Friday, March 31, 2017

Data Viz

Data visualization is the art of taking data and presenting it visually so the significance of the data is easy for people to read.   I took a class called "Data Exploration and Storytelling: Finding stories in data with storytelling and visualization" at the beginning of this year online. Alberto Cairo and Heather Krause co-taught it.

While 'data viz' isn't tumbling off most people's tongue's, it seems to be a big deal in journalism.  Or maybe just among a certain subset of journalism.  Cairo and Krause were terrific teachers - they knew their stuff and presented it clearly.  But 6000 people from around the world were signed up for this MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.  The assignments were basically to address questions in the discussion forums, not to do projects using data and the suggested software from Tableau.

Having taken the course, I'm seeing data viz all over the place.  Sort of like when you're pregnant you notice all the other pregnant women, or if you buy a new car, you start seeing that car everywhere.  It also helps that I started following Alberto Cairo on Twitter.

I'm thinking about this particularly now because I filled out a questionnaire about the MOOC yesterday, and I saw this chart on Twitter just now.

So I'd also like to share this list [partial here] of best Data Viz websites from Medium Corporation:

1.  Story Telling With Data - the link takes you to a step-by-step post on decluttering of a data visualization.

2.  Junk Charts - "Junk Charts is made by Kaiser Fung, the Web’s first data visualization critic. I discuss what makes graphics work, and how to make them better. Think chartjunk + junk art."

3.  The Functional Art - "Alberto Cairo's weblog on visualization, infographics, and data journalism"  And if you've been paying attention, you'll know he was one of the professors for the class I took.  This one includes a lot of news about what's happening in the data viz field.

4.  Rock the Vizcomm - The link takes you to a post on a 2016 survey of data visualization professionals.  He lists these key findings:
"Key Findings
  1. Practitioners are using an incredibly large array of tools to do their work, while some market leaders are beginning to emerge.
  2. “Increasing understanding” is the primary goal of data visualization but after that, the opinions vary.
  3. Good data and trained staff are the keys to success, while “figuring out the story” in the data remains a critical challenge for many.
  4. Those who are measuring their outcomes expect spending on visualization to increase, with nearly one in five expecting significant growth."
5.  Our World in Data - I realize this is a post on visualization blogs and so far it's mainly words.  So here's a visualization.  It had four countries listed.  Ethnocentric as I am, I added the US (the upper red line beginning 1900).  The cursor will give you specific data.

Surely there are a bunch of doctoral dissertations waiting to be written by people discussing the correlations between the peaks and valleys and the political, economic, and social events in each country.  Note the US dip in the 1950s.  Is it because all the youngish men were tired from the war (or off to Korea)?  Because they were in college on the GI bill?  Because the US had the highest income taxes ever?  Because economic equity was and hope was high?   Lots to chew on.

6.  The Perceptual Edge - "Visual Business Intelligence: A blog by Stephen Few" And yes, this one focuses on business.

I've just taken the top six of  Medium Corporations list of best Data Viz websites of 2016.  Go to the link to see the other six on the list.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Snow Jobs - Literal and Figurative (Or How Much Did Murkowski, Sullivan, And Young Get To Give Away Internet Privacy?)

The Literal Snow Job

There were about 10 inches of fresh snow yesterday in Anchorage.  Here's our backyard.

And here's our mountain ash tree in front after a gust of wind.

The Figurative Snow Job

The Verge compiled a table of contributions from telecom companies to US senators and representatives who voted 'yes' yesterday to grant them the right to sell people's internet browsing information without permission and without anonymizing it.    The got the data from Follow the Money.

You can see the whole list at the Verge link.  I'm just looking at our Alaskan senators and member of congress.

Murkowski, Lisa Republican AK $66,250

Sullivan, Daniel Republican AK $10,550

Member of Congress
Young, Don Republican AK 1st $28,650

The Joint Resolution 34 passed in the senate 50 (all Republicans) to 48 (all Democrats) with two Republicans absent.  Going through the contributions, Sen. Murkowski was the 21st highest recipient among the Republicans.  (They didn't list how much Democrats got from these companies.)  Sen. Sullivan received the 3rd lowest amount, which could indicate his lack of influence or that they know his vote is locked anyway.  I'd note that one senator received $0 - the newly appointed Sen. Strange from Alabama taking Sen. Sessions seat after his appointment to Attorney General.

Rep. Young got the 65th highest amount among the Republicans who voted for the bill, which puts him in the top 30%.   There were 215 Republicans who voted for the bill, 15 Republicans who voted against it, and 205 Democrats who voted against it.  Six Republicans and three Democrats did not vote.  

