Friday, November 30, 2007

The Election That Wasn't

On November 4, 2008, Americans will elect their next president. What better time for a refresher on the election process?

This is how American presidential elections work: Americans go to voting stations and cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice. Once they're done, all the votes are counted. The candidate with the greatest percentage of the people's votes becomes president-elect. And once he (or perhaps she) assumes office the following January, he will be under the obligation of legislating into existence the policy agenda he ran on - the one dealing with matters like unemployment, health care, abortion, defense, etc.

Oh wait - ha ha. Silly me. That's what tens of millions of Americans imagine, despite - or is it because of? - having gone through high school civics classes and "US Government 101"-type classes at college. What actually happens is this.

On election day, Americans visit polling stations in which they will be given a ballot containing the names of presidential candidates. The "voter" then selects his favourite - yet under the terms of the United States Constitution, this ballot has no legal standing whatsoever as a vote for president. Nor do the tens of millions of other votes have any such legal standing. What that means is that even if all 280 million Americans decided on election day to vote for the same candidate, under the supreme law of the United States, that 280,000,000 to zero landslide victory would have no legally-binding effect on who actually became the president of the United States. In short, by Constitutional design, the president of the United States is not, and never has been, elected by popular vote. Remember all those bumper stickers that say, "Your vote counts"? Mmmmmmmmmnot really. ("BUT WHAT ABOUT FLORIDA!!!?". My answer: exactly. What about Florida? It meant nothing in the end, and only through an act of illegality far more brazen than that alleged to have been committed by "Bush and his buddies on the Supreme Court", could it have been made to count).

Where were we? Oh yes.

There are, in fact, only 538 Americans whose votes for president count. They are the "electors" chosen by each state (in whichever way they like); it is they who comprise the "electoral college". And while those electors are often chosen or elected based on which presidential candidate they have pledged to vote for, the bald truth is that once those special electors are elected, they are free to vote for whomever they please on election day. So-called "faithless electors" - those electors who change their minds after being appointed or elected - may theoretically be punished or censured by the state for breaking their pledge. Yet it is an historical fact that while there have been a number of faithless electors over the years, none has ever been punished.

I believe that part of the frustration felt by many Americans over the results of the 2000 election was caused by ignorance of the fact that the popular vote is not legally binding on presidential election results. (It is even still quite common to hear people grouse that Bush "stole the election" because "most people voted against him". But of course, it is nothing new in American history that a candidate wins the electoral college while losing the popular vote, nor is it, in itself, evidence of anything shady).

Just one little example of how that can happen:

Say two candidates - Joe and Mike - are running for president in a two state country, which has a winner-take-all, electoral college system like the US.

The two states are Leftistan, with 1000 popular voters (and 10 electoral college votes), and Rightistan, with 900 popular voters (and 9 electoral college votes).

In Leftistan, 512 people vote for Joe, who therefore wins Leftistan and all ten of its electoral votes. (That is, 488 Leftistanians voted for Mike).

In Rightistan, however, 654 popular voters (out of 900) voted for Mike, making Mike the winner of that state.

Supposing that the electoral college electors reflected the popular votes in their respective states, then, Joe - having won Leftistan and its electoral college votes - would win the presidential election by a margin of ten electoral college votes, to Rightistan's nine.

Yet, who won the popular vote? In Leftistan, 488 voted for Mike, and in Rightistan, 654 did, making a total of 1,142 popular votes for Mike, compared to only 758 for the legal winner, Joe.

The last thing to mention is that the Constitution prescribes a fairly limited role to the president; that so many citizens continue to think of the president as some sort of super-legislator says more about the human need for feeling secure - an impulse toward deification, to put it in more extreme terms - than about the actual Constitution. The president's primary Constitutionally-defined job, in addition to being commander-in-chief (though even that role is relatively circumscribed) is to ensure that federal laws passed by Congress are enforced.

