Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Son of Richard Nixon

History repeats itself

George W. Bush may be the biological son of George Herbert Walker Bush, but he is the political offspring of Richard Milhouse Nixon. While Richard Nixon was more experienced and sharper in intellect than George W., he is the perfect model for the current president in terms of hubris and miscalculation. Even after he was forced to resign from office, Nixon was able to declare that “When the president does it, that means it's not illegal.” (He said it during a 1977 interview with David Frost. See the video at Crooks and Liars.) He never learned.

President Bush and his advisors appear not to have learned anything from Nixon's example. The Republican Party's political operatives are doing their best to bind together the fate of the president with the fate of each G.O.P. candidate. The White House doesn't want anyone running away from the president. God forbid that any of them get elected to congress without being beholden to their beloved chief executive or by distancing themselves from his failed programs and policies. Party chairman Ken Mehlman says, “The President is seen universally as the face of the Republican Party.”

That's what the Republican candidates are afraid of. As Bush's poll numbers languish in the basement, G.O.P. hopefuls see their campaigns crippled by the president's unpopularity. They fear that the 2006 elections will turn out the same way as those in 1974. Both are midterm elections in the second term of Republican presidents accused of trampling the law and the Constitution. Nixon resigned a few months before the 1974 election, making it inevitable that the balloting would turn into a referendum on his conduct. If the same thing happens this year, with Bush's poll numbers competing with Nixon's for unpopularity (even without the benefit of a presidential resignation), a modern day political cartoonist might ink an hommage to Don Hesse's editorial cartoon (Aftermath of the Nixon Years) in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat a few days after the election. That would be sweet.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Chef d'oeuvre

There's got to be a morning after

The first time that Chef quit, it didn't take. That was back in 1999, when South Park's culinary sage decamped from the cafeteria to wed his girlfriend Veronica and take a job as a hatless drone in an office cubicle. Remember Veronica?

Ah, Veronica! The children were certain she was sucking the life out of Chef, although he refused to believe it. While Chef's head spun with thoughts of love and happily-ever-aftering, the kids became increasingly convinced that she was a succubus. As we know, the children were right and finally managed to exorcise her during the wedding ceremony by singing her signature tune backward. (It was There's got to be a morning after, the theme song from The Poseidon Adventure.)

Just what is a succubus? Here's a definition:

Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Medieval Latin, alteration of Latin succuba paramour, from succubare to lie under, from sub- + cubare to lie, recline. A demon assuming female form to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep.
Hmmm. A demon? Where have we heard that before? Could it be ... Xenu?

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have cheerfully trashed religions before, in particular their scathing episodes on the Roman Catholic church (Red Hot Catholic Love and Bloody Mary). It was just a matter of time before Scientology—the “science fiction religion” in Christopher Evans's telling phrase—got its turn. The tenets of Scientology are doled out to its adherents based on the level of initiation to which they ascend. While supposedly secret, too many people have now gone in and out of the religion to permit all of the juicy details to remain confidential. The tale of evil Xenu, which played out like a parody in the crude animation of South Park was in fact a highly faithful treatment of Scientology's central dogma. The erupting volcano still featured on modern editions of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is most likely an allusion to Xenu's genocidal population reduction scheme in which surplus beings were packed into volcanoes and blown up with H-bombs. Does your religion have any stories that good?

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard famously told some of his science fiction colleagues that “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” Today the dearly departed L. Ron Hubbard is the icon of a vigorous cult that hopes to grow large enough to become considered a mainstream religion. (The main difference between a cult and a religion is numbers.) In a series of zig-zag moves, Hubbard cobbled together Dianetics, a secular system of supposed mental health treatment, and Scientology, a religious system that subsumed Dianetics into its creeds and rituals.

Hubbard had been making his living as a reasonably successful science fiction writer in the pulp era before World War II. However, his best days as an SF author were past when Dianetics and Scientology took over his life, and the lives of his followers. His work was big news and controversial from the very beginning. One of his early critics was Martin Gardner, who took aim at Dianetics in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, published in 1957. Gardner has been a perceptive critic of pseudoscience and charlatanry throughout his long life, but his own keen vision may occasionally be unclear when he tries his hand at prognostication:
At the time of writing, the dianetics craze seems to have burned itself out as quickly as it caught fire, and Hubbard himself has become embroiled in a welter of personal troubles.
That was accurate enough back in the 1950s, but Hubbard's mounting difficulties were the impetus behind his momentous decision to incorporate Scientology as a tax-exempt religious organization (although the tax-exempt status was not formally recognized by the Internal Revenue Service till the 1990s). A decision to lay snares in Hollywood in the form of a glitzy celebrity center worked to provide Scientology with the famous faces that we see today as the glamorous aspect of the religion, although zealots like Tom Cruise appear to occasionally overplay their hand. What is a nice (formerly) Catholic girl like Katie Holmes doing in a place like that?

