Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One year old

Happy birthday to me!

Halfway There marks its one-year anniversary this week. It's a naïve domestic blog without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption. I launched it on August 29, 2005, without any special expectations or plans, but it's kept me amused. Perhaps it's amused some of you, too. Thanks to everyone who visits regularly and those who comment sporadically. It keeps things interesting!

During this next year, I will stay true to my lack of special expectations or plans. See you around the blogosphere.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Once upon a time

Do-it-yourself miracles

If it made sense, it wouldn't have to be a religion, now would it?

Robbie Coltrane in Nuns on the Run (1990)
The miracle-mongers are ever with us, relying on faith because evidence fails. Believing in miracles is harder work than you might think, since we are told they are everywhere around us. Such ubiquity should keep us in a constant state of wonder and adoration. But no. Transubstantiation and Virgin Mary apparitions in tortillas and oil stains fail to impress. Most (all?) of these miracles fall prey to more parsimonious explanations than divine intervention. The Roman Catholic Church, which has cornered the market on the creation of saints, has to settle these days for nothing more exciting than unexplained recoveries from serious illnesses in cataloguing miracles in the canonization casebooks.

The only really good miracles remain confined to the pages of the various holy books. The Bible, for example, offers such decidedly remarkable events as the healing of lepers, the bestowing of sight on the blind, the restoration of a severed ear, and even resurrection from death. Those are definitely good miracles, but we never see the like today.

This appears not to trouble the irremediably devout. Cartoonist Johnny Hart continues to find something ostensibly humorous in the doubts of nonbelievers and likes to use the panels of his B.C. comic strip to preach at his readers. Today's installment is unusual in that it goes beyond his customary sermonette (see his stillborn sally at science, for example). Hart doesn't just lament the absence of miracles in contemporary life—he does something about it!

All of you doubters out there should feel properly chagrined now. As we can plainly see, a pagan mountain-sitting guru can, after a brief perusal of a complimentary Gideon Bible, generate so much godawful faith that he can topple his mountain into the sea! Ye of little faith had better sit up and take notice, because Johnny Hart's cartoon god is a mighty god. We know this, because it can perform stupendous miracles on behalf of its believers. Mountains into the sea! Wowee!

If I hadn't seen it for myself, I would never have believed it. See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

When liars figure

It's not the figures that lie

Right-wing radio talk-show host Melanie Morgan is trying her hand at a little journalism. When she's not ranting on San Francisco's KSFO, a bastion of neo-conservative cant in the Bay Area, she's heading up a couple of pressure groups (Move America Forward and the Censure Jimmy Carter campaign) or writing for WorldNetDaily. The latter is an on-line news journal whose relationship to reality is similar to that of The Onion, but it's not intentionally funny.

In her guise as an intrepid reporter, Morgan tenders up an amazing scoop—a story you'll never see on one of the responsible news outlets. She used her Move America Forward mailing list to send out a press release (and, no, she didn't forget to include a pitch for monetary contributions):
Move America Forward Chairman, Melanie Morgan, has broken a story that the mainstream media refuses to report: for the past several months the number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq has consistently fallen.

This blockbuster information is contained in this WorldNetDaily Exclusive column, “Separating the Men From the Boys”
While Morgan may be one of the least responsible radio voices out there, certainly this is welcome news. Is it too good to be true? What is Morgan's evidence for her startling claim? She adds just a little more detail in the actual column:
So far this month, there have been fewer U.S. troops killed in Iraq than died in the month of July. July's fatality figures were lower than those of June. June's were lower than May's. And May's fatalities were lower than April's. The news is that we are WINNING!

Does this information surprise you?

It should, because the mainstream media has done everything it can to paint Operation Iraqi Freedom as a failure. The progress that is made in rebuilding Iraq on a daily basis is seldom reported.

Okay, she didn't give any numbers, but there are specific claims in her article. The monthly death toll among U.S. troops in Iraq has been dropping since April. When we count May, June, July, and August, that's four straight months of declining death counts. Is Morgan misleading us?

Of course she is. Morgan is part of the Republican noise machine and a typical specimen of the right-wing propagandist. They lie bravely and boldly in the service of their ideology. The fig leaf covering Morgan's lie consists of the two words “so far” in describing the August body count. There were at least six days left to go in the month when she penned her column, which was published on-line on August 26, 2006. She had to trim off 20% or more of August in order to make her talking point stick and, sadly, it has already unraveled.

The website antiwar.com maintains a tally of fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan (counting deaths among civilians and foreign troops as well as our own). I checked the monthly totals for U.S. troops yesterday, the day that Morgan's column came out. At that moment, her claim was barely true. U.S. casualties had spiked in April with a shocking death count of 76, after which the numbers slowly receded, till in July it was down to 44. As you can see, the August count was even lower, at 40 to date (and the date was August 26).

