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Monday, October 31, 2011
Patchworked Nation

James Gimpel came by McKeldin library at the University of Maryland College Park a couple of weeks back to give a talk. Part of the Speaking of Books... Conversations with Campus Authors series. Gimpel is a professor in the Government and Politics Department. This was the department I had my major in as an undergrad; though, that feels like a lifetime ago now. The occasion was the publication of the paperback edition of his book Our Patchwork Nation. The robust data and chart centric web site associated with the book Patchwork Nation is the best starting point for the whole concept. Ray Suarez has been featuring it in an ongoing series from around the country on the PBS Newshour so it had an as seen on TV quality to it.

I looked forward to going to this for a week, but ended up missing most of the talk. I work for a living and mastering the nuanced approach to work doesn't include disappearing from your desk for an hour. I caught the Q&A at the end (on break), and was able to buy the book and get it signed. A few weeks later I've now even read the book, except for the appendix on their methodology at the end. I wouldn't want to skip that so I'll look that over this next week.

This book seems to be a furthering of the concept of Gimpel's earlier book Patchwork nation : sectionalism and political change in American politics (2003) The present work being conceived as just one part of a larger project and being essentially a journalistic endeavor. In fact the lead author for this book is journalist Dante Chinni. Chinni is about the same age as his co-author, and is like Gimpel, I believe, a native midwesterner. The whole project is an analytic tool written on a grant to be used by a news consortium. To get beyond the red state / blue state map and discourse dichotomy. A point highlighted on back cover. The aim is to gain something of the granularity that marketers such as Claritas seem to have achieved. The organizers/participants of this project are the Jefferson Institute with the Christian Science Monitor, the PBS Newshour, WNYC Radio and others. Both authors maintain web blogs at the patchwork site: James Gimpel's blog | Patchwork Nation and Dante Chinni's blog | Patchwork Nation.

This project tells us all politics is local. The real America is found by community typing at county level. The concept is that communities are more alike within their types than with more geographically contingent communities around them. They ended up with a dozen types after initial data sorts. Some were statistically obvious, some clearer in counterpoint to others.
    The twelve county types:
  1. Boom Towns
  2. Campus and Careers
  3. Emptying nests
  4. Evangelic epicenters
  5. Immigration Nation
  6. Industrial metropolis
  7. Military Bastions
  8. Minority Central
  9. Monied Burbs
  10. Mormon outposts
  11. Service worker centers
  12. Tractor country.
    The nine congr. district types ( only):
  1. Established Wealth
  2. New Diversity
  3. Wired and Educated
  4. the Shifting Middle
  5. Young Exurbs
  6. Christian Conservative
  7. Booming Growth
  8. Old Diversity
  9. Small Town America
The book's strategy is to pick a representational county from each and write up a case study like description. At congressional district level the web site ( offers the choice of nine community types, which are similar albeit in somewhat broader strokes. I'm unsure whether this represents a rethinking of their original community typing or an application of it to existing congressional district statistics. While this may make the political analysis more shelf ready there is the obvious problem of how mutable and gamed congressional districts are. They represent little more than a parties desire to build safe seats from they can serve entrenched interests.

Like most people I expect I ran a little validation exercise of the books concepts against the few communities I've encountered first hand as I read through it. My early childhood was in Plymouth (Plymouth co. MA - campus and careers). It was rural on the outskirts, still clinging to a shrinking lobster industry, but it had residential cachet and many nice homes along the ocean from downtown all the way around to Manomet. Mostly; though, I grew up in Holliston (Middlesex co. MA - Monied Burbs), a small town turned random Boston suburb. Like the surrounding towns that could afford to do so, it tightened zoning in a race to emerge as an upscale bedroom town. The most interesting place I lived in while in the Navy was Key West, (Monroe co. FL - Service Worker Center). It matched this category well, which covers tourist and vacation destinations. The military base and fishing industry then lending a seedy balance to an overabundance of preciousness. One thing about Key West which was not highlighted in the books description of this category is the role scarcity of resource can play in driving fortune in such places. Key West is an island like Martha's Vineyard, it was doing quite well, but the Conchs were definitely getting pushed up the Keys. My present apartment building straddles the Prince Georges | Montgomery county border in Maryland. My corner belongs to Prince Georges co. While both aggregate to Monied Burb, on the neighborhood level my area is mostly Hispanic with elements of Haitian and West African. This corresponds with the urban diversity of the industrial metropolis which is Prince Georges next best-fit category. The presence of the University of Maryland is not enough move it into College and Careers. I also am a little familiar with the Milton - Lewes, Sussex co. DE area which they mark as a Boom Town / Emptying Nest. The whole Cape Henlopen area is an example of a community of beach towns - a Service worker center - which became a regional retirement destination which attracted further attendant service influx and became a boomtown for that.

The purpose and value of such a working project is in the end its explanatory and predictive power. There was a question from the audience during the Q & A on whether this schema delivers better insight than looking at municipal level breakdowns of the red and blue map. I've seen this map so I knew what he was talking about. Even in the vast red midlands the map is dotted with blue in places where you have more than a couple of street lights together. That map gives you the fact of an urban-tolerant self selectivity. Without giving you reason or nuance to appeal to. Any worthwhile description set ought to have some use or relevance beyond elections. Elections arbitrarily organize political power, but they are snapshots of shifting and amorphous attitude and even winning politicians often find out they only mean so much.

