Blog: Society

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Ballot problems

Here in Pittsburgh, voting by mail in 2020 and in this year's primary was smooth for me. Ballots were mailed in time, the process was smooth, tracking worked. Naturally I assumed that for the minor off-year election today, the same would be true. Boy was I wrong.

My ballot was spoiled on arrival. It had my name printed on it (uh, secret ballot anyone?) along with a bar code. (Photo at end of post.) It was printed across part of the ballot, obscuring some candidate names. There were no return envelopes, neither the secrecy envelope nor the outer one with identifying info (the one you mail). Just this misprinted ballot in an envelope sent to me.

I visited the URL printed on that envelope and submitted a support ticket. Crickets. Later I called the phone number listed there. When I finally reached a human, the person said "oh you've reached the state; you need your county". So I tried to track them down. No luck.

It was now a week before the election. No time for a replacement ballot to arrive and be received back. I looked up how to vote in person (and confirmed their Covid protocols).

I want to interject that the people at my polling place today were great. This isn't their fault. They did everything they could to deal with this problem not of their making.

I learned this morning that this ballot misprinting happened to other people too. Mine was the first case in my precinct at my polling place, so they had to look up the instructions for handling a surrendered mail-in ballot. I had brought everything I received, as instructed. I filled out the form. Then they saw in their documentation that I had to hand over the ballot and the two return envelopes. The return envelopes I never got. We all agreed that my name being printed right on the ballot ought to confirm my ID for validation purposes (that's why they want the outer envelope, where my name should have been printed), but we didn't feel safe relying on logic. This is government, after all.

They offered to escalate so I could vote now but said that could take a while -- how long could I wait? I was on my way to work (I now go to the office one day a week). Fortunately my workplace is flexible that way, but I still didn't have another hour to spend on this at the time. I considered leaving and coming back after work, but figured anybody who could help worked 9-4 or something like that and wouldn't be available anyway.

So I cast a provisional ballot. I'm assured it will be counted some days hence. I have a tracking number. This still feels very wrong.

Even though my vote will probably be counted, even though it probably doesn't make a difference this time, I feel disenfranchised. What happens in the mid-terms next year when people are more motivated to place hurdles in front of voters? What happens to voters who are likely targets (like immigrants) or have mobility challenges or who lack confidence in standing up for their rights? I'm a white professional in the heart of a very blue city (albeit in a purple state) who had the time and perseverance to try to chase this down after the bad ballot arrived. I have way more advantages than many, and I failed. What hope did others have?

The problem wasn't at the state level where most of the attention is, and it wasn't actual election tampering as far as I can tell. It was an error made by the county that affected an unknown number of people. Nobody's watching counties in all the election shenanigans. I'm in Allegheny County, not voter-suppression-ville. This was an accident, but I couldn't get it corrected.

Brr.

Photo: Read more…

Trolling Wall Street

This is oddly fascinating, even though I don't understand all of it. If I understand correctly:

A "short" is a bet that a stock price will fall: you promise to sell it on a certain date at a certain price, but you don't actually own the shares. On that day, the idea goes, you'll buy the shares at the lower price you expect and then turn around and fulfill your contract, pocketing the difference. I don't know if regular folks like you and me can do that, or if only investment funds and professional stock-market people can. There are some rules that are different for the big players and the little folks; I don't know if this is one of them.

So... some big Wall Street hedge funds (one often mentioned is Melvin Capital) placed vast quantities of shorts on a gaming-gear company that isn't doing well (GameStop). A bunch of people on Reddit observed this and said to Wall Street: hold my beer.

They bought the stock. Hundreds of thousands of people on Reddit bought the stock. At that scale, any individual participant doesn't have to buy a lot; you could play this game for $20 back when it started. And it's not like you can spend that $20 going out to a movie right now, so there was probably an untapped market of bored people looking for fun. Read more…

It's 2021 and this still happens

Me: Here's a bug.

Male peer: I don't know why that happens. Not my fault.

Me: One way that can happen is if you do X.