The moment I saw the actual count, I knew there was no way that we would be fortunate enough to make it the rest of the month without enduring enough American deaths to break the July numbers. After all, we are still losing our men and women at a rate that averages more than one a day. Does Morgan not know this? I dare say she does, but remember: her job is not news reporting, it's propaganda. A day later, and the August count had tied the July count. Lucky Melanie Morgan: she published her misleading column just in the nick of time!

Morgan brags in her column that tough gals like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham have to take up the slack left by the girlie-men reporters (she cites Tucker Carlson, an apt choice) in encouraging (fooling?) the American public to support the war. By the evidence of her latest WorldNetDaily column, Morgan has learned the first lesson of Coulterism: the blatant falsehood is your friend whenever the truth is against you.

Step on it

Well, that could work

I read very quickly. This is usually an asset, although I have been chided by people who give me humorous birthday cards: “You could at least read it!” “But I did! Why do you think I was laughing?” I guess flicking it open and bursting into laughter was not a credible response in the eyes of those whose reading speed is linked to the dexterity of their lip muscles.

This morning I read Dan Piraro's Bizarro cartoon at a glance, and stopped, bewildered.

Huh? Gas? I immediately thought of three: Nitrous oxide? Ether? Chloroform?

Yes, seems like that ought to work. I am not experienced in child care, but it appears likely that anesthetizing a youngster would cause it to behave very nicely for a while.

Then I took another look at the illustration. Gas? Oh! Gasoline. Now I get it. The mother was driving the baby around for the well-known soporific effect on little ones. And gasoline is very expensive these days. Yes, yes. Quite droll.

I have got to read the comics more slowly.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The more you know

A considerate student

The fall semester is well under way and my e-mail in-box is flooded with students responding to their first assignment: e-mail your instructor. It's a good way to make sure I have all of their e-mail addresses (they don't all use their campus accounts) and I also ask them for some background: Why are you taking this class? What are your academic goals? I get swamped reading all that stuff, but it's enlightening and often useful.

As you might imagine, some of the messages stand out because of their humor or cleverness or weirdness. This year's crop is no exception. I must admit, however, that I've never seen a message before that is quite like the one that I received from “MM,” a student enrolled in my early morning precalculus class. He thought it would be to my benefit to know a little something about his approach to academics:
Hi there Professor,
basically my plans are to get a degree in engineering, mainly civil but I want to double major in architectural as well since its only a couple more classes to take so why not. My story regarding school is, I don't usually take notes, nor I study for tests. The stuff just naturally comes to me during tests and usually the only mistakes I make are some really dumb and simple ones. I am thinking about getting a pretty good grade in this class, although, I don't really like to do homework so sometimes I will be slacking. There are also going to be times when I am going to sleep in class, getting up at 6am is just too much for me. I stay up late so I can't get up that early, so far I was okay. That's about it, I hope I fulfilled your assignment there and if not just let me know and I'll write some more.

See you in class,
M*** M****
I paused in working my way through the backlog of student messages to ponder MM's words. Usually you don't get students telling you about their unstable equilibrium between brilliance and slacking. He reminded me of someone. Namely, me. In my first two years of college I was a whiz who cruised through classes almost effortlessly. Yes, I did my homework, which MM says he doesn't enjoy, but I did not work hard. Things changed just a bit when I transferred to one of the toughest schools in California to work on a bachelor's degree in math and suddenly discovered that I was no longer a Wunderkind. Acquiring decent study skills became an overnight emergency, and my first academic quarter in Pasadena was tough.

I wondered how MM expected me to respond. This is what I came up with:
Thanks for your message, MM. I hope you don't slack your way to a lower grade than you're capable of. Your situation sounds familiar, since I was able to coast through my own math classes—at least until I got to my junior year and they got quite a lot harder. While things are easy is a good time to practice a few basic study skills, just in case you're going to need them later.

Don't expect to sleep in class too much. I tend to call on students who are nodding off.

Good luck in class.

Dr. Z
So—? Have I put him on notice, or was I too subtle? He should at least pick up on my rather direct statement that class time will not be nap time.

Oh, yes. This morning our class had its first quiz, so I can report that MM is rather accurate in describing his quiz results. He clearly knows the basics, but his work is rather slipshod. And his mistakes? Exactly as advertised: “really dumb and simple.”

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Liar, liar!

So why aren't her pants on fire?

The pretentious D. James Kennedy is pounding the drum for his forthcoming special program on Darwin's Deadly Legacy. You see, Darwin's theory of evolution is responsible for Nazis and many other bad things, so it must be false. That's not only bad history, it's bad reasoning. Even if Hitler's theory of the Aryan master race owed anything to the survival-of-the-fittest aspect of evolution, the abuse of a theory says absolutely nothing about the validity of that theory. But one goes to D. James Kennedy for overweening faith, not logic.