The 15 Republicans who voted against the bill are the interesting group.  Here's the list (From GovTrack):

Nay  R  Brooks, MoAL 5th
Nay  R  McClintock, TomCA 4th
Nay  R  Coffman, MikeCO 6th
Nay  R  Yoder, KevinKS 3rd
Nay  R  Graves, GarretLA 6th
Nay  R  Amash, JustinMI 3rd
Nay  R  Zeldin, LeeNY 1st
Nay  R  Faso, JohnNY 19th
Nay  R  Stefanik, EliseNY 21st
Nay  R  Jones, WalterNC 3rd
Nay  R  Davidson, WarrenOH 8th
Nay  R  Sanford, MarkSC 1st
Nay  R  Duncan, JohnTN 2nd
Nay  R  Herrera Beutler, JaimeWA 3rd
Nay  R  Reichert, DavidWA 8th

Note:  I did NOT go back and double check the amounts each candidate received.  I did spend a little time on the Follow The Money website, but I wasn't sure how to duplicate the search they did.  There are a number of variables that could probably change the amounts.  Thus, I also couldn't check to see how much the Republicans and Democrats who voted against the resolution received from the same groups.

Additional more:  Several people have started lucrative crowdsourcing pages to get and publish the private browsing of all the members of the US Congress.  But Techcruncher and others say this isn't likely to happen.  They say that non-anonymized data is NOT available, plus private purchaser can't just come in and buy the data unless the ISP agrees.  The Freedom of Information Act only covers the federal government, not private companies.  And after giving millions to members of congress to get this done, they aren't likely to turn around and stab them in the back.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Who Will Be Trump's Woodward and Bernstein?

Image from Simon & Schuster
This might be a good time for folks to get a copy of All The President's Men  Carl Bernstein and Bob
Woodward's book on their investigation of Watergate.  It gives sense of how long it took from when the burglary happened (June 17, 1972) until Nixon resigned (August 8, 1974) and what all happened in between.  It chronicles how these two reporters had to fight skepticism, how their editor had to protect them, and how public opinion slowly came around.

The details will be different, the timing will be different, but the same forces will be (are) in tension:

  • president versus the media;  
  • the pressure to publish now versus the risk of losing credibility because there isn't enough publishable evidence;  
  • people's belief systems versus facts that challenge those beliefs; 
  • the pressure on the Republicans to protect their president and their power versus doing what's right for  the country.  

Some details are eerily similar.

Nixon was brought down by Republicans breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex.  The burglars were caught because an observant 24 year old security guard, Frank Wills, saw that there was tape that covered the latch and kept the door from locking.  The burglars were caught that night.  Then Woodward and Bernstein had to follow the trail that led from the burglars to the oval office.

Today an electronic burglary at the Democratic National Committee is also at the center of Trump's problems.  And as with Watergate, the thieves were identified before the election, but Trump won nevertheless.  Today, too, journalists are pursuing the question of the connection to the Oval Office.

There are significant differences between the two periods as well.   Nixon had long list of major accomplishments from the Clean Water Act, Affirmative Action, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Privacy Act, opening relations with China.  But he was being dragged down by the Vietnam War and the anti-war protests.  The break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters happened during the campaign for his second term.  In 1972, Nixon's approval ratings were at 50% after his China trip and would climb to almost 70% after the Paris Peace accords were signed in 1973.  But then his ratings began to plunge to just under 30% by the end of 1973.

Trump's big achievements include:

  • failing in his immediate push to ban Muslims from the US (I'm using Trump's campaign rhetoric here, just as the judges have when they blocked the implementation.)
  • failing to overturn Obamacare
  • dismantling regulations whose whose ultimate impacts are yet to be known

And he comes into office far less popular.  His approval ratings according to Gallup are already at 36%, only in his third month in office.

So who will be the next Woodward and Bernstein?

By blocking key media from White House press briefings, this administration is sending them out to do real investigative reporting and the White House loses control of the agenda.  And while Trump's tweets do get significant attention, they don't set the kind of agenda those around Trump want set.

The Washington Post (Woodward and Bernstein's paper), the New York Times, The New Yorker, even the Wall Street Journal are bringing stories to print on a regular basis.

Woodward and Bernstein were blessed with a very high level informant who they dubbed Deep Throat after the first pornographic movie to be shown in regular theaters.  Their informant only outed himself thirty years later.  Woodward had cultivated him as a source in 1970 and they basically used him to confirm information they had gathered in other ways.

Image from IMDB
I suspect this time around, a lot of different reporters will be contributing important stories and things may well move faster now because social media speeds up the spread of news so dramatically.  But I'm guessing there are reporters now who, over drinks, are contemplating who will play them in the movie.

If you would rather watch the movie (with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), it's available as a Netflix DVD and probably in your public library.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

28 Days Into March, We Finally Get Some Snow

It's been days and days of, in the words of Dan Bern, relentless sun.  He was singing about Southern California, and we aren't complaining, but it ended during the night and we got a little more than a trace of snow.

