A. J. Mako

The Congressional Housing System Plan

Spacious Navy Racks
Squeeze right in. Plenty of room!

I have a solution for Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and any other member of the United States Congress who wants to complain about their working conditions, pay, and benefits. My solution might sound to many as an overly expensive solution, but I assure you the country will save money in the long run. And before I reveal my solution, for those of you who are already jumping up and down claiming I’m completely ignorant of the Constitution, and totally evil, I assure you there are no Constitutional boundaries to my solution, nor is it particularly evil.

The first part of my plan addresses the severe disparity in living conditions between the various members of Congress. I propose that, instead of requiring members of Congress to purchase or rent a second home, we the people should provide adequate housing for all members of Congress. We could utilize an under-utilized or disused military base in the vicinity of Washington, D. C. and build the same kind of housing the military provides to the men and women who serve our country in the military. Now, I’m not suggesting that members of Congress be treated like your average E-4 or below. I had in mind something along the lines of the bachelor (or bachelorette) quarters provided to officers or senior enlisted.

I am certain that every member of Congress is uniquely proud of their support for the United States military services, and that every member of Congress believes that the accommodations provided to military servicemen and women is of the highest quality. Therefore, I am equally confident that no member of Congress would complain about such accommodations.

Along those same lines, I further propose that the Congressional Housing System should provide the same quality of food and provisions provided to our military servicemen and women. In fact, my plan actually calls for the creation of a Joint-Service Provisioning Command to handle all of the support requirements of the Congressional Housing System. Once again, I am confident no member of Congress would complain about being provided with free meals and domestic assistance.

Now, I am well aware that members of Congress are frequently required to entertain their colleagues and lobbyists in their homes. This requirement should not be significantly impacted by my Congressional Housing System plan. As a veteran of many barracks-room benders, I can safely attest to the fact that your average junior enlisted barracks room is well capable of handling small parties of up to fifteen people. My housing plan for Congress recognizes the need for entertainment facilities, and since it uses military housing as its model, there will be a number of semi-private lounges available for larger parties. Additionally, my plan eagerly supports providing a movie theater, gymnasium, and night club, to say nothing of a coin laundry, commissary, a store, and even a bowling alley.

No doubt one of the chief complaints about my plan would focus on the increased cost of transportation under my plan. This is a misconception. Under my proposal, the various facilities provided by the Congressional Housing System would be within easy walking distance. While the system will naturally have to accommodate private vehicles, its design will be such that private vehicles would only be necessary for off-base travel.

However, a member of the United States Congress should not be required to use a privately owned vehicle to conduct the business of Congress. To address this problem, my plan includes providing transportation for all members of Congress to and from the Capitol Building from their place of residence. Of course, to save money and reduce the carbon footprint of the Congressional Housing System, the Congressional Transportation System will be modeled after a typical American public transportation system. I am, however, confident that no member of Congress would complain about being provided with free transportation.

Now we come to one of the most difficult issues related to Congressional service. It is well known that the vast majority of members of Congress are happily married and many of them have young children. A plan like mine must sound heartless, since it provides only single quarters for members of Congress. I must admit that I agonized over this question for a very long time while developing my plan. How, I wondered, could you require a man or woman serving their country in any capacity, to abandon their families for months on end in order to perform that service. We don’t require members of our military services to leave their families behind for six to nine months just to do their jobs. Do we?

The real solution to this problem is to change the Congressional schedule, and certain rules, to reduce the time members of Congress would be separated from their families. As it is, Congress operates on a relatively short work week of three or four days to allow members to travel back and forth to their constituencies. Under my plan, Congress would operate on a five-day work week for at least one month in each quarter in the Capitol Building. Outside of those periods members of Congress would operate on a self-determined schedule in their home district.

Under this plan the Congress would remain in session except during specific recesses, as determined by the Congressional leadership. The length and frequency of such recesses would naturally be greatly reduced since members would actually be working from their home district for two out of every three months. Thus, it would not be necessary for Congress to take a three-week recess every Christmas, or during the summer, to allow members to meet with constituents or campaign for re-election. It would also eliminate the perception many people have about their representatives spending more time in Washington than in their home districts.