For his assault on evolution, Kennedy has recruited some high-profile allies. One of them is Ann Coulter, noisy rightwing propagandist. It's a marriage made in heaven. She was prominently featured in a lengthy promo that appeared at the end of this weekend's broadcast of The Coral Ridge Hour. (The main program itself was devoted to a recycled attack on the ACLU, a particular D. James Kennedy bête noire.)

As the Coral Ridge announcer reported, Coulter's most recent book devoted a third of its length to a sustained attack on the theory of evolution. Kennedy and company must presume that this gives her credibility to Kennedy's audience, and I dare say they are right. Coulter provided a smooth segue from the ACLU portion of the program to the denunciation of Darwin:
I think there's still some misguided people who think the ACLU cares about civil liberties. They are purely an anti-Christian organization, an anti-American organization. That's what they do and what is there to say about them? They rush in whenever anyone mentions any science that contradicts Darwinism.

The ACLU wins in the courts. We win when Americans know what is going on.
Despite her oracular pronouncements, Coulter is willing to defer to the expertise of others when the occasion warrants. For example,
I'll let the scientists decide what should be taught in science class, but it seems to me the one thing that shouldn't be taught in science class is a crackpot 19th century mystery religion, as David Berlinski calls it.
Yes, let the scientists decide. Unless they disagree with fellow pseudointellectual David Berlinski. Coulter chooses her experts very carefully, doesn't she?

Unsurprisingly, Ann also has a problem with public schools. A diligent student of the Republican playbook, Ann calls them “government schools,” of course:
What the government schools do, it is the left's madrassahs. And they propagandize to the children six hours a day, twelve years of the child's life. I would give them the presidency, the house, the senate, if we could have children for six hours a day to give them our religion. But no.

That used to be the purpose of school, oddly enough. To teach biblical truths. No, that is absolutely prohibited.
Given Ann's lack of charity, you might be puzzled by her reference to “our religion.” If you didn't realize it, Ann pretends to be Christian. But not to worry: It's only a pose.

Ann, by the way, is all in favor of free speech. She construes “free speech” generously so as to encompass things like efforts to smuggle creationism into public school classrooms. She's all about the freedom thing, as witness this sentence fragment clipped out by Kennedy's video editors:
In Dover it indicated that there was other evidence out there that students could read in their free time, but not on sanctified government property. And merely being alerted to the fact that there was other information out there that might contradict a complete crock of a theory that is no more scientific than palm reading...
Yes, folks, the Dover decision was all about censorship. That's pretty surprising to those of us who read big chunks of it, but Ann must be smarter than you and me.

Postscript: While my focus in this post is on the inane Ann Coulter, a brief segment on Cobb County's textbook sticker controversy caught my eye. Here's what the voice-over announcer was saying as the video played out:
While reviewing the [biology] textbooks, parent Marjorie Rogers was dismayed by what she found.
As the word “dismayed” is intoned, you see Ms. Rogers scanning an open book, a jaundiced expression on her face. Actually, her scowl was quite appropriate. From the camera angle you could easily tell that she was looking at Icons of Evolution, the pathetic anti-evolution book by Jonathan Wells. Perhaps Kennedy's editors will have fixed this awkward juxtaposition by the time this sequence is enshrined in the final cut of Darwin's Deadly Legacy.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Monkey see, monkey do

Casual racism, homestyle

Yes, Senator George Felix Allen of Virginia is a racist. Defenders of the junior senator from Virginia claim he was misunderstood, but they are wrong. Most of them probably know they are wrong, but they may hope Allen's insult was sufficiently obscure that most people will shrug and let it pass.

This is not a complicated matter. Allen's disdain of racial minorities is so ingrained, so bred in the bone, that he can casually apply a derogatory epithet to a dark-skinned young man who is actually recording his words and actions on video. “Macaca” flows trippingly off his tongue. He pauses to say, “whatever his name is,” but that's only a rhetorical dig. Allen's not stumbling at all. When he repeats the insult—“Let's give a welcome to Macaca”—Allen demonstrates that it is a studied and deliberate slur. Perhaps Allen is thinking he'll get away with it because no one will understand the epithet. Perhaps Allen's not thinking at all. Racists are like that sometimes. Just shooting from the hip and letting the words gush from their mouths.

I know the word macaca well, having heard it throughout my life. In my Portuguese-speaking family, it was a word applied to my sister whenever she was acting up or behaving foolishly. It means monkey to the Portuguese (and Brazilians), just as it does to other cultures on or near the Mediterranean. When it was applied to me, the word was rendered macaco, with a masculine ending.

