Let's Remake the Vice Presidency

 Everyone likes to knock the position of Vice President in the American governmental system. They have two basic powers: they replace the president under certain circumstances, and they can preside over the Senate, but can vote only to break a tie.

In perusing the Federalist papers, it seems that it was considered all-important that the VP be elected in the same manner as the president, in case he would be required to stand in for the president. In fact, that makes sense as a goal (but note that in a worst-case scenario, further presidential succession would violate it).

Furthermore, since the Senate would have so few members in the 1790s, the specter of gridlock due to tie votes was very real. So having a president of the Senate who could vote only to break ties, but not to create a tie, was a way to avoid them altogether (unless the VP declined to vote, of course).

They did not think it at all important that the VP should have a genuine voice in the Senate, or to have any actual job to do on an everyday basis. The experience of the first VP, John Adams, established the futility of a VP attempting to participate fully in the senatorial legislative process. As he put it, the Vice Presidency was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”.

Now, with two and a half centuries of hindsight, I think we could do much better (although I am perfectly aware that since so many Americans consider the constitution to be holy writ and replacing it as rank heresy, making major changes such as I will suggest are extremely improbable).

If we were redoing the constitution, there are many even more fundamental changes that have more urgency than fixing the presidency of the Senate, but in this post I consider only that one.

Original version:

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.  The Senate shall choose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.

New version:

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, and shall have one vote on all matters. The Senate shall choose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States. In the event the Senate be equally divided, the President of the Senate (or the President pro tempore) may cast a second vote.

This is a rather small change to the text, yet it would vastly improve the lot of vice presidents, since they would be active members, rather than largely passive nonmembers of the Senate over which they preside.  In fact, they would be the Senate's most powerful member.  Furthermore, this change would retain the ability to break ties in the Senate, thereby neatly avoiding that particular type of gridlock.

One issue that this change would address is that of determining whether the VP is in the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch. Under the original constitution, this is vague, since neither the executive or the legislative function is exercised often. Under the revision, the VP would be a full member of the Senate, just as much as any ordinary senator, only rarely standing in for the president. Therefore, the position would be more legislative than executive. Also, presidential elections would surely begin to focus almost as much on the VP as on the president, since the VP would be much more powerful. The election would be about choosing two rather than one president.

Probably the most controversial new vice-presidential power would be that of casting a second, tie-breaking vote. If the ability to avoid gridlock by casting an additional vote is to be maintained, then we have to decide, who will cast that vote? There is no one more obviously suited for this than the VP, since although each of the other senators represent a single state, the VP, like the president, represents every state.

I had originally favored empowering the president to break ties. This would have avoided giving the same individual two votes. However, requiring active presidential participation in the Senate could create time and attention demands that could interfere in a potentially dangerous way with the presidency. The VP would already be a participant, and the power to break ties is a natural extension of the position of President of the Senate.


Automatic Sharing of Seats in Close Elections

I haven't posted here is quite a while, but I had this odd idea and thought I'd reactivate this blog to post it.

The idea was triggered by the observation that in a democracy, elections are often close. This means that almost as many voters favor each option, with only a slight difference among the support. To the extent that our democratically elected representatives are supposed to represent all voters, the frequency of close elections undermines democracy itself.

That is, a voter whose option loses by, say, more than 20% of the votes (60% to 40% in a two-option system) understands that their position is in a true minority, larger than the random variations we often see in elections. However, if the difference is 2% (51%-49%), then the reaction is very different. Except in the sense of the “rules of the game”, there was no practical difference in the degree of representativeness of the two camps.

This principle also applies in three-way or other nonbinary elections: if the winner's vote count is 20% of total vote greater than any of the losers (e.g., 47% to 27% to 27%), once again there is no question about the victory. Furthermore, the generally good solution of doing a run-off between the two highest if there is no majority is also vulnerable to this complaint: imagine 35% to 33% to 32%: is a runoff between 35% and 33% significantly more democratic than between 35% and 32%? I don't think so. The two-person run-off will indeed find a majority winner, but very often up to a third of all voters will abstain in protest, on the grounds that their position is, for all practical purposes, just as representative as the two in the runoff.

