16 June 2009

On the other hand (Iran)...

...I have to admit that it is extremely impressive that Twitter's #iranelection tag is still seeing no fewer than 30 tweets a second. It's a serious firehose of information, and appears to be the main way the entire action is being held together. Iran seems, so far, unable to plug all of the holes that are letting Twitter work there.


I find myself unable to care on more than a very basic, entirely intellectual level about what's going on in Iran right now.

Some of it is the firm belief that, no matter what happens to the politics there, it won't actually change our relationship with them. They'll still hate America. We'll still be rivals for power and influence in the region. They are, in fact, our enemy in that region, and not the least bit abashed to say so, themselves. They'll still be trying to build a nuclear arsenal. They'll still be working actively for the destruction of Israel.

It's not, mind you, that I think they deserve to have their election stolen from them. They definitely do not. It's just that it's not going to be the magic wand, hearts-and-flowers fix that everyone thinks it will if the current protests actually lead to the kinds of change we'd like to see over there.

I'm also not as firmly convinced as everyone else seems to be that the election was, in fact, stolen. It's easy for us to assume that it was, because we believe the current regime to be Evil Incarnate and therefore capable of doing just about anything. And in truth, I don't put it past them, at all. I'm just not convinced it happened.

Which makes what's happening right now an attempt at a coup, rather than an attempt to correct an abuse of the democratic process.

Of course, it could all really be that I am currently wrestling with a much more local, personal tragedy in my social cloud. It's at least possible that my emotions are too tied up dealing with a friend's senseless suicide to spare any for the larger issues of the day...

11 June 2009

MN Supreme Court upholds Instant Runoff Voting in Minneapolis

I haven't posted for a little while, but today something crossed the plane of my attention that seemed interesting enough to talk about. Today, Minnesota's Supreme Court turned away a "facial" challenge to Minneapolis' voter-approved Instant Runoff Voting system. You can find their decision in full here.

The Minneapolis IRV system has never actually been implemented, yet, so this challenge was not to the application of the ordinance, but to the concept of it. Hence, the term "facial" challenge, which is shorthand for the contention that, on its face, the ordinance is unconstitutional. Because all enacted law is considered constitutional unless proven otherwise, in a facial challenge, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs, and the bar is set high. The plaintiffs have to demonstrate that there is no possible way that an ordinance or statute could be implemented constitutionally.

As such, the court rejected a host of theoretical arguments, both against and for the the ordinance, in favor of answering whether it was possible for the ordinance to result in an election that met constitutional hurdles for protecting the individual right to an equal vote. The court noted that the right to vote is not absolute and unburdened. Courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of states and localities to define election procedures, which by definition will almost always impose some sort of burden upon the voter's right to cast their ballot. In Richfield, for example, I have to cast my ballot at my assigned polling place, not at any old polling place within the city. This is considered a reasonable burden.

So, in order for the IRV ordinance to be unconstitutional on its face, the plaintiffs had to prove that, under all possible circumstances, IRV imposed a heavier-than-necessary burden upon the right to vote, or deprived that right entirely from certain classes of voters.

The appellants (originally plaintiffs), the Minnesota Voters Alliance, attempted to make this case by contending that IRV violates one-person-one-vote and equal protection. Part of their argument was a claim that, in subsequent rounds of the instant-runoff procedure, individuals who voted for eliminated candidates have a second chance to vote, while individuals who voted for surviving candidates do not. The city countered, and the court agreed, that in fact, just as in an ordinary runoff, each round starts the counting anew, as if a new election had been held, but assumes that individuals' preference choices remain the same. Thus, in the second round, people who voted for a candidate as their first choice still have their vote counted, just as it was in the first round. The difference is that now, people who voted for that same candidate as their second choice are counted for that candidate instead of the one that was eliminated.

Functionally, the court, ruled, this is exactly the same as Minneapolis' previous system. Minneapolis had a non-partisan primary, which eliminated all but two candidates for each single-seat election (e.g. Mayor) and all but 2n candidates for n-seat elections (e.g. the Board of Estimate, which was elected en bloc rather than on a seat-by-seat basis).

(It's worth noting, by the way, that the Minnesota Voters Alliance opposes this scheme, as well, preferring partisan primaries in "first class" cities, but have never successfully challenged it.)

