Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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When I came downstairs to eat what I continue to call breakfast—despite it being closer to 2:30 pm than, say, 8:30 am—this is what was in the “classroom.”

March 26

Nell appears to have discontinued the “Word of the day” for now. She also left the title of my afternoon classes to our younger daughter’s discretion. However, the press of the latter’s still-active social life kept her from formulating a suitable name, so I stepped in to fill the void.

And, in fact, when the girls and I convened, closer to 3 pm than 2:30 pm, we began by reading aloud from the Constitution of the United States:

  • Article I, Section 7, Paragraph 1
  • Article I, Section 8

US Constitution–Congress Roles

The rest of the lesson may be found here: March 26

The traditional processes by which the United States House of Representatives (“House”) passes legislation was met with a metaphorical yawn, but the workings of the United States Senate (“Senate”) generated a bit more enthusiasm. Our younger daughter, in particular, was quite interested in the twists and turns of getting the Affordable Care and Patient Accountability Act—better known as Obamacare—passed, and she was riveted by the pivotal role Arizona Senator John McCain played in saving it. I did my best to act out McCain’s dramatic “thumbs down” vote.

Nell and I are continuing to learn how best to structure what, when and how we teach our daughters—when they are not working and learning on their own. Seeing how fragile our younger daughter—who has attention deficit disorder and a not-yet-formally-diagnosed learning disability—is by 5 pm, I mixed things up a bit.

I also wanted to avoid snapping at them for the third time this week.

Rather than discuss American politics for an hour, have an hour-long break, then reconvene for another hour-long session on applied math, I divided my discussion of the House and Senate into two parts: roles and elections. The break was only 20 minutes long, and we were finished for the day by 5 pm.

As you see, I spent some time discussing gerrymandering. Our older daughter was appalled at my drawing of a salamander—calling it a “giant worm”—and my rendition of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She took it upon herself to fix the latter, adding her own personal touches.

Gerrymandered

I am pleased to report this was one of our best classes thus far—and that includes both halves.

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Even with the altered routine, however, our daughters began sniping at each other as they ate their dinners and watched some television. The proximate cause was a tussle over who would hold the remote control; our older daughter usually does, but tonight her sister really wanted it. As a result, our older daughter called her sister a “brat,” something she has been admonished many times in the past for doing. In return, our younger daughter used the parental trick of calling an obstreperous child her first, middle and last name—but she used a shrill and piercing tone of voice.

They were sitting just outside of my home office—a converted sun room which Nell wistfully calls “the nicest room in the apartment”—when I heard the outraged cry of “Blanky Blank Berger!” Not in the best frame of mind, I came out of my office to express my displeasure at the younger daughter’s tone and to make clear she is not the parent, Nell and I are.

And, wow, did I lay it on thick. I reminded them in my firmest and harshest Daddy voice how we were in this for the long haul, and we needed to do this all together, and I do not even remember what all else. Younger daughter was now crying—but mostly because of the injustice that I had not tumbled to the fact her sister had called her a brat. Once that penetrated my skull, though, I reprimanded our older daughter. Walking in from the kitchen, Nell reinforced my disapproval. When I suggested the older daughter had earned a consequence, her mother suggested loss of the ChromeBook for the rest of the evening. However, once the defendant correctly pointed out the usual consequence for calling her sister a brat is to cough up five dollars to that sister, Nell realized she could not arbitrarily change the rules like that; a few minutes later, our younger daughter had a five-dollar bill sitting on the table in front of her. And the entire episode, which had lasted barely ten minutes, was quickly forgotten.

This small slice of family drama reveals that, after two weeks, sheltering in place is beginning to take its toll. Thus, when the Amazon Fresh order she had placed very early Tuesday morning arrived Thursday evening, Nell thoroughly scrubbed the black-marble-topped “island” in our kitchen before placing any grocery bags on it. She washed all the berries in a colander then put them into a large Tupperware container. She also wiped down every package of food prior to our putting them into their respective storage places. Later that night, meanwhile, as I set up the kitchen for its nightly cleaning so I could watch with Nell the second episode of season one of Broadchurch—which Nell has been asking me to watch for years, if only because of how many actors and actresses who have appeared in Doctor Who are in it—my frustration level boiled over into a series of angry “Oh, for f—k sake!” expulsions. For the record, I am loving the series—its leisurely-unfolding murder investigation and emphasis upon revealing the darker secrets of a supposedly idyllic small town compare favorably to the first season of Twin Peaks.

It does helps tremendously that the weather has been relatively warm and sunny the last few days, and we have three porches opening off our two stories; climbing multiple flights of internal stairs on a regular basis is a good aerobic workout—really, it is. Throwing a stick in our smallish back yard for our soon-to-be-six-year-old golden retriever over and over and over again works as well.

We also have a breathtakingly spectacular view of downtown Boston. Three weeks ago, if we looked through our kitchen window, we would routinely see three or more moving dots of white light as planes took off from Boston Logan International Airport. Now, it is unusual to see even a single plane in the air. That said, I cannot decide if there are fewer lights visible at night in downtown Boston’s office buildings or not.

I think there are fewer lights at night these days.

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When I came downstairs on Friday afternoon, there was no schedule on the flip chart—it was a quiet morning in Nell’s classroom—but our younger daughter had livened up that room in our unique way.

