Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A creationist fossil

No evolution here!

The academic calendar offers some generous vacation intervals between school terms. I normally try to take advantage of the time to catch up on cleaning and organizing my residence, which looks like an uncurated archive at the end of each semester. I never get as far as I intend, however, because each dig into the stacks of books and papers produces bright, shiny distractions that draw my attention away from the task.

This week I made one of those bemusing discoveries that stops the housework and drives me back to the computer. It's a photocopy of an opinion piece from the October 11, 1981, edition of the Sacramento Bee. (Perhaps you have something similar lying around in your house!) More than twenty-eight years ago I was inspired to preserve this precious piece of prose. Why, pray tell?

It is a deep-frozen example of creationist cant from an engineer—although from Pittsburgh rather than Salem. Creationism keeps disguising itself with new labels in hopes of sneaking into school science classes, but its arguments are predictably familiar and stale.

The item speaks for itself, but I can't resist interpolating a few remarks:
Creationist Claims Evolution Fails The Test Of Science

R.G. Elmendorf is a registered professional engineer and a graduate of Cornell University, who lives near Pittsburgh, Pa. Five years ago, he issued a $5,000 challenge to anyone who could show how evolution can operate in the same world as the second law of thermodynamics. He says he hasn't paid off yet.

By R.G. Elmendof
Special to The Bee


I am one of a few creationists who do not agree with the “two-model” approach to the teaching of origins in public schools, believing that this approach (1) distorts science, (2) misrepresents creation, and (3) is an unnecessary compromise with evolution.

First, within its own very restricted area, science is a valuable tool In the search for truth, but outside this area, science becomes a distorted, subjective and misapplied thing, no longer true science at all and in great danger of generating philosophical and religious opposition. Not everything that scientists think, say and do is science.

A great deal of misunderstanding about this exists that affects the creation/evolution controversy, for example In the promotion of evolution as a scientific fact on Carl Sagan's Cosmos series and in the term creation-science by proponents of the two-model approach incorporated in “balanced treatment legislation.” The whole question of origin is more accurately history, not science, no matter how much scientists like to investigate and speculate about history. After all, what scientist observed the steamy landscape and erupting volcanos of the evolutionary scenario, or the zap-zap of the creation scenario?

Secondly, if origin is not accessible to science, a choice between creation and evolution must be made on a different basis. As a creationist, I believe, by faith, that the universe, the world, the earth and man came about by the purposeful action of a “clockmaker.” An evolutionist believes, also by faith, that matter by itself was able to make the uphill journey from molecules to man, without any clockmaker being required.
Paging William Paley! Someone just found your watch!
These are the only two options on origins. No rational compromise between them exists. It is possible to compare these two faiths about the past in a logical, organized way, using “models” as conceptual frameworks for the ideas incorporated In each, and it is also possible to examine scientific evidences which seem to “fit” one or the other model better. But it is not possible to put either scheme to an actual scientific test. You can't go back and repeat the experiment. Who's to say what actually happened In the past, except by faith in creation or evolution?
Here we have an engineer who is fixated on running experiments (although I'll bet he's never run one since graduating from college). Elmendorf subscribes to a straitjacketed version of science that can scarcely exist outside of a laboratory. It's funny that an engineer doesn't understand field work. He also suffers from a poverty of imagination. While science can be performed in only one way, the question of origins admits of only two models. Either God did it or Darwin did. This false dichotomy is popular among creationists because any perceived flaw in the theory of evolution is then automatically a point in favor of divine creation. (Hallelujah.)
Whether such faith is equivalent to religion Is beyond the scope of this article, but there definitely is an underlying religious construct involved in the creation/evolution controversy. It is futile for creationists to studiously avoid mention of biblical creation, and for evolutionists to hide the fact that evolution is a basic tenet of humanism and other non-theistic religions. The heart of the creation/evolution controversy is the Bible vs. evolution, and everybody knows it.
I guess that proves that secular humanism is a religion. I am definitely falling behind in my non-prayers to non-God.
On the third point, there is a very important distinction between creation and evolution that is not widely recognized. Evolution, in addition to its historical claims about the past, makes the further claim that it is still operating in the present. Creation specifically excludes such a claim, being a once-only phenomenon, now finished.

This is an extremely significant difference, because by making such a claim, evolution brings itself into the here-and-now natural world where science operates. It can therefore be presented as a legitimate scientific hypothesis, which creation cannot do. However, by taking this position, evolution also subjects itself to scientific testing and possible falsification—a criterion of true scientific ideas.
Elmendorf has creationism retiring (undefeated) from the field of battle because it is not subject to scientific testing. His fellow creationists would probably not be willing to cede this point. It's hardly a good way to get creationism into the science classrooms of America.
The bad news for evolution is that the test has already been made, by direct comparison of evolution with well-established scientific laws, and evolution has flunked the test. Evolution claims to be a self-caused, uphill process, but the principle of the second law of thermodynamics is that all processes are downhill. Evolution claims that life can come from non-life, but the law of biogenesis asserts that life comes only from life. Evolution postulates limitless change in living things, but the laws of genetics set absolute limits on such variation.
Were these arguments ever fresh? The “second law” and “biogenesis” and “absolute limits” on variation. These claims were refuted the first time they got trotted out. How many refutations are necessary before creationists give them up? (Sorry: “infinity” is not a number.)
These and other insurmountable scientific barriers flatly preclude evolution happening by natural means in the here-and-now world, and that means that evolution can be said to have been scientifically disproven. This is an embarrassing predicament for evolution, and the problem has the best evolutionist brains in the country trying to find a way around, over, under or through these scientific laws to save evolution from disaster. But whether evolutionists like it or not, it's all over for evolution's claim to be “scientific.” There is then really no justification for creationists to compromise with evolution by propping it up to look alive in public school science classes with the two-model system.
If evolution was already dead and buried back in 1981, then it sure has become a lively zombie. Remember when D. James Kennedy (the late D. James Kennedy) declared the death of evolution? Good times!
Common sense and fair play certainly call for an end to the present exclusive domination of evolution in public school curricula, but In their efforts to achieve this end, I think that the two-model creationists have misled some important points, and I would like to challenge their thinking with the following questions: Why distort science by leaving the question of origins in science class? Science cannot answer the question. Why deny that creation is essentially a religious faith about the past? Historical evolution is the same thing. Why treat evolution as if it were still a worthwhile “scientific” idea? It's already been scientifically tested and falsified.

Perhaps these questions will be answered during the current American Civil Liberties Union challenge to the Arkansas Balanced Treatment Legislation. I hope so, because the creation/evolution controversy involves far more important issues than many people realize. Creation-science? T'aint so. Evolution-science? Impossible.
As we all know, the Arkansas Balanced Treatment law was struck down in 1982 by the famous McLean decision written by Judge Overton. Perhaps Elmendorf felt vindicated by this defeat of the two-models approach. He has not, however, become an icon of anti-evolution. A Google search has little to say about our editorial writer.

Still, “little” is not the same as “none.” Elmendorf apparently divides his time between two forms of crackpottery: creationism and geocentrism.

That's right. When not fighting evolution, R.G. Elmendorf tries to get people to believe that the sun orbits around the earth. He says he'll pay $1,000 to anyone who can prove heliocentricity.

Can flat-earth theory be far behind?

Monday, December 28, 2009

An atavistic "Avatar"

Been there, done that

You may have heard of this legendary computer-animated film in which the protagonist finds himself in a drastically resized body and falls into the hands of those whom he was originally trying to destroy. Once among his erstwhile enemies, he is taught their ways by a winsome lass who wins his sympathy and inspires him to switch sides.

The movie is The Ant Bully and it came out in 2006.

Oh, did you think I was talking about Avatar? I guess I could be.

