“Rounding Corrections”, by Sandra Haynes, and “The Floor”, by Melissa Hall

Passing these along from the folks at io9 on planet Gizmodo:

What might life be like in a future where every citizen was guaranteed a universal basic income? Two very good short stories imagine the sociological and cultural changes that might happen, in poignant and chilling ways. One of them was good enough to earn a sizable cash prize and you can read it now.


What does the Quran really say about a muslim Woman’s Hijab? (TED Talk)

In recent times, the resurgence of the hijab along with various countries’ enforcement of it has led many to believe that Muslim women are required by their faith to wear the hijab. In this informative talk, novelist Samina Ali takes us on a journey back to Prophet Muhammad’s time to reveal what the term “hijab” really means — and it’s not the Muslim woman’s veil! So what does “hijab” actually mean, if not the veil, and how have fundamentalists conflated the term to deny women their rights? This surprising and unprecedented idea will not only challenge your assumptions about hijab but will change the way you see Muslim women.

Samina Ali is an award-winning author, activist and cultural commentator. Her debut novel, Madras on Rainy Days, won France’s prestigious Prix Premier Roman Etranger Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in Fiction. Ali’s work is driven by her belief in personal narrative as a force for achieving women’s individual and political freedom and in harnessing the power of media for social transformation. She is the curator of the groundbreaking, critically acclaimed virtual exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices.

Judging for Ourselves

References to and comparisons with Hitler’s rise may be valid, however, I think a more accurate comparison can be drawn with Romania’s pre-WWII  “Iron Guard” movement  and its leader Corneliu Codreanu.   This became the basis for Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”, a play that depicted the transition of a group of ordinary people into a herd of these animals, one by one, each with their own rationale for accepting them and then becoming one themselves.   We read this in high school (mid-70s) and it comes to mind whenever I see people I thought I knew and even respected begin to embrace right-wing authoritarianism, something I thought they abhorred as much as I.

Right-wing fascism has reared its ugly head many times throughout history, wearing many masks.   The players, populations, and languages differ, but, the circumstances and warning signs are nearly always the same:

The good news is that, notwithstanding claims of “the death of liberalism” that fascists and their apologists seem often chant these days, it is in fact fascism, authoritarianism that is typically short-lived.   Like its economic concubine, speculative capitalism, it survives on the necessarily increasing output and consumption of it’s own excrement, and soon meets its end by starvation, or sepsis from having swallowed too much of its own shit.   Democracies, or at least regimes that recognise their power as being derived from the compliance (or complacency) of the governed survive for centuries; authoritarian regimes rarely last more than a few decades.

I’d be willing to bet that the articles of impeachment against Trump were drafted even before he took office — possibly even before the election.   Both Putin and the Republicans saw him as a “useful idiot” and they’ll continue to pull his strings until the FBI and other investigative agencies have all of the ducks lined up to bring him down.  At which point, Trump will either be convicted and removed, or he’ll resign, or 25A will be invoked.  In any case, Pence will be installed and, whereas Trump was a useful idiot, we’ll now have to deal with a complete moron until 2020.   With any luck enough of the benighted fly-over (by then they’ll be more aptly-named fucked-over) states will have seen the folly of voting for Trump and use their votes to say “fuck you” right back.

In the mean time, however, we’ll see a rise in anti-anyone-who-ain’t-white-christians-like-us violence and threats to persons and American Democracy itself.  The last, best defense, there, will be the courts.  My greatest fear, is that we’ll start to see judges assassinated, as has happened when such regimes have taken over in Latin America, for example.   We can worry ourselves over the circus going on in Washington and state capitols across the country, but such assassinations are, to me, far more worrisome.   Two of our government’s three branches have been weakened by three decades of relentless, right-wing undermining of people and principles, leaving the judiciary to stand against it, alone.  Unless and until we see that start to happen, I have great confidence in the ability of our constitution and the democracy that it implements to endure and prevail.

Selectoral College

For the third time in a century we have another election in which the candidate who won the popular vote did not gain enough electoral votes to win the presidency.  This probably leaves you scratching your  head, wondering how that’s even possible?    After all, the number of electors each state has is based on the size of that state’s population, right?  If a candidate gets the most votes in that state, that candidate wins all of the electors for that state.   If you sum up all those votes the winning candidate should have the biggest total in both the popular vote and the electoral vote counts.   Right?  Yet, we have two recent examples where the candidate who won the popular vote LOST the electoral vote.  (Gore in 2000, and Clinton this year.)

