Predicting the Next President, by Allan J Lichtman

Hope. It’s a hard thing to come by, for me, when it comes to the federal government.

The election of 2016 was traumatic. My wife and I watched, horrified, as the candidate we thought not even Republicans were crazy enough to pick won first the primary, and then the general election.

Well, “won.” He lost the popular vote by 3 million, and still walked away with the keys to the White House, because of our country’s old, undemocratic way of electing Presidents.

It was so unnerving, when it happened, that we decided not to go home.

We were living in Arkansas at the time, having moved to nurse my wife’s mother back to health after she suffered a cardiovascular incident. It was our first time living in my wife’s home state in seven years, and in that time, the state we remembered as slightly behind the times but neighborly had curdled into a paranoid, xenophobic place.

Bad enough having to live there at all. Living there while their white nationalist leader commanded the federal government? While they crowed about his “achievements” dismantling the legacy of eight years of Obama’s government? While they felt entitled to air out their racism and sexism with impunity, with pride, even, because their man was in the White House?

We couldn’t do it.

So we lived on the East Coast that winter, crashing with friends — amazing friends, to put up with us for so long — and moved back to California, renting an apartment sight unseen. We drove cross-country, stopped in Arkansas just long enough to pack, and then moved on.

Now, after four years of Trump’s chaos, his rage and his incompetence, we’ve another election looming. And that same fear is back, that he’ll win again, and our country, which has never been innocent, but has at times fought against its darker impulses, will instead succumb to them.

So Lichtman’s theory of presidential elections — that the campaign doesn’t matter, that the candidates themselves almost don’t matter, only the past four years of governing do — gives me hope. Because after four years in power, the GOP has lost seven (!) of his thirteen “keys” to the White House, and you only need to lose six to lose the election.

Which means I can ignore the polls. I can tune out — to some extent — the campaign itself. I can focus on voting, on helping others to vote, and preventing election fraud.

And I can hope.

Keeping Score: August 21, 2020

I seem to always discover new things about the story while I’m writing it.

It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. Somehow, no matter how much time I spend thinking about and planning a scene, simply by writing it out, my brain will come up with new ideas and connections to other parts of the story.

It’s all good stuff, and I’m grateful, but it’d be a touch more convenient if I could think of these things while I’m outlining. That way, I wouldn’t have to go back and revise other parts of the book to match the new things I’ve come up with while writing a scene.

Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I can come up with anything at all, instead of just staring at the screen like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights, is fantastic.

It’s also just a tad bit annoying, sometimes.

Which is to say: I’m making progress on the novel edits.

Looping, patchwork, scattered progress, but progress all the same.

Right now I’m trying to nail down the intro chapters, the first five or so. I want them to do quite a lot: Introduce the main character, and their (normal-day) problems, lay the ground work for a mystery that pops up later, orient the reader in the setting, introduce some antagonists, and make all that interesting enough so the inciting incident is worth sticking around for.

Oh, and they’ve also got to setup the stakes for the inciting incident, have the incident itself, and then pave the way for those consequences to play out.

It’s a heavy responsibility for those first chapters to carry. And before I started making these changes, they weren’t quite up to it.

But I think they can be! So long as I make the right changes.

So that’s what I’ve been working on this week, and will likely keep working on into next week.

I feel a bit like a director on a movie, making changes to the set design between each take (and also changing the script. and the blocking. the actors hate me). I go in and add a machine there, change the readout on a display there, redirect the lighting over there, and then let the scene play out again. Or scratch a scene entirely and replace it with something new, in a new location.

It’s slow going, but it’s fun! Kind of. Makes me grateful no one’s had to read the earlier drafts. This one’s going to be bad enough.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.

Keeping Score: August 14, 2020

I’m rather upset with past me.

Finally dove into editing the novel this week. Stopped procrastinating and worrying about the right way to do it, and just started doing it. Figured I’d look for inconsistencies, and touch up language or dialog along the way.

And at first it worked! I chugged along, making small changes, trimming sentences here and there, for four whole chapters.

But then I noticed something: The chapters I’d written (and edited, now for the third time) were all too short.

I’d left out physical descriptions of the characters, so the reader had no guidance on what they looked like.

I’d left out descriptions of the locations they were moving through, so the reader had no way to orient themselves in space.

And I’d left out any discussion of how the characters should react to a crisis, so the reader had no idea of the alternatives, or how bad the crisis really was.

