Engineering a 21st Century Education

As a game developer turned teacher, the one most difficult part of the transition was paper. I'm not even talking about the thousands of copies of handouts and worksheets for students. I'm talking about the paper that compromises the layers and layers of bureaucratic processes that any sufficiently large organization develops over time. The forms. The reports. The mundane paperwork that must be done to uphold the laws that govern the operation of a school.

I get it.

It's stuff that must be done.

The problem isn't that it exists, it's how schools deal with it. The school has limited resources available so it needs to get the most out of the resources it has. That makes sense, right? The school administration has ready access to a large number of highly trained, adaptable, resourceful, and intelligent individuals on hand with a wide range of skills covering every discipline imaginable. It has teachers.

I'm always more than happy to help when needed! I just get frustrated when I'm asked to perform work that could be reduced or eliminated by technology.

In my last post, I talked about school being a game and the need to meta-game it. One of the first issues that I think we need to talk about are "opportunity costs". Every hour that teachers spend on administrative tasks is an hour that is not being spent on teaching. Furthermore, these costs are recurring. If schools could automate 10 minutes worth of administrative tasks each day from a teacher's workload, they would save each teacher about 30 hours of work over the course of the year. That's a lot of time that teachers could reallocate towards improving instruction.

Teacher time is a valuable resource and finite one. Education needs to be engineered to get the most out of that time. Based on my short time as a teacher so far, here are some of the systems that I think could be optimized:

We need a complete "Electronic Individualized Educational Plan Record" system overhaul. The current generation of "Student Information Systems" is grossly insufficient to deal with the complexity of our educational legislation. Schools need to keep documented records of adhering to a student's legally entitled accommodations, and a significant amount this documentation is still being done on paper. We have the technology to design an educational record system that is secure, fault tolerant, and efficient. It would take an substantial initial effort, but imagine the time that it could save school staff in the long run.

We need a better "asset management system" for school property used by students. It's very frustrating to me as a teacher when I need to fill out carbon copied checkout lists for textbooks by hand in the year 2016. When a student doesn't return the textbook, I'm required to fill out another carbon copy form, manually address an envelop to the student's home, and put it in the mail bin for processing. Why isn't this process electronic yet? I should be able to snap a picture on my phone, press a button to assign it to a student or document its return, and everything else should be taken care of by a computer program. We clearly have the technology to do this.

We need a "behavioral intervention tracking and diagnostic system". The school keeps paper records of certain student behaviors such as tardy slips and misconduct reports -- which again are filled out by hand on carbon copy paper. There are also some cases where the teacher is expected to intervene in certain ways such as contacting the parent. The issue is that there are so many different rules that I need to keep track of and responses that I need to take to that data. We need a system that that can track behavior data from multiple sources and suggest interventions based on a statistical models of what has and has not worked for that student.

On top of moving from antiquated "pen and paper" systems, we also need to improve interoperability between the educational software we already use. There's some good ideas happening with the Tin Can API, but the support from technology providers just isn't there yet. I love to see new ideas in educational software! The problem is that some of these applications seem to neglect the teacher's experience with the product. We need to set higher standards for educational software.

Whenever my students complete a learning activity on the computer, it should automatically go into my grade-book. The grade-book should automatically flag any items that need to be manually graded, and the process of providing feedback to the student should be as stream-lined as possible. More detailed information about the student's performance should be stored into a database for later statistical analysis.

The other problem is the lack of standards regarding assessment items. For example, my students love Kahoot. I would totally use it way more if it were easier for me import multiple choice questions from an existing database. If I could program randomly generated questions in MyOpenMath, export them to a standardized format, and then import them into Kahoot, I would be one happy teacher.

I don't think any of these technologies are unrealistic. It's not like I'm asking for facial recognition software to replace hall passes or an artificially intelligent grader (although those would be kinda awesome too). If schools want to instill "21st Century Skills" in their students, they need to lead by example. In the "21st Century", knowing what processes can be automated by technology is a crucial skill to have. To do otherwise is a disservice to both teachers and students.

Political Calculus

Disclosure:  This article is primarily mathematical in nature but the very act of discussing politics makes it difficult to fully remove bias.  I feel obligated to disclose that I'm a member of the Green Party.  While I'm neither a Republican or Democrat, I tend to lean to the north-west section of the Nolan chart.  However, I do intend to try my best to make this analysis as neutral as humanly possible.

During my regular social media browsing the other day, I came across two posts of interest.

The first was a statement from the Green Party of Virginia about why they are not endorsing Bernie Sanders ahead of the primary.  While I had expected this to be the case, there was a section of this statement that really caught my attention: "Whether individual Greens choose to vote for Sanders on March 1st is a choice that will depend on their own calculus of what is best for the country" (emphasis mine).

Since one of the co-chairs of the GPVA is a mathematician, I could reasonably assume that the reference to calculus was intended to mean exactly what it says. The problem is that the general population doesn't usually look at elections from this perspective.  People tend to vote based on gut feelings rather than mathematical analysis. For this reason, I disagree with the GPVA's decision. I feel that they have the responsibility to provide party members with information on how to maximize their influence on the election and calculus isn't a strong point for most voters. If the GPVA refuses to take sides in the primary, then I feel obligated to do so in their place.

The second was a data visualization of how various primary candidates would fare against each other in a general election:

With "Super Tuesday" fast approaching, this was exactly the kind of information that I needed!  This effectively provides a payoff matrix for the primary candidates to which I can apply my "political calculus".
Continue reading "Political Calculus"

Understanding Voter Regret

Lately I've been doing a little bit of research on voting methods.  In particular, I've been fascinated by this idea of measuring Bayesian Regret.  Unfortunately, many of the supporting links on are dead.  With a little detective work I managed to track down the original study and the supporting source code.

Looking at this information critically, one my concerns was the potential for bias in the study.  This is the only study I could find taking this approach, and the information is hosted on a site that is dedicated to the support of the method proved most effective by the study.  This doesn't necessarily mean the result is flawed, but it's one of the "red flags" I look for with research.  With that in mind, I did what any skeptic should: I attempted it replicate the results.

Rather than simply use the provided source code, I started writing my own simulation from scratch.  I still have some bugs to work out before I release my code, but the experience has been very educational so far.  I think I've learned more about these voting methods by fixing bugs in my code than reading the original study.  My initial results seem consistent with Warren Smith's study but there's still some kinks I need to work out.

What I'd like to do in this post is go over a sample election that came up while I was debugging my program.  I'm hoping to accomplish a couple things by doing so.  First, I'd like to explain in plain English what exactly the simulation is doing.   The original study seems to be written with mathematicians in mind and I'd like for these results to be accessible to a wider audience.  Second, I'd like to outline some of the problems I ran into while implementing the simulation.  It can benefit me to reflect on what I've done so far and perhaps some reader out there will be able to provide input on these problems that will point me in the right direction.

Pizza Night at the Election House

It's Friday night in the Election household, and that means pizza night!  This family of 5 takes a democratic approach to their pizza selection and conducts a vote on what time of pizza they should order.   They all agree that they should get to vote on the pizza.  The only problem is that they can't quite agree on how to vote.  For the next 3 weeks, they've decided to try out 3 different election systems: Plurality, Instant-Runoff, and Score Voting.

Week 1: Plurality Voting

The first week they use Plurality Voting.  Everyone writes down their favorite pizza and which ever pizza gets the most votes wins.