You don’t need to have a degree in math or political science to understand how this can happen.   It looks complicated because there are so many states involved and the outcomes in those states are determined not just by votes cast, but by the percentage of voters who actually vote.   If we look at a simpler system, and just assume everyone who can vote does, electoral math – and weird outcomes like we’ve just seen – are much easier to understand.

An Example

Let’s imagine a country that has just 6 states.   One state has a population of 100, the other five have populations of 10 each.   Each state is allotted one electoral vote for every 10 people.  (We round up to the next 10, so a state with 13 people would be treated as though it had 20 and thus get 2 electoral votes.)  Electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis:  whoever wins the most votes in that state, even if only by a single popular vote, wins all of the electoral votes.

State Population Electors
Big State 100 10
Small State 1 10 1
Small State 2 10 1
Small State 3 10 1
Small State 4 10 1
Small State 5 10 1

Now, suppose you have an election to decide between candidate Jim and candidate Nancy for the next president.   Even if all of the Small States vote unanimously for Jim, giving him 50 popular votes, he’ll only get 5 electoral votes.   But if Jim loses in the Big State, even by only a few votes, Nancy gets all 10 of that state’s electoral votes, and thus beats Jim.  All Nancy needs to do to win is get 51 votes (Jim would presumably get the  other 49.)

Candidate Big State Tally Small State Tally Popular Total Electoral Total
Nancy 51 0 51 10
Jim 49 50 99 5

Nancy’s electoral tally is 10, but Jim’s is only 5.  Yet, the popular vote CLEARLY favored Jim, giving him a total of 99 (50 from the Small States plus 49 from the Big State) with Nancy only receiving 51.  Nancy wins with the most electoral votes even though she lost the poplar vote.  Jim could lose by a very wide margin in the Big State — as much as 26 to 74 — and still win the popular vote (76 to 74), but lose the electoral college the way we’ve laid this out.  This system is quite obviously biased in favor of the state with the most (voting) people.

Unbiasing the Bias

Let’s see if we can fix that the same way representation in the US’s legislative branch (Congress) was fixed.   We’ll start by giving every state just one more electoral vote.  We end up with Big State having 11 votes and each Small State having 2.  Together the small states have 10 votes, which is better than before but still not enough to overcome Big State’s voting “power”.

So, let’s give every state two additional electoral votes and see what happens.

State Population Electors
Big State 100 12
Small State 1 10 3
Small State 2 10 3
Small State 3 10 3
Small State 4 10 3
Small State 5 10 3

Now each Small State has 3 electoral votes for a total of 15, and  the Big State has 12.   Recalculating the tallies …

Candidate Big State Tally Small State Tally Popular Total Electoral Total
Nancy 51 0 51 12
Jim 49 50 99 15

Nancy now has 12 electoral votes, but Jim has 15, so Jim wins both the popular vote and the electoral college.  We can all agree this is a fair and decisive outcome.

Or, is it?

In fact, this doesn’t eliminate the bias at all; it just shifts it to the smaller states.   Sure, it gives the Big State 20% more voting “power”, but it gives each of the Small States 200% more voting power.

Let’s go back to our example and change the vote counts so that Nancy gets 80 votes in the large state and Jim only 20.  Nancy still gets no votes in the Small States like before and Jim gets all of the popular votes there and so wins those electoral votes.

Candidate Big State Tally Small State Tally Popular Total Electoral Total
Nancy 80 0 80 12
Jim 20 50 70 15

Nancy wins the overall popular vote with a tally of 80 to Jim’s 70 (20 from Big State plus 5 x 10 from the Small States), but loses the electoral college to Jim with only 12 votes to his 15.   In fact, Nancy could completely trounce Jim in the Big State, even winning it unanimously in the popular vote, and get 4 votes in every small state,  giving her a whopping 120 votes to Jim’s 30.  Jim would still win the most electoral votes and thus win the election.

A more recent, up-close-and-personal example

Our example isn’t all that far off from what the electoral map actually looked like in the first US election, held in 17881.  In that election, John Hancock (Federalist) soundly defeated George Clinton (anti-Federalist).  This map shows how the distribution of slave states and free states or industrial vs agrarian states was more or less even for both candidates.   Worth noting, 51 out of the 96 total electoral votes rested with just 5 of the `13 states.  That is, more than half the electoral college — clearly enough to carry any election — rested with less than half of the states.    If electoral votes were simply one-state-one-vote, the 8 smaller states would have the greater power.   Left to a one-(land-owning)-man-one-vote system, the more populous states have the upper hand.   Rather than pick one or the other, the Framers of the Constitution came up with a system that combined these two extremes.

Electoral Map of 1st US election, 1988.
Electoral map of 1788 — first US election. Hancock vs Clinton.