It is of course true that in a state absolutely bloated by bureaucracy, much of which is federal, the president can in effect change some policies; he need only sign an executive order or sign off on some new program or reshuffling, and the way that the latest self-righteous, democratically-unaccountable horde of control freaks unleashed by the executive branch goes about their tax-dollar-wasting projects may be tempered a bit. Other than that power - which to speak the truth, is a power which arguably he shouldn't even have to the extent he does now - the US president just doesn't have that much direct power over policy.

Now - just before people start feeling too upset - the United States did become the greatest superpower the world has ever known in under two centuries. And if we acknowledge that it was not some nation-wide divine endowment of greater intelligence, we must concede that at least some of that rise - and maybe most of it, or maybe even all of it - has to be attributable to the genius of the American system of government (and certainly, reading "The Federalist" is an awe-inspiring experience). But whether that rise has mostly to do with the way American government operates now, or is mostly attributable to the momentum gained during the 150 years of a much more limited, frugal, and aloof federal government, is a very good question...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

England, Part II

Back to England...

In my last post on this, I mentioned being accepted into UCL's MSc program in Cognitive and Decision Science. Perhaps I should back up a bit to explain how I even came to think of applying there.

Last spring, I applied for graduate study in the philosophy department at the University of Victoria, which is only about three hundred yards from my house. This was my thinking in doing so:

I have a BA in political science, specialization in political philosophy;

I want to study the mind/brain;

Studying the mind/brain is the province of psychology/cognitive (neuro)science;

There's no way I will be accepted directly into a psych or cog-sci graduate program with an undergraduate degree in political science;

But my political philosophy background would conceivably allow me to get into a philosophy MA program, where I could specialize in philosophy of mind;

And with an MA in philosophy of mind, I could conceivably get accepted into an MSc/PhD program in cognitive science;

Therefore, I get an MA in philosophy, specializing in philosophy of mind, at the University of Victoria, and then I apply to a cognitive science PhD program somewhere else: UC San Diego, Indiana, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Rochester, or some university of lower status...who knows?

This seemed like a straightforward enough plan; after all, three years ago I applied for graduate study in philosophy at UVic and they accepted me at that time, so I didn't anticipate a problem now (I ended up not going then because it seemed like my music career was going to pick up again and I wanted to take advantage of those opportunities while I can).

So -

I emailed the (new) philosophy faculty graduate director and asked him if I could start in the fall. After speaking with the previous graduate director (who I had corresponded with three years earlier), he said that would be fine and asked me to send in my formal application, including a writing sample. In a follow-up email, I mentioned my BA in political science; imagine my surprise, after his initial informal acceptance and the fact that I was accepted formally three years ago, when the professor emailed me back and said he had not realized my BA was in poli-sci, and that this would pose a problem for my application. Hm.

Well, this surprised me a bit, but I felt my application was quite strong in other ways, and that ultimately, it would be clear we were a natural fit, and that I'd get in. My undergrad transcript showed A's in all of my political science/political philosophy classes, I am pretty sure that the recommendation letters from my political philosophy professors were quite glowing, my statement of purpose letter listed the many political philosophers whose works I had studied (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzche, Machiavelli, etc.), and I explained in detail the philosophy of mind issues I was now interested in exploring, with specific references to various proposals (Fodor's, Dennett's, Nagel's, Chalmers's, etc.). In addition, my writing sample, from what I could judge, was pretty good. Certainly it was the best I could do - it discussed a contradiction in Hume's thought which had caused much philosophical mischief over the past 250 years. (The first half of that contradiction was Hume's suggestion, via his much-vaunted "problem of induction", that science ultimately could not be defended as rational. To make a long story short, I went on to show how this argument of Hume's had spawned philosophical monsters like the accounts of science given by Kuhn and Popper, and had even come to serve as an easy starting point for the legitimation of political ideology, magic, etc.). Anyway, I thought my paper was pretty good. So, I sent my whole application package in and waited to hear back.

