Archive for the ‘General Life’ Category.

Ratso’s Story, by Sue Kelman

My guest blogger is a friend and a wordsmith Sue Kelman:

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Rizzo (Ratso to his friends) was my cage mate. We had a nifty pad at Children’s Hospital — all we could eat with no scrounging, clean beds, quiet surroundings, and plenty of activity to keep us occupied.

Rizzo’s favorite was the maze. Each week he bragged to us about how fast he made it through to the cheese. Larry over in Row-D was always the slowest. All the guys used to razz him about it. No matter how hard he tried, Larry took the wrong turn every time. I think his mother spent some time out at a psych hospital, so maybe they messed with her brain and that affected Larry. Who knows? I suspect that know-it-all visiting researcher from MIT knows what happened to Larry but he’s probably keeping it under his hat until he publishes his results in JAMA. Putz!

Okay, so one day, Rizzo just came back from one of those tests where they make us hit a little button when the red and green lights go on. Personally this is my favorite gig because of course there’s no running around, but Rizzo likes to throw a monkey wrench into the research data. So every now and then, even when he knows how we should respond, he does just the opposite. I told you, he’s one smart rodent.

Rizzo’s pretty famous, too. Oh he’s not as famous as that talking grey parrot that used to be over at Harvard, but he’s been around. For a while he was a top gun — the big performer for a group of genetics guys. He’s had his DNA tested more times than Mike Tyson.

Then they lent him out to Hematology where, I swear, the guy’s already had 15 blood transfusions. No wonder he’s healthy as a horse.

Me, I’m just your average lab rat. I know the drill: wake up, eat a few pellets, perform, eat some more pellets, doze off, and wake up to do it all over again. Not a bad life if you can stay away from those vivisection weirdos. They’re like Dr. Mengele all over again.

I’d tell you more but Rizzo’s gonna tell us about the time he got out of his cage and made it almost all the way to the Starbucks wagon before they caught him. Great story and he’s a real raconteur. None of that Stuart Little crap. We fall over laughing every time we hear it. Gotta go.


My Toilet Invention

One of the best inventions of recent years is toilet seat covers. So whenever I visit a bathroom without seat covers, I curse and make my own out of toilet paper. This is not very effective, as toilet paper doesn’t stay nicely in place and it takes a lot of time, when time might be of the essence. Besides it wastes a lot of tissue.

When I come into a toilet and see a lot of long pieces of clean toilet paper lying around, I know that someone else tried to create a seat cover before me.

So here is my idea. Why not make individual packages with folded toilet seat covers, like kleenex packets? When I couldn’t find toilet seat covers in my local pharmacy, I started wondering how to patent my idea and dreaming about a lot of money. But before I let myself get too excited, I checked the Internet. My new toilet-seat-covers-to-go were already available. So I bought some. Now, every time I flush them, I watch my potential patent going down the toilet.


A Hole for Jews

Sasha Reznikov and meThis story happened in the summer of 1975. I was 16. Before that, I was naive and brainwashed; by the end of the summer I had grown up. All that summer I was stunned and didn’t know what to do as I watched this story unfold.

I was invited to the summer training camp for the International Math Olympiad. There I became friends with a fellow team member Sasha (Alexander) Reznikov. Sasha had dreamed of being a mathematician from childhood. He was gifted and brilliant and when he was in the 7th grade he got noticed by professional mathematicians. They told him that the only way to become a mathematician is to do undergraduate studies at the math department of Moscow State University. He was also told that the math department doesn’t accept Jews. Sasha was Jewish.

But there was a hole in the system. If he could get to the International Math Olympiad, he would be admitted to the place of his choice by an order of the Ministry of Education. As the IMO was conducted during entrance exams for universities, there was this special arrangement for the team members. Besides, the Soviet Math Olympiad wasn’t yet corrupted, so the Olympiads would give him a chance.

