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Lessons Learned Posts

Finding Unusual Voters

The last two big U.S. elections have rekindled discussion of voter fraud. There have been claims that non-citizens are voting, of people voting more than once, and of dead people voting. I wondered if any of these claims could be tested by analyzing publicly available data on voter registrations and history. To this end I have built some tooling around the Florida voter data.

  1. I looked for voters who are unusually old. I built a report that shows voters who have voted in Florida as supercentenarians. This list looks a little suspicious to me because only one of these voters shows up on Wikipedia's list of American supercentenarians.
  2. I looked for duplicate voters. There are lots of ways to do this. As a first attempt, I built a report that simply looks for voters who have the same first and last name, street address, and birth date. This finds quite a few people who are registered more than once, if they are the same person. In many cases, the middle name is different. Some of these cases may be twins, but that seems unlikely to me. In some cases, the potential voter has voted more than once in the same election. If these are indeed the same person, these are invalid votes. In many of these cases, the voter was voting under one voter ID and then switched to another. This is likely due to overzealous or sloppy voter registration efforts. The voter may not even realize that he or she is registered multiple times. At the very least, the duplicated registrations should be investigated and cleaned up by the local supervisor of elections.
  3. I noticed that the total number of unique votes is different when looking at unique counties in the vote history. That should not be possible as one cannot legally vote in two counties at once. I made a report that shows these double votes.

At the time of this post, the reports are using the data published on November 13, 2018 by the Florida Division of Elections. The reports will automatically update when newer data is published.

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Etymology of “assault rifle”

An interesting meme in the gun debates in the United States is that “assault rifle” is a made-up term created recently by the left for political purposes (e.g., Twitter). Having encountered the term often enough in other contexts, I was surprised by this assertion. According to Google Ngram Viewer, which can search many older texts, the term was used as early as 1927 in “Infantry Journal”. It was used in many similar publications. The U.S. Army refers to the M16A2 and the M4 as “assault rifles” ([1] [2] [3] [4]). I am surprised this meme continues to exist when it is so easily discredited.

That the term has been used for a long time gets mixed up with the fact that it is deliberately misused to create more confusion on this topic. By a pretty reasonable definition, no AR-15 clone is an assault rifle, as it has no fully automatic mode. Simple gun homicides and mass murders are executed effectively with semi-automatic guns. No assault rifle is necessary.

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Dingell’s Number

There is an interesting gun meme in the United States. I started noticing it a few years ago and now I see it everywhere. The meme has the following structure: “There are already over 20,000 gun laws in the United States. How will adding more laws help?” (Other common variants use 21,000, 22,000, 25,000, and 30,000.)

The large round number stood out to me. I wondered how anybody could have counted so many laws. That seems a task that would require a lot of labor, collecting laws from the cities, counties, and states and enumerating them.

It turns out that, as far as anybody can tell, this number was first stated by John Dingell, a representative of the Democratic party from the state of Michigan in testimony to the United States Congress in 1965. There is a description of his statement in “Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence”: “Consider the fact that we now have on the lawbooks of this Nation over 20,000 laws governing the sale, distribution, and use of firearms.” The study finds that “no additional references to the 20,000 figure appear in Dingell’s testimony, and no source for the estimate is given”. There is no reason to believe that he did not just make up this number. I am amazed that given Mr. Dingell’s long tenure in Congress, nobody ever managed to question him on this. Certainly, whatever interns or aides who worked on compiling such a number would have documented their work.

Ronald Reagan repeated it in 1981. Charlton Heston repeated it in 1999. This has given it a boost and now it is repeated quite often.

It is all over social media:

Of course, I am not the first person to notice that this number seems contrived. It has already been disputed in many places. Here are a few:

I have searched on social media for uses of this number (e.g., references to the specific and arbitrary 20,000 or 22,000 laws). I asked several of the people who use this number where they learned it, wondering if they read it in a book or just heard it on social media themselves. Many respondents report simply that they read it somewhere and that it makes sense because adding up all of the gun laws legislated by cities, counties, and states would be approximately that number. I find this interesting purely from a memetic point of view, demonstrating that people will rationalize their belief instead of evaluating it critically.

