Wednesday, November 5, 2008

General Election 2008

To remind the latecomers, I've been working for the past two and a half years as a Machine Inspector at my local polling place for Primary and General Elections. I'm mainly responsible for operating the voting machines throughout the day, as well as opening them up at the beginning of the day and closing them down at the end of the day.

This year, as you may well imagine, we were expecting a very busy day, with a large volume of voters, many first-time voters, and possible shenanigans by various partisans. In anticipation of that, last week I went to a refresher course for poll workers to brush up on procedures and find out if there would be anything new I should be aware of. By the end of the meeting, I hadn't really heard anything new, but at least I had the sense that I was pretty well-prepared for Tuesday.

On Monday, Andy, my next-door neighbor and Judge of Elections for our precinct, and I went up to the polling place to set up the room for Tuesday. It's our Township Commission meeting room, so we mainly had to move out the chairs normally set up for the audience, arrange tables for the voter sign-in and place the voting machines in position to be ready for opening the next morning. It didn't take long, but it's good to get that done ahead of time so there's no sense of rush on Tuesday morning.

Our polls in Pennsylvania are open from 7AM to 8PM, so we poll workers got there between 6 and 6:30AM to get everything ready. We posted all the informational fliers for voters, including several sample ballots, which are helpful because many voters seem not to know what candidates or questions are on the ballot before they get to the polling place. We signed our oaths and did all the paperwork and mechanical details involved in opening up the voting machines and set the clock to official Verizon time. We were pretty well ready by 6:50 and Andy went outside to catch a smoke before the polls opened officially. He came back in and told me that there were over 60 voters in line already. We've never had that kind of crowd at opening before. I think people had heard so much from the media for the past couple of weeks about possible crowds and problems at the polls that many wanted to get there early.

We opened up at 7:00 to a large but very orderly and patient group of voters. In our first half-hour, we had 100 people vote. We were busy all through the morning with fewer and shorter "slack" periods than we usually see, and before noon, we'd seen over 400 voters. We joked that, at that rate, we might get every voter on our rolls (around 1100) in to vote and be able to close the polls before the scheduled closing time at 8.That didn't happen, of course, but it was a good thought.

Overall, even though we had a busy day, it was probably one of the smoothest election days I've worked. We had the usual cases of voters who weren't sure if they were supposed to vote in our precinct or somewhere else, or people who weren't in our books, which led to our making calls to the County Clerk to verify registration, and many first-time voters, or people who hadn't voted in a few years and were unfamiliar with the electronic voting machines. Our people at the sign-in table used the sample ballot to show people what the machine would look like and what the candidates and question on the ballot would be, and I could usually take the time to show people how to work the machine, before I turned it on for them to vote "live". I must say, I remain very impressed with the dedication and patience of my fellow poll workers to help every voter to make sure they could find the right polling place and to make sure they understood the machine and the process. I was also impressed with the patience and understanding of the voters. If I was explaining the machine to a first-time voter, or an older voter unfamiliar with the machine, no one waiting in line complained that this was holding them up. If our people had trouble finding a voter's correct polling place and it took a while, people waited patiently and invariably thanked us for our efforts. People wanted to vote, and they were understanding of the time and effort that would take, on everyone's part. I don't think I heard cross words exchanged all day.

There were, of course, the amusing moments. There were the voters who still insist that the electronic voting machines are new, and they know that last time, they used the machine with levers, or the people who will stand in front of the curtains waiting for them to open, even when I say, "Walk through the center of the curtains." There was the teenage first time voter who came out of the voting booth and shouted "I just voted!" to cheers and applause. Then, she went out to the parking lot and got the same reaction from the people out there. There were the people who wanted "I voted" stickers so they could get a free cup of coffee at Starbucks or a free ice cream from Ben and Jerry's. We didn't have any of those stickers, but fortunately some of the political party workers out in the parking lot did. There were the Moms and Dads who brought their kids to watch them vote. They nodded and smiled knowingly when I suggested they keep the kids on their left side in the booth, so the kids wouldn't accidentally push the "Vote" button before Mom or Dad was ready. I could usually hear them say, when they were ready, "Okay, you can push the green button now.", and we'd make a big fuss for the kids that they'd helped Mom or Dad vote. One other suggestion for any parents who bring their kids with them when they vote: Please do not, as soon as you bring them into the booth, say, "Don't touch the green button." Consider: What do you think of if someone says to you, "Don't think of a blue elephant."?

