Like everyone I’m riding out this Covid-19 lockdown with a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, boredom. And obsessively reading every detailed quality article I can find about both the disease and the politics around the disease. And it’s just all too much. Ordinarily my goal is to research something and get at some truth people don’t know about, then report it. I did this a couple of weeks ago about an unfounded theory that SARS-CoV-2 was in California last fall.
But right now there’s so many awful things going on. And I go deep on some topic and it doesn’t matter because it’s just all too much. People don’t care about the details of some particular nuance of antibody test specificity and Bayesian statistics. They just want to know "is the medical science going to make us safe?" "Are our politicians doing a good job helping us be safe?"
The top level answer on medical science is "science will make us safe, but it takes time". The top level on the politics is "America is doing a terrible job". The Trump administration is full of vandals and science deniers. Trump himself seems worried only in trying to save his re-election chances and lurches day to day to new outrages. Some of the states, including California, are doing better but it’s all going way too slow. My particular anger is focussed on the lack of testing capacity. We are way below what we need to safely reopen the country.
Anyway, it’s all too much. So rather than meticulously run down a bunch of complicated stories I’m just going to list a bunch of the big outrages with minimal references, just so I don’t lose track or forget that they have happened.
It’s not a comprehensive list, it’s just the outrages of the last two months I could remember offhand. It’s too much.
If you made it all the way to the bottom of this bummer post, let me give you one silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud. J. Kenji López-Alt, my favorite food nerd, has been doing an excellent series of home cooking videos. They are a delight.
I have some tips for avoiding the spam that inevitably follows from making political donations. It’s not perfect, but it helps.
The problem: I donated to 10 congressional candidates in 2018. This election cycle I’ve gotten personalized fundraising requests from about 40 candidates; a few of those 10, a lot unrelated. Email, cell phone calls, it’s never-ending. I feel like I’m being punished for supporting my candidates. How to stop it?
The cause: campaign donations are public records. Any time you give money to any campaign or party, your contact info goes to the FEC who then publishes a list of every donation made in the country. This information quickly gets picked up by the political parties and other data brokers into something called "the voter file", a giant spreadsheet with 2000+ rows for every voter and donor in the US. Your name, your address, your phone number, your email, your donation history, and a bunch of direct marketing data like demographics, political leanings, etc. It is basically impossible to avoid getting on this file.
The solution: give the bare minimum information when donating. I believe this is name, address, and employer. Phone number is explicitly not required; leave it blank or make one up (I use an obviously fake number). Email address is definitely not required by law, although many online sites do require it themselves. For those I use special burner email addresses, things like email@example.com. Sometimes that makes it easier to filter in Gmail.
Even if you put all this in place carefully stuff will leak through. Given a person’s name and address you can quickly find all sorts of extra data about them, particularly once you go to marketing databases that have been around 30+ years. They will end up with your cell phone and email and spam text you anyway. There seems to be no way avoiding it entirely.
One special trick for cell phones: reply to spam with the text STOP. Legitimate actors will typically honor that, although I’m not sure it’s perfect.
A request for my friends who work in voting data: please, please have some sort of opt out database. One central list of "this person really does not want to be contacted via cell phone". I know it looks like it will harm your business, but the unstoppable intrusion on donors’ lives will also harm your business.
A favorite indulgent potato chip dip. It's the mild egg flavor with a bit of smoke makes this special. We generally have it as a holiday treat but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about it. Ken says he got the recipe from someone who worked with his Mom around 1960.
Chop the eggs in a food processor fairly fine. Put the cream cheese into a wide, shallow bowl. Add the eggs and mayonnaise and mix well with a fork. Add the remaining seasonings and mix again. Enjoy with your favorite chips. This is a mild dip so plain or mild flavored chips are a better choice.
I posted this recipe three years ago but that was me trying to reconstruct it; this better version is from Ken's own hand.
One of my mother’s favorite Christmas recipes dating back to at least the 1970s were her cheese balls. Nothing unique about the cheese ball or cheese log for Christmas. But ours were specifically Texan. I have a photograph of her recipe card, here’s the ingredients. I think things in parentheses were variants.
Cheese ball (3 fist size balls)
Her recipe didn’t include any notes on actually making it, but it’s basically "put it all in a bowl and mash it together". Grate the cheddar first (she used a sharp cheddar) and don’t be afraid to use your hands to mush it all together. To finish she would roll the balls in bright red mild paprika, mostly for the color. Sometimes in pecans but I never much cared for that.
