I’m Back

It’s been a rough couple of months. A heavy semester turned into a work-from-home marathon and that was followed by a shorter semester that was online from end-to-end. It was grueling. I’ve never been all that interested in teaching online; the investment of time seemed too extreme and I was not wrong. Still, there were pleasant surprises. We found out on a Friday that we’d have to start teaching on-line and I was able to figure out a lot of stuff over the weekend working with my colleagues in the mathematics department. Calculus II went on-line that Monday and although it wasn’t perfect, we barely missed a beat.

This is fairly boring, but here’s part of the figuring-out-what-the-hell-I’m-doing process.

There’s still a lot to learn. My Science Fiction class in particular really drove home how much I depend on cues from students in the classroom. But it was still a rewarding albeit different experience from what I was used to. Having gone through the experience I’d be willing to try it again although hopefully not in such impromptu circumstances. It also has me pondering the possibility of doing parts of this blog with a “v” in front of it.

But I finally seem to be able to carve out some time for this. Later today, we’ll have the first in a series of posts on state flags in honor of flag day. There’s a post mortem on Mad Magazine in the works and I need to get back to these comics that seemed like they would be fun to write about.

I purchased these 60 years old to the month from their cover date but in August it will be 61 years from when they hit the stands. That should give you an idea of how long some of these things need to ruminate.

So, there’s more to come. Please stay tuned!

Super Tuesday, Live.

It’s like a regular Tuesday except from Krypton. Well, not really. Actually, it’s like a regular Tuesday except with a genuinely life-threatening number of fries.

I published these predictions a few minutes ago on Facebook and it looks fairly even. There’s not a whole lot of analysis there on my part; I mostly just took the 538.com favorite. Thus, this is as much of a benchmark as anything else. We can use this to look for surprises.

The exception is Texas. Sanders had a pretty big lead there before South Carolina, but Biden seems to be getting a boost of his big win last Saturday. He was gaining fast; that one could really go either way.

What’s the status quo? Biden has Momentum, which changes things dramatically. Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Steyer have dropped out of the race in the last few days which is good news for Biden.

Warren is still in. It’s perplexing that she hasn’t caught on more than she did. I still think that she would have been the Democrats best bet against Trump. She is the Quintessential anti-Trump and that contrast would have been her best argument. Sadly, if the predictions above are correct, this might be her campaign’s last gasp.

7:08 pm. I’ll be switching over to coverage soon.

7:30 pm. It’s a big win for Biden in VA. That sounds good for him. His bounce must be pretty big. NC is called for Biden at the moment the polls closed. Sanders wins in Vermont. No surprise there.

Tom Perez was just talking about the Jones election as a sign of Democratic Party strength, That’s a real misread of the situation.

And Bloomberg wins American Samoa. Did not see that coming. Is the tide turning? No.

7:55 pm. Five Poll closings coming up at 8. Alabama, Maine, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee. That’s probably 3 for Biden and 2 for Sanders.

8:00 pm. Alabama is called for Biden. Oklahoma, Maine, Massachusetts are all to early to call. All the early calls for Biden should help him. Arkansas will go his way as well.

8:10 pm. Biden is competitive in Massachusetts. That’s a sign that he could run the table. And yeah, that’s ignoring a lot of voting theory vote-splitting arguments.

8:40 pm. No call in Arkansas yet (did I miss it?). Texas is closing soon. There’s a huge line of college students in Austin still waiting to vote. I hope they’re all able to stick it out.

8:57 pm. Watching how everything else is going tonight, I think Texas is going to go to Biden.

9:00 pm. “To early to call” is not a call. “To close to call” is not a call.

9:21 pm. AL SC NC TN OK. Biden is running up a big delegate lead, mostly in states that Democrats won’t win in November.

9:40 pm. NBC’s finally caught up and called Colorado for Sanders.

