Archive for the '“Politics”' Category

Volunteer opportunities on LGBT rights

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

This is a little off from the normal format of this blog, but what the heck.

I had a conversation last week with some people who were frustrated that they saw a lot of discussion about lack of progress on LGBT rights, but didn’t see the kind of practical, meat-and-potatoes organizing on LGBT issues as they did on things like health care– things like, call this congressperson and exert pressure on this legislation. I was surprised to hear this, because I could name several groups or bloggers doing such organizing right now. This conversation made me realize that maybe some of the less flashy but still quite practical activism on gay rights isn’t getting the attention it needs, and as a result may not be connecting with potential volunteers.

Let’s do something about that. Here below is a short list of projects in need of volunteers and phone calls now. My rules for putting a group or project on this list is that it should:

  • Have real volunteer activities that you can start doing right away– not just “sign up for this mailing list and we’ll ask you for money occasionally”.
  • Direct volunteer efforts toward a specific, immediate goal, preferably something where effort goes directly toward changing a law.

I hope someone out there will find this useful.


At the beginning of the year, Nancy Pelosi laid out a plan for gay rights in Congress, which had each of the major legislative proposals being passed in a single file fashion: The Matthew Shepard / Hate Crimes Bill first, The Employment Nondiscrimination Act sometime before the end of 2009, a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell after that, and a repeal of DOMA after. Although there have been some new developments such as the introduction of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, in general congress has stuck very strictly to this schedule all year, both in actions and in the public statements of the leadership: The Hate Crimes bill was voted on in June, ENDA was introduced in each house once Matthew Shepard had passed there, and work on ENDA is now underway as the final version of the Hate Crimes bill is set to be signed any day now. As of this week the word is still that Congress plans to address DADT at the beginning of next year.

So, if you want to make a difference in active legislation, right now ENDA is where the action is. (And if you want to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, then honestly at the moment the most effective way to get there is to get Congress to hurry up on ENDA so resources will be freed to work on DADT.)

In the House, passage of ENDA seems pretty much assured, and the only important thing is to get the committee to follow up on their recent hearings and pass a bill. In the Senate things are more complicated, and here work is needed to lock down 60 Senators willing to vote for cloture.

What you can do: The best resource on ENDA I’ve found is Dr. Jillian T. Weiss’s ENDA Diaries at Dr. Weiss has been blogging every day for months with action items on ENDA, usually taking the form of “legislator of the day” posts singling out a particular House or Senate member to call to pressure to support ENDA. The information for these calls is used to maintain a running whip count. You can see a full list of Dr. Weiss’s ENDA diaries here, or a general introduction to the project (posted the day after the National Equality March), with a list of the top “problem legislators” on ENDA, here.

Also, I have received Dr. Weiss’s permission to start posting copies of her daily ENDA diaries over at DailyKos, so if you read that site then keep an eye out.


Proposition 8 basically gets a do-over in Maine this year. Maine’s gay marriage law is already a big deal in one way: Maine was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage purely through the legislature. If Question 1, which would overturn that law, fails, Maine will also be the first state where legal gay marriage withstands a public referendum vote. If Question 1 passes, on the other hand… well, that will do a lot to discourage legislatures in other parts of the country from even trying. Question 1 goes up for a vote in just two weeks, November 3, the same day as Washington’s Ref. 71 (which decides whether the state’s new Domestic Partnership law will stand).

What you can do: There are two groups organizing phone banks to persuade Maine voters on gay marriage. In both cases the phone bank works the same way: You call in at a certain time and are given a brief training session over the phone. After that you are given a script to read and a list of numbers to call. If you can just block off a few hours of time you can make a difference on Question 1 from your own home, regardless of where in America you are.

The first group doing this is Protect Maine Equality/No On 1. Their next training session is Tuesday at 6:30 PM Eastern time.

The second group is the Courage Campaign; they are actually using the same scripts and call lists as No on 1, but their training times (see link) may be more convenient for you, and if you are in California I believe they have infrastructure to allow you to call in without incurring long distance charges.

I also have an offer from Caitlin Maloney at the Courage campaign, who you can contact here:

[I]f someone went through that training and wanted to get a whole group of folks together and phonebank using their laptops and cells to make calls, I could arm that person with the additional knowledge necessary to train the group. The other option would be for me to send a group paper lists to call from. We would need a few days notice on about how many folks you expect and how long you plan to be calling, and of course we would send you all the docs you need to train folks and keep them motivated.

