A small (unpaid, I assure you) plug for InTrade.com

A year or two ago, I was alerted to the presence of a web site called InTrade.com. The site is described, alternatively, as an exchange or a gambling platform. Both are somewhat accurate. Essentially, at any given moment there are hundreds of various “markets” in different categories, such as “Politics,” “Business,” and “Entertainment.” In each market, users buy and sell (and even short-sell, just as in a real-life stock market) shares of a specific stock.

The twist is that each stock comes in the form of a predictive yes-or-no question. For example, here are a few going on right now: “Mitt Romney to be Republican Presidential Nominee in 2012;” “Any country currently using the Euro to announce their intention to drop it midnight ET 31 Dec 2012;” and even “NASA to announce discovery of extraterrestrial life before midnight ET 31 Dec 2012.” Unlike a normally functioning stock market, each share always falls between the outer limits of $0 and $10, depending on the market’s prediction of the event’s probability. So a market price of $6.50 for Mitt Romney winning the Republican nomination would mean that the market thinks Romney has a 65% chance of capturing the nomination.

So users buy if they think the stock is under-valued and sell if they think it’s over-valued (and, as mentioned earlier, they can even short-sell as well). Once the event itself has been completed, the market always settles at either the full price of $10 (for a “yes” result) or $0 (for a “no”). So if Mitt Romney wins, everyone who bought at $6.50/share would make a $3.50/share profit. Alternatively, users can buy or sell at any point before the market closes as well, meaning that someone could, say, buy Romney at $6.50 and sell him later at $7.50, before the nomination is sealed.

Anyway, today for the first time, I funded my account (with a paltry $30; I am a student, after all) and bought 6 shares of Santorum winning the GOP nomination for just over $3 total, and then placed another small bet on whether the Dow Jones’ closing level today would be higher than its closing level yesterday. We’ll see how things go.

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“Assassination” is just a scary word for “due process” – links of the day

At least, that’s what Attorney General Eric Holder would have you believe, in defending the Obama administration’s policy of targeted assassination(s) of American citizens:

Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces.   This is simply not accurate.   “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security.   The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

Charles P. Pierce, responding in Esquire, was rightly outraged:

Attorney General Eric Holder’s appearance at Northwestern on Monday, during which he explained the exact circumstances under which the president can order the killing of just about anyone the president wants to kill, was not promising. The criteria for when a president can unilaterally decide to kill somebody is completely full of holes, regardless of what the government’s pet lawyers say. And this…

“This is an indicator of our times,” Holder said, “not a departure from our laws and our values.”

…is a monumental pile of crap that should embarrass every Democrat who ever said an unkind word about John Yoo. This policy is a vast departure from our laws and an interplanetary probe away from our values. The president should not have this power because the Constitution, which was written by smarter people than, say, Benjamin Wittes, knew full and goddamn well why the president shouldn’t have this power. If you give the president the power to kill without due process, or without demonstrable probable cause, he inevitably will do so. And, as a lot of us asked during the Bush years, if you give this power to President George Bush, will you also give it to President Hillary Clinton and, if you give this power to President Barack Obama, will you also give it to President Rick Santorum?

Shockingly — at least to me, since I didn’t expect to see this coming from the New York Times — Andrew Rosenthal, writing in the section titled “The Loyal Opposition,” defended Holder’s speech, utterly ignoring the most insidious part, about the assassination policy. Even stranger still, Rosenthal neglected to mention, in his praise of Holder’s insistence on terrorists being tried in civilian courts, that his own government has killed a citizen without any trial or even any charges.

That said, Attorney General Eric Holder and Jeh Charles Johnson, the general counsel of the Defense Department, both delivered strong speeches on terrorism recently. The contrast between their remarks and the bad old days of the Bush era was striking.

Some of what they said troubled me. They both seemed to reject any role for the courts in deciding when to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism. And I am not as enamored of military tribunals as Mr. Holder and Mr. Johnson are…

At Northwestern University yesterday, Mr. Holder made a powerful case for the need to prosecute terrorists in the federal courts. “Simply put, since 9/11 hundreds of individuals have been convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related offences in Article 3 courts and are now serving long sentences in federal prison,” Mr. Holder said. “Not one has ever escaped custody. No judicial district has suffered any kind of retaliatory attack.”

