There has been a lot of crime and violence during the recent protests. As a white man I am not going to claim that I understand the experience of African Americans in this country – I do not. However because of recent experiences in my life I have had a very small glimpse of what it feels like to be helpless against a legal system, a society, and a government that seems to not care at all about you. This experience has given me the ability to better empathize with those who are currently protesting.

I’m old enough to recall the LA riots that occurred after the Rodney King arrest. This was in 1992 when I was 22 years old and just about to graduate from college. I could not understand why people resorted to crime during these times. I assumed the crimes were committed by criminals that simply saw an opportunity during the chaos to steal and vandalize, but my views have very much changed since that time. While I certainly do not condone vandalism, looting, arson, or any kind of crime (particularly violent crime) I have a very different picture of what might be going through the minds of the people committing these crimes during a protest. I believe one huge motivator for these outbursts is revenge. Almost everyone understands the desire to seek revenge. At some point, most people have been treated unfairly and had vengeful thoughts.

What I think most people have not experienced is the desire to seek revenge against something and not someone. When you feel like society and our legal system as a whole have wronged you, it is hard to focus your anger on a particular individual or group of individuals. When it is society against which you want revenge, that anger can come out in very different ways, and when it is a large group of people feeling they’ve been wronged you see many different acts of defiance. For example, I saw a Target store being looted. Maybe some people simply saw this chaos as an opportunity to steal a nice television. However, you have wonder if some of those people felt they’d been wronged by that Target. Maybe a security guard was following them around for no reason, or maybe they were treated poorly. But, how do you get revenge against Target? You can stop shopping there but that would likely have little effect. Plus, that is really not a satisfying way to get revenge. You could picket in front of Target, write letters, make blog posts, or publish what happened in other forums, but maybe you lack the time and resources for these pursuits. Even if you are able to take these actions, you may fear that no one would truly listen and nothing would be done.

I experienced first hand that desire for revenge about seven years ago. If you’re aware of what’s happened in my life over that period you may think it’s actually a person or a few people against whom I’ve thought about seeking revenge. I can assure you that it is most definitely not true. Although there were a few individuals that contributed to my suffering, I don’t blame any individual(s) for the things that happened. It is really a system and institutions that I blame the most. I have had many many hours and days with nothing to do but ponder ways in which to get revenge against these institutions, and I came up with plenty of ideas. I’m not going to disclose my ploys, as I never carried any of them out and have no plans to do so. While I may be intelligent enough to have come up with some really good plans, most acts of revenge against an institution involve doing something illegal. I am no master criminal and am under no delusion that I’m smarter than the combined experience and intelligence of law enforcement. Thus, no matter how “brilliant” I think a plan might be, I would never think there is no way I’d get caught. Plus, while none of these plans ever involved hurting someone, I could always envision how an individual might be harmed, and that was something that was simply not acceptable to me. I have a lot to look forward to in my life and getting caught and punished would severely hamper those things.

You may be wondering then how I can say I understand the actions taken by some individuals during these protests. It’s really simple; the risk-reward trade-off for me is probably very different than for most of the people taking these actions. While I’m sure none of them want to get caught, I suspect many do not see a bright future ahead. While a few months in jail is certainly no fun, when you really have nothing else to look forward to for those few months and think it’s not going to have a negative impact on your future, the calculus changes and the rewards start to outweigh the risks. Plus, when part of the reward is the feeling of getting revenge, it is much easier to justify your actions in your own head.

Part of the risk of getting caught for most people is the possibility of going to jail or prison. It’s not only that people don’t want to be incarcerated, it’s that there’s a huge fear of the unknown; you have no idea what it will be like or how you might fit in. However, once you’ve been in jail or prison that fear is gone, and I suspect for most people the experience is likely not nearly as bad as they imagined. In fact, your life incarcerated may not really be much worse than your life free. I certainly heard this from quite a few inmates.

