Monday, December 27, 2010

A Christmas miracle

Nothing happened

On Christmas Eve I received in the mail a card from my parents. To my astonishment, it wished me Season's Greetings. Since Mom & Dad have been inducted into the Bill O'Reilly school of obstreperous observation of “Merry Christmas or Else!”, this was an unprecedented departure. I have never before received a holiday card from my parents that was not overtly religious. It gave me pause.

A positive omen?

Having ascertained from Mom (I'm not speaking to Dad, after all) that dinner on Christmas day would get under way shortly after 11:00 a.m., I timed my arrival at the family homestead to a nicety, turning onto their county road at a quarter of. To my horror, however, not a single vehicle sat in front of their house. I was unmistakably the first to arrive. I considered looping around the block (that's a four-mile detour out in the country, where each block consists of 640 acres), but decided instead to take advantage of the opportunity to secure the pole position in the driveway for my later departure. I placed the car so that no one could block my escape. (It also meant that my Barbara Boxer and “No on 8” stickers were on prominent display.)

I entered the house. The tables were set up and the place settings laid out in the dining room, but the room was empty. Mom & Dad were in the family room, being (further) deafened by the television (tuned to Fox, of course). I cleverly entered the house with my hands full of gift bags for my various nieces, nephews, and grand-nephews. (No grand-nieces yet.) Mom grabbed me and hugged me anyway, but Dad had to wait till I had deposited the gift bags in the living room and then accosted me with an out-thrust hand. Interestingly, Mom chose that moment to give me another hug and got in his way. An accident, perhaps—or she feared I might snub him. But Dad tried again and I deigned to shake his hand. (Mom was right to be concerned. I hesitated a moment.)

The truce was now official.

I fetched a second batch of gift bags and fussed over grouping them according to recipient families for a while, killing a few minutes. I stepped outside to snap some photos of the dairy and, in the opposite direction, the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, which were remarkably sharp and visible after the series of rainstorms. With the air in the valley having gotten rather bad, the mountains are usually obscured by a pervasive haze. When I was a kid back in the sixties, the Sierra was spectacular on a daily basis, so of course we hardly paid them any attention.

A nephew finally arrived with wife and son in tow. Then a niece and assorted grand-nephews. (My parents currently have five great-grandsons, some of them older than their youngest granddaughter.) The house began to fill up. All of my siblings eventually showed up, along with all of their spouses (save the one estranged wife) and all of their children and children-in-law. Even my godson from out of state was present, as well as one cousin who is my parents' godson. Twenty-nine people in all, which was not a record-breaking crowd by any means.

Still, my sister's grandson—an only child so far—was slightly overwhelmed. My sister tried to put the two-year-old at ease by identifying me and her other brothers to the little guy. “See? I have three brothers. See how lucky I am?”

“That's certainly not what you used to say,” I observed.

My grand-nephew was uncertain why my brothers and I were chuckling, but he took it as a good sign and broke into a grin. His parents have told him he'll have a little brother or sister by the end of spring.

Mom cut back (a little) on cooking this year because it's started to overwhelm her. Sensible move. Therefore she fixed only one turkey for Christmas—along with stuffing, potato salad, mashed potatoes, torresmos (fried pork), cranberry, and dinner rolls. One brother broiled a batch of steaks, my sister-in-law provided a shrimp salad, the cousin brought a ham, and my sister provided her weird but tasty orange Jell-O marshmallow-cheddar salad, plus pumpkin pies, cookies, and brownies for dessert. No one went hungry, although a vegetarian might have been a little overwhelmed. (I'm not aware that we currently have any in the family. It's an omnivorous group.)

In the aftermath, adults took turns keeping track of the hyperactive children (preventing things like cliff-diving off the piano in the living room, where two of the little ones were pounding out a random-key duet). A niece's spouse tried to talk sport vehicles with me (I asked him when in the seventies American Motors had taken over manufacturer of the Jeep from Willys—which established my street credit that I even knew it had occurred—and launched him on a happy discourse). Dad showed off his gargantuan project of digitizing old family photos and slides, which is supposed to result in a DVD album to distribute in the near future. (I'll need to turn down the sound: a loop of Mozart's “Eine Kleine Natchmusik” is sprightly and entertaining background music only the first twelve times you hear it.)

The party started to break up at 2:00, with people trickling away. I dug out a copy of my unpublished book and gave it to Mom, who seemed mildly surprised but did not react very much. I wondered if my sister had already spilled the beans to her about the book's existence. She said no, that Mom was still in holiday-overwhelmed mode and it would sink in later. When my sister got out the door, I also made my escape. No overnight stay for me this year. I told Mom good-bye and hit the road. Dad was otherwise occupied (probably back at his slide show) and I didn't seek him out. No point in tempting fate.

The trip home was accompanied by some rain, but nothing spectacular. It was a long day with several hours of road travel (scenic Highway 99!), but it was also a rather successful day.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Internet service preventer

Zapped by the Death Star

My day began. It was still dark, but that's winter for you. I tend to wake up rather slowly, so I dragged myself to my computer to check my e-mail. Hmm. Nothing since 1:30 in the morning. Slightly unusual.

Then I noticed the error messages from my e-mail program. They indicated that both my personal and school in-boxes could not be accessed. I looked at the modem.

Rats. The Internet light was out. I rebooted my computer and watched the modem lights start to blink as the operating system reloaded and began polling the computer's peripherals. I relaunched Firefox, which splashed my home page on the screen very nicely, but I soon saw that it was just the cached version. No new information was being downloaded. The modem lights were flickering between red and green. It wasn't settling down to the nice steady green I was used to.

Time for breakfast. Let the modem fuss with its DSL access while I scan the morning newspapers and take on some fuel.

When I returned, my Internet connection was still on the fritz. I powered down the modem, powered it back up, and rebooted the computer again. The very Christmasy red-and-green light show returned, but no DSL.

I called the AT&T support line. A very friendly recorded voice told me the number I was calling from. “Is your call related to service on this phone number?” I replied in the affirmative and entered the maze of twisty little passages, all alike, that constitutes AT&T's automated help system. By answering several questions, I eventually managed to get the system to understand that the problem involved my DSL service.

“I need to run some tests on your DSL line,” it said. “Please wait. This may take a few minutes.” I muttered to myself that “DSL line” was surely a redundancy—like “ATM machine” or “PIN number.” The voice ignored me, of course. A different voice thanked me for my patience and various commercial messages assured me that AT&T could sell me services that were much better than anything I currently had from them. I believed the voices.

“I have finished the tests,” announced the original friendly recorded voice at last. Despite our long-established friendship—or at least working relationship—it could not be troubled to tell me what was wrong with my line. Instead it informed me that one in five connection problems could be resolved by powering down the modem and rebooting my system. Had I done that recently?


It suggested I try it again. Grudgingly, I did. With mechanical patience, the disembodied voice waited for me while various commercial messages assured me that AT&T could sell me services that were much better than anything I currently had from them. But I was already quite sure of that.

And it was still no-go. No green Internet light. My life as a denizen of the computer world was in jeopardy.

The recordings suggested visiting a local AT&T store or rebooting my computer. (I did that already! More than once!) It suggested that after visiting a local AT&T store and/or rebooting my computer, I could call back the help line in 24 hours if the problem persisted. Considering the length of time I had been on the line, I wondered if calling back in 23 hours would be considered a trifle hasty.

I hung up the phone and immediately redialed. (Actually, I hit the Redial button on a phone that doesn't even have a dial. Modern life is weird.) The whole process started again, but this time I mashed the zero key for Operator and was rewarded with the digital miracle of a live human voice.

