Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Can The "Efficiency Gap" Concept Change The Supreme Court's Mind On Gerrymandering?

A Mark Butler FB repost got me to a Slate article on something I'd never heard of in terms of gerrymandering.  Since I got pretty involved in blogging the last Alaska redistricting process, I figure if I didn't know about this others don't either.

The article talks about a challenge to the Wisconsin state redistricting process that successfully used this concept of "efficiency gap."  The case has been appealed to the US Supreme Court, so it's something to pay close attention to.

While double checking, I came across a New Republic article written by Nicholas Stephanopoulus who was quoted in the Slate article.  It seemed more appropriate to go to the horse's mouth for my quotes about 'efficiency gap.'

Stephanoupoulus begins by pointing out that while the Supreme Court isn't for gerrymandering, litigants haven't come up with solutions that they are comfortable with.  He says they have hinted at some ideas such as Justice Stevens' idea of 'partisan symmetry.'  So Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee have come up with what he claims would test for that, though he calls it something a little different.
"No litigants have seized this opportunity yet, but they should. To assist them, McGhee and I have devised a new metric of partisan symmetry called the efficiency gap. The efficiency gap is simply the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast. Wasted votes are ballots that don’t contribute to victory for candidates, and they come in two forms: lost votes cast for candidates who are defeated, and surplus votes cast for winning candidates but in excess of what they needed to prevail. When a party gerrymanders a state, it tries to maximize the wasted votes for the opposing party while minimizing its own, thus producing a large efficiency gap. In a state with perfect partisan symmetry, both parties would have the same number of wasted votes. 
Suppose, for example, that a state has five districts with 100 voters each, and two parties, Party A and Party B. Suppose also that Party A wins four of the seats 53 to 47, and Party B wins one of them 85 to 15. Then in each of the four seats that Party A wins, it has 2 surplus votes (53 minus the 51 needed to win), and Party B has 47 lost votes. And in the lone district that Party A loses, it has 15 lost votes, and Party B has 34 surplus votes (85 minus the 51 needed to win). In sum, Party A wastes 23 votes and Party B wastes 222 votes. Subtracting one figure from the other and dividing by the 500 votes cast produces an efficiency gap of 40 percent in Party A’s favor. 
The efficiency gap has several properties that make it ideal for measuring the extent of gerrymandering. First, it directly captures the packing and cracking that are at the heart of every biased plan. Surplus votes for winning candidates are the definition of packing, and lost votes for defeated candidates the essence of cracking. All a gerrymander is, in fact, is a plan that results in one party wasting many more votes than its opponent. The efficiency gap tells us exactly how big the difference between the parties’ wasted votes is."
If you didn't read that carefully, here are some key terms:

Two Kinds of Wasted Votes - votes that didn't contribute to victory
Surplus Votes - those votes more than needed to win
Lost Votes - votes cast for candidate who was defeated

Efficiency Gap is simply the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast.

An extreme example was Pennsylvania where gerrymandering gave the Democrats lots of lost votes.   From Republic Report:
"In Pennsylvania, one state in which the GOP drew the congressional districts in a brazenly partisan way, Democratic candidates collected 44 percent of the vote, yet Democratic candidates won only 5 House seats out of 18. In other words, Democrats secured only 27 percent of Pennsylvania’s congressional seats despite winning nearly half of the votes."

Democrats, who have been hurt badly by Republican control of redistricting after the 2010 census, are hoping this case could break open some opportunities for them.  Here's a FairVote article from December 2016 looking at this case and the larger picture.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

No Such Thing As Tone Deaf - As La Scala Orchestra For The Tone Deaf Demonstrates

Having learned one tonal language (Thai) and struggled with two others (Cantonese and Mandarin) I realized that people who say things like "I can't sing because I'm tone deaf" really aren't tone deaf.  They just think that.  After all, people in Thailand and China who can hear, all understand what people say to them, and if you are tone deaf, you simply can't do that.

My test for English speakers who tell me they are tone deaf is to offer the most tonal two phrases I know in English - listen to the short audio below.




