Monday, June 29, 2015

Political Polarization...and Cheating

The Supreme Court has just allowed to stand the independent redistricting commission that the voters in Arizona established, to take rabid partisanship out of the drawing of state and federal districts. Republicans who control the AZ legislature say the Constitution gives them the right to draw congressional districts, and they cannot be cut out of the power.  California is the only other state that has diminished the legislature’s role similar to Arizona, but 11 other states have created commissions that have some sort of say about reapportionment.

I have long railed against gerrymandering, which is only the most blatant of a dozen ways that modern political parties have found to cheat voters. Nothing more spectacularly proved the stunning dogmatic partisanship of justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito more than they way they have blocked (till now) any serious judicial review of these hijackings of sovereign citizen will.

While both parties commit such crimes, the cheating is not balanced or equally distributed.  While yes, there are blue states where gerrymandering creates contorted, illogical and nasty district boundaries – Maryland and Illinois rise almost to the level of creativity of Texas and Georgia – it should be noted that it is in blue states that mostly democratic-leaning populations have rebelled against the practice, rebuking their own favored party's pols. Of the 13 states where voters have pushed back against gerrymandering, twelve are blue. 

(A ratio similar to those states that have been pulling out of the insane Drug War. Powerful examples of the "name an exception" challenge.)

So, why has the Court only taken tepid measures against a supremely blatant crime?

The Supreme Court has largely stayed out of partisan gerrymandering cases, unable to agree on a test that would allow the court to discern when expected political maneuvering rises to the level of being unconstitutional.”

But it does not have to 'get embroiled'!  Nor is there even a need for impartial redistricting commissions!  All that is called for is one simple rule, that can be expressed in a single sentence. This one rule would not completely end gerrymandering… but it would render it moot and useless as a rampant method for stealing sovereignty and choice from American voters. It leaves a state legislature as the locus of boundary drawing, yet would render them ineffective at robbing citizens of their rights. 

THE RULE: District boundaries shall be drawn in such a way that (1) strives to minimize the ratio of perimeter to area and (2) minimizes OVERLAP between the districts for the state assembly, state senate and U.S. Congress.   

What this means is that a state legislature can gerry their own state assembly districts to benefit the majority party… go ahead! But all this will do is ensure that the boundaries for state senate and Congress are not optimized for partisanship.  Your state senator will have to consider different sets of neighborhoods and needs and alliances than the assemblywoman, making democracy more thoughtful and prone to negotiation.  The upshot? They can only be callously cheating-partisan in one of the three houses.  The others will represent the people in inherently different ways. At least one of which will turn out to be fair.

Above all, this reform does not require a grinding process of establishing one “commission” after another, or “agreeing on a test that would allow the court to discern when expected political maneuvering rises to the level of being unconstitutional.” 

Think about this win-win... only then also take note of this.  NOTICE which party cheats far more than the other.  Ask yourselves why it’s been arranged that all the companies that make voting machines are controlled by rabid GOP partisans.  And why is it that – in red states – there usually is no provision for those voting machines to leave an independent record that can be precinct-audited. Hence, the programmers of that machinery can arrange for any outcome they desire.

 Sure, there are corrupt democrats!  But they have not turned cheating into a passionately-dedicated matter of party principle, policy and disciplined practice.

== Cheaters – cheaters – cheaters ==

What America would look like without gerrymandering? Not just congressional but also the insane system of gerrymandering state boundaries. (We have two Dakotas? Seriously?  Why? Except that Republicans were cheaters in the 1890s, as well as now? And why don't we have Kansaska and New Mexizona?) In fact, this map and the writer’s kind of algorithmic approach is flawed.  It ignores too many human and geographical factors. 

A coming Supreme Court decision might remove nonvoters from consideration in district boundary creation -- gerrymandering on steroids? States currently count the entire population - rather than just eligible voters - to create congressional districts. 