Glenn Greenwald, fortunately, made a persuasive case against Holder’s remarks, based on contradictory statements made by Holder and Barack Obama just a few years ago:

Throughout the Bush years, then-Sen. Obama often spoke out so very eloquently about the Vital Importance of Due Process even for accused Terrorists. As but one example, he stood up on the Senate floor and denounced Bush’s Guantanamo detentions on the ground that a “perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence.” He spoke of “the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.” He mocked the right-wing claim “that judicial inquiry is an antique, trivial and dispensable luxury.” He acknowledged that the Government will unavoidably sometimes make mistakes in accusing innocent people of being Terrorists, but then provided the obvious solution: “what is avoidable is refusing to ever allow our legal system to correct these mistakes.”How moving is all that? What a stirring tribute to the urgency of allowing accused Terrorists a day in court before punishing them.

Then we have Eric Holder, who in 2008 gave a speech to the American Constitution Society denouncing Bush’s executive power radicalism and calling for a “public reckoning.” He specifically addressed the right-wing claim that Presidents should be allowed to eavesdrop on accused Terrorists without judicial review in order to Keep Us Safe. In light of what the Attorney General said and justified yesterday, just marvel at what he said back then, a mere three years ago:

To those in the Executive branch who say “just trust us” when it comes to secret and warrantless surveillance of domestic communications I say remember your history. In my lifetime, federal government officials wiretapped, harassed and blackmailed Martin Luther King and other civil rights leader in the name of national security. One of America’s greatest heroes whom today we honor with a national holiday, countless streets, schools and soon a monument in his name, was treated like a criminal by those in our federal government possessed of too much discretion and a warped sense of patriotism. Watergate revealed similar abuses during the Nixon administration.

To recap Barack Obama’s view: it is a form of “terror” for someone to be detained “without even getting one chance to prove their innocence,” but it is good and noble for them to be executed under the same circumstances. To recap Eric Holder’s view: we must not accept when the Bush administration says “just trust us” when it comes to spying on the communications of accused Terrorists, but we must accept when the Obama administration says “just trust us” when it comes to targeting our fellow citizens for execution. As it turns out, it’s not 9/11/01 that Changed Everything. It’s 1/20/09.

Finally, as is so often the case, Stephen Colbert got it exactly right.

Then there were Path, Pinterest, and Highlight: do we have too many social networks?

First it was Facebook and Twitter. (Or not even “first,” since those products were actually preceded by Friendster, MySpace, et al.) Now it’s Foursquare, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest, Path, and Highlight. Social networks are proliferating, but the addition of each new app/network is diluting the quality of the whole social experience.

In some (but not all) ways, social networking is a natural monopoly. The best customer experience is only possible when a large number of people are using the same service. The more fractured the space becomes, the less likely any of your friends are to be using the specific network you prefer. And this makes the entire social experience less valuable — both for prospective social media users looking to get involved for the first time, as well as for existing users looking to expand their digital influence/footprint.

I just downloaded Path on my Android smartphone the other day and, while I must admit that I haven’t spent much time with it, it’s a little unclear to me why anyone should bother using this over, say, Facebook, which already does the same thing (and more) and has the additional value of being used by nearly everyone I know. There is some merit in using multiple online tools — Facebook, for example, has yet to establish a blogging service capable of wooing customers away from Tumblr, WordPress, Blogspot, and the like — but much of today’s social sphere is simply redundant. Foursquare, or Facebook check-ins, or Google Latitude? They all do basically the same thing to varying degrees of success, but the existence of all three of them means that, at any given moment, relatively few of my friends are using any specific one of them.

Of course, the counterargument is that the presence of this competition is the very driver of innovation in the field. This is undoubtably true, and perhaps more importantly, there is no good way (nor would it be a remotely good idea) to force everyone to use a specific service anyway. But it is starting to feel as if the hyperactivity in social media these days is reducing the quality for everyone. I suppose the best we can hope for is that the presence of all these startups will force the big names like Facebook and Google to incorporate more of the best ideas into their own products. That is hardly an ideal free-market scenario, but it may be the best option we have at the moment.