Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mr. Man defends the patriarchy

In hell's faculty lounge

The recent accounts of the misogynistic exploits of Professor Superior and Professor Troll remind me that hell's faculty lounge has other occupants. I heard the story of this particular gentleman from one of his retired colleagues. The retired colleague was a regular at a lunch group I often attended. When he reminisced about the good old days as an econ prof in the years after World War II, he enjoyed telling tales out of school. Sometimes he'd tell us about Mr. Man.

Mr. Man was a dedicated woman-hater. A life-long bachelor and a professor of the old school, Mr. Man always wore a three-piece suit, the knot in his tie neat and tight. He taught economics and business law. Most of the students enrolled in his classes were men, which met with Mr. Man's approval. Econ and law are serious subjects, suitable for masculine endeavor. By the same token, it was outrageous that a few women would attempt to master them. Mr. Man grudgingly accepted that his institution was coeducational and that women were allowed to enroll in his classes, but he didn't have to like it.

It was the contention of the purse-lipped Mr. Man that the girls on campus were pursuing men, not an education. He considered it his duty to drive as many of them out of his classes as possible, thereby opening spaces for the boys who were more deserving of them. Mr. Man's favorite ploy involved the prelude to his orientation lecture on the first day of the semester. Standing primly at the lectern at the front of the room, the professor would greet his students with a cautionary admonition:

“This, gentlemen ... and ladies, is a college course in business law. Business law is a serious endeavor requiring diligence and your full attention in class.” Mr. Mann paused for effect as he scanned the class through his rimless spectacles. “You will be expected to observe the highest standards of comportment and scholarship. To this end, I offer a particular admonitory note to the young ladies in class.” Mr. Man's demeanor became more brittle as he steeled himself to confront the dreaded female presence, but he was equal to the task:

“Would all the ladies in class please sit properly and bring your knees together?” Not having been forewarned, or not having believed those who attempted to warn them, the women in class were usually shocked by Mr. Man's rhetorical question. A brief rustle would disturb the silence of the room as the women uncomfortably shifted in their seats and wondered if they were expected to actually press their knees together for the duration of the period. Mr. Man would view their discomfiture with wry satisfaction, a very thin smile on his face. As the rustle of fidgeting women died out, he would deliver his gracious peroration:

“Thank you, ladies. Well, gentlemen, now that the gates of hell have been closed, let us see if we can give our attention to business law, shall we?”

My friend liked to trot out the story of Mr. Man whenever a stranger was a guest at the lunch group. He enjoyed seeing the reaction to his delivery of Mr. Man's punchline, which usually involved bulging eyes and dropping jaws. The old professor said that no action was ever taken against Mr. Man for his bizarre behavior or comments. He actually thought that no one had even dared file a complaint in those days back in the Eisenhower administration. The postwar generation was not inclined to rock the boat or call attention to itself, so Mr. Man's students just put up with their professor's eccentricities. Mr. Man defended the ramparts of higher education as long as he could against the onslaught of women who wanted to learn economics or business law, but even he could see that the tide was against him. By the time he retired, he must have felt defeated. His defeat, however, is not yet complete.

The story of Mr. Man strikes most people as a good example of how far we have come from the bad old days. Let's not be too complacent about it. Professor Superior, for example, was still behaving in a similar way forty years later at my own school; he merely had to be more careful in his choice of words than Mr. Man. As FemaleScienceProfessor made clear in her own account, Professor Troll feels entitled in the present day to denigrate the skills and scholarship of his female colleagues. The social environment has become very inhospitable to such misogynistic males, but natural selection has yet to make them extinct. It's still, unfortunately, too early to drop our guard against this particular endangered species.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Forbidden teaching tips

Banned from the classroom!

Like most teachers, I have my own collection of favorite mnemonic devices, tricks that I share with my students who are having difficulty remembering key facts. Seldom do I use the product rule to differentiate a function without muttering, “The first times the derivative of the second plus the second times the derivative of the first.” I learned it thirty-eight years ago and it really stuck.

I also know some mnemonics that don't do much for me, though I may well trot them out in case they do the trick for some of my students. I remember my first encounter with what my trigonometry teacher called “that famous Indian princess, Sohcahtoa.” He wrote it on the board, all in uppercase letters, with hyphens: SOH-CAH-TOA. Then he explained it was how he remembered the three most important trig functions: “The sine is the opposite divided by the hypotenuse, the cosine is the adjacent divided by the hypotenuse, and the tangent is the opposite divided by the adjacent.” The story of this famous example of Native American royalty left me cold, since I never had trouble with the right-triangle definitions of the trigonometric functions. Some of my students certainly like it, though, and trot it out whenever they are momentarily perplexed.

That ain't right

It was one of my students who helpfully explained to me a memory device he used to recall the names of the three sides of a right triangle. Unlike most triangles, a right triangle has specific names for its sides, labeling the long side as the hypotenuse and the two shorter sides (which always include the right angle) as legs. My student posed his reminder in the form of an amusing riddle. Amusing to him, anyway:

Q: Why do mathematicians love right triangles so much?

A: I don't know. Why do mathematicians love right triangles so much?

Q: Because their legs are spread ninety degrees!

My student paused for laughter at the punchline, which his classmates dutifully and amply delivered. (Yes, he had delivered his riddle in the middle of class.) The only sound that came out of me was a kind of choking sound.

I have not shared the student's memory device with any other classes, despite its wonderful memorability. I also have trouble since then telling my students that right triangles are easy.

Lying down on the job

Professor Jane Doe came bustling into the math department's faculty room after a hectic session of introductory algebra. Jane had a story to tell her colleagues.

She had been in the unit on linear equations and their graphs. Jane had cheerfully explained to her students the difference between vertical lines and horizontal lines, the former having undefined slope while the latter have zero slope. Gesturing vigorously, as she was wont to do, Professor Doe had pointed out that horizontal lines were named after the horizon, so that was an easy way to remember that horizontal lines are flat like the horizon, while vertical lines go up and down.

At the end of the period, a student approached Professor Doe, eager to share her own way of remembering the difference between horizontal and vertical:

“Mrs. Doe, I know a good way to remember which way horizontal lines go. Just remember ‘whore’! Whores do their work horizontal. See?”

Math instructors spluttered their coffee at Jane Doe's story, laughing and choking. Jane was clearly still nonplussed by the student's helpful tip. In the awkward silence that followed, one colleague ventured a comment: “Whores don't do all their work horizontal.”

The faculty room quickly emptied out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dear George

I fear your love is unrequited

The president insists on sending me mail. He can't stop. I'm not sure exactly what I did to spark his obsession with me, but he keeps talking about our shared ideals and goals. If he keeps insulting me this way, I shall have to be curt with him. To date, I've contented myself with ignoring his ever more piteous pleas for attention. Today's missive is a curious amalgam of mendacity and chest-beating. In other words, typical of his ghostwriters.
Dear Zeno,

During my six and a half years in office, you and I have worked together to advance the Republican Party's principles to keep America safe, strengthen our economy, protect our values and extend the American Dream to every person who's fortunate to be a citizen of our great country.
Unless you live in New Orleans, of course. That “keep America safe” thing is working better, of course, what with the administration's willingness to send Americans overseas to be killed. It's not just about the oil, of course. That's a vile slander. It's all about plutocracy: no-bid contracts and no-oversight out-sourcing. That's the Republican way.
In just over 13 months, Americans go to the polls to elect the next President. We have an important mission: to keep the White House in 2008, and retake the U.S. House and Senate. It is critical we do so and your help is needed today to ensure a GOP victory.
I do believe I just caught the president saying something true—quite a lapse on his part. My help is needed for a Republican victory because contributions are at such a low ebb that Democratic fundraising is dramatically outstripping GOP efforts. He won't get my help, so what does that tell you?
Next year, Chairman Mike Duncan and the Republican National Committee (RNC) will have the job of organizing our Party's national grassroots campaign effort.

