Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Now hear this!

(If you still can)

When I arrived in my classroom, one of my students was listening to music. It was clearly audible from the front of the room, where I was unpacking my briefcase. For a moment I thought that she must have brought in a little radio. That would be like the old days, wouldn't it? I looked over at the student in question and was dismayed to see that she was listening to an iPod, buds plugged into her ears, the volume cranked up so high that my middle-aged senses were easily picking up the sound from a dozen feet away.

In a conversational tone, I said, “You like your music rather loud, don't you?”

She was completely oblivious. Her classmates began to chuckle. I spoke a little louder.

“Isn't that turned up just a little too high?”

She was still wrapped up in her rapt attention to her rap. The other students were all grins and giggles now. I addressed them instead.

“I confidently predict that there will be huge investment opportunities in companies that make hearing aids. That has got to be a growth industry in the future.”

Maybe there'll even be legal firms dedicated to starting class-action lawsuits against Apple, just like some outfits devote their time to suing tobacco companies. I wouldn't be surprised.

Eventually my student noticed out of the corner of her eye that the class was getting started. She disengaged from her tympanic destruction system and transferred her attention to me. She's a very good student and is doing well in her class. For now, at least, she can still hear me when I talk. In the future, perhaps before very long, she'll be hearing whatever she hears with a constant background hum or ringing.

If she can hear anything at all.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Jesus H. Christ, M.D.

Tell Dr. Jesus where it hurts

“Good morning! I'm Dr. Sawbones and I'll be doing your surgery this afternoon. I thought it would be a nice thing if we spent a few minutes praying to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for a good outcome to your operation. I also wanted to make sure that you've accepted Christ into your heart, because if anything should go wrong, your only path to eternal happiness in heaven is through the saving blood of our dear Savior. Do you have Jesus in your heart?”

Pray tell, how would you react to that? Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, says it's increasingly likely for hospital patients to be confronted by such an “opportunity”:
Several patients recently complained about a surgeon who regularly invited his patients to pray with him before surgery. The patients said they were never forced to pray, but some complained that they felt that if they refused to pray, it might insult the surgeon who was about to operate on them. Others felt it would be bad luck not to pray when invited by your surgeon—even if they didn't believe in prayer.
Although I share the concerns reported by Dr. Wilkes, I prefer to take a positive point of view. If your overtly religious surgeon were to learn that you are a nonbeliever, than wouldn't he strive mightily to preserve your life so as to have further opportunities to evangelize you and perhaps redeem another soul (that is, the soul he imagines you have)? But perhaps I am too optimistic and he would just as soon consign you to the condign punishments of hell. Only his professional pride would save you in that case.

Dr. Wilkes contributes an Inside Medicine column to the pages of the Sacramento Bee. The paragraph I quoted comes from the February 25, 2007, installment, which carries the title On care—and prayer. He points out that medicine and religion often intersect, but questions whether religious doctors have any business bringing their religion into their interactions with patients. Is there supposed to be any benefit to praying with one's patients?
There is a growing number of those in the medical community who believe physicians should both inquire about a person's religious beliefs and promote religion as a road to improved health. Advocates have been successful at encouraging many medical schools to offer education on religion and spiritual health.

Proponents cite figures suggesting that the American population, and even a majority of scientists, are highly religious, believe in God, and if sick would want religious support. They further cite studies that show that religious activity is associated with improved health and longer life.

It could be argued, however, that many of these studies are biased and flawed. Those who are religious often engage in radically different lifestyles than the non-religious. Some could say that it's the lifestyle, rather than the religion, that contributes to any health benefit. Further, research on religion regularly assumes a Christian context that ignores the large diversity of other beliefs and spiritual thinking.
Attempts to prove the efficacy of prayer have always failed —at least whenever competent scientific standards have been applied to the investigations. Dr. Wilkes suggests that his fellow physicians refrain from intruding any further than necessary into a patient's personal life.
One might ask, how can bringing religion into medical practice be bad? Here, I think, there is a slippery slope. I worry that doctors may find it difficult to refrain from religious discussions or promotion of religion. Promoting or endorsing religion at a time of illness has the potential to stir intense feelings of conflict, guilt and anxiety for many people. For some, the religion discussion may even imply self-blame for not having led a more religious life....

Doctors should ask sick people if they'd like to speak with a spiritual leader, and if they do, our task is to make arrangements for such a visit. We should ask healthy patients if they are religious or spiritual, just as we ask if they are allergic to any medications. In both cases, the information may be helpful in the future.

But to use our position to suggest sick people pray or attend church is beyond our expertise and takes us from a medical agenda to a personal and private agenda. The medical profession ought to attend to matters of health and illness, and refer sick people to colleagues in the clergy.
Yes—provided those sick people actually want to talk to members of the clergy. With that proviso, I'd say Dr. Wilkes has written a good prescription.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Certifiably good

Numbers don't lie!

I decided to risk the judgment of the Gematriculator on my blog. As you may (or may not) know, gematria is a numerological pseudoscience that ascribes meaning to strings of letters or numbers. To my surprise, Halfway There is certifiably a GOOD blog by the standards of the Gematriculator. I'll need to add a dash or two more of evil. Evil! (Where is Sir Simon Milligan when you need him?)

This site is certified 37% EVIL by the Gematriculator

This site is certified 63% GOOD by the Gematriculator

Holy definite integral, Batman!

