Sunday, October 29, 2006

A flip of the Coyne

Some intelligence on the Vatican

Inside the Vatican is Robert Moynihan's monthly magazine on activities within the highest levels of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Dr. Moynihan holds a Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale and is a longtime Vatican journalist with an insider's contacts and perspectives. His magazine's editorial policy is closely aligned with the policies of the pope. Although Inside the Vatican is not an official house organ, one can say it faithfully plays the tunes called by Rome.

In fact, when the magazine departs from Church policy at all, it's more a matter of being “more Catholic than the pope” than it is any form of rebellion against Church doctrine. When not lamenting the failure of Benedict XVI to swiftly reinstate the Latin rite Tridentine mass throughout the world, Inside the Vatican also counsels patience to those who pine for the days before Vatican II.

The latest issue, which bears an October 2006 date, offers a news article on the controversy stirred up by the dismissal of the outspoken director of the Vatican observatory. The director had directly challenged some statements in praise of intelligent design “theory” by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Under the title Intelligent Design?, writer Charles Collins describes the sequence of events and offers statements from some of the participants.
Intelligent Design?

A new head of the Vatican observatory is appointed shortly before Benedict XVI meets with his old doctoral students in Castel Gandolfo to discuss the theory of evolution.

By Charles Collins

When the August 19th announcement came that Father George Coyne, SJ, had retired as the director of the Vatican Observatory, a cheer went up in the Intelligent Design community in the United States.

Intelligent Design advocates believe that the complexity of the universe and biological systems offers scientific proof that there is an intelligence behind creat1on. The theory differs from “creationism” in that it does not identify this “intelligence” as being the biblical God. Most scientists contend that the theory is “creationism through the back door,” and the theory has virtually no support from non-Christians.

Father Coyne, who had headed up the Vatican's chief scientific facility since 1978, is a long-time critic of the theory. “It is a religious movement. In my mind there is no doubt about it,” he said two years ago. “For example, there are arguments from some Intelligent Design people that say the chemical complexities of the human brain are such that it would be impossible that the human brain could be assembled without an intelligent design I don't see that it is necessary to have a person have a designed plan, an intelligent plan, to make the human brain come to be. I just don't see it. It could be! But from our scientific knowledge it is not necessarily so.”
The Roman Catholic Church, like other Christian denominations, believes that human beings have God-given souls. Unlike many Protestant sects, however, Rome has usually been careful to avoid making dogmatic pronouncements about the literal truth of the creation passages in Genesis. One would like to think the Church learned some lessons in its fight with Galileo.
Intelligent Design advocates are mostly Evangelical Protestants in the United States. The Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University, the most prominent university of the Baptist denomination, was the first academic think-tank devoted to Intelligent Design. In 1999, the Center opened in Baylor's science department.

Proponents of Intelligent Design have long tried to expand their influence, both internationally and among Catholics.

This has proved difficult. Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani generis that the Church does not forbid the teaching of evolution. In 1996, Pope John Paul II told the pontifical Academy of Sciences that evolution is “more than a hypothesis.”

Many Catholic scientists seem perfectly comfortable with the predominant scientific theories. “Pope John Paul II said philosophy and theology have to respect the independence of the scientific approach to things,” Father Coyne said. “They have to admit the great success of the scientific method.”

However, over the past few years, Intelligent Design has received some support from Catholic quarters.

Intelligent Design supporters have been given access to the pages of the journal First Things, which is edited by a Catholic priest, Father John Neuhaus. Father Neuhaus has said he thinks the theory is sound and in accordance with Catholic teaching.
Father Neuhaus is a former Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism. Few Catholics are as fervent as converts. Neuhaus, however, brings with him into the Church some of the dogged combativeness that characterizes conservative Protestantism, infusing the Roman church with a pugnacity toward the secular truths of science that was alien to it (at least since the time of Leo XIII, the pope who established the Vatican observatory)
The biggest coup for the movement was when the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, published an op-ed in The New York Times supporting the concept of design, and attacking aspects of evolutionary theory. The cardinal was sponsored by The Discovery Institute, a U.S.-based think tank which promotes Intelligent Design. Cardinal Schoenborn came under heavy criticism from Father Coyne for his article.

At a January 31st lecture given at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, the Jesuit said the Austrian cardinal was misinformed on several points.

“One, the scientific theory of evolution, as all scientific theories, is completely neutral with respect to religious thinking; two, the message of John Paul II, which I have just referred to and which is dismissed by the cardinal as 'rather vague and unimportant,' is a fundamental Church teaching which significantly advances the evolution debate; three, neo-Darwinian evolution is not, in the words of the cardinal, 'an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection'; four, the apparent directionality seen by science in the evolutionary process does not require a designer; five, Intelligent Design is not science despite the cardinal's statement that ‘neo-Darwinism and the multi-verse hypothesis in cosmology [were] invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science.’”

Cardinal Schoenborn later issued a clarification of his remarks. He said he was speaking more about philosophy than about physics.
Just who is Christoph Schönborn, cardinal archbishop of Vienna? The general public can be forgiven for not knowing. Just as Cardinal Wojtyla was an unknown Polish prelate until called to the throne of Peter as Pope John Paul II, Schönborn has been a relatively obscure German cardinal. His stock is supposedly rising in Church ranks with the ascension of his mentor, Josef Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI. His major claim to fame to date was his role as director of the new Catholic catechism, which gives him a leading role as one of the Church's educators and doctrinal apologists.

Some even rank the young German cardinal as a potential successor to Benedict, one of the papabili (an Italian word that basically means “pope-worthy”). A website devoted to the activities and sayings of the cardinal, The Schönborn Site, is nothing less than a fan club. You can even get T-shirts and other Schönborn gear in the on-line souvenir shop. The New York Times editorial and the cardinal's lectures on evolution are also posted there.

Collins doesn't talk about the source of the material in Schönborn's New York Times editorial, but it's not ghostwritten by minions of the Discovery Institute (unlike Ann Coulter's recent anti-evolution diatribes). As one of the Church's leading scholars on the role of science in society, Schönborn was merely offering the latest in a series of Roman Catholic assaults on what they call neo-Darwinism. As the cardinal described it in his editorial, neo-Darwinism is not simply a different term for the “modern synthesis”; rather, Schönborn is criticizing “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.”

The cardinal's argument, in his editorial and subsequent lectures, is less a brief in favor of Intelligent Design creationism than it is a rallying cry for theistic evolution. Unlike some of Schönborn's more eager supporters, the cardinal himself posits that the fact of evolution is well demonstrated. He laments, however, the failure of evolutionists to acknowledge the guiding hand of God. In that sense, he makes common cause with the proponents of ID creationism, whose argument against the sufficiency of natural evolutionary mechanisms serendipitously aligns with his own. (Or perhaps it's not serendipity. The IDists are, as a rule, overt religionists who merely leave their principal motivation unvoiced when they seek to undermine science.)
This confusion of the roles of science and philosophy has often been a cause of confusion in the debate over Intelligent Design. Many scientists say that belief in an “intelligent designer” can come about through philosophical reasoning, but that does not mean that it is a scientific theory. Two years ago, Father Coyne even hosted a dialogue bringing scientists and theologians together to discuss whether or not the universe has a “purpose.” During the meeting, Father Coyne said that scientists have to realize that they cannot provide the answers to all the questions. He said it is the “ultimate questions” which science is least qualified to tackle. These include the existence of God and the spiritual nature of the human being.