Him: (condescendingly) Of course you could do that, but I didn't.

(Ok then! Done teaching.)

Separately, other male peer: One way that can happen is if you do X.

First male peer: Oh, you're right.

Again. In 2021.

I didn't say he did X; I'm not in his head and wasn't looking over his shoulder, so how would I know? I just offered one (common) way that this particular problem manifests, because we've seen it before. But from me it wasn't worthy of consideration.

This sort of thing happens far too often, even now, even among people who in other regards present as open-minded and inclusive.

The cost of plagues

I want to amplify something I saw on Twitter today by AvBronstein:

A congregant shared an insight: immediately following the final plague, the killing of the first-born, the text tells us that "Pharaoh arose that night."

In other words, he had gone to sleep.

Pharaoh couldn't have gone to sleep on the assumption that the plague wasn't going to happen. This was the tenth time around. He knew. His advisers knew, the people knew. The Midrash says that the Egyptian first-born actually rebelled, taking up arms, because they knew.

Rather, Pharaoh was prepared to bear the cost of the final plague. For him, it was worth it. So much so, that he was even able to sleep that night, knowing what was coming.

I'm going to interrupt for a moment here. Paro knew by now what the consequences of his stubborn refusal to give up personal power would be. He'd seen his people be afflicted by nine previous plagues. Some of them even affected the elite in the palace, though they had more power than "regular folks" to evade some of the effects. They could bring all their animals safely inside before the hail, could source drinking water elsewhere, could afford to replace animals lost to the pestilence, could get top-notch medical care not available to others. But some plagues affected even them, safely in their palaces. They knew. Paro knew.

And Moshe had just told him that God was going to kill all the first-born, from the palace on down to the slaves, even down to the animals. Paro knew this was a credible threat.

And he was ok with that. Maybe he had some magical thinking that his own family would be protected; more likely his son was an acceptable loss. Certainly the first-born of all the people he ruled, the people he was nominally responsible for, were acceptable losses. He was their ruler and "god", after all; he couldn't be weak by giving in to Moshe and the true God. These afflictions would pass and the deserving would survive.

And it wasn't just Paro thousands of years ago, now was it? This happens with power-hungry leaders, ones who've lost touch with whom they serve, all the time. It happened in our day, with a deadly plague that our leaders concealed the severity of, because they were safe. A few hundred thousand old folks are an acceptable loss to preserve the illusion of strength, right?

Avraham continues on Twitter:

I can't help but think of all those people ready to launch a civil war in America, so grimly sure that they are prepared to pay whatever price needs to be paid. And how many of them, like Pharaoh, woke up later that night and realized just what they had done to themselves.

I'm also thinking of a President calmly watching the insurrection he stoked on television, only to realize the costs he will be paying for the rest of his life out of what remains of his fortune, reputation, and legacy.

Me again. And I'm also thinking of all the people who were, and even still are, fine with plague deaths, and murders and reckless killings, and treating human beings like animals even down to the cages, and justice systems that depend on who the accused is, and ruining people's lives on mere accusations and presumptions, because they, personally, are safe. But nobody's safe, and we can't sleep through the unrest our society has fallen into.

Paro's people had no power to effect change; Paro held all the cards. We might not have much power to effect change, but I think we have a little more (voting, for example), and I pray it's enough to avert Egypt's fate, despite bad decisions made by those who rule us.

#RenewDemocracy

Seen on Twitter:

We're excited to launch the #RenewDemocracy Challenge with @AVindman

During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate 3 friends to do the same! Be sure to use hashtag: #RenewDemocracy (source)

A friend tagged me. I responded there, but it didn't fit in one tweet and I want to record it here too. I'll preserve the original structure, meaning some compact language to fit in individual tweets.


Democracy is a decision by a society to band together to support all, not just the majority & powerful. It means working together for common good, not bowing to thugs. It means freedom, not free rein to cause damage. It means using your voice not your fist. 1/4

Democracy means being able to chart your own course so long as you don't trample others. It means owning your body, your beliefs, your goals - and consequences of your acts - but no one else's.

