Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The boot heel of Snopes

Your right to urban legends

My niece “Becky” has learned her lesson and no longer forwards so-called inspirational messages to me. It's a relief. I wish cousin “Phyllis” was as quick on the draw. First it was a “joke” about a Dallas-Fort Worth air traffic controller playfully directing a Saudi airliner onto a collision course with an Egyptian airliner. I replied, “This one isn't funny. It's merely offensive.” A pretty unambiguous reaction, right?

Next was an Internet joke in the form of an election year complaint from a senior citizen who had lost his job, home, and health insurance under the Bush administration; it was “signed” Saddam Hussein. Yeah, pretty funny. That's what I said in my response: “Ha ha. So very funny. Currently Bush's war in Iraq has cost us over 2240 American soldiers' lives.” Damned hilarious.

Then Phyllis forwarded the fabulous news that Bill Gates was giving money away. That rascal is always doing that sort of thing, isn't he? “For every person that you forward this e-mail to, Microsoft will pay you $245.00.” Hey, I also heard that the word “gullible” isn't in the dictionary. No, really. Go look it up! I tried sweet reason:
These things are always bogus. When you forward them to people on your mailing list, you're just adding to the spam traffic on the Internet. So don't forward them. They're fake. Always. No one is using the Internet to give money away to people who forward mail. Sorry.

So what does Phyllis send me a day later? The infamous gas war chain letter! You see, all we have to do is boycott the biggest petroleum company and it will be forced to lower gas prices. It's a sure thing! I'm afraid I was running low on sweet reason this time:
Geez, Phyllis. Please pay attention to me this time: Don't forward any more Internet stuff. It's fake, false, bogus, fraudulent, invalid, and you can look up more words in your copy of Roget's. Once again, the urban legend website tells the story:

The really irritating part in this message is “Well, let's face it, you just aren't a mathematician. But I am, so trust me on this one.” Maybe the guy is a mathematician, but he sure isn't a very good one. He says to forward the message to 30 people and hope they each send it on to 10 more, for a total of 300 people, etc. Do you know why the multiplier effect doesn't work? It's because you can't assume they send it out to different people. Even if people tried to follow through (the truth is that most people ignore forwarded mail, which I promise to do from now on instead of trying to explain it to people who aren't paying attention), a lot of them would just end up sending copies to each other. After all, aren't you in the mailing directories of the people you have in your own mailing directory?

Let's try to make this one go away.

This time it may have worked. Chastened, Phyllis replied, “Holy cow what a chewing out!! Just kidding, I will pay closer attention and I totally understand.”

This time she was able to resist until the recent immigration protests. She promptly forwarded all the family members a report that crime statistics plummeted dramatically on the day when immigrants were too busy marching in public demonstrations to devote their customary attention to shoplifting, armed robbery, and recreational murder.
Ha, ha. How funny. It's a hoax, of course. In very poor taste, too. The details are below.

Stop sending me stuff like this.

Three weeks have gone by and Phyllis has resisted the impulse to send me any Internet wisdom about WMDs finally having been found in Iraq or Gore's movie tanking at the box office. Instead of just ignoring her or consigning her messages automatically to the spam folder, I've tried to talk back with actual information. You know, the stuff that comes with references instead of the notorious friend-of-a-friend attribution. It may be a losing battle with my addled family. My own mother skipped her flu shot last year because my sister-in-law said she had heard they were bad for you. Mom got sick, of course. As a good boy, I refrained from yelling at her about the wisdom of taking medical advice from an air head.

Give me truthiness, or give me death!

Snopes is my favorite resource for debunking Internet nonsense and similar urban legends. I always include a link to when replying to forwarded bilge from family or friends. (Actually, only from family, now that I think of it. My friends don't forward dreck.) It never occurred to me, simple fellow that I am, that some people would bridle at a Snopes reference and recoil in righteous disgust. A friend of a friend (no, really!) received the following heated e-mail from an acquaintance who reacted very negatively to the Snopes item debunking the gas war message:
Some myths are true, you know. The Mikkelsons who started and still run can argue the details in the message you forwarded—fine—okay! They can even say the boycott strategy is not one they approve. That's their opinion. (I don't claim to know their motives fully.)

But there are other impacts that boycotts have on those who witness the boycotters. In the distant past the long-lasting grape boycott and the lettuce boycott helped the farm workers despite the criticisms of the press and stores and many others. As you know better than most, one person or many people acting out in public have an effect of witnessing for a larger truth. Boycotts may be one of our most effective voices in this consumer-driven economy?

Though I know that is regarded as a credibile scam-exposer, I argue that their habit of putting this kind of email into the same category as a scam intended to victimize someone is a really foul thing to do. It throws a wet blanket on some very honorable intentions.

Just because a long proposed boycott is on the Snopes list does NOT classifiy the entire notion as something worth dismissing for that reason alone. Buying fewer gallons of gas is an obvious way to send oil companies a message. Targetting a specific company or category of companies for boycott would be a tried and true action (bordering on civil disobedience these days when corporations are so much more powerful than the civil sector.)

I, for one, am glad you forwarded this. No apology is necessary. You can forward my comments to your list, if you wish.

If there were a real soapbox anywhere in our area, I'd get up on it and speak out against the back-breaking false authority that the has become. It has become mean-spirited bullying just as calling an idea “politically correct” is often done to derail conversation!!! There's a larger community that needs to think about and act on these matters.

My general rule is not to take seriously people who end sentences with three exclamation points. The writer also rather charmingly assumed that the gas war message was full of “very honorable intentions,” although she has no evidence for that. While I concede honorable intentions may have been involved, they were on the part of the naïve people who were gulled into passing along an unworkable scheme as if it were a sensible plan.

Save us please from (a) people who “mean well” and (b) the folks who trust people who say they mean well.

Give me the debunkers, please. I like my arguments evidence-based.

Monday, June 26, 2006

I am Al Gore's truth squad

Checking out An Inconvenient Truth

I have now seen An Inconvenient Truth the movie featuring former Vice President Albert Gore. When he displayed the deservedly famous “Earthrise” photograph, I recognized it immediately. The Apollo 8 mission to lunar orbit in December 1968 was one of the most exciting events of my teenage years.

Gore pointed out that this classic image had captured the imagination of the whole world, which had never been seen in this way before. People began to understand in a more visceral way that we existed on a single planet, a planet both more beautiful and perhaps more fragile than anyone had realized before.

The case for human-caused global warming has been growing year by year, even as the carbon-dioxide graphs climb ever higher. The ranks of the skeptics have been melting away like the polar ice as the evidence accumulated, till now the only persistent naysayers are the stubbornly ignorant (many blinkered by political ideology), the professional shills (paid lobbyists and industry-affiliated scientists), and a handful of willful mavericks (there's a few in every crowd: when they lead a revolution, they are visionaries; when they obsessively fight against a growing consensus, they are usually reduced to cranks).

Gore's big mistake

I listened attentively throughout An Inconvenient Truth and consider it to be an extremely effectively polemic. The amount of detail was at an appropriate level for general audiences, with Gore avoiding the unnecessarily arcane while still providing the key scientific data that reveal the growing global crisis. His traveling slide show, as captured on the movie screen and augmented by the film's website at, lays out the case in a relentless and persuasive fashion. It increasingly appears that the earth's greatest ecological catastrophe may have been the stolen presidential election of 2000. We have unregenerate oil men in the White House at the worst possible time.

In the entire movie, there was only one moment, quite early in the screening, when I caught the former vice president in an error. And now it can be told, Al Gore's big mistake: he made an error concerning the moon.

While he was describing the circumstances under which the “Earthrise” photo was snapped, Gore talked about the tension everyone experienced when Apollo 8 ducked behind the moon in preparation for the braking maneuver that would put it in lunar orbit. The astronauts would fire the rocket of their spacecraft's service module while out of radio contact with the earth, traveling over the far side of the moon. A mishap could have caused an impact on the moon's surface. Gore used the common misnomer “dark side” for the far side of the moon. In reality, the far side gets every bit as much sun as the near side. The “dark side” can be any side of the moon, including the front side (from our perspective), which is actually what occurs at every new moon, when “dark” and “near” coincide.

