Some Random Electoral Thoughts

I didn’t post anything in this space about the presidential election this time around, and restrained myself to only a few bursts on Twitter. Politics is one of those topics about which I could get very annoying very quickly and not something about I have a shred of credibility so I leave the commentary to someone else.

However, now that the voting is done (or almost done since I gather there are still a couple million uncounted ballots1), I have a few random thoughts to offer. Feel free to skip the rest of this rambling mess and move on to the next item in your feed.

First, a couple of items from an article in the Hollywood Reporter of all places2, titled Election Day: 18 Reasons Why It’s Good or Bad That We’re Almost Done With It. It’s pretty standard stuff (everyone, regardless of party is sick of political advertising!) but a couple of items are worth highlighting.

From the bad side

Donald Trump. Seriously, why is (your god here) punishing us with this man? What the hell did we do to deserve to look at his yammering mug as he dupes the media? Make him stop, oh Higher Power.

Brian Williams offered the best assessment of Trump while anchoring NBC’s election night coverage: he has “driven well past the last exit to relevance and has veered into something closer to irresponsible…”. The same could probably be said of a long list of pundits who continue to show up on so-called legitimate news programs.

And then from the good side,

The Daily Show. They are doing God’s work there.

The Colbert Report. See above, with special extra points for Stephen Colbert being so sick of Trump that he almost broke character when he took down the comb-over charlatan and his “October surprise.”

They can claim to do fake news but both shows continue to be the absolute cream of the crop for media and political analysis by not being afraid to call BS on anyone who deserves it, regardless of political affiliation, and making it very funny at the same time.

Next, there was election night. In past years, I joined tens of millions of other Americans in selecting a channel and watching as the personalities played with their electronic visualization toys while providing information in small bursts. The rest of the long evening was taken up with pundits filling time with speculation and trivial blather.

This time around I followed events on my Twitter feed and a couple of live political blogs on my iPad while doing more useful work. Better information, far better commentary, less stress, and much more entertaining.

Then there’s the obscene amount of money spent for political advertising. One billion dollars for just the presidential race is the number most often quoted and something like triple that when you include all the local candidates and issues.

What a waste. Or a media stimulus package, depending on how you look at it. Either way, based on reports I’ve read, a large percentage of the “independent” attack ads bought with that money was ineffective at best. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the biggest spenders did the worst. I suppose you could call that karma.

Finally, how great was it that the popular media was actually talking about math during the campaign coverage? Well, they were talking about the statistical models of Nate Silver which predicted the election outcomes far better than most of the other pundits who used “inside” courses and their guts.

Unfortunately, very few commentators made even the slightest attempt to understand the math and gave Silver very little time to explain it himself. But maybe, just maybe, all of the noise about his work might inspire viewers to learn more about the concepts of probability and statistics they run into everyday.

But, considering the people of Maryland voted last Tuesday to allow building a major casino right across the river, I rather doubt it.

Ok, enough about this election. Who’s leading the presidential polls for 2016?

1 The process of voting in this country is an issue someone needs to address so I don’t have to stand in a two hour line, which was short compared to the experience elsewhere, not to mention the voter suppression crap in some states.

2 What can I say? I have an odd mix of sources in Flipboard.


Above the Fold

In analog newspapers, the space above the fold on the front page is considered very valuable. That’s where editors place the stories they consider most important, or at least the ones that might catch the eye of someone looking over the choices on newsstands.


On the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post, 1/6th of that above-the-fold space was used to begin a story about how our water and sewage systems are falling apart and will require billions of dollars to fix.

The other 5/6th was taken up with pictures and stories about a group of people competing to lead this country, all of whom want to slash funding for even the most basic upgrades to the public infrastructure.

Same for roads, schools, energy, air traffic control, ports, and pretty much everything other than the military, and walls to keep people who don’t look like them out of the country.

Actually, most of those candidates for president would love to sell just everything off to the highest bidder (or to no-bid contributors if they can get away with it).

However, that above-the-fold space in the Post is also an example of how the news media covers the electoral process.

One-sixth (if that) on important issues, ones that actually affect the quality of life in this country, and five-sixths on the horse race of the election, the gossip, the manufactured controversies, arguing over the stupid, out-of-context, and irrelevant sound bites.

It’s going to be a long election year, and it’s clear the candidates and the reporters who cover them will be spending most of their time on trivial crap instead of educating the electorate.

By All Means, Argue With It!

Tomorrow here in the overly-large school district, we will be electing a new school board, and since, more than half of the incumbents are not running again, it really will be new. Maybe.

