Monday, November 19, 2018

Winning = Cheating for Some, I Guess

I guess I'm obsessed with elections and gerrymandering this week. Here's a tweet thread that explains something I didn't know. It's by someone who goes by the name Camestros Felapton. who blogs, mostly about science fiction as far as I can tell, here.

It starts out with Camestros reponding to a tweet linking to a Slate story called Why Democrats should not call the Georgia governor’s race “stolen.”

This is a bad take and lots of people are already saying why but let me illustrate with a true story. I spend a lot of time reading a very specific set of right wing blogs - those associated with science fiction writing (for reasons that don’t matter at this point…)

One of those blogs has stated without any sign of irony or attempt to actively deceive or intentional hyperbole that they believe 75% of Democratic votes are fraudulent. This is a reluctant Trump voter who sees themselves as libertarian - not an ‘alt-right’ blog per-se.

This extraordinary claim gets zero pushback from followers. It’s an excepted axiom in their worldview to the extent that they think the only reason Democrats win urban areas is because voter fraud is easier there. They honestly think the majority of the U.S. is much more right-wing than it is, so every Democratic victory is then seen as *evidence* of fraud. A Democrat wins and that CONFIRMS their view that fraud must be widespread and blatant. The only way they will think an election wasn’t won by fraud is if the GOP win. The only way to break the ‘cycle’ is GOP winning forever.

If the Democrats win in a GOP-controlled state, despite all the odds against them, that doubly confirms in this mindset that the Democrats defrauded. You can’t defuse that by NOT talking about fraud or stolen elections. It’s like trying to convince somebody a triangle has four sides...

I don’t know if the high-ups in the GOP think the same way of just cynically exploit this as a way to justify cheating and voter suppression but the outcome is the same: the GOP will be supported by its base when the GOP cheats.

To return to the beginning: I began reading this specific blog during the Puppy Debarkle around the Hugo Awards [given each year for science fiction and fantasy writing]. The same logic was applied to those. The Pups ‘knew’ there was cheating because stories they didn’t like kept winning.

The actual [Hugo] voting process is extraordinarily transparent and well-documented and fraud-resistant (even more so now). That didn’t matter because the ‘proof’ of the ‘fraud’ was the ‘wrong’ stories winning because only a tiny proportion of people could possibly like ‘those’ stories.

It’s an iron clad piece of anti-reasoning. You aren’t going to shake it by appealing to the integrity of the system! The Hugos implemented a new nomination system that actually structurally would have helped the Pups if they had continued to participate, but they didn’t because, again, they ‘knew’ the new system must be an evil trap to exclude them. (This wasn’t just ignorance, there were enough numerate senior Pups to follow how it worked and see how it could benefit them, if only they looked).

That’s not an argument AGAINST boosting the actual integrity of voting systems - just that it won’t convince the right that the left isn’t cheating. We can only do that by losing...which is obviously a very bad option.
It's pretty common to talk about epistemic closure and people living in bubbles, whether media-created or otherwise. This is a good example. I like to keep in mind the idea of falsifiability when figuring out what I believe in the world. (In order for something to a fact, it has to be possible to prove it false through observation or testing.) Whether there is voter fraud or not is clearly a falsifiable question, yet the people Camestros describes have instead transformed clear evidence against its existence into reflexive support for their previous belief.

The human brain is amazing.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Gerrymandering in Michigan

I know I've said this before, but Pacific Standard magazine is excellent. The most recent issue contains a substantial story (not yet posted to their site) called "Among the Gerrymandered: how redistricting in Michigan has disenfranchised voters and amplified the efforts of the right."

Like Wisconsin, Michigan's traditionally Democratic-voting areas were packed by a Republican-controlled legislature and governor after both the 2000 and 2010 censuses. They had a specific plan for the 2010 elections called (not making this up) REDMAP, where they targeted specific races in order to influence redistricting. Democrats received 53 percent of the votes in Michigan races that year, but won only 5 of 14 Congressional seats.

