Thursday, September 07, 2017

Hurricane Irma, warm oceans, and expanding the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

Back in 2011, I wrote about the current five-category hurricane system that the US uses (known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale), noting that the foundational logic of the scale was based on structural engineering questions:
a former NOAA hurricane center administrator and co-inventor of the SSHS that, "there is no reason for a Category 6 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale because it is designed to measure the potential damage of a hurricane to manmade structures. If the wind speed of the hurricane is above 155 mph (249 km/h), then the damage to a building will be 'serious no matter how well it's engineered'."
The current scale tops out at a "Category 5," which is any sustained wind speed above 155 mph. However, if one uses the threshold values for Categories 1 through 5 to develop a regression equation, it is possible to extend this relationship ever outward. Specifically, a revised category scale would be something like this:
Category 1: <95mph
Category 2: 96-110mph
Category 3: 111-130mph
Category 4: 131-150mph
Category 5: 151-175mph
Category 6: 176-205mph
Category 7: 206-235mph
Back in 2011, Hurricane Camille had sustained wind speeds of 175 mph, which is what prompted me to write that post. Currently, Hurricane Irma is reported as having sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, making it the strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. However, based on the current hurricane scale, both Camille and Irma are classified as Category 5, even though Irma is obviously far stronger than Camille (which was - itself - a massive hurricane).

Indeed, the current system is fundamentally limited and fundamentally limiting, since one loses any sense of comparative scale once you enter "Category 5." And what would it hurt to look at adding a "Category 6," especially if warming waters are known to lead to stronger and more sustained hurricanes? Indeed, with warming oceans, hurricanes that will reach sustained wind speeds between 175 and 205 mph will not be theoretical. Indeed, Hurricane Irma is proof-positive that such hurricanes can and will form.

But so what? Why would that matter?

Well, in the US, the SSHS is a widely known and used shorthand for hurricane strength. It's something that people latch on to when discussing preparedness measures and when making comparisons against past events. But if the maximum scale is effectively open-ended, the designation "Category 5" will be shared by a hurricane with wind speeds of 155 mph and another with winds speeds of 185 mph (like Hurricane Irma). And the simple fact is that wind speeds of 185 mph are fundamentally different than wind speeds of 155 mph, and placing both in the same open-ended category will not help with making short-hand comparisons that would be equivalent to comparing a Category 4 hurricane against a Category 3 hurricane.

The way we categorize natural phenomena is important, since it structures the way that we view and respond to the world, and if we continue to use a hurricane classification system whose comparative utility declines into a future that is expected to have stronger hurricanes, that can impact the type of public response given to future storms.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Some things to consider when thinking about political trends

I don't write so much these days on this blog, but that doesn't mean that I've stopped thinking about some of the themes that I have written about in the past. Today, I want to write a little about US national politics and trends. Specifically, I want to write a little about the US Presidential elections, and what it means for Democrats.

This urge was spurred on by an article I read at Vox ("What right-wing populism?"). Okay, the author makes some shortcuts by basically equating liberals with progressives and those with Democrats, but given the dominant duality of the US political system, that short-hand has become so commonplace that it is effectively taken as synonymous in many corners. However, he makes some good data-backed rhetorical points about the public wanting government spending even as they might say that they don't want government spending.

But this got me thinking about the "Trump Revolution" (of 2016) and the earlier "Reagan Revolution" (that happened in 1980). In both cases, the narrative was that working class/blue-collar voters moved from the Democrats to the Republicans. But in 2016, that story never rang true for me. After all, Hillary won the popular vote (and - indeed - the polls predicted the popular win quite accurately). And the increase in Republican votes between 2012 and 2016 was basically a rise of 2 million, but less than 1 million when Bush ran to his first popular vote victory in 2004. But - because the US population was lower in 2004 than 2016, this "less than 1 million than Bush in 2004" figure means that Bush actually won a greater percentage of the vote (29.06% of all voting-age Americans) than Trump (26.74% of all voting-age Americans). But let me unpack that a little bit, because those numbers seem too small.