And 100% of them understand that the first one means 'yes' and the second means 'no.'  The phonetic sounds are nearly identical.  The key difference is in the tones.  I first became aware of these tonal words in English when some of my high school students in Thailand came up to me after class and asked, "Ajaan Steve, What do mmm hmmm  and mmmm mmmm mean?"  I'd been using them in class unconsciously.

In Thai and Chinese the tones are part of each individual word - each syllable actually - but in English our tones are embedded in the sentences.  We tend to have a rising intonation for questions, for example.  Just say "no'
1.  As though this is the third time your four year old asks if he can have an ice cream.
2.  As though your girl friend has just turned down your marriage proposal, and you are checking in shock if she really said, "no."

Totally different tones.

This all came to mind today as I read a short piece about La Scala setting up a chorus for the tone deaf.  I smiled when I got to this sentence:
"Maestro Maria Teresa Tramontin has directed the choir for the tone deaf since its formation, in 2010, at the suggestion of Luigi Corbani, who was until recently the director general of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, known as La Verdi. "He believed that tone-deaf people didn't exist," Tramontin said." (emphasis added)
"In many cases, tone-deaf people have to be unblocked from a psychological point of view," Tramontin said. . .

Note:  There may be some people who cannot distinguish tones, I guess.  But then these people would have serious problems listening and understanding, let alone speaking, in countries that use tonal languages, as well most other languages, like English, where tones are connected to sentences rather than individual syllables.  They wouldn't be able to say in perfect English, "I'm tone deaf, so I can't sing."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Case For Hidden Figures As Best Film For 2016

When I started thinking about this, La La Land was getting lots of raves and I was thinking about why Hidden Figures was a better candidate for the Academy Award for best film.  Since then,  I've seen two more films - Fences and Moonlight -  which I'll add in.

Defining 'best' is always tricky.  There are lots of factors to consider and how important one factor is compared to another is up to the viewer.

I'm borrowing  criteria I used to explain my favorites at the 2007 Anchorage International Film Festival, and I'll use those here to help explain the case for Hidden Figures.


So what were my criteria? There are several factors.

1.  Technical Quality - There's a rough continuum from

shaky...........no problems.............very good...............innovative.

You can see this is not exactly a continuum.  Innovative is good when it works, but not when it doesn't.  The technical stuff, ideally, works so well it enhances rather than distracts from the story.

2.  Content - There's a vague continuum from:

Negative/disrespectful ............Boring.........good story.........original.......current.........important

Again, as I look at the line above, this is more a list of factors to consider than a continuum.

3.  Use of Medium. Movies combine sight and sound and movement and timing. The best movies are those that take advantage of the medium and tell their stories in ways that you couldn't tell it orally, in a book, etc.


4.  Whole Package. Even with weaknesses here and there, a film could pull it off by doing some things so well that the problems don't really matter.


Applying the criteria

As I mentally compared La La Land and Hidden Figures, it's clear that Content became my most important category.

La La Land scores high on Use of the Medium.  My brief review of it after I saw it mentioned that the camera was one of the actors in the film.  It wove in and out of scenes like another person on the set.  It wouldn't have worked as a book, you have to see it to get the effect.  I walked out of the theater happy.   But eventually, I realized that the whole movie was like a bubble - beautiful and shimmering and . . . empty and ephemeral.  There was no real content, the singing and dancing were acceptable.  Like a bubble, after it popped there was nothing left.  (Well, if you had just been through a similar kind of disrupted relationship it might feel more meaningful, but it didn't really tell us all that much about that either.)

Hidden Figures on the other hand was rich in Content.  It was a great story that not only told about  the lives of the three main characters, but their place in a pretty much unknown part of American history.  It smashed so many stereotypes about blacks, about women, about the US space program that it's impact is huge.

