Monthly Archives: April 2016

Climate Or Bust: Sanders and Clinton Should Step Up Now

This is a guest posts by Claire Cohen Cortright.

Claire Cohen Cortright is a mother, climate activist, and biology teacher living in upstate New York. She

is an active member of Citizens Climate Lobby and moderator at Global Warming Fact of the Day.

It is time, now, for climate activists to get vocal.

As it becomes more clear that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, there is increasing talk about the importance of unifying the party. Negotiations are on the horizon … for Vice President and for the Party’s policy platforms.

Now, we must be sure climate change and carbon cutting policy are part of those negotiations.

Consider, for a moment, as Bernie Sanders begins to make demands in exchange for his support, what he will insist upon. What are the key policies will he insist be incorporated into the Democratic Party platform?

His campaign’s latest email provides a likely answer to this question:

“What remains in front of us is a very narrow path to the nomination. In the weeks to come we will be competing in a series of states that are very favorable to us – including California. Just like after March 15 – when we won 8 of the next 9 contests – we are building tremendous momentum going into the convention. That is the reality of where we are right now, and why we are going to fight for every delegate and every vote. It is why I am going to continue to speak to voters in every state about the very important issues facing our country. Our country cannot afford to stop fighting for a $15 minimum wage, to overturn Citizens United, or to get universal health care for every man, woman, and child in America.” (Emphasis mine).

Notice what is missing?

The single most important issue of our day. The single biggest threat to national security.

Climate change.

Climate activists have been insisting that climate change be made the top level priority for all campaigns and all elected officials. It is possible that this activism has failed to varying degrees with respect to both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns. That means it comes down to us to insist that meaningful carbon cuts are at the top of the platform.

Hillary Clinton critics are right. Hillary has wrongly called gas a bridge fuel. She absolutely needs to be pushed to make it her goal, and that of the Democratic Party, to END the use of gas and all other fossil fuels. She has good solid plans to regulate fracking. Those policies will drive up the cost of gas and therefore send price signals that, in the absence of a price on carbon, will drive us toward other sources of energy. But it is essential that we have the stated goal of ending gas. That will set the stage for the essential conversations about how we will replace that gas without turning off the lights and heat. Efficiency, lifestyle changes, renewables, and, yes, nuclear.

Bernie Sanders’ stated policy is allow nuclear plant licenses to lapse. If nuclear plants close now, they are likely to be replaced with gas. He has said that he isn’t closing the plants now, just allowing for them to close by attrition. However, the reality is that nuclear plants are already closing now, before their licenses lapse, because electricity is so cheap that regular maintenance is economically unfeasible. Part of that calculation is lifetime return. If you know you won’t be relicensed in 2025, it is all the more reason not to do 2017’s maintenance and instead close down. And once a nuclear plant is mothballed, it’s done. You can’t just refurbish and turn it back on, like you can with gas and coal. Unfortunately, there is little political will to take on the nuclear issue within the party at this point. Maybe that means we can simply accept Hillary’s approach to leave nuclear alone. Perhaps her political calculation on nuclear was simply on target.

Perhaps the one thing all climate activists can agree to demand in these negotiations is a carbon tax. Hillary Clinton has had, for many months, a vague, buried reference to carbon markets in her policy platform.* People have made little mention of it, simply saying she doesn’t support carbon taxes. Why not highlight that she seems to support carbon pricing, insist that she become more vocal about it, and push her to explain why she is supporting cap and trade over taxes? As that conversation unfolds, she will be forced to address the distinctions, and, at the same time, the electorate will become more knowledgeable about carbon pricing. At the end of the day, the party platform may end up with a clear carbon price plan.

Whatever climate policies end up in the Democratic Party Platform, it is clear that climate activists must put aside the horse race between Clinton and Sanders and remember that neither of them go far enough. Neither is prepared to get to zero emissions by 2050. Neither sees climate as the single most important issue to address.

It is time for climate voters and climate activists to demand that the Democratic Party serve up more than fiery rhetoric from Sanders and more than visionless bridge fuels from Clinton.

It is time to demand the best from each of them and ensure they don’t simply offer up their worst on climate.

*Here is her vague buried reference to clean energy markets:

“Clean Power Markets: Build on the momentum created by the Clean Power Plan, which sets the first national limits on carbon pollution from the energy sector, and regional emissions trading schemes in Canada, Mexico, and the United States to drive low carbon power generation across the continent, modernize our interconnected electrical grid, and ensure that national carbon policies take advantage of integrated markets.” source

Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary.

The first part of the sentence that is problematic is the word “voters.” Yes, people who vote in a primary are voting, and thus voters, but that is not really what a voter is in our democratic system. A voter is a person who votes in the general election for a constitutional candidate. The constitutional candidates got on the ballot, usually, through our party system in which a formally recognized party puts someone on the ballot by filling out the right paper work and following a bunch of law-based rules and some other rules that the party itself makes up. The person who goes and votes in a primary is doing something subtly but importantly different. They are participating in the party’s process of selecting a candidate. In theory, this could be done with no voting. It could be done by people meeting several times to pick surrogates, who will be delegates to a convention. Even when it seems like one is visiting a polling location and casting a vote for a candidate, that is not really what you are doing. You are actually casting a vote that will be put together with all of the other votes cast in that state for use in a formula that will cause chosen delegates to vote a certain way on the first ballot at a national convention, after which they can do (more or less) what they want.