After Martin Gardner's premature eulogy for Dianetics, its resurgence in the form of Scientology caused Christopher Evans to feature the new religion in his Cults of Unreason in 1973, a book now long out of print. Evans devoted Part I (The Science Fiction Religion) of his book, over 100 pages, to the development of Scientology from its dianetic origin to its religious transformation. However, as he wrapped up his account, Evans proved to be no better a seer than Gardner:
Readers of the book up to this point may be surprised to find that after highlighting the absurdities, inconsistencies and smoky background of Scientology, I conclude without giving it a wholehearted thumbs-down. The reasons for this are quite straightforward. The closer I have looked at Scientology the more I feel that it is changing for the better, and the more eager I believe its leader and its adherents are to forget its past.
The late Dr. Evans was more hopeful than correct, I fear. While Scientology may be in some respects eager to “forget its past,” perhaps we might be forgiven for doubting that today's Scientology is somehow more kindly and forgiving than the Scientology of the past. While the religion's notorious “fair game” doctrine was supposedly rescinded in 1968, Scientology's critics still find occasion to feel that they are still being treated according to that policy:
Fair Game: May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.
For their part, Parker and Stone appear unfazed by Scientology's reputation for playing rough. They were, however, uncharacteristically lacking in imagination when they released a statement saying, “[T]he million-year war for Earth has just begun!” A million years is small potatoes to Scientology, whose acolytes sign trillion-year contracts when they join the church.

“Luke, I am your father!”

The fuss over Chef's apparent departure from South Park is only the latest—and one of the tiniest—installments in a soap opera that undoubtedly has many chapters to go. Given Hubbard's tendency to conjure up holy writ off the top of his head, coupled with his seat-of-the-pants management style, Scientology developed in a haphazard way. The church accumulated truckloads of scattershot scripture and divine directives, much of which will never be reconciled into a coherent whole. That may not matter, though, as the current leadership continues to mine the Hubbardian trove for nuggets they can dole out to their most devoted adherents. It is necessary to keep feeding the appetites of those who are so expensively walking Hubbard's Bridge to Total Freedom. At each step across the Bridge, more arcane dogma is dispensed.

Tom Cruise has supposedly reached the high-level status of Operating Thetan VII. What secrets might he know? One widely rumored Scientology secret is the identity of mass murderer and arch-fiend Xenu. If you are steeped in the literature of science fiction, you might be able to venture a wild guess. Imagine that Xenu lifts his mask and you find yourself staring in horror at the face of ... R. Daneel Olivaw! Oops! I mean ... Annakin Skywalker himself! Oh, sorry. I meant to say ... L. Ron Hubbard! I'll bet you're surprised! Yes, it could be that L. Ron Hubbard was the human incarnation of the evil Xenu, working out his redemption in works of healing and charity among us mere mortals.

Gosh! Who could have seen that coming?

Other references

In addition to the Gardner and Evans books, there are at least two full-length biographies of L. Ron Hubbard, both unauthorized by the Church of Scientology, which examine the fables and myths that Hubbard spun concerning his own life and achievements. Russell Miller's Bare-Faced Messiah, originally published in 1987, is available as an on-line text. Bent Corydon's L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? comes down firmly in favor of the second option. It is in print in a paperback edition and recounts the travails of a disaffected Scientologist as he and his wife are elbowed out of the organization; it's a patchwork quilt of a book and can be criticized as one long complaint by a disgruntled ex-Scientologist—which it is—but that's also where the insider's perspective comes from.

Finally, let me draw your attention to a curious novel by science fiction writer Norman Spinrad. The Mind Game is an obvious roman à clef in which Transformationalism is a thinly disguised version of Scientology and its megalomaniacal founder is none other than L. Ron. If you've read any of the Hubbard biographies, you can't help but wonder how many of the incidents described in The Mind Game are authentic and which are the products of Spinrad's imagination. The true story of L. Ron Hubbard doesn't need embellishment in order to be fantastic.

Update: Gary Farber noted in comments that Hubbard was less than a successful writer in the days preceding the launch of Dianetics and I've amended the article accordingly.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Shrill feminist

Would I have the balls for it?

Many years ago my friend Elaine and I were swapping tales from our childhood, sitting in her Greenwich Village apartment and comparing notes. She was raised in a semi-observant Jewish family and joked that she would title her autobiography Eat the Pizza in the Living Room with the subtitle Because we're keeping the kitchen kosher. I was a cradle Catholic in whose family some mothers popped out an annual child while others mysteriously spaced them out. Both of our families seemed to appreciate the advantages of a cafeteria approach to religion.

Then Elaine hit me with the blockbuster. As a young girl, she had been taught a morning prayer:
Blessed art thou,
O Lord our God, King of the universe,
for having made me according to Your will.

