Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Democracy: The System Everyone Likes Until the “Wrong” People Win

In 2011, Egyptians protested against their authoritarian dictatorship, overthrew the government, and held democratic elections that installed Mohamed Morsi as president.

By 2013, unhappy Egyptians were holding mass protests and demanding that Morsi resign. When the military stepped in, many of those protesters were thrilled. Soon the new government proved itself to be at least as bad as the one ousted in 2011.

I remember that after that military coup, there were pundits on both the left and the right who supported it, seeming to believe that this was a way to reset a democracy gone bad. To me that seemed a long shot. Democracy works when people accept it as the thing you’re stuck with. If after every election the people who didn’t vote for the government could persuade the military to step in, you wouldn’t really have a democracy.

Democracy is when both sides agree to accept the results, even if they don’t like them. It doesn’t work otherwise.

Now let’s talk about Bernie Sanders.

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. The things I want – a single payer health system, more taxes on the wealthy, greater worker rights, a stronger social safety net – are the things Sanders wants. If I were declared ruler of the universe and could choose the next U.S. president from anyone who has run for the position in the last couple of years, I would pick Bernie.

But in a democracy, one person can’t choose the president, or the nominees. Instead, there’s a whole electoral system in place.

Regarding the Democratic primary, that system is one Bernie Sanders has liked less and less the more it has become apparent that he is unlikely to win more votes or pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton.

As little as a few months ago, Sanders still had some hope for the democratic process, as long as it was truly democratic. He made the reasonable suggestion that superdelegates – free agents who can vote for whoever they like at the convention – should vote for whoever their state voted for.

The problem is, under that system, Sanders would still lose. Because Sanders is way behind Clinton. About three million votes behind.

So Bernie has a new plan. We throw out the democratic system and decide the nominee based on polling.

What Bernie wants is for all the superdelegates, regardless of who their state supported, to vote for Bernie. And he says they should, because in head to head polls, he does better against Trump than Clinton.

There are reasons those polls shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As the Times points out, Sanders hasn’t experienced a full-on Republican national attack yet, which could drive his numbers down markedly, and Trump is no longer competing against anyone, while Clinton is still fighting off Sanders, softening her support.

But beyond that, picking candidates according to polls is wildly undemocratic.

Right now, RealClearPolitics collection of recent polls shows that averaged out, Sanders beats Trump by 10.8%, whereas Clinton loses by .2%. Each of these polls represents 800 to 1100 voters. If you were to assume that these polls had no overlaps, then they give us the opinions of a few thousand voters. If Sanders is up by 10% over Clinton among a group of 5,000 voters, then that means a few hundred people like Sanders better than Clinton. Yes, they are presumably a representative sampling, but still, if we’re using the polls to select nominees, very few people are actually getting a say.

As of April, over 15,000,000 people have voted in the Democratic primary, and by the convention that number will be higher. Sanders plan is, very simply, to discount the millions of people who prefer Clinton over him in favor of the preferences of a tiny sliver of America’s voters.

How can anyone who believes in Democracy find that acceptable? If we are going to choose our nominees by poll, why don’t we just get rid of elections altogether, and every four years take a few polls and make whoever wins the president? How can Sanders supporters who scream about unfairness every time Clinton gets an extra delegate they believe belongs to Bernie be fine with simply taking the choice out of the hands of the electorate altogether?

What would happen if next week the poll numbers switched, and suddenly Clinton had the edge against Trump? Would Sanders drop out of the race? My guess is, no.

I understand why democracy failed in Egypt, a country unused to the messiness of a system that, in the words of Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of Government, except for all the [others].” But in the U.S., we’ve been doing this for a long time. And even if the results don’t turn out as I hope, which has happened many times, I hope we continue our experiment with democracy, and let people, rather than polls, choose our representatives.

Although I’m still open to just deciding the whole thing myself.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Finding out you're weird. Then finding out you're really, really weird.

When people tell you to imagine something, like a beach, or a polka-dotted elephant, does an image come to mind? Most people, it seems would say yes.

I didn't realize for a long time that this was true. I always took phrases like "mind's eye" as an abstract term for constructing concepts in your mind. But somewhere along the way I discovered that most people actually picture things. They can "see" a beach; see the color of the water and the shape of the birds flying through the air, much in the way I can "hear" a song in my head. I can imagine Yellow Submarine, and hear Ringo's voice, and the sound effects; not so clearly that I can throw away my stereo, but I can conjure it up.

