Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Quite a little number

Mixed and mixed-up

My computational math students have some problems with mixed numbers. I'm talking about numbers like four and two-thirds or five and one-seventh. I recently gave a quiz where students were asked to multiply these particular two mixed numbers together. The result is supposed to be 24. Not everyone got that answer. One student, completely stumped, resorted to desperate diversionary tactics:

Sorry, kid. I annotated his answer in red ink: “Strangely enough, this is not the correct answer.”

Math is hard.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Holier than thou

Motes and beams

A mean-spirited little campus group at my college threw themselves enthusiastically into Islamo-fascist Awareness Week. It was a Christian club that brags about its superiority to Islam because of their religion's willingness to turn the other cheek, although the club's members seem quite unprepared to practice what they preach. With all the self-confidence of unreflective bigots, they manned a booth on the quad and handed out literature on the inferiority of Islam relative to Christianity. No one considered that signs calling Muhammad a pedophile and Islam a religion of death might give the lie to their own Christian practice.

Some of them had evidently trolled David Horowitz's website for some nice slurs on the religion of Muslims. Folks who cheerfully profess that the entire Bible is the inerrant word of God eagerly cherry-picked the Qur'an and other sacred Muslim writings for examples of Islam's iniquity. Their pamphlets drew special attention to Aisha, Muhammad's child bride, using the standards of today to accuse Islam's prophet of child molestation. Nice work, kids. By contrast, according to the Christian club's pamphlet, Christianity protects children. Surely no one would dare contradict this statement by, say, actually plucking out Bible verses and quoting them. Right?
And [Elisha] turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. (2 Kings 2:24)
Of course, these forty-two “little children” deserved to be torn apart. They had mocked Elisha's bald head, an unquestionable capital crime. The God of the Bible occasionally found it appropriate to slay innocent children as well:
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)
But this is Old Testament. Not fair, right? Christians can make excuses that the bloody-minded deity of the Hebrew Bible has been supplanted in their faith by his milder semi-mortal son.

Okay, then, let's see what Jesus has to say:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Sounds pretty violent for a statement from the Prince of Peace, doesn't it? This is the fellow who also said:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Still want to say that Christianity is a religion of peace?

The apologists will say these verses are taken out of context. Yeah. Remember that the next time you figure you're an expert on Islam, okay? Okay?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Scary times for the GOP

Elephants stampede in terror!

The Republican National Committee is running a little contest. It sent out an e-mail this week encouraging people to log on to gop.com to cast a vote for the “scariest Democrat.” One must admire the blithe lack of embarrassment as the GOP mocks the Democratic candidates for president. Haven't they noticed that Tom Tancredo is running for their nomination? Or Rudy Giuliani? It's a remarkably sorry crew on the Republican side.

So, what do you see if you click on the link to the GOP's crude (and noisy) website? Such a surprise! The scariest Democrat—by a huge 91% romp—is Hillary Clinton! Did you know it would turn out that way? (I'll bet you did!)

The more conspiracy-minded among us tend to think that the Republicans keep hammering away at Sen. Clinton because they want the Democrats to nominate her. You see, they're licking their chops at the prospect of going after her in a general election. After all, doesn't everyone know that she carries more baggage than other Democrats and is sure to lose? (Except, however, that she keeps winning.)

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn whether the Republicans really fear her or are merely pretending to do so. (There are probably plenty of Republicans who aren't sure themselves.) As a red-meat liberal myself, I would frankly enjoy it more if Hillary ripped open some Republican bellies and devoured their cirrhosis-ridden livers. She's been playing it safe and hovering in the political midst of the pack, but who can say it hasn't been enormously successful to date? She's already withstood more than fifteen years of unremitting and nasty personal attacks. Republicans must fear deep in their withered hearts that she can endure their worst. Perhaps they have overplayed their hand, working so hard to demonize the junior senator from New York that people are surprised and relieved when they see her on the campaign trail: She doesn't actually have horns and a tail. Why, she seems like regular folks!

Let the GOP caper about and make their merry Halloween jokes. They may as well enjoy themselves while waiting for their richly-deserved doom to come upon them.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Second-RATE science

More creation comedy

Larry Vardiman, Ph.D., is the professor of atmospheric science and director of research at the Institute of Creation Research. The October 2007 issue of ICR's Acts & Facts provides us with some of Vardiman's keen insight into science the way it is done by creationists. His topic is the RATE project (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth), which was launched by ICR to try to reconcile the evidence of radioisotopes with the notion of a young earth. The existing proportions of radioactive isotopes and their decay products indicate an earth billions of years old, but this will never do for Bible literalists.
Could the study of the rates at which radioactive decay had occurred in the past solve this issue? Success by this approach meant that the decay of parent isotopes and the production of daughter isotopes would have occurred at rates many orders of magnitude greater than the conventional view. The RATE team knew it would be breaking new ground.

The concept of so-called accelerated decay was highly controversial and would not be easily accepted by the scientific community without strong supporting evidence.
Vardiman has a gift for understatement. If he were not a creationist, I would suspect him of also having a talent for deadpan humor, but creationists tend to be in dead earnest all the time, even when they are using so unnatural a word as “evidence.”

While Vardiman is able to brag that “the response within the creationist community has been generally positive concerning the quality of the work and the significance of the findings” announced by the RATE project participants, RATE has been singularly unsuccessful in persuading the scientific community at large. RATE is simply one more sermon being preached to the choir.

ICR insists, however, that RATE was a scientific endeavor. Observe how Vardiman portrays the deep thinking of the RATE participants, as they considered possibilities other than accelerated decay:
While literature review and research design were progressing, two additional hypotheses were considered. They were: (1) Large initial concentrations of daughter isotopes in the mantle that were mixed into the crust on Day 3 of Creation week, and (2) large concentrations of daughter elements produced during the six days of Creation week that were later mixed into the crust by the Genesis Flood. Both required supernatural action by the Creator, occurring either at the very beginning of time or during the early events of the Creation week. Processes subsequent to these supernatural events could be studied by conventional scientific methods and would be less controversial.
That is, RATE would study the aftermath of the miraculous event, since miracles themselves are beyond our comprehension. Exactly how does Vardiman figure the RATE team could persuade any neutral observer that “A miracle happened!” is a good explanation for natural phenomena?

