Thursday, May 31, 2007

Can you credit it?

Reading the fine print

The recent opening of Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky has drawn a lot of attention, most of it appropriately negative. The advent of the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, however, is merely the biggest, noisiest, and most recent episode in creationism's struggle to adorn itself with the semblance of science. The enemy (that's scientists and most sane people) have museums devoted to natural discoveries, so we (creationists and other nutjobs) need some devoted to supernatural revelation! We'll pretend to do science, but all of our conclusions are already laid out for us in this book over here! (It's like the opposite of science.)

It's kind of sad, and made sadder by the fact that so many Americans have fallen for this creationist nonsense.

As I said, this sort of pretend-science is not new. There are other creation museums and exhibits scattered across the country for the edification of the gullible, although none of the older establishments have quite the cachet of Ken Ham's multimillion dollar temple to pseudoscience. Pride of place used to belong to the Institute for Creation Research's Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee, California, until ICR found itself bumped aside by AiG's new facility. In terms of fame, however, the new Creation Museum's most notable predecessor was Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, Florida. Although cheesy in the extreme, Dinosaur Adventure Land's profile was prominent because of its indefatigable efforts—to say nothing of the notoriety—of its frenetic founder, “Dr.” Kent Hovind (also known in some circles as “Dr. Dino”).

Hovind is currently incarcerated in consequence of his conviction on tax evasion charges. God apparently told him he didn't have to play by Caesar's rules in building and operating his tribute to God. He seems to have missed Christ's admonition about rendering to Caesar when the occasion warrants.

Hovind is of particular interest because he epitomizes the pseudo-scholarship that characterizes the creationist movement. A vanishingly small number of creationists hold legitimate academic credentials in pertinent disciplines, so they must populate their ranks with engineers and a smattering of mathematicians and philosophers. Hovind's doctorate comes from an unaccredited school currently using the name “Patriot Bible University,” although it was going by “Patriot University” when it awarded Hovind a Ph.D. in Christian education.

What, pray tell, does this degree signify? Most people mock Hovind's use of the title “Dr.” because Patriot University was not (and still is not) an accredited educational institution. Accreditation is the periodic review process that certifies the rigor and adherence to widely recognized standards of a school's curriculum.

Patriot has never met this mark. Does that make Hovind's degree worthless? Let's go to the fine print, which comes directly from Patriot's own website:
Patriot Bible University (PBU) is accredited by the American Accrediting Association
 of Theological Institutions, Inc. This accreditation is through a Christian agency, that recognizes high standards of Biblical and academic training.

**See Advisory Below: It is not to be confused with regional accreditation that deals with secular programs and standards.**
What is the American Accrediting Association of Theological Institutions? According to Wikipedia, it “is an unrecognized accreditation group based in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was created in the late 1980s and the composition of the board is unknown.”

Okay, not good news. What else does Patriot have to say about its accreditation status?
As we do not exist to train secular career professionals, grant secular degrees, or educate those who see ministry as a profession (rather than a calling by the Lord), we have chosen not to spend our student's money on secular regional accreditation that costs tens of thousands of dollars—annually.

We are a ministry with a purpose and we do not exist to pursue financial gain. We serve a niche of Born Again believers who are seeking to be better equipped for Christian ministry. And these students want to obtain education in a financially prudent manner without resorting to student loans. We believe our students appreciate affordable biblical education.
Well, all right, though the bit about student loans is redundant, since Patriot students would not qualify for them. It is definitely time to jump down to that “Advisory Below” which the Patriot website provides. It was rendered in small print, but I'll forgo that for the sake of easier readability. It lays out the unforgiving truth:

1. PBU accreditation may or may not allow you to receive transfer credits to a secular school. If you are seeking a secular education degree, you would be best served to attend a secular institution. We grant Bible and religious degrees. If you hope to apply your Bible degree towards a secular degree at some time later on, the PBU courses and degrees are not likely to be fully applicable. If you are trying to “impress” others with your degree from a prestigious university, you would be best served by attending that one. We deliver education not stature. If you are going to seek employment with a particular church denomination or wish to transfer to a certain Christian College or University, you might confer with them first. Please consider what YOUR educational goals are.

2. A Patriot Bible University degree is recognized by many churches and ministry organizations. It will demonstrate to employers a higher level of study through the attainment of a degree. We have trained thousands of students during the last 27 years.

3. PBU's accreditation with this agency is a religious accreditation, rather than secular—voluntary, rather than mandatory. The laws of Colorado give us the authority to grant degrees, rather than A.A.A.T.I. The agency monitors educational and religious standards for Bible colleges, and their accreditation is accepted by many religious organizations. However, this accreditation would not be accepted by some secular organizations, as A.A.A.T.I. is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the seven official regional accrediting agencies.

This non-recognition may have some implications that include, but are not limited to:
  1. Patriot University is not eligible to participate in the Federal Student Loan/Financial Aid program.
  2. Patriot University is not authorized to accept the GI Bill.
  3. Patriot University is unable to guarantee acceptance of its degrees in other postsecondary institutions, except those also accredited by A.A.A.T.I.
  4. Corporations are not required to recognize degrees from Patriot University.

There we have full disclosure. Patriot Bible University classes do not earn you transferable college credit. Patriot Bible University degrees do not constitute professional credentials in any secular endeavor but may be accepted by some churches and Bible colleges.

No wonder people giggle when anyone refers to “Dr.” Hovind.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The power of trivia

It's in the details

This morning's rounds included visits to a couple of bookstores. I usually stop first at a local independent store where I know the senior clerk (we were college classmates) and then pop into the big-box chain bookstore on the edge of town. If the independent bookstore has what I'm looking for, I'll snap it up there. The chain bookstore is good for non-book stuff (CDs and DVDs) and the occasional got-to-have-it-now book that would be a special order at the small local store.

The big store, of course, has lots more display room, so you can scan dozens of book covers in a couple of minutes. Today my eye lit on the new paperback edition of Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney by Paul Johnson. My lip curled and my nose wrinkled. Oh, oh! Something had triggered my disdain response.

Was it a knee-jerk reaction to Johnson's well-known conservatism? His books are praised to the skies in publications like The Wall Street Journal (“a magnificent achievement”) and the National Review (“Proves that history can still be literature”). Since I'm a liberal, perhaps I dislike conservative historians on general principles. Johnson is the sort of writer who inspires paeans like “Paul Johnson's ‘History of the American People’ is very readable history whose objectivity is manifest.... He also rightly points out that attempts to restrict man's freedom through higher tax rates reduce productivity and progress. The increasing government involvement in the economy during FDR's administration probably weakened the economy and extended the Depression. The economy was recovering on its own at the time FDR took office.” Yeah, right. More Hooverism would have fixed us right up.

Actually, no. I distrust Johnson's books because of his sloppiness, not because of his political point of view. He is quite candid about his philosophical perspective, so it's easy to take it into account. It's a greater problem, however, that he is less than attentive to details. When you see someone praised for his insights and accuracy, yet he seems clumsy on matters where you have solid personal knowledge, perhaps it is time to consider whether the praise-singers are telling you more about their own ignorance than about the writer's erudition.

