Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Of Pennies and Prejudice

Today I want to talk about panhandling, panhandling related incidents, and panhandler focused factoids.

It really annoys me that I can't actually present reliably true panhandler focused factoids, on account of there being none. So far, the only way genius social scientists have been able to figure out who panhandles and who doesn't is to go around to places where they think potential panhandlers are to be found, like shelters and meal programs, and beg them to tell the truth about whether they panhandle or not. This approach results in statistics that are a little like the ones you get when you ask the neighbor teenagers how often they've done each other.

To make matters worse: I am not a statistics wonk, so I forget even where I've seen statistics based on the truth-begging approach. So, for example, I am certain that at one time a few years ago I saw a report about such surveys being done in Seattle, Denver and Washington, D.C., independently, among other places. I am almost certain what the results were. And I am absolutely without any shred of doubt certain I don't remember where I saw that report, so I'm just wasting space telling you about it.

Still I can't resist telling you that, in spite of the inadequacies of the research methods, there is one pair of conclusions that genius social scientists always come up with when they study the question. Those conclusions are that (2) most panhandlers aren't homeless (so looking for them in shelters might be a mistake, see above), and (1) most homeless people aren't panhandlers.

The reason they come to the first conclusion is that the reported frequency of panhandling among admittedly homeless people is incredibly low even assuming, as social scientists do, that roughly a quarter of all human beings will lie to social scientists whenever they get the chance. The reason they come to the second conclusion is the same way I have, namely by getting to know various panhandlers and following them home at the end of the day.

The kind of results we're talking about varies considerably from city to city, but, except for Washington, D.C., in every place you go the percentage of homeless people who report even intermittent panhandling is down below 15%. In some areas the figure is much lower. I just saw a recent report out of Charlottesville, Virginia, about a hundred miles from D.C., where they could only get 4 homeless adults in a hundred admit to having panhandled at all in 6 months. Or maybe it was 3 in a hundred. They weren't too clear about their denominator. I don't blame them --denominators are hard.

The result I remember for Seattle was closer to 6%. I'd really appreciate someone tracking that down for me.

Meanwhile, a survey done by the Gallup people found that over 30% of all Americans thought the average homeless person was a panhandler. So a sizable minority of Americans figures that you can't solve homelessness without first dissuading homeless people from relying on panhandling, something hardly any of them do. It's like thinking that in order to solve the continuing problem of poverty in rural West Virginia, we have to get the West Virginians to not speak Etruscan when applying for jobs.

Here's one of those panhandling related incidents I was talking about. One day I was homeless and had 3 pennies. Two days later I still had the same 3 pennies. It occurred to me then that if I asked somebody for a quarter and they gave me one, I would experience an 833% increase in liquid assets, and after buying a roll at Safeway I would still have 3 pennies. Instead, I starved. Ha, ha, pride is funny.

Let that be a lesson to you all. If you are ever homeless, and you only have 3 pennies, and you don't ask anybody for a quarter, well, join the club.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Permission to Breathe

Let's make this entire column about Terri Schiavo!

Why not? Congress, which has nothing better to do, just devoted all of a weekend and part of a Monday maneuvering to pass a law with the exact title, "An Act for the relief of the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo." The law directs that one specific federal court, the US District Court of the Middle District of Florida, shall have jurisdiction over one specific case, namely that of whether Theresa Marie Schiavo's life support should be curtailed.

The good news is that the court is only granted jurisdiction to determine whether Schiavo's existing rights under federal law have been or are about to be violated. In other words the court has been given jurisdiction, by an act of Congress, no less, that it already had! (Tomorrow they may pass a law directing you to breathe!)

The bad news is that the intent of the act is to bring the power of Congress to bear on this case, even though Congress has no legal power in the matter, and they know it. To that end the act specifically directs the court to ignore all previous rulings in this case. The court is also directed to ignore any ongoing litigation in the state courts. ("You're to breathe, citizen, but only through this tube… ")

Whoa! That's a nasty slap in the face to your silly Founding Fathers and their silly "separation of powers," isn't it? Who needs it, when we can just order some judge, anywhere we want, in any individual case we want, to pay attention to nothing but what we say. Ignore the man behind the curtain!

Congress to the judge: "Fifteen years of court fights repeatedly resulting in rulings in favor of Michael Schiavo? What, fifteen years of what? Listen to your Congress… You are getting sleepy, very sleepy, and when we snap our fingers you will wake up and rule that Terri Schiavo's rights have been violated."

And if the court refuses to obey Congress, like on the grounds that they can take their unconstitutional law and stick it where their heads usually rest, no problem. Congress can just pass another act "to relieve the parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo, again," this time in a different court. If that doesn't work, well I don't know, maybe they would have to get serious and pass a law that would actually legislate something, but they'll cross that bridge when they get to it.