A schedule like this would naturally require some changes to the way Congress currently operates. It would not, for example, be efficient to hold all Congressional hearings in the Capitol Building. The work of a Congressional committee can be, and frequently is, accomplished outside of Washington, using modern communications technology. Actual hearings can either be scheduled for the period in which Congress is actively in Washington, or they can be held in other locations—perhaps at state-funded Universities, or a state government facility, military base, or public broadcasting system studio.

The main difficulty of such a dispersed legislative system is in registering and counting the votes of legislators. Here my plan requires the technological help of the NSA or the military services. A robust and very secure computer system could be used allow members of Congress to share information, communicate, and register their votes on legislation. Such a system would obviously need to accommodate live video conferencing as well as a robust electronic document management system for tracking legislation, amendments and supporting documentation. Frankly, I am not entirely sure such a system could be built, but as a life-long fan of science fiction, I have to hope for the future.

One of the current complaints of members of Congress concerns the size and quality of each member’s staff. My plan does not directly address this concern. Indirectly, members of Congress would have much less need for a large Capitol Building staff since most of their time would be spent in their home district. Each member would actually be able save money and require a much smaller staff, since they would not need to simultaneously operate a Washington office and a home district office. When members are required to be in Washington, they can bring a portion of their staff with them.

It may be that the issue of Congressional staffing is related to the civilian government service sector. I am not personally certain whether members of Congressional staffs are also members of the civil service, but it seems to me that the quantity and quality of such staffs would be greatly improved if they worked like civil service people do elsewhere in the government. That, of course, is merely a personal observation and not a part of my plan.

There are, of course, many other issues related to members of Congress that are not addressed by my plan. The simple fact is, no one plan will be able to correct all of the problems associated with Congress. My plan merely addresses the housing and working conditions of members of Congress, using as a model the housing and working conditions of members of the United States military, which every member of Congress will swear on a stack of Bibles they “fully and completely” support.

Rattus Sarcina Digitales


So I’m going through this stack of CD-ROMS that are all labeled “archive” trying to figure out what’s on them and whether I still need it. This is akin to cleaning out the hall closet and finding a bunch of boxes marked “video tapes.” Since I am basically a packrat, I have a lot of boxes marked “video tapes,” and a lot of CD-ROMS marked “archive.”

Back when harddrives didn’t have much space, and the latest computer programs were in some sort of competition to see which could fill up the remaining space faster, it was common to move the files in your download folder (or your documents folder) to another storage device. This orignally meant a “floppy disk” that could hold, at best, 1.4 megabytes–yes, you read that right, most of the files on your phone wouldn’t fit on one. When the CD-ROM came along, most people jumped for joy because the average CD-ROM could hold 650 megabytes, while the average harddrive was around 500 megabytes.

The point is, a somewhat frequent operation I performed on my computer was to “archive” anything I didn’t really need. Most of what I archived were programs I had downloaded from the internet, tried once or twice and uninstalled. I kept the install file, like any packrat would, because “I might need it someday.”

So in going through my archive I found about 16 old versions of Java, a ton of different versions of Opera, Netscape versions back to 1.0, every version of Mosaic, old copies of Internet Explorer (before it was integral to the operating system), and even a copy of Cello. I found web development programs that don’t even run on the latest version of Windows. I even found old copies of StarOffice (5.1 and 5.2).

Now, the problem with packrats is, we have to save everything we touch because “we might need it one day.” Then, when we run out of storage space, or we get tired of staring at a pile of dust-covered CD-ROMs, we start going through the stuff we’ve saved. It is at this point that we recognize that we will never need this stuff again, so there’s really no reason to keep it. Our finger goes for the DELETE button, but we stop short of actually pulling the trigger. We suddenly have fond memories of installing Netscape 2.0 on our computer and watching the internet spill into our lap. We fondly remember how rebellious we felt when we installed StarOffice in the shadow of the Mighty Microsoft Headquarters. Our finger refuses to go near the DELETE button now, and instead it works feverishly to try installing every program just to see what happens.