Vardiman is aware of the problem:
Of course, any reference to supernatural intervention is strictly taboo according to the conventional definition of the scientific method today. Even scientists who are Christians often react negatively to such suggestions.
Fortunately, at least according to Vardiman, evidence-based research came to the rescue:
Accelerated decay during several periods of earth history became the primary hypothesis because evidence had accumulated that a large amount of nuclear decay had occurred in the rocks after the initial Creation. Some of the decay may have occurred during the Creation events, but a large amount must have also occurred during later periods, such as the Genesis Flood. Some accelerated decay had apparently occurred during and following the Flood, even up until recently, with evidence seen in the presence of fission tracks, radiohalos, and residual helium in rocks containing uranium and other radioactive elements associated with Flood rocks.

Most creationists who had previously considered this problem believed that the large quantity of daughter isotopes present today were formed primarily during Creation and that the concentration of daughter isotopes was non-zero when time began. If this were true, then the problem could be solved simply by resetting our clocks to account for this non-zero starting point. However, the evidence said otherwise.
The evidence said otherwise? Perhaps if we troubled to read all of the RATE publications (none of it in peer-reviewed journals, by the way), we could examine this “evidence” for ourselves, but what is more nonsensical than miracle-mongers arguing about “evidence”? If God in his infinite wisdom said “Shazam!” and created decay-product isotopes by a minor application of his omnipotence, then who dares to pile up “evidence” that he did not? That doesn't sound like an honest day's work for true believers.

Vardiman's concluding remarks juxtapose “evidence” and Bible credulity in a perfect illustration of the oxymoronic nature of the ICR's so-called research:
Thus, the RATE research was bound by two major constraints—the clear statements of Scripture that the time since Creation was only thousands of years, and the evidence that a lot of nuclear decay had occurred since Creation.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. No doubt!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Retro mythology

Give me that old time delusion

Inside the Vatican magazine is a noisy advocate of the old Latin mass and all things from before Vatican II. In its quest to march the Roman Catholic Church back to the good old days, Inside the Vatican has unearthed the Baltimore Catechism and taken to publishing inspirational excerpts from its trove of old-fashioned didacticism. The Baltimore Catechism presents Church teachings in a Q&A fashion designed to be memorized. (I've discovered that some of the items are still embedded in my head forty-five years after I first learned them.)

The October 2007 issue of Inside the Vatican makes some curious choices in its selections from the old catechism. In particular, someone should have thought better than to present this:
75. Q. On what day was Christ born?

A. Christ was born on Christmas Day in a stable at Bethlehem, over nineteen hundred years ago.
Interesting “fact,” isn't it? Does the Church expect its acolytes to take this seriously? It's no coincidence that December 25 was selected for the observance of Christ's birth, but no one actually believes that Jesus was born near the winter solstice or on the Roman holiday known as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.

I trust this statement about Christ's birth was not infallibly approved by the pope.

Teacher, teacher!

Are there really no stupid questions?

My student caught up with me at the door of the classroom, just before class was about to begin:

“Dr. Z, I'm really not getting this least common denominator stuff.”

Such last-minute pleas often mean that the student is fishing for some hint or nugget of information that might provide a small advantage on the daily quiz, which is typically the first order of business in my computational math class. I replied in that vein, trying to assuage his fears:

“We're working on multiplication of fractions right now. Common denominators are required for addition and subtraction of fractions, not multiplication. Remember? You'll need to catch up on the common denominator material, but you should be okay for today.”

I had failed to correctly gauge the intent of my student's expressed concern. He proceeded to disabuse me:

“I'm really behind right now, Dr. Z. Do I have to attend class today?”

Oh, that is a really good idea. If you're behind, skip class until you can catch up. That'll work! I maintained just enough presence of mind to give my student the correct answer to his question:

“Of course you do. Now get in there.”

The incident turned out to be a learning experience for my student. He avoided the problem at our next class session by not even showing up.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Enabling the enemy

Et tu, Stephanie?

Too bad about the 2000 election, but all Democratic nominee Al Gore had going for him was environmental sensibility and playing a key role in an administration that presided over eight years of peace and prosperity. That was completely outweighed by Gore's constant claims to have invented the Internet and his obsessive-compulsive lying. Right?

Too bad about the 2004 election, but all Democratic nominee John Kerry had going for him was his distinguished service in the U.S. Senate and a fistful of medals for valorous service in Vietnam. That was completely outweighed by Kerry's unfitness for command and his constant flip-flopping. Right?

That's how George W. Bush ended up with two terms as president of the United States. The right-wing noise machine churned out gushers of lies and smears against the Democratic standard bearers and the mainstream media casually played along. The consequences of the media's irresponsibility and voters' gullibility have been horrendous.

Too bad about the 2008 election, because Hillary Clinton has a weird laugh, Barack Obama has a scary middle name, and John Edwards spends too much on haircuts. Whichever Democrat wins the nomination, he or she can be assured of a ceaseless barrage of smears and misrepresentations. It's how the Republicans do business.

Have we learned the unpleasant lesson yet? We can't ignore the attacks because they have worked entirely too well in the past. We must refute the lies and we must not hesitate to call the liars liars.

Furthermore, we must not play along. Is this too hard to understand? Apparently it is.

Stephanie Miller hosts a wacky morning talk show that features such delights as “Right-Wing World,” a bold skewering of neocon scoundrels by presenting them in their own words. Miller and her cohorts go after the bad guys unmercilessly and delight their liberal audience with jokes, vocal impressions, and sound bites. Unfortunately, one of the sound bites this week is Hillary's supposedly weird laugh. Please. How weird is it to laugh uproariously at Fox News asking her why she is so partisan? Fox News! Pots and kettles!

