How voting helps

Plaque commemorating a lecture by Susan B. AnthonyI’ve long been peeved by how little credit people give to the power of their vote.

So many people seem to think that a vote isn’t effective unless it holds the balance of power, as if their vote only counted when the other voters were equally split, so that their vote would sway the election one way or the other.

This isn’t true for individuals, and it most especially is not true for groups.

Back in the run-up to the 2008 election, I heard a  story on NPR that provided a good counterexample. An Indian tribe in (I think) New Mexico was getting attention from state and national candidates of both parties, because they had started voting. Pretty much all of a sudden, after their voting turnout had shot up, their issues became important to politicians at all levels. And their issues weren’t just important when there was a close election and their votes might make the difference: Because they voted in every election, every politician needed to pay attention to their issues all the time.

If you’re a member of a group that votes, your group’s issues will be taken seriously. You don’t need to be a majority. You don’t even need to vote as a block. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t: You want politicians thinking that each individual vote is up for grabs, if they institute the right policies.)

The image at the top of this post is of a plaque in downtown Champaign, commemorating a lecture on “Work, Wages, and the Ballot,” that Susan B. Anthony gave here back in 1870. I’ve seen the plaque many times, but couple of days ago, I thought to take a picture of the plaque, and that prompted me to do a proper search, which yielded some results.

This Project Gutenberg Book Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian, by Alma Lutz is pretty good:

She had at hand a perfect example in the unsuccessful strike of Kate Mullaney’s strong, well-organized union of 500 collar laundry workers in Troy, New York. Aware that Kate blamed their defeat on the ruthless newspaper campaign, inspired and paid for by employers, Susan asked her, “If you had been 500 carpenters or 500 masons, do you not think you would have succeeded?”

“Certainly,” Kate Mullaney replied, adding that the striking bricklayers had won everything they demanded. Susan then reminded her that because the bricklayers were voters, newspapers respected them and would hesitate to arouse their displeasure, realizing that in the next election they would need the votes of all union men for their candidates. “If you collar women had been voters,” she told them, “you too would have held the balance of political power in that little city of Troy.”

I turned 18 shortly after the voting age in the US had been lowered to 18. The drinking age had been lowered along with it, so it was legal for me to drink. But a big jump in drunk driving accidents prompted many states to raise their drinking age.

In Michigan it turned out to be an oddly complex process. A state law was passed, raising the drinking age to 19, but grandfathering in people who were already old enough to have started drinking before the law went into effect. After that law was passed, but before it went into effect, a state constitutional amendment was put on the ballot, that would raise the drinking age to 21, without any grandfathering. That would create a whole cohort of people who’d been able to buy alcohol for a year or more, who would lose that right. And all of them could vote.

I voted against it, of course. But nobody else I knew who was going to be in the affected group bothered to vote. They didn’t much care about the issue—it was as easy for under-age drinkers to buy booze then as now—and they didn’t think their vote would count for much. And, as it turned out, they were right. But only because their peers didn’t vote. Not only could a solid voting block of 18-to-20 year olds have affected the outcome, I rather doubt if the issue would have even gone on the ballot, if 18-to-20 year olds voted at the rates that senior citizens do.

The way voting helps is not by winning individual elections (although that does happen and it’s nice when it does). The way voting helps is that if you’re a voter, politicians take your interests into account all the time.

Decorative Brassicas

Spotted these decorative brassicas by the front walk of a house near campus, and liked them—a seasonally appropriate floral alternative for December.

Not the best picture ever—my phone had a pretty good camera for its day, but the lens has been riding around in my pocket for 5 years now.

I was near campus to meet some former co-workers for lunch, and took the opportunity to walk over to a Chinese grocery store near University and 5th, where I’d gotten a box of Ceylon tea last summer. That box of tea is just about empty, and I thought I’d look and see if they still carried it—which they do. (I’d checked on the internet, and found that Amazon was selling the same tea for $17 a box. The Chinese grocery store had it for $3.)

Creative Commons License
Decorative Brassicas by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.philipbrewer.net.

Bought new boots

I don’t hate shopping. I sometimes say I do, but it’s an inaccurate shorthand. What I hate are a cluster of things inextricably intertwined with shopping. I hate driving from store to store. I hate the mall. I hate agonizing about the tradeoffs between choice A and choice B, especially under time pressure, and especially under conditions of imperfect information.

I’m a lot happier buying stuff on-line. But not boots. I never buy shoes or boots without trying them on.

I also dislike spending money, especially spending largish sums of money, such as the $168 (including tax) that I just spent for a pair of boots.