Surely that is not an offensive prayer, is it? It depends on the context. This was the prayer for girls. Boys, however, were taught to pray a different prayer:
Blessed art thou,
O Lord our God, King of the universe,
for not having made me a woman.

Even though I was accustomed to the rock-ribbed patriarchy of Roman Catholicism, Elaine's recitation of these childhood prayers rocked me back on my heels. That moment crystallized for me—a somewhat inattentive male—how little I had grasped the inherently privileged position I had attained by the simple expedient of being born with XY chromosomes. Indeed, if I took the God notion more seriously, I should undoubtedly pray fervently each day, thanking Him for not having made me a woman. If He had, how could I avoid being furiously angry every moment of every day?

No doubt some people would be happy to explain to me that I misunderstood the prayers (tell that to Elaine, why don't you?) and the innocent intent behind them. Don't bother. I am quite familiar with the tortuous arguments of apologists, who can turn the egregious into the mundane, water into whine, and paternalism into solicitude. I was raised Catholic, remember?

This chain of recollection was stimulated by a recent flurry of letters in one of the regional newspapers I read. It all started, as it so often does, with a letter from a man who wanted to explain to women how to take responsibility for pregnancies. Men, as you know, are particularly good at explaining things to women. (As a childless bachelor, I am available to provide expert counseling on marital relations and child rearing. Cheap rates, too.) This particular man was at pains to explain his view of women's reproductive rights (although, for some reason, he felt that “rights” needed to be fenced in by quotation marks):

Sorry to be so ignorant (what'dya expect from a man), but I thought women always had reproductive rights that no law, court, government agency, etc., could ever take away. They have the “right” to decide whether or not to have children, if and when to get pregnant, when to have sex and with whom, whether to be married or not, choose whether to use birth control and what method (condoms, shields, spermacides, pills, etc.), or sexual abstinence and, even, to become surgically sterile.

See? It's simple! Girls who give in to pressure from their boyfriends merely forgot to “just say no”! Women whose contraceptive measures fail (for now, anyway, until we manage to outlaw contraception as a violation of God's plan for the universe) are just irresponsible for not having chosen more effective means—like surgical sterilization (at least until we ban it). And don't forget to say no to rapists, too. They'll understand. They're men.

I'm not exactly a sensitive New Age male (“New Age”—no, thank you!), but I find myself taking extreme offense at the obtuseness of some of my brethren. For years now I've wondered why all women aren't angry with us every minute of every day. That question is only partly rhetorical. I know moral outrage is difficult to sustain, even under severe provocation. (That's probably why Bush got a second term.)

A syllabus of horrors

While my consciousness is momentarily raised, before it slips back into a more tranquil state, I am moved to share a collection of miscellaneous items from my memory trove. Each item is well-attested, having occurred either in my presence or in the presence of a friend or colleague who witnessed it. Nothing in this little syllabus of horrors is a “friend of a friend” urban legend.
  • A math department meeting at our college came to an end without a decision on the contentious issue of a uniform departmental policy on classroom technology. Our most technophobic colleague, an old-school curmudgeon, sauntered over to the young female faculty member whose policy proposal he had successfully tabled, expressed the hope that she would not hold a grudge against him, and then chucked her under the chin. As the woman said later, “The only reason he got that damned finger back intact was that I was so surprised.”
  • A colleague in the history department openly decried the presence of women (they're just there to find husbands) and minorities (they're lazy and ill-prepared) in his classes. We called him the professor of Aryan studies. He was reputed to have the longest list of student grievances on file in the instruction office when he finally retired in the 1990s.
  • The business law professor at a sister college was a virulent old misogynist who declared that each woman enrolled in his classes was depriving a more deserving male of an education. He famously began each semester by putting the women in their place. “Ladies, please keep your knees together. Gentlemen, now that the gates of hell have been closed, let us proceed.”
  • A member of the California legislature stood up on his hind legs and objected to a measure to criminalize spousal rape: “If I can't rape my wife, then who can I rape?”
  • My younger brother and sister were in high school and old enough for driver's licenses. My sister is a year and a half older than our brother. It was decided that they would be permitted to drive to school, provided that our kid brother was in charge. After all, he's the boy. My sister complained that she was always at our brother's mercy if he decided he wanted to cruise Main Street awhile before going home after school. But, then, she's the girl, so it was all supposed to make sense.
  • A bit of a twist: My grandmother's will included all of her descendants, without exception. It also included all of the spouses of her descendants, but with one exception: my sister's husband. The other spouses were female and, as such, became members of the family when they married my grandmother's sons and grandsons. They belonged to us, you see. I suppose we should have been grateful that my sister wasn't left out because she now belonged to my brother-in-law's family.
  • An even bigger twist: A colleague was appalled when one of her female students presented her with a drop card for a geometry class in which she was excelling. The student had been told—by a female counselor!—that girls did not need to take math, that it was too hard anyway, and would damage her GPA. Sisterhood may be powerful, but sometimes it's treacherous.
I won't make the mistake of denying the reality of progress. For example, the professors in the above list are all gone now, and the worst case (the “gates of hell” guy) flourished in the fifties and sixties; he wouldn't last long today, mercifully. What troubles me the most, however, is the degree to which the thoughtless assumptions of the past afflict those who should know better. The female counselor who routinely warns her female advisees away from math is particularly worrisome, as she appears to have bought into the idea that math and science are for boys, and girls shouldn't trouble their poor little brains over it. No wonder the women in my math department regard her with special horror.

