Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Bush birthday bash

A personal message from Laura

In these hectic times, we sometimes forget to mark those special occasions that mean so much to us. First Lady Laura Bush sent me a sweet little note via e-mail the other day and I fear I have neglected to answer it. And now it's too late! Damn.

You see, Laura is planning a special little party in honor of her husband's birthday next week. That's right. Two days after our glorious nation observes the 231st anniversary of its founding, our glorious president reaches his 61st birthday. It's almost too precious!
Dear Zeno,

Please help me celebrate a very special birthday.

On July 6, President Bush will turn 61 years old. In our family, birthdays are special occasions that always include family and close friends.

I know George will appreciate receiving warm wishes from loyal supporters on his special day. Please take a moment to add your name to the RNC's e-card.

You can imagine how touched I am, since Laura seems to consider me one of their “close friends.” (I'm pretty sure I'm not family, although Bush DNA has been spread around pretty profligately.)

But what to do? We must think of the proper way to commemorate W's big day. Wouldn't you know it? Laura has a great suggestion. We should send money! Preferably lots of it. The First Lady tried to make it especially easy for those of us who love the president to death to inundate him with our dollars. Imagine how much trouble Laura must have gone to, encoding the HTML embedded in her message so that the click of a mouse would send us off to, the linked website gaping open to swallow up our credit card information. Securely, of course!
And if you can, please consider commemorating President Bush's 61st birthday with a gift our entire Party can share. Your secure online gift of $61 or whatever you can afford—$25, $75, $100, $500 or even $1,000—will go a long way toward helping the RNC lay the foundation for electing more Republicans in the 2007 state and 2008 national elections.
Isn't that splendid? I could spend a thousand dollars on, say, a new HDTV for myself, or send it as a token of love and affection to the GOP in honor of W's birthday. And they can use it to get even more Republicans into office. (I hear we lost quite a few of those just last year!)

I'm afraid, however, that I waited too long, because Laura did mention—only in passing and only in a postscript—that there is a deadline for responding to her cheerful birthday plea.
I hope you will add your name to the RNC's Birthday e-card to George today. And thank you for your continued support of the President and our Party.


Laura Bush

P.S. In order for your name to be included on the RNC's birthday e-card to President Bush, you must reply to this e-mail by June 28. Please click here to sign the President's birthday card and to make a secure online gift to help lead our Party to victory this fall. Thank you.
Damn and double damn! I needed to reply by June 28 for my name to appear on the president's birthday card. And here I've gone and procrastinated until the end of the month! Let's see. What is today, anyway?


It's June 28.

Never mind. I meant to wait till tomorrow. Or at least till hell freezes over.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The pope takes out the fix

He's got his

I was casually watching RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) when il papa appeared on the screen and the news announcer reported something about papal elections and how “Benedetto sedicesimo” was revoking an action by his predecessor Giovanni Paolo. Say what?

Since I don't know Italian, I was not at all certain what had just been reported. The news segment had included file footage of the College of Cardinals filing into the conclave that elected Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, so I was confident that the topic really was papal elections. What could Benny Hex have done? Even before resorting to the Internet to check, I had a good idea.

The long history of the papacy includes many examples of highly questionable elections influenced by such external factors as threats of starvation, imposition of imperial vetoes, political pressure, and outright bribery. The elections of the past century have, by contrast, been relatively circumspect. Why would a change in election protocols rate a headline in the Italian news service? It could be because Benedict was curiously breaking ranks with his idolized predecessor. But why would he do such a thing?

Late in his long papacy, John Paul II promulgated new rules for the election of his successor. While popes are not permitted (not officially, anyway) to name the man they wish to take their place, JP II put in the fix for Ratzinger about as effectively as anyone could have. Although the rules have often been tweaked, the long-standing requirement for election by a two-thirds majority had been respected as almost sacrosanct. Sacrosanct, that is, until JP II gutted it.

John Paul decreed that a pope could be elected by a simple majority vote of the College of Cardinals, provided that the College had become deadlocked, with no candidate receiving a two-thirds vote. The following language comes from the English translation of Universi Dominici Gregis, the apostolic constitution on the election of the supreme pontiff, where paragraph 74 provides for a lengthy series of ballots according to the two-thirds majority rule. Then there's paragraph 75:
75. If the balloting does not result in an election, even after the provisions of No. 74 have been fulfilled, the Cardinal electors shall be invited by the Camerlengo to express an opinion about the manner of proceeding. The election will then proceed in accordance with what the absolute majority of the electors decides.
This is the clause that Benedict XVI is revoking in favor of a return to the two-thirds requirement. It is, ironically, the paragraph that all but ensured Benedict's election as pope. Now that it has done its job, it can be discarded.

With his high profile and controversial reputation as John Paul's chief enforcer of doctrinal purity, Joseph Ratzinger was considered in most circles to be a long-shot prospect for the papacy. Vatican observers speculated that the cardinals would be likely to choose someone who could present to the world the kindly pastoral aspect that had characterized John Paul's youthful early years on the throne of St. Peter. After so long a papacy as John Paul's, the college would probably not again choose a man in his fifties. Someone in his sixties or early seventies seemed likely. Ratzinger, who turned 78 in 2005, was a senior member of the College of Cardinals whose appointment actually came from Pope Paul VI. All but two of his fellow cardinals were elevated to the college by John Paul II (and one of those, Cardinal Jaime Sin, was too ill to attend the conclave). But for John Paul's amendment of the election process, Ratzinger would have been on very few short lists of top candidates for the top job. Handicappers would have marked him down as eminently qualified, but too old, too forbidding, and too overtly doctrinaire.

But the election process was changed and Ratzinger entered the 2005 conclave a prohibitive favorite. He certainly had the allegiance of a solid bloc of his colleagues. The only question was whether the bloc would grow into a majority. Any doubt was soon eliminated as the first two ballots demonstrated that the German cardinal had more than enough votes to wait out the provisions of paragraph 74 and seize the prize under the provisions of 75. Rival candidacies collapsed in the face of Ratzinger's inevitability and he was soon consecrated as John Paul's successor. The cardinals are sworn to secrecy concerning all matters relating to the conclave and the election, but it quickly leaked out that Ratzinger achieved more than a two-thirds majority on the third ballot, which was held on the second day of the conclave.

R.I.P, paragraph 75. Your job is done and your chief beneficiary has laid you to rest.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Emergency underwear assistance

What's in your skill set?

The mother of the bride was planning to arrive early at the location reserved for her daughter's nuptial ceremony and reception. She had carefully bundled up the special dress she was planning to wear for the wedding itself. Everything was going according to plan and she had budgeted plenty of time to get changed and primp for the big event.

She was within sight of the wedding venue when things suddenly went wrong. Another car smashed into her side of her vehicle. Pain and confusion were followed by a momentary lapse of consciousness. Soon, however, she was surrounded by emergency personnel. They determined that she was probably in no immediate danger, but it was urgently important to ascertain whether she had any internal injuries. Within minutes she was being rushed in an ambulance to the nearest emergency room.

