Prison Cell

My Head and My Heart and Mass Incarceration

As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I strongly connected with Kali Holloway’s piece in The Nation, “I’m for Abolition. And Yet I Want the Capitol Rioters in Prison.” I want to reduce mass incarceration, but I also want to see these seditionists severely punished.

I’m reminded of the question that Michael Dukakis was asked in the 1988 Presidential Debate. During this debate, Bernard Shaw, who had a history of asking politicians squirm-inducing questions, asked Dukakis this:

“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis, with his long record of opposition to the death penalty, naturally answer no. But he did so in such a calm, dispassionate way, seemingly disconnected with the premise of the question – his wife being raped and murdered. He never connected with the emotion of the issue, of how one might feel if this really happened.

And Dukakis had first-hand experience that he could have drawn upon – his father had once been tied up and robbed in his office and his brother died in a hit-and-run car accident. But he never connected these heart-rending, emotional experiences with his dry, policy-driven answer.

So, like my thoughts about how to deal with the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, my head and my heart are pulling in opposite directions. If someone asked me the same question Dukakis was asked, I might give two answers. If someone attacked my wife, I would want to take a baseball bat to them, to cause them pain and suffering. And, that’s not the right way for society to act. The death penalty is wrong and needs to be eliminated.

When I think about the attack on the Capitol, on the attempt to violently overthrow a fair and democratic election, to attack and harm our representatives in congress, perhaps even lynch the Vice President, and the actual infliction of grievous bodily harm on the police and others, my heart demands strong action. I want to see all of these insurrectionists arrested and thrown in jail for a long, long time.

And yet, my head tells me that’s the wrong answer. We need policies that reduce mass incarceration, including shorter sentences, elimination of cash bail, and so on. The answer to inequities in our criminal justice system is not to put more White people in jail, it’s to reduce the use jails and prison for everyone. 

And that includes reducing the use of prison in cases that might make us otherwise uncomfortable. We can’t reduce mass incarceration by 50% (which is the goal of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice) by only eliminating jail and prison for non-violent drug offenders.  

While “non-violent” drug offenders make up a significant portion of those in prisons and jails, there would still be another 80% to go. If we’re serious about making our criminal justice system more fair and just – we need to do a lot more. And throwing a bunch more people in prison for a long time because our hearts demand it doesn’t accomplish that goal.

Donald Trump 2020 Campaign

Trump, Biden, and the Soul of America

So, it looks like Joe Biden has successfully won the presidency, defeating Donald Trump. This is an unalloyed good thing.  But in looking at the results, I have very mixed emotions.

2016 Election

The 2016 election of Donald Trump forced me to look at America in a different way. After eight years of Barack Obama, our first Black president, and the assumption that we were about to get our first female President, I had great optimism for the direction of our country. My wife and I joked that we would have to explain to our son, born at the tail end of Obama’s first term, that White men could potentially still become president.

But Trump’s election changed all that. Not only did the ensuing years take the US on a sharp turn backwards, it laid bare important issues. Trump won while (perhaps because) he appealed to the base and racist instincts among many in the electorate.

I thought our country was better than that. Unlike many, I had no illusions that, that after 8 years of Obama, we lived in a “post-racial” paradise. One look at the statistics on racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system, at the segregation that still exists; or just listening to the stories of how Black and Brown people are treated makes it clear that America is no paradise.

But I imagined the world had been heading in the right direction, the arc bending towards justice, and so on.

However, when Donald Trump won in 2016, with a campaign that largely consisted of barely coded (and occasionally explicit) racist appeals used to draw out his base (and discourage those who would support Clinton), it felt like we moved 20 or 30 years or more backwards. We had gone back George H.W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad, to Ronald Reagan and his campaign kickoff in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Thus, his success in 2016 caused me to question the nature of our country. If such naked calls to racism were effective, then our country has a lot farther to go than I thought. I’ve known we live in a society filled with systemic racism, designed over 4 centuries to oppress black and brown people. But this showed that it’s not just the system that’s bad, but that a lot of people hold really harmful, negative beliefs.

