Wednesday, December 31, 2008

LC, R.I.P.

The old order passes

LC knew that he was dying.

We're all dying, of course, but LC had the constant reminder of the oxygen tanks. His lungs were dying faster than the rest of him, but they were going to take him along on their journey into the darkness. LC had no good way to overrule them.

LC had weighed his options and done the math. By husbanding his strength and taking it easy, he could look forward to a few more years of fairly comfortable living, the oxygen tanks notwithstanding. By risking a lung transplant, he might last a little longer. But maybe not. And the regimen of anti-rejection medication would compromise his immune system and put him at risk of being carried off by some opportunistic infection. He conferred with his wife and they agreed. LC would play out the hand dealt to him.

It worked for a few years. He faded gradually, with periods of stability, as his unpredictably progressive condition eroded his lung function in fits and starts. When the end came, though, it came suddenly and without much warning. He stopped breathing and stopped living in the middle of 2008.

I became friends with LC back in the eighties, when home computers were new and exciting and fun. That was the time when personal computer owners would gather together in their Apple clubs, PC user groups, and Mac organizations. LC was one of the few “computer consultants” I knew for whom the label was not just a euphemism for “under-employed nerd.” He was actually making a living at it and not simply cruising on his wife's income from her job in the financial sector.

Many of us geeks and nerds were envious—especially the poseurs who had made their own business cards from heavy paper they'd run through their dot-matrix printers. LC was a genuine professional and we looked up to him.

I had occasion to work with LC in both volunteer and professional capacities. He was a pillar of our computer club who combined both expertise and affability in a package that was all too uncommon within our ranks. I relished the time we spent together because his badinage was not limited to the unsubtle geek-speak of the day. LC was the soul of wit, and most excellent company.

When LC and his wife decided it was time to retire and move to southern California, they folded their tent and left without fanfare. By that time, however, we were no longer in frequent contact. The local computer club scene was a faint shadow of its past (the glory days when Bill Gates would come out in person to San Francisco or Sacramento or Berkeley) and that had been our primary area of common interest. Computers and math, that is, since we both held math degrees, but people don't normally gather to chat casually about math. He was also a rabid car fancier and enthusiastic dog lover, but I was less interested in fast cars or furry pets.

It was easy to stay in touch, though, and we kept up an e-mail correspondence that faded in and out over the years. LC was privy to the identity of the pseudonymous Zeno and would sometimes send me gentle private messages about various typos or other egregious mistakes in my posts. He also brought my attention to the circle puzzle, which we agreed was delightfully misleading.

In March, LC informed me circumstances had taken a turn for the worse:
Although I'm feeling fine, my lungs are giving out at a fairly rapid rate. I can walk no more than 50' without having to stop for breath, even with my oxygen set to the maximum flow I can carry (6 lpm). I am now enrolled in an in-home hospice program, although I'm much healthier (or at least more ambulatory) than most of their patients. They don't know quite how to deal with me. For example, I insisted on switching oxygen vendors because the one they normally deal with doesn't carry the size tanks I like to carry around in a backpack when my wife and I go out to lunch, meetings, movies, etc.

We aren't in denial; we're simply living each day as if there were a bunch of them lying ahead.
I sent him some lame words of encouragement. He wrote back saying that he was still checking out my blog periodically:
I've begun making it a habit to check your blog every week or two, although I don't generally read anyone else's (aside from infrequently skimming the Daily Kos).

I consistently come away in awe of how eloquently you write, and how you make choosing exactly the right word seem so effortless. You also seem to find subject matter in a wide variety of places, and you link contemporary and long-past events in unexpected ways.

I recognize that high-end novelists can craft words carefully, but I've always assumed they did so rather slowly, with many rewrites and edits. I cannot imagine someone tossing off beautiful prose like yours as casually—and presumably quickly—as you do, especially not as an uncompensated hobby.

I consider myself a decent writer and a first-rate editor, but reading your stuff makes me want to throw away my Crayolas. Thanks for pointing me to your musings.
That left me glowing with pride, since I had a high opinion of LC's prose style and regarded kind words from him as coin of the realm. I sent back my effusive thanks. Then I quickly excerpted his second paragraph and posted it in the blog's sidebar under Testimonials. LC soon noticed:
I see I've gotten my own 15 minutes of fame. I can now claim the distinction of having been cited in a blog testimonial without ever having written line one of my own blog. Does that make me a meta-blogger?
No question about it.

The last message I received from him was in May, when he asked me whether John Allen Paulos's Irreligion was worth reading. I suggested he spend his time on more profitable material.

And that was it. The next e-mail was from his wife, reporting he had died quite quickly and without much warning. Or, to look at it another way, with years of warning, but no specificity. She closed her message with these words:
We've known for 4 years that he was terminal, so have had time to plan, do fun things, retire early, and just enjoy each other. Not everyone has such a peaceful ending.
So here's to the end of 2008, the year of LC's departure, and to the good friend that he always was.

And is.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Speaking truth to priesthood

Clutch the beads

My godchildren are a curious pair. The elder, my nephew, is a cheerfully lapsed Catholic who acceded to his fiancée's desire to be married in her Protestant church (to the scandalization of his parents and grandparents). When I agreed to be his baptismal godfather thirty years ago, I had no serious qualms. The younger, my niece, was born a few years after her cousin, by which time I was no longer a practicing Catholic. However, they didn't ask and I didn't tell when the possibility of my being her baptismal sponsor was raised. It would have been more awkward to decline than to accept, so I became a godfather for the second time.

Unlike my godson, my goddaughter is a good little Catholic, steeped in the family's simplistic obedience to Church authority. She remembered me at Christmas with a packet of candies, into which she had slipped a small bag containing a mini-rosary. It's a puzzlement. What does she hope to achieve with this holiday gift?

It's not a secret from the family that I am not a practicing Catholic. My parents no longer bother to drag me along to mass with them when I am staying at their home during holiday visits. It's just a little surprising, since I don't object to tagging along. Visits to my hometown church give me a chance to see people and sights I seldom see. And I swear that I do not chuckle aloud during the sermons. It's just an outing—like going to the zoo.

Besides, my eyes do not make noise when I roll them.

There was a time when I would have been delighted with a mini-rosary. When I was a child enrolled in parochial school, the rosary loomed as a grueling endurance contest. A full-fledged rosary contains five groups to ten beads (“decades”). Each of the fifty beads represents a recitation of the Hail Mary. The decades are separated by beads representing recitations of the Our Father (the Lord's Prayer). Monsignor, our school's principal, conceived the bright idea of inculcating regular devotion to the rosary by distributing little pledge cards. We were supposed to fill in our names and write down the frequency with which we would promise to pray the rosary.

I was horrified. The rosary was stultifying and mind-numbing. Fifty-three repetitions of the Hail Mary. Six Our Fathers (and the mini-prayer known as the Glory Be). I found it excruciating.

I slowly and carefully printed my name on the pledge card, postponing the fateful moment of commitment. Finally, though, my pencil was hovering over the line where I was supposed to fill in my promise. It would have been easy to lie, but I had a very well-formed conscience in those days. The lie would have plagued me forever, but a truthful commitment would get me off the hook after a brief pang. I wielded the pencil:

1 rosary per month

That was reasonable. I could do that. It wouldn't be fun, but it was feasible. My conscience was clear.

Monsignor never mentioned it to me. He was probably too shocked to comment. And I kept my pledge, too. For about two months.

If only we had had mini-rosaries!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Pass the bread, please

And the jam

In the touchy-feely decade of the seventies, just when the experimentation inspired by Vatican II reached a peak, the Newman Center associated with my university was celebrating communion under both kinds (bread and wine) by passing around a basket of bread and a clay chalice of wine. The bread was a loaf from which communicants tore a fragment before passing it along to the next recipient. It was all very low key and natural.

I haven't been a communicant since the eighties, so I'm not completely up to date on current practice, but I have been aware that the casual practices of the seventies have increasingly been stamped out. Traditional Catholic standards for communion demand unleavened wheat bread (sorry, gluten-sensitive Catholics; all hosts contain at least some wheat gluten, but you can offer up your suffering as penance).

