Do you frequently get the feeling that someone talking on TV or radio is not really the pundit or sage news analyst they purport to be, but a complete moron instead? Watching coverage of the State of the Union address, I did, twice. I was struck by the speakers seeming total inability to count. You know, "One, two, three...".
I sat bolt upright when Jon Stewart discussed the speech and said that it was Barack Obama's "second State of the Union message". What? Can't these people count? The President has been in office for just two years, but this was his third annual address.
President Obama was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. A month later, on February 24, 2009, he addressed a joint session of Congress in the traditional annual address of the President at the beginning of the year. An outgoing President doesn't generally make such an address before leaving office; the new President does the job shortly after taking office. Presidents Bush and Obama adhered to this tradition. That's one.
On January 25, 2010, Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to report on the state of the union. That's two.
On January 25, 2011, Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to report on the state of the union. That's three, right?
Well, as it turns out, Stewart was technically correct because the address given by a newly inaugurated president isn't considered a true "State of the Union" message. Reporting on the past year would be the province of the previous president, who is no longer in office, and thereby has no business before a joint session of Congress. OK. Fine.
What I just learned looking this up is that a one-term president only makes three State of the Union addresses, not four, and a two-term president makes seven, not eight. Yet, I'll bet if you ask any knowledgeable person about how many of these addresses a president makes, you would get answers of "four" and "eight". One thinks, "One address per year and a term is four years, ergo, four addresses per term." That's close, but not exactly right, though.
Stewart did mention something about the first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009, but he didn't dwell on it. As I held the common belief that all four addresses made in a president's term count as a "State of the Union message", I thought he was falling victim to the common "off by one" error that many people make. Did Stewart think this? "He's been in office for two years, so this must be his second address."
The most common manifestation of the inability to count I have seen is in the ballyhoo about television shows that are renewed for another year. If the show is to be aired for, say, the fifth year in a row, there is always an interview on at least one of the tabloid shows that invariably goes like this.
"Wow, Chet! Your hit show Weaselmania has just been renewed for its fifth season. How does it feel to be number one on television for five years?"
"Well, you know, Felix, we just take it one show at a time."
Every time I hear that, I start screaming at the Chinese flat screen behemoth in the living room, "It's four years, you moron! He's just starting the fifth one! Jesus! Can't anyone count any more?" I get upset about this because I spent over 30 years being scrupulous about counting things in my so-called "career" as a computer scientist.
No, most people can't count. If you ask how many years elapsed between the same date in 5 B.C. and 5 A.D., they will invariably give you the wrong answer, "ten", instead of the right answer, "nine". They forget that there was no year zero. Thus, adding the absolute value of the two years does not yield the correct time span. If the calendar had been set up by a modern computer scientist, there would have been a year zero, and such calculations would have been easily made. Alas, there were very few computational engineers in those days, and most of them still counted starting with one rather than zero, like this, "I, II, III, IV....." They didn't even have zero, actually.
This is the other side of that trick question your math teacher used to ask, "How many birthdays have you had?" Most people state their age in whole years as a response. Then, that smirking pedant would mockingly point out that you were born on your birthday, at age zero, so the correct answer is one more than you indicated. Do you remember how angry that used to make you? Duh. You were not asked how old you were, but you equated your age with birthday parties, as well as with paper hats, toy horns and cake.
Perhaps reacting to that chestnut is why people habitually get it wrong the other way, automatically adding one when subtracting dates to calculate a time span. Somehow, they must fear forgetting about the first one. While such an error is understandable, it's just wrong and really stupid. A time span and the number of regular occurring events encompassed by that time span is not the same number. The span is a measurement of a continuous phenomenon, time, and the number of events, points in time, is a discrete (i.e., non-continuous) integral value.
There is a distinct difference between digital and analog phenomena, and it is important to maintain the distinction. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting it wrong. It may seem overly technical and obscure to phrase it that way, so you can think of it in terms of more familiar objects if you wish. You can make mashed potatoes from dried granules in a package or from whole potatoes. If you use the mix (analog), you measure out, say, a cup of granules. If you want to use fresh potatoes (discrete), you count out how many you will need to peel, cook and mash to yield the same amount of food. The granules are too small to count individually, so we switch to analog measure when we deal with massed quantities. The result in either case is a pan full of mashed potatoes, but the principal ingredient can be dealt with in an analog or discrete manner. Once you get that concept, thinking correctly about time spans and counting discrete events gets a lot easier.
But, let's get back to the State of the Union address, especially the commentary following it. As President Obama spoke, the sinister, menacing specter of the newly installed Speaker of the House, the Honorable John Boehner of Ohio, glowered over Barack's slender left shoulder. I could barely contain my disgust and indignation that sweet, clever, hard-working Nancy Pelosi would not be in that seat for the fifth -- yes, I can count -- successive time. My chagrin was enormous; my heart inconsolable. Why? How could this supercilious popinjay have risen to such an exalted rank? Had the electorate gone mad? (Well, yes, but we'll talk about that some other time.)
After the address, I was switching around, listening to different takes on the speech, so I can't remember who said it. While showing a clip before the President started talking, a commentator repeated the most common off-by-one statement in American politics. "Seated behind the President are Vice President Biden, the President of the Senate, and Speaker of the House John Boehner, third in the line of succession to the Presidency." Aaaaaaauuuuuuggggghhhhh!!!!!
I jumped up and started throwing (aptly named) throw pillows, magazines and anything else that I could find that would not damage my girlfriend's prized LCD display television. I was screaming, "He's second in the line of succession, you ignoramus, right after the Vice President! If he's third, who the hell is second? Is it the gremlin seated on the ottoman between the V.P. and the Speaker? Is it that we can't see him (her?) because the ottoman is so low and the desk is so high? Can't these idiots count? Jesus!"
What gets my goat is not that anyone makes this mistake, but that no one ever corrects anyone else who makes the mistake on the air. Have you noticed that? People say this all the time and no one ever says, "Well, actually, he's second. The Vice President is first, then the Speaker of the House. It's the President Pro Tempore of the Senate who's third in the line of succession. Then, you start in with the cabinet in the order that the posts were created." Don't you wish that, at least once, someone would upbraid whatever ignorant blockhead uttered that absurd statement? I do.
We hear this egregious non-fact so often on the air, rattled off by smug hairspray journalists, that we balk instinctively when anyone says it right. Try it. I have, several times, just to test my hypothesis. While you're discussing some current political issue, say, "The Speaker of the House, who is second in the line of succession to the President..." Invariably, your conversational partner will say, "No, he's third in line!" If you stop right there and review the line of succession enumerating each official's ordinal position, the miscounting person will most likely say, "Whatever! You know what I mean!" If you remind them that they tried to correct you, and that they are totally full of shit, you may have to defend yourself with fisticuffs.
Herein lies an undeniable truth. Misinformed, ignorant people don't like to be corrected and take it as a personal affront when do. They never admit they are wrong, and they cannot be swayed by documented fact or reasoned discourse. They will vociferously defend their crazy, wrong, stupid ideas to their last breath.
Does this syndrome remind you of any political faction in today's political scene? Try discussing objective reality with a staunch Republican, especially one of those tea-bagging jackasses. Go ahead. Beat your head against the wall. Ask yourself, "Why can't they see the truth that's as obvious as the nose on one's face?" You know the answer to that. They're too stupid, and too crazy, to think. Arguing does nothing. To do what's in their best interest, you have to trick them into agreeing with you, just like the shameless demagogues who call the tune for them now.