The youngest child votes for cheese.  The middle child votes for veggie.  The oldest votes for pepperoni.  Mom votes for veggie, while dad votes for hawaiian.

With two votes, veggie pizza is declared the winner.

Mom and the middle child are quite happy with this result.  Dad and the two others aren't too excited about it.  Because the 3 of them were split on their favorites, the vote went to an option that none of them really liked.  They feel hopeful that things will improve next week.

Week 2: Instant Run-off Voting

The second week they use Instant Run-off Voting.  Since the last election narrowed down the pizzas to four options, every lists those four pizzas in order of preference.

The youngest doesn't really like veggie pizza, but absolutely hates pineapple.  Ranks cheese 1st, pepperoni 2nd, veggie 3rd,and hawaiian last.

The middle child is a vegetarian.  Both the hawaiian and pepperoni are bad options, but at least the hawaiian has pineapple and onions left over after picking off the ham. Ranks veggie 1st, cheese 2nd, hawaiian 3rd and pepperoni last.

The oldest child moderately likes all of them, but prefers fewer veggies on the pizza.  Ranks pepperoni 1st, cheese 2nd, hawaiian 3rd and veggie last.

Dad too moderately likes all of them, but prefers the options with meat and slightly prefers cheese to veggie.  Ranks hawaiian 1st, pepperoni 2nd, cheese 3rd and veggie last.

Mom doesn't like meat on the pizza as much as Dad, but doesn't avoid it entirely like the middle child.  Ranks veggie 1st, cheese 2nd, pepperoni 3rd and hawaiian last.

Adding up the first place votes gives the same result as the first election: 2 for veggie, 1 for hawaiian, 1 for pepperoni and 1 for cheese.  However, under IRV the votes for the last place pizza get transferred to the next ranked pizza on the ballot.

However, there's something of a problem here.  There's a 3-way tie for last place!

A fight nearly breaks out in the Election house.  Neither dad, the older or youngest want their favorite to be eliminated.  The outcome of the election hinges on whose votes get transferred where!

Eventually mom steps in and tries to calm things down.  Since the oldest prefers cheese to hawaiian and the youngest prefers pepperoni to hawaiian, it makes sense that dad's vote for hawaiian should be the one eliminated.  Since the kids agree with mom's assessment, dad decides to go along and have his vote transferred to pepperoni.

Now the score is 2 votes for veggie, 2 votes for pepperoni, and 1 vote for cheese.  Since cheese is now the lowest, the youngest childs vote gets transferred to the next choice: pepperoni.   With a vote of 3 votes to 2, pepperoni has a majority and is declared the winner.

The middle child is kind of upset by this result because it means she'll need to pick all the meat off her pizza before eating.  Mom's not exactly happy with it either, but is more concerned about all the fighting.  They both hope that next week's election will go better.

Week 3: Score Voting

The third week the Election family goes with Score Voting.  Each family member assigns a score from 0 to 99 for each pizza.  The pizza with the highest score is declared the winner.  Everyone wants to give his/her favorite the highest score and least favorite the lowest, while putting the other options somewhere in between. Here's how they each vote:

The youngest rates cheese 99, hawaiian 0, veggie 33 and pepperoni 96.

The middle child rates cheese 89, hawaiian 12, veggie 99 and pepperoni 0.

The oldest child rates cheese 65, hawaiian 36, veggie 0 and pepperoni 99.

Dad rates cheese 13, hawaiian 99, veggie 0 and pepperoni 55.

Mom rates cheese 80, hawaiian 0, veggie 99 and pepperoni 40.

Adding all these scores up, the finally tally is 346 for cheese, 147 for hawaiian, 231 for veggie and 290 for pepperoni.  Cheese is declared the winner.  Some of them are more happier than others, but everyone's pretty much okay with cheese pizza.

Comparing the Results

Three different election methods.  Three different winners.  How do we tell which election method is best?

This is where "Bayesian Regret" comes in.

With each of these 3 elections, we get more and more information about the voters. First week, we get their favorites.  Second week, we get an order of preference.  Third week, we get a magnitude of preference.   What if we could bypass the voting altogether and peak instead the voter's head to see their true preferences?  For the family above, those preferences would look like this:

cheese hawaiian veggie pepperoni
youngest 99.92% 2.08% 34.25% 95.79%
middle 65.95% 10.09% 73.94% 0.61%
oldest 74.55% 66.76% 57.30% 83.91%
dad 52.13% 77.03% 48.25% 64.16%
mom 87.86% 39.79% 99.72% 63.94%

These values are the relative "happiness levels" of each option for each voter.  It might help to visualize this with a graph.


If we had this data, we could figure out which option produced the highest overall happiness.  Adding up these "happiness" units, we get 380 for cheese, 195 for hawaiian, 313 for veggie and 308 for pepperoni.  This means the option that produces the most family happiness is the cheese pizza.  The difference between the max happiness and the outcome of the election gives us our "regret" for that election.  In this case: the plurality election has a regret of 67, the IRV election has a regret of 72, and the score voting election has a regret of 0 (since it chose the best possible outcome).

Now keep in mind that this is only the regret for this particular family's pizza selection.  To make a broader statement about which election method is the best, we need to look at all possible voter preferences.  This is where our computer simulation comes in.  We randomly assign a number for each voter's preference for each candidate, run the elections, calculate the regret, then repeat this process over and over to average the results together.  This will give us an approximation of how much regret will be caused by choosing a particular voting system.

Open Questions

In writing my simulation from scratch, I've run into a number of interesting problems.  These aren't simply programming errors, but rather conceptual differences between my expectations and the implementation.   Some of these questions might be answerable through more research, but some of them might not have a clear cut answer.   Reader input on these topics is most welcome.

Implementing IRV is complicated

Not unreasonably hard, but much more so than I had originally anticipated.  It seemed easy enough in theory: keep track of the candidates with the lowest number of votes and eliminate them one round at a time.  The problem that I ran into was that in small elections, which I was using for debugging, there were frequently ties between low ranked candidates in the first round (as in the case story above).   In the event of a tie, my code would eliminate the candidate with the lower index first.  Since the order of the candidates was essentially random, this isn't necessarily an unfair method of elimination.  However, it did cause some ugly looking elections where an otherwise "well qualified" candidate was eliminated early by nothing more than "bad luck".

This made me question how ties should be handled in IRV.   The sample elections my program produced showed that the order of elimination could have a large impact on the outcome.  In the election described above, my program actually eliminated "cheese" first.  Since the outcome was the same, it didn't really matter for this example.  However, if the random ordering of candidates had placed "pepperoni" first then "cheese" would have won the election!  Looking at this probabilistically, the expected regret for this example would be 1/3*0+2/3*72 = 48.   A slight improvement, but the idea of non-determinism still feel out of place.

I started looking into some alternative methods of handling ties in IRV.  For a simulation like this, the random tie-breaker probably doesn't make a large difference.  With larger numbers of voters, the ties get progressively more unlikely anyways.   However, I do think it could be interesting to compare the Bayesian Regret among a number of IRV variations to see if some tie breaking mechanisms work better than others.