And it's warmer.  Yesterday we were in the mid 30s (F), and this morning's clouds were accompanied by 31˚F on our home thermometer as I write.  We really hadn't been above freezing at all this month with night temps regularly in the single digits.  We were cooler than normal.  As opposed to last year when we had very little snow, warm temperatures, and I posted this picture of rain drops on March 28, 2016.

And just in case anyone reading this is thinking, "See, it's colder this year, so climate change isn't really anything to worry about,"  should listen to Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the  2 minute National Geographic video below.  

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"This is what stories are, experience retold by many tongues . . ." UPDATED

"just as the inhabitants of the city were discovering the true meaning of being without shelter, even though they had always believed themselves to be experts in shelterlessness, because the city they hated and loved had always been bad at providing its inhabitants with protection against the storms of life, and had inculcated in its citizens a certain fierce loving-hating pride at their own habits of survival in spite of everything, in spite of the not-enough-money issue and the not-enough-space issue and the dog-eat-dog issue and so on;"
"protections against the storms of life" caught my attention.  We know about homelessness, because we see tired people sleeping on sidewalks, wandering around with their belongings on their backs or in shopping carts, and, in places like Anchorage, in encampments in the woods along the bike trails.

This passage made me think of people suffering all the other storms of life, the -lessnesses that are less visible.

People walking around loveless, parentless, happyless, hopeless, balanceless, imaginationless, playfulless, friendless, purposeless, skillless, clueless, artless, peaceless, sleepless, respectless, thoughtless  . . . you can fill in your own -less conditions.

They work with us, they live next door, they are doctors, police officers, cashiers, lawyers, politicians, thieves.

These people often can't be identified by their clothing, their income, their vehicle, their education, their tattoos, their dialects.  Some of these -lesses are more detectable than others, but basically these are often invisible burdens.  When we do see symptoms, we often treat them as personal failings.

And though I've used 'they' we are all missing something in our lives.  We're lucky if our gaps don't prevent us from a bit of peace and joy as we navigate life where we happen to live.  And if we are able to accept our gaps and compensate with our other qualities.  And if we can be tolerant of and helpful to those whose gaps seriously compromise their pursuit of happiness.

It's too nice outside to stay in and take this further, but it was a thought I wanted to note before I forgot it.

The quote at the top is from pp. 169 -170 in Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights, which is my book club's topic Monday night.  Rushdie is an imaginative and beautiful writer, but this one doesn't quite work for me.  It feels like there were things he wanted to say - about the state of the world, about wisdom's he's learned over his life - and then constructed a story in which to wrap those ideas.    A thought that comes to mind here - I say it that way because this is again an idea that needs more follow up - is that a good novel starts with the story and the 'lessons' are inherent in the story.  Rushdie spends way too much time constructing this alternative world and explaining all the details needed to demonstrate its plausibility.  And too often I can see the tape here or the nails there holding things together.

For all the stagecraft needed to create the illusions of a parallel world of jinns and the references to the thousand and one nights of lore (the title being another way of counting to a thousand and one), the basic conflict is between reason and emotion;  the main character - the most powerful jinn - has daddy issues.  It just seems like a lot of work for the author and for the reader to go over such familiar themes.  And because the themes are so important to the author and insuring the story doesn't have any loose strings, this reader couldn't just enjoy the adventure story.

That said, there are important insights sprinkled throughout the book and lots of interesting use of English (with a little Hindi mixed in.)   For instance, the post title comes from this sentence:
"This is what stories are, experience told by many tongues to which, sometimes, we give a single name, Homer, Valmiki, Vyasa, Scheherazade.  We, for our own part, simply call ourselves 'we.'  'We' are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is."  [emphasis added]
And that is probably why Rushdie wrote this.

The quote at the top describes a time when one of the dark jinns as part of his effort to mess up human life, has detached people from gravity and they start floating off into space.

And perhaps if I were more than 2/3 of the way through the book and then read it a second or third time, I might appreciate its intricacy more.  But time and life interfere with each other.  I reserve the right to amend this post if the final pages change my perception.  And then I'll read what others have said about the book

UPDATE - Monday March 27, 2017:

In other great science fiction or fantasy, authors create whole new worlds that are rich in themselves and the audience suspends disbelief where necessary, knowing this is an imaginary world and enjoying the escape into this alternative reality.  The wisdom the authors embed in these other worlds are of those worlds and the readers can find find their own lessons for their own present world.   In Two Years . . .  Rushdie narrates from a distant earthly future about 'our ancestors' who live in the 21st century world.   The fantasy world he's created, borrowing from Persian, Arab, and Indian mythology is our world. Much of it takes place in New York City.  The lessons the readers are supposed to absorb are, at best, barely masked in jinneology.  But there are times when there isn't even a mask, such as this passage on page 240:

[A bit of prep:  'jinn parasites' are lesser jinns that must possess human (or other animal bodies) to do their destruction, thus the 'insider attack' pun]
"In the sealed containers in our restricted rooms we have preserved disturbing images of cannibal jinn parasites eating people's faces in Miami, Florida;  and executioner jinn parasites stoning women to death in desert places;  and suicide bomber jinn parasites allowing their host bodies to explode on army bases and then immediately possessing the nearest soldier and murdering more of his fellows in what is called an insider attack, which it was, but not in the conventional sense of the term;  and crazed paramilitary jinn parasites in charge of tanks in eastern Europe, shooting passenger aircraft out of the sky - but let these few images suffice."
For me, this is rubbing it in the reader's face, assuming the reader hasn't already caught the points he's making.  But then, maybe he's making a point I'm missing altogether.

