Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Advertising conquers physics

Jewelry and reality

A regional jewelry chain has dug into the vaults to unearth a pair of commercials from a couple of years ago to promote sales of the Tacori line of rings. I understand, of course, that one should not confuse advertising with reality—especially not in the case of fine jewelry, which is traditionally entangled with all of the complications and unnaturally heightened romantic hopes and expectations of love and courtship. It doesn't matter. Every time the “Cupid's Arrow” commercial appears, I sit transfixed in grudging admiration of its blatant disregard for verisimilitude. If you can afford the expense of generating photo-realistic animation, why not use it with a careless disregard of the real-realistic world? Just shove that old camel through the eye of a needle! Rich people haunted by Matthew 19:24 will rejoice.

Just so you know it's no accident, Tacori violates the integrity of solid objects just as light-heartedly in its earlier “Checkmate” commercial. Again I cringe.

No doubt we're supposed to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy the surrealism of these highly transgressive advertisements. No over-thinking. Just go and buy the miraculous jewelry. Or ... are the magical powers inherent in the arrow and the chessmen instead? Or even just the black queen? Oh, the confusion of it all!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Warding off bullets with magic

Armored with irrationality

Ruben Navarrette was outraged by the behavior of some people in the wake of the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut. The syndicated columnist quickly took aim at those who offended his sensibilities: the people who decried America's insane love affair with guns. Navarrette was dismayed by the prompt and vigorous reaction by supporters of more stringent gun-control standards. In his view, they were guilty of not maintaining a sufficiently long period of silence. The NRA, at least, was good enough to duck and cover for an entire week before calling a press conference to double-down on their traditional gun-worshipping insanity.

Navarrette singled out in his column some especially egregious offenders against common decency:
How about giving a horrified and heartbroken nation a chance to mourn and bury the dead? How about showing some respect for the victims you claim to care about? How about giving politics, pet causes and partisan jockeying a rest until we wipe our tears and catch our breath?

Tell that to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who said after the shootings: “If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control and the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our society, I don't know when is.”
Sorry, Ruben. I agree with Nadler. Completely.

Navarrette points his accusing finger at Nadler and other gun critics and demands, “Have you no decency?”

Go to hell, Ruben.

In his defense, we should perhaps point out that Navarrette is legitimately worried over the state of the nation—although he dismisses Nadler's similar concern. The columnist fears for the safety of his children, as would any responsible parent. His solution? A return to childhood superstition.
I spent Sunday morning looking for answers in a place I hadn't been in a while—a pew of my neighborhood church. The woman next to me wore pain on her face, and didn't smile once during the hour-long service. I held on tight to my kids. During communion*, I asked the priest to bless them. As we walked toward the altar, I whispered, “This is to keep you safe.”
Yeah, Ruben. And a garlic clove dangling from a neck thong will keep vampires away.

*Note: Is Navarrette a nominal Catholic? If Navarrette has indeed been absent from his neighborhood church for a while, then he is guilty of the mortal sin of deliberately missing mass and therefore cannot legitimately partake of communion. I have more contempt for pretend-Catholics like Navarrette than those who take seriously the arcane rules of the club they belong to. If you think that communion is real, then you apparently believe in the Church's magical powers. How does that square with flouting the Church's rules except when you feel like going in for a tasteless snack?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Religion: the cure for science

Praying instead of studying?

I'm not sure what Bob Christopher was doing in college during his years as a biology major, but it sure wasn't learning science. Christopher had occasion during today's installment of “People to People” on Christian radio to discuss how learned-up he was about science. Seems, however, that it didn't take. During a program on Christmas titled “Jesus is the Reason,” Christopher fielded a question on evolution from a young man named Shawn, who hails from Waco, Texas. He promptly trotted out the “only a theory” meme:
Shawn: I'm really wondering, though, about evolution. I hear this a lot. I hear, of course, you know, we're descendants of Adam and Eve. You know, just kind of wondering what your thoughts are on evolution.

Bob Christopher: Well, Shawn, my degree in college is a degree in biology, so I spent a lot of time studying the theory of evolution. And that's exactly what it is: it is merely a theory. There's no scientific fact that supports evolution as the way we came into being. There is microevolution, there are small changes that occur within the species, but the species always remains the same. We don't see one species changing into another as evolution would have it. That's just not supported with the facts. But it is a theory. It's an intriguing theory. It's an interesting theory. It held no water until geologists came along and started proposing the idea that the earth was much older than we first believed. Up until the mid 1800s it was just a known fact—or at least everybody believed—the world was no older than six thousand years as far as the age was concerned. But geologists started proposing that quite possibly that it would be older than that, could be millions of years. And without that assertion into the scientific community, the theory of evolution would have died. Why? Because that theory requires time for it to be a reality. So the geologists helped move it along just a little bit and it took root in the scientific community and they've been exploring it and trying to figure it out ever since. But, quite frankly, I think it's a veil that they're using to cover up what they really believe, and what they really believe is that there is no God. And so they're using that veil of evolution to hide that fact.
Who is this “they” that Bob Christopher keeps talking about? This mysterious entity appears to comprise all scientists and teachers of science. Christopher's further remarks do not clarify his meaning. In fact, he concludes his argument with a shocking revelation.
Bob Christopher: And so schools have bought into it hook, line, and sinker, they're teaching it as if it was truth, but it's not truth. It is just a theory. It's a person's theory on how things came into being. It stands in opposition to what the word of God has to say, and as far as science is concerned— I love science. I was, like I said, a science major. I thought the courses I took in college were absolutely fascinating. I was intrigued by every single one of them. But science, if you follow the evidence, I think that evidence is going to lead you right back to God. It has to. God is the author of science. God knows how this world works. God is the very force that holds it together. He understands physics better than our best physicists that are out there. He understands the way the body functions better than any medical doctor, better than any biologist. He knows how our chemicals work inside of us better than any biochemist. He knows us better than anyone else. He knows how this thing works. So any study of science, any real study of science, that looks at the evidence and looks at the facts and lets the evidence and the facts speak for themselves, that person is going to be led to the Creator. And I think more and more scientists, up in the upper echelons of the scientific community are coming to that reality.
Really, Bob? The most prestigious members of the science community are embracing the God hypothesis? You'd think someone would have noticed this trend by now, especially since it entails a dramatic reversal of a highly publicized result from 1998, when it was determined that only 7% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences (is that “upper echelon” enough for you, Bob?) believe in a personal God. The God-botherers within the nation's scientific elite could hold a convention in a phone booth with room left over for the catering staff.

Better do it soon. Phone booths are going the way of the dodo.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Music. Therefore, God.

A different fine-tuned argument

The resident curmudgeon at the American Record Guide decided to share a few theological nuggets in his column in the November/December 2012 issue. Editor Donald Vroon has had personal experience of God through music, and shame on you if you don't acknowledge this as proof of the deity's existence:
I have often said that music is spiritual in its essence. It reaches us thru purely physical means (sounds) but it conveys so much more. (Actually, I believe that all spiritual values come to us thru physical things.) Music has always been viewed as divine, and the power of music makes it impossible to deny that there is a God. I think that is so obvious to the true music lover that we suspect that anyone who persists in denying God is fighting his own inner conviction that there must be. And he may have good reasons for that, but he may also be blinded by a false faith in reason and/or science that fails to see how limited their vision is. It may very well be that the largest, most important realities are beyond reason and science—both too simple and too complex for them.
As arguments go, it's not a particularly strong one. The foundation stones are shot through with the weakening striations of “I think that is so obvious” and “It may very well be.” Nor can I say that I am especially impressed by his wide-stance, have-it-both-ways declaration that some things are “both too simple and too complex” for comprehension by reason and science. Here, instead of tautology (“I believe because I believe”), he invokes internal contradiction. Sorry, Donald, but the Venn diagram blobs for “too complex” and “too simple” don't intersect.