Contrarily, the above mentioned study found that because “more than forty states preempt all or most local gun laws”, the number must be smaller. The study found that the number of statewide laws “may be as few as 300”.

A 2018 report by The PEW Charitable Trusts claims that 600 new gun laws were enacted since the Sandy Hook slaying in 2012. It does not enumerate or reference any of these laws, but rather “data compiled separately by the National Rifle Association and the Giffords Law Center to Reduce Gun Violence”. It finds that most of these laws expand gun access, not restrict it. This makes the question even more interesting because when people are complaining about the fanciful large number, they are usually lamenting the restrictions, not the laws facilitating access. [Credit to @WazzuCoug94 for pointing me to this report.]

53 years later people continue to repeat this number. The argument is completely valid without the fabricated number: “There are already many gun laws in the United States. How will adding more laws help?” But adding a number that sounds researched adds weight to the assertion. It's like a shibboleth for determining how likely someone is to assess a statement critically before repeating it. This number ripples across social media. The more it gets repeated the more likely it is to be repeated again without question. This is regrettable. We need more critical thinking on this topic and fewer memes blindly repeated.

Because Dingell’s number is believable (nobody on any side of an issue would argue that the United States has too few laws) and tied to a controversial issue, it is a perfect meme.

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Encouraging People To Vote

Poking around more with the Florida voter data, I found that of the over 13 million active registered voters in Florida, 2,254,591 of them have no history of ever having voted. 162,883 of those who have no history of ever having voted have recorded an email address when registering to vote. On Monday, November 5th, 2018, I sent them all an email asking them to vote the next day in the 2018 primary midterm elections if they had not already early voted or voted by absentee ballot.

Some lessons learned and responses I received:

  1. The data from the state is a mess. There are lots of typos in the email addresses. Some of the bad email addresses look like they might be a result of OCR failures. If I do something with voter email addresses again, I should run it through some simple transformations (e.g., “person@gmail.cim” should be “person@gmail.com”).
  2. A few people responded that they had moved out of Florida.
  3. Many people have responded positively. The few who have responded negatively to me via email have troubles with spelling, grammar, understanding how public records work, and the limitations of the CAN-SPAM Act. The positive encouraging responses far outnumbered the angry negative responses.
  4. Two people told me that I had changed their minds and convinced them to vote when they had already decided not to participate.
  5. Several people responded that they have voted in several Florida elections. I see none of those votes in the history. I am wondering if the history data is incomplete. I am going to have to investigate this further.
  6. A disturbingly large number of respondents do not understand how voting works.
    • Some were out of the country and asking if they could vote by email or absentee ballot the day before the election.
    • One person asked if it was necessary to have an ID card.
    • One person said that he would be dropping off his mail-in ballot. (I don’t think it works that way. [Update: I was corrected on this. You can drop off a ballot. I had assumed one had to go through the regular process if the ballot had not been received via USPS.])
    • Some people asked if they could just show up and vote. I responded with an enthusiastic yes and pointed out that they must already by registered as I have their data.
  7. Two people asked how to donate to my campaign. I am still trying to wrap my head around this. I do not know if I did not make it clear enough in my message that I am not running for office or if they thought I should run for office.
  8. A depressing number of respondents affirmed that not only had they already voted, they had voted entirely for a single party without apparent evaluation of the merits of the candidates.
  9. My mail server infrastructure did fine sending such a big burst. It did however consume lots of CPU while performing spam filtering analysis of incoming bounces for hours afterward. This delayed incoming email.
  10. I expected that I might end up on spam blocklists. In general, this did not happen. What did happen is that it appears that Gmail flagged my domain for sending to lots of invalid addresses and that gave my domain a bad reputation, preventing me from emailing Gmail afterward. I suspect a lot of potential Gmail recipients never got the letter. I had to fix my domain with Gmail. If I do something like this again, I will use proper mailing list infrastructure. This was really just an impulse decision for me, so I did not have any infrastructure in place.