9:45 pm. James Clybern is on MSNBC right now. Damn, that guy is good. He might be the MVP of the entire 2020 election for better or for worse.

9:47 pm. If Biden’s “officially leading” in Minnesota, that’s devastating for Sanders if it holds up.

10:14 pm. It looks like Biden wins Massachusetts. This is officially a rout.

10:19 pm. And now Minnesota. Crap.

11:40 pm. California is called for Sanders. Too little too late.

12:13 am. So much for Super Tuesday; it’s now Fatigued Wednesday. There’s got to be a better name for it than that. It looks at this point that Biden will win both Texas and Maine. I thought I saw an official call on Texas, but I can’t verify that. What’s the headline for the evening? Biden Wins Big. Biden won everywhere he was supposed to and a lot of places that Bernie was supposed to.

What’s the Matter with Iowa

This was initially published yesterday as part of Prelude to Iowa. It looks like this scenario is playing out in real time so it deserves to be out on its own.

Beware of Paradoxical Results

You might think that first-past-the-post or the plurality vote is the worst voting system ever. You’d be wrong. In 2017, my student, Brandon Payne studied the Iowa Caucuses. He determined that the caucuses violate all sorts of mathematical “fairness criteria.” One example is the Condorcet criterion which states that if one candidate beats every other candidate in head-to-head match-ups, that candidate should be the overall winner. Such a candidate might not win the Iowa Caucuses.

Turns out, the viability constraint can also lead to seemingly contradictory results, which I’ll call the “viability paradox.” As a quick example, suppose that in some state, the voters have the following preferences.

Candidate A35%
Candidate B30%
Candidate C12%
Candidate D12%
Candidate E11%

In a primary election, this would be a clear victory for candidate A.

Now let’s divide our state into five precincts of 100 voters each and let’s assign each precinct 10 delegates. We’ll conduct a caucus to allocate the delegates.

Suppose that the voters are arranged within the caucuses according to the graphic below.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

Notice that there are non-viable candidate preference groups in each precinct. These voters will have to join a viable group in order to participate. They may reorganize themselves as shown below.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

And so, in this case, Candidate B actually wins pretty decisively, probably 23 delegates to 15 delegates for A. Candidates C, D and E should get 4 delegates each.

There might be good reasons to decide that either candidate A or B is the rightful winner here, but one point is that there is a significant difference. Systems like this can lead to chaotic or paradoxical results. One important take away is that, right or wrong, geography can have a lot of influence on who the victor will be. Even if a candidate seems to be ahead in the polls, they can lose without any shenanigans going on, simply because how their voters are distributed across the state. Surprising results aren’t necessarily nefarious or even necessarily surprising.

You might even want to argue that results like this are a good thing because a lot of voters got to express their second choices. Here’s why you’d be wrong. It’s not systematic. In Instant Run-Off voting, for example, everybody’s second choice is counted unless their first choice is. In the caucus exactly whose second choices are counted is determined by an accident of geography. In deciding a winner between candidates A and B above, should the second choices of voters who picked candidate C in precinct 1 be less important than those in precinct 3? They shouldn’t be but in the current system they are. This is worse than a plurality vote because this could be taking us even farther away from a good collective decision.

In fact, it’s a bit worse than that. Apparently, the state weighs the delegate counts in rural counties a bit more heavily than their urban counties. If the Democrats who think we should dump the Electoral College are to have any intellectual consistency, they should reject these results and work to reform this process.

References

  • Payne, B., The Iowa Democratic Caucuses: A Mathematical Analysis of the “Vote,” Unpublished Manuscript.

Prelude to Iowa

These things happen on Tuesdays, right? Nope. Turns out it’s tonight. The democratic caucus was quite the roller coaster ride four years ago, perhaps we can hope for a more definitive result this time around. I plan to live blog the caucus and the results from my comfy couch in upstate New York. Results will be coming in shortly, which you can keep up with here: Iowa Results, Live.

How do the Caucuses Work?

