Milestone: Entire management team of the State Department has resigned

From Josh Rogin at the Washington POST

❝ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job running the State Department just got considerably more difficult. The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.

❝ Tillerson was actually inside the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom on Wednesday, taking meetings and getting the lay of the land. I reported Wednesday morning that the Trump team was narrowing its search for his No. 2, and that it was looking to replace the State Department’s long-serving undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy, who has been in that job for nine years, was actively involved in the transition and was angling to keep that job under Tillerson, three State Department officials told me.

Then suddenly on Wednesday afternoon, Kennedy and three of his top officials resigned unexpectedly, four State Department officials confirmed. Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond and Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, followed him out the door. All are career foreign service officers who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations…

❝ In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired Jan. 20, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. That amounts to a near-complete housecleaning of all the senior officials that deal with managing the State Department, its overseas posts and its people…

❝ Several senior foreign service officers in the State Department’s regional bureaus have also left their posts or resigned since the election. But the emptying of leadership in the management bureaus is more disruptive because those offices need to be led by people who know the department and have experience running its complicated bureaucracies. There’s no easy way to replace that via the private sector, said David Wade.

“Resist” comes in many flavors. Civil servants haven’t a lot of choices. Resigning is closest to the honorable definition of boycott.

In fact, this is closer to an expression of honest political clarity than anything I expect from Congress. While there will be a number of principled Congress-critters who will speak out and vote against Trump’s crap appointees, the overall votes will come down to obedient sheep in the Republican Party exercising their diminishing majority.

A simple way to end gerrymandering — which Congress made illegal in 1967

Years back, a law professor told me that when she teaches a class on the drawing of legislative districts, she leaves the issue of multi-member districts for last because it solves all the problems too well and makes the rest of the material uninteresting.

I was reminded of that when I read Kim Soffen’s Upshot column about the way geography rather than gerrymandering disadvantages Democrats in Florida when it comes to the US House of Representatives.

Everything she writes is true. Given the concentration of the state’s Democratic Party voters in high-density, deeply blue areas around Miami, it is extremely “natural” to draw a map that has a heavy GOP tilt.

But even though every state in the union does it this way, it’s not a law of nature that you have to allocate Florida’s 27 House seats by dividing the state into 27 equal population slices. You could easily treat the state as one 27-member district whose members are elected proportionately. That’s how they do it in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and many other countries that prefer not to be beset by highly politicized district boundary questions. A really big state like California or Texas you might want to split into two or three multi-member districts…

The point, however, is that how to create a fair system, in which the number of seats in a legislature that a party receives is proportional to the number of votes it receives, is a solved problem.

The trouble for the United States is a deeply misguided 1967 law that banned multi-member districts. The government’s concern was that a state like Georgia might say, “We’ll just elect all 14 of our House members at large,” and that way no African Americans would get elected. Of course this concern doesn’t apply to a proportional system, which, if anything, would have the opposite result — you could ensure that black and Latino members would get elected without needing to resort to funny-looking majority-minority district boundaries. So the problem of holding fair elections in Florida isn’t unsolvable, but it will take an act of Congress to fix — which is almost as bad.

Doing anything up to and beyond reason to keep the 2 useless parties in power gets you into quandaries like this. There are a few folks in Congress with the gumption to introduce legislation to correct this. Maybe – as we sneak up on the next census – there may be a for-real attempt to sort out democracy.

Who knows? Maybe even lose the silliness of the Electoral College designed to protect white men who also were major land owners/slave owners.

Nice piece of writing from @mattyglesias.

Dealing with the latest crap from the TSA in holiday travel season

Flying during the holidays is never fun thanks to the crowds, but airport security policies are going to make things even more unpleasant. If you’re prepared for this year’s security theater hijinks, however, you can avoid some of the misery. Here’s how you can deal with all the crap at the airport this holiday season…

According to the Consumerist, the TSA warns that you shouldn’t wrap your gifts if you plan to take them through security. This sounds pretty ridiculous, but the TSA’s explanation is actually reasonable:

Wrapped gifts are screened just like any other item. We can see through the paper just like we can see through luggage, but just as we have to open a bag when it requires a search due to an anomaly or an alarm, we have to open wrapped items as well if they alarm or require additional screening…

Basically, don’t travel with a knife set or bomb making kit and you’ll probably be fine with a little wrapping. That said, be prepared to re-wrap your gift should a TSA agent feel the need for further inspection.

