Friday, April 21, 2006

“Remember… !”

21 April, 1836 (exactly 170 years ago) the predator was upon the prey. Or something like that…

Five Mexican armies were well across the Rio Grande into what has declared itself the independent Republic of Texas. The thousands of drilled Mexican uniforms engage pockets of Tejano irregulars generally numbering in the low hundreds. Three hundred and forty-two surrendered men have been murdered less than a month ago at Goliad. Shortly before that the famous and foolhardy defenders of the Alamo Mission had been eradicated by a sheer overrun of numbers.
It was all so easy. And another such conquest sat squarely on the calendar for tomorrow.

What no one realized was that the prey had chosen itself. Out of the five heavily built Mexican armies in Texas, General Sam Houston had picked this one specifically for it’s commanding officer: the ‘Napoleon of the West,’ Mexico’s military dictator himself.
Houston, who had arrived in Texas mere months before, was the country’s last hope for a victory. He was increasingly regarded as no hope at all. But he had made his army Santa Anna’s target intentionally, and his exceedingly unpopular retreat was well-designed to place the imminent battle on the field of his own choosing, while allowing time for the training of his volunteer force.

The Republic’s government (which Sam himself had managed to patch back together when it had already fallen apart) was making vehement threats to remove Houston; his own officer’s and men believed he was a coward. The virtually universal conviction that the retreat was a bad one seemed validated when Santa Anna was suddenly reinforced by a force of six hundred. Things were only getting worse.

But it was then that Sam Houston had found his ground. He stopped, and watched as Santa Anna prepared to attack. Apparently the former Tennessee Governor, now Texan General, let only his scouts in on the plan in his head. The Mexican generals believed the twenty-second would be the day remembered as the Battle of San Jacinto, but Houston’s scouts had already destroyed the bridge that would give Santa Anna’s foolishly chosen camp ground a retreat.

The morning of the twenty-first Houston informed his officers that today was the stand they had asked for. Overwhelmingly, the same men who had grumbled over Houston’s lack of offensive action voted now that they should entrench and defend their own location. The General overruled them, telling them to assemble their men.

That afternoon, during the hour of siesta diligently observed by Santa Anna’s troops, a line of Texans two-deep crouched low as they ascended the hill atop which the enemy lay sleeping. As they neared the crest a sentry saw them, but the slope didn’t give the Mexican volleys much chance to hit the shallow line in its approach. Houston, on horseback, was the easiest mark on the field. Even as shot severed both bones of one leg he repeated the order that his men hold fire from their muzzle-loading arms.

At almost point-blank range the order was finally given and a single burst dropped the few platoons that had managed to drowsily form up. From here, as dictated by the technology of the day, it was an action of bladed weapons, to which the frontier fighters were much better suited than trained soldiers.
“Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” Houston’s cry was echoed across the entire field.
The sleeping enemy hadn’t time to prime its guns, and Mexican regulars dropped to their knees at every yard, disavowing Santa Anna’s slaughters and denying their presence at them. The battle lasted a full eighteen minutes.

Twenty-nine years later, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper would claim that Federal troops caught Jefferson Davis on the run in Georgia dressed as a woman. In more recent years it was claimed that Osama bin Ladin fled Afghanistan in a disguise of more severe personal humiliation.
But Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and General of the Operative Army, really was brought in dressed as a lowly soldier. Despite Sam Houston’s vigorous warning to check all prisoners against the face of Santa Anna, regardless of apparent rank, Antonio López slipped past his capturer’s notice. Until the real privates of his army saluted and shouted “El Presidente!” en masse.

The captive was taken to parley with General Houston, lying in the shade of a tree and attempting to disguise the severity of his wounds. (Good old Sam had gotten used to being shot apart years before, being essentially the flip side of the George Washington quarter every time he saw battle.)
Santa Anna hastily agreed that, given his safe passage to Mexico, he would order all military operations in Texas to return across the Rio Grande preceding a probable official recognition of the Republic.
It didn’t happen. Houston’s painstaking steps to keep the zealous volunteers (many of whom had lost relatives to Santa Anna’s murderous commands) from exterminating El Presidente proved a waste when Mexico decided she was better off with their bloodthirsty and unconstitutional (Texas only proclaimed independence when Santa Anna destroyed the lawful constitution) dictator in Texas chains.

