Sunday, April 27, 2008

My fifteen seconds of fame

Included in Expelled

Wikipedia is my favorite source of secondary (or even tertiary) scholarship. It's the collective scrapbook of on-line humanity. As such, it's a difficult place to beat as a starting point for tracking down those odd facts and factoids that you don't have at your fingertips. (I did say “starting point.” I also agree with those colleagues of mine who warn their students not to rely on it as their primary source.) One could rummage around in Wikipedia's attic for hours of enjoyable browsing. I occasionally correct errant spelling and I've contributed more substantially to a couple of articles.

Now, however, a new milestone: Halfway There has become a source, duly cited in the endnotes of Wikipedia's article on Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I am stunned by the evanescent honor.

My blog is cited in the overview section of Wikipedia's article:
He interviews those claiming to have been victimized, and several scientists who are atheists, selected by the producers to represent those supporting evolution, culminating in an interview with Richard Dawkins.[12]
That [12]? That's me! If we hurry down to the endnotes we can see the citation!
12. ^ a b Halfway There: Expulsion revulsion. interim source until better cite found..
Oh. Not a pretty cite, is it?

Wikipedia is, of course, a moving target. In an earlier incarnation of the Expelled article, the reference to Halfway There was [13]. Soon it will probably vanish entirely. Nevertheless, I will have had my fifteen seconds of fame.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A nit at the opera

My way or the wrong way!

You can't beat the American Record Guide when it comes to insightful reviews of classical recordings and videos, as well as informative reports on live performances around the world. Every issue is a feast of nearly 300 pages. One might think that this generous offering should be enough to sate any music aficionado, but resident curmudgeon and editor David Vroon cannot resist the opportunity to serve up lagniappes on proper behavior.

Vroon routinely decries the state of society (we're in the hands of barbarians) and music appreciation (we have tin ears and popular music is perverse). I'm sympathetic—to a degree—and it's difficult not to admire someone who knows everything about everything and is willing to share the bounty of his omniscience. An unsigned squib appears as a filler on p. 232 of the March/April 2008 issue. Although it's unattributed, I think I recognize the lion by his paw:
Word Police: Brava and Bravi

There is an English interjection: Bravo!

It has no feminine or plural form; interjections do not get declined. When you hear “Brava!” or “Bravi!” you are listening to a pompous ass—or you are in Italy.

By the same token, a great female player is a virtuoso, same as a man. And it's piano concertos, not concerti.

Why do these people pretend to be Italians? What is wrong with English?
The writer knows what is proper and would appreciate it if we were to emulate his impeccable example. Let us pass gently over the opportunity to make sport of a sententious finger-wagger calling someone a pompous ass. Let me instead perform a dutiful examination of conscience. I do believe that I have sinned.

There were three occasions when I was privileged to see and hear the phenomenal Birgit Nilsson at the San Francisco Opera. She sang Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. From piano to forte—or should I say “from soft to loud,” Mr. Vroon?—the diva's voice left us vibrating in sympathetic delight. When she took her curtain calls, I'm quite certain that I yelled “Brava!” quite vigorously, as did several other people in the audience.

Those other people were pompous asses, of course. I, on the other hand, always cheer in Italian at the end of a German opera. Tanto meglio!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Iraqi Flag Appreciation Day

What so proudly we fail

I hope you're ready. April 26, 2008, is the fourth anniversary of one of the great accomplishments of our “liberation” of Iraq: the unveiling of a new Iraqi national flag. At that point in time the occupation of Iraq was moving into its second year and the Iraqi Governing Council had few accomplishments to its credit. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, had been responsible for all the significant milestones of the first year. These included disbanding the Iraqi army, thus making those trained soldiers available for service in insurgent groups, and the ouster of Baath Party members from civil service positions, thus reducing to resentful penury all the people capable of maintaining government operations. These were key steps in reducing Iraq to ungovernable chaos and Bremer gets the lion's share of credit.

