Monday, February 27, 2012

The pope is a liar

If only he were a better Catholic!

There is a peculiar strain of conservative Catholicism that manifests itself in such religious media as EWTN and Inside the Vatican. The former is a right-wing broadcast empire and the latter is a monthly magazine. A particular virulent form of Catholic extremism popped up in the letters printed in the February 2012 issue of Inside the Vatican. An unhappy correspondent expressed his dissatisfaction with the actions of the current pope and his immediate predecessors:
You are doing a great service and I find your magazine thought-provoking and stimulating. But I find it appalling that the Vatican's strategy is to sit tight for 20 years and hope the world comes to them when there are two simple things they can do to save millions of souls in the meantime.

When will the Pope follow Our Blessed Mother's order and reveal the Third Secret of Fatima and properly consecrate Russia? How many millions must be condemned to Hell due to his intransigence? How can he profess to be the leader of the faith when he and those around him lack faith themselves? I've heard the excuse that Russia has threatened the Church if they comply with her wishes. Have they no faith? Do they not believe the Blessed Mother is more powerful than an earthly nation?

If the Blessed Mother's request at Fatima is not fulfilled, the Church that will exist in 20 years will be two decades farther away from the Church Christ created, and that is a scary thought.
The Third Secret of Fatima? What's that? And why hasn't it been revealed?

There's a funny story to that. Funny, at least, if you find religion risible and human folly amusing. The so-called Third Secret was published by John Paul II in the year 2000. It was one of three private revelations supposedly given to Lucia Santos and her cousins in 1917 by the Virgin Mary during the Blessed Mother's apparitions at Fatima in Portugal. The first two secrets were trotted out in 1941, one pertaining to a vision of hell (surprise: it's nasty) and the other predicting a second world war (already conveniently under way at the time of the “revelation”). The third, however, was apparently too horrible to contemplate. That's odd, considering the infernal content of secret No. 1.

Lucia wrote out the Third Secret and said that it could be revealed in 1960, when people might be more prepared to understand it. Pope John XXIII, however, declined to release it at that time. Neither did Paul VI or John Paul I. Forty years after Lucia's original projected release date, the Third Secret was finally revealed to the world.

And the world was disappointed.

Sure, it contained a juicy but confusing account of a massacre of clerics and lay people, including a “Bishop dressed in White” easily identified with the pope, but overall it was a dull secret with no exciting revelations. It seemed likely that John XXIII thought it unwise to release a secret that seemed to predict the assassination of a pope—and his successors thought likewise; that is, at least, until John Paul II survived an assassination attempt and decided he was himself the “Bishop dressed in White.” He also gave credit to the Virgin Mary for sparing his life (although for some reason the Blessed Mother couldn't be bothered to spare the pope his grievous wounds) and thus the prediction of papal death was vacated by the one who had supposedly made it in the first place.

All neat and tied up with a bow.

Except for the rabid Catholics who refuse to accept it. A cadre of irreconcilable Catholics—all of whom seem to consider themselves even more Catholic than the pope—insist that the Vatican is hiding the true Third Secret and refuses to come clean. The letter-writer from Inside the Vatican is clearly one of their number. He doesn't hesitate to declare that the pope is a liar who has held back the Third Secret. As far as the writer is concerned, the Third Secret has not been published, no matter what the Vatican says.

It's quite a remarkable example of overwrought Catholicism (which is already pretty knotted-up in even its mainstream manifestations). This show has legs. Pass the popcorn.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Nobody here but us chickens

“I'm not a bigot, but ...”

The president of the United States is taking full advantage of social media to promote his political initiatives and his campaign for re-election. It's a natural evolution of his successful 2008 strategy, which included a strong Internet presence. The Obama campaign has an extremely active Facebook page titled “I will vote for Obama in 2012.” The site is routinely updated with miscellaneous items covering a wide range of topics—from supposed general interest to specific campaign pitches. The site's wall attracts comments from supporters and the occasional dyspeptic opponent. The Republican candidates come in for a generous portion of abuse and ridicule, but that's understandable when they constitute such easy targets.