James Cameron's Avatar is currently raking in box office receipts and capturing the imagination of the movie-viewing public. Cameron got a few bucks from me earlier today. I have to admit that Avatar is very pretty and serves as an excellent example of the state of computer-generated graphics. In that sense, Avatar is a tour de force.

In every other sense, it fails.

Perhaps I was inoculated against truly enjoying Avatar by the premature hype and over-the-top expectations. I was irked when the characters of Bones were drooling with anticipation over seeing the movie. To me, product placement is an irritant and a distraction. Aggressive marketing predisposes me to dislike the product, whatever it may be. It does not whet my appetite.

Nevertheless, I wanted to see Avatar and give the movie an opportunity to entertain me. The visuals are very nice, with spectacularly imaginative flora and fauna for Pandora, the planet on which the action occurs. The gigantic blue natives, the Na'vi, are rather excessively humaniform, but that's okay. Rapacious Earthlings want to mine Pandora for its motherlode of “unobtanium,” which has antigravitational properties. A little trite, yes, and scientifically absurd, but I can suspend my disbelief that much. I sense, however, that I'm getting just a little overextended.

Our hero, a marine named Jake, gets lost in the Pandoran wilds and is rescued by a lovely native named Neytiri. She turns out to be the daughter of her tribe's chieftain. (Of course.) Her mother is the tribe's spiritual leader (naturally) and it is she who decides that Neytiri will be responsible for teaching our hero the ways of the Na'vi tribe. (Wouldn't you know it?) This will cause some trouble with the heir-designate to the leadership of the tribe, Tsu'Tey, a great warrior who is also Neytiri's betrothed. (Oh, please.)

I was instantly bored and restless. Nothing surprised me. Will our hero learn the ways of the tribe? Of course. (At least they spared us a montage.) Will he win grudging respect from the people? Damn right. Will Tsu'Tey continue to resent him and hope he dies? You bet! Does Jake make mistakes that put him in dire straits but still recover and win through? Every time!

I'll grant you that it would be unfortunate for the hero to be put out of commission too early in the movie, but it would be nice if something provided a modicum of suspense. When Jake and Neytiri barely escape an attack from a Leonopteryx, a flying monster the Na'vi refer to as the “Last Shadow” (because its shadow is the last thing you'll ever see), she tells him that her legendary grandfather was the last member of the Na'vi ever to tame one sufficiently to fly upon it. Instantly, you know without a particle of doubt that Jake will be flying one before the movie ends. And, of course, he'll displace Tsu'Tey as Neytiri's fiancé.

At least, I assume so. I walked out right after Neytiri's story about her ancestor and the Last Shadow. I was afraid of dislocating my jaw.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Christmas gift

Even better than an apple on the desk

I confidently predict that this message from a student will be my favorite Christmas present for a good long while. My fellow teachers (especially in math) will understand.
Dr. Z,

I just wanted to take some time to let you know what a wonderful experience this class has been for me. Although I was always a good student, I was never good at math. I wanted nothing to do with it. So you can imagine how much I was dreading taking a Calculus class. In the beginning I was nervous and was not doing that well. But over the course of this semester, I have not only done well in the class, I actually enjoyed it!

I am writing to you because I'm quite overwhelmed by how in one semester I've gone from hating math to actually enjoying it. I considered taking Calculus II with you just because I enjoyed the challenge that Calculus I provided me. I can't actually do that because I have many other units that I must complete before I transfer. You have been one of the best, most organized, approachable, helpful, responsive and, witty teachers I have ever had and I wanted to thank you for a great academic experience.
You are very welcome.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Christmas list

Checked more than twice

In a twenty-four-hour period from the afternoon of Christmas Eve to the afternoon of Christmas Day, I collected the following deep insights and observations from my parents:

Dad: “Why are all women on welfare so fat? They sure don't look like they ever go hungry!”

It's probably because he watches Fox News all the time, where I'm sure there's a rule against showing skinny welfare recipients. This year Dad forgot to mention that the women are always black, too, and many of them drive Cadillacs. (We know about the Cadillacs because Ronald Reagan told us about them years ago.)

Dad: “Her husband certainly isn't much to look at. You'd think she could have done better for herself. Well, I guess ugly people want to get married, too.”

One of our distant cousins was at Christmas Eve mass with her new husband. In the spirit of the holiday, Dad shared his view that the boy wasn't pretty enough for marriage. At least this time he wasn't bad-mouthing the spouse of his most recently married granddaughter. Since the grandson-in-law just helped Dad fix his car, it may be that he has become better looking in Dad's eyes.

Even if I do say so myself, my family is full of lovely people. With rare exceptions, the women are all dark-eyed beauties. The men tend to be presentable and reasonably proportioned. This has become a kind of fetish for Dad, who purports to find ugliness all around him, but I refrain from pointing out that he's not the movie-star-handsome man of his youth anymore. And handsome is as handsome does.

Mom: “Sean Hannity was in Fresno to help the farmers. He did a special show on it.”

Yeah, I know about that. But why point out that Hannity was there merely to exploit an opportunity? He pandered to the depressed agricultural sector of the Central Valley because its most visible rivals for California's reduced water resources are the Marxist environmentalists of the heavily Democratic Bay Area. (It doesn't take much to be a Marxist these days.) Apparently all of the water in Northern California actually belongs to the farmers and dairymen of the Central Valley. (How clumsy of God to have delivered the water to the wrong part of the state.) The residents of the San Francisco Bay Delta fear that water diversion will allow salt-water intrusion to destroy their ecosystem and fisherman in the Bay Area see their livelihoods threatened by water shortages. But it's nervy of them to want water to preserve their occupations.

MediaWatch: Correcting Sean Hannity from Bruce Tokars on Vimeo.


Dad: “If the EPA isn't controlled, it's going to destroy agriculture in California.”

Environmental standards are terrible. Good thing the Environmental Protection Agency didn't exist in the days when the Kesterson reservoir was being poisoned and Tulare Lake was being sucked dry.

Dad: “Good thing global warming kicked in and saved us from a cold winter!”

Everyone knows that a single winter of exceptional snow and cold suffices to disprove the existence of a long-term warming trend. Dad gets upset when I point out that the climatologists he cites as counterweights to Al Gore (presumably the only source of pro-AGW information; the former vice president holds the IPCC in thrall, you see) agree that the globe is warming. Tim Ball and John Christy accept the existence of the warming trend; they simply argue that it cannot be significantly affected by human activities. (Ball is one of the most prominent scientists with actual credentials featured in Dad's cherished copy of The Great Global Warming Swindle.) No doubt the data indicating that 2009 will be one of the hottest years on record is fraudulent stuff ginned up by the communists in NASA and the UN.

Dad: “Scientists have discovered an extract from tomatoes that can clean cholesterol out of your arteries. It's available in pill form.”

Normally I get my doses of medical woo and pseudoscience from Mom. Nice to see that Dad is pitching in. He gave me a print-out from the Internet promoting a “bioactive, patented extract from ripe tomato that helps the blood flow smoothly.”

They lost me at “bioactive” and “patented.”

By the way, the product's website says that daily consumption of the product is required to maintain its efficacy. Big surprise.

I learn so much on my visits to my parents. Bless you, Mom & Dad, for always being willing to share, but your eldest son has a good reason for the stunned expression on his face.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Clumsily pruning the family tree

Attacking evolution root and branch

I can always rely on Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research to provide me with some wrong-headed diversion. The November 2009 issue was no exception.