Now here’s an interesting take on the matter: conservatives often demand that we take into account the Framers intent, when interpreting the Constitution. Indeed, the Framers clearly and decisively meant for non-voting persons in a district to be counted in determining representation!  Not only women citizens – who could not vote - but also 3/5ths of any non citizen… which um meant slaves.  

Am I actually citing the heinously cynical “3/5ths Rule” in arguing FOR the enumerating and counting of non-citizens in modern districting?  Yeow! I really don't know where that dog will hunt. But it makes my head hurt with unusual implications.  And I always like that sensation.

Try it, some time.

== Funding Political Campaigns ==

The dilution of fairness and election rules during Republican rule was exacerbated by recent court decisions that opened US politics to the highest bidders. "Citizens United v. FEC, allowing corporations to make unlimited expenditures on behalf of federal candidates. Already, the Associated Press reported, spending on this off-year election has topped $1 billion — and it may exceed $4 billion by the time the votes are in."

See: Campaign contributions should be anonymous. This article from The Washington Post is wrongheaded in many ways but still informative.  

We used to try to reduce the role of raw money by  (1) regulating contributions, (regulating campaign spending, (2) offering free access to some media, rules equalizing access by and, finally (3) - transparency… at least allowing the public to see the money flows and take them into account. The cynical author says: "But has transparency ever been an effective corruption-fighting tool? Many people deeply involved in electoral politics don’t think so."

The piece turns into stunning sophistry when it proposes that donors should be hidden, in order to eliminate their quid pro quo influence on politicians: "What if we made all campaign contributions and independent expenditures anonymous — and made sure they stayed anonymous?"

Does he honestly believe any reader would swallow such titanic malarkey?  That Sheldon Adelson cannot take "credit" for a contribution to a pol, in a myriad ways? This is one more spectacularly bald and shameless hired-rationalization by a court shill, to rationalize our march back to feudalism.

Of all the efforts to deal with the money-taking-over-politics problem, the most cogent and deserving of you support is probably Lawrence Lessig's rational approach.  Have a look.

== thinking less like citizens, more as “sides” in a war ==

The growth of partisan polarization has transformed US politics in recent decades, and the effects are especially visible in this graphic. It’s especially depressing, but also makes clear what we have to do.  To end gerrymandering and all the other cheats that have turned us into a nation of bile-spitting partisan radicals.  

Most partisans treat politics like sports rivalries, instead of focusing on issues. A report showed that 41 percent of partisans agreed that simply winning elections is more important to them than policy or ideological goals, while just 35 percent agreed that policy is a more important motivator for them to participate in politics.”

When it came to uncivil attitudes, 38 percent of partisans agreed that their parties should use any tactics necessary to "win elections and issue debates." When those who agreed with this view were asked what tactics they had in mind, the most common ones they offered were: voter suppression, stealing or cheating in elections, physical violence and threats against the other party, lying, personal attacks on opponents, not allowing the other party to speak, and using the filibuster to gridlock Congress. Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to express this opinion.”

Really? Things have sunk so low that now BOTH sides think this?

 To which I respond impulsively that this is terrific news!  That democrats and Blue Americans are finally realizing negotiation and persuasion and compromise will not work, during a re-ignited phase of the American Civil War.  That the forces of the Union are at last willing to take off the kid gloves, as they finally decided to do, in 1861, after nine years of violent bullying by the nascent confederacy. 

All right all right… not really. I don't mean that.

In fact, I deplore this trend at all levels and in every way, especially condoning cheating.  But wrath toward the gerrymandering, vote-suppressing, vote-machine warping cheaters who started this dismal phase of American life? Right on. Their “team" cheats. It has elevated cheating to an art. And they have zero regrets.

== Finally…  ==

The fact that Dick Cheney is admired by even a single American is appalling proof of the delusional willpower of schizophrenia. Watch Jon Stewart's hilarious rant - tribute to Cheney laying the lying hypocrisy so bare that even the most-delusional among you Fox apologists will have to admit... this one should long ago have been given the boot. If not a ride on a tumbrel. 