One way of demonstrating the result of that packing plus cracking (which is spreading your party's members out just enough to dominate more districts) in Michigan: smaller margins of victory for Republicans than Democrats, 21.6 vs. 40.6 percent. This is called an "efficiency gap," a term you may hear in media coverage of gerrymandering around the country.

The worst result of gerrymandering is that it leads elected officials to not care about the concerns of too many of their constituents. Combined with campaign finance that's heavily dependent on the 1 percent (often called the donor class), it results in something it's hard to call a democratic republic. It also contributes to polarization, because safe seats effectively get decided in the primary instead of the general election (or at the caucuses in states like Minnesota), which gives disproportionate power to the activists and highly motivated voters of each party.

In Michigan, which previously had a history (like Minnesota) of strong bipartisan work in its legislature, the 2011 session saw 323 bills signed into law, of which 307 were Republican-sponsored. The newly elected governor, Rick Snyder, had run as a moderate wonk, but among the bills he signed was a right-to-work law supported by only 40 percent of Michigan's population.

It gets worse

And all of that is terrible and worth writing about here, but I probably wouldn't have, except for the next parts of the article. We all know gerrymandering is bad in general, but the examples given kept getting worse.

Not only has it decimated Michigan's public education system (and given us privatizer billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary), it led to bankrupting and poisoning families. Yes, literally.

The 2011 legislature passed an anti-fraud bill that instituted an automated system called MiDAS (!), which allowed the state to lay off 400 workers in the unemployment department. Starting in late 2013, MiDAS scanned unemployment claims for the previous six years for discrepancies. When it found one, it assumed the employee was guilty with no human oversight and began garnishing wages and tax refunds, including fines as high as 400 percent of the original amount.

Some [people] never received the bills because they had moved. Many received no explanation of their alleged fraud, and the system kept piling on interest. People lost their homes went bankrupt, lost custody of their kids.... "I had a woman write the judge a letter saying she thinks about killing herself."
It took two years and a class-action lawsuit for legislators to respond, finally reducing the statute of limitations on old cases, requiring human oversight, and reducing penalties. As of last year, 48,000 fraud determinations were reversed entirely (85 percent of the accusations made without human oversight).

Another bill passed in those heady, gerrymandered days of 2011 strengthened the state's emergency manager law. That meant cities in financial trouble were almost completely controlled by managers appointed by the governor, rather than by the city councils or mayors elected by their citizens, including selling public assets, breaking collective bargaining agreements, and privatizing municipal services.
The law was so unpopular that a referendum rescinding it got on the ballot, and, in 2012, all but seven of Michagan's 83 counties voted to repeal it. A month after the law as revoked by popular vote, the legislature passed a new version of it. This time lawmakers attached an appropriation making it immune to reversal by referendum. In essence, they offered a middle finger to the electorate.
How's that for being responsive to the voters? Reactive is more like it.

All of this disproportionately affected black Michiganders. When the referendum passed, four cities were under emergency management, three of them majority-black. Detroit was added to the list in 2013, landing about half of the state's black population within these nondemocratic (small D) areas.  

And this leads us to the Flint water crisis and the poisoning of the citizenry, starting in 2013. To save money, the unelected city manager switched Flint's water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River without applying the anticorrosives that would be needed to make the change safe for human consumption. It took two years before it was switched back, in part because elected officials don't feel accountable to the people of Flint.

Meanwhile, Detroit was having its own problem with emergency management, which privatized many public services and quadrupled the school system's net deficit, creating opportunities for for-profit charters to sweep in.
The great irony of Detroit's bankruptcy is that the city's financial crisis was precipitated in part by the state. Since 1994, Michigan's legislature has diverted more than $5.5 billion in state sales tax away from cities and toward the state bureaucracy, according to...a non-partisan firm.... This is not normal state behavior.... from 2002 to 2012, 45 states increased revenue-sharing for municipalities by an average of 48.1 percent. Four states reduced revenue-sharing by around 10 percent or less. Michigan was the outlier, slashing state revenue-sharing by 56.9 percent. In essence, the state strangled its cities.
The good news for Michigan, from my point of view, is that voters just elected Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as governor and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state (and she will be in charge of elections, if not the districting). Their House Congressional delegation is now 50–50 as well, but their gerrymandered legislature remains Republican-majority in both houses.

