Friday, October 31, 2014

They mean to drag you out to vote

Are political robocalls driving you mad as we approach the end of the campaign season? Take them as a sign that the candidates and propositions that pay for them are as close to their wits end as you are.

Robocalls don't work. The research has been repeated over and over. The only people who tout them as effective are selling them. We hate having our voice mail flooded with unsolicited messages and we certainly are not convinced by recorded promptings.

So why do campaigns buy them? Because they are dirt cheap. And because at this stage, campaigns have run out of useful methods, within their budgets, to contact voters.

The arrival of Big Data in campaigns -- that is, of increasingly sophisticated and accurate ways to select voters who can be profitably targeted for turnout -- may be reaching the limits of its real world usefulness. Sure, a good, intelligently enhanced list of voters can point a campaign to potential supporters. Enhancement definitely includes the ability to follow these voters into their social media worlds. Coupled with smart polling, a campaign may even know what it might say to those selected voters. The potential seems either awe-inspiring, or freaky, depending on how you look at it.

But only the most well-funded campaigns will be able to deliver messages in forms that are attractive and audible to the targets. The campaign arena is just too cluttered.

The New York Times interviewed high end campaign consultants about this.

... as Joe Rospars, the founder of the Democratic digital agency and technology firm Blue State Digital, put it, “The science is ahead of the art.” An analytics team can help a campaign make “a much more targeted buy,” he explained, but that alone will not offer a particularly efficient return on investment if the ad is still “just a white guy in a suit.”

... “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the possibilities you have,” said Alex Kellner, the digital director of Terry McAuliffe’s successful 2013 bid for governor of Virginia and now a director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital marketing firm. “More campaigns are moving in the direction of having that freak-out moment for a couple of days and saying, ‘Oh my gosh. Here’s all we can do. How can we get it all done?’ ”

The answer for some campaigns, simply, is that they cannot.

The combination of Big Data and careful political science research on what moves voters is reshaping campaigns. But these techniques work best at a grand scale with vast sums of cash available.

We're into the dregs of the season now. In hot campaigns, this is the moment when armies of door knockers -- old fashioned people-to-people contacts -- still can make a small difference, all within the political environment that the more sophisticated techniques have created for them over a long season.
Political science research has turned up only one simple, cost effective way to reliably increase voter turnout. Apparently, despite the reality that outside of Presidential years, less than half of eligible voters bother to vote, we definitely think of ourselves as people who value our ballots and therefore are "good" citizens. One of the curiosities of post-election polling is that more people say they voted (especially for the winners) than actually did. We like our self-image as voters, responsible participants in citizenship and society.

Information indicating which individuals actually voted is part of the public record. It doesn't show who you voted for, that's secret -- but whether you cast a ballot.

Experiments have proved that sending potential voters notices saying that their neighbors will be alerted after the election whether they voted is highly correlated with increased turnout. The tactic -- "voter shaming" --drives turnout like nothing else campaigns have come up with. Social pressure works.

This year, TPM reports that conservative PACs are trying out voter-shaming tactics in Alaska and Arkansas. Some recipients of these messages are outraged.

"It's nobody else's damn business."

I wonder whether campaigns will invest in measuring whether backlash exceeds the gains from these efforts. I suspect they will; Big Data marches on. I'm enough of a campaign geek to also wonder whether smart practitioners of the "art" of politics can figure out how to use this voter-exposure lever without setting off the backlash.

Friday cat blogging

At home (alone) with Morty after four months absence, I can scarcely escape constant surveillance and assistance -- or even keep him off the keyboard.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Celebratory eruptions

Stayed up past 2 am on account of last night's raucous celebrations of the Giants in the 'hood. I've learned from experience that, just in case something requires neighbors to rush outside, it is better to start with one's clothes on. Nothing rose to that level.

Further blogging is deferred.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Noted in San Francisco

Assume this is in reference to the Giants' World Series chances tonight.

Update at 9:30 pm: Hope is rewarded. Congratulations Giants!

Outside at 24th & Mission, crowds surge, fireworks explode, and helicopters circle. Last time the local team won, an inebriated teenager managed to climb onto and fall off our roof. Let's hope for less excess this time after a marvelous Series.

