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Some thoughts after finishing CA poll worker training

Just finished my poll worker training for the November 3 election. I’ve been impressed with how SF has rolled their remote training out. The one disappointment was that I couldn’t pause it and then resume it another day. I had assumed I could (shouldn’t have assumed!) and ended up having to redo an hour of it.

We’re to arrive at 5:45am on election day and will likely be there until 9:30pm or later. Polls open at 7am sharp and stay open until 8pm, with anyone in line at 8pm being permitted to vote. The whole process is a bit more complex than I anticipated, but I guess it makes sense given the scale of the operation.

Most of it is about common sense, common courtesy, and following instructions, but some points surprised me a bit. When someone comes in to the polling place to vote, we’re to offer them PPE and share the health and safety protocols they need to follow, perfectly sensible. But if they refuse to wear a mask or stand six feet from other people, we’re not allowed to turn them away. The right to vote supersedes health and safety guidelines. Ultimately this makes sense, it is the way it has to be. I cannot imagine the chaos that would ensue if an anti-masker were turned away at the polls… But it felt counter-intuitive at first, and it makes me hope that elderly folks that might normally volunteer are reconsidering for this particular election.

Electioneering is another interesting topic. It was only mentioned once in the introduction when talking about protecting voters’ rights, but it’s likely to be a problem in this election I think. In the San Francisco-based training that I did, electioneering was described as visible or audible advocacy for anything on the ballot, gathering signatures for a political petition, displaying campaign literature, and wearing campaign buttons or t-shirts within a 100 foot radius of the voting place. Electioneering rules on election day are different in each state, but most are somewhat similar to this. I think a lot of people might not realize it’s not ok to wear their Biden/Harris or Trump/Pence t-shirt to go vote!

The point that probably surprised me the most relates to poll watchers. The legalities vary a lot state-to-state but in California, there aren’t any statues about it to my knowledge. The training stated that in California, poll watchers must be welcomed so long as they’re not intimidating voters, don’t interfere with or slow down the voting process, don’t interfere with voters’ rights, and aren’t compromising the safety of the voters or workers (as in, they’re not causing the polling place to exceed pandemic-related capacity restrictions).

The qualifications in other states can be very particular. You can see a decent rundown on this ncsl.org page but check with your local election official to be sure. Based on what I’ve read, the most common qualifications and requirements often include restrictions on the number of watchers allowed per polling place, being a registered voter in the precinct, wearing an identifying badge, being officially appointed by your party (with sometimes byzantine sub-requirements), and being registered in advance as a watcher with your county. The most restrictive states are probably Minnesota (watchers not allowed, only challengers, and they can only be appointed after gathering 25 signatures regarding a specific issue) and West Virginia (doesn’t permit them at all). Ohio was the only state I found that doesn’t allow poll watchers to carry firearms or deadly weapons.

The problem is that these restrictions will likely be overlooked by much of the “army” (our president’s militant wording, not mine) being urged to “watch very carefully” by President Trump during the first debate and on Twitter throughout this election cycle.

People are fearful that they can’t trust anything they read in the mainstream media, and the flames of those fears are being fanned by deliberate acts of disinformation by the Trump/Pence campaign such as spending thousands on Facebook ads promoting unfounded rumors about Biden. Based on that fear, it’s understandable that they would want to witness the veracity of an election for themselves, particularly since one of the only leaders they trust is urging them to do so.

So we have a situation where likely tens of thousands of people are ready and willing to be poll watchers. All well and good I guess, as long as they all stick to the rules. The Trump/Pence campaign is making some small effort to keep their official poll watchers on the right side of the law using training videos.

But what about the unofficial poll watchers? The people that don’t know better and take it upon themselves to make sure everything is going according to Trump’s plan? They put themselves at risk of heavy fines and even jailtime, let alone putting others at risk and debasing our electoral process depending upon their actions and intentions. Considering the aggressive vigilantism we’re currently seeing among the far right — the Michigan governor kidnapping plot and the FBI’s recently published Homeland Threat Assessment are cases in point — I would be sad but absolutely not surprised to see some explosive behavior among unofficial poll watchers in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and elsewhere.

I think it’s unlikely that I’ll see many problems at my precinct in San Francisco. And even if something arises, the SF poll worker training made it clear that it’s not our responsibility to de-escalate, that we’re to call the Election Center who will provide guidance and get the right people involved if necessary. I’m more worried about the swing states. You’d hope that cooler heads would prevail, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of that these past four years.

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So dark

Photo of the orange smoke in San Francisco

Taken at 9:40am today. Somehow it seemed to get darker between when I woke up around 7:30 and now. It’s dark enough to be 7/8pm. Apparently ash is falling like snow in Concord.