There is, of course, a diametrically opposed Facebook page. Someone was inspired to create the highly original “I will NOT vote for Obama in 2012.” The limitation of ALL CAPS to only one word shows a restraint not always displayed by the site's enthusiasts. You can find the usual sludge pile of birth certificate nonsense, crypto-Muslim speculation, wounded religious privilege, and shallow anti-government rhetoric. Overt racism, of course, is all but absent. It's merely the pervasive subliminal backdrop to the entire site, occasionally visible when the mask slips.

Consider the state of mind that prompts an American citizen to write this complaint (with multiple uses of [sic] understood):
This man just today put out a call for all African Americans (Negro) to vote for hime because he is black. Can we say white people should vote for white people because they re white.

“Negro”? She really thought it necessary and appropriate to insert a parenthetical Negro to explain the meaning of “African American”?

Can you say crazy-ass racist white bitch? Not that you would, of course. Nor would I. I'm sure it was just a tiny Freudian slip at the keyboard. I mean, it's not as though she wrote the dreaded N-word. Still, it speaks volumes.

Did the other commenters on the site call her out? Did they gently say, “Oh, sweetie pie, you shouldn't use an outdated racial term like that. It'll cause unnecessary offense and distract from our political message”? Heck, no. They immediately piled on with a string of complaints about how they're upset as being viewed as racists.

Hmm. There could be a reason they're viewed that way.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Just sign here

Getting serviced by the financial sector

Most junk mail is pretty easy to ignore. Of course, when it comes bearing the label of your bank, it's important to give it a quick scan to ensure the “Important Information About Your Account!” is something significant (“We are pleased to inform you that we are raising our fees to serve you better!”) and not just another gimmick to sell you something you don't want (“And our protection service comes with valuable premium points that you can redeem for free gifts and services!”). This particular letter from Bank of America offered a streamlined mortgage refinance option. I had to consider it seriously.

As a fortunate survivor of the housing bubble, I'm in a home that hasn't lost value and isn't even close to being “under water.” (Hurrah.) A few years ago I did a refinance with BofA that shaved a point off my interest rate and took my monthly payment down a notch. Was BofA's offer an opportunity to do it again? I pondered awhile, but eventually called the 800 number.

“Barbara” was delighted to receive my call. She pulled up the information on my current mortgage, asked a few questions, and then gave me a tentative quote that would have a very nice positive impact on my bottom line. I could get my mortgage rate lowered by another full point. Since I used to have a two-digit interest rate in the “good” old days, I was duly impressed that my already-low rate could go even lower. Furthermore, it looked like the streamlined process was genuinely streamlined. My previous refinance had been recent enough that BofA was waiving the appraisal and a bunch of other potentially costly (and time-consuming) hurdles in the mortgage process.

I said “looked like.” Isn't it cute how naïve I can still be, despite my advanced years and allegedly keen intellect? The first detour from the refinance superhighway seemed innocent enough, as Barbara explained that she was not a BofA employee: “I'm an independent mortgage broker who does the initial processing on each account and then turns it over to an account manager at the bank. I'm a contractor rather than a bank employee.”

“Okay, I understand,” I said. “BofA doesn't have to provide you with any benefits since you're an independent contractor.”

Barbara laughed.

“That's right, but it also frees me from the bank's schedule and it's up to me how much time I put in and how many mortgage applications I process.”

Sort of like a piece rate in a sweat-shop. But I didn't say that.

Barbara told me I would receive a couple of application forms in my e-mail. I was to fill them out and return them to Barbara's account manager. The account manager, as an actual bank employee, would take the next steps.

And that's what “Deborah” did. She sent me a nice follow-up e-mail confirming that she had received the initial refinance information from Barbara and would appreciate receiving my responses to the information forms within a week, so as to expedite the process.

It still sounded good to me.

I quickly sent in the forms and then got a second message from Deborah: Could I please submit a notarized certification of my living trust and a letter of explanation concerning some confusion over my residence address? I didn't know what a “trust cert” was, but it didn't take long to get that straightened out and obtain one. The address matter was even simpler. I sent a letter explaining that my home was in the same neighborhood as the apartment complex where I had once lived. Thus I had resided in two different locations with very similar street addresses. The confusion in my address was apparent rather than real. Please disregard the earlier (but similar) address.


