The American experiment at risk

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men [and women] are created equal, that they endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
 
Those immortal words, penned by Thomas Jefferson in the summer of 1776 provide the foundation of the American experiment. Jefferson continued, writing “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “
 
Today is a turning point in American history. It is once again a day where there is a peaceful transition of power, yet in many ways it is unlike any other. Today we witness the first time in our history where the transition of power shifts to an individual who lost the popular vote by almost three million votes in an election in which it is almost certainly a fact that foreign interference by Russia and ethical wrong-doing by the Director of the American FBI impacted the results. Today we see the rise of a man who is an acknowledged sexual predator, with authoritarian tendencies, and who displays evidence of narcissistic personality disorder. 
 

This is not a day to celebrate. It is not like any other inauguration. Sure, I’ve been disappointed before, but never once before in my life have I had feared for the future of the American republic. Our democracy is at stake. Our liberties are at stake.  This is not being over-dramatic and partisan.  It is not sour grapes that Hilary lost.  There are simply too many examples of reckless behavior, too many indicators of an individual whose personal business interests are clearly more important to him than the public good.  He has threatened the civil rights and liberties of entire classes of people, he has such a thin skin that any public criticism results in a temper-tantrum on twitter.  These are not jokes. And his behavior has given the signal to others that such behavior is acceptable.  In the last two weeks alone, there have been bomb threats at more than 60 Jewish Community Centers across the country.  There were hundreds of hate incidents reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the two weeks after the election.   This is no joking matter.

I will not celebrate.

I will not normalize this troglodyte.  

I will not stand quietly while our rights and liberties are trampled.

Know your rights.  Carry a copy of the Constitution.

Resistance is not futile.  It is democratic.  I pray that the second paragraph of Jefferson’s Declaration do not come to bear.  Eleven years later, the American democratic experiment evolved into a new constitution in which “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish domestic tranquility provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”   That Constitution is worth fighting for.

A brief primer on the electoral college

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I do not really expect there will be fireworks in the 50 state capitols next Monday, but if there are, here is what you need to know.

First, the electoral college is mandated by both Article II, and by the 12th and 20th amendments to the Constitution.  The Twelfth Amendment is what matters, as it in effect, replaced the rules from Article II.   So read it.

What is the process?

The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and all persons voted for as Vice-President and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate.

The electors vote for President and Vice-President, on distinct ballots.  AND they make separate lists of all persons who were voted for as President, and all people voted for for vice-president.  Once they vote, the ballots (and the lists) are sent to the Senate, where the president of the senate (a.k.a. the Vice-President of the United States) will tabulate the votes.  If there is no majority (270 of 538 electoral votes), the election then goes to the House of Representatives.

Is there anything in the Constitution that prevents an elector from voting for ANYONE?  No.  State laws might prescribe who an elector can vote for, but if we assume that the Constitution is the highest law of the land, and if a state law and the Constitution are in conflict, the Supremacy Clause of Article VI provides us with clear guidance:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

So, I would argue that the electors can vote for whomever they want as long as those individuals are qualified (thus President Obama is not, he has served two full terms). Indeed, the Constitution does not even anticipate a popular election for electors. Of course, if electors “go rogue”, there might be litigation, but they have the Constitution on their side, a constitution that was written with the assumption that electors, not voters in popular elections, would select the president.  Or at least select the list that the House of Representatives would use to elect the president.

How will the House of Representatives vote if there is no electoral college majority.

The House of Representatives votes, one per state, to elect the president, from any of the top three candidates voted by electors in the states.

… and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.

This means that there are 50 votes in the House, one per state delegation, and they vote “from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President.”   Poorly worded, but simply translated, the slate the House gets to choose from is the top three vote getters in the electoral college for PRESIDENT.

This also means that the only way a vice-presidential candidate (say Pence) becomes president, is if he was one of the top three names voted FOR PRESIDENT.  It also means that if electors want a Republican like Kasich to be president, they would have to vote for him, to get him on the list.  If you are not on the list, and not the top 3 vote-getters, you are not going to be president.

The 20th Amendment, in section 3 provides the final piece of the picture, dealing with the succession of a president, and what happens if no president is “qualified” by the beginning of the term.

