Sunday, April 30, 2017

Trump's latest email solicitation is tacky, but is it fraudulent?

You've missed the boat -- it's too late to become a special 100-day member. Yesterday, sent email soliciting donations saying that "tonight also marks your last chance to go down in the earliest records of our presidency as a special 100-Day Member."

The minimum contribution is $1, but one can contribute up to $2,500 with a single mouse click and even make it a "monthly recurring donation."

In addition to your contribution, you must provide Trump with some information so he can update your mailing-list profile:

(The form says you must provide a true email address, but it does not check).

There is no indication of who is actually getting the money for your "membership" or what organization you are becoming a member of. Who owns the mailing list(s) this solicitation was sent to? Who owns the 100-day club -- the Republican Party? Trump's campaign? Trump? Ivanka or Jared? ( is registered by THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION, located in Trump Tower). Follow the money.

This feels tacky -- reminiscent of radio/TV/tent preachers asking for contributions -- but it is no surprise from the man who owns domain names like,, and and founded Trump University.

Is there presidential precedent for this sort of thing? Would the Federal Trade Commission consider it fraudulent or misleading? Can you imagine President Obama soliciting funds for membership in a mailing-list club?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Modern, Internet-enabled gerrymandering

The Koch brothers live in Texas and interfere with elections in other states. Putin lives in Russia and interferes with elections in other nations. Are they legally and morally similar?

Charles and David Koch
Do you recognize these two men? They are Charles and David Koch, long-time supporters of libertarian, "tea party" political causes. In 2010 they supported Republican candidates in order to take control of state legislatures.

They focused on state legislatures because they have the power to redefine the boundaries of federal congressional districts. Once in power, the Republicans redrew district boundaries, packing Democrats into as few districts as possible and spreading the rest out across multiple districts.

Drawing districts to favor one party is called "gerrymandering," and it's nothing new. Patrick Henry tried to defeat James Madison in 1788 by drawing an anti-federalist district. Patrick Henry failed because he did not have good data, but in the Internet era, gerrymander technicians have all the data they need -- party registration, demographics, psychographics and personality traits. They also have computer programs like Maptitude that can use that data to draw up party-optimal district maps.

Maptitude heat map

As you see below, the strategy worked well for the Republicans. They control many state legislatures and outnumber the Democrats 238 to 193 in the House of Representatives. Gerrymandering has directly affected the House and the funding focused on state legislature races has had a spill-over effect on other statewide and federal elections.

State legislative seats by party

There are currently 4 vacant House seats and Democrat Jon Ossoff is running for one of them in a heavily Republican district in Georgia. Few politicians (from any party) would admit that gerrymandering is done for political reasons, but speaking of this close race, State Senator Fran Millar clearly acknowledged that it was in an unguarded moment, saying
“I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. And you didn’t hear that. They were not drawn for that purpose, OK? They were not drawn for that purpose.”
The Democratic reaction to this strategy was to fight fire with fire by forming their own gerrymandering organization, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, headed by Eric Holder and supported by President Obama. But do we want elections to be influenced by gerrymandering? Is Democratic gerrymandering any better than Republican gerrymandering?

I think we need a neutral answer. Larry Lessig ran for president in 2016 on a single issue – citizen equality. His proposed Citizen Equality Act would promote equal right to vote, equal representation and citizen-funded elections. Our democracy is threatened by special-interest election financing -- might Lessig's proposal or something similar save it?

Lessig called for an attack on three fronts -- campaign finance reform, voting rights, and equal representation. We may see action on equal representation this year when the Supreme Court takes up the issue of partisan gerrymandering.

The Koch brothers live in Texas and interfere with elections in other states. Putin lives in Russia and interferes with elections in other nations. Are they legally and morally similar?


In the 2012 Wisconsin State Assembly election, Republican candidates received 48.6 percent of the popular vote but won 60.6 percent of the seats. The Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the partisan gerrymandering responsible for that result.

A ruling against partisan gerrymandering would probably come too late to force redistricting for the 2020 election, but it would be significant going forward. In briefs to the Supreme Court, Wisconsin’s Republican legislative leaders estimated that if their redistricting is unconstitutional, so is that of about one-third of the other states.


The Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether a redistricting plan in the state of Wisconsin was unconstitutional. Gerrymandering dates back to the 18th century, but Internet data, GIS software and donors like the Koch brothers have improved and automated it.

Given his vote in a Texas redistricting case, Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch is a likely supporter of Wisconsin's right to gerrymander. I wonder how Merrick Garland would have voted.


