Tuesday, May 3, 2016


By Jim Szantor

Rhetorical questions, questionable rhetoric and whimsical observations 
about the absurdities of contemporary life
  • Three things I don't pretend to understand:  Bitcoins, Snapchat and RSS feeds.  (Close behind:  Instagram, Buzzfeed and Prince, all due respect.)
  • Let's see if I've got this right:  Our government is dysfunctional, our Supreme Court is paralyzed, our infrastructure is crumbling, our climate concerns are largely ignored, yet the premier issue these days seems to be where the minuscule percentage of the population that is transgender can go to the bathroom.   Whatta country!
  • In other words, you could say that the body politic has become the shoddy politic.
  • "It’s useless to hold a person to anything he says while he’s in love, drunk, or running for office."--Shirley MacLaine
  • I had quite a few medical tests (colonoscopy, etc., etc.) performed lately and passed all of them "with flying colors," I was told.  Hmmm.  Red is a color,isn't it?  Flags fly, don't they?  But apparently there were none of those.
  • News you probably missed:   California nuts have become so lucrative that an organized band of thieves has stolen 31 shipments of almonds and pistachios worth $9 mil­lion, the Los Angeles Times reports.  "Nuts don’t have serial numbers," an insurance company executive said.  "The product is easy to move, and the evidence is consumed."
  • I think I've finally put my finger on what Hillary Clinton's clothing  reminds me of:  Indoor-outdoor carpeting!
  • Piling on:  Remember when people called Illinois native and former Arkansas resident Hillary Clinton a "carpetbagger" when she ran for the senate in New York?   Carpetbagger?  That's not what she was, that's what she wears! That's one look.  As for the other, who ever thought a tarpaulin would be a good fashion look?
  • Grisly courtroom action (or, bad writing/editing, Chicago Sun-Times, April 29): "Daisy Gutierrez, 21, pleaded guilty to dismembering a body before Judge William Hooks, according to Cook County court records."
  • jimjustsaying's edited version:  Daisy Gutierrez, 21, pleaded guilty before Judge William Hooks to dismembering a body, according to Cook County court records.
  • How much would Major League Baseball attendance decline if beer sales were outlawed?  25 percent?  50 percent?  I'mjustsayin'.
  • Speaking of sports:  This ever happen to you?  You turn on a game and don't recognize either of the teams?
  • Remember when your favorite baseball team had two uniforms:  White for home games and those "gray traveling uniforms," as announcers used to call them?   Now they've got 5 or 6 sets, from "throwback unis" to camouflage outfits (for all you veterans out there) to this and that and whatever.   You turn on a game and are a bit puzzled about who really is playing.  This being an election year, perhaps the World Series teams will be wearing  American Flags or something suitably patriotic.
  • And then there's April 15, when every player on every team wears No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson.   What they should have been wearing:  Number  9.2, to reflect the appallingly low actual percentage of black players on Opening Day rosters this season (69 out of 750, if you do the math).
  • "Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read. "--Frank Zappa
  • jimjustsaying's As Seen on TV Product Name of the Week:  Angry-Mama microwave cleaner.  ($9.98)   ("Turn on the microwave and watch angry steam flow out of her head. . . .")
  • Radio News Redundancy of the Week:  "Violent extremists."  As in "Villagers in the town square were attacked by a group of violent extremists."   Um, aren't all extremists essentially violent?  As opposed to those placid, Milquetoasty extremists; you know, the kind who help little old ladies across the street and volunteer at the food pantry?  
  • jimjustsaying's Word That Should Exist But Doesn't of the Week:  "Oopzama":  The sudden scratching of the face or scalp upon realization that the person you were waving at isn't who you thought it was.--"More Sniglets," Rich Hall & Friends.
  • Seventy-first Wisconsin Town I Didn't Know Existed Until I Saw It Mentioned in a Green Bay Press-Gazette Obituary: North Chase, Wis.. (R.I.P., Gladys Saindon, Green Bay Press-Gazette obituary, Nov. 12, 2015).  Previous entries: Athelstane, Walhain, Duck Creek, Breed, Anston, Sobieski, Amberg, Osseo, Angelica, Brazeau, Waukechon, Sugar Camp, Kossuth, Lessor, Kunesh, Pulcifer, Cato, Florence, Greenleaf, Eaton, Poygan, Hofa Park, Hilbert, Hollandtown, Beaufort, Glennie, Harshaw, Bessemer, Crooked Lake, Tigerton, Goodman, Readstown, Dousman, Butternut, Montpelier, Cecil, Red River, Gillet, King, Laona, Kelly Lake, Glenmore, Tonet, Stiles, Morrison, Dunbar, Askeaton, Wild Rose. Neopit, Ellisville, Pickett, Flintville,  Forest Junction, Thiry Daems, Black Creek,  Mountain, Ledgeview, Lunds, Suring, Lakewood, Beaver, Cloverleaf Lakes, Krakow,  Pella, Townsend, Vandenbroek, Coleman,  Spruce, Armstrong Creek and Lake Gogebic.
  • Newspaper Obituary Headline Nickname of the Month:  Big Papa.  As in Shaun "Big Papa" Hurning,  Green Bay Press-Gazette, April 5, 2016.  R.I.P., Mr. Hurning .
  • Old sayings that have  passed their expiration dates:  “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”  "Don’t take any wooden nickels."  "A penny for your thoughts."
  • jimjustsaying's Party Ice-Breaker of the Week:  "Say [actual partygoer's name here], did you know that it takes 63,000 people to operate Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport?  That includes airline, ground transportation, concessionaire, security, federal government, city and airport tenant employees."  (On duty are two art department coordinators, a full-time wildlife biologist, engineers for the airport's Plane Train and Sky Train and a mobile medical response team that includes EMTs who jump on bicycles to cut down on the time it takes to respond to a medical emergency.)  
  • I consider myself the poor man's Joe Piscopo.  My best impression is Frank Sinatra Jr!
  • Today's Latin Lesson:  Nihil hic, mi placet moveri. ("Nothing to see here, folks, please move along.")


