Shallow Thoughts : : politics

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 12 Oct 2017

Letter to the New Mexico Public Education Department on Science Standards

For those who haven't already read about the issue in the national press, New Mexico's Public Education Department (a body appointed by the governor) has a proposal regarding new science standards for all state schools. The proposal starts with the national Next Generation Science Standards but then makes modifications, omitting points like references to evolution and embryological development or the age of the Earth and adding a slew of NM-specific standards that are mostly sociological rather than scientific.

You can read more background in the Mother Jones article, New Mexico Doesn’t Want Your Kids to Know How Old the Earth Is. Or why it’s getting warmer, including links to the proposed standards. Ars Technica also covered it: Proposed New Mexico science standards edit out basic facts.

New Mexico residents have until 5.p.m. next Monday, October 16, to speak out about the proposal. Email comments to rule.feedback@state.nm.us or send snail mail (it must arrive by Monday) to Jamie Gonzales, Policy Division, New Mexico Public Education Department, Room 101, 300 Don Gaspar Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.

A few excellent letters people have already written:

I'm sure they said it better than I can. But every voice counts -- they'll be counting letters! So here's my letter. If you live in New Mexico, please send your own. It doesn't have to be long: the important thing is that you begin by stating your position on the proposed standards.


Members of the PED:

Please reconsider the proposed New Mexico STEM-Ready Science Standards, and instead, adopt the nationwide Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for New Mexico.

With New Mexico schools ranking at the bottom in every national education comparison, and with New Mexico hurting for jobs and having trouble attracting technology companies to our state, we need our students learning rigorous, established science.

The NGSS represents the work of people in 26 states, and is being used without change in 18 states already. It's been well vetted, and there are many lesson plans, textbooks, tests and other educational materials available for it.

The New Mexico Legislature supports NGSS: they passed House Bill 211 in 2017 (vetoed by Governor Martinez) requiring adoption of the NGSS. The PED's own Math and Science Advisory Council (MSAC) supports NGSS: they recommended in 2015 that it be adopted. Why has the PED ignored the legislature and its own advisory council?

Using the NGSS without New Mexico changes will save New Mexico money. The NGSS is freely available. Open source textbooks and lesson plans are already available for the NGSS, and more are coming. In contrast, the New Mexico Stem-Ready standards would be unique to New Mexico: not only would we be left out of free nationwide educational materials, but we'd have to pay to develop New Mexico-specific curricula and textbooks that couldn't be used anywhere else, and the resulting textbooks would cost far more than standard texts. Most of this money would go to publishers in other states.

New Mexico consistently ranks at the bottom in educational comparisons. Yet nearly 15% of the PED's proposed stem-ready standards are New Mexico specific standards, taught nowhere else, and will take time away from teaching core science concepts. Where is the evidence that our state standards would be better than what is taught in other states? Who are we to think we can write better standards than a nationwide coalition?

In addition, some of the changes in the proposed NM STEM-Ready Science Standards seem to be motivated by political ideology, not science. Science standards used in our schools should be based on widely accepted scientific principles. Not to mention that the national coverage on this issue is making our state a laughingstock.

Finally, the lack of transparency in the NMSRSS proposal is alarming. Who came up with the proposed NMSRSS standards? Are there any experts in science education that support them? Is there any data to indicate they'd be more effective than the NGSS? Why wasn't the development of the NMSRSS discussed in open PED meetings as required by the Open Meetings Act?

The NGSS are an established, well regarded national standard. Don't shortchange New Mexico students by teaching them watered-down science. Please discard the New Mexico Stem-Ready proposal and adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, without New Mexico-specific changes.

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[ 10:16 Oct 12, 2017    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 12 Jan 2017

Getting Election Data, and Why Open Data is Important

Back in 2012, I got interested in fiddling around with election data as a way to learn about data analysis in Python. So I went searching for results data on the presidential election. And got a surprise: it wasn't available anywhere in the US. After many hours of searching, the only source I ever found was at the UK newspaper, The Guardian.