Soundtrack for this morning: Silver Apples’ eponymous album from 1968. Came across this via @erikinternet’s tweet, didn’t know about Simeon Coxe III before. RIP.

Worth reading: 2019 Guardian article ‘Fire is medicine’: the tribes burning California forests to save them.

Edit at 9am on 10 September

The sun never really came up yesterday. We woke up this morning wondering if it would be the same.

The orange is gone, replaced by light beige smog. The 10 minute average air quality index (AQI) is over 200 in most of the city according to PurpleAir, over 270 in parts of the Sunset district. “Everyone may begin to experience health effects if they are exposed for 24 hours; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.”

Though it looks better than yesterday, the reality is way worse on the ground.

Edit at 4pm on 10 September

Now the air is thick, opaque. AQI is in the 300s in most of the city, mid-300s in the Mission. “Health warnings of emergency conditions if they are exposed for 24 hours. The entire population is more likely to be affected.”

Edit at 9:30pm on 10 September

The AQI has dropped back to the mid-200s in SF. Things are a bit better (still not great) once you get south of Santa Barbara, hovering around 100. In the mid 100s around Tahoe. Oregon is feeling it the worst right now, it’s over 500 in Portland. As Duane King said on Twitter, “‘Airpocalypse’ helps explain why my eyes are burning indoors.

Read more edits

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Decentering Whiteness in Design History, an annotated bibliography in progress

Check out Decentering Whiteness in Design History, an annotated bibliography in progress.

One of the great FemOS ladies shared the above resource recently. She came across it via the Simply Secure Slack chat. It seems like a strong doc, I hope that the researchers and others continue to add to it.

If you’re looking for resources on a particular topic like typography or graphic design, it’s best to refer to their hashtag list currently on page 8 (search the doc for “Hashtag Authority List” if it moves). Then find a tag you’re interested in and search the doc for that tag.

Below is a list of a few resources that caught my eye and I’d like to follow up on. These are all freely available online in one form or another or could likely be loaned from a library.

  • “The Font that Never Was: Linotype and the “Phonetic Chinese Alphabet” of 1921”, an article by Thomas S. Mullaney. The article is behind a paywall, but he also presented it at ATypI 2016 (see video).
  • Saki Mafundikwa’s TED talk Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabets
  • Chromophobia by David Batchelor published in 2001. The editorial description: “The central argument of Chromophobia is that a chromophobic impulse—a fear of corruption or contamination through colour—lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought. This is apparent in the many and varied attempts to purge colour, either by making it the property of some ‘foreign body’—the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, or the pathological—or by relegating it to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or the cosmetic.” Purchase from the publisher, buy it secondhand, or look for it at local library.
  • “New Blackface: Neuland and Lithos as Stereotypography”, an essay by Rob Giampietro that was originally published in the journal of the Type Directors Club (an org that has been been in hot water over the past few months, incidentally…). It’s available to read on his website.
  • Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985, the catalogue for the exhibition “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985” at LACMA in 2018. Purchase from the LACMA online store, buy it secondhand. Feel like this is unlikely to be in a local library unfortunately.
  • “Violence and Economic Growth: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870–1940” by Lisa Cook, published in the Journal of Economic Growth in June 2014. Cook analyzed over two million patents, cross-referencing with Census records to track Black patent activity over time. From the bibliography: “Her data suggested something huge happened after 1921 that caused the rate of Black patenting to tank after that date; it turned out to be the destruction of “Black Wall Street” during the Tulsa massacre.” Available in full as a PDF via Cook’s website.

Time to reintroduce a whole lot of color on this site, I think!

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Applied to be poll worker

Just applied to be a poll worker in the upcoming US election. It involves setting up your assigned polling place, opening for voters by 7am on voting day, checking in voters using precinct rosters and issuing ballots, closing the polls, and transferring custody of voting materials. The day usually lasts from 6am to 10pm and involves training in advance.

I figured they may have fewer poll workers than normal with the pandemic. My schedule is plenty flexible and I’m not considered at high risk for COVID, so I ought to help out. If you’re interested in assisting in your city, search “become a poll worker in <your city>” online to find the relevant information.


Update 19 August 2020: It took took a bit longer than I’d expected for me to be contacted after submitting my application. I received a followup email today, a little over two weeks after submission. Just mentioning here in case anyone has done the same and is a little confused about when they’re supposed to hear back.

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“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously”

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Many passages in Between the World and Me are worth quoting, but this one really hit home. Coates also brands this “patriotism à la carte” in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” (see below).

This blind national pride has been particularly painful to many people recently with the wildly inadequate pandemic response, the killing of George Floyd, unmarked federal officers’ violence in Portland, and so many more recent events.

I’d forgotten about how very pervasive it is until I got back to the US in early June. It’s insidious, sad and borderline delusional. And it’s not just a right / conservative thing.