We finally hit our big "slack" time around 7PM, by which time we'd had 848 voters, more than I've seen in my time working there, and over 75% of our registered voters. We ended the evening with two Dads and their kids arriving at 7:55 (Remember: Polls close at 8.), who brought the total of voters on our machines to 850. We also had one or two voters who cast provisional ballots, and around 30 absentee ballots. That was a wonderful turnout. By the time we closed out the machines, it was about 8:15. I left the hard-core political junkies to pore over the vote tallies and I headed home, with aching legs but a glad heart. People care about the process and will act patiently and cooperatively to make it work. It's not perfect, because people aren't perfect, but, especially when it goes smoothly, it's very, very good.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Man of Steel. Wits of Lead.

The Silver Age Superman is, to my mind, the greatest of all superheroes, but I must admit that he doesn't always employ the wisest strategy in the Never-ending Battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Specifically, he is far from the best secret-keeper in the world.

Any military or police strategist would agree that it's best to keep the bad guys in the dark about your capabilities, as far as possible. Superman himself clearly accepts this premise when he decides to keep the existence of Supergirl hidden for years after her arrival on Earth, in part so that she can be his "secret weapon" against crime.

On his own behalf, though, he sometimes drops the ball. For example, he would be wise to keep the extent of both his powers and his weaknesses as secret as possible, to avoid giving away any advantages to either super-criminals like Lex Luthor and Brainiac or common criminals like bank robbers and racketeers. Clearly, some of his powers are too obvious to hide, like flying, super-strength and super-speed, but why let people know he has super-hearing? It's much easier to overhear evil plotting if the plotters have no reason to believe you can hear them. Similarly, why let people know he has x-ray vision, or heat vision, or any of his other "stealth" powers?

Even assuming that Superman is so confident in his powers that he doesn't care if his foes know about them, we must wonder why he goes to the extreme of revealing his weaknesses, both physical and psychological. Superman's vulnerability to the various types of kryptonite is so-well known as to be the subject of Sunday Supplements in the Daily Planet. It seems that no criminal, whether mastermind or petty thief, sets up shop in Metropolis or its suburbs without first procuring at least one piece of kryptonite. A wiser man than Our Hero would never let anyone know kryptonite exists, much less reveal its effect on him.

Superman even reveals his smaller weaknesses. Knowing that neither his x-ray vision nor his heat vision can penetrate lead, Lex Luthor and others have lined their hideouts with thin sheets of lead. One assumes they regard the poisonous nature of lead to be a worthwhile price to pay for some measure of protection against their arch-enemy.

Perhaps the most stunning example of poor secret-keeping is the fact that it is fairly common knowledge that Superman has a secret identity---someone he is, when he's not being Superman. Consider that Superman, unlike most of his fellow superheroes, wears no mask. This would suggest to the public that he is not hiding who he is, because he's always Superman. People would not assume he has any identity other than Superman, but, somehow, he has let that secret out. Keeping the secret of his dual identity is psychologically important because Clark Kent provides him a way of interacting with ordinary humans as peers, as well as giving him some measure of privacy, away from constant demands on Superman. Thus, the fact that people know he has a secret identity, even though very few know who that secret identity is, needlessly lessens its usefulness.

Superman, you know I love you like a brother, but maybe you should talk strategy with the Batman.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life, In Four Words

Every one of us experiences joy and sadness, both large and small. Every one of us experiences the mundane nature of life, as well as its transcendent nature. In each of these cases, and many more, every one of us would do well to remember the secret of life in four words: This, too, shall pass. It is a cliché that people tell the survivors of a tragedy, that "life goes on", which is true, although not always helpful at the time. When we are in the immediate grip of a great sadness---the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, a devastating natural disaster---we are often so overwhelmed by our strong emotional reaction, that we cannot conceive that our life can ever go back to "normal" again. It feels like our grief, our anger, our terror, are all that we have left, or ever will. For most of us, though, in time---sometimes a long time---we regain our equilibrium and resume some sort of normal life again. We don't forget the bad thing, but we make some kind of accommodation People don't often say to someone experiencing a great triumph that "life goes on", although it is still true. A friend of mine recently had a novel published, to excellent reviews and good sales. He complained to me that, despite the success of the novel, he found he still had to deal with the mundane, irritating aspects of his regular (non-writing) job. Part of him, at least, wanted to enjoy his success to the exclusion of "regular life". I had to remind him that "life goes on" in the face of great joy, too. "This, too, shall pass" suggests that nothing we experience in this life is permanent. Our great tragedies will not last forever. Neither will our great triumphs. Even our mundane, boring daily chores will not last forever. We will have all these things at different times, and in different measures. While immersed in any of them, we allow ourselves to believe that it is a permanent, steady state, but, truly, we know that's not so. We sometimes need to be reminded of this. Good friends are those who know when we need reminding, and do so, even when we don't thank them for it immediately.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day

During this Memorial Day weekend, I ask that we all remember why we mark the day. Please, take a moment during the long weekend, especially on Memorial Day itself, to remember those who have given their lives in service to their country. Spare them a thought. Say a prayer for their peace and the peace of their loved ones. If you see a Veteran selling poppies, consider buying one. Put it in your lapel, or on your briefcase, or on your purse, or on the visor in your car. If you have children, teach them to honor those who sacrifice on our behalf. Remember: "If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields."