I don’t know how many of these protesters have spent time in jail/prison (old statistics from the Department of Justice show about 20% of African Americans have been incarcerated by the time they are 30), but given the unfair treatment by law enforcement that they are protesting, I would guess that the number is unfortunately high. Thus the fear of the unknown that is prison may not be a consideration for many of these people. Sadly many may very well feel that they have nothing much to lose, and that this last resort behavior is justified.  Additionally, it is also human nature to somewhat mute bad experiences, making someone’s time being incarcerated not seem nearly as bad as it was at the time. I can certainly related to this.

The final reason I can understand the destruction is that it is so frustrating to feel like your voice is not being heard. You say over and over that there is a problem and no one listens. You say over and over that something is unjust and no one listens. The news pays attention for a news cycle which lasts at most a couple of week. For example, when was Ahmaud Arbery last in the news? The frustration builds as you see more and more injustice happening and no one in power doing anything about it, even if it’s not clear what the best course of action is. Destruction is one way of making your voice heard even if no one actually hears your voice. It keeps the media’s attention. While I do not suspect there is some larger, deeper plan to destroy things to keep the focus on the problem, I can understand the desire to act out when you feel your needs are not being met and think no one is listening; this is a natural and very human reaction that we are all born with.

Another part of the problem here is also that those who are supposed to be there to protect people (law enforcement) are the ones that are causing harm. The sense of betrayal here is immense – it’s a similar dynamic to a child that is being abused by a parent or teacher.  Over time the relationship gets extremely warped and the child will likely lash out eventually.  Unfortunately, this aggression is often not directed at the person that abused them, but at their own children or others around them.

I will leave you with a clip from a show I saw in early 2013 when I was feeling a lot of hate and anger.  It really resonated with me then and it still does.

The debate about executive orders is a long and intricate one, and I personally believe that over the years both parties (when in power) have expanded executive power too far. There is obviously a reason to allow executive orders, i.e. when something needs to be done quickly in an emergency. Whether the COVID-19 outbreak was/is an emergency is of course debatable. However, I feel it was/is far more of an emergency than Twitter’s ability to respond to tweets on its platform.
What you have to remember is that all the executive power Trump normalizes can and will be used by the other party when in power. I see these as very short-term wins for the Republican party that generally weaken the checks and balances our government depends on to be a democracy.
A private (or public as Twitter is) is free to respond to someone’s post, and to a limited degree delete posts and accounts. They do it all the time. See my follow-up post about the actual order. Of course, that’s the legal maneuver.

I’m talking here about his follow-up tweets about the situation and his general sense that what Twitter did somehow violated his right to free speech.

While Barr has said the DOJ had been looking into that particular section of the law, and there are some good arguments that it should be altered, I do believe the timing of this is simply a result of Trump’s vindictiveness.

The document is really not that complex and could have easily been written in a couple of days and even a matter of hours by someone versed in the particular law under scrutiny. It also clearly shows the vindictive nature that he’s expressed in tweets following Twitter replying to his tweet. See: https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-preventing-online-censorship/

Of course, this will need to withstand legal scrutiny of the courts, but I think that is part of the ploy–make social media platforms “waste” money in drawn-out legal battles in which it seems lawyers are typically the only winners.

There is a lot to debate about section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act but I believe it actually allows free speech more than it hampers it. Without it, say, Lori Klausutis’ husband could sue Twitter about the posts the president made concerning her death. That just does not seem right to me. It would be like a store being sued because someone besides the owners posting inflammatory material on a bulletin board they’d set up for public announcements. If you want to go even more extreme, I don’t think it’d be right to allow a business to be sued because of someone spray-painting inflammatory things on their building.

Social platforms need to maintain a balance between allowing people to express their opinions and the need to prevent misinformation from spreading, and maybe they go too far sometimes.

I believe Trump’s original travel ban from Arab counties did not pass the legal challenges, but the revised version did by a party-line vote in SCOTUS. But the debate over the courts becoming too political is for another time.

I guess he went through with it. If it has any effect it will only stifle the ability to express oneself. You allow Twitter to be sued over what users post and you think they wouldn’t immediately take down many of Trump’s tweets, especially the ones about Scarborough. Honestly, I think Twitter should in response simply delete his account saying it’s too much of a liability for them now.


