Monday, June 15, 2015

Independence? That's middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.

- George Bernard Shaw

One of the things that is often quite front-and-center when it comes to the current Republican talking points is the myth of the self-made man, which seriously rejected the notion that "it takes a village to raise a child" and cheered the idea the "I built that." It was the idea of independence - especially against the federal government - that made a Nevada rancher's self-initiated stand-off with federal officials into a short-lived hero. It is the idea of independence that keeps electing Republicans who apparently have a mission in stripping apart government, and then complaining that it isn't functioning properly.

Conversely, it is this idea of independence that casts people who are - for whatever reason - dependent upon government assistance as "unworthy," bringing about the language of "makers vs. takers" and one that seeks to castigate the poor through unnecessary drug testing, seek to humiliate single mothers, and curtail the independence of people's use of welfare (among  many others).

It is this idea of independence that brings people to politically cut off their nose to spite their face. It is a form of independence that seeks to cut funding for expansions to "Obamacare", despite such cuts deeply affecting opponents of Obama and the Democratic Party. It is a form of independence that opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership, despite it being popular to many Republicans, merely because Obama supports it (even as almost all Congressional Democrats oppose it). It is a form of independence that opposes same-sex marriage, because... "reasons" (despite it being an increase in independent choices to get into that social institution).

This idea of independence also embodies a shallow form of patriotism, bordering on nationalism, with debates over whether a presidential candidate wore a flag pin, over whether Obama castigated a Marine corporal for wearing a flag pin upside down, or whether Palin won her debate because she wore a bigger flag pin. Or even if the flag pin is worn correctly! Seriously, all this focus on flag pins - in some strange linkage with independence and the greatness of the US - reminds me of these panels from the graphic novel Pyongyang:

Seriously, the importance of flag pins shouldn't be associated with the idea of independence. It should (and is) associated with those nations that seek to implement patriotism-through-spectacle.

So, is it like GB Shaw said? Is independence a "middle class blasphemy"? Well, I would argue that it can turn into one, and without robust social institutions to push back against the conformist nature of human beings, what may start off as independence in deed may easily turn into independence as a necessary part of daily rhetoric in order to show dependent allegiance to a larger identity.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Shifting social politics in the US

The saying, "This ain't your father's Republican Party," can likely now be extended to the Democratic Party as well.

Arguably, the election of the first not-White President has done a lot to visibly shake up the right (especially the authoritarian right), and the massive recession and perceived slow recovery also shook up people all over the spectrum. It's inevitable that left-wing politics (associated primarily with the Democratic Party) is being shaken up as a result (with one of the major changes being an increase in the vocality of an "authoritarian left").

I think that there were a number of social issues that have reached "tipping points" during the period leading up to Obama's election, including LGBT rights, legalization of marijuana, gun regulation, global warming, changes in religious affiliation, and the role of religion in politics. Although I have no evidence for this, I do believe that the election of a POTUS perceived to mark the transition of an era in the country gave so many groups an impetus to push their cause over that stalled tipping point. (And although not definitive evidence, a lot of social polling seem to show that a number of these social issues started to move since 2008; some showing increased oscillation, others showing opposition, and still others showing acceleration.)

As a president who continues to be touted by the left and the right as a symbol of the US' capacity to change (whether that change is seen as "good" or not), I think that POTUS' public endorsement (or lack of one) on a number of social issues only helped speed some issues beyond their tipping points while stalling others. For example, his endorsement of SSM only accelerated the public perception in favor of the issue, and his lack of endorsement of clear cuts to carbon emissions has stalled that debate.

I would say that when people look back on the Obama years, it will be to note how quickly so many social norms just gave way after decades of stalling. Of course, the determination of whether this was a "good" or "bad" thing for the nation can only be made in hindsight.

It is undoubtedly true that (a) these past six years have witnessed major shifts in the socio-political spectrum and (b) realignment will be inevitable (possibly making your political affiliations no longer as valid as before, just like those of today don't match those of your parents or that of your grandparents). An important thing for each person to recognize is how they shouldn't keep ties to the political party of their past, solely out of habit or a feeling of loyalty, even as the general policies of that party shift away from your own.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

More inconsistency in thinking about race

I'm almost surely never going to watch Aloha, which stars Emma Stone in the role of a Hapa on Hawai'i. But there is such a great backlash over this film, focusing primarily upon the race of Emma Stone and how it doesn't match the race of the character. However, I noticed something about this coverage: most of the coverage about how badly matched the actress was with the character's race gets the character's race wrong.

