Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Count my votes, please!

Been there before

The photo-finish in the race for the Democratic nomination for state controller in California has prompted observers to invoke the controversy over the vote-counting scandal in Florida's presidential election in 2000. I prefer, however, to invoke 1980. That's the year that an extended recount resulted in a reversal of the original results. The initial tally of votes from election day awarded a seat in the state assembly to Republican candidate Adrian Fondse. The Democratic candidate, Patrick Johnston, refused to concede and pursued a recount. The process took long enough that Fondse was sworn into office as an assembly member and took his seat in Sacramento, the recount hanging over his head like a dark cloud as Johnston narrowed the gap in incrementally released results.

Fondse, however, found a silver lining. He noted that he had done quite well on election day in the precincts yet to be recounted, so he was confident that his victory would be sustained. Despite his optimism, Fondse found himself trailing at the end of the recount and lost his assembly seat to Johnston in January. (I was in the assembly visitors gallery on that contentious day and observed the desperate last-ditch political maneuvers, including a motion by Fondse's own Republican colleagues to oust him from his seat—a motion sure to fail because it required a two-thirds vote. The Democrats instead insisted on a simple-majority motion to accept the recount results, resulting in Johnston's swearing-in as the winner of the election.)

What's the lesson we should learn from the Johnston-Fondse recount battle? Has John Pérez taken it into account in his decision to demand a recount in his razor-thin loss in the controller's race to nominee-apparent Betty Yee? Pérez had exercised his right under state law to cherry-pick the counties in which recounting is done. He chose those in which he had beaten Yee by the greatest margins. Yee's supporters immediately cried foul, clearly indicating their belief that Pérez has stacked the deck. Let's examine this assumption accepted by both camps.

Suppose there's a precinct in which Pérez enjoyed 100% support. No votes at all for Yee or anyone else. What could happen during a recount? Examine a ballot. It was counted for Pérez. If a mistake is found, Pérez loses that vote. It must then go to Yee (or one of the other candidates for controller). It should now be clear that Pérez's strategy of recounting only his strong precincts causes his own votes to receive greater scrutiny than others' votes. It's a “please double-check my votes” strategy. The degree of risk is directly proportional to the size of his original vote.

We can put an asterisk on this analysis, because nothing is ever simple when it comes to vote-counting controversies. In our imaginary 100%-Pérez precinct, suppose a new and uncounted ballot is discovered in a ballot box. Chances are that it's a vote for Pérez, given the nature of the precinct. If previously uncounted votes are turned up during the voting process, then Pérez has chosen the right strategy, having a decent expectation of turning up neglected votes in his favor and thus increasing his total. If not, Pérez and company are spending a lot of money to put his votes at risk.

An interesting choice, but all of the political commentators seem to endorse it as obviously advantageous to Pérez. It ain't necessarily so.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Future of the Supreme Court

An actuarial look

Those disappointed in recent Supreme Court decisions will, I hope, refrain from simply accepting defeat. Issues like corporate personhood and religious privileges for family businesses are not settled for all time. In the Hobby Lobby case, for example, anti-abortion and anti-contraception groups will be trying to maximize the family-owned business exception from the Affordable Healthcare Act's coverage mandate. Defining the limits of this exception will inevitably result in future court cases that will gradually percolate to the level of the High Court, giving the Supremes an opportunity to revisit the issue.

Since the justices are normally loath to overturn their previous decisions, especially recent ones, opponents of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby need to be patient, even while striving to correct the injustices. Also, we need some time to elapse so that the best of all possible reversal opportunities can arise: new justices. The following chart displays the current ages and the years of service of the nine justices. Scalia and Kennedy are the longest-service justices, while Ginsburg is the oldest.


Nothing in this chart, however, is as important as how much longer the individual justices are likely to serve. To that end, let's turn to Table 7 (Life expectancy at selected ages, by race, Hispanic origin, race for non-Hispanic population, and sex: United States, 2010) in the CDC's Volume 61, Number 4, of National Vital Statistics Reports. Looking up the life expectancy for each justice and interpolating between tabular values when necessary, I created the following chart.