Sasha was brilliant, but he had a disadvantage — he was 2 years younger than his classmates because he had skipped grades. Since the IMO is only for high school students, he had to make it to the IMO before he graduated at 15 years old.

He worked very hard and really pushed himself, and he made it on to our team. The photo of two kids is of Sasha and me that summer.

We had a supervisor — Zoya Ivanovna — who was a Ministry liaison. She was to compile the list of team members for the Ministry of those who should be accepted without entrance exams to universities and colleges. The team had eight people, so every year the list consisted of eight students. That year was special, since we actually only had six people on our team who were high school seniors. Two of us, Sergey Finashin and I, were not yet seniors. But Zoya Ivanovna who was a good-hearted lady decided to sneak in eight people and added our two alternates to the list. As our alternates were preparing for the IMO instead of preparing for entrance exams, this was a generous and fair thing to do. Everything was fine and everyone was happy.

Sasha Reznikov and me

Until one day when strange things started to happen. We were invited for a meeting where Zoya Ivanovna told us that there was a problem with Moscow State University. We were told that the math department has a limit of four people who can be accepted without an entrance exam, and we had five students applying. Zoya Ivanovna asked if there was a volunteer who might reconsider. At this point Alexey Muzykantov said that he would volunteer since he was an alternate. Besides, he was always as interested in physics as in math, and would be happy to study in the physics department.

After the meeting I stumbled upon Zoya Ivanovna crying in the ladies room. She told me that she didn’t know what to do. The problem was that out of five people applying for the math department of Moscow State University, three were Jews. Three Jews were too many out of the 400 people annually accepted to the department. Our team coordinator, Valentin Anatolievich Skvortsov, was working at the math department, where he was being pressured. Zoya Ivanovna told me he had been threatened with expulsion from the Communist Party if he didn’t reduce the number of Jews by at least one. Being expelled from the Communist Party was a serious threat at that time and Zoya Ivanovna was eager to help, so she invented this idea about the limit. The idea didn’t work, because Alexey Muzykantov, who removed himself from the list, wasn’t Jewish.

After several days, Sasha Reznikov’s mother appeared at the summer program. She told me that she was being pushed to persuade Sasha not to go to Moscow State University.

I asked Zoya Ivanovna why she chose Sasha. She told me that out of the three Jews, one was from Moscow, so she didn’t consider him, and Sasha was much younger than the third student and, besides, he had health problems. So she tried to convince Sasha’s mother that Sasha would be better off in his home town Kiev than in Moscow.

Sasha went to Kiev University. The system had had a hole through which two Jews passed that year, so even though Sasha had made astonishing efforts, he hit a wall. He was crushed.

Later he tried to transfer to Moscow State University, but was ridiculed, humiliated and denied. Eventually Sasha moved to Israel and got his PhD in mathematics. He died in 2003 by, according to rumors, suicide.


Celebrating with a Consenting Adult

Sue KatzI am celebrating the first hundred essays I have written for my blog. My English teacher and editor Sue Katz edited most of them. Sue Katz not only corrects my English mistakes, but also helps me to choose better and more descriptive words and rearranges my text so that it doesn’t sound like a direct translation from Russian.

If you’re looking for an editor, she’s superb.

Sue is an extremely interesting person. She was one of the first women to gain a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and taught martial arts and dance on three continents. Now she concentrates on her blog and writing. In her blog Sue Katz: Consenting Adult she writes a lot about sex and also about current affairs. She reviews books and movies and expresses her interesting and unique perspective on things. Some of my favorite posts:

I am not only grateful to Sue for the excellent professional job, but also for encouraging me. She laughs at my jokes and is a devoted fan of my blog. Thank you, Sue!


Is Anyone Watching?

Recently I conducted an experiment. I wrote an essay “What’s Hidden?” in which I claimed that the essay had a hidden secret message in it. I coded the message using a very simple method — to read it you need to combine together all the capital letters in the essay.

The goal of the experiment was to audit intelligence agencies of different countries. I wanted to check if this essay would draw any special attention.

