Monday, February 20, 2017

Ranking the Presidents

C-SPAN has just published the 2017 results of their Presidential Historians Survey.

As any good data geek would do, I threw all the data into Excel to see what I could discover. You can download my work here.

I’ve always been interested in these types of studies because, on the one hand they advertise themselves as being totally objective, it’s really hard to squeeze the subjectivity out of them.

After all, any historian — no matter what he claims — brings to the table a certain amount of historical bias. Today’s political climate tends to make that bias even more obvious.

For example, Glen Beck — admittedly nobody’s example of political objectivity — ranks Woodrow Wilson as the most evil man in all of American history. But the survey ranks Wilson a respectable 13th out of 45.

And James Polk — not on the general public’s list of great American Presidents — ranks number 16 — proof that the C-SPAN academic advisors sure know their pre-Civil War history.

To produce the rankings, C-SPAN asked a team from academia to rank all presidents using ten “qualities of presidential leadership”:
  • Public Persuasion
  • Crisis Leadership
  • Economic Management
  • Moral Authority
  • International Relations
  • Administrative Skills
  • Relations with Congress
  • Vision/Setting An Agenda
  • Pursued Equal Justice for All
  • Performance Within the Context of His Times

It’s probably a good idea that such a panel is used and that they don’t ask me or Glen Beck to serve on that panel.

All those categories gave me plenty of data to load into Excel. Let’s see what I discovered.

I thought it would be interesting to measure the presidents on a combination of rank and “consistency”. I measured consistency based on the rank of the standard deviation of the rank in for that president in all the categories.

A consistent president is one who ranks the same in all categories. A president may be consistently good, consistently bad, or consistently mediocre. Is there anything to learn from this?

Here is a scatter plot of the results:


To validate the data, let’s look at a couple of corners. Yep, not only does Abraham Lincoln rank as the number one president, he ranks as the most consistent president. That places him in the lower left corner. A good president all around.

In the other corner are both Lincoln’s predecessor and his successor. Wow. We always knew that James Buchannan did more to cause the Civil War than any other individual. And we know that Andrew Johnson did more to screw up Reconstruction than just about anybody else. Bad presidents all around. Thanks for the legacy, guys.

Here’s another way of looking at things:


This graph color codes the presidents by their rank in each of the ten categories. Since they are ordered by the final score, any place you see “islands” of a different color, that’s an anomaly that’s worthy of discussion.

For example, Lyndon Johnson was a pretty decent president. He ranks at the top for “Relations with Congress” (he had to fight his own Democratic Party to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed; a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the bill than did Democrats). But he rightfully ranks near the bottom for international relations for getting us deeper in the Vietnam war.

Bill Clinton ranks a decent number 15 overall, but comes in near the bottom in for “Moral Authority” because of his fondness for oral activities.

It’s a little harder for me to explain the person that I believe to be the nicest, worst president of them all: Jimmy Carter. A dreadful president who ruined both the American economy and our relations with Iran, I don’t know how he ranked as high as number 26. On the other hand, he’s a decent man in a strong, loving marriage, a Baptist deacon and Sunday School teacher, and a Habitat for Humanity volunteer into his 90s; doesn’t he deserve to be ranked higher than number 14 in “Moral Authority”?

And how did Barack Obama perform in his debut appearance? He came in at number 12, between Woodrow Wilson and James Monroe. That’s probably fair.

He ranked near the bottom in “Relations with Congress”. The only way he got ObamaCare passed was with back-door deals and a “gotta-pass-the-bill-before-you-read-it” mentality, even though his party controlled both houses of Congress at the time.

He also scored pretty low on “International Relations” by touring the world while apologizing for America’s past policies, weakened our position with Russia, and managed to worsen our relationship on both sides of the Middle East — quite an accomplishment!

He scored the highest in the category “Pursued Equal Justice for All”. That sounds about right for somebody who thinks “it’s good for everybody” to “spread the wealth around”.

We’ll have to wait a few years to see what historians think of our Mogul-in-Chief. My guess is his drain-the-swamp and build-the-wall dreams will score high in the “Vision/Setting an Agenda” category.

Fortunately for Mr. Trump, there is no category for “Relationship with the Press”.

Friday, February 17, 2017

On Being a Grammar Nazi

I’ve been conflicted lately over whether I want the reputation of being a Grammar Nazi. There’s no doubt that I am one; I’m just not sure if I want that out there for everybody to see.

I’ve been especially troubled lately over the tendency of people to say “one of the only”.

“He’s one of the only people who can understand this policy.”

“Mary is one of the only people in the office that can program in COBOL.”

Ambiguity is a very bad thing. How many people in the office can program in COBOL? Three? Then Mary is one of the few. But is there really only one? Then Mary is the only one, not one of the only ones.

So I arrogantly proclaimed my Nazi-ness to the world, eager to rid it of this literary travesty.

Until I read on the Google-nets that it’s actually okay to say “one of the only”.

