May 31, 2011

Pay day!

Thank goodness, it's finally arrived. Only 11 days late.

May 29, 2011

Sunday chemistry blogging: DMT

Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is a naturally occurring substance sometimes used as a psychedelic drug.  It is one of the most famous and widely studied psychedelics (it features in books by McKenna, Shulgin, and Strassman, among others).  If you remember the structural shorthand from last week, you should be able to decipher this picture:

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)

(By the way, psilocybin, from magic mushrooms, is extremely similar to DMT.)  The two commonest methods of administration are smoking and ingesting.  The smoking method is sometimes called "the businessman's trip," because it comes on almost immediately and only lasts for 20 minutes or so (compared to LSD's 8-10 hours).  The ingesting pathway is a bit more interesting.  DMT makes one half of the famous ayahuasca traditional mixture prepared by Amazon shamans.  DMT is not normally active orally (it will be metabolized), so one must take a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI—like harmaline) in combination.  The ayahuasca preparation is usually just a blend of herbs containing DMT and an MAOI.

Pharmacologically, DMT does a lot of very complicated things, but I think a simple picture will give you a flavor:

5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin)

This is serotonin, one of the most famous neurotransmitters.  (Prozac works on this guy.)  It's obvious that DMT is very similar to this compound (this is common, especially amongst psychedelic drugs), and so one can surmise that DMT would behave in a manner substantially similar—but not identical—to serotonin and so temporarily alter brain function.  Of course, the details are not fully known and, like anything in the brain, phenomenally complicated, but that's a reasonable way to think about it.

What's it like to take it?  Let's ask McKenna:
What has impressed me repeatedly during my many glimpses into the world of the hallucinogenic indoles, and what seems generally to have escaped comment, is the transformation of narrative and language. The experience that engulfs one's entire being as one slips beneath the surface of the DMT ecstasy feels like the penetration of a membrane. The mind and the self literally unfold before one's eyes. There is a sense that one is made new, yet unchanged, as if one were made of gold and had just been recast in the furnace of one's birth. Breathing is normal, heartbeat steady, the mind clear and observing. But what of the world? What of incoming sensory data?

Under the influence of DMT, the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth, a palace, a more than possible Martian jewel, vast with motifs that flood the gaping mind with complex and wordless awe. Color and the sense of a reality-unlocking secret nearby pervade the experience. There is a sense of other times, and of one's own infancy, and of wonder, wonder and more wonder. It is an audience with the alien nuncio. In the midst of this experience, apparently at the end of human history, guarding gates that seem surely to open on the howling maelstrom of the unspeakable emptiness between the stars, is the Aeon.
(UPDATE: As B points out in comments, "indole" is the name for that fused ring system in DMT: the six-membered benzene ring attached to the five membered pyrrolidine ring.)  I'm not sure if it's possible to write about a DMT trip without sounding like a New Age crystal-gazing lunatic.  In any case, I couldn't find any better-sounding experiences online. People often report travel to alternate dimensions and contact with intelligent aliens.

DMT is present in dozens of different plants throughout the world. Studies have found it occurring naturally in the human body; its function there is unknown so far, though that hasn't stopped some loopier types speculating that DMT may be at the root of some transcendental states achieved through meditation or religious fervor.  It sounds plausible, but there is no confirming evidence as yet.

That's it for this week.  Next week, we'll move from the tryptamine class of drugs to the phenethylamines.

Paycheck update

Our financial officer has informed us that the late payday is due to a mixup back at DC headquarters.  Apparently some jackass "forgot" to submit the bank transfer this month, or something.  They were not remotely specific, whoever it was, but they said that the money should arrive by the 1st of June.  Maybe. 

However, I do have faith that our local financial officer is not at fault here.  Even if he had forgotten, by now the situation would have been rectified if he had the power to do so.  We volunteers can complain up a storm.

May 26, 2011

Um, hello??

Our monthly paycheck is now six days late and counting.  Comeo

May 25, 2011

You can't make this up

So House Republicans have agreed to provide federal aid for the recent tornado damage.  What's the catch?
House Republicans, who require spending cuts whenever new spending is proposed, said the FEMA funds would be paid by cutting $1.5 billion from an Energy Department loan program for the production of fuel-efficient vehicles.
Well, at least it's not like oil prices are extremely high or anything.  Good thing these chumps weren't in charge of Japan when the earthquake hit.