And...the new graduate director declined my application. He cited the fact I'd only ever had one undergrad class taught by a member of the philosophy department (my political philosophy classes were taught through the political science department). I was curious to know what he'd thought about my writing sample. He said only that it "showed some potential". (After all that thinkin' and readin'..."some potential", I confess, was quite deflating). I got my paper out and read it, and re-read it (like some mourning mommy ape retrieving her dead baby after it's fallen off a cliff, holding and petting it - "oo - OO - OOO? - OOOO! - - -ooooooooooooooooooooooooo"), looking for what might make it average (and making sad ape noises :P)...but I confess, no matter how many times I read over it, it just seemed pretty damn good to me. Indeed, I had a hard time imagining sometimes that typical applicants to graduate study at UVic were turning in better stuff. And sometimes, I almost wondered if he'd even actually read it.

The director did inform me that they would permit me to study the following year (while paying full tuition, mind you, whereas other graduate students get departmental stipends) providing I took eight undergraduate classes in philosophy - which he had selected - and got A- or higher in all of them. I had a look over the classes; I was disappointed that none of them had anything to do with what I was most eager to study. And when I went to register, most of them were totally full and had waiting lists (though later I heard they would wedge me in). But overall - I'm not really sure how to describe it - there was something about the whole thing that seemed sort of deflating or off-putting.

This all happened in late July; and wouldn't you know, that it was only a week or two later that I left for England to meet up with my dad and my two oldest sons, where I'd spend a few days in London, after which we would all fly over to Hamburg to begin a romp through the heart of Deutschland, accompanied by a film crew, director, and translator, on a quest to find our lost ancestors (the televion show made from this trip will air shortly. I'll include details in my next post. And, oh yes, I guess I should say something about the trip, too!).

Next time,


Monday, November 19, 2007

Movie Review: "Beowulf"

I saw "Beowulf" on Saturday night. Angelina Jolie as a sleazy "other woman" - who woulda thought?

AJ must have spent a lot of time tracking down and interviewing such women to try to "get inside their heads", reading old Strassberg acting manuals, contacting Joan Plowright to ask what "Larry" did to prepare for all those marvelous stage performances, and doing some serious meditation. The performance was, in a word, effortless.

Anthony Hopkins did his normal workman-like job (which we all imagine was "brilliant" because he got knighted, and "anyone who gets knighted must be brilliant, right?"). I don't know who played the Queen - the computer animation made her look like Robin Wright, but I'm so lazy, I can't even be bothered to go look it up right now. In any case, the queen was okay. So was the young chick. So was Beowulf.

Oh yeah - the story. Short version: Monster (Grendel) threatens community of Danes, Beowulf comes and kills the monster, displaces Sir Anthony as the community's king, is seduced by homewrecker, sires a new monster, and then dies killing it. Along the way, lots of head-chopping and "riotous drinking in the mead hall", etc.

Bottom line is, I thought it was pretty average. I actually preferred the "Beowulf and Grendel" movie that came out a couple of years ago starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley, even though it was pretty slow, and its budget was less than one/tenth that of Zemeckis's; and - shockingly - in that one, they just filmed real people in Iceland. (In fairness, though, this version will make way more money).

"Beowulf" Director Robert Zemeckis was great on "Back to the Future", absolutely STELLAR on "Forrest Gump", good on "Matchstick Men", but..."The Polar Express" was so bad, story-wise, it doesn't even deserve to be insulted on here, and "Beowulf" is pretty average. Personally, I wouldn't mind another stab at a Forrest Gump-scale epic by the talented screenwriter and director. Perhaps all the graphic hiddly-piddly distracts him and his team from locking in what made several of his other movies genuine classics: superb directing, superb acting, and a superb, airtight story.

I'll be waiting.

"More Comedy Jokes!"

Before I get back to this England thing, let me ask:

What happened to Steve Martin?