Surely in 2016, we're better off, right? But when I went looking, I found otherwise. There's still no official source for US election results data; there isn't even a source as reliable as The Guardian this time.

You might think Data.gov would be the place to go for official election results, but no: searching for 2016 election on Data.gov yields nothing remotely useful.

The Federal Election Commission has an election results page, but it only goes up to 2014 and only includes the Senate and House, not presidential elections. Archives.gov has popular vote totals for the 2012 election but not the current one. Maybe in four years, they'll have some data.

After striking out on official US government sites, I searched the web. I found a few sources, none of them even remotely official.

Early on I found Simon Rogers, How to Download County-Level Results Data, which leads to GitHub user tonmcg's County Level Election Results 12-16. It's a comparison of Democratic vs. Republican votes in the 2012 and 2016 elections (I assume that means votes for that party's presidential candidate, though the field names don't make that entirely clear), with no information on third-party candidates.

KidPixo's Presidential Election USA 2016 on GitHub is a little better: the fields make it clear that it's recording votes for Trump and Clinton, but still no third party information. It's also scraped from the New York Times, and it includes the scraping code so you can check it and have some confidence on the source of the data.

Kaggle claims to have election data, but you can't download their datasets or even see what they have without signing up for an account. Ben Hamner has some publically available Kaggle data on GitHub, but only for the primary. I also found several companies selling election data, and several universities that had datasets available for researchers with accounts at that university.

The most complete dataset I found, and the only open one that included third party candidates, was through OpenDataSoft. Like the other two, this data is scraped from the NYT. It has data for all the minor party candidates as well as the majors, plus lots of demographic data for each county in the lower 48, plus Hawaii, but not the territories, and the election data for all the Alaska counties is missing.

You can get it either from a GitHub repo, Deleetdk's USA.county.data (look in inst/ext/tidy_data.csv. If you want a larger version with geographic shape data included, clicking through several other opendatasoft pages eventually gets you to an export page, USA 2016 Presidential Election by county, where you can download CSV, JSON, GeoJSON and other formats.

The OpenDataSoft data file was pretty useful, though it had gaps (for instance, there's no data for Alaska). I was able to make my own red-blue-purple plot of county voting results (I'll write separately about how to do that with python-basemap), and to play around with statistics.

Implications of the lack of open data

But the point my search really brought home: By the time I finally found a workable dataset, I was so sick of the search, and so relieved to find anything at all, that I'd stopped being picky about where the data came from. I had long since given up on finding anything from a known source, like a government site or even a newspaper, and was just looking for data, any data.

And that's not good. It means that a lot of the people doing statistics on elections are using data from unverified sources, probably copied from someone else who claimed to have scraped it, using unknown code, from some post-election web page that likely no longer exists. Is it accurate? There's no way of knowing.

What if someone wanted to spread news and misinformation? There's a hunger for data, particularly on something as important as a US Presidential election. Looking at Google's suggested results and "Searches related to" made it clear that it wasn't just me: there are a lot of people searching for this information and not being able to find it through official sources.

If I were a foreign power wanting to spread disinformation, providing easily available data files -- to fill the gap left by the US Government's refusal to do so -- would be a great way to mislead people. I could put anything I wanted in those files: there's no way of checking them against official results since there are no official results. Just make sure the totals add up to what people expect to see. You could easily set up an official-looking site and put made-up data there, and it would look a lot more real than all the people scraping from the NYT.

If our government -- or newspapers, or anyone else -- really wanted to combat "fake news", they should take open data seriously. They should make datasets for important issues like the presidential election publically available, as soon as possible after the election -- not four years later when nobody but historians care any more. Without that, we're leaving ourselves open to fake news and fake data.

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[ 16:41 Jan 12, 2017    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 11 Oct 2016

New Mexico LWV Voter Guides are here!

[Vote button] I'm happy to say that our state League of Women Voters Voter Guides are out for the 2016 election.

My grandmother was active in the League of Women Voters most of her life (at least after I was old enough to be aware of such things). I didn't appreciate it at the time -- and I also didn't appreciate that she had been born in a time when women couldn't legally vote, and the 19th amendment, giving women the vote, was ratified just a year before she reached voting age. No wonder she considered the League so important!

