Friday, April 18, 2014

Pandora's book

Things that you're liable to read in the Bible

Protestants often pride themselves on being “Bible-believing Christians” and excoriate Catholics for relying on clerical authority instead. There are two good reasons for regarding this Bible-centric position with skepticism. For one thing, Catholics are exposed to readings from the Old Testament and New Testament every time they go to mass. For another, despite the noisy evangelists who love to spout chapter and verse, Protestants are less familiar with the Bible than they think they are—or think they ought to be.

Some entertaining anecdotal evidence to this effect was presented in the Sacramento Bee in an article on Wednesday, April 16. One of the state capital's Lutheran churches has embarked on a program designed to guide its members through the entire Bible in three months' time. There have been surprises:
It’s been an eye-opener: The violence—the sheer level of bloodshed in the Old Testament—has taken many of them by surprise.

“Your Sunday school teachers didn’t tell you about that,” associate pastor Leslie Welton said to a recent class of almost two dozen people.
It's another example of Christians not being fully aware of what their holy book contains. Cherry-picking Christians can be shocked when they try to plow line-by-line through the text of scripture:
“How many of you are shocked by the blood and gore and carnage?” asked Welton.

There were nods of agreement around the room: Page by page, chapter by chapter, class members are deeply shocked. With its betrayals, infidelities and lessons stubbornly unlearned, its epic levels of carnage and vengeance, this wild ride through the Old Testament is not the Bible they expected.
What is a good apologist to do? The preferred approach seems to be “Look over there!”
The Old Testament also depicts a world in which God’s grace shines amid the violence
Really? That's the best you can do? God's grace shines amidst all of the God-induced violence?

Apparently the God of genocide (Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 10:40; 11:10-15, Hosea 13:16, 1 Samuel 15:2-3) gets a pass because he later cleans up his act by sending a merciful savior to bestow peace and redemption on humanity—that is, when the messiah isn't himself threatening war and dissension (Matthew 10:34, Luke 14:26).

Their leaders will do their best to put the Bible-readers at ease, but even in these first stages of the Bible-reading project we see how the Bible itself is one of the most effective cures for religiosity. Read the Bible! It's an excellent self-exposé.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Counting on the popes

Flexible figures

I confess: My weekend television viewing includes Jack Van Impe Presents. “Dr.” Van Impe claims multiple doctorates (but not from accredited institutions) and is probably best known for his facility at spewing Bible verses. He likes to make a statement and then append a string of chapter-verse citations. Occasionally Van Impe pauses to catch his breath, during which time his wife Rexella (also the holder of uncertain doctorates) offers praise to her husband or exhortations to the viewers.

During the episode scheduled for the first weekend in March 2014, Van Impe returned to a favorite topic: the pope in Rome. While most television evangelists are content to decry Roman Catholicism and its extra-biblical excesses, Van Impe frequently speaks positively about Pope Benedict and even cites passages from the Church's official catechism. His affection for Catholicism does not, however, extend so far as to endorse Francis, the current pontiff. Van Impe considers Pope Francis to be theologically unsound and suspects that he is fated to be the last man to occupy the papal throne.

Over the years, Van Impe has frequently referred to the supposed prophecy of St. Malachy. Apparently Malachy, a 12th-century Irish bishop, was favored with a vision that presented him with the identities of the next 112 popes. Each pope is described by a very short phrase that Malachy aficionados have not hesitated to twist into shockingly accurate (or shockingly strained) prognostications.  For example, Angelo Roncalli, elected in 1958 as Pope John XXIII, corresponds in Malachy's list to description #107, “Pastor and sailor.”  In what respect was John XXIII a sailor? The best anyone has come up with relates to Roncalli's position at the time of his election as Patriarch of Venice. The city has canals, you know. Hello, sailor!