My example sprang out of the pages of Johnson's one-volume history of the U.S. It's titled, quite simply, A History of the American People. When the original hardcover edition appeared in the bookstores in March 1998, I opened it up and riffled the pages. This is what I saw on page 887:
Nixon had suffered some reverses since he lost—or at any rate conceded—the 1960 election. But he never gave up. Nor did the East Coast media stop loathing him. In 1962 he ran for governor of California, and largely because of the Cuban missile crisis lost the race to a weak left-wing Democratic candidate, Pete Brown, who turned out to be one of the worst governors in California's history.
Elsewhere I have addressed the persistent canard that a noble Nixon conceded a presidential contest that he had arguably won. We should probably forgive Johnson for obliquely parroting a right-wing talking point that has become one of the fundamentals of their conservative faith, but that's not what grabbed my attention and made me snort with derision.

Edmund G. Brown was known as Pat Brown, not Pete. (This oversight was corrected in later printings of the book.) Trivial, right? But you expect a professional historian to get these things correct. And there's more. Besides getting our late governor's name wrong, Johnson saw fit to characterize him as “weak” and one of our “worst” chief executives. Shall we examine the historical record, concentrating on facts rather than mere opinion?

Brown was elected governor in 1958 when he defeated the Republican nominee, U.S. Senator William Knowland, by nearly twenty percentage points, leading a broad-based Democratic resurgence in the state.
Brown topped Knowland by more than a million votes, carrying all but four of the state's fifty-eight counties.... Democrats won a majority of seats in the congressional delegation. In the legislature they seized control of both houses for the first time in the twentieth century.

California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown
—Ethan Rarick
While it would be going too far to give Brown all the credit for the 1958 landslide, you don't get that kind of smashing result with a weak candidate at the top of the state ticket.

What about the re-election campaign in 1962, when Brown thumped Nixon? Was it all the fault of Cuba and JFK's facedown of Nikita Khrushchev in the missile crisis? Well, that certainly helped, but let's not forget that Nixon ran a bad campaign (carelessly saying in one campaign appearance that he looked forward to being “president” of California) and Brown ran a rather good one. The former vice president started with a significant lead in the polls, which the incumbent governor doggedly chipped away at. By the time the to-and-fro race was over, Brown iced another victory, ending up on election day with an edge of nearly 300,000 votes (after which Nixon held his famous “last press conference”—would that it had been).

Brown was not a “weak” governor. How about the claim that he was a bad governor? Today most Californians who are old enough remember Brown's two terms as a transformational period in the state's history. The great California Aqueduct, which bears Brown's name, was the outgrowth of the governor's ambitious state water project, which today makes life possible in otherwise arid southern California. (Indeed, we northern Californians sometimes think the state water project works too well.) The master plan for higher education was enacted during Brown's first term and established the long-term relationship between California's public postsecondary educational institutions. The community colleges have open admissions and provide higher education to anyone who can benefit from it. The California State University offers higher education to the top third of the state's high school graduates, up to and including master's degrees (and, more recently, doctorates in education), while the elite University of California provides advanced education to the top eighth of high school graduates. The California master plan has been used as a model by many other states.

Brown also presided over a dramatic increase in the number of California colleges and universities. Only Berkeley and Los Angeles were considered general campuses in the University of California system when Brown took office in 1959. Soon thereafter Davis was promoted from University Farm status and schools were added in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Irvine, and Santa Cruz, plus a medical campus in San Francisco. After Brown left office, the UC constructed no new campuses until UC Merced opened in 2005.

The legacy of Pat Brown's gubernatorial years included enormous contributions to California's infrastructure, not just in school buildings and aqueducts, but in road systems and flood control. Today's task is to preserve and rebuild that infrastructure, often ignored and neglected by Brown's successors (Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger), none of whom can reasonably be said to eclipse his state accomplishments. One of our “worst”? Ha!

In 1980, when Jerry Brown was governor, I was a legislative aide and snagged a ticket to the state of the state address. In the audience was Pat Brown, an honored guest at his son's big event. At the end, as we filed out of the assembly chambers, I noticed that Brown was near me. I sidled over and said, “Governor, it would be an honor to shake the hand of the only living politician to have beaten Richard Nixon.” Pat Brown's face split in a big grin as he thrust out his hand and gave me a politician's carefully gauged and practiced handshake. “My pleasure!” he said.

I got to shake the hand of Pat Brown, one of California's greatest governors. So there, Paul Johnson!

Equal time for idiocy

Teach the contradiction

Once again the San Francisco Chronicle's ace cartoonist Don Asmussen is on the job with his Bad Reporter strip. The notorious Creation Museum may not be as cutting edge as its sponsors would have us believe! Today Asmussen investigates the controversy regarding dinosaurs: Did they coexist with human beings? Did the dinosaurs live long enough to wear extinct fashions?

And what's the big deal about science, when myth is more popular? Are cavemen today's perfect pitchmen? Is the Aflac mascot actually one of the Mighty Ducks? Asmussen homes in on the issue:

Meanwhile, it seems only fair that television commercials be given equal time in school with the crazy “theories” of scientists. After all, which are more interesting to today's students? Now that Geico has a persuasive presentation on the life of early man, we can expect more breakthroughs in the near future. We already know that marauding Visigoths actually just wanted to know “What's in your wallet?” and it seems likely that Alexander Graham Bell's famous words were really, “Watson, can you hear me now?”

Science. It's not just for reality anymore.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nigerians in Iraq

An old scam in a new bottle

I can remember when the Nigerian scam used to arrive in my post office box, not my e-mail. (In fact, I didn't even have e-mail in those days.) Well, there is nothing so robust as a decades-old scam, especially when there are people still willing to fall for it. The Nigerian scam has been reborn! The new version has an especially timely background, because it purports to come from a military man who is trying to smuggle some money out of Iraq. Given the likelihood that wads of cash keep falling out of Halliburton trucks involved in the “reconstruction,” this scam almost seems like it could be true. Iraq is, after all, a pretty scammy place.
From: Sgt W Baker <>
To: <>
Subject: Hello.....
Date: Tue, 29 May 2007 6:53:20 -0400

My name is Sgt William Baker, Jr. I am in the Engineering military unit here in Ba'qubah in Iraq, we have about $10, Million US dollars that we want to move out of the country. My partners and I need a good partner someone we can trust. It is oil money and legal.

We are moving it through diplomatic means, to send it to your house directly or a bank of your choice using diplomatic courier service.The most important thing is that can we trust you?. Once the funds get to you, you take your 15% out and keep our own 85%.

Your own part of this deal is to find a safe place where the funds can be sent to. Our own part is sending it to you. If you are interested I will furnish you with more details. But the whole process is simple and we must keep a low profile at all times.I look forward to your reply and co-operation,You can reach me via email:

Waiting for your urgent response.

Sgt.William Baker.