I could tell all this, for the first time, because the reader was me.

I don’t mean that I was literally lost in my own novel. Thank goodness, no, I still knew where everything was, and what everything looks like.

But I’d had enough time off from the book to approach it like a reader. And I’ve recently read some books that had a quick pace and an interesting plot but never gave me enough time to get oriented in the world, so I always felt a little confused.

Both things that let me recognize it when it started happening in my own book.

So this editing pass — draft number three, for those keeping score at home — is turning out to be a “filling in the gaps” pass. Expanding conversations so each character’s whole train of thought is present (or at least enough for the reader to make the tiny leaps required). Spending more time in a space before the plot pushes us out of it, so I can give the reader something to visualize.

Thankfully I’ve been thinking about all of these things for two years now (or three? is it three years?) so I can fill in the gaps when I spot them. But even as I fill in the gaps, I know I’m creating more work for myself. Because each of those filled gaps is now a first draft, and will need to be revised again (and again) before it’s ready to go out.

So thanks, past me. You keep the plot humming along, but you forgot to lay down all the sign posts along the way.

Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care? by Ezekiel J Emanuel

Today, the US healthcare system occupies a place very like US beer did in the 1990s.

See back then, US beer was a joke to liberals, or anyone that took beer seriously, and a point of patriotic pride to conservatives.

These days, after decades of shifting regulations that allowed the market for craft beer to first find a foothold, then blossom, US craft beer is world-renowned. Numerous pubs in other countries proclaim they serve “American-style craft beer.” People across the political spectrum can take pride in their local brewers, no snobbery or jingoism required.

Our healthcare system has not experienced anything close to that kind of renaissance. Conservatives refuse to countenance any critique of the system, while liberals use it as a tired punching bag. We’re warned of the dangers of “socialist medicine,” all the while my mother-in-law is constantly harassed about a $4,000 bill she doesn’t owe (the hospital filed it wrong with her insurance), doctors and nurses are overworked, and millions go without any sort of insurance.

And, frankly, Medicare for All sounds great, but it scares the bejeezus out of anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. Not to mention it’s sort of vague on details, and seems to require a rather large leap to get from here to there.

So I was primed for a retread of the old arguments in Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare?. US healthcare is terrible, Canada’s is great, etc etc.

Thankfully, that’s not what I got at all. Instead, I found the missing manual, a way to evaluate different healthcare systems around the globe. Along with a proper sense of the history and workings of eleven of them.

Emanuel describes a set of axes along which to measure a healthcare system. Things like patient wait times, or costs at the point of service, or choice of doctors. Then he proceeds to examine each country’s system in turn, looking at the things it does well, the challenges it faces, and — most importantly — how and why it does those things well or badly.

True, the US performs terribly on basically every axis. That’s not news. What is news is that multiple countries manage to provide better coverage, better care, and cheaper care, without giving up private practices, or even — in some cases — letting go of private insurance!

Reading this, I felt both relieved and angry.

Relieved, because with so many different systems out there, no one’s got a monopoly on the “right” way to do things.

Angry, because for so long the debate in the US has been framed as single payer or status quo. When the truth is that we can do a lot to improve our system without letting go of the basic free market nature of it.

How much further would we liberals have gotten, if we’d argued for a regulation of drug prices, instead of single-payer? Or insisted that insurance coverage for children be provided for free, as part of any policy, like it is in other countries with well-regulated markets?

We don’t have to have the government take over as the single payer for everyone. We don’t need to radically overhaul the system. We need to properly regulate it, to get the outcomes we want: patients being able to choose their doctor, use their insurance to help pay for their care, and not go broke obtaining the prescriptions they need.

Framed as the proper regulation of a free market, what could the conservative response have been? I suppose they could argue that Greed is Good, and everyone that has to choose between paying the rent and buying their blood pressure meds deserves it, so the CEO of some corp can enjoy a multi-million dollar bonus.

But that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “death panels,” does it?

So ultimately, I’m grateful that Emanuel and his team chose to write this book, and publish it now. It’s high time we brought a more nuanced, useful debate, to the argument over healthcare.

Keeping Score: August 7, 2020

I need to get back to working on the novel.

I’ve let it sit these past few weeks, untouched, while I finished getting one short story into shape and started plotting a new one.