What I wanted to do was to create an assessment of how many voting-age Americans did each party's candidate win in each POTUS election? Now, in every year, not all people vote (indeed, the average voter turnout for a POTUS election since 1940 is 56.3%). Therefore, if there is a year where the voter turnout is only 50% (like 1988), then a victory of 53.4% (which George H.W. Bush got) means that only 27.6% of voting-age Americans actually cast a vote for Papa Bush. Indeed, counted this way, most POTUS victories since 1940 were won with less than 1/3 of all voting-age Americans actually casting a ballot for the victor, save for four Presidents: FDR (1940, 34.4%), Ike (1952, 35.1%; 1956 35.0%), JFK (1964, 37.97%), and Tricky Dick (1972, 34.11%).

Okay, so what, though?

Well, if there was a major shift from Democrats to Republicans in 1980 with Reagan and 2016 with Trump, then there should have been a major shift in the share of voting-age Americans that the Republicans won in those years, and a consonant decline in Democrats compared to each previous election. With Reagan, we do see this:

Republicans: 26.24% (1976)     27.14% (1980)     +0.9%
Democrats: 27.36% (1976)     21.93% (1980)     -5.43%

But with Trump? Not so much:

Republicans: 26.37% (2012)     26.74% (2016)     +0.37%
Democrats: 28.53% (2012)     27.96% (2016)     -0.57%

So what's going on? Basically, the Republicans did gain more votes since the previous election, but 2016 was nothing like 1980. The change in Democratic vote-share in 2016 was nowhere near the enormous shift seen in 1980 moving away from Carter. And we see this in shifts in the popular vote from 2012:

Republicans: +2,050,000 votes compared to 2012
Democrats: -60,000 votes compared to 2012.

But, given the simple fact that Trump's share of voting-age Americans (26.74%) is basically the same as the average GOP vote-share since 2000 (26.78%) means that the power of Trump/Pence in the elections was not really any different from Bush/Cheney, McCain/Palin, or Romney/Ryan.

The only real difference is on the Democrats' side.

So 2016 isn't so much a story of conservative or right-wing America surging, but rather a story of liberal or left-wing American choosing to stay home. This, together with the Vox article, strongly suggest that - if liberal/progressive/Democratic Americans actually got out to vote - then there would be a dramatic across-the-board shift. Luckily for conservatives, the percentage of liberals/progressives who go and vote is lower than the percentage of voting conservatives.

(Note: All numbers are drawn from a simple set of calculations using voting statistics drawn from Wikipedia pages on presidential elections between 1940 and 2016.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What is the translation of the Chilean "Región" into English?

One of my pet peeve annoyances of living in Chile is related to the unique way in which the administrative areas are designated, and how such designations get mistranslated into meaninglessness (or confusion). For reference purposes, the largest sub-national administrative zone is called "Región." Now, many people might want to translate this into the English "Region," but this would be like translating the now-commonly understood usage of "state" into "nation" (which - after all - used to mean effectively the same thing).

Recently, I was reviewing a paper written about sampling that took place in the waters inside and outside the Strait of Magellan. Now, for context, the Strait of Magellan and the waters nearby are located in the Chilean sub-national administrative area called Región de Magallanes y de la Antartica de Chile (known more commonly as simply "Región de Magallanes"). The annoying thing came about when the the author made reference to both the Strait of Magellan and "the coastal zone of the western Magellan region."

Okay, if you didn't just read through the above descriptions of what is meant by "Región" in Chile, I would bet that "the coastal zone of the western Magellan region" - in the context of sampling that took included areas in and around the Strait of Magellan - would easily be confused to mean "the coastal zones west of the area around the Strait of Magellan" instead of the intended meaning of "the coastal zones in the western area of the administrative area known in Chile as 'Región de Magallanes' (which is far larger in geographic scope than just the area in and around the Strait of Magellan)."