What follows is a lightly edited first-person narration by the accident victim, provided to me with the understanding that I leave it as an anonymous account. The narrator is a personal friend whose brush with disaster fortunately came to a happy end, as well as providing her with a most remarkable emergency room anecdote:
From the ambulance, I was transferred into the emergency room, strapped down everywhere, wearing a dress that I had intended to change out of, once at the wedding site.

I was tended to by bright lights and half-a-dozen-or-so masked faces looking down at me:

Ma'am, we need to check your body for the reasons for your screams of pain. We can't move you, so we are going to have to cut your clothes off.

Before they made the first cut of the dress up to my thigh, I cried for them to stop, first to verify that my special dress did in fact come with me in the ambulance, per my request of the paramedics. Then I told them I needed to keep my brassiere intact, to wear it with my dress as mother-of-the-bride.

The doctor-in-charge was a mature man with a serious face:

You don't understand. We can't move or turn you in any way just to save your clothing.

He was adamant. After a quick survey of the people surrounding me, I addressed the young man at the 7 o'clock corner of my view: “Most young men are good at undoing bras. Please, help me!”

He, without any facial reaction or hesitation, stepped right up, did the task in a matter of seconds, and told me he would place it with my dress in my ‘personal belongings’ bag. The rest of the medical staff did not say a word nor make a sound. Nor snicker.

I showed up at the wedding dressed for the part, wearing my special dress—and bra, though heavily sedated and in pain. I was only five hours late.
In her mother's absence, the bride had taken stock of the circumstances. Her mother's companion had reported to her from the emergency room that her mother appeared to be in good condition but was undergoing several precautionary tests. The bride made a quick decision.

She announced to the assembled guests that the order of events would be rearranged. The dinner buffet would be immediately opened, the bridal couple would circulate and greet the guests individually, the disk jockey would provide dance music originally intended for the after-dinner reception, and the actual wedding ceremony would be the final event of the evening, closed off with a champagne toast.

The guests were thus wined and dined and entertained for hours as the wedding party spread out and visited with everyone. Anxiety levels fell as spirits rose. After the belated arrival of the bride's mother, the wedding party was reassembled, and the vows were at last exchanged. The mother of the bride gave her heartfelt toast to the bridal couple, followed by shouts of “Hear, hear!” and a vigorous round of applause.

As the long evening came to a conclusion, the DJ was heard to remark that he thought the reverse-order wedding ceremony had been an enormous success. He was going to recommend it to his future clients.


Greetings to all the visitors from the Etiquette Hell Forum. Let me fill in a couple of details in response to the questions and remarks inspired by this great story. It was a spring wedding from earlier this year. The bride and her sister (the maid of honor) were in constant touch via cell phone with their mother's companion, through whom they received regular updates from the emergency room where the precautionary medical tests were being conducted. The mother of the bride looked great in her special dress when she made her belated entrance, although we were warned not to hug her because the pain meds merely damped down her discomfort. She didn't want to be so doped up that she couldn't be alert at her daughter's wedding. Some of the applause and cheering after the wedding ceremony was definitely for the gallant mother of the bride, as well for the quick-witted and unflappable bride herself. Do we need to ask where the bride got those imperturbability genes?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Coral Ridge contracts

Kennedy home, but not home free

Coral Ridge Ministries is beginning to shrink. Like a dying plant whose extremities are the first to wither, Coral Ridge is shedding leaves. Actually, radio stations. Truths that Transform has been dropped from Crawford Broadcasting's KCBC (770AM), one of the most powerful Christian radio stations in central and northern California. Is this a fluke?

Probably not. Although D. James Kennedy has returned to Fort Lauderdale to continue his recovery from last year's cardiac arrest, he remains on the sidelines. While he continues to appear in Coral Ridge radio and television broadcasts in the form of reruns from the archives, the fate of Kennedy's ministry rests in the hands of others. And these hands must have sweaty palms.

Coral Ridge Ministries committed itself before Kennedy's illness to a huge program of reshaping the organization's electronic presence, transforming its archived "truths" into an extensive on-line resource, as well as expanding its on-air reach. While every religious ministry seems to spend a lot of its time drumming up cash, Coral Ridge's plea for funds is sounding slightly more desperate than the usual begging:

TO: Zeno

FROM: Brian E. Fisher, Executive Vice President
Coral Ridge Ministries, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Founder

DATE: June 21, 2007

RE: Fiscal Year-End Need

Coral Ridge Ministries is facing a steep financial challenge that we cannot meet without immediate help from supporters like you.

By June 30, we are praying that the Lord provides $6.5 million in order to finish our fiscal year strong. It is important that we meet this deadline because Coral Ridge Ministries is poised to carry out Dr. Kennedy’s vision to reach the lost and transform the culture in new and exciting “ways not yet dreamed of.”

Since January, Coral Ridge Ministries has provided scriptural direction to help more than 3 million people respond to the ungodly indoctrination of our children in schools… and spread the word of dangerous legislation in Congress that has the ability, if passed; to label Christian thought a “hate crime.” We have proclaimed Christ to the lost ... defended the Gospel ... and much more.

Coral Ridge Ministries has been successful in responding to the many attacks and challenges facing American Christians, and we have done so—in Dr. Kennedy’s words—by transforming people ‘one heart at a time.”

Following Dr. Kennedy’s God-ordained plan to use the vast potential of the media, we can keep reaching the lost and infusing our culture with Christ’s light ... but we can not meet this financial need without the help of friends like you. We ask that you would prayerfully consider making a special contribution so that together - we can continue the work of Coral Ridge Ministries and Dr. D. James Kennedy.

Thank you in advance for your crucial response. May God bless you!
I do understand that the urgent plea for money is a time-honored ploy in religious (and other) fundraising. This time, however, the scope of Coral Ridge's commitments—over-commitments?—is clear. Here are some excerpts from Brian Fisher's blog on the Coral Ridge website:
Wed, 30 May 2007

The Price and Pain of Progress

I was over in our TV and radio production studios yesterday, vibrating to the beat of a jackhammer. I glanced into the construction area to see stripped down walls, wires hanging from the ceilings, and a floor being “sunk” about 2 feet. It was a complete mess and I couldn't be happier. Sometimes we need to demolish before we can build....

Most of the rest of the day was spent finishing off our 5 year plan. It is one of the most innovative and compelling projects I've ever been involved with. To reach 30 million people with the Gospel by 2012 is a near-impossible task, but our staff has come up with the ways to do it. It involves us branching out of just TV and radio into everything from search engines to cell phones. I'll be sharing much more with you as the Plan progresses, but suffice it to say our kids, grandkids, and their kids are going to have complete access to the life work of Dr. Kennedy in all sorts of ways. We have a Prayer Team on staff dedicated solely to praying for hearts and minds to be ready to receive the Word as we spread it in “ways yet undreamed of.”

Wed, 13 Jun 2007

The Great Adventure

While walking through our “deconstructed" TV studios yesterday here in Ft. Lauderdale, I was reminded of just how vital Coral Ridge Ministries' outreach is to the country and the world....

As I noted in an earlier blog, our Board of Directors has approved a very aggressive plan to increase our audience impact from 3 million to 30 million people worldwide by 2012. Now we don't sit around and count numbers of people, but we do get very excited to think about the potential impact for the glory of God as we begin the process of growing the ministry ten-fold.

