Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Last Jedi

I finally got around to seeing The Last Jedi a week or so ago.

[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing major.]

I came in to the movie very guarded. I had heard that a lot of people didn't like it. I heard from a lot of long-time Star Wars fans that they didn't like it. Their complains were varied and many--it tried to be too much like Guardians of the Galaxy with its humor injected at weird times. They dumped all over Leia's legacy. The casino scene was too long. There was a forced romance. And so on.

My verdict? You nerds have to grow up.

The movie was pretty good. I wouldn't rank it as my favorite, but I'd easily watch it again. (Also, I haven't seen the prequels yet, but I suspect that doesn't mean much.) I believe the new movie trilogy has done a really good job of creating interesting characters that we care about while still giving the old guard interesting things to talk and do without simply blasting the screen with nostalgia.

I'm not sure where the angry nerds got angry. The so-called misplaced humor really wasn't that bad--in fact I'd be hard pressed to find all that much humor in the movie to begin with. Leia pulling out a last-minute Force saving throw? That's not all that much different than the ass-pulling they've done in literally all of the previous movies. The only thing I can think of is that this movie isn't the exact same thing as what they saw when they were thirteen years old, and since one of the biggest criticisms of The Force Awakens is that it was too much like A New Hope, I feel like the nerds just want to be angry.

The only thing that I didn't care for was that one of the plot lines--an attempt at sabotage--didn't work as intended, even a little bit, and so a huge chunk of the movie just seemed like a waste of time. Of course, you don't know it at the time, but after it was all said and done it was a little weird. It seems like even with negative consequences it would have been worth it to make something come out of the whole deal.

Anyway, go see it if you're a Star Wars fan, even if you're just a casual fan. It's a perfectly fine movie.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Border Control

In case you haven't read it yet, has a huge gerrymandering project up on their page, which has a lot of...interesting results. The map is linked above, but there's a lot of interesting things there.

(If case you've forgotten your eighth grade civics class, gerrymandering is the act of drawing Congressional district lines to benefit one party or the other. Since House districts are geography-based, they have to be manually set up every ten years after the census.)

They basically ran the math and came up with a bunch of different scenarios--the current state, emphasizing competitive districts, using computer algorithms, and so on. They also released a series of podcast episodes in conjunction with the project, which looked at blatant partisanship (Wisconsin), a creative "communities of interest" method (California); an impartial panel (Arizona); and dealing with minority-majority districts (North Carolina). If you are interested in that sort of thing, it's worth a listen.

Gerrymandering reform is always on the radar for a lot of reformers and activists, but this entire project seems to give mixed results--in fact, it's probably disappointing to a lot of people. It turns out there's two major factors, here:

  • Drawing districts is hard. No matter what, you can't draw it perfectly.
  • It probably also doesn't make that much of a difference.
For about two decades, reformers have blamed Republicans for gerrymandering their way to the House of Representatives. However, if you look at the maps, it turns out that the difference is minimal. The current state has an expected Republican seat count of 234. If we draw the districts with a computer algorithm--removing all biases--it's 232. In fact, nearly all of the cases they build have a difference of only about 10 seats total--and since there's 40-70 competitive seats in between, it just straight up doesn't make a difference.

It's also important to note that a lot of these scenarios ignore the Supreme Court's ruling for majority-minority districts--districts that must be drawn to make sure there is minority representation, which often has the practical effect of lumping Democratic voters together and pulling them from other theoretical districts, meaning that the GOP has an advantage in those suburbs. Or maybe; the effect of this is also pretty minimal, but it does exist and it does hamstring people who are trying to make effective borders.

Now, the data does show that there's a case for making more competitive seats. There are a few models that spike the GOP seats up by a lot, but it also spikes the Democratic seats as well--all the gains are at the expense of competitive seats. But even this isn't the fault of gerrymandering--the American population is already "self-sorting" enough that gerrymandering isn't necessary. Seats have become more partisan and 'safe' not because of redistricting, but because the people have started to think like their neighbors.

This has always been suspected by people who (like myself) were always skeptical of reform. A few papers had been done in the past estimating that the difference was 2 seats or less. Since there are several different goals, I won't say this confirms it, but it's pretty close.

What's the solution? Well, first we have to decide whether we need a solution. There's a case--not a strong one, but one nonetheless--that competitive seats aren't necessarily the best thing. What is better for democracy--a district where 50% of the people consistently don't like who is representing them, or a district that gets 90% of the vote for one party, meaning that nearly everyone in the district likes their representative? I'm not sold on that sentiment, but I'm not against it, either. Like most things in politics, it's probably somewhere in the middle.

An interesting solution I came up with is that all states have at-large representatives. Everyone still only gets to vote for one candidate, but you have as many candidates to choose from as slots in your state (times two, plus any third party). Then on election day the top Representatives win. Let's take the example of Virginia, which has 11 representatives. Probably around 25 people would run--11 from each major party and a few third parties. On election day, each voter votes for one, and the top 11 vote-getters win election. No districts (besides the state), no votes are "wasted" due to artificial districts, and you can feel represented even if you voted for someone across the state.