Africa links

1. Alassane Ouattara has finally been sworn in to the Cote d'Ivoire presidency.

2. North and South Sudan continue to clash.

3. The Ugandan parliament has elected its first female speaker.

4. Wal-Mart is trying to buy Massmart, the largest retailer in South Africa.

5. The ANC is trying to jam through a bill expanding government secrecy power.

Um, hello?

Our monthly paycheck here is now five days late and counting.

May 23, 2011

On "To Hell With Good Intentions"

During our mid-service training, one of the breakout sessions had us reading a speech by Ivan Illich called "To Hell With Good Intentions" arguing that volunteer service in developing countries is terrible:
I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.

I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class "American Way of Life," since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it - the belief that any true American must share God's blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants "develop" by spending a few months in their villages...

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.

By now it should be evident to all America that the U.S. is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth. The survival of the U.S. depends on the acceptance by all so-called "free" men that the U.S. middle class has "made it." The U.S. way of life has become a religion which must be accepted by all those who do not want to die by the sword - or napalm. All over the globe the U.S. is fighting to protect and develop at least a minority who consume what the U.S. majority can afford. Such is the purpose of the Alliance for Progress of the middle-classes which the U.S. signed with Latin America some years ago. But increasingly this commercial alliance must be protected by weapons which allow the minority who can "make it" to protect their acquisitions and achievements.
To be brief, I think this is a bunch of shit. But it's worth unpacking a little because it contains a lot of pathologies still common on the left. The first is the classic self-critical regression. A great phrase used to describe the American right wing that has cropped up recently is "epistemic closure," an upgrade from "echo chamber," meaning the conservative movement is impervious to new (or any, really) evidence and completely unwilling to engage in critical reflection. (I think that's mostly true.) The left, wanting to demonstrate our intellectual bona fides—and above all avoid appearing like conservatives—tries to keep up a healthy tradition of soul-searching. That is a good thing.

However, it can be taken too far; you end up with that old Robert Frost joke: "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." What should be honest self-examination of the limits and dangers of visiting a foreign country, and the obvious realization that "helping the peasants develop" is pretty insufferable, turns into a sarcastic tirade about the inescapable paternalism inherent in "imposing yourself on Mexicans." One of the most obnoxious habits on the American left is one-upping those of insufficient ideological purity. "Calling out" someone who has done something wrong is a good instinct, but it often turns into a game of holier-than-thou.

The second is the conflation of democratic capitalism with American imperialism. This is less common now, but I still see it now and then. Activists back in the Cold War (this speech was given in 1968) saw America's imperial actions all over the globe—our support for various awful dictators, our wars, our persecution of anyone deemed to have the faintest tinge of communism—and concluded that the system of democratic capitalism was necessarily predicated on either the exploitation of a giant underclass of peasants or the forcible creation of a tiny "middle class" in poor countries that would buy our exports. Thus, argues Illich, American volunteers are actually helping prop up the capitalist empire, which would collapse absent continual global meddling.

I think it's clear now this idea is bonkers. Yes, the US has definite imperial character, and continues to commit atrocities to that end, but the economic system is not based on subjugating the globe. The empire is a creation of nationalist zealots, basically like all the others. Developing countries all over the world have embraced the capitalist paradigm and represented most of world economic growth for the years of the financial crisis. Bringing more countries into the economic fold, while it may cause some low-paying jobs to migrate out of the developed world, will represent a net positive for the US and the world. At the very least it isn't causing the collapse of the global economy.

The third is an overestimation of the distance between cultures. This is the one that really gets my goat:
All you will do in a Mexican village is create disorder. At best, you can try to convince Mexican girls that they should marry a young man who is self-made, rich, a consumer, and as disrespectful of tradition as one of you. At worst, in your "community development" spirit you might create just enough problems to get someone shot after your vacation ends_ and you rush back to your middleclass neighborhoods where your friends make jokes about "spits" and "wetbacks." [...]

In fact, you cannot even meet the majority which you pretend to serve in Latin America - even if you could speak their language, which most of you cannot. You can only dialogue with those like you - Latin American imitations of the North American middle class. There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.
It's true that one can never really leave behind one's culture, but I categorically reject any theory saying it is a priori impossible to have any cross-cultural contact whatsoever with the underprivileged. I have been a miserable failure at development, but one of the greatest parts of this experience has been meeting and interacting with those from another culture. I've made friends here, be they poor or rich, be they Tswana, Zulu, Afrikaner, Xhosa, or otherwise; to say that my contact with them is really just part and parcel with American cultural imperialism is bullshit. Full stop.