Emma Stone's character is supposed to be 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Native Hawaiian, and 1/2 European mutt. But this is how Entertainment Weekly discussed the casting problem:
Accepting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Aloha requires a certain suspension of disbelief and no small amount of magical thinking. In the Hawaii-set romantic comedy-drama, she portrays Allison Ng: an aggressively peppy Air Force fighter pilot of Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish decent who falls for an existentially angst-y military contractor played by Bradley Cooper.

But in order to process this idea of Stone as a bi-racial character, as someone whose genetic lineage can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom by way of Polynesia, you must first get past the obvious stumbling blocks: her alabaster skin and strawberry blond hair, her emerald eyes and freckles—past the star’s outwardly unassailable #Caucasity—if only because the movie hammers home her cultural other-ness in just about every other scene.
And EW isn't alone in this, either. Social-justice/femenist website Jezebel doesn't do much better:
Emma Stone Playing a Half-Asian Character in Aloha: Literally Why
NBC News' coverage of the controversy shouts:
Cameron Crowe Apologizes for Casting Emma Stone as Asian American
 The Guardian's news story on this states:
Emma Stone: the whitest Asian person Hollywood could find
You get the idea.

The problem is, of course, that "Asian" in this case means someone of Asian racial ancestry. And in that sense, the character of Allison Ng is "Asian." But the character is also "Hawaiian." And the character is also "European." The mix is even explained - again and again - by the various stories that are breathlessly saying how horrible it was that the actress didn't even come close to matching the ethnicity of the character. But then they all do the easy thing and just label the character "Asian" or "Half-Asian."


Why not label her "White" or "Half-White"? Indeed, why not label her "Hawaiian" or "Half-Hawaiian"?

The US remains stuck in a discussion and conceptualization of race that revolves primarily around a "White/Black" axis. Sure, there is a recognition that there are more races than "White" and "Black," but the rules of discussing them and assigning someone to them remains effectively the same as the rules that still remain about assigning race within the "White/Black" context: you are either fully White or you are Black. Therefore, we call Barack Obama "the first African American President," despite the fact that he's half-White.

In the same vein, since the character of Allison Ng not 100% White, Allison Ng is not - and cannot be - "White." This then leaves us with determining whether she's "Asian" or "Hawaiian."

I would hazard a guess that most mainland Americans have no idea about what a Native Hawaiian looks like, what Hawaii's culture actually consists of, or even what Hawaii's history entails. I doubt that most mainland Americans can name two Hawaiians from history or even name two Hawaiian traditional dishes. In short, most mainland Americans have next to no idea about anything relating to Hawaii other than (possibly) that it's one of the States of the United States, that it's in the Pacific Ocean, it's where Pearl Harbor is located, and it's got hula dancers. But ask most mainland Americans to describe how a Native Hawaiian is different from an Asian, and I would hazard a guess that most wouldn't be able to give a straight answer (except - perhaps - a circular one, like, "A Native Hawaiian is a native of Hawaii"). Indeed, I would hazard the position that Native Hawaiians are completely absent from the minds of almost all mainland Americans.

Add to this invisibility the comparative visibility of Asian Americans, especially in TV shows that are supposed to take place in Hawaii, such as all the Asians in Hawaii Five-O (which even cast an Asian American as a Native Hawaiian!!!). Add to this the way in which official census forms have the lumped-together category of "Asian Pacific Islander." That lumping effectively extends the geographic range of this "racial category" from Turkey to Hawaii. (As if Turkey to Japan wasn't large enough.)

... and so - for a variety of reasons, her Hawaiian-ness gets completely subsumed, her Whiteness gets disqualified, and she is left as "Asian" (or "half-Asian").


If you're going to write an article excoriating Crowe for casting lily-White, Northern-European-descent Emma Stone in the role of Allison Ng, you must get the race of the character right and you must never get it wrong. The simple truth is that the character of Allison Ng is more White than she is Asian. The character of Allison Ng is as Hawaiian as she is Asian. Referring to her character as "Asian" (or even "half Asian") in these articles is just so stupidly wrongheaded that it beggars belief.