The adults in my family used it as a term of admonishment to children. It was never addressed to adults. That would be gravely insulting. It seems that the insulting connotation was common among the Mediterranean cultures that employed it. In particular, George Felix Allen's French-Tunisian mother grew up in a culture that employed it as a racial slur against blacks. Where else did Senator Allen pick it up than from his mother? Did she use it on him when he was little, or did she teach him to use it as a convenient substitute for the n-word? How very subtle!

Senator Allen's insult of S. R. Sidarth was no accident, but it was a mistake. The senator outed himself much more effectively than he realized. The origin and connotation of macaca were quickly uncovered, as well as Allen's familial connection to the source of the slur. What many suspected before, everyone now knows for sure.

Senator George Felix Allen is a racist. É stupid, também.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stupid and dishonest, but polite

Tangled in my own web

I called a dying friend and lied to her. I told her I was running errands in town and was “just a couple of minutes away.” Was she up to receiving a visitor?

I wasn't in town at all. I was standing in my living room, using my cell phone instead of my land line so that Caller ID wouldn't reveal that I was calling from home. The idea was to make my friend think it was a casual impulse call. No big deal. It wasn't like I was going out of my way or anything. All part of the plan to abide (or appear to abide) by her wish that no one make too much of a fuss.

She told me to come on by.

It wasn't like I was far away. We live in the same town. But I was more than “a couple” of minutes from her house. (More like “a few.”) I didn't actually have any errands to run. I was venturing out specifically to visit her. But she wasn't to know that. Like I said: It's all casual, see?

Some minutes later I was on her doorstep and knocked on the door. No response. Her husband had answered my call before giving her the phone, so I knew he was at home. Where was he? My friend is bedridden, so I knew she couldn't come to the door. I waited, puzzled.

I am talented at worrying, long years of practice having honed my pessimistic edge to a razor sharpness. I hoped that no emergency had arisen. I was thinking my friend's husband was tending to one of her many awkward physical needs (with the various tubes, fluids, and painkillers involved) and couldn't come to the door right away. I waited patiently for a while before knocking a second time.


Something was definitely wrong. My concern grew. I gently tested the handle. The latch moved slightly. Not locked, I thought. Another minute had passed. (They're long when you're waiting. Go ahead. Count one off slowly. They're long.)

I finally knocked a third time and leaned close to the door, listening as I grasped the door's handle and opened the door a crack.

I heard my friend's voice. She was telling me to come in. I closed the door behind me.

“Back here,” she said faintly, weakly, from a distance.

I walked down the hallway to the master suite.

“Well, thank goodness,” she said. “You know I can't yell at you. I called out earlier, but you didn't hear me.”

I was horrified at the thought that she was exerting herself, drawing on her precious reserves of energy, to try to yell at the idiot at the front door.

“It's always unlocked,” she continued. “People just knock, stick their heads in, and yell ‘Anybody home?’ It's the easiest way.”

I hadn't gotten the memo. I apologized profusely and guiltily. She just waved me to the chair next to her rented hospital bed and asked for the latest gossip from the math department. She's a colleague.

The visit was great and lasted longer than I expected. Her husband had taken the opportunity of my imminent arrival to go run errands himself. He hadn't realized it would be less imminent than I implied in my conversation with his wife. That's why I got to spend a few additional minutes on the doorstep, hovering about indecisively. And that's why my friend had to sit through that, hearing me knock three times on the door before I managed to knock enough sense into my head to open the damned thing. So sorry! Don't want to intrude!

Each of my last several visits seemed likely to be our last meeting. So far, however, my friend has outlasted all the time markers that typically describe her condition. The doctors told her last year that the median survival time was six months. As a math teacher, she was more than ready to point out that median requires half of those who receive the prognosis to outlast that statistic. A year later, her outlier status is secure and growing ever more remarkable.

Still, the doses of pain medication go ever upward. Her strength level slips ever downward. At some point, those trend lines intersect and there will be no more milestones. When, no one can say.

But soon. Too soon. Yet there might still be time for one more conversation.

Perhaps I'll try to visit again this weekend. I should probably give up on the lying stuff, though. It just complicates things. No, I'll just say, “Hey, feel like a visit?” No cover story or excuses. Wanting to see my friend again and spend time with her is quite reason enough.

She's still teaching and I'm still learning.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Motes and Beams

Do as I say

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye,
but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Matthew 7:3
David Vroon is unhappy. David Vroon is often unhappy. Editor of the American Record Guide, Vroon has a regular platform from which he can share his unhappiness. The July/August issue of ARG is no different. Oh, is he unhappy!

I am just like David Vroon, except that I am a cheerful person. When ARG appears in the mail, I snatch it up happily. Each issue is stuffed with hundreds of mid-length reviews of classical music recordings and lengthy surveys of the works of individual composers or essays on particular music genres. I love it.