It's always difficult to determine whether some proper name should be translated or not. The name "Puerto de San Antonio" is often translated into "Port of San Antonio," but it isn't translated into "Port of Saint Anthony," even though "Saint Anthony" is the translation of "San Antonio." Similarly, the Cerro San Cristóbal (located in Santiago) is translated into "San Cristobal Hill," but not into "Saint Christopher Hill," even though "Saint Christopher" is the translation of "San Cristóbal." Based on these example, though, it seems a reasonable assessment that place names that include man-made or natural physical features (like ports or hills) have the physical feature translated into English, but the rest of the name remains in the original language. In that way, "Río Claro" is translated into "River Claro" or "Claro River" (but not "Clear River") and "Bahía Inútil" is translated into "Inutil Bay" (but not "Useless Bay").

But I would argue that cases where designations are effectively false-cognates (like "Región" and "Comuna"), translating them into English should not be done - no matter what Wikipedia says. This is because the term "Region" holds absolutely no implicit governmental significance in English, and "Commune" (the most common translation of "comuna") has a long historical use in English that is completely foreign to the way it is understood in Chile. Therefore, all fifteen Chilean "Regiones" should be presented as "Region de ___" like "Region de Magallanes."

Similarly, all the 346 Chilean comunas should either be presented as "Comuna de ___" like "Comuna de Aisen" in places where different administrative levels share the same name (e.g., Region de Aisen, Provincia de Aisen, Comuna de Aisen) or simply the name places where the comuna name is distinct from any other administrative level (e.g., "Providencia"). Or just refer to that whole administrative level as "Municipality."

All of this is because leaving the name untranslated immediately signals to the reader that this is a name of a specific place, whereas translating the name to “Magellan region” or "the Lakes region" or "the Rivers region" could easily be misinterpreted to mean “the zone around the Strait of Magellan,” "the zone with lakes," and "the zone with rivers," respectively. 

Of course, there are no firm rules for using place names in English. However, it is often far more useful for English-language readers if place names do not have their meanings translated into English. 

Now, Chile also has Roman Numeral designations for all the administrative Regions (I through XV). And I have seen people try to use these designations in their article drafts. But I would merely point out that using the Roman Numeral designations will likely mean absolutely nothing to readers who have no experience with Chilean political geography. The designations also run afoul of the very distinct uses of Roman Numerals in much of the English speaking world compared to how they are used in the Spanish speaking world generally (and Chile specifically).

So, in conclusion, in the case of Región: 
  1. don't translate the term "Región" into "region."
    • In general usage, refer to "administrative Regions"
    • In specific usage, refer to "Region de ___."
  2. don't use the Roman Numeral designation for the administrative Regions. 
  3. don't use accents
And in the case of Comuna:
  1. don't translate the term "Comuna" into "commune
    • In general usage, refer to either "administrative Comunas" or "municipalities"
    • In specific usage, refer to either "Comuna de ___" or "Municipality of ___."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

What was the purpose of the electoral college? One idea.

I've been seeing many comments about the purpose behind the electoral college. These include "The point of the electoral college is to ensure the entire country has a voice not just highly populated area," and, "The purpose of the electoral collage is to ensure that we don't elect dictators," and others. It seems to be a bit of a puzzle, since there is not any reason cited by the electoral college creators as to why that system was to be implemented.

While I don't know that any of these are the point of the electoral college, it is easy to think it might be, an outcome of it. However, I think part of the answer lies in how the electoral college apportions the number of electors: one elector for each legislator (with modifications due to the cap on the total number of Representatives). It's with this latter cap on the total number of Representatives (and thus on the number of electors) that the electoral college sets up an additional relative preference for small population states over large population states. And it's based on this rationale that it makes sense that the electoral college could have been set up to ensure that less-populated areas have their voice heard.
But there's one other, historical, point:

A direct vote would have been opposed by Southern states, because slaves couldn't vote. However, creating a separate body of electors, whose numbers would be equivalent to the size of the state's Congressional delegation would be bolstered by the 3/5th compromise. Why? Let's work backwards from how the apportionment of electors is decided. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides no rationale for the creation of an electoral college, but does explain how to apportion the number of electors:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.
We know that the number of senators is defined at two senators per state (Article I, Section 3), regardless of population. And we know that the number of Representatives is defined based on the number of people in the state (and potentially limited, based on an overall cap of Representatives at 435). However, things were originally a bit different, as explained in Article I, Section 2:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Now, this determination of "all other Persons" is a nice way of saying "slaves," since indentured servants were still considered to be free for purposes of counting the population. This means that the size of the House of Representatives delegation is determined by this basic formula:

