Scott Walker and the Let’s Eat Grandma theory of legislative interpretation

How do you know when to call a special election for an empty legislative seat in Wisconsin?  It’s right there in the statutes, 8.50 (4) (d):

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election. However, any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring after the close of the last regular floorperiod of the legislature held during his or her term shall be filled only if a special session or extraordinary floorperiod of the legislature is called or a veto review period is scheduled during the remainder of the term. The special election to fill the vacancy shall be ordered, if possible, so the new member may participate in the special session or floorperiod.

Pretty clear, right?  If a Senate or Assembly seat comes open before May of election year,  the governor has to call a special election, unless the last legislative session has already taken place and no extra legislative business is scheduled before November.  You hold an election unless the duration of the vacancy would be so short as to make the election essentially meaningless.

There are two seats in the Capitol open as we speak, the Senate seat formerly held by Frank Lasee and the Assembly seat once occupied Keith Ripp; both of them left to take jobs in the Walker administration in January.  But the governor has asserted that no special election will be held, and residents of those districts will go unrepresented in the legislature for almost a full year.

What’s Walker’s excuse for ignoring the law?  Are you sitting down?  The state’s claim is that the phrase “in the year” does not refer to “May,” but rather “any vacancy.”  So a vacancy arising in March 2018 is required by law to be filled “as promptly as possible” by state law, despite the severely limited amount of lawmaking the new representative would be have a chance to undertake; but if an assembly rep drops dead on the second day of the legislative term, the governor can leave the seat empty for two whole years if he wants.

I kid you not! That is the claim!

Do you think that’s really what the law says?

As this long, well-researched WisContext article makes clear, Walker’s “interpretation” of the law is, well, a novelty.  For fifty years, Wisconsin has been filling legislative vacancies promptly by special elections.  Most of these elections, according to Scott Walker, were optional, some kind of gubernatorial whim.  And it’s definitely not the case that the governor is leaving the seats empty because he’s spooked by the current lust-to-vote of Wisconsin’s Democratic electorate, which has already cost Republicans a long-held seat in Senate District 10.

The Walker administration would like us to read the law as if the phrases came in the opposite order:

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat, before the 2nd Tuesday in May

But English is non-commutative; that sentence says one thing, and 8.50 (4)(d) says a different thing.

Even an extra comma would make Walker’s interpretation reasonable:

Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May, in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat

Commas change meaning.  As the old T-shirt says:  let’s eat grandma!

I suppose we should count ourselves lucky.  Given the syntactic latitude Walker has granted himself, where a prepositional phrase can wander freely throughout a sentence modifying whatever catches its fancy, he might have claimed a special selection is required only if a legislative vacancy occurs in May of an election year!  That would make just as much sense as the interpretation Walker’s claiming now.  Which is to say:  none.

What’s the remedy here?  I’m not sure there is one.  Someone in one of the affected districts could sue the state, but I don’t think there’s any prospect a lawsuit would conclude in time to make any difference.  I can’t see a court ordering an emergency halt to a legislative session on the grounds that two seats were illegally unfilled.

So there’s not much to stop the governor from breaking state law in this way.  Except natural human embarrassment.  A government that has lost the capacity to be embarrassed can be very difficult to constrain.




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David English Revisited

I never realized that David English of Somerville MA, besides being a prolific writer of letters to the editor, was a weirdo artist of the 1950s!


Not even the most poorly paid shipping clerk

One more from Why Men Fail:

Not even the most poorly paid shipping clerk would dream of trying to make his own shirts, and confidential investigation would probably reveal that mighty few darn their own socks.  Yet the cities are full of women on march larger salaries who not only make their own clothes, but cook their own meals and do their own laundry.

So in 1927, it was more unusual to cook for yourself than it was to make your own clothes?  When did that flip?