ICR makes a fetish of appending academic degrees to the names of the authors in its publications. It's probably supposed to give their articles a veneer of scientific credibility. Brian Thomas, the writer of Did Humans Evolve from “Ardi”? glories in the possession of an M.S. He is featured in Acts & Facts as a science writer—at least, that's what they call him. In this role, he takes on the classification of Ardipithecus ramidus as a likely human ancestor and the unresolved questions that are still being addressed.
Speculation and evolutionary guesswork, not scientific observations, are offered to bridge these gaps. Consistent with this is the broad use of speculative verbiage on the part of the authors. In the eleven papers in Science, the word “probably” appeared about 78 times, and “suggest,” “suggesting,” “suggestive,” or “suggests” were used 117 times, among other terms that are associated with an unsubstantiated story rather than a scientific description.
I find this interesting. The ICR's “science” writer, who holds a master of “science” degree, appears to think that tentative conclusions have no place in scientific publications. What is that degree in? Political science?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kleenex up my nose

A meditation on slings and arrows

Remember Prell? It was a green shampoo “concentrate” that was famous in the seventies for having a viscosity sufficient to slow the descent of a pearl. Surely a ball bearing or mouse dropping would have worked just as well, but for some reason they chose to advertise Prell's gooiness with a pearl. A marketing decision, no doubt.

Prell fell from its pinnacle of popularity as it passed through the hands of various owners who reformulated and repackaged it as “New and improved”—words that almost never mean what they say. Eventually, at some point in the late eighties (as I recall), someone relaunched Prell with a nostalgia campaign: “Original-formula Prell is back and it's better than ever!”

How can the original formula be better than ever? It boggles the mind.

All this is by way of offering a curmudgeonly rant about how idiots keep messing up things that don't need messing with. As is my usual custom, I caught a cold near the end of fall semester. It's probably from the volume of papers I shuffle while grading the final rounds of quizzes and exams as the term winds down. Cold viruses go tearing through my classes anyway as winter draws nigh, so I get more exposure than usual as finals week approaches. (Would microwaving the exams kill the rhinoviruses on them or simply cause mini-explosions due to the staples?)

The annual fall cold hardly ever immobilizes me. It merely means that I need a big supply of Kleenex in addition to a box of red pens as I correct papers during fall semester's waning days. If the symptoms are bad enough, I dose myself with Sudafed. It works like a champ. And when I say Sudafed, I mean the real stuff that contains pseudoephedrine, not the Sudafed PE crap that contains phenylephrine. It's worthless to me. (Give me real pseudoephedrine, not pseudo-pseudoephedrine!)

Maybe it's different in your state, but in California you can find original-formula Sudafed only behind the pharmacy counter. They have to swipe your driver's license through a reader before selling you any. There's some kind of database that tracks whether you are buying too much pseudoephedrine (whatever “too much” is), because that suggests you're running a meth lab.

Right.

While I was in the drugstore getting my Sudafed fix, I paused by the cold remedy section (like most drugstores, my local outfit shamelessly sells tons of worthless homeopathic nostrums and heavily marketed frauds like Airborne—“created by a school teacher,” as if that matters). When my throat is sore, I find that Chloraseptic analgesic sprays or lozenges do the trick. It was time to stock up. To my dismay (you already know where I'm going with this), Chloraseptic is now “new and improved”! (Oh, damn.)

The last time the makers screwed with Chloraseptic, they removed the alcohol content of the spray, significantly reducing its effectiveness in easing sore throats. (The burn! The relief!) It still works and I still use it, but it's tamer than the old-fashioned version. This time they've gone and screwed with the lozenges. “Improved with liquid center.” Oh, good. The lozenges will now last significantly less time as you tuck them in your cheek and suck on them for relief. Instead of staying solid all the way through, they will now suddenly ooze into your mouth as you penetrate to the liquid core. Gag! Hey, if I wanted liquid I'd use the spray!

But those wankers aren't getting me! I switched to Sucrets.

I'm feeling a lot better today (thanks for asking) and I'm off the meds. No more pseudoephedrine and no more sucking on Sucrets. The Kleenex box is back up on the shelf. I can return to a normal (for me) life.

Perhaps I should wash my hair.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Juxtapositional humor

Trailing off in a joke

I don't think of myself as someone who follows the Mark Trail comic strip, although I glance at it when surveying the comics page. Its appeal escapes me and its survival mystifies me. Mark's current adventure involves taking a little boy camping in the woods (not too sure about the wisdom of that) and saving the boy's puppy from poachers who were using it for bait to attract alligators. Oh, and the puppy knocks over a wobbly car jack and traps the little boy under the car.

Note to parents and guardians: Do not let Mark Trail take care of your children or pets.

So now Mark needs to perform yet another rescue. He's desperately hunting for something with which to lift the car and save the little boy. He dashes off to a nearby abandoned store, breaks in, and finds—wait for it—an old jack! (Yay!)

But look at the climactic panel from the strip for December 12, 2009. See the artist's signature bubble? To what exactly is Trail referring when he says “old jack”? This may be the best joke to appear in the Mark Trail strip in quite some time. Is it deliberate? (What do you think?)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Too good to be true

So much for tentacles

Perhaps PZ Myers got too excited too soon. He chortled with delight when Brad DeLong rechristened his blog, changing the title from “Grasping Reality with Both Hands” to “Grasping Reality with All Eight Tentacles.” PZ offered a mild complaint about DeLong's encroachment on Pharyngula's turf, but you could tell he was pleased:
There is much to look forward to in our bright molluscan future.
It was a short-lived future, which has now become simian in nature (or, to be slightly more correct, has reverted to being simian, given that Brad DeLong never denied being a primate before briefly going octopoidal on us). As of today, DeLong's blog carries the banner “Grasping Reality with a Prehensile Tail.”

I sense a running gag.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The unpardonable sin

An insanity plea might work

The collective irrationality of today's right-wing pundits makes it relatively easy to be a comparatively sane conservative. So why are there so few of the latter? I guess there's nothing like the freedom-loving right-wing extremists for enforcing absolute adherence to a rigorous standard. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders tries her best to be an independent voice, but often fails. And, unfortunately, her occasional successes have problems of their own.

Last week, for example, Saunders penned a ridiculous column with whose premise I paradoxically agree. Does that sound weird enough for you? Allow me to explain.

On November 24, 2009, the Chronicle published a Saunders column that took President Obama to task for his stingy application of his pardoning powers. Here she shakes an admonitory finger at the nation's chief executive:
Obama hasn't pardoned a single ex-offender, even though about 1,200 people have asked for pardons because they have turned their lives around, expressed remorse for their crimes and now want to wipe the criminal slate clean of long-past offenses for which they paid the penalty.
That's right. Debra Saunders is a bleeding-heart conservative. It's one of her favorite ways to step to a different drummer while the rest of the right-wing crowd march in lockstep to the tempo of the teabaggers. Her particular concern is the number of nonviolent offenders who are serving disproportionately long sentences for minor crimes. The nation's draconian anti-drug laws have jammed the jails and prisons with people who scarcely deserve to be called criminals. I agree with Saunders that we have an unhealthy penchant for incarceration in this country (USA! Number One!) and that the presidential pardon could help to right some of the injustices.
When you think about it, the pardon petition is the rare Washington exercise that encourages politically unconnected people to petition their president for relief. But like Bush and Clinton before him, Obama seems to be hoarding this power. It's as if Team Obama sees justice as perk, not an equal right.
Yes, indeed. President Obama should get busy commuting some sentences and righting some wrongs. And the friends and political allies of Debra Saunders will rally around him and praise him for his devotion to the principles of justice and fairness.

Yeah. Right.

Now Debra Saunders did not claim that people would cheer such presidential action. To be fair, she actually said, “This is where a number of readers no doubt are talking back to the paper and saying that it's just fine with them if Obama keeps career criminals behind bars, thank you very much.”