The young woman ascertained that I was having a DSL problem and ran some line tests. She asked me if I had reset the modem and rebooted the computer.

Oh my yes.

She got her test results. She was getting a null response from my modem. She asked which of the display lights were lit up. I looked at the modem again and did a double-take.

Whoa! None of them.

Not even the power light?

Not even that. They're dark. All of them. No red. No green. Nothing.

My modem had gone completely dead. Stone cold. Perhaps the problem was now identified.

The young woman suggested I switch the power cord to a different power source. I did. Still no lights. I reported the same back to her, wondering whether she had put me down as one of those goofballs who don't even notice when they're unplugged. But there were lights earlier. I swear! (The modem had died while waiting in AT&T's emergency room.)

The young woman asked for my Zip code and gave me the addresses of the two nearest AT&T stores, suggesting I take the modem and its power adapter to one of them for testing.

I disconnected the modem from the computer, unplugged the power cord from the power strip, and conveyed the modem and power adapter to the nearer of the two AT&T shops. The assistants looked at my modem with goggle eyes and said, “Oh, we only do cell phones here!”

Uh, thanks.

I went to the second AT&T store. It was a much bigger facility. I took the modem and power adapter up to the counter and explained the situation to a company rep. She carried my distressed equipment to the inner sanctum where they keep their technicians sequestered. A few minutes later she came back out.

“Your modem is fine. The power adapter has failed.”

I felt a sense of relief. Just the power adapter!

“Okay, good. How much is a replacement adapter.”

“Oh, we don't carry those. Power adapters are only sold in a bundle with a modem. Would you like to see our latest modems?”

“You're kidding!”

“Sorry. We don't carry separate power adapters.”

“Thank you for your help. I think it's time for a visit to Radio Shack.”

“Oh, that's probably a good idea,” she admitted.

Soon I had a Radio Shack replacement power adapter, matched to the specs of the original device. Instead of spending $100, I had spent under $20. (I later discovered that the AT&T on-line shop carries the adapter as a separate replacement item for a list price of $10, but the company's fancy service center in my town can't be troubled to have it in inventory.)

Back home, I reconnected the old modem with the new power adapter and was soon rewarded with bright green lights. Hurray! Problem over!


AT&T had reset my password after my service call. After all, my modem had failed and it would be necessary for me to log in as a new user with a new modem and initiate my service anew. When I opened my browser, it informed me that additional log-in information was required before I could access my Internet service. It switched me to an automatic log-in system on the AT&T support page that offered a swift and sure re-initiation process—which failed multiple times. (Perhaps it was upset when it discovered I was using the same old modem.)

I tried one more time, choosing the “manual” mode over the “automatic.” It had me punch in the access code on the bottom of my modem. It asked me for my new password. Did I have one? Was it in the support e-mail that the on-line technician had told me she was sending me (that I couldn't access until after I was logged in)? I dug out my steno pad, where I had been scribbling notes all during the on-line support sessions. (This is one of my very best habits.)


In the midst of all the hassles, the young woman had had me write down a six-character network access code. Was that it? I wasn't starting a new account, so I had not worried too much about it at the time. I didn't really expect to need it. But I tried it.

Log-on successful

It was only six hours after the original discovery that my connection was down. Life was good again.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ho, ho, hum

Oh, is it Xmas again?

The math department used to have a clerk for whom the holidays were irresistible opportunities to tart up the office with festive paraphernalia. I particularly remember a Christmas when wreathes and cut-outs and posters adorned the hallways and all of the office doors.

“Nice pixie you've got there,” I said to a colleague, admiring the colorful cut-out figure that bore an embarrassingly close resemblance to the aforementioned colleague. Short and baby-faced math professors have a rough way to go, let alone getting confused with elves and pixies. We speculated on whether the selection of the pixie figure had been deliberate or fortuitous*.

I escaped with a nondescript wreath, although I pushed it aside because it was obscuring the final exam schedule I had posted.

The current staff of the department is a little more restrained, for which I am grateful. Most of the decorations remain in the staff office and don't invade the faculty precincts. There are, of course, colleagues who put up their own decorations, but at least they don't put anything on my office door.

For some reason, I have not the slightest impulse to mark holidays with decorations or special outfits. I marvel at the people who have the time, patience, and inclination to festoon their homes with elaborate displays of holiday lights and animatronic Santas. It strikes me as peculiar, while I guess most people regard it as perfectly normal behavior.

No doubt I am the peculiar one.

This week I was perusing some books in a local independent store. One of the staff members there is an old classmate of mine. He was wearing a red and green holiday hat that looked like a flaccid dunce cap. I wanted to ask him if his boss made him wear it, but I restrained myself.

Some things I don't need to know.

Have a nice holiday, whether you dress up or not, and whether or not you have strobe lights in your front yard that are keeping the neighbors up at night. (I'll be the guy with the blanket pulled over his face.)

*My colleague even understood that “fortuitous” means “by chance” rather than “fortunate”—or at least it used to.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Freeper math madness

Innumerate significance

One of the symptoms of the derangement of today's right wing is innumeracy. I'll grant that this is a broad-based problem not confined to the ranks of teabaggers and other exponents of troglodytic conservatism, but these people have a peculiar talent for making a hash of math and then solemnly assuring each other of the significance of their screwed-up calculations. Today I ran across a characteristic pair of examples from Free Republic, the Fresno-based sink of deranged teabagging. They occurred in comments in a thread devoted to bemoaning the ratification of the New Start treaty, which apparently entails the unilateral disarmament of the United States and its immediate surrender to Soviet Russian conquest.
By an amazing coincidence, the 71-26 vote in the Senate is almost exactly the same percentage as the Parliament’s vote in support of Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement (369-150).

28 posted on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 1:24:45 PM by StanFran
Let's check StanFran's math, shall we?

A total of 97 senators cast votes on the New Start treaty. The ayes were 71/97 = 73.2% and the nays were 26/97 = 26.8%. (Amazingly, these add up to 100%!) Now let's consider the British parliament's vote on the Munich agreement. The ayes were 369/519 = 71.1%, while the nays were 150/519 = 28.9%.

Do you believe that 73.2% is “almost exactly the same” as 71.1%? If you don't, then you don't qualify as a Freeper. Furthermore, you must seek dark significance in the purported (but actually nonexistent) equality.

It would actually be more accurate to point out that Ronald Reagan was almost exactly 71.1 years old when he delivered his Indianapolis speech in 1982 on the New Federalism, thus proving (proving!) that he was secretly inspired by Neville Chamberlain and actually intended the New Federalism to serve as a disguise for the New World Order ushered in by his successor, George Herbert Walker Bush. Subtle! And scary!

The second example of bad counting was provided in an angry observation about ratification having been accomplished in a lame-duck session of the Senate:
Why are FIRED employees still making decisions that affect the health and well being of the company (country)?

They should be shown the door with a swift boot to help them along the way.

26 posted on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 1:23:45 PM by SunTzuWu (Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred. - Barzun)
“Fired” employees? Let's check the roster of New Start supporters. Recall that there were 71 of them. How many were actually rejected by the voters last November (as opposed to retiring of their own volition)? The first senator who fits the bill is Bennett of Utah, a Republican who was denied renomination by his own party. Next is Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who will be sorely missed. Continuing down the list, we find Lincoln of Arkansas, the hapless Democrat who unfortunately survived a primary challenge and flopped spectacularly on election day. Finally, there's Specter of Pennsylvania, the long-time Republican who switched to the Democratic Party in a futile attempt to survive.

Count them up. That's it. Four. New Start would have gotten 67 votes even without the support of the “fired” senators. For the benefit of Freepers and other ignorant types, that's the two-thirds majority required for ratification of treaties. New Start was not nudged over the finish line by supposedly discredited legislators.