The Vatican conference was co-sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, which used to sponsor research into Intelligent Design. This support stopped when scientists associated with the movement were not able to provide valid research supporting the theory.

“From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review,” Charles L. Harper, Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, told Salon Magazine in 2004.

Many Evangelicals are also coming to his conclusion. Two years after the Michael Polanyi Center opened, Baylor moved it from its science faculty to the department of theology.
All the more reason, therefore, that the Roman Catholic Church will maintain a friendly but distinct separation from the ID crowd. It doesn't like to tie itself to losers.
Given the fact that Intelligent Design seems to be in retreat, there was some shock when the Daily Mail published a story on August 23rd entitled “Pope Sacks Astronomer Over Evolution Debate.” The English newspaper claims that Pope Benedict had Father Coyne replaced because of his very public opposition to Intelligent Design.

With the election of Pope Benedict XVI last year, some supporters of Intelligent Design thought they might get papal approval for their movement. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been critical of some aspects of evolutionary theory before his election.

Many observers thought it was significant that Father Coyne was replaced shortly before a September 1-3 meeting of Josef Ratzinger's old doctoral students in Castel Gandolfo. This is an annual gathering which began years before Ratzinger's election as Pope.

This year's meeting focused on... evolution. Yet one of the participants, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, says the theory of Intelligent Design never came up.

“It wasn't that at all,” Father Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, told Reuters. (Father Fessio is also the head of Ignatius Press, which publishes Pope Benedict's books in English.) The talks were exclusively about evolution, he said, and particular attention was given to the improper use of evolutionary theory in other areas, such as social science.

The talks given at the meeting will be published as a book by the Vatican later this year.
Some celebratory headlines announcing Coyne's retirement (or “sacking”) are cited at Schönborn Sightings, the blog affiliated with the cardinal fan club. It links to Vatican Dumps Darwinist-Boosting Astronomer from LifeSiteNews (a “pro-life” source) and Pope Replaces Intelligent Design Critic at Observatory from the Religion News Service.
Fessio implied that the Intelligent Design movement is exclusively an American Evangelical theory, and offers nothing for Catholics. “There's a controversy in the United States because there is a lack of awareness of a thing called philosophy,” Fessio told Reuters. “Evangelicals and creationists generally lack it and Catholics have it.”

He agrees that proponents of Intelligent Design are confusing disciplines. “When you look at the world and see what appears to be order and design, the conclusion that there is a designer is not a scientific conclusion; it's a philosophical one,” he said.

The new head of the observatory, Father Jose Funes, SJ, says that he does not understand the furor, and that Father Coyne, at the age of 73, just wanted to retire. “I just want to build on the wonderful foundation that Father Coyne has established here,” he told Vatican Radio.

Father Coyne also responded to the accusations that he was asked to resign because of his beliefs.

He says he had submitted his resignation several times, and had asked the Holy Father to appoint a new person who can offer new input to the important work of the observatory.

In an e-mail sent to journalists, Father Coyne wrote: “The work of the Vatican Observatory under my directorship has been enthusiastically supported by John Paul I, if for ever so short a reign, by John Paul II, in many marvelous ways, and now by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict, to my mind, has renewed his enthusiastic support for the observatory's work by the appointment of Father Jose Funes and I am grateful to Pope Benedict for his enduring and loving care for this work of the Church.”

Father Coyne will still have a significant role at the observatory. After a year-long sabbatical, he will return full time to Castel Gandolfo. He will also continue to head the Vatican Observatory Foundation, which seeks out financial support for the work of the observatory.
It was undoubtedly true that the pope would eventually accept Coyne's request to be allowed to retire. There is no reason to think that Coyne is making excuses when he says he was ready to step down. Is there, however, a subtext to the pope's timing in accepting it? Maybe yes, maybe no. Pontiffs are political creatures, but they come to their high office after lengthy careers in the Church—careers in which they learn patience and taking the long view. Benedict XVI has already shown his disinclination toward swift action.

As for Schönborn, a relatively young cardinal with his eye possibly glancing toward the papal throne, expect him to demonstrate to his Church brethren that he possesses the serene patience that epitomizes Vatican policy. And he'll keep giving his catechetical lectures, many of which touch on evolution and so-called neo-Darwinism. Expect to hear and see more. Maybe even on a T-shirt.

The living fossil that is the Roman Catholic Church is not yet done.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A polling postscript

Caveat lector

No sooner had I finished posting my primer on polling than my attention was drawn by Taegan Goddard's Political Wire to a useful Wall Street Journal article on the limitations of political polling. The piece was written by Lauren Ettner and contains some good points about volatility in the electorate before a major election and the impossibility of getting definitive polling results when a significant chunk of the voters hasn't even made up its mind yet. These are useful warnings to keep in mind.

At the end of the article, however, I found a graphic that provides a wonderful teachable moment about what polls tell us and don't tell us. Here's an excerpt from the graphic, showing results from a WSJ/NBC News poll on voter sentiment regarding a Democratic takeover of the U.S. Congress:

What do you think this poll means? While the title says “In 2006, signs point to a Democratic takeover,” this conclusion is not necessarily indicated. One should be much more careful in interpreting what poll respondents mean when they answer a pollster's questions. If you were a rock-ribbed Republican diehard who remained resolute in your support of the Grand Old Party, you could reasonably reply “No effect” to the question “Has what you have seen and heard over the past few weeks made you feel more favorable, less favorable, or had no effect on your feelings about possibly having the Democrats become the majority party in Congress?” After all, you hated the idea before and you still hate the idea right now. No change.

Let me drive the point home by relabeling the poll results (except for Other, which I skipped) in a manner entirely consistent with the responses, but with labels that suggest a dramatically different conclusion from the one in the WSJ title:

Please note that it was obviously necessary to change the data bars to red, reflecting the much more Republican outcome. Now I happen to think that the Wall Street Journal is correct in its conclusion that the electorate is more kindly disposed toward a Democratic Congress and is more likely to vote to elect one. That inference seems reasonable in the light of many other polls and indications. However, it does not ineluctably follow from the responses of the poll's subjects. A sample composed predominantly of determined Republican voters could have produced the very same answers documented in the WSJ graphic.

You've been warned. Don't get complacent. Go out there and vote for all the Democrats you can find.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A primer on polling

Sampling the electorate

I was listening to NPR's Science Friday and heard Ira Flatow decry the confusing business of contradictory polls. He mentioned that there are polling firms that specialize in working for Republican candidates and others that are allied with Democrats. Where are the independent and neutral polls of yesteryear?

The discussion went off in other directions without doing more than the radio equivalent of hand-wringing over partisan pollsters. I would like to offer some constructive comments on the practice of polling and the significance of polling results. I hope this primer on polling will answer some of the questions you might have.