I did a little double-checking to see whether Gore might have been correct after all. Apollo 8's lunar orbit insertion occurred early in the morning (U.S. time) of December 24, 1968. It was only about four days after the new moon, so most of the front face of the moon was dark and most of the far face was lit. The far side was not very dark at all.

And that, ladies & gentlemen & others, is what Al Gore got wrong. That's it. Were you hoping for something more egregious? I am truly sorry to have disappointed you. An Inconvenient Truth is brimming with truth, and it is very inconvenient indeed. Go see it.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The witch behind me

An overheard conversation

“He was giving me a bad time, so I put a curse on him. Later that same day he was terminated. Fired. Tell me that was a coincidence.”

A man's voice was coming from right behind me. I was minding my own business—or had been, until then—forking up pasta in a restaurant for a late lunch. Only when my mind registered the word “curse” did my ears prick up and my attention wander away from the novel I was reading (Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds).

“Yeah, and that wasn't the first time, either. It's happened so often that I've lost track. There was this one guy who tried to gyp me on a deal. I put a hex on him and within the year he was dead from cancer.”

The man sounded completely sincere. From the murmurs and brief comments in response to the man's narration, I could tell there were two other people with him in the booth behind me: a man and a woman. The story teller's companions gave every indication that they were taking his tale at face value.

“One time this girl I know was having a big fight with her boyfriend and she asked me to put a curse on him. She heard I could do it. I told her, ‘Sure, no problem. Can you give me something that belongs to him?’ She gave me his business card. I didn't take it too seriously at first, but later I found the business card in my pocket and remembered, so I put a hex on the boyfriend. Not even an hour later this same girl called me up and tried to call it off. ‘You didn't do it yet, did you?’ I told her I had and she tried to make a joke of it, that it was only in fun, but I told her it was too late to go back on it. The next day he was called in for an IRS audit that ended up costing him tens of thousands of dollars.”

Now I was diligently taking mental notes and paying no attention to the novel in my hand. The man behind me was blithely telling his companions that he casually kills or impoverishes people whenever it suits him. I was having a bit of difficulty figuring a couple of things out. First, did he really believe he had these powers? And, second, how could he be so casual about the apparent consequences if he believed himself responsible for them? I was eavesdropping on a psychic sociopath.

“My sister says she thinks that Mom was a witch and that I inherited that from her.” For the first time, the man's story elicited more than a mutter or one-word sentence from his companions. The woman said, “Well, I remember that she had that Ouija board.”

“Yeah, that's right. Mom had that Ouija board and some books, too. Books that I read. And I learned stuff. It must be true because things just keep happening. A friend of mine told me that she was planning to go to Reno but usually didn't do very well. She asked me if I could do good things to people, not just bad, and I said I didn't know but I could try. She said she wanted to do better in Reno, so I asked her to give me a hundred dollar bill. She looked in her purse, but only pulled out a dollar. Okay, I figured I could double that pretty easily, so I took the dollar with me and put a hex on it for good luck. Later I drove over to a restaurant and right in the middle of that big parking lot I found a dollar, right on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Well, this must be her dollar,’ so I put it with the one I already had. When she came back from Reno she told me she hadn't done very well and won only a few dollars, so I said, ‘Well, here are two more dollars for you,’ and told her how I got the other dollar.”

I had been wondering if the man was a con artist working some marks, but at least one of his companions already knew him or his family, so I continued to be perplexed. The request for a hundred dollar bill had seemed suspicious, but now seemed just part of the story. I had finished my meal, but I still had some papers on the table that I had been grading before my pasta arrived. I shuffled them a bit and kept myself occupied. The man was telling a story of working sales and support at his place of employment, and the times he needed to put curses on people who wanted free service for out-of-warranty goods and discounts on goods that they themselves had damaged in the store. He couldn't be sure, though, how many of them had died or been audited. Apparently his magical powers were limited in that way.

I gathered my papers and my book and prepared to leave. Since the exit was behind me, it was necessary for me to turn in the direction of the people I had overheard. The hex man was older than I had expected from the sound of his voice, probably in his mid to late thirties, with short hair that seemed prematurely gray. Perhaps that's a side-effect of his psychic powers. He glanced at me briefly as I moved past the table and out of the restaurant.

Jeepers. I hope he didn't put a hex on me.

The care and feeding of trolls

First you take a 2 × 4 ...

Like any ecosystem, the blogosphere is inhabited by a wide variety of species, each highly adapted to its own specialized niche. Many of the blogosphere's residents are timid lurkers who scuttle about as quietly as possible. There's a smaller group, however, whose denizens are more visible, leaving their spoor behind them as they track through the blog environs that suit them best. A tiny group sits at the top of the blogosphere ecology, holding sway over vast domains, the über-bloggers who attract the most attention, adulation, criticism, and hits.

One of the tiniest groups of all, however, comprises the creatures commonly known as trolls. While they might spend much of their time lurking, when the impulse strikes them they cannot resist bursting out from the underbrush and raising a cacophonous wail. Some even appear to have the power to maintain their screeching without ever drawing breath. In some cases, the only way to deal with them is to put them quickly out of their misery. However, that runs counter to the prevailing culture in the blogosphere, which is strongly inclined toward maximizing free speech and the untrammeled exchange of ideas. The true troll, however, doesn't have any ideas to exchange and engages in the mere semblance of debate. It can be a wonder to behold.

The troll is not an entirely new phenomenon. He appears to be a lineal descendant of the crank, a genus whose species can be found infesting almost every field of human endeavor. Martin Gardner documented many cases of scientific cranks in his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, first published in 1952. In his introductory chapter, Gardner looked back at one of his distinguished predecessors, recounting an example whose implications for today are as significant as they were a century ago:
Even on the subject of the shape of the earth, a layman may find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. “Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him”; writes Shaw, “and having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered to be unanswerable.”
Today's blog troll has the same thick skin as the crank of old and often retains the crank's skill of leaving his opponents spluttering in frustration. So far as answering questions is concerned, however, the modern troll is less concerned with answering them as evading them. This convenient adaption makes it possible for the troll to forage among the comment threads and leave his imprint even though the teeth of his arguments are very dull indeed.

A fascinating case of a lumberingly impervious troll occurred recently on Pharyngula, the biology and science blog maintained by Professor Paul Z. Myers of the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota. Professor Myers styles himself as “PZ” and almost everyone follows suit in so addressing him. PZ subjected himself to the ordeal of reading the anti-evolution chapters in Godless, the new book by right-wing demagogue Ann Coulter. Coulter's stock in trade is unbridled screeching at the top of her lungs, preferring heat to light. Her act has reaped monetary rewards from the extremist fringe of society (which unfortunately has way too much political power these days), and I suspect it's opportunism rather than sincere belief that motivates her. No matter. Coulter decided to enlist in the evolution wars on the side of the creationists and PZ thought it reasonable to dissect her arguments. None of them survived PZ's deft vivisection.

Enter the trolls

PZ was immediately attacked by droves of Coulterites, at least those able to type out quick messages on their keyboards before their drool short-circuited the electronics. Without exception, the attacks lacked any intellectual heft. They offered abuse rather than reason. PZ responded with a challenge, which he discussed in a follow-up post:
Responses to my challenge at the end of this article are trickling in, but so far, none of them are filling the bill. Let me explain what is not an appropriate reply:
  • Cackling that Coulter must be right because she's got “liberal panties in a twist” is not cogent.
  • Telling me that the “WHOLE BOOK PROVES LIBERALS ARE THE PROBLEM WITH AMERICA” is not cogent.
  • Promising to pray for me, or assuring me that I will burn in hell, is not cogent.
  • Explicit details about how Ann Coulter is sexier than “fat harry hippie jew girls” is not cogent.
Here's the simple summary. Ann Coulter has written this long book full of creationist gobbledygook. I can't possibly take the whole thing apart, so I'm asking the Coulter fans to get specific in their support. Pick a paragraph that you agree with and that you believe makes a strong, supportable point about science—anything from chapters 8-11 will do. Don't be vague, be specific. I'll reply with details of my disagreement (or heck, maybe you'll find some innocuous paragraph that I agree with—I'll mention that here, too.)