Luckily, for me anyway, the next archive disk held some real gold. That disk contained most of my old DOS games, ready to play as if I was looking at my old hard drive. Of course I couldn’t play any of them on a Windows 8.1 machine. I could go down into the basement and pull out the Windows XP machine, or even the Windows 98 machine, but that would be too much work. It was far easier to spend a couple hours setting up DOSBox with a Windows 3.11 installation and then taking a nostalgic trip to a DOS prompt. Strictly speaking, I didn’t need the Windows 3.11 install for the games, but I did need it for Seize the Day (another particularly nostalgic piece of software found in my archive).

The first game in the folder was called ADVENT. The name is short for “Adventure,” which is short for “Colossal Cave Adventure.” It was written in 1975 by Will Crowther in Fortran for the PDP-10 mainframe computer. The version in my archive was re-written in C so it could run in DOS. ADVENT is the first in a long line of text-based computer games that are now referred to as “interactive fiction.” As soon as I started the program, I remembered playing it in the dim past. After half an hour, I remembered why I only played it a couple times. You see, ADVENT works by displaying some text describing where you are. There isn’t much information given about what you’re supposed to do, or how you go about doing it. That’s part of the “fun” you see. On my first attempt I got lost in the forest. Then I found myself on a hill. Then I found myself in a building where there were things I could look at and take. Then I got lost in the forest again. Then I hit ALT-TAB, opened Firefox, and Googled “ADVENT.”

Let me just say that I loved playing these interactive fiction games (Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, Wishbringer, and some others). They weren’t particularly easy to play because you had to actually try to visualize the map (or draw one), as well as figure out how to solve the puzzles and what words the game would understand. ADVENT was different than those games. With ADVENT, not only did you have to try to figure out the map, and the proper command words, you also had to figure out where you could actually go. This, for example, is the opening text:


Okay, in what direction is the small brick building? Which way does the small stream flow? Which way does the road go? The walkthru advised me to go EAST, take the lamp, then type PLUGH. What?

The frustration of not only trying to figure out the game, but also figuring out how the author of the walkthru figured out the game reminded me how how much of a challenge these games were. I ended up wondering whether people still wrote and/or played these games, and that’s when I found the Interactive Fiction Archive. You can download a copy of the original Fortan source code of ADVENT from there, which is really of use only to people who can read Fortran.

From the Interactive Fiction Archive I discovered that people still actually write interactive fiction games. I discovered that some of them are just as good as Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide. Some of them are just as frustrating as ADVENT. That knowledge led me to discover that there are at least two development platforms for writing interactive fiction games. And somewhere along the way I started thinking about what one of my stories would look like as an interactive fiction. I downloaded and installed Inform 7 (because it looked easier to learn than TADS 3), and started working my way through the documentation.

At this point I have to say, Inform 7 is easy to learn, but it can be frustrating for a programmer because the syntax is plain English, but it’s a very object-oriented language. The documentation is pretty thorough, but, again, programmers might have trouble when they find the code they logically assumed would work because it works that way in other programming languages, doesn’t work in Inform 7. The main problem I kept running into was that, after reading a section of the documentation and trying out the examples, I’d get an idea for using that information in a story, and then spend a couple hours wracking my brain when the story wouldn’t compile. I’d go back to the documentation and find that none of the examples were anything like what I was trying to do.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the documentation (which runs ~1600 pages) has a search function that only works literally. You can’t search for “after going rule” hoping to find a page that includes all three of those words. It will find only the pages where “after going rule” exists exactly like that, which isn’t any pages. To find anything like that you have to limit your search to something like “after going,” and since many of the hundreds of examples include at least one “after going” rule, your search returns 500 pages. The documentation has an extensive index, but here again it is of limited use. There isn’t an index entry for “after going rules.” You can find “after” and “going” and “rules,” but you’ll have to scan the index and check the contents of several links before you find the document you need.

Despite those issues, after a couple weeks of trying various things, and with the help of a couple other books (specifically Ron Newcomb’s Inform 7 for Programmers and Jim Aikin’s The Inform 7 Handbook) I managed to get to the point where I could actually understand what I was doing. The next step was to write an actual story from scratch. I set the bar pretty low by deciding to recreate a scene from a movie. You can check it out here. I have also decided to create an interactive fiction page to serve as a starting point for any future stories I decide to release.

