An (Electoral) College education

Imagine it is late on the evening of Tuesday, November 2, 2004.

Actually, it is closer to 5 am EST on the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 2004.

Since 7 pm EST the previous night, CNN has been presenting the results of the 2004 presidential election between incumbent President George W. Bush, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, United States Senator (“Senator”) John Kerry of Massachusetts.

At this point, Bush leads in the national popular vote by about 3.6 million votes (51% to 48%); by “national popular vote,” I mean every vote cast for president (and vice-presidential running mate) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC). However, under Article I, Section I of the United States Constitution (“Constitution”)—with clarification in Amendment XII—this is not the vote that determines who is elected president of the United States.

Instead, a group of electors chosen by each individual state and DC (Amendment XIII, ratified March 29, 1961) “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (Article I, Section I) meet and cast separate for president and for vice president. The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members that state currently has in the United States House of Representatives (“House”) plus two (the number of Senators every state has); DC is assigned three electors. With 435 House members, 100 Senators and 3 DC electors, there are 538 electoral votes (EV) up for grabs. In order to win the presidency, a party’s nominee must win a majority of the EV (currently 270); if no candidate wins 270 EV, the election goes to the House, with each House delegation (i.e., every House member from the same state) having a single vote to cast for the top three EV recipients (the Senate similarly would choose the vice president from the top two EV finishers on a simple majority vote of all Senators).

Thus, when I cast my vote in suburban Philadelphia for Senator Kerry and his vice-presidential running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, I was actually casting my vote for a slate of 21 electors I had never heard of, all of whom had pledged to cast THEIR votes for the Kerry-Edwards ticket if it won the most votes in Pennsylvania (which it did, 50.9 to 48.4%)[1].

Returning to our 2004 election scenario: as of 5 am on the morning after the election, Bush has 254 EV and Kerry has 252 EV, meaning neither has yet achieved a majority. Only the winners of Ohio (20 EV), Iowa (7) and New Mexico (5) remain to be projected. Since Iowa and New Mexico have only 12 EV combined, whoever wins Ohio will win the election.

By this point, though, there were at most a few hundred thousand votes remaining to be counted in these three states, meaning it was mathematically impossible for Kerry to win the national popular vote—and yet it was still not clear who would win the presidency.

Suddenly, at around 5:15 am, anchor Wolf Blitzer interrupts commentator Jeff Greenfield in what for him is an agitated state.

The Associated Press, who have been feeding us raw vote totals since 7 pm yesterday, has just announced that it has found an error in the tabulation of votes in Cleveland. Rather than trailing by about 143,000 votes, Kerry is actually leading the president by about 107,000 votes. And with that, CNN can now project that when all of the votes are counted Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will win the state of Ohio—and its 20 electoral votes—making him the next president of the United States.”

Winning Ohio would have given Kerry 272 EV, two more than necessary (assuming no more than two “faithless electors”[2]) to win the presidency. For the record, Kerry actually lost OH by 118,601 votes, IA by 10,069 votes and NM by 5,088 votes (vote totals from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections). But let us assume under this scenario that Kerry wins OH by 81,399 votes (an even 200,000 vote flip), while still losing IA and NM narrowly.

In this alternate reality, Kerry would have won the United States presidency—while still losing the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes! In fact, had Kerry also won NM and IA narrowly, he would have won 284 EV (to Bush’s 254)—while still losing the national popular vote by something like 2.75 million votes!

Broadly speaking, this is what actually happened in the 2016 presidential election. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.87 million votes, largely on the strength of a 3.67 million vote win in California. However, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump won narrow victories in Michigan (10,704 votes), Wisconsin (22,748) and Pennsylvania (44,292), and their combined 46 EV gave him 306 EV and the presidency. Put another way, the 2016 presidential election was not decided by a national popular vote margin of nearly 3 million votes, but a combined margin in three states of 77,774 votes.

This was actually the fourth time since 1856—the first presidential election to feature Democratic and Republican party nominees—that the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote; the Republican nominee won all four elections.

In fact, it had just happened in 2000. That year, Republican nominee George W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Al Gore in the Electoral College 271 to 266 (with one faithless elector), while losing the national popular vote by 547,398 votes. Under the “Kerry wins in 2004” scenario, this would mean that in back-to-back presidential elections, the winner of the Electoral College lost the national popular vote—with Democrats and Republicans switching places with regard to which party benefited from the divergence.

Presumably, this one-two punch would have led to bipartisan efforts to abolish the Electoral College, either by amending the Constitution (which requires winning at least 2/3 of the members of the both the House and Senate, followed by winning a majority in 3/4 of state legislatures) or by something like an agreement among states whose combined EV total is at least 270 to award their EV to whomever wins the national popular vote.

Actually, this exact idea—the National Popular Vote bill—was launched in 2006. As of this writing, the legislatures of 12 states and DC (whose EV total 181) have passed the bill (and had it signed by the governor), and it is expected to be signed into law in Delaware and New Mexico shortly, bringing the total to 189.

But…how did we get to this point in the first place?

Why do we even have an Electoral College?

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Just bear with me while I discuss what are now known as The Federalist Papers. Following the signing of the Constitution in September 1787, Alexander Hamilton realized how difficult it would be to convince each of 13 independent (and markedly different) colonies to ratify it, thus forming a “united” states; of particular concern was Governor George Clinton of “the growing State of New York.” [3] Hamilton thus began to write and publish a series of essays (under the pseudonym Publius) strongly defending decisions made by the Constitution’s framers; he was soon joined by James Madison and John Jay. In all, the three men—separately and together—wrote 85 essays. Federalist 68 (Hamilton) is specifically devoted to presidential electors, while Federalist 39 (Madison) grounds the idea of presidential electors in both the “republican” and “federal” nature of the proposed new government.

Federalist Papers.JPG

By “republican,” Madison means leaders are a) chosen directly or indirectly by the people and b) serve a limited time and/or under good behavior. In fact, Madison notes that most chief magistrates are already chosen through indirect means. As for “federalism”: rather than colonies merging into a single entity, there would be “a Confederacy of sovereign states.”[4] This was the great compromise: “the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.”[5]

Moreover, in Federalist 10, Madison explains how a republican government can limit the deleterious effects of “factions,” which he describes as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[6] While this certainly sounds like our current tribalistic partisan polarization—elevating loyalty to a political party over loyalty to the nation—Madison was really talking about factions emerging, then quickly disbanding, around a single issue or demagogic leader. He did not anticipate the emergence of two evenly-matched, organized, national political parties with broadly coherent policy agendas to which voters identify over multiple elections. Instead, Madison argued hopefully that an “extensive republic”[7] (sufficient representatives from a variety of localities) would diffuse the effects of any single faction.

Hamilton simply applied the logic of both “federal” and “republican” governance to the election of a president in Federalist 68, which I recommend reading in its entirety. He avoids saying the broader voting public cannot be entrusted to elect its presidents directly (until Amendment XVII was ratified in April 1913, United States Senators were selected by state legislatures), instead observing it was…

“…desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”[8]

Moreover, having electors deliberate within their native state will create a “detached and divided situation [that] will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people.”

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That was the theory, at any rate: electors, chosen at the state level, would be free to choose whomever they thought would make the best president unfettered by factional loyalties; for a fractious collection of once-independent colonies, the logic is sound. And it worked in the first two presidential elections (1789 and 1792, during which electors had two votes, ostensibly one for president and one for vice president): George Washington finished first (making him president) with 69 and 132 EV, respectively, and John Adams finished second (making him vice president) with 77 and 34 EV, respectively. Even then, however, a nascent form of political parties was emerging, with Federalists like Washington and Adams, opposing anti-Federalists, like Governor Clinton.

