Standing up for voting rights

Image by Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons.

Image by Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons.

A Supreme Court decision earlier this week held states may set their legislative districts on the basis of total population, rather than just the number of registered voters. Constitutional commentators properly hailed the decision as a major affirmation of the principle of “one person, one vote.”

But all is not as rosy on the voting rights front as those news reports suggest.

First, there’s the fact that plaintiffs sued in Evenwel v. Abbott and pursued their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger weren’t folks who were refused a right to vote. Nor were they crammed into a district with way more people than other districts. Instead, they argued that the state acted wrongly by drawing state legislative district lines based on the total number of people, versus the number of registered voters. Because rural areas tend to have higher percentages of registered voters, the plaintiffs argued that their votes were somehow diluted.

Put aside the fact that urban areas also tend to have higher proportions of minorities. Don’t think about the fact that minorities are often underrepresented on the lists of voters. And forget the fact that there has been a history of discrimination against minority voters in the United States. Nope, these plaintiffs claimed that they were the ones who somehow had their voting rights infringed.

The Supreme Court’s ruling rejected that claim and held that the state had acted properly in using total population as the basis for setting its voting districts. In her opinion for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion even quoted Alexander Hamilton—subject of Broadway’s top musical hit right now:

There can be no truer principle than this—that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.

Significantly, however, the Supreme Court did not decide whether a state could decide to use the total number of registered voters instead of population. That leaves the door open in case a state legislature decides to try that approach.

Unfortunately, some state officials apparently still take actions that limit voting rights, and that’s easier to do after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder.

In fact, Texas — the same state where the Evenwel case was brought — seems to have a particularly poor record when it comes to protecting the voting rights of minority groups. This point was hammered home last week at a voting rights training program for lawyers presented by the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

Speaking to a group of about 70 lawyers, attorney Gerry Herbert outlined a particularly egregious case in Texas that deals with photo ID requirements for voters. Significantly, the state law excludes things like state university photo IDs, but allows driver’s licenses and gun permits — even though one doesn’t need to be a citizen to get a gun permit in Texas. And while a state photo ID could be obtained free of charge, people would need to pay money and might have to travel long distances to get documents required to apply for that photo ID. Perhaps most damning were comments made by various state officials, applauding their departments for periods when they went without having to issue any of those “free” photo IDs.

Herbert outlined some of Texas’s other efforts to prevent so-called “voter fraud.” Forget the fact that there isn’t evidence of any widespread voter fraud. Among other things, the Texas state government wants its bureaucrats to be especially vigilant and watch for tell-tale signs. One criterion listed was suspicious or exotic-looking stamps. And an actual example from a state official’s actual presentation was a U.S. stamp highlighting awareness of sickle-cell anemia — a devastating disease that especially afflicts black people.

Plaintiffs actually won a challenge to the Texas photo ID law, but the case is currently on appeal. In the meantime, the law remains in effect. “Texas has been allowed to use this law even though it was found racially discriminatory,” Herbert said.

Other worrisome cases include the debacle in Arizona last month, where Arizona’s Maricopa County drastically reduced the number of voting places. While people across all groups had long waits, those in minority groups would have felt a disproportionate burden, speakers at the ACS training program noted. That’s because those voters were more likely to have had to get back to work.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby case, the government would have had to get pre-approval for the change in the number of voting places. And it would have had to show the absence of a disproportionate effect.

Now most changes probably won’t be reviewed until after the fact — and that’s a problem. It calls for diligence on the part of state and local governments and the electorate. And it calls for attorneys and society at-large to support efforts to enforce voting rights.

Find out what’s going on in your community. And do your part to encourage everyone to register and then get out to vote. Consider supporting efforts by groups such as the American Constitution Society as well.

We may not always agree with what other voters do at the polls. But if we let government curtail the legitimate rights of any voters, we all will ultimately suffer for it.


French wines could come out ahead among winners and losers from climate change

Climate change creates both winners and losers in ecosystems. It could be disastrous for some species, shrinking their range or leading to the end of some isolated populations of plants or animals. But one upside could be better French wines.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

In a study published last week, Elizabeth Wolkovich at Harvard University and Benjamin Cook at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies examined long-term records on French winegrape harvests. “I’m mostly a climate scientist and Lizzie is primarily an ecologist studying plants,” says Cook. “So this particular study was a great way to combine our two disciplines into a really interesting study.”

“I personally became interested in winegrapes since I study phenology,” says Wolkovich. That area of science deals with “the timing of plant and animal events that recur each year, such as leafout or flowering,” she explains. A grape isn’t just a grape, either. “Different varieties (e.g., Pinot Noir versus Cabernet Sauvignon) have incredibly different phenologies and winegrapes have tremendously long records — so both these features drew me to studying winegrapes.”

