January 29, 2021

The Horrors of Movies on Television

 I am a big movie fan, and much of my movie watching is done on the television. (Particularly so in the current circumstances, of course!) I prefer to watch movies on HBO, Showtime, Netflix, or TCM. since I can see the movies without commercial interruptions and more or less in their original form.

The Silence of the Lambs Poster
If there is a movie I really want to see on another network, I usually record it, so I can fast-forward through the commercials when I actually watch. Even if I intend to watch this way, I am discouraged by the occasional announcements that the format of the movie has been altered or that the movie has been edited for time or content. Whenever I see such a notice, I stop watching and delete the recording. I have no desire to see movies butchered by a rapacious or cowardly network.

The other day I recorded The Silence of the Lambs on BBC America. I had seen this movie a long time ago and thought it time to see it again. The movie is quite good, though it strains credulity at times. (Hannibal Lector’s escape from incarceration is a bit hard to believe, for instance, as is Clarice Starling’s being assigned to the case at all.) I enjoyed watching the movie, though the density of commercials at the end of the film—the most exciting few minutes—was especially annoying. I was surprised, however, that BBC America deleted the end credits! This was unforgivable and was done without any warning that the movie had been edited for length. I suspect that I will no longer watch movies on BBC America.

Of course, BBC America is not the only network that seems to assume that no viewers care about credits. An indignity often visited on films shown on television is the compression of credits at the bottom of the screen to allow a commercial or promo to shown above them. Of course, if you don’t have a wall-sized TV screen, the credits are unreadable. If the film is speeded up to show the credits, even your big-screen TV won’t help.

Clearly, some networks don’t show movies to appeal to real movie lovers. Pity. 

January 25, 2021

Really, SCOTUS?

I was surprised to learn today that the Supreme Court instructed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss two suits alleging that President Donald Trump violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting money from foreign governments at his Washington hotel. (See news stories here and here. The Summary Dispositions of the high court can be found here—see cases 20-330 and 20-331.) The court ruled that the lawsuits were moot, since Mr. Trump is no longer in office and no more infractions can occur. The court cited United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., a decision from 1950. 

To the casual observer, the dismissal of these suits  seems akin to dismissing a murder charge because, after all, the decedent is dead and can no longer be killed by the defendant. Was the president guilty or was he not? Surely, the charges brought against the ex-president, if brought by the House of Representatives during his term of office, could have resulted in impeachment and potential conviction and removal from office. Apparently, however, the Emoluments Clause lacks enforcement provisions in ordinary law making the prohibited action illegal and subject to particular penalties.

The action of the Supreme Court is outrageous, but the court could perhaps do nothing more than it did. Apparently, actual legislation backing up the Emoluments Clause is needed.

On the Upcoming Trial of Donald Trump

 Donald Trump is to be tried once again by the Senate. There is much confusion—some of it intentionally generated by Trump partisans—about the legitimacy and consequences of such a trial. I hope to clear up a few matters here.

Impeachment and trial are authorized by the Constitution. For our purposes, the most important passage occurs in Article I, Section 3:

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present.

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States; but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

Article II, Section 4 provides that:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The above section enumerates offenses that may trigger impeachment and specifies that a person impeached and convicted is necessarily removed from office. (Donald Trump’s impeachments have both been enacted under the “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” provision.) Removal from office is the only obligatory penalty, but the punishments of Article I (“disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States”) may be imposed. It is almost certain that, were Mr. Trump to be convicted by the Senate, his ability to hold (presumably federal) office would be restricted, as the certainty of not running against him in the 2024 presidential race is an incentive to convict for at least some Republican senators. The ex-president could also have his pension, allowances, and Secret Service protection terminated, but a separate vote would be required to impose such penalties.

Under the circumstances, Mr. Trump will not be removed from office, as he is already out of office. He would not be the first federal official to be impeached and tried after having left office, however. Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached minutes after his 1876 resignation and tried by the Senate. The vote for conviction was 35–25. The Senate had voted 37–29 that a trial could be held, but arguments that such a trial was unconstitutional contributed to a not guilty verdict. In any case, the Belknap affair offers a precedent for trying a former officeholder. Prominent Republicans are arguing that a trial of Donald Trump is unconstitutional, and this argument will undoubtedly affect the Senate vote in the current instance.

It has been widely reported that conviction of the ex-president will require the votes of at least 17 Republican senators. It is assumed that all 50 Democrats and independents will vote for conviction, and that 17 Republican votes will be needed to reach the 67 votes required for conviction in the 100-person Senate. This is not quite true, however. Article I, Section 3 requires “Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present” [emphasis added] for conviction. Certain Republican senators may choose to be absent for the vote to convict.