So I figured that much out. And I thought, well, that's weird. It didn't bother me much, though, since it didn't seem like a terrible useful ability. It did explain  some things, like a famous quote that had always puzzled me. In the early days of television, some kid was asked if he preferred radio or TV, and he said radio, "because the pictures were better."

That sounded insane to me, but if people can picture the stuff they hear on the radio, then I guess it makes sense.

I didn't realize how much other people's brains use that facility until I talked to my girlfriend, Laurel. As I understand it, all her memories are visual. If she thinks on the past, she sees it. I had thought of the mind's eye as something you could turn on if you wanted, but from Laurel it seemed that it was just a constant thing. Shortly after our conversation I saw the movie Inside Out, and the main character does experience her memories visually, and I thought that perhaps this is how most people's minds' work.

The subject came up again yesterday when I read an article on Vox by Blake Ross. His mind had been blown by a 2015 article in the New York Times about a man who had lost the ability to picture things. The condition had just been given a name that year, Aphantasia. And his reaction was, like mine, people can do that?

If you have Aphantasia, the Times article seems really bizarre, because it acts like this is an extraordinary thing. Imagine you'd been blind your whole life, and no one had ever told you, and then one day you read about a guy who "lost" his sight, and you suddenly realize almost everyone in the world except you can look up and see clouds and stars, and there's this whole thing going on you had no idea even existed.

As I read the Times article, I could see that people use their mind's eye for all sorts of things, because the researchers were amazed at what could be done without it. They asked aphantasiacs, how many windows are in your house, and were stunned that people could answer without picturing the rooms.

And I thought, that's how people remember things? They picture them?

Why wouldn't I know how many windows were in the house? I mean, you look at them, and your mind makes note of where they are, and if someone asks you, you can answer. The number of windows is a fact. I know a lot of facts. Water boils if you heat it on the stove. Cats have four paws. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. I don't even understand why you would need to picture the room to answer a factual question. That just seems weird.

While I asked a handful of friends about the mind's eye, Blake asked everyone he knew. He asked them to picture a beach, and they did. They could see the color of the water, the waves rushing in, people sunbathing.

It appears it's not something you turn on and off, it just happens. When Laurel read Blake's article, she said when he talked about picturing a red triangle, a red triangle just popped into her head. When Blake asked a friend how often he pictured things, he said a thousand times a day. The shocking thing is, for 98% of you, italicizing that doesn't make any sense: it's just normal.

This explains so much. It explains why writers will spend two pages describing a forest; it's because people use that information to picture what's happening in the book. It explains why people claim it's impossible to not picture a polka-dotted elephant when someone tells you not to picture one. It explains how people count sheep (they actually see sheep and a fence), how people with a fear of public speaking picture an audience in their underwear to calm their nerves. It explains how people can tolerate meditation; with their eyes closed, they aren't actually locked in impenetrable blackness.

Some people are really bothered by aphantasia, one they know they have it. They feel they've been cheated. They think they might have other skills if their brain worked properly. But I doubt that.

Blake says he's been asked if he can draw, and he says he can't. I can draw, and at one point majored in art. How do I draw without picturing things? Kind of the same way I can tell you how many windows I have in my room. I store up facts. I look at a face, and see the nose hooks down slightly. So I look down and draw a nose that does that and look up again. I see a short upper lip, look down, draw that, look up. Look up, note, look down, draw. It's easy.

If I had a mind's eye, perhaps I could just look at a face and hold it in my head while I drew it. That would be convenient, but it's not essential. I manage with what I've got. It's certainly less of a problem than my face blindness, which can make it difficult to make friends (because I treat people I've had interesting conversations with like total strangers). I think of aphantasia more as a curious condition.

At the same time, now that I realize how much people use their mind's eye, I feel aphantasia actually makes me more of an alien than my face blindness. I don't just lack a capability others have; I fundamentally use my brain differently than everyone else. (Between my  face blindness, aphantasia, and perhaps an auditory processing disorder, I have to wonder exactly how much my brain is diverging from the rest of humanity's.)

It also makes me wonder: is there anything else? Will I learn someday that there is something else other people can do that I didn't realize was possible? Are there other phrases that I've been taking figuratively when they are literal? Do people really shoot the breeze? Do bad dancers really have two left feet? Can people do handsprings when they're happy? Do hearts actually jump when people feel joy and break when people are sad?

Right now, I think I know how atypical my brain is, but I am prepared to learn, once again, that I don't know the half of it.