Incorrectly Stating the Question
Talk about not stating a question correctly!
There have been reports in the news recently that claim that organic/bio food is “not better” or “not healthier” than what has become the conventional industrially produced types of food. But I think that finding betrays a biased hypothesis that was being tested.
Listen… I wish I were a health-food nut. I wish I could find in myself the energy to pay more attention to the food I buy and eat. But I’m not at that point yet. Perhaps it’s a resolution I’ll eventually make.
The reports did say that organic/bio food has been found to be tastier. I have no doubt about that, having had the opportunity to try organically farmed eggs, for instance. However, it defies logic — at least to me — that genetically modified foods pumped with hormones and pesticides and preservatives aren’t more problematic than organic/bio foods. Just because we haven’t been able to establish a direct cause-effect link damning “tampered” foods doesn’t mean that they’re not messing us up.
The question never should have been if organic/bio food is better for us in terms of vitamins, proteins and general nutrition. There are still people out there, like my mother, who have been around long enough to remember what most foods used to taste like, and today’s renditions pale in comparison. Besides, it only seems logical to me that a steady diet of hyper-processed food must have undesirable consequences.
I wonder, if we were to dig deeper, if we could find out who funded this latest report. However, for me, given a choice between food that could contain residues of pesticides “within acceptable limits” or food with none whatsoever, I don’t think I would need to think very long to make my decision.
The End of the Charest Era at Princess Margaret Rose
You might think that I’m referring to the end of Jean Charest’s nine years of Liberal rule in Québec, but in fact I’m referring to the retirement of my building’s superintendent, who’s been in that position for more than 30 years.
Short, white-haired, chain-smoking Dee, as I’ll call her, has never been the picture of health, and her gruff manners make it difficult for me to describe her as an “old lady” even though, at 77, she should otherwise fit the epithet. In fact, La Chelita probably best described Dee in a comment on Facebook in response to my announcement of her retirement:
That old broad? Who always leaves the door open? With the most tacky Christmas decorations of all time? Who has a voice that pickles eggs?
Yup! That’s Dee. Her health has been declining fast since last year, meaning that she has had to rely on her offsprings to come in and do most of the work. I already wrote about her brood two years ago, but her one respectable daughter who has taken her in to live with her summarized it well to me last Monday: “I had a meeting with the old guy [who owned the building until his death last June] and his son [who now owns the building] and I convinced them not to hire anyone from the family when Mom would retire,” she confided. “I mean, two are on drugs, one drinks and one [sister] is a convicted thief, not to mention none of them can be relied on to be there and do the work.”
And that’s the thing about Dee: the minute a tenant had a problem, she was on it — sometimes too much so. She told me once that the “old guy” (i.e., the late owner) preferred having problems fixed immediately than letting them get out of hand. She also convinced him that it’s better to get good, reliable tenants and keep them by not increasing rents unless absolutely necessary. As such, there hasn’t been much turnover in the four-plus years I’ve lived here, during which time I haven’t had a single rent increase, and I suspect the “keepers” among us are models of always paying their rent on time.
It was during a conversation about 10 days ago that the Sane Daughter told me all I didn’t know yet: that the old guy had died in June; that his son had taken over the building; that Dee was retiring, but that she (i.e., Sane Daughter) was working on hiring a new janitor. However, a day or two later, I bumped into one of her brothers who was going around with a petition, claiming that the old guy’s son intended NOT to replace the janitor and only have someone come in once or twice a week to mop the hallways whether they needed it or not. Remembering the Friday night in the dead of winter a few years ago when a hot-water pipe burst above the ceiling in my bathroom, I agreed it was unacceptable not to have a live-in janitor, so I signed the petition to have him replace Dee. He might be an oddball and would never win a prize for workmanship, but at least things would get done in a timely manner.
Of course, that was BEFORE my talk with Sane Daughter last Monday when she told me about how she’d long ago made plans with the owners not to hire any of them.
“But I still don’t understand why all of you actually signed his petition,” Sane Daughter said to me on Monday.
I stepped up to her, my nose almost touching hers, and said, “You know how your brothers and sister are. They step right into your space like this and ask you for ‘a favour.’ And you know how each of you always says, ‘Don’t listen to him or her or your mother.’ We never know WHO to believe, and frankly, if it were true that there’s a plan not to replace the live-in janitor, I would be the first to protest with the son [the new owner].”
