Friday, August 31, 2007

Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again

Thou shalt knot

His Mom gets most of the good gigs, but Jesus likes to make an occasional cameo appearance. In keeping with the well-known theme that God works in mysterious ways, the Savior has popped up in a wooden fence in Lodi, California. His apparition has taken the form of a knothole in a residential backyard. Lodi, in case you didn't recall, was immortalized in 1969 by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their song Lodi contains the refrain “Oh, Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again.” The local Chamber of Commerce has declined, however, to promote the song as a municipal anthem.

Although Lodi is practically in my own backyard, I have decided against making a pilgrimage to see Knothole Jesus. Yes, I'm passing up the chance to see Jesus stuck in a fence. While the more credulous may need to see the divine splinters in person, the Lodi News-Sentinel has provided me with as much information about the woody apparition as any sensible person could want. Here's how News-Sentinel staff writer Ross Farrow reported the situation:
Ana Garcia was mowing her lawn last Friday when her sister, Emily, saw something odd on Garcia's fence in her backyard.

“She said, ‘Ana, you've got to come over here,’” Garcia said. “‘What do you see?’”

Garcia replied, “Oh my God, that's Jesus!”

It may be said that Jesus is in the eye of the beholder. Some may swear it's a likeness of the Son of God on her fence on South Hutchins Street, while others will think it's just her imagination.

“It's bizarre, it's a mystery, but I'm a true believer that he's around us,” Garcia said.
Ms. Garcia is reportedly planning to get in touch with her local Catholic Church for an official investigation of her backyard miracle. I can just imagine the joy of the local cleric at being confronted with yet another mundane delusion. Priests and ministers work so hard to inculcate their doctrinal superstitions in their flocks, then face the embarrassment of garden-variety manifestations like this. The Catholic Church in particular, having sanctioned the apparitions of Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe, has its hands full trying to quell its flock's enthusiasm for outbreaks of pareidolia. The Lodi event is one of those pesky cases of too much superstition. The credulity must be channeled and doled out in more manageable chunks—some of them bite-sized on Sunday.

The Lodi community is now squabbling over the significance of Knothole Jesus. The scoffers and believers are not always displaying Christian charity in their comments on the Lodi News-Sentinel website. Here are a few of my favorite remarks:
Stop being so negative! wrote on Aug 27, 2007 11:28 AM:
"I think this is a GREAT article for the front page! What's wrong with you people? Perhaps if you let GOD into your heart, you wouldn't be so negative. For whatever reason, Ms. Garcia has been blessed by this rare event."

I Want To Buy That Board... wrote on Aug 27, 2007 11:51 AM:
"I will be saved if I can buy that board of jesus! How much are you willing to sell it for? Price is no object because I can't take my money to heaven!"

Benita Hernandez wrote on Aug 27, 2007 6:44 PM:
"Only an no-believer can not see it...I can and God is watching over the ones who have fait and beleive in him....There should be no bad comments about Ms.Garcia cause she is only sharing this with us....Someone who is selfish would not share this and all she wants to let you guys know that there is a God and one day he may show up in the back of your yard.. but then it may be to late for you...."

Retired cop wrote on Aug 27, 2007 7:26 PM:
"To all you non believers, I went to look at the fence and saw the image of Jesus. All you need to do is believe and have faith. Obviously some of you are not believers hence the comments."
I think perhaps Retired cop did not pay a lot of attention during his training on the rules of evidence, but I'll bet he was a great witness during criminal prosecutions. I thank Knothole Jesus that this particular peace officer is retired.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Notes from the classroom

Colege Students

It's still early enough in the fall semester that I don't remember all of my students' names, but I am getting to know them as people. The fall term is an especially good time to run into completely disoriented students who have no idea where they are or what they are doing. Among my favorites are those who failed to distinguish between A.M. and P.M. while registering for classes and are twelve hours out of sync with reality.

It did not alleviate their plight when the good people of our maintenance office put up helpful new numbers on the temporary units near the gym. How were the students to know that some of the new numbers were mounted on the wrong rooms? I imagine the sociology professor was just as charmed to have some of my math students stumbling into her classroom as I was to find several of her students cowering in fear at the cabbalistic symbols in my room. (No doubt the Cartesian and polar grids on the wall were trying to ensnare their souls.)

Miss Manners goes to college

On the first day of an introductory class, I had worked through my lesson plan, taken roll, distributed a ton of handouts, and was turning onto the home stretch with some pointers for the next session. A student came dashing in, looked around, and decided she wanted a seat right in front. As soon as she sat down, she noticed the array of handouts on the instructor's table, so she bounced up and foraged through them. I was doing my best to appear unperturbed and imperturbable when our new arrival sat back down, flourished one of the handouts, and blurted, “What's this for?”

All eyes, including mine, swiveled toward her. I paused for a full beat. Then I calmly said, “You might want to check the syllabus for the details I've already shared with the class.” Her classmates snickered and she made a bit of a face. She did, however, keep quiet.

With only a few minutes left, I distributed a take-home quiz that was extremely easy and designed to serve as a confidence builder. “This is due at the beginning of our next class period.” (It was, you recall, an introductory course and undoubtedly full of students with keen math anxiety.) I invited those with additional questions or problems to come up to confer with me and dismissed class. As I was talking to a learning-disabled student who needed the accommodation of extra time on exams, the energetic late-arriving student bustled up. “Here!” she exclaimed, and shoved the completed quiz at me. She had hastily scribbled an answer to each problem. Then she dashed for the door before I could reprove her or hand back the paper. (I don't care to be in the business of warehousing student assignments till the due date. I want them handed in when it's time, rather than prematurely.)

But she was gone and I decided not to simmer over it too much. The second class session began a couple of days later and the perky late-arrival from Day One was nowhere to be seen. I collected the quizzes and started the roll call. I was partway through the slow process (making a point of actually looking at each responding student in an attempt to learn as many names as possible), when the missing student popped in. “I'm here!” she cried.

“Yes, I see that.”

Perhaps her Ritalin dosage needs adjusting.

Too cool for school

The math classrooms at my school usually have boards on three of the four walls. Most teachers use only one wall during a class session, but I have on occasion taken advantage of all three walls. It's most convenient when I want to sent lots of students up for board work, either individually or in pairs. The problem is getting access to the boards, because students keep rearranging the desks and wiping out the aisles around the perimeter of the room. This is especially bad across the back of the room, which is often inhabited by a peculiar subspecies of student that apparently requires enormous amounts of legroom. These students push their desks back against the rear wall and then slouch down in their seats, legs splayed out in front of them for the convenience of fellow students who enjoy stepping over them.

They grumble and pout when I insist on leaving an open space across the back of the room. Recently I noticed that someone had scrawled “Playas sit here” across the back board. That hadn't occurred to me before. I supposed it must be a powerful aphrodisiac when a “playa” informs a lovely lady that he has his own special row in the beginning algebra class. How it must make her heart beat!

Plussed and nonplussed

I was gathering up my stuff at the end of class, answering last-minute questions and getting ready to depart. One student hovered nearby. I didn't recognize her, but then I don't know all my students yet. Everyone else was gone and I was expecting her to say something. But no.

Since she remained silent, I picked up my textbook and my briefcase and headed out. As soon as I moved, she pounced. She grabbed the little table next to the teacher podium and dragged it to the front of the student rows. She snagged the instructor chair (seldom used except on exam days), put it next to the little table, and sat herself down.

Once she sprang into action, it all became clear. She was a very large woman and she could barely fit into a student desk. That's why she was eager to get dibs on the table and chair before her instructor came in.

What would I do if she were my student? After all, I use that table constantly, fanning out papers for distribution or splaying my notes across it. Could I insist on reclaiming the table and then stand idly by while she proved that her girth was incompatible with our student desks? (I think it would have been a near thing, as best I could tell.)