Mike and I both are counting on your support to help lead the Republican Party to sweeping victories in the 2008 elections.
Is that the same Mike Duncan who chaired the transition committee for Governor Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky? Boy, that was sure a successful transition! I presume Duncan carefully vetted all of those folks who went on to join one of the state's most corrupt administrations ever. It was clever how Fletcher issued pardons to several members of his administration to forestall further investigations into the criminal abuse of Kentucky's merit system. Now that Fletcher is running for re-election, I assume his campaign will be one of Mike Duncan's biggest priorities. Please pour lots of campaign funds into that rat-hole, would you?

But we mustn't blame Mike for problems that are clearly Governor Fletcher's fault. That would be guilt by association. Mike Duncan no doubt gets enough of that just from being head of the Republican National Committee these days.
We know it is grassroots activists like you who put up the yard signs, knock on the doors, make the phone calls and do what's necessary to win and elect a Republican president and Congress.

And it is people like you who give generously to ensure our candidates have the resources needed to run effective campaigns and win. That is why I hope you will make a special online gift of $1,000, $500, $250, $100, $50, or $25 to keep the RNC's 2008 election programs moving forward.
Those dollar amounts are trending in the right direction, but you didn't go far enough. Once you dip into negative quantities, you can sign me up!
Winning the 2008 elections will be the toughest test our Party has faced since we won the White House and added to our numbers in both houses of Congress in 2004.
Yes, and this is one test you can't slip past with a “gentleman's C” or because a legacy can't be permitted to fail. Those days are over for you, buddy.
To accomplish our mission, Republicans must make clear how we will meet the challenges of defending America and extending our prosperity.
You can write “accomplish our mission” without blushing? Good for you!
Republicans have a solid record when it comes to protecting the United States of America.

After the enemy attacked us, I vowed I would rally this nation and use our resources to protect you. And that is exactly what we have done. We have reformed our intelligence services to make sure we can find the enemy before they strike. We have fought to deny them safe haven in Afghanistan and Iraq so they cannot plan and plot again.
Well, we were denying them safe haven in Afghanistan, but our neglect of that operation has permitted the Taliban's resurgence. Would you like to address that little problem? At least we're keeping up the effort in Iraq, where it was Saddam himself who used to deny them a safe haven. Good thing we took him out and turned all of Iraq into a terrorist training ground. That's going to be part of your legacy, George!
The fight for freedom in Iraq is the fight for the security of the United States of America and we must prevail. If we leave before the job is done, the enemy that attacked us would be emboldened. I believe if our candidates take the message of doing what is necessary to protect the American people, we will win in 2008.
You may be right, George. It's called fear-mongering. You're good at it, and it's worked before. Your approval ratings, however, suggest that most folks are on to you now. I certainly hope so.

Republicans also have a solid record when it comes to growing this economy.

Republicans cut taxes for everybody who pays taxes. We understand that if you have more money in your pocket to save, spend, or invest, the economy will grow.

If you look carefully at the budget the Democrats proposed, they want to return to the days of tax and spend. They will raise your taxes and figure out new ways to spend your money.

If our candidates remind the American voter that tax cuts have worked, that the economy is strong as a result of the tax cuts, and instead of raising taxes, we ought to make the tax cuts permanent, we will retake the U.S. House and Senate and hold the White House in 2008.
The best part about our federal budget is that the war in Iraq is off the books! Thanks to Bush-style bookkeeping, we can continue to pretend to be good stewards of the nation's economy while maxing out our credit cards. Not to worry! The bill won't come due while Bush is still in the White House.
You can win most elections based upon strong national defense and good economic policy. But the RNC needs Sustaining Members to get this message out and support our Republican candidates.

Please support our cause today by making a special online contribution of $1,000, $500, $250, $100, $50, or $25 to the RNC to help elect Republicans at all levels in 2008.

Zeno, Republicans believe in doing what's right for America. We believe that the best days lie ahead for our country. And I believe that we're going to succeed in 2008 with your support.


George W. Bush

P.S. Zeno, the RNC is leading our Party's drive to keep the White House, reclaim our majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, and elect GOP legislators in all 50 states. Please take moment right now to make a special contribution of $1,000, $500, $250, $100, $50, or $25 today to help fully fund the RNC's 2008 campaign programs. Thank you.
You're welcome, George, but I think my campaign contributions will go to candidates committed to wiping out the legacy of the worst president in American history. I'd say more, but it'll be fun watching you try to figure out who I mean.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Do you believe in magic?

The boy magician

My nephew was not yet two years old when he manifested undeniable evidence of his occult powers. “Ian” was enjoying some quality time with his father, scrambling about on the carpet in the unfurnished front room of his father's house. His Daddy was stalking him, crawling about on all fours and growling, while Ian shrieked with delight and stayed just outside of Daddy's reach. The chase ran to and fro, as the toddler evaded the dreaded tickle monster.

I was sitting on the floor with my back to the wall, my long legs splayed out in front of me. Suddenly I was no longer an innocent bystander. Laughingly dodging his Daddy, Ian decided he could find sanctuary with Uncle Zeno and zoomed in my direction. Little people regard adults as conveniences. If you lie on the floor, you're a futon. If you sit on the couch, you're a cushion. I was about to become a fortification.

Moving as fast as he could, he dashed to a position between my knees, sitting himself down with his back toward me, grabbing the cuffs of my pant legs with his plump fists, and pulling with all his might. I got the clue and let him pull my ankles across each other.

His father paused outside his son's defense perimeter. Ian crowed in triumph at his Dad. The circle was unbroken. He was safe. It was self-evidently the case that Fort Zeno was inviolate and he had cleverly outmaneuvered his father. Once it was clear that his coup was duly acknowledged, Ian did not object when his father snatched him up and tickled him. After all, that's what monsters do.

Ian's prey-and-predator game with his father was nothing I had not seen before, either with him or my own siblings, as well as other nieces and nephews. Perhaps it's encoded in our DNA, children who are good at the game being more likely to take cover and hide from real predators, now conveniently rare compared to past millennia—at least in most suburbs. Ian, however, was clearly aware of special rules for the game, which his father claimed not to have taught him. How did the little guy get the idea that a closed circle was a powerful form of protection? How did he know that his father would respect the power of the boy's defense perimeter?

It seems likely that there is a strong instinctive component in recognizing the closed circle as a kind of barrier. It was remarkable to me, however, that a toddler would unerringly know that others would recognize it, too, especially given that its recognition required acceptance of its symbolic rather than actual power.

Ian is older now and no longer needs to avoid the depredations of the paternal tickle monster. He still plays games that may involve safety zones and can articulately explain the rules governing them. I can't, however, interrogate him about the reasoning behind his spontaneous creation of a safety zone that first time. We remember his glee at his creative coup, but he remembers nothing at all. If only we knew what was going on in his little brain at the time, back when he could do magic.

Please release me!

On second thought, no

In academia, among the most coveted prizes is a reduction in one's teaching load. This makes sense in a university context where research is rewarded above all other pursuits. A reduced teaching load could accelerate one's publication rate and bring tenure or that full professorship just a little closer. It makes less sense, however, at a community college, where teaching is the paramount mission (and research, if any, is not even an explicit part of the rubric for academic promotion; you may be able to find it in the list titled “other services to the academic community”). We who teach at such schools want to teach, right? Nevertheless, release time is the carrot that administrators like to dangle before us.

It was more than dozen years ago when the Vice President (for instruction) ushered me into the office of the College President. I knew the VP fairly well (who, in an earlier campus incarnation as math dean had been the person who hired me), but the CP was relatively new to her job. I didn't really know her and I was certain she knew little about me. Clearly it was at the VP's instigation that I had been summoned.