Fortunately, I looked up from my Sunday crossword puzzle when Van Impe began his breathless description of the Malachy prophecy. The TV screen was crowded with a numbered list of papal names, beginning with Celestine II (the pope in office at the time of St. Malachy). Subsequent screenfuls displayed more names, progressing through the 112 of the alleged prophecy. A problem arose, however, with the last two screens:

It just so happens that John Paul II was the immediate successor of John Paul I. What is going on with Jack Van Impe's list, which displays the names of Gregory XVII, Michael I, and Pius XIII in the positions #108 through #110? These men were (are) antipopes and have no place in this roster. Michael, in fact, is a self-proclaimed pope who washed out of a seminary program; he's not even a priest. I suspect he's read Baron Corvo's Hadrian VII a few times too many.

Thus Van Impe's list is badly screwed up. Shall we all breathe a sigh of relief and rest easy that we are spared the anxiety of an apocalyptic last pope? Sorry! There are plenty of papal lists that correct Van Impe's mistakes and end up matching Francis with #112, the last pope on Malachy's list (not #113). This final pope is supposed to be “Peter the Roman,” but Cardinal Bergoglio disappointed many superstitious prophecy fans when he chose to name himself after Francis of Assisi instead of St. Peter. However, the father of St. Francis was named Peter—and that's proof enough that Malachy was right! Sort of!

Really and truly, these people should dress up in funny outfits and go to Comic-Con.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The fat man bombs

Time for the milk carton?

I get plenty of junk mail from right-wing sources. It's mostly my own fault. I incautiously signed up for a couple of newsletters and soon I was on a surprising number of mailing lists. Fortunately, the entertainment value is often high enough so that I don't rue the attendant spam. At least, not too much. A real prize popped up in my in-box this weekend. The folks at are giddy with anticipation over the imminent celebration of political irrationality known as CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference. They sent out a preliminary fundraiser in the guise of a political poll: “Who do you want the GOP to nominate for President in 2016?” I'm thinking Rick Santorum, because he strikes me as the weakest of the Republican Party's benchwarmers.

But his visage was missing from the rogues' gallery provided in the Townhall e-mail. I search for his insipid grin in vain. Fortunately, there were several other unviable alternatives. However, then I noticed something else. Check out the faces that Townhall deemed worthy of appearing in their solicitation. So you see it? Or, more to the point, not see it?
That's right. No Chris Christie. The man widely regarded as the GOP's 2016 front-runner no longer even qualifies for the party's top nine—at least, not as far as the American Conservative Union is concerned. Do you even recognize the mug shots of those who came in ahead of Christie? Sure, some of the usual suspects have been rounded up: Palin, Bush (Jeb), and Cruz are all there. So are non-starters like Jindal, Rubio, and Perry. Even Ryan and Paul (Rand) get a nod. And, in case you didn't puzzle out his identity, there's Dr. Ben Carson up in the corner, the GOP's token black who isn't even running (although you'll be glad to hear that a group of fans have started a petition drive urging him to get into the race).

Fear not. All is not lost! If you click through to the ACU site, you'll discover that your menu of candidates has been expanded. Fifteen names are offered, and this time Christie makes the cut. So does Santorum! As do Huckabee, Allen West, Scott Walker, and Judge Napolitano (whose first name appears to be “Judge,” in curious contrast to the other candidates). It's a bumper crop of undistinguished right-wing party hacks. Hillary must be pleased.

As for Christie, well, what more can one say about what Townhall did not say? He is no longer a first-tier candidate in their eyes. A lot of water must have gone under the bridge.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

What isn't so

Irrationality at large

“It ain't ignorance causes so much trouble; it's folks knowing so much that ain't so.” —Josh Billings

The local affiliate of Salem Communications broadcasts a short news break just before the hour. Sometimes I tune it in just before punching the button for a more mainstream station's top-of-the-hour newscast. These occasional doses of right-wing media keep me informed on what the nut-case fringe is saying, and it can be enlightening. Recently, while driving to school in the early morning, I tuned in the Salem station and heard its newscaster's report, “The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the Obama administration's healthcare act will cost the nation's economy two-point-three million jobs in the next dozen years.”

