The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Once again, I finished this book just in time, despite starting it right after The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. Only this time, it’s because my commute went from an hour each way to five seconds each day to nothing because I’m on Weather and Safety Leave. Again, that’s a long story that, like yesterday, I’m punting for another day. Such is life with SARS-CoV-2, but in this respect I’m quite luck and still have my health. However, it does mean without that long commute, my reading time has become a fraction of what it was. But, I made it!

Noah Strycker spins a fascinating tale of the secret lives of birds. Clearly, the author loves class Aves and is an avid birder himself. His love of all modern dinosaurs shines through. Each chapter and section is set with a distinct theme and a story that focuses one one of our fine, feathered friends and how it relates to we mammals. So, without further à Deux, let’s dive in like a bunch if timid penguins!

Corvidae are smart! I’d never heard of any creature outside of the mammals passing the Mirror Test. The fact that some Magpies can utterly blew my mind. Heckle and Jeckle would have been proud! Damn, that bird family is cleaver! And the way Nutcrackers can remember where they cached food photographically is astounding! If we leave, I bet they’re taking over!

Hummingbirds are crazy violent. But Chickens take the cake, they are hierarchical. I mean, keeping track in your ranking up to thirty birds deep. Of course, it does break down with more than thirty and there’s still the triangle problem. Who knew chickens weren’t condorcet?

Now I want to see a Snowy Owl. I can’t believe a bounty of lemmings could cause a spike in populations that could bring the bird this far south. At least Washington State loves them, a lot more than they do the Spotted Owl, though that did inspire Hedwig. On the other hand, I want to see the Albatross but the Falkland Islands are so far away and then never serve them in my local theatre. If only I could get get around like a pigeon, especially a Homing Pigeon in case I get lost.

It was fascinating to hear that dummers can keep better time than Parrots. Which is to say, a Cockatoo can keep good time, but it isn’t good at noticing a change in tempo. It makes me wonder why they’re not as coordinated as Boirds or their prototype Starlings. Parrots still may have good hearing, but one thing’s for sure, Vultures have excellent eyesight. However, only Turkey Vultures can smell you from a meter away with its great, big nostrils, though not much more.

The main takeaway for me is how similar some bird behaviors are to humans. Bowerbirds males try to impress female birds to find a mate, and humans try to impress other humans in order to get a date. The birds build little shrines, complete with vanishing perspective, and we humans buy clothes, and cars, and houses, and do sports, or just become smart by reading lots of science books. And when you get the mate, being as faithful as a Fairy Wren could mean success. Then again, female Fairy Wrens who fool around do tend to live longer? 🤔

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human
The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

All in all, a very entertaining book that made me think. And books that make you think are indeed the best kind of science book. And speaking of the human condition, next up, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes…

Hope to see you in person soon, my sapiosexual friends!

2020 Presidential Primary: VOTE!

It’s that time of year again. Time for the world’s second largest Democracy by population, and richest Democracy by overall GDP to vote to select who is the best to represent their party on the Presidential stage.

Voting through most of American history has been difficult. Our nation, like almost every Democracy, has political parties and every election it always comes down to just two choices: Conservatism or Progressivism. Progressives believe in progress, a government that is strong and protects its citizens from business. Conservatives believe in small government, state’s rights, and traditional values.

In 2020, Americans call Conservatives Republicans, and call Progressives Democrats. In 1888, Americans called Conservatives Democrats, and Progressives Republicans. In 1860, we called Progressive Abolitionists Republicans and Progressives who weren’t were Whigs, and Conservatives were Democrats. In 1796, Progressives were Federalists and Conservatives were Democratic-Republicans.

While all these elections were interesting, there’s one even more interesting. One more interesting than the 1888 election, where Grover Cleveland the Conservative won the Popular Vote but lost the Electoral College to Progressive Benjamin Harrison. One more interesting than the election of 1860, where Abolitionist Progressive Abraham Lincoln won the election with only 40% of the Popular Vote in a Three-Party Race. One even more interesting than the election of 1796, where the electoral college appointed the highest ballot winner to the Progressive John Adams, thus making him President, while the Conservative Thomas Jefferson had the second most votes, making him Vice President.