Rats.

My career as a Grammar Nazi can be traced to an episode of “All in the Family” (Honest, I looked for a YouTube clip and couldn’t find one; so you’ll have to trust me on this one.) where Michael told Gloria that he couldn’t “loan” her any money, he had to “lend” her money because “loan” is a noun and “lend” is a verb.

Yea for Meathead, I thought. Way to put your wife in her place! (As I recall, she was not impressed and she slugged him. Our grammatical skills are so underappreciated.)

That is, until I discovered that Merriam-Webster — and who can argue with them? — says that “loan” has been a verb for 700 years — and still is.

The famous dictionary site has been wrong before. In my opinion, they completely missed the mark with the whole “try and” vs. “try to” argument.

On the other hand, they totally understand the concept of the extended meaning of the word “Nazi”. (You have no right to be offended if I use the word to describe myself.)

Being a Grammar Nazi is bad enough. Being a Closet Grammar Nazi is a fate I have chosen for myself, to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous ostracism.

I think I need somebody to pat me on the head and say “there”, “their”, and “they’re”.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Citizen-in-Chief

Bill O’Reilly’s Super Bowl interview with Donald Trump gave us the famous quote: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” Everybody’s talking about it.

So many people are talking about it, I have nothing further to say about it.

Instead, I’m going to analyze an exchange near the end of the interview.

Attempting to humanize the President, O’Reilly asked: “Do you ever say to yourself, ‘I can’t believe I’m here’?”

The President gave a typical Trump-esque ramble:
“The other day, I walked into the main entrance of the White House, and I said to myself, this is sort of amazing. Or you walk into Air Force One, it’s like a surreal experience in a certain way. But you have to get over it because there’s so much work to be done, whether it’s jobs or other nations that truly hate us; you have to get over it.”

I think he missed the chance to make a good point so I guess I’ll have to make it for him.

Much has been made of the fact that Donald Trump is our first President with neither previous political or military experience. Heck, most of our presidents had an abundance of both.

The fact that can even happen is a testament to the genius of our representative form of government.

In many countries, the head of state is actually required to be a member of Parliament, because the office is elected from their ranks.

In other countries, you have to be a member of a particular family or blood line to be King.

And in still others, the General of the victorious army becomes the de facto leader.

But in America, we can actually elect a Citizen-in-Chief. And that’s exactly what we’ve done this time. It’s amazing that it took us this long.

George Washington literally came out of retirement to become President. And he immediately returned to retirement at the end of his service. His concept of a perfect country was a party-less system run by a citizen administration.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams screwed that up. They started a string of professional politicians in the form of diplomats, governors, senators, and congressmen to become President. Even in their private life, more than half of our presidents have been lawyers. Very few were successful businessmen (both Bushes, Carter, and Truman). One was even an actor.

Maybe this is the start of a trend. Maybe it’s a good idea to let our lawmakers be professional lawmakers, but demand our Presidents be professional administrators. Maybe that’s the kind of division in power the Founding Fathers had in mind.

So if I had been the President, and O’Reilly had asked me “Can you believe it?”, my response would have been:
“Bill, it’s an honor to be here. I am humbled that the voters of this great country put their trust in me. But yeah, I can believe it. Because this is what is meant to be. It’s the very nature of a Republic. The citizens hiring a fellow citizen to go to Washington and make sure that the government is administered in a fair and equitable way and that laws are enforced and that their money is well-spent. That’s what this office is about; and that’s why I’m here.”

Maybe some day Donald will hire me as his speech writer.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Exoplanets Obey Kepler

Many years ago, this young, budding astronomy geek was just a naïve 10-year-old kid, marveling at the wonders of spaceflight, living the history of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo literally as it happened.

Even as we reached for the Moon, we stretched toward the stars. There were a few scientific dogmas that we learned, and we were taught that these truths were pretty much established as fact for all eternity.

First, in spite of the fact that we were reaching the Moon in about three days, other inter-planetary travel was expected to be much, much more difficult. Mars could take a year to reach. Other planets even much longer. And inter-stellar travel? Captain Kirk might be able to put the Enterprise into warp drive, and the Space Family Robinson could reach Alpha Centauri after a few years in suspended animation, but we shouldn’t expect it soon.

No, it would take hundreds or thousands of years to reach the closest stars given the technology available. Space is very large and very, very empty. That’s why they call it “space”.

The second fact we learned was that stars could never be imaged as a disk. We really don’t see the stars; we see the light emitting from the stars. There’s a difference. Remember that first rule about space being really big and really empty? Stars will never be anything more than a point of light.

And planets around other stars? (We now call them exoplanets.) Well, the Enterprise and the Jupiter 2 seemed to bump into them all the time. But their existence was only hypothesized.

Yeah, stars probably had planets orbiting around them — why should Sol be the only lucky one? But — remember the first rule about space being really big and really empty? — we would probably never see them. After all, the start were too bright and the planets too small. Stars generated their own light, but planets only reflected back a tiny part of that light into space. Our lifetime could only hope for the possibility of planets, not the reality of them.