So there.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Slave to fashion

Better than the comics

A plastic crate sits in one corner of my dining area, where newspapers get pitched into it every morning. The crate gets to gobble newspapers in two servings. First I strip the newspapers of their sports sections, classified ads, and sales inserts. I never look at those, so they get dumped immediately. The rest of the newspaper follows later, after I've had a chance to peruse my favorite sections.

The comics are also included. I like those. And the editorial and news pages. And, of course, the sections on style and fashion. You really can't beat the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle's style section for the latest word on what the fashion-conscious beautiful people will be wearing.

I'm not sure, however, exactly where these beautiful people are or when they will be wearing these new fashion creations. Not around here, apparently.

I don't flip through these sections for my own sake. You understand, I'm sure, that math professors are exempt from all of the rules of style and fashion. One of the beauties of the academic profession is that you can get away with just about anything, from ties to T-shirts. Hardly anyone cares or notices.

On the other hand, our students are mostly in the target age-demographic for the fashion shows reported by the Chronicle, but mine seem peculiarly immune to fashion-forward trends. I am fairly certain that none of them will be sporting Feng Chen Wang's outré offerings from a recent show at the San Francisco Arts of Fashion Foundation. Although the show was titled “Uniquely Untrendy,” I suspect they were being just a bit insincere. The results look plenty trendy to me.

Anyway, photos like this one are a good reason to refrain from tossing away the style section when I reduce my morning papers to their essentials. It's funnier than the comics section, even at the risk of snorting coffee out my nose every time I turn a page.

I just hope this young couple doesn't turn an ankle.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Humbug!

Evidence-free rants and their perpetrators

In 1968 my family supported the Humphrey-Muskie ticket against Nixon-Agnew. My parents had not yet lost their minds to right-wing nonsense. Back then, Nixon was political evil incarnate. (Today, Dad dismisses Nixon's transgressions—subverting the nation's electoral process—as trivialities compared to Clinton's dalliance with Lewinsky or Obama's health-care reform “death panels.”) Even back then, as far as Dad was concerned, it didn't do to wear one's political heart on one's sleeve. He promptly peeled off the Humphrey-Muskie bumpersticker that I had affixed to the family car. He disapproved of stickers on cars.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when last year Dad applied a “We Say Merry Christmas” sticker to his vehicle. I guess the war on Christmas is an occasion even more fraught with peril than a Nixon presidency. You have to admire the sentiment, too: A Christian refusing to turn the other cheek by hurling “Merry Christmas” in the faces of people who dare to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season's Greetings.” It's time to take it to the enemy!

The pseudo-intellectual talk-show host Dennis Prager was holding forth on his program this morning on the importance of public observation of Christmas in this Christian nation. As a practicing Jew, Prager brings a special éclat to the mistimed celebration of the birth of baby Jesus. It must surely delight Prager's arch-conservative Christian listeners to hear him endorse their positions, even as it must occasionally taint their joy slightly to think that he will surely burn in hell one day.

I call Prager a pseudo-intellectual because I have on a number of occasions heard his largely evidence-free pronouncements on the great issues of the day. In fact, he glories in his self-proclaimed erudition as he presents his “Ultimate Issues” hours, during which he panders to the prejudices and preconceptions of his audience. He makes them feel smug and happy because such a well-spoken smarty-pants agrees with them. But his intellectual underpinnings are built on sand. For example, Prager has swallowed Intelligent Design creationism whole. He likes arguments based on personal incredulity and he can't imagine life occurring without God to create it and guide its development.

Therefore I was less than impressed when Prager lamented the death of “Merry Christmas” as a holiday greeting. He declared, with great assurance, that pressure from anti-religious pressure groups had brought nonsectarian greetings like “Happy Holidays” into prominence in preference to speaking of our (not his) dear savior's birth. Instead of taking Prager's word for it, I decided to do a little checking. What does Google's Ngram viewer show?

If one searches through Google's textual database for American English publications between 1900 and 2008, we discover that writers in the United States have favored Happy Holidays by a wide margin over Merry Christmas. (Season's Greetings is a sorry also-ran.) Only twice has the primacy of Happy Holidays been threatened: the era of World War II and the period of the Vietnam War. Both lengthy conflicts coincided with an upsurge in the use of Merry Christmas. (One wonders why.) Of course, it may be that spoken greetings were entirely at variance with authorial word choices during the past century, but I think it's rather more reasonable to expect some parallels. Certainly this tends to run contrary to Prager's claim.

I'm sure, however, that Dennis Prager could find something to like in this data—as unused as he is to looking at any—by homing in on the rise in Happy Holidays in recent years. He could put his finger on 2003 and say, “See, this is the war on Christmas taking hold!” (It would be impolite to point out that Merry Christmas also experienced a spike. In fact, in relative terms its growth is even greater. But that would spoil the narrative.)

If Dennis wants a slam-bang finish, I'll point out that at the end of the chart, in 2008, just as Obama was winning the presidency, Happy Holidays reached its highest peak since about 1917, just as Lenin seized control in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution. Coincidence? Impossible!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Solving for X in Xmas

And getting it wrong

Henry Morris III has enlisted in the ranks of the defenders in the war on Christmas. In the December 2010 issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research, Dr. Morris presents us with “Xmas: Removing the Reason for the Season”:
Sometime during the last century (it is difficult to find an actual beginning), the word “Xmas” began creeping into public correspondence and advertisements. It was a little thing, hardly noticed by anyone, but it set the stage for a profound movement away from “Christ” in any public discourse. X is, of course, the universal symbol for the unknown.2
Scary, isn't it? Morris sums up:
Quietly and unobtrusively at first, but rising to a crescendo of legal and governmental attacks against Christianity, the words and the symbols of the gospel message are being purged from open expression.
Permit me, however, to register a mildly dissenting note. When it comes to scholarship, creationists have the advantage of not having to respect factual data. Morris follows this template himself, but stumbles slightly by letting the truth slip in. If you go to the bottom of his article to check out footnote 2, you'll see that Morris admitted to something that vitiates his entire argument:
2. X has long been a mathematical symbol for an unknown variable. X later came into use as an abbreviation for the name Christ because it is the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” To the vast majority of people in our culture, however, the X in “Xmas” would be completely meaningless, effectively removing the Reason for the season.
Indeed. I was quite used to seeing the “chi-rho” in my parish church when I was a child. The chi looks like an X and stands for the “Ch” in “Christ.” It does not stand for “the unknown.”


Morris has his history all wrong. In his compendious History of Mathematical Notations, Florian Cajori points out something important in Paragraph 340:
The use of z, y, x .... to represent unknowns is due to René Descartes, in his La géométrie (1637).
And “later” it became a symbol for Christ? No, Dr. Morris, you've got it all wrong—unless the early Christians occupied catacombs under the streets of Paris in the seventeenth century.

I'm sure you're accustomed to getting away with falsehoods, Dr. Morris, but you should be more careful about making a fool of yourself in your pseudo-scholarly footnotes. Have a merry Xmas anyway.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

God the abortionist


Colorado voters went to the polls in November 2010 and rejected Amendment 62, the Fetal Personhood Initiative, by 71% to 29%. The failed initiative was an effort on the part of extreme anti-abortionists to confer legal “personhood” on fertilized eggs (“from the beginning of biological development”) under the state constitution. Under Colorado's constitution, the rights of personhood specifically include “acquiring, possessing and protecting property,” ready access to the courts, and “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” (Certainly it would be an injustice if a fetus were to purchase a choice piece of real estate and then lose it without due process of law.)