We're all human beings, social creatures, immensely capable of adaptation and interaction. I will always be an American, but I say learning from others around the world is possible—indeed, necessary these days—and to be commended.

May 22, 2011

Sunday chemistry blogging: why heroin is not actually a drug

I've been soliciting advice from diverse professional bloggers about making this blogging thing into a vocation, and there was a solid consensus that while wonky political types are fairly common, science writers are much less so.  What's more, taking a look at the science blogosphere, the majority are either biologists or physicists.  So, I'm starting a new series today on chemistry! 

Now, I know what you're thinking: chemistry sucks!  Not so.  It's true, chemistry does seem to have the worst reputation of the hard sciences.  My favorite sub-discipline, organic chemistry, is usually considered a form of madness.  (Damn pre-meds.)  I'm here to tell you that, while it might not have the sexiness of astronomy or the interesting squishiness of biology, chemistry can be fun and fascinating.  Onward!

The first topic today is the line diagram (or skeletal formula). This is a simple chemical shorthand that lazy organic chemists use to avoid having to draw endless carbons and hydrogens. We'll need it to understand future pictures. There are basically four rules: 1) lines represent bonds, 2) every vertex or terminus is a carbon, 3) all carbons must have four bonds, and 4) hydrogens bonded to carbon are omitted:

Here we've got two pictures of ethanol.  On the left is a simple arrangement diagram, showing which atoms are connected to each other.  On the right is the line diagram of the same molecule.  The line ends on the left (making a terminus), so that counts as a carbon, and the angle (vertex) in the middle counts as a carbon.  The left carbon has only one bond shown explicitly, but by rule 3 all carbons must have four bonds, so by rule 4 we fill out the remaining bonds with hydrogens.  Thus, like the left picture, there are three hydrogens bonded to the left carbon.  By a similar argument, the middle carbon is bonded to two implied hydrogens.  Still with me?  (See here for more.)


This is heroin. You might notice that it's slightly more complex than ethanol.  Don't be afraid, it's mostly just a lot bigger.  The parallel lines up there represent double bonds, where two pairs of electrons are being shared between the atoms instead of one.  (That means that any carbon with a double bond is only bonded to three other atoms instead of four.)  Other than that the only issue is the bolded and dashed bond lines; these are meant to represent orientation.  The bold ones are coming up out of your computer screen at you, while the hashed ones like the oxygen on the bottom (O = oxygen) are going down into the screen.

So why is heroin not actually a drug?  Let's compare heroin and morphine:

Heroin (left) and morphine (right)

Fairly similar, eh?  In fact, they're exactly the same except for those funny groups on the left side of the heroin (there's one attached to our friend the bottom oxygen).  Where morphine has an -OH (oxygen-hydrogen) group, or an alcohol, heroin has an acetyl group.  Now, "acetyl" looks scary, but it's actually very close to something I'm sure you're familiar with: vinegar.

Acetic acid

This is acetic acid, the molecule that gives vinegar its smell, taste, and acidic properties.  If you look closely, you can see that all that differentiates heroin from morphine is two of those bad boys stuck on the side.  If you took some heroin, your body would go to work on it by putting it through hydrolysis, busting off those acetyl groups and converting it to morphine.  Therefore, heroin is a prodrug, meaning that it's an inactive form of another drug that gets metabolized in the body to the active form.  When you take heroin, the thing that eventually ends up in your brain's receptor sites is morphine.

So why does anyone take heroin?  The thing about morphine is that it's a big, greasy molecule, and has some trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier.  Those acetyl groups, though, make heroin a lot more fat soluble, enabling it to sneak into the brain a lot more easily—effectively making it three times more potent than morphine, but only if injected.  If you eat heroin, the first round of metabolism in your digestive tract converts most of it to morphine before it can make it to your brain.  You've got to bypass that by going straight into the bloodstream to get the extra potency.

That's it for today.  Tips, comments, or suggestions are always welcome.

May 21, 2011

Quote for the day, if we're still alive

Apparently today was supposed to be the end of the world.  Here's something to celebrate.