This would be the same work you’d be doing at home, however some people find it easier to stay motivated phonebanking with a group.



Equality California (volunteer signup here) has groups across the state working now for a repeal of Proposition 8. The biggest focus here is on canvassing neighborhoods where equality fared poorly in the election last November, trying to reach voters who might have voted against us before and understand what arguments are effective in flipping them. In my area this meets most every sunday evenings and it’s simple, just show up and they’ll give you training and a map.

EQCA offices across the state are also doing evening phonebanks into Washington for the Referendum 71 campaign.

Courage Campaign, in addition to the phonebanking program described above, has been organizing Equality Teams with regular volunteer opportunities. Hope Wood, Northern California Field Manager for the Courage Campaign’s Equality Program, describes the program as:

The mission of our Equality Teams is as follows:
▪ Establish an active and visible presence in the community for marriage equality.
▪ Develop relationships with local elected officials and supportive organizations to create an opportunity for sharing resources and building local power.
▪ Coordinate regular voter contact actions – including canvasses, phone-banks, tabling at community events, and registering new voters.
▪ Represent your community in important state-wide actions, trainings, and conference calls focused on marriage equality.

Marriage Equality Silicon Valley (volunteer information here, although the best way to keep up to date is to follow the Facebook group) has been organizing weekly phonebanks into Maine using the Courage Campaign infrastructure. I’m told there are also groups running similar mass phonebanks in SF and Alameda.


No On 1/Protect Maine Equality (volunteer opportunities here), in addition to the national phonebanking program mentioned above, also needs local volunteers for “making phone calls, knocking on doors, talking to voters at community events and helping out in the office”.


Approve Referendum 71 (volunteer opportunities here) needs state-local volunteers for phonebanking and direct outreach to pass Referendum 71 and make the state’s Domestic Partner program law.

(If there are any resources in your state that ought to be on this list but aren’t, let me know.)


While I was writing this post I learned about a site called ACT On Principles. It’s a collection of tools for coordinating and locating LGBT activism opportunities, and it includes wiki-style whip count pages, similar to the one I mentioned above for ENDA but for every gay rights bill currently under consideration. This is a fairly new site and it seems a little rough around the edges but it looks like it has a lot of promise. You may want to take a look and maybe make a few phone calls for the whip count.

Dear Congress: Beyond Einstein, Wtf

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

This is a copy of a letter I wrote to various congressthings. I reproduce it here because I didn’t write a blog post this weekend, and because you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between this and a blog post anyway. Enjoy.

* * * * *

Dear [Whoever],

I am writing about the recent effective dismantling of NASA’s Beyond Einstein program, and in general the massive slashing of science research within NASA’s budget in the last few years. This is an issue which has received almost no popular attention, and which I suspect Congress has not had the chance to seriously consider. However, I feel that preserving these science programs, and Beyond Einstein in specific, is in the long term of great importance to America.

Beyond Einstein1 is an umbrella program by which NASA is performing a series of flight experiments to gather information about four cosmological phenomena at the limit of human understanding: black holes, gravitational waves, dark energy, and cosmic inflation. All four of these things are an accepted part of modern science, but their exact workings are very poorly understood. Data about their operation would be invaluable to physicists, who must develop theories to explain these things even though they are astronomical phenomena and cannot be observed in a lab.

Unfortunately, though, NASA has in the last few years been de-emphasizing science in its funding, and one of the many worthy programs that may not survive this shift in priorities is Beyond Einstein. The following is a quote from Steinn Sigurðsson, a physicist who provides a stark account2 of an NRC meeting where the future direction of the Beyond Einstein missions was discussed:

At the request of the DoE, the NRC is doing a priority ranking, a funding wedge is opening in 2009, one mission can get a startup, the others, not so much.

Realistically, a second mission will probably be named as a ranked priority, then the rest will get bounced to the decadal survey that will start in a couple of years, and we start all over again. If there is any funding for new starts again (we’re looking at maybe 2022-2025 at current budget profiles).

No one is going to win this, only lose. It should never have come to this.

The stakes are high; literally thousands of scientists are looking at the core science activity they have chosen to work in being annihilated for 10-20 years, a lot of junior people could be dumped from science, a lot of senior people could look at having the field they worked to build being shut down.

It is an indescribabl[e] waste, for what is a surprisingly small amount of money on the scale of the US economy. The funding gap that is squeezing the Beyond Einstein Program out of existence is about 2-300 million dollars per year – that, over ~ 15 years is what it would take to do 3-5 of the missions in quick overlapping succession.