I seriously wonder how courts will rule on this… if they rule for Trump our society will be permanently altered, for the worse I believe. Trump is trying to limit Twitter’s freedom of speech. Can he possibly not see that? Are the “advisers” he has surrounded himself with too afraid to point out the obvious inconsistency? Does he think his followers will not see this obvious inconsistency?
No newspaper is under any obligation to publish every letter they receive, and Twitter is under no obligation to publish every tweet they receive. Likewise, a newspaper is free to publish a letter and then respond to it. Twitter is free to do the same.
Please, SOMEONE, rent a room in a Trump hotel and hang a banner critical of Trump from the window and see what happens.


It appears that our president’s vindictiveness towards anyone that he perceives as disagreeing with or slighting him goes even deeper than I previously thought.  He also clearly does not understand that companies, public or private, are under no obligation to protect free speech.  Do you think Trump would not have banners hung from the windows of his hotels saying “Trump Sucks” removed?  Companies are also under no obligation to not have an opinion.  Twitter did not remove his tweets; they only officially responded to them with counterpoints.  Is it not THEIR right to do so?  We have a narcissistic, vindictive bully as a president that is willing to use all the power we’ve given him and power we did not give him to protect his ego, belittle and oppress his opponents, and take revenge on anyone that disagrees with him.

We cannot allow this man to continue dismantling the government we have so he can take revenge on his enemies.  He and the Republican party are establishing some dangerous precedents that can and likely will be used by both parties in the future.  To those that applaud him for taking these actions, please remember that future presidents will also take advantage of these precedents and implement policies through executive orders and/or with no oversight that you may very much not like.

Okay, I couldn’t help myself…

“Make no mistake…I’m not posting this for debate. I don’t seek or need commentary. Unfollow or unfriend me if it makes you feel better.”

Not posting for debate? Give me a break. Plus, you should be seeking commentary because that’s how views and opinions evolve, and how you learn.

“Just consider this…when you think the President is a jerk; he is.”


“He’s a New Yorker. He’s crude and can be rude. He gets his feelings hurt and he’s a hot head. He hits back; harder. And he should Tweet less.”

Agreed. Not sure about the hitting back harder. Often seems a lot like flailing and tantrums to me.

“Let me tell you what else he is.”

Please do…

“He is a guy that demands performance.”

As long as you agree with him, and the performances he demands appear to be mostly to entertain him. He also seems to demand a lot from his accountants and lawyers to bail him out of bankruptcies and paying taxes.

“He is a guy that asks lots of questions.”

Because he doesn’t understand a lot of stuff which is not necessarily bad. Asking questions is good, but asking if we can test injecting people with disinfectants is not. The bigger problem is he doesn’t seem to pay any attention to the answer unless it agrees with him.

“The questions he asks aren’t cloaked in fancy “political” phrases; they are “why the hell…” questions.”

No, they are just cloaked in self-grandeur and boasting about how great he is.

“For decades the health industry has thrown away billions of face masks after one use. Trump asks, “why the hell are we throwing them away? Why not sterilize them and use them numerous times?””

There’s a simple answer to that. It’s cheaper and more cost-effective that way. It’s why almost all medical supplies are “single-use”. Sterilizing things regularly costs a lot. Why doesn’t he ask why we all don’t carry a nice straw with us instead of using a disposable one?

“He’s the guy that gets hospital ships readied in one week when it would have taken a bureaucrat weeks or months to get it done.”

That hospital ship had almost zero impact on the situation in New York. It was great symbolism and showmanship but very little real benefit.

“He’s the guy that gets temporary hospitals built in three days.”

How did HE do that? It seems like he left that up to states and their leadership.

“He’s the guy that gets auto industries to restructure to build ventilators in a business that’s highly regulated by agencies that move like sloths.”

After people kept pushing him to use his powers to do this. I also wonder how many ventilators the auto industry has built. Plus, they still need to be tested and certified. There’s a reason medical equipment is highly regulated. It needs to work!