By 1796, the anti-Federalists had become the Democratic-Republicans, and something akin to presidential tickets were emerging. Adams ran for president as a Federalist, with former South Carolina Governor Thomas Pinckney as his “running mate,” while Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as the Democratic-Republican “ticket.” However, each man ran separately—which is how Adams received the most EV (71), making him president, while Jefferson finished a close second (68 EV), making him vice president. This was the first Electoral College: the election of a president and vice president from different “factions.”

When Adams ran for reelection four years later, the Jefferson-Burr ticket again opposed him. Unfortunately, Jefferson and Burr each received 73 EV because every Democratic-Republican elector split their votes between their party’s designated choices for president and vice president; the House ultimately selected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. This second glitch led to Amendment XII (ratified June 1804), establishing separate Electoral votes for president and vice president.

Much to the chagrin of Madison (who died in 1836), though, the modern strong two-party system was emerging, particularly under the leadership of Martin Van Buren, Vice President under Andrew Jackson (1829-37) then President (1837-1841). And the leaders of the two parties realized the best way to maximize the EV they received in a state was to legislate a “winner-take-all” system: whomever won the most votes in a state won all of that state’s EV—the system we have today. Virginia was the first state to adopt such a law,[9] in 1800; by 1832, only Maryland still split its EV. And as of 1880, every state had passed a “winner-take-all” law.

I cannot emphasize how important this history is to understanding the modern Electoral College. Remember, for Hamilton and Madison, the fundamental purpose of electors was to deliberate on the vital question of who they wanted to be the nation’s chief executive independent of factional alliance. The winner-take-all legislation—pushed by the very factions Madison sought to restrain—was not only antithetical to this purpose, it made a complete mockery of it.

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The first time the national popular and Electoral College votes diverged was in 1876.[10] Democratic nominee Samuel J. Tilden won the national popular vote over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by 252,696 votes (3.0 percentage points [“points”]), but fell one EV shy of the required 185; Hayes had 164 EV. Nineteen EV were in dispute because both men declared victory in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Ultimately, Hayes was awarded all 19 disputed EV, as well as one problematic EV in Oregon,[11] making him the dubious winner.

After two excruciatingly close elections[12] which could easily have resulted in a divergence, it actually happened in 1888. Republican Benjamin Harrison lost the national popular vote to incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland by 94,530 votes, but prevailed in the Electoral College, 233-168. However, despite four divergences/close calls in a row, any momentum toward ending the Electoral College system stalled once Cleveland decisively beat Harrison in an 1892 rematch, 277 to 145 EV, despite a national popular vote margin of “only” 3.0 points[13].

And then came 13 presidential elections (through 1944) in which the average national popular vote margin was 14.1 points and the average Electoral College margin was 266.5 EV. The only relatively close elections during this period were 1896 (Republican William McKinley beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan by 4.3 points, 95 EV) and 1916 (incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson held off Republican Charles Hughes by 3.2 points, 23 EV). In fact, had Hughes flipped just 1,887 votes in California, HE would have won despite losing the national popular vote by more than 570,000 votes.

Starting in 1948, though, “near misses” became more common. That year, incumbent Democrat Harry Truman was challenged by Republican Thomas E. Dewey, Progressive Henry Wallace and States Rights Strom Thurmond.  As I wrote hereDewey had fallen just 77 EV short of the 266 he needed to win. Had he won about 18,000 more votes in California (47.6-47.1%), 34,000 in Illinois (50.1-49.2%) and 8,000 (49.5-49.2%) in Ohio, he […] would have won the 1948 presidential election…” Under this scenario, Dewey would still have lost the national popular vote by a remarkable 4.5 points (2.1 million votes).

Republican Dwight Eisenhower then defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson by 10.8 points (353 EV) in 1952 and 15.4 points (384 EV) in 1956. But in 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon 303-219 EV, despite winning that national popular vote by only 0.17 points (112,827 votes). It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Nixon wins at least 113,000 additional votes across states he won, such as California, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, giving him a narrow national popular vote victory but a loss in the Electoral College—the first time a Democrat would have benefitted from such a divergence.

Four years later, incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson trounced Republican Barry Goldwater (22.5 points, 434 EV). But in 1968, Nixon beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey (and Wallace) by a solid 110 EV, despite winning the national popular vote by “only” 511,944 votes (0.7 points). While that is a substantial margin to overcome, had Humphrey won half the votes American Independent George Wallace won in Michigan (331,968), New York (358,864) and Pennsylvania (378.582), he would have won a bare national popular vote victory of 22,763 votes (but not the White House).

Nixon then handily defeated Democrat George McGovern in 1972 (23.2 points, 503 EV). Four years later, Democrat James E. Carter beat Republican Gerald R. Ford 297-240 EV while winning the national popular vote by 2.1 points (1,683,247 votes).  However, Ford only lost Ohio’s 25 EV by 11,116 votes and Mississippi’s 7 EV by 14,463 votes; a simple shift of just 12,760 votes in these two states would have given Ford 272 EV (and the White House) despite losing the national popular vote by well over 1.6 million votes.

After four near-misses in eight presidential elections, however, the next five (1980-96) were not especially close, with average winning margins of 10.0 points and 337.8 EV[14]. Still, that brings us to the five most recent presidential elections, three of which ended in divergence (2000, 2016) or came very close (2004). Even in 2012, had Republican Willard “Mitt” Romney flipped 214,761 votes across Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia, he would have won 270 EV—and the White House—despite losing the national popular vote by more than 4.5 million votes (3.9 points).

To summarize, in the 38 presidential elections following the end of the Civil War, there have been…

  • 4 elections (1876, 1888, 2000, 2016) in which the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote
  • 2 elections (1880, 1884) where a small shift in votes across a few states could have produced divergence in either direction
  • 2 elections (1916, 2004) where flipping fewer than 60,000 votes in only one state would have produced divergence
  • 1 election (1976) where flipping 12,790 votes in just two states would have produced divergence
  • 2 elections in which flipping a total of ~60,000 votes in three states (1948) or ~215,000 votes in four states (2012) would have produced an extremely narrow Electoral College victory AND a national popular vote loss averaging 3.4 million votes
  • 2 elections in which a candidate would have had to win an additional 130,000 votes across four states (1960) or win back half the votes of a third-party candidate in three states (530,000+ votes) to produce divergence.

Thus, one in three presidential elections over 150 years (1868-2016) either featured divergence or could have done so with varying degrees of plausibility. The Republican presidential nominee won all four “divergence” elections and would have won between four and six (depending on 1880, 1884) of the other nine “plausible divergence scenario” elections, for a total of 8-10 Republican victories (vs. 3-5 Democratic victories). And eight of those 13 elections came in two different five-election “blocks” of (mostly) close presidential elections: 1876-1892 and 2000-2016.

Those two blocks highlight a basic truth about the Electoral College: so long as the national popular vote margin is wide enough (≥5.0 points), there will be no divergence, making the Electoral College a quaint anachronism. But the closer the national popular vote margin (particularly <3.0 points), the higher the likelihood of divergence. And just because it does not always happen in this latter circumstance is purely a matter of chance.