"I am not contemptuous of the ancient world. It was not a stupid world. My point is that its consciousness was completely different from ours. It is a gigantic error to think that you can transplant their concepts into a life in our world, into a consciousness that has experienced Darwin and Freud and the Industrial Revolution, comparative religion and psychological analysis, research into the nature of dreams and cults and visions and hypnosis, stars and myths and ancient documents, anthropology and quantum physics; a world that knows about closed self-justifying logic, and the conjuring tricks of Indian gurus, and the manipulative methods of cult recruitment and the de-programming of its victims; a world that tries to develop sophisticated techniques for understanding and treating schizophrenia and multiple personality disorders, instead of putting spit on their eyes and exorcising demons.

It just can not be good enough any more to uncritically accept and believe what was written and taught by people in another type of world. And yet the convictions persist, for example about the supposed "prophecies" in the Bible. In the early 1980's I heard a Christadelphian saying that Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War were all in the Book of Revelation, that it was another sign of the coming of the last times, when Jesus would come again. In the 1960's they were saying it about Vietnam, and in the 1990's they were probably saying it about Bosnia or Kosovo.

You can only entertain such speculations if you have been insufficiently educated by your own culture, or otherwise you would be aware that history is littered with apocalyptic hysteria, with scores of generations one after the other all believing that theirs was the one, this time He would come back and the Kingdom of God would arrive in their lifetime. The Jehovah's Witnesses said it in World War I, and our great-grandfathers and ancestors were hearing about these "prophecies" applying to the Boer War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Seven Years War, etc.

19th century North America was full of it. The Adventists predicted the Second Coming for 1843. The Christadelphians started there, and at the time you would never have been able to convince one of them that the world would last long enough even to reach the 1980's.

I think it is a tragedy that people are weak enough to continue needing to believe such things, or to believe that they can not have worthwhile lives, expressing values and solving problems, unless they also have a foundation of amazing superstitions "explaining" what it all "means". Imagine discovering the diary of a Naval Officer written in the 1750's, when the English and the French were at each other's throats, and thinking that its words and concepts were deliberately phrased so that you could relate it to political activity in the European Community today; or claiming that because it referred to battle and conflict, it foretold something about World War II, or that a reference to a ship could be interpreted as a reference to the space capsule that took Neil Armstrong to the Moon. Or imagine the Church insisting that the 153 fish mentioned at John 21.11 was a prophecy of the 153 movies actually made by the American actor John Wayne nineteen hundred years later, clearly indicating the prophetic foresight of the Gospel writer, who must somehow have known that, in one of those very movies, Wayne would play the Centurion on Calvary who attested to the divinity of Christ. This is as valid as other fulfillments of Biblical prophecy. Perhaps I should start my own cult.

I once had a conversation with a fundamentalist about the Second Coming and the general resurrection. I objected that this had been expected before, and that no matter how long you wait you can never disprove this doctrine. I think he was expecting it to happen by 2000. He knew it had been expected before the year 1000. I asked, might it happen by 3000, and he agreed that it may indeed not have happened before then. I asked, how long would God expect people to wait? Might it not have happened by the year 7000? He thought this unlikely. It's a shame I can't put any money on it as we won't be around to see." --Graham Lawrence, "The Fallible Gospels," from a website which is no longer up or I would link.

A South African IT solution

Apparently the rate of software piracy in Africa is double the global rate.  On a related note, Becca notes that IT problems, particularly viruses, are endemic in the school system here:
Viruses spread like wildfire here in South Africa as I'm sure they do in other places with similar conditions (where technology is very prevalent but not very well understood). It seems like it's a constant battle to keep the computers at our schools free of viruses which are mostly spread by USB sticks. Whenever the administrative assistants get together for a workshop or to submit data about the school, they come back with new virus from other administrative assistants. Some people are more concerned than others and follow the directions we give for checking their USB sticks and computers and can usually keep their computers pretty clean, they have to be extremely vigilant whenever anyone else uses their computer. Others don't seem to mind wiping their hard drives clean and reinstalling Windows every few months and just throwing away (or if they know how reformatting) USB sticks.
I imagine this is about as likely as the world ending today, but since switching to Linux Mint, I've thought the South African school system could benefit hugely from a mandatory switch to some kind of Linux distribution (probably an older one, since a lot of computers here are a bit dated).  It would take some work at first, but as Becca notes, there is a huge amount of time and money wasted reinstalling operating systems, cleaning viruses and USB sticks, and rewriting virus-destroyed documents.  Often when schools can't get their systems to work, they hire techs to come over, sometimes hundreds of kilometers, to fix things.