Bayesian Regret is a societal measure, not individual

When I first started putting together my simulation, I did so "blind".  I had a conceptual idea of what I was trying to measure, but was less concerned about the mathematical details.  As such, my first run produced some bizarre results.  I still saw a difference between the voting methods, but at a much different scale.  In larger elections, the difference between voting methods was closer to factor of .001.    With a little bit of digging, and double-checking the mathematical formula for Bayesian Regret, I figured out I did wrong.  My initial algorithm went something like this:

I took the difference between the utility of each voter's favorite and the candidate elected.  This gave me an "unhappiness" value for each voter.  I averaged the unhappiness of all the voters to find the average unhappiness caused by the election.  I then repeated this over randomized elections and kept a running average of the average unhappiness caused by each voting method.  For the sample election above, voters are about 11% unhappy with cheese versus 24% or 25% unhappy with veggie and pepperoni respectively.

I found this "mistake" rather intriguing.  For one thing, it produced a result that kind of made sense intuitively.  Voters were somewhat "unhappy" no matter which election system was used.  Even more intriguing was that if I rescaled the results of an individual election, I found that they were distributed in close to the same proportions as the results I was trying to replicate.  In fact, if I normalized the results from both methods, i.e.  R' = (R-MIN)/(MAX-MIN), then they'd line up exactly.

This has become something of a dilemma.  Bayesian Regret measures exactly what it says it does -- the difference between the best option for the society and the one chosen by a particular method.  However, it produces a result that is somewhat abstract.  On the other hand, my method produced something a little more tangible  -- "average unhappiness of individual voters" -- but makes it difficult to see the differences between methods over a large number of elections.  Averaging these unhappiness values over a large number of elections, the results seemed to converge around 33%.

Part of me wonders if the "normalized" regret value, which aligns between both models, might be a more appropriate measure.  In this world, it's not the absolute difference between the best candidate and the one elected but the difference relative to the worst candidate.  However, that measure doesn't really make sense in a world with the potential for write-in candidates.   I plan to do some more experimenting along these lines, but I think the method of how to measure "regret" is a very an interesting  question in itself.

"Honest" voting is more strategic than I thought

After correcting the aforementioned "bug", I ran into another troubling result.  I started getting values that aligned with Smith's results for IRV and Plurality, but the "Bayesian Regret" of Score Voting was coming up as zero.  Not just close to zero, but exactly zero.  I started going through my code and comparing it to Smith's methodology, when I realized what I did wrong.

In my first implementation of score voting, the voters were putting their internal utility values directly on the ballot.  This meant that the winner elected would always match up with the "magic best" winner.   Since the Bayesian Regret is the difference between the elected candidate and the "magic best", it was always zero.   I hadn't noticed this earlier because my first method for measuring "unhappiness" returned a non-zero value in every case -- there was always somebody unhappy no matter who was elected.

Eventually I found the difference.  In Smith's simulation, even the "honest" voters were using a very simple strategy: giving a max score to the best and a min score to the worst.  The reason that the Bayesian Regret for Score Voting is non-zero is due to the scaling of scores between the best and the worst candidates.  If a voter strongly supports one candidate and opposes another, then this scaling doesn't make much of a difference.   It does, however, make a big difference when the voters are indifferent between the candidates but gives a large score differential to the candidate that's slightly better than the rest.

With this observation, it became absolutely clear why Score Voting would minimize Bayesian Regret.  The more honest voters are, the closer the Bayesian Regret gets to zero.   This raises another question: how much dishonesty can the system tolerate?

Measuring strategic vulnerability

One of the reasons for trying to reproduce this result was to experiment with additional voting strategies outside of the scope of the original study.  Wikipedia cites another study by M. Badinski and R. Laraki that suggests Score Voting is more susceptible to tactical voting than alternatives.  However, those authors too may be biased towards their proposed method.  I think it's worthwhile to try and replicate that result as well.  The issue is that I'm not sure what the appropriate way to measure "strategic vulnerability" would even be.

Measuring the Bayesian Regret of strategic voters and comparing it with honest voters could potentially be a starting point.   The problem is how to normalize the difference.   With Smith's own results, the Bayesian Regret of Score Voting increases by 639% by using more complicated voting strategies while Plurality only increases by 188%.  The problem with comparing them this way is that the Bayesian Regret of the strategic voters in Score Voting is still lower than the Bayesian Regret of honest Plurality voters.   Looking only at the relative increase in Bayesian Regret isn't a fair comparison.

Is there a better way of measuring "strategic vulnerability"?  Bayesian Regret only measure the difference from the "best case scenario".  The very nature of strategic voting is that it shift the result away from the optimal solution.  I think that to measure the effects of voting strategy there needs to be some way of taking the "worst case scenario" into consideration also.   The normalized regret I discuss above might be a step in the right direction.  Any input on this would be appreciated.


Please don't take anything said here as gospel.  This is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed journal.  This is my own personal learning endeavor and I could easily be wrong about many things.  I fully accept that and will hopefully learn from those mistakes.   If in doubt, experiment independently!

Update: The source code used in this article is available here.

An unexpected political journey.

Prior to this year, I had never really thought about getting involved in politics.  Don't get me wrong.  I've always had strong opinions about political issues.  It's just that I placed higher priority on other topics.  My major areas of interest were mathematics, video games, education and the intersection thereof, so that's where I focused my time and effort.  I held the belief that if I could address the problems in education, that the political issues I cared about would eventually be addressed by having a more informed electorate.  However, a recent turn of events has forced me to reevaluate my strategy.  I'm no longer sure if the problems in education can be fixed without political action.

In the spring of 2013, I was working two part time jobs while finishing up my Masters in Education.  I was teaching math as an adjunct faculty member, while also serving as a lab manager for one of the campus tutoring centers.  I loved both positions thoroughly and found great fulfillment in watching students overcome obstacles to succeed in their educational goals.  Between these two positions and finishing up my thesis, I perhaps wasn't paying enough attention to the political wheels that were already set in motion.  The Virginia state budget for 2013 included a provision in response to the Affordable Care Act which limited the hours of wage employees to "29 hours per week on average per month".  At first, I didn't even think this would affect me.  My hours as a wage employee were already limited.  I didn't consider my work as an adjunct to count towards this limit, because the position was under contract per credit hour and not a wage position.  Little did I know that the Virginia Community College System was coming up with a formula to convert "credit hours" to "average hours per week" as a precautionary measure against being forced into providing healthcare for adjuncts.  Since both of my positions were for the same employer, this meant that sum of the "equivalent hours" worked in each position could not exceed 29 per week.  Essentially, my two part time positions had been rolled into one and my income was sliced in half.

Now, I don't blame my employer for what happened.  They were simply doing what any rational person or organization would do: control for risk in the face of uncertainty.  What frustrated me were the political games that lead to this situation.   There's a disconnect between the language used in the Affordable Care Act and that of the Virginia 2013 budget.  I'm no fan of the ACA, instead supporting a single-payer system, but at least it provided a "way out" by means of a fine.  The Virginia budget language does not.  The most plausible explanation of this, at least in my opinion, is a political game of "Red vs Blue".  The Republican controlled Virginia legislature seemed to be making an active effort to make the ACA as difficult to implement as possible.  After all, they stand to benefit from "Obamacare" developing a negative public image and what better way to make it look bad than by putting teachers out of work?  The Federal Government says one thing.  The State Government says another.  Employers then need to interpret this mess and don't even have a full picture to convey to their employees.  It's like a game of "telephone" gone horribly wrong.  The irony in all of this is that I already had health insurance to begin with.

As an underemployed recent graduate with staggering amounts of debt, I began searching feverishly for job in the midsts of an economic recession.  In between resume submissions, I started paying more and more attention to the Virginia Green Party's listserv.  I'd been following the listserv since I moved to the state 5 years ago, but never really had the time to participate actively.  With the lack of success in my job search, I found myself with the time to speak up about my political views.  Perhaps to the neglect of this blog, I wrote at great length about the issues I felt the party was facing.  In particular, I was very vocal about the need for better outreach to younger voters.

Last week I tweeted about attending my first meeting with the Green Party of Virginia (GPVA).  To say this meeting would "be interesting" might have been an understatement.  I found myself being nominated for, and elected to, the office of Press Secretary.  This came as something of a surprise to me because I don't really have any experience dealing with the press.  Normally a "Press Secretary" is someone with a background in journalism or communication, while my background is in education.  After further consideration, I started to wonder if my experience might be relevant than I had thought.  Maybe what the Green Party needs right now is education.  The party needs to educate voters about how they differ from the existing two major parties to establish name recognition among voters.  I feel like I'm stepping out of my comfort zone in this new position, but also recognize that the act of stepping out of one's comfort zone is precisely how we learn and grow as a human beings.

I look forward to this new position and am excited about the prospects of improving the Green Party's public outreach.  With 42% of Americans now identifying themselves as Independents, I think the timing is right for a 3rd party to stand up for common sense government policies that we can all agree on.  People just need to know that there are viable electoral options outside the false choice of "Red vs Blue".  There is a tremendous opportunity for the Green Party to make its name as a organization that places the people's interests above party politics, and I hope this is a message I'll be able to convey as the new GPVA Press Secretary.

I don't expect the content of my blog or twitter feed to change much during this time.  This has always been a collection of my thoughts on math, video games and education, with the occasional bit of politics thrown in.  Nothing said on this blog should be interpreted as being representative of the Green Party.  Official press releases will be published on the GPVA Website.

Fun side note to this story: the GPVA's new co-chair is also a math professor.  It's about time for more math teachers to step into the political arena and make a difference!

Profile of an "undecided" voter: Nader, Arrow, Nolan, Flux, Aikido and Metagaming the Vote in 2012

Hello! My name's Ryan and I'm an "undecided" voter.

No, it's not what you think.

I'm not undecided between these guys:

Obama Romney

There's no way in hell I'm voting for Romney.

I'm not an idiot as Bill Maher not-so-subtly suggested last week. (It's okay Bill, I can take a joke)

I'm undecided between these guys (and gal):

Obama Johnson Stein

Mathematician and author John Allen Paulos described the situation a little more elegantly:

I'd like to believe that I fall into the "unusually thoughtful" category and wanted to share my perspective.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This is my personal blog and obviously biased by my opinions. I'm a member of the Green Party and have made a "small value" donation to the Stein campaign. Despite my party membership, I try to vote based on the issues and not the party. I voted for Obama in 2008 and voted for Ron Paul in the 2012 GOP primary. While I'm not technically an "independent" due to my affiliation with the Greens, I'm probably about as close to one as it gets.

Let's start with a little historical background and work our way forward from there.

The Nader Effect

My first voting experience was in the 2000 election. I didn't like either Gore or Bush, and ended up gravitating towards the Nader campaign. His positions on the issues most closely aligned with my own, so I did what seemed like the most rational thing to do at the time. I voted for him.

After the election, Nader (and the Green Party in general) received a large amount of criticism from Democrats for "spoiling" the election. The Democrats argued that votes cast for Nader in key states like Florida, would have been otherwise been cast for Gore. The counter argument is that Bush v. Gore was decided by the Supreme Court, but I won't get into that.

From my perspective, my vote for Nader in this election could not be counted as a "spoiler". I was living in California at the time, and the odds of California's votes in the Electoral College going to Bush in the 2000 were negligible. My vote for Nader was completely "safe" and allowed me to voice my opinion about the issues I cared about. However, this notion of a "spoiler vote" forever changed how I thought about my voting strategy.

Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives

In the 1950s, economist Kenneth Arrow conducted a mathematical analysis of several voting systems. The result, now known as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, proved that there was not ranked voting system that could satisfy the following conditions for a "fair" election system:

  1. It accounts for the preferences of multiple voters, rather than a single individual
  2. It accounts for all preferences among all voters
  3. Adding additional choices should not affect the outcome
  4. An individual should never hurt the chances of an outcome by rating it higher
  5. Every possible societal preference should be achievable by some combination of individual votes
  6. If every individual prefers a certain option, the overall result should reflect this

Arrow was largely concerned with ranked voting systems, such as Instant Run-off Voting, and proved that no such ranking system could ever satisfy all of these conditions. There are non-ranked voting systems that meet most of these conditions, such as score voting, but one of these conditions of interest that our present system doesn't meet is number 3. This condition goes by the technical name of Independence of irrelevant alternatives. The idea is that the outcome of a vote should not be affected by the inclusion of additional candidates. In other words, there should never be a "spoiler effect".

What I find interesting here is that the very mechanics of our voting system lead to a situation where the outcome of elections is controlled by a two party system. It forces citizen to vote tactically for the "lesser of two evils", while from my perspective both of those "evils" have gotten progressively worse. George Washington warned of this outcome in his farewell address:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Until we can address the issues inherent in our voting system itself, I'm left with no choice but to vote strategically in the election. My policy for voting is a tactic of minimaxing: minimizing the potential harm while maximizing the potential gain. It's with this strategy in mind that I turn to the options of the 2012 presidential race.

Quantifying Politics

In order to apply a mathematical analysis to voting, it is first necessary to have some way of quantifying political preferences. As a method of during so, I'll turn to the so called Nolan Chart. An easy way to find out where you stand on the Nolan Chart is the World's Smallest Political Quiz. Here's where it places me:

Here's where I'd place the 2012 candidates:

Note that this is my subjective opinion and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the candidates themselves. It's also important to note that this is a simplified model of political disposition. There are other models, such as the Vosem (восемь) Chart that include more than two axes. If you were, for example, include "ecology" as a third axis, this would place me closer to Stein than Obama and closer to Obama than Johnson. The resulting distances to each are going to vary depending on what axes you choose, so I'm just going to stick with the more familiar Nolan Chart.

Since I'm politically equidistant from each of the candidates, my minimax voting strategy would suggest that I vote for the candidate that has the highest chance of winning: Obama. However, there are many more variables to consider that might result in a different outcome. One of those variables is something I call "political flux".

Political Flux

People change. It's a well known fact of life. Changes in political opinions are no exception. If you look at the stances that Obama and Romney have made during this campaign, and compare those to their previous positions, I think you'll see a trend that looks something like this:

Obama campaigned hard left in 2008, but during his term in office his policies have shifted more towards the center. Romney campaigned in the center while he was running for governor of Massachusetts, but has shifted more towards the right during his presidential campaign. These changes are highly concerning to me, because both candidates are shifting away from my position. Thus, while Obama is closer to me on the political spectrum, the fact that he is moving away from my position makes the long term pay-offs lower than they would be if he had "stuck to his guns". In turn, this makes the 3rd party candidates a more appealing option.

I might even go so far as to suggest that this "political flux" is the reason why these 3rd party candidates are running. Statistically, their odds of winning are too low to change the outcome of the election. However, they can influence the direction of the political discourse. The more people that vote for those candidates, the more likely that future candidates venture in those respective directions. This vote comes at a "risk" though, as those 3rd party candidates run the risk of "spoiling" the election for a less undesirable candidate. The level of this this risk varies from state to state due to the electoral college system.

The Electoral College

A popular vote is not enough to win the election. The president is selected by an Electoral College that gets a number of votes based on a (mostly) population proportional system. For some of these states, the polls predict a pretty solid winner and loser for the presidential race. For others, the state has a tendency to lean right or left. According to The New York Times, the following states are considered a "toss-up" in the upcoming election:

  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • North Carolina
  • New Hampshire
  • Nevada
  • Ohio
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

If you are living in one of these states, the risks of voting for a third party are greater because your vote will have a higher chance of "spoiling" the election for one of the candidates. I happen to live in Virginia — one of the 2012 "battleground" states. I foresee a large number of attack ads in my near future. The big question is, is the pay-off worth the risk?

Aikido Interlude

For the past couple months, I've been studying Aikido — a martial art that might be best described as "the way of combining forces". The idea is to blend ones movements with those of the attacker to redirect the motion of the combined system in a way that neither individual is harmed by the result. As a lowly gokyu, I still have a lot to learn about this art, but I find some of the core principals behind it rather insightful from a physical and mathematical perspective.

The basic idea is a matter of physics. If an object has a significant amount of momentum, then it takes an equal amount of momentum to stop it. However, if you apply a force that is orthogonal (perpendicular) to the direction of motion, then its relatively easy to change the direction of motion. You don't block the attack in aikido. You redirect the attack in a way that's advantageous to your situation. You can see the basic idea in my crude drawing below:

The result of this is that many aikido techniques end up having a "circular" sort of appearance. In reality, it's the combination of the attacker's momentum and the orthogonal force applied by the defender that cause this. See if you can spot this in the following video of Yamada sensei:

So what does this have to do with voting?

Well consider my position on the Nolan Chart and the direction that the two major candidates are moving in. As much as I would like to shift the debate to the left, it would require a significant amount of political force and time to negate this momentum towards the right and even longer to push it in the opposite direction. It would be much more efficient to push "north" and allow the momentum to carry the political culture towards my general position.

In other words, voting for Gary Johnson might actually be the path of least resistance to my desired policies.

Metagaming the Election

Here you can start to see my predicament. Part of me wants to vote for Gary Johnson, because I think that doing so would be mostly likely to shift the debate in the direction I want it to go. Part of me wants to vote for Jill Stein, as doing so would help strengthen the political party that I belong to. Part of me wants to vote for Barack Obama, but only because doing so would have the greatest chance of preventing a Romney presidency. According to the latest polling data, the odds of Obama being re-elected are 4:1. Those are pretty good odds, but this is a high stakes game. It sure would be nice if there was a way to "have my cake and eat it too".

It turns out that there is.

I can metagame the election.

The idea of metagaming, is that it's possible to apply knowledge from "outside the game" to alter one's strategy in a way that increases the chance of success. In this case, I've decided to employ a strategy of vote pairing.

You see, I live in the same state as my in-laws who traditionally vote Republican. However, despite a history of voting GOP, they're both very rational people. Romney keeps shooting himself in the foot by saying things that are downright stupid. Screen windows are airplanes? Free health care at the emergency room? The more Romney talks, the easier it becomes to convince rational people that he's unfit to be president.

After many nights of debate, we've come to the realization that we're only voting for one of the two major parties because the other party is "worse". From there, a solution presents itself: "I'll agree to not vote for Barack Obama if you agree to not vote for Mitt Romney". This agreement is mutually beneficial to both parties involved. Without this agreement, our votes just cancel each other out. With the agreement, the net benefit to each candidate is still zero but now those votes are free to be spent elsewhere. The end result is that we each have a larger impact on the presidential election without altering the outcome.

With the vote pairing secured, I'm free to vote for Stein or Johnson at my own discretion. Both of these candidates agree on what I think is the most important issue: ending our "wars" (of which there are too many to list). They differ on a number of issues, particularly on economics and the environment. Personally, I think that the Greens and Libertarians need to meet half-way on the issues for an Eco-libertarian ticket. Jill Stein needs to recognize that the US Tax Code is a mess and needs reform. Doing so can help eliminate corporate handouts, many of which go to industries that adversely affect public health. Gary Johnson needs to recognize that laissez-faire economic policies alone will not fix our broken health care system or halt the impending climate change. I'm going to be looking forward to seeing debates between Stein and Johnson which I think will highlight the complexities of these issues and hopefully identify some possible solutions.

That's great, but what can I do?

You can enter a vote pairing agreement with someone of the opposite party. If you would ordinarily vote for the Democrats, you can click here to find out which of your Facebook friends "like" Mitt Romney. If you would ordinarily vote for the Republicans, you can click here to find out which of your Facebook friends "like" Barack Obama. Talk about the issues that are important to you in the race, discuss your objections to the other candidate, and if things go well, agree to both vote for a third party. If everyone did this, one of those 3rd parties might actually win. Even if it doesn't change the outcome, you'll know that your vote didn't "spoil" the election for your second choice.

If you want to go one step further, you can Occupy the CPD. Sign the petition to tell the Commission on Presidential Debates that you think we should hear from all qualified candidates and not just the two that they think we should hear from.

Finally, research the alternative parties and join one that matches your personal beliefs. Even you end up voting for one of the two major parties, joining a 3rd party and supporting that movement can have a significant effect on future campaigns. Here's a few links to get you started:

Measuring Rational Behavior

Is "rationality" a measurable quantity?

In a previous blog post, I discussed some common logical errors that often arise in political discourse. This led to a rather interesting discussion on Twitter about political behaviors and how to model them mathematically (special thanks to @mathguide and @nesa_k!). One of the questions that came up this this discussion was how to define "rational behavior" and whether or not this is a measurable quantity. What follows is my hypothesis on "rational behavior": what it is and how to measure it.

Please keep in mind that this is just a hypothesis and I don't quite have the resources to verify these claims experimentally. If anyone has evidence to support or dispute these claims, I would certainly be interested in hearing it!

Defining "rational behavior"

Before we can begin to measure "rationality", we must first define what it means to be "rational". Merriam-Webster defines "rational" as "relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason". The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the roots of the word in the Latin rationalis, meaning "of or belonging to reason, reasonable", and ratio, meaning "reckoning, calculation, reason". It's also worthwhile to mention that ratio and rational have a distinct mathematical definition referring to the quotient of two quantities. Wikipedia suggests that this usage was based on Latin translations of λόγος (logos) in Euclid's Elements. This same Greek word lies at the root of "logic" in English.

Based on these definitions and etymology, I think its fair to define rational behavior as "behavior based on a process of logical reasoning rather than instinct or emotion".

Even this definition is far from perfect. In the context of game theory, "rational behavior" often defined as the process of maximizing benefits while minimizing costs. Note that by this definition, even single celled organisms like amoeba would be considered to exhibit "rational behavior". In my opinion, this minimax-ing is a by-product of evolution by natural selection rather than evidence of "reason" as implied by the typical usage of the word "rational".

I should also clarify what I mean by "logical reasoning" in this definition. In trying to quantitatively measure rational behavior, I propose that it makes sense to use a system of fuzzy logic rather than Boolean logic. By using the Zadeh operators of "NOT", "AND", and "OR", we can develop an quantitative measure of rationality on a scale of 0 to 1. In logic, we say that an arguement is considered sound if it's valid and its premises are true. Since we're using the fuzzy "AND" in this model, the rationality measure is the minimum truth value of the logical validity and base assumptions.