No wonder the Iraqi Governing Council was jealous and eager to show that it could make significant contributions of its own. The IGC accordingly sponsored a design competition for a new Iraqi flag and unveiled the winning design in April 2004. Eschewing the traditionally Arabian color combination of red, black, and green (derived from the original flag of the Arab Revolt of 1916), the IGC's proposed new flag featured a soothing combination of blue and white (and a subdued yellow accent that was supposed to represent the Kurdish minority). It was quickly criticized for using the same color scheme as the Israeli flag. This was not likely to increase the new flag's acceptability to Iraqi citizens.

The IGC quickly offered a new image of the proposed flag; the blue regions were darker in the new image and IGC explained that the new image provided “a rectification of printing errors” in the original image. Whether this was true or merely an excuse, the shift from baby blue to dark blue did not assuage the concerns of the Iraqi populace. The bonnie blue flag slowly faded away without further comment. It vanished down the memory hole and has not been seen since.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reek to high heaven

Eau du pape

Darn! If only I had noticed this in time for Pope Benedict's visit to the United States!

Did you know you can smell like a pope? It's true! The pope in question is Pius IX, known to his fellow Italians* as “Pio Nono.” While “Nono” is a delightfully apt sobriquet for a pope, it stands for “nine” and has no direct connection to naughtiness. Pius IX is responsible for promulgating the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary as official church doctrine and it was during his pontificate that the first Vatican Council declared the pope infallible in all of his formal pronouncements on matters of faith. (It was the express reason for which Pius convened the council, which was nice enough to oblige him.) Until the even longer tenure of John Paul II, Pius IX held the record for longevity in office, having reigned from 1846 to 1878.

Of course, you might hesitate at the prospect of smelling like a pontiff who died 130 years ago. Not to worry. In a significant new example of the fetishism that tends to accompany religious belief and practice, an enterprising Catholic doctor with an entrepreneurial streak has resurrected Pius IX's signature cologne. Using a formula discovered in an old cookbook (of all places), Dr. Fred Hass brewed up a batch of papal cologne and was entranced by the results: “It's magical,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. “There's a kind of mystical chemistry to it—a lot of people liken it to alchemy. That's what it's about for me, the history and the magic.... It's elating, it's cheerful. It makes you feel better.”

Apart from all the elation and magical tingling, what does the pope's cologne smell like? Hass reports, “Surprisingly fresh, with notes of citrus and violet.” According to the Chronicle's account, the main ingredients are orange blossom, lemon verbena, lavender, violet, clove, and sweet orange. If that sounds like a potentially heavy layering of scents, remember that in the 19th century cologne was used as a substitute for frequent bathing. Potency was a decided desideratum.

If you want to make up your own mind about papal perfume, you can get a bottle of Pius IX's cologne for yourself. It's being sold via the Internet on the website You can see pictures of Pio Nono himself and buy a bottle of cologne for only $25.95 (less expensive in bulk, of course). For a $4.50 shipping and handling charge, you can get an otherwise free sample of 0.4 fluid ounces.

It's your big chance to smell like a pope. Infallibly.

*Note: I am guilty of a slight anachronism when I refer to Pius IX and his fellow Italians. Italy as such did not exist during the reign of Pius, who depended on French and Austrian troops to maintain the existence of the Papal States in the face of burgeoning Italian patriotism. In 1870 control of the Papal States were wrested away from the pope by the recently unified Italian kingdom and he was left with the small enclave that survives today as Vatican City, a tiny city-state within the Italian nation.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Like a House of Representatives on fire

A government fantasy

Sprint Nextel is running a humorous 30-second commercial titled What if firefighters ran the world? It depicts a group of begrimed firefighters all kitted out in their work gear and assembled in a legislative chamber. With a few raps of the gavel and a couple of voice votes, they quickly solve all the problems of the world. Most of the comments posted on YouTube are quite positive. One rather wistful commenter says, “I think in some respects, it really COULD be that easy.”

Yeah, right.

It's really pretty idiotic. Check it out for yourself or scan the transcript I provide below:

Fire Chief: [gavel] All right, firefighters. Settle down!

[Screen text: What if firefighters ran the world?]

Fire Chief: How about the budget?