All of this could have been avoided if ten or fifteen or better, twenty years ago, Congress had sat down and actually considered such situations and what they would want to happen in these sorts of cases. Then Michael Schiavo would not have spent fifteen years of his life fighting in state courts for something that Congress was just going to rule against, after all of it.

Oops, did I say rule? Is that what they're doing, ruling in this case? Gosh, no, they wouldn't do that, because that would be unconstitutional. They're just ordering a federal court to rule, their way, according to new rules that they just invented, in a long-fought pre-existing case.

Can you say ex post facto? But they believe they can get around that by a technicality: she isn't dead yet. So the "facto" hasn't happened. So they can still butt in, without regard for that little detail of the constitution.

Can you say bill of attainder? Again, they've got a technicality: courts have only interpreted the prohibition of bills of attainder to include such things as depriving specific people of life, liberty, or property in cases where Congress would intend to punish them. But the intent here is to deprive Terri Schiavo of her right to refuse life support in accordance with her own wishes (as determined by the courts) for her own good, not to punish her.

Hey, I got my outrage back!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Outrage Fatigue

Oh no! I was about to write this column on my latest righteous outrage du jour, when suddenly to my horror I didn't have one. Should my meds be adjusted again? Have I become laid-back now, according to the principle that everyone becomes the person their friends tell them they are, no matter how wrong their friends' perceptions were originally?

I've never been laid-back. I've always been a seething pool of anger and fury. OK I kept a lid on me, pool that I was, in order to prevent unacceptable actions like land reclamation and inappropriate commercial development of human pools. Boy, this metaphor sucks.

So anyway, like I say, I'm a pool of anger, fury, etc. And I thought I had some outrage to dish up this week. I went so far as to mark my territory (another sucky metaphor!) by warning Anitra "Op Ed Mama" Freeman off the topics of my outrage. "Don't talk about the news about the Pentagon Channel," I said, "because I'll want to rant about that." "Don't talk about the Senate Nuclear Option," I said, "because that really has my panties in a bunch."

But now deadline approaches, and here I am. Though poised to rant, I am rantless. I am like the roarless lion, the croakless frog, the yell-less sixth-grader. I am also lacking even one decent metaphor.

Well, here's the deal, anyway. You know how the government lies to you all the time? They've been lying to our troops since the Napoleonic Wars, but now the Pentagon is institutionalizing it's process of lying by going forward with plans to bring the "Pentagon Channel" to the widest civilian audience possible on cable and satellite dish outlets. They will be providing national and international political news and analysis as well as the expected in-house military news.

An example of Pentagon editorializing-by-headline, from their 24-hour streaming website ( "Taking its cues from President George Bush, the international community is now standing up to Syria demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon." Yes, the international community is just helpless without cues from George. What will they ever do when they lose his manly leadership?

So, terrific, we have the beginnings of our very own US equivalent of Pravda. Why aren't I up in arms about it? Am I losing my touch? Is this that male menopause they're always talking about?

When I first heard about the Senate Nuclear Option I went nuclear. I paced back and forth in my hovel punching the air with my fists. How dare Bill Frist even suggest such a thing, I thought. The thing he suggested was that Cheney, as President of the Senate, outlaw Senate filibusters by fiat, at least for the debate of judicial nominees.

Part of my outrage was at the way some are distorting history of the filibuster. The Senate had UNLIMITED debate before the rule on filibusters was initially established in 1917. The "filibuster rule", currently requiring a 3/5-ths vote to close debate, was actually an improvement on a tradition, since 1806, of no closure without unanimity. Would Frist like to return to those good old days?

But, hey, I don't love the filibuster. I remember how it was used to delay civil rights legislation for years. So the real outrage is about the timing. Under Clinton the Republicans didn't need the filibuster; they blocked Clinton's nominees by refusing to allow the nominees names to go to the floor.

Now it's all the power the Democrats have left. So this is the time the Republicans decide they want to do away with a 199-year tradition, so that a Republican administration can install judges into the federal courts that anyone even slightly to the left of Mussolini or Bill O'Reilly would regard as extremists.

How pathetic is that? How can anyone stay angry at such pathetic behavior? I can only feel revulsion.

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Speaking of Freaks

Let's continue to talk about people who make controversial statements in public!

Larry H. Summers, research economist and Harvard University president, made a little speech (you can read it yourself at to a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research in January which got a few feminists more than a little angry, and now they want him to lose his job, or, failing that, be gently dismembered.

Ha! I was just kidding about the dismembered part. But they ARE ticked off, mainly because Summers said that he thought that one reason why women are under-represented in science professions is the "different availability of aptitude at the high end… " What he said sounds awfully close to "different aptitudes" and that sounds like saying women are dumb, but actually what he's saying is that men are statistically more likely to be freaks.