That last arrangement was so untenable that the Twelfth Amendment was passed. This amendment entrenching the party ticket system with our nation for the past 220 years. It give us the modern interpretation of Article II, Section 1, which in turn grants sole power to state legislatures to determine how that state’s electors are chosen.

But even that election isn’t the one I want to talk about.

The Election of 1824

The election of 1824 was a cantankerous one. That year, the Federalist Party had dissolved and the nation became a single party state where everyone claimed to be a member of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Under that backdrop, in the first election for which we have popular voting data, there were a slate of four candidates: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William H. Cranford.

CandidateElectoral Votes
Andrew Jackson99
John Quincy Adams84
William H. Crawford41
Henry Clay37

With four candidates running, for what was so far the only time in history, no-one received a majority of electoral votes, 131. As such, under the Twelfth Amendment (as amended by the Twentieth Amendment), the election is decided by taking the top three or less candidates and having each state’s Representatives voting on which of the candidates they prefer, with the state going to whomever the most Representative for that state voted for. Each state gets one vote, and whoever gets a majority of states becomes President. If no candidate receives that state majority, then the vote is recast until a majority is decided.

In 1824, this is exactly what happened. Of the twenty-four states at the time, thirteen were needed to decide the election. Fortunately, since Henry Clay, having been eliminated as not being in the top three, backed John Quincy Adams, meaning that only a single ballot was required in the House of Representative to elect John Quincy Adams as President.

CandidateState Votes
John Quincy Adams13
Andrew Jackson7
William H. Crawford4

If this were to happen in 2020 thanks to a third party candidate making it impossible for either the President or the Democratic Challenger to receive at least 270 Electoral Votes, then I personally feel the nation would be aghast. Most Americans don’t know about the Electoral College Voting Majority requirement or the state-based Congressional voting system, and would indeed by shocked to know that’s just what their Constitution says.

There must be a better way.

Ranked Choice Voting

Like the election of 1824, the modern Primary system seeks to choose a winner by strict majority among a list of party-faithful Presidential Candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of votes on the first ballot, SuperDelegates in the Democratic Party (Republicans don’t have SuperDelegates) are used to put their fingers on the scale and the required majority changes to reflect this.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just pic the majority on the first ballot? If people in 1824 could just say without Clay and Crawford they wanted Jackson?

2020 Primary Election
The last day of Early Voting in Virginia, a Super Tuesday state. The TimeHorse votes. © 2020, Jeffrey C. Jacobs

All these problems could be solved with Ranked Choice Voting. With Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV. Under RCV, you can say you prefer Crawford, but if your second choice is Jackson, then Adams, and finally Clay. Or you could say, like me, your first choice is Elizabeth Warren, because, among other things she supports the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, but my second, third, fourth, and fifth choices would be among the various other candidates.

What you do with that is a whole other question. Clearly, you could just ignore all but the first choice and see if anyone gets a majority. But that’s what we have now, and clearly a majority isn’t guaranteed.

Another possibility, very possible is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), where, instantaneously, a mock election is conducted with all the first-place candidates, and if no-one receives a majority, the candidate receiving the least amount of votes is eliminated and anyone voting for him or her will instead vote for their next choice. This algorithm is continued until one candidate receives a pure majority.

The problem with IRV is that it doesn’t guarantee a Condorcet Winner. The reason is easy to see if you have a series of ballots where, in aggregate, a majority prefer A over B, a majority B over C, and a third, unique majority C over A. In the vaguest case, this could produce C as winner even though a majority prefer A over C.

Another alternative, one I prefer, is the Schulze method. It is Condorcet and will match IRV when IRV doesn’t contain, for instance cycles like above. However, Schulze is a rather complicated, geometric voting system. Were it up to tabulations by hand of hundreds of millions of RCV Ballots, this would be impossible. But with modern computers, it’s facile.

Whatever voting system we use, it’s better than the system we have now with throwing the election to the House of Representatives or using SuperDelegates to ensure majorities.

And whoever you vote for this coming Super Tuesday or beyond, vote wisely, be informed, and vote with a free hand because the decision is yours. Just make sure you go out and vote!