In the IRV system, all first-preference votes are counted first. if no candidate receives a threshold number of votes (e.g. a majority of votes cast for a single-seat election), then the candidate receiving the least number of votes is dropped. All first-preference votes for surviving candidates are then counted again, and then second-preference votes for the survivors are added. This is repeated until one candidate received the threshold number of votes.

So, the court ruled, while there are more rounds involved, IRV is functionally equivalent to the two-stage, primary and general election system previously used and long-since upheld, if one assumes that everyone who voted for candidates who survived the primary will vote for those same candidates in the general election. While noting that some voters choose to cast their ballots "strategically", voting in the primary for weaker candidates who will lose when put up against their actually preferred candidate, they ruled that there was no constitutional requirement that this capability be integral to the voting system chosen; and furthermore, since it's a hypothetical situation, it's immaterial to a facial case.

The court went on to refute just about every other complaint the appellants brought in a like manner, although they did note some specific circumstances under which the results could be challenged in the future. However, since no actual vote has yet been taken, and therefore those circumstances hadn't happened yet, they did not nullify the constitutionality of the ordinance on its face. They furthermore did not explicitly say that a challenge under those circumstances would succeed.

This means there will almost certainly be follow-up litigation once an election is held; but in the meantime, Minneapolis is poised for a grand experiment.

29 April 2009

H1N1 and You: A Primer

There's an unbelievable amount of bullshit circulating about the strain of H1N1 "swine flu" influenza that's broken out in Mexico. Depressingly, but unsurprisingly, this bullshit is being exacerbated by a lack of really solid journalism in the mainstream, professional media. This shouldn't depress me, any more. I should be used to it. But I trained as a journalist, and still have a sort of idealistic notion of what journalism is supposed to be, mainly because I've never actually worked at it professionally and had those ideals eroded away by the daily grind of the real world.

(It's also being exacerbated, a little bit, by a certain batshit-crazy congresswoman from slightly north of my current location, who, thank heaven, is not my representative. I'm firmly convinced she continues to get airtime because she amuses the hell out of the people who make such decisions).

So, here's a few truths about H1N1:

It's not actually swine flu

Partially because there really isn't any such thing. Pigs are susceptible to several strains of influenza, including many that humans are already susceptible to. Pigs also turn out to be susceptible to several avian flus.

Influenza A(H1N1) is one of the flu viruses which both pigs and humans are susceptible to. Strains of H1N1 caused the 1918 flu outbreak that makes people so nervous; but they also cause about half of all bouts of the flu, including your every-winter, run-of-the-mill, G-d I Feel Like Shit This Week flus. In short, H1N1 is everywhere, and has been for quite a while.

The 2009 "swine flu" is a bit different, however

Here's the thing about viruses: they're basically nothing more than bits of RNA wrapped in protein shells. The RNA gets injected into cells and starts giving new orders, including orders to reproduce more of itself. In the process, it often gets mixed up with other genetic material. (This is a gross oversimplification, mind you, but it should suffice).

Most of these recombinations go nowhere, but every now and then, Infinite Monkey Theory results in something new that can thrive on its own. That's what's happened here.

Remember what I said above: pigs are susceptible to human H1N1 already. They're also susceptible to bird flus, and of course, to actual, true swine flus -- viruses that ordinarily only attack pigs -- as well.

At some point, some poor pig managed to contract four different flu viruses at the same time: two true swine flus, one bird flu, and one human H1N1 flu. Mind you, that pig might not even have been sick--we have viruses passing into and out of our bodies all the time, and they don't always result in obvious illness.

At any rate, the result was a recombination into a single, new strain that thrives in and can be communicated between humans, but which humans have less defense against.

The recombined virus also appears to attack slightly differently than a typical H1N1. Most flu outbreaks affect the young, elderly, and immune-compromised first, so much so that it's almost axiomatic. This one, however, is capable of killing healthy people in their 20s and 30s. This was also true of the 1918 pandemic, and that's what has people concerned.

It is not genetically engineered. It is not some secret conspiracy or some lab experiment gone wrong

Viruses do this, all the time. That's why pandemics happen periodically throughout history. Scientists and historians have been predicting a new outbreak of something sometime soon. This might be it. Or, like SARS and H5N1, it might be just a flash in the pan. We don't know yet.