In the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump won the most electoral votes and thus won the presidency even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million more than Trump.   Let’s look at how electoral math  figured into this by looking at one of the two, electorally-large blue bastions, New York, which has 29 electoral votes, and a handful of small (by population), red states that have a total of 29 electoral votes between them.  The following table2 depicts just such a collection.

Red State Clinton Trump Electoral
Idaho 189,765 409,055 4
Iowa 653,669 800,983 6
Montana 177,709 279,240 3
Nebraska 284,494 495,961 5
South Dakota 117,548 227,721 3
West Virginia 188,794 489,371 5
Wyoming 557,93 174,419 3
Totals 1,667,772 2,876,750 29

Both the popular vote and electoral vote tallies indicate Trump to be the clear winner among these states.   New York, on the other hand went unambiguously for Clinton with 4,547,562 votes to Trump’s 2,814,589.  Clinton absolutely demolished Trump in New York’s popular vote and thus gained its 29 electoral votes.   But, take a look at what happens when you add the New York popular vote with that of the red states:

State(s) Clinton Trump
Blue (NY) 4,547,562 2,814,589
Red 1,667,772 2,876,750
Totals 6,215,334 5,691,339

In the overall totals, Clinton wins over half a million more votes than Trump in this subset of states — a margin of about 4.4% —  yet they come out dead even in the electoral count.

Let’s throw in just one more small red state — Alaska, for example, which has only three electoral votes — Clinton still beats Trump by nearly half a million votes, yet loses the electoral count 32 to 29.   Or, try this with Maine, which splits its electoral votes:  Two went to Clinton, one to Trump.   Clinton wins this electoral match-up by just one point, which hardly reflects the popular tally in which she wins by over a half million.

What are those “bonus” electoral votes really worth?

Suppose we paired up as many red and blue states as we could and subtracted two electoral votes from each of these states.   In our example (before throwing in Alaska), we would discount New York’s two “bonus” electoral votes along with another two votes from one of the red states.  That leaves 12 bonus from the other six red states.  Now, divide the difference in the popular vote count (around 500,000) by these remaining 12 electoral votes and you find that they are worth just under 44,000 popular votes EACH.  (This number would vary, of course, depending on actual voter turn out in a given election.)  In other words, without this electoral bonus, for Trump to have matched Clinton in terms of the popular vote in these red states, he would have had to win an additional 87,000+ votes in each state, on average.   If you subtract that number from the vote tallies for Trump in each of the red states and then recalculate the totals (including New York), Clinton beats Trump by more than a million popular votes, yet still ties him in the electoral count, 27-273.

I said on average rather generously.  In fact, electoral votes aren’t “averaged”, so if we want to be truly strict about this, we’ll insist that Trump would have needed at least 87,000 more votes per state, for each of those six states.   Where the popular margin was clearly in his favor, as it was in this sample, he still wins both the popular and electoral counts.  If we include Alaska and apply this arithmetic,  we have roughly 34,000 popular votes per bonus electoral vote.  Subtracting twice this number (~68,000) as we did before, from Alaska’s popular count for Trump actually has Clinton winning Alaska in both the popular vote and electoral counts, 30-27.

If we apply this same arithmetic to all 50 states, Trump’s electoral edge of 77 electoral votes versus Clinton’s popular margin of 2,865,075 means each of those “bonus” electoral votes had the equivalent of 37,200 popular votes for Trump.  Since he didn’t have to actually win those votes, he in effect won the election at a discount of sorts.

Is there a better way?

One solution that is regularly (and often) proposed is to do away with the electoral college completely and have just a popular vote.  This would work fine when there is a clear choice or when a large enough part of the electorate is behind one of the candidates to make the vote clearly decisive.  When voters are more or less evenly split, the system becomes highly vulnerable to ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation and other types of fraud, or even counting errors or the rare loss of ballots from just one polling station.   The electoral system makes this sort of rigging extremely difficult, and is highly fault-tolerant against slip-ups whether they are deliberate or accidental.   It is also unlikely to produce a tie, in which case the Constitution says the election is decided by a vote in the House of Representatives.   This has happened twice, the last time being nearly 200 years ago.  In every election since the electoral college has delivered a very clear decision.

Another solution is to eliminate the additional two electoral votes per state.   This sounds especially appealing when you realise that the whole reason we even do this relates indirectly to slavery being legal early in our history.  I’m not going to go into the specifics of this, here.  It’s sufficient to say that taking away those two electors from each state just puts us back to the first scenario where states with larger populations have the electoral edge.   (Click here for a more detailed explanation of the link between slavery and the electoral college.)