Personhood Colorado, the organization sponsoring Amendment 62, was quite forthright in its intentions: “It will make sure that children in the womb are treated exactly the same as children outside the womb.”

That is, abortion is murder.

I know that quite a few people purport to believe that. They accept that a legally entitled person exists before birth and want it recognized in law. And those legal entitlements supposedly exist from the moment of conception, when a human being exists as no more than a one-cell fertilized egg. The conceptus is supposed to be accepted as a full-fledged person.

Unless God kills it, of course. Which he apparently does at least one-quarter of the time. This is, of course, difficult to determine. Other estimates suggest that as many as half of all fertilized eggs perish.

That is, God aborts them.

But he never seems to get credit—or blame—for being the greatest abortionist of all.

It's odd.

A family member suffered a spontaneous abortion last year (and “suffered” is the right word). Early in her pregnancy, she lost the incipient twins she was carrying. The emotional impact was great. She praised God for helping her through the crisis.

This year she has a new pregnancy and it appears to be going better than last year's. She posted a note to family and friends:
we are very excited to announce that we saw a strong heartbeat and a perfectly healthy little baby this morning during our ultrasound. we are expecting a little blessing this summer! thanks for all the prayers, god is so good!
All the credit. None of the blame. It puzzles me. Abortion may be murder, but it's okay if you're a deity.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Patrician's parable

More mistakes by god

Are you a fan of the writing of Sir Terence David John Pratchett? I certainly am. Sir Terence is better known as Terry Pratchett, the creator of the Discworld series of comic fantasy novels (and other delights). Aficionados of Pratchett's oeuvre are well aware that humor is an excellent vehicle for treating serious topics—at least in hands as capable as Sir Terry's.

The recent paperback release of Unseen Academicals has put Pratchett on my reading list again. This novel delves into the impact of organized sports on institutions of higher (and weirder) learning and society in general. It's not a topic that would interest me in other contexts, but I trust Pratchett to make the most of it. Once again, I am not disappointed.

A particularly telling nugget is unearthed on pp. 236-237, where Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician who rules over the city-state of Ankh-Morpork as its benevolent dictator, waxes uncharacteristically conversational over a long series of drinks with the wizards of the Unseen University. Vetinari tells his listeners a story:
I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.
Here endeth the lesson. Amen.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fan letter from Spain

The Portuguese diaspora

It was almost two years ago that a visitor to this blog posted a comment:
You can't imagine how much I identify with you when you talk about your family. I'm Portuguese (living in Spain for the last 10 years) and I too have part of my family scattered around the world, mainly due to the big emigration that happened during the 50's and the 60's.
That was the beginning of a series of entertaining observations and comments by João Paulo. Last January, when I bemoaned my lack of success in getting a literary agent to take on the job of getting my book manuscript published, João Paulo gave me another thumbs up:
Por favor avisa se decidires publicar o livro. Sabes que adoro as tuas histórias de família.
For those of you who cannot read Portuguese (not that I'm particularly good at it), I think it says, “Please let me know if someone publishes your book. You know that I love the stories about your family.”

I promptly replied:
If it gets published, João, I will be sure to make it known. Perhaps it will need a translation into Portuguese!
That's when João Paulo took an exceedingly dangerous step:
I'd be honoured. And if you don't publish it, I would love to read it anyway.
You would? Really? I wrote João Paulo a personal e-mail message and offered to let him read the manuscript. He replied quickly, accepting the offer. I sent him the pdf.

Then, silence.


I was certain I had overwhelmed him with my 380-page tome. While several of my friends had read the manuscript and given me comments and suggestions, others found the effort too onerous and declined the honor. I figured João Paulo had not bargained on getting as much as he had received. And he was a busy man.

No problem. I understood.

But I was wrong. João Paulo was just biding his time, dealing with the demands of working in Spain while using his free time to visit family and friends in Portugal. He had printed out the manuscript and bound it for convenient reading, but it had to wait for a window of opportunity. The window arrived in November. Soon thereafter, a new message popped into my in-box. It was a fan letter!
I have just finished reading your book. WOW! JUST WOW!!!! I read it in just 4 days. I couldn’t stop!
I have to admit that I like the way this starts. He did, however, offer a cautionary note or two.
So, let me tell you my impression on your Masterpiece.

The book does not have an easy start, mainly because of the avalanche of characters. You deliberately included a list of the main characters in boxes on the page before page i (which is very handy and I used it constantly) and a list of the Dramatis Personae that is difficult to manage when you’re looking for someone while reading the book but it’s totally necessary. I just think it needs some categorizing instead of being a simple list of characters.
Yeah, I'm going to have to do something about those crowd scenes, and do a better job of distinguishing the characters. It's a family-based drama where characters have similar behavior patterns and similar names, but distinctions must be drawn—and not just the distinction between good guys and bad guys, both of which abound.
Apart from that, the book is absolutely brilliant. The court scenes are hilarious and if I did not know that it is a true story I wouldn’t believe that the petitioners' attorney could be that stupid (or incompetent). You have a done great job carefully delivering it piece by piece to keep the reader asking for more. I cheated a bit because I could not wait to know what happened when you took the stand (or rather, Paul took the stand) and skipped a few pages forward (but after reading it twice and laughing out loud I went back to read what I had skipped).
Yes, it is as obvious as it can be that the character Paul is based on me. (Paul is my confirmation name and a family name as well.) The novel is, however, a work of fiction. In real life I have never testified in a trial. The nice thing about fact-based fiction is that you can move the characters around to smooth out gaps in the narrative while the real-life history lends the story structure.
The whole book is a great story and looking back at it the feeling is amazing. You have created a coherent story out of three generations in a span of 60+ years with characters so well-defined that it’s almost like I’ve known these people all my life. Your extended vocabulary is a great treat but has forced me to use the dictionary more times this week than during the last few years.
I suspect that a potential publisher will be less than charmed by that last observation. Does “You're going to need a dictionary!” make a good cover blurb? Probably not.

João Paulo then gave me a lesson on Portuguese grammar and usage. Although he praised my rendering of Azorean dialect phrases (“I can’t read them without a grin on my face because you’ve written them exactly the way Azorean people pronounce and it’s almost as I can hear someone from Terceira or São Miguel speaking”), he pointed out the proper way to use the presente do conjuntivo and the pretérito perfeito. Now it's my turn to need a dictionary! João Paulo flatters me and does me a kindness when he assumes I can follow all that.

Although the manuscript has already gone through multiple readings and proofings, João Paulo picked out a few more errata (one peripheral character's name was rendered in three different ways!). He offered some more cautionary notes, suggesting that I had been unduly cruel in my descriptions of certain individuals. The cousins on whom they are based might take offense (or would, if they could read). I confess that he's probably right and I expect to drop a couple of paragraphs and pull a few adjectives before I'm done with the manuscript.

Then João Paulo closed on a high note:
All I all, I loved reading your book. As I said, I read it in four days and I just couldn’t stop. It’s funny, it’s got rhythm, great characters, a beautiful story and a perfect ending. I thank you for the opportunity you gave me to read it and I really hope someone prints it because it is well deserved. I’m saying this not only as a Portuguese emigrant (which has a special meaning to me, of course) but because it is very well written and is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I promptly sent João Paulo's entire message to the editor considering my manuscript. He needs to know about my European fan base!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How red is my valley

Red in the old-fashioned sense

I frequently refer to my old stomping grounds in Central California as the reddest part of the state. By this I mean, of course, that Californians in the Central Valley love to cast right-wing votes and support conservative causes.

Now, to my great surprise, I have uncovered a red brigade calling for collective action and government interference in free enterprise. It's really quite shocking. The conspirators are naturally rather coy about portraying themselves as advocates of statism and a planned economy, but they cannot help but give it away.