But Santa Anna would soon return home anyway, minus his titles. Over the remaining decades of his life he would reclaim those titles, make war, make peace, deny his own treaties, etc, and generally make life miserable.
But even he gets a happy ending: In New York, during one of his several exiles, Santa Anna would help make Chiclets (and with them, chewing gum itself) a reality.

Sam Houston’s story also remained essentially the same for the rest of his life. Having won Texas’ independence for her, he was to become her first President and her first U.S. senator. His career was to be brilliant, and like the rest of his life alternated between wildly popular and violently condemned.
In 1859 he was elected governor, but was kicked out as “disloyal” for his dim view of secession. (“Loyalty” can seem to mean whatever the user wishes, if you didn’t notice.)

Two years into civil war he died in Tennessee, still an example of everything good that can be given to the term “Texan.”
(O.K, so that’s a tad sappy. True, but sappy.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


It’s tradition. As soon as Easter Sunday passes, and the seasonal candy is marked down fifty percent, I get some. Nothing to complain of when it gets down to four or five bags of Reese’s® “chocolate covered peanut butter eggs.” Good stuff.

Now that’s the real meaning of Easter, huh? Well, you know, except for all that other stuff:
“Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Factorial Monty

O.K, here be the disclaimer: If you don’t know me very well (particularly if you don’t know anything about math) and you have run across this posting, you might be tempted to categorize me as a ‘math geek.’ Please do not do this.
I do not ask you this because to do so would be to insult me, but because to do so would be to insult every math geek on the face of the earth.
From a practical standpoint, I hate math. No offense to you mathies out there, it’s just not my area. However, I do tend to enjoy (at least on an abstract level) the workings of the world. So, in the end, I can enjoy math as an idea, so long as I am not expected to sit down with paper and pen and actually do anything.
(There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule. But let us not get into that.)

Now that that is out of the way…

There is a mathematical diversion known popularly as the Monty Hall problem. I vaguely remember hearing something about it ten years ago or so, but it was really only introduced to me recently, upon reading this book.

The problem, named for the host of that televised outcropping of the sixties known as “Let’s Make a Deal,” tied my brain in knots for several hours of intermittent examination until I finally rectified truth with assumption. Or, more accurately, finally vanquished a superficial assumption.
The problem also happens to be very timely as NBC is running something called “Deal or No Deal” which appears to be an attempt at remaking Mr. Hall’s legendary show (minus all the amusing trappings, and thus the point of the show). I haven’t actually seen any of this new program, of course…

But various acquaintances have, and have spoken of it. Which led to a remodeling of Monty Hall’s perplexing problem. The problem, as I presented it to the group, was as follows:
You are on TV. I point your attention to three models standing on a stage with plastic smiles, each with a briefcase in hand. One briefcase holds a gold brick and a million dollars in cash. The other two contain rats. In a moment you will be asked to select one case, whose contents you would like to call your own in the hopes that it has the riches. After you have selected I will have one of the models open one of the two boxes not selected, revealing one of the rodents. Understood? Good. Now, pick.
By overwhelming majority, it was agreed that the center box would be chosen.
Right, then. Miss Maine, yes, the one on the right, would you kindly open your attaché case? Thank you.
A white rat is shown to the audience and Miss Maine leaves the stage with it.
Now, honored-and-hopefully-lucky contestant, I am going to make you an offer. You may either stay with your original choice of what had been the center case, or you may switch and take home the contents of the case to its left. What is your decision?
One person said that she might switch, but that she didn’t really care. Everyone else present was emphatic: They were sticking to the original choice. (The reason for this, as explained to me afterwards, was that to switch and lose would make the player feel stupid, whereas to stick and lose would entail less of a sting.)
All right, can anyone tell me what the odds are of the original choice being correct, and what the odds are of the switch you all turned down having the fortune?
Fifty-fifty, everyone said. All but our resident math genius, who claimed they should both still be consider a one-third chance, having originated from three choices.

So, was fifty-fifty the correct answer? No.
When I informed the group that they had just received a suitcase with a lab rat inside, I had the makings of a riotous mob on my hands. A few simply stalked off and the rest angrily accused me of rigging the game. According to them, whatever they had chosen I would have claimed I had placed the goodies in the other case.
No, I said, it was purely a matter of probabilities. Sticking to their guns as they did, they would only get the loot one in three tries. Had they switched when given the offer, their chance would have doubled to two in three.

I was accused of imbecilic math (as was Marilyn vos Savant for getting it right the first answer, something I fell far short of).