The use of technology was burgeoning on campus, and I'm not referring to the overdue replacement of our dial phones with push-button units. Some departments had personal computers on push-carts that were being rolled into classrooms by the more savvy faculty, but tech support was extremely limited. The campus did not have a network and faculty offices had computers only if the faculty member had schlepped one in from home. Student registration was in person or by mail; on-line enrollment did not exist. Many department clerks and secretaries were still using typewriters rather than desktop computers, although the business and computer science departments were considering renaming their Introduction to Typing classes; Introduction to Keyboarding was the front runner for the new designation.

The CP and the VP were agreed that the college needed a formal technology policy. Some administrators were putting together an ad hoc tech advisory committee and it was considered important to get faculty involved. The VP had singled me out a likely faculty participant because he knew I was technology friendly but not fanatic. A small working group in our college district had already labored mightily and produced an absurd “blue sky” report that proposed committing ourselves to “24-hour on-line instruction” in all of our academic disciplines. It contained, however, no specifics on what that meant or how it could be achieved (or whether teachers would still be needed). The VP knew my opinion of that working group report and figured I would be interested in coming up with something more workable.

The VP did most of the talking: “We need a faculty member who knows something about technology and would focus on practical approaches to using it in instruction. The president can assign point-six release time to the instructor who takes it on.”

That rocked me back in my seat.

“Point six? If you're talking about sixty percent release time, then the tech committee job must be a full-time gig!”

A small smile played on the VP's lips as he glanced sidelong at the CP. The CP looked slightly taken aback that a faculty member would openly state the school's big open secret: Release-time projects were always dramatically low-balled. If you were granted point-three for some campus undertaking, you could be pretty certain of spending at least half your time on it. (You understand, of course, that I'm assuming you actually do the job instead of merely generating some half-assed work product like the tech report from the district working group.)

My next remark shocked them even more.

“I won't take more than point five. Although this is important and I want to help out on it, it's not the main reason I'm here. I don't want any assignment that allocates more than half my time to non-teaching duties.”

We reached an accommodation. I had limits on the amount of time I was willing to take away from teaching and the VP understood that, even if the CP regarded me with bemusement. Yes, the release time I got was less than the time I actually spent on the tech policy committee, but it was scaled proportionately down to something I considered manageable. We labored diligently, sometimes against unexpected obstacles (like the faculty member who volunteered for the committee for the specific purpose of trying to sabotage it), but ultimately successfully. The result was a technology policy complete with a support system to manage, maintain, and update it. The ad hoc operation gave way to a standing committee of the college, chaired by one of my colleagues, and the tech policy has evolved—mostly successfully—in supporting today's wired campus, where the network is routed into each classroom and office, computers sit in each faculty and administrative office, and training is routinely provided to faculty and staff. On-line registration has existed for several years and some of our courses are available by Internet-mediated distance learning. And, yes, our typing classes have been replaced with keyboarding classes.

Release time at a community college is different from release time at a university. My own encounter with it probably did not go quite the way the CP and VP expected, but it suited me just fine. There is, however, one thing that continues to nag at me just a bit.

Why did the students at my school choose me as Teacher of the Year during the year I did the least amount of teaching?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ken Ham fights the dictionary

Is God natural?

There's no point in expecting anything new from Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. He wants creationism in the schools and decries the resistance of educators and scientists. In the latest issue of AnswersUpdate (Vol. 14, Issue 9), Ham argues that creationists are being held back by an unfairly narrow definition of science.
In today's public schools, the Bible and its account of creation are excluded from almost all classrooms. In most cases this is due to the fear tactics and misinformation campaigns of mainstream scientists, publishers, and left-leaning special interest groups such as the ACLU and People for the American Way.

For example, most educators have been trained to insist that “science” can only apply to processes involving natural causes (naturalism), but not the supernatural.

As a result, many people (including some Christians) believe that to teach science you can never use the Bible or talk about God or creation in school.

But who ever made the determination that “science” can only mean “naturalism”? It's an arbitrary definition made up, by and large, by those who do not believe in God (and by those Christians who compromise on Genesis), and this arbitrary determination of science is meant to conform to naturalism.

At its root meaning, the word science is defined as “knowledge.” So why would we exclude any bit of knowledge that might touch on God?
Ham certainly has a point: If science relates only to those things that are natural, then the supernatural is definitely left out of the picture. The awkward point, of course, is God's unsuitability as a subject for scientific inquiry. Perhaps Ham remembers that God is supposed to be omnipotent. If he can do anything, exercising arbitrary power, how is that amenable to scientific explanation? Omnipotence has so much “explanatory power” that it fails to explain anything at all. We're back to “God did it.” How, pray tell, does one dig that conclusion out of the fossil record, comparative biology, genetics, or any natural science? The God hypothesis is ostensibly rejected by the exponents of intelligent design, who take pains to distinguish themselves from garden variety creationists. However, the garden variety creationists who push miraculous explanations for natural phenomena have yet to provide a framework for methodical investigation.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect them to do this. The God explanation is the end of scientific inquiry and creationists are perfectly happy with that. It's okay to discard fossil evidence for evolution of species or genomic evidence of the interrelatedness of life because that avenue of inquiry is closed off, the dead end provided by chapter 1 of Genesis. Ham and his fellow travelers see the supernatural as a tonic for the overreaching of scientists who imperil believers' faith in the literal truth of the Bible. God prunes away the regions where human hubris has intruded and “restores” science to a worshipful celebration of the wonders of God's handiwork. Very convenient.

That is how we make sense of Ham's willingness to curtail scientific inquiry, which he sees as an anti-God endeavor in its modern incarnation. He means to restore the centrality of his version of God, so he must denounce the naturalistic basis of science. To Ham, naturalism is not an unbiased premise.
Think about it: this is not a neutral position at all. Through policies based on intimidation and misinformation, most public schools have basically thrown God and the Bible out of schools. Educators thought that meant they were throwing religion out. But they didn't. They just threw out Christianity—and the whole basis for morality. In the guise of “science” they replaced the Christian view with “naturalism”—the basis for the anti-God religion of secular humanism.
Ah, yes. Secularism is a religion, much like not collecting stamps is a hobby. And Christianity is the “whole basis for morality.” Do you see why we cannot ignore such perniciously narrow and sectarian views? In Ham's ideal classroom, the Bible becomes a textbook for both biology and civics. The New Testament provides the universal standard for all proper behavior (presumably with a nod toward some version of the sacrosanct Ten Commandments from the Old Testament). One can imagine the thought police and heresy trials necessary to support such an oppressively sectarian system.

Those who “know” what God said and intends are ready to cram their interpretation down our throats. They plan to come for the scientists first. In a wonderful example of projection, they claim to be victims of oppression and intimidation while seeking to use those same techniques to breach the walls of the public schools. Keep your guard up.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mutation creationism

A creationist doctor diagnoses evolution's fatal illness

Barney Maddox, M.D., joins the cavalcade of professionals who lecture the public on the “scientific flaws” of evolution. While I'm fairly certain that Dr. Maddox would resent medical advice offered by someone who never studied medicine, he is quite ready to chastise biologists for not understanding their own discipline. Some doctors like to play God, but most of them are good enough to confine their manifestations within the walls of their clinics or hospitals. Dr. Maddox, however, is ready to shine the light of his uninformed omniscience on us all.

The Institute for Creation Research has seen fit to publish Dr. Maddox's anti-evolution ruminations in the September 2007 issue of the Acts & Facts newsletter. His article is titled “Mutations: The Raw Material of Evolution?” To spare you from skipping ahead to learn the answer, I'll spill the beans now: He says they're not.

Maddox chooses to begin his story with a bit of medical history. That's encouraging, because he starts on familiar ground where his general competence may be assumed. Maddox says it's good that anesthesia was accepted by the medical community after its first use in 1846. It shows how surgeons were prepared to use the latest science in their practices. Therein lies a lesson for us all.
Correct application of the latest knowledge and techniques in surgical science works today. So why not make similar applications in the forensic science of origins? Darwin published his Origin of Species just before the Civil War. Numerous advances in science since that time bring into question the validity of Darwin's theory, yet biology textbooks today maintain the Darwin mantra, “Darwin said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
It didn't take Dr. Maddox long to run right off the rails, did it? If we take him at his word, he actually thinks that evolutionary biologists simply spout the sacred writ of Darwin's theory. What a shame it is that no one has thought to divide The Origin of Species into numbered verses, so that scientists could cite it as some people do the Bible. That, at least, would conform to Maddox's peculiar perspective that evolutionists are simply Darwin's doctrinaire parrots. “But the case is exactly the reverse” (Darwin XIII:2).