I’ve seen people use the word “elect” and “election” in reference to what people are doing during the primary process. But we are not doing that. The statement that “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.” is improperly framed, because what happens in the primary process does not really involve voters, but rather, individuals who are participating in a party’s process in a way that often involves casting a ballot, but really not a ballot for a particular candidate.

Now lets travel down the sentence a bit farther until we get to the phrase “kept from.”

There are a lot of ways to keep someone from casting a ballot or caucusing that are bad and that should be fixed. In Minnesota we cast our presidential preference ballot during a one hour time period at a large building (usually a school) with inadequate parking, often far from where people live, not on a bus route, in the dark (lots of people don’t drive in the dark), under conditions that are dauntingly chaotic. It is assumed, almost certainly correctly, that this causes a lot of people to not even show up. If an insufficient number of polling places is arranged so it takes hours of waiting to pick your candidate, or if you show up and somehow you are not allowed to vote because your name has been incorrectly removed from the registration list, or something along those lines, then you are being kept out. These and similar things are bad and should be fixed.

But a lot of the “kept from” stuff is not about any of that. Rather, it is about the particular rules a party uses (or all the parties in a state, in some cases) that the participant must know about and follow in order to be involved in the process. In New York you have to be registered in a party to vote in that party’s primary. In New Hampshire it, a registered Democrat must vote in the Democratic Primary, a registered Republican can vote in the Republican primary, and a registered Independent can pick at the last second which of those two party’s primary to vote in. I’ll discuss in a moment why these rules a) should be changed and b) shouldn’t be changed. For now, though, we need to recognize that these are not things done to keep one from involvement. They are simply the rules for being involved. Potential party primary participants who are kept out of the process because of these rules are, essentially, repressing themselves (sadly).

Now let’s go even further down the sentence (“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.”) and look at the word “involvement.”

I’ve already implied that involvement in the primary or caucus process is not the same thing as voting, even if you think you are voting at the time, because you really aren’t quite voting for a candidate (I quickly add that yes, this is true with the Electoral College as well, but generally we feel that we have an inalienable right to vote in the general election for all sorts of candidates, and only one of those offices is somewhat indirect, and perhaps it shouldn’t be).

Involvement is not casting a ballot in a primary or standing on a table holding up a sign in a caucus one time. Involvement is bigger than that.

Consider Sorkin’s Rule “Decisions are made by those who show up.” That is actually not true. Important decisions about complicated things require multiple conversations, meetings, etc. The actual rule should be “Decisions are made by those who show up. And then show up a few more times.”

I suspect that the majority of people who are pointing at long established party rules and complaining about being kept form involvement really don’t want to be “involved” in the way it takes to really be involved because it takes a fair amount of work. Rather, people seem to want to vote for a candidate and go home, and have that be all there is to it, and have it count. But involvement is actually more complicated than that, and may require more work than that.

For example, consider the recent caucus in Minnesota.

We don’t actually caucus for president here, although it is called that. Rather, we cast a vote (as described above) just like in a primary, but a rather badly done primary. In Minnesota, as well as in other states, that vote ultimately determines only one thing: how will the delegates that the state sends to the national convention vote on the first ballot. If you want a particular candidate to survive an open convention, or if you want your candidate’s party platform planks to be considered, you better send a delegate supporting your candidate to the national convention somehow, and do some other things. To do this, you will have to show up not just once, but a couple or a few times.

In Minnesota, we had that preference ballot, and at the same event (the precinct caucus) people were able to present resolutions, which could ultimately be part of the party platform if approved by enough people. The resolutions that go through this process are the party platform, and the party platform doesn’t come from anywhere else. So resolutions are presented at the precinct caucus, and voted on, and if approved, go on to the next level. Also, at this precinct caucus, delegates are selected to go forward in the process.

A few weeks later, there is a Senate District convention. All the precinct level resolutions are listed on a ballot, and the delegates that moved forward can vote on them. Delegates are welcome to rise in support or opposition of a resolution, and there is discussion among all the delegates of these resolutions. So the voting itself is a democratic process, but that process is enhanced by a conversation at which questions can be raised and answered and issues can be clarified. The resolutions that are passed on will likely become part of the state party’s platform.

A this event, the delegates select among themselves a smaller set of delegates that will go on to the next level (Congressional District or County). Those delegates will form the pool from which the national delegates are ultimately chosen, and they will vote on other party issues at higher levels of the caucus process.

That, folks, is involvement. If you go forward to this level and participate, you have influenced the party platform, and you have influenced which actual people go forward as delegates. Maybe you yourself will even be one of these delegates.

Sticking for a moment with Minnesota, let me tell you what happened at my caucuses, because it is illustrative of a key point I’m trying to make here.

There were about twice as many votes cast in the presidential preference ballot than individuals who stayed in the room to participate. The people in the room were the usual Democrats who show up every two or for years, among whom were several Clinton supporters and several Sanders supporters. I’m pretty sure the two people running the show included one Clinton supporter (my guess) and one Sanders supporter (I know that for a fact. Hi Robin.)

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who voted and left gave up an opportunity for involvement. Casing your ballot was easy, and thank you for doing that. But it wasn’t enough.

