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Archive for October 2008

The Doomsday clock ticks

It’s not a great week for print journalism.

Although I can’t find any direct mention of this on the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) Web site, Editor & Publisher reports that the respected daily is dropping its daily print edition in favour of online reporting. The 100-year-old CSM will print a weekend magazine to accompany the Web site.

The CSM will host a webcast next week on the future of journalism which will no doubt go into great detail concerning the switch.

Newsweek, meanwhile, has announced a first-half drop in net income of 73%, thanks to an 18% drop in ad sales and lower ad rates due to a reduction in readership of about 15%.

Newsweek’s primary competitor, Time, is laying off 600 people, about 6% of its workers. Magazine publishing house Conde Nast is reducing budgets by 5% across the board.

Feel free to start reading the Magazine Death Pool.

There’s a freaking inch of snow on the ground

When did that happen?

Nice day for a white wedding

Children Two and Three arrived home from school at 4:25 Friday, which is normal for their schedule, and we finalized preparations for a family drive down to Connecticut for my cousin’s wedding.

Google Maps warned us the drive from Montreal to Stamford, Conn. would take six hours and nine minutes. It took us about an hour longer because of traffic leading to the Champlain Bridge and a stop for gas and food.

We rolled in to our hotel around 12:30, unloaded, unpacked, and got to bed. As I get older, I dislike long drives more and more but I was consoled by the fact that I wasn’t my sister, who would leave Toronto in just a few hours and roll in to the hotel 12 hours later.

We had a seedling of a plan to spend the day in New York City with my brothers, sister-in-law, baby nephew, and quite possibly a girlfriend (although I’m not sure of that status). The morning was spent greeting family and nurturing our plans. By noon, we knew we’d take the train to Grand Central Station instead of driving, but some of us wanted to head to the AMNH while others were more interested in heading south, specifically to the Statue of Liberty. The train guy and some locals helped us decide that we didn’t have enough time to take the ferry to the statue.

Once in Manhattan, we walked near Times Square and found some lunch – shish kebabs from a cart for most of us, pizza from a place without wheels for the mincingly discriminating.

My gang all decided to head for the AMNH – surprise – along with my youngest brother and his girlfriend/not. I think he got frustrated by the line, and finally lost patience when a guard told him he couldn’t take in his tripod, so he joined my other younger brother and family walking around the neighbourhood.

We didn’t have time to see the entire museum. We spent the two hours we had on the fourth floor (pics here), which by the way is run by Mark Norell, who was hanging out as a post-doc when I was in my first year of my Ph.D. program at Yale. I was never sweaty and naked on a beach in winter with him, which is not something I can say about another head curator, the guy in charge at the DMNS (pics not known to exist).

We found seats on the 5:37 express to Stamford – rather, we thought we had. At 5:31, an intercom announced that the train we were on was not an express. The express was two tracks over, scheduled to leave at 5:34. We ran down the pier of Track 19 and got to the first car on Track 21 and ran into my brothers. There were no seats available, so the five of us leapfrogged cars to get to emptier cars. We found seats and settled in after I kicked Child Three in the nuts, pretty much accidentally.

That night, we drove up the many faces of Route 1 for an out-of-towners meal at Portchester. Practically everybody attending the wedding was an out-of-towner. The happy couple live in Manhattan, but the rest of their families live in Montreal and Toronto, with spikes in Houston, Scottsdale, and Israel, and others here and there.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. A ventilation fan outside our room kept contributing white noise, but every once in a while it or something else would power up and sound like a turbojet. I had a headache, too. Surprisingly, the five lichee martinis hadn’t helped.

The wedding was a success, helped by the calm, pleasant day. Our day in New York was gray, gusty, and a bit drizzly. It was held in Greenwich, Conn. and not in Mianus. How come I’ve never heard about that place before?

The groom employed the classic “fornication/for an occasion” pun to start his wedding speech, my youngest brother danced like Samwell, and a cousin from Holland gave a moving speech about his relationship with the bride’s late father, my uncle.

Elvi volunteered to drive the entire way home, and I felt so drowsy, I let her. Our drives were eased by an iPod FM tuner I’d bought a few weeks ago, and by my Clubbery and my Top Tunes playlists. It sure beats trying to find a decent radio station, or talking.

