Sunday, March 01, 2015

Downtime From Blogging...

I am going to use the month of March to focus hard on getting the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo project Ocean Dancers done.

I will finish this.

That means no distractions.

If I check in here, it will be to either keep my seven readers appraised of my efforts, and/or if the political scene does something incredibly stupid or tragic or both.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Republicans Are Working EXACTLY As Advertised: Bad And Worse

What did you expect?
Congress managed at the last minute on Friday night to avert a partial shuttering of the Department of Homeland Security, passing a one-week funding measure for the agency. President Obama signed it shortly before the midnight deadline.
The deal came together after a whirlwind day of negotiations in which the House Republican leadership suffered a humiliating defeat when its 20-day funding bill was rejected. The arrangement is expected to prolong talks about longer-term DHS funding until at least early next week.
All this really did was push the argument down the road for another week.  The same problem is there, and the same roadblocks by the extremists are still up.

What did you expect when you put in power a political party whose ideology is that government is either dysfunctional or deserving of shutdown?

When you hire a plumber who believes the piping in your house is the wrong material, what do you expect when that plumber refuses to fix it and allows the house to collapse when the pipes break? When you call Animal Control about the bear in your kitchen, and the Animal Control guy claims the bear is not real because the last reported bear sighting was 12 years ago and besides we're better off leveling the forest next month to make sure there aren't any bears by then, what did you expect when your house got vandalized by that bear and your property value was decimated when the surrounding neighborhood got napalmed? What did you expect when you vote in a politician who believes government is a problem, and then refuses to do the job just to prove that belief?

I'm reminded of what Andrew Sullivan wrote before the 2010 midterms when the GOP threatened to reclaim the House, where he argued that being in a position of authority would force the increasingly partisan Republican Party to pull back and govern responsibly: "If they win back the House, as it seems inevitable they will, they will have to offer something at last instead of criticizing everything in comically tired tropes..." That never happened: the GOP got worse because their own echo chamber convinced them they won power on merit rather than false advertising.  Even Sullivan realized that the month after those midterms.

The results of 2014 proved the same: they barely governed - fewest bills passed in ages - and consistently behaved incompetent, ignorant, and obstructionist, leading up the Long October of a government shutdown that many Americans blamed them for creating.  Even in the face of all that, the Republicans profited from terrible voter turnout and even more partisan campaigning and won control of both houses of Congress as well as more state offices.

Republicans are not learning any lessons of accountability because they're never held accountable at all.  They were blamed for the Long October shutdown: They won more seats and power that following election.  Negative Reinforcement of the worst kind.  Every electoral win convinces them that their "message" is right and true and accepted by all even when polling shows majorities of Americans disagreeing with Republicans on things like taxing the rich and gay marriage, even when a majority of Americans hate the job they're doingor back Obama's agenda on immigration.  Because they've rigged elections with gerrymandering and purposeful voter suppression, and pretend otherwise.

The Republicans ideology is that "government is bad", full stop.  This defines their push to cut taxes and cut social welfare programs and cut nearly everything that makes the government function to serve the needs of the people.  This defines their push to deregulate and privatize everything on the assumption that the private sector can self-regulate and provide effective services, even though centuries of public sector work and centuries of private-sector graft and corruption have proven otherwise.

This threat of Homeland Security shutdown is all happening as a backdrop to the CPAC gathering, where Presidential wannabes pander to the wingnut factions to curry early momentum.  None of the potential candidates have called on the failures of the Congressional GOP.  None of them are honestly advocating for good governance.

They are all campaigning on killing schools, killing the social safety nets, killing worker rights, killing foreigners, and killing civil liberties.  The final, purest expression of the social conservatism of the Southern Strategy.  The southern conservatives that drove the horrors of human history of the 19th century and perpetuated that horror in the shadows of the 20th century will achieve their victory in the 21st century: a federal government in ruins, the poor shackled and sick, injustice for many except the elite.

This is what you keep voting for, Americans, especially when you refuse to show up and vote for saner alternatives.  This is what you get when you hire people whose pre-ordained mythology drives them to destroy the very institutions you've allowed them to take control of.