Then silence. I sent Deborah a message after a few weeks. What's up with my refinance application? She wrote back that she would find out for me. But then I heard from “Liu” instead. While Deborah was on the West Coast, Liu was calling me from the East Coast. She now had my refinance application and wanted me to know it was in good shape. However, she needed me to provide a “trust cert” and a letter of explanation about a supposed ambiguity in my residence address. I explained that these had already been submitted to Deborah. Weeks ago, in fact. Liu explained in return that she did not have these documents in her Florida office and would I please send them again? It seemed the course of least resistance, so I resubmitted the information.

More waiting. We were not simply off the refinance superhighway, we were chugging along on the local bus, stopping over and over again. I finally got another message from BofA: Had I renewed my homeowner's insurance policy? Was BofA the beneficiary?

They were concerned that I had less than 90 days before my policy would lapse, so the renewal was a matter of interest to the bank. I wrote back:

“While the existing policy is less than 90 days from its expiration (though I will not let it lapse), this is not my fault. I began this refinance process in December 2011, over 50 days ago.”

So there!

I had, of course, no idea what the bank's next response would be. As it turned out, it wasn't from the bank.

“Hello, Mr. Ferox. My name is Brenda and I'm following up on your application to refinance your Bank of America home mortgage. I need to ask you just a few questions before moving your application to the next step.”

“Yes, Brenda. Thank you. What are your questions?”

“First of all, I need to know if you have a notarized certification of trust and, second, I need to get some clarification about your residential address.”

I heaved a loud sigh into the phone.

“Brenda, I have already submitted both of those things. Twice.

There was a short pause at the other end.

“Well, that figures,” she said.

“It does?”

“Oh, yes. Happens all the time. Where did you send the information?”

“First I sent it to a BofA office in San Jose and then I sent it to a BofA office in Florida.”

“Okay,” she said. “They're passing your application along, but they're not passing along the accompanying information. I suppose it's just simpler to keep asking you to send it each time. My company works for BofA in processing loan applications and I see this all the time. Sorry.”

“So what do I do?”

“If you give me your e-mail address, I'll send you a message that you can reply to. Attach the documents again and I'll get them directly.”

“So it's just simpler if I send them again?”

“Sorry, but yes. Exactly.”

I sent them again. Three times now. And counting. The financial “services” sector seems to bear an inappropriate name.

I hope that they keep using my phone number and my e-mail address. I'm afraid that if they mail anything they'll send it to my old address. (I should probably send them an explanation!)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Snow job

Odd man out in the cold

John Christy's research paper made it into the news media. Most scientists get to work in obscurity, but climatologists garner more attention from the press than your typical researcher. Especially if, as in Christy's case, you're going against the flow. That's news.

But not really. Not in Christy's case. It's not at all surprising—or particularly newsworthy—that he's going against the flow.  He does it all the time. While Dr. Christy is an honest-to-goodness climatologist with real credentials (unlike, say, Lord Monckton or John Coleman), he is avowedly skeptical about anthropogenic global warming. That makes him a precious resource to the climate-change denialists, since the vast majority of climate scientists hold that humanity is a key factor in the warming of the earth. What the denialists tend to ignore, however, is that Christy has no doubt about the warming trend. He agrees that the earth is heating up and that straightforward temperature measurement has established that fact. Christy just disagrees that humans have anything in particular to do with it.

The people chortling about the cold snap in Europe as disproof of the global warming prefer that you not listen to Christy in that case. The denialists can't be too choosy, however, so they'll clutch Christy to their bosom despite his unwillingness to embrace the warming-is-a-lie hypothesis. Besides, he just gave them something useful to cite.

As reported in Wednesday's edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, Christy has concluded that California's Sierra Nevada has remarkably resilient snowfall. He has analyzed snowfall data back into the 19th century and determined to his own satisfaction that snowfall on the Sierra's western slope has been consistent for well over a century. In particular, he sees no sign that Sierra snow has been on a downward trend during the recent half-century in which global temperatures have been inching upward.