After waking up at noon today, I snagged myself a pair of jobs, one a short-term Mac consulting gig and the other a paid script consulting job. Neither job will keep me in caviar or even taramosalata, but they beat a kick in the nuts, or even a kick in your kid’s nuts, I’m sure.

Hockey twists

Child Three is in Novice B this year. So is the other goalie I thought he was competing with. The Novice A team pulled out a dark horse and is using that kid in net.

I had thought that Child Three in Novice B would mean that I’d be a head coach, but for reasons I can’t quite fathom, that didn’t happen. I’m an assistant coach this year. The head of Novice selected one of last year’s Novice C head coaches ahead of me. Really, I can’t figure that out – but I’m not raising a ruckus over it because that wouldn’t change anything and could make things a whole lot worse for the kids. It’s just a label, and it means I don’t have to do a lot of the off-ice crap while still being able to contribute my 37 years of hockey experience.

Still, I can whine here, can’t I?

Bonus Googlewhack:

A Googlewhack is a search term that results in a unique search result: one and only one page in Google’s database shows up as a search result for that term or phrase. (By the way, Elvi and I saw Dave Gorman in Dave Gorman’s GoogleWhack Adventure as part of Just for Laughs a few years ago.)

I discovered that I own a Googlewhack. The nature of the phenomenon is such that you can’t mention the search term on a second Web page without destroying the Googlewhackness, but I can tell you here that the term in question means “moose cock” in German and can be found in 101 here.

Update to 319

In my lectures, I touch on the point that news needs to be new and important (for whatever definition of that which applies) in order to be news. You never read about fender benders on the highway, but if a truck gets into an accident and releases a load of livestock, that will make the news.

The same considerations hold true in the peer-reviewed scientific journals. If a scientist devotes research time to whacking volunteers with a hockey stick, and concludes that this whacking causes bruises, the resulting paper is not likely to get published because the journals want to use their limited space for more important work.

Yes, these are ridiculously overblown examples, and so is the banana example I talk about in class, but I hope it helps to illustrate the principle. The important corollary is that this is, in fact, a bias. Scientific journals only accept papers with new and important conclusions but studies that reach wrong conclusions are more likely to appear to be novel than studies that conform to conventional wisdom – and so they are more likely to make print.

That’s subtle, but it looks like it’s a real phenomenon. In fact, there’s a peer-reviewed paper on it (go get a coffee, tea, or beer to help your brain recover from this paradox). The Economist has an article with analysis in a level of sophistication falling in between my few paragraphs and the original paper.

Uneventful weekend

It’s been a while since I wrote a note, but the mundane forces of life have been clawing at me. A lot of it is driving kids here and there, and the rest isn’t much more exciting than that, although Saturday provided some muted highlights. We hosted the managing editor of comment at the National Post and his family in the morning. He and Elvi went to university together and he recognized me because we used to play in the same softball league. We discovered another common hobby, wargaming, and I introduced him to my archaic favourite, Combat Mission: Afrika Korps. In the afternoon, the wife, Child Three, and I attended a Geek Out and played a few hands of Naval War.

Just as I have for last 25 years, with one or two exceptions, I missed this week’s broadcast of Saturday Night Live, but it’s up for sharing now and Sarah Palin (the real one) makes Alec Baldwin look wooden. In his defense, he had more lines to read off the teleprompter. And I love the random llama in the background.

http://widgets.nbc.com/o/4727a250e66f9723/48fcb5a8784b7c42/4741e3c5156499a7/cd7e94e3/-cpid/9eeb25fc13eda3a3

My election day

I woke at 7:00 a.m. to the clock-radio I’d set the night before. I had to be at the church in Montreal West but first I had to hustle Child One out of bed (the other two kids had no school) and shower. I thought about shaving, but I didn’t put my contacts in. I can’t see to shave the right side of my face without the contact lens in my right eye and once I was in the water I wasn’t getting out.

