November 08, 2016

Reinventing Fire

Electoral Engineering

Remember, everyone in NC, a vote for Hillary Clinton tomorrow is a vote for me! 😛

As I posted on Twitter originally on 28 September:

NC Democratic Party called me today. I’m 1 of 15 Electors in NC’s Electoral College, if @HillaryClinton wins! I still want #ElectoralReform

And I followed up with more details posted on Facebook.

How I became an Elector

My friend Sheri Tindle asked how it happened.

I attended the NC Democratic convention, though I didn’t have a vote because I hadn’t figured out how to apply to be a delegate. When they were collecting nominees for the Electors, I tried to volunteer, but had no standing to do so… so one of the delegates sitting near me jumped up and put my name in. I think I won a slot because my county (Orange) is a Democratic hotbed in NC.

I was originally chosen as an Alternate Elector, but apparently the Primary Elector declined, so I got a promotion!

Can I vote for anyone I want?

The Supreme Court ruled that there’s no federal requirement for an Elector to vote as they’ve pledged. In principle, I could vote for whomever I wish.

An Elector who doesn’t vote for their party’s designated candidate is known as a “Faithless Elector”. There have been 157 faithless electors since the founding of the Electoral College. (71 of them changed their vote the candidate died in the interim… Republican VP Sherman in 1912, and Democratic Presidential candidate Greeley in 1872). But no Elector defection has ever changed the result of a Presidential election.

I’m a fan of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which is a pledge among participating states that their Electors would vote for the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the state popular vote. This would effectively bypass the Electoral College if enough states someday enact it (that is, a set of states that total 270 electoral votes). However, it failed in committee in NC’s lower house (though the NC Sentate passed it in 2007), so that wouldn’t apply to me.

Still, I could vote my conscience. In North Carolina, I actually write down the name of my vote on a piece of paper, and I could write Bernie Sanders, Vermin Supreme, Pigasus, or in a passing moment of terrible judgment, Donald Trump. In practice, however, there is a NC law (NC Gen Statute §163-212) that makes it illegal for me (or other Democratic Party Elector) to cast a vote for anyone but Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine; my vote would be stricken from the record, and I’d be expelled from the Electoral College and fined $500, as well as face censure from the Democratic Party.

Overall, probably not worth it. :) But still… let’s see those leaflets!

Incidentally, being an Elector is technically an elected office, and it’s exclusive in NC; you can’t hold any other elected office while acting as an Elector, and I’d have to resign any other position. That’s probably one reason I got the job… many other people in the party weren’t eligible.

NC §163-209 states, “A vote for the candidates named on the ballot shall be a vote for the electors of the party or unaffiliated candidate by which those candidates were nominated and whose names have been filed with the Secretary of State.” You read that right… in North Carolina, a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Doug Schepers (and 14 other Electors)!

Like almost all other states, NC is a winner-take-all election. If Hillary doesn’t win the popular vote in NC, then I don’t get to take a trip to Raleigh on December 19, and I don’t get the $44 a day and 17¢ per mile paid to Presidential electors (per NCGS §163-211.) Vote for Hillary… I need the money!

The Old Ceremony

I’m tickled pink that I might have the ceremonial role of electing the first woman President of the United States, but we still need to fix this broken system, and I’d like to help do that however I can. As I responded to my friend Eric Brown’s tongue-in-cheek question, “So what are you going to major in?”: “Electoral Engineering, of course.”

Why is the Electoral College a Bad Idea?

I joked on Twitter on 21 October, the first day of early voting in NC:

I just voted early in NC for Clinton/Kaine! I hope to vote for them again as an Electoral College member in December!

I don’t really get 2 votes. Because actually, there is no popular vote for President; there is a popular vote for Electors, per NC §163-209.

And while an Elector in NC cannot be a Faithless Elector, other states don’t have that restriction. In Georgia, a Republican Elector vowed not to vote for Donald Trump, the nominee of the Republican Party, which is most likely going to win Georgia. This would be fodder for the conspiracy-minded who think the elections are rigged. Luckily, that Faithless Elector resigned, but it could still happen this election with some other Elector.

As much as I want Trump to lose –and I want him to lose badly– I want him to lose fair-and-square.

The Electoral College also skews issues and campaigns to focus only on a few key states; the rest of the states are largely ignored, especially reliably Red or Blue states. You’d think that would actually mean that the candidates have to woo a set of centrist states, but it doesn’t work that way… they have to go to the extremes, especially the Republicans (as shown by the Tea Party and Trump), or to drift away from the Progressive view. That is, they have to maintain status quo or play to anxiety and fear.

Some claim that the Electoral College is the last firewall against a poorly-informed or emotionally-manipulated populace. To this, I draw attention to Exhibit A: Donald Trump. The Electoral College holds no succor there.

I have no deep insights about the negative effects of the Electoral College, other than the received wisdom of others who’ve looked at it. But it adds an unnecessary level of abstraction away from democracy, which raises real questions of the legitimacy of governance that we can scarce afford now. We need people to have faith that their voice matters, or they won’t bother to speak out at all.

Voting button with 538 / 2 + 1 = Winner

by Shepazu at November 08, 2016 01:10 AM

November 07, 2016

Reinventing Fire

Phoning It In at the Voting Booth

Among the various controversies and confusions about voting in North Carolina, seemingly designed to impede voters from exercising their franchise, there’s some conventional wisdom about whether or not you can use your mobile phone at the polls.

Poll officials are instructed not to allow a voter to use their mobile phone in any way while in or around the voting area, citing NC General Statute 163 Article 14A. I’m not a lawyer, but my reading of this statute leads me to think this is misguided, wrong, and harmful. This interpretation of NC GS 163 should be challenged in court, since it exerts a chilling effect on voting.

I’ll run through my interpretation and how it applies to a few scenarios. I welcome comments, questions, and corrections.

Rationale for Prohibition

There are two primary reasons given for why mobile phones are not permitted at the polls, explained by Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, in a 2012 WRAL article, “Smartphones not smart at the polls”:

Assistance Clause

Wright claims that it violates §163–165.1 to receive voting advice at the polls:

First, NC Statute 163-165.1 bans voters from receiving assistance at the ballot box except from a close family member or a few other exceptions that require prior arrangement with precinct officials.

NC Statute 163–165.1 says nothing about receiving assistance, and deals only with how ballots are handled:

§ 163-165.1. Scope and general rules.

  • (a) Scope. – This Article shall apply to all elections in this State.
  • (b) Requirements of Official Ballots in Voting. – In any election conducted under this Article:
    • (1) All voting shall be by official ballot.
    • (2) Only votes cast on an official ballot shall be counted.
    • (c) Compliance With This Article. – All ballots shall comply with the provisions of this Article.
    • (d) Other Uses Prohibited. – An official ballot shall not be used for any purpose not authorized by this Article.
    • (e) Voted ballots and paper and electronic records of individual voted ballots shall be treated as confidential, and no person other than elections officials performing their duties may have access to voted ballots or paper or electronic records of individual voted ballots except by court order or order of the appropriate board of elections as part of the resolution of an election protest or investigation of an alleged election irregularity or violation. Voted ballots and paper and electronic records of individual voted ballots shall not be disclosed to members of the public in such a way as to disclose how a particular voter voted, unless a court orders otherwise. Any person who has access to an official voted ballot or record and knowingly discloses in violation of this section how an individual has voted that ballot is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. (2001-460, s. 3; 2002-159, s. 55(o); 2005-323, s. 1(f); 2007-391, s. 9(a).)

