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Category — politics

The Inauguration

Tuesday, I joined the 1.8 million others on the Mall to watch the inauguration. I suppose I had underestimated just how important this event would be to the million or so people who got to the mall before I did. I had a good experience, and in retrospect a series of nearly random decisions that we made all turned out to be the right decisions.

A friend, in town and staying with us for the inauguration, and I left the house at 7 in the morning, somehow thinking that would be early enough. The station platform at the Brookland Metro was crowded when we arrived, and the inbound train that arrived was so full that only a handful more could board. We instead rode outbound one stop, thinking that either we’d catch a slightly less full train, or could get on one of the special presidential bus routes. Miraculously, there was just enough space for us on the next inbound train, which otherwise looked as crowded as the first.

We managed to meet a bunch of my friend’s friends downtown, at their hotel, at 8. We were north of the mall. Since all of the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House was walled off, we had to choose a route south.  Among the many roads closed to motor traffic that day was 395, the freeway in a tunnel that goes under the Capitol reflecting pool. It was open as a pedestrian route, and in part because of the novelty of walking it, that’s were we went. Later, we heard that the handful of crossovers through the parade route became impossibly backed up. We entered at about 3rd and G NW and exited at E Street SW. We made our way along E, then up 7th to D, then along D to 14th, where we crossed into the Mall, finding spots at the base of the Washington monument by about 9am.

And then we waited, in the cold. A half hour of relative stillness was enough to take away the warmth that physical movement generates, and I was reminded how much colder it is when you’re not moving. I knew this, but hadn’t really thought about how long we’d be out there. As was widely recommended, I had layered, and soon wished I had layered more. Perhaps what one should do is to subtract ten degrees Fahrenheit from the actual temperature for every hour you’ll be standing in the cold.

We had a decent view of a Jumbotron, and we could see the Capitol, but even with binoculars I couldn’t see any individuals. (Our view was partially blocked by trees.) What was significant was to be a part of the 1.8 million assembled, and of the 1.12 million Metro rides that day. It occured to me, standing there, that one had to understand what was going on in order to get anything out of the experience. I was glad that my son was safely and warmly at home; to be able to tell him in later years that he was there would have been a useless gimmick.

So what did I understand the experience to be? On the one hand, under the former administration, I (in chronological order): earned my Ph.D., got a permanent research job, got married, bought a house, had a child. Am I better off than I was eight years ago? Unquestionably, yes. Not bad for living a few miles from the epicenter of what was quite possibly the worst administration in United States history. But of course I was out there in the cold, celebrating with everyone else.

The president has called upon Americans to rise up to our nation’s challenges. He is not the first to call for service to our country and to others, but unlike the mawkishly sanctimonious appeals of virtually every other public leader, his carry a sincerity and gravitas that is convincing. This is perhaps because of his extensive service as a community organizer. As hope and competence replace fear and cronyism as dominant motifs in the administration, I expect that the appeal of satire and detached irony will fade in popular culture: these are for those who are comfortable, detached, and powerless. Anger and self-absorbed drama are out; hard work and careful planning are in. Does this signal an ascendancy for The University of Chicago? The President taught there, of course. David Axelrod, chief campaign stategist, went there, as did Nate Silver, whose reality-based analysis beat all the other pundits this time around. 

Four years ago, the progressive blogosphere wanted everyone to read Don’t Think of an Elephant, and now we have a progressive President that has intuitively understood framing and the use of language longer and better than anyone else on our side. Democrats should now be done with Triangulation. And Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe, too.

On energy and environment and global warming and scores of other policies, Obama can already be said to be turning things around. Although Obama is not the first to mention science in his inaugural address, his reversal of the previous administration’s anti-scientific outlook is heartening. Perhaps our nation can be done with the celebration of anti-intellectualism. Perhaps patriotism will no longer be associated with flag-waving belligerence, but will be understood instead to be a celebration of those extraordinary characteristics of our nation that made our President’s story possible.