Any reader of Halfway There knows that I am myself a partisan Democrat, so you might suspect I'm going to shade this essay on polling to favor my preferred liberal causes. You can decide for yourself, of course, after reading what I have to say. In the interests of balance, however, let us begin with a comment from arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly:
Dr. George Gallup began asking a lot of questions of a very few people, and—funny thing—he usually came up with the answers that pleased the New York kingmakers.

Schlafly made this observation in the context of complaining how pollsters manipulate the electorate with statistically meaningless results that favor New Deal liberals. The quote comes from chapter 6 of Schlafly's 1964 book A Choice Not an Echo (there really ought to be some punctuation in there), which promoted the insurgent candidacy of Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination for president.

Schlafly homes in on one of the most popular complaints about polls, often voiced by individuals who say, “No one has ever polled me!” Indeed, pollsters usually examine a sample that is much smaller than the actual population in question. For a statewide election in California, for example, a pollster is likely to interview a few hundred voters to discover the opinions of an electorate that comprises millions. How can this possibly work?

A sample example

A small sample can give you a surprisingly robust measure of what is going on with a large population. As long as the pollster takes some practical measures to ensure that a sample is not unduly skewed (don't find all your polling subjects in the waiting rooms of Lexus dealerships!), the sample will be representative of the whole population. That's why you'll hear people talk about picking people at random in a polling survey. It's a way to avoid biasing a sample.

Suppose, for the sake of illustration, that a voting population is evenly divided between candidates A and B. Suppose that you're going to pick two voters at random and ask them who they prefer. What could happen?

There are actually four possible outcomes: Both subjects prefer A, both subjects prefer B, the first subject prefers A while the second prefers B, and the first subject prefers B while the second prefers A. These four outcomes are equally likely, leading us to an interesting conclusion: Even a sample of size 2 gives you a correct measure of voter preference half the time!

No doubt this result should improve if we choose a larger sample. After all, while it's true that half of the possible outcomes correctly reflect the opinions of the electorate, the other half is way off, telling us there is unanimous sentiment in favor of one candidate.

Let's poll four voters this time. There are actually sixteen (24) equally likely results:

This time, six of the possible sample results (that's three-eighths) are exactly right in mirroring the fifty-fifty split of the electorate. What's more, only two of the possible samples (one-eighth of them) tell us to expect a unanimous vote for one of the candidates. The other samples (three-eighths of them) give skewed results—giving one candidate a three-to-one edge over the other—but not as badly skewed as in the previous two-person sample.

You know what's going to happen as we continue to increase the sample size: It's going to get more and more difficult to obtain really unrepresentative results. Let's look at what occurs when we increase the sample size to just eight randomly selected voters. There are 28 = 256 ways the samples can come up, varying from all for A to all for B. Okay, that's too many cases to write out individually. We'll have to group them. The following table summarizes the possibilities. For example, there are 28 cases in which we end up with 6 votes for A versus 2 for B. (In case you're curious, these numbers come from binomial coefficients, made famous in Pascal's triangle.) Check it out:

As you can see, in each case I've given the percentage of supporters for A found in the sample. There are 56 samples in which A has 62.5% support, 70 in which A has 50% support, and 56 in which A has only 37.5%. In this little experiment, therefore, we have 56 + 70 + 56 = 182 cases out of 256 in which A has support between 37.5% and 62.5%. Since 182/256 ≈ 71%, that is how often our random sample will indicate that A's support is between 37.5% and 62.5%. Observe that 37.5% = 50% − 12.5% and 62.5% = 50% + 12.5%. Since we set this up under the assumption that A's true support is 50%, our poll will be within ±12.5% of the true result about 71% of the time. Mind you, we have no idea in advance which type of sample we'll actually get when polling the electorate. We're playing the percentages, which is how it all works.

These results are pretty crude, since professional polls do much better than ±12.5% only 71% of the time, but we did this by asking only eight voters! A real poll would ask a few hundred voters, which suffices to get a result within ±3% about 95% of the time. That's why pollsters don't have to ask a majority of the voters their preferences in order to get results that are quite accurate. A relatively small sample can produce a solid estimate.

Bigger may be only slightly better

It's unfortunate that more people don't take a decent course in probability and statistics. That's why most folks are mystified by polls and can't understand why they work. They do work, as I've just shown you, within the limits of their accuracy. Pollsters can measure that accuracy and publish the limitations of their polls alongside their vote estimates. Every responsible pollster does this. (Naturally, everything I say is irrelevant when it comes to biased polls that are commissioned for the express purpose of misleading people. One should always treat skeptically any poll that comes directly from a candidate's own campaign staff.)

The controversy over sample size is constantly hyped by the statistically ignorant, most notably today by those who are upset by the sampling techniques used in a recently published Lancet study on civilian casualties in Iraq. (For example, here's the innumerate Tim Blair: “Remember: Lancet came up with this via a survey that identified precisely 547 deaths (as reported by the New York Times).” Mr. Blair thinks 547 is a tiny number.) More than forty years ago, Phyllis Schlafly was harping on the same point:
The unscientific nature of the polls was revealed by Marvin [sic] D. Field, formerly with the Gallup poll and now head of one of the polls which picked Rockefeller to beat Goldwater in the California primary, who admitted to the press that he polled only 256 out of the 3,002,038 registered Republicans in California. He thus based his prediction on .000085 of Republican voters.

While her math is okay, Schlafly doesn't know what she's talking about. A sample size of 256 is quite good and should have produced a reliable snapshot of voter sentiment at the time the poll was conducted. In addition to getting the pollster's name wrong (it's Mervin), Schlafly neglected to mention that Rockefeller's wife had a baby just before the California primary, sharply reminding everyone about his controversial divorce from his first wife. You can't blame a poll for not anticipating a development like that. Otherwise, Schlafly's complaint about the poll is based on her ignorance about the sufficiency of sample sizes.

By the way, did you notice that Mervin Field's sample size was a power of 2? It would have occurred in the natural progression of samples that I modeled for you in our polling experiment. In my three different sampling examples, I doubled the sample size each time, going from 2 to 4 to 8, each time getting a significant increase in reliability. If you keep up the pattern, you get 16, 32, 64, 128, and 256. As you can see, Field went way beyond my little experiment, doubling my final sample of 8 an additional five times before he was satisfied he would be sampling enough voters for a good result.

Two caveats

There are a couple of things I should stress about the polling game we just played. First, of course, in real life we would not know the exact division of the voters beforehand. That's what we're trying to find out. It won't usually be something as nice and neat as fifty-fifty. However, as long as there's a real division between voters (in other words, not some 90% versus 10% rout), it won't be too difficult to poll enough voters to get an accurate profile.

Second, even a poll that is supposed to be within its estimated margin of error 95% of the time will be wrong and fall outside those bounds 5% of the time. That's one time in twenty. Therefore, whenever you see a political poll whose results seem way out of whack, it could be one of those flukes. Remember, polling is based on probability and statistics: it's accurate in the long run rather than in every specific instance. In a hot contest where lots of polls are taken, a candidate's campaign is likely to release only those polls that show the candidate in good shape. The 5% fluke factor may be just enough to keep hope alive among those people who believe everything they read.