Also in the room were about a dozen Sanders supporters who I’m pretty sure (and in some cases, I’m certain of this) had not participated in the process before, ever, even though their ages ran from just eligible to vote to mid 40s or so. The chair of the caucus asked for a show of hands of how many people were new to the process. Several hands went up, and the rest of us cheered them and welcomed them. In other words, what some might call the “party insiders” (people who show up again and again) welcomed the noobies, and were very happy to have them there. So this was about a 50-50 mix of Clinton-Sanders supporters cheering on a bunch of new folks who were likely in majority Sanders supporters.

It was interesting to see what happened when resolutions were presented. Some of the resolutions caused these newer folks to take notice and ask questions. Two resolutions asked that various aspects of medical coverage for transgender medicine be restored to the state health plan. These provisions had been removed by the Republicans, and the Democrats wanted them back. The Sanders Noobies said things like “this shouldn’t apply to kids” and “this is a lifestyle choice, why should it be paid for by taxpayer?” and such. They did not understand that those are issues that have long been dealt with by the medical community, and were not concerns. (Much of this was explained to them by a transgender woman who was in the room). Once the Sanders Noobies understood this, they supported the resolutions (mainly, there were a couple of conservatives who voted against several liberal resolutions, which is of course their right). The same thing, roughly, happened with two or three other resolutions having to do with issues of race and racism.

That was fantastic. Sanders supporters, involved in the political process for the first time, were engaged in a conversation in which they became more aware of certain issues, and asked questions, and had a conversation.

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who stayed at the caucus meeting contributed to the conversation and learned more about the issues. That was involvement. Thank you for doing that.

At the Senate caucus, the resolutions were available to vote on, and there was extensive conversation about them. The conversation was so extensive that the chair of the caucus noted that he had never seen such involvement. Oh, and by the way, he also asked for a show of hands of those who were there for the first time. There were many, and the rest of us applauded and cheered them, and thanked them.

The Senate District Caucus, as noted, selects a subset of delegates to go forward. This was done as a walking caucus, and because of the way a walking caucus works, people were divided up into groups that had a candidate’s name (or uncommitted) along with an issue. For example, “Sanders and wealth inequality” or “Clinton and health care” or “Uncommitted and education,” etc.

The number of delegates that were elected to go on were about 50-50 Sanders vs. Clinton. (Slightly more for Clinton than Sanders.) In other words, a Sanders win in the presidential ballot preference (at the Precinct Caucus) was erased with respect to the delegates that went forward. Our Precinct caucus was allowed to send some 12 delegates forward, but only about 6 people volunteered, and of those, only two showed up at the Senate District Caucus.

Decisions are made by those who show up. Multiple times.

So the outcome of this process was that the ratio of Sanders to Clinton delegates who would support one of the candidates in a second ballot, or in convention business, or with the party platform, from our caucus, does not reflect the presidential ballot exactly because Sanders supporters did not show up. I checked on some other Senate District Caucuses, and others had better numbers for Sanders, but I think the final outcome is close to 50-50.

Note to Sanders supporters: Showing up at the precinct caucus to cast a presidential ballot, and then not showing up again, was not enough.

A walking caucus is a bit complicated, and there is a way to do it to maximize a preferred outcome in terms of delegates passed on to the next level. I note that the Clinton supporters at that event did so, but the Sanders supporters probably lost one delegate because the were imperfect in their strategy. Why were thy imperfect? Because this process, which is highly democratic, grass roots, conversational, and all that, is also a little complicated. In order to do it right, it is helpful to have a number of people who know what they are doing (because they did it once or twice before, or got a half hour of lessons form someone who knows how to do it … very doable) on your side. The Sanders Noobs, bless their pointy heads, may have lost one delegate because they did not show up multiple times over the long term (from year to year) and the Sanders campaign did not bother to engage in the “ground game” in Minnesota.

This illustrates a problem with democracy. The problem is not that the process is necessarily complicated so the good guys lose. The problem is that having a real conversation and real involvement is not simple, and requires a little more effort. This puts a small disadvantage on the insurgent, but only a small one. The outcome is that people show up, talk, listen, learn, influence, make things happen.

A word about New Hampshire, as promised.

In New Hampshire, you register for a party (Democratic or Republican) or as an independent. This registration then limits your choices for what happens in a primary (so it is a semi-closed primary). People who say they want the rules changed to allow better involvement object to this. If you are a Republican who decides you prefer a Democrat, you can’t vote for the Democrat. That is, of course, not really true because this is not the general election, it is the primary, but whatever.

Here’s the thing, though. If you are an independent in New Hampshire, you are a special political snowflake. The activists and campaigners in both major parties have your name (you are registered) and will court you and buy you coffee and talk to you and visit you and call you on the phone and give you a lot of attention, and pay careful attention to what you say. You are the subset of people who will determine the outcome of the primary, in many cases. This is a situation where the rules, which are restrictive, actually enhance and amplify involvement for those who register in this manner.

Something like this happens at a different level of intensity with party registration in general. Even where there is no registration in a party (like in Minnesota, we don’t register here), there is a list of probable party supporters. This underlies strategies for mailings, coffee clutches in homes, door to door visits, etc. Here’s a hint: If you want to have a bit more influence in the process, donate five dollars to a candidate. You and your views will be attended to, at least to some extent.

A word about party platforms. People say, without evidence generally, that party platforms are not important, that no one pays attention to them. At the state level, this is simply not true. The party platform is the legislative agenda of the party. The success of a party’s effort during a legislative session is measured by the degree to which the party platform, which was determined by the people who showed up — multiple times — was put into effect. Seated legislators and governors take credit for their implementation of the platform, or find reasons to explain (often blaming the other party) why planks from the platform were not implemented, in their campaign speeches, campaign literature, and appeals for funding.