“George Bush: 'God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq'…” Yeah… well… if by “God” you mean his masters in the Saudi Royal House. Whose orders he and Dick Cheney followed, to the letter, in all matters and top to bottom.  And who own and operate Fox News.  And who own and operate the GOP. And who are the actual “caliphate.”  

Oh, but it is all going according to plan.  We’ve entered the era of the New Pyramid, when society’s top aristocrats have nothing to spend their money on but status.  A Pablo Picasso masterpiece smashed the world record for a painting sold at auction, fetching a fraction over $179 million (£116m).”  That same month, Christies handled a BILLION dollars in art sales.

 Eep. I blame you, Rupert. A nascent feudal oligarchy that is too stupid to read science fiction or history... and willfully ignores the blatant horizon (of pitchforks and tumbrels and designer viruses) where all of this must lead ... has already proved itself WAY too stupid to qualify for leadership over this century.  In EXISTENCE I show a scene portraying what smart oligarchs might do. Even those who (at an alpine meeting) do want a quasi feudal social order... but who also want to live. And I see no sign of this scenario coming true.

The truly smart bazillionaires -- who earned it with creative-innovative products and services -- know better.  They are willing to negotiate, in order to keep the enlightenment healthy.  They want to be rich all right, but in a vibrant and mostly-fair civilization that lifts all boats.  They are not on Rupert's team.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tech, Skepticism, Transparency and Vision

Our Augmented Future: My talk on Augmented Reality and Transparency given last month to the Augmented World Expo has been posted on YouTube.  How will we use technology to solve the problems of the future...and prevent Big Brother?

Elections Matter in shaping the issues of the future. So does science! So... sign the national call for a presidential debate on science at

Ignore the Tech Skeptics: This essay by David Auerbach is exceptional and merits attention – on how technology may disappoint us and fall short of utopian fantasies… but that it is still the core of problem-solving ability that could save us in coming years: "If we hope to save ourselves from disaster, technology - real technology - remains our only hope."

And then there are the tech-visionaries: Here's a fascinatingly detailed biography-look at Elon Musk, the cover story in Bloomberg Magazine. Our Edison. 

== Journalism & Science ==

This article by Rhys Taylor - on how journalism treats science – is pretty interesting.  A couple of quotables:  “Furthermore, reading most articles, one gets the impression that "scientists" are some sort of huge homogeneous group, and whenever a mystery is "solved" everyone is instantly content and moves on to something else (apart, presumably, from those unfortunate enough to be perpetually baffled). Of course outside this media fantasy land, proof almost never turns up, and trying to convince everyone that any one idea is better than another is a bit like trying to teach cats synchronised swimming.”

The same argument is made more concisely when I point out that no human activity is more competitive than science and no humans, in the history of our species, are more competitive than scientists.  Diametrically opposite to the image portrayed in media of both the mad far-left and today's entire, jibbering-insane right.

More from Rhys Taylor“One final point: there seems to be a tremendous lack of interest in the journalistic world into actually bothering to check the press releases and get more details. While the sandwich-eating abilities of politicians are microscopically scrutinised by every news agency in existence, most science articles are little more than carbon copies of the press release. Which doesn't make a lot of sense because whenever anyone bothers to ask, it's very hard indeed to get most scientists to shut up about their research.”

== Tech, Transparency and Vision ==

Like it or not...

Biometrics are advancing so fast that technology now allows the scanning of irises from a distance of up to 40feet (12 metres) away… exactly as we saw in Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report.  In fact, “Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the US demonstrated they were able to use their iris recognition technology to identify drivers from an image of their eye captured from their vehicle’s side mirror.”