Finally, whether or not the ex-president is convicted by the Senate, Article I, Section 3 indicates that he may still “be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” In fact, the post-presidential career of Donald Trump may be consumed with fending off indictments and avoiding prison, activities that may minimize the time he can devote to political mischief.

January 24, 2021

How to Run Mass Vaccinations Redux

 NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday led off today with a story titled “Unpacking The Biden Administration's Coronavirus Strategy.” Dr. Carlos del Rio, Rollins Professor and chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University, was interviewed by Lulu Garcia-Navarro. He reported on having just taken a turn inoculating people for the coronavirus. Some people were excited to get the vaccination, he said, but others were nervous. Apparently because he had conversations with the people being injected, Dr. del Rio was only able to vaccinate four or five people per hour.

Whereas we can all appreciate the doctor’s caring bedside manner, we should be appalled at the throughput he was able to achieve. A reasonable concern for efficiency would suggest that the person giving injections should not have to chitchat with patients. Giving injections does not require an epidemiologist.

Earlier this month, I suggested in a post—see “How to Run Mass Vaccinations”—that sites intent on maximizing the rate at which vaccinations can be given should use personnel wisely. Injections should not be given by doctors but by lower-level professionals skilled in the task. (My experience suggests that nurses, for example, are better at giving injections than are doctors simply because they are called upon to do it more often.) Less skilled people, likely not even medical personnel, should be checking people in and answering their questions, which are likely to be quite repetitive. Enough people should be doing this so that the queue of persons ready to be vaccinated is never empty. It may even be helpful to have a person whose only job is to fill syringes for the person actually delivering doses. There is no reason for the actual task of giving a vaccination to take as long as one minute. Medical personnel can be standing by to handle unusual questions or concerns and to respond to any unexpected reactions to being vaccinated.

Judging from the pictures I see on television, I have concluded that we are being less than smart about designing procedures for mass vaccination. Especially appalling are the long lines of automobiles queuing up for vaccinations. This is a waste of time and resources, and it seems to be driving some people crazy.

Here is a suggestion for delivering vaccine in many circumstances: In locations where there are many and conveniently located voting sites, why not use them for vaccinations? Certainly, in many cities—those run by Democrats, in any case—there are many polling locations, none of which serves an inordinate number of voters. In each on, on an announced, rotating basis, set up a vaccination group as I suggested in my earlier essay. Non-voters in the area served by a given site can be accommodated. People from outside the voting district can be served only if time and demand allow. This system may not be perfect, but it surely would be better than what is often being done.

With any luck, the Biden Administration will come to conclusions similar to my own. Someday, I hope to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Moreover, I hope it is this year!

January 18, 2021

Donald Trump’s Future

 Many of the insurrectionists who sacked the Capitol on January 6 are claiming, in their defense, that the president told them to do what they did. Fine. If Donald Trump does not pardon himself (and probably even if he does), he should be indicted as the fomenter of the insurrection against the United States of America and should be arrested at Mar-a-Lago at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps U.S. Marshals should be waiting at Mar-a-Lago for the former president when he arrives on Wednesday.

January 15, 2021

Slavery Revisited

 The latest addition to the politically correct lexicon is the use of the phrase enslaved person for the more succinct slave. Supposedly, this practice is intended to emphasize that those held in bondage are, first and foremost, human beings.

Slavery, in antebellum America in any case, sought to eradicate the personhood of the enslaved as much as possible. To Southern planters, slaves were not people at all; they were property that, ideally, behaved as automatons. (I know, domestic slaves became, in a limited sense, part of the owning family. But most slaves were field hands who were simply interchangeable parts of the plantation machinery.) Slave personhood was rather a nuisance. Instead of celebrating their personhood, calling slaves enslaved persons minimizes the dehumanizing and cruel conditions under which they labored. It substitutes for the terse, harsh, one-syllable locution, a milder-sounding four-syllable phrase that softens the horrors of the peculiar institution.

It is true that no one is properly characterized only by one’s occupation. We all understand this. To say that someone is a manager, for example, does not suggest that he or she is not fully a human being, a citizen, perhaps a spouse and parent, a lover of food, etc. There is no need to speak of such a person as a person who manages. Likewise, we speak of a baseball player without feeling any need to speak of a person who plays basketball. Friends would think it strange were we to refer to a politician as a person who engages in politics, though, admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to discern the humanity of such a person. Yet, we have converted homeless people into people who are experiencing homelessness.