After mischaracterizing evolutionists, Maddox hurries on to demonstrate his misunderstanding of evolution as well. He's the whole package. Maddox is piqued that biologists credit mutation for the diversity of the genetic material on which natural selection operates. He homes in on the problem:
But natural selection only explains survival of the fittest; it fails to explain arrival of the fittest. Natural selection, i.e., the forces of nature, does not change the DNA of the individual animal at all, and can only change the total gene pool of a species by eliminating unfit individuals (leading to the loss, not gain, of genetic information). Genetic drift, or gene shuffling, only involves the shuffling of existing genes within a kind. It does not explain the origination of any gene....

The only way for organisms to acquire DNA other than what they inherited from their parents is for their DNA to change, or mutate. If their DNA doesn't change, living things could never change regardless of how much time passes. Lizards could never become chickens and monkeys, and fish could never become philosophers. Since evolution rejects purposeful design, genetic change could only be random, or accidental.
I'm sure that Dr. Maddox was delighted by minting the phrase “arrival of the fittest,” but I suspect the coinage is not fit enough to survive.

It irks Maddox that biology texts are replete with examples of deleterious mutations except in the chapter on evolution. In that chapter, the textbooks present the notion that there are such things as “positive” mutations.
However, these books fail to inform students that unequivocally positive mutations are unknown to genetics, since they have never been observed (or are so rare as to be irrelevant).
You have to admire that argument—especially the parenthetical fig-leaf. First of all, who argued for “unequivocally” beneficial mutations? As long as there is a net benefit, a mutation can survive. Maddox even mentions the mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia, which persists in the human population by its virtue of also bestowing resistance to malaria. Since sickle-cell anemia is a serious disease, Maddox feels justified in dismissing the mutation as a bad one, neglecting his own argument that natural selection should have weeded it out. It survives, however, in malaria-ridden climes where its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. Is this too complicated for the good doctor?

I am quite taken with his casual aside that positive mutations are either nonexistent or—to reiterate his phrase—“so rare as to be irrelevant.” How, pray tell, could that be? Perhaps in the context of a mere six thousand years of human existence (ICR and its fellows are devout young-earth creationists), one good mutation every ten thousand years might well have produced precisely nothing by now. Over a billion years, however, we could easily be looking at 100,000 beneficial mutations. This, of course, is just playing with numbers, but it suffices to show that Maddox's arguments are weighed down by many tacit assumptions.

Dr. Maddox moves back onto more solid territory when he launches into a lengthy catalog of dread diseases. He thinks he is making the point that mutations are bad, bad, bad and they will cause their possessors to die, die, die.
These diseases are crippling, often fatal, and many of the affected pre-born infants are aborted spontaneously, i.e., they are so badly damaged they can't even survive gestation.
One more time, for the doctor's benefit: This is exactly what one should expect from natural selection. The harmful mutations are not preserved. I guess he missed that.

In fact, I'm sure he missed it, because he cannot resist belaboring what he thinks is his telling argument.
Quantitative information in genetics today is proving evolutionary theory as simply a man-made and irrational philosophical belief.

One top geneticist recently conducted a computer analysis to quantitate [sic] the ratio of “beneficial mutations” to harmful mutations. Only 186 entries for beneficial mutations were discovered (and even they have a downside), versus 453,732 entries for harmful mutations. The ratio of “beneficial mutations” to harmful mutations is 0.000041! Thus, even if a very rare mutation is “beneficial,” the next 10,000 mutations in any evolutionary sequence would each be fatal or crippling, and each of the next 10,000 imaginary mutations would bring the evolution process to a halt.
You got that? Bad mutations would stop evolution. But no. Bad mutations kill their hosts, not their species. The hapless hosts are thus culled from the herd, almost certainly before they breed and pass on their unlucky mutation, perhaps—as Maddox earlier attested—even before being born.

It's natural selection at work, just as Darwin said it would.

Oops! I'm just parroting Darwin now!


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Pompous circumstance

The false security of the Bush police state

Are we still a free society? Six years of Bush vermin nibbling at our liberties makes us less so all the time. Nina Bernstein of the New York Times returns to a story that is over a year old. The failure to resolve this patently egregious miscarriage of justice is distressingly ample evidence that the police-state tendencies of the Bush administration are poisoning every aspect of life in our nation.

The plight of Nalini Ghuman exhibits all the hallmarks of our federal government under President Bush: incompetence, paranoia, high-handedness, and stubbornness. Ghuman is an assistant professor of music at Mills College in Oakland, California. As a British subject, she works (or used to work) in the United States under an H-1B visa. In August of 2006, when Ghuman returned to the U.S. from a research trip to her native Britain, armed immigration officials in San Francisco took her into custody at the international airport and subjected her to a bizarre ordeal.
In a written account of the next eight hours that she prepared for her lawyer, Ms. Ghuman said that officers tore up her H-1B visa, which was valid through May 2008, defaced her British passport, and seemed suspicious of everything from her music cassettes to the fact that she had listed Welsh as a language she speaks. A redacted government report about the episode obtained by her lawyer under the Freedom of Information Act erroneously described her as “Hispanic.”

Held incommunicado in a room in the airport, she was groped during a body search, she said, and was warned that if she moved, she would be considered to be attacking her armed female searcher. After questioning her for hours, the officers told her that she had been ruled inadmissible, she said, and threatened to transfer her to a detention center in Santa Clara, Calif., unless she left on a flight to London that night.
Ghuman chose to leave the country rather than risk open-ended incarceration in the Santa Clara facility. She asked to speak to the British consul, but she was told she had no right to do so—in fact, she had no rights at all.

How long did it take the gun-toting thugs of the U.S. government to realize they had made a mistake? We don't know. In fairness, it could have been a long time. It appears to be disloyal—or even un-American—for federal workers to use their brains these days, lest they appear to think themselves better than the president. Nevertheless, it hardly matters. Professor Ghuman was deemed a security risk and the absence of any evidence to that effect is immaterial.

The State Department has not cooperated with numerous inquiries from Ghuman's colleagues and members of the American Musicological Society (a well-known terrorist front). Members of the British parliament have received similar short shrift and even U.S. Senator Dick Durbin has been able to get a straight answer from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or anyone else in the Bush administration. The feds have dragged their feet for more than a year now, effectively thumbing their noses at Ghuman, her family, her associates, and her students at Mills College (or, rather, those who would have been her students), as well as American citizens in general and their elected representatives.

Professor Ghuman is a respected scholar in her field, known particularly for her knowledge of the work of British composer Edward Elgar. We all know Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstance march has been reduced to a boring tradition at graduation ceremonies. Many of us will hear it again at the end of the academic year in June of 2008. Don't be surprised if Nalini Ghuman's situation remains unresolved at that time. Although the Bush administration is the epitome of gross incompetence, one thing it knows how to do is run out the clock.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Guess the answer

No, this is not a quiz

Students send me e-mail and talk to me in person on campus. Many of their sentences are interrogatives, prompting me for an appropriate answer. The answer is often very easy to formulate, and I marvel that they do not know the answer themselves.
Can I please be in your class?

Hi, I was wondering if you still had room to add me in your tuesday-thursday class? I know i missed two weeks already but i can catch up if you allow me in your class.

Can you guess my answer? Here it is:
Re: Can I please be in your class?

Sorry, no. It's too bad you were not in class on the first day, when I was able to enroll students from my waiting list. You have actually missed three weeks and it's much too late to start a lecture class.

