Archive for the ‘notes from the coffee shop’ Category

The Monte Carlo Fallacy

July 12, 2009 Leave a comment

I was sitting on the patio of Starbucks Friday talking with a PhD in mathematics. On my table was the book “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens (review coming as soon as I finish it). The PhD asked me that if I was an atheist how do i explain the creation of the universe, or how does Hitchens do so if I wasn’t? The question could only have come from an academic as he had the idea that even if I was a theist I could still be reading a book on atheism. I asked him to explain the question.

He was into math so his question involved pure probability. He asked me if I understood the odds against things that are, actually existing. (bear with me the only correct language to use is going to make this post a little difficult to read) For instance the odds of life on this planet actually being life require an exact set of circumstances and conditions to have happened in a specific sequence that for all intents and purposes we would say it would be impossible to recreate. However, we don’t mean “impossible” we mean so unlikely that it would never happen again.

To argue from analogy the odds of getting a King of clubs, queen of clubs, jack of clubs, 10 of clubs, and an Ace of clubs (Club royal flush) is: 311,875,200 to one.  That’s for a card game, and it is a hand one shouldn’t try and receive since it is about the most difficult hand to get (those odds also indicate getting the cards in sequence).

Back to my conversation with “Bruce:” he was giving a different interpretation of the argument of design, given that the odds against are so high can we actually believe that everything has happened without someone “fixing the deck?”

I had to make sure that “Bruce” wasn’t on the crusade against the nonbeleiver, he wasn’t and was just asking to hear what my side of the argument would be. It was nice because I hadn’t been in a purely hypothetical conversation in a long time, even those people at the Flower City Philosophy club couldn’t manage that. The title of this post refers to an informal fallacy of logic that is best explained through coin flipping (just as Plato is best explained through chairs).

The odds of something occurring don’t terminate with the number of times the game is played. If I play 311,875,199 hands of poker and never is dealt the club royal flush it doesn’t mean that the next hand I am guaranteed it. The odds don’t self terminate as someone who keeps drawing off suit under five cards will lament. The coin flip is easier to explain, ten flips of an unbiased coin. The odds are that half of the time you get heads and the other half you get tails. This doesn’t always happen but knowing the odds you begin to expect the odds. If on the ninth flip I have hit tails every time my brain begins to think that the odds are somehow tipped in heads’ favor, they aren’t they don’t change one bit.

The mathematician nodded his head with my explanation. He added the retort that this seems to almost increase the odds against things being as opposed to them not. I disagreed responding that we don’t actually know how many “false starts” existence has had but even if this is the first one, it is the same as someone drawing that flush on the first hand of poker they have ever played. While unlikely, it can happen. Odds against don’t tip the scale anymore than they already are, but this fallacy seems to cause the brain to think that they do.

“Bruce” was satisfied with the explanation. The reason that I bring it up is because this fallacy is one that I thought I had made up calling it the “Roulette Fallacy” after watching people around the wheel on my 19th b-day in Canada. It wouldn’t be till grad school that I discoverred otherwise.


Random Topic Tuesday

February 18, 2009 Leave a comment

This isn’t a regular thing, I just had no title and that’s the best thing that I could come up with. So here it goes, in what is going to be a pretty weak post.

At 6pm PBS airs the BBC World News, of which Gwendolyn and I have become regular viewers. I like it because it is just news, no commercials and no bullshit. Nothing like the constant Fox News Alerts, the self-righteous douchebags on CNN, or the “we’re still gonna bitch about Bush even though he’s no longer President” MSNBC reporting. It’s a guy and a desk with a crawl detailing the Cricket scores which I’m pretty sure I have to figure out since that Texan was just indicted (he sponsored the Cricket league in England). What I liked the most about the nightly reports is the anchor, i can’t seem to remember his name, or find it on their website but I think he’s the best reporter I’ve ever seen. After each news story ends and the camera cuts back to him, it’s like the camera always catches him doing something else to which he looks up and gives us a look. The look is almost sarcastic, as if to say, “and if you’ll believe that…I have another…” I think they replaced him, but my fiancee says he might be on vacation.