One clue lies in their name. Just as countries in the Soviet bloc used to glory in misleading names—“People's Republic,” “Democratic Republic”—the red threat in the San Joaquin Valley marches under the banner of “Families Protecting the Valley.” Sounds nice and harmless, doesn't it? But check out this excerpt from their manifesto:
Current attacks on the Valley’s water take two forms. One is the view that water is nothing but a commodity and must be sold to the highest bidder. This is a foolhardy concept which, if followed, will condemn the United States to depend upon foreign sources with unreliable health protections for its food supply.

There it is, folks. They oppose capitalism. They want intervention in the free market economy of California.

I agree with them, of course, but then I was long ago accused by a certain family member of being a socialist. We socialists love planned economies, you know.

Or perhaps I just see a role for the public sector in setting policy that might forestall the abuses of unfettered capitalism. Remember the robber barons? (They're back, by the way.) If the highest bidder always wins, we fall instantly into a plutocracy. It appears that the members of Families Protecting the Valley have awakened to this stark reality. Perhaps too late.

If the principles of the free market are applied too rigorously to California's water resources, Central Valley agriculture is doomed. People living in the San Joaquin's burgeoning towns and cities will almost certainly pay lip service to the notion that farming is a crucial industry that deserves their support, but don't expect that lip service to turn into votes for growth limits and municipal water rationing. Farm families are hugely outnumbered by the city and town dwellers, and the latter will balk at anything that reduces the flow of water from their faucets (or forces them to drain their swimming pools).

Absent a strong government policy establishing a water allocation program to preserve agriculture in California's arid Central Valley, that agriculture will fall prey to competing demands from the growing urban regions. While many of the townies are in farm-related enterprises, most of the people in Bakersfield, Visalia, Tulare, and Fresno don't think of themselves as farmers. It's not a majority bloc.

Furthermore, the water in the Central Valley is diverted from sources in Northern California. Diversions from the Delta damages those wetlands and blights the fishing industry in the Bay Area. These are legitimate competing interests for California's water (and they had the water first, too). Valley farmers who sneer at fisheries and declare that the fishes should die to preserve farm crops are conveniently forgetting that they're really talking about killing the livelihood of fishermen. The competition is keen and the supplies are short. It's not a pretty picture. 

In a more enlightened age, the state legislature promulgated the California Land Conservation Act of 1965. It was an example of singling out agriculture for special treatment because it was deemed a key state interest (and not just a majoritarian concern). The handiwork of Assemblyman John Williamson, the “Williamson Act” provided tax benefits to agricultural landholders who agreed to preserve their farmlands from commercial development for a period of ten years. Recently the state saw fit to strengthen the Williamson Act with an infusion of money to allow it to continue in operation and to fund tax breaks for more ten-year moritoriums on farmland development.

The Williamson Act is a survivor of the time when the state enacted formal policies to maintain the viability of California agriculture. Now it has gotten all but impossible to act in concert this way. The rugged individualists in California farming who regarded subsidized water as their birthright apparently assumed the situation was sustainable. Naturally and understandably wary of government control, they preferred to pretend to stand alone. In many cases, unfortunately, the lack of sufficiently strong policies to protect family farms meant that they were swallowed up by corporate interests. Agricultural land is now concentrated in the hands of a few large agribusiness companies. Individual family farms continue to dwindle in number and those that survive are perched on the edge of commercial nonviability. While farmers carp and complain about federal programs like the Endangered Species Act, they should have been looking for some similar protection for themselves.

It was the partnership of government and family farms that made the valley bloom. State and federal subsidies for huge water projects irrigated the San Joaquin at bargain prices—once. Today California's urban population is larger and thirstier than the state's farms. By the numbers, they win and farms lose. Clearly, Families Protecting the Valley does not want that to happen, but signs demanding that the governor simply “turn the pumps back on” demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of reality in a drought-stricken state. A slow-motion tragedy is unfolding before us while the victims rail at the only entity that can preserve them—at least some of them.

Ironically, Families Protecting the Valley had a prominent place at the big Tea Party event at the Tulare International Agri-Center last July, where banners denounced big government and extolled unfettered free markets. Yet no one objected to the presence of these anti-capitalist interventionists.

Can I get you some water for your tea? Sorry. Fresh out.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A milestone for America

Handed a lemon

Four years ago the nation witnessed the elevation of the first woman to occupy the office of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi's two terms as speaker witnessed some remarkable events, including the last-minute rescue of health care reform, better regulation of Wall Street, enactment of a crucial (if undersized) stimulus package, and continuing pressure to end Don't Ask Don't Tell—which we can hope the lame-duck congress will bury before the new congress is seated.

Speaking of the new congress, it would be petty of me to deny the new milestone in our near future. Although I'm not happy about it the way I was about Pelosi's rise to the speakership, last week's Republican caucus vote to choose John Boehner as the leader of the new majority makes him Pelosi's putative successor. This has to be acknowledged as a major breakthrough for Citrus-Americans.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Post hoc planning

Transfixed by time's arrow

My English teachers in high school were all clear on the importance of preparation. A good outline was the sine qua non of good writing. It provided the armature on which one could construct a solid, coherent, and well-organized essay. To drive home the point, most of the time they insisted that we students hand in our outlines together with our finished compositions. I could follow their reasoning, but I did not find it compelling enough for compliance.

As the wild and rebellious youth I was [pause for amusement of the LOL variety], I naturally preferred to dash off my papers at one go and then sketch out an outline, executing my instructions backward. My outlines were thus more like abstracts, and they certainly weren't planning tools. Since my assignments routinely came back with A's on them (and little notes of approbation and encouragement in the margins), I saw no reason to change my perverse practice.

A colleague inadvertently reminded me of this as we had lunch together at an Italian (or, rather, Italian-themed) restaurant near our college. She was an English professor who had been lured into management, but the composition instructor still lingered within her, lurking just below the surface. It emerged as we forked up our pasta and she asked a question about my novel.

“You know, Zee,” she said conversationally, “every work of composition is seeking to answer a question. What was the question you were trying to answer with your novel?”

Fortunately my mouth was full and it was impolite to answer immediately. I continued to chew in a genteel and ruminative fashion, taking the opportunity to compose a response. Since I obviously didn't have time to write an outline, I had to dash off something extemporaneously. It had, of course, never occurred to me before that I might have been asking a question. Nevertheless, my colleague was doing me the honor of treating me like a serious writer instead of as a madcap, slapdash chronicler of family lore, legend, rumor, and scandal. She deserved a considered answer.

Rather to my surprise, I realized that I had a good answer, and it was her question that had crystallized it in my mind. Since I talk nearly as much with my hands and with my voice, I put my fork down and spoke.

“No one has ever asked me that before,” I said. “I think, however, I was exploring the answers to two questions. On the one hand, I was writing about the forces that keep a large and contentious family together.” Suiting actions to words, I raised my right hand, facing the open palm to the left. “On the other, it was a question of what causes a family to fly apart.” My left hand mirrored my right, in opposition. “The centripetal force in our family—the binding energy—came from my grandmother. As the matriarch, she could pull us all into the neutral zone of her home, where feuds were not allowed and bickering was relegated to the deep background, out of sight. She was velvet-lined steel. Holiday gathering were conducted under a flag of truce.

“Once she was gone, however, all of the centrifugal forces came into play. My uncle felt free to set aside his wife and move in with his girlfriend. And my godfather tried to take advantage of the vacuum to seize control of part of the estate. The family shattered into contending factions, playing balance-of-power games with temporary alliances of convenience and a series of countervailing lawsuits. Those experiences provided the raw material for my novel, which is a fact-based work of fiction. I tried to sort out the motivations and make sense of the collapse and reconstruction of the extended family.”