I would like to call attention to something that may not be obvious in this quote. Because physics experiments, like a NASA probe or a particle collider, are such concrete things, it is easy to lose sight of exactly how much accumulated effort goes into them. Cancelling or going forward with an experiment like this seems like a simple decision: either you build it and you have one, or you don’t. It is easy to forget the fact that the experiment is not just a manufactured physical object, but an entire section of the scientific community who are working on the experiment and dependent on it going forward. Besides just the people designing the probe, just one of these experiments inevitably leads to years of papers and advancements just analyzing the collected results; canceling the experiment means shutting all of that down.

Meanwhile, going forward with just one of the projects is not much of a compromise, since Beyond Einstein is a survey, not a single experiment; some of the Beyond Einstein experiments are on drastically different subjects, and so deciding to perform only one of the experiments means telling physical science it will be given the opportunity to move forward on some subjects, but not others.

It is easy to shrug off the sciences, especially edge science like Beyond Einstein represents, as optional or inessential. However foundational scientific research like this is, in the long term, what drives real scientific and technological progress. Since Beyond Einstein covers the least well-understood aspects of physics, it has the real opportunity to spark serious advancements in scientific theory. By limiting its scope, we risk missing that opportunity.

It is my hope that when the new budget comes up for consideration over the next few months, the Congress will act to ensure the Beyond Einstein program receives adequate funding to complete its mission. The current NASA budget request as I understand it does not serve this goal, instead choosing to focus its funding efforts largely on new manned spaceflight programs. While expanding manned space exploration is a worthy goal for NASA, this goal should not be pursued at the expense of NASA’s ability to do science.

Thank you for your efforts,



Pixels and Politics

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

So last month, just before the elections, I was thinking about electoral shifts. With everyone pretty much convinced that the Democrats were about to take over Congress, or at least the House, I saw a lot of people making comparisons to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, and I saw one person make the claim that the 1994 Republican takeover wasn’t really that big of a shift compared to previous Congressional swings earlier in American history.

This made me curious. I started to wonder how one might go about judging such a thing, and started to realize that although detailed histories of the U.S. presidency abound, there really is not very much well-organized information out there about the historical makeup of the Congress.

I decided to solve this the way I solve most problems in my life: by making animated GIFs. I downloaded the rosters of the first through 109th congresses from the Congressional Biographical Directory, and then a month later, when things had settled down a bit, added the information from Wikipedia’s tentative listing of the newly-elected 110th congress. Then I wrote some perl to convert the Congressional rosters to graphs, with one colored pixel marking the party which held each seat in each of the 110 elected congresses. You can find the results below.

For starters, here’s just one big graph of everything, sorted from top to bottom by state, with senate and house seats separated. As with any of the images in this post, if you want to see it closer, you can click to zoom in:

Although this graph is to some extent cryptic since it doesn’t tell us exactly why any of these pixels change colors with time, if you look closely you can actually see many of the important events of American history reflected quite visibly in this graph. For the most obvious example, the rise and fall of the Federalist and Whig parties are clearly visible in the early part of the graph as big blobs of purple and green, accompanied by a wave of gray pixels around the 1820s, just before the Whigs appeared, marking the collapse of the Democratic Republicans before the party was reborn under Andrew Jackson. A solid line of gray pixels is also visible at the beginning of the graph, marking those heady few early years of American politics before any political parties existed at all. The Civil War is clearly visible as a long vertical black streak cutting through the graph around 1860, marking the period when the southern states simply didn’t participate in the Congress. After the Civil War most of the southern states turn very briefly red, then blue again, as blacks suddenly gained the right to vote, then lost it again with the rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. After this point the “solid south” phenomenon becomes incredibly marked, with the northern states in the graph a patchwork of red and blue pixels, but the southern states a solid sea of blue for a hundred years as a result of post-Reconstruction animosity toward the Republicans. In the decades after the 1950s, the great northern/southern swap as the Democratic and Republican parties in many was reversed themselves is visible as a great gradual blur of colors swapping, followed by a solid wall of change around 1994– Massachusetts and Texas are almost mirrors of one another in this period, with Massachusetts slowly turning from nearly solid red to solid blue, and Texas doing the same in reverse.