Primaries are pretty straightforward; party members come out and vote for their preferred candidate, the votes are tallied and delegates are assigned based on the vote counts. There’s a certain amount to unpack there, but if you believe in the assumptions of first-past-the-post voting, primaries should make sense to you.

Caucuses on the other hand, can be kind of weird and I’m sure that most people don’t know what will happens at a caucus site in Iowa Tonight. Here’s what is scheduled to happen.

  1. Caucus-goers will arrive at the site. Those who are not registered have the opportunity to do so, including people who want to change their party registrations and 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before Election Day in November. Only registered democrats are allowed to participate. The number of caucus-goers is established.
  2. At 7:00 pm CST the Caucus is called to order. Representatives of campaigns may speak and caucus-goers may talk among themselves. After 30 minutes, every participant will join a “presidential preference group” or an “undecided” group. Volunteers will determine how many caucus-goers are in each group.
  3. Each preference group’s viability is determined. If a candidate has the support of fewer than 15% of the participants at a caucus location, that group is considered non-viable. Members of that preference group will not be permitted to support that candidate without additional voters. If every candidate is viable, the caucus can proceed to step 5.
  4. If one or more groups are non-viable, the members of those groups have four options. They can:
    1. join a viable group,
    2. merge with another non-viable group to form a viable group,
    3. attempt to recruit members from a viable group to become viable or
    4. leave the caucus. Every group must be viable before the caucus can end.
  5. The size of each preference group is determined. Once every group is viable, the results can be officially recorded and released to the Iowa Democratic Party and the media. The caucus is declared closed.

Conventional Wisdom

This is all over the place. Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com last time I looked, had Biden as the favorite to win the caucus. Meanwhile the betting sites are giving the advantage to Sanders, who has led in the most recent polls. The very last, important poll will not be released. Still, it seems likely that one of these two men will wind up the victor. If I had to bet, I’d bet it will be Sanders. I still think he has enough of an enthusiasm gap on Biden to make the difference. But it’s a very different situation than it was 4 years ago. He isn’t the only challenger left standing.

If either Biden or Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, I think there’s a good chance that that person will go on to win the nomination.

Inherent in this relatively genteel tone is the belief that the candidates have time to sharpen the distinctions among them. But recent Democratic primaries indicate that they might not. In the past four contested Democratic primaries—2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016—the winner in Iowa has gone on to capture the nomination each time. The winnowing process has been swift and merciless: As I’ve calculated, in these four races combined, Democratic candidates who did not first win either Iowa or New Hampshire have won a total of just five states—and of those, three were the home or neighboring states of the candidates who won them. Not since 1992 have Democrats had a primary race in which more than two candidates won multiple states well into the process.

Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic

The next tier of candidates seem to be betting on the race lasting long enough to make a mark. That may or may not be the case.

Beware of Paradoxical Results

This section was expanded a bit and moved here: What’s the Matter with Iowa.

If you’re interested in the original version, it’s not very different, but it’s preserved here: Paradoxical Results

References

Iowa Results, Live

3:52 pm: You know what happens when you assume; I thought the Caucus was tomorrow, but as I was working on a companion piece, Prelude to Iowa I discovered that results were already coming in. So I’ll jump back and forth between the two posts. Prelude to Iowa will be published when there’s something complete enough to share.

Early Lead for Sanders: We already have some results as the good folks in Ottumwa caucused earlier today. The final tally was 9 for Bernie Sanders, 6 for Elizabeth Warren and 3 for Pete Buttigeig. Klobuchar and Yang had some support in the first alignment but neither was viable. M*A*S*H fans will remember Ottumwa as the home town of Radar O’Reilly. I’m sure Walter would be proud.

6:08 pm: It sounds like Amy Klobuchar has won a satellite caucus somewhere in Florida. If there’s a surprise tonight, it will be her beating expectations, but I don’t think she’ll break into the top tier, NY Times endorsement or no.