Sorry, Sarge! I just happen to be too busy these days. Besides, what would I do with $1.5 million? I'm already making the big bucks as a school teacher! Besides, if I didn't write back to the queen, why should I spend my time on you? Thanks for thinking of me, though.

Making the days last

Or making the last days

Most people have forgotten Harold Hughes of Iowa, who served his state as governor (1963-69) and U.S. senator (1969-75). Hughes was a devout Christian who credited his born-again experience with saving him from alcoholism and suicidal depression. He was also a liberal Democrat and political ally of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Today, of course, Christian leaders like James Dobson and Pat Robertson would question the faith of Sen. Hughes because Jesus became a card-carrying conservative Republican during the Reagan administration.

Hughes became known for his personal rectitude and stimulated a boomlet for his dark horse presidential candidacy in 1972. He was a long-shot, of course, but 1972 turned out to be a year of long-shot candidacies, culminating in George McGovern's nomination. Hughes, however, pulled the plug on his candidacy before it got very far. For one thing, Sen. Hughes felt his Christian faith was at odds with the responsibilities of the president. The conventional wisdom of the Cold War era was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a balance-of-terror doctrine based on the notion that nuclear war would have no survivors. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had so many thermonuclear warheads that either nation could absorb the full impact of a first-strike nuclear attack and still retain sufficient weaponry to launch a devastating retaliatory strike. Two losers. No winners.

The United States discounted the possibility that it would ever launch a first strike, thus claiming the moral high ground, but it wanted the Soviet Union to rest assured that Americans were fully prepared to lay waste to its rival in the wake of a Soviet first strike. Upon reflection, Sen. Hughes decided he could not embrace the MAD doctrine. It required the president to order the deaths of millions of people in the Soviet Union after suffering similar domestic casualties. Hughes could not reconcile such a vengeful act with his Christian faith. Would it restore the lives of the American dead? Obviously it would not. Would the retaliatory strike destroy the Soviet leaders responsible for starting the conflict? Unlikely. Indeed, they would have enjoyed foreknowledge of the event and would certainly have hidden themselves away in hardened bunkers in remote locations. The burden of the retaliatory strike would fall upon mostly innocent bystanders. Such a response failed even the eye-for-an-eye standard of the Old Testament, let alone the turn-the-other cheek admonition of the New.

MAD put Hughes in an untenable situation. He calmly assessed the situation and probably heaved a sigh of relief as he announced his decision to retire from politics rather than run for president. He devoted the rest of his life to public service in a lower key, concentrating on Christian counseling and assisting those struggling with alcoholism.

It's too bad we've forgotten Sen. Hughes. We've actually grown accustomed to the most prominent Christian voices being among the most toxic in public discourse.
James Robison: “There will be no peace until Jesus comes! That is what the Anti-Christ promises. Any teaching of peace prior to his return is heresy. It is against the word of God—it is anti-Christ!”
Robison, by the way, was Ronald Reagan's choice to give the opening prayer at the 1984 Republican National Convention (where, mercifully, he decided to tone down his rhetoric for the occasion).
Jerry Falwell: “Nuclear war, and the second coming of Jesus Christ; Armageddon, and the coming war with Russia: what does all this have to do and say to you and me? It says this: ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’”
The late Rev. Falwell was one of Reagan's favorite religious counselors. No wonder President Reagan noted in his personal diary that he feared Armageddon was at hand. Would that thought have steadied his finger if the time came to push the big red button? Probably. Reagan was no Harold Hughes.

The era of Reagan and Falwell is over, but doomsday-mongering remains a popular right-wing sport. The Southwest Radio Church today broadcast a conversation with Avi Lipkin, an activist Israeli (who also goes by the name Victor Mordecai). Lipkin embraces a right-wing Christian America as the best protection for the state of Israel, especially if he can sell Christians on the notion that Bible prophecy insists on it. (“I am always going to support a strong Christian America, because without a Christian America there is no America, and without America there is no Israel.”) His shtick consists of providing a perfect neo-con scenario for the next stage in our feckless war on terrorism. It is time to attack Iran!
Iran is the cause of all the problems today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is the cause of the international terrorism; they're the backer of international terrorism. And, by the way, Syria is also a protégé of Iran and their extension, the Hezbollah, which is a protégé of Syria. So there will not be a successful democratic resolution in Iraq and in Afghanistan until Iran is pacified, until Iran is brought out of the Dark Ages and the Iranian people are given a democratic government.

By the way, the Iranians do want a democratic government; they want to get rid of these crazy ayatollahs. Iranians are wonderful, intelligent people and they don't know how to get rid of these crazy ayatollahs. And as in the case of Saddam Hussein, that the Iraqi people could not overthrow Saddam Hussein by themselves, and neither can the Iranians overthrow the mullahs and the [?], who are like the Gestapo SS Nazis of the Iranian mullahs. So I predict that there will be a showdown with Iran.

Now, you are going to ask me, of course, the next question is how, and I will give you the answer before you even ask. The president may be seen as a lame duck, legally, in American political terms, but you know the United States military and the Israeli military have been working together for almost thirty years now, since 1979 when the Shah of Iran fell, the Americans and the Israelis already understood that there was a problem with Iran, because it was the Israelis and the Americans who helped the Shah of Iran, an American ally, to start the nuclear program in Iran. And so the Israelis and the Americans have been preparing for the last three decades for this showdown with Iran, which is inevitable. It's going to happen very soon. I predict it's going to happen, you know, in the next few weeks or months.
George W. Bush is no more of a Harold Hughes than Ronald Reagan was. Bush is a lip-service Christian who calls Christ his favorite philosopher and—as we can tell from his policies—demonstrates a nice Protestant disdain for goods works (because redemption is God's free gift and cannot be earned, you know, contrary to the Catholics' emphasis on good works). If we're lucky, Bush's faith will not go so far as to persuade him that he is fated by Bible prophecy to touch off Armageddon and pave the way for the long-awaited Second Coming of Christ. Let's hope the president's religious devotion is as hollow as the rest of his administration. It would be a bad time to fall into the hands of the true believers.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day 1967

Early in the body count

I was in high school. U.S. troop levels in Vietnam were approaching 500,000 and General Westmoreland was about to ask President Johnson to approve an escalation to 675,000 (LBJ balked at that, but agreed to 520,000). The military draft was in full operation. Boys my age were looking at their options after graduation. One of my older cousins went into the National Guard, which took him out of the draft pool. Another simply enlisted in the Army, looking to have a few more options than a draftee. A third ended up in the Marines.

The cumulative death count for U.S. forces in Vietnam broke 13,000 in May 1967 (on its way to a total eventually exceeding 58,000). The faces of our dead soldiers were appearing on the front page of our local newspaper, the number of them increasing every year. Draft calls kept going up, too.

They say that most of the troops in Vietnam were volunteers. Strictly speaking, that is certainly true, since approximately two-thirds of the soldiers who served were enlistees. What is not as clear, however, is how many of them chose to enlist because of the draft. Enlistees could choose their service branch, while draftees were assigned according to demand. Enlistees were offered other perks, such as the possibility of qualifying for training in a specialty. Without the goad of the draft, fewer young men would have chosen to enlist.