This is likely a simple misquote, and Wright probably meant §163–166.8. Wright continued in the article:

Wright says a voter on the phone could be talking or texting with someone working for a campaign. “There’s a presumption that operation of a cell phone in a voting booth is unlawful assistance.”

I’m not sure who is making this presumption, but the term “assistance” is used ambiguously here. “Assistance” could mean:

  1. Help in deciding who to vote for; or
  2. Help in the mechanical operations of voting, such as entering or leaving the polling booth, marking the ballot, or submitting the completed ballot.

The prohibitory interpretation conflates these, but the law itself distinguishes them:

§ 163-166.8. Assistance to voters.

  • (a) Any registered voter qualified to vote in the election shall be entitled to assistance with entering and exiting the voting booth and in preparing ballots in accordance with the following rules:
    • (1) Any voter is entitled to assistance from the voter’s spouse, brother, sister, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, or stepchild, as chosen by the voter.
    • (2) A voter in any of the following four categories is entitled to assistance from a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or an officer or agent of the voter’s union:
      • a. A voter who, on account of physical disability, is unable to enter the voting booth without assistance.
      • b. A voter who, on account of physical disability, is unable to mark a ballot without assistance.
      • c. A voter who, on account of illiteracy, is unable to mark a ballot without assistance.
      • d. A voter who, on account of blindness, is unable to enter the voting booth or mark a ballot without assistance.
  • (c) A person rendering assistance to a voter in an election shall be admitted to the voting booth with the voter being assisted. The State Board of Elections shall promulgate rules governing voter assistance, and those rules shall adhere to the following guidelines:
    • (1) The person rendering assistance shall not in any manner seek to persuade or induce any voter to cast any vote in any particular way.

So, a registered qualified voter may ask for assistance in the mechanical operations of voting (which is good), but the person helping them cannot force or even hint at how the voter should vote (which is also good). As an aside, the law doesn’t impose any expectation that the helper accurately represent the options or record the ballot according to the wishes of the voter, nor offer penalties if the helper doesn’t act in good faith, which seems a glaring omission.

This statute clearly prohibits the operational helper from offering advice, but it doesn’t stipulate that the voter can’t seek advice from anyone of their choosing at any time. I ask my wife for advice on local referenda, or to remind me of my own previous voting decisions. This seems to be allowed under any reasonable circumstance, and by my reading of §163–166.8, should apply even in the voting booth if my wife isn’t also providing me with operational assistance. §163–166.8 clearly applies to the conditions of operational assistance only.

If the NC General Assembly or State Board of Elections wants a different effect, they should pass a more specific law, not loosely interpret §163–166.8.

This means that I should be able to legally use my mobile device to seek advice from anyone I wish, even while in the voting booth. The law doesn’t prohibit me to text someone (but not call, because my conversation could be overheard and interpreted as campaigning), to search the Web, or to consult my own pre-written research which happens to be on my phone (as opposed to a piece of paper). Perhaps there’s some other statute I’m not aware of which prohibits that, but §163–166.8 does not, and shouldn’t be used that way.

Photography Clause

Wright also asserts that it’s illegal for you to photograph your own ballot:

Second, under NC Statute 163-166.3, it’s illegal to take photos of voters or completed ballots, “except with the permission of both the voter and the chief judge of the precinct.”

Banning people from photographing other people’s ballots is just common sense, Wright says. “It’s a violation of the secret ballot.”

If it’s your ballot, why can’t you take a photo of it?  Wright says it’s to partly protect the vote – and partly to protect you.

In another state several years ago, a criminal vote-buying scheme used such photos. Vote-sellers were given cell phones and told to take a picture of their completed ballots to prove they had earned their payment.

“We don’t have a lot of trouble with vote buying in NC,” Wright said. “But we don’t want to encourage it, either.”

He says the ban also protects voters from outside pressure. Several years ago in Italy, Wright says, members of the Mafia were told to bring back photos of their ballots to prove they voted for the candidates supported by their crime syndicate.

Wright says without the photo ban, an unscrupulous employer could exert the same type of pressure here in North Carolina.

This is a legitimate concern, and a plausible rationale. I might differ on whether this is the right solution to the real problem, but I don’t see this as a impediment to the voting process itself.

I’m unable to find a substantive report about vote-buyers passing out mobile phones for vote-sellers to take pictures in some unnamed state, and it makes me uncomfortable that interpretations of laws might rest on hearsay, though there are recently recorded cases of “vote buying” in Kentucky and elsewhere. The Washington Post published a 2012 article, “Selling votes is common type of election fraud” –with prices ranging from a tank of gas or half a pint of liquor all the way up to $800– but noted that “Voter fraud, by any method, is still rare.”

Absentee ballots are a far more reliable way to buy votes than ones cast at the polls. That’s partly because of it does seem to be illegal to photograph your own ballot in North Carolina, as Wright says:

§ 163-166.3. Limited access to the voting enclosure.

  • (b) Photographing Voters Prohibited. – No person shall photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the image of any voter within the voting enclosure, except with the permission of both the voter and the chief judge of the precinct. If the voter is a candidate, only the permission of the voter is required. This subsection shall also apply to one-stop sites under G.S. 163-227.2. This subsection does not apply to cameras used as a regular part of the security of the facility that is a voting place or one-stop site.
  • (c) Photographing Voted Ballot Prohibited. – No person shall photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the image of a voted official ballot for any purpose not otherwise permitted under law. (2001-460, s. 3; 2005-428, s. 1(b); 2007-391, s. 23; 2008-187, s. 33(a).)

If you can’t photograph your ballot, then a prospective vote-buyer can’t verify that you voted the way they wanted (of course, it’s no guarantee anyway: you could simply photograph your ballot with their chosen votes marked on it, then request a replacement ballot that you use to vote the way you actually want).

I’m not sure what “any purpose not otherwise permitted under law” means; what are the permitted purposes for photographing a ballot? I don’t know enough legal convention to track down the references at the end of the clause that might have shed light on that.

So, you can’t use a camera in the “voting enclosure”. Just what is the legal definition of a“voting enclosure”?

Where does this apply?

These voting statues are clear about the locational scoping for these provisions:

§ 163-165. Definitions.

  • (8) “Voting booth” means the private space in which a voter is to mark an official ballot.
  • (9) “Voting enclosure” means the room within the voting place that is used for voting.
  • (10) “Voting place” means the building or area of the building that contains the voting enclosure.

So, the voting enclosure referred to in §163–166.3 refers to the rooms set aside for voting, while the booth itself is where you mark your ballot.

FAQ

Can I take a photo of people intimidating others or otherwise suppressing voters?

Yes! You can take a photo of anyone outside the “voting enclosure”, and since it’s illegal to do campaigning inside or directly around the voting enclosure, or to be inside the voting enclosure except while voting, any photo you take of someone intimidating others in the area outside is legal.

§ 163-166.4. Limitation on activity in the voting place and in a buffer zone around it.

  • (a) Buffer Zone. – No person or group of persons shall hinder access, harass others, distribute campaign literature, place political advertising, solicit votes, or otherwise engage in election-related activity in the voting place or in a buffer zone which shall be prescribed by the county board of elections around the voting place. In determining the dimensions of that buffer zone for each voting place, the county board of elections shall, where practical, set the limit at 50 feet from the door of entrance to the voting place, measured when that door is closed, but in no event shall it set the limit at more than 50 feet or at less than 25 feet.

