Sunday, November 30, 2008

D'Souza knows not what he does

Shall we forgive him?

Dinesh D'Souza is promoting the new paperback edition of his apologia for Christianity (What's so great about Christianity?) and is planning a visit to San Francisco next weekend. That's probably why he deigned to say a few words to Heidi Benson, staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. The book section of today's edition of the Chronicle presents the results of that conversation. I was particularly struck by this exchange:
Q: What religion do you practice?

A: I'm a Catholic by background. I was raised in Goa, a part of India that was visited by Portuguese missionaries a few hundred years ago, which explains my last name.

My wife, Dixie, is evangelical Christian. We met in the Reagan White House, when she was a student intern. We're members of the Horizon Christian Fellowship Church.

Dixie was born in Louisiana and grew up in San Diego. The issue of me being Catholic and her being Protestant made her parents a little grumpy, but the fact that I was Indian was a nonissue.
Interesting. So Dinesh is no more of a Catholic than I am. We are both “Catholic by background,” but that's not the same as actually being Catholic. If he is a member of Horizon Christian Fellowship Church, then Dinesh has joined the ranks of ex-Catholics and become a Protestant. He should do something about correcting his Wikipedia entry, which lists his religion as Roman Catholic.

In this politically charged election year, quite a few Catholic clerics did some vigorous pulpit-pounding demanding that their parishioners vote Republican (although most were circumspect enough to say “pro-life” instead of endorsing McCain by name). Presumably this would not have bothered D'Souza, had he been present to hear any of those sermons. Given his lapses, however, he might have fidgeted a bit at demands for ideological and philosophical purity by his ostensible co-religionists. After all, Joe Biden's Roman Catholicism was frequently called into question because he supports freedom of choice. I'm sure Dinesh heard about this, even if he has been absent from the Catholic pews. One doesn't want to be ambiguous about such matters, especially if one is a self-anointed Christian apologist. People really should know what religion they belong to.

Of course, Wikipedia is a great source of information, but it's hardly definitive. Maybe it's just a mistake on Wikipedia's part. Perhaps the encyclopedists misconstrued the intent of remarks like “me being Catholic” on Dinesh's part.

But no. Dinesh himself is the source of the error. He has an official website (which is cited in the Wikipedia article). This is what he has to say about himself on the More About Dinesh D'Souza page:
“A believing Catholic but a poorly practicing one,” D'Souza said religious faith is vital to achievement.
Sorry, Dinesh, but joining an evangelical Protestant church does not make you a “poorly practicing” Catholic. It makes you an ex-Catholic. A non-Catholic. If you honestly think you're still a “believing Catholic,” then you must fear for your immortal soul (since you imagine you have one). Presumably you don't rush to your local Catholic church to attend mass after the services at Horizon Christian Fellowship Church each Sunday, which means you are in violation of a Catholic's solemn obligation for weekly mass attendance. And deliberately missing mass is a mortal sin.

Oh, oh. Dinesh is going to hell.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Beauty is the beast

Skin deep suffices

The elongated generations of my family have some interesting consequences. For example, my nieces range in age from 30 to −0.25 (she's due in thirteen weeks). During holiday visits I can ask the older ones about their children and the younger ones about their toys. One size does not fit all.

Two of the younger ones latched on to me during my Thanksgiving visit to my parents' home. The six-year-old needed a compliant adult so that she and her four-year-old sister could play in the basement. Youngsters are not allowed in the family dungeon and storage room without supervision.

“Come on, Uncle Zee. Come on. Let's go down in the basement.” “Lilith” tugged insistently on my wrist and drew me down the hallway to the latched door, her sister trailing behind.

I was just about played out (I'm old and I tire easily), but I don't see my nieces that often and patiently resigned myself to my fate. Sitting as guardian in the basement would not be onerous. My job would entail simply watching the girls to ensure they neither ran up and down the stairs nor delved into the cupboards where their grandfather keeps his old tools and the remains of various do-it-yourself projects. Certainly it would be more relaxing than my attempt to sit quietly on the couch in the living room, which had been seized by small pirates and subjected to a series of cannonades. (“Cannonball” is now a synonym for “pillow.” Their grandmother's home is an especially rich source of ammunition.)

I walked the girls downstairs and sat down on the landing. The girls fanned out into the family museum and junkyard. They inspected my brother's long-abandoned exercise equipment and the old chalkboard I had installed when I was in junior college, but the exercise gear was too uninteresting and the chalkboard was mounted too high on the wall. The ancient pinball machine was mercifully defunct. The girls were soon rolling out the fold-up futons and trying out their trampoline qualities, which appeared to be quite satisfactory for girls whose legs are evidently spring-loaded.

Lilith and her little sister had a brief dispute over naming rights for the resident stuffed animals that were decades older than either of them. A furry pink blob that once belonged to their father was either “Jub-Jub” or “Webster.” The significance of the heated dispute was lost on Uncle Zee, that's for sure. The tears came and went like a summer shower, and dried up just as quickly. Lilith abandoned Jub-Jub to the tender ministrations of her sister, who then announced that she was putting Webster to bed on one of the futons. Lilith decided to escalate the naming game.

“We need new names,” she announced. “I'm going to be Sharpay from High School Musical.”

I am not a student of the contemporary Disney oeuvre, although I am vaguely aware that the High School Musical franchise is a money machine for the evil mouse empire. I had, however, been under the impression that a Shar Pei was a type of dog. Lilith proceeded to inform me that I was not far off the mark.

“Why do you want to be Sharpay?” I asked.

“Because she's so pretty,” Lilith replied. “She's a mean girl.”

Aha. So Sharpay was a Disney bad girl, undoubtedly superficially popular but always conniving and doomed to defeat by the forces of saccharin squeaky-cleanness.

“She's mean? She's a bad girl? So why do you want to be a bad girl?”

Lilith regarded me with mild disdain, apparently slightly disappointed that her elderly uncle could not grasp a point that was entirely obvious to her six-year-old intellect.