I left the class knowing that this was a problem that would only get worse as our students get larger.


The boys on our campus tend to wear shirts unimaginatively labeled with the names of various sports teams or vehicles. The kid in my calculus class with the “Approved for public release” shirt was a wry exception. The girls seem to be more creative in their choices, or perhaps they have fewer conventional restrictions than the boys. Today I saw a “Future Trophy Wife” shirt that gave me pause. Was she being ironic? I can never tell. She was cute enough to be competitive in that field of endeavor, but I think (hope) she was kidding.

Some months ago I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt that said “Colege Student.” I laughed out loud when I saw it. She flashed a quick grin at me, but then said in a sober voice, “You know, most people don't get it.”

Damn. I totally believe her.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Happy birthday, HT!

The terrible twos begin

It was startling to notice this week that Halfway There is now two years old. In addition to providing yours truly with an inexpensive alternative to psychotherapy, Halfway There has attracted a slowly growing band of regular visitors. It would be interesting to have a demographic breakdown of these strange people. (Perhaps some of them will be moved to leave a comment in which they explain how Halfway There fills a gaping hole in their lives—or satisfies some perverse need to watch grotesque acts of rhetorical posturing. Anyone?)

The daily hit rate hovers around 200, with occasionally interesting spikes when Pharyngula or Crooks and Liars or Language Log links here. And January was a banner month because Daily Kos linked to my post on the execrable Melanie Morgan. The total is edging toward 100,000, which should be attained in the next couple of weeks or three. (No party is planned, however.) The posting rate always drops when school is back in session (as it is now), but I'm sure I'll think of something else to write about soon. The blog will keep toddling along.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why we teach


“Our job is to make sure the students pass.”

My colleague spoke these words with great conviction. I had no reason to doubt her complete sincerity. Nor did I doubt my complete disagreement.

When I was applying for jobs back in the eighties, one of the popular buzzwords was “facilitator.” You didn't tell hiring committees that you were going to “teach” the students. No, you going going to “facilitate their learning.” Part of this, of course, was telling people what they wanted to hear: Say the secret word and win a hundred dollars—or a teaching position. It helps to know the codes and the special handshake.

But there is a lot of truth in the notion of facilitation. We help them learn. We can't make them learn. When you get right down to it, “teach” is not a very transitive verb. You need a lot of cooperation from the direct object. I like to think that I occasionally inveigle someone into becoming a better learner, but we teachers are pretty helpless if the students are determined to be just seat-warmers (assuming they attend classes!).

These days one of our favorite buzzwords is the adjective “multiple.” We evaluate student performance by means of multiple measures. We deliver course content in multiple modes to appeal to the multiple intelligences of our diverse student population. It's an apt word. Like Lt. Uhura, we need to “open all hailing frequencies,” because not all of our students are tuned in across the spectrum.

We're in the business of delivering subject matter content, striving as best we can to fit our instruction to the needs of the individual student, and working to establish reasonable benchmarks by which to gauge the progress of our students and to provide a basis for assigning grades to their levels of performance. It's tricky and it's messy, but it seems a worthwhile endeavor. Most days I feel like a contributing member of society.

But not all of my students pass. In a typical developmental math course (like introductory algebra), it's not unusual for student success rates to hover around the fifty percent mark. By the end of a school term, half the students you started with have either dropped out or failed to earn a passing grade. I know that's a frustrating experience for me as an instructor, and I'm certain it's even more emotionally draining for the students who tried and failed.

I said “tried.” That's a loaded word. As a college faculty member, I have the luxury of volunteer students. No truancy law chivvies them into school. They have all chosen of their own free will to sign up for my class. (Sometimes I get a quibble from a student who claims he's enrolled under protest, my course being a requirement he can't avoid. In that case, I ask him sweetly who chose his major for him. It's voluntary.) I take their voluntary enrollment as a commitment to try to pass the class. I commit myself to trying to help them pass the class.

However, I certainly do not consider it my job to ensure that they get a passing grade. If that were my mission in life, I would know how to do it. I prefer instead to maintain some standards.

The new generation

My school has been going through a wave of faculty hiring, and my department has been assimilating an influx of eager new math instructors. My new colleagues, most of whom are significantly younger than I am—several fresh out of grad school—are looking toward the senior faculty members for hints and suggestions on how the job is done. Although we have a formal mentoring process in which each new instructor is paired up with a senior faculty member for advice and guidance, a lot of the information comes from more casual interactions and office bull sessions. Will they pick up my colleague's notion that it's our job to make sure our students pass? And how far should a believer in that dictum go to ensure its realization?

I did some nosing about on out of curiosity to see how my colleague's students viewed her. These are some of the comments (paraphrased) that I encountered:
She is a great teacher, very helpful. As long as you can do math I recommend you take her. C students were getting A's. I would take her again if I could. Loved her!

I missed a couple weeks of class and I was not prepared for exam #2, but she gave me as much time as I needed to catch up and make up the test. She also let me turn in most of the homework during the last week of class. A less patient professor would have flunked me for sure, but she helped me earn an A. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

VERY EASY! She is really nice and just a really easy teacher. You just show up on review days and makes notes for the test and it's all good!

Her class is really easy. She asks for the least amount of work and she tells you exactly what is going to be on the test. She even tells you whats gonna be on the final exam. Just learn her examples. This is a super easy class.

She is the best math teacher I have ever had. If you are the type of person who doesn't get math, don't worry, you will pass with her.

The easiest math teacher ever. You can pass easily or even get an A if you do a third of your homework. You can still do really well even if you don't go to class.

We should always take student evaluations with a grain of salt. They aren't exactly disinterested parties and some negative reviews are written by students who want to shift the blame for their difficulties to their teachers. Positive reviews, however, are usually the real thing. My colleague is much loved. She gives A's to C students. Did the students blossom under her tutelage and rise a couple of grade levels in their math achievements? When I see comments from the unprepared student who was given enormous latitude to make up a missed exam, I doubt it's simply a matter of improvement by the student. Rather, I think someone has lowered the bar. A lot.

What happens when my popular colleague's students move on to subsequent courses? Well, if they go from her introductory algebra class to your intermediate algebra class, expect trouble. They want extra-credit assignments and get peevish if you don't provide them with a problem-for-problem practice test in advance of each exam. Immediately after a bad exam performance, they will ask you when they can take it again. This is a learning mode that doesn't, I admit, sit well with me. (We offer a self-paced learning lab for students who thrive in that environment, but I teach a standard classroom course.)

The general level of happiness in the universe is preserved to a degree because many of these supposedly successful students are merely satisfying a graduation requirement for an associate's degree and will never take another math course. Their ability to continue in upper-division courses will be stunted, but they may never discover that. A few, though, will try to climb upward, having received academic credit for a course whose content is still mostly a mystery to them. Their happiness may be short-lived when they get lost in their next round of classes. If the course was simply an obstacle in their path, then I guess they have dealt with it. If they were actually looking for an education, I trust they will be content with their good grade.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Spanking creationists again

Another hallelujah chorus

Answers in Genesis has tidings of great joy. The creationist ministry has announced the winners of this year's essay contest. The Research Challenge Contest for 2007 was designed to serve in part as a promotional campaign for AiG's new (but already revised) creationism text, Evolution Exposed. The rules required that the teenage entrants refer to the book:
Write your research paper using at least one reference from the book Evolution Exposed and one reference from the Answers in Genesis web site. Research paper counts for 65% of your score.
Last year's winners also relied heavily on AiG resources, so the explicit requirement in the 2007 contest was unlikely to impose an undue burden on the competitors. By that same token, however, the winning essays for this year are as much exercises in recycling old arguments as last year's. It is extremely easy to find flaws in each one, as I will demonstrate.