Applied math

Even the smartest students occasionally get stumped during an exam. A physics problem concerning the trajectory of a proton caused one young scholar to give up and use the remaining time to devise (and solve!) an original problem. There's no sign that the student was rewarded for his or her endeavor. The fruits of this student's labors, however, have been launched into the tubes of the Internet, where it may find a kind of electronic immortality. This morning it was forwarded to my campus mail box. This afternoon, I post it on my blog. Who knows where else it has appeared? Where will it appear next?

Behold as calculus is used to unmask the Dark Knight! (Observe that the diligent student did not omit the crucial d(bat) from the integral.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Her Majesty's Phish

A very classy scam

The queen is very concerned about me and my financial well-being. She—actually, her Secret Intelligence Service—warns me that I could be victimized by an on-line scam. (She's right, you know!) An urgent e-mail from Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service urges me to send it detailed personal information, including “evidence of payment of monies.” I presume that latter could include bank or credit card statements. I'm sure they wouldn't ask for it if they didn't really need it. And this is from the British, allies so close to us that they fall all over themselves to indulge the imperialist whims of our Boy King in the White House.

See for yourself what the Anti-Scam Department of the British Secret Intelligence Service had to say. I am most frightfully sorry that I broke all of the links that were in the original message. You'll just have to wait till you get your own message from Her Majesty's finest if you want to test them out. Here it is:
X-Header-Overseas: Mail.from.Overseas.source.
Reply-To: use-the-hyperlink-only@sis.gov.uk
Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2007 19:51:17 +0100
Subject: SCAM ALERT!!
X-Priority: 1

P. O Box 1300, London SE1 1BD, United Kingdom. Tel/Fax: + 44 700 593 1047


This email is being sent to you today, as a result of the scam alert warning which your email address signaled to our computer database today, with strong indication that you currently MIGHT be in a business transaction where you are a SCAM VICTIM unknowingly.

With slim chances that our prediction can be wrong, please kindly take time to answer these questions outlined below quickly;

1. Are you in a business transaction case, where you have been approached to claim millions of (United States Dollars, British Pound Sterlings, Euros, e.t.c.), with a huge reward of a particular percentage of the complete fund amount to go to you?

2. Are you in a business transaction case, where you have been approached by a lottery company with claims that you have successfully won millions of (United States Dollars, British Pound Sterlings, Euros, e.t.c.)?

3. Are you in a business transaction case, where you have been approached and promised to be assisted in having an overdue contract award funds that is supposely your's, to be successfully released to you without further hitches or delays, provided you comply with every instruction that you receive?

4. Are you in a business transaction case where you have been promised to receive large sums of money in excess of millions of (United States Dollars, British Pound Sterlings, Euros, e.t.c.), as a reward for your simple assistance?

5. Are you in a business transaction case where you were approached and promised to be awarded a contract worth millions or billions of (United States Dollars, British Pound Sterlings, Euros, e.t.c.)?

If you do not find yourself in any of the category as outlined above, please kindly dismiss our scam alert on your email address, and discard this message immediately, as our predictions have turned out to be false, where we sincerely apologize for any inconveniences this message might have caused you, but if you have a friend who fits into any of the category as outlined above, the best you can do for him/her is to forward this e-mail to him/her immediately, so as to enable him/her receive assistance free of charge immediately.

If you find yourself in any of the category outlined above, YOU ARE ADVISED TO READ ON VERY CAREFULLY, as there is a 99.99% chance that you are currently a victim of fraud/scam, run by notorious criminals known as con artists, with the sole aim of scamming and ripping you off your very hard earned funds!! But there is super good news, as you can receive immediate and a complete free of charge assistance from our department, where we can assist you in tracking down these con artists, have them brought to justice, and retrieve any monies in complete amounts that you have been scammed out of, in a maximum of twenty four (24) hours only, by using our new advanced scam combat techniques, but before we proceed, please honestly answer the final question outlined below, in-order to determine if you are eligible for our assistance.




There are two (3) categories for eligible persons, we have;

CATEGORY ONE (1): This category are for persons who are in a business transaction that they believe is real, but want to determine its validity (i.e Whether the business transaction case is actually real or not).

CATEGORY TWO (2): This category are for persons who are in a business transaction that they believe is real and have already invested their monies into the business transaction as fees, and now want to determine its validity (i.e Whether the business transaction case is actually real or not).

CATEGORY THREE (3): This category are for persons who are in a business transaction that they believe is probably not real, and have already invested their monies into the business transaction, and want to determine its validity, and retrieve all their paid monies immediately.


To initiate our assistance process immediately, our elligible persons are to comply with the directives as outlined below; WARNING: DO NOT PROCEED WITH YOUR SUSPICIOUS BUSINESS TRANSACTION UNTIL WE HAVE SCRUTINIIZED YOUR CASE AND REVERTED BACK TO YOU. DIRECTIVES FOR CATEGORY ONE (1) PERSONS:

If you are a Category one (1) person, you are instructed to furnish us immediately with our requirements as outlined below, via our secured email address by clicking the hyperlink CONTACT US SECURELY, or via our secured fax by using the number (+ 44 700 593 1047 ), while indicating that you are a Category one (1) person.


DIRECTIVES FOR CATEGORY TWO (2) PERSONS: If you are a Category two (2) person, you are instructed to furnish us immediately with our requirements as outlined below, via our secured email address by clicking the hyperlink CONTACT US SECURELY, or via our secured fax by using the number (+ 44 700 593 1047 ), while indicating that you are a Category two (2) person.


