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End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution
Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?
- Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
- Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
- Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
The original cartoon of the 'Gerry-Mander', published in 1812 in the Boston Centinel.
Image: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), Public Domain.
One way for a political party to manipulate the outcome of elections is to 'gerrymander' electoral districts: manipulate their boundaries to increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome (see also #53).
The term is almost as old as the United States itself, and the practice continues to disfigure the electoral map to this day. Perhaps these maps can serve as the inspiration for a radical solution.
They show the contiguous United States (i.e. without Alaska and Hawaii) sliced latitudinally and longitudinally into ten straight-bordered bands of varying size, so that each contains exactly 10 percent of the population.
Although certainly not intended as a reflection on electoral redistricting, it's tempting to see these sweeping re-alignments of the U.S. as a suggestion with some potential in that direction.
United Strips of America
The contiguous United States, divided into horizontal and vertical deciles.
Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'.
Looking at the top map, which divides the U.S. into 10 longitudinal strips, we see
- Seattle rules the northernmost slice of territory. It is the broadest, and therefore also the emptiest one.
- The Chicago, Omaha, New York City and Indianapolis strips complete the northern half of the country. And indeed: 50 percent of the population occupies roughly one half of the country, from north to south.
- The dividing line between the top and bottom halves of the country runs from just north of the San Francisco Bay to halfway across the Delmarva Peninsula.
- Capital cities of the southern strips are San Jose, Charlotte, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston.
- The Houston Strip is divided into two non-contiguous areas. Florida maintains its panhandle, albeit much reduced.
The bottom map shows the U.S. divided latitudinally into 10 bands of equal population.
- San Jose and Los Angeles both retain their capital status, this time of the two westernmost strips.
- San Antonio is the main city of the Big Empty, more than twice as wide as the second-broadest band.
- The dividing line between America's eastern and western half, population-wise, is far off-center: it skirts the eastern edge of Chicago, making the western half much bigger than the eastern one.
- Houston, Chicago, and Indianapolis also remain the largest cities in their respective bands.
- Further east, Jacksonville and Philadelphia get to rule over their strip of America, while Charlotte and New York City keep winning, both vertically and horizontally.
Redistricting a country into zones of equal population – and that being your only criterium – will create districts that are randomly diverse, and perhaps also, at least in this case, unmanageably large.
However, mixing up the political map with a bunch of straight lines as the only instrument is something that has been considered before. Usually, the objective is the wholesale removal of age-old divisions.
Perfectly square departments
France divided into 80-odd geometrical departments: failed proposal by Jacques-Guillaume Thouret (1790).
Image: Centre historique des Archives nationales – Atelier de photographie; public domain.
In 1790, the French revolutionary Jacques-Guillaume Thouret proposed doing away with France's old provinces by replacing them with about 80 perfectly square departments. The plan lost its main proponent when Thouret lost his head during the Reign of Terror in 1794 (see also #159).
In this rather outlandish proposal, continental Europe's 24 cantons center on Vienna.
Image: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Maps, Cornell University.
And in 1920, an anonymous author – possibly the Austrian P.A. Maas – proposed slicing up Post-World-War-I Europe as a pie, into 24 slices that would center on Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral. Each of those slices would be made up of a wide and random variety of linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups – and that would be the point: the better to unite them all into one massive superstate (see also #851).
Needless to say, both plans never left the drawing board. Would a proposal for the longitudinal and/or latitudinal redistricting of the U.S. have more traction?
Putting the 'connect' into Connecticut: the Nutmeg State extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Well, for one, coast-to-coast polities have some pedigree in America's past: some of the first colonies had claims that extended from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific.
If history had gone entirely the way Connecticut would have wanted, the state would include such inland cities as Detroit, Chicago, and Salt Lake City, and extended to what is now the northern part of California.
Is such geopolitical weirdness reasonable or feasible today? Absolutely not. But in its randomness, would it be it as unfair as gerrymandering?
Strange Maps #1054
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
- What if Europe and North America switched populations? - Big Think ›
- 388 - US States As Countries of Equal Population - Big Think ›
- Earth Divided in Ten Zones of Equal Population - Big Think ›
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.