Thursday, December 29, 2011

Victoria Jackson is not crazy

Not when you grade her on the (extreme) right curve

Depending on your scale of measurement, your conclusions can vary dramatically. For example, suppose you're trying to evaluate the sanity of Victoria Jackson, the Saturday Night Live alumna who has found a new life—if not happiness—as a right-wing pundit. Do you measure her against an absolute scale or a relative one? She comes out a lot better if you gauge her against the fringe-centered standards of Free Republic.

Recently Jackson announced that the Islamic group known as the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated “the highest levels” of government in Washington, D.C., including the White House! When Jackson's claim was posted at Free Republic, the first commenter said, ”I'm inclined to agree with her.”

A dissenter weighed in with a cautionary note: “Umm, don't we usually dismiss the pronunciamentos from Hollywood airheads out of hand?”

He was promptly denounced for his use of a foreign word.

Another Freeper chivalrously leaped to Jackson's defense: “She played an airhead of SNL but she isn’t one in real life.”

Perhaps he has not seen her current act. The crazy seeps right out of the video.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Toons ahead of their time

Rocky & Bullwinkle & birthers

The longest running plot in the original Rocky & His Friends cartoon show was the 40-episode “Jet Fuel Formula” series, which involved a quest to find a mooseberry bush (to obtain the vital ingredient for rocket fuel). With the bush in hand, Rocky and his sidekick Bullwinkle face a dilemma. The moon men Gidney and Cloyd have helped the heroes obtain the mooseberries, which the lunar natives need to fuel their craft if they are ever to return home. Rocky and Bullwinkle, however, are agents of the U.S. government. The bush is supposed to go to Washington, D.C., and not to the moon men.

As the brains of the duo, it falls to Rocket J. Squirrel to come up with a clever plan: Since the U.S. government was itself planning to use the mooseberries to power a moon rocket, Gidney and Cloyd need only offer themselves as Americans willing to volunteer for the mission. A complication, however, arises in the form of Senator Fusmussen, chair of the Senate Citizenship Committee, who has introduced troublesome legislation:
Reporter: Just what does your new bill mean, Senator?
Sen. Fusmussen: Well, you see, right now it's entirely too easy to become an American. This bill's going to make it tougher.
Reporter: What do you mean, it's too easy?
Sen. Fusmussen: Well, all you got to do is be born here. This large loophole has got to be plugged up! Too many people are claiming to be Americans. Alaskans! Hawaiians! Californians! It's disgraceful!
What? Hawaiians and even Alaskans are claiming citizenship? Outrageous! Sen. Fusmussen's bill may already be too little, too late!

There is, inevitably, a happy ending. Gidney and Cloyd fail their citizenship exam and get deported—to the moon.

The conclusion of the “Jet Fuel Formula” epic was broadcast in 1960. Was it a prescient anticipation of today's absurdly hollow controversy over how one qualifies as a “natural-born citizen,” or simply an echo of previous instances of overwrought nativism? Perhaps it's both.

There was an enjoyable grace note to the happy return of Gidney and Cloyd to their homeland. Sen. Fusmussen, present at their deportation, accidentally gets launched with them. President Obama could take a lesson from this and should consider a renewed program of lunar missions. I have suggestions for some people we should shoot into space.

Orly? Your ticket is waiting.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Adroit gaucherie

A left-handed backhand tribute

David Berlinski has brilliantly resolved the sovereign conundrum of his existence: How can he remain modest while being the smartest member of an anti-intellectual cult? His elegant solution is to not even try. Another effortless triumph!

He again puts his sumptuous vocabulary and self-conscious prose on display as he preeningly pretends to celebrate the life of the late Christopher Hitchens. While Hitchens was a master of the finely honed, sharp-edged phrase, Berlinski prefers to poke about with a dull-tipped poniard. The jewels on his stiletto's hilt are of more interest to him than the blunt tip's inability to make a point. Watch as he uses his supposed tribute to Hitchens as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, attempting to clamber up to Hitchens' level and stand by his side as a co-equal polemicist. It is an intriguing spectacle. Some excerpts:
Christopher Hitchens's reputation rests on his literary works, his panache as a public speaker, and on his defiant atheism. He wrote on a very wide range of subjects, and his book reviews were often very fine. He liked to praise the writers and poets he loved: Oscar Wilde, Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Wilfred Owen, James Fenton, many others. He read closely and he read well. As an essayist, Christopher Hitchens is often compared to George Orwell. The comparison is careless, and it is one that in his final interview with Richard Dawkins, he rejected. Hitchens wrote fluently, Orwell, unforgettably. The difference is very considerable, but it is not to Hitchens's discredit. No man is obliged to be what he might have been.
Poor Hitch. He was no more than he was, but that's not his fault. Berlinski understands, and sympathizes. (As well he should.)
Hitchens was an engaging public speaker, and he had the gift of gracefully holding an audience. His intimate interviews were often wonderful because invariably, he was more elegant and far more articulate than his interlocutors. When faced with a rhetorical bruiser like George Galloway, his natural register failed him, and he did not have the dexterity to secure by means of an ironical divagation what he was otherwise unable to secure by matching bruise to bruise.
Poor Hitch. He was better at fencing than at crotch-kicking. (Really? Perhaps Berlinski overlooked Hitchens' well-known stone-crushing skills. Or maybe David wisely kept his knees clasped tightly together during his debate with Christopher.)
With the publication of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens reached a mass audience. He became celebrated. When he discovered how well he had been received by the public, he tended to regard his own religious beliefs with the indulgence of a man who on discovering that he has been lucky in attracting admirers very naturally concludes that he has been justified in attracting them.
Poor Hitch. He mistakenly thought he deserved the attention he got. Berlinski desperately wants to know how he got that attention and would sell his soul to achieve the same level of recognition. (Perhaps he already has. The house intellectual of the Discovery Institute has a lot to answer for.)
His atheism nonetheless had a kind of shambling boisterousness that made Christopher Hitchens seem a Mirabeau to Richard Dawkins's Saint Just [sic] or Sam Harris's Robespierre.
Poor Hitch. Did he never suspect that he was playing a part in a zany recapitulation of the French Revolution? (By the way, David, the name of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just is usually rendered with a hyphen. Not, of course, that this significantly detracts from your light-shedding simile. Pas du tout!)
Hitchens was uninterested in subtle analysis. On the masthead of the Daily Hitchens, there is the legend: What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. The difficulty with this assertion is straightforward. If it has been asserted without proof, why should it be believed, and if not, where is the proof?

I asked Hitchens about this during a break in our debate. We had retreated to a forlorn hotel loading ramp in order to have a cigarette. “Well, yes,” he said, “it's just a sentence.”
Oh, that Hitchens! Such a sly boots, and yet hoist by his own petard when caught making a statement without proof about statements without proof. Sneaky, clever Berlinski, to catch him out like that! It was also wise of Berlinski, who routinely plays the part of a math expert, to refrain from making the obvious point that every theoretical discussion must begin with unproven axioms at its foundation. Ceding this point to Hitchens would have deflated Berlinski's elegant gotcha. How unfortunate that Hitchens neglected to cringe in humiliation at Berlinski's sly riposte.
Christopher Hitchens found objectionable the very idea of a source of authority, and so of power, greater than his own. This has seemed to some of his readers all of the time, and all of his readers some of the time, both defiant and uplifting. The very same idea is at work in the terrible crimes of the twentieth century. It is inseparable from them.
I hasten to point out that Berlinski is not running afoul of Godwin's law here. Our elegant elegist deftly ducked this faux pas by not elucidating the nature of the twentieth century's terrible crimes. Hitler is only implied. We all understand perfectly well that Hitchens would never have supported Hitler—that is, of course, if he had only possessed the wit to realize that “the very same idea” of disdaining an ultimate authority is “inseparable” from campaigns of mass murder.