Every polemic of this sort runs the risk of falling into the trap of excessive generalization. Who dares say how women should think and feel when we are talking about a group that includes such diverse elements as Phyllis Schlafly and Betty Friedan? (Actually, Schlafly would probably be happy to tell us, in no uncertain terms.) The point, though, is that the male-imposed burkah is less distant from our modern American society than we might like to think. Just read the letters to the editor or listen to the rantings of Rush if you don't believe me. And thus I wonder, why aren't women angry all the time?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Cyborg students

Clutching calculator crutches

It is the lull before the storm. Algebra students take joy in the ease with which they are solving our most recent exercises. What could be simpler than factoring monic polynomials? All you need to factor x2 + bx + c is to find paired factors of c that add up to b.

For any constant c, the list of its factors is finite. The student can scan the list for a suitable pair and, upon finding them, simply write down the factorization of the original polynomial. If the search fails, he or she simply writes down “prime.”

Today I gave a quiz with four monic polynomials to factor. They embodied all the permutations on the signs of b and c, beginning with the instance where both are positive. Most of my students sailed through the quiz, but I noticed that they scrambled for their calculators while working the problems. This puzzled me. I've banned the calculators that can actually do the factoring for the students (like the TI-89), so it seemed to me that they were mostly wasting their time. What could they be doing?

After the quizzes were all collected, I asked for four volunteers to demonstrate the solutions on the board. With a little nudging, four students duly approached the board and dispatched the problems. Two of them carried their calculators up to the board with them! In the first case, the student was facing a problem where c was equal to 28. She needed the calculator to find its divisors, even though she had just recently done the problem at her desk! The other student was in a similar fix with the awesome c value of 50! (That's an exclamation point, not a factorial symbol.)

My algebra students cannot factor 28. They cannot factor 50.

Moebius Stripper over at Tall, Dark, & Mysterious often waxes profane in her disdain for calculators. Today drove home the point that MS is not exaggerating: our calculator-dependent students are mathematically crippled. Numbers have neither structure nor texture to them. Instead numbers are merely inert blocks that must be processed through electronic machinery. Punch some numbers, read a display, write down a result. The magic box holds the answers.

Woe is we.

Note: The “Evil Bad Ass Calculator” in the illustration can be found here.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Free is expensive

How I saved less!

This afternoon I used a special coupon for a free tire alignment. The free alignment cost me $90, although without a coupon you can get it for $70. Here's how it works:

The tires on my car are over four years old and ready for replacement. Before going to the tire shop, I visited their website and printed out a coupon good for a free tire alignment with the purchase of four new tires. At the tire shop, the sales rep and I looked over some options and I chose a set of four tires for a total of $450. They'd be good for an estimated 80,000 miles, although they did not carry a lifetime guarantee (which seems a lot like one of those extended warranties, right?). The other 80,000-mile set came with the guarantee, but listed for $540. I wasn't interested in ponying up an additional $90 for the guarantee. I left the shop and began the one-mile hike home. (The walk is good for me.)

Before I got halfway there (note the clever use of the blog title, eh?), the sales rep caught up to me in the company pickup (he should have offered me a ride home) and apologized for not telling me that the coupon was not valid with the tires we had chosen. The free alignment offer is good only for tires labeled with their company logo; it says so in the fine print. What did I want to do? If I paid $70 for the alignment (certainly needed after several years of driving), my total cost jumped to $520. Did I want the alignment anyway?

Yes, I did. The sales rep then reminded me that we had looked at another set of tires that carried the company logo. That was the set that listed for $540. If I was going to pay $520 anyway for new tires and an alignment, why not toss in another $20 and get the alignment for free (you following this?) and also get the lifetime guarantee that came with the more expensive set. At this point, as you might imagine, I gave a sickly smile and said, “Sure, just get this over with.”

Later this afternoon I'll call the tire shop to check when my car will be ready. I'll walk back into town, pick up my vehicle, and ride home on my new—and properly aligned—tires. Complete with lifetime guarantee! And a free alignment that cost me only $90.

Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

David Berlinski vs. Goliath

This time Goliath wins

Intellectuals don't win too many popularity contests. The “smart kid” in class is often the target of bullies. Speaking as a former smart kid, I find it perplexing that we sometimes become bullies ourselves. We should know better, although it may be that some of us cannot resist taking a turn when circumstances change. Perhaps this is what happened to David Berlinski, a peculiar icon of the anti-evolution movement.

Berlinski is an intellectual bully, a trained mathematician who enjoys using his special status to confuse and abuse others. His biographical sketch on the website of the Discovery Institute notes that Berlinski earned a Ph.D. in mathematics philosophy from Princeton, no shabby accomplishment. His book A Tour of the Calculus was a very successful semi-popular account of the work of Newton and Leibniz and its consequences. The hardcover edition's book jacket includes a paragraph about the author on its back flap; it contains this sentence: “Having a tendency to lose academic positions with what he himself describes as an embarrassing urgency, Berlinski now devotes himself entirely to writing.” As is usually the case with someone who has failed to find himself an academic niche, Berlinski's fame rests on matters other than his research papers. These days he is more recognized as an anti-Darwin skeptic than as a mathematician.

Nevertheless, it is as a mathematician that Berlinski rides into combat against his evolutionary targets. What could be more natural for him than to hurl numbers at his opponents?
Could I ask you to give us your best estimate of the number of changes required to take a dog-like mammal to a sea-going whale?
The quote is from William F. Buckley's Firing Line on PBS. The installment on December 4, 1997, was devoted to a debate on the proposition, “Resolved: The evolutionists should acknowledge creation.” Berlinski's position among the creationists was ambiguous, since he purports to have no opinion on creation itself; he is simply making common cause with those who attack Darwin and evolution. His question on the evolution of the whale was aimed at Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, an organization dedicated to promoting sound science education and opposing creationism.

It was a theme to which Berlinski returned several times in his exchanges with the evolutionists on the Firing Line panel. He variously denounced natural selection as “Que sera, sera” and archly demanded to know whether Darwinism comprised any actual theory “that would be recognizable by any physicist or a mathematician.” Berlinski is particularly enamored of physics, which is highly mathematized and fraught with numbers. To the degree that evolution is not numerical, Berlinski appears to argue, it is not really a science. For him, science seems to be an absurdly all-or-nothing proposition. Witness this exchange between Berlinski and Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (I have abridged the discussion to remove some of the repetitions and digressions. The full text is available here.)
DB: I do have a scientific question to ask you. Every significant paleontologist says that there are gaps in the fossil record. Do you have a particular reason for demurring?

BL: Of course it has gaps.

DB: Okay, so to that extent the evidence does not support Darwin's theory of evolution.

BL: No, that is absolutely wrong.

DB: It follows as the night the day.

BL: Of course not. How could you have a cell, for example, hundreds of millions of years old, that would leave a fossil record? It would disintegrate. It would quite literally not be able to be found in the fossil record.

DB: I never suggested that there may not be explanations of the gaps. But the fact [is] that the fossil record does not on its face support Darwin's theory of evolution.

BL: No, it does. And once again I say, how many times do we have to find those intermediate fossils?

DB: All I'm asking for is enlightenment on a significant point. Darwin's theory requires a multitude of continuous forms. We do not see that in the fossil record. In fact, major transitions are utterly incomplete. Would you accept that as an empirical fact?

BL: No, you sound like a guy who is writing a story about baseball, comes in in the fourth inning, and says, “Well, you know, I'm going to write about the fourth inning on; the first three innings didn't happen because I wasn't there to see them.”

DB: We can't find any of the major transitions between the fish and the amphibian.

BL: Of course we find them. It's just that when we find them, doctor, you say it's still not enough.
The method to Berlinski's madness is easily characterized: Darwin's theory requires continuity in transitional forms. No continuity, no evolution. Simple as that. Q.E.D. While no serious scientist would argue that the absence of mathematical continuity in a fragmentary fossil record would imply there was no continuity in the first place, Berlinski's non-serious approach is perfectly compatible with such an absurd conclusion. It might be helpful at this point to remind everyone that a single gap in a mathematical proof is enough to invalidate it. While this standard is a natural and necessary part of mathematics, where a partial proof is no proof at all, it is completely out of place in the observational sciences. Berlinski either does not know this, or pretends not to.

I watched the Firing Line debate when it was originally broadcast in 1997. Somewhere around here I have a videotape of the whole two hours. Reading the on-line transcript reminded me how much is lost in the translation from video to text. The page does not fully convey Berlinski's supercilious manner as he combines spurious arguments with intellectual disdain. He was going to browbeat his opponents into submission with the immensity of his mathematical knowledge and he oozed contempt for their counter-arguments.

