Sunday, August 31, 2008

An order of freude, please

Hold the schaden

I wonder if it's the inbreeding. That could explain my cousin.

And maybe not just my cousin.

My father and his siblings all faithfully married fellow Portuguese of Azorean descent. Keeping it in the family, so to speak. Those islands in the Atlantic aren't very big, you know. And our family's forebears all come from the same island, too. It's a good way to ensure that you marry your nth cousin, even if he or she is m times removed. Oy.

In some cases, I suppose it's possible that our good qualities are reinforced. For example, my siblings and I are all reasonably intelligent and successful adults. Mom and Dad must not have dangerously matching recessives. In other cases, well, it's not pretty.

Consider my uncle and aunt. If you take the dumbest son from one family and breed him with the dumbest daughter from another family, you shouldn't be surprised at negative outcomes. All their kids are dumb as posts. My uncle and aunt are a cautionary lesson for anyone with the wit to notice (which would not include any of their children).

So: my cousin. The pick of the litter. He's a couple of years older than me and has been a jerk all his life. My earliest memories of “Alex” are the insults. He was good at them. It came from constant practice. When he was in fourth grade at the Catholic school we both attended, Alex decided the mass response “Peace be to you” was more interesting if rendered as “Piss be on you.” For weeks it was his favorite greeting (until Monsignor persuaded him to abandon it—at least at school).

Of course, he was in fourth grade. Fourth grade boys are often like that. And they usually outgrow it. Alex, however, did not. He had found his groove and he refused to leave it. Alex's sibs and cousins endured an unremitting stream of casual abuse from him. To make matters even more delightful for everyone, Alex liked to remind people that he was superior to us. A perfect person. Brilliant, too.

I didn't like him much. And I dared to doubt he was as smart as he claimed to be.

This summer Mom passed along the latest word on Alex. The poor bastard just lost his most recent job. A job as a custodian. A part-time custodian. A part-time church custodian whose major compensation came in the form of free parochial school tuition for his children. His long-suffering wife is the principal provider for the family. I'm sure “Beth” didn't see this coming when she married a young man who was then a partner in a family dairy farm. Perhaps she had gotten off the boat from the Azores too recently. And, of course, that was before the first bankruptcy.

Alex has had two. The first bankruptcy was in partnership with his father (my Dad's dim brother). The second he managed on his own. It's a hilarious story.

The family dairy farm fell apart under my uncle's stewardship after my grandfather's death. The bankruptcy auction settled the outstanding debts with a little left over. Alex took his cut and started a small dairy of his own. He decided after a few years to leave for greener pastures. Most of us thought Alex just wanted to get away from the other family members. No one seemed to mind that he was leaving, however.

Then the fun began.

Do you know cows? Cows are stupid, nervous animals. If you replace a post in their corral, they'll gather around and stare at it, snorting with flared nostrils and shifting their hooves anxiously. Eek! A new post! They thrive on routine and twice-a-day milkings. Don't mess with the routine.

Alex messed with the routine.

When he decided to leave the family neighborhood, Alex didn't fool around. He left for Oregon. He'd be several hundred miles away.

Fine by us.

Alex found a place to rent in Oregon, hired some cattle trucks, and hauled his cows north. At least until he hit the state line. That's where the ag inspectors stopped him.

You need papers to move livestock across state lines. Alex neglected to get them in advance. My brilliant, perfect cousin is a moron. His cattle trucks ended up on a siding off Interstate 5. The cows had to be unloaded and milked by hand, all the milk going to waste. After a 36-hour delay, he was on his way again.

But Alex's cows went dry. Dairy cows “go dry”—stop lactating—when they are not milked regularly or are subject to stress. Alex had subjected his dairy cattle to both. He had no milk to sell until his cows were inseminated and came to term with a new crop of calves. By then he was deep in the hole he had dug for himself. His dairy limped along for a couple of years before he was forced to fold his tent and steal quietly back down to California.

He tried working as a mechanic, but that didn't last very long. Finally the local parish priest took pity on him and offered Alex the job of church custodian. While Beth worked long hours at Wal-Mart, Alex puttered about the church grounds. He even grew a scruffy beard to fit better into the role of Groundskeeper Willie.

According to Mom, a new priest took over the parish and discovered that the custodian was rude, mouthy, and uncouth. Alex was dismissed.

I feel sorry for Beth, of course, but I can't seem to tap any sympathy for Alex.

Oh, well.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The preachers are revolting

Politics from the pulpit

California's arid Central Valley is awash in religious right-wing radio. During trips down to visit the family farm, I sometimes wander the AM band, marveling at the alternative universe into which I've fallen. (No wonder so much of my family is steeped in this conservative cant.) Earlier this month I stumbled across the mundanely named Issues in Education. The hosts are Bob and Geri Boyd, a fervent Christian couple whose guest was fiction writer David Barton.

Barton would disagree with that description, of course. He fancies himself a historian, working diligently to restore the supposed truth of America's profoundly Christian origins. (Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson would be so surprised.) The Boyds announced that the title of the program was Vital Election Issues, part 2. (You can find it—and the expected part 1—on the Program Log page of their website.)

Barton's awkward relationship with historical truth is well illustrated by his comments concerning recent events. At 3:22 into the program, he exposes a shocking truth about Judge Jones and the Kitzmiller case:
If you look at the case we had, the Dover case in Pennsylvania, in that case where we're just looking at can you mention intelligent [design]—can you even mention the phrase?—the judge there overwhelmingly came back and said how dare you try to say what's in the Declaration of Independence! And what was brought out was that his judgment from the court was almost verbatim the brief filed by the ACLU. He didn't even get around to writing his own opinion. He just took their brief and posted it as his opinion.
These remarks expose Barton as a fool or a propagandist. Perhaps both. Of course the Kitzmiller decision reflects the arguments of the winning side! The contenders file their briefs, offer their arguments, and the judge makes his ruling—which will agree with the side who he thinks had the better of the debate. The briefs are proffered as potential draft decisions, from which the judge may freely draw, as Jones did with his findings of fact. Duh!

But Barton wanted to talk about the future, too. Some brave Christian pastors are girding their loins for political battle. Having devoted most of their time to render to God the things that are God's, this year they want to get into Caesar's domain. In his peculiar diction, Barton excitedly reports on this development (at 7:34 into the program):
[T]here is a day stood up in September where you're going to have thousands of pastors stand up across America and preach a sermon that is considered political, including on candidates, out of the pulpit and they're challenging the IRS to come after them.

Geri: Oh, I love this!

