Thursday, February 28, 2008

Google Charts & Gadgets

I got a bee in my bonnet today to play around with Google Gadgets and Charts. The charts in Analytics are so beautiful that I wanted to play with sometihng similar on my own, so I decided to add a gadget to my iGoogle page showing my lap times from skate practice. Every month our coach times us skating 1 lap and 3 laps, so what better way to track my improvement than to throw it into a graph, right?

A word to the wise: although you'd think that gadgets would be an easy way to get started with Google Charts (whose Developer Guide is pages long and details dozens of URL parameters), I actually couldn't figure out how to make them work. The line graph gadget requires a field labeled "Data source URL", which means you need to encode the data you want to display using one of Google Charts' data encoding formats, which is non-trivial (especially for someone expecting the plug-and-play simplicity of most gadgets), and the gadget comes with no instructions whatsoever (do I need a full Charts URL? Just the data parameter? Can I add in additional chart parameters?). I spent long enough researching data encodings and chart URL parameters that I figured I might as well create my own charts from scratch rather than using the gadget.

Here's what I ended up with: Lap times The left axis shows my 3-lap times, the right axis my 1-lap times. I was actually surprised by how closely the curves match each other. I only have 2 months of data (I missed January), so I'm looking forward to a few more months' worth to see how the charts grow over time.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Caucus or primary?

Since the Iowa caucuses kicked off the candidate selection process for the 2008 presidential election, I've learned way more than I ever knew previously about our country's electoral processes.

Historically, my political involvement has consisted of voting in the presidential election and calling it a day. I've never felt strongly about a candidate (big surprise: the only elections I've been legal to vote in were the Gore and Kerry elections. Or should I say, the Bush and Bush elections. And while I felt strongly about Kerry in that he was the-guy-who-wasn't-Bush, he certainly didn't stir my socks in his own right). The Democratic nominee always seemed like a foregone conclusion, so I never bothered learning about all this primary/caucus hoopla. Also, in 2004 I wasn't completely hooked on NPR yet, so I wasn't being inundated with daily stories about candidate selection.

But this year I'm both excited, and irrevocably glued to public radio. So after hearing this highly informative story about the Washington candidate selection process, I decided I should go caucus for the first time in my life.

Let me back up a little and explain the caucus/primary thing for those of you too impatient to listen to that clip. A primary is a ballot-based election just like most elections you're probably used to. You go to your polling place, get in the private booth, tick the little box by your candidate of choice, and you're done. Fast, private, and you can even vote by mail if, like Washington, your state allows that option. A caucus, on the other hand, is when voters get together and indicate their candidate preference in person. It's like voting with your body instead of by ballot. You can see how many people are voting for each candidate and you can see who they are, which means you can argue with each other and try to get people to switch sides. More coming soon on what actually goes on at a caucus.

So here's the deal with Washington: the Republican party holds both a primary and a caucus. They use the results from both to decide how to apportion their WA delegates. The Democratic party also holds both a primary and a caucus, but after everyone's taken the time to vote, they throw away the primary results and only use the caucus results to apportion delegates.

What?!? So what's the point of the primary? The chair of the WA Democratic party said, "The primary will be basically a fairly expensive $10M public opinion survey," and if you want your vote to count for more than entertainment value, you have to show up at the caucus. Which is why Nick and I attended.

So can someone explain to me what on earth the value is of having a primary that doesn't count for anything? In particular, I thought the Democratic party was all about promoting equality, and representing and enfranchising a wide variety of voters. Requiring you to show up in person at 1:00pm on a Saturday in order for your vote to count totally disenfranchises anyone who doesn't have a 9-5 Monday-Friday job. And guess what: that's way more likely to be lower-income voters. So all the upper-middle-class cubicle jockeys get to show up at the Saturday caucus and hobnob with their upper-middle-class neighbors, while the rest of their precinct is serving burgers and cleaning those folks' cubicles? That just doesn't seem right. Add to this the fact that it's not exactly common knowledge that the primary doesn't count (that's fairly non-intuitive, right? I generally assume that if an election is held, it's so that people can vote on something and those votes can be used to determine the outcome of the election. I don't generally feel compelled to read the fine print to find out whether my vote will be thrown away afterward). Holding a primary seems both pointless and misleading, and the fact that lower-income voters are more likely to be unable to attend just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

So can anyone justify this situation to me? I understand the interest of having a public forum to get people together and talking politics with each other (we did meet some new neighbors this weekend), but then why not hold both (primary & caucus) but have the primary votes count and the caucus results get thrown away? What are your thoughts on the situation?