Turns out the NYTimes reviewer, Marcel Theroux, had a similar take on the book to mine.  Ursula Le Guin, who reviewed it for The Guardian, thought it worked better than I did, but had problems with the conclusion.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Waiting For Spring

Someone pushed the pause button around the beginning of March here in Anchorage.  It should have slowly been getting warmer.  Some snowy days, but a progression toward warmer.

Since March 1 we've had blue skies, bright sun, and temperatures that ranged between a little under zero (F) and under 30˚ (F).  This is a time when it's finally ok for the days to start getting above freezing to help move the snow along.  But it hasn't happened.  But I don't remember so many days in a row with nothing but bright sun, certainly not in March.

Here's the ice crust on the snow in our front yard.  The sun melts it a bit in the day, then it freezes solid at night.

No, this dirty ice isn't in our front yard.  It's part of the berm on a much busier street.

Even the birds are getting impatient.

But the sun is much higher in the sky and we're getting nearly 6 more minutes of sunlight each day.  It will warm up!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Rushdie,Reality, Symbols, Stories, Truth, , and ACA

Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights seems to have understood the 'strangeness' that we are going through.  His novel suggests jinns are reeking havoc, but as I've been struggling to bring some sense to this post on ACA, this snippet from page 111, seems to focus on the underlying story of the battle over ACA (and everything else.)
"We were all trapped in stories, she said, just as he used to say, his wavy hair, his naughty smile, his beautiful mind, each us the prisoners of our own solipsistic narrative, each family the captive of the family story, each community locked within its own tale of itself, each people the victims of their own versions of history, and there were parts of the world where the narratives collided and went to war, where there were two or more incompatible stories fighting for space on, to speak, the same page."
The ACA seems to be where the Republican and Democratic narratives collided and went to war.  There were other things that raised hackles, but this was where pride and power broke out into full scale war.

And now repealing ACA is the Confederate flag of the right, a symbol of what holds them all together, and also reveals the myth of that togetherness.  

The Republican narrative on Obamacare has mostly been symbolic:
Obamacare symbolized a number of things to their narratives.
  • Republican power slipping away
  • Runaway government intrusion and spending
  • The loss of personal responsibility - the concern that the socialist state would strip people's work ethic, and the mandate forcing people to buy something they might not want
  • A black president getting his way
  • A rallying cry to their base
It didn't matter that Obamacare was based on Republican ideas for health care that Romney had put in place in Massachusetts.

But Congress is now . . . I wanted to say  "a fact free zone."  But that's not quite true.  There are lots of 'facts' (something that can be proven true or false*) floating around.  Then I wanted to say "a truth free zone."  But there is plenty of truth floating around too.  It's more accurate to say that there just aren't any trusted referees in congress who have the authority to  analyze and determine what is and is not true.  Each person's sees and validates what confirms his narrative.  There's no one arbiter to examine the various narratives and test them for how closely they reflect how the world actually works.

By January 2014, Politico reports the Republicans made 48 attempts to repeal Obamacare.

"It's [repealing Obamacare] pretty high on our agenda as you know," the Kentucky Republican said on Wednesday. "I would be shocked if we didn't move forward and keep our commitment to the American people."

Is Obamacare perfect?   Far from it.  Some states are down to a single insurer.  But Republicans wouldn't allow there to be competition from public insurance providers.  Because of this and other issues (like each state being a separate market) costs for some are prohibitively expensive for policies that are insurance in name only.

On the other hand, tens of millions of people are now insured who weren't insured before.  People with prior conditions can get insurance.  Children in college stay on their parents' plans until they are 26.  Mental health and addiction care is available.

Republicans complain about mandates, but nearly every state requires car insurance.  The exceptions, from Wikipedia:
"States that do not require the vehicle owner to carry car insurance include Virginia, where an uninsured motor vehicle fee may be paid to the state; New Hampshire, and Mississippi which offers vehicle owners the option to post cash bonds (see below)."
But car insurancecom notes in 2016:
"Every state requires that you meet financial responsibility requirements through insurance, a bond or some other approved means that show you are able to pay if you cause damages to another person or property in an automobile accident.
Each state renews its laws annually, so some states that had no insurance requirements in the past now do. New Hampshire probably has the least amount of requirements -- and it still requires that you immediately show proof of financial responsibility if you've been involved in a car accident."
I'd note that Republicans dominate state legislatures and governorships.   They could end mandatory car insurance in most states if they are as opposed to mandatory insurance as they claim.  They would argue that in a car you could hurt others, whereas lack of health insurance just hurts you.  But that neglects the health hazards of infectious diseases, not to mention the long term costs to everyone of not taking care of health issues early on.  Or the fact that some people could not buy insurance even if they could afford it.