His conclusion, though, is a bit of a puzzler. First of all, Christy apparently used snow depth rather than snow water content for his analysis. Critics like Mike Dettinger of the U.S. Geological Survey declared that water content and snow density are crucial factors that should not be ignored. In addition to Dettinger's concern, cited in KQED's Climate Watch, Professor Roger Bales of UC Merced said, “It’s not surprising he didn’t find a trend because he lumped everything together.”

Then, of course, you have the graph of Christy's data, represented by a graph published by LA Weekly. It bears the label “Journal of Hydrometeorology” and is therefore presumably the graph from Christy's recently published research paper. Give it a good look. I haven't seen the paper itself and I do not know whether Christy did any kind of regression on the data to check for trends, but the dark line of moving averages spends less and less of its time above the 1.0 line as the years go by. Was I not supposed to see that?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dates in conflict

Personal priorities and education

“Rob” was a good student, so I was unaccustomed to having him linger after class to ask questions. To make things even more unusual, Rob insisted on waiting till everyone else was gone from the room. Evidently he did not want any classmates to overhear his question. Rather tentatively, he voiced his query:

“Is it okay if I take our next exam a day early? On Thursday instead of Friday?”

Oh, no problem. I can answer that question easily: No.

I was, however, nice enough to give Rob a reason:

“Sorry, that's not possible. The exam doesn't even exist until the night before. I don't finish writing it till we've had our review session.”

In fact, I sometimes tweak an exam after I find out what students have questions about. If we spend a lot of time on a particular topic, I want to be sure that the topic is not neglected on the exam. For example, if my students want to work especially intensely on mixture problems, then I'm more likely to choose a problem of that type to include among the various application exercises on the exam. (And—I admit it—I don't worry too much about the likelihood that this slightly disadvantages the students who choose to skip the review session.)

Furthermore, I dislike the very notion of giving exams early. The student who gets special treatment by getting the exam in advance is obviously subject to the temptation to leak information to friends in the class. The less opportunity for that, the better.

Rob seemed to be surprised by my answer. Perhaps he had had instructors in the past who wrote all of their exams at the beginning of the semester. Not me. I'm much more adaptive than that. Or less farseeing.

Rob was also dismayed by my answer.

“It's not really my fault, Dr. Z. I got tickets to a concert before the semester started, and I wasn't expecting to enroll in a class that met on Fridays.”

“Nevertheless, that's what you did, Rob. The conflict is of your own making. You have a conflict between our exam date and the concert date. I don't have a good way to accommodate that and it's not my problem to resolve it anyway.”

“Well, could I take the exam later? Would that be okay?”

“Sorry, Rob. Think about it. I post the solution key on-line right after the exam. I'd have to withhold it from your classmates all weekend and leave them in suspense so that you could be accommodated. They wouldn't get the answers until Monday, until after you've taken the exam.”

Rob hesitated a moment.

“Oh, I was meaning to tell you. I'm going to be out on Monday, too.”

The conversation ended soon after that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The empty threat

Donohue unfriends the president

The funniest message in my in-box this week was from the Catholic League. I started laughing the moment I saw its title in my list of the day's e-mail: “Obama pushed us too far.”

Resident Catholic League curmudgeon and president Bill Donohue was putting President Obama on notice that mandates for birth-control coverage would spark heated opposition from the Catholic League and its allies, especially if they could succeed in tarting it up as an assault on religious freedom. The risible part is obvious, right? Donohue and his ilk enlisted in the spittle-spraying opposition to Obama a long time ago. How is it even possible for Donohue to be “pushed too far” when he is already the fringiest of the nation's nutcase right wing?

Of course, Donohue is making the argument that Obama has overreached in such a way that the extremist Catholics now have a host of new allies:
President Evil!
We have been inundated with support from Protestants, Jews, Mormons, and others. When the federal government seeks to impose a radical secular agenda on religious entities, denying them the right to exercise their doctrinal prerogatives, it is trampling on the First Amendment rights of the faithful.
I have no doubt that Donohue's phone has been ringing off the hook in a gratifyingly cacophonous way, but how many of his callers were ever Obama allies in the first place? (Hint: Approximately zero.)