White board March 27

Earlier that day, Nell had ventured to our preferred CVS to pick up some prescriptions. This was the first time she had driven her car in 15 days, though I had moved it onto the street a few times so I could use my car—we have tandem parking—and the outing significantly improved her mood. As often as she and the girls go for runs in our neighborhood, sometimes you need actually to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, I was wicked excited to start class at 3 pm because I had prepared what I hoped would be a genuinely fun exercise—one that did not involve coin flipping, die rolling or card shuffling: a 30-question, multiple-choice quiz game.

Quiz Game 1

My heart sang when our younger daughter came out of the disordered cavern she calls a bedroom, took one look at my computer screen—I had again lugged my desktop computer into the classroom—pumped her right arm and exclaimed, “Yes!” Her sister reacted positively as well.

The rules were simple. I alternated which daughter would answer the question— older daughter went first based upon the scientifically-rigorous method Eenie Meenie Minie Moe. The questions covered everything we had discussed in the previous two weeks—political theory, American politics, statistics and the history film noir. Each question was worth one point and had four possible answers, though one answer was deliberately patently absurd; they had the desired effect of making the quiz feel less like work and more like a game. Finally, if one daughter did not answer a question correctly, her sister had the opportunity to answer it.

In the end, after a boisterous 45 minutes of laughter, our older daughter won 16-12, with two points going to Daddy because neither daughter answered two questions correctly. Her “prize,” besides bragging rights, was a giant box of Cheerios I had recently discovered in the revolving cupboard in the kitchen. Huffily reminding me, “I no longer eat cereal, I eat OATMEAL,” she declined her prize, which now sits discreetly on the kitchen counter next to my coffee maker.

There is just no pleasing some people.

And with that our second week of home schooling came to an end.

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As I said, we are still figuring out how best to home school our smart and curious daughters. After two weeks of political science and math—not coincidentally, my initial choices for my Yale major—I have settled upon the following tentative weekly schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic  videos.

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

Onward and, you know, forward we go.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Organizing by themes: Responding to COVID-19

As of March 13, 2020, my wife Nell, our two daughters–one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade–have been sheltering in place and home schooling in our Brookline, Massachusetts apartment. To prepare for this, Nell and I purchased workbooks, a flip chart and a very popular white board.

The white board awaits

You may read my “dispatches from Brookline” below:

March 18, 2020

March 19, 2020

March 20, 2020

March 24, 2020

March 25, 2020

March 27, 2020

Until next time…please stay safe, sensible and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing V

On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order extending the closure of all public schools in the Commonwealth until at least May 4, 2020.

In four previous posts (I, II, III, IV), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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To give our daughters something of a break during the week—especially our younger daughter, who has a yet-to-be-formally-diagnosed learning disability and attention deficit disorder—there is no “school” on Wednesday mornings. This means that when I came downstairs on March 25, 2020, Nell had not written a daily schedule on the flip chart. This likely saddened our younger daughter who was apparently going to have free reign over what the afternoon classes would be called.

To be fair, the girls had done something broadly educational that morning. With Nell, they had watched and discussed two episodes of The Blue Planet.

And they are continuing to produce drawings at a solid clip.

Wall of art March 25

The framed painting in the middle is one of two I bought when I first moved back to the Boston area—Waltham, to be precise—from my native Philadelphia in early September 2005. I do not recall why I entered the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Newbury Street (which appears recently to have closed), but once inside I was quite taken with a collection of paintings by Liudmila Kondakova. Using funds from a recent inheritance, I bought this painting and a smaller one. Both depict Paris street scenes, and both have my last name written somewhere in them.

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The break from school work does not extend to the afternoons, so we convened just after 2:45 pm to discuss the history of the American presidential nominating system. My attached notes for this class were a bit more scattershot than usual, but they worked well enough to tell a series of what I hoped would be interesting stories.

March 25.docx

I noted in “Dispatch IV” our daughters’ penchant for assigning monikers to historical figures. Well, they came close to doing that when I came to the 1960 Democratic nomination process, and I explained one of the primary contenders that year was United States Senator (“Senator”) Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

“Who names a kid ‘Hubert?” asked our older daughter. “Did his parents want him to get teased his whole life?”

After observing his middle name was Horatio—he was once erroneously referred to as Hubert Horatio Hornblower—I defended the late Vice President as a good and honorable man, though I never did get around to discussing his groundbreaking speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic national convention.

We concluded with a rapid-fire discussion of how Democrats—proportionally, with a minimum of 15% statewide or in a Congressional district—and Republicans—mostly winner-take-all—differ in the way they apportion nominating convention delegates.

This was followed by easily the most cringeworthy moment I have thus far endured as a parent.

I had been talking about the role “expectations” play in the modern primary and caucus system, One example I used was the way then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton used a 2nd place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic Primary to label himself “The Comeback Kid.”

They had been vaguely aware of Clinton’s marital indiscretions, and they understood he had been impeached for lying under oath about cheating on his wife while he was president of the United States. What they did not know, though, were the sordid details.

And they very much wanted to know what they are; they essentially promised to hear the end of my spiel in exchange.

So…after pouring myself a fresh cup of hot black coffee, half-decaffeinated to brace myself…I told them.

I did not use the words “blow job” or “fellatio,” but I described how a government shutdown in 1995 had allowed Clinton to spend time alone in the Oval Office with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. And how one time she had worn a blue dress. And how she kept that dress after it came to have Clinton’s semen on it after a certain action I described…

…at which our older daughter interjected, “Oooo, gross! He peed through that! Why would anyone ever want to do that?!?”—or words broadly to that effect. Our younger daughter, meanwhile, just sat quietly, listening.