Pollsters take their results with a grain of salt, so you should, too. But it's not because of sample size.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The absent mind

Fill in the blanks

My colleague James was nonplussed—never a good situation for a math teacher. One of his students was going to miss a session of their statistics class because he would be out of town for a soccer game. The student dutifully gave James the necessary permission slip, signed by his coach, to excuse the absence and enable the student to make up any missed work. Unlike other absence forms James had received, this one stood out as rather special.

Being a rather crafty fellow, the soccer player carried the permission slip around in his pocket for a few days (as was apparent by the slip's crinkly condition) and tucked it under his teacher's office door at the last minute. This maneuver ensured that James could not give his student some alternative assignment to do over the weekend while he was on the road. Clever student athletes know that it's always better to put off academics till the last minute whenever possible.

Okay, I know that's not true. Some athletes are actually good students. The existence proof is very simple: I knew one once. It wasn't this guy, though, as demonstrated by the permission slip he filled out for James. Consider for a moment. How would you fill these blanks in an excused absence form?

Our soccer-playing hero came up with a solution that probably would differ from yours:

Yes, that's right. He responded to the prompt “on [Date]” with “on the team bus.” Check the scan of the original form below. It didn't scan well because the paper was so wrinkled, but I darkened the text in question for you. Perhaps you can make it out. See? I wasn't kidding.

Well, we all have our off days. Not to be confused with days off.

Nerd power

Is it the plaid pants?

I see lots of comic strips every day because of my serious newspaper habit (usually three a day). Most of these strips are not written with me in mind. That's okay. I know that I do not epitomize the norm. Perhaps I don't get some of them because I don't see what others see, but how can anyone look at this recent offering by Close to Home and not be deeply disturbed?

The joke is weak, but those two palanquin bearers are strong! Upon what meat do they feed, these bespectacled heroes, that they have grown so great? None of the college administrators at my school could blithely traipse about the campus in pairs, lightly bearing the weight of a family of three as well as a campus tour guide (or is she an admissions officer?). I conservatively estimate the combined weight of the four passengers at approximately 600 pounds. Tossing in another 300 or so for the mass of the canopied palanquin itself, we're looking at almost half a ton.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Calculus for classroom defense

Build your own fort

I'm grateful to PZ Myers for tipping me off to the efforts of Bill Crozier, the Republican nominee for state superintendent of education in Oklahoma, to make our classrooms safer. Crozier has made available an amateur video (a really amateur video) on how textbooks can be used to protect students from armed assault. Under carefully controlled laboratory conditions (actually, it's just Crozier and a bunch of guys standing around in an empty field), the distinguished Republican educator uses an AK-47 and various pistols to shoot at some textbooks.

His exercise in ballistics was reported by KOCO, Channel 5 in Oklahoma City:
“We are doing this as an experiment because at Fort Gibson, many young people were shot in the back,” Crozier said in the videotape, referencing a December 1999 middle school shooting in eastern Oklahoma, in which a student wounded four students with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun.
As a trained observer of the world around him, Crozier had noticed that one of the assailant's bullets had not penetrated a textbook in a student's backpack. His keen mind quickly grasped the possibilities of using textbooks for classroom self-defense.

Crozier's first experiment (after verifying that they hadn't forgotten the AK-47's firing pin by the simple expedient of actually firing it) was to take a shot at a calculus textbook from a distance of 15 feet. As noted in the video, the AK-47's slug made it all the way through the calculus book and through the phone book that was behind the math text. I immediately noticed a problem with the experimental protocols. While the choice of the calculus book by Larson, Hostetler, and Edwards was perfectly defensible, that book being one of the more popular texts in the U.S. market (Stewart's book, however, with its 70% share of the market, would have been even more appropriate), Crozier chose to use the single-variable edition, which is only two-thirds as thick as the standard edition.

But even the comparatively skinny book proved to be more than equal to the task of stopping a 9-mm bullet. In the second experiment, the text that had been pierced by the AK-47 needed only seven of its chapters to stop the 9-mm projectile. (We can clearly see that Crozier opened the single-variable edition of Larson to the beginning of Chapter 8, where we are greeted by a two-page spread on fractals—an eye-catching topic with cool graphics that has extremely little to do with first-year calculus. Benoit Mandelbrot smiles up at us from the lower corner of the right-hand page.) That experimental result will make me feel safer the next time I use one of the thinner editions because I don't want to lug about the significantly heavier complete version.

The standard 1000-page edition of a calculus book has major stopping power, of course, as many former college engineering majors know. (They mostly became liberal arts and business majors.) Calculus books should be just as useful in stopping slugs (I'm not actually talking about students now). Crozier's brilliant insight into classroom defense procedures generalizes naturally to protecting professors in their campus offices. A typical math teacher has scads of books in his or her office. At the first sign of danger, a diligent mathematician should be able to construct a sturdy textbook fort, as shown in the accompanying illustration. (The two embrasures for returning fire are optional, of course, mostly depending on whether your state allows teachers to pack heat.) At our next department meeting, I think I'll propose that we schedule some training drills.

Thanks, Bill Crozier! Who but a Republican candidate for state superintendent of education could have come up with such a brain stroke?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Dark, dark humor

Oh, dark indeed

How does one describe laughing in the face of certain death? People do it, you know. In fact, I know a person like that. She has been worried that her death will inconvenience people. Despite having been sentenced to an untimely end by a diagnosis of inoperable cancer, she kept trying to make things work out for the best.

That's how some people are: They find reserves of strength and courage that enable them to elevate concern for their loved ones over their personal worries. My friend fretted that she would outlive her husband's emergency family leave from his job, putting him in the difficult situation of choosing between continued employment and continuing the spousal bedside vigil. She wanted to spare him that.
The Collector: Bring out your dead!
Large Man: [carrying body] Here's one.
The Collector: That'll be nine pence.
The “Dead” Body: I'm not dead.
The Collector: What?
She worried that her son would have to leave for college before her illness ran its course, distracting him from his studies and preventing him from coming to terms with her passing. Apparently it would have been ideal if she had died during the summer, with a nice memorial ceremony, some hugging and crying, and then life going on for the survivors. Yes. Neat and tidy.