I then stepped away from her. I think she got my point. She might be used to the way they interact in her family, but most of us aren’t.
Enters the Exterminator Dude.
My first encounter with him dates back to July of last year when I reported having bed bugs. That was around the time Dee first landed in hospital and Sane Daughter had taken over for a few weeks. It turned out that the problem wasn’t specific to me but to a few floors at my end of the building, and the culprits were the dudes who’d finally been evicted after months of not paying their bills, including rent, and apparently keeping the place in a shocking mess.
I got a weird vibe from Exterminator Dude right from the start, but not in a bad way. He’s this solidly built brown dude about 5 feet 8, but it’s his dry sense of humour that really threw me off. He seemed to immediately pick up that I’m a Friend of Dorothy, but it was unclear if he was one, too, or simply one of those straight-but-not-narrow kind of guy. Anyway, he came for a few visits last summer, and I’m glad to report that the bed bugs are long gone.
This July, however, I spotted a mouse in my apartment and I immediately reported it to Dee. The very next morning, as I was working, the doorbell rang and Exterminator Dude was on the other side of the door.
— Oh my god, you again?” I said, remembering his sense of humour.
— Dee tells me you’ve got mice now,” he replied, as if we’d just spoken last week.
He set several peanut-butter-laced traps in the kitchen and the living room, advised that it would be better if the same traps were re-used if some were caught, and went on his way. When the first mouse was caught, I got one of Dee’s son to get rid of it for me, for even with plastic gloves or whatever, I start to dry-heave as soon as I get close to a loaded trap. But as a result of Dee’s overprotectiveness, Exterminator Guy was at my door the next morning even though I told her that wouldn’t be necessary since there were still a lot of traps left.
After weeks of summer when the temperature never went below 15 C, fall started arriving this week and overnight temperatures dipped into the single digits. These cooling temperatures must have given the mice world the signal that it’s time to bed down for the winter and seek warmer surroundings, for after three mice getting caught in two months, two got caught just in the last week.
That also brought back Exterminator Dude to my door, although no one told me they sent for him again. Luckily, although I was working, I wasn’t on the phone when he showed up. He reloaded and added more traps, and we chatted as usual as he was doing his work.
Of course, the main topic of our conversation was Dee’s departure and the antics of her crazy brood. While discussing the thief, he matter of factly dropped, “She won’t be able to smooch off her mother anymore, but maybe her new girlfriend will help her out.”
WHAT??!! Girlfriend? I didn’t know she swung both ways, but then, I try not to think about her in ANY sexual situation, be it cock sucking or bush whacking.
— She already flashed her tits at me once,” he said.
— Eeeww! That must have been a sight …as in, NOT!”
— Actually, the tits aren’t bad. But yeah, the rest is pretty gross. But you’re a looker. You must have shit like that happen all the time.”
This was all coming from the guy who, during his previous visit, had told me how he’s a compulsive provider and protective bulldog whenever it comes to his wife and kids. In response to having “shit like that” happening to me, I did tell him about Horny Miss Titties and concluded the tale with “Talk about barking at the wrong tree,” to which he just agreed with a “No kidding!”
But as our conversation evolved, things became clear …or clearer. Basically, he told me about how he only hung out with girls when he was younger, to the point where many assumed he was gay. Then, in response to how Dee’s brood overstep the line of other people’s personal space, he told me that’s how this certain guy was when he was dating his son, about whom he said, “I’m not saying this because he’s my son, but he really is a friggin’ gorgeous boy — light brown skin, olive eyes — so he’s always getting hit on by guys …nice ones but more often weird ones.”
Bingo! Now I got it! Exterminator Dude is and always has been straight-but-not-narrow. Although he didn’t say one way or the other, I’d bet you he’s never done it with a guy and has no interest in trying it, without the thought itself revolting him. And although I didn’t say it, I couldn’t help but think how lucky his son is to have him as dad.
I would rather not see Exterminator Dude at my door again, as his presence indicates that I’m having problems with pests. Besides, it’s unknown if the new janitor will call upon him or someone else if more pest problems arise. But I have to say that, after he left, I couldn’t help thinking how he’s such a quintessential Montrealer: live and let live, open-minded, and flirtatious just for the heck of it without intending anything but playful bantering and joie de vivre.
