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Posts Tagged ‘voting

“What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent”*…

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then. Lepore is a brilliant and prolific historian with an eye for unusual and revealing stories, and this one is a remarkable saga, sometimes comical, sometimes ominous: a “shadow history of the 1960s,” as she writes, because Simulmatics stumbled through the decade as a bit player, onstage for the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, the riots and protests. It began with grand ambitions to invent a new kind of predictive behavioral science, in a research environment increasingly tied to a rising defense establishment amid the anxiety of the cold war. It ended ignominiously, in embarrassment and bankruptcy.

Irving Kristol, the future architect of neoconservativism, dismissed Simulmatics in 1964 as “a struggling little company which, despite the fact that it worked on a few problems for the Kennedy organization in 1960, has since had a difficult time making ends meet,” and he wasn’t wrong. Today it is almost completely forgotten. Yet Lepore finds in it a plausible untold origin story for our current panopticon: a world of constant surveillance, if not by the state then by megacorporations that make vast fortunes by predicting and manipulating our behavior—including, most insidiously, our behavior as voters…

The ever-illuminating James Gleick (@JamesGleick) unpacks the remarkable Jill Lepore‘s new history, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future: “Simulating Democracy.”

See also: this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, and for historical perspective, “Age of Invention: The Tools of Absolutism.”

* Jaron Lanier (see, e.g., here and here)

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As we think about the targets painted on our chests, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Timeline as the design of a user’s main Facebook page.

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Written by LW

September 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Indeed, you won the elections, but I won the count”*…

 

Count

 

“There’s nothing from the CDC that I can trust,” snapped US coronavirus task-force leader Deborah Birx at a White House meeting earlier this month. According to news reports, Birx was frustrated at the agency’s tally of coronavirus deaths, as she and colleagues worried that reported numbers were up to 25 percent too high. However, if some people inside the Beltway think the counts are inflated, others think they’re too low—and the seemingly simple task of tabulating bodies has become an intensely political act.

It’s a bizarre situation, because in some sense, there’s nothing more inherently impartial than a tally of objects. This is why the act of counting is the gateway from our subjective, messy world of confused half-truths into the objective, Platonic realm of indisputable facts and natural laws. Science almost always begins with counting, with figuring out how to measure or tabulate something in a consistent, reproducible way. Yet even that very first rung on the ladder to scientific understanding is slippery when the act of counting gets entangled with money or power…

With contested vote tallies, concerns over Census data, and now the Covid-19 death toll, 2020 may mark the ugly climax of a long dispute: “The Politics of Counting Things Is About to Explode.”

And for a case study in why the terrifically-difficult underlying mechanics of “counting” lend themselves to politicization, FiveThirtyEight’s “The Uncounted Dead.”

* Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, quoted in the Guardian (London), June 17, 1977

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As we contemplate calculation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that the Dow Jones Average made its first appearance in the Customers’ Afternoon Letter, the precursor to the Wall Street Journal.  It was named for two of the Letter‘s three reporters, Charles Dow and Edward Jones. It was originally comprised of 12 companies (now 30).  Although it is one of the most commonly followed equity indices, many consider it to be an inadequate representation of the overall U.S. stock market compared to broader market indices such as the S&P 500 Index or Russell 3000 because the Dow only includes 30 large cap companies, is not weighted by market capitalization, and does not use a weighted arithmetic mean.

300px-DJIA_historical_graph_to_jul11_(log).svg

Historical (logarithmic) graph of the DJIA from 1896 to 2010

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“Troubles hurt the most when they prove self-inflicted”*…

 

Clicking on VOTE web button on website

 

Earlier this year, Georgia’s Secure, Accessible, and Fair Elections Commission held a public meeting at the state capitol to answer a pressing question: What should Georgia do to replace its aging, touchscreen voting machines, as well as other parts of its election system? In the preceding years, security vulnerabilities in the state’s election system had been repeatedly exposed: by Russian operatives, friendly hackers, and even a Georgia voter who, just days ahead of the 2018 midterms, revealed that anyone could go online and gain access to the state’s voter registration database.

Computer scientists and elections experts from around the country had weighed in during the seven months of the commission’s deliberations on the issue. They submitted letters and provided testimony, sharing the latest research and clarifying technical concepts tied to holding safe, reliable elections. Their contributions were underscored by commission member Wenke Lee, co-director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Information Security and Privacy, and the group’s only computer scientist.