The US (heck, most of the world) needs to get past the idea that 50% White, 50% Black makes you Black. They need to get past the idea that 50% White, 50% Asian makes you Asian. There needs to be a greater recognition that

Friday, May 08, 2015

Problems in explaining the problems of First Past the Post election systems

A friend of mine posted the following graphic to their Facebook page to show the problem with First Past the Post elections:

This shows the vote totals for three parties in the 2015 UK general election, and uses it as an example of the problems of fist-past-the-post (FPP) voting systems. In 2011, CGP Grey made a decent video explaining the problems inherent in FPP voting:

Now, the explanations in his video were effectively for national parliamentary elections, and it didn't focus on the effect of regional parties. But the 2015 British elections were heavily influenced by regional parties; the biggest shift being the sudden dominance of the SNP in Scotland.

Now, while it's true that FPP suffers from MANY MANY problems, using the above graphic is (IMO) a bit disingenuous, and let me explain why. The SNP is a regional party (as is - to some extent UKIP). SNP won no seats in England and Wales, but it also didn't front any candidates outside Scotland. Conversely, UKIP won no seats in Scotland, but although it did front some candidates in Scotland, it focused most of its efforts in England.

To put this in a different context, one might as well list Sinn Fein who won 4 seats with 0.176m votes, Plaid Cymru who won 3 seats with 0.181m votes, or the Ulster Unionists who won 2 seats with 0.115m votes. But this, too, wouldn't be an apples-to-apples comparison, since Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, and UUP winning of so many more seats than UKIP is less to do with FPP and more to do with regional politics and identity and the posting of candidates. Why? Because Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, and UUP are regional parties who have MAJOR sway in their respective non-England regions, whereas UKIP is (nominally) a national party (that has relatively little sway outside of England).

In short, comparing the dominance of non-England parties in their non-England regions against a (nominally) national party that has greater influence in England than outside of England is not really making a fair comparison, since the vote totals don't stem from the same regional elections. A far better comparison would be between UKIP, the Greens, and LibDems would have been a better comparison, since all of them are (effectively) national parties:

LibDems: 2,415,888votes, 8 seats
UKIP: 3,881,129votes, 1 seat
Greens: 1,154,562votes, 1 seat

The apparent message remains the same, and it's more consistent in the comparison.

I'm pretty sure that there are ways to normalize the impact of regional parties vs. national parties in vote counts, but I'm almost certain that straight-up vote counts isn't the way to do it. Let me attempt one possible way of normalizing the impact of regional parties on regional elections against national parties in the same constituencies.

However, let's look at comparisons within Scotland (i.e., the only place where SNP had candidates):

Looking at the election results from Scotland (which is not necessarily a perfect assessment, since I don't know if all parties ran candidates in all constituencies in Scotland):

SNP: 1.454m votes: 56 MPs
Labour: 0.707m votes: 1 MP
Conservative: 0.434m votes: 1 MP
Liberal Democrat: 0.220m votes: 1 MP
UKIP: 0.047m votes: 0 MPs
Green Party: 0.039m votes: 0 MPs
TUSC: 0.002m votes: 0 MPs

This is a better representation of the problem of FPP. Furthermore, it indicates that SNP won far more candidates than it "ought" to have, given the median voters/seat in Scotland is 69,000. If exact proportional representation were in place (and if the median value of voters/seat were consistent throughout Scotland), then the number of MPs from Scotland OUGHT to have been:

SNP: 21 MPs (-35)
Labour: 10 MPs (+9)
Conservative: 6 MPs (+5)
Liberal Democrat: 3 MPs (+2)
UKIP: 0.047m votes: 1 MP (+1)
Green Party: 1 MP (+1)
TUSC: 0.002m votes: 0 MPs (+/-0)

THIS is a better example of how FPP didn't provide proportional representation, since it's comparing election results within the region dominated by SNP. Similar examples can be run for N. Ireland and Wales (and likely England), undoubtedly showing similar results.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

On sectorial water use and obfuscation via statistics

So a friend of mine posted this picture on their Facebook wall, and its message seemed well-intentioned but also so very problematic.