Hey Baby ...

I found this video upsetting and infuriating. I think most women will. This is simply what happens when women walk down the street.

You don't have to be young and attractive, as this woman is. Hell, I'm an old, slightly pudgy white-haired dyke who still jogs and I got intrusive comments from a couple of guys I passed by just yesterday. They do it to remind us that the streets, the outdoors in general, is their turf.

My harassers were white guys, by the way. If I have any critique of this video it is that makes it look as if the offending males are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. That strikes me as byproduct of filming in New York City. This behavior isn't about race; this is about guys asserting dominance.

If you want to be really upset, click over to YouTube and read the comments: a swarm of creeps want this woman (an actor) to understand that she just can't take a joke.

Full story by Amanda Hess at Slate.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ebola, AIDS: alike only in our hysteria

A haemorrhagic fever like Ebola seems uniquely terrifying: a high proportion of infected persons die quickly, leaking blood carrying the virus from every orifice. How could observers, even distant ones, not recoil in horror?

But any older gay San Franciscan recognizes all too well some elements of this country's response to Ebola. There's a terrible "here we go again" feeling watching the US flub the emerging pandemic. Once again, instead of responding to a disease threat by implementing and refining practical, science-based measures, politicians dither and citizens panic. We've seen this before: almost a decade into the AIDS crisis, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms led the charge for quarantine for persons with the markers of AIDS. The disease becomes an excuse for preexisting prejudices against gay people and anyone considered "other" to manifest. There are too many true tales of AIDS panic like the North Yorkshire health department that buried an AIDS patient in a concrete coffin; the child confined to a glass booth in her school room; and the motorist who ran over a pedestrian and asked an AIDS service agency whether he should decontaminate his car.

Today, people who have spent a lifetime working to change HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to chronic health condition are begging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to back off from abetting panic with their ill-considered quarantines.

“We have not forgotten how HIV/AIDS was at first largely ignored when it appeared to affect only marginalized communities or the stigma generated once fear of the virus took hold in the larger populations,” [five members] of Cuomo’s End of AIDS task force wrote in a letter urging the governor to remove the mandatory quarantine. “We have watched with growing concern,” the letter continued, “as Ebola virus disease was ignored far too long while confined to some of the poorest countries in the world, and how it has now led to hysteria here in the United States, based on only a very small number of cases.”

Ebola is not AIDS repeated. These days, it is hard to remember that for nearly a decade, we simply didn't know what caused AIDS (the HIV virus) or precisely how the disease was transmitted. And even once the virus was identified, testing "positive" -- showing the signs of an immune response to the virus -- was simply a death sentence. There were therapies that sometimes prolonged life, but people with HIV were going to die of it. (Actually there turned out to be a few very rare people who lived on with HIV, but we did not know that then.) And then -- it felt very sudden to those of us living in centers of the epidemic -- drug therapies were invented that made survival possible. Response to AIDS shifted to identifying persons who are infected and ensuring they receive and can afford the drugs.

The Ebola crisis is different from the AIDS crisis. Public health authorities come into this epidemic way further along in their competence. Scientists know what causes Ebola; there's a test that identifies its virus. The incubation period (21 days) and the onset of the infectious stage (visible symptoms) have been pinpointed. And although the death rate is horrendous, most especially in extremely poor West Africa where there are no modern medical facilities, everyone who gets Ebola does not die. World Health Organization estimates an average fatality rate of 50 percent.

Dr. Paul Farmer, chief strategist and co-founder of Partners in Health, warns of the special horror of Ebola in just the sort of place the current outbreak has been concentrated:

... The attempt to treat Ebola patients in a weak health system – or at home – has been strongly linked to the transmission of the virus. In several West African hospitals, Ebola has ripped through the professional staff: health professionals, nurses’ aides, morgue attendants. Understaffed and undersupplied, front-line health workers in West Africa have good reason to be afraid. We who aim to help them, though better equipped, are afraid too. The others at great risk, obviously enough, are the primary caregivers of the sick: not health professionals but family members, especially women.

Ebola is more a symptom of a weak healthcare system than anything else.