Because the letters I am getting suggest that those fans have some comprehension problems, I'll spell it out.
  1. Read Coulter's book, Godless. (uh-oh, I may have just filtered out 90% of her fans with that first word.)
  2. Pick ONE paragraph from chapters 8-11 that you think is just wonderfully insightful, and that you agree with entirely.
  3. Open up your email software, and compose a message to me. You can use a pseudonym, but please do use a valid email address. I won't publish your address, but I'm not going to reply to people I can't contact.
  4. Type in the paragraph that you think is solid and believable. Yeah, it's a tiny bit of work, but it'll save me the trouble of typing it in myself. You're a believer, it's worth it, right?
  5. Explain briefly why you think this paragraph is good stuff. If you want to explain a little bit of the context in justification, that's good too.
  6. Send it to me.
That's not so hard now, is it? I'm finding that Coulter fans are fervent and enthusiastic and insistent, so asking them to take baby steps with me and show me the simplest first fragments that will lead to my comprehension of the wit and insight of the faboo Ms Coulter shouldn't be too much to ask.
PZ's clarification was just what the doctor ordered. The results were practically instantaneous and virtually miraculous (not actually miraculous, because there's no such things as miracles—except possibly for the fact that Coulter still has any credibility left):
Coulter Challenge status, day 4

Official number of attempts to address my challenge of the science in Coulter's book:


I seem to have drawn in one Coulter fan in the comments who can't shut up, but he hasn't got the guts to stand up for anything specific that she has said.
As you can see, PZ was essentially correct when he surmised that the conditions of his challenge were too restrictive. The Coulterites were fulsome in their praise of their harridan heroine, but they hadn't actually read her book or—if they had—deduced any reasons why her arguments might have any actual validity. However, as he noted, one lone, brave Coulter fan had not quit the field. Sure, he hadn't read the book and he couldn't offer any reasons why her point of view had any merit, but he lumbered bravely into battle time and again with PZ's minions. As epics go, the struggle of Tumbler against his goddess's detractors was more like a saga in its stubborn length than it its stirring clash of arms, but it had its amusing moments. Herewith are some excerpts, beginning with insults hurled by some of the Pharyngula commenters, including yours truly:
You gave them a five or six step procedure. Word is they're busy setting up research on how to count beyond three.

Posted by: Arun Gupta | June 20, 2006 08:38 PM

Has everyone seen the footage of Coulter running, arms akimbo, hands flapping in fear, away from that thrown pie? (Not that I advocate throwing things at speakers, mind you.) I guess that's what her defenders are doing now—bravely running away.

Posted by: Kristine | June 20, 2006 09:08 PM
Word is they're busy setting up research on how to count beyond three.
To be fair, you know, the Coulterites are very, very devout. How can they count beyond three when they always try to obey holy scripture?

Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.
Posted by: Zeno | June 20, 2006 09:09 PM

Funny, Zeno. After reading Kristine's comment I was think[ing] “brave Sir Robin.”

Digby also has a post up from a troll who sent a long defense of Coulter.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope | June 20, 2006 09:25 PM

Giving credence to Gupta, Zeno and Kristine is blanket endorsement of the modest university standards they've taken for an education. At least Coulter had no qualms about quoting from Mein Kampf, banshee that she is. That means she reads sometimes. They grow bored when they try to read. C students and party animals who have but one rule. Cheap shot.

Over at Arianna's blog some of the others thought they had Ann's number: calling her a tranny, a man, a beast with an Adam's-apple; you know. Constructive criticism. Nobody had any rebuttal of her outrageous opinions. Just diatribe and vituperation.

Posted by: tumbler | June 20, 2006 10:49 PM
Tumbler's arrival in the thread looked at first as if it might just be a quick exercise in solemn finger-wagging. We were to learn different. While Tumbler has a point about the value of invective when it comes to making an argument, he has entirely missed the key fact that Coulter's diatribe had already been demolished by PZ. We were merely dancing about the funeral pyre. Tumbler, however, was not ready to give any evidence that it was still alive.

Attack of the party animals
Over at Arianna's blog some of the others thought they had Ann's number: calling her a tranny, a man, a beast with an Adam's-apple; you know. Constructive criticism. Nobody had any rebuttal of her outrageous opinions. Just diatribe and vituperation.
Are you seriously expecting that? Constructive criticism in the comments of a blog that already provides enough criticism? I can't help but wonder what your point is. Are you saying that random commenters haven't done much more that comment randomly (surprise! and welcome to the Internet), or are you saying the because goofballs from around the world say goofy things nobody has provided any real criticism of Ann Coulter? (Psst! The comments are preceded by the actual posts. And welcome again to the Internet. You'll find that it's nothing like your strange assumptions. Also that there's lots of porn.)

Posted by: pough | June 21, 2006 02:03 AM

Dear me, I've been outed as a party animal! I have to share this with my tiny group of friends, who will be much amused. Anyway, tumbler is totally wrong: I was a B student! At Caltech. (Yay! Party school!)

Posted by: Zeno | June 21, 2006 02:08 AM


I know you went to Caltech and all, so I feel compelled to clear this up:

"We deliver kegs" on every store within two miles of campus (including stationers and TV repair places): Party School.

30-year-old D&D games continuing under Fleming: not so much.

Posted by: Llelldorin | June 21, 2006 05:27 AM

Welcome to the club, Zeno, for I've been outed as a party animal malapropist with a C average. News to me, and to my transcripts.

BTW, I have read Mein Kampf. All English Lit party animals have to. I will admit that it put me right to sleep.

Posted by: Kristine | June 21, 2006 08:51 AM

Let us get this straight. Just because Ms. Coulter quotes Mein Kampf, that absolutely does not mean she has read it. She is the quote miners quote miner. If a snippet of text, totally out of context or not, will fit her thesis, she will use it.

Posted by: DouglasG | June 21, 2006 09:46 AM

I'm sure I have the greatest respect for Ann Coulter :-) :-) ; but I don't think her supporters can count beyond three.

BTW, Greetings, Zeno, I too was a Caltecher—a graduate student, though.

Posted by: Arun Gupta | June 21, 2006 09:39 PM
Tumbler came back for more. We were perfectly willing to oblige, but the exchange was beginning to pall:
I can't call myself a Coulterite, but I'm liberal enough to put some anti-Coulterites here down.

These are the diversity set; in favor of all diversity except Republicans and Christians. They'll defend my right to say something when they really hate what I say. —Not.

She's a piece of work. No, I haven't yet read Godless: But every Thursday she has her column featured in Drudge, and I love to read that. Makes me happy because she's on my side, at a comical tangent.

Tons more clever than Doonesbury, whose work is certainly insensitive. Was she shocking; about the Jersey Girls, etc., —? ? ? A little. George Clooney made light of another man's Alzheimer's diagnosis (Chuck Heston) and there was no Liberal hissy-fit. He makes more money, and has many admirers. I like George. Cool Ann is entitled to some money and fans for her tactless barrages.

Posted by: tumbler | June 21, 2006 11:28 PM
Greetings, Zeno, I too was a Caltecher—a graduate student, though.
Oh, a Tech grad student! Arun, I humbly make obeisance before my master and render the sign of the Big T. ;-)

Posted by: Zeno | June 21, 2006 11:33 PM
They'll defend my right to say something when they really hate what I say. —Not.
My, my, my; tumbler is wrong again. Card-carrying ACLU member here, buddy. I staunchly defend your right to say any silly-ass thing you wish to say (unless you're keen to offer sectarian prayers at a public school graduation, in which case, screw you). Defending your right to speak whatever you like, however, is not the same thing as agreeing to refrain from pointing out its silly-assness.