# Representatives = # free persons - # untaxed Indians + (3/5 x #slaves)

And the number of electors is determined by the following basic formula:

# Electors = 2 Senators + #Representatives
Or - through substitution:

# Electors = 2 Senators + # free persons - #untaxed Indians + (3/5 x #slaves)

And - like many things in the history of a nation -the system continued through to this day, since it wasn't deemed to be explicitly connected to slavery, nor was it seen to be in need of repair, and it could easily be rationalized to fit a variety of purposes (as seen in the two posted above). However, when one encounters a variety of explanations about the origins or purposes of a thing (such as the purpose behind the 2nd Amendment), such explanations are more than likely to amount to just-so stories, and so a little bit of additional digging ought to happen, especially when the variety of popular explanations either make no sense in combination, conflict with each other, or are in conflict with other parts of the system. Therefore, it appears (at least to me) that the electoral college was set up to ensure that the states with lower populations of freemen would maintain a greater level of control in the early republic.

Note, though, that this is my own hypothesis. I'm not an historian, and I don't have any proof, but we do know that the 3/5th compromise was introduced to ensure that the South had a "sufficient" number in their Congressional delegation. And the electoral college is apportioned, based heavily on the size of the Congressional delegation.

This doesn't mean to say that the electoral college is "pro-slavery" or "racist" or anything like that. It is, though, a relic of a past time in our nation's history, when the calculus of federal representation rested on counting each slave as 3/5 of a person.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Linguistic differences and organizing plurals with the word "type"

I was proofreading a paper written in English by a native Spanish speaker, and came across the following phrase:

... that include this type of tools ...

And that really had me scratching my head for a couple reasons. First off, the writing of this particular author was generally quite good, and often what he wrote is exactly what he meant. Second, he had just described the evaluation tool to be one example of several that are used in the discipline, so it is obvious that he is writing about the particular tool of the study in the context of various others that exist.

This had me scratching my head for a bit, with me thinking about the phrase that definitely worked:

... that include this group of tools ...

After all, it's clear that the word "group" means a plurality of the things that constitute it. Yes, one can have a philosophical argument as to whether it is possible to be a "group of one" (even mathematics equivocates on this), if you need to make a philosophical argument about the case, then it implies that the case is so unobvious that - at best - it serves as an special-case exception to the general rule or pattern. So, given this recognition, a "group of tools" automatically means that there are at least two tools that define the group in question, and in that way, it operates as a collective noun in much the same way as "family" and "team" do.

But what about "type"? Is "type" a collective noun in the same way that "group" is? It didn't seem so to my ear, but that could just have been due to the conditioning of my upbringing. Indeed, the first definition given online is:
a number of things or persons sharing a particular characteristic, or set of characteristics, that causes them to be regarded as a group, more or less precisely defined or designated; class; category:
But the example provided is, "a criminal of the most viscious type," which applies the definite article to the word, indicating singularity, and not plurality. So maybe it could be technically correct to write "type of tools," but it still seemed not-normal. So I went to my constant back-up position of objective assessment of language usage: Google n-grams. For both the various permutations of pluarlity of the original phrase, "type of tools," and the more general phrase, "type of things," I had the same result, namely that "type of tool" (and "type of thing" - red line) was far-and-away more prevalent than "type of tools" (or "type of things" - blue line). Even "types of tools" ("types of things" - green line) was more prevalent.

Is the pattern different in Spanish? I tried the same permutations, but in Spanish, and found that "type of things" (tipo de cosas - red line) was WAY more prevalent than any other permutation, with insufficient numbers of exemplars of "types of thing" (tipos de cosa).

So, yeah, it seems that the inherent logic of what is and isn't a collective noun between English and Spanish is different, and this particular writer was likely working from his instincts of whether "type" worked as a collective noun in the same way as in does in Spanish. The simple fact that it doesn't is also likely a lesson that was never covered in his English language lessons, or likely wasn't reinforced. Regardless, what started as a bit of a mental puzzle was resolved in one of the more neatly packaged means that I have encountered.