As you can see, Ginsburg, Scalia, and Kennedy are estimated to have about nine years left. Of course, this is not a hard number, but it suggests that even if they decline to retire to spend more time with their families—as the traditional explanation goes—we can reasonably expect a number of vacancies in the vicinity of 2023. Thus the president elected in 2020 would have some openings to fill. It's entirely possible that the president elected in 2016 would have no opportunities to nominate a Supreme Court justice, just as Jimmy Carter did not in his single term, nor Bill Clinton in his second term and George W. Bush in his first.

Patience, right? In other words, Hillary Clinton would need a second term to make it really likely that she could select successors to Ginsburg, Scalia, Kennedy, and perhaps Breyer.

What is missing from this scenario? The obvious, of course. A Democratic president elected in 2016 would encourage Ginsburg and Breyer to step down with the assurance that their seats would not go to nominees dedicated to overturning their judicial records. Scalia, by contrast, would hunker down and strive to outlast the Democratic administration (assuming he can continue to withstand the toxic overproduction of his bile gland).

The case of Sotomayor is special, and I made no attempt to take into account her diabetes, which argues against her supposed expectation of lasting till 2040. I also have no idea whether Roberts, who came to the Chief Justice's position at an unusually young age, will strive to set a new record at the top of the court's hierarchy. That would require that he serve more than the 34 years and 5 months achieved by John Jay. Whatever occurs, it seems unlikely that the string of Republican-appointed Chief Justices will end anytime soon. Harry S. Truman was the last Democratic president who enjoyed the privilege of appointing the Chief Justice when he nominated Fred Vinson in 1946.

Patience. Probably quite a lot of it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hard data

Make up your own numbers!

My in-box is an unending source of delights. I really should unsubscribe from right-wing mailing lists, but how else would I learn shocking facts about the Muslim Marxist Dictator in the White House? For example, The Political Insider breathlessly informed me that Speaker John Boehner has boldly moved to bring President Obama to account—by filing a lawsuit accusing him of exercising his executive authority. In the comments section the most common response ran along the lines of “about time!” and “I'd rather have impeachment!” Of course, these comments were accompanied by solid, reality-based arguments and supporting evidence:
Jim: He has what well over 1,000 executive orders now? While the most any president before him had like what 45? Which I think was FDR, in his 16 year term.. It took congress long enough.. Talk about being asleep behind the wheel…
Since I am aware that Obama has been remarkably self-restrained in his use of executive orders, I knew immediately that “Jim” was full of crap. I clarified the matter for him:
Zeno: The reality is a little different. Obama has issued fewer executive orders than any president in the 20th century except for one-term presidents Ford and Bush. Obama has 180 to date. Reagan, for example, issued 381. More recently, George W. Bush had 291.
I included a link to the Wikipedia page where a tally of presidential executive orders is displayed. Nevertheless, I was quickly put in my place:
Mitch: Wrong Zeno.
(I presume he meant “Wrong, Zeno,“ but the appositive comma has fallen on hard times, so perhaps “Mitch” was merely being conventionally illiterate.) A most excellent and compelling refutation, no?

Whence came Jim's egregiously wrong but confidently cited numbers? It was as easy to discover that as it would have been for Jim to learn that he was ridiculously incorrect, but that would have ruined his argument. I got the details from Snopes, the indefatigable debunker of Internet nonsense:
The President signed 923 Executive Orders in 40 Months. It is all over the net. These sites include commentary on what the executive order is for and what it does. If this is the truth, I'm scared to think about it. Most of the past presidents have allegedly signed around 30 of them. At the end of the day an executive order circumvents the congress and senate. Fill in the blanks. Someone credible needs to research and report on this.

[Here follows a list of specific executive orders attributed to Obama, but almost all of them were actually issued by John F. Kennedy in 1962. —Z]

Feel free to verify the "executive orders" at will ... and these are just the major ones ...

