness as Dostoyevsky. There is obsidian humor and twisted beauty throughout this small masterpiece, and I thoroughly recommend it.        

The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects  (Edward J. Ruppelt, 1956/1960, 260 pp.)
When I saw that I could download this classic of Ufology for a pittance on my Nook, I was very excited. Edward Ruppelt was the head of the Air Force’s UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, from 1951-1953. After leaving that post and retiring from the Air Force, he wrote a book reviewing his tenure. And it makes for very fine reading- I was particularly impressed by his fluid conversational style, it kind of makes we wish he’d written more before his untimely death from heart attack at age 37. Or, you know, lived more. Throughout the book he maintains a great balance between irresponsible credulity and knee-jerk skepticism, and in fact derides both. What one comes away with principally is three things. 1. Because of bureaucracy and miscommunication, the Air Force’s attitude toward the investigation, and the resources devoted toward it would often lurch in different directions. This produced a lot of the behavior that outside observers attributed to “cover-up”. 2. When the investigation was taken seriously and conducted thoroughly, a lot of seeming mysteries could be identified, but a significant portion of unidentifieds remained. 3. These undientifieds never produced the kind of “proof” that could definitively settle the question of what they were (you can sense his frustration with this intangibility growing throughout his tenure with Blue Book), but many unknowns had excellent, multiple witnesses, and were clearly things outside of any conventional explanation. This is where his original analysis in 1956 more or less ends up. The 1960 edition includes an additional three chapters that have always been controversial since they A) are much more skeptical and B) came out just before his death. Reading them here, I have to say, it is notable how they not only strike a totally different tone than his original ending, they actually put forward multiple statements directly contradicting positions he took earlier, with little explanation of the change in his thinking. I’d be curious to see the last three chapters put through some kind of word-choice/sentence structure analysis to see if the same person even wrote them. And on that note, I will leave you with the mystery!      

The Song of Eve: Mythology And Symbols of The Goddess  (Manuela Dunn-Mascetti, Simon & Schuster, 1990, 239 pp.)
As documented in earlier reviews, in the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring the feminine side of the divine.  So when I came across this book at a Friends of the Library used book sale in San Francisco a few years back, I eagerly snatched it up (especially eagerly at the price of $3!). Well worth it-the book itself is lushly beautiful, full of color illustrations drawn from classical and contemporary works of art. These are used to visually highlight the text, which utilizes the structure of Jungian archetypes and examples from throughout world mythology to explore aspects of the feminine, and relate them back to passages and stages in life. While I did feel a little gender excluded from the party at times since it is explicitly written to address women navigating the stages of a woman’s life, I found a lot that was moving and meaningful to anybody leading a human life. And one can hardly begrudge making women the focus here as a counter-point to a few millennia of male-dominated spiritual institutions. A beautiful book, inside and out.              

At The Drive-In Volcano  (Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tupelo Press, 2007, 85 pp.)
As I said, I’m always reading at least one volume of poetry. Sometimes I have a pipeline built up, but in this case, I was without follow-up when my previous volume wound down. Browsing at a bookstore, I was drawn to this volume by the candy heart on the cover and the poetry of the poet’s name. It also had a plug on the back by Naomi Shihab Nye, who I’ve become a fan of lately. I was not misled- the 57 poems in this volume beguile with their mix of travelogue, journey through a personal past and present, and unashamed mixture of pop culture and more mythic sources into the trip. Aimee Nezhukumatathil has pulled off a mixture that I myself often aim for in my poetry. Which is not just inspiring, but also moving, and really darn pretty to read. 

And there we are! It seems unlikely to me that I’m going to hit 52 books, with only two months to go. But hey, I’m not giving up, and you always get further with an ambitious aim than with no aim at all…


Ten Years Gone By…

I just has a birthday this past Friday, which always gets me in a “looking back” kind of mood. Since I was born in 1970, this particular birthday also has me hoping that I’m about to discover the secret to:

That’s not what I’m here to discuss today, though. But I have, in fact, been thinking a lot about life. Being on the leeward side of 40 has made me wonder about the twists and turns my life has taken, what might have been, what might now be too late, etc. I don’t necessarily recommend this crazy-making line of thought, but it does lend itself to looking for the narrative.

And as it happens, one of the biggest turning points in my life recently had its own birthday, and has everything to do with narrative. In April 2002, the uranium pile of my first marriage had finally hit critical after a two and a half-year meltdown. This was a crisis I bore no small measure of responsibility for, and I was already going through a process of wrenching change and self-examination in trying to address the issues that had brought it on. Between that and the general void the collapse of a twelve-year relationship leaves in its wake, I was struggling to rediscover who I was and what I wanted from life.