So now enough Republicans have heeded their constituents who are saying that this or that part of Obamacare needs to be kept, that before abolishing Obamacare, a Republican replacement health care law needs to be in place.

But the Freedom Caucus in the House is calling that replacement plan for what it is - Obamacare lite.

So the vote to repeal Obamacare is really just symbolic.  It is necessary, as some Republican legislators have said, to keep their promise.

I recall when I was about four years old, a dinner table dispute resulted in my threatening to throw my milk on my mother.  "Don't threaten me,"  my mother said.  To my four year old way of thinking, a threat was something you didn't carry out, like a bad promise. To avoid it being a mere threat, I had no choice but to follow through on what I had said I would do.  Even though I knew it would end badly for all involved.

I think that's sort of where we are with health care.  The Republicans have been telling us how evil it was for so long and how it had to be repealed, that now, with majorities in the House, Senate, and a Republican president, they feel they have to repeal it.  Even if they aren't really repealing it, they have to symbolically do something that they can at least say repeals it.  Except the Freedom Caucus.

The Freedom Caucus' narrative is hard to figure out.  Jim Jordan spelled out the mission statement in 2015:
 "The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans."
That's not exactly a narrative.  It's a set of goals.  But we don't know the underlying stories that make these goals critical for the Freedom Caucus.  This matters because, I would argue, that except for the 'limited government,' most of Bernie Sanders' supporters could wholeheartedly embrace these goals.

We aren't going to get past this conflict until people from warring narratives sit down together, preferably over a meal (or series of meals) and listen to each others' personal narratives.  Until they find out how much they (we) have in common as human beings, how much of their (our) narrative is myth, how much overlaps with their mortal enemies' narratives.   Until they see how their (our) macho conflict myths prevent any of those goals from happening.

Those people who took the trouble to vote in November were fairly evenly divided.  The president, despite his rhetoric, did not get a mandate.  He presides over a nation of people with different narratives and that has been focusing more and more on the differences between their narratives  than the similarities.  To the extent that we focus on the conflicts and on the symbols of our differences, there will be no peace for anyone.  Just temporary Pyrrhic victories.  People on both sides of this symbolic divide would do well to be curious about how their 'enemies' come to believe what they believe.

In the world that Rushdie (remember him, whose words started this post?) created, the chaos is caused by jinns, mischievous spirits from another world.  Best I can tell, our jinns, most of whose names are hidden by Citizens United, are people like the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer, and Putin, who  invest a small portion of their billions to disrupt honest debate with fake news, adding to the difficulty of sorting out what is and what is not true.

*Yes, I know truth is squishy.  Let's just use 'true' as a surrogate for 'as best we can tell that something is true, after looking at at all the evidence.'

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bohemian Waxwings Collecting Mountain Ash Berries

The Mountain Ash tree in front of our house is part of the Anchorage Bohemian Waxwing community's pantry and yesterday many dropped by to get some provisions.

There's such beautiful birds with their soft, smooth grey feathers, with a dash of cinnamon, some white, and a bit of brilliant yellow and red, highlighted with black.

I said they had red, but up to now, the only red has been the berries, but on this last shot you can see the red on the wing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It's Called, "From Here to the Future: Transforming Anchorage/Mat-Su Transportation"

This guy will talk tonight (Wednesday, March 21) in Anchorage.
Technology + Demographics + TransportationRollin Stanley, General Manager Urban Strategy, City of CalgaryWednesday, March 22nd, 7-8:30 pmAnchorage Museum Auditorium, 625 C St, Anchorage
Suggested $10 donation

This talk is about demographic trends, the importance of empowering women to help economies, and the future of cities.  I expect tonight's talk will be a little different.  This the beginning of a series on Transportation that Alaska Common Ground is sponsoring.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Homeland Security Supporting Book Industry By Banning Electronic Devices On Planes

The title, of course, is the glass half full interpretation.

Al Jazeera, among others, reports:
"The United States is barring passengers on flights originating in eight Muslim-majority countries from carrying any electronic device bigger than a mobile phone, the Department of Homeland Security said.  . .
Laptops, e-readers, cameras, tablets, printers, electronic games and portable DVD players are affected by the ban - which applies to direct flights to the US - but they may still be stowed in the hold in checked baggage."

But I'd also expect luggage is going to take much longer to be ready to be picked up on arrival in the US as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can now look at people's computers without having to take them directly from the owners.  I'm sure Homeland Security has ways to open and copy the contents of people's devices without knowing the passwords.