Although there are multiple sources for ritually correct communion wafers, the biggest contemporary supplier of holy bread is the Cavanagh Company of Rhode Island. The Cavanaghs are Catholics, but they sell their wares to various Protestant denominations as well. The New York Times featured the Cavanagh Company in its Christmas Eve edition with an article carrying the byline of Katie Zezima. She quotes the company's general manager, Andy Cavanagh, making a statement that is doctrinally correct, but potentially provocative as well. In the absence of a sharp retort from professional Catholic bully Bill Donohue, it may be that Andy will not be struck down by righteous wrath:
“We feel as though we’re a bakery, and all we’re making is bread,” said Andy Cavanagh, the company’s general manager, and part of the fourth generation of Cavanaghs to work here. “It’s not that we don’t have respect for what happens to it, but that transformation is out of our hands and takes place in a church. The best thing we can do is make sure the bread is perfect in every way possible.”
It's just a business, folks. It's not Jesus until the priest puts the magic in. Of course, it still looks like bread, tastes like (not very good) bread, and digests like bread, but it's Jesus until you've assimilated it (and no later than that, since we can't very well have people pooping Christ; that would be disrespectful).

Even non-Catholic customers praise the Cavanagh Company's wafers, although they don't believe that it ever really turns into Jesus, as most (just barely) Catholics do:
Some customers say the Cavanaghs have such a big market share because their product is about as close to perfect as earthly possible. “It doesn’t crumb, and I don’t like fragments of our Lord scattering all over the floor,” said the Rev. Bob Dietel, an Episcopal priest.
Indeed not. If Jesus were scattered all over the floor, we'd run the risk of stepping on him and showing him the shoe-sole disrespect that is properly reserved for George W. Bush.


My latest euphemism

A gift horse in my mouth

The orthodontist peered into my mouth and poked at my retainer.

“Hmm,” he said. “This could use a bit of activation.”


“What's ‘activation,’ Doc?” I asked. “Some kind of term of art that orthodontists use?”

The orthodontist grinned at me (he had nice teeth). He plucked the retainer from my mouth and picked up a pair of stainless-steel needle-nosed pliers.

“It means your retainer can use some tightening.”

He tweaked the retainer's wire with his pliers and fit it back in my mouth.

“Feel okay?”


I was breaking in a new retainer. My old one no longer fit because I had neglected to wear it after a couple of crowns installed by my dentist made it difficult to wear. The new retainer was supposed to coax my teeth back into better alignment, too, since they had drifted a bit during the retainerless years. Hence the periodic tightening. I mean, activation.

My colleagues at school were delighted with my newly discovered euphemism. Even the humor-impaired felt inspired to try their best:

“I like to get activated on Friday night.”

“I'm staying on my diet until my belt needs activation.”

“My students think I'm an activated grader.”

“I like babes in activated jeans.”

“Hey, if you're inhibited, will people say you have an activated ass?”

Hey yourself, guy. That last one didn't work at all. If you're not an orthodontist, beware of trying to use their lingo.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The ends justify the meanness

Those who will not see

A daily devotional is an inspirational reading devised to put a believer in an exalted state of mind for the day. Various religious groups churn out devotionals for the edification of their adherents. The Institute for Creation Research is no exception. The ICR's Days of Praise sprinkles its sayings with generous helpings of creationism. The entry for December 27, 2008, is a case in point. It dredges up entropy, the misconstruction of which is a favorite creationist ploy.

The devotional is attributed to the late Henry Morris, the flood geologist who is ICR's founder. Morris's words are supposed to be inspirational, but notice how aggravating they are:
Human life must eventually deteriorate and die; this declension cannot be reversed any more than water poured down on the ground can be “un-poured” up into the cup again.

This principle is the famous law of entropy (“in-turning”). Physical systems wear out; biological organisms get old and die; societies and empires fall and vanish. All these phenomena are local expressions of God's universal curse on man and all his dominion (Genesis 3:14-19). It applies to everything, without exception.
What was your reaction to the spilled water? Mine was the obvious one: Water does not stay spilled. It evaporates. The “un-spilling” is a leisurely but well-understood process. I smirked at Morris's obtuse analogy, but my jaw dropped when I continued reading. The next paragraph was the usual contrived Christian apologetics, but the one after that was stunning. Observe:
However, the very existence of the law of entropy points to a Creator, because systems that are wearing out must first have been made new, and beings that die must first have been given life. The very idea of a universal naturalistic evolution of all things into more complex systems is contrary to all real scientific data and is contradicted by all human experience.

Nevertheless, the God who created all things can surely “devise means” by which the law of decay can be set aside. Solar energy and the hydrologic cycle can raise the spilled water; the sinful life can be purified by God's grace and the blood of Christ; and the dead can be revived by the resurrection life of Christ.
Morris admits to the existence of the hydrologic cycle, but waves it off as God's little miracle for raising spilled water. He impresses the sun into service as the deity's magic engine (although he never deigned to notice the sun back when he argued that evolution was impossible because of the second law of thermodynamics). He hijacks a perfectly naturalistic explanation by imputing it to the hand of God. No doubt the law of gravity is just a metaphor for God's arduous labor of pushing the planets around their elliptical orbits.

There is a lesson for us in this installment from Days of Praise. The creationists are impervious to reason. If no natural explanation is known for a phenomenon, then God did it. If a natural explanation is known, then it is merely God's means for accomplishing his ends. It's a win-win technique for creationists while being lose-lose for rational thought and science.

How inspirational.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Universal experts

Bringing home the Bacon?

Sir Francis Bacon famously said, “I have taken all knowledge to be my province.” As a philosopher in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Bacon could say such a thing without being thought ridiculous. It was still possible to be a Renaissance man with catholic interests. Today, however, even single fields of scientific endeavor have grown so broad as to defeat anyone's attempt to be acquainted with all of its aspects, let alone master them. Mathematicians, physicists, biologists, chemists—all are specialists who carve out particular areas within which they hone their expertise.

We nevertheless still enjoy the presence among us of latter-day Bacons. These contemporary universal scientists are willing to proclaim themselves and offer authoritative opinions on any topic. It seems a pity that instead of honoring their erudition, we most often hide our grins behind our hands and try not to chuckle too loudly. For some reasons, engineers seem to fall into this trap quite often, mistaking their training in one circumscribed field as the foundation for expertise in biology (see the Salem hypothesis). Engineers aren't alone in this. Mathematicians like William Dembski and semi-mathematicians like David Berlinski demonstrate that a head for numbers may also contains pockets of hard vacuum.

An example of one of these self-proclaimed universal experts wandered into the clutches of Judith Martin, who writes an etiquette feature under the name of “Miss Manners.” The following item is from her column of November 27, 2008, although it may have been published on other dates by various newspapers:
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I sometimes find myself in social gatherings where people are discussing some social or political issue with a single point of view clearly preferred by most or all other members of the group, when it is a point of view I cannot bring myself to share.

I am aware that sometimes (as in the case of climate change), this occurs because of my scientific background and my thus having certain knowledge that most people do not, while it sometimes has more to do with my inclination toward contrariness, a character trait that has horrified my wife and which I am working (with limited success) to reduce.

My personality traits aside, is it rude to respectfully share a fact that flies in the face of the apparent group consensus?

An example: “You may not know this, but for the past few years there has been a trend among scientists toward skepticism regarding global warming. Many feel the media is hyping the issue, and several have asked the U.N. to take their names off the report.”

Or is it better to remain silent and allow the discussion to continue on its course with more and more agreement, though I find it sad that such lovely, well-educated people could hold such ill-informed opinions?

GENTLE READER: It is not enough for you to supply the dialogue; Miss Manners would have to hear you speaking it and check out your audience.

She can imagine your words about the environment being said pleasantly, in the clear spirit of, “Well, there is another side to this,” in a freewheeling conversation among dedicated but open-minded friends.