The first rule still holds; space is still really big and really empty. But the ability to see stars and planets beyond our Solar System’s influence has been greatly improved over the last few years. We can now "see" exoplanets, but most are observed indirectly; we can see them only as the brief dimming of a star if their orbit lines up exactly with the Earth. Consider watching a mosquito fly in front of a searchlight a hundred miles away. It’s like that.

But since 2008, we have been able to spot a few planets directly. New advances in things like adaptive optics and the ability to block out the disk of the star are just a couple of tools that can now be used to directly observe planets. Yes, they are real!

It’s easiest to spot exoplanets directly when three conditions are true:
  1.  The planet is very large in relation to its host star -- dozens of times larger than Jupiter helps.
  2.  The planet orbits far enough from the host star that it doesn’t get washed out in the star’s light.
  3.  The plane of the orbit is close to a right angle to the plane of the Earth and the host star. Observing planets by transit is only possible when the planet is in the same plan. Observing directly is easiest when it’s in a 90-degree angle. It’s a three-dimensional geometry thing. Work it out for yourself.

Fortunately, all those factors have come together to give us one of the most remarkable astronomical movies ever filmed. Seven years in the making. But worth the time and effort. It’s a thing of beauty:



Check the original article to see the picture in motion.

There they are: four beautiful planets, just as hypothesized. Each orbit obeying Kepler’s laws of planetary motion exactly as they should.

It’s been a long time coming. I haven’t yet seen flying cars or hoverboards. My Roomba is the closest thing I have to Rosie the robot maid. And I’m still looking for my personal jet pack!

But, hey, I’ve seen a movie of a remote planetary system. My life is now complete.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Taxi Cab Numbers

The number 1729 is very dear to the hearts of mathematicians.

The story goes back to a 1919 conversation between the famous British mathematician G. H. Hardy and the Indian genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan asked the taxi number that Hardy had ridden in on the way. Hardy replied that it was number 1729 and mentioned that the number “seemed to be rather a dull one”.

“No”, Ramanujan replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two [positive] cubes in two different ways.”

And it’s true. The number 1729 can be expressed as 13 + 123 and also as 93 + 103 and is the smallest number for which that is true.

In the world of recreational mathematics — yes, there is such a thing — such numbers are now known as Taxi Cab Numbers. They even have their own web site.

The next number in the sequence is 4,104 = 23 + 163 = 9 3 + 15 3, then 13,832 = 23 + 243 = 183 + 203, then 20,683 = 103 + 273 = 193 + 243 and so on.

This gives rise to a variety interesting math problems. For example, can you write a computer program that calculates such numbers? Sure. In fact, here are 25 of them.

The series is infinite. In other words, given enough computing power, you will always be able to find a next-higher number. Always.

And this why stop at two different ways? For example, what’s the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in three different ways? That number is 87,539,319 which is 2283 + 4233 and 1673 + 4363 AND 2553 + 4143

How about in four ways? It’s 6,963,472,309,248, which is 13,3223 + 16,6303 and 10,2003 + 18,0723 and 5,4363 + 18,9483 and 2,4213 + 19,0833 .

You can imagine, they get crazy-big after that.

Oh, why stop with just adding two numbers together? What about adding three numbers? Why not include negative numbers? And exponents other than cubes?

In other words, the sum of A numbers raised to the power of B, C different ways.

Yep. There are an infinite number of all these variations. I didn’t even get into the possibility of subtracting numbers, not just adding them.

That’s the cool thing about math. Almost everything in math is infinite. No matter what cool thing you find, somebody with enough imagination — and perhaps enough computer power — will be able to figure out the next thing one bigger.

Want a billion digits of pi? Okay. Heck, how about five billion?

How about ten million digits of the square root of two?

I could do this all day.

Numbers extend forever. And since numbers are really just a construct of our mind, you could argue that the mind could extend forever.

And only you can decide if that’s a comforting thought ... or a scary one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

CEO-in-chief

In the world of TV journalism, only Charles Krauthammer has the cred and the guts to interrupt Bill O’Reilly in mid-sentence.

But there he was on The O'Reilly Factor, cutting into Bill’s Prose. Bill graciously allowed it because, hey, he’s Charles Krauthammer.

Krauthammer — only barely a fan of Donald Trump — was making the point that The Donald, in his Inaugural Address, seemed to be making extraordinary promises.

Not just that we’re going to “drain the swamp” to “make America great again”; he also promised that the carnage in our cities stops right here, right now. It was reminiscent of his speech at the convention where he was going to end violence in America. Not diminish it -- end it.

Krauthammer reminded O’Reilly that Trump said that he was going eradicate Jihadism from the face of the Earth.

Bill tried to dismiss it as hyperbole. He said Trump has never been understated; he’s always been bombastic...

Charles wasn’t going to let him off the hook. “... But he’s never been President!!”