And like suckers buying toxic snake-oil, you're going to keep buying this swill until everyone is poisoned, and everything truly collapses.  And by then it will all be over but the tears.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This Day On The Internet

We opened this day with news that Net Neutrality is a reality.  The corporations will not dictate what we can do, or access, or say on the Internet.

This afternoon, the entire nation became riveted by the LIVE ongoing story of two Llamas roaming free in a city in Arizona.  Twitter feeds hadn't been that active since #LeftShark.

Right now, the entire Twitter 'Verse is debating the colors of a dress that some people see as gold and white or black and blue.

We have won Net Neutrality.

WE ARE CELEBRATING BY CHEERING ON LLAMAS AND ARGUING OVER DRESS COLORS.

THIS IS AMERICA F-CK YEAH.

Officially for the Record, I Now Have a Working Lightsaber

Geek achievement unlocked.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fox Not-News And the Reputation Of Bad Journalism

Everything I said about the failures of journalism during the Brian Williams exaggeration-and-lies fiasco remains true.  Especially as a follow-up revelation: that Bill O'Reilly, prime promoter of the Fox Not-News media charade, is himself caught in a web of falsehoods regarding his coverage of the Falklands War.  It's built up into a series of additional revelations that O'Reilly has fibbed and exaggerated his way through various news stories and major moments over the decades he's been paid as a journalist.

To wit:

  • O'Reilly claimed to have witnessed deadly rioting - "bodies in the streets" - in Argentina during the Falklands War. While there were riots, none were lethal nor as bad as he claimed.  Adding to this fib has been O'Reilly's contention that being in Buenos Aries qualified him for being in "a war zone" even though the real war zone - the islands themselves - were hundreds of miles away.  There weren't any American reporters in that actual war zone during the firefights.
  • O'Reilly claimed to have been at the house when a prominent figure in the JFK assassination conspiracy theories committed suicide in 1979.  The police reports from that incident never mentioned his being there (which would have been investigated, he would have been interviewed as a potential witness), and there's eyewitnesses and documentation O'Reilly was in Dallas that day (oh irony).
  • A recent report that O'Reilly claimed to witness "nuns getting shot" in El Salvador during the violent civil war there in the early 1980s.  While nuns were killed, the only documented cases were in 1980, and O'Reilly didn't get there until 1981.


Making O'Reilly's struggles against the accusations more poetic is the reality that his channel has a poor reputation with truth-telling when it comes to reporting.  The channel repeatedly passes along unverified stories as factual, edits clips to distort statements by experts or political figures the channel openly despises, and places on-air people who are not experts on topics to discuss opinions instead of facts.

O'Reilly's not even the worst culprit: the bigger fact-denier has been Sean Hannity, who goes after ill-informed opinions that sync with his own rather than getting actual research and expert opinions.

Fox viewers tend to be the least-informed viewers among the three major cable news channels.  A lot of that is due to Fox News providing reports that tend to be false.  A lot of that is due to Fox News not really being news at all.

There's a push to get Fox Not-News to suspend O'Reilly for his exaggerations/outright lying about his professional career, but considering that cable channel thrives on exaggerations and lies, why expect them to punish him for it?  He's probably going to get a pay raise for this.

Addendum: there's a Washington Post article by Paul Waldman that simplifies the O'Reilly scandal in five easy-to-understand points.  Not only why O'Reilly lies...
So why not just say, “I may have mischaracterized things a few times” and move on? To understand why that’s impossible, you have to understand O’Reilly’s persona and the function he serves for his viewers. The central theme of The O’Reilly Factor is that (his) true America, represented by the elderly whites who make up his audience (the median age of his viewers is 72) is in an unending war with the forces of liberalism, secularism, and any number of other isms. Bill O’Reilly is a four-star general in that war, and the only way to win is to fight.
The allegedly liberal media are one of the key enemies in that war. You don’t negotiate with your enemies, you fight them. And so when O’Reilly is being criticized by the media, to admit that they might have a point would be to betray everything he stands for and that he has told his viewers night after night for the better part of two decades...
...but also why O'Reilly will never admit or acknowledge his lies...
Brian Williams got suspended from NBC News because his bosses feared that his tall tales had cost him credibility with his audience, which could lead that audience to go elsewhere for their news. O’Reilly and his boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, are not worried about damage to Bill O’Reilly’s credibility, or about his viewers deserting him. Their loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments...
Welcome to the Fox Not-News War on Truth. They distort, you abide.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Instead of Breaking Maps, Let's Go By Proportions

My rants against the gerrymander are often enough that it's one of my key reform arguments since the old days when this was a different blog.