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reincarnation Police

The Chinese government wants to require that Tibetan Living Buddhas have Beijing's approval for their reincarnations. See link below:

Consider the following, based on that news story:

An elderly man in saffron robes walks along a mountain path in Tibet. He is humming a tune as he walks. He is approached by a Chinese man in uniform.

"Excuse me, sir, but may I ask the name of the tune you are humming?" "Certainly, my son, it is Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
"I believe that is a favorite song among Buddhists. Are you by any chance a Buddhist?"
"Indeed I am. In fact, I am the Panchen Lama."

"I was afraid of that. As one of the Living Buddhas of Tibet, you are required to have registered your reincarnation with the government. Do you have your license and registration?""I'm afraid not, Officer. I must have left them with my last body."
"I'm sorry, sir, but I must inform you that, after a brief, but fair, show trial, you will be executed next week.""I understand, my son."
"I knew you would, Bodhisattva, as you have attained Total Enlightenment, after all."
"Yes. See you next month, then?"

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Solomon and the Sparrow

Quite a very long time ago, before the first stones were set in China's Great Wall, at a time when the people of Britain worshipped tree spirits and painted themselves blue, there lived a great and splendid king named Solomon. Now, this Solomon was the wisest of men, and highly favored by the Lord, Who had given him the gift of an understanding heart. However, even though he was the wisest of men, he still had much to learn. Here is the story of one of his lessons.

To give glory to God (and to show the world his own greatness) Solomon decided to build a great Temple to the Lord. One day, as he was inspecting the progress of the builders, he chanced to see a tiny sparrow atop the wall of the Temple. This sparrow was lying on its back, with its feet straining upward. Such a curious sight naturally intrigued the great king. With his understanding heart, Solomon knew the languages of all the creatures of the earth, the sea and the sky, so he asked, "Little sparrow, why are you lying here in such an undignified position? A bird should fly free above the earth, not lie on its back." The sparrow replied, "I have heard, O wisest of men, that your mighty Temple will stand so tall as to crack the sky, and cause it to fall. I have determined to protect the earth by holding up the sky with my feet." Solomon laughed, saying, "Surely, little bird, you do not believe that you can hold up the entire sky by yourself!" The sparrow replied soberly, "One does what one can."

Backscratcher (A Haiku)

Little wooden hand
On a stick of curved bamboo
Blissful itch relief.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pennsylvania Primary 2008

You may have heard that there was a primary election in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. As I've done for the last couple of years, I worked as a Machine Inspector here in Haverford Township, Delaware County, just outside of Philadelphia. The main interest, of course, was the Democratic Presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Although our precinct is very heavily Republican, most of our voters were Democrats. Some of them were very obvious in their preferences. One woman came up to me and asked, very loudly, "Where do I vote for Hillary?" I said, "In the voting booth." While she was in the booth, she called out to me, "Who are these other people? I don't know who they are." I figured out that she was referring to candidates for state offices like Attorney General or State Treasurer. I told her that the offices people were running for were printed on the screen. She asked what she should do about those, so I told her she could vote for those offices or not, as she liked. She decided that she only cared about voting "for Hillary".
We still have people who are confused by the electronic voting machines, even though they've been in use here for two and a half years, that is, five elections. Some people insist that we're using different kinds of machines every time. I tell them that the only things that really change are the offices and the names on the ballot. The use of the machine is the same each time. I realize that some voters are new, but they're usually not the ones who seem confused by the machines. Often, if a voter approaching the machine seems to have a confused or apprehensive look, I'll ask if they want me to show them how to use the machine before they vote. The ones who try my patience the most are the ones who insist that, no, they don't need any help; they've done it before. Then, they go into the booth and say, "Oh, this looks different." and then they want help, at which point, I can only talk to them through the curtain, or ask them to step out so I can show them on a sample ballot.
Because it was a primary, we had the usual problems with voters who want to vote for candidates not in their party. We try to explain that, in the primary election, voters can only vote within their registered party, but some people don't like that. They want to do what they want, regardless of party rules or the law, and they get angry at the poll workers, as if it's our fault. Fortunately, I didn't have anyone get angry with me when I asked their party so that I could set the machine properly, as happened in the primary last year. I did have one woman, a Republican, who was in the voting booth with her little girl, who was asking why Mommy wasn't voting for "the girl", at which point, the woman came out of the booth and asked me if she could change her choice of party. I said that, yes, she could do that, but
not at the time she was voting.

