The US Constitution

Josephine Wolff “profoundly misunderstands” biometrics and the fifth amendment

In her recent article on Slate, Josephine Wolff slams Judge Kandis Westmore’s ruling that, in part, gives Fifth Amendment protection for biometrics (like fingerprints or facial recognition) when used as a password for cell phones.

Westmore’s ruling does appear to break new legal ground and I don’t know if it will hold up (assuming it’s appealed) or if other judges will issue similar rulings. However, to claim that Westmore doesn’t understand the Fifth Amendment goes a little too far. 

In her ruling, Westmore takes take the admonition from Kyllo and Carpenter seriously, that courts “must take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development.”

As others have suggested, Carpenter may significantly change how US courts view technology. See Paul Ohm’s argument that Carpenter (almost) rids us of the third-party doctrine (to which I say good riddance).

Wolff compares a cell phone to a safe, a metaphor I’ve seen used other places. As she rightly states, the Fifth Amendment prevents the government from compelling you to tell them the combination to the safe, but they can still use “jackhammers, drills, and explosives” to break into it.

Broken Safe
Photo by infomatique

But that’s not the right metaphor. The argument isn’t that the government can’t crack your cell phone. They can use whatever tools at their disposal to unlock the phone themselves.

But just like they can’t force you to unlock the safe yourself (either by telling them the combination or forcing you to do it yourself), they can’t force you unlock your cell phone.  Current law makes the distinction between compelling you to type in your password and placing your finger on the phone. Westmore says that distinction doesn’t makes sense, given the advances in technology.

I think that’s the right call. More importantly, it’s logical extension of Carpenter and to simply dismiss it as an error in understanding the Fifth Amendment drastically understates Carpenter’s importance and does an injustice to Westmore’s ruling.

Official Portrait of Brett Kavanaugh

But it was 36 years ago! And Brett Kavanaugh was just 17!

One of most common statements about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford focuses on his age at the time, just 17.  Megan McCardle, for example, in a slightly more sophisticated phrasing of this, tweeted, “I wouldn’t disqualify anyone from higher office because of anything they had done as a minor.”

But it’s not just conservatives who have expressed concern over derailing Kavanaugh’s nomination over something that happened when he was not yet a legal adult. For example, Rosa Brooks,  whoa among other things, is a Fellow at the New American Foundation, tweeted, “I oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination, think senators should vote no based on his judicial record, but am uncomfortable with asserting that his behavior as a teen tells us anything about his ‘character’ now.”

Under different circumstances, I would agree with this concern. Read Bryan Stevenson’s description of a 14-year-old charged with murder, and weep for how the criminal justice system treated Charlie.

We understand that at 17, human brains haven’t yet been fully formed. The criminal justice system shouldn’t treat adolescents as adults; minors shouldn’t be put in jail or prison with adults. They shouldn’t be sentenced to death or even life without parole. And they shouldn’t be placed in solitary confinement. 

But Brett Kavanaugh will not go to prison for his alleged actions 36 years ago. No one will fire him. No one will punish him. 

Instead, he might not get a promotion. He might not become one of the nine most powerful judges in the United States. And I’m okay with that.

Kavanaugh’s actions since 1982 matter too

But I’m saying that not just because of what happened in 1982, but because of Kavanaugh’s behavior today. He fails to recognize that his recollection of how he behaved in high school may not be accurate and the things he did may have actually hurt others.

In his most recent statements about his behavior in high school, Kavanaugh acknowledged that he drank beer, sometimes “too many” and did things that now make him “cringe.” But such vague generalities fail to consider the people he may have done those cringe-worthy things to.

Imagine the counterfactual — rather than issuing a categorical denial, Kavanaugh acknowledged that he may have done this, but because of his drinking at the time, he simply can’t recall. Like his friend Mark Judge wrote of his own time in high school, heavy drinking can lead to blackouts1Those fortunate not to have either been a heavy drinker or having someone close to them be one may misunderstand what a blackout is. It is not the same as passing out. A blackout is a loss of memory. People simply don’t remember the events during the period of the blackout. They may still be functioning and engaging in a whole range of behavior, some of which may be quite dangerous (e.g., driving, having unprotected sex, or committing crimes). such that Kavanaugh might not even remember his actions. 

