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September, 2016:

Third Parties Don’t Work. They Really Don’t Work.

Oh, dear. It’s time for my quadrennial warning against third parties. This year is worse than most, because we have two of the strangest and least appealing candidates competing for the Oval Office in my considerable lifetime. I won’t be talking about them here, and I’d prefer not to talk about them in the comments either. Remember, all: heroic courtesy.

Here’s the deal: I’m hearing a lot of people saying that they want to vote for a third party, because neither of the two major parties has put forth a candidate they can stomach. There are third parties, the two largest of which are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. Why not vote for them? Why not? Perhaps because of the First Law of Third Parties in America:

Third parties hurt the chances of the major parties that they most resemble.

It’s true. Follow along with me here, as this isn’t differential equations. We do not have a parliamentary system in the United States. We have a two-party system, and it is very spectacularly and exclusively two-party. This would be true even without the electoral college, so don’t claim that eliminating the electoral college would fix the problem. (The electoral college does make for trickier math.) Third parties are legal, but they don’t do what you probably hope they will do, which is to elect a President that you can look at without losing your lunch. Instead, they can help elect a President that will make you lose your lunch twice as fast.

This year, in fact, they may help elect a President that will make it difficult for you to ever eat again.

Consider the Green Party. Which party does the Green Party most nearly resemble? The Democratic Party. If the Green Party weren’t on the ballot, for which party would Green Party supporters vote? Not the Republicans, let’s say. Same deal with the Libertarians. If the Libertarian Party were not on the ballot, for which party would Libertarian Party supporters vote? Not the Democrats, ditto.

Let’s consider political reality at this point: Are there Libertarian-leaning people who generally vote Democratic? Maybe a few; I’ve never met nor heard of one but some may well exist. Are there Green people who generally vote Republican? Somehow I doubt it.

Here’s the critical point: Presidential elections are winner-take-all affairs. The candidate with the most electoral college votes takes the office. All the other candidates are out of the picture. Read that again. The person with biggest electoral college ballot pile wins. End of story.

So this is how it works in real life: A vote cast for the Green party candidate is in almost all cases a vote not cast for the Democratic candidate. If enough people vote for the Green party to bring the Democratic candidate’s vote count down below the Republican candidate’s vote count in your state, the Republican candidate wins your state, and your Green vote counts for less than nothing. Same on the flipside: If enough people vote for the Libertarian candidate to bring the Republican candidate’s vote count down below the Democratic candidate’s in your state, the Democratic candidate wins your state, and your Libertarian vote counts for less than nothing. If there is enough of this vote siphoning in enough states, a different President takes office than the one who would have in the absence of any third parties.

I simply cannot comprehend why so many people don’t get this.

It’s happened at least once in recent history: The Greens under Ralph Nader threw the election to the Republicans in 2000. Whether Ross Perot threw the 1992 election to Bill Clinton is debatable. If all the Perot voters would have otherwise voted Republican in all the right states, perhaps. But Perot was an odd case, in that he had support (if not equal support) on both side of the political aisle, largely from genuine independents who mostly hated the status quo at the time. I’m pretty sure John Anderson did not throw the election to Reagan in 1980, though being sure of that is made hugely more complex by the intricacies of the electoral college system. Everything depends on who the third-party voters would have voted for in the absense of the third party in question, and that’s an alternate-universe issue that is almost by definition unknowable.

So let me be annoyingly repetitive: You can choose between one of two parties, or you can generate electoral weirdness by voting for a third party and possibly bringing the candidate you most loathe into office. You may consider both parties evil. Evil, however, is what’s on the menu. It’s either hot dogs or hamburgers, and vegans are out of luck.

This may be unpleasant, but it’s how things work. You choose between the lesser of two evils. I do it all the time; in fact, I do it almost every time. You’re going to do it this time too if you have any sense at all. There is no least of three evils, or four. Only two count.

We have a Republic. It may not be the Republic you want, but it’s the Republic we have. Do your best to keep it.

It’s Here: Learning Computer Architecture with Raspberry Pi


I had just tossed a salmon filet on the barbie yesterday evening when the UPS man rang the doorbell. There it was: an author case of a book I signed in 2013, finished in early 2014, and have been waiting for ever since. I confess there were times I approached despair and thought the publisher might cancel it, but the concept had legs, and (more important than legs) Eben Upton was behind it.

It’s not all my own work. My co-authors include Ralph Roberts, Tim Mamtora, Ben Everard, and Eben himself. I wrote Chapters 2-7, which entailed about 100,000 words and 90 hand-drawn technical figures. (My chapters come to about 300 pages out of the book’s 507.) Eben wrote a few thousand additional words in my chapters on things that I don’t know well, like compiler internals. (I’m sure he contributed to other chapters too.)