Vroon cites Easter Vigil services as further evidence of his experience of the divine:
[T]he bishop stands up, spreads his arms, and shouts “The Lord is Risen”—and joy breaks forth: bells ring and peal, the organ comes to life and roars, the lights go up, and the candles are put out. And we sing! And every year at that moment I lose conscious control of myself and burst into tears. My surroundings vanish and I am on a higher plane—and I don't want to come down again.
Higher plane? Vroon is caught up in a well-choreographed theatrical event (with better staging than most religious spectacles of my experience) and equates that with ascending toward God. At least he's consistent. He continues:
That is exactly the same response I have to parts of Mahler—and Wagner, Strauss, and Bruckner.
Hey, me too! Vroon cites my favorite composers. But I don't confuse a deep emotional response to thrilling music with mystical communion with a godhead. In fact, I draw a conclusion opposite to that of the esteemed Mr. Vroon: If humans are capable of generating such profoundly stirring experiences, then where's the evidence (or the need) for positing divine intervention? While it's true that Mahler and Bruckner were imbued with religious feelings that they were trying to work out (while Wagner and Strauss mostly just worshipped themselves), Gustav and Anton place no obligation on me to give God credit for their compositional genius. I recognize it directly.
I have experienced enough with music to begin to rise to God.... I have tried to write about this a few times, and I am never satisfied that I have dealt with it adequately.
Indeed not. Perhaps because you want your ecstatic experience of music to entail more than emotional enjoyment and the physical impact of an endorphin rush. For me, the enjoyment is enough.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Deck the halls with Schadenfreude

Being good during the holidays

I first saw the anti-Obama LOL sticker last year on the back of an SUV that also carried the logo of a local Republican women's group. It seemed little more than kitschy snark from an aggrieved right-winger—especially in this deeply blue section of northern California. Poor thing. Of course, I once enjoyed displaying an anti-Bush sticker that called him the worst president ever. All in good fun! (Actually, I was in dead earnest.)

As we all know, Republicans are deeply devoted to recycling. Hence it was no surprise recently to see a vehicle (another SUV!) sporting a variation on the worst-president theme. This has probably been going on since the days of James Buchanan, if not before. (Even good old George Washington came in for some licks of his own from his political opponents.)

I'm thinking that perhaps I should get myself one of those Obama LOL stickers for my own vehicle, repurposing it to suit the happy results of the 2012 elections. Whose turn is it to laugh out loud now, bitches? On the other hand, my better judgment tells me it would be better to gloat internally rather than externally. In fact, that's what I did during the Thanksgiving holiday, when I was in the midst of disheartened family members whose trucks (and SUVs) sported Romney-Ryan stickers. A subliminal aura of gloom hovered over the festivities, although I had as cheerful and upbeat a demeanor as ever. Since they were reticent about their disappointments, I refrained from chortling my joy.

Even Dad tried—mostly successfully—to be good. Instead of his usual rants and jeremiads, he kept his own counsel and contented himself with watching the entertaining antics of his many great-grandchildren. His one slip-up, if it was even that, occurred during a conversation about a recent wedding attended by several of the members of the family. I didn't know the people involved, but my parents traveled to the Central Valley city where the nuptial mass was celebrated. The local church was an old-style building festooned with statuary and iconic art. Dad vigorously approved this exemplar of pre-Vatican II ecclesial practice. He waxed nostalgic while recounting the beauty of the church, the mass service, and the traditional hymns:

“It actually choked me up a couple of times. It really took me back. It made me thankful for my many blessings: My long life, good health, wonderful wife, great children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and getting to live in this nation while it was a free country.” Because, you know, it ain't anymore, what with that black tyrant squatting in the White House. I winced when he said, “while it was a free country,” but I kept quiet. Besides, the family has had plenty of experience dealing with him, and even the majority that tends to agree with him prefers to head him off before he launches into political oratory. In this case, a quick remark about the beauty of the bride took the conversation in a much safer direction and Dad subsided into silence. Perhaps he was contemplating the future of his great-grandchildren in socialistic bondage.

As Thanksgivings go, it was a relatively happy holiday. Anyway, as long as I don't provoke my father by actually saying, “Happy holidays!”

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Plus or minus

Rather missing the point 

One of my favorite negative reviews on is the following:
I don't understand why people say he is a good instructor. Many students in his class struggle to get a good grade. yes he is clear but his tests are extremely difficult. And expect a ton of repetitive homework assignments.
Let's deconstruct my student's complaint piece by piece:
Many students in his class struggle to get a good grade.
Yes? You mean they don't get good grades automatically? The student in question was enrolled in a calculus class. Such classes are notorious for easy grades, right? Yeah, right. More to the point: In a typical college class you can expect a distribution of grades, most of which are C's. Not what I would call “a good grade.” Good grades are A's and B's, earned only by those students who put in the effort.
[E]xpect a ton of repetitive homework assignments.
I checked. The syllabus contained homework assignments for each section with, typically, 12 to 20 problems. There were 33 sections that we covered, so students were expected to solve approximately 500 problems over the course of a 16-week semester, or a little over 30 exercises per week. (My bleeding heart weeps for them.)

Funny thing: There is a remarkably high correlation between doing the homework and getting one of those good grades. There were thirty students in the class. I note that only one student in the top half of homework performance was not earning an A or a B (and that one student was pulling a solid C). Of the fifteen students in the bottom half of homework performance, only four had “good” grades (three B's and one A [there's one in every crowd]). Conclusion: Do the work, get a good grade.
[H]is tests are extremely difficult.
Evidently not the case for those who work at it by doing the “repetitive” assignments. (Average scores were actually in the low eighties.)
yes he is clear
Thank you very much. Clarity is something I strive for and I am pleased that you noticed.
I don't understand why people say he is a good instructor.
Indeed you don't.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Check and mate

Several moves ahead

The president's most devoted advocates believe that Barack Obama is a political genius who plays eleventh-dimensional chess, always several moves ahead of his opponents. I was thinking about this a lot before the election, right after his bloodless performance in the first presidential debate spread dismay among the ranks of his supporters. Had he lost his touch?

I had been confident of the president's re-election. It shook me to see his Electoral College lead shrinking in Nate Silver's projections and his likelihood of winning falling to sixty percent. I wanted him back at eighty and, indeed, he gradually climbed back up there after Joe Biden kicked off the recovery phase of the campaign with a drubbing of the over-matched Paul Ryan.

In retrospect, I recall the worries I had in thinking that Obama was likely to put Romney away in the first debate. Sure, I wanted a stake driven through the heart of the Republican presidential ticket, but the governor's definitive defeat would divert huge rivers of SuperPAC cash from Romney-Ryan and funnel that money instead into regional campaigns for House and Senate seats. I was afraid that the result would be a solo victory for the president, while Democratic candidates were washed away in a tsunami of unregulated special-interest dollars.