But your wife’s reaction worries Miss Manners. It seems only too likely that you are enjoying your dissensions far too much. That is your cue to stop.
It's not a bad answer that Miss Manners gives, though it appears to err—understandably—on the side of politesse. Here's my answer, which is less constrained:
DEAR MR. KNOW-IT-All: Are you a climatologist? No? Then wherein does your “scientific background” lie? The consensus regarding global warming and climate change is stronger than ever among climatologists, so it would be interesting to learn the basis for your contention that there is a “trend among scientists toward skepticism.” (I hope you don't mean the pathetic list compiled by the Heartland Institute.) You state that “several have asked the U.N. to take their names off the report,” by which I presume you mean the the Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Can you name even one? There's Christopher Landsea, who left the IPCC over the issue of the impact of global warming on hurricanes, which is his specific area of expertise, but even Landsea does not deny the reality of global warming (“we certainly see substantial warming”). Can you name anyone else?

Your wife is right to be concerned that you are coming off as a pompous ass. If you keep quiet, perhaps no one will suspect.

I was reminded of the Miss Manners column when I noticed that PZ Myers had tossed a naive anti-evolution “expert” to the ravenous hordes over at Pharyngula. (I took a quick nip myself.) If you bother to read Halfway There then you're more than likely to have already seen PZ's post this morning on poor old Martin Patterson (“I just want to share what I have learned with other intellectuals”), but if you haven't, don't miss the fun.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Once too often to the well

It's dry, damn it!

Perhaps you've noticed the unfortunately reflective (and repetitive?) nature of recent posts at Halfway There as your faithful blogger gnaws at his personal obsessions. If you keep complaining about how people keep doing the same damned thing over and over again, you've fallen into the same practice that you've been decrying. Usually I can disguise this unsavory habit by varying the way in which I approach my pet issues. When I gripe about weird students, it's usually about different ones; their peculiarities have potentially diverting distinctions. When I crab about my family's religious compulsions or political backwardness, it can be about a variety of dogmas or domestic issues.

At best, I'm presenting a dazzling series of variations on a theme. At worst, I'm devolving into a curmudgeon. In fact, I am gripped by the dark dread that I am turning into my father. (Insert piercing shriek right here.)

When it comes to Dad, our disagreements are like picking at a scab. Leave it alone, damn it! But am I talking to him, or to me? I tell myself I cannot leave his political thrusts unanswered lest he become smug under the assumption that he has bested me with the strength of his arguments, but I've railed at him without apparent effect.

He. Never. Learns.

But perhaps the conclusion of our latest bout is different. (See how hope springs eternal?) There is at least the glimmer of a possibility that this is so. For some bizarre reason, Dad was seized by an impulse to fire a shot across my bow on Tuesday, the very day before I was due to show up at the family farm for Christmas. I say “a shot across my bow,” but I actually believe he was aiming below the water line. He just missed. Not even close. As usual.

I did not dither very long over Dad's e-mail. If I left his sally unanswered, it would be pending business when we met on Christmas Eve, while he strutted about as the unopposed victor. If I returned fire with a withering broadside, perhaps he would refrain from returning to it once we were in each other's company. It was worth a shot (or several shots, as it were).

Dad's e-mail attack was his customary velvet glove affair—more in sorrow than in anger—but between the lines it appeared he thought he was scoring a most telling hit:
My dear Son,

I am glad the election went the way it did for you. But I am very, very sad for the future of America. I once lived in a country that had a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

No more now it is rules and regulation by the state and it gets worse every election I still believe in self reliance and self responsibility. I do not expect to be around to see Americas demise.

But it is sad that is coming to pass.

I do not understand why so many people want the government to control their lives and (provide for them) The only way the government can do that is to take from those who achieve. I am forwarding a article that foretells what looks like Americas future.

As always wishing you the best of everything

Your DAD.
At heart, it's the same America-is-doomed jeremiad of his previous message. I had demolished that particular missive in gory detail. What profundity was Dad serving up this time for the tender ministrations of my rhetorical carving knife? I was instantly and profoundly disappointed. He was recycling old, old Internet spam from the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in 2000. Lame!

Subject: An interesting e-mail I received..................


This is the most interesting thing I've read in a long time. The sad thing about it, you can see it coming.

I have always heard about this democracy countdown. It is interesting to see it in print. God help us, not that we deserve it.

How Long Do We Have?

About the time our original thirteen states adopted their new constitution in 1787, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years earlier:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government.”

“A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.”

“From that moment on, the majority always vote for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

“The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years.”

“During those 200 years, those nations always progressed through the following sequence:

1. from bondage to spiritual faith;
2. from spiritual faith to great courage;
3. from courage to liberty;
4. from liberty to abundance;
5. from abundance to complacency;
6. from complacency to apathy;
7. from apathy to dependence;
8. from dependence back into bondage”

Professor Joseph Olson of Hemline University School of Law, St. Paul, Minnesota, points out some interesting facts concerning the 2000 Presidential election:

Number of States won by: Democrats: 19 Republicans: 29

Square miles of land won by: Democrats: 580,000 Republicans: 2,427,000

Population of counties won by: Democrats: 127 million Republicans: 143 million

Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by: Democrats: 13.2 Republicans: 2.1

Professor Olson adds: “In aggregate, the map of the territory Republican won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens of this great country. Democrat territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living off various forms of government welfare...” Olson believes the United States is now somewhere between the “complacency and apathy” phase of Professor Tyler's definition of democracy, with some forty percent of the nation's population already having reached the “governmental dependency” phase.

If Congress grants amnesty and citizenship to twenty million criminal invaders called illegal's and they vote, then we can say goodbye to the USA in fewer than five years.

If you are in favor of this, then by all means, delete this message. If you are not, then pass this along to help everyone realize just how much is at stake, knowing that apathy is the greatest danger to our freedom.


True statement enough but ... more so because of the Grace of God.
Pathetic, isn't it? Do you remember how desperately the Republicans worked to try to make George W. Bush's 2000 “victory” look respectable after he lost the popular vote to Al Gore by half a million ballots? They seized upon things like the acreage carried by the GOP candidate. Certainly one's chest must swell with pride at the thought that one's candidate swept the empty spaces of the nation, even while losing all the population centers.

Even on the face of it, this is a very weak message. Democrats won 19 states and the Republicans won 29 in 2000? I thought there were 50 states! Bush carried more square miles? Acreage doesn't get a vote. People do. Professor Olson teaches at Hemline University? What's that—some kind of fashion school? Try Hamline instead. Remember, too, that the original version was issued in the wake of the election of George W. Bush. How much sense did it make to recycle it as a lament concerning the impending inauguration of Barack Obama?

I suggested to my father that he consider doing at least a minimal amount of due diligence before forwarding any further nonsense to me:
Once again, Dad, you don't bother to check the “information” you pass along. This supposedly interesting e-mail is something I saw a long time ago, back when Bush supporters were bragging about the fact that their candidate carried a lot more acreage than his Democratic rival, ignoring the fact that Gore actually got half a million more votes and carried states with high population densities (and therefore fewer square miles). Bush got into office based on the electoral vote, not the popular vote. Furthermore, apart from the numbers concerning square miles, most of the message is a hoax. Professor Joseph Olson had nothing to do with it and the crime statistics it contains are bogus. States that benefit the most from federal spending went to Bush, not Gore. A quick visit to would have been enough to discover these simple facts. Check it out for yourself:

You are entitled to your opinion. You are not entitled to your own made-up facts. If you want to share things with me, you could at least take the trouble to check that they're true. You taught me that honesty was a key value but you're constantly falling victim to those who are not. People are sending you lies in your e-mail and you're taking them seriously. It just makes my case for me: Those who are worried that the United States is doomed just don't know what they're talking about. Your fears are baseless. If eight years of George W. Bush didn't destroy us, we're tougher than you think.

Your son,

The Christmas holiday passed peacefully and uneventfully. The family met for a big dinner, gifts were exchanged, and all was well. Dad didn't mention his e-mail or my refutation of it. He was as nice as could be. Did he (dare I hope?) learn something this time? (At the very least: not to send stupid stuff to his obstreperous eldest son.)