It is worth keeping in mind that Hamilton and Madison had absolutely no conception of a national popular vote, because they did not intend for the general voting public to vote directly for a president (or vice president), any more than they could envision the modern two-party system reducing the choices to a few viable candidates. That very system, though, has reduced the electors to mere human rubber stamps, archaically ratifying what we already knew on Election Day (or a few days later). Their independence—and their role in the delicate compromise between “sovereign” states and the national government—was gone by 1836, if not earlier.

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Which leads to one final question: are there any good reasons to continue using the Electoral College to elect the president and vice president of the United States?

Arguments for keeping the Electoral College fall into two broad categories:

  1. Upholding tradition
  2. It prevents smaller states/rural areas from being ignored by presidential candidates seeking to maximize national vote totals.

The first category has two primary components:

  • It is very difficult to amend the Constitution
  • We continue to be a federalist republic, so giving states an independent role in selecting the president is necessary.

Taking each component in turn:

Amending the Constitution is indeed extremely difficult; it has only happened on 18 separate occasions (counting the 10-amendment Bill of Rights as one occasion) in 230 years. However, all that means is that amending the Constitution requires time, bipartisan effort and focus.

And there are 27 amendments (Amendment XXI even repealed Amendment XVIII)—including those arising from a steady increase over time in direct democracy such as expanded suffrage (blacks, women, 18-20-year-olds) and altered electoral processes (direct election of Senators). Similarly, since the 1968 McGovern-Fraser Commission, the process by which presidential nominees are selected has become far more democratic (if not completely so) through the establishment of state-level primaries and caucuses which use voter preferences to select Democratic and Republican nomination convention delegates.

That individual states select convention delegates using their own rules, broadly analogous to the Electoral College (even if Democrats allot delegates proportionally, not winner-take-all), demonstrates an ongoing robust federalism. Moreover, even if the Electoral College were repealed (or legislatively overruled), there would still be a solid division of labor between the national government and state (and local) governments.

The single most frivolous argument in this category, though, was made recently by Michael Steel, former spokesman for Republican former House Speaker John Boehner[15]: using the national popular vote to elect a president would be like using attendance to determine the outcome of a baseball game.

Ummm, what now?

First, how would one divide attendance to determine a winner? Second, the winner of a baseball game actually IS the team that scored the most runs—not the team that scored the most runs in the most innings, a better analogy between a baseball game and the Electoral College.

In the same conversation, however, Steel all-but-admitted Republicans want to keep the Electoral College because it has allowed them to win the White House three times in the last five elections despite only winning the national popular vote once. And that brings us to the second set of arguments: that presidential candidates would spend all their time in the biggest population centers rather than trying to win votes across the entire nation.

Forget that presidents (and vice presidents) were never meant to campaign anywhere; they were supposed to wait for the decision of independent state-level electors. Or the fact that Hamilton and Madison said nothing about protecting small states or rural areas; if anything, they were trying to convince the largest state—New York—to ratify the Constitution.

No, the fundamental flaw in this argument is that, since the advent of winner-take-all laws 200+ years ago, candidates for president and vice president have limited their campaigning to a few “swing states.”

Let me demonstrate using 3W_RDM, which measures how much or less Democratic a state’s presidential voting is relative to the nation. Table 1 lists the 12 states most in play in 2020, using the median Democratic margin in the national popular vote in the last five elections (2.1 points)[16] and an average 3W-RDM “miss” of 5.4[17].

Table 1: States most likely in play in the 2020 presidential election

State EV 3W-RDM Projected Margin in 2020
Michigan 16 D+2.2 D+4.3 (R+1.1 to D+9.7)
Colorado 9 D+2.2 D+4.3 (R+1.1 to D+9.7)
Nevada 6 D+2.0 D+4.1 (R+1.3 to D+9.5)
Minnesota 10 D+1.5 D+3.6 (R+1.8 to D+9.0)
Virginia 13 D+1.5 D+3.6 (R+1.8 to D+9.0)
Wisconsin 10 D+0.7 D+2.8 (R+2.6 to D+8.2)
New Hampshire 4 D+0.1 D+2.2 (R+3.2 to D+7.6)
Pennsylvania 20 R+0.4 D+1.7 (R+3.7 to D+7.1)
Florida 29 R+3.4 R+1.3 (R+6.7 to D+4.1)
Iowa 6 R+4.7 R+2.6 (R+8.0 to D+2.8)
Ohio 18 R+5.8 R+3.7 (R+9.1 to D+1.7)
North Carolina 15 R+6.0 R+3.6 (R+9.3 to D+1.5)
TOTAL 156 R+0.8

One can quibble with the mix of states[18]—perhaps the 27 EV in Georgia (R+9.6) and Arizona (R+9.7) are more in play for Democrats than the 24 EV in Iowa and Ohio. But the point is that in 2020 presidential candidates will focus on, at most, 14 states—a far cry from the “nationwide campaign” hyped by Electoral College advocates.

Their argument about small states fares little better. Using EV as a proxy for population, 22 states (including DC) can be considered “small” (<7 EV; median=8), of which seven are “likely Democratic,” 12 are “likely Republican,” and only three (Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa) are potentially in play in 2020[19]; In other words, under the current Electoral College system that supposedly protects smaller states—at most three of the 22 smallest states will see ANY campaigning.

Then there is the argument only major metropolitan areas—usually limited to California (55 EV) and New York (29 EV), though not Texas (38 EV)—would see any presidential campaigning at all, completely ignoring rural areas.

First, this is precisely how campaigns are generally currently conducted within many states: Democrats rely on massive turnout in urban areas, Republicans rely on massive turnout in rural areas, with each hoping suburban areas break their way. Why is this acceptable? Why not apply Electoral College logic by assigning every county (or other sub-state area) a number of votes based upon its representation in its legislature, so that to be elected governor, for example, you would need to win a majority of these sub-state level votes?

Other than its patent absurdity, I suspect the answer is that statewide elections invalidate the “rural areas would get the shaft” argument. Theoretically, that same formula could apply at the national level:  Republicans would campaign in rural areas in every state, Democrats would campaign in urban areas in every state, and both would battle over suburban votes in every state[20]. Even more radically, Republicans could compete aggressively for urban voters, with Democrats countering by competing aggressively for rural voters. This would thoroughly upend the current geographic and policy alignments of the two parties in unforeseeable but interesting ways.

Here is the simple reality: Hamilton and Madison argued for the Electoral College in The Federalist Papers because they a) feared voters could easily be manipulated by factional loyalties and b) were luring 13 sovereign colonies into a single “united states.” But the emergence of strong political parties (national factions), the continued existence of robust federalism, the ongoing expansion of direct democracy and winner-take-all laws that run counter to the deliberative intentions of electors moot their arguments. The Electoral College simply has not served its original stated purpose since at least 1796, and it is time to repeal it to allow the only two elected officials who represent the entire nation to be elected by national popular vote.

Until next time…

[1] I was living in the suburb of King of Prussia at the time. Every morning, as I drove to the commuter rail station in Radnor, I would count the lawn signs for Bush-[Vice President Dick) Cheney and Kerry-Edwards. On average, the count was something like 24 for Kerry-Edwards, 12 for Bush-Cheney—and a smattering for Shreiner Tree Care!

[2] In the 2016 presidential election, there were a record seven such electors—five Democrats and two Republicans.

[3] According to the “Message to Mankind” written just inside the front cover of my paperback copy of Rossiter, Clinton, editor. 1961. The Federalist Papers. New York, NY: NAL PENGUIN INC.

[4] Ibid., pg. 243. Italics in the original text.

