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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Why 538 election model is wrong and Biden has an easy win ahead

#TrumpYourCat by jillccarlson from flickr (CC-BY)

538 releases a model predicting what they think is going to happen every elections, and this time they released a crazy one, where "Biden is only slightly favored to win the election", and Trump has insanely high 30% chance of  second term.

This is in stark contrast to everyone else's predictions. For example The Economist gives Trump just 9% chance of winning, and this is a much more sensible number.

In this post I'll explain why 538 believes elections are quite close, and why it's completely wrong.

It's not a terribly sophisticated analysis, but it's too long for a tweet, so I thought I'd put it here.

If you're interested, I wrote "A Guide to 2020 Elections for non-Americans" a while back, and I dislike both Trump and Biden very much.

Why 538 model believes what it does

Their model is very sophisticated, but its basic assumptions leading to their crazy conclusions are fairly straighforward:

  • Biden is far ahead in polls, however:
  • there's still a lot of time until elections
  • things are likely to change until then
  • especially since pandemic year is full of events
  • Electoral College benefits Trump, so he will likely win even if he losses popular vote narrowly
  • the economy went to hell earlier this year, but they think it will improve, and that will somehow benefit Trump

Why 538 is completely wrong - not much time

The only thing they got right is that Biden is indeed far ahead in the polls. They're wrong about everything else.

The elections are a lot closer than they think. In normal times, most people vote on Election Day. This time due to the pandemic a lot more people will vote by mail early, and mail voting opens about a month before Election Day, depending on the state. So for a lot of voters, time until elections is only half of what they think. And people might be voting even earlier as there's a lot of talk about Post Office having trouble processing votes in time.

Even if Biden says the dumbest thing he ever said one week until elections, or Trump single-handedly invents coronavirus vaccine, enough votes will be cast by then that it probably won't matter.

Why 538 is completely wrong - pandemic prevents most campaigning

People don't change political beliefs based on clocks ticking, they do based on events and campaigning. This time due to pandemic there's going to be a lot less campaiging, and people's attention will be largely on other issues.

It's not even certain if the usual debates will happen or not. And even if they do, only the first of the three is supposed to happen before mail voting starts.

Why 538 is completely wrong - people already made up their mind

If you compare Trump's approval ratings with all past presidents, Trump's are the least volatile.

People love Trump, or hate Trump, and there's a lot fewer people in between that could be convinced by the campaigns. So no matter how good Trump's campaign is, it will likely not matter. And likewise, while Biden will almost certainly win, he's also very unlikely to win by 1984 style landslide.

Why 538 is completely wrong - Electoral College advantage can go either way

In 2000 and 2016 elections, Democrats won the popular vote, but Republicans won the presidency. While this might give an impression that Electoral College system inherently benefits Republicans (the way Senate arguably does), if you look back both parties benefited from the system about equally often.

Right now it might look like 2020 map will be similar to 2016 map, and seems to benefit Trump. This thinking is completely mistaken.

If very little changes, Trump will lose terribly, and while he might indeed lose Electoral College by less than popular vote, it will be completely inconsequential.

For elections to be even competitive, fairly big changes must happen. But while it's possible, there's no reason to expect that they'll uniformly apply to all states (in proportion to their "swinginess").

For example if Biden says something that will offend a million Californians and makes them stay at home or vote third party, this will significantly reduce his popular vote share, but it won't matter for Electoral College one bit, since California will go Democratic regardless.

Trump needs not only a really big swing - he needs a swing that's either eerily uniform, or happen in just the right states.

In reality, if a major swing happens, it throws all assumptions about Electoral College advantage out of the window. Even if much bigger swing than could be reasonably expected happens, and Trump somehow manages to reach vote share similar to what he got in 2016 (losing popular vote by 2%), it's actually still quite unlikely that this swing will leave his Electoral College advantage intact, and get him another victory.

Why 538 is completely wrong - the economy will not favor Trump

A popular way to predict elections is by looking at "economic fundamentals". The thinking goes that whenever economy is doing poorly, people blame whoever is in charge for it, and vote for someone else. This is generally true, and after every major economic crisis like 1929 or 2008, governments all across the world got a lot less popular, regardless of which part of the political spectrum they were on, and how much or how little they had to do with causes of the crisis. There's no reason to expect 2020 to be any different.

538 really hates fundamentals models, and for a good reason. While bad "economy" affects people's voting preferences, there's no obvious way to pick a single number for what is the "economy". You can use unemployment, or GDP, or disposable income, or stock market, or so many other indicators, of combinations of indicators. So in year were economy is doing so-so, you can't really use those models to predict much.

Instead of stopping there, 538 somehow decided to ask experts where the economy will go just before elections, and since most expect some recovery from the worst of the lockdowns, they count this as benefiting Trump. While there's a room for reasonable disagreement how to model this, there's no way in hell 2020 economy could possibly benefit Trump, people's memories are longer than a few weeks, and US is still and will likely be in state of mass unemployment.

Are 2020 Elections a foregone conclusion?

Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to win the House - they'll win the popular vote, and there's not even a possibility of Electoral College stopping them. Republican House is about as likely as Nicola Sturgeon becoming the next Prime Minister.

Biden is extremely likely to win presidency - things would need to go really damn well for Trump.

Senate is another matter. Only 1/3 of it is reelected each time, and Republicans do have a meaningful structural advantage there, so it seems fairly close to even who's going to win. And it probably matters more than anything else this year.