The three women were part of the 'colored women calculators' at NASA.  Their job was to do the math before computers were installed.  Despite American stereotypes, they were all three extremely bright mathematicians.  The film helps demonstrate why women aren't considered good at math and science.  The movie is replete with ways their brains were used, but they were kept invisible while the men got the credit for their work.  It also powerfully shows the obstacles that black women faced in the Jim Crow South.  Most vivid was Katherine's regular run nearly a mile each way to get to the only colored women's room on the NASA campus - in the heels that women were required to wear.  She was assumed to be the janitor when she walked in, and someone puts up a colored coffee pot so she won't contaminate the white folks' coffee.  And given the level of racial conflict in the US today, being reminded of sanctioned racism in place in the 60s.  And it's important to see real historical role models of smart, resourceful, black women and to be reminded (for some it will be the first introduction) that  black women can be, were, and are brilliant mathematicians and scientists if they're allowed to be.

Technical Quality and Use of the Medium were high, moving the story along without being flashy or in any other ways calling attention away from the story.

Fences and Moonlight are also good films with important stories about black lives.  The language in Fences is exquisite.  The story in Moonlight is compelling, but the structure is sometimes hard to follow.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  Any good work of  art reveals itself more and more with each new encounter.  I could learn a lot by seeing Moonlight a few more times.

Ultimately though, the characters portrayed in Fences and Moonlight  are African-American characters we've seen on screen over and over again, though usually not in such a rich and understanding way.

But the characters in Hidden Figures are ones we have never seen portrayed on screen before - brilliant, gutsy black women who are vital to the US Apollo program, not because of their unsung physical labor, but because of their brains and insight.  This is a movie that corrects a huge oversight in the narrative of African-Americans in the space race, and by extension probably in a lot more areas that we don't know about.

Thus the content of this compelling story starts to fill a huge gap in our knowledge of how African-American women contributed to the United States, and thus to our understanding of the huge loss we've suffered by not fully using the talent of ethnic minorities and women as we strive for a better, stronger USA and world.  Ultimately, Hidden Figures just tells the best story and the story we know the least.  Thus, for me, it's the movie that matters the most.

Trump/Pence Would Like Your Opinion

Here's the kind of questions you get at the Trump/Pence Mainstream Media Accountability Survey.

5.  On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing Republicans? (Select as many that apply.)
☐ Immigration
☐ Economics
☐ Pro-life values
☐ Religion
☐Individual liberty
☐Conservatism
☐ Foreign policy
☐ Second Amendment rights

12.  Do you believe that contrary to what the media says, raising taxes does not create jobs?
☐Yes
☐ No
☐No opinion
☐Other, please specify:
[This one has a box to fill things in]

17.  Do you believe that the media has been far too quick to spread false stories about our movement?
 ☐Yes
 ☐No
 ☐No opinion
 ☐ Other, please specify:
[Again there is a box where one can elaborate]

At the end you leave your name, email address, and zip code.

Is this a ploy to get a favorable poll?
Is this a way to get fundraising lists? [apparently yes]
Is this a way to pick places for Trump to hold rallies?

Anyone want to predict what will happen to the people who submit these with anti-Trump comments?   Is it a fishing expedition for the Trump/Pence enemies list?

If you are going to be contrary and snarky, I suggest you set up a secure email address somewhere and use a proxy server to take the test.  Starting to feel like you live in China yet?

Nah, just go fill it out.  Let them see how many people disagree with them.

It seems to come from the Trump/Pence campaign.

Here's a Twitter trail of folks discussing the survey and whether to leave names or not.

Note: I cut and pasted the questions in without copying the format which had lots and lots of coding.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Who Owns The Evil Media Trump Hates? And How Does Kellyanne Conway Do That?

Sometimes post ideas gestate as I try to gather data and/or just get the time to do them right.  Two Trump related posts have been sitting around.

The first was in response to one of Trump's tirades about the biased media.

The second was a post that would look line by line at what Kellyanne Conway says to figure out exactly what and how she does that. Fortunately, someone else has already done that and you can see it at the bottom of this post.

1.   Trump's anti media campaign

As with all his tweets, Trump uses a disparaging descriptor before the person or organization name he's talking about.  Here, it's 'fake news' media.