While it's not fair to expect teenagers to write purely original essays, all of the winning papers suffer from the suffocating effects of their reliance on recycled creationist propaganda. Time and again the writers make demonstrably untrue statements (and they probably don't know any better). In this, of course, they simply mirror their elders.

The fabulous grand prize went to Karin Hutson, whose topic was Evolution of Ethics: How the biology class undermines Morality 101. Her reward is a $50,000 scholarship to the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University:
Dr. David A. DeWitt, Director of the Center for Creation Studies at Liberty University stated “I am delighted that we were able to partner with Answers in Genesis in this truly unique contest. Through AiG’s research paper ‘challenge,’ young people are ‘challenged’ to carefully consider the evidence for creation. It’s an excellent idea. The Research Paper Challenge was a great way for us to promote the understanding of creation and attract Creator-honoring, Bible-believing students to Liberty!”

At Liberty University, all undergraduate students are required to complete a course in creation apologetics taught from a young-earth creation perspective.
I'm guessing that Karin has a head start on that apologetics course.

Karin Hutson begins her essay by repeating the apocryphal story about Cassie Bernall saying “Yes” in reply to Eric Harris's question, “Do you believe in God?” That was just before Harris (evolutionist) murdered Bernall (Christian) at Columbine High School in 1999. Nice touch. The story isn't true, but it's too good to pass up. It doesn't diminish the senseless horror of Bernall's death to point out that it was actually Valeen Schnurr, a Columbine survivor, who engaged in the exchange with Harris. Christians with an ax to grind have joined Bernall's family in perpetuating the comforting myth of martyrdom. Thus the winning essay in the AiG research paper contest begins with a falsehood. I'm pretty sure it's an unintentional misrepresentation of the facts, but such carelessness doesn't bode well.

Does Hutson's essay improve after its shaky start? Judge for yourself:
Evolution replaces God, purpose, and morality with nature, chance, and relativism. No wonder violence and vileness wreak havoc in schools and society today!
No doubt the 9/11 hijackers were all evolutionists, right?

The basic argument is invalid, of course. Even if belief in evolution were to lead to unhappy consequences, that would imply nothing about the validity of the concept of evolution. Yet most of the paper is a tedious recital of supposed consequences of evolution. She pauses along the way to mock Daniel Dennett as possessing “foolhardy optimism” for arguing that (in his words) “we have the mind-tools we need to design and redesign ourselves, ever searching for better solutions to the problems we create for ourselves and others.” Karin is having none of it. Good behavior depends on belief in God and dismissal of evolution.

That, of course, is why religious people make the world a better place wherever they take their beliefs seriously. I offer Northern Ireland and Iraq as two especially persuasive examples. In the former case, both sides even claimed to be motivated by Christianity. No doubt that was a comfort to all the victims.

Runner-up #1: Naturalism is just another religion

Emily Zuercher takes aim at Naturalism in Modern Society. She's working the same vein as the winner. Here's her opening sentences:
Euthanasia, Nazism, moral decline, and abortion can all be attributed to the naturalistic doctrine behind evolution. Darwin's naturalistic ideology and evolutionary hypothesis are no longer confined to historical science in the classroom, but are now implemented into society as the basis for this generation's religion and moral standards.
Ah, yes; exactly what Darwin was going for. The old naturalist was working out a system of religion and ethics.

Wouldn't he be surprised to hear that? It is possible, of course, for people to take Darwin's ideas beyond his intentions and to try to apply them inappropriately. For example, one doubts he would have been pleased with the notion of social Darwinism. Is this the argument that Zuercher is making?

Nope. Her point is that evolution is simply a rival belief system, but one lacking the support of divine revelation (i.e., the infallible statements of the book of Genesis). As such, it's elbowed aside the doctrine of creationism:
Today, evolution is being accepted as a confirmed fact of operational science even though little testable evidence has been found. Just as testing or current observations cannot prove evolution, Biblical creation also cannot be confirmed in this manner. The doctrine of creation is credible, however, because the God of the universe was present and instrumental at the beginning of the world and recorded the events of it in His Word for man.
Yeah. Like He said.

Since Emily forgot to blame Darwin for communism in her opening paragraph, she tosses it in later. She probably lost the first-place award to Hutson because she also selected a less compelling bogeyman. Her choice for evil evolutionist was Jeffrey Dahmer. If only she had gone with Klebold and Harris.

Runner-up #2: Day after Day

Laura Adele Price says that the days cited in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days. Her paper, Biblical Case for Literal Creation Days, rehashes the old arguments about the meanings of the Hebrew word “yom,” and takes some shots at the Hugh Ross school of “progressive creationism.” Price's paper is therefore part of an in-house battle between doctrinaire seven-day literalists and those who take a day-age stance in an attempt to take science seriously. Ross has genuine scientific credentials in addition to being a devout believer. He has labored diligently to reconcile scientific observation with God's revealed word—as he sees it—and his Reasons to Believe ministry explains how this can be accomplished by interpreting Genesis figuratively.

Price is not impressed by Ross's accommodationist argument that knowledge comes from both God's word and scientific observation. One revelation is enough for her.
[T]he disagreement regarding dual revelation comes with the progressive creationists' belief that the conclusions of secular scientists are absolute truth, just as Scripture is absolute truth.
She thinks secular science purports to offer absolute truth? Hopeless, isn't it?

Runner-up #3: Irreducible recycling

You may recall how Michael Behe gave scientific respectability to the concept of intelligent design with his explication of irreducible complexity. If some biological construct is irreducibly complex, then how could evolution have shaped it? By definition, something that is irreducibly complex must be nonfunctional as soon as anything is subtracted from it. An intelligent designer must intervene because natural selection can operate only on biological characteristics that have functions. That's how the argument runs.

Behe gave the whip-like bacterial flagellum as his favorite example. Further research has since revealed a perfectly plausible evolutionary pathway for development of the flagellum, showing how it could have been co-opted from secretory organs and pressed into service as a propulsion device. I guess it's not irreducible anymore.

This did not, however, deter Rebecca Tappendorf from recycling Behe's outdated arguments in her essay God's Incredible Design of Irreducibly Complex Cells. She bases much of her essay on the argument from incredulity, referring to cells as “machines” and marveling that anyone could think that such machines occurred “by accident.”
Cells are incredibly complex, and naturalists explain this developing evolution of complexity through two hypotheses, the infolding theory and endosymbiosis. However, there is little support for these hypotheses and much evidence against them. Many evolutionists are recognizing the problems with these theories that attempt to explain cells' irreducible complexity. An infinitely intelligent Designer must have created these cells. That Creator and Designer is Jesus.
It is breathtakingly cheeky for creationists to follow a criticism of evidence for evolution with baldly dogmatic statements, but one learns not to be surprised. Rebecca, of course, is merely conforming to the model she was given. And she is just starting to build up steam.
The minute flagellum accomplishes locomotion, is remarkably complex, and is an excellent example of irreducible complexity. If any part of the flagellum were missing, the whole system would be destroyed. Is it scientific to believe that this amazing miniature motor came about through a series of mutations and random chance? Is it logical to think that all the vital parts of the bacteria were formed by accident in precisely the correct order and with the much-needed information to work harmoniously together as a microscopic, self-sustaining entity?
She blithely ignores the counterarguments. In fact, I dare say she does not even know that Behe's contentions are long since refuted. She has probably never even heard that “irreducibly complex” complex organ can be shaped by evolution. All of her citations are to creationist tracts and books. She cannot know what they do not tell her. Certainly no one has handed her any apples from the Tree of Knowledge.