Farmer offers a mantra for what is needed to contain the epidemic: "staff, stuff, space and systems." (By stuff he means protective equipment for health workers and basic medical supplies.) And he makes a bold claim:

An Ebola diagnosis need not be a death sentence. Here’s my assertion as an infectious disease specialist: if patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care – including fluid resuscitation, electrolyte replacement and blood products – the great majority, as many as 90 per cent, should survive.

My emphasis. I'm ready to believe Farmer. Just today, the second nurse who caught the disease from the Liberian victim who brought Ebola to Dallas has been released from the hospital, cured. (In the picture, President Obama shows genuine leadership by hugging the first Dallas nurse declared cured. If only posturing pols would stop trying to drown him out!)

If we don't want to live with Ebola popping up all over the world, causing havoc and misery in the poor countries where it can seed itself, we need to offer the wealth of this country to stopping it now in West Africa -- whatever that takes. Blustering for political points isn't going to serve anyone. Diseases don't respond to hot air.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Voting miscellancy

As we come up on what, nationally anyway, seems likely to be a depressing election (but do vote!) various interesting tidbits float by.

Republican attempts in states they control to make voting harder for young people and people of color are the big story, but there are also the usual sprinkling of significant sub-themes in this year's contest.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has issued an interesting snapshot of Muslim voters in California, New York, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and Virginia. It looks as if this is yet another hard-working immigrant constituency that Republicans have managed to alienate.
You just don't leap in line with people who treat you as if you were the plague. (Hey, Chris Christie, remember that before you beat up on altruistic nurses.) Sixty-nine percent of eligible Muslims surveyed say they'll vote this year; their top issues were combating Islamophobia and civil liberties along with the economy.

Since the Census does not count religious affiliations, there are no certain numbers for how many Muslims are citizens. Estimates for this population run about 2.6 million; that makes it likely that there are at least one million voting eligible Muslims in play, clustered largely in the states CAIR surveyed.
This video was put out in 2012, but it is always pertinent for transpeople whose IDs may not match the gender appearance they present.
Here in California we are voting on a sensible state initiative, Prop. 47, that will begin to undo the crazy mass incarceration our pols gave us in response to a real crime wave in the 1980s and to a some particular outrages. We've begun to notice that locking up non-violent, low level offenders for long sentences merely creates what amount to community colleges of bad behavior as well as decimating the neighborhoods these (mostly) young men derive from. The initiative will save the state bundles of money on prisons by making these offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies, using the savings for programs that build the life chances of individuals and communities. Let's hope we can let go our fear to enact this sensible measure.

A little noted side benefit of reducing the felony sentencing binge will be to make voting seem a more possible collective mode for redress of community grievances than it has been. California is actually fairly liberal about the voting rights of people sentenced for crimes: people convicted of misdemeanors have never been prevented from voting; felons are only barred when actually in prison or under parole or other state supervision. But in communities where many, many young people carry a felony record, a belief that voting is "not for us" takes hold. Yet, as the summer's events in Ferguson showed, these are exactly the communities where people need to seize the leverage afforded by the ballot. Prop. 47 is a step in this direction.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mission homecoming

Back in San Francisco, I'm once again at ground zero for a novel and painful urban transformation. The Google buses transporting affluent tech workers in and out of the neighborhood roll on; resentment from longer term residents potentially or actually displaced runs high. Most of us will be voting YES on Measure G, a modest impediment to rampant real estate speculation.

A few observations after a four month absence, all perhaps merely the result of spending most of four months in car-centered US exurbia.
  • Parallel parking is a necessary skill here. I don't think I had to do it more an a couple of times driving across the country. It comes back quickly, but the unfamiliarity helps me understand how foreign most of our fellow citizens find any city.
  • My partner says the streets feel more densely crowded than when we left. That makes sense if poorer people hit with rising rents are crowding into smaller rental units.
  • Venturing into one of the city's more squalid blocks to snap photos, I thought the street scene seemed a bit more painful than usual.
The second two items may simply reflect that San Francisco has enjoyed unusually comfortable weather for the last two months, so we're not huddled inside against the fog. Or maybe four months away has de-urbanized us.

There's no question that many of my neighbors feel under attack.

The landlord chasing the almighty dollar is an obvious culprit.

