Election 2018: Vote Anyway.

I have some intense opinions about politics and generally, I’m happy to engage.  But I don’t want to make this a blog about politics.  If someone stumbles on this blog wanting to read about comics or mathematics or whatever they may not be interested in my opinions about candidate X or birthright citizenship or the current occupant of the Oval Office.  And that should be fine.  Some politics may sneak in from time to time but I’d like this to be a place that’s free from the most divisive arguments we’ve seen in my lifetime.

On the other hand, I’ve been fascinated with elections since I was 12.  I’ve done some work in voting theory and I’ve tried my hand at prognostication.  It’s been my  intention to eventually write about elections on this site.  But the problem, then, was what to write about?  We know the broad strokes of the 2018 election.  The democrats are doing remarkably well in the Generic Congressional Ballot and appear to be poised to retake the House.  That’s pretty remarkable given how heavily gerrymandered a lot of states are. Some of that has to do with the intensity of emotion engendered by President Trump.  It also helps that some of the most egregious gerrymandering we saw after the 2010 election has been overturned in the courts.

In the Senate, it’s a very different story. This is the class of senators that was elected in 2006, a Democratic wave that gave them the majority for the first time in four years. In 2012, despite defending more than 2/3 of the seats up for election, the Democrats actually increased their majority by two. So the Democrats are faced with what fivethirtyeight.com calls “the most unfavorable Senate mapthat any party has ever faced in any election.” Of the 35 senate elections being held this year, only 9 are held by Republicans and only one of those is in a state that’s bluish, namely Nevada. Meanwhile a lot of the seats being defended by democrats are in deep red states like North Dakota and Missouri. Despite being ahead on the Generic Congressional Ballot, it’s entirely possible that the Democrats will lose seats in the Senate.

Aside from the National stage, the most important elections that are happening this year are, in my opinion, the races for State Legislature. We don’t see much national coverage on these elections, but they’re crucially important. This is our first opportunity to elect some of the people who will be drawing the political maps in the wake of the 2020 Census. The candidates we elect now could determine control of the House of Representatives and of State Legislatures for a decade or more.

But all of this is known and it hasn’t shifted much. I could have written the last three paragraphs a month ago. Or two.  But the thing that motivates this post is that I stumbled across this.

A lot of folks pay attention to polls.  The polls influence their tendency to vote.

Democrats in Texas or Republicans in New York might decry their need to go to the polls because the opposition is going to “win anyway.”  But here’s the thing: according to this article (originally published in 2014) the average House poll has, since 1998, been off the final result by 6.2 percentage points.  Polls in senate races and gubernatorial elections have fared somewhat better, missing the final result by 5.1% and 5.2% respectively.  And polling is getting harder.  Response rates are declining making polls more expensive.  The decline in the prevalence of landlines along with laws about contacting people on cell phones are making it harder to get a representative sample.  You might think your Senate candidate is behind by three points, but the race could be a dead heat.

I see this graphic on Twitter a lot in Nate Silver’s feed.  The implication being made that Silver “predicted” that Clinton would win the White House and so, 538 “got it wrong.”  That’s not what this says at all.  This is a probability.  What this says is that, if you could repeat the election a bunch of times, Clinton would only win about 71.4% of the time.  In 28.6% of the “elections” Trump would be elected.  A Trump election isn’t surprising.

Imagine tossing a coin twice.  Would you be surprised if you got two tails?  You shouldn’t be.  The probability of that outcome is 25%.  Sure, it’s more likely that one of the other three outcome will happen, but it isn’t surprising at all.

The Trump victory, according to this analysis, is slightly less surprising than throwing two tails. The difference is that most people are not emotionally invested in the coins toss.

So, what’s the point?  Vote anyway.

Do you want the Democrats to win the senate?  Current estimates say there’s only a 1 in 6 chance of that happening.  Vote anyway.

Do you want the Republicans to retain control of the house?  Fivethirtyeight says they’ll “need a systematic polling error” for that to happen.  We’ve seen those before.  Vote anyway.