I'm not sure that what I said actually came out as smoothly as I've rendered it here, although I've had teachers tell me that I talk the way I write (which is perhaps just a little scary—but I swear that I don't do air quotes or air parentheses). At the very least, however, what I said had the advantage of being true. Like an organism that had grown too large to survive in its ecological niche, my family fissioned into chunks that reorganized themselves into smaller and more stable versions of the original model. That's not a surprise when you think about it, is it?

The chunks have experienced a wide variety of fates. My godfather's proved unstable, breaking apart further and scattering across a great geographical expanse. My uncle's group—well, it was never even really his group. His divorce alienated both his spouse and their children. My father's chunk has been the most cohesive, perhaps because it was one of his sons, my kid brother, who pieced the family dairy farm back together and restored our reputation in the Central Valley agricultural community. That almost gives the story a happy ending, except that life and death go on. One doesn't write “The End” on the last page of a family story and expect it to mean very much.

My colleague nodded her head in satisfaction at my answer. I felt as if I had passed a test. At that moment, I realized that the questions were inherent in my writing project, even if I had not been consciously aware of them at the time. She had nudged me out of my own story and reminded me that I was my manuscript's omniscient observer. For an instant, it felt that I had figured out all of the answers to life's little questions as they were posed in the drama of my family—and rendered into a fictional story that I could tell to others. It was a pleasant illusion, but I will never really know what motivated some of the actions of the real people in my life, even if I think I succeeded in winding up the springs of their fictional counterparts and “explaining” their actions.

It's only a story.

And, as I noted a moment ago, real life continues beyond the pages of fictional life. My father lacks the diplomatic touch that his mother possessed in superabundant measure and he finds it difficult to deal with willful offspring (like yours truly). Too bad. It has led to our present estrangement and my absence from today's Thanksgiving dinner. (I find it difficult to break bread with someone who calls me a liar. I'm sort of sensitive that way.) Mom is naturally suffering from the collateral damage, so I've promised her I'll show up for Christmas. I'll pretend there's a flag of truce fluttering over the family farm.

I can do that much, at least. And perhaps I'll learn the answers to more questions that I don't know I have.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

And still counting...

Predicting the future

The 2010 general election is not yet over in California. The secretary of state's office in Sacramento continues to issue updates as it aggregates the returns trickling in from California's fifty-eight counties. As of the last report, time-stamped 5:00 p.m. on Friday, November 19, twenty-six counties still had untallied ballots to count. By adding up the counties' estimates of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots, the secretary of state announced that approximately 629,634 votes remained to be processed.

It's not a moot point. While attorney general Jerry Brown trounced Meg Whitman in winning his third term as governor and Barbara Boxer convincingly defeated Carly Fiorina on her way back to the U.S. senate, one statewide race remains too close to call. The Democratic nominee to succeed Brown as attorney general currently has 4,291,854 votes to her Republican rival's 4,248,804, a margin of only 43,050. Taking into account a scattering of votes among minor party candidates, that breaks down to 46.0% to 45.5%.

Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Steve Cooley have swapped the lead back and forth a few times since the vote tallies began to be published after the November 2 election. Cooley actually declared victory election night (see the video below), but woke up the next morning to discover that Harris had edged ahead. When the vote count moved him back into the lead a few days later, he was smart enough not to make yet another premature victory speech. When Harris regained the lead, she prudently kept her own counsel.

My own opinion? For a couple of weeks now, I have been expecting a Harris victory. It's in the numbers.

I looked into the numbers because one of my friends, a retired journalist, was scoffing at the superficiality of the news articles on the election results in the attorney general's race. Except for striving heroically for different ways of saying “too close to call,” none of them offered any substantive analysis.

“It all depends of where the remaining votes are,” he said. “Instead of just paraphrasing the press releases from the candidates, the reporters ought to dig into the details. They should do some reporting.”

He prodded me into action. I downloaded the secretary of state's report on unprocessed ballots (well over two million at that time) and loaded it into a spreadsheet. Then I perused the secretary of state's report on the percentages accruing to each candidate in each county. By way of example, consider Tulare county, where California's most conservative voters gave Harris only 29.8% to Cooley's 62.4%. Tulare's county clerk estimated that 3,350 ballots remained to be processed. Applying the percentages to this number, I computed that Harris would get 998 more votes and Cooley would get 2,090. (I'm sure Mom & Dad's vote-by-mail ballots are in the latter batch.)

I applied this process to all of the counties with outstanding ballots, obtaining an estimate for the additional votes likely to be obtained by Harris and Cooley. Upon adding the estimates to the votes counted to date, I found myself looking at a razor-thin Harris victory. Every so often I would return to the secretary of state's website to tweak the percentages to reflect the completed count. Those numbers were very stable, seldom moving more than one-tenth of a percent. The predicted Harris margin varied, but never vanished.

My latest computation, based on yesterday's numbers, suggests that Kamala Harris will defeat Steve Cooley for the office of attorney general by 45,902 votes. I'm not sure about the 2, though.

If the numbers hold up, the Golden State will have handed the Democratic Party a clean sweep of every statewide office. May it make the most of its opportunity.

Note: I should give a tip of the hat to Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star. He had the same idea that I did and published his estimate on November 9 on his blog. In my opinion, however, Herdt pulled up just a bit short by confining his attention to the 21 counties with the most votes remaining to be processed. In so close a contest, it was unwise to scorn the little counties and risk that much round-off error. On the basis of his computations, Herdt figured that Cooley had an edge.

While I obviously think Herdt was wrong, my ex-journalist friend can be relieved to learn that at least one reporter is willing to go digging for news. It's not quite obsolete yet.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reasonably accommodating

I said “reasonably”!

Sometimes my students need a little extra assistance. I understand. In the past I have printed out tests in a large font for a student with poor vision. I have set up my classroom to make space for the sign-language interpreter for a deaf student. I have used the testing center to allow time-and-a-half on exams for students with diagnosed learning disabilities. That's what our Student Assistance Program is for. It helps students succeed where they might otherwise fail. We call it “reasonable accommodation.”

Unfortunately, some of our accommodated students appear not to understand how it's supposed to work. Occasionally we get someone who decides that “accommodation” means “whatever I want”:

“Dr. Z, I can take the exam next week.”

“But the exam is this week.”

“Yeah, but I need more time.”

“Yes, you get more time to take the exam, but you still have to take the exam when your classmates do. There'll be a copy of the exam in the testing center for you.”

“But I'm not ready!”

Math isn't the only thing the student has difficulty understanding.

But students like that are rare. Most students with learning disabilities leap at the opportunity to succeed and dutifully jump through the hoops my college requires in order to take advantage of its special student support services. Naturally enough, the learning disabilities related to math tend to manifest themselves most dramatically among the students taking the low-level developmental courses like arithmetic and prealgebra. Students taking higher-level courses either do not suffer from dyslexia or dyscalculia or have learned to control the problem, thereby leading to success in math.

