Tuesday, August 3, 2010

College Drop-Outs

The House and Senate of Massachusetts recently passed a bill designed as a first step toward replacing the Electoral College with the national popular vote. Deval Patrick will presumably sign the bill into law. When states containing a majority of electoral votes have passed similar bills, Massachusetts will allocate its presidential electors to the candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote, thereby ensuring that the candidate also wins the election.

This bill is perfectly constitutional, despite the objections of many of its opponents and its obvious misalignment with the intent of the Framers. Article II, Section 1: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress...." The addition of senators to the Electoral College tally boosts the representation of small states relative to populous ones. This has historically led conservatives in Congress to defend the College against efforts to replace it with the popular vote, since they tend to come from the smaller states of the Plains and South. After the 1968 presidential election, the House passed a Constitutional Amendment replacing the College with the popular vote, but in the Senate, the Southerners and plainsmen (and, humorously, Hiram Fong of tiny Hawaii) killed it with a filibuster -- appropriately, the very antithesis of majority rule. In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by 500,000 votes, 0.7% of the total, although he won the Electoral College in a landslide, winning 301 votes compared to Humphrey's 191. The election was peculiar, however, in that George Wallace won 46 electoral votes in six southern states and almost 10 million popular votes.

Although the Massachusetts legislature is still seething over the result of Election 2000, in which Al Gore won the popular but lost the electoral vote, its law might result in the heavily Democratic state throwing its lot to the Republican popular vote-winner in a future election. In 2004, remember, George Bush defeated John Kerry by a sound margin of 3 million popular votes (2.5%), but eked out an Electoral College victory thanks to Ohio. Moreover, the Massachusetts law will unlock Republican votes cast in the state, which, thanks to the Electoral College and the state's solid Democratic majority, have played absolutely no role in most presidential contests of the last 50 years.

The Electoral College has significant advantages over the direct popular vote. First, recounts will be horrendous under the Massachusetts scheme. Living in Minnesota, I can attest to the inevitability of close recounts. In June of 2009, after eight months of recounts and legal challenges, Al Franken beat Norm Coleman by 312 votes -- 0.011% of the total. And in 1962, Karl Rolvaag defeated Elmer Anderson in the gubernatorial contest by 91 votes out of the 1.25 million cast. Now imagine what happens when a presidential candidate wins by 0.1% of the vote -- a reasonably high margin by Minnesota standards. A recount will have to occur, since the margin of error is also around 0.1%. But states tally their own votes, and some states will agree to the recounts while others won't. The candidates will attempt to cherry-pick states and counties they want recounted, like Al Gore did in Election 2000 only to have it backfire. The recount will stretch on indefinitely, except, unlike in Congressional elections, there's a solid January deadline to choose a president. Luckily for the Massachusetts lawmakers, Democrats tend to win recounts because of vote-counting inconsistencies which disproportionately occur in Democratic precincts. (One Minneapolis precinct in the Franken-Coleman race conveniently "lost" hundreds of votes which resurfaced during the recount -- and went heavily Democratic.)

Proponents of the popular vote claim that it will force candidates to campaign across the entire nation. Unfortunately for the Bay State populists, Massachusetts will obviously not be one of those places. Candidates will focus on areas with high population densities and ambivalent or undecided voters. In other words, Democrats will try to increase turnout in uneducated coastal regions, and Republicans will resort to milking Texas. The parties will, in effect, cater to their geographic base. But even if attention is spread evenly over vast, sparsely-settled swaths of the country, politicians will have to take their message to more people using more money. Imagine the campaign finance requirements of running ads in every state, the necessary reliance on corporate contributions, and how beholden the government will become to business interests. The Massachusetts bill's effects run counter to its populist intent.