This morning I met with our staff managers and shared with them the basics of how we are going to increase our impact for Christ by that amount through some innovative ways. It was wonderful to see their reaction—a mixture of joy, excitement, and (admittedly) fear. Most of the innovation we are employing comes from the staff itself—many of whom left luctrative [sic] careers in the business world to join CRM. To see the fruits of their labor begin to unfold here is tremendously fulfilling....

Our CRM Adventure officially begins on July 1st—the beginning of our new fiscal year. Many of the components to our plan are going on behind the scenes, but you'll get that first taste when we launch our brand new web center on the 2nd. Not only will you have tremendous opportunity to use Dr. Kennedy's materials in new and unique ways, you will also have the opportunity to share it with your neighbors, unsaved friends, loved ones, and perfect strangers. By giving you control over the website content, you will be able to participate in this Great Adventure with us.

We will be launching 7 new initiatives to reach the lost in the next 5 years. They are creative, innovative, and gutsy.
The project to memorialize D. James Kennedy's lifetime body of work has some aspects of a mausoleum or—in a more positive light—a presidential library. Kennedy liked to think big and his minions continue to beaver away at building his monument.

Have they overreached? Kennedy's absence during the construction phase has clearly damaged Coral Ridge's ability to suck in the dollars. We can expect to see some further shrinkage as the ministry husbands its resources and focuses on its top priority, the pyramid of its Cheops. But don't expect Coral Ridge Ministries or D. James Kennedy to go away. Kennedy decided before his illness to reach for a form of immortality and his ministry's board of directors fell into line with his plan. It's not spiritual immortality, although I don't doubt that Kennedy really believes in that. It's digital immortality. He plans to be with us, preaching at us, for the duration of human existence. D. James Kennedy, the eternal electronic oracle.

I suppose you can say “amen” if you want. Or shudder.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Our future Ewok children

Mark Morford balks at the brink

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford is not known for his timidity. How surprising it is, therefore, to see him pull back from the brink instead of making a bold leap of imagination.

Morford's topic in his June 20, 2007, column is human knowledge. He mocks the narrow sectarians (e.g., Focus on the Family and its ilk) who tremble at the expansion of human knowledge and celebrates the rising flood tide of information—as well as its daunting power.
We are on the cusp of being able choose, should you so desire, the exact size and length and speed and eye color and specific pleasing fur markings of ... your dog. And your cat. And your baby (well, minus the fur).
I am, quite frankly, stunned. With his throwaway parenthetical aside, Morford fails to grasp the obvious point: Of course we can also choose the fur markings of our future children. Traditionalists will naturally (naturally!) opt for classic hairlessness, but more forward-looking parents will certainly want to consider the advantages of tiger-striping versus zebra-striping. (And do you really want your children to blend well into the tall grass?)

Morford proves his boldness in other ways, so I suppose I'll forgive him this one small failure of imagination. Having poked his finger in the eye of Focus on the Family types in his first paragraph, Morford cuffs them up alongside the head in the concluding lines of his column, where he discusses coping mechanisms for handling the scary flood of human knowledge.
There are only two real options. One is to hold tight to the leaky life raft of inflexible ideology (hello, organized religion), to rules and laws and codes of conduct written by the fearful, for the fearful, to live in constant low-level dread of all the extraordinary changes and radical rethinkings of what it means to be human or animal or male or female or hetero or homo or any other swell little label you thought was solid and trustworthy but which is increasingly proven to be blurry and unpredictable and just a little dangerous.

There is another option. You can choose nimbleness, lightness, a sly and knowing grin to go with your wine and your vibrator and your never-ending thirst for more and deeper information. It's possible.
It certainly is, Mark.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Today's lesson in rough gay sex

Ignorance embraces bigotry

Some of the lefty blogs are musing over the loss of control that seizes many right-wingers every time they mention gay stuff. This week's prime example first came to my attention via a post by Big Tent Democrat on TalkLeft (who, in turn, picked it up from Matt Yglesias). It's an unbuttoned rant by Ace of Spaces, whose chain was yanked pretty hard by a Glenn Greenwald piece on Republican presidential candidates. Greenwald pointed out that the media has an unhealthy fixation on the puffed-up macho posturing of contenders for the GOP standard. Ace of Spades sought to rip Greenwald a new one by mocking Greenwald's writing style (apparently effeminately complicated) and decrying Greenwald's denigration of male pundits who slaver at the prospect of a true alpha male as the Republican nominee. Besides which, Ace of Spades wants us to know, Greenwald is a pussy. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that:
Not that I'm saying homosexuality is incompatible with masculinity, of course. Consenting biweekly to having one's duodenum battered with the manic hydraulic fury of a tricked-out V-12 jackhammer manned by an epileptic Con-Ed worker with an ancestral oath of vengeance against asphalt would, I think, tend to butch one up, at least as regards one's pain threshold.

Boy, that Ace of Spades really has a gift for painting a scene with effeminately complicated words. He gives lapidarian attention to each facet of his obsessive-compulsive diatribe. (He even knows they do it twice a week. Perhaps his apartment has thin walls and his pillows are insufficiently fluffy to block out the noise as he whimpers in bed.) Yeah, Ace really lets it all hang out.

All the better to reveal his ignorance (as well as his unhealthy insecurities). As he waxes rhapsodic during his imaginative description of homosexual intercourse, Ace of Spades reveals that he thinks gay men have duodenal sex. This is a particularly amusing bit of pseudo-intellectual posturing. Ace was probably thinking (perhaps while preening in front of a full-length mirror), “Ha! I'll show those nancy boys! I'll unsheath my brilliant mind and smash the little maggots with my huge vocabulary!” Sadly, not all of his words mean what he thinks they mean.

Where and what is the duodenum? It's a short but important section of the small intestine, the initial stretch that links the stomach to the rest of the bowel. The duodenum lies nestled under the stomach, right in the middle of one's torso, as shown in the illustration. Ace of Spades thinks you can screw it. With a minimum of research, I have refuted him.

Ace's comment gave me a good laugh when I first read it at TalkLeft, where I left a short comment:
Not what they think (5.00 / 3) (#21)
by Zeno on Sun Jun 17, 2007 at 08:17:16 PM EST

Duodenum? They think gay guys have duodenal sex? Geez. I guess when you have your head that far up your ass, it must seem feasible.

End of lesson.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Proof by picture

One picture is worth a thousand lies

Whenever I teach statistics, I make a point of recommending to my students that they read Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics, a splendid little book on the use and misuse of data. Huff warns his readers about many statistical sleights of hand, including the misleading graph.

I was reminded about Huff's cautionary tales while browsing Tim Lambert's Deltoid. His recent posts include a lovely example of how a climate-change skeptic uses a doctored graph to argue that recent global warming fits beautifully into a long-term cyclic pattern. All you have to do is screw with the time scale and suddenly any suggestion of human-induced temperature seems to vanish. It's all natural! (Lambert points us toward Stefan Rahmstorf's dissection of the bogus graph over at RealClimate. Stefan reads German so you don't have to.)