Substituting phrases reputed to emphasize the personhood of actors of one sort of another merely serves unnecessarily to increase the word count of our writing and utterances. No one needs to be reminded that a politician, or even a slave, is actually a person. Neologisms such as enslaved person are simply silly and should be avoided.

January 14, 2021

Essays on Ranked-Choice Voting: Chapter 1

With another election behind us, I have been planning to write one or more essays promoting and analyzing ranked choice voting. I have long been an advocate of this method of conducting elections—see The People’s Choice (Round Two), originally written November 11, 2000—and there seems to be increased interest in it of late. By no means does the essay below start at the beginning, but I start here in response to an interview heard recently on NPR.

WAMU’s public affairs show1A presented a program titled “The Future and Feasibility of Ranked-Choice Voting.” Readers who have never heard of ranked-choice voting (RCV) should first read my essay mentioned above. More comprehensive information about RCV can be found on the FairVote Web site. (Fair Vote offers a concise description of RCV here.)

What most interested me on the 1A episode was the criticisms made of RCV by one of the guests, Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. Professor McDaniel’s role seemed to be that of naysayer invited to balance the opinions of RCV advocates. His fundamental criticism of RCV is that ballots are complex—more complex than the usual ballots, at any rate—which leads to two basic problems. First, some people are discouraged from voting because they do not understand the system. McDaniel claims to have empirical evidence of lower turnout due to ballot complexity, though he admits that the effect—if it exists at all—is small. Second, McDaniel asserts that RCV produces more ballot errors.

I believe that the benefits of RCV are substantial and remain so even in light of McDaniel’s criticisms. I do not intend to argue for those benefits here but merely to address McDaniel’s objections.

It is undoubtedly true that the ballots for RCV are more complicated than those of conventional American elections. Rather than marking a vote for one’s favorite candidate, it is possible, though not necessary, to indicate candidate preferences in order: first choice, second choice, etc. RCV ballots may be structured in various ways, and some may be more confusing than others. Typically, however, ballots include clear instructions as to how to cast one’s vote. And the changeover to RCV voting needs to be publicized and explained to the voting public. Will some people still misunderstand how to fill out a ballot? Surely, but people ruin ballots using conventional, “simpler” voting schemes—they mark their vote for two opposing candidates, they skip races by mistake, and they fail to follow instructions for mail-in ballots.

The instructions on an RCV ballot should make it clear that one can vote for a single candidate, i.e., treat the ballot as for a conventional election. If we believe even this is too confusing for some folks, we can offer alternative ballots, one that allows voting only for a single candidate in each race, and one that allows for ranking voter preferences. Let the default ballot be the conventional one, and let people confident in the use of the RCV ballot request such a ballot. The conventional ballots are then treated as if they were RCV ballots with only the most preferred candidate chosen.

As I mentioned, voters already have ways of spoiling their ballots. RCV provides more ways to cast an incorrect vote, but many errors can be “cured” by applying some straightforward rules:

  • If two or more candidates are given the same rank (e.g., second choice), the votes for those candidates are disregarded.
  • If the ballot requires the voter to indicate rank by entering numbers, rather than, say, filling in bubbles, marks other than numbers are disregarded. Likewise, illegible entries are disregarded.
  • Candidates ranked without duplication have their preferences renumbered, if necessary, to maintain the indicated ordering. The candidate with the lowest indicated rank (i.e., the most desirable rank) is considered the voter’s first choice, the candidate given the next higher rank is considered the voter’s second choice, etc. This re-ranking can be done by computer before ballots are tabulated.
These rules do the best job possible of capturing the intention of the voter, even in cases where the voter has marked a ballot improperly. Is not this the goal we would like to achieve?

Some ballot formats are susceptible to a greater range of errors than others. Paper ballots requiring the voter to enter numbers are most susceptible to errors and should be avoided. From the point of view of catching errors at the source, a computer-based voting system is most desirable. Given the need for hardcopy voting records that can be audited, however, computer-based systems need also to generate a paper copy of the voter’s choices. The costs of such a system must be weighed against the cost of spoiled ballots and possible extra costs to “cure” ballots (if desired) as described above.

January 11, 2021

Choosing a Name for September 6, 2021

 On September 16, 2001, I wrote an essay titled “What’s in a Name.” That essay considered the meaning of the events of September 11, 2001. But it also raised the question of how we would refer to those events in the future. As it happens, none of the names I suggested stuck. We will instead forever speak of “9/11.”