I was on my best behavior, too. When Dad complained about limitations on irrigation water in the midst of California's current drought, I did not say, “Gee, Dad, I think a proud, self-reliant farmer should tell the government where they could put their subsidized water supply. Surely it is a disgrace to depend on the publicly financed state water project.” No, I did not go there.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A fine whine

In vino veritas?

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Sebastiani Vineyards has been sold, ending a century-long era of family operation. Accompanying the news article was the smiling face of Don Sebastiani, grandson of the founder, who acknowledged that the feuding family members were not unanimously in favor of the sale. Naturally I had a sudden flashback to 1981 and thought of Jean Moorhead. You might, too, if you had been in Sacramento in those days.

In 1981, Jean Moorhead was in her second term as the assembly member from a northern California district that had been expected to elect a Democrat. Jean, however, was a moderate Republican who had upset the favored Democrat in 1978 and in 1980 demonstrated that her election had been no fluke. Don Sebastiani, scion of the famous wine family, had just been elected to his first term as a Republican assembly member from Sonoma. He was viewed by his party as a man with a future and had already become a key lieutenant for Carol Hallett, the state assembly's minority leader. Hallett intended to become California's first female speaker of the assembly. To that end, she had conspired with a liberal Democrat from San Francisco, Willie Brown, to deliver the Republican caucus's vote to make him speaker. The Democrats had a strong majority in the assembly, but it was badly split. Hallett backed the Democrat she expected to be the weakest in that office, thinking to use him as a pawn in constructing a future Republican majority.

Hallett wielded a strong hand as minority leader and expected her GOP colleagues to speak with one voice and act with one will. She pushed her caucus to adopt the “unit rule,” a scheme whereby each Republican assembly member was bound to vote on legislation in accordance with caucus decisions. That is, the GOP would meet in private chambers to vote on major bills pending before the lower house. Whichever way the majority of the Republicans voted, the GOP members on the losing side of the caucus vote would then be required to vote the majority position when the measure came to the assembly floor for a vote of the full membership of the house.

As a moderate from a swing district, Moorhead thought it was more important to represent the interests of her constituents than those of her GOP colleagues. The unit rule was anathema to her. She therefore voted her own way and cooperated with Democratic colleagues instead of treating them as enemies. Hallett was dismayed by Moorhead's independence. The Reagan revolution was under way and Hallett fully expected her colleagues to toe the line of the ascendant right-wing. She dispatched Sebastiani to explain some political realities to Moorhead.

The sophomore assemblywoman and freshman assemblyman met for lunch at a popular watering hole near the State Capitol. The ensuing conversation between Sebastiani and Moorhead was soon the talk of Sacramento. Interestingly enough, all of the rumors agreed on the gist of the discussion, whether the gossip came from Sebastiani's allies or Moorhead's. No one disagreed on what occurred. The later arguments were all about whether it had been wise.

Jean Moorhead tried to break the ice with an opening gambit:

“I hope I'm not in trouble, Don,” she said.

“Well, Jean, you know it's a problem. The caucus has agreed to the unit rule and it's important that we all act as one,” Sebastiani replied.

“But it puts me in conflict with the voters in my district. If I'm forced to follow the caucus on everything, you're going to have a Democrat replacing me in the next election. You can either have a Republican in the seat who votes with you most of the time, or you can trade for a Democrat who almost never does. Which do you prefer, Don?”

“That's not for me to decide, Jean. The caucus has made a decision and I'm here to tell you it's important that everyone recognize that.”

“What exactly does that mean, Don? So I don't always vote with the caucus. Am I a repeat offender? Does that mean I'm going to be punished somehow?”

Some reports say that Sebastiani leaned forward at that point and patted her hand:

“Don't you understand, Jean? You deserve to be punished. We have to make an example of you.”

Under the terms of her agreement with Speaker Brown, Hallett had the right to allocate staff, office space, and committee assignments among the members of the Republican caucus. Sebastiani had now made explicit the likelihood that Moorhead was about to be exiled to a broom closet with a single secretary for her legislative staff. The lunch concluded in an awkward silence, Sebastiani confident that his mission had been accomplished and Moorhead keeping her own counsel.

A few days later, Speaker Willie Brown was pleased to make a major announcement. He wanted to introduce California to the newest member of the Democratic caucus. He quipped that Jean Moorhead would be free to vote her conscience and that she would not be punished if she occasionally disagreed with the Democratic speaker of the assembly.

Jean Moorhead served the rest of her term as a Democrat and was elected twice more to represent her district as a candidate on the Democratic ticket. Willie Brown, of course, consolidated his position as speaker and was re-elected to the position at the end of 1982 with only Democratic votes; he ended up becoming the longest-serving assembly speaker of all time. Hallett, whose political instincts had played her false in supporting Willie Brown and putting pressure on Jean Moorhead, stepped down from her leadership position later in 1981 to prepare for a race for lieutenant governor; her defeat in the general election of 1982 put an end to her service in elective office. As for Sebastiani, he did not live up to his reputation as a rising star, failing even to get his party's nomination when he left the assembly to run for state controller in 1986.

Lessons unlearned

The Republican infighting in the California assembly in the 1980s prevented them from gaining a majority for more than a decade. And then, when they finally managed to outpoll the Democrats in the elections of 1994, it took several months more for them to dislodge Brown, who proved adept at peeling off individual Republican votes. Carol Hallett's eventual legacy was the election in 1995 of Doris Allen as the first woman, a Republican, to serve as speaker of the assembly—elected with a large majority of Democratic votes and repudiated by her own party's caucus. It was quite a mess for the Republicans, who promptly lost their short-lived and fractious majority in 1996 (and have yet to get it back).

The GOP is in disarray today, too, but this time on a national scale. In the wake of their thumping defeat in the 2008 general election, the survivors are wondering what to do. Some of the loudest voices want the Republican Party to purge itself of such RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) as John McCain, their most recent presidential nominee. Only hardcore neocons need apply. The example of Carol Hallett demonstrates the importance of ideological purity in an extremist party, especially if it wants to remain out of power for a long, long time. I say, let the show trials begin!

Monday, December 22, 2008

An incomplete understanding

Not making the grade

Every semester ends in the same way, with students grubbing for grades. Or, less commonly, seeking no grade at all. This year one of my students did both. First she asked for special consideration:
From: Kaye Ducky
Sent: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 5:23 PM
To: Ferox, Zeno
Subject: Calculus III grade

Prof Z

I know that the end of the semester has come. I have studied very hard this last chapter to try and improve my grade. It seems that I still struggled with the quizzes and the test. With the final tomorrow I am studying for hours but wonder if there is any possibility for me to pas with a C without having to get 100 percent on the final? Please let me know if there is something we might be able to do. I would really like to pass with a c seeing as this is my second to last semester. I have worked hard but I know my grades don't seem to show that. I have struggled and hope there is something we can work out.

Thank you

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Studying very hard is all very nice. I would have been more impressed if the studying had been accompanied with class attendance. Pissing away 5% of her grade by skipping an assignment was also a bad move.

I tried to let her down gently:
From: Zeno Ferox []
Date: Wed, 17 Dec 2008 01:54:59
To: Kaye Ducky
Subject: RE: Calculus III grade

For all of the obvious reasons, Kaye, teachers are careful to avoid making special arrangements at the end of the semester when it comes to assigning grades. The key factor is student equity. I can't provide you with any special accommodations that don't equally apply to your classmates.

As you pointed out, it's really too late to change anything now, although I would have strongly suggested better attendance. You say that you've been working hard and I have no reason to doubt you, but you haven't had the connection with the material that would have made your work pay off. The classroom was one of the best opportunities to see the techniques in action during problem sessions and quiz reviews. For future reference, I'd suggest you try to manage your classload so that you don't overextend yourself and can give each course the attention it requires.