Firefighters: Balance it!

Fire Chief: And the taxes?

Firefighters: One page or less!

Fire Chief: Anyone want better roads?

Firefighters: We do!

Fire Chief: All in favor?

Firefighters: Aye!

Fire Chief: Opposed? [silence] [gavel] Done!

Fire Chief: [riffles a bunch of pages] A lot of paper to tell us we need clean water. Need clean water, guys?

Firefighters: Aye!

Fire Chief: All right. This is the easiest job I've ever had. We're out of here! [gavel]
Okay. I get that it's just a commercial, but it irks the heck out of me anyway. Sure, I'm a former legislative aide and know the system from the inside. I could be overreacting. Still, this parody has an underlying snideness that makes me grit my teeth.

You want a one-page tax form? Great! Show me what you have. Think you can get a majority vote on it? (Let alone a unanimous vote like with the firefighters.) Tell me, did you include a write-off for home mortgage interest payments? You'll lose quite a few votes if you didn't. Did you decide on a flat tax? You'll lose quite a few votes if you did. Are some people exempt? How did you choose the cut-off? I'll bet you that won't be unanimous.

Some one-page proposals in various states are based on letting the Feds do all the work: (1) Write down what you paid the IRS. (2) Send us xx% of that. Good luck getting consensus on what xx% should be. Of course, most states refuse to pin their tax receipts to whatever the federal government chooses to do. It's the easiest state income tax scheme of all (a postcard would suffice!), but most states recoil from it because they're jealous of their modicum of sovereignty.

Whatever you do, you're going to get stuck with compromises. The Sprint commercial lives in a fairyland where people vote “yes” for good things and “no” on bad things. So simple! It is exactly what governments do in reality when they merely pass feel-good resolutions: We think you should be nice to your mother on Mother's Day. We think you should practice conservation on Earth Day. We think you should be patriotic on the Fourth of July. We think you should have a Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Cheerful Kwanzaa/Joyous Solstice. That sort of stuff. It's virtually content-free sense-of-the-legislature resolution language.

Actual legislation is tougher. Clean water? Good roads? Work is involved. Hard work. Tedious work. Details. As brave as firefighters may be, they won't get it all done in 30 seconds.

The only real point of an advertisement is to sell products. The advertising firm that created the Sprint Nextel ad is probably thinking it's a feel-good spot that will cause viewers to associate Nextel with efficiency in getting things done. For me, though, the stupidity burns. I see a reinforcement of the idea that sound public policy is as easy as one-two-three. Well, keep counting...

Friday, April 18, 2008

Expulsion revulsion

Ben Stein ist nicht Einstein

Oy veh. I have been to see Expelled. Verily, I say unto you: intelligence was not allowed. This movie may be effective with certain audiences, but it relies heavily on the ignorance of its viewers. As the Expelled Exposed website amply documents, the movie's cavalcade of martyrs is actually a parade of pretenders. As a work of cinematic art, Expelled is a pretense impasto.

The movie gets off to a quick start in its framing of the alleged controversy, showing black-and-white clips of the erection of the Berlin Wall. This is Expelled's particular leitmotif, the intercutting of portentous commentary by Ben Stein with historical clips of communists, Nazis, and (of all things!) school training videos (“Now, children, do we know when to be quiet?”). The much-sinned-against martyrs tell their poignant tales of woe and repression, Ben Stein exudes astonishment and empathy, and then Joe Stalin, Nikita Khruschev, or Adolf Hitler take their little turn on the catwalk. It happens over and over again.

But let's be fair. If it wasn't mind-numbingly repetitive, how would we know it's a propaganda video?

Almost the first words out of Ben Stein's mouth are a falsehood. His opening scene occurs in a lecture hall at Pepperdine University. He greets his attentive audience, calling them “students.” As Michael Shermer informs us, hardly any of them are. They're extras, hired by the production company to fill the hall and react appropriately on cue. The script must have said that Stein's address was brilliantly successful, because the “students” applaud like loons at its conclusion.