I think I like the boots. I wanted a pair of waterproof, lightly insulated, hiking boots. This pair is all those things, plus they fit well and feel good on my feet. I’d had in my mind that I’d get GoreTex waterproofing and that the degree of insulation I wanted would probably be 200 gm Thinsulate, and I didn’t end up getting either of those. These are just “waterproof,” which probably means that the leather was treated with some sort of sealant—probably adequate for my purposes. And they’re insulated with 200 gm Primaloft, which is also probably at least as good as Thinsulate.

I decided that I needed these boots, because last year I found myself staying indoors too much during the winter, because I didn’t have adequate footwear for cold and wet. (We get a lot of cold and wet in Central Illinois—slush, snow, rain changing to snow, melting snow, cold rain falling on snow or ice, freezing rain, freezing mist. If you can think of weather that’s cold and wet, we have it here.)

With the right boots, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get myself out to walk, even in inclement conditions. Plus, there’s the slight extra boost that comes from the novelty factor of new boots.

And, with that in mind, I’m heading out now to walk a mile or two, to start breaking them in.

I am the 99%, and I am lucky

The crowd in West Side Park at the Occupy CU rally

I came out of college almost debt-free, because my parents paid for my education.

I got a job writing software. It was exactly what I wanted to do—the only thing I wanted to do as much as writing prose. I remember being glad that my manager didn’t know that I’d have worked for free, just to get access to the computers. (In 1981, computers were still expensive.)

I started my career right at the moment when software started to became important everywhere. Even though my degree was in economics, I had no trouble finding software jobs.

I got raises, because software went on becoming more important. Even when the companies I worked for fell on bad times, I found a new job without difficulty.

I saw things changing. After about 1990, jobs went away a lot quicker, and when they went away, they didn’t come back.

I was still okay, because software was still important.

I realized that software wasn’t going to remain special. I realized that millions of people around the world could write software just as well as I could. I realized that the ones in China and India could live a middle-class life on one-tenth the money I was earning. I realized that I couldn’t compete with them on price.

I figured I was safe for a while, but only because there were so many managers who were sure that an employee he couldn’t see working probably wasn’t working. But that wouldn’t last. Managers would adapt. And managers who couldn’t adapt would lose their jobs.

I started saving money. I could see that I wasn’t saving it fast enough, so I started living more frugally. That was a double win: Spending less left more money to save, and it also provided me with an existence proof that I could live on less.

I lost my job when Motorola closed its Champaign facility in August of 2007. By then, I had saved and invested a lot of money. Not enough to retire in any ordinary sense, but enough that I figured I could get by without a regular job.

I am a writer now. It’s exactly what I want to do.

I am very lucky. That’s not unusual; there are a lot of lucky people. What’s a little unusual is that I know just how lucky I’ve been.

I am the 99%.

2011 Harvest

Our 2011 harvest of peppers
Washing our pepper harvest

After Jackie broke her wrist, we quit going to the garden. She couldn’t do that sort of work at all, and I was so busy trying to do the bare minimum of my work plus the necessary fraction of the work she couldn’t do any more, anything extra had to be dropped. The garden was one thing we dropped.

Jackie’s nearly all better now. The splint has been off for several weeks. The hand therapist said she was doing well enough on her own and didn’t need formal physical therapy. (He gave her a bunch of exercises to do.) But we still didn’t go to the garden. It just seemed like it would be too depressing to see the remnants and imagine what our garden might have been.

And yet, we figured there’d probably be some stuff to harvest. We’d had a hot, dry summer, so we didn’t expect the tomatoes to have survived. And without us there to do the weeding, we figured the greens would have been overshadowed terribly by weeds. But the sage should have survived, and perhaps the peppers as well.

As it turns out, it wasn’t even quite that bad. Two of our cherry tomato plants did very well. And, as you see, the peppers produced in great profusion. We also got some sage, some swiss chard, and a some sunflowers.

Now I’m feeling a little silly that we didn’t get to the garden earlier. We’d certainly have gotten a lot more sunflowers—we could have had flowers steadily for all these weeks. We’d also have been able to eat the peppers steadily as they ripened, instead of getting a whole bunch at once that we’re going to have to preserve. But not very silly. We did about the best we could under the circumstances. To have gotten this much of a harvest despite doing no work since early July is kind of a bonus.

No accounting for taste

Refrigerator InteriorA former coworker, Brian Marick, complained about a lack of creative commons licensed photos of refrigerators. (He wanted an image to illustrate the concept of “code smell.”)

I happened to have a free moment, so I grabbed this quick snap of our refrigerator, and posted it it to flickr under an attribution license.