I even love Vroon's curmudgeonly essays, although some of my enjoyment is at Vroon's expense. He inveighs against the barbarisms of the day, of which there are many, and I confess an abiding sympathy for his point of view. What aficionado of classical music could fail to sympathize with a critic of our popular culture? Vroon himself, however, does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character. He may be aware of this and perhaps dismisses it as beneath the concern of an upright connoisseur such as himself. Perhaps. However, Vroon does not seem to have any talent for self-examination. He's right, damn it! Disagree, and be damned! So there. He is in awe of his own accomplishments, as exemplified by a recent brilliant conversation with a friend:
We tend to start on a simple subject like “The Crisis of Attentiveness” and then move deeper and deeper into the subjects we both know. By the end of an afternoon it is no longer clear who thought of what: we have built a whole thought-edifice together. Somebody should record those sessions.
Someone should quickly secure the distribution rights to these monuments of contemporary thought and culture. Can you imagine the market for the recordings? I can. Oh, yes.

The July/August installment of Vroon's Critical Convictions column reads as an unconscious self-parody. He's a censorious finger-wagger on a cultural crusade, but the depths of his convictions do not protect him from running into the pots-and-kettles trap. His topic here is one of his favorites: short-attention-span young people and their dearth of refinement:
Kids won’t sit still long enough to understand or appreciate our music. It demands an attention span and a concentration of attention that they never had and never learn to develop. Perhaps it was just permissive parents; I’m sure one of the earliest things I had to learn as a child was to sit still. Perhaps it is overstimulation, too many distractions, too much clamoring for their attention (our music becomes just one more of those things)....

[W]e can hope age will mellow some of these people so they will begin to pay attention to life and the world around them. (But in my experience very few people ever really grow up.) I always saw and heard and noted everything around me.
Yes, Vroon is a whole lot more perceptive than you, and he doesn't mind telling you about it. And you'd appreciate just a bit more if you were as attentive as he is—and really, really smart, like he is.

There's nothing like finger-wagging to put oneself at risk of poking out one's own eye. Vroon manages to give himself a couple of sharp jabs without even realizing it:
I never passed thru a place without registering all there was to see or hear about it. I never lay on a beach with a radio playing; I listened to the waves and the birds.
Uh, David—“thru”? That's what the kids write in their text messages (or perhaps I should say “txt msgs”). You're not being trendy, are you? Or did you learn your spelling from the Department of Motor Vehicles? For a moment there, I thought you were also misusing “lay on the beach” for “lie on the beach,” but I see you are using past tense. Close one! I do wonder, though, how you can be sure that you register “all there was to see or hear.” After all, if you missed something, you would not know it. Right?

Vroon, by the way, is dreadfully unhappy about the Internet:
Note: thanks to the internet any idiot can write anything and no matter how bad it is it looks the same as anything else out there. The internet makes no judgements. The internet is chaos. Everything is there, and there’s no way to decide what to bother with. All its information is on the same cheap level, and all its merchandise is the same. There is not even a human salesman to give you advice or confirm your choice, as there is in a store or on the phone. You’re on your own. And every two-bit composer knows that and hopes to take advantage of it.

Anybody can put anything on the internet and sell anything on it. He need not have an education; he need not be accredited (credentialed?) by a reputable school, taught by outstanding teachers, screened by a faculty committee. He can be anybody—self-educated even.
Oh. My. God. Can you imagine? Even self-educated! We must protect ourselves from the scary autodidact. No doubt Vroon learned everything sitting at the feet of credentialed professionals. (In which case I wish one of them had told him that “Internet” is a proper noun and that proper nouns are capitalized in English.)

Vroon favors attentiveness. I agree. He favors fine music. I do, too. He likes contemplation and quiet reflection. Ditto. He believes in high standards and discriminating tastes. I have no problem with that (although he should practice more of what he preaches). Ultimately, though, I wonder why Vroon spends so much time preaching to the choir. The readers of ARG are mostly on his side, although I imagine that many of us roll our eyes at his myopic sallies against “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” (which appear to mean whatever he wants them to mean—and he means bad stuff).

To all of those things that Vroon favors, I think I'd like to add one more: Human kindness. Vroon thinks this automatically involves suspension of critical judgment (which he likes to spell in an affected British way as “judgement”), but that's too facile a response. Adults have always decried the excesses and irresponsibility of the young. High culture has always been the province of a small (and usually pampered) minority. If we want fine music to survive, it behooves us to share it, spread it around, and promote it. Yet Vroon decries all such outreach to the masses as pandering to uncultured tastes. “Greatest hits” excerpts of single arias from major operas are so ni kulturni! He should listen to himself, since he claims to listen to everything so very carefully. How else will people with short attention spans get drawn into classical music and opera? If you subject a novice to all four hours and three acts of some grand opera, you're likely to see them sprinting for safety. If you ravish them with a single dramatic aria, you might set a hook that draws them back for more. Vroon wants his favored art forms to survive and thrive while he mans the barricades and smites in the face any untutored wretch who might try to clamber aboard.

