Sometimes You Lose a Peg…

Sometimes you Winnipeg! Whoa yeah. Here I present to you the second in a string of scatterbrained picture-heavy posts full of questionably informative text about a given provincial experience.
winnipeg cap
Most of the traveling I’ve done in my pre-2013 life was in the context of a musical tour. So the day that brought us to Manitoba for the first time also brought me an especially heavy dose of nostalgia. I basked in the familiarity of chasing city after city, day after day, racing against procrastination and the hangover from last night’s show. Eventually the Brood crew’s grey Dodge Sprinter rolled across the capital city limits and we all sang along to this fine example of finger-pickin’ and lyrical mastery.

It was a moment I’d anticipated ever since being introduced to the Weakerthans in Dylan’s van, carving out new life territory down the Eastern States during my first tour. Oh, the smallness and bigness of the world.

While they did their thing we explored the Skywalk and the capitol. Manitoba has an NDP majority in Parliament, a good thing as far as we can tell, and notable since only they and Nova Scotia have such a thing. And their governmental building has an epic fossil hunt along with gargantuan anatomically correct buffalo statues and ornate, hand-carved everything.
mb stairs
There’s also the golden boy chillin’ up top, helping me further realize the depth of genius embedded in the aforelinked song’s lyrics.
mb capitol
With bellies full of fresh focaccia and a handful of encouraging conversations with locals behind us, we met the dudes back at their hotel. I played them a song I think they might’ve liked. Then they played an absolutely kickass show. I even snapped this phat vid:

They made a spectacle of us and our travels again which left us blushing both from the attention and the subsequent steady stream of alcohol. We met some really great people there and hung out until way too late with the Times Change(d) crew laughin’ it up, scheming about a better world, reminiscing about yesteryear, speculating on our futures and contemplating what it’s like to raise kids and get old. We indulged in the High and Lonesome Club’s bathrobes and booze.
times changed
They gave us lifetime free-entry passes. It felt like coming home. It felt like the farthest from home we’d yet been. And both of those were true. By about 3:30 in the a.m. we were back at the hotel, wondering how the hell we got so lucky. Two nights in a row of reliving life on the road as a musician also led me to some pretty amusing diary diatribes (diariatribes?) including these sentiments amalgamated from Thunder Bay & Winnipeg:

They gave us multiple shoutouts during their set which were met with huge cheers and us being pointed out. Someone anonymously bought us IPAs and delivered them to the stage with a note in one of the bottlenecks saying “for the hitchhikers.” Lotsa booze. There was a pretty dancing girl in a striped shirt that reminded me of Tamar. She clearly loved the show and the guy she was there with. They alternated between singing and kissing as Elliott Brood’s set pressed on through ~20 songs. Eventually I made myself scan elsewhere in the crowd not wanting to dwell on people not actually there and slide into nostalgic loneliness. There was a very simply pretty girl in a green dress who spent the whole set standing and staring straight ahead smiling and singing along. Her red (or blonde?) hair was tied up in some fancy kinda way that’s probably simple but that I really liked. The stage lights glistened off her hair and face. After the band finished I found her near the back, tapped her on the shoulder, told her I thought she was gorgeous. Without seeing her reaction or waiting for one I promptly walked off, disappearing into the smoke machine misted crowd of show goers lingering and filing out as the club crowd flooded in, techno music pulsing, liquor and skin everywhere. Ack… women. Tamar on the brain and all these people I love and want to love but I don’t know them and I don’t see the ones I know so I gradually know them less. Investing in the community of humanity is invigorating but sometimes I miss Athens and Barre and these people I love so much and I want to hold someone and dance with them in a too-loud too-hot room and stare into their eyes when the lights come on and love and be loved in a simple, sedentary way as the world spins around us and people like the Adam and I of now pass by like the scenery out the window. But for now the film reel of Canada keeps blurring past and we make new intense connections with complete strangers. They lay their lives out for us, not worried about our ability to hurt them. Like therapists, like fleshy diaries, people etch their yearning and loving and cynicism and pain and racism and compassion into us and we get out of their car and disappear into the big big world as quickly as we came into theirs. Woe, My. I want Laura here. I want Becky here. I want Mark here. I want Tim here. I want Susan here. I want to share these moments, this growing with them. Thank all the gods I have Adam here. We’ll get through all this and come out the end better, wiser versions of ourselves and it’ll be hard to ever feel normal in a group of friends again. They won’t know what we know and we won’t know what they know. We’ll relearn what it means to be part of a community and they’ll tell us what we missed. And tornadoes in Arkansas and special attention and cheers from a big crowd in Thunder Bay will seem more interesting than perfecting a consensus process over Terrapins at Normal Bar or playing Settlers of Catan at Tim and Jenny’s new house, but in either situation we’re missing something. We sow many ideas across the continent and our minds are fertilized by others’ perspectives. We learn how to navigate unfamiliar downtowns and do our best to recycle and compost and pick up litter and all the other stuff that seems boring and routine about everyday life. But I can’t find comfort in the familiar smell of my neighborhood or the taste of carrots we grew in the leftovers of meals from six months ago. The endless string of new faces blend and I confuse them with my friends’ and I miss them like crazy even though I love this.