In fact, taking photos is exactly what you should be doing, to help document any problems for later law suits. There is a meme circulating that advises you to do just that:

Election Protection Hotline: 888-OUR-VOTE | 888-687-8683

I’ve been trained as a non-partisan Voter Protection poll watcher, and I plan to go to a smaller town in NC to help ensure fairness at the polls. I took extra training to help deal with possible organized voter intimidation, and one of the main takeaways was not to confront anyone or try to de-escalate the situation, but simply to document it and call the Election Protection Hotline: 888-OUR-VOTE | 888-687-8683.

So, take photographs of anything suspicious, but protect yourself and be safe.

Caveat: There may be voter suppression happening in the voting enclosure, though we hope it’s rare. The poll workers might not be dealing with it properly, or the intimidation or suppression may be coming from the poll workers themselves (e.g. turning away voters that don’t have photo IDs, not offering provisional ballots, etc.). It’s still illegal for you to photograph incidents of voter suppression inside the voting enclosure! Don’t do it. You can ask names, take notes, or record information in other ways, but you can’t take photographs. Immediately call the Election Protection Hotline (888-OUR-VOTE | 888-687-8683) and report the incident.

Can I take a photo of my completed ballot in North Carolina? Can I post a ballot-selfie on socials?

No. That’s still illegal in North Carolina and many other states. This has been changing in some states, though, so it might also change in North Carolina.

The Washington Post has an up-to-date list of the legal status of taking ballot-photos for all the states.

US map of the legal status of taking ballot photos in all 50 states

Can I use my phone to look up my voting choices?

Yes. There seems to be some gray area here, so you might want to be discreet –getting your vote cast is the most important thing– but this seems to be legal. There have been incidents in NC of poll judges saying this is illegal, or even posting signs saying it’s illegal. I’ve seen this happen myself even in the progressive stronghold of Chapel Hill. I think this is due to bad training of poll officials.

Even though this should be legal, you might be confronted by poll officials telling you to turn off your phone. If this happens, ask them to let you step outside the voting enclosure and write down your voting choices (or prepare a paper list in advance).

This ambiguity is insidious, because it largely targets younger voters, who are more likely to rely on smartphones for this as they do for other tasks, and who are less likely to vote. We should reduce barriers to younger voters, not put up walls against democracy.

Can I use my phone to text others for advice? Can I access voter guides on the Web?

I don’t know. My opinion is that you should be able to, but that’s not a legal opinion, and it’s not based on any reading of any specific statute.

My advice is to get a sample ballot outside while you’re waiting in line (there are likely to be partisans handing these out), and do any phone calls or texts or web browsing for advice before you enter the voting enclosure. This also decreases the wait time for others in line, ensuring everyone has an equal chance to vote.

by Shepazu at November 07, 2016 11:00 PM

November 06, 2016

ishida >> blog

Bicameral scripts

Some more notes for future reference. The following scripts in Unicode 9.0 have both upper and lower case characters.

In modern use

Latin
Greek
Cyrillic
Armenian
Cherokee
Adlam

Limited modern use

Coptic
Warang Citi
Old Hungarian
Osage

No longer used

Georgian*
Glagolitic
Deseret

I include characters used for phonetic transcriptions in Latin.

There are also case correspondences in the following Unicode blocks: Number Forms, Enclosed Alphanumerics, Alphabetic Presentation Forms, Halfwidth and Fullwidth Forms. Mathematical Alphanumeric Symbols also has both upper and lower case forms, but they are not convertible, one to the other.

Georgian is a little special. Modern Georgian is unicameral. An attempt was made to write it in a bicameral way in the 1950s, but it didn’t catch on.

See also the list of Right-to-left scripts.

by r12a at November 06, 2016 05:40 PM

October 23, 2016

ishida >> blog

New app, Pinyin phonetics

Picture of the page in action.

A new Pinyin phonetics web app is now available. As you type Hanyu pinyin in the top box, a phonetic transcription appears in the lower box.

I put this app together to help me get closer to the correct pronunciation of names of people, cities, etc. that I come across while reading about Chinese history. There was often some combination of letters that I couldn’t quite remember how to pronounce.

It’s not intended to be perfect, though I think it’s pretty good overall. It works with input whether or not it has tonal accents. If you can suggest improvements, please raise a github issue.

See the notes file for a description of the less obvious phonetic symbols.

In case you want something to play with, here’s the text in the picture: Dìzào zhēnzhèng quánqiú tōngxíng de wànwéiwǎng. It means “Making the World Wide Web truly worldwide”, and the Han version is 缔造真正全球通行的万维网.

by r12a at October 23, 2016 05:23 PM

September 30, 2016

ishida >> blog

Timeline: 16 Kingdoms period

This shows the durations of dynasties and kingdoms of China during the period known as the 16 Kingdoms. Click on the image below to see an interactive version with a guide that follows your cursor and indicates the year.

Chart of timelines

See a map of territories around 409 CE. The dates and ethnic data are from Wikipedia.

Update 2016-10-03: I found it easier to work with the chart if the kingdoms are grouped by name/proximity, so changed the default to that. You can, however, still access the strictly chronological version.

by r12a at September 30, 2016 09:59 PM

September 16, 2016

ishida >> blog

New Persian character picker

Picture of the page in action.

A new Persian Character Picker web app is now available. The picker allows you to produce or analyse runs of Persian text using the Arabic script. Character pickers are especially useful for people who don’t know a script well, as characters are displayed in ways that aid identification.

The picker is able to produce UN transcriptions of the text in the box. The transcription appears just below the input box, where you can copy it, move it into the input box at the caret, or delete it. In order to obtain a full transcription it is necessary to add short vowel diactritics to places that could have more than one pronunciation, but the picker can work out the vowels needed for many letter combinations.

See the help file for more information.

by r12a at September 16, 2016 06:26 AM

September 14, 2016

ishida >> blog

Timeline: 5 dynasties & 10 kingdoms

This shows the durations of dynasties and kingdoms of China in the 900s. Click on the image below to see an interactive version that shows a guide that follows your cursor and indicates the year.

Chart of timelines

See a map of territories around 944 CE.

by r12a at September 14, 2016 08:54 AM

September 07, 2016

ishida >> blog

Notes on case conversion

Examples of case conversion.

These are notes culled from various places. There may well be some copy-pasting involved, but I did it long enough ago that I no longer remember all the sources. But these are notes, it’s not an article.

Case conversions are not always possible in Unicode by applying an offset to a codepoint, although this can work for the ASCII range by adding 32, or by adding 1 for many other characters in the Latin extensions. There are many cases where the corresponding cased character is in another block, or in an irregularly offset location.

In addition, there are linguistic issues that mean that simple mappings of one character to another are not sufficient for case conversion.

In German, the uppercase of ß is SS. German and Greek cannot, however, be easily transformed from upper to lower case: German because SS could be converted either to ß or ss, depending on the word; Greek because all tonos marks are omitted in upper case, eg. does ΑΘΗΝΑ convert to Αθηνά (the goddess) or Αθήνα (capital of Greece)? German may also uppercase ß to ẞ sometimes for things like signboards.

Also Greek converts uppercase sigma to either a final or non-final form, depending on the position in a word, eg. ΟΔΥΣΣΕΥΣ becomes οδυσσευς. This contextual difference is easy to manage, however, compared to the lexical issues in the previous paragraph.