Ha, ha, Debra! You jolly joker! She could have been just a little more honest and said something like, “We conservatives would then have Obama for lunch, crunch his bones with our teeth, and spit out the splinters!” The language is just a shade too florid for the gentle Saunders, but it captures the sense of what we know would occur in reality. Right-wing pundits would “Willie Horton” the president in a nanosecond. Teabaggers would demand his impeachment for various imagined crimes (as they are already doing).

The cherry on the Saunders silly sundae was delivered this week, when Debra returned to the topic of executive clemency. On December 3, 2009, the Chronicle ran her column on Mike Huckabee, a candidate in 2008 for the Republican nomination for president and the former governor of Arkansas. Huckabee, you see, was a soft touch for criminals who had “found Jesus” and was quick to give them “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. One of those pardoned criminals is the late Maurice Clemmons, the man accused of ambushing and killing four policemen in Washington state. No doubt Saunders was wishing she had not written her earlier column on the eve of the Clemmons crime spree.
I am especially angry at Huckabee because I support the pardon system. With so many nonviolent, first-time drug offenders serving long federal sentences, there should be more—not zero—sentence commutations from the Obama White House.
I say again that I agree with Saunders in principle, but I also would like to point out a couple of things that she utterly fails to address, stripping her argument of any realistic context:

First, the right wing in American politics is responsible for debasing the level of discourse in this country to such a degree that any measured approach to executive pardons is impossible. There is no doubt—none at all—that every single presidential pardon would be the occasion of screaming, braying, chest-pounding, rending of garments, frothing at the mouth, and scattering of ashes. These are the people who routinely accuse their political opponents of treason, dishonesty, and conspiratorial plans to destroy the nation. Civil discourse is entirely beyond them.

Second, Huckabee is merely one example of the power of clot-minded religion to turn people into credulous simpletons. The Republican Party, in particular, is infested with candidates who think the world was created in six days less than 10,000 years ago or pander to those who do. Huckabee was a member in good standing of this Dark Age fraternity. While his remaining political aspirations, if any, are now dead and gone (and unlikely to experience resurrection), there are still plenty of politicians who give religious dogma priority over rational thought. With Sarah Palin on the scene, backward thinking still has a future.

Pardon me for retching.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scenes from a Thanksgiving

Only one month to recover for Xmas

All five of the great-grandchildren were present. So were all nine grandchildren. Mom & Dad had a full house of family members. By the time you added in the various spouses and the cousin with no place else to go, over two dozen people were jockeying for position at the dinner tables—of which there were three.

We have the big holiday meal in the middle of the day. As usual, it began without the benefit of either a starter's pistol or bowing our heads to say grace. (I am not complaining.) People started helping themselves as the heaping platters arrived on the tables and it was every man, woman, or child for him- or herself. Though, to be fair, some of the smaller family members were tucked in next to parents who fed them. Occasionally a dinner roll arced over the tables in response to a request. The bread-tossing irks me more than it probably should and I was considered a spoil-sport for merely handing someone a roll instead of tossing it to them.

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren ranged in age from 32 to zero. The newest grandchild is actually younger than some of the great-grandchildren. I said to the college-age niece sitting next to me that “We ought to consider putting nametags on all of them.” She sweetly replied, “Some of us aren't so old, Uncle Zee, that we can't keep track of the family members.”

Sweet.

Of course, when she later asked her beloved uncle to pass the mashed potatoes, I said, “Oh, honey, I'm afraid I'm too old to stretch out my arm that far.” We struck a truce and she got her potatoes.

Little B, one of the two-year-old great-grandsons, is in a babbling phase. He keeps up a semi-comprehensible running commentary on his activities and observations. There are occasional complications. Little B has learned the names of the dining utensils, but still has problems with pronunciation. His manner of saying “fork” is particularly unfortunate. He recently dropped his fork at a restaurant and burst out with “Oh, fork!” Every head in the place swiveled toward the apparently profane toddler while his father grinned and his mother turned bright red.

We were not treated to a re-enactment during Thanksgiving dinner and I think a few people were disappointed.

The family was all on its best behavior in honor of the holiday, so most snide remarks were politely delivered behind people's backs rather than to their faces. Dad occasionally forgets this rule, however, and delivers his blasts directly. When a family member noted the extremely crowded condition of Mom & Dad's dining area and suggested a change of venue next year to the large space of his enclosed back-porch recreation room, Dad was duly appreciative: “Yeah, that would be great. Just like eating in a barn.”

That's a kind of executive veto. The family member fell quiet for the rest of the meal.

Later people began to disperse to various locations in front of the television or outside in the yard. My parents observed that Little B's parents took turns accompanying him as he wandered amongst the leaves under the walnut tree and took delight in picking up and tossing random walnuts.

“They watch that kid every second,” they commented. “They hover over him like a hawk.”

It is their considered opinion that their great-grandson is being smothered by this overweening parental solicitude. They repeated this every time the parents moved out of earshot.

While Little B was playing under this oppressive supervision, his contemporary second cousin, Little Z, was strolling about while munching on a banana. Someone eventually noticed that he had discovered Mom & Dad's fly abattoir, a low bench next to the house on which they had sprinkled a thick layer of red crystal insecticide. In the fly-infested environment of a working dairy, it had quickly acquired piles of dead insects atop the poison crystals. Little Z stuck his banana into the mix. Who wouldn't like a banana with red sprinkles and dead flies?

Someone noticed before he could sample his confectionary creation. At least, we think it was before. His mother peered into his mouth for signs of red and interrogated the little man whether he had tasted the poison. Little Z denied that he had with a stubborn expression suggesting he wished he had acted more quickly. Thereafter he was watched as closely as Little B. It turned out that Little Z was still able to play despite the fact that people had their eyes on him.

I suggested to my parents that they relocate their fly trap out of the reach of their great-grandchildren. They professed surprise that toddlers would go anywhere near it.

Who are these people?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The S.F. Chronicle flips over creation


The San Francisco Chronicle ran an Associated Press story on Thursday, November 19, 2009, about a new book that discusses Michelangelo's approach to creating the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. What would a story about famous artwork be without an appropriate illustration? The Chronicle ran an image provided by the AP—a detail of the famous “Creation of Adam.” With a fine sense of artistic taste and discrimination, the Chronicle's layout artist determined that Michelangelo made an elementary mistake in his composition and was good enough to correct it for him. And it's not as though anyone is going to notice, right?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

An abuse of abuse?

The happy ending that isn't

Do you like stories about determined individuals who struggle against long odds and unremitting opposition until they eventually win through to victory and vindication? So do I. Usually.

The Sacramento Bee carried a story on Friday, November 13, 2009, about a 29-year-old woman who finally succeeded in punishing the man who sexually abused her when she was a child. The man is her stepfather and he had refused to acknowledge any guilt. In fact, he strenuously denied that he had ever improperly touched his stepdaughter.

What else would you expect from a child molester?

The woman's mother had also denied that her husband had abused her daughter. She sided with her spouse in the court battle.

Well, what would you expect from an enabler in denial? Right?

Of course, that's also what you would expect if the stepfather were innocent and his wife was defending him against a delusional daughter. One presumes that the evidence must have been pretty strong to cause a Superior Court judge to award Jeanne Schreib a $1,345,645 judgment against her stepfather. Or maybe not.
The judge said he sided with the plaintiff based on “the uncontradicted expert testimony” from two therapists who said Schreib suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and that “the most likely cause is the abuse reported by the plaintiff.”
Oh, oh.

I admit to being suspicious of the reliability of “expert” testimony in this context. In my mind, the real question it raises relates to the competency of the stepfather's legal counsel. Expert testimony is a commodity readily obtained for a price (although not necessarily a reasonable price). There is a counter-expert to any expert you care to name. Why didn't they have one or two?

The woman in question has a criminal record that she now blames on childhood trauma inflicted by her stepfather.
Schreib said she first sought help after her 2006 arrest in Placer County for embezzlement, for which she was later convicted, sentenced to probation and two weeks in jail, and ordered to pay $54,000 restitution.