But if I’m going to meet my personal deadline of having the novel ready to submit to agents by December 1st, I’m going to need to edit this second draft.

To be honest, I’m intimidated. I’ve never edited anything this long before.

How do I even do it? Read it all through, and then go back and edit passages? That sounds…like it’ll take forever.

Or do I work chapter by chapter, editing each one until it’s done, and then moving on? That sounds like an easy way to lose sight of inconsistencies (or to having to go back and edit previous chapters anyway, as inconsistencies show up).

I think what I’m going to do is a series of editing passes. Pick one thing to look for — like the consistency of a single character’s dialog — and edit all instances of that. Then pick something else — the descriptions of a ship, say — and edit all of those.

I’m hoping this will give me a structure in which to do multiple reads over the book, without getting lost in the weeds of any individual chapter. And it should broaden my perspective so I can stitch the book together, so to speak, with these edits. Make it more coherent, more whole.

But what do I do with the short story I’ve been outlining? I don’t want to lose momentum on that. And I worry that the novel, once I start editing it, will take up all the room in my brain for narrative.

I want to work on both. Use the story as a break from the novel, and use the novel as a break from the story. They’re different enough — one’s near-future sci-fi, the other is early modern period fantasy — that I should be able to keep them separate in my head. And editing is different enough from drafting that I’ll be exercising different writing muscles with each.

What about you? What do you do, when you’ve got a longer piece to edit and a shorter one to draft? Do you alternate working days? Finish the shorter piece before editing the longer? How do you handle two stories that both need your attention?

Are Job Degree Requirements Racist?

Since reading Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, I’m starting to re-examine certain policies I’ve taken for granted. What I’ve previously thought of as meritocratic or race-neutral might be neither; it might instead be part of the problem.

In that book, he gives a clear criteria for whether a policy or idea is a racist one: Does it establish or reinforce racial inequality?

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at my own house — the tech industry — and at our very real tendency to run companies composed mostly of white males.

There are many reasons why this happens, but I’d like to drill into just one: The university degree requirement.

Most “good jobs” these days require some sort of university degree. Tech goes one step further, and asks for a degree specifically in computer science or another STEM field.

The degree isn’t enough to get the job, of course. Most interview processes still test skill level at some point. But the field of candidates is narrowed, deliberately, via this requirement.

The question is: Does requiring this technical degree bias the selection process towards White people?

Criteria

Before diving into the statistics, let’s back up and talk about the criteria here. How can we tell if the degree requirement biases selection?

In order to do that, we need to know what an unbiased selection process would look like.

And here is where it’s important to note the composition of the general US population (and why the Census being accurate is so very very important). If all things are equal between racial groups, then the composition of Congress, company boards, and job candidates will reflect their percentages in the population.

Anything else is inequality between the races, and can only be explained in one of two ways: either you believe there are fundamental differences between people in different racial groups (which, I will point out, is a racist idea), or there are policies in place which are creating the different outcomes.

With that criteria established, we can examine the possible racial bias of requiring university degrees by looking at two numbers:

  • How many people of each racial group obtain STEM degrees in the United States?
  • How does that compare to their level in the general population?

Who Has a Degree, Anyway?

According to 2018 data from the US Census, approximately 52 million people (out of a total US population of 350 million) have a bachelor’s degree in the US.

Of those 51 million, 40.8 million are White.

Only 4.7 million are Black.

That means White people hold 79% of all the bachelor degrees, while Black people hold only 9%.

Their shares of the general population? 76.3% White, 13.4% Black.

So Whites are overrepresented in the group of people with bachelor degrees, and Blacks are underrepresented.

So by requiring any university degree, at all, we’ve already tilted the scales against Black candidates.

Who is Getting Degrees?

But what about new graduates? Maybe the above numbers are skewed by previous racial biases in university admissions (which definitely happened), and if we look at new grads — those entering the workforce — the percentages are better?

I’m sorry, but nope. If anything, it’s worse.

Let’s drill down to just those getting STEM degrees (since those are the degrees that would qualify you for most tech jobs). In 2015, according to the NSF, 60.5% of STEM degrees were awarded to White people, and only 8.7% of them went to Black people.

The same report notes that the percentage of degrees awarded to Black people (~9%) has been constant for the last twenty years.

So universities, far from leveling the racial playing field, actually reinforce inequality.

Conclusion

Simply by asking for a university degree, then, we’re narrowing our field of candidates, and skewing the talent pool we draw from so that White people are overrepresented.