You don't have to be a Hillary Clinton fan to realize this is a bad idea. There's a good chance she'll be the Democratic nominee, in which case I will certainly vote for her against whatever offal the GOP throws up. In the meantime, we should not be doing the right-wing's work by participating in their puerile smear campaign. The mock concern over Sen. Clinton's laugh is the province of low-lifes like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and the whole vile Fox crew. Let's not do their work for them.

Cut it out, Stephanie! Don't enable them. They're the enemy. Got it? They deserve our censure, not our cooperation.

Drag that sound bite to the trash can and leave it there. You want to attack Hillary? Go for it. But do it without becoming participants in a GOP smear campaign. Criticize Sen. Clinton's votes on Iraq and Iran. Question her sincerity on campaign reform or universal health care. Those are all fair topics.

But reject anything that comes from the Republican noise machine and its minions. Remember 2000. Remember 2004. Remember George Worst-president-ever Bush.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

More bloody success

Mission accomplished?

All patriotic Americans should be pleased by the brilliant success of the president's escalation—sorry, I should have said “surge”—in Iraq. The evidence of success is everywhere in our national media and our most revered pundits hasten to assure us that all is well. Just today, for example, the Washington Post explained that lower casualty rates in Iraq are a telling argument in favor of the president's military policies. We can all take comfort in the ceaseless happy-talk.

But I don't. While it's good that civilian casualties have dropped, that's almost entirely the result of abandonment of U.S. policies. Instead of insisting on a strong coalition central government in Baghdad, the administration is now allowing local militia groups to take over in different regions. Once these militia “win,” the violence declines. The locals even turn on al Qaeda and eject foreign influence from their neighborhoods. That sounds good, but it carries its own negative lesson for the U.S. Iraqis don't despise al Qaeda because of American opposition to Bin Laden's terrorist organization. They abhor al Qaeda because it brings violence to their country. The lesson is to get out of their way—since for some reason Iraqis consider our own troops (and mercenaries!) to be sources of violence. Go figure!

As for the numbers, it appears to have become unfashionable to talk about deaths among American troops. They're up. Relative to a year ago, U.S. troops have suffered more fatalities in each month except September. Excuse me for not celebrating our so-called success.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The claustrophobic calendar

University envy

In the California's tripartite system of postsecondary public education, the prestigious University of California lords it over the more plebeian California State University, which in turn prides itself on its superiority to the humble California Community College system.

Okay, that's not strictly true. A lot of people recognize that the three segments serve distinct functions and mostly do a good job of it. The open-admission community colleges are a gateway to our most diverse array of education options, serving people whose academic backgrounds range from virtually nonexistent (those who wasted or missed their high school years) to UC-qualified (those seeking bargains or flexibility in our low-cost system while racking up units that will transfer to the CSU or UC). Still, we community college faculty members do occasionally notice that we are not held in the highest esteem. Sometimes, I'm afraid, we get jealous.

The most dramatic symptom of university envy in recent years has been the wide adoption among California community colleges of something called the “compressed calendar.” Because we're often lumped in with K-12 in the state's Education Code, all public community colleges have been bound to the 18-week semester used in elementary and high schools. A five-unit class, therefore, is a 90-hour commitment (allowing for the fact that a college hour is typically 50 minutes). The California State University, by contrast, uses a 15-week semester. That means our community colleges typically begin fall semester a full two or three weeks before the state universities open their campuses. You can see where that might stimulate some envy.

Since we offer many of the same courses as the state university, there has been a feeling among some community college professors that we ought to be able to align (that is, shorten) our semester with theirs. Despite that sentiment, however, there has never been a concerted effort to seek a legislative amendment to the Education Code that would put the CC and CSU systems on the same footing. It would probably have been a waste of time, so it's probably just as well that we did not take that approach. What we have been doing instead, however, may be worse.

The idea behind the “compressed calendar” is simple. If we're mandated to offer 90 hours of classroom time for five-unit classes (and 54 hours for three-unit classes), why not lengthen our class sessions so that we can rack up the necessary hours in fewer weeks? A bit of simple math shows that a 16-week semester is 11% shorter than an 18-week semester. If we make stretch our class hours from 50 minutes to 56 minutes (a 12% increase), we can squeeze our courses into the shorter semester without sacrificing any class time. (For those of you with sharp pencils, please note that a semester that is 8/9 as long as as regular semester would need class hours 9/8 as long as a regular 50-minute hour; 8/9 is 88.89% while 9/8 is 112.5%. Watch out for niggling round-off errors.) Simple, right?

Ogawd, no! The California Code of Regulations defines any period whose duration is between 50 and 60 minutes as a class hour. That is, we have to eat any excess over 50 minutes because we get no credit for it. The rationale behind this rule is simple: every 10 minutes out of 60-minute hour is reserved as break time, but if we want credit for minutes 51 through 60, we have to go beyond a 60-minute class period:
For purposes of this Article, the class hour unit for graded and ungraded classes is defined as not less than 50 consecutive minutes exclusive of passing time. In block scheduling of more than one class hour only one contact hour may be counted in each clock hour of 60 minutes, except that a fractional part of class hour beyond the last full clock hour may be counted from and including the 51st minute of the last full clock hour providing there is no class break in the last full clock or the partial class hour.
The consequences of this restriction are immediate: Our class periods must be longer than suggested by a simple computation of the minimum number of minutes. The longer periods create a surplus of class time over the course of a 16-week semester. How to compensate? We have to drop class meetings.

Fortunately for smaller schools, the Los Angeles Community College District has the resources to commit to a detailed analysis of the impact of the compressed calendar. A document produced in the LA chancellor's office in June 2003 was a primary resource as other colleges pondered whether to embrace the compressed schedule. The document's appendices offered precise guidelines for the class configurations feasible under different forms of the shortened school year. (This analysis is still available on-line at the LACCD website as a Word document for those eager to read the details.)

The compressed calendar rings the death knell for daily classes. Schools that adopted some version of it had to scramble to rearrange all their courses, with the result that twice-a-week classes became the rule. For three-unit classes, this meant periods approximately 80 minutes in length (longer if the college adopted a 15-week compressed calendar instead of a 16-week schedule), but five-unit classes turn into ordeals lasting two-and-a-half hours (with a short break somewhere in the middle). We have lots of five-unit classes in the math curriculum, which is probably why most of the math faculty voted against the compressed calendar when it was proposed for our college. Colleagues in other departments, however, provided the votes necessary to switch us to the new regimen.

