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“Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less”*…

This Little Book Contains Every Reason Why Women Should Not Vote (New York: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., 1917)

At the time of the 2016 US presidential election, stationery shops did a brisk trade in entirely blank books, with covers bearing such titles as The Wit and Wisdom of Donald Trump and Why Trump Deserves Trust, Respect and Admiration. A year later Michael J. Knowles topped the Amazon charts with his Reasons to Vote for Democrats, comprising 200 blank pages. It’s an old joke, as this precursor from 1880 shows, and this one from the same year. One of the finest examples of the genre, and at a welcome remove from the petty political-point-scoring mood of many others, is this tiny publication from circa 1917.

Despite its novelty angle, this little book from the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company (the publishing arm of the National Woman Suffrage Association) was born from a very serious place: the struggle to gain women the right to vote in the United States. The N. W. S. A. published a range of agitprop, not just comedy items. Virginia Commonwealth University has a collection of texts from the New York-based organisation, including the Headquarters News Letter, an A-B-C of Organization, a guide to fundraising, and information brochures on the proposed changes to the Constitution. There are leaflets targeting specific audiences too: teachers, farmers’ wives, Catholics, Southern white women concerned about “the Negro Vote”. More general-audience books, such as Why Women Should Not Vote also found their way to specific targets. A copy was left on the desk of anti-women’s suffrage Rep. Sherman Berry who decried it as “another sample of … the detestable and cheap politics practiced in this State. Gentlemen, that little book carries no more weight with it than does the picketing of the White House in this time of crisis and peril to this nation and the heckling of our President….”

Two years on from the publication of the book (and presumably to Berry’s dismay) the legislative battle for women’s suffrage was won in 1919, with ratification of the 19th Amendment from the required number of states following in 1920: it was prohibited to deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. It was a huge victory, but not the end of the struggle…

All the books pages are blank

Agitprop at it’s best: “Why Women Should Not Vote (1917)

* “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union… Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” – Susan B. Anthony

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As we remember that politics is supposed to be about people, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that a young Swiss chemist at Sandoz, Albert Hofmann, while researching the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot in a search for compounds useful in pharmaceuticals, first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).  As it wasn’t immediately promising, he put it aside.  But he revisited his formulation several years later, on April 16, 1943; handling it, he accidentally absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943 (a date now known as “Bicycle Day”) Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, then rode home on a bike– a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  (This is not to be confused with the UN’s World Bicycle Day.)

Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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“We all know that an angry electorate is a voting electorate”*…

Further to yesterday’s post

The final vote tallies still aren’t known, but the media verdict of this presidential election is in: it’s 2016 all over again. Four years ago, in the hours after Donald Trump declared victory on the strength of 306 Electoral College votes and the ballots of nearly sixty-three million Americans, I wrote a column about the failures of the press throughout that campaign, and declared that “journalism’s moment of reckoning” had arrived. “Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then to dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt,” I wrote then.

It is astonishing, today, how little we seem to have learned since. Once again, opinion polls were overhyped and under-scrutinized. Some of them were also wildly off—and, though that’s different from 2016, when the polls were largely accurate but widely misunderstood, it doesn’t let media organizations off the hook for their treatment of the numbers. Newsrooms leaned too heavily on polls as a substitute for on-the-ground reporting, and they were led astray. Journalists spent too much time talking to each other on Twitter, inhabiting an alternate algorithmic reality that bore little resemblance to the life of the country. And major media institutions made it all but impossible to envision that, despite the wealth of reporting on the president’s lies and his racism and his circus—nearly half the country remains beholden to the man and his beliefs. “We can’t go back to assuming, just because we think Donald Trump is an outlier, that he is not connecting to a lot of American people in ways that, frankly, a lot of us cannot understand,” Claire McCaskill, a former Missouri senator, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. The feeling of déjà vu, and of lost journalistic opportunity, is inescapable…

Kyle Pope (@kylepope), editor of the Columbia Journalism Review on lessons unlearned: “What the polls show, and the press missed, again.”

On the problem(s) with polls, pair with “Of course Trump’s voters lie to pollsters. You call us all racists” (with an eye to the phenomenon it addresses– and the questions raised by the rationale it offers…)

For one (very compelling) account of why Pope’s project matters, see Fintan O’Toole’s “Democracy’s Afterlife.” (For more, see also Ron Brownstein, Roxane Gay, and George Packer on the same family of issues… there are lots of diagnoses abroad in the infosphere at the moment; these are among the best your correspondent has found.)

And for a resonant but different take on the necessary role of “honest journalism” going forward, see also Jay Rosen’s “America’s Press and the Asymmetric War for Truth.”

* Donna Brazile

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As we look more deeply, we might recall that it was on this date (18 Brumaire in the French Republican Calendar) in 1799 that thirty-year-old Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in France and established the Consulate, ending the power of the revolutionary oligarchy and creating himself as First Consul… or dictator.

Napoleon in the Coup de 18 Brumaire (detail of an oleo by Bouchot)

Written by LW

November 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“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

source

 

“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

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