At least, that's one way to read Berlinski's prolix paragraph. Antecedents are difficult to pin down. (Does “the very same idea” refer to “the very idea of a source of authority” or the notion that this source itself was “objectionable”?) One of the glories of his prose is that the author will be on a firm footing if he objects to this characterization on the grounds that the sentences are ambiguous and subject to many (and divergent) interpretations.
Christopher Hitchens chose to greet death publicly. Had he thought of it, he might well have invited an orchestra. We signed books together after our appearance in Birmingham, and to admirers on his very long line inquiring after his health, Hitchens replied that he was dying. It was a response that inevitably took his interlocutor aback, the more so since it was true. I followed his interviews and read his essays about cancer and death. I found them moving. But they do not evoke the man.
And neither does Berlinski's supposed encomium.

Monday, December 26, 2011

God's utilitarians

The meanies justify their ends

Someone had been busy. Each car in the parking lot had its own copy of an anonymous flier. I pulled the document out from under the windshield wiper. Large letters said “A B C.” Upon closer inspection, the fine print delivered the message:

Abortion = Breast Cancer

The flier was a simple one-fold document, the interior of which went on to explain breathlessly that “post-abortive” women were at severe risk of breast cancer. A woman's body, you see, goes slightly crazy when frustrated in its divine mission to bear young and unfulfilled hormones wreak havoc in the mammaries. Hence the battle by “pro-life” forces against abortion is also a battle to save women from horrible and disfiguring disease—and even death.

It's science, people. You have to believe in science. (Except, of course, when those same crazy-ass scientists go on about evolution, global warming, or that nonsense about a billions-year-old earth.)

The so-called ABC connection between abortion and breast cancer is a favorite talking point of the anti-abortion activists. It is routinely cited on Catholic Radio and fliers like the one I found on my car keep insisting that the link is established beyond any reasonable doubt. They like to give numbers, too, such as “28 studies reveal increased risk.” The cherry-picked reports, however, include results deemed not significant (in the statistical sense) and no hint is given that the preponderance of the evidence goes in the opposite direction. As the National Cancer Institute puts it, in the affectless diction of a neutral science-based agency, initial research in the area was ambiguous, based on small sample sizes, and produced inconsistent results:
Since then, better-designed studies have been conducted. These newer studies examined large numbers of women, collected data before breast cancer was found, and gathered medical history information from medical records rather than simply from self-reports, thereby generating more reliable findings. The newer studies consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast cancer risk.
That is the consensus of modern medical science, but the pro-lifers still cling to the handful of early studies that went their way.

I always find it irksome when some wrong-headed group tries to co-opt science in support of its non-scientific objective. Creation “science,” of course, is a prime example of the perversion of science in the service of sectarian interests. I have, however, a particular disdain for the sheer opportunism exhibited by people like the ABC proponents. Contrary to their supposedly deep-held principles, they are fully prepared to embrace the notion that the ends justify the means. It's a pragmatic utilitarianism that I suspect most of them would instantly disavow, but here's another place where the evidence goes against them.

For example, anti-abortionists emphasize that terminating a pregnancy is the killing of human life. Many of them are willing to call it murder and express the wish that health professionals who perform abortions be tried in courts of law under homicide statutes (and then, somewhat inconsistently, some anti-abortionists want them subjected to capital punishment after conviction). It is, therefore, a great moral crusade against a heinous crime that society at large has so far been blind enough to permit.

Doesn't it severely undermine the moralistic argument to append a health warning? “Oh, and don't forget that you'll get breast cancer if you do it!” The ABC issue is irrelevant to the faith-based moral argument. Its inclusion is nothing more than a concession to pragmatic realpolitik. Yet I never hear apologists on religious programs concede that point. They toss in the ABC argument as if it's equal in status to their abortion-is-murder claim. The disproportion should be dizzying to the conscious brain, but it appears that this does not bother most anti-abortionists. (In fact, not any that I've ever seen.)

Down on your knees!

My recollection of the ABC flier was prompted by a recent e-mail that I discovered in my spam folder. The nice loons at Newsmax Health (as distinguished from the loons that infest all the rest of Newsmax) wanted me to be aware of the health benefits of prayer. No, not the long-discredited notion that intercessory prayers could speed one's healing. This message was about the benefits to oneself. Prayer, by golly, is good for you!
  1. Can modern science explain prayer?
  2. Does praying strengthen your brain and prevent mental decline?
  3. What benefits, if any, does prayer offer you — physically, mentally, and emotionally?
That's a pretty good teaser. I'm sure you're as excited as I was at the prospect of learning the answers to these weighty questions. A free video (28 boring monotone minutes) is available to tell you amazing facts:
  • How a specific amount of “prayer time” per day can help prevent memory loss, mental decline, and even dementia or Alzheimer's . . .
  • The #1 prayer pitfall that can actually make you sick if you're not careful (this is one of the most important bits of wisdom you'll ever gain) . . .
  • 47 scientifically proven benefits of prayer, including pain relief, reduced risk of death from heart attack or stroke, lessened anxiety or depression, and more . . .
  • And much, much more . . .
Want the details? Newsmax Health will send you two free copies of its Mind Health Report! (And more, if you subscribe for only $36 for twelve monthly issues. You knew we'd get there eventually.)

Of course, this is science. (Remember “science”?) The founder of “neurotheology” is a real scientist (well, an M.D., anyway) at a real medical research center (well, an “integrative medicine” center, anyway). As a totally careful scientist and researcher (and stuff like that), the researcher began with a formal definition of the phenomenon being studied. Namely, what is prayer? I wasn't surprised by the research paper involving the rosary. That's pretty traditional and old school. But there's a much broader non-sectarian approach to what is called “prayer.” Here's the definition from the beginning (at 4:41) of the tedious video!
So, for the purposes of our research, we defined “praying” as any mental activity that includes
  • traditional prayer practiced by people of religious faith
  • meditation, or contemplative reflection on a power greater than oneself, which can be God, the Universe, or all Life
  • focused positive thinking, such as speaking affirmations
  • attending a church or synagogue service
How's that for a tight focus? When you bundle it all up, it amounts to meditation of some kind. Period. (Even in a church or synagogue, which were specifically cited. But not, apparently, in a pagoda or mosque.) The results, of course, merely indicate that quiet contemplation is good for you. It says nothing about the efficacy of prayer qua prayer. Newsmax is trying to sucker its conventionally religious readers into ponying up some cash to wallow in “scientific” validation of their prayer practices. We should “pray” because it's good for us—not because it works in any conventional way as a nice chat with one's deity.

Nice work, Newsmax!

I know that I could dig out my credit card and send Newsmax Health some money right now for a subscription to what I'm sure would be a rich and reliable vein of unintentional humor. However, I really think I should pray about it first. Or, as I prefer to call it, a “nap.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Solving for the X in Xmas

A high holiday potpourri

Christmas has been a little simpler in the years since I announced that I didn't want any more gifts and that I wouldn't be giving any gifts except to the youngsters. Of course, some of those youngsters now have youngsters of their own, but even adult nieces and nephews still qualify for gifts from Uncle Zee. And they're not picky, bless 'em. (As one niece commented upon receiving a gift card good at one of her favorite stores: “Oh, it's just my size! A perfect fit.” That's the spirit.