The reason is they have prepared a lawsuit and they are convinced—the Alliance Defense Fund has set this up—and they are convinced that they can easily strike down that code that was installed in 1954 telling churches what they can and cannot say out of the pulpit. So you literally have thousands of pastors who will stand up on that day and challenge the government to arrest them or take them to court or try to jerk their tax exemption. You're going to see this thing fought in courts and very likely you're going to see this prohibition against churches speaking dumped, which is going to open up the market even more. So there's a lot of positive stuff going on right now.
I listened to the end of the program (without any apparent residual neurological damage, fortunately), but Barton did not spill the beans on the date when the nation's most right-wing pastors endorse J. Sidney McCain III. (Well, you didn't think they were going to endorse any Democrats, did you?) For this particular scoop, you need to check out the site of the Alliance Defense Fund. There you discover that this project is called The Pulpit Initiative and is scheduled for September 28.
The Pulpit Initiative
Reclaiming pastors’ constitutional right to speak Truth from the pulpit

On Sunday, September 28, 2008, we are seeking pastors who will preach from the pulpit a sermon that addresses the candidates for government office in light of the truth of Scripture. The sermon is intended to challenge the Internal Revenue Code’s restrictions by specifically opposing candidates for office that do not align themselves and their positions with the Scriptural truth. By standing together and speaking with one voice, it is our hope to recapture the rightful place of pastors and churches in American life.
The Alliance Defense Fund offers an executive summary that points out the sterling record of America's churches in their political involvement before 1954:
Historically, churches had frequently and fervently spoken for and against candidates for government office. Such sermons date from the founding of America, including sermons against Thomas Jefferson for being a deist; sermons opposing William Howard Taft as a Unitarian; and sermons opposing Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election. Churches have also been at the forefront of most of the significant societal and governmental changes in our history including ending segregation and child labor and advancing civil rights.
Good argument! The nation would never have recovered if Al Smith, a Catholic, had been elected president in 1928. (Too bad about that Kennedy guy in 1960.) And it's true that some churches fought against slavery—just as many others defended it.

In four weeks The Pulpit Initiative will come to its exciting climax as pastors explain how God wants Christians to vote against Barack Obama, public education, abortion rights, and same-sex marriage. And will they still have their tax exemptions next year? I pray not.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's "Hail Mary" pass

Looking for a miracle

Hail, Sarah,
Fair of face,
McCain is with thee.
Vetted art thou amongst women,
And swinging is the state of thy state, Alaska.

Pretty Palin, desperate hope,
Can you make John a winner?
Not by the cast of our vote.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Three years old

A legend in its own mind

Halfway There is three years old today and has yet to reach its conclusion. Thanks to Zeno's paradox, we may be able to keep this up a bit longer before attaining our limit.

Neither the governor nor the California legislature has issued a proclamation in honor of the occasion, but I hear they're busily pretending to do the people's business instead. (Judging from their most recent work, a joint-legislative resolution honoring Halfway There would have been among their most significant accomplishments!)

Left to my own devices, I'll do my best to think of an appropriate observance of the occasion. (Now where did I leave that red pen that I use to correct homework?)


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

From Georgia with love

The girl from Uncle Sam

“Your excellency, the emissary from the United States is here.”

“Fine. Show her in.”

The aide vanished from the office door and reappeared a few seconds later escorting a middle-aged blonde woman. No one else accompanied her.

“Your excellency, may I present Mrs. Cynthia McCain?”

President Saakashvili arose from behind his desk and strode toward his visitor, hand extended. “Welcome to Georgia, Mrs. McCain. It is a pleasure to see you again.” As he shook hands with his visitor, he looked meaningfully at his aide, who nodded slightly in acknowledgment and quietly slipped out of the office.

“It's a pleasure to see you, Mr. President. I wish the circumstances were happier.”

“Indeed. No one wishes that more than I do.”

Saakashvili led his guest toward a pair of comfortably overstuffed chairs and motioned her to sit down. A carafe of mineral water sat on a side table. He poured the water into a pair of goblets and placed one conveniently at his guest's elbow. He took the other, sat down, and took a slow sip as he regarded his guest.

“I presume the senator has a message for me, no? We can speak frankly here.”

Mrs. McCain paused for a moment to pick up her goblet. Saakashvili waited with a stolid patience while she sampled the mineral water. Finally she spoke.

“John wants you to know that he is deeply dismayed by the recent developments between Georgia and Russia. He strongly supports Georgia's territorial integrity and that will be his official policy when he is president of the United States.”

Saakashvili stared unblinkingly at her until she took a suddenly renewed interest in her water goblet and looked down at it.

“This message is rather ... disappointing. I express myself diplomatically. In fact, it's not a message at all. It is merely a restatement of what the news media report every day. Why does the senator send his wife to me if she has nothing to say?”

Mrs. McCain shifted awkwardly in her chair.

“I'm here on a humanitarian mission, Mr. President. It's not a cover story. I'm really here with humanitarian aid.”

“I thank you for the humanitarian aid, but you are also here to accrue political benefit to your spouse. It is not purely a humanitarian mission. We all know this and it is—shall we say?—impolite to pretend otherwise. We are not talking in front of the cameras here. Tell me plainly, Mrs. McCain. Why do I not hear from the senator directly? And why do I no longer hear from Mr. Scheunemann? They couldn't talk to me enough before the recent unpleasantness and now it has gotten discouragingly quiet. The senator used to say he was my friend.”

“He is your friend, but it's a very busy time for John, Mr. President. There are many demands on him and the convention is approaching. He is over-subscribed, quite frankly, and I'm sorry he can't devote more time to the difficulties in your country. And Randy, you know, is John's chief foreign policy advisor and can no longer be active as a lobbyist. I'm sure, though, that his business partners are still eager to work as your representatives in D.C.”

“You Americans have many interesting idioms in your language. Is this called ‘left hanging out to dry’ or would a better choice be ‘twisting slowly in the wind’?”

“Mr. President, please! That's not fair!”

Saakashvili set his goblet down on the table with enough force to make a loud noise, startling his guest. “You should not speak to me of fairness. I took on faith your husband's assurances that the United States knew Russia would not risk international condemnation for an invasion of Georgian territory. He and Mr. Scheunemann declared that they had political intelligence on the highest level that American pressure would prevent Russian retaliation if I ousted their so-called peacekeepers from South Ossetia. It seems perhaps that the senator's advice was wrong. The Russian reaction was massive and many Georgians died. Now Russia pretends to withdraw her troops while staying in place. She has announced to the world her recognition of South Ossetia as an independent nation carved from the center of Georgia. I was told this could not, would not happen. Perhaps I was not told the truth. It appears that I was not. In fact, I might say that I was lied to.”

“Oh, no, Mr. President! The senator would never have done that!”

“Perhaps you speak the truth. Perhaps your husband spoke in ignorance. Perhaps Mr. Scheunemann and the White House decided it would be advantageous to generate an international crisis so as to benefit their candidate. Do people in your country still think that your political party has any standing in the international community? That is puzzling, but apparently your campaign people think so. And perhaps they worked these matters out on their own. This gives your husband—how you say?—deniability. Perhaps he knew nothing.”

Cindy McCain's eyes flashed in anger, submerging her distress.

“I assure you, Mr. President, that John is entirely sincere in his declarations of support for your country and would never be a party to cynical political manipulation of an ally. We are friends of Georgia and next year when the senator becomes president, we will prove that to you!”

