Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ain't it the truth!

Outliers are people, too

The University of California called me up and we had a nice chat the other day. Perhaps “chat” isn't the right word. The UC asked me lots and lots of questions and I gave lots and lots of one-word answers. I am, you see, a research subject.

Or was, anyway. I think we're done now. I'm not completely certain how I came to the UC's attention. The letter announcing their interest in me said I was randomly selected for their research pool, but it wasn't clear to me whether they went sifting through their alumni database, the phone book, or names scrawled on the walls of campus restrooms. (I'm guessing it wasn't the latter.) Frankly, I don't have much doubt about the ability of the researchers at the ten University of California campuses to work up reasonably representative samples for their investigations. I believe they probably did a good job in picking their subjects for this research project as well. And we all understand that every large random sample can be expected to have an extreme outlier or two.

That's me!

I'm sure the researcher on the other end of the phone line caught on fairly quickly. We were just tearing through his list of carefully worded questions, pruning away most of the question tree's branches of follow-up questions because I kept saying “No” to the root query:

“In the past six months, have you had any alcoholic beverages?”


“In the past six months, have you smoked any tobacco products?”


“In the past six months, have you used any nonprescription drugs for recreational purposes?”


“In the past six months, have you ever smoked marijuana?”


“In the past six months, have you used any recreational drugs like Ecstasy?”


“How easy would you say it is to obtain marijuana in your community? Very easy, fairly easy, somewhat difficult, or very difficult?”

“Hey, your Likert scale doesn't have a midpoint answer! Was that deliberate?”

[Laughs] “Uh, shall I repeat the question?”

“Well, I guess you could, but the real answer is that I have no idea. I mean, I live in a college community so I suppose it's not that difficult to find some pot, but I haven't a clue where to begin. Maybe I could go chat up some colleagues in the English department. The poets, anyway. But I think their drug of choice is mass quantities of alcohol.”

[Laughs] “Okay. I think this is a ‘don't know’ response.”

It's true. I have not the faintest idea how to “score” some pot around here. (I don't even know if people are still using “score” in that way.) For some reason (and I really don't know what the reason is), I have never been tempted by drugs or alcohol. Unlike my kid brother, I never swiped a cigarette from my grandfather's pack of Winstons just to try it out. (Dad sniffed out the discarded butt in the trash can and my brother got a walloping. I was not even a suspect.) While my sibs liked to suck out the last few drops from Dad's beer cans, I ignored them. I've never had a puff from a cigarette and I've never really had a drink of alcohol (unless you insist on counting a perfunctory sip of champagne during celebratory toasts at weddings or drops of wine (blood!) from an earthenware chalice at the trendy pass-it-around communion ceremony at Catholic Newman Center services in the seventies). Yes, I've made it to middle age without ever having been drunk or stoned.

Of course, it doesn't do to make a big deal of all this. And it's hardly a virtue to refrain from that which does not tempt you. It merely mystifies the addicts among one's acquaintances—those who cannot imagine living without their periodic alcoholic buzzes or nicotine rushes. So I don't say anything, unless a debate arises over who has to be the designated driver, in which case I casually volunteer. I'm noble that way. I wear my faux virtue lightly.

Sexy little numbers

The UC researcher was quite good at dealing with me. He never once made even the slightest comment that my responses were several standard deviations away from the mean. He must have discerned that I had some familiarity with research protocols (especially after he asked the questions about my education level), but he was scrupulous not to break character and indulge in any wink-wink entre-nous witticisms. I was impressed by his professionalism. I never got more than a chuckle out of him, or perhaps just a slice of wry in one of his noncommittal responses to one of my remarks. I laughed aloud after he asked three consecutive questions about sexual relations:

“How many sex partners have you had in your lifetime?”
“How many of your sex partners were female?”
“How many of your sex partners were male?”

“Hey,” I said, “I'll bet the second and third numbers are supposed to add up to the first number!” We mathematicians are always on the alert for that. (And, no, it has nothing to do with the Law of Large Numbers.)