He’s right.

Donald Trump is the first American president to assume power without military or political experience. Most Presidents have both; Trump has neither.

That’s a pretty big deal. But it’s not a show-stopper.

Neither military experience (Ulysses S. Grant) nor political experience (James Buchanan) is a guarantee of a successful presidency. As a transformative figure, Donald Trump comes to us as a CEO-in-chief. Maybe that’s just what we need right now.

As a businessman, Trump is accustomed to making rash claims. That’s his negotiating style. Demand the stars, settle for the Moon.

Charles may be right to criticize him for his hyperbole. But we must remember that Trump got where he was because he’s a successful negotiator.

He doesn’t need to be a military genius or a political genius. He’ll surround himself with those people. Meanwhile, he’ll be with leaders in Congress and leaders of the Free World cutting deals to make America great again.

And you gotta hand it to a guy who names his son “Baron”. That’s a sign he is projecting his hope into the future.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Featured Articles are a Funny Phenomena

Regular readers of Wikipedia know that the front page always includes a “featured” article. Such articles are those that “are considered to be the best articles Wikipedia has to offer, as determined by Wikipedia's editors”.

Once an article is nominated for featured status, it goes through an extensive process of review, refinement, and voting before it is placed on the most-treasured space of real estate on the world’s fifth-most-visited web site.

It’s quite an honor, indeed, for an article to receive such a status. And it’s a very exclusive club. In the English version of Wikipedia, fewer than 5,000 articles have been designated as “featured”. That’s less than a tenth of one percent of all eligible articles.

Although Wikipedia started in 2001 (and almost immediately exploded in size and popularity), the “featured” feature wasn’t a feature at first. It wasn’t until February 22, 2004 that the front page took on more-or-less its present-day format and the first featured article was highlighted.

This most have been quite an event at the time. After all, there were a million articles to pick from. What leader, what event, what significant citizen of the universe would be deemed worth to have its Wikipedia article declared the very first “featured” article of the day?

That honor went to the article about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A noble choice. The first few lines of the article informed us that Mozart “was one of the most significant classical composers” and that he “lived just a little over half of Beethoven's life span, yet was amazingly prolific from early childhood until his death in 1791.”

Yep, a wonderful article about a truly one-in-a-millennium genius.

I’m sure the readers of Wikipedia in 2004 welcomed the new “featured” feature. I’m sure they could hardly wait for 24 hours to pass so they could find out what article would be bestowed the honor on the second day.

The Internet world held its collective breath. Finally, the evening and the morning became the second day and a new “featured” article appeared. The subject of the article:

Irish Houses of Parliament”.

Oh. Hmmmm...

The Irish Houses of Parliament, also known as the Irish Parliament House, was the world's first purpose-built two-chamber parliament house. Today it is called the Bank of Ireland, College Green, due to its use by the bank. It served as the seat of both chambers (the Lords and Commons) of the Irish Parliament of the Kingdom of Ireland for most of the 18th century until that parliament was abolished by the Act of Union of 1800, when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

It’s a lovely building, I’m sure. But it’s an odd choice for the best article that can be offered by a world class encyclopedia site.

This is a reminder of an important concept in the weird world of the Web. Although the English version of Wikipedia is an English site (Wikipedia operates in more than 50 word languages), Wikipedia is not an American site. It literally belongs to the citizens of the world.

True, Mozart isn’t American, either. But he is much more popular in America than a government building in Ireland.

The selection of an article about such a building sent a signal to the world. The Wikipedia editor value quality over popularity. They value a world view over an American view. And they are a fiercely independent lot.

Over the years, articles have been featured that honor dinosaurs (Dromaeosauroides), items of vexillology, (Flag of Singapore), and corporations (Cracker Barrel). Beyond Mozart, other honored musicians include Frédéric Chopin, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Michael Jackson. Oddly enough, not Ludwig van Beethoven.

Go figure. The merits are of the article, not the subject. And the decision is of the editors, not a consensus of the world.

The Irish Houses of Parliament can be proud. The building’s article was determined to be among the first of the best of the best. Nobody can take that away from them. Fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame became 24 hours of Wikipedia fame. That’s more than I could ever hope for.

In fact, not even Andy Warhol’s article has yet been so honored. And that puts Andy in good company with Ludwig.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

False Sense of Plus-ness

I just got a piece of solicitation mail. Some people call it “junk” mail. But I don’t call it “junk”. It’s a numbers game to them .. they wouldn’t send it if it didn’t work.

On the outside was stamped in red ink (and slightly askew): “DO NOT BEND”.

Hmmmm. Must be a photograph inside. Or a special reward. Or a secret prize.

Whatever it is, it must be important, because after all, they forbid me from bending it!

Nah, it was just a letter asking for money for a local charity.

But the purpose of the envelope in solicitation mail is to be opened. And it succeeded.