I’m tryin’, I’m tryin’, I’m tryin’, I’m tryin’

“I’m tryin, I’m tryin’, I’m tryin’, I’m tryin'”

reappears, 25 years after Slanted and Enchanted, in Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar””:

Both songs are lopey and talky.  Stephen Malkmus is talking over the Fall’s “A New Face in Hell.”   Gomez is talking over “Psycho Killer.” Gomez, unlike Malkmus, tells you what she’s trying to do, or trying to not do.  I don’t think this blunts the basic ambiguity of the line — I’m trying to do something, but also, yeah, I’m a little trying, aren’t I?

Bonus track:  Julian Cope, “Try Try Try.”  Your famous victory will be no victory!

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Hall of Fame ballots: some quick and dirty clustering

Since all the public Hall of Fame ballots are now available online in machine-readable form, thanks to Ryan Thibodeaux, I thought I’d mess around with the built-in clustering functions in sklearn and see what I could see.

The natural metric on ballots is Hamming distance, I guess.   I first tried the AgglomerativeClustering package.  I didn’t tell it what metric to use on the ballots, but I’m assuming it’s using Hamming distance, aka Euclidean in this case.  I asked AgglomerativeClustering to break the Hall of Fame voters into 2 clusters.  Guess what I found?  There’s a cluster of 159 voters who almost entirely voted for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and a cluster of 83 who universally didn’t.  You won’t be surprised to hear that those who voted for Bonds and Clemens were also a lot more likely to vote for Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, and Curt Schilling than the other cluster.

Which candidate was most notably unpopular among the Bonds-forgivers?  That would be Omar Vizquel.  He was on 53% of the steroid-rejector ballots!  Only 24% of the Bonds cluster thought Omar deserved Cooperstown.

Then I tried asking AgglomerativeClustering for four clusters.  The 83 anti-steroids folks all stayed together.  But the bigger group now split into Cluster 1 (61 ballots), Cluster 2 (46), and Cluster 3 (52).  Cluster 1 is the Joe Posnanski cluster.  Cluster 2 is the Nick Cafardo cluster.  Cluster 3 is the Tim Kurkjian cluster.

What differentiates these?  Cluster 1 is basically “people who voted for Larry Walker.”  The difference between Cluster 2 and Cluster 3 is more complicated.  The Cluster 2 ballots were much more likely to have:

Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa

and much less likely to have

Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling

I’m not sure how to read this!  My best guess is that there’s no animus towards pitchers and DHs here; if you’re voting for Bonds and Clemens and Sosa and Ramirez and the guys who basically everybody voted for, you just don’t have that many votes left.  So I’d call Cluster 2 the “2000s-slugger loving cluster” and Cluster 3 everybody else.

Maybe I should say how you actually do this?  OK, first of all you munge the spreadsheet until you have a 0-1 matrix X where the rows are voters and the columns are baseball players.  Then your code looks like:

import sklearn

model = AgglomerativeClustering(n_clusters=4)


which outputs

array([1, 0, 3, 1, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 1, 2, 1, 3, 0, 0, 0, 2, 1, 0, 3, 2,
1, 2, 1, 1, 3, 1, 3, 3, 0, 2, 2, 0, 1, 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 0, 1, 2, 1, 3,
2, 2, 1, 3, 0, 2, 0, 3, 1, 0, 0, 2, 0, 2, 1, 2, 1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 2,
0, 1, 1, 2, 0, 1, 3, 0, 0, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0, 2, 0, 1, 0,
0, 0, 3, 1, 1, 0, 1, 0, 3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 0, 2, 1, 0, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3, 1,
3, 0, 3, 1, 0, 2, 1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 3, 1, 1, 3, 2, 3, 3, 2, 2, 0, 3, 3,
1, 0, 0, 2, 2, 3, 1, 3, 1, 2, 0, 1, 3, 1, 0, 0, 2, 3, 0, 2, 1, 0, 2,
1, 3, 3, 0, 1, 3, 1, 1, 0, 0, 2, 0, 1, 2, 0, 2, 1, 0, 0, 3, 3, 1, 1,
2, 3, 2, 0, 2, 0, 0, 1, 2, 1, 0, 3, 1, 3, 0, 3, 3, 3, 0, 3, 3, 3, 0,
2, 0, 3, 3, 0, 1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 0, 0, 0, 1, 3, 3, 1, 0, 0, 1, 3,
0, 2, 3, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 3, 3, 3])

i.e. a partition of the voters into four groups.