If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified

It is messy.  It is complex, and due to amendments, it is confusing.  But the electoral college really isn’t that hard to break down.  Will it come into play after next Monday?  Frankly,I doubt it, but I also doubted that a sexual predator and reality tv star would win an election in which both the Director of the FBI and the president of the Russian Federation had intervened to influence the outcome.  So what do I know?  My hope is that they go rogue.  It would be the perfect end to this year.

“He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Donald– it won’t be a bit like The Apprentice. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

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When I read the Washington Post story about how the Energy Department is refusing to turn over the list of staffers who worked on climate change issues to the Trump transition team, it immediately brought me back to the single most influential book I have read on the American presidency,  Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. First published in 1960, and revised through the Reagan years, Neustadt’s classic study of presidential power and leadership provided an almost machiavellian study of what the president has to do to lead, and accomplish his goals.  His primary thesis was that presidential power is not the power to command, but instead the power to persuade.

Early in the book, Neustadt provided a classic example that new president will face when he tries to issue commands.

In the early summer of 1952, before the heat of the campaign, President Truman used to contemplate the problems of the general-become-president should Eisenhower win the forthcoming election.  “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

In many ways, when I think of this quote, I can’t help imagining the next president being in a very similar situation.

“He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this!  Do that!  And nothing will happen.  Poor Donald– it won’t be a bit like The Apprentice.  He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Indeed.

Intelligence briefings? I don’t need no stinking intelligence briefings

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Who really needs daily intelligence briefings?  Apparently not the next (gulp) president of the United States.  I’ll admit, when I first saw this reported, I assumed that it was fake news.  But nope, it was word for word from his own mouth, from this morning’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News, as reported in the NY Daily News:

“I don’t have to be told — you know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. Could be eight years — but eight years. I don’t need that,” he continued.

“But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know,'” he said.  Trump went on to suggest that it’s not necessary for him to receive the briefings with the daily frequency that past President-elects have had because other key advisers are getting the info.

“In the meantime, my generals are great — are being briefed. And Mike Pence is being briefed, who is, by the way, one of my very good decisions,” Trump said. “And they’re being briefed. And I’m being briefed also. But if they’re going to come in and tell me the exact same thing that they tell me — you know, it doesn’t change, necessarily.”

Wow.   There is so much here, it isn’t even funny.  “My generals are great, and being briefed.”  Is this the workings of a president, or a demagogue, surrounded by “generals,” who are “great”?   Forget the fact that we are supposed to have civilian control of the military, this guy is doing the exact opposite.  He has named  a general as secretary of defense who is colloquially known as “Mad Dog.”  His national security advisor is another retired general, Michael Flynn.  And now General John Kelly is going to be the Director of Homeland Security.  Look, it is not as if former generals haven’t served in cabinet level positions before (witness Gen. Colin Powell), but Trump is surrounding himself with generals, and is satisfied that if they are briefed on issues, he is good.

What is missing here is that there is an incredible value in a president being surrounded by a variety of different people, with different agendas and perspectives.  Trump isn’t doing that.  Not at all.  And by not receiving daily intelligence briefings, by not taking time to personally absorb the myriad of issues that a president faces, he will be unable to critically evaluate the issues, ad the advice he is being given from “his generals.” But don’t worry, “they are great.”

God save us when the first real international crisis occurs after January 20th.

Russia, fake news, and undue election influence, probably not the constitutional crisis you are hoping for

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The news this morning is filled with reports of high confidence from US intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in the presidential election, hacking into the servers of both the DNC and RNC, but only releasing information from the DNC to harm Hillary Clinton.  The New York Times is suggesting that Russia didn’t actually think Trump would win (lets be honest, who did?), but was trying to find ways to further damage Clinton as president.  Trump is still denying the whole thing, but the evidence is growing increasingly strong that there were unprecedented efforts by a foreign nation to influence our election.  What there isn’t evidence of, however, is actual vote tampering, or fraud in the vote count.  That is an important distinction.  If the latter was true, then the entire legitimacy of the election would be called into question, and we would have a true constitutional crisis.

What did happen was that Russia tried to influence the election by enabling the spreading of anti-Clinton propaganda.  This is in the same vein as Macedonian teenagers creating fake news sites.  It is deeply disturbing, but not unprecedented. How many times has the CIA tried to intervene in foreign elections? (That is a blog in itself, just google the CIA and Guatemala 1954, for one example).   The end result should be an increase in international tensions with Russia, and even a potential international crisis.  Yet, given the chumminess of Trump with Putin, that crisis might only last until January 20.  Now don’t get me wrong, I think foreign interference in our elections is nothing to scoff at.  Indeed, it is just a small step from hacking emails to hacking electronic voting machines.  But there is no evidence that the latter happened.