7:00 pm: Prelude to Iowa is now live. More to come, only “How do the Caucuses Work?” is done for now.

7:53 pm: “Beware of Paradoxical Results” has been added to Prelude to Iowa. The caucuses are set to start any minute, I’m going to start paying attention to the news coverage.

8:00 pm: Turnout sounds high, possibly 15% over last year? That would be good news for Sanders.

8:03 pm: Biden group looks tiny in Iowa City. Entrance polls indicate a 4 way race, Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg.

8:16 pm: Nicole Wallace just claimed that traditionally Democrats are married to substance over elect-ability. That seems wrong. Lots of candidates look strong in Des Moines. MSNBC is promising full first and final alignment results.

8:33 pm: In Debuque, Warren and Klobuchar missed viability at least on the first alignment. Buttigeig is ahead of everybody there.

8:50 pm: Klobuchar will probably beat expectations. Based on the buzz the surprise might be bigger than I thought.

There’s a woman on the tv now making a strong case for Warren.

Record turnout on a number of different places. Oldest group is looking smaller while the youngest group is getting bigger. All good news for Sanders.


The difference between the under 30 and over 65 groups is stunning.

9:18 pm: There seems to be a lot of Amy/Pete synergy.

9:23 pm: Pete looks like he’s a lot of people’s #2. Could that be enough to push him to the top?

9:31 pm: Pete and Amy kill it in Clive, IA. Biden and Warren still viable. Bernie didn’t make viability there.

9:50 pm: There’s very little data being released. In Cedar Falls only Sanders, Warren and Buttgeig are viable. The formula for assigning delegates appears to be really complicated.

This lack of data is getting kind of tedious. I wonder if they’re worried about the different narratives the three different sets of numbers will tell.

11:20 pm: Finally something is happening. Klobuchar took the stage. This is smart. If no one else does, it will get tons of airplay.

11:30 pm: The secretary from Iowa Precinct 1-1 could not get his smart phone app to work and has been on hold to the “hotline” for over two hours.

12:19 pm: It’s a shame that Elizabeth Warren’s speech was tape delayed; it’s probably the strongest one of the night.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting any results tonight. That’s not a good look for the Iowa Caucus; there’s already talk about whether on not there will even be a Caucus in four years. If the nomination comes down to delegates from Iowa, we’ll all be up to our asses in conspiracy theories.

It could be doubly delayed, Biden’s lawyer sent the Iowa Democratic Party a letter wanting to see the results before they are released. That’s not a good look for the Biden campaign, although without any data what-so-ever it may tell us all we need to know about how he did tonight.

Pete: “Iowa you have shocked the nation!” That made me laugh really hard. He’s the last major candidate to speak I think, and they all did okay, but Warren still wins.

Good night!

Image Credits:

  • Featured Image: Citizensharp [Public domain]

Star Trek: Picard – “Remembrance”

The first episode of Star Trek: Picard just premiered three days ago as I write this. There will be some spoilers, I won’t know how big they’ll be until I write them. You are warned.

I’ll prattle on a bit first to give some spoiler-free space before I get into Remembrance.

I’m not a fan of Star Trek: Discovery. I don’t hate it and they’ve done some good stuff, but as I said after the first episode, “This is not the Trek I’m looking for.” It’s a bit of a slog for me to get through the episodes. There was too much of a focus on war, but ultimately, it was the ethics that bothered me the most. I’m very much an old school Sci-Fi kind of guy and a fundamental part of that is that humanity is supposed to progress, to get better. The Federation and Starfleet have always represented that better version of humanity in Star Trek and even when they’ve lost their way, like in Insurrection, the plot revolved around the main characters setting it right. A first officer committing mutiny because she thinks she understands a situation better than her captain isn’t Trek. Even worse was the treatment of the tardigrade, which you have to compare to the Horta from the original series. In “Devil in the Dark,” Kirk, Spock, McCoy et. al. investigate a creature that’s killing miners on Janus VI. They take pains to understand the creature, discovering why it was attacking the miners and ultimately helping it. When the crew of Discovery encounters the tardigrade, they exploit the creature, even to the point of risking its life to basically make their ship go faster.