They particularly wanted to know why Ms. Lewinsky had kept that dress.

“Well, Clinton kept lying about what they had done. So she kept it as proof.”

And that was that.

Oy.

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At just after 4:45 pm, we reconvened for what I had thought would be the most fun part of the afternoon.

I wanted to talk about random sampling—the idea that you could get, for example, a fairly accurate impression of the distribution of attitudes in a very large population by randomly identifying a much smaller proportion of that population. However, I should have known that things would go awry when I used this example: a group of one million people includes 750,000 (75%) who prefer chocolate ice cream and 250,000 (25%) who prefer vanilla ice cream. Rather than ask every one of those people which flavor they prefer one could simply randomly select 1,000 of them to ask. Most of the time, if you sample properly, you will come within a few percentages either way of 75 and 25.

Well, our younger daughter simply wasn’t having it.

“What if someone doesn’t like either?” she began.

I explained this was merely an example, but that did not work.

“What if you like some other flavor?”

“It is a forced choice,” I weakly noted.

At this point, her sister chimed in.

“Well, which one do you prefer?”

This led to a long pause which ended in a non-answer.

At this point, I simply began talking about the activity we were about to do, one that involved 100 carefully selected cards from an UNO deck.

What I wanted to do was illustrate how queried multiple random samples from an identical population will center around “true” values within that population. My original conception was to put something like 60 blue and 40 red of the same small objects into a hat—Nell’s grandfather’s top hat lives in my home office—and have them draw 15 balls from that hat 10 times. We would record those draws to see how close they came to 60% blue and 40% red in the aggregate.

Of course, we did not have quite the objects I was envisioning, and I did not really want to cut up small bits of blue- and red-colored paper. That was when I remembered our bedraggled deck of UNO cards. There were enough cards remaining for me to compile a deck of 100 cards:

  • 50 blue and green cards, with the former “definitely voting Democratic” and the latter “leaning toward voting Democratic”
  • 43 red and yellow cards, with the former “definitely voting Republican” and the latter “leaning toward voting Republican”
  • 7 wild cards, for undecided voters

What I had not counted on was just how hard it is to shuffle—and I mean really, properly, thoroughly shuffle—a deck of 100 cards. Thus, what I thought would be a fun exercise where the girls alternated which one drew 15 cards and which one tallied the colors on the white board quickly devolved into a “why is this taking so long?” battle of long stretches of card shuffling, slow drawing and slower tallying.

Perhaps I was still reacting to the news we would be home schooling five weeks longer than we had anticipated. Perhaps I was overtired—this is more exhausting than I had expected. Or perhaps I was mad at myself for choosing an overly-thick deck of cards I could not properly “randomize.”

Whatever the reason, I snapped multiple times at both daughters, making the older one huffy and the younger one teary. I apologized—again; Nell, who taught elementary school for more than a decade, gently pointed out this is why you do not teach children “at 5:30…they are toast.”

For all the drama, however, we managed to draw 15 sets of cards. As you see, the results were not what I had anticipated. The 21 yellow cards kept making a disproportionate appearance.

Sampling results March 25

Here is a graphical representation of the results. Had I not counted the cards very carefully, I would almost think I simply had the “true” totals reversed; it is more likely simply very difficult properly to shuffle a double-deck of cards…and that randomness does not guarantee anything.

Biased sampling March 25

Even teachers have things to learn from their own lessons.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IV

On Monday, March 23, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and asked residents to stay in their home as much as possible: to “shelter in place.” The order went in to effect at noon on Tuesday, March 24, and it will stay in effect until noon at April 7.

In three previous posts (I, II, III), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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After a successful, albeit exhausting, first week of home schooling, we laid low over the weekend.

The highlight of Saturday stemmed from an idea our older daughter had: she desperately wanted a burrito, which she would happily eat at every meal. Choosing not to walk down the street to our preferred takeout joint, we explored delivery options instead…and discovered that our favorite Mexican restaurant—a drive of at least 20 minutes away in Cambridge—would deliver to us. It felt like such a ridiculous treat, and the food was so good, I did not mind they had given soft, not crunchy, tacos. While I ate my food and worked on my “lectures,” Nell and the girl swatched Onward, which emotionally wrecked my wife.

Later that night, I walked our golden retriever up to our local dog park—and I mean “up;” Brookline is renowned for its many streets that slope upward at nearly a 45-degree angle. To be honest, I needed the outing and the exercise more than she did. We stayed about 15 minutes, as she ecstatically chased an increasingly-filthy fuzzy ball hurled by a Chuck-It. Returning home, I put her to bed, bathed and settled down to watch the excellent I Wake Up Screaming via Turner Classic Movies OnDemand.

The choice of film–other than its sudden aviability–was in keeping with my discussion of film noir with the girls the previous day, during which I used “oneiric” to describe the dream-like quality of many films noir. This spurred a conversation about we all are having intense, more-anxiety-than-nightmare dreams during our “lockdown.”

Also in keeping with Friday’s “lecture,” our younger daughter and I watched Stranger on the Third Floor on Sunday evening. She very much enjoyed it, patiently allowing me to pause the movie at times to explain the difference between “high-key” and “low-key” lighting.