Do you want Heitcamp to get reelected in North Dakota, but you’re afraid she’s fallen too far behind?  Vote anyway.

Do you want DeSantis to win the Governorship in Florida but you think Gillum has pulled too far ahead? Vote anyway.

Not interested in the winner of the marquee race in your state?  The down ballot races and the initiatives are at least as important.  Vote anyway.

Can’t bring yourself to vote for either of the major party candidates?  You don’t have to use your vote to help determine the winner.  For example, here in New York the results of the Governor’s election determine which parties get dedicated ballot access.  You could vote to help the Working Families Party or the  Conservative Party or the Green Party or the “The Rent is Too Damn High” Party get on the ballot.  Vote anyway.

Elections are important.  We’d be a profoundly different country if everyone who could vote did vote.  But to quote Arron Sorkin or Benjamin Franklin or any number of people, “Decisions are made by those who show up.”  This one is really important.  No matter what you think is likely to happen, vote anyway.

What if Captain America became President?

First Published on Quora, 14 October 2019.

It’s worth pointing out here that this very idea has already been played around with in the comics. In Captain America 250 (October 1980) Steve is approached by the New Populist Party and asked to be their candidate for president. He gives it serious thought and spends most of the issue debating the pros and cons with his friends, Avengers and otherwise. The ending of the issue is bittersweet; Steve, of course, decides not to run for president and the enthusiasm that had been building within the NPP turns to a profound disappointment.

About six months later, Marvel itself answered this question in What If? #26. Of course we don’t really know whether WI#26 tells us what “really” would have happened, but it’s at least as valid as what anybody else would have said. And in some sense, that’s the ultimate answer to the question at hand. It really depends on who gets to write the story.

Cap #250 is a classic. What if #26 is pretty good. Both are worth checking out and are available on Marvel Unlimited.

To give my own opinion, there’s two things I think are worth addressing, how Steve would have governed and how the public would have been likely to respond.

Politically, I think Steve is likely to be a New Dealer. He was born in 1920 and came of age around 1940; FDR was popular and won a fairly lopsided electoral victory that year, although not nearly as lopsided as 1936. I think what we’ve seen from Steve over the years bares this out, from Englehart’s run in the 70’s to his reason for stepping out of the role in “Captain America No More” to his stance in Civil War and beyond (Hydra-Steve not withstanding). In foreign policy I think he would be an excellent diplomat, able to find common ground with other nations and move forward productively. He would certainly be more apt to use military force than Carter, but probably not nearly so apt as either of the Bushes. He would be relentlessly ethical.

But I think that the public’s response to Steve as president would be more indicative of his legacy as Commander-in-Chief than his political positions.

If he had been elected President in 1980 when “Cap for President” first hit the stands, conservative or liberal, I think President Rogers would have been a transformational  figure. Six years out from Watergate and a bit over a year after Carter’s malaise speech, the American Electorate was in flux. “Reagan Democrats” were becoming a thing while there was a candidate for the Republican nomination, John Anderson, who was arguably more liberal than the Democrats’ eventual nominee. If there’s one constant in all the portrayals of Steve Rogers, it’s in his ability to lead and inspire. Cap as president in the early 1980’s would have changed the political landscape for a generation or more.

On the other hand, had Steve been elected in the current political climate, I don’t think any of that would have mattered. Ed Brubaker (I’m pretty sure, I haven’t been able to locate the quote) made a relevant remark about the time Steve “died” in the aftermath of Civil War. He said that it was tricky to write Cap. One side of the political spectrum mainly wanted to see Cap beating up terrorists, while the other side mainly wants to see him giving speeches about rights and fairness. If anything, this aspect of has gotten more extreme over the past 11 years. Steve as president in the 21st Century probably presides over a lackluster presidency with one side of the aisle lauding his accomplishments and the other condemning his inadequacies, justly or unjustly.

And that, I think says much more about the state of politics in America today than it does about Captain America.

References:

Captain America #250 (October 1980)

What If? # 26

Captain America – Wikipedia

Man and Machine Man

First Published April 2018

It seemed natural to follow up on Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by reading his run of issues in Machine Man, #1-9. Indeed, the last three issues of 2001 are closer to being a prolog for this series than they are a coda for that one.