There are “reasons” and “context” for these actions and the Discovery crew eventually stop being horrible, but I think previous crews would have just dismissed the idea out of hand. Discovery got better by the second season, but it still leaves a bad taste. Like the first two Abramsverse movies, I’m left wondering how well the writers understand what makes “Star Trek” be Star Trek.

And here’s why I’m hopeful about this new series: it’s getting the ethics right. The universe is darker and there is some violence at the start of the episode that I found jarring in the context of a Star Trek episode, but the essential core is there. This was driven home in one particular moment for which I have to set the stage. Now-Admiral Picard has retired and is tending to the family vineyard in France. We’ve gotten some hints that his separation from Starfleet was contentious and we see that when he consents to an interview about the Romulan Supernova.

This event lead Jean Luc to step down from commanding the Enterprise in order to lead the rescue armada. Then, a group of synthetics attacked the colony on Mars, destroying the planet and the Utopia Planitia Shipyards where most Federation starships were constructed. Two subsequent decisions clearly bothered Jean Luc. The Federation banned synthetic humanoids and they canceled the rescue mission to Romulus. He resigned from Starfleet in protest, refusing to be complicit in the Federation turning its back on people in need. “The Federation understood that there were millions of lives at stake,” he told the interviewer. “Romulan lives,” she tried to clarify. “No, lives!” he replied. There it is. That is the core of Star Trek. We’re back to the classic situation, The Federation has lost its way and, in this case, it’s up to our titular character to put things right.

It is impressive how well constructed this episode is. The theme of memory is skillfully interwoven through the episode as one would expect for the pilot of a show built around a beloved character from a generation ago (not to mention an episode called “Remembrance.”).

There are also many, many so-called “Easter eggs.” You can check those out here.

And here. Thanks to Todd Egan and Forrest Meekins for the info and the links.

Really, calling these “Easter eggs” is an understatement. These are skillful callbacks to previous episodes and movies and they all point to what appears to be the central themes of the series; the rights of synthetic beings and the social evolution of the Romulans. Both were significant themes in TNG and they have philosophical and ethical heft. The callbacks to The Measure of a Man, one of the best and most significant episodes in all of Trek, were particularly acute. There’s an intriguing mystery developing involving both of these things and Jean Luc’s sense of right and wrong is right at the center.

One of the more intriguing allusions is the title of the stage-setting Short Trek “Children of Mars.” At first glance, the title seems straight forward; the story revolves around two school children who have parents on Mars. In rapid succession, we get to see their connection to those parents, a bit of their lives and then their devastated and devastating reactions as they watch as the synthetics’ attack on Mars unfolds in news reports. If you combine this with the fact that Romulus and Remus are not only the homeworlds of the Romulan Empire, but also the sons of Mars in Roman mythology, this short trek may be key to how the two primary threads of the series will weave together.

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/f0/4e/f3/f04ef3456d333bee3907dace0c0d4839.jpg

I think that a lot of the credit for the quality of this episode is due to Michael Chabon, Star Trek: Picard’s showrunner. I first encountered Chabon’s work 20 years ago when I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This novel centers around two young men who created a superhero back in the Golden Age of Comics, paralleling the story of Superman’s creators, Seigel and Schuster. The book is excellent; I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the genre. But, more than that, it is clearly a labor of love, very much like Star Trek: Picard. Chabon has been a fan of Star Trek since he was 10 years old and I expect that this new series will be a testament to how great new installments to venerable old properties can be when talented people who truly understand them are allowed to take the helm.

This now is the Trek I’ve been waiting for.