Let me first state that I do think that California must make hard decisions about water restrictions and water use, and I don't think that the current forms of water restrictions and bans are anywhere approaching what would be an equitable diminution in water use (and never mind the problems that California's system of water laws, interstate compacts, and inter-watershed irrigation systems play in creating further problems in the legal, political, and water management worlds). However, I don't know whether this image presents a useful comparison on all fronts. Furthermore, the presentation is arguably deceptive, since the compared units are not the same, with toilets (presumably being the one thing that the viewer is supposed to be sympathetic toward, since it is placed last) being based on a very low metric of gallons/flush of one toilet, and all the rest (presumably the ones the viewer is supposed to feel antagonistically toward, since they are often held up as being "enemies" of water use) being based on really large sector-wide annual figures.

This simplistic switch of metrics undermines the presumed argument of the image on two fronts. First is the casual deception: why present sector-wide annual figures for the "bad" water uses, and personal, single-use figures for the "good" water use? This presentation does not present an easy-to-grasp comparison between water uses at the State level. (There is also the problem of using words like "million" and "trillion" to describe the amount of water used, since it is so easy for people to lose the differential scales between hundred, thousand, million, billion, and trillion, but those sorts of distinctions are better covered in places such as this visualization of what $1 trillion looks like.) In order to place the water used in Californian toilets in direct comparison with the others, we must first convert the value of 1.6 gallons/flush into a figure of gallons/year throughout California. When we do this, we find that toilet-flush water use in California is at least:

1.6 gallons/flush (x 5 flushes/person/day)
= 8 gallons/person/day (x 38,800,000 Californians)
= 310,400,000 gallons/day in California (x 365 days/year)
= 113,296,000,000 gallons/year

(I write "at least" 11,296,000,000 gallons/year, since I am using the figures for household toilets and only 5 flushes/day, even though the average is somewhat higher. This number doesn't include, of course, water use statistics for public toilets, urinals, port-a-jons, etc.)

Now let's list all the water uses presented in the picture in increasing gallons/year:

70,000,000 gallons/year (fracking)
400,000,000 gallons/year (Nestlé bottled water)
113,296,000,000 gallons/year (toilet flushes)
1,100,000,000,000 gallons/year (almond farms)

When we look at toilet flushes in this perspective, it is clear that it is 1,618 times greater than the reported value for fracking. Furthermore, it is 283 times greater than the reported value for Nestlé bottled water. Indeed, when presented in this way, California toilet-water use can be presented as being far more profligate than either fracking or Nestlé bottled water, and by a LONG shot, simply because California has SO many people, and almost 60% of that population (22,680,000 in 2010) lives in sunny, drought-ridden SoCal. This places domestic water use (which includes baths/showers, toilets, dishwashing, lawn irrigation, carwashing, etc) far ahead of most industrial water uses... save agriculture.

Indeed, when compared to the reported value of almond farms, toilet-water use is a mere 10%. However, there's a problem with the number presented in the graphic for almond farms. Specifically, the number of 1.1 trillion gallons/year is 1.6 times greater than the value reported by Hanson out of UCDavis, whose figure of roughly 2.1 milion AF/year works out to roughly 680 billion gallons/year (compared to this number, toilet flush water use is roughly 16%).

Let's look, though, at water used to grow alfalfa, which is, according to Hanson, the largest agricultural water use in the State. Accordling to Hanson, alfalfa grown in California uses roughly 5.2 million AF/year, or roughly 1.7 trillion gallons/year (which is about 2.5 times greater than the amount he reports for almond and pistachio irrigation). The second-largest agricultural water use (reported by Hansen) is for forages, which uses roughly 3.3 million AF/year, or roughly 1.1 trillion gallons/year.

So we can see that -- from an argument based around comparative water uses alone -- the merits of placing fracking and Nestlé bottled water fall flat, since toilet-flush water use far outstrips both of these two uses combined. It would have been a better argument to put up alfalfa farms and forage farms. However, it's almond growers that have been in the news, and not alfalfa or forage, which is likely why it is almond growers that are shown (even though they are not the largest agricultural water users, and even though they have a far more valuable crop than either alfalfa or forage crop farms).

Now, one could still use the water use figures presented in the graphic to make associated arguments, but I was unable to find a single argument that held true against the fracking, Nestlé, and almond farms while preserving toilet flushing. For example, one argument for water conservation that is often made against fracking regards removing water from the hydrological cycle completely, and it's true that one could make the argument that water used in fracking is effectively "lost" to the immediate hydrological cycle (since fracking wastewater is often deepwell injected) and therefore cannot be used for drinking or any other use, but that argument doesn't hold for almond farming or bottled water, since both return their water to the immediate hydrological cycle (primarily as groundwater recharge, evapotranspiration, and biomass decay in the case of almond farms and as urine that is flushed down a toilet in the case of bottled water). So the argument that it's about removing water from the hydrological cycle use is not valid across cases. 

