Archive for September 2008

Further to McCain’s Gambling Problem

September 28, 2008

Matthew Yglesias has hit the nail dead on on the implications of McCain’s gambling problem — the conflict of interest, the poor judgment, and certainly the degree to which someone who can bang away thousands a session is divorced from the experience of ordinary folk.

What neither he nor I in this post conveyed was one other aspect of McCain’s game of choice that has to make  you wonder about the capacity for judgment for anyone who truly has the craps bug.

Remember — McCain doesn’t just go hit the craps table in passing.  This is the kind of gambling he likes, so much so that he would be willing to risk his presidential campaign to get a table hauled up to his (free) room.  He’s got a jones, not a casual interest.

And that pits him against the relentless mathematics of craps.  A quick look at the odds of craps is enough to give you the overview, but just to make sure that my basic quantitative intuition was backed up by the facts, I sought a quick expert reality check.  Here is what  the seemingly inexhaustible Brad DeLong told me would serve as synoptic view:

In craps, you lose 1.5% of your bet with each roll. At a ten-chip bet
rolling once a minute, your expected loss is $15.0 a minute–$900/hour, or $3600 for a four-hour evening at the table.

Think on the implications of this rate of expected losses.  There is little doubt that over an extended session a persistent player will hit a few happy rolls, with all the hedonic reward of a big win.  But the reality over any even moderately long run is steady erosion.  Drip, drip, drip — a few bucks here, a few bucks next roll, maybe a pop, then another twenty down the tubes and so on.

Last summer, Time reported that McCain’s “goal, say several people familiar with his habit, is never financial” — which is a very good thing, for to see the tables as a earning proposition would reveal an even greater degree of financial ignorance than has been on display recently.  Instead, say these sources, “He loves the thrill of winning and the camaraderie at the table.”

The thrill of winning?  He’s playing for that momentary glow that comes only against the background of that 1.5 % toll, grinding away over the hours, until, unless something very fishy is going on over weeks and months, McCain like every other craps fool, walks away with lighter pockets than those with which he began.

Is your model of a president a man who values momentary thrills more than long term consequences?  Mine isn’t.

More Mental Health — we all need an xkcd hit from time to time

September 28, 2008

Just substitute blog post for youtube, and you get my terror at this latest observation from xkcd:

Mental Health Break: Sarah Palin’s Gay Friend Auditions

September 28, 2008

See this. (h/t Andrew Sullivan.)

It actually got me thinking.  Why not me?

True, I’m straight, not Alaskan, and do not like what I have seen of Governor Palin.

But how could those be impediments, given that my attributes as Palin’s Gay Friend ™ would be no more divorced from the reality than, say, the Governor’s “opposition” (support) for the Bridge to Nowhere.

I’m perfect for the job!

Image:  Saints Sergius and Bacchus. 7th Century icon.  There is an interpretation of this icon as a representation of a same-sex union blessed by Jesus as best man.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

McCain’s Gambling Problem — And Ours

September 28, 2008

It’s already getting its fair share of play, but the enormous NY Times take out on McCain and the gambling industry is must reading for any voter, leaning any which way.

Most of the article is a meticulous, and to my eye devastating account of McCain’s deep-inside-Washington maneouverings on behalf of favored friends and allies in the gambling world.  While the article is meticulous in avoiding charges that Senator McCain violated laws, its account is a powerful, blow-by-blow description of the practical corruption and DC business-as-usual life of a powerful Senator.

But while I’m sure that this story of the corrupted false messiah will get its share of play, the article touches on — but does not delve into — what is to me much the more important issue.

There are hints.  Here is the lede paragraph to the piece:

Senator John McCain was on a roll. In a room reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, he tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table. When the marathon session ended around 2:30 a.m., the Arizona senator and his entourage emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings.

An aside here:  Mathematically literate readers will wince at the phrase “a hot craps table.”  The notion of a hot table is nonsense: in Wikipedia’s version, “since there is no correlation between die rolls, there is no possible long-term winning strategy in craps.”  Rather, the odds in craps are set to ensure that the house always wins over time — and rather modest increments of time at that.

There are thus only two possible explanations for McCain’s success at the table that night.  He could have  benefited from the fact that randomized processes can produce’ patchy outputs.  Alternatively the casino bosses for whom he was the lead Senator on gambling matters decided to improve their odds in the bigger game of Washington lobbying, and juice McCain’s chances with a little mechanical help.