You can't catch it from eating bacon, ham, or pork chops

Flu doesn't live in meat, and even if it did, the act of cooking would kill it off.

You can't avoid it by avoiding pigs or pig meat. Keeping kosher won't help you

This disease is 100% human-to-human transmissible, because its main component is the already-human-transmissible A(H1N1).

You can't avoid it with a face mask. You'd need a respirator.

Most average face masks are ineffective against aerosol-level droplets in the air, and flu can transmit this way quite happily.

You CAN avoid it with hygiene

This is true of any flu. Soap, bleach, various other things we think of as keeping us clean, all inactivate or destroy flu viruses. Wash your hands. Shower. It's good for you.

It's not spreading any faster -- or slower -- than any other flu virus

H1N1 flu is already an extremely communicable disease. That makes it easy to spread and hard to contain, because people who don't think they're very sick are carrying it and spreading it without having any idea. Every year, millions of people get the flu, and about half-a-million die of it. Half of these infections and deaths are likely some strain of H1N1.

What's different here is that the percentage of people who are dying from it is higher.

Now is not the time to panic

Public health authorities are understandably being very watchful right now, but now is not the time to panic that the world is about to end. It isn't. Even if this thing does turn into our generation's Black Death or 1918 pandemic, neither of those were the end of civilization as we know it. I don't want to minimize the tragedy of the sheer number of people who might die from this.

I just want people to understand that the Zombie Apocalypse is not imminent.

24 April 2009

Obama and Torture

It's been a little while since I've felt there was something sufficiently inexplicable to post about, really. The economic mess has been explained as well as it can be, and it hasn't really changed, although perhaps there's something to be written about that sometime soon.

But today I was asked a specific question. I'm going to paraphrase the question here, because the asker self-admittedly wasn't quite solid on how she wanted to phrase it:
I want to believe that President Obama is against torture. Why, then, has he not come out more strongly in favor of investigating members of the previous administration who devised the rules that enabled torture during the Bush years?
I told her she might not like the answer, but this space has never been about comfortable things, but about trying to find answers to things that seem unfathomable.

For the record, what follows are entirely speculations, based on what I've seen of Obama's behavior and what I think makes sense. I have no special hotline to the Oval Office, here.

The Charitable Answer

Since I, too, would prefer to believe that President Superma...er...Obama does not condone torture, would not authorize its use, himself, and is horrified that his predecessor did so, I offer first what I call the charitable answer, the answer that allows us all to go on believing that while still allowing for Obama's refusal to unleash the hounds on those who believed otherwise.

It is extremely bad, usually destructive policy for a new administration to prosecute the officers of a previous one, no matter how strong the provocation or how solid the legal case.

The problem is obvious if you think about it: today, a Democratic president encourages the investigation and prosecution of his Republican predecessors. Four or eight or twelve years from now--whenever the Republicans next take office--they find some pretext, any pretext, to do the same to the Democrats. Not because the Democrats have necessarily done anything to earn it (although, if you believe they won't, eventually, you really are fooling yourself), but out of sheer spiteful retaliation against their hated foes. Even if every single person they go after is eventually let off the hook, the expense of defending themselves will cripple them, and the distraction will keep them from pursuing their lives.

But it gets worse. If all an outgoing administration has to look forward to upon retirement is prosecution, what administration would ever again peacefully yield power when their term expired? I know a lot of people who were honestly certain that Bush was going to do something that would allow him to declare martial law and cling to power. If he'd known for certain that he'd face prosecution or other legal harassment upon stepping down, he surely would have. This is why, in many countries, elected officials are actually legally, constitutionally immune from prosecution for what they do in office.

The Less Charitable Answer

Of course, just because I want to believe that Obama is anti-torture does not actually mean it's true. And before I continue, I want to stress something: I do not believe that Obama condones torture. That's not my point.

My point is that we don't really know, do we? And more to the point, even if we do know, even if we're firmly confident that, under current conditions, he condemns torture, we don't know that there isn't some line he's drawn for himself, past which even he would say, "Yes, rack 'em up."

The less charitable answer, therefore, is that, while he doesn't want to be using those tactics now, he is pragmatically unwilling to close the door and say that no, he would never, under any circumstances, use it or condone its use. Investigating the Bush-era people who enabled it would close that door firmly and irrevocably for his administration, and he's simply not willing to tie his hands like that.