So whenever I see someone else out there offering a suggestion on how to kill the gerrymander, I pay attention.  This time it's Noah Gordon over at The Atlantic suggesting that we can use Proportional Seating - a parliamentary system used by a lot of European democracies - as a way to end the evils of the gerrymander:

What is proportional representation, or PR? It’s a system that aims to gives parties the same percentage of seats as the percentage of votes they receive—and it might be able to end our gerrymandering wars.
Every ten years, state officials are charged with redrawing district maps to account for population shifts in the Census. In practice, incumbent lawmakers often turn into cartographers with the power to change maps to suit their needs. The problem is epigrammatic: Rather than voters choosing their legislators, legislators are choosing their voters...
...Even with good, non-partisan intentions, it’s getting harder to draw single-member districts that get a party’s seat share to approximate its statewide vote share...
In the United States, those geographical areas could be the states. Imagine Oregon sent five members of the House. Under PR, if Democrats got 60 percent of the statewide vote and Republicans got 40 percent, three Democrats and two Republicans would be elected to the House. Or if the two big parties got 40 percent each, and the Green Party won 20 percent of the vote, the Greens would send a representative to Congress. The largest states could use several smaller electoral districts, so that, for example, someone from San Diego isn’t represented only by northern Californians.
There are different ways of determining which candidates from the parties make it in. Most European democracies use what's called an open-list PR system, where each party nominates (at most) as many candidates as that district sends to its legislature. Voters get a single vote for a candidate that also counts for that candidate’s party.
Think again of five-member Oregon. One popular local Republican wins 40 percent of the vote, and two other Republicans win 10 percent each. All three go to Congress because the party won three-fifths of the state’s votes. The top Libertarian candidate receives 20 percent. He or she, too, goes to Congress. No Democratic candidate gets more than 8 percent of the vote, but because the total number of votes cast for Democrats adds up to 20 percent, the last congressional seat goes to the first-place winner among them...

Proportional voting won't affect the Senate: each state still gets two (although this disproportionately favors the smaller states nowadays).  Proportional will affect the Presidency in terms of the Electoral College, with regards to the numbers that the Congressional seats can add to the table.  Especially if we follow through with my idea that we currently have too few Congresscritters for the larger populated states (we haven't increased the representation since the 1920s, during which our population's tripled).

As Gordon notes in his essay, Proportional voting has its drawbacks: it's more complex than the current Winner-Take-All district voting we currently use, and that geographically large states - California and Texas, obviously - will need to make extra effort to ensure all their representatives don't come from one corner of their state (you don't want all of your officials coming from Los Angeles).

But the benefits of Proportional are great: above all, every vote really does matter.  Gordon notes "Under the current system, a candidate who receives 49 percent of the vote and a candidate who receives 5 percent of it in a two-way House election receive the same reward: none. This provides little incentive for Democrats in rural Georgia to vote in House elections at all, for example."  Under Proportional, the odds improve that your Party/field of candidates can win enough seats to matter to where you NEED to get out your vote (as well as your like-minded neighbors).

Proportional does something else: it breaks the logjam of having two dominant national parties - Republican and Democratic - that are polarizing the entire political spectrum.  With a Proportional system, the lesser parties - Libertarian, Green, or any Moderate/Centrist party that can rise up - now have improved odds to getting at least one seat per mid-sized/large state where the percentages favor those getting 10-15 percent of a vote.  They won't overtake the established machines - the Senate and Presidency still favor a two-party, Winner-Take-All electoral system - but the so-called Third Parties can break the frozen static noise of the national political landscape by forcing a fractured House into forming coalitions like they do in the European democracies.