It might be true that these things matter less at the national level, but there are some good reasons for that. National policy implementation is often more reactionary than at the state level because politics are often shaped by unexpected international events or an uncooperative economy. But it still matters.

Now, back to Minnesota for a moment, for another stab at problematizing the premise. All that caucus stuff I’m talking about allows involvement by citizens to shape the political future at the local, state, and national levels. But we often hear that a simple primary, where you just vote and go home, counts as better, or more real, or more meaningful involvement in the political process. (This of course ignores the fact that voting in a primary does not influence the party platform or other party issues.)

In Minnesota we also have a primary. It happens late in the process. One of the main objectives of the caucus system is to endorse candidates for Congress, and rat the state level and below (but not municipal, usually). The caucuses can endorse a candidate, but that endorsement does not mean that the candidate is put forward by the party. The candidate is only put forward if they get the majority of votes in the primary. Often, probably almost all the time in fact, the various candidates for a particular office fight for the endorsement, then drop out if they don’t get it. But sometimes one of those candidates, or an entirely different candidate that was not even involved in the endorsement process, puts their name in the primary and runs.

The reason this is interesting and important vis-a-vis the key points I’m making here is this. The system that many seem to prefer because they think it is true involvement (and anyone can vote in either primary, there are no restrictions, in Minnesota) actually has the potential to circumvent and obviate the grass roots endorsement process. It allows a person with means to swoop in and become the party’s nominee. This happened recently two times. In one case, a person of means swooped in and took the party’s nomination form the endorsed candidate for governor. He won the election and became one of the best governors we’ve ever had. In a different case, a person with means swooped in to try to take the party’s nomination at the primary from a highly regarded much loved State Auditor, who had been endorsed. In that case, the swooper spent piles of money on the primary but was roundly shellacked, losing in an historic landslide.

Note to those who want to switch to having a simple primary for everything because it allows for more democratic involvement by the citizens; No, it doesn’t.

“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.”

It is not a simple truth that closed primaries or caucuses limit involvement. That can happen, but limitations (i.e., as in New Hampshire) can increase involvement. Citizens who want to be involved but found this difficult because they did not know or follow the rules have repressed their own involvement. Personally, I would advocate for open caucuses or open primaries, so I don’t disagree with the proposals being made so vocally these days. But I think that many who are calling for such reform do not really understand why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us, and what we might in some cases lose from it.

The caucus system is better than the primary system in many ways, because it encourages and allows a lot of involvement. But in those instances were we are basically voting for a preference, the caucus system can be stifling. We need to ask what we want, how to do it, and what it will get us, at a more detailed level, and then find solutions that may in some cases be hybrids, or may in some cases require only minor tweaking in the system.

I think people need to ask themselves why they are independents. Some people are independents because they dislike the party system, but I’m sure they are wrong to think that. Parties are organizations that give voice and power to regular people. We should work towards enhancing that effect, not tossing it like bathwater out the window. Others recognize that being independent gives them a bit more political power than being a party member, in some cases. Those folks have a problem in states where not being registered in a party takes you out of the primary process. Those individuals have to decide if they want to engage in a party system for a given year or not, or they need to advocate for an open system in their state. I recommend following the first strategy immediately — learn the rules and use the party system when appropriate — while advocating long term for the second strategy. What I do not recommend is complaining about a system you don’t fully understand and demanding specific changes that would actually reduce, rather than increase, your involvement.

I also suggest that people do two other things. One is to remember that the primary system is a totally different process than the general election. In a way, you can’t actually suppress voting in a primary, because a primary (or caucus) is a way a party, which could select nominees in any of a number of ways, reaches out the the people. Furthermore, you are not really voting for a candidate, but for delegates, and by voting and walking away, you are not really even doing that.

The other thing is to understand the numbers better. This is a bit of a digression from the main points of this post, but important. Remember my comments above about percentages of Sanders vs. Clinton supporters in various subsets of people at these events. It is not the case that the “party faithful” or “established Democrats” (people who show up multiple times) are Clinton supporters and the Noobs are Sanders supporters. Yes, there are differences in proportion, but evidence from Minnesota belies this oversimplification. My best guess is that about half the established Democrats (we call ourselves DFLers here) in Minnesota are for Sanders, and half are for Clinton, but Sanders won the presidential preference ballot because some extra people who were mainly Sanders supporters showed up. But then many of those Sanders supporters did not show up multiple times. The influence they had was to put the state in the Sanders win column, but remember the numbers. Sanders only got a couple of more national delegates than Clinton, and in the end the two candidates will have the same number of supporters, I predict, at the convention. So, the only influence there is in one — critical but singular — event at the convention, the first ballot.

Democracy is great, and democracy is hard. There are reforms that are necessary, but gravitating towards easy, thinking that enhances democracy, is foolish. If you make it too easy it will not be as great.

And, really, it isn’t all that hard.

Did Ted Cruz Just Give Donald Trump A Lock on the Nomination?

I recently noted that a reasonable prediction indicates that Trump could enter the Republican National Convention a mere 8 delegates short of a lock. (See this.)

But now, Ted Cruz may have changed that math a bit, by announcing that Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential running mate. She was one of the least popular of the candidates when she was running as one of the clowns in the GOP clown car earlier this year. One could even argue that she wasn’t merely unpopular, but did so much damage to her own credibility among the Republican voters that she left the race in the negative popularity range.