Here's another, more democratic but more complicated approach.

First, set a hard criterion for “significant difference” in the electoral outcome. This could anything, from a percentage difference relative to all registered voters, a percentage difference relative to all who voted, even an absolute difference in the number of voters based upon some agreed-upon criteria.

In order for an individual to win an election, they would need to obtain (1) a majority of all votes cast, and (2) a number of votes greater than the criterion different from the next highest number of votes. If this occurred, then the seat would be occupied by that individual. For example, given a criterion of 20%, 60% of the votes would guarantee that candidate a seat. If a candidate received, say, 59% of the vote and the second place candidate received 39% or less, that would also give the seat to the one with 59%. However, if the leading candidate received 59% and the second place candidate received 40% (with the remainder going to lesser candidates), then no individual would occupy the seat.

In the case where no candidate received a significantly greater number of votes than the next highest candidate, the seat would be shared.

A shared seat would operate as follows: the candidate with the greatest number of votes would be the principal occupant of the seat, and would decide who would speak first for the seat during debates or to the public (however, each occupant will also be allowed to speak). However, every action of the seat would require the concurrence of a simple majority of its occupants; otherwise the seat would abstain or take no action.

For presidents, this would mean that before any routine action (e.g., an executive decision, approval of a rule, nomination of a judge, and so on), a majority of the co-occupants would need to agree. And whenever physically possible, each co-occupant is expected to weigh in on every matter—abstentions lower the N of the co-occupants, so would hand over the decison-making power on that issue to the remaining co-occupant(s).

For obvious reasons, the principal occupant of the presidency would have the power to act alone in grave emergencies; however, misusing this power would explicitly be grounds for impeachment and removal; this process could be begun not only by Congress, but also by a voter referendum or by any co-occupant of the presidency. Furthermore, the principal co-president would be required to confer with the other co-president(s), if possible, even in emergent situations.

In Congress, the general principle of majority rule among co-occupants of a seat would apply. For example, in the Senate, if a seat were occupied by two co-occupants who disagreed vehemently with each other, it is likely that that seat would abstain from many votes, perhaps voting only on trivial matters or on the rare occasions of agreement among or between the co-occupants.

That's the basic idea. In effect, when an election is split, the seat is split. We could have two or even three presidents, for example, and the same for every seat in Congress. Obviously, seats occupied by a single individual could be more efficient than split seats. But in the winner-takes-all system, a large number of voters would be represented by someone whose positions they disagree with. The question is whether in a democracy hugely greater representation is better than greater efficiency.

The same principle could be applied to votes on policy, but since there can be no “shared occupancy” in that case, the effect would simply require a threshold difference of a certain size between the winning versus losing position (i.e., a supermajority); a smaller difference would nullify the vote. This would apply to votes in Congress and to voter referenda.


Bilateral “Valkyrie” breathing in freestyle swimming

I recently decided to go back to swimming laps after at least two decades of not doing it. I'm slowly getting a bit more in shape. I swim mostly freestyle (a.k.a. the crawl).

Along the way, I read about something I never considered before in the freestyle stroke: bilateral breathing. This is simply a way to develop a stroke rhythm in which you breath the same number of times on each side.

Note that in many other strokes (e.g., breast stroke, butterfly, backstroke), the issue doesn't arise because you breath in the center; in other strokes (e.g., sidestroke), it also doesn't arise because the entire body is in an asymmetric configuration. But in freestyle, the body is in a perfectly symmetric configuration, it's just that I had always been taught to breath on one side.

In my old stroke, I used three kicks per arm stroke, creating a cycle of six kicks/two arms/one breath. This is a very standard freestyle stroke.