Consequences even more dangerous than the vast financing requirements of a transcontinental campaign could result from ascendancy of the popular vote. The Electoral College promotes a two-party system, so that third-party candidates like Ross Perot, George Wallace, and Theodore Roosevelt (in 1912) can win a sizable percent of the popular vote but few votes in the Electoral College. (In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote and not a single elector.) The usual inability of third parties to consolidate around a viable presidential candidate promotes compromise and moderation in the other two, and also prevents sensationalists like Jesse Ventura from sweeping into office. In nations where small parties prosper, democracy suffers. Israel, to take an extreme case, has a parliamentary system which allocates seats by proportion of the popular vote received. Fringe parties thereby hold seats in the Knesset and force the major parties to form ruling coalitions with them. Ultra-Orthodox MPs stymie concessions in the West Bank; representatives of the old peoples' party occupy the ministry of old peoples' affairs. In the United States, when a third party coalesces around an issue that cannot be absorbed in the give-and-take of two-party politics, a new axis shoots out of the conventional political spectrum. This is how the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, extincting the Whigs and bringing the injustice of slavery to the forefront of the Northern political conscience. Thus, third-party politics exists as a nascent, moderating threat to the established order under the Electoral College system, but does not threaten to splinter the national democratic fabric, as it would with a popular vote. What happens when someone wins with much less than 50% of the popular vote? Would it be a legitimate victory? I, for one, cast my vote against the Massachusetts scheme and in favor of our stodgy old College.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Please wake me from this coma

"You said we would grow old together," the evil temptress character repeats throughout Christopher Nolan's sci fi blockbuster, "Inception." And indeed we did, after two hours and forty minutes glued in one place subjected to rambling melodrama, unoriginal shootouts, and a director's delusions of grandeur. Although this movie maintains the characteristic Nolanesque ambiance of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" -- imagine the vertiginous skyscrapers of a post-modern city cast in charcoal hues, the chic interiors of hyper-riche hangouts, and an enemy base nestled in the snow-burdened Himalayas -- the engrossing sets serve as video game levels instead of places where the overwrought but inherently simplistic plot can develop. Indeed, the layers of the main dream in which most of the movie takes place, which are merely different sets, are called just that -- "levels."

At the beginning of the movie, we learn that people can access each others' dreams using an IV attached to a chemical router in a briefcase. Not only is it possible to steal secrets in the dream state, which is Leonardo DiCaprio's specialty, but it is also possible (so the voodoo masters say) to plant ideas in other peoples' minds. I like the premise a lot. The problem is that the plot becomes redundant, as if Nolan's lack of creativity beyond this intriguing idea camouflages itself in the repetition of a few gimmicks. For one, the dream within a dream gimmick. Yes, yes, we understand that dream states can exist within other dream states, like a Russian nesting doll. But is it necessary to have four of these going on simultaneously -- plus reality!? The dreams themselves are hardly interesting or bizarre enough to approximate actual dreams, let alone $160 million dreams (though I must caution that my dreams are especially random and detailed, as those of you who have heard about Robert Schumann crashing my breakneck game of hopscotch on neon squares in Garman House can attest). But even intentional distortions in Nolan's dreams are relatively blase. Like the street folding upside down, or two mirrors reflecting each others' images (like in a bathroom) until a character decides to shatter one and a new walkway is revealed. Nolan even resorts to Escher's staircase loop that goes both up and down as a novelty (and people had the nerve to "ooh" and "ahh" in the theater at that one!). And then the predictable plot complications that conspire to make everything resolve at the last minute and add a few million more bullets. As much as action flicks need their hordes of villainous gunmen to have the worst aim on the planet, this movie takes that contrivance to an absurd level of poor marksmanship. And the dialogue. The evil temptress character -- who unfortunately is a main plot point -- has exactly two lines, both of which grow wearisome after their first utterance -- "You said we would grow old together" and something else so dull it has already slipped my mind.

"Inception" is a feel-good movie -- you can piece everything together satisfactorily even though events are presented in an intentionally confusing manner, and the final plot twist doesn't leave you with a genuine knot in your stomach. I have to watch Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Tarkovsky's "Solaris" again. Unlike "Inception," which seems to draw from both films, they have the ability to keep me up at night thinking about their unfathomable mysteries. After "Inception," sweet dreams.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

WTF America

The other day, I saw Forbes Magazine sticking out of my family's pile of mail. One corner was showing, and I could see the smiling face of someone named Kristen Stewart. My first thought: "I didn't know Martha Stewart had a daughter."

I think every girl in America aged 12-18 just started hating me. Yes, up until yesterday, I had no clue who Kristen Stewart was. And before tonight, I had never seen Twilight.

What is it about Twilight that has brought me out of my two year slumber and returned me to the VD? It is not the good looks of Edward, the crazy hair of Jacob, or the audacity of Bela. It is the sick feeling I have in my stomach right now.