How do you go from being the world's funniest guy, to being one of the world's most embarrassingly unfunny B-movie actors? I'm sure the money's fantastic, but...why can't he just be funny, like, once a decade, just for old times sake? Robin Williams does that; he makes millions doing crap B-movies, but then, like every ten years, he does some high-profile stand-up and everyone laughs again - and forgives him for all the maudlin celluloid garbage he's done for the previous ten years (e.g., "Toys").

I know, I know - people move on, people mature. In fairness, it would probably be even more embarrassing for Steve Martin to come out, at the age of sixty, playing a banjo with an arrow through his head singing "put a live chicken in your underwear", than doing another one of his lousy movies, but that's the thing: he wouldn't have to do the insane stuff. He could just do....funny stuff. We could call it mature madcap: still rude and surreal, but not self-abasing. A lot of comedians have done it...but alas, Steve seems to feel more strongly about his novellas these days. Pity.

Pity, because no one could really touch Steve Martin in his 70's comedy heyday. Each television appearance seemed legendary (that there was no video recording at the time helped that sense, of course), the gags in "The Jerk" immediately saturated popular consciousness ("he hates these cans!" "You mean I'm gonna stay this color?!", "MA-RIE!!!", etc.), and the routines on his records were memorized, word-for-word, by millions of pubescent males ("got home from tour the other day...found out my cat had been embezzling from me..."...even to this day, I can recall entire passages from those records).

So, we had like six totally hilarious years from Steve - and then 25 plus years, and counting, of general mediocrity, some of which Steve helped write himself. And it makes you wonder how people can go from hilarious to...just okay, in so short a time...

One killer I think is when comedians stop doing what they did, and start trying to imbue their "work" with "importance", with "larger significance" - once what they do becomes didactic in some way. I think this is why the post-9/11 Phil Hendrie, for example (see was never quite as funny as the pre-. It's like once comedians become self-conscious, once they begin worrying about the weight of their legacy, and being taken seriously, things go awry.

And what's really crazy is that if they'd only just stuck to what they did best - going for the comedy jugular regardless of any concern for "social significance" or "the underlying message" - they'd actually wind up with far more weight to their legacies. They would actually BE heroes. After all, the "underlying message" of any comedy is always the same: life is absurd, the end. And people who can describe that absurdity, show us even that it is far more absurd than we normally notice, skewer our pretensions and get us thinking in whole new ways, deserve all the praise we can give them - it ain't easy. It's a special gift, being able to make people laugh, and laugh loud and long. And there is something profound in itself about taking a step back and laughing with others about the strange farce that is life; in a weird sort of way, it helps make life seem all that more worthy and special and wonderful.

So, if there are any would-be comedians out there, do the human race a favour and your thing. Make us all laugh together and stop trying to "teach" us or whatever.

And if, by some chance, Steve Martin ever reads this - could you just be funny, just once, again - for old times's sake, like in the good old days, before we all die? Maybe in return, we could promise to read one of your recent short stories...

That's fair, isn't it?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

It Begins...

England - that was disappointing. I just got back a few weeks ago after spending a month studying at the prestigious University College London.

You see...I've been interested in psychology ever since finding out - well, ever since finding out in late 2003 that I'd been wrong about everything that was most important to me in life; and on a whim last August, after finding the course during an internet search, I applied to the master's of science program at UCL in Cognitive and Decision Sciences, offered through the psychology department. And - they let me in! (By the way, my BA's in Political Science).

I was thrilled. Our plan was for me to start the course and find a rental home in my spare time for all of us to stay until spring, then fly everyone over; so on Sunday, September 23, I kissed everyone in Victoria goodbye and set off for Merry Olde on the adventure of a lifetime.

I landed at Heathrow the next morning, made my way to the room I'd found over the internet at the last minute (located in Forest Hill, in southeast London), dropped off my bags, and then made my way to UCL with no clue what to expect, not having set foot in a university classroom for fourteen years, let alone a graduate class in an unfamiliar environment. And that is how my month long adventure in England began.

More later.