In the new stroke, there are still three kicks per arm, but now there is a breath on every third arm stroke, resulting in a cycle of eighteen kicks/six arms/two breaths. I found this a little hard to visualize.

Something that helped me immensely in visualizing how this works is the animation on the main page of Swim Smooth, who sell an iOS app designed to help people do exactly that: visualize the bilateral breathing freestyle stroke.

As I observed this animation, I started thinking about it as a movement pattern, which made my background in choreography and music kick in. I realized that in fact, this was simply a pattern in 9/8 time, also known as “compound triple time”. The arm stroke rhythm would be represented by the main beats (one, two, three) while the kicks would be the three eighth notes per beat (one and uh, two and uh, three and uh). Breathing would occur on the down beat (beat one) of each measure; that is, it would take two 9/8 measures (six counts) for the entire pattern.

Well, when it comes to counting out a movement pattern, there is nothing better than music that fits the pattern. In this case, music in 9/8 time. This is a fairly unusual meter, but it certainly does exist.

The best example I could find was the famous theme to Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries. Listen to it here (there is some introductory material before the theme is played by the horns). This famous melody conforms perfectly to the bilateral freestyle.

This morning, I tried it out at the pool. It worked perfectly. I was able to swim a fairly smooth, rhythmic bilateral crawl while “playing” the Valkyrie theme in my head, taking a breath on each downbeat (and therefore on every third arm stroke and every ninth kick).

I think this little trick could be used to good advantage by others to learn patterns of movement that have a regular rhythmic structure, and I certainly recommend that it be used by swimmers wanting to learn bilateral breathing. It also helps to see the movement while mentally playing the melody, and for this, the animation I mentioned above was very helpful (their app turns out to be even better, since it allows the stroke to be seen from different angles).



I'm not sure what to call my approach to single-dish cooking. It's what I've used probably 5-6 times per week for many years, with considerable variations. In the past, I called it, jokingly, “slop”.

Today, I did some Google research, and found that while it is similar to pilaf and risotto, it is most similar to jambalaya, so that's what I think I'm going to call it henceforth. But it's pretty far removed from your conventional jambalaya. In my version, it is cooked using the no-oil method (it is “water-fried”). It is also low sodium and relatively low in carbohydrates. Because of its no-oil and lo-carb nature, maybe I'll call it “jamba-lo-no”, if I can stand it.

There are many varieties of this, mostly depending on what kind of stuff I have around. Here is the version I just ate today for lunch; it's fairly typical.

I took some little mushrooms and washed them and then sprinkled them with Fiesta seasoning and some garlic powder while they were still wet, and set them aside.

I scrubbed a carrot and a couple of fingerling sweet potatoes and cut them into 1/2 inch chunks.

I washed some broccoli and some collards and cut the broccoli into florets and tore the collards into chunks roughly 1 inch square.

I smashed a clove of garlic, chopped up some onion, and washed and chopped up a serrano pepper.

I opened a can of water-packed sardines and drained off the excess water. (The sardines are not a requirement at all. Sometimes I use tempeh or tofu, for example, or rinsed pre-cooked black beans.)

In a small bowl, I mixed 1/8 cup of soy grits, 1T of oat bran, 1T mixed grain cereal, and 1t wheat bran.

In a skillet, I put in 1 c of drinking water and the carrots and sweet potatoes, brought the water to a boil, and then reduced heat and simmered, covered, for a few minutes.

I added the broccoli and collards, raised the heat briefly, and then let it simmer a while more.

Now I added 4T of low-sodium, no oil marinara sauce; the sardines; the garlic; the onions; and the serrano pepper. I sprinkled the sardines and vicinity with both Fiesta and a bit of cayenne pepper. I turned the heat up all the way, mixed this around a bit, then put the mushrooms on top, and mixed briefly. Then, I distributed the grain mix around on top of everything, then stirred it together, watching until there was only a bit of liquid left (this only takes maybe 10 s).