DIRECTIVES FOR CATEGORY THREE (3) PERSONS: If you are a Category three (3) person, you are instructed to furnish us immediately with our requirements as outlined below, via our secured email address by clicking the hyperlink CONTACT US SECURELY, or via our secured fax by using the number (+ 44 700 593 1047 ), while indicating that you are a Category three (3) person.


If you have accurately furnished us with our requirements as instructed and outlined above via our secured e-mail or fax number as accurately outlined above, please kindly allow us a maximum of twenty four (24) hours only, to receive our revert in line to your category selection.

Thank you for your understanding and co-operation.

Yours faithfully,


© Secret Intelligence Service 2007.

For more informations on the Secret Intelligence Service click here

I'm just grateful that after all the fuss back in 1776 (and the subsequent unpleasantness in 1812), the Brits are nevertheless so kindly disposed toward us Americans that they bother to write us to warn of the dangers out there on the Internet.

I must hasten to thank them! That is, once I figure out whether I'm a Category one (1), two (2), or three (3) person.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Crossed lines

A tale of math panic

This term's elementary algebra class is one of the weakest collections of math students I have ever had the experience of teaching. (This is the same five-day-a-week class that contained the student who thought we met only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.) Only five students (out of 23) passed the exam on the equations and slopes of straight lines. It was that big a disaster.

Algebra is one of those subjects that can be learned in at least two completely distinct ways. While I prefer conceptual learning, I will settle when necessary for mechanical. Many of algebra's techniques can be learned by rote and applied mechanically. Anyone capable of tying shoelaces should be able to master a short progression of steps and apply it in specific circumstances. It's a fall-back position, but I thought it was a robust one—especially when fortified by my deliberate policy of allowing students to maintain and use a notecard of formulas, instead of emphasizing memorization.

Shows what I know. Our most recent chapter was a paean to the beloved slope-intercept form for the equation of a line. The equation y = mx + b is a delightful mathematical construct, manifesting in all their glory the slope m and the y-intercept b. Yet when I asked my students to find the slope of the line 2x − 3y = 18, did they remember how time and again we had solved for y so as to pluck the slope from in front of x in the resulting equation? They did not.

No, some of them began to painstakingly grind out points on the line so that they could use the “rise over run” formula for slope. That shouldn't have been too bad, since I gave them a line with simple axis intercepts, but they spurned those, too. One student plugged in x = 1 and discovered to her dismay that the corresponding value of y was −16/3. She would have to stick fractions into the ratio for slope and then simplify the result. My students hate fractions, probably because they worship the decimal approximations that tumble out of their calculators. (Many modern calculators can do fractional arithmetic, but most of my students clearly don't know how to use that feature. Probably just as well.)

Once again, the students who pick a clumsy but correct technique lack the chops to persevere to a successful conclusion. The ones who could have pulled off the calculations never had to, because they (all five of them) chose more efficient approaches to the problem.

Lost beyond redemption, one student came up to me to ask a clarifying question. I encourage them to see me when they're stuck, even during exams and quizzes. If they can answer the questions I ask, they can usually do the problem on which they've been stuck. It's a Socratic kind of thing. In this case, my student was so anxious she could not remember the slope-intercept form that we had been working on so hard. It was not even on her notecard of formulas. (When students follow my directions and carefully annotate the formulas on their notecards with reasons to use each one, they often remember the formulas and their applications without needing to look at the card during an exam. They've accidentally learned the techniques.) We quickly came to an impasse, so she handed in her paper and returned to her desk, hyper-ventilating and shaking.

I don't know what to do, but I think a lot of one-on-one student-teacher conferences are coming up. We're moving from simple linear equations to a chapter on solutions of linear systems. The dean won't be pleased if I salvage no more than five students out of my entire enrollment. And I sure won't be pleased either. And what are my students thinking?

A big part of it is probably test anxiety, since several students who got D's and F's are much more successful in classroom discussions. They ask intelligent questions and seem to be following what's going on. Most of them have modest success on single-problem quizzes that I frequently give, but multiple-problem exercises or four-page exams strike terror into their hearts. I'll have to talk many of them into getting the test-anxiety counseling that we offer our students. Clearly they need it.

One algebra student has sent me a request, but I don't think I'll be able to honor it:
Professor Z:

I have a request. Right before I start taking my next test would you please take the chalk filled eraser and whack me upside the head with it in hopes it will knock the “idiot” out of me? Remember my first assignment in which I informed you of the Algebra for Idiots book? You said you felt “we” could get me above idiot stage. I am so frustrated with myself for this last test as I truly did know how to do the problem. I think it's psychological due to a bad math teacher in the 4th grade, made me cry and called me stupid. His name was Mr. Xxxxx. I appreciate that you haven't done that. All joking aside...
I'm quite certain that I am not permitted to pummel my students with erasers, even for pedagogical purposes. It may be that this student is still working out old classroom traumas, but what's going on with all of her classmates?

Time for me to get busy finding out.