But yes, it is true. The way I finally explained it to myself after perhaps five hours of off-and-on obsessing was that the initial choice (the center box, in this case) had a one in three chance from the beginning. Intentionally taking away one of the bad boxes doesn’t change that, so by subtraction the other box must necessarily have a value of two-thirds.

It became even clearer in my mind when an engineer I mentioned it to that first day tried to convince my of my error by illustrating it with a hundred boxes instead of three. The point that was supposed to made through this exercise was easily defeated by it in the end.
If you stick with your initial choice as ninety-eight bad boxes are removed, your initial choice still has only a one over a hundred chance of being correct. And since the other boxes were removed specifically for their identities as dead fish the other one left has a ninety-nine percent chance of holding the golden egg.

These were the terms I explained it in (being sure to emphasize the fact that I had been wrong-headed about Monty Hall originally as well), and I think everyone more or less agreed with and forgave me at the end.

Assuming that anyone has waded through my laborious explanation of an otherwise pretty cool concept, the interesting part happened next.
A woman, whom I do not know well but with whom I am acquainted, was attracted to my general area by the sounds of our discussion. She brought with her a problem of her own:
If an individual has five drawers, how many different ways are there of arranging said drawers within their five spaces?

I should mention that this woman has more mathematical education in her upper spinal chord than I have in my entire nervous system, aside from being a very intrinsically smart cookie. That, and the fact that her question was inspired by the discussion of an apparent paradox might lead one to believe the posed question was meant as some kind of test.

But it’s a simple enough problem. Actually, so simple as to be too easy, the kind of semi-circular reasoning that leads right back the idea of a trick question. But the simple truth remains that, as any one of the five drawers can sit in the first slot, but only one of the other four can sit in the next (and so on) 5 times 4 times 3 times 2 (times 1—but who cares?).
I write the numbers in the air briefly and cough up the number 120.

“That’s what I thought,” she says. “But I wrote out the possibilities and couldn’t get more than twenty.” Hmm. “Is the factorial over something?”


She suggests I puzzle it through. I stared into space a bit, wrinkling my mouth different directions. I was trying to figure out how she only came up with twenty.

During the course of my duties that day (volunteering with a children’s program), I happened to be in contact with her fifth-grade son, who saw my (by then completed) work on the matter and asked what it was. I told him his mother had asked me to prove how many ways five objects could be arranged. It was then revealed not to be some purely academic exercise meant to trip me up.
“Oh, I know where she got that. See, we had these five drawers last night and she was trying to figure out how they were supposed to go in…”
I rather enjoyed that. When he suggested I write my proof with seven factors instead of five (as there had originally been two more drawers) I enjoyed it less. For my proof was a hand written list of all one hundred and twenty possible combinations of the five disoriented drawers.
Having retrieved some waste paper from the secretarial pool’s trashcan, I made out the list (exactly as below). Five columns of twenty-four combinations of five unique items.

O.K, so not exactly as represented here. The order and organization is the same, but my handwriting is terrible and I had to scribble out three duplications (two in the third row and one in the fourth).
Nonetheless, I was quite proud of myself.

When I met the lady of the mathematical furniture at the day‘s end, I forked my handiwork over with this simple speech: “One hundred and twenty.”
“You did do it.” She was surprised I’d bothered thinking of it at all.

Of course, as any genuine math junkie can probably see from the groupings within my list, I couldn’t have done it so fast (about twenty minutes while dealing with the kids in my care) without having the number 120 already in mind.
But I refuse not to be impressed with myself.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

FUN WITH PLASTICINE MONEY: Pt III - The Cute, Innocent Chick

So, I managed to expose a criminal and save his boss a bunch of money, utilizing my brain and a new Visa card. Yes, it was funny, but I didn’t get a single good belly laugh out of it. Those idiots who go around signing “Kim Jong-Il” (who, by the way, has his own much larger credit scam going) everywhere seem to have so much more fun than I did with my Elmer’s cement.

So, the question becomes, “How to take this up a notch?” Kenny at the gas station watched gleefully as I (he thought) defrauded some idiot named Mortimer Randolph, and went on and on about how chic I was in method until I was out of earshot. But he didn’t so much participate as merrily allow it.

I wondered, is there a way to get a cashier to take more active a part? I decided to find out.

Last time, I targeted someone I was fairly confident was already dirty. This time, I decided to test someone I was sure would prove to be clean, someone who would immediately turn me in to the manager. Let’s just say I needed a boost to my confidence in human goodwill.
So this time I made sure to wear good running shoes.