The LWV continues to work to extend voting to people of all genders, races, and economic groups -- especially important in these days when the Voting Rights Act is under attack and so many groups are being disenfranchised. But the League is important for another reason: local LWV chapters across the country produce detailed, non-partisan voter guides for each major election, which are distributed free of charge to voters. In many areas -- including here in New Mexico -- there's no equivalent of the "Legislative Analyst" who writes the lengthy analyses that appear on California ballots weighing the pros, cons and financial impact of each measure. In the election two years ago, not that long after Dave and I moved here, finding information on the candidates and ballot measures wasn't easy, and the LWV Voter Guide was by far the best source I saw. It's the main reason I joined the League, though I also appreciate the public candidate forums and other programs they put on.

LWV chapters are scrupulous about collecting information from candidates in a fair, non-partisan way. Candidates' statements are presented exactly as they're received, and all candidates are given the same specifications and deadlines. A few candidates ignored us this year and didn't send statements despite repeated emails and phone calls, but we did what we could.

New Mexico's state-wide voter guide -- the one I was primarily involved in preparing -- is at New Mexico Voter Guide 2016. It has links to guides from three of the four local LWV chapters: Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Central New Mexico (Albuquerque and surrounding areas). The fourth chapter, Las Cruces, is still working on their guide and they expect it soon.

I was surprised to see that our candidate information doesn't include links to websites or social media. Apparently that's not part of the question sheet they send out, and I got blank looks when I suggested we should make sure to include that next time. The LWV does a lot of important work but they're a little backward in some respects. That's definitely on my checklist for next time, but for now, if you want a candidate's website, there's always Google.

I also helped a little on Los Alamos's voter guide, making suggestions on how to present it on the website (I maintain the state League website but not the Los Alamos site), and participated in the committee that wrote the analysis and pro and con arguments for our contentious charter amendment proposal to eliminate the elective office sheriff. We learned a lot about the history of the sheriff's office here in Los Alamos, and about state laws and insurance rules regarding sheriffs, and I hope the important parts of what we learned are reflected in both sides of the argument.

The Voter Guides also have a link to a Youtube recording of the first Los Alamos LWV candidate forum, featuring NM House candidates, DA, Probate judge and, most important, the debate over the sheriff proposition. The second candidate forum, featuring US House of Representatives, County Council and County Clerk candidates, will be this Thursday, October 13 at 7 (refreshments at 6:30). It will also be recorded thanks to a contribution from the AAUW.

So -- busy, busy with election-related projects. But I think the work is mostly done (except for the one remaining forum), the guides are out, and now it's time to go through and read the guides. And then the most important part of all: vote!

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[ 16:08 Oct 11, 2016    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 10 Dec 2014

Not exponential after all

We're saved! From the embarrassing slogan "Live exponentially", that is.

Last night the Los Alamos city council voted to bow to public opinion and reconsider the contract to spend $50,000 on a logo and brand strategy based around the slogan "Live Exponentially." Though nearly all the councilors (besides Pete Sheehey) said they still liked the slogan, and made it clear that the slogan isn't for residents but for people in distant states who might consider visiting as tourists, they now felt that basing a campaign around a theme nearly of the residents revile was not the best idea.

There were quite a few public comments (mine included); everyone was civil and sensible and stuck well under the recommended 3-minute time limit.

Instead, the plan is to go ahead with the contract, but ask the ad agency (Atlas Services) to choose two of the alternate straplines from the initial list of eight that North Star Research had originally provided.

Wait -- eight options? How come none of the previous press or the previous meeting mentioned that there were options? Even in the 364 page Agenda Packets PDF provided for this meeting, there was no hint of that report or of any alternate strap lines.

But when they displayed the list of eight on the board, it became a little clearer why they didn't want to make the report public: they were embarrassed to have paid for work of this quality. Check out the list:

I mean, really. Great Beyond? Are we're all dead? High Intelligence in the High Desert? That'll certainly help with people who think this might be a bunch of snobbish intellectuals.