Politically incorrect statistics

Some of my best friends are same sex

My statistics class met on Valentine's Day. I decided to be topical, handing out a hypothesis-test worksheet containing the following set-up:
Let Population 1 be women who received roses from their spouses on Valentine’s Day, while Population 2 comprises women who did not. On a scale that measures satisfaction with one’s spouse, Population 2 has a mean of 84 with a standard deviation of 6.4. You are studying whether women who received roses from their husbands on Valentine’s Day rank higher in spousal satisfaction than those who did not. You think Population 1 will have a higher mean, but with the same standard deviation.
One of my students reacted to the word “husbands”:

“Oh, oh! Dr. Z, you left out same-sex couples when you said ‘husbands’ instead of ‘spouses.’ That's not very inclusive!”

Another chimed in. She said, “Yes, I do feel left out now!”

I paused for a beat, then replied, “I did think of that, naturally.” (I did, honestly!) “However, I did not feel that it was my place to assume that same-sex couples would necessarily wish to be conformed to the traditional male-female flower-giving roles of Valentine's Day.”

My lesbian student favored me with an indulgent smile and said, “That was a really good save!”

And then we carried on with the hypothesis test. By the way, it turned out that women in traditional couples do prefer to receive flowers. Of course, I deliberately wrote the problem that way, based on strong observational evidence deduced from the manifest preferences of my mother, sister, and sister-in-law. And my student? She was also happy to have gotten a Valentine Day's remembrance.

Goodies for everyone, I say.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Coulter Coup

A lulu of an in-lieu

One of the gimmicks intended to juice up the debut of The Half Hour News Hour, a supposedly satirical news program on Fox, is a guest appearance by the dynamic duo of Limbaugh and Coulter. In a clip carrying the dateline January 21, 2009, Rush plays a newly elected President of the United States and Ann portrays his running mate. Vice President Coulter, demonstrating that she has stayed as sweet as she ever was, threatens to convert people to Christianity if they don't watch The Half Hour News Hour. How compelling.

I was intrigued that Rush ended his bit with a heartfelt “May God bless the United States of America—and us!” Perhaps Limbaugh doesn't think that he and Coulter are covered by his invocation for the U.S.A. Makes sense to me, since they are always off in their own little twisted world. Better to be safe than sorry.

I hear that Fox News has promoted their bright red version of The Daily Show with a spot showing Coulter getting in touch with the Pentagon. I haven't seen the promo, but one rightwing source quotes her as saying, “This is acting President Coulter. Are there any countries we haven't invaded yet?”

That entertains me. No, it's not the humorous implication that an empowered Coulter would embroil the country in more ill-fated foreign adventures, as knee-slapping as that is. It's the use of the term “acting president.” Doesn't that feed your fantasies? What happened to President Limbaugh? The 25th amendment must be at work!

The title “acting president” did not exist in the U.S. Constitution until Sen. Birch Bayh crafted the 25th amendment and saw it adopted as the law of the land. The 25th amendment was famously responsible for the presidency of Gerald Ford, who was appointed under its provisions to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president, less than a year before Nixon resigned as president. Here's what the amendment says about “acting president”:
Section 3

Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Well, what are we to think, folks? Is Coulter acting in lieu of a drug-addled Limbaugh, Oxycontin having claimed yet another victim for hillbilly heroin? Or is she a Section 4 executive, having engineered a palace coup with the connivance of a majority of the cabinet? We can be forgiven for speculating what she promised them in return for their support of her putsch.

Mind you, this is not idle speculation. We know, after all, that Fox News is populated by the most responsible and erudite journalists in the business. Right? (Extremely right!) They're all experts in constitutional law and would never dangle a tidbit like an “acting” Coulter presidency before us without being fully aware of the subtle implications.

What delightful wits they are!

Sort of an apology

Stirring it up

Since switching to the new version of Blogger last month, I've started appending labels to the 200+ posts in my archives. Naturally, as is my wont, I've done it almost completely at random, sometimes working on the oldest posts, sometimes the newest. I haven't rewritten anything, although I have fixed a few typos and misspellings as they've come to my attention. Like the narcissist I am, I often find myself rereading my old posts for my own entertainment. Boy, I'll talk about anything, won't I? (Credentials!? We ain't got no credentials. We don't need no credentials! I don't have to show you any stinking credentials!)

In the process of working through the archives and republishing the labeled version of each post, I know I've caused the old stories to pop into blog readers as if they're new. I hope that I'm not inconveniencing any of my regular readers (what? all 20 of you?) by flooding your RSS feeds with old stuff. I've updated nearly half of the articles so far and churning up the back-list will continue for a couple of weeks more, no doubt. Sorry! I'll leaven the flood with the usual handful of new posts each week, so keep your eyes peeled for those.

Thanks, folks!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A postscript to Darwin Day

One of those teachable moments

On Tuesday morning, I strolled into my business math class and found my students in their usual state of disarray. Also as usual, I gave them a couple of minutes to notice that their instructor had arrived and shuffled my papers while waiting for them to settle down. Eventually it got quiet enough for me to venture an opening remark, which tends to get their attention. This time I quipped, “I imagine all of you are still excited over yesterday's observance of Darwin Day.”

Most of the class showed blank faces. They had had no idea that the previous day had been the anniversary of Darwin's birth. One boy, however, was quick to respond:

“We should dig up his body and beat him up!”

My eyebrows went up. “Really? And why would you say such a thing?”

“Well, because of all the trouble he caused.”

I regarded him steadily. “Trouble? Is being a great thinker making trouble?”

My student's reaction appeared to be a spontaneous and thoughtless outburst. Not entirely a fool (indeed, he seems to be a good student in most respects), he quickly realized that he and his teacher were not on the same wavelength. He scrambled to recover.