—Dr. Z

That was easy, wasn't it? Here are some other questions:

Q: I don't live near the campus and it takes me a long time to get here. Is it okay if I'm ten or fifteen minutes late for class?

A: No, it's not okay. Leave earlier.

I admit that one wasn't very challenging. Here's a trickier one:

Q: My next class is across the campus and I'm going to have to leave five minutes early each day to get to that class on time. Is that all right?

A: No, it's not all right. I never tell a student it's okay to cut class short. I expect people to be here for the entire period.

Q: Well, I talked to the teacher of the next class and she said it would be okay.

A: Good for her. Then tell her you'll be five minutes late for her class each day.

Q: Yeah, you know, that's a good idea. That'll work!

Maybe that wasn't really very tricky after all, except perhaps in the way the student's mind worked. Or sort of worked.

Here is a perennial favorite:

Q: I missed class last time. Did I miss anything important?

A: No. We saw you weren't there, so we goofed off the entire period.

Q: Really?

A: No. We actually went over the material on the syllabus that was scheduled for that class session. You do know that the syllabus contains a daily calendar that shows what we're doing each day, don't you? It tells you what your homework assignment is for each day, too.

Q: Well, okay, yeah. I've been keeping up with the class by following the syllabus, but I didn't know how far you had gotten.

A: It's true that sometimes we get a bit out of sync with the syllabus, but we've been right on schedule each week since the semester began, so you should have been confident we'd cover the material scheduled for the day you missed.

Q: Okay, yeah, maybe. But I didn't know the class was on schedule. I wasn't here last week either.

A: Now that could be a problem and that's probably why you don't look familiar to me. What's your name? Let me check the class roster.... You know, I don't have a single point recorded in the grade book for you. You have missed every quiz and you didn't do the on-line assignment either. Why haven't I heard anything from you?

Q: I wanted to let you know, but I didn't know how to reach you.

A: My office phone number and my campus e-mail address are both in that syllabus you've been using to stay caught up with the class.

Q: Oh. I didn't see that part.

I showed the student where the contact information was (on page one, as it happened). She seemed quite genuinely surprised. In fact, she seemed quite genuinely surprised by the entire syllabus, as if she had never seen it before or perhaps had lost it immediately after receiving it on the first day of class. I'm sure that could not have been the case.

It would be nice if I had not gotten accustomed to the student who claims to have kept up with the class after a long absence, but I've seen it too often to dredge up any surprise when it occurs now. The situation leads fairly naturally to another question, one that often arises in this context:

Q: Do you give extra credit?

A: No. There's plenty of regular credit available. Go after that.

Why is it that requests for extra credit usually come from students who are slacking off their regular assignments? Not all of them wait till the end of the semester when matters are dire and you can attribute their requests to a state of desperation. No, some of them are quick off the mark, asking for extra credit opportunities during the first weeks of class. These students often provide a variation on the theme in the previous Q&A:

Q: Do you give extra credit?

A: No. There's plenty of regular credit available. Go after that.

Q: Yeah, but I've missed most of the quizzes and you won't let me make them up.

A: You're missing them because you're always late to class. You need to be here on time for the quizzes. If you make a point of being here when the class begins you'll have plenty of opportunities to earn quiz points.

Q: Yeah, I don't live near the campus and it takes me a long time to get here.

A: Oh, yes. I think I've talked to you already about this. Leave earlier. Get here on time.

Education is not only about the subject matter, is it?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Steven Jobs loves you

That's why he hits you

Let us all give thanks that Apple introduced its Macintosh personal computer in 1984. Despite its tiny memory (128K) and sealed case (don't you dare mess with the innards of your own computer!), it was a breakthrough. The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center had invented the future of computing, but the company neglected to market it. Someone had to do it, and that someone was Steve Jobs (along with a gang of people with the talent to do the actual programming and design, once they had seen Xerox PARC's prototype of a bit-mapped graphical user interface controlled by a mouse). Bill Gates at Microsoft knew a good thing when he saw it and quickly tagged along (although not as quickly as he might have liked).

Apple's products are important and influential, but for some reason the company has never gotten the hang of mass marketing. Its share of the U.S. personal computer market is only about 5%. While 5% of so large a market is nothing to sneeze at, it pales in comparison with the market shares of Dell (28%), Hewlett-Packard (26%), Gateway (7.7%), and Toshiba (5.4%). Nevertheless, Apple has considerably more “mind share” than market share. That's probably because the other vendors are all under the umbrella of the Microsoft Windows operating system, setting up a perfect David versus Goliath image that Apple likes to exploit. The only two competitors are thus Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh OS. As we all know, Windows is corporate and clunky (as well as uptight and button-down) while the Mac OS is cool and sleek (as well as laid back and perhaps a bit stoned). Apple works that angle in its advertising and deftly defends its marketing niche. Everyone is happy.

That includes Apple's loyal and much-abused customer base. Apple has a long history of beating up on its clients, but the Apple aficionados keep coming back for more. The sacrifice is worth it—or so it seems—and the customers know it's their own fault. If only they hadn't upset Steve Jobs, he wouldn't have been forced to beat them up. It's the battered spouse syndrome as marketing campaign. And it works! To a degree, anyway.

Frankly, Apple ought to control the personal computing universe while Microsoft subsists on crumbs from the banquet table, but the greatness of Apple products is severely offset by the corporation's casual cruelty to its customer base. Is Microsoft dull and corporate, its enormous success driven by mastery of market-share tactics? Yes. Is Apple clever and innovative, its commercial success held back by its callous and insensitive leadership? Oh, yes!

These claims are based on both ancient and current history. Microsoft got its hooks into personal computing operating systems early and never let go, managing the transition from MS-DOS to Windows deftly (for all that Windows itself was not particularly deft, especially the early releases) and building a monopolistic presence in the corporate world. Microsoft's success with the corporate world was driven by its early alliance with IBM. Microsoft's success in the home market was drive by its willingness to sell lots of units inexpensively. You could get MS-DOS for any cheap PC clone. A million flowers bloomed. Today Windows is readily available on dozens (hundreds?) of different platforms.

Apple, by contrast, jealously guarded its family jewels and did not license its superior operating system for the clone market (except for that brief experimental period when Jobs decamped for a dalliance with NeXT computers). The first Macs were more proof-of-concept machines than usable workstations. Memory resources were so low that only short documents (up to 10 pages, if you're lucky, assuming minimal use of graphics) could be composed on a Mac. It has no hard drive and Apple did not offer one (or even the interface for one). Computer magazines quickly began to publish articles on ways to pop open the Mac chassis and stuff it with additional RAM chips. The modifications voided your Apple warranty, of course, and were sanctioned by the company only after it released the 512K Fat Mac (as most people called it at the time) and then only if you had it done by an authorized (and high-priced) Apple dealer. Apple has always preferred the small-market/high-margin approach to selling its products. It has fostered that approach with proprietary solutions and single-source marketing (Apple being the single source, naturally).

Can you hear me now?

Today Apple is enjoying the success of its new iPhone venture, which looks to be similar to that of the market-dominating iPod. (The success of iPod has even had the effect of buoying the sales of the Macintosh, bringing more customers into the Apple ranks.) Two of my colleagues are early adopters of the iPhone. I often see them playing with (excuse me, I mean “using”) their iPhones. During this month's faculty senate meeting, one of them was browsing his e-mail, his course enrollment rosters, and (for no reason that I could see) viewing his list of contacts. At least he wasn't playing any games. He had also spent a few bucks on an iPhone condom (you know, one of those rubberized sleeves; “for protection,” he said).

Both of my colleagues had bought their machines at the initial price, before Apple startlingly announced a $200 price cut. Apple also discontinued the lower-priced iPhone model less than two months after its release. That's taking planned obsolescence to a new level! Only the act of driving a brand-new car off the dealer's lot can be compared for the abruptness of depreciation. My faculty senate buddy was somewhat miffed about so big a price drop right after his purchase, but he was slightly mollified by Apple's sudden afterthought (in the face of consumer complaints) in offering a $100 credit (for Apple products only, naturally) to early adopters. The grudging rebate is also hedged about with limitations.