EXECUTIVE ORDERS ISSUED:

Teddy Roosevelt: 3
Others Prior To FDR: NONE
FDR: 11 in 16 years
Truman: 5 in 7 years
Ike: 2 in 8 years
JFK: 4 in 3 years
LBJ: 4 in 5 years
Nixon: 1 in 6 years
Ford: 3 in 2 years
Carter: 3 in 4 years
Reagan: 5 in 8 years
Bush 1: 3 in 4 years
Clinton: 15 in 8 years
Bush 2: 62 in 8 years
Obama: 923 in 3+ years!

During my lifetime, all Presidents have issued Executive Orders, for reasons that vary, some more than others.

When a President issued as many as 30 Executive Orders during a term in Office, people thought there was something amiss.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT 923 EXECUTIVE ORDERS IN ONE PART OF ONE TERM?????? YES, THERE IS A REASON.

IT IS THAT THE PRESIDENT IS DETERMINED TO TAKE CONTROL AWAY FROM THE HOUSE AND THE SENATE.

Even some Democrats in the House have turned on him, plus a very small number of Democrat Senators question him.

HE SHOULD BE QUESTIONED. WHAT IS HE REALLY TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH????

DOES THIS SCARE YOU AS MUCH AS IT DOES ME?
This is exactly the sort of Internet spam that credulous right-wingers like my father immediately swallow whole and proceed to pass it along to their e-mail lists of fellow travelers and family members (although usually not me anymore, since I tend to respond with unappreciated but detailed refutations that irk my male parental unit). Although it's a tissue of lies, this denunciation of the president appeals enormously to those who have already decided that he is some kind of evil mastermind and would-be dictator, so it is not subject to any sort of critical examination before being further disseminated via the Intertubes. And thus the lies spread.

I think it's fair to quote Ronald Reagan, that great conservative icon, in this context: “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.” Turnabout is fair play, right? Reagan said this in 1964 while campaigning on behalf of Barry Goldwater (who in retrospect doesn't look half so insane as today's teabaggers).

Of course, Reagan stole it from Josh Billings.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stay of execution

City College gets an extension

The biggest community college in California will not have to shut its doors this year. All of that work in preparing a schedule of classes for fall 2014 was not in vain. As announced this week, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is promulgating a rule change that will grant the City College of San Francisco a two-year extension in its efforts to resolve the deficiencies identified in the college's most recent accreditation reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed the news with a front-page headline and a detailed article by Nanette Asimov, who has been closely documenting the years-long story.


The innocent bystander may be unaware that the arguments in the City College controversy were as much about the deficiencies of the accrediting agency as they were about the college itself. Make no mistake: City College had plenty to answer for. The ACCJC found that City College was deficient in its planning, accounting, and management processes. The institution's teaching mission was threatened by its inability to track its assets, collect student fees, and address developing needs. Furthermore, CCSF had been warned about its shortcomings in a previous accreditation process but had not bothered to correct them. The college was begging to be disciplined.

Unfortunately for everyone, including itself, the ACCJC proceeded to demonstrate its own inability to manage a difficult case. It imposed the death penalty on CCSF and then stubbornly refused to cooperate with the attempts to implement an emergency rescue of the institution. Nothing underscored this more clearly than the ACCJC's insistence it could not grant an extension even after the federal Department of Education released a stated confirming that it could. As Asimov reported
Last month, [commission President Barbara] Beno and commission Chairwoman Sherrill Amador and Vice Chairman Steven Kinsella refused to extend the revocation deadline despite public assurances from Lynn Mahaffie, a senior accrediting director with the Department of Education, that federal regulations permitted doing so. Nevertheless, the full commission, which meets just twice a year, changed its policy during its meeting June 4-6 in Sacramento. The agency is private and details about its internal decision-making aren't known.
Despite the Chronicle headline, “victory” is too sanguine a conclusion. City College has a lot of work to do before it can be considered fully compliant with ACCJC accreditation standards which other community colleges (like my own) are required to meet. At least the reprieve gives it the opportunity to continue the process under the new leadership that took over in the midst of the debacle. I also expect a painstaking internal review by the ACCJC of its punitive practices. At least, I hope so. If the ACCJC fails to do so, it is merely mirroring the failings of the institution over which it sat in judgment. Anyway, the internal review is necessary in terms of self-defense. Rigorous external review will be imposed by California's state legislature and the Department of Education, so the ACCJC had better get ready.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Dear Abby, dinner party planner

An apple distance record?