As to why we watched this particular film, here is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the book I am writing—and need to finish soon:

Another myth to be exploded was film noir’s origin story. In the traditional telling, first outlined in Schrader’s essay, waves of mostly-German émigré filmmakers arrive in Hollywood throughout the 1930s, bringing with them the cinematic techniques of Expressionism and, later, French poetic realism. Vincent Brook, as we saw in the Introduction to Part 1, argues these filmmakers were often deeply and specifically influenced by their Jewish heritage, a primary reason they abandoned Europe, however temporarily, in the first place. Meanwhile, starting in 1931, Universal Studios—aided by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had arrived in Hollywood two years earlier—makes a series of dark shadowy horror films (about which more in Chapter 8).  That same year, rival studios like Warner-First National, later Warner Brothers, start to produce high-quality gangster films, inspired by the lawlessness of Prohibition, ironically set to be repealed just two years later. Needing work for this influx of cinematic talent, studio heads take a long second look at works of hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately relegating their new talent to the B-movie backlots to turn those works into films. Applying everything they know about filmmaking, and drawing upon the visual style of the popular horror films and the rapid-fire plots of the gangster films, they make films that would later be labeled film noir. The quality of these films is only enhanced throughout the 1940s by a slow loosening of the restrictive Hays Code of “voluntary” censorship, Italian neo-realism and technological advances. And the first of these films is almost certainly a 64-minute-long B-movie directed by an Eastern European émigré named Boris Ingster—and featuring an Eastern European actor named Peter Lorre—called Stranger on the Third Floor. Released on August 16, 1940, it has 33.0 POINTS, tying it for 71st overall—and, if forced to choose, it is what I designate the first film noir as commonly understood today.

For an explanation of POINTS, please see here.

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On Monday, March 23, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 23

The night before, Nell had drawn this homage to author Mo Willems—whom we once met in Maine—on the ever-popular white board.

Happy Monday Gerald and Piggy

Our younger daughter had again had a very rough morning—literally getting no work done even as our older daughter continued to thrive; indeed, on Tuesday, the latter would finish her work by at 11:30 am then ask “Is that it?!?” Still, the former daughter recovered sufficiently to sit attentively through the first hour of “Pop school,” during which we discussed the history and composition of American political parties.

March 23

For…reasons…our daughters have assigned nicknames to some of our early national leaders. Alexander Hamilton is “Hottie” Hamilton, while his rival Thomas Jefferson is “Smoking Hot” Jefferson. Our seventh president is now, unfortunately, “A**hole Jackson.” Our older daughter thought the name “Martin Van Buren” sounded “nice,” but she did not assign him a nickname.

We used two handouts to explore two ways to understand contemporary political parties:

  1. Elected officials and voters who share a common philosophy of government and policy preferences
  2. Coalitions of groups based on such factors as demographics, socioeconomic status, religiosity and cultural outlook.

The first sheet condensed an analysis I performed in August 2017 of issues on which a majority of Democrats—and often Independents—differed from a majority of Republicans. Our older daughter, fully in the throes of puberty and naively exploring her own sexuality, was particularly interested in partisan stances on LGBTQ+ rights.

Issue Differences Democrat v Republican

Whatever makes you happy, kid.

The second sheet, however, provoked the most interest. Less so from our fading younger daughter, but definitely from the older daughter, who delighted in reading aloud for Daddy to note on the white board which groups had voted, on average over the previous four presidential elections, at least 55% for the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee; data taken from CNN exit polls conducted in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

How Groups Voted for President 2004-16.docx

You can see how that ended, complete with the tissues I use in lieu of a proper eraser:

Group voting for president

Following a break of an hour or so, we reconvened to begin to learn about probability. Which meant we each flipped a penny 30 times; by a neat fluke, in total, we had 45 heads and 45 tails—there was an a priori 8.3% chance this would happen. Then we rolled a die 30 times—the totals diverged sharply from 1/6 for each number; the number two noticeably received very little love. Our younger daughter asked to record my rolls on the white board, and, regretfully, I grew testy with her when she did not write numbers evenly on the row. I apologized immediately; clearly sheltering in place takes its toll on everyone at some point.

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Knowing the Commonwealth would be shuttering its doors the following day even more than it already had, I was tasked with making a run to our local Star Market. I chose to drive to one ten minutes away on Commonwealth Avenue, a stone’s throw from the main campus of Boston University; not surprisingly, we call it “the BU Star.” It normally closes at midnight, and with the campus all-but-deserted I thought this would be a relatively sane place to search for the 27 items listed in a text message from Nell on my iPhone, mostly varieties of fresh fruit and vegetable.

I never got the chance to determine it sanity, however. When I drove by its lower rear entrance, I could see the vast parking lot to my left was practically empty. Nonetheless, I parked and walked across the street to the locked sliding glass doors. A series of notices taped to those doors informed me this Star now closes at 8 pm every night.

Rather than turn around and drive home, though, I realized I was enjoying being out of the apartment and decided to drive over the nearby Charles River into Cambridge, through Harvard Square—eerily quiet—and north on Massachusetts Avenue to Porter Square. Like the BU Star, the Star Market used to be open 24 hours a day; it was my primary grocery store when I lived one block away in Somerville between September 1989 and February 2001. Driving to this Star always feels a bit like traveling back in time, with many landmarks remaining from two, three decades ago.

This Star now closes at 8 pm as well, meanwhile, which did not really surprise me. The silver lining is that a CVS sits in the same Porter Square parking lot; it is mandated by law never to close so that it can dispense emergency medications at any time of the day. When Nell nearly “broke her face” falling into a gate latch four years ago this May, this is where I acquired her pain medications after she was released from the hospital at around 1 am.

