Thursday, January 31, 2008

I am Brucker, and I approve of this message.

Voting is a funny thing. Don't get me wrong. In the midst of all I have to say here, I am certainly not trying to say that voting is a bad idea. The democratic process is vital to a free society, it's just that it can be confusing trying to figure out what the results mean.

Back in 1991, there was a funny thing that happened in the world of voting outside of politics: Rolling Stone magazine had readers vote for what album they thought was the best album of the year. The results: Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion. I don't personally remember the album, as I've never been much of a fan of the band, but it was a double album that debuted at the top two slots in the Billboard charts, something that nobody else has managed to do (not that a lot of double albums like that are released too often). The funny part? Rolling Stone also allowed readers to vote for worst album of the year, and in case you couldn't see it coming, yes, Use Your Illusion was voted worst as well. I recall the editors expressing some confusion about the matter, but it really made sense to me. It simply was an album (and a band, for that matter) that few people were neutral concerning.

An article in the current issue of Newsweek talks about similar irregularities in politics that never show up because we don't get to vote that way. The way voting works is generally taken for granted: You vote for your favorite, and the one with the most votes wins. Why do it any other way?

The article pointed out that as most people know, President Bush has actually been elected president with a smaller number of popular votes than the second-place candidate. (I don't recall which election it was, or if it was even both of them.) The odd thing that was pointed out in the article was that while Bush won the (so-called) popular vote in Florida in 2000, it's quite likely that he was the least-liked candidate by Floridans in general! If you assume (although it's not necessarily so) that most voters who voted for Gore would have rather had Nader than Bush, and of course those who voted for Nader would have rather had Gore than Bush, then more than 50% of the voters in Florida had Bush as their least favorite candidate! But voting doesn't always work to get rid of such a candidate, obviously.

The really thought-provoking part of the article was this:

Consider an election with 30 voters, who mentally rank the candidates this way:

Three voters prefer John McCain to Mike Huckabee to Mitt Romney to Rudy Giuliani, in that order.
Six prefer McCain to Romney to Huckabee to Giuliani.
Three prefer Giuliani to Huckabee to Romney to McCain.
Five prefer Giuliani to Romney to Huckabee to McCain.
Two prefer Huckabee to Giuliani to Romney to McCain.
Five prefer Huckabee to Romney to Giuliani to McCain.
Two prefer Romney to Giuliani to Huckabee to McCain.
Four prefer Romney to Huckabee to Giuliani to McCain.

In our system, McCain wins, with nine first-place votes, trailed by Giuliani (eight), Huckabee (seven) and Romney (six). Now let's say Huckabee drops out. Cross out his name where he came in first, and notice who is now the first choice of his former supporters: two go with Giuliani and five with Romney. That pushes Romney, formerly in last place, to the top, with 11 first-place votes. As the GOP field prunes itself, don't be surprised if the new leader comes from the back of the pack.
This is fascinating to me. Not just for the simple claim that it makes, but the other implications of this setup, which I suspect the author put in for people like me who can't help but analyze these sorts of things to death. You'd think intuitively that if a candidate drops out, the remaining candidates would stay in the same relative order, but not only does Romney move from last to first if Huckabee drops out, but McCain moves from first to last, reversing the order of the remaining three! In fact, losing any of the candidates causes the other three to switch order of preference, meaning that Romney wins any three-way race of which he's a part. Furthermore, any pairwise matching also reverses the original order, meaning that while Giuliani comes in second to McCain in the four-way race, the only race he can win out of all possible combos is a one-on-one match up with McCain.

The author suggests a form of voting known as "approval voting", a form of voting that can be confusing for some, but has certain benefits. It comes in many forms, but here's one I suggest for this scenario: each person votes for their favorite two candidates, and the one with the most votes wins. In that scenario, Romney gets 22, Huckabee 17, Giuliani 12 and McCain 9. Once again, the complete opposite result, but perhaps one that best reveals the will of the voters. Sometimes it's hard for some people to quite fathom voting for more than one candidate when only one wins in the end, but if that hurdle can be passed, what I really like about this is how much this gives more power to third-party and dark horse candidates. Think back to 1992, when Ross Perot was running for president. He actually got quite a few votes, but it's likely that many people who were considering him were afraid of "throwing away their vote". How many would have voted for him if they could have also voted for either Clinton or Bush at the same time? If we had approval voting, we probably wouldn't have had eight years of either Clinton or Dubya! (I think there's something in there to appeal to just about anyone.)

On top of all that, it seems to me that an alternative voting system gets people more involved in politics. Think about it: how many times have you thought to yourself or even heard someone else proclaim "I don't feel like my one vote makes a difference!" This is probably true, but then, what if you had more than one vote? No longer do you think of voting as choosing the lesser of two evils, but instead, it's a matter of examining the whole field of candidates and choosing the ones you like best. More options instead of singular decisions, more examinations of issues instead of popularity contests, more candidates declaring their own worth instead of slinging mud at their biggest rival(s)--what more could you want?