“I beg your pardon, Mrs. McCain, but if your predictions are as accurate as your husband's, then next year your husband will still be a senator. If you'll excuse me, I must attend to other appointments now. Thank you for your humanitarian aid and I hope you have a pleasant time visiting our country. It's smaller now, but not easier to travel in.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Conventional wisdom

Fact may follow fiction

I started paying attention to presidential elections in 1960, when my parents let me stay up late until the networks called the race for John F. Kennedy. In 1968 I started watching the political conventions, too, which in those days had gavel-to-gavel coverage on the three national networks. News anchors like Walter Cronkite even managed to shut up during most of the speeches, assuming that viewers wanted to hear the speakers rather than the babbling nabobs in the broadcast booth.

That seems strange today, when the commentators insist on commenting before the speeches are even over—or commenting instead of covering the speeches at all. It's an odd political universe. I seldom watch conventions on TV anymore. For one thing, they're more scripted than ever and most of the drama has been leached out of them before the opening gavel is struck. The old conventions were different. In 1968, for example, we really didn't know who would get the GOP nomination until the ballots were cast. (I was predicting Nelson Rockefeller on the fifth ballot, but it never got that far. Instead we ended up with the doleful political resurrection of Richard Nixon.)

The old-fashioned chaotic conventions of the past have provided the backdrop for several political thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate probably being the best known. In a review of classic political movies in last Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein cited 1964's melodrama about a closely fought contest for a presidential nomination, The Best Man. Henry Fonda plays the noble William Russell, who has fought ruthless rival Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) to a standstill. Each candidate has potentially devastating information about the other, if only he were willing to use it. In Gore Vidal's script, the two men have been pushed to the brink and Russell has to make a fateful decision. (See the clip below.)

In Stein's newspaper article, she singles out an especially pertinent quote from Vidal's screenplay. He gives these lines to a former Democratic president:
“Someday we're going to have a Negro president. After that we're going to do something for that other minority and elect a woman.”
I do believe he's right on both counts, and it looks like he even got the order of precedence correct, too. Back in 1964.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Math matters

Wherein I make a rude remark

The San Francisco Chronicle still knows how to catch my eye. This morning's front page (admittedly below the fold) carried the headline A Matter of Mathematics (for some reason, Jill Tucker's article is titled Algebra—it's everywhere on the Chronicle's website). It's all about the new state mandate that California's 8th graders must learn algebra.

I've kept my peace concerning the controversy because there are no subtle issues to discuss. The problems are completely obvious. Frankly, we have neither the funding nor the teachers to pull this off. Even if we had the qualified math teachers, putting them in 8th grade would not do the trick. It's too late. Students who are ready to learn algebra in 8th grade are typically the survivors of years of substandard math teaching. Many are simply not ready. How could it be otherwise? Elementary school teachers gain their teaching credentials with barely a glance at mathematics. The governor's plan for 8th grade algebra is a top-down scheme doomed to die, probably with a lot of collateral damage.

We have to start at the bottom, enhancing the quality of math teaching in kindergarten and first grade, then working our way up to 8th grade. Unfortunately, there is no likelihood that we can make major progress on such a project because we are already short of credentialed teachers. Raising the math requirements for a teaching credential will exacerbate one problem in an attempt to solve another. (The solution, if and when it comes, will probably involve math specialists who take the burden of math teaching away from their elementary school colleagues, but once again we have a numbers problem—both in terms of the supply of math specialists and the dollars with which to pay them.)

An abiding difficulty is the way our society regards math and the creepy nerds who like it and are good at it. I embrace my creepy nerdiness, but others may be less bold. Math skills may attract disdain rather than admiration. As John Allen Paulos pointed out in his book Innumeracy, people will go to great lengths to conceal illiteracy. The inability to read shames them. By contrast, however, some educated people practically brag about their mathematical ineptitude, as if it they are worthier human beings for their innumeracy. The Chronicle was ready with a few pithy quotes to make this point in a sidebar accompanying the news article:
“Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.”

Fran Lebowitz

“At the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of librarians ... I'd be glad to state, on the record, that algebra is uniquely useless in life, and that the only good number is a call number.”

Nadine Walas, Pacific Heights
I'm not going to pick on a poor librarian from Pacific Heights who even seems to be aware that she is flirting with a stereotype (and I'm sorry that she will be a spinster for her entire life), but Lebowitz is an irresistible target. She, after all, is a famous writer and polemicist who sometimes appears to expect to be taken seriously.

Is this one of those occasions? Or is Lebowitz just yanking our chain in her cheerfully in-your-face manner? I don't think it's that hard to tell. Lebowitz is making the mistake that is one of humanity's most common failings: If it doesn't matter to me, it's not important. Lebowitz is simply more willing to go on record with her irrationalities.

That's one of the reasons I seldom take her rantings seriously. She's been on record for a long time concerning one of her abiding passions: drugs! Consider this painfully obvious rationalization of her chemical dependency, which appeared in a Bob Morris interview in the New York Times on August 10, 1994:
[S]he holds her Marlboro Light and inhales in a way that has the I-dare-you-even-to-raise-an-eyebrow quality of an artist, rock star or teen-ager.

“I feel very stimulated by cigarettes,” says Ms. Lebowitz, who smokes two packs a day, most of them while she's talking or writing. “Nicotine has that effect on me. That's what it's supposed to do. It's a drug. Drugs work. That's why people take them. Sometimes when I don't feel well, someone will tell me to try drinking some daffodil tea. I tell them, ‘No, I think I'll take tetracycline, thank you.’ It works faster. Like cigarettes. They get to the point. The words are in the cigarettes.“
The words are in the cigarettes. I remember having a good laugh when I read those words for the first time, back when the interview was first published. Hey, Franny. Suck harder. Maybe there are numbers in there, too!

I can't help but remember a cadre of my classmates from 8th grade who used to slip across the road during recess to light up off school grounds and relieve their need for nicotine. The words they appeared to find in their cigarettes during their smoking breaks were not considered printable in those days, but now I suppose they could be great writers.

If only I had known what I was missing! I, too, could have become a writer!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Obama is building the base

The foundation firms us

Although I know better than to take polls too seriously, I'm as curious as any political junkie about the state of the presidential race. As a devoted Democrat, I smile when Obama opens up a solid lead and I cringe whenever it narrows—even though I know what the polls say today is not necessarily what the ballots will say in November. Still, competent pollsters know how to take a snapshot of voter sentiment and give us a sense of how things might be shaping up.