This was my hope, as I stood in the cold on the National Mall last Tuesday.

January 27, 2009   1 Comment

Red Street, Blue Street

In the end, I went with the upgrade to Mathematica 7. Of all the new features, the one that really hooked me–which is comparatively minor, compared to all the other new features–is the ability to import SHP files. The importation is not terribly well documented nor is there much additional support, but it was pretty easy to do a few nifty things with the DC Street Centerline file.

As you may know, there is a street in DC for every state in the union. Pennsylvania Avenue is probably the most famous of these; the White House sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. I used to live on Massachusetts Avenue. So my first idea was to make a street map of DC in which the state-named streets were colored red-ish or blue-ish depending on their vote in the recent election.

Here it is:

Read on to see how I made it:

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January 17, 2009   1 Comment

Bailout and Mathematica

A friend of mine (and regular commenter here) has pointed out that, even if the $700,000,000,000 bailout passes, and adds to our National Debt, we’d still have a Debt-to-GDP ratio that was less than Germany’s.1 Wikipedia says that the US National Debt is 60.8% of our GDP, that Germany’s is 63.1%, and that our GDP is $13.8 trillion. Well, add $700 billion to 60.8% of $13.8 trillion and the new figure is 65.8%–pretty close; there are different ways of measuring both GDP and the Debt.

But I realized that this sort of comparison is something that Mathematica 6 is supposed to be good at. Mathematica is an amazingly powerful system for doing mathematics on a computer. Its strength, traditionally, has been symbolic manipulation–I most often use it for the Integrate command, which can do most of the integrals that in grad school I’d look up in Gradshteyn and Ryzhik. Version 6 has added, amongst other things, a huge library of curated data, loaded over the Internet, that’s relatively straightforward to use.

The command CountryData gives access to all sorts of country-by-country information, including “GDP” and “GovernmentDebt”. So following one of the examples in the documentation, I produced this graph, plotting the Debt-to-GDP ratio versus GDP for (nearly) all the countries for which Mathematica has data. (Note that the x-axis is a logarithmic scale.) The United States, before and after a $700 billion bailout, are shown in green and red, respectively.

If the xhtml export actually works the way it’s supposed to, you should be able to hover your mouse cursor over each point and have a little ToolTip pop up telling you which country the data are for.



Mathematica has a syntax that strikes many as arcane. Since I learned about computers with procedural programming, and haven’t really done any functional programming, I too struggle to get Mathematica to do what I want it to do. But one can often do complicated things, such as the above graph, with a very compact command. To make the main graph–the red and green dots are relatively trivial additions–the command I used is:
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  1. He is, nevertheless, against the bailout. []

October 1, 2008   1 Comment

50 simple things to save the Earth

Two interviews of note on the Sierra Club Radio episode from May 3: Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, discusses his recent book Supercapitalism, and John Javna, author of the original 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, talks about the newly updated version of the book.


The interview with Javna is refreshingly candid. The original book came about as environmental issues were making news in the early 1990s, and Javna saw a need to outline steps that individuals could take to make a difference. The book was intended, Javna says, to be an entry point to environmental activism. Although many–including Sierra Club radio host Orli Cotel–took it this way, a far more sinister thing also happened: corporate polluters were able to latch on to the idea of individuals taking action and transformed that into the idea that individual lifestyle changes were the only steps that needed to be taken. If there are 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth, then saving the Earth means doing the 50 simple things, and not, say, addressing mountaintop removal or clearcutting or pesticide runoff or any number of other issues for which the solutions are beyond the 50 simple things. The message was that our major environmental problems were the fault of individuals, or at least the fault of those individuals who hadn’t done the 50 simple things to save the Earth, and not the fault of the large corporate polluters.

As one might imagine, Javna was quite dismayed to see the rise of the notion, which he acknowledges he had unwittingly abetted, that doing the simple things outlined in his book was somehow equivalent to solving our most pressing environmental problems. He knew full well that many of the steps–for example snipping the rings of a six-pack holder–were largely gestures that were more about raising consciousness than solving problems. And so his cynicism took over; he stepped away from environmental activism, moved away, and focused on raising his family.