My goddaughter's eldest boy was transported with delight to discover that I had found a two-axle baler to add to his farm-toy collection. He spent most of his time at his great-grandparents' on the floor, harvesting the rug. (It was, fortunately, only “pretend.”) In case you didn't know, two-axle balers are more stable than the old-fashioned single-axle version, are less subject to jamming, and produce bales more efficiently. It doesn't take much to get the seven-year-old to deliver an extemporaneous lecture on farm management, which is how I obtained the immediately preceding information. (My brother had better make certain the family farm survives until his grandson can take the helm. That boy will be ready.) The matching toy tractor was just the icing on the cake. Uncle Zee is officially a hero.

Other, less inspired gifts were received with proportionate expressions of delight and gratitude. My goddaughter gave me a framed photograph of her family, a present which certainly gets a grateful exemption from my gift ban. My parents, who cannot help but give gifts to all and sundry (no matter what we say), presented me with a sports coat. It's an important life lesson to learn that one's parents cannot be controlled, so I offered thanks and tried it on. It fit rather snugly, so I quipped to my mother that she should break her long-standing habit of shopping for me among the “slim fit” racks. It'll work better after I drop another five or ten pounds. (Any day now, of course.)

It was a good thing my parents had warned me at Thanksgiving that the gigantic pine tree in their front yard was coming down. That spared me the disorienting experience of not spotting a lifelong landmark from miles away as I approached the family dairy farm. Dad joked that I would have been likely to drive right past the place had I not been forewarned. Either that, or I might have run off the road while trying and failing to spot the towering conical form on the horizon.

How red was my valley

Anyway, I was already sufficiently disoriented at the end of the first leg of my day-trip. The sights of California's Central Valley and the sounds of the local AM radio stations are sufficiently discombobulating to require no additional shocks to my mental stability. I'm no longer inured to it, as I was in the days when I lived down there. (In my youth one of the regional radio stations sported the call letters KLAN, mindless of the unsavory associations.) The middle stretch of Highway 99 is decorated with signs denouncing water shortages as “Congress created” (drought and increasing consumption are irrelevant) and still singling out Pelosi, Costa, and Boxer for particular blame (despite the fact that all three members of Congress ran successfully for re-election over a year ago). They're reminiscent of the older signs that said, “Adios, Babbitt, Clinton,” with a similar lack of impact. How the Central Valley votes, so votes the state—in the opposite direction.

There used to be an anti-United Nations sign in Tulare County that said, “Get US out of the UN!” I kind of miss it. It used to be right next to an “Impeach Earl Warren!” sign.

I think the Central Valley counties would secede if they could. If the rest of the state let them go, initiatives like the contentious Proposition 8 would never pass. Of course, I would probably end up having to show my papers at the border every time I headed south to visit family. (And there's a fair chance I would not be allowed in.)

The FM radio dial offered an occasional oasis of public radio stations, but those were generally offering public affairs or news programming instead of classical music. The other FM stations were devoted to oldies or country-western (or country-western oldies). The AM dial was replete with right-wing talk, more country-western, and religious programming. Surfing the AM band brought me such delights as a psychic explaining that Ron Paul would be next year's front-runner for the GOP nomination for president. I noted that she was careful enough not to say he would get the nomination, making it easier for her to explain it away when the Republican Party apparatchiks deliver it to Romney. On the other hand, she also said the 2012 presidential election campaign would be a low-energy and relatively gentlemanly matter, so clearly we can dismiss her out of hand.

Your holy host

Naturally I was disappointed to discover via one station's house ad that I was too late to hear the daily dairy report. That airs at 5:00 each morning. However, my ears pricked up when Jesus Christ came on the air, introducing himself as “your holy host” and “the reason for the season” and offering to take questions. Holy crap! It was The Jesus Christ Show, a syndicated show that bills itself as “interactive radio theater.” The show's website identifies some guy named Neil Saavedra as a self-taught lay apologist who is the “producer” for The Jesus Christ Show. He has no academic credentials and “hates when people try and sound more educated than they actually are.” (That would appear more literate if it were “try to sound more educated.”)

To give the devil his due, Saavedra correctly noted that “Xmas” was not an anti-Christian slur, since the “X” represents the Greek letter chi, an ancient shorthand symbol for Christ. Good one, Neil. On the other hand, one questions whether Jesus would have cuts from Christian rock bands for his bumper music and Jesus would certainly have known better than to sing with such a lousy voice. Ouch!

The show struck me as having been inspired by Saavedra seeing Jesus Christ as a talk-show host on South Park and thinking it was worthy of emulation (but on radio, where dressing up is not necessary). The segment I heard was very uneven, especially given its abrupt transitions. When Saavedra is speaking in third-person-pretentious, he sounds like just about any radio preacher prattling about Jesus. However, when he shifts suddenly to first-person-intimate, it utterly fails to evoke the listener's suspension of disbelief so that the imposture works. Part of the problem may be that it's difficult to imagine Jesus prompting a caller with, “Okay, let 'er rip!”

Thou shalt not tell fat jokes

I did not share any of my radio experiences with my folks. Too dangerous a topic, fraught with peril. Any discussion of broadcast media with my father is certain to elicit his favorite diatribe: too many Spanish-language programs and channels. Last Thanksgiving, for example, his opening conversational gambit was to fish a slip of paper out of his pocket to show my brother-in-law and me how many Spanish-language television stations were available via a local satellite-based provider. Dad smugly proclaimed that a client had employed him to block all such stations on his TV so that his eyes and ears would not be profaned by exposure to that Mexican-type talk. He was clearly inviting us to roll our eyes in sympathetic dismay over the proliferation of Hispanic entertainment in the Central Valley, but my brother-in-law and I were eye-rolling for other reasons.

Instead the snatches of brief Christmas conversation were dominated by family chit-chat and generally harmless holiday chatter. The brother who currently runs the family dairy farm commented that the front yard was now spacious and wide open in the absence of the old pine tree. I quipped that there was even enough room now for my wide brother. My sister-in-law had not heard my previous fat joke at my own expense, but she certainly heard the quip about her husband and did not appreciate it. Displaying an enviable talent for maintaining a cheerful expression and upbeat tone of voice while laying stripes on one's hide, she pointed out how much she disapproved of fat jokes about her husband and said, while citing his good points, “You know he's as big-hearted as all outdoors.”

You will, I know, be amazed to learn that I was intelligent enough not to seize the opportunity to pile on with, “Yeah, I'd expect an enlarged heart, too, if I were carrying that much excess weight.” (So there, dear friends. All of you who have said I would risk my life for a good punch line— Not so!) I listened meekly, then asked my sister-in-law whether their next stop was her mother's house. When she told me that was correct, I asked her to proffer my best holiday wishes to her widowed mother. My sister-in-law rewarded me with a big hug and a warm farewell, so I made my escape intact and in good odor. (Besides, my brother's mother-in-law is a nice lady and my greeting was sincere as well as conveniently timed.)

I will consider, however, that my sister-in-law has conveniently given me a New Year's resolution as a Christmas gift. I solemnly promised her that I would tell no more fat jokes within her earshot. In return, she agreed to spare my life. And I didn't even try to ingratiate myself by agreeing that my brother is twice the man I am. It's win-win.