This could easily be worth 8 delegates for Trump. Don’t you think?

Who won the Democratic Primaries in PA, CT, RI, DE, and MD?

Reports are just coming in, and as if often the case, Trump is already being declared winner in some states. But the Democratic primaries are different … there are actually two candidates who get delegates instead of just one … so it takes a little longer to count up the votes.

As a reminder, these are my predictions for today’s primaries. I predict a Clinton win in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, but a Sanders win in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

However, I have less confidence in these predictions than usual because I think something is happening in the campaign. I think, given the devastating results in New York for Sanders, a certain percentage of would be Sanders supporters are going to have given up, or at least, will be less excited, and thus less likely to vote. Things are pretty close in these states, so a small effect like that can wipe out a small lead.

Democratic Primary Results:

The following table gives my predicted delegate counts for each race (on the left) and the outcome of today’s primaries, estimated by percentage of the popular vote, on the right.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.15.19 AM

The two candidates did about as well as projected by me, with Sanders actually doing very slightly better. Compared to the polls, however, Clinton may have done better than expected, depending on which polls you like.

A book about fireflies: Silent Sparks by Sara Lewis

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies is about fireflies.

How do they light up? Why do they light up?

It is axiomatic in nature that flashy displays are related to mating. Among the flashy displays various animals have come up with, a few actually flash, and among those, the flashing of the firefly is probably the most well known. And, yes, it is a mating strategy.

FireflyThere are almost 2,000 species of fireflies and they live around the world. Not all flash, but they are phylogenetically related to those that do so we use the vernacular term “firefly” to refer to all of them. (The fireflies that don’t flash use odor in their mating.) Some fireflies glow as worms rather than as flies.

Light pollution affects fireflies, because they normally operate in dark. Habitat destruction is also a problem. Fireflies have been seen as a canary species, indicating environmental quality in the areas they live.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies includes a guide to North American fireflies.

The book’s author, Sara Lewis gave this Ted Talk:

Biologist Sara Lewis has spent the past 20 years getting to the bottom of the magic and wonder of fireflies. In this charming talk, she tells us how and why the beetles produce their silent sparks, what happens when two fireflies have sex, and why one group of females is known as the firefly vampire. (It’s not pretty.)

The notes section of this book is particularly interesting. Each chapter has an annotated bibliography that includes reference to academic sources as well as trade and science journalistic sources, and some on line resources. This is followed by a full reference list. the book’s format (at least the one I reviewed) is medium size and cloth bound, so it is not a field guide.

In some ways, this is a piece of literature packed with science and conservation. Great illustrations.

Sample chapter

Space Robots On The Angry Red Planet

There is little that is cooler than robots on mars doing science. Human space agencies have been sending probes to the surface of various planets (and the Moon) for years now, with the full range of failure and success. But the last decade or so has seen space robots such as Mars Curiosity Rover sciencing the shit, as they say, out of the planet Mars.

Emily Lakdawala, of the Planetary Society, is a planetary geologist and science communicator who knows a lot about driving rovers. It turns out that this is all very complicated, and when science gets big, expensive, high stakes, and complicated, it isn’t uncommon to find a diminishing number of individuals with a sufficient handle on all its aspects that they can explain most things to most people most of the time.

Emily’s framework for science communication is not that different from my own. I’m a scientist who likes to talk to non scientists at a level or two above the press release, and that’s what Emily does on her blog.

So, for all these reasons, Mike Haubrich and I were very happy to have the opportunity to interview Emily on Ikonokast.

Check out the interview here.

And, if you are not familiar with Ikonkast, check out the other podcasts.

We also threw in some suggestions for books related to Mars science and space exploration, and links to Emily’s blog, etc.

Tuesday’s Democratic Primaries: Clinton favored in all polls, but Sanders will win two

Between now and the end of the primary season, I expect Sanders to pick up more delegates than Clinton, in total, by a very small margin.

On Tuesday, April 26th, there will be primaries in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. That’s 384 pledged delegates at stake.

Polls put Clinton ahead in all these states, but not all the polls are current and not all the Clinton leads are strong.

Added Note:

I noticed some very strong reactions in the comments section from people apparently (but not very clearly) accusing me of making up numbers to make it look like Sanders will win some races (esp California?), with the presumption that I’m a Sanders supporter.

Those of you who have been following my writings on the campaign will know that for the first several weeks of the primary season, until very recently, I did not support one or the other candidate. I like them both. And, if you like either of them, and you know anything at all about American politics, you’ll like the other as well, though of course you are entitled to have a strong preference. Either way, it is impossible to like one of these two candidates and not prefer the other over either Trump or Cruz (or any Republican who ran this year). If you do like any of those Republicans over one or the other Democratic candidate, please note that most people looking at you will be thinking “WTF”?

Anyway, the analysis I use to make these predictions is something that I have been developing and refining since the very first days of the primary season, and it is a dispassionate unbiased statistical prediction, and has nothing whatsoever to do with which candidate I support.

If you are making an assumption that I support, say, Sanders, and that is why I wrote this post, then I’m pretty sure that you’ve not read the post. Why do I say that? Read the whole post and find out!

My model, as you know, has been doing a pretty good job at predicting outcomes in this year’s Democratic primary process. And, that poll says that Clinton will win three states, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and garner a total of about 221 delegates, and Sanders will win two states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, getting a total of 163 delegates.

