Daily Archives: February 7, 2020

The Nightmare of Technology: Blame the App, Not the Iowans

The Iowa Caucus is over. There will be no more political flyers in the mail.  The Democratic candidates have flown to New Hampshire.  

There is a residue of depression.  “People are unusually quiet at the office,” a friend says.

Before the app scandal, the Democrats were exhilarated.  They thronged to the caucuses Monday night. They were psyched about their candidates.  To a man, they praised the newly-organized caucuses, which, for the first time, had paper backup:  caucus-goers filled out cards with detailed information on first and final alignment, to support the head count by precinct captains.

At home later, they sat down in front of the TV news–only to learn there were no results.  An app had malfunctioned.

Iowa caucus registration.

The chair of the Iowa Democratic party apologized for the defective app. But the results came in so much later than anyone thought.  Not available in toto  the next day, nor the next, nor the next…and on Friday, last time I checked, 99% were tallied, with Bernie and Pete declared the winners. 

The scandal rages on. And the DNC has not only rapped Iowa on the knuckles for buying a faulty app, but has threatened to kill the Iowa Caucus.

Instead of blaming the Iowans for an app that didn’t provide the  promised results, shouldn’t the focus be on the company that made it and the problems with the technology?

Ballots and tech so often go wrong, even in low-tech elections.   Remember the presidential election of 2000, when Al Gore was declared the winner, and then the Republicans insisted that George W. Bush had won?  This battle went on for months.  If I recall correctly, some votes in Florida were disqualified because of “hanging chads” on the ballot.  And Florida, where Jeb Bush was governor, determined the winner.

Elections are a hassle.  At the general elections here, I have long doubted that my vote gets counted.  Why?   I cannot color inside the lines of the bubbles on the old-fashioned multiple-choice-style ballots, because of a hand tremor, a side effect of a medication.  There are strict directions about keeping inside the lines.

The system of voting, tech, and ballots needs to be examined, whether at the caucuses, the primaries, or general elections.  And by all means, continue the caucus if the Iowans want it.  They devised the system, and the first caucus was held in 1972.  

More Roman Than Roman: John Williams’s “Augustus”

During a recent illness, I sweated, ached, and slept,  but managed to stay up a few hours a day to read genre books.  Of course some  will argue that John Williams’s National Book Award-winning Augustus  is not a genre book but a literary masterpiece. 

Yet it is still a genre book:  a historical novel. 

Best-known for Stoner, a kind of tepid imitation of the lesser work of Willa Cather,  Williams is more ambitious in Augustus, which won the National Book Award in 1973. (He shared the award with John Barth for Chimera.) Centered on the life of Octavian, the first Roman emperor, who was later known as Augustus, this intelligent novel unfolds in the form of pitch-perfect letters, documents, memoirs, journals, and even a stilted “lost poem” by Ovid (Williams is not much of a poet).  In a non-chronological narrative,  Williams charts the growing power of Octavian/Augustus, beginning with his wish to avenge the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., followed by  the formation of the Second Triumvirate, a trio of powerful men consisting of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus.   Inevitably, the triumvirate split up,  and Octavian defeated Antony (and Cleopatra) at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  And then Octavian returned triumphant to Rome, where he became emperor/dictator, took the title Augustus, and called himself Princeps (First Citizen, which less threatening than emperor). 

Occasionally the style is stilted, but much is brilliantly readable.   And Williams’ imitation of Roman letters is right-on: it captures the formality, underscored by the peculiar tone of Latin in translation.  (In Latin such letters are more fluid.) . Occasionally the letters are laced with gossip.   

James Purefoy as Antony in “Rome”

I have to admit, I’ve always been fond of Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius),  because he was so sensual and madly in love with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play.   But perhaps I also have mixed Antony up with James Purefoy, who played Antony in the entertaining TV series, Rome.  (I loved that show.)

In the following letter, Antony describes Augustus as the pain in the ass he probably was. 

That whey-faced little bastard, Octavius, came around to see me yesterday morning. He has been in Rome for the past week or so, acting like a bereaved widow, calling himself Caesar, all manner of nonsense.

The letters of Maecenas, one of the earliest supporters of Augustus and the patron of the poets Horace and Virgil, are a mix of formality and liveliness.  In Williams’ novel, Maecenas is portrayed as a gay man, though I cannot verify if that is true or not.  Here is a typical opening of a  letter from Maecenas to Livy  the historian  

You must forgive me, my dear Livy, for having so long delayed my reply. The usual complaints: retirement seems not to have improved the state of my health at all. The doctors shake their heads wisely, mutter mysteriously, and collect their fees. Nothing seems to help—not the vile medicines I am fed, nor even the abstinence from those pleasures which (as you know) I once enjoyed. 

Williams also includes portions of a fascinating (fictieious) journal by Augustus’s daughter Julia, who was exiled for adultery.

At times Williams seems more Roman than Roman. Although he has studied the letters of Cicero, Pliny, and Seneca carefully, he needs to break away from his imitations.  If  were less consistently intent on pastiche, this might have been a better book.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Augusutus, the great Roman historical novell is  Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, the story of a later emperor.  You can’t go wrong with either of these.