In Serbo-Croatian there is an important distinction between uppercase and titlecase. The single letter dž converts to DŽ when the whole word is uppercased, but Dž when titlecased. Both of these forms revert to dž in lowercase, so there is no ambiguity here.

In Dutch, the titlecase of ijsvogel is IJsvogel, ie. which commonly means that the first two letters have to be titlecased. There is a single character IJ (U+0132 LATIN CAPITAL LIGATURE IJ) in Unicode that will behave as expected, but this single character is very often not available on a keyboard, and so the word is commonly written with the two letters I+J.

In Greek, tonos diacritics are dropped during uppercasing, but not dialytika. Greek diphthongs with tonos over the first vowel are converted during uppercasing to no tonos but a dialytika over the second vowel in the diphthong, eg. Νεράιδα becomes ΝΕΡΑΪΔΑ. A letter with both tonos and dialytika above drops the tonos but keeps the dialytika, eg. ευφυΐα becomes ΕΥΦΥΪΑ. Also, contrary to the initial rule mentioned here, Greek does not drop the tonos on the disjunctive eta (usually meaning ‘or’), eg. ήσουν ή εγώ ή εσύ becomes ΗΣΟΥΝ Ή ΕΓΩ Ή ΕΣΥ (note that the initial eta is not disjunctive, and so does drop the tonos). This is to maintain the distinction between ‘either/or’ ή from the η feminine form of the article, in the nominative case, singular number.

Greek titlecased vowels, ie. a vowel at the start of a word that is uppercased, retains its tonos accent, eg. Όμηρος.

Turkish, Azeri, Tatar and Bashkir pair dotted and undotted i’s, which requires special handling for case conversion, that is language-specific. For example, the name of the second largest city in Turkey is “Diyarbakır”, which contains both the dotted and dotless letters i. When rendered into upper case, this word appears like this: DİYARBAKIR.

Lithuanian also has language-specific rules that retain the dot over i when combined with accents, eg. i̇̀ i̇́ i̇̃, whereas the capital I has no dot.

Sometimes European French omits accents from uppercase letters, whereas French Canadian typically does not. However, this is more of a stylistic than a linguistic rule. Sometimes French people uppercase œ to OE, but this is mostly due to issues with lack of keyboard support, it seems (as is the issue with French accents).

Capitalisation may ignore leading symbols and punctuation for a word, and titlecase the first casing letter. This applies not only to non-letters. A letter such as the (non-casing version of the) glottal stop, ʔ, may be ignored at the start of a word, and the following letter titlecased, in IPA or Americanist phonetic transcriptions. (Note that, to avoid confusion, there are separate case paired characters available for use in orthographies such as Chipewyan, Dogrib and Slavey. These are Ɂ and ɂ.)

Another issue for titlecasing is that not all words in a sequence are necessarily titlecased. German uses capital letters to start noun words, but not verbs or adjectives. French and Italian may expect to titlecase the ‘A’ in “L’Action”, since that is the start of a word. In English, it is common not to titlecase words like ‘for’, ‘of’, ‘the’ and so forth in titles.

Unicode provides only algorithms for generic case conversion and case folding. CLDR provides some more detail, though it is hard to programmatically achieve all the requirements for case conversion.

Case folding is a way of converting to a standard sequence of (lowercase) characters that can be used for comparisons of strings. (Note that this sequence may not represent normal lowercase text: for example, both the uppercase Greek sigma and lowercase final sigma are converted to a normal sigma, and the German ß is converted to ‘ss’.) There are also different flavours of case folding available: common, full, and simple.

by r12a at September 07, 2016 04:03 PM

August 30, 2016

ishida >> blog

Language subtag tool now links to Wikipedia

The language subtag lookup tool now has links to Wikipedia search for all languages and scripts listed. This helps for finding information about languages, now that SIL limits access to their Ethnologue, and offers a new source of information for the scripts listed.

Picture of the page in action.

by r12a at August 30, 2016 10:38 AM

August 25, 2016

ishida >> blog

Right-to-left scripts

These are just some notes for future reference. The following scripts in Unicode 9.0 are normally written from right to left.

Scripts containing characters with the property ARABIC RIGHT-to-LEFT have an asterisk. The remaining scripts have characters with the property RIGHT:

In modern use

Adlam
Arabic *
Hebrew
Nko
Syriac *
Thaana *

Limited modern use

Mende Kikakui (small numbers)
Old Hungarian
Samaritan (religious)

Archaic

Avestan
Cypriot
Hatran
Imperial Aramaic
Kharoshthi
Lydian
Manichaean
Meroitic
Mandaic
Nabataean
Old South Arabian
Old North Arabian
Old Turkic
Pahlavi, (Inscriptional)
Palmyrene
Parthian, (Inscriptional)
Pheonician

See also the list of bicameral scripts.

by r12a at August 25, 2016 07:32 PM

August 17, 2016

Reinventing Fire

Topic of Cancer

I’m now officially a cancer survivor! Achievement unlocked!

A couple weeks ago, on July 27th, during a routine colonoscopy, they found a mass in my ascending colon which turned out to have some cancer cells.

I immediately went to UNC Hospital, a world-class local teaching hospital, and they did a CT scan on me. There are no signs that the cancer has spread. I was asymptomatic, so they caught it very early. The only reason I did the colonoscopy is that there’s a history of colon cancer in my family.

Yesterday, I had surgery to remove my ascending colon (an operation they call a “right colectomy”). They used a robot (named da Vinci!) operated by their chief GI oncology surgeon, and made 5 small incisions: 4 on the left side of my belly to cut out that part of the right colon; and a slightly larger one below my belly to remove the tissue (ruining my bikini line).

Everything went fine (I made sure in advance that this was a good robot and not a killer robot that might pull a gun on me), and I’m recovering well. I walked three times today so far, and even drank some clear liquids. I’ll probably be back on my feet and at home sometime this weekend. Visitors are welcome!

There are very few long-term negative effects from this surgery, if any.

They still don’t know for certain what stage the cancer was at, or if it’s spread to my lymph nodes; they’ll be doing a biopsy on my removed colon and lymph nodes to determine if I have to do chemotherapy. As of right now, they are optimistic that it has not spread, and even if it has, the chemo for this kind of cancer is typically pretty mild. If it hasn’t spread (or “metastasized”), then I’m already cured by having the tumor removed. In either case, I’m going to recover quickly.

My Dad had colon cancer, and came through fine. My eldest sister also had colon cancer over a decade ago, and it had even metastasized, and her chemo went fine… and cancer treatments have greatly improved in the past few years.

So, nobody should worry. I didn’t mention it widely, because I didn’t want to cause needless grief to anyone until after the operation was done. Cancer is such a scary word, and I don’t think this is going to be as serious as it might otherwise sound.

I’ll be seeing a geneticist in the coming weeks to determine exactly what signature of cancer I have, so I know what I’m dealing with. And I want to give more information to my family, because this runs in our genes, and if I’d gotten a colonoscopy a few years ago, they could have removed the polyp in the early stages and I’d have never developed cancer. (And because I’m otherwise healthy, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the colonoscopy if I hadn’t had insurance, which I probably wouldn’t have had if Obamacare didn’t mandate it. Thanks, Obama!)

Yay, science!

Future Plans

So, the cliché here is for me to say that this has opened my eyes to the ephemerality and immediacy of life, and that I’m planning to make major decisions in my life that prioritize what I truly value, based on my experience with cancer.