Using this definition, we can also define irrational behavior as "behavior based on an invalid logical argument or false premises". I'd like to draw a distinction here by defining arational behavior as "instinctive behaviors without rational justification", to cover the amoeba case described above. An amoeba doesn't use logic to justify its actions, it just instinctively responds to the stimuli around it.

Rationalism and Language

There's an implicit assumption in the definition of "rational behavior" that I've used here, and that is that this requires some capacity for language. First-order predicate logic is a language, so the idea that "rational behavior" is language dependent should come as no surprise. In fact, the same Greek word "logos" from which "rational" is derived was also used as a synonym for "word" or "speech". The components of language are necessary for constructing a formal system, by providing a set of symbols and rules of grammar for constructing statements. Add a set of axioms (assumptions) and some rules for inference, and you'll have all the components necessary to construct a logical system.

A Dynamic Axiomatic System Model of Rational Behavior

A this point we can start to develop an axiomatic system to describe rational behavior. Using the operators of fuzzy logic and the normal rules of first-order logic we can create an axiomatic system that loosely has the properties we would expect of "rational behavior". It's very unlikely that the human mind uses the exact rules of fuzzy logic, but it should be "close enough". We also have to consider that the basic beliefs or assumptions of a typical person vary over time. Thus, it's not enough to model rational behavior as an axiomatic system alone, we must consider how that system changes over time. In other words, this is a dynamic system.

As we go through life, we "try out" different sets of beliefs and construct hypotheses about how the world works. These form the "axioms" of our "axiomatic system". Depending on whether or not these assumptions are consistent with our experiences, we may decide to keep those axioms or reject them. When this set of assumptions contains contradictions, the result is a feeling of discomfort called cognitive dissonance. This discomfort encourages the brain to reject one of the conflicting assumptions to reach a stable equilibrium again. The dynamic system resulting from this process is what I would characterize as rational behavior.

One particularly powerful type of axiom in this system is labeling. Once a person takes a word or label and uses it to describe him or herself, the result is the attribution of large number of personal characteristics at once. The more labels a person ascribes to, the more likely it is that a contradiction will result. Labeling also has powerful social effects associated with it as well. Ingroups and outgroups can carry with them substantial rewards or risks depending on the context.

Rather than rejecting faulty axioms when confronted with cognitive dissonance, some individuals develop alternative methods of reducing the discomfort. The general term for pattern of behavior is called cognitive bias. This behavior can take a variety of different forms, but the one that is most relevant to this discussion is the confirmation bias. One of the ways in which the human brain can reduce the effects of cognitive dissonance is by filtering out information that would result in a contradiction with the base assumptions. Another relevant bias to consider is the belief bias, or the tendency to evaluate the logical validity of an argument based on a pre-existing belief about the conclusion.

Whatever form it may take, cognitive bias should be taken as evidence of "irrational behavior". Not all cognitive biases are of equal magnitude, and some arguments may rely more highly on these biases than others. The goal here is not a Boolean "true" or "false" categorization of "rational" and "irrational", but more of a scale like the one used by PolitiFact: True, Mostly True, Half-True, Mostly False, False, Pants on Fire. The method of applying truth values in fuzzy logic makes it highly appropriate for this purpose.

Examples in Politics

Consider this clip from The Daily Show. Using this clip may seem a little biased, but it's important to remember that John Stewart is a comedian. Comedians have an uncanny knack for walking the fine line between "rational" and "irrational", providing an interesting perspective to work with.

In the first example, we have the issue of Rick Santorum and JFK. After reading JFK's speech on religious freedom, Santorum says that it made him want to throw up. In order to defend this statement, Santorum uses a good ole fashioned straw man argument by claiming that JFK was saying "no faith is not allowed in the public public square" when in fact JFK was saying "all faiths are allowed". I think Santorum's behavior here is a prime example of irrational behavior. Taking this position may very well earn him some votes with the deeply religious, but it's clear that Santorum has some problems finding consistency between his personal beliefs and the First Amendment. His position is not based on a valid logical argument, but on a physical response to the cognitive dissonance resulting from his conflicting beliefs. This example also shows the power of deeply held self-labeling behaviors like religion.

Mitt Romney made some headlines with his "NASCAR Team Owner" blunder. It would appear that Mitt Romney had gone to Daytona to try and score some points with "average Americans", but a slip of the tongue showed how out of touch he really is. To Romney's credit, his behavior here is about half-rational. His assumptions are probably something like this:

  • I want people to vote for me.
  • People vote for someone they can relate to.
  • Most people know someone who likes NASCAR.
  • I know someone who likes NASCAR.

It makes sense from a logical standpoint, but it turns out that the person who Romney knows that likes NASCAR just happens to be a
"team owner" instead of a "fan". This small detail makes it unlikely that people will relate to him, but at least the foundation of a logical argument is there.

This brings us back to Rick Santorum again. This time, Santorum calls President Obama a "snob" for "[wanting] every American to go to college". Not only is this comment blatantly false, but he's employing an ad hominem attack in lieu of a logical argument. This example draws a nice dichotomy between President Obama and Rick Santorum. The President is making a rational argument in favor of higher education which is well supported by evidence. By opposing this rational argument on a faulty premise, Santorum comes out of this situation looking mostly irrational. His behavior makes sense if you consider the effects of confirmation bias. Santorum believes that the President is trying to indoctrinate college students to become liberals. He believes it so thoroughly that he simply filters out any evidence that would contradict it. While most observers can hear the President say "one year of higher education or career training", Santorum doesn't. He hears the part confirms his beliefs and filters out the rest. I'd imagine that for Santorum, listening to President Obama speak sounds something like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons: "one year of higher education wah wah-wah wah-wah-wah". To Santorum's credit, at least he had the mind to retract his "snob" statement -- even if only partially. This shows that the underlying mechanisms for rational behavior are still there, despite his frequent leaps of logic.


I hope I've at least managed to present a definition of "rationality" that's a little more precise than the everyday use of the term. I'm sure some people out there might disagree with the way I've rated the "rationality" of these behaviors. Different people have different experiences and consequently have different assumptions about the world. If we were to use multiple "rationality raters" and average the results, perhaps we might have a decent quantitative measure of rationality to work with.

Part of the problem with measuring rationality is the speculative nature of trying to determine someone else's assumptions. We can generally use what a person says as an indication of what they believe -- at least for the most part. It's also important to consider not only the statement, but the context in which the statement is made. In political discourse, we implicitly assume that politicians are being honest with us. They might be wrong about the facts, but this idea that they are honestly representing their own views is something that voters tend to select for. Perhaps this is why Romney is still struggling against Santorum in the primary. Santorum may have problems getting his facts straight and presenting a logical argument, but he has a habit of saying what he believes regardless of the consequences. Romney, on the other hand, says what he thinks will win him the most votes. Many voters do not vote "rationally", they vote according to how they "feel" about the candidates. Romney may be more "rational" than Santorum, but his calculated responses cause him to lose that "feeling of honesty" that Santorum elicits from voters.

In the next article, I'll attempt to explain the origins of rational and irrational behavior. I think the key to understanding these behaviors lies in evolution by natural selection. I would argue that both rational and irrational behaviors contributed to the survival of our species, and this is why irrationality persists into the present. Stay tuned!