If Democrats control the Senate, they'll be able to abolish filibuster, pass pretty much whatever they want, and then possibly also pack Supreme Court with ten new liberal judges that will pronounce all of that Constitutional. They probably won't go that far, but in principle they could.

In Democrats keep the House, and Republicans keep the Senate, then it will most likely be four more years of gridlock regardless of who's the president. The parties hate each other so much, they won't compromise on anything beyond the most routine operations of the government. Biden's policies will be different than Trump's, but presidential policies don't matter as much as people thing, an the next president in 2024 might very well reverse most of them.

And yes, I obviously put money where my mouth is.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Trying out Minecraft again after 10 years

Dolphin who followed me to my base, jumped onto the sand, and died tragically.

Some time later its buddy made the same bad life choice.

Like everyone else, I played Minecraft really long time ago. I recently discovered that the game is still receiving regular updates after all those years. Thanks to corona, I have a bit more free time than usual, so I decided to give it another go!

Here's my thoughts. Little of this will be new to you if you played recently.

My favourite changes

I really like the new villager system. This is possibly the biggest change - trading with villagers at first seems pointless, as they don't sell anything useful, but it turns out they level up, and offer more and more interesting items - while stuff they buy you can build semi-automated system to collect.

It's also possible to train villagers to choose new profession, breed villagers, and they have some protection with iron golems they summon, and some enemies with pillagers.

Treasure ships and treasure maps found in them are great. You'll randomly run into them as you explore, and they have nice stuff inside, and map where to get even more nice stuff. I really didn't love how I got two copies of same treasure map once, but such small side quests are great fun.

Boats no longer take damage when sailing around! Looks like they changed that back in 2012, that makes boats a great transportation system, and canals for them are quite easy to build.

The game now shows you recipes when you open crafting table, and that's a great change! No need to alt tab for rarely used things.

The game needs a damn map!

The game now has maps, and I thought that's great until I tried actually using them, and omg they're truly terrible.

This was one thing that finally convinced me to go through the hassle of installing Forge modding system (make sure you get one that matches your Minecraft's version), and then both Xaero's map mods (world map, minimap). It seems like such a small thing, but honestly it makes bigger difference for player enjoyment than everything they changed in Minecraft over last 10 years put together.

Game still hates the player sometimes

The game has its share of "fuck you player" moments. Falling into lava and losing all you stuff is a classic, but the game has more.

Like when you get hit by a Wither Skeleton, that not only damages you when hit, and poisons you so you keep losing your health (which is far enough so far...), but it also hides your health bar, which is just Minecraft devs being assholes.

For another "fuck you player moment", I was just wandering around exploring, setting up temporary bed whenever night fell and then taking it with me afterwards. I was in the boat during daytime, and somehow tridents started flying my way from the water, and I died out of nowhere. I lost all my stuff as usual, but most annoyingly game decided to spawn me at 0, 0 instead of my base or last sleeping place since last bed I slept in was no longer there.

The problem was that in my seed, there were no villages within over a 1000 blocks from my spawn point, and the closest one I finally found was abandoned, so I finally setup my base at about -2000, -1000 or so next to the first inhabited village I found. So by spawning at 0, 0 I wasted like 15 minutes of my life walking there. Just because the devs hate me.

And then there's all the other stuff, like all the sand updating because I placed a torch, resulting in sudden fall into a ravine.

There are games where mechanics like that make sense, but Minecraft is mainly about exploring and building, and last thing it should do is punishing exploration.

Other things that suck

Inexplicably there's still no builtin modding system, and you need to install third party mod manager to even download and install mods. That is truly baffling.

Combat in Minecraft was always bad, and it's still bad. Turning it on Easy doesn't seem to do anything. At some point they changed combat system, and before I watched some youtube tutorials explaining how it really works, it seemed just ridiculous.

Placing item when building a bridge is really obnoxious. And it looks like other versions of Minecraft fixed it, but somehow Java version still uses the old and really tedious system.

With single exception of crafting table recipes, the game is really bad at explaining anything. There's so many things that are completely unintuitive, and which are not explained, and not realistically discoverable. It's as if the game expects players to watch youtube tutorials for half of its mechanics. And sometimes I watched a tutorial, tried something, and it absolutely didn't work, because Bedrock and Java are subtly different, or they updated things at some point, and it no longer works.

I always felt like player's inventory was too small, and it wanted me to keep running back to base too often. It makes sense that I can only carry so much, but why can't my boat or minecart have some extra inventory space, that I'd then bring home with me? Big Boat With Extra Chest - as well as Big Boat With Space For An Extra Animal would be great additions to the game.

Things I didn't care much for

I really didn't care for the Nether and End changes - they're far too combat oriented, and combat in Minecraft is just not very fun, before or after the big combat update.

It feels like there's far too many blocks that just don't do anything different. There's naturally occurring stone in like 10 colors now, and a lot of cosmetic variation that feels largely pointless.

There's a lot of new mobs too, which seem to do nothing interesting.

I don't hate such changes, and I guess they add some extra flavour.

Is it worth playing again?

To be honest compared with other games that had 10+ years of updates, Minecraft changed surprisingly little. Something like Factorio or Crusader Kings II are such drastically different games than they were at release, but Minecraft now and 10 years ago, pretty much the same thing.

I might be worth giving it a go. Then again, if you never played Factorio, you should try that first instead. There, your buildings actually do things.