The one time I caught a week-day matinee at the local theater, I noticed that I (and the two friends I was treating to Napoleon Dynamite) were the only ones there. The ticket-sellers, apparently yearning for some human interaction not projected on a two-dimensional screen, had eagerly conversed with us every last second before the feature rolled. A perfect opportunity for my next credit card run.

So, I showed up for the two-twenty showing of some dumb little just-because-Hollywood-has-money-to-waste movie, credit card in tow. The lobby was empty, as planned. And there, behind the toy-like register was, uh, let’s say Cindy, a very pretty, very friendly blonde of (I’d guess around) 22 years. Surely she’ll prove worthy of the trust her employers have in her.

“One for such-and such piece of cinematic garbage,” I say, not quite in those words. She smiles sweetly as I hand her my card. And now I’m supposed to sign the little leaf of paper. “Excuse me, could you hold my card up for me?” She blinks, but holds it up anyway.
I carefully instruct her just how high and just how close to my face to hold it, as I laboriously imitate the signature on it’s back, attempting to duplicate it on the card. Attempting and, well, succeeding easily (it‘s my signature, of course). But I try to make it look hard.

Any second now she’s going to catch on, I know it. Then she’ll ask me what I think I’m doing, before yelling back at her boss to come help her restrain the criminal who just tried to steal the price of a matinee. Then I’ll have to steal my own card out of her hand and run for it. But she doesn’t catch on, she just stands there, obeying my every request in holding my card up.

So I decide to sweeten the pot just a bit.

“Huh..” I say, finishing the last letter of my name.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, but… Is ‘Randolph’ really spelled that way?”

She looks at it. “I guess so.”

“I dunno, it’s just weird. I’ve never seen ‘Randolph’ spelled that way before.”
“I mean, look. It’s a ‘ph’ instead of an ‘f.’”

She shrugs.

“Oh, well. Some people, right?”

“Yeah,” she says, smiling.

It’s clear she has no idea what I’m talking about, no idea that I just copied the signature from the back of (my) card onto the slip that she is supposed to compare against it. No idea that, if I’m really myself, I’ve just admitted to not knowing how to spell my own last name. Not to mention insulted myself for having spelled it correctly.

I leave Cindy and walk into the shadowy screening area, dejected at the thought of just how pitiable mankind is.

But as I sat down, dejected at the thought of not having been chased out of the establishment (more specifically because I would now have to sit through a stupid movie for Cindy’s failure), I had a thought. I went back out to the lobby, where Cindy was leaning against the counter, face resting on her hand, waiting despondently for someone else to talk to. She perked up when she saw me coming back.
And she gave a happy “yes” when I asked if she’d like to have dinner with me on the weekend. Probably the “yes” was influenced by her momentary state of lonely, but a yes is a yes however you look at it.

So, we’ll go to the restaurant together, and over a fair to good meal I’ll explain some things to her. Like, say, what a credit card is and how easily it can be exploited by the wrong people.

She’ll never speak to me again, but at least I will have the satisfaction of having helped educate America’s youth on their duty in halting the menace credit card fraud. A good day’s work.

Please Note the date of publication for this three part series “Fun with Plasticine ‘Money’” in deciding whether to accept one word of it as fact. Thank you.

FUN WITH PLASTICINE MONEY: Pt II - The Fat Guy Behind the Counter

Where was I? Oh, yeah. So there’s this guy who works at the local gas station…

A friend who used to work there tells me this particular guy (let’s call him… Kenny) invites his friends over for the time slot when the security camera’s VCR hits the end of the tape. During the time between that tape coming out and the next tape going in, his pals (who reportedly are grunt workers at the area’s largest chop-shop) and he raid the liquor sections and proceed to enjoy happy hour.

This really is just on the level of hearsay, but it’s easy to believe because half the times I’ve been in there Kenny has tried to blatantly overcharge me. Not to mention that his odor always reminds me of the sign in the window proclaiming it a misdemeanor to consume alcohol on the premises.

So, new credit card in hand, I think it’s time to test just how criminally indulgent Kenny can be.

First, the right getup. I borrow a friend’s Kojak glasses (hey, you think I can spend $300 bucks on lenses?) to get myself in on the vice-squad atmosphere. But I have to look seedier than that. All black clothing, and a hoodie to obscure my face, like I’m scared to be recognizable on the security tapes. I remind myself on the way over to conspicuously hunch my head low.