In many ways, Russian influence was just one more stream of anti-Clinton rhetoric. The mainstream media basically gave Trump free airtime for months on end, with few media outlets challenging him.  The alt-right put out a steady stream of misinformation.  And people chose to vote for Trump. They voted for Trump in large enough numbers in places where it mattered, that he gained the required 270 electoral votes.  It will probably be impossible to actually measure the influence that Russia had in swaying the election.  What we do know is that there were a lot of people who voted for for Trump because they felt that they had been left behind in the economic recovery, and they did not think that they would be any better off under Clinton then they were under Obama.   Whether or not it is rational to believe that they will be better off under Trump is another question.  Nor do we know if they would have voted for him absent Russian interference.

The latest revelations only adds fuel to the frustration of liberals and Democrats that Trump won the election even though Hillary Rodham Clinton won the national popular vote by about 2.5 million.  Nation-wide, about 2 percent more Americans voted for her than voted for Trump.  This is not the first time an individual has won the electoral college, while losing the popular vote. Just look at Al Gore.  The difference is that Gore won by an extremely small margin, and were it not for “hanging chads” in south Florida, he would have been president.  Hillary Clinton, by contrast, had a resounding popular vote margin.  Yet, we do not elect the president with a popular vote, we select electors in each state, who cast a vote for president.  Since the mid-1800s, that process has been based on state wide elections.

So is this a constitutional crisis?  I don’t think so. Nor do I think that the electoral college will act to “fix” it.  There might be some “faithless” electors, but it is’t going to change the result.  What Russian tampering, fake news, and a “lost” popular vote will do is weaken the credibility of the next president. But he will so busy tweeting, and running Celebrity Apprentice, that it will probably have little impact.

Afterword
The more I think about this, the more I think the bigger story may be that the Obama administration went to the Congressional leadership in September, seeking for a bi-partisan agreement to go public with the knowledge of what the Russians were accused of doing, but the Senate Majority Leader refused, claiming it would an effort by Obama to help Clinton win the election.   That might be the biggest part of this story — the leadership knew about it, and allowed it to go on.

Not the reflection you expected one month after the election

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I had been planning to write my reflections on the election today, as it is one month out.  I was going to summarize all the bad things that have happened, the failure to drain the swamp, the threats to civil liberties, environmental justice, international relations, the tweet-storms, and on and on. But I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I am writing about the political left.

Quite honestly, I am fed up with the left.  I am sick and tired of what I have come to see as sanctimonious bullshit, wrapped in self-righteousness. And it did not start on November 9th.  It has been going on for quite some time. The left has taken an approach in which every “progressive” issue is the same. It is one-size-fits-all, from LGBT to Black Lives Matter to Boycotting Israel to a wide range of other “progressive” causes.  And the left  has demonstrated an incredible amount of intolerance for any political view points that run counter to its own moral code.  I can hardly believe I am writing this, but it is political correctness run amuck. And quite frankly, I am sick of it.

A few weeks ago Mark Lilla wrote an essay in the New York Times called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” It was an op-ed which resulted in a massive amount of attention, and numerous criticisms by those who felt slighted by it. Lilla placed a good deal of the blame for Clinton’s loss on identity liberalism.  He placed blame on Clinton towing the left line, and completely ignoring the working class.

Lilla writes: “But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

When I first read his essay, the first half of it resonated with me, primarily due to how I have experienced the indifference of self-defined “progressives” in the context of the Presbyterian Church USA; the rapidly declining mainline protestant church that is symbolically far more important to the left and progressive politics, than it is in terms of actual people in the pews.

For me, what resonated was exactly what I felt at the PCUSA General Assembly, the Church’s legislative body that meets every two years. GA is dominated by people so passionately committed to progressivism and causes that they are blinded and completely unsympathetic to ANY competing views, even going so far as to mocking them (ironically enough) on twitter.