Those tremendously long records go back more than 300 years, to the 1600s. Those records provided the researchers with lots of data. Also, because climate change takes place over time, the records let the team see how the harvests meshed with different climate trends.

As a general rule, the earlier the harvest was in a particular year, the better the wine would be. For the most part, those early harvests tended to happen in years that were both warm and dry.

Until recently.

Warming trends seem to have broken that link between warmth and low rainfall as a condition for early harvests, the researchers found. That finding was a surprise.

“We are seeing a change in the way drought affects the harvest,” Cook explains. ”Before 1981, you need a hot dry summer to get an early harvest. After, thanks to global warming, you can get hot enough for an early harvest even without a drought.” The team published their research online on March 21 in Nature Climate Change.

So far, the change seems to be good for producing fine French wines. However, there’s no guarantee that the trend will continue. At some point, for example, too much moisture could conceivably affect the vines or the quality of their grapes. Similarly, even if climate change seems to be good for wine grapes in one region, a 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that other wine regions could well suffer as the ecological balance of their area shifts.

Nor does the study mean that climate change is not a problem. Hosts of other studies forecast widespread ecological harm, health consequences and other impacts.

Nonetheless, we can all appreciate and toast good science. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of fine wine.

“For white, I’m partial to a nice dry riesling,” Cook says. “For red, I like a peppery cabernet franc.”

“Dry rieslings are great!” says Wolkovich. “I also like red blends, especially ones with interesting varieties.”

A new study published on April 1, 2016, found that climate change could also boost wine production across the English Channel in the United Kingdom, BUT–and you know there would be a BUT, right–there would likely be more susceptibility to weather shocks.
In other words, grape production could grow, but there would also be significant threats from increases in extreme weather events, such as frosts after bud-burst or extra heavy rainfall.
The team at the University of East Anglia writes about its work in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research.

Things to “wine” about—and some beer

 new UW study found arsenic levels in 98 percent of red wines tested exceed U.S. drinking water standards, but that health risks depend on one’s total diet. Mr.TInDC, flickr

A new UW study found arsenic levels in 98 percent of red wines tested exceed U.S. drinking water standards, but that health risks depend on one’s total diet. Mr.TInDC, flickr

Two items in the news today should be noted by beer and wine drinkers everywhere. One is a cool upcoming talk at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the other is a new science report reminiscent of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

First, if you’re anywhere in the Cleveland area Friday night and are not already planning to go see the Red Sox take on the Indians, head over to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for the next installment of their Explorer Series, “Uncorking the Past: Re-Discovering and Re-creating Ancient Fermented Beverages

Patrick McGowan, an adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, will describe how our human ancestors made an astounding array of fermented beverages from honey, grapes, barley, rice, sorghum and perhaps even chocolate. Light appetizers and a cash bar precede the 7 p.m. talk, so what’s not to like?

Then there’s a new study on wine out from the University of Washington, and this one has 64 things not to like. In particular, researchers found levels of arsenic above the safe drinking water standards in 64 out of 65 samples of U.S. wines.

“Unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there’s little health threat if that’s the only source of arsenic in your diet,” U-W researcher Denise Wilson noted in the press release accompanying the report.

“But consumers need to look at their diets as a whole,” Wilson continued. “If you are eating a lot of contaminated rice, organic brown rice syrup, seafood, wine, apple juice — all those heavy contributors to arsenic poisoning — you should be concerned, especially pregnant women, kids and the elderly.”

Ironically, arsenic was one of the poisons added by two spinster aunts to the elderberry wine they used to kill boarders in the classic comedy play and movie, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Definitely watch the old Cary Grant flick if you’ve somehow missed it. And if you’re up for a fun, more modern spoof, check out Parnell Hall’s cozy 2013 mystery, “Arsenic and Old Puzzles.”

I don’t know yet whether any of the wines tested by the U-W researchers were elderberry wine. The full report appears in the October issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.

For the Love of LEGO

LEGObookphotoThere are days when the theme song from last year’s The Lego Movie still keeps running through my head. And it never annoys me. That’s more than I can say for many of the tune that the Academy Award folks nominated for an Oscar last year or in most years. I’ll bet this is true with lots of people too. Thus, even if the artists who composed and produced “Everything is Awesome” didn’t get the recognition they deserve, their creation continues to inspire and resonate.

This is very much true of LEGOs themselves, which made possible and inspired Mike Doyle’s latest book, Beautiful LEGO: Wild! When I saw the press release for the book from No Starch Press, the cover immediately made me want to review a copy. First, it features LEGOs, which were one of our kids’ favorite toys as they were growing up.

My son, in particular, loved designing buildings and a variety of other creations with LEGOs—not just as a little kid, but into junior high and high school. He’d develop detailed plans for structures with all of the basic blocks, as well as a variety of specialized pieces, including the larger bases. My son has always loved parrots too, and the cover photo of Beautiful LEGO: Wild! includes the ~750 piece sculpture “Rainbow Lorikeet” by Gabriel Thomson.