“Because she's so pretty,” she patiently explained. “I want to be her!”


I'm not worried at all. Oh, no.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Louise loses it

I have no clue, nor does she

Students are an unceasing source of mystery and confusion. Some students are exceptionally astonishing. My colleagues and I put our heads together and try to figure them out. We usually have to give up because explaining the inexplicable is difficult. Then we end up just swapping stories about the weirdest students we have known. One of my little mysteries is “Louise,” a student who enrolled in one of my arithmetic classes.

Arithmetic is the absolute bottom-level entry-level math course. Students who take arithmetic in college are often math-avoiders who suffer from math anxiety. Perhaps that explains why Louise draws a blank time and time and time again. Here's a message she sent me near the end of the semester.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox []
Subject: Arithmetic question

Can you tell me how to do convert the fraction to a decimal and to convert decimals to a fraction?

We had just covered this exact material in class. We had filled out a worksheet together, students working the problems first and then the teacher (me!) putting detailed solutions up on the board. She had apparently retained precisely none of it. She wasn't asking for a clarification on some detail. She was asking for elucidation of the entire topic.
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

I'm not sure what I can tell you that isn't already in the final section of our textbook, but I'll try to summarize it.

(1) To convert a fraction into a decimal, use long division. The fraction 5/8 turns into 0.625 when you divide 8 into 5.

(2) To convert a decimal into a fraction, read the decimal aloud and do what it says. For example, the decimal 0.45 is "forty-five hundredths," so just put 45 over 100 and you get the fraction 45/100. You're not done in this case because you can reduce the fraction to 9/20, which is your final answer.

I hope this helps. You'll find more examples of these processes in your textbook.

She soon wrote back.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox []
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

It's gunna be on the test right

If it wasn't going to be on the test, it would be the first time all semester that I had presented material in the class but skipped it on the chapter test. It was a forlorn hope on her part.
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

Yes, Louise, it will be on the test.

Louise came back with a reasonable request for assistance, but her luck was bad. She asked for help on the day before the exam and she apparently couldn't come to my office hour. And I was seriously booked. (And she hadn't come to my office all semester, so I wasn't sure she even knew where it was.)
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox []
Subject: Arithmetic question

are u gunna be in your office around 10:20 on monday

From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

I am going to be in my office during my regular office hour from 9:00 till 10:00 on Monday. After 10:00 I will be working on faculty scheduling and probably will not be in my office. If you're in the math building after 10:00 you can check whether I'm available to help you, but there's no guarantee after 10:00.

If you can't come to my office during my office hour, try going to the Student Help Center where the math tutors can help you.

She didn't, by the way, come by. I did some of my scheduling work in my office, checked back periodically when I was out working with the department chair, and my colleagues in the adjacent offices told me I had no students come by after my office hour.

Louise did, however, have another question to e-mail me.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox []
Subject: Arithmetic question

if i do good on this test will my grade go up

From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

Of course, Louise. That's how it works. If you do well on an exam it raises your grade.

Unfortunately, you have been earning poor grades on the exams and quizzes so far, which means you have to do particularly well on the remaining exams if you want to pass the class. You need to start earning scores in the 80s. If you earn scores in the 80s on next week's exam and the practice final and the final exam, you will pass the class. If you continue to score in the 70s or below, you will not pass. It will be a challenge to pass the class, but it's not impossible.

The phrase “continue to score in the 70s” was a polite fiction on my part. Louise had yet to see a score in the 70s. In fact, she had yet to see a score in the 60s. Her only chance of eking out an average of 70% and squeezing by with a C was to start an unbroken string of A's and B's. In theory, it was still possible for her to pass the class, but only in theory. In theory, the sun might not come up tomorrow.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox []
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

oh wow i thought it would be around 70 percent.what if i do good on next weeks exam and bad on final exam will it go up.

Hope springs eternal, as apparently does denial.
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

No, Louise, you have to do well on all of the remaining exams if you want to pass the class. That includes Exam 3, the practice final, and the final exam. You need to earn a B on each one to offset the low grades you got earlier in the semester. If you do not get a good grade on the final, your score will not rise enough for you to pass the class. There aren't a lot of alternatives for you right now. You need to do consistently well right to the end of the semester.

I got one last message from her.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox []
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

well i am trying my best to pass the class. i also go to turtoring

I had my doubts that she was really trying her best, but I did believe that she was going to the math tutor. I mean, someone was doing her homework for her. Louise handed in homework sets that were neat and accurate (and transcribed in her own handwriting), but she was completely incapable of replicating anything like her homework solutions on her exams. She also never had anything to contribute during small-group work, when Louise always relied on her partners to carry her. Nor could she give any coherent answers when I queried her one-on-one in class while wandering about and checking with the students while they were trying to solve the problems on their worksheets.

This story doesn't have a lot of suspense to it, does it? Louise showed up for the next exam and flunked spectacularly, earning the worst score in the class. It was as if she had walked in cold without ever having seen any of the material before. It was a wipe-out. Yet she persisted in thinking she had a chance right till the last minute.

I am as mystified by her as she is by arithmetic.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Your calculator passed the exam!

Too bad you didn't

It may not arise too often in practice, but suppose you want to find the derivative of z = y2e4x with respect to s, where x = 2s − 3t and y = 7st2. It's a perfectly good problem for testing the differentiation skills of one's calculus students and their understanding of the chain rules for partial derivatives. As is often the case, there is a good way and a bad way to work out the correct answer. The bad way involves brute force substitution, replacing each occurrence of x and y and then differentiating with respect to s. Even in a problem as elementary as this one, finding ∂z/∂s by substitution and differentiation adds additional steps (like the product rule, for example). It is a daunting task to tackle the direct differentiation of z = (7st2)2 exp(4(2s − 3t)).