2012 Québec Election: Just the Numbers First
The Québec Liberals were tossed out of office last Tuesday, but in a surprisingly gentle manner. In fact, I think Québec voters made a wise decision on September 4th: they changed the governing party but put the PQ on a very short leach; they got rid of the negative figurehead Premier Jean Charest had become but didn’t convict his Liberals before knowing more from the Charbonneau Inquiry on corruption in the construction industry and collusion with said industry and political parties, and they told the new up-start CAQ that it needs some fine tuning before it can aspire for prime time. In short, instead of swinging wildly as they’re often known for, they wrote a sensible prescription for Québec:
- one (1) weak minority government for 18 to 24 months;
- one (1) party rendered leaderless to ensure an 18- to 24-month government since said party won’t want an election without a leader;
- one (1) party given a lesson in humility and left with little cash to jump too quickly into another election, thus also ensuring an 18- to 24-month governement, and
- one (1) party given a bit more representation in the National Assembly [a] to hear more about its ideas and [b] to make us feel good for voting for a progressive party.
Many polls prior to the election predicted that the Liberals would find themselves as the second opposition party in Québec City, with virtually no support among francophones (translation: outside Montréal). However, they did end up forming the official opposition, and not only that, a very strong one at that (alternate interpretation: The Parti Québécois has formed the weakest minority government in Québec history). Perhaps the high percentage of undecided voters that persisted until the last opinion poll at the eve of the election was “hiding” closet Liberals who didn’t want to openly say that they were leaning toward the party at the helm of a highly unpopular government.
Here’s a table of the raw data, which shows just how close the popular vote was. I drew these results from Le Directeur général des élections du Québec website, which I carefully entered into my personal database of election results.
Let me summarize the most striking points from this table. First, do consider just how close the results were among the top-three parties.
Closeness of the Popular Vote
- # of votes between the winning PQ and 2nd-place Liberals: 31,922
- % difference between the winning PQ and 2nd-place Liberals: 0.73
- # of votes between 2nd-place Liberals and 3rd-place CAQ: 180,860
- % difference between 2nd-place Liberals and 3rd-place CAQ: 4.15
- # of votes between 1st-place PQ and 3rd-place CAQ: 212,782
- % difference between 1st-place and 3rd-place CAQ: 4.88
In other words, 96.21% of the votes were shared by the four parties attaining more than 5% of the overall popular vote, while 90.18% of the vote was split among the top three parties.
These results, at least correctly on the surface, have led some analysts to claim that Québec has almost evenly split into three camps. However, as expected, many are also looking at how the seat count doesn’t reflect that reality:
- 0.73% more votes gave the PQ 4 more seats than the Liberals, thus the government;
- 4.15% fewer votes gave the CAQ 31 fewer seats than the Liberals, and
- 4.88% fewer votes gave the CAQ 35 fewer seats than the PQ.
So once again, the first-past-the-post electoral system did not correctly translate into seats the prescription voters attempted to write (see more below).
It could be argued that the Liberal vote is the strongest, especially on the Island of Montréal, since it has the largest number of “safe” ridings where it doesn’t need to grow. Out of 125 ridings, only 27 were won with a real plurality of votes (i.e., 50% + 1 votes), and of those 27, the Liberals took more than half:
- Liberals: 14 ridings
- PQ: 8 ridings
- CAQ: 5 ridings
On the other hand, if it can be argued that second-place finishes are a gauge of growth potential, then the CAQ is clearly in the lead, indicating that its support is more evenly distributed across Québec. However, in a first-past-the-post, single-member-plurality system like ours, seats are earned when support is concentrated within ridings (think Québec Solidaire’s Françoise David in Gouin), with the perverse effect that the excess votes for a party winning a true majority within a riding are lost to the whole (think the Liberals’ habitual landslides in D’Arcy-McGee and see also the discussion on unused votes below). Nonetheless, in this election, the second-place finishes were as follows:
- CAQ: 53 ridings
- PQ: 39 ridings
- Liberals: 30 ridings
- Québec Solidaire: 2 ridings
- Option Nationale: 1 riding
A more polished gauge of growth potential would subtract the number of ridings in which the winner earned a real plurality. Just a few examples:
- As previously alluded to, in the riding of D’Arcy-McGee, Liberal Lawrence Bergman won with 84.72% of the vote against the CAQ candidate’s 7.37%.