I enrolled in the local junior college, which qualified me for a 2-S student deferment. It was supposed to be good for four years of postsecondary education, and would lapse once I graduated with my bachelor's degree. (The Selective Service would also cancel my deferment if I spent more than the allotted time in school.) Since my lottery number was low (that's how draft priorities came to be assigned during that era), I would undoubtedly be snatched up as soon as I left college. Some of my classmates found it amusing to salute me every so often (especially the ones with the lucky high numbers, for whom the 2-S was merely additional frosting on the cake).

When I transferred to Caltech to enroll as a junior, it was pointed out that my risk of exposure to the draft was higher at Caltech, where it was more difficult to maintain academic eligibility, than at a more mundane school. (Did I ever mention that I was accepted at Bakersfield State College as well?) My decision to accept admission to Caltech was no particular act of courage on my part. In fact, the notion that the draft would eventually snatch me up seemed impossible—despite my exceedingly vulnerable lottery number. Instead of believing in the number, I was believing the evidence of my eyes.

As one after another casualty of the Vietnam war appeared on the front page of my hometown newspaper, I noticed something rather strange about these young men, all of whom had gone to my high school with me: I didn't know them.

I really didn't. They had not been in my college prep classes. They had not taken four years of math with me. They weren't in my engineering drawing class. They didn't enroll in my foreign language classes. They were from an entirely separate cohort within our high school. Although my high school was large, with hundreds of students, I did not recognize any of the dozens of casualties from our town, all of whom were my contemporaries, all of whom had been in the same school when I was there.

It was an odd discovery. Not an entirely pleasant one. I was pleased to think I was unlikely to get sucked into the massive screw-up that Vietnam had become, but why was I privileged to escape what my schoolmates—not classmates—were enduring? It was education. My college prep path had privileged me and placed me under the 2-S umbrella for a precious four years.

The Vietnam war was not over when I graduated with my Caltech bachelor's degree, but it did not matter that my 2-S deferment was history. Draft calls had been suspended and my low lottery number no longer mattered. Soon the Selective Service sent me a new draft card to replace the one that had certified my 2-S classification. I was now 1-H, a new status indicating I was an “active registrant” in a time of no draft calls. (That's the classification currently being given to all 18-year-old registrants when they perform the statutorily required act of registering for the Selective Service.)

Today we remember and honor our veterans, including all those schoolmates I didn't know. They served in a time of political trouble and upheaval, dying in a war that is remembered today as a grave error on the part of our nation's leaders. That, however, does not detract from their honorable service and sacrifice. Honor is an individual virtue that misguided leadership cannot steal from them.

Today's war is, if anything, even more patently a grievous blunder, perpetrated by unapologetic buffoons who pledge they will stay a course already shown to be a path toward failure. When we honor our veterans, we need not honor our corrupt national leaders. That's one lesson we learned from Vietnam.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

An act of superstition

From bad to worse
What is April, that thou art mindful of her?

Psalm 8:4 [redacted]
April is unhappy that her parents are going to uproot her by moving into a new house. She is so unhappy that she becomes a regular little drama queen, raging against the unfairness of life and fate. She wishes really hard that the universe would intervene on her behalf. Like any sufficiently myopic egoist, she marvels at the power she possesses when circumstances appear to answer her call to postpone her dreaded relocation.

Now that her wish has come true, at least in part, April is ridden with guilt. Wouldn't you feel guilty if you manipulated the stuff of reality to suit your own selfish ends? Of course. April, however, has a level-headed friend named Eva who counsels her to be of good cheer: “There's no such thing as curses.” That's a comfort, isn't it? Let's cast aside all superstition and rest easy in the face of the odd coincidence or two.

But then cartoonist Lynn Johnston throws us a curve in the last panel (shocking behavior for a cartoonist, of course) by having Eva attribute the intervention to God instead. Let's not be superstitious and speak of curses! Let's invoke the name of God instead!

Is that Johnston's message? Or is it just possible that she is equating belief in God with belief in curses—just another superstition? Johnston has been denounced before as subversive. Perhaps she is subtly working to undermine the privileged position of God by reducing him to just another aspect of irrationality.

I wonder.

Prisoners of science!

Isn't willow-bark tea enough?

Modern medicine is unfortunately rather corporate and impersonal. A lot of this has to do with our nation's unwillingness to take health care seriously, leaving it as a patchwork quilt of profit-driven HMOs and haphazard public-sector programs. It's regrettable and not likely to be fixed any time soon.

There's another aspect, though, thrown into high relief by paranoid outcries like a letter in today's San Francisco Chronicle. When the newspaper ran a human-interest story about a poodle who spends time cheering up young patients at UCSF's Children's Hospital, one reader's reaction was to issue a denunciation. Apparently science and medicine are evil. Or cruel. Something like that.
Spare us cutesy stuff

Editor — I cannot get your May 19 story about Izzy the poodle at UCSF out of my mind.

Could The Chronicle editors please spare its readers this sort of cutesy, upbeat reporting, where a happy face is painted on a tragedy?

The idea that a dog “brings joy to patients” is negated by the reality of the heart-rending accompanying photos of suffering children held hostage to illness, science and the medical-pharmaceutical industry.

Jane Q. Kennedy
San Francisco
I have no reason to question Ms. Kennedy's sincerity, which rings out from her hand-wringing prose, but what would she prefer to see? Should the young cancer patients be sipping herbal tea instead while sniffing aromatherapy candles and listening to Enya? That would be the very picture of tranquility.

Of course, they'd die.

The sad truth is that many of these kids will die anyway. Leukemia killed two of my cousins, despite the best that modern medicine could do at the time. One of them went very quickly. The other gained an additional ten years of life before a recurrence took her away from us. Both had difficult times during treatment and chemotherapy. I wish they could have been spared that suffering. Ms. Kennedy appears to believe that the suffering of juvenile patients is a pointless tragedy, motivated perhaps by the cupidity of “science and the medical-pharmaceutical industry.” What a nasty world she lives in. I suppose the doctors are in on the money-making conspiracy. Perhaps they giggle in the break room at the naïveté of their trusting patients and wink at each other. How clever of Ms. Kennedy to call them out.

Without claiming that science is always perfect or that the pharmaceutical industry always chooses people over profit, I will say that people like Ms. Kennedy are part of the problem. Her letter is a simple-minded bleat of anguish that offers nothing to anyone. I hope it at least made her feel good.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

This is victory?

I beg to differ

Brian Wolff is just doing his job as best he can, spinning congressional capitulation to the Bush administration on continued funding for the war in Iraq. Brian, you see, is executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he was hoping I would send him some money for future Democratic campaigns. He sent me an e-mail message crowing about how House Democrats had clipped Bush's wings. He spun it really hard:
Breaking News: Because of your help, the House just passed legislation that will go to the White House that includes critical issues Democrats have been fighting for including: canceling the President's blank check in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, and increased funding for military health care and veterans' benefits, and help for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Dear Zeno,

Two weeks ago, President Bush vetoed our legislation to demand accountability in Iraq and declared he would only sign a bill without any accountability for his management of the war.