2020 Election

Joe Biden in Iowa -- August 2019
Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden walking with supporters at a pre-Wing Ding march from Molly McGowan Park in Clear Lake, Iowa

And now we have 2020. While I’m thrilled Joe Biden beat Donald Trump. But I still worry about what this election tells us about our country. Yes, Joe Biden won more votes than Trump (as did Hillary Clinton in 2016). In fact, he set the record for the most votes ever! But Donald Trump in 2020 received significantly more votes than the 63M he got in 2016. He also managed to expand those willing to vote for him.

And this is after 4 years of Trump being President, of Trump taking actual terrible actions. In 2016, much of the electorate likely based their decision on how they thought Trump would be as President, based on the things he said. Yes, he said terrible things in leading up to the 2016 election (e.g., most Mexicans are rapists and criminals and lowlifes, it’s okay if he assaults women). But he also said (falsely) that he would protect and improve access to healthcare and that he would support a populist economic agendaCome 2020, however, we know how Trump behaves as President. We have the Muslim Ban and the separation of children at the Mexican border, tax policies that favor the wealthy, and actions (including both administrative and judicial appointments) that will prevent women from exercising their constitutional right to an abortion.

So, the people who voted for Trump in 2020 did so knowing all that. These are not the values I thought prevailed in America. Which is why, even with Joe Biden as our next President, I’m worried.

But all is not lost. If we work hard in Georgia, if we continue to pressure all parts of our government, we might achieve a better, safer, more loving country.

Who’s called for Trump’s Impeachment, updated

As for today (15 December) I’ve now found 19 newspapers who, in some way, have called for Trump’s impeachment, resignation, or removal. This now includes five of the top 10 circulation papers in the US: USA Today, the LA Times, the NY Times, the Tampa Bay Times, the Washington Post.

Not surprisingly, the top circulation paper in the US, the Wall Street Journal, is not among these.

Who’s Called for Trump’s Resignation?

So far, I’ve found three newspapers that have published editorials calling for Trump’s resignation, the Indy Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Connecticut Post. See data viz below. Click on the newspaper name and follow the link to the actual editorials.

By the time Nixon resigned in August of 1974, most major newspapers had called for him to resign. Let’s see how things progress this time.

EDIT: It’s now four newspapers, with the addition of the Orlando Weekly.

EDIT: Lots of activity after the House hearings — now we’re up to 12, that I know of.

The Server Test and Copyright Infringement

In a recent article on Slate, Lance Koonce talked about his recent experience of having a video he tweeted of the June 10th helicopter crash in NYC go viral. In his article, he referenced his experience as a lawyer defending against charges of copyright infringement for using an embedded tweet. 

Technologists often accuse judges and legislators of not understanding science and technology. I don’t disagree with this charge; I’m in the middle of writing something about mistakes made even at the Supreme Court level. 

However, I think technologists sometimes fail to understand the human element in how people actual use and perceive the technology. 

The particular case Koonce references, media sites embedding a tweet with picture that was originally taken by Justin Goldman. The issue partially depends on what’s known as the “Server Test,” which basically says that you can commit copyright infringement if you copy an image and place it on your server. If instead, you merely provide a link to that image on someone else’s server, you’re in the clear.

Let’s say that I want to post image that I don’t have the rights to use, like this image of a Wikipedia server, which I copied from Wikipedia1I’m actually allowed to use this image. A significant portion of the images on Wikipedia have some version of Creative Commons license, which allows others to use them. In this case, the image has CC BY-SA license, so I can use it as long as I give credit (the image is by Victor Grigas) and allow sharing of the image. Unlike many sites, Wikipedia also explicitly allows hotlinking to their images; so I’m not even violating the terms of use by linking to the image on their site..

I could copy that image, upload it to the server that hosts my website, and post it from there. It might look something like this:

Wikimedia Foundation Server

Image stored on my server

Alternatively, rather than copying the image, I could simply link to the image on the website of original owner. And then it would look like this:

Image embedded by linking to Wikipedia

So, the reader experienes no difference. But as far as I can tell, they’re treated very differently by copyright law, at least according to the ninth circuit. The more recent court decision in the second circuit comes to a different conclusion.