It worked because of one of the oldest tricks in marketing: the attachment of a false sense of worth. Whatever was in that envelope was precious enough to be preserved in an un-bent state. Therefore, I was compelled to investigate.

I call it the false sense of plus-ness. Sometimes it’s urgency. Sometimes it’s value. Sometimes it’s rarity or popularity.

In every case, it’s the false sense that this product is better, cheaper, or more desirable than it really is. It has more “gotta-have-it”; it has more “plus”.

“If the lines are busy, keep trying.” Wow, a lot of people want this product; phones are literally ringing off the hook.

“If you call in the next 15 minutes ... “ But if you call 16 minutes later, you’ll be out of luck.

“But wait! We’ll double your order!” At the beginning of the commercial, they were only going to sell me one. But they had a change of heart 30 seconds later. I’m so blessed!

Marketing is as old as the world’s oldest profession. A good marketer knows how to squeeze every ounce out of the value of his product. The paradox is that when the value gets “squeezed”, it may very well be “stretched”.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. Over-used? Definitely.

But inappropriate? Nah. Our 21st century mind can filter the noise and distinguish what’s really true and really valuable.

Besides. I wanted to open that envelope anyway. Woulda done it even if it hadn’t said “DO NOT BEND”. Really. I’m not that dumb.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I Get It

My high school English teacher hated the word “get”. Absolutely despised it.

She actually forbade us from using it in written work that we turned it. Her contention was there is always a better word that can be used in its place. ”Get” is the word with a million synonyms and no one meaning peculiar to itself.

If “get” were a person, it would have a roomful of friends, but very low self-esteem. Lots of companionship, but no real meaning in life. A sad situation, indeed.

Okay, I get it.

The dictionary lists 38 definitions of “get” as a transitive verb (which require an object), 11 definitions as an intransitive verb (which do not allow an object), and at least 62 distinct variations of its use as an auxiliary verb (when used in conjunction with another verb).

Where did the word come from? We have the Vikings to blame for that.

You see, according to everybody’s favorite lexicographer, Kory Stamper, English is a mongrel of a language. English words come from a variety of peoples, cultures, and languages. Nothing we say is really native to English itself.

The English word “get” comes from the Old Norse “geta”, which means, uhm, “to get”. (Nobody accused them of being original!)

As often happens in linguistic history, the word evolved into an all-purpose verb. It was short, simple, and to the point. If you had a problem conveying exactly what you meant, you could use this generic word and your audience would “get” it.

Thus, dozens of definitions have been attached to “get”, many of which have something to do with obtaining, or retrieving, or receiving something (get an “A”, get a second helping).

I’m particularly fond of the language’s tendency to attach “get” to some other verb to enhance the meaning (get up, get down, get out, get ahead).

In the process, “get” has become the fifth most-used verb in the English language.

And I’m jealous that the humble word “get” got something that I never did get: its own Wikipedia article.

It may not be the most elegant word in English. It doesn’t have flourishing French roots like “croissant” or “façade”. It doesn’t have the comical nature of Spanish words like “mosquito” or “piñata”. And it doesn’t have an aboriginal flavor of “kangaroo” or “boomerang”.

“Get” is a word like no other. A word that means what it needs to mean when it needs to mean it. A versatile, useful, flexible word. A word that trips off the tongue and lands squarely in the appropriate context to be understood by all.

It’s mildly ambiguous, yet always appropriate. On its best days, English teachers label its usage as “informal”. At worst, it’s banned.

But it’s our word, and it ain’t going anywhere soon. (Yeah, more on that word on another date...)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Perfect Food

Food is my friend. Just about any food. Eat to live; don’t live to eat. Devour vast quantities of it and ask questions about it later.

No wonder I’m a tub of lard.

Nevertheless, I do have my standards. If it still looks like what it did when it was alive, I’m not interested in it. Chicken is great if it doesn’t look like it was a chicken. You know those slow-roasted whole birds at the super market? I’m not interested.

And if it used to swim, well, that’s a strike against it, too. Unless it’s tuna.

Lobster? Fails on all counts.

Food also must be low-maintenance. If I have to work at it to eat it, it’s generally not worth it. Shelling pistachios verses grabbing an armful of peanuts — you get the idea.

And there is such a thing as a perfect food. Oh, yes, there is ... as long as I get to define what “perfect” means.

Actually, there are several criteria that can qualify a food as perfect. One is variety in each byte. Extra points for including all four food groups in each byte. A slice of peperoni pizza is about as perfect as you can get: meat, cheese, vegetables, and bread in every mouthful. (What? If ketchup is a vegetable, so is pizza sauce!)

Chicken pot pie makes the list for much the same reason. Who knows what all those vegetables are in there. Who cares? As soon as the fork punctures the top crust and that sweet steam fills my nostrils, I’m in Heaven. Yeah, maybe steam should be one of the major food groups.

Even if the food is homogenous, anything that enhances its variety helps. Plain vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Pshaw! Ice cream is merely a vehicle of other food; it must have “stuff” put in it. Rocky road. Butter brickle. Rocky butter brickle road! It’s all good!