It was startling news. My first thought: That's a lie. I was considering the source. By the end of the day, I had discovered the truth. The full implementation of ObamaCare would pick the so-called “job-lock” and free people who had been forced to stay in jobs they hated simply to preserve their health benefits. The CBO estimated that over two million people would be able to give up their second (or third!) jobs, scaling back to something less burdensome without running the risk of losing health insurance. In many cases, it would presumably enable parents to spend more time at home with children, which is something Republicans also support as long as it's merely theoretical.

And, as we have already seen, the GOP will repeat the “job-killing” claim at the top of their lungs all during the 2014 election campaign. Will this be the year that it doesn't work because they've cried “wolf” much too often already? If so, I look forward to their being devoured.

Ignorance is not a mysterious thing. All of us have it in abundance, even as we whittle away at it during our lives. What we have been seeing, however, to a greater degree in recent years than I can recall in previous decades of politician-watching, is the deliberate nurturing of ignorance, the creation of fake knowledge (like an inoculation?) to keep people from absorbing genuine knowledge. The right-wing propagandists have raised this to a high art.

It was just a few years ago that I was in Texas during the summer to visit some friends who had moved from California. The matriarch of the clan was concerned about the state of the national economy and confided her worries to me. Knowing that I had been a legislative staffer in Sacramento and assuming I still had some insight into such matters, she wanted to know if there was any chance that the U.S. Congress would “fix” matters by repealing ObamaCare. “If only they could get rid of it, the national debt problem would be solved!” She really believed that (and had never heard about the CBO analysis that determined ObamaCare would reduce the nation's annual deficits).

She also had Fox News playing in the den during every waking hour. She wasn't uninformed. She was massively misinformed.

Quite recently one of my nieces became one of the president's hapless victims. She wasn't quiet about it. ObamaCare had forced her to change doctors (which, you know, never happened when insurance companies ran the world) and “Becky” was furious:
Becky feeling annoyed

So... I am so disgusted in Obama!!!! My insurance plan disappeared because it was not OBAMA approved. So instead of having basic insurance and paying cash for my dental and vision and paying $300 for my family. So now I am being forced to go to Covered California and pay $250 with the state paying $250 and putting my kids on medical. How does make any sense!!!!!!
After reading her plaintive post on Facebook, I pointed out a little bit of reality (cribbed from my blog post on same):
Your insurance company did not have to cancel your policy. It decided that it wanted to do it despite language in the healthcare act that permits individuals to maintain existing policies. It's in Section 1251 of the Affordable Healthcare Act:

SEC. 1251. PRESERVATION OF RIGHT TO MAINTAIN EXISTING COVERAGE. (a) NO CHANGES TO EXISTING COVERAGE.(1) IN GENERAL.—Nothing in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) shall be construed to require that an individual terminate coverage under a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which such individual was enrolled on the date of enactment of this Act.

What the act did not do, however, was mandate that the insurance companies keep offering the plans people wanted to keep, and many companies have grabbed the chance to cancel lots of policies. They didn't have to. They wanted to. The administration should have anticipated this and blocked it, which would have given some teeth to the president's you-can-keep-it pledge.

I might as well been hollering into a dry well. Some of Becky's Tea Party buddies chimed in. Here’s a couple:
Sadie: I hated him before this - but we had all sorts of trouble getting coverage because of Joeys pre existing condition - even though that wasnt ment to be taken into consideration. Its a joke and a very bad one.

Sadie refused to recognize that the ACA is what made her husband’s pre-existing condition irrelevant. It was all the fault of the hated president, who was daring to occupy the White House while black.
Gertrude: All the people that voted for him owe the rest of us working people an apology !!!

Don't hold your breath, Gertie!

And here’s my niece again, for the big finish!
Becky: To privately cover my family would now cost me $800-$1000 per month with a $4000 deductible. That is ridiculous.