But the fact is, I’ve already been doing that recently, and while the cancer underscores this, I’ve already been making big plans for the future. I’ll post soon about some exciting new projects I’m trying to get underway, things that are far outside my comfort zone for which I’ll need to transform myself (you know, in a not-cancerous sort of way). I’ve already reduced my hours at W3C to 50%, and I’m looking at changing my role and remaining time there; I love the mission of W3C, which I see as a valuable kind of public service, so no matter what, I’ll probably stay involved there in some capacity for the foreseeable future. But I feel myself pulled toward building software and social systems, not just specifications. Stay tuned for more soon!

I’m optimistic and excited, not just about leaving behind this roadbump of cancer, but of new possibilities and new missions to change the world for the better in my own small ways.

Update:

Today (Friday, 26 August), I got the results of my biopsy from my oncologist, and I’m pleased to announce that I have no more colon cancer! The results were that the cancer was “well-differentiated, no activity in lymph nodes”, meaning that there was no metastasis, and I’m cured. This whole “adventure” emerged, played out, and concluded in just a month: I heard there was a tumor, was diagnosed with cancer, consulted an oncologist, had surgery, recovered, and got my cancer-free results all in 30 days. It felt much longer!

by Shepazu at August 17, 2016 08:39 PM

August 08, 2016

Reinventing Fire

In Praise of HB2

North Carolina House Bill 2 (aka, “HB2”, or the “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act”, or simply “the Bathroom Bill”), which  among other things prohibits transgender people from using the bathroom designated to the sex of their identity, is going to force another step forward in civil liberties.

Four years ago, in the 2012 gubernatorial election season, the North Carolina General Assembly, controlled by Republicans, passed North Carolina Amendment 1 (aka, “SB514”, or “An Act to Amend the Constitution to Provide That Marriage Between One Man and One Woman is the Only Domestic Legal Union That Shall Be Valid or Recognized in This State”), which called for a public referendum on the issue of constitutionally banning same-sex marriage.

From its inception, this bill was doomed to have no long-term relevance; it was cast in the mold of the polemical 2008 California Proposition 8. Already, the battle lines were being drawn for the national legalization of same-sex marriage: the military’s restrictive “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had been repealed, and the Department of Defense was permitting military chaplains to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies; President Obama had announced his support for marriage equality; challenges to Prop 8 were wending their way to the Supreme Court; and public polling indicated that a slender-but-growing majority of Americans approved of same-sex marriage. Predictably, in July 2014, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned an equivalent bill in Virginia, declaring it unconstitutional, thus nullifying NC’s Amendment 1. Why did NC legislators waste so much time, money, and energy on a bill they had to know wouldn’t last?

Because this was about more than just the bill itself. It was a dog whistle, or maybe a bullhorn, to rally conservatives around the state to come to the polls. A well-funded campaign of anti-marriage-equality groups spread across rural NC, especially conservative Christian groups, from the famous evangelical pastor Reverend Billy Graham, to two NC Roman Catholic bishops, to the Christian-funded Vote for Marriage NC, to the pulpit activism of ministers around the state. The message wasn’t just “vote for Amendment 1”, it was “vote for conservatives”; Representative Mark Hilton (R-Catawba) said, “One of the issues [conservative groups] have come to me about is the marriage amendment. It’s important to the conservative groups that we get this passed this year because they need that to be able to get their ground game working to get the maximum effect to get out the vote.” It was a heavily divisive issue, one that played to the deepest emotions of conservatives, and the public debate energized the voters, and helped usher in a new conservative Republican governor, Pat McCrory, after 20 years of fairly progressive Democratic governors (and a longer history of less-progressive Democratic governors before that).

So, is it really a coincidence that 4 years later, in the 2016 gubernatorial election season, the North Carolina General Assembly, controlled by Republicans, passed a bill that limits the rights of a gender minority? Or that some of them are calling for a public referendum? Or that they diverted $500K from the state’s Emergency Response and Disaster Relief fund to defend the fore-doomed HB2 in court against the U.S. Department of Justice, maintaining the controversy and the press for the next several months until the November election? I don’t think it will have the saving grace for Pat McCrory that it did last time, however; it’s already cost the state millions of dollars in revenue, and it’s made us an international laughing-stock.

Like Amendment 1 before it, HB2 is destined to be overturned, a footnote in history. But in the meantime, it’s causing real harm to real people; phone calls to Trans Lifeline, the nonprofit transgender crisis hotline, doubled after the passage of HB2; and some bigots feel emboldened to mock or even harm transgender people in the name of this law. This must have been profoundly disappointing for the human rights activists in Charlotte who’ve spent years working to make NC more inclusive, and who scored a victory with the Charlotte City Council with the passage of Charlotte Ordinance 7056 (aka, “An Ordinance Amending Chapter 2 of the Charlotte City Code Entitled “Administration”, Chapter 12 Entitled “Human Relations”, and Chapter 22 Entitled “Vehicles for Hire””), only to have it struck down at the state level by HB2. So, why am I praising HB2, rather than Charlotte Ordinance 7056?

Because, as good as the intention was behind Charlotte Ordinance 7056, if left unopposed, it would have had minor and purely local effect, rather than the transformative societal effect of HB2.

California’s Prop 8, banning same-sex marriage, was the critical event that made same-sex marriage legal across the entire US, in three notable ways:

  1. The public debate forced people to form an opinion on the issue, and when pressed on it, most people decided that either they were in support of marriage equality or that it simply wasn’t their business to dictate what other adults did;
  2. It inspired contrary legislation in several other states, legalizing same-sex marriage there;
  3. It forced the issue to be resolved in the courts, rather than the timid Congress.

Federal laws are made in two ways in the USA; either they are enacted by Congress; or they are decided as interpretations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court (or its lower district courts). Though same-sex marriage was trending upward in favorability among Americans, it would likely have been decades before Congress would have acted on that; members of Congress are too afraid of strong action on contentious issues, lest it endanger their reelection; and no single party is likely to have a clear mandate to act unilaterally for the next several elections. (A cynical view might assert that controversial issues –like same-sex marriage, gun control, health care, and abortion– are kept unresolved so the parties have strong, emotional differentiators to garner voters, but I prefer to ascribe it to simple inability.) So, the courts brought in marriage equality at least a decade, and probably much longer, than would have been possible from Congress. And this has been a huge step forward in civil rights, positively affecting hundreds of thousands of lives, and giving millions of people their dignity.

And these laws do more than just determine how people are treated by the government. They set a normative expectation among the public. Same-sex marriage is enjoying more popular support now not only because the law reflects how people feel… people feel differently because of the law itself. At their best, laws are a reflection and reinforcement and declaration of shared social values.

So ask yourself, and be honest: Were you concerned about the rights of transgender people a year ago? Were you inspired to march in the streets, attend rallies, or even post on social media about it?

I wasn’t. Sure, if you’d asked me, I would have said truthfully that I thought transgender people should have the same rights as others. But I wouldn’t have felt that strongly about it.

And then HB2 happened. In my state. And I was forced to form an opinion.

And I took to the streets.

Because, who are we, as a state? Who am I, as a citizen? I’ll tell you, clearly, in the face of legal claims by representatives of my state government: “We are not this.”

We are not punching down. We are not petty. We are not oppressive. We are not exclusionary.

Still, if same-sex marriage was yet decades away, how long in the future were transgender rights? How many years and how many lives until we cared?