That's why I watch the numbers over at, where the Votemaster tracks several polls and aggregates the results. (I've even installed its vote-tally widget in my sidebar; just look to the right.) I wonder whether people have noticed an interesting trend in the numbers. The Votemaster provides a number of graphs to illustrate how the results have varied with time. The graph depicting the electoral vote for each candidate shows how McCain appears to have closed the gap with Obama and turned the presidential contest into a neck-and-neck horse race. This is enough to curdle the blood of any partisan Democrat, although it's certainly too early to panic:

But the Votemaster also provides a graph of “solid” electoral votes. He notes that “The electoral votes of a state only count in this graph if the candidate has a margin of 5% or more over his opponent.” The story in the “solid” graph is quite different. While the first graph showed how the gap has closed in terms of total electoral votes, including the closely fought states, the second graph demonstrates that it has widened in terms of the solid states. Obama has been grinding away at building a strong base—a “solid” foundation—of states where his margin over McCain is at least five percentage points. While a five-point margin isn't entirely beyond the typical pollster's error bounds, it's an extremely good bet. With minor variations, Obama's base of solid states has been growing steadily, until it now approaches the magic number of 270.

By contrast, McCain's tally of solid states has been very slowly eroding. This implies that his recent apparent success in closing the gap with his rival is based entirely on tiny margins in swing states. He must essentially run the table to prevent Obama from snagging the one or two marginal states needed for a Democratic victory. Any one of the states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, or Virginia would put it away for Obama. Colorado plus one of the Dakotas or Montana would also suffice.

Perhaps McCain should ask Cindy if she remembers where their homes are. She may need to buy houses in all of the swing states to give her husband that home-base advantage. He's going to need it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

We'll always have Paris

Pummeled on the periphery

Three years ago, my first substantive post on this blog was about a mind game. What would the world be like if you were the ultimate arbiter of public taste? If, for example, people were falling over themselves to emulate my preferences, all sports franchises and brewing companies would go suddenly bankrupt. (I know: mine is a cruel and cerebral world.) Republicans would almost cease to exist—except for those we put behind bars. (Come to think of it, that could be quite a few!)

I also noted that reality shows would be doomed if it were up to me, as would celebrities celebrated for their celebrity:
Paris Hilton? Gone already. Remember, I ditched the “reality” stuff first.
Thus I am chagrined beyond measure that my most popular post in recent months was a quick toss-off on August 6 concerning Hilton's clever exploitation of John McCain's ill-considered “celebrity” political spot. People flocked to Halfway There to check it out. Most of the hits came by referral from Pharyngula, of course, because we all know how people who frequent science blogs are eager for items about vapid starlets. In one day I scored over 6700 hits. For a tiny blog like mine, that's spectacular.

And before long I had two dozen comments, my favorites being the humor-impaired admonitions not to take Paris's energy policy too seriously. Apparently I need to sharpen my HTML skills so that I can embed flashing text (joke alert!) to warn incautious readers that dead-pan humor is being committed. Or maybe not. Perhaps nothing would have stopped the people at John McCain's campaign headquarters from quickly trotting out a statement that Paris was actually endorsing their candidate's position on energy. What a good way to establish credibility: claiming Paris Hilton's support!

I turned my attention to more serious matters and promptly reaped the rewards thereof. On August 7, Mike's Blog Round Up at Crooks and Liars linked to my piece on volatility in polling. It was a nice post (with a helpful accompanying graphic) that I took some pride in. There were over a thousand hits on that day—but most of them were still for the Hilton post. And consider that the Paris Hilton video was available in a huge number of venues. My big numbers represented only the tiniest fraction—a microscopic spill-over—of the Hilton-related activity on the tubes of the Interwebs.

It appears that I may be out of step with the prevailing Zeitgeist.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sugar versus salt

The bad guts saga

The perky medical assistant handed me an instruction sheet and a large bottle containing a viscous solution.

“This is your prep,” she said cheerfully. “Follow the instructions carefully the day before your exam.”

I looked at the bottle of magnesium citrate and then back at the aide.

“No,” I said.

The doctor's assistant froze in place with a stunned expression on her face. She was amazed to the point of speechlessness.

After several seconds of complete bewilderment, she found her voice again.

“You have to follow these directions or the doctor can't do the test!”

I brandished the bottle at her.

“Sorry. I am never chugging a gallon of magnesium citrate solution again. It's grotesque and revolting. I want the sodium solution instead. I tolerate it well and that's acceptable. This is not.”

She hustled off in pursuit of the doctor. I was obviously not going to be cooperative and she had no authority to change the instructions she had dutifully passed along to me.

I hadn't just fallen off the turnip truck. I'd been here before. Many times, unfortunately. As someone who had encountered colitis for the first time as a teenager, I had long since made the unpleasant acquaintance of the one-eyed snake used to perform colonoscopies. While I accepted my doctor's insistence on regular exams to monitor the condition, it drove me crazy that there was no more certain way than a colonoscopy to spark new cramps and pains. Quiescent periods of ease would come to an abrupt end and I'd suffer for days or even weeks after each exam. The consequences were not conducive to making me a compliant patient.

It took a few minutes, but the aide eventually returned. A sheet of paper was in her hand and the stunned expression was still on her face. She handed me the paper, which was a bad nth generation photocopy of an old typescript. The magnesium citrate instructions had been a modern Times Roman document (probably formatted in Microsoft Word). What I was now holding was clearly descended from an original that had been rapped out on a typewriter in monospaced Courier. At least it was on paper rather than a clay tablet.

“The doctor said you could follow these instructions instead. I found it in our files.”

The instructions for the magnesium citrate had told me to guzzle down a gallon of the sticky-sweet solution, plus many additional glasses of water to wash it down. These old instructions told me to chug three ounces of phospho-soda, in two separate doses of 1.5 ounces, taken hours apart. Easy! (By comparison, anyway.) Phospho-soda had apparently fallen out of favor with my physicians, but not with me.

This all happened maybe ten years ago. I see from searching the Internet that phospho-soda may have undergone a renaissance since my display of stubbornness. The most “popular” glycol-based preps of today, however, still appear to be part of the high-volume family of gut-flushers, even if they now sport cutesy names like GoLytely. One new twist is the addition of an anti-nausea medication to prevent the patient from upchucking the nasty, syrupy solution. Perhaps that would have spared me the heaves and throat cramps of the one time I drank a gallon of laxative. That would be a slight improvement. But no matter. My heart belongs to phospho-soda. Or at least my colon does.

The thirsty valley

Dry counties

“I lost another well.”

This is not good news.

“That's four of them gone now. One of them was drilled just last year.”

“Wow! That's not nearly enough time to get a return on your investment.”

“Not even close. I might have to go to the well again, in a manner of speaking. But everyone is drilling new wells and we're all going deeper, chasing after the water table. It's not good.”

My brother has about a dozen wells on his dairy farm. Four have gone dry. Both his dairy and his farm are water-intensive operations. The dairy is completely well-dependent. The farm gets an allocation of irrigation water from the extensive system of dams and canals that stores and routes runoff from the Sierra Nevada to the thirsty counties of the San Joaquin, California's great central valley.

If you drive down either I-5 or US-99, the two major north-south freeways that run through the valley, you'll see green fields and herds of dairy cattle on both sides of you. If it weren't for water projects, subsidized by state and federal governments, you'd see long stretches of desert instead. The canals are the Central Valley's circulatory system. They are the life blood of my brother's business.