She said her “past started to make sense to me” as a result of the therapy sessions and some additional reading.
I can't tell from this report, but was Schreib saying that she had to figure out that she was molested in the past? Did she not recall the alleged incidents that she now insists occurred? If so, we're talking about recovered memory here, and that's an exceedingly slender reed on which to accuse a man of heinous crimes, even if it gives the supposed victim an exculpatory excuse for her later behavior.
She said she then approached her family about “the elephant in the room,” but they didn't want to talk about her abuse allegations.

“From the very beginning, even before I started meeting with the therapist, I reached out to them,” Schreib said.
What did she think was going to occur when she started leveling accusations of child abuse? An apology and a big group hug?

I acknowledge the possibility that Schreib's story is true, but I also acknowledge the possibility that she is (probably inadvertently) making things up under the tutelage of therapists who want to help her find explanations for the way her life has gone off the rails.

The case is now on appeal and the end is not yet in sight. Whatever the end may be, I'm certain it won't be a happy one.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Ageless wisdom gets older

One from the vaults

Sometimes I describe myself as an archivist. It's a nice cover story. What I really am is a packrat who could easily turn into one of those eccentrics who lives in a tiny corner of his home because the rest of it is packed solid with junk. (In my case, “junk” would be books and papers and various disks—floppies, LPs, CDs, DVDs.) Sometimes, however, an impulse comes over me and I start to clear off shelves, dump out boxes, and paw through drawers. I've even thrown a few things out!

Recently I opened a drawer in my computer room and discovered a trove of 3½-inch floppy disks (although they aren't really very floppy in that form factor; the more flexible 5¼-inch floppies are stashed in my garage). It was an exciting opportunity to try out my new Teac drive, an inexpensive USB device that permits us old-timers to read our legacy media.

It was the end of my clean-up effort, of course, as I got distracted by the rediscovery of long-lost documents, pictures, and miscellanea. I laughed out loud while reading some ASCII capture files from some BBS sessions dating back to the nineties. Anyone remember the hey-day of electronic Bulletin Board Systems? In 1991 it seems that I was already using “Zeno” as my on-line handle. It was how I logged in to a BBS that was hosting an intriguing chat room titled “Ageless Wisdom.” It smelled of New Age cant and I was curious.

The sponsor of the Ageless Wisdom discussion was an enthusiast bearing the name “Phandaal.” He quickly sniffed out my skepticism (I wasn't keeping it under a bushel basket) and accused me of rudeness and worse. (Of course, I was slightly amused when Phandaal tried to explain that the result of shuffling Tarot cards is not random!) I think I was unfailing polite. What do you think?
*--* Qmodem Session Capture File *--*
*--* Qmodem Capture File 12/06/91 20:44:47 *--*

Ageless Wisdom> forward read

91Nov29 Fri 16:08 from Phandaal
There are many things about our world that are little understood. This room is dedicated to discussing the mysteries of life. Please post your observations on life-experiences, and any guidelines, mental tools, or ways of thinking which help you in your life. Postings concerned with inner-knowledge techniques, like meditation, divination (Tarot cards, runes, astrology), and esoteric religious practices are welcome. I would like to hear from those of you interested in runes.

91Nov30 Sat 09:03 from Starblaze
I don't read runes but have done tarot cards since I was five.

91Nov30 Sat 09:30 from Zeno
But do you take them seriously?

91Nov30 Sat 11:49 from Phandaal
Since you were five! Starblaze, I am impressed! Do you still do them? I do runes, tarot cards, I Ching, and sometimes other card-type divination systems (there are quite a few, actually!). The former three I have found to be most useful, though for different applications: I read tarot cards for other people, runes and I Ching for myself. Runes seem to be better for more spiritual questions, while the I Ching is decidedly more grounded. Using more than one system allows you to cross-check results, and although there is usually a shift in emphasis between readings (because you can't step in the same river twice!), there is good agreement; also, additional points of view can give a more holistic impression of the situation.

91Nov30 Sat 12:14 from Silverleaf
Tarot cards don't work. The only way to predict the future is to stand on your head, shove pickles up your nose, yell Milli Vanilli three times, and then do a double head spin. It works, believe me!

91Nov30 Sat 12:21 from Phandaal
That I want to see. Seriously, though, divination is a lot more than future prediction, but most people don't understand that. It is an "inner wisdom" tool, and if it makes things clear enough so that you can figure out what is going to happen next, well, that's just icing on the cake!

91Nov30 Sat 14:08 from Zeno
Certainly we must all arrange a live demonstration of Silverleaf's remarkable divination technique, which cannot fail to be entertaining even if it falls a bit short in other respects.

Phandaal, what do you mean by "inner wisdom"? I have a utilitarian turn of mind ("turn of mind" not to be confused with Silverleaf's "head spins") and would appreciate it if you could articulate what it is and the benefits you derive therefrom.

91Nov30 Sat 17:06 from Phandaal
OK, here goes. Inner wisdom is a catch phrase for levels of awareness which we tend not to operate on frequently. "Inner" is used to describe them because they tend to be disrupted by the types of consciousness we use to deal with the "outer" world. Inner levels of consciousness/awareness tend to be more abstract and we tend to make more obvious use of symbols when we operate on them. People are interested in these levels of awareness because they do not seem to have the same constraints as more familiar levels. In other words, we can figure things out sometimes by changing to a more appropriate type of awareness. Inner wisdom, for instance, is generally not so good at math! But deeper levels of awareness are often useful for solving life-problem and understanding the personal significance of experiences. Hope this suits your pragmatic tastes, Zeno! :)

91Nov30 Sat 20:40 from Zeno
That was certainly a good start, Phandaal. Now perhaps you can enlighten me further.

Given that one believes that tapping into inner wisdom has solved various life problems or provided an understanding of a personal experience, what does one then do with this inner wisdom? (I'm trying to get a functional definition of what you mean.) That is, what sort of things does one actually *do* in response to the promptings of inner wisdom? Can you give me examples?

91Nov30 Sat 22:48 from Phandaal
Zeno: Is it that you are interested to know how much faith one should put in "inner wisdom"? If not, I am not sure what you want to know. There are so many examples of this phenomenon that to describe only a few would be misleading. If you could be more specific in your question, that would help me or someone else in giving a more specific answer. Thanks!

91Nov30 Sat 23:08 from Zeno
Phandaal: Maybe there are too many examples to make it possible to cover them all in a simple description, but a few examples *would* be helpful. Just what is it that you are putting "faith" into and how does it actually affect your life? I am curious whether the idea can be framed in such a way as to permit its worth to be validated.

91Dec01 Sun 01:40 from Phandaal
Zeno: I'm sorry, I have no idea what you are talking about. I think we have very different viewpoints on the subject of whatever it is we think we are talking about.

Unfortunately, most books on, say, Tarot, are not written in the language of hard science. My approach has always been to suspend my disbelief while reading, then test what I have read by seeing if it works. I know what you mean, though, sometimes it seems like some books are possessed of "the missionary spirit". I can't say my experience is vast, though; if I knew everything I wouldn't be soliciting the opinions of you guys. I really enjoyed a book called "Evolution through the Tarot" by Richard Gardner.

91Dec01 Sun 01:53 from Phandaal
Waitaminit -- Zeno, you used the word "faith". Are you interested in the religious ramifications of all of this? Just a stab in the dark! Am I close?

91Dec01 Sun 07:14 from Zeno
Not exactly, Phandaal. I used the word "faith" in the simple sense of "believing in". What I am trying to get at, Phandaal, is why you believe in "inner wisdom" and what has inner wisdom ever told you that had any effect on how you behave or live your life. You've described it as a way of obtaining understanding, but I'm not at all certain what it is that you obtain understanding of. Although you earlier said that there are so many examples it would be misleading to list only a few, I'm willing to be misled for a little while in hopes of starting to get some clue what it is that you're describing.