And all that means is I now have something new to archive.

Why People Don’t Understand Economics

Attempt ambulation only when motor vehicles achieve velocity zero.

Recently I was browsing Wikipedia, with no particular direction in mind, and I came across a mention that “Angus Deaton is awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.” While I have studied economics, and I have written copious amounts of F4L on economics, I don’t spend a lot of time reading economics, so it’s not surprising the Nobel Prize went to someone I have never heard of. I have studied literature, and I have written copious amounts of wanna-be literature, but the Nobel Prize for literature frequently goes to someone I have never heard of.

Intrigued, I clicked the link. The second sentence said Mr. Deaton was awarded the Prize for “his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” This was interesting to me because poverty is so rarely a subject of analysis in economics. Yes, economists frequently talk about economics, and politicians frequently make promises to eliminate poverty through the application of some economic theory. But economists rarely analyze poverty beyond noting that poverty causes people to be economically disadvantaged.

Reading further, I came across this “In 1980, his paper on how demand for various consumption goods depends on prices and income was published in The American Economic Review. This paper has since been hailed as one of the twenty most influential articles published in the journal since 1970.”

Now, I have never read this article, but I can tell you what the paper says. The demand for various consumption goods depends on prices and income because most people consider their income when making economic choices. The lower a person’s income, the more price conscious they are. The higher the price of the consumption goods, the less a person with a low income will demand of the consumption goods. I know this from what my parents taught me when I was five years old.

Imagine a 5-year-old walking into the local five-and-dime with a shiny new quarter in his pocket. Wait, that might be too difficult. Okay, imagine a 5-year-old logging on to the nearest multinational toy manufacturer’s website with a shiny new $50 gift card. Anyone who has ever known a 5-year-old knows they will want everything they see on that website—just like I wanted every piece of candy in the five-and-dime.

In this scenario the website contains many consumption goods with a variety of prices. The child’s desire to have everything on the site represents raw, unfettered demand. The $50 gift card represents the child’s income. We know from common sense that we can only get what our income will allow. This is what the parent aims to teach the child. Hopefully, it is quickly obvious to the child that he can’t have everything, so he has to make choices—having considered his available income, he has to temper his demand. Typically, the first limit he places on his demand is to eliminate everything with a price greater than his income.

Mr. Deaton is also well known for being one of the developers of the “Almost Ideal Demand System,” which is a consumer demand model used to study consumer behavior. When I looked at the AID system in Wikipedia I was very quickly reminded why I abandoned the serious study of economics. The model is basically a series of complex algorithms. Economists plug in a bunch of numbers representing prices, goods, utility levels, and other variables to project consumer behavior. I am not fond of complex mathematical formulas.

The Wikipedia article on the Almost Ideal Demand System provides the perfect example of why people don’t understand economics. It quotes a book called Applied Demand Analysis by R. L. Thomas:

“Assuming weak separability of consumer preferences, the optimal allocation of expenditure among the brands of a given product category can be determined independently of the allocation of expenditure within other product categories.”

This is typical of economists, but what does it mean? Let’s find out.

“Assuming weak separability of consumer preferences” means we are going to assume consumers like what they like and it’s difficult to get them to like something else. “[T]he optimal allocation of expenditure among the brands of a given product category” means we’re looking at the best way to get people to spend money buying brands of a particular product, like canned soup. “[C]an be determined independently of the expenditure within other product categories” means it isn’t affected by how people spend money on other products, like breakfast cereal. Putting it all together it means “given that people like what they like, the best way to get people to buy canned soup isn’t affected by which breakfast cereals they buy.” This, again, is pure common sense.

So, why is the quote above so difficult to understand? Well, economics is often considered the 90-pound weakling on the science playground. In fact, if it weren’t for things like parapsychology and ufology, economics would never get picked for the scientific equivalent of dodgeball. This causes economists to want desperately to be accepted in the big-boy’s science club, so they like to “science” up their statements and include lots of charts, graphs, and complex mathematics.

