The Math I Should Not Have Done

There have been more than 60 bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish Community Centers in the past month, more than 30 of them since the inauguration alone (i.e., in the last twelve days).  Most of these have been domestic in origin (I have that from several sources, include a JCC security head who was told this at an info session with the Detroit FBI office this week).

just another funny little joke, i guess
just another funny little joke, i guess

That number sounds bad—but you don’t really have a benchmark for this, right?  I mean, you ask yourself “Well, how often do folks call bomb threats into YMCAs or non-Jewish daycares?”, and the answer is “Basically zero”—so that sounds bad.  But then you poke around online, and find that U.S. schools get over a thousand bomb threats every year (in fact, I used to teach at an alternative school, and one of my students—a very sweet and peaceful kid when I knew him—had been kicked out of his last school for making a bomb threat).  And how often do schools get bombed?  (Actually, bombs are placed at schools more than you think: According to some old ATF numbers, nearly 100 devces are placed each year in schools).

So I started poking around the FBI UCR (Universal Crime Reporting) Hate Crime stats.  Here’s a representative sample of annual anti-Jewish “intimidation” crime tallies (“intimidation” is the UCR category that includes, but is not limited to, bomb threats).  You’ll note a predominantly downward trend:

  • 1996 had 363 such offenses 
  • 1997: 387
  • 1998: 380
  • 1999: 420
  • 2007: 201
  • 2008: 201
  • 2010: 201
  • 2011: 187
  • 2012: 87
  • 2013: 152
  • 2014: 93
  • 2015: 114

(My numbers above are spotty, owing both to gaps in the FBI stats and because I just can’t dedicate too much time to picking around UCR reports tonight.)

I’ve emphasized 1999 for three reasons:

  1. It is the peak of the available numbers by a significant margin.
  2. It’s the year of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting committed by Buford O. Furrow
  3. If January 2017 is indicative, then we can expect 600 bomb threats this year.  And if bomb threats generally correlate to the volume and volatility of anti-Semitic hate floating around out there . . . well, you can do the math.

“Won’t Somebody Think of the Children!!1!” (Yemen Edition)

“On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.” (source)

If your position is “Trump said we should kill the families of ‘terrorists’—an abominable, authoritarian war crime—and now he’s doing just that!” well, way back in 2016, when we had a President with a Noble Peace Prize on his mantle, we dropped thousands of bombs on Yemen (google it), and it isn’t like those somehow magically only killed sworn soldiers of AQAP.  A bomb dropped from a drone isn’t somehow more accurate than a highly trained SEAL with an excellent rifle standing in the same room as someone.  But, man oh man, do we suddenly give a fuck about Yemen, and military operations in Yemen, and civilian casualties in Yemen!  Better late than never, amiright?

Nawar al-Awlaki was 8 years old. Now she's dead. Don't forget to pay your taxes on April 18!
Nawar al-Awlaki was 8 years old. Now she’s dead. Don’t forget to pay your taxes on April 18!

I’m once again reminded of Penn & Teller’s Fishes and Loaves:

Penn and Teller were scheduled to appear on Letterman, and so they prepared a new twist on a classic “broken and restored watch” routine. In their improved version, they’d borrow Letterman’s watch, smash it, then wheel out a big aquarium and sprinkle the parts in the water, where they’d dissolve and the fish would eat them. Letterman would then freely select one of the fish, Teller would scoop it out with a net, they’d gut and and ta-da!, there would be the whole, ticking watch in the fish’s guts!

But the network standards and practices lawyers wouldn’t let them do that trick; it’d be too brutal to have an animal killed on screen. So Penn and Teller re-jiggered the routine: Instead of an aquarium full of live fish, they’d wheel out a fishmonger’s ice table with six dead fish on it. They’d take the host’s watch, smash it, sprinkle the bits in the ice, the bits would dissolve, the host would freely select a dead fish, and Teller’d fillet it to reveal the watch. Standards loved it, the host loved it, and that’s what went on live TV.

The point of the story—which is the sort of thing that belongs in an atheist’s Bible—is that everyone was more comfortable with six fish dying instead of one, provided they didn’t have to watch.

Same here: Dozens, hundreds, thousands of Yemeni kids are killed by bombs Made-in-the-USA, and we’re fine with it—as long as we don’t have to see her fucking picture, as long as it’s done from 36,000 feet by a drone piloted by some dude drinking a Sprite in a cubicle at Creech AFB and there’s no chance of one of “our boys” having to come home in a box in order to git ‘er done!  God forbid we should look at what our tax dollars are buying. 

It’s harsh, but it’s an apt summation of American foreign policy: Killing people’s families is our business model.