I can hardly wait to tell Jesus!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The crazy next to me

It's that close!

You know how the good folks working in M-theory posit eleven dimensions with which to explain (or try to explain) how the universe works? Given our natural observational bias toward four-dimensional spacetime, the extra seven dimensions must be really hard to see. Perhaps they're very, very tiny. Maybe there are even parallel universes tucked into these dimensions, invisible to us despite their ultra-close proximity. It's like a weirdly enhanced game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, where the links in the chain are dimensional shifts that move you into alternate realities. Creepy!

On the other hand, the world we live in is already replete with perceptible weirdness. My recent experience could be called “six degrees of Ed Brayton,” except that six is much too generous a number. Also, instead of talking about the consecutive links in a chain, it might make more sense to talk about the consecutive straps in a straitjacket. Come with me now on a little journey, starting over at Ed's blog, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, where he posted an entertaining little item:
If you’re looking for your daily dose of serious right wing insanity, Sher Zieve has you covered. This is so batshit crazy that it would make Glenn Beck cringe:
This was by way of introducing Brayton's latest nominee for the coveted “Robert O'Brien” award, which recognizes distinguished performance in the art of vapid, wrong-headed, tortuous, and torturous argument. Ed went on to demonstrate that Zieve was a worthy aspirant to the honor with a quote from one of her recent columns. Zieve saw fit to mock the concerns of those who see President Obama pushing the nation toward European-style socialism. Not true, she says:
Instead, it is careening at full speed — with no discernable braking — into full-fledged Marxist Communo-Fascist elitist-ruled Islamo-Drug cartel Narco/Nazi State — replete with its own apparent and visible concentration camps.
Wheeeeee! That must be quite a thrilling ride!

Tickled by Ed's excerpt, I went to Sher's page on the reactionary RenewAmerica site and read the rest of the column dated December 20, 2011. The bowl-cut blonde did not disappoint:
Second, we are living under an apparent dictator-driven oligarchic government. Whether many are aware of it or not, the US Constitution officially ended with the passage of the "new and revised" NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and we are, also, officially no longer a Republic. Both had been on their last legs for years and now have come to an end under Usurper and Dictator-in-Chief Barack “the smiling Muslim” Hussein Obama.
I'm not sure when “the smiling Muslim” earned its quotation marks, but I'm pretty certain that a “Dictator-in-Chief” would not be having anywhere near the trouble with Congress that the president has been having. Does he know that Ms. Zieve has ascribed unilateral and arbitrary power to him?

Now I'm even more disappointed with Obama. He doesn't even know how to use his absolute powers!


But let me get back on track. We were talking about degrees of separation. The next step came when I scrolled down to the comments. What a treasure trove! When the columnists are crazy, the commenters are crazy-squared:

Sher Zieve, I have been aware of the direction this nation is being pushed by the elite for some tiime. Sher.....PLEASE look at my web site and then contact me. I AGREE with you. The TIME IS NOW.....if we are ever going to stop this...we must ACT NOW. The working people are our only hope now.
warmly, STAR LOCKE.

Who could resist such a plea? Not me! I clicked over to Star Locke's website.

It turns out that Mr. Locke is in the construction business in Texas. His business plays only a secondary role on his webpage. Locke's focus is bright-red politics. Surprisingly enough, a quote from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas gets bold-face play in the middle of the page. I guess Mr. Locke is unaware that Douglas was one of the court's great liberals. But perhaps it makes sense to cite a dedicated exponent of civil liberties when one excepts to get swept up into FEMA concentration camps (cf. Zieve's column) at any moment. Do you have your overnight bag packed?

Mr. Locke's website offers a bizarre and colorful biography (including a reported encounter with John Wayne) and a collection of political issues. My favorite is the proposed “Family Security & Protection Act,” whose provisions are quite remarkable:

An act promoting family security and safety by putting certain dangerous actions and dangerous products out of the reach of children thereby keeping our most precious blood—our children out of “HARMS WAY.” Further this act put certain items out of the reach of government. By using a tool given to us by our founding fathers we hereby effect or families and their security. James Madison taught us, “the power to tax is the power to destroy”.  By utilizing this tool handed down to us by our founding fathers, we strive to promote the general welfare and protect our future security for ourselves and our posterity.



[a] The FAMILY HOME SECURITY COMMISSION is established which duty it shall be to carry out and implement this ACT.

[b] The COMMISSION shall establish the FAMLY HOME SECURITY ACCOUNT  with funds coming from the EDUCATORS ACCOUNT under the authority of THE DEPOSIT AND RECYCLE ACT.
You can read the details of the Deposit & Recycle Act on the same site. While it seems odd to refer to “the legislature of the United States” instead of “the Congress of the United States,” the really good stuff is yet to come.

[a] THE TEXAS Alcoholic AND BEVERAGE COMMISSION IS HERBY CLOSED and the enabling legislations is hereby rescinded.

[b] The FAMILY HOME SECURITY COMMISSION shall take over all existing facilities presently owned or leased by the T.A.B.C and shall make its own determinations as to any future facility location needs.

[c] All TAX ON PRIVATE PROPERTY in TEXAS is hereby rescinded and repealed.

[d] The Annual renewal fees and/or taxes on already licensed vehicles, equipment, trailers and/or instruments of transportation of humans or goods is hereby rescinded and repealed.
Yeah. Section 2 is where it got interesting. Locke thinks that the U.S. Congress can repeal legislation enacted by the state of Texas. Someone who is paranoid about the federal government wants to harness its power to supersede the enactments and shutter an agency of his own state government. Can it get any stranger? Oh, yes!

[a] The TEXAS ATHLETIC BOARD shall be established within this commission and consist of 10 members appointed by the GOVERNOR with their terms running concurrently with the Governors term in office and who’s duties it shall be to establish and operate a CODE OF EXECELENCE for health and fitness requirements for all TEXAS SCHOOLS.

[a] The ATHLETIC BOARD shall set minimum Physical fitness work out programs for all TEXAS SCHOOLS with 2 hour minimum P.E. daily classes for all students.

[b] The ATHLETIC BOARD shall establish a High Protein Diet Nutrition Program that shall be instituted in all TEXAS Schools with the goal to [a] promote the physical fitness in each student. [b] to eliminate OBESITY and addictive behaviors in children and staff.

[c] The ATHLETIC BOARD shall work with existing School Boards to implement the goals of this act.
Two hours of P.E. every day? Cruel and unusual punishment! (Especially to me.) I'm surprised that Locke passed up a chance to make football the official state religion, but instead he had money on his mind. After all, how is he to fund a section that has two clauses labeled “[a]” as well as a commitment to “EXECELENCE”? Fear not!

[a] This COMMISION shall levy a 100% of price sales cost tax for the sale on all item listed below:

1 . any video game containing any form of human violence. .

2. any machine or toy or cd that uses or includes bodily harm of any human or human image its function or goal or score.
Hmm. No “human violence”? Oops. I sense a lot of alien massacres coming up! Take that, space bugs!

Now that the youth of Texas have been slimmed down and spared [human] video violence by congressional fiat, what more is there to do? Mr. Locke is not at a loss. It's time to ban abortion—unless you're prosperous enough to afford the fee! And, while we're at it, let's not forget grease and sugar.