Now, the actual Second Circuit case, Goldman v. Breitbart News Network, LLC, involved an embedded tweet, so it would look something like this:

Image on Twitter, in an embedded tweet

The tweet at the center of this case wasn’t made by Goldman himself, but by another person who didn’t have permission to use the image, although that’s not directly relevant to my concern about the server test.

So I have three version of the exact same image shown on this page. The first two look exactly the same to the reader. The server test makes it awfully easy to use another creator’s work, not credit them, and be legally okay. That doesn’t seem right.

Am I missing something? I certainly respect a lot of the people who support the server test, but it doesn’t actually seem to reflect how people actually view a website.


1 I’m actually allowed to use this image. A significant portion of the images on Wikipedia have some version of Creative Commons license, which allows others to use them. In this case, the image has CC BY-SA license, so I can use it as long as I give credit (the image is by Victor Grigas) and allow sharing of the image. Unlike many sites, Wikipedia also explicitly allows hotlinking to their images; so I’m not even violating the terms of use by linking to the image on their site.
Carrie Buck and Emma Buck, 1924

Eugenics and Abortion

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned Clarence Thomas’s misuse of Adam Cohen’s book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Thomas had essentially reversed the connection between eugenics and abortion. When this book first came out a few years ago, I had wanted to read it, but never did, so Thomas’s misleading use of it prompted me to actually purchase and start reading.

Although I’m only about a third of the way through it, it’s as good as advertised, and anyone interested in eugenics and its implementation in the US should pick it up. Especially striking to me is the kind of people who were serious promoters of eugenics – that is, progressives and the scientific establishment. This hits me at the core of who I am – a progressive supporter of science!

I first read about this issue when I was just a kid and read this Washington Post article, from February 1980, by Sandra G. Boodman and Glenn Frankel.

They told me the operation was for an appendix and rupture

Their article talks about the more than 7,500 people in Virginia sterilized, often without consent or even knowledge of what was happening to them.

The most moving part of the article are the quotes from Doris Buck Figgins (younger sister of Carrie Buck), who tried for years to have children, not knowing she was sterilized without her consent. “’They told me the operation was for an appendix and rupture,’ said Figgins.”

Sterilizations in Virginia continued into the 1970s. 

To overturn Buck v. Bell, the ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia filed a class action lawsuit to have the court declare that the sterilization program violated the victims’ constitutional rights and prohibit further sterilizations without informed consent.

Connection between Eugenics and Abortion Today

Flash-forward to today and the government still tries to control women’s reproduction. While the mechanism has changed (i.e., forcing women to give birth rather than sterilization), the elitism and misogyny hasn’t. As I mentioned earlier, Clarence Thomas reverses the connection between eugenics and abortion; he claims that the pro-choice movement is like the eugenicists of the past, but it’s really the opponents of abortion who are trying to control women’s bodies.

To me, that’s the most important part of the story. We still need to fight these attempts to pass laws that would control a person’s very body.


Using your brain

Building on the “brains” part of my earlier post, one of the issues that I find so striking is the meaningless of a ban at six weeks and what this reveals about the lack of knowledge of the world. 

I can imagine a hypothetical reasonable person who thinks about a six-week abortion ban and says, “six weeks…that’s plenty of time to realize you’re pregnant, decide what to do, and then have an abortion if you want.”

But, of course, people don’t know they might be pregnant on day 1. Pregnancy is measured from the last menstrual period, and it’s a missed period that may be the sign of pregnancy. So, that’s four weeks in. 

“Okay,” my hypothetical reasonable person says to themselves, “that still leaves two weeks to think about what to do and get an abortion.” 

But most people don’t discover they’re pregnant until 4 to 7 weeks. For many women, under completely normal circumstances, six weeks will pass before they even try to determine if they are pregnant. 

Some women may not keep track of the time between their periods, especially if their periods don’t happen in a precise 4-week cycle. On average, a woman gets her period every 24 to 38 days (38 days happens to be just short of 6 weeks).  Irregular periods are particularly common for younger women, or women who have recently stopped using the pill.