I have summarized the responses I received with a graph:

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2018 Florida Midterm Voter Statistics

I have been tinkering around with ways of exploring voter data. I thought I would share some of what I find interesting in the context of the 2018 Florida midterms.

One thing I am curious about is whether or not the results of the previous election will encourage more people to vote.

Florida Voter Registrations By Party Affiliation
Party Since November 8, 2016 All
Voters Average Age Voters Average Age
No Party Affiliation 420,447 39.9 3,522,264 46.8
Florida Democratic Party 317,916 41.7 4,917,570 52.1
Republican Party of Florida 300,227 47.3 4,660,504 55.8
Independent Party of Florida 24,943 44.5 55,515 46.3
Libertarian Party of Florida 3,799 35.3 32,494 41.0
Green Party of Florida 716 33.6 6,840 40.6
Constitution Party of Florida 243 38.1 1,698 45.7
Party for Socialism and Liberation – Florida 153 29.2 563 31.9
Ecology Party of Florida 129 32.9 590 39.5
Reform Party of Florida 84 40.3 1,382 52.3
All 1,068,657 42.6 13,199,420 51.9

The average age of new voters is younger than the overall voting base. It seems to me that could mean more young people are coming of age to vote and registering faster than retirees are moving to Florida.

Personally, I am pleased to see an increase in No Party Affiliation. I think the two dominant parties have too much power.

Florida Voter Registrations By Race
Race Since November 8, 2016 All
Voters Percentage Voters Percentage
White, Not Hispanic 620,212 58.0% 8,353,606 63.3%
Hispanic 212,972 19.9% 2,176,889 16.5%
Black, Not Hispanic 114,544 10.7% 1,755,296 13.3%
Unknown 58,017 5.4% 317,507 2.4%
Asian Or Pacific Islander 26,952 2.5% 254,413 1.9%
Other 25,248 2.4% 215,719 1.6%
Multi-racial 7,581 0.7% 84,626 0.6%
American Indian or Alaskan Native 3,131 0.3% 41,364 0.3%

Hispanics are a bigger percentage of new voters. There has been some hypothesizing that we are getting more Hispanics from Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. This made me wonder how the new Hispanics will vote compared to the Hispanics who were registered previously.

Hispanic Florida Voter Registrations By Party Affiliation
Race Since November 8, 2016 All
Voters Percentage Voters Percentage
No Party Affiliation 104,321 49.0% 782,703 36.0%
Florida Democratic Party 73,698 34.6% 850,135 39.1%
Republican Party of Florida 31,405 14.7% 532,550 24.5%
Independent Party of Florida 2,955 1.4% 7,238 3.3%
Libertarian Party of Florida 371 0.2% 2810 0.1%
Green Party of Florida 116 0.1% 847 0.0%
Ecology Party of Florida 36 0.0% 141 0.0%
Party for Socialism and Liberation – Florida 26 0.0% 188 0.0%
Constitution Party of Florida 23 0.0% 83 0.0%
Reform Party of Florida 21 0.0% 194 0.0%

The new Hispanic voters lean more towards the Democrats and no party affiliation than the already registered Hispanics.

Because this data is from the latest extract, which is dated October 15, 2018 and only includes registrations up through September 30, 2018, it does not match the bookclosing reports. This data is slightly off from the numbers reported as of September 30, 2018.