“I could use his brain. If I dug up his brain I could use it in class.”

I shrugged. “I would recommend that you try to use a living brain instead. It might help you more.”

The exchange was done and we moved to the exciting topic of quadratic functions and their applications.

In the time since that incident, I've wondered what provoked him to react so suddenly and so strongly. He's a classroom quipster anyway, so I'm used to his tendency to try to insert jokes into our sessions, but this time he misfired and found his instructor less inclined to indulge him. Darwin isn't on my syllabus, of course, but I might discreetly interrogate him if he should drop in during my office hours. I suspect, of course, that he must be a creationist. He's not alone. But he also thought it would be all right to aim a barb at Darwin after his teacher made a light reference to the great man's anniversary.

He must not have known that I am part of the great international conspiracy of unchurched evolutionists. (How scary for him, now that he's beginning to suspect.)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Word to your brother

More weight than it can bear

The conversation had taken a turn and I had obviously missed it. The words seemed familiar, but they were heavy laden, carrying more meaning than I was accustomed to. It was an odd experience, since vocabulary is one of my strong suits. Matters cleared up when my interlocutor flashed his trump card. Apparently racism is a term that can be applied only to members of the majority—specifically, to white people. By definition, minorities could not be racist.

Whose definition? As an ethnic minority myself, I was perfectly well aware that there were members of my tribe who exhibited strong racial prejudices. Perhaps we, however, were white enough to qualify as racists (given that we met the other requirements).

I was talking to a white guy. When he finished his earnest explanation of the specific nature of racism, I asked for a clarification: Was it not possible for a black person to be racially prejudiced against white people? His reply was prompt: Of course, but they couldn't be racists because racism required power.

Couldn't you be a member of a powerless minority and still harbor racial prejudice? He agreed that you might have those prejudices, but he insisted that power was an absolute concomitant of racism. No power, no racism.

It would have been helpful to have known that at the start of our conversation on the state of our national culture.

Humpty Dumpty

Despite my political liberalism, I am quite conservative when it comes to language. No one has to tell me that language belongs to the people and that they have a right to tweak, twist, and transform it however they like. Language constantly evolves. I decline, however, to push its evolution along. Billions of people are heedlessly involved in that endeavor and they don't need my help.

I prefer that language evolve slowly, lest we lose our ability to communicate clearly with each other. It's a waste of time to complain about the atrocities that young people visit on the spoken word. That, after all, is one of their jobs—to craft language that transmits information to their peers while locking the old people out. Some of their youthful excesses will become domesticated and enter the vocabulary of the mainstream while other flights of fancy will pass out of fashion. It has ever been thus and I'm not troubled by it.

No, what bothers me is the artless distortion of language by adults who should know better—or at least appreciate the need to be more careful about it. When you insist that a word carries a cartload of connotations that reflect a highly specialized point of view, you lose the ability to use that word meaningfully with anyone outside your clique. The guy I was talking to was not using the same language as I was. If I had said “impotent racism,” he would have heard it as an oxymoron, since power was at the center of his definition. No doubt the word worked wonderfully well in his in-group, but the invisible connotations created confusion whenever he conversed with others.

I could appreciate the sentiments behind it (often stridently decried as “political correctness” by those who wish to continue to use racist, sexist, or homophobic language like in the good old days), but I also see the creation of genuine language barriers.

A term of art

My mind flashed back to that conversation, which occurred about fifteen years ago, when I perused the February 10, 2007, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. A letter in the Datebook section gently chided a journalist for using a standard vocabulary word without realizing that it had fallen into disfavor among academics:

As a daughter of the South and an academic who has published books and articles on slavery, I wanted to thank you for the well-composed essay in today's Chronicle....

One small detail I might point out in Winn's article, however, is his use of “master.” These days, academics who work in the field do not use this term except in very specific circumstances, when directly quoting or when describing a relationship where that power valence is operative.

To describe someone who legally owned or held another person in slavery, we say “slaveholder” or “slave owner.” To use the term master, many believe, affirms the nature of the relationship from the slaveholder's point of view, not the enslaved person's point of view.

To be someone's master, the objectified person must have consented to the terms of the relationship and self-identified as a slave. It may be a small, and to some a silly and insignificant, shift in vocabulary, but words do things and actions say things.

By choosing to view a historical relationship from the perspective of the vulnerable, not the entitled, is an act saying what we value; and by shifting our discourse to engage new language, our actions say we believe we can do better than re-inscribe the former paradigms of authority and privilege.

Again, many thanks for Winn's essay.

Kim Connor
Assistant professor
American studies
University of San Francisco
I think Professor Connor is off the mark if she thinks it's useful to promote general use of an academically nuanced definition of “master.” In fact, I'm not even sure how useful such an approach is within an academic setting. While precise definitions are critical in serious discourse, co-opting commonly understood terms by giving them painstakingly refined definitions is a good way to make one's work inaccessible outside one's field of endeavor. In such cases, we either accept that our research papers are for limited circulation and consumption, or we include a glossary in each paper that explains the common words we've turned into terms of art.

I'm not big on neologism, but it may be better to craft a new term for specific uses than to transform old ones. Furthermore, if you're brilliantly successful at transforming old terms, it will then become necessary to read old texts in full awareness of old definitions if we wish to comprehend their meaning. This will always be true, of course, and can't be avoided. My point is that we shouldn't exacerbate the problem needlessly. The less stability language has, the greater the confusion.