Now, the President has agreed to accountability and reporting provisions. That means for the first time we can force the President to be held accountable for his endless war in Iraq. We canceled the President's blank check in Iraq.
Begging your pardon, Brian, but I know what a canceled check is. A canceled check is one that's been cashed by the recipient, as Mr. Bush will soon do with a stroke of his pen. The word you wanted was “voided”; now that would have been good. But you did not void the president's blank check. You cashed it for him.

And, in direct consequence, you won't get a check from me. Instead, I'll send my contributions directly to Democrats who voted against the supplemental appropriations bill to continue the Iraq war. All that other stuff in the bill? Mere window dressing. The real bottom line is that the new majority in Congress is bending to the president's will like the old Congress. Hence no rewards to the corporate body of Democrats.

Only to those who stand for something.

Jack Murtha, who voted in favor of the appropriation despite prior vigorous opposition to the war, is saying that the true test will come in September, when funding runs low again. That just means waiting until a few hundred more American soldiers are killed in various ways. Silly me, to be so impatient. I must have mislaid my statesmanship somewhere.

I believe in science

God flunked with 17%

PZ scored 100% for scientific atheist, but he's a professional. I managed to eke out 92%. That's not too bad. I figure that the 17% score on theism (the same as PZ's!) is the irreducible residuum of my misspent youth as an altar boy. As G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown liked to say, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” If Lauren Bacall walked around me, would she trip over a string? I'm a frayed knot.

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist




Militant Atheist


Apathetic Atheist


Angry Atheist


Spiritual Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Flat earth reality

Do you want to believe?

Remember the poster in Fox Mulder's office at FBI headquarters? I don't, really, because I never used to watch The X-Files, but I am given to understand that it displayed the sentence “I want to believe.” That's nice. I prefer “I want to know,” even while I admit that “knowing” can be difficult to achieve. But within reason, you know. Reason.

The funny thing about Agent Scully's persistent skepticism as the X-files foil for Mulder's credulousness was that it made no sense. It was unreasonable. In the constructed universe of The X-Files, the evidence for aliens and conspiracies was all around them, so Mulder was the sensible partner and Scully was the wrong-headed one. Skepticism was reduced to a caricature in the fictional context, making it a feel-good experience for the true believers who often confused the television program with a documentary (“based on a true story”).

The question of context popped up for me again today when I saw Wiley's Non Sequitur in the morning newspaper.

What is Wiley's message? The Flat Earth gas station is on the brink of a precipice. Anyone who takes the route labeled for non-believers will go plummeting into oblivion, while the believers have a path to safety. But what does belief have to do with it? Anyone can saunter right up to the edge and easily verify that there is a cliff right there. Perhaps you can even see the back of great A'tuin, the cosmic turtle on whose back the whole world rests. Perhaps not. Maybe it's just a cliff and you can see a valley down below. Whatever. You're not likely to decide that it's a reasonable direction in which to drive.

I have a more faithful model of the distinction between believers and non-believers. Suppose you come up to a fork in the road, one branch labeled “believers” and the other labeled “non-believers.” Each branch goes into a darkened tunnel in a mountainside. The non-believer turns on his headlights so that he can see at least partway into the tunnel before driving in. The believer charges blithely into the darkness of the tunnel designated for believers because he has faith. Who needs headlights when guided by the light of faith!

Which driver are you?

Faith is not the point. Observation and reason will settle the question nicely. We don't need to “believe.”

Monday, May 21, 2007


The agony of algebra

This semester I did something I had never done before: I refused to return an exam.

The circumstances were admittedly unusual. My introductory algebra class had lurched from one disaster to another. The latest was the exam for the last chapter in the syllabus. The standard syllabus for introductory algebra finishes up with the quadratic formula, providing the attentive student with the means to solve any quadratic equation. It's a nice pay-off. My students in previous semesters have customarily done well on the test for the last chapter, even though a few of them always insist on using the quadratic formula even when it would be simpler and neater to use factoring, or perhaps completion of the square.

No matter. The quadratic formula is a nice, neat package and students tend to grasp its utility fairly quickly. What's more, I downplay memorization in most of my classes and permit students to use a handwritten notecard during exams. There's really no excuse for running into serious trouble on the last chapter test of the semester.

This semester my students ran into serious trouble. The average score on the exam was 58%. An F plus, I suppose. And the clock had run out. It was the last day of classes and we were supposed to be reviewing for the final exam. My students morosely awaited the results of the chapter test, but I declined to pass them back. Instead, I handed each student a blank copy of the exam that most of them had failed. Each copy came with a cover sheet. The cover sheet gave these specific instructions:
  • Work out each problem carefully on scratch paper, showing all your steps.
  • After you have checked your solutions and are confident that your work is correct, carefully write out a detailed solution on the exam.
  • This take-home exam is due by noon on Monday, in my office. You can slip it under the door if I am not there. Late papers will not be accepted. Hand in the exam only. No scratch paper.
  • There are no restrictions on the resources you use to complete this exam. Use your notes, your text, and consult with others. The writing on the exam, however, must be your own.
  • The score you receive on this exam will be entered into my gradebook as a new exam, equal in weight to the others. It is therefore a good idea to take advantage of this opportunity to score 100. (This new exam is in addition to, rather than a replacement for, the previous exam.)
  • I will answer questions you may bring me during my office hours, but I will not solve the exam problems for you.
  • In addition to giving you a chance to raise your score, this test rerun will be good practice for the final exam, which will contain several problems similar to those on this chapter test.

A week went by and some (not all!) of the students returned their take-home exams to my office. I promptly graded them. After a full week of taking a second crack at an exam they had already tried once before, with no restrictions on seeking assistance, what were the results? Brace yourself.

From high to low, the take-home exam scores were 97, 96, 96, 96, 95, 95, 89, 70, 69, and 69. The 90s aren't too surprising, are they? The last three, however, especially the two 60s, are just gob-smackingly awful. And three students didn't bother to turn the exam in at all. You can do the math: five of my thirteen students did not pass an exam (originally intended as an in-class test) that they had been allowed to take home for an entire week.

I can confidently state that the teacher and students are united in their eagerness to see an end to this semester. Then the healing can begin. And half my students can sign up to retake the class.

Please, not from me!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Truth with a capital T

Accept no substitutes!

I am in the midst of grading exam papers. As a math teacher, I appreciate that I have an easier job of it than my colleagues in most other departments. Professors of English composition tell me that grading term papers is an extremely time-consuming endeavor. Colleagues in political science frequently encounter the full panoply of logical fallacies while reading their students' essays. By comparison, I seem to have the more straightforward task.

This is entirely reasonable, of course, since I'm a math teacher. We deal in unambiguous Truth and its handmaidens, Right and Wrong (with an occasional visit from the perky sidekicks, Clueless and Ludicrous).