Intelligence agencies should crawl around the web and check places that might have secret messages. They might also want to sieve Internet data through some standard coding techniques and check if there are coded messages out there. But the Internet is so vast that most agencies might not have the resources to parse through all the web pages. They probably only analyze suspected pages.

Anyway, I wanted to see if my traffic for this essay would be different from the usual. I have a tool for that — Google Analytics, which provides aggregated geographical data of my traffic. Looking at the results I can see that the visits to this particular essay were mostly from the United States, with a few from Europe. The total number of visits was small, especially compared to my essay on masturbation.

If an intelligence agency has any intelligence it should hide its visits from Google Analytics and crawl around the web without being registered. For example, they can use cached Google pages.

So my intention in this experiment was to check for any agency that had so much time and money on their hands that they were monitoring the entire web and, at the same time, was dumb enough to leave a trail. I am happy to conclude that there is no such agency, with only one potential exception: my home country — the United States.


Political Analysis of USA-Russia Relations through Russian Anecdotes

Disclaimer. I chose the jokes for analysis, not for entertainment. Some of them might be unpleasant to read. Proceed at your own risk.

Russians love jokes and especially politically incorrect ones. They have anecdotes about many nations, but when I was growing up back in Russia, Americans were treated nicely in these jokes. Americans were used as a background for Russians to laugh at themselves. Here is a very old joke about Russian political realities; this was the version that was told during Jimmy Carter’s presidency:

A Russian and an American are discussing freedom of speech. The American says, “We have freedom of speech. I can stand in front of the White House and shout that Jimmy Carter is an idiot and nothing will happen to me.c
The Russian replies, “I can also stand in front of the Kremlin and shout that Jimmy Carter is an idiot and nothing will happen to me either.”

Or this joke about harsh living conditions:

A Russian and an American describe their houses to each other. The American says, “I have a modest house, three bedrooms, a dining room, a living room, a family room, a kitchen, and a guest room.”
The Russian replies, “I have the same thing, just without the inner walls.”

The following old joke is becoming less and less amusing as the airline service in America increasingly resembles what Russians have always had:

An American is flying on a Russian flight. A beautiful stewardess approaches him and asks, “Would you like to have dinner?”
The American replies, “What are my choices?”
“Yes or No.”

What I am interested to learn from these jokes is whether Russia was preparing for a war with the US during the cold war period. In most cultures, killing a person is a bad thing to do. That means you need an argument to give to solders when you’re asking them to kill other people. Usually governments are not proposing that killing is a good thing to do in general, but rather rationalizing why this particular enemy needs to be killed. For example:

  • We need to defend ourselves.
  • It is needed for the greater good. For example, they are enemies of the state.
  • They are less human than we are. For example, they are pigs or infidels.
  • God told us to do this.

Looking at Russian jokes from that period, it’s clear that they weren’t trying to turn Russians against Americans. I therefore conclude that the USSR was not preparing an open attack on the US. Except in the case of a defensive war, one country planning to attack another would need to employ a process of preliminary distancing from their enemy.

The USSR government was capable of manipulating the populace to think that a war is a defensive war when in reality it was initiated by Russia. But no matter how treacherous they were, it would have been difficult to stage this trick across an ocean. My conclusion is that the USSR wasn’t really preparing any open attacks on the US. The whole cold war was a waste of energy, money and resources on both sides.

Now let’s move to modern times. There are still some American jokes in which Russians are laughing at themselves. For example, this one reminds us of the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky:

Question: Name the question to which Americans would answer “Sure!” and Russians “God, no!”
Answer: Would you like to change places with the richest person in the country?

The following joke appeared several years ago, and at first I classified it as Russians being over-proud of themselves:

“Can you describe a math department at an American university?”
“Yes, this is a place where Russian professors teach Chinese students.”