Are polls really less accurate?
There’s no doubt about it.  In recent years, polls have been egregiously wrong in several high-profile elections.  In the months before the 2012 presidential election, an average of leading polls showed a virtual tie between Obama and Mitt Romney, and some--notably Gallup--predicted a narrow Romney victory. Instead, the president easily won re-election, by 5 million votes and a 51.1 percent to 47.2 percent margin.  Pollsters vastly underestimated a Republican wave in the 2014 midterms, and had an epic fail in the Michigan Democratic primary, with the poll average predicting Hillary Clinton would crush Bernie Sanders by 21 points.   When Sanders upset Clinton by 1.5 percent, polling aggregator Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com--who had given the Vermont senator just a 1 percent chance of winning--deemed it "among the greatest polling errors in primary history.”  And it’s not just an American problem.  Pollsters totally misread the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, which was resoundingly rejected, and missed decisive victories last year for Britain’s Conservatives and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

What’s gone wrong with polls?
Pollsters primarily blame recent failures on two factors: "the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys,” says political scientist Cliff Zukin, former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.  Ten years ago, about 6 percent of Americans relied primarily on cellphones; by 2014 that figure had jumped to 60 percent.  That caused problems for opinion researchers, who typically polled by making automated "robocalls” to random landline exchanges and then, when people picked up, passing them to a live interviewer.  "To complete a 1,000-person survey, it’s not unusual to have to dial more than 20,000 random numbers,” Zukin says.  Federal law, however, prohibits autodialing cellphones--which means paid interviewers have to make calls manually, which can be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. As a result, some organizations make compromises, such as leaning too heavily on landline surveys, which can skew results.

Population oversights
The poll can end up ignoring large segments of the population. "Guess who answers the [landline] phone now? It’s all people over 50," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.  That can make for a more affluent and conservative sampling.  In addition to overlooking younger voters, landline polling also gives short shrift to minorities and the poor, sectors most likely to rely on cellphones. Under-representing those groups, McInturff explains, "means you are systematically under-counting Democrats." Since people take their cellphone numbers with them when they move, it’s also harder to use area codes to target specific regions. One of the ways pollsters try to compensate for these problems is by "weighting" their results.

What’s weighting?
If a polling sample includes 3 percent African-Americans, but African-Americans account for 12 percent of the population, the pollster will "weight" the preferences of the black respondents four times as much. "The goal is noble," says pollster Jeanne Zaino, but weighting "is fraught with challenges and uncertainties.  How do we know if the African-Americans sampled represent the views and attitudes of all African-Americans?"  Besides race, polls also weight by party, cellphone use, gender, and other factors--but the formula for doing so varies from pollster to pollster, and is subject to error and partisan bias. Rasmussen Reports, for example, is known to skew Republican, while Public Policy Polling (PPP) leans Democratic.  Weighting can lead to another phenomenon that affects polling firms’ accuracy: "herding." If most polls show a candidate with a 10-point lead, and Poll X finds that the race is much closer, Poll X often finds an excuse to cook its numbers to avoid being an outlier.  And no matter how polls are weighted, they really can’t compensate for declining response rates.

How far have those rates fallen?
A lot. "In the late 1970s, we considered an 80 percent response rate acceptable," says Zukin. "By 2014, the response rate had fallen to 8 percent."  For more than a century, people answered their landline phones faithfully, but they’ve grown much warier. "Telemarketing poisoned the well," says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University survey. Scott Keeter, who runs the respected Pew Research poll, says people can now use voice mail and caller ID to ignore calls from unknown numbers.  Online polls are becoming more prevalent, but since they’re voluntary, people who choose to answer them may be unusually ideological, skewing the results.

Is there hope for polling?
The most accurate technique appears to be the kind of poll averaging conducted by RealClearPolitics.com and Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com.  Silver weights polls according to historical accuracy and factors in demographics and other data to create election models. Despite his miss in Michigan this year, he’s scored spectacular successes, correctly calling the outcomes of 49 states during the 2008 presidential election and a perfect 50 in 2012.  Still, as Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics​.com, points out, even these data-savvy methods can fail if they’re based on flawed samplings of voters. "Electoral modelers have a nerdy little secret," he says. "We aren’t oracles."

Gallup’s missed call in 2012
Mitt Romney was so sure he would be elected the nation’s 45th president in 2012 that he ordered a fireworks display to be unleashed over Boston Harbor the moment he notched his 270th electoral vote.  Internal surveys gave him a consistent lead over President Obama, and so did several outside pollsters, including venerable Gallup.  But skies over Boston remained dark that Election Night, as Obama cruised to a second term.  What went wrong?  Gallup’s post-mortem found it had misidentified likely voters, under-counted Democratic-leaning regions, over-counted whites,  and when calling landlines dialed only listed numbers, which skewed older and Republican.  Gallup has tweaked its model for 2016.  "When the next presidential election rolls around," promises Gallup’s Frank Newport, "we think we’ll certainly be in a position to be at the accurate end of the spectrum."
--The Week