[a] This COMMISSION shall levy a ACTION FEE TAX on any act of abortion on a human female within the State of TEXAS. This tax shall be levied upon and be paid by each individual involved in each act of abortion procedure done or practitioners thereof within the borders of the STATE OF TEXAS. The fee/tax is $10,000.00 each participant per each abortion. The one exception to this rule is when it is medically determined that the mothers life is in danger if the pregnancy is continued. Failure to pay said tax shall be a Class A Felony.

[b] This commission shall levy a 50% of price of sales tax [GREASE TAX] upon all food prepared by deep-frying or cooking in any form of oil or grease for human consumption

[c] This commission shall levy a 50% of price sales tax on any beverage sold to humans to be consumed by humans that contains added glucose, fructose, and sucrose to the beverage for sale to humans.
Now that the republic has been made safe, it's time for a big finish:

The importance of this legislation and the crowed condition of the calendars in both houses create an emergency and an imperative public necessity that the Constitutional Rule requiring bills be read on three several days in each house be suspended, and this rule is hereby suspended, and that this ACT take effect and be in force according to its terms and it is so enacted.
Wow. The measure supersedes the usual constitutional provisions concerning the enactment of legislation by means of its own provisions! Talk about boot-strapping!

I'm relieved that Locke's site did not have a Links page that would have taken me into any other parallel universes. The twists in this one were quite enough, thank you.

Friday, December 23, 2011

I'm not a bigot, but ...

If you have to say it—

Yesterday the Sacramento Bee ran a front-page photo of the traditional welcome-kiss marking the return of the Oak Hill to its home port of Little Creek, Virginia. With the end of the “Don't ask, don't tell” era, the Oak Hill's homecoming became the first to be officially marked by a same-sex kiss, as Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta bussed her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell.

Today, with a rapidity indicating how quickly it was dashed off and submitted, a whining note appeared in the Bee's Letters to the Editor column:
Photo could confuse kids

Re “A welcome-home kiss” (Page A1, Dec. 22): Surely there must have been considerable discussion before intentionally publishing the “first kiss“ photo on the front page. Did anyone consider that young children might be confused by the display on the front page?

The Bee has selfishly and disrespectfully usurped the rights of parents to choose where and when to have a thoughtful discussion, with their children, about homosexuality. Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in the type of photo that The Bee published; and they are neither intolerant nor filled with hate.

If the story was so darned important, then why did the text appear several pages back? Perhaps McClatchy should consider adding “Enquirer” to the title of the newspaper.

—Jane Doe, Rocklin
Oh, won't someone please think of the children!!

Thanks for your concern, “Jane.” (The excessively curious can obtain her real name from the Bee website. I won't use it here.) I can't help wondering how Jane's children managed to grow old enough to be “confused” without Mommie Dearest having had that “thoughtful discussion” she values so highly. It's not as though most toddlers spend any time perusing the pages of the newspaper. And why should even older children be upset by a glimpse of a same-sex couple kissing on the Bee's front page? Have they not seen plenty of same-sex kissing among family members and close friends? Doesn't grandma kiss mommy? Doesn't mommy have BFFs from high school or college who hug her and smooch her whenever they meet?

I mean, it's not as though the newspaper photo will unduly disturb youngsters just because mother has neglected to instruct them—in a “thoughtful discussion”—about cunnilingus, strap-ons, and tribadism. Jane Doe has constructed a straw lesbian.

She wants us to believe that people who object to displays of same-sex affection “are neither intolerant nor filled with hate.” But I don't believe that. Not filled with hate? Maybe, but that's not self-evident. Filled with intolerance? Definitely.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dear Abby doesn't do the math

A little arithmetic would help

Did you know that newspaper editors often lay rough hands on the work of their syndicated columnists? It's true. I noticed this because I have a voracious appetite for newspapers and often read more than one each day. Thus I notice things such as weirdly truncated—or even “improved”—questions and answers in the advice columns. It usually means that local editors cut the column to fit available space or just decided to second-guess the columnist. I'm therefore suspicious when I see a lousy answer in Dear Abby and sometimes take a minute to go directly to the source.

I'm beginning to learn, however, that Jeanne Phillips is perfectly capable of generating her own lame answers. She did it again today:
Dear Abby: I have been living with my daughter and her family for two years because I lost my job. I don't pay rent, but help out with the utilities and buy my own groceries. I also baby-sit for them several days a week. The only money I have is an inheritance my father left me to live on, and it is dissipating quickly.

I have met a man and have fallen in love with him. I plan to move in with him soon. The problem is my daughter and son-in-law owe me money. They promised it would be repaid, but when I ask when, they give me the run-around. (They always have money for tattoos, movies and concerts, though.) They also expect me to baby-sit for them on weekends, but that's the only time I can see my boyfriend.

How do I tell them I want to live my own life? I want to be free and not have to worry about them needing me to baby-sit and making me feel guilty about it. I'm afraid they'll say that because I lived with them, they no longer owe me the money. I don't know how to tell them without it turning ugly. Any suggestions would be appreciated. —Frustrated in KC, MO.

Dear Frustrated: I presume your daughter and son-in-law have met your boyfriend? Announce the good news that you will be living with him; it shouldn't be shocking. Ask again for the money that they owe you. Be pleasant, but firm, and don't let it escalate into an argument. If they say they don't have it, ask them to sign (and date) a note promising to repay it at a later date. That will be your proof that a loan was extended. If they refuse, with no proof that you loaned them money, you won't have leverage to force them to pay up.

As for the baby-sitting, do it when it's convenient for you. If they want their "freedom" on some weekends, let them pay you instead of a sitter and work off part of their obligation that way. But insist on cash.
Did you notice how Jeanne glossed over one tiny little item? Her correspondent has been living rent-free with her daughter's family for two years. This seems a rather significant factor to overlook so completely. Let's try rewriting Dear Abby's response for her:
Dear Frustrated: Whereabouts in Kansas City do you live? You can't rent a place for much below $400 per month in your city and even $500 is probably below the average. Twenty-four months times $500 works out to $12,000. Does your daughter owe you more than that? If not, you should really be thinking about forgiving that loan. If so, you should still be considering lowering the amount owed by a suitable amount. You may want to estimate the value of the babysitting services you've provided during your stay, but be aware that neither rent-forgiveness or unpaid babysitting were ever part of a formal agreement. Trying to make it formal after the fact is just asking for grief. A properly appreciative first move by you is the best bet.
See? Isn't that better?

The cartoonist as clairvoyant

Did Thomas Nast see the future?

Being on the mailing list for the Catholic League ensures a never-ending stream of vitriol in one's in-box. As a tactless and belligerent curmudgeon, Bill Donohue is always ready to make a pugnacious spectacle of himself in the defense of Mother Church. His latest missive is titled “Bigot Nominated to NJ Hall of Fame.” Donohue is quite offended that editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast is about to be honored in Nast's residence state of New Jersey:
The New Jersey Hall of Fame (NJHF) includes luminaries as diverse as Albert Einstein and Shaquille O'Neal. It should not be dishonored by including bigots: Catholics will be outraged to learn that of the 50 nominees for the class of 2012, Thomas Nast made the cut. Nast is not only the most bigoted cartoonist in American history, the 19th-century artist consistently inflamed hatred against the Irish and Catholics alike.
Never at a loss for hyperbole, Donohue does not hesitate to declare that Nast is the most bigoted cartoonist in all of American history. One cannot help but be impressed by Donohue's relative innocence.