Geez, David, I mostly agree with you, but can you try not to be such a prig?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Jesus H. Christ, Ed.D.

We got your Christian calculus right here!

The indefatigable D. James Kennedy never ceases to provide a platform at this annual Reclaiming America for Christ conference to exponents of the Bible-blinkered worldview. On Monday, August 7, 2006, Kennedy's Truths that Transform radio program featured the first part of Dr. Paul Jehle's talk titled “Evaluating your Philosophy of Education.” Jehle is the senior pastor of a church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, as well as the principal of a Christian school and education director of the Plymouth Rock Foundation.

Jehle is also a master of the mock debate and a skilled user of false dichotomy: “There are only two philosophies of life.” Can you guess what they might be? Yes, it's Christianity versus non-Christianity, the latter of which is also known as humanism. (This is going to be a very big surprise to lots of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc., etc.) That quote, however, just makes Jehle look like a doofus and one might be concerned that it was taken out of context. Let's allow him to pay out a little more rope, in some extended excerpts in his own words:
You cannot candy-coat paganism and swallow it as godly. And because of that we need to clearly distinguish that which is Christian from that which is not Christian. If we do not, and if we fail to do that, we will often swallow something we think is Christian that will be bitter later on.

That's why there is such a thing as theistic evolution, for instance. For it's the buying of a lie. It's trying to Christianize a pagan religion. In the late 1800s almost every scientist who was a Christian attempted to do that. After Darwin's book came out in 1859, everyone was trying to Christianize paganism.

We have that today in almost every field. You think that's only limited to science? No way! We have christianized pagan jungle music that goes by the terminology of Christian. It's determined to be Christian because the words were Christian or the person singing it is Christian. But the issue is you cannot combine something by its nature which is pagan and built on humanistic principles and make it Christian by a magic wand.
So Jehle is putting on notice all of us paganistic, humanistic, jungle-music-loving, evolutionists—even the theistic ones.

I'm not strongly motivated to spring to the defense of theistic evolutionists, who tend to waste a lot of time wringing their hands over how their religious beliefs do not contradict their dedication to the scientific method. (Get over it, guys! Your religious practice and your scientific research are independent of each other. So stipulated!) To me, theistic evolutionists are not much of an issue. Jehle, however, feels obligated to beat up on them because they smear too much gray on his black-and-white world. Perhaps they even listen to jungle music, too. Shocking.

We can, I supposed, give Jehle some points for consistency: He insists on shoving everything through his Christian worldview meat-grinder:
I was taking calculus. I was a mathematics major and I was at a Christian college that was called Christian, but was not Christian....

I asked a question to my calculus professor: “What makes this course distinctly Christian?” He stopped. He said no one has ever asked that question before...

He said, “Okay, I'm a Christian; you're a Christian.”

I said, “That's not what I asked! What makes this calculus course distinctly Christian? What makes this different from the local secular university? Are we using the same text? Yes. Are you teaching it the same way? Yes. Well, then why is this called a Christian college and that one a non-Christian college?”
You can imagine my disappointment when Jehle abandoned this topic and never returned to it. Perhaps it was my fault for not listening to the second part of his talk, but my endurance can be tested only so far. If he indeed deigned to reveal the nature of Christian calculus, I didn't get to hear about it. I would imagine that something needs to be done about the godless limit process, wherein x is routinely permitted to go to infinity without asking God's permission. Too bad that Newton and Leibniz were never referred to the Inquisition.

Jehle did wrap up the first part of his talk with a wonderfully stage-managed mock debate, in which he helpfully portrayed both sides—the holy, God-fearing side with truth, right, justice, and Christ on its side, and the evil, godless, humanistic side with its fetters of evolution and that never-to-be-forgotten jungle music. Fortunately for Jehle, the side he favors managed to win when he was in charge of all aspects of the debate:
The answer is not whether religion influences law but which religion should influence law that produces the best liberty.

If I was on a debate show, and a man said to me, “You people would shove Christianity down the throats of every person in the United States of America because you're a fundamentalist right-wing—you know, I mean—out there in the ozone layer Christian.”

And I said, “Thank you for the introduction. I'm really glad that you understand how powerful Christianity is since you shake so much in its power.” I said, “Listen, the answer is not whether Christianity or any religion does that, but then which religion, sir, would you like to introduce as the base of law that would give the greatest of liberty and I'd like you to give me at least five civilizations in history that have proved to be liberty and protecting rights as the result of that religion.”