The first issue is a bit jarring. There’s a near complete reset of supporting characters despite coming only seven months after 2001 #10. Visually, the first nine issues are pure Kirby goodness that escape the excessive cheesiness that diminish some of his other writing efforts. In these issues, it seems that the book isn’t intended to exist within the Marvel Universe. That makes sense as it continued from a licensed series which compared the character to the “Marvel Superheroes” in a way that doesn’t seem natural within that universe. The writing is kind of klunky in places. There’s a lot of what Star Trek fans would call “technobabble” as Machine Man demonstrates some new ability or other and Colonel Kragg (a character precisely in the General Ross motif) reminds us that he lost an eye battling the other robots in the X series virtually every single time that he appears. Not a great collection of books, less interesting than the 2001 series it sprang from but still, an enjoyable read.

The series seems to end here, promising a follow-up in Incredible Hulk. But the cancellation became a hiatus and the series was resurrected after a few months. More on that later. Probably.

Edit:
Jim Kosmicki inspired me to look at the timing of this. It turns out this is the very moment Jack left Marvel for the last time to work in animation. His last work for Marvel was Machine Man #9 and Devil Dinosaur #9, both cover-dated December 1978. Devil Dinosaur ended permanently. I don’t know if the Machine Man revival was planned or if he proved popular enough in the Hulk issues to justify restarting the book.

Not Kubrick or Clarke, but Kirby’s Space Odyssey

First published 20 April 2018

Finally finished this run on Saturday and read ‘em today. The first 7 issues are a lot of fun and… trippy.  The first few issues follow the pattern established in the movie.  The monolith encounters a creature in the far past; it then encounters a character in a near-future setting and that character is evolved into a star child.  The star child then moves on to other adventures.  The themes continue, but the narrative loosens as the series progresses.

It’s impressive to me that Kirby was able to draw on the concepts of the Movie and the novel in non-trivial, substantive ways. I’m not generally a fan of Kirby as a writer. The Inhumans run in Amazing Adventures is a great example; it’s hard to overstate how much better those got after Thomas and Adams took over. But Kirby had clearly grown a lot as a writer over the intervening 6-7 years. These were spot on and much better than I’d expected.

Machine Man is introduced in issue 8 and the 2001 stuff fades into the background as the book shifts to a standard superhero narrative. Still good though. Overall, a fun read.

Peter Parker’s Playlist

I just took a stab at answering the following question on Quora, and I thought I would share it here as well.

What would Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s music playlist be?

No definitive playlist, but some thoughts. The only mention I recall of Peter Parker’s music taste is from Marvel Team-Up Annual #4 from 1981.

Purple Man has Peter climb a lamppost to distract him and has him sing. His choice of music? Elvis Costello. Specifically “Oliver’s Army” from Armed Forces.

Extrapolating from this, here’s my guess. Peter probably listens to well regarded artists who are slightly out of the mainstream. Elvis Costello is established. Perhaps also artists like the Velvet Underground, Big Star, Nick Lowe or The Talking Heads.

Popular and mainstream artists might be less likely. Pulling from the same time period, maybe not Madonna, Michael Jackson or U2. These are mostly 1980’s examples since that’s when the comic came out, but you could extend the same thinking to other decades. It feels to me like it would hold true.

The one thing we can say for sure, is that Peter isn’t just listening to the top 40; he’s done some research and I suspect his tastes are fairly eclectic. It wouldn’t surprise me if he listened to some Big Band music if that was what he heard growing up with Aunt May and Uncle Ben.

It would be interesting

to see what other references to music we could find in the comics.

Update: Blaine Savini, a member of Old Guys who Love Old Comics on Facebook, pointed  out that we also learn in the Comics the Peter likes Ella Fitzgerald.  This is from Amazing Spider-Man #136, September 1974.

The Album in question is likely Ella in London (4 1/2 Stars, allmusic.com) which is the only 1974 issue listed in her discography on ellafitzgerald.com. It contains songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.

