Nov. 4, 2012: Two Days Left

The fateful day is almost upon us. On Tuesday, citizens across the nation will cast their ballots for the next president of the United States. Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have been hard at work over the final weekend of campaigning, both sides hoping to swipe as many votes as they can in order to pull out what may be a narrow win in two days.

Even as both sides have pushed to maintain an upbeat appearance as we near the finish line, the candidates have become mired in arguments over a poorly timed comment by Obama, who suggested during a Friday speech in Ohio that the American public should re-elect him over Romney out of “revenge.” Republicans have blasted Obama for the comment, with Romney saying that people should “vote for love of country, not revenge,” while Democrats argued that too much is being made of his word choice, showing that Romney is desperate enough to resort to “scare tactics” amid stalling momentum in the polls. Either way, it’s left Romney’s latest messages feeling oddly reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 campaign, with Romney echoing Obama verbatim in imploring Americans to vote for “change.”

Both candidates have been sharpening their messages and retooling their get-out-the-vote efforts over the final days of the campaign. And both are also trying to outflank one another to win critical battleground states: Obama will spend much of his time in the final few days in the obvious toss-ups of Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Virginia, while Romney moves through Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, and even Pennsylvania, a state that once appeared to be firmly in Obama’s grasp but which began edging toward Romney in October. Romney has also dispatched running mate Paul Ryan to Minnesota, another Democrat-leaning state that he hopes to snatch from Obama.

So what do the polls say? On the surface, a lot of states appear to be incredibly close. The average of major polls, for instance, shows Obama with only a narrow lead in Ohio and Romney with a small margin in Florida. Numerous states are too close to call, with statistically insignificant leads paramount throughout classic toss-up states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.

But that’s hardly the whole story. Ohio provides a useful illustration for us, as does a recent analysis by Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard. As Cost points out — and as I explained several weeks ago — different pollsters are sampling different proportions of the electorate. Because of this, we’re not seeing the sort of random distribution around a single “true” point, as we might expect from a normal distribution. Instead, since different polling agencies seem to expect starkly different proportions of voters to show up on election day, we have a bimodal distribution of Ohio polls from October 4-28. Some polls are clustered around a margin of roughly 0-1% for Obama, while others have consistently shown him with a lead of more like 3-5%.

Here's what we would expect from a normal distribution.

See the two peaks?

Because the polls have fundamentally different expectations about who will vote on election day, they’re basically sampling two different populations and telling two different “stories” about what will happen this Tuesday. So perhaps the real question isn’t what’s happening in the average of state or national polls, but rather, which of the two stories will actually be played out?

Either way, it’s become increasingly clear that in this campaign cycle, the presidential debates actually played a major role. Many pundits were ready to write off Romney before he scored a decisive victory in the first presidential debate a month ago. The debates presented a key opportunity for Romney to hammer Obama on his economic record, while Obama was oddly reluctant to bring up Romney’s verbal gaffes during the first debate, at the very least. As the candidates sprint toward the finish, and as political commentators argue over early voting tallies, results, and the voting procedures themselves, it falls to the American public to resolve the squabble once and for all. So I’ll see you all in the voting booths this Tuesday.

With that said, the election isn’t the only story this week. After all, it’s hard to ignore a storm that’s so much bigger than last year’s Hurricane Irene:

Yes, the two maps are on exactly the same scale. Keep your eye on the Florida coastline if you want proof.

With over 100 deaths in Hurricane Sandy’s wake and the catastrophic storm wrecking infrastructures along the coast, people across the country are searching for ways to help. While power has already been restored to some areas, which also restored cell phone service, the recovery has been inconsistent, with many other regions still decimated. A number of hospitals were caught unprepared for the inclement weather, with flooding and equipment failure serving as major obstacles to relief efforts — a repeat of the generator failures that plagued New Orleans hospitals during Hurricane Katrina, which has many worried about what will happen when the next Katrina or Sandy hits. Patience is wearing thin for many residents, especially given the gasoline shortage throughout the area.

The crisis has drawn even the U.S. military to get involved, with the Department of Defense planning to deliver 24 million gallons of fuel to New York gas stations. The state even offered free gas to all comers, but the rush of citizens hoping to soak up the expensive commodity forced the state to retract that offer, saying that the general public would have to wait until first responders fueled up. Others have been packing up supplies like canned goods, garbage bags, and toilet paper, or working to make emergency shelters more hospitable for the children seeking refuge.

A number of celebrities helped to host a one-hour telethon on Friday night to raise money for those affected by the storm, and that charity drive has since moved to the internet. Still, authorities are warning the public about scams masquerading as relief efforts and advising citizens to do their homework before donating the the recovery.

Of course, the hurricane may have an effect on the election, as well. With the northeast still in shambles, the dangerous conditions may make it more difficult for citizens to make their way to the polls in order to cast a ballot. It also might change the way several states count their votes. In the critical battleground of Ohio, for instance, nine voting locations around Cleveland still don’t have power. If they’re still off the grid when election day arrives, they may have to shift to paper ballots instead of computerized voting booths. That could significantly delay the vote-counting process, so if the election comes down to states like Ohio, we might not know who the next president is for several more weeks.