Note that my expected spread in Pennsylvania is actually very close. Clinton is firmly ahead in the polls, my model says she’ll squeak by, and my model has done better than polls in many instances. Who knows, maybe Sanders will win there?

Delaware and Rhode Island are really close, and could go either way. On a related note, there is supposed to be a new poll for Rhode Island coming any second now (there is no current polling there) so that will be interesting.

The table at the top of the post shows my projections for Tuesday as well as through the rest of the race. Note that starting Tuesday and running to the end of the primary season, Bernie Sanders is expected to get more delegates than Hillary Clinton, but only 10 more. This a very small number, and the final count could go either way. It would, of course, take Sanders winning a much larger number to catch up to Clinton in pledged delegates. Sanders is behind by 237 delegates.

In order for Sanders to close the gap with Clinton, he would have to do 17% better than my model projects from here on out.

That does not sound like a lot, but there are two things to consider. First, my model has been very accurate. It has been closer to a few percent off over time, and I don’t expect it to suddenly stop working at that point. Second, to the extent that my model is wrong, it tends to under predict Sanders in caucuses and open states, esp. open caucuses. All the remaining contests are primaries, and most of them are closed or semi-closed.

Note also that my model conflicts with the polls and common knowledge in California, where I say Sanders will win, and everybody else (except Sanders, I assume) says Clinton will win. Also, note how some of these contests are very close, really too close to call especially Indiana, and Kentucky.

Sanders Campaign: The system is NOT rigged against us

We hear a lot about how the system is rigged against Sanders and in favor of Clinton. Such yammering is normal for a political campaign, but if you believe it, I’d love to sell you a nice bridge down near New York City.

There are two things you need to know.

First, the Sanders campaign, according to senior Sanders campaign advisor Ted Devine, does not regard the system as rigged against them. Here’s what he said (see below for full video):

I don’t think there is. Unlike the Republicans Trump in particular, we are not going around saying everything is rigged. The rules are as the are. We may not like the rules … but we’ve agreed to play by them.

The second thing you need to know is that the Sanders campaign is in fact using the rules as they are to try to manipulate the system to get more delegates and ultimately win. This includes using Super Delegates to vote against the voters in their states, though Devine claims this is not really what they are doing. But, he also notes that they’ve already done it in two states, and that if they are really close and technically Clinton has more delegates, then Super Delegates should switch from Clinton to Sanders. More specifically, he states that counting the popular vote number, is not fair.

I quickly add that is is very hard to get a coherent strategy from this discussion.

By the way, I personally think Sanders should “go through to the end” as Devine says. And, I see nothing wrong with manipulating the system that exists. What I object to is the yammering from various quarters about how one side is manipulating and the other side not, implying that doing the same thing on one side is unethical, but not when done by the other side. That is just not rational.

DN Lee Is Now A Book! #STEM

DN Lee used to be a mere human, a biologist and a great person, but still, just a human. But now she is a book!

Urban Biologist Danielle Lee (Stem Trailblazer Bios) is part of a series exploring, well, STEM trailblazers.

You Probably know of DN Lee from her famous blog now at Scientific American but formerly at Scienceblogs, The Urban Scientist.

After earning degrees studying animal behavior, Danielle Lee wanted to share her love of science with young people. Through urban outreach she has brought budding scientists into professional labs. She’s walked them through the steps of the scientific method. And she’s shown them that science doesn’t have to be intimidating. In her popular Urban Scientist blog, Lee shares backyard science and outreach work. She also writes about her own research and other women and people of color. Discover what this influential scientist is doing to encourage the next generation of scientists.

Congratulations Danielle!

Ikono-fantastic podcasts in the works

Mike Haubrich and I just taped an interview with space-robot expert and planetary geologist Emily Lakdawalla. Emily writes a blog at the Planetary Society, where she goes in depth on stuff that is happening in space, focusing on human-controlled robots on Mars, but covering a lot of other stuff too. The interview will be on Ikonokast in a day or two.

And we’ve arranged to interview Ethan Siegal of Starts with a Bang blog on Scienceblogs, and author of Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe, in which I hope to ask him about this crazy Dark Matter theory which was clearly made up to explain all the bad data in the universe!

Trump may be 9 delegates short of a lock

UPDATE May 26th 2016

Moments ago, Donald Trump’s delegate count effectively went above the number needed to guarantee the nomination at this summer’s Republican National Convention.

As reported by NBC, “Donald Trump now has the support of 1,238 delegates — just a hair above the 1,237 threshold needed to clinch the Republican presidential nomination”


The update includes adding actual delegate counts for races so far, recognizing that for Pennsylvania this means only 17 delegates out of 54, even though he won there, because Pennsylvania is strange. Also, some other revisions.

This estimate still uses a combination of polling data and information in this discussion at FiveThirtyEight by Nate Silver, as well as polling data.

My NEW estimate puts him at 1228 delegates, or 9 delegates short. Here’s the data:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.45.12 AM

Throughout the primary season, Trump has not played the ground game, and Cruz has. That’s why I picked the “Trump shooting himself in the head” picture for the top of the post.