Who exactly is this evil media Trump complains about.  It seemed pretty clear that they are all corporations or very rich individuals.  But maybe I was wrong.  (I wasn't.)

I thought it would be useful to look at the top 20 newspapers in the US and see who owns them, because, it's the owners who ultimately matter.  And if they are conservatives and/or billionaires, it tells you something about Trump's charges.  (OK, I understand that Trump, on good days, has a nugget of truth in each panful of tweet, and that tracking down his lies is a trap for the media.  Instead of dealing with real news, they are off proving that Trump is a habitual liar which everyone except Trump seems to acknowledge.)




Rank Paper Owned By Comment
1
  USA Today 
Largest US newspaper publisher by
total daily circulation
2Wall Street Journal Rupert MurdochAn Australian description and a
2008 Vanity Fair, personal bio with
names you'll recognize
3New York TimesNew York Times CompanyMexican Billionaire Carlos Slim
is biggest NYT investor*

4
Los Angeles TimesTronc (Tribune Publishing)
5 The Washington Post Jeff Bezos Billionaire, Founder of Amazon
6 Chicago Tribune Tribune Publishing
7 New York Daily Mortimer Zuckerman
8 The Dallas Morning
News
A.H. Belo Corp CEO Jim Moroney
Board Vice Chairman and
Belo Heir Robert Decherd
9 Denver Post/Rocky
Mountain News
MediaNews Group *
10 Philadelphia Inquirer Philadelphia Media Network PMN is owned by the community
philanthropic Philadelphia Foundation.
11 Houston Chronicle Hearst Corporation
12 Detroit News/Free
Press
MediaNews Group/Gannett
13 Boston Globe John W. Henry Also owns the Red Sox.
14 (Long Island) Newsday   Dolan Family and Altice
15 Minneapolis Star
Tribune
Glen Taylor Minnesota billionaire
16 New York Post Rupert Murdoch
17 Atlanta Journal-
Constitution
Cox Enterprises
18 The Newark Star-
Ledger
Advance Publications Also own Vogue, New Yorker,
and Vanity Fair
19 San Francisco Chronicle Hearst Corp
20 The Arizona Republic Gannett



*Notes:
The intricacies here are fairly new to me.  But there were some interesting notes here and there.
Wikipedia noted that as the largest shareholder in the NY Times he
They also noted that MediaNewsGroup borrowed money from the Gates Foundation, mainly to buy papers in the San Jose and San Francisco areas.  Is that a coincidence or does Seattle-based Gates get something from this leverage in Silicon Valley?  They also noted that Hearst owns 31% of MediaNewsGroup outside the San Francisco area.
More than one-third of the top 20 are owned by billionaires:  Minneapolis Star, Washington Post, Newsday,  New York Daily, New York Post, Newark Star Ledger, and the Wall Street Journal.

Trump has more in common with the owners and CEOs of the newspapers than he has with the average American.  While economic class is just one factor, it's important.  At the very least, these people understand the world Trump lives in and can judge him as a peer.  If they oppose him, that says a lot.  It's not because they are unfamiliar with the economic world he lives in.

--------------------------

2.  How Does Kellyanne Conway Do That?

The second was an attempt to transcribe the Kellyanne Conway interview with Chris Cuomo about Russian hacking, which you can see here.  Like others, I'm astounded by how she is able to not answer questions.  I thought if I wrote out the transcript, I could see how she does it.  And from the few minutes I did write down, I saw some patterns.
1.  Take a word or two from the questions and use them to attack someone else.
2.  Quibble about words
3.  Challenge the assumptions in the question

I never got it done and now someone - Carlos Mazo - has done it much better than I would have anyway. This is the content I would have eventually gotten to.

 I'd add one more conclusion about what Kellyanne Conway does: She eats up airtime so that nothing substantive can be discussed. She pollutes the public airways so everything is doubted. Nasty, democracy destroying work.