I understand the silly bandz fad: they can be traded, they can be hoarded, they can be worn. They're pretty cool. Lady Gaga makes at least a little sense: her individuality can be appealing and some of her music is kind of catchy (pa, pa, pa poker face). But Twilight? I don't get it. Why is America going gaga for this stuff? Why aren't Woody and Buzz gracing the cover of Forbes magazine instead of Stewart?

According to that Forbes magazine, Robert Pattinson, the male heroine in Twilight, is the 50th most powerful celebrity. He is ahead of Derek Jeter, Diddy, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Keifer Sutherland, among others. Kristen Stewart, the female star of the films, is not far behind, ranked 66 on the list.

Twilight is not a good movie. The first half is nothing but empty dialogue. Somehow, without saying anything of substance to each other ever, Bela and Edward fall wildly in love. The second half has some suspense to supplement the dialogue (the baseball scene is pretty cool, reminding me of quidditch scenes from Harry Potter), but is ultimately predictable and anticlimatic (bite Bela already!!!!!).

I returned home, after watching the first Twilight, in search of a answer to my questions. Twilight was not horrible. Yet, knowing the spot it holds in the American conscientiousness made it both maddening and curious. I can see why an abstinence-only health educator may show the film in sex-ed, but not why America would fall in love with it. There is a Twilight cookbook. What gives?

Tom Matlick, of the Huffington Post, says the films appeal to middle-aged women, who appreciate the strength and chivalry of the main male characters.

Another obvious possibility is that people are simply enamored by the attractive characters. Though I didn't see it in the first movie, I hear Jacob's got quite the hot bod, and Edward and Bela undoubtedly make an attractive couple.

According to star Kristen Stewart, the film's appeal has little to do with the supernatural and all to do with the personalities of the characters. If this were the case, though, then why have vampires been appearing everywhere we turn, independent of the Twilight characters? Furthermore, this would require that Bela have a personality, and she simply does not.

Professors from the University of Missouri Columbus have written a book about the craze: Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, & The Vampire Franchise. According to a University of Missouri press release, the communication experts found that "fans obsessions stem from the traditional, idealized romantic relationship that stresses the importance of abstinence." Still, I don't understand why this storyline would have such a remarkable appeal in mainstream America. Have parents and schools brain-washed kids this much?

College shielded me from the birth of the Twilight phenomenon and now I am confused. Can someone please explain to me what's going on? I don't see the light.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Couple of Items

Two things:

First, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has launched a new campaign called Mass in Motion, aimed at trimming the waistlines of Commonwealth residents. The plan will require fast food outlets to post calorie counts for the items on their menus. It mirrors programs in place in California, New York City, and Seattle.

The usual clique of libertarian commentators has generated a mild uproar in response to Patrick's worthy proposal. I scoff at their self-righteous stance, for as a borderline underweight resident of the Commonwealth, data posted on the menu will enable me to accurately choose the most caloric item and forstall my slide into emaciation. Fast food establishments will easily offset the tens of thousands of dollars lost to laboratory calorimetric tests by weight-conscious beanpoles' deliberate purchases of the most lard-laden, high-priced concoctions on the menu. I thank the government for safeguarding my hard earned body mass.

Second, a 13-year-old in Orange County texted 14,528 times in one month, or about 484 times a day, or about 30 times an hour, or about once every two minutes. Since this girl spends so much time text messaging, one wonders what those messages could possibly concern. She has no time between messages to generate new topics for communication, unless she's a prolific liar, so she must receive other peoples' messages and immediately relay them to the next recipient in a chain of gossip. This girl is the proverbial grapevine.

Even more surprisingly, the average 13- to 17-year-old text messages 1,742 times a month, or about 58 times a day, or about two times an hour. I imagine that a high proportion of 13- to 17-year-olds are barely literate, since they have no time to read between opening and chuckling at messages received every two minutes from that girl in Orange County. Their quasi-English syntax is constructed from "phononyms" and acronyms, they have no grammatical knowledge, and since they text message instead of communicating aloud even within earshot of the message's recipient, they have no concept of pronunciation. I had better start learning cell-phone English before verbalization ceases in 2012, or else I'll be talking to the void. This post is good practice for the more likely fate.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Best of Valentine Dining Hall

Given the name and the writers of this blog, you'd think there would be more posts about Valentine Dining Hall, the dining hall of Amherst College. Yet, when we initially launched this blog, Miller and I had very broad ambitions. We wanted a global audience--not one confined to the hills of Amherst, and so we tried to take on topics that wouldn't be Amherst specific (i.e. the top five cereals of all time or the evolution of klezmer music).