“There are certain redundancies in the questions for internal validation,” the UC researcher admitted dryly. He passed up the opportunity to mention the possibility of transgender, hermaphroditic, intersexed, or extraterrestrial partners. Probably just as well. (“Who do you find more sexually attractive, Kodos, Kang, Leela, or Roger?”) Certainly that could throw off the numbers. For example:

“How many sex partners have you had in your lifetime?”


“How many of your sex partners were female?”


“How many of your sex partners were male?”



No stone unturned

As best as I can recall, I have seen exactly one marijuana cigarette (reefer madness!) in my entire life so far. It was back in the seventies during a gathering of friends and acquaintances from my hometown high school and junior college. To my gobsmacked surprise (although I hope I hid my reaction), a friend and classmate from my calculus class matter-of-factly laid out a cigarette paper on the kitchen table, sprinkled some shredded brown leaves on it, rolled it up, lit it, and took a quick drag. Nobody turned a hair, so I tried to maintain my cool (such as it was). I was sitting right next to him, so he passed it to me.

I touched it.

And in exactly the same affectless way in which he had performed the entire little ceremony, I nonchalantly handed it off to the next person. I realized that I was actually among friends when absolutely no one ragged on me for merely passing it along. But I was among friends with whom I had even less in common than I had thought.

Well, that was nothing new.

A few years later, at the tail end of the seventies, I did encounter something a little different. I was now at a university. A fellow math grad and I decided to take in as much of a 24-hour movie marathon as we could stand. It was billed as an eclectic mix of standard thrillers and the famously awful (e.g., Bedtime for Bonzo, in which Ronald Reagan supposedly uses gestalt techniques to mind-meld with a chimp, and Sextette, in which Mae West pushes her sex-siren vamping perilously close to necrophilia). My buddy and I laughed and groaned through hours of entertainment and quasi-entertainment, until eventually it was well past midnight and we were still hanging in there.

In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that someone would light up in the darkened theater. Tendrils of sweet, wispy smoke eventually wafted down to where we were sitting. My classmate raised his head and took a couple of audible sniffs. He turned to me and said, ”What's that?” Suddenly I knew that I had a friend for life.

He had earned his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and yet could not recognize the odor of pot smoke.



Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Well, I was well into my twenties at my first visit to Bath and went to an open air concert (prolly the opening night of the Festival) and ended up with a group of other exchange students (this was during the period when I slowly, sloooooowly started interacting with my 'peers' (who by then was significantly younger than me)).

One of them pointed out late in the evening that someone was smoking pot nearby, and when I said something along the lines of "huh?", she grabbed my neck an pointed my nose in the right direction.

Of course - now I suspect that my neighbour lights up regularly. These damn flats aren't all that well insulated.

William said...

I'm with ya Zeno. I'm also asportual... just a freak all around, I guess.

Once, in high school, a classmate showed me something that he said was a marijuana cigarette that he'd just found lying around. Then he threw it out the window, onto the roof. That may have been the closest I've been to the stuff.

I forced myself to drink a glass of wine once, just to see what it was like. Vile! Maybe that wasn't the right kind of alcohol to start with, I dunno. But that was enough for me. Besides, I've seen enough inebriation to know that I never want to be like that. I'm bad enough sober.

Tobacco -- too repulsive to ever consider. Although, strangely, I once dreamed I was a smoker.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I don't get drunk, but I do drink wine and (very occasionally) dark ale. You can drink without becoming inebriated. (Just thought I'd mention it for those who seem to think there is no middle ground.)

Blake Stacey said...

I drank a few times in high school, because there was really nothing else to do of an evening in suburban Huntsville, Alabama. Being even more clumsy and inept than I am normally was not exactly a great advertisement for the condition. My father was a smoker, so I had no temptation there.

As for the rest, well, it was (statute of limitations) + 1 years ago, officer. . . .