This could be avoided with a little thought, which reminds the attentive student about the chain rule. The individual derivatives in the chain rule formula are relatively easy to compute: ∂z/∂s = (∂z/∂x)(∂x/(∂s) + (∂z/∂y)(∂y/∂s). Most of my students remembered this rule and applied themselves to the necessary calculations. With a little care, one can obtain the correct answer in a few steps.

One of my students, however, decided to obtain the answer in one step. He typed the problem into his calculator, entering the slightly grotesque version that results from substituting for x and y in terms of s and t. He could never have been expected to compute the result successfully in the time available, but his TI-89 quickly spat out an answer that he merely transcribed on his paper.

He had done this before. He had merely written down some calculator results and I had given him only a handful of points for setting up the problems—but none for the answers. But now he was doing it again. Had he not learned his lesson? Perhaps he had learned a lesson other than the one I intended: He could either skip the problem because he could not do it, or he could give it to his calculator and hope to get a few points for the setup. Good thinking!

Too bad the points derived in that manner aren't enough to produce a passing grade.

I've long been concerned about the phenomenon of calculator dependency. I've seen its impact at all levels of mathematical instruction, but the example from my multivariate calculus class is particularly disturbing. The student who can't live without his TI-89 has somehow survived till calculus III. He doesn't know how to apply the basic rules of differentiation. How did he earn passing grades in I and II? Maybe we should give a math degree to his calculator.

But not to him.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A clothing-optional Christmas

It's the thought that counts

Ignatius Press has sent out its Fall & Winter 2008 film catalog, just in the nick of time for holiday shopping. Ignatius Press is not quite an official organ of the Vatican, but the San Francisco based publishing house has reaped a rich harvest from its longtime role as Joseph Ratzinger's principal English-language publisher. Now that Ratzinger is pope, Ignatius has been reissuing his books with new covers bearing his papal cognomen, Benedict XVI. A search of the Ignatius Press website for “Benedict XVI” produces 88 hits from the catalog. Included are the pope's own voluminous writings, biographical works by others, and CDs of Gregorian chant (which, I presume, represent the pope's preference for easy listening after a long day of struggling with the evil forces of secularism). In a class of its own is Joseph and Chico, a short illustrated biographical memoir by the pope's cat. Something for the kids, of course.

The Ignatius Press film catalog does not present the many books issued over the publisher's imprint, except for those in audio format. It's really all about videos and art. One of the videos features ardent lefty Ed Asner as Pope John XXIII, which is a bit of a surprise in the midst of so much conservative Catholicism. The art includes a nice wall chart of all the popes and various iconic images of Jesus and Mary. I paused for a moment to read the description under a serene depiction of a young woman holding both a child and a lamb. The blurb said it was a madonna and child (and lamb) painted by the artist William Bouguereau and titled Innocence.

The artist's name and photo-realistic style seemed familiar to me, but not the subject matter. Didn't my long-ago art history class select different works to epitomize Bouguereau's oeuvre? A quick Internet search demonstrated that I was not mistaken. Bouguereau was devoted to painting human figures, but he was especially fond of painting them undraped (which, as you must know, is a euphemism for stark naked). Venus, for example, is born full-grown from the sea foam, evidently the beneficiary of a really effective prenatal bikini wax.

I understand why Ignatius Press decided to be selective about the works by Bouguereau that they chose to offer in their catalog. Venus, after all, is a pagan goddess. She would never do. However, next time Ignatius Press might see fit to offer a print of one of Bouguereau's other conventionally religious art works. Here's one titled The Return of Spring, which is completely different from the birth of Venus. That would be an inspirational choice, although one might not choose to hang it on the wall next to Innocence.

Or how about an angel? That's pretty religious. You could give a print to your favorite altar boy.

There's a lot of untapped Bouguereau out there for future Ignatius Press catalogs. What might next Christmas bring?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ain't it the truth!

Outliers are people, too

The University of California called me up and we had a nice chat the other day. Perhaps “chat” isn't the right word. The UC asked me lots and lots of questions and I gave lots and lots of one-word answers. I am, you see, a research subject.

Or was, anyway. I think we're done now. I'm not completely certain how I came to the UC's attention. The letter announcing their interest in me said I was randomly selected for their research pool, but it wasn't clear to me whether they went sifting through their alumni database, the phone book, or names scrawled on the walls of campus restrooms. (I'm guessing it wasn't the latter.) Frankly, I don't have much doubt about the ability of the researchers at the ten University of California campuses to work up reasonably representative samples for their investigations. I believe they probably did a good job in picking their subjects for this research project as well. And we all understand that every large random sample can be expected to have an extreme outlier or two.

That's me!

I'm sure the researcher on the other end of the phone line caught on fairly quickly. We were just tearing through his list of carefully worded questions, pruning away most of the question tree's branches of follow-up questions because I kept saying “No” to the root query:

“In the past six months, have you had any alcoholic beverages?”


“In the past six months, have you smoked any tobacco products?”


“In the past six months, have you used any nonprescription drugs for recreational purposes?”


“In the past six months, have you ever smoked marijuana?”


“In the past six months, have you used any recreational drugs like Ecstasy?”


“How easy would you say it is to obtain marijuana in your community? Very easy, fairly easy, somewhat difficult, or very difficult?”

“Hey, your Likert scale doesn't have a midpoint answer! Was that deliberate?”

[Laughs] “Uh, shall I repeat the question?”

“Well, I guess you could, but the real answer is that I have no idea. I mean, I live in a college community so I suppose it's not that difficult to find some pot, but I haven't a clue where to begin. Maybe I could go chat up some colleagues in the English department. The poets, anyway. But I think their drug of choice is mass quantities of alcohol.”

[Laughs] “Okay. I think this is a ‘don't know’ response.”