This situation changed recently. It moved from Russians being proud of their math traditions to stereotyping Americans as complete idiots. Here is a very recent joke:

Question: What do you call an intelligent person in the US?
Answer: A tourist.

Here is another joke that assumes complete cluelessness of Americans in geography and history:

Question: How do you recognize an American?
Answer: He is proud that the US won the Vietnam war with Hitler in Iraq.

Not only is the stereotype of Americans that they are stupid, but that they are stupider than everyone else:

Question: Dad, why Americans say “eighteen-ninety three” instead of “one thousand eight hundred ninety three”?
Answer: They still have eight-bit processors in their heads.

The situation with jokes about Americans is getting much worse in Russia. There are so many jokes about Americans that many joke websites formed a special category for American jokes. The speed at which the folklore changed from neutral to offensive was very fast. There is no doubt that it is supported from above. It is very useful for the Russian government to redirect the minds of their citizens from internal problems. Americans serve as a scapegoat.

Another thing Russians laugh a lot about is the idea of political correctness:

The new politically correct rules for chess in the US allowed blacks to make the first move.

Of course, a particular anecdote might not reflect the common opinion or, for that matter, the majority opinion. What is interesting is that there is a new trend. Here is a joke about consumerism:

Do you know that according to the latest American research the average speed of a woman walking around a shopping mall is $200 an hour?

The sad part is that the laugh about consumerism extends to a vision of the US government as being completely corrupt:

US — the government of the money, by the money, for the money.

Of course many jokes originated here and were translated from English. It is interesting which ones Russians chose to translate into Russian:

CNN said that after the war, there is a plan to divide Iraq into three parts … regular, premium and unleaded.

I do think that this newly found hatred comes from Putin and the present Russian administration. Russians are very much against the invasion of Iraq and many anecdotes reflect that:

Question: Mr. President, can you prove that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?
Answer: Yes. We kept the receipts.

In general, the US is perceived as an aggressor.

George Bush found a way to invade every country — he declared war on Gypsies.

Is Russia preparing for war with the US? I do not know. Such a war seems like a ridiculous idea, but if you look at present-day anecdotes, it seems like Russia is doing more preparation than it did during the cold war period. First, Russia has been finding things to blame Americans for:

— What is the most powerful American chemical weapon?
— McDonalds.

Second, Russians are distancing themselves from Americans. Here is a very recent joke, where for the first time I saw that Americans are called “those people”:

Wild turkeys saved pilgrims from hunger. To commemorate this event, every year Americans kill and eat millions of turkeys as a thank you. God save us from doing anything good for those people.

For a long time I have checked the Russian joke websites before I go to bed. But in the last couple of years, I have become uncomfortable with the increasing antagonism towards America, so I decided to write this piece. Now that I finished it, I realized that, it’s sad, but we deserve many of the jokes.


The Word “Love” and Tomatoes

— Do you love tomatoes?
— Eating them — yes; otherwise not so much.

The word “love” expresses an emotion. But the range of emotion it can span is an enormous interval between a slight preference and a burning desire.

— Do you love tomatoes?
— I love tomatoes so much that I eat them with ketchup.

Still we can usually figure out the intensity of this emotion from the context. When someone says that he loves M.C.Escher, nobody concludes that he is a necrophiliac.

I do feel lucky that there is a special variation of the word “love” reserved to express passion. When I say that I am in love, everyone understands that I am talking about a man. You can’t say, “I am in love with my stick-shift car.” Or, maybe, you can; but I am stepping into the territory of dirty jokes:

— Anyone know any? I have lots of tomatoes, but they’re all green. A dirty joke or two might make them blush.

Why am I writing this? I do not even like tomatoes. Maybe it is because yesterday I bought some prunes and they reminded me of the tomato who went out with a prune, because he couldn’t find a date.


Borrowing Money

To translate from a Russian joke, borrowing money is taking someone else’s: temporary; giving back your own: forever.