“He’s the guy that asks “why aren’t we using drugs that might work on people that are dying; what the hell do we have to lose?””

Drugs have side effects and a limited supply. Injecting disinfectants “might” work also.

“He’s the guy that restricted travel from China when the Democrats and liberal media were screaming “xenophobia” and “racist.” Now they’re wanting to know why didn’t he react sooner?”

Do you know how many American businesspeople got stuck in China? He’s a selective xenophobe, much like Hitler was come to think of it.

“He’s the guy that campaigned on securing the border – protecting America – in the face of screaming Democrats and the liberal media. When he shut down borders in the midst of the coronavirus virus, they screamed louder. Then the rest of the world followed suit, including the European Union with travel between their member countries.”

The rest of the world was shutting things down too. Securing the border isn’t really protecting America. And from what I’ve seen he’s not done anything to actually do that. Why aren’t we securing our northern border? The thing is, immigration from Mexico, legal and illegal, has been declining for decades. The standard of living between there and here is still very different but not as different as it was 30 years ago. Do you personally know anyone that has lost their job to a Mexican?

“Has he made mistakes? Yes.”


“Everyone I know has and does.”

Also agreed.

“The “experts” wouldn’t and haven’t done any better.”

It depends on the “experts” you listen to and if they are really experts. Are they also trying to sell a book, promote their podcast, or get elected? Experts are experts because they’ve studied a field extensively and probably have a more informed opinion than non-experts. Do you listen to everything an auto mechanic tells you as gospel? Do you get second opinions? Experts disagree all the time, it’s what keeps fields advancing. Most experts are making educated guesses because things are complicated. I’d rather have an educated guess than a non-educated one.

“Trump is working harder than I’ve ever seen a President work. Twenty-four hour days. He isn’t hiding in his office; he’s outdoor front – Briefing – every day.”

He’s outdoors briefing because he’d rather be in front of the cameras than actually working. I’m not sure why him “briefing” reporters ever day is working. It seems like he spends an awful lot of time simply bragging about himself and his genius, tweeting, and watching TV.

“When he offers hope, he’s lying and when he’s straight forward, he should be hopeful. It’s a no win situation, but he’ll not be deterred.”

Sometimes we need a cheerleader and I think it wasn’t necessarily bad that he tried to calm fears at the beginning of this. However, as he saw the rapid exponential growth and problems it was causing he should have quit saying things like “the cases will be zero soon”. The thing is, he is lying, or bullshitting (there’s a difference) most of the time. There’s a way to calm fears and not lie. Politics is really by its very nature a no-win situation. Every politician deals with that. I think Trump does it very poorly because he’s simply too arrogant to listen to anyone.

“I’ll take this kind of leadership six days a week and twice on Sunday over a “polished, nice guy” politician who reads prepared speeches from a teleprompter and answers pre-scripted questions.”

Polished, nice guys are not great either. As George Carlin said about Bill Clinton, “The American people like their bullshit right up front, where they can get a good, strong whiff of it. Clinton might be full of shit, but at least he lets you know it. Dole tried to hide it, didn’t he? Dole kept saying, “I’m a plain and honest man.” Bullshit! People don’t believe that. What did Clinton say? He said, “Hi, folks! I’m completely full of shit, and how do you like that?” And the people said, “You know something? At least he’s honest!”” (https://www.youtube.com/watch…)

“He is my President.”


“Copy and share if you agree.”




I have updated the plots with the data up to May 24, 2020, and highlighted Wisconsin since people seem to be interested in what’s happening there.

While I haven’t lived in Michigan in 27 years, I still have many friends and family members that live there, and I go there fairly regularly.  It seems many people are upset with how their governor has handled the shutdown and enforced social distancing, although it appears from polls that the majority of people support her policies.