Doyle himself is a LEGO artist and graphic designer, and the book is a lovely collection of a variety of artistic works—plants, pets, marine animals, wild animals, and more. There’s even a “Grumpy Monkey” and “Boxing Panda” (both by Tyler Clites). Photos are in full color, and brief descriptions identify the artist and approximate number of pieces. The book would be fun for folks to just look through.

Perhaps more than many other art books, this one can also serve as a source of inspiration for others to try their hands at awesome LEGO art. After all, basic LEGOs are at most toy stores, and it’s much easier these days to get specialized pieces than when my son was little. Just order them online.

But while the book can provide inspiration, don’t expect it to provide how-to information. The preface points out that many of the sculptures feature a piece known as Plant Leaves 6 x 5. But I would have preferred some more information on other specialized pieces that helped artists make particular designs. I also would have liked to see some information for people who wanted to learn more about the how-to side of things.

I realize one doesn’t page through an art book on the Impressionists or M.C. Escher and expect to see how-to information there either. But since No Starch Press bills itself as a publisher of “the finest in geek entertainment,” I would hope future titles in the series have a bibliography in the back with this sort of thing.

On the other hand, I would not want to see anything nearly as detailed as the very specific instructions that LEGO includes in its robotics kits. After all, part of the fun of this book and most other LEGO art is that it takes off in directions that other people may never think of.

Speaking of the LEGO robotics field, though, those kits and groups have inspired some of their own awesome designs in the technology world. The LEGO robotics field is especially popular with a lot of middle, junior and senior high school students, who might start out making a kit but then go on to design their own incredible machines and devices with Arduino boards, laptops, Bluetooth, and other components. And if you have any doubt about some of the incredible things kids are designing, check out the titles of the technology projects for the 2015 Broadcom MASTERS finalists, who were announced earlier this week.

Put some basic tools in the hands of artists, designers and engineers of all ages, and you can wind up with some really wonderful creations. Everything is awesome!

Shout-out to Jonna Michelle

Personal and family issues have made this summer WAY more hectic than I had ever imagined. I promise I’ll soon be back to my usual columns about science, policy, journalism and life in general.

Today, however, I want to take a moment to give a huge shout-out to Jonna at Jonna Michelle Photography in  Silver Spring, Maryland. Please read her blog post about Bethany and Jarrod here:

And let me repeat what I said on FACEBOOK this morning:

A huge THANK YOU to Jonna at for sharing her amazing talents and even more wonderful friendship with Bethany Meissner and her fiancé Jarrod Jabre. I love her work and am so excited that she will be photographing our daughter’s wedding in a few weeks!

For our own protection?

Admiral Michael Rogers. Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers.
Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers will do his utmost to protect Americans from terrorism. But he would never want the price of security to be the basic liberties that Americans hold dear.

“I don’t want to compromise who we are or what we are,” Rogers said. “As long as we can find something in the middle, I can live with that.”

Rogers is Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service. Yesterday he spoke in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Cleveland Clinic’s Ideas for Tomorrow Series. The Cleveland Council on World Affairs was a sponsoring partner for the event.

Rogers admitted that NSA has been involved in a great deal of controversy lately. But, he cautioned, people should not believe everything they hear or read in the press.

“We are a foreign intelligence surveillance organization,” Rogers said. “It is illegal” to collect data on domestic persons, he added.

But, he noted, there is an exception: The agency can go to a judge and seek access to data for a specific phone number if it can demonstrate a connection between someone with that phone number and a person believed to be involved in terrorism activities. And, Rogers added, recent executive directives and changes in the law require people outside the NSA to review and approve any such information requests before the NSA can get the data and then access it.

“I would vote for him,” one person said at a reception following the event.

“I don’t trust him,” someone else answered, noting that Rogers left a lot unsaid.

Ironically, the night before Rogers’ talk I’d just finished reading Rachel Bohlen’s debut novel, The Historian. No, this is not Elizabeth Kostova’s 600-plus page vampire book from 2005. Bohlen’s 2014 book bills itself as speculative fiction about time travel, but it’s more of a political thriller. Bohlen’s friendship with my daughter was a big factor motivating me to purchase the book, and I could see how it reflects Bohlen’s background as an attorney and as an alumna of Xavier University’s honors program.

In the book’s near-future setting of Washington, D.C., a Department of Time has the country’s only time machine and its security forces will stop at nothing to thwart anyone suspected of possible time travel terrorism. Those efforts include extensive searches and surveillance to thwart any possibility of time travel terrorism—defined to include even public criticism of the government. Life imprisonment or death is the punishment for a conviction.