There's an old math joke whose punch-line relies on our fondness for different kinds of graph paper. Almost everyone is familiar with the good old Cartesian system: a rectangular grid of equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Cartesian graphs are relatively simple and highly functional, but get a little unwieldy when we try to graph things that change very rapidly or very slowly. In the graphs below, I have depicted two ways of illustrating the behavior of the curve y = 2x. Exponential functions have extremely high growth rates, requiring us to severely compress the scale on the y axis. That's what you see in the left-hand graph. If, however, we use a logarithmic scale on the y axis (which we call a semi-log graph), the nature of our exponential graph is transformed. We get a nice straight line, On semi-log paper, the graphs of exponential functions become much neater.

There are many other forms of graph paper, too, including log-log paper, where both axes are in logarithmic scale. A good choice of scales can make a big difference in the clarity with which your functions or data are illustrated.

And that old math joke I mentioned? It's in the form of a riddle, sort of:
Q: How do you graph a linear function?
A: As a straight line—on Cartesian graph paper.
Q: How you you graph an exponential function?
A: As a straight line—on semi-log graph paper.
Q: How do you graph an arbitrary monotonic function f(x)?
A: As a straight line—on f paper!
Hilarious, right? I'll give you a moment to recover from your fits of helpless laughter....

I imagine that most people have never seen a real-life example of f paper, but today's climate-change denialists may be in the forefront of exciting new developments in lying with statistics. In their honor, I now present my own modest contribution to the practical application of f paper. You will observe that the left-hand graph immediately below depicts a function that is both increasing and oscillatory. With the proper use of f paper, as shown in the right-hand graph, we can damp out any vestige of the oscillation, preserving only the monotonic increase. Unless one takes a hard look at the scale on the y axis (and now you know why one should always examine the axes carefully!), the embedded periodic motion of the function is completely suppressed. The right-hand graph is a breakthrough in information hiding. I fear it will not be the last example you see.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Cui bonehead?


I know that the Washington Post is not what it used to be in the days of Woodward and Bernstein. (In fact, Woodward and Bernstein themselves aren't what they used to be in the days of Woodward and Bernstein.) I wonder if the Post has lowered its standards to the point where they might want to sign me up for the Washington Post Writers Group, the newspaper's distribution syndicate. They disseminate Kathleen Parker's opinion column, so the evidence suggests they're ready for any kind of inanity. Parker is the sort of columnist who makes you happy to think that we live in an era that rewards imbecility. If she can be successful, then any of us could be!

The San Francisco Chronicle publishes Parker's column regularly, thus wasting column inches of editorial space and commensurately speeding up my reading of the morning paper. One less item to wade through. This morning, however, something in Parker's column caught my eye. She was slinging a bit of Latin. Parker asked, “Cui bono? Who benefits?” (It was nice of her to provide the translation for her unlettered readers.)

She wanted to know whose fortunes would be boosted by the cashiering of Gen. Peter Pace as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a surprise announcement last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Pace wouldn't be renominated to a second term. In his place, Adm. Mike Mullen, current chief of naval operations, would take over when Pace's term expires Sept. 30.

As the highly qualified, deeply respected Pace is being ushered out the door, it is reasonable to wonder why.
Scratching her head vigorously in puzzlement, Parker ticks off some possibilities. Could it be that the White House feared a contentious confirmation hearing over Iraq war policy in a Senate now controlled by Democrats? Or was it more likely that the Democrats would go after Pace for his Chicago Tribune interview, in which he said he considered homosexuality immoral? Parker will willing to entertain the notion that other factors are at play.
Whether that single remark would cause Pace's removal seems doubtful. Others surmise that his replacement by a Navy admiral is sending a message to the Army to shape up. Mullen has said that one of his first priorities is to upgrade the Army. Still others say the move is a way for the Democratic Congress to further undermine President Bush.
Oh, that makes sense! Peter Pace is being denied a second term as head of the Joint Chiefs in order to give Democrats a chance to hurt Bush. Parker must think that decision-makers in The Decider's administration saw a chance to damage their lame-duck boss. Too bad that neither the president nor Defense Secretary Gates was alert enough to head off the disastrous decision to appoint someone else.

Parker seems not to realize the foolishness of her contention and slogs bravely onward toward another patently idiotic notion. She is quite creative, if only in a thoroughly irrational way:
What we do know is that even in wartime, everything is political. Thus, a better route to understanding may be to pose the question raised by Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness: “Cui bono?” Who benefits?

One doesn't need much of a running start to make the leap to Sen. Hillary Clinton, who also sits on the Armed Services Committee and who, you may have heard, is running for commander in chief. No one benefits more from Pace's removal than Clinton, who would have had to vote for or against the man and be stuck with a position that could hurt her.
Savor this assertion for a moment. It is sublime in its vapidity. Kathleen Parker thinks Hillary Clinton stopped Pace's renomination. You see, blocking Pace redounds to Hillary's benefit. Ergo, she done it!

To be fair to Parker, she did not come up with this nonsense on her own. She's cribbing from Elaine Donnelly, whom she cited in passing as the person who asked the question in Latin. Donnelly suspects Clinton has enough clout on the Senate Armed Services Committee to cause Secretary Gates to cave in on Gen. Pace and instead make an appointment sure to cripple the administration.

I admire Parker's restraint. She thinks that Sen. Clinton has power to cloud men's minds and set White House policies contrary to the president's best interests. Clinton must have moles burrowed deep within the Bush administration, operatives poised to tweak Bush policies in ways that will further undercut the forlorn Commander-in-Chief. It's a wonder that Parker doesn't noisily trumpet this discovery as a huge scoop. Instead, however, she is content to leave it to the reader to draw the painfully obvious inference. Hillary is already running White House policy.

I fear that Parker is merely indulging her febrile Clinton paranoia (or merely echoing Donnelly's). It would cheer me greatly if her deductions were true, because this would imply that Hillary is even more qualified to be chief executive than anyone previously suspected, capable of running rings around the befuddled White House Republicans. Alas, I suspect that Sen. Clinton is merely mortal and that Kathleen Parker is merely stupid.

Let's give the Washington Post columnist the last word as she casts her face into dark shadows with a flashlight held under her chin and intones her ominous conclusion:
There's no telling for now what kind of backroom understandings may have led to Pace's walking orders. Maybe it was really all about a new beginning. But the pained expression on Gates' face and his oblique responses to questions during his news conference suggested something else.

And the Clintons, as always, bear watching.
Eek! Clintons are everywhere! Arrrgghh!

Sorry. I couldn't help myself. Hillary made me do it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A tax on stupid

A sure bet

Once upon a time, a long time ago, state lotteries were regarded as an aberration, something indulged in by more backward polities. Some of this reaction was a bit prissy—the same impulse that caused governments to enact sumptuary laws (or “sin” taxes) on liquor or other items deemed luxuries rather than necessities. It all changed with a vengeance in the eighties.

