Saturday, October 18, 2008

Intelligent Selection

So I dropped into the Bar and Grille a bit ago to have a pop with the guys and the place was pretty full so I had to take a stool right next to Handel Miller. Now Handle used to clerk down at Standard Plumbing and Hardware until it closed because the new U-Do-It supermart opened up and took away all their business. Handel might have gone to work there but chose instead to retire and now he spends his days at the O.K. Barber Shop talking philosophy and politics with the boys until five o-clock when he moves over to the Bar and Grille to do the same thing.

As I climbed onto a stool I raised a finger to Manny behind the bar and he nodded and picked up a glass for my drink.

"Well, Bob, how you doin'?" asked Handel.

"Well, okay I guess, Handel and how be you?"

He thought for a while and then put his hand on my knee and leaned in real close. "I figured out you was right, Bob."

I raised a skeptical eye and waited for the next shoe to drop as Manny put a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of me and sat my scotch down. "Cheers, man," he said in kind of an ironic "good luck with Handel, there, pal," kind of way.

"But," said Handel, "You was only half-right." Clunk went the shoe.

"Well, now, Handel, I am mighty glad to be batting .500 in your book, but do tell me just what it is I was right about and why only half way?"

"That E-vilution thing we was talkin' about. Remember?"

I did. Handel had said Darwin was full of it and evolution was only a theory and a bad one at that. And I had made some irreverent remarks about the flaws in the notion of intelligent design. These are things one doesn't talk about, surely not with Handel, unless one has been at the Bar and Grille for a while and had their drinks refreshed by Manny more than a couple of times. I remembered the discussion and calculated that I'd had about three, maybe four, drinks by the time Handel had got me trying to reason with him about what science is and what religion isn't and whether intelligent design was just a crock. And now Handel was back on the subject again and I was insufficiently fortified as yet to get engaged in a conversation about it. But I had no choice.

"See, what you was right about, Bob, is mutilation could of made us go from bein' monkeys to bein' men over a long lot of years."

"Mutation," I said. "Genetic mutation."

"Right. I get that. I see your point."

"Well, now that's one for me, Handel. And I believe I'll have another. Manny?"

"So I get that everything was the same itty bitty creature way back then and the genetics got all mutilated and some of them mutilations survived and they got mutilated a little bit more. And so on. And so on. All down through the vast recipes of time."

"Yeah, that's about it in a nutshell," I replied.

"So that's why it is there's you an' me sittin' here at this bar instead of us bein' a couple monkeys up a tree."

"One way to put it," I said.

"So there ain't no supreme intelligent designer workin' it all out in advance."

"Yeah. So you agree with that," I said, "But where is it I got it only half right?"

"Now, Bob, where you are wrong is that you say it was all accidental like."

It sounded to me like Handel hadn't quite got the point, but I urged him on as Manny swapped out my empty glass for a full one. "Why's that, Handel?"

"Well, you called it 'natural selection,' right?"

I nodded.

"Well that can't be no accident, see?"

I did not see.

"Look," he explained, "I pick me my five numbers and one mega number twice a week now for, what, 10 or 15 years? I make a selection, right?"

I nodded again.

"And not once -- not ONCE in all that time did I ever pick the right ones an' win the jackpot. And it ain't just me. Why all across this great State of ours there's millions of people picking their numbers twice a week. An' sometimes, like right now, weeks and weeks'll go by and not one of those millions picks the right numbers."

"Well, Handel," I said with growing patience, "the odds are against you. I've told you that more than once."

"Exactly! So if all of us, who aren't exactly dumb as doornails can't pick the right selection, then what does it take to do that?"

He waited quite some time for an answer, but I offered none.

"A super intelligent selector, that's what."

Handel drained his drink. "See, there's this supreme being -- now I ain't sayin' it's 'God' or anythin', call it what you want -- but there's this supreme being that is an intelligent selector. An' He goes, 'Well, now, I will select this here critter because it will survive and all them others won't.' See? He knows! Nine times outa ten He is right, by golly."

He turned to squint at the teevee above the bar, seeming at once very satisfied with his logic but still intently working on the problem; you could tell he was thinking pretty hard by the way he squinted. The teevee played the Manchester Dog Show because there weren't any other sports on at the time.

Then, all of a sudden, Handel had one of those Eureka! moments and his eyes bugged out and a grin came to his face. "In fact!" he said, "He is never wrong."

I took a sip and was about to say something, but Handel slipped off his stool and stood unsteadily, preparing to leave. "You show me one critter, just one, or one single vegetable on this here Earth today that did not survive." He paused and swayed and tried to keep his balance. "Can't do it, can you?"


"Intelligent selection." Handle cackled a little bit and began to totter toward the door. I said, "Well, now, Handel if you want to see a whole quarter acre of plants that aren't surviving, you just come on over to my back yard."

He weaved his way toward the exit and turned back in my direction. "Well, Bob, that's because you spend too much time sprayin' and not enough prayin'." And he let out a little "Hah!" as he stumbled out the door.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's a Debate, Wink, Wink

During a post-debate program on KQED's Forum last week, a caller questioned one conservative pundit's comment that Governor Sarah Palin had "expertly" avoided answering moderator Gwen Ifill's questions. "When I was on the high school debating team, if you avoided answering the question," I paraphrase the listener, "that was a negative and you would lose points! So, how-come-is-it you give her credit for 'expertly' avoiding the questions?"

What the listener failed to understand is that political "debates" are hardly the same as the kind you might have engaged in when you were in high school. They are theatrical performances in which one's ability to convey predetermined messages--irrespective of the topic at hand--is greatly prized and highly rewarded. Avoiding-the-question is an important skill for politicians and diplomats--they do it all the time. While I am no fan of Ms. Palin I give her some credit for her ability in that regard, although her execution remains a bit clumsy.

In a preview of the debate for the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Joe Garofoli described the techniques of Bridging, Hedging, Hooking and Flagging -- all designed "to maximize performance." None of these tactics will win points for your debating team, but they're the stuff that political jousting is made of. "Bridging," says Garofoli is "Used to avoid answering directly and pivot to one's main messages. Example: 'I understand your point. The more important issue is ... (insert key message)' or 'No. I'd like to explain ... (insert key message).'"

I doubt Palin read Garofoli's unsolicited advice ("If you're stumped, don't be obvious about steering the questions back to a safe knowledge harbor"), but she did just that several times. Natural talent, I presume.

Another thing that counts on the stump but not so much in high school debates is body language. Gestures, tics and physical appearance can win or lose points with the electorate. Nixon perspired: bad. Gore scoffed and snorted: bad. George H.W. Bush checked his watch: bad.

Both Palin and Joe Biden used gestures well last week; she with her wagging head and hypnotic eye-contact, he by cupping his hand to his ear to visualize that "I haven't heard" the difference between McCain and Bush, pounding the lectern to underscore his side's determination to end the war, and pointing a finger for emphasis each time he said, "Let me say that again..."

I have to give the advantage to Biden, though -- and not only because I find Palin frightening. Her gestures underscored her positioning as "just plain folk," which I take to mean "inadequate for the job," while his helped to articulate his commitment, sincerity and strength. Her smiles were broad, but seemed disingenuous.

And her winks! My God, those WINKS!

For a commentary on those, please see "Sarah Palin, all-American cheerleader" by Tim Kingston and Lisa Moore from this morning's Chronicle on I'm not sure Sarah's eye-squinches represent "the promise of power in exchange for sex," but they sure seem manipulative to those of us who don't consider the moose-hunter from Wasilla to be a hottie.

Friday, October 3, 2008