It's true. I have not the faintest idea how to “score” some pot around here. (I don't even know if people are still using “score” in that way.) For some reason (and I really don't know what the reason is), I have never been tempted by drugs or alcohol. Unlike my kid brother, I never swiped a cigarette from my grandfather's pack of Winstons just to try it out. (Dad sniffed out the discarded butt in the trash can and my brother got a walloping. I was not even a suspect.) While my sibs liked to suck out the last few drops from Dad's beer cans, I ignored them. I've never had a puff from a cigarette and I've never really had a drink of alcohol (unless you insist on counting a perfunctory sip of champagne during celebratory toasts at weddings or drops of wine (blood!) from an earthenware chalice at the trendy pass-it-around communion ceremony at Catholic Newman Center services in the seventies). Yes, I've made it to middle age without ever having been drunk or stoned.

Of course, it doesn't do to make a big deal of all this. And it's hardly a virtue to refrain from that which does not tempt you. It merely mystifies the addicts among one's acquaintances—those who cannot imagine living without their periodic alcoholic buzzes or nicotine rushes. So I don't say anything, unless a debate arises over who has to be the designated driver, in which case I casually volunteer. I'm noble that way. I wear my faux virtue lightly.

Sexy little numbers

The UC researcher was quite good at dealing with me. He never once made even the slightest comment that my responses were several standard deviations away from the mean. He must have discerned that I had some familiarity with research protocols (especially after he asked the questions about my education level), but he was scrupulous not to break character and indulge in any wink-wink entre-nous witticisms. I was impressed by his professionalism. I never got more than a chuckle out of him, or perhaps just a slice of wry in one of his noncommittal responses to one of my remarks. I laughed aloud after he asked three consecutive questions about sexual relations:

“How many sex partners have you had in your lifetime?”
“How many of your sex partners were female?”
“How many of your sex partners were male?”

“Hey,” I said, “I'll bet the second and third numbers are supposed to add up to the first number!” We mathematicians are always on the alert for that. (And, no, it has nothing to do with the Law of Large Numbers.)

“There are certain redundancies in the questions for internal validation,” the UC researcher admitted dryly. He passed up the opportunity to mention the possibility of transgender, hermaphroditic, intersexed, or extraterrestrial partners. Probably just as well. (“Who do you find more sexually attractive, Kodos, Kang, Leela, or Roger?”) Certainly that could throw off the numbers. For example:

“How many sex partners have you had in your lifetime?”


“How many of your sex partners were female?”


“How many of your sex partners were male?”



No stone unturned

As best as I can recall, I have seen exactly one marijuana cigarette (reefer madness!) in my entire life so far. It was back in the seventies during a gathering of friends and acquaintances from my hometown high school and junior college. To my gobsmacked surprise (although I hope I hid my reaction), a friend and classmate from my calculus class matter-of-factly laid out a cigarette paper on the kitchen table, sprinkled some shredded brown leaves on it, rolled it up, lit it, and took a quick drag. Nobody turned a hair, so I tried to maintain my cool (such as it was). I was sitting right next to him, so he passed it to me.

I touched it.

And in exactly the same affectless way in which he had performed the entire little ceremony, I nonchalantly handed it off to the next person. I realized that I was actually among friends when absolutely no one ragged on me for merely passing it along. But I was among friends with whom I had even less in common than I had thought.

Well, that was nothing new.

A few years later, at the tail end of the seventies, I did encounter something a little different. I was now at a university. A fellow math grad and I decided to take in as much of a 24-hour movie marathon as we could stand. It was billed as an eclectic mix of standard thrillers and the famously awful (e.g., Bedtime for Bonzo, in which Ronald Reagan supposedly uses gestalt techniques to mind-meld with a chimp, and Sextette, in which Mae West pushes her sex-siren vamping perilously close to necrophilia). My buddy and I laughed and groaned through hours of entertainment and quasi-entertainment, until eventually it was well past midnight and we were still hanging in there.

In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that someone would light up in the darkened theater. Tendrils of sweet, wispy smoke eventually wafted down to where we were sitting. My classmate raised his head and took a couple of audible sniffs. He turned to me and said, ”What's that?” Suddenly I knew that I had a friend for life.

He had earned his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and yet could not recognize the odor of pot smoke.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A short lesson in semiotics

Please check it out

I had never heard of semiotics until about twenty-five years ago, when I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Eco, it seemed, was a semiotician. The biographical sketch of the author explained that semiotics was the study of signs, symbols, and significance. The Name of the Rose was fraught with symbology, including an elaborate red herring involving an apparent recapitulation of the signs of the apocalypse. I filed semiotics away as an interesting word and thought little more of it.

Our recent ill-fated fight against Proposition 8 in California (which in the longer run may yet bear interesting fruit) reminded me of the importance of symbols and the meanings people ascribe to them. The first campaign posters against Prop 8 included a green check mark in the “O” of “NO.” I remember in grade school that a check mark used to indicate that my teacher had found a mistake in my work. By the time I was in college, however, the check mark had morphed into a symbol of approbation and it was supplanted by the “X” symbol as a signifier of error. Therefore the first anti-8 signs might have been subtly misleading, suggesting that 8 was okay. See? It has a check mark! (A green one, no less.)

As the campaign heated up, new leadership took over the opposition campaign. The new campaign advisors immediately amended the signs, replacing the green check mark with a bright red X. They sharpened the words, too. Now it was clear. Proposition 8 was wrong. It was in error. The new signs blossomed everywhere, although the old version was still evident at campaign rallies (and on my bumper).

It was, unfortunately, too little, too late. Would the red X have saved us if we had seized upon it sooner? Perhaps. I think, rather, it was our overconfidence and late start that cost us dearly. If we had made better use of the opposition of Sen. Obama (more than a million Obama voters must also have voted for Prop 8) and Gov. Schwarzenegger, the election might have turned out better, but that's hindsight speaking. Instead, we are left with a small lesson in semiotics and an unfulfilled agenda for the future.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Eating their own

Didn't get the memo

'Tis the season of Schadenfreude. It's a happy time, these days after the general election of 2008. The right-wing babblers on talk radio and the Free Republic ranters are more entertaining than ever as they cry in their beer and foretell the collapse of the United States and all of western civilization. Here's a hint, guys: western civilization has been in decline all during the Bush administration. We voted for a Democratic president and congress in hopes there might still be time to salvage it. You may have noticed that most of western civilization is pleased with the outcome, including a large majority of the American public.