The next morning we enjoyed some breakfast, bid farewell to the band, and strolled west. On the way out of town, before catching a ride with some totally rad Yukon-bound Quebecers we’ll talk more about in our Saskatchewan entry, we stumbled upon the Save Our Science protest.
sos grannies
There were balloons popping. There were Raging Grannies. There were muzzled-scientist theatrics. There were awesome signs.
sos barium
They really nailed it.

And so, despite its North end dying like 21st century Detroit, we had one great time in one great city.

– Jesse
de la casa de Jessica, Vancouver, BC with Josie the cat
Josie & Jesse

PS I’ve got an Irish friend that bounces around a lot. His name is Rick O’Shea.


Instant-Runoff Voting (Short Attention Span Version)

The current voting system in the US and Canada is “first-past-the-post”. You get a single non-transferable vote and the candidate that receives the most votes wins, even if they don’t have a majority. In this system in the USA, almost no one votes for a third party because doing so takes away your ability to exert a preference between the two major parties. And as almost no one votes for them, even if they prefer them, these smaller parties and independent candidates never get big enough to have a chance of winning. In Canada, because there are (for other reasons) three major parties, more than half of ridings (districts) are won by a candidate receiving less than 50% of the vote. The current Conservative government won 54% of seats with a mere 39.6% of the total vote.

A better system is instant-runoff voting (IRV, aka alternative vote). You rank the candidates on your ballot in order of your preference. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes transferred to those voters’ next choice. This is repeated until one candidate has a majority.

This eliminates strategic voting. You can vote for the candidate you really want and still express a preference between the other candidates if your candidate is eliminated. And IRV ensures that the candidate who wins is actually preferred by a majority of voters over the first-past-the-post winner (if they’re not the same).

IRV can and should be used for all single-winner elections. It’s already in place in Australia, Ireland, and a handful of U.S. cities.


Unrepresentative Democracy, Part 1: Instant-Runoff Voting

Canadian subtitle: Harper’s fake majority

American subtitle: How’s that two-party system working?

Canadian billionaire’s response: Hey, we’re accomplishing some real damage here!

American billionaire’s response: Great 🙂

I’m so excited for this. I finally get to write about electoral systems! I really like math, democracy, and fairness, so this is one of my favorite topics.

Here’s the thing: The United States’ and Canada’s electoral systems are among the worst (least democratic, logical, and fair) in the “developed” world.

Let’s start South. As we know, the US political system is dominated by two parties that do a pretty bad job of representing the political positions of a large part of the citizenry. But no challenge to their dominance is possible when every federal and state level officeholder is elected by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they don’t receive a majority. In this system, voting for a third party is useless in terms of actually winning a seat. Almost never will a sufficient quantity of voters cast a vote for a third party, knowing that doing so eliminates their ability to exercise a preference between the main party candidates. This results in the “spoiler effect” in which the presence of a third-party candidate is understood to have siphoned votes from the more similar of the two major party candidates. Remember everyone blaming the Nader (Green Party) voters for Bush’s “victory” over Gore in Florida in 2000

It seems clear we need a system where people can vote for the candidate they truly prefer without helping the worst candidate win.