A different sort of catastrophe is plaguing the rest of the nation, as the fungal infections that we’ve previously discussed now exceed 400 cases and have resulted in 29 deaths. Worse yet, fungal meningitis and joint infections are no longer the only problems for those patients who were treated with the fungus-tainted steroid injections from the New England Compounding Center (NECC). Doctors have reported two new complications plaguing some who have been treated for meningitis: epidural abscesses, or pus-filled fluid sacs around the spine; and the more serious arachnoiditis, or the inflammation of tissue around spinal nerves. Most of these complications have been found in Michigan, which appears to have had more people affected by the contaminated steroids (112 out of the 404 currently identified) than any other state.

It’s little wonder that victims and lawmakers alike are pushing for tighter regulations on compounding pharmacies like the NECC. Congress is looking to increase federal oversight over these largely unregulated compounders, which once merely treated the few patients that fell through the cracks between major pharmaceutical companies but now directly compete with them. These preventative measures would, lawmakers hope, protect the public from similar large-scale outbreaks in the future.

Let’s direct our attention to the great beyond for a moment. No, I’m not talking about the new “Shatoetry” app released by Star Trek’s William Shatner, which allows users to create “Shatisms” from pre-recorded words spoken by Shatner himself. I’m talking about the Curiosity rover searching for signs of life on Mars. This week, Curiosity ingested a burst of Martian air (yes, Mars has an atmosphere, even though it’s about 100 times thinner than ours) in order to analyze its composition. Their initial findings suggest that physical processes over time resulted in the red planet favoring heavier elemental isotopes. This change pushed lighter isotopes higher in the Martian sky where they eventually escaped the planet’s orbit.

The bigger surprise, though, was what Curiosity failed to find. Scientists have long suspected that the Martian atmosphere contains traces of methane, even though the gas is normally produced by life forms. (There are certain non-biological processes, it should be noted, which also produce methane.) As such, the presence of methane on Mars would suggest that life might exist deep below the planet’s surface. More importantly, telescopes have previously detected the unique signature of methane in the Martian atmosphere, and a (now-controversial) study indicated that there might be pockets of the gas clustered around the equator.

But although Curiosity used the most sensitive measurements ever to search for methane on Mars, it failed to sense any in the atmosphere. Still, scientists say they’re going to keep using the laser spectrometer on Curiosity to search for the elusive gas. The rest of us… well, we can just enjoy some Shatoetry while we wait.

Under normal circumstances, we might be enjoying some hockey around this time of year. (Or the World Series, for that matter, which ended quickly this year as the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers in four straight games.) But instead of watching hockey, we’re watching hockey games getting cancelled. The latest casualty is the Winter Classic, which the NHL terminated citing “logistics” — in other words, because they haven’t been able to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the players union. The game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, which was scheduled to be played at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on New Year’s Day, was expected to draw a world-record crowd of 115,000 fans. (The league says that the game will instead be played on the next New Year’s Day after a labor agreement is reached, with the same teams in the same location.)

Players across the league, naturally, were exceedingly frustrated by the cancellation, as the Winter Classic is one of the hallmarks of the hockey calendar. The same goes for fans, many of whom had already booked flights and made hotel reservations for the sole purpose of attending the big game. The cancellation of what is effectively hockey’s Super Bowl highlighted hockey’s administrative conflicts and, some say, the mismanagement that has run rampant through Gary Bettman’s tenure as league commissioner. But some took matters into their own hands. Members of the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks took the ice against an assortment of players from other NHL teams in a charity match. The Blackhawks lost the high-scoring affair in front of 12,000 fans; the game ended 16-15 in a shootout.

If charity games aren’t enough for you, then you can always keep following the weekly EA Sports simulations of the games that were supposed to happen this season. Looking at the standings, though, the league may as well be locked out. After all, my St. Louis Blues are wallowing in mediocrity with their 4-4-2 record. Some things never change.

The NHL isn’t the only organization making questionable administrative decisions lately. Consider the United Kingdom, which has been so strapped for cash that it has ordered its departments to cut back on any unnecessary expenditures. Which, of course, is why they spent 10,000 pounds ($16,000) on a dead snake! As the story goes, a Bishop in Guyana presented the corpse to the Colonial Secretary during the 19th century. 120 years later, the 20-foot anaconda, lovingly called “Albert,” was in bad condition and needed to be re-stuffed. So the giant snake, which hangs in a Foreign Office library, was sent away for “essential maintenance.”

Naturally, someone thought to ask a Foreign Office spokesman whether re-stuffing a snake was really so vital, given that in October the prime minister warned British citizens to prepare for “painful decisions” to survive a weak economy. His response?

It is quite a bit of money, but he is a very big snake. We will not be constricted, nor will we scale back, in our dedication to preserve this historic national treasure.

I wish I was kidding.

Here’s another stupid decision for you. We’ve all heard the stories of students pulling the fire alarm to escape a test. (It happened to me during my first year at Purdue — the fire alarm sounded during a class I was teaching, so everyone had to evacuate. Nary a candle was burning.) In a twist, a Chinese man accidentally rang a bell too early on June 8, ending a college entrance exam almost five minutes too soon. So all 1,050 students at the facility were forced to turn in their tests four minutes and 48 seconds before time elapsed.