Why didn't Apple anticipate the reaction of its customers to the kick-in-the-shins price move? It's probably because Apple has always been remarkably callous about gouging its base and the base has traditionally been quite docile. The company knows its products are really good and that people will generally put up with the abuse. They have in the past, you know. It would have taken only a little foresight for Steve Jobs to have scored a marketing coup with the announcement of the new iPhone pricing. Had he extended the $100 rebate offer to first adopters at the same time that he revealed the $200 price cut, he could have graciously thanked the early adopters for launching the product so successfully, commented that they had no doubt reaped great benefits from having the product before other purchasers, but then noted that Apple was sharing its success with the early adopters by retroactively wiping out half the difference between the original price and the new one. Thanks and thanks again! The loyal customers would have swooned.

But Steve Jobs and Apple never even thought of it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tomorrow belongs to me

They grow up so fast

My in-box contained a new message from my friend PiD:
With 20 minutes to kill, I thought I’d look up our good friend Josiah. I found this on his blog. Pretty scary, no?
My curiosity was piqued, so I followed the provided link to R. Josiah Magnuson's thrilling announcement concerning the Young Christian Leaders' Alliance. The YCLA doesn't have a theme song by the Village People yet, but PiD is right about it being just a little scary (with maybe just a touch of déjà vu).

Josiah is the diligent young creationist who likes to smite godless evolutionists and has twice won runner-up honors in the Answers in Genesis essay contest. He dallied with the quixotic presidential campaign of right-wing nut-case Gene Chapman, serving as the candidate's Intelligent Design advisor until Chapman dropped out. (Did you even know he was ever in?) Undeterred by the Chapman fiasco, Josiah has moved on to new political endeavors, including promulgating a new constitution for the YCLA. The signing ceremony on September 8 was a solemn occasion.
Upon putting down my signature for the Constitution, I got a peculiar feeling—like I was going to throw up, or cry for joy, or scream, or something like that. Whatever. No, though, I didn't do any of those. However, my face in the picture shows my feeling, if you can see it:

In the grand tradition of paramilitary organizations, brown-shirted Josiah was accompanied by an armed honor guard. (The boys with the guns dug out their khakis, but apparently didn't have the right shirts to complete the earth-tone ensemble.)

And, of course, there was a flag-bearer.

Josiah provides a convenient summary of the doctrines that lie at the core of the YCLA constitution:
1. God’s Words are pure; KJV is the most accurate version. 2. The Members of the Trinity are distinct but act totally harmoniously. 3. Creation was by direct act of God. 4. Man is equal in humanity, responsibility, and rights. 5. Authorities are to be respected; must be obeyed when commands do not violate Scripture. 6. Individuals are naturally free to make decisions over their own consciences. 7. Death and suffering came by sin. 8. Man must have faith in Christ and His atonement to be saved from sin. 9. Baptism is correct and is by immersion. 10. Heaven and Hell are literal. 11. Christ will bodily return to Earth.
As anyone could clearly see, these doctrines ineluctably lead to some practical philosophical principles:
God the Creator has established unchangeable Laws for the universe. The Law for man is found in the Bible. Disobedience of God’s Law is sin. Because the first man, Adam, sinned, everyone has inherited the same disposition. The only way to be freed, and escape sin’s punishment (death), is to trust in Christ who died in place of us. Christ also rose again, went to Heaven, and will one day return to decimate His enemies. Until then, believers should continue to grow in their faith, and endeavor to maintain health and fitness so they can best serve God and proclaim His Truth. They should also strive to be humble, merciful, just, and loving towards those around them. Finally, they should work against the evil schemes of Satan, especially those perpetrated by apostate “churches” such as that of Catholicism, and ideas of secular Evolutionary society such as that of socialism.
Oh, oh. I think the YCLA is not well-disposed toward me. I'm definitely part of “secular Evolutionary society” and I support universal health care and public education, which I think makes me a socialist. I probably won't get any credit for having abandoned the Catholic church (although it's amusing to see the oldest form of Christianity described as “apostate”).

You know, that's probably enough time spent browsing around on Josiah's YCLA blog. If it gets more interesting, I'm sure PiD will tip me off.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Culture or kitsch?

Mitigating factors—or excuses

The San Francisco Opera has launched its fall season with a gala performance of Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Säens. The reviews were mixed (apparently the Dalila was okay, the Samson less so), but the San Francisco Chronicle provided some reliably breathless accounts of the non-musical aspects of the evening.
Postshow, revelers indulged in a dinner of lamb served by caterer Paula LeDuc in an opulent tent designed by Robert Fountain with Indian textiles in cinnamon tones and shimmering metallic gold thread. At the entrance, bare-chested models in loincloths and leather sandals stood silent guard over the dance floor, adding a theatrical, PG-13 touch to the event.
Is this post-opera tackiness in San Francisco an aberration, or just business as usual? I'm afraid it's the latter. The high drama and art of opera in Baghdad by the Bay has often been tarted up with sensational and vulgar sideshow attractions.

I first started attending performances at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House in the seventies. It was a treat to see world-famous artists in world-class repertoire. Sometimes, however, there were distractions.

In 1976 the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who giddily revealed that his production of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten would feature full frontal nudity. In the temptation scene, the Dyer's Wife would be treated to an apparition of a young man (that's actually in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto); when unwrapped like a gift package from his cloth bindings, he would be naked (that's not in the libretto). There was plenty of giggling and simpering in the opera house on the first night of Die Frau, but many of the eager patrons must have been disappointed when the tenor portraying the young man was found to be wearing a gold lamé jockstrap. Nevertheless, Lehnhoff had undoubtedly succeeded in goosing the box office.

There was also a lot of buzz in 1977 when Prince Charles was in the director's box for a new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Puccini's Turandot. People were concerned that the Prince of Wales might have been offended that there were topless women in the scene where Prince Calaf was being tempted to abandon his quest for the Chinese princess. (This was before Charles was overheard telling Camilla he wished he could be her tampon, so he was still credited with some discretion and taste.) Sensationalism was the only reason for the gratuitous breasts in Turandot, though I suppose Ponnelle would have argued it was dramatically correct and artistically necessary. People turned out in droves to see Turandot, but not all of them were looking to ogle naked breasts (which could be found in ample quantities and at cheaper prices in many other SF venues). Some were wondering if Monserrat Caballé would fall down Ponnelle's amazingly steep staircase. It's art, but it can also be death-defying.

San Francisco is by no means alone in pushing the margins of taste in high art. It was my privilege to see a performance of Strauss's Salome from the second row of the Santa Fe opera house back when the building was still an open-air structure. Josephine Barstow portrayed the neurotic title character and was slender and young enough to carry off the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. Most sopranos with the pipes to sing the role of the teenage Judean princess were hefty ladies who dared not relinquish too many veils (or had to duck into the wings while a “double” performed the dance). Barstow, however, dramatically cast aside the seventh veil and struck a pose in the bright spotlight with little more than a scintillating dusting of glitter on her breasts. It was entirely credible that Herod would be out of his mind with lust after such a performance, even to offering her half his kingdom.

As Anna Russell once said in a different context, “It's okay if you sing it!”

In addition to making a good case for Herod's obsession with his nubile stepdaughter, the Santa Fe production provided Herodias with entertainments of her own. The soprano portraying Salome's mother was the famous Astrid Varnay, extending her career into her senior years by taking roles where artistic skill and experience were essential, but sheer vocal beauty was not. Varnay invested Herod's harridan wife with sharp-edged wit and venom. She was attended by a bevy of young pages, teenage boys attired in no more than skimpy loincloths and the occasional bangle, like an armlet or necklace. The ephebes clustered about Herodias so that she could casually paw them when the mood took her. Varnay languidly gave the boys some slap and tickle at intervals, sometimes stealing a bit of the show from the other performers.