This year I sat on the committee dealing with fossil fuel divestment. While PCUSA has a piddling amount of money to invest, the big ticket issue was whether the church should divest all pension funds from fossil fuel energy companies, and thus have zero leverage whatsoever on climate change through those companies, but they would feel better about themselves by making a political statement and ensuring that the Church’s moral conscience was clear. I sat on that committee for 2 days, and listened to pastors from places in Texas and Oklahoma practically begging for the committee – and the Church itself – to not throw their entire congregations and communities – who live and work in the energy industry – under the bus. Desperate pleas from pastors saying, look yes, climate change is an issue, and we need to pressure companies, but don’t do it in a way that literally tears our congregations apart. AND then witnessing other pastors who just basically said, I’m sorry, but I don’t care, we have to divest. It was a truly disturbing thing to witness. There was no place at the table for anyone other than the far left. In the end, the assembly voted to take a middle position, and not immediately divest, and you would have thought the world had come to an end.

I compare that to the Church’s historic vote for marriage equality in 2014. That decision, which I voted for, resulted in a a lot of congregations leaving the denomination. And many more conservative rural congregations were staying, but struggling. BUT rather than just being happy with the historic decision, the church’s progressives decided that they wanted more. They wanted the church issue to issue an apology to LGBTQ folk. It was mind boggling. A lot of moderate and conservative churches trying to grapple with marriage equality, and trying to stay in the denomination, but these folks weren’t happy with what they had gained; they had to pour salt into an open wound. It was equally disturbing to watch. It was all or nothing. There is no room at the table for diverse viewpoints.

Now I’m not saying I don’t agree with the vast majority of what identity liberals want, but having come down on the side of an issue where they are opposed (Israel/Palestine) and watching what in many ways is a biased, one-sided, take-no-prisoners, facts be damned approach, it made me much more cognizant of HOW the left is viewed by those who don’t “fit” into the mold.  PCUSA is a case-study in the identity politics Lilla was writing about. And I certainly can understand why many people might feel left behind.

A conservative friend from college commented when the Lilla essay was shared on my wall. When I replied with a much shorter version of what I wrote above, he responded “Odd how insulting people turns out not to be such a great strategy for gaining their support.”  He is correct. I can visualize the stump speeches, the focus was almost entirely on the core liberal issues. And I come back to what I shared above: “.. a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

The irony of diversity politics

But it isn’t limited to the churches.  Campus politics today are knee-deep in it.  In the immediate aftermath of the election there have been some seriously disturbing acts of intimidation and bigotry reported.  I am NOT in any way justifying them.  I remain vigilant against bigotry, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, and any other acts of hatred.  I have even changed my “Amazon smile” donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

BUT freedom of speech and assembly goes both ways.  Conservatives have just as much right to engage in political activism as liberals do. Yet, I am hearing reports on my own campus of conservative student groups being harassed by faculty members while doing a recruitment table in a classroom building.  I am grappling with faculty who are proposing statements seeking to be approved by the university senate which are blatantly partisan, and which profess to lecture to the community about proper behavior and standards.  Gotta be honest here, and I recognize the irony of me saying it, in an essay I am writing, but no one wants to be lectured by academics from their ivory tower about this.  As a former student said to me, “when you write messages like that, it emboldens the very people you are trying to persuade.”  It doesn’t convince anyone.  It makes people dig in their heels.  It serves no purpose but to make you feel better about yourself, and to pat yourself on the back for having “done something.”

The left needs to re-think its approach.  The time to have protested was not on November 9th.  It was on November 8th.  It was to get out the vote.  But it is hard to get out the vote of millions of working class people, when you have been ignoring them, primarily because they are the very “ignoramuses” that aren’t smart enough to share your enlightened beliefs, and when after 8 years of a Democratic president they are little better off then they were before.   And when you assume they will always be there.  Well, guess what? They weren’t.

Look, I despise Trump. I can’t even bring myself to using his name and the honorific president together.   I think political resistance and protest is important, and will remain essential.  I will protest what I believe needs being protested.  I will contribute funds to the ACLU, to Americans United to Separation of Church and State, and to the SPLC. We need to remain vigilant against threats to democracy.