The publisher hasn’t done an especially good job positioning the book, and it’s already being reviewed badly by people who thought it was something other than what it is. So let me position it for you.

Learning Computer Architecture with Raspberry Pi is an introduction to computer architecture for senior high students, and bright junior high students. It’s not a university-level treatment, though it might have application in community colleges. Like the Raspberry Pi itself, it was designed to be affordable to young people, and so it’s not 1,000 pages long. The cover price is $30 (exactly, no .95s or .99s!) and you can get it on Amazon for the inexpensive if peculiar sum of $18.07. It’s not a standalone manual for the board, nor programming the board, nor learning any given language or operating system. It’s about what all the pieces are, and how they work together.

This is important. Today’s young people are digital natives, in that there were cheap desktop computers, lots of them, since before they were born. Kids who are interested in computers have studied and experimented with those parts of the computer that interest them. This is the sort of learning that trips up autodidacts, since it runs very deep in places, but is shot full of holes, some of them huge. The way to fill those holes is to take a survey course, and that’s precisely what this book is for. The course syllabus itself may not exist yet, but I have a hunch that a lot of educators in a lot of places are already hard at work on curricula using the book as the primary text.

People who have read my other books will recognize the approach I took in these chapters: Start at Square One, at the absolute beginning, and tell readers up front that they can skip a chapter if they discover early on that they’re already familiar with the material. Chapter 2 is titled “Recapping Computing,” which goes back to the idea of “a box that follows a plan,” and continues from there. Some people will skip that chapter. Many won’t. A few may be annoyed that it exists at all. (There’s no pleasing some people.) Once you get past Chapter 2, each chapter is much more focused, and covers a specific continent on the larger world of computing:

2: Recapping Computing

3: Electronic Memory

4: ARM Processors and Systems-on-a-Chip

5: Programming

6: Non-Volatile Storage

7: Networking

Chapters 8-12 were written by others, and provide a Raspberry-Pi specific slant on things, especially graphics and I/O. I had not seen those chapters until yesterday, so I can’t say a whole lot more about them just yet. A cursory glance suggests that you won’t be disappointed.

That’s pretty much the story. I had something additional in mind that I didn’t talk about while I was writing my chunk of the book back in 2013: homeschooling. I wanted the treatment to be so clear and comprehensible that parents could use the book in a homeschool environment. I think I succeeded, but I won’t know until I hear from a few homeschoolers. Sooner or later, that’ll happen.

I needed a book like this back in 1970, but of course, it didn’t exist. Computers themselves were mysterious, and the computer gatekeepers seemed to like it that way. Not me. Nothing should stand between people who want to learn and what they want to learn. Nothing. If my lifetime mission as a nonfiction writer could be stated in just a few words, that would be it. I loathe elitism, credentialism, and exclusive-club-ism. I learned stuff, I wrote books about it, and now you can learn it too. If you haven’t started learning about computers yet, well, this is a pretty good time to start. And forgive me for saying so, but this is a pretty good book to start with.

Go for it!

Odd Lots

Rant: The Dragon Awards and the Convergence of Exiles

Forty years ago exactly, Carol and I were there in the throngs of MidAmericon I. The con was a celebration of Robert A. Heinlein and (by implication) all of hard SF. It was a tremendously popular con. The newly adult Baby Boomers were pouring into SF and conventions by the thousands. Many people began to fret that these enthusiastic new fans would swamp the longstanding traditions of fandom and turn fandom into something that fandom itself wouldn’t recognize.

Never one to let a supposed crisis go to waste, con chair Ken Keller had the concom raise prices to levels never seen before, finally $50 at the door without an advance registration. (This would be $211 in 2016 dollars.) Keller did something else: He tried to pitch the con as strictly for fans of capital-S capital-F Science Fiction, and stated pretty clearly that “fringefans” (that is, Trekkies and gamers and media fans generally) would find the con boring and should stay away. I don’t know Keller and I’m not sure how serious he was; it sounded like a publicity stunt even then. Lots of people made fun of him in the runup to the convention, myself included. I wrote several filk songs mocking MidAmericon, and one specifically mocking Keller.

At the time I thought it was just some guy throwing his weight around, and I doubt anybody gave much thought to the question: What if they really do go away? Heh. Guess what? In 1987, the first DragonCon was held. During the years since then, Worldcon attendance wobbled around a few thousand truefen, while DragonCon (and other media cons like ComiCon) absolutely exploded. At this writing, media cons routinely out-pull Worldcons by a factor of ten or more. (Sometimes a lot more.) By 2015, ComiCon San Diego had 167,000 people in attendance. Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, had…3,418. 2% of ComiCon.

Alas, across these past forty years, Worldcon has become a rounding error.