Today at the coffee shop I was reading a book, and exchanging ultra short conversation with another regular. This regular is training a service dog (the ones with the red vests) and a person walked in, sat down in close proximity, and began to ask questions. The questions started normal, well as normal as they get for a cafe crazy person: what’s the dog’s name, how old is he/she, why do they let the dog inside, etc. Then the person asked, “how long can the dog last if you don’t feed her?” The regular responded, “until she gets hungry, and then I feed her.” How else does one answer that?

Also today, a woman knocked at the apartment door. Immediately I thought it was someone that wanted to see the upstairs apartment which had just recently become available. However this was not the case, she was recruiting names to sign a petition to influence Governor Paterson to not cut the funding to the EPF (Environmental Protection Fund). I had been aware of the EPF’s existence, and figured that it too would suffer underneath the wide swath of cuts that our governor is performing in order to save New York from bankruptcy. The funding from the EPF comes largely from a tax on all real estate transactions in the state.

In short, it’s a closed system. In order to cut the funding the State would have to either repurpose the tax, or stop it altogether. Since the governor is hell bent on cutting everything, and don’t get me wrong–he has a good reason i.e. not preventing New fucking York from going bankrupt, I offer a counter solution. Instead of taxing Real Estate, they should add a tax to all bottled water sold in the state. Not a deposit, but a tax. This would fit in well with their theory on the “fat tax.” If they raise the tax less people will buy bottled water, which would lessen damage to the environment from the manufacture of the plastic bottles and would thus lessen the need for the EPF. Problem solved, I should be fucking governor.

Counting Olives II

February 12, 2009 Leave a comment


Our current president, in his campaign, said repeatedly that an open dialogue with our enemies (North Korea and Iran) was the way to ensure peace. Democrats who just blindly followed whatever the non-Republicans (or Ron Paul) nodded their heads. Other people wrote large articles on why talking to the “Axis of Evil” was a legitimate strategy. While I agreed with opening a dialogue with N. Korea (cause it would be funny) I had my reservations about Iran, for no other reason than that I worked for an Iranian.

Although that’s not entirely fair…his wife was equally a pain in the ass. As I said last post, I took the job because I needed the money, Grad school does not pay well. I figured the tips could go to beer and smokes, while the pay check could go to things like rent and food. It seemed to work out, but clashes with management culminated with my quitting. I’ll break them down into easy to eat categories.

Schedule: Before Brewed Awakenings, I held two long term jobs. The first was at an auto-detail shop and the second was at the movie theater. The auto-detail shop had a fixed schedule, I worked the same time on the same day every week. The movie theater was different, the hours changed. This, I figured, was normal to customer service part time work but I was prepared for a fixed schedule. When I was first hired, they game me a one week shift schedule two weeks in advance which is normal practice for a trial period. Then the next schedule I checked had my shifts plotted out for three weeks. This was odd, in that it precluded any time that I wanted off to travel back to Buffalo.

For a co-worker and I to switch shifts required asking Casey for permission, and then having to go to Maas to ask him. He always made you feel guilty about it, like working there was a great privilege and we should feel grateful to be getting paid as well. Several months later they hired a woman named Marie. Marie and I got along very well and the two of us began to think of ways to make our lives easier. I’m not sure who asked, but very soon the two of us were making the schedule. It wasn’t that difficult, we handled days off and classes. Everyone was happy, the schedule was made two weeks in advance for one week. Then Casey wanted to see the schedule, which wasn’t a problem…at least we didn’t think it was. She had a problem.

Casey said that she wanted the schedule to be the same, week by week, for a month. This was her goal and thus it would be our goal. I told her that it wasn’t exactly feasible with days off due to holidays and that certain people weren’t from Toledo and wanted to visit family on some weekends (not just me). She reiterated her/our goal saying that she should be able to look at the schedule on the first of the month and see who was working on the last day of the month. The scheduling duty was then removed from Marie and I.

Breaks: I didn’t know then, but I do now. Ohio law and New York law are the same regarding employees and break times. Working over 6 hours meant that you are owed at least thirty minutes of break time. The owners regarded this as inconvenient and didn’t allow us anything ignoring the law. I, from New York, figured that this was the way of things and bore it with the stoicness that all of you know me for. The morning shift lasted from 10am to 5:30pm and you were all alone. On non-busy days this meant wasn’t really an issue, for me, it meant smoking in the smoking section with an older lady that was in every day. On busy days it could be a real problem as there was no one to help you until 3:30 when the closing shift came in. Any problem you had was your problem unless that problem involved restaurant resources.

Cheapness: Everyone has the story about a miserly boss. I can almost guarantee that Maas was the worst out of all the stories that can be told. One afternoon we were really dead and I was really bored. Bored enough to find work on my own. The floor was dirty so I decided that it really needed a good mopping, I searched and searched looking for floor soap but couldn’t find any. I figured we were out and reasoned that since soap is soap, dish soap would do in a pinch. At the very worst, the place would smell like lemons but the floor would shine. I mopped the floor with an odd sense of satisfaction coming from accomplishing something that I wasn’t asked to do. This was a mistake. Well after I was done, Maas came in from the antique store that he owned next door. We exchanged a forced set of pleasantries wherein he noticed that the floor was a lot cleaner than it had been in awhile. I explained that we were out of floor soap so I put some dish soap in the mop bucket and washed the floor thinking I would get an “attaboy.” I was wrong.

I had wasted dish soap. I explained again that the floor was dirty and that soap was needed. He told me not to do that again and that just using water would have been fine, I’m sure if they were a corporation I would have been written up. It’s not that we were out of floor cleaner we never had any. In an effort to save money, they skimped on frivolous luxuries like sanitation, and that Mr. President is why you don’t negotiate with Persians. Caveat: this got them into trouble with the local health department after my departure.

Food: We made salads, two kinds of subs, a couple sandwiches and a lot of pastries. I guess “made” is the wrong word, they came in we served them after heating the appropriate ones. We did personally make the salads, Maas made the hummus, Casey made the pastries at home (as far as I was told, but I was always doubtful), but the subs were heated. The salads were of three types; Greek, Mediterranean, and Chef. There were never any instructions on how to make them, just a large list of ingredients.

Here is where the mysterious title of these two posts comes in. A Greek salad isn’t hard. In fact it’s just a Chef salad (lettuce, cucumbers, red onions) with pepperocini, feta cheese, greeek dressing, and calamata olives. If I made the salad there were generous portions of everything on the plate. Casey yelled at me for this.

Allegedly, American Airlines once decided that they would cut the number of olives on their salads from four to three. Once this alleged decision was made, they allegedly saved a million dollars a year. This story was repeated to me three times in one day, after someone complimented me to them for a salad that I had made. In short, a compliment from a customer landed me in trouble doomed to hear the same story over and over again until I quit. I’ve never been able to establish the veracity of that story, but nevertheless it doesn’t apply to a business that bought on giant gallon jug of calamata olives a year.

I still can’t believe that place stayed open for 14 years with the same owners.

Counting Olives

February 10, 2009 Leave a comment

I received a message from Rich (of clown nose fame) today telling me that Brewed Awakenings had closed its doors. For those of you not having the Toledo experience, it was a coffee shop on the corner of Douglas and Monroe. It was also the very first place that I went to after moving into Toledo. When I say “first place” I don’t mean first cafe, or anything like that. I mean that once all of my various possessions were moved into my apartment on Christie I took a drive around, saw the cafe (it was an actual minute from my place), and went in.

Summing it up, I probably spent more time there than any other place in the Glass City. The first year I was in Toledo i was there everyday they were open. A lot of my memories of Toledo are tied to that place, which is odd given everything else that I did there.

Brewed Awakenings is sort of responsible for my philosophical focus in Machiavelli. Some day I will have to recant the entirety of my troubles in Grad school, but I can put down part of it here. A guy I started the Master’s program with, we’ll call him “DS,” didn’t have a car so he was always bumming rides. At this point I didn’t have any real friends in Ohio, so i would let him ride with me and we would hang out at Brewed from 6:30-10:30.