The problem is that economics is the study of human behavior with regard to interactive commerce, which is primarily based on common sense. Common sense tells us that, if we want to make money selling widgets, we have to make widgets first. Economists scoff at the folksy proverb “it takes money to make money,” then go off and write a 2,000-page treatise on the theory that “optimal pecuniary gain can be realized through the employment of capital investment.”

Stop the World, I Don’t Think He Knows How It Works

Big Brother
What’s your destination, package?

Psssst. Hey! Governor Christie. Just thought you might like to stop and think for a minute. You know, it’s not that we don’t have the technology, or that it would be impossible to make the technology work. It’s that you obviously didn’t think about the consequences of making the immigration system work like FedEx.

A package, entering the FedEx system is tagged with a barcode before entering a processing center. At every stage of its journey through the processing center, its progress is logged. This is possible because the package is inanimate. It does not sprout legs and move itself around the processing center or warehouse, frequently sending out updates about its progress like some teenager on Twitter. The package doesn’t move anywhere unless someone or something moves it. The package’s progress is trackable because every time a warehouse worker touches the package, he or she logs that action. When the worker puts the package in an automated process, like a sorter, the automated process logs the package’s process as the package moves through sensors. When the package finally makes it to a truck, or an airplane, another log entry is made by whomever puts the package on the vehicle. In short, both the sender and receiver of a package can find out the exact location of a package any time they want because the package doesn’t move unless some external force is exerted on it, and the FedEx system is designed to update the status any time that happens.

Stop and imagine what would happen if a package could just get up and walk around. What if it could make its own way through the processing center, sorted itself, and left the processing center with only a promise to deliver itself to the right place at the right time? What would happen to the tracking system then?

Well, since FedEx is a corporation and wants to make money, and since they can only make money by making sure packages are delivered to the right place at the right time, FedEx would have to change their tracking system. They would have to fill the processing center with checkpoints or sensors capable of logging any packages that happen to wander by. They would have to station workers throughout the warehouse and all their other facilities, whose job would be to watch every package and make note of any package that takes a wrong turn or wanders off in the wrong direction. FedEx would have to hire thousands of special package police who would have to go around to all the places the packages were likely to congregate and check every suspicious looking package to see if it was past its delivery date. They would have to hire and train a bunch of special administrators to listen to or investigate the circumstances behind any undelivered package so see if the package deserved a delivery extension, or should be sent back to its sender.

Naturally, the cost to FedEx for this new system would be enormous, and FedEx would have no choice but to pass the cost on to those who want packages sent. That could drive the cost of sending packages to astronomical heights, creating an incentive for senders to use “undocumented” methods of sending packages. The packages themselves, feeling crowded and paranoid, would “go underground” to avoid being harassed by the package police. And very shortly the FedEx package tracking system would be as bloated, useless and unworkable as, say, the current US immigration system.

You see, sir, there are two things that make immigration in the United States exactly nothing like a FedEx package delivery system. The first thing is, immigrants aren’t packages. They are real, live, living, breathing, thinking, individual people who come to the United States to get a bit of freedom, and maybe make a better life for themselves. The second thing is, this is the United States. We don’t treat people like cattle, or packages, putting them under constant surveillance, and requiring that they report to a government official every time they want to go for a walk. Those are the sorts of things immigrants come to the United States to get away from.

Stop the World, No, I Mean Really Stop It!

The following is actually from 2009, written several months after finally watching the movie in question.

Gort, Intergalactic Anti-Aggression Cop

In the original 1951 The Day The Earth Stood Still, Klaatu claims to come to Earth in peace, bearing a message that must be delivered to all of the people of Earth at once. The message is: “give up your violent ways and machines of war, or the Earth will be eliminated.” As a demonstration of his power, Klaatu neutralizes electricity everywhere except where safety would be compromised. The Earth effectively stands still. Prior to this demonstration, Klaatu’s companion—the robot Gort—demonstrates some power of his own by using an energy ray to vaporize offensive weapons without harming the men wielding them.