This is a story about my great-uncle Fred. His name is not Fred, of course, because I don’t want to reveal which one of my thirteen great-uncles created this ingenious scheme.

My great-uncle Fred asked to borrow 100 rubles from my mother. He was notorious for not returning money, but he knew how to work my mother. He whined about being sick and urgently needing to buy pills, until my mother, who has a big heart and is an easy touch, gave up. Of course, Fred wasn’t in a hurry to return the money. But 100 rubles was a lot of money for my mother and she wasn’t planning on giving up trying to get it back. My mother started bugging her uncle with increased intensity. Finally Fred promised to return the money as a gift for mom’s upcoming birthday.

Of course, it was tacky to present the money he owed as a gift, but my mom was so glad that she would finally get her money back, that she was actually looking forward to it.

During her party, as the guests sat around the table, Fred got up to give the birthday toast. Then Fred handed my mother an envelope and said, “Congratulations on your birthday! Here is a gift for you.” Everyone applauded.

My mom felt that something in this scene was not quite right. Why was the applause so enthusiastic when he was just returning a debt? After the party my mother decided to investigate. It turned out that Fred explained to my mother’s relatives that she prefered money as a birthday gift and collected the gift money from everyone. The cash he returned as his debt in the envelope was not his. Everyone else thought he was presenting the joint gift, except for my mother, who was made to believe that he was repaying his debt.

After that my mother stopped bugging her uncle Fred. It became clear she couldn’t match his superb skills in escaping his debts.


Designing Bill Gates’ Bathroom

One of the questions from the Microsoft employment interviews for creative thinkers is: “How would you design Bill Gates’ bathroom?” I gave this question to my students at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School. Most of them started by suggesting it be big and gold, but they also suggested more interesting ideas:

  • Heat the floor and the toilet seat.
  • Run a medical test automatically for every flush.
  • Provide a shampoo dispenser with a choice of 20 smells.
  • Paint the portrait of a favorite enemy inside the urinal.
  • Create a shower that looks and feels like a waterfall.
  • Install a face recognition system that immediately adjusts all the default settings according to who enters the bathroom.
  • Build a very simple bathroom and give the leftover money to charity.

Tell me your own ideas.


A $1,000 Typo

I resigned from BAE Systems on January 3, 2008. At the beginning of a year, it often takes time for people to adjust to writing the new number. Probably out of habit, someone somewhere wrote that I resigned in January, 2007. The computer at my medical insurance company Cigna got overexcited. It noticed that Cigna paid all my medical bills for 2007, a period for which, according to that creative but premature resignation date, I was ineligible. In its zeal Cigna retracted the money that they had already paid to my doctors for all of my 2007 visits.

In an instant, I became a delinquent; my doctor bills were suddenly more than a year overdue and my credit score probably plummeted. My taxes became suspect, too. I had claimed that I had medical insurance on my Massachusetts taxes, which now Cigna wouldn’t confirm.

While Cigna was racing to get their money back from my doctors, they conveniently forgot that I and BAE Systems paid a lot of money for their insurance. They didn’t hurry to return this money. At one point I was thinking I would be richer if I got back the money paid to Cigna for my insurance and paid the doctors myself.

I had a conference call among Cigna, my former employer and myself. My employer confirmed that I had Cigna coverage until January, 2008, but this was not enough. Cigna insisted that it needed “computer confirmation,” even though it was their shoddy computer work that caused all this trouble.

After many phone calls and conference calls, finally Cigna admitted that I am right and reinstated my medical insurance coverage for the year 2007.

Can you guess what happened next? I received a new bill from my doctor. Cigna reinstated me, but didn’t pay the money back to my doctors. Now there was another round of phone calls and conference calls.

As of today, the time and nerves I spent to resolve this issue exceeded the money Cigna owes to my doctors and I am still waiting for the money to be transferred.

If they are fighting so hard not to pay their debt of $1,000, I wonder about the financial situation of this company. I would definitely consider it very risky to buy Cigna stocks.