This street complaint is more sophisticated but also more debatable. "Tech" is a culture, nowadays a controlling, confining corporate one, but certainly a sort of "culture," just not the kind that long time Mission and many other city residents would choose for themselves. Artists and poor immigrants simply don't fit in the world the current crop of newcomers are creating. They don't have enough money. Note however that the creator of this bit of lamppost art uses the ubiquitous tools of the new "culture" to communicate.

In the 1970s and 80s, we called this kind of development -- expensive, antiseptic, homogenized -- "Manhattanization." Having spent some time recently on the Upper West Side, I think we were right then and we can see where this goes. Sure, that neighborhood still has pockets of middle-income people and business hanging on, but chain retailers have crowded out most old-time stores on Broadway. Want to shop somewhere "different"? There are still plenty of gourmet foods outlets, but Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are working to reduce their number. Even New York, that most "urban" of US cities, is losing diversity to corporate culture. Jane Jacobs spelled out the consequences two decades ago.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Electoral selfishness: YES on H; NO on I and L

Is it ethical citizenship to decide how to vote based on preserving a not-entirely-necessary amenity you happen to enjoy? On some matters, I think so.

Yesterday for my precinct photography project I was wandering in a bit of San Francisco near Ocean Beach and encountered a classic election season war among dueling signs for several measures on the city ballot.

Measure H would halt replacement of existing soccer fields at the Ocean Beach end of Golden Gate Park with artificial turf and the addition of 150,000 watts of sports lighting that will shine every day of the year. That is, Parks and Rec and the City authorities want to transform the quite wild trails and byways of the park's west end into just one more mid-city style urban recreation area. According to the folks who put Prop. H on the ballot,

the Golden Gate Master Plan states that Golden Gate Park is naturalistic in character, “designed and managed to afford opportunities for all to experience beauty, tranquility, recreation, and relief from urban pressures ...”

The existing west end of the park does just that. On the east end, the section that adjoins the city, we have the De Young Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers, Kezar Stadium, the kind of developments that draw San Franciscans and tourists. At the west end has some recreation areas including the mammoth Polo Fields, but much of it is still quite undeveloped.

I run those west end trails often; I come down YES on H. I want to preserve that open space, those odd nooks and crannies. If Park and Rec can find the money to do some development, I think they can put their artificial turf and light pollution somewhere else and leave a little wildness in an area where I've seen raccoons and coyotes within the past year.

A few houses displayed this sign: Measure. I is Park and Rec's poison pill. If it passes and gets more votes than Measure H, it would throw out the vote on the other one and enable Park and Rec to avoid any more of these tortuous planning processes that have impeded their Ocean Beach soccer fields. A vote for I is a vote for artificial turf anywhere bureaucrats decide we must have it. Just Say NO.

I only saw one of these. Measure L seems to be an aggrieved car owners' manifesto against city policies that aim to reduce automobile use. It would end the city's attempt to activate metered parking on Sundays and holidays, would require neighborhood approval for addition of new meters, and would require construction of parking garages.

I'm a car owner. I drive a disabled friend to church on Sundays and I've been threatened by Sunday metering though I've managed to dodge tickets. If meters were added on my street (and there have been initiatives in that direction), this would be a major inconvenience to me. I try hard not to drive in the most congested areas of the city; we actually have somewhat usable public transit. So I'm not so interested in more parking garages.

But come on, it is dead obvious that if we hope to have liveable cities and a liveable planet, we have to get over our addiction to polluting private cars. NO on L. It will be telling how the city goes on this one.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Seasonal expenditures

Every election season we are buried in glossy mailers and bombarded by TV ads. I don't even live in a state where there are any significant contests for higher offices and yet I am surrounded by pitches for and against this and that.

Think what this must feel like in areas where close contests are being fought out: Wisconsin or Iowa, for example.

All this costs candidates and the "committees," whether independent or party-affiliated, a pretty penny. (Yes, raising the $$ is certainly corrosive and corrupting of democracy.)

David S. Joachim reports that interested parties are on track to spend some $4 billion on this year's election.

That's a lot of money! But it is important to keep the sum in perspective:

... Americans will spend nearly twice that amount this year on Halloween costumes, decorations and candy.