Each supposed martyr at the hands of Darwin's Gestapo is introduced with a document flashed on the screen. Certain words are highlighted in yellow as they occur in Stein's voice-over, while others are selectively blacked out. What are these documents and why are they censored? In keeping with the general tenor of the movie, I suspect they are just props, cooked up by Expelled's producers to make it appear that they are exposing the secretive machinations of the Darwinian elite. It's just cardboard stage scenery. Actually, less than cardboard.

You have to listen attentively to catch some of the more interesting details in the testimony of those who claim to have been victimized by the Darwinian establishment. One peculiar inadvertent admission came from Robert Marks, a Baylor University professor whose ID-friendly website was suspended from the school's servers. The university was concerned that hosting the site would imply to others that the views expressed by Professor Marks were endorsed by the institution. Marks called his site the “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory,” although there was actually no lab and no publishable work was produced. In talking with Stein about his ordeal, Marks said that it was important to promote oneself in the quest to obtain research grants, which was one of the reasons he did things like “put up labs.” I'm not a research scientist, but I'm fairly certain that putting up a website with a laboratory title is not the same thing as doing any actual science. If it is, then this is a remarkably efficient way of creating labs ex nihilo.

The voices in favor of evolution are carefully selected by the producers of Expelled. When Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education is permitted to point out that most Catholics and mainstream Protestants have no problem accepting evolution, we quickly discover it's only so that Stein can curl his lip and intone, “Oh, really?” He then trots out a string of nonbelievers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and P.Z. Myers to imply that evolution is really just another word for atheism. Declining to be as deferential toward religion as Eugenie Scott, Dawkins explains that learning science was his route to freedom from superstition. Stein is horrified, of course, that Dawkins dismisses religion so callously. (Time for more atheistic monsters of history to be paraded across the screen in black and white.)

From the celebratory comments on blogs and other sites friendly to intelligent design creationism, one might think that Stein baits Dawkins into self-revelatory comments that leave him looking a fool. To the contrary, Dawkins acquits himself rather well. He tends to speak in complete, well-modulated sentences that are difficult to edit into sound-bites more appropriate for a baby-munching antichrist. Stein tries to recoil in consternation at frank admissions of nonbelief, but Stein is not a very persuasive actor. (He runs the gamut, as Dorothy Parker once said of Hepburn, from A to B.) Dawkins seems quite bemused when Stein insists on quizzing him concerning his disbelief in the gods of other religions (not just the God of the Bible), as if a declaration of atheism requires an individual abjuration of each and every deity. (Let us give thanks that Stein did not know the nine billion names of god.)

Stein finds a boon companion in David Berlinski, whom he tracks down in Paris. Berlinski lounges languidly in a low-slung chair in his apartment while Stein bandies words with him. From most camera angles we see Berlinski peering over one of his knees as he pontificates. He's too cool to sit up straight. Sometimes you can glimpse what is probably his Princeton diploma (Ph.D. in philosophy) hanging on the wall over his head. Berlinski explains to Stein that Dawkins is philosophically incompetent, lacking the basic knowledge necessary to address even the most elementary of the questions he raises in The God Delusion. (Contrariwise, it's all right for philosopher Berlinski to offer sententious pronouncements on biology.) When Stein damns Dawkins with faint praise by saying that Berlinski has to admit Dawkins is quite smart, Berlinski grudgingly agrees: “Oh, yes. But he is a bit of a reptile.”

Coming from Berlinski, this charge struck me as particularly amusing. If the lounging lizard had deigned to dart his tongue from between his lips a few times, the image would have been complete.

With suitable hand-wringing, Berlinski notes that it's difficult to connect Darwin with Hitler because of the decades separating them (and, he admits, in a chuckle-inducing comment, “one was English and the other was German”). Nevertheless, he'll give it a try. He opines that Darwinism was not a sufficient condition to give rise to the Nazis; it was, however, a necessary condition. No Darwin, no Hitler. If you read Mein Kampf, claims Berlinski—especially, he adds superciliously, if you can read it in the original German—you'll discover that it's pure Darwinism. More black-and-white video. Then, in case he hasn't rubbed our noses in it enough, Stein tours a site of Nazi atrocities and bemoans man's inhumanity to man. I don't doubt Stein's visceral horror at the treatment of his people, but I have great contempt for his manipulative exploitation of it.