This theory isn't new. It was even discussed when I was teaching college math back in the olden days when the internet existed mainly to pass raw data around colleges and nobody ever dreamed it could someday help make your penis bigger. The theory is based on the true observation that for a large number of measurable attributes, women's measurements tend to be less extreme than men's. So in any large random population most of the freaks will be men. This applies to all kinds of freakdom. In a large random population, for example, it will be the men who will exhibit most of the freakishly high IQs. It will also be the men who will exhibit most of the freakishly low IQs. So the same theory used by Summers to explain women's under-representation in the sciences also has been used to explain why it's mostly men who win Darwin Awards for dying stupidly.

The important thing to me is not what reasons Summers could come up with in a relatively short speech about the under-representation of women in the sciences. The important thing is that he had the nerve to talk about it at all, and now because of that people are thinking about it more. Maybe the discussion will result in better ideas coming out than Larry's, and maybe he'd welcome them.

I think I have a better idea. I got my idea in 1980 when I was teaching basic algebra to a community college class that was three-quarters female.

I had a problem. I was explaining algebra the way the book explained it, which generally introduced new ideas by relating them spatially. Most of the class wasn't getting it. It occurred to me that it might make more sense to just say what algebra really is and leave the geometry out of it. So I explained how algebra is just talking about numbers. Equations are sentences, x's and y's are names, etc.

I had an amazing turn-around in the class. Before, most of the boys understood the geometric approach and only a couple of the girls. Now, it was most of the girls who got it, and only one of the boys! I started using both approaches to try to get through to everyone.

Now the bad news: a senior professor with control over my job found out what I was doing and told me to stop. His objection was, "The girls don't need to know math. They're just going to either get married, or be nurses." Worse, the senior professor had co-written the book, and he was going to get me fired if I didn't follow it word for word.

So here's my idea. I think that for about 25 centuries, math and science education has been deliberately geared to the interests and learning styles of boys, even at the cost, at times, of distorting content.

I think it's time to find out what science would look like if women did it. It could be an experiment.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Talk About Unfunded Mandates

Toby Nixon says he knows what it's like to be homeless. Thirty-five years ago his dad took him, age 11, and his two younger brothers to a new town, and they didn't have a place to stay until some government agency found them an $8 per night motel room. Toby doesn't say how long they had to wait to get into that motel room. It could have been all of one afternoon. But in his opinion piece last Friday in the P-I Toby does say that for him and his brothers it was all an adventure.

Arrrgh! It was an adventure for him, but he "knows" what its like to be homeless? No, Toby, you don't know. Nobody knows until they had to do it long enough that it wasn't an adventure anymore.

I hear this sort of nonsense all the time: some college kids decide they're going to write a joint term paper on "what it's really like" to be homeless. So they gather up tents and sleeping bags and live outdoors in city parks for a few days or maybe even a couple of weeks. Then they write that it wasn't so bad. It was "all an adventure." "It was nice not to have to do chores for mom for a change."

Now I don't want to disparage anyone's experiences, but when it comes to listening to people say "I know what it's like to be homeless," I have a little rule. I call it the Eight-Week Rule. The rule is simply that if you haven't been continuously homeless for at least eight weeks, I'm not listening. I know the rule is arbitrary. But you have to draw the line somewhere. I draw it at eight weeks. It's based on the theory that it takes eight weeks for some people before they hit "The Wall." I'll explain what "The Wall" is some other time.

But right now I have to talk about HB 1585. The whole reason Toby Nixon, a state legislator, wanted us to know that he knew what homelessness was "like" was so he could justify introducing HB 1585, a bill that would require tent cities which get any public funding to meet standards in line with the state's standards for migrant worker housing. HB 1585 would require, among other things, 7-foot ceilings for all the tents and ceiling-type lighting in each "housing unit".

Sounds great, except for one little catch. The bill establishes standards without providing the means to achieve them. It doesn't say that public funding has to be increased sufficiently to achieve those standards. HB 1585 in fact defines homeless people as temporary workers, even if they are unemployed, and what is the worst, defines the managers of a tent city as equivalent to the landlords of migrant farm workers. No additional funding is provided, the tent city "operators" are supposed to provide the improvements.

But, guess what? Existing tent cities in the Seattle area are self-managed! So Toby Nixon's law requires the homeless to supply themselves with better housing!

What freakin' genius!

I've just learned about some other brilliant legislation being contemplated by Toby Nixon and his Republican friends:

A bill inspired by Toby Nixon's memory of how hard it was for his next door neighbor when she didn't get a pony for Christmas, which would require all 12 year-old girls to save up their lunch money for however long it takes and buy themselves ponies. (For the purpose of this bill, 12 year-old girls will be defined as "farmers.")

A bill to provide health insurance to all citizens. It would do so by defining the term "insurance company" to include all individual citizens. If you're a citizen, you are your own insurance. It's not magic, it's Toby-ic!

A bill to solve transportation problems in Washington State. It would define "Washington State" as Sherman, Nebraska, and "transportation" as a big fat goose. You can eat your transportation, Washington!