I came across this cartoon at Stoat, where William thanks Hank for the tip. Naturally, I thank him, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Politically correct evolution

The privileged proposition

I should have been paying more attention. Evolution is not only the preferred theory among scientists for the explication of life's interconnectedness here on earth, it is also politically correct. How had I missed that?

This intelligence came to me by way of a letter of AFT On Campus, a publication of the American Federation of Teachers. The May/June 2007 issue published an irate missive from one Glenn Michael of Vancouver, Washington.
But campuses are not so open minded as they like to project. There is a body of politically correct material that seems to be sacred and cannot be challenged—it has already been determined. One example is intelligent design versus evolution, where there are many scholars and arguments in support of the former. The bottom line is that campuses have created a climate where it is difficult for the average student of faith to feel comfortable in responding to the challenges to their faith.
Mr. Michael says there are “many scholars” who endorse intelligent design. Most of us know the punch line to this claim. Take a look at any list purporting to demonstrate that intelligent design enjoys significant scholarly support. After you've winnowed out the engineers who are pretending to be scientists and the actual scientists whose fields are quite distinct from the life sciences, you're left with ... who, exactly? Behe? Wells? These icons of intelligent design have actual credentials in the biological sciences but are known almost exclusively for their polemical writing, not their research.

In short, there are essentially no research scientists in the biological sciences who think intelligent design is a viable theory. The evolution skeptics in the ranks of qualified researchers form a tiny percentage of the whole. Furthermore, within that tiny number it is unfair to count people like Kurt Wise, who trained under Stephen J. Gould, as a scholar in favor of intelligent design. Wise is not a friend to ID; he is, rather, a young-earth creationist.

If Mr. Michael still wants to think that “many scholars” are lined up behind intelligent design, he should take a look at the gently mocking response of Project Steve. Even when limiting the signatories to scientists possessing some form of "Steve" in their names, the National Center for Science Education easily outstrips the creationists and IDists in the length of its list of evolution endorsers. And check out the Project Steve FAQs, where you can find links to rival lists of creationists and IDists. Good luck finding scholars with any relevant qualifications. The pickings are slim indeed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nixon's the One

So, not totally evil?

Congratulations, Tricky Dick! A key detail of your revisionist history is alive and well, keeping hope alive for a re-evaluation that will mitigate your high crimes and misdemeanors. Good work!
When presidential candidate Richard Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy in 1960, he opted not to pursue a challenge to what he and many others considered a questionable win, because he believed it was not in the best interest of the country.
Madeline Levine, Ph.D., writes those words in the May 16, 2007, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle while trying to draw an edifying historical parallel between Nixon's purported magnanimity and a local scandal in high school sports. (A team was stripped of its championship on a technicality because of irregular administrative paperwork by a coach, disqualifying certain members of the winning team.)

It's too bad that Dr. Levine doesn't know any better, but she is merely citing a robust urban legend—one carefully nurtured by its key player:
Julie shook me awake at six the next morning. Kennedy's lead had narrowed to 500,000 votes, and there were stories of massive vote fraud in Chicago and Texas. [Illinois Senator] Everett Dirksen urged me to request a recount and demanded that I not concede. He warned that once I had conceded, voting records would be destroyed or otherwise disappear, and a recount would be impossible. After his call I sat alone for a few minutes reviewing the situation.

We had made a serious mistake in not having taken precautions against such a situation, and it was too late now. A presidential recount would require up to half a year, during which time the legitimacy of Kennedy's election would be in question. The effect could be devastating to America's foreign relations. I could not subject the country to such a situation.
Nixon followed up these sentences in RN, the Memoirs of Richard Nixon with several paragraphs designed to establish in the reader's mind the horrendous magnitude of the fraud perpetrated by the Kennedy campaign, Nixon's callow vulnerability to the rapacity of the Hyannis Port cabal, and the nobility of his sacrifice.


While Nixon played the statesman in public, he did not rein in his political operatives. Republicans challenged the outcome in eleven states in hopes of finding enough votes to overturn Kennedy's election. While the popular vote was a virtual tie, Kennedy's advantage in the Electoral College was 303 to 219. Both Illinois and Texas had to be switched to Nixon to alter the outcome, and that assumed that the vice president's narrow margin in California (originally called in JFK's favor, but reversed by the final absentee tally) was not wiped out during further investigation. California, by the way, was not one of the states challenged by Nixon's people. Funny, that.

Columbia University graduate student David Greenberg was doing research for his dissertation when he dredged up most of the details of Nixon's desperate effort to reverse the 1960 election. When his results were published in 2000, coincident with another fervent election dispute, Greenberg received his fifteen minutes of fame. Jason Hollander interviewed him for an article in the Columbia University Record:
Greenberg discovered much of his information in articles that appeared on the front page of The New York Times from November and December of 1960. Even though information about the 1960 recounts was easily accessible, Greenberg says that journalists do not normally do their own historical research. “We all tend to rely, as we often have to, on other people’s research,” he says. “Most reporters just pluck reliable Nixon and Kennedy books off the shelf.”
So let the Record show, Nixon was as much of a conniver and schemer in the matter of the 1960 presidential election as he was in every other aspect of his life.

It's nice to know that there are still things you can count on.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Farewell to Falwell

Smarmy preacher plays the State Capitol (and Cupid!)

In 1980 I was working as a legislative staffer under the golden dome of California's State Capitol building. The structure itself was undergoing the finishing touches of a long restoration project, but the stately west façade was clear of scaffolding and available as a backdrop for demonstrations and political rallies. It was here that Jerry Falwell brought his traveling roadshow, an odd amalgam of revival meeting and electioneering dog-and-pony show.

It was an irresistible opportunity. Falwell's audience comprised mostly true believers in his Reagan-is-the-messiah whistle-stop tour, but the Sacramento rally probably had more than the customary share of scoffers and skeptics. I was one of many state employees who took some time that day to see the devil himself. With me was a legislative aide from another office (let's call her “Sherri”); she and I grinned nervously at each other and kept glancing suspiciously at our exceedingly earnest neighbors as the event began.

“Oleo” is a nickname for fake butter. “Oleaginous” is an adjective signifying greasy smoothness. Falwell was at his greasiest and smoothest and most artificial as he welcomed all the attendees to his Moral Majority campaign stop. His remarks were punctuated by occasional shouts of “Amen!” or “Praise God!” from the audience. Sherri and I both refrained from calling out, but I noticed that the occasional loud cries were multiplied many times over by the fervently muttered echoes of those who preferred to agree more quietly. It was a most Falwellian crowd.

The rally included some upbeat musical numbers, all performed by preternaturally preppy Barbie and Ken clones in matching ensembles of red, white, and blue. The performers' big, big smiles displayed blindingly white teeth to dazzle the audience. The singers were spared from blinding whiteness themselves by a judicious scattering of singers of color.

Falwell's most popular line of the day was his comment on religion in politics. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, of course, and Falwell had made common cause with a man of indifferent devotion (but excellent lip service) in a quest to turn the country to the hard right. Falwell smiled benignly at us while he said, “Some people say that religion and politics don't mix. They say that I'm on a campaign to impose born-again Christian values on the White House. The truth is ... I want to get a born-again Christian out of the White House.” The crowd laughed and applauded.