[5] Ibid., pg. 83.

[6] Ibid., pg. 79.

[7] Ibid., pg. 82.

[8] Ibid., pg. 412

[9] Technically, three states had winner-take-all laws in 1789, but each repealed them by 1800.

[10] I exclude the presidential election of 1824 because, technically Andrew Jackson won both the national popular vote AND the most EV, but because he fell 32 EV shy of the required majority (131 EV), the House decided the election in favor of the runner-up in both areas, John Quincy Adams. Moreover, both Adams and Jackson were Democratic-Republicans (the Federalist Party had faded away).

[11] An elector was invalid because he was an elected official.

[12] 1880 (9,070 votes, 59 EV) and 1884 (58.579, 37 EV)

[13] There were also bigger election system fish to fry, such as the direct election of Senators (Amendment XVII, 1913) and women’s suffrage (Amendment XIX, August 1920).

[14] The presidential election of 1988 was closer than it appears at first glance. Yes, Republican George H. W. Bush beat Democrat Michael Dukakis by 7.8 points and 315 EV. But Bush won a number of states by narrower margins than that. While this is a stretch, had Dukakis flipped a total of 615,920 votes across 12 states (CA, CO, CT, IL, MD, MI, MO, MT, NM, PA, SD, VT), he would have won the Electoral College 270-268 (assuming no faithless electors) despite losing the national popular vote by more than 5.8 million votes. Similarly, four years later, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated President Bush by 5.6 points and 202 EV. Had Bush flipped just over 300,000 votes in 10 states (CO, GA, KY, LA, NJ, OH, TN, WI and any two of MT, NV, NH), he would have won 271 or 272 EV, despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 5.2 million votes.

[15] Steel makes the argument at 39:15 here.  Actually, the entire conversation between host Chris Matthews, Steel and Reed Hundt is worth watching; Steel starts off on solid ground, then slowly deteriorates.

[16] The average of 2.3 points is slightly skewed by Obama’s 2008 margin of 7.3 points.

[17] Democrats are strong favorites in 16 states (including DC) totaling 191 EV, and Republicans are strong favorites in 23 states totaling 191 EV.

[18] Including Maine (D+5.9) and Nebraska (R+25.8), who give two EV to the statewide winner, and one EV to the winner of each Congressional district.

[19] These are also the first three primary/caucus states, undercutting arguments about their “unrepresentativeness.”

[20] This also answers a hypothetical question I like to pose: if we had had been using the national popular vote to elect presidents and vice presidents since 1789, would anyone have proposed a system as convoluted and, frankly, anti-democratic as the Electoral College as a “solution” to whatever problems may have arisen? I sincerely doubt it.

A Skeptic is Born

If this blog has anything like a unifying theme, it is evidence-based investigation.

In fact, my original stated purpose was to use a careful presentation of data to answer what I felt were interesting—if not always momentous—questions. Sometimes that took the form of challenging conventional wisdom, and at other times it took the form of thinking critically about arguments I had encountered online. Elsewhere, I engaged in speculative history backed by the best evidence I could gather.

I have even critiqued my own data analyses.

An unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, outcome of that original purpose is the notion of “interrogating memory.” I am even writing a book with that title.

In other words, I strive to examine every assertion, every question, every story with the same critical-thinking eye. I may not always succeed (confirmation bias, for example, is powerful—and admittedly one reason I prefer MSNBC to other cable news networks), but that is always the goal.

This was not always the case, however.

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One of my favorite phrases as a child was “howcum?” Inherently curious—and with otherwise-solid report cards often featuring a variant of “does not like to follow directions,” I questioned everything.

Fairly early, that need to know why led me straight to detective fiction and, a bit later, classic mystery films.

But at other times my innate curiosity failed me, and I allowed the allure of “unknowably mysterious” to blind me to the non-existence of actual “mystery.” This transpired even as Scooby Doo and this underrated movie told me that “supernatural” events have prosaic explanations.

Just bear with me while I outline a pre-adult life spent immersed in pseudo-mysteries.

Fact-checking what I wrote here, I was probably closer to seven years old when I first encountered my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, the first astrology book I ever read. My mother was particularly taken with the section on the Libra child, because it seemed to describe my (at times) indecisiveness; the example in the book is how the Libra child cannot decide which breakfast item placed in front of her/him—orange juice, toast, cereal, etc.—to select first. For the record, my wife Nell also ascribes my “on one hand…on the other hand…but on the one hand again” mode of analysis to my being a Libra (just as she ascribes some of her own personality traits to being a Scorpio).

Goodman’s broad overview launched a deeper immersion in astrology, whose ostensible quantitative precision—all those beautiful charts and numbers!—appealed to my mathematical mind. This was followed in short order by numerology, the prophecies of Nostradamus (and other alleged clairvoyants), card reading and many other forms of divination.

Decades later, this is all that remains of my “occult” book collection. You can see how battered and well-thumbed these books are.

Occult books.JPG

Using the red hardback book, I spent much of high school (1980-84) doing “card readings” for my mother and her friends (and, on occasion, my own friends); in retrospect, I was really doing a kind of layperson therapy: having the cards “reveal” (with a healthy dollop of intuition and psychology) what the person being analyzed wanted (or needed) to hear. Between the rush I got for being the “expert” and the attention my “clients” received, it was benign fun for all concerned.

The numerology text picture here is the successor to my first text from the late 1970s; I am not sure what happened to it. And the World Almanac volume is taped together because I practically memorized it in the summer of 1980, when my job co-running the canteen at Camp Kweebec allowed me ample time to read. (It was also when I had perhaps the greatest steak sandwiches of my life—man, those chefs were friendly and talented; hold that thought).

Meanwhile, even as I was absorbing all of this, I was being introduced in Hebrew school to the Gematria. The teacher who taught us this Jewish version of numerology was a Chasidic man named Mr. Devor, who also taught high school science: a juxtaposition which fascinated me). He was also a brilliant and gentle man who I completely adored. In essence, what Mr. Devor taught us was that a proper decoding of the arrangement of Hebrew letters in the Bible would reveal mystical truths (or something). To be fair, I still have the copy of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books only) I bought for further numerological investigation.

Hebrew Torah closed.JPG

Hebrew Torah open.JPG

Looking back, the thing about these divination methods that captured my imagination was the sheer audacious confidence of the assertions presented. To these authors, it was simply an established fact (sometimes couched in the language of “ancient wisdom”) that the relative positions of celestial objects influenced our lives, or that certain combinations of numbers or letters or cards were better or worse (according to Cheiro, they “vibrated” better—whatever that means).

But it was not only divination methods which called to me. For my sixth grade “gifted program” final project, I chose to put together a compendium of the most interesting “unsolved mysteries”—or enigmas—I could find[1]; I even appropriated the word “enigmatologist” to describe what I thought I wanted to be. From Sasquatch (or Yeti or Murphysboro Mud Monster), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Loch Ness Monster, to Atlantis, to reincarnation, to UFOs and so on—I fervently read what I could find. That is not to say I was not smitten with less “fanciful” unsolved mysteries: I was equally enamored with the Oak Island “money pit,” the statues of Easter Island, the possibility that Anastasia Romanov survived the 1917 execution of her and her family, etc[2].