Miss Tappendorf has elected to concentrate her fire on two evolutionary hypotheses related to the development of eukaryotes from prokaryotes: membrane infolding and endosymbiosis. Apparently neither explanation for eukaryotic evolution is complete. Rebecca finds the gaps fatal. It's the attitude of someone conditioned to have pat answers to everything, and it's completely foreign to the way science is actually done. Did you expect anything else?
There is no evidence that prokaryotes turned into eukaryotes through the inward folding of the plasma membrane. Molecules-to-man evolution requires the addition of material to the genetic code, most frequently through mutations. However, scientists have yet to find a mutation that adds information to the genetic code.
Yes, that is her argument. Rebecca is parroting the old argument that evolution cannot increase the information in an organism's genetic code. There is ample evidence to the contrary, but she doesn't know about it.

Rebecca is similarly curt with endosymbiosis:
The endosymbiont hypothesis builds on the infolding hypothesis as it attempts to describe a process through which organelles might have been produced in an ancestral host cell. Through a process known as endocytosis, a host swallowed aerobic and photosynthetic bacteria but did not digest them. These engulfed bacteria gained the information to evolve into mitochondria and chloroplasts because the host cell and the ingested cells reproduced in synchronization with one another. Over the course of millions of years. the DNA of the host cell and the engulfed cells fused to provide long-lasting benefits for each cell. Evolutionists use molecular data to support this hypothesis, but there is no evidence that seems to confirm it.
I like that. Evolutionists support the hypothesis with “molecular data” but they have “no evidence.”

Let's waste no more time on this.

Runner-up #4: He's baa-ack!

To be fair to R. Josiah Magnuson, he's never really gone away. Since making it as one of the runners-up in last year's Answers in Genesis essay contest, Josiah has been blogging away, devoting big chunks of time to serving as the intelligent design advisor to the doomed presidential campaign of Gene Chapman. It was a bit odd to see Josiah operating under the banner of ID, since he is completely unlike the cowards and trimmers who populate the ID ranks, Josiah is a completely forthright young-earth creationist. Although the Chapman campaign foundered on the rock of its candidate's own instability, Josiah continues to pen pro-creation think pieces.

His entry last year was a pugnacious poke at the many evil consequences of an evolutionary worldview. Frankly, I thought his essay was better than that year's grand prize winner. His new paper, however, is both milder and less compelling. At least the logic is as flawed as ever. Josiah is in good company with the other winners of the essay contest.

Josiah's essay is titled Survival of the Functional: How Natural Selection Kills Darwinian Evolution. Yes, he promises more than he can deliver. Josiah bases his argument on the claim that evolution cannot produce “a net gain in information.” It's basically the same as Rebecca Tappendorf's argument and suffers from the same problems.

Josiah believes that evolution would have to differentially select and preserve useless features until some critical mass of usefulness is suddenly attained:
Evolution is impossible because natural selection would have had to select in favor of less-fit organisms, possessing uselessly isolated components, in order to gradually compose the inter-dependently functional systems and organic information which may be observed today.
Josiah imagines that evolutionists believe proto-birds hauled about useless half-wings or the dead weight of other non-functional features until the day all the pieces were in place to permit flight. He knows nothing about theories of exaptation, where the whole point is that each trait is useful at each stage, although the function of that trait may evolve along with it. Feathers are good for flight (though not strictly necessary, as bats and insects demonstrate), but they are also good for insulation. When feathers were pressed into service for flying, they continued to be useful for insulation. There was no interval in which they were hanging around without a function, just waiting for natural selection to make them useful.

Josiah cites a calculation by Dr. Werner Gitt, a creationist he says is affiliated with Germany's “Federal Institute of Science” (actually the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt in Braunschweig). Gitt is a computer scientist who thinks he's figured out how to measure the complexity of the human body. Josiah quotes him as saying, “The total number of bits handled daily, in all information processing events occurring in the human body, is 3 × 10 to the 24th power.” That's a big number, so it's supposed to prove that God did it all. But hold on a second.

The human body has about 10 trillion cells in it. If we divide Gitt's number by 10 trillion, we find that each cell is supposedly responsible for 3 × 1011 of the bits being handled. This is still a pretty big number, but it's no longer exceptional. Once you achieve that initial cell, simple multiplication gets you to the level that so amazed Dr. Gitt. I realize that Rebecca Tappendorf would object to my calling this “simple” multiplication, but we dealt with her earlier.


Answers in Genesis has handed out some prizes to inspire teenagers to regurgitate old creationist arguments. When Ecclesiastes 1:9 says that “there is nothing new under the sun,” it seems the Bible was talking about essays by creationists. Amen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fun with percentages

Sins of omission and commission

A pair of posts at Language Log reminds me that I have had my own close encounters of the innumerate kind when it comes to working with the concept of percentage. Some people find the notion of hundred-based fractions to be arcane in the extreme. You mean that 50% is the same as 50/100? And that's the same as 1/2? The brain explodes!

Bill Poser's Language Log post is about innumeracy among reading specialists—the folks who tell us if our children is learning to read. In the case cited by Poser, the specialists have to rely on a math crib sheet to work out the percentage changes—but the crib sheet is wrong. Are students' reading scores going up or down? It seems that no one knows.

Mark Liberman's post tells us about an on-line calculator that one can use to compute percentage change. (Someone please clue in those reading specialists!) Liberman saw a pitch to the community of public relations specialists that touted the on-line calculator as a way to avoid “feeling really old and decrepit.” (As we all know, the ability to compute percentages is one of the first things to go.) Imagine all those press releases put out by PR specialists. Can we trust any of the numbers in them? I would have said “no” in any case, but now it appears that even the PR people don't know if they're lying or not!

The pay increase

Years ago I was having lunch in downtown Sacramento with a friend who was working for a legislative tracking service. In those days it was still a growth business (before easy on-line access to legislative information wiped out most of those companies). He was looking around for a new position because his job satisfaction was exponentially declining toward zero. The latest straw had come in the form of a pay raise.

“The board of directors approved an across-the-board increase of 10% in the compensation package for employees in my unit.”

“That sounds pretty good. Congratulations!”

“It turns out, though, that I'm only getting one percent.”

“Beg pardon? That doesn't make much sense. Does your manager have it in for you?”

“Oh, no. She likes me just fine, although I do have some issues with the assistant manager. No, the manager was told she had discretion in actually implementing the pay increases. That's the problem. She was told she could go up to ten percent, depending on merit, and she doesn't understand percentages.”

“I'm still not following. If she can go up to ten and she gave you only one, she must not appreciate your work.”

“Well, this is the ‘good’ part. She thinks that the increases she awards have to add up to ten. I got one percent. Another guy got one half. The biggest increase she gave was two and a half to her assistant manager. There are seven people in our unit and she doled out increases that ‘add up’ to ten.”

“But the board authorized up to ten percent across the board! She could give each person up to ten percent!”

“Don't yell at me! I explained that to her several times. Or tried to. I'm in a bit of dutch with her right now because she thought I was trying to trick her into going way over budget. I have got to get a job working with smarter people!”

Soaring costs

A few years ago I had occasion to investigate property management companies to find out about their services and their rates. A realtor of my acquaintance recommended a company, telling me it retained 8% of the rent it collected on any property it managed, passing on 92% (less repair and maintenance expenses) to the property owner. I dropped by the company's local office to pick up the management contract and verify the rate.

The desk clerk cheerfully informed me that the company was now charging a 10% management fee.

“That's a pretty significant hike over what you were charging recently. Didn't it used to be 8%?”

“Yes, you're right,” she agreed. “But rents and costs kept going up, so we had to increase our rates.”

“But your rate is a percentage. Your revenues automatically go up in step with rents. And costs tend to keep pace with rents, right?”

“Well, yes, I guess. But they went up.”

I decided to visit a different property management company.