It was our business model in 2016, it will continue to be in 2017, the party, skin color, generation, and gender of the president notwithstanding.  If you don’t like that—well, you’re in decent company, because I don’t like it either.  But let’s be honest with ourselves, and just take a damned second to sort out of we really don’t like being in the Murder Business, or if we simply dislike it when a mouthy, pudgy, tactless New Yorker is the one murdering on our behalf.

Finally, if you’re suddenly worried about Trump triggering “World War III,” then I invite you to consider something: Maybe—just maybe—WWIII has been going on for the last 15 years.  We just outsourced all the suffering to developing nations—the same way we do with all the rest of our dirty work.

Maybe this is something else to talk about tomorrow, when you call your reps. I dunno; that’s between you and them.

Tech Companies: “How Dare You Suggest We’d Help Build the Muslim Registry We Already Built!”

So, when I saw this item the other day, I immediately thought of this blog post I penned in January 2015.  tl;dr on all this:

Trump transition team has been publicly mulling over creating/reviving a “Muslim Registry.” The Intercept started calling social media/tech companies and only one—Twitter—said “We’d never help with this!” (FYI, IBM has been down this road before, and yet still somehow doesn’t know the right answer to this question).  Yesterday, Facebook finally clearly said “No way! We won’t do it! We’d never build a Muslim Regsitry!”

But here’s the thing:

  1. As I pointed out back in Jan 2015, these companies have already built these databases.  They know when you are sleeping, they know when you’re awake, they know if you’ve been bad or good or if you even give two shits about Santa Claus.
  2. More to the point, the abstract threat I wrote about back in Jan 2015, when it freaked me out a little that Amazon had clearly flagged me as a Jew, became real in the Spring of 2016 when a bomb threat was called in to the Jewish Community Center housing my daughter’s daycare.  Because I sit on the Board of our congregation (which uses that building regularly for our religious services), I ended up touching base with the local police and FBI agents investigating the incident.  As it turned out six JCCs across the U.S. (in locales as far-flung as St. Louis, New York, and Louisiana) received the same threats at the same time—and all had very similar names.  When I did some googling, I found that all of us were listed together alphabetically in online Jewish education directories, with our phone numbers and addresses.  I.e., someone was just working their way down a list. This time around, it was just to make phone calls and fuck with us and our kids.  Next time?  Who knows; here’s what said in 2015, and it’s still about the same:

[I]n Amazon’s datacenter, I’m a row in a table. The index on that row is something like “CUSTOMER #2045674” and the cells include “kindle-owner” and “SF reader” and “owl pellet buyer” and “Jew” and my mailing address. Just another row, among millions–until that table gets resorted by the “Jew” column, and then I’m a box waiting to be ticked off by God-knows-who for God-knows-what-reason. Maybe they want to send me free Xanukah candles! Maybe they want to send me a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge! I guess I’ll have to wait for the mail man to come and find out then!

So I guess it’s swell that Facebook and IBM and Amazon and whoever else handwould never-ever-ever build the Muslim Registry they already built, but what if they maybe entirely accidentally do build a registry (which they already built, which is already being used to facilitate hate crimes and international terror)?  What then?

FYI, in business jargon, this is an externality.

 

The Final Test of the Electoral College

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”

That Guy in that Musical Everyone is Nuts Over

It seems like we finally have an excellent test as to whether or not the Electoral College is worth the inequality it introduces to an already highly unequal system[1]: 

On the one hand, we have a popularly elected candidate with an enormous margin of victory (roughly 2.5 million votes?) who is highly qualified, thoroughly vetted, and has spent so many decades as a public servant that she is a very thoroughly known quantity.  On the other we have a historically unpopular candidate who has continued to behave in alarmingly erratic fashion since his election—for example, threatening to dismantle the First Amendment and strip individuals of their natural-born citizenship, as well as questioning the legitimacy of the election he won—who keeps himself cloaked in secrecy, is drowning in conflicts of interest, and eked out electoral victory on a technicality almost certainly because of the concerted effort of a foreign power antagonistic to US interests.

(DISCLOSURE: The first clause of the top tweet is untrue—see graph below—and the second clause entirely unsubstantiated.  The lower tweet ignores two decades of judicial precedence and sorta suggests that the PotUS should be able to jail people at will; both overstep the bounds of the Executive Branch.)

I’ve previously envied against the Electoral College (see, for example, footnote #1 below), but Lawrence Lessig is making a compelling counter argument in defense of the much-maligned Electoral College:

“Instead, if the electoral college is to control who becomes our president, we should take it seriously by understanding its purpose precisely. It is not meant to deny a reasonable judgment by the people. It is meant to be a circuit breaker — just in case the people go crazy.”

Or, as in the case this year, that the system itself seems to have been substantially short-circuited (or, perhaps more chillingly, to have become so well understood that it is now a completely deterministic game, like checkers—see also “The Book“—and thus will evermore be owned by folks with the talent for low intrigue, the little arts of popularity, and the technology to leverage radical uncertainty in a cognitively exhausted populace).