One block of candidates is basically running on a platform that begins with an assumption that the system is doing a good job, only requiring a few tweaks, with one even interviewing that “you can’t argue with success”.

However, what if that “success” is based on faulty or outdated measures?

Of course one of the primary evaluations for our schools (and pretty much every other school in this country) are scores on the variety of tests students take every year, from the state SOLs to AP/IB to whatever. But are those many tests really valid assessments of student learning, especially the skills they will need in their life after our schools? It’s a question that needs to be addressed more often, here and elsewhere.

Our district also likes to boast that something like 95% of our graduates go on to “post secondary” programs. But how well prepared are they to succeed in those programs? While that 95% number is found in many places on the website and other publications (including places like the Chamber of Commerce and real estate brochures), any follow-up information on alumni is sparse to nonexistent. I wonder if anyone even tries to collect it.

And then most high schools also like to trumpet their numbers on meaningless lists like the Washington Post’s “challenge” index, one of the most superficial measures of high school quality every invented. Oh, but it does make for good headlines.

So, not only is it possible to argue with our district’s past successes, more people running the show, as well as those who want to, should be challenging many aspects of what we do as a school system.

Instead of spending lots of valuable time tossing around all the trivial, cliched crap that usually passes for serious discussion of education issues these days.

Good Job… Keep Doing the Same Thing

In his weekly Post column, I actually agree with Jay Mathews’ assessment of the campaign promises on education issues being tossed around by the two candidates for Virginia governor:  Pleasant sound bites with little substance.

Whichever Virginia candidate wins will do his best for kids, even if much of what is being proposed is standard American campaign pap. Both want to raise teachers salaries, a wonderful idea, but neither presents a realistic plan to pay for that. Both support school-business partnerships to prepare students for the real world but don’t say how they are going to solve the old problem that neither business executives nor educators have the time or energy to make such plans work. Both want to reduce dropout rates but cite no examples of this happening recently in any significant way, given the drag of poverty on many children’s lives.

I have to admit that Mathews is also right when he says that Virginia already does a pretty good job of supporting public schools.

Unfortunately, that support is almost entirely in the context of the traditional educational structure.

Neither of the people running for governor, much less anyone else in the state political or educational administrative structure, is proposing anything that would substantially move teaching and learning beyond the process familiar to anyone attending school in the last half of the 20th century.

Charter schools don’t do it – the vast majority are just private schools being run with public money using the same curriculum and pedagogy.

AP and IB classes don’t do it – they still lock schools into a college-is-the-only-goal mentality using programs written by the even more tradition-bound university system.

Improving teacher quality is certainly a good idea but not if the plans are centered around enhancing teaching methods designed for students from 1965.

More standardized testing?  More crap is not better crap!

Yes, voters should feel good “about the great job Virginia educators have done” in the past.

But that’s no reason to keep doing the same thing, only more of it, and assuming that every other factor outside the school will remain static.

Oh, and paying for it with leftover small change.

Capturing History

I bet a lot of people bought a newspaper this morning. Even those who haven’t paid for a paper version of the news in years (if ever). [Update: evidence]

Buying and putting away a print version of the headline from a major event is traditionally how many have personally preserved a piece of history.

So how does that happen in a digital age, one in which dead-tree publications are disappearing or cutting back?

I suppose you could take a screen shot of your favorite news outlet’s web site. Or wait to get the commemorative issue of Time that’s undoubtably coming soon.

But one page (digital or otherwise) really doesn’t capture the memory anymore. Neither does a single edition of a daily newspaper.

For me, and I suspect others who live in the online echo chamber, the story of this election was made of lots of little bits that went beyond what was recorded in the traditional news media.

Like Twitter discussions during debates. Multiple blog posts written by amateur and professional observers alike. Conversations in the comments sections of those blogs. Sharing YouTube videos created by non-professionals with creative ideas.

I hope that someone with far more resources than I have (Internet Archive? Library of Congress?) was capturing a large chunk of the online stream during the past two years.

The many, many digital pieces flowing on the net have now become as much a part of the archive of history as the products of relatively few print and broadcast media outlets were for the previous century.

Of course, not everything uploaded to the web is worth keeping (although some of David Jakes’ Twitter rants are priceless :-).

However, all those small elements added up to a larger story, one that was largely ignored or missed by the high profile media outlets.

To me, it’s pretty clear that this was the first US national election in which various online communities had a major, perhaps a decisive, impact on the outcome.

In the past we might say that it will be left to historians to decide if that statement is valid and what the impact was.

I’m not so sure the extremely impatient world of the web will stand still waiting for their judgement.