It means offering a hand to a stranger in need who is also part of this society. 2/4

Democracy means working together w/people not like us to understand other perspectives - a necessary precondition to make decisions about how the public commons operates & what policies need to change. It means each voice counting, once. It means losing, or winning, w/grace. 3/4

Democracy means hearing diverse perspectives but not granting any one of them authority. Democracy is communal and consensual or it fails. Fearing the mob isn't democracy; neither is minority rule.

Democracy is complicated and essential for civil society. 4/4


And here I'll add: any constructive societal structure, including democracy, requires dealing with complex ideas, nuance, and context, far more than fits in a sound bite or a handful of tweets. It means learning and adjusting one's perceptions, not holding stubbornly to One True Way firm in the belief that all others are wrong and out to get you. It means holding contradictory ideas in your head and reasoning about them and their implications. It means thinking critically, and also not dismissing new ideas because they're new. It means having the humility to know that we don't know everything, even about ourselves let alone the others in our shared society, while having the courage and confidence to speak up when we perceive wrongs. It means having the compassion to care about others and not just ourselves.

It means recognizing that sometimes you'll disagree with those on your "side" or agree with those on the "other side". We talk in the US about left and right, but it's not a line, it's a canvas. We can't reduce our discourse, or our caricatures of each other, to binary positions -- either/or, in or out. People are complicated, and societies made out of people are complicated.

The polarization we see in our country today isn't just bad because it's divisive and too often violent. It's also bad because it erases all of that complexity in the middle, the stuff we need to be able to understand and engage with if we are to get along.

Election

I am relieved that my state came through in the end, and hopeful about the few other ones that are still outstanding.

I am very disappointed by how close that was. We've known what was inside the package for four years, and 70 million people, give or take, voted for a bigoted, bullying, self-absorbed fascist. I'm very glad Biden/Harris won, but with the margins this close, repairing the damage of the last four years is going to be hard. I'm glad to see they're losing no time on planning reversals of the things that can be reversed. Live by the executive order, die by the executive order -- Trumpists have no grounds for complaining there.

And, of course, he's not going to concede, let alone work constructively with a transition team. He's going to do whatever he can to trash the country on the way out. It's going to take a lot of work from a lot of people to build better relationships, better national cooperation if not actual unity. It's going to take more than one term of office, which we all need to remember in four years.

Healing is going to be hard, but the alternative is worse. I hope we can do something about the extreme polarization we're currently living with.

Recommended reading: what hurts about this election by "hudebnik".

Goodbye 5780

The year 5780 began for me, personally, on a terrible note caused by evildoers at Stack Exchange Inc. I won't say more about that here (I wrote plenty at the time). As above so below -- the door to their teshuvah remains open should they choose to correct their transgressions, but I, unlike the Holy One, do not hold out infinite hope for sinners to mend their ways. There are more important things in life to focus on.

5780 was the (sob) first year of the global pandemic crisis. On top of the sickness, the deaths, the changes in daily life that come with any pandemic, we in the US saw reckless endangerment, needless deaths, and political profiteering to levels even those of us already worried about the authoritarian trends of the toddler-in-chief did not imagine. He knew. And he let it run rampant anyway. Because he thought, somehow, that it would hurt his political opponents and not his own supporters. Because that oath he swore on taking the office, those words about serving the people (all of them, not just red states) and upholding the constitution and suchlike, was just fluff to him, not a commitment. Having thrown the people under the bus, he's now in full sabotage-the-election mode, betting that he can get away with it as he's gotten away with so much more. At worst, he figures, someone will manage to sue him years from now and he'll pay someone off. I fear for our country.

I fear for our country in other ways too. The white-supremacist-in-chief emboldened bigots ranging from crowds chanting against Jews to attacks on houses of worship to vigilantes fatally "protecting" the public from unarmed demonstrators to police who kill and recklessly endanger black and brown people who are already restrained and thus not threats. (Whites, on the other hand, generally get the benefit of the doubt.) And it would be easy to say that the bigot-in-chief is responsible for all this and we have only to remove him from office, but that's obviously not true -- the roots run much deeper. Our society has work to do.