(Agglomerative clustering naturally generates a hierarchical clustering, i.e. a tree with the HoF voters on the leaves; there must be some way to get sklearn to output this directly, but I don’t know it!

Of course, if you have a 0-1 matrix, you don’t have to cluster the rows — you can cluster the columns! This time, just for kicks, I used the hierarchical clustering package in scipy.  I think this one is just agglomerating too.  But it has a nice output package!  Here, Y is the transpose of X above, a 0-1 matrix telling us which players were on which ballots.  Then:

>> import scipy
>>> Z = scipy.cluster.hierarchy.linkage(Y)
>>> Dend = scipy.cluster.hierarchy.dendrogram(Z,labels=(a list of player names))
>>> plt.xticks(ha=’right’)


Not bad! You can see that Bonds and Clemens form their own little cluster in red.  There is not that much structure here — maybe worth noting that this method may be dominated by the variable “number of votes received.”  Still, the two stories we’ve told here do seem to have some coarse features in common:  Bonds/Clemens are a cluster, and Larry Walker voting is kind of its own variable independent of the rest of the ballot.

OK, this picture was nice so I couldn’t resist doing one for the voters:

Pretty hard to read!  I think that black cluster on the end is probably the no-Bonds-no-Clemens gang.  But what I want you to notice is that there’s one outlying node all the way over to the left, which the clustering algorithm identifies as the weirdest ballot made public.  It’s Sadiel LeBron, who voted for Clemens, Sosa, and Ramirez, but not Bonds.  And also he voted for Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel!  Yeah, that’s a weird ballot.

I’m sure this isn’t the right way to visualize a 0-1 matrix.  Here’s what I’d do if I felt like spending a little more time:  write something up to look for a positive definite rank-2 matrix A such that

A_{ij} > A_{ik}

whenever voter i voted for player j but not player k.  That models the idea of each player being a point in R^2 and each voter being a point in R^2 and then voters vote for every player whose dot product with them is large enough.  My intuition is that this would be a better way of plotting ballots in a plane than just doing PCA on the 0-1 matrix.  But maybe it would come out roughly the same, who knows?

Presumably there are known best practices for clustering subsets of a fixed set (or, more generally, finding good embeddings into visualizable metric spaces like the plane.)  Tell me about them!


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Ursula K. LeGuin is dead

She was one of the people who taught me what good writing was.  I read mostly SF as a kid.  Nothing against SF.  But a lot of it is … terrible.  We know this.  When I read LeGuin I suddenly saw what English could do when a writer actually cared about the words on the page, where they sat, how they sounded.  I couldn’t believe it.  Her sentences were more exciting than most people’s space battles.

The famous books are famous justly.  The Dispossessed.  The Left Hand of Darkness.  A Wizard of Earthsea.  (And when you’re talking about words on the page, think about how much more right that title is with “A” instead of “The.”)  Earthsea I just read again last year.  I felt, at once, glad I’d gotten to read it as a kid, but equally glad I’d come back to it as an adult so I could understand it in full.  Maybe 20 years from now I’ll read it again and say, “I’m sure glad I read it again — now I finally get it.”

(Here’s David Carlton on Earthsea.)

But the one I read down to shreds was her anthology The Compass Rose.  Especially “The New Atlantis.”  And hey look, the full text is online!