Sin of commission

A friend of mine was working in the home remodeling business, earning his income on a commission basis. One day he dropped in at the central office to pick up his paycheck and to touch base. The office administrator clucked her tongue at him and chided him gently:

“Robert is bringing in way more leads than you. People are noticing.”

“Leads don't matter. Sales do. How many of Robert's leads are turning into sales?”

“Well, let's see. Last month he brought in 100 leads and we closed sales on 12 of them. See? That's nearly one in ten!”

“No, it's more than one in ten. It's actually one-point-two in ten. Or twelve percent, if you prefer.”

“Wow! How did you do that? Anyway, it's pretty good. Robert's bringing in a lot more leads than you.”

“If you look at the numbers, you'll see that I brought in 64 leads last month and we closed on 22 of them. My closing rate is over 33%. And I'm outselling Robert in absolute numbers, too. That's saying nothing, by the way, about the time the company wastes in trying to close bad leads. I bring in good leads.”

“Well, I guess. But they've noticed how Robert brings in a lot more leads than you.”

My friend doesn't work for them anymore.

The Gospel according to St. Paul

A parable of St. Darwin

It was already clear by the overreaction from certain quarters that atheists have recently been making a little noise. The really insightful types, like Paul Greenberg, know what's going on: Nonbelievers are looking to wipe out or suppress all believers and their forms of worship. It's a war, baby! Haven't you noticed that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are agitating for a full-throated embrace of a scorched-earth policy? Greenberg has.

Fortunately for believers everywhere, Greenberg is stylishly accoutered in the armor of righteousness. Since his weapon is the pen (neatly engraved along the side with “former Pulitzer Prize winner”), he wields it with oracular zest. The result is a portrait in ink of a post-apocalyptic paradise of nonbelief, where everyone can rejoice in a rigorously enforced culture of Darwin-worship. Here are the words of St. Paul Greenberg, prophet of faith despoiled and religion routed, as he portrays the ruminations of Brother Erasmus, devout evolutionist and nonbeliever:
Erasmus had assumed that all the Old Believers had been hunted down by the survivors of the Last World War. The massacres had begun during the Great Secularization, when people had realized how the old, divisive ideas had caused the final cataclysm. Most of the religious had been burned at the stake, along with the books that had spread their dangerous ideas. That should have been the end of their baneful influence. But here was one more false prophet.

The Darwinian order to which Brother Erasmus belonged taught only pure science at abbeys like his own, and no one was allowed to question it, lest the Dark Ages return. Those certified to teach the young were not allowed to question Darwin's revelation, and certainly not present alternate theories. That way lay division and dissent and, inevitably, fiery chaos.
Greenberg has obviously laid hands on a bootleg copy of the Atheist Agenda (which is like the old Gay Agenda, but less religious). Otherwise, how could he forecast so accurately exactly what atheists are planning for the new order of the world? We're all champing at the bit to start the great pogroms on our to-do list. Greenberg knows that if you scratch an evolutionist, you get a Grand Inquisitor. Who ratted us out?

St. Paul Greenberg, however, wants religionists to know that Truth is hardy and will not simply pass from this earth. No, it will rise anew! In fact, it will rise from the suppressed words of the divine Darwin himself. Yea, verily I say unto you:
Then he noticed the little book he would eventually come to think of as the Lost Gospel. It was entitled “Recapitulation and Conclusion,” and it was the strangest thing he'd ever read, at least in Old English. It was written as if it were the last chapter of “The Origin of Species” itself, mocking the style of Darwin Our Deliverer, blessed be his name.

Brother Erasmus knew he should have burned the forgery then and there, but even the best of us are sore beset by temptation. He began to read: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.”

Well, Brother Erasmus was shocked. No one had ever showed him such a passage before in holy writ. He could not resist reading the whole thing—to the very last sentence:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Amen, Erasmus heard himself murmur before thinking. That was when he realized how subversive was the document he held in his hands.
If you haven't checked your copy of the Atheist Agenda lately, you may have forgotten the plan to extirpate the last chapter of Darwin's Origin of Species. As quoted in Greenberg's cutesy parable, it contains a deeply religious invocation of the power of God. Or, depending on your point of view, Darwin's use of a literary trope, in which “Creator” is employed as an anthropomorphic invocation of the power of Nature. Since Darwin was not a believer (and, no, did not embrace God on his deathbed), which do you think is more likely?

Greenberg, of course, posits that evolutionists would out-Darwin Darwin. Indeed, evolutionists would prefer that the last chapter be forgotten, lest the simple-minded fall into the error of belief in God. It may be that St. Paul has his tongue tucked at least partway into his cheek, preening himself over his cleverness, but a touch of verisimilitude is necessary to made a satire work. Would he like to explain why Stephen Jay Gould—famed atheist and evolutionist—quoted Darwin's last paragraph or alluded to it in his essays? Why did Sean B. Carroll borrow the phrase “endless forms most beautiful” for the title of his book on evolutionary developmental biology?

We keep celebrating something that we're supposed to be suppressing—at least in Greenberg's astigmatic world view.

But let's face it. Greenberg has peered into the depths of our shriveled souls and perceived that our conception of an evolutionist's utopia is a mirror image of Inquisition-era Spain. Clever man! With Paul Greenberg standing in the gap, how shall we ever achieve our vision of a Darwinian paradise on earth? I know! In keeping with our doctrinaire embrace of the law of natural selection, let us prey.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I am Mollyfied

Non sum dignus

PZ Myers, the seer and autarch of Pharyngula, has examined the entrails of his blog's commentary corpus (with, I presume, the assistance of a crack team of scrutineers on loan from the Vatican), and announced the canonical election of two more mere mortals to the Order of the Molly. As the newly named Molly laureate for the month of August, I bow low in stark realization of my unworthiness. Nevertheless, I cannot but mutter “Accepto.”

The Order of the Molly was created by PZ to recognize the best contributors to the comment threads on his blog, as chosen by their peers. It's named in honor of the inimitable Molly Ivins, whose passing impoverished the domain of political commentary. Her folksy voice and penetrating insight served us so well in the past and would be so helpful to us today. Putting her name on the commenter award at Pharyngula is in some ways akin to naming the first-place prize at a high school talent show after Sarah Bernhardt. (Or, for you youngsters, how about Sandra Bernhard?) There is a tiny bit of disproportion between the eponym and the honoree.

But it's a good excuse to haul out Molly's books and get reacquainted with Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? and other delightful collections of her essays.

It is sweet to get positive feedback from one's own peer group, that motley crew whose members pop in and out of the comment threads at PZ's blog. Thanks to all who pulled the lever for me. I will try to use my new power and prestige responsibly, so there's no need to run screaming for the exits. (They're sealed anyway.)

Don't forget to tip your hat to the estimable Brownian, whom PZ simultaneously announced as the winner of July's Molly. (That belated announcement retroactively gives Brownian a full month's seniority over me in the Order of the Molly, so I guess I must remember to duck my head and pull my forelock in his presence.) Brownian's accolade was moved and numerously seconded by our peers, and I'm sure none of the motion was random.

Atheism on the air

I don't believe it!

As we already know, there is a crop of noisy “New Atheists” who refuse to conform with the old sit-down-and-shut-up standard. These feisty nonbelievers engage in such provocative activities as writing bestsellers or appearing in videos. Their behavior has been terribly distressing some devout religionists—especially those who have unsuccessfully prayed to their gods to strike down the obstreperous heathens.