The trainer Saturday had warned us that we needed food for the whole day. The polls schedule no breaks. That meant lunch, supper, and snacks. Monday night, I built myself a sandwich of turkey, mayo, and pepper jelly on a whole-wheat baguette. I also packed two cans of Coke Zero, two apples, two snack bars, a tube of yogurt, and a small container of sweet-potato casserole. I needed to use two lunch bags. I also took the Gazette, three books, a notebook, and an iPod – for the slow periods.

I lifted my shoulder bag with my food and entertainment, picked up the ballot box stuffed with poll supplies, and went to my van in the driveway. I’m positive that I left the cardboard voting screen print side down in the back seat since picking it up Saturday, and that I hadn’t used the van since, but the screen now rested on the floor and sported a few dirty shoe prints. I’m still stumped. My car was locked. On one occasion when I’d forgotten to lock the car, it had been ransacked and some spare change stolen, but that was obvious: open compartments, drawers, etc., and the car was unlocked. I have no idea who pushed the screen off the back seat but otherwise left my interior pristine – and locked the doors behind them.

I puzzled over that for minute, then drove to the church in Montreal West to work.

Despite the two hours of training and that I did indeed familiarize myself with the materials the night before, as required, I still felt the slight uneasiness of someone doing something for the first time as I set up Poll Station 130, which is a prideful name for two guys and two pieces of elaborately folded cardboard. My poll clerk had done this before, which helped, but this was my kingdom for the day.

Canadians know the process. The deputy returning officer (DRO; that’s me) greets you and asks for ID, which can be a single piece with address and photo or two pieces, one with an address. The poll clerk looks up the voter (which we officially call an elector) by name on the electoral list and normally, name and address on the list match the ID. If they do, the DRO approves the elector for a vote and hands over a folded ballot. The elector goes behind the screen, unfolds the ballot, votes, folds it up again, and brings the ballot to the DRO, who rips off a stub with that ballot’s serial number (called a counterfoil). The DRO hands the ballot to the elector, who drops it in the ballot box. The DRO keeps all the counterfoils in a plastic bag as a double check on the ballot count.

Polls opened at 9:30 and by noon, 60 people had voted at our station. We’d already encountered most of the typical problems. We had people who hadn’t registered to vote but filled out a form that would let them. We had people without sufficient ID, who were able to vote after another elector eligible to vote at our station took an oath that they were eligible (and were in formed of the penal consequences of a false oath). We had folks who had misspelled names, or IDs with maiden names and voting registration with a married name. Some voters had transfer forms, indicating that they could vote at my station even though they were registered somewhere else in the riding.

It wasn’t too tough, but it wasn’t mind-numbing work either. We had stretches of time with nothing to do, so we read my paper or went to the bathroom. We couldn’t go far, because the poll station cannot operate with only one worker present, and we never knew when an elector or six would show up.

Our church polling site had six polling stations set up. The flow for each varied by more than you’d imagine. Some were busy in the afternoon while we had it easier. Our big rush started at 5:30 and lasted more than an hour.

Some voters are quick. They go behind the booth, you hear them slam the pencil down, and they’re handing you the ballot ten seconds later. Others think more back there, but none took more than, oh, 45 seconds. The process at best was taking about three minutes per standard transaction, and the bottleneck was finding the elector on the list. Of course, non-standard situations took longer, and some of these people have been waiting in line for a quarter hour or more during busy parts of the day.

All in all, we had a successful day. Of the 239 electors to visit my station, four left with corrections to their voter registration (I could have filled out more if I’d been more diligent), six registered on-site, six required another elector to vouch for them, and two had transfer forms. All but two left without raising their voices. But those two….

The first unhappy customer was listed on our poll list as having voted in an advance poll. There’s nothing I can do in that case. He simply cannot vote, even if the list is in error – which he vociferously argued it was. He left, mumbling that another vote for Marlene Jennings (the Liberal candidate) wasn’t going to make a difference.

Our second angry man was a father in his 30s, I guess, who had come with his wife and baby. The wife voted first, and her ID was fine. They had only recently moved, however, and this man had no ID with his current address. I had already handed him his ballot – a poor assumption on my part that if his wife checked out, he would, too. When I told him he couldn’t yet vote, he got mad. I tried to explain that he could vote once he and his wife took an oath, but he said it was a waste of time and tore up his ballot in rage. (Elvi’s chuckling now because I once got similarly mad at a customs agent who wouldn’t let me inform my father-in-law that our bags were missing and we’d be late out of the baggage claim. I crumpled or tore something – tickets, or a customs form maybe.)