So people will need to find ways to detect if their computers have been played with while they are separated from them, just to know whether their data has been diddled while their devices were out of their grasp. Here's a four year old post talking about how 'pros' protect their laptops. (Not very well it seems.)

Will this spawn a new industry that provided secure lockboxes to put computers in that would make it a little harder for agents to open them?

This Guardian article questions the logic of the rules.  If they can be used as explosive devices, then they would still be dangerous in cargo areas.  If it's about hacking, well, the article points out that cell phones are computers.  It offers another possibility
"US airlines have been lobbying the Trump administration to intervene in the Persian Gulf, where they have contended for years that the investments in three rapidly expanding airlines in the area – Etihad Airways, Qatar, and Emirates – constitute unfair government subsidies with which Delta, American and United cannot compete. All three Middle Eastern airlines are among the carriers affected by the electronics ban."
I guess when you are as unpredictable as our president, people will believe he would meddle with anything in any way he pleases.

I'm sticking with the idea that DHS (or some other security agency) wants access to what's on people's computers.   Is anyone going to keep track of how long it takes for luggage to get through before and after this policy goes into effect?

Will the cloud enable people to take essentially empty computers through customs and other governmental checkpoints?  But then who's protecting the cloud?

When do we declare privacy officially extinct?

And here's a Washington Post article asking similar questions.

Monday, March 20, 2017

As Neil Gorsuch Takes Center Stage, What Exactly Is Originalism About?

With the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the issue of whether originalism is a more valid way of interpreting the constitution than the alternative, called the  'living constitution' approach is back before us.  I'm afraid I've oversold what you'll get here a bit.

After Scalia's death I spent a fair amount of time researching this and wrote a post that tried to outline the arguments as best as I could find them. You can see that post here, titled "I Think Scalia's Originalism Is Like the Intelligent Design of Constitutional Theories."

In fact, I recommend that you do look at the previous post and consider this attempt at a follow up to it, as more of a timely reintroduction to the topic and an easy way to get to the original post.

Basically, originalists argue that they are sticking to what the writers of the constitution actually wrote.  But then some, like Scalia, acknowledge you can't do it completely literally, it needs some interpretation.  Originalists themselves debate over how to interpret the constitution.  From  James E. Fleming's Living Originalism and Living Constitutionalism as Moral Readings of the American Constitution (pp.1174-1175):
There are numerous varieties of originalism, and the only thing they agree upon is their rejection of moral readings. Some of the varieties include the following. It all began with conventional “intention of the Framers” originalism.17 Then it became “intention of the ratifiers” originalism.18 Of course, we also have “original expectations and applications” originalism (what I elsewhere have called “narrow” or “concrete” originalism).19 Then came “original meaning” originalism, which was refined as “original public meaning” originalism (officially, this is now the position of Scalia and Barnett).20 Scalia himself distinguished “strong medicine” or “bitter pill” originalism from “fainthearted” originalism.21 Then came “broad” originalism (advocated by Lawrence Lessig and many others).22 Now comes “the new originalism” (so characterized by Whittington) as distinguished from “the old originalism.”23 Finally, we add “abstract” originalism (which some, including Whittington, have attributed to Dworkin).24 And we must not forget Balkin’s “method of text and principle,” a form of abstract originalism.25 Indeed, Mitchell Berman has distinguished seventy-two varieties of originalism in his tour de force, Originalism is Bunk.26
Originalists argue that originalism is more pure than the living constitution approach because it is based on the words of the constitution or the intent of the drafters, etc..  The critics of originalism challenge that assertion. The words, they say, are sometimes specific and sometimes general and those words are not clear when it comes to applying them to twentieth (and twenty-first) century dilemmas.  They beg for more guidance.  

The originalists argue that the living constitutionalists simply insert their own values to interpret the Constitution.  Living constitutionalists dispute that, saying they use the tradition of case law which considers past decisions.  There is a lively debate in the literature on the basis, say, for overturning old decisions.  

The living constitutionalists argue that even the first justices didn't simply read the text of the constitution.  Stephen M. Feldman writes in  this 2014 BYU Journal of Public Law article :
"Early judicial opinions and legal treatises reveal an eclectic or pluralist approach to constitutional interpretation; no single interpretive method dominated. Early judges and scholars invoked not only reason, but also the text, constitutional structure, framers’ intentions, original public meaning, and so on. Yet, no judge or scholar maintained that constitutional meaning should be ascertained pursuant to a reasonable-man standard."

The living constitutionalists argue that they have a long evolved set of rules about how to interpret the constitution.  I've given up trying to sum those up here, but you can look at this law review article on how that is supposedly done.  It's fascinating, but if you read it, you'll see why I decided not to try to summarize it.  Each thread seems to lead off into more and more explanations.  