Approximately half of the state's 100+ community colleges have moved to one version or another of the compressed calendar. There is less than a consensus concerning its success. Some schools, admittedly, did a clumsy job of implementing it, beginning and ending classes at weird times and stinting the passing-period interval that permits students and teachers to get from one class to the next. (One colleague at a bad-implementation school told me she was thinking of getting fitted for a catheter because her bathroom breaks were too far apart. I think she was kidding.) However, many faculty prefer teaching longer hours on fewer days. (I, frankly, don't.) Lots of students enthusiastically embrace the system. Why attend a class every day when you could attend it only twice a week on the compressed calendar?

Dare I mention learning outcomes? While the experiment is young enough that conclusive data have yet to be adduced, I do not believe that a subject like algebra is better learned in two big weekly doses in lieu of five smaller ones. The twice-weekly algebra class is a marathon, lasting over two hours. A format that used to be limited to night classes has boldly invaded the day schedule. Students do, however, happily sign up for those classes, filling twice-weekly sections first before settling for the sections that meet three or even four times each week. (At my school, we resisted the stampede to convert all classes to the twice-weekly format.) I have been fortunate enough to avoid teaching any marathon classes so far in our dalliance with the compressed calendar, but my colleagues admit they and their students are both flagging at the end of the long periods and the amount of material is difficult to digest in one session.

I've asked whether the students who eagerly signed up are still happy after a few weeks of the actual experience of a twice-weekly five-unit class. There is, of course, no single answer that covers all cases, but there is at least the hint of a problem with the bargain-hunting student. I asked a colleague, “Are students actually able to learn stuff after the ten-minute break, when the second hour-plus segment depends on material that was brand-new in the first segment?” He replied, “Some seem to. Others don't return from the break.”

I know where we'll see those students next semester.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ruining the pedantry game


Participants in a busy thread over at Pharyngula last weekend were treated to a display of oneupsmanship that bled all of the fun out of pedantry. Pedantry, as you may know, consists of the exhibition of excessively detailed knowledge. The line between erudition and pedantry depends on context. A graduate seminar is a great place to demonstrate command of subject-matter minutiae. A casual chat in the faculty break room probably is not (although pedantry is an occupational hazard for those of us in the teaching profession).

The Pharyngula thread began with a post by PZ Myers on the canonization case for the late Mother Teresa. He and several of his blog's devotees made mocking comments about the “miracle” of the disappearance (passing?) of a kidney stone being attributed to Mother Teresa's intervention. That's pretty small potatoes in the miracle hierarchy, demonstrating how far the Vatican is willing to lower the bar to expedite the canonization cause of the Calcutta nun. Our mockery was a bit much for Selina Morse, who took us to task:
[H]aving lurked here for a few months now, it seems (I could be wrong) that almost every religious story seems to merit debunking. Particularly Christian religious stories (whether that's a political decision or not I don't know).
It's a tribute to Morse's keen insight that she picked up on the general disdain for religion. Yes, Selina, every religious story merits debunking. That was quick, wasn't it? And most of the mockery goes toward Christianity because that's the dominant religion in our culture. Simple.

Had that been all, Morse's complaint would have already receded into the dim recesses of my memory. However, Selina decided to draw on her chops as a historian (although her degrees are in astrophysics and applied math) to lecture us on the deceptive nature of truth. How many wives did Henry VIII have? Who, she asked, was the first president of America?

If you offered “six” as the answer to her first question, and “George Washington” as your response to the second, Selina was ready to pounce.
Henry only had 2 wives. The rest were considered annulled (or at least not consumated). (OK this is a technical point, but it is a legal one nonetheless and it demonstrates that the facts we "know" are not necessarily true at all")

And George Washington was not the first president of America. Peyton Randolph was. Washington wqas the first President of the independant United States of America in 1789.
What hairsplitting foolishness. Such trivial technicalities provoke contempt. Henry's people arranged six separate marriages. It hardly matters that they variously ended in divorces, annulments, and/or beheadings. The man had six wives. If Morse wanted to make a fair game of it, she could have asked, “How many of Henry VIII's marriages were consummated?” or “How many of Henry VIII's marriages were not annulled?” But that would probably give away the game of gotcha. It wasn't really a test of historical knowledge.

As for Peyton Randolph, he was the first president of the Continental Congress in 1774. Did that make him “president of America”? It wasn't his title, was it?

Games like this give pedantry a bad name.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who sayin’ “Hussein”?

The name game

It was the 1990s. My father found it amusing to poke fun at the name of the secretary general of the United Nations: “What kind of dumb name is Boutros Boutros-Ghali?” he'd ask. “It's stupid.”

How soon some people forget they got off the boat. If my father pronounced his name the way it was pronounced in the Old Country, plenty of patriotic nativists would be happy to tell him what a stupid name it was. I've schooled myself not to rise to Dad's bait too often, since he's seldom looking for an actual discussion. Affirmation of his prejudices is all he desires. His riff on the name of the secretary general, however, irritated me enough to snap off a reply:

“Yeah, it's pretty stupid, Dad. Exactly as stupid as Pete Peterson.”

My riposte gave him pause. Boutros is an Arabic form of Petros (“Peter”). He had obviously not thought about it before. Dad was probably channeling some contemptuous remark he had picked up from Rush Limbaugh. Talk radio has been calcifying his brain for decades now, but I still occasionally get past his guard.

The right wing is particularly fond of mocking ethnic names and treating them as worthy of contempt. We saw this with the rantings of Coulter-wannabe Debbie Schlussel, who argued last year that Barack Obama's middle name of “Hussein” means he's some kind of crypto-Muslim, merely pretending to be a Christian till he is in a position to unleash jihad on America. While the fuss over Sen. Obama's middle name is currently in abeyance—partly because the inept Schlussel made such a prat-fall out of her attempt to politicize it—we can expect it to be a recurrent theme, especially if Obama is on the Democratic national ticket. Racism is a trump card the right keeps up its sleeve and will not relinquish.