Thus, we’re more likely to select a White candidate, simply because more White people are able to apply.

That reinforces racial inequality, and makes requiring a university degree for a job — any job — a racist policy.

What can we do instead? To be honest, if your current interview process can’t tell candidates who have the right skills from candidates who don’t, then requiring a college degree won’t fix it.

If your interview process leans heavily on discovering a candidate’s background, instead of their skills, re-balance it. Come up with ways to measure the skills of a candidate that do not require disclosure of their background.

In programming, we have all sorts of possible skill-measuring techniques: Asking for code samples, having candidates think through a problem solution during the interview, inviting essay answers to questions that are open-ended but can only be completed by someone with engineering chops.

By asking for a demonstration of skill, rather than personal history, we’d both make our interviews better — because we’d be filtering for candidates who have shown they can do the job — and less biased.

And if we’re serious about increasing diversity in our workplaces, we’ll drop the degree requirement.

Keeping Score: July 31, 2020

I feel like I’m telling this story to myself, over and over again, with each outline. New details get filled in, new connections appear, with each telling.

And each day I get up and tell it to myself another time, adding more pieces.

I so much want to just write, just set the words down on the page and let them fall where they may.

But then I’ll be plotting out the second third of the story, and I’ll have an idea that ripples all the way back to the beginning. And it makes me glad I haven’t started writing anything more than snippets of dialog just yet. Because all of those snippets will likely need to change.

This story…It’s more complicated than other short stories I’ve written. Less straightforward.

It’s a five-part structure. One part setup, followed by three parts flashbacks (taking place over years and across continents), followed by a climax. And it all needs to hang together like a coherent whole, present flowing to flashbacks and then returning to the present.

I’m not sure I can pull it off, to be honest. I’ll have to do a good bit of research for each flashback, just to ground them in reality. Then there’s the problem of each flashback needing to be its own story, complete with character arc, while feeding into the larger narrative.

It’s like writing four stories at once, really, with them nested inside each other.

Will it all make sense, in the end? Will the flashbacks prove to be too long, and need culling? Will my framing device be so transparent that it’s boring? Will the conclusion be a big enough payoff?

Who knows?

All I can do is tell myself the story, piece by piece, over and over again, until I can see it all clearly.

Keeping Score: July 24, 2020

I’ve never written a short-story this way before.

I’m coming at it more like a novel. I’m outlining, then researching things like character names and historical towns to model the setting off of, then revising the outline, rinse, repeat.

So I’ve written very little of it, so far. And what I have written — snippets of dialog and description — might get thrown out later, as the outline changes.

I’m not sure it’s better, this way. I feel frustrated at times, like I want to just write the thing and get it over with.

But I know — well, I feel — that that will result in a story that’s not as good as it could have been. Like eating grapes before they’ve ripened on the vine.

And I do keep coming up with more connections between the various pieces of the story, more ways to tie it all together. Each one is an improvement. Each one makes the story stronger.

Perhaps that’s how I’ll know when to stop outlining, and start writing? When I literally can’t think of any way to make the story itself better?

How about you? How do you know when it’s time to write a story, and when it needs to sit in your mind a little while longer?

Keeping Score: July 17, 2020

Started drafting a new short story this week.

I’m taking a different approach, this time. For short stories, I usually just sit down and write it out, all in one go. At least for the first draft.

For this story, I’m doing a mix of outlining and writing. I jot down lines of dialog as they come to me, or — in one case — the whole opening scene came in flash, so I typed it up.

But the majority of the story is still vague to me, so I’m trying to fill it in via brainstorming and daydreaming. Sketching a map of where it’s taking place, thinking through why the town it’s set in exists, what it’s known for. Drafting histories for the main characters.

It’s fun, so it’s also hard to convince myself that it’s work. Necessary work, at that.

Because my guilty writer conscience wants to see words on the page. No matter that I’m not ready, the ideas only half-formed. For it, it’s sentences or nothing.

So I’m pushing back by reading a book specifically about short story techniques, using the authority of another writer to argue (with my guilt) that it’s okay to pause and think. That progress can mean no words save a character bio. That every story needs a good foundation, and that’s what I’m trying to build.

It’s working, so far. My guilt does listen, just not always to me.

What about you? How do you balance the need to feel productive with the background work that every story requires?