P.S.: About that “Not”, buddy. The post-fix negation operator is so over.

Posted by: Zeno | June 21, 2006 11:39 PM

Dear Zeno:

I wasn't accusing the ACLU, of not caring. The defenders of diversity (It makes us strong) is who Um talking about. Have I said a silly-ass thang? I never say much else. But take it for what it's worth.

I defend your right to undress too. Ugh.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 12:53 AM
As one might have expected by now, Tumbler insisted on missing the point of my remark about my defense of his right to prate nonsense. Oh, he wasn't talking about me, he wasn't talking about the ACLU, he was talking about some other people. Those “diversity” people over there. Not any of the nice people who were whomping on him at Pharygnula.
The present-day Democrat party numbers many demagogic members like Kristine; always purloining somebody else's wisdom (Hoffer) in order to smear you. It's just a wonder she's not laying genocide, in fact, at Cool Ann's doorstep. But it's enough for now to say, “That's Coulter, I agree.” This is called a lock-step to that old party-line.

It's past her to identify the left she upholds now as Lenin's useful idiots of old-timer's Life mag.

Speaking for myself, I admire the Soviet society that lived under a despot, consumed by fear that the children in their own house would denounce them to the NKVD. It actually happened, and so did gulags.

Thanks to Reagan's bold negotiations and John Paul II's spiritual leadership in Poand, better times arrived for them. In fact, religion, which the Comintern thought was cooked forever, is reborn in that society. (Must be caused by the next stage in evolution of the species.) I like to contemplate these events as I do here now. I've been listening to Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony as I surf Kristine's erudition; conducted by, of all musicians, a German born in the late 30's.

Anyway, Coulter and I do not deserve being associated with Hitler's or Mussolini's crimes. We're Americans. And we have the first ammendment to keep us safe from demagogues' futile finger-pointing.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 11:10 AM

I most certainly did not associate you with Hitler, tumbler, and I would advise you to be very careful how personal that you decide to get in this forum.

Posted by: Kristine | June 22, 2006 11:39 AM

Dear Dylan,

I thank you for sending me a link to the interview by Mr. Paxman. I enjoyed that.

Ironically, my considered opinion is, Yes; he was never aggressive or antagonistic with Ann Coulter.

I even appreciated his Brit pronunciation of Coulter; using my own preferred style. I call her Cool Ann and Paxman says Cool-tair. Obviously to my taste.

But for someone to say he disparaged her, or made her seem a fool; and “she was unprepared—” isn't remotely true. Her replies showed NO qualms, no hesitation and were even startling in their relentless calm.

You say she's hardly known in Britain. But if her book moves, and it will, it'll explain clearly what she's all about. Considering that England is much more a reader's country than ours, where nobody likes anything but bodice-busters—the public will appreciate Coulter. I know I do.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 11:42 AM

Dear Kristine:

You yourself only agreed with PaulC. He went far along those demagogic lines, or maybe I'm over-reacting. All he says is, “Maybe they would not have gone along with genocide, but it's easy to imagine Coulter in an earlier day gushing over parades of those ‘wholesome’ young people in Italy and Germany.” To which you say, “Yeah. That's Coulter.”

You know it's a weasel's way of defaming Coulter and her “ilk”—as others around here say—as Neo-Nazis. Her American style, popular enough today everywhere, is made to seem outrageous and fascist. Only Coulter isn't at war with liberalism as much as she's satirizing it. People like Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock and a few others do it every day. They do it to Republicans, religious Americans, and talk show hosts. These are your gang; folks Ann calls Godless. And many are. Not all, but VERY many.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 12:00 PM

“Being associated” is such a vague term that I'm not sure anyone can escape it. The GOP's favorite comic Dennis Miller never lost an opportunity a few years back to associate people like me with Neville Chamberlain's appeasement and indirectly Hitler's invasion of Poland. I mention him rather than Coulter only because I don't have any handy citations from her comparing Iraq war opponents to Chamberlain, whereas it was a well known part of Miller's schtick.

Speaking of what the first amendment actually does as opposed to what you think it does, its effect is to keep Miller safe from any repercussions to making this kind of “association” whether I deserve it or not. And that's a good thing. I'm not sure what part of the constitution you think keeps us safe from demagogues; the Bill of Rights allows demagoguery because suppressing it would hurt other forms of political speech. The first amendment is not a scapular that one wears to ward off those pesky demagogues, but a very brave declaration that rights will be upheld even when they cause us inconvenience.

Obviously, neither you nor Coulter is responsible for the rise of Hitler. For that matter, I think very few people that have ever lived (including Ann Coulter) would be able to countenance Hitler's crimes with full understanding. It is, however, a matter of historical record that a lot of people rationalized the worst bits away at the time and admired the parades, the industry, and up to a point the anti-semitism. Before the US joined WWII, there were all too many Americans among them. So declaring oneself an "American" is no protection from being associated with Hitler. The fact that Coulter, myself, and probably you were not alive at the time is sufficient protection.

Note: there were many foolish people on the left who admired Stalin and were willing to soft-pedal the atrocity that was China's cultural revolution under Mao. Again, I wasn't alive and don't “deserve” to be associated with them. Oddly, that doesn't seem to stop Coulter from somehow linking everything she does not like to “Darwinism” in her latest opus.

Posted by: PaulC | June 22, 2006 12:06 PM

Very good rationalzations, Paul;

OK— you're clearly a man whom I could trust. If you conceded such a trait to me, you'd be half-way to understanding Ann Coulter. The fact you don't understand her, and have cast her in the meanest possible mold, leads me to think you find evil traits sticking out all over us conservatives.

I find conversing here with you, above-average intelligent as you seem, very stimulating. You're entitled to your prejudices. Ann Coulter is also entitled. I am almost 70 years old now, and have a great depth of experience to share; as well as an above average way of understanding. And it's mainly because I recall as a 7 yr-old, the pressures upon our country which WWII exerted. I remember Pearl Harbor; and my mother sending a box of fudge to my uncle in the Solomon Islands, etc., —and so— I'm amused at Coulter stating balls-out, “Invade their countries, kill and conquer and convert them to Christianity ...” She speaks like a brat without fear. It's funny!

Just like referring to W as “chimp” and “shrub” is meant humorously. It also descends into stupidity as we hear many Dems and Libs saying vile things about Barbara Bush, or making it appear we went to Iraq only for OIL. It hasn't even an appearance of good humor to say the things they all say at Huffingtinpost Blog. Every fourth word filthy and filled with loathing. (And, yes. They're protected by the 1st ammendment. But they AREN'T amusing, as Ann Coulter is amusing. They're dirty.)

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 12:55 PM

All good things must come to an end—bad things, too

Although Tumbler had poured many, many words into the comment thread (I haven't even included all of them here in these excerpts!), people at PZ's blog are mostly smart enough to notice when we're getting lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It seems to me this thread has strayed very far from PZ's original intent; he wants a Coulter fan (that eliminates me) to offer up a passage from chapters 8-11, and then show why he/she supports said passage.

Here's your opportunity, tumbler. I humbly suggest that you have your chance, right here and now, to show us.

I cannot do so, because in spite of reading 10 or so books a year, I refuse to buy a Coulter book.

Let's right this ship and allow tumbler to defend Coulter in the manner PZ described. That's what this thread is all about, right?

Posted by: MikeM | June 22, 2006 06:45 PM

Quite right. Money, mouth, etc.

Posted by: Righteous Bubba | June 22, 2006 06:54 PM

Good point. I thought it was a fairly straightforward request, yet Tumbler babbles on and never makes the effort to address it.

