Category Archives: US Politics

Hijack the Starship

Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.

The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky –
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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Internet Surveys: Bad Data, Bad Science and Big Bias

Falacious reasoningBack in 2012, I wrote a blog piece about internet polls and surveys, asking whether internet polls and surveys could be – or should be – considered valid or scientific. I concluded, after researching the question, that, since the vast majority lack any scientific basis and are created by amateurs – often with a goal to direct rather than measure public opinion – that,

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.*

Earlier that year, an editorial in a local newspaper wisely drew similar conclusions (emphasis added):

It’s said that there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics. You could also throw Internet polls into that mix. …

But anyone who takes the results to heart, or attributes any level of credibility to them, is horribly mistaken. We post those polls to gauge how the community feels about one issue or another, but otherwise there is little to no scientific basis to them.

And unlike a poll that’s usually conducted by the likes of Ipsos, Leger and Gallup – who use scientific principles to conduct many of their public-opinion polls – the results of an Internet poll can easily be ‘plumped’ by one side or the other enlisting family, friends and associates to vote, regardless of their level of understanding of an issue.

I wanted to follow up my earlier piece with some more information from the professionals in the polling and statistical analysis fields, as well as some journalistic comments. The reasons internet polls are unscientific and lack credibility has been addressed by many universities, professional polling companies and associations.

The National Council on Public Polls weighed in on this question, stating (emphasis added):

While different members of NCPP have different opinions about the potential validity and value of online surveys, there is a consensus that many web-based surveys are completely unreliable. Indeed, to describe them as “polls” is to misuse that term.

The NCPP then suggests a list of ten questions for journalists to ask to help clarify the results and the scientific methods used to create and assess the poll:

  1. Is the internet-based survey designed to be representative, and if so, of what population? If not, it is not worthy of being reported.
  2.  What evidence is there that the sample is representative of the population it claims to represent? Unless the internet-based survey can provide clear evidence that the sample is representative by demographic and/or other relevant information it is not worthy of being reported.
  3. How was the sample drawn? Many internet-based surveys are just “call-in” polls or are asked only of people who happen to visit a particular web site. These surveys usually do not represent or make any pretense to represent any other population, and are not worthy of being reported.
  4. What steps does the organization take to prevent people from voting more than once? Any poll which allows people to vote twice, or more often, is not worthy of being reported.
  5. How were the data weighted? Survey data may contain biases from a variety of causes. The magnitude of these biases and random errors are usually unknown to the researcher. Even so, weighting may minimize these biases and errors when there is a strong relationship between the weighting variable and data in the survey. If there is not a strong relationship weighting may make the survey results worse. Demographic weighting of internet-based surveys is essential but is not sufficient. Some firms, in addition to demographic weighting, are weighting on other variables in an attempt to reduce the biases of online data.
  6. What is the evidence that the methodology works and produces accurate data? Unless the organization can provide the results of their other internet-based surveys which are consistent with other data, whether from the Census or other surveys, the survey results are not worthy of being reported.
  7. What is the organization’s experience and track record using internet-based polls? Unless the organization can demonstrate a track record of obtaining reliable data with other online surveys, their online surveys should be treated with great caution.
  8. What is the organization’s experience and track record as a survey researcher using traditional survey methods? If the organization does not have a track record in designing and conducting surveys using the telephone or in-person surveys, it is unlikely that they have the expertise to design and conduct online surveys.
  9. Does the organization follow the codes of conduct of AAPOR, CASRO, and NCPP (whether or not they are members)? If they follow none of these, they are probably not a qualified survey research organization. The more of these Codes they follow, the more likely their data are to be reliable and be trusted.
  10. Is the organization willing to disclose these questions and the methods used (as required by the codes of conduct referred to in #9 above)? If the organization is unwilling to disclose, or unable to provide, the relevant information the survey is probably not worthy of being reported.

The NCPP also has a list of 20 questions journalists should ask about all poll results. They state in the introduction (emphasis added):

The only polls that should be reported are “scientific” polls. A number of the questions here will help you decide whether or not a poll is a “scientific” one worthy of coverage – or an unscientific survey without value. Unscientific pseudo-polls are widespread and sometimes entertaining, but they never provide the kind of information that belongs in a serious report. Examples include 900-number call-in polls, man-on-the-street surveys, many Internet polls, shopping mall polls, and even the classic toilet tissue poll featuring pictures of the candidates on each roll.