But what is the deal with Hussein? Is the reaction to it another example of nativist ignorance, just as with Boutros? In a word: yes.

The Arabic name Hussein is a popular variant of the name Hasan (its diminutive, in fact, as Bill is for William). Its popularity is manifest in such multiple examples as the late dictator of Iraq and the Jordanian royal family. Hussein means “handsome,” exactly as if a boy were named Beau or a girl Belle. Other related names for boys include Kevin (Irish) and Alan (Breton). There are plenty more.

Do we have any candidates with Kevin or Alan as middle names? Can we please make fun of them, too?

Mocking people's names is an activity worthy of the kindergarten sandbox. That's why I expect the Republicans to return to it. Be ready to laugh at them and mock them back when they do.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why work when you could teach?

A study in ignorant jealousy
“Most teachers are in it for the easy money.”
—My idiot uncle
I have a timorous colleague whose attacks of angst can be contagious. He's conscientious to the point of overzealousness, but this time his concerns are more disturbing and frightening than usual. He thinks that the general public could be out to get us, and I fear he might be right.

A former member of the California state assembly has filed a measure that “reforms” the retirement system for public employees. The sponsor is a Republican, which might tip you off that “reform” is a euphemism for “slash.” Keith Richman failed in an earlier attack on the California Public Employees' Retirement System when he was incautious enough to make its provisions apply to law enforcement officers and firefighters as well. Having inserted some new provisions to exempt the more popular public employees, Richman is back with a new initiative for 2008. CalPERS and the California State Teachers' Retirement System are in his cross hairs again.

The sponsors of the initiative want to simultaneously lower retirement benefits and raise the retirement age, so it's a double whammy. My trepidatious colleague has anecdotal evidence that the politics of resentment could provoke his neighbors and acquaintances to vote in favor of the supposed reform. His reasoning gives pause to even the most stolid among us.

Like my idiot uncle, who opined in my presence that teaching was a profession for lazybones, many people deduce from meager data that teachers have it easy and don't deserve much in the way of salary or retirement benefits. Those who can, you know, do. Those who can't, well, they teach. Ha, ha, ha, ha!

I'd like to see them try.

The meager data include our supposed work hours. As a California community college faculty member, my mandatory minimum load is fifteen class hours. Sure sounds better than a forty-hour work week, doesn't it? The fifteen hours may comprise any combination from three five-unit classes to five three-unit classes, resulting in an aggregate student load varying from about 120 students to 200. In addition to the fifteen class hours, we are required to hold five office hours per week for student assistance outside of the classroom. These days, of course, students do not need to be able to attend office hours physically since they can readily e-mail us or post to discussion groups for the increasing number of classes that have those. If you're keeping track, the fifteen class hours and the five office hours add up to twenty hours per week. Still looking good, right?

It is good, but it's sure as heck isn't easy. These twenty hours are the hours that require us to be in certain places at certain times. They are nowhere near enough to cover the responsibilities that accompany our teaching load. Teachers understand this, but lots of innocent (or ignorant) bystanders do not. My colleague routinely gets snarky comments from neighbors who see him at home in the early afternoon. (I presume they must be retirees if they're home, too. If they were teachers, they'd understand.) What the resentful neighbors don't know, thinking back on their eight-hour days in the midst of the rat race, is that my colleague and I have flexibility, but we don't have freedom. We haul stacks of paper home to read and grade (an especially onerous task for our colleagues with lab reports or essays, which are typically much harder to correct than math quizzes and tests). We often prepare our lessons and our handouts at home where the distractions may be fewer than at school, where it's easy to get recruited for “other duties as required,” including hiring committees (weekends spent reading applications), curriculum review (one could as easily read encyclopedias for recreation), and informal office hours (most of us do not turn away students when they catch us in our offices outside of the official hours). We all routinely perform some of those non-teaching duties.

As George Bush used to say, “It's hard work.”

The teaching profession has its privileges. I am keenly aware and appreciative of them. But opportunities for laziness aren't really among these privileges, because every laid-back afternoon or morning exacts its penalty from us by piling up the stacks of work into the other hours of the day. We normally spend a lot of time on our feet, running to and from classes, standing up and lecturing or roaming around helping our students' working groups or lab teams. When we get back to our offices, we heave a sigh of relief as we sit down, just like most stand-up workers who make it to the break room, but even then we must be ready to deal with students and colleagues, either personally or electronically. The electronic connection even follows us home, of course.

Never a dull moment.

Please note that I am recounting my own experiences, which come from the blessed position of a math professor—someone who has neither labs (for which professors typically get only one hour's credit for three hours' work) nor heavy equipment (go see my auto-tech colleagues) to manage. I'm in the sweet spot of higher education and yet I work like crazy. A stack of 300 pages of calculus exam awaits my attention on the coffee table. Good thing I plowed through half of those pages on Friday night. The other half will occupy a good chunk of Saturday. Then I'll move on to the quizzes from my other three classes (another hundred pages or so).

The example of my idiot uncle and my colleague's disapproving neighbors shows us that we teachers have an additional educational burden. We have to instruct people about what we do. Although we take home as much work as any overachieving young lawyer hoping to make partner, most people just see us as being at home, not working at home. I'll be working all weekend, thank you very much. Would it help if I built a glass office on my front porch so the neighbors could see how much time I put in? Ugh. (That would leach a lot of the fun out of working in your bathrobe.)

In closing, I'd like you to notice that I've not said a word about elementary school teachers like my sister, who work longer hours for less pay—the heroes of public education. No doubt they'll just get fat and lazy if we don't trim their retirement packages and force them to work several more years to qualify for even that.

Reform? Hell! Go there, Keith Richman. Go there now.

Friday, October 05, 2007

My attention flags

Pinning your hopes on appearances

Oh, dear. Senator Barack Obama chooses not to wear a lapel pin depicting Old Glory. That proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the junior senator from Illinois hates America—if, that is, you're a cretin, a raving loony, or a Republican. (Please excuse my redundancy.)