There's more work to do to get Michigan back to a bipartisan way of governing. Its voters also just approved a referendum that amends the state constitution, requiring an Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission and a bunch of public hearings on redistricting plans. I hope they can lead the way on restructuring government to better represent the people.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Tip Jars of Saint Paul

I could have sworn I had posted about handmade tip-jar signs in the past, but I can't find it, so no link to a past post. But today's the day to rectify that oversight.

Here's one I saw recently:

It doesn't get many many points for execution (the vertically striped paper interferes with the readability, at a minimum), but once I understood what it said, I had a good chuckle.

Friday, November 16, 2018

An Award, a Photo

This personal story from Nikole Hannah-Jones is a keeper:

Yesterday was a big day for me. I was surrounded by friends and family who came from all over to see my given an award. But I want to share the photo from yesterday that actually means the most to me -- and it is of me with two complete strangers.

I am always aware of how I am not supposed to be in many of the rooms I am in, how I am often one of few black faces seated at the table, but that the people who are serving the food, who set up the rooms, who cooked the food we are eating, that they are the ones who look like me

They are the invisible hands that make everything nice for the rest of us in the room. These, more than anyone in the room, are my people. I always think about my grandmama, who worked as a janitor at the courthouse.

And how when me and my dad would go see my grandmama all the “important” people would walk by her like she was invisible, like she did not matter. They would push past this old black woman while she was stooped wiping the windows of the doors, as if she did not exist.

I’ve never forgotten that sting. And so lately when I give talks, I try to remember to thank the people who make the events possible, to force the room full of “important” people to acknowledge my people.

So, I did that yesterday. I asked them to pause and applaud the people who had made the event the elegant and immaculate event that it was. To acknowledge that work, and its importance, but much more important, the worth of the people we often choose not to see.

And after my speech, these two women came from the back and asked to take a picture with me. I’m not famous. I’m not sure if they had ever heard of me before yesterday. But they wanted to take a picture with me because I saw them. And that meant something.

And so, honestly, of all the pictures I took yesterday, this one means the most. These are my people. I pray I never get to a point in my life where I forget that I come from invisible people who always, always deserved to be seen.

I was particularly emotional accepting the award because all I have been thinking about lately, what has consumed me, is that I am getting all of these accolades because children are suffering and I write about them. And there is something that feels profoundly unfair about that.

And so I feel the need to always, always remind myself of this truth: That my greatest achievements have come because so many of our children, the children I write about, will attend the types of schools that will ensure they never have an opportunity to be in rooms like this.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Big Picture Thoughts

My mind keeps returning to this recent post on, which reproduced a series of tweets by Paras Chopra, who had summarized his reading of the book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Kottke titled his post Better Living Through Non-Zero Sum Games, and that gets at the heart of it.

The basic premise of the book is that history has a direction which favors co-operation and non-zero sum games, and that causes an increase in complexity. Starting from the first replicating molecule which co-operated with an outer layer to form first proto-cell, evolutionary and cultural history is full of examples where two entities come together to survive and progress a lot more than they would have done individually. This co-operative entity fares much better than two individual entities because of specialization. If two entities are in the same boat — that they win together or lose together — then trust is implicit. In a non-zero sum game, trust causes entities to focus on what they do best.
This type of win-win cooperation in biology is mirrored in the cultural world:
Out of all technologies, perhaps information technologies are most conducive to enabling more non-zero sum games. As writing skill spread, more and more people entered into simple written contracts that helped people co-operate and specialize. Perhaps the biggest information technology was money and the corresponding meme of capitalism that helped people express their desires clearly and others to fulfil those desires. We have a thousand different types of shoes because shoe-makers today do not have to worry about baking their own bread. This “trust” in the larger entity of commerce helps everyone progress.
Nonzero is an intriguing lens through which to view current events (which is why it’s often in my thoughts). As Chopra notes, cooperation isn’t always the norm…Trumpist Republicans and Brexit proponents are both veering towards the zero sum end of the spectrum and I don’t think it will work out well for either country in the long run.
One of my core beliefs is that humans exist (as a result of evolution) because we cooperated, not because we competed, with each other. It's what we have going for us in ways that other large-scale species competing for our niche do not, because we can communicate with language and now writing.