The temporary Romney surge (the “Mittmentum” that horse-race-obsessed talking heads kept babbling about long after it faded away) put an end to my fears about down-ticket races. The Romney-Ryan effort would continue to soak up all of the available cash. Ironically, we have learned after the fact that Romney's vaunted management skills were not equal to the task of using his resources efficiently and effectively. Those monies he controlled directly through his campaign team were often squandered in over-priced media spots costing much more than the president's political ads. Obama's superior bang-for-the-buck may have neutralized the independent outside money that came down on Romney's side.

To borrow Ross Perot's term from an earlier presidential campaign, the “loud sucking sound” we all heard was the Romney-Ryan campaign vacuuming campaign dollars into a black hole of wasted opportunity. Did this Republican profligacy save the Senate campaigns of Jon Tester, Heidi Heitkamp, Tammy Baldwin, and Tim Kaine? Perhaps not, but it sure didn't hurt.

The Republican ticket was clearly hurt by incompetence at the top, with that negative impact trickling down to the state-level races. Did the president help the GOP fall on its face by pulling his punches in the first debate? Media reports that he was pleased with his performance suggest otherwise. Perhaps it wasn't eleventh-dimensional chess after all.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My brother's keeper

Cain and Abel?

A student was talking to a friend. He sounded a bit irked.

“My brother is enrolled in a college in Oakland. He's having a really bad time in his math class.”

His friend nodded her head in sympathy. The young man continued his tale of woe.

“Yeah, a really bad time. You know, I took the placement test for him so that he could get into the class in the first place, but it's really kicking his butt!”

Strange to say, the boy sounded exasperated. Here he had done his brother this great big favor, helping him enroll in a class for which he was not prepared, and nevertheless his brother was squandering this golden opportunity by flunking the class. No doubt the brother was insufficiently grateful, too.

At least the young man has a great future before him. He'd be a natural as a Republican campaign consultant.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Must be present to win

A cry for help

One of my students—let's call him “Dick”—sent me a distressed e-mail. He was not doing well in class and was hoping for some wise words of guidance from his teacher. His semi-coherent message ran thus:
hey Dr.Z dick here,
hey i wanted to run over a little bit of questions, 1.please tell me if there is anything you can pinpoint from my work that i can work on to develope the grasp of this sections.i do not want to fail and sometimes i feel i can grasp it then sometimes i fail it.i do not want to fail this class i meet with tutors every week twice and home tutors and i can do decent but cannot prove my worth on every other using the dropin ctr efficiently...any help you can recommend i do not want to lose my financial aid as it is viable to my continued succession.i can retake the course next semester as a retry but do not want to receive a W as it may discontinue my aid as well..
I often reply immediately to such messages, both to reassure the student and to prevent them from getting lost in the in-box maelstrom. Students benefit most from timely feedback. This time, though, I sat on my hands and just stared. And stared. And walked away from the computer.

Dick was in class the next day. I asked him to see me at the end of the period. He dutifully approached me as his classmates filed out of the room.

“I got your message, Dick, but I have to say I'm puzzled. Isn't it obvious what you need to do?”

“Huh? I'm trying everything I can, Dr. Z!”

“Even attending class? You routinely miss one class session per week and you often skip two. I'm less impressed about the frequency with which you meet with tutors if you don't attend actual class sessions.”

“Well, uh, sometimes I can't make it.”

“So it seems. But if you can't attend class, you can't reasonably expect to pass it. And where is the work you're doing with your tutors? I didn't see any homework from you for the last two chapters. So far, in fact, you've missed about thirty percent of the homework and quizzes. You'd barely be passing if you got perfect scores on the remaining seventy percent, but you're nowhere close to that.”

Dick had nothing to say, but he was nice enough to look embarrassed.

“Dick, I was astonished by your message, especially since it should be perfectly obvious that you desperately need to come to class and pay attention to the lessons. You can't skip out on a third of our sessions and survive. Few students could get away with that. I need to see you in class, on time, every day for the rest of the semester. That's my advice.”

He nodded his head. He even showed up the next day. Two days in a row. That's good! I wait to see if he makes it to three, which has occurred before—but rarely.

One thing sticks in my mind, though. Dick was clearly surprised—startled, even—at my advice. The notion of actually coming to class regularly had never occurred to him.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Oops! ... I did it again

It was an accident.

I gave my students a take-home quiz, due at the beginning of our next class period. This doesn't happen too often, but it's a nice opportunity for them to score maximum points by working together and carefully comparing notes before submitting their results. With a few exceptions (the handful of students who prefer to keep their work as secret as possible), my students spring at the chance to cooperate and rack up the points.

This time was no exception. However, one student e-mailed me with a concern. “Abe” had transportation issues and was afraid he might be late to class or even miss it entirely. As a precaution, he had scanned his solution to the quiz and attached the image to his message. I wrote back to put him at ease, confirming my receipt of his work, and wishing him good luck in making it to class the next day.

As it turned out, Abe was in class that next morning and handed in the original version of his quiz. I slipped it into my binder along with all of the others. Like the absent-minded professor I am, I quite forgot that I had printed out his scan and already had that in my quiz folder. During my grading session that afternoon, I inadvertently graded Abe's quiz twice, marking up both the original and the scan.

I noticed my oversight while sorting the quizzes into alphabetical order for purposes of entering the scores in my gradebook. I placed the two versions of Abe's quiz side by side and discovered that they were still identical: My red-ink marks on the two quizzes were identically placed, the corrections were a perfect match, and both quizzes bore the exact same score.

Naturally I was pleased. Consistent grading is one of the most important factors in treating students equitably. Here I had evidence that my correction process was rigorously—even rigidly—consistent. I have achieved the gold standard in the potentially capricious and subject process of grading!

Either that, or I'm a robot.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Did not do the math

An example of undercutting

If a large fraternal organization invites you to be the speaker at its annual fundraiser, you should definitely accept. If that same organization asks you to contribute a signed copy of your novel for the silent auction, you should provide it. If they reserve a table in the lobby for a local bookseller to hawk your book, your delight should exceed all bounds!


If they put a starting bid on your book of $25 when it's being sold for $21 in the lobby, don't be surprised if your book is left behind on the auction table. Oops!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Corporations are people

Well, kind of

Nothing is more important to the continuing success (or failure!) of an organization than its hiring process. Bring in the wrong people and you're doomed. Bring in the right people and you have a fighting chance. Hence I never pass up an opportunity to serve on one of my college's hiring committees. Despite the onerous task of wading through dozens of thick application packets, it's worth it in order to participate in the selection of my future colleagues, supervisors, and support staff. It's also educational.

As you might imagine, some applications make more interesting reading than others. Each candidate's personal statement of interest strives to distinguish the candidate from other, supposedly less qualified, applicants. The candidate has to tread the fine line that separates persuasive self-promotion from repellent bragging. One must also take into account one's audience and do the necessary homework to research the target institution. I have quite lost track of the number of letters addressed to Large Community College that say, “My lifelong dream is to work at an educational institution as excellent as Medium Community College.”