Friday, February 17, 2017

Double Standards = Only Standard Is What Helps Me

Republicans screamed for investigation after investigation on Hillary Clinton's email security - none of which showed more than procedural lapses - but now they aren't supportive of an investigation of Trump officials who had actual, unauthorized conversations with Russian intelligence agencies.  This would appear to be  a double standard.  Or, in fact the reason they gave - national security - was NOT the real standard.

I'd suggest that the standard or the 'principle' they used to call for the Clinton investigations had nothing to do with national security or whatever other reasons they offered to justify the time and money spent on the investigations.

Rather the standard or  'principle' was 'help us win, help them lose.'


The Republicans refused to hold confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Garland on the grounds that a lame duck president shouldn't appoint the next SC judge.   They delayed hundreds of other Obama appointments.  Yet, today, they are blasting Democrats who want to hold thorough hearings and investigations of Trump's nominees.  From Politico:
"The GOP says the calls for delay are a transparent attempt by Democrats to slow down the confirmation process and isolate individual nominees with negative publicity. Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said 'Sen. Schumer is not satisfied with precedent and best practices.'"
They can really say this stuff with a straight face?  Well, those with the power to do what they want can, well, do what they want.

Double standard again, if the principle is to hold speedy nomination processes.  But it's clearly not.  The principle is 'help us win, help them lose.'


Trump and the Republicans have been supporting a ban on refugees and particularly those from half a dozen Muslim-majority countries on the grounds that there needs to be 'extreme vetting.'

Yet today, the Wall Street Journal reports
'The officials’ decision to keep information from Donald J. Trump underscores the deep mistrust that has developed between the intelligence community and the president over his team’s contacts with the Russian government, as well as the enmity he has shown toward U.S. spy agencies.'
Exactly what sort of vetting was there before Stephen Bannon assumed his seat on the National Security Council?  Any at all?  So, extreme vetting for some (when we already have a very thorough vetting procedure for immigrants and refugees), but not for Trump staff and nominees.   Double standard, if vetting were
really the issue.

For Trump, it's been clear for a long time, that 'help me win, help them lose' is is very top principle in life.  For many of the Republicans who would appear to be applying double standards and rejecting reality (i.e. climate change) 'help me win' essentially boils down to 'do what my big campaign funders want.'  Whether they be oil companies, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, agribusiness, gun manufacturers, insurance companies, you get the picture.  (Democrats are not immune from helping their funders either, of course.)

For those of my readers who do talk to Trump supporters, I'm just offering some questions you can ask them here.

  • If the Republicans are so interested in national security, why aren't they livid about the Trump team's contacts with Russian intelligence agencies?
  • If the Republicans are so interested in extreme vetting, why don't they want Trump's appointees to be carefully vetted?
  • If Republicans blocked countless Obama appointees, why are they complaining so vociferously about Democrats wanting to hold confirmation hearings that look carefully into the backgrounds of the appointees?  

How To Change All This

Actually, humans are humans, and it's likely that a certain percent of them will be lusting for power, so the only way to prevent abuse of power is to structure the system appropriately.

For the balance of power in Congress to change, people are going to have to work hard to overcome the gerrymandering of congressional districts.  They need to elect as many Democratic governors and  state legislatures as possible in 2018.  This is so they have more control of the 2020 redistricting processes in the states that impact the fairness of the congressional districts. An extreme example where, according to Price Economics and others,
"Democrats won more than half of the statewide vote, but only 5 out of 18 House seats."
In plain simple language, Democrats got 50% of the vote in Pennsylvania congressional districts, but only 28% of the members of Congress.

The Pennsylvania redistricting committee could do this by drawing district lines that put most the Democrats into a few districts so that the other districts go Republican.

Without changing these practices, the Democrats will not win back the house.  So start finding out about your own state redistricting process and how you can make it more fair.   The Republicans worked on this for years and years, so 2030 should be the real target (I know that's depressing) and we need to make as much change as possible for the 2020 census.