The Reality of Governing

During the election, I came out strongly in favor of people voting for Obama in the primary. Note how I phrased that. I wasn't really all that strongly in favor of Obama; but I encouraged people who were voting in the Democratic primary or caucus to choose him over Clinton, for one simple reason:

He could win.

I was, and remain, firmly convinced that Hillary Clinton would never have won, while Barack Obama stood a chance. It was very important to me, in a way that few political things have ever been important to me, that the Republicans not take the White House this time around, so the Democrats had to pick a winner. And that, I was certain, was Obama.

Several people were upset by my stand. One said, explicitly, that she was appalled that I was encouraging people not to vote their consciences.

"Politics," I responded, "are the antithesis of conscience. Politics are about calculation and finding the last, most palatable evil."

Barack Obama campaigned on some amazing, high-minded principles, but the truth, now he has to govern. He has to cope with two wars his predecessor started, and all the hornets that starting those wars stirred up. He has to govern a great country that most of the world hates, fears, or envies, sometimes all three at the same time. Despite Bush's rhetoric and possibly even real intentions to make America safer, we are just as vulnerable today as we ever have been, which is to say, not really all that much, but when it happens again, it will probably be a doozy, just like 9/11.

In the end Obama does not want to be the President remembered for allowing another attack to happen. That, in the end, means he has to allow himself at least some wiggle-room with respect to the tools he would not choose to use, but may eventually feel compelled to.

25 February 2009

The quasi-State of the Union speech

I hear a lot of people bemoaning the lack of specifics in President Obama's speech last night. I find myself wondering what planet these people have been living on all their lives. Speeches like this aren't about specifics. They never have been, they never would be, and more importantly, they never should be.

First of all, President Obama (and I still get a happy thrill down my spine hearing, saying, or reading or typing that phrase) doesn't know the specifics yet. He can't, because the nature of the process is that the specifics are worked out by hours, days, weeks of discussion, argumentation, and negotiation. The specifics are discovered through back-room meetings, committee hearings, and a host of other processes to which we, the public, are not privy. They're not pronounced in 50-minute speeches to joint sessions of Congress.

Thank G-d.

For one thing, can you imagine how long the speech would have been if it had contained specifics? More than 50 minutes, I'll tell you that right now.

For another thing, nobody would want to sit through it all. No, really, you wouldn't. You think you would, but you wouldn't. Not even if President Eloquence was the one expounding it. You'd be frustrated and bored in minutes, unless you're one of the tiny, tiny handful of people who really, truly gets off on policy details.

Because, you see, the details, the specifics, for every single thing the president talked about last night are going to be hairy. Not just a few more sentences beyond what he said last night, but a few thousand pages, each. Nothing less than that is going to truly describe the scope of the problems or their solutions.

So really, there's nothing he could have added to last night's speech, and kept the speech within the bounds of reasonable speech-making time, that would make you feel like you knew much more than you do today.

20 January 2009


Despite having been deeply interested in the election, I find myself strangely detached from the Inauguration. I think a lot of it is that circumstances have conspired to ensure that I won't actually be able to watch it. The picture above, of my current location, is not a holiday snap. I'm in Palm Springs for business, and while tomorrow's schedule of events ends mid-day, that will already be too late, Pacific time. I will be eating breakfast when history is made.

For the most part, I'm all right with that. I don't need the ceremony. I need--this country needs--what comes after. I don't expect miracles. I just expect adequacy, after eight years of supremely inadequate leadership, supremely deficient decisions.

I also find that I'm seeing this inauguration in a different light from many others. I was very excited, very proud of America on Election Day, and really, I still am. As I said at the time, we did a different thing, a new thing, electing a man of Barack Obama's racial background to our highest office.

And yet, as he takes office, I find myself reserved, held back from jubilation. I'm not sad at all, or angry, or any negative thing. Just...reserved. Because I keep asking myself this one quesiton:

Won't it be a truly fantastic day when there is absolutely nothing remarkable about electing someone with that sort of background to high office?

It's a paradox, I know, but I'm caught in it. I cannot be jubilant today, because I find it somehow only an incomplete victory that Obama's election is so very remarkable as to draw historic, record-making crowds to Washington to see it and commemorate it.