I presume that was a search-and-replace failure while preparing different packets for LCC and MCC. Proofread your submissions, people!

Of course, there are more subtle errors than merely getting the college's name wrong. One particularly fascinating example springs to mind as a perfect illustration of a candidate that did too little homework in preparing his application for a faculty position. Here's a paraphrase of the key paragraph:
In an era of shared governance in community colleges, I have vital hands-on experience that prepares me to be especially effective and productive as a professor at your institution. While serving as department chair at Country City College, I was tasked with the job of providing instructor-perspective input to the Dean of Education in creating faculty assignments. Although the actual responsibility of making faculty teaching assignments rests with the Dean of Education, it was frequently necessary, in order to meet semester deadlines, for me to present the Dean with detailed faculty-assignment proposals as a fait accompli. I thus, in effect, did a significant portion of the Dean's job during the four years I was his faculty advisor and therefore possess actual administrative experience at the management level that should enhance and inform my contributions as a new faculty member at Large Community College.
As the members of the LCC hiring committee sat around a long conference table and passed around the application packets for comment, several of us took special notice of the unique qualifications of the candidate from Country City College. Imagine—we could hire someone who had actually done a big part of his ineffective supervisor's job!

We were not prepared to make any decisions at that point because the hiring committee was awaiting the arrival of its chair, who had to wrap up a prior meeting before joining us for candidate screening. When he arrived, the application from the CCC professor was on top of the stack at his end of the conference table. He spotted it and immediately picked it up.

“Well, here's a name I recognize! He was a faculty rep on my advisory team when I was Dean of Education at Country City College!”

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sean Hannity is right!

Extreme right—but in this case also correct

As a rule, I do not listen to Sean Hannity's predictable right-wing blather. He's a Seanny One-Note who harps on Obama's supposed misdeeds and can be readily summarized by “liberals bad, sufficiently crazy conservative nutbags good.” Today, however, he delivered a priceless nugget while self-importantly explaining the universe to his dutifully credulous listeners. Not having subscribed to his podcast (I'm not completely crazy), I may not have captured his words with perfect verbatim fidelity, but this is very, very close:
Perhaps in the future some young people will look back and remember this period of history. I name it for you now: the Era of Radical Extremism.
Couldn't have put it better myself, Sean!

As you might have guessed, he was pontificating on the excesses of the thin-skinned Muslim rioters (and the extremists who used them as cover to attack our embassy in Libya), but the Era of Radical Extremism perfectly characterizes the Tea-Party-drenched cult that is today's Republican Party. Eisenhower would be read out of today's GOP for his boldness in denouncing the military-industrial complex. Goldwater would be repudiated for embracing gay rights. Ronald Reagan would be in danger of getting blacklisted for his signature on a series of tax-increase measures (both in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.), but that would be too inconvenient, so today's Republicans prefer to worship a carefully edited icon of Reagan, the awkward bits of his history consigned to the memory hole.

Thanks for the nice label, Sean. I hope you wear it proudly!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Too cool for school

No royal road to algebra

Although its hours have been trimmed by the current state budget crisis, my college's Tutoring Center continues to serve as a lifeline for many of our students. Each semester, therefore, I make a point of ensuring that my math students are aware of the facility's existence. I don't just tell them, I show them. Thus it was once again that, during the second week of the semester, I gathered up the entire class and took them on a “field trip.”

It puzzled my students when I announced it, of course. I told them to leave their books and papers behind in the classroom, which I would lock behind them. We would take a few minutes to stroll down the sidewalk to the Tutoring Center, which was only a couple of buildings over. Short field trip. Once I mentioned where we were going, some students nodded their heads in comprehension, grasping my purpose. Other students, however, had a different reaction.

One came up to me, backpack in hand, clearly ready to make a break for it.

“Is this required?” he inquired.

“We're all going to the Tutoring Center,” I said, in oblique response.

“Yeah, but do we have to? Is it an assignment?” He was nothing if not persistent.

“We're all going to the Tutoring Center and we'll be back in a few minutes to start on the next topic,” I said, demonstrating a charming obtuseness.

I don't think my student was charmed. He got to the point.

“Does this affect our grade? Are we getting participation points?” he asked.

I looked right at him, allowing my surprise to show.

“‘Participation points’? In a college class?”

He fell silent but unrepentant. He wanted points if he was going to go to the Tutoring Center with his classmates. It was finally obvious I wasn't giving any. He trailed along behind the rest of the group and I expected him to lag increasingly until he took a “wrong turn” and vanished toward the parking lot.  I was thus mildly surprised and pleased to see that instead he stuck it out and hung at the periphery of the group as I introduced them to the instructional assistant who managed the math tutors in the Center and walked everyone over to the area where drop-in tutoring occurred. Now that my students had been physically present in the facility and had met the key personnel, I figured it was much more likely that they would feel comfortable about returning to it when they needed help.

We returned to our classroom and launched into the lesson for the second half of the class period. The point-grubbing student sat quietly in the back, apparently ruing his decision not to skip out. At least I assume so, since in the next few days he developed a habit of nonattendance or early departure. When our first exam came along, he achieved the class's low score, missing a D by several points. (In fact, his score in the thirties might reasonably be characterized as an F-minus-minus.) He had never come to my office hours and he had never darkened the door of the Tutoring Center again.

I guess he really needed those participation points.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Dad goes to the dogs

Who let them out this time?

Like a mischievous child with poor impulse control, my father just can't help it. When things are too quiet and too civil for too long, he has to poke someone in the ribs or otherwise pick a fight. Fortunately, he prefers a verbal brawl to a physical one, preferentially in the form of e-mail. Although he knows I don't welcome (and, in fact, disdain) his habit of forwarding crude right-wing messages, every so often he “forgets” and accidentally includes me among the forwardees. I am not amused.

In his most recent display of execrable taste, he sent out the following:
My Dogs

This morning I went to sign my dogs up for welfare.
At first the lady said,
"Dogs are not eligible to draw welfare."
So I explained to her that my dogs are mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can't speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddy's are.
They expect me to feed them, provide them with housing and medical care.
So she looked in her policy book to see what it takes to qualify.
My dogs get their first checks Friday.

Damn, this is a great country.
I managed to read the entire thing without bursting into good-natured laughter. Imagine that. I guess I can't take a light-hearted joke, can I? Dad knows that I will not keep silent in the face of such noxious trash and can be relied upon to use “Reply All” in response. Not wanting to disappoint him (even while understanding that I was feeding the troll), I fired this off:
Yes, it’s a great country, and perhaps in Obama’s second term it’ll become a still greater country in which overtly racist humor is even more disdained than it is today.
Despite years of combat, I am still unable to predict which bright and shiny thing in my ripostes will attract Dad's attention. Would he blow up at the thought of a second Obama term, a notion that haunts his nightmares? Would he take umbrage at the charge of racism? He chose the latter, and replied with wounded innocence:
Tsk tsk. Not the dogs, old man. You.

Antics like these unpleasantly remind me of early harbingers in the days when my father was not so overtly a right-wing nutter. Even back then he couldn't always keep it tamped down. I recall some forty-plus years ago when I was sitting at the kitchen table, painstakingly filling out a college application. In those days many schools required that you attach a wallet-size photo to the finished packet. Dad peeked over my shoulder as I carefully glued the photo in the indicated spot.