I learned a valuable and frightening lesson watching Berlinski in action. Please never let me lapse into behavior like his! And the bullies who beat the snot out of him in school have a lot to answer for.

Monday, March 06, 2006

My life is a sham

The road not taken

Damn it all to hell! Rats! Phooey!

I express myself so eloquently because I can't help myself. Why didn't I realize it sooner? Now that the scales have fallen from my eyes, I see that I should have recognized the problem many years ago when my SAT verbal score came in at the 99+ percentile and my math score was only 99. I was supposed to be an English major! Or maybe a journalist.

I blame Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted) over at ScienceBlogs for bringing What is your perfect major? to my attention. The QuizFarm site specializes in all kinds of on-line quizzes. You could easily spend an afternoon there noodling about with the quizzes and finding out amazing and shocking things about yourself. Now that I see I am a litterateur manqué, I may never again be content with my chosen lot in life as a mathematician. A mathematician whose “perfect major” score is only 83%—in a tie with engineering and art.

Quel horreur!


Pitching in the Bush league

Fellow citizens, it is time to come to the president's aid in his time of need. Word came out today (March 6, 2006) that George W. Bush has to make a special trip to Texas because he doesn't have an absentee ballot for tomorrow's primary election. Mistakes were made, so the moment has come for excuses. What excuse should the White House give for this new snafu, the latest in an unbroken string of cock-ups, although trivial by comparison with most of the others? Let's put on our thinking caps:

  • The president requested an absentee ballot, received it, and has already voted. Reports in the liberal media to the contrary are partisan lies.
  • The president meant to miss the primary to avoid taking sides in the contested primary for the gubernatorial nomination.
  • The White House staffer who neglected to process the paperwork to request the absentee ballot was distracted by the more urgent responsibility of making excuses for Iraq, Katrina, Medicare Plan D, Social Security “reform,” and the $8.2 trillion federal debt.
  • The president didn't need an absentee ballot because he was planning to be in the area anyway because he wanted to check on the reconstruction of New Orleans.
  • The White House was surprised that elections were still being held after the Patriot Act was renewed by the 109th (and last) Congress.
My own favorite explanation is different from any of the above:
The White House staff knew the president was about to be on vacation in Crawford soon—perhaps to “clear brush” (whatever that is) again— and could therefore vote in person. After all, George W. Bush is always about to be on vacation in Crawford.
Now what can we do to make him stay there?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The triage reflex

Not that I would ever...
It really doesn't matter who you put upon the list, for they'd none of them be missed!

The Mikado, Gilbert & Sullivan
Teachers have mystic powers. We're clairvoyant. That's right: We can tell the future. We can size up a student at a glance and know instantly whether he or she is going to flunk the class. Then you know it's not necessary to waste any time on them.

Excuse me a moment while I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot and gather my thoughts. You knew I was kidding, right? There's a grain of truth in what I was saying, but only a grain. The trick is to keep it from growing into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the very nature of our jobs, we teachers are horribly outnumbered. Our students have have a forty-to-one advantage over us. (Your mileage may vary. At my school, first-day enrollments are typically 42.) Therefore there is a premium on efficiency, to use our time in the most productive way possible. Though we may frequently fall short, this is nevertheless our goal. Devout Benthamites all, we must try to do the most good for the greatest number.

The corollary is obvious: We must not waste time where it will be unproductive. Even a relatively new teacher learns to size up a class in the first few days and begins to classify the students. The A students and the F students are usually the most obvious. We know, however, that if you act on a snap judgment that a student is not likely to pass, you could end up denying that student the help that would make the crucial difference between success and failure.

As for the A students, they can usually fend for themselves.

What gives the at-risk student away? Here are some harbingers of doom:
  • Misses the first day of class (never a good sign)
  • Frequently misses class (showing up just on the first day to save your spot is not enough)
  • Never brings the textbook to class (see The naked student for an extreme case)
  • Submits no work (we collect assignments to fill our empty hours with reading and grading; please do not disappoint us!)
  • Evades the assessment and placement system and sneaks into a class they're not ready for (instead of jumping ahead a semester, they end up losing a couple)
  • Dozes in class (especially if they snore)
  • Reacts to a bad score with repeated requests for “extra credit” (sorry, kid, this isn't grade school)
  • Tells you how to do your job (we try not to take it personally, but really!)
I have this bizarre conviction that every student can be saved—at least in theory, if not in practice. My conviction is based on the notion that—barring severe disability—basic math is accessible to everyone. You don't need a special “math mind,” just a rational one, to master arithmetic and algebra. The necessary logic is no more sophisticated than that which is required to live life outside a conservatorship. If only I had the time to match each student to his or her level of understanding and proceed methodically from that point...