Let’s carry the counterfactual further and imagine that he recognized the differences between adolescent behavior and that of adults and that he’ll take that into consideration when ruling on cases.  

And we know that how the criminal justice system (and in society more broadly) treats people depends considerably on one’s (or their parents’) wealth and the color of their skin. So, imagine a Brett Kavanaugh, who never seemed to get in trouble for underaged drinking or other behavior that makes one “cringe,” recognized how the context of his life made that possible, and how others aren’t so lucky. 

But all the evidence we have points in the opposite direction.

Because he served on Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, he hasn’t decided a lot of criminal justice cases. However, everything we’ve seen in his record suggests that he will take a harsh view of minors (and adults) caught in the legal system.

Kavanaugh certainly didn’t treat with care and respect the seventeen-year-old immigrant  in the Garza case, who he tried to prevent from having a legal abortion

He’s called former Chief Justice William Rehnquist his “judicial hero.” This “hero” argued that juveniles can be subject to the death penalty and that racial disparities in the criminal justice system are okay.

Going back to his time working with Ken Starr or when in the George W. Bush administration, we find other examples of his willingness to treat people harshly. While working on the Starr Report, he promoted the Vince Foster conspiracy theory without apparent consideration for Foster’s family, even though the official ruling, based on overwhelming evidence, concluded that Foster committed suicide. 

While in the Bush administration, he also helped bolster the case for torture. And once he was on the bench, he ruled in ways that prevent judicial oversight of torture and of Guantanamo.

Kavanaugh’s denial of even the possibility that the assault took place, his likely approach to criminal justice cases, and his inability to acknowledge others beyond his own experience lead to the clear conclusion that he does not deserve this promotion. So it’s the way he behaves today, not one night2or 4, as of when I wrote this 36 years ago that make him unworthy of the Supreme Court. 


1 Those fortunate not to have either been a heavy drinker or having someone close to them be one may misunderstand what a blackout is. It is not the same as passing out. A blackout is a loss of memory. People simply don’t remember the events during the period of the blackout. They may still be functioning and engaging in a whole range of behavior, some of which may be quite dangerous (e.g., driving, having unprotected sex, or committing crimes).
2 or 4, as of when I wrote this
Langston Hughes poem ("Cultural Exchange") on the wall by rpongsaj

Harlem Renaissance in Westfield, NJ

I live in Cranford, New Jersey, which is a lovely place to live and raise a family. Cranford, and the neighboring towns of Westfield and Garwood, have good schools, real downtowns with restaurants and movie theaters, and nice parks. 

These, however, are not ethnically diverse communities. According to the 2010 US Census, both Cranford and Westfield have populations that are about 90% White and 3% Black.  So it surprised me to learn that three towering figures of the Harlem Renaissance once lived in Westfield, New Jersey. 

Paul Robeson, New Jersey native, academic and athletic star at Rutgers, lived in Westfield when his father was Pastor of St. Luke’s AME Zion Church, at the corner of Downer and Osborn, from 1907 to 1910. He lived on what is now Watterson St (Spring Street at the time) near Rahway Avenue, in a house that no longer exists.

A decade later, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston both lived just around the corner from that church, Hughes at 514 Downer Street and Hurston at 405 West Broad Street.

While in Westfield, Hughes and Hurston collaborated on a play that didn’t get produced for another 60 years. The two fought over the the play and it ended up ruining their close friendship. For a local take on this, see the Westfield Record from March 14, 1991, page A-14, with stories on both the play and Langston Hughes’s life in Westfield.


These three amazing individuals worked to make the world  a better place many decades ago. So while I’m thrilled to learn of this connection between them and my local community, I’m saddened to think about how far New Jersey still has to go to ensure racial justice and fairness.