When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be a writer but probably really I just wanted to be the writer of this story.  I wrote a dozen crappy versions of it, each of which I thought of as original.  Looking at it now, I can hardly find a paragraph I didn’t rip off at some point.  I mean, just:

There was an electrified fence all around the forest to keep out unauthorized persons. The forest ranger talked about mountain jays, “bold little robbers,” he said, “who will come and snatch the sandwich from your very hand,” but I didn’t see any. Perhaps because that was the weekly Watch Those Surplus Calories! Day for all the women, and so we didn’t have any sandwiches. If I’d seen a mountain jay, I might have snatched the sandwich from his very hand, who knows.

It’s a small thing, I know, but this is how I learned an effect I don’t even have a name for.  Repeating a phrase but the phrase is delivered in two different voices.  It can be comic or it can be spooky, or, as here, it can be both.  I ripped it off from Ursula LeGuin as I ripped off so much else.  RIP.




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Dolores O’Riordan, singer in the Cranberries, died today.  In the fall of 1993 I was living in an apartment by myself for the first time, the Baltimorean on N. Charles Street.  I was devoting myself full-time to being a writer and kind of hating it.  I didn’t know anyone in Baltimore and the people in my program were mostly older than me and socially inaccessible and I was lonely.   The apartment was always too hot.  I ate spaghetti with jar sauce for dinner by myself and listened to “Linger.”  It’s still the sound of loneliness to me, after all these years.


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The job fell to me of giving an overview talk about Benson Farb’s entire career at his birthday conference last fall.  Hard task!  I didn’t cover nearly everything but I think I gave a decent impression of what Farbisme is all about.

Update:  For WordPressreasons, you can’t watch the video within this page, but if you click through to Vimeo you can watch it!


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Wanlin Li, “Vanishing of hyperelliptic L-functions at the central point”

My Ph.D. student Wanlin Li has posted her first paper!  And it’s very cool.  Here’s the idea.  If chi is a real quadratic Dirichlet character, there’s no reason the special value L(1/2,chi) should vanish; the functional equation doesn’t enforce it, there’s no group whose rank is supposed to be the order of vanishing, etc.  And there’s an old conjecture of Chowla which says the special value never vanishes.  On the very useful principle that what needn’t happen doesn’t happen.

Alexandra Florea (last seen on the blog here)  gave a great seminar here last year about quadratic L-functions over function fields, which gave Wanlin the idea of thinking about Chowla’s conjecture in that setting.  And something interesting developed — it turns out that Chowla’s conjecture is totally false!  OK, well, maybe not totally false.  Let’s put it this way.  If you count quadratic extensions of F_q(t) up to conductor N, Wanlin shows that at least c N^a of the corresponding L-functions vanish at the center of the critical strip.  The exponent a is either 1/2,1/3, or 1/5, depending on q.  But it is never 1.  Which is to say that Wanlin’s theorem leaves open the possibility that o(N) of the first N hyperelliptic L-functions vanishes at the critical point.  In other words, a density form of Chowla’s conjecture over function fields might still be true — in fact, I’d guess it probably is.

The main idea is to use some algebraic geometry.  To say an L-function vanishes at 1/2 is to say some Frobenius eigenvalue which has to have absolute value q^{1/2} is actually equal to q^{1/2}.  In turn, this is telling you that the hyperelliptic curve over F_q whose L-function you’re studying has a map to some fixed elliptic curve.  Well, that’s something you can make happen by physically writing down equations!  Of course you also need a lower bound for the number of distinct quadratic extensions of F_q(t) that arise this way; this is the most delicate part.

I think it’s very interesting to wonder what the truth of the matter is.  I hope I’ll be back in a few months to tell you what new things Wanlin has discovered about it!


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A rejection from Gordon Lish

At some point I’m going to go through my gigantic file of rejection letters from the mid-1990s, when I was trying to be a fiction writer, and write a post about them, but for now, here’s the one I have from Gordon Lish, from 27 June 1996, when he was editing The Quarterly:

Excellent Jordan — you only impress me further with your force. I
would take the cut if I liked it. I don’t — but I do admire the man
who made it. Cheers, Gordon.


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