Varnay later brought her performance of Herodias to San Francisco (in a production starring Barstow again in the title role). This time, for a change, San Francisco showed relative constraint in its production values. Barstow still left little to the imagination at the end of her dance, but Varnay was shorn of her boy toys. We saw a rare triumph of comparative good taste, but I don't think that was the reason that the San Francisco Salome was less decadent than Santa Fe's. It was just a different production. The news of this year's opening night gala demonstrates that San Francisco is as ready as ever to play the kitsch card.

I won't pretend that I believe opera is exclusively about high art and refinement. Even a staple of today's repertoire like Tosca was once derided as a “shabby little shocker.” Opera is about thrills and emotion. That's why the scandalous and sensationalistic features of opera are not that surprising. I suppose we could say that skin and shock are being put in the service of fine art. After all, it's what Celine Dion does in her stage show spectacular in Vegas. That's proof enough. Right? Right?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ouroboros goes to school

You can chase your tail, too

“Dude! Get this!”

My junior colleague was perturbed. In his tweens and unjaded, he's still capable of surprise at the weird problems generated by bureaucracy. He was reporting to me on a student's dilemma. It was indeed beyond the ordinary.

“You won’t believe this, Z. I just found out! I have this student who can't take my arithmetic class unless she gets financial aid.”

That was not the extraordinary part. We have lots of students who need financial aid if they're going to enroll in our classes, even as inexpensive as our community college is. We're open enrollment, too. As noted on our chancellor's website, “California Community Colleges shall admit any California resident with a high school diploma or the equivalent and may admit anyone who is capable of profiting from the instruction offered.” That covers a lot of students, including my colleague's arithmetic student.

“To qualify for financial aid she has to pass the ability-to-benefit test,” he told me.

“Okay,” I said. “Do we actually test for that somehow?” It sounded odd, and I really didn't know. Perhaps I spoiled my reputation for omniscience with my colleague, but there were other senior faculty he could choose to idolize as oracles. He did not, however, seize on my admission of ignorance. He was bursting to get out his news.

“But it seems we interpret ‘ability to benefit’ to mean benefiting from any campus service, not just instruction or education. In other words, financial aid is a benefit.”

I began to see where he was going.

“You're kidding me.”

“Oh, no! She showed me the ability-to-benefit test and it has a math section. The math portion is all the stuff from our arithmetic course. So, to take the course, she needs money. To get money she needs to pass a test. To pass the test she needs to take our arithmetic course. I'm like ‘Oh my God’ and ‘What the f—.’”

As stated, the situation is insoluble. It's absurd that a course should be a prerequisite for its own prerequisite. And do we insist our students know arithmetic before they qualify for financial aid? (Failing such a test should be considered proof of the ability to benefit from an arithmetic class!) I'm puzzled and doubtful. But the story is not over. I suspect some excessive literalness is affecting some part of our student services bureaucracy. It may be as simple as a single person with a tiny bit of authority and an even tinier amount of common sense. We'll have to figure a way around this problem (or this person). In the meantime, though, we're chasing our own tail.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Real journalism vs. fake journalism

Can you tell the difference?

Marc Fisher is a real journalist. You can tell because his column is published and distributed by the Washington Post, a once good and respectable newspaper. Fisher shares with his fellow journalists a deep concern over the attention paid to bloggers, since some of us traffic in matters that are news-like—or journalism lite. The gold standard of meticulously sourced and edited news copy is being debased by the false coinage circulated by unprofessional bloggers. It's a problem.
From high atop his Adams Morgan apartment building, Michael Rogers decides who is living a lie and who may be turning toward righteousness.

Then, with a few words sprayed onto the uneven ground between gossip and journalism, he turns a life upside down. Or he offers absolution, remaining silent if he believes the person in question has a good heart.

A year ago, Rogers, having decided that Sen. Larry Craig was a hypocrite, reported on his blog that the Idaho Republican, who publicly opposed gay marriage, secretly had sex with men. Craig has denied the allegations.
I'm sure we all remember how the Rogers statement destroyed Sen. Craig's reputation and forced him from office, right? Oh, wait a minute. That didn't happen until the police officer arrested him in that Minneapolis airport men's room. I guess Rogers didn't do a very good job of turning Craig's life upside down.

But perhaps that's not Fisher's point. Rogers is only a kind of pseudo-journalist, merely aspiring to the kind of dignity and credibility that are the hallmarks of true journalism. You know, the responsible news sources whose impeccable work leaves Media Matters starved of any faux pas on which to report.
... Rogers, a 43-year-old gay man who worked as a fundraiser for gay and environmental lobbies before turning to full-time Internet activism, considers himself an investigative reporter, “someone who has been able to sway a lot of people from my living room.” He sees his work as quintessentially moral, a modern truth-telling that bares political hypocrisy.

But who elected him moral arbiter? Do his readers at even know how he makes his choices about whom to out?
Damned good question, Marc. The mainstream media are always scrupulous in informing their readers how they decide to publish White House talking points and why they refrain from pointing out that most of them are lies. It wasn't even a week ago that the Washington Post quoted President Bush's claim that continued “success” of his surge could eventually permit reductions of U.S. troops while neglecting to cite the earlier conflicting statement of the generals; they noted that the armed forces were so over-extended that reductions in troop levels were inevitable, not conditional. I'm sure there was a good reason the Post did not provide a pertinent context for the president's comments, and I'll just bet the reporters must have mentioned it somewhere. We just missed it.

Oh, and by the way, Marc. The readers at can find out how Rogers makes his decisions because he tells them. It's all about the hypocrisy—of his targets, I mean.
Rogers is frank enough to admit that talking to him can win a target a reprieve. “If people call me back, the chances I won't write about them go through the roof,” he says.

But for all his earnest honesty, Rogers has a blind spot. His work requires him to play God. He boasts that “there will be more Larry Craigs—this year.” And he declares, “When I say someone is gay, they are gay, because if I'm wrong, the only person in the world who won't believe me is the guy himself.”
For someone who Marc Fisher says is playing God, Rogers seems a bit short in the omnipotence department. It wasn't Rogers who ended Craig's career. But perhaps Fisher is just using a trusty metaphor that subtly signals to the reader that hubris is in play. (Yes, but whose?)
In the American tradition, different kinds of messengers win varying degrees of credibility according to the standards they follow. I don't want Rogers deciding which politicians remain in office, but if he gets his facts straight, there's a place for him in the information marketplace. The Founders figured that the people could discern what's right, what's sleazy and what's outrageous.

At this early hour of a new information era, old notions of credibility and authority are fading in a blur of smaller voices. A Rogers can rise from the babble, then slip right back in.
If only Rogers would get his facts straight, then maybe he could be considered a news purveyor in our brave new information age. Is it impolite for me to point out that Fisher opened his column with the Larry Craig matter, in which case Rogers has been amply vindicated? Maybe he really is a reporter, isn't he?

Fisher closes with a parting shot at the “vigilante reporting” pursued by Rogers. Rogers is certainly a free-lancer with an ax to grind, but I think he'd have fewer opportunities to ply his trade if the mainstream media were sharper. It's the mainstream reporters who neglected to investigate the Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq and it's the mainstream reporters who today keep soft-pedaling the failure of Bush's vaunted surge. It's mainstream reporters who keep publishing articles on John Edwards' haircut and neglecting the mega-billion spendthrift ways of the administration.