Bottom Line:

References:

Our Man Bones

The first time I visited Los Angeles, I went, like many visitors to Hollywood Boulevard. There were two things that I wanted to see. One was the signatures of the Star Trek cast at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The other was DeForest Kelley’s star on the Walk of Fame. That second one took a while. Even after cries of “There’s Shatner’s star. Isn’t that good enough?” I persisted. This was the actor who played my favorite character in my all-time favorite teevee show. I wasn’t about to settle for second… or fourth… best.

If he were still around, DeForest Kelley would have turned 100 today. That warrants a tribute.

Here’s just a few things to mark the milestone.

A nice tribute from the people who worked with him.
Some interviews from around the time of Star Trek VI

And here’s “Remembering DeForest Kelley” from TrekMovie.com.

There were two other things I wanted to include in the tribute. The first was a website written by a fan who had gotten to know De in his final years. It really drove home just how kind and decent a person he had been. No luck tracking that down just yet, but if I ever come across it again, I’ll update this post.

The other was a tribute, also called ”Our Man Bones,” that I’d seen on UPN shortly after De passed away. It took a while to figure out where I’d actually seen it. I remembered the segment being part of an Anniversary Special, but the timing didn’t make any sense. As it turns out, it was from a special called “Ultimate Trek: Star Trek’s Greatest Moments.” Judging from the single clip that I can find on-line, it was pretty awful. Jason Alexander lampooned Kirk with other actors reprising Spock and McCoy. “Our Man Bones” is the only part I remember at all. It, I hope, was pretty good. I’m sure it ended strong, with the clip below from Balance of Terror. Powerful and moving given the circumstances, we’ll end with it ourselves.

“In this Galaxy…”

Quick Take: The Professor and the Madman

Joanne played this audiobook for me on our last long drive; something was vexing me and this true, compelling yarn proved to be the perfect tonic.

I wouldn’t normally warn about spoilers for a book first published in 1998, but I learned today that this book was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt which premiered this year (2019) in limited release. If you’re worried about it, there are some slight spoilers below; you can come back and read this after you’ve seen the movie or read the book.

The story starts dramatically with a murder, an unprecedentedly brutal homicide by the standards of London in the 1870s. Dr. William C. Minor, an American whose mental health had eroded since his service in the Civil War, shot George Merrett in the throat and then waited calmly for the police. It had been a terrible mistake he confessed; he was attempting to chase away a man who had broken into his room to torment him, a figment of his dementia. He was soon committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, creating the circumstances where he would become one of the most prolific contributors to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The book proceeds, at least at first, as a bibiography, by which we understand a biography focused on two subjects. (Editors of the OED please note: this may be the first recorded use of this word as I have just now made it up. This is probably moot however as it doesn’t really seem to be a very good word after all; it sounds like a stutter and is too easily mistaken for ”bibliography.”) The second subject, the titular professor, is Dr. James Murray, who rose from humble beginnings to become the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary throughout the lion’s share of its creation.

Their stories and the interplay between the two men is enthralling, but ”The Professor and the Madman” is far more than a shared biography of two men. The author turns lovely phrases and paints vivid scenes. There is a fascinating account of the debate about whether the word ”protagonist” could ever be used in the plural. The story of the creation of the OED becomes a history of all English lexicography and is far more compelling than it has the right to be.

Like most biographies, the ending is bittersweet. Dr. Minor’s end is pitiful as his facilities continued to desert him. The end of Dr. Murray’s life is a study in unfinished business. He toiled on the OED until his passing just shy of his 80th birthday and did not live to see its completion. But at least there is the coda of the OED itself; completed and now well on its way to a third edition, it can stand as a monument to both of these men’s lives.

Thus, I strongly recommend the book. I can’t speak for the movie, but we plan to check it out at our earliest convenience.