The older, deeply-freckled, red-haired manager of the CVS wore a blue face mask and darker-blue gloves. There was a strip of duct tape on the carpeting every six feet reminding patrons to observe social distancing. I collected what foodstuffs from the list I could find—including fresh-looking cut strawberries in clear plastic containers—and went to a register to pay. The manager scanned and helped bag my groceries—using the reusable bags I always keep in my car–as we chatted amiably.

As I thanked him for being there, he pointed out a woman I had noticed earlier—heavy-set, a bit unkempt and of indeterminate age—hunched over a wheelchair loaded with items she was pushing slowly around the store.

“I have to worry about thieves,” he said.

“Really? Her?” I responded, or words to that effect.

“Last week she managed to get all the razors…This never happens when George is in charge.”

He may not have been that upset, though, as he cheerfully handed me four dollars bills and some change—“You could have bought one more thing!”—before gently warning me not to forget my iPhone.

My route back to Brookline took me past the 7-Eleven on Market Street in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, which was also still open. They had respectable-looking bananas, limes, lemons and small red and green apples, so I purchased a handful of each along with a few other items. Returning home five or so minutes later, I thoroughly washed my hands before putting away the four total bags of groceries.

A few hours later, as I was preparing a steaming-hot bath, Nell—who had gone to sleep hours earlier but now was restlessly tossing and turning—informed me she had put her wakefulness to good use by placing an Amazon Fresh order on her iPhone. She added that rather than give the recommended $10 tip, she chose to give $25 instead.

“Was that right?” she asked me as I soaked sleepily.

Of course it was,” I assured her.

When Nell placed the order, meanwhile, she thought it would arrive Tuesday night at 6 pm, only to realize later that morning it would not arrive until Thursday.

C’est la vie.

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The next afternoon, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.” Apparently there was no “word of the day.”

March 24

“FATHER COLLEGIO” did not start until 2:52 pm, as I was moving slowly this day. Once we assembled, though, after a BRIEF review of political parties, I began to tell the story of the 2000 presidential election by way of introducing American presidential elections generally and the Electoral College specifically. And our younger daughter was riveted.

March 24

The night before, Nell and I had discussed whether she should start taking her Ritalin on weekday mornings again. The last time she had taken any was two Thursdays earlier, her last day at her elementary school before it temporarily closed due to COVID-19, in part because we thought it was why she had been having a hard time falling asleep at night recently.

But despite refusing to take any of “her medicine” that morning, she was fully attentive and engaged as I described watching CNN continually reverse itself on who had won Florida that November night in 2000. Her attention did not wane as I walked through the history and defenses of the Electoral College, breaking more than 200 years of elections into a handful of epochs. We concluded with a discussion of how few states actually appeared to be in play as the 2016 presidential election approached—mooting the argument repealing the Electoral College would limit campaigning only to the most populous areas. At this point, our older daughter turned to her and said, “You probably don’t even remember that election. You were only [pause for arithmetic] six.”

I reminded them how both had cried the following morning upon learning that Hillary Clinton had not, in fact, been elected the first female president.

Breaking at 3:45 exactly, we reconvened one hour later to do two things as our “applied math” lesson:

Discuss how exactly Clinton lost the Electoral College in 2016 while winning the national popular vote

How Hillary Clinton Lost in 2016.docx

This is where our older daughter perked up again. While both daughters read from the one-page sheet, it was the older daughter who said “Wow!” every time I described how the Republican percentage of the non-urban vote in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had skyrocketed between 2012 and 2016. And when we were finished, this is what the white board looked like.

Discussing 2016 election

Incidentally, you may find the answer to the question posed in the upper right-hand corner of the white board here.

I also used my wall maps of the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections to help to illustrate why the notion of a Democratic “blue wall” was absurd—voting patterns can clearly change dramatically from one election to the next. Those wall maps, by the way, are covering up an original painting by my maternal first cousin once removed; yes, that really is what my great-aunt and uncle named her. 

Color in a blank map to show current state partisanship

A few years ago, I developed 3W-RDM to assess how much more or less Democratic a state is—at least at the presidential level—than the nation as a whole.

States Ordered from Most to Least Democratic

Using the attached list of states and the District of Columbia, we each colored in our blank map as follows:

  • Dark blue = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Democratic
  • Light blue = 3-10 points more Democratic
  • Purple = between 3 points more Republican and 3 points more Democratic
  • Light red/pink = 3-10 points more Republican
  • Dark red = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Republican

Given how much both our daughters love to draw—they doodle and do other art projects as they sit and listen to me talk—this was easily their favorite afternoon activity so far. Even as our younger daughter was trying to keep up with which states were which—she got there soon enough—our older daughter was touting her “perfectionism” in carefully coloring in each state. She even gently chided me for my blunt-instrument approach to filling in “all those islands off of Alaska,” which she delicately colored one by one.

Hand drawn Democratic strength map

This is what my final map looked like. I may not be as good at drawing as my cousin, or even my wife and daughters, but I still think I produced a solid work of art, despite the single sweep of dark red across the Aleutian Islands.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing II

In a previous post, I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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On Thursday, March 19, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 19

Unlike the previous day, our daughters had a much smoother morning. Nell set up the video game Just Dance on the big screen HD television in our living room, which was particularly good for our 6th-grade daughter, who requires a great deal of regular physical activity. Our 4th-grade daughter would generally prefer to sit quietly in a darkened bedroom with an iPad. Both daughters have also made extensive use of FaceTime to stay in touch with their many friends.