In his Catholic League screed, Donohue takes particular offense at Nast's attacks on the Roman church (that is, after all, Bill's job). Nast delighted in depicting Roman Catholic bishops as crocodiles, with their miters representing reptilian jaws. An example shows that Nast really was being a bit nasty:

It was a theme to which the cartoonist returned whenever he wanted to inveigh against Romish influence (the Church was on record in opposition to the separation of church and state) or Irish immigration (Nast had decidedly nativist tendencies). Today we can look at Nast's cartoons and see them as over the top. In high dudgeon, however, Bill Donohue cannot help but demonstrate once again his unerring instinct for avoiding le mot juste in favor of the words least apt:
[H]e demonized bishops by portraying them as crocodiles with miters for jaws; and he also depicted them as emerging from slime while prowling towards children.
Really, Bill? You had to go there? Silly man.

You just depicted Thomas Nast as a prophet.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A grade goeth before a fall

And it's all my fault

While I doubt it registers with my students, I am at pains every semester to explain to them that they earn grades. I do not merely give them. Unfortunately, the students who most need to hear this message seem to be the least likely to retain it.

I recently taught an algebra class in an accelerated format. Students were warned at the outset of the course's brisk pace and the need to work diligently to stay abreast. The faint-hearted quickly folded their tents and stole away. The braver students stuck it out to the end—a bitter end for a few of them. Overall, though, the success rate was over 80 percent. I was happy that so many of my students passed the class.

One of the students was less than enamored with her “success.” Yes, she passed the class, but she passed it with only a C after having spent most of the semester at the B level. She had spectacularly flunked the comprehensive final (earning fewer than half the possible points on it) and her average plummeted. I declined to award a B to a student who couldn't even earn a D on the final exam. She called me up to complain at the injustice of the result.

Her particular complaint focused on what she perceived as the inequity of students getting a C grade with composite semester scores of 68.5 while she was being denied a B despite a composite score of 78.5. Why did I “round up” the scores near the C-D boundary but not hers at the B-C boundary?

Several factors influenced my decision. First of all, the C-D boundary is basically academic life versus death. A grade of D forces you to repeat the course for credit. I give very close scrutiny to the scores of all students teetering on the precipice of the C-D divide. Furthermore, the three students in question had all beaten my complainant by several points on the final (and the weakest of the three was in the enviable “hammock” position). Unlike my former B student, they had not used the final exam to demonstrate utter confusion and lack of subject-matter retention (a consideration of some significance in a prerequisite course like algebra).

Then, of course, there's the other tiny factor: Among the students with passing grades, the student in question had one of the lowest participation rates in the quizzes that I used throughout the semester to gauge my students' progress. To be fair, it was not chronic absences that caused her to miss so many quizzes (although her attendance did suffer near the end of the semester). No, it was her refusal to submit her paper to me when I collected them, even when I made a point of asking her directly. “No,” she'd say. “It's no good.” Brimming over with sweet reason, I would explain, “Five points on a ten-point quiz may be a little embarrassing, but five points in the grade book is significantly better than zero points!” She'd shove the crumpled quiz into her binder and resolutely refuse: “No, I don't want you to look at it. It's no good.”

In the end, she withheld or missed over twenty percent of her quizzes. A series of truly bad decisions. Those points were not there to reinforce her against a bad result on the final exam, which turned out to be a significant matter in the end. I guess her problems weren't just in algebra.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Even lotteries have winners

Lucky Larry hits a grand slam

It has been noted that state lotteries are basically a tax on innumeracy. You're better off dealing with the house percentage at a casino in Nevada. Nevertheless, even lotteries have winners. Just don't expect it to be you. Lightning is not going to strike you.

Of course, sometimes it strikes near by.

One of my students won the calculus lottery during the exam on integration, beating very long odds indeed. The result was the most bizarre “Lucky Larry” of my years as a math teacher. My colleagues were as flabbergasted as I was when I shared the student's “solutions” with them. Her work was nonsense, yet her answers were correct. Three times in a row. Of course, when that happens one suspects a hidden underlying pattern that produces valid results, contrary to all expectations. In this case, though—no. It was a giant fluke.

Or, rather, three flukes in a row. My flabber, she is as gasted as possible.

The problem on the integration exam was one of my “conceptual” exercises. One of my tasks as a calculus teacher is to clarify the meaning of the definite integral, ensuring that my students grasp its significance. Of course, one of the most common (and visual) interpretations of the definite integral is as the area under a curve. Surely any first-year calculus student must understand at least that much.

Accordingly, I presented my students with the graph of a simple function and asked them to evaluate three definite integrals of that function by inspection of the graph. I did not forbid them to use antidifferentiation and the fundamental theorem of calculus, but I emphasized that the simplest of calculations would suffice.

What, pray tell, is the value of the definite integral of f(x) from x = 1 to x = 2? A cursory examination of the trapezoidal region spanning the space between the x axis and the graph of the function reveals the area (and thus the definite integral) to equal 1.5. Easy! Not satisfied, however, with such a trivial computation, one of my students rolled out the big guns:

Damn! What a coincidence! The calculus is bogus, but the result is accidentally correct. No one expects lightning to strike twice, of course.

Brace yourself.

What if we ask for the definite integral from 1 to 3 instead? We get a little more area now. Take a look at the new graph, in which a second trapezoid now joins the first. We get an additional 2.5 square units which, added to the original 1.5, gives us 4. My student swung into action and unlimbered her surreal calculus calculation again:

I was now quite beside myself, shaking my head in astonishment as my red pen hovered over the page. Twice in a row! (What were the odds?)

Fortunately, I knew that I could count on part (c) to set the record straight and demonstrate to my student the error of her ways. It was, in fact, the simplest part of the problem. A kind of gift to the student possessing a clue. Can you find the area of a rectangle measuring 2 by 4? Of course! The answer must be 8.

My student presented her solution:


Time to hit my head against the desk a few times.

In a million years, this will never happen again. (For one thing, this problem is going straight into the waste can, never to be recycled.)

I need to go lie down for a few minutes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Dan Quayle speaks!

Stupid is as stupid does

My goodness, how we have missed Dan Quayle, the man elevated above his station in life as impeachment insurance by George Herbert Walker Bush. Quayle spoke up this week to endorse Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. The man who spent four scary years one heartbeat away from the presidency stressed the conviction with which he was backing the former Massachusetts governor. Addressing Romney in front of television cameras and radio microphones, the illustrious former vice president said:
I am confident that you will be our nominee, and I am even more confident that you will be the next president of the United States of America.
Okay, you got that? Dan Quayle thinks Mitt Romney is all but certain to be the Republican standard-bearer ... and even more certain to become president. That's tricky, since the consequence cannot be more likely than its prerequisite.

Poor Dan is as good at probability as he is at spelling.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

I think that I shall never see

Sic transit gloria arboris
The house was nearly ready. The front yard was nothing but dirt, but it was already cleared of most of the construction debris. Paulinho had planted a small evergreen tree that he intended to use as a local landmark when it grew larger. “The house with the fig tree” was his father’s. His would be “the house with the evergreen.”
—From an unpublished novel
The sentence of death was announced on Thanksgiving. The decision had been made earlier, but it was revealed only when I was present to hear it in person. One more eternal verity is about to hit the dust—quite literally in this case.