But now, around the country, around the world, people are defiantly defining themselves by what they are not, on an issue that had not even been on their radar: “We are not this.”

I may not know much about law, but I know what I don’t like.

“We are not this.”

I can’t predict if HB2, this bigoted bill, will help conservatives maintain control of the North Carolina state government for another term. But I do know its one inevitable effect: however hurtful it will be for transgender people in its short life, and though some of those affected may not live to see the long-term benefits, it will give transgender people their legal dignity ever after.

So, self-styled “social conservatives”, keep bringing us hateful, hurtful laws. Keep pushing against the tide of history. Keep forcing us to form an opinion. Please.

by Shepazu at August 08, 2016 04:20 AM

June 28, 2016

ishida >> blog

Unicode Converter v8

Picture of the page in action.

An updated version of the Unicode Character Converter web app is now available. This app allows you to convert characters between various different formats and notations.

Significant changes include the following:

  • It’s now possible to generate EcmaScript6 style escapes for supplementary characters in the JavaScript output field, eg. \u{10398} rather than \uD800\uDF98.
  • In many cases, clicking on a checkbox option now applies the change straight away if there is content in the associated output field. (There are 4 output fields where this doesn’t happen because we aren’t dealing with escapes and there are problems with spaces and delimiters.)
  • By default, the JavaScript output no longer escapes the ASCII characters that can be represented by \n, \r, \t, \’ and \”. A new checkbox is provided to force those transformations if needed. This should make the JS transform much more useful for general conversions.
  • The code to transform to HTML/XML can now replace RLI, LRI, FSI and PDI if the Convert bidi controls to HTML markup option is set.
  • The code to transform to HTML/XML can convert many more invisible or ambiguous characters to escapes if the Escape invisible characters option is set.
  • UTF-16 code points are all at least 4 digits long.
  • Fixed a bug related to U+00A0 when converting to HTML/XML.
  • The order of the output fields was changed, and various small improvements were made to the user interface.
  • Revamped and updated the notes

Many thanks to the people who wrote in with suggestions.

by r12a at June 28, 2016 04:50 PM

June 21, 2016

ishida >> blog

UniView 9.0.0 available

Picture of the page in action.

UniView now supports Unicode version 9, which is being released today, including all changes made during the beta period. (As before, images are not available for the Tangut additions, but the character information is available.)

This version of UniView also introduces a new filter feature. Below each block or range of characters is a set of links that allows you to quickly highlight characters with the property letter, mark, number, punctuation, or symbol. For more fine-grained property distinctions, see the Filter panel.

In addition, for some blocks there are other links available that reflect tags assigned to characters. This tagging is far from exhaustive! For instance, clicking on sanskrit will not show all characters used in Sanskrit.

The tags are just intended to be an aid to help you find certain characters quickly by exposing words that appear in the character descriptions or block subsection titles. For example, if you want to find the Bengali currency symbol while viewing the Bengali block, click on currency and all other characters but those related to currency will be dimmed.

(Since the highlight function is used for this, don’t forget that, if you happen to highlight a useful subset of characters and want to work with just those, you can use the Make list from highlights command, or click on the upwards pointing arrow icon below the text area to move those characters into the text area.)

by r12a at June 21, 2016 07:39 PM

March 25, 2016

ishida >> blog

Historical maps of Europe, 362-830 AD

Picture of the page in action.
>> See the chronology
>> See the maps

This blog post introduces the first of a set of historical maps of Europe that can be displayed at the same scale so that you can compare political or ethnographic boundaries from one time to the next. The first set covers the period from 362 AD to 830 AD.

A key aim here is to allow you to switch from map to map and see how boundaries evolve across an unchanging background.

The information in the maps is derived mostly from information in Colin McEvedy’s excellent series of books, in particular (so far) The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, but also sometimes brings in information from the Times History of Europe. Boundaries are approximate for a number of reasons: first, in the earlier times especially, the borders were only approximate anyway, second, I have deduced the boundary information from small-scale maps and (so far) only a little additional research, third, the sources sometimes differ about where boundaries lay. I hope to refine the data during future research, in the meantime take this information as grosso modo.

The link below the picture takes you to a chronological summary of events that lie behind the changes in the maps. Click on the large dates to open maps in a separate window. (Note that all maps will open in that window, and you may have to ensure that it isn’t hidden behind the chronology page.)

The background to the SVG overlay is a map that shows relief and rivers, as well as modern country boundaries (the dark lines). These were things which, as good as McEvedy’s maps were, I was always missing in order to get useful reference points. Since the outlines and text are created in SVG, you can zoom in to see details.

This is just the first stage, and the maps are still largely first drafts. The plan is to refine the details for existing maps and add many more. So far we only deal with Europe. In the future I’d like to deal with other places, if I can find sources.

by r12a at March 25, 2016 11:37 AM

March 19, 2016

ishida >> blog

UniView now supports Unicode 9 beta

Picture of the page in action.

UniView now supports the characters introduced for the beta version of Unicode 9. Any changes made during the beta period will be added when Unicode 9 is officially released. (Images are not available for the Tangut additions, but the character information is available.)

It also brings in notes for individual characters where those notes exist, if Show notes is selected. These notes are not authoritative, but are provided in case they prove useful.

A new icon was added below the text area to add commas between each character in the text area.

Links to the help page that used to appear on mousing over a control have been removed. Instead there is a noticeable, blue link to the help page, and the help page has been reorganised and uses image maps so that it is easier to find information. The reorganisation puts more emphasis on learning by exploration, rather than learning by reading.

Various tweaks were made to the user interface.

by r12a at March 19, 2016 10:22 PM

March 07, 2016

ishida >> blog

More updates for the Egyptian hieroglyph picker

Picture of the page in action.

I’ve been doing more work on the Egyptian Hieroglyph picker over the weekend.

The data behind the keyword search has now been completely updated to reflect descriptions by Gardiner and Allen. If you work with those lists it should now be easy to locate hieroglyphs using keywords. The search mechanism has also been rewritten so that you don’t need to type keywords in a particular order for them to match. I also strip out various common function words and do some other optimisation before attempting a match.

The other headline news is the addition of various controls above the text area, including one that will render MdC text as a two-dimensional arrangement of hieroglyphs. To do this, I adapted WikiHiero’s PHP code to run in javascript. You can see an example of the output in the picture attached to this post. If you want to try it, the MdC text to put in the text area is:
anx-G5-zmA:tA:tA-nbty-zmA:tA:tA-sw:t-bit:t- -zA-ra:.-mn:n-T:w-Htp:t*p->-anx-D:t:N17-!

The result should look like this:

Picture of hieroglyphs.

Other new controls allow you to convert MdC text to hieroglyphs, and vice versa, or to type in a Unicode phonetic transcription and find the hieroglyphs it represents. (This may still need a little more work.)

I also moved the help text from the notes area to a separate file, with a nice clickable picture of the picker at the top that will link to particular features. You can get to that page by clicking on the blue Help box near the bottom of the picker.

Finally, you can now set the text area to display characters from right to left, in right-aligned lines, using more controls > Output direction. Unfortunately, i don’t know of a font that under these conditions will flip the hieroglyphs horizontally so that they face the right way.

For more information about the new features, and how to use the picker, see the Help page.

by r12a at March 07, 2016 11:21 AM

February 29, 2016

ishida >> blog

Egyptian hieroglyph picker updated

Picture of the page in action.
>> Use the picker

Over the weekend I added a set of new features to the picker for Egyptian Hieroglyphs, aimed at making it easier to locate a particular hieroglyph. Here is a run-down of various methods now available.