One major distinguishing difference between scientific and unscientific polls is who picks the respondents for the survey. In a scientific poll, the pollster identifies and seeks out the people to be interviewed. In an unscientific poll, the respondents usually “volunteer” their opinions, selecting themselves for the poll.

The results of the well-conducted scientific poll provide a reliable guide to the opinions of many people in addition to those interviewed – even the opinions of all Americans. The results of an unscientific poll tell you nothing beyond simply what those respondents say.

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I Didn’t Know That…

History of EnglandOne of the great delights of learning is to be able to read or hear something new, something unknown, something that challenges the mind or your previously formed ideas and opinions. Something that fascinates and delights you. That “ah ha!” moment.

Last week I stumbled across a website called History of England and I felt like that when I started to read through it. Better yet, I spent an hour downloading the 104 free podcasts of his history (plus the eight or so supplementary ones) to listen to while I walk my dogs.*

The site is a blog created by David Crowther, who also reads the pieces for the podcasts. Crowther modestly calls himself a “part time history enthusiast,” but his writing is as good as many of the histories I’ve read.**

I discovered the site when I was searching for some data on the Middle Ages for my post on the Unknown Monk meme last week. I started reading, then reading some more, and suddenly it was several hours later.

Crowther’s succinct profile is:

Interests: Well, History, obviously. But also a dedicated allottment owner, though at the most important times it’s difficult to get down there enough. Then very keen on walking, whether with the dog or something more major. Play tennis, bit of golf; armchair Rugby & cricket fan. Supported the Leicester Tigers since . . . a long time ago.

With some breaks for personal time, Crowther produces a weekly podcast – an amazing amount of work and dedication I admire and respect. I know how tough it can be to do this sort of work with any regularity. But this stuff requires a lot of background work: reading, culling images, cross-checking.

Plus he fills his blog with maps, text and images to supplement the podcasts. It’s a wonderful place to simply explore. England’s history is so rich it never fails to captivate me. Somewhere in that timeline, my ancestors lived and breathed, fought, worked the land… where, or course, I don’t know, but probably in the north near my father’s home of Oldham.

I started listening to Crowther’s podcasts on Monday and I’ve finished a mere eight of them – each is about 30 minutes. I’ve just finished the second on Alfred the Great and am in the late 9th century. Really intriguing guy – and learned, not just one of the era’s typical warrior-kings. Literate – in fact he not only taught himself Latin (and translated Latin into the vernacular), but wrote some of the earliest written works in the vernacular.

So far the stories been full of surprising information about the early English – and the successive invasions of the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Danes after the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410 CE. Ripping stuff, and told with a light hand and a dry sense of humour. He reads very well, with a good speaking voice, measured and easy to follow.

It’s an era I know damned little about – actually no one does, really, because until Alfred there was little written, or at least little that has survived. It’s not called The Dark Ages for nothing. But it turns out to be a rich, fascinating time for all that. Kings with odd names, warriors, battles, politics, internecine squabbles, church and state, family feuds… the stuff of good history.

One of those “ah ha!” moments was his talk about Offa, King of Mercia in the 8th century CE. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t really aware of his place or importance. Now I know enough to want to delve deeper. I expect a trip to Chapters or Amazon in the near future will include a search for books on this period.

I’m hooked. And I have 100 more to go!

By the time I get to the end, I expect he will have added many more, so I can look forward to many enjoyable hours. His 104th podcast – the latest as of this writing – only brings us to the mid-14th century. He hasn’t even reached my personal favourite – the late Tudors and early Stuarts. I can hardly wait for him to delve into Henry VIII, Elizabeth and Shakespeare. That should be getting close to lecture 200, I suspect.


* My usual listening fare has been audio courses from The Great Courses, which I still enjoy listening to. Their individual lectures are 45-60 minutes each, which means I sometimes can’t finish one when walking the dogs. Sometimes I listen to music copied from old 78 recordings instead.

**  And perhaps better than many – with history as a major interest of mine, I’ve read thousands of books over the last few decades and not all of them are as spellbinding as Crowther’s modest work.

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50 Years: Has Anything Changed?