Another feature of “perfect” food is how much of it is “left over” when I’m done with it? How clean can I get my plate. As good as it is, biscuits and gravy fails on this score. It’s almost impossible to achieve the perfect biscuit-to-gravy ratio. But that never stopped me from trying.

The winner in the how-much-is-left-over category must go to the ice cream cone. Eat the sweet stuff, then eat the container! Wipe your mouth, and carry on with your life. Perfection! (Remember Sammy Davis, Jr. singing that “you can even eat the dishes”!)

I realize I’ve probably stepped on a few toes. You probably have your own ideas about what constitutes a “perfect” food. You may be in the camp that says the preparation experience is worth as much as the food itself.

Yeah, while you’re chopping your onions, I will have already microwaved a chicken pot pie and downed an ice cream cone.

Save the last slice of pizza for me. It’s for breakfast.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Art of Constrained Art

I’ve always been a fan of constrained writing — where an author has self-imposed a rule (or a “constraint”) and vows to adhere to that rule throughout the creation of the work.

Lots of types of rules are available to choose from. Some are more-or-less already well-defined, such as the 5-7-5 syllabic nature of a Haiku:
When fire sets its course
It does not need a compass
For it travels light. [source]
Or the reversible nature of a palindrome:
Satan! Oscillate my metallic sonatas! [source]
The whimsical rhythm of a limerick:
A bather whose clothing was strewed
By winds that left her quite nude
Saw a man come along
And unless we are wrong
You expected this line to be lewd. [source]
Ever hear of Pilish? That’s a form of writing where the number of letters in each successive word conforms to the digits of pi:
How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics! [source]
Taken to an extreme, constrained writing can be interesting, but a bit boorish. Consider Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel “Gadsby”, which contains 50,000 words, but nary the letter “E” among them. A noble endeavor, for sure. But the necessarily stilted language makes reading it somewhat a challenge.

A more satisfying example of constrained writing came from “Deb in Brooklyn”, who wrote a Six Word Memoir for a contest on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show”:
“Living in existential vacuum; it sucks.” [source]
Let’s go beyond constrained writing and consider constrained “art”. A musical composition in a major key tends to constrain itself to only seven of the available twelve chromatic notes. An artist painting a water color tends to constrain himself to water-based pigments. A sculptor tends to constrain himself to one material, be it marble or clay or something between.

A television situation comedy generally must fit neatly into a 30-minute time slot. A TV crime drama must wrap things up in exactly one hour.

And I’ve heard writers of Sunday School literature complain to their editors about the “divinely-inspired word count”.

Constraint has also found its way into business cultures. Consider the concept of PechaKucha, where speakers are constrained to a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, which auto-advances every 20 seconds. The art form has a devout following and its own web site.

Constraint is good for the soul. Not only does it keep us driving the speed limit while staying in the right lane, it forces us to realize that the presentation is as important as the content. As creators of expressive literature, it makes us sit inside the minds of our audience and experience our creation as others experience it.

And empathy is the best gift we can give our audience.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Oh, that Wild, Whimsical Web!

The Internet was built by a bunch of university snobs.

The World Wide Web — not the same thing as the Internet! — was built by a bunch of intellectual scientists.

The Information Superhighway was built by Al Gore. (Just ask him, he’ll tell you!)

But the soul of all digital information delivery systems was built by a bunch of long-haired Silicon Valley nerds.

Want proof? Just look at company names.

For decades, what was the name of the company that was the world leader in computer technology? IBM. It stands for International Business Machines. They made their mark with adding machines. And time clocks. Uh. Huh.

In the early 1980s, what was the name of the company that created the world leading operating system for personal computers? Micro. Soft. Microsoft. Get it? Micro-computer software. Had to think a long time about that one, didn’t you, Bill?

But what company emerged as one of the first Internet search engines, later to become a leading portal for information delivery? Yahoo! With an exclamation point! Literally!

And what company came up a few years later to become the leader in search and just about everything else digital? Google. Without an exclamation point — but with a really cool name. It’s a play on the word “googol”, which means a number with a hundred zeros — literally greater than the number of protons in the observable universe.

And it kinda looks like the word “giggle”, which amplifies its coolness.

The world of Internet branding is littered with little nuggets of triviality. The name “Amazon” originally stood for the world’s largest bookstore, named after the world’s largest river. Wikipedia was named after a bus in Hawaii, which was named after a Hawaiian word for “quick”. eBay was named after the consulting company of its founder. Apple was named after a fruit as an afterthought, and was allowed to keep that name only after they promised Apple Records that they would never, ever enter the business of selling music.

I could go on. Zappos. Twitter. Pinterest. All big names on the Internet. And just saying their name makes you want to smile.

Industrial giants of old tended to have industrial-sounding names: Kodak. Standard Oil. General Electric. United Technologies. Hrummppph!