Category-based input

This was the original method. Characters are grouped into standard categories. Click on one of the orange characters, chosen as a nominal representative of the class, to show below all the characters in that category. Click on one of those to add it to the output box. As you mouse over the orange characters, you’ll see the name of the category appear just below the output box.

Keyword-search-based input

The app associates most hieroglyphs with keywords that describe the glyph. You can search for glyphs using those keywords in the input field labelled Search for.

Searching for ripple will match both ripple and ripples. Searching for king will match king and walking. If you want to only match whole words, surround the search term with colons, ie. :ripple: or :king:.

Note that the keywords are written in British English, so you need to look for sceptre rather than scepter.

The search input is treated as a regular expression, so if you want to search for two words that may have other words between them, use .*. For example, ox .* palm will match ox horns with stripped palm branch.

Many of the hieroglyphs have also been associated with keywords related to their use. If you select Include usage, these keywords will also be selected. Note that this keyword list is not exhaustive by any means, but it may occasionally be useful. For example, a search for Anubis will produce 𓁢 𓃢 𓃣 𓃤 .

(Note: to search for a character based on the Unicode name for that character, eg. w004, use the search box in the yellow area.)

Searching for pronunciations

Many of the hieroglyphs are associated with 1, 2 or 3 consonant pronunciations. These can be looked up as follows.

Type the sequence of consonants into the output box and highlight them. Then click on Look up from Latin. Hieroglyphs that match that character or sequence of characters will be displayed below the output box, and can be added to the output box by clicking on them. (Note that if you still have the search string highlighted in the output box those characters will be replaced by the hieroglyph.)

You will find the panel Latin characters useful for typing characters that are not accessible via your keyboard. The panel is displayed by clicking on the higher L in the grey bar to the left. Click on a character to add it to the output area.

For example, if you want to obtain the hieroglyph 𓎝, which is represented by the 3-character sequence wꜣḥ, add wꜣḥ to the output area and select it. Then click on Latin characters. You will see the character you need just above the SPACE button. Click on that hieroglyph and it will replace the wꜣḥ text in the output area. (Unhighlight the text in the output area if you want to keep both and add the hierglyph at the cursor position.)

Input panels accessed from the vertical grey bar

The vertical grey bar to the left allows you to turn on/off a number of panels that can help create the text you want.

Latin characters. This panel displays Latin characters you are likely to need for transcription. It is particularly useful for setting up a search by pronunciation (see above).

Latin to Egyptian. This panel also displays Latin characters used for transcription, but when you click on them they insert hieroglyphs into the output area. These are 24 hieroglyphs represented by a single consonant. Think of it as a shortcut if you want to find 1-consonant hieroglyphs by pronunciation.

Where a single consonant can be represented by more than one hieroglyph, a small pop-up will present you with the available choices. Just click on the one you want.

Egyptian alphabet. This panel displays the 26 hieroglyphs that the previous panel produces as hieroglyphs. In many cases this is the quickest way of typing in these hieroglyphs.

by r12a at February 29, 2016 12:45 PM

February 25, 2016

ishida >> blog

New picker: Egyptian hieroglyphs

Picture of the page in action.
>> Use the picker

I have just published a picker for Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

This Unicode character picker allows you to produce or analyse runs of Egyptian Hieroglyph text using the Latin script.

Characters are grouped into standard categories. Click on one of the orange characters, chosen as a nominal representative of the class, to show below all the characters in that category. Click on one of those to add it to the output box. As you mouse over the orange characters, you’ll see the name of the category appear just below the output box.

Just above the orange characters you can find buttons to insert RLO and PDF controls. RLO will make the characters that follow it to progress from right to left. Alternatively, you can select more controls > Output direction to set the direction of the output box to RTL/LTR override. The latter approach will align the text to the right of the box. I haven’t yet found a Unicode font that also flips the glyphs horizontally as a result. I’m not entirely sure about the best way to apply directionality to Egyptian hieroglyphs, so I’m happy to hear suggestions.

Alongside the direction controls are some characters used for markup in the Manuel de Codage, which allows you to prepare text for an engine that knows how to lay it out two-dimensionally. (The picker doesn’t do that.)

The Latin Characters panel, opened from the grey bar to the left, provides characters needed for transcription.

In case you’re interested, here is the text you can see in the picture. (You’ll need a font to see this, of course. Try the free Noto Sans font, if you don’t have one – or copy-paste these lines into the picker, where you have a webfont.)
𓀀𓅃𓆣𓁿
<-i-mn:n-R4:t*p->
𓍹𓇋-𓏠:𓈖-𓊵:𓏏*𓊪𓍺

The last two lines spell the name of Amenhotep using Manuel de Codage markup, according to the Unicode Standard (p 432).

by r12a at February 25, 2016 05:43 PM

February 14, 2016

Reinventing Fire

Justice in the End

Some of my international friends have asked what the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia means for America, for our process, and for the election. I couldn’t fit it into a tweet, so I thought I’d share my understanding and opinions here. I don’t have any great insights or expertise, but I hope this is useful for those who haven’t delved into the peculiarities of US government and law.

The death of Justice Scalia leaves a seat open in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), the third branch of government (the Judicial branch); the other two branches are Congress (the Legislative branch, comprised of the House and Senate), and the Presidency (the Executive branch).

The Supreme Court has 9 Justices, appointed for life. This means that whomever is appointed as a replacement for Scalia will likely affect the tone of American justice for decades after the President who appointed them has left. Scalia was appointed in 1986, by President Reagan, and has been a consistently conservative voice for 30 years, frequently writing scathing and sarcastic dissenting opinions (“minority reports”) for decisions he did not agree with, including the legalization of same-sex marriage, Obamacare, women’s rights to abortion, civil rights, and many other progressive issues. Though he was intelligent, witty, and well-versed in the law, he was not kind in his judgments.

When Scalia was alive, the Supreme Court was almost evenly split between conservatives and progressives, with Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia on the strongly conservative side, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor on the moderate to strongly progressive side; the deciding vote has usually been the generally fair-minded, moderately conservative Anthony Kennedy. The death of Justice Scalia changes that balance. It’s expected that President Obama would nominate a progressive as Scalia’s replacement, and though he hasn’t yet named a candidate, conservative politicians have already attempted to block Obama’s appointment (in the true spirit of ♫whatever it is, I’m against it♫ ), leaving it to the next President to decide.

The Justices of the Supreme Court

It’s the duty and right of the sitting President to name replacement nominees to the Supreme Court (and Obama does intend to do so), and the duty and right of the Senate (not all of Congress) to approve these nominations. This has been highly politicized in the past few years, with more and more attempts by both conservatives and (to a lesser extent) progressives to block Supreme Court appointments, drawing out the debate, so there’s some wisdom in nominating a moderate Justice, in hopes of a speedy and non-contentious approval by the Senate. Notably, the nominee doesn’t have to be a current judge, or even a lawyer, but in reality, the Senate would be unlikely to approve anyone who isn’t a law professional (with good reason).

The nominee must get a simple majority in the Senate; currently, with 2 Senators from each of the 50 States, that means 51 approval votes.