The thing is, the appeal lay not in the potential to “solve” these “mysteries,” but in the very idea there was any mystery at all. Despite my “howcum?” refrain, I broadly accepted the truth of divination methods; the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, dangerous vortices, Atlantis and ancient aliens (heck, I even wrote a book report in sixth grade about one source[3]); that the lovely Anastasia[4] had somehow survived; and so forth. I suspect some of this was resulted from intellectual malaise; quotidian reality was not exciting enough for me. It may also have been a way to assert some control over my life as my parents’ marriage ended, which began when I was nine years old—or, rather, to cede control to unseen cosmic forces. There was nothing I could do to fix my parents’ marriage—or prevent a series of moves—but if all of this was preordained in some way…

Ancient Mysteries book report.JPG

Or I simply had a child’s combination of imaginative awe and undeveloped critical thinking skills.

And yet…and yet…

Tarot deck.JPG

What strikes me now is how much I kept searching (without quite acknowledging it) for some sort of proof—or at least for some underlying reason for how these things could be true. While it was not until high school (at the earliest) that I first heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation,” what began to nag at the back of my mind was the question WHY would the location of distant constellations or specific numbers or the random ordering of playing/Tarot cards (I still have my pack, as you can see) have ANY measurable impact on, well, anything? What was the causal mechanism at work in these instances? Or, as I would later frame the question as a data analyst and practitioner of epidemiologic methods (itself a form of epistemology):

What is the most direct and logically-coherent story I can tell to account for the association I have measured between variables X and Y?

Here is where Occam’s razor comes into play: the least complicated explanation for any unexplained phenomenon is usually the correct one.

**********

Not that I necessarily wanted to be dissuaded from my beliefs, mind you.

I do not remember when I first heard of Alan Landsburg, but it was probably around the time my parents separated (March 1977). The book I reported upon in elementary school—In Search of Ancient Mysteries—was first published in 1974 (co-written with his wife Sally Landsburg), launching the “In Search of…” series; I devoured these books. The television series of the same name debuted in 1976, quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

However, when (probably in 1978) I started to read about Atlantis in Landsburg’s 1976 book In Search of Lost Civilizations, I found myself reading instead about Minoan civilization and volcanic eruptions on the island of Santorini. What did any of this have to do, I asked myself in annoyance, with a sunken continent somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean that was once home to the ancient world’s most advanced civilization and maybe had something to do with the Bermuda Triangle—or the Bimini Road?

Pushing through my annoyance, I slowly realized that Landsburg was providing one possible rational explanation for what had inspired Plato’s original story of Atlantis—the conflation of a highly advanced civilization (long since vanished) with an epic natural disaster.

Oh, I thought, that is really cool—and far more intellectually satisfying than the other possibilities. It was the first time I began to shift from “mysterious, just because” to “what mystery?”

Still, I was not quite ready to shift completely from being Ryan Bergara to being Shane Madej (for fans of the Buzzfeed Unsolved channel on YouTube, in which conspiracy-theorist true believer Bergara and extreme skeptic Madej jointly investigate unsolved crimes and supposedly haunted locations)[5].

The real turning point would not come for another six years.

**********

I have written about the nighttime drives I took in the summer of 1984, during the joyful limbo between graduating from high school and enrolling at Yale. In that post, I described how I found the 24-hour Vale Rio Diner—which I would frequent on and off until it suddenly closed in early 2008 (I was horrified to drive there that May, only to find a Walgreen’s instead!),

This diner stood opposite where Route 113 north veers off from Route 23 (to the right if you are driving west, with the Vale Rio on your left). If you follow Route 113 north for 0.3 miles, it makes a sharp left turn towards downtown Phoenixville.

In the summer of 1984, at 450 Bridge Street, directly in front of you before you made that left turn[6], was a pizzeria called Nardi’s that made a pretty fair cheesesteak[7]. That was the same summer I worked at Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA and, while fiddling around on the grill one day, created my specialty sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Given that I was not quite old enough to take truly late-night drives (I wanted to be home by 11 pm to watch Star Trek, after all), I would generally seek out a place to have such a sandwich supper—and maybe some pie and decaffeinated coffee for desert.

I always had a book with me on these drives. One of those books—which I avidly read in Nardi’s on at least one occasion—was a black paperback with blue lettering and an angry-looking SOLVED written in shiny red letters on its cover; it had first been published in 1975. I had started to read it once before, but like In Search of Lost Civilizations six years earlier, it had annoyed me.

Bermuda Triangle book (original)

Why did it annoy me?

Because rather than proposing something, you know, interesting like energy vortices or force fields from Atlantis or alien abductions as the solution to all those unexplained disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, Lawrence David Kusche—amateur pilot and former research librarian at Arizona State University—was proposing something far more radical.

He proposed that the solution to the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is that there never was a Bermuda Triangle Mystery!

As Kusche puts it:

“My research, which began as an attempt to find as much information as possible about the Bermuda Triangle, had an unexpected result. After examining all the evidence [including contemporaneous newspaper accounts, ships logs, etc.] I have reached the following conclusion: There is no [single] theory that solves the mystery. It is no more logical to try to find a common cause for all the disappearances in the Triangle than, for example, to try to find one cause for all automobile accidents in Arizona. By abandoning the search for an overall theory and investigating each incident independently, the mystery began to unravel.”[8]

Indeed, after a 16-page opening chapter titled “The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle As It Is Usually Told,” Kusche devotes 52 relatively short chapters to a detailed investigation of 50+ supposedly mysterious events, from the first voyage led by Christopher Columbus through the Triangle in 1492 through the Linda in October 1973, nearly always finding a rational (even mundane) explanation that fits Occam’s razor.

And when Kusche could not provide such an explanation?

“With only a few exceptions, the mishaps that remain unsolved are those for which no information can be found. In several cases important details of the incident, and in other cases, entire incidents, are fictional.”[9]

More to the point (and more damning to purveyors of the Bermuda Triangle “mystery” canard):

“Many incidents were not considered mysterious when they occurred, but became so many years later when writers, seeking reports of additional incidents in the Bermuda Triangle, found references to them. It is often difficult to find complete information (even when one wants it) on an event that occurred many years before. […] .Many of the writers who published the events did no original research but merely rephrased the articles of previous writers, thereby perpetuating the errors and embellishments in earlier accounts. […] In a number of incidents writers withheld information that provided an obvious solution to the disappearance.”[10]

Finally, here is Kusche’s lament from the “Update” to the 1995 reissue I recently purchased (I do not know what became of the copy I had in 1984):

“These examples are typical of what has happened in the Bermuda Triangle in the past ten years. Nothing has changed. Incidents of various types, some big, some small, continue to happen. They can be hyped into “great unsolved mysteries” by almost anyone. It is very easy to do. Just don’t bother to check the facts thoroughly, do some imaginative speculating, toss out a few unanswered questions, and use a few exclamation points. Personally, I find it more interesting to dig deeper and look for logical explanations.”[11]

I was on my second attempt to read Kusche’s clear-eyed, well-structured accounts (which should be required reading for any serious student of epistemology) as I contentedly munched on my mushroom provolone pizza steak that night at Nardi’s in the summer of 1984. This time, for whatever reason[12], I was willing, in the author’s words, “to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what”[13] goes into my mind.

Once I made that mental leap, though, I was riveted—and each chapter was more satisfying than the last.

And a skeptic was born.

OK, it would still be another two decades or so—during which I learned advanced quantitative methods which forced me to frame every research question with care, precision and the most accurate data available—before I became a full-fledged SKEPTIC with the purchase of this essential volume. But once I finished Kusche’s landmark book, there was no going back.

Until next time…

[1] A combination of over-ambition and laziness resulted in my never finishing the project.