It was also revealed that at no point during the plan was there ever any sort of focus group study or other tests to see how anyone reacted to any of these slogans.

Anyway, after a complex series of motions and amendments and counter-motions and amendments and amendments to the amendments, they finally decided to ask Atlas to take the above list, minus "Live Exponentially"; add the slogan currently displayed on the rocks as you drive into town, "Where Discoveries are Made" (which came out of a community contest years ago and is very popular among residents); and ask Atlas to choose two from the list to make logos, plus one logo that has no slogan at all attached to it.

If we're lucky, Atlas will pick Discoveries as one of the slogans, or maybe even come up with something decent of their own.

The chicken ordinance discussion went well, too. They amended the ordinance to allow ten chickens (instead of six) and to try to allow people in duplexes and quads to keep chickens if there's enough space between the chickens and their neighbors. One commenter asked for the "non-commercial' clause to be struck because his kids sell eggs from a stand, like lemonade, which sounded like a very reasonable request (nobody's going to run a large commercial egg ranch with ten chickens); but it turned out there's a state law requiring permits and inspections to sell eggs.

So, folks can have chickens, and we won't have to live exponentially. I'm sure everyone's breathing a little more easily now.

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[ 16:27 Dec 10, 2014    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 07 Dec 2014

My Letter to the Editor: Make Your Voice Heard On 'Live Exponentially'

More on the Los Alamos "Live Exponentially" slogan saga: There's been a flurry of letters, all opposed to the proposed slogan, in the Los Alamos Daily Post these last few weeks.

And now the issue is back on the council agenda; apparently they're willing to reconsider the October vote to spend another $50,000 on the slogan.

But considering that only two people showed up to that October meeting, I wrote a letter to the Post urging people to speak before the council: Letter to the Editor: Attend Tuesday's Council Meeting To Make Your Voice Heard On 'Live Exponentially'.

I'll be there. I've never actually spoken at a council meeting before, but hey, confidence in public speaking situations is what Toastmasters is all about, right?

(Even though it means I'll have to miss an interesting sounding talk on bats that conflicts with the council meeting. Darn it!)

A few followup details that I had no easy way to put into the Post letter:

The page with the links to Council meeting agendas and packets is here: Los Alamos County Calendar.

There, you can get the short Agenda for Tuesday's meeting, or the full 364 page Agenda Packets PDF.

[Breathtaking raised to the power of you] The branding section covers pages 93 - 287. But the graphics the council apparently found so compelling, which swayed several of them from initially not liking the slogan to deciding to spend a quarter million dollars on it, are in the final presentation from the marketing company, starting on page p. 221 of the PDF.

In particular, a series of images like this one, with the snappy slogan:

Breathtaking raised to the power of you
LIVE EXPONENTIALLY

That's right: the advertising graphics that were so compelling they swayed most of the council are even dumber than the slogan by itself. Love the superscript on the you that makes it into an exponent. Get it ... exponentially? Oh, now it all makes sense!

There's also a sadly funny "Written Concept" section just before the graphics (pages 242- in the PDF) where they bend over backward to work in scientific-sounding words, in bold each time.

But there you go. Hopefully some of those Post letter writers will come to the meeting and let the council know what they think.

The council will also be discussing the much debated proposed chicken ordinance; that discussion runs from page 57 to 92 of the PDF. It's a non-issue for Dave and me since we're in a rural zone that already allows chickens, but I hope they vote to allow them everywhere.

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[ 18:05 Dec 07, 2014    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 11 Oct 2014

Railroading exponentially

or: Smart communities can still be stupid

I attended my first Los Alamos County Council meeting yesterday. What a railroad job!

The controversial issue of the day was the town's "branding". Currently, as you drive into Los Alamos on highway 502, you pass a tasteful rock sign proclaiming "LOS ALAMOS: WHERE DISCOVERIES ARE MADE". But back in May, the county council announced the unanimous approval of a new slogan, for which they'd paid an ad agency some $55,000: "LIVE EXPONENTIALLY".