I don't recall that there were any hecklers at the Sacramento rally, apart from a few people waving signs along Tenth Street, well back from the State Capitol. As for Sherri and me, along with the other liberals mixed in among the Falwellian horde, we were astonished at the ease with which the oleaginous preacher man worked the assembled multitudes. He pulled all of our strings simultaneously, carrying the unwilling along with the perfervid true believers. It was a lesson in crowd manipulation.

When Falwell called for the Pledge of Allegiance, we were all reciting it in unison. That wasn't all. He prompted us to join hands to say the pledge, so that the entire crowd was linked together. Reluctant hands were snatched up by eager neighbors and the rally instantly became a huge prayer meeting with raised hands. When the zealots began to wave their hands back and forth, everyone ineluctably followed along. Sherri and I clung to each in self-defense, but we were captured on either side, tempest-tossed by the oscillating humanity. We exchanged sickly smiles and gritted our teeth, literally holding on.

When the ordeal was over and we decamped from the west lawn of the State Capitol, Sherri and I talked about what we had witnessed—and perforce participated in. Other legislative colleagues converged on us as we made it back toward our offices. All of us were shaken, although some of the Republican aides who worked for the so-called “Proposition 13 babies” elected in 1978 were giddy with anticipation. The election in November would give them even more occasion for delight, as Reagan romped to a landslide victory and GOP extremism took on a quality of overt and cloying religiosity. They could even out-hallelujah a genuinely devout Christian like Jimmy Carter with their noisy breast-beating. That legacy continues to pollute our body politic to the present day, as exemplified by the professed Christian currently in the White House. (Not that you could tell from his policies, though.)

Yes, great and significant events were unfolding in 1980. And so was one minor one. It turned out that Sherri and I had had a deeply personal bonding experience during the lengthy hand-holding amidst our enemies. Actually, to be more precise, she had had a deeply personal bonding experience. (Well, it was a couple of decades ago, back when I was younger and cuter—note the careful use of relative rather than absolute measure.) To my mind, however, our warm but casual friendship continued unchanged, and my obtuseness remained unpunished for several weeks. Then Sherri got an important promotion, I offered her a congratulatory dinner at an especially nice restaurant in Old Sacramento, and we both found out over dessert that our relationship was dramatically asymmetrical.

I don't think she's forgiven me yet.

Damn you, Jerry Falwell!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Summer war camp for chickenhawk chicks

It's only make-believe
Colonel Dill, born in Tennessee, veteran of the Civil War, age 66. Habitually in need of money, and eager to imbibe any amount of whiskey at any other man's expense. Hobby, imaginary bloodshed.
Except for that bit about being a veteran of the unpleasantness of the 1860s, Colonel Dill seems a literary archetype of today's Republican chickenhawk. A character in The Time Stream, a science fiction novel by John Taine (Eric Temple Bell), Dill enters the time stream of the title and experiences an existence in another time and place where he gets to indulge his appetite for imaginary bloodshed by perpetrating an extinction event on all the other inhabitants of the planet. Dill is the only survivor.

Fantasy conflict is quite popular today. Colonel Dill would feel right at home with the war-bloggers of the brave 101st Fighting Keyboarders. Protected from military service by the absence of a draft and an unwillingness to risk their own lives in a battle they otherwise enthusiastically support, today's chickenhawks are a mixture of Vietnam era dodgers (e.g., Cheney, Rove, Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol, Feith, Limbaugh) and their cosseted children. President Bush isn't the only war enthusiast whose adult children have managed to find other things to do than enlist in the Great War on Terrorism—so perhaps it's not such a big deal after all, except perhaps to those whose children are doing the actual fighting and dying.

Ollie North wants your children

Now, however, comes a great opportunity for war fans to involve their children without any actual risk. Yes, it's war camp! Thanks to Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who is not even an ex-con (because his felony conviction was overturned on the sort of technicality that right-wingers normally disdain), your teenager can spend the summer roughing it in military barracks and doing some basic training—without actually doing any military service at all.

“Friends of GOPUSA” sent out an e-mail solicitation last week to all of the people on their mailing lists. Imagine my delight at seeing how my teenagers (if I had any) could enjoy part of the summer (see the smiling faces on the kids in the promo pics) with Lt. Colonel Howdy Doody (see the promo pic) and a minimum of race-mixing (see the promo pics again; I'm sure an African-American kid would be considered for admission if one ever actually applied). The good people at the Freedom Alliance Military Leadership Academy want you to know that the graduates of their summer program have numerous post-Academy opportunities: “Many have pursued careers in the military and as DOD civilians, such as the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, while others go to college or directly to the workforce.” I wonder how many actually enlist in the armed forces. I'm sure it was only an oversight that they weren't more specific. No doubt summer war camp is convenient for those who become “DOD civilians,” where they get to move actual military personnel around like toy soldiers while experiencing no personal risk to themselves. That's a great tradition in the Bush administration Pentagon.

Check it out. I'm sure you'll rush to sign up your children and grandchildren.
Date: 6 May 2007 03:01:31 -0000
Subject: Have your children spend part of their summer with Oliver North
From: GOPUSA Friends

Please direct comments regarding this message to the contact information below.


LtCol Oliver L. North, USMC (Ret.) and Freedom Alliance are seeking high school students for our 2007 summer Military Leadership Academy (MLA) -- a unique and exciting opportunity to LIVE, EAT and TRAIN with our U.S. military personnel at some of the pre-eminent U.S. military bases:

June 19-23: Blount Island Command, Jacksonville, Florida
This base is the home of the United States Marine Corps Prepositioning Program.
Students attending this Academy may also spend time at the region's other bases including Naval Air Station Jacksonville and King's Bay Submarine Base.

July 22-28: Navy and Marine Corps Facilites in San Diego, California
Camp Pendleton hosts a number of U.S. Marine Corps' tenents including the Infantry School, Marine Corps Air Station and the 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion.

Students at this academy will negotiate the Marine Corps Obstacle Course, spend one day each on Navy surface ships, submarines and aviation and much, much more...


The week-long Military Leadership Academy is an awesome adventure and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for motivated and determined high school students, ages 15-18, who want to gain practical leadership skills - and have fun learning from real-life American heroes.

The student tuition fee is only $399 and covers all meals, lodging, all training materials and all required equipment, ie., flashlights, uniforms, sleeping bags, tents and more.


CALL Freedom Alliance MLA Director, MR. PEPPER AILOR, at 800-475-6620
(or click here for more information)

The MLA provides young Americans with a taste of military life and teaches them leadership principles, along with the core values of Selfless Service, Teamwork, Courage, Integrity, Dependability, Responsibility and Respect to help them become positive, productive citizens.