But she hung on, exceeding every negative prognosis and establishing herself as an exceptionally long-term survivor of her fatal condition. She even survived the withdrawal of chemotherapy, once the doctors decided it was no longer doing her any good.
The Collector: What?
Large Man: Nothing. There's your nine pence.
The “Dead” Body: I'm not dead!
The Collector: ’Ere, he says he's not dead.
Large Man: Yes, he is!
The “Dead” Body: I'm not!
Clinging to life and mocking death had become a running gag. She knew that her friends would screw up their courage to the sticking point each time they visited her. Each of us hoped to acquit ourselves well, conducting ourselves politely, refraining from saccharine platitudes, and offering good company and gentle diversion. The patient didn't always cooperate, preferring instead to crack ribald jokes, but she was just being herself. I'm sure she knew that many of us would breathe a sigh of relief once we slipped out the door after a “successful” visit. Each visit, of course, was likely to be the last.
The Collector: He isn't.
Large Man: Well, he will be soon. He's very ill.
The “Dead” Body: I'm getting better!
Large Man: No, you're not! You'll be stone dead in a moment.
The Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.
The “Dead” Body: I don't want to go on the cart.
Large Man: Oh, don't be such a baby!
The Collector: I can't take him.
The “Dead” Body: I feel fine!
Yet she hung on, alternately fading and rallying, and we steeled ourselves for more “last” visits. If she could endure, how cowardly would we have to be not to pitch in and travel the path with her as far as she could go?
Large Man: Oh, do me a favor.
The Collector: I can't!
Large Man: Well, can you hang around for a couple of minutes? He won't be long.
The Collector: I promised I'd be at the Robinsons'. They've lost nine today.
Large Man: Well, when's your next round?
The Collector: Thursday.
Summer came and went. Fall arrived. The son went off to college. The husband went back to work, his vigil taken over during business hours by a rotating roster of family members and in-laws. The invalid's colleagues kept visiting and calling. Sometimes she turned us away because she was too weak for company, but other days she swapped stories and told jokes like old times.
The “Dead” Body: I think I'll go for a walk.
Large Man: You're not fooling anyone, you know. [To the collector] Isn't there anything you could do?
The “Dead” Body: I feel happy! I feel happy!
[The Collector glances up and down the street furtively, then silences the “Dead” Body with a quick whack of his club.]
Large Man: Ah, thank you very much!
The Collector: Not at all. See you on Thursday.
Large Man: Right.
Friends and family have now had more than a year of marveling at her strength and endurance. And all during that amazing time of pain and acute suffering, her first thoughts were always for her loved ones. Day in and day out, she worried about her friends and family.

Her worrying is done.

We'll laugh later. Because right now it's time for the dark.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

A surprising October

Waiting for the magic trick

We Democrats are a jaded lot, having witnessed the outright theft of the presidency in 2000 and the subsequent biennial disappointments, all laced with a generous helping of vote suppression and manipulation. To top it all off, the Republicans have been winning contests that were the Democrats' for the asking, but we just haven't had our act together. This, finally, may be the year of Democratic convergence.

However, even as we drive toward the finish line and keep our eyes on the prize, the big question hovers over us: What stunt will the Republicans pull this time? Where is the flag-draped, über-patriotic gimmick designed to swing the election at the last second? I've already offered a fantasy scenario where Osama surrenders to preserve in power his best Al Qaeda recruiters—George Bush and the GOP clown caucus in congress—but I don't really think that's likely. (Although it makes more sense than makes one comfortable.)

This weekend the San Francisco Chronicle got into the act with its Two Cents column, an on-line version of the old “man in the street” featurette. Here's an excerpt with my two favorite responses:

Are you expecting an October surprise?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Steven Travers, San Anselmo

We already saw it. It was the Democrats, sitting on so-called child endangerment for months in order to gain politically. They hope people like me did not recognize this fact. Unfortunately, people like me recognize this fact.

Ted Mavrakos, Concord

The Foley thing was something. I hope the Republicans can find something on Hillary Clinton; I'm sure there is more than enough to get around. But, as was the case with Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, even if something is found, a left-based media will bury it on Page 7 of the want ads.
That's really something, isn't it? I mean, it's just disgraceful how the Democrats didn't clean up that scandal in the House page program. If the Democrats knew all along that the Republicans were hushing it up, why didn't they blow the whistle right away?

Of course, this particular talking point runs afoul of the fact that the Republicans have already admitted keeping information from the only Democrat on the page program oversight committee.
Late last year, [House Page Board chairman John] Shimkus met with Foley about the e-mails. But Shimkus never told Capito or the board’s other member, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., about them until Friday, according to all three.
But what about CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, accused of being a Democratic front organization? Didn't they carefully time the release of the Foley information to skew the election? Actually, CREW gave the information to the FBI months before it got into the press, back in July, although the FBI sat on it. CREW would like to know why the FBI didn't investigate. Furthermore, the news leak came from a Republican source, so it wasn't CREW and it wasn't the House Democrats. It's Republicans all the way.

As for the guy from Concord, who decries the tendency of the supposedly liberal media to conceal Democratic scandals, we really must thank him for mentioning Chappaquiddick. I mean, we would never have known about that 37-year-old scandal if he hadn't revealed it to us. After all, the liberal media hushed it up, right? Just like they refused to publish any scurrilous accounts of White House scandals during the Clinton years.

Poor, poor Republicans. All the scandals are theirs now. And soon congress won't be.

Friday, October 13, 2006

B.C. is funny

Funny peculiar; not funny ha-ha

There's an election going on, you know. It's time for humor to take a back seat (way, way in the back) in favor of trenchant political analysis. Our nation's future is at stake, so who better to sound the alarm and speak truth to the masses than the imaginary cave dwellers of Johnny Hart's B.C.? Hart is already on record as disdaining those wicked political pollsters who dare to question the divinity of God's anointed president, but smiting them once is not enough.

In his October 12, 2006, comic strip, Hart cuts through the statistical propaganda of national polls and reveals their true nature: The polls that reveal President Bush's unpopularity are slyly crafted by his enemies to make him look bad. Fortunately, the cartoon characters are here to rescue us from the misleading impression that no one likes our Dear Leader. Here are the first two panels from B.C. (don't worry about the third panel; the supposed punch-line in it is just filler):

Who are these political adversaries of our beloved president? How have they deftly phrased their questions so as to defame him in our nation's hour of need? Well, one such enemy is the notoriously liberal Wall Street Journal:
Bush's Approval Ratings Slip

October 13, 2006

President Bush's job-approval rating fell, with 34% of Americans voting him “excellent” or “good,” down from 38% in September, according to a new Harris Interactive poll.

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults now have a negative view of Mr. Bush's job performance, compared with 61% who ranked him “only fair” or “poor” in a similar poll last month. The drop follows a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that showed the president's job approval rating fell to 39% from 42% earlier in October.
These are shocking numbers, which B.C.'s neo-con caveman says are due to the way that pollsters frame their questions. How exactly do these arch-fiends phrase their clever questions so as to fool their subjects into denouncing a president they actually adore? Behold!
“How would you rate the overall job President Bush is doing as president: excellent, pretty good, only fair, or poor?”
This is an outrage! The question virtually reeks of radical-liberal cant and bias! Could other polling organizations be as blatant in their contempt for Dear Leader? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, as demonstrated by the Pew Research Center:
“Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president?”
As you can plainly see, this is a horrific trap for the unwary respondent, making it a fifty-fifty choice between loyal support for our president and treasonous opposition. If either polling organization were willing to give our president a fair shake, surely they could find someone to craft a more fair and balanced question. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has a wonderful staff of patriotic editorial writers. They might come up with something along the following lines:
“How wonderful do you think President Bush is at his job: supremely wonderful, remarkably wonderful, very wonderful, or simply wonderful?”
See the refreshing contrast between this alternative and the questions from the Pew Research Center and the WSJ/Harris poll? President Bush would undoubtedly fare much better with the responses to the alternative question, proving irrefutably that the pollsters' questions are biased against him. QED!