BUT if we are truly committed to democracy we have to respect DIVERSE political discourse, while insisting on civility. Showing respect for others of different beliefs, and tolerance of a range of political viewpoints that are absolutely essential elements of a democratic society.  Don’t get me wrong.  Such political discourse cannot co-exist with acts of bigotry, intimidation, or hate-filled rhetoric. Every single one of us have to call that out. And I’ll be the first in line. But if a conservative student group can’t do a tabling event without being harassed by “liberal” faculty, then I think we are missing the point entirely.  Civil liberties are for all Americans.  Even those we disagree with.

This doesn’t mean I won’t call out bullshit when I see it from the right; it is there all the time. But it goes both ways.

A year in books

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I read a lot of books.  A lot of fiction.  I read books on my kindle (either on my iPad or on my actual Kindle Voyage e-reader), and I listen to a LOT of audiobooks on Audible.  I walk and/or run (usually walk) about 5 miles a day, and most of those days I am listening to audiobooks. I read audiobooks in the car. I will occasionally re-read books I really like. This year, I re-read almost all of the Michael Connnelly, Harry Bosch books; and in anticipation for this summer’s conclusion to Stephen King’s Mercedes Killer trilogy, I re-read the first two.   I also read a lot of books though Netgalley, which provides me with pre-publication copies in return for fair reviews. I am currently reading many of Robert A. Heinlein’s “juvenile” or YA “speculative fiction” novels (a.k.a. science fiction).  Heinlein is truly one of a kind.

As I sat tonight in a long meeting, I made a list of everything I read this year. I was impressed with it. And the year still has 24 days left.

Here is the list.  It is not in order, and includes print and audio.
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein, Farmer in the Sky
Frederick Backman, A Man Called Ove
Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened the Party of the People
Ted Chiang, Arrival (Stories of your Life MTI)
Megan Miranda, All the Missing Girls
Blake Crouch, Dark Matter
Harlan Coben, Found
Harlan Coben, Seconds Away
Harlan Coben, Shelter
Harlan Coben, Live Wire
Michael D White, Stop and Frisk: The Use and Abuse of a Controversial Police Tactic
Joan Jacoby, The Power of the Prosecutor: Gatekeepers of the Criminal Justice System
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Dima Zales, Haven
Dima Zales, Limbo
Dima Zales, Oasis
Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism
Alexandra Oliva, The Last One
Heather Gudenhauf, Missing Pieces
Lisa Lutz, The Passenger
Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants
Robert Dugoni, Her Final Breath
Jonathan Kellerman, The Murderer’s Daughter
Peter Cline, The Fold
Neal Stephenson, Seveneves
Greg Iles, The Bone Tree
Chuck Grossart, The Gemini Effect
Emily Bleeker
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Nicole Van Cleve, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court
Avi Melamed, Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous Region of the World
Michael Connelly, Angle of Investigation: Three Harry Bosch Stories
James Hankins, The Prettiest One
Jonathan Rhynhold, The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture
Martin Gaylord, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks
Greg Myre, This Burning Land: Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Joe Hart, The Last Girl
David Baldacci, Absolute Power
Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye
Robert A. Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy
David Baldacci, No Man’s Land
Frederick Pohl, Gateway
Harlan Coben, Home
John Scalzi, The Dispatcher
Robert Dugoni, The 7th Canon
Robert A Heinlein, Time for the Stars
Liz Moore, Heft
David Baldacci, Hour Game
David Baldacci, The Escape
D.M. Pulley, The Buried Book
Harlan Coben, Hold Tight
Gregg Hurwitz, Orphan X
Brad Emanuel, The Last Tribe
Kendra Elliott, Targeted
John Scalzi, Agent to the Stars
David Baldacci, Split Second
Stephen King, End of Watch
Stephen King, Finders Keepers
Stephen King, Mercedes Killer
Tim Tigner, Flash
Harlan Coben, Fool Me Once
Michael Connelly, The Overlook
Michael Connelly, The Narrows
Michael Connelly, Echo Park
Michael Connelly, Lost Light
Michael Connelly, The Poet
Michael Connelly, City of Bones
Michael Connelly Angels Flight
Michael Connelly, Trunk Music
Michael Connelly, The Concrete Blonde
Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote
Michael Connelly, The Black Ice
Michael Connelly, The Black Echo
David Baldacci, The Last Mile
Harlan Coben, Fool Me Once
Robert Dugoni, The Conviction

When it pays to not be an “early” adopter… Hello, again.

