Friday, November 22, 2013

Democravia And Republistan a Graphical Tour

Starting up my new job at Tableau.

Check out this article:

Then check out the graphs below.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Short story

Capsaicin--the active ingredient in Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper spray)--is received by mammals' TRPV1 receptor. The transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 (TrpV1) is the sole receptor for capsaicin. TRPV1 also helps regulate body temperature. Blocking the TRPV1 channel in the body can cause hyperthermia. In fact, the only to market drug has been unable to overcome this effect.

Which is why I was in an athletic tee, and sweat-wicking pants. As I felt my body heat up, and my sweat uncontrollably pool in all the uncomfortable places, I gathered my protest gear and marched out into the crowd. It was February, but the combination of adrenaline and this unpleasant drug made the 35 degree weather seem balmy.

I wasn't alone. A group of us, wearing red, were prepared to create blockades for the protesters. Eventually we would be blocking nearly the entirety of downtown. About two thousand of us were deputized as the wall between the police and the protest. Our sole job was to maintain order and our lines in the face of clashes.

I heard later that the line broke about two blocks south of me. A group of anarchists broke through the crowd and attacked the riot squad causing a small mob. Two members of the Red Wall were trampled. I'm not sure what happened after that exactly. The police opened fire first with the pepper spray.

But we held our line.

Then I heard the screams from inside the crowd. Or maybe it was the explosion. It must have been the explosion first. Something tore through my side and three mounted police pushed through our line and headed straight toward the source of the screams.

I was worried about this. I knew I had to run. But hyperthermia isn't just unpleasant sweating, my temperature had been artificially raised to 100 degrees. Too much physical exertion could kill me. Worse, I couldn't tell how hot I was. The TRPV1 receptors were put to sleep in a way that made me feel hot regardless of actual body temperature.

My adrenaline skyrocketed as I tried to get a hold of my senses. As I did so I realized I was standing in the middle of a bloody crowd. Were the police beating us or was it the explosion?

A second explosion rocked the plaza. I heard a crashing and I saw Jackson Tower's guts momentarily exposed before being engulfed in black smoke. What was happening?

I grabbed at the first red shirt I could find, we had been organized to respond to chaos by putting order back into the system.

I pulled the shirt into view and noticed that he wasn't part of the Red Wall; he was covered in blood. I let go of him and started running toward the south mall checkpoint. In case of emergency we had gathering points. When I got there, two red shirts were standing, waiting for order.

I screamed something at them. They obeyed my orders (I can't remember what) and took off. It was all sirens after that.

I was soon subdued by about four officers. In the confusion, the Red Wall was assumed to be the attacking force. And in the commotion we had become the Red Herring.

"Your temperature is very high, 102," the police medic said. I was in police custody; in their temporary holding zone about 6 blocks away.

"I know, I took Noripraisin," I said groggily. I had been hit pretty hard with a concussive flashbang.

"Well, your hearing is going to be ok, and if you relax your temperature should return to normal in 3-6 hours. You should be careful about Noripraisin though. Extreme physical activity can exacerbate hyperthermia and cause death. You are lucky the police pulled you from the fray."

I bit my tongue. I didn't find getting beaten by four officers and incorrectly identified as a mass murderer lucky. Besides, I was planning on a peaceful march, not a chaotic riot scene. I smiled at the medic wanly, "yeah."

There was a long silence, while the medic checked out my physical condition. "You are free to go. If you have stuff in the protest zone, it's best to consider it gone. There are bomb squads going through the entire area and destroying anything suspicious."

I thought about my small bag of protest items. Nothing important. I had lost it in the confusion. "Any other news?" I asked.

"I've been put on standby to treat bomb victims. The Jackson Tower is still in flames, and there aren't any new reports of explosions, but that still leaves six total. This isn't a good day," the medic looked at me and we exchanged a brief moment of understanding.

"Is there something I can do?"

The medic handed me a signed form, "hand this to the processing officer at the intake table and you are free to go. Other than that, go home and rest until the Noripraisin wears off. Drink water."

I tried to give the medic another understanding look. It wasn't returned. I left the police gathering area and headed back toward the chaos. Nearly 100,000 protesters were streaming out of the downtown area, trying to find their loved ones and get to safety.

I headed back in. I didn't know why.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Framing Questions (draft 1)

There are still some bits to fill in, and it needs to be tightened, but I'm tired. I will come back to it later:

I've been thinking a bit about how the media covers different issues. I often feel that the wrong questions are being asked in the stories. And of course, no one is going to get it right the first time. It would be foolish to expect everyone to find the right nuggets in a story immediately.

So first what is known.

In general people who identify as conservative believe that problems derive from personal responsibility and self-agency [cite poll numbers]. This can be seen in conservative attitudes towards food stamp programs. Generally speaking, conservatives believe strongly that if one tries hard enough they can overcome anything. So their approach to programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Unemployment (UI) Programs is to have strong work requirements reasoning that stringent standards will keep out fraudsters and help those that really deserve our help.

