Thursday, August 29, 2013

How Many Bubbles In A Bar Of Soap?

Two stories today, two sides of one of my favorite themes: stupidity. One is about being more stupid than necessary, the other about somebody else needing to make you feel stupid.

On the job, we often pick up specimens to take to a large central lab for processing. One important piece of information we need is the proper temperature to keep the specimen at while transporting it. The wrong temperature can damage the specimen or at least invalidate test results. It may need refrigerating, freezing, or to be kept at room temperature.

The term of art for the latter is ambient. You would probably think that a trained clinical lab worker would be familiar with the term. After all, we are. It appears on our instructions occasionally, and where appropriate. However, temperature is not always specified, and it is then our duty to ask the person at the lab where we pick up for the proper temperature for transport.

I am continually amazed at how few of the people handing me their specimens actually understand what I'm asking when I inquire if it requires ambient temperature.  While it's remotely possible their puzzled looks are their surprise that I understand and use the term, and I'm trying to be generous here, my favorite dumb reaction is, "Oh no, room temperature is just fine."

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Yesterday was a reminder of how many folks need to make others feel stupid in order that they can feel superior. It was the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington, and at least one of the speakers referred to difficulties placed in the path of black would-be-voters 50 years ago in order to deny them the right to vote. It's a timely reminder, as the recent SCOTUS decision opens the door for states to install new laws with the same goal.

Those state laws are designed and defended more subtly these days, using code words and problems which don't exist to justify them. They aren't as egregious as previous laws from the Jim Crow days. The most famous of those was a so-called literacy test which required the black people - never whites, they were assumed competent to vote by their color - to answer impossible questions like, "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" Nobody has ever tried to count them, and even if they had, conditions would change with every bar and every user.

After being reminded again yesterday of that infamous question, I spent a bit of time yesterday imagining trying to come up with a question, or an explanation of the parameters, even faking a number as an answer to that on a test. Of course, the whites requiring an answer would mark every answer wrong, no matter how obtained, how well reasoned, how researched. I'm willing to believe there was no "right" answer it was possible to make, no key somewhere to judge against. Any answer or no answer, it all just proved that the black person trying to answer was just too stupid to vote.

And yet a little consideration yesterday gave me the only possible answer. It depends, of course, on the question being asked just that way. The answer is... ZERO. None. Zip. It's a trick question. You can stare at a bar of soap for a hundred years and never see a bubble. Hold it, unwrap it, rub it, toss it, put it on a shelf. Ivory, Dial, Zest, Irish Spring, motel mini-bar, whatever. There are no bubbles in a bar of soap until you add water! And that question doesn't ask about soap and water. Just soap. Hence, no bubbles.

I might even get away with that answer, being white.

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