The dry wells are omens of possible disaster. The ongoing California drought has reduced the supply of irrigation water and farmers resort to more pumping to make up the difference. But that resource is not infinite, and more people are competing for the shrinking supply. My brother prays for rain, but he knows there won't be any for at least a couple of months. His livelihood depends on the wells, and more are likely to go dry. Depending on which ones start spewing dust, it will be either an inconvenience or a disaster.

No one can predict which it will be.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

News flash: shocking revelation!

You read it here first!

The pundits have tossed their yarrow sticks, poked through their chicken guts, spied on the flight paths of migrating birds, scried their crystal orbs, laid out their Tarot cards, examined the dregs in their teacups, and cast a multitude of horoscopes. The portents are unmistakable: Barack Obama's running mate will be Sebelius, Biden, Kaine, Bayh, Gore, Clark, Clinton, or someone else entirely. This is the solid and irrefutable conclusion of the various mantic arts, and who are we to scoff at the occult sciences of political prognostication?

I, too, have been watching the harbingers, omens, and signs. The ineluctable conclusion is ... I haven't the faintest idea who Sen. Obama is going to choose. You got that? I don't know. And you don't either, unless you're in the innermost Obama circle (in which case you can leave the running mate's name in a comment—thanks!).

But if we wait for a while, he's sure to tell us. Anyone think of just waiting till then? Please resume normal rate of respiration.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Georgia on my mind

Shocking Republican behavior

My mother was angry at Tom Ridge: “What kind of idiot goes around saying there's nothing we can do about the Russian troops in Georgia?”

I admitted to being nonplussed: “Did Ridge say that? I didn't hear that myself. But no wonder you're mad at him. Republicans aren't supposed to tell the truth. It violates their most sacred traditions.”

Mom glowered at me, but she had the bit in her teeth and charged forward: “Even if everyone knows we can't do anything, you don't go around admitting it!”

“Well, if everyone knows, it's not as though he spilled any beans. Anyway, it's totally obvious. Bad foreign policy has stretched us thin and Russia is fully aware of it. We can whine and complain, but that's all we can do.”

“It's not the president's fault that our troops are in Iraq. If we hadn't gone in there, Saddam would still be in power. How would you like that?”

If it meant my cousin would still be alive, I'd like it fine. Shall we ask his parents what they think? Instead of saying it aloud, though, I bit my tongue. After a moment, I launched a different and less personal barb:

“I wonder if the press is going to ask questions about the foreign agent on McCain's campaign staff?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“John McCain has a registered foreign agent on his campaign staff. His foreign policy advisor has been a paid lobbyist for Georgia, trying to smooth its way to NATO membership. I wonder what assurances Randy Scheunemann has been giving to the president of Georgia? Did he imply to Saakashvili that he could count on U.S. support if he sent troops into South Ossetia? Everyone keeps saying that an emergency in foreign affairs will benefit the McCain campaign, even though I'm not sure I believe that. But did Scheunemann believe it? Did he see a chance to start one by encouraging Saakashvili to invade South Ossetia?”

“That makes no sense. Ossetia is part of Georgia! A country can't invade itself!”

“I certainly don't want to push the analogy too far, Mom, but do you think the people of the state of Georgia would have agreed with you as Sherman came marching into Atlanta? Different Georgia, I know. But the point is that Saakashvili set this off when he sent troops into the South Ossetia province. Russian troops were already there as peacekeepers because the province has been rebellious in the past. A deal was brokered by the international community to calm the situation and Russia provided the troops to police the peace agreement. That's the apple cart that Saakashvili overturned. It gave the Russians the perfect excuse to move in more troops and take over the province.”

“But I thought Russia invaded Georgia.”

“Russia certainly has invaded Georgia, Mom, but the Russians didn't really start this. The government of Georgia did. But it's complicated. I'm sure the version you saw on Fox News is simpler and breaks things down into good guys versus bad guys. That's pretty convenient, isn't it? We should all be grateful for simplified news from Fox.”

Mom did not look grateful, but I think it was my mockery of her beloved Fox News that sparked her lack of gratitude.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ass for sale

Get your frango while it's hot!

A fellow writer of sophisticated tastes and refined sensibilities sought my assistance recently with a vocabulary problem. His curiosity had been piqued and he knew I was just the person to alleviate his confusion:
Zeno, could you use your knowledge of the Portuguese tongue to explain this here pitcher? My mind reels with possibilities.

Is it true that flesh from the ass of the Brazilian frango tastes just like chicken?

Or could it be that “frango” is the first-person singular form of the verb “franger,” which translates roughly as “to frandge”?
It's a surprisingly good guess by my erudite friend, but—alas!—not quite on the mark. I hastened to set him right:
Well, we're on dangerous territory here! Literally speaking, frango is chicken. It's likely that ass in this context is an abbreviation for assado, which means roasted or baked. In other words (namely, English words), the vendor is advertising roasted chicken.

Then, of course, there are the slang possibilities. First of all (and most tamely), frango means a mistake, blunder, or cock-up. (I include the last one advisedly because frango is often translated as cockerel, an iconic symbol of Portuguese legend. The more common term, however, is galo, meaning rooster.)

More scandalous, however, is the usage of frango assado to indicate the position of the passive partner in the act of anal sex, which usage comes to us with the assurance of The Alternative Portuguese Dictionary. I'll have to take their word for it, since I've never heard the phrase used in that sense in my family circle. (Or if I did, I had no idea that that's what anyone was talking about.) This suggests the possibility that the vendor in the photo was not selling chicken ass, but this is a good place at which to end this discourse. Especially since you now know more than you could ever have wanted to know about frango assado.

My correspondent had sent his inquiry with copies to several other friends and acquaintances in the hopes of ensuring an enlightening answer. I, however, discreetly sent my reply only to him. When the other e-mail recipients began to pepper him with responses of varying degrees of seriousness, he decided to forward my response to everyone.
I didn't notice that Senhor Zeno replied without cc'ing everyone else.

Here 'tis.

This is NOT required reading, and while it is certainly informative and answers the original question, it may come under the heading of too much information—or as they say in England, “Too many data.”
Or, as they say in Portuguese:


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More conversations during an office hour

All your fault

“You know it's going to be your fault if our son loses his chance at an athletic scholarship!”

“Listen, sir. I can't talk to you about your son's academic record. He's an adult and there are privacy rules we have to respect.”

“That's bogus crap! We're his parents. Boy! Tell your teacher to talk to us! Tell him to talk to your mom and me!”

“Uh, prof, it's okay for you to talk to my parents.”

“You don't have to waive your privacy rights, you know.”

“No, it's okay. I want to. Talk to my mom and dad. Please talk to them.”

“You heard that, right? Now talk to us!”

“Okay. Since your son has given his consent, I will tell you that he is unlikely to pass the class.”

“So what you are going to do about it?”

“I'm sorry, ma'am, but it's not my job to do anything about it. It's your son's job to do the work necessary to pass the class. Unfortunately, the final is next week and he needs something like a perfect score to earn a passing grade. I don't see that happening.”