The Three Axioms of Political Alogic

I find it rather interesting that the foundations of both logic and democracy can be traced back to ancient Greece. Here in the US, we've taken the Greeks' idea of democracy and brought it to a new level, but at the same time our political discourse seems anything but logical. We owe to Aristotle the "Three classic laws of thought", which are as follows:

  1. The law of identity. Anything object must be the same as itself.  P \to P
  2. The law of noncontradiction. Something can't be and not be at the same time.  \neg(P \land \neg P)
  3. The law of excluded middle. Either a proposition is true, or it's negation is.  P \lor \neg P

It's worth while to note that these statements are neither verifiable or falsifiable, qualities true of any "axiom". An axiom is supposed to be a self-evident truth, that gives us starting point for a discussion. The universe described by these axioms is one where "TRUE" and "FALSE" form a dichotomy. These axioms don't handle things like quantum particles or Russell's paradox in which things can be both true and false simultaneously. Nevertheless, they provide a useful tool for discerning truthhood. Politicians, however, are more concerned with "votes" than "truths". The following "Three Axioms of Political Alogic" are the negation of the "three classic laws of thought", and generally indicate situations where a politician is distorting the truth for personal gain. Although, that could change if Schrodinger's Cat decides to run for office.

The Three Axioms of Political Alogic

#1: The law of deniability

Just because something is, doesn't mean that it is.
First order (a)logic:  \neg (P \to P)
Sometimes politicians don't have their facts straight, but that won't stop them from proclaiming that a lie is the truth. The most common form of this seems to be the denial of evolution and climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. When the majority of the population is poorly informed about scientific issues, its much easier for a politician to appeal to these voters by reaffirming their misconceptions than it is to actually educate them. Just ask Rick Santorum.
There's a corallary to this rule, and that is that if you repeat the lie often enough then eventually the public will believe you. The right-wing media repeatedly refers to President Obama as "Socialist" or "Muslim", despite neither being true, in the hopes of eventually convincing the public that they are true.

#2: The law of contradiction

Just because two positions contradict each other, doesn't mean you can't hold both of them simulatenously.
First order (a)logic:  P \land \neg P
Politicians seem to have a natural immunity to cognitive dissonance, allowing them to hold two contradictory positions without feeling any guilt or embarrassment. Republicans like to call themselves "pro-life" while simultaneously supporting the death penalty -- something I never fully understood. How can one be pro-life and pro-death at the same time?
President Obama's 2012 State of the Union had a few subtle contradictions worth noting. President Obama begins by praising the General Motors bailout and goes on to speak out against bailouts near the end. He also called out "the corrosive influence of money in politics", while he himself was the largest beneficiary of Wall St donations during the 2008 campaign. When you consider that this President has built his position on the principles of compromise and cooperation, taking both sides of the issue seems to be his way of encouraging both parties to work together. Unfortunately, this strategy hasn't really worked out that well in the past.

#3: The law of the included middle

You don't need to choose between a position and its negation. You can always change your mind later.
First order (a)logic:  \neg (P \lor \neg P)
Politicians try to appeal to the widest possible base of voters. Since the voters don't always agree with each other on a particular issue, you'll often find politicians changing their stance depending on which voters they're speaking to. This law is the "flip-flop" rule of politics. Mitt Romney is a popular example, having changed his stances on abortion, Reaganomics, and no-tax pledges. These changes make sense from a vote-maximization point of view. Romney's earlier campaign in Massachusetts required him to appeal to a moderate voter base. In the GOP Primary, he now needs to contend with the far-right wing voters. If the votes he potentially gains by changing stance outnumber the votes he'd lose from the flip-flop, then he gains votes overall. Likewise, President Obama has also "flip-flopped" on some issues he campaigned on now that he's actually in office -- like single-payer healthcare versus individual mandates. Again, the President is dealing with a change in audience. "Candidate Obama" needed to appeal to the general population, while "President Obama" needs to appeal to members congress. He's still trying to maximize votes, it's just a different type of vote that counts now.

Parting Thoughts

This post started with a joke on Twitter about politicians' inability to do basic math or logic. After giving it some thought, perhaps they're better at math than I originally gave them credit for. They may not be able to answer simple arithmetic problems, but when it comes down to maximizing the number of votes they receive they are actually quite skilled. They may tell bold faced lies and flip-flop all over the place, but they do so in such a way that gets them elected and keeps them there. If we want politicians to tell the "truth" then we to start voting that way. We also need to start educating others about how to tell a "lie" from the "truth", and I hope someone finds these "Three Axioms of Political Alogic" a valuable tool for doing so.

Put a Former Dead Kennedy in the White House #istandfor #jello2012

Dear Mr. Stephen Colbert and Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,

I understand that you are looking for suggestions for what to do with that money that I gave you. I'm sorry it's not much, but now that Congress fucked up America's credit rating I'm expecting my students loan rates to go through the roof. While it is no longer my money to spend, I think the answer for what to do with it lies in the very same reason why I gave it to you in the first place:

I would like you, Stephen Colbert, to turn the 2012 Presidential Elections into a Media Circus.

If there's one person that can do it, it's you, and I'm pretty sure you were going to do it anyway.

In fact, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow has already started drawing much needed attention to campaign finance issues. As ABTT continues to create media headlines, it's benevolent ringleader can take this media coverage and convert it into Strategic Humorous Indoctrination Transmissions, or SHIT. Once the SHIT is produced, ABTT can seek volunteer monkeys to hurl the SHIT in every direction. The SHIT throwing will no doubt generate more media coverage, drawing new contributors to ABTT and providing the necessary resources to produce more SHIT. The next step is to find a presidential candidate that has what it takes to make our political leaders to look like a bunch of clowns. SHIT throwing monkeys are nice, but it just wouldn't be a circus without the clowns.

My first idea was to hijack the Republican primary with a write-in campaign. Put out a few advertisements suggesting that everyone write-in the name of their favorite Conservative pundit in the GOP primary. If the votes for rest of the Republican candidates are somewhat evenly split, a social media driven write-in campaign might be enough to make it "first past the post". Of course, there might be some potential legal and viability issues to consider with this approach. In the long run, perhaps this unnamed individual's talents might make him better suited towards influencing public opinion of the candidates than being one himself.

As an alternative, I'd like to suggest Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher). Yes, that's right. The former Dead Kennedys front man: Jello Biafra. Jello has been involved in the Green Party presidential campaigns since 2000, and although he's hasn't announced any intention to run in 2012, there are some who think he should.

Now, hear me out here. The US Green Party is at a huge disadvantage in the upcoming election due to the Citizens United ruling. You see, like your pal Buddy Roemer, the Green Party takes issue with unlimited corporate contributions and candidates rely on small value donations from ordinary citizens. This means that Jello wouldn't be able to run on the Green Party ticket and still accept PAC contributions. This makes it practically impossible for any Green Party, or other 3rd party, candidates to compete with the corporate financed campaigns. For a 3rd party to influence the election at all, it needs to be the center of a media circus. This is where ABTT comes in. The ABTT doesn't have to support Jello, but rather it just needs to vilify him.

You see, Jello isn't really your "tip of hat" type. He's more of the "wag of the finger" type. He's the kind of guy that will suggest radical ideas like instituting a maximum wage, abolishing the military, or lowering the voting age to 5.. The media needs a crazy-socialist-liberal to keep the news interesting! Jello's political views should put him on the top of the "Threat Down", but most people have never heard of him or the Green Party. It's really too bad this is the case, because every superhero needs a supervillain and Jello would be a perfect arch nemesis for Steven Colbert. He even comes complete with built-in product placement and catchy potential campaign slogans like "Put a Former Dead Kennedy in the White House" or "There's always room for Jello".