As you might expect in a town full of scientists, the announcement was greeted with much dismay. What is it supposed to mean, anyway? Is it a reference to exponential population growth? Malignant tumor growth? Gaining lots of weight as we age?

The local online daily, tired of printing the flood of letters protesting the stupid new slogan, ran a survey about the "Live Exponentially" slogan. The results were that 8.24% liked it, 72.61% didn't, and 19.16% didn't like it and offered alternatives or comments. My favorites were Dave's suggestion of "It's Da Bomb!", and a suggestion from another reader, "Discover Our Secrets"; but many of the alternate suggestions were excellent, or hilarious, or both -- follow the link to read them all.

For further giggles, try a web search on the term. If you search without quotes, Ebola tops the list. With quotes, you get mostly religious tracts and motivational speakers.

The Council Meeting

(The rest of this is probably only of interest to Los Alamos folk.)

Dave read somewhere -- it wasn't widely announced -- that Friday's council meeting included an agenda item to approve spending $225,000 -- yes, nearly a quarter of a million dollars -- on "brand implementation". Of course, we had to go.

In the council discussion leading up to the call for public comment, everyone spoke vaguely of "branding" without mentioning the slogan. Maybe they hoped no one would realize what they were really voting for. But in the call for public comment, Dave raised the issue and urged them to reconsider the slogan.

Kristin Henderson seemed to have quite a speech prepared. She acknowledged that "people who work with math" universally thought the slogan was stupid, but she said that people from a liberal arts background, like herself, use the term to mean hiking, living close to nature, listening to great music, having smart friends and all the other things that make this such a great place to live. (I confess to being skeptical -- I can't say I've ever heard "exponential" used in that way.)

Henderson also stressed the research and effort that had already gone into choosing the current slogan, and dismissed the idea that spending another $50,000 on top of the $55k already spent would be "throwing money after bad." She added that showing the community some images to go with the slogan might change people's minds.

David Izraelevitz admitted that being an engineer, he initially didn't like "Live Exponentially". But he compared it to Apple's "Think Different": though some might think it ungrammatical, it turned out to be a highly successful brand because it was coupled with pictures of Gandhi and Einstein. (Hmm, maybe that slogan should be "Live Exponential".)

Izraelevitz described how he convinced a local business owner by showing him the ad agency's full presentation, with pictures as well as the slogan, and said that we wouldn't know how effective the slogan was until we'd spent the $50k for logo design and an implementation plan. If the council didn't like the results they could choose not to go forward with the remaining $175,000 for "brand implementation". (Councilor Fran Berting had previously gotten clarification that those two parts of the proposal were separate.)

Rick Reiss said that what really mattered was getting business owners to approve the new branding -- "the people who would have to use it." It wasn't so important what people in the community thought, since they didn't have logos or ads that might incorporate the new branding.

Pete Sheehey spoke up as the sole dissenter. He pointed out that most of the community input on the slogan has been negative, and that should be taken into account. The proposed slogan might have a positive impact on some people but it would have a negative impact on others, and he couldn't support the proposal.

Fran Berting said she was "not all that taken" with the slogan, but agreed with Izraelevitz that we wouldn't know if it was any good without spending the $50k. She echoed the "so much work has already gone into it" argument. Reiss also echoed "so much work", and that he liked the slogan because he saw it in print with a picture.

But further discussion was cut off. It was 1:30, the fixed end time for the meeting, and chairman Geoff Rodgers (who had pretty much stayed out of the discussion to this point) called for a vote. When the roll call got to Sheehey, he objected to the forced vote while they were still in the middle of a discussion. But after a brief consultation on Robert's Rules of Order, chairman Rogers declared the discussion over and said the vote would continue. The motion was approved 5-1.

The Exponential Railroad

Quite a railroading. One could almost think it had been planned that way.

First, the item was listed as one of two in the "Consent Agenda" -- items which were expected to be approved all together in one vote with no discussion or public comment. It was moved at the last minute into "Business"; but that put it last on the agenda.