One more thing

As someone who tends toward prescriptivism, I cannot end this post without noting one additional thing about Dr. Connor's letter: the dangling participial phrase.
To be someone's master, the objectified person must have consented...
The phrase is clearly intended to refer to the slave owner, not to the objectified person. I go back to my original point: Communication suffers when clarity is lacking.

And now that I've carped about the tiny mote in Professor Connor's eye, I must try to be careful about the occasional beams in mine.

Friday, February 09, 2007

I saw it on the Internets

Reportage 101

Would you like to be a journalist? We who blog aren't journalists, you know, but we can always learn from the example of one of today's highly paid professionals.

This morning on KSFO's Morning Show, Lee Rodgers showed how it's done. Since I have a rather delicate stomach, I never listen to San Francisco's “Hot Talk” radio station for more than a few minutes at a time. Nevertheless, Rodgers is a consummate professional who can always be relied up to deliver some priceless bit of reportage—pronounced in the French manner, of course—so he must be dishing it out nonstop.

Today he was trying to pump some life into the limp story about Pelosi's supposed demand for a castle in the sky. Or was it a stairway to heaven? In any case, Rodgers waxed indignant that Pelosi was allegedly demanding special treatment from the military authorities who provide secure transportation to the Speaker of the House. After all, Speaker Hastert was given a plane that flew him nonstop to Illinois any time he wished. Why should Speaker Pelosi expect more?

Well, maybe because she's from California? Last I heard, that's a little farther from D.C. than the Land of Lincoln. If the current Speaker is to be accorded the equivalent privilege of a nonstop trip to her home district, deemed advisable by the House Sergeant at Arms, it seems reasonable that a slightly more robust plane than Hastert's might be required.

Perhaps Rodgers is weak on geography.

But no! Rodgers sneeringly explained to his listeners that Pelosi was making unreasonable demands and he could prove it. I pricked up my ears. Right-wing radio prefers to offer blatant assertions and specious allegations, so the announcement of forthcoming evidence suggested a new era was dawning for KSFO. Rodgers was eager to tell the radio audience exactly how to examine the proof for itself.

His secret weapon was Google: “Type in ‘Gulfstream,’” Rodgers said. “Type in ‘specifications.’”

He then read from one of the references provided by Google. Rodgers chortled that the Gulfstream III jet previously assigned to Hastert has a range of nearly 4000 miles, providing “proof positive” that Pelosi was demanding special treatment, California being less than 4000 miles from Washington, D.C.

As we all know, information provided by the many tubes of the Internets is carefully vetted, completely reliable, and utterly unambiguous.

Rodgers never got to the part about how a plane's range is significantly affected by passenger load, headwinds, and other flight conditions. Since he didn't read that there are plenty of circumstances under which a Gulfstream III cannot reliably be expected to make it across the country nonstop, that concern magically vanishes.

We mustn't blame him for this. As a highly paid professional journalist, Lee Rodgers must have known that too much research would have made his story vanish, too. He couldn't have that!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Non compos mentis ex post facto

Rightly reasoned

Extremist thought is pervaded by pseudo-scholarship. Conclusions are pre-ordained, so arguments need only the semblance of plausibility. The usual rhetorical tools include appeals to nature (e.g., “Even a superficial glance is sufficient to show that all the innumerable forms in which the life-urge of Nature manifests itself are subject to a fundamental law”) or sheer obviousness (e.g., “There are certain truths which stand out so openly on the roadsides of life, as it were, that every passer-by may see them”).

Both of these quotes are from Chapter 11, “Race and People,” of Mein Kampf. Hitler goes on to prove via his iron-clad deductions that Jews are an inferior mongrel race and deserve to be exterminated. Translator James Murphy found it necessary to use the words “obvious” and “evident” dozens of times in rendering Hitler's prose into English. Clearly it would be foolhardy to dismiss rhetoric so obviously based on the evidence of sweet reason. In just this manner, Hitler spun a pseudoscientific net of racial theories and Volks power.

Mein Kampf is the modern archetype of the radical screed and it may seem intemperate to invoke it in making a point about modern radical rhetoric. However, Hitler's book and its junior descendants are sprinkled generously about the Internet. Echoes of its specious logic are heard in the arguments of contemporary hatemongers. David Niewert of Orcinus has documented in great detail how today's extremists continue to employ language as a tool to dehumanize their targets and suggest that they are ripe for elimination. Today's targets include liberals, gays, and minorities. Oh, and judges.

Yes, judges are among today's extremist targets. Right-wingers complain incessantly about “activist” judges. It's understandable, because judges have frustrated the efforts of religionists to stick granite monuments to the Ten Commandments in court houses (in that case the leading religionist was also a judge!), prevented the imposition of thinly disguised creationism (“intelligent design”) on public school science curriculum, and mandated legislative relief to same-sex couples seeking equal marital rights before the law. Yes, it's a judicial reign of terror in the eyes of the arch conservatives. (Insignificant issues like warrantless wiretapping, summary imprisonment, and suspension of habeas corpus do not, however, ruffle their feathers at all.)

Judges were the focus of the presentation by Alan Keyes at the October 2006 celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. Dr. Keyes may be best known for his recent landslide defeat in a race for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, managing no better than 27% of the 2004 general election vote versus 70% for Barack Obama. Before his epic drubbing, Keyes held appointive positions in the State Department and as ambassador to a council of the United Nations. His on-line biographical sketch notes that he ran for president in both 1996 and 2000, which no one would remember if he hadn't mentioned it.