Bottom Line:

References:

Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman, Harper Collins, 1998.
https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=360606279

Quick Take: The Billion Dollar Boy

A few weeks ago, I was thinking back fondly about Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I used to read those all the time even once I aged out of the YA target audience. These hold up nicely. Not too long ago, Joanne and I enjoyed Starman Jones and Have Space Suit Will Travel as audiobooks on a long drive or three.

My nostalgia turned to the Jupiter Novels. In the mid to late 90’s, Tor books published this series as an homage to these works of Heinlein. I read a couple and they were pretty good. Maybe I’d like to reread a couple of those or track down the ones I hadn’t read, I thought.

By an odd coincidence or a creepy not-a-coincidence, if Facebook is eavesdropping on us, I soon received an e-mail from Arc Manor Publishers offering a free copy of the e-book of The Billion Dollar Boy by Charles Sheffield. This was one of the Jupiter Novels and it was one that, to the best of my recollection, I had not read.

And it was fine. After the first couple of pages, I knew in broad brushstrokes how the plot would unfold. The main character, a spoiled rich kid would, through some contrivance, end up in space. He’d be forced to earn his keep while he discovers amazing things and some dramatic stuff occurs. By the end, of course, he’s no longer an entitled jackass. Wikipedia tells me this is essentially the same plot as Captains Courageous.

But even with the predictability, this is a fun read. The story moves along quickly. The happenings are engaging, the conflict is exciting and the resolution is satisfying. The Billion Dollar Boy is nothing more or less than the science fiction equivalent of ordering comfort food in a restaurant. It’s not exactly what you grew up with and it’s fundamentally unchallenging but it’s reminiscent enough to be enjoyable.

Bottom Line:

A Flag for Elmira

We’ve settled into the new house enough that we’ve finally installed the flagpole. That was a non-trivial project; there’s nothing like a simple task to remind you of your total lack of aptitude for all things handy. This is the first time we’ve lived in the City of Elmira; we’ve lived in Horseheads and Southport and Newfield, but not within the city itself. To mark the occasion, the first flag that we’re flying from our new home is a proposed flag for the City that was designed by Alex Chichester. Last month, I unboxed the very flag that we’re flying and provided links to Alex’s story, about the flag, why he designed it and some of the community’s response to the flag. You can find all of that here.

The current city flag can be seen to the right and it’s nice enough. I asked about purchasing a copy of this flag from the city and I may yet buy one, but to be honest, it’s somewhat bland. The seal is a standard, city seal, but it’s the sort of seal that’s designed for the printed page. It works best on letterhead or in a book where you can look at it carefully and appreciate all of the detail.

Today, I thought I’d look at the proposed flag, which I’m inclined to call the Chichester Flag through the lens of the North American Vexillological Association’s five principles for good flag design as delineated in Good Flag, Bad Flag. Alex’s design is an objectively good flag. Here we go!

Principle 1. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The Flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

Here the Chichester Flag shines. The basic design a purple background with a blue horizontal band across the center. Many flags have shared this basic design, which could also be described as three horizontal stripes in two colors. Latvia, Austria, and Cambodia among others, share this basic design. The two joined gold rings as well as the choice of colors make the flag stand out as distinct from the other flags with similar designs. Simplicity is important and it’s no coincidence that NAVA lists this principle first as flags are meant to be seen from a distance and to either drape or to move in the wind. The Confederate States of America had three national flags in its four years of existence because the first two were easily confused with other flags.

A few weeks ago, while I was driving, I encountered a good illustration of this principle as the car in front of me had a small Canadian Flag sticker on its rear window and it was recognizable as a Canadian Flag even when it was many car lengths ahead of us. You can see this in the leftmost picture below. I pasted the official Elmira flag (middle) and the proposed flag (right) into the same photo and the difference is evident. The proposed flag is recognizable while the official flag could be many other things at this distance, such as the flag of Anchorage, Alaska or Honolulu, Hawaii.