Anti-JFK posterI remember that day, in 1963. I was in high school. Penmanship class, after lunch. I think it was the last year for penmanship in Ontario high school, but even if not, I never took it again.*

We used those long wooden pens with the fancy metal nibs, removable nibs that had to be periodically cleaned to keep the ink from clogging the narrow slot that fed the nib. There was a small bottle of ink. Black, I recall. Desks were designed to hold the bottles, with little inserts or holes on the upper right of the top.

The notebook was landscape mode, unlike our other workbooks; lined with a place for the ascenders, the descenders and the baseline. We dipped the nib into the ink and copied the phrase on the blackboard onto the paper, carefully making sure our j’s and g’s and t’s and f’s didn’t go past the proper lines. That the baseline was respected as the foundation for our letters.

Held the wrong way, even slightly off-kilter, the nib would catch and snap little blobs of ink across the page. Or on your shirt. If old ink was in the nib, the ink wouldn’t flow correctly and strokes wouldn’t be even. It was a painstakingly exact process that challenged our teenage skills. I always came home with ink-stained fingers after that class.

The speaker at the front of the class, above the blackboard, crackled. Every morning it played the national anthem and God Save the Queen. We stood for them, then sat down to hear it sound the daily announcements, the events, class changes,  Now and then, it would interrupt the day with updates, or special announcements. Calling kids to the office. Announcing that some team had won a game against another school. Or that an after school event was cancelled or held in a different room.

That afternoon, the principal interrupted the class to announce the news.

The American president had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.

November 22, 1963. Friday. We all sat in uncomprehending shock. The teacher, a woman whose name I  have long forgotten, broke into tears at the front of the class, her shoulders shaking with every sob. Some of the kids followed her, crying openly. School was let out early that day.

It felt like the world had broken. Something significant had happened. Something had irrevocably changed. Camelot, the fantasy world we imagined had been brought on by the Kennedy presence, was over. Overnight utopia became dystopia.

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Teddy’s Words of Wisdom

Roosevelt quote
I’m not a great student of American history – my tastes run to other places and people: Napoleon, Casanova, Elizabeth I, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, China…. but I do read about it. Most recently Rick Perlstein’s history of the American Sixties, Nixonland. And in that book I came across a powerful, moving quotation from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that I wanted to share because it still resonates today:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Roosevelt said this in a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” made at the Sorbonne, Paris, France,  23 April, 1910. Source: Wikiquote.

I would write it in stone and place it in front of each member of council at the table as a reminder at every meeting that we do our best and that’s what matters. We may stumble, we may even fall now and then, but we stay in the ring, we finish what we started, and we do what we believe is right, what is best for everyone.

I know how much each of you at the table care, how hard you work, how much you ponder and worry over the questions we must all answer, and how much it means to each of you to have the best community we possibly can. You do the work, you stand in the ring and take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but you hang in because you care. And I know how much it hurts to have outsiders tear at you, to belittle and mock you, to denigrate your efforts. To try and hurt without offering to help.

At the end of the day, you can take pride in your accomplishments and your values. You are in the arena, where it counts most.

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Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold

Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.** Continue reading

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Why are Pickup Trucks so Anti-Pedestrian?

Pickup truck exhaustTake a look at the back of any of today’s pickup trucks. Notice the exhaust pipe, under the vehicle? It points to the right. The same side of the road that pedestrians and cyclists use.*

Notice the bike lane in the photo – that’s where cyclists will be when this truck passes by them. No place to move to avoid the fumes.

1951 truckYet I have seen vintage trucks with that design, as in the photo to the right (even here in town). Several, in fact in just the past week. I don’t know the date of the change from rear to side exhaust, but it seems to be at least two decades old. I also know there are aftermarket kits that will return your exhaust to the rear on pickup trucks.

By design, modern pickup trucks are meant to spew their exhaust directly at pedestrians and cyclists they pass, unlike most cars, vans and even SUVs which exhaust to the rear. And a very few that exhaust to the left.

Diesel exhaustIt’s got to be a deliberate, anti-social design by manufacturers. Designers surely think of these things. They’re not stupid, even if they are misanthropic towards pedestrians and anyone on a bicycle. They planned it. They know where people walk or cycle.

Why, one has to ask, are governments permitting what is clearly a hazard – even a threat – to pedestrians in truck design to continue? Continue reading

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Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education

CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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