There are drawbacks. First is information--that's a lot of candidates to get to know. Chances are, then, we'd still see some form of localization. If you live in Fairfax, you're probably going to vote for someone around your area--but now no one has to worry if they live specifically on the right street or not. Parties would have to make concentrated efforts to make sure that votes don't get split--if all the minorities in a city split their vote too many ways, they may see no one elected at all. And finally the localization would be gone--there's no guarantee that 11 Representatives would come out of Northern Virginia and zero from south Virginia, something that is guaranteed now. That may not sit well with people. It's not likely, but with 50 states and an election every two years, it's a statistical likelihood that would eventually happen.There may also be a danger of strategic nominations--if the Republicans only nominate, say, 8 candidates, they are almost certain to win those 8 (since the Democrats will split their votes 11 ways). They won't sweep the state, but they can guarantee a majority--right up until the Democrats do the same.

And therein lies the problem. No matter what solution we present, it is at the expense of something else. If we want more competitive districts, the lines can get pretty wild and will split cities in two (or more). If we want minority representation, we have to accept that that means less minority representation elsewhere. If we want people to be represented by their interests, that may mean feeding into incumbency. And so on.

Turns out, this stuff is hard. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Questions Within Questions

Mental Floss--one of my favorite places on the internet to get awesome trivia--recently released a map called The Most Common "Why Do" Questions People Are Asking In Your State, According to Google

Now, maps like that can be a little problematic--it's pretty easy to goose the numbers to make them say whatever you want them to say. Still, it's fun, and you should take a look at the map before you continue, but I certainly do have some questions about their questions:

1. Wyoming, why do you not have any game?
2. Indiana and Colorado, I think maybe you need to read some Beverly Cleary books, or at least get yourself to CVS.
3. South Carolina, it's because you live in South Carolina.
4. Utah, it's because you like in Utah.
5. Texas, please wear your protective headphones when firing your gun every morning
6. Virginia is for lovers, after all.
7. Hey, Michigan--maybe it's the water.
8. Stop it, Hawaii, you've never seen a rooster in your life.
9. Y'all care waaay to much about cats. You know why cats do what they do? Because they are cats and don't give a shit.
10. Florida, who hurt you?

Monday, January 1, 2018

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

It's been a while.

I've detailed my reasons why I haven't written in a long time before, and sadly some of those still hold true. My goal in 2018 is to at least write a little, but I doubt very much it will at the same frequency as before. We'll see. I'm still a little gun shy about writing about certain topics, and that used to make up a bulk of my content, so it can get a little frustrating navigating my efforts.

Anyway, I figured an update was in order with everything that happened in 2017.

We bought a new house. I've been driving a long way to work, and my wife got a new job, and so at the beginning of the year we decided to move to be closer to both of our jobs. Not very far--we only moved about a half hour away--but it's a nice little house that fits our needs. The flip side of that was that we sold the old house, which was not as fantastic, but it got done and it all worked out. Kids, moving sucks. But in the end it was worth my sanity.

We drove to California. From Pennsylvania. For two weeks we traveled this nation, looking at all the fruited mountains and purple roadside kitsch majesty. We tried to hit (and geocache) in every state we traveled through, and we ended up hitting fifteen new states we hadn't seen before. Short version: New Mexico was beautiful. Kansas is a dump. California is a little weird. The Grand Canyon is pretty big, but the Garden of the Gods was more impressive to me. I was shocked at 1) how cheap the Midwest is; 2) how completely empty most of our nation is, and 3) how weird it is that most bigger cities are simultaneously exactly the same and completely different.

Say good night from New Mexico.

I started playing D&D 5e. I've always been more of a board gamer than a role playing gamer. I've played a smattering of RPGs in my day, but the last time I did was in college, which was (mumble mumble) years ago. But this year I had the opportunity to dive headlong first into the newest (well, newish) version of Dungeons and Dragons. With the help of a great DM and a great group of people, I've found it to be amazingly fun and productive, and one of the reasons I've been more creative lately. And I've met a lot of new friends in the process.

We went to Candlenights. This may not mean much to most of you, but this was a fantastic show. If you haven't listened to a little podcast called My Brother, My Brother, and Me you should get on that right now. I get that it may not be everyone's brand of humor, but it's good enough that I recommend giving a few episodes a try. In any case, they hold a (usually) annual Candlenights show--Candlenights being their placeholder for Christmas (it makes sense in context)--in Huntington, WV. That's not too far, and also in the middle of West Virginia so it's super cheap, and so we decided to go, and it was a blast. It's a bit hard to describe but it was hilarious with a lot of good people doing good things, which this what 2017 desperately needed.

I made a sweet Out Of This World reference on Twitter last May that no one got. It is my life's greatest regret.