Ever since the grotesque spectacle of George Herbert Walker Bush's nonstop “Pledge of Allegiance” campaign of 1988 (which, unfortunately, worked), a surfeit of faux patriotism has become de rigueur for GOP candidates. Many Democrats became compulsive flag-wavers in self-defense. It has really been done to death. I'd like to argue that flag aficionados should give it a rest.

I realize it is mostly a waste of time to offer evidence to people whose minds are so made up, but I can't resist the temptation to provide a brief photo album in support of the proposition that flag pins are an infallible sign of moral corruption. Let's begin with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Look at his shiny lapel pin and his shiny smile. It's the shiny smile of a lawyer who made excuses for torture conducted by American interrogators. It's the shiny smile of a man who argued that all civil liberties are subject to the will and the whim of the president. It is the shiny smile of slime.

Here's another grinning politico. It's Larry Craig, outgoing (in every sense of the word) U.S. senator from Idaho. Craig is smiling as he raises his hand to swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Or perhaps he is just saying, “Hello, sailor.” Craig was snared, as we all know, in a tea-room trap in the Minneapolis airport. If the police officer led him on, it was entrapment. If the police officer let the senator make the first move, then it was probably just a case of misplaced priorities. Unless bathroom solicitations have escalated to the point of being a genuine public nuisance in Minnesota, it seems a poor use of police resources to have someone on potty patrol. On the other hand, it is exactly the sort of thing that Sen. Craig would have enthusiastically endorsed. The toe-tapping hypocrite is hoist by his own petard. Nice smile, though. Very welcoming.

Larry Craig was a major catch, but Republicans are ready to provide the sex police with small fry, too. One such small fish—although generously proportioned—is a Florida state representative. Bob Allen says he is innocent of soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. Frankly, I believe him when he says he did not intend to solicit sex from a cop. He undoubtedly thought he was chatting up a civilian-type person. Oops! See Bob's shiny lapel pin. He keeps it that way by rubbing it. It's a double pin, which doubles his pleasure. He wears a wedding ring, too, but that doesn't inhibit his activities any more than the flag pin does. Bob Allen isn't smiling right now because smiling limits his ability to speak out of one side of his mouth.

Former Republican congressman from New York, John Sweeney, had some problems during his 2006 campaign for re-election. His wife accused him of beating her. It's obvious that Sweeney failed to keep that bitch sufficiently disciplined, and it cost him. The voters in his district decided to toss him out, despite the fact that he wore a nice flag pin, thereby proving he was a loyal, God-fearing, patriotic American. He has a solid-looking wedding ring, too. Did he strike his wife with his ring hand? That could have left marks that would later be noticed by criminal investigators. I hope Sweeney has learned to be more careful!

The surprising thing about David Vitter is that he has yet to be implicated in any spousal abuse, although in his case I suppose one could say it would be justified. However, his devoted wife has yet to beat the crap out of him for his dalliances with hookers. Vitter is reportedly into activities that cost a little extra and most spouses find repugnant, so let's give the Republican U.S. senator from Louisiana some credit for sparing his wife's sensibilities. Vitter wears his little flag pin with pride because he's not a low-life like his fellow GOP senator Larry Craig. Craig, after all, cruises bathrooms for boys, while Vitter supposedly prefers diapers with girls. The other men in the Republican senatorial caucus in Washington are much more willing to clasp Vitter to their bosom than Craig, much to the latter's disappointment no doubt.

Here's another nice double-flag pin. It's affixed to the lapel of Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky. Soon Ernie will no longer be governor, perhaps because he's set a record for using his powers of executive clemency to grant pardons to members of his administration. It was necessary, though, because otherwise he might have set a record for the number of convicted felons who worked for him. He's certainly out of the woods as far as that is concerned. And Kentucky Republicans are the forgiving sort of people willing to give an embattled governor a chance at a second term by renominating him. It's only fair, since he hasn't been convicted of any crimes yet. Too bad his Democratic successor won't be giving him a pre-emptive pardon.

Two final examples will clinch my argument that flag pins are the stigmata of corruption. See the smiling Dick Cheney? Dick has a secret. He knows that his little flag pin represents a doormat on which he likes to wipe his feet. He smiles because the joke is on you. He wears the flag like an upright patriot, but the only “patriot” he cares about is “Patriot Act.” Please don't complain about its trampling of civil liberties and due process—that would be unpatriotic and Dick would have to punish you. He'll manage to keep smiling, too.

Although smiling is an unnatural act for Dick, he winks at unnatural acts when they're performed by his friends or family. (Anyone else can go to prison.) That's the kind of genteel man Dick is. Hypocrisy is one of his family values.

This is Dick's friend George. George has a flag pin in his lapel and a little flag to wave. See the expression of concentration on George's face? He can't smile right now because he is completely focused on waving the little flag back and forth. George does smile sometimes, though. Like when Dick tells him he's been doing a good job. George likes it when Dick tells him he's been doing a good job, because otherwise he would have no clue at all. Not a bit.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Don't cheat off your classmates

Cheat off the teacher instead!

One of my students has invented a clever way to improve her grade. It's not easy to surprise me after a couple of decades of full-time teaching, but “Monica” managed to do it. I often give a short quiz at the beginning of a class period, and I had done so on the morning in question. Monica came up to me with a big frown on her face and her quiz unmarked:

“I'm behind in my homework, Dr. Z, and I don't know how to find a greatest common factor or a least common multiple.”

“I'm sorry to hear that, Monica, but we really can't do much about that now. Think about it and see if you can puzzle anything out in the time that's left.”

Her frown got even bigger and she slunk back to her desk. When I called for the students to hand in the quiz, I noticed that Monica didn't pass anything forward. She slipped the blank quiz into her notebook.

I glanced over the submitted papers and noticed the results were generally quite weak. My students had clearly found something else besides homework to do over the previous weekend. It was time to put careful solutions up on the board, taking advantage of the teachable moment that occurs immediately after such a debacle. Most of the students were paying rapt attention as I once again walked them through the process of constructing the LCM and GCF for a pair of numbers. It looked as if the lesson might be taking. (A follow-up quiz a couple of days later showed much improvement.)