People may think of NJ as a Northeastern, progressive state, but our communities continue to be too segregated and our justice system, by some measures, among the worst in the country. For example, in NJ, NJ incarcerates Blacks at more than 10 times the rate of Whites.

But I have hope for the future.  Great people have been doing great work on issues like bail reform, immigrants rights, and drug policy (which includes drug courts and marijuana legalization). Among these are my colleagues at the ACLU of New Jersey, Rev. Charles Boyer’s Salvation and Social Justice, and the Drug Policy Alliance in NJ. Please support these and other similar groups.

Some Langston Hughes Poetry

Having discovered that Langston Hughes once lived so close to where I am now, I went and re-read a bunch of his poems. These works still seem fresh and important. Even 75 or 100 years later,  so many speak to the America of today. He captures both the rage at what is wrong, and the hope for a better future.

Here are some excerpts from a few that seem particularly relevant today. Click on the titles to read the complete poems.

Harlem (Dream Deferred):

What happens to a dream deferred?
  Does it dry up
  like a raisin in the sun?

Or his earliest published poem,

The Negro Speaks of Rivers?

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

But perhaps, with our current struggles, it should be

Let America be America Again

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Go read some Langston Hughes today!  

Feature Image by rpongsaj, other photos by me  


NFL Logo

A rant about Super Bowl Ads and data and measurement

So Sunday was the Super Bowl, which means yesterday USA Today released the Ad Meter ratings, the rankings of all the ads that were shown during the Super Bowl. Which means it’s also time for me to rant about data and measurement.

According to the USA Today story, Amazon won, with a score of 7.18 on a 10-point scale. Their “Alexa Loses Her Voice” ad beat the NFL’s “Touchdown Celebrations to Come” commercial, which had a mere 7.18.


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 USA Today story shows an exact tie, but other stories show it down to the 10,000th place — Amazon “won” by .0059 points on a 10-point scale (7.1836 vs. 7.1836). I suspect that this difference isn’t statistically significant, and it certainly isn’t meaningful.

The Ad Meter story doesn’t seem to indicate anywhere what the margin of error might be (if it’s even relevant). You can roughly estimate it though. Based on their FAQ, they expected to to have “thousands” of participants.

Roughly 100 million people watched the Super Bowl this year, so let’s call that our population. 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. So the 0.0059 difference would not be anywhere near statistically significant.

But we don’t even have to worry about the margin of error if those doing the rating aren’t representative of the larger population. The raters are those who chose to participate — “Yes, US citizens 18 years of age and older can participate. Interested panelists must register in advance at Participants will be asked for basic demographic information— age, gender, income, zip code.” But we don’t know if these participants are skewed in one direction or another or, if they are, if USA Today weights the results to be more representative.

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.

According to their data , the worst performing ad is actually one that sticks in my head — Diet Coke’s “Grove,” starring Australian actress Hayley Magnus. As Justin Peters of Slate says, “I am now fully aware that Diet Coke comes in mango. Mission accomplished!”

I didn’t know that before, and now I do — and I’m unlikely to forget it. Of course, I’m also unlikely to drink it, but perhaps that’s just my own peculiar taste in beverages.

But 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. As of today, the Doritos Mountain Dew commercial, “Doritos Blaze vs. MTN Dew Ice” was in first place, in comparison to its fourth place finish in the USA Today Ad Meter.

Particularly noteworthy to me was the Westworld Season 2 ad, which finished in 50th place in the Ad Meter, but in 9th place in iSpot.TV’s measure. From a quick glance, TV and movie ads do relatively poorly in the Ad Meter, but much better in online activity. The 2017 results particularly reflect this, with Netflix’s Stranger Things ad only in 49th place in the USA Today poll, but scoring in second place of iSpot.TV’s study.

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, that might as well make it informative too.

End of rant.