What makes this Texan? The sharp cheddar, the liquid smoke, and the garlic/onion/cayenne that are chili seasonings. All it’s missing is cumin! (Don’t use cumin.) The prepared mustard is a bit of a curveball for a Texas dish but it’s good. And the touch of wine adds a sophistication.
I was reminded of this because Homesick Texan just posted her Aunt Betty’s cheese ball recipe. That recipe is similar to my mom’s but there are some interesting differences. I like Fain's Worcestershire and the idea of rolling in chili powder (itself a spice blend, including cumin). Wouldn’t be my Mom’s though without the liquid smoke and I suspect the prepared mustard is doing some magic not in Fain’s recipe.
I wonder at the history that gives us these two similar Texas cheese ball recipes. Knowing my mom I’m guessing it was Helen Corbitt. Indeed Corbitt has a cheese ball recipe involving mustard and smoked cheese. And horseradish and pickled beets?! Maybe not.
Update: just made this and it's as good as I remember. Mix the (scant) non-cheese ingredients first, then mash that into the cream cheese, and only at the end add the cheddar. The finer grated the cheddar is the better, but don't use pre-grated; the grocery store stuff is coated with anti-caking powder. I mixed with my bare hand, the warmth helping melt the cream cheese, then froze it for half an hour to shape.
I fear a lot of white people in America don’t understand the pervasiveness of our culture of white supremacy. Growing up I was indoctrinated in racism and white supremacy and it’s taken many years to understand how those hateful ideas have invaded my mind and try to influence every aspect of my thinking. I think most white Americans are similarly indoctrinated and don’t recognize it. As we face a violent flareup of white supremacy in our current political world it’s important to understand how entrenched the idea is in white Americans that we are superior and the country belongs to us, the "real Americans". Recognizing this indoctrination is the first step in fighting it.
My grandmother was my personal teacher for white supremacy. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Houston as a rich white boy, I was immersed in the culture of white superiority that is the birthright of most white Americans. But it was my grandmother who taught me the specifics. Content warning: the rest of this post discusses racist indoctrination in frank terms. It’s an awful thing, but it is my history and I need to claim it.
My grandmother, Lou Ward Jones, was a hateful woman in many ways both personal and petty and also large and broad. She was a virulent unrepentant racist, albeit a socially acceptable one. She was careful not to say N— out loud where polite people would hear her. That word was saved for moments of anger and for my private education. She interacted with Black people: the waiters in restaurants, a live-in maid in her house. But never as an equal. She wasn’t terrible to "her" maids but also was certainly not kind. That servant / familial relationship that is the uncomfortable way of the South.
Here’s some of the things my grandmother taught me
These are some of the nuggets of white supremacy I was taught growing up during weekend visits. Not as a programmatic thing, just the background radiation of the white South. But my grandmother made an explicit effort to indoctrinate me. It seemed entirely unremarkable to me at the time, a lot of white people I grew up around talked this way. I absorbed these lessons from my family just like any little kid does.
Fortunately I learned better. My mother would occasionally push back; while she thoughtlessly harbored racism herself she also knew her mother’s racism was wrong. She made it clear I would not be calling the maitre’d "boy". My school did a good job teaching critical thinking and historical facts somewhat free of Southern bias, particularly my junior year US History class. And I developed my own ideas of social justice starting in high school. I became skeptical, anti-racist, argued back. Not so much against my grandmother though; she was a cruel and abusive woman and none of us talked back to her. I learned to hate her instead.
But the indoctrination was strong. The core message was that as a white person I was inherently superior. That these other races of people were here to be servants, or dumb labor, and while regrettably we couldn’t own them any more we could still treat them as lesser people. No matter what challenges I faced I was white and America belonged to me. It’s a comforting and empowering belief, being raised a white supremacist. It is poison.
I’m sorry to write out all this hateful and horrible stuff. But so much of white America is still awash in these attitudes, infected with them. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to get out of the grip of this indoctrination and I still have tendrils of it in me. Pervasive racism is the single biggest social challenge facing America today, one of the core reasons why roughly half the American population starts life with a significant disadvantage. It goes a long way to explaining Trump’s popularity; people voted for him because he’s a racist, not despite that. This is America.
This essay inspired by Michael Twitty's essay about white visitors to Southern plantations.