Okay, so, the people of many other planets are so worried about Earth’s propensity toward violence and discovery of atomic weapons, that they send someone down to warn Earth to cut it out or be destroyed. These people of many other planets are so technologically advanced they can neutralize the fundamental forces, and turn matter into harmless energy. And yet they are worried about Earth and its primitive atomic weapons and pea-shooters? They are worried about a people who haven’t figured out how to travel faster than the speed of sound yet?

Yes, it’s a stretch, and it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s still classic science fiction, and still one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m pretty certain I first saw it on a Saturday afternoon in 1974 on television.

Thirty-four years later, they made a re-make. This re-make follows, with the same level of quality, re-makes of other movies listed among my favorites. I am speaking of 2001’s re-make of Planet of the Apes, and 2002’s re-make of Rollerball, 2005’s War of the Worlds specifically.

In the updated version of the story, Klaatu comes to Earth on a mission to speak to the United Nations. We don’t know, really, what his message is until after he meets with a Mr. Wu, who tells him the human race is destructive and unwilling to change. It is then that Klaatu decides that the planet must be cleansed of humans. Klaatu then sends some machines to collect DNA samples of everything living that isn’t human. The plan is to wipe out every living thing on the planet, then recreate everything not human from the DNA samples.

The re-make was highly anticipated, but ultimately disappoints on so many levels. Technically, the re-make is okay, but it simply does not work logically or philosphically. It is, in fact, boring and mundane, and not just because of Keanu Reeves’ acting.

The original movie has a sort of juvenile logic and a positive philosophy. The space union Klaatu represents is a peaceful entity that so abhors aggression that they’ve created a robotic police force to “eliminate” aggression. Klaatu comes to Earth with a simple message: “you can do what you want on your planet, but if you bring your aggression into space, we’ll wipe you out.” It is explicit that we have a choice, and that’s positive enough to overcome the existence of an all-powerful, emotionless, police force with the unalterable authority to summarily execute criminals. We can rest easy because Klaatu has some limited control over Gort, and exhibits a level of compassion toward humanity.

The remake exhibits a sort of schizophrenic logic and a thoroughly depressing philosophy. Here, we know very little about the space union Klaatu represents, except that they are utterly ignorant of humanity and have no regard even for innocent life. Klaatu really isn’t sent to deliver a message. He is sent to make a final determination in Earth’s case. It is quite clear from the beginning that Klaatu’s people consider humanity to be a disease infecting the Earth, and Klaatu is the cure. Klaatu’s cure, however, requires the destruction of every molecule of life on Earth, so it can be repopulated by clones of the life forms deemed worthy of survival. It is left to a single human being and her step-son to defend humanity and convince Klaatu to change his mind. Unfortunately, just as Klaatu is deciding to spare humanity, certain greedy humans trigger Gort’s enforcement mechanism, and it’s left to Klaatu to actually save humanity.

The problem is, people are far more likely to listen to a lecture in a movie when they are left with a positive feeling as the credits roll. The original movie delivers just such a lecture about war and nuclear arms, but leaves the audience with the positive idea that they can choose their future. The re-make delivers an indictment against humanity, then proclaims humanity defenseless in the face of the charges. Whereas the original Klaatu, from the start, wants humanity to make the right choices and survive, the re-make Klaatu, from the start, wants to wipe humanity out and only reluctantly changes his mind.

By the end of the remake, Gort has caused more damage to life on Earth than humans could ever cause. Despite finally being convinced to save humanity, however, Klaatu won’t fix the damage Gort did. That’s the price humanity must pay for being saved. Get it? Humanity is worthy of being saved, but it will cost us—which is the same as saying humanity really isn’t worthy of being saved.

Stop the World, ’Round and ’Round He Goes!

Or: B’rar Radical Meets the Rotary Oscillator

rotary dial
A Rotary Oscillator Dial

You know that book “Everything I Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten”? It’s a big, fat lie! Everything I learned in Kindergarten was important, I’ll grant you, but most of the really important things I’ve learned I learned much later. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the lesson wasn’t there all along waiting for me to learn it. It just means that, in the grand scheme of things, learning not to eat the paste really doesn’t rank that high.