- In the less extreme case of LaSalle, Robert Poeti gave the Liberals the riding with 56.88% of the votes against the PQ candidate’s 19.76%.
- The Liberals took Saint-Laurent with Jean-Marc Fournier’s 65.69% of the vote compared to only 14.32% for the CAQ.
- For an outside-of-Montréal, non-Liberal example, consider how Alexandre Cloutier won Lac-Saint-Jean for the PQ with 53.15% against the CAQ’s 24.12%.
- Finally, for an example of a more traditional PQ/Liberal contest in the PQ stronghold of René Lévesque, Marjolain Dufour kept the riding for the PQ with 59.68% against the Liberal’s tiny 18.21%.
In short, as long as our current electoral and multi-party system persists, all three main parties need to put a bit of water in their wine when looking at their second-place finishes. However, for Québec Solidaire, by winning two seats but neither with a real plurality, its two second-place finishes, both in the east end of Montréal close to the “conquered” Gouin and Mercier ridings, could point to its true growth potential.
Correctly Translating the Voters’ Prescription
While I personally do not like the new centre-right upstart CAQ, if only on the basis that it IS centre-right (and that its proposed solutions to “clean up” government and bureaucracy seem unrealistic or inhumane or too anti-union or all of the above), I have to admit that an important number of my concitoyens québécois felt that the CAQ’s proposals had merit. Conversely, a much smaller but significant number also felt that Québec Solidaire had something to bring to the table. Yet both parties obtained a smaller proportion of seats in the National Assembly than indicated in the popular vote (-11.85% for the CAQ and -4.43% for QS), while the top-two parties got a larger proportion of seats compared to the popular vote (+11.27% for the PQ and +8.80% for the Liberals).
One reform of the electoral system would give voters two ballots: one for a local member and one for a regional member. Proponents of this format argue that greater proportionality can be achieved due to voters being able to split their support between two parties. In fact, more than ever before in this election, had I been given one vote for my local MNA and one for my regional MNA, I may have split my votes. For instance, I discovered that there’s an upstart left-of-centre but non-sovereignist party called the Quebec Citizens’ Union. Given that I live in the part of Montréal that has gone Liberal for decades, I could have voted “left” locally while ignoring that party’s sovereignist plank but QCU regionally since it currently holds little chance of winning a local seat yet could gradually grow to become a regional player.
Another form would maintain a single ballot but for fewer local ridings and grouping those locals into a small number of regions with roughly the same number of locals in each. If the total number of ridings in Québec was maintained at 125, two-thirds (or 83) would be local ridings in which first-past-the-post would remain, and one-third (or 42) would be filled based ONLY on the popular vote. In that case, knowing that voting for a fringe party might not be the equivalent of throwing away my vote, I might consider a party like the QCU.
To achieve near-perfect proportionality, the common denominator that would be used would be that of the entire territory, namely 42. However, deciding which region would get members of a given party could be tricky. Say the QCP mentioned above were to earn one of those 42 seats, it would make no sense to assign that seat in a region where the party earned little to no support. Distributing regional seats by regions could alleviate that problem, but reducing the common denominator from 42 to 10 or 11 could result in a far less perfect proportionality, though certainly much closer than FPTP can ever achieve.
This is strictly a mathematical problem, however. With computers making complex mathematical calculations quick and easy, the total number of regional seats could be calculated with the larger denominator of 42, but distributed by regions with at least 5% support. Say Québec Solidaire earned 5 regional seats overall but got less than 5% in one region, 6% in each of two other regions and 15% in the Montréal region, 3 regionals would likely end up representing the Montréal region while 1 would go to each of the other two “eligible” regions in order to bring the QS’s representation as close as possible to the regional popular vote. This idea may sound complicated, but remember: it’s only maths which a computer can tabulate in less than a second and the dust would settle as soon as all the results are in.
Caution must be taken when trying to “re-count” results yielded from a first-past-the-post election to project what the results may have looked like in mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.