It’s nice to see that digital companies of today recognize the importance of a good brand. But they also see that a whimsical brand name doesn’t cheapen the value of their stock. It only makes it more memorable. And more fun to say.

Think about that next time you giggle about Google.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Transition of Power

Kings die. That’s just what they do.

Some die slow, peaceful, gradual deaths, eventually succumbing in their old age to their Creator.

Others die grand and glorious deaths in battle; sometimes as martyrs, sometimes as disgraced and defeated failures.

And others die suddenly and unexpectedly in the prime of their life, cut down by an assassin’s bullet or sword.

But they die. And die they must. How else can succession of power proceed? For thousands of years, there was only one way the next prince, political foe, or conquering hero could take charge: the reigning king must get out of the way.

All that changed on March 4, 1797. The people wanted a king. But George (and the Constitution) thought otherwise. Although he was unanimously elected to the office twice, he felt it was important that the office be shared, and that the transition must be smooth, orderly, and lawful.

So the surveyor-turned-farmer-turned-general-turned-president handed the seat of power to his Number Two, John and returned to his farm. In doing so, he set a precedent of peaceful transition that has endured for almost two and a half centuries.

There have been times that bad actors have sought to take advantage of the transition for their own good. In 1861, seven states used the transition period between President Buchannan and President Lincoln to secede and form the Confederate States of America. The American economy nosedived during the transition in 1933 as both departing President Hoover and President-elect Roosevelt sat powerless and watched the banking system implode.

And in 1981, 52 American hostages were forced to sit for hours at the edge of a Tehran airport runway until just after noon Washington time, denying President Jimmy Carter the satisfaction of having them released on his watch.

Although the transition is always lawful, that doesn’t mean it’s without drama. The presidential election of 1800 ended in an electoral tie, which wasn’t resolved until a scant 15 days before the planned inauguration.

And 200 years later, America held its collective breath for 35 days while Florida’s hanging chads determined the election results. It was ultimately settled when the Supreme Court ruled that the margin of 537 votes should give George W. Bush the victory.

In a few days, a lawyer-turned-organizer-turned-senator-turned-president will hand over the keys to the front door of the White House to a magnate-turned-billionaire-turned-politician. And this one should be an interesting one to watch. Eight years ago, Obama promised to “fundamentally transform” America. Apparently, Americans didn’t like the way they were fundamentally transformed. Seeing the possibility of Hillary’s four-more-years of Barack, they chose Donald’s promise to “make America great again".

By design, Trump’s presidency will be the polar opposite of Obama’s. But the transition itself will be a model of democracy. After thousands of years of monarchal transitions, the concept of a democratic transition had its roots in the American Constitution and is now the accepted standard in the civilized world.

The Founding Fathers should be proud.

My thanks to the History Channel’s “Transition of Power” for the inspiration for today’s post.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Technology in Perspective

Smart phones are truly one of the most amazing feats of technology ever invented.

It is now possible to use speech recognition apps to speak a text message into your phone without having to actually write it. When the person on the other end receives the message, he can use a text-to-speech app to read the text back to him in a human voice.

When I was growing up, we had an app that would do all that.

We called it the telephone.

A generation is growing up that doesn’t understand the concept of a dial tone. They don’t know why we “hang up” to end a call. They don’t know what it means to “dial” a number. They have never heard a ringtone actually “ring”.

And they wonder why refer to something as “wireless”. What? As opposed to being “wired”?!

(Well, yeah. But, never mind...)

Eons ago, a phone was something that was screwed to the kitchen wall. The sphere of your conversation was limited to the length of a spiral cord (thus, the wire).

People would run extra fast when they heard that the call was “long distance”. You never called a “person”; you called that person’s “house” and hoped they were home. The person answering didn’t have Caller ID or a customize ringtone to know who was calling; they just had a “ring”.

It’s all perspective.

A century and a half ago, it took 24 days to get a message from Missouri to California. The Pony Express shortened that time to 10 days. Only two years later, the telegraph changed that time to a matter of hours. The transcontinental railroad could deliver the message and the messenger in three days. Airliners reduced that time to dozens of hours, and then four hours.

An email travels the distance in milliseconds.

What hath God wrought?

We used to have a phone. Then we had a mobile phone.

Now we have a portal to the sum of all human knowledge, slimmer than a deck of cards that we can carry in our pocket and call upon to solve the mysteries of the universe. Coincidentally, it contains an app that lets it emulate an old-fashion voice telephone.

And we use it to share kitten videos.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Continuum of Altruism

The concept of “Paying it forward” has always intrigued me. There are times where a debt cannot be “paid back”, but should be “paid forward”.

Although it was popularized in the 2000 movie, it was around well before that. The actual term “pay it forward” may have originated in the 1916 book by Lily Hardy Hammond where she wrote “You don't pay love back; you pay it forward.”

But the concept has many mentions in even older literature, including a letter from Benjamin Franklin:
I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.
Franklin and others were concerned with: “Here is a debt. How shall it be repaid?”