These people, by the way, can be rather unscrupulous.  One thing my friend Justin noticed was a particular company would set up a computer lab at great expense, and install Windows Server 2008 without entering the product key.  The lab would work great until the 30-day trial period elapsed, then shut down.  The school officials don't know the right questions to ask, and the company then gets to keep a $1029 piece of software to sell to someone else.

Linux, on the other hand, is completely free and supports every piece of hardware one is likely to see in a South African school.  It's basically immune to viruses and malware, and most distributions come with a good software toolkit: OpenOffice, a browser, an email client, etc.  What's more, Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution, is supported by a company owned by South African Mark Shuttleworth (also the first African in space, by the way).  He would be more than happy—proud even, I imagine—to help the government switch over to a far superior operating system for a fraction of what it is currently costing them to maintain the Windows-based IT structure.

Election results

As expected, the ANC won a large victory with 63.6% of the vote (with 80% counted thus far).  However, this is a bit less than the 67% they won back in 2006.  The opposition Democratic Alliance drastically increased their support from 14 to 22.1%.  Given that Coloureds (mixed race) and whites make up about 9% each of the population, clearly the DA's play for the black vote had at least some success.

May 19, 2011

Election day!

South Africa voted yesterday in the rough equivalence of midterm elections. To my amazement they actually set up a polling station, complete with official signs, officers and police in my tiny village. It's been an extremely visible campaign with the two main parties putting up signs all over creation in a mess of languages.

The two main parties are the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance.  This was apparently the first election where the DA, traditionally the party of whites and Coloureds (mixed race) made a serious effort to get the black vote.  To my eye they had a much better-organized campaign, with their signs up long before the ANC's and a much larger media buy.  The DA strategy focused on service delivery, going with the slogan "We deliver for all" (or in Setswana, "Re direla botlhe," or in Afrikaans, "Ons leiwer dienste aan almal," or in get the picture) featuring commercials with a bunch of gogos (grandmas) talking about how things had been much better once the DA had taken over.  By the way, they also swiped Obama's famous round campaign logo.  The ANC's slogan was "Together we can build better communities," which was a lot harder to read from the road.  I never saw any ANC commercials, so I didn't get a clear idea of their strategy.

I'm not supposed to comment on local politics, so I won't say who I would have voted for, but I think it's worth noting that this was an utterly routine event procedurally.  Reading The Fate of Africa was grueling, but a great reminder that despite all the problems here, it could be a whole lot worse.  There's no strongman looting the country bare, no genocide, no ethnic civil war, no child soldiers and no invading foreign armies.  Instead it was a pretty garden variety election with parties competing over who can run the government better.  That is a very good thing.

UPDATE: See here for election results, still coming in.  They've got a cool interactive map.

May 18, 2011

Rwanda and *The Fate of Africa*

Matt Yglesias pointed me to an interview with Rwandan president Paul Kagame the other day:
Paul Kagame, 53, has been president of Rwanda for the past decade and vice-president—and de facto leader—for seven years before that. But for all the power and years of command he appears as lean and austere as he was as the 36-year-old guerrilla commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel army that fought an end to the 20th century's swiftest act of mass murder—the killing between April and July 1994 of some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers.
I'm no historian, but my service here has had me reading a bunch of books on African history. The last one was The Fate of Africa, a cynical and bloodcurdling — but good — post-colonial overview.  For such a gigantic topic, it's necessarily a bit limited (focusing a bit more on macroeconomics than I'd like), but it covers most of the big events.  Most African postcolonial leaders have had a wide authoritarian streak (a trend that is slowly reversing), and Rwanda is no exception.  More importantly, he follows the technocratic tradition laid down by leaders like Julius Nyerere (as compared to plunderers like Mobutu or psychotic butchers like Francisco Nguema), and now that socialism has definitively fallen out of favor, he is avoiding previous mistakes and making reasonable development progress.

By the way, Kagame's Wikipedia page is ludicrously biased at the moment.  Take that with a grain of salt.

The historical background obviously includes the 1994 genocide, but the history of ethnic tensions goes back a lot further.  Tutsis monarchs had been ruling Rwanda for years when first the Germans and then the Belgians took over, installing Tutsis as their administrators.  Independence came with a Hutu revolt in 1959 featuring a lot of anti-Tutsi murders and ethnic cleansing.  The most famous genocide was not the only one, either: in neighboring Burundi, in 1973, Tutsi president Michel Micombero, in the face of Hutu revolt, committed genocide against Hutus, killing as many as 200,000.