Despite this, the commission ultimately did not recommend measures backed by Lee and his colleagues at places like Stanford, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and Google — including the recommendation that the state return to a system of paper ballots filled out by hand, combined with what scientists call risk-limiting audits. Instead, the commission recommended buying a system that included another, more expensive touchscreen voting machine that prints a paper ballot. Months later, Lee was at a loss to explain: “I don’t understand why they still don’t understand,” he said.

With its decision, Georgia’s counties remain among the 33 percent of counties nationwide that use either machines with no paper trail or machines that print paper ballots, which are then scanned on separate machines. The vast majority of the rest of the counties use paper ballots filled out by hand, which are then scanned or counted by hand…

Georgia is one of many states that is adopting or considering voting technology that some experts say decreases security and election integrity: “Georgia’s New Election System Raises Old Computer Security Concerns.”

[Most of those voting systems run on Windows 7, a dated operating system that’s demonstrably vulnerable to hackers… and that reaches “end of life” in January.]

* Sophocles

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As we wonder why, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that notices were tacked onto the doors of African-American churches in Fitzgerald, Georgia reading “The first n-gger who votes in Georgia will be a dead n-gger” [without the ellision].

420px-Ben_Hill_County_Georgia-5 source

 

Written by LW

July 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“That’s all we’re asking for: an end to the antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts”*…

 

gerrymandering-01_4x3

 

Though a substantial majority disapprove of the practice, the Supreme Court recently refused to address the issue of partisan redistricting– gerrymandering…

The Supreme Court will not end extreme partisan gerrymandering. In a 5-4 decision along ideological lines, the court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts cannot be limited by federal courts. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, writing that “what the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent was scathing. “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote in her opening sentence. She argued that imposing limits on gerrymandered districts is not beyond the scope of the court: “The partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”

The ruling almost certainly would have been different if Anthony Kennedy were still on the court. Before retiring last year, Kennedy had been the swing justice on previous gerrymandering cases. He had said that partisan gerrymandering was within the purview of the court but that the justices should hold off on ruling any particular gerrymander unconstitutional until a manageable standard for measuring gerrymandering emerged. Since he took that position in 2004, reformers had been attempting to find such a standard. Legal scholars and statisticians developed various measurements to try to win over the court, but without Kennedy, those efforts turned out to be futile…

FiveThirtyEight considers the possible impacts of the Court’s abnegation and explores other paths to a remedy: “Partisan Gerrymandering Isn’t The Supreme Court’s Problem Anymore.”

See also: “Electoral map bias may worsen as U.S. gerrymandering battle shifts to states” and “The Courts Won’t End Gerrymandering. Eric Holder Has a Plan to Fix It Without Them.”

* President Ronald Reagan (in 1988, illustrating on the one hand that this is an issue of long standing [see here for earlier history]; and on the other, that shoes have a way of moving from one foot to the other…)

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As we recall that the American Revolution was, in part, about the lack of fair representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

Use it or lose it.

220px-United_States_Declaration_of_Independence source

 

 

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”*…

 

Encyclopedia Grid (Acropolis), 2014, by Sara Cwynar. Courtesy Foxy Production, New York.

… Digital memory objects and digital reminiscence systems have left us in a catch–22: They are poor but convenient substitutes for the physical objects and mementos we have previously relied on as containers of memory. If we destroy the evocative electronic madeleine, we are left more and more floating in a self-replenishing sea of presentness and recency.

But if we don’t, if we leave the madeleine in safe stasis in memory storage, we may be accepting a different type of tyranny, of memories that refuse to be altered, of constant confrontation with all of you at once, everything algorithmically legible you’ve ever done, existing simultaneously, clamoring for influence and attention.

The redoubtable Molly Sauter on how we remember when apps never forget: “Instant Recall.”

Vaguely related (and in any case, fun): James Gleick’s “The physics of time travel isn’t just the stuff of science fiction.”

* Steven Wright

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As we say thanks for the memories, we might recall that one hundred years ago today, on this date in 1917, after a long, complicated battle, women won the right to vote in New York State.  While a major victory, this fight amplified rifts among equal rights constituents and advocates, primarily between African American women and white women.  Three years later the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting U.S. women suffrage nationwide.

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Written by LW

November 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

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