My old 2014 server died so I’ve migrated all my personal projects over to a new one. If you’re reading this post everything’s working and you’re on the new server. I’ll have some notes about the migration over on my secret workblog soon. Nothing exciting, just upgrading to Ubuntu 18.
I’ve taken this shift to deprecate or remove some old projects. My live rivers vector tile demo is down for good. The GitHub repo with the tutorial lives on, but serving those tiles took a big stack of software that it wasn’t worth setting up again given no one was looking at it. I’m also winding down Logs of Lag, my League of Legends tool. Partly because its code had rotted and I didn’t have enough interest to update it, partly because I’m disgusted with Riot Games and don’t want to spend any time making free tools for them.
I went to DC a few weeks ago and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an excellent pair of museums, I strongly recommend anyone visiting DC make it a priority. It’s still free and still a hot ticket but easier to get in to than before. If you’re going in summer reserve tickets three months in advance for your best experience. But you can also get same-day tickets and walkups, particularly outside of peak season.
The museum is clearly designed as two separate sections. Downstairs is history, upstairs is culture. The bottom half of the museum is a fantastic history of African Americans from the earliest days of slavery, through slave uprisings, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. It’s ambitious. It will leave you exhausted at the end with no energy for the other half of the museum, the cultural museum. Which is also fantastic, a celebration of African American cultures. Food, textiles, sports, music, TV. I mean, they have the goddamn P-Funk mothership! It’s a lot of fun. Definitely also worth a visit, but plan a break for lunch or something in the middle.
I approached this museum from the background of having visited a lot of German museums about Nazi history. I was wondering how the Smithsonian would deal with America’s enormous crime against humanity. Thoroughly and honestly, but very differently from the German museums. The Nazi memorials tend to a direct documentation of how the genocide and other crimes were conducted. They are focussed on a recent history in living memory, and one that is meticulously documented in precise bureaucratic detail. By contrast formal American slavery is 150+ years old and there’s precious few direct records of, say, individual slaveholders and their daily abuses. The historical distance demands a different telling. Also the Smithsonian has made a decision to tell as uplifting a history as possible; in every room details of African American resistance, strength, and heroism are highlighted. I think that’s admirable but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for documenting the horrible abuses. Those are documented, but only as one facet of the whole museum.
So I was a little conflicted. Honestly I think America needs a fully uncomfortable museum about slavery where the abuses are the focus. How American people and government worked to subjugate other Americans, to keep them and their children in slavery. Far too many people still think that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or wasn’t really Americans’ faults, or that slavery is over so what’s the big deal now? The German museums exist to ensure that no German can be at all confused about what happened in the Nazi regime and could never consider even slightly lionizing that era. Plenty of Americans still celebrate Confederate "heroes" and do not admit to the horrible abuses of slavery, not just in its time but the echoes of it today. I fear in softening the message the Smithsonian does not do enough to communicate how horrible American slavery was. There are a couple of museums that are more focussed on the mechanisms of abuse which I need to visit; the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans and the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery.
One other thing I can’t let go… Nazi memorials in Germany are in no way museums of Jewish culture. They are museums of German history. The Smithsonian has chosen to put museums of both Culture and History together in one place. I think they’ve done an excellent job of it. The separation of floors makes for a separation of concerns. And I like the uplifting message in the history section, the story of how African Americans shall overcome. So the combination works, but it still makes me uneasy.
I’m reading The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. It’s by an Economist journalist, a book about the taboo topic of engineering our way out of global warming. It starts with two questions. Do you think global warming is a real threat? Do you think reducing CO2 emissions to near zero is very hard?
If you answer "yes" to both, then maybe you’re open to an alternate solution to climate change: geoengineering. Active measures to combat global warming other than just telling everyone they have to stop using energy. Some of these methods seem plausible and inexpensive and worth discussing.
One example idea is stratospheric aerosol injection. You fly planes or balloons regularly up to 60,000 feet or so and spray sulfur dioxide. There it turns into various gasses that reflect sunlight, replicating more or less what volcanoes already do naturally. Estimates are it’d cost $2B–$8B per year to completely counteract global warming, a small amount of money. The intervention is temporary, the sulfurous particles don’t last forever. That’s a good thing in that if something goes catastrophically wrong it’s not permanent. Also a bad thing in that it’s an annual cost that has to be maintained. Note the cost and technique is simple enough any individual country could choose to do this unlaterally, at any time.