I mosey into the gas station at just the right hour to find the place deserted, having checked with my friend to find out what hours of what days Kenny works there. He’s behind the counter, wiping his hands on a towel for some unknown reason.

Kenny nods at me, eyeing my garb as the glass door swings to behind me. I head to the back of the store, hands in my pockets, shoulders bunched up and head slung forward. I suddenly realize I have to pick something to buy, and a candy bar doesn’t seem like a credit-racket commodity.
Beer would fit better with the image, but I don’t like beer and have no interest in wasting my money on it. I decide to buy a bag of ice, the name’s allusion to stolen goods striking a chord with me. But ice isn’t expensive enough to justify some dude in black buying it with (what is hopefully assumed to be) somebody else’s card.
So I grab a king-size Resse’s to go with it.

I lift my loot onto the counter and duck my head farther, staring squarely at the floor for a moment. This has to look illicit. I slide my Visa card across to him and leave it there.

Kenny is staring at me, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the way I’m acting and not that he recognizes me for the guy who always argues when he tries to cheat me. Hopefully I just look like some random crook. Who likes to steal ice and candy.

When he gives me the slip of paper I’m supposed to sign (so that my in-person signature can be checked against the one on my card) I pull out the big guns. Or rather, the office supplies.
I empty my pockets of a business letter, over-sized sewing scissors, and a heavy glass jar of Elmer’s rubber cement.

The letter is a phony I printed out from my computer and signed with my name. I proceed to use the scissors to clip it down to the signature, all the while with Kenny’s eye staring curiously. Then, with my name fully clipped out, I open the rubber cement and use it to affix this little piece of paper over the receipt I’m supposed to sign.

Kenny realizes what’s going on now. How could he not? Well, O.K, he doesn’t realize I’m having him on; but he thinks he knows I’m a petty crook. How will he react?
By congratulating me for my brilliance. Laughing, he says “I’ve got to try that sometime.” Great, I’ve just taught a thief how to steal.

Maybe he’ll get caught trying it.

Back in the comfort of my home I write a letter to Kenny’s supervisor, explaining just what time he should review on the security tapes. And of course, I sign my name.



Ever since some investigative reporters filmed themselves doing it, credit fraud for-a-joke has steadily increased in popularity.

Google credit card joke or credit card prank and you’ll find numerous people proudly proclaiming their success at duping apathetic sales workers with phony signatures, generally “Bugs Bunny” or “Britney Spears” signed for one’s own card.

At least three of these idle-handed would-be comics claim repeatedly to have shown how greedy credit card companies are. In fact, it shows only that busy people working for minimum wage don’t bother to check signatures. But everybody knew that already!!!
So what has been accomplished? Nothing constructive, certainly.

And what happens next? Well, generally that purchase will show up on the prankster’s statement, meaning he (or she—no, just he, no woman would be that insensitive) will be charged just the same as if he’d signed his legal name.
But there is the occasion or two in which it doesn’t show up on the statement. So what happened there? Well, somebody along the line caught the autograph and decided that Spider-Man probably didn’t have permission to be using John J. Whoever’s card. So the credit card company then charged the store where the purchase was made for the merchandise with which John J. walked out.

Most of these defrauders gloat in their testimonies at having done this, having gotten the careless punished. They apparently tend to see themselves as the Spider-Man, the dispenser of justice whose name was borrowed. Ha ha.
That’s a nice spin, and seems easy to buy. But what these guys actually did was commit theft. First-party credit card fraud, a form of charge-back fraud, to get technical.
Very illegal, very wrong. (By the way, when I say illegal, I don’t mean the “if somebody bothers to tell the local Sheriff” kind of illegal. I mean the “the Secret Service is closing in on these guy as I write this” kind of illegal. Happy prison sentence, jerks.)

But I just so happen to have a new Visa card now. Hee hee.
No, I won’t be signing myself off as Batman (though some believe that actually to be my real identity).
But I have toyed with the idea of busting a few cashiers.

I’m not talking about cashiers who are just too busy trying to get their jobs done well to notice credit theft, I’m talking about nailing the guys who laud and knowingly allow criminality. You know the ones I mean. The mean college girl at the grocery who cheats you out of your coupons, yells at you over them, then scans ’em just as you leave so she can pocket the 33¢. Wait, maybe that’s just hunger.
But anyway, the guy at the gas station who pauses the security tape so his crew can have their pick of the beers. That’s the guy I want to take down.

So, where to start…

How about that very guy at the gas station?

Tune in NEXT TIME!