I'm not sure why the Reagan era witnessed a great boom in state-sponsored gambling, but that's when California joined the stampede to government-sanctioned lotteries. The state's voters enacted the California State Lottery by passing 1984's Proposition 37 with a thumping 58% majority. We were naturally quite surprised (goodness, yes!) when the people who wrote the initiative measure turned out to be the same folks who qualified under its provisions to win the state contract to operate the lottery games. While a few prescient individuals warned that Proposition 37 was the worst sort of self-interest politics, the voters weren't listening. In any case, they were distracted by the campaign promises. Californians swallowed the hype that said “our schools win too!” Tossing a fraction of the proceeds toward public education was enough to assuage people's concerns about officially embracing games of chance.

Boiled down to its essentials, the state lottery is a tax on stupidity. Sure, “you have to play to win,” but the reality is that the lottery is specifically designed to cut your money in half. That's right in the lottery law, as dutifully enacted by the voters. The initiative states that 84% of the revenues collected by the lottery go back to the public, but that 34 of those 84 points are allocated to schools. That leaves 50% of the revenue for prizes. The lottery is quite literally designed to cut your money in half.

While a small handful of players end up with substantial windfalls, the vast (vast!) majority see their money fly away. California's public schools, in the meantime, experience a constant barrage of criticisms for any complaints regarding meager funding. After all, everyone knows the schools are flush with lottery cash. As far as schools are concerned, however, the lottery benefit amounts to $154 per student. Sound good? The California State Lottery's own website puts it in context:
In FY 05/06, revenues from the Lottery generated $154 per pupil, or $1.28 billion total and supported over 8.3 million students in California’s public schools. These funds were in addition to the $10,325 per pupil, or $62 billion provided by California's general fund.
The small increment provided by the lottery is perceived by the general public to be a flood of cash. The favorite rebuttal to any school funding proposal is, “Why don't you use all that lottery money?” Some “win”for our schools. As you can see, California's public school system is much too large to accrue significant benefit from lottery proceeds. However, by the same token—California's vast size—the modest 16% of revenues retained by the lottery operator is sufficient for an exceedingly sumptuous profit. That's who the lottery was designed to benefit from the very beginning.

Governor Schwarzenegger has his own plans for the state lottery. He wants to sell it. Arnold figures, as Republicans so often do, that the private sector would operate the lottery more efficiently. That would likely mean smaller pay-outs and a cut in the funding diverted to schools. (That last idea is probably good. Weaning public education away from the lottery would remove an irritating distraction.) The governor hopes to get the state out of debt by collecting a big lump sum from a suitable gaming company in return for ownership of the California State Lottery. The billions of dollars could finally get the state out of its deep fiscal hole—at least for a while.

Schwarzenegger is no more likely than any of his recent predecessors to make a real effort to align long-term state income expectations with state expenditure trends. He doesn't really want to cut spending and he hates the idea of raising taxes. One supposes that he could try to recover some moneys due the state from various damaging scams, but that does seem unlikely. Too strenuous an attempt in this direction might, of course, embarrass some of Arnold's most ardent supporters: the energy tycoons who played havoc with California's power supply and mortally wounded Governor Gray Davis's political career. It would never do if the current governor were to go after the shake-down artists who scammed the state big-time. Instead, Schwarzenegger has decided to embrace a gimmick, selling off a state asset for short-term gain.

His gimmick is to sell a gimmick.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

There's no place like home

Under the spell of homeschooling

Parents should provide their children with the best education possible. Not everyone can afford fancy private schooling, of course, so what's the alternative to just hoping for the best in the local public schools? It could involve joining the increasingly popular homeschooling movement and teaching your kids yourself. Would you be up for it? Is it really a good idea?

Richard Sousa of the Hoover Institution has written a peculiar essay on the virtues of homeschooling. Let's cite his concluding one-sentence paragraph and then consider the degree to which he succeeds in making his case:
Homeschooling may not be for everyone, but there are certainly indicators that it works well for most and extremely well for some.
After the peroration, would it surprise you to learn that the rest of Sousa's opinion piece is devoted to explaining how unusual and extraordinary homeschooling students and families are? He must have a very curious notion of “works well for most.”

Sousa points out some survey data indicating that most homeschooling families have intact marriages with college-educated adults. The circumstances under which homeschooling flourishes are not exactly the norm. Let Sousa make his own case:
The families of homeschooled children are clearly different from those of traditional schoolchildren. Some 97 percent of homeschooled children live in married couple households; the comparable number for public school students is 72 percent. Nearly 88 percent of homeschooled parents continued their own education beyond high school; less than 50 percent of the general population has attended college.
Okay, homeschooling families are something less than typical. Sousa, however, is keen to promote the practice. He rounds up the usual suspects when it comes to educational bragging rights: spelling bees.
Let's hear it for the home team—they have done it again. Last month, 13-year old Evan O'Dorney of Danville won the National Spelling Bee; Evan is homeschooled. Of those who made it to the finals in Washington, 12.5 percent were homeschooled; of the top seven finishers, three were homeschooled. Last year, 13.5 percent of those making it to Washington for the Spelling Bee finals were homeschooled.
Good for Evan. I congratulate him. However, what does good spelling have to do with the attainment of high educational standards? Spelling is more of a memory gimmick than anything else in so unphonetic a language as English.

This is not sour grapes. I'm a very good speller myself, so naturally I tend to regard spelling skills as a mark of virtue. Good spelling can also be fostered by a wide-ranging reading program (which is how I honed my own talents), so it's not entirely detached from education. Competitive spellers, however, may be no more than kids with good memories who drill over and over on word roots and variant spellings. In that sense, competitive spelling has devolved into more of a sport than a mark of educational achievement. Spelling and education aren't independent, but the correlation is rather lower than Sousa leads us to believe.

His other big example is geography, a sadly neglected school subject in our day (which is one reason why Jay Leno gets such mileage out of ignorant college grads during his Jaywalking segments). Does geography knowledge make a better case for homeschooling than spelling skills? I don't think so. It's more memorization. Winning a geography bee is a neat stunt, but I'd be more impressed by someone who could synthesize geographical knowledge into a well-written (and well-spelled) essay on regional import-export markets. That beats dredging up a memorized fact that Luanda is the capital of Angola, whose major exports are petroleum and diamonds.

Sousa's apparent purpose is writing his essay is to promote further growth in homeschooling and to demand that truancy laws and public officials not be permitted to kill the golden goose with their interference. I wonder how far he thinks homeschooling should expand, given the evidence that successful homeschooling requires conditions not easily met. I also marvel at his cavalier approach to some of the data. Sousa estimates that homeschooling has grown by 20% per year from 1978 to 2003. That is a staggering growth rate and not a number one should toss about casually. Given an estimated 1.1 million homeschooled children in 2003, the 20% annual growth rate results in nearly 105 billion homeschoolers in 2028. We may safely assume this growth rate cannot be sustained.

Interestingly enough, Sousa undercuts his own argument by suggesting that the baseline numbers (12,500 students in 1978) were too low. If the initial population was actually larger, then the growth rate required to reach 1.1 million in 2003 is correspondingly smaller. Sousa tries to have his cake and eat it, too, when he gripes about undercounting at the start but cites anyway the supposed 20% annual growth rate.

