Obama on torture
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Obama on torture

Barack Obama stated unequivocally that he will close Guantanamo and put a stop to torture on 60 Minutes last night. Of course, our current President has said any number of times that the US “does not torture,” but I’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt for now that he is using the accepted definition of the word torture rather than the made-up one that the Bush administration has tried to foist upon us.

Why people accept being biased
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Why people accept being biased

Here’s Robin Hanson’s advice at Overcoming Bias (by way of Tyler Cowen:

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true? All else is the road to rationality ruin.

This made me think about a recent political issue — whether the government should somehow bail out the US automakers. On one hand, we have the evidence that these companies are lost causes and principled objection to using taxpayer dollars to bail out certain failing businesses. On the other hand, we have the possibility of massive job loss at car factories, dealerships, parts suppliers, and so on. What’s best for America? What’s best for me? I don’t really have any idea.

To accept that means accepting a certain level of uncertainty that I think most people are uncomfortable with. To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

What I do know is that the political party I most closely identify is against letting these companies fail. Many of the bloggers I most often agree with think we should bail them out as well. I think that’s all most people need.

Most big problems are too complex for an individual to fully understand, and rarely can experts agree among themselves on the best solution. So rather than just admitting to themselves that they have no idea what we should do, most people prefer to succumb to their biases and accept the ideas put forward by the group or faction they’re loyal to.

Maybe that’s the ultimate human bias — the bias toward believing that we know what we’re talking about.

Network neutrality and transparency
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Network neutrality and transparency

Timothy Lee makes the pragmatic argument against the need for legislation to enforce network neutrality. Here’s his evidence that the market is already rejecting violations of network neutrality:

This isn’t to say that ISPs will never violate network neutrality. A few have done so already. The most significant was Comcast’s interference with the BitTorrent protocol last year. I think there’s plenty to criticize about what Comcast did. But there’s a big difference between interfering with one networking protocol and the kind of comprehensive filtering that network neutrality advocates fear. And it’s worth noting that even Comcast’s modest interference with network neutrality provoked a ferocious response from customers, the press, and the political process. The Comcast/BitTorrent story certainly isn’t going to make other ISPs think that more aggressive violations of network neutrality would be a good business strategy.

And here’s his argument for why legislation is a bad idea:

So it seems to me that new regulations are unnecessary to protect network neutrality. They are likely to be counterproductive as well. As Ed has argued, defining network neutrality precisely is surprisingly difficult, and enacting a ban without a clear definition is a recipe for problems. In addition, there’s a real danger of what economists call regulatory capture—that industry incumbents will find ways to turn regulatory authority to their advantage.

I agree with him that legislating network neutrality is fraught with peril in terms of unintended consequences and problems defining what, exactly, network neutrality is. What his arguments would indicate is that there’s a pressing need for transparency in this market.

First it’s up to the market to demand transparency, but if that doesn’t work out, I think it’s completely appropriate to pass laws that require Internet service providers to disclose how they handle traffic on their networks. Comcast tried to get away with throttling BitTorrent traffic without telling anyone last year, and I imagine that this is the usual sort of anti-network neutrality activity that we’ll see. If Time-Warner launches its own Internet TV operation, RoadRunner could silently throttle traffic from Hulu.com, for example. If this sort of activity were all disclosed, customers would be in a better position to decide whether they want to subscribe to a service provider that interferes with this fashion.

It’s also much easier to define disclosure requirements for ISPs than it is to define and regulate network neutrality. I’d much rather see the government put effort into creating the conditions that enable the market to work most effectively than to make winners of companies most able to game the system created by a new regulatory regime.

The Atlantic
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The Atlantic

Before the election passes into the distance, I wanted to give some special recognition to the stable of bloggers assembled by The Atlantic. They’ve done a great job of putting together a group of really smart bloggers with a diverse point of view, and I found a number of them to be essential reading all year. In particular, Marc Ambinder’s day to day insights into the shape of the campaigns were more useful than the entire staff of the Politico put together. James Fallows did an incredible job of covering the debates, and turned out to make the most accurate prediction of Sarah Palin’s future as a running mate as soon as she was chosen. I enjoy the rest of their bloggers as well, Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehesi Coates in particular. I have been meaning to mention how impressed I’ve been with The Atlantic for awhile, and wanted to give credit where it’s due before it completely slips my mind.

The quickest route from database results to CSV
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The quickest route from database results to CSV

I’m wondering what the quickest route is from the results of a SELECT statement in the MySQL command line client to a CSV file that can easily be imported into Excel. Using INTO OUTFILE is an option but only if you have the proper privileges and have access to the filesystem on the server. It won’t select into a file on the system where the client is running. (This seems like a huge oversight to me.)

There are also GUIs (like phpMyAdmin) that provide this functionality, but lots of systems administrators avoid it because of security holes.

Usually, I just whip up a Perl script to query the database and dump the results to CSV, but I’m wondering if there isn’t an easier way.

By the way, in researching this blog post, I noticed that it’s really easy to set your MySQL prompt to something much more useful than the default. For more, see the mysql client documentation. For now I’m going with (\u@\h) [\d]>.

Update: mysql -H -e "select * from whatever" > outfile.html dumps the results of a query in HTML format, which can easily be loaded into Excel. (Thanks, Erik.)

How President Obama could disappoint me
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How President Obama could disappoint me

I feel like one of the laziest tricks in argument is the post hoc misrepresentation of one’s expectations. People often lie, particularly to themselves, when hindsight takes over.

So as a form of insurance, I’m going to write down some ways that President Obama could fail to meet my expectations. Then, a couple of years from now, I’ll be able to look back and see for myself whether the Obama Presidency is what I thought it would be.

Back in June, I linked to an article about good and bad process. It was one of those things that in a small way changed how I think about most everything. The basic argument is that process is under your control, outcome is not. Even the best process in the world can be outdone by bad luck or unforeseen events. The key to evaluating performance is to measure the effectiveness of a process, aside from the results that are ultimately achieved.

For example, had the Obama campaign failed, I still would have argued that their process was good, even if the outcome had not been the one I’d hoped for. In this case, the outcome vindicated the process, but the process was good regardless.

It’s in that spirit that I make this list:

  1. President Obama could decline to put an end to the regime of torture, extraordinary rendition, and imprisonment without charges that has defined the Bush administration for me. The President has almost complete discretion on these issues, and I expect a complete reversal of the Bush administration’s position on them.
  2. President Obama could extend the “imperial Presidency.” The Bush administration argued at every turn that the President is not accountable to Congress or to anyone else. Any new President will be tempted to maintain the power that he inherits. President Obama should give some of it back.
  3. He could govern narrowly. I expect President Obama to promote legislation that will be tough for Republicans to vote against. I don’t expect him to put through a lot of legislation that passes on party line votes.
  4. He could opt out of the standards he has set for himself with regard to transparency. If there’s one thing that worried me about the Obama campaign, it’s that it was not particularly open. I think that the secrecy of the campaign was a powerful tool, but I hope that the habit doesn’t follow Obama to the White House. He has talked about running a transparent White House. I sincerely hope he follows through. If he practices radical transparency, it will prevent him from making many of the other mistakes that could disappoint me. I’d hate for the Obama Presidency to be one where inexplicable decisions are made, and no explanations are ever offered.

That’s my stake in the ground. I’ll be able to look at it in the years to come and see if Obama lived up to my hopes as they were when he was elected.

I could make an alternate list of what I hope Obama will accomplish, but that would just be silly. He has his priorities and I have mine. I just hope he reacts intelligently to the problems he volunteered to take on, and that he makes progress in keeping the promises he made during his campaign.