We now must consider how we will refer to the events of January 6, 2021, when, encouraged by President Donald Trump and others, an angry mob sacked the United States Capitol. It is to be hoped that this barbarism will have less historical significance than 9/11, but that remains to be seen. It is nevertheless an experience we will need to talk about, and we need to give it a name.

My first thought is that the name we use for the recent events should somehow reference Trump or Trumpism, but this may not be necessary. Here are some possibilities:

Trump Insurrection
Trump Coup
Trump Failed Coup
MAGA Failed Coup
MAGA Catastrophe
MAGA Implosion
Sack of the Capitol
Trump Putsch
Epiphany Putsch

Some of these suggestions seem a bit too abstract (“MAGA Implosion”), although I should add that “9/11” is itself somewhat indirect. “1/6” seems too derivative and, in any case, is not euphonious. “Sack of the Capitol” is quite literal, on the other hand, though it fails to name an instigator. One hopes this sack of the Capitol will not later be confused with other Capitol sacks.

I rather like the word “putsch,” defined as “a plotted revolt or attempt to overthrow a government, especially one that depends upon suddenness and speed,” according to Dictionary.com. “Trump Putsch” makes sense, though it almost gives Donald Trump too much credit. He clearly incited the actions taken by the mob he addressed, but, although he said he would march to the Capitol with them, he instead retreated to the White House.

Despite the fact that the name fails to mention Trump, I rather like “Epiphany Putsch.” January 6, of course, is the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles. The ragtag army that marched on the Capitol had no thoughts of the Christian celebration, but the sack of the Capitol was an epiphany of sorts—it manifested, for all to see, the logical consequences of the error of Trumpism. That epiphany has been powerful enough to remove the blinders from the eyes even of some Republicans who have hitherto been unshakable Trump sycophants.

Are there other suggestions? What name shall we (and the historians) choose?

January 6, 2021

Thoughts on the Recent Insurrection

 Where should I start? Today held much promise. It seemed likely that two Democrats had won senatorial elections in Georgia, thereby giving Democrats control of the Senate. And Congress was supposed to officially count the Electoral College votes that would definitively make Joe Biden the next president. Republican lawmakers were expected to object to some of the votes, but those objections could only delay the inevitable, not change the outcome in any way.

Earlier in the day, however, President Donald Trump, addressing the crowds he had encouraged to come to Washington for this momentous day, sent an angry mob off the Capitol to use force to, if not change the result of the election, at least dramatize their displeasure. To the surprise of many—and apparently to D.C. law enforcement—the Trump-enraged mob stormed the Capitol. As I watched the television coverage, I was distressed as the angry Trumpists mounted the steps of the Capitol. Surely, they won’t be allowed to enter the building, I thought. But soon enough, they were in the building, breaking windows, breaching the Senate chamber, and invading the offices of lawmakers.

I had always thought that this sort of thing never happened in the United States. We are not a banana republic subject to periodic coups. But it was happening. In a sense, I felt personally violated; the Capitol is the people’s house as much as is the White House. Those animals who had broken in claiming it was their house, thereby relinquished their right to claim it,

Throughout the day, the president ignored pleas to call off his insurrectionists. Only late in the day did he advise them to “go home with love & peace.” But he did so while still asserting that victory had been “so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away” from him and his partisans.

As I write this, the Congress apparently intends to reconvene in a few minutes to complete the task that was interrupted earlier this afternoon. Police and national guard troops have cleared the Capitol and are creating a widening perimeter around the Capitol complex. A six o’clock curfew is in effect. It isn’t clear if the insurrection is over. Apparently, only one person was killed.

I will need time to process the events of the day. For now, all I can do is ask questions:

  • Why was the mob allow to enter the Capitol? The large, angry gathering was not a surprise—the president had been encouraging it. Why was there not a larger law-enforcement presence?
  • Who was responsible for the light law enforcement presence?
  • Why were not thousands of people arrested?
  • I saw Capitol police with nightsticks being chased by the mob inside the Capitol. Why were the insurrectionists not met with assault rifles?
  • What mayhem will happen tonight or tomorrow?
  • Should not we impeach the president for encouraging insurrection or remove him from office via the Twenty-fifth Amendment? Trump still has two weeks in office the destroy the Republic.

January 5, 2021

How to Run Mass Vaccinations

 I listened to an NPR report this morning about the difficulty of providing COVID-19 vaccines. Of course, different localities are encountering different problems. An underlying fact, however, is that vaccinating against the current pandemic is more complex than providing the annual flu vaccine. Because the vaccine(s) are scarce and valuable, it is important that mass vaccinations proceed as efficiently as possible.