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Things I Learned in Elementary School

I attended a private Seventh-day Adventist Elementary School for 3rd-6th grade (1980-1984). I learned many things there. This is an incomplete list:

  • Attending church on Sunday instead of Saturday, the true and proper Sabbath, is akin to deliberately celebrating someone’s birthday on the wrong day. Those who do so will likely not go to Heaven.
  • The Bible, specifically the King James Bible translated to English, is the literal truth. Where books written before and after contradict this book, they are wrong.
  • The Earth was literally created in six days, approximately 6,000 years ago. Those who insist on this nonsense about dinosaurs being hundreds of millions of years older than humans and the Earth being billions of years old are disregarding the Bible and will likely not go to Heaven. Fossils are a test of faith. If dinosaurs did exist, they were contemporaneous with humans.
    • Accordingly, there was no such thing as a caveman. The first humans were Adam and Eve, and they looked and acted like us.
    • Evolution is an incorrect model for understanding the origin of species. Every plant, animal, and human was created as they exist today. By God. On days three, five, and six.
  • Before the Fall of Man and banishment from the Garden of Eden:
    • It did not rain. Plants were hydrated by dew forming on them in the morning.
    • The temperature was perfect. Adam and Eve did not need clothes. All environmental discomfort is the result of Man’s sin.
    • No animals were eaten for food as the trees of the Garden provided manna. The practice of eating flesh of animals was a result of Man’s sins.
  • God gave Man dominion over the Earth. It is designed by God to sustain humanity. It is not possible to irreparably damage the Earth in such a way as to make it uninhabitable. (This was explained to me in the context of nuclear war. Because humans cannot possibly harm the Earth and Judgment Day will come soon, it is not necessary to consider the risk of nuclear war destroying all of humanity.) Similarly, overfishing, overhunting, overfarming are impossible concepts only seriously considered by the unfaithful.
  • Eating pork and shellfish is a sin. God is watching over lunch hour.
  • Wearing jewelry or makeup or clothing which shows too much skin are sins. (This was much more relevant to my female classmates. I don’t think I ever even combed my hair during elementary school.)
  • There was a Flood. God drowned every human and animal on Earth except for Noah, a few other humans, and the animals on the Ark. All contemporary humans and animals are descended from those few humans and animals.
  • The Barry Manilow song “I Write The Songs”¬†was the result of possession by an evil spirit. I can’t remember if he was possessed by Satan or a lesser devil. We listened to a tape recording about this multiple times.
  • Consumption of caffeine and meat are not sins, but they are bad for you.
  • Jesus Christ will return to the Earth “soon” (all speculated dates are now in our past). This will be the End of the World and a bad day. Get your soul in order before then.
  • There is no afterlife before Judgment Day. Souls of dead humans are in some kind of suspended sleep-like state until then. The soul cannot be separated from the body. Ghosts and other spirits do not exist. Fiction about such or belief in such is sinful.
  • The story of the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis is literally true. The origin of the multitude of natural human languages is not due to separate cultural evolution. There are multiple languages because humans dared to attempt to build a tower that would reach Heaven and God did not approve.
  • The story of the Binding of Isaac is literally true. Killing your son because God told you to is virtuous behavior.
  • At the End of the World, all dead humans will be resurrected in intact corporeal form. Then all humans who have ever lived will be judged. My curiosity as to how this would work for those cremated or otherwise dismembered was left unsatisfied.

You may think I am joking or exaggerating about some of these. I am not. The teachers who told us these things were serious. Many of these things were frequently repeated. I was very skeptical of these claims and grew up to be an atheist, but I often wonder how much of an influence those teachers had on my classmates and what they believe. I wonder how teachers around the world are shaping young minds today.

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Funding Public Education in Florida

This was the final week of the annual school supply drive, Tools 4 Seminole Schools, in which my Rotary club participates. Being involved in the effort gave me another opportunity to think about how public school funding works in Florida. As I understand it, Florida funds public schools through a mix of money allocated by the state, the counties, the state lottery, various non-profits, and federal programs. Despite all of these sources, public education in Florida is underfunded.

I have no idea how public education works in other states and countries. I would imagine the situation is mostly better as Florida ranks 29th in the nation on education quality. For school financing in particular, Florida ranks 45th. The United States as a whole ranks 25th in education.

The region holding the drive in which I was involved is Seminole County. Seminole County has a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, The Foundation for Seminole County Public Schools, whose purpose is to raise and distribute funds and in-kind donations for Seminole County Public Schools. My understanding is that most counties in Florida have a similar non-profit foundation whose purpose is to attempt to make up what is not covered by state and county taxes.