Nonetheless, with a dwindling readership, it is time to briefly pander to the Amherst College crowd. To our readers elsewhere, I apologize.

And so here are the top five meals at Valentine Dining Hall. What is a meal? Something that is not offered everyday--so anything that can be made on the stir fry or panini press on a daily basis is not eligible. And what makes a good meal? Something that makes you forget the dreadful assignment waiting in your dorm or forget the test you just bombed. Something that you come across on the internet menu days in advance, and excites you so much that you scream to other people about it. And in some cases, something that most people don't like but you do, so you can get it quickly without waiting in a long-line.

5. Chicken Gyro

This has been a welcomed new addition to the Valentine menu. So long as you don't worry about how much the chicken had to be processed to take on its odd shape, the chicken gyro is an excellent lunch selection. The bread can even be eaten by itself, if meat's not your thing. There may be some panini potential here too--I have not tried it yet.

4. Salmon with Asian Sauce

Due to the efforts of a few, many have suffered. Salmon with Asian sauce is no longer offered at Valentine, but when it was, it was great. You could put that sauce on anything, and it would be good. When students complained about the name, rather than simply relabeling the sauce, the dinning staff has looked to alternatives. While good, they do not match the unique blend of Asian sauce.

3. Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and Valentine Dining Hall celebrates it pretty much every other week. More than anything on the list, this a complete meal. From the turkey, to the stuffing, to the weird veggie mush, to the all important corn bread, you cannot go wrong. The white cake, I mean corn bread, is a day-changer.

2. Crepes Stuffed with Mushroom and Spinach

In general, I think the dining staff goes a bit overboard with the vegetarian options. Always, at the end of the food selections, there is some extravagant vegetarian entree with more ingredients than I can count. Yet, when the dining staff keeps it simple, they excel. Case in point--the vegetarian crepes. I will cut the lines for these.

1. Lasagna/Ravioli

Before coming to Amherst, I never had a proper introduction to Italian food. This was due in large part to my fear of cheese. For example, up through middle school, I only ate cheeseless pizza. However, thanks to Amherst's lasagna and ravioli, I am gradually coming out of this shell. No two menu items perk up my day the way lasagna and ravioli do. As an additional perk, lasagna is almost always served on the same day as chicken fingers, which means the line isn't too long.

Honorable Mention: Turkey Croissant Sandwiches (great on the panini press)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I Can't Put My Arms Down!

And so it begins.

Last year, I said everything that needs to be said about A Christmas Story. All I will say now is make sure to watch it. It starts at 8 tonight and goes for 24 hours.

Year in Ideas, 2008

Last year on the VD, I wrote about my favorite magazine issue of the year: The New York Times Magazine Year in Ideas. Now, I am going to write about this year's issue, though it is far from my favorite magazine of the year. For whatever reason, this year's Year in Ideas is not that interesting. Maybe my tastes have changed or maybe the shrinking ad revenues have really hurt the Times, but either way, I got through this year's issue much faster than normal, since I barely looked at some of the ideas.

Nonetheless, some were still interesting and here are my favorites:

Avian Dancing (pg. 42): It is always a bit upsetting to be on the outside of a YouTube Viral Video. For example, earlier this year, someone showed me this fantastic YouTube of OK Go Dancing on treadmills. I subsequently forwarded the YouTube along, only to be told that I was years late. If over 40 million people have viewed a YouTube before you, then you are clearly out of it. What does this have to do with the NYY mag?

This idea details a YouTube viral video I was also unaware of: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo.

Pretty unremarkable. At least that's what I thought. However, Aniruddh Patel, senior felow at the Neurosciences Institute in California, thinks otherwise. Apparently there's been an ongoing scientific argument over the evolutionary benefit of dancing. Dancing, according to some scientists, serves a purpose greater than creating awkard encounters. It in fact "confers survival benefits through group bonding." To that end, according to the magazine, dancing should only be seen in animals with a long history of dance and music. And so the fact that Snowball was dancing seems to cast doubt on this theory, given the fact that birds do not have a history of dancing.