“But you're the teacher! If you would just teach him what he needs to know for the final exam he can graduate and transfer to a real college—a college with an athletic scholarship waiting for him.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, teaching your son what he needs to know is exactly what I've been trying to do all semester, but it's hard to do when he's not there.”

Dammit! He's an athlete! He has to practice! He's busy! It's your job to make sure he passes!”

“Did you tell your parents you had to miss your math class to practice with your teammates? Is that what you said?”

“Uh. Yeah. Something like that.”

“Have you and your parents talked to your coach yet?”

“No. Not yet.”

“So your coach hasn't had a chance to tell them about athletic counseling and scheduling?”

“Why the hell does that matter? So what if he hasn't taken us to see his coach yet? It's your class that's causing all the trouble. You are the guy who needs to fix it!”

“Sorry, but we're done here. Take your boy to see his coach. The coach can tell you that every student athlete is assigned a sports counselor who makes sure he or she gets enrolled in classes that don't conflict with practice hours and game times. It'll be a very educational conversation for you.”

Restraining disorder

Ahem.... Excuse me.”

“Yes? Oh. Hello. What are you doing here?”

“Yeah, sorry. I need a signature.”

“Excuse me for bringing this up, but you're not supposed to be here.”

“Yeah, sorry. I know. But I need the signature of my last math teacher on this form so that I can be a tutor.”

“Okay, I see. But I don't think that's a good enough excuse for ignoring the dean's order not to communicate with me in any way.”

“But this is a special case.”

“That's what you said the last time and the dean of students suspended you for violating the order.”

“Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. Sorry. I'll just go away.”

“Is that the tutoring form in your hand?”


“Okay. Give it here. I'll sign this so you can be a math tutor in the student assistance center, but you can't come back again. I'll have to report this to the dean of students, you know.”

“Sorry. Really sorry. But the form says to get the signature of my most recent math teacher. I was just following instructions.”

“Yes, I know. But I think the dean's ban on any communication at all take precedence. If anything like this comes up in the future—and I mean anything—go to the department chair or the math dean instead. Anything I can do, they can do. Okay?”

“Okay. Sorry.”

“You can stop apologizing now. But stop coming back. The dean of students won't listen to any excuses. Here's your tutoring form.”

“Thank you. I'll go now.”

“Yes, that would be best.”

Psychic warfare with my boss

The workplace wizard strikes!

I became a bureaucrat in the early eighties. It was a detour on my journey to the classroom that lasted half a dozen years. Despite my initial trepidation, I found my time in the California civil service surprisingly enjoyable and worthwhile. It probably helped that I was in a small state agency that worked closely with legislation and legislators. As a former legislative aide, I had skills that were appreciated by my coworkers. Since the agency had only a handful of employees, we were often called upon to be flexible in the tasks we performed and to do a variety of different things. In addition to being the in-house expert on legislation, I was also the resident computer guru at a time when desktop computers were a new presence in state offices.

Civil servants can, of course, stay in one office or agency for an entire career, from the day they sign on to the day they retire. We can be remarkably stable. Our bosses, however, are remarkably temporary. I had three bosses in my six years.

It's the nature of the beast. State service is a layer cake, founded on a broad base of essentially permanent employees. The topmost levels are the at-will employees of California's elected constitutional officers, the executive branch leaders that include the governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, secretary of state, etc. These elected men and women get to choose their own aides and lieutenants, assigning them and dismissing them as they please. Civil service protection is for the lower levels of the layer cake, not for the icing on top.

My first two bosses were admirably suited to their positions, but each one moved on to greater challenges just when I was getting used to them. The third one was a rather different case. The arrival of “Laura” was due to a bad bit of timing. The top position in our agency came open just when it became necessary to move Laura from the office in which she had worn out her welcome. She was a victim of her own success, a legislative secretary who had inveigled her legislator into marrying her. This may have been a faux pas. While it's permissible for a legislator to carry on a passionate affair with an employee, a legislator cannot have a spouse on the office payroll. Laura's career was truncated the moment she said “I do.” She had to get out of the legislator's office, preferably out of the State Capitol entirely.

That started Laura's years of wandering in the desert. Her new husband called in some political debts and incurred a few more to get Laura some top-level appointments that were exempt from civil service requirements. These positions paid more, but were correspondingly more precarious. Laura had been an effective and skilled legislative secretary; she was a frustrated figurehead in her series of temporary appointments. Her reputation preceded her and we had no great expectations when she moved into the executive secretary's office.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that we were in for a honeymoon period. During her first months as our executive officer, Laura seemed content to let us do our work. We'd brief her before our agency's routine meetings and give her draft remarks with which to address the legislators and constitutional officers who attended our hearings. It worked well until Laura became restive and decided she wanted to exercise her authority. She felt that the office staff was too independent, having been selected in advance of her arrival and feeling no personal loyalty toward her. Laura looked around for an opportunity to replace one of us with a more biddable individual.

I'm sure I was considered for the chopping block, but Laura eventually decided on a different victim. She drew a bead on Mary Lou, our staff services analyst. Mary Lou was the lowest ranking member of the office staff and thus the most vulnerable to the boss's wrath. My personal perspective was distorted, because I viewed Mary Lou as the office goddess of information. Although I had been appointed to a higher-level position by virtue of my graduate degree, I was the new kid on the block. By contrast, Mary Lou had already racked up years of service and knew everything one needed to know about getting things done in a state agency. Sometimes I thought she had memorized the enormous State Administrative Manual. No one needed to page through SAM; we could just ask Mary Lou.

Even a low-ranking civil servant like a staff services analyst is protected by civil service rules against capricious dismissal. It would be necessary for Laura to “build a file” against Mary Lou. Given that Mary Lou was an experienced and competent worker, Laura would have to resort to various tricks to make her look bad. At last our boss would be able to draw on the game-playing skills she had perfected at the State Capitol.

Having recruited the office secretary to her cause with promises of preferment and promotion, the executive secretary began her campaign of entrapment. Laura would dictate to the secretary a directive for Mary Lou, which the secretary would type into Microsoft Word and print out on the laser printer for Laura's signature. Instead of then delivering the directive to Mary Lou, however, the secretary was under Laura's orders to hold the directive till Mary Lou left for her lunch break. The plan was simple. The moment Mary Lou left the office, the secretary would place the boss's directive on Mary Lou's desk. When our staff services analyst returned to her office she'd find that the boss had assigned her a task and given her a minimal amount of time to accomplish it.

There are few secrets in a small agency. We knew right away what Laura was up to. Mary Lou showed me some of the snap assignments that she had barely accomplished before the boss marched into her office to demand the results. She was sure that Laura's campaign would eventually produce incidents where Laura could file reports of unsatisfactory performance in Mary Lou's personnel file. Eventually Mary Lou would be subject to discipline or reassignment—or would flee in self-preservation. What to do?