The Popeye Party

Caveman Curls also notes that Bush's fellow Republican's dine on “Wimpy burgers.” For the uninitiated, permit me to explain the two-fold significance of this charge. First, the classic cartoon character Wimpy is famous for cadging money from his friends and acquaintances so that he can buy hamburgers. He always promises to pay back the loan, typically on the following Tuesday, although he never does. However, it would be a mistake to think that this subtle reference to the Republican tendency to loot the nation's pocketbook tells the whole story.

The second component of the allusion is Wimpy's endomorphism. As a plump weakling, Wimpy is, well, wimpy. Today's Republicans are highly deserving of that criticism, since they never bestir themselves to defend the president or attack his critics. Observe some of their pallid responses to the assaults of Democratic traitors:
David Horowitz: Make no mistake about it, there is a war going on in this country. The aggressors in this war are Democrats, liberals and leftists who began a scorched earth campaign against President Bush before the initiation of hostilities in Iraq.

Ann Coulter: Democrats long to see American mothers weeping for their sons lost in a foreign war, but only if the mission serves absolutely no national security objectives of the United States. If we are building a democracy in a country while also making America safer—such as in Iraq—Democrats oppose it with every fiber of their being.

Representative Patrick McHenry: And Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel, I asked them two days ago in a letter, to submit themselves under oath and say clearly, yes or no, did they have prior knowledge of the instant messages and/or emails, and if they did, they're an accessory to this crime because they allowed to keep a pedophile out on the streets.
See? Wimps, all of them!

Clearly the president needs more stalwart supporters like Johnny Hart, a man who is willing to sacrifice the sporadically humorous content of his comic strip just so he can defend the man anointed by God to lead our nation. And if you don't believe me when I say Hart will sacrifice anything to prove his devotion to George W. Bush, gaze now upon the third panel of his October 12 strip. He boxed himself in with the ranting of the first two panels and left no way out, so he punted with a random punch-line. But that's okay: these are humorless times—especially in the last panel of a contemporary B.C. comic strip.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The GOP's Ministry of Truth

Authoritative and accurate!

GOPUSA is a Republican mouthpiece that maintains a website and issues an e-mail newsletter. The latest edition of the newsletter just popped into my in-box. It's a beaut. By assiduously sifting the vast amount of news and pseudo-news out there, GOPUSA can extract the bits and pieces necessary to assemble a political panorama that is more pleasant than reality (for Republicans, at least). This time the elephant pacifier carries the headline “Analyst Sees GOP Holding Onto House and Senate Next Month.” One immediately wonders: Who is the the source of this analysis and how accurate might he be?

Wonder no more. I've added a bit of emphasis to the first paragraph to highlight a tiny problem:
Analyst Sees GOP Holding Onto House and Senate Next Month

By Chad Groening
October 11, 2006

(AgapePress)—A conservative political pundit believes that, despite the Senator Mark Foley scandal and the efforts of the liberal media, the Republican Party will hold onto both houses of Congress in next month's elections.

Bill Lauderback, the Executive Vice-President of the American Conservative Union, says he has done an extensive analysis of the 2006 House and Senate races. At election time, he notes, “conservatives consistently turn out much better than liberal Democrats do,” which is one reason why he believes the GOP is unlikely to lose either chamber to the Democrats.

Still, the Lauderback does expect the Republicans will suffer some casualties. “We're going to lose some seats in the Senate,” he says. “And I'm afraid a very staunch conservative, Rick Santorum, may be defeated.” And that will be a shame, the political analyst adds, because he says Santorum is “a true beacon of conservative light in the United States Senate, and I hope he is able to pull his race out.”

But overall, Lauderback believes the Republicans will come out ahead in November. “At this juncture, going race by race and then counting it up,” he says, “I do not have the House nor the Senate being lost by the Republican Party.”

Specifically, the conservative pundit thinks the GOP is going to lose some moderate Republican seats in the House. “Perhaps if we had good, strong conservative candidates in those seats, we'd have a better chance of keeping them,” he says.
Yeah, that's right. A reporter for AgapePress thinks that former U.S. Representative Mark Foley of Florida was a Senator. What's more, an official GOP publication is put together by people who don't know enough to correct the error before sending it out. As for the political analyst himself, Mr. Lauderback can identify only the troglodytic Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania as likely to lose. I presume then that he's confident about the campaigns of George Felix “Macaca” Allen, Conrad Burns, Mike DeWine, and Lincoln Chaffee. All of them are trailing in the polls, some by several percentage points. (Of course, Chaffee isn't a right-wing conservative, so perhaps he's considered expendable.)

I truly hope these folks are in charge of many GOP re-election campaigns. It could be a very good year for Democrats.

Update: Someone finally noticed, so the word “Senator” in the GOPUSA article has disappeared into the memory hole. Too late! The original gaffe remains in all the e-mails they sent out. (And what is with that weird gripping hand logo? Or is it the groping trunk of a prostrate elephant?)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The B.C. help feature

Creationist comics explained

Johnny Hart wears both his religion and his politics on his sleeve. You'd think his humor would be as transparently obvious as his political stance. It is, however, subtle and elusive in nature. Without proper catechesis, one could be forgiven for thinking it's not funny at all.

The October 11, 2006, installment of B.C. features an encounter between apteryx, the comic strip's resident kiwi, and a burning bush. As you may recall from your Old Testament stories, the burning bush is a manifestation of the Lord God, who assumed this aspect for his chat with Moses. Moses was impressed that the bush was not reduced to ashes by the fire, so he knew it was a miraculous event. And, of course, it talked. His encounter with the flaming shrubbery persuaded Moses it was time to go free his people from Egypt, so it's not a trivial episode in the Hebrew Bible.

Johnny Hart's burning bush is making a miraculous visit to the B.C. comic strip to spread more divine revelation. (Certainly such a manifestation can't be just for yucks, you know.) In this case, it seems that the bush's purpose is to smite the evil pollsters. Perhaps the evil pollsters have enslaved the people, just as Pharaoh enslaved the Jews. There's a lot of heavy symbolism going on here.

Why does God wish to smite the evil pollsters? Because they attack his anointed one by revealing just how unpopular the anointed one has become. The reader may become confused, however, in the way that Hart identifies the bush with George W. Bush, God's anointed one (where, by the way, “anointed” means “smeared with oil”), but this is perturbing only to those who don't recognize the president as a manifestation of the living God. Obviously the pollsters don't, which is why they publish such blasphemies as a dismal 33% approval rating. God's wrath is upon them. But no matter: Hart confidently predicts that our burning Bush will remain proud, unbowed, and charcoal-free. We may all despise him, but the anointed one cares not.

No doubt Hart would recommend that the evil pollsters be slapped into restraints with their eyelids pinned back, forced to watch Jesus Camp over and over again until they, too, want to suffer the little children to come unto the cardboard cut-out of God's anointed one and touch their little hands to those of the stiffened paper Bush idol.

Cursed unbelievers!

And now you know why this B.C. comic strip is so funny and so full of ... uh ... divine goodness.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Rats and interns

Pearls gets there early

The comic strip Pearls Before Swine ran a series on animal psychics a couple of years ago. Cartoonist Stephan Pastis wasn't specifically talking about animals who are psychic (although given the animal population of his strip, it's not like he could really avoid it). Rather, he was taking a swipe at those “pet psychics” who will read your animal companion's thoughts for a fee. A pretty vital service, wouldn't you say? (And people who call their pets “animal companions” are probably the main focus of this particular scam.)