Principle 2. USE MEANINGFUL SYMBOLISM: The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

The Chichester Flag has nice clear symbolism. The blue band represents the Chemung river which runs through the city. This is apt; the original settlement in the area was founded at the meeting of the Chemung River and the Newtown Creek. It was the completion of the Chemung Canal that connected the Chemung River to Seneca Lake and ultimately to the Erie Canal System. This allowed Elmira to become a regional center of manufacturing and shipping. There is little doubt that the Chemung River had a profound influence on the city and the community.

The two golden interlocking rings represent the uniting of the city’s north, south, east and west sides into a single community. This works both figuratively and concretely as the four sections of the rings that cross the blue band can be seen to represent the four driving bridges that cross the river within the city.

The colors of the flag are also significant. The Elmira College colors are purple and gold and those colors are ubiquitous on campus. The college, which sits in the heart of the city was founded in 1855, nine years before the city was incorporated from the village and part of the town of the same name. The new flag’s designer, Alex said, “I personally identify the city with the color purple,… It’s probably a lot to do with Elmira College. Also, there’s purple and golden wildflowers all over town.”

The wildflower rationale is frequently echoed in stories about why the college chose purple and gold as their school colors, although those stories usually invoke irises, the school flower. The other reason the college usually shares as an inspiration for their choice of colors is that purple and gold were among the colors of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (you can read a bit more about that here). This reason might be even more salient. Elmira had significant links to the women’s movement and this includes the college itself, which was the first college in the U. S. to offer degrees to women that were equivalent to those that were being offered to men.

Elmira also played an important role in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. When we consider this along with the ties to the women’s movement, the fact that the purple portion of the flag evokes an equals sign (=), the flag elicits all of this history.

Principle 3. USE 2 TO 3 BASIC COLORS: Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.

There’s very little that needs to be said here; the flag contains three colors that contrast nicely. A useful measure of this is whether the flag remains recognizable and attractive when rendered in grayscale. It does. The black and white version remains both striking and distinctive.

As an interesting side note, the NAVA manual defines the basic color set as “red, blue, green, black, yellow and white” and states that other colors “are seldom needed in a good design.” At least part of the reason is that “flag fabric comes in a relatively limited number of colors.” I wonder if this is still true; it seems to me that printed flags have become more common and easily obtained in the 14 years since the manual was written. Either way, the connections between Elmira and the color purple are significant enough to warrant its use.

Principle 4. NO LETTERING OR SEALS: Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.

This is strongly related to the “keep it simple” principle. Seals are difficult to see at a distance and text on printed flags appears reversed on the back, making it difficult to read. To make the text readable on both sides dramatically increases the cost of the flag. The Chichester flag has neither text nor a seal.

Principle 5. BE DISTINCTIVE OR BE RELATED: Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

[Iroquois Confederacy flag]

The Chichester flag can claim both of these characteristics. The color choices and the interlocking rings set the flag apart from other flags with similar designs making it distinctive while it shares some similarities to related flags. The similarities to the Elmira College flag, shown above, are evident. The gold rings can also be seen as an homage to the current Elmira flag as they share its color and evoke its main motif, the circular seal. In a nice coincidence, the purple color refers back to the flag of the Iroquois Confederacy, who inhabited this area of North America before the arrival of European settlers.

Final Words:

This was an enjoyable project and a nice inaugural flag for our new home. I’d never ordered a custom flag before, but the process was easy and straightforward. It’s easy enough that I will probably order more custom flags in the future, when I’m interested in flying something that isn’t easily available.

It is also been exciting to be able to fly a flag that, as far as I know, has never been flown before. That’s been a great deal of fun and I want to thank Alex for allowing me to use his design.

And speaking of Alex, I hope that his campaign to have his flag become the official flag of the City of Elmira is successful. It’s a beautiful flag and his arguments about using the flag to invigorate the community and brand the city deserve careful consideration. If you’re interested in such things, please check out his videos. I think you’ll find them compelling.

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