This past week the NPR program On the Media broadcast an installment devoted to the rising tide of disbelief in public life and entertainment:
God No!
August 17, 2007

No longer content to silently disavow religion, the so-called New Atheists are on the offensive. Borrowing tactics from the faithful, nonbelievers have taken to proselytizing in books and in the media. And yes, they’re even in foxholes.
“God No!” features Sam Harris's quest to raise the consciousness of nonbelievers and, in the program's words, “to make moderates less moderate.” Why does this matter? It appears that atheists may be regarded so negatively because so few people are aware of knowing an atheist. Professor Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota did a survey of American attitudes toward different groups. Atheists did not fare well. Said Edgell, “Just do the numbers, right? If they're only 7% of the American population, odds are most people don't know one.”

Actually, 7% is more than enough for everyone to know a few atheists. Jews are only about 2% of the American population, but I know several. Some of them are probably atheists, too, but Jews seem to be more open about being Jews than most atheists are about being nonbelievers. With nonbelievers in the closet, the general population is susceptible to the stereotype that furtive atheists are “immoral.” Atheists are also regarded as holding their beliefs only when convenient, which is why the media does not hesitate to repeat such insulting maxims as “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Oh, yeah?

My favorite line from the program is the quote from Gregory House (the curmudgeonly physician portrayed by Hugh Laurie in the Fox program House), who says, “Faith. That's another word for ignorance, isn't it?” House creator David Shore admits he sometimes pulls his punches a little—it probably matters that broadcast media depend on general appeal for financial success—but he underscores some of his own favorite lines, delivered in high indignation by Hugh Laurie in the persona of Shore's atheist doctor:
“You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!”
Shore agrees that people dislike atheists in general rather than in particular: “They know House. They like him. They don't care that he's an atheist.” If fictional atheists like Gregory House are joined by more outspoken atheists in real life, perhaps prompted by the urgings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others, the general perception of nonbelievers may be expected to move toward something more realistic.

We aren't all lurking in the dark, waiting to perpetrate atrocities on the faithful. We've just been more successful in outgrowing the imaginary friends of our childhood.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What on earth?

Impossible things before breakfast

The American Association for the Advancement of Science usually does a good job of living up to its name. No institution is perfect, of course, which is why Margaret Mead was able during her presidency of the organization to talk her colleagues into trying to take parapsychology seriously. Since 1969, the AAAS has recognized the Parapsychological Association as a formally affiliated organization. Attempts by skeptical scientists to persuade the AAAS to dissolve the link have so far been unsuccessful. I presume this continued affiliation is what prompts the inclusion of reviews like the following in the July/August 2007 issue of SB&F (Science Books & Films: Your review guide to science resources for all ages):
130 Paranormal Phenomena

Mayer, Elizabeth Lloyd. Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. NY: Bantam, 2007. ix+302pp. $32.00. 2006025661. ISBN 978-0-553-80335-8. Index; C.I.P.
C, T, GA **

Extraordinary Knowing is an extraordinary book in which Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer has compiled an incredibly diverse range of sources of evidence for anomalous mental capacities. In succinct prose, she describes her long-standing investigation of these puzzling phenomena that grew from a personal experience with an inexplicable and deeply troubling psychic's finding of a lost harp. In reviewing the history of abroad range of phenomena—telepathy, remote viewing, ESP, and a host of other “paranormal” abilities—Mayer confronts the deep reluctance of many scientists to admit even to the possible existence of such capabilities. She highlights the considerable history of meticulous, peer-reviewed, thoroughly replicated studies that demonstrate these talents, to a greater or lesser extent, in many persons. She notes the intractability of these subjects to standard scientific investigation and discusses how that shows the limitations of this widely cherished methodology. She includes quotations from numerous eminent scientists who have been convinced of the reality of these abilities, but who, for fear of the ability itself or rejection by the broader scientific community, have remained largely silent. Mayer skillfully weaves this web of mysterious phenomena into current studies ranging from Eastern religious philosophies to quantum theory. In the process, she hints at how one might discover and develop such anomalous mental capacities.

Ethan Allen, Center for Nanotechnology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Margaret Mead's argument for admission of the Parapsychological Association to the ranks of AAAS-affiliated organizations leaned heavily on the notion that science would be ill-served if it refused to give a fair hearing to a controversial field of investigation. She exhorted her fellow scientists to cast off the shackles of stodginess and to open their minds: “The whole history of scientific advance is full of scientists investigating phenomena that the Establishment did not believe were there. I submit that we vote in favor of this association's work.”

Nearly forty years later, we can appreciate the results of Mead's intervention on behalf of the psychic researchers:


Mead was right that the history of science is replete with examples of stubborn scientists balking at accepting exciting new theories. Galileo rejected Kepler's theory of elliptical orbits. Agassiz didn't accept evolution. Lord Kelvin resisted the idea that the earth was very old.

It does not follow, however, that everything that is mocked eventually turns out to be right.

Parapsychology has been unable to broaden its acceptance among rank and file scientists because its results are so paltry. The better the experimental controls, the less striking the outcomes. This has led to the lame excuse that there is a problem with the scientific method and that double-blind studies kill the psychic phenomena they are intended to study, but the parsimonious conclusion is that there's nothing there.

Physicists have been able to persuade people during the past century of the existence of protons, electrons, neutrinos, and an entire zoo of subatomic particles. You probably haven't seen one of them, but no one seriously doubts them because physicists have experimentally and theoretically demonstrated their effects.

Parapsychologists should be able to establish the existence of telekinesis just as conclusively by demonstrating, for example, the ability of psychics to tweak a torsion balance in a sealed vacuum chamber. Sorry, no. The results are too small. The evidence dances on the edge of statistical significance before it vanishes in randomness. Oh, come on. Just embrace the null hypothesis and stop chasing after fairies.

I know it's unkind of me to dismiss the work of the late Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer without bothering to read it, but Ethan Allen's soppy review does not stimulate my interest or give me any reason to give parapsychology a new hearing. He says that Professor Mayer “highlights the considerable history of meticulous, peer-reviewed, thoroughly replicated studies that demonstrate these talents, to a greater or lesser extent, in many persons.” Put your money on “lesser extent,” folks, because “thoroughly replicated studies” would overcome skepticism and bring parapsychology into the fold of mainstream science. It hasn't happened, has it? Not even after decades in which the hidebound curmudgeons of science could pass away and be replaced by unbiased youngsters eager and ready to look at the evidence with open minds. What happens instead is that psychic research labs shut down and newer researchers fail to take up the cause. There must not be much evidence.

Mayer was a UC Berkeley psychology professor who was fascinated by coincidence. She saw significance in it, but the problem lies in determining what the appropriate level of coincidence is. How do you know when you have too much coincidence? The answer is not at all obvious. Once you're on the prowl for significance in random occurrences, your filters can supply the significance for you.

Although I'm not a betting man, I can see which side is favored by the odds in the argument over the existence of psychic phenomena. There's a reason the word “just” occurs in the old saying, “It's just a coincidence.”

What in heaven?

Altared states

I was innocently working away on a blog post—a kind of memoir—when I needed to recall the names for an altar boy's vestments. I remembered the cassock, the long button-front robe (invariably black in my home parish, but sometimes red in others). I could not, however, remember what the lace-trimmed white top was called.

It's a surplice, as I discovered after a quick Google search using the key words “altar boy cassocks.” But I got more than I bargained for, which is often the case with an Internet search. There is so much out there! It was still pretty surprising.

One of the hits was on the website of the Southern Africa affiliate of the Society of St. Pius X. You don't know the Society? It's a group of schismatic Catholics associated with the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, excommunicated by John Paul II for his intransigent insistence that only the old Tridentine rite of the mass was valid. (The Society is all excited about Benedict XVI's motu proprio re-establishing general availability of the Latin mass.) The members of the Society, by the way, who have prided themselves for decades as being more Catholic than the pope, would strenuously deny being in schism. They're merely guilty of being old-fashioned and faithful to tradition.