Picture a U.S. House with 435 seats to share, meaning you need 218 seats to hold a majority.  Now, say the Republicans hold only 207 seats to the Democrats 205.  There's 23 seats belonging to various Third Party Congresscritters, say 8 seats are Libertarian, 6 seats are Green, 1 is a radical Right Wing faction, and the remaining 8 are independent non-party rabblerousers.  The Republicans could form a coalition with the Libertarians, some of the independents, and that one Radical and retain control, but the Libertarians will insist on major trade-offs that would otherwise be poison to the GOP (including giving their members key committee chairs, and pushing a more Libertarian agenda that could rile the nation against the Republicans who will shoulder the blame...).  If the Republicans can't get enough of the factions to join in a coalition, the Democrats could team up with the Greens and enough of the non-party members to reach that 218.

An off-shoot of this will be the interchanging of party members: it will become easier for disgruntled elected officials to switch parties with similar bent without losing their support back home.  This gives other parties the chance to gain effective, organized leaders who know how to campaign and govern.  As the Third Parties gain in stature, the probabilities of needing to form coalitions - which can de-radicalize the partisan nature of politics as more moderate factions gain value - will increase.

The greatest argument against Proportional will be the confusing nature of it at the national level.  It will also require an increase in the number of elected seats in order to ensure every state, including the smallest ones, to have enough seats to share.

But this shouldn't be a problem: as I've noted earlier, we haven't increased our number of Congressional seats since the 1920s.  We're now under-represented at triple the current population and with a greater disconnect between the voters and the Congress.  The real trick, in my estimate, is accurately gauging how many seats we should really have.

We've got a lot of small, mid-sized populated states.  There's 8 states with just one Representative, 5 states with two, 3 states with three, 6 states with four.  Double-digit representation doesn't kick in until you're two-thirds of the way through the state count.  By comparison, there's only 2 states with 18 seats, 2 states with 27 seats, then Texas at 36 and topped by California with 53 seats.  California has roughly one-sixth of the entire nation's population, and you'd like to think they should get enough proportional seating compared to all the smaller populated states that can barely total the same number.

Bumping every state up to have two House seats no matter what helps with the smaller states, but then it's a question of how to increase from there.  A simple, barely thought-out idea would be to break it down by sections: bottom five states have two seats, next bottom five states get three, next five states get five (going by prime number), next five get seven, next five get eleven, so on.  But that doesn't reflect the disparity of populations when we get into the top ten/fifteen states, where one state can be double the number of the next-sized state (California almost doubling that of Texas) and thus deserves a specifically-tailored seating count.

The only other problem would be genuine representation.  Proportional seating will be an advantage to the candidates but what happens if the results have every candidate from one city or one region of a large, diverse state?  As Gordon noted, it'll be up to the states - or federal rules, especially if we use an amendment to make this work - to designate special districts (most likely cities) to ensure at least one representative from each district gets elected.  It will favor the urban over the rural, but that's what representation is supposed to do: favor the people who actually live there.

The other thing about representation will be the gender and ethnic, which is an existing problem already (especially the under-representation of women in Congress).  It will be up to the parties to ensure they get representatives that reflect the population's diversity (it ought to be like that already, although such "outreach" efforts by the Republicans towards women, Blacks, Hispanics, and minorities in general have been painful at best).  Without exact district maps to create minority-majority districts, we run the risk of losing Black and/or Hispanic representation.  Proportional may fix that by encouraging voter turnout anyway, and having enough voters back minority candidates at a state level to ensure healthy representation (it would beg the question if moderate or independent voters will vote with such diversity in mind).

As far as breaking the gerrymanders, Proportional is the simplest method of doing that without getting into the partisan divides struggling over "fair" districting (which still gets violated/ignored) or "impartial" committees (which can still get gamed).  Getting Proportional to work, however...