Arguing about Confederate Statues and History

Confederate Statue photo
Photo by Ron Cogswell

Much has been made about the relatively high public support for keeping Confederate statues. For example, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the majority (54%)of Americans favor keeping the statues, while only a minority (27%) want them removed. A number of explanations have been suggested for why such a significant portion of Americans support keeping the statues.
⁃ These represent a part of our history
⁃ They’re a symbol of Southern pride
⁃ It’s just coded racism

But if we want to remove these statues and monuments (and I’m certainly on this side), it’s important to understand why there is so much opposition to doing so and how one could counter that opposition.

Tom H.C. Anderson of the text analytics software company OdinText ran a nice survey, analyzing open-ended responses to try to understand how people explain their support for keeping or removing the statues. He first asked if Confederate Civil War Monuments should be allowed in the US.1 Following this, he gave people an open-ended question, asking why or why not.

For the three-fifths (61%) who said allow the statues, nearly all of the respondents explained this by saying something about our history. So, if keeping the statues is about maintaining our history, what happens if we explicitly make a statement out protecting history while still removing statues from public places. That should increase support for this action.

One survey, by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling supports this interpretation. They asked specifically asked about support or opposition to relocating to museums or other locations where they can be placed in historical context. This was the only poll I found that found a majority supporting removal (58% supporting relocation, 26% opposing).

However, I don’t think most people really consider moving them to museums, so I wanted to tease apart the issue of how one might remove the statues. I ran my own survey, using Google Consumer Surveys,2 asking the following question:

Which best represents your opinion about Confederate statues and monuments in public places?3

  • They should remain where they are
  • They should be moved to a museum
  • They should be completely removed

When presented with these three choices, people still chose “remain” most frequently, but it was no longer the majority option, but a plurality. Instead, the combination of moving to a museum or removing completely was the majority choice. See table 1, below.

Answer ChoicePercent
Moved to a museum34%
Removed completely22%

For those that really see statues as representing an important part of history and want them to be preserved for that reason, they now have a way to express that.

I take two key ideas away from this:

  1. Framing the argument: Those who want the statues removed (and I count myself among them) can more effectively frame the argument by including the concept of preserving history (and setting the context). There are some (although perhaps a small percentage) who really believe that it’s about history and they can (perhaps) be won over. And those that are using the argument of preserving history as a pretext will have to come up with a darned good counter-argument when removing (or rather moving) the statues is framed explicitly in terms of preserving that history.
  2. Evidence that “history” is just a pretext: A plurality (and close to a majority) still said that the statues should remain, rather than placed in historical context. Because they could have chosen to say move to a museum and didn’t do so, it suggests to me that many people who say history, don’t really mean that. Instead, it’s about, in their mind, honoring heroes fighting for a noble cause, even if they won’t acknowledge that the “noble” cause was slavery, the owning of other human beings.

A quick diversion on the history of these statues and monuments: these were largely erected between 1900 and 1915, when Jim Crow laws dominated after attempts at integration following reconstruction and leading up to the rebirth of the KKK in 1915. The United Daughters of Confederacy put up a huge portion of these monuments and worked to promote a revisionist history of the South.

A second, but smaller peak occurred during the 1960s, during the civil rights era, especially in the naming of schools after Confederate politicians and soldiers.

In other words, these statues, monuments, and schools weren’t put there to celebrate what happened in 1865 but promote White supremacy and attack the civil rights of Blacks at that time.

  1. I do have some issues with this framing of the alternatives. The “should be allowed” phrasing suggests a ban on such monuments, which some people would see as running counter to the American ideals of freedom and liberty.
  2. Google Consumer surveys attempt to match the overall US internet population through the use of stratified sampling and then weighting at the end. Google uses “inferred” data on gender, geographic distribution, and age distribution, through respondents’ browsing history (DoubleClick cookies for age & gender and IP address for geography). They then attempt to match this inferred data to national demographics from the US Census Current Population Survey (CPS). Because it matches the US internet population (now about 87% of the total US adult population), the results skew somewhat younger, higher in income, higher educational attainment, and less rural. In addition, there’s no information on race/ethnicity, which would have been particularly useful for this question. Not surprisingly, Whites and Blacks, on average, respond very differently to this question (see the Reuters/Ipsos poll referenced above). 
  3. The survey ran between 24 August and 26 August, with 384 respondents, for a margin of error of ±5%. 
Hand-painted "Vote" sign

Polling and voter fraud

A recent Morning Consult/POLITICO poll indicated that a plurality of voters think that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton was helped most by voter fraud. According to the poll, 35% of respondents think voter fraud helped Donald Trump and 30% think it helped Hillary Clinton. Only 18% indicated that no voter fraud occurred (another 17% said they didn’t know or had no opinion).