91Dec01 Sun 14:03 from Silverleaf
I am enjoying this lively discussion, but I would like to know, are there, if any, books available written in "hard science"? It would be interesting to see what sort of actual effect this has on neuro-biological functions etc.

91Dec01 Sun 16:03 from Phandaal
Zeno: Say that you are having trouble communicating with others, for example. Maybe you have no idea what it is that you are doing wrong, even after protracted thought. Sometimes laying down a few cards or whatever can stimulate your thought processes in new ways, helping you to understand what you are doing wrong and what you might concentrate on to improve the situation. Basically, any time you are "stuck" and don't know what to do, inner wisdom techniques are helpful. One might also use inner-wisdom techniques when confused about relationships with others or when you can't understand why you behave or react in certain ways. For instance, why do X and I argue all the time? or why am I oversensitive about authority figures? Hope this helps!

91Dec01 Sun 16:13 from Phandaal
Silverleaf: Good luck with finding the type of books you describe. I agree, I like to be scientific about this stuff; that is, I like to use the scientific method. However, I DO try to avoid the "scientific attitude" which has a great deal of trouble with subjective observations (that is, observations which cannot be readily shared). If you don't worry about the fact that others cannot observe your observation (because they are mental/intuitive) I feel you can make some real progress in understanding some of the more subtle things in our world.

91Dec01 Sun 22:38 from Zeno
Okay, Phandaal, that gives me something to mull over. It sounds as though the *particular* approach doesn't matter that much, as long as it gives you an opportunity to organize your thoughts and calm any emotional distress or disquiet. I have no problem grasping that and seeing it as a positive thing. However, to me it's a much, much greater step to say, for example, as Starblaze is inclined to do, that the Tarot has high-order predictive power. (That, in fact, is a step I can't take, as it makes no sense to me.) Am I correct that the particular approach is not of major concern in tapping that inner wisdom that you speak of?

91Dec02 Mon 00:20 from Phandaal
Zeno: Yes, I think that the particular approach doesn't matter, except that some systems of divination are better suited to particular frames of mind. The concept of high-order predictive power truly intrigues me... what would this be, in your opinion? What are the implications, should such a thing exist? I look forward to hearing what people have to say about this!

91Dec02 Mon 13:23 from Zeno
I think that predicting the future is not something within our power, except to the extent that we choose our own personal futures by our choice of actions. In other words, I think it would be a waste of time to consult a Tarot reader or astrologer on the likelihood of a good grain crop in the Ukraine in 1997. However, if you're not especially happy in your line of work, a consultation with a reader (of whatever stripe) could give you the necessary nudge to start taking the steps required to get you out of your rut. One might then say "And isn't it amazing, the card reader predicted I'd be changing jobs!" The prediction might have been, in a way, self-fulfilling, because it brought into the open an idea that was already germinating. "Love and life" questions can, I perceive, be handled with some success in this manner. On the other hand, my grandmother wasted huge amounts of time and money on spiritual counselors with questions about her health. (She was in remarkably good condition most of her life and kept insisting that the doctors were missing hidden illnesses she was certain she had. Maybe her investment of money in these psychic consultants was worth it to her, since they told her what she wanted to hear.)

91Dec03 Tue 09:24 from Phandaal
It seems like the idea of predicting the future is disturbing people. Stock market analysts constantly try to predict the future, as does any corporate entity. And the way they try to do it is by collecting information about the past and present, for the future will ultimately depend on these. So, although it is not the main thrust of divination, the future CAN be predicted using them, for they are information gathering systems (divinatory techniques, that is). They work so well because 1) the information gathering is very specific -- usually about a single person's life, or a few people and 2) they make use of varieties of information that are not usually accessed. But they also do all that neat "focusing" stuff described earlier. Also, like anything, there are disreputable practitioners. For instance, it is against my ethics to accept anything for a reading. Accepting money creates a conflict which can only degrade the whole process.

91Dec03 Tue 14:35 from Zeno
I know quite a lot about that other kind of "prediction," Phandaal, since I used to work for an state agency whose job it was to project fiscal year revenues and expenditures. That sort of stuff is based on a lot of number crunching and computer programming. But I think this "divination" that we're talking about is quite another matter entirely, isn't it? Publishing a trend line generated by a computer and predicting a future event via Tarot cards seem quite distinct (even if both techniques do share a high rate of failure).

91Dec03 Tue 23:16 from Phandaal
The concept is the same, sorry it isn't apparent to you. In order to predict the future, you have to know about the past and present. If "educated approximations" require tons of data, maybe its because their data is not so good, or because they are not asking relevant questions. I keep seeing the word "faith" coming up, which is really weird, because the word doesn't apply. Also the phrase "how some cards fall", which implies that the cards which show up during divination are random -- btw, they are not. I think it is bothersome to some folks, the idea of being able to predict human destiny. I think it insults the notions people have about how complex, free-thinking and unpredictable humans are. In fact, such thinking is quite narcissistic. Humans have a lot less control over their own lives than they would like to believe -- just watch yourself next time someone jerks you around. There are deep patterns in our behaviors that mere insistence of free will does little to erase. So, everybody looking forward to Christmas?

91Dec04 Wed 05:24 from Zeno
Phandaal, if you shuffle cards and deal them, they come up randomly. Whether you're doing divination or not. Are we to believe the cards somehow "care" or "know" what to do? Or that someone's state of mind affects how they shuffle?

I think "faith" is quite precisely the word that fits in this situation, because I cannot see how else one can believe that shuffled cards reflect anything having to do with objective reality. Once displayed, the shuffled cards *may* trigger thought processes or ideas that an individual may find useful -- but these will, of course, vary dramatically from individual to individual, even given exactly the same cards. On the other hand, given the same data, any individual number-crunching a trend-line should get the same results (with much less room for subjective interpretation). These look like very distinct situations to me.

91Dec04 Wed 13:56 from Nimue
I think you guys are missing the point. First of all, Phandaal, you should make your point about using the scientific method more strongly, I think Z completely missed it. That's the most reasonable path, right? Secondly, Zeno, you are talking about a lot of idealistic BS, like free-will and "objective reality" when there is no evidence for those either! Also I think Phandal may be jerking you two around a lot -- he certainly seems to have pushed a few of your buttons. Enough posturing, all of you! -- Love,
Nimue.

91Dec05 Thu 06:20 from Zeno
Hmmmmm? While it's easy to oversell objective reality, Nimue, there's enough of it around to be worth talking about. If someone says there's an Italian restaurant in downtown Sacramento at the corner of 20th and N Streets, we could go look whether it's there. I think such a statement is pretty simply either true or false and that there are enough such testable true/false statements to deal with plenty of things in a very objective way. On a slightly more subtle level, if someone says that cards drawn from a deck during divination aren't random, there ought to be some evidence of that.

Since the state of Nevada has an entire industry based on the validity of the laws of probability, it would be intriguing to learn how these laws get suspended during a Tarot reading, for example. (I assume Phandaal is simply being sincere when he says that he doesn't think it's random.)

91Dec05 Thu 13:55 from Nimue
I think that there is no such thing as objectivity! There is no way to prove that there is because everything is subjective. Your restaurant example is also subjective. You went to see if it was there. It doesn't matter what there answer was because you were involved. As for science and occult matters being two different things I think that dichotomy doesn't exist. It is all a matter of whether or not we can detect supernatural occurrences. Right now I have to say that western science is not interested in being able to detect them. If you look at other cultures you can see how many of them still retain spiritual beliefs while using western technology. But Western technology has pushed away many helpful "folkloric" remedies. Even today acupuncture is still poo-pooed by the AMA who rule the health of Americans.