It’s all well and good to be proud of your accomplishments, but if you can’t identify and work to rectify your failings then what the hell is the point?


I’ve been speaking with some friends about this book, they mentioned a few resources I’d like to follow up on.

And I’m still working through my previous list.


I just finished “The Case for Reparations” and learned so much.

Coates weaves together individual and collective experiences, history, and data to connect the dots between the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, redlining by the Federal Housing Association following the New Deal, the efforts of the Contract Buyers League, Belinda Royall’s early and successful petition for reparations in 1783, John Conyers’s HR 40 bill, the early history of slavery in the US, the failure of Reconstruction, the levelling of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and its subsequent suppression in law and the media, the myth of fatherhood as the antidote to Black poverty, the fuzziness of affirmative action, the “gulag of the Mississippi” Parchman Farm, the impact of Germany’s post-WWII reparations on Israel and the evolution of contemporary Germany, the prevalence of subprime lenders preying on Black home buyers in the run up to the 2008 crisis, and so much more.

He argues for the cooperation of every aspect of society in a real discussion and debate about reparations to “reject the intoxication of hubris” and bring about “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history”.

HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans “to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies”, has progressed since Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee is now first sponsor of HR 40 having taken over from John Conyers in 2018. There has been some progress with the bill, but a vote has not been set.

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Commonplace WordPress theme

I’ve been gradually updating the WordPress theme that powers this site with the help of a very talented designer and thinker, my friend Bec Worth.

It began with conversations about overhauling her own site. She had a few disparate Tumblrs with a ton (and I really do mean a ton) of great references, photos, and more that had accumulated over the years. All of them had fallen in to disuse for one reason or another, but she still felt like some sort of outlet for collecting these sorts of snippets and longer-format writing would be really useful. She brought up the Commonplace book as a particular inspiration. I’d never come across it before but it really resonated.

We continued talking about her site, and I started to restructure my old color-heavy Notebook theme (view in Wayback Machine) to strip out the less necessary functionality, improve the accessibility, etc. I wanted to make it something that could be more widely useful to not just me and Bec, but others as well. The early version of this new theme used variable Work Sans (view in Wayback Machine)

She liked where it was going, so we got her set up on a WordPress instance and used the Tumblr importer to pull in all of that old content. Since then, we’ve been using her log and my site to test out ideas and continue pushing the idea of what a Commonplace Book could be on the web. For more along these lines, I recommend reading her post “What would a Commonplace Book feel like on the web?

What’s next

It’s far from finished. The type is nowhere near as tight as Bec’s designs, I need to spend a bit more time on that! Amongst other things, I need to clean up the table of posts, add a thumbnail view, and improve the gallery block styles. We’re also going to figure out a way of highlighting work and other projects, something that draws a bit more attention than normal posts.

And color! We’d like to make it possible for people to select preferred text colors, maybe on a post-by-post basis or per category. Color is tricky though, I’d like to preserve some baseline of legibility and I’m not sure how much I could do as the developer to enforce that. Also, how do we handle this if we introduce dark mode support? The HSL or LCH color spaces might be helpful.

I’m not planning to submit this to the WordPress theme directory. Right now, this means that installation and updates are pretty manual, the theme has to be uploaded via FTP before it can be installed. Because of that, I’ll eventually set up an update server so that anyone using the theme can perform one-click updates from the WordPress admin area. Note to self: see this article for more on how to do this.

Realistically, people using the theme might want to change up certain aspects of the theme to be more “them”. Instead of adding a ton of theme options like font pickers and that sort of thing, I’d like to encourage people to tinker with it themselves. This is going to require a bit of documentation to point people in the right direction. I’ll probably start with how someone with little-to-no CSS experience could go about changing the font (i.e. upload font files in the Media library then add the necessary CSS lines in the Customizer, or setting up a child theme).

Clearly, it’s a work in progress!

But anyone is welcome to give it a try for themselves. I recommend it if you’ve been looking for a place to keep important references or get thoughts out of your head. Head to the commonplace-wp-theme GitHub repository to download it and read a bit more.

If you do end up using it, we’d love to know.

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Landed in SF

The sun setting over San Francisco in June

So.

After a lot of planning and quite a few delays, we’re now in the US. We’d considered NYC for a long while for a whole host of reasons, but we ended up in SF. Our first week has been overwhelmingly sunny so I’m thankful for that. It’s nice to be “home”, but it will be a while before it feels like it.

It was a weird journey. Very overwhelming, but in a way that makes your mind go blank and surrender rather than spin out. The trip itself was eerie, so empty. Wearing a mask for 32 hours wasn’t as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. Silver lining: a face mask makes the air on a plane feel much less dry.

I might go in to it a bit more at some point, but that’s enough for now. Slowly adjusting to feeling like an immigrant in my home state after 10 years in the UK.