The conservative pundits and political theorists are having some trouble piecing their new narrative together. After years of defending Bush, they've discovered he wasn't really a conservative (and neither was McCain), so the Republicans' thumping defeat last week was not a repudiation of conservatism. Right. The American public actually wants Obama to back off all of his campaign promises and govern from right of center. Right.

This was the note sounded by an unsigned editorial in the November 14, 2008, edition of the Sacramento Union:
What the election was not was a rejection of conservatism.

To be sure, voters rejected the last eight years of Republican rule. But the Republicans in charge long ago surrendered the mantle of conservatism, if they ever possessed it.
In addition to trying to salvage conservatism's reputation from the wreckage of the election, the Union's editorial writer searched for and found a white lining to the election's dark cloud:
Barack Obama's election last week was a testament to the best funded and orchestrated campaign in history. And, happily, it may have permanently put behind us the false and defamatory notion that America is a land of opportunity only for whites. Obama's ascendancy means forced retirement for the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other race-card professionals.
Hallelujah, my pale brothers, let us celebrate the end of opportunistic black racism, which has so long blighted our land! Free at last!

As I said, the Union's editorial was unsigned. I'm guessing, though, that Union columnist William E. Saracino did not have a hand in it. The editorial appears on p. 13 of the print edition. Turn back to p. 10 and you have Bill holding forth on “Politics 101: Lessons from the General Election.” Lesson number four declares:
4: America is still a racist country.

The naïve among you might think that electing a black President will silence the guilt-ridden liberals' whine about America still suffering the residue of slavery and Jim Crow. That will never happen. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright and scores of other race-hustlers make big money off white guilt and black resentment. Facts will not get in the way of their racist gravy train.
Way to close ranks, guys! The extreme right wing remains resolute and unified, the naïve walking hand in hand with those who call them naïve.

Somebody pass the popcorn, please.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Speaking for ourselves

Dad and I negotiate a truce

My father is working through his disappointment at the election results. He's one of those people who took completely seriously the right-wing smear campaign against Barack Obama (you know, the Marxist-Leninist socialist candidate for president, who is planning to enslave us all). If he hears Rush say it on the radio, it must be true. It's sad.

I tossed his last e-mail back at him, complete with a line-by-line refutation of the right-wing political screed he had forwarded to me. It was easy to refute, just another typical paste-up job of lies and semi-facts. Why did he think I would fall for it? Why did he fall for it? And, I had no doubt, he would ignore my rebuttal. With a touch of exasperation, I accused him of treating me like a chump: “Although you routinely dismiss my opinions as those of someone who is naive and brainwashed, please allow me to point out that I deserve just a little credibility.”

That was enough to elicit a reply from him. One of his statements struck me as particularly significant:
Dear son,

I have NEVER said or thought that you are naive and I know you have the best intention. But I also know that academia thinks of me as some idiot because I do not have a degree of some kind. I would much more like to have a little bit of God given wisdom than a lot of man made knowledge.

All I want is to not have the government controlling my life and that is what Liberals want. Give me a reason to be a Liberal and I'll see if I can live with it.

Wish you the best,


Of course, I find it ironic that Dad is concerned about liberals controlling his life after what's happened to us during the eight years of the Bush administration. He really should have paid more attention. Nevertheless, that was not, in my opinion, his most remarkable assertion. I was struck much more strongly by his claim that we academic types consider him an idiot for his lack of a college degree. That startled me. I consider him woefully misinformed, but I have never thought of him as an idiot.

I grew up around books because Dad is a compulsive autodidact. His farm chores during his teen years kept him out of high school, but he stocked his home with encyclopedias, dictionaries, and The Book of Knowledge. His children were graduating from high school before he finally got around to squeezing in some adult classes and earning his GED. Dad encouraged all of us in our schooling, but I was the only offspring who really seized the opportunity. Until I read Dad's e-mail message, I had not realized that he harbored such a strong sense of inferiority—or at least the conviction that he was perceived as inferior.

I worked my way toward a response in the message I sent back to him:
Dear Dad:

I really doubt you should try to be a liberal. I don't think it would suit your temperament. Perhaps once, when JFK was president, but probably not now. However, it would be nice if you didn't confuse us with socialists, communists, or terrorists, which is the sort of thing happening every day at McCain/Palin rallies during the final stretch of the presidential campaign. They drive me crazy. I'll be glad when it's over.

As for controlling people's lives, when have we lost more freedoms than under the current administration? I'm not even sure what conservatism is supposed to mean in an era of big spending, huge deficits, and financial collapse. (I really wonder what Barry Goldwater would say if he saw any of this.) That's probably why the liberals are about to get a chance to show if they can do any better.

You puzzle me with the comment about how academia regards you and other people who lack college degrees. Maybe some academicians are that way, but I'm pretty well connected at a large community college and the University of California. I have never heard my colleagues in those venues sitting around talking about how stupid people are if they don't have degrees. Why would we? We know all too well that some of the biggest idiots of our acquaintance are right there on our campus and they have very nice degrees -- that don't seem to have done them much good. In fact, a lot of us have similar life experiences and appreciate our good fortune: we were able to get our advanced degrees because we were supported by family members who grew up at a time when they couldn't get any of their own. We would not deliberately abuse and insult the loved ones who made our good lives possible, even if we don't always agree with them.

Besides, you have two people in the family with big fancy university degrees. I disagree with you more often than not and your grandson agrees with you more often than not. It all balances out, sort of, and shows us again that we can't rely on simple generalizations. We're all too different.