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For most of my adult life I used Windows PCs. And every year or so, I’d find myself wiping the hard drive and doing a “fresh install.” I’ve owned a ton of laptops, and they would usually last 2, maybe 3 years at the most. The last one was a behemoth Toshiba, and the power adapter broke.

In 2011 I made what was a monumental shift “to the dark side,” getting a MacBook Pro at work. Mac OS X offered a degree of creativity and flexibility to my work that I never had in the Windows world. I soon found myself embracing it, and realized I needed my own personal machine, one which wasn’t just a university machine, and which I could put everything on. So I bought a MacBook Air, in December 2011. That machine has travelled to Israel, and really everywhere. It quickly became my go-to computer. It weighed less than 3 pounds. Its only limitations were 4GB of ram and a 256GB SSD flash hard drive. But it was fast. Even though the MBP had a much faster processor and double the ram, it crawled in comparison to the read-write speeds of the Air’s SSD.

And until yesterday, I was still using it. I have NEVER owned a computer, laptop or desktop, that has lasted as long, and performed as well as that Air. But in the past year, it was beginning to show signs of age. As the software I was using would begin to push the limits of the Air’s ram, and two of the keys had actually had the finish worn off from use. The battery would only hold about half of the charge. And as an amateur photographer, I could not stand being limited by a 256Gb hard drive. But I was waiting for the newest release of the MacBook Pro. I wanted a machine with more ram, and with more storage.

The MacBook Pro line had not been updated since mid-2015, but that was a nice machine. 3.5 pounds, a Retina display, HDMI, USB 3, and thunderbolt ports. But Apple kept hinting the MacBook would be re-born. Last year they released an underpowered, small 12” MacBook which featured no ports, except one USB-C port. USB-C is brand-new and requires adapters for ANY existing USB device to work with it. The rumors were the new MacBook Pro would follow in the MacBook’s lead. Photos leaked on tech sites (this is not the Apple of Steve Jobs where people would be banished for releasing the newest innovations). There would be some sort of an OLED glass “touch bar” to replace the function keys.

But I held out hope that the new MacBook Pro would not eliminate all of its feature-set. Two weeks ago, that hope was dashed, when the Apple keynote announced the new machine. No USB ports, farewell to Thunderbolt ports, no SD-Card reader, no magnetic “Mag Safe” power connector. All gone. Yes, a touch bar, which even included Touch ID. And it was now the weight of the MacBook Air, and had a longer battery and brighter screen. Oh, and its starting price… $200 MORE than last year’s model.

I was torn. I wanted a new mac. I wanted a computer with the latest version of the Intel Core i5/i7 processor. But did I want this computer? I spent two days, debating what to do? How would I function with this new device? How would I get my external thunderbolt hard drives to work with it? How could I afford the steep price-tag? I then went on the Accessory page of Apple’s website, and realized that there were adapters for my USB keyboard, for my external monitor, there were adapters for everything. And then, after doing the math, and adding up everything I would need to function (multiple USB-C to USB adapters, USB-C to thunderbolt adapter, new HDMI and VGA adapters for connecting to projectors, and on and on… and I realized that purchasing a new MacBook Pro would cost an additional $200 JUST FOR ADAPTERS, which I would have to lug around with me. It was unclear to me if the new machines even deserved the title “Pro” — they sure didn’t appear to be machines aimed for professionals.

That alone made me realize that the newest creation out of Cupertino was not necessarily the greatest. And I could purchase LAST YEAR’S MacBook Pro, now called the MacBook Pro 13” – “Silver” for less money than it cost a mere two days ago. And that machine would still have every port I needed. This MacBook Pro would be in use for probably another 4 or 5 years. And for that time period, I would have access to everything I wanted.  I also knew that five years from now the tech world would likely look very differently. Apple’s experiment with USB-C would either succeed and it would become the industry standard, or it wouldn’t. It might very well be the next Thunderbolt (which was never adapted by others). But for the next few years, I could have a lightning fast MacBook Pro that offered everything I wanted, and not have to make any compromises, while not being the quintessential early adopter.

 

Yesterday, my new “old” MacBook Pro arrived. The machine is fast. It is quiet (makes virtually no noise, and its fan, when it runs, is far more quiet than the Air). The keyboard has that wonderful, new spongy feel. The Retina display is all it is cut out to be.  Hello again.

 

I’m certain I won’t miss the emoji keyboard.