Content for the moment, I took a few questions from the students and moved on to the next topic. At the end of the period, the students filed briskly out of the room. Monica came right up to the front of the class again and dropped off her quiz on the instructor's table, on top of the stack of previously collected quizzes. I was standing right there and there was no mistaking what she was doing or that I saw her doing. It was not a surreptitious act.

I handed the quizzes back at the next class meeting and Monica found my note on her paper: “Monica, you cannot expect to receive any points for copying my answers off the board. Don't do this again.” She was unfazed by my admonition and merely tucked the quiz into her book. Monica may have made a microscopic shrug, but I couldn't be sure. Was she thinking, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”? I don't know. I really, really don't know.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

It's the Dennis Miller ratio

He creatively abets Coulter

I heard a few minutes of the short-lived (trust me) Dennis Miller radio show today. He was playing host to Ann Coulter, the acid-tongued and -penned pundit who was promoting her latest book (little more than a collection of old columns this time). Miller introduced his guest by telling Coulter he wanted her reaction to a curious phenomenon he had noticed.

Miller pointed out that many environmentalists are deeply dedicated activists, devoting their lives to the pursuit of their cause. He thought it was an obsession akin to religious devotion—environmentalism as acts of faith rather than reason. If environmentalists insist on regarding the world with a kind of religious fervor, why then do they distance themselves so resolutely from creationists, who also consider the world divine? Miller offered this to Coulter as a serious question.

Coulter treated Miller's query as a perfectly sensible one. Whatever intelligence she may possess, Coulter has long since dedicated it to the service of her personal advancement, so it was the work of but a moment to snatch the ball from Miller and run with it.

“It really is incredible,” said Coulter, because environmentalists are completely irrational, thinking that changing light bulbs could actually influence the earth's climate. While many environmentalists may have scientific credentials, Coulter dismissed them as having subordinated their expertise to their superstitious earth worship. (Coulter is either blithely unaware of the phenomenon of “projection,” or simply secure in the knowledge that her sycophantic devotees will never recognize it themselves.)

Eager to hawk her wares and promote her book, Coulter declined to point out that Miller was implicitly insulting creationists by comparing them to the environmentalists on whom he was heaping scorn. She had taken up the creationist cause herself (in its intelligent design incarnation) in her previous book, but her current priorities permit her to neglect her erstwhile allies while scoring points during her promotional tour.

I found the banter between Miller and Coulter to be oddly entertaining. It was absurdist talk radio, a surreal sequence of sentences that contained the structure of antecedents and consequences, just as if a rational discussion were occurring, yet it was all stuff and nonsense. We do well to remember the rule from propositional logic that implications with false premises are always vacuously true. If we gloss over the imbecility with which Miller and Coulter began their chat, we can sit back with their admirers and revel in the brilliance of two performance artists. Perhaps they should put in for an NEA grant.

It's hard out here for a math teacher

And hard to be humble

Says You is one of my favorite radio programs. I never miss it. This past weekend, host Richard Sher surprised the panelists with one of the program's least frequent categories: math terms. (Sports is another frequently neglected category, much to my satisfaction.) There was an immediate eruption of cries of dismay and anguish, but Sher pressed on, asking for definitions of vertex, axiom, pi, Bernoulli trials, and non-Euclidean geometry. The panelists struggled bravely with the terms, having particular difficulty pinning down the meaning of pi.

Amid vague comments about circles and “pi r squared,” Sher insisted on cutting to the chase: “But what does it mean?” That provoked one particularly anguished panelist. Her voice laden with angst and misery, she hissed, “It means nothing!”

Oh, I felt her pain! That's because I've seen it in so many others. I admit that I find it especially amusing how some people demand that we demonstrate the utility of mathematics to them—while they are majoring in philosophy or literature. You go first!

The Says You panelist who expressed her exasperation at being asked to define mathematical terms reminds me of some colleagues who attended a college symposium a few years ago. The statewide academic senate of the California community colleges was considering whether to recommend that the Board of Governors raise the math requirement for graduation with an associate's degree. For many years the minimum math requirement had been introductory algebra, but California high schools were requiring introductory algebra for a diploma. Shouldn't a degree from a two-year college require something beyond that for a high school diploma? The notion was surprisingly controversial.

My math and science colleagues were largely in agreement that the math requirement for an associate's degree was too low. We supported the establishment of intermediate algebra as the new requirement (which, by the way, was approved, but has yet to take effect). Strenuous opposition was expressed by colleagues from the arts and humanities. We were told that math was hard and that it was not necessary to know math in order to be well educated. Despite the vigorous dissent of a large minority, the resolution to support the higher math requirement was approved. As we filed out, I overheard two colleagues from the humanities division lamenting the result. One expressed shock that the math faculty had voted in a bloc to place an onerous new burden on the students seeking an associate's degree. Her colleague replied, his voice bitter, “Well, what do you expect from cold-blooded reptiles?”

Anything you can do...

Math classes are usually ranked by students among the “solids” in the curriculum (as opposed, I presume, to the “softs”). Our courses may not attract affection, but they usually command a grudging respect. We math teachers bask in the reflected glory of our subject. We may be reptiles, but our discipline is solid. Faculty members in less solid fields may feel a touch of jealousy. Math has a high position in the academic pecking order.

The less diplomatic math professors (mind you, I'm not claiming to be one of those) have on occasion been uncharitable enough to point out that we have a special edge over our colleagues. An incident from my own experience provides an illustration:

I had carved out some time in my schedule to enroll in a Spanish class. My instructor was aware that I was a faculty colleague, but that did not result in his cutting me any slack. I was a student among other students. At least until that one special day arrived.

My Spanish professor caught me right at the beginning of the period. He was dealing with a problem in the departmental office that required his immediate attention as chair of the department. Could I cover the class for him a few minutes until he could deal with the language department emergency? ¡No problemo!