Vote-splitting — allocating a states electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote — is yet another popular idea.   Where there are only two candidates this amounts to nothing more than the system I described at the beginning of the example.  Furthermore, suppose a state had only two electoral votes.  How would you split these between two candidates when one of them had a significant majority in the popular vote?   If there were more candidates, there would still be two major ones, leaving the other, minor candidates to function as little more than spoilers.  It doesn’t really solve the problem; it merely “kicks the can” down the road a bit further.  (You can begin to see why the Framers left this up to the states.)

You Can’t Fix “Stupid” … or  “Lazy”

I believe that the real problem isn’t the electoral college; it is the electorate — the voting public — themselves.   Any system that puts such important decisions to a vote as we do REQUIRES participation in that system for it to work properly.   That means that eligible voters MUST VOTE, at the very least.    When too few show up, the system becomes unstable, “wobbly” and decisions like electing a new president become about as random as flipping a coin.   The electoral result will still be quite definite, but it is just as likely to disagree with the popular vote as it is to agree with it.

The electoral college is designed to ensure a decisive victory one way or the other.   In fact, it quite purposely punishes poor voter turn-out by often handing the election to the least popular candidate.  And, for those who say, “But I did vote!  For a third-party candidate.”, I would answer that the electoral college also punishes poor understanding and willful ignorance.   To vote in the general election you must understand or at least accept that, like it or not, there are two main candidates and only one of them will win.  Voting for a third party candidate because you think you shouldn’t have to choose between the “lesser of two evils” will almost certainly result in your vote helping to elect the greater of the two.

Summing it Up

This example is a simplified version of  precisely what happened in this year’s election, as well as 2000’s and 1960’s.   Instead of just six states, we have 50 (plus DC) and there are far more combinations of state populations and electoral vote tallies.   But, the underlying mathematics is the same.    You only need to know how to add numbers and compare them to see which is larger.  It is tempting to say that anyone who can’t understand such basic arithmetic probably shouldn’t be voting.    It is much more accurate to say that those who don’t vote can’t count.


Rules of Enragement

During a discussion over the merits of Obama’s presidency the other night, my correspondent heatedly insisted that the military hates Obama and that a major reason for this is the changes he’s made to the Rules of Engagement or ROE, which spell out when and how US military forces may “engage with” (i.e. open fire on) enemy forces. It was my friend’s opinion that under Obama, these have become more restrictive, in essence allowing the enemy (e.g. Taliban or ISIL combatants) greater latitude before US forces could deem returning fire justified.I researched the broader (the military hates Obama) claim, and this specific (ROE) claim and I would like to point out the following:

First of all, despite how much control you might think a president has, he (or she) doesn’t usually have any direct say in such details as ROE. That’s what generals and diplomats are paid to do. In the region in question, it was McCrystal and, later, Patraeus who developed those, based on their knowledge of counter insurgency and the intricate political and military workings of the region. Obama’s role in this amounts to, perhaps, hearing briefs on them, but, probably not much more than signing off on them.

Secondly, as of January of this year, the ROE have actually become LESS restrictive. For example, whereas before US troops had to actually see hostile intent (someone had to shoot at them before they could return fire, say), current ROE in Afghanistan allow them to fire on someone who’s doing nothing more than wearing an ISIL T-shirt.
What’s telling, however, is that in spite of this change, nearly all of the sites that come up when you do search for “Obama” and “ROE” are historically right-wing mouthpieces (e.g. Washington Times, Fox News, Breitbart, &c), repeating the clearly specious claim that Obama has made things more dangerous for our troops. What they conveniently omit is that Generals McCrystal and Patraeus both had more restrictive ROE, which they based on the their experience that showed counter-insurgency or COIN operations don’t use the same calculus as all-out combat. Expending huge resources to kill just a few of the enemy makes you look weak in their eyes. And even if you take out many of them, because these are “locals”, the more you kill, the less support you have among the population and, consequently, the better it is for your enemy. Sometimes, you “win” more (or lose less) by not fighting. At least not directly.

In fact, Obama ordered more drone strikes during his first month in office than did GWB during his entire presidency. That is to say that, rather than send troops into harms way, Obama has opted to use alternative methods. You may question (as I do) the morality of doing that on other grounds, certainly. But, in terms of trying to limit troops exposure to danger, I think Obama has done a better job than he’s being given credit for.