The pine tree in my parents' front yard was planted the month before I arrived on the scene. The family photo album is full of pictures of the first-born standing next to it. The tree's growth quickly outpaced mine and soon it towered over everyone and everything. For many years my siblings and I referred to it as simply “the Christmas tree,” in honor of its once-a-year decoration with lights and in recognition of its uniqueness. No other house on the dairy farm was so adorned. Deciduous trees and spindly palms dominated the landscape, while our evergreen stood out in singular splendor.

For all I know, the execution has already been carried out. My parents and their friendly neighborhood tree surgeon were simply waiting for a mutually convenient date to do the deed. My Christmas visit will tell the tale, and I will know the outcome while still several miles from the family farm. The tree's absence on the horizon will be more than obvious. The loss of the lifelong landmark will be acutely felt.

My parents did not make a casual and unfeeling decision to raze the tree. The decades had inflicted significant damage on the evergreen. A dangerous crack in the upper reaches of the trunk had already forced a hasty topping of the tree before it dropped its crown on the house. No other remedy was possible. The truncated tree was still taller than anything other than the oldest palm trees (it's framed by the two tallest in the above photo), but its glory days were now clearly over. The loss of its upper third caused the tree's remaining branches to spread out in renewed vigor, extending them to the point that they began to sag and threaten to break. The old tree required either a serious and continuing pruning regimen or ... removal.

My parents made an economical and prudent decision, so the tree's fate was sealed. I passed the information along to my manuscript editor, who was aware of the tree's supporting role in my novel. He quickly replied to my message with a painfully apt poem by Seamus Heaney:
Clearances VIII

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A tale of two churches

Catholicism in transition

This is the weekend when Catholics in the United States begin to use the third edition of the English-language Roman missal, which makes several changes to the text of the mass. It is, overall, a more traditional translation, reinstating such things as the thrice-spoken “mea culpa” (rendered in English as, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”) and reverting to “And with your spirit” as the rendering of “Et cum spiritu tuo” (instead of the more mundane “And also with you”). Except for the hardcore ultramontanes who still pine for the old Tridentine mass in Latin, most conservative Catholics are gleeful, correctly seeing the new translation as further evidence of reactionary retrenchment in the Church—and a further diminution of the influence of Vatican II. Can veils for women be far behind?

In the past few months I have had occasion to step into two Catholic churches. (Before anyone asks, I will note that in neither case did anything shatter or burst into flames.) Both churches are modern constructions and had some notable features in common. In particular, they represented a big step back toward a more traditionally Catholic presentation, a far cry from the nearly featureless dark-paneled rectangular box that is St. Aloysius in Tulare.

I visited Our Lady of the Assumption on the occasion of a Portuguese festa in Turlock. The pastor's brother gave me a tour of the facilities. As someone old enough to have been an altar boy in the days of the Latin Mass, I have seen enough Church history to recognize a regression toward the mean. I told my guide that his brother's church represents a successful fusion of modern construction with traditional decor. My guide beamed, acknowledging that the Portuguese community in Turlock had aimed at that exact result when planning their church.

More recently I joined some family members at Holy Spirit Church in Fresno for the baptism of a nephew. The christening would follow the conclusion of the mass service, so I thought I was safe when I made a late arrival and loitered in the lobby. However, my eagle-eyed sister was too alert for me, noted my presence, and came out to collect me and take me inside. (As previously noted, no supernatural phenomena attended my entry into the sacred circle of mystical incantations and wafer transubstantiation.) The first thing I noticed was that Holy Spirit departs from the traditional parallel rows of pews in the same way as Our Lady of the Assumption. Unlike the Turlock church, however, the Fresno church has placed its crucifix so that it is invisible to those sitting in the side pews. From that perspective, where I was sitting with my sister's family, you might as well have been sitting in an Episcopal church. Holy Spirit's altar was a Protestant-compatible table and I'm sure the motley collection of art screens behind it provided ample peek-a-boo opportunities for the servers (both altar boys and altar girls at the service I attended).

The churches in Turlock and Fresno had another thing in common, and I regret not having any photographs to show you. Both of them have the Stations of the Cross (the “Via Dolorosa”) represented in mural form as a kind of frieze on the interior wall above the main entrance. In traditional churches, the fourteen Stations are usually wall plaques depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, seven of them equally spaced on the north wall and the other seven on the south wall (many old Catholic churches were preferentially oriented so that the altar was at the east end). The mural in Our Lady of the Assumption is dark and stark, graphically conveying the pain and anguish of the Savior's execution. I commented to my guide that it seemed more intense than some parishioners might prefer. He admitted that a few people in the community had lobbied to have the mural painted over after it had been unveiled, but that it was now generally accepted. The artist had had plans for other artwork in the interior of the church, but those had been shelved after the mural of the Stations of the Cross had been judged to sate the community's appetite for the artist's work.

By contrast, the Stations mural in Fresno's Holy Spirit is an exercise in kitsch, a truly unfortunate and distracting collection of excessively bright images in different sizes, cartoonish in conception and execution. The color palette appeared to be inspired by sidewalk chalk. If any venue cries out for disciplined and respectful depictions, I should think a church interior does. While the Our Lady of the Assumption mural pushed hard against the bounds of tradition in its display of angst (Jesus is amazingly serene in most of the crucifixion scenes in Stations of the Cross), the composition had a unity of purpose and conception. The Holy Spirit mural was a collage of disparate scenes united by garish colors and amateurish execution.

The results were occasionally unintentionally amusing (unless the artist was being deliberately subversive). The fifth Station depicts Simon of Cyrene, an innocent bystander, being impressed into service to help Jesus carry the cross lest the condemned prisoner die of exhaustion before the authorities get to nail him to it. The Holy Spirit mural makes it look as though Jesus is copping a feel of Simon's butt. In the tenth Station, Jesus is stripped of his garments. This scene in the Holy Spirit mural is so badly composed that it could be subtitled “Jesus flashes his Roman guards.” Both of the guards have stunned expressions on their faces, so they appear to be quite impressed. I made it through the service without chuckling aloud, but I suspect it looked like I was having a better time than the mass warranted.

It will take a few Sundays for practicing Catholics to work the kinks out of the new Roman missal, but I expect the complaints to be few. Regular mass-goers will quickly pick up on the changes and infrequent attendees (Easter and Christmas, anyone?) won't care. For former Catholics who outgrew religion and “put away childish things,” it's mostly a matter of curiosity and perhaps just a bit of nostalgia. The third edition of the Roman missal is yet another signpost that conservatives are in the ascendant in the Church, but we already knew that, didn't we?


In searching the web for photos of the Turlock and Fresno churches, I ran into the following dyspeptic reaction to Our Lady of the Assumption, posted by someone who thinks highly enough of himself to use “St. Christopher” as his handle:
What madness! A Catholic Church that has mostly Portuguese Mass. Oh yes — a TLM [traditional Latin mass] thrown in, at the Chapel at odd times on Sunday. Having cultural loyalty is a fine thing, and Portuguese is a wonderful language — but this focus on whatever is prevalent (Klingon Mass, anyone?) obliterates the meaning of what the Mass is supposed to represent. There is no question but that the Church must return to Latin, and a single, uniform Order of the Mass, as soon as is possible. Let those that wish to participate in something else, go to something else.
Is there any chance that “St. Christopher” might consider taking his own advice? No one is making him attend a Portuguese-language mass. For my own part, however, I think it might be fun to attend a Klingon mass. Once, anyway.