We had the usual cases of voters who came to our polling place who didn't know where their polling place was. We could deal with those questions with a single phone call, but it surprises me that people seem unaware that they could make that phone call themselves, or find the information on the internet. In thirty-four years of voting, I have never failed to find out, before Election Day, where my polling place was. I don't think it's that difficult, really.
It was, as always, encouraging to see the first-time voters, often young people, but also some older ones this time. They're usually pretty excited to be voting. I also enjoy the little kids who accompany Mom or Dad into the voting booth. They're usually pretty excited, too. I hope that continues when they are old enough,themselves, to vote. Contrast that with a few voters who, when they found out they couldn't vote in the other party's primary, just left without voting at all. I mean, there are people in this world, and even in our own country, who have fought hard for the right to vote. I don't like to see people casually walk away from that right.
It was a fairly busy day, from 7 AM to 8 PM, and we had only a couple of stretches of "dead time". We ended the day with, I think, 465 voters, a pretty good turnout for a precinct with about 1000 total registered Republicans and Democrats combined, especially in a primary election. I think we must have seen just about every registered Democrat on our rolls. By the time I got home, I was exhausted, and glad I don't have to do that again until November.
I must add one last episode from the night. After I got home, I put on the TV to see election results. Obama had won our precinct by a very narrow margin, and I wanted to see how the state went. At the moment the news people were calling the race for Clinton, a huge sound of celebration erupted from the neighbors down the street. It seemed odd to be hearing very loud, very young, very male voices celebrating this news, then I realized that the Flyers had just beaten the Capitals in overtime to take Game 7 of their playoff series

The Irony of Kryptonite

People are using the term "kryptonite" with increasing frequency these days, in the sense of "weakness" or "thing which is harmful or deadly or terrifying to me", as in, "I'm claustrophobic, so elevators are my kryptonite." This is understandable, given the general public's notion of kryptonite as the substance that can weaken and kill Superman, but it is incomplete and misses what I call the irony of kryptonite.

To understand this irony, we must first understand what kryptonite is, in the world of Superman. The child, Kal-El, who would grow up to become the Man of Steel, was sent to Earth in a spaceship by his parents to escape the destruction of his planet, much as Moses was set adrift on the Nile to escape the destruction decreed by Pharaoh. The planet Krypton was transformed by its nuclear death into the substance kryptonite, a green, glowing, radioactive death-dealing horror to Superman.

Here is the irony. The very ground of his home planet, which, in the natural course of events would literally support him and grow the food which would sustain him, has become toxic to him. Even worse, the explosion of Krypton resulted in the transformation of everything on the planet into this deadly matter. Books, trees, houses, sporting equipment, the very stuff of daily life, all became kryptonite. Not only has the ground which would have physically supported him on his homeworld become his deadly enemy, so have the things which would have supported him psychologically and emotionally. Imagine, for example, that Superman were to find his parents' wedding picture, or his favorite stuffed toy from childhood, somehow fallen to Earth. He might at first feel a wave of sentimental nostalgia as he remembered, if he could, the brief but happy time in the bosom of his now-gone family. Almost simultaneously, though, this would be overwhelmed by horrified realization of the threat to his survival.

Perhaps fate, or the universe, strives for balance. Superman has lost his biological parents, but he gained adoptive parents, the Kents. He lost his people and his planet, but he gained the people of Earth, his new home. He is arguably the most powerful being on Earth and beyond. Balance requires a weakness, and perhaps not simply a physical weakness, but an emotional one, as well. Not only can he not go home again, any significant exposure to his “home” will drain his strength and turn him into a green-skinned corpse. Finally, there is one last interesting piece of the puzzle. While it is generally known that kryptonite is deadly to Superman, but harmless to Earth-humans, what is sometimes not so well-known is that kryptonite is also harmless to a Kryptonian without super powers. That is, if Superman were to find himself on a re-constituted Krypton under its red sun, kryptonite would simply be an interesting green, glowing rock. Thus, kryptonite is a threat to the hero Superman, not the person Kal-El. The creation of a great hero requires a correspondingly great weakness.

The life of an ordinary person has more ordinary weaknesses. Fortunately, we have the inspiration of our fictional heroes, like the Man of Steel. As great a weakness, physically, psychologically and emotionally, as kryptonite is to him, he has never failed to overcome it, either on his own or with the help of others. Let this be our goal, too, in facing our own weaknesses.