Today Halfway There is privileged to present an interview of that estimable blogger “Zeno.” This is not the first time we have profiled this remarkable individual, who provided a chatty first-person account in Who is Zeno? concerning the origin of his nom-de-blog. Zeno—sometimes also known as “Zeno Ferox”—is a brilliant writer and mathematics educator. We're sure you will enjoy his scintillating discourse and repartee as we subject him to a close examination with our penetrating questions. So, without further ado, we give you the transcript of Halfway There's interview:
Halfway There: Welcome to Halfway There, Dr. Z, it's an honor and a privilege to have you with us today.
Zeno: You're not fooling anybody, you know.
Halfway There: We're obviously fooling you, buddy, since you replied to our opening remarks. Please think of this as a form of self-examination in the manner of your heroes Cardinal Newman and David Berlinski.
Zeno: Self-abuse is more like it, but that's a nice use of obscure allusion with the “apologia” subtitle. You're going to have people thinking I know a smidgen of Latin. As for Berlinski, the word “manner” wasn't a bad choice, because I find his writing extremely mannered, as well as unenlightened and unenlightening. I decline to acknowledge either Newman or Berlinski as personal icons.
Halfway There: Point taken. As for Latin, I'm certain you know exactly as much Latin as we do. But enough of the gentle bantering and verbal fencing. Let's get down to the details people are clamoring to know.
Zeno: Good luck with that.
Halfway There: First things first: why blog?
Zeno: Well, I'm pretty sure it's cheaper than psychotherapy. In addition, sometimes I have things to say and blogging is a convenient way to say them publicly, just in case anyone else is interested.
Halfway There: And are they?
Zeno: Sometimes. I used Bloglines to track the blogs I like to read and I've noticed that I have 7 subscribers who are watching my blog for new posts—that's 6 if you don't count yourself. Uh, myself. Whatever.
Halfway There: Who are your readers and what are they interested in?
Zeno: Because the traffic on my blog is quite low—averaging between 50 to 100 hits per day—I can actually have some familiarity with the regular readers. Each time I put up a new post, I promptly see visitors listed on Site Meter whose home domains are harvard.edu, caltech.edu, and a few other college sites, including my own school. I have a frequent visitor in Reykjavik who's been absent recently (Hello, Iceland!); I suspect school is out for the summer. The Site Meter world map shows that most of my readers are concentrated in North America, but I get visitors from all over the globe. That's spooky in some ways. The notable exception is Africa. Except for the occasional reader in South Africa, I don't see any visitors from that continent. Perhaps if I posted more things in Portuguese I'd get some hits from Angola and Mozambique. It might raise my hit rate from South America, too, which is also rather sparse in readers of my blog. No big surprises. This is an English language site.
Halfway There: You get hits from your own college site? Do those readers know who you are?
Zeno: Oh, definitely. At least, I don't know of any readers from my college who don't know who I am. There might be a couple. I have three colleagues in my math department who know my blog pseudonym and are fairly regular readers. Sometimes I even drop them a note when I put up a post that's specifically about math or math teaching, since that's obviously our common interest. A few non-local friends read my stuff from their homes in Nevada, Washington State, and Canada.
Halfway There: So you're not totally anonymous as a blogger, are you? Why bother with the pseudonym?
Zeno: Why does anyone? Privacy. At least a degree of privacy. And not just mine. My students have a right to their personal privacy and I must respect that. At the same time, I want to share my opinions and experiences as a teacher. Just as I used codenames to disguise my students' identities when I did my dissertation research on them, my blog pseudonym conceals my school and my students' identities when I ruminate on the attitudes and behavior of people like Boycott Woman, the Naked Student, my Best Algebra Student, the Twelve O'Clock Scholar, and Cyborg Students. Even my colleagues do not necessarily recognize these students from my discussions. When they do, it's because we've had the same student in our classes and, in some cases, discussed among ourselves some ideas about dealing with the difficulties they might present. My students' identities are not for public consumption, even if the educational issues involving them might be of interest to a broader audience than just the faculty members in my department.
Halfway There: Do members of your family visit your blog?