I’ll take it a step further: “How can I pay a debt that doesn’t even yet exist?”

In other words, can I be both the originator and payer of the debt, but never the recipient?

Such is the concept of altruism. It’s defined by the dictionary as “behavior that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to oneself but that benefits others”.

The debt can be trivial. I work on the top floor of a four story building. You must enter the building from the parking lot through the first floor. Most people ride the elevator. I’m usually one of the first people at work.

When I get to the top floor, before getting off the elevator, I press the “first floor” button. Why? I know that at that time of the day, the heaviest use of the elevator would be by people starting on the first floor. The elevator isn’t smart enough to wait for them on the first floor. By my altruistic act of pushing that button, I’m making the ride for the next person a little shorter, because the elevator will already be on the first floor waiting for them.

I would expect that person to pay the debt forward and send the elevator back to the first floor for the next in line.

Why would I do that? What is my benefit? After all, I always have to wait for the elevator, because the last person probably didn’t return the elevator for me. What do I benefit by being kind to the next anonymous person in line? Especially when they just think they’re lucky that the elevator was already there.

Do I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart? Well, yeah. Is that my motivation? Kinda. It feels good knowing that I have helped a stranger.

Taken to an extreme, that can be dangerous. What if the only reason I do good for others is because I actually feel good about myself? Does that defeat the purpose? Can it get to a point that I feel so good about doing good for others that the only benefit is that, in fact, I benefit?

In other words, maybe the relationship between altruism and selfishness isn’t a continuum. Maybe it’s a circle that actually loops back around on itself?

Wrap the duct tape around my forehead. Mind. Blown.

Monday, January 09, 2017

From Dust To Dust

Dust is a very interesting phenomenon of physics.

On the one hand, dust is the leftovers of destruction. Saw a board or drill a hole and you will produce dust equal to the width of your saw blade or drill bit. Common house dust results primarily from the destruction of skin cells shed by your body. Other dust on the floor may be what was scraped from the topsoil and transferred to your shoes.

On the other hand, dust is the beginning of a remarkable reconstruction process. Just about everything in the universe was at one time mere dust floating about.

The universe is full of dust particles in the process of accreting themselves back together. Over millions of years, dust particles attract each other to create planets, stars, and all celestial bodies in between.

That’s why it was so important to study the surface of the moon. The gravity of our moon is a virtual vacuum, sucking to its surface trillions of tons of celestial dust — the virgin building blocks of the solar system of the future.

Eons from now, the dust on your front lawn will be compacted into layers of solid rock, pressed down from the accumulation of centuries of dust piling on top of it. Evidence of that can be seen in the layers of the Grand Canyon — even in outcroppings along a highway ramp construction.

And the dust bunnies under your bed? That’s just the first attempt of your dead skin cells trying to clump together to form something even more grandiose.

It’s no wonder that “dust to dust” has become a metaphor for the cycle of life. Not only was Man created from the dust of the Earth, the Earth itself was created from the dust of the cosmos. Pretty impressive.

Friday, January 06, 2017

2016 Sucked. Or Did It?

By many measures, 2016 was a pretty sucky year. The problem is that many people measure suckiness by how many of their favorite celebrities died during the year.

Unfortunately, there’s a flaw in that ointment. Let me explain.

There’s no doubt that we lost some brilliant and beloved celebrities in 2016. It started in January with the loss of David Bowie and ended with the deaths of Princess Leia, Kathy Selden, and Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy.

In between, we lost athletes, authors, astronauts, and politicians. And one astronaut/politician.

Not to minimize those loses, but were they really greater in 2016 than an average year? Statistics say nay, and I can prove it.

First, we need to provide a measurable definition of “celebrity”. Somebody isn’t famous just because I’m a fan of theirs; they are famous because, well, they are famous.

Fortunately, there is an accepted definition of “celebrity”, accepted by dead pools everywhere, and absolutely measurable.

A person is a celebrity if there is a unique Wikipedia article written about that person. No wiki, no celeb. It’s that simple.

Using that definition, it’s very easy to count the number of celebrities that have perished in each year in this and the previous century:

According to these statistics, the number of celebrity deaths has been exponentially increasing every year. It seems like there’s a whole lot of dyin’ goin’ on.

Actually, the celebrity deaths for 2016 are pretty much on average with the other years. The difference is that “death” has a much larger pool of celebrities to pick from.

A hundred years ago, there really weren’t many celebrities. Politicians and war heroes were about all we had. Actors and athletes and weren’t famous in their own right until around the time of Rudolph Valentino and Babe Ruth. It took a long time for pop musicians to attain celebrity status. Even longer for rappers.

So yeah, 2016 sucked. We lost Zsa Zsa, who was famous for being famous; and Fidel, who was famous for being mean; and Prince, who was famous for having one name.

But we also continued the tradition of lowering the bar for what qualifies to be famous by making more people famous than ever before. And the more people we choose to love, the more there are to lose.