Besides simply being upset that small business owners are being hurt by this, it seems that many people are upset that they were/are not allowed to go to vacation properties that are usually located in rural areas of northern Michigan.  I suspect the thought here was that this was part of an overall limiting of travel.  I can understand this from a health perspective as it would keep the spread in areas where there are far more healthcare resources.  I can also understand that at a time when people are social distancing, they would like to be able to get away for a bit, and in many ways increase social distancing.

I have also heard many complaints about not being able to go out in boats, and I have to say I really do not understand the reasoning for this.  Maybe it’s to limit the number of people that need to monitor boating and/or needing to respond to emergencies.  While boating isn’t a huge thing in Pennsylvania, I don’t think there are any limitations here, and I’ve not heard of this in other states; but I may be wrong.

Finally, it seems people are particularly concerned with barbershops and salons.  I’m not sure what the particular concern is with these places other than that many are indeed small businesses.  However, there are all kinds of other small businesses that are also being hurt.  I can understand the government’s stance to keep them closed to enforce social distancing which is hard to do when you’re getting your hair cut.  If we’d have built up our testing capabilities faster, then maybe barbers and beauticians could be regularly tested and given some certificate to ensure customers of this.  It also seems like barbers and beauticians have made very public statements about their feelings.  However, it seems to me that there are just as many small gym owners and personal trainers as there are barbers and beauticians.  I don’t hear about them complaining, although I’m sure they are, at least privately.

So, let’s take a look at the data (with all the caveats attached) for Michigan.  First, let’s look at the ratio of day-to-day changes in the number of infected; this is often called R.  The plot below shows this for all states with four highlighted for comparison.  The points above 1.45 at the start that aren’t highlighted are from Missouri.  It’s clear that things started off in Michigan with the virus spreading very fast, and there’s plenty of speculation on why that was.

If we look at the new infections each day averaged over a week, we see that, as suggested by the plot above, the infections spread in Michigan very fast.  Sometime in the first half of April things changed dramatically, as they did in Louisiana.  New infections have now steadied for both states.  Note that Michigan’s population is about twice that of Louisiana’s and slightly more than New Jersey’s.  Although the infection rate seems to be increasing slightly in the last couple weeks, I suspect the attitude is from a healthcare perspective, “Whatever we’re doing is working, so let’s keep doing it.”  From an economic perspective it’s really hard to say, but it’s certainly realistic to think that there could be another explosion in the number of cases.  If there is one I suspect it’d be less severe than the first time because people are simply more away and taking precautions.  Illinois now has the most new infections of any state, and California is catching up to New York.

Linear scale
Logarithmic scale

Now let’s take a look at deaths each day, again average over a seven day period.  I think this is the one that got the Michigan government/governor very concerned.  While the number of daily new infections mirrored that of Louisiana closely, the number of deaths each day was more than double for many days.  It’s hard to determine why this was besides maybe an older and less healthy population.  Louisiana’s infections were concentrated around New Orleans like Michigan’s were concentrated around Detroit.  I doubt the medical care in the Detroit area is any better or worse than in the New Orleans area.  Likewise I would think that per capita the capacity would likely be the same.

Linear scale
Logarithmic scale

I have no idea if the actions Michigan’s governor took and is taking are the best strategy overall.  It certainly seems to be from a healthcare perspective.  The big questions that will never be answered are:  How many people would have died or gotten severely ill without the actions taken?  And, how much better would the economy be without those actions?  My personal feeling is that a couple thousand more people would have died and the economy would probably not be a whole lot better.  New data from Politico says that “…that Georgia now leads the country in terms of the proportion of its workforce applying for unemployment assistance. A staggering 40.3 percent of the state’s workers — two out of every five — has filed for unemployment insurance payments since the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread shutdowns in mid-March, a POLITICO review of Labor Department data shows.”

I’m not really sure of a good way to look at the life versus economy tradeoff.  Maybe the best way is to think that we (you) saved 2,000 lives but lost 2,000 small businesses.  That’s still a hard one to judge, but I would think many small business owners would trade their business for the life of a loved one.