Others think differently from Lessig—Orin Kerr being the standout example—but I don’t know that I’m persuaded by Kerr’s thinking, which seems extremely obtuse, mostly because it treats an actual matter of life and death (think I’m being hyperbolic?  Tell that to 100,000 dead Iraqis and Afghans, courtesy of President G.W. Bush) as though it’s a damned game of groundies.  If you’re more into fantasy fiction, this novel Electoral College solution strikes me as simultaneously both more realistic and more far-fetched than anything else I’ve seen—which is kinda par for the course this year, right?  Shit, given how 2016 has gone, I wouldn’t be shocked if we ended up with a Romney/Stein inauguration come January.

(source: Eric Rauchway)
(source: Eric Rauchway)

At any rate, taken at face value, we now will finally know:  If Trump is inaugurated next January—contrary to the will of a clear majority of Americans who cast votes which were counted (a number that is itself a subset of the total votes cast, and a sadly small subset of the total adult American population) and despite serious flaws in character and qualification—then the Electoral College has certainly outlived its usefulness, and it’s time to make a big change.

If someone else—hell, almost anyone else—is inaugurated in 44 days, then we’ll finally really and truly know what the Electoral College is for in the 21st Century.

Continue reading “The Final Test of the Electoral College”

It’s Better to Light a Candle than to Sit and Curse the Dark

If you see tweets like this:

and your gut drops with the sort of ice-water dread usually reserved for hearing phrases like “metastatic cancer,” then you are not alone.

Nicholas Kristof has some suggestions which I think are a super-duper solid starting place: “Are you traumatized by the election of Donald Trump? Here’s the program for you.

Here are a few additions/refinements:

  1. You can’t take care of anyone else if it takes all of your available energy just to keep your shit together and function.  I made myself this “survival” playlist and listen to it first thing every morning while I’m writing; I’m not sure all the choices make sense to the general public, but they all buoy my spirit.  Make your own survival playlist and listen to it religiously.  Keep your heart, kid!
  2. Wigged out that the erratic President-Elect—either through his business practices or bellicosity—will trigger (or maybe somehow worse, fail to trigger) a Constitutional crisis? Give monthly to the ACLU.
  3. Wigged out about the shouts to repeal Obamacare?  Call your congressional reps and call Paul Ryan, who has set up a sort of voice-mail straw poll to take the temperature of the electorate on this issue:  202.225.3031.  Doing both of these will only take you a few minutes, tops.
  4. Wigged out about voter suppression and election rigging? I talked to my state rep, Jeff Irwin, at the local coffee shop.  He pointed me to this very good project for fixing our damned-near broken electoral college system: http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/  He also suggest you should work in your state to support expansion (or creation) of early voting and a shift to “universal absantee ballot”  If you want to support the Greens’ recounts, you can still give money to fund that (recounts are paid for by whoever requests them—not the public at large; I’ve already kicked in).  More importantly, you can volunteer to help with the recount itself in MI, WI, and PA.  It looks like they’re maybe getting deluged with trolls spamming their forms, so I’m sure honest, legit volunteers are much appreciated right now.
  5. Wigged out about access to women’s health services?  I spoke to Sarah Erdreich—author of  Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement—and she noted that the best place to give is as locally as possible:  “A lot of the effects will be felt by women that need the services but won’t be able to afford them. … as long as the government is still funding non-[abortion]-related services at PP  [Planned Parenthood] health clinics, it has a guaranteed funding source. … Near-term, a lot of the issues women have with accessing PP’s [abortion] services as financial, so if the local PP has a way to accept donations targeted towards defraying the cost for patients, that would be the most immediate. If they don’t, check out NNAF—Nat’l Network of Abortion Funds—and see what independent clinics in the area have set up.” Here’s the direct link that allows you to give to state/regional/local Planned Parenthood organizations.  Sarah especially supports the Willie Parker Fund for Abortion Access in the South; the map on this page will help you find similar funds in your area.
  6. Wigged out about hate crimes? Wear the safety pin—but more importantly, cultivate a good natured and incredulous: “Hunh.  You don’t really believe that, do you?”  Practice saying it with a squint and smile, and deploy it frequently when someone gets out of line.  Gently obliging someone to articulate their feelings and acknowledge the repercussions of what they say, and to own those words—or, hopefully, to decide they don’t really want to own those words and where they lead.  The safety pin is a nice outward symbol, because I like the idea of “safety” in the safety pin, and of being a presence to help calm the nervous. But more importantly, for my own mental health, I like to dwell on what a safety pin is for: We use them in an emergency to hold our shit together long enough to get somewhere safe and really assess what repairs we need to move forward.  And, goddamned if we ain’t in that place right now, brothers and sisters.
  7. BONUS ROUND: Wear the flag, too—not with snark or irony or upside-down, but with pride.  Let us not cede our unified identity to the haters.  E pluribus unum; the Union forever.usa-american-flag-waving-animated-gif-26