Another common argument against fracking, irrigation, and bottled water is that these uses are consumptive uses. In the case of fracking, this is undoubtedly true (as laid out above), and water used in agriculture is often also considered to be consumptive. However, the charge of consumptive use can also leveled at most of California's toilet water flushes, since much of the State's water is pumped from watersheds in Northern California and the Colorado River, creating consumptive water use pressures in those areas.

The only real argument that comes to mind is that it is unfair for the government to impose water restrictions upon flesh-and-blood citizens but not impose water restrictions upon corporate "citizens." However, such an argument isn't a water volume argument, but a water rights argument, especially in how Californian water rights are not egalitarian, with a large part of this argument lying in the problems associated with California's water rights laws. Most individual Californian citizens do not own any water rights, let alone water rights that predate 1914. The date of 1914 forms the demarcation date between so-called "junior" and "senior" water rights, and those holding junior water rights will have their rights to water curtailed before those of senior water rights holders. Such a system of rights is based on a "first in place, first in right" principle, with a strong incentive for the right to be held by a non-human entity (such as a corporation, water district, or the like), since the death of an individual could lead to the "death" of that right. From an equity perspective, such distributions of water rights is inherently inequitable, since it creates structural inequalities that become evermore entrenched as the value of water increases (making the purchase or transfer of water rights less likely to occur). During times when water availability is high, such a structurally unequal distribution of water rarely impacts large swathes of citizens. In cases of drought, though, such inequalities emerge. But regardless of the structural inequalities that California's water rights system imposes upon its citizens, the percecption of unfairness in who gets the restrictions is not due to water volumes (as the graphic implies), but due to water policy and water law.

One "good" note though (if only from a perspective of masochistic schadenfreude), is that if the drought continues, it is likely that even those holding senior rights (which includes many major agricultural water users) will have their water withdrawals restricted.

In sum, while bottled water and fracking are often seen as problematic for various social, public health, and environmental reasons, the comparative water consumption in these two sectors doesn't hold a candle to the total sector-wide water consumption of toilets. Furthermore, hiding the scales of water use between different water uses in the way presented in the graphic is deceptive, and such deception can foster mistrust of the messenger or supporter of the message. In other words, in order to make the graphic less deceptive and more salient to a message associated with different types of water use, it needs more than just a simple comparison of water volumes.

Of course, this additional nuance can create problems when trying to disseminate a message...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Ride the bus!

I wish that it was this awesome when I ride the bus.

From 2012

From 2015

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thursday Thoughts: VMAP0 shapefiles for Chile?

Presently, I'm working on creating some GIS-based analyses of Chilean rivers and river ecology. However, Chile being Chile, a lot of the data (both GIS data layers and river ecology data) are not readily available. Therefore, in order to get GIS data, I have to find whatever publicly available GIS data are online and use those.

I spent the last week developing a hydrology layer from a relatively high quality DEM, and - happily - the results of deriving hydrology from a DEM were generally confirmed by lower-quality GIS layers of water courses. (I used these lower-quality layers to assess the quality of the DEM-derived layer).

Now, though, I have encountered the problem of not being able to find a good surficial geology layer for the watershed I'm studying. I'm sure that there must be something out there, but I can't find it. I'll have a talk with some people in the lab once the summer break is over, but I wanted to start on something today. Well, after a rummage around, I found nothing usable, and so I turned back to the central source of GIS data layers that I used for my master's research: VMAP0.

Although it's somewhat old (and that's an understatement), VMAP0 does provide a decent (if somewhat coarse-resolution) data source for those data layers that don't change too quickly over time (like geology). One thing that I had forgotten was that VMAP0 is in a file format that I can't use in QGIS (which is the GIS program I'm using while I wait for the summer break to be over and I can get someone from IT to set up a remote connection to the university's license server).

Well, after a couple of searches, I found that someone had already converted all the VMAP0 regions into "shapefile" format. Harasho to the guys at GIS-lab!

EDIT: ... and it turns out that VMAP0 actually doesn't have geology layers. Darn. Well, back to the search.