Posted by: PZ Myers | June 22, 2006 07:18 PM

Holy cow; I haven't bought a single one of Cool Ann's books. I only read her out of a weekly column on Thursdays.

Why do I have the sneaky feeling this is a big BREAK for youse guys? For P.Z., apparently a person of integrity and good instincts; who had expected nobody on earth could save Cool Ann from his dissecting skills. Just bring it on! Now that I—Moi, cannot deliver her creepy character up for him to carve up, —off the page, as it were— Coulter can't be touched. Unless another reader can supply PZ with the material. I hope so; in order for me to play referee while she's tag-teamed in this Pharyngular match.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 07:31 PM

Tumbler, you are incoherent; you are deranged; you are making random noises.

If you haven't read Coulter's book, shut up. Trying to defend her when you haven't read it is just obnoxious.

Just for you, though, you could try citing something from those articles by her that you read for free. Extract some of her ‘science’ and defend it—but keep up this vapid twittering about nothing and yeah, I'll ban your butt.

Posted by: PZ Myers | June 22, 2006 07:48 PM
Bloodied, but unbowed, Tumbler continued to talk past everyone who tried to discuss things with him. The topic of Coulter's arguments against evolution were continually evaded. He was a most attractive nuisance to many of the commenters on the blog, people who wanted to engage in a debate and kept trying even after Tumbler's numerous demonstrations that he had no intention of ever addressing the substance of the issue before the assembled multitudes. He jumped to another thread, where he finally copped the “more in sorrow than anger” attitude, and shuffled out the door. For the dwindling number still reading, it was a kind of conclusion, but you still felt that someone who could string words together should also be able to engage in an argument. As one commenter noted, however, it was like the Monty Python sketch. We were saying, “I came here for an argument!”, whereupon Graham Chapman politely informs that we're talking to the wrong man: “Oh, I'm sorry. This is abuse!”
Please, PZ, I haven't shut up thus far—because in these grounds no one except me has the ability or impetus to keep you honest. Everybody's your liberal crony. You'd crow with wild abandon were it not for a single voice HERE, opposite this narcissism you consider above repoach [sic]. As for guts; I've given Pharyngula enough hell for one man; and you & your cohorts never seem to bring me to heel; you only retort with animosity. While I, because I realize this is private property, take care not to be too feisty or abrasive. You'd just silence me the same as Arianna has; knowing perfectly well there's no reasonable way to rebut me. You'd axe my entry into this blog like cowards. Can't face honest competition. And I'm not even pretending to be a doctor or professor. Strange how you've had to recoil at the straightforward posts of one self-educated Christian & conservative. You were supposed to bang me up with flair, and you whimper because I don't “shut up.” OK, if I haven't read the book we're quarreling about—it's not on account of you. You haven't intimidated me. But why are you claiming to be unchallenged? Do you think this blog had national importance enough to draw fire from all 52 [sic] states? Don't flatter yourself. Take what you're offered.

Posted by: tumbler | June 22, 2006 11:58 PM
Gee, what exactly did Tumbler think he was offering? A lively but brief discussion ensued concerning the possible identity of the two extra mystery states cited by Tumbler. He stuck around for a while longer, persistently offering his credentials and quoting some Italian phrases to demonstrate his expertise in opera. He didn't exactly clear the room (hey, I like opera!), but it was more of the same—always off-point and always impervious.

Tumbler really needs to find a nice bridge to live under. Venturing into the light certainly did not suit him.

Update: Good old Tumbler found himself a second wind. I declare it takes him longer to say goodbye than Cher's farewell tour. At last count, the Coulter Challenge status, day 4 post has 180 comments, with Tumbler still in excellent form for dodge-ball. “Bang! You're dead!” “No, you missed me!” “No, I didn't!” “Yes, you did!” The rest writes itself.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The fumbling finger of God

His mysterious ways

Colorado state legislator Ted Harvey is a “pro-life hero” according to Barbara McGuigan, the host of the anti-abortion segment of EWTN's Open Line talk-radio program. A resolution was pending at the state capitol to recognize and honor the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Rocky Mountain branch of Planned Parenthood. Harvey saw an opportunity for a publicity stunt, stealthily arranging to have an anti-abortion activist appear as his guest at the legislative session. Harvey's guest was a young woman who had survived being prematurely born as the result of an attempted late-term abortion; she had grown up to become a singer. After Harvey arranged to have her sing the national anthem at the Colorado House of Representatives session, he turned his introduction of her into an attack on the Planned Parenthood resolution before being gaveled down as being out of order. (He was using the time granted for introduction of guests to address measures pending before the house.) His account of his ploy was soon thereafter featured on his campaign website, where he said the whole event was “orchestrated” by God.

McGuigan devoted a large chunk of her June 20, 2006, broadcast to a phone interview with Representative Harvey, lauding him for his efforts to oppose what she called the “heinous resolution” to honor a “legacy of genocide.” She gushingly introduced him and welcomed him to the program:
I can't thank you enough and let's try to get all the details. We want to hear it all, Ted. I remember a very wonderful priest that I know always says nothing happens by accident.


Whoops! I think we might have lost him. Hopefully he'll be able to get us back.

Anyway the holy Russian priest that I just met said he who believes in accidents does not believe in God, so that was not an accident that we lost Ted Harvey. So hopefully he will be able to get back to us.
A little while later, Harvey was able to re-establish his phone connection to Open Line, after which the interview continued without further intervention by God. McGuigan chortled with glee throughout the conversation, celebrating the initiative that Harvey had taken against the Planned Parenthood resolution. After devoting a quarter hour to her lovefest with Representative Harvey, McGuigan moved on to her next guest. Curiously enough, however, neither hostess nor guest thought to share with the radio audience “the rest of the story”:

Senate Joint Resolution 06-044 was passed by both houses of the Colorado legislature despite Ted Harvey's supposedly divinely inspired ploy.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lost & found in the Bermuda Triangle

It's Skeptics' Circle #37

Never mind the sea foam, the spinning magnetic compass needles, and the amphibious UFOs. It's the 37th meeting of Skeptics' Circle and it's right in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. Our hostess is the Autism Diva of California, so we should all be grateful that she was willing to travel all the way from the Golden State to the perilous waters of notorious geometry.

Speaking of geometry—to say nothing of golden—and matters mysterious, we are pleased to report that Halfway There is on the roster for this skeptical outing. The diva chose to include Phi: Good to the last decimal, a discourse on the use and abuse of the golden ratio in Dan Brown's recent bestseller. (Sorry, I forget its title.)

Go join the fun!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Forgetting David

Erased from history

David's been gone for about fifty years. Sorry, but I can't even give you accurate numbers. About fifty years is the best I can manage. This goes back to a time, very early in my life, when my memories are vague and inchoate. It was similarly very early in David's life, but also very late. The people who know the details aren't talking, and I dare not ask them.

It was startling to remember. More accurately, to remember that I don't remember much of anything. The reminder, if it comes at all, comes in the form of news reports. The start of the summer is always the time for news media to carry the first sad reports of children drowning in swimming pools, lakes, or rivers. In the rural community of my childhood, the extensive system of agricultural irrigation canals would routinely claim a few lives each year. Swimming pools were relatively rare, but there was one near David's house, next door in his grandparents' back yard.

He was not yet three when he discovered that he could reach the latch on the front gate of the fence that surrounding the home he shared with his parents and infant sister. That fence was the only thing separating him from the swimming pool, where he was found after it was already too late.

The decades of my life have been wonderfully insulated, for the most part, from tragic loss. It is not for me to judge how people deal with their grief. From my outsider's perspective, it seems that David's family decided he had never really existed. My family and his were quite close, visiting each other frequently, taking vacations together. I never saw a picture of him in his family's house and I never heard his name mentioned by his parents. It was a bit of a surprise to me when his third sister was born a few years later and I heard my parents comment that it appeared that their friends would never have “another” son. The remark was a shock to me, because I didn't remember him. Once, when her parents were out of the room, David's oldest sister confided that she thought she might have a tenuous recollection of her elder brother, but it could well have been her imagination.