Perhaps if he had been homeschooled, Sousa would be better at math.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Creation math sucks

It's like Bible math

We all know about the notorious “molten sea” of 1 Kings 7:23, a basin in Solomon's temple whose description implies that pi equals 3:
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
Much effort has been devoted to explaining away the contradiction, since it would be bad (from some perspectives, that is) if the Bible were found to contain an error. The most persuasive, in my view, is that round numbers were preferred in a time predating our possession of decimal notation and the modern predilection for mathematical precision. One wonders, though, why God didn't bother to divinely inspire his scribes with greater accuracy. I guess God was more casual in those days, too, although this is not a common view of the Old Testament deity.

Today, however, we have more evidence suggesting that religion's casual approach to the truth is one of its fundamental aspects, not just an old-time lapse. The good people at BlueGrassRoots took a trip up to the notorious Creation Museum to check it out for themselves. Their report is festooned with candid photographs and the narrative is full of wry observations. Check it out and see for yourselves. (After all, you wouldn't just take things on faith, would you?)

My favorite photo comes near the end of the intrepid journey through the museum. On the way out, the visitors encountered a cautionary poster reporting the shocking news that “only 1 in 3 teens say they will continue to participate in church life once they are living on their own.”

Did you notice anything about the poster? Someone has added “30%” to the background of the text. It looks like contemporary religionists are just as fond of excessive round-off as the authors of the Bible. Either that, or perhaps the revealed value of 1/3 is 30%. I wonder when God told them that.

I mean, they believe in creationism. Why not screwed-up math, too?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Think of the children!

Snake oil, but slicker

My mother and I had another one of those phone conversations where we stop listening to each other, but keep talking anyway. It's more sociable that way. I wonder if her genetic legacy ensures that I will develop her singular imperviousness as I grow older. (Perhaps I already have.)

The topic was, once again, my airhead sister-in-law. She has a peculiar susceptibility to nostrums and quackery of all sorts. It hasn't killed her yet, but it bids fair to shorten her life at some point. It came close to shortening my mother's when she skipped her flu shot because her daughter-in-law said she had heard somewhere that flu shots are dangerous. (Who is the bigger idiot? The airhead or the one who takes medical advice from an airhead?) Mom got a bad case of the flu that year and no longer skips her flu shots. (Mom, by the way, now disputes my story because she did, after all, get her flu shot that year she got sick: after she got sick from following her daughter-in-law's advice and right at the tail-end of the flu season. Just in time to be able to claim that she has never skipped a flu shot. Oh, right.)

It seems that my sister-in-law and a couple of her equally bubble-headed friends made an out-of-state trip to attend some QuackFest 2007. Of course, that wasn't its real name. More like FruitFest. A popular new health fad revolves about some exotic Brazilian fruit juice (“nature's perfect energy fruit”). Health secrets of the Amazon! Oh, goodie. The dupes flocked to the gathering to purchase products and set up their own dealerships. Yes, it's a pyramid scheme, although it sounds nicer to call it “multi-level marketing.” My mother assured me that my sister-in-law had read up on this marvelous new fruit juice and people swore it really helped them.

“Oh, good,” I said, my voice dripping disdain. “Nothing clinches a case like anecdotal evidence.”

Mom was undeterred. Like I said, she's impervious.

“No, really! It's healthy! They had a professor explaining the benefits of it.”

“Right. A professor. Professor of what, exactly? Professor of well-ology?”

“She said the professor had done studies, lots of studies, and he wasn't involved in selling the product at all.”

“Sure. I'm sure.” No, he was merely offering scientific truths at a marketing meeting. Right.

Mom was building up a head of steam and charging full speed ahead, yet was not getting steamed at me. She and I must have marvelous psychic calluses.

“The professor has even been on Oprah!”

“Well, golly! I guess that proves it! If it was on Oprah, it must be nonsense.” (You see, I know the secret: if Oprah endorses a health remedy, it's crap. Count on it.)

“Lots of people swear by it!” Oh, oh. Mom is letting me down. Her arguments have started to recycle. I guess she's out of ammunition. But, no! She's saved up the best for last.

“The company is selling the fruit juice to raise money to help the orphans in the Amazon. They're doing it for the children.” Wow! This is like the perfect scam, every button being pushed: natural fruit juice, endorsed by Oprah, validated by professors, and helping orphans. Won't someone please think of the children!

Funny how the Amazon has all these orphans. Did their parents die from not drinking enough Brazilian fruit juice? Or too much?

“And they want to help children throughout the world!”

Sure they do. That would mean they were selling their woo-woo juice everywhere. Toss a few cents into this or that children's relief fund and they're automatically providing charity as well as fleecing the sheep. Priceless. (Well, not really. Want to see a product catalog?)

We kept swinging at each other a while longer, but we were hitting only air. Mom doesn't take offense as I pour sarcasm all over her breathless claims and I try not to pound my head on the wall. It works out well for both of us. My parting shot:

“And next year you'll hear no more about it and people will move on to the next wacky health fad.”

“Oh, I don't know. People say that this juice is really good.” Blanks. Mom is shooting blanks.

We finally manage to drag the carcass of our conversation to the topic of our getting together later in the week. I haven't seen my parents since Easter. We'll have dinner or something. Other family members will be there. My sister-in-law? Can't attend.

Good. There won't be a pitch for magical Brazilian fruit juice from their newest local distributor. There won't be snide remarks from that damned brother-in-law who mercilessly mocks all of her idiotic beliefs.

See? There I go again!

What do I have against Brazilian orphans, anyway?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Math to the rescue!

Wherein I play a hero

In a moment of weakness during this past school year, I agreed to serve on a campus hiring committee. Although I had served on a number of such committees before, this one was going to be different. Instead of hiring a faculty member, we were hiring an administrator, a new division manager. This time I was not part of a cozy math department majority trying to select a new colleague; the committee had a majority from the ranks of management. It would not be a faculty-driven process. Fortunately, I am naturally docile and respectful of authority, so there was no reason to expect any problems as I experienced this different style of hiring committee.


We asked each candidate eleven questions. Each committee member asked the same one or two questions of each candidate, keeping the process as uniform and as fair as possible for each interview. If you've ever been on a hiring committee, you won't be surprised that we used the standard “bookend” questions as #1 and #11: Why do you want this job? Is there anything else you'd like to tell us? Question #1 is a natural opener and question #11 gives the candidate a final chance to share additional remarks on earlier questions, fill in omissions, or simply deliver a little closing statement. (Questions #2 through #10 are reserved for the “fun” questions that might come from far out in left field.) As the candidates responded to the questions, committee members took notes. One colleague sitting next to me favored copious transcripts, using her quick writing skills to fill page after page. I and most others preferred cryptic little notations, preventing even a sharp-eyed candidate from discerning whether we were checking the “Exemplary” box or the “Execrable” box. You want to maintain a little mystery during the process.