Can you pass this class? As we both know, the grade spreadsheet says No, because it gives your final exam target score as being over 100%. While I sometimes give a little extra credit on final exams, I'm not a big believer in extra credit and it probably wouldn't be enough anyway. However, you should still take the final and show me how well you can solve multivariate calculus problems. If you do extremely well and push your score up near the boundary between C and D, I can consider whether you've demonstrated that you've almost earned a C and made it defensible to award you that grade. I never promise anything in advance, though. I need to see results.

Good luck.


Kaye then moved on to Plan B. Actually, perhaps it was Plan C. Now she hoped I could let her off the hook for the time being:
From: Kaye Ducky
Sent: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 2:01 PM
To: Ferox, Zeno
Subject: Re: Calculus III grade

Thank you for your honest response. If for some reason I am not able to pass with a C would it be possible to receive an incomplete rather than a grade so that I may return next semester and improve?

Thank you again

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Students never seem to understand a grade of “Incomplete.” They think it's a kind of port of last resort where they can weather the storm and take on some extra points. I have no idea why they think that.
From: Zeno Ferox []
Date: Sun, 21 Dec 2008 11:51:50
To: Kaye Ducky
Subject: RE: Calculus III grade

You're welcome, Kaye. As you know, I posted the course grades this weekend and you were not able to pass with a C. However, I could not give you an Incomplete. The reason for that is very simple: The grade of Incomplete is given only in the case of a student whose studies are interrupted by an emergency (family, medical, etc.) but is doing passing work at the time. We cannot use an Incomplete with a student who is not earning at least a C.

In any case, an Incomplete merely puts your class in the deep freeze until the emergency is over and you can complete it. There's nothing left to complete after you've taken the entire course and its exams, so an Incomplete makes no sense.

You're better off with a fresh start anyway, since an Incomplete keeps all your old exam grades and stuff in place instead of letting you replace them. I'm confident you'll do better next time under better circumstances.

Good luck.


Kaye didn't learn calculus this semester, but she may have learned something about fairness and grading policies.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A win-win situation

Or maybe it's lose-lose

My Uncle Joe was unhappy, sitting in the backyard of my grandparents' home and puffing furiously on his cigarette.

Actually, he wasn't really my uncle. He was married to my grandmother's little sister, so he was my great-uncle by marriage.

His name wasn't Joe, either. It was José, although you're probably pronouncing it wrong in your head. It's not like the “Jose” in “San Jose.” The Portuguese pronunciation of José is zhuh-ZEH, where I'm using zh for the sound you hear in azure. (If you know the International Phonetic Alphabet, it's really the voiced postalveolar fricative ʒ, or so I'm told.)

He was, however, quite unhappy.

It was 1976. Uncle Joe and my great-aunt were in the United States for the first time in their lives, my grandmother and her sister finally reunited after the fifty years since my grandparents emigrated from the Azores. Portugal's bloodless Carnation Revolution had toppled the fascist dictatorship two years before and replaced it with a center-left parliamentary democracy. The new government was gradually bringing Portugal into the 20th century and it was one of the things Uncle Joe was upset about. He didn't care that he and other Portuguese citizens now had more freedom to travel or be involved in politics. He had liked the paternalistic regimes of the late António Salazar and his successor, the ousted Marcelo Caetano. The dictators had been deferential toward the Roman Catholic hierarchy and publicly devout in their religious observances. What were civil rights compared to that?

Uncle Joe was certain that the communists were about to take over his homeland. Even worse, he figured that his eldest son was involved. Ramiro was an officer in the Portuguese army and involved in the MFA (Movimento das Forças Armadas, the “Armed Forces Movement”). The interim MFA junta had displaced the Caetano government and cleared the way for the recent election of Mario Soares, leader of the Socialist Party, as the first prime minister elected under a new constitution. Uncle Joe figured that Ramiro's success in the armed forces meant that his son had gone red—or was at least a pinko.

I decided to cheer up my great-uncle. My Portuguese was a bit limited, but sufficient to make my point to my non-English-speaking relative.

“Don't worry too much, Uncle José. It's all for the best. You can't lose. If the communists don't take over the Old Country, you'll be happy. If the communists do take over the country, at least you have Ramiro in the MFA to protect the family's interests.”

Uncle Joe scowled at me and took a deep drag on his cigarette. He hunched up a bit more and retreated further into his misery.

Ramiro had followed his parents to California, using his leave from the army to visit members of the long-separated family. He was sitting in my grandparents' living room, regaling his aunt and uncle with stories from his service in the colonial war in Angola (ended by the MFA's withdrawal of Portuguese forces from Africa after the revolution) and the events in Lisbon at the end of the dictatorship. He was, however, fidgeting a bit. Ramiro's fingers missed the cigarette they habitually held. Smoking was not allowed in my grandparents' home since my grandfather had quit years before. Ramiro would soon join his father in the backyard for a few quick therapeutic puffs. They would not, however, talk politics. At least not where other family members might hear. I have, in fact, no knowledge of whether they ever talked it out, but I suspect they didn't. Reticence is strong in my family.

Uncle Joe is long gone and my cousin Ramiro is long since retired from the Portuguese armed services. Portugal's democratic evolution has continued over the decades and its parliamentary government has seen several peaceful transitions of power between rival parties (although the communists never managed to get a foothold as significant players). Portugal is now a member of the European Union. Uncle Joe would probably have been relieved that his fears never came to pass, although he never seemed to get over his anticipation of impending doom.

I've been thinking about my great-uncle in recent days. I see in his relationship with his son a foreshadowing of the same awkward connection I have with my father. Even some of the words are the same. Uncle Joe used to mutter about the impending communist takeover of his native land. My father says exactly the same thing about his adopted country: “I'm too old to worry about it,” says Dad, belying his overt fears, “but I'm afraid that you and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren will find yourselves living in a communist state. It's coming.”

“Don't talk nonsense, Dad,” I say, in my most diplomatic manner. “You're being ridiculous.”

He gives me that maddening older-but-wiser look, which I would take more seriously if it hadn't been devalued by overuse. (It's the same pitying look he gave us all when we doubted his pronouncements about the inevitability of finding huge caches of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

At least my Uncle Joe had some basis for his fears. The Communist Party of Portugal was actually one of the post-revolution coalition partners in the interim government ushered in by the MFA. The communists took a shot at seizing greater control and fell short, winning only 13% in the subsequent parliamentary elections. Dad bases his fears on completely spurious evidence churned out by the talking heads of right-wing media and rumors spread by the Internet. Perhaps the Obama administration will eventually quiet his fears, but I have my doubts. Anyway, I'm a liberal Democrat, so I can help watch out for the family's best interest when the Obama administration takes over, right?

I'm sure Dad is not mollified by my cheery optimism. Unlike Uncle Joe and his son Ramiro, my father and I lack the neutral ground of periodic backyard nicotine fixes. Our truce is a bit more difficult to maintain, though we manage the best we can. And we both await the judgment of history, as sure of ourselves as we can be.

Except that Dad is wrong, of course.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Remembrance of repasts

Now I sit me down to eat

“Does your family say grace at Thanksgiving?”

When I ask my friends that question, most of them say “Yeah” or “Of course.” They're puzzled that I would even ask.

My family never does.

We didn't at last month's observance of the occasion and we won't next week when we gather for Christmas dinner. There are never any prayers at the three big family meals that we traditionally hold each year: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. All three feasts mark religious holidays that my entire family takes very seriously. So what happened to the religion?

It's my father's fault, despite his being a Catholic of Bill Donohue's querulous school of thought. And the reason is simpler than one might think.

No, he is not being sensitive to the feelings of his nonobservant eldest son. He is, rather, being sensitive to the promptings of his stomach.

For as long as I can remember, Dad has never been content to wait till anyone announces that “Dinner is served.” Especially on major holidays, when the house is filled with all kinds of mouth-watering scents from the kitchen, Dad is drawn to the dinner table like a fish on a line. He is reliably the first person to sit down, while the rest of us tarry. We know that Dad always jumps the gun and sits down before dinner is ready.

However, the moment the first platter of food is placed on the table, Dad's fork is in it. He serves himself immediately as each item arrives. As the rest of us drift in and take our places, he is building up a head of steam and is in full consumption mode. With the advantage of long experience, Mom anticipates Dad's peremptory demand for bread and ensures that the dinner rolls are by his elbow as soon as possible. (My father insists on bread at all meals.)