Our current system has its flaws, but I don't think it's completely broken. Rather than complaining about the system, people should be examining what parts of the system work and what parts don't. Why does the electoral college exist, and is that reason a good reason to keep it, or throw it away? How can we help people make informed decisions about government instead of passing laws like term limits and balanced-budget amendments that effectively put the government on auto-pilot? What can we do to make elections into a contest of individual candidates with personal convictions rather than cookie-cutter images of the same two party platforms over and over? There's always potential to improve and streamline the system, whatever it is. Can we find ways to make it happen though?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

American Idolatry

So, tonight's the big night that the new season of "American Idol" starts (or maybe last night, by the time I get this posted), and everyone will be tuning in to see wave after wave of people who really want to be stars. I seem to recall that I attempted to write about this topic at the beginning of last season, when a young woman came on the tryouts with (like so many) virtually no singing ability whatsoever, but unlike most of the other bad singers, she knew that she could not sing! She explained to the judges that it would be really cool if the next American Idol was someone who had no singing ability at the beginning, but in the course of the show, learned how to sing!

Like so many who are clueless in other ways, she was tossed out. The thing that's odd about these people to me is how surprised they are to be tossed out! I mean really, don't most of the people watch the show before they try out? I consider myself to be a pretty good singer, but I know I'm not destined to be famous for my singing ability, because it's slightly above average at best. I know I wouldn't make it, because despite being not awful, I have a realistic view of my own abilities, and a realistic view of Simon Cowell. How do these people not know that they're horrible singers? How is it that they think they can stand before those judges and be praised when even many good singers get booted, and more than a few of those who are good enough to make it on the show get told by the judges that they've got some serious work to do have a chance to be the winner? So many people come out of the room with the judges with tears streaming down their faces, crying out something along the lines of "I can't believe that they were so mean!" Seriously, have you watched the show before you tried out?

But as usual, I'm taking a circuitous route to my main topic. While my first admonition for would-be idols is a tiny dose of realism in the form of (1) realize you probably don't sing as well as you think you do, (2) expect to be told that you are the worst singer in the world and be made fun of on national television, there are some things I would also like to say in comfort to the losers.

What portion of the people in the world today who are famous for their singing got their start on "American Idol"? I think I heard it said that this is season seven, so at most, if everyone who made it as one of the 12 contestants (I don't watch the show, only the tryouts, so sorry if I'm getting details wrong) became famous, that's only about 70 people out of hundreds and hundreds of recording artists. Being on "American Idol" is not the normal way to become famous. Just a few years back, the show didn't even exist, and there were still people singing for a living. If you really want to be a professional singer, and you really have the talent to do it, you don't need reality television to get there.

The thing that I pause to mention, but only a little because in some ways it's the most important point of all, is that you don't even really need singing talent to become a star. I remember back in the '90s, I heard many a deejay comment after playing a Sugar Ray song, "Crap, if that's what a rock star sounds like, I could do it!" That was just one band out of many that could be listed. Rage Against The Machine, Cake, Bob Dylan, Violent Femmes, all of these and many more are great bands/musicians that don't sing pretty, but it's not about singing pretty, is it? I'm a big fan of Johnny Cash, and towards the end of his life, when health problems caused his voice to start to fail him, he did some powerful work in the studio. Sure, you can't be completely tone deaf (well, a rapper could be, I suppose, but that's a musical form with its own challenges), but what really counts to most people who listen to music is that it speaks to them emotionally. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins has the ability to sing beautifully, but a lot of his songs are little more than screeching and yelling into the mike, and his fans love it all.

Last year during the tryouts, there was also a teenage boy who when kicked out complained through tears that all he wanted to do was "be famous". This is the biggest mystery of all to me, and yet, it is the thing that makes the title of the show seem so particularly apropos. In the end, although one has to be a great singer in order to be the next American Idol, the show isn't about people who want to be singers. No, the show is people who already are singers trying to show that they are better singers than other contestants. For both those who can and cannot sing, the show is about people who want to be famous. Face it, there are a lot of people in the world today who would much rather be the next William Hung than be an unknown face who sings beautifully in their church choir or local musical theatre. There's this odd draw to being a person who, when they go down the street, people point and shout, "Hey, it's that famous person!"

Why? Why do people want that? Because it works out so well for Britney Spears? Because fame brings out the best in Amy Winehouse? Because of the great way that fame changed the life of Kurt Cobain? When I look at the way famous people live their lives, it seems like the definition of it is having thousands of people in the world who care about the way you live your life, but don't really care about you. Famous people have the whole world following their every move, but never really knowing them in a personal way. As for me, I would rather be given a hug by one person who really knows me than have a standing ovation by 50,000 complete strangers. Does that make me weird? How many famous people are there that not only have a successful career, but a stable personal life? It seems pretty rare.

I guess what I'm saying is that for those who really want to be a famous singer, don't bother with "American Idol" unless you're prepared to have your ego crushed. And if you think you are truly willing to lay down your life as a sacrifice on the altar of fame, be sure, because you may very well have to give up your life. As for me, I'm just happy if my kids like my singing.