I calmly took charge of the class and announced that I would conducting the customary vocabulary quiz with which our professor always started each session. Currying favor with my classmates, I gave them fairly easy examples to work on. With exquisite timing, our professor returned just as the vocabulary quiz was coming to an end. He thanked me effusively as I took my seat among my classmates.

“You're very welcome, profe. In return, you can substitute for me in one of my algebra classes.”

A mixed look of horror and amusement passed over his face.

“No way!” he said. “That would never work!”

I'm sure what he said was true. With extremely few exceptions, the professors in languages, arts, and humanities could not substitute for a math instructor for even a few minutes without being found out as impostors. With all due modesty, I could vamp my way through an entire class period in quite a few courses—though probably not foreign languages—without being exposed as an interloper. So could several of my math colleagues. We wouldn't do a great job because we don't have the depth of knowledge and training that the specialists on our faculty do, but that's not the point. It's all about the way mathematics sets itself apart.

Math is so extraordinarily unforgiving that it quickly exposes one's shortcomings in a harsh light. That's a contrast with more subjective subjects, where core content may be wrapped in layers of personal perspective or opinion. When a math teacher says the answer is 5, that's probably all she wrote. When a literature professor says that Shakespeare's sonnets are the epitome of that written form, others may disagree and insist on John Milton or Elizabeth Barrett Browning—and make a case for their alternatives. With enough sang froid, a math teacher could probably pose as an English teacher for a much longer time than an English teacher could do the same in a math class. Math doesn't have the wiggle room or the space for discourse that other subjects allow.

This sounds like arrogant strutting about, of course, but I mean only to highlight the distinguishing feature of math that makes it noisome to so many. It's also the feature that makes me delight in it. The techniques and solutions are wonderfully specific and, to me, mostly straightforward and clear. Similarly, to me, it would be a herculean task to master, for example, the body of written works with which an English professor must be familiar. I don't think that their achievement of mastery in words is any less an accomplishment than what my colleagues and I were required to do in numbers. There does seem to be a difference, though, and it seldom redounds to the benefit of mathematics or mathematics teachers. I think we can count on that being a constant.

Ned Ludd does technology

And he's wearing sabots!
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.
Jokermage likes to read parenthetical remarks: “I'd love to hear that story sometime.” This one's for you, Jokermage.

It's the story of a colleague to whom I'll refer as “Professor Ned Ludd,” for all the reasons you'd expect. Ned was one of the first faculty volunteers for the ad hoc committee put together to draft a technology policy for our college. It was not immediately apparent that Ned's sole purpose was to ensure that no consensus would ever be reached. He feared that an official technology policy would impose obligations and responsibilities on him that he would prefer to avoid. His concerns seemed odd, since he was a science instructor, a field that afforded him many opportunities to make good use of technology.

An administrator and I took turns chairing the committee meetings. One thing was certain: We weren't starting with a blank sheet of paper. Technology had increasingly infiltrated our campus during the benign neglect of the 1980s and early 1990s. We needed to take into account what was already going on, but we didn't really know what that was. This was Ned's first opportunity to swing into action, as he volunteered to join the subcommittee that would survey our colleagues concerning their current use of technology.

Ned was seemingly quite diligent when he insisted on adding new items to the survey instrument. It grew unwieldy and we became concerned that only a few people would be willing to respond to it. Ned was remarkably outspoken at the meeting of the whole committee when he described the survey form as a mess and suggested the entire thing be scrapped. The subcommittees members who had spent many hours with Ned were upset. It was bad enough that he was poor-mouthing their efforts. It was worse that he was effectively filibustering every item that came up for discussion. He suited his tactics to the situation, working overzealously on the survey instrument in the subcommittee, peppering colleagues with incessant questions and quibbles during meetings of the whole.

Unfortunately for Ned's plans, he had now broken cover and his efforts were entirely too overt to be concealed. Fortunately for my plans, it was possible to turn him into a reluctant foil for the committee agenda. While my school has a cherished tradition of trying to operate as much as possible on consensus, Ned made it particularly easy to gain the committee's consent to move items on quick voice votes. We seldom had unanimity, but we often had unanimity less one.

It also helped that Ned won me several new friends. After one contentious meeting, during which we had commended the survey subcommittee for the results of its information gathering and accepted its report, I approached a chemistry professor who had served on the subcommittee and offered her my thanks. She was a little surprised:

“Uh, thanks. But what did I do? The survey was a joint effort”

“Oh, I'm not talking about the survey.”

“Okay, you've got me then. What is it you're thanking me for?”

“Well, you were sitting across from Ned while he was spouting off and I couldn't help but notice the expression on your face. I just wanted to thank you for not lunging across the table and strangling him.”

She burst into laughter. She said, “You must be a mind reader!”

The committee was blessed with several key players on whom I could rely completely. Information was gathered, recommendations were drafted, and a strong consensus was forged. Ned continued to blather and we thanked him cheerfully for each remark and then ran roughshod over him. He was a thorn in our side, but he had ceased to prick us much. The committee had one other member who never engaged constructively in our efforts, but she never closed ranks with Ned. Her perspective was the opposite of his, and she was constantly disappointed that we were not drafting a manifesto calling for the demolition of classrooms and wholesale conversion to on-line instruction via the fancy new 28.8K modems. She eventually left the committee in dismay at our lack of revolutionary fervor. Ned, however, hung in there till the bitter end, his name appearing in our final report.

I think we may modestly claim to have been successful in our efforts to craft a rational technology policy for our college. We ended up with a training facility for faculty and staff, a dual-platform support policy for people using Windows or Macintosh computers, and a standing committee to evaluate and update our technology program. As new computers are installed in classrooms or offices, the older ones go into our “cascading” system for reassignment to applications not as sensitive to state-of-the-art issues. Many of our old Intel machines have been turned into Linux boxes that support our intranet and e-mail system.

Ned was probably relieved that we issued no edicts that required him to confront his technophobia too directly. He put in for retirement before one of those deadly computers turned up on his desk. His actions, however, made it clear that the digital siren song is not music to everyone's ears. Had he stuck around a little longer, perhaps he would have learned to like the new interconnectedness of the campus and the college's convenient on-line presence. But I wouldn't bet on it.