Fostering an understanding that the different regions of the country, the differing communities with their individual histories and value systems, not only view particular events differently. They are often affected quite unevenly by the same events - such as the mortgage crisis for events writ large. But as well any event coming to the attention of the American people. Solutions as much as problems are experienced and viewed differently. Increasingly one of the most important activities for journalists, for any writer or story teller working in the American milieu as this short, but brilliant piece In the Land of No News exemplifies, is to use this insight of community difference and work towards explaining America to each other.

11:32:22 PM    ;;

Monday, October 24, 2011
Snakes on the road

Recently on my commute to work, which is about a three mile ride by bicycle, I have observed a number of squashed snakes on the road. I saw enough of these road killed snakes not only along a lengthy stretch of the road, but day after day as well that I eventually fell into trying to reconstruct the structure of this phenomenon. The snakes are on the pavement close by the side of the road. Clearly having come out of the grass to warm themselves in the sun on the dark asphalt in the increasing cool autumn mornings. Even though they did not venture far out onto the road surface, this did not save them from getting run over. They are all juvenile snakes, as far as I can tell, none large enough to be an adult. Often appearing to be very young.

How should one interpret this, I thought? Is this giving us better snakes or worse snakes? That is, I considered, whether the more adventurous and capable snakes were exploring further from the nest and getting runned over for their trouble, leaving lesser snakes to carry on. Or are smarter stronger snakes monopolizing the best and safest sunning locations, closer to the nest leaving weaker snakes to ranger further and less securely from home. Stopping at the false warmth and security of the tarmacs edge. Of course, one also has to entertain the idea that human beings have subconsciously evolved the automobile for the real purpose of cutting down the best and brightest snakes again and again. That only this has prevented our take-over by an aggressive population of super intelligent warm and rested snakes.

Here, it seemed to me, I was a little thin on how exactly evolution works, but as a paid up member of the modern world I must know something. So off the top of my head and with no Wikipedia cheating I set out here my misestimation of evolution.

Evolution involves random variation in individuals of a species in the first place. This is due I believe to damage or alterations to the DNA in the reproductive cells. From radiation, from free radicals, that sort of thing. Or simply the effect of DNA (or is it RNA) strands not always zipping themselves back up exactly as they came apart. This leads to distinction, not exact copy, of the individual in the next generation that is essential random, but apparently occurs at a rate over time that is effectively constant. These collectively are mutations to the species and consist of variations of morphology and other traits. Here I suppose we need to differentiate between evolutionary adaptation and behavioral adaption, although the capacity for the latter is an example of the former.

The mechanism that drives this process is reproductive advantage. Whatever the details of the interchange between living things and the world, it is whether it confers a relative advantage in reproduction that determines whether a gene set is passed on through time and generations. I suppose this is where it gets tricky. To me it seems obvious that the environmental stressors through which this reproductive advantage are communicated must be considerable in both their extent and duration to have discernible effect on a plant or animal. That is, they must be persistent through years if not centuries and hold even across a given ecosystem. The stressors themselves matter little as long as they produce an effect. They can be organic or inorganic in nature. If organic, flora or fauna. They could be either climate or weather. Similarly a trait could impart a positive or negative engagement (or be part of a mixed chain of events) and this would matter little if the result is to move the gene set forward. If a trait is present in subsequent generations and if the genetics of that trait are amendable to further extension, this process of selection will produce an effect which from the outside will look like deliberate specialization, or in certain circumstances generalization. I believe that if conditions maintain, this specialization moves through differentiation to speciazation. Of course if things trend the other way the result is elimination and extinction. Survival of the fittest most assume means the most fitted with fang, claw and agro, but it really is a means test - a best fit to the environment.

Profound changes are possible in the animate substrate of this world. My instinctive question at this point is "How does this affect monkeys?" I wouldn't need an infinite number, I muse, merely a sufficient number of monkeys left to an environment of Olivettis to rearrange the world. Monkeys are tactile creatures, and don't do well with laptops. Or with texting, no opposable thumbs, but one thing at a time. I'd put them on nice island somewhere. Maybe organize them into tribes: give some of them blue pencils. These could evolve into an editing tribe. With these typewriters and three or four generations of the monkeys time, the proper reward system in place I could achieve, not Shakespeare exactly, or Puskin but maybe a manifesto for the Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) movement. Since it appears they will never write one themselves. Their post modern ambition is to be the undefined defining moment. I am old school and un-reconstuctivist, and warm to statements of purpose and suggestion. Somethings along the lines of:

Blast First this fortress walled street, barren of camels eye, a desert of needles. This carnival marriage of Dionysus and Pluto. Blast second these gimlet eyed tyros, and their politicians. Social Darwinists with their fraudulent game of private rules. Snakes edging out of the grass. Blast third this New England weather.

11:50:06 PM    ;;

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Last update: 11/8/11; 9:36:35 AM.