Your son,


So where is this coming from? If we professorial types aren't pointing at my father and branding him an imbecile, why does he think it's occurring? My best guess is that Dad hears it from his favorite sources of information: Fox News and right-wing talk radio. These mouthpieces for extremist rhetoric have probably been telling my father that the educational elite looks down its collective (or collectivist?) nose at him. I can't be sure, because I can't listen to these faux news sources for more than a few minutes at a time, but that's my guess.

Interestingly enough, Dad has never felt the impulse to talk about this with the academics sprinkled throughout his large extended family—not even his eldest son. Instead of letting us speak for ourselves, he absorbs and believes the twisted cant of the right-wing news sources. I'd say that's really stupid, but I'm sure Dad would take it personally.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Equal rites

Drunk by proxy

My friend Carl was getting married. His older brother Lenny wanted to give him a bachelor party. Carl declined the honor. Lenny insisted. It went back and forth for a while, until Carl finally consented to a low-key evening of going out for drinks with “the guys.” Carl called me up and invited me to be one of the guys.

“I don't get it, Carl. I mean, I appreciate the invitation and all, but you know I'm not a drinker. I'd hardly fit in.”

“That's okay, Zee. In fact, that's why I'm inviting you. I'll need at least one friend there with my best interests at heart.”

“Uh, Carl, you do know that your brother is going to be there?”

“Oh, yeah! Like I said. I'm desperate to have someone on my side.”

The chosen venue for the event was not particularly intimidating. Carl and Lenny chose a TGI Friday's in Sacramento, sufficiently centrally located for the convenience of the participants. As it worked out, there were only five of us at the big event, so it was hardly a blowout. Carl, Lenny, and I were joined by Tom and Jerry, both friends of the brothers and neither of whom I knew. Tom seemed nice enough in a generic sort of way and I suppose Jerry was okay, too, if you like awkwardly geeky guys with glasses who snort when they laugh. I actually felt a pang of sympathy for Jerry, who seemed even more out of place than I did.

We were seated at a round table by a relentlessly pleasant server to whom Lenny explained the plan of the evening:

“This here is my brother,” he said, pointing to Carl, who was sitting at his right. “He's getting married next weekend and we're here to celebrate the end of his freedom. We're going to take turns ordering drinks, starting with me, and Carl has to drink whatever we drink.”

The server sought clarification: “So you'll order the first round for everyone and then it'll go around the table?”

Lenny shook his head. “No, Carl and I will have the first drink. Then it'll be Tom's turn to order a drink, which he and Carl will have. Then Jerry will pick and then Zeno. Carl has to match each of us, so we're ganging up on him.”

The server smiled sympathetically at Carl, who was already looking queasy. “Very good, then. Would you gentlemen care for any appetizers?”

“Maybe later,” replied Lenny. “But we're not going to have any food yet. Carl's drinking on an empty stomach.”

The server favored us with the indulgent smile of someone who had seen it before but was prepared to do his duty in hopes of an alcoholically generous tip. Lenny launched into his initial assault on his brother's sobriety:

“I want a special blend of Kahlua and cream with an extra shot of Stoli in it. One for me and one for my brother.”

The server smiled. “Right away, sir!”

Lenny practically chugged his weird coffee-colored concoction as soon as it arrived, presumably to get things off to a brisk start. Carl sipped at his glass with a vaguely uncomfortable expression on his face, while Lenny egged him on. Tom was chuckling and I was tight-lipped, but Jerry was getting into the spirit of the occasion, almost giddy.

“Come on, Carl,” coaxed Jerry. “There's a lot more where that came from! Don't keep us waiting!”

I wondered if perhaps Jerry had had a few warm-up drinks before the event, just to get in the mood, but I was soon to find out just how wrong I was. I don't remember what Tom ordered when his turn came, but it was something less sticky-sweet than Lenny's order—a more conventional choice, if just as alcoholic. Then it was Jerry's turn, and Lenny made an announcement:

“Okay, everybody. Special rule. I'm Jerry's pinch-hitter. He can order anything he wants for himself and Carl, but I'll drink his.”

Tom and I were clearly confused by Lenny's statement, but Carl knew what was going on.

“Is that kosher, Jerry? Drinking alcohol is sinful for you. Can you make others drink it with a clear conscience? Isn't that a problem, Jerry?”

Jerry squirmed in his seat, but his answer was resolute:

“It's not as if I'm taking a drink. Lenny drinks anyway. So do you. I'm just choosing.”

“That's right,” said Lenny. “There's no reason a Mormon can't choose a drink for Carl and me since we have no moral objection to booze. Jerry can keep his clear conscience.”

Tom and I exchanged quizzical glances over the Mormon who sat between us, hunched over the drinks menu and trying to find something suitable for the occasion. Lenny sneered a bit when Jerry chose the strawberry daiquiri, but perhaps our LDS companion figured that strawberries would go well with Kahlua. I don't know.

Lenny and Carl quaffed their daiquiris and it was my turn. Lenny looked at me expectantly while Carl looked at me hopefully.

“What's your pleasure, Zeno?” asked Lenny.

I pretended to consider the drinks menu. I let a few seconds tick by. The server had noticed that it was time for the next round and hovered over us.

“You know, I think that I would like a nice ... tall ... glass of ice water.”

Lenny was beside himself: “No, no, no! That's not the point of the game! That's all wrong!”

Carl was laughing as I replied: “No, it's not all wrong, Lenny. It's probably what Carl was hoping for. He knows I'm a teetotaler. I'm Carl's ringer. He figured he could get a break with me and he will. Ice water, please.”

The server grinned and hurried off. Lenny looked exasperated while Carl looked grateful. “Thank you, Zee, thank you,” said the groom.

“You know, Zeno, you could have done like Jerry” said Lenny. “I'd pinch-hit for you and you wouldn't have to drink any alcohol. I'd do it for you.”

“Sorry, Lenny, but I don't think I'm like Jerry.”