There were few surprises. All of the candidates had already survived a close paper screening and only those with strong applications were getting interviewed by the committee. The committee would winnow the candidate crop down to a special few who would be invited back for second-round interviews with top-level administrators. (We faculty peons would be out of the loop at that point.) My school used to operate under a “stone face” hiring policy that required all committee members to conceal any reactions to the candidates' answers. In those days our college attorney was particularly paranoid and wanted to eliminate any possible vestige of even the tiniest appearance of the slightest hint of favoritism. It was deadly and you could see the life draining out of candidates as they fielded one question after another from a panel of immobile stone faces. I don't miss those days at all. We've unbent quite a lot and interviews are much friendlier and have at least the semblance of informality. In reality, they're still strongly scripted, but the script is no longer borrowed from an Easter Island travelogue.

Then it happened.

One candidate reached the end of the interview, heard a committee member say, “Is there anything else you'd like to tell us” and answered, “No. No, there isn't.” We thanked the candidate, who left the interview room, and began to get squared away for the next interview. I cleared my throat and spoke to my committee colleagues. It was math time!

“We're all filling in—or will fill in—these scoring sheets for each candidate. Most of us are assigning a point score to each response and then we'll total up the points to give the candidate a numerical score. If committee members are assigning points to #11, we have a potential equity problem.” (The administrator in charge of ensuring fairness during the interviews perked up.) “You see, question #11 is explicitly optional. Candidates don't have to answer it. Do we want to penalize a candidate who skips it? If we do, then we can just add up the points. If we don't, fairness would require that we average the points assigned to the answered questions, dividing by either 10 or 11, depending on whether #11 received a response.”

There was a long moment while people processed what I had said. Fortunately, I was not the only math person on the committee (and, indeed, one of the managers had been a fellow faculty member of mine in the math department before abandoning us for the glories and big bucks of administration). Heads began to nod (in agreement, not sleep). Soon the entire committee agreed that we should either avoiding assigning points to #11 or compute an average response score for each candidate. Skipping #11 would no longer carry a potential penalty of 9% of the points possible. Equity was restored! (Hmm. So what's been going on with previous hiring committees? Eh? That could explain some of the employees around here.)

In case you were wondering, no, my colleagues did not pick me up and carry me about the room on their shoulders. However, the candidate who skipped #11 did make it into the finals. Whether or not that candidate one day thanks me or curses me for the outcome of that interview process is known only to the future, and depends in part on my being exposed as the voice of math within the committee. Or, if you'd rather, the voice of sweet reason.

Hurray for math!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Doing a number on Bourbaki

Religion minus insanity equals epsilon

It helped that the book was short. Otherwise, I might never have made it to the end of Amir Aczel's The Artist and the Mathematician. Although it's short, it's also repetitive, which served to make it boring, too.

A pity, because there's room for a book like this, a pseudo-biography of a pseudo-mathematician. You can't dabble in math very long before you meet a mathematician who never existed. “Nicholas Bourbaki” was the pen name of a group of iconoclastic mathematicians, most of them French, who were surprised by the success of their pseudonymous attempt to refashion mathematics. The Bourbaki name appeared on a series of influential books, each one a tactical maneuver to advance the overarching plan to rebuild mathematics on a rigorous foundation of set theory and logic. The vision of the Bourbaki group came to represent a broad mainstream current in modern mathematics, although most would agree that its influence has waned as the founding members of Bourbaki have departed from the scene. The group still exists, but as a shadow of its former self.

Aczel narrates a few well-known anecdotes about Bourbaki and adds a handful of interesting details, but a better source on the nonexistent mathematician is Armand Borel's memoir, published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society or the detailed account at Of somewhat greater interest to me than the hashed-over Bourbaki story was Aczel's disorganized attempt to discuss Lévi-Strauss's structuralism in the context of Bourbaki's formalism.

I've discussed this famous anthropologist before and have neither qualification nor inclination to evaluate his seminal work on kinship or his establishment of structural anthropology. I have, however, opined that some of his quasi-mathematical formulations seem more of a mésalliance of symbols and symbolism than a rigorous formalization (as his literal formulas would imply). Aczel tells us that Lévi-Strauss was influenced in his approach to anthropology by an encounter with André Weil, a founding member of Bourbaki.
In 1943, Claude Lévi-Strauss met André Weil in New York, and the exchange of ideas between them was what eventually led to Bourbaki's ideas being introduced into anthropology. The first important example of the use of mathematical principles in anthropology was to be the solution of the difficult marriage-rules problem in tribes of Australian aborigines studied by Lévi-Strauss. This problem was solved by André Weil using purely abstract algebraic methods. Weil was so proud of his mathematical solution of Lévi-Strauss's problem, and the connection forged between “pure” mathematics and applied science, that he continued to tell the story about this cooperation between practitioners of different fields until his death.
In brief, Lévi-Strauss's fascination with structure—and his development of structuralism—sprang from the abstract structures of abstract algebra. Perhaps Aczel is right. Certainly the collaboration between Lévi-Strauss and Weil was fruitful for the former and delightful for the latter.

Bourbaki now bestrode the mathematical world like a colossus, so a proper concern for the needs of melodrama required the production of an arch-rival. To heighten the thrill, it would be ideal if the nemesis were from within. History dutifully provided this person, who figures as Aczel's hero in his account of Bourbaki. Enter Alexander Grothendieck, a citizenless World War II waif whose burgeoning mathematical genius brought him to the attention of the Bourbaki group. Grothendieck spent approximately ten years in Bourbaki, until he decamped amidst a welter of disagreement and dissatisfaction. While Bourbaki's ranks were replenished with some of his students, Grothendieck pursued his interests in new mathematical directions and his life moved into ever more isolated eccentricity. And bizarre religious beliefs.

Grothendieck's descent into a deeply wacky religiosity is one of the most puzzling things about a man who was capable of grasping the concept of proof at its most fundamental level. Why would a mathematician embrace fanciful faith? We know that there are plenty of smart people—even professional scientists—who see no apparent contradiction in mixing a career of reason with a personal life of dogmatic belief. It depends in part on the scope of one's initial axioms. If you decide that you want the most parsimonious set possible of initial assumptions, you might embrace a doctrine of proof: I'll believe it if it can be demonstrated. If you're willing to expand the axiomatic base by adjoining the culturally popular acceptance of deity and revelation (you get to pick which book is the True book, of course, out of many rivals), then you might end up with the point of view that many people have: I'll believe it if it's in the Book. (This is also known in bumper-sticker theology as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!”)
On January 10, 1988, Grothendieck retired officially from all his positions. In August 1991 he suddenly left his home and disappeared into the Pyrenees, where he is believed to be hiding from the world. Several people have attempted to find him over the years, but he remains elusive. People who managed to see him have reported that he is obsessed with the devil. Grothendieck believes that the devil is constantly working to destroy the harmony of the world. Among the many bad things the devil has done are the creation of pollution, the destruction of the environment, and the promotion of war and destruction.

When he was last seen ten years ago, Grothendieck was obsessed with the meter. Throughout his life, he shunned physics and related sciences, seeing in them instruments of evil: physics brought us the nuclear bomb and other bad things. In his isolation, Grothendieck apparently began to contemplate the meter, and he came to the conclusion that here, too, the devil is at play. The devil, he believes, has maliciously replaced the nice whole number 300,000 km/second by the ugly number 299,887 km/second as the speed of light.
Where, exactly, did God announce that nature's constants were supposed to be round numbers? I forget.