Oops. I said “time.” That's where it all falls apart, remember? On the average, my students get about one-fortieth of my attention at the beginning of the term (and perhaps one-thirtieth or even one-twentieth near the end; attrition can be that severe). In the one-to-many relationship that a teacher has with the students, every moment in class needs to count for as many of them as possible. Our target is the vital center. Hence the most advanced kids tend to get bored and the struggling students (if they're even present) get glassy-eyed or desperate. Or desperately glassy-eyed.

Every day I need to be on guard against jumping to conclusions. I think I usually succeed but it is always difficult to reserve judgment when you recognize the signs that have so reliably signaled failure in the past. The one chance for success is to overturn the chessboard and start a new game. I assign tasks to my students involving sending me e-mail or visiting my office, looking for chances to talk to them individually and get each one on a constructive path. Somehow you have to get their attention. One of my colleagues includes in his syllabus some advice to those repeating the class:
You have got to do something different. Whatever you did last time, it got you a D or an F. If you do the same things again, you’ll get another D or another F, and you’ll have to take the course over again next semester, too. That would be a waste of time.
Just because we see the signs, we mustn't allow our expectations to victimize our students. Instead we must always be prepared to do something different. Just in case it makes a difference. Just this time.

UFOs, Unicorns, and POWs

A lifestyle of loss

It gives me a pang of sadness every time I see it, but it also gives me a twinge of exasperation. The POW/MIA flag flies above the California state capitol and too many other places to mention. The logo appears on bumperstickers and the occasional T-shirt. Sometimes we seem to live in a culture of denial and self-deception, of which the POW/MIA issue is just one of the most visible manifestations.

Many years ago I was doing some constituent work for a California legislator. A woman had come into the office looking for assistance in tracking down her son. While elected officials are never your first recourse in solving a missing-person case, they are often the last resort in all kinds of situations. After all, your legislator has more leverage than you do, so enlisting his or her support can help resolve a problem involving government or public agencies.

I sat down with the distressed woman and we went over her case. Soon I realized it was hopeless and understood why law enforcement had wearied of her and her doomed quest to find her son. She had nothing. The file folder she had brought with her contained nothing but a couple of family photographs and a stack of newspaper clippings. The clippings were of photos, not of articles. She had selected them based on her opinion that her son appeared in them. After he ran away from home, the mother had begun to "see" him in news photos. There he was in a crowd in Paris. Here he was in a group of people in New York City. There you could "just make him out" behind someone standing in San Francisco's Ghiardelli Square.

Frankly, I couldn't see any but the most superficial resemblance between the young men she was spotting in the paper and the family photos of her son. When I asked how long he had been missing, it turned out that he had been gone for twenty years. Nevertheless, she was still looking for people who matched her son's appearance of two decades ago. In her mind she had frozen her son in time.

I cannot remember how my meeting with the constituent ended. Her delusion was beyond my meager powers to resolve. I probably nodded my head sympathetically many times, took her address, and promised a follow-up letter from my boss. That was the usual pattern with constituent services, although in happier circumstances the letter would report on what had been done to solve the problem. In her case, the letter over my boss's signature would regretfully tell her that we had checked with the appropriate authorities (which we would have) and that we were sorry that it seemed unlikely that a missing-person case of such long standing would have a happy ending. I would have drafted the letter in accordance with the legislator's standing order to be as diplomatic as possible when delivering bad news.

Déjà vu all over again

I can't help but think of that poor woman every time I see the POW/MIA emblem. “You are not forgotten,” it says. Nor should they be. But there is a strong undercurrent of unreality in the whole business. You can have a sequence of perfectly reasonable statements that eventually draws you into a fantasy land where the truth is most unwelcome. Consider this statement from the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia:
The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia's sole purpose is to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War.
The League's first priority is the “release of all prisoners” that remain imprisoned more than thirty years after the end of the Vietnam war. While we might agree that it is more important to rescue living people from incarceration than recover the remains of the deceased, why would anyone think that there is any significant probability that such POWs even exist?
The League's highest priority is resolving the live prisoner question. Official intelligence indicates that Americans known to have been alive in captivity in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were not returned at the end of the war. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that these Americans may still be alive. As a policy, the U.S. Government does not rule out the possibility that Americans could still be held.
That last sentence gives my gut a twist. Of course the government does not “rule out” the remote possibility that POWs might exist. Governments don't make categorical statements when they can preserve some wiggle room. You don't need a former government aide like me to tell you that. As for the notion that some of these missing “Americans may still be alive,” the whole weight of that statement lies on the word may.

Thus we have the fateful progression from (a) some guys are still missing, (b) a few could be alive, and (c) we must never give up.