Patel did tests on Snowball with different songs and speeds, and showed that the bird really does "indicate sensitivity to the beat and ability to synchronize with it."

That some random video posted by someone of their bird dancing led to such scientific inquiry is amazing. That a scientist is actually playing music to a bird, to see if it can dance, is even more incredible.

Bubble Wrap that Never Ends (pg. 47): A couple years ago, my town got its hands on a tremendous amount of bubble wrap. Not sure how or why, but I am proud to say they used it in the best way possible: my town sponsored a "Bubble Pop Hop." Everyone in the town was invited to the town center, to jump, tumble, and roll on the bubble wrap. It was beautiful.

And that's why I was so excited to read about Japan's Mugen Puchi Puchi ("Infinite Pop Pop), a battery-powered chain that simulates poping a bubble of bubble wrap. The key-chain's bubbles rebound, resulting in endless pleasure.

This does pose an interesting quandary, though. Is part of the charm of popping bubble wrap that it has limits? That you can only do it when someone sends you a package and only before you run out of bubbles? That is the Vegan Dessert Question of the Day. Discuss.

Eat Kangaroos To Fight Global Warming (pg. 55): Cows fart a lot of methane. And that is not good for global warming. With a GWP of 25 over 100 years, methane is far more potent greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. And that is why George Wilson of Australian Wildlife Services thinks that more people should be eating kangaroos. Kangaroos, it turns out, do not fart like their cow counterparts, and they don't taste all that bad either. And so replacing cows with kangaroos would play a part in delaying the destruction of the Earth via global warming.

The Spray on Condom (pg. 72):
No explanation needed.

This is the first of what I hope will be several year-end VD posts. I hope you are hungry for more.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Almost everyday at Valentine, before I take my requisite bowl of Kashi Heart-to-Heart, I head over to the pizza station and survey the scene. I like to see what ridiculous creation is on tap for the day. Potato pizza? Pineapple, pepper and pepperoni? Chicken and pesto? How about plain cheese pizza?

I am generally completely overwhelmed and do not take any slice to eat. In fact, this semester, I had one piece of Valentine Pizza. There are so many outrageous creations, and I can't decide which one to eat, so I end up eating nothing.

This paradox led to an interesting Valentine conversation with the basic question: is choice a good thing? Would the pizza guy be better off sticking to 2-3 regular, solid, predictable flavors as opposed to 8-10 seemingly random concoctions. Would I consume more of his product if there was less of it?

Barry Schwartz, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, would probably tell the pizza guy to slow down and stop making so many freaking flavors. An Amherst student showed me a YouTube clip of Schwartz talking about choice (see below for clip). In it, Schwartz lists out the four negative consequences that have arisen from the overabundance of choice:

1. Regret and anticipated regret--If the product is not perfect, then you instantly wonder what could have been. Thus, before you make a decision, you are met by a sort of paralysis, rather than a liberation since you don't want to mess up and feel regret later on.

2. Opportunity Costs--As alternative options have become more attractive, the opportunity costs to decisions have gone up.

3. Escalation of Expectations--You expect perfection; anything less, and you'll be left disappointed.

4. Self-blame--With limited choices, if a product is bad, the honus goes on the producer. Today with so many choices, if a product is bad, the honus goes on you, because you could have chosen something better. Thus you get sad and depressed for your stupid decision.

"There's no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn't follow from that, that more choice is better than some choice," said Schwartz. Adding, "We have long since past the point where options improve our welfare."

Instead, too much choice has created a "recipe for misery and disaster" according to Schwartz.

What should we make of this world of seemingly unlimited choice, where 10 different cereals, pizza flavors and drinks are offered to us each day at Val? In certain cases, as with the pizza, I simply don't make a decision. In other cases, as with the cereal and drinks, I use habit to defeat the overwhelming grasp of choice. I eat the same cereal/drinks every meal, and establish a comfort zone. Others simply mix five drinks or cereals together at one time so they don't have to make a decision yet they still don't starve.

"The secret to happiness," according to Schwartz, "is low expectations." With this in mind, maybe I'll finally try one of Mr. Pizza's crazy creations tomorrow at Val.

On second thought, I think I'll probably stick to my Kashi and Turkey Sandwich. I wouldn't want to stray too far away from my habits with just a few days left here at Amherst.