There is no way of knowing of course what occurred that day – and all casino games are set up to ensure that there are enough winners to persuade the losers (ultimately, everyone) to keep coming back.

So without knowing McCain’s results over a much longer series of his gambling weekends, I wouldn’t  accuse him or anyone of impropriety or worse.

Rather, the deeper issue here is what McCain’s gaming habits tell us about the kind of mind he has.

First, you have to know that McCain has a well documented love of gambling — and specifically for craps with its high reward-higher risk profile and its significant house edge.*  (Which is another way of saying that if over his years as a Senator with oversight over the gambling industry he shows a notable net positive return on his wagers, he is most likely being bribed.  Anyone check his tax records on this?)

This pleasure in the game can take on the color of urgency.  When, during the campaign, his advisors blocked him from heading to a casino floor in Las Vegas to play, he proposed bringing a craps table to his room.

His aides blocked that idea too, but that it even occured to a man in the middle of a Presidential campaign illustrates the depth of McCain’s gambling jones.

Now, what does this love of high risk, immediate reward, and long-term inevitable loss say about McCain’s emotional and intellectual fitness for the Presidency?  Does an affinity for a gambling rush imply anything about the rest of McCain’s capacity for judgment and decision making ability?

The answer, according to both empirical observation and recent neurobiological research, is at least a provisional yes.

Anecdotes (which I know are not data) first:

Just take the last week of the campaign to see what happens when an impulsive risk taker gets on the loose.  McCain’s sudden decision to call for a delay on the debate and assert a (false) suspension of his campaign were widely seen as on-the-spot impulse decisions.  They do not appear to have benefitted him.  His decision to demand a role in the bailout negotiations has been widely described as a disaster…and so on. Going a little further the selection of Gov. Palin looks like another impulse acceptance of great risk for potentially great reward.

Such examples of  McCain’s behavior under pressure does not prove that he is an erratic, risk addicted menace, of course.  But they do provide a portrait that is consistent with that view.

Now, enter neuroscience.  The study of the brain chemistry of gambling is a young one, and anyone looking for a deterministic answer to the question of whether regular but not ruinous risk taking is an indicator for a broader collection of mental attributes is not going to find it there, at least not yet.

But the current focus of the research on dopamine metabolism and the way centers of your brain respond to the stimulus winning and losing, do show the connection between emotion and brain states.

At the same time, studies of problem gambling suggest (and I emphasize suggest) that the brain states that correlate with behaviors like chasing losses, in the words of one such investigation, “might underlie the loss-of-control over appetitive behaviors in other impulse control disorders.”

Other types of studies —  suggest, for example, that gamblers can’t take the long view as well as non gamblers.  (Again, suggest, because no one small sample study can be said to mean very much at all.  Just reminding everyone of what I’m sure y’all know very well).

John McCain the candidate is a gambler — that’s on the record.

He likes to roll the dice. The metaphor is exact. Both his own history and the accumulating evidence of psychological and neurobiological work make it impossible to assume that his love of the game can be confined to a craps table in the basement of the White House.

This is not a comforting thought to attach to someone whose hands could hold the nuclear codes.

*Obama’s gambling as profiled in the same article linked above, has centered on low-stakes poker.  Describing his regular game at the Illinois State Legislature, the article reports:

He always had his head in the game. The stakes were low enough — $1 ante and $3 top raise — to afford a long shot. Not Obama. He studied the cards as closely as he would an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill. The odds were religion to him. Only rarely did he bluff. “He had a pretty good idea about what his chances were,” says Denny Jacobs, a former state senator from East Moline.

It seems to me worth noting the obvious:  where craps is a game of chance with the inevitability of long-term losses, poker is a game of strategy, rewarding an understanding of probability and a capacity for psychological assessment of your opponents.  Hand by hand results may vary, but over time, the more skilled player wins.  So the question in the upcoming election becomes:  would you rather have a craps player or a poker player staring down Putin next time around?

As our French friends would say: the question answers itself.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Gaming Table” from A Rake’s Progress, 1732-35.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Dog Bites Man: McCain Campaign lies again

September 28, 2008

I used to like euphamisms, like “dissemble,” “misleads,” “fabulates.”  But my thesaurus got sulky at all the work and has headed off to a bar on an unscheduled work action, so I’ll just call it like it is:

In one of the least surprising post debate reactions imaginable, Senator John McCain’s campaign continued to lie about big things and small.