The most common solution to this, globally, is to have a two round runoff election. If no candidate receives 50%+1 of the vote in the first round, the top two vote-getters compete in a second round at a later date. This partially eliminates the problem of spoilers, in that you can express your preference for a third candidate in the first round and still participate in the choice between the top two in the second round. However, spoilers are still possible when a potential winner loses enough votes to minor candidates in the first round that they don’t even reach the second round. This happened in the French presidential election in 2002, when the left vote was so fragmented/diverse in the first round that the two candidates who advanced were the center-right and far right candidates, even though the Socialist candidate likely would have won the election if he had reached the second round.

The two round system also has the significant problems of frequent lower turnout in the second round (in the mayoral race in our town of Athens, GA in 2010, turnout in the runoff was less than half of the first round) and increased cost vis-a-vis single day voting systems.

Two round systems are pretty clearly better than first-past-the-post, in our view. But is there a better system?

Instant-runoff voting (IRV)! (also known as Ranked-Choice Voting, the Alternative Vote, or the Preferential Vote) When you vote, you rank the candidates in the order of your preference. If no candidate receives 50%+1 (a majority) of the first place votes, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and those voters’ votes are transferred to their second choice. This process (eliminating the last place candidate and transferring their votes) is repeated until one candidate receives a majority. That candidate wins, obviously.


What would this do in practice? IRV means you can vote for the candidate you want and still express a meaningful preference among the other options. If Florida had used IRV in 2000, most of Nader’s votes (upon his elimination) would have been transferred to Gore (as the second preference of those voters) and Gore would have won, reflecting the actual preference of a majority of Florida voters for Gore over Bush. In France in 2002, the smaller leftist parties’ votes would have been transferred to the Socialist as they were eliminated until he eventually achieved a majority, reflecting the actual preference of a majority of French voters for the Socialist over the center-right candidate. In these cases and many others, you would end up with a winning candidate a majority of voters actually prefer. And, you can vote honestly, rather than strategically.

Canada isn’t trapped between a Rock Party and a Hard Place Party. There are three nationally competitive parties on the federal level and a fourth in some places. But because Canada also uses FPTP, this means that it’s exceedingly common for candidates to win ridings (electoral districts) with less than 50% of the vote, and sometimes a lot less. In the 2011 general election, 53% of seats in Parliament were won by candidates who received less than 50% of the vote (in 2008, it was 61% of seats). This is a big part of the reason that the Conservative Party was able to win 54% of the seats in Parliament with only 39.6% of the vote, giving them essentially unchecked power in government even though 3 out of 5 Canadians voted against them. Even a quite conservative analysis of the direction and quantity of ranked preferences strongly suggests that the results would have been significantly less disproportionate (the Conservatives wouldn’t have won a majority) if IRV were in place. In other incredibly disproportionate results, the 1984 election saw the Conservatives win 211/281 seats (75%) with only 50.03% of the vote. In 2001 in British Columbia, the Liberals won 77/79 seats (97%) with 57.6% of the vote.

So let’s see how IRV could make for fairer results by looking at the Vancouver South riding. Rounded to the nearest 50 votes, the results were [Conservative = 19,500, Liberal = 15,600, NDP = 8,550, Green = 1,150, Marxist-Leninist = 200]. So under the current first-past-the-post system, the Conservative won, and he (Wai Young) is the current MP, despite only receiving 43% of the vote.

Let’s imagine how this would have played out with IRV, making educated, simplified guesses at people’s preferences. The last place Marxist-Leninist would be eliminated first, and we’ll give their second preferences to the Green candidate, bringing their total to 1,350. The Green Party candidate is next eliminated, and we’ll assume that their voters preferred the NDP over the Liberals or Conservatives. These additional votes bring the NDP candidate to 9,900. Finally, the now-last-place NDPer’s votes are transferred to the Liberal, giving them [9,900+15,600=25,500]. And we have a new winner! (Clearly, in real life not all M-L, Green, and NDP voters would prefer the Liberal over the Conservative, but due to the margin of victory, the result would very likely be the same.) The Liberal candidate, who 57% of voters prefer over the conservative (and even stronger majorities prefer over the others), would represent the district as the Conservative no longer benefits from the splitting of votes between the Liberal and NDP candidates.