If Jello were to run and selects a well-known Green Party figure as his running mate, like Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney or Howie Hawkins, the result could be a strong Green Party ticket. Jello's punk rock attitude and anarchistic tendencies could be just the thing to pick up the disenfranchised youth vote. Regardless of whether or not Jello can win the election, a voice like his is much needed to shift the course of debate in the 2012 elections.

The plan is simple. Musical guests are no stranger to the Colbert Report, so there would be nothing out of the ordinary about inviting Jello on to talk about "The Audacity of Hype". Ask him why he hates Obama and let the SHIT throwing monkeys do the rest.

For a little taste of Jello, check out the following videos:

Jello Biafra (public speech) - LIVE

Jello Biafra on Anarchism

Green Party 2000 Convention - Interviews with Key Figures 2

Jello Biafra on Net Neutrality & the COPE Act

Jello Biafra at Open The Debates Rally at DNC in Denver 2008

Wake up Virginia District 4! Stop the hate!

/rant on

Earlier this week, the Virginian Pilot published an article entitled Forbes versus LeGrow: In God, only one trusts. Rather than focusing on the candidates' stances on political issues, the article focuses solely on the candidates' differing religious beliefs. Not only is this coverage thoroughly distasteful, but some of the comments added by readers demonstrate a sickening level of ignorance and intolerance. Voters in Virginia's 4th Congressional District need to look past religion this November. To do otherwise is to reinforce a culture of bigotry and hate that has plagued this great nation for far too long.

Allow me to start by correcting Mr. Forbes on the language used in the Declaration of Independence. The "Creator" referred to in the Declaration of Independence is not "God" as used in the Christian sense of the word. Rather, the word "Creator" is used here as a metaphor for "Nature". The Treaty of Tripoli clarifies this, explicitly stating that the US "is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".

Secondly, Mr. Forbes swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Included in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution is the following:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

Mr. Forbes has sponsored two bills which, if passed, would violate this Amendment:

  • H.Con.Res.274 attempts to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as a national motto
  • H.Res.397 falsely characterizes the founding of this nation as being religious in nature

By proposing this legislation, Mr. Forbes has made it clear that he has no intention to adhere to his oath to uphold the Constitution and is therefore unfit to hold office. Mr. Forbes also started a "Congressional Prayer Caucus", further blurring the line between church and state.

That's not to mention the fact that Mr. Forbes also participated in Glenn Beck's rally on 8-28-10, an event which was coincidentally held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech and at the same location. Mr. Forbes attendance at this event is an implicit endorsement of Beck's platform. The issues with such an endorsement are too numerous to list here, so instead I'll point to this clip from The Colbert Report and leave it at that.

The real issue that I want to address here, are the reactions from the VA Democrats in the Pilot article. State Delegate Lionell Spruill says "I can't take him to churches as an atheist... That would hurt me." Really? Contrary to popular belief, atheists do not spontaneously combust upon entering churches. Spruill is not in danger of being physically hurt by bringing Dr. LeGrow into a church. Instead the issue seems to be that Spruill is afraid that supporting an atheist for office may harm his chances for re-election. This behavior is inconsistent with the Democratic party's platform, which says that the party is committed to "[e]nding racial, ethnic, and religious profiling" (emphasis mine). Heck, even the Republican platform condones this type of behavior. The US Constitution explicitly states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States". It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Part of the problem is with constituents like Rev. Jake Manley Sr., who says in the Pilot article: "I could not vote for a man who doesn't believe in some power higher than his." Really, this is just a euphemism for "I could not vote for an atheist". This is religious profiling, and not even very subtle at that! If he had instead said "I could not vote for a Black/White/Mexican/Asian/Christian/Jew/Muslim" there would be public outrage! But for some reason, people think it's okay to engage in blatant discrimination against atheists. It's not.

My message to my fellow voters in VA-4 is to not let religion cloud your vision this November. Here we have an opportunity to replace an incumbent who has ignored his Congressional oath with a doctor who cares about providing people with medical care, better education, and a clean energy future. Vote with reason, your nation needs it right now.

/rant off

An Open Letter To Barack Obama On National Day of Prayer

Dear President Barack Obama,

I'm writing today to urge you to reconsider your position on the National Day of Prayer. I was most displeased to hear that you will continue to acknowledge the National Day of Prayer, despite the recent Supreme Court Ruling of its unconstitutionality. I feel that Judge Crabb's ruling in this case was correct. While the White House argues that this ruling does not prevent you from issuing a Presidential Proclamation recognizing this day, doing so ostracizes a significant body of your constituents and contradicts the spirit of the Constitution.

I would like to say that I supported you in the 2008 election. During your campaign, you presented yourself as a man of reason and principle. Having moved from California to Virginia earlier that year, I felt like my vote made a difference for the first time in my life. This feeling was reaffirmed during your acceptance speech when you specifically thanked “non-believers” among other groups. As a atheist, this was the first time I had heard any President speak of “non-believers” in a positive light. I felt a glimmer of hope that CHANGE was possible.

Since then, that glimmer of hope has been gradually dying out. You promised to end the war in the Middle East, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and yet the military occupation continues. You promised to end the arrests of medical marijuana users acting in accordance with state laws, and yet the DEA raids have continued. Dreams of single-payer health care were reduced to hopes for a public-option, and eventually turned into “be happy you got any health care reform at all”. You promised an environmentally conscious energy policy, but shifted your stance to support offshore drilling about a month before the BP oil spill. You continue to proclaim support for ending “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”, but I'm beginning to doubt that this will go through either.

In the times of old, people prayed for things that were beyond their control. People prayed for rain in periods of drought. When that didn't work, they offered virgin sacrifices. Nowadays these practices are largely obsolete. Instead of praying for rain, we build aqueducts and irrigation systems. Instead of praying for the sick to improve in health, we intervene with medical treatment. While some people continue to pray in times of desperation, I am not one of them. For myself and others like me, the act of prayer is considered an ineffective method for bringing about change. Actions consistently provide better outcomes than prayers. This is my request to you: instead of a Day of Prayer, proclaim May 6th as a Day of Action. The American people didn't elect you to office to “pray for change”, they elected you to “act for change”.

Make no mistake, such a declaration would undoubtedly draw heat from the religious community. Bear in mind that we atheists suffer through this discrimination everyday of our lives. Hate mail and death threats are no strangers to atheists who speak their minds. The separation of church and state is one of the founding principles of this nation, set forth in the Constitution that you have sworn to uphold, and I hope that you can set aside your personal views to uphold the rights of the “non-believers” who helped elect you to your present position. To pursue an appeal of Judge Crabb's decision is a waste of government resources. There are more pressing matters that need your attention.

Please Mr. President, use May 6th to bring us a real moment of “peace and goodwill” by withdrawing our nations troops from their posts overseas. Prove your commitment to treat everyone with “dignity and respect” by ending “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”. Show that the right “to love one another” extends to everyone, including those in the LGBT community, by making a motion to repeal the “Defense of Marriage Act”. Set an example for what it means “to understand one another” by not alienating non-believers with a “Day of Prayer”. Do these and show that CHANGE is not beyond our control.