“What's that for?” he asked. “Do they want to make sure you're not a nigger?”

Several seconds went by as the rubber cement set and I silently rubbed off the excess from the margins of the photo.

“Hey,” said Dad. “I asked you a question. Didn't you hear me?”

“Yes, I heard you,” I replied with a brittle voice. “I was ignoring you.” (In my brain's playback mechanism I can hear myself archly saying, “I was doing you the courtesy of ignoring you,” but I'm pretty certain that's the fictionalized version that came to me later via l'esprit de l'escalier. Maybe I'll save it for a book.)

My remark was following by more silence. Then Dad gave a short laugh and strolled off. And a few months later he did not balk at coughing up the outrageous tuition at the private school to which I was admitted. I owe the old so-and-so the world.

But he presumes. Damn, but he presumes.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Big bad seven

HT to HT

This really crept up on me: the seventh anniversary of the launching of Halfway There. I started this blog shortly after completing my third and final stint in graduate school, needing to do something to keep my powerfully over-educated brain busy. Either that, or to sublimate my compulsion for keyboard pounding.

It's often been fun, although occasionally disappointing. How can certain segments of the world resist the rationality of my pellucid prose? Yet I strive to avoid the conclusion that people who disagree with me are either foolish or evil (although occasionally they seem to be both). Such a conclusion would be bad for amicable family relations, seeing as so many of my relatives insist on doing silly things like supporting the right-wing policies that suck the marrow from their bones. But I preach at them in vain just as they do at me (except, of course, that I use truth and they use falsehood).

In recent years the sublimation of my keyboard-pounding jones has taken the form of novel-writing, but one modestly successful publication is not likely to be the start of a burgeoning career in fiction. Perhaps after the movie rights are sold or the opera version has its premiere. We'll see. In the meantime, school is back in session and it's only a matter of time before a few more “weird student” stories are collected.

And maybe we'll make it to the 8th anniversary.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reviews are in!


Do me a favor? People have been asking me if there's going to be a Kindle version of my novel. The answer is a firm maybe. It will happen only if the publisher gets the notion that there's a significant demand for an e-book edition. Would you please go to the Amazon page and click on “I'd like to read this book on Kindle”? Thanks!

A few unsolicited reviews have trickled in since last month's publication of Land of Milk and Money. The good news is that they're positive. Right now there are three five-star reviews on Amazon, although one of them appropriately notes that it was written by a friend of mine. (Thanks, buddy!) The other two, however, are by people I have never met and don't know. I have to thank them for taking the time and trouble to post such positive reviews of my book. Muito obrigado!

 Here's what Karen Davis of Maryland had to say:
A "read straight through" delight, July 31, 2012

Disclaimer: I read the author's blog, but I don't know him. Still, his writing there is delightful, so I was prepared to enjoy the book. I just wasn't prepared to enjoy it quite so much. I started it on my commute to work this morning, and finished it this evening, doing little else but read. The story hooked me, the characters are vivid and convincing, and the narrative structure pulled me right in. At first I paid a lot of attention to the dates provided, but fairly soon I felt grounded enough in the family's life to be able to place when things were happening — what seems a bit haphazard at first is anything but. The huge family, bound together by the dairy farm, unravels in an inevitable and real way after the death of the matriarch, who knew that "land, houses, and cows" — and money — would come between them. Her attempt to prevent that serves as the spark, and we get to know them all before we learn how it all ends. (Or maybe not "all".) This book is a joy to read.
Jeffrey W. Hatley then weighed in with the following:
A Wonderful Book, August 6, 2012

Short summary: This is the best work of fiction I have read in a very long time, and you should absolutely read it.

Long Summary:

The first thing I should mention is that this is not the type of book I would ordinarily read. If I were browsing the book store, I probably would not have been gripped by the book's synopsis on the back cover. I bought this book because I'm a long-time fan of the authors blog, so I was familiar with his skilled writing.

This book greatly exceeded my high expectations.

Written in an episodic fashion, Land of Milk and Money uses short, non-chronological anecdotes to tell the story of several generations of the Francisco family and their dairy farm, as well as the legal battle that ensued when the family matriarch passed away. While this may sound like a slightly confusing way to write a story, it is not; the author uses it masterfully, creating three-dimensional characters and relating several decades-worth of incidents, resulting in a book which is a model of clarity. The author does helpfully include a Cast of Characters in the back of the book, but one quickly learns all of the major players and ceases to need this cheat sheet.

Despite being about a legal battle, Land of Milk and Money is light-hearted, and I often found myself chuckling at Candy's follies, Ms. Onan's ineptness, Jojo's ingenuity, and Paul's pedantry. By the book's conclusion, I had developed an attachment to many of the characters, and I can't help but feel that there are even more wonderful anecdotes that didn't make the cut. While I doubt it's in the making, I would certainly read the sequel!

Land of Milk and Money is an extremely fun read, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Please, read this!
Nice! How could I possibly quibble with that? (Although I admit that I did correct one misspelling because it's difficult for me to resist such things.)

By the way, Jeffrey is completely correct. There were a number of omitted anecdotes. Here's a little list:

The voyage to Brazil
The wearing of the green
Alberto's wisdom
If I might have a word
Visit to the University Farm
I want to be a priest
A night at the opera
Want to be a teacher?
Walking past the church
The Einsteinian cow

All but the last of these episodes were written up and included in the manuscript at one point or another. The first one, The voyage to Brazil, was published on-line at the Comunidades site early last year while the manuscript was still under consideration at Tagus Press. During the editing process, the segment was flagged for its comparative length and for being too much of a distraction from the main plot. I had to (reluctantly) agree.

“The wearing of the green” is based on an old blog post from 2005. The time of red and green amused me enough to want to recycle it, but my editor deemed it peripheral to the plot. As he noted in an initial reading of the manuscript, “the story of Paul's evolution from child prodigy to mathematician is well-enough told and does present a focal point for an alternative assimilation narrative, [but] I'm not altogether persuaded it fully coheres with the rest of the book.”

Yeah, busted! He singled out several of the more autobiographical segments and recommended them for deletion. Of the ten deleted titles above, I see that fully seven of them were episodes of this kind.

What will I do with all of the chunks of text left over from the manuscript's slimming process? I don't  know. While most of them don't stand alone very well, neither do they form a coherent whole. Perhaps they are fated to go into literature's dustbin. Although crowded, I'm sure the literary waste receptacle can make room for these leavings. And who knows? With a little bit of patience, they might eventually be reunited with the anecdotes that survived the winnowing process, but ... on the shelf or in the dustbin?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Michael Voris vs. Bill Donohue

O brächten beide sich um! 

Sometimes it is impossible to choose sides. I mean, do we really care whether Mothra defeats Godzilla or vice versa? Does it actually matter whether it's the Wolfman or Frankenstein's monster who emerges victorious? That's the ambivalent feeling I have while observing Michael Voris locked in mortal combat with Bill Donohue. Both men are such perfect exemplars of shallow, sneering sanctimony that Mime's fervent wish from Act II of “Siegfried” comes to mind.

