Sample Size

I guess there’s an election in Georgia today.

The candidates were interviewed on the radio this morning, sticking to talking points, defending the $50 million dollars they spent on the contest, and reiterating that old trope that we “all need to get out and vote.”

Relative to developed countries and autocratic dictatorships, US voter turnout is pretty low. In Belgium, turnout among eligible voters is 87%. In Sweden it’s 83%, and 80% in Denmark. Even Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which hover around 60%, embarrass the United States’ 55% turnout rate. And that’s not even to mention the landslide victory of Saddam Hussein’s 2002 campaign, where he won every single vote from Iraq’s 11 million eligible voters. That’s an engaged electorate!

And so it’s not surprising that we hear this a lot. “We all need to get out and vote, because every vote counts.” Somehow we’ve got this idea in our heads that in order to really know the will of the people, the sample size needs to equal the population size.


We don’t count all of anything. That’s the whole point of statistics.

The fact of the matter is that a sample size of 55% is ridiculously high, and absolutely representative of the population. Plenty of us are voting. The issue isn’t whether our sample size is large enough. It’s whether the sample itself is representative of the population.

And so now this triggers the whole “gerrymandering” talk, which, if you want to have this conversation over Thanksgiving Dinner or in a wedding toast or something we suggest you use the term “congressional redistricting” so your uncle (you know the one) doesn’t get up and start yelling. But anyway gerrymandering is this idea that a political party can draw the lines of voting districts in a way that it benefits that party.

Here’s a picture that I found on the internet that does a pretty good job of showing how it works:

Now, this has been going on as long as our country has – it got started before our first Congressional Election in 1789, and both parties run with it as far as they can when they have the opportunity. But see now it’s running into trouble. Republican redistricting has had issues on the past on account of it being just totally, unapologetically racist, but less flagrant examples have a hard time being challenged in a meaningful way. But a real challenge could change as early as next year, when the Supreme Court will rule on whether a Wisconsin district map unconstitutionally limits the influence of Democratic voters.

It’s far from a sure bet which way the court will fall on this one. The only real conversations now indicate that it’s going to be a narrowly divided vote. But there’s a chance!

It’s easy, these days, to lose faith in our elective process. We’ve seen two of our last three presidents win the office while losing the popular vote. We’ve seen Citizens United pave the way for unprecedented, untraceable campaign financing and super annoying phone calls pretty much around the clock. And we’ve sat around for pretty much our entire nation’s history as the ruling party plays make-it-take-it with congressional districting maps. It looks like finally, we may see a win for those people who would like to see a government that represents its electorate.

It’s time we stop complaining about 55% voter turnout, and start taking the right sample.





Down the Rabbit Hole

It starts innocently enough. You’ve got a few minutes free on a Sunday afternoon and you remember that the car needs an oil change. You flip open the owner’s manual just to doublecheck, and yep, sure enough, it calls for 5 quarts of 5W-20. Right. Easy. Just run to O’Reilly’s, grab five quarts of oil, you’ll be back home and done with the project in forty minutes.

But then you start thinking. “5W-20. Can that be right? Maybe for a winter oil, but it seems pretty light for hot weather.” So you fire up the internet and just check, real quick, to see if there’s a better option. We’re coming into summer, after all, wouldn’t a slightly heavier oil be better?

And right there, as soon as you open the browser, you can pretty much write off changing that oil.

In the first five minutes you’ve forgotten all about oil weight. You clicked on the first search result, which took you to a forum based on your particular model of car where they were, ostensibly, talking about oil weight and their preference.

But then that conversation deteriorated pretty quickly into a fight over conventional vs synthetic and a brief stint of (poorly punctuated, but informative) pedantics on the difference between the two. Before long denizens of the internet were arguing about how often you really do need to change the oil, mostly citing old episodes of Top Gear and their Uncle Bert, before proposing that the 3,000 mile cutoff really is a conspiracy perpetuated by the Rothschilds.

And then, naturally, you wonder what the Rothschilds have to do with anything here so you open a new tab and search for “motor oil rothschild conspiracy” and ho man now you’ve done it. But then holy crap that search returned 1.64 million results and it only took 0.59 seconds and how does that even make any sense so you ask Google how it works and sure enough on the first page of results (after a bunch of tutorials on how to use Google) there’s a thing called “Inside Search” and an article called “how search works.”

And that’s exactly what you’re looking for so you give it a click and sure enough it’s not all that helpful. It’s got a few tidbits of trivia on how many websites there are and some fancy Greek prefixes for really big numbers but mostly they gloss over the meat of what you’re looking for with a bunch icons that look like this:

and you think “gosh that’s a little insulting” because you’re, like, a smart person, and you don’t need to be talked down to about string theory, and physics, and whatever the hell a p-brane is. So you go to brush up, just a little bit, on your string theory but now Google is kind of on your nerves so you just go straight to Wikipedia this time and after a few minutes you’ve got a pretty good handle on string theory and follow links for Theory of Everything, then pre-Socratic philosophy, and pretty soon you’re out of physics and no one’s even talked about Nazis once.