[Go back and look at the US Constitution.  Article 1, Section 2:
"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."
So every ten years the Census Bureau counts how many people there are so they can know how many representatives each state gets.  That count (or enumeration) is what the state redistricting boards use to make districts.]

Thursday, February 16, 2017

US Tradition Keeping Out Blacks - From Trumps Apartments To Voting Booths

One might think it's just a coincidence that the FBI released (apparently) today  hundreds of pages from the 1970s case against Trump and his father for discriminating against blacks in their apartments and the release of a study showing that the various voter id laws enacted in some states have had a significant effect in keeping black and other minority voters from the polls.

But it's probably not that much of a coincidence.   White folks have had lots of time to come up with subterfuges to keep blacks from housing, financing, jobs, marrying their daughters, staying at their hotels, voting, and the list goes on and on.  So there is always some new revelation of how it's done in some new form, new field, or new place.  Or historically as old data are released.

The reason Republicans have been yelling voter fraud at Democrats, is simple.  People think others are doing what they are doing.  And the Republicans, since taking over the South in the 1970s, have been trying to keep black voters from voting.  It's probably true when they say they have nothing against black voters.  It's just Democratic voters they don't like and black voters tend to vote Democratic. But white Democrats don't get affected the same way.    But it appears to also be true that the voter id laws are keeping significant numbers of blacks from voting.

Researchers Zoltan L. Hajnal, Nazita Lajevardi and Lindsay Nielson argue that earlier such studies were inconclusive, but now there's enough data and there have been enough elections that their new data can show a significant impact on minority voters.  (Yes, I'm sure skeptical readers will be reinforced by the decidedly un-Anglo Saxon sounding names of the first two authors, but what could be more American sounding than Lindsay Nielson?)  From the Washington Post article on the study:
"When we compare overall turnout in states with strict ID laws to turnout in states without these laws, we find no significant difference. That pattern matches with most existing studies. But when we dig deeper and look specifically at racial and ethnic minority turnout, we see a significant drop in minority participation when and where these laws are implemented.

Hispanics are affected the most: Turnout is 7.1 percentage points lower in general elections and 5.3 points lower in primaries in strict ID states than it is in other states. Strict ID laws mean lower African American, Asian American and multiracial American turnout as well. White turnout is largely unaffected."
And here's the graph from the article:

Beyond voter id laws, there are laws to keep felons (disproportionately black because of criminalization of being black - see the movie 13th  (available on Netflix), to reducing polling places in black areas, etc. etc.  I'm convinced that Trump's claims of voter fraud are almost true.  He just should have said  election fraud - the Republican party's massive campaign to keep blacks from voting.

That's why we have a voting rights act, but a key portion of which was ruled out of date by the Supreme Court in 2013.  Now some of the states are blatantly violating voter rights, and while the courts have eventually ruled against the states (the part that was invalidated was the part that required states with bad records to have new changes in voting related laws get pre-approval from the Department of Justice), folks are hoping another conservative on the Supreme Court and an Alabama born and bred white Attorney General will come to their rescue.

About the Trump discrimination case. . . They settled with a clause that allowed them to not admit guilt and pay a fine and agree to not discriminate in the future.

Their subterfuge came about mainly by telling black applicants that the apartments had already been rented (though they turned out to still be available when white applicants showed up) and if that failed, by telling them the rent was double what it really was.  Here's a screenshot from page 34 of the nearly 400 pages now on the FBI website.  (Many pages are almost illegible because of bad copying of documents and names and other identifiers are redacted, but this page is pretty clear.)

Click to enlarge and focus

This case has been extensively covered for people who were paying attention and not just absorbing Breitbart and Fox.  I mentioned already last March.