This brings me to the broader claim that the troops hate Obama. While “hate” is a rather strong word, it seems that Obama does indeed enjoy the lowest approval ratings. among the military, of any president in recent memory. But, on closer examination, this has nothing to do with ROE or anything about soldiering or military strategy. It has more to do with career choice, gays, and the role (and treatment) of women in the military.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Military Times, The main gripe you hear from those service persons who voice disapproval of President Obama is that their career opportunities and benefits — promotions, pay increases, posting preferences, &c — aren’t coming as often or as easily as they once did. One article even used the term “military EMPLOYMENT” (as opposed to military service) when describing the elevated levels of dissatisfaction. In other words, this is about job dissatisfaction, rather than matters of foreign policy, rules of engagement, or the price of tea in Mosul.
The other gripe is about the change in the military policy toward gays. And, as it happens, there’s a pretty clear divide in terms of who cares and who doesn’t. Most of the grumbling on this point comes from those who have been in the military the longest. You don’t hear it so much from newer, younger men and women. And, when pressed, regardless of career longevity, most if not all will tell you that it has made little or no difference to those who aren’t gay.

Coincident with this is the lifting of restrictions on women in combat roles. Women can now fly combat missions in fighter aircraft, and participate in combat on the ground. Those who object say that it distracts the men who, they claim, will “instinctively” try to protect the women first. Most, however, quickly point out that women have always been in combat zones: this is just a different way to be in those zones.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, is the reaction to Obama’s crackdown on sexual assault in the military.   Obama has instituted a very strict, zero-tolerance approach to this and the “old boys” don’t like it one bit.  Their claim is that it has made their work environment uncomfortable, that the flow of communication among co-workers is hampered by the sense that saying the wrong thing will land you in hot water more easily now.   Try as I might (and I have to admit, I’m not trying all that hard) I just can’t feel alot of sympathy for their “discomfort”.   Incidents of rape and sexual misconduct have, for too long, gone unreported or the accuser has wound up being assaulted by their rapist and then by the military justice system seeking to make the matter go away without holding anyone accountable.   That has changed and continues to change and it comes as no surprise that the ol’ boys don’t like the new rules  one bit.  Small wonder they hate the guy who has spoiled their fun and their “workplace camaraderie”.

The military has changed a great deal over the past two or three decades, both in terms of its mission and composition. Some of the larger changes have come during if not as a direct result of Obama’s administration.   Change is never comfortable and anyone who has been a part of any large organisation undergoing major changes knows these are always accompanied by much grumbling and dissatisfaction among those who preferred the “old ways” of doing things, who want things to remain the way they “always were”.   The same hold true for the military.   Their disapproval of Obama can generally, if not entirely be summarised as resistance to change.   Blaming Obama for changes in ROE, or saying the troops hate him for being a “bad CIC” are simply unsupportable by fact. This of course doesn’t stop right-wing pundits, repeating lies big and small,  as often often as it takes until they are accepted as truth.


The Higher Cause

Recently, a comment appeared in response to this article. Quoting: “… as McDonald’s had the law on its side, it was time for the protesters to turn their attention into lobbying for a greater cause, to get the law changed for the benefit of the greater hills community in the future.”

In fact, we ARE protesting for greater cause. This protest is NOT soley about having or not having a McDonalds here in Tecoma. It’s really about the way they trampled the Democratic Process to bully their way in. Their request for a permit was clearly and unambiguously turned down by our local council in a unanimous decision, following the submission of an unprecedented number of written objections to their application, having deemed it “unacceptable” and inappropriate. The planning laws in Victoria, specifically clause 65, constitutes the local council’s authority to make this determination.

McDonalds, not satisfied with the democratic outcome, took their case to VCAT, which is comprised of “members” who are appointed by the queen’s representative in Victoria. They are not elected. They need not be judges. They need not even be lawyers. In fact, VCAT, strictly-speaking, isn’t even a court. And yet, it has the power to override any local council decision, so long as it is “legal”. What constitutes a “legal” VCAT decision is so over-broad that they can do pretty much anything they like so long as it isn’t clearly criminal.

And, just to make sure you understand how undemocratic VCAT is, how little your voice, my voice, and the voice of all or friends and neighbours matter anymore, the recent VCAT decision against Stonnington confirmed their stance that community objection is “irrelevant”, regardless of how many object.

THIS is the larger issue: Our democracy in Australia is being replaced with unelected, unaccountable institutions that can decide the fate and composition of OUR communities, forcing us to bear the consequences of their bad decisions.

This may be “legal” in a strict sense, but it is by no means moral. Despots throughout history have always claimed to be acting within the law — that is fundamental to what a dictatorship is, law as dictated by one person. But, we live in a democracy, and our Law is meant to be a reflection of the norms and mores of the community who live by it. WE say what the law is, WE give the government power to author it and enforce it. When that reflection becomes distorted, it isn’t the community that must adapt; it is the Law which must be changed.