There's no form of fraud that Rat is unwilling to try, so he quickly hung out his shingle as a pet psychic. Eventually, though, his activities result in a congressional investigation. Oh, Rat is in trouble now! How will he ever persuade the honorable members of congress that he is truly psychic?

It turns out to be easier than you might think. Or, at least, than you might have thought until the events of recent days.

Water witching for fun and profit

It's divine intervention!

The October 8, 2006, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine features an article on dowsing by Chronicle staff writer Sam Whiting. It's a one-page profile of a man with a gift from God. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Dowser Jack Coel seeks, and finds, water the really old-fashioned way

By Sam Whiting

Jack Coel's business card is Tahoe blue and 3-D, as if his name were floating in cool, clear water. Coel, 59, is a dowser who lives in Lake County and covers the Western states with his twin brass angle-rods.

On his definition of dowsing

Using tools to find things. I find water.

On strategy

Underground watercourses come together, they split up, they do what they do. I'm just looking for water, nothing fancy, and I find everything wet that's associated with that watercourse. I find the main flow of it, the channel, and that's what we're drilling for. I drive a stake and flag it.

On tools

They're L-shaped, two of them. I don't use a forked stick. That's simply another tool. You can use coat hangers.

On technique

I hold them nice and firm, just below the bend, one in each hand. I don't white-knuckle it because I do it for too many hours a day. Your hands don't move. When you are over water, the rods will twist in your hands, and they will close. That's a “yes.” When you're not over water, they're open. That's a “no.” It's darn simple.
Yes, very simple. It's the ideomotor effect.
On what causes the rods to move

God. That's it. The physics of it, I couldn't tell you.
God likes to keep busy. When he's not watching the fall of single sparrow, he amuses himself by nudging brass rods. That's how dowsing works: God does it.

Wait a minute! Someone call Seattle! Jack Coel is just one step away from being a distinguished visiting scholar in the Research Fellowship Program at the Discovery Institute.
On inspiration

Like a preacher is called to preach, I was called to locate water. I'd been praying about it because I thought about putting my name on ads but I didn't want a bunch of flak for my family and myself. So I prayed about it and ultimately I was called to do it. At that time I got myself into 34 phone directories in California and Nevada and started guaranteeing locations.

On flow

I do about 400 locations a year. I've done more water well locations than anybody ever has. Ever.
Sounds like proof to me.
On clientele

Anybody who needs a well. Usually they've been drilling dry holes.

On science

I work with hydrologists, biologists, every kind of expensive technology in the world and I outperform them all.
Well, there are some things science was not meant to know.
On success

I was just in Nevada in August. We covered a million acres, with me dousing from the back of a Jeep going about 15 miles an hour. It took three eight-hour days. This was 50 miles out in the desert. They've used satellite imaging, infrared, geologists for 20 years. The first location of mine they drilled they got 4,000 to 6,000 gallons a minute.

On satisfaction at striking it

Everybody does the happy water dance.

On using dousing techniques to find oil

You can.

On why he doesn't

Oil one day is not going to be much value, as they get into other stuff. But you need water.
And God doesn't want him to. I'm sure it's the same reason he doesn't take Randi's million dollars. You wouldn't understand. It's a faith thing. You don't test faith.
On folklore

People think a lot of funny things—it's positive, negative, some electromagnetic thing. It's none of that stuff.

On what it is

Matthew 7:7. If you read it and consider what I'm doing, it comes off the page, the words I was called by—“seek and you shall find.”
People used to think Matt. 7:7 was about salvation. Silly people. It's about dowsing. Isn't sound doctrine fun? (And as long as things are coming off the page at us, look at verse 15 in that same chapter of Matthew: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing.”)
On believing

It's a single-minded search. You don't have to believe in anything. Even if you're a witch, it works.
Just about as well as if you're not a witch. Really!
On fees

I charge $625 per parcel to douse [sic] a property and $25 an hour one-way on the travel.

On skeptics

When you get to 7,800 of anything, you don't have to argue with anybody. Most of what I do is referrals.
See? Data. Suck on that, skeptics! (Oh, you want to see the data? Well, maybe later. And, anyway, don't forget that faith thing.)
On passing the gift along

Anybody can follow me (1-800-787-2128.) I'm not shy about telling people why this works. I'm not here to argue and I can't preach.
Ha! Too late! You already gave the secret away! (God does it when he's not birdwatching.) He should have gotten our money first.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

More divine inspiration

The Catholic poetry smackdown

It was a long time coming, but at last I have found a real competitor for “Theresa” of Catholic Radio, whose poem The hardest choice seemed sure to reign unchallenged as the worst doggerel of modern times. I am clearly lacking in imagination, because Daniel in the Lion's Lair is more than equal to the task. With an evident tip of the hat to former U.S. attorney general and singing sensation John Ashcroft, Daniel calls his poem Where Eagles Soar. Brace yourselves:
Where Eagles Soar

Where eagles soar 'midst bill'wing cloud,
O'er canyons deep 'neath sheerest cliff,
Though airs be chill, though winds blow stiff,
“Excelsior,” their battle cry, rings proud.

Where eagles soar t'wards cosmic stars,
Not cow'ring from nor doubting life,
Their winged path is fraught with strife
and every freedom earned with scars.

Where eagles soar, blotting orbed sun,
Such brief ordinance do they obey
As blind Justice in scales doth weigh,
“Live free. Seek peace. Fear but The One.”

Where eagles soar to pierce clear skies
On paths no craven e'er can see,
Bright goal of glorious destiny
Not base defeat before them lies.

Where eagles soar 'neath vaults of azure,
Clutching olive's branch, arrow's sheaf,
Tasting naught of guilt nor grief.
To “Life” not “Death” their wings perdure,
Brave cry remains, “Excelsior!”
Daniel's composition bears all of the stigmata of earnestly conceived poetry: a rhyming scheme (ABBA, in this case—at least until the last line—because poetry must rhyme, you know), mysteriously missing letters (marked by a generous sprinkling of apostrophes—you can't go wrong in poetry if you leave out lots of letters), and some obscure vocabulary (tell the truth: Have you ever used “perdure” outside of poetry?). No doubt, this is a poem. It is too bad, however, that Daniel missed a sure bet by forgetting to place the accent mark that turns “winged” and “orbed” into two-syllable words; surely “wingèd” and “orbèd” are the way to go. (Would the extra syllables throw off his painstakingly constructed rhythmic scheme? Oh, please!)

Daniel says it's dedicated to anti-abortion activist Judie Brown (the political lobbyist who heads up the American Life League) and John Paul II. For some reason, Daniel left out Mother Teresa, which is probably a sin of omission.

If Daniel would like some positive strokes for Where Eagles Soar, he should call up Barbara McGuigan on EWTN's Open Line talk show. She will heap unstinting praise on him if he reads it to her (after all, she loved The hardest choice), especially if he mentions it's supposed to be pro-life and anti-abortion. Intention counts for a lot more than talent or execution. He'll be a Catholic Radio star! (Assuming that God doesn't throw Barbara off the air again.)