It is this foundation which organizes the annual school supply drive. The drive is ostensibly for underprivileged students, but according to the foundation, over 54% or 35,000 students in Seminole County are in the free and reduced meals program and cannot afford school supplies. This is far from a small minority. This is a serious problem. The foundation runs a physical store stocked with school supplies. Teachers can then drive to this store and “shop” for free supplies for the students and classrooms. Teachers often spend their own money to supply their classrooms and students.

Neighboring Orange County has a similar foundation and physical store. This is apparently a common approach to work around the failures in public school funding.

It is completely ridiculous and unconscionable that we have teachers play quartermaster for supplies. If these supplies are needed, they should be in the budget and that budget should be paid for with taxes. To ask teachers to work on their own time is unreasonable. If they are doing it on some non-classroom paid time, that time could be better spent teaching students. The terrible performance of the United States education system relative to other developed countries and the failure of the electorate to sufficiently fund public education are probably correlated.

This is a huge waste of labor on the part of teachers, the staff of the foundation, and all of the people raising money. We should just raise property and/or sales taxes enough to properly fund the school system. Every child attending a public school should not have to worry about school supplies, nor should their teachers.

The foundation and others like it should not exist. The existence of the foundation highlights a failure in our system. Just to be clear, I am not criticizing the people who work at the foundation and similar organizations. These people are doing a great job to make up for a failure in governance. I am told by local educators that they are struggling to pay for construction, salaries, insurance, technology, and vocational and academic programs.

I am 46 years old. I was born in Florida and have lived here my entire life. In public school career, many classes were held in temporary buildings because the schools were not big enough to accommodate the number of students. It is still true that many students attend classes in temporary buildings. Florida has been growing rapidly for my entire life and I have not seen a local government properly plan for that growth.

Now we have a state lottery system, in a state where gambling is illegal without special permits. The lottery is a terrible idea. The majority of lottery revenue comes from people who can ill-afford to be spending it and probably could have used some better teaching on statistics. Worse, now that the lottery is firmly entrenched, there is less motivation for local governments to fix school funding more appropriately. What was intended to supplement funding from taxes has now supplanted it.

Asking voters to approve increases in taxes is always difficult. Florida has a tougher problem than most states though. We have a very large retiree population that migrated here in part due to our low taxes. These voters have no incentive to approve higher taxes for roads and schools. They have no children in local schools and they do not need to commute to work. They outnumber those who have to raise a family here.

I have lately been, half-jokingly, making a modest proposal to various legislators and those running for office: That we do not automatically allow those immigrating to Florida to vote; that the franchise should be afforded to only those who have skin in the game. If one has children here, works here, or owns a business here, one would get a vote. I usually receive horrified responses to this about it being unconstitutional. Fine, let’s amend the constitution.

Of course, I am not serious about actually doing this. US history has proven that the electorate cannot be trusted with gatekeeping who is allowed to vote. What I do want is for people to think about how we manage public funding in a system where people can take advantage of living in an area without contributing to the infrastructure and maintenance. If we cannot stop retirees from moving here and voting down any improvements, then let’s have a moratorium on building permits. There is no good reason why we should not have schools being built and funded at the same speed as housing.

There is a lot of anxiety right now about the huge changes happening to our economy as robots and software eliminate jobs at an increasing rate. Communities and countries that prioritize equality of opportunity will invest in education. They will invest in the necessary infrastructure of the information economy or be overtaken by those that do. The best thing we can do for young people is to ensure that they have excellent education. We are failing at that. This is unacceptable for a country that consider itself to be rich.

Throwing more money at any problem is not necessarily the answer. According to the PISA results I mention above, the top nations in the world for education are all socialist or command economies with lower GDP. Our GDP and cost of goods in services in dollar terms is higher; our education spending should reflect that. It is not a matter of total dollars, it is percentages and priorities. Our culture does not value public education.