Not too long ago, though, I ran into a striking exception to this general rule. It was in a multivariate calculus class. We were in the final weeks of the semester, with only one chapter left to cover in the textbook. (Line integrals, anyone?) One of my students came up to me after class and handed me a note. It was a memo from his private counselor, who was offering me some advice about why my student was struggling to maintain a C in the class. The counselor was a clinical psychologist who had seen my student twice. He had some specific observations and recommendations:
Based on my interviews and initial assessments, it is my opinion that Mr. X has above average intellectual capacity, but suffers from being overwhelmed with too much information after about 20 minutes. Therefore I suggest that Mr. X be granted at least two preliminary accommodations. First, he should be allowed to take frequent breaks. Second, he should be allowed additional time to complete timed assignments in class, especially exams. I would suggest he be given twice as long to complete such tasks.
A double-time accommodation on exams is quite unusual but not unheard of. The notion of frequent time-outs, however, is rather more daunting. Exactly how, pray tell, is this supposed to work? We may shift gears multiple times during a class period as we solve problems, work quizzes, review homework, and present new material, but class time is at a premium and we can't take a break every twenty minutes. It doesn't work.

And double-time on in-class quizzes isn't particularly feasible either. I use them as highly focused evaluation and teaching tools. The students' results tell me, of course, how well they're keeping up. And my immediate presentation of the solution on the board takes advantage of their momentarily intense receptivity. The students who got it right preen a bit as they see my solution matching theirs. The students who got it wrong watch wide-eyed and often have “Aha!” moments. (“Oh, is that all I had to do?”) Teachable moments.

But not if Mr. X had to be sent from the room to accommodate his extra ration of time on the quiz. By the time he came back he would have missed my presentation of the solution and missed the learning opportunity. (And even if I had sent an advance copy of the quiz to the testing center so that he could have his double-time before class began, the logistics were impossible. My class was an early morning class and the testing center wasn't even open until after my class began.)

On top of everything else, Mr. X was trying to make an end-run around the counselors and staff of our testing center, the people who evaluate students and make recommendations for accommodation. For fairly obvious reasons, faculty members don't welcome external evaluations by private counselors. We don't know the people who make them. We do know, however, that any desired opinion is available on the outside. (Court trials, after all, never seem to lack for experts on both sides of any given issue.) I told Mr. X to take his evaluation documents to the testing center for review by college personnel. He was not happy about that and said, correctly, that it was probably too late for the testing center to evaluate him before the semester ran out.

In most respects, though, Mr. X was lucky. He was pulling a solid C in my class and I was able to show him that he was in little danger of failing the class. He squeaked through with a modest margin to spare. What he wanted, of course, was a B, but I wasn't quite that accommodating.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Portuguese-American writing

Not under the influence!

Numbers are my vocation, but words are my avocation. There is always a book on my nightstand and a few (or several) minutes of relaxing reading before turning in is my reliable preventive for insomnia. There is always a book (at least one!) in the back seat of my car, just in case I need a luncheon companion. And there is always a book lying on the table next to the recliner in the living room, where I'm likely to pick it up in favor of the television remote control.

This habit of constant reading goes back at least to my grade-school days. It became such a pronounced trait of my childhood that adults occasionally tried to intervene and encourage me to “put that book down and go have some fun.”

Silly adults.

Of course, if you don't take their advice, some people (especially if they're grown-ups and you're a kid) will take more intrusive steps, e.g., confiscation. Dad, for example, didn't like it when I read in the car on the way to Sunday mass. He caught me smuggling a copy of Tarzan of the Apes into the back seat one morning and insisted that I hand it over. (I lost ten minutes of reading time on that trip that I'll never get back!) Something similar happened when I tried to take a book with me to an Oakland Athletics game at the Coliseum. I was supposed to “enjoy” myself watching grown men swing sticks at balls and run around a square. Thank goodness I managed to grab a copy of the Oakland Tribune at the stadium, which I pointedly read throughout all nine innings. (Poor Dad. The things he had to put up with.)

My habit has survived all attempts to suppress it. If anything, it's grown. My taste in reading is broad. The sidebar of this blog demonstrates that, having played host to titles that involve science, history, biography, politics, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. I don't, however, make a point of keeping up with the modern novel or current bestsellers. I prefer to meander my own way through the embarrassment of literary riches without worrying about what's popular at the moment (or whether Oprah likes it, which is often the same thing).

Although the scope of my reading has been broad, I did not stumble across much Portuguese-American literature. I had not specifically sought out works by others who shared my ethnic heritage, but—had I thought of it—I would have expected to run across the occasional Luso-American writer. But I didn't.

And, before you mention him, I'll point out that John Dos Passos doesn't really count.

I casually assumed—never having thought too hard about it—that we had been assimilated beyond recognition into the mainstream of English literature.

But I was wrong, as I discovered after cranking out a book-length manuscript stuffed with Portuguese-American anecdotes and realizing I needed to do a proper literature search to learn whether my book might find a niche. Once I actually started paying attention, I learned that Reinaldo Silva had written an entire book titled Portuguese American Literature. Silva's book revealed that I had been anticipated in my literary endeavors by Alfred Lewis (Alfredo Luís) and his Sixty Acres and a Barn. Then there's Charles (Carlos) Reis Felix, the author of Through a Portagee Gate, and the award-winning Katharine Vaz, author of Fado.

Who knew we were a genre?

See how I said “we” right there? Cheeky.

I started digging into the Portuguese-American oeuvre. Sixty Acres and a Barn was a quick and enjoyable reading experience. Lewis was writing a version of his own experience of coming to the United States as a young man and earning his keep on a dairy farm in Central California. He told a story of new experiences and old traditions—and the conflict between them. When I finished the book, it seemed to me that Lewis had blazed a trail that I was following with my own novel, which is based on the history of my grandfather's dairy farm and family, also in California's central valley. Lewis, however, was recounting a more circumscribed story and his timeline was earlier in the 20th century than mine.

Then I picked up Through a Portagee Gate and was instantly grateful that I had not read it earlier. Had I already been familiar with the work of Charles Reis Felix, I would not have been able to avoid the conclusion that he was a powerful influence on my writing. Instead, reading it after the completion of my manuscript, Through a Portagee Gate became a strong validation of what I had done. Without rashly suggesting that I am Felix's equal in prose style, I can at least lay claim to sharing an innate predilection for episodic achronological storytelling.

Felix has an ear for dialog that I envy and his prose rings with authenticity. I have since read other works by this author, including Tony and Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934. I can recommend them to anyone who enjoys a good book, especially someone curious about the Portuguese immigrant experience.

Finally I turned to two collections of stories by Katharine Vaz, Our Lady of the Artichokes and Fado. Where Felix tells stories, Vaz weaves spells. Where Felix is more likely to startle you with some spot-on account of some characteristically Luso-American quirk (yes! we are so like that!), Vaz surprises us with intrusions of fantasy into the mundane. “How to Grow Orchids Without Grounds: A Manual” was an entertaining and peculiar story about clandestine nocturnal plantings of orchids and the varied reactions of those who discovered these unsanctioned efflorescences. But it suddenly got really weird when a character's nail clippings came to life and ran off to see the world. I could not help but think that Vaz was resorting to a magical gimmick (“magical realism”?) to wrap up a story whose denouement was giving her trouble. In fact, it reminded me of Graham Chapman walking into a Monty Python skit in his military uniform and wrapping it up by announcing that it had become too silly to continue.

Overall, I find Vaz a fascinating writer who fills her tales with authentic Portuguese touches. At the same time, she bends the English language to her will, creating odd phrases and metaphors that strike the eye and ear in amusing ways. I'm often tempted to read her work aloud. Here's a sentence I like from “The Man Who Was Made of Netting”:
There was a lightness about Daisy that was not weightlessness but a grip on the power of light.
The use of “light” is nicely ambiguous, drawing on both of its principal meanings: illumination and mass measure. You hear a kind of echo in your head when you read it. And “grip” and “power” are both strong words that reinforce each other, slightly startling in the context of describing a young girl.