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rick Scott Is a Major Scandal But Barely a Blip On The National Radar

It's been months, and it's barely been covered by anything resembling the national media, but recently Salon.com posted an article on the ongoing scandals of Rick "No Ethics" Scott here in Florida (an article which quickly slid under the radar with all the more current craziness dominating the news).

Comparing Scott's woes to the fall of another governor, Oregon's John Kitzhaber, writer David Dayen tries to point out why criminal Scott won't be leaving office the way Kitzhaber did:

In any normal political environment, the charges would lead to calls for resignation or impeachment proceedings. But Scott appears insulated by the very expectation of his corruption. In idealistic Oregon, Democrats controlled every level of government, and forced out a member of their own party. In Florida, the governor is supposed to be a scoundrel...

Dayen covers three of the ongoing scandals pursuing Scott: the more public disaster that has been Bailey-Gate, the questionable firing of a well-liked FDLE department chief over what seems to be Bailey's refusal to play Scott's partisanship games; a lawsuit over a disputed land use proposal to expand the governor's mansion that led to the revelation that Scott has been - and might still be using - illegal private emails in violation of Florida's Sunshine laws; and another lawsuit from political opponent George Sheldon over Scott's differing financial disclosures to both the federal Securities Exchange Commission and the state's ethics board.

Scott's refusal to play by the rules of ethics - both over the secret emails and over his financial chicanery - ought to be major strikes against him:

This is critical because public officials in Florida are subject to the release of emails from their official accounts, like those former Gov. Jeb Bush released last week. The use of private email accounts to conduct state business violates the law, especially if they aren’t turned over when asked for. Andrews got a judge to allow him to amend his complaint to say that the governor knowingly violated public records requests, an impeachable offense in Florida. The administration continues to fight to get the suit tossed...

It'd be nice to think that under normal circumstances Scott would be facing impeachment over his misconduct.  He's earned that much from his scornful performance.  Other governors - Blagojevich, remember him? McDonnell.  Now Kitzhaber - have gotten charged, impeached, driven from office for similar unethical conduct.  But this isn't a normal circumstance here in Florida.

Here in Florida the f-cking game is rigged.  Regarding Sheldon's ethics case, for example:
Sheldon believes that Scott has maneuvered money through a network of trust accounts to hide it from public scrutiny. Scott has refused to deliver information on the trusts, calling the lawsuit a “frivolous partisan attack” and claiming that the discrepancies with the SEC documents have to do with Scott’s wife Ann’s money. Scott’s lawyers want to move the case out of court and into the state ethics commission, currently chaired by a Republican appointed by the governor.

Yup. Scott wants his case reviewed by a political ally.  Oh, of course, don't be too surprised when the ally turns a blind eye or dismisses the charges or even gives Rick "What Part of Medicare Fraud Did You Voters Ignore" Scott a gold medal for being "a sweet little angel". (insert choking noise here)

We're not going to see the state government do anything about Rick Scott's ethical failures because the agencies that are best positioned to do something about it - the state legislature in particular - are in no rush to rock the boat or turn against one of their own partisan hacks.

We're talking about a state legislature that is so firmly entrenched with Republicans in power that the state House and Senate plan ahead who their legislative leaders - House Speaker, Senate President - will be (due to a term-limit law at the state level, there's a cap on how long a legislator serves as Speaker).

The only other method to confront Scott over these scandals is the court system... and Scott has enough money and lawyers on payroll to game the courts long enough to avoid answering for his sins well until he leaves office in 2018.

It'd be nice to think the federal government could step in, force a more serious and more public investigation - in particular, Scott's questionable filings with the SEC should be sending up the right red flags - that could embarrass the state Republicans to abandon Scott.  But that doesn't seem like it's going to happen.  And outside of this one Salon article, it doesn't look like the national media is willing to pay attention long enough for the state party to feel any shame or pressure to change their tune.

We're pretty much at the point where Rick "HE'S A CROOK VOTERS, WHAT THE HELL" Scott can knock over a string of liquor stores between Orlando and Miami and still never answer for anything.