“It’s Rigged, I Tells Ya! *Rigged*!!!” UPDATES

Just trying to get this all in one place, ’cause shit is kind of accelerating:

We live in interesting times, mutherfuckers!🇺🇸🔥

“A thread for white people considering how to talk to their relatives” via @the_author_

Since it seems highly likely that a non-negligible percentage of you are heading into a hella awkward long weekend with family, I thought this thread from author Bailey Poland might prove helpful: A thread for white people considering how to talk to their relatives

This lil bit, I believe, is an especially solid tactic:

The key takeaway, in my humble:

Use LOGIC to come to your conclusions, but appeal to others’ ETHICS and EMOTIONS to persuade them.  Speak honestly and authentically about your own experience.

Here’s an example of how I might apply this in conversation:

“I totally hear that you feel like the country has made some big, jarring shifts in the last eight years, and you feel left out in the cold. But here’s the thing: I’ve been surprised by the number of Jews I know who’ve taken steps since the election to be sure that they and their children can leave the country in a hurry. But not super surprised, because my wife and I did so, too.  And that didn’t take eight years; it took two weeks.”


 (For the curious, here’s something I wrote about being a Jew in 21st C America one year before all this crazy “what nationalist” election crap kicked off.  Spoiler alert: Shit hasn’t gotten better in 28 months.)

“It’s Rigged, I Tells Ya! *Rigged*!!!” Redux

So, there are things I want to revisit about this post from October 20—specifically, as pertains to the sentence “this [election] hasn’t really been close for a year or so”, I’d like to punch the guy who typed that in the nuts until such time as his eyeballs fill with blood—but I stand by the gist of this:

Here’s the thing: at the national level the U.S. election system—being a bass-akward county-by-county patchwork with little network connectivity and lots of different paper trails—is broadly unriggable. Yes, many pockets are vulnerable to manipulation, but that can only tip a close election

And would like to draw your attention to the added emphasis in the final clause—because this was a very close election, and it was tipped.

But I do not believe it was “rigged.”  Check out this brief essay from Bruce Schneier for reassurance of this.   If you don’t know Bruce, you can take my word that he is the guy to listen to on this.  He wrote the bible of modern cryptography, vetted a lot of the documents Snowden obtained, and is basically unimpeachable in his writing on security, and on the grave threats posed by a surveillance state.  I’ve been personally following Schneier’s career for almost two decades, and absolutely believe that his call in these matters is solid.

So, in terms of hacked voting machines and manipulated voter roles and Russian machinations, this election was not rigged.

But was the outcome of this very close election tipped by gerrymandering and voter suppression?

Well, let’s consider Florida—just hypothetically:

  • About 9 million people voted in Florida this year
  • Florida’s population is about 37% black and brown (almost a quarter of the state is Latinx)
  • Clinton lost FLA by about 120,000 votes

So, let’s say that people of color represent just 30% of Florida’s voters—and that these voters strongly favored Clinton (which a large number of polls indicated).  How much suppression of the black and brown vote does it take to shift Clinton from winning that race to losing it by 120,000 votes (keeping in mind that you must win FLA by more than .5% in order to avoid a recount)?  A little math, and we discover it’s:

7%

If you prevent just 7 in every 100 voters of color from voting in Florida, you get the flip we saw.

Hypothetically.  Just sayin’

Now, could 7 in every 100 voters of color be discouraged by three hour lines, or confusion about what ID they needed, or fear of prosecution for unpaid tickets, or misled about what day they were to vote or if they could do so online in advance?  Could 7 in every 100 voters of color have their ballots discarded as spoiled, or set aside because there was something wrong with their registration, or forced to vote a provisional ballot that would never be counted unless the final tally was less than .5% in favor of one candidate?

I have no idea.

But I’ve seen folks discouraged by less, and cheated out of more.  And I’m sure you have, too.

And such very mild suppression—just a few percent here and there, out on the edges of cities where the Blue urban core sprawls out into the Red Suburbs—is nationally amplified by the electoral college.

Not that I’m saying that such fuckery is what happened, or that any such systemic tom-foolery played part in how we wound up with the the Guy Who got Second Place as our President-Elect.

I’m just sayin’, is all.  Just sayin’  usa-american-flag-waving-animated-gif-26

And all of that said, I still think you should watch the video I posted way back on October 20 (and embed again below)—because what that video warns us is the most important bit of all right now:

Twilight Zone – The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street from Kevin on Vimeo.