The spark for the new edition came when his daughter asked why they didn’t compost anymore1 and after a bit of introspection came to realize that individual actions were, in fact, a crucial part of environmentalism. But the task wasn’t to disseminate random eco-tips, but rather to foster a shift towards a culture of sustainability. Instead of tips, the new edition of the book is organized around 50 issues (beginning, regretfully, with electric cars), with a variety of actions for each issue. The hope is that readers will become more deeply involved with an issue, taking on progressively more involved actions. 

A brief look at the online table of contents reveals a disappointing stance on transportation and virtually nothing about urban form. Train travel makes it, but I can’t find much about walking or bicycling or density. Perhaps I’ll review the book here at some point.


What I thought the most intriguing about the Robert Reich interview was his point was that the environmental movement (and, one presumes, other issue-focused progressive causes) needs to see itself not as narrowly focused on environmental issues, but as part of a broader progressive movement that’s working to improve the quality of life for all people in the country and planet. I find a similarity between this and the argument that Markos Moulitsas (kos) of DailyKos makes: that for each arm of the big progressive tent to keep considering only their own issues, with blinders on for other progressive causes, is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Perhaps the best illustration of this came after the 2006 election, when Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope sung the praises of the new Democratically controlled Congress, for example that changes in committee leadership would allow many more pro-environmental bills to make to the Senate floor for votes. The ironic bit is that this change in leadership happened only because Sierra Club2 endorsed  Republican Lincoln Chafee lost; had he won, the Republicans would still control the Senate and the chair of the Committee on Public Works and Environment would be Republican James Inhofe instead of Democrat Barbara Boxer. Whatever Chafee’s votes on environmental issues were, he still implicitly voted for leadership that included Inhofe and a host of other anti-environmentalists. In an era when the distribution of support for strong environmental protection is not equal between the political parties, the leadership mindset that a candidate supports is at least as important as any particular vote. If the environment wins because Sierra Club endorsed candidates lose, then something’s wrong with the Sierra Club endorsement process. 

Now, kos is talking about elections and Democrats, Reich is talking about issues, but both are asking us to consider our actions and support more broadly–kos for an issue-lousy Democrat, Reich for issues outside the environmental canon. And if we believe the popular trope that everything is connected to everything else, then this makes sense, because we can build on the synergy that happens with congressional majorities and a broader coalitions. The era of narrow focus and litmus tests should be ended.

  1. This was an especially timely note for me, as I just bought a compost bin. []
  2. and League of Conservation Voters []

May 14, 2008   2 Comments

We believe that hope can change

I earned my “I voted” sticker today by going to vote in the “Potomac Primary,” the day in which DC, MD, and VA all held their presidential primaries.

Perhaps the most apt description of the primary contests so far is that while Democrats wish we could have an “All of the above” choice, the Republicans wish for “None of the above.”  A rare combination of political energy and deep political networks has given us a Democratic primary season in which my vote actually means something; the nomination is still very much in play.

As has happened everywhere else, turnout has been much higher than anyone can remember for the Democratic side. The Post is reporting that the high turnout led to chaos at the polls, such that an hour and a half after the polls have closed we still have no results. But a statistic that warms my heart, which captures a story that’s been repeated in our region and nationwide: In Virginia, a state not known to be blue, Hillary Clinton, finishing second with only 36% of the Democratic vote, still had more votes than either John McCain or Mike Huckabee. Barack Obama got 20% more votes than were cast for all the Republicans combined.

I wish to see a Democratic presidential victory as much as anyone. The turnout is only one facet of a whole country yearning for change: the breathtaking political energy is fueled by an army of volunteers, many making their first foray into political work. But not me: of course there’s the baby at home, which means I don’t have any free time (although on the other hand, it’s his future that’s at stake here). I discovered two years ago that I really, really don’t like politics.