The man stormed out. I retrieved his torn ballot and put it in my spoiled-ballot envelope.

Both upset customers were right about their votes lacking impact. Our riding has voted Liberal for 50 years, and it did again yesterday by a healthy margin.

Our poll closed at 9:30 p.m. and we cleared our table. I counted the ballots as my poll clerk tallied my count. He got it wrong, so I recounted twice more.

Once we had a definite count, we had to check the number of ballots cast against the combined total of electors crossed off the poll list plus votes from transfers and new registrations. It didn’t match, which is a big no-no.

With the miscounted tally in mind, I double-checked my clerk’s count of the poll list. I got a different number. I did it again, and got a third number. It was late and we were fried. I counted the counterfoils and was one short with those, but I knew there had been two electors who hadn’t given me the chance to remove them and I’d only found one during my ballot counting. Just about the next ballot I touched was the one with the counterfoil I’d missed, thankfully.

The only place we could have an error was in our poll list, counting the electors crossed off for voting. We combed through that poll list about five times before we became consistent in our count, but by the end of that, about 11:30 p.m., we were kosher. All our counts added up properly.

It took another 20 minutes to pack everything into the proper envelopes and the ballot box and you know what time I got home.

It’s a long day. I wolfed down my sandwich, two Cokes, yogurt tube, and one granola bar in light periods, but it’s amazing that each poll is staffed by the same folks for all 12 hours of voting. That’s something you don’t realize on the elector’s side of the table.

I tried to keep it light. If I thought an elector could appreci
ate the joke, I’d say goodbye with “Thanks, and come again soon.” I got a few delayed laughs.

The pay is pathetic, and unfortunately attracts the quality of people who would spend 24 hours in total for less than $10 an hour. Elections Canada should double that rate and make the jobs attractive to bright students, although the current system seems to work.

One man in the morning complained that the system of paper ballots is archaic, but I think it’s repeatable and extraordinarily hard to cheat. We have no hanging or dented chads or software bugs or memory glitches. Our ballots are simple and easy to count. Even the count at our station, which took longer than it could have although which was not the last station to close at our site, had discrepancies not in the ballots but in the cross-checking.

Our poll station’s results followed the riding more or less, with the Liberals taking 151 of the 238 ballots. The only fun result was that for us the Green candidate topped the NDP candidate for third place (behind the Conservative candidate). I can’t tell who cast the two votes for the Marxist-Leninist candidate, but I have my suspicions.

Just walked in

Closing my poll took longer than expected and there’s no way I’m going to write about it now. See you tomorrow.

Deputy Webs

In my neverending quest to present my dear readers with blog posts on topics other than sports and my whining, I applied to work for Elections Canada during Election Day next Tuesday. I’ve never done that before, but I figure it would be educational to see what goes on from the inside. Our process is not technologically advanced – we use plain old paper ballots that simply require you to mark a circle next to the name of the candidate of your choice. Straightforward, but nonetheless a process that I wouldn’t mind seeing from the inside

I expected to get a job taking names and handing out ballots, but in its boundless wisdom Elections Canada asked me to be a deputy returning officer, which puts me in charge of an entire polling station. The lady on the phone said that although I have no experience, they were impressed by my resume and thought I could handle it.

Maybe I should shift my job search to the civil service.

I have a two-hour training session this afternoon, after which I’m qualified to help protect the fate of the country. I have a 14-hour day waiting for me on Tuesday. The total pay for this living lesson in democracy is $220.

Bonus evidence of a canine learning disability:

While I was playing hockey last night, the rest of the family put the dog out and forgot about him. Despite three previous encounters, Crash has still not learned that skunks are bad and he took another shot in the face (skunkakke!). Maybe that canard about the sum of beauty and brains being a constant is true.

Make laundry fun

I’m betting that when I build this, the kids will love to help put away clean laundry. I may have to build three. OK, OK – two.

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