Now, just because I didn’t learn important lessons in Kindergarten doesn’t mean you can’t learn important leassons from my time in Kindergarten. Plenty of people have. Take Mrs. Kingenhoffer, for example…

Mrs. Klingenhoffer was a teacher’s aide who worked with my Kindergarten teacher, and to her fell the rather important task of teaching us how to dial our telephone numbers. Oh, yes kiddies, back then telephones had rotary dials exactly like the one on the right. They also had to have a cord connecting them to a special wall socket. Which connected to a special wire connected to the house. Which connected to a special wire connected to a telephone pole near the steet. Which held up a special wire that connected every telephone in the whole wide world. Even the part you talked and listened through had a special wire connecting it to the part you dialed. In fact, the only wireless phones were the Fisher-Price ones. Oh, and the only sort of phone a kid under the age of 21 could hope to have was one of those Fisher-Price ones.

My school was, apparently, one of those state-of-the-art, high-tech schools. What this means is that we all had to go with Mrs. Kingenhoffer to a “special” room to learn how to dial the phone. It was a “special” room because it had a lot of stuff in it. Most importantly it was where the Twenty-Seven-Foot Cardboard Telephone was stored. I realize now that the Twenty-Seven-Foot Cardboard Telephone was actually only a Four-Foot Cardboard Telephone, which curiously enough is a bit more than 27-times bigger than a real telephone, but when you’re only three and a half feet tall a four foot telephone can be a little intimidating.

Typically, the lesson began with Mrs. Klingenhoffer explaining the process of dialing the phone, and then demonstrating the act with the Twenty-Seven Foot Cardboard Telephone. When she was done only a complete idiot would not understand how to dial a phone. Then, it was our turn. That is, it would be our turn as soon as Mrs. Klingenhoffer got us organized—to avoid any chaos you see.

Organizing a Kindergarten classroom usually involves making the kids line up according to some arbitrary measure—such as height, or alphabetically, or reverse alphabetically, or by shoe size. Being slightly less than average by amost every measure, I was usually in the middle of the line. This could have been God’s way of saying, “Pay attention now, so you don’t look like a complete idiot when it’s your turn!” I never paid attention.

The process was quite simple. A child would step toward the Twenty-Seven Foot Cardboard Telephone and Mrs. Klingenhoffer would ask them their telephone number. After reciting the number the child was directed to dial the number using the cardboard dial tacked to the Twenty-Seven Foot Cardboard Telephone. And that was it. Walking and chewing gum at the same time took more practice.

When my turn came I nervously approached Mrs. Klingenhoffer—my eyes were locked on her because that giant cardboard telephone thing was freaking me out. She asked me to recite my telephone number. “Five—Five—Five,” I said. “Oh—Three—Three—Two—One.”

“That’s too many numbers,” Mrs. Klingenhoffer said calmly. “Try again.”

“Five—Five—Five—Oh—Three—Three—Two,” I said, suddenly encouraged by the encouraging expression on Mrs. Klingenhoffer’s face. “—One.”

“That’s too many numbers Anthony”—she always called me ‘Anthony’—“try again,” she said, gray hairs appearing on the fringes. This fragment of the scene repeated itself several times. Each time Mrs. Klingenhoffer became more frustrated and her hair grew slightly grayer. Each time I became more firmly convinced that Mrs. Klingenhoffer was a complete idiot. Each time, Mrs. Klingenhoffer asked me to try again.

“Five–Five–Five–Oh–Three–Three–Two,” I said finally, pausing at this point because I was really encouraged by that encouraging expression she kept getting at that point. After what seemed like an hour of Mrs. Klingenhoffer looking at me as if a giant shoe was about to drop on her head, she looked at the Twenty-Seven Foot Cardboard Telephone nervously. “—One!” I finished.

The exact details of what happened next are a bit blurry; mostly because they happened so fast. I was carted off to the principal’s office so I’m not sure what happened to Mrs. Klingenhoffer or the Twenty-Seven Foot Cardboard Telephone.

The moral of my story is, of course: Never argue with an idiot!