- First, some political pundits don’t believe that strategic voting exists in the current FPTP system, but while I believe its existence may be overstated, I do think it exists. Had I believed the CAQ stood of a good chance of taking my riding of Outremont, I would have strategically voted Liberal — no doubt about it. But where Outremont has been Liberal since its creation in 1966 and it would take a heck of a lot more than the CAQ to end this dynasty, I voted with my heart.
- Second, these numbers were the result of 125 individual races. If there had only been 83 such races, each riding would have been considerably bigger and would have included a wider array of political views. For instance, if my Outremont riding went much further east, it would take in a lot more PQ or QS sympatizers, so it wouldn’t necessarily be a Liberal stronghold.
Still, using real election results is the soundest indicator of alternate results at our disposal.
Distribution of Regional Seats by “Unused Votes”
The basic idea is that some parties need fewer votes to win a seat while others need many more votes. If one party’s support is more concentrated in a set of ridings, its vote is more efficient than that of a party whose vote is more evenly distributed (i.e., not as concentrated). The most dramatic example of this notion is the 1993 federal election, when 2,189,067 votes (15.97% of the popular vote) spread nationwide gave the Progressive Conservatives only 2 seats, while 1,851,835 votes (13.51% of the popular vote) coming only from Québec gave the Bloc Québécois 54 seats and the official opposition. Thus arises the notion of “unused votes” — votes that are virtually “thrown out” and don’t earn a seat for a given party. Therefore, this number of unused votes should be brought down to compensate for a party’s inefficient vote.
Independant candidates and parties that don’t achieve a certain percentage in the whole territory would be immediately excluded from this compensatory redistribution. I chose 5% as the threshhold, but it could be as little as 2% or as high as 10%. However, my experiments with dozens of election results has shown me that 5% achieves a good proportionality while excluding truly marginal or dying parties.
The first table in this post already shows how many seats each party won, but here’s the simplication.
Understandably, the number of unused votes for the winning party is always the lowest. In this election, the PQ’s number of unused votes was 25,337, calculated as:
Total number of votes (1,393,540)
Total number of seats won + 1 (54 + 1)
Using this formula:
- the Liberals’ unused vote number was close at 26,698;
- the CAQ’s unused votes number was 59,038 (2.3 times higher than the PQ’s);
- Québec Solidaire’s was 87,744 (almost 3.5 times higher than the PQ’s), and
- Option Nationale’s, having earned no seat, was its whole take, or 82,857 (almost 3.2 times the PQ’s), but its poor overall showing in the popular vote would exclude it from receiving regional seats.
Invariably, as this table shows, parties whose vote is more efficient took more than their fair share of the seats in the National Assembly. Note that the “Votes/Seats” row should really be labelled “Unused Votes.”
I suppose the good news in this election is that, unlike in other elections, no party achieving at least 5% of the overall popular vote was shut out (i.e., didn’t earn at least one seat), and with only 1.9% of the popular vote, Option Nationale wouldn’t qualify for regional representation. Therefore, whether by FPTP or MMP, 165,576 votes (or 3.79%) still wouldn’t serve to elect a particular party. That wasn’t the case in New Brunswick’s last provincial election on September 27, 2010, where the NDP was shut out despite earning 10.4% of the popular vote. In fact, when one thinks about it as much as I do, it seems that the FPTP system almost always gets it wrong: in Newfoundland and Labrador’s last election on October 11, 2011, FPTP gave the official opposition to the third party in the popular vote despite it getting 7% fewer votes than the second-place finisher.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that each party received the number of votes they did on September 4, but that there had only been 83 local races. Thus, the next table shows how many local seats each party would have won, proportionally, then how many regional seats each party would have received, the percentage of over- or under-presentation of each party, and each party’s final, more even number of unused votes.
Although it didn’t happen this time, independant candidates or parties not getting 5% of the popular vote could win one or more local seat, and they would retain such seats. In fact, in the previous Québec election on December 8, 2008, Québec Solidaire did win a seat through FPTP, but by virtue of only getting 3,78% of the overall vote, it would not have received any of the 42 regional seats.
Had the 83 local seats been distributed as shown above, the disparity in the number of unused votes by party would have been striking, particularly for Québec Solidaire.