When we look at the graph by states this way, of course, shifts in Congressional control— which is more of a numbers game– are not so clear. Some of the big shifts are visible– for example stripes of red and blue are clearly visible around the beginning of the 1900s, as first the Republicans sweep congress during the Spanish-American War, then the Democrats sweep congress during the Great Depression and WWII. The 1994 Republican Revolution is visible in some states, but not others– and in those places where it does occur, it seems less like a solid switch than just an acceleration of the steady progression from blue to red in many places of the country that followed Nixon’s “southern strategy”, and the steady emergence of the “red state” phenomenon. The 2006 elections– the last column of pixels on the right– is barely visible at all.

The shifts become a little more clearly visible if we choose not to sort by state:

In the graph on the left here, sorting still occurs by state, but rather than being separated neatly the states are all just mashed together. This graph is a little hard to make sense of. More clear is the graph on the right, where pixels are instead sorted by party. Here the shifts in congressional control are quite blatant; very brief swings in power, like the Democratic powergrabs following the Mexican-American war and the Watergate scandal, become easier to see, and it’s easier to see which numeric swings were lasting and which weren’t. The “Republican Revolution” is a lot more visible on this graph than on any other, and at the very end of the graph, someone familiar with the politics of the last decade can almost chart the rise and fall of the Republican congressional majority pixel by pixel: Republican control spikes like crazy in 1994; then drops off just a little bit as voters become disillusioned with the Republicans in the aftermath of the impeachment circus; voters then warm toward the Republicans again in one final one-pixel spike, representing the halo effect of Bush’s 2004 campaign; then suddenly the numbers swing toward the Democrats again in that last final rightmost pixel.

One thing that stands out to me in this particular graph is that though the swing towards the Democrats in 2006 is quite pronounced, it’s certainly not nearly as pronounced as the swing that put the Republicans in power in 1994. Although the Democrats still hold a decent majority, and it looks like they’re about on par with where they were at what looks like the beginning of the Reagan revolution, they don’t hold nearly as much power as most of the historical Democratic majorities since FDR have. Although there are other reasons besides pure numbers to think that in this particular election the voters meant to send a message– although it’s not really visible in any of the graphs above, one of the interesting facts about the 2006 elections is that no congressional seats or governorships held by the Democrats went to the Republicans on 2006, only the other way around– in terms of pure numbers the 2006 elections were not really that big of a shift, and the Democrats are only really halfway to replicating the feat that the Republicans pulled off in the 90s. If nothing else, this means that the Democrats are going to have to govern carefully to keep control of the situation with their relatively thin majority– and will have to really convince the voters they’re doing something worthwhile with that majority from day one, because it will not take much to lose it all in 2008.

These graphs aren’t perfect. The chief problem with them is that they aren’t exactly sorted by seat. The data that I’m working off of here doesn’t show who serves in which district, only who served in what state. This means that if someone holds a particular congressional seat for 20 years, they’ll show up on the graph as a solid line of 10 horizontal pixels– but their replacement for that same seat won’t necessarily be in the exact same horizontal position as they were. Also, I don’t have records of who won the elections– Congress’s listings only showed who served during each two-year period, so if more than one Congressperson occupied the same seat during some period (for example, because one of them died and was replaced with the second), both show up in the graph. (This is why, although each state only has two Senators, many of the “Senate” lines in the by-state graph at the top are occasionally taller than two pixels.)

What I’d be curious about doing with these graphs in future is getting hold of some more specific data concerning who served in exactly which Congressional district, so the graphs can more accurately reflect the shifts within states– for example, so that if most of a state votes one way, but there’s one specific city or region that consistently votes another, it would be clearly visible. It also might be interesting, with that information in hand, to try to rework some of these graphs as colored maps, although I’ve never found a good way of making maps in software. Another interesting possibility might be implementing some sort of mouseover feature, so that by moving the cursor over any particular pixel you can see the name of the person that pixel represents.
The other thing that I’d like to try to fix about these graphs, though I’m less sure how is that they’re kind of a lot to take in all at once– they’re too tall to fit on a computer monitor, and without zooming in a lot of the features are hard to make out. This is a little bit helped on the graph that I think is my favorite, since it serves very well as a kind of “summary”– the graph where House reps are ignored and only the Senate is displayed. On this graph we get a good general idea of how people are voting but the graph is still small enough to take in at a glance, so the nature of the big party shifts by region and event are most “obvious”:

If anyone has any other suggestions for ways that these graphs could possibly be improved, I’d be curious to hear them.

As one final bonus, here’s an animated graph, with columns of pixels from left to right representing states: