Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hail, Caesar!

Vestige of the Roman empire

Here we are at the end of February, the truncated month that picks up a measly 29th day in leap years. No wonder some people feel a bit shorted that February was designated Black History Month. Stingy!

What happened to February anyway? Our modern-day February is a vestige of the power of imperial Rome. It hardly seems fair that the whims of the emperors should have such a persistent impact on us after a couple of thousand years. While the numbering system (“anno Domini”) we use is the heritage of an early Christian miscalculation, the plundered state of February may stand as witness to Rome's insistence on padding out July and August, the months named in honor of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.

February was a poor stepchild from the very beginning, apparently have been treated cavalierly whenever the Julian calendar got out of step with the seasons. February could be shortened or, contrariwise, supplemented with an “incalary” month, a block of time whose sole purpose was to realign the months with the seasons. Julius Caesar promulgated a calendar reform that reduced the capricious way in which the months were treated, but February remained underappreciated.

While we cannot be certain exactly what happened to February, it is certainly true that July (formerly known as “Quintilis” and August (formerly known as “Sextilis”) ended up with 31 days, ranked among the longest of the months and thus suitable tributes to Julius and Augustus.

Eventually the Julian reforms proved inadequate and Pope Gregory XIII took another crack at calendar-making in the sixteenth century. Although the Protestant reformation caused many nations to resist the pope's innovation, the Gregorian calendar was in use in most countries (Russia a notable exception) by the eighteenth century. The Gregorian calendar is still the one that we use today.

While the Gregorian calendar is better than the Julian calendar, it's not exactly perfect. A reform effort in the twentieth century came up with the World Calendar, a perpetual calendar in which January 1 always begins the year on a Sunday. Each calendar quarter has 91 days in it, the monthly triplets being grouped in the pattern 31-30-30 for their lengths. In leap years, an intercalary day is inserted at the end of June, having neither day of the week or date. This “Leapyear Day” would be designated “W” (for “World”). This would still make the calendar a day short, so another “W” day would be inserted at the end of each December. I daresay that this second W would be called “New Year's Eve,” taking that honor away from December 31.

The date for Easter would presumably still wander about the calendar, but except for movable feasts, the World Calendar would be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. According to the World Calendar Association, 2012 would be the ideal year for introduction of the World Calendar. That year will begin on Sunday, January 1, anyway, so the transition would be seamless.

I don't think it's going to happen, though. Religious types will object to the breaking of the sacred seven-day pattern. The “World” designation smacks of collectivist intent, and the general inertia of the population will prevent the World Calendar from getting a hearing.

So Leapyear Day babies cannot expect to have a calendar that includes an annual February 29 (and 30!). Not going to happen.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The End Times

College Christian coup kaput

When last we left the bold Christian insurrectionists who seized the student government at American River College in Sacramento, the religious bloc had lost its majority on the student council because three of its members were deemed ineligible. As noted in my previous post, they had failed to maintain the necessary grade-point average or unit load required for qualification for student government.

As the inimitable Porlock Junior observed on that occasion: “Reactionary political activist Christianists can't maintain a C average! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha !!!!!” That appears to be correct. What's more, they don't know Robert's Rules of Order and have nothing approaching the patience of Job. Almost all of them have resigned their posts and decamped in a snit. The new developments were reported in the February 20 edition of the ARC student newspaper, the American River Current:
SA members resign en masse

By Amber Sellnow
Staff Writer

Since five student representatives have resigned from Student Association, the council is no closer to filling seats than it was last week.

Within an hour and a half before the SA meeting on Feb. 12, the five submitted identical resignation letters—Alexander Cojan, Valeriy Dorn, Brandon Garcia, Daniel Karavan and Sergey Linnik. In the duplicated letter, they stated their disagreement with the president and felt that he is unethical because he “deceitfully denied the right of one of the Student Representatives to vote on overriding the special election.”

During the vote to override the elections to appoint three previous vacancies, Garcia voluntarily took chair, and according to Robert's Rule[s] of Order the chair is unable to vote unless there is a tie. But perhaps he assumed he was able to vote. Garcia also stated in his application for student representative, that he was “familiar with governing documents, such as a constitution and by-laws...”
I think we can safely conclude that candidate Garcia overestimated his knowledge.
There was a disagreement on the Feb. 19 meeting on whether or not the resignations were accepted prompting open vacancies. Student representatives submitted their resignations hours before the Feb. 12 meeting, the renouncements were not posted on the agenda.

Other than the five disbanding from council, and the argument on whether or not their resignation was accepted, there is a bigger dilemma. Was the vote from the Feb. 5 meeting (approval for the president to appoint three to council) still valid?

On the Feb. 19 meeting, Director of Public Relations, David Fisher, announced the qualified candidates [for?] the election committee. It consisted of election chair/Vice President of SA John Throm, Director of PR David Fisher, and two reps, Tanya Garcia and Yuriy Popko. The seven members available, the council approved three students the president appointed in a closed meeting on Feb. 14. Saba Siddiqui, Rachid Frihi, and Anthony Todd. Frihi was the only appointed member to actually show up to await approval of the council.

So what is to become of the five vacancies?

According to the bylaws, if there are four or less representative positions open, the council is able to override a special election. Even if the SA president is able to appoint three positions, an election will still have to take place, but that won't be known until next week.

Due to time constraints, the meeting was adjourned, and the rest of the meeting (including the reading of resignations/declaring vacancies, and filling of the remaining seats) has been tabled to the next meeting.
It all sounds pretty confusing, the confusion enhanced by the garbled reporting of the school newspaper. My friend “Steve,” an ARC faculty member who has served on occasion as my man-on-the-scene, thinks we have yet to hear the end of this story. It's widely believed that the extremist Christian bloc is regrouping for a campaign to retake the student association in the semester-end elections. Perhaps so, but this time they won't be able to run a stealth campaign. Their antics have attracted attention and their fumblings suggest they are not invincible. (Is God really on their side?)

In the meantime, I was tipped off by an anonymous ARC student who visited this blog and posted the URL of a website devoted to monitoring the activities of the college's right-wing Christian activists. If you're curious, go to and check it out. (Click on the red pill icon to get past the silly opening screen.) Is it truly the end, or merely the lull before the storm?


My ARC insider has provided me with some of the details concerning the meltdown of the Christian bloc in the college's student association. The right-wing student senators were, quite simply, suckered by an unsympathetic student body president. The president wanted to fill recent vacancies on the student senate by appointment rather than a special election, but that takes a two-thirds vote of the remaining senators. The president thought he had a majority, but probably not quite two thirds. He suspected the Christian bloc would oppose letting him name the replacements for their disqualified members. Therefore he made a seemingly generous offer to let one of them chair the meeting, a ploy they fell for. When the motion to allow appointment of replacement senators came up, the president voted in favor. When it came time for the no votes, the presiding senator attempted to vote, whereupon the president reminded him—informed him is more like it—that the presiding officer has no vote. Having been snookered into sacrificing one of their votes (and allowing the president to have a vote he normally would not have, clinching the two-thirds requirement), the extremist Christian bloc was infuriated. Their mass resignation followed.

It's not the end of the story.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stan the Man

His posthumous kidnapping

William Dembski must be lonely for company. As one of the leading lights of intelligent design creationism, he undoubtedly longs for more erudite colleagues than the motley array of intellectual back-benchers who populate the Discovery Institute and similar quasi-scientific organizations. Since today's real scholars are likely to kick, bite, and otherwise resist recruitment into the armies of the night, Dembski has cleverly decided to enlist a dead man as one of his allies. The victim of Dembski's grave-robbing is mathematician Stanislaw M. Ulam. On the creationist blog Uncommon Descent, Dembski quotes a “close colleague” as saying
Bohr and Ulam both believed that Darwinism was a false theory. If Darwinism is false, then it cannot be a fact. It can only be a theory.
Niels Bohr and Stan Ulam are two of the greatest intellects of the twentieth century. One sits up and takes notice at the startling revelation that they opposed evolution. What is the basis for Dembski's claim? He gives us some of Ulam's own words from the 1966 Wistar conference on “Mathematical challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis”:
[Darwinism] seems to require many thousands, perhaps millions, of successive mutations to produce even the easiest complexity we see in life now. It appears, naively at least, that no matter how large the probability of a single mutation is, should it be even as great as one-half, you would get this probability raised to a millionth power, which is so very close to zero that the chances of such a chain seem to be practically non-existent.
That's a mathematical challenge, all right, but to Ulam it could just as well have been a challenge needing an answer rather than a challenge demonstrating the falsity of the modern synthesis. Dembski, however, presents it as a clear demonstration of Ulam's opposition to evolution, evidence to edify his followers.

An ID acolyte at Uncommon Descent hastens to make obeisance:
I never knew that Bohr and Ulam were both anti-Darwinists. Excellent post, Dr. William Dembski. On this website you learn something new every day.
It's “something new,” all right, but does it have the additional characteristic of being true? Of course, truth has never been a prerequisite for assertions made by the ID crowd. Furthermore, Dembski and his fellow creationists are notorious quote-miners. PvM (Pim van Meurs) at The Panda's Thumb is, as usual, on the job and has taken the trouble to depict Ulam's views more fully. Surprise! When taken in the larger context of his life's work, Ulam doesn't turn out to be a creationist at all! PvM cites a 1970 paper in which Ulam poured some subzero water on the misinterpretations that had been placed on his 1966 remarks:
In this report, we shall present an abbreviated account of calculations performed by us in the mid 1960’s. These calculations were preliminary and intended merely as the zeroth approximation to the problem concerning rates of evolution—a process which we have here severely stylized and enormously oversimplified. A mention of the results of such calculations in progress at that time was made at a meeting in 1966 at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia by one of us. The discussion there, as reported in the proceedings of the meeting, was rather frequently misunderstood and the impression might have been left that the results somehow make it extremely improbable that the standard version of the survival-of-the-fittest mechanism leads to much too slow a progress.
Got that, Dembski? Ulam expressly said he was not claiming to have shown that natural selection was deficient as a mechanism for evolution. He was saying that mathematical models were still weak, as demonstrated by his use of “zeroth approximation” to describe his “preliminary” calculations.

Although not widely known today, Stan Ulam was rather famous in the 1960s as Edward Teller's opponent during the debate over the Kennedy administration's negotiations with the Soviet Union for a test-ban treaty. Both men were credited with having solved the problem of creating a thermonuclear explosion (the H-bomb). Ulam thought it was time to slow down the arms race, while Teller wanted free rein to continue unlimited atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. In this instance, the good guys won and the test-ban treaty was adopted.

Ulam was a polymath. His interests were broad and kept growing throughout his life. He was particularly intrigued by iteration and complexity, the notion that extremely simple rules could produce extremely complex results upon repeated application. Ulam was therefore quite curious about mathematical models for evolution and sought out opportunities to explore them.

In the late seventies, Ulam accepted a visiting-professor appointment at the University of California, Davis, where he conducted some seminars. Friends of mine who were graduate students at UC Davis were awed by the presence of Ulam in their midst, but he soon set everyone at ease with his natural friendliness and lack of pomposity. (His contrasts with Teller were many.) I was out of school at the time, but I was able to get up to Davis to attend some of Ulam's talks. I had read his autobiography, Adventures of a Mathematician, and Professor Ulam graciously signed my copy for me after one of the seminars. I dug out that book after reading about Dembski's attempt to co-opt Ulam for the ID cause and quickly found a telling paragraph that beautifully captures the author's endless curiosity and self-deprecating manner:
In 1954 Gamow and I happened to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the same time. I was telling him about some of my speculations on the problems of evolution and the possibilities of calculating the rate of evolution of life. One day he came to see me and said: “Let's go to Massachusetts General Hospital—there is an interesting biology seminar.” And we drove in his Mercedes. On the way I asked him who was talking. He said, “You are!” Apparently he had told the professors running the seminar that we would both talk about these speculations. And indeed we both did. On the way home I remarked, “Imagine, George, you and me trying to talk about biology! All these people, all these doctors in white smocks—they were ready to put us in straitjackets.”
No question about it. This sensible man would never fit into the self-important, pseudo-intellectual ranks of the ID creationism movement.

Rest in peace, Stan. We won't let them have you.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Top Secret!

And send money!

What kind of mass-mailing contains a line like the following?
We have already secretly begun work on a TV ad campaign that will keep the heat on Berkeley
“Secretly”? No doubt it must come from someone who trusts the hundreds (thousands?) of recipients to keep quiet about her secret. A mass e-mailing is secure from prying eyes, right?

What we have here is low-brow comedy.

To be fair, I suppose it's hard work being the political conscience of patriotic America. Poor Melanie Morgan and her Move America Forward front group need lots and lots of money to persuade people that Berkeley is a kooky city. (I would have never guessed!) This relates, of course, to the recent flap over the Berkeley City Council's decision to thumb its collective nose at the Marine recruiting station in their midst. With her own nose trained to the scent of blood and a gift for simulating hysterical outrage, Morgan saw an opportunity to rally her right-wing following and dip into their pockets. After all, we know that municipalities all over America are eager to emulate trendsetting Berkeley unless the heroes of Move America Forward discourage them!
To make this ad campaign successful—in part to make sure no other city in America thinks it is acceptable to repeat Berkeley's actions—we will need to run A GREAT MANY television ads, so as to get our message heard far and wide.
Yes, indeed, if not for Melanie Morgan and her battalions of hyper-patriots, your city might become another Berkeley! We should all be grateful to her, even if we choose not to click the “Contribute” link that is featured in most messages from Move America Forward.

Melanie knows that you should milk every opportunity to its max. The gigantic struggle against evil in Berkeley prompted her to exhort her minions with mass mailings on February 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 18, 19, 21, and 22. I'm sure you feel safer already.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Kick-ass foreign policy

Where Bush got his ideas

The Ass-Kickers Song is a country-western parody (if such a thing is possible) performed by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in an episode from the third season of A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Although Laurie is better known these days for using his American accent to portray Dr. Gregory House on the Fox medical drama House, he originally made his mark as a comedian on the BBC. Perhaps we should also regard him as psychic, because The Ass-Kickers Song (also known, for obvious reasons, as Kickin' Ass) is a perfect foreshadowing from 1992 of the foreign policy that George W. Bush would begin to implement in 2001.

As for Oren (portrayed by Fry), the brain-damaged brother to Laurie's character Vern, we can be confident that he later found a cozy job in the upper reaches of the Defense Department or the Pentagon.

If you think that Fry & Laurie's influence on Bush administration policies is limited to foreign affairs, don't miss Parent Power, in which Mr. Smear (Laurie) explains the GOP approach to sex education and family life. It's eerily prescient.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Expelling hot air

Plenty more where that came from!

The marketing people for Expelled are hard at work warming up the academic audience for their agitprop film. The following bit of e-mail hype was forwarded to my attention and I have to say I am gobsmacked with anticipation. Expelled must be the most exciting film since Birth of a Nation (and just as historically accurate!). The provocative message is being spread to educators (both real and imagined) across the country.
Subject: Has your student group been Expelled??
From: Dairek Morgan <>

Hey guys,
So, we’re at 2 months and counting. Film release date is APRIL 18th. The time is NOW to plan your group initiatives. If you haven’t already, check out to download and order a lot of really cool FREE resources (stuff should be ready for shipping on Thursday).

You’ve all signed up online to be involved in the film and I’m really thankful to have you. As a former youth pastor from Nashville, TN, the reason I took this job and am so passionate about this project is because I saw one too many of my students go off to college and be indoctrinated with a belief system that said their faith was antiquated and foolish. Ever heard of The Blasphemy Challenge?? THIS IS WHERE THIS TEACHING LEADS—AND HOW ITS AFFECTING STUDENTS RIGHT NOW!! ( Seeing that was all I needed to know that I would throw my whole being into this project. Abe Lincoln said that “the philosophy in the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.” Ideas have consequences. Our students are being deceived, and I know this film can help shed some light on the conversation. Faith and science are not incompatible and I believe this film will go a long way in allowing the two room to stand together in the cultural conversation.
While the Lincoln quote is bogus (at least according to the Duke University Law Review), this is undoubtedly only a small blip in the otherwise fact-based work of the purveyors of intelligent design creationism.

Since the message is aimed at teachers, it's not surprising to see that it has a kind of lesson plan in it. I suppose it would be unkind to complain about redundancies and other infelicities in it:
Here’s what you can do to get the word out about this film to the students.

Here’s some things I’m asking you to do:
  1. Post an Expelled banner on your website/myspace:
  2. Tell your students about the film (send an ecard or just start an email chain).
  3. Organize an evening on OPENING week-end to take your students to see the film. Why not do a 7:00 showing and then an open forum discussion over ice cream afterwards?? We can send you a FREE resource kit to help advertise your event. Coming soon on
  4. Get your students to participate in some of our initiatives. We’ve got all kinds of contests and other ways to help them get involved in the discussion.
  5. Educate your students on the issue. is a great starting place to learn more on the topics.
  6. And if you’re REALLY up for the challenge, help your students host an EXPELLED DEBATE. More info here:
Amazing SYNERGY can happen when we all do a little. This film has the potential to change the cultural conversation in our country. I appreciate your participation.



P.S. Please feel free to reply to this email and let me know what your youth/group is doing to get involved. It’s always good to know what’s happening at the “ground level”!

Dairek Morgan
Motive Entertainment

Dairek ends his message with some celebrity endorsements for the message of Expelled. They pretty much speak for themselves—and demonstrate the company that the Expelled crew keeps. One shudders.

Don't forget to count how many distinguished scientists are in this distinguished crowd of Expelled supporters!
“I recommend the film enthusiastically! Ben Stein’s film exposes an entrenched and aggressive Darwinist establishment in academia that suffocates all competing points of view. What Ben Stein discovers in this riveting documentary is incredibly enlightening.” —James C. Dobson, Ph.D., Chairman of the Board, Focus on the Family

“What Ben Stein is doing in this film is extremely important by opening up an honest debate in the public square where people can hear reasoned arguments on both sides and make their own conclusions. I love Ben Stein” — Chuck Colson, Radio Commentator, Founder of Prison Fellowship

“This is an enormously important project and I am so proud of the fact that Ben Stein, who is a national treasure, is part of it. People know that there is a dictatorial impulse at work in the land to shut down even the most elementary questioning of this unquestionable belief in random evolution” —Michael Medved, nationally syndicated radio host

“We highly recommend the movie to anybody. It is not only informative and challenging—it is fun to watch. Ben Stein’s interviews with avowed atheists, is well done as he elicits responses that leave grave doubt regarding their position of absolute disbelief in a creator and/or God”. —Ken Smitherman, President, Association of Christian Schools International

“EXPELLED is an engaging film. Ben Stein has given us a powerful documentary about the widespread repression of faith-friendly scientific scholarship. Along the way, he also makes a strong case for a return to civil discourse in a time when political correctness often overshadows the search for truth”. —Ronald D. Ellis, Ph.D., President, California Baptist University

“We are seeing the consequences of locking matters of faith out of our classrooms. We applaud Ben Stein for casting light on today's challenges to academic freedom.” —Luis Palau, President, Luis Palau Association

“Propaganda molds minds in a very direct way and that is the logjam in this situation, which the Ben Stein movie, EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed, seeks to break through. I wish it well – I hope under God it will have a great effect just at that point.”. —Dr J.I. Packer, theologian

“Expelled blows the lid off the heavy-handed tactics within the scientific community to crush dissenters who dare to question Darwinism. This entertaining yet sobering documentary reveals why civilized societies cannot progress if held captive by Darwinian philosophy, and will decline from moral and just societies to brutal oppression.” —Wendy Wright, President, Concerned Women for America

“The movie is powerful...shocking....intense....humorous at times....well worth seeing. This message must be given to the next generation or else....” —Jack Brown, CEO, Capitol Prayer

“If the Ben Stein movie is asking these questions and if somebody is keeping us from finding out the great answers to the great questions - then maybe they are more than just questions. Maybe they are questions with eternal consequences.” —Peter Furler, lead singer, The Newsboys

“This movie only samples the tip of the iceberg of academic and intellectual persecution in the land of “freedom” and may trigger a cultural revolution as more people are emboldened to tell their story and make a stand. It is rare to find a movie that is entertaining, educational and motivational, but that is exactly what you get with Ben Stein’s documentary, EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed” —Dennis Wagner, Executive Director, Access Research Network

“Finally, someone has exposed the head-in-the-sand reaction of mainstream academia when it comes to intellectual honesty and the theological implications of modern science. This film is a wonderfully crafted gift to this needy culture.” —Ed Flanagan, Manitou Motion Picture Company, Ltd.

"If you seek intellectual integrity, see Expelled. If you enjoy thought-provoking conversation, bring a friend. If you value free speech, tell everyone you know to meet you at the movies and spend an alarming evening with Ben Stein. Expelled could easily be one of the most important movies of the year." —Denny Rydberg, President, Young Life

“Honest people have no fear of the truth. Expelled is a great first step in tearing down the wall and bringing honest, vigorous debate back to the academies. I want to thank you for your film, EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed.” —Curtis Martin, President-Fellowship of Catholic University Students

“As a media literacy education specialist and film/television reviewer, I encourage critical thinking. If this film respects every human person's ability to think and to question, thereby promoting our search for truth and meaning, it will renew the debate about academic freedom by initiating a dialogue that inherently respects the dignity, freedom, beliefs and opinions of all those who sit around the table—and beyond it.” —Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP Director, Pauline Center for Media Studies

“As chairman of the Mission America Coalition, I highly recommend Ben Stein’s upcoming film “Expelled”. We have personally met with Ben and have screened Expelled, and we found it to be compelling, insightful and entertaining. I encourage you to see the film when it hits America’s movie theaters in April and to invite others to join you.” —Rev. Paul Cedar, Chairman, Mission America Coalition

“EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed is earthshaking. I was absolutely blown away. Ben Stein boldly shines a light of honest inquiry revealing that evolution’s emperor has no clothes.” —J. Matt Barber, Director for Cultural Issues, Concerned Women for America

A circle puzzle

Tease your brain

How much do you know about circles? Does the Pythagorean theorem sound familiar? How about inscribed angles and their corresponding central angles? Know the area of a sector?

Here's a circle puzzle that was recently passed along to me by a friend. The task? Figure out the radius. Only two measurements are given (unless, of course, you count the right angles): the hypotenuse of a right triangle inscribed in one quadrant of the circle and the distance of one vertex from the circumference of the circle. Believe it or not, that's plenty of information.

So: what is the radius? The friend who sent me the puzzle said he saw “a horrendous variety of wrong solutions/answers/guesses.” Want to contribute to the variety?

Don't worry. I'm not giving the answer away all at once. Go read the comments. You'll probably find an answer there soon enough. And if you don't provide it, I'll post it myself.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Long Goodbye

Not the retiring sort

I was browsing the Interweb, as I often do, picking through the multiplex that is ScienceBlogs. One of the regular stops on my circuit is Orac's Respectful Insolence, which this weekend informed me of the release of a teaser-trailer for the long-awaited Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (See what you can learn on ScienceBlogs?)

Can you believe that it's been nearly twenty years since the last Indiana Jones movie, 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? That's a long time for a successful franchise to sit on the shelf, especially since none of the earlier films were bombs. The serials involving Superman and Batman have gone in fits and starts, retooling after various box office disappointments and cast changes (and others, like Alec Baldwin's The Shadow—which I enjoyed—and Bruce Willis's Hudson Hawk—which I didn't bother to see—crashed and burned after only one outing). By contrast, the Indiana Jones franchise was robust. However, the principals—Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford—never lacked for projects and the years kept clicking by without a sequel to Last Crusade.

The trailer has Jones quipping “Not as easy as it used to be,” so Harrison Ford's age (and that of the character he portrays) is likely to be a running gag in the new movie. This will presumably be the last outing of Professor Jones, but who knows? Over at Orac's site I suggested that plans might already be under way for Indiana Jones and the Wheelchair-Accessible Caverns of Despair. Sound too far-fetched? Here are some other possibilities:

Indiana Jones and the Avengers of the Assisted-Living Community

Indiana Jones and the Shared Office Space of the Professors Emeriti

Indiana Jones and the Marauders of Medicare Part D

I have a problem with that last one, since American audiences are likely to ask about the missing episodes concerning Parts A, B, and C. You know, like when The Madness of King George III was released in the United States without the Roman numerals for fear that we simple colonists would skip it, on account of not having seen I and II.

Anyway, what do you think are good titles for future Indiana Jones adventures? I'd love to hear them!

My cousin died in Iraq

More Bush war crimes

Recently a cousin of mine and his comrades went out on their last patrol in Iraq. It wasn't planned as their last patrol. It just turned out that way. They ran into one of those infamous “improvised explosive devices” and died. Another California kid killed in Bush's misbegotten Middle East adventure. Another soldier sacrificed to an insane bully-boy foreign policy. Another victim of criminal negligence by administration officials who only pretended to expedite the acquisition of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. Some people in Washington deserve to burn in hell.

I traveled to Sacramento to snap some photos at the State Capitol, where the flags have once again been lowered to half-staff. I sent them to my family so they could see my cousin's memory being honored. I called my mother to ask about my cousin's family and to express my sympathies.

And, of course, I yelled at her.

It probably doesn't help to say that she started it. I do have difficulties at times with my parents. Naturally, I'm aware of this, so I carefully avoid certain topics; but, unfortunately, they are less inclined to return the favor. I asked Mom how my cousin's parents were doing. She told me they were working with a grief counselor and were doing about as well as one could hope when dealing with the loss of one's only son. Then she launched off:

“It's just terrible, terrible, how these war protesters attack the troops and undermine the war effort. It shouldn't be allowed!”

Mom had ventured onto dangerous ground. I cut her some slack and answered her very mildly:

“Mom, protesting the war is not the same as attacking the troops. Lots of people are against the war, but they're not against our soldiers. I'm against the war, but I support the troops and I think we should show it by bringing them home instead of leaving them over there to get killed.”

She was having none of it:

“But they're protecting the country! We have to let them finish their war against terror!”

I fell for the bait, not that Mom was being deliberately provocative. She was just spouting concentrated Fox News misinformation. But I've long since refused to listen in silence as if I agree:

“Mom, Iraq never attacked us. We attacked them. This is what happens when you have scoundrels and criminals in the White House.”

“Well, I happen to admire the president very much.”

“That's too bad, Mom. Bush is probably the worst president in American history. His war is a disaster, he's run up a huge national debt for nothing, and the country is suffering for it.”

“The economy's not his fault! When Clinton was in there, all he did was chase women!”

“And we were much better off, too. And people supported Clinton much more than they do Bush. You've been getting your nonsense from talk radio and Fox News.”

“At least they're not full of lies like CNN! I have no use for those Democrats in Washington. They're useless! They're less popular than Bush! And Pelosi should have stayed in San Francisco! There are lots of questions about the illegals that she and her husband employ!”

Tons of Fox manure and other right-wing talking points. Including a specific attack on the evils of CNN. Mom has absorbed them all. Complete with exclamation points.

“You accidentally said something correct, Mom. Congress is less popular than Bush. That's because people like you are upset that the congressional majorities oppose the president. But people like me are upset that they do it so ineffectively. If Congress wanted to be more popular, it would refuse to enact Bush's policies and refuse to fund the war.”

“And that's how we lost the Vietnam war! It was war protesters here at home that caused us to lose the war in Vietnam just when we were about to win! I heard a former general say that on KMJ.”

KMJ is the Central Valley's leading supplier of cant, spin, and lies from Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. It's your one-stop shop for all of your delusional neocon needs.

“Gee, Mom, did you even live through the twentieth century? When were we ever on the verge of ‘winning’ in Vietnam?” My arguments with my parents are invariably ineffective. Perhaps it's because they can't hear the wry quote marks in my sentences.

We weren't done with Iraq, of course:

“If we let the protesters win again, we'll lose our mission to protect the people of Iraq.”

“Are you kidding me, Mom? They're dying by the tens of thousands. A large majority of Iraqis want us to leave. I say give them what they want and bring our troops home.”

“No, that's not true. A large majority want us there!”

“Says who? Sorry, Mom. That's a mathematical impossibility. If a large majority—it's about two-thirds!—wants us to get the hell out of there, that doesn't leave enough left over to also have a majority—small or large!—begging us to stay. We've been there too long and we've lost too many people, and that includes our family now.”

Leave it to me to cite mathematical impossibilities. And I was starting to use exclamation points myself. I finally came to my senses:

“But, Mom, I'm tired of wasting my time yelling at you and you're wasting your time yelling at me. I really just called to find out how the parents are doing.”

Mom's wrath subsided in an instant. We were back on common ground. She told me about the funeral arrangements and the rosary service that would precede it. I did not express my opinion that the family should convene under a flag of truce. I was pretty sure my parents would denounce it as a flag of surrender. I promised myself to curb my tongue and ignore the inevitable provocations that occur whenever my family gathers. Prayer services are neutral events, not political debates.

But if I believed in hell, I'd pray that George Bush gets sent there.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

J. Sidney the Third

Goosing their gander

The skank queen of American political commentary (I didn't even have to name her, did I?) has been referring to the junior senator from Illinois as “B. Hussein Obama.” This is what passes for wit among the rabid right (and please excuse the redundancy of my saying “rabid right”; what else is there these days?). “Get ready for President Hussein,” she says.

A more appropriate venue for this inane name-calling would be a playground for spoiled-rotten toddlers (so, yes, perhaps we should expect it of Fox News), but instead it's degrading contemporary political discourse. One grows weary, but they're insistent on their little name games, spinning and puking their talking points.

Since they refuse to play nicely, shall we play along and push their faces into the sandbox? The name-game vulnerability is not solely on the Democratic side (oops! was I supposed to say “Democrat side”?). Let us consider the now-inevitable Republican nominee for president. Although the Obama-slamming pundette has equal disdain for the senator from Arizona, he is the obvious and irresistible target for retaliation-in-kind against the Republican slime machine. Everyone knows Sen. Obama's full name. Do you know McCain's?

It's John Sidney McCain III. That's right. Sidney. And the third. Can you imagine people waving banners exhorting the voters to support J. Sidney McCain III for president? (Can we get Thurston Howell III on the ticket as J. Sidney's running mate? It would be perfect!)

We are certain to hear plenty of GOP operatives and apologists smarmily pushing Barack Obama's middle name in our faces throughout the fall campaign. (I'm sure of it. Either he'll be the Democratic nominee or a barely-victorious Hillary Clinton will have to beg him to be her running mate. B. Hussein Obama will be on the national Democratic ticket.) Every time someone tries to make a big deal of Hussein, we can sweetly ask whether America is ready for an effete scion of the clenched-jaw set, J. Sidney the third.

That's fair.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Creationists on endangered list

Christian college coup crumbles

A few weeks into the spring semester has seen the collapse of the creationist Christian majority on the student senate of American River College in Sacramento. My friend and former student “Steve” is a faculty member at ARC, where he has a front-row seat for all the excitement. Despite the stealth campaign that brought a coalition of extremely conservative Slavic Christians into power with a bare majority of the college student senate (for which see my earlier post) , the new rightist bloc has been unable to consolidate its hold on student government. As reported in The Current, ARC's student newspaper, three of the Christian senators were devoured by the lions of academic standards:
Three seats remain vacant after the Student Association elections in late November. Certified results show three of the 10 candidates elected were disqualified.

Elected representatives must maintain a 2.0 GPA and take five units per semester in order to hold a position on the 18-member student council.... The three representatives disqualified were Yeisey Shenrya, Dennis Choban and Joshua Serban.
Are you surprised? The student activists were too busy with nonacademic pursuits to maintain their eligibility for extracurricular functions like student government.

I noticed that Choban was the fellow quoted in last year's post-election issue of The Current as saying that he and his allies from ARC's Christian Civilization Club looked forward to “removing humanistic bias from certain courses (such as evolution science).” That wasn't going to happen anyway, but now Choban won't even get to try.

The vacancies on the student senate will be filled by appointment by the student body president. Although the student senate must confirm the appointments, the president is not part of the creationist Christian bloc and is unlikely to restore their majority by his choices. The campaign for campus theocracy in Sacramento may not be over, but it has certain stalled for the time being.

No doubt my friend at ARC will keep an eye on further developments and I will certainly pass them along. A final tidbit, which came from within the ARC math department: One of the disqualified student senators earned his deficient GPA by flunking calculus last semester; he apparently missed class frequently because of “church work.” That might be ironic, no?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Newman puts on the old man

As Catholic as the pope
[P]ut on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him. —Colossians 3:10
Hillsdale College famously prides itself on a particularly old-fashioned and conservative Protestant ethic. Some Catholics think Hillsdale has the right idea: They'd like Catholic colleges and universities to turn their backs on new-fangled intellectual pursuits and narrow their focus to conform to the teachings of Rome. Or else.

Hey, if it was good enough for Galileo...

The Cardinal Newman Society has set itself the task of purging America's Catholic colleges of heresy. The organization recently sent out a fundraising letter that underscored the magnitude of the emergency. The letter offered these scary bullet points:
  • A recent survey shows that at least 46 Catholic colleges and universities recognize homosexual clubs that promote and glorify homosexual “culture.”
  • Some Catholic colleges are allowing opposite-sex students to spend the night together in school dormitories—in direct violation of the Church's teachings on chastity and marriage.
  • A sexually explicit play called The Vagina Monologues, in which vulgarity and LESBIAN EROTICA are lauded, is being performed annually at Catholic institutions.
  • Advocates of abortion, stem-cell research, and physician-assisted suicide, homosexual marriage and women's ordination are being invited to give commencement speeches and accept honorary degrees by Catholic colleges in clear defiance of the U.S. Bishops' mandate to do otherwise.

It's all pretty shocking. However, the Cardinal Newman Society won't stop till you're gasping in horror:
But wait, sadly there is more...

In 2006 a Georgetown University dean ran for office on a PRO-ABORTION platform.

Last year, for the 6th year running, nearly one of every ten Catholic colleges and universities—including Boston College, Marquette University, the University of Detroit Mercy, and 19 others—hosted performances of the sexually explicit, anti-Catholic, anti-woman play, The Vagina Monologues, which celebrates the seduction and rape of a minor girl by a lesbian adult as the girl's “salvation”!

Santa Clara University openly and actively refers its students to Planned Parenthood for contraception.

DePaul University offers students a new minor degree program in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual. Transgender and Queer Studies—which by its very nature undermines Catholic Teaching on homosexuality.
Was that more? Well, more of the same, anyway. The Cardinal Newman Society decided to plump up its bill of particulars by repeating everything and tossing in a few names. Of course, it's easy to characterize The Vagina Monologues as an “anti-woman play” if you get to define what a woman should be. (Hint: She's a kind of inferior man. But not to worry: The Church offers nunneries and marriage as remedies for woman's weakness.)

I'm fascinated by the statement that DePaul's queer studies degree undermines “Catholic Teaching”—capitalization run amok there!—“by its very nature.” You want to study queers? Then go to hell, since that's where they're all going! (But maybe not those poor priests who were tempted by those naughty little lace-clad altar boys. The errant clerics got shriven and reassigned to new parishes!)

The Cardinal Newman Society takes as its brief the implementation of John Paul II's Ex corde Ecclesiae, the late pope's 1990 directive on norms for Catholic colleges. The society's members are volunteer thought police and heretic hunters who plaster their website with their trophies: Trinity University dares to honor Nancy Pelosi (she's an alumna) by such egregious acts as issuing a press release on the congresswoman's election as Speaker of the House and awarding her an honorary doctorate in 2003 when she became House minority leader.

You can also refer to the society's list of Catholic colleges where performances of the V-Monologues are held. (The society balks at spelling out the dreaded V-word on its home page.)

The Catholic Church, of course, gets to make its own rules and therefore can insist on the standards to which its institutions of higher education must conform. The Church is therefore also free to deputize the Cardinal Newman Society to function as its enforcement wing. That, however, doesn't make it wise. If the society's campaign is successful, Catholic institutions of higher learning will cease to be liberal arts institutions and become schools of narrow parochialism. Either that, or some schools will decide that their nominal Catholic affiliation has become a straitjacket and will throw it off. Will the Vatican be happy to see them go?

The crack-down on Catholic colleges and universities smacks of the ultramontane regime of Pope Pius X, who was actually canonized as a saint despite his febrile attacks on what he termed “modernism.” Would you support notions as crazy as “the emancipation of science, which must traverse every field of investigation without fear of conflict with the Church; the emancipation of the State, which should never be hampered by religious authority”? Once you embrace those radical notions, there goes your theocracy!

And I say “Amen.”

Natura facit saltus

Up, up, and away!

What's your reaction to Tony Carrillo's F-Minus comic strip today? I grinned and chuckled. Yeah, damn that evolution, anyway! Of course, my amusement was derived from the cartoonist's sense of the absurd. Evolution just doesn't work that way. It's funny because it's false.

Now imagine a creationist looking at the same cartoon: “Ha! That's pretty funny! See how stupid evolutionists must be to believe stuff like this?” It's funny because it's true (in its depiction of a creationist's view of evolution).

How nice it is when we can laugh together! Well, at the same time, at least.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Liberal education

Not really for Democrats

Hillsdale College feels no qualms about promoting its mission as “offering America's future leaders the best classical liberal arts education available today.” Don't look, however, for liberal leaders to spring from the ranks of Hillsdale's graduates. The big competition on campus is between conservatives and libertarians. Hillsdale is dedicated to providing an old-fashioned liberal arts education, with an emphasis on the “old-fashioned.” As noted in a flier distributed by the college, excerpted from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's All-American Colleges,
The school also passes along the principles of “movement” conservatism—a fusion of American Protestant morality and free-market, small-government principles. The school has become, among many other things, a hotbed of future writers, lobbyists, and think-tank officials promoting the ideals that motivated the Goldwater and Reagan presidential campaigns. For students committed to such principles, Hillsdale is a first-rate place in which to acquire an intellectual foundation; for others, it remains a stimulating and worthy liberal arts institution.
The curriculum unapologetically concentrates on the Great Books of European civilization and many Hillsdale students sport T-shirts bearing the slogan “Dead White Men Are Cool.” Refreshingly retro, no? Well, there is a fly in the ointment for those budding right-wingers who expected Hillsdale to pander to all of their preconceptions. Science classes are not on board with contemporary neo-con culture:
The kind of students who end up at Hillsdale are not afraid to question—but one might be surprised to hear what some of them question. Evolution, for instance. A number of students are critical of the natural science and social science departments from a philosophical perspective. “My qualm is with their tendency to view the natural sciences as standing apart from the other disciplines—as standing on a separate and higher plane of truth because of their reliance on empirical data ... and their stubborn adherence to evolution and refusal to consider the Intelligent Design Theory,” says one history major. Another student agrees, calling biology her “only uncomfortable class as a Christian.” Of course, sometimes it's healthy to be made a little uncomfortable.
Although Hillsdale regards multiculturalism as a “dehumanizing, discriminatory trend” and brags that it offers not a single course that focuses on anything other than Western literature, the college has nevertheless made room for a tiny bit of diversity. There are even Democrats on campus. They're just not very welcome:
In 1854 Hillsdale's president, Edmund Fairfield, was a leading founder of the Republican Party. It's no accident that the College Republicans is one of the largest and most active groups on campus today. There is also a College Libertarians group and, refreshingly, a newly formed College Democrats. According to a recent article in the school's paper, the Collegian, the president of the College Democrats club has faced negative feedback, including hate mail, from fellow students for starting the club, with some students claiming it is impossible to be at once a Democrat and a Christian.
Does the hate mail come from some of the local Republican Christians? I wouldn't be surprised.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Don't do the math

Let someone else

Remember the adventures of my friend PiD at the Reno caucuses last month? There were lots of problems in dealing with the head-counting and percentage-computing required by the caucus process. (Well, it was tricky stuff, you know: Like trying to figure out what support there was for one candidate in a two-person race if the other had 59%. Math is hard!)

Not to worry! The Obama campaign in Colorado has posted a training video on its website, the Colorado Caucus Center. The video segments include finding training meets, determining your caucus location, and the step-by-step process on caucus night. Best of all, there's a comforting note that you can participate in the Colorado caucuses even if you don't know any math. (Ooh, math!)
The Caucus Math

Math is involved to determine the outcome of the Colorado caucuses. Only the people in charge will have to do math. This interactive tool will help you understand how it works.
Isn't that a comfort? Someone else will do all the math for you and you can just take their word for it. After all, we live in a era of political honesty and trust, right?

(Hat-tip to Gary Farber at Amygdala.)