“Gee, so maybe six weeks doesn’t actually mean a lot for many people who might get pregnant, but I’m going to ignore that and believe that women will know at four weeks,” goes my ever less reasonable hypothetical person. “So they can still go get an abortion.”

If only it were that easy. Because of restrictive and unnecessary state laws, someone seeking an abortion may need multiple trips to obtain an abortion. There are 27 states that require a waiting period between counseling and an abortion; 14 states require that counseling be in-person and be separated from the actual abortion, necessitating two separate trips.

And those trips may be to a distant facility, because TRAP laws and other pressures have resulted in the closing significant numbers of abortion facilities. Kentucky went from 9 clinics to 1; Louisiana went from 17 to 3; Ohio went from 45 to 10.

So, for many, a six-week abortion ban is as good a complete ban. In order for this not to be true, depending on where one lives, they must:

  • Realize they’re pregnant
  • Determine what to do, often in consultation with loved ones
  • Get the resources to pay for the abortion as well as the travel to a perhaps distant facility
  • Take time off work, perhaps twice
  • Travel twice, or stay overnight
  • Actually have the abortion

Of course, it could all be a cynical ploy to appear to do something other than a total ban while not explicitly labeling it so.

Abortion Rights: March for Women's Lives -- April 2004 "Washington Monument"

What to do about the assault on abortion rights

I’ve been wondering what can I do to support reproductive freedom and abortion rights in light of the terrible, vile laws that have been passed recently, and I’ve come up with three prongs:

  • Your money
  • Your words
  • Your brain

Use your dollars

As is so often the case, money always helps. It costs a lot of money to fight these laws and to support individuals directly affected by them.

Donate to those organizations on the frontline of the abortion fight. Certainly, that includes the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, and NARAL. But also include those smaller organizations that may not get so much publicity, such as the Yellow Hammer Fund, which directly supports those seeking care at one of Alabama’s three abortion clinics, or ARC-Southeast, which helps individuals travel to Atlanta to get reproductive services.  The National Network of Abortion Funds lists funds in many US states as wells as some supporting women outside the US.

But we can also work to reduce the flow of money to politicians who advocate and pass these laws.  So, share your concern with those whose dollars are going to those who oppose abortion rights. There are lists of companies that support the sponsors of these bills. Use them. Conversely, thank those companies that take a public stand against these laws, 

Use your words

Contact your legislators (no matter where you live) and tell them you, as a voter, can only support those who stand on the right side of this issue and back that up with your actions. Even in states that aren’t at risk to pass bad laws, we can get new, supportive laws passed, like the law in Maine allowing nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurse midwives to provide abortion services.

Share your stories of how reproductive freedom and the assault on it affects you. Many people have shared moving stories of abortion in their lives. But even if you don’t have that story to tell, you may have another one. My wife and I can talk about choosing when to have our son (who is perfect in every way 😀) and the options available to us, because of where we live and the resources we have. 

Hold legislators and candidates (including the 2020 Presidential candidates) accountable for speaking clearly. They can’t mumble, sound wishy-washy, or equivocate. They must give full-throated, clear support for abortion rights, and we need to hold them to that. At this point, we can’t accept a candidate who will merely parrot back stock phrases about his or her support for a pro-choice position (“I will appoint judges who support Roe v. Wade”). Candidates need actual plans and policies

Use your brain

The anti-abortion movement, like so much on the right today, willfully, flagrantly denies science, logic, and evidence.  Take, for example, the current spate of “heartbeat” bills, banning abortion at six weeks. As Dr. Jen Gunter says, these should be called “fetal pole cardiac activity bills.” That’s because, at six weeks, a fetus DOES NOT HAVE A HEART.

Abortion Rights: Man holding sign, "Warning: Dangerous Fanatics Ahead" during the March for Women's Lives, April 25, 2004
March for Women’s Lives, April 2004

Ohio’s recent bill allows for insurance coverage for transplanting the fertilized egg in an ectopic pregnancy (when the fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus). This procedure does not exist! As Daniel Grossman, MD, Director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, states in an excellent twitter thread, this is “pure science fiction.”