His greatest strength is probably his energetic speaking manner, but his speeches are replete with meretricious statements of “obvious” fact, as when he condemns judges for supposedly legislating from the bench. In his talk at the anniversary celebration for the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, Keyes presented his bizarre theory that judges violate the constitution when they interpret or clarify law. Dr. Keyes inveighs against this judicial usurpation, as he sees it, by claiming that such rulings are contrary to the constitutional ban on ex post facto laws.

Do you follow that? Keyes says that interpretation of the law—a key responsibility of the judicial branch—is unconstitutional because it occurs after enactment of said law, resulting in an illicit after-the-fact gloss on the original measure. Does Dr. Keyes really believe that legislative intent is always so transparent that judicial review is patently unnecessary? That strikes me as ridiculous, although I must admit that I am no lawyer. But then, neither is Dr. Keyes. (His degree is in government, not law.)

I'm not making this up. Here he is in his own words, which you can hear for yourself in the middle (4:54) of the second segment of his talk*, archived at D. James Kennedy's Truths that Transform. His voice oozes contempt as he declaims these lines:
To give you just one further proof that this whole business—of the law being what the judge says it is—is nonsense, please remind yourself every now and again that ex post facto laws are unconstitutional: The law must be known before the offense is committed! Last time I looked, judges don't get involved till after the offense is committed, the offender is brought to court, and then the judge gets to say something. So all judicial decisions occur after that.

Am I wrong about that? I don't think so.

That would mean that every every judicial decision—if that's when we know what the law is—is an ex post facto law and those are unconstitutional! The law can't be what the judge says it is because the judge doesn't speak until after the fact, and in our system the law must be written before the fact, so it can be known and violated when the fact is established.

So again and again we see that this is a lie.

They're conspiring to throw the umpire out of the game. If D. James Kennedy and Alan Keyes and their fellow travelers get their way, and judicial review is abolished, what wonderful world will we then live in? The rules will be whatever the party in power says it is, and a creationist Christian utopia will blossom. That's obvious, right?

But ... wait just a minute. The thousand-year Republican majority was ousted from Congress last year. Keyes and others might yet be grateful that judicial review exists as Democrats take over the business of crafting the nation's laws. Ever think of that?

It should have been obvious.

*The link to the Keyes speech will probably not last very long, since Coral Ridge Ministries continually updates their on-line archives and retires older clips. In the future, however, the organization plans a massive digital library that will make the entire Coral Ridge Ministries archives—over thirty years of material—readily available. I wonder whether the impact of that archive will benefit Kennedy's movement the way he obviously expects it to. Many of the things said from the Coral Ridge platform would be best buried and forgotten.

The asportual male

The only one?

Growing up in the rustic isolation of California's great Central Valley, I knew I was the only one. Perhaps in the big cities I might find others of my own kind, but in my formative years I was utterly isolated.

Fortunately, I didn't care all that much. That certainly made it easier to endure my uniqueness.

All of my experiences in school confirmed that I was growing up alone. No one else shared my predilections. I was confident, however, that college would contain other birds of my feather. In fact, I was sure when I received my acceptance letter from Caltech that my isolation was about to end.

Wrong again.

It turned out that my brainiac classmates at Tech were just about as fascinated by sports as the students I had known in elementary and high school. This discovery stunned me. I had been so certain that it was just a matter of time before I encountered my peer group. Generalizing from a sample of size one (apparently not a good idea), I had assumed that other really smart, clever, and literate boys would be as disdainful of sports as I was (and am). Nope. My smarty-pants peers clustered around the televisions in the rec rooms and commons just as happily as the denser types of my high school cohort. Damn.

I still recall one small glimmer of light, which I glimpsed in a newspaper during my teen years (as best as I can remember). It was an article published in the Fresno Bee, and I believe it was a story plucked off one of the wire services. I might even have clipped it out, in which case it is lost in the bundled bales of ephemera from my youth (tucked in various boxes and drawers both in my home and my parents'). The title was “The asportual male.” The article reported that the non-sports-obsessed male was more common than generally assumed, but such males were often invisible because they chose to “pass” as sports fans by dutifully sitting through game broadcasts, perusing sports pages, and occasionally traveling with sports-minded buddies to local sports stadia. The horror! Thus I learned that I was not alone, but that most others of my inclination had gone into hiding.


Sui generis

I must not have been adequately socialized during my youth, because I can't imagine enduring long hours of tedious sports viewing just because it's the cultural norm for American males. Perhaps it would help if I had developed a taste for beer, but that remedy doesn't appeal to me. (You can imagine how attractive I find sports bars.) Perhaps the oddest thing about me is that I never felt compelled to pretend an interest, although I can see in retrospect why other young males would prefer to conform. We are a mostly gregarious species.

In my entire life, I have never watched a football or baseball or basketball or soccer game on television. Sure, I've seen plenty of snippets. I have a father and a younger brother who never miss a chance to watch whatever organized sport is going on after the holiday feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. As Dad gets older and deafer, I have to retreat ever greater distances to escape the blaring boob tube and breathless babbling of the commentators. One works out accommodations.