When “Dad Academy” began, our older daughter read aloud the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America (“Constitution”). We then proceeded to work through much of Article I, establishing the nature and role of the House of Representatives (“House”) and the Senate. After a brief foray into Article II and the qualifications for the presidency, however, it was clear their doodling minds were wandering.

As a result, I shifted gears and walked them through the scenario I detail below: what would happen as of 12:01 pm on January 20, 2021 if there were no November 2020 elections for the House, Senate, vice president and president. I had tweeted my initial thoughts on Wednesday, but as I sketched it out—much to their delight, I am pleased to report—I realized I had forgotten a crucial element. After a quick check of this year’s Senate elections, I made the appropriate revisions on Twitter and, more importantly, the white board.

This quickly devolved into both daughters sketching out their own mind-bogglingly grin doomsday scenarios on the white board, all of which seemed to end up with 50,000 or 100,000 survivors living on Antarctica and dividing up only whatever food they could carry with them. Hey, they were using their imaginations, thinking about geography and doing arithmetic, so I was not complaining.

After an hour-long break, we reconvened to resume learning about basic statistics. After quickly reviewing frequencies, range, mode, median, mean and a few statistical distributions, I decided to change my lesson plan again. Rather than begin to discuss relationships between variables, I put my doctorate in epidemiology to good use and explained “sensitivity” and “specificity” of testing for some condition like, say, the novel coronavirus. They quickly grasped the underlying idea:

  1. Persons who have the condition AND test positive are True Positives
  2. Persons who do not have the condition AND test negative are True Negatives
  3. Persons who do not have the condition AND test positive are False Positives
  4. Persons who do have the condition AND test negative are False Negatives

If you divide True Positives by the sum of True Positives and False Negatives you get sensitivity: the percentage of persons who truly have the condition who test positive for it.

If you divide the number of True Negatives by the sum of True Negatives and False Positives you get specificity: the percentage of persons who truly do not have the condition who test negative for it.

It is nearly impossible to have a test be both 100% sensitive AND 100% specific because of the likely gray area between an extremely tight case definition (e.g., you must meet all 10 criteria)—which gives you higher sensitivity—and a relatively looser definition (e.g., you only need to meet five out of 10 criteria)—which gives you higher specificity. For a host of reasons I will not review here, mostly related to accuracy of categorization, epidemiologists generally prefer to have the specificity of a test be as close to 100% as possible, even at the risk of lower (by which I mean, say, 90% instead of 95%) sensitivity.

Think of it this way, though: the lower the specificity of the test, the more False Positives you have. And the more False Positives you have, the more people you have being treated for the condition at the expense of other people who actually need to be treated. Moreover, given that most conditions being tested are fairly rare, there will always be many fewer False Negatives than False Positives; one exception, though, would be if you only test persons you are already very certain have the condition, which bring the number of False Negatives much closer to the number of False Positives.

And with that—and a review of some of our older daughter’s algebra problems—school was out for the day.

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Ohio was supposed to hold its 2020 Democratic presidential primary on March 17. It was postponed until June 2, however, due to concerns over spreading the novel coronavirus. Five other states have done the same thing, meanwhile, leading to speculation President Donald J. Trump may attempt to postpone—or outright cancel—the November 2020 federal elections (Congress, vice president, president).

Leaving aside whether such an action is even feasible—for one thing, while under Article I, Section 5, the House and Senate have broad authority over the timing of elections to their respective houses, those elections are actually administered by each individual state. The same is true for elections for vice president and president—and that is before considering that the Electoral College essentially mandates 51 distinct elections, one within each state and the District of Columbia.

But let us assume, as a kind of thought experiment, it actually would be possible to delay these elections. So long as the presidential and vice-presidential elections were held long enough before December 13, 2020—the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when electors are required to meet in their respective states to cast their presidential ballots—there would be more than enough time to swear in a president the following January 20.

However, if these elections simply never occur…well, this is where two sections of the Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (PSA) come into play.

  • Under Amendment XX, Section 1: “The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January,
  • “…and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January.”
  • Under the PSA, the line of succession to the president is the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate—the longest-serving member of the Senate of the majority party—and members the Cabinet, beginning with the Secretary of State.

In other words, barring a non-starter Constitutional amendment, an Act of Congress (hard to see Democrats going along with this) or a very-unlikely ruling by the Supreme Court (the Constitution explicitly states that as as of 12:01 pm on January 20, 2021, Trump and Michael R. Pence would no longer be the president and vice president of the United States, respectively.

And for the previous 17 days, there would also be no Speaker of the House because the term of every one of the 435 members of the House would have ended at noon on January 3, 2021.

I note at this point that Amendment XX, Section 1 ends with “the terms of their successors shall then begin,” so it is just barely possible an argument could be made the terms of the president, vice president, House members and Senators would not end because there are no successors. Without a successor, there are no occupants of those offices, effectively shutting down the federal government.

Here is the counter-argument, however, and where things get really interesting.

There would still be a United States Senate, albeit one 35% smaller, at 12:01 pm on January 3, 2021, meaning there would still be a President Pro Tempore to assume the office of the presidency, and who would then nominate someone to be vice president pending Senate approval.

There would still be a Senate because only 35 of the 100 Senators are reaching the end of their terms this year.[1] Fully 65 Senators will still be serving at that time: 35 Democrats (including two Independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Democrats) and 30 Republicans.

That is right: rather than the current Senate, which has a 53-47 Republican majority, this “abridged” Senate would have a 35-30 Democratic majority. And the longest-serving Democratic Senator—who is not up for reelection in 2020—is Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who was first elected in 1974!