Bohlen’s heroine, Emilia Falk, describes herself as a mere historian at the Department of Time, working away in her cubicle on classified and probably pointless research projects. Like most people, she pretty much accepts the secrecy and tight security measures for everything even remotely related to the Department of Time—until her own sister is accused of time terrorism.

Like Rogers, the character who heads the Department of Time is charming and reassures the public in all his statements that the government is only acting within the bounds of the law. Yet while media reports about nonclassified NSA activities are certainly not a crime in the real world, Rogers is clearly concerned about some of those reports.

“I have watched targets…change their behavior as a result of these revelations” about certain technology details and other things, Rogers said. “For those who would say this hasn’t had an impact, clearly you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

However, curtailing discussions about nonclassified technology could threaten freedom of speech and of the press. The practice of science, which relies on open discussion and peer review, could suffer as well.

“Personally, for me, I do not want another major terrorism event on my watch,” Rogers said. He stressed again that the NSA acts within the bounds of the law, subject to both congressional oversight and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of the public approves of the job Congress is doing, according to the Gallup Poll. And ex parte proceedings and a high government “win rate” have led some to question whether the FISA court is a “rubber stamp” for the government.

“The very mechanisms we put in place to engender trust in this world today don’t have that trust,” Rogers noted. Even if everyone in the NSA is in fact following the law, that’s a problem.



Choosing the lineup

Lake Erie Crushers' first baseman Joey Burney at bat against the Washington Wild Things. Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Crushers’ Joey Burney at bat against the Wild Things.  Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Serious baseball fans don’t just watch the game. They learn background about players, teams and opponents. Many seem to second-guess coaches’ and managers’ decisions too. “Why is he playing this guy today?” a fan might ask when the clean-up guy in the lineup is someone who’s been in a slump. “Get someone warming up!” another fan shouts when the pitcher walks another batter.

Now a new business idea from America’s Ball Club and the Lake Erie Crushers of Avon, Ohio, gives fans the opportunity to vote as a group on one aspect of the game for an actual professional team—the starting lineup.

Fans who pay a membership fee would get to come up with three or four lineups for each game. The manager would then choose from among those for each remaining game in the season.

“He already makes out a few different lineups for the game and then makes the decision at the last minute” of which one to go with, explains Michael Waghalter of America’s Ball Club. Waghalter and colleague Kevin Barber were in town this month to promote the idea with a pre-game picnic and meet-and-greet with several players from the Crushers.

Unlike previous fan involvement promotions, America’s Ball Club is not currently looking to have fans vote on decisions during the game. Rather, the idea is to engage serious fans to boost their enjoyment of the game. The concept would also share some of that hive’s collective wisdom with team management. Unlike teams in Major League Baseball that have big budgets for statistical and other kinds of analyses, that’s not the case for clubs in independent leagues like the Crushers’ Frontier League.

“When you have baseball right here in your backyard, why not get involved and have a say in their success?” asks Barber. “I think it has a place in this league in this baseball world.”

“I like the idea because it gets people more involved. At this point, why not?” says Crushers player Joey Burney, who played first base at that night’s game against the Washington Wild Things. “I don’t think they would ever put a lineup out there that’s unheard of.”

The membership fee would help guard against that, Waghalter and Barber noted, while also covering expenses so the business could become profitable.

“The upside is it gets the fans more involved,” says Crushers pitcher Trevor Longfellow. “We’ve been struggling fanbase-wide, but I think that will help out with it.”

And the downside? “I don’t really know,” Longfellow says. “It’s more of a positive than a negative, that’s for sure.” He does note, though, that there’s a lot that goes into designing really good lineups.

“If you’re just looking at the statistics, you can’t really tell how a guy does against certain pitches,” Longfellow says. Slumps and streaks matter too. Even a really good pitcher can have bad statistics after one or two bad outings.

“There are diehard fans out there, and they put a lot of time and effort into the game,” notes relief pitcher Brad Duffy, who also likes the idea.

Interestingly, Duffy says he’s not someone who does extensive pre-game analysis and “likes to know everything about everyone” before taking the mound. As a reliever, his job is to go out and help his team in whatever situation the game presents at that moment. Thus, he says he takes each game play by play. “Here’s what I have to do one pitch at a time.”

America’s Ball Club hopes fans can start voting on lineups sometime in July, although whether that happens depends largely on whether the group meets its $75,000 Indiegogo goal. Watch for more in a future blog post here.

Meanwhile, both Crushers’ management and players hope the idea will attract fans to the games.

“I’ll do anything if it gets fans in the stands,” says Burney. “It’s hard to get all pumped up for something if you don’t have fans in the stands.”

And if the America’s Ball Club idea takes off, many of those fans won’t just be sitting in the stands.

“Now they’re looking at the statistics. They’re looking at the lineup,” says Burney. “It’s a baseball experience on steroids.”