The day I will be most jubilant is the day everyone looks at the inauguration of an African-American, or Hispanic, or perhaps a Chinese-American; or Jewish, or Buddhist, or, dare I even whisper the possibility, Muslim president...and yawns because hey, it's just another inauguration, right?

Anyway, for those with the lesiure, please do enjoy the inauguration tomorrow. Appreciate not just the immediate historicness of having an African-American becoming the Leader of the Free World, but the long-term historicalness of the 44th successful, peaceful, democratically-based transfer of that office.

04 December 2008

Obama's Delicate Dance

It's been a quiet couple of weeks for the topics I like to cover in this column; not so much because nothing's been happening, as because not a lot of it is really new. The economy continues to wrestle with the downward spiral triggered by the sub-prime mortgage mess, for example, and there's little about it that's really new relative to what I've already discussed.

The economic news at the moment is that the Big Three US automakers are back on Capitol Hill begging for a dime, and the Senate is looking at best reluctant and at worst outright recalcitrant. Democratic leadership is very much in favour of some kind of bailout, not least of which because the Democratic Party is still very much beholden to organized labor. The rank-and-file of the party, however, are much less interested, and the Republicans aren't really interested at all. In particular, Senator Shelby continues to rail against the idea and treat the CEOs of those companies as punching bags when they come to testify. Meanwhile, light sweet crude hit $43.97 the barrel this afternoon.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about right now...


Since 5 November, President-Designate Barack Obama has been very careful, in public pronouncements, to insist that there is only one president at a time, and it ain't him yet. This despite calls from nearly every quarter for him to weigh in on the key issues that will soon be His Problem. World leaders, for example, were disappointed he didn't attend the economic summit on 15 November, merely sending quasi-official observers to the proceedings.

As I think I've said before, from the standpoint of respect for the office of president--and safeguarding his own eventual lame-duck days--this is the right stance to take. It can't be an easy one, however, for a man as intelligent as he, who seems to have gotten involved in politics in part because of a passion to make things better (and yes, for the moment, I'm choosing to take him at face value, foolish though that may be), to find himself right on the cusp of being able to do something, and yet having to wait just a little longer.

Which explains the somewhat mixed message he's actually sending with his transition. While it's plenty usual for a president-designate or president-elect to start naming his intended nominees before he's sworn in, it's downright rare for him to start making announcements in November, even if he already knows in his own head who they're going to be. At this point, he's announced his intended nominees for State, Commerce, Treasury and Defense, as well as various key "inside the White House" advisory posts. These are all areas of extreme national importance right now, so it's understandable why he might start with these.

But by starting so early, and naming such high-profile, intelligent, active individuals to the roles, it looks a lot like a shadow government.

Shadow governments are nothing new in parliamentary nations. It's quite common for the Loyal Opposition to have a key members of its parliamentary caucus named to especially keep an eye on specific departments of government, becoming, in essence, the relevant minister's shadow.

In the US, however, we don't tend to work this way. And it's particularly odd coming from the man who keeps insisting that there's only one president at a time.


On the other hand, I have to say that I have few complaints with his choices so far, both for those top jobs and for others that have been mentioned.

George W. Bush has notoriously governed by favorites, with the most important qualification for any nomination being personal and ideological loyalty to him. An extreme example of this is the sad case of Harriet Miers and her inexplicable and ultimately failed nomination to the Supreme Court. Less extreme, and more ideological than personal, was the similarly inexplicable, but strangely successful nomination of John Roberts to become Chief Justice of the United States, before he'd even been successfully voted on for the Supreme Court!

The glaring exception, in turn, was General Colin Powell, who tried valiantly to serve as Bush's secretary of state, only to be continually undermined by those with closer personal and ideological ties to the president.

While much is being made of Obama's "team of rivals", what's really remarkable is that this is a team of technocrats, people who are being chosen either because of clear qualifications for the specific office, or because they're generally recognized as being intelligent enough to do the job without them. Hillary Clinton, for example, doesn't really have that much direct foreign policy experience, and has never been a diplomat; yet no-one I've seen really doubts her ability to act as Obama's chief envoy and master of foreign affairs.

Now, there's a downside to technocrats, too. Highly educated people sometimes lose sight of practical reality. They sometimes get caught up in their own cleverness. But right now, I'm sort of looking forward to the idea of a cabinet staffed entirely by people who are widely regarded as being picked because they're smart.