91Dec05 Thu 16:09 from Zeno
Huh, Nimue? Do you doubt that Italian restaurants continue to exist even when I'm not around them? You can go look for yourself. I think it foolish in the extreme to dismiss objectivity out of hand because a great deal of what we do and say is based precisely on the assumption that there is some commonality of meaning among people.

I think I am writing messages to you on an electronic BBS. I believe the sysop's handle is Starblaze. Do you agree with these two statements? If you chuck out objectivity entirely, then obviously no one can talk to anyone about anything.

As to whether western science is interested in detecting occult phenomena, the millions of dollars spent in psychic research suggest that some people are very interested indeed. The Pentagon has certainly spent money on it, too, although here it's very difficult to get an objective (excuse the expression) accounting of just how many dollars the military has spent in this area. Labs at Princeton and UC Davis and SRI International have also spent time and money investigating psychic phenomena. The results continue to be pretty poor, but it's not for lack of trying.

91Dec05 Thu 21:21 from Phandaal
Zeno: You should understand the concepts you are toying with. Objectivity BY DEFINITION cannot exist because nothing can be viewed without a viewpoint. I can't put it any simpler, so I hope you got it. However, we habitually say things are objective truth because we all agree on them. That is, we have decided what the rules are for calling something objective. The aesthetics for determining the criteria to use are subjective.

Nimue, I think you, and now that I think about it, anyone, is wasting their time trying to help Zeno out with this stuff, he is pretty set in his ways. The purpose of this room is to discuss ideas about unconventional belief-systems. Unfortunately, we have had some people asking "questions" who were far more interested in tearing things apart and not in being constructive.

Zeno, for all your vast experience and superior will-power, you are BORING. I am sorry that it took me so long to realize what your agenda was. You shouldn't have posted in this room in the first place, and you know it. I started this room up, so I feel it is my responsibility to say that your rudeness and predatory self-interest is not welcome here.

91Dec05 Thu 22:25 from Starblaze
Sysop stepping in here.... Phandaal, Zeno is allowed to disagree w/your viewpoint provided he does not get rude or put people down for their beliefs... Zeno, do keep in mind what the purpose of this room was for... Phandaal, you created this room and made it public. If you wish I can make it private. Since everyone is already in here, the only advantage in making private would be I could deauthorize someone if you request.

Now, with that lecture out of the way can we PLEASE be civilized? I know you guys would want me or one of my aides to end up deleting most of your messages just to clean up a cat fight.

91Dec05 Thu 22:26 from Zeno
Of course we have rules for agreeing on objective truth. If we didn't, we could never get anything done at all. Is this a major point of disputation? So if we are agreed that some kind of working definition of objective truth is essential, then why the fuss over saying it cannot exist. Certainly viewpoint enters into it, but viewpoint, like almost anything else, can be shared.

Otherwise we all reside in hermetically sealed boxes and may as well all sink into solipsism. I am not "toying" with these concepts, and I believe my grasp upon them is as firm as that of most other people.

So rather than belabor the point that you apparently concede, at least in part, I ask only by what measures you gauge the success of the procedures you espouse. Will you simply reply that it is unknowable? Surely there must be standards you adhere to. And it would be nice if someone could articulate them.

I apologize if you find my curiosity and skepticism offensive, but please let me point out that I try in all things to be polite and mild-mannered, even when disagreeing with people. You are confusing disagreement with abusiveness, Phandaal, when you accuse me of "rudeness" and describe my motives as "predatory." It is unkind of you.

91Dec05 Thu 22:35 from Phandaal
I realize we have the right to express our opinions here -- you might have noticed that I expressed mine! Actually, I would recommend deleting this room entirely, but I think you should ask Zeno, for he is deriving the most stimulation from it, Sysop. Anyway, I do feel like I have been over-using this room, so I will wait until some constructive postings show up before writing any more in here. Sorry if I came on strong, but I think sometimes subtlety has limited application. See you!
Thus ends this long flash-back from eighteen years ago. It's a peculiar document that could have easily vanished into the digital ozone, but it's survived till today as a peculiar historical artifact.

The age of the BBS is long over and I have no idea what happened to the participants in Ageless Wisdom. I stopped bothering them after it became apparent that no one had good answers to my questions. And, of course, I had no idea who the pseudonymous participants were, although I heard that Starblaze was a student. And one other thing: I also know that Silverleaf became a doctor. A real one, with an M.D. and everything (but no pickles up his nose). I guess Ageless Wisdom didn't manage to screw him up.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Democrats Sweep Congress!!!

The right way to write headlines

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has the right idea:
“From my perspective, we won last night. We had one race that we were engaged in—it was in northern New York. It was a race where a Republican has held a seat since the Civil War, and we won that seat. We had a candidate that was victorious who supports the health-care reform. So from our standpoint, we picked up votes last night, one in California and one in New York.”
There were two special elections for congressional seats last night and the Democratic Party won them both. The 10th District race in California was a romp by Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who bested his GOP rival by more than ten percentage points. Garamendi thus retained for his party the seat that had been occupied by Democrat Ellen Tauscher. In New York's 23rd District, Democrat Bll Owens seized a seat that Republicans had controlled for more than a century. Pending a final tally (including some additional absentee ballots), Owens defeated Conservative Doug Hoffman by four percentage points. Hoffman's defeat suggests that his fellow teabaggers are not as numerous in upstate New York as right-wing pundits would have us believe. There are just enough to poison the Republican Party—not enough to supplant it.

The election night results produced a one-seat increase in the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives—just in time for the vote on health care reform.

In the light of this excellent news for Democrats, what are we to make of the hub-bub concerning GOP victories that affect state offices rather than federal offices? These may turn out to be unsatisfying consolation prizes in the long run. If the mainstream media were run in Fox News mode, but as tilted toward Democrats as Fox is toward the far right, we would be reading the following headlines:

Democrats Sweep Congress!
Big Boost for Obama Agenda
GOP gains meaningless victories in loser states of VA and NJ

NY-23 Elects First Democrat in 140 Years
Teabaggers Wail in Despair
Palin's blessing didn't help Conservative nominee

Glenn Beck Cries Real Tears
Vicks Stock Plunges
Trappist monastery offers sanctuary to big-mouthed ranter

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The placebo solution

Take two nothings and don't call me in the morning

The Associated Press covered House minority leader John Boehner as the Republican congressman made his party's case for its position on health care reform. First of all, the GOP doesn't really think there's a health crisis. The socialized medicine programs we have now (Medicare, Veterans Administration) are fine the way they are and don't need to be expanded. Furthermore, the Democratic plan is just too darned big. The Republicans don't see any reason that a national program should require as many pages as found in the current consensus plan being advanced by House Democrats. In a telling AP photo, Boehner mockingly poses with the stack of paper representing the Democratic plan. You can see the multi-ream pile on Boehner's right. Meanwhile, that's the GOP plan that Boehner is brandishing in his left hand. The entire plan.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Conservatives rewrite the Bible

This is not what you think it is

No, this is not a post about Conservapedia's hilarious project to create a more conservative Bible translation. Plenty of sharp bloggers have already offered wry comments on Andy Schlafly's misbegotten endeavor.

A post on Daily Kos drew my attention to a wacky editorial in the Portland Press Herald endorsing the anti-gay Proposition 1 on the Maine ballot. Orono resident Linda E. Pletka is the writer. She is upset about the possibility that Maine's voters will allow a marriage-equality measure to become state law by opposing the Proposition 1 referendum:
Do a majority in Maine really wish we would revert back into a heathen nation?
“Revert back”? Those words are an indication of the fantasy world in which Ms. Pletka resides. The correct phrase is “advance forward.”