Throughout my childhood, the swimming pool near our friends' home remained unfenced, a popular location for parties in the grandparents' back yard. In later years it finally acquired a chain-link fence. No one else ever drowned in it. I remember being in that pool a couple of times, but not often. I'm rather phobic toward bodies of water large enough to be immersed in. It's not at all clear to me that this aversion can be linked to any one particular cause, but I wonder.

David is gone so thoroughly from all of our lives that literally years can pass without my remembering that he once existed, although I did today. I doubt if the same thing is true for his parents or his three sisters, although only one of them has the least chance of recalling him from personal experience. You have to find a way to go on, and they have done that.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Blogger sure is screwed

June 17, 2006: Uploading pictures continues to be a hit-or-miss thing with Blogger, at least when I'm using Internet Explorer as my browser. I decided to try Firefox again and discovered that everything is smooth sailing. It's ridiculous that Blogger doesn't always work with IE, but one might speculate that part of the problem is IE's.

Rooting for the Enemy

A quagmire revisited

It was spring semester in 1971. I was sitting in the college library reading newspapers. After scanning Herb Caen's column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I read Art Hoppe. Suddenly the morning became memorable:
The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, “Good.”

And having said it, I realized the bitter truth: Now I root against my own country.
Even if you lived through the era of the Vietnam war, you may not recall the invasion of Laos. Although Hoppe cited the “Allied” invasion, it was a predominantly American endeavor, as with every other major military action in Indochina. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) In the third year of his presidency, Richard Nixon had decided the best way to win the Vietnam war was to expand it into adjacent nations, hence the incursion into Laos. With a fine lack of appreciation for the nature of the insurgency and guerrilla warfare, Nixon expected our troops to find and root out military sanctuaries sheltering North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong from the south. They found no such thing.
I have come to hate my country's role in Vietnam.

I hate the massacres, the body counts, the free fire zones, the napalming of civilians, the poisoning of rice crops. I hate being part of My Lai....

And I hate my leaders, who, over the years, have conscripted our young men and sent them there to kill or be killed in a senseless cause simply because they can find no honorable way out—no honorable way out for them....

It is a terrible thing to root against your own country. If I were alone, it wouldn't matter. But I don't think I am alone. I think many Americans must feel these same sickening emotions I feel. I think they share my guilt. I think they share my rage.
We are frequently told it is a mistake to try to draw comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, but comparisons are inevitable. Both conflicts were launched on pretexts later exposed as false (the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the case of Vietnam, the infamous “weapons of mass destruction” in the case of Iraq). In both wars critics of the federal administration were accused (and are being accused) of favoring the enemy. As Art Hoppe explained, however, “I don't root for the enemy.” Rather, “I hate what my country is doing....” Hoppe was rooting against the war and against the mendacious leaders who took us into it. The bitter truth is that the liars who lead us into disaster suffer no great consequences from their incompetence. We cannot take much satisfaction in being proved correct in our positions when confirmation comes in the form of casualties and body counts. George Bush ends up with lower approval numbers in the polls. The men and women in uniform end up dead or maimed in mind and body. Their suffering leaches all the smugness from shouting “I told you so, asshole!” at the president and his minions. We have anger. We do not have joy.

The super-patriots in the my-country-right-or-wrong crowd have a much easier job as they wave their flags and sing out the national anthem (getting the words wrong, of course). They viciously accuse war critics of demoralizing the troops (even though we receive messages from soldiers praying for a swift withdrawal) and encouraging us to work for the war's end. Some soldiers, of course, do hate it when the war effort is criticized, but they may be forgetting that the military used to be devoted to protecting American freedoms, not shutting them down when dissent becomes inconvenient. The super-patriots prefer instead to fetishize our unitary president as an undifferentiated amalgam of war leader, chief executive, and autocrat. All hail the great leader!

Bush in fantasy land

It would, in a way, be wonderful if the Bush idolators were correct and we were wrong. I don't for a moment believe that's true, because there is no credible evidence to support that happy conclusion. Such evidence would entail success in at least one of Bush's endeavors. Is the quick collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime an example of Bush success? In a limited way, yes, although the short-lived glow from that victory vanished in the chaotic aftermath. Furthermore, it raises a question. Why did Rumsfeld insist that a small military force was sufficient for this bold stroke? It suggests he knew that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction to unleash against the American troops.

Is the death of al-Zarqawi an example of Bush success? Only if you forgive the administration for sparing him in the run-up to the American invasion because his activities in northern Iraq were seen as an additional argument in favor of the Bush war plan. We could have taken him out much sooner.

Was Bush's quick trip into Baghdad the victory lap that his supporters said it was? Unfortunately for the administration's spinmeisters, the president's mad dash into and out of Iraq's capital city underscored the dangerously unpacified environment through which he scampered. There were ironic historical parallels, too, as noted in a Kos diary:
The Bush WH always rejects parallels to Vietnam. It's ironic, accordingly, that it created one of its own yesterday as part of its ongoing propaganda effort for an utterly misbegotten war.

W has, of course, made 2 visits to Iraq. Both of them were kept secret in advance, both of them were the geopolitical equivalent of airport fly-ins, and both were conducted solely for PR reasons. Both of them have a great deal in common w/ the 2 presidential visits to Vietnam....

LBJ visited Cam Ranh Bay on 10/26/66. His visit was to a highly secured area, and it only lasted a few hours. Its sole purpose was to support the myth that a corner was being turned in Vietnam.

Nixon visited Vietnam on 7/30/69. His visit, as I understand it, was kept secret in advance. It also lasted a few hours, and its purpose was also to support the myth that a corner was being turned in Vietnam.

These obvious historical parallels appear to have been missed in news coverage today.
Shades of Santayana!

I think I would be able to endure any embarrassment that I might experience if it were to turn out that Bush is the brilliant war leader that his apologists claim. It would be worth it. Rather than have the continuing opportunity to denounce a president I don't support, I'd much prefer to have my former students, based now in Iraq and Pakistan, back home safe and sound. When Bush screws up, they are the ones who get screwed.

Unfortunately, our nation's fate (and the world's) is to endure thirty months more of Bush disasters.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Time for an Education Carnival

Halfway There included in #71

The school term is at an end, summer vacation (or summer school!) is imminent, and the faculty is getting antsy. What better time for an end-of-year staff party? The 71st edition of Education Carnival is being hosted by The Science Goddess at What It's Like on the Inside. Our own Halfway There is represented by its entry on the notorious one-size-fits-all syllabus, which just goes to show that yours truly, Dr. Zeno, is not very good at thinking about summer vacation when matters educational are still on his brain.

The goddess has favored us with a cornucopia of ed-related stories, so toddle on over to the staff party in the multi-purpose room and see what the faculty is up to.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The one-size-fits-all syllabus

Rule 11: 1 through 10 don't matter

There must be a gene for archivism. I think I have it, no doubt inherited from my father. He has a basement, two garages, a large storage shed, and much of the back yard devoted to his treasures. Or junk, if you ask Mom. I fill shelves and other flat surfaces with books, magazines, folders, and papers. Lots of papers. I have over twenty years of course syllabi around here.

“Archivist” sounds so much better than “pack rat,” don't you agree?

When school is out, as it is now, I usually try halfheartedly to get my house in order. Every effort at tidying up is inevitably interrupted by the rediscovery of some precious item from the past. (Perhaps it's not an archivism gene. Perhaps it's a hunger for relics that was inculcated during my Catholic childhood.) Today was no different. While sorting the stacks into various porous categories, I found yet another cache of documents from the math department. There were meeting minutes, seniority lists, room charts, and syllabi, most of which were mine. But not all. I found the legendary one-size-fits-all syllabus, created in the forge of a late colleague's ire. I lifted up the single sheet of paper and read the famous words once again:
Mathematical Course, Procedures and Syllabus
Mr. Pxxxxx Gxxxxx

1. Textbook and material to be covered will be announced during the first class meeting.

2. Office hours will be announced during the first class meeting.

3. Attendance is mandatory.

4. Turning in homework is mandatory.

5. Excessive missed homework or excessive absences will result in the final grade lowered by one full grade.

6. Homework will not be returned. Students should make copies of their homework for their records.

7. Periodic unit examinations will be given throughout the semester and will be announced in advance. There will be at least 3 one hour test but no more than 7.