If you have a son or daughter; or grandson or granddaughter who may want enjoy the unique and exciting experience that IS the FREEDOM ALLIANCE MILITARY LEADERSHIP ACADEMY, forward this email to them, or have them contact:

Freedom Alliance MLA Director, Mr. Pepper Ailor, at 800-475-6620 or

The Freedom Alliance Military Leadership Academy's highly structured training environment teaches young Americans how to set and successfully accomplish goals, the importance of a physically fit, drug-free lifestyle, the necessity of teamwork and the value of service to a cause greater than one's self.

Academy graduates are highly motivated, physically fit and goal oriented. Many have pursued careers in the military and as DOD civilians, such as the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, while others go to college or directly to the workforce.

The MILITARY LEADERSHIP ACADEMY: There is nothing like it!

CALL Freedom Alliance MLA Director, MR. PEPPER AILOR, at
800-475-6620, or click here for more information

PLEASE Support the Freedom Alliance Military Leadership Academy

A special message from Freedom Alliance Founder and Honorary Chairman, LtCol Oliver North, USMC (Ret.):

"Since our first Academy in 2001, Freedom Alliance has held Academies on military bases across the country and inspired hundreds of youngsters to work hard and follow their dreams. Some are pursuing careers in medicine, law and education, while others have chosen to continue their leadership training by serving in the United States Armed Forces.

Please support our Military Leadership Academy with your most generous tax-deductible gift today. Thank you!"

Help TRAIN the next generation of American leaders today! Click here to make an online tax-deductible contribution to the Freedom Alliance Military Leadership Academy.
If you would like to make your donation by telephone, call (800) 475-6620, or you can mail it to:

Freedom Alliance Military Leadership Academy
Markey Court, Suite 240
Dulles, Virginia 20166


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Reruns lack suspense

Have it your way (not)

Are you old enough to remember “batch processing”? In olden times (when I was originally in college), computer time was valuable and scarce. Computers were also off limits unless you were part of the white-coated priesthood. These were the men (they were almost always men) who took your bundles of painstakingly prepared punch cards (Woe be unto you if the header cards were flawed!) and queue them up for processing. Your results would be available later—probably not until the next day. If there was a run-time error, your job would be aborted and you'd start over again. Definitely not the good old days.

We batch-process our students. How could it be otherwise? They outnumber us forty- or thirty-to-one in each class (at least until attrition sets in, as with the twelve survivors of my worst algebra class ever) and it is utterly impossible to give every student routine one-on-one instruction. That's why it's imperative that each student take responsibility to attend regularly and do the best that he or she can to participate in the lessons as they occur—instead of blithely popping intermittently in and out, while occasionally leaving a “Did we do anything important today?” message in your voice-mail or e-mail. In general, we need people to try to be on the same page. As much as possible, please. Then we'll do what we can to help the stragglers keep up and the quicker students from being too bored.

You can, however, always count on a certain number of students to send you plaintive petitions for special treatment. One such message recently popped into my on-line mail box.

Calendar reform

He was trying to be polite, which was a welcome variation on the peremptory approach, but his goal was a familiar one: Please rearrange your course to suit me. Although our academic calendars are published months in advance, every school term sees a handful of students who nevertheless demand to be indulged in special ways.
From: Special Student <>
Subject: Special Student: Future Calc III Student (Summer 2007)

Hello Professor Z,

I will be enrolling in your Calculus III for the summer of 2007 semester. However, originally I had not planned to enroll in any classes this summer but ended up having to because I was unable to complete the course over at State U. I have attempted the course previously and came up real close to pass so, I think I will have an ahead start. The problem is that I had arrangements to leave the country for an important matter but I will need to take the final for your class a bit early. The original final is scheduled for Friday of the last week, I was hoping to take the final on that Monday.

I know it will be a pain for you to write the [final] four days early but it would help through this situation. Please let me know if you will be able to meet my request as soon as possible. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Special Student

See? I told you he was polite. Misguided, but quite ingratiating. He had bombed his State U calculus course and was scrambling to make up the loss during the summer term of our junior college. No surprise there. We backstop the State U students all the time with courses that we offer during the university's downtime. It is also, I'm afraid, the at-risk university students who expect special accommodation from the local lowly community college.

Sorry. No.

The summer session is highly compressed and there is no wiggle room in the schedule. If I'm lucky (or, rather, if my students are lucky), we'll be able to devote the day before the final exam to an intensive review. If not, I'll be covering the last of the new material. (Hey, kids, how about that theorem of Stokes! It'll be on tomorrow's final! No kidding!) But Special Student thinks he should be allowed to take the final exam before we've reached the theorems of Gauss and Stokes.

No way.

Fatal foreknowledge

In addition to hoping for special treatment (which is something we all crave, of course), Special Student was also clinging to one of the most dangerous of academic misconceptions: The notion that a repeating student has a significant advantage over the first-timers. That ought to be true, since the repeating student has previously been exposed to the subject matter while the newbie is seeing it all for the first time. The reality is quite otherwise.

For the most part, repeating students tend to slough off a major part of the work in the course because they “already know it.” They fall into the same patterns of failure as before, drifting into perilous reefs and waking up too late to bail themselves out of danger. I've seen it many times. Even when you state it very explicitly, the repeating student has trouble grasping the fact that they must change their behavior. When you did this last time, you flunked. Why would you expect to do any better if you do the same thing over again? It's like science! Mix the same chemicals again and get the same explosion again.

I warned Special Student about this in the message declining his request to amend my course for his convenience:
To: Special Student
Subject: RE: Special Student: Future Calc III Student (Summer 2007)

Sorry, Special, but it will not be possible to accommodate your request. The final will be given on the scheduled Friday and no sooner. You may wish to contact the other calculus instructor, but you are unlikely to get a different answer.

We will be covering new material right up to the end of the summer session, so it is unreasonable to expect an instructor to give you a final before the course is even finished.

Whatever you decide to do, I want to caution you about the idea that you have a head start on the material because you have taken the class before. While this seems to be a reasonable assumption in some ways because of your prior exposure to the material, you need to face the fact that you failed the course. Do not take it easy or cut corners on the assumption you already know Calculus III. It's much better to look at it as a clean slate and apply yourself diligently from the very beginning. You have to do something different if you hope for a different grade. Don't just repeat the mistakes of the earlier class.

Good luck in finding a solution to your dilemma, but do not count on having a course rearranged to suit your convenience. That is not likely to occur. Sorry.

—Professor Z

Although I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, Mr. Student did seem just a bit piqued that I had not understood him. After all, he had almost passed. Did I not get that?
From: Special Student <>
Subject: RE: Special Student: Future Calc III Student (Summer 2007)

I wasn't exactly planning on cutting corners and I got a 68.7% so that should tell you I didn't exactly sleep through the class last time.

Yippee. You got a D. Congratulations. No wonder you think you can take the final before we cover the most challenging material in multivariate calculus—all while marching along in the quick-step double-time format of the summer schedule. Oy.

This week I checked my summer schedule class roster. Special Student has signed up for my course. Interesting. Did he manage to rearrange his own foreign travel schedule after failing to rearrange the summer session schedule, or is he planning to try again? I think Mr. Student and I will have a nice chat on Day One.