Yet the current way of conceiving the world is increasingly devoted to the idea that competition is key. We're defeating ourselves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Small Glimpse of Painful History

Stephen Johnson's book The Ghost Map filled me in on how horrible cholera is. This article from NPR Code Switch, How yellow fever turned New Orleans into the 'City of the Dead,' did the same for yellow fever.

The article also, and more thoroughly, describes the social effects of the disease. Only half the people who contracted it survived, and surviving it (which people at the time called being "acclimated") was a mark of social status, of all things. European immigrants to the city, of course, were not acclimated.

Worse, it was common to believe that African-descended people were immune to it, and from there it got even more twisted:

"If black people are naturally resistant to yellow fever, black slavery is natural, even humanitarian, because it protects white people from spaces and labor that would kill them." [ed. note: WHAT?!] In other words, the belief was that black people could work outside in hot, swampy spaces that were prone to yellow fever, without any risk.

Advocates of slavery argued that God had made black people immune to expand the cotton industry and the national economy, and to save white people from death.

But here's the thing: Even then, many people knew that black folks weren't really immune. In fact, at slave markets, few were willing buy a person who wasn't already acclimated. Acclimated slaves sold for 25 to 50 percent more than unacclimated slaves... (emphasis added)
The cognitive dissonance emanating from these paragraphs is almost enough to break a few blood vessels and cause dangerous bleeding, even without the disease.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Big Picture on Voting in America

It's been a long day and I don't have much brain power tonight... so here's a list from journalist and voting rights advocate Ari Berman:

  • 24 states had new voting restrictions in 2018
  • 60 million Americans aren't registered to vote
  • 21 million don't have government-issued photo ID
  • 16 million were purged from 2014–2016
  • 51% didn't vote in 2018
These are voting problems we should be focusing on, not GOP lies about stolen elections

Monday, November 12, 2018

A River Runs Through It, Badly

Here's an example that belongs in that logo hall of shame I never quite get around to building:

This is one of those concepts that sounds like it might work when you hear it described, but figuring out a way to turn an L into a river that reads easily with the other letters around it is no simple feat.

Personally, I keep seeing the name as "City ife." And when I make myself see the L (remember, I wouldn't have to work at it if the logo was successful), I find myself wondering why the river suddenly stops flowing at the edge.  Oh, and having the letters of "church" in the river doesn't help with the illusion of riverness, either.

To top it off, it looks more like a radio station logo than a church logo.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

WWI as Known by a Privileged Baby Boomer

On this 100th anniversary of the November 11, 1918, armistice, these are my recollections and impressions of World War I, as a late-era American Baby Boomer, in order as I can recall them.

My maternal grandfather was a veteran of the war. He was about 20 when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, and he served in France with whatever part of the army managed the mule team (artillery?). The only thing I remember specifically was that he and his fellow soldiers would sometimes bite the ears of the mules to get the animals to obey. He knew some French and German songs from his time there.

My paternal maternal great-grandfather was also a veteran of the war, but he was long dead by the time I was born and I never knew about it until a few years ago, when I found his insignia while helping my parents downsize. He died when my father was 15, so I’m not sure how much my dad knew about his service, either.

The first time I specifically remember learning about the war in school is 10th grade social studies, which focused on European history. I’m sure we learned about the archduke’s assassination and the “reasons” for the war, plus how ghastly the trench warfare was, but the part of our lessons that fascinated me most was the Russian Revolution. I went pretty far down that rabbit hole for a while. The movie Nicholas and Alexandra had come out a few years before that, so the Romanovs were my original context for understanding the revolution, but that changed as I learned more.