[2] My fascination with unsolved murders would not come until later.

[3] I think it was sixth grade—I neglected to write a date on it. At any rate, my grade on this hand-written, five-page gem was a 98.

[4] I freely admit that I developed a crush on the late Grand Duchess—and, yes, genetic testing finally confirmed her death—the first time I saw a photograph of her.

[5] I recommend watching some episodes, typically around 20 minutes long, if only for the friendly—and often-profane—banter between the two hosts. Despite not accepting the existence of ghosts, I seriously want a spirit box.

[7] I did not actually remember the name of the place, but I found it an advertisement on page 118 of the April 18, 1985 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com.

[8] Kusche, Lawrence David. 1995. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pg. 275.

[9] Ibid., pg. 275.

[10] Ibid., pg. 276-77.

[11] Ibid., pg. xiii.

[12] I would say my impending enrollment in Yale College triggered an upgrade in my intellectual maturity (or something equally pompous), but that is probably just a coincidence.

[13] Kusche, pg. xiii.

When memories defy interrogation

I first used the term “interrogating memory” in August 2017.

One month earlier, I simultaneously

An unanticipated side effect of these intertwined activities (the book has also become both a search for “identity” and a social history) was the need to subject memories and stories to rigorous analysis and validation; given my post-graduate academic training in biostatistics and epidemiology (with its toolkit of quantitative epistemological methods), this should not have been a surprise.

For example, I had long believed my genetic father was Colombian. My adoptive mother was so convinced of this fact that in the summer before I was born, she went to the library to look for photographs of Colombian children. I have no idea what she actually saw, but she expected me to be much darker-skinned than I actually am[1].

Imagine my surprise (and, yes, disappointment) when genetic testing revealed that I was almost exclusively northern European (British, Irish, French/German, Scandinavian), with less than 1% Iberian (i.e., Spanish or Portuguese) I hoped against hope was the source of my “Colombian” ancestry. But that was only the first iteration of my results. Subsequent algorithm changes readjusted the relative percentages to 64.4% British & Irish, 12.8% French & German, 1.6% Scandinavian, 0.9% Italian and 0.2% North African & Arabian, plus 19.7% Broadly Northwestern European, 0.2% Broadly Southern European and 0.2% Broadly European[2]. What little Spanish ancestry I thought I had vanished with this final recalculation. Moreover, the Native American maternal great-grandparent that was also part of my “adoption story” did not seem to exist either[3].

In other words, rather than being a “walking UN,” I was, like, the whitest white boy ever.

Further research (and my near-certainty about the identity of my genetic father) led me to hypothesize that my mother, when meeting with the lawyer who arranged my adoption, somehow translated the fact my genetic father (unnamed in official court records) “grew up in the District of Columbia” as “he came from [the nation of] Colombia.” Short of my genetic mother flat-out lying about (or not knowing herself) who my genetic father was—and until I ask her directly (yes, I know her identity), this is the best explanation I have.

This is merely one example of a memory—or collection of related memories, or story—I was able to interrogate using available sources of information: public records available on Ancestry.com (Census data, city directories, birth and death certificates) and elsewhere on the internet (Google maps, “White Pages,” obituaries, etc.), the indispensable Newspapers.com and my own personal archives (including e-mails, bank and credit statements, diaries, address books, family documents).

But then are those intense nagging memories that simply defy interrogation.

Below, I present three examples of such memories (to the best of my ability to reproduce in words what I see with my mind’s eye), along with the less-than-fruitful steps I took to interrogate them.

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

This memory has been near the forefront of my conscious mind ever since I began writing my book, which (as of now) has four chapters devoted to my film noir “journey[4].” One, which I am tempted to call “Night and the City,” explores the interplay between my life-long love of the night and my suburban mythologizing of “the city.” This “old dark urban store” visit is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about pre-adulthood trips into “the city.”

Growing up in the 1970s in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, “the city” meant two things: 1) Center City, home to most of the historical and cultural attractions and 2) everywhere else, including predominantly-minority and/or less-well-off areas. This was when “law and order” Frank Rizzo (seen here in 1969, when he was Police Commissioner, with a nightstick tucked into his cummerbund) was mayor (1972-80), and the city—like many in the United States—was facing a shrinking tax base and “white flight[5].”

Rizzo NightStick

At this young age, I mentally conflated every section of Philadelphia north, south and west of Center City[6] with the presentation of “inner cities” in popular television shows like Welcome Back Kotter[7], Good Times and What’s Happening!!—and even All in the Family, an inescapable part of the cultural zeitgeist even though I rarely watched it. And like many suburban children, I came to mythologize “the city” as a place simultaneously exciting and dangerous, alluring and repellent[8].

As for this particular store, which I mentally locate in what I have learned is the Allegheny West neighborhood, I have been unable to locate it using Street View in Google Maps or by searching for advertisements for it on Newspapers.com. The 4000 block of Ridge Avenue sort of fits my memory of the store’s exterior, except for the Route 1 expressway bridge looming overhead. What I need, actually, is a set of Philadelphia Yellow Pages for the late 1970s; one of the listed “office supply” or “typewriter repair” shops listed should theoretically match my “mental location.”

Even if I am able locate the store itself, however, I still may never know for certain why my father and I were there—although two possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is where I acquired my beloved portable blue-and-white Olivetti (?) typewriter to replace the battered old Royal typewriter I had been using. While it is hard to imagine such a new typewriter emerging from the musty store of my memory, it does fit with what I remember being IN the store (as well as my father’s penchant for getting “deals”). The timing works as well, since I received that typewriter sometime around the first week of March 1980, when my mother and I moved into a new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley; whether by design or not, the typewriter matched the fresh décor my mother chose: navy, white and silver.

A more sinister possibility is that my father was conducting some less-than-legal business with this man. Following my parents’ separation (and the loss of a family business), my father had a series of temporary positions—salesman for Sylvan Pools, selling roadside signs with removable plastic letters, cab driver (he found some peace and contentment doing this, I think[9]). He was also a bookie for a time[10], and he was deeply in debt to enough people that he would never sit with has back to the door of a restaurant. Perhaps he was collecting payment from, or delivering winnings to, the old man in the back room?

The former explanation is far more likely (would my father really conduct an illegal transaction while he had his 12- or 13-year-old son with him, even in a back room?), but there is a “noir” feel to the latter explanation that appeals to me.

In fact, it is revealing how dark I envision this store being, as though the darkness itself was somehow nefarious. It was daytime (I am almost certain), and perhaps quite sunny, so the store may simply have felt darker by comparison. But the impression of that darkness is something entirely different.

Someday I may figure out why that is.

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

 The late-night drive in search of—something or other (ideally including a previously-unknown-to-me 24-hour eatery)—has been a favorite pastime of mine since the summer of 1984; I have yet to heed the warnings offered here.

But the nature of those drives—wandering down unknown roads for hours until I figure out once again where I am, then find somewhere to stop to eat before driving home—means that I cannot exactly reproduce many of these journeys. That being said, however, I never forget a 24-hour-diner, no matter how much I meandered to get there; that is what makes this particular memory so frustrating. It is conceivable that I had a very poor experience there…but why do I not remember THAT?

What I also remember—assuming I have not conflated this part of the memory with various dreams[11]—is that a) the “road with a number” from which I turned left was Route 202, b) the “road with a number” onto which I turned (forming a three-way intersection) was Route 152, and c) I strongly associate this journey—maybe even this particular intersection—with a female coworker with whom I had become very friendly. She was raised in a Montgomery County town just north of Philadelphia.