I have always read Dear Abby for the humor. I still do. Of course, when the column's originator, Pauline Phillips, was writing it, I felt as if I were laughing with the columnist. These days, however, it's more often that I laugh at the columnist. This morning, Jeanne Phillips struck again:
DEAR ABBY: I just found out my husband was arrested for being with a hooker. My in-laws (whom I love and adore) bailed him out of jail. No one said a word about it to me. I don't know how to confront all of them with the fact that I know about this “dirty little secret.” What should I do? — BETRAYED WIFE

DEAR BETRAYED: First, visit your gynecologist and ask to be treated for every STD known to man. Then invite your in-laws to a “family dinner,” tell them the cat is out of the bag and ask why this was kept from you. And while you're at it, ask your mother-in-law (whom you love and adore) how SHE would feel if your father-in-law had possibly exposed her to an STD and it had been kept from her. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
This is extraordinarily good advice, no? No. Give it just a second's thought. A second second shouldn't be needed. Just imagine Betrayed's adored in-laws sitting down for a cozy family dinner at Betrayed's invitation, only to discover that the first course is an accusation, served with a side of recrimination. Will we ever get to the just desserts*?

The notion of raising the topic at a family dinner is just absurd. Jeanne is apparently not bothering to read her own advice before publishing it. Can't she afford a competent minion to save her (and her advisees!) from herself? Surely Betrayed would be better off in a less structured setting, like sitting down with the guilty parties for coffee (perhaps even at a coffee shop, if a public venue were desired in hopes that fear of “making a scene” would keep reactions mild and voices low and under control; Betrayed knows her family better than Dear Abby). Once everyone is settled, Betrayed could share “good news”: “All of the lab tests are back and I'm pleased to announce that each one was negative. George didn't infect me with any sexually transmitted diseases, so I'm much relieved!” Alternatively, Betrayed might instead need to announce, “Good news! My gynecologist says that the gonorrhea I contracted from George is responding to treatment.”

In either case, the rest of the script writes itself. And there's no danger of leaving a lovely roast untouched on the dinner table. There's also less risk of having edged cutlery too close at hand.

Jeanne concluded her misbegotten advice with the homey aphorism that “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.” Maybe so, Jeanne, but there appears to have been quite a bit of rolling in your case.



*Yeah, I know all about “just deserts” versus “just deserts,” but when it comes to lost causes ... So don't even bother.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Tea Party is not dead!

Just very, very sick

One of the joys of Facebook is stumbling across long-lost friends or relatives and renewing acquaintances. The downside is the discovery that an old friend or cousin has gone completely around the bend. Last year I ran into an nth cousin I hadn't seen since we were both teens. It was nice to swap family photos and do some catching up. But what do I find on her Facebook timeline? Stuff like this:

 Now THAT was a commander in chief

Yeah, one hell of a commander-in-chief, all right. Did he also hug the many widows and widowers he created with his military adventurism?

Of course, my cousin pays tribute to our current president, too:


Hilarious! This implies, of course, that Obama's economic record is nothing to brag about. His job-creation record must be much worse than that of his glorious predecessor, right? Funny thing, though, about reality. George W. Bush took two terms to eke out a job increase of 0.21%. (Actually all the growth was in the second term, because it was 0.0% for Bush's first term.) Obama managed 0.23% in a single term, and it's still increasing during his second term.