There has been quite a bit of debate about the “dire” predictions that COVID-19 models have made and are making for infections and, especially, deaths, and how those predictions are being used to scare people.  I can say with a great deal of certainty that scientists making these models and doing the simulations are not intentionally trying to scare anyone.  (The only “scientists” I am skeptical of are the ones trying to sell books or market themselves for something.  The “Plandemic” woman is in this category.  She’s been peddling false hope to people with chronic illnesses for a long time.)  On the other hand, in the hands of the media and politicians the predictions can be used in many different ways.  I think many of the early models used a few different scenarios:  we do nothing, we socially distance and/or shutdown, we discover a vaccine, etc.  If you want to scare people, the predictions from the models in which we do nothing can certainly be used, and I believe that if we had done nothing we would be in a very serious situation.

I’ve spent most of the last 30 years developing and analyzing models, mostly trying to predict how physical systems will respond.  Physical system models are not hard to develop if you understand the physical laws that govern them (and the mathematics needed to study them).  There have been very few advances in modeling physical systems at scales visible to humans in nearly a century.  That is why physicists rightly say that most of what engineers do is classical physics.  One nice thing about physical systems is they are not alive to change their behaviors to something not included in the model.  (Note, “smart” materials on which I did a lot of research are not actually smart. [1])  Another nice thing is you can do controlled experiments to validate your model.  Finally, you have a lifetime of experience and intuition to use to see if the results make physical sense.  However, I think the best results are the ones that do not initially make intuitive sense and require you to adjust your intuition.  See footnote [2] for a great example of this and footnote [3] for my experience trying to get engineering students to use their intuition and common sense.

The basic model for disease spread is what’s called the SIR (susceptible/infected/recovered) model; there are many variations and extensions of this.  There are also many good explanations of this model online so I won’t go into details about it here.  I would recommend watching the YouTube video I’ve embedded at the end.  One thing to know about these models is that they are statistical and have many parameters that people can “tweak” and many “features” that can be added.  Being statistical, they will only give you an “average” sense of what might happen.  Likewise, you can adjust the parameters to get almost any prediction.  This is where so-called fitting comes in.  Scientists will tweak the parameters until they fit known cases and hope those parameters will predict what will happen in the future.  When scientists share these models they usually provide the parameters they’ve used and what “ingredients” have been included.  Although some people want to keep their models proprietary, and I would be skeptical of them.  The problem here is that by the time the predictions hit the media and politicians all those details have been stripped away to make it more digestible for the general public.

Statistical models have been used in physics for over a century, and from basically the time we realized matter was made of atoms but we could still measure properties of matter without having to keep track of every atom.  For example, the temperature of something basically measures on average the energy contained in the atoms/molecules comprising the material.  We don’t need to track every atom to get this average.  Likewise, the pressure from the air you feel is the forces of all the molecules in the air hitting you.  If the wind hits you from one side you notice a net force acting to push you in the direction the wind is blowing.  This is simply because more molecules are hitting you on one side than the other creating a net force that wants to move you.  Again, we do not need to keep track of every molecule/atom to determine what this force is.

Statistical models in physics (a subject called statistical mechanics) work extremely well and are used extensively.  Like SIR models statistical mechanics models can be more or less complicated by adding or removing ingredients.  For example, the “ideal gas law” that relates pressure, temperature, and volume was known long before we understood anything about atoms, and we now know that it can be completely derived by averaging the motion of atoms and molecules modeled as balls bouncing around.  However, there are cases when the ideal gas law doesn’t work well.  For example if the gas is made from molecules you can include the rotation of the molecule as an ingredient.  It turns out that under “normal” conditions this ingredient isn’t needed, but under extreme conditions it helps explain why the ideal gas law fails.  The other time statistical models don’t work well is when you don’t have enough particles (i.e. atoms or molecules) to average over.  If you only have, say, one thousand atoms bouncing around in a box, statistical averaging starts to not work so well.  Fortunately, with modern computing power, we can model billions of atoms moving around using molecular dynamic simulations.