But here's one, also from “The Man Who Was Made of Netting,” that doesn't work (at least, not for me):
Her weeping at her grandpa's funeral had broken Manny in so many places that he sometimes felt gusts of wind were bandages, scarcely holding him together.
Huh? Vaz is trying to piece together things that won't adhere to each other. Manny is broken? Okay. Wind holds him together? More likely blow him apart. Vaz doesn't give us enough to work with, no good way to reconcile the counter-intuitive linkage between shattered fragments and gusts of wind that (magically?) gather the pieces together instead of scattering them. I don't get it, but I'm sure Vaz will not be disturbed by my occasional confusion or lack of comprehension. Besides, I admire her rhetorical bravery even when I don't like (or, perhaps, understand) the results.

I have so far read only her short stories. She has written novels that may yet end up on my reading list.

The past year has slightly diminished my ignorance when it comes to Portuguese-American literature. The next year will diminish it further. And—who knows?—perhaps next year I will be a part of it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The big blue bastion

Timing your punches

Sen. Barbara Boxer made a low-key campaign swing through northern California at the end of July. She dropped in one Saturday at the home of a former statewide office-holder. It was more of a meet-and-greet than a fundraiser, although a few bucks were collected. (I picked up a Boxer T-shirt and a Boxer bumpersticker to display on my car during my next trip down Highway 99 into reddest California.) Boxer's main purpose was to rally the troops. Several present and former elected officials were present, as were several present and former staff aides. A mix of young up-and-coming volunteers joined the old-timers and rounded out the group.

After some schmoozing and mingling, Sen. Boxer held court in the host's living room. She thanked everyone for their support and tried to assuage our fears about the summer polls that showed her in a virtual tie with Carly Fiorina. Boxer was used to running (and winning) tight races, although it would be more of a challenge in what was shaping up to be a Republican year. She outlined the sharp contrasts between her positions and those of her opponent. It was an effective motivational speech. The adrenaline level in the room went up.

Boxer ran smoothly through her remarks and then entertained questions from the attendees. One of the first queries was not about her campaign.

“Can you tell Jerry to get off his ass and start campaigning? We see nothing but Whitman ads all the time.”

The senator's hands were clasped. She squeezed them tight for a moment and then relaxed a little. It seemed to me that she had heard this question before and was just a little weary of it.

“You need to understand this,” she said. “Jerry knows what he's doing. There is no way he can match Whitman's spending. He's conserving his resources and waiting for his moment. If he tries to match her now, he'll soon have nothing left. He is doing a lot of fundraising, but he's not spending yet.”

Someone in the crowd helped Sen. Boxer look for the silver lining.

“Whitman's ad campaign is so excessive it could be counterproductive. I'm sick of them.”

Sen. Boxer smiled.

“Jerry will match her in the homestretch, when it really matters,” she said.

We now know that Boxer was right. Jerry Brown knew what he was doing. Like a guest who overstayed her welcome, Meg Whitman was incessantly in our faces with an unavoidable avalanche of political ads. Even her supporters sometimes marveled at the overkill. When the Brown campaign took to the airwaves, his low-key ads were a welcome relief from Whitman's mindless repetition of talking points. One of Brown's spots mocked Whitman as a word-for-word clone of Arnold Schwarzenegger, juxtaposing the Republican incumbent and the Republican candidate mouthing the exact same slogans and catch phrases.

The once and future governor amply justified Sen. Boxer's faith in the old politician. At the top of the Democratic ticket, Jerry led a complete sweep of California's statewide offices (with the possible exception of the attorney general's office, where the votes are still being counted). California is true blue because its Democratic candidates know what they're doing.

Welcome back, Governor Brown. I guess experience counts.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The dollar-sign alternate universe

Not always for sale

Remember California's Governor William Matson Roth? You probably don't. How about U.S. Senator Norton Simon? (I know: you're thinking, “Isn't there a museum named after him in Pasadena?”)

Here's a pair of easier ones: Governor Al Checchi? U.S. Senator Mike Huffington?

You're catching on, aren't you? Let's clinch it:

Governor Meg Whitman?

Yeah, right.

While Ms. Whitman still has an outside chance of beating former governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday, most people are now aware that her attempt to purchase California's governor's mansion is falling short. (The joke is on her! Jerry rejected the governor's mansion during his first term in the 1970s and the Reagan-designed mediocrity in Carmichael was sold as a white elephant.)

All of the people cited above were (or are) multi-millionaires who decided the best route to elective office was a self-funded campaign. While Whitman is taking the cake with over $140 million having been dug out of her deep, deep pockets, her predecessors were pikers only by comparison.

Norton Simon accurately appraised U.S. Senator George Murphy as a light-weight party hack out of touch with the California electorate and decided to challenge him in the 1970 Republican primary. Murphy was a former Hollywood song-and-dance man who had won the seat in a kind of fluke in the Johnson landslide year of 1964, breasting the Democratic tide by beating Pierre Salinger, the short-term placeholder senator who had been appointed when the elected senator died in office.

Simon's dollars, however, could not dislodge the “senator from Technicolor.” Sen. Murphy won the GOP nomination (although he lost in the general election).

In 1974, former University of California regent William Matson Roth decided on a similar good-government tack. Once again, a millionaire spent freely to gain political office. As a self-funded candidate, Roth would of course be beholden to no one, since there would be no financial strings on him. (Sound familiar?) As it turned out, he would not be beholden to many voters, either, since they cast their ballots for other candidates. He came in fourth in the Democratic primary. The winner? Jerry Brown.

For a while, it looked like U.S. Rep. Mike Huffington, a Republican from a California coastal district, might be the exception to the rule that rich candidates can't buy political office. He had displaced his predecessor, a long-serving Republican congressman from Santa Barbara, by washing him away in a tidal wave of money in the 1992 GOP primary. All told, Huffington spent $5.4 million dollars for a congressional seat (but at least he got it). Naturally political consultants and media outlets rejoiced and salivated when Rep. Huffington began to gear up in 1994 for a U.S. senate race against incumbent Dianne Feinstein.

Again, money flowed like water—$28 million this time. But Mike never became a U.S. senator. In rapid succession, Huffington lost to Feinstein, announced he was gay (or at least bisexual), and divorced his wife Arianna. (She probably didn't mind, though, since it was now clear that Mike was not her ticket to becoming First Lady.)

These lessons were lost on former airline executive Al Checchi, who thought it would be nice to be California's governor. He never made it to the general election. In 1998 he dropped $39 million into the Democratic primary, but lost to Gray Davis, who spent “only” $9 million.

Enter Meg Whitman, today's self-funded, no-strings-attached candidate. If nothing else, she is a walking and talking (but not very much) one-woman stimulus for California's political economy. She could have gotten a lot more bang out of her $140 million if she had spent half of it on charity instead of those incessant, aggravating, and mind-numbing advertisements. (Meg, ever heard of diminishing returns? How about diminishing election returns?)

Is it ironic or merely amusing that Whitman's opponent in Tuesday's election—the once and future governor Jerry Brown—made his political career back in the 1970s by sponsoring the Fair Political Practices Act, which created the reporting mechanism that tracks all of this wacky campaign spending and established the state's disclosure rules (which the federal government would do well to emulate)? The Fair Political Practices Commission recently released a report that makes for some sadly entertaining reading: Breaking the Bank: Primary Campaign Spending for Governor since 1978. Shake your head and cluck your tongue while scanning the cost-per-vote data for the losers, who clearly had more dollars than sense (or votes).

Let's give Jerry Brown the last word. From an article by Bill Boyarsky in the Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1973, when Brown was California's secretary of state and gearing up for his first successful gubernatorial run:
Democratic Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr. proposed Thursday that he and the other prospective candidates for governor spend no more than $750,000 each in the 1974 primary election.