Even better, in practice this riding, and others, would see even more different results as voters no longer need to strategically vote for the “lesser-of-two-evils”. How many Vancouver South voters voted Liberal despite actually preferring the NDP or the Green Party because they felt that the Liberal had the best chance of defeating the Conservative? That kind of strategic thinking doesn’t take place in IRV, where you can express your true preference, while still expressing a meaningful preference for one major candidate over another.

So, Canada and the USA should follow the example of Ireland, which uses IRV to elect its president, Australia, which uses it for its House of Representatives, the Academy Awards (oh yeah), and several cities in the US (San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Minneapolis, Portland of Maine) that use it for local elections. It’s simply the most democratic way to elect representatives in single-member districts.

But there’s more to fair, representative elections than just having a good method for single-member districts. So Part 2 of our Electoral Reform series will focus on the case for (and different types of) proportional representation.


– Adam
from a chair near Josie the cat



Deserving, Earning, Merit, and Unicorns

I’m just going to come right out and say it. Merit is a concept best abolished, stricken from the category of productive heuristics we use to understand our world. What do you mean by that? You’ll see. Let’s take three people with six figure incomes (so here we’re talking about some of the richest people in the history of the world, actually). Dude A runs a company. He does upwards of 70 hours a week of complicated work that he had to go to university to train for. He also pays his employees well and gives more vacation than required to by law. Dude B worked in his 20s and 30s, but now he does not. He drives sports cars and takes younger girls out to fancy Italian restaurants. He is a particularly gifted investor, and now lives off of the profits of his portfolio. Dude C is 27, and had a rich Dad. He plays Halo, mostly.

Analysis now!? Nope, more dudes. These fellows have triple figure incomes. Like most people in the world. Dude D works 12 hours a day growing rice. I don’t know that much else about Dude D; the news can’t be expected to inform me of his existence when there are cars driving into non-road things all over my state. Dude E lives in El Salvador. He does construction, and is pretty good at it, but the work is very inconsistent. He’s thinking about emigrating. Dude F is a homeless American. He lives in San Diego. He’s bipolar.

K. So, some first insights: Dudes A & C receive the same share of the world’s wealth, so if we say that you deserve whatever you manage to acquire, legally, in the system in which you live, then they have to be equally deserving. Uh huh. So merit by actual result of current system is out. Generally, I think, we’d say Dude A is more deserving of what he has than Dude C. He works a lot harder, and he’s got talent (though C’s probably better with a spartan laser). But now we’ve got a problem. Dude D works really hard, too, but his diet’s lacking protein and his children don’t have notebooks. So does Dude A deserve to have more than Dude D? Isn’t the fact that A has more wealth just a product of being born into circumstances where his effort would result in wealth, while D was born into circumstances where his equal effort would leave him poor? Can we then say that A has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, while D has not? Can you earn something by being born into a certain context? (I’d hazard a no, but you can (should) come up with your own thought(s).)

You might say, “Ok, our system doesn’t distribute wealth as it is deserved.” Good. Thanks for saying that. But I want to go further. Talent/ability and effort seem to be the last holdouts for things that might actually make one more deserving. But talent is just a product of our genes and our environment, right? Do I deserve anything more than someone with average intelligence or Down’s Syndrome? Of course not, right? Do I deserve anything more than someone whose parents couldn’t or didn’t spend as much time reading and talking to them? That seems ludicrous to me. And then we have effort – the last soldier in the army of possible justifications for the concept of merit in its battle to obsolescence against logic and justice. But you only work harder than someone else if your context/environment was such as to shape you to do so or if your genetics were such as to program a harder-working person given your specific context. As we do not create our own genetics or our own context (except in the degree that our context is altered by our participation (itself a result of our genetics and previous context) in it), we cannot take credit for, or deserve anything more in any real way as a result of, our effort. We all just are what we are and it’s simply illogical, as far as I can tell, to say that what some people are is more deserving of receiving things than what another person might be. Can we say that certain actions are better than others, in that they result in a better state of the world (more happiness and meaning for sentient beings)? I certainly think so. But the link between a certain output in the world, or certain qualities in oneself, and a certain just recompense from that world, an idea so basic to the way pretty much all of us generally see the world, is built on convention and not reason, and thus should go the way of kings and miasmatic theory and roman numerals if we are to commit ourselves to understanding and bettering our existence. Just as it is ludicrous to say that I deserve more because I am tall or because I am intelligent, it is ludicrous to say that I deserve more for working harder or for doing something useful. The output to input connection, as an inherent merit, is false, like the existence of gods or the Illuminati. In all these cases, I could be wrong of course, but this is where my logic leads.