Well, what would you do? If one of the missing were a family member, would you ever give up completely? I don't think so. Still, I think the legislators who pass feel-good measures to require the flying of the POW/MIA flag above the U.S. and state capitols should be embarrassed. Senator John McCain, a former POW, and Senator John Kerry, legislators on opposite sides of the political divide, worked together diligently to examine the POW issue. As Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker reported, “[They] vetted every single one of these claims, claim by claim, that there were live sightings of POWs still in Vietnam, that there was one being held here, that there was one being held there, that there were unpatriated remains in Hanoi.” The Kerry-McCain hearings opened the way to normalized relations with Vietnam and created an environment of greater cooperation in identifying and recovering the remains of American soldiers who had been missing in action. Live POWs there were none, yet these mythical creatures continue to be a primary focus that interferes with and distracts resources from the feasible task of helping families recover the bodies of their loved ones. As I said, it is sad and understandable on the personal level, but it is frustrating to see the legislative posturing and pandering that actually hurts the people that need help.

As for “evidence,” consider this equivalent of the poor woman's packet of newspaper clippings. The League's website offers a table of “first hand sightings” of living prisoners:

Numbers this small would cause UFO aficionados to abandon all hope. Believers in living POWs are more stubborn than that. All we can offer them is sympathy. But not hope.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A sip from the firehose

Hey, look over here!

I was pretty pleased with myself. Dick Cheney had chosen to break his silence on the notorious hunting accident in Texas by speaking to Brit Hume on Fox News. It occurred to me that Hume was no stranger to speaking fluff to power. I had the evidence in my archives. (“Archives”: A fancy word for a cluttered home.) Brit's work as an apologist was in the pages of old computer club magazines from the 1980s that I had saved for no discernible good reason. I dug out the publications, found the articles, and drafted a blog post containing some juicy quotes from Hume himself. I uploaded my article and waited confidently for surfers of the blogosphere to stampede to my virtual door.

My numbers soared into the stratosphere. Thanks to Site Meter, I watched as the daily hits on Halfway There skyrocketed from the teens and twenties to nearly 250! However, it had nothing to do with Brit. People were actually showing up to read about a dreadful bit of poetry I had heard on Catholic Radio. I had mentioned it in a comment on Pharyngula, a favorite science blog that I visit daily. The initial flood of visitors was powered by the Pharyngula connection. Then came Wave 2.

A discussion on reproductive rights over at Bitch Ph.D. had prompted me to comment on something else I had heard on Catholic Radio and written up with the catchy title Why do you feel bad, whore? Dr. B's readers followed on the heels of the Pharyngulans and boosted my blog the rest of the way into orbit. For a couple of days the traffic was stunning (relative to where I had been before). It has since fallen back to a more modest level, although still about twice as much as I had had before.

Since the February stampede, I have been mulling over how I turned into a snarky commentator on the peccadilloes of Catholic Radio rather than an intrepid reporter on the failings of Brit Hume at Fox News. One possible explanation is that everyone already knows that the folks at Fox News are less reporters than they are shills for the Bush league. No one needs to hear that again. But the likelier explanation is that it all depends on where you tell your story rather than what your story is. Pharyngula and Bitch Ph.D. are high-traffic blogs with tons of good stuff to read—in terms of both original posts and the many comments they elicit. Perhaps if I posted a link in comments over at Fafblog, I would see if I get some traffic as wacky as me.

Halfway There is only a hobby with perhaps some therapeutic overtones. I used to write a lot for publication and this blog is a convenient outlet for some of the ideas that clutter up my brain. There are no ads, so I'm not looking for traffic for its own sake. I'd like more comments, I think, but the blog exists for its own sake rather than for any special purpose. I won't be making a big production trying to get those numbers up again. I did, however, learn to appreciate the information captured by Site Meter (I have a regular reader in Iceland!) and for a while I was visiting it frequently and reading the entrails. Here are a few other things I learned:

Pin-ups are popular. (Who knew?) When I included an image of Nikki Zeno as a joke in my post on Zenos in history, I discovered that some people were directed to my site by search engines that had recorded the picture's presence. One of my friends said he was hoping there would be more pin-ups. (Don't hold your breath, Gene.)

Another person came to Halfway There because of a Google hit on “boys in white shorts”; that visitor was undoubtedly disappointed to discover an article in which I complained about the color-coded P.E. shorts we were required to use in my high school days. No sexy pictures, but I did use a clip from Calvin and Hobbes.

Some anonymous user at the IP address 71.142.247.# (Site Meter shows a location that appears to be in Kansas) visits compulsively multiple times every day. Since I don't post more often than every few days, that seems strange. I wonder if it's a netbot that scans a gazillion sites every day for some search engine. Does anyone know?

Site Meter says that Halfway There has had more than 2,200 visitors. Just one day like the February rush would push the numbers over 2,500, but instead the month of March will take a few leisurely days to reach that milestone. Or maybe I should go listen to Catholic Radio for another juicy tidbit.