Somewhere. Somewhen.

When I started writing this little essay, I meant it to be a story about my first time contra dancing in more than a year. Then my calendar started changing. Life got darker. My return to contra dancing crept further and further away. Now … I don’t know when I will return to contra dancing. Firm dates on the calendar have slowly receded into uncertainty.

Where I started contra dancing: Appalachian State University. Specifically, a venue called “Legends,” highlighted lower left in the above photo. (Source.)

I started contra dancing when I was a student at Appalachian State, up in the mountains of North Carolina. Before that, I’d tried swing dancing. The swing club at the time was small, cliquey, rife…

Everything you should know about the controversial movement.

Image of a question mark, a solid black clenched fist, a multi-skin-color striped fist, and the words “CRITICAL RACE THEORY.”
Own work making use of public domain templates and open source image editing software (GIMP).

Across America, news sites, state legislatures, and school board meetings have recently been inflamed with controversy over whether or not schools should teach critical race theory. Most of this discussion on both sides of America’s bipartisan divide has taken place without a good definition of what critical race theory is, or coming to terms with what it means to teach critical race theory.

For my own part, I am tired of repeating similar explanations every time the topic comes up, and the topic isn’t going away any time soon… so here I am writing it down in one place for…

A voting system in profile

There are many credible alternatives to plurality voting. Of those, the simplest is approval voting, which has support from both prominent voting theorists as well as activists who advocate for voting reforms.

The way approval voting works is simple: A voter considers a list of candidates, and either approves or disapproves of each candidate. Usually, approving of a candidate means marking the bubble next to their name, while disapproving a candidate means leaving the bubble blank. The candidate with the largest number of voters behind them wins.

There are two main drawbacks of approval voting. The first is that it…

A voting system in profile

One of the most common voting systems in use is the plurality vote. Plurality votes play a key role in most modern democracies. When there are more than two options, however, a plurality vote is deeply flawed. Most notably, a plurality vote with multiple candidates is highly vulnerable to spoiler effects, “center squeeze” effects, and can elect candidates who would lose against any other candidate in a head-to-head contest.

Plurality ballots (ostraka) from the ostracism of Themistocles (482 B.C.E.). Source.

Plurality voting is nevertheless widespread, and has been around for a very long time. For example, the classical Athenian practice of ostracism was carried out using a plurality vote. Each voter…

Why winning a lot of counties doesn’t mean much.

Biden won about 500 counties. Trump won about 2400. It’s a striking statistic that boils down to two distinct facts. First, “county” doesn’t mean the same thing in different states. Second, even within the same state, counties are very far from equal.

Red states have more counties

In general, the largest numbers of counties are found in the southeastern states and the Midwest. Northeastern and western states have the fewest counties. This geographic pattern happens — coincidentally — to align with current regional divides in politics.

Number of counties by state

Counties in western states were usually formed when the states were very sparsely populated. It’s hard to justify a…

A step forward.

In 2008 and 2010, California voters went to the ballot box and voted on three electoral reform measures. The reformers won all three ballots.

  • Proposition 11 established the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC) and gave it the power to draw legislative districts.
  • Proposition 14 established the top-two primary system.
  • Proposition 20 expanded the CCRC’s mandate to include Congressional maps.
Future movie star, California governor, and election reform advocate Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a photograph in 1974. Fun fact: In 1974, the governor of California was a Republican movie star who was succeeded by Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown also was governor after Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Image source.)

The most prominent supporter of all elements of this reform package was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a non-traditional Republican who had been initially elected in a way that bypassed the normal primary process. As noted above, these reforms were passed into law…

Part 1: Heir to the Empire

This May 4th, I decided to put the Thrawn trilogy in my reading queue. I’ve read them before, but the last time was sometime before Disney put out The Last Jedi. Once upon a time, as a young Star Wars fan, I thought that the prequels had completely overturned a lot in Star Wars novels written before The Phantom Menace.

A quick picture of a segment of my desk right now.

Now that I’ve finished re-reading Heir to the Empire, I’m left thinking that I really didn’t have the proper perspective at the time. In broad strokes, I think the Thrawn trilogy fits better with the prequels than the Disney sequels…

Theorems of two Kenneths

In some ways, the field of voting theory can be seen as having been shaped by two French mathematicians (Jean Charles de Borda and Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat). The course of modern voting theory can largely be explained in terms of two theorems published in the 1950s by two Kenneths: The positive result of Kenneth May, and the negative result of Kenneth Arrow.

May’s theorem

Kenneth May.

May’s theorem, published in 1952, is simple and straightforward, which is why it is often overlooked. It can be described as follows:

If a voting system for deciding between two options always produces a winner…

Questioning an article that makes a statement.

Nathanial Rakich and Lauren Bronner recently published a feature titled Advantage, GOP on FiveThirtyEight. The thesis of the piece is that the deck is stacked in favor of the Republican Party. This is a dangerously wrong simplification, and it exaggerates the degree to which the system is undemocratically stacked in favor of the GOP.

And it’s not just the Senate — the Electoral College, the House of Representatives and state legislatures are all tilted in favor of the GOP.

It is dangerous for two reasons. Democrats are given a reason to discount elections as illegitimate and disengage from the democratic…

When majority votes can’t solve the problem.

Three people come together to try to make a decision — perhaps something as simple as what to have for dinner. The first suggestion made is spaghetti, but it turns out that two of them would rather have pizza. Then one person suggests lasagna would be better than pizza, and is quickly seconded.

But, adds the second, they would rather simply have spaghetti than lasagna. The third agrees. The first person groans in frustration and picks up a Chinese takeout menu. …

Tomas McIntee

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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