There are so many ways to discriminate without being obvious about it.  There was even a guide called  The Green Book - specifically for African-American motorists to help them find establishments that would serve them as the traveled by car across the US.  And there's ample examples of ways to discriminate covertly if you just google.  I've been unsuccessfully trying to find the name of a book in which the black Yale grad author writes an African-American guide to restaurants in New York City.  The factors he rated related to ways blacks are discriminated against in such restaurants.  I don't remember them all, but here are a few:

  • Whether they can find your reservation when you show up and realize you're black
  • How long does it take to seat you?
  • Do they put you next to the kitchen or in an obscure table where others can't see you?
  • How long does it take to get a menu, get served?
I'm counting on the Trump administration to help people realize the way power is misused in this country, to get people really pissed off, and to lead to much more positive and respectful communication between the people the very rich have so successfully divided and conquered.  

On a positive side is this short Danish film that points out that we all have much more in common than we think.\
<

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Steve Austin: Trump's Role Model For Taking Over White House

This was in my Twitter feed, posted by Rob Wesley.  It shows Stone Cold Steve Austin's first day as the head of WWF. You know, the organization Linda McMahon, the new head of the Small Business Administration co-founded and ran.  If you watch the first minute, you 'll watch it all.




And if you haven't read the previous post on Alexander Humboldt, I'd recommend that, too, though it's a bit more cerebral.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They Doubted Alexander Humboldt's Intellectual Ability

I started reading Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature:  Alexander Humboldt's New World while Z was getting her swimming lessons.  (That's another wonderful story.)

You know - Humboldt like in the Humboldt Current, or Humboldt County, or any number of mountains, bays, glaciers, towns named after him all over the world.

The introduction talks about the 100th anniversary of his birth,
"On 14 September 1869, one hundred years after his birth, alexander von Humboldt's centennial was celebrated across the world.  There were parties in Europe, Africa and Australia as well as the Americas.  In Melbourne and Adelaide people came together to listen to speeches in honor of Humboldt, as did groups in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.  There were festivities in Moscow where Humboldt was called the 'Shakespeare of sciences', and in Alexandria in Egypt where guests partied under a sky illuminated with fireworks.  The greatest commemorations were in the United States, where from an Francisco to Philadelphia, and from Chicago to Charleston, the nation saw street pa were in the United Strades, sumptuous dinners and concerts.  In Cleveland some 8,000 people took to the streets and in Syracuse another 15,000 joined a march that was more than a mile long.   President Ulysses Grant attended the Humboldt celebrations in Pittsburg together with 10,000 resellers who brought the city to a standstill."
Somehow I missed that in American history.  The next paragraph talks about the celebrations in New York City.

So what did Humboldt do that made him such a hero around the world?
"Most important . . . Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world.  He found connections everywhere.  Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own.  'In this great chain of causes and effects,' Humboldt said, 'no single fact can be considered in isolation.'  With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today."
He got his insights from a strong scientific education, a strong interest in nature, a wealthy family that allowed him to make amazing journeys around the world collecting observations of nature.
"After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800 [just as the United States was becoming a country], Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change.  Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes.  Humboldt was the first to explain the forest's ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion.  He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on 'future generations.'"
Wolf talks about how his ideas influenced others.
"Thomas Jefferson called him 'one of the greatest ornaments of the age'. [Is that a compliment?] Charles Darwin wrote that 'nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt's Personal Narrative,' saying that he would not have boarded the Beagle, nor conceived of the Origin of Species without Humboldt.  William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both incorporated Humboldt's concept of nature into their poems.  And American's most revered nature writer, Henry David Thoreau, found in Humboldt's books an answer to his dilemma on how to be a poet and a naturalist - Waldon would have been a much different book without Humboldt.  Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary who liberated South America from Spanish colonial rule, called Humboldt the 'discoverer of the New World' and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest poet, declared that spending a few days with Humboldt was like 'having lived several years'."
So it seems spending a few weeks with Humboldt via Wulf's book, seems like a good use of my time.  

This is all background to better understand the title of this post.