The good news… portrayed in both EARTH (1989) and EXISTENCE… is that: “By using measurements of physiological characteristics, people no longer need security tokens or cumbersome passwords to identify themselves.”  The harsh news is that every measure that you thought would conceal you is probably moot.

Nothing could be more stupid than trying to protect your freedom and safety by hiding and secrecy.  Only one endeavor will prevent this stuff from empowering Big Brother.  Sousveillance.  Looking back.

Will we see public shaming based on the DNA in that gum you spat on the sidewalk? "By analyzing saliva or blood, a company is able to make an educated prediction of what you might look like." Hong Kong uses the method to take cigarette butts from the street, back analyze DNA and post billboard images of what the litterer might look like. Your take-home from this? The village is returning. We can still choose which village, though.

Brain implants are on their way... A lot of people accept “cyborg” enhancements that are either removable (augmented eyeware) or permanently helpful below the neckline (heart valves and joint replacements.) Cochlear implants to give hearing to the deaf?  That’s controversial only among the willfully indignant. Indeed, a fraction of blind folks may soon get rudimentary vision, this way.  Still, the notion gets creepy when you start shoving machinery into “our second favorite organ,” (as Woody Allen called the brain). Concerns stretch back to James Coburn’s wonderful 1960s film “The President’s Analyst.”  

“When we had him come to Crown College at UCSC we watched as his wife "turned him off" with the remote. 300 students and faculty gasped. He woke up laughing when she adjusted the stimulation level.  The future of brain implants promises even more powerful interventions, especially optogenetics. As current potentially deadly or disabling remote implants already are known to have poor security protocols as far as can be found out behind the veil of corporate security, we can expect this to become a bigger issue as time goes on. More people with more interactive and powerful implants is more motivation for people to hack their way into the remotes that control them. Security will improve, of course. But what nontrivial system is every truly safe from compromise?”  (Via Chris Gray.)

Well well… here’s an alternative.  Do it organically! “Toronto scientists and engineers have made a breakthrough in cell transplantation using a gel-like biomaterial that keeps cells alive and helps them integrate better into tissue. In two early lab trials, this has already shown to partially reverse blindness and help the brain recover from stroke.” 

== Tech Advances where we need transparency ==

A new set of algorithms enable robots to learn motor tasks through trial and error using a process that more closely approximates the way humans learn, marking a major milestone in the field of artificial intelligence. “Most robotic applications are in controlled environments where objects are in predictable positions,” said Darrell. “The challenge of putting robots into real-life settings, like homes or offices, is that those environments are constantly changing. The robot must be able to perceive and adapt to its surroundings.” 

This, by the way, correlates with what I believe is likely the way we'll finally get true AI… the only way that - to the best of our knowledge - intelligence has ever arisen in the cosmos, via extended physical interaction with the physical world through a little process called "childhood."  (As discussed in Existence.)

Electrical healing? harmless wounds were created on each upper arm of volunteers.  One wound was left to heal normally, while the other was treated with electrical pulses* over a period of two weeks -- resulting in wounds healing significantly faster.

On the other hand, in a double-blinded, randomized study, UNC researchers found that the IQ scores of people who underwent tDCS brain stimulation improved markedly less than did the IQ scores of people in the placebo group.

Using a weak electric current in an attempt to boost brainpower or treat conditions has become popular among scientists and do-it-yourselfers, but a new UNC School of Medicine study shows that using the most common form of electric brain stimulation had a statistically significant detrimental effect on IQ scores.  So let's step ahead carefully, here.

== Tech Snippets ==

Randall Munroe, the XKCD comix guy, has created a book called the Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words whose diagrams "cover all kinds of neat stuff—including computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the stuff you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you’re made of (cells)" with all the parts described using only the thousand most common English words. Support this guy and share the thing.

Just like some sci fi stories I could name… “The Void is a new start-up based in Salt Lake City, Utah which claims to have gone some way in bridging the gap between physical and virtual worlds by building physical stages which match the virtual environment, then putting players inside.” Visitors immerse themselves in custom-built arenas (Gaming Pods), wearing untethered virtual reality headsets.  Included… haptic feedback to let you know when you’ve been “shot” and other innovations.