So Becky points out that private health insurance is damned expensive. As much as a thousand per month, with a high deductible. Wow! Instead of like before, when her bare-bones insurance plan cost her $300 (as mentioned above). Now, of course, under Covered California, she’ll pay $250 for a $500 policy. Hurray? No! That's only because she's also getting a $250 subsidy, and that’s (apparently) awful and humiliating! Like welfare!

Sounds like ObamaCare worked to her advantage, although there is the aggravation of having to choose a new primary care physician, since her old doctor was tied to the old plan and (I guess) is not available under the new. But saving $50 each month is sort of good, no? No! It’s communism! (Or something.)

Perhaps I'll get some sympathy when I tell my niece that I had to change health plans in order to keep the doctor I've had for several years as my primary care physician. When she gloats that I, too, am a victim of the Affordable Care Act, I'll mention it occurred before the measure was enacted. I was, instead, a victim of my college district's health insurance providers—back in those days when the insurance companies ran everything and the president had yet to drive us from health-insurance paradise.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sharing the good news

A most unlikely source

Do you remember Ken Ham's lament that most teenagers stop going to church when they leave the family nest? The Creation Museum highlights the datum that only one in three continue their participation in church activities once they are on their own. It's one of the most uplifting features of Ham's “museum.”

Similar good news comes to us now from Michael Voris, the unconscious self-parody who holds forth at ChurchMilitant.TV, routinely excoriating the insufficiently ardent faith of the current leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Voris wrings his hands in frequent episodes of  The Daily Vortex (“where lies and falsehoods are trapped and exposed” [the distinction between lies and falsehoods is never clarified]), decrying the lack of rigor in contemporary Catholic practice.

Despite himself, Voris recently found himself unhappily reporting good news from the annual “March for Life” in Washington, D.C. With microphone in hand, Voris accosted several young demonstrators who styled themselves “pro-life” and quizzed them on camera, subjecting them to a quick inquisition on the depth and breadth of their faith. To his horror, he discovered that approximately 30% of the young Catholics were unwilling to agree that contraception is always wrong: “Do you think a couple using birth control is always wrong in every situation?”

Voris was deeply shocked that many respondents did not agree with him that contraception is inherently a “diabolical evil.” The video ends with a lengthy and irritatingly repetitive diatribe against all forms of birth control (in stark black-and-white for enhanced drama). Exposing the laxity of young Catholics with respect to contraception was just the tip of the iceberg. Voris also quizzed the March for Life participants on the evils of homosexuality. Many of the young demonstrators disappointed Voris in their lack of anti-gay militancy. “Do you think it is okay for two guys to be in a romantic relationship?”

Some of the respondents are the same young people who indicated acceptance of contraception in the previous installment of The Vortex, but several new faces also popped up. A few of them wanted to qualify their position as “tolerance” rather than as “acceptance” of the right of people to engage in same-sex relationships, but Voris was still deeply dismayed that approximately 20% were essentially okay with gay partnerships.

Voris and his fellow Catholic militants fancy themselves as the faithful remnant that will be exalted at the second coming of Jesus Christ (any day now!), although they do not embrace the rapture concept of evangelical Protestant eschatology. Instead they are bracing themselves for the great apostasy that they believe is already rampant in what Voris dismissively describes as “the Church of Nice,” the insufficiently macho current incarnation of the One True Church. The bunker mentality is evident in each episode of The Vortex. But with Voris's every pronouncement of impending doom, the sensible viewer can take comfort in the dwindling influence of his point of view within the ranks of the next generation of Catholics. Not even the clergy embrace Voris's extreme ultramontanism.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

The new car, part 2

Let's make a deal

I am a mission-oriented shopper. Decide in advance what you want. Get in, get out. Done. Browsing is for bookstores only. Nothing else. Unless, of course, it can't be helped.