Voris has a well-honed more-Catholic-than-the-pope shtick working for him. He eagerly awaits the imminent Church schism that will drive out the insufficiently devout “cafeteria Catholics” and leave a small but fervent remnant of the ultramontane. Only then will the greatly reduced but greatly purified American branch of the Roman Catholic Church finally be cleansed of the taint of the heresy of Americanism—that vile doctrine of separation of church and state once embraced by the notorious John F. Kennedy but recently denounced by the virtuous Rick Santorum. (Yeah, that's right. There's a segment of modern Catholicism in the United States that regards Santorum as superior to Kennedy.)

Normally Bill Donohue of the Catholic League would not have much to say about Michael Voris. Donohue, after all, is much the greater public figure, a familiar face on television whenever he imagines that the Catholic Church is being unfairly maligned. If anything, Donohue might be inclined to give Voris a condescending little pat on the head (Don't muss the hair, Bill—or whatever that is!) and encourage him to keep up the good work. But recently Voris has been attacking Donohue, and sweet old Uncle Bill can't quite bring himself to ignore it. Those flea bites are getting itchy!

You can almost taste Voris's jealousy of Donohue's high profile as he describes the Catholic League's president as a member of the “Catholic elites”: “you see and hear them everywhere as they appear on and run TV, radio, newspapers, and many magazines.” [Subtext: And all I have is this lousy YouTube channel! And my greatest hit rates occur when Pharyngula readers come to mock me!]
Last week Mr. Donohue appeared on the Lou Dobbs show on Fox News and absolutely ripped honest Catholics who are concerned over the scandal of Obama having been invited by Cardinal Dolan to the Al Smith dinner in New York.
Hint: Voris numbers himself among those “honest Catholics.” This diatribe is just one small segment of a much longer rant titled “Obama and Peasant Catholics,” available on YouTube as part of the ChurchMilitant.TV channel (for all of your right-wing extremist Catholic enjoyment).

In response, Donohue deigned to notice Voris's existence, although not by name (perish forbid!). The Catholic League issued a statement attributed to Donohue, here excerpted:
It is customary, though not compulsory, for the New York Archbishop to invite the presidential candidates from the two major political parties to the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York City. This year both candidates will be there. Some are not happy with these choices, especially the decision to invite President Obama. Cardinal Timothy Dolan has not been shy about his criticisms of the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate, yet he decided to rise above the politics of the moment and allow the presidential candidates to partake in this charitable event.

On the August 9 edition of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” (Fox Business Channel), I vigorously defended Cardinal Dolan’s decision. I talked with him earlier that day about this issue and found, unsurprisingly, that the New York Archbishop wasn’t budging in his conviction that the HHS mandate must be fought with every tool we have. His resolve is unflinching. For me, that was the bottom line. But not for others.

If Catholics want to change the culture, they need to engage it.... Acting diplomatically may at times make for a hard swallow. But following protocol is not analogous to prostituting one’s principles.
I hope this makes it clear. If Donohue had any principles, this would not compromise them. Here endeth the lesson.

But I'm sure the noise will continue.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hey, Idiot! Buy this!

Selling to sociopaths
It's a problem as old as gaming itself. Stay home and just keep playing, or get to work on time so that your coffee-breath boss doesn't ride you like a rented scooter. Who says you have to choose? Your PS/3 stays at home, but the game goes with you. Never stop playing. PlayStation Vita.
Have you seen the charming advertisement? Do you identify with the tragic sufferings of the poor gameplayer who has to decide between soothing recreation and gainful employment? Do you rejoice upon learning of Sony's brilliant solution to the dilemma? With a PlayStation Vita you can keep playing anywhere, even as you're strolling to work! Even as you cross busy intersections with never a care about speeding traffic! Even at your desk after you survive the trip to the office!

No doubt many hot tears of relief and gratitude were spilled when Sony unveiled its “Never stop playing” commercial. Anyone who was in fear of actually getting a life was now miraculously granted a new lease on irrelevance.

But perhaps I overstate the case. Surely you might still be considered relevant by the survivors of the victims of the multi-vehicle pileup at the intersection where you stepped off the curb without looking. These things happen. Hope you didn't lose your place in your game!

Anyway, there are more direct ways to hurt people than stepping into their path. You could get instead. It has an even more devil-may-care approach to the welfare of the unfortunate citizens of reality. With and a smart phone or other portable video device, you can watch commercial-laden movies for free whenever you want. Even while riding a bicycle! As the commercial demonstrates, you can happily bike through the middle of a picnic or outdoor wedding ceremony while your attention is riveted to the screen. Not even nirvana could be better than this! Besides, those people in the park were just being stupid when they failed to take into account the possibility of bike riders under the influence of Crackle. I mean, it's like all their fault!

Crackle marketing has yet to upload the ad celebrating the destruction of a picnic and disruption of a wedding, but an earlier promo spot is just as true to the theme. With on a portable video device, you can conveniently destroy your neighborhood from the comfort of your riding lawnmower. Now who wouldn't want to do that!?

Oh, right. Sane people.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Publicity coup of the century!

Of course, the century is young 

The cover of my novel has now been viewed more than 900,000 times on YouTube. Can one million be far behind? No doubt bestsellerdom is right around the corner!

Or perhaps not. This “publicity coup of the century” is certainly amusing and entertaining, but I fear that it's no guarantee that my book will be eagerly snatched up by titillated YouTube viewers. One is permitted to doubt that YouTube is teeming with readers of the modern novel. However, if only one percent of the viewers were to flock to their bookstores or order my novel on-line ... pause to do the math ... omigawd! ... that's six times the original press run! Let's get started on the second printing! (Yes, small university presses are parsimonious with their initial commitments. I'll bet that movie rights are still pretty cheap right now.)

Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox are two young men from the Sacramento region who in 2006 had the single most popular video on YouTube (with nearly 25 million hits). Their video channels continue to be among YouTube's most widely viewed. Their website offers merchandise, games, and third-party animations, all part of Ian and Anthony's burgeoning entertainment enterprise.

I first stumbled across them because they were local (and, no, neither ever enrolled in one of my classes, so I don't really know them). Their cracked sense of humor may be an order of magnitude (and a full generation) beyond mine, but I started to think of them again while pondering my situation. How does a first-time novelist get some notice for his book if his publisher is a small university press with no advertising budget? Hmm. The obvious answer is free publicity!

It hasn't gone too badly. For example, I got on local TV as a stand-in for Star Trek's William Shatner. (Nope. Not kidding. Go look up serendipity in your dictionary.) The next step, of course, was intergalactic fame. Or, at least, world famousness. That's where Smosh came in, the megahit YouTube channel. I knew that the boys had a recurring feature titled “Mail time with Smosh,” during which they would comb through the booty found in their post office box. Imagine how delightful it would be if Anthony or Ian were to hold my book up in front of their video camera and gush over its excellence!

No, I did not think of this during a drunken stupor. Honest. I don't drink. The idea came to me while I was stone cold sober.

So I sent Smosh a letter touting the glorious features of my book. Strangely enough, I omitted my book's title and mailed the letter anonymously. That's right. It was a teaser.