Zeno: God, no! Mom and Dad and “Becky” and “Phyllis” get enough grief directly from me without also having to wade through my blog posts. My father, of course, is aggrieved that his son is “too liberal,” but his brain has been rotted out by too much exposure to Rush Limbaugh and printed propaganda by Ann Coulter, Zell Miller, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage. My parents have severe cases of political Alzheimer's and would be appalled by my writing. They're already appalled by what I say in their presence when they're foolhardy enough to poke me with a rhetorical stick. Dad: “Can you believe those Senators were stupid enough to vote against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve?” “Well, Dad, I would have voted with them. Even if I thought it was a good idea, I'd vote against letting a criminal enterprise like the Bush administration be in charge of it.” Yeah, no time soon am I going to be saying, “Look, Mommy! Look, Daddy! See what I did!” We've agreed to disagree—at swords' point.
Halfway There: You write about mathematics, politics, education, and science. What qualifies you to declaim on these topics?
Zeno: I've also written about music, language, religion, and culture. In most of these areas I have no professional qualifications at all. That is, of course, exactly the level of qualification that is required for the role of blog writer or political commentator at Fox News or NRO. My actual credentials are in teaching and math, of course. Unlike some people, I don't make the mistake of assuming that a Ph.D. entitles one to be regarded as a universal expert on all topics, although—to be fair—I know I've had a tendency to come across that way long before I returned to grad school for an advanced degree.
Halfway There: And how did that happen?
Zeno: I can string words together. I've even done it professionally, as a science writer for a newspaper and a columnist for a few computer magazines. Once you get the knack of it, you can be pretty persuasive. When I worked in California politics and its civil service, I sometimes got to write words that went out as statements from my boss, one of whom was a statewide elected official. It's a gift, you know.
Halfway There: And a responsibility, too.
Zeno: Yeah, yeah. I must use my power only for good.
Halfway There: Although you may have a modicum of talent for stringing words together, your academic record suggests you're not exactly a man of letters.
Zeno: Let us say, rather, that I am a man of letters and numbers. My undergraduate degrees and master's are in mathematics and my doctorate is in education with an emphasis in math education. I have done a lot of math.
Halfway There: How much is “a lot”?
Zeno: Five years of graduate work. One for the master's degree and four in a Ph.D. program I didn't complete. I passed all the written qualifying exams but never advanced to candidacy.
Halfway There: So you're a drop-out.
Zeno: More like a toss-out, actually. I made two major mistakes. You need a doctorate to teach at the four-year college or university level, but the math Ph.D. is a research degree. You have to do your research, you know. I was given a teaching assistantship for the four years I was in the university's math department, but I should have turned down the opportunity to actually teach a class instead of simply assist a professor. I tried to decline, but the department chair told me it was clearly what I wanted to do. He was right, of course. I loved it. I loved explaining things, trying different ways to get ideas across, seeing students' eyes light up with comprehension. I wish I had seen that lighting-up thing more often, naturally, but it was really rewarding and worthwhile. It just didn't benefit my graduate studies. In fact, it took time away from it, since you can always find more ways to work on your teaching techniques and presentations. It expands to fill the time you allow.
Halfway There: You said there were two big mistakes.
Zeno: Too true. While all grad students should strive to remain on the good side of their department chairs, there are situations where one should watch one's back. The first case was accepting a teaching slot sooner than I should have. The second was the composition of my graduate committee. The chair gave me the name of an engineering professor to approach about serving as my committee's “outside” member. The engineer politely turned me down. When I reported back to the math department chair, he told me he'd take care of talking the reluctant engineer into agreeing to be on my committee. Need I tell you that it's a bad idea to have a committee member who was browbeaten into serving? Real bad. Things went off track from there and I didn't have my act together sufficiently to fix it. Too bad I didn't. With more focus and less distraction, perhaps I could have, but that's not the way it worked out.
Halfway There: That started your detour into other things.
Zeno: Exactly. Beginning with journalism, which turned out to suit me rather well. My writing got a good workout in grad school, but nothing like what followed as a science journalist. Writing became a major component of everything I did thereafter, like my legislative staff position and my civil service job in a constitutional officer's department. Writing has served me well in my return to academia, too, both as a full-time math teacher and when I decided it was time to take another crack at grad school. Certainly I have done a lot of writing. If I didn't enjoy it (for the most part, anyway), I wouldn't look for outlets to do more of it. Witness this blog.
Halfway There: Perhaps. But you don't post very often.
Zeno: I started the blog at the end of August 2005, so it's been a little over ten months, during which time I've produced a little over one hundred posts. Yeah, I do only ten a month or so. I could do a lot more if that were the point, but I'm not interested in doing quick little posts that say, “Hey! Look at this!” with a link to show you what “this” is. I'd say Atrios has that approach covered pretty nicely. I prefer to say something rather than simply point and shout.