In 11th grade I took an English elective whose name I don’t remember, but it was basically the literature of war (or, more accurately, antiwar since this was 1975–76). We read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, which had a huge effect on my world view, and poems like Dulce et Decorum Est, Carl Sandburg’s Grass, and In Flanders Fields (plus a lot of other poems from other war eras). I came out of that class solidly antiwar.

Also in 11th grade, this time in social studies, I did a paper on Woodrow Wilson that included a lot of war information, from the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram to "He kept us out of war" during the 1916 election to formation of the League of Nations afterward.

In college I was a history major and had a few classes that covered the era, including one focused on 20th century foreign policy. But I can't say I remember a lot specifically about this era.

Hearing John McCutcheon’s song "Christmas in the Trenches" (probably around 1990?) introduced me to the story of the Christmas truce, and still makes me cry most times when I hear it.

Since then I’ve seen various dramatic versions of that 1914 event, from the Minnesota Opera’s Silent Night to local theater and singing group productions of All Is Calm. I recommend listening to McCutcheon or attending any of those performances if you don’t know about this story.

About 15 years ago, I read the Anne of Green Gables books with Daughter Number 3.1. The book Rilla of Ingleside (eighth in the series) gives a Canadian viewpoint of the war. I found it very moving and because I read the series for the first time as an adult, this is probably my favorite among them.

About five years ago on a trip to Europe, I did some research on the German type designer Rudolph Koch, creator of well-known faces like Neuland, Kabel, and Koch Antiqua. (Another way his work is famous—or infamous—is that his blackletter types were adopted by the Nazis as part of their visual ethnic cleansing in the 1930s.) Though Koch was almost 40 when World War I started, and was married with children and an established career in his field, he enlisted in the infantry anyway in 1915, going from Serbia to France to the Russian front. He was almost killed by a grenade in 1917. Overall, the war had a profound effect on him, turning him toward Expressionism and strengthening his religious feelings and informing his creative output. Reading about Koch made me think about the war from the German point of view.

That's all I can remember of my WWI impressions. What are yours?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Results of the Wisconsin Gerrymander

Along with voter suppression, gerrymandering is in the news because of the election this week. Here's a really great example of its most recent effects in one state. I hope any American reading this will recognize how wrong this is:

This graphic (by Brian Evans) is from the blog of Politico writer Josh Klemons. It shows clearly that while Democratic candidates got 1.3 million votes for the State Assembly, vs. 1.1 million for Republican candidates (or 54 percent vs. 45 percent), the Democrats won just 36 percent of the seats.

Democratic candidates won every statewide race, where there are no districts, which better reflects the will of the majority.

You've probably already seen this graphic, explaining how gerrymandering is done:

It's called "packing" (putting as many of the out-party's members into one district as possible), and the Wisconsin Assembly's urban districts are clearly packed just like this. Computer-aided mapping has made gerrymandering much more precise in recent years, especially since the last redistricting after 2010. These boundaries in Wisconsin (and in other states) have been and are still being contested in court.

Who thinks this is fair? I hope no one.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Not the Same Thing

There are so many important things to be angry about that affect so many people, but I still can muster some righteous anger about this advertising message:

In case you can't read the words in my bad photo (which was shot through the windshield while I was stopped at a light), it says, "You can't buy happiness…but you can buy Jackson Morgan Southern Cream, which is basically the same thing." And if it's not obvious from the graphics on the truck, Southern Cream is candified liquor with flavors like bread pudding, salted caramel, and whipped orange cream.

If this slogan isn't a good example of Johann Hari's description of lost connections and the way humans try to compensate for them, I don't know what is.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

RBG News

All hopes for health and recovery to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who fell Wednesday night and broke three ribs. She sent herself to the hospital this morning.

I'm a fan (big surprise!) but even if I weren't, I like to think I'd have respect for any other 85-year-old doing a job like that. I know I won't be when/if I'm 85.

Get well soon, RBG!