A short message thread on Dave Farber's IP email list makes the point that the Internet could be used as a tool for objectively defining equitable congressional districts as well as for gerrymandering.

Ridgely Evers pointed out that algorithms could be devised to:
  • equalize population +/- X%
  • minimize perimeter
  • respect natural boundaries (rivers, for example)
  • maximize racial diversity
  • etc.
In a second post, George Sadowsky reported that in 1964 he had worked on a project to optimize congressional districts with Morris Davis, then the Director of the Yale Computer Center. Davis had been appointed a Special Master by the Federal Court in Connecticut to come up with a plan for Connecticut's congressional districts. They wrote two algorithms that yielded intuitively sensible partitionings of the state and the legislators used their results in negotiations.

I don't know how the Supreme Court will rule in this case -- Justice Kennedy is said to be the swing voter -- and it is hard to imagine the Republicans voluntarily give up their gerrymandered advantage. (I bet the Democrats would do the same -- politicians like their jobs). One way forward might be using Internet data and algorithms such as those suggested here to generate alternative, balanced partitions and publicize the results -- show the voters alternatives.

Update 1/10/2018

The Internet enabled partisan gerrymandering and now a panel of federal judges has ordered North Carolina to redraw its gerrymandered congressional map.

The panel struck down North Carolina’s congressional map, saying it was unconstitutional because it violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. Judge James A. Wynn Jr. said Republicans in North Carolina’s Legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans.

The legislature has until January 24 to present a “remedial plan” and the court will institute its own map if it finds the new district lines unsatisfactory. Needless to say, the Democrats reacted positively and the Republican negatively.

The ruling will be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which is also hearing Wisconsin and Maryland gerrymandering cases. The Wisconsin case is similar to South Carolina's, which is based on the 14th amendment, challenges the state district map and is pro-Democratic while the Maryland case challenges the redrawing of a single district, is based on the 1st Amendment and is pro-Republican.

For more on gerrymandering in various states, see this post.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

No longer a cord-cutter -- I've spliced the cord

My 2014 post "How I cut my Time Warner bill by 33%" has been viewed 152,846 times -- the most of any in the history of this blog. The bill-cutting technique is simple -- threaten to cancel your service and the ISP will renegotiate the price.

I recently repeated the process, with a twist.

I was an early cord-cutter -- getting my local TV with a rabbit ears antenna and streaming the rest from the Internet. That worked fairly well, but I could not get local content in some of the rooms of my house and even in the best room, there would be an occasional glitch and I had to play around with the antenna orientation. I tried amplified antennas, but none were better than my rabbit ears and I am too lazy to install a rooftop antenna. (The local TV transmitters are on a mountain 24.5 miles as the crow flies from my home).

My monopoly ISP bill crept up over time, as monopoly ISP bills do, and my old monopoly ISP, time-Warner Cable (TWC), had sold to a new monopoly ISP, Spectrum.

Spectrum started sending out flyers offering good deals to new subscribers -- Internet, phone and cable-TV service for a little less than I had been paying TWC. I called and offered to switch to the introductory offer and they accepted -- I spliced the cord.

I now get rock-solid local TV and a DVR for less than I was paying before. That is an improvement, but nothing like I could get by moving to place with a competitve Internet service market like Riga, Stockholm or Korea.

Are you hoping new wireless technology like 5G mobile or PCell technology from Google will provide ISP competition? The technology remains to be seen in the field but, if it turns out to be a threat, the ISPs will work hard to fight competition, for example, by outlawing the sharing of public infrastructure.

In spite of periodic renegotiation with my ISP, the cost is drifting up and I pay for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but I seldom go out to a movie these days. It looks like the long-run losers will be movie theaters and the public.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Presentation on the implications of the Internet for politics

I teach a class on the applications, implications and technology of the Internet and we look at relevant current events each week. Last semester there were many current events dealing with the election and I accumulated a large, chronologically ordered, PowerPoint slide deck on the political implications of the Internet.

Last week I substituted for a faculty colleague and gave two 75-minute lectures on the topic, using selected slides from the full deck. The selected slides are not chronological, but organized as follows:

  • Historical context
  • Lying
  • Fact checking
  • Fake news for money
  • Fake news for politics
  • Fake images
  • Trump dominated social media
  • More historical context - disillusion
  • Real world consequences
  • Hacking
  • The Internet is ephemeral
  • Breitbart – “alt right” press
  • Money behind the scenes
  • (Imperfect) fixes
  • Future fake media
There are over 100 selected slides with mnemonic images, few words, links to supporting material and notes. (I use annotated slides in lieu of a textbook). Here are thumbnails of a few of them: