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Sunday Mailbag

Once again, better late than never. We will also have some reader-written content this week, as there were a number of things that did not quite fit for the mailbag.

Politics: The 2024 Presidential Race

S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: In the spirit of your yard sign surveys, I report the following data: Today I saw a car with dealer plates. The trunk (not the bumper) was already decorated with three stickers:

I had to shudder. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

D.C. in Brentwood, CA, writes: I'll probably be wrong about this, but just thought I'd point out that the date is coming up very soon after which, if Joe Biden resigns, Kamala Harris would still be eligible to stand for election twice. Perhaps that's his upcoming announcement.

He did thank her quite a bit in the SOTU, though not a huge amount, so no clear signals there. He sounds like he's ready to go for a second term, but if he wasn't going to, it would make sense to resign very soon, so that she gets almost a full 2 years, with an improving economy, to set herself up for reelection.

K.C. in West Islip, NY, writes: Once again, someone mentioned Pete Buttigieg in the context of being a viable presidential candidate in the questions from Saturday. I will preface this by saying that Secretary Buttigieg, in my opinion, would be a fantastic president, certainly one of the smartest and well-spoken that we've had in many, many decades.

However, let's be truthful about the electorate, at least as it's comprised today. Firstly, Buttigieg would never swing a single MAGA vote, not one even if he promised them all a pickup truck, a shiny new assault rifle and a lifetime supply of Skoal. But even beyond that segment who wouldn't vote for Jesus Christ himself if he had a D after his name, it's also unfathomable that the Black community would vote for him en masse. This is not to come across as racist—I'm most certainly anything but, but Black folks, especially the most religious Black folks, would never be able to bring themselves to vote for a gay man. As much was evident when Buttigieg was able to perform magnificently in predominantly white states Iowa and New Hampshire and then proceeded to get his rear end handed to him in the primary states with a bigger Black electorate.

Maybe someday, as mindsets shift, as boomers die off and as people evolve to not care what other consenting adults do in the bedroom, and if strict adherence to religion fades away, then he can reasonably be in the conversation. But as things stand right now in this country there is a zero chance Buttigieg could so much as sniff the nomination, let alone win a national general election. He'd have a better chance of calling the Oval Office his workplace if he'd been named the designated survivor than by counting on the votes of people who deeply believe he's on the fast track to hell.

Make no mistake, I'd vote for Buttigieg in a heartbeat. He is exactly what this country needs in a president, but too many people out there will vote with their guns, their Bible and their emotions to make that happen anytime soon.

Politics: Social Security

S.T. in Glen Rock, NJ, writes: It seems that Social Security is going to be an issue heading into the 2024 election, regardless of which candidates are nominated. One thing that will come up frequently are accusations that Social Security is going to be "cut." As Inigo Montoya would say, "I do not think it means what you think it means."

In D.C. Budgetspeak, a cut means a reduction in the baseline forecast, with the baseline being current law. A cut does not mean that someone getting $100/month today will get $99/month tomorrow; rather, it is a slowing in the rate of growth. There are, of course, many ways to do this.

One tool your readers may find useful is an online calculator prepared by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has an online calculator where you can "choose your adventure" and reform Social Security with right-of-center (e.g., delay retirement age) and left-of-center proposals (e.g., raise Social Security taxes on higher income workers). What people may propose will vary but looking at the math can be helpful to put proposals in context.

J.L. in Albany, NY, writes: Regarding Sen. Rick Scott's (R-FL) "Renew Laws Every 5 Years" idea, not only would some laws not be renewed, but even if they were, the process would grind Congress to a halt. I had a hard time Googling just how many laws there are. It's extremely complicated and the best answer Google could provide was 30,000. Of course, that was "statutes enacted since 1789" and I'm sure some of those have gone by the wayside. So let's suppose that only a third of those are active and that they only need to be renewed every 5 years. Let's also assume that they are evenly distributed so we don't need to renew all 10,000 in one year.

Now, we have 2,000 statues that need to be renewed every year. That's about 167 statutes that would need to be renewed every month or about 9 every day (assuming 4 weeks per month and 5 workdays a week). Of course, Congress is in recess a few months a year so this is likely to go up to 10 or more statutes to be renewed every day.

Can Congress renew this many each day? Theoretically, sure. "Everyone in favor of renewing these 10 bills? Opposed? The yays have it." Of course, we all know it won't go that quickly. There will be speeches and opposition and attempts to rewrite the old statues—even if they work properly and even if the rewriting is doomed to fail. And the Republicans wouldn't need to actually pass a bill to kill the legislation. They'd just need to gum up the works long enough for the statutes to sunset.

Even if Congress did renew these old laws, it would add a ton of work and would grind any progress to a halt. Of course, I'm sure this is a side goal of Scott's proposal along with giving the Republicans a chance every 5 years of killing anything they didn't like by merely obstructing long enough to run out the clock.

E.G-C. in Westmoreland, NY, writes: Whenever I read or talk about Republicans' attempts to privatize Social Security, I always point them towards the Chilean system, and how well is doing. If not, ask Chileans what happened in 2019.

Politics: Abortion

S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: There is plenty of reason to worry about the mifepristone lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas.

I skimmed the complaint. It's mostly a rehash of 20-year-old arguments that anti-abortion activists presented to the FDA and that the FDA rejected. The plaintiffs claim that the FDA lacked statutory authority to approve mifepristone and that FDA's decision to do so was "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law" (the standard of review set forth in the federal Administrative Procedure Act).

Once upon a time, when the Executive Branch was conservative, the Legislative Branch and most of the Judicial Branch were more-or-less liberal, and the Supreme Court was conservative, the Supreme Court decreed that good, non-activist judges should treat agencies deferentially. This deference applied to both stated grounds of the challenge to mifepristone's approval.

Did a statute (say, the Clean Air Act) empower an agency to do what the agency had done (say, to ease emission permitting requirements)? If the statute was ambiguous—and most statutes are, most of the time—the court should defer to the agency's interpretation of the statute so long as it wasn't unreasonable, even if the court on its own would have preferred a different interpretation.

Was an agency's discretionary choice (say, to approve a dam without doing a supplemental environmental impact statement) arbitrary and capricious? The court should not impose its own preference but should defer to the agency's expertise unless there was no rational connection between the information an agency had and the choice the agency made, even if the court on its own would have made a different choice.

And judges, especially trial judges whose decisions are not precedential and whose jurisdictions are geographically limited, were often cautious about ordering remedies even if they concluded that an agency had blown it. As recently as, say, 2017-2021, conservatives railed against "activist" judges who issued nationwide injunctions.

All that's out the window now, though, with the conservative majority of the Supreme Court increasingly asserting its own authority to make federal policy (oh, excuse me, "to say what the law is," as John Marshall put it), and many lower-court federal judges are following its lead. So it's frighteningly plausible that Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk could cherry-pick the administrative record and conclude that FDA's approval of mifepristone was "arbitrary and capricious," and vacate the approval effective immediately. Then it would be luck of the draw whether two out of three randomly-selected judges of the Fifth Circuit would uphold that order. And then we might be able to guess what six justices of the Supreme Court might do, in particular with respect to the status of mifepristone during the long, long slog to a hearing on the merits in the Supreme Court.

B.L. in Mountain View, CA, writes: M.B. in St Andrews asked about an abortion suit which could lead to retraction of FDA approval of mifepristone: "doctors in California and New York aren't likely to stop prescribing and providing them..."

It is likely that doctors are either legally required, or constrained by hospital or practice rules, not to prescribe unapproved medicines. It is even more likely that the insurance companies would decline coverage on the same grounds. These two systemic obstacles would make a withdrawal of approval quite effective no matter the political bent of the state or the individual doctor.

(V) & (Z) respond: Note that Mifepristone is also approved for other, non-abortion-related purposes, and that physicians often prescribe drugs for off-label uses.

J.H. in Boston, MA, writes: P.H. in Davis was confused by the term "anti-abortion clinic," and you admitted it was an editing mistake. Fine, but there do exist in red states women's "healthcare" clinics which treat women seeking to terminate pregnancies, by inundating them with pro-life literature and guilting them away from abortions. I assumed that's what you were talking about in the posting that day.

Politics: The Balloon

O.E. in Greenville, SC, writes: As someone who was following the balloon incident, I am very skeptical of the claims that it was a spy balloon. For starters, despite the claims from the U.S., weather balloons are not very controllable. It would be highly unlikely for a balloon launched from Western China to precisely guide itself to be over Montana missile silos several days later. Add in the numerous previous intelligence failures (from troop bounties that never resulted in deaths, to failure to predict invasions), plus the fact that the NWS was not called in to analyze the balloon, and you can see why I'm skeptical. Former meteorologist Dan Satterfield was the man who tracked the original balloon, and he is also skeptical about the balloon being a spy craft. (His guess for the recent balloon shoot-down is that it was the NWS's Nome balloon, which stopped transmitting data around that time.)

D.R. in Slippery Rock PA, writes: I have a friend who is now a contractor but was formerly in Air Force intelligence. He says that AWACs were flying near the balloon; they have the ability to jam any transmissions and surely were. So there was no downside to not shooting it down until it was over water for an intact recovery.

J.P. in Hancock, ME, writes: Note that in contrast to the carefully curated tough guy/man of the people surroundings (hoodie, blue jeans, outdoors, split wood), in his "shoot down the balloon" photo, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) is wearing some sort of ankle height suede boots unknown to real men and most commonly found in metrosexual circles in Brooklyn, or among the tweed-clad and custom-shotgun-hunting crowd.

(V) & (Z) respond: Wait. You wouldn't be suggesting that Vance is trying to craft a blue-collar image that does not align with who he really is, would you? Because that's crazy talk.

D.H. in Lisbon Falls, ME, writes: Who knew?

A photo of a screen capture from the
movie Top Gun, with George Santos' face photoshopped in as the pilot of a fighter plane, is captioned: 'Breaking--George Santos shoots down
spy balloon'

Politics: The Democratic Primary Calendar

R.H. in Seattle, WA, writes: I don't agree that the primary calendar was a misfire by Biden and the DNC; they know full well New Hampshire will move heaven and earth to ensure their first-in-the-nation status, but they also had to do more than pay lip service to core constituencies so putting their proposed calendar on paper does that. They also won't penalize New Hampshire for going first for the very reasons you laid out about fringe candidates.

S.A. in Seattle, WA, writes: You wrote: "Maybe the goal was to get the ball rolling, with an eye toward 2028. If so, mission accomplished... maybe. But in the interim, Biden & Co. end up with some egg on their faces, while also aggravating voters in places that take their "us first" status seriously. Seems like a misfire to us."

Not sure I agree... Seems to me the dynamics didn't change: (1) Upsetting voters in IA and NH isn't a major D risk, and (2) making voters feel heard/empowered in Georgia, etc., is helpful to the Democrats.

Positioning more colorful states earlier seems more likely to be a process than a task, and I would expect Joe Biden, et al., to be well aware. But, I'd also hope they leverage their position at the forefront to drive the narrative in '24.

M.U. in Seattle, WA, writes: The first rumblings of dissatisfaction with the Democrats' primary calendar a while back gave me one thought: Dear God, here we go. Leave it to the Democrats to elevate an issue within their own party that will have everyone twisting themselves into knots, pointing fingers and leaving generally everyone unsatisfied. (For the record, I'm a hardcore Democrat and party loyalist, and/but/so throwing stones is a necessary part of that experience, sometimes.)

This is a stupid issue of their own making that ties into the absolute obsession of diversity—or really, identity politics—by the left-wing progressive activists that seeps into the discourse of the higher ranks of the Democratic Party. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying diversity is a stupid issue. On the contrary, I deeply value diversity and believe it's what truly makes our country beautiful. Diversity should be an integral part of any societal issue or program. And that's just the point; it should make up a part of an issue and always be a consideration. But in this instance national Democratic Party leaders are elevating it to be THE issue. It's the ostensible reason given for shuffling the calendar (though, as with anything, there are political undertones at play). Are differing constituencies of the Democratic Party not already being represented? New Hampshire, as first (primary), is nicely represented by party insiders and the activist wing; South Carolina, as second, represents the Black constituency; Nevada, as third, represents the Latino community; and no one cares about Iowa anymore, whether they go first with a caucus or last.

Does anyone honestly think if you walked up to the average Democratic voter across the country and demographic spectrum and asked them what they thought of the issue of shuffling the party's primary calendar, that most wouldn't say, "Who cares?" So what do the DNC and Biden hope to accomplish here? It is taking an enormous amount of oxygen out of the room when Democrats could be agonizing over better things like getting more people registered and making the case to the average voter why they're the better option. Remember the fiasco of Michigan and the DNC in 2008? That was my first time really following politics and I remember thinking what an unmitigated disaster that was, it was one of the things that left the Hillary/Obama wings of the party divided and sour over each other. If the DNC moves to strip New Hampshire if its delegates can you even imagine the fallout? Giving NH the extra possibility of going red by sour Democrats abstaining in the general is madness! That would be a great example of diversity being elevated over the politics of winning and we all know how well diversity does under Republican administrations. It'd be a political "own goal" of gigantic proportions. I sincerely hope these Democrats are satisfied with their posturing over this, get over it and move on.

T.O. in Portland, OR, writes: To point out something overlooked in many analyses of the DNC primary calendar discussion: New Hampshire is not a guaranteed "W" for the blue team. Hillary Clinton won it by less than 3,000 votes. Al Gore lost it by roughly 7,000 votes.

The residents of the Granite State are proud of their first-in-the-nation status and will not give it up easily. If the DNC follows through and negates their primary there will be a backlash. This could easily be enough to tip an election in the State and conceivably the entire country. Consider that Gore winning New Hampshire renders Florida and its hanging chads wonderfully irrelevant, at least for everyone not working in a Florida election office.

Is this calendar, whatever its merits, worth risking four electoral votes? The primary isn't decisive, ask Not Presidents McCain, Sanders (twice!), Tsongas, Buchanan, or Hillary Clinton how much their New Hampshire wins mattered in the end. What's the compelling reason to change this now? Why do it in a way seemingly calculated to offend the residents of a state currently in our column, against the pleas of that state's Democratic Party?

Politics: Is Anyone Paying Attention?

S.C. in Hoffman Estates, IL, writes: In Cook County, IL, my wife has been an election judge since 1992. She's seen voting technology evolve several times over the years. Currently, the County has electronic pollbooks, but they also have an emergency backup system in the event of glitches, outages, or other mishaps. The system relies on a paper voter index book with the same information as the pollbook, and paper ballots. Judges are trained either online or in-person on current election procedures, even those most recently updated by the Cook County Board or the Illinois General Assembly. The County sends out a paper voter-ID by "Snail mail," rather than e-mail, that contains the voter's address, precinct, legislative and school districts to their property. The State learned a lot from the Russian hack of 2016 and keeps refining its process, at least in Cook County. As for the other 101 counties in the Land of Lincoln, their systems differ, sometimes considerably.

R.T. in Arlington, TX, writes: Hypothetically, imagine a day when the Republican politicians have a meaningful point to make about the direction of our country or to point out a significant mistake/misdeed by the executive branch. When that day comes, will anybody recognize it? After years of kvetching about everything, big or small, real or fantasy, who will pay attention when it really matters? Really, Republicans: You've got to be more thoughtful about how you use your voices if you want to be taken seriously. Read the definition of sensory adaptation.

N.A. in Asheboro, NC, writes: This week, I attended a trivia event hosted by one of my partner's coworkers. To my shock and dismay, I discovered that around half of the attendees could not name the current governor of North Carolina. Everyone who was in the room is a North Carolina resident. To make matters worse, at least two-thirds of those who were in attendance are state employees; most with 4 to 7 years of service in a department that (eventually) reports to... the governor of North Carolina.

The group mostly consisted of folks ages 25-30. I'm not sure what lesson to draw from this, but it may help make sense of some voting patterns.

All Politics Is Local

M.D.H. in Coralville, IA, writes: Although I am in Iowa now, I grew up in Wisconsin so I know about a time in the past when a Wisconsin Supreme Court election was excessively interesting: after they ruled against a last-ditch effort to stop the Braves baseball team from moving to Atlanta in 1966. The Chief Justice got voted out of office over that case.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court election this time might affect something much more important to the rest of the country than whether a baseball team moves.

J.O. in Centralia, MO, writes: None of the documents deemed valid ID for voting under Ohio's new law, including an Ohio driver's license, an Ohio nondriver's ID card, a U.S. passport, or a U.S. military ID, are available without paying a fee (or, you know, signing up for a hitch with the military). That makes it, in effect, a poll tax. And the Twenty-Fourth Amendment expressly prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote on payment of a poll tax or any other type of tax.

I'm going to be very interested in the inevitable court challenge to this law, and what sort of mental gymnastics the conservative majority on the Supreme Court try to perform when it (again, inevitably) reaches their level.

B.W.S. in Pleasant Valley, NY , writes: Just a quick point of information regarding your piece about Ohio driver's licenses. Lived in Dayton for about 4-½ years; turns out their motor vehicle bureaus will, in fact, print your new ID cards right inside the office. Or, at least, the office I went to did. A mere 8 years ago.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: One of my GOP friends often uses the analogy of "you have to show ID to fly, check in to a hotel, etc., what's big deal about voting?"

But alas, if these voting restrictions (in such places like Ohio and Texas) were only about showing a picture ID, perhaps that would be true...

But as I always have to remind him, these voting laws go far beyond a picture ID. They remove polling places (especially in the counties where the Democrats reside), they curtail early voting, they restrict drop boxes altogether or have one in a place like Harris County Texas (which is Houston), they purge voters from the rolls. Then, there is the despicable tactic in Texas, where a student attending University of Texas cannot use his/her student ID to vote, but a gun owner can use that picture ID for the gun. Hmmm, simple equation there: students lean Democratic so no student ID, whereas gun owners in Texas largely vote Republican, so gun ID is valid.

In a few months, I bet they amend the Ohio voting law to allow for gun owner ID as acceptable form of voter ID. But a student at The Ohio State will never be able to use student ID to cast a ballot.

F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: In regards to "urban areas" in South Dakota...

My brother is retired. He sold his home (in New Jersey), bought a camper trailer, and lives a nomadic life. He's had dental work done in Mexico and has stood in the Arctic Ocean (during the summer). Apart from being a nomad, he also participates with NOMADS. They are a group for those who live the RV life and do voluntary building and repair of homes, churches, children's homes, etc.

His official residence is in Box Elder, just outside of Rapid City, SD; he has South Dakota plates on his truck and trailer. This is because: (1) you only have to stay one night to gain residency, and (2) South Dakota has no state income tax. When he did apply for residency, there was some... intimidation about registering to vote. Also, when the census was taken, he said he was in Texas, because that's where he was at the time.

He has wondered, as have I, how many nomads "resident" in South Dakota don't actually live there.

International Politics

P.B. in Gainesville, FL, writes: In the context of the discussion about decorum in Congress and/or the British Parliament, I am reminded of the rather infamous example of Paul Keating, the Prime Minister of Australia in the early 1990s. His abuse of "Parliamentary privilege" as it is called, is legendary. There has been extensive documentation of his exploits in insults, extending even to the theatre in "Keating: The Musical." See, for example, this web page, for just one such compilation (I almost fell off my chair laughing with that one!). Keating makes the characters in Congress look like complete amateurs or, should I say, "hare-brained hillbillies."

D.M. in Oakland, CA (but originally from Ottawa, ON, Canada), writes: The inquiry from J.E. in Boone, NC, about unparliamentary language in the U.K.'s question time and your response thereto brought back vivid memories of the Canadian parliament of my childhood.

In 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the father of the current Prime Minister) may or may not have told opposition MPs to "fu** off" in the House of Commons. It was unclear whether he actually said the words or only mouthed them, but either way the Conservative MPs were incensed and accused Trudeau of using uparliamentary language.

In a television interview on the matter, Trudeau was asked, "What were you thinking, when you moved your lips?", to which he replied, "What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say 'fuddle duddle' or something like that? God, you guys!"

This was transmogrified in the popular consciousness to "Trudeau claims he said 'fuddle duddle,'" and for a time those improvised nonsense words became linked to him in much the same way "I am not a crook" attached to Richard Nixon. Everywhere in Canada in the 70s there were posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs, every kind of novelty item and knickknack, bearing a caricature of Trudeau's face with the legend "Fuddle Duddle!"

In 2015, Justin Trudeau put any lingering doubts to rest by telling McLean's magazine, "I'll tell you a secret: He didn't actually just say 'fuddle duddle.'"

Here is a Toronto Star article showing Trudeau the elder (on the right) chatting with people wearing "Fuddle Duddle" t-shirts.

J.B. in Aarhus, Denmark, writes: Thank you to A.B. in Litchfield for sharing the brilliant Disraeli quote about knaves in the cabinet. This started a discussion between my wife (English is her second language) and me regarding the definition of the word knave. We quickly arrived at the conclusion that Rep. "George Santos" (R-NY) is a knave.

Education Matters

M.B. In Montreal, QC, Canada, writes: I would like to respond to the letter from B.J. in Arlington In my last term before retirement, I was assigned to teach a course in calculus that McGill set up specially for American students who came in with AP credit in calculus. My syllabus was identical to the one for students coming in with no calculus. The reason is that we had discovered the hard way that students coming in with AP credit had been taught a cookbook, paint-by-numbers kind of course without any understanding of the profound ideas involved. They thought they knew calculus and didn't. It was a hard course to teach because they didn't want to take it seriously. The only difference from the regular course was that they only had one 2-hour problem session a week instead of two. They had the same 3 hours of lecture and received 4 credits instead of 5.

Looking back, I realize I was very fortunate not to have taken any calculus in HS. It was offered, but I was not permitted to take it (for reasons) and when I did take it I got a real course. And then discovered real mathematics and had a real career.

D.F. in Ann Arbor, MI, writes: My experience with AP classes was sort of the opposite of (Z)'s. At my central Pennsylvania high school, in the early 80s, we were only allowed to take AP classes if we were considered "gifted," and that determination was based solely on a standardized test given in the 7th grade. I was a sickly child, missed a lot of school each year, and never got to take that standardized test, so I was excluded from the AP classes. This irritated me greatly so I studied the subject matter on my own, took the SATs a year early, and got accepted to a small local college in the spring of my junior year and simply dropped out of high school without graduating. A year later I found a nearby high school that let me take the AP tests with their students, got 5's on five of them, and transferred to the sophomore year of a nationally known university. My mother badgered my high school principal enough that he finally let me "walk" with what have been my graduating class and I did officially receive my diploma.

Math Matters

D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: You wrote: "...They [trumpublicans] do not concern themselves with consistency, and if they think the voters want to hear [X] now, and 1/[X] 2 days, or 2 hours, or 2 minutes later, then they will say [X] and have no compunction about following that with 1/[X], even if the two statements are utterly inconsistent..."

Why the multiplicative inverse? Why not -[X]?

(V) & (Z) respond: Because the non-mathematician who wrote that, namely (Z), thought that other non-mathematicians would better grasp 1/[X] than -[X].

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI, writes: Your comment about the four-function calculator reminded me of the beta vs. VHS competition among calculator companies tied to reverse Polish notation (RPN). Of course, being an engineer in college in the early 80s, if you bought from one company, you got conventional notation and going with another, they were programmed in RPN. Maybe the Votemaster can comment on the current status of RPN that seems to be nothing but a footnote in world computing history. Did programming languages account for any of this? I worked for one maker and received my high-end gratis device which was proudly displayed on my desk, but if I had to actually use one, I had to dip into the desk to grab the RPN one.

History Matters

J.M. in Stamford, CT, writes: In commenting on the designation "ace" in relation to shooting down the Chinese surveillance balloon, you wrote: "That said, the general notion is that a service member must be responsible for the defeat of five enemy aircraft in order to be considered an ace. Note that says 'five enemy aircraft' not 'five enemy pilots.' So, shooting down a balloon or a drone or a missile counts as a 'kill.'"

Just as an informative sidelight, this reminded me of a moment in my youth. My father was telling me how his father had flown for the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, and was ranked an Ace for having shot down four German fighters and three observation balloons. I questioned why shooting down a sitting duck like an unmaneuverable balloon counted as a victory comparable to combat with an enemy plane. He said he'd asked his father the same thing, and had learned that: (1) the balloons carried a defensive machine gun, and (2) when the hydrogen gas exploded, the attacking plane was in serious danger of being set on fire as it sped past its burning victim.

E.V. in Derry, NH, writes: Your comment about past life expectancy numbers being skewed by infant mortality can be seen in a walk through any old New England graveyard. I have visited many graveyards with headstones that date back into the 1700's. They give a peek into the history of the area and have interesting carvings on the headstones. The headstones often have a bit of wisdom or admonishment for the living reader, and maybe a fact or two about the deceased. Much of the time the life of the deceased is counted in years, months and days.

Over the years I noticed a general pattern—a large number of deaths aged 5 and below, often multiple deaths in one family. There is a slight uptick in the late teens (maybe related to the final push into the adult body?). Then one sees a small surge of deaths in the 40's, perhaps from the number of childbirths and 20+ years of hard work. After that, there was a good chance to live into the 60's and 70's and beyond. Plenty of people lived a long life. They just had more dangers on the journey.