“Yeah,” muttered Tom, with a sidelong glace at the momentarily abashed Mormon. Tom coughed and it sounded like “hypocrite,” but maybe it was just a cough. And if it was just a cough, perhaps Jerry stiffened when he heard it because he was afraid of catching a cold.

Carl and I slowly sipped our tall glasses of ice water and a slightly more natural color relieved the greenish tinge that had been developing on his face, but we were merely postponing the inevitable. A few drinks later and Carl had to rush to the restroom, brother in hot pursuit, to rid himself of a witch's brew of mixed beverages.

Punchline One

The wedding came off without a hitch, Carl looking clean and sober while his bride was conventionally radiant. I knew almost no one at the reception, but eventually Carl had a chance to mingle with the guests and we had a few seconds to chat.

“You're looking well, Carl.”

“Thanks, Zee, but it took a couple of days before I felt halfway decent.”

“Yeah, well, you did almost puke your guts out last weekend.”

“Very true. Too true. At least I wasn't driving. Lenny did the honors and took me home and rolled me into bed. He agreed, though, that the evening was a bad idea.”

“Really? I'm just a little surprised. I wouldn't have thought Lenny would admit to that.”

“No, my brother can change his mind when the evidence is persuasive enough. In this case the evidence was the vomit I spewed all over the inside of his sports car on the way home.”

Punchline Two

The wedding reception included a sit-down dinner service. I found myself sitting at the same table as Jerry and his wife, a perky blond brood-hen. I moved in for the kill:

“Hi, Jerry. Nice to see you again.”

Jerry looked up at my greeting and swallowed.

“Oh, hi, uh, ... Zeno. Good to see you, too. This is my wife Terry.”

Terry favored me with a big smile, “Nice to meet you, Zeno. Where do you know Jerry from?”

I smiled back with a toothy grin.

“Oh, didn't he tell you? We went out for drinks with the boys last weekend. It was a drunken bachelor party for Carl. Boy, was I surprised when Jerry ordered the strawberry daiquiri!”

Friday, November 07, 2008

Proposition 8 and the future

Where there's a will

The passage of Proposition 8 was very effective in taking the edge off my election night euphoria. I went to bed hoping the late returns would tip against the initiative, but in the morning it seemed clear that the narrow-minded bigots had won. Damn.

It took some reflection before I realized that the measure's narrow passage was not as crushing a defeat as it initially seemed. Yes, had we prevailed against Proposition 8, marriage equality would have been secured in California and its impact on the rest of the nation would have been enormous. Yes, our failure has postponed the day when full equality will exist throughout the nation. It's damnably disappointing. Nevertheless, the seeds of our future success are embedded in the bitter fruit of the homophobes' success.

The bigots thought they had settled the matter back in 2000, when Proposition 22 garnered the support of 61.4% of the electorate in writing the one-man/one-woman definition of marriage into California law. Every challenge to Proposition 22 in the intervening eight years has been met with the same sorry one-note whining about “the will of the people.” One of the whiners was our girly-man governor in 2005:
A day after California’s Legislature became the first in the nation to pass a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced through an aide Wednesday that he would veto the measure “out of respect for the will of the people.” In a careful statement, Schwarzenegger press secretary Margita Thompson invoked the voter approval in March 2000 of Proposition 22, which said: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

“The governor believes the matter should be determined not by legislative action–which would be unconstitutional–but by court decision or another vote of the people of our state,” the statement said. “We cannot have a system where the people vote and the Legislature derails that vote.”
Ignoring the Legislature's role in enacting or amending statute, our governor punted to the courts, which finally took up the challenge in the wake of San Francisco's issuance of hundreds of same-sex marriage licenses in 2004. Once the state supreme court struck down Proposition 22 as denying equal protection under the law, the same sad refrain sounded again:
“It's outrageous that the court has overturned not only the historic definition of marriage, but the clear will of the people of California, as expressed in Proposition 22.” said FRC President Tony Perkins. “The California Supreme Court assumed the powers of a legislative body by imposing same-sex ‘marriage.’ However, in 2000, the people of California spoke loudly and clearly on the value of marriage when 61 percent of voters approved Proposition 22.”
They all say the same thing, don't they? Why have they not noticed how “the will of the people” is a changing thing? This is the year, surprisingly enough, when we installed an African-American in the White House. This is the year, too, when support for “traditional marriage” dropped from 61.4% to only 52.5%. At this rate, it will take only a couple more years for the traditionalists to lose their majority. What will they then say about “the will of the people”?

I can tell you!

The Roman Catholic Church and other anti-abortion groups in California have labored mightily to chip away at the reproductive rights of women. They found what looked to be an attractive angle of attack, something which they could sell as a defense of parental rights. In 2005, the same year that Schwarzenegger was ducking and hiding from the same-sex marriage he claimed to support in theory, the anti-abortion forces put Proposition 73 on the ballot to require that minor females notify their parents before obtaining an abortion. If it passed, they'd come back for more later. The voters, however, apparently decided that Proposition 73 was not a good idea. In a functional family, the girl would be more likely to tell her parents on her own. In a dysfunctional family, it was conceivably dangerous for her to do so. Proposition 73 received only 47.3% of the vote. That was the will of the people.

Unwilling to accept the voters' decision, the anti-abortion lobby came back with Proposition 85 in 2006. The voters rejected it again, giving it only 45.8% support. They gave a repeat performance with Proposition 4 this year. Parental notification was defeated a third time. The Yes vote was only 48.0%. Californians continue to reject the anti-abortion lobby's initiatives every chance they get, to the anti-abortionists' dismay.

Have they had enough? Of course not!
“We intend to go right ahead and try again on several fronts, including the initiative front,” said Albin Rhomberg, a spokesman for the Yes on 4 campaign. “We know that there is strong support for it. We feel we raised a very important issue and are determined to keep raising it.”
So much for honoring the will of the people! I hope they'll forgive us when we insist on coming back to the issue of marriage equality (but I doubt they will).