This naturally inspires a question: Who from among the GOP's leading lights could be as great a president as the much-missed George W.?

Who would you like to see as a presidential candidate?

Frankly, the gray silhouette strikes me as the most qualified and inspires the most confident. Of course, my cousin wants a Republican president who will finally get to the bottom of the Democratic president's many, many scandals. Like Benghazi:


It would be much too easy for the GOP merely to accept the many answers they've already received. Besides, they didn't like those answers. Obama and Clinton have simply refused to cooperate. They stubbornly won't admit that they deliberately arranged to have Americans killed by Muslim terrorists. If they would just confess and volunteer to go to jail, we could finally put Benghazi behind us. So clearly it's the Democrats' fault that this just keeps grinding on.



It appears that my cousin is concerned that her children are targets for terrorists—probably foreign, but possibly domestic. You can also tell, quite clearly, that the guards in the photo are packing heat. I presume it's merely a detail that these guards (a) are not at the Sidwell Friends school attended by Obama's daughters and (b) Sidwell guards do not carry firearms. My cousin, you see, has a strong aversion to fact-checking, which is likely to destroy an otherwise perfectly good story, just like most of the other posts that my cousin “liked” and “shared” from The Tea Party page on Facebook. (Today's special treat: Nutcase Allen West calls for Obama's impeachment. What? Again?)

My cousin intersperses saccharin pieties among the right-wing memes. Apparently God loves us (at least since 1954) and wants us to be happy, which is in odd conflict with the many miseries he's visited upon us, all “documented” by the right wing. Perhaps we're in the End Times!

One Nation, Under God

The end.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Extra credit

Is Jesus stingy?

My least favorite teaching task is the assignment of final grades. You can count on it: There will always be a couple of students teetering on the brink between two grades. Some of my colleagues solve the problem by being very strict constructionists: “A grade of B requires 80%. That's 80%. Not 79%. Not 79.9%. End of story.” Others are conditional rounders: “If the student's semester average is 79.5% and the final exam score is a B or better, I'll round it up to a B. Otherwise it remains a C.” There are many decision mechanisms.

You can probably anticipate the problem. Sometimes two students have the same borderline score, but one of them did it with an exemplary effort on the final exam and the other did it by squandering a better grade with a final-exam pratfall. You can't really drive a wedge between their semester scores when both of them have 79.0%. They rise or fall together. What to do?

This recently happened in one of my classes. One of my students closed strong while the other had steadily lost ground. They ended up in a numerical tie. Both were aware that they had fallen short of an outright B because I had released their final exam scores. It all came down to the grade brackets and my judgment on what decision would be the most equitable and most reflective of their accomplishments. I compared notes with a couple of colleagues and both students ended up with Bs, which rewarded the diligent student for her strong finish and didn't punish the student who had lost some of his drive in the last weeks. I picked the “nice” option.

I could still argue for the other outcome, but I was comfortable with the decision to award both students “good” grades. At least, I was comfortable till one of them reacted with the following message:
DEAR PROFESSOR Z!!!!!!
THANK YOU SO MUCH !!!!!!!!!!
I WAS PRAYING ABOUT MY GRADE.
THANK YOU JESUS!!!!!

That you decided to give me a B!!!!!!!! God bless you for doing it!!!
I was in church on Saturday and the pastor was talking about God's power to answer our prayers. He told us how he was asking God about parking in a very busy time when there never any available spaces. He was driving and praying to God when he saw that one person was taking off from his parking spot. He was so happy about it because God gave him a parking spot. He said that if you believe in God and ask him whatever you want, He will always answer. So after church I asked Jesus to give me a B for my math class. And now I see that HE answered my prayer. Isn't it amazing!?
Oy veh. I have only one question: Why didn't she pray for an A?