I’ve never been to a media con and I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but seeing reports from other authors, it’s become clear that media cons are not entirely superhero cosplay anymore, if they ever were to begin with. There are programming tracks on purely textual SF and fantasy, with author guests and signings, and all the stuff we used to enjoy doing at Worldcons.

Ok. It took forty years, but media cons have now matured enough and broadened their focus enough to give birth to a new award that touches on most aspects of the creative fantastic, including textual SF and fantasy. The Dragon Awards were presented yesterday. The list of awards has been posted on the DragonCon site. The award is a popular-vote award rather than a juried award like the Nebulas. It’s a fan award, nominated by fans and voted on by fans. How many fans exactly has not yet been released, though I hope numbers will come out eventually.

What struck me as significant about the Dragon Awards is that there are seven different categories for textual novels: Best SF, Best Fantasy, Best YA, Best Military SFF, Best Alternate History, Best Apocalyptic, and Best Horror. (There are, as you might expect, Best Graphic Novel and Best Comic Book categories as well.) There are no awards for short fiction, no art awards, and no fan awards. I think one or two art awards would make sense, and with some luck we’ll have those someday. I’ll give them some time to get it right. This was the award’s first year, after all.

Even though I’m way behind in my reading because of the Big Move, several authors on the winners list are people I have read in the past and much like, including the late, great Terry Pratchett, Larry Correia, John C. Wright, and my friend Brian Niemeier. What these four authors have in common (perhaps with others like Nick Cole whom I’ve not yet read) is a knack for telling a damned fine yarn without getting mired in identity politics or self-conscious message pie. Furthermore, Brian Niemeier won the award as an indie, with his self-published second novel, Souldancer.

If the Dragons are any reflection of the shape of media fandom, one of my longstanding suspicions has been confirmed: Media fandom is absorbing traditional SFF fandom. Traditional fandom has become fussy, elitist, and ideologically uniform to the extent that there is active hostility toward anyone who doesn’t either salute the progressive left or stay fastidiously quiet. This was not always the case, and I used to count among my friends many on the left, some of them very frank Marxists. (Some are still my friends. Others have called me a fascist or some other damfool thing for my Puppy sympathies and are long off my roster.) We used to have lively discussions of various political issues at cons, and nobody went home mad. But that was the 70s. I had hair, and fandom was young, tolerant and diverse. It was a short time comin’, and it’s been a long time gone.

At MidAmericon II last week, the concom ejected Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online for making several panelists…uncomfortable. (Really. I am not making this up. It’s in the Code of Conduct.) I heard the audio of his schtick and read many descriptions of the panel itself. The schtick was funny. Yes, Dave was mocking political correctness, just as I was mocking Ken Keller back in 1976. Keller didn’t throw me out of the con; I’m pretty sure he was too mature for that sort of nonsense. MidAmericon II has a code of conduct so broad that it basically allowed the concom to throw out anybody they didn’t like. Suppose I had gone to a panel moderated by John Scalzi and he made me uncomfortable. Would they throw him out on my complaint?

Hang on. I’ll stop giggling in a minute or two…

Ok. There. Whew. [Blows nose. Is glad he wasn’t drinking Diet Mountain Dew.] The point I’ll close with is something we should have learned forty years ago: If you abuse and insult people, they will leave, and avoid you from then on. Back in 1976, MidAmericon I insulted media fans, and little by little, they left. More recently, SF’s Insider Alphas have been insulting people who dare question progressive orthodoxy in fantastic literature, and those people are leaving. I didn’t expect that the two groups of exiles would converge, but that’s what appears to be happening. A young, diverse (see Sarah Hoyt’s description linked to above) and ginormous fandom is coalescing outside the fandom I grew up with. It isn’t conservative in any identifiable way. People aren’t leaving fandom because it’s almost exclusively left-leaning. (I recall it leaning strongly left forty years ago.) They’re leaving because fandom is now intolerant of dissent, and because far too many in fandom demonize all opposition. That’s not the left wing I encountered during the Vietnam era in the ’70s and once identified with. That’s just tribalism in a fandom costume.

If media cons remain at 100,000 plus attendance levels, I’ll have some issues, because crowds that big make me twitchy. However, some interesting things are happening. The people who created Phoenix ComiCon have created a new, smaller, and more focused event called Phoenix Fan Fest. Its emphasis is on comic books, and on interaction between comics creators and their fans, with a mere 15,000 or so attendees. If the ComiCon creators can break out comic books into their own event, why not textual SFF? They could do it if they wanted to. Given the emergence of the Dragon Awards, my guess is that sooner or later, they will.

At that point, the schism becomes complete: 5% of fandom will remain grumpy and exclusionary. The other 95% will just get together–in events both large and, well, less large–and have fun in one another’s company.

That’s not a wish. That’s a prophecy.