He's silent as it is now.

“Do you like the New Age movement?”


“Okay, It's built on Hinduism. Let's look at all the Islamic countries over in Europe. Tell me which one would you like to live in?

I said, “I'm glad you're not answering because you're living in the United States, and the very Christianity you criticize gives you the liberty to debate me on radio. And that's why! I said, do you understand that we wouldn't have this freedom if we lived in the country where your religion reigns?”
The audience went wild with applause as Jehle expertly eviscerated his imaginary debate foe. I love the way his hypothetical narrative quickly became indistinguishable from an account of an actual event (“I said” instead of “I would have said”). A real opponent might have had just a little more success. Perhaps along these lines:
It seems unfair that you ask for five examples. Would you be happy with one really good one? The United States of America was founded by men who were at pains to avoid the European example of religion-influenced government, which is why the U.S. Constitution never mentions God and cites religion only in the Bill of Rights, where it declares that the people have religious freedom. That is the reason that our country is free—because it is not officially Christian, although an aggregate of Christian sects comprise a majority of the population.

While the New Age movement is full of nonsensical ideas, some of them borrowed from Eastern religions, it is foolish to identify it with Hinduism. It is even more foolish—or perhaps simply careless or ignorant—to identify Hinduism with Islam. If you bother to check, you will find many Muslims living in Europe, but precious few Islamic states. It would therefore be difficult for me to pick one.

Finally, the freedom to speak comes not from Christianity, as history clearly attests through the examples of Queen Mary's England, the Inquisition's Spain, and Calvin's Geneva, but from the neutralization of religion through universal religious freedom. Be glad of that, for otherwise you would be a prime candidate to be silenced for your sedition against the liberty of the citizenry.

Monday, August 07, 2006

World War Whatever

C'mon, please get scared!

The Republican noise machine is desperately trying to revive the state of fear that has served BushCo so well in the past. Perhaps the electorate can be frightened one more time to cast its ballots in favor of the minions of our “war president.” It's worked before in the Global War on Terror. Could it work again for ... World War III?
Newt Gingrich: We're in the early stages of what I would describe as the third World War.... [Y]ou have to say to yourself: this is, in fact, World War III.
Gingrich's comment to Tim Russert set off a flurry of responses, complete with gladsome cries from the radical right as they clasped to their bosom a brand-new war meme. Sean Hannity solemnly declared, “I have absolutely zero disagreement.” (Hannity has a lot more “absolutely zero” than he realizes, poor thing.) And Jay Bryant no doubt thought he was cleverly stealing some of Al Gore's thunder when he intoned, “Gingrich's warning is, for many, a very inconvenient truth.” How droll these rightists are!

Of course, some people think the former House speaker is an optimist. One of these folks is a former CIA director, who anticipated the war- and fearmongering back in 2003:
James Woolsey: This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us. Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War.
The prescient Woolsey is joined in his number choice by a resident scholar at the rightwing American Enterprise Institute; Michael Ledeen says, “It's more like World War IV because there was a Cold War, which was certainly a world war.”

V, anyone?

Although he initially thought he had “absolutely zero disagreement” with Gingrich's characterization of the situation, Hannity apparently changed his mind a few days later when he declared, “We are loaded up today, as the Middle East on the brink of World War V, here.” As noted by Media Matters, Hannity did not explain his numbering scheme. Of course, Hannity speaks in such lucid phrases that it would seem petty to demand that he justify his statements or—even more challenging—be required to parse them.

Hey, when it comes to this war-numbering stuff, I've heard it all before! More than twenty years ago, I read these words:
By Day Sixteen the news anchors were trotting out historians who spent their time debating whether the current unpleasantness should be called World War III, IV, V, the Fourth Nuclear War, or the First Interplanetary War....

In the end, the decision was made in an office on Sixth Avenue, New York City, Eastern Capitalist Confederation, by a network logo design analyst. The overnight Arbitrons on the numeral V were strongly positive. The V looked sexy and might stand for Victory, so World War V it was.

The next day, Sixth Avenue was vaporized.
This excerpt is from John Varley's Demon, published in 1984 and still available in paperback.

There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. For our next recapitulation of the past, how about a faithful recreation of the Republican electoral wipeout of 1974? That fortunate debacle came in the wake of Nixon's Watergate scandals and resignation. Bush, who is even worse than Nixon, deserves no less a chastisement in 2006.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Avast, ye Techers!

A piratical Ditch Day

Caltech's Millikan Library continues to serve as the campus's tallest billboard (in addition to being its tallest building). This year the east side of the nine-story edifice was adorned with a Jolly Roger, the skull decorated with an “06” eyepatch.