Friday, May 23, 2014

God's not at all well

The belabors of Hercules

Yes, I slipped in to see God's Not Dead the other day, looking about suspiciously at my fellow movie-goers. It soon became apparent they were there for the Kool-Aid. When Josh Wheaton asks Professor Radisson, “How can you hate someone who doesn't exist?”, the guy a few seats over from me went “Oh, yeah!” Because, you know, it was such a brilliant and devastating riposte to the professor's expressions of disbelief. Theists refuse to believe that anyone actually lacks belief in God; atheists are all sort of pretending, I guess.

The movie has already undergone many trenchant analyses and deconstructions and, yes, it really is an awful piece of tripe. Its cloying earnestness seems to me to be unselfconscious, indicating that the movie's creators are genuinely shallow and lacking in the power of self-reflection. Smug certainty has destroyed their capacity for critical thought.

Since there's no great need for me to add redundant criticisms, let me instead offer some points related to my personal perspective as a college professor, the false notes that regularly pulled me out of the motion picture and made me keenly aware that I was watching a religious tract.

Kevin Sorbo depicted Professor Radisson as a self-important authoritarian, a dispenser of “truth” who hates to be questioned. Such professors are not unknown in academia, but they are rare. Most of us like students to think about what they are told, to question dogma and to discuss these matters with classmates and instructors. Of course, the movie could have merely chosen to depict one of these curmudgeonly professors as a device for conveying a lesson—except in this case it's less of a lesson and more of an unrelenting harangue.

I nearly laughed out loud at the end of the scene involving the first day of philosophy class. The professor adds Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian to the reading list for the next session. Apparently the students had already been assigned David Hume on “The Problem of Induction” (presumably an excerpt from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) and Discourse on the Method (Discours de la méthode) by René Descartes. How often does the class meet? This is a daunting reading list even assuming the students have a week in which to plow through it. Perhaps Radisson had distributed a syllabus in which only certain pages were indicated for the week's reading, but his addition of Russell to the list carried no such limitation. I can imagine the screenwriter congratulating himself on using Russell's book as Radisson's shot across Wheaton's bow: “Heh, heh. This'll raise the audience's hackles! Even though most of them won't know who Russell is, the title will do the trick!”

No one has commented, to my knowledge, on Radisson's office. Although it's made clear that he is considered the prohibitive frontrunner for the position of department chair, he has yet to achieve that status. Nevertheless, his office is large enough to serve as a hangar for a 747 and his desk is long enough to land jet fighters. Radisson must work for one of the most prestigious and most richly endowed universities in the western world. It's like those television sitcoms where impoverished young people live in deluxe apartments while subsisting on ramen and cheap beer. I was most impressed.

Dean Cain's character could have been ripped from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Unbelieving and self-absorbed, “Mark” has no time for altruism. He is a “superman” who rapidly sheds any inconveniences that arise between him and his goals. His girlfriend develops cancer? Ex-girlfriend! His mother descends into the fog of Alzheimer's? Time to forget her just as she's involuntarily forgotten him! (Of course, when Mark is hectored by his sister into paying Mom a visit in the nursing home, Mom manages to emerge from her dementia just long enough to deliver a lucid little sermonette to shame her unbelieving son. A miracle!)

The subplot depicting the Arab girl who converted to Christianity was especially disturbing. Of course, her Muslim father beat her and ejected her from the house. We got to see him cry afterward, so I imagine the movie producers felt they had gone the extra mile in humanizing the devout believer in a false religion. (See, kids! This is how you behave when you follow Allah instead of Yahweh!) I managed not to hoot aloud when a close-up revealed that the girl had been listening to lessons recorded by Franklin Graham. Franklin! A pale imitation of the real thing, but apparently good enough to cost a young woman her family and her home.

I won't dwell on the ghoulish ending, which was embarrassing in the extreme. When the preachers were crouching over the dying Professor Radisson, I was half-expecting them to sprout vampire fangs, they were so eager to sink their teeth into him. Instead I want to point out the ridiculousness of the final scene in Radisson's philosophy class. Since it was foreordained that Wheaton had to win, humiliating his atheist professor, it was impossible that the end of the debate would offer any surprises. And it didn't. Right on cue, the Asian boy who had befriended Wheaton was the first to rise to his feet to declare “God's not dead!” and Wheaton the winner. But then every single student stood up and joined the chorus. Really? Every student? I watched closely, looking for the students who would stubbornly keep their seats, rolling their eyes at their suddenly faithful classmates—all of whom had been willing only a few weeks before to scrawl their names on God's obituary. I didn't see a one.

