Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Watching the Debate Watchers

So one of my favorite books (don't laugh, but if you are reading this, you probably won't) is Alan Moore's classic graphic novel (that's arugula-eater speak for comic book) Watchmen. It often repeats the phrase "who watches the watchmen?" Meaning, in this case, when a group of people consider themselves to lie above (or outside, if you are Dr. Manhattan) the normal bounds of law and restraint, who is to maintain any sort of code of conduct or behavior to which they must answer?

This is not about that graphic novel (yes, I am again using the "But this is not their story..." device). Rather it is about these multiple online streaming thingies that CNN has got going during the final presidential debate of 2008. I almost said "final presidential debate," but one does have to hope that we will have other presidents elected during other elections and that there will be, in some format, debates during these elections. But I am starting to sound rather too much like Samuel Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. And I am definitely pulling out a Tarantino-esque level of pop culture referentiality.

These little streaming video bits focus on allowing us multi-taskers out there to watch other people watch the debates. In my case I am not actually multitasking with a dozen TV screens going at once, Ozymandias like (and yes, I did manage to work in another Watchmen reference. Why don't I go for broke and ask if anyone else out there finds themselves thinking so strongly about Dr. Manhattan every time Heroes brings up Silar's watch infatuation?). I actually am trying to find a balance between the fact that Erica is working tonight and I am home. I've got the debates Tivoing in the other room so we can watch it together when she gets home. But I feel my Internet generation addiction to continuous connectivity tugging at me and find it almost impossible to let a potentially history-impacting moment go by without at least some awareness of how it is going down.

So I found a happy compromise. I'd watch the watchmen. There are two windows I've found interesting (the one where two bloggers sit at their respective Macs and argue while Obama and McCain bicker in the background appeals to me only in so far as they are both using Macs which is why my screen capture is actually from the Palin/Biden debate because in the current one I notice the monitors are a lot less prominent).

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The first one I find interesting is CNN's live measure of voter response. It has this intensely medical look, doesn't it? Enough that I quite seriously wonder, "How is CNN doing that?" I picture a panel of a dozen voters of each faction (Rep, Dem, Ind) strapped to hospital beds, with electrodes attached to their foreheads, blood pressure cuffs on their arms, heart rate monitors across their chests, and perhaps even a respiration monitor to capture rate and volume of breathing. All, of this, is overseen by Hugh Laurie at his most scruffy and contemptuous.

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Incidentally, the fact that I got this capture while Obama was saying something that clearly everyone liked really was pure chance and not some attempt to send a little subliminal signal. But don't think I didn't find it interesting that my pure-chance effort ended up that way.

In reality, I suspect that what we have going on is a few hundred homes holding a Nintendo pad and furiously toggling through some internet connection that their state is "happy," "neutral," or "unhappy." Given how often I get confused when using those game controllers and end up running to the left when I mean to shoot the werewolf or whatever I'd tend to give a pretty low factor of reliability to that approach. Now that I think about it, you could also do something clever with a volume meter, much in the way sports broadcasts often do some bogus pseudo-VU meter thing to show crowd enthusiasm at big games. Given that (in my totally unscientific appraisal of the situation) people tend to make noise after the people they like (cheering or shouting "yeah, you tell him!" or such) but to talk over the people they don't like ("you lying sack of shit!") you could probably gather some information that would have exactly as much validity as any of the other little line-drawing routines. Probably, for that matter, you could have hamsters walk on the mousepad of someone's laptop and generate a graphic sufficiently compelling for people to tune in and stream it.

Now the other little instant feedback display, and the one I actually found more interesting because it reflects not the belief of people I don't know being measured in a way I don't know but rather people I don't know being measured in a way that I do know, was CNN's pole of analysts. Six people, distributed fairly well among liberals, conservatives, and independents on and off of CNN's staff. They register a "point" for or against either debater as they feel that person either made a good move or possible gaffe. Simple. Kind of like at the Olympics or boxing, but more real time.

I also have this technique of "seeing through the haze" of conflicting opinion and commentary that is to quite simply take a gestalt survey of what many people are saying and average it out. I'm no Greg House and am not willing to go so far as to say "Everybody lies," but I do firmly believe that everyone, even the most superficially selfless person in the world, takes actions according to some sort of internal logic of self-interest. It may not be self-interest that is clear, well planned, or even makes sense to an outsider (or even to the person taking the action), but that specificity is for another day.