8. These exams will be corrected by the students in class.

9. A comprehensive 2 hour final exam will be given.

10. The final grade will be based on a class average basis as will any midterm grade.

11. Notwithstanding the above procedure, the instructor reserves the right to change any and all class procedures and topics discussed at any time. Students are responsible for any and all such changes as announced in class.
The document was a grainy nth-generation photocopy of a Courier typeface original. The senior colleague responsible for it had been goaded into action by the “gentle” reminders of the dean that all students were entitled to receive a syllabus on the first day of class. After decades of teaching in a style best described as extemporaneous—or maybe stream of consciousness—our colleague bridled at this administrative mandate.

His response, the eleven statements quoted above, provided the only syllabus he used for the balance of his career. Had he been thoughtful enough to omit his name and the word “mathematics” from the title, it could have served his colleagues in every department on campus. Copies did, indeed, circulate through every department on campus. Students who weren't even in any of his classes had copies, usually produced in response to their expressions of incredulity. Copies passed through many faculty offices, too.

I returned my copy of the one-size-fits-all syllabus to my collection of departmental memorabilia. I'm not sure what lesson it teaches us. In most respects, his masterpiece was the last gasp of a dying breed. My colleague was a departmental curmudgeon who seemed to regard every change in procedure as a personal affront. Sometimes I envied his supreme self-assurance, but other time I shook my head at his recalcitrance. Despite his position as a math teacher, he generated his grades in what one might charitably call a “holistic” rather than numeric way. The dean once threw his hands up in exasperation while trying to mediate a student grievance over grades when my colleague's gradebook turned out to have no numbers or averages in it, just a string of undocumented letter grades.

In many ways our colleague was a fascinating and cultured man, but one fiercely protective of his prerogatives. If he epitomized the “old school” approach, then we are probably well-served by its passing. My conclusion—once tentative but now quite firm—is that our colleague ultimately cared more for his convenience than the good of his students. He saw teaching as a special calling, but it devolved into a position of privilege. He was magisterial in his approach, but he gradually moved from the “authoritative” definition of magisterial to the sense of being overbearingly assured. Our careers overlapped during the years when he had assumed that definitively lordly aspect. That's an example I can learn from, and a progression I can strive to avoid. I must not emulate him.

Oh, and his office? A right mess, it was. Stacks of books and papers on every shelf and flat surface. That reminds me...

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Phi: Good to the last decimal

Procrustean proportion in The Da Vinci Code

Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.

Pensées, Blaise Pascal
Dan Brown knows the value of the Golden Ratio, correctly citing it to three decimal places as 1.618. However, as I noted in my earlier post on The Da Vinci Code, I laughed out loud as I read through Robert Langdon's lecture on the importance and significance of this number. As in so many other places in his book, Brown starts with a kernel of truth and then stretches it all out of proportion. This is particularly a pity in the case of the Golden Ratio, where the truth by itself is remarkable enough.

Mathematicians know that the Golden Ratio is closely tied up with the endless list of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence. Since the Fibonacci sequence provides a model for many aspects of nature, it stands to reason that the Golden Ratio is similarly significant. For convenience, mathematicians usually refer to the Golden Ratio as phi (commonly pronounced fee), the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet, also rendered as φ. Other names for φ include Divine Proportion, Golden Section, and Golden Number. It would seem that people are impressed by it.

The Golden Ratio has geometric properties that are intimately tied up with the the number 5. If a five-pointed star is inscribed in a regular pentagon, φ will turn up time and again as the ratio of pairs of sides. In the accompanying figure, the ratio a/b is φ, where a is the line highlighted in red and b is one side of the enclosing pentagon. It also turns out that b/c equals φ, where c is the line segment highlighted in green. Notice that the inscribed star has as its center a small pentagon, which immediately suggests the possibility of inscribing a smaller star and continuing the process. Indeed, in theory we could cascade forever into smaller and smaller pentagons and stars, all exhibiting φ in various ratios.

Blown out of proportion

Thus the mathematical properties of φ are genuine, as is its role in many natural processes that involve scaling or Fibonacci patterns. However, speaking through Robert Langdon, Brown quickly goes astray as he overstates the role of the Golden Ratio in nature and art. Here's an excerpt from the nature hype in Langdon's lecture:
“Nobody understood better than Da Vinci the divine structure of the human body.... He was the first to show that the human body is literally made of building blocks whose proportional ratios always equal PHI....”

“Measure the distance from the tip of your head to the floor. Then divide that by the distance from your belly button to the floor. Guess what you get.”

“Not PHI!” one of the jocks blurted out in disbelief.

“Yes, PHI,” Langdon replied. “One-point-six-one-eight. Want another example? Measure the distance from your shoulder to your fingertips, and then divide it by the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. PHI again. Another? Hip to floor divided by knee to floor. PHI again. Finger joints. Toes. Spinal divisions. PHI. PHI. PHI. My friends, each of you is a walking tribute to the Divine Proportion.”
Uh, wrong! These claims are ridiculous. Brown gives φ to three decimal places, but no one can reasonably compute body proportions to that degree of accuracy. It's bogus.

Although I do not usually consider myself an applied mathematician, I fearlessly collected the tape measure from my tool box and checked the ratio of my full height to my navel height. It's 1.75. A lot of my height is in my legs, so it turns out my navel is 3.426 inches too high for divine proportionality. (Now you know my secret shame.) As for my arms, the ratio of arm length to forearm length is 1.7. Yes, my forearms are too short. I am a veritable monster, escaped from a fun-house mirror.

But is it art?

Once we start talking about ideal proportions, of course, one's mind naturally turns to thoughts of art. Where else would beautiful proportions be more important?
“The mysterious magic inherent in the Divine Proportion was written at the beginning of time. Man is simply playing by Nature's rules, and because art is man's attempt to imitate the beauty of the Creator's hand, you can imagine we might be seeing a lot of instances of the Divine Proportion in art this semester.”

Over the next half hour, Langdon showed them slides of artwork by Michelangelo, Albrecht Dürer, Da Vinci, and many others, demonstrating each artist's intentional and rigorous adherence to the Divine Proportion in the layout of his compositions. Langdon unveiled PHI in the architectural dimensions of the Greek Parthenon, the pyramids of Egypt, and even the United Nations Building in New York. PHI appeared in the organizational structures of Mozart's sonatas, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as well as the works of Bartók, Debussy, and Schubert.”
Pretty impressive, wouldn't you agree? I wouldn't. It's more nonsense.

George Markowsky, professor of computer science at the University of Maine, took at hard look at claims about φ in Misconceptions about the Golden Ratio, published in the January 1992 issue of The College Math Journal. He cites several authors who were unskeptically enthusiastic about the supposed presence of the Divine Proportion in the façade of the Parthenon.
To support this claim authors often include a figure like Figure 6 where the large rectangle enclosing the end view of the Parthenon-like temple is a golden rectangle. None of these authors is bothered by the fact that parts of the Parthenon are outside the golden rectangle.... The dimensions of the Parthenon vary from source to source probably because different authors are measuring between different points. With so many numbers available a golden ratio enthusiast could choose whatever numbers gave the best result.
Markowsky isn't kidding. If you think he has deliberately done a bad job of boxing in the Parthenon in a golden rectangle, as in the accompanying figure (which I scanned directly from his article), then check out the examples that Golden Ratio fans have themselves posted: Example 1, Example 2, Example 3. No one seems concerned when the edges of the Parthenon's pedestal are clipped off to make the ratio work out.