But the writer wants us to know that she has the Bible on her side. For some people, that's a pretty powerful argument. The bachelor saint Paul of Tarsus was pretty explicit in his letter to the Romans about how much he disliked gays, perhaps because they used to flirt with him (or perhaps because they didn't; maybe it was his companion Timothy who got all the action). But Linda Pletka doesn't quote St. Paul. No, she doesn't settle for epistles. She goes straight for a gospel:
“What God has joined together—as he made them, man and woman—let no man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9)
Killer quote, right? A perfect prop for Pletka's argument.

Tiny problem. That's not Mark 10:9. This is Mark 10:9:
What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
The interpolated phrase “as he made them, man and woman” is missing from the King James Version. (Perhaps the king's boyfriend made him leave it out.) But the New International Version is no more helpful to Pletka's cause:
“Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
Oops! It's just not there.

Make no mistake. The rest of Mark 10 makes it abundantly clear that the topic is opposite-sex marriage. I am not arguing otherwise. I am merely pointing out that Ms. Pletka has taken it upon herself to rewrite the Bible. How dangerous! If this gets out, her most devout fellow-travelers might find it necessary to stone her or burn her at the stake.

You can't be too careful when it comes to Christian love.

One of the comments on the Portland Press Herald website may have said it best:
MudDoctor of Portland, ME
Oct 31, 2009 9:36 AM

This op-ed piece couldn't come at a better time for the No on 1 campaign.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I've become a Republican

Or maybe just a crazed wingnut

I was noodling away at my work in my usual innocent fashion, preparing a quiz for my students. The radio was tuned to the local classical station. The music murmured in the background and I wasn't paying a lot of attention to it. Then the announcer started talking, and I wasn't paying a lot of attention to that, either—until I heard him say a name.

Antonin Scalia.

Huh? Why was a classical radio announcer mentioning the name of a Supreme Court justice?

It immediately occurred to me that it must be a news bulletin. An emergency? Perhaps Scalia had died.

Good, I thought, my hopes soaring. What could be better than to lose one of the high court's most conservative justices while a relatively liberal Democrat is in the White House?

I instantly felt guilty, chagrined at my reflexive response. I was not behaving like a nonbelieving liberal Democrat.

No. I was behaving like a right-wing Christian Republican. The evidence bears this out.

Ann Coulter on liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens:

“We need somebody to put rat poison in Justice Stevens's crème brûlée.”
Pastor Wiley Drake prays for the death of President Obama:

“If he does not turn to God and does not turn his life around, I am asking God to enforce imprecatory prayers that are throughout the Scripture that would cause him death, that's correct.”
Pastor Peter J. Peters calling down condemnation on the Obama administration:

“Set in slippery places those who feel secure in their deceptions and lies, conspiracies, treacheries, and false hopes and cast them down to destruction. You said you could and that you would and so we believe you and hold you to your word. With authority we call for it now to be done as they sit up straight and gloat in their so-called high and mighty positions and fortresses.”
Baptist minister Robert Hymers begs God to kill Justice Brennan:

A fundamentalist Baptist minister, upset by Brennan's vote in Roe v. Wade, hired an airplane that bore a streamer: “Pray for Death: Baby-killer Brennan.” (Kim Isaac Eisler)
I am better than these people, these hypocritical death-mongers who pay lip service to their Christian faith. (Who Would Jesus Murder?)

Therefore I rein in my contempt for Justice Scalia (who thinks a cross is an appropriate way to honor Jewish war dead) and refrain from hoping for his demise. It would suffice if he merely resigns from the court to enjoy a long and healthy retirement, where he can do little harm.

As for the radio news item? It turned out that Justice Scalia had appeared as a supernumerary in the Washington National Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. He joined a crowd that included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Act I party scene, during which Scalia provided a lap for the coquettish Zerbinetta.

No doubt Scalia was gone by the time Ariadne came on stage in Act II to beg for death in Es gibt ein Reich. For herself. Someone should tell the soprano that's not how it's done in Christian Republican circles.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An outlier goes mainstream

Measures of Central Valley Tendency

During a recent weekend down in California's Central Valley, I had breakfast with my parents at a restaurant in the city of Tulare. There I picked up a copy of the Valley Voice, a free weekly newspaper whose coverage area spans Kings and Tulare counties. In general, its pages reflect the conservative perspective of its rural readers. I hope, however, that the paper's editorial policy has erred on the side of free speech in deciding what to permit in its Letters to the Editor column. Some newspapers would balk at publishing the spittle-flecked ravings of the emotionally unhinged.

The following is not annotated in any way, but think of it as being labeled with one big “[sic]”:
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

For 230 years, men and women were willing to fight and die for “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” President Obama says we now need a new “Declaration of Independence” and the U.S. Constitution is too restrictive.

On Nov. 4, 2008, we switched enemies. Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Israel, are now our enemies and Castro, Hamas, Hugo Chavez, are now our friends. We can't call Al Qaeda terrorist, now those attending the Town Hall Meetings are terrorists.

Barak Obama, Bill Ayers, Louis Farrakhan, all have the same goal, overthrow our government.

All Communist dictators have one thing in common, they will squelch all opposition, public execution of their own citizens.

Obama's first action as President was to murder more unborn, now passing health care will allow Obama to get rid of old people who are resisting his transforming America into a Communist regime.

How is it possible to have a Commander In Chief who hates what America stands for and loves our enemies.

All Czars should have been vetted, but the truth of the matter is that Barak Obama was not vetted. Obama would not have passed the F.B.I. background check and he did not submit the proper documents, birth certificate that was sealed, to the Election Committee. This committee should be held accountable.

It's so sad that we have an inept President that has never run a business, made payroll and paid payroll taxes.

Vernon B
This is another example of what David Neiwert has been documenting as the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric. Mr. B's letter is an incoherent rant, a scatter-shot blast at a list of things he's heard about on talk radio and Fox News (and perhaps Free Republic). And this example comes directly from my old home turf. (Is it safe to drive down Highway 99 with an Obama sticker on your car?)

Perhaps after national health care reform is enacted, Mr. B will finally be able to get the psychiatric treatment he so desperately needs.

A lesson in grammar and punctuation would help, too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Deep inside the math box

Don't let the reality in!

This is depressing. I gave my intermediate algebra students the following problem. It's a standard distance-rate-time exercise (I added some emphasis to some important words):
Jane rides her scooter 6 miles to the mall to buy some shoes. Eager to get them home, she drives 2 miles per hour faster on the way back, traveling the same 6-mile route. The total travel time for Jane’s round trip to and from the mall is 2.5 hours. How fast did she travel on her way to the mall?
It's not a catchy, exciting, and engaging application problem, but it's comfortingly mundane. Certainly people live in a world where distance, rate, and time are not entirely foreign. Most of my students drive and know that traveling for 2 hours at 60 miles per hour equates to a 120-mile trip.

It's not scary stuff. Not rocket science.

One of my students—and not an indolent homework-shirking student either—quite innocently asked me (after she screwed up the problem), “What words in the problem were supposed to tip us off that we had to add the two times together to make an equation? How we were supposed to know that 2.5 was their sum?”

No, I didn't slam my head on the board multiple times, even though I felt like it.

How about “total time”? How about “round trip”? How about “to and from”?

Would it have helped to include “Hint: Add the freaking times!”?

This particular student (among quite a few others) has put math in a box. The real world isn't allowed to leak in. Don't think about how things operate in reality. It's not permitted! Math is a pure mind game that doesn't mean anything. It's just a formal system that you have to beat if you're going to graduate.

I answered her question with a question: “If it takes you ten minutes to get to school and seven minutes to get back home, how long did you have to travel?”

“Seventeen minutes,” she answered instantly, her expression suggesting that I had asked a dumb question.

I waited for the light to dawn.

Still waiting.