While I have every intention of voting for Obama's re-election this year, I have never numbered myself among his most enthusiastic supporters. Simple  realpolitik, however, makes it clear that a second term for the president is the best outcome we can hope for when the alternatives are either hollow men like Romney, egomaniacs like Gingrich, or religious fanatics like Santorum. A Republican administration headed by any of the current candidates would almost certainly destroy support for civil liberties in the Supreme Court for a generation, while more Obama appointments like Sotomayor and Kagan would keep hope alive (or actually increase it, if we were so fortunate as to witness a retirement by Scalia or Thomas).

The president compromises too quickly and too much in too many cases, in my humble opinion, and is a much greater fan of incrementalism than I am (health care public option, dammit!), but all the steps in the right direction, large or small, will be swept away if Obama is defeated. The current hyped-up controversy over birth-control coverage appears to be yet another instance of the president advancing a policy and then quickly backing away from it. I've seen plenty of muttering about this new example of Obama's unwillingness to stick to his guns. This time, however, I wonder.

Although the Catholic bishops and Donohue are chortling over the supposed rebuke to Obama's new healthcare initiative and whining that his hasty retreat doesn't go far enough, it's not clear to me that the president has suffered a defeat. While practical questions of implementation remain, Obama's revised policy includes two strikingly opposite key features: (1) an opt-out option for religious employers who oppose contraception and (2) free coverage of contraception for the employees whose employers opt out. There is, of course, dark muttering about how the “free” coverage will be absorbed (or “hidden”) in the costs for basic healthcare packages, but the president now gets to claim that he addressed the bishops' concerns without revoking the basic mandate of birth control coverage for everyone.

That latter point is undoubtedly something that will rankle the Catholic League and other anti-contraception fanatics. Let's not forget, however, what a small group this is. We're not even talking about abortion here (although Donohue will blusteringly disagree). We're talking about things like The Pill. Plenty of people—even those who describe themselves as pro-choice—have some qualms about abortion. Very few, however, see any problem with ready access to birth control pills. Obama's strategic retreat aligns his administration with birth-control coverage policies in many states while reminding the nation at large that the Catholic League and the bishops do not represent them.

Advantage: Obama.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Hooked on classics

But not reeled in

Credit must be given where credit is due to those seducers at KXPR. They have been giving it their best shot lately, trying to lure me in with the tender strains of my favorite music. I was surprised the other morning to begin my day with Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1. Okay, perhaps “tender strains” is not an appropriate description, but I love Prokofiev's amusingly goofy, repetitive, and relentless composition. Short, sweet, and hugely entertaining.

My irritation with KXPR was momentarily assuaged. Over breakfast, before I could fully restore my attitude of righteous wrath, the radio station hit me with Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture. Damn! I'm happy again. Then Korngold's lushly lyrical violin concerto. Those bastards are really trying to wrestle me into submission.

The onslaught continued. They broadcast Dvořák's Seventh Symphony (as if momentarily forgetting that they usually never air any of Dvořák's work except the Ninth—“From the New World”; it was apparently time for them to make their annual exception).

It couldn't continue indefinitely, of course, given that KXPR is no longer a 24-hour classical-radio station (more on that anon). But damned if they weren't quick to recover after the evening intrusion of jazz, giving me both Prokofiev's First Symphony (“The Classical”) and Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 (but why not No. 2?). I admit I was impressed that day.

But I'm still brooding.

I have a love-hate relationship with KXPR which has lasted several years. Back when I was a member in good standing, the Sacramento-based public-radio station pulled “Says You” off its schedule. I waxed wroth, because I never missed that delightful word-game show. During KXPR's next pledge drive (gosh, I hate those!), I made a point of not renewing my membership. I did call in a pledge, but I specifically told the person on the other end of the phone line that I was contributing n − 1 dollars, where n dollars was the standard membership level.

The volunteer was dismayed, of course, pointing out that I would not qualify for the many wonderful benefits of membership, including the monthly newsletter. I stood my ground and became one of the station's few contributors who was not also a “member.” Eventually, I sort of forgave them and acquired a full membership again.

