Saturday, July 26, 2014

Baying at the moon

The “Get a life” edition

On July 24, 2014, Daily Kos observed the forty-fifth anniversary of the conclusion of the Apollo 11 moon mission with a photo taken shortly after the command module's splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The photo was labeled with some text:
At 12:51 p.m. (EST) on July 24, 1969, the Apollo 11 module landed in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii. This completed the first mission humanity ever made to another celestial body.

That statement is straightforward enough, but I thought it gave short shrift to two other missions that preceded the historic first moon landing. On Facebook I offered the following comment:
Clarification: The first manned mission to *land* and return. Both Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 went all the way to the moon and back, but they were lunar orbital missions only (the latter including a jaunt with the lunar module that came within ten miles of the surface).
Another FB user promptly offered a kind of rebuttal:
ABR I think the word humanity speaks to that.
Huh? I casually replied:
Humanity was aboard Apollos 8 and 10 as well.
Soon others got into the act:
BA Bet you are a real fun guy at parties.
DG There is no ambiguity in the graphic. The word "made" means "landed". Get a life.
Unchastened by the dictionary revisionism (and the slight against my party suitability), I replied:
I think the Apollo 8 astronauts felt like they had "made" a mission to the moon, which they orbited ten times before returning home. It takes nothing away from Apollo 11 to acknowledge that.
Finally, someone chimed in to defend my point:
CL Agreed. My outstanding memory of the Apollo missions was, at the age of 14, listening to Anders, Borman and Lovell aboard Apollo 8, orbiting the moon, giving a Christmas (1968) message to the people on earth. That was just awesome - and the furthest that men had ever been from earth. There is a tendency to simplify history to 'spot facts' and glib milestones. Apollo 8 was first to the moon. Apollo 11 was first to land. Equal achievements, I'd say.
Unfortunately, despite this positive reinforcement (although I never claimed that the orbital missions were equivalent to the landing missions), my original simple statement of clarification remained a sticking point for a Facebook user with the initials MN:
MN You can't go TO the Moon If you don't land on It. As defined during the 8 and 10 mission, they ORBITED the Moon, Just like John Glenn ORBITED the Earth. Chris, They are NOT equal achievements, by any stretch.
This remark is a perfect headdesk opportunity, especially in its creative use of the word “defined.” Is MN prepared to tell Borman, Lovell, Anders, Stafford, Young, and Cernan that they did not go “TO” the moon because they neglected to land on it? Lovell was also the commander of the Apollo 13 mission which aborted its moon landing because of an explosion in its service module. Should we tell Lovell that, nope, he did not go to the moon twice because neither of his missions landed? Sure, he never got to set foot on the lunar surface, but Jim Lovell definitely made two missions to the moon.

Let's not forget the epic moon missions that preceded Apollo 11 in the excitement over the anniversary of the first landing. Some of us remember those thrilling days and rue their passing.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Turning the tables

By ninety degrees

My old office had a Steelcase desk in one corner and two single-person study tables tucked alongside. When the math department moved into new quarters, my new office had a desk unit complete with an extension that left no room for my student study tables. One of the tables quickly found a new home as study location in the hallway just outside my office. The second was soon claimed for the men's restroom, stuck in the corner of the entry way, a convenient place to drop off books and binders before doing one's business. Everyone was happy as we settled into our new digs.

In the subsequent years, two small problems have arisen with the restroom table. For several weeks in a row, the table would mysteriously vanish from the men's room and reappear in the entry alcove of the women's restroom. A stealthy tug-of-war ensued. The table was quickly stolen back by the men each time the women absconded with it. No culprits were ever identified, but I claim credit for having resolved the matter. I bravely visited the warehouse in the college's maintenance yard. Amidst the broken bookcases and banged-up desks I located a small cast-off table that I promptly requisitioned for the women's restroom. Once it was delivered, peace reigned.

The second problem arose during the past year. Despite years of being positioned with its long dimension aligned with the restroom's door, suddenly the table was positioned perpendicular to its old orientation. Naturally I switched it back. A week later, it was turned again. Grumbling, I restored it. You can anticipate the sequel. For several consecutive weeks, the table oscillated back and forth.

Just as mysteriously as it began, the table twisting came to an end. Did the miscreant simply give up or did something cause him to decamp. What will happen when school resumes in the fall? The anticipation is killing me.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Count my votes, please!

Been there before

The photo-finish in the race for the Democratic nomination for state controller in California has prompted observers to invoke the controversy over the vote-counting scandal in Florida's presidential election in 2000. I prefer, however, to invoke 1980. That's the year that an extended recount resulted in a reversal of the original results. The initial tally of votes from election day awarded a seat in the state assembly to Republican candidate Adrian Fondse. The Democratic candidate, Patrick Johnston, refused to concede and pursued a recount. The process took long enough that Fondse was sworn into office as an assembly member and took his seat in Sacramento, the recount hanging over his head like a dark cloud as Johnston narrowed the gap in incrementally released results.

Fondse, however, found a silver lining. He noted that he had done quite well on election day in the precincts yet to be recounted, so he was confident that his victory would be sustained. Despite his optimism, Fondse found himself trailing at the end of the recount and lost his assembly seat to Johnston in January. (I was in the assembly visitors gallery on that contentious day and observed the desperate last-ditch political maneuvers, including a motion by Fondse's own Republican colleagues to oust him from his seat—a motion sure to fail because it required a two-thirds vote. The Democrats instead insisted on a simple-majority motion to accept the recount results, resulting in Johnston's swearing-in as the winner of the election.)

What's the lesson we should learn from the Johnston-Fondse recount battle? Has John Pérez taken it into account in his decision to demand a recount in his razor-thin loss in the controller's race to nominee-apparent Betty Yee? Pérez had exercised his right under state law to cherry-pick the counties in which recounting is done. He chose those in which he had beaten Yee by the greatest margins. Yee's supporters immediately cried foul, clearly indicating their belief that Pérez has stacked the deck. Let's examine this assumption accepted by both camps.

Suppose there's a precinct in which Pérez enjoyed 100% support. No votes at all for Yee or anyone else. What could happen during a recount? Examine a ballot. It was counted for Pérez. If a mistake is found, Pérez loses that vote. It must then go to Yee (or one of the other candidates for controller). It should now be clear that Pérez's strategy of recounting only his strong precincts causes his own votes to receive greater scrutiny than others' votes. It's a “please double-check my votes” strategy. The degree of risk is directly proportional to the size of his original vote.

We can put an asterisk on this analysis, because nothing is ever simple when it comes to vote-counting controversies. In our imaginary 100%-Pérez precinct, suppose a new and uncounted ballot is discovered in a ballot box. Chances are that it's a vote for Pérez, given the nature of the precinct. If previously uncounted votes are turned up during the voting process, then Pérez has chosen the right strategy, having a decent expectation of turning up neglected votes in his favor and thus increasing his total. If not, Pérez and company are spending a lot of money to put his votes at risk.

An interesting choice, but all of the political commentators seem to endorse it as obviously advantageous to Pérez. It ain't necessarily so.