Or perhaps I should say, I really, really don’t like the stuff that matters in politics. Of course I stay up later than I should watching election results, and plugging them into spreadsheets. A fair share of my websurfing time is spent reading DailyKos. But my own personal transformation from informed voter to political junkie doesn’t make a bit of difference to any election outcome. Neither would it matter if I filled this blog, or any other, with posts about this candidate or that one.

I did do a lot of work on a political campaign two years ago, helping to re-elect the most progressive member of the DC City Council. I learned, doing this, that I don’t like making political phone calls from a voter list. I don’t like knocking on doors, even if the candidate is doing all the talking. I hate confrontational political messages, especially in multi-candidate forums. I don’t like asking people to sign nominating petitions. I hate the uncomfortable amalgam of cordiality and confrontation that happens when the opponent is campaigning at the same place my candidate is, especially when my candidate shows up late.
But this, I’ve learned, is the stuff that matters. There’s not even much need for mundane tasks like envelope stuffing or flyer labeling: that’s all automated now. All together there isn’t much need for behind-the-scenes work (at least in city council elections), not in comparison to the monumental task of connecting with voters.

The only thing I enjoy1 is handing out flyers at Metro stations during rush hour. A stack of flyers and a direct tagline and even the people supporting the other candidate are in too much of a hurry to argue with you.

So, although I’m somewhat sympathetic to the notion that those who care deeply about the results of an election ought to be on the ground working for their candidates, I don’t know that I’ll get involved in this presidential contest.

  1. I might do okay at fundraising, but as a Federal employee, I’m prohibited by the Hatch Act from asking anyone to make any contribution to any partisan political candidate, even the DC city council, nor can I even have my name listed on an announcement for a fund-raising event. []

February 12, 2008   1 Comment

Elections return, with a spreadsheet

Sunday’s Super Bowl was an interesting game: the lead changed several times and until the very last seconds of the game, it seemed like either team could win.

Emotionally, at least, there’s a similarity between watching election night returns and watching sports: as the votes tally up, one can form a mental picture of a literal race, and if your favored team or candidate is behind, you cheer when the gap closes. Of course in sports, the actions of the players determine the course of the game, and crazy things can happen. In elections, it’s all over once the polls close. Barring irregularities like the 2000 presidential election in Florida, it really doesn’t matter what order the votes are counted in, and once the votes start to be counted, there is nothing anyone can do to get more votes. Cheering doesn’t give anyone a boost.

Of course, for all those involved in a political campaign, it also ends once the polls are closed, especially for the losing candidate. But even for the winning candidate, the dynamic of everyone involved changes dramatically. Those hours of uncertainty, after the polls close but before the winner is known, are the only possible time to have one last gathering of the campaign, and it might as well be a party, and you might as well find out how you’ve done.

And for everyone at home, watching the election returns can be entertaining, to know as soon as possible what happened. So as thoughts of Super Bowl turn to thoughts of Super Tuesday, I present my rudimentary election watching spreadsheet.

The television networks often project a winner even when it’s mathematically possible for either candidate to win, and the spreadsheet I offer here lets you play along, too. It only uses three pieces of information: the number of votes each candidate has, and the percent of precincts that have reported.

If we make the approximation that all precincts will have the same number of voters–not generally true, but hard to get a better number without detailed precinct-by-precinct data–then we can project the total number of votes that have been cast, and from that calculate the number of votes remaining to be counted, and of those the number each candidate would need to win, and finally, what percentage of the remaining votes each candidate would need.

These percentages are really illuminating: if you calculate that a candidate who has 45% of the vote so far would need to have 67% of the remaining vote to win, then you could call the election for the other candidate with a fair degree of confidence.

To use, just put the most recent vote counts in cells A3 and B3, and the percentage of precincts reporting in C3. The rest is calculated automatically. Use the Fill Down command to create multiple lines for running progress.

Watch Returns

February 4, 2008   3 Comments