It could not be helped when my car died a couple of days after Christmas. When the service agent told me how much it would cost to bring my vehicle back to functional life, I asked to be referred to the sales department. Before long, I was in the clutches of an eager sales representative. Let's call him “Pete.” We immediately embarked on a magical mystery tour that I have yet to understand, but which I will strive to relate. Except for some small details and slightly rounded numbers, this is exactly what occurred.

New or used?

Pete asked me where I wanted to go, the used-car lot or the new vehicle showroom. There were some holiday specials to make the new cars more attractive, but I preferred to see what the used lot had to offer first. (I really didn't expect to end up pricing the new automobiles; I'm more of a bargain hunter than that.) Pete had two cars on offer that he thought I might like, especially since both were updated versions of my deceased vehicle. One was a 2007 hybrid and the other was a 2006 V6. The V6 was perky like my old car (also a V6), but the 2007 hybrid was no slouch. The hybrid was listed at $13,500. The V6 was a year older, but was listed at $18,000. I took each car out for a test drive and decided on the hybrid. I wanted to move into the 21st century.

It was about 4:30 when I made my choice, mere hours after my old car had been pronounced dead. I didn't haggle. It's not my nature. I was ready to go. I was not, however, taking into account the time-consuming rituals required by the process of car purchasing.

I had my checkbook in my pocket and I was ready to pay cash. The sales rep turned me over to his manager. The sales manager was bluff, unkempt, and overly friendly. I didn't really care. I could pretend to be buddies for a while. He handed me some paperwork to fill out. The manager—let's call him “Jim”—disappeared for several minutes into the rabbit warren of offices adjoining the sales floor while I sat on a plastic chair at a Formica table and sipped some water that Pete had fetched for me. When Jim returned, he pulled out the chair next to mine and took a look at the form I had filled out. He scratched out a big chunk of it because I was not applying for credit.

“With tax, license, and fees,” he said, “it comes to fifteen-five.”

It seemed sufficiently shrug-worthy. “Okay,” I said. ”Exactly fifteen thousand five hundred.”

“That's right,” he said, and watched while I wrote out a check. But he left the check where I placed it on the table. “Hang on a minute and I'll be right back,” he said.

A special offer

This time it was a longer wait. I was getting fidgety and irritated. I just wanted to get it over with and figured that a trouble-free customer like me should have been whisked through with a little more efficiency. But only half an hour had trickled by since I had said, “That one.” It was hardly at the ordeal level yet.

Jim was back. He sat down at the table. He had a piece of paper in his hand. It bore an easily-read number: $16,600. I scowled. My check for $15,500 was still on the table in front of me.

“We're going to be giving you a discount,” he said.

I kept quiet. In my opinion, the number in his hand did not reflect a discount. Jim was ready to explain how wrong I was.

“Your car was posted on our website at a special price, which we have to respect for walk-in customers, too. We're dropping the price a thousand dollars for you.”

Okay. That did sound like a discount.

“Sounds good to me,” I said.

“And we're going to offer you a two-year extended warranty on the car's electrical system for only twenty-one hundred, which is a great deal for a hybrid like you're buying.”

Ah. An extended warranty. Dad used to make a lot of money selling those extended warranties to customers who purchased consumer electronics from him. Dad's advice to family members: Never buy an extended warranty.

“No, thanks,” I said.

Jim acted startled. Maybe he was.

“It's a great deal. The whole thing comes to only sixteen six.”

“Yes, I can do the math, but I'll pass on the extended warranty.”

“You sure?”

“Quite sure.”

Jim pulled himself together and stood up, the piece of paper still in his hand.

“Okay,” he said. “I'll set things up.”

“What do I do with this check?” I asked.

“You won't be paying that much,” he said, so I tucked it back into my checkbook.

Pete came over while I was loitering at the showroom windows, watching the sunset. He asked me if I needed anything.

“No. I'm just curious how much longer this is going to take.”