I literally clicked my way along the entire stretch of Route 202 on Street View between Norristown and the border with Montgomery County. While I found the intersection with Route 152, it was far too rural to be the one in my memory; no other intersection was even close. As I was writing this, I again looked at Google Maps—and realized I had forgotten about Business Route 202.

And…lo and behold…the intersection with Route 152 north is a three-way intersection whose building layout broadly corresponds to my memory.

But that is as far as I can go. Following Route 152 north into towns like Perkasie and Sellersville, there is no commercial urban corner even close to what I recall. Moreover, I literally searched “24-hour diners” on Google Maps for all of Montgomery County north of Philadelphia—not one of them is the diner of my memory. Finally, I was not able to find any record of such a diner existing on Newspapers.com, even going back to 2002.

There is one possible explanation for the association of the intersection of Business Route 202 and Route 152. At some point during this time period, I spent one Saturday afternoon in the charming Bucks County borough of Doylestown. While I was perusing the shelves of a used book store, literally on Business Route 202, my cell phone rang. It was my work friend wondering what I was doing and whether I wanted to hang out with her that night. It is a near certainty I would have taken Business Route 202 back to my apartment in King of Prussia (which means this diner visit could not have occurred earlier than February 2003). As I think about it, the intersection with Route 152 north is one I could easily see filing under “explore this some Saturday night soon.”

Doylestown book store

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

Memory 3: One night between July 2010 and April 2011, I drove either to a public transit station (likely on the MBTA–or “T”) or to a medical building because a male friend—let’s call him “EH”—needed a ride home. EH emerged from my left as I sat in the driver’s seat of my Honda Accord—perhaps down a ramp or short driveway. Immediately in front of me and to the left is a chain link fence. Rows of triple-deckers are both in front of me (lining the far side of a road intersecting with the road on which I am sitting) and to my right. When EH enters the car, the conversation quickly turns to my frustration with finding a new gig as a health-related data analyst. Having just been working with hospital employees (?), EH suggests I look for such a gig in local hospitals. “They always need biostatisticians!” (or words to that effect). Beyond what the area around the pickup looked like, however, I am at a loss where this was—or why I was picking up EH in the first place. This drive may also be when the idea (now an annual event) of my wife Nell and I watching a film noir on my birthday with EH and his wife was first formulated; the possibility that there was snow on the ground, however, would mitigate against this idea because my birthday is in late September.

I actually called in reinforcements on this one: I wrote to EH and his wife, who were every bit as baffled when, where and why this pickup occurred. The conversation is ongoing.

That said, I can at least pinpoint the “when” with some precision because of the conversation about hospitals hiring biostatisticians[12]. I was laid off from Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership on June 30, 2010, then started at Joslin Diabetes Center on May 11, 2011; those two dates are the absolute earliest and latest this event could have occurred. IF EH and I also discussed watching films noir on my birthday—that tradition began in late September 2010, narrowing the window of time to July, August and early September 2010. Again, that is IF we had that conversation; there may also have been snow on the ground, which would most likely put this event in December 2010, or January to March 2011.

EH and his wife both scoured their e-mails and calendars for further evidence; I searched not only my e-mails, but also my bank and credit card statements, in an attempt to find, say, a gasoline purchase in an atypical station. None of these efforts bore fruit.

I was left literally examining, using Google Maps and Street View, every T station and medical center northwest of Boston—where I am almost certain this event took place. And I thought I had hit pay dirt with the Oak Grove T station in Malden, MA; the view looking south on Washington Street, with the T station to my hard left, the chain link fencing in front of me and to the left, and the triple-deckers in front of and to the right of me almost precisely matches my location memory. However, when my daughters and I drove there one recent night, the area did not quite match my memory; though neither can I rule it out entirely.

Oak Grove 1.JPG

Oak Grove 2.JPG

But here is the thing: I may well be conflating the area around where I picked up EH with what I recall of the houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC; during the nine months or so I lived there starting in September 1988, I visited some acquaintances there once.

And this is precisely why interrogating memory, no matter how certain we are of what we recall, is so tricky. Over time, memories decay and become confused with other memories—and even with images recalled from dreams. As an example, I was convinced that I saw my first Charlie Chan movie one afternoon during the summer of 1976. A careful search of television listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, revealed that it was actually at 8 pm. And then the diary I kept in the summer of 1976 told me that on the following afternoon, I watched A Night at the Opera. Despite my eventual near-obsession with these Charlie Chan films, it was the Marx Brothers classic that was most salient at the time, as evidenced by it being recorded in my diary and not the Charlie Chan (and Sherlock Holmes film; it was a double feature). But, later, when I looked back, I mistakenly took the emotional impact of a film I watched the following afternoon to mean that I had watched the film with more current resonance at that time, rather than the night before.

For all that I have been frustrated to this point, though, I will continue to interrogate these memories as best I can. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] OK, she actually said “black” (or maybe even “shvartze?”)  in a furtive whisper. Behold the casual racism of mid-1960s white people—the daughter and son of Jewish immigrants from modern-day Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, no less—who had just moved to the suburbs from West Philadelphia. THAT said, she and my father were no less excited to adopt me.

[2] With 50% confidence, that is. With 90% confidence, I am 13.9% British & Irish, 1.7% French & German, 66.8% Broadly Northwestern European, 15.8% Broadly European and 1.8% Unassigned.

[3] I pieced together the root of this story through e-mail exchanges with a genetic maternal aunt (who herself had been given up for adoption, as had her older sister—to the same family, no less—by my genetic mother’s mother). My maternal grandmother truly believed that her own mother was part Cherokee, likely because of where in Oklahoma she was born, though it was not quite where the Cherokee Nation lived.

[4] These follow chapters that discuss my film noir “journey” and research more generally; my family’s immigration from the Pale of Settlement to (ultimately) West Philadelphia, as well as the lives they led there; my parents’ childhoods, meeting, marriage and eventual move to Havertown with my severely mentally-challenged older sister, their only natural child; the Freemasons and their connection to the lawyer who arranged my adoption; the adoption itself.

[5] To be brutally honest, this included my own parents. My father was raised in West Philadelphia, while my mother grew up in Strawberry Mansion and Overbrook. Following their January 1960 marriage, they lived for four years in Wynnefield, just over the city line from the Main Line township of Lower Merion. In 1964, they moved to a new housing development in the borderline-Main-Line suburb of Havertown.

[6] To the east is the Delaware River and New Jersey

[7] On a trip to Philadelphia last August, I visited Har Nebo Cemetery, where, among other family members, two of my paternal great-grandparents are buried. Looming over that cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia was a large building eerily reminiscent of the Brooklyn school shown in the opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter.

[8] Moreover, when I consider why I love film noir so much, I realize that what these films gave me—particularly the so-called “classic era” of the 1940s and 1950s—was a completely different version of “the city.” This was a vibrant, middle class city in the era before suburbs as we know them today, the city my grandparents helped to build and in which my parents were raised. Indeed, my maternal grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer between roughly 1935 and 1953 (the exact dates have been hard to pin down), rising to the rank of Detective before serving briefly under the very same Frank Rizzo. The contrast between the older—and to be completely honest, lily-white—city of film noir and the city of my childhood continues to fascinate me.

[9] Making it that much more tragically ironic that he died while on a break from this job. On the evening of June 30, 1982, he was on his way to meet some fellow cabdrivers at Little Pete’s coffee shop for a meal when he suffered a fatal heart attack directly across the street, on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel. He was just 46 years old.