That’s an interesting result and, in some ways, runs counter to Trump’s narrative of the popular vote. If voter fraud helped him more than it helped Hillary Clinton, then it can’t be responsible for his being a loser in the popular vote. He just lost.

But in a more important way, it confirms Trump’s and the Republican’s narrative about wide-spread voter fraud. Regardless which candidate they think it helped in this past election, if the general public believes voter fraud is pervasive, it becomes much easier to enact legislation to fight this non-existent problem. And the problem does not exist. As nearly every credible study has shown, incidence rates of voter fraud are just infinitesimal (see the Brennan Center’s terrific report for an excellent summary of the evidence).

But the polling itself, and the reporting of it raises some concerns for me. The Morning Consult article on the results does lead with the sentence, “President Donald Trump has insisted, without evidence [emphasis added], that the 2016 election was rife with illegal voting…” But that statement could be interpreted just that Trump himself provided no evidence, not that no evidence for voter fraud exists.

While it’s true that Trump has provided no evidence, any story on this issue, including reports of survey results such as this, should go further and affirmatively state that evidence for significant in-person voter fraud does not and could not exist, because you can’t provide evidence for something that doesn’t actually occur.

I’ll go even further and suggest that an article on suggestions of voter fraud should include reference to the much more significant issue of voter suppression. It, after all, does exist. Since the wave election of 2010 and after the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, 20 states have passed laws to restrict voting. More importantly, these laws affect Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters at significantly higher rates than White voters.

Woman holding sign that says "Voter Suppression is Unamerican"
Voting Rights March on 10 December 2011 in NYC

Brendan Nyhan and others have researched and discussed the difficulty of challenging false information, and how attempts to rebut such misinformation can lead to a “backfire” effect. When attempt to rebut a false statement, one can actually reinforce those falsehoods with those who are motivated to believe the incorrect facts because the falsehoods support their world view. Instead, it may more effective to to frame your rebuttal in an affirmative way, rather than directly counter the false information.

This leads to my broader concern about this poll. When one asks about issues for which clear answers exist, what is our responsibility as researchers? We can study perceptions of voter fraud and we can report on what our respondents believe, but we can’t let that stand alone. But as I’ve just stated, when reporting the results, we must include the reality of the situation (e.g., widespread voter fraud does not exist; almost no cases of in-person fraud have been uncovered). Otherwise, we risk contributing to the perpetuation of false information.

But what about within the poll itself? Do we have any duty to our respondents to correct knowingly false information? Clearly, we wouldn’t want to bias the answers, but at the end of the survey, do we connect respondents to the true information? I don’t have good answers on this, but it’s an important question to consider.

Associations and Professional Societies Respond to Trump Immigration & Refugee Ban

Numerous non-profit professional and trade associations and other professional societies have responded to Trump’s ill-formed and unconstitutional1 Executive Order banning refugees and immigration from seven predominately Muslim countries. These associations and societies serve to bring together professionals in their fields of interest through conferences, publications, certifications, and so on. Given their missions, it’s not surprising that many of them have been outspoken about how the open and free flow of information and educated professionals strengthens the United States, not weakens it.

Highlights of Responses to the Executive Order

On 31 January 2017, 164 (at last count) professional scientific, engineering and education societies, national associations, and universities signed an open letter to Donald Trump urging him to rescind the order. Signatories include organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the Vision Sciences Society; as well was major research universities including Harvard, Rutgers, Yale, and others.