From the original post:

Here’s what I mean by that. Say a state awards 10 pledged delegates to you, and 12 to your opponent. Your opponent. Your opponent is a really great guy, I mean, really great, everybody loves him, and he knows, really knows, how to close a deal. So he figures he’s closed the deal and moves on to the next primary. But you, being a more experienced politician with a ground game, start making calls. You got a 10-12 split, and that will be reflected at the convention when this state casts the first ballot, but after that, the delegates at the convention will be to some degree able to change their vote on the next ballot. So you make these calls, and make sure that all of your own supporters show up at the right time and place to position themselves as national convention delegates. So when the national convention happens, you have 18 people who like you and your opponent has only 4. That does not matter for the first ballot, but it give you a win in that state for the second and beyond ballots.

It is not quite that simple, and the lack of simplicity makes your ground game stronger. There are rules that vary somewhat across states that say that only some of the delegates are free to choose on the second ballot. There are also unpledged delegates from most states, and they vary in number and they vary in how much influence you may have over them. So you expend your resources efficiently to maximally bring delegates, both pledged and unpledged, into your fold. At the end of the day, you win the nomination. And maybe your name is Ted.

I don’t think anybody outside the campaigns has a good idea of what might happen on the second ballot. Even within the campaigns there has to to be a lot of uncertainty. It will be an interesting convention!

A bit of discussion on this on the Rachel Maddow Show:

“This is the worst coral bleaching episode in Australia’s history”

Corals are ocean-dwelling invertebrates in the same phylum as jellyfish. Corals are tiny and create an exoskeleton that is fixed to something hard, like the remains of previously existing corals. So these organisms build up a geological stratum, a reef, beneath the surface of the sea, often close enough that parts of the reef are exposed at the lowest water level. The coral reef system is the substrate for one of the Earth’s major ecological zones.

Corals are symbiotic with a single celled dinoflagellate, a kind of algae that combines available nutrients such as ammonia and the photosynthetic process using sunlight to grow, maintain, and reproduce. These algae provide the coral with nutrients, and the waste products produced by the corals are the nutrients used by the dinoflagellates. Depending on the species, corals may also trap tiny organisms and eat them. There are many species of both symbionts, there are multiple possible combinations of symbionts that work, and it is all very complex.

Under certain conditions, the corals are unable to provide the symbiont algae with nutrients, so the latter either die or simply abandon the relationship. Reduction in nutrients provided by the dinoflagellates further reduces the coral’s bioactivity, worsening the situation, in a kind of downward spiral.

The algae symbionts provide the coral structure with its famous color, so when they abandon the relationship, the primary color of the coral structure is white, so the process is referred to as bleaching.

There are a lot of things that can cause bleaching, including disease, physical damage by storms, changes in water chemistry, and warming of the waters. Sea temperatures are elevated because of surface warming caused by human released greenhouse gas pollution, so corals around the tropics are generally more susceptible to bleaching than they have been in known history, and many mass bleaching events have been observed over the last 20 years or so. During El Niño years, ocean temperatures in certain regions can go even higher, so El Niño years are typically associated with numerous mass bleaching events. This year, we have extremely elevated ocean temperatures caused by anthropogenic global warming, in combination with an exceptionally strong El Niño, and this has caused the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef ecosystem, to crash.

According to the University of Queensland Global Change Institute Director Ove Hoeghguldberg, “From the tip of Cape York to the Whitsundays, the Great Barrier Reef in the east to the Kimberley’s in the west and Sydney Harbour in the south, Australia’s corals are bleaching like never before. This is the worst coral bleaching episode in Australia’s history, with reports of coral dying in places that we thought would be protected from rising temperatures.”

Coral scientist Tyrone Ridgeway adds, “Previously, scientists thought the reefs off Western Australian could withstand bleaching and that southern waters around Sydney would be too cool for bleaching — this year has shown that is not the case. It will already take several decades for coral reefs to recover from this bleaching event.”

As noted, coral reefs form the basis for a major ecosystem, but also, for a major economy. There are lots of places in the world that people visit almost entirely for the corals, or some natural feature related to the corals. In Australia, some 69,000 people are employed in a five billion dollar industry of coral ecotourism and aquaculture.

Reefs can recover. Somewhere out there on the reef there are a few surviving corals, and a few surviving dinoflagellates. If conditions return to normal, they may start to recolonize the reef surface. However, it is also possible that the coral ecosystem can be replaced with an algae mat ecosystem across large areas. Living coral reefs maintain their relative position in relation to the sea surface, and thus provide barrier effects and control the geomorphology of a huge ecosystem. An algae mat ecosystem would presumably erode more than grow (except in very protected areas), and between that and sea level rise, the barrier effect would be significantly reduced.

Also, it takes months to years for recovery to occur, and the worse the bleaching the longer it takes. We are probably entering an era where heat stress bleaching will become much more common, and more severe when it does occur. At the same time, severe and physically large tropical storms are becoming much more common in the Pacific, so the chance of a second hit from this effect during recovery is increased. In other words, over the next few decades, a major reef like the Great Barrier Reef may become bleached more often than not over much of its area. Eventually, as sea temperatures continue to warm, it may simply become impossible to maintain such reefs.

There is some hope in that dinoflagellates that can withstand warmer conditions could become predominant, or even evolve. Perhaps in a few centuries from now, reefs will adjust to new conditions. On the other hand, climate change results in higher variability of temperature conditions, not just an increase, which would make such an adaptation difficult. Keep in mind that during recent history of life (over a few hundred million years or so) there have always been reefs, but not always made and maintained by corals. The organisms that produce this important ecosystem have, in the past, gone extinct and been replaced by entirely different systems, several times. That replacement was unlikely to have been a neat and efficient process.