The Republicans control the Senate, with 54 senators; the Democrats have only 44 senators; Independents make up the balance, with 2 senators (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine), who typically vote with the Democrats. While there are a few conservative Democratic senators, it’s likely that all Democratic and Independent senators will vote to appoint Obama’s nominee, whomever that might be. That’s only 46 votes, meaning at least 4 Republican senators will need to cross party lines to vote for the appointee… in an election year. That could be a tough sell for Obama.

But Obama has 342 days left in office, and the longest Supreme Court confirmation process, from nomination to resolution, was 125 days, back in 1916, when nominee Louis Brandeis “frightened the Establishment” by being “a militant crusader for social justice”. (Thanks, Rachel Schnepper!) In today’s sharply divided and fractured political system, I expect that we will set a new record for how long it takes to confirm a Supreme Court Justice, if it happens in the Obama administration at all.

If you did the math, you’ll have noticed that 46 + 4 = 50, not 51; luckily, if there’s a split vote in the Senate, the Vice President casts the deciding vote, and Joe Biden is closely aligned with President Obama.

If Obama can’t get the votes he needs for his nominee (a real possibility), he could wait until Congress adjourns for the year, and make a recess appointment, meaning a judicial selection while Congress is not in session; but this appointment would be temporary, less than 2 years, and the next President would certainly be the one to make the permanent appointment.

I’m reasonably confident (though not certain) that the next Supreme Court Justice will be a progressive, and will be appointed by President Obama, not the next President. But that wouldn’t mean that the implications of this for the 2016 Presidential election are any less notable! Other Justices (including the beloved Notorious RBG and “Swing Vote” Kennedy) may step down or even die during the term of the next President, meaning that the balance might shift yet again. We can’t ignore the fact that Bernie Sanders, a sitting Independent senator, will have a vote in the current Supreme Court nomination, while Hillary won’t, which will likely raise Bernie’s profile (for good or ill). And while the nomination process is underway, all the candidates will talk about who they’d appoint to the Supreme Court (keeping in mind that Obama probably doesn’t want the job), though I dearly hope they don’t get the chance. Finally, there’s the tiny chance that in a close race, the Supreme Court may decide who the next President is…

The Impact of the Supreme Court

It’s easy to underestimate the power the Supreme Court has on America’s domestic policy, and on people’s lives. What is legal or not is often (perhaps usually) decided not by Congress (the Legislative branch, which drafts, proposes, and votes on new federal laws) or the President (the Executive branch, which approves, implements, enforces, and administers those federal laws), but by the Supreme Court (the Judicial branch, which decides if federal laws adhere to the Constitution, and which acts as the final say on the application of federal laws, and on how state laws are affected by federal laws and the Constitution).

Some landmark policies that the average person associates generally with the US government were specifically decided by the Supreme Court:

  • the legality of a woman’s right to abortion (in the famous court case Roe v Wade)
  • whether states had the right to keep their schools segregated between black students and white students (and much earlier, whether African American slaves were entitled to citizenship)
  • whether same-sex couples can get married (and earlier, whether interracial couples could get married)
  • whether there is any limit on how much money a corporation or union can spend in elections (under the aegis of free speech)
  • the legality of some aspects of Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act), which determined if the law as a whole could be implemented
  • whether Florida could recount the ballots in the contested 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore (though this is a rare instance… that usually doesn’t happen)

Some of these are issues that could have specific federal laws about them, but which Congress did not address. For example, Congress has never made a federal law that makes same-sex marriage legal, and it probably would have been decades before that would ever have happened, if it ever did (politicians typically play it safe, because they have to try to get re-elected); but based on the Supreme Court’s hearing of lower (state and district) courts’ rulings on state laws to determine if state laws were legal through the lens of the federal Constitution, and on the Supreme Court’s decision around some federal laws, it became legal for same-sex couples to get married. Congress could still make a law on this, one way or another, to settle details or try to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision (for example, by changing the Constitution itself), but for the foreseeable future, the Supreme court made same-sex marriage legal in every state of the Union, and has all the federal benefits of marriage.

The Supreme Court decides which cases it will try. On average, SCOTUS tries 60-75 oral arguments (what we think of as a court case) per year, and reviews another 50-60 more cases on paper.

Every year, tens of millions of civil and criminal court cases are tried in US state courts; hundreds of thousands of those decisions are appealed to a higher state court; tens of thousands of those are appealed to a federal district court, if the matter is applicable to federal law rather than state law, and district courts are further organized into 11 federal circuits; thousands of these cases are appealed to the Supreme Court, of which they accept a mere 1–2%. In addition, there are court cases of major federal or interstate crimes, and cases of disputes between state governments or between a state government and the federal government, or maritime laws where no state has jurisdiction, or cases of bankruptcy or ambassadorial issues.

So, the chance that the Supreme Court will hear any particular case is very slim, and is typically only the most important cases, but when they do rule on a case, it sets the precedent for the rest of the country, at a state and federal level, and is rarely overturned.

Scalia’s Legacy

While it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead, and while I can mourn Scalia’s death as a person, I’ve long held a very low opinion of him, and I admit that I’m glad of any opportunity to shift the character of the Supreme Court to a more progressive, compassionate, and modern constituency.

Many have painted Scalia as a patriot who’s made America better; here’s my dissenting opinion.

Scalia was clever, and I think it’s even more important for clever people to also strive to be good people; even more so if they are in a position of power. He may have been a good person to his friends and family, but he did not carry that over into how he served this country.

His writings struck me as insincere, and his claim to adhere to “Constitutional originalism” was belied by his whimsical interpretations of the US Constitution, such as his very modern stance that the 2nd Amendment ensured private ownership of guns, rather than the original emphasis on militias for national defense, and the absurd notion that “The Constitution is not a living document”, when the Constitution itself defines how to amend it.

And while he’s perhaps most famous for his dissenting opinions, it’s his majority rulings that have caused the most damage to America and Americans. And even beyond that, he’s used his Judicial authority to step into decisions on lower courts. For example, in 2000’s Presidential election, it was Scalia who personally intervened in the Florida court decision to halt the recount, and later the Supreme Court ruled not to let the votes be recounted, handing the election to George W. Bush.

Beyond his own rulings, his influence and legacy is in giving voice, authority, and credibility to a radical conservatism that influenced a generation of legal thought, carried on in Alito and Roberts, which holds that interpreting the text of the law is more important than the applicability to modern society and technology. In other words, it claims that trying to imagine (in a ridiculous fantasy) the opinions of a person living over two centuries ago, when this country was yet unformed, is more relevant than a view informed by the country as it has since developed. Generously, this is truly “conservative”, preserving the prejudices and ignorance of bygone eras along with any wisdom; more pointedly, this was a convenient way to appear impartial while twisting the result to his own backwards ideological view.

Scalia’s rulings were often specious and inhumane, mere clever arguments based on selective interpretation of the wording of laws and the Constitution rather than attempts at applying justice. In dissenting on a ruling for reopening a death-penalty case, where most of the original witnesses had recanted their testimonies, Scalia said, “Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached.” For Scalia, it seems, the law was not a way to achieve social or personal fairness, but a pro-forma game whose rules were both strict and meaningless.

It’s hard to imagine someone as retrograde as Scalia getting nominated or confirmed, so I’m hopeful that we’ll have a more reasonable, just, and progressive Supreme Court in the next few months. This is how the Founding Fathers wanted this country to work… with each generation forging its own vision of a more perfect union, renewing the government to meet their own needs and desires, with the consistent thread of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, in the end, justice.

by Shepazu at February 14, 2016 08:53 AM