The big?  Well I was struck by the candidate himself charging that in the matter of the bailout, his opponent, Senator Obama put electoral politics before the country — given this story.  (Not to mention the interesting sequence of events that followed Obama asking McCain to join him in providing a common set of principles for the solution.

This isn’t news, of course — McCain continuously, routinely lies about his own shenanigans, that of his associates, and of course, on a daily basis, that of his opponent (just think of the often debunked lie about Obama’s tax proposals repeated in Friday’s debate).

On some level, I must admit, these big lies neither surprise me nor bother me all that much.  The problem he faces, of course, is that McCain’s record itself is at odds with what every poll seems to suggest the American electorate wants.

Given where McCain actually stands, thus, his only chance is to accuse Obama of precisely the sin he has just committed — see his behavior in the bailout story referenced above for only the most recent of a long list of examples —  and hope he can confuse the voters enough about what Obama and he actually stand for to sneak out a victory. (H/t and shorter form of the link above to Andrew Sullivan.)

What really gets me, though, and what I think reveals the deep pathology at the heart of any prospective McCain administration, are the little lies, the unnecessary b.s.-is-better-than truth stuff that seems to be a constant in that campaign.

The one that caught me eye was this one, from yesterday.   Justifying McCain’s attempt to inject himself into the bailout negotiations again, this time by phone, his spokesman, Mark Salter said,

“He’s calling members on both sides, talking to people in the administration, helping out as he can.”

So whom did the Senator call?  Paulson, Bush, and Bernancke — and about a dozen Republican members of Congress.

That’s fine.  McCain is a grown man (are you sure?…ed) and he should call whoever he thinks needs to hear from him.  And whatever you think of the proposed deal on its merits, the hold-up now is coming, by all accounts, from the loon wing of the House Republican caucus, so having the Presidential candidate from that party lean on some folks might even have an effect.  The list of his calls is as uncontroversial as anything can be in an election season.

But why lie about it?  Why say you are going to call Democrats when you are not?  This is just so petty, so minor, why even bother?

Because, of course, once you get the habit of deceit it becomes hard to break.

The only remaining question, I hope a rhetorical one, is to ask whether a man and an organization he leads that displays this kind of habit should be entrusted with the Presidency.

*Institutional logrolling alert:  I note with pleasure that the article in the Boston Globe to which this link leads was written by Carolyn Johnson, one of the growing number of accomplished graduates of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.  See — there is life after a masters program.

Image: Robert Arneson, “See No Evil/Hear No Evil”, one of seven “eggheads” found around the UC Davis campus. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

OMG — Sarah Palin Edition (Vol. XXXV No. 486)

September 27, 2008

This just about says it all.

(Karaoke session in Philly last night.  Nuff said.)

Update: Lingering memories of journalism compel me to remind my readers that this is an undated photograph.  In other words, given what we know of Gov. Palin’s movements last night, the notion of her performing Karaoke while John fumed is one of those plausible, and too-good-to-check stories that came off remote patches of the AP tape at three in the morning.  It could be, but your money back if this post has led you wrong….;-)

Credit Where Credit’s Due: Marc Ambinder edition

September 27, 2008

Readers of this blog know that I have taken off after the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder on regular occasions.  You can find a recent example a few posts below — but I’m not linking there because now I come to praise Marc, not to bury him.

This post on Obama’s argument last night that he and McCain advisor Henry Kissinger agree on talking to Iran — and McCain himself is on the wrong side of this question — is right on point, exactly the kind of thing you hope to read in a political blog.

It’s especially significant because Kissinger is out and about these days saying he supports McCain’s position, not Obama’s.

Marc does the research to show (a) that Kissinger’s assurance is exceptionally carefully worded — too clever by half, some might say — and (b) it thus succeeds in conveying a false impression, if it does not cross the line into overt falsehood.  Kissinger and Obama do agree on the basic idea, and, as Obama stated last night, McCain is the odd man out.

So, kudos to Marc.  Go read the post.

Update (great minds think alike division): DeLong, another frequent critic of Ambinder (and kind republisher of my complaints) more or less simultaneously praised the same piece that caught my eye.

Image:  Nicolas Gosse, “Napoleon I receiving  Baron Vincent, the Austrian Ambassador, at Erfurt, 1808,” 19th c.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.