In part, the statement says that the groups are “…deeply concerned that this Executive Order will have a negative impact on the ability of scientists and engineers in industry and academia to enter, or leave from and return to, the United States. This will reduce U.S. science and engineering output to the detriment of America and Americans.”

More than 27,000 individual academic supporters have signed a petition against the Executive Order, including more than 20,000 faculty members, 51 Nobel Laureates and 572 members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Arts.

American Association for the Advancement of Science
AAAS seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” Based in Washington, DC, AAAS has over 120,000 members in 90 countries in all fields of science and mathematics.

science photo
Photo by Kingsway School

In addition to being a signatory to the letter above, AAAS released an earlier statement calling on “…President Donald Trump to consult with the world’s largest general scientific organization to find ways to balance the nation’s necessity for the free flow of international scientific talent while safeguarding national security.” In addition, they’ve sent out member recruitment emails using this issue to encourage people to join AAAS, with the tag line “Science has no borders.”

American Society of Association Executives (ASAE)2
ASAE serves those who work at associations, large and small, from technical fields such as American Institute of Physics, to retailers like the The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. In other words, it’s the association for those working at associations. Based in Washington, DC, ASAE has about 21,000 members.

In their response, “ASAE Responds to Trump’s Travel Ban”, ASAE President and CEO John Graham, CAE states “ASAE urges the administration to clarify the intent of this order and confirm our nation’s commitment to equality and humanitarianism.”

IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. IEEE has more than 420,000 members in over 160 countries in the fields of electrical and electronic Engineering, computing, biomedical engineering, and many other technical fields. IEEE’s main office is in Piscataway, NJ.

2017 President Karen Bartleson, in a statement released on 2 February 2017, states, “[IEEE] believes that governments of all countries must recognize that, in a world of increasing global connectivity, science and engineering are fundamental enterprises, for which openness, international collaboration, and the free flow of ideas and talented individuals are essential to advancement.”

American Psychological Association (APA)4
American Psychological Association (APA), based in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing all fields of psychology in the United States, from such areas as clinical psychology, social psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and so on.

In a statement released 1 February 2017, APA says that the “Trump Administration Orders Pose Harm to Refugees, Immigrants, Academic Research and International Exchange, According to Psychologists.”

Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
ACM has members in all areas of computing, software, hardware, AI, networking, theory, and so on. Headquartered in New York City, ACM has more than 100,000 members with chapters in more than 50 countries.

In their statement, ACM, like other associations, expresses how science requires the open exchange of ideas. “Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists.”

Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA)
Based in Bloomington, IN, MPSA is dedicated to the advancement of scholarship in all areas of political science. It has over 8,000 members in more than 100 countries.

In addition to signing the letter referenced above, MPSA has released two other statements about the ban. The first calls on Trump to rescind the Executive Order and the second talks about how the MPSA Conference will address the issue (such as allowing presenters from the seven countries present virtually) and lists other ways for those in the political science community to get involved in the issue.

The Gerontological Society of America (GSA)
The GSA is the largest interdisciplinary organization in the world devoted to the scientific study of aging. It has 5,500 members, 18% of which are outside the US and is based in Washington, DC.

In their statement, GSA points out that all six Americans who won Nobel prizes last year were immigrants. Further, they say that Trump’s Executive Order “…threatens the free flow of scientific information by limiting interaction among scientists. Such restrictions are not consistent with GSA’s commitment to open collaboration and communication between researchers.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…

Photo by Kevin H.

  1. See article by David Cole, ACLU Legal Director, on how the Executive Order violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 
  2. Disclosure: I’m a member of ASAE and have served as a volunteer, most recently as Chair of their Research Committee. 
  3. Disclosure: I work at IEEE but had nothing to do with their public statement on the Trump Ban. Furthermore, I do not speak on behalf of IEEE and all writing here (and elsewhere on this blog) is my own personal opinion. 
  4. Disclosure: I’m a former member of APA. 
Photo of a dirt road with a crooked dead end sign

Fatalism is our enemy

As we enter a new political era, with a president that behaves in unprecedented ways (willful disregard for the truth; putting his chief strategist, a promoter of white nationalism on the National Security Council), many people are looking for ways to fight back. As we do that, I think it’s important to remember that we have many places to fight, including not just Trump, but those in Congress who want to take our country backward, state and local officials who will control redistricting in 2020, and the wealthy oligarchs who fund much of the conservative movement.