So…Leahy would absolutely become the 46th president of the United States, sworn somewhere by Chief Justice John J. Roberts?

Well…not so fast.

And that is because of what I had forgotten on Wednesday: under Amendment XVII, governors are empowered to appoint a replacement for a Senator who leaves office before the end of her/his term—just about always a member of the same party as the governor.

In this scenario, these governors immediately appoint replacement Senators as soon as those 35 Senate terms expire at noon on January 3, 2021…and they are sworn in immediately. Traditionally, the vice president swears in each new Senator, so that may be the fly in the ointment here. Presumably, though, in this unusual circumstance Chief Justice Roberts could swear in all the appointed Senators at one time, somewhere in Washington, DC.

As for the governors themselves:

  • In the 12 states where a Democratic Senate term is ending there are
    • 8 Democratic governors
    • 2 Republican governors
    • 1 Democratic governor up for reelection in Delaware
    • 1 Republican governor up for reelection in New Hampshire
  • In the 22 states where a Republican Senate term is ending (with two in Georgia) there are
    • 15 Republican governors filling 16 seats
    • 6 Democratic governors
    • 1 Democratic governor not seeking reelection in Montana

Excluding the three states where a gubernatorial election is being held (or not…as our younger daughter pointed out, why would there be elections for governor if all the federal elections were postponed?), the new Senate would now include:

  • 35 + 8 + 6 = 49 Democrats
  • 30 + 2 + 16 = 48 Republicans

This is still a bare 49-48 Democratic majority, making Leahy the 46th president.

IF gubernatorial elections are held in Delaware and New Hampshire this November, though, it is very likely the incumbent wins both races, which adds one new Democratic and one new Republican Senator, for a bare 50-49 Democratic majority…and President Leahy.

That leaves it all up to Montana.

IF there is a Montana gubernatorial election this November, the Republican nominee would likely be favored to win. In that case, we would wind up with a 50-50 tie in the Senate. And with no vice president to break the tie, it is not clear whether Leahy or Republican Charles R. Grassley of Iowa, who was first elected in 1980. Of course, if a Democrat were elected the next governor of Montana, that would result in a 51-49 Democratic Senate majority…and President Leahy.

Perhaps the nod still goes to Leahy in the case of a 50-50 Senate split, as the longest-serving Senator overall. Perhaps there is something like a coin flip. Or maybe these two men—who have served together in the United States Senate for 40 years and are around 80 years of age—decide to serve jointly, with one as president and one as vice president.

The bottom line, though, is that it is far more likely than not that if there are no federal elections this November, Democratic Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy of Vermont would be sworn in at 12:01 pm EDT on January 20, 2021 as the 46th president of the United States.

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

[1] Including Republican Kelly Loeffler, appointed to replace retiring Republican Johnny Isakson in December 2019.

Dispatches from Brookline: Social Distancing and Home Schooling I

In response to widespread social distancing being used to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, I plan to increase the frequency of my posts. And with the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest having effectively ended, I will not post nearly as often about American politics. Rather, I will describe how my family and I are dealing with the crisis, while presenting what I hope will be entertaining stories about…well, anything. 

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As of Monday, March 16, 2020, public schools in the suburban Boston town of Brookline are closed until at least Friday, April 3, 2020. I write “at least,” because public schools in Boston closed on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 and will not reopen until at least April 24, 2020; Brookline traditionally follows Boston’s lead in this regard.

My wife Nell—a former elementary school teacher who now works part-time as a children’s librarian at a local Catholic school—saw this coming the previous week. Knowing we would need to implement some classroom structure for our 4th– and 6th-grade daughters, we immediately took the following steps:

  1. We converted our dining room into a classroom, complete with white board and flip charts
  2. Nell ordered teaching supplies, including workbooks for math, science and reading; puzzles and drawing projects
  3. We began to sketch out a teaching schedule, determining that Nell would take the morning shift, and I would take the afternoon shift.

We divided the “school day” this way because while Nell is a morning person, I am an extreme night owl. Since I was laid off from my last professional salaried position in June 2015—and especially after I declared myself a writer in July 2017 and launched my “interrogating memory” book-writing project—I have maintained a distinctly counter-cyclical schedule. Basically, once the household quiets down around 11 pm—and after I have finished cleaning the kitchen and taking out any trash and/or recycling—I settle down at the desk in my home office for a few hours; this is why I publish most posts at around 3 or 4 in the morning EST. Following some quiet down time, I go to sleep close to dawn, awaking well past noon. There are exceptions, however. I awake at 7 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays to take the girls to school, allowing Nell to go to work. After taking the dog to the park for 20 or 30 minutes—often bathing in the upstairs walk-in shower when we return home, though, I get back in bed for a few hours until I need to pick up the girls from school…though I spend way too much of that time reading on my iPhone.

Still, this meant that I was already working at home. With Nell working just two days a week, this is far less of an adjustment for us than it might otherwise have been.

Meanwhile, putting my advanced degrees in political science and applied math (biostatistics, epidemiology) to good use, I decided to devote an hour each day to a general introduction to politics and government and an hour to a general introduction to statistics. That is, from Monday to Thursday. On Fridays, I plan to do something different: discuss the history of film noir, or watch a documentary about Hedy Lamarr, or something equally offbeat but still educational.