In this context, I mean that every organization out there, even those that profess disinterested neutrality or an objectively alternative viewpoint, is getting tugged in some direction or another by forces of their own interest. Take NPR, generally regarded as a bastion of objective (or at least alternative) journalism. Now the honestly do a pretty good job of putting out objective coverage, but let's face it, how long do you think the pledges would keep coming in if, all of a sudden, NPR started putting out the same viewpoints as Fox News? Even if the actual events of the day supported Fox's analysis, NPR has a market position to maintain and a certain constituency to play to. Just take a look at Chris Buckley who, in addition to penning some of the best political commentary on this election (in terms of the "what in the sam hell happened to John McCain?" factor), is now out of a job.

Anyway, my point is. People are biased. Even people who are trying really hard to be unbiased might find themselves with an urge to either conform with the masses or to stand apart from them.

So I take the average. I weight the institutions with known biases (Huffington Post and Fox News cancel out nicely), the ones I consider pretty neutral based on past performances, and see where the middle lands. That, I guess, is where (depending on the sort of issue) the truth, the most commonly held belief, reality, or some facsimile of it would, should, or could lie.

And so I like viewpoints that allow me to quickly scan a range of viewpoints, to get the gestalt view of what is afoot. So I like maps that show me pretty colors of how strongly states are registering in pre-election poles, even if it is cheesy and runs enough badly coded Flash to suck my battery capacity down at an absurd rate.

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So now take a look at this. At the point I took this capture, perhaps 40 minutes in to the show, things are looking pretty close to tied. 1-McCain, 3-Obama, 2-Tie. Now that we've wrapped up the show the score has leveled out to 3-3 with no ties left on the board (sorry about the spoiler, but since I'm spoiling a live event, I don't feel too bad).

But at another level, I'm interested in how the different pundits scored the candidates. No, not whether they scored Obama or McCain the winner, but how they choose to define "score." Take a look at Gergen. Clearly we have a soccer game going on here, with nthree "scores" on McCain's side and two on Obama's. Now just as clearly, Martin is watching a basketball game where, not even to the first half, there are a total of 73 points on the board among the two sides. As a factor of scoring, King doesn't like to think negative thoughts about other people's performance, with only one negative point out of seventeen (at the time this shot was taken, the end total would be 33 positive, with still only one negative!). Castellanos appears to be watching football, the numbers even working out to reasonable football score values. Presumably the rest are at a baseball game, relying on that perennial source of political catch phrases and trite sports analogies.

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But returning to an examination of the numbers, now in their final form, what might I be able to find about the reaction to this debate. Which, I'd like to mention, I have still not seen or heard in any significant quantity. Clearly McCain did better than at the last one, at the very least there was none of the distracted wandering around problem going on. It also seems that both candidates managed to avoid committing too many faux-pas. I'd say that McCain was probably the more aggressive -- partially because I expected him to be so and partially because he, even in the minds of his supporters (except for Bennett, who had the most notably lop-sided evaluation -- and I tend to find that the person with the most lop-sided evaluation is often the one with the most biased evaluation) scored more negative points than Obama. An aggressive strategy is usually one that is likely to involve greater risks and greater chance of error -- even if the gains outweigh the losses.

If we look just at the positive numbers, we see that the score worked out to be Obama-2, McCain-3, Tie-1. I'm doing this by comparing each commentator's ranking a-la match play, because Martin (and to a lesser extent Castellanos) have such high numbers going that they'd skew the whole thing). If we look at the negative numbers only, we see that the score was Obama-5, McCain-1 (keeping in mind that you win this match by scoring fewer points. So yeah, McCain was definitely going for it, and definitely taking some losses in the process. Obama was probably playing it cool and probably on the defensive a few times -- which makes it hard to score points unless you decide to go on the counter-attack. I don't expect there was too much "best defense is a good offensive" action from Obama, though, since I bet that would have brought up more negative points, what with the fact that attack-counter-attack quickly starts to look like bickering.

Now how did it actually go? I'll have to see. Erica's home now and I've got one kiddo to put to bed and then its time to roll the Tivo. So let the final act begin. And we'll see how the analysis worked out...

UPDATE

Well, now I've watched the debate and have to say I think I did a decent job with analyzing a debate that I hadn't seen. Actually watching the thing, I got pretty sick of ol' Joe the Plumber, but it was a nice break from "My friends..." which seemed, now that I think about it, notably absent. Obama was a little defensive, McCain definitely attacking. Obama more issues focused, McCain more personal. I'd say I agree with those who's cards scored Obama with the win.

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