But so then the next thing you know you’re learning all about Protagoras founding this idea of philosophical relativism in which truth only exists insofar as it is perceived by any individual and you’re like “ho man have I got a POTUS for that guy” and then you remember both that you haven’t read the news in a while and that you really have been trying to maintain a better balanced news diet (and get out of that echo chamber) so you fire up a few tabs and see what The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, Fox News, and Al Jazeera America are opening with.

And then by the time you make it through the breaking news, feature pieces, op-eds, op-eds disguised as feature pieces, and horrifying anecdotes from small towns in the Florida panhandle you’re feeling pretty damn depressed and start thinking that you really do need to just take your mind off all this and there’s nothing better for that than fresh baked cookies.

But what recipe?

And before you know it, you definitely have not changed the oil in your car.



I’m So Busy

I used to work for a crazy person.

He was a five and a half foot parolee who resembled, in a grotesque, hilarious kind of way, a perfect blend of Danny DeVito and Saddam Hussein. He stood below my shoulder, wore a thick, bushy mustache, and each morning sometime before noon would clod down the stairs to the office in ill-fitting gym shorts and a bedshirt that drooped over his swollen midsection like a dropcloth across an easel.

He had convinced each of us, his three employees, to commute across town to the home office in his basement. It was the recession, work was hard to come by.

Each day our routine was simple. We’d arrive around 9am and punch paper timecards in a mechanical clock. We would pour out yesterday’s cold pot of bad coffee and make another batch, and form a crooked semi-circle around the glowing orange dot as it crackled and hissed and filled the room with the acrid smell of weeks old pre-ground Yuban. We’d each fill a cup of sour coffee and slowly race to check the emails.

Email, by this time, was well established. It was firmly in place as the standard for general business correspondence, and most people could get it on their phones. But The Man Upstairs insisted on a permanent record, a hard copy for the file, and so each morning we sipped on burnt coffee and printed emails. Paper copies of the electric mail were then laid out, indexed by client, subject, and time-of-arrival, on a folding table that overlooked the office where they waited for our leader’s arrival.

He would arrive by 11 on most days, pounding dramatically down the steps to groan loudly about how late he had been up the night before, working diligently for our cause. “All I do is work,” he would lament, “I need a vacation.” Mornings, as a rule, were hard on the man.

But his spirits improved slowly as he quaffed Bailey’s and coffee and sat down to behold the analog mail (a-mails) before him. He worked his way through the list and scrawled hasty responses on each sheet of paper, and handed them off to each of us to be interpreted and transcribed. We were to type responses, print drafts for review, make necessary edits, receive secondary review approval, and send the missives into space.

We had games. One was to transcribe The Man Upstairs’ chicken scratch word for word, so that the draft reflected the real insanity that we bore witness to each day. “WRONG. Sharon ppty different section/zone. New prop revise now.” My preferred diversion was to sneak technically correct but lewd sounding words in and see if he would catch them. Intercourse. Erect. Turgid. You understand. Other times I just played Solitaire.

But so each of these games of course added another step to actually communicating, and by the time he made it through the list, new a-mails had appeared on his desk as replies came pouring in, ostensibly from laptops and iPhones as others were out to lunch.

Ours was not an efficient way to use email. So when The Man Upstairs would declare, “I’m so busy. Busy, busy, busy.” and strut around our damp basement office, it was hard to take him seriously. But then some time around two in the afternoon, the script would change. “I’m important,” he would say. He really said that, in a squawking, nasally voice, “I’m important.” And before long it was clear to us that of course he had not worked all night, and of course he was not busy (at least on billable things), but that he really was hard at work constructing a narrative in which he was relevant. Important. Irreplaceable.

I began to feel for him, to a point. And then, eventually, I began to notice that we’re all doing the same damn thing. That “busy” is, collectively, our canned response to “how’s it going?”. That “busy” insinuates productive, successful, essential. And that “busy” insulates us both from doing things we don’t want to do, as well as from telling the people who invite us to do those things the truth: that we’d really just rather not go do that thing.

Yeah, we’re all busy. There are stacks of emails and paperworks that aren’t about to do themselves. But it’s probably not really the default that it’s become. A closer look might show that you’re not all that busy, but have a pretty good idea of what you don’t want to do.

Next time you hear yourself saying, “ah, I’m busy,” maybe think about that. Do you really have things you need to do? Or do you just not want to do that thing that’s staring you down? Because if it’s the latter, it’s ok to just say “no,” and go spend your time on something worthwhile.



Flash Fiction (from a 4 year old)

Once upon a time 8 gummy bears and some bad guys. All the gummy bears had gummy berry juice. They bounced up to the water fall. It wasn’t going because it broke. They fixed the water fall but it broke again. They fixed it for good. The bad guys came and the pet ogre came. The gummy bears fought the bad guys and lived happily ever after.

