Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Rebecca Alison Meyer
Ahuva Raya bat Kayla
7 June 2008 – 7 June 2014
image available at http://tinyurl.com/mrkb3vw 
On June 7, 2014, Rebecca Alison Meyer, age 6, of Beachwood, Ohio, passed away from complications associated with an anapestic astrocytoma ("brain cancer").  She and her parents, Kathryn and Eric Meyer, endured a multiyear struggle to save her life; Eric, a web technology expert concerning Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) blogged poignantly about the treatment.  The final memorial Eric wrote for Rebecca can be read here; the Economist's Babbage (technology) columnist drew attention to it today here:
"The death of a child is always a tragedy, and people of good will try to make sense of it through whatever means they have."
Eric's friends had one tool at their disposal to memorialize his daughter -- in CSS.  Style sheets control the appearance of certain items on a web page, and they allow colors to be expressed hexadecimally; #000000 is black, #FFFFFF is white. Other colors are combinations in between.  However, there are a certain select group of colors that may be expressed by name. For example, #ADFF2F can also be described as #GreenYellow.

Rebecca was particularly fond of purple -- her parents asked that family and friends at her funeral wear purple in memory of her.  Many who were touched by Eric's relating of Becca's story couldn't attend, for they were all over the world.  But a group of technologists, led by Jeffrey Zeldman, suggested that #663399 in CSS be designated #beccapurple.  As of the nightly Firefox build on June 23, the color has indeed been designated by name, but as #rebeccapurple.  Eric requested the change, saying:
"A couple of weeks before she died, Rebecca informed us that she was about to be a big girl of six years old, and Becca was a baby name. Once she turned six, she wanted everyone (not just me) to call her Rebecca, not Becca." 
"She made it to six. For almost twelve hours, she was six. So Rebecca it is and must be."
One particular passage from Eric's writings especially moved me, because it expressed and captured something so clearly important. In her last days, Eric and Kat made sure that, as long as she was able, Rebecca could go each day to kindergarten.  His explanation of why is one of the most saddening and yet eloquent statements of the nature of education and parenting I've ever read.  And so, as my tribute to Eric and Kat, as well as Rebecca Meyer, I include that passage, from May 1 of this year, from a post Eric entitled "Heroic Measures."
"This morning, I walked Rebecca and her best friend to kindergarten, all of us enjoying the crisp spring sunshine after the long, cold winter. The girls ran ahead of me to see if the playground had been re-flooded by last night’s rains (it hadn’t) and then balance-walked a low retaining wall. Once inside the school doors, I hugged and kissed Rebecca and told her to have a good day, collecting a hug and kiss and a 'Love you, Daddy' in return. I watched as she tromped down the hallway in her sparkly new Bella Ballerina shoes and pajamas (today is a special Pajama Day at school) and rounded the corner out of sight. And then I handed her principal a Do Not Resuscitate order." 
"... [w]e carry DNR cards with us, and have given the school a DNR form sealed into a manila envelope with our names and phone numbers written on the outside, because if she suddenly seizes, our overriding goal is to make her as comfortable as possible while she dies. The EMTs or hospice or we ourselves will give her medication to take away the pain and, if at all possible, the fear. As much as she needs." 
"... [w]e send her to school because she loves it there, however much she may complain about having to get up in the morning and get dressed and put on a coat to walk to school. Try as she may to hide it, she loves to learn. She loves her teacher, her classmates, and her friends, and they love her in return. It would be selfish of us to take that away, despite the risks, despite the hours of separation. It would shift some of our burden onto her shoulders, force her to pay the cost of our sorrow and fear ... we can give her her life, as whole and unbroken as we can manage, and an unspoken promise to fiercely guard it from even ourselves."
"We can give her this."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Who Turns Out?

About six weeks ago, I ran across this story, sort of a typical California pre-election analysis piece. The title of the article (as reprinted in the Petaluma Argus-Courier) made me squint to make sure I was reading it right -- "Bay Area tops state's voter turnout." I started reading, and one paragraph in particular caught my eye, because it mentioned Sonoma. "Poor people from Sonoma are far more likely to cast a ballot than someone living in poverty in Echo Park [Los Angeles]." The article attributed the quote to Paul Mitchell, the vice-president of Political Data Inc.
Paul Mitchell
image available at http://tinyurl.com/mk5hs2k

High voter turnout, expressed as a percentage, is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of a political system, while low turnout can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Low turnout tends to be concentrated amongst the young and the poor, leading to significant under-representation in elections, with the potential to lead to improperly skewed policy. If Paul's right, that's pretty good news for Sonoma County.

So I went and took a look at the election results last night and this morning, to see what the data looks like.  California does a very efficient job of reporting election returns from different counties as they come in; the page is here. The Secretary of State conveniently makes the data downloadable as a CSV (thank-you!).  I pulled it this morning and graphed turnout, expressed as a percentage.  The results are on the right; a PDF of them is here (you'll probably need the resolution of the PDF to see the individual county names labeling the data points). 

I plotted the data on the log of the number of voters in each county, because the massive variance in the number of registered voters (Alpine with 766, Los Angeles with 4,857,424) makes a lin-lin comparison nearly impossible.  I did a power law regression on the data, which fits pretty well; as county size scales, voter turnout appears to decline fairly regularly.  
PDF available at http://tinyurl.com/obe7hjm

So, the Bay Area doesn't lead the state in turnout.  That award goes to the northern counties, and those of the Sierra foothills.  Tiny Sierra County turns out more than 60% (Alpine, so small I couldn't even get it on this graph, turns out nearly 70%).  There's a cluster of nine (admittedly, sparsely populated) counties clustered near 40%, all with 50,000 voters or less. Voting's a big deal in a small, perhaps remote community, and it shows.  

A second cluster drew my eye -- on the lower right, seven counties, all with more than 1.4 million citizens.  They are Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and San Diego Counties. Between them, they have 6,993,135 registered voters -- two million more voters than Los Angeles County, and a million more voters than the remaining 50 counties combined.  Their turnout is exceptionally low; only two of them managed to clear 20%, Santa Clara and San Diego, and even then, it was by a whisker.  Their location's also interesting; these counties are generally the southern (and to some extent, the eastern) neighbors of the California metropolises that garner an outsized degree of attention, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  

It was the third cluster that really got my attention, though. It's a cluster that's significantly above the trend line.  This group of counties, despite their size, still turn out a relatively high percentage of their voters. From north to south, they are Sonoma, Marin, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties.  The number of voters inside these counties is modest. But the number of votes they cast is significant. The four counties were responsible for 219,674 votes on June 3; only Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties cast more votes than the four put together. The 1,453,951 residents of the quartet cast just 20,000 votes less than the 3.09 million residents of Orange County. 
PDF available at http://tinyurl.com/lb5jsff

The parallel between Santa Barbara and SLO, and Marin and SoCo, strikes me as interesting. While it is Paul's point concerning poverty that got my attention, it is the similarities between the "1-2" northern territories of the great coastal cities, and the fact that they are both amongst the most substantial positive outliers (to the extent we consider higher turnout beneficial) on the graph, that holds my attention.  The unusual motivation of their citizens to participate in their governments makes me wonder what other trends in the data patterns for the two sets of counties may coincide.

But that's a question for another day ...