Normally that wouldn't have mattered. But although the council more often meets in the evenings and goes as long as it needs to, Friday's meeting had a fixed time of noon to 1:30. Even I could see that wasn't much time for all the items on the agenda.

And that mid-day timing meant that working folk weren't likely to be able to listen or comment. Further, the branding issue didn't come up until 1 pm, after some of the audience had already left to go back to work. As a result, there were only two public comments.

Logic deficit

I heard three main arguments repeated by every council member who spoke in favor:

  1. the slogan makes much more sense when viewed with pictures -- they all voted for it because they'd seen it presented with visuals;
  2. a lot of time, effort and money has already gone into this slogan, so it didn't make sense to drop it now; and
  3. if they didn't like the logo after spending the first $50k, they didn't have to approve the other $175k.

The first argument doesn't make any sense. If the pictures the council saw were so convincing, why weren't they showing those images to the public? Why spend an additional $50,000 for different pictures? I guess $50k is just pocket change, and anyone who thinks it's a lot of money is just being silly.

As for the second and third, they contradict each other. If most of the board thinks now that the initial $50k contract was so much work that we have to go forward with the next $50k, what are the chances that they'll decide not to continue after they've already invested $100k?

Exponentially low, I'd say.

I was glad of one thing, though. As a newcomer to the area faced with a ballot next month, it was good to see the council members in action, seeing their attitudes toward spending and how much they care about community input. That will be helpful come ballot time.

If you're in the same boat but couldn't make the meeting, catch the October 10, 2014 County Council Meeting video.

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[ 12:54 Oct 11, 2014    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 26 Apr 2008

Republicans fight to preserve gender pay gap

Dahlia Lithwick wrote a terrific article in yesterday's Slate about the shameful behavior of the Republicans in the Senate in blocking a bill that would have allowed women to sue for pay discrimination.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was written in response to the case brought by Lilly Ledbetter against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Courts had found that she was definitely the subject of discrimination: her pay was as much as 40% less than men doing a similar job (despite her excellent reviews), one year she was actually paid below Goodyear's own minimum threshold for that position, she had been explicitly barred from discussing salary with her coworkers (this is apparently legal, at least in Alabama), and she had been told explicitly by a manager at Goodyear that that the "plant did not need women, that [women] didn't help it, [and] caused problems."

No one at any level has disputed that Ms. Ledbetter was discriminated against -- even the Supreme Court. However, the Supremes threw out her appeal last year on the basis that the statute of limitations had run out and she should have filed her case within 180 days of receiving her first paycheck. In other words, as long as you don't know when you're hired that your pay is discriminatory, it doesn't matter if you find out later; it'll be too late then, so forget it. Pay discrimination is fine, and not actionable, as long as you can delay the victim's finding out about it for a few months.

Senate Republicans believe so strongly in a company's right to discriminate that they not only argued against the bill, they actually filibustered against it!

For more gory details of the case, read Lithwick's excellent Slate article. But even if you don't, be aware if you're considering voting for John McCain in November that although he was campaigning instead of voting on this bill, he proclaimed agreement with the rest of his party in opposing the Fair Pay Act.

So if you're against pay discrimination ... or if you're a woman and might be the victim of such discrimination ... be aware that John McCain is not on your side.

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[ 20:26 Apr 26, 2008    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 20 Feb 2008

Obama's too good a speaker

In election news today, we have the report Wounded Clinton eyes big contests on Barak Obama's widening lead over Hillary Clinton:
Mrs Clinton continued to try to depict Mr Obama as a man of fine words but little action.

"It's time that we move from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions... This campaign goes on!" she said

Hey, wait ... isn't that a sound bite against sound bites?

McCain joined in the fun, saying "I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change."

So let's see if I have this straight: the worst that either Clinton or McCain can think of to say about Obama is that ... he's a really good speaker.

Hmm. Time was when people thought being a good speaker was actually a good thing to have in a president. Isn't that something presidents are called upon to do now and then?

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[ 19:43 Feb 20, 2008    More politics | permalink to this entry | comments ]