J.D.M. in Cottonwood Shores, TX, writes: What an interesting lesson regarding the history of the Democratic Party to see that George Wallace led the polling for the Democratic primary in 1975!

S.H. in Raleigh, NC, writes: I laughed out loud when I noticed John Glenn only had 60% name recognition in 1975, according to your chart. Who came up with these estimates—Yuri Gagarin?

C.J. in Redondo Beach, CA, writes: A pet peeve of mine is when a certain historical point is taught/repeated so often it becomes "fact."

L.C. from Brookline argued one of the more ubiquitous ones, with the typical "the Republicans ended Reconstruction in 1876 as part of a corrupt bargain to hand Rutherford Hayes the presidency."

First off, Reconstruction was already being ended. Only three states were still governed by "bayonet rule." All the other former Confederate Sates had all regained home rule—and, as one can see looking at the electoral maps, had gone back to supporting Democrats. The Democrats controlled the House the last two years of Ulysses S. Grant's term and were starving the military budget so troops had to be pulled anyway. Grant had actually considered removing all the Federal soldiers from the last three Southern states before he left office, but decided he'd let his successor do it. But everyone knew Reconstruction was ending—it was expensive and the rest of the country had lost interest.

Samuel Tilden certainly was going to end Reconstruction if he'd gotten elected, so it's not like it was really a difference from that standpoint, whether or not Hayes or Tilden resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The evidence for the "corrupt bargain" is usually the private meeting at the end of February between some Democratic leaders and men speaking on Hayes's behalf. What's usually not mentioned is the Democrats agreed to a fair treatment of the Black population and the northern carpetbaggers, observing the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and delays in sending new Democratic Senators to Washington from these three states until the next election (given that state legislatures still picked Senators, they were itching to replace their Republicans in Washington with Democrats ASAP—but said they wouldn't, thereby letting the GOP maintain majority control in the Senate). Obviously, several of these promises would be all but ignored in the years that followed, but at the time the Hayes team felt they had won some Democratic concessions (which they still needed—the final certification on March 1-2 lasted eighteen hours!) without selling the newly freed slaves out. In fact, they were hopeful the Democrats wouldn't renege.


B.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: (Z) wrote: "...and with it past 1:00 a.m. and with 50 miles still to go, the baton had to be handed off unexpectedly."

Wow. I stand in awe. If Friday's entry was an example of how snarky (V) can be improvising at the last minute, just imagine how snarky he could be if he really set his mind to it and had time put the text editor in the Extra Snark setting.

(V) & (Z) respond: What makes you think we ever turn the Extra Snark setting off?

J.R. in Sarasota, FL, writes: I can only assume that the chargers and car you referenced were using the CCS standard for charging and were not Tesla chargers. The fact that the rest of the industry (aside from Tesla) has chosen to implement charging infrastructure using the CCS standard and is doing a really poor job of creating a reliable infrastructure should not reflect badly on electric vehicles.

I have been driving Tesla vehicles for 8 years with over 227,000 miles of travel and have never been stranded or delayed due to charging issues. The Tesla charging infrastructure and in vehicle charging support are excellent.

(V) & (Z) respond: It is a CCS car (a BMW i3), and the comment was not meant as a critique of electric vehicles. It may have been, at least in part, a critique of how poorly maintained many charging networks are.

F.W. in Decatur, GA, writes: In response to the inquiry from T.B. in Leon County about the status of your staff vestal virgins after the "floozy and sugar parties," I would suggest that he look into the mythology surrounding the Roman goddess Juno, who was the wife of Jupiter and mother of Mars and Vulcan, among others, while simultaneously being revered as a virgin goddess.

She achieved this seemingly impossible feat by bathing annually in the Fountain of Canatho, near Argos, which miraculously restored her virginity.

(Special note to fans of the DC and/or Star Wars universes: this may be the earliest recorded instance of a retcon.)

A.S.W. in Melrose, MA, writes: In deference to the shade of my old Latin teacher, I feel bound to inform you that vestal virgins didn't generally go in for entrail-reading. That was the job of a haruspex, a priest trained in that art.

Hey, ya know what they say: Live by the nerd, ya die by the nerd!

M.S. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: You have a staff vestal virgin? That must have been an interesting recruiting effort...

(V) & (Z) respond: Not really. She was recommended by the staff haruspex...

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