Notice that MJ clearly implies that Peter doesn’t listen to much in the way of popular music.  He mentions that he’s a junior in college in this issue, if that means he’s 21, he would have been Spider-Man for about 6 years at this point.  In 1964 we would have been 11.

But,well regarded, check.  Out of the matinstream, check.  Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis Costello: Eclectic, check.

References:

Writing a Combinatorial Proof

This started life as a post on Quora, answering the question:

For any positive integer $n$, how do you write a combinatorial proof of the identity

$\displaystyle {2n \choose n} = \sum_{i = 0}^{n} {n \choose i} {n \choose n-i}$?

To write a combinatorial proof, the idea is to describe how each side of the equation is actually counting the same set of objects.

Now, if you have a set of $2n$ objects, $\displaystyle {2n \choose n}$ (that is $2n$ choose $n$) is the number of subsets of that set which contain exactly $n$ of them.

Now pretend that you’ve taken your $2n$ objects and put them into two boxes with $n$ objects in each. Think about what each of your terms on the other side of the equation, $\displaystyle {n \choose i}{n \choose n-i}$ represent. Then consider what you get when you add all of these together. You should be able to explain that this really does count the same thing as $\displaystyle {2n \choose n}$.

Now when I wrote the above, I wondered if this was a homework question someone had posted to Quora.  I didn’t fill in all the details since, while I’m happy to help someone with their homework, I don’t want to do it for them.

But in case anyone wants to see a worked out example, here’s the standard initial example of a combinatorial proof.  This is the identity that makes Pascal’s Triangle work as nicely as it does.

Theorem: $\displaystyle {n \choose k} = {n-1 \choose k} + {n-1 \choose k-1}$.

Proof: Let’s start by thinking about the expression on the left.  If we have a set with $n$ objects in it, $\displaystyle {n \choose k}$ is the number of ways we can select a subset of $k$ objects.  To say that another way, it’s the number of ways we can pick $k$ objects out of our set without caring what order they’re in.

Now suppose one of our objects has decided to wear a hat.  If we’re looking to select a subset with $k$ objects, we can decide to include or exclude the one wearing the hat.

Say we don’t want to include the guy with the hat.  In that case, all $k$ objects, have to be selected from the $n-1$ objects that aren’t wearing hats.  We can do this in $\displaystyle {n-1 \choose k}$ different ways.

Now suppose we decide to include the one with the hat.  Well then, to get $k$ objects altogether, we need to select $k-1$ more from the set.  There’s $\displaystyle {n-1 \choose k-1}$ ways to get the rest of the objects that you need.

Putting these two together we see that $\displaystyle {n-1 \choose k} + {n-1 \choose k-1}$ is also the number of ways to select a subset of $k$ objects from a set containing $n$ things.

Therefore, our identity must be true.

If you’d like to try one on your own, $\displaystyle 2^n = \sum_{i = 0}^{n} {n \choose i}$ is another nice example.

Not Your Father’s Comic Book Box or Something Clever About Cardboard

First Published 28 January 2018

I got one of BCW’s new comic bins for my “Good Stuff.” Here’s a few impressions.

The bin is just slightly too tall for my shelves (designed for long boxes) and not quite wide enough for comics in mylar sleeves. Neither of those things was unexpected, but a pleasant surprise would have been nice. If BCW markets a magazine-sized bin, I’ll probably pick one up.

The bin wasn’t too hard to assemble, but the on-line video was little help; it was pretty vague and didn’t address the things that weren’t intuitively obvious. I would have preferred printed directions. I noticed there was a certain amount of static electricity present and that attracted dust. The next one gets assembled in the cat-free comic room.

The removable dividers are ideal for keeping your books upright even when the box is not-quite-full.

Once assembled, the bin feels sturdy and looks nice. A set of them would give you good storage that uses space efficiently. It’s not airtight, so I don’t think condensation is likely to be an issue.

A set would likely be cost-prohibitive for a large collection, but I think a few bins for high-end books would be a good investment.