I put on the cover and turn the heat all the way off (I have an electric stovetop; with a gas stove, make sure you use a heavy skillet that will retain the heat for a while).

I then go off and do something else for a while. When I come back 10-20 minutes later, the liquid has been absorbed almost completely by the grains. Pour onto a plate and sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese.

The way this dish evolved was through a number of variations, many involving some initial frying of the the veg, then liquid and grains added to it. But the frying, which I tried always to do with a minimum of oil, was sometimes difficult to do, so I hit upon the idea of just using water, putting in the hardest/longest cooking ingredients first, and the grains last. I liked the results so much that I decided I needed a more respectable name for it.

Sorry there's no picture, I ate everything.


Is my French level appropriate for a French conversation group?

Given my level of ability in French, would it be appropriate for me to participate in a conversation group?

There exist various groups that meet regularly (e.g., weekly or monthly) to speak French. The purpose is partly social, but mostly is centered on practicing French. Sometimes the groups meet in a public restaurant or café, or sometimes they meet in such places as a library conference room, a meeting room in a school or some other organization, or less often in members' homes.

Everyone is generally welcome as long as they want to speak French with other people, but these groups are more appropriate for some than for others.

If you are a native speaker of French, you will always be very welcome, even (or perhaps especially) if your French is rusty after many years in Anglophonia. These groups are always much more successful if there is at least one native speaker participating.

If you a native French-speaking recent arrival in Anglophonia, and you want to practice your English or have questions about how things work here, you will almost always find what you need, either directly or indirectly, if you participate in a local French conversation groups.

If you are not a native speaker of French and have never participated in a conversation group before, then the question becomes more difficult. If you are not capable of fairly easy conversation in French, then the conversation group format is obviously not what you need. But how to know if you have sufficient command of the French language in order to have a satisfactory experience in a conversation group?

First, some background. In 2001, the Conseil de l'Europe published a document known as the “CECR” or the “Cadre” (Le Cadre européen de référence pour les langues — Apprendre, Enseigner, Évaluer). Part of this document is a scale used to classify the ability level of language learners. Here is a description of the standard ability levels in this system.

There are many sites on the Internet that offer free online tests of French ability using the Cadre. Note that these are only approximations of the “real” tests, which are not free and are generally given by governments, schools, or by organizations such as the Educational Testing Service (http://www.ets.org/tfi/about). Some but not all of the free online tests include a listening (audio) segment. Since no humans are involved, none include tests of speaking ability. You can find these tests with Google using searches such as test de niveau français en ligne gratuit. Here are some examples:


If you are wondering about your overall level in French, it could be worthwhile for you to take several different online tests (emphasize those that include a listening segment). It is unlikely that you will be at exactly the same level for each test, so you will get some idea of the range of your ability level (within the limitations of online testing). For example, if you score A2,B1,B1, you could think of yourself as roughly a B1-; A2,A2,B1 could be roughly an A2+.

The key here is the oral level. Sometimes, groups will discuss things that participants have read or written, but reading and writing ability is generally much less important than the ability to converse. So, if you tended to have a lower level on tests with relatively more reading and writing, then you might want to weight more highly the scores associated with tests that had a stronger speaking element (and vice versa, of course). Also, if you are a “good test taker” (or “bad at tests”), you should probably lower (raise) your score a notch, since you might have scored higher (lower) than your actual ability level.

If you are at level B2 (Avancé/Indépendant) or higher, then a conversation group will be ideal for you. That said, a motivated B1 (Seuil) or even an A2+ (Intermédiaire/de Survie) with strong conversational ability should be reasonably successful in many conversation groups. If you are A2 or lower, then perhaps you should wait a while before trying a conversation group. If you are at level C1 (Autonome) or higher, then you might find many conversation groups somewhat slow, depending on the levels of the other participants (but you already know that).