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On Monday, March 16, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 16

According to Nell, the girls had very much enjoyed their first morning of home-schooling. In fact, given the chaos that has recently descended upon the Brookline public elementary schools (e.g., two principals recently resigned in protest, even as the school district is negotiating a new teachers’ contract), they may learn more in these few weeks than they might otherwise have. I do not mean to disparage the quality of teaching in the Brookline public schools, which is generally very high. Our younger daughter has attention deficit disorder and a yet-to-be-formally-diagnosed learning disability, but with her school-based IEP (individual enrichment program) she has advanced by leaps and bounds; our older daughter is a voracious reader and diligent student, so she could probably thrive anywhere. It is just very difficult to teach and learn effectively in elementary schools with shaky leadership.

When it was my turn to teach, I used this document as a guide to begin sketching out the notion of politics as power: who has it, who decides who has it, and for how long. The section headings suggest the path our conversation took:

  1. What is politics?
  2. Birth of civilization
  3. Ancient Greece
  4. The Fall of Rome and its aftermath
  5. John Locke and the social contract

After an hour-long break, we reconvened—even as our younger daughter was fading somewhat—and I started talking about statistics, which I described simply as a way to describe a lot of information with only one or a few numbers. These latter sessions are far more interactive. Using a sheet of data about the presidents of the United States—year he first took office, length of term, age when took office, height and party affiliation (labeling Andrew Johnson a Democrat for simplicity), we focused on the most basic statistic—counts, also known as frequencies; this led to the idea of a variable, as opposed to a constant. They genuinely enjoyed seeing how old and how tall the various presidents were—and learning that about two-thirds of them were taller than my five feet, 9¾ inches.

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This is what greeted me on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, when I came downstairs.

March 17

When “Daddy school” started, we briefly reviewed what we had learned on Monday, then returned to Ancient Greece and Aristotle’s six types of government. This easily filled half of our time before we turned to a broader discussion of two types of modern governments: liberal democratic and authoritarian. The former we grounded in the social contractand John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle;” I pulled out my old paperback copy of On Liberty to read the key passage directly. We drew a distinction between classical liberalism (though I did not use that phrase; as Nell has pointed out more than once, these are not 20-year-old college students) and libertarianism. We then dipped briefly into ideology, contrasting liberalism with nationalism and fascism.

In the “applied math” class, we reviewed frequencies before turning to measures of central tendency (without using that term): mode, median and mean; we also defined range as the arithmetic difference between the maximum and minimum values. The president dataset was once again up to the challenge. And our older daughter got to use the white board to practice adding more than two numbers of two or more digits as well as long division.

When “Daddy school” ended, I ventured out into the world, stopping at our local CVS to pick up prescriptions for Nell and a few other items before driving to a nearby Star Market. The bread shelves where practically empty, as were most of the frozen vegetable freezers, though I was still able to find broccoli and spinach. Neither here nor at CVS could I find a single bottle of rubbing alcohol or can of Lysol disinfectant for our downstairs neighbors. As I waited quietly in the checkout line, the quirky young cashier—who told us she was 19 years old and this was her first job—told the man in front of me the Star was now limiting customers to two containers per day for milk, eggs, and a host of other products. I was only buying one gallon of milk and no eggs, so I was in no danger there. And despite 19-year-old-cashier’s worry people would try to skirt the two-per-day limit or, worse, get into fights, everyone I encountered—which was not very many people—was patient and understanding.

When I came home, I tried to convince Nell to make the following day’s word of the day “rationing.” She chose a different word, though, as you will see.

Much later that night—err, early morning—I was unwinding to various YouTube videos on our big screen HD “smart” television. I have long been a fan of WhatCulture’s take on pop culture, but this video I watched—in which members of the staff present how they are responding to the need for social distancing—is especially remarkable for how they address the new reality both soberly and comically.  Malinda Kathleen Reese’s humorous take on how properly to wash your hands is in a similar vein.

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This is what greeted me on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, when I came downstairs.

March 18 schedule

This was the first day the strain of being homebound began to show on our daughters. The older one—hormones coursing through her five-foot-six-inch frame—melted down in the morning over a range of issues; for the record, our younger daughter is only a few inches shorter. The latter daughter, meanwhile, perhaps responding to the fact one of her closest friends was having brain surgery that day, felt extremely nauseous.

Nonetheless, despite our older daughter now careening into wild hysterics over the Kool Aid man (your guess is as good as mine on this one), we soldiered on into “Daddy academy.” After another brief review, we turned to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, we wondered how 13 disparate colonies, after overthrowing the “no taxation without representation” rule of tyrannical—Aristotle’s term for a solo ruler who makes rules solely on her/his own behalf—King George III of England could then fashion themselves into a nation.

It was while reading the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence that our older daughter decided she wanted to visualize the word “usurp.” This is a fairly accurate depiction, actually.

Usurp

Careening rapidly through the Articles of Confederation, we came to the process of writing the Constitution of the United States between May and September 1787. And once again, our older daughter had some thoughts on two unfortunate historical realities of the document as originally drafted: a slave being considered 3/5 of a citizen for the decennial census, and the fact women could not vote until 1920.

Kool Aid man was not happy about these things.

Molly react to Constitution

The applied math was far less dramatic. We reviewed range, mode, median and mean before turning to types of statistical distributions—how data are arranged from lowest to highest value—including normal, poisson and exponential. I also touched briefly on the idea of variance, or how narrowly or widely dispersed around the mean values of a variable are.

Later that night, this appeared on the white board—courtesy of Nell, who once made extra money drawing wall murals; as she says, she cannot draw something original, but she can copy anything.

Welcome to Thursday

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…