The NPR story suggested that it may take half an hour to vaccinate a single patient. First, there are a number of intake questions to be answered, and the recipient may have additional personal questions. Although the actual injection is quick, the patient must be kept under observation for 15 minutes to assure that he or she has no immediate adverse reaction. Vaccine shortages aside, it is easy to see why the vaccination process often proceeds slowly.

Another problem, of course, is building the queue of patients awaiting treatment. Television news reports are showing hundreds of people standing in line outdoors or lined up in their cars, so this problem is being handled differently from place to place and is often not being handled well. There likely is not any universally ideal recruiting scheme, but, clearly, we need to collect vaccine recipients without creating an undue burden on them or, heaven forbid, exposing them to possible contagion by virtue of their proximity.

Recruiting is likely not much of a problem in nursing homes or hospitals. We need to think harder about how to recruit from the population at large. Having people call in for appointments is frustrating them with busy signals. There needs to be a better way. Probably, recruiting in urban areas will need to be handled differently from how it is in rural ones.

On the other hand, delivering the vaccine efficiently can be done expeditiously with a little planning. My model for this is the typical blood drive. Like the vaccination process, giving blood necessarily includes intake questions and a brief stay after donation to assure no ill effects on the donor. In this case, the main process takes a good deal of time. Therefore, there are multiple tables on which the actual blood draw takes place. Ideally, when someone has completed the intake form, a table will be available. Although the actual donation is time-consuming, the system is designed for acceptable throughput.

Applied to mass vaccinations, the procedure looks like this: Only one person need be performing the vaccinations, although the person will need to be relieved from time to time. Intake, on the other hand, is slow and needs to be performed by multiple questioners to assure that, as soon as one injection is given, another person is ready to the next one. One or more other workers can monitor the group of patients awaiting the all-clear after vaccination.

This system requires perhaps four or five workers not involved in an actual medical procedure. Crowd control might need other people. These people need not be medical personnel, although some training may be in order. I suggest that recruiting such people would not be difficult. Simply offer them their own vaccination in compensation. Perhaps they should be paid as well, but this may not be necessary.

The procedure outlined above is, I suggest, the “obvious” way of handling mass vaccinations. Why is it not being used?

January 1, 2021

A Very Happy New Year

Today is the first day of a new year—2021. The greeting “Happy New Year” carries more meaning now than in most years. We leave behind what was decidedly an unhappy old year. We anticipate not simply a new beginning—realizing, of course, that the transition from one year to the next is arbitrary—but also a justifiable hope for a better quality of life in 2021.

We can expect a new, more competent, and more humane administration in Washington. Its advent is less than three weeks away. Equally significant, we await widespread vaccination to protect against COVID-19, and the eventual, though not immediate, return to community life at least somewhat as we once knew it.

There are clouds on the horizon. If the Senate continues to be controlled by Republicans, the Biden administration will find it difficult to achieve many of its objectives. But much of the work of undoing the depredations of Donald Trump and his minions can be effected through executive action, so the righting of the ship of state can proceed even with Mitch McConnell continuing in the role of Senate majority leader.

One can even hope that, with Trump out of the White House, his malign influence on many of our citizens will be diminished. An administration with very different policies, inclinations, and normal procedures may cause some of Trump’s followers to reconsider their wants, loyalties, and misconceptions. Racism, resentment, and hostility are not easily overcome, however, especially in the face of social media that facilitate their intensity. But it is not a vain hope that benign administration will have at least some positive effect.

Another cloud over 2021 is the irrational fear, even hostility, toward vaccination. To the degree that vaccination protects individuals, the refusal to accept it is an act of self-abuse. Unfortunately, it also harms the community, as protection against the continuing spread of the  SARS-CoV-2 virus requires widespread immunity conferred by the various vaccines available or becoming so. As vaccination becomes more universal, perhaps the aversion to it will decrease sufficiently to allow so-called herd immunity to develop.

As we slowly emerge from the twin distractions of the pandemic and the Trump maladministration, we will, I think, be changed. One can hope that that change will largely be for the better. We should recognize that our civilization has vulnerabilities and that we have an opportunity to ameliorate them. More people will continue to work from home, thereby reducing energy consumption and air pollution. Other changes, some disruptive though necessary, will also be required. We should have learned what government can accomplish and what happens when we refuse to employ it. Finally, it is to be hoped that we, at long last, will change our bizarre and dangerous method of electing our president and vice president.

Two thousand twenty-one will surely be happier than its predecessor. May it truly be a happy new year for you and yours and for the United States of America!