Kagame got his start in Uganda; he was part of the Rwandan exile army that helped bring Yoweri Museveni to power there.  His Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded from Uganda in 1990 with the object of bringing down then-President Juvena Habyarimana, who took power in a 1973 coup.  After a lot of fighting both sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1993, but when Habyarimana was shot down by parties unknown, the genocide began, which had been planned for months by Hutu extremists under the aegis of Habyarimana.

Kagame's actions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after the genocide have been atrocious, but again the context is important.  When the RPF took Rwanda, a great many of the Hutu g√©nocidaires fled to (then) Zaire, which they then used as a base to launch attacks into Rwanda and Uganda.  Museveni and Kagame tried installing their own president in what was now the DRC (Laurent Kabila), but when that didn't work, they invaded, prompting Angola and Zimbabwe to jump in on Kabila's side.  A bloody war ensued, and Rwanda and Uganda began taking whatever wasn't nailed down from eastern Congo. 

The important thing is that none of this would have been possible if Mobutu hadn't left the DRC a complete basketcase.  What was at first a legitimate problem of rebels using eastern Congo as a base turned into a looting spree when it turned out there was no effective government anywhere in the DRC.  By the end it turned basically into a giant free-for-all, where even Rwanda and Uganda fought each other over the spoils.

The article mentions that Kagame has played the UN like a fiddle for aid, saying he's "not shy of playing on western guilt at having failed Rwanda in its hour of need."  It is true that the UN failed in what should have been the most open-and-shut case of humanitarian intervention since WWII, but it's actually much worse than that.  The whole story I'll save for another post, but suffice to say that France was hip-deep in the 1994 genocide from start to finish.  Stay tuned.

Short-circuiting the electoral college

I always had a rather hazy idea that getting rid of the electoral college would take either a constitutional amendment or changing the voting laws in every state.  I had heard of some proposed state laws that would award electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, but not thinking about it very hard, I assumed you'd again have to get one passed in every state.

However, looking closer, a grassroots group called National Popular Vote has invented a slick workaround that could deep-six the electoral vote without all that much effort (compared to a constitutional amendment, that is).  It's an agreement among states to award their electors to the winner of the popular vote based on Article II, Section I of the Constitution, which gives the states the right to determine how their electors are selected.

The beauty is that the law doesn't take effect until there is the critical majority of 270 electoral votes represented in participating states, so no state has to worry about possibly giving its votes to an undesirable candidate.  The part I didn't realize was that once that majority is attained, the electoral college is effectively dead—with a winning electoral vote majority committed to supporting the popular vote winner, the electoral college becomes a mere formality.

So far seven states plus DC representing 77 electoral votes have passed the law.  It's currently under consideration in a mess of other states, including California and Texas.  Only 193 more votes to go!  The fact that you can even do something like this doesn't speak well for the electoral college.  What a silly system.

May 17, 2011

Budget cuts field report

Via Wikimedia
So the GOP's frantic evisceration of government has finally hit way out here in the boonies.  Here's the story: President Obama's FY 2011 budget contained $440 million for the Peace Corps, which would have been a $40 million increase.  Originally Peace Corps was preparing to operate at Obama's level, but when it became clear that wasn't going to happen, headquarters revised operations down to a $400 million level.  Thus the South Africa post reduced the numbers of trainees for this year from 130 to 110.

Since Congress never passed a budget, they authorized a bunch of continuing resolutions telling agencies they could function at 2010 levels.  However, during the last confrontation over shutting down the government in April, Congress scraped off an additional $25 million (thus giving Peace Corps a $375 million pot).  The number of trainees here was further reduced to 99, but since we're so far into the fiscal year, a great deal of that money has already been spent, and financial officers have been scrambling to cut costs wherever they can.

Here, for my group of volunteers, the close of service conference has been canceled pending a special disbursement from headquarters.  (The COS conference is to help us start the process of reintegrating into the US, while taking care of a bunch of medical procedures required before we can leave.)  All the volunteer committee meetings (dealing with things like language, volunteer support, etc.) have been put on hold until September 1st at the earliest.  Volunteers also get a small allowance for traveling around in country (for food shopping, meetings, etc).  This has been cut by more than 80%, though they will still pay us back should we go over that allowance if you fill out a pain-in-the-ass form and keep all your receipts.