Clarence Thomas’s recent concurrence in the Mike Pence/Indiana abortion case provides another example of willfully distorting the historical record. Thomas claims that the “foundations for legalizing abortion in America were laid during the early 20th-century birth-control movement.” This simply is not true. As it was in England, abortion was legal in colonial times. Abortion prior to “quickening” only became criminalized in the 1860s.

I’d add that Adam Cohen, the author of the book that Thomas cites in linking abortion and eugenics clearly indicates that Thomas gets this wrong too. While it may be true that Margaret Sanger supported eugenics, none of this was about abortion, which as illegal at the time. 

So, use your brain, use logic, and help others recognize the fallacies and fantasies in these laws. If one really wanted to support women’s health, the lives of children, and even reduce abortion, there are policies that could actually do this. 

My annual rant about USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Ratings story

So yesterday was the Super Bowl, which means this morning USA Today released their annual Ad Meter ratings. That also means today I engage in my annual rant about how the Ad Meter Ratings terribly represent data journalism, use of data, and measurement.

According to their ratings, people like the “100-Year Game commercial” for the NFL the most.

This annual story, while a great deal of fun, is a terrible piece of data journalism. It gives a false sense of implied accuracy, doesn’t give us the margin of error or a sense of who the participants were, doesn’t show what’s significant or meaningful, and probably measures the wrong thing.

The Ad Meter story doesn’t seem to indicate anywhere what the margin of error might be (if it’s even relevant). We can roughly estimate it though, given the size of the population of viewers and the number of participants in the Ad Ratings. 

Close to 100 million people watched the Super Bowl this year, so let’s call that our population. Based on their FAQ, USA Today expected to have “thousands” of participants. If 10,000 people participated in the ratings, the margin of error would be about ±.98, or a tenth of point on a 10-point scale.

That assumes that those participating in the ratings are representative of the larger population we’re interested in (i.e., people purchasing the products being advertised). Without knowing a lot more about those that take part in the ratings, it’s impossible to tell this. 

What are they measuring?

Most importantly, I doubt the Ad Meter measures anything relevant to the actual performance of the ads. Presumably companies advertise during the Super Bowl to increase awareness of their product, to create a buzz, and mostly to sell more stuff. And we don’t know how well the commercials do at this.

Charts on paper with laptop

For example, I must have been one of the few people who quite enjoyed the Andy Warhol Burger King commercial, which the Ad Meter ratings pegged as the lowest rated commercial. It certainly got my wife and I talking about it. “Is that really him?” “If not, it’s a really good fake!”

The commercial sent down a rabbit hole of Google searches, to find out there’s a four-minute clip of Andy Warhol eating this burger. It’s part of a longer film from 1982, 66 Scenes of America, by Danish poet and filmmaker Jørgen Leth. Just about the entire film appears available on YouTube!

But most importantly, I’m not going to forget about Burger King. Not that this will change my behavior – I largely avoid fast food, and even when I did eat a lot more of it, I never liked Burger King. So, for me, this ends up being very effective, but expensive advertisement for Jørgen Leth.

Most importantly, does any of this actually work? Jeri Smith of advertising research firm Communicus conducts research on the effectiveness of Super Bowl ads. Their research suggests that companies just waste their money with Super Bowl ads. According to their work, just 10% of viewers remember the ad and who it was for.

Other Measures

While the USA Today Ad Meter story appears to be the most popular version of this story, other groups have different measures. iSpot.TV looked at “Digital Share of Voice,” essentially what percentage of online activity that ad gets in relation to the other commercials, including views on YouTube, tweets, Facebook likes, and so on.  According to their measure, the Avengers: End Game commercial scored in first place, in comparison to 32nd place finish in the USA Today Ad Meter.

So what…

You may be saying that this just a fun story…that it doesn’t matter if has any meaning. But it would be relatively easy for USA Today to add in some of this information, to actually inform the public about how what the data means.

I don’t mind a fun story, but when they put this much effort into a project, they might as well make it good data journalism, rather than bad.

End of rant