The accompanying illustration was published in the new issue (Volume LXIX, No. 2) of Engineering & Science, Caltech's quarterly magazine for alumni and friends of the institute. As reported in the photographs' caption, “Besides flying their colors from Millikan Library, the pirate crew made the Gene Pool next to the Beckman Institute run red with blood in the form of FD&C Red Number 5.”

Back in 1973, Millikan was used to acknowledge a more specific pirate, who was then (but not for much longer) occupying the White House. Students from Dabney House used their mountaineering skills to dangle from ropes while affixing the wooden frame of their canvas sign to the side of the building. Quite a feat. The “Impeach Nixon” banner attracted wide attention, including an angry letter from the president of the National Oil Company, who said the prank was going to cost Caltech a million dollar contribution he had been planning to make. Campus opinion was mixed, but most of us thought the oil man was blowing smog. He could just as easily have written a letter saying he had decided against a two million dollar contribution. Words are cheap when they're not on a cashier's check.

The local coterie of college Republicans, in a tradition which survives to the current day, were gormless pudges unable to rappel down the side of Millikan to remove the offending sign. They dangled hooks over the parapet at the top of the building in an attempt to snag the sign and break it loose. When that failed, a genius who is probably now working in the Bush/Rumsfeld Pentagon came up with the idea of torching the sign. Fortunately, the polished rock face of Millikan Library was not seriously damaged, but it was defaced by soot and ash that remained visible for months.

The bastards are still at it, aren't they?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Math majors are cool

We're, like, commercially viable?

It's time for the back-to-school sales and the airwaves are full of commercials on that theme. Ross Dress for Less is running a typical offering. While a perky and pretty teenage model equips her room and her wardrobe with new items, the voice-over explains that you can avoid “department store prices” by shopping at Ross. The model plops onto her bed, smiles at the camera while she tucks back her long hair with one hand, and says, “I love saving money. After all, I am a math major!”

Well, hot damn and knock me over. Major majors can now be pretty and perky on TV? This is a long way from Barbie's “Math class is hard” whine. What a nice development! I'm not, however, going to get my hopes up too high. Perhaps we're on our way to being rehabilitated in the public eye, but I suspect the Ross spot is more a fluke than a harbinger of a new trend. Really, the odds are against it.

You could do the math.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Are you being served?

Situational friendliness

Life can be difficult for creatures of habit. We like our routines and feel distress when they're disrupted. Disruption, however, is the natural state of affairs. Everything changes with time. Our habits must perforce change with them, and adapt to the new circumstances.

Before my favorite pizza place shut down and left town, it was my regular Saturday afternoon haunt. The ritual called for me to stop by the post office, pick up the week's mail, and read through it while munching on a personal-size Hawaiian pizza (Canadian bacon and pineapple, sometimes with mushrooms added if I were feeling giddy). As a known regular, I could count on the instant arrival of my preferred beverage and a quick pro forma confirmation of “Your usual?” It was comfortable. That habit lasted for many years and I was at quite a loss when it came to an end. (There's a large supermarket on the site now. I always experience a small pang when I shop there.)

It took awhile to get adjusted to a new regimen. My current Saturday habit is already of several years' duration and involves breakfast instead of lunch. I read the morning newspapers instead of the weekly mail and I like to show up early, before the rush. As a regular, I can expect to be shown promptly to a booth by a window (so that I'll have enough light to read by). Coffee will be served and there'll be a quick question about my “usual” (of which there are two or three to pick from; am I developing a taste for variety in my old age?). It is comfortable, and gets me started on the weekend in a predictable (and slightly caffeinated) manner. But it is about to change.

My breakfast venue is not threatened by radical new ownership or absorption into a growing commercial mall. No, this time it's a personnel change. I've grown accustomed to the usual cast of characters, which in a university town tends to run toward the young and fresh-faced. Some are students and some are not. Some graduate and go away and others simply get restless for new opportunities. Last week Taylor served breakfast with his usual panache, then announced he was leaving soon for the cooler climes and more urban environs of the Bay Area. I was startled to realize how much I regretted hearing that.

He's right, of course. He'll have more opportunities in a metropolitan region, to say nothing of the fact that he fancies himself a city boy anyway. Life in a modest college town must be dull by comparison for him. I don't know him well, of course, since our acquaintanceship is based on the simple fact that he frequently waits on me. That's not exactly a friendship, you know. Still, he knows his clients and, in particular, knows I'm a math teacher, knew when I was in grad school, and always seemed to keep tabs on things. On the one hand, this is merely the sound practice of one who serves a clientele and hopes for good tips. On the other, though, it's a thoughtfulness and consideration that becomes an episodic friendship—confined in a special compartment, but friendly just the same. I'm going to miss him. And I wish him well.

Darn him. I'll have to break in someone new now.