Halfway There: Okay. We noticed you don't post much about your education, except to point out that your fields are math and math ed. Isn't that a big deal to you?
Zeno: Well, sure, but I tend not to talk about specifics because this is, after all, a semi-anonymous blog. I attended some pretty good schools, but people don't need to know their names. I have not, however, been able to resist the impulse to mention where I earned my bachelor's degree.
Halfway There: Yes. Caltech. We know you've mentioned it exactly twice in your posts here.
Zeno: Only twice? That's way more modest than I usually give myself credit for. I am quite proud of being a Caltech alumnus. That is one amazing school and my two years there hammered me into the shape I am today. More than any other experience anyway. Or so it seems to me, even after all these years. Think what it's like to have your school paper publishing new photos from a space probe orbiting Mars before the regular news media get hold of them. Think about dodging Nobel laureates at every corner and coming within a hair's breadth of careening into Richard Feynman. And then during finals week you have a fellow alumnus tramping around on the moon. Pretty cool!
I probably mention Caltech a lot more in comments on other blogs than here. In fact, the last time I mentioned my alma mater in one of my own posts was when I quoted extensive excerpts from a troll infestation over at Pharyngula.
Halfway There: Ah, yes, Pharyngula. You sure do spend a lot of time there.
Zeno: What's not to love? PZ Myers is an outspoken, non-believing, unapologetic, liberal evolutionist. May his tribe prosper! I'm really weary of seeing the havoc wrought by our god-ridden federal administration and its minions. I wish we had Christians who were more given to practicing the tenets of their faith and less driven to seek political hegemony. Why do these people keep trying to pile up treasures on earth? Don't they read their own Bibles? The most fascinating thing about religious political activism is the same thing that permeates the creationist movement: lies. We see it constantly from these pious hypocrites: I'm so holy and righteous that I don't have to tell the truth, especially if it's about people who are scum anyway. Exactly those people who should reject “the ends justify the means” are falling over themselves to embrace expediency. If I thought it likely that God existed, I would pray that the Deity might protect us from our modern Pharisees. As it is, I would be greatly pleased if the overweeningly faithful would spend a lot more time on their knees in supplication to their God. At least prayer keeps them busy and out of actual mischief. In that sense, at least, I think prayer is efficacious. I heartily endorse prayer. For them.
Halfway There: So what blogs do you follow besides Pharyngula?
Zeno: Well, I'm a regular visitor of Pharyngula's stable mates at ScienceBlogs. I scan quite a few political blogs. I already mentioned Duncan “Atrios” Black's Eschaton. I peruse Daily Kos every day and even got to meet Markos at his book tour stop in Sacramento and get his autograph. There are some great math blogs, too. Moebius Stripper has a great site at Tall, Dark, & Mysterious, but her postings have grown regrettably sparse. MS was the first blogger to add Halfway There to her roster of blog links. That was kind of special. Other cool math sites are maintained by Rudbeckia Hirta at Learning Curves and by Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math. One of the few fellow bloggers I've had the privilege of meeting is Nick Barrowman. Nick is a Canadian who writes about statistics (not math, mind you; there is a difference) at Log base 2. I had a great visit with Nick and his two neat children when they visited family members in California.
Halfway There: What can we expect from you in the future, Dr. Z?
Zeno: More of the same, of course. I think perhaps I should try to play a little more to my strengths and work up a few more posts about teaching. The problem there is trying to cut things down to a manageable size. Education problems do not tend to come in neat bite-sized chunks, I'm afraid. I'm also inclined to do some very specific debunking. That, at least, can be tightly focused. I was inspired when Al Gore quoted Mark Twain near the beginning of An Inconvenient Truth:
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.We get tons of crap and deception from the White House and the Republican Congress. There's a lot of falsehood drifting around unquestioned in people's minds. These distortions have become part of the conventional wisdom because of reporters who are all too willing to pass them along in a lazy fashion—it's too hard to set the record straight, you know. In particular, you'll recall the GOP drumbeat insisting that Gore is either a chronic liar or simply mentally unbalanced. What a slick smear that is! And it includes things like “he said he invented the Internet.” I am so sick of that one! And we all know that Bill Clinton once said he “loathed” the military. Except he never said that. It goes on and on.
I want to put my own two cents' worth in on some of those. I'm not, unfortunately, likely to run out of them. The GOP noise machine has been generating them for a long time now.
Halfway There: Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Z. It was an honor and a privilege to talk to you.
Zeno: Yeah, I bet.