One reason statistical models and molecular dynamic simulation work so well is that atoms do not have free will, i.e. under the same situation they will all act the same.  People on the other hand are very different.  It’s this behavior and the feedback causing that behavior that makes modeling populations so hard.  If you have millions of people you can try to estimate how the average person will behave and include that in a statistical model.  Most of the variations of the SIR are doing just that, but modeling behavior even on average is very difficult.  While we could theoretically model every person in the United States acting in an average way, we know this would provide the same results as the statistical model.  We could include some randomness in the every-person model, but again with enough people you’re still going to get the average result.  What an every-person model may help predict is how a very non-uniform population density plays a role.  However, SIR models can be adjusted for this too.

To help explain the SIR model, the creator of the two videos below basically does molecular dynamics simulations with people replacing the atoms and behaving in different random ways.  Note the Twitter screenshot he includes around the 2:14 mark with someone responding to him, “Im not a gas in a box :'(”  Because he is only using around one thousand people walking basically randomly he makes many runs and averages the results.  To try to model the variation in people’s behavior he uses various percentages and looks at how these percentages change the results.  For example, he varies the percentage of people infected that get quarantined or the percentage of people traveling from one community to another.

When you’re modeling things with algorithms instead of equations you can play around with all kinds of probable behaviors and actions.  Things can get extremely complicated and often you have no idea what the result might be.  There is actually a scientific/mathematical buzzword for this called “emergent behavior.”  According to Wikipedia, “emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own.”  You can think of your body as the emergence of all the individual cells doing their own thing.  Scientists and mathematicians are enamored with emergent behavior because you often see very interesting and realistic behaviors emerge from very simple models of how the parts interact.

While I am certainly biased, I believe the scientific community is doing a great job simply trying to keep people informed.  Unfortunately, their messages can get distorted and used politically.  Plus, scientists usually avoid words like “never” and “always” so when someone asks them if it’s possible 10 million people will die, they’ll simply answer, “Yes.  It’s possible.”



[1]  Playing with a dielectric elastomer “smart” material water balloon in the lab of my former student Nakhiah Goulbourne at the University of Michigan during the summer of 2010.  What makes this material “smart” is a crazy-stupid 5,000V being applied across the membrane, although there is very little current so not much power.


Wrinkled mylar balloon.

[2] A great example of needing to adjust your intuition based on strange results from a model is a model/simulation I worked on with Elaine Serina when we were graduate students.  Elaine wanted to understand how forces on your fingertip get transferred to tension in the skin and stresses on the bone as part of a larger study on carpal tunnel syndrome.  As a simple first step, we decided to model the fingertip as an ellipsoid (think of a plain M&M) inflated by water and then compressed between two plates.  We wanted the initial inflation because there is usually tension in your skin (unless you’ve been soaking in water and are all “pruney”).  However, when Elaine took the equations I derived and wrote code to solve them she kept getting strange results that we were both convinced couldn’t be correct.  The simulations were showing that when you inflated the skin membrane you would get compressive stresses.  Our intuition said, “You can’t inflate something and get compression.”  We spent at least a month trying to figure out what was wrong with the model and/or the code to no avail.  After a meeting with our thesis adviser in which he concurred with our intuition that something must be wrong, we were walking back to our lab through the student union and noticed the inflated mylar balloons.  One of us (likely me because I was the one studying wrinkling caused by membrane compression) realized that all the mylar balloons were wrinkled around the edges, just where our model was predicting compressive stresses.  The only way you get wrinkles is when you have compressive stresses.  Thus, we realized our intuition was wrong!  As you inflate a mylar balloon the edges want to pull in towards the center.  This creates the compression.  If you have a rubber balloon of this shape, adding more pressure will eventually cause the wrinkles to disappear.  However, because mylar is so stiff you can’t pressurize it enough to remove the wrinkles without it rupturing.