A week later, I did it again. There were a couple of new items added to the teaser list. Still no title or author name, though. I wanted Anthony and Ian to be aware that there was something to anticipate in their future mail. Given the tonnage of fan mail that Smosh receives, I figured it was worth investing some effort in gaining their attention. Finally, of course, I mailed them the book, including the final version of the teaser list:
Here now! A book full of Anthony & Ian’s favorite things!
  • Titties! (on the cover)
  • Milk! (passim)
  • Bullshit! (p. 78)
  • Frontal nudity! (p. 236)
  • Purple nurples (two!)! (p. 115)
  • Sarcastic Spanish! (p. 251)
  • Explosions! (p. 122)
  • Collisions! (p. 227)
  • The F-word! (pp. 25, 26, 38, 156, 203)
  • Penile mutilation! (p. 140)
  • Cows! (everywhere—including on the envelope this time!)
  • Gay bars [where straight boys secure in their masculinity can go because they’re cool]! (pp. 159-164, 178)
  • Lawyers in distress! (every chapter)
The only book in the known universe to contain the sentence “Jesus didn’t like having his dick shortened”!
My efforts were deemed worthy of Smosh's attention. On July 23, 2012, the boys posted another installment of “Mail time with Smosh” on their IanH channel. They devoted 30 seconds out of their six-minute video to my novel. Anthony started the segment (at 1:25) by effusively gushing, “Oh, my God, guys! We got the best book ever! It's a book full of all of our favorite things!” Tongue firmly in cheek, I'm sure, but one has to appreciate the cooperation.

Check it out for yourselves. (Then go out and buy copies of my fabulous Smosh-endorsed book!)

What's next? Well, I can't rightly say. (For one thing, I think the Vatican post office strictly screens the mail.)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Bedtime for banzai

Your afterlife is wrong!

PBS has been rebroadcasting “The War,” the multi-part Ken Burns documentary on World War II. Last night I watched the final episode, “A World without War.” As its situation became more dire, Japan ramped up its use of suicide pilots—the infamous kamikaze. One survivor of a kamikaze attack was Maurice Bell of Mobile, Alabama, who was a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when a Japanese pilot crashed into the ship.

“They was trained to fly their planes one way and no return,” explained Bell. “And when they went out after a ship or something, they had their funeral before they actually left and they knew they was never coming back. They was under the impression that if they gave their life that way for their country they'd have a special place in heaven for them automatically—which wasn't true.”

Bell delivered that final phrase with an ironic emphasis, mocking the credulity of the kamikaze who was supposedly expecting to be ushered into paradise upon the completion of his mission. For some reason, the U.S. sailor seemed absolutely certain that the man who attacked his ship has not been enjoying the delights of a luxurious Shinto afterlife. I wonder: Does he similarly dismiss the dogma of a Christian afterlife?

I'm just curious how he can be so sure. Either way.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Stupidity in spaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

Idiots write letters

There's nothing like a successful space mission to set off the smugly ignorant. “Think about the children!” they cry. They wring their moist hands over the millions and billions of dollars that they assume were wastefully blasted into space instead of used for charitable works. This morning's San Francisco Chronicle provided a perfect case in point:
But what about the hungry?

The land rover Curiosity arrives on Mars safely. What a feat!

But $2 billion to find water on a planet when hundreds of children go to bed hungry, when teachers, police and firefighters are dismissed? Where are our priorities?

People might say, “But look what we get from our space travel.” When a child says, “Mommy, I'm hungry,” does her mother say, “I know honey, but isn't it wonderful we have Teflon”? What a country.

RMS-O, San Francisco
Damn! The stupid is strong in this one. Did you catch the “hundreds of children”? The ignorant letter-writer doesn't even appreciate the scope of the problem she is decrying. There are millions of children in the United States alone who lack adequate supplies of food, without even taking into account the more severe problems elsewhere in the world. Totally clueless people should not be giving others advice.

That, however, is not my main point. I want to underscore the stupidity of blaming NASA's budget for our failure to ameliorate social ills. As Isaac Asimov pointed out decades ago, it makes no sense to take money from one worthy cause to fund a different worthy cause when so many unworthy money-pits are right under our noses. The cost of the Curiosity mission was reported at approximately $2.5 billion (which the Associated Press foolishly cited as “budget-busting”). That total amount would barely have covered three days of the misbegotten war in Iraq. And you may recall that war did last a little over three days.

That sheds a slender ray of perspective-giving light on the subject, doesn't it?

In the meantime, quite apart from the exciting prospects of scientific discovery and exploration, Curiosity's budget supported (and supports) teams of engineers, scientists, and technicians. These people are a key component of the nation's tech base and infrastructure. Should we outsource all of their jobs to China or India? Besides, they pay mortgages and feed their children just like everyone else. None of the Curiosity budget dollars were simply blasted into space. They were spent on the ground, adding to the economic contributions of our technological and scientific endeavors.

Let's take up a contribution to shoot the San Francisco letter-writer into space. She'll be right at home in the vacuum.

Monday, August 06, 2012

One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy, ...

Ma Bell always rings twice

First she came for my Internet service. Then she came for my cell phone!

Okay, I know it's anachronistic to refer to AT&T as “Ma Bell.” Those good old days are mostly gone, even if the company with the Death Star logo has gobbled up a number of smaller operations in the years since the big break-up. (Apparently we don't mind monopolies nearly as much as we used to in olden times. Life is much simpler with only a few phone companies and a handful of banks. I mean, what could go wrong?)

In my case, AT&T solemnly informed me that my DSL service was being discontinued. Not to worry! I would be offered a wonderful opportunity to upgrade to fiber-optical U-verse! My speed would increase and my costs would stay the same. Furthermore, I could sign up for all kinds of new digital television and music services. Yippee.

The bulky new modem showed up (way bigger than the compact little DSL modem), complete with instructions for user installation. They informed me that my Internet connection would go dark at approximately 8:00 in the morning, after which I should replace the DSL device with the new U-verse modem (is it even correct to call it a modem?). I was told that my service activation would be at 8:00 in the evening.

Okay. I guess I can survive a day without the Internet and e-mail. Surely I would be back on-line before the withdrawal cramps and hallucinations became too debilitating.

By the excellent good fortune of being a teacher on summer break, I was home when the AT&T technician started messing with my home's external phone box. I nonchalantly strolled outside to say hello: “Hi! Whatcha doing?”

He had made short work of it.

“You're all set. Your twisted-pair DSL connection is now fiber-optical U-verse.”

“Already? The instructions said I'd be back on-line this evening.”

“Nope, you're ready to go right now. You received the equipment? Yes? Go ahead and fire it up.”

Apparently AT&T prefers not to tell its customers that the connection is ready to use as soon as the technician's visit is finished. Good thing I bothered to say hello to him.

Sure enough, I set up the U-verse “modem” and returned to the land of the digital. Are things faster? Not that I've noticed. Did I sign up for lots of wonderful new entertainment options? No, not a one. Is the cost the same? So far.

Yippee. Serenity returned to my life.

Then AT&T struck again:
AT&T is constantly upgrading the [wireless] network, and we're not done yet. When the network is improved certain older-model phones, like yours, will no longer be able to make or receive calls or access data.
Apart from that, though, my phone should be just fine.