The meal lacks an official start. It's each man for himself. Or woman. Or child. Just as Dad is always the first, Mom is always the last. The meal is always excellent, but it's just as reliably chaotic and lacking in a sense of occasion.

I've never quite figured out how this was allowed to happen. Sure, I understand the prerogatives of the paterfamilias in a traditional family, but the abandonment of the customary religious observances by traditionally religious people remains puzzling. My best guess is that we simply don't show up promptly enough to suit my father. If we were all in place when he was ready to begin, then perhaps there would be more attention to ritual. Since we never are, the niceties are abandoned in favor of a free-for-all. Mind you, I'm not complaining at being spared the recitation of some saccharin platitudes, but it is a source of bemusement.

In observance of my own personal tradition, I will carefully refrain from saying anything about it. It would just be asking for trouble.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Are you smarter than Ann Coulter?

Take this easy test!

I haven't written about Ann Coulter in quite a while. For one thing, she had grown boring and no one seemed to be paying any attention to her during the presidential campaign. Coulter continued to write her syndicated rants, but her public appearances apparently ceased. Perhaps the reports that Coulter had had her jaws wired together were true. Whatever the situation, I have not been wasting any words on her, the has-been pundit best known for her confusing advocacy of both family values and recreational fornication. No one among my vast dozens of readers has complained about her absence from my posts.

But Ann has caught my attention again, if only briefly. An example of Coulter's reasoning power plopped into my e-mail in-box and I inadvertently read a few lines. It was probably the title that hooked me: “One Plus One Equals 20 Extra Votes for Franken.” Coulter, you see, has taken up cudgels on behalf of threatened incumbent Norm Coleman, who is at risk of losing his U.S. Senate seat to Al Franken. It all depends on the result of various court challenges and the tedious Minnesota recount. Coulter wants to stir up confusion with accusations that will make it easier to declare the election “stolen” if Franken triumphs in the end:
The day after the November election, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman had won his re-election to the U.S. Senate, beating challenger Al Franken by 725 votes.
Coleman “had won” the election? That's a presumptuous bit of phrasing when there were plenty of ballots left to count, as well as a mandatory recount pending. But Coulter's intent is plain: Paint Coleman as the victor so that any recount is necessarily a vile attempt to steal his victory. According to Ann, the minions of evil got to work quickly:
Then one heavily Democratic town miraculously discovered 100 missing ballots. And, in another marvel, they were all for Al Franken! It was like a completely evil version of a Christmas miracle.
And by the time the various counties in Minnesota had finished checking their tallies and correcting their election-night reports to the secretary of state's office, Coleman's tentative lead was further reduced:
Then another 400-odd statistically improbable “corrections” were made in other Democratic strongholds until—by the end of election week—Coleman's lead had been whittled down to a mere 215 votes.
Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn what Coulter thinks is “statistically improbable.” I've seen enough examples of how mathematically incompetent right-wing Republicans can be. Coulter's argument suggests that she is well-nigh innumerate, as I will now demonstrate.

Perhaps you're smarter than Ann Coulter. Consider, if you will, the following number. Examine it closely.

And now for something completely different. Please examine this second number. Scrutinize it with the full power of your keen intellectual faculties.

Did you notice how it differs from the first number? Did you? If not, I'll give you just a little hint:

Now do you see? Aha! The second number has an additional digit. The numeral 1 appears in the location famously known as “the hundreds place.” That is, the number 1 actually represents the quantity 100. The omission of a single digit—even one as small as a 1—can have a significant impact. This was observed in Minnesota's Pine County, as noted in a post-election report in The Pine City Pioneer:
On Thursday, Pine County announced they had made an election night mistake—something that happens commonly and is fixed in the following days by the county's canvassing board. But due to the closeness of the race for U.S. Senate, the error caused more drama that it normally would have.

On election night, Partridge Township reported their results correctly. Al Franken had received 129 votes in the township. Because of a county data entry error, only 29 votes were reported to the Secretary of State's Office.

Another 100 votes added to Franken's total means he is within .011 percentage points—236 votes—of Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. Coleman received 143 votes in the township.

Pine County Auditor Cathy Clemmer said the mistake was nothing out of the ordinary. It's up to the canvassing board to take care of any discrepancies in the days following the election.

“This is the normal process—this is usual,” Clemmer said. “It’s nobody's fault. That's why we have in place in what we do in the state of Minnesota.”
Ms. Clemmer is obviously trying to sound like the sweet voice of reason so that we don't suspect her of collusion in the great international communist conspiracy to deny Norm Coleman a second undistinguished term in the U.S. Senate. We're supposed to believe that a single-digit error in a tally of Franken votes could change Franken's total by a 100 votes—with none for Coleman! This astonishes Coulter, who can't imagine it occurring innocently. She's already explained to us that the extra 100 votes for Franken are a miracle. They're statistically improbable. The only explanation must be some dastardly partisan plot! At least, that's what Coulter would have us believe.

That is, unless you're smarter than Ann Coulter. And the chances of that are pretty good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The SAP also rises

And I play the sap in real life!

I am totally in sympathy with the goals of our Student Assistance Program. No, really I am. At least, that is, with its stated goals. I'm less than enthusiastic how some of those goals get interpreted in practice.

In brief, SAP intends to help each student succeed in his or her academic endeavors. Teachers and counselors work together to provide compensating accommodation for students with learning or physical disabilities. That may mean providing Braille translation of class texts for blind students, sign-language interpreters for the deaf, quiet testing rooms for those with attention deficits, and extra time for those afflicted with dyslexia or dyscalculia.

Of course, some of us harbor dark suspicions that there exist students who believe that SAP is just a good way to get time-and-a-half on your exams. Just tell the SAP counselors a sad story and you're on your way. Professors compare notes and marvel that no one has ever had a student come back from a SAP appointment to report, “No, they said I'm perfectly okay. I'm supposed to take exams with my classmates and have the same amount of time that they do.”

Despite these concerns, most of the time I'm perfectly happy to cooperate in assuaging the fears of the mathematically anxious and accommodating the needs of the learning disabled. I admit, though, to resenting the occasional student who regards his or her acceptance into SAP's intervention program as carte blanche to indulge petty whims or disrupt the entire fabric of a course.

One notable example occurred several years ago in a prealgebra student, when a chronically absent student enrolled in SAP and then began to tell me when to schedule my exams. The exams were already set in the syllabus. She needed to sign up for a self-paced class if she wanted that kind of accommodation. I gently informed her that the announced exam dates would be the exam dates unless I announced otherwise (which I was decidedly not doing). She pouted, none too prettily, and then changed the topic to all of the in-class work she had missed by her absences. She wanted to make up work that she had missed weeks earlier. I informed her that the window for make-ups had long expired on the material from earlier chapters. When it turned out she couldn't pass any exams even with extra time, she dropped the class. I'm sure it was as much a relief to her as to me.