Researchers have created an optical lens that can be placed on an inexpensive smartphone to magnify images by a magnitude of 120, all for just 3 cents a lens.  "Our lens can transform a smartphone camera into a microscope by simply attaching the lens without any supporting attachments or mechanism." 

graphene, lovely miracle graphene!  Now at last someone seems to have figured out how to make it in continuous batches, rolling up long ribbons!  

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Fort Sumter Redux: the battle flag and the re-ignition of the Confederacy

 “Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of — and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors.” This according to a study published last year by Stanford and Princeton researchers. (See America's New Cycle of Partisan Hatred.)  The divide is as fierce as it has been, since…

… since previous phases of the recurring American Civil War. I found this excerpt interesting: Also of note is that the partisan polarization occurs even though Americans aren’t all that split on policies or ideology. Their partisanship is more tribal than anything — the result of an ill-informed electorate." 

Moreover “In order to have an understanding of the ideology of your party and the opposing party you have to have a lot of information….”

And hence, polemicists on both sides (though one far worse than the other) strive to oversimplify and to downplay science. This article blames we, in the electorate for allowing it to happen.  And sure, some fault lies there.  But history tells us how our ancestors got out of similar phases, in the past.  And it always took just one thing.  One thing that’s needed now. 

When reason ceases to function and civil war has blossomed into full fury... one side has simply to win.

== The battle flag is only 99% a "symbol of hatred" ==

And so, the Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof has accomplished his openly stated goal -- to stir our civil war to an even greater boil -- though perhaps not with results he intended.  Take the surge in discussion of eliminating the X-shaped Confederate Battle Flag from state premises and symbology, and not just in South Carolina (where the governor just declared her agreement that it should depart from the state capitol grounds.)

(Indeed, see how this is one more example of why we should have a "rename crazy killers" law... Or Names of Infamy -- Deny killers the notoreity they seek.)

Indeed, for sure I am 99% on one side. Was the Olde Confederacy awful?  Of course. None of the rationalizations for secession or "the Cause" hold up under the slightest historical scrutiny. For example, southerners weren't complaining at all about "states rights" during the thirty years that they dominated the federal government, until 1860.  Up to the election of Lincoln, they ran roughshod over their neighbors, applying federal power with merciless cruelty and ferocity. 

The secession declarations of each Confederate state make abundantly clear that their cause was exactly and precisely and almost entirely the protection and promotion of slavery. Top middle and bottom. First and last.  The very word is praised more than thirty times in South Carolina's document. Those who tout any other explanation for the treason know no history.

And yet... I refuse to say that there was absolutely zero admirable about the Confederacy.  As evil as its romantic "cause" was, they displayed one trait worth positive (if grudging) memory. 

Martial courage and skill.Them rebs sure could fight! Southern foot soldiers repeatedly exhibited fortitude, endurance, cleverness, innovation and ability at arms. A knack that continues today as southern men and women volunteer for arduous military life more often than do blue-city folk.

Hence, there is one — just one — place where I can look at the Battle Flag of the Confederacy without loathing a symbol of treason and hatred... and that is in portrayals of actual battle. In movies like the wonderful GETTYSBURG film, or in real life re-enactments, I root for the Union, the good guys and the side that also has to win the latest phase of our re-ignited Civil War, lest American (and likely world) civilization spiral again into superstition and feudalism.  

But I will not begrudge southern whites swelling their chests with pride as that banner -- alongside the "bonny blue flag" -- unfurls on an actual battlefield, recalling when their forbears carried those symbols forward with stunning bravery, fighting for a cause

— although that cause was, in fact, one of the worst for which men ever fought. *

Anywhere outside a movie or re-enactment, though? Ditch it. There is no redemption for a symbol of oppression and treason and hatred, anywhere having to do with civilized, 21st Century life.