We will be back. And we will win.

In the meantime, I hear that one of my nieces is getting married next year. I'm fairly certain virtually all of my family voted in favor of Proposition 8. Perhaps I'll wear my “No on 8” button to the ceremony. I probably won't be asked to offer a toast at the reception.

Monday, November 03, 2008

More Republican logic

It's a mother lode

Thanks to the San Francisco Chronicle this morning, we have another brilliant example of Republican reasoning. It is a wonder to behold. This display of erudition is from the Letters to the Editor (with a bit of added emphasis from me)
It's McCain, folks

Editor - So, according to The Chronicle, the Democratic candidate will win the election. Really? Gee, I hate to disappoint you folks, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Republican candidate will win the election for a very simple reason: He is perceived as a good guy—that's all. And right now, the people want a good guy in the White House.

Considering how the current president is universally hated, and how out of favor the Republicans are in general, one would think that the Democratic candidate would be at least ten to fifteen points ahead in the polls, but the exact opposite is the case. Indeed, as election day looms, the race becomes ever tighter. Why is that? Because increasingly, people see that the Democratic candidate is a completely unknown quantity whereas the Republican candidate is completely known. Why the Democrats ever nominated their man for the presidency is beyond me, when Sen. Hillary Clinton was not only deserving of the nomination but, quite frankly, is the only candidate who could have prevailed to the end and won the race for her party.

Walnut Creek
The “exact opposite”? You mean that Obama is ten to fifteen points behind? That's what opposite mean, A.J.

Say, what are they putting in the water in Walnut Creek, anyway?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The hidden Muslim sanctuary

Sacramento college has a secret past

From time to time I get messages from my friend “Steve,” who reports from the front lines of the culture war going on at American River College in Sacramento. That's where a right-wing coalition of Mormons and Slavic Christians have taken over the student council and put the school on record as supporting the anti-gay Proposition 8. (Vote no!) This morning Steve sent me an e-mail message with a nugget of weird information he uncovered on his school's website. He didn't bother to explain how he stumbled across it, but I can see why it amused him. It sure amuses me.

Here, essentially unedited, is the text of Steve's message:
Date: Sun, 02 Nov 2008 11:10:21 -0800
Subject: The Hidden Imam?

Hey, Zee! Ever wonder where the Hidden Imam might be hanging out? In case you don't know, that's the guy some Shi'ites are expecting to return and lead them back to glory -- you know, kinda like King Arthur is going to return from Avalon to lead the Brits back to glory, Barbarossa is going to return from his cave in Thuringia to lead the Germans back to glory, L. Ron Hubbard is going to return as Xenu in his DC-8 spaceplane to lead Scientologists back to the planet Loony Bin, and Jesus is going to return to lead Christers to heavenly glory. I guess it's whichever comes first.

I think I found a clue to the secret while browsing the InnerTubes, which we have one here at school. Since the local coalition of Mormons and Slavic Christians have been devoting so much of their time to queer-bashing recently -- for the glory of God -- they have taken their eye off the ball of the threat of Islam. What would they think if they became aware that ARC has a Muslim origin? Their heads would explode! Kablooie! Gooey!

Maybe that sounds silly to you, but what else could be the reason for this, which I found on the campus website:

The Early History of the College

Grant Technical College
[from The Koran-ette, the monthly publication of the Associated Students of the Grant Technical College; April 22, 1955, p. 2.]

Grant Junior College was established in February 1942 by authorization of the California State Board of Education under the superintendency of William Rutherford. War training classes began. In the summer of 1942, commercial and mathematics classes were added.

The Koran-ette?! That makes it pretty obvious that Grant Technical College (which later became ARC) was founded under Muslim influences during World War II, undoubtedly as part of a sneaky long-term scheme to undermine America. To think that I am part of that! It will make sense to my algebra students. They already think I'm a terrorist.

Will it help you if I sign off as "Steve", since that's your blogonym for me? Explain that for me one day, okay?


I probably can't hear the sound of heads popping in Sacramento from here (even if they go “Kablooie!”), but I'm sure Steve will pass the word along if anyone else notices ARC's secret Muslim history.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Republican logic strikes again

Let's do the Time Warp again!

Like George Herbert Walker Bush confronting a supermarket price scanner in the 1992 political legend, cartoonists live in a bubble of retarded time, only they're acutely aware of it. There's not much they can do about it. The panels they draw today, the dialog they letter today—none of it will appear until having been properly aged. The lag-time is built into the process of cartoon publication.

As the Los Angeles Times reports this morning, Garry Trudeau has cast caution to the winds and declared Barack Obama the winner in his Doonesbury strip for Wednesday, November 5, the day after the election. While comic-page editors at newspapers across the country scratch their heads as they decide whether to run the presumptuous strip, Trudeau is not wringing his hands over his reputation if he turns out to be wrong. As he told the press, “I'd be a lot more worried about the country than the strip.”

Naturally, the news media contacted the McCain campaign for a reaction. The Times published a snarky comment from McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, who said, “We hope the strip proves to be as predictive as it is consistently lame.”

Are you laughing yet? Please recall that this is the campaign spokesperson for John McCain, the candidate who three weeks ago said in Virginia Beach, “We're six points down. The national media has written us off. Senator Obama is measuring the drapes.... My friends, we’ve got them just where we want them!” Apparently Bounds is merely reflecting the kind of logic that is pervasive in the McCain campaign. (But who, of course, could blame them? Much of the national media spun every incident as “good for McCain” during the first months of the election year.)

Let's gently parse the statement of Mr. Bounds. He said that the campaign would like the Doonesbury strip predicting Obama's victory to be as predictive as the strip has been “lame.” We can take it as read—can't we?—that Tucker and his buddies really regard Doonesbury as a lame comic strip. Therefore, by Tucker's own statement, lame = predictive. It predicts Obama. Oops!

Nice thinking there, Tucker!