Liberal institutional attitudes. By contrast liberal (or if you prefer progressive) attitudes incorporate a much stronger institutional aspect into their opinions [poll numbers]. Liberal approaches to TANF and UI focus heavily on jobs training programs, education, and casting a wide benefits net on the assumption that these elements will counteract institutional inertia and empower people.

Of course the conservative counter is that this promotes laziness and fraud in the system. And the liberals counter that there is little or no evidence to support the claim of fraud in the system. And it goes on and on in circles. But we aren't here to focus on the dog chasing its tail. We are here to look at the bigger picture and how these factors can lead to missed opportunities at genuine improvement.

American attitudes toward personal agency. It should be noted that Americans generally skew toward personal responsibility and choice [poll numbers]. They believe, more than other countries, that hard work and a good attitude will be rewarded accordingly. Of course, this is obviously untrue; quantifying work in a capitalist society is highly subjective and molded by cultural attitudes. Further, economic mobility in the United States is the worst it has been since the 1920s, and is a paltry [position] of all developed nations. While Americans may believe in the American Dream, it is a harder to attain goal for the middle and lower classes to achieve than many realize. This complex interconnection of American attitudes and reality makes up the personal and institutional relationship.

Further these attitudes are modified by other group identifications. For example black people identify [poll numbers] with social mobility and in reality are afforded [numbers on actual mobility]. Evangelicals identify [poll numbers] with social mobility and in reality are afforded [numbers on actual mobility]. People making the median household income believe [poll numbers] and in reality are afforded [numbers on actual mobility].

And these lines draw themselves across a variety of issues, even non-economically tied issues. How much a person can individually make a difference is played out in most of our political battles as well. Which brings us to our third way of looking at a given issue. The political. The 24-hour news cycle often defaults to this perspective, looking at an issue as a game. Who is winning? What is the political fall-out? How does this affect poll numbers?

Often known as the horse race, this perspective looks at policymaking by its effect on political capital--how much political influence a given decision will cost or gain. In this purely transactional manner, people are allowed to not take sides and still give analysis on a given issue. Opinion polls are abundant and conducted often while deeper analysis--such as adverse economic or social impacts studies--are fewer and further between. And often politicians are very limited by their political capital.

Ted Cruz, a freshman senator with little respect on the hill, was able to leverage his stand against Obamacare to get media attention, improved (if temporarily) poll numbers, and a seat at the negotiating table. He is now considered a conservative thought leader whereas before he took a back seat to Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and even Michelle Bachmann. While there is no doubt in my mind that he cares deeply about stopping the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he definitely considered and used the political implications in his favor. His tactics improved his political standing.

Three ways to look at a problem. Now we have observed the three ways that a given issue can be looked at: institutional, personal, and political. All issues need to be looked at with all three aspects, but by targeting only one then radically different outcomes can occur. Let's take a look in greater depth at what characterizes the three parts.

Political. A political problem is one where the lines are drawn along ideological grounds. Be it the Tea Party versus the Conservative Establishment, or the more traditional GOP v Democratic split, a political issue is often approached in terms of popularity. Does it have enough votes? What does public opinion say? Inherent in this structure is the win/lose dynamic. Someone wins, and someone loses. Rarely, this is portrayed from the compromise, where the negotiators triumph by making everyone win (and lose a little). Even more rarely this is portrayed from the collaborative aspect, where everyone is a winner. This is the 'inside the beltway' perspective. It's about issues like swing-voters, the dwindling white majority, and their adverse impacts to a particular political view's strength. In its purest form it is democracy at its core. The popular one wins, there are no barriers, and all men are created equal.

Institutional. An institutional problem is one that persists regardless of politics. These are problems that continue whether the leading regime is democrat or republican, whether the leaders are charismatic or duds. Fundamentally, institutions are necessary. They maintain order and stability in a disordered and uncertain world. But sometimes institutions cause disproportionate harms to their benefits. The racist policies of the FHA after World War II is an excellent example. Institutional problems tend to have one winner or one loser with 'the rest' being generally unaffected. Institutions are interesting because they become invisible and monolithic. Institutional barriers give rise to terms like 'the man', 'Washington Establishment', and 'Wall Street'. No single individual or specific interest controls the institution yet an inequality or injustice persists despite the efforts from actors within and without. Some typical institutional questions: how do regulations affect the ability of people to start new businesses, how does race affect social mobility, what is preventing a cohesive natural resources management policy? These kinds of questions generally ask for big changes, changes that aren't typically available via democratic or individual means. The people with the power to make the changes generally want to preserve the status quo, making institutional change slow and full of inertia.