A lot of screen time was also given to William Dembski, who waxed indignant at the blindness of those who would deny a fair hearing to intelligent design. For some reason, however, he failed to seize the opportunity to describe his body of work in establishing the theoretical underpinnings of ID. Perhaps it was modesty. Perhaps he did describe his role as “the Isaac Newton of information theory,” but the producers wisely left it on the cutting-room floor during editing. I suspect it's more likely that Dembski has learned to shy away from opening himself to further questions on when he would finally deliver the long-promised rigorous formalization of his explanatory filter for the detection of design. Since the book he published last year failed to do it, this particular task remains to be accomplished.

Any day now.

Near the end of the movie, Stein tells his Pepperdine audience that “There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box, where it can't possibly touch a higher power, cannot possibly touch God.” Perhaps Stein has it backward. It is God that is in a little box, and the box gets smaller all the time. His god-of-the-gaps used to be required to push the planets about in their orbits, to make the rain fall, and the sun shine, but that was all once upon a time. Science has deprived this god of most of his once-vital functions. Science cannot possibly touch God? Sorry, Ben. There's been a lot of touching going on. God has the bruises and the gap-toothed smile to show for it, too.

I attended an afternoon showing of Expelled at a local multiplex. At first I was the only person in the theater, but people trickled in and there were eventually two or three dozen of us in the house. If the producers of Expelled were hoping for a boffo opening day box office, we certainly did not do our part. Besides, the ticket stub in my pocket was for Kevin Spacey's 21, the movie that was playing in the adjacent theater.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Who's your papa?

Popes in America

The Eternal Word Television Network is knocking itself out with coverage of Pope Benedict's visit to the United States. And why not? Benedict XVI is the chief executive, prophet-in-residence, and officially infallible official of the religion EWTN was organized to promote. It's quite an event when the man at the top of your hierarchical pyramid comes calling. On his birthday, too!

I heard some snippets of EWTN's coverage of the papal visit. The commentators alternated between gushing accounts of Benedict's progression through his itinerary and pettish whining over the insufficiently deferential coverage in the secular media. (If only the CNN reporters would kneel, bow their heads, and beat their chests as they extolled the virtues of Benny Hex.) One EWTN talking head especially decried the mass media's insistence on referring to recent Church scandals and reporting about dissidence within Catholic ranks. Said this commentator (as best as I can recall), “I wish they would stop talking about divisions in the Church. There are no divisions. There are observant Catholics and non-observant Catholics.” It's very impolite of the secular media to take dissident Catholics seriously (especially when such Catholics are mean enough to deny their weekly contributions to criminal enterprises like the Boston diocese until the inaptly named Cardinal Law was driven out of town).

The pope is a symbol of Church unity. To object to the pope's policies is deny one's duty to submit to his leadership. There is, nevertheless, a great deal of casual dissidence among American Catholics, most of whom confine their rebellion to keeping their fingers crossed while popping contraceptives. More militant dissidents can sometimes be found carrying pickets in front of cathedrals and agitating for the ordination of women and other unlikely reforms. But they're pikers. The real dissidents have their own pope. Or popes.

The business of rival popes—or “antipopes”—has been in the doldrums a long time. The Catholic Church itself seldom bothers to list any antipopes after Felix V, who contended with Rome in the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, there are some fascinating characters around today who insist that they—and not Joseph Ratzinger—are the authentic pope of the Roman Catholic Church. If you don't fancy Benedict XVI, you could always pledge your allegiance one of these fascinating schismatics: popes in America!

The old guy

Perhaps the most conventional of today's antipopes is Lucian Pulvermacher, a harmless old man whose followers style themselves as the True Catholic Church. The Roman church, in their view, went off the rails when John XXIII convened Vatican II. Pulvermacher's congregation regard him as the true vicar of Christ, faithful to the traditions supposedly