Now, this isn't so much complaining about personal hardship (though, I'll be honest, that travel allowance cut really sucks).  This is the Peace Corps; we're supposed to be able to deal with it.  It's more that this is no way to run a government.  Uncertainty may suck when you're running a business, but it also sucks when you're running a government agency.  (It's almost like the GOP doesn't care about uncertainty at all.)  The Peace Corps administration had been preparing to deal with a budget increase, but not only is Congress unable to pass a budget telling them for sure how much money they're dealing with, Tea Party ideologues yanked the rug out from under them after the fiscal year is two-thirds over.  After promising not to.  Chumps. 

The deficit may be a serious issue in the medium to long term, but I can tell you for a fact that nickel-and-diming the Peace Corps for $25 million is not going to close the $1.6 trillion budget hole.  (That second number is, like, way bigger.)  Furthermore, it's causing a lot of Americans who are diligently serving their country and the world a lot of unnecessary grief.

May 16, 2011

Prepaid electricity

via Wikimedia
As dirty fucking hippies predicted, because we've been through this before with telephone deregulation, electricity "competition" will lead to companies engaging in dubious practices to bilk you out of your money. Electricity isn't like gas or a bottle of milk. You use it most of the time without having any sense of the per unit cost (both per kilowatt hours and how many kilowatt hours your teevee users), you just know roughly what your bill "should" be based on past experience. This is just one more pain in the ass for people who have enough pains in the asses to deal with.
I think he's right about the likely effects of electricity deregulation and how people don't pay much attention to their electricity bill, but I'd say people should pay more attention to it even if it is a bit of a pain in the ass.  (Though I think Atrios was mostly talking about having to sift through your bill to make sure the company didn't hide a bunch of bullshit fees in this case.)

South Africa's setup is better in this regard (though way out here in the village the power is a bit intermittent).  Most people have prepaid electricity with a simple meter giving your remaining kilowatt-hours.  Five minutes at an ATM lets you buy electricity tokens with your cell phone; if you don't have a bank account, most every village shop sells them too.  I can say not only is it very easy to keep your supply up, the simply act of having to buy a token and punch it into the meter makes you pay attention to your electricity consumption in a way I never had before.  What's more, the readout is continuous, so nerdy types can experiment away.

Now, that's not going to solve the climate crisis, but in the context of some kind of sensible energy bill, it could help people (especially lower income) save some energy and money.

I have been assimilated

Now when I'm reading a normal book and I find a word I don't know, my immediate instinct is to bring down the cursor so I can look it up with the Kindle auto-dictionary.

(h/t: Shakespeare's Sister)

Electoral college shenanigans, ctd: lose the Presidency with 78.05% of the vote

Taking another look at this post, I see now that I made two mistakes (some I noticed and some others pointed out).  First, I didn't use eligible voters, I used total population.  Second, I could have easily rigged it to come out with exactly 270 votes by simply removing a state.  So, I redid the calculation with data from here.  (See below.)  In this case, Wyoming through Wisconsin yielded 273, so I subtracted Montana, which is the least over-represented state with three electoral votes.  The total was barely changed from the other calculation: 21.95%.  Still, technical accuracy is worth checking.

2008 Presidential election, via Wikimedia
In comments, Alon added: "Well, Tony Blair won his three general election with an average of 40% of the popular vote and only 35% in 2005."  This is a valid point; parliamentary systems often return a prime minister who has only won a plurality.  However, to clarify the point, the really egregious thing about the electoral college isn't that it's possible to win with an extremely low vote percentage, it's that you can lose with a huge vote percentage.  No parliamentary system could possibly have a loser with 78.05% of the vote.

Others pointed out that it would be preposterous to have someone win DC, Vermont, Delaware, and Utah while losing New York and California.  That's true right now, but mostly an accident of history.  It's easy to imagine a future where one party ends up with support mostly concentrated in larger states, and therefore systematically under-represented in the electoral college.

I did this not as a serious possibility, but rather to point out the absurdity of our ad-hoc system.  (And this is the tip of the iceberg.)  No sane person would design a presidential election method this way.  It's time we scrapped it.