Alexander and his older brother learned  Latin and Greek and Enlightenment science and humanities from tutors,  one of whom was particularly stingy with praise.  He was important in their lives because their father had died when Alexander was ten and the tutor was with them a number of years.
". . . Kunth was never quite satisfied with their progress.  Whenever they made a mistake, Kunth reacted as if they had done so to hurt or offend him.  For the boys, this behavior was more painful than if he had spanked them with a cane.  Always desperate to please Kunth, as Wilhelm [the older brother] later recounted, they had felt a 'perpetual anxiety' to make him happy.
  It was particularly difficult for Alexander, who was taught the same lessons as his precocious brother, despite being two years younger.  The result was that he believed himself to be less talented.  When Wilhelm excelled in Latin and Greek, Alexander felt incompetent and slow.  He struggled so much, Alexander later told a friend, that his tutors 'were doubtful whether even ordinary powers of intelligence would ever be developed in him'." (emphasis added)
Judgments of teachers can do great good and great harm.  Different kids react differently to different ways of teaching.  One of my very best teachers was stingy with praise and quick to dismiss, but I learned more from him than any other teacher.  

And somehow Alexander got past these challenges to become the kind of scientist who was able to synthesize vast amounts of information and see how all the pieces fit together.  Looking forward to this book.

Monday, February 13, 2017

AIFF2016 Followup: Immigration Nightmare - The Movie

[You can scroll down to see the movie, and further to see one of the director I took when she was in Anchorage last December for another of her movies at the Anchorage International Film Festival.  But here's some immigration context for the film.]

Immigration dominates the news these days, but for many there is no sense of the topic.  But let's look at some numbers to put things in perspective.  From the Homeland Security Website:

Below are daily averages:
1,069,266 passengers and pedestrians
- 326,723 incoming international air passengers and crew
- 53,786 passengers and crew on arriving ship/boat
- 688,757 incoming land travelers
So, in a year, there are about 400 million people going through Customs.  And how many terrorist attacks have we had inside the US since 9/11?

Back to daily averages:
• Conducted 1,140 apprehensions between U.S. ports of entry
• Arrested 22 wanted criminals at U.S. ports of entry
• Refused 752 inadmissible persons at U.S. ports of entry
• Identified 877 individuals with suspected national security concerns
• Intercepted 20 fraudulent documents 
I can't find any explanations of these figures or the terms used, so I don't know if there is overlap from one category to another.  Were the 22 arrested already counted in the 1,140 apprehensions?  Were the 20 people intercepted with fraudulent documents also counted in the 752 inadmissible persons?

But for my purposes here, the numbers here are so low that I'll count them all as if they are all discrete counts.  The total comes to 2811.

So, on a daily basis, that comes down to one quarter of one percent  of the people coming through get onto the list of 2811 above.  That's one out of every 400.   I have to assume that the 'perfect' foreigner  like Anna in the film - highly skilled, US education, a place to stay and a job where people are needed badly, no suspicious connections - is one of the 2811 caught up in a typical day.  And perhaps the woman in the wheel chair who couldn't speak English who will have to stay overnight because Anna isn't allowed to translate - is she part of these numbers?  It's not clear.

Here's the whole film which is being highlighted at Short Film of the Week.


WELCOME from Serena Dykman on Vimeo.




Is the situation in the movie an exception to the rule?  It doesn't look like it.  From the Center for American Progress (in Wikipedia identified as a progressive policy group):
"The most serious conviction for many deported immigrants is an immigration or traffic violation. Forty-seven percent of those deported in FY 2012 for committing a crime were convicted of only immigration or traffic offenses." (emphasis added)
Another excellent full length film on immigration we saw at the Anchorage International Film Festival in 2013 was called De Nieuwe Wereld (The New World) and took place in the  no-man's-land between the arrival area and the departure area in Amsterdam (I'm guessing because it was a Dutch film) where people with questionable or missing documents are held pending a decision.



I've got this titled as part of the Anchorage International Film Festival 2016, because the filmmaker showed another film - NANA - at the festival this year.  I mentioned it briefly in this post, but I also had a video of Serena Dykman that I didn't have a chance to post.  Getting work of this film got me to get it ready so I could post it here.  Below she talks about the film she showed at the festival - about her grandmother who survived Auschwitz and took on the mission of going to schools and elsewhere to spread the word from the mouth of survivor.