The living constitutionalists even cite comments from Thomas Jefferson, in a letter, that argues that every generation should write its own constitution, that one generation cannot lock all future generations to their constitution.   They call this the Jefferson problem when they challenge the originalists.  I've got more on this in the original post.

One of the arguments living constitutionalists make is that the constitution includes both very specific language and abstract, more aspirational language.  I'm taking this a little out of context, but this quote gets to this point:
First, Balkin’s method of text and principle conceives the Constitution as embodying not only rules but also general standards and abstract principles.32 He, like Dworkin and I, rejects efforts by originalists to recast abstract principles as if they were rules (or terms of art) by interpreting them as being exhausted by their original expected applications.33 In interpreting these general standards and abstract principles, we have to make moral and political judgments concerning the best understanding of our commitments; history alone does not make these judgments for us in rule-like fashion.

Here's a book review of  David Strauss' The Living Constitution.  Strauss is one of the authors that Fleming is addressing in his article.  The review tries to outline the arguments in somewhat simpler terms.

As you can tell, I'm a little overwhelmed by trying to sum this up.  I think the previous post on originalism does a better job of giving a holistic view of originalism.  Living constitutionalism is touched on, necessarily, in that post.  I was hoping to give a better look at and critique of the living constitution model here, but that just isn't going to happen.  Too much going on to get it done.  And given that Gorsuch is in the spotlight now, this seems a good time to post this and point you to the original post.

This all fascinates me as it fits neatly into this blog's underlying theme - how do you know what you know?  How do supreme court justices know what the constitution means and how to apply it to specific cases.  That's precisely what this debate between originalism and living constitutionalism is all about.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Notes On Assembly Candidate Debate And Some Voter Election Prep

The AFACT (Anchorage Faith & Action Congregations Together) Assembly Candidates' forum Sunday March 12, 2017 was very well organized and gave the audience a sense of the candidates running for the Assembly in the April 4, 2017 election.

click to enlarge and focus a bit
They made it easier for everyone by providing a chart with all the RSVP'd candidates' names and the three topics of the questions - Budget, Public Safety, Bike & Pedestrian Safety.

You can see from my lack of notes (since I can hardly read them, I decided not to try to blur them out) that some candidates weren't there.  Also, there's a back side for the rest of the districts.

For everyone who is alarmed by encourage by the November election result, voting April 4 and getting others out too, is an important step for two reasons.  You can make sure our Assembly stands up for your values and you can send a message that Americans are paying more attention to all elections.

Anchorage Municipal elections tend to be attract fewer than 20% of registered voters.  Races can be won or lost by a handful of voters.  So your vote has much more weight in these elections.

Surely, each election is a public demonstration of values.

I did notice some things as I listened to how the candidates responded to the questions.  Below are my observations.  These notes are not intended to give details of each candidate's remarks, or  guide your vote, but to start you thinking about the issues as you prepare to do your election homework.

Preparation and Organization
It's hard to focus on the key points in the one minute candidates were given to respond to each question.  But some candidates had done their homework and were able to speak to the questions with specifics while also showing their understanding of how many things were interrelated.  David Dunsmore (District 1), for instance,  linked safety issues to schools, jobs, and general community prosperity.  Chris Constant (District 1) talked about how Fairview property values are being kept low by the uncertainty of DOT's plans to connect the Seward and Glenn highways through the Fairview neighborhood.  This has also led to Fairview having none of the trail infrastructure that other parts of the city has, even though it has the highest density of pedestrians.   Suzanne LaFrance  (District 6) had prepared notes that allowed her to get a lot of content into the minute she had to answer.

Gretchen Wehmoff (District 2), when asked about public safety, pointed out that the Department of Corrections was the largest provider of mental health care.  She suggested getting people the care they need early would cut down the prison population and those heavy costs.

Other candidates seemed to talk off the top of their heads, filling in with anecdotes, or repeating the same theme with each questions.  David Nees (District 3) for instance enlightened us on the bike question by saying that no biker had been killed by a car while riding on the bike trail.

Cut the Budget
A few candidates - particularly Don Smith (District 4) and Chris Cox (District 1) - made cutting the budget their basic theme.  Smith told the group he was Mr. Tax Cap and complained about the luxurious apartments being given out to 'street drunks.'  Cox's wrap up message was that people in favor of men using women's restrooms and who like taxing and spending need to vote for someone else.  

Be A Community That Cares For Its Members
I think most acknowledged that keeping track of finances was important, but added that we needed to be a community that cares about the others in our city, which seemed to get approval from this church sponsored event audience.  They pointed out that cutting in one place, often raised costs somewhere else.

Underlying Narratives
Two competing narratives seemed to underlie many candidates' remarks.
Narrative 1:  Individuals need to be responsible for themselves, not the public.
Narrative 2:  As a community we have make sure we have physical and social infrastructures - public transportation, schools, health services - so that individuals can take responsibility for themselves.