The diligent searching of my friend Gene O'Pedia has uncovered a pair of on-line images of the Holy Spirit mural. The colors are more muted in the photos than they appeared to me in real life, but I recognize the compositions and can confirm that these are the Stations of the Cross that I saw in Fresno. Their resolution is not high enough to zoom in too closely on the panels of particular interest, but they can still convey a sense of what I was talking about. The first image depicts, right to left, Stations 6 and 7 (“Veronica wipes the face of Jesus” and “Jesus falls for the second time”). The flat perspective of Station 7 (not Station 5, as I said above) makes it look like Jesus is patting Simon on the behind. The other photo shows Stations 10 and 11 (again, right to left: “Jesus is stripped of his garments” and “Jesus is nailed to the cross”). Again, the resolution is limited, but you can just tell that the two Roman soldiers are gaping at the undraped Jesus in Station 10. It's a fine example of religious kitsch.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A moment's reflection

Another conceptual understanding problem

I gave my algebra students a pretty little problem involving the graphs of functions and their inverses. The prompt was fairly simple:
The graph of y = f(x) is shown in the figure. Use the graph to find the following function values and then sketch the graph of the inverse function y = f −1(x) on the same coordinate grid.
The student was asked to find the values of f(−3), f(1), f −1(2), and f −1(10). As you can see from the graph, I conveniently provided my students with several points highlighted on the graph. If one examines the point on the function curve where x = −3, it is fairly easy to discern that y must be 2. Hence f(−3) = 2. Similarly, f(1) = 10. It's elementary graph reading.

After reading the initial two function values, I expected my students to discover the method in my madness, noting that I'm asking them to figure out the value of the inverse function for the input values 2 and 10, which were the initial output. Since the inverse function, by definition, maps in the direction opposite that of the original function, it immediately follows that f −1(2) = −3 and f −1(10) = 1. What could be simpler?

Apparently, lots of things. Some of my students were quite irked:

“You didn't give us the function.”

“On the contrary. I certainly did. Its graph is right there before you.”

“No, I mean, you didn't give us the formula. We can't figure out the inverse function without the formula.”

“Leave that for a moment. Can you do the first part of the problem? Can you find the value of the original function at x = −3 and x = 1?”

“No, I already told you: You didn't give us a formula to plug into.”

“I recommend you try looking at the graph a little longer.”

In a few variations on the above theme, the querulous student suddenly lit up and rushed back to his or her desk to fill in the answers. In other cases, the student instead sat down, head shaking, and appeared to be muttering sotto voce imprecations at the instructor's expense.

Later, of course, when the exams were returned, I demonstrated what I had expected them to do. Since most of them had memorized the procedure for computing an inverse function—switch x and y in the formula y = f(x) and solve for y—they should have realized that the presence of the point (1, 10) on the graph of the original function implies the presence of (10, 1) on the graph of the inverse. Previously perplexed students rolled their eyes: “Oh, is that all? Why didn't you say so?”

I thought I did.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hasta la vista, pendejo!

Telling more than they know

During the 6 o'clock hour on Friday morning, November 18, the KSFO talk-show hosts had some fun with the news item on the White House shooter. Babbler Brian Sussman and his trusty sidekick, “Officer” Vic, magnanimously agreed that it was important to protect the country's public officials (in stark contrast to their predecessors), but nevertheless found some cause for amusement.
Sussman:The media, though, has to really be bummed out. Because, okay, you look at the story, okay, think of this. He owns guns! All right?

Officer Vic:Yeah.

BS: He's from Idaho!

OV: Ah! That's two. We're getting close!

BS: He's a Christian!

OV: Oh! That's the big golden one right there.

BS: Oh, no, no, no. You really need a fourth one to really make this work.

OV: Yes.

BS: He needs to be white.

OV: Ah!

BS: Damn! His name is Ramiro Ortega Hernandez!

OV: Ah, darn it!

BS: He's Latin!

OV: Arrgh.

BS: We thought we had the perfect whitey. The bad Christian whitey from Idaho, who owned guns.

OV: They could even make him a tea-party guy!

BS: Oh, yes! Oh, we thought we had Idaho Whitey. The gun-owning man who's a Christian, who called Obama the Anti-Christ. But what's his name? What? His name's Ramiro Ortega Hernandez?

OV: Oh, no!

BS: Uh! Okay, wait—

OV: Can we anglicize it like we used to in baseball?

On the surface, of course, Sussman and his sidekick are simply mocking what they perceive as bias in the mainstream media (to which they apparently do not belong, despite being broadcast by a radio station that blankets the greater Bay Area). Without realizing it, though, they are making something else exceedingly clear: People with Hispanic surnames are automatically part of the constituency of the “mainstream” media. KSFO has no truck with such. Sussman and Vic draw the line of demarcation without a moment's hesitation.

And the right wing wonders why the damned Mexicans keep voting for the other guys.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I threw them a curve

Rote versus reason

Most math teachers would agree that we want two things from our students: (1) correct solutions to math problems and (2) an understanding of those solutions. Of course, some students are perfectly happy with mere technical facility: Please teach us the algorithm so that we can turn the crank on it, generate correct answers, get our college credit, and get the hell out of here. They balk when we probe for conceptual understanding. Other students, naturally, claim a profound knowledge of the conceptual underpinnings of the subject matter but lament their difficulty with the merely technical and computational aspects. Will the twain ever meet?

Course grades in math classes tend to be based mostly on the demonstrated ability to compute accurate results. It's more difficult to probe for evidence of their conceptual grasp. Occasionally, however, I give it the good old college try. Here's a graph I presented to one of my calculus classes. I asked my students to look at each of the points indicated by the red dots and make some judgments about the function and its first two derivatives.

My students had a little table to fill in. The instructions said, “Fill in the table, using +, –, 0, or DNE (for positive, negative, zero, and “does not exist,” respectively) for f(x), f ʹ(x), and f ʺ(x) at the indicated values of x.”

A small panic ensued. “Where's the formula for the function, Dr. Z?” “How can I compute derivatives if I don't have the formula?” I counseled them to calm down and consider that I wasn't asking for numerical values—yes, quibblers, except for 0—and that actual computations were unnecessary.

Consider, for example, the point corresponding to x = −1. The value of f(−1) is pretty clearly 5, hence positive. The point is also a local maximum, so a tangent line at that point would be horizontal; the slope is therefore 0 and that's the value of f ʹ(−1). Finally, the curve is concave down in the vicinity of a maximum, so f ʺ(−1) is necessarily negative.

No need to panic.

The trickiest case (if “tricky” is even the right word) is probably x = 3.2 (or thereabouts). It's approximately midway between a local maximum and a local minimum, suggesting that it must be at or near a point of inflection, where the concavity changes and the second derivative must be zero (or nonexistent). That takes a little discernment. In most cases, however, the answers should be evident to any first-year calculus student with a genuine understanding of the significance of the first and second derivative.

At the class's post-exam discussion of the results, the reviews for this problem were decidedly mixed. When pressed slightly, there was a grudging consensus that, “Oh, yes, it's clear now,” but my more computation-driven students remained unmollified. They preferred to demonstrate their differentiation chops on actual formulas using the rules they'd memorized.

The experience triggered an odd recollection with me. I remembered my grandfather at the dinner table, finishing off a meal my grandmother had prepared with a recipe she had never used before. She was eager for his verdict:

“Was it good?” she asked. “Did you like it?”

My grandfather nodded his head.

“Yes, thank you. It was very good. But don't make it again.”

A few of my students may despair, but I'm keeping that calculus problem in my recipe box.