== The other Confederate motivation ==

A corner-piece polemic spread by every single Republican candidate is one version or another of anti-intellectualism:

 “With the Republican primaries ramping up, there will surely be a great deal of anti-intellectual musing coming from each candidate. There will be talk of how those elitist “harvard faculty” members are disconnected from the common people up in their ivory tower, and how they just don’t understand the real America."

 Mike Huckabee, one of the GOP candidates for president, summarized this view on “The Daily Show” earlier this year (and in his book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy): 

“There’s a real disconnect between people that live in the bubbles of New York, Washington, and Hollywood, versus the people who live in the land of the bubba’s…theres a big difference between people who are well educated and people who are smart.” 

To which zero-sum dichotomy, the only reaction is that this Nehemia Scudder, like his ilk, is at war with the very notion of our civilization. See: Who Benefits from the Politics of Outrage?

More on this rising polarization, below.

 == Comparing the Union to the Confederacy: 2015 edition ==

Some maps speak for themselves. We are lectured-to about about capitalism and enterprise by folks who are worst at handling money, let alone doing business startups or innovation.

And lectured-to by Huckabee's "bubbas" on family values: States with the highest rates of second marriages:   35% in Arkansas, 26% Texas, 30% Florida,  versus 21 % California and 17% New York.  Look at the map and compare it to similar tabulations of teen sex rates, teen pregnancy, STDs, domestic violence... and net recipients of tax money. And some historical maps, as well. Ahem. Did I suggest that folks might adjust their politics to reflect... actual outcomes?

 Oh, but it gets better:

Red America gets far more from the Federal government than Blue America does. In fact, the federal government serves as a mechanism for transferring wealth from productive, innovative Blue America to parasitic Red America. From the Wall Street Journal: Which States Take the Most from the U.S. Government?

Delaware residents, who voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in 2012, get 50 cents in federal funding for every $1 in federal income taxes they pay.

Mississippi — 55.5% for Mitt Romney — cashes in with $3.07 in federal funding for every dollar paid in income taxes.

== And it goes on... ==

Alas, am I exaggerating the "civil war" thing?

In a sadly related event: Bill Maher commented on the Jade Helm paranoid lunacy: “Here’s the thing: in today’s Republican Party, you can’t call out nutty people for being nutty, because they’re not a small group,” Maher said. “In the Republican Party, crazy is a constituency.” 

As if to illustrate this point: Conservative Charles Murray has a plan to render useless regulations from the EPA, OSHA, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commision. Create a fund to pay for a bunch of small suits against these agencies until they stop enforcing regulations. Read about it at (an admittedly biased source): 

Yeah, it fits: Texas bill would make recording police illegal: Citizens who are armed (with cameras) would not be permitted to record police activity within 100 feet of an officer on duty. The offense would be a misdemeanor. This bill would contradict the precedent set in 2011 by an appeals court, which found that citizens are allowed to record police.

Then how to describe the lunatics in the Wyoming legislature passing a law that "...makes it illegal to collect resource data” from any land outside of city boundaries, whether that land be private, public, or federal. Under the law, “collect” means to “take a sample of material, acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form from open land which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.”  So even facing actual facts is now illegal.

Ah, but Ohio has joined the list of Republican controlled states that are gunning for the Libertarian Party, denying third party candidates positions on the ballot by tightening eligibility requirements.

Finally, see this: Tracking how America changes its mind: the pace of social change.

Am I being harsh?  I am a scientist and a believer in the future.  If they had left their Book Of Revelation yearnings for an end to civilization and the world and also of reason, for Sunday morning, it would be one thing.  By making it daily policy, they have made clear to folks like me that this has nothing, whatsoever to do with "left versus right."

It is a revived mad Confederacy ... waging outright war against tomorrow.

* Paraphrasing Sherman, of course.