Having grown up in a family where personal responsibility was always stressed, I agree that individuals need to learn how to be responsible.  But I recognize that  kids whose parents are substance abusers, absent, unemployed, or otherwise struggling, aren't going to learn that value without a good school system and other support systems that can help the families.  So I tend to lean toward the second narrative.

Your Homework
It doesn't require too much time to get yourself up to speed on the candidates in your district.  After the forum, I put up posts for each Assembly district with a district map, a list of each district's candidates, and links to their websites.

District 1 (Downtown) has the most candidates for Assembly anyone needs to check on -  six.
District 2 (Chugiak/Eagle River) and District 4 (Midtown) each have four candidates.
All the others,
District 3 (West Anchorage)
District 5 (East Anchorage)
District 6 (South Anchorage)  have just two candidates you need to check.

The links will get you to maps of the district, names of the candidates, and links to their websites.

You have a little more work to do - School Board seats and Propositions - and I'll get you more information on that over the next week or so.

Note:  I've added a tab on top that is indexing all these posts on the Anchorage Municipal election.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


From the US Geological Survey:
"Sublimation is the conversion between the solid and the gaseous phases of matter, with no intermediate liquid stage. . . 
Sublimation occurs more readily when certain weather conditions are present, such as low relative humidity and dry winds. Sublimation also occurs more at higher altitudes, where the air pressure is less than at lower altitudes. Energy, such as strong sunlight, is also needed. If I was to pick one place on Earth where sublimation happens a lot, I might choose the south face of Mt. Everest. Low temperatures, strong winds, intense sunlight, very low air pressure—just the recipe for sublimation to occur."
Since we got back to Anchorage March 1, we've had low temperatures, not much higher than 25˚F (-4˚C) during the day and sometimes down to -2˚F (-19˚C) at night.  Wind.  and lots of intense sunlight.  Wikipedia says that average air pressure at sea level is 1013.25 mbar.  The National Weather Service charts for the several days in Anchorage show air pressure gradually rising from a low 998.2 on the 15th up to 1014.9 early this morning (3/17/17) and dropping this evening down to 1008.4. So I'm guessing we have a lot of relatively low air pressure for the last two weeks as well.

Again from the USGS:
"In summary, energy is needed for the sublimation of ice to vapor to occur, and most of the energy is needed in the vaporization phase. A cubic centimeter (1 gram) of water in ice form requires 80 calories to melt, 100 calories to rise to boiling point, and another 540 calories to vaporize, a total of 720 calories. Sublimation requires the same energy input, but bypasses the liquid phase."

Here's what that snow berm looked like a week ago, after the snow plows went through.

It's hard not to see everything as a metaphor these days.  Sublimation might well describe what would happen to many US government science programs - like those agencies that provided the weather data in this post and the definition of sublimation - if Trump's budget were to pass.  Many of the programs would pass from a solid to a gas, skipping the liquid stage.  And the top picture of the ragged wall of snow might serve as a good metaphor for what many agencies would look like.

Friday, March 17, 2017


Today's news, probably more starkly than usually, is about what people see and and how they interpret it.   When we see what's real, who do we interpret it?  When we see shadows of what's real, how do we interpret it?  

I'm a bit overwhelmed by the interpretation of shadows of shadows (can shadows have shadows?) coming out of the US administration these days.  There is so much focus on shadows rather than on the thing itself, and shadows of things that aren't that important.   Wiretaps?  Budget cuts?  Everyone acting as if the shadow in the white house is an actual president.

So I thought it might be best to just focus today on shadows and their interpretations.

Some thoughts from others on shadows:
“What men call the shadow of the body is not the shadow of the body, but is the body of the soul.”
― Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”
― C.G. Jung 
“It's part of what we call the Shadow, all the dark parts of us we can't face. It's the thing that, if we don't deal with it, eventually poisons our lives.”
― Michael Gruber, The Good Son  
“Shadow is ever besieged, for that is its nature. Whilst darkness devours, and light steals. And so one sees shadow ever retreat to hidden places, only to return in the wake of the war between dark and light.”
― Steven Erikson, House of Chains 
“One realized all sorts of things. The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance. All sorts of things.”
― Jean Rhys, Quartet 
“I consider a dream like I consider a shadow,” answered Caeiro, with his usual divine, unexpected promptitude. “A shadow is real, but it’s less real than a rock. A dream is real — if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a dream — but less real than a thing. That’s what being real is like.”
― Álvaro de Campos

“Facts are delusion," he said. "They are a delusion of truth as a mirage is a delusion of sight. The real facts lie in people's minds and not in fingerprints and books and photographs and all the other physical things which are only the accidents that occur as a result of what lies in the mind. Truth is a matter of the mind and all else is only a blurred shadow to reconstruct the original image. Bit it is the image we are searching for.”
― Leonard Holton, Out of the Depths