[10] There was a rumor he also sold drugs, but given his disapproval of my mother when she began to smoke marijuana in 1970 (when she was 32, which was thus when I would be allowed to start doing so—event though I smoked my first joint when I was 19, quite ineffectively), that seems highly unlikely.

[11] One, from 1990, involved driving up a similar road with businesses on either side of it before reaching a 24-hour eatery on the left-hand side, complete with curved driveway. A second, from 2005, includes my being in a darkened front room at night. This room is on the second floor of a two-story building. Through a bay window I can see a darkened commercial street corner with a street lamp; there may be a railway tunnel to the right.

[12] I did not yet have my doctorate in epidemiology.

NOIR CITY 17: New heights of noir!

The streak ended at five.

For a number of reasons (including having already seen 20 of the 24 films to be screened[1]), I did not attend the NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco this year[2]. I had attended—and enjoyed immensely—each of the previous five years after attending the 2014 festival (NOIR CITY 12) on a lark.

After returning home to Brookline from the 2018 festival (NOIR CITY 16), I wrote a 10-part series detailing my extraordinary 11-day trip. You may find all 10 parts towards the end of this recent post.

I also wrote a post in which I observed that the “noir” level of the festival had increased dramatically since the relatively low-level heist-themed NOIR CITY 15 in 2017. By “noir level,” I simply mean the degree to which the films screened at the festival are considered noir by a range of published experts in the field (including being screened at NOIR CITY).

Briefly, since March 2015 I have been constructing an Excel database, which currently consists of 4,825 films discussed, explicitly[3] or implicitly[4], as “film noir” in at least one of 32 publicly-available sources (minimum 120 titles). For each film, I entered all alternate titles, release details (year, format, BW/color, primary production studio), director(s), cinematographer(s) and country(ies) of production. I have also recorded the top-billed (up to 10) actors and actresses (separately by gender) in the 300 films most often considered noir, according to that film’s entry in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). I supplemented these “master” lists with a) sub-lists in the 32 primary sources (e.g., the 50-film canon in Ballinger’s and Graydon’s The Rough Guide to Film Noir) and b) 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles), including the 77 films discussed as noir in Paul Schrader’s seminal 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir[5].”

From these data I calculated two measures:

  • LISTS: number of times a film was included in a primary source (124-3,253 titles[6]), meaning LISTS range from 1-32. All lists are weighted equally.
  • POINTS: LISTS plus “1” if on one of the 13 shorter lists[7] or up to “2” for appearing on a sub-list (up to 100 titles) in one of the 32 primary lists. Currently, POINTS has a maximum of 67.5; Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 points.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that films with higher LISTS/POINTS scores are intrinsically more “noir” than films with lower LISTS/POINTS scores. That would require a consensus definition that does not yet exist[8]. Instead, I simply observe that the higher the LISTS/POINTS score, the higher the level of consensus that a particular title is film noir, because more writers who have examined these films have denoted it as such, however indirectly. That said, only 11% of films in the database have as many as 12.0 POINTS, while only an additional 9% have between 5.5 and 11.5 POINTS. The former I label “Universal,” the latter I label “Debatable,” and the other 80% of films (including 2,327—fully 48%–with only 1.0 POINTS) I label “Idiosyncratic.”

That being said, because a higher POINTS score results in part from inclusion on more smaller lists often specifically intended to highlight exemplary films noir, films with a higher POINTS score can broadly be considered more “noir.”

**********

Since its inception in 2003, a total of 346 films have been screened at NOIR CITY, primarily at the magnificent Castro Theatre, with 64 screened multiple times; the entertaining Night Editor has been screened four times[9]! These 346 films average 16.4 LISTS and 20.1 POINTS (with medians of 18 and 19, respectively); by comparison, the overall database average is 4.0 LISTS and 4.5 LISTS (both medians=2).

The theme of NOIR CITY 17 was “films of the 1950s,” a natural follow-up to the NOIR CITY 16 theme of “A” and “B” film pairs, 1941-1953. Curiously, while the latter period is generally considered the apex of noir (especially 1944-50), it is clear from Figures 1 and 2 that the years 1950 to 1961 showed no drop-off in noir level[10].

Figure 1:

Average LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-17

Figure 2:

Median LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-17.jpg

In fact, the 2019 NOIR CITY had its highest noir level since 2006, averaging a robust 19.9 LISTS and 25.0 POINTS (medians 20 and 24, respectively). One reason for this high noir level was that every screened film was in the “Universal” category, including the films from 1960 (A bout du souffle [Breathless], 15 POINTS; Psycho, 13 POINTS) and 1961 (Underworld U.S.A., 21 POINTS; Blast of Silence, 12 POINTS) which closed out the festival. Moreover, among the 24 films screened this year, six rank in the top 100 by POINTS (≥29)—including two in the top 10:

Kiss Me Deadly (54.5)

Touch of Evil (52.0)

Pickup on South Street (40.5)

Odds Against Tomorrow (36.5)

The File on Thelma Jordon (35.5)

Angel Face (33.5)

**********

NOIR CITY is scheduled to return for a second year to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA on June 7, 2019; I will definitely be attending, likely with one or both daughters in tow (less certain of my wife Nell). As of this writing, I do not know which, if any, of the 24 films screened in San Francisco will be screened at the Brattle, though I hope the 10 films include at least one of the four films I still have not seen[11].

As for the yet-to-be-scheduled NOIR CITY 18: as of now I am planning to attend. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] In the previous five years, I typically had already seen only eight of the average 25 films to be screened.

[2] Also, the previous five years the “official” NOIR CITY hotel was closer to Union Square. Due to renovation, this year the “official” hotel was a few blocks from the Castro Theatre. While that is a fun neighborhood, half of the fun of these trips is being a short walk from Chinatown and other “downtown” sites. This made it that much harder to justify the time and expense of an 11-day trip some 3,000 miles to the west.

[3] Dictionaries, encyclopedias, “filmographies” in books about film noir

[4] Cited in the text, however obliquely, in such overviews as Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir, and James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.

[5] Schrader, Paul. 1972. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment 8:1, pp. 8-13

[6] Range: Mark Osteen’s Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream to John Grant’s A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir

[7] Because each of the three ground-breaking mid-1940s articles by Lloyd Shearer, Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier cite only a handful of titles (14 in total), I assigned 1 point to a film discussed in only one and 2 points discussed in more than one. Shearer, Lloyd. 1945. “Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen,” New York Times Magazine, August 5, 1945. Frank, Nino. 1946. “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: l’Aventure Criminelle.” L’Ecran Francais, August 1946. English translation “A New Kind of Police Drama: The Criminal Adventure” by Alain Silver. Chartier, Jean-Pierre. 1946. “Les americains aussi font des films ‘noirs.” La Revue de Cinema, November 1946. English translation “Americans Also Make Noir Films” by Alain Silver. All three articles were reprinted (pp. 8-23) in Silver and Ursini’s Film Noir Reader 2.

[8] In fact, one goal in constructing this list is to single out the films most-often cited as “noir” then examine those films for commonalities from which a formal definition could be constructed.

[9] 2006, 2009, 2013, 2018

[10] I subtracted one LIST and one POINT from each screened film because appearance at NOIR CITY is one of the primary sources. Simply add one to each value to calculate each year’s actual LISTS and POINTS average and median.

[11] The Scarlet Hour, Trapped, Underworld U.S.A., The Well