Fake, fake, fake. Nothing short of a fire drill or the end of class will get every student to pop up from his or her desk. My neighbors in the movie theater may have noticed I was chuckling, but so were some of them. Perhaps they thought I was participating in their joy at Wheaton's David-vs.-Goliath triumph.

Nope.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The template student

When thinking is too much trouble

My exams seldom contain surprises, but my students' answers do. Since I'm a firm believer in keeping track of student progress with frequent quizzes, I telegraph my punches. Students have plenty of opportunity to discern what facts, techniques, procedures, and calculations I deem the most important. (They also—most of them—learn the importance of regular attendance so as not to miss these pre-exam rehearsals.)

Of course, some students take it too far. These are the students who have had the unfortunate educational experience of intensely patterned teaching to “the test.” These are also the students who badger me for “practice tests” in advance of each exam. What do they want? Problems that are exactly like the ones they'll encounter on the exam.(I presume I'm permitted to change the numbers a little bit.)

What surprised me most this past school year was the discovery of this tendency among my calculus students. I was used to seeing it in my lower-level classes like algebra, but in multivariate calculus? An example of the behavior of the template-driven student will suffice. You'll see the problem, even if the terms are mysterious.

On a quiz I asked multiple questions about the gradient of a function of two variables. In part (a) I asked them to compute the gradient and evaluate it at a given point. In part (b) I asked them to use the gradient to compute the directional derivative in a given direction. In part (c) I asked them to calculate the greatest possible value of the directional derivative. In part (d) I asked them to find the direction in which the greatest possible directional derivative would occur. Pretty standard stuff.

On an exam I asked my students to (a) compute the gradient of a function of two variables and evaluate it at a given point. No problem. In part (b) I asked them how large the directional derivative could be? Several students were thrown for a loss. They wanted to compute a specific directional derivative, but instead I was asking them for its maximum possible value. There was no way they could do what they wanted to do because I had not provided a direction, so they made one up. They had memorized the pattern in the quiz and insisted on replicating it exactly on the exam. Since I had, in effect, swapped (b) and (c), they were deeply perplexed and forged ahead with the moves they had learned by rote.

Embarrassing! It wasn't a very large number of students, but I had been hoping they had been weaned away from this tendency by the time they arrived in the calculus III class. I learned otherwise.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bearing false witness

A liar for Jesus

Michael Voris has made a career of being more Catholic than the pope. You'd think, however, that so religious a person would hesitate to break the commandment against bearing false witness. I daresay he thinks it's okay because his lies of in the service of his imagined savior. Yet I wonder: How effective can the lies be when they are so transparent. In one of his typical rants, Voris castigates the president on the occasion of Obama's visit to the Vatican and an audience with the pope. Voris would have us believe that Obama wilted under the pontiff's glowering disapproval.



[T]he pope is the leader of the church militant and there is no more powerful organization on earth than the Catholic Church. Only it can consign the diabolical to the furnaces of hell. Perhaps that's why, when the pope encounters one of hell's agents, he doesn't have much of a smile on his face.... [The pope] doesn't like being a prop, especially for political leaders advancing evil, and his usual ebullient smile was missing from all the official photos, sending a clear message.
In a word, Voris's statement is untrue. The official photographs are readily viewed on the Vatican website. It does not take too long while scrolling through the voluminous archive of images to discover that Pope Francis managed to smile several times in the presence of our evil president and even while greeting Secretary of State John Kerry (often denounced by arch-Catholics for being a pro-choice member of the Church). See for yourself how readily Voris is refuted:





No further words are required.