“Oh, no more than another five or six hours,” he said.

I gave him a sharp look. “Just kidding!” he assured me, an awkward smile on his face. I was not particularly amused.

Happy ending

We had killed an hour and a half by the time Jim emerged to conduct me into the inner sanctum where their finance guy was ensconced in a messy, paper-crammed cubby. With a heavy Slavic accent, the finance guy asked me to take a seat in front of his desk. He proceeded to collect my signature about two dozen times on about fifteen different documents. (I'm not even counting all the places I had to initial.) The finance guy mentioned that they had a special offer on an extended warranty for my car's electrical system. “This is a very good deal for a hybrid. They are very complicated.” I assured him I was declining the opportunity. He mentioned it three or four times before I was done signing papers. He finally stopped after I inked a document that stipulated I had been offered the extended warranty and had turned it down in the full knowledge of how wonderful it was.

“Do you know how much this car is going to cost you?” asked the finance guy.

I was wondering if I would be ambushed at the last minute and end up refusing the deal.

“I already cut a check for fifteen-five,” I said, “but Jim says that's not right.”

“Yes, no way are you paying that much.”

That, at least, seemed the right response. He punched some numbers into his computer, scribbled things on the final document, and turned it toward me for my perusal and my signature. I was paying $14,150.

“This is it, then? I can cut a check for this amount?”

“Yes. That exact amount.”

In retrospect, nothing makes more sense now than it made that night. The dealer could have sold me the car for $15.5K. I even cut the check. Then we went through this rigmarole where they tried to get me up to $16.6K. When the fat lady finally sang, I was paying only $14.2K. What was up with that?

It sure wasn't my steely-eyed resolve and virtuoso bargaining skills.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Hit me with your best shot

No vaccine for stupidity

Even before the recent news flurry over anti-vaccine spokesmodel Jenny McCarthy and the status of her son's reported autism, there was a provocative news item in the Sacramento Bee concerning a new medical clinic designed for parents who need assistance in opting out of California's childhood vaccination program, recently made more stringent by long overdue changes in state law. The clinic's founder, Dr. Dean Blumberg, supported the new state law but also describes himself as a firm supporter of parental rights:
“I’m pro-immunization, but I’m also in support of parental rights,” Blumberg said. “That’s why we decided to set up the clinic as a community service, in case there are parents whose health care provider won’t sign the [exemption] form or some parents who don’t have a primary care provider.”
The Bee article generated a laudatory letter to the editor:
Dr. Blumberg helps no-vaccine parents' right to choose
Re “Clinic to aid no-vaccine parents” (Our Region, Dec. 19): Surely, we as doctors and parents can debate the many merits of and concerns with vaccination programs. However, UC Davis Medical Center physician Dean Blumberg has taken a position that is both praiseworthy and responsive to parental rights. As a parent working in emergency medical services, I have decided not to participate in vaccination programs for reasons that are really not at issue. What is at issue is that we are afforded the right and responsibility as parents for our children. I encourage Dr. Blumberg to continue providing information to assist parents in our choices and to continue honoring us as parents as we evaluate this information and make our decisions. The doctor should be recognized for his commitment to the higher standard of self-determination in the practice of pediatric medicine. —CK, Roseville
I was inspired to submit a response that the Bee did not see fit to publish, so I offer it here:
Anti-vaccination parents who leave their children vulnerable to preventable diseases are always so eager to appear rational and reasonable. As one said in Letters, “I have decided not to participate in vaccination programs for reasons that are really not at issue.” Not at issue? How delusional a statement is that? How would people react if a parent said something only slightly different? For example: “I have decided not to use child safety seats in my car with my children for reasons that are really not at issue. In case of a traffic accident, I prefer to hope that my children will be thrown clear.”

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The new car

Where's the key?