And that work involves nuance, discussion, hearing and trying to understand others' perspectives, working together with people who are different, acknowledging the humanity of every person. Too many on the far right and the far left believe that they are keepers of the One Truth and that anybody who doesn't commit 100% to their view of truth is an enemy to be disparaged, cancelled, or killed. People are complicated, and attempts to paint monochrome pictures, while enticing to crusaders seeking us-vs-them litmus tests, are failures if the goal is to solve problems rather than to triumph. Too few people are willing to consider positions that exceed the length of a catchy slogan, but that's where the work has to get done.


But for all the trouble that 5780 brought, both personally and on a larger scale, it also brought some moments of personal light. Read more…

Out of control

According to Trump, liberal cities are "out of control" and their leaders are "afraid" of the "anarchists" ("these are not protesters", "these are people who hate our country") and that's why they don't want the federal government to "help".

No, I don't think that's it.

What is happening in Portland is appalling, and Trump just threatened to send his goons into other cities over the objections of local governments. The people he's sending in are wearing generic fatigues (making them indistinguishable from mobs of neo-Nazis and other civilian thugs), driving unmarked rental cars, and snatching people off the streets. There is no due process, no accountability, and plenty of reason for those being targeted to fear the snatchers. You just can't tell. Even if you could tell, what they're doing is so far outside the bounds of the law that it's hard to believe it's happening and hard to believe there won't be further abuses even if you comply with these "arrests".

And yet, it is happening. Just when you thought the shenanigans coming from Washington couldn't get any worse.

Modern threats

Wow, just wow.

I read this thread on Twitter, and I'm going to quote parts of it but you should go read the whole thing. This should not be such recent history, dammit.

I started Girl Scouts in first grade and was an active scout until I was 17 (12th grade)—did ALL the GS stuff and loved my scouting experience. I was a GS national delegate.

My troop, 1001, was in Detroit and almost all black.

Our leaders were Black women and they genuinely loved us. Because they loved us, we did ALL the GS things: we sold cookies, and earned badges, and did community service, and went camping.

We would drive a VERY LONG TIME (at least to a 9 year old) and end up at the campgrounds. And then we’d learn the camp rules and review the Girl Scout requirements: leave a space better than you found it, clean your trash, be kind, have fun. And we did all those things.

Last night I talked to my best friend, whose mom was one of our leaders and camp chaperones. We were talking about camp, and her mom mentioned staying up with two other moms all night, taking stations at each door and window of our cabin and having night watch.

Night watch? I asked, genuinely confused. What kind of bears did y’all think were going to open the door of our cabin and eat us? I asked, jokingly.

She got quiet. “Not bears,” she said, “the Klan.”

But, they wanted us to experience ALL the experiences Girl Scouts have. They just had night watch so we could. So they stood watch—all night. In the 90s. -- dst6n01

Abuses of the weak, and dominos

Our government is out of control; that's been true for some time but it's gotten worse. The murder of George Floyd is appalling. That he's one of many is appalling. That many police are trained to do such violence, and are supported in it, is appalling. That our government responds with more unprovoked violence and escalation is appalling. I keep using that word, and I feel like I should have better words and more coherent thoughts, and I don't.

But I have this talk that you should listen to -- under 20 minutes, and Trevor Noah has some insightful things to say about the many dominoes that have fallen to get us here and societal contracts and more.

What is society? Society is a contract that we sign as human beings. We agree on common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us as a group. And the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it.

Watch on YouTube: George Floyd and the dominos of racial injustice, by Trevor Noah


I was asked in a comment if I think it's getting worse. I replied:

It's hard to determine with certainty the difference between "worse" and "more visible", but I think things have gotten a lot worse. We've always had bigots and abuses of power that went unchecked, but these people are more emboldened now by the vitriol coming from the White House that goes unchecked by others in power.

The Internet and ubiquitous cell phones also make records of abuses more available, but I don't think that alone explains it.