 

Looks like a duck, Quacks like a Duck, Must be… a QUOTA

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I have long criticized the quotas that law enforcement often use in writing citations.  Revenue-generation policing is something that officers and departments deny, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it happens in many places.   The State of Illinois enacted a law  that became effective on January 1, 2015 that made quotas illegal.

Here in Normal, Illinois, the local police department had been sued by officers who were allegedly punished for not meeting quotas.  That lawsuit went away with the new law, but the question of quotas most certainly hasn’t.  In early 2015, it became known that the Normal Police instituted a new rubric for measuring police officer performance.  Each officer was expected to initiate three “enforcement contacts” with citizens each shift, resulting in a citation, an ordinance violation, or a written warning.  Hmmm… that sure sounds like a quota.  But no, the Chief argued on WGLT public radio, its not a quota.  Officers don’t have to issue citations.  And its reasonable that an officer would make three enforcement contacts during a shift.  Ok. Sure.

Fast forward to late summer 2016. The State mandated Illinois Traffic Stop study data for 2015 has now been released, providing data on more than two million traffic stops state wide.  I gained access to this data last weekend. And while I am still mining the data, it does not hard to see that something strange has occurred.  After making an average of 11,861 stops a year in the prior five years (2010-2014), there was something markedly different about the 2015 report.

Traffic Stops, Normal Police Department
2010   – 12,216
2011   – 10,237
2012   – 12,117
2013   – 11,776
2014   – 12,961
2015   –  19,637

Normal PD increased its total number of traffic stops by 6,676 in a year.  2014 was already its record high of almost 12,961 stops, and a year later, the department was making just shy of 20,000 stops.  Twenty thousand.  More stops are being made in Normal than in many much larger suburbs in the Chicago-land area. When examined on a daily basis, Normal police officers made 21 more stops per day in 2015 than they did a year before.  21.More. Stops. A. Day.

The enforcement contact policy requires officers to either issue citations or written (but not verbal) warnings.  In 2014, officers issued 8,472 citations (65.3%), 367 written warnings (2.83%), and 4,122 verbal warnings (31.8%).  In 2015, while making 6,676 more traffic stops, officers only wrote 6,784 citations (34.5%).  This was a decrease of 1,688 citations. This means that 65.5% of traffic stops in Normal in 2015 received warnings – and with the exception of 899 instances where verbal warnings were given (4.58%), 11,954 motorists received written warnings (60.87%).

So, wait…  Officers stopped 21 more motorists a day.  But they issued 4 less citations a day, 8 less verbal warnings a day, and 33 more written warnings, EACH DAY.  Every Day.  So, is this good?  Or is this bad?  Well, on the one hand, if Normal had held true to past practice, and issued citations in 65 percent of cases, 12,862 individuals would have received a ticket in 2015.  But they didn’t.  Instead, the vast majority of drivers received written warnings.  That sounds good, right?  Written warning.  No ticket.  No money spent. No points.  Why the warnings?  I think officers revolted, the rebelled against the new policy.  They made the stops, but they didn’t write tickets.

But is it good?  Maybe we ought to be looking at this from the perspective of 19,637 drivers in Normal being stopped by police for a traffic offense, 12,961 of which either did not merit a citation, or the officer chose to cut the person “a break.”  I’m sure the police will spin it this way. (They will also argue that all these stops prevent drunk driving, but that’s an entirely different discussion).  But if the majority of stops were for minor trivial traffic infractions, if the majority of stops were nuisance pre textual stops, having their liberty infringed, even if for just 10 to 20 minutes, then it might be a form of harassment — all in the name of ensuring officers meet an arbitrary metric of three enforcement contacts a day.

Let’s look.  What were the stops for?  The State divides stops into four categories:  moving violations, equipment violations, license plate/registration, and commercial vehicles.   In 2014, almost three-fifths of stops were for moving violations (7771, 59.4%).  Of those stops, 4,836 were for speeding. In 2015, there were 10,092 moving violation stops (51.39%), 6,904 (35%) were for equipment violations, and 2,637 (13%) were for license plate/registation violations.   In the 2015 moving violations only half (5,979) were for speeding.  There were 817 stops for lane violations. 1,256 were for turn signal/traffic sign violations.  1,931 stops were classified as “other.”    Non-moving violation stops in Normal accounted for 6,904 incidents.  Another 2,637 individuals were stopped for license plate/registration violations.