“DS” was about as self-righteous as socialist leftists come. You could tolerate it for a bit but eventually it would just grate on you. That grating resulted in the troubles that I experienced. Typically I did my class reading during my office hours since they were seldom visited, and did my personal reading at the coffee shop later. One night I didn’t have anything to read, and DS was on a big tear about how illegal the war in Afghanistan was (the Iraq war hadn’t started yet) and I had enough of it that day. In the trunk of my car were a couple books I grabbed at a book sale back in Buffalo that I picked up for a couple quarters. One of those books was Machiavelli’s “The Discourses on the first Decade of Titus Livy,” The Discourses for short. It quickly became one of my favorite books and is one of the cornerstone works cited in all three of my publications. Before that act of desperation, I was heavily into Eastern Philosophy and probably would have continued with that as my primary interest.

Primarily what kept me coming back to the place were the Thursday night chess club meetings. For the four years that I lived there I attended the chess meetings for three of the last three. Every Thursday night from 7:30-10:30 we played “bug house” (team speed chess). This evolved from just being chess, to meeting out at a bar from 10:30-2am when the bars closed. I loved chess night and they remain in the top of my Ohio memories. Well I didn’t always…

…See, I also worked at the cafe. About halfway through my first semester in Grad school, I ran out of money. My account was overdrawn by about fifty bucks. Most of this was due to poor money management on my part, but the rest of it was due to the slave salary the school paid us while at the same time telling us that we can’t get jobs because it would interfere with our duties as Teaching Assistants (although I would still like to see that argument).

The Chess club never wanted to leave and they never tipped, hell, most of them didn’t even buy anything. Next post I’ll relate what it was like working for Casey and Maas and what exactly the title of this post means.

Cafe Crazy

January 31, 2009 Leave a comment

Wayne at K Ghallagher’s used to always tell me that crazy was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Most of the time he was referring to the fact that i used to come in there nightly and expect something to be going on (in truth I wasn’t expecting anything). This definition of crazy works for the most part, I am not likening the word “crazy” with “insane.” That’s a whole other word with specific medical connotations.

I was at the cafe today, just trying to read the Oxford Book of Villains, and generally observing the sorrounding people. The door opened and in walked a girl who sat down in one of the deceptively uncomfortable leather chairs, briefly. She got up and walked over to the large and inconvenient table placed in the center of the room since they remodeled. Shortly after that the door opened and in wheeled Rick.

Rick is one of those guys that seems to hang out at every cafe I’ve ever visited or heard about. He’s one of the crazy regulars. His craziness is subtle, and if you are used to going to cafes you can spot him right away. He just looks crazy, it’s not the wheelchair or the long white beard, it’s something ineffable. After fetching his coffee he pulled his chair up to the inconvenient center table.

Crazy cafe people are in a way beneficial to the solitary individual who isn’t crazy. They force people into conversations because those people are avoiding the crazy person. Rick forced this today. Rick’s craziness is that he quickly goes from “hey, how are you today?” to “they think they may have to amputate my foot,” with no transition or set up. He’s the depressing guy. I’ve been cornered with Rick a couple of times, in warmer weather I just go outside and smoke.*

Rick is also crazy in Wayne’s definition as well. Cafe crazies are usually the type that will keep talking if no one listens. A mark of sanity is that whatever you say outloud is usually directed at someone, and when that person isn’t listening the speaking usually stops. These coffee house people don’t do that. Rick said hi to the girl, then asked what she was working on.

As a general rule that I abide by, if a person is in a place of coffee selling with a papers in front of them that particular question is not out of line…depending on how busy they look. Rick wasn’t crazy here, he was crazy when the woman, Robin, put on her glasses and turned her back completely to Rick. I should note that they were sitting on the same side of the table, so her adjustment wasn’t subtle. Rick kept talking to her.

She started talking to me, having some information about me which was odd since I was sure that I hadn’t met her before. And Rick kept talking to her.

The true mark of cafe crazy is that he never got angry, or changed his tone of voice. He just talked as though nothing had changed, as though if he kept talking she would be able to catch up in the conversation. A conversation that was about his leg, and how he was soon going to be missing it.

*Those anti-smoking ads should come up with an alternative to this omni-pragmatic escape device. There isn’t a more effective socially acceptable way to abruptly leave a conversation.