There’s other possible techniques for geoengineering. Chemical carbon capture, planting enormous forests, orbital sun shades, … But the topic is nearly taboo in environmental circles; a recent UN meeting failed to get consensus to even decide to discuss the idea further. If you believe global warming is a threat to humanity and that our current efforts to stop CO2 emissions are failing, it seems worth thinking about alternatives. Even if you don’t like the idea of geoengineering it’s worth studying in case some other country decides to just do it on their own.
Me, I like the idea. Because I’m a technocrat. I want to believe science and engineering can solve any problem. Also because it doesn’t require demanding that the 50%+ of the world that’s not yet industrialized goes years more without cheap power because we’re mad they’ll put as much carbon in the air as the rich countries already have. The risks are obvious and enormous. But they are also hopefully manageable and the risk is absolutely worth it if it saves our planet.
The Supreme Court yesterday heard a case about whether the US census can include a question on whether the person is a citizen, a question placed there by Wilbur Ross for the Trump administration. They’ve already lost this case in three federal courts but now it’s going to the Supreme Court. Despite the politics, there’s some important non-political arguments here that matter and aren’t being well reported. Let me highlight them.
The goal of the decennial census is an accurate count of all people. The basis of the Census comes from Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution as amended by the 14th Amendment. The key phrase here is "counting the whole number of persons in each State". Not counting just citizens. In particular, representatives to the House are apportioned based on the entire population of each state, not just the population of citizens.
The accuracy of the count matters. It directly affects the number of House of Representatives seats and also Electoral College votes. The count also greatly influences funding apportionment, social security, etc. It’s not just statistical data for planning purposes, it is the count of record for all sorts of legislative matters.
The citizenship question would result in an undercount. The problem with the citizenship question is it will cause a lot of non-citizens to not answer the census and thus not be counted. It’s not hard to imagine why someone who is living here illegally would not want to disclose that fact to a federal officer, particularly now. But the citizenship question also discourages people who are here legally. Don’t take my word for it: the Census’ Chief Scientist John Abowd said "Three distinct analyses support the conclusion of an adverse impact on self-response and, as a result, on the accuracy and quality of the 2020 Census."
We already ask about citizenship. In addition to the decennial census, the Census Bureau also runs a fantastic demographic research program called the American Community Survey. They send detailed questionnaires of various types to a subset of American households, some every month, and collect detailed data on ethnicity, education, economics, even a count of how many people own computers. The ACS also asks about citizenship; here’s a quick view of the some of data.
We know the citizenship question will result in an undercount because of the ACS’ experience with the question. They have detailed estimates of how many people don’t answer the census at all, don’t answer the citizenship question, or quit the survey right where the citizenship question is asked. Abowd’s memo about this is long (100MB PDF), here’s a shorter relevant excerpt. Broadly speaking there’s two separate concerns; that the census taker doesn’t answer the one citizenship question, or that they don’t answer the whole census because of the presence of that one citizenship question. There’s corroborating studies from outside Census that also show the question will result in a significant undercount.
The decennial census has to be an exact count. Thanks to a 1999 Supreme Court decision the Census data used for apportionment must be an actual head count. No form of sampling or extrapolation is allowed, despite the fact that would result in a number closer to the true count. That means there’s no way to correct a census flawed with an undercount from the citizenship question.
I’ve tried to present politically neutral arguments above. How do we most accurately get an exact count of people in the US? By not adding a new question about citizenship. But of course the politics of the census can’t be ignored. The Census estimates 6.5M people may be undercounted because of this question, that’s nearly 2% of the US population. The people being undercounted tend to be Hispanic and immigrants and also tend to be pro-Democrat. Those people will be denied representation in the House and those states will be underfunded.
It’s not an accident that this question the Republican administration wants to ask just happens to help Republicans. It’s there because Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach asked Wilbur Ross to put it there, a fact that Ross apparently forgot about in earlier testimony. Ross tried to claim the Justice Department asked him to add the question but it turns out they only asked because Ross requested they ask him. The White House is now refusing to cooperate with a congressional investigation into how the question came to be on the census in the first place. There’s a detailed timeline of the political process. It’s gone much faster than the usual multi-year process for questions to carefully be added to the Census.
The Census Bureau is a competent, careful, non-partisan government agency. It’s a shame to see their work corrupted.
Reminder: it is not normal for the President of the United States to openly embrace the language of fascism.
I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.
Update: Trump tweeted a link to his interview, then deleted it after someone inspired by him murdered 49 people in New Zealand.