Is this disparity representative of what matters to most of us? Actually, I don't think so. But I do think most people have more idea how to celebrate Halloween than are able to imagine ways of participating more actively in their democracy.

Friday cat blogging; more travel and talks

We were glad to see that Morty still rules the roost on the home front. It took him about two hours to accept that we were truly his humans even if we'd been absent for four months.

I'm not sure he's figured out that one of us has already gone back on the road -- to a board meeting of the organization whose pillow Morty is perched beside here. Rebecca is again wandering the East Coast talking about Mainstreaming Torture.

She'll will be at the bookstore Busboys & Poets (2021 14th St, NW
 [at V] Washington, D.C. 20009) on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

On Wednesday, October 29, 2014 from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m, she'll be at the Church Center of the United Nations (777 UN Plaza, New York) for a brown bag discussion sponsored by the Loretto Community and September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Vote Yes on Measure P

What's this? There is no Measure P on San Francisco's engorged November ballot. This one is in Santa Barbara County but it matters to all of us.

Residents of the area want to ban fracking. This oil and gas extraction technology is endangering their water supply, the air, their health, and their tourist economy. Governor Brown and state legislators didn't listen to them. As Thomas Murray explains in the video

It's frustrating because I can't call and make an appointment with Governor Brown or a congressperson and have lunch with them because I don't have that kind of money but the oil companies can send their lobbyists to have lunch and dinner and breakfast five days a week with these people and convince them to make laws that aren't good for me.

Oil companies are spending $5.7 million to defeat Measure P, according to sponsors. They want to stop this citizen uprising against polluting technology, whatever it takes.

Ordinary folks don't have the money to level the playing field, but we can help a little and get the word out that there are brave folks fighting fracking in their backyards (literally) in California.

A similar fracking ban, Measure J, is also on the ballot in San Benito County.

H/t Food and Water Watch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#EndTorture: organizing for the UN review of the USA

You might think that signing on to an international treaty -- making promises to the nations of the world -- would mean you'd attempt to abide by what you promised. These days, for the United States, some of our treaty obligations seem to be treated as so much blank paper, occasions for political spin.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was passed in the General Assembly in 1984, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the Senate in 1994. In theory, we're on board with 80 other nations.

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that I've just listened my partner the author give a couple of dozen talks around the country explaining that US accession to the treaty was qualified by some magic (limiting) asterisks legally called "reservations." Our authorities apparently wanted to be sure the CIA could go on doing "academic research" on how to replicate North Korean "brainwashing" techniques used on US prisoners in that early Cold War conflict. And they were concerned that someone would claim that treatment of persons in US prisons might be torture. So the US enabling legislation only outlaws torture outside the country. Within our boundaries, legal claims of torture are covered (if recognized at all) by other existing laws.

All this is introduction to the fact that countries which have signed the treaty against torture come up for periodic review of their compliance by a United Nations Committee Against Torture. The United States will next have its turn this November 11-13 in Geneva.

In advance of that meeting, the New York Time's relentless torture reporter Charlie Savage tells us that some lawyers in the Obama administration seek to revert to Bush-era weaseling about what treatment of prisoners amounts to torture in order to give our spooks all the freedom they want to mistreat captives without fear of punishment. The Prez may be on board with this sophistry.

Meanwhile, there is an organized US-based effort to call the United States to account for torture practices. The US Human Rights Network has collected dozens of "shadow reports" that have been submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture detailing potential and actual violations of US treaty obligations. Some examples:
  • The Harvard Law School Human Rights Program recommends that "the United States promptly and impartially prosecute senior military and civilian officials responsible for authorizing, acquiescing, or consenting in any way to acts of torture committed by their subordinates" including former President G.W. Bush and former DOJ lawyer John Yoo.
  • The National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT) calls out "the continued widespread practice of holding prisoners, disproportionately people of color in prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons" as does another another shadow report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and California Prison Focus (CPF).
  • The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) protests a "convergence of criminal and immigration law" which obscures the US obligation to entertain claims that deportation to home countries will subject individuals to violence and torture.
The full list of shadow reports is available at the link. They are absolutely worth perusing. We have far too many possible violations of the treaty and of simple human decency to answer for!
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