Some people think that Grothendieck has really lost it (if, indeed, he is even still alive). His theory of the devil, however, is no worse than anyone else's. I mean, we can't ask him to prove it, so it's a matter of faith. He at least chose nuclear weapons as evidence of the devil's wickedness as opposed to, say, evolution or homosexuality or women in the workplace. Yes, Grothendieck's demons are as good as anyone else's. Perhaps better than most. You can call it insanity, but it's really much more charitable to call it religion.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Situational answers

Beating around the Bush

Bogus polls are a pain. I'm not talking about those commissioned by politicians and interest groups where the questions are carefully worded to ensure we answer the way they want. I'm talking about the on-line or call-in polls based on unrepresentative self-selected responders. Such surveys are basically worthless and made-to-order for organized groups to skew. (I know because sometimes I do it myself. Once I had Bill Clinton as the “most admired” national figure on a College Republicans website.)

The San Francisco Chronicle has a weekly poll (cleverly titled “The weekly poll”) that hides the shame of its worthlessness behind a tiny fig-leaf in tiny print: “This is not a scientific poll, but a tabulation of readers' responses.” Yesterday's installment drew my attention because of the topic.

The results were derived from 870 responses.

The Chronicle's weekly poll is published amidst the letters to the editor, which is one of my favorite parts of any newspaper. I seldom pay much attention to the poll, but I always see it. This time I paused. Usually I instantly know how I would answer the poll question and it's of no further interest to me, especially since the results are so meaningless. This time, however, I did not know.

Yes, we have too many nukes. Way too many. It would make sense to reduce the stockpile. It would also make sense to replace old warheads with new ones, just to ensure that our weaponry doesn't turn flaky and unreliable. We all remember that Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob's attempt at nuclear blackmail went tragically awry. He fell for the retro appeal of an old warhead and ended up selecting a dud. Poor Bob!

But questions have contexts and programs do not implement themselves. Would I support a program to replace outdated warheads with new ones if the Bush administration were responsible for it? Never in a million years! (Which is probably not even enough time for the world to clean up the mess the Bushies would make of it.) Even the most prudent and well-advised program to retire old weapons and draw down the stockpile to a smaller number of new devices should not be risked, at least not during the continuing clown show in the White House. Who would be in charge? Rumsfeld, now retired and available, who natters on about known unknowns and unknown unknowns? Rice, the Peter principle personified, who finds it too much trouble to read memos about terrorist threats? Gonzalez, who seems to do nothing at the Justice Department and thus would have time for it; who doesn't know what decisions he's made until the White House briefs him? Former FEMA director Brown, who specializes in doing a “heckuva job”? Cheney, who would probably stash a few extra nukes in an undisclosed location in case he needs them on some future hunting trip with friends?

I think not. Let the dusty old nukes rusticate a few more months until Bush and company have packed their bags and skulked out of D.C. We can stand to wait till some grownups are in charge again. (It's funny how wise and mature the Clinton administration looks in retrospect.)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Rachel Carson, mass murderer

So says Republican Jesus

The mail brought me the Coral Ridge Ministries DVD titled titled Global Warming: The Science and the Solutions and its little companion booklet, Overheated. The DVD presents an expanded version of the global-warming denialism that was broadcast on The Coral Ridge Hour. I gave a detailed account of that broadcast segment in a previous post. The main point of the Coral Ridge broadcast remains unchanged—environmental extremists are sinfully fighting God's command to subdue the earth—but a few more favorite targets are dragged into view, together with a couple of additional skeptical voices.

Dr. Tim Ball of the University of Winnipeg sets the tone with his observation that the global-warming scare is some kind of hoax designed to stop human progress. Besides, CO2 is great stuff that we should appreciate more.
Ball: CO2 is presented as a pollutant because you want to show that it's the byproduct of industry, which is what they're attacking. In fact, there is no life on earth without CO2 in the atmosphere. Plants need it to produce oxygen and without that oxygen there is [sic] no living things on the planet. And to push to lower CO2 levels is, in fact, endangering the planet and life on it much more than any increase in CO2.

May I ask why environmentalists are accused of scare tactics while denialists like Ball get off scot-free despite statements like this? We might also note that plant life could probably do without oxygen very well; to them it's a waste product. Ball means to say that animal life requires it, which is largely true (unless you're anaerobic). He also fails to acknowledge that too much of a good thing is probably going to be a bad thing, and no one is arguing that we should try to drive CO2 levels down to zero. Ball is what he accuses others of being: a scaremonger.

The other denialist who was added to the DVD version of the video is Kenneth W. Chilton, professor of management at Lindenwood University and director of the Institute for Study of Economics and the Environment. He's not exactly a scientist, After Ball took his swipe at environmentalists, Chilton takes a turn at defaming one of the founders of modern-day environmentalism.
Chilton: Unfortunately, what looks good and appears good oftentimes to policy makers has unintended consequences that are quite tragic. A good example: the whole environmental movement kicked off—for us anyway in the western world—with Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring.

Narrator: Carson's 1962 book claimed that the pesticide DDT caused cancer and threatened certain bird species. But DDT had also been extraordinarily successful in combating malaria-carrying mosquitoes, with the World Health Organization estimating it save half a billion lives.

Chilton: What happens with DDT sprayed in a home or a hut in Africa is the mosquitoes typically don't even want to enter the house. If they land on the wall of the house, they are going to die, but generally it just wards them off. And it has protection for almost six months—very inexpensive.

Narrator: In the years following World War II, malaria was nearly eradicated in countries where DDT was used, but Carson's book ultimately spawned a worldwide moratorium on the pesticide. More than four decades later, most of her claims about DDT have been disproved, yet malaria spread by mosquitoes is again one of the leading causes of death in underdeveloped countries, killing more than a million people a year.

Chilton: The unintended consequence, a huge rise in malarial deaths and malarial cases—again, in the parts of the world that are the poorest, in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere—I think we can safely say they were in the tens of millions. That's a lot of humanity. Yeah, Christians should care about the environment just because we care about the creator, but we do have to be careful.
If Chilton had bothered to be careful, he would know that the DDT story is largely a hoax. Malaria staged a comeback because indiscriminate use of DDT resulted in the mosquitoes rapidly developing resistance to the pesticide, not because DDT was banned. (In fact, the DDT moratorium is not even a complete ban, but the its reduced effectiveness means that DDT's environmental damage is no longer balanced by its formerly effective pest control power. DDT is yesterday's flawed solution.)

D. James Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Ministries are marching in lock-step with the climate-change denialists. This is more a function of Kennedy's extreme conservatism than his religious convictions. He and his people have made common cause with those who view unbridled development and unregulated industry as God's plan for humanity. To mask their radical agenda, they express their tender concern for the poor of the world and paint all environmentalists as extremists who wish humans would vanish from the face of the earth. While they're at it, these putative Christians earnestly bear false witness against Rachel Carson, one of the great humanitarians and pioneer environmentalists of the twentieth century.

Who would Jesus smear?