Are you traveling alone? You probably don’t want to deal with the massive family in front of you who’s trying to dump their bulk package of juice boxes before heading through the scanners. If you’re a family, you probably don’t want to be rushed by all the single people either. In most cases your airport security checkpoint should now have separate lanes for regular travelers and families…

In my experience, these lanes are often unmarked but tend to fall on the left or right side of the checkpoint. It’s always best to ask, but if you’re unable to find anybody to help you then just look for the line with lots of children. Chances are that’s the one you should join if you’re a family and avoid if you’re not.

Good news! Your kids’ shoes aren’t bomb-laden, presuming they’re 12 years or younger. The TSA has decided that young children can leave their footwear attached to their feet when passing through security. Although this is a generally positive change, the TSA warns that your kids may be asked to remove their shoes under certain circumstances and they may receive a pat-down if they cause an alert…

Remember all the fuss about the body scanning machines that showed some unpleasant renderings of what we look like underneath out clothes? The TSA actually paid attention and offered somewhat of a compromise. When you go through these new scanners you’re no longer naked-ish…

This still doesn’t eliminate the concerns of having a fairly frequent low-level x-ray, but at least you’ll look more like a cartoon than a fat blob to your onlooking TSA agent.

For more information about holiday travel, the TSA has posted a full guide. We’ve covered the important stuff, but if you want a look at some of the basics and enjoy bad turkey jokes you should check out their post.

Or you can make the same decision I have – and refuse to travel anywhere you can’t easily drive to with a 20-year-old Dodge pickup truck.

Google alters search algorithm to avoid promoting spam sites

Google has announced a change to its search algorithm that reduces rankings for low-quality sites.

The changes, implemented in the last few days, impacts about 11.8 percent of Google’s queries, Google’s Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts wrote in a blog post. The duo defined low-quality sites as those that are a “low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”

“At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on,” they wrote.

Singhal and Cutts did not provide too many details about what this algorithmic change entailed; search engine ranking mechanisms are often closely guarded secrets. But they said this week’s change did not rely on changes it received from its “Personal Blocklist” Chrome extension. That tool, introduced last week, lets Chrome users eliminate Google search results from dubious domains. Google did, however, compare the Blocklist data it has gathered with the sites identified by the algorithm, and found that user preferences are “well represented” in the new algorithm.

“If you take the top several dozen or so most-blocked domains from the Chrome extension, then this algorithmic change addresses 84 percent of them, which is strong independent confirmation of the user benefits,” Singhal and Cutts wrote.

Google acknowledged that any change to its algorithm will affect the rankings of sites. “It has to be that some sites will go up and some will go down,” they wrote. “It is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.”

Time will tell – to use a trite phrase – but, Google’s efforts to stem the flow of dross from the Web to our personal cpu’s is an useful step. There is little in the history of international commerce – especially media-driven commerce – to suggest that there are more than a very few individuals and companies willing to put quality above quantity.

Especially when the results of those decisions are measured in coin of the realm.

Google upsets folks concerned over Demand Media’s IPO

Google just dealt Demand Media’s IPO prospects a nasty blow.

In a post to the Official Google Blog, the company said that users are complaining about “content farms,” and that “we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear.” The company says “people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content,” and that “we can and should do better.”

Notably, Google does not actually promise it will take any action against companies like Demand Media. But what Google does is almost worse: vaguely suggest that it might someday do something to smash Demand Media’s business.

Google just introduced lots of fear and uncertainty into the minds of any potential Demand investors. That can’t be encouraging for Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt, who has to be hoping investors enter next week enthusiastic and chipper about his company’s prospects.

I was going to save this for Monday morning; but, realized that would make me almost as guilty – in my own small way – of inspiring FUD about the prospects of Demand Media‘s IPO. Small – not only defined by the traffic at this, my personal blog; but, because I rarely post about markets and equities over at the “big blog”.

Bad enough I don’t always remember to include an appropriate disclaimer when mentioning a product in which I’m invested in sufficiently to deserve a hamburger as payoff. 🙂

The reason for posting about Google’s notion is that I think they are serious about limiting the crud we all are infested with: comment spam, crappola from dweebs pretending to be opinion sites, etc.. I think they are capable of making a difference. It’s why – like many other geeks – early days of fiddling with gmail turned into a solid commitment after I discovered most spam was actually ending up in the spam folder. A boon and productive.