Well, they're retro, all right. The Southern Africa affiliate of the Society of St. Pius X provides on-line access to blocks of text from the 1960 book by G. C. Davy, The Christian Gentleman. Here is what Davy has to say about altar boys in Chapter 12:

Those lace-clad angels that wriggle and bounce around our altars are privileged beings—more privileged than most of them seem to realise. An altar-boy has an important and necessary part to play in the liturgy of the Church.
Sorry, but “lace-clad angels”? Was it possible to write that unselfconsciously even back in 1960? And the little rascals “wriggle and bounce around”? Yeah, they probably all need a good spanking.


And would a sensible religious organization keep such text posted on its website?

I know my answer to that question.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The unpartnered

Odd man out
Rich bachelors should be heavily taxed. It is not fair that some men should be happier than others.

—Oscar Wilde

De toutes les aberrations sexuelles, la pire est la chasteté.
(Of all the sexual aberrations, the worst is chastity.)

—Anatole France
My uncle was terribly upset. His son was buying a home. I did not understand. My father explained his brother's distress over my cousin's real-estate purchase:

“It's a disgrace when a single man leaves home and buys a house on his own. Your uncle thinks it means that your cousin will never settle down in a respectable marriage.”

It took some time before I realized that my father wasn't kidding. In our family, the only proper reason for moving out of your parents' home was to set up housekeeping with your new spouse. My cousin had just disgraced us all. Fascinating. By that token, the thirty-year-old cousin who was still living with his parents was worthy of the highest praise. It was food for thought. (Junk food, probably.)

There was, fortunately, a loophole in the rule about humiliating one's family by moving out in a state of bachelorhood. It involved school. As the first family member to “go away” to college, the loophole appeared to have been drilled out especially for me. Spending summers at home was probably a key component in preserving my family's reputation for decency. By the time graduate school rolled around, however, it was clear that I had made my escape from the family nest in pristine bachelorhood. When I finally traded in my apartment for a house (and a mortgage), it was several years later and the erosion of family standards prevented any undue wailing and gnashing of teeth. (My uncle had helped immensely, of course, when he abandoned his wife of thirty-plus years and shacked up with the woman who eventually became wife #2. And his son with the house had settled into a relationship with another man that has now endured over twenty years, outlasting most straight partnerships.)

The purchase of my own home had, however, given me a shock to the psyche. Although my family's Old World ethos was in tatters and various members of my generation had fanned out in all directions (and in all variations of marital status), the real estate paperwork reminded me on page after page that I was “an unmarried man.” This, I was given to understand, was the trendy new replacement for the old legal description of “bachelor,” which somewhere along the line had become a mild pejorative. (That was, at best, but a minor improvement. The big step toward decency and rationality was the use of “unmarried woman” in lieu of the time-honored “spinster.” When I carped about the constant labeling in the deed and mortgage documents, women who had purchased real estate on their own opened my eyes to the egregious old disparity.)

In brief, however, the real-estate documents had rubbed my nose in my single state, and I realized at last that it was no passing phase. I was a bachelor and, even in my thirties, already a sure bet to stay that way. I don't think I had fully grasped that fact until then.

Human sacrifice

Perhaps my grandmother recognized early stages of bachelorhood in me. If so, it was not immediate. I particularly remember showing her my first-grade class portrait, the one containing pictures of all my classmates, and pointing out to her the girls I thought were the cutest. She shook her head and said, quite firmly, that God would provide my ideal mate at the perfect time (what world was she living in?) and it was most unlikely to be someone in my class.

Later, however, she began to prompt me to declare an interest in a priestly vocation. I was not cooperative, but Grandma was persistent and did not give up until I made my escape to college. I think she had taken inventory of her grandsons and sized me up as both (a) expendable (i.e., not needed for ranch work [and not particularly good at it, either]) and (b) smart enough (i.e., able to learn Latin, unlike my lunkhead cousins). There may have also been an element of (c): this boy is bookish and not developing socially. I don't know, but it's possible. While I always thought I was sweet and charming, family members may well have regarded me as standoffish and sullen. It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?

The priest thing didn't appeal to me, but you couldn't blame Grandma for trying. As you may know, Catholics who sacrifice a male child to seminary life go to the head of the line at the Pearly Gates. (Yes, that's a myth, not really part of Church doctrine, but it didn't stop many Catholic families from suspecting it was really true.) I went through the altar boy training and learned all the responses and routines of assisting at mass, but black cassocks and lace-trimmed surplices didn't do a lot for me. A big chunk of the Latin stuck (I can still recite the Pater Noster), but the religion itself did not.

Unregenerate singularity

It was probably in high school that I realized the the degree to which I was alienated from my ostensible peer group. It mattered not a whit to me what everyone else my age was doing. “Peer pressure” was a meaningless phrase. (The best way to escape peer pressure is to acknowledge no peers.) If I wanted to carry a briefcase to school, I carried a briefcase. If everyone else was agog over some “big game” with some traditional rival, I would be unlikely to know which sport was involved or the identity of the bastion of evil against which we were competing. When my classmates flocked to enroll in the driver education course whose successful completion entitled you to a driver's license at the age of fifteen and a half, I waited till my senior year, when turning 18 made it merely credit toward graduation and not an advance ticket to the joys of the open road. (Heck, I did enough driving of vehicles on the family dairy farm. Who needed more of that? Not me!) Was the spring prom the ne plus ultra of a student's existence? I missed all of them and scarcely noticed.

Clearly I had become an antisocial grind, someone for whom the word nerd would soon be popularized. Even the other guy (the only other guy) who carried a briefcase on campus seemed to be better integrated into the teenage society than I was. I was a cohort of one.

This did not distress me unduly, since I regarded most of my classmates as shallow-minded fools. There were several in my college-prep classes with whom I was on friendly terms (including the other briefcase guy), but our mutual interests consisted mostly of our presumption of continued education. We were all going to college. They were otherwise just as involved in sports, clubs, and proms as anyone else. They were obsessed about pairing off and who was going out with whom. Since their mating rituals appeared faintly comical (Jane Goodall could have studied them instead of chimpanzees), it seemed a distinct advantage that I was content to be unpartnered. Much more dignified.

It wasn't simply a lack of alternatives. In those transition years, the menu of social options was expanding. If a boy didn't want a girlfriend, it was increasingly possible to hook up with a boyfriend without being driven out of town. Even a button-down institution like Caltech had a gay student group. It didn't matter. I didn't want a boyfriend either. I was perversely and adamantly single. The odd man out.

It was a great sin against society's constant pressure to pair off.

At some point, the Socratic impulse to examine one's life prompts a string of questions for oneself: Why am I like this? Is no one else like this? Am I the only one? Is it a passing phase?

I'm sure I'm not alone. (I suppose that could be taken as a lame joke.) It doesn't matter what you may think, there are always other people out there who have shared parts of your experience. (As Hofmannsthal once said, even the loneliest people have thousands of companions they do not suspect.) I wonder, quite naturally, if we stubborn singles tend to have traits in common other than our solitary nature. Do we tend to be fundamentally gay or straight, even if we act or operate as if orientation is moot? Despite the changes in recent decades, being gay can still inhibit one's development of social connections. Or are most people in this situation really sexually neutral? Certainly that's a small group, but who can deny any shade in the spectrum? Whatever we are, the evidence suggests we're pretty rare. How special.

Whenever you're out of the mainstream, you develop compensating mechanisms. I suspect I was a right prick during high school, looking down my nose at the classroom canaille. (It helped that I was tall. The other briefcase guy caught a lot more grief because he was short and easier to pick on.) I had to control my tendency to be an intellectual bully. In retrospect I think I was mostly successful, but I'm probably not the best judge of that.