Huge caveat! The fact that harder workers and bigger contributors don’t inherently deserve more doesn’t mean that it can’t make sense to give them more to incentivize their behaviors. How we should distribute wealth and other benefits is a separate discussion. I aim here only to disabuse us of the notion that the inherent value of some actions or qualities corresponds to a certain inherent deserval of some recompense. Everyone should have what they need, and what they prefer, insofar as their having it has a net positive effect on the world (including them), because that’s good, not because they deserve it. It’s not that they don’t deserve it; it’s just that the concept is worthless.

Imagine how the world changes when Dudes A through C realize that whether or not they deserve what they have is a wrong, faulty, and irrelevant question and instead turn their thoughts to the real question of the best use (in the sense of doing the most good, of course) of the resources at their disposal. Better yet, what happens when everyone begins to view those dudes’ wealth (in addition to their own) in that way. How could this realization not push us in the direction of higher taxes on the wealthy and more energy put into helping the least fortunate, not only within our arbitrary nation-state borders, but also to those billions of people who suffer from being on the wrong side of global economic privileges that have accrued to the “developed” world without being deserved? How could anyone without the false concept of merit argue that we should build a giant wall, backed by 40,000 armed guards, to keep some people from crossing onto this side of a political line? Sure, you could argue that you want to keep them out and maintain your wealth and privilege at their expense just because you like it this way, but stripped of the false rhetorical cloak of having earned these disparities, the naked self-interest would be glaringly bulbous, and those most of us who generally strive to do good will win the argument.

The God of Merit will be slower dying and is more destructive than Allah or George Bush’s conversation partner, but human beings have been able to, and continue being able to, fundamentally alter the way we see the relationships between things. Here I sever for myself the bond between value of individual or collective output and any correspondence to certain deserved inputs. I continue – I strengthen – my commitment to doing as much good as I can.

I love you for reading this far. But really I think it’s just better to love you anyway, as much as I’m capable of, which is a lot.

All in everything together,

from my sleeping bag in Vancouver with Josie the cat


Commas are hilarious


Hitchhiking in Ontario was a bit rougher (colder and wetter with longer waits) than Québec. But we averted the infamous curse of Wawa and had a string of amazing nights with inspiring people in one of Canada’s most obese provinces.
wawa sign
Ontario’s musical musings began modestly with a homestyle set in a maply decorated Larder Lake living room with John & Maryse.
john and maryse
Then, Thursday night Billy stopped for us at our lamplit perch along 101 west outside Matheson, saved us from a night of moist shivery camping, and made all our Timmins dreams come true. He gifted us a couple big meals and beers.
esm meal
I had butternut squash ravioli. Actually, it’s not likely you care what I ate. Anyway, we got to hang out with the awesome staff and have a sing-along. And we finally have videos of our musical escapades (something we’ve lacked until now)! Behold:

Then we crashed in the shed of awesome bartender, father figure and eh-sayer, Jason, to whom we also hurl bundles of appreciation for the above videos, a bunch of food and Adam’s new coat.Jason TimminsWe’ve spent 19 nights north of the States and we hadn’t slept in a tent in Canada (there was one night of laundro-camping) until last night. Though there’s certainly no shortage of gorgeous options if we get “stuck.”wawa roadLastly, this awesome band I’m hyperlinking right here is comprised of three awesome dudes who put on awesome shows.
eb collage

-Adam & Jesse
from Leopold’s Tavern, Regina, SK — thanks again to Greg and Crystal for helping make us and our tummies happy!