Two days after Christmas, my car's transmission gave out. After more than sixteen years of dependable service, the vehicle had reached the end of the road. Of course, first I had to get off that road. Since it was an interstate, several helpful fellow drivers seemed to think it was useful to honk their horns and flash their headlights at me. I suppose that was to inform me that my car was in difficulty. Frankly, I thought the fact that I was poking along with my flashers going should have provided a clue that I was aware of the situation, but I guess it was nice of them to be so considerate.

Anyway, once I made my herky-jerky way to the next exit, I managed to creep along the frontage road to a nearby shop. (Since I have a talent for mitigated bad luck, the nearest shop was the one that normally did the maintenance on my car anyway.) The boy who checked me in jotted down the car's mileage and grinned at me: “You're the winner by a mile, sir. Biggest number today.” Yes, an odometer sporting well over 300,000 miles will do that for you. Of course, at that point I was not yet certain that I had finished accumulating miles on that particular car. But I did have a sneaking suspicion. When the service agent told me how much it would cost to replace the transmission, my fears were confirmed and I caught a ride to a nearby dealership. (Therein lies another story; something for later.)

Thus I began the new year in a new car. New to me, anyway. I'm now tooling about in a 2007 hybrid and gradually learning to deal with the 21st century. First of all, I no longer have a key. This freaks me out. I realize that most readers will not be surprised by this, but most people don't cling to a car for sixteen years. I had become completely adapted to that old car. Knobs and switches were all reached reflexively, no looking required. All quirks were completely internalized. Now I have to run a mental check-list before driving off, referring to the owner's manual to save me from pawing randomly at the console while trying to drive.

It's driving me crazy. (Ha, ha; “driving.”)

Good thing school is out. I'm at leisure to poke about town and learn my car's quirks. I've made one trip of significant length (down to Turlock to catch my editor while he was visiting family). That went fine, if a bit white-knuckled. Since the new car is a hybrid, I've learned not to jump when it “stalls” at stop signs. Nope. It's just shifting to electric mode.

I have a little list of things I wish I could fix, now that I'm getting used to the new car. For one thing, why is the B-pillar so wide? I'm meticulous about looking over my left shoulder at my blind spot (good work, Mr. Russ; your driver-ed class programmed me well) before moving into the lane on that side; the new car has a pillar half again as wide as my old car. Why? (Good thing it's not wide enough to hide a nearby car. I'll get used to it.) The inside door grip is farther back; recently, however, my hand has been hitting the right place when I reach for it. I'm getting there.

But that key thing? It's not like old times. No more going to the hardware store to have them grind out an inexpensive spare for me. I have only this one electronic unit that sits in my pocket and causes my car to recognize me. Very convenient but weird. Today I returned to the dealership and ordered up a spare to keep at home. It's worth it for my peace of mind.

“I miss keys,” I said to the manager of the parts department.

“You said it!” he accurately replied. “It's something that wasn't broken, wasn't it?”

Nope. Not at all. But they “fixed” it anyway. And these new-fangled electronic lock controls? They don't even have a button to keep the darned kids off my lawn!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Take the pledge

I mean, swear it off

It's the end of the year and I'm busy making last-minute contributions (here's to you, Alison), including paying up memberships for my local public radio and television stations. Perhaps you have the same reaction I do to the frequent pledge drives. It astonishes me how clumsy and intrusive they are, especially in the case of television. We get to see the same people say the same thing over and over and over again while rerunning the same chopped-up special programs on Victor Borge, Blenko Glass, or—worse—tawdry pitches for unreliable medical or psychological nostrums from the likes of Null, Perricone, or Dyer.

Why do supposedly smart people promote their stations by screwing them up? Why can't the crème de la crème do a minimally competent job of making pledge drives tolerable? It's agonizing how they incessantly repeat the same tired old pitches, gibber at the cameras, pan across telephone banks, and promise intermittently to return to some “special programming” that has been sliced up into bloody chunks. Herewith my modest year end's proposal for less grueling pledge drives on public television.