That might not seem like such a big deal, but it’s a catastrophe in a country where university spaces are strictly limited and higher education is key to societal advancement. So thousands of students and parents gathered outside the school “multiple times” to demand that the government investigate the incident. Ultimately, they traced the mistake back to 54-year-old Xiao Yulong, who was eventually convicted of negligence and, on Friday, sentenced to one year in prison.

With that said, Xiao also received a one-year reprieve, so it’s possible that he may eventually serve minimal or no jail time. Still, a one-year prison sentence for ringing a bell early? That’s rough.

Now, here’s a group that deserves whatever is coming to them. A band of smugglers decided to build a ramp along the 14-foot fence between Mexico and the U.S. so that they could drive an SUV full of drugs into America. Bad idea. The less-than-brilliant smugglers miscalculated, and their Jeep wound up stuck atop the fence. Patrolling agents spotted two of the smugglers trying to free the vehicle from the Mexican side of the border, but they fled when the agents approached. The Jeep, which they abandoned, was empty, having been cleared of its contraband before the smugglers fled.

It kind of looks like one of those 'epic fail' demotivators, doesn't it?

Here’s another bit of foolishness for you. A nearly $23 million dollar California lottery prize almost went unclaimed when the lucky winner, a 69-year-old disabled widow who received the ticket as a gift from her daughter, left the winning slip of paper in her car console and forgot about it for months. So how did the winner, Julie Cervera, find out that she was a multimillionaire? Well, California SuperLotto Plus officials got desperate, so they tracked down the time and location of the winning sale. The liquor store at which Cervera’s daughter bought the ticket had a surveillance camera, so officials posted a picture of the woman online. Only when Cervera’s daughter showed her mother the picture in the local newspaper did she learn of her win. The realization came five months after the winning numbers were announced, and just 25 days before the ticket would have expired. It’s the second time that California lottery officials have been forced to use a surveillance video to track down a winner.

Cervera opted to accept a one-time payment of almost $18 million before taxes instead of the $23 million in installments. She’s planning to use the money to take care of her family and two close friends. She also intends to buy a house for her daughter, who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Let’s shift to something a little different. Most of us have been on an airplane and have seen those boring safety demonstrations. Some of us may have been treated to a video version, depending on the airline you fly. But Air New Zealand just upped the ante. Their new safety video teaches flyers that the short, hairy-footed person sitting across the aisle might just save their lives.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a safety briefing based on the upcoming film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The video, “An Unexpected Briefing,” has become an overnight sensation, scoring well over five million views since it was posted to YouTube on Wednesday. Elvish crew members in the clip explain flight safety to the orcs and hobbits flying to Middle Earth, while Gollum slinks along the aisles and points out emergency exit lights. Even Peter Jackson himself makes a cameo — can you see him?

If you didn’t notice him, don’t worry. You’re not the only one who can’t recognize the people nearby. For instance, there’s Pennsylvania resident Thomas Grant, who is facing charges of assault and reckless endangerment after shooting his young cousin at a Halloween party. You see, the girl was wearing a black costume with white plumage on her hat, and she was lying facedown during a game of hide-and-seek. So, naturally, Grant thought that she was a skunk. Then he grabbed his gun.

The girl is recovering from her wounds. Grant’s lawyer intends to ask that the charges in connection with this “tragic accident” be dismissed.

Then there’s the “murder victim” in Alabama. On Thursday morning, police received reports that a woman had been shot and was lying dead in the driver’s seat of her car, and that the vehicle was blocking traffic at a busy intersection. When the police reached the intersection, they found the woman — who was passed out, intoxicated, in her pregnant zombie costume. The car was still running and in gear when officers woke her. Needless to say, she has been charged with driving under the influence.

Well, that should be just about enough for this week. And we didn’t even get into the South Korean elephant that imitates human speech, the Texas man who was thrown in jail for skipping jury duty, the ex-mayor who erected a bronze statue of himself outside his home, or the dog that is acting as a surrogate wet nurse for a white lion cub.

Oh, but wait! We definitely can’t forget the iPad Mini’s worldwide launch on Friday. …Well, actually, maybe we can. It was rather lackluster, after all, with nothing resembling the consumer circus surrounding other product launches like those of the iPod and the iPhone. But if you think that Apple should stop selling the same products in slightly different sizes, at least one guy thinks that you’re wrong.

Okay, so that last one’s not really news. I couldn’t resist.

Other articles of interest:
Report: Child born without brain dies in Pueblo
U.S. Supreme Court hints at limits on dog sniffs for drugs
Fla. police bust pee wee football gamblers
Suit: Officer shot boy, 10, with stun gun
A Promising Drug With a Flaw
A Loss for Society as Decorum Wears Thin
English town to burn Lance Armstrong in effigy
Foul-mouthed parrot seeks new home in UK
Skeleton found when historic Conn. tree uprooted
Missing gamma rays were abducted by light from the first stars
Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say

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