Most of my SAP students are a lot more reasonable. That's why I was so surprised one recent semester when I received a peremptory little message from the SAP coordinator's office.
Your arithmetic students are scheduled to take their finals starting tomorrow, Friday, and we have no finals. Please send us their tests. Thank you.
I wrote back as nicely as I could:
We may have a problem. Our arithmetic final exam is not until Tuesday next week. I did not tell anyone that the final exam would be available before that day.
They remained unmollified:
Because we have a shortage of rooms we had to book earlier. Only one student is scheduled to take that test here tomorrow. Could you please accommodate that student?
They mentioned the name of the student in question. It made no sense that she would have jumped the gun by a full four days. I figured that SAP had screwed up. I tried explaining things to them:
This is not a straightforward matter of accommodation. Our last class meeting was today. Finals are next week. The final exam for our class does not exist. It will be written over this weekend. SAP should not be booking students for final exams this far in advance of the actual final exam date (Tuesday) without clearing it first with the instructor. What we have here is a failure to communicate. I did not tell my students or SAP that the final exam would be available this early. I understand that your facilities get very crowded during finals week, but certain basic steps to coordinate with the instructor were skipped, and that's why we're in a bind today.
I then demonstrated my magnanimity. The student in question was a reasonable person who had never given me any trouble. SAP had misled her by booking her so early. It was not her fault.
Since Ms. Doe is a responsible student and I am sure that she did not make this mistake deliberately, there is one possible remedy that I can offer. The attached file is a pdf of my final exam from an arithmetic class I taught last year. Since I have not made copies of this available to my current class, Ms. Doe will not have seen it and the old final exam is a reasonably close match to the class I taught this semester. I will allow her to take this final exam in lieu of the one that has yet to be written. Otherwise, she will need to make arrangements with SAP to take her class final on Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday next week, whenever possible.
Feeling just a bit smug at my generosity after having chewed out the SAP office for trying to give me the bum's rush, I moved the mouse pointer to the Send button, ready to dispatch my grand pronunciamento. But I paused. For courtesy's sake, it would only be fair to let Ms. Doe ponder the alternative I was offering, rather than simply letting SAP surprise her with it on the morrow. I quickly typed her e-mail address in the CC window and clicked Send.

The deed was done. A few seconds later, I had a dazzlingly bright flash of insight.

I had sent SAP the final exam. And I had sent my student the final exam.

Oh, damn.

The initial sensation of horror passed quickly enough. It was late in the evening. She probably wouldn't see her copy of the message till morning, while getting ready to go to school for her premature final exam. She wouldn't have time to take advantage of her teacher's stupidity. It was not a disaster. Probably.

In fact, our travails were all for naught. SAP had already e-mailed Ms. Doe a reminder to show up for her exam and she recognized the problem. She had not asked for Friday. She had asked for a block of time on Tuesday, our actual exam date. SAP had booked her on the wrong day. She went in on Friday and had them fix the schedule, restoring the Tuesday appointment. Ms. Doe took the exam on the prescribed day and passed with flying colors. I was doubtful that her SAP accommodation was even necessary.

Her teacher, however, the absent-minded professor: He might want to look into getting some SAP assistance.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Looking at you, kid

Arrgh! I'll keep an eye on it!

My father's right eye is somewhere in a University of California medical lab. It came into their possession after a surgeon extracted the blind orb and set Dad up for a glass replacement. He's been a one-eyed man for several years now, though he has yet to find the land of the blind in which he could be king.

Did the UC med school find anything interesting in my father's eye? I'm more than merely curious these days, especially since last year, when my ophthalmologist told me that the retina of my left eye was scarred. (Dad's right eye. My left eye. We're as opposite as can be.) The eye doctor opined that the likeliest cause of the scarring was a leaking blood vessel, but there was no indication of leakage into the vitreous and I could not report any significant incidents that would have confirmed such an episode.

My ophthalmologist decided that no immediate intervention was indicated, but that we should “keep an eye on it.” I dutifully laughed at what I assumed was an eye doctor's favorite joke, but her advice seemed reasonable enough. She referred me to a retinal specialist for a second opinion, who quickly concurred with my ophthalmologist's recommendation:

“I think she's right. No intervention is indicated. We could zap it with a laser, of course, but the potential risk outweighs the likely benefit at this point. You should let us know immediately, of course, if there are any significant changes in your vision, but otherwise it should suffice to check your condition every six months or so.”

I was perfectly happy to accept the opinion of the two ophthalmologists that it was not necessary to shoot a laser beam into my eye. The semi-annual checkups seemed quite adequate, thank you very much.

Six months ago, the checkup proceeded without incident. This month, however, there was some additional excitement. The ophthalmologist ushered me into an examining room that sported an imposing piece of electronic scanning gear.

“It's brand new,” she told me. “We can now do better and more detailed scans than ever before.”

I sat down in front of it with my blearily dilated eyes and followed her directions to stare into the bright lights. A few seconds later, the color inkjet printer attached to the equipment spit out a detailed scan of my left retina.

“See that?” the ophthalmologists asked me chirpily, obviously still enjoying the novelty of her new diagnostic gear. “It shows you as clear as could be that you have an accumulation of fluid behind your retina. I'm going to refer you to the retinal consultant again and you can show him this printout.”

I was not as bubbly about the bubble as she was—in fact I was unnerved—but I dutifully agreed to see the retinal specialist the next week. In the meantime, I noticed that the scan was labeled with xy coordinates to identify the location of the cross-sections: 272 for the x coordinate on one graph, 8 for the y coordinate on the other. That, of course, captured my attention.

On the day of my appointment with the consultant, I put a brave face on things and shared the eye scan with my calculus class. The students were duly impressed (or at least were kind enough to pretend to be) by this example of xy coordinates at use in the real world. They passed the scan around and commiserated with me. One of them asked what was going to be done.

“Oh, I'm just going in for a consultation and second opinion. No one has decided yet to shoot a laser into my eye,” I finished, a bit weakly. The students favored me with sickly smiles.

I reported to the retinal specialist's office and endured the customary two-hour wait till it was my turn to see the man himself. I gave him the printout from my ophthalmologist.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Yes, yes. That's quite a bit better.”

The bubble is a good thing?

“Huh?” I said, articulately.

“The fluid pocket is shrinking,“ the doctor replied. “That means we made the right decision in not intervening. Your problem is taking care of itself.”

“Um,” I said, suavely. “The bubble was already there last time?”

The consulting ophthalmologist seemed just a bit puzzled. “Hmm? Oh, yes. But this time your eye doctor was able to give me her own scan. Last time you were here I had to do it myself.”

And somehow managed not to mention it to me.

“This fluid pocket is definitely smaller than the one we saw a year ago,” he concluded.

“Oh,” I said, brightly. “That's good news.”

“Yes,” agreed the doctor. “Just see your regular eye doctor in another six months and we'll continue to watch your progress.”

The bubble was not new. The bubble had been there a year ago. The bubble was smaller now. I was happy. Sort of. I was also muttering a bit to myself as I left the consultant's office and walked out into the overcast afternoon. To my dilated pupils the sky was as bright as a laser blast, but I put on my Joe Cool sunglasses and headed home.

It was a good day, I told myself, so stop grousing.

By the way, after I showed my calculus students the scan of my eye and the utility of xy coordinate systems in medicine, I returned to the math offices and found one of my colleagues at his desk, his office door left incautiously open. I could not resist sharing with him an account of what I had just done. He perused the eye scan judiciously, his lips pursed and his head slowly nodding.

“That's very interesting,” he said. “Nice job. I'm sure your students were impressed.” He paused for a beat, then looked up at me. “I think I have some good news for you,” he continued. “My wife volunteers some time each week at a local animal shelter. When you start wearing an eyepatch, she should be able to get you a parrot to wear on your shoulder.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Scenes from my father

See no evil

Dad has tried to commiserate with me about the fate of my generation and those of this grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We're doomed, you see, to live under a communist dictatorship imposed by liberals. He deflates like an old balloon when I shake my head, say “That's completely ridiculous, Dad,” and remind him that his eldest son is a flaming liberal himself. He gets morose and sullen, which is unfortunate, but at least it dams up the flood of right-wing hysteria and leaves us in peace for a while. I go find something else to do while he broods about the remote possibility of being raptured into heaven before President Obama can declare the United States an atheist-communist-Muslim-libertine dictatorship. Yeah, I know. Some of these things don't go together.

I call it my father's “political Alzheimer's,” since he's possessed of all of his faculties and seems to be able to reason rationally as long as the topic is not politics (or, admittedly, religion). Since no political debate between us can go on more than a few minutes before it gets overheated and it's necessary to shut it down, we tend to avoid the near occasion of argument. Or at least I do.

My father and I were mostly on our best behavior during my Thanksgiving visit, so I wonder if his pent-up need to badger me will erupt during Christmas. It's possible. The family has mellowed in many ways—such as not demanding that I attend mass with them—but old habits endure and Dad's pugnacity may recover. We'll see.