I have, however, managed to sit through two high school football games, one of which was the junior varsity coach debut of my college roommate, who had just taken a math teaching job at a local secondary school. I sat with his parents in the bleachers and replied honestly to his father's question about the team's prospects by saying that (a) I had no idea, (b) I had never seen one of their games before, and (c) that I had never seen a football game before. The man's eyes bugged out. He turned to his wife in utter astonishment and said, “Did you hear that? Can you believe it?” I was in my twenties at the time. The experience of those games was more than enough to sate my virtually nonexistent curiosity.

A few years later I was working in downtown Sacramento, an aide in state government. I had an office in a big office building that housed several state agencies. My agency was a small operation and my few colleagues soon learned not to bother to ask me if I had “seen the game last night” or what I thought about some recent newspaper article about Sacramento's perpetual quest for respectability through acquisition of a national sports franchise. (I think they eventually got one. Like I care.) Others in the building were slower to learn, many an elevator ride lapsing into an uncomfortable silence after my typical response, “Oh, was there a game last night?”

At least the couple of years when I had a college roommate, before I could swing a deal for a single apartment, had fewer complications. My roomie was delighted to discover that the newspaper's sport pages were instantly available to him. The subscriptions were mine, but those sections were always pulled out and tossed to one side, where he would eagerly pounce upon them. Of course, it was occasionally a bit awkward when I'd decide to grab lunch at a local lunch counter. I'd be there browsing the daily news and someone would ask me if I was done with the sports page. You betcha! I'm so done with it that it's not even here. It's back at the apartment where my roommate is probably chewing the pages in rapt bliss.

A glance at any other newspaper-browsing patron would usually reveal a guy poring over a sports section. Sometimes the business section, but that was a distant second.

Staying the course

While the sports-loving tendencies of my Caltech classmates had been a big surprise (and, frankly, a huge disappointment), surprise #2 was waiting in the wings. Years later, now out of government service and working as a teacher, one of my faculty colleagues invited me to his birthday party. It was a convivial event, with plenty of soft drinks for teetotalers like me. My colleague and his partner had a circle of interesting friends, many of whom were gay. And several were eager to chat about recent sports news. As the clueless idiot I was (and, probably, mostly still am), I had assumed that sports talk was the province of straight guys. It was a neat explanation for why many asportual males nevertheless felt it necessary to pass as sports fans. As with most neat explanations, it was much too simple-minded to be universally true.

People like sports because they find them entertaining. I don't find them entertaining, so I have no obligation to pay attention to them. Sports fans find the world full of instant friends and instant opponents. It's probably more interesting as a topic of conversation between strangers than, say, the weather. While I'll never go through a conversion experience that makes me sit through a game again, I suppose I have a clue why others do. I can continue to use the many hours I save by not watching sports to improve my life in other ways. Better ways. Such as reading books. Appreciating fine music. Constructive ways.


Anyway, I'm not really alone. I hear that Russell Baker wrote a column in which he came out as an “asportual male.” His example gives courage to others to similarly declare themselves. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran several column-inches of comments from readers who were apparently reacting to some game or another that is scheduled for this weekend. (Honestly, I can't tell you at this moment who is playing in the Superbowl, although folks are always prattling about it. None of that registers with me.) I enjoyed the frank admissions of those who said they were going to find something else to do tomorrow, as will I. It appears that I am not alone, even if I don't know these people.

Of course, there will always be some bozo like this:
It's not necessary to have an obsession with sports but an interest is definitely needed. Not every American man needs to be fanatical, but if you're watching “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on a day classically known as one of the biggest sports days of the year, you're wandering into feminine territory. I believe it is important for men to be physical to be considered masculine. Whether it's participating in sports (or other physical activity) or living vicariously through the athletes on TV, I do believe it's necessary to enjoy sports every once in a while.

Thanks, BS. Love those initials, man!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Holier than thou

Passing the Word

Thanks to Alpha Bitch, I was directed to one of those cute on-line quizzes that purport to test your knowledge about one topic or another. Most such quizzes are quite lame. This time, however, the worth of the quiz was validated by my wonderfully high score. I aced a Bible quiz!

You know the Bible 100%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

Am I really a Bible expert? In a word: no. However, I've often noticed that plenty of nonbelievers—of whom I am one—are able to compete on equal terms with devout godbots. The latter are often handicapped by their need to reconcile the internal contradictions of a supposedly perfect text (God's own words, taken in dictation!) and that's not easy. The inconsistencies in Genesis alone are enough to drive a person batty, as you can tell by the arguments of almost any creationist.

Just in case you go over to take the Bible quiz, I'll give you two small hints: Rip Van Winkle is not the person that Jesus raised from the dead and Xena is not the person who called fire down from the heavens (though she could have if she wanted to!).

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins, stand-up broad

Too soon, too soon

I'm going to miss Molly Ivins, a long-time sure-fire antidote for the lame pap that usually graces the opinion pages of our nation's newspapers. She tried to warn us about her state's lackwit governor, but the nation went and let him become president anyway. If anyone deserved to live long enough to see the final crash-and-burn end of the Bush administration, it was Molly. Her early death is just one more piece of evidence that we live in an unjust universe. Them's the breaks, damn it.

Since Molly won't be here to help us, let us all—great and small—redouble our efforts as volunteers in the Shrub-pruning brigade!

Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?, Molly Ivins

Nothin' But Good Times Ahead, Molly Ivins

Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, Molly Ivins & Lou Dubose

Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America, Molly Ivins & Lou Dubose