Self-examination does put one on dangerous ground. No one else has access to your thought processes the way you do. If you're not forgiving of your foibles, you can end up thinking you're the worst person in the world. Funny, too, that there are hardly any good support groups for people who like to hang solo. How do you assemble a group of people who prefer to be alone? I spent the bulk of my free time holed up in the basement at home, a fortress of solitude in which I read hundreds (thousands?) of books and cranked out reams of homework. One summer I completed an entire semester's worth of physics homework in precautionary anticipation of confusing lectures from a notoriously ill-prepared instructor. Since I didn't know what problems would be assigned, I simply did all of the exercises in the book. (It was a lifesaver, too.)

I sure was the epitome of the fun-loving teenager.

Everyone has personal demons to deal with. They may vary in nature and intensity, but everyone has them. As my narrative has indicated, one of my cousins spent years wondering if he should come out of the closet. Another cousin was wondering if he was the only person in the 4-H club who loved his four-legged project just a little more than was generally considered proper for a farm boy (probably not). The hyperactive cousin was in a competition to destroy as much farm equipment as possible before it destroyed him (it's a wonder that guy survived to adulthood). Yet another was hiding a drug habit. Yet another was struggling to conceal (only partially successfully) the sociopathic streak that would be his ruin; to his surprise, the booze didn't actually help. We ran the gamut as a thoroughly representative all-American family.

Holiday gatherings were rather interesting.

Adult education

With age comes agency. You can set your own course. Social expectations and family pressure still conspire to inflict guilt on you for not conforming to your peers or producing lovable grandchildren to amuse your parents, but society is seldom actively interventionist and loners with siblings (like me) can often count on them to take up the slack (which they abundantly did).

Many questions remain unanswered, of course. That can't be helped, since each individual is a congeries of diverse traits and influences. The components of nature and nurture are less like a collection of jigsaw puzzle pieces—those fit together too nicely—than like a tangle of lots of bits of string. The bits of string vary in length, color, and texture, but good luck in trying to identify them or tease them apart. It's one big snarl.

When I pick at my bits of string, I consider that my predilection for solitary pursuits like reading is a key thread in my makeup. I may also be missing pieces whose absence causes me to be disconnected from other people. It may take quite a while for a smart guy to acknowledge areas of abject cluelessness, but experience has amply demonstrated that I have them. I suspect I cannot manage even a twitch on the empathy meter. Or maybe it's just when people are on certain wavelengths that I cannot tune them in.

Whether it's labeled a fear of intimacy or selfish protection of one's space (I prefer calling it a streak of independence myself), my personal makeup has rendered me blind to flirting behavior. The record convincingly shows that I don't recognize this interaction between others until they're practically rolling on the floor and I certainly don't spot it when subtle signals are sent in my direction. Friends tell me I'm like a deaf person at a rock concert (although that strikes me less as a metaphor than as an inapposite example of cause and effect). The incidents are so egregious as to be beyond embarrassing (or so I tell myself).

In grad school, it was the building custodian who informed me that one of my classmates had a big crush on me. When I mockingly relayed this nugget of information to my office partner, he matter of factly stated that everyone in the whole department was aware of her feelings. I was the only ignorant one. It was like junior college some years before, when an acquaintance finally told me flat out near the end of the semester that my partner in our archery P.E. class had been waiting weeks for me to ask her out. Poor thing. Is that why cats scream and bite each other?

I was fresh out of graduate school when a young man chatted me up at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. It was just before a performance of Die Walküre that featured Birgit Nilsson. I was in the basement cafeteria, noshing on a sandwich and paging through the program book when he asked if I minded sharing my table. Without looking up, I told him to have a seat. He was eager to make small talk. I said how great it would be to hear Nilsson, especially since this would be her last visit to San Francisco. He enthusiastically agreed, but then it turned out that he did not know about her earlier visits to SF to perform the roles of Isolde and the Dyer's Wife. Curious. When I said I was a big Wagner fan, he claimed to be a fellow Wagnerite, but he knew nothing about the operas. He did, however, tell me about the state-of-the-art stereo system in his apartment, which was the nth degree of audio delight and well worth experiencing. I finally noticed that there were empty tables all around us and at last it penetrated my thick skull that he was not actually looking to talk about opera. (The poor guy had chosen an expensive venue for his cruising ground if he was so mild an opera aficionado.)

Yes, it really took over a quarter hour before I figured that one out. We went our separate ways when the warning bell rang for Act I. He said he'd look for me in the basement bar during the intermission, but I didn't tell him I'd be on the mezzanine.

Authority figure

We college professors deal with students who are adults, which no doubt reduces our legal liabilities. It's inevitable that some of our students, if only a very few, will develop feelings for their teachers. You can do the math. If you teach, say, three or four classes each term, with 30 to 40 students in each class, you'll have between 90 and 160 students. Even if you are so ill-favored as to be attractive to only one percent of your student population, on the average you can expect to have one or even two students dreamily fantasizing about you each term. (If you hadn't thought of that before, I apologize for bringing it to your attention. Don't worry: each year diminishes our appeal!)

Because of my empathetic disability, I'm able to remain serene and unruffled in dealing with my students. I can't, after all, tell in all but the most extreme cases whether they fancy me. The phone number (“Call me!”) on the exam, though, can be a clue. The student who directly asks you out to dinner is another. (When I told her I don't date my students, her comment was, “That's awfully ethical of you.” I think that may have been a grade quest.) The boy who came to class half-naked was putting himself out there for someone's benefit, but as usual I couldn't tell if it was for me or for someone else in the room. At least he wasn't the guy with heavy mascara who used to flutter his eyes at the instructor; that was in a colleague's class. Even I would have probably noticed that. And my stalker has been banned from approaching me or loitering in the vicinity of my office, so that's settled (I hope).

We naturally enjoy sharing these stories over lunch with colleagues, especially in the presence of the faculty member who is married to a former student. It always puts him on the spot, fidgeting slightly. I suspect I could contribute more tales if I weren't so deaf, dumb, and blind.

My colleagues, by the way, generally know that I'm single and live comfortably alone, sharing no space and jealously protecting my independence. It never fails, though, when weddings or anniversary parties come along, my invitation always includes “and guest.” Just in case, I suppose.

Not going to happen.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The name game

Titled lords and ladies

I cringe whenever it happens—which is at most education seminars or campus forums. Someone will step up to the microphone and address the audience with an introductory statement:

“Hello. My name is Doctor Jane Doe.”

“Good morning. My name is Professor John Smith.”

Betcha it's not! Unless your parents were even wackier than you.

“What shall we name the baby, dear?”

“Oh, I'm really fond of professional titles. How about ‘Senator Robert Roe’?”

“That's a great idea!”

Sad to say, I knew Senator Robert Roe. No, that was not his real name and his parents did not actually name him that way, but I did know a state senator in Sacramento during my time on the legislative staff who got hung up on his title. He had his driver's license changed so that it included “Senator” in front of his name. He became an object of ridicule later when he petitioned the court to make “Senator” officially part of his name. His lame excuse was that he had signed legal documents that way during his tenure in office, and he was concerned that those documents would no longer be valid if he reverted to his pre-elective name. We rolled our eyes and shook our heads—if we were nice. Others pointed and guffawed. Senator Richard Roe had not been a bad legislator, but he stumbled badly on his way to becoming a senior statesman, ending up as a laughingstock instead.

Look, people. Your title is not part of your name. It is a prefix to your name. If you must use it, this is how you do it:

“Hello. I am Doctor Jane Doe.”

“Good morning. I am Professor John Smith.”

Now I'm mollified.

By the way, you can spare us the titles outside an academic context. If you introduce yourself as Doctor Doe at a social gathering, someone is going to tell you where it hurts. If you make a point of your professorship in casual company, folks may well be put off. Feel free to dredge it up if they ask you what you do. Then it's cool.

And that's the prescription from Doctor Zeno (not a real doctor).