One of the things I had put on the shelf about ten years before that was a lifelong interest in writing. Even as a kid, I had written short stories and movie scripts. I started keeping a journal and writing poetry in my teens, and kept it up all through my early 20s. Then, as I was gearing up for graduate school and working life after that, I stopped. I can’t even tell you why, exactly, but it went away, and was replaced by more “grown up” concerns. Not at all coincidentally, I think, addiction and darkness started ramping up at the same time.

Back to post-separation: alone, shaky, and rebuilding, in the summer of 2002 I decided to take an “Intro to Fiction”  course led by Junse Kim at the Bay Area’s excellent Writing Salon. I’d already started keeping a journal again in the last year of the marriage and the workshop further re-awakened literary stirrings. By late August I had realized, “You know what? I think I’m supposed to be a writer!” I began work on a novel.

So here we are, ten years later. I’m still writing! It doesn’t pay the bills, but it remains the core of how I think of myself: I’m a writer. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I have “enough” to show for it. The part of me that does this because it is my truest and deepest calling in the world gets mixed up with the part of me that wants it to have some kind of concrete outcome in terms of recognition and success. Well, for both those parts, I’d like to bear witness to what I have produced so far:

  • First (and perhaps foremost?) I ended up doing 7 drafts of that novel that I began in 2002, Out in the Neon Night, before finishing it in 2006. I ended up sending out queries for it to 27 agents in 2007, 3 of whom requested a look. While none ended up coming through, I do from time to time consider doing another round of queries, or even e-publishing and promoting it myself. In the mean time, you can read a sample chapter.     
  • My essays “Kissing Girls in the Dark” and “Watch the Skies!” appeared in the 2005 and 2006 issues of the late, great compendium of true tales of the unseemly Morbid Curiosity. I will always be grateful to Morbid‘s editor (and darkly wonderful writer) Loren Rhoads for publishing me for the first time.
  • My confession of my mid-30s discovery of a love for heavy metal, “I Sold My Soul to Rock and Roll” appeared in the 11th issue of the sadly departed “Magazine For People Who Think Too Much” Kitchen Sink in 2005.
  • While I was engaged in endless rewrites of Neon Night in 2005-2006, I started a much more lighthearted “new novel” to have something fun to work on in the midst of revisionitis. It eventually petered out at 20 chapters, and I set it aside in favor of other things. But I’ve been feeling some enthusiasm for resurrecting it recently… 
  • I wrote several articles on arty (and boozy) aspects of San Francisco life for in 2007. 
  • SoMa Literary Review published my poems “untitled” and “Twelve Steps to the New Israel of the Beats” in 2009. Sadly, their online back-archive is currently in search of a host, but I can send you copies if you want to read them!   
  • Slouch Magazine published a short prose piece of mine, “relapse in 26 lines” in August 2009. 
  • My prose poem “Young Karl Marx” was featured on Opium Magazine’s website in late 2009. 
  • In 2010, my essay “Bachelors of Armageddon” appear in When I Was There, an anthology of tales of student life at UC Berkeley.
  • From 2007-2011 I finally pursued a lifelong interest in film-making as a member of the Bay Area independent film co-op Scary Cow. During a four year-period I worked on 13 short films in a variety of capacities, including 6 that I wrote or co-wrote. You can get more of a description, and links to several of the films I helped write, produce or direct, here   
  • Even my bad adolescent poetry has had its day in the sun, being read on stage as part of the Mortified reading series in San Francisco and Boston multiple times from 2006 through 2012. 
  • My Short Story “Ave Maria” was published in 2012 in the anthology Warpaint, available from Amazon on Kindle, and in several other electronic and print formats from the publisher, Zenfri. Meanwhile I have three more short stories making the rounds of submissions. They vacillate between despair at ever seeing the light of day and feeling terribly encouraged by Ave Maria’s success.   
  • Earlier this year I completed the first draft of my first full-length screenplay. I’ll be revising and finishing it over the next year, and then confronting the intriguing sell/make decision… 
  • I also just finished revising a collection of 40 poems (written between 2000 and 2010) which I am now starting to submit to publishers and prizes. 

So there you have it. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like such a bad output for my first ten years (re)devoted to being a writer. That belief wavers a little whenever I hear about a 20something author’s big debut. Then I remember that Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first story until he was 45, or his first novel until he was past 50. And the truth is, should success come sooner, later, in a form I can barely recognize, or even never, it doesn’t really matter. I have to keep doing this. I’m a writer!