In other words, the gap in the number of unused votes between the PQ and QS would have been a whopping 93,954. Thus, with its meager 1 seat and the highest number of unused votes, QS would get Regional Seat #1, and then its number of unused votes would be recalculated by taking into account its new seat count, as follows:
Total number of votes (263,233)
Total number of seats won + 1 (2 + 1)
This exercise would be repeated 41 more times, each time assigning the next regional seat to the party with the highest number of unused votes.
Thus the Liberals would only get their first regional seat at #22 and the PQ at #27, with the CAQ earning the most regional seats (22 in all). By the end of this exercise, the gap between the highest and lowest number of unused votes would be reduced to a mere 3,768 from 93,954. And the only reason that perfect proportionality wouldn’t be achieved is because 3.79% of the votes went to parties not meeting the 5% overall popular vote requirement, so truly “popular” parties would share the spoils.
I know some might gasp upon considering a such a weak minority government:
But wouldn’t that be the equivalent of saying that the citizens of a healthy democracy like Québec’s can’t write the right prescription for itself? For surely, if you ask the third of voters who supported either the CAQ and QS, something got lost in translation under the current FPTP system.
Weekend with Sis
This is a movie still of my sister when she was about 14 years old. If you were to meet her today, more than 40 years later, you’d still recognize her from this picture. Her hair is not as long and, like everyone else in the family, it’s silvery, but you wouldn’t have to squint much when comparing the picture with the live person today.
For several decades she’s been living in the Outaouais region, which is about a two-hours’ drive from Montréal. Her son — my nephew — is starting university at the U de M this fall, so we’ve been seeing more of each other in preparation for his move, and I suspect this trend will continue once Gui’s in town. Sis has been encouraging me to go visit her more this summer so that I could take refuge in her air-conditioned home, but I only got around to it this long Labour Day weekend while B.I.L. and Gui are out trekking in Peru.
I find it somewhat amusing (aMMusing?) how she and her boys have been not-so-subtly hinting at improving where and how I live. Although I have an appreciation for other people’s pleasant (read “grown up”) home decoration and furniture, I have never been too concerned about such stuff for myself. Yes, I’ve recently been giving some thought on and off to moving, especially in response to the noise level but also to the mildly dilapidated condition of my current place. However, I despise with a passion moving, plus, from what I’ve seen, there are very few places available that would be as spacious while within my budget. Some might see Sis and her little clan’s hints and suggestions as meddling, and I must admit to having a mild sense of unease at having my nephew — whom I hasted to add is a fine young man — living in my general neighbourhood, although I’m not sure why. It’s not like I have to sweep a harem of men under my bed at a moment’s notice to prevent them from witnessing my shame, for there is (unfortunately, perhaps) no such shame to witness.
That said, I have been enjoying connecting more with Sis. She, along with everybody else, have been witness in the past year not to shame but to a change in me that some say is visible just by looking at me. A year after therapy and a few months after receiving the final divorce papers, I seem to have taken a calmer yet more effervescent demeanour.
I found particularly interesting our meandering chats this weekend about work. As a physiotherapist, she has a job whose impact, I argued, is far greater on her “clientele” than mine. However, she drew an interesting parallel illustrating that it’s how we tend to engage with people that makes the real difference. In our respective line of work, we’ve both had “clients” who’ve jokingly asked if they could adopt us.
For instance, she referred to one of her patients recently who claimed never having received such attention to deal with matters peripheral to his treatment, namely coordinating arrangements for insurace coverage. Yet, Sis claimed, she didn’t do for him anything that she wouldn’t do for anyone else. That brought me to think about how I behave with clients at my job, in particular how I take the time to explain their options and help coordinate any new service enrolments they might need.
“You’re right,” she said, “we’re not changing the world at our jobs. But by doing what comes naturally to us, we can affect some people positively and, when they go back home that night, they might feel that they’ve had a very good day and that not everybody in ‘The System’ is rigid or out to ‘get them’.”
I don’t think that’s a big mental contortion to give meaning to our work. It’s more our acknowledgement that it’s harder to always colour within the lines than allow ourselves to go a little bit outside the lines if it can help someone. And for me, it’s the difference between doing what’s right without going overboard with a full-fledged rescue operation — of owning what I own but not owning what I don’t own.
My marriage and divorce may have been the biggest karmic lesson of my lifetime, but clearly there have been spinoffs from it that aren’t necessarily as big but are turning out to be just as meaningful.