First of all, no chopped-up special programs. If regular programming is interrupted at all, let the specials be intact and uninterrupted. Since we've all been conditioned to deal with TV screens cluttered with those damned identification “bugs,” why not make more creative use of the video real estate. Most screens are bigger these days and readily subject to manipulation. Embed regular programming in an L-shaped frame. Use the horizontal bar of the frame to keep visible the public TV station's 800 number for pledges. Use the vertical bar for some kind of fundraising thermometer.

That's not quite enough, of course, because the usual format of a public TV pledge drive involves intermediate goals that they hector the viewers to achieve before allowing a return to actual programming. The threat of extended pledge breaks is presumably indispensable for forcing viewers to call in their pledges, but I think creative use of the fundraising thermometer could be an alternative. Set it up so that a target goal is displayed, rising incrementally throughout the pledge period. Also, however, display actual pledge receipts, letting viewers know that real programming will continue—without pledge breaks!—as long as the actual pledge level stays ahead of the rising target. In the mocked-up illustration, I've marked the supposed goal in red and the actual pledges in green. Keep the green marker above the red marker to keep the programming running and the pledge pitches shut down.

Think about it. Wouldn't the Downton Abbey aficionados call in their pledges to preserve the dowager countess from an uncouth interruption?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Brain damage!

Explaining students

Two of the greatest minds in pedagogy recently came together to ponder some of the profoundest educational conundrums of the era. Or, to put it more prosaically, I called up a former student of mine for a chat. I, of course, hold a prestigious tenured professorship at a California community college. He is a lecturer in English at an out-of-state university. No, we are not universally recognized as the leading experts in our respective fields, but we figure that's mostly the fault of other people. Whenever we talk, we quickly reach agreement in our perspectives and opinions. It immediately follows that the many deficiencies in modern education must stem mostly from a failure to sufficiently adopt our preferred policies and emulate our instructional practices. Just listen to us! It's really quite a pity that so straightforward a solution to so many problems continues to languish unrecognized.

However, we should accept the need for a modicum of caution. There is an unfortunate gap in our grasp of the educational enterprise. Upon comparing notes, PiD and I have come to the unhappy realization that our immense intellects have yet to figure out what makes our students go. (Or not go.) It's perplexing!

For example, I told my entire algebra class that our mastery of the quadratic formula meant that we would never again face a quadratic equation for which “no solution” was a satisfactory answer. Solutions would always exist, whether rational, irrational, or complex. Always! Yet on the next exam several of my students labeled some of the quadratic equations as “prime” and solemnly wrote “no solution” in the answer blank.

PiD advised his English composition class that rewrites were a fundamental component of composition and that course grades would rely much more on their diligence in rewriting and improving their essays than on generating sparkling first drafts. As the academic term progressed, several students asked him how to get better grades. “Have you submitted rewrites of all of your essays?” he asked. “We didn't know we had to do that!” they told him. “But the due dates for rewrites are on the syllabus and I send out e-mail reminders as the dates approach!” “Yeah, but we can't know those unless we look at the syllabus or check our e-mail. You should have told us in class.” “But I did tell you in class!” “Well, maybe. But did you check that we were in class that day? I'm too busy to come to class every day, you know.”

A student wrote me a note in response to a problem on the calculus final exam. The problem asked, “What is the area inside the circle r = 3 and outside the cardioid r = 2(1 – cos θ)?” My student wrote, “Failed because I forgot the eq. for a circle in polar coordinates.” Um. Did you notice? The problem said, “the circle r = 3”?

The great minds of the age crumple in defeat.

Perhaps I did not sufficiently recognize a learning opportunity of my own from decades ago, back when my intellect was forming and a famous educator was trying to teach me some vital lessons.  William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed.D. (1976, UMass, Amherst), discovered these clues during highly personalized field research on his own family. Perhaps our students, like Cosby's children, are led into irrational, disturbing behavior by brain damage. It would explain so much!

If only I had paid more attention back then.