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Printing as PDF to the Mac clipboard

If you use macOS, I have a little script that you might find useful. I use this at least a couple times every workday.

The Mac has great PDF workflow functionality. I will often be editing a document and want to send it out via email (or chat) to others who just need to review it and not edit it. I have no idea if they have the application I am using, so I want it to send it in PDF format so that they can reliably open it. What I usually want to do is to “print” the document as a PDF and then attach that to the email. I used to do this a lot and would then have to clean up and delete the PDF files as I did not need them. Not to mention, there were lots of intermediate clicks and mouse movements to save and then open the intermediate file. What I really wanted to do was to print as PDF directly to the clipboard. Then I just paste into the email or other destination application. That saves a few steps and clicks and mouse movements.

I wasn’t sure how to do this, so I asked on Stack Overflow and received a very useful answer. I put together a script based on that answer and have been using it for over seven years.

I have put the source code up on GitHub. Feel free to make any improvements and send me a pull request.

You can download an easy to install version.

To make this even better, I have added a keyboard shortcut bound to ⌘-P to execute this script. So printing the current document to the clipboard takes nothing more than pressing ⌘-P twice. Then I can Alt-Tab over to the destination application and press ⌘-V, no mouse movement or clicking needed. To do this, go to System Preferences→Keyboard→App Shortcuts, and add a shortcut with the exact name “Print as PDF to clipboard”.

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Jerks versus Morons

Today I encountered a clerk becoming annoyed with the behavior of a customer. I shared with him a technique that I have long been using in similar situations. It helps me maintain a pleasant attitude. When someone does something inconsiderate and annoying (e.g., as often happens when driving), it is easy to assume that the offender is intentionally being a jerk. Consider instead the possibility that this person is a moron. Once you make this mental leap, you can imagine lots of ways in which everyday activities must be difficult and challenging for this moron.

Think about his confusion as he notices other drivers successfully employ turn signals. He probably has no idea of the purpose of many of the various levers and buttons in his car. That likely causes him ongoing anxiety. It must be rough to be him.

Maybe he does not know that his mobile phone can be used in any configuration other than as a speakerphone. Imagine what other frustrations he must have with technology and the modern world.

You can’t really be mad at a moron, just sympathetic. Instead of giving in to anger, smile and speak more slowly, as you would to anybody with a cognitive disability. Be kind to morons.

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CO2 Monitoring

A few weeks ago I ran across a post by someone who claimed that he had improved his productivity by installing a CO2 monitor in his office and opening the window when the reading went over 1000 ppm. There are measured decreases in cognitive function at 1000 ppm and lower. This made me curious, so I bought a CO2 monitor for my home office. The monitor clearly shows higher readings when the doors have been closed for a while. I have had the alarm sound at 1000 ppm when exercising in the same room with it.

Now when I see the reading go above 600, I open a door for a bit. It makes a noticeable difference on the monitor very quickly. I don’t know if it is making me any more productive, but I at least have not felt unusually tired since starting this protocol. It could be entirely psychosomatic, but I will take every benefit I can get while trying to do difficult work.

This has been making me wonder how poorly office spaces and schools are designed for cognitive work. We are at a point in history where we have very well sealed environments with people in them trying to do more cognitive work than ever before. This trend will only continue. Every space housing people should be monitoring CO2 (and probably other attributes, like VOCs) and fixing things where the numbers are too high.

Apparently the UK regulates CO2 in schools. I am not aware of any such regulation in the United States. Here in Florida, primary school students are lucky to be in a permanent building, so I do not expect that any exceptional investment is being made in ventilation.

Yesterday I carried my CO2 monitor around to various meetings in different places (much to the amusement of those with whom I was meeting). Every place I checked was at least 200 ppm higher than outside. In one office, two guys are working in a room that read over 1,500 ppm. I wonder if they would be more productive with proper ventilation.

I wonder how cheaply such monitors can be made. Could they be made small enough to fit in a smartwatch?

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