After years of procrastinating (although “all my friends were doing it”), I finally acquired my first cell phone in 2000. I signed up with AT&T Wireless and got a nice Ericsson A2638SC phone. I stashed it in my car and there it mostly remained. Eventually AT&T sold its cell-phone business to Cingular, whereupon I ended up with a new Motorola V180. As you may know, AT&T later changed its mind and bought out Cingular. Hence I began with AT&T Wireless and I returned to AT&T Wireless all without moving a muscle.

I've had the Motorola for several years (eight, I think) and it still starts up with the Cingular logo. AT&T has not reprogrammed it remotely to herald its borgian renascence. Perhaps the new phone I'll get will be “smarter” and more willing to acknowledge its master. I will find out when I go into my friendly local AT&T store for customer service. It will be fun to watch the young pierced and inked employees as they reach out timorously to touch my old phone, afraid that it will crumble into ancient dust. They will desperately try to puzzle out the details of my calling plan, now mostly lost to the ages and bearing no resemblance to anything they now offer (and long past any contractual obligations).

The youngsters may well give me the same reaction that my father gave me the last time we discussed cell phones. (Wrong word: say, rather, when he interrogated me about cell phones.) How many minutes do you have? Do they roll over? Is weekend calling unlimited? How about international numbers? Blah, blah, blah. At least AT&T's minions will be more interested in extolling the virtues of today's spiffy new calling plans than in decrying my old one. Dad, however, was just fishing for information, wanting to compare notes. He grew quite exasperated as I expressed in detail my ignorance: How many minutes? More than enough. Roll over? Beats me. Weekends? Doesn't matter; I never use up my minutes anyway. International calls? I guess; we called Ukraine on it a couple of times.

The funny thing about it is that I am the numbers person, but I am not just pretending to be blasé about my phone plan. I actually don't have any reason to give it much thought or care. It's cheap and I never exhaust the minutes. I'm certain I average less than 10 minutes per month on the thing. No, really. This summer it jumped up a bit more because I've done a little traveling to book events and stuff. Hmm. Perhaps I should take my phone more seriously.

So what's going to happen at the AT&T store? Will I give in to the impulse to acquire a smart phone and be plugged into the world at all times? I wonder. If the phone is going to sit in the car like my current one does, it won't much matter, will it?

Blah, blah, blah.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Corporations are people

My sense of irony is rusted out

I find the pratings of Dennis Prager to be particularly difficult to listen to. While he is not overtly obnoxious like some other right-wing talk-radio hosts (e.g., the ebulliently nasty Limbaugh), Prager exudes a smug pseudo-intellectualism that is quite irksome to those who are not under his spell. Immodestly taking all knowledge as his province, he soothingly offers his expertise on every topic. He labels different segments of his program as such things as the “Ultimate Issues Hour” or the “Male-Female Hour.” His acolytes lap it up with a spoon.

As a non-acolyte, I do not linger when he pops up on my radio. Recently, however, I listened long enough to catch a sample of his wisdom and ended up laughing instead of groaning. (It's difficult to do both at the same time, but it would be convenient if I  listened to Prager regularly.) He was apparently defending the Citizens United decision and arguing that statism was a greater danger than corporatism. He does not fear the prospect that corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money to complete their takeover of our political system. Prager fears control by the state instead (even if the corporations own it?). He wrapped up a broadcast segment by declaring to his listeners, “I don't fear control by companies as much as I fear control by the state.”

Then the bumper music came on and provided a transition to the next batch of commercial messages. I began to chuckle. Then I began to laugh. The music? Ernie Ford was singing “Sixteen Tons”! Do you know it? It's a protest song that rails against corporate oppression! Did Prager choose this himself in a moment of callous irony? Despite Tennessee Ernie Ford's upbeat delivery of the catchy song, the lyrics carry an unvarnished message of hopeless bondage, referring back to the days when some companies paid their workers in script rather than money. The script could be redeemed only at company-owned stores and markets—where, of course, the company set all the prices. It created a system of debt bondage.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go:
I owe my soul to the company store!
If Prager did this deliberately, he was mocking workers everywhere. If he did it accidentally, then he's an idiot. I'm sure his corporate masters are pleased with him in either case.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The medical merry-go-round

Caught in referral hell

It seemed a good idea at the time. Heck, it still seems like a good idea. People did try to help out and some leads were followed. So they turned into dead ends. Whose fault is that? Everyone who offered suggestions deserves thanks.

I prefer to blame the doctors.

Frankly, it's like they're playing a game of keep-away with a friend of mine. However, instead of swiping some short kid's cap and tossing it back and forth over his head, it's more like they're lobbing his medical file to and fro: “Here! You take it!” “Hell, I don't want it! You take it!”

I get it. They can't figure out what's wrong with him, so they ignore him as much as they can (this part is easy, because they are actually very busy people with easier cases to consider) and then try to make him someone else's problem when he gets to be a nuisance. My buddy wouldn't mind this latter part so much if at least someone in the long-running game of tag-you're-it could actually make sense of his situation.

As previously reported, one of my good friends (we go back all the way to the height of personal computer fun, West Coast Computer Faires, and user groups) is suffering from a combination of symptoms that include ferocious migraines, loss of voice, and a strangling sensation of throat constriction. Doesn't sound like fun, does it? Initially it seemed like his lymph nodes were going crazy, but now it appears the swelling and constriction must be from some other cause. His thyroid levels were messed up, but medication to bring his numbers under control had no impact on his other ills (even though the thyroid tests got back into the normal range). It's as puzzling as ever. Here's his most recent update:
I have seen three different otolaryngologists in three different clinics: One at UC Davis, one at UCSF, and one at the Sacramento ENT clinic. No one could find a cause in my throat. I followed up by seeing an endocrinologist at the UC Davis Elk Grove clinic. He ruled out my thyroid causing the problem and also ruled out Riedel’s thyroiditis as a potential diagnosis. On July 26 I saw an allergist at UC Davis and she ruled out allergies as a cause because allergies come and go. She suggested I go back to the UC Davis ENT clinic because the doctor I saw at that clinic said that I should see them again if the problem persists; the allergist said I should see them for voice and swallowing problems. I told her that would be useless because all the doctors I’ve seen are trying to address the symptoms, not the cause.

The swelling continues to grow in several places that have been swollen for a while, and a new area of swelling appeared on the back of my neck in the last week.  I’m starting to feel more pressure and pain on my throat when I lie down, which makes it even harder to get comfortable when I need to sleep. Twice this week I’ve slept for 8 hours at a time only to wake up exhausted. I still have no appetite and I’ve lost nearly 19 pounds since this started 4.5 months ago – I was at 163.8 pounds when I started and I’m now down to 145.2 pounds. I’ve asked my current primary care physician about next steps including a PET scan and a follow-up ultrasound scan. I’m currently looking for a new PCP.
He doesn't mention it, but his PCP's referral to the UCSF otolaryngologist provoked an irritated response from the latter, whose specialty is oncologic surgery; he was clearly irked at being sent a patient with no indications for cancer. The wasted trip to San Francisco was further evidence that his primary care physician is out of ideas and is randomly sending him around, hence the search for a new primary. And for a new referral that finally produces results.

Anyone out there have any ideas? Are you a retired diagnostician with time on your hands and an itch to solve an intractable problem? Everybody needs a hobby!

The situation gets monotonically worse, with neither diagnosis nor remedy on the horizon. What can we do to get this guy out of purgatory?

And please don't suggest prayer.