Thanks a lot, Republican voters who VOTED FOR AN UNETHICAL MEDICARE FRAUD.  Thanks a lot, Democratic voters who REFUSED TO SHOW UP TO VOTE FOR CRIST BECAUSE HE WASN'T PURE ENOUGH FOR YA.  /headdesk

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday Night Live

When my parents bought a VCR back in 1978... or was it 1979?... one of the first things we did was tape a lot of PBS Masterpiece Theater shows, because MOM had control of the house dammit and nothing was getting in the way of her All Creatures Great and Small.

But we sons had the option to get Saturday Night Live recorded to our amusement, and that helped keep up appraised of the wild and crazy skits until we were old enough - about 12ish - to stay up late on our own to watch.

It's slightly amazing that the show is still chugging along 40 years after its debut in 1975.  Part of the reason is that the show works as an ensemble, it is not tied to one person, although one person or duo can tie everybody together to an era like no other.  Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey...  Eddie Murphy in particular became a superstar straight out of SNL, unlike any of the others.  Like Bill Simmons notes in his Grantland article about Murphy, I too watched the bit where Eddie mocks Stevie Wonder, and felt the same way about watching LIVE a classic moment that millions of others were seeing.

Over on the Salon site, that sharing among fellow viewers is argued as the main reason SNL remains on the air even decades after so many other skit shows - In Living Color, MAD TV, various others that barely lasted a season - faded into history.  Mostly because those shows encircled a key player or team - Living Color in particular revolved around the Wayans family - and when those players left, the shows couldn't continue.  SNL was one of the firsts to exist without revolving around a singular talent (even though a singular talent would rise to dominance over a 3-5 year period), taking from the variety act shows of Ed Sullivan and merging it with the improv and satire of underground stage comedy, and people keep tuning in because, God help us, we want to be there watching when something brilliant - More Cowbell! Lazy Sunday! - happens.  As Sonia Saraiya writes:

Saturday Night Live’s finest moments have a way of becoming instant history, meaning that we’re instantly nostalgic for them. And that’s because when we witness them, we sort of all feel like we were there for it, that we witnessed it firsthand. It doesn't have to be good, honestly, because the point is that we showed up—the bad moments sometimes just give you more to talk about.
I’m of the opinion—as is Gary Susman at MovieFone—that SNL has gotten way, way too safe as it’s aged, mostly because its star showrunner, talent scout and occasional on-screen presence Lorne Michaels has aged along with it. That’s left the show vulnerable to other shows that also rely on our sense of togetherness—The Daily Show with Jon Stewart being the best example. I’d love to see Saturday Night Live take a lot more risks, to get not-safe-for-work, to take advantage of its timeslot and its storied history to say something really provocative...
 ...Live television is so fundamentally exciting to watch—it’s a thrill knowing that it is happening now, and that you, as an audience member, are a part of it. But sports are a competition played on a field; awards shows are glorified industry events. It’s only stuff like Saturday Night Live that really talks back to its audience, that looks into the cameras and literally says “goodnight.” As it is now, “SNL” squanders something very precious—the opportunity to be on everyone’s TV, unvarnished, unedited and in a bad wig, making the rest of us laugh. Its very presence. If the show isn’t careful, even though it is the last/only live variety show we have, it may find itself replaced.
But I do hope that we are never without some version of Saturday Night Live—of the closest thing we have to all of America attending the same play. We have fascination and disdain for SNL, yes—at its inconsistency, its former glory, its cast members breaking character to start snickering during a bit. But at least we have it, together, and that is something.
There are a lot of memories for me watching SNL back when I could - when I was young enough to stay up late and not suffer for it.  I remember turning on the show one night in 2005, just no reason why, did it not realizing it was a new episode that night, and happened to turn it on just as "Lazy Sunday" started playing on the show.

By the end of the clip, I knew I had watched one of those Big Moments, when Saturday Night Live hit the home run, making a cultural and historical milestone around which the show could stagger on for another five years. It reminded me of the times back in 1992, during the Presidential primaries and campaigns, when Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman teamed up for some of the greatest political satire I've ever seen (and this is with SNL bringing in solid satire nearly every 4 year Presidential cycle).

We still tune in for those moments.