If we had a better press corps, we'd have fewer pretenders to their throne.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Professor Troll and his fraternity

The mercifully few, the pompously proud

FemaleScienceProfessor has a colleague. The word, however, is not apt, since “colleague” implies a measure of collegiality. In the case of FSP, her colleague is anything but collegial:
One of the courses for majors that I am teaching this semester has many of the same students as a course that he is teaching this semester. His class is just before mine and in the same classroom. Yesterday, he asked me what I thought of the students' collective mood at the end of his class and the beginning of my class. I said that their mood was generally positive. He then asked “And why do you think that is?” I thought of several possible responses, all of them rude, but then settled on what I believed to be true: “It's a really nice group of students who seem very engaged in their major classes.” He said “I can think of another explanation.” I didn't even ask what this was, knowing the explanation was inevitably coming anyway, but another professor listening to our conversation naively asked him to explain. The answer? Because they know the rigorous class has finished and they don't have to think much during yours.
Quite a wit, isn't he?

FemaleScienceProfessor notes that Professor Troll is a senior professor with no visible research activities and precisely zero graduate students. In terms of scholarly work, the man is clearly a cipher. It must take great intestinal fortitude to patronize his more accomplished colleagues, but he clearly possesses that in abundance. Professor Troll sees himself reflected in the fun-house mirror of his mind and admires the highly superior intellectual that appears before him.

As I mentioned to FSP at her website, Professor Troll reminds me of a former colleague who taught in the social science department of my college. He was many years my senior and had grown old in the service of the school. Age had not, however, mellowed him; rather, it turned his vintage into vinegar. He regarded all of his colleagues with a lofty sense of superiority, but he reserved his special disdain for women and minorities. Many of us speculated that he regretted our lack of an Aryan studies major. Despite my Latin heritage, I was sufficiently pale and male that he treated me politely. How would he have reacted to the information that English was my second language?

On one famous occasion, Professor Superior fixed his supercilious smile on a petite Iranian-American colleague who came up only as far as his shoulder and said, “You know, I would never have chosen you to be the mother of my children.” She bared her teeth back at him in a big grin and replied, “Why would you think it would even be your choice?” Later I suggested to her that her pert reply probably put Professor Superior in a grouchy mood. She smiled again and said, “Probably. But with him, how could you tell?”

Professor Superior was our campus's most deft practitioner of academic freedom brinksmanship. He didn't tell his students that women were inferior to men; he merely stated his opinion that most women were unsuited to academic pursuits unless those pursuits consisted of trying to find a college man for a husband. He didn't tell his students that dark-skinned people were inferior to light-skinned people; no, he merely pointed out that dark-skinned people lacked the cultural heritage that permitted them to produce great civilizations. In his special even-handed way, Professor Superior thought it only fair to mention that Benito Mussolini (a portrait of Il Duce hung in his office) made the trains in fascist Italy run on time and Adolph Hitler had given Nazi Germany a new sense of national pride before he, well, “overreached.” Professor Superior had a genteel turn of phrase.

The complaints and grievances against Professor Superior piled up each semester, filed by offended students and colleagues. Only a few of the worst rose to the level of anything requiring more than a gentle admonition from someone in the dean's office, but the admonitions had no discernible effect on the professor's obstreperous manner. He was confident that it was more trouble than it was worth for the college administrators to run him to ground. He was right for a long time.

It was the increasing burden of age that caused the gouty old professor to lose his equilibrium, growing ever more irascible and undisciplined. Confined to a wheelchair and no longer able to use his considerable height to intimidate his students and colleagues, he escalated his rhetoric and forgot the rules of the game. When he finally declared that gay students should be expelled from the college and that women were really helpless without men to run their lives, the blizzard of complaints inundated the administrative offices of his department and the college.

Professor Superior had finally “overreached.” His department chair and academic division dean summoned him to a pow-wow and explained the situation. The complaints and grievances had increased in seriousness to the point that formal disciplinary hearings were unavoidable. The charges were not frivolous and the dean was no longer content to offer gentle admonitions and enter mild rebukes in Professor Superior's personnel file. It was pointed out that he had long since qualified for the maximum possible retirement benefit and was practically paying the college for the privilege of remaining in the classroom. Professor Superior reportedly considered hiring an attorney and fighting his way through every round and appeal of the grievance review process, but he ultimately realized that the game he had played for so long was at an end.

Before Professor Superior could change his mind, his retirement for health reasons was announced. Faculty members checked out his vacated office and speculated over who would inherit Professor Superior's “bunker.” It was the end of an era—or, as some would have it, the fall of the Reich.

Minority report

Professor Superior had his defenders during his decades of teaching at my college. He would not have appreciated some of them. One of my best students argued that Professor Superior's classes had been his most educational experiences at our school. This particular student disagreed with almost everything the professor ever said, but he fearlessly asked challenging questions and debated Professor Superior in class. He was a returning student, having already spent a few years in a profession. He was therefore older and more confident than most of his classmates. He told me that Professor Superior's class made it impossible for thinking students to be intellectually lazy if they were willing to defend their positions. He had found the classroom debates to be invigorating and he noted that Professor Superior had given him an A despite his constant disagreements with him.

I see my student's point, but I imagine very few students were equipped to thrive in the contentious and poisonous classroom environment offered by Professor Superior. Would that they were! Professor Superior was not playing devil's advocate when he advanced his views; his colleagues had ample evidence that his extremism was completely sincere. Professor Superior was simply being honest when he explained to his students that most of them were the dregs of humanity. And if he had ever seen our A student in the company of his boyfriend, I dare say Professor Superior would have reconsidered the A.

[Thanks to PZ at Pharyngula for the link to FemaleScienceProfessor.]

I agree with ICR

But not often

In the September 2007 issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research, executive editor Lawrence E. Ford argues that there is no middle ground when it comes to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Either its authority is absolute or it's not. As Ford puts it,
Question the creation account because of man's discoveries and one might as well question the virgin birth or resurrection or even the deity of Jesus Christ.
Hot damn! I agree with Ford completely. We are utterly as one in this regard.

Then we part ways, of course, because I do reject Biblical inerrancy and Ford clings to it. For me, the Bible is long since overthrown as a source of infallible truth. It contains, it seems to me, some interesting (and occasionally beautiful or inspiring) accounts of ancient tribal creation myths and practices, along with more recent accretions consisting of a patchwork (and not always consistent) history of the founding of Christianity. It is, however, neither a science book nor a history text. (Lawrence Ford would beg to differ, but that's his problem.)

Science so-called

ICR fancies itself a Bible-based scientific organization, ignoring the inherent contradiction in that description. The new Acts & Facts includes an exciting account of ICR's devotion to cutting-edge research:
Genetic research is a complicated undertaking. Although the complete human genome was published in 2001, only a portion of this genetic code is understood. A great deal of work remains to be done, and an abundance of raw data waits to be interpreted. ICR joined the field in 2005 with its GENE project...

New equipment and software continue to be developed to aid this investigation. For instance, bioinformatics offers the use of techniques such as applied mathematics, statistics, and computer science for the investigation of such aspects of genomic research as DNA sequence alignment, protein interactions, and prediction of gene expression. A team of scientists from around the country met in July to discuss ICR's genome project and the computer software and bioinformatic approaches that will best support their research efforts. The meeting also allowed the scientists to share updates on their current work and discuss directions for future investigation. The research is meticulous and time-consuming, but the new opportunities are exciting. Look for progress reports in Acts & Facts.
Sounds pretty scientific, doesn't it? In fact, ICR makes a remarkable contrast with the Discovery Institute. The latter organization claims its fosters a robust research program to demonstrate the viability of “intelligent design” as a scientific (and nontheistic) rival to the theory of evolution, but to date it's accomplished virtually nothing. ICR, on the other hand, vigorously attempts to make its case, dedicating itself to projects such as the one described in the above passage.

However... you may have noticed the ellipsis in the excerpt I quoted from Acts & Facts. Let me give you the entirety of the sentence I truncated:
ICR joined the field in 2005 with its GENE project, with a goal of analyzing the human genome in order to demonstrate that humans and animals are not distant cousins who sprang from the same microbe living in the primordial soup millions of years ago.
Yes, that was to be expected. ICR has already drawn its conclusions. Now it's time to bend the research results to fit the pre-selected creationist model.

ICR can call its GENE project whatever it wants, but science it is not.