State Voting-Eligible Population Electors VEP per elector Percent of VEP WY thru WI – MO 270
Wyoming 405861 3 135287 0.186128408446298 Total Percent 43.9
District of Columbia 470144 3 156715 0.215608679968207 Half Percent 21.95
Alaska 493692 3 164564 0.226407824902293 Losing Total 78.05
Vermont 493696 3 164565 0.226409659307752

North Dakota 496664 3 165555 0.227770788157946

Rhode Island 755179 4 188795 0.346326119932851

South Dakota 600029 3 200010 0.275174118211959

Delaware 631634 3 210545 0.289668214340794

Hawaii 930624 4 232656 0.426785436348719

Montana 753666 3 251222 0.34563225606818

New Hampshire 1011125 4 252781 0.463703304802046

Nebraska 1271875 5 254375 0.583283610626878

Maine 1032820 4 258205 0.47365266140749

Idaho 1051978 4 262995 0.482438546350893

New Mexico 1400217 5 280043 0.64214142696502

West Virginia 1418691 5 283738 0.650613628575022

Iowa 2220718 7 317245 1.01842430523762

Kansas 1995927 6 332655 0.915334845883182

Nevada 1692499 5 338500 0.77618235101907

Arkansas 2079647 6 346608 0.953728952129222

Mississippi 2129092 6 354849 0.97640449660289

Connecticut 2507296 7 358185 1.14984936710787

Louisiana 3256637 9 361849 1.49349817227407

Utah 1843282 5 368656 0.845331640580664

Oklahoma 2653821 7 379117 1.21704593205891

Minnesota 3799328 10 379933 1.74237700544141

Alabama 3457019 9 384113 1.58539363091948

New Jersey 5811886 15 387459 2.6653388506196

Maryland 3944006 10 394401 1.808726533672

Oregon 2780456 7 397208 1.27512091586765

Colorado 3578616 9 397624 1.64115818105326

Massachusetts 4783819 12 398652 2.19386592149815

Kentucky 3197471 8 399684 1.46636456393493

Missouri 4433443 11 403040 2.03318300976783

California 22882532 55 416046 10.4939604011755

Wisconsin 4203366 10 420337 1.92766938360001

South Carolina 3375958 8 421995 1.54821894570197

Tennessee 4659865 11 423624 2.13702044794796

Indiana 4678739 11 425340 2.14567609010381

Illinois 8934072 21 425432 4.09717761081906

Michigan 7288055 17 428709 3.34231196843029

Washington 4728332 11 429848 2.16841950757944

New York 13355984 31 430838 6.12507248825145

Ohio 8637282 20 431864 3.9610693118133

Arizona 4331851 10 433185 1.98659277993329

Virginia 5689910 13 437685 2.60940049056863

Georgia 6596556 15 439770 3.02518958339648

North Carolina 6760227 15 450682 3.1002493273453

Texas 15407666 34 453167 7.06597665321905

Pennsylvania 9565259 21 455489 4.38664083034987

Florida 12812802 27 474548 5.87596848181408

United States 218054301

May 15, 2011

Tsotsis in DC

Yglesias has a run-in with the dregs of humanity:
But then lo and behold right by Catania Bakery a couple of dudes ran up from behind, punched me in the head, then kicked me a couple of times before running off. Once, years ago, in Amsterdam a guy threatened me with a knife and took my money. These guys took nothing, and just inflicted a bit of pain. All things considered the threaten/rob model of crime seems a lot more beneficial to both parties than the punch-and-run model. But I guess it takes all kinds.
This dude's wry inner economist is one tough SOB. My worst encounter with tsotsis left me pissed and jumpy for weeks afterwards. He continues:
To offer a policy observation, higher density helps reduce street crime in an urban environment in two ways. One is that in a higher density city, any given street is less likely to be empty of passersby at any given time. The other is that if a given patch of land has more citizens, that means it can also support a larger base of police officers. And for policing efficacy both the ratio of cops to citzens and of cops to land matters. Therefore, all else being equal a denser city will be a better policed city.
The thing about police is undoubtedly true, but I think to have the extra passersby thing work one needs a public culture with a critical mass of people that will help others getting mugged or beat up. I've had three encounters with tsotsis here in Kuruman and every one of them was in broad daylight, within fifty yards of the biggest supermarket in town, on a sidewalk literally surrounded by people. Here tsotsis seem to like to attack in crowds because a) you can't run away as easily and b) they know no one will do a damn thing

On a side note, though I haven't had an attack in more than a year, I've become seriously jumpy as a pedestrian.  The other day I was walking around Vryburg and a mischievous friend decided to sneak up behind me and grab my backpack.  I wasn't paying much attention at the time, but I spun around super fast, going from spacing out to dukes-up, bring-it-motherfucker in about a femtosecond.  Crime does bad things to you.