Then the bastards switched frequencies between their classical music station and their news/jazz station. KXPR was relegated to the weaker of the two signals provided by Capital Public Radio. Again, I was mightily irritated and let my membership lapse (although my mail-box and CapRadio's fundraising people continue to see each other behind my back quite regularly). Recently, however, I was beginning to weaken. Surely I should show some appreciation for the fact that I lived within the broadcast range of the only 24-hour classical-music public-radio station in northern California. Even San Francisco didn't have one! (Recently, however, KDFC stepped into that breach.)

I should have known. CapRadio announced in January that KXPR would no longer be a 24-hour classical-music station. Nope. Not anymore! They were going to abandon their jazz fans on KXJZ and jam a few remnants of the jazz programming into a four-hour block on KXPR, thus cheesing off both jazz and classical music lovers. KXPR is now a dead zone for me from 7:00 till 11:00 every evening. CapRadio managed to figure out a lose-lose situation.

They don't see it that way, you understand. They're proud of their decision, as they explained to the Sacramento Bee:
Rich Eytcheson, Capital Public Radio general manager and president, feels the station knows what the public wants.

“We get ratings and we can tell–hour by hour–what people are listening to,” Eytcheson said. And what they are listening to most is news radio, he said.
Um, excuse me. “Ratings”? What the hell do ratings have to do with public radio. What the heck is membership for if you're going to treat your broadcast outlet like all the commercial stations out there? Does the “public” part even mean anything anymore. Should the peasants rise up with their pikes and staves and explain things to Eytcheson?

CapRadio provided the same sort of happy talk on its own website:
We feel that these changes best respond to our news and information listeners' requests, while at the same time honor our music listeners by continuing to provide the best jazz and classical service in our communities.
I guess when you're the only jazz and classical service in the greater capital region (extended by a number of repeater stations down the valley), you can lower the bar quite a bit and still be the best. Way to play word games, guys! (So why the hell did you cancel “Says You,” if you like word games so much?)

I'm still simmering, so perhaps I should paw through the stuff stashed in the garage and see if I can find an old pike or staff. And perhaps during the next pledge drive I'll offer my irksome pledge of n − 1.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The very confused voice of God

Sorry, I don't speak the language

Thanks to Language Log, it didn't take me long to dig out several examples of an old (possibly apocryphal, but definitely old) story:
   Prof. Adolphe Cohn of Columbia University recently, in discussing the teaching of French and German in public schools, said that the attitude of a good many people on that subject was explained to him very aptly by a remark he had once overheard in a street car. Two elderly Irish women were talking about their children, when one remarked: “I won't let my child be taught Frinch.”
   “Why not?” inquired the other.
   “Sure,” replied the first, “if English was good enough for St. Paul to write the Bible in it's good enough for me.”
New York Time, January 15, 1905 (Sunday Magazine), p. 8
Makes sense. I mean, it's not as if we're better than St. Paul, now are we? As we know, St. Paul is a great figure in Christian history, the bachelor saint who gave tons of marital advice to those who chose to marry rather than burn. He's the saint that denounced the Judaizers for their continuing espousal of the practice of circumcision—not required for followers of Christ, he insisted—and then promptly turned around and sliced off Timothy's foreskin. No doubt Timothy's guard was down.

But Paul is not really the subject of this post. Ray is. I mean Ray Guarendi, a clinical psychologist who is a fixture on Catholic Radio and is usually called “Dr. Ray.” I recently heard him featured as a guest on Marcus Grodi's “Deep in Scripture” program. Grodi and guest were trying to parse St. Paul's teachings on love, as embodied in the apostle's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Guarendi was stressing the difficulty of Paul's statements with some mocking banter: “Love is patient? Where? Love is kind? When?”

That, however, is not what caught my attention. I startled chuckling at a statement in Guarendi's amazing preamble, which immediately reminded me of the old “good enough for St. Paul” story. Check it out for yourself. At 6:45 in the video below, Guarendi offers this startling pronouncement: “You're familiar, Marcus, with the inadequacy of language to express truth. We have these infinite truths that God wants to give us, and he binds himself to the English language.”

The English language? Ha!