The End. (2/6/1991)


Once upon a time the black Bat Man, the gold Bat Man and the blue Batman and Joker and Cat Women and Bat Woman. All the Batmen and Bat Women were enemies. They all got into a fight. King Kong came and took apart the Joker’s hideout.

The End. (2/13/91)


Once upon a time there lived a creaky old witch in a house that could walk. Joorpedo Man came, then Batman came, then Superman came, then Swamp Thing came, then Paper Man came, then Bull’s Eye came (he’s a police). They fighted that creaky old witch so good they blew up her house.

The End. (undated)


Once upon a time there lived 100 mountain lions, infinity more, and once they got in a big fight. The infinity is good; the 100 is bad. One of the 100 died. One of the infinity died. And 100 more infinity died. And then Joorpedo Man came. And he said, “the 100 win and the infinity lose” and then Joorpedo Man got into a fight with the next of the infinity.

Then Batman came.

The End. (undated)



Once upon a time there lived a bad ghost and a good ghost. 5 bats who were bad. 6 good bats. 7 more bad bats and 7 more good bats. All the bats got in a fight. After the fight all the bad bats died. Some sea turtles came. Sea Man came.

The End. (3/19/91)


Once upon a time there was a big lion, about as big as a giant. then a big giant, as small as a troll. A dinosaur killed the giant. The dinosaur killed the lion.

The End. (3/20/1991)


Once upon a time a whale was good. A bad shark came. They got into a fight. The sea police came to see what was the racket. The bad guy and the police were in their PJs. There went back to their homes. The shark died. The whale didn’t die. G.I. airplane and tank came.

The End. (3/12/1991)

Once upon a time there was a lion, a fox, a coyote and a wolf and a cheetah and a snake and a hunter. The hunter didn’t have any weapons.

The End. (Winter ’91)


Once upon a time there was a wicked old witch and a giant.

The End. (Winter ’91)


Once upon a time there was a giant, a little boy and  wicked old witch.

The End. (Winter ’91)


Once there was a king and a queen and a prince and a princess. A dragon fired their castle. The castle burnt down. The 5 knights tried to fight the dragon. They forgot their armour. The dragon won. They went to the castle and found out what happened. They they put the castle back together.

The End. (2/5/1991)



Dirty Jobs

You might think by the title that this post is going to be about cleaning out pit toilets by hand and roadkill taxidermy and stuff. But nope, just the opposite! I’d like to take a few moments to acknowledge the fact that armchair quarterbacking matters of national policy isn’t always quite fair, and that those rich white men in Washington really do have pretty dirty jobs.

Honestly, they’re the worst jobs. You have to be a special kind of crazy to sign up for that shit. I mean, you’d need the looks, wits, and charm to win over the electorate paired with the naivete to think that anyone even really wants you to change their life. You need to kiss babies in one arm and stab backs with the other. And all this while every aspect of your life, every stupid thing you did in college, is dredged up and put on TV for people to gawk at and condemn out of context. It’s crazy. Trust me, I’m an expert on this. I’ve seen Veep.

And so while being in high level politics is essentially the worst job I could imagine, like, in general, there are a few that really take the cake.

Senate Minority Leader – As far as elected Washington leadership goes, Senate minority leader is pretty cush. Usually this person has been around long enough to be fairly scandal proof, and they’re not really expected to get anything done. Just sit back, tell the other guy he’s an asshole, and watch the votes roll in.

House Minority Leader – A lot like the Senate minority leader, except where the Senate is mostly made up of adults, the House of Representatives is like a 435 child day-care with free Redbull and a puppy mill.

Senate Majority Leader – Ugh this guy actually has to do something. If you’ve got the majority you’re, like, expected to pursue an agenda. It’s the worst. Especially when the things voters wanted to hear in November like 2 years ago didn’t make any damn sense then and certainly doesn’t now. But so you beat on, boats against the current, and sort of try to get something done. Anything really. Like, if you control the Senate, and the House, and the White House, getting a bill or two passed should be easy, right?

Speaker of the House – Again, you’re dealing with real problems of governance, but doing it in a room full of shiny objects*.

POTUS – This is the worst job on earth. This person is ostensibly in charge of everything, but has like two actual tools: throwing a fit and signing Executive Orders, and the nuclear codes. Everything else is trying to build consensus among people who not only don’t work for you, but around half of whom actively work against you. Those peoples’ bosses/voters really only know you as “that dickhead in Washington,” and so regardless of the merit of any collaboration, the President is pretty much hosed. Of course sometimes the President finds himself with legislative majorities and still can’t find the light switches, which just goes to show that you really can do a bad job of a bad job.

White House Press Secretary – Ok I take it back this is the worst job on earth**.



*This doesn’t mean you should feel bad for Paul Ryan.

**It’s ok if you feel a little bad for Sean Spicer. As long as you don’t feel too bad.