Now, first of all, it turns out that Brian was wrong. Apparently there’s a whole genre of refrigerator interior photos (see the pool “fridge fetish“) and mine is not the only one with a creative commons license.

But what’s struck me is that people seem drawn to the image. It’s already picked up 2 favorites.

It just goes to show that one is a poor judge of one’s own work. I have other photos that I spent a lot more time on—photos where I was trying to make a point or capture the beauty in a scene or document a moment in time—and how well I think I succeeded doesn’t really predict whether other people seem to find the image interesting or not.

It’s a lesson that I need to apply more to my writing. Just because I’m not sure a story is my best work is no reason to stick it in a drawer. That’s not to excuse slipshod work, but once I’ve done the best I can I need to be a little more willing to get the story out to editors. Maybe they’ll be drawn to it.

Illinois Marathon

Illinois Marathon runnings near mile 18
Lucie Mays-Sulewski in the lead near mile 18 of the Illinois Marathon

Several miles of the Illinois Marathon course run quite close to our apartment, so I thought I’d wander over and watch some of the elite runners go by.

The people who win a marathon run at about a 5-minute-mile pace. So, with the nearest point along the course being roughly mile 18, I figured they’d come past about an hour and a half after the start. My figuring was just about right, but I was a little slow getting out of the house, so the first two runners went by while we were still a block away.

We got to see the rest of the top men go by. They were pretty spread out—it doesn’t look like this is going to be a tactical race at all.

It was a grey, cool day. A bit windy for anyone hoping to get a great time, but otherwise perfect for running a marathon. It was, however, just a bit chilly for standing still. We watched runners go by in ones and twos until we saw the first of the women go by, then headed back home.

[Update: Checking the results, I see that the woman in the picture is Lucie Mays-Sulewski who went on to finish first among the women (and 24th overall) with a time of 2:52:54.]

Toured National Petascale Computing Facility

Jackie and I got a tour of the NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility at the University of Illinois today, where they’re getting ready to install the Blue Waters supercomputer.

This picture shows just the power stations—all the space between these units will, over the next few months, be filled with rack after rack of water-cooled POWER7 modules. (A big part of the building houses cooling towers to dissipate that heat).

There are a couple of supercomputers already installed at the other end of the room, including the EcoG, designed and built by students to enter into a contest for energy-efficient supercomputers. (It took 3rd place overall , and was declared the “greenest self-built cluster.”)

It was build on ordinary commercial-grade racks, which turned out not to be quite strong enough to support all the hardware they were installing—you can see where they braced it with two-by-fours.

A week earlier, we’d attended a tour of the NCSA’s Data Visualization Lab, where we’d been treated to a bunch of 3D videos (shown on a very large, very high-res screen) produced on various supercomputers. It was pretty cool, but I didn’t get any photos worth sharing.

Because I’m a big geek about security and related topics, I was particularly interested in the facility’s secure entry. Employees need to swipe a proximity card and submit to an iris scan. Only after the cylinder closes behind them does it open in front—and it won’t do that if a weight sensor suggests that there’s more than one person in the cylinder.

Secure entry at the National Petascale Computing Facility

Those of us on the tour just walked in through a door next to the secure entryway.

New water amenity

Our new "water amenity."

I was trying to come up with a word to describe the degree of progress they’d made toward finishing the landscaping here. The dirt is there, so it isn’t landless-scaping, and the contours are in place so it isn’t land-scapelessing. With only one remaining word fragment to work with, all I could come up with is landscape-ingless.

(I blame English for using “landscaping” to refer to both the changes made to the land itself and to features like sculptures and plantings.)

Every since they first tried to sell the community on turning Scott Park into a detention pond by claiming that “anyplace else it would be considered a water amenity,” Jackie and I have been using the term “water amenity” for any feature constructed to deal with the runoff from development.

There’s nothing like calling your ditches, impoundments, detentions, and retention ponds “water amenities” to class up the joint.

After the thaw is over

After the thaw is over

A week of warm weather melted almost all the snow. But now it’s back below freezing. The puddles are just starting to freeze, beginning with little rings of frost on and around individual blades of grass.

We had two January thaws this year, one in December and one in February.

The December one was pleasant, and not very dangerous. We could enjoy a few days of mild weather without any risk of thinking that we didn’t have a full three months of winter ahead of us.

When you get your January thaw in February, though, you have to be careful. It’s easy to hope that you have seen the last of the winter weather. But that hope is a dangerous one—the sort that’s all too prone to be crushed under ice and snow and brutal cold.

Preferring to keep my hopes uncrushed, I’m trying to remember that it’s still a month until spring.