It's one thing to disagree with my father, which I do vigorously (though slightly hobbled by filial devotion). It's another to be disgusted with him. That's tougher. Perhaps it first arose when Dad thrust the “Clinton Body Count” under my nose and I realized he expected me to take it seriously. If he could believe nonsense like that, it was clear he could believe almost any crap. This has been amply borne out in the years since and that's been bad enough.

During Thanksgiving, however, I discovered he's amusing himself with racist humor. That's really beyond the pale and embarrasses me enormously. You'd think being an ethnic minority ourselves that we'd be a bit more sensitized to racial humor. Apparently not.

Dad has a relatively high-speed Internet connection these days, which is a great relief from last year's anemic dial-up modem service. It's still not super fast, but it's tolerable. He now leaves his connection active most of the time and he waved me over to it when I asked about checking my e-mail. His AOL account (which he shares with Mom) was open, but I didn't use it, opening a separate browser window and logging into my Yahoo mail account. I was being virtuous by refraining from poking around in my father's e-mail, but I also had no desire to see what right-wing spam he was wallowing in. At least I knew he was no longer forwarding it to me (for the most part) and I wasn't going to be nosy.

But Dad's computer also had the latest photos of the great-grandsons in his picture folder. When he told me about them I naturally took a look and downloaded some cute portraits of my nephews to my data stick. But there were other pictures, too, and some were nauseating. No, not what you're thinking. At least if you're thinking porn. Unless you mean political porn.

Dad has received, and seen fit to save, a photo that depicts Barack Obama as a shoeshine boy kneeling at the feet of a grinning Sarah Palin. How droll. I later heard it was distributed to members of a Rush Limbaugh fan site, which is probably how Dad got it (although I don't know that Limbaugh himself had anything to do with it). I refrained from mentioning to my father that I had seen it and was ashamed that he had saved it.

I won't post the picture, since a description suffices, but I have since discovered the original photo that was doctored to create the Obama-Palin pic. The photographer is understandably miffed at being ripped off, especially since the prankster who modified the photo left the original attribution on it. Ted Szukalski is not amused at being portrayed by a plagiarist as a dabbler in racial humor. He posted a comment on his website to express his dismay.

The shoe-shine gag was apparently not enough. Dad also found it worthwhile to save a political cartoon that depicts Sen. Obama sitting in a pew with a bag over his head while a black minister (presumably Rev. Wright) screams “Kill Whitey!”

Now perhaps it's not supposed to be Rev. Wright after all, since we know that Wright's cardinal sin was to utter a Falwellian “God damn America.” Maybe cartoonist Brian Fairrington was merely exaggerating a little bit for effect, and not really implying that Sen. Obama was willing to condone hyperbolic hate speech. Maybe. Anyway, Fairrington has found part of his audience in my father—and whichever of Dad's correspondents considered the cartoon worthy of saving and passing along.

Next time I think I'll just ask Dad to send me the family photos instead of having me look them up for myself. I don't want to go back into his picture folder. Thanks, but no thanks. Good family relations (at least to the degree possible) require that I refrain.

And if he wanted me to see what I found mixed amidst the family pix, then I'm a bit angry in addition to being disgusted.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Specified prolixity

PZ Myers cited in vain

We nonbelievers grew weary a long time ago from the efforts of proselytizing Christians to “explain” Christianity to us and “share the good news” with us. Sorry, guys. We've heard the so-called good news, but it's like watching a news report on Fox: We simply don't believe it. The recruiters for the cult of Christianity assume we don't know what the Bible says, but a lot of us do know. We just reject it.

We find it insulting to be assumed ignorant.

Creationists are trying to borrow this page from the nonbeliever's book. You see, they understand evolution and natural selection. They just reject it.

Oh, really?

We probably need to make some allowances for the conscious liars who use discredited arguments because they're effective rhetorical devices for advancing their holy cause. (Does anyone really think that Duane Gish doesn't know that his argument about the second law of thermodynamics is invalid? He was refuted in detail time and time again, but he never abandoned it in his public presentations because people continued to fall for it.) They know their arguments are bogus, but the “noble lie” is a pragmatically mendacious approach to redeeming souls for Christ. (Apparently the ends justify the means.) But many of the anti-evolution polemicists are likely to be entirely sincere. Their arguments reveal their profound ignorance rather than their willful dishonesty.

A case in point is this month's issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research. The December 2008 edition contains an essay titled More Than Just “Complex.” The author is Brian Thomas, who is described as a “science writer.” Thomas cites a remark by PZ Myers that criticizes creationists:
The lesson of Darwin is that unguided natural processes have the ability to generate complex functionality, so it takes more than just showing complexity and function to demonstrate purpose. Creationists don't understand that at all, so they keep whining “it's complex!” as if they have brought up an irrefutable argument for design, when they've done no such thing.
In typical creationist fashion, Thomas goofs up the quotation a bit. He truncates PZ's final sentence by deleting his conclusion and moves the exclamation point outside the quotes (“it's complex”!), as if PZ were not imputing the exclamation to the creationists. Sloppy, but not surprising.

After the Myers quote, Thomas rolls out the we-know-but-reject argument:
The reason that “the lesson of Darwin” is rejected by creationists is not because they don't understand it. Rather, it is because they rightly observe that “unguided natural processes” cannot generate both complexity and functionality...
(By the way, I truncated the final sentence in my quote from Thomas's article. Go check out the original to see if I did violence to it.) Thomas goes on to complain that natural selection is incapable of generating “specified complexity,” but then falls promptly into a creationist's classic post-hoc misconstruction of the problem. He does this by rhapsodizing about the protein complexes known as chaperonins:
Chaperonins have a precisely-placed enzymatic active site, detachable caps, flexible gated entryways, a timed sequence of chemical events, and precise expansion and flexion capacities. Each of the parameters—size, shape, strength, hydrophobicity distribution, timing, and sequence—represents a specification. With each additional specification, the likelihood of a chance-based assembly of these parts diminishes…to miracle status.
A miracle! God is obviously required.

Let's try a simple explanation of this inane interpretation of complexity. If I draw a hearts royal flush from a standard deck of cards, that's pretty close to a miracle. (No, this has never happened to me.) There's only 1 chance out of 2,598,960 of drawing the ace, king, queen, jack, and ten of hearts in a random selection from a standard deck. (That big number is 52C5, the number of ways of choosing 5 items from a set of 52 distinct things.) We could choose even less likely things for our illustration, but this will do as an example.

We understand, of course, that any hand of five cards has one chance in 2,598,960 of being drawn, but most of those hands are nondescript and insufficiently interesting to catch our attention. A hearts royal flush, however, is a killer winning hand. If you were to predict (specify) in advance of a deal that you were going to get a hearts royal flush, it would be a pretty miraculous example of meeting your specification if the dealer were then to deal out those cards to you. (People might call for an investigation.)

But a hearts royal flush is not the only “killer winning hand” that the dealer could have given you. There are two royal flushes made up of red cards. Would you be unhappier with a diamonds royal flush? I think not. It would serve your purposes quite as adequately. It would look a little odd if you had “specified” hearts and then drew diamonds, but you're still a winner. And your chances of a red royal flush are twice that of a hearts royal flush alone. You know what you did? You over-specified.

Did you grasp the lesson? Even if we don't go on to talk about equally satisfactory outcomes with black royal flushes and results that are nearly as good with other straight flushes and four of a kind?

While Thomas waxes eloquently over all the details of chaperonins (I wonder how much he really knows about them?), listing all the specific features they have as they exist today, he completely misses the possibility (likelihood, actually) that there are millions (billions?) of other formulations that would have created alternate-universe chaperonins of equal functionality.

Try this little experiment the next time you're playing poker: When you pick up your five cards, recoil in amazement at the hand you're holding (no matter what it is, strong or weak), throw the cards down on the table face up so that your companions can see them, and scream, “Oh, my God! It's a miracle! This hand occurred in the face of odds greater than one in two million! Surely an Intelligent Dealer was involved in specifying this hand!”

Depending on the intelligence of the dealer in question, he may lean over and punch you on the shoulder.