Personal. A personal problem is one created and manipulated by an individual or small identifiable group that share a causal factor. These are typically moral failings: stealing, lying, cheating, manipulating, incompetence, and general selfishness. A typical example is a politician taking kick-backs for a project. Often, moral failings unrelated to a person's job can sink their political careers (pretty much all of them are extramarital affairs). Corruption relating to the job is less common but more drastic. Not only is the individual in question affected, but anything in their purview is as well. This is the stuff of scandals typically. There is an identifiable wrong, an identifiable agent, and an identifiable punishment. Personal problems are the ones that get ratings: with interesting characters, intrigue, victims, and deception. The typical solution is to neuter or remove the person in power. It's important to note that the personal need not be a major moral failing, it could simply be an ideological adherence and failure to change course in the face of countervailing evidence. In that sense we all have our personal failings, the question becomes: when does that adversely impact our work and others around us? Rarely is a personal problem not part of a greater institutional or political problem.

And so it goes for most problems. What may start as one type of problem may end with all three bases being covered. This shouldn't be surprising as the barriers are permeable and influence each other. As an example take the recent government shutdown. About 40 Tea Party Republicans were dissatisfied by ACA's implementation. To voice this dissatisfaction they masterminded a plan that would cause the Federal Government to shut down unless their demand to defund ACA was approved. For 15 days the two political parties worked to restore the government while dealing with holdouts who refused to relent on their individual votes.

In many complex ways individuals, institutions, and politics worked in a give and take to shape the situation that occurred. For years, Democrats had largely yielded to similar Republican tactics. The GOP had been de-incentivized toward negotiation since a wave of ideological purity--spurred by the disappointments of the Bush administration and resounding defeat in the 2008 election. Ambitious young politicians, eager to make radical changes and follow through on campaign promises, had a strong incentive to stick to their strategy. These all culminated in a showdown situation with the individuals making decisions within the narrow spectrum of choices presented by their political and institutional affiliations.

The Argument

People have some free choice. There is no doubt that we can make our own choices. But…

Institutions are invisible decision makers. We are limited by the actions of others as well as the institutional constraints built around us. It's very difficult to understand this on a decision to decision basis. There is a great deal of literature that explains the limits that institutions can put on us.

Political calculus is a limited tool. While we may want to believe that poll numbers and political capital are the only things that motivate people, this is inherently limited to the partisan yes/no spectrum. This limits complex analysis.

There is a "right" set of questions. Obviously that's a simplification. The job of an informed citizen is to decide: what interests are involved, how do the interests characterize the main perspective of the issue (political, institutional, or personal), how do the other perspectives play in, how do the different interests account for differences in perception, how does the available evidence support each position. These sorts of questions are the check on the other questions. If other questions or framings do not align with the issue, then they require adjustment.

Wikipedia list of Government scandals


So I clean around the house and get everything done, then I cook again.

Then I clean again.

Then I cook again.

Then I clean again.

I'm getting really good at this whole cooking and cleaning business.

It's hard work. Really hard work. It drives me up a wall. I'm not getting paid for this and my back hurts and the only recognition I get is from my spouse who comes home late and promptly passes out to get as much sleep as possible before going back to work again. Because she works hard too.

Whoa. I'm a housewife.

I gotta get a job. Oh wait, I just did! Tableau sent me their offer and they seem stoked to hire me and I'm stoked to work with them.

The only question I have now though, who is going to do the housework? I mean, I put in 6 hours and counting for the work today/tonight. And the house looks great, but there is so much more to do. Who is going to do this stuff? Or am I going to have to go back to the life of an unkempt house?

I suppose I prefer getting paid. I really do. But seriously, how is this house going to stay clean?

Autumn Coffee

She sat on the bench reading the book with an intentness that could have only signaled either an engrossing text or a concerted effort to remove outside stimulus from her attention. The noisy man seemed to indicate the latter.

He was putting up a show. Speaking loudly to the barista. Ostensibly to impress. Doomed to failure.

I received my coffee and turned toward the door. I blew feebly on the lid. I tentatively sucked at the miniscule hole. I burned my tongue. It always happened. I sucked in air and blew again on the lid. A futile attempt to cool the coffee.

The man got louder and more self-aggrandizing. There was more to the story than the woman on the bench.

I held the thought momentarily and left the scene.

The day was brisk and sunny. Bright. A fall day of yellows and reds set against the cool blue of the sky. A jet passed overhead, filling my ears with the dull roar of the urban environment. The streets were dappled with sunlight. As I shifted between shade and sun I could feel the temperature change.

Winter lay ahead, barren and gray. I didn't worry too much about it. Death comes to all of us, but we think about it only in the quiet moments when we can't close our eyes. And so too was the winter. Coming, gray and endless. But in the future--an intangible future.

My ears were bitten by the breeze. My hands were warmed by the coffee. I smelled the autumn air. And I enjoyed the quiet moment. It passed too quickly.