Digital dueling

I modified my office routine a bit. First thing each morning, having arrived after my pass through the State Capitol to collect the day's legislative records, I'd log on to the office computer system from the back office. We had a primitive network linking some IBM desktops. Security was virtually nonexistent on the shared hard disk. We used the same directories and swapped files among the various workstations. I became extremely interested in checking each morning with a global directory listing sorted by date. Then I'd peruse all the files that had been altered (or created) in the last 24 hours, with particular attention paid to the Word files. I generally refrained from printing out any incriminating evidence, but I read certain files carefully.

Then I'd repair to Mary Lou's office. She was sure to be in, well before the boss had bothered to arrive. I'd check that the office secretary was not hovering near and then make my report:

“Vasconcellos. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 69. Latest version of bill and latest analysis of fiscal impact by the Legislative Analyst's Office.”

Mary Lou would listen carefully, smile, and make a few discreet shorthand marks on her notepad. She could now plan her day to ensure she had the necessary components assembled by noon to answer Laura's next challenge. When she returned from lunch, there was the imperative memo from the boss demanding that Mary Lou drop everything to get the latest version of ACA 69 and its current LAO analysis.

Laura marched into Mary Lou's office at 1:30 and demanded to know whether Mary Lou had discharged her latest assignment. Mary Lou calmly handed the boss a neatly paper-clipped sheaf of papers, ACA 69 with its analysis and a cover memo by Mary Lou noting that the measure had not been amended since the previous month. Laura accepted the packet with a frown on her face, turned on her heel, and marched back out.

The ACA 69 incident is real, one among several similar incidents in which Mary Lou suddenly became capable of instantaneous prodigies. It sticks in my mind because it was an especially delicious coup. Mary Lou didn't even need to run any errands to get the necessary materials because I already had them in my legislative files. What's more, I ambushed Laura myself later that afternoon, my own ACA 69 file in hand, sweetly inquiring whether Mary Lou had provided her with everything she needed. Laura fixed her irritable gaze on me and, as if to defend the task she had assigned to Mary Lou, said, “Yes, yes. It was quite useful. I learned a lot about the current version of Vasco's proposed amendment.”

My smile didn't waver as I flourished my file. “Oh, good,” I said, “although it's a bit of a surprise. You see, we've had that analysis in our files since last month. See? Your initials are on my copy of it, indicating that you've already read it. But never mind. I suppose it's a good thing that Mary Lou provided you with a refresher.”

Laura favored me with a sickly smile, ducked her head, and retreated into her private office.


The work of our agency had a natural ebb and flow in synchronization with legislative sessions. When the legislators had fled Sacramento, we had a chance to catch our breath. While I was sometimes chained to my desk on weekends when the legislature was in full swing, during recesses I could attend to the occasional outside project or actually consider getting a life. During the slack periods, I would sometimes tell my immediate supervisor Bill (not Laura) that I would draw a couple of days' worth of comp time from my heap of accrued weekend hours and be at home editing manuscript or writing. Bill would cheerfully wave me off and I'd vanish for those days. After all, I always treated the office to lunch when my royalty checks came in. It was a win-win situation.

On one of those occasions the legislature was not entirely inert. I needed to dip into my comp time to catch up on neglected projects, but the legislature couldn't be ignored. No major hearings were scheduled, but amendments might be filed and new analyses might appear. Not to worry: I'd enlist Mary Lou, who by now had jumped through enough of Laura's hoops to be especially familiar with legislative amendments and analyses. I turned the legislative portfolio over to her for safekeeping and told her to ring me up at home if any complications arose. The boss, of course, made sure that they did.

Mary Lou phoned me: “Laura has called a meeting for tomorrow.”

“Really? Whatever for?”

“She didn't say, but I think you're in trouble for not being in the office.”

“Why is that? I cleared it with Bill before I took off.”

“I think that she thinks you should have checked with her first.”

“It's a perfect lose-lose situation, because then she'd complain that I'm not respecting the chain of command by bothering her over something Bill should handle. Or, worse, she'd say ‘no way’ and I'd be stuck at the office twiddling my thumbs.”

“There could be something else that set her off. She rummaged through my desk again when I was out.”

“Do tell! You think she saw it?”

“Oh, yes. Her face has been flushed all day. I'm sure she slipped into my office when I was out on an errand. She's been so distracted she hasn't even tried to ambush me. I'm sure she blames you.”

At last the boss got one right. I had given Mary Lou a copy of How to Work for a Jerk and suggested she leave it in her desk rather than take it home. I knew that the boss would eventually find it during one of her snoop sessions. Apparently she had.

The next morning the office secretary waved me over as I walked in. Although she was the boss's dutiful henchwoman, she was concerned that I had wandered into the bull's eye intended for Mary Lou alone.

“You need to be more careful. Laura is really pissed at you. She says you're insubordinate!”

“Really? Let's see.” I flipped open the dictionary on the secretary's desk. “Insubordinate, insubordinate. Ah, here it is. ‘In-sub-or-di-nate. Not submissive to authority.’ Well, damn if she isn't right. Don't worry. I can't imagine she'll make a habit of that.”

I left the secretary with her mouth gaping open. Mary Lou caught up with me outside my office.

“She's already in. We're supposed to see her at nine. It's just you and me and it looks like you're the one in hot water. It may be up over your head.”

“I've been in hot water so long it feels normal. And if it's already over my head, what's a few feet more? I'm not going to worry about it.”

Mary Lou did not seem particularly comforted by my air of insouciance. At nine o' clock I collected Mary Lou from her office and we strolled into Laura's inner sanctum. We sat down in the two chairs in front of her desk. Laura wasted no time in giving me a warning shot across my bow.

“It was very nice of you to come into the office today, Zeno.”

“No problem. Mary Lou said you were calling a meeting for this morning, so of course I'm here.”

“You left the legislative portfolio with Mary Lou while you were absent.”

I liked the word “absent,” as if I had been naughtily playing hooky and liked to shirk my responsibilities. A proper response would have been, “Listen, you trumped-up whore, I was here every day, all day, for the three-day Memorial Day weekend. I didn't see your fat ass in here then!” That, however, would have been intemperate and completely uncharacteristic of me. Instead I said:

“Yes, I did. Mary Lou knew that she could call me if anything came up, but she was able to handle it on her own.”

Laura stuck the needle in: “Yes, Mary Lou did a very good job of taking care of your legislative portfolio while you were gone.”

I smiled broadly at the boss and flipped open my steno pad. It normally sat on my desk next to my phone and served as a log of my calls and conversations, but I also carried it into staff meetings and the like. Laura's face froze into a mask of confusion as I grinned, pulled a pen from my pocket, and began scribbling on my pad. The smile was still on my face when I glanced back up at the boss and tilted the pad toward Mary Lou so she could see what I had written:
Laura: Mary Lou did a v. good job taking care of my legislative portfolio while I was taking time off.
In a beautiful and almost perfect synchronization, the corners of Mary Lou's lips curved upward while Laura's unfroze and curved downward. Both women knew exactly what had occurred.