One battle we need to include in this list, however, is our own sense of fatalism. Too many times I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk as if the situation is out of our control, that nothing we will do will have an effect on the outcome. I hear this often when I talk about privacy. “Why do anything to protect my privacy from the government? They have all my data anyhow.” But these beliefs lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you truly believe that your actions have no effect, you’ll never do the things that might actually make a change.

Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke eloquently of how in the fight against racism, “fatalism isn’t really an option.” Even if you believe that change won’t occur in your lifetime, you need to work to make that change happen for your children, for your grandchildren.

We don’t want people to fall into fatalism or nihilism. We must view ourselves as change-makers, optimistic about the future and our ability to change it. Our antagonists are these fatalists who don’t think the world can change, that Trump leads to Armageddon. It’s only through our actions, taking the long view, that we will eventually create the society that our ideals tell should be ours.

This is why I am so happy about the recent protests and marches. In pictures of the Women’s Marches,  you could see the joy, excitement, and determination on people’s faces.  In person, these feelings were palpable. One march may not have an effect on its own, and many have written about how the energy in those marches need to be harnessed.  But there is energy, there are people who believe they can cause change, make a difference, and dare to create “…a more perfect union.”

constitution photo
Photo by StevenANichols

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Photo by bennylin0724


Happy Birthday gummies

Is We Shall Overcome the new Happy Birthday?

In 2016, the song Happy Birthday finally entered the public domain.  This isn’t because the requisite time finally passed, but because of a lawsuit filed by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who showed that the murky history of the lyrics and the music to Happy Birthday extended far enough back to make the copyright no longer valid.

Now the same lawyer, Mark Rifkin, is trying to bring We Shall Overcome into the public domain.  The song, both the lyrics and the music, similarly has a long (and murky) history.

Photo by Lynne Hand

Women's March in Washington DC, 21 January 2017

Music and Protest Marches

As a child of parents who came of age in the early ‘60s and had music on all the time, I associate marches and protests with the folk music revival.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the great We Shall Overcome, which has a somewhat tangled and clouded history, with origins perhaps in a refrain sung by slaves and adopted by Black churches in the early 20th century.

Here are four versions sung by people who had a hand in making it the powerful symbol it has become. The first is by Pete Seeger, who’s version is the one I learned from as kid. He may (or may not) have been the one who rewrote the lyrics to become “We shall overcome…” rather than “We will overcome…” He’s perhaps the most associated with the song.

However, a much less well-known folklorist, Guy Carawan, modified the song to be easier to sing in large groups and introduced it to activists at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

But it was another famous folk singer, Joan Baez, who at the age of 22, performed the song at the 1963 March on Washington. This video, from the National Archives, doesn’t necessarily do a great job of capturing the sense of the crowd, but when it pans up to the face of Lincoln, it does make me tear up.

Finally, here’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who can’t be beat for the sheer power of her voice. Jackson also sung at the March on Washington and sung Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite gospel song, Take my hand, Precious Lord, at his funeral in 1968.

Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the words to We Shall Overcome multiple times, including in his final sermon before his assassination. The language Dr. King used in that sermon are particularly important to remember today. As he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It has been covered many, many times, including by Bernie Sanders in 1987, when he was still mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Listen, if you dare. Actually, and fortunately, Bernie isn’t doing the singing, but he introduces the song and then a talented group of Vermont performers do the actual singing, with the occasional interjection by Sanders.

Other more recent covers include the British folk/punk singer Frank Turner, Roger Waters in support of Palestinians ending the blockade of Gaza, and even versions in Hindi and Bengali.

See the article at The Atlantic by David A. Graham for a history of the song focusing on Carawan’s contributions. Carawan died at age 87 in 2015.