There's a similar problems with the alleged presence of the Golden Ratio in Da Vinci's famous unfinished portrait of St. Jerome: you have to cut off his arm to make it fit.

A little geometry

There are many different ways to construct the Golden Ratio, one of the simplest involving nothing more complicated than a square and a nicely chosen circle. One begins with a square that is 2 units on each side. Bisect the square vertically and consider the diagonal (in red) of the resulting rectangle on the right. By means of the Pythagorean theorem, we know that x2 = 12 + 22 = 1 + 4 = 5, so x = √5. If we construct a circle of radius √5, as shown, it will intersect the horizontal line extended from the base of the original square. Use that intersection point as the vertex of a rectangle that incorporates the original square. We see that the rectangle has a base of length of 1 + √5 and a height of length 2. With a handy calculator, one can ascertain that the ratio of the height to the base of our rectangle is (1 + √5)/2 ≈ 1.618.

Now that we know the exact value of φ, the expression involving √5, we could easily write out more decimal places. However, one of the lessons of this piece is that three decimal places is way too much for the fanciful applications of the Golden Ratio, where such precision makes no sense at all, and it's way too little for the true applications, where φ is the companion of infinity. Remember that the Fibonacci sequence goes on forever, as does the geometrical construction of nested stars and pentagons.

And that's only the beginning.

For further reading

For a rational treatment of one of history's most famous irrational numbers, check out Mario Livio's The Golden Ratio. Livio has worked through the fact and fiction in Golden Ratio lore and produced a readable account of the number's importance. The truth about φ is impressive in its own right, even without the embellishments of the credulous. A good on-line summary of the confusion over φ is available at The Cult of the Golden Ratio at Laputan Logic, where the writer checks out both the Parthenon and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Rehabilitating a lie

Now it's truthiness!

The right-wing extremists think we're idiots. Well, Bush is still president, so I suppose they have a point. Nevertheless, KSFO's Melanie Morgan isn't just pushing the envelope on this one. She's torn it all to bits. Today she sent out a breathless message to her Move America Forward mailing list:
I'm sure you've heard the big news coming out of Iraq this morning—the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, has been killed in an air strike launched by the incomparable and unstoppable men and women of the United States military.

The anti-war contingent of our “mainstream” news media are devastated this morning, as this successful mission flies in the face of everything they've been telling you. They've falsely reported that there is NO connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, so how can they tell you that the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been killed? They tell you that U.S. Troops are failing, that they are in a quagmire, that they are reduced to animalistic acts of torture and mayhem. But today's mission was the result of months of hard work and planning by our brave troops.

When it comes to the war on terrorism, the media is WRONG, and our troops and Commander in Chief have been RIGHT. It's time to watch that great video by the patriotic group, “The Right Brothers,” again. You know the song, it's “Bush Was Right.” Come on—go watch it right now.
As an anti-war, anti-Bush liberal, I guess I was supposed to be upset this morning. Oh, no! My hero al-Zarqawi is dead! Boo hoo! Alas and alack!

Let's keep this short and sweet: al-Zarqawi was a terrorist and his death is a good thing. Congratulations to the U.S. forces who finally nailed him. However, his main reason for being in Iraq was to exploit the opportunity provided to him by George W. Bush and the incompetent administration officials who put together our foolish incursion into Iraq. (These are the same people now working up plans to attack Iran just before the November elections.) Before we invaded, there was essentially no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq. Why? Because Saddam's regime was secular and Osama bin Laden is a religious extremist. To put it mildly, Saddam and Osama were not fond of each other. If any al-Qaeda operatives were in Iraq (al-Zarqawi hung out in the “no fly” zone, which was outside of Baghdad's control), it would have been to undermine Saddam Hussein and advance the cause of Muslim extremism. That doesn't make Saddam a good guy, but it did mean he regarded al-Qaeda as a problem rather than an ally.

As the 9-11 commission reported, there were no significant connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. Despite that, the administration worked tirelessly to link Iraq and 9-11 in the minds of the American people, counting on our gullibility. Bush and company (thanks, Fox News!) did their work well and today shills like Melanie Morgan condemn the news media for having reported to the contrary. Of course, she spins it like a gyroscope: “They've falsely reported that there is NO connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.” Oh, but al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq! Oh, what a vindication for Bush! His lie has become the truth! Ex post facto, you know.

The right-wing noise machine is breath-taking in its brazenness.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Law of Small Numbers

More fun with sparse data

Political pundit William Safire defined “thumbsucker” in Safire's Political Dictionary as a “political reporter's term for an analytical story; a think piece.” He adds that “Reporters and editors use the term with derision, to mean the opposite of ‘well researched.’”

A thumbsucker on political second chances by Margaret Talev of the Washington Bureau of McClatchy News has been popping up in various newspapers the last couple of months. It is clearly a thumbsucker in the first sense of Safire's definition, a discourse on the mixed record of politicians' second tries for the White House. While I would not go so far as to call it a thumbsucker in Safire's second sense—the information it contains is accurate—the article nevertheless fails to make a good case for its main argument. Talev describes the current positions of Kerry, Edwards, and Gore as active or potential future candidates for president.
But if any of these men goes ahead with a comeback campaign, history is stacked against him.

In three cases since the Civil War era, a presidential or vice-presidential nominee on a losing Democratic or Republican ticket was able to win the presidency in a subsequent election: Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

The list of those who tried but failed is considerably longer.
I think we get the point. As the Raleigh News & Observer said in its headline when it published Talev's piece on April 24, 2006, “2nd time's no charm for failed nominees.” When the Sacramento Bee picked up the article on June 4, 2006, it ran a blunt subhead: “History doesn't favor a comeback by Democrats Kerry, Edwards or Gore.” Take that, you guys!

Let us turn our attention now to the “considerably longer” list of second-time losers:
William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Walter Mondale and Bob Dole each won another nomination after a loss, but none succeeded in the general election. Bryan was a three-time loser. Others who made the ticket and lost were unable to secure their party's nomination when they ran again: Ed Muskie, Dan Quayle and Joe Lieberman.
Well, that's definitely a longer list. I guess that clinches the argument.

Or does it?

Let's take a second look at the list of rerun losers. The original list of losers included Bryan, Dewey, Stevenson, Mondale, and Dole. That's five people who were on national tickets at least twice and lost both times. But then Talev padded out the list of losers with one-timers Muskie, Quayle, and Lieberman. That sure makes the list of losers longer, but only at the cost of changing the criterion. This second group of losers never got a second nomination.

In summary, there were three candidates who lost national elections as nominees for president or vice president and came back to win the White House. There were five candidates who lost national elections as nominees for president or vice president who came back to lose a second race (and in Bryan's case a third) as a presidential nominee. Three versus five. You know, I don't see that the historical deck is that heavily stacked against repeats. Three chances out of eight is 37.5%, which is by no means a trivial probability.

Whenever you try to spin out a theory based on such a small data set, you can be certain to find all sorts of interesting things. They just won't be significant. There have been too few presidential campaigns to offer us more than a tiny subset of the combinations and outcomes that might establish trends in the longer term. Why didn't Talev use the cases of Kennedy and Kerry to argue that a Catholic from Massachusetts can be elected president only if he is young and devilishly handsome? That might have been too transparent.

I imagine in the future, after we've had a couple of female presidents, there'll be articles trying to deduce general principles from a sample of size two. The two-time loser theory is not quite as trivially speculative, but it's close. As a historical piece, the Talev article is informative and interesting. As an analytic piece, its value is negligible. In that sense, a thumbsucker.

Note: The title of this post is a parody of the law of large numbers, a probability theorem that says the mean of a large sample taken from a population will generally be close to the mean of the whole population. Click on the link for more, if you're curious. Different meanings have also been assigned to the law of small numbers, some of them jocular.