The boss had just given Mary Lou a strongly positive evaluation in the presence of two witnesses, one of whom had just made a contemporaneous written record of it. My notes would be an extremely awkward counterweight to her efforts to build a file against Mary Lou—clear, explicit praise of a supposedly incompetent staffer.

“Okay, we're done!” snapped Laura.

Mary Lou and I left Laura's office and I closed the door behind us.

“I can't believe you got away with that!” exclaimed Mary Lou.

“Got away with what, Mary Lou? The boss called a meeting. I showed up in time. She said things. I took notes. What's the big deal?”

The great escape

Laura was sacked after only two years as our agency's chief executive. But I was gone before she was. Some of my days off had been strategically chosen to allow me to travel to job interviews at various California colleges. I finally got a nibble. The job offer was not ideal. The appointment was limited term, not tenure track. However, I was ready to take the risk, hoping that it would help to be on the spot when a future tenure-track position opened up. And that is indeed how it worked out. Laura had motivated me to go do what I really wanted to do.

I owe her so much!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Conversations during an office hour

Students sometimes visit our offices to get help with their homework or to seek advice about classes they should take. That's what we expect them to do. All too often, however, office conversations with students are exercises in surrealism. My colleagues and I swap the most amusing stories among ourselves and marvel over them.

Time is out of joint

An algebra student accosts his instructor in his office.

“I'm sorry I missed class this morning, Professor.”

“Yes, I noticed. Usually you're just late. Today you missed the whole thing.”

“Yeah, sorry, but you had already started when I got to the classroom and I didn't want to interrupt.”

“That's never stopped you before.”

“Yeah, but you always notice when I arrive late and I didn't think you like that.”

“Well, yes. I don't. But it's better for you to be late than miss the entire class. Of course, best of all would be if you would show up on time.”

“Yeah, but I live out of town, you know. I leave in plenty of time, but I always have a problem finding a parking space.”

“Then you aren't leaving in plenty of time. You need to leave earlier.”

“I do! I leave in plenty of time.”

“Sorry to contradict you, but you obviously don't. By definition. You don't leave in time to be there when class starts.”

“I don't follow you, Professor.”

“Yes, that may be part of the problem.”

Rules are for other people

A calculus student sits down next to his teacher's desk.

“I have to get an A in the class. I have to. Will there be any problem with that?”

“It's still possible, but you'll need a really high score on the final exam. Do you think you can squeeze out a score of 97%?”

“Will there be extra credit?”

“I wouldn't count on it. It's too bad you didn't turn in your homework. That was worth a few points you'd find helpful about now.”

“Homework shouldn't count against you if you do well on the exams.”

“But it does. I told the class on Day One that homework is worth 5% of your grade.”

“Can you waive that for me?”

“Excuse me? Not in a million years. If I give you that break I'd have to do it for everyone. I'm not about to change the grading policy at the last minute for the convenience of one student.”

“I'm going to have to drop the class then.”

“That's your decision, of course, but I hope you realize that you are certain to pass the class with a good grade. The only question is whether it's an A or a B, and that depends on your performance on the final exam.”

“I can't have a B. I have to drop if I'm not certain of an A. Will the class show up on my transcript if I drop it?”

“It will. There'll be a notation that you enrolled in the class but withdrew. It won't affect your grade-point average, though.”

“That's not acceptable. I don't want any notation at all on my transcript.”

“Once again, what you want is at variance with what is. You really ought to pay attention to the rules before they inconvenience you.”

“If I get a B it will ruin my education plans. I'll have to see if I can petition for a late drop without a notation on my transcript.”

“You can see your counselor about trying to petition for whatever you like, but did you ever consider just studying hard for the final exam?”

Three is the lowest odd prime

A young woman slips into her statistics professor's office.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, hi! How can I help you?”

“I have a question for you, if you don't mind.”

“No, I don't mind. But you really should leave the door open. It's my office hour and the door is supposed to remain open.”

“Yes, I know, but it's a personal kind of question. You see, my boyfriend and I are wondering ... if you're totally straight or not.”

Excuse me?

“I said, we were wondering if you're actually straight.”

“Oh. Well. I guess so. But that's not a question you have any business asking.”

“But, you see, my boyfriend and I are kind of bi and we both think that you're kind of cool.”


“So we were wanting to invite you over for dinner and whatever.”

“Uh.... ‘Whatever’?”

“Yeah. You know, like whatever.”

“Oh. I see. Well. Um. Sorry, I don't think we can continue this conversation.”

“You sure?”

“Uh, yes. Sure enough. You know, I forgot: I have an appointment right now with the dean. Please excuse me! I've got to go!”

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Roller-coaster polling

Keep your barf bags handy

I like to follow political polls and I'm encouraged that my preferred presidential candidate continues in most reports to hang on to a significant lead. Nevertheless, I am heartily tired of the constant “analysis” of nonexistent volatility. It's a pseudo-drama ginned up by a combination of deep ignorance and ratings-driven sensation mongering.

It's polling, suckers. It's a statistical art with well-documented error bars. The results are not five-decimal-place scientific calculations. They're probabilistic estimates. The numbers are going to jump up and down even if nothing changes. Got that?

For purposes of illustration, suppose that a poll's accuracy is described as being within 3 percentage points 90% of the time. Got that? Then about 10% of the time it will be off by more than 3 points. If two candidates are within about 5 points of each other, taking 3 points away from the leader and giving them to the other guy will reverse the race! Only not really, because the poll would be in error in that instance. These flukes are not avoidable and they provide grist for the mills of the talking heads who will then scream about upsets and stunning surprises. They're just idiots. Or ignoramuses. Maybe both.

Let's take the illustration a few steps further. We can use a normal distribution (“bell curve”) to model the results of polls whose errors are less than 3 points 90% of the time. With the assistance of Excel's random number generator and built-in normal distribution functions, I ran two dozen trials and plotted the results of the simulated polling errors:

The model calls for the errors to fall within plus-or-minus 3 points 90% of the time (in the long run, mind you). Ten percent of 24 trials is 2.4, so we should expect maybe 2 or 3 results to fall outside the plus-or-minus 3 band. In this little experiment, it happened four times, twice going high and twice low. Please note the dashed line marking the −2.5 boundary. Whenever the leader's margin was underestimated by at least 2.5 points (in a race with an actual 5-point margin), the lead changes hands—according to the poll, not reality. Imagine the breathless reports that would immediately blossom on the cable news networks, newspapers, radio talk shows, and blogs. Panic! Or elation!

Another thing to keep in mind: The model did the exact same randomized calculation each time, assuming no actual change in the electorate. You still get variation, an inevitable consequence of sample-based statistics. You're stuck with it and you have to live with it. And pundits love to live with it because it gives the illusion of motion even when none exists.

People should just calm down.

I swear that I did not cherry-pick my results in order to present one that looked especially dramatic. The graph above shows my initial run. I cranked out some more examples, just to see what they looked like. These appear, together with the original experiment, in the graph below. Does it look chaotic enough for you? (Only the blue graph failed to produce an artificial swap in the lead.) See? Major developments in the campaign! We have headlines!