The knight errant

And his damsels in distress

A friend of mine has been unlucky in love. It's a complicated story, but there is a unifying theme running through it.

My friend is, I believe, an incurable romantic who cannot resist riding to the rescue whenever he hears plaintive cries for help. Eight years ago he was taking an evening class, where he met a young woman with a tale of woe. Her cruel husband had cast her aside and retained possession of their only child, a son for whom her heart ached. She seemed wounded and winsome. That was enough to ensnare “Sir Trevor,” who was instantly ready to mount his steed and break a few lances on her behalf.

Long chats over coffee turned into mutual explorations of hopes and dreams, whereupon the lonely lady confided that she wished she had married Sir Trevor rather than her ex-husband, the evil lord who kept her son in chains. Before he knew it, my friend was betrothed. Soon the newly affianced couple was making the rounds of friends and family, Trevor's intended bride doing her simpering best to ingratiate herself with us.

She succeeded admirably in my case. What skills had I, a middle-aged bachelor, to penetrate the sorceries of a subtle temptress? The wedding followed within months of their first meeting and it was a lovely ceremony. (No one knew the bride had already shown her claws when she shredded Trevor's attempts at writing their marriage vows; he had dared to search for ideas on the Internet instead of relying solely on inspiration from his heart.)

The wedding was followed by mounds of paperwork as the new bride filed petition after petition to regain custody of her son. As it turned out, she already had joint custody, as Trevor soon discovered when the boy came to stay with them. His bride, however, paraded Trevor before various tribunals as evidence she was now ready to be a full-time mother to the boy she had abandoned when she left her first husband. Trevor pondered whether his new wife's claims made much sense, as he was left alone with his stepson while she made the rounds of attorneys and family court.

The family court decided to leave the joint custody arrangement as they were. Mommie Dearest blamed her new husband and Trevor gained a sudden sympathy for his predecessor. Perhaps his wife had not shared the full story.

Trevor married his damsel in distress in the summer. By winter she was gone, as were the contents of their joint bank account. She contrived to leave just before the lease on their apartment expired, thereby ensuring that he would be both broke and, in a few days, homeless. Trevor ended up sleeping on my living room couch for a couple of weeks until his next paycheck came in and he found a new apartment.

He chose an apartment with a spare room that could serve as a nursery, for his wife was pregnant when she left him and he hoped to draw her back. She did return to him, checked out the new apartment, and treated herself to a shopping spree on his credit card. With that done, she packed up her purchases and caught the next flight out of town. It was over, but not done.

For almost three years the two of them battled in court over the divorce and custody arrangements for the boy who was born a few months after the final separation. First Trevor won visitations, then he won shared custody, and finally, when the boy was two years old, he won sole custody. From that moment on, the little boy never saw his mother again. She never exercised her visitation rights under the divorce decree, never called to let him hear her voice on the phone, and never communicated with him further except to send the occasional gift in the mail. “Sir” Trevor was now a single father and his ex-wife now had a second tale of woe about bad husbands and lost sons to tell to potential boyfriends.

Hope springs eternal

During the year after the divorce, Trevor devoted himself to raising his son, assisted by family members and friends. I began my weekly visits to spend time with Trevor and the little boy who called me “Uncle.”

At one point, while his son stayed for several days with grandparents, Trevor toured some countries of the former Soviet Union. One of them was the topic of his MBA thesis, so he took the opportunity to get some first-hand exposure to it. While there, he attended one of the mixers designed to introduce eligible single women to American travelers. I don't know, but that might have been one of his reasons for the trip all along. I wasn't privy to the details.

He met a beautiful young woman who caught his eye and he was smitten again. He didn't speak Russian and she didn't speak English, but that was just a detail to the gallant Trevor. They corresponded via intermediaries and she eventually came to the U.S. on a special visa, the kind given to those betrothed to American residents. Trevor married her soon after her arrival in California and his three-year-old son was charmed by his beautiful new mother, who threw herself into an intense program of learning English and making a home for her new husband and stepson. Trevor had once again rescued a young woman from difficult circumstances and set her up in his castle.

That idyll ended abruptly seven months after it began, when a burst Fallopian tube claimed the young woman's life. Her brain fell victim to the internal hemorrhage in minutes, starved of oxygen long before the emergency medical personnel could stabilize her body and stanch the bleeding. A thirty-hour vigil followed while her vital young body struggled to survive without a living brain. When the monitors in the intensive-care unit finally completed their slow, gradual descent to zero, Trevor was single again and his son was again motherless.

The third time charm

The year after his second wife's death, Trevor remarried. His new bride had been introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance who knew the details of Trevor's circumstances. Wife No. 3 therefore entered the arrangement with open eyes, knowing the tragic past and presumably understanding the challenge of instantly acquiring a four-year-old son. Being of a religious temperament, she prayed to God for guidance and grew confident that she was being called to marriage and motherhood.

Her own family was seriously dysfunctional, her parents still married but long separated. Her mother was severely controlling and inclined to launch dishware-smashing tantrums when things did not go her way. A brief attempt to live under the same roof as his new mother-in-law persuaded Trevor and his wife that they desperately needed a separate domicile. The extended-family experiment abruptly ended as they moved out and a period of relatively tranquility began. Trevor, it seemed, had rescued both his new wife and himself (and his son) from an ogre.

Trevor has now been married more than two years, but his wife no longer lives with him. After a string of miscarriages, she decided that God was punishing her for an ill-favored marriage. (She's very superstitious this way, and for some reason sees no contradiction with her previous conviction that God had told her that Trevor was her divinely ordained spouse.) Although she once told me that she was humbled by how unconditionally Trevor's little boy had given his love to his new mother, she now failed to understand that her stepson was the one thing that would redeem her infertility. Did she want children? She had one, if only she would properly appreciate her responsibilities and obligations toward the little boy who loved her. But sacred vows meant little to her now.

Her last miscarriage sent her back to her mother's house, where Mommie Dearest commiserated over her daughter's condition (as one would expect) and told her it was all her husband's fault (as one would also expect, given her own history). Trevor's wife then announced she was going to eastern Europe for three months, to the former Soviet republic from which her family had come (ironically, the same country where Trevor had found his second wife). In the Slavic homeland she would undergo “natural medicine” treatments (almost certainly worth no more than a relaxing vacation, but undoubtedly much more expensive), after which she expected her health and fertility to be restored.

I think it likely that her evident hypochondria will go into temporary remission once the “healers” work their magic on her, but her genuine fertility problems are, I fear, probably going to stay with her. Will she return to Trevor when she comes back to the United States, or will she go straight to her mother's? Will she learn to be a mother again to the seven-year-old who hasn't seen her in more than a month, or will she tell her estranged husband “that's your problem” again? Perhaps it depends on what “God” tells her this time, prankster that he evidently is.

Waiting for tomorrow

Sir Trevor has rescued three damsels in distress and is still searching for the joyful conclusion where he and his bride and his son live happily ever after. Right now it seems out of reach. He is once again playing the bachelor father and wondering if things will ever go right for him and his little son.

No one knows.