More information here.

Who Won The New York Democratic Primary, and Why?

I don’t know yet, but as soon as I do, I’ll post that below.

With 98.5% of the delegates counted, Clinton won 57.9% of the vote, Sanders 42.1%. This puts Clinton at 139 delegates, very close to my prediction of 137.

Clinton closing in on 57%, or about 140 delegates.
Clinton closing in on 57%, or about 140 delegates.

If that holds, this is pretty much of a shellacking for Sanders. Sanders out spent Clinton on ad buys, has campaigned heavily, and has set the expectations as a definitive win. This is Sanders home state (of birth, not representation). Yet he seems to have definitively lost. This will put Sanders even more behind in the delegate count.

Sen. Hillary Rodham ClintonThe bigger the loss for Sanders, the bigger the steaming pile of bull substance will be put forth by that presumably-tiny-and-hillary-has-them-too-yadayada Sanders supporters, with claims that the election was unfair, stolen, etc. And that will probably turn off even more people undecided between the candidate, and Sanders will do even worse in future contests. I’ve predicted that he will win in California, and I’ll stick to that story until my own analysis suggests otherwise, but it won’t be enough to offset his current deep-second position, Clinton’s increasing lead, and all that.

You know what they say. It ain’t over until the big green lady with the torch sings.

And she just did.


Meanwhile, some background on a key aspect of today’s Democratic primary in New York.

This is a closed primary in a state where you have to be registered in a political party by some time in October in order to participate.

See this for more information about how that sort of thing varies across the states.

I have projected that Clinton will win this primary, and my estimate for the delegate take is 137 for Clinton and 110 for Sanders. See this for a detailed breakdown of this and other projections for the rest of the race.

But, is this what will happen? Clinton does better than Sanders in southern states, and New York is not a southern state. In fact, Clinton tends to win all of the southern states, and while Sanders wins more non-southern states than Clinton, he certainly does not win all of them. See this for more details on the southern effect.

New York is a big state, and Clinton tends to do better in big states, as shown here.

There have been nine closed caucus states, and Sanders has won seven of them, with a tie in one. There have been three open caucus contests, and Sanders has won in three of them. There have been 7 closed primary contests and Sanders has won in one of them, with a tie in one. There have been 13 open primaries, and Sanders has won three. So, he does better in caucus states, but tends to lose in primary states, and possibly least well in closed primary states, which is what New York has.

Now, here is the interesting thing, recently pointed out by Rachel Maddow. Sanders, and the Sanders campaign, is not making any attempt at all to control expectations in New York. Clinton has a better claim to favorite daughter status. New York is relatively diverse, and Clinton does better in diverse states. Clinton tends to win closed primaries. The polls show Clinton ahead. My own projection, not based on polls, has Clinton winning. But Sanders keeps up with the “we will win here” mantra, which is not the advisable approach if you are not going to win. You can win and lose at the same time by setting up the expectation that you will lose by, say, 15% and then you go ahead and lose by only 9%. That’s a win(ish) in the primary process. But Sanders is not doing that.

Here’s Maddow’s thing:

Sanders’ evidence is that he tends to come from behind, and over perform. And in my own modeling, that has tended to happen. All those times I was right about the outcome of a contest and the great FiveThirtyEight was wrong, it was a Sanders over performance, pretty much.

But, for all the reasons stated above, I don’t expect this to happen in New York. If it does, that will be very significant, and we may have to rethink the whole primary process this year!

Anyway, just for fun and because I thought you might find it interesting, I rand some numbers. I simply took the last several polls in several states, and recalculated the percentage for Clinton and Sanders such that the percents attributed add up to 100%, and then added to the top of the list the actual performance in the contest. From this I made a graph, with the moment of winning on the left side. If Sanders tends to jump up and win the contest, this will be seen by a line tracking (backwards) along below 50% then suddenly, for the actual voting, jump above 50%.

I did not do this for all the contests because there simply isn’t enough poling data. Indeed, Sanders tends to win in open and/or caucus states, and pollster don’t even bother polling in those states because they are so crazy. And, he tends to win in small states, and pollsters tend to not poll in small states. Which, if you think about it, should give you pause in considering Sanders’ claim. He does better than expected when the expectation is based on nearly zero or otherwise crappy data.

Anyway, I non-systematically picked a bunch of states and made a bunch of graphs and shoved them all onto one graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.43.30 AM

Sanders did the Bernie Blast to the top in Minnesota, but we had almost no info in Minnesota. He seemed to do it in Michigan, but if you look at the polling over time, it was not utterly unexpected. He might have done it a little, but not enough to win, in Arizona, but note that this is the state that had all that voter repression.

I indicated on each graph the nominal category of contest so you can gaze at these results and draw your own conclusions.

As I’ve said numerous times, each contest is a test of a particular hypothesis or model about how the primary season is going. If Clinton wins New York and wins it by about 10-15%, the NY primary does not change the fact that she will win the race, but come in just under the required number of pledged delegates to lock without super delegates. If she does way better, that changes our expectations for the rest of the primary season.

If, on the other hand, Sanders wins, that will be huge and require a major revision of our thinking.

Polls close at 9:00 PM Eastern in New York. If urban and NYC districts are counted early, and upstate later, because they use clay pots and send the results in by pony or something, then we should see Clinton surge then Sanders slowly slog towards catching up (or not).

Stay tuned.