[3] I was always a bit disheartened with how many mechanical engineering students did not seem to have this intuition when they got to the junior-level class I regularly taught.  To address this, part of every homework problem was a statement about why they felt their answer was correct or incorrect.  Early in the semester I would get answers like, “Because I followed all the steps and checked the math.”  I was constantly shocked at how many mechanical engineering students did not come into the class with the skill of looking at the result they got and evaluating if it made physical sense.  Every semester I talked a lot about “sanity checks.”  Plus, I wanted to know if they suspected their answer was not correct, as it’s much better in the real world to know a result is likely not correct than to think it is.

I think it’s good to summarize discussions so I’m going to summarize the one on mail-in voting. There are some random links at the end; I wasn’t good at saving them during my “research.” It seems to me like the main opposition to mail-in voting is voter fraud, and I understand the concern. Mail-in voting does open up some other avenues for voter fraud, but some states have had exclusive mail-in voting for some time. Oregon has been doing so since 1996 and watches closely for fraud and has not had a problem with it. It seems both parties (in Oregon) agree on that. However, some have noted that Oregon has had two decades to refine the system, but they had to start at some point.

I can certainly understand people’s concerns about voter fraud, and I can see how mail-in voting could open up some other avenues for it. Thus, the trade-off appears to be the risk of additional voter fraud versus making voting easier and increasing “turn out.” I suspect where you land on that trade-off depends greatly on how much of a problem you think voter fraud is. While there are certainly cases of voter fraud my research has shown that it occurs on both sides; there are zealots on both sides willing to risk a lot to make their voice count extra. However, every study I found suggested these zealots are very very rare.

There was also some discussion of voter fraud by the officials tasked with collecting and counting ballots. I suppose mail-in voting could give these officials more of an opportunity to destroy votes. However, we should have a pretty good system in place for preventing that by having representatives from all parties involved. We’ve had centuries of dealing with officials collecting votes and often counting them by hand.

The biggest concern seemed to be of dead people voting, and I’m sure there are people on both sides willing to risk doing this. However, it seems like this should be easy to catch simply by keeping voter registration databases up-to-date and cross-checking with databases of those that have died. There’s seems to be a lot of discussion about some voter registration databases including thousands of dead people because they have not been updated in years. I’m sure this is likely true, but there doesn’t seem to be any correlation with additional voter fraud in these precincts. When there have been systematic checks there are usually initially surprising numbers of dead people voting. However, in every case I saw, all of these were false positives with people having the same name, clerical error, or someone having mailed in a vote before they died.

There was also some worry of non-residents and “illegals” voting but they would have to do so in someone else’s name since they would not be in any voter registration database. It seems like where you stand on possibly allowing non-residents to vote depends on who you think they’ll vote for. There was also some discussion of Democrats pushing for non-residents being allowed to vote and there have been some places that have allowed this for local elections. There seems to be no explicit push from either side to allow non-residents to vote. An interesting fact I discovered doing a little research on this is that most state constitutions initially allowed non-residents to vote but, of course, did not allow women to vote. Many just required a man to simply have resided in the state for some period (usually a few months) to vote. Others simply said that any man wishing to become a resident could vote. I had not known this and it surprises me somewhat. However, thinking about it a little, I suspect that there was very much less animosity towards immigrants and non-residents at the time because so many people had themselves or close relatives been immigrants. This attitude shifted in the late 1800s and early 1900s and now no state (at least at a state level) allows non-residents to vote. Again, I suspect this has a lot to do with the majority of people during this period not having had themselves or close relatives immigrate to this county.

In the end, I think people’s stance depends on which side they think these fraudulent ballots will be cast, and who is being hampered from voting by having to go to a polling place. There’s no shortage of Republican politicians saying (admitting) that high voter turnout is not good for them. There is also no shortage of Democrats saying the opposite. It appears that the research and election results do strongly suggest this. I suspect no one is surprised by it. Thus, I think people should consider if the strength of their stance on mail-in voting has a lot to do with the party they want to win an election.

I feel that making it convenient to vote strongly outweighs whatever additional fraud might occur. I honestly think what little fraud there is probably has the same prevalence on both sides and likely cancels out in the end. However, I have to admit that I suspect that if the candidate I wanted to win was going to be hurt by mail-in voting I might feel differently.