While it sounds good that officers handed out almost 2,000 less tickets, the reality is that an awful lot of the stops Normal made were for minor offenses, often pretexts to investigate a driver.  The stops for those nuisance reasons more than doubled with a huge increase in stops for things like license plate violations, turn signal violations, and the such. This may properly be viewed as aggressive officers making stops they don’t need to be making, just so they can question and potentially harass  citizens.   OR to do this so the officer doesn’t get in trouble for not meeting his… dare I say it…. QUOTA.

I am still just beginning to “mine” the data, doing cross-year analyses, but there are two important points.   One, is that Normal PD does not appear to unfairly target African Americans.   There are differences in stops between Caucasians and African Americans, but they are relatively small (although it is harder to assess whether African Americans are being stopped disproportionately to their population in the community).   BUT what is very clear is that Normal Police targets young people.  Close to half of the 19,637 individuals stopped in 2015 were under the age of 26.   Normal PD targets young drivers, teenagers, college students, and people in their early twenties — and with a vengeance.   When a histogram is run of the age distribution of stops, it diminishes dramatically after age 26.  Here though there is a racial difference, Whites across all are groups, drop steadily in the number of stops in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.   African-Americans do not age out as smoothly in terms of police contact, and a 45 year old Black man is still more likely to be stopped than a 45 year old White man.   Again, this data still needs to be further examined.

The end result is that the police department’s stated metric of measuring police effectiveness and performance by how many stops, tickets, and arrests they make, is one in which citizens are being stopped at rates far disproportionate to the population.  Almost 20,000 people were stopped in Normal. A case can be made that many of these citizens — young citizens —  were in effect, harassed, for no other reason than an over-zealous chief wanting to make sure his officers were engaging in a minimum amount of enforcement contacts.  It is also a consequence of the stop and question everyone mentality that pervades policing today.

Next steps in my analysis will be exploring investigatory stops and comparing them with legitimate traffic safety stops, and further refining the data on age, race, and gender. But one thing is crystal clear.  On the very same day that the state of Illinois made police quotas for citations illegal, the Normal Police Department began a new performance policy that has resulted in what almost certainly looks like a quota.   With almost 20,000 stops in a year, it smells like a quota, it looks like a quota, it must be a quota. And as a result, we all lose. Maybe protecting and serving should mean more than stopping drivers for increasingly minor offenses.  Because are we really safer if the police stop a 19 year old for failing to use his turn signal properly?  Not stopping someone for failing to signal, but not signaling  100 feet before the stop.  We can, and should demand better.

 

Stay tuned… more to come.

Book Review: The Last Tribe

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I was extremely leery about this book. What?  Another post super-flu end of the world novel?  Really?  How original could that be?   Brad Manuel’s The Last Tribe looked like yet one more in a long procession of books that came before.  I could not have been any more wrong.

Yes, the book brings to mind a lot of other works:  The Passage, Station 11, King’s masterpiece The Stand, I am Legend, World War Z, The Walking Dead, The Dog Stars, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Planet of the Apes, and on and on.  AND yes, I have read many of them.  There is something about the genre that is always interesting.  But when I first saw The Last Tribe I was pretty sure this would just be another take on the same formula. And in the first chapter, I was convinced that this was going to be a book that had zero originality.

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I’ll say it again. I  could not have been more wrong.

 

The Last Tribe does not have zombies.  It does not really have many “bad guys.”  There are no evil forces at work.  What it has is perhaps unique to the whole genre.  Humanity.  The book tells the story of a group of survivors, several of whom, quite miraculously, are from the same family.  It tells how they come together, and ultimately create “the last tribe.”  The book has incredibly strong character development.  It has several protagonists, and over 700 pages, you come to cheer for all of them.

 

Brad Manuel has created a world that you do not want to leave.  He has created a world in which humanity triumphs.  A world in which people use knowledge, determination, and sheer will-power to not only survive, but to thrive.  It is a good guys survival story.

 

I don’t want to spoil the story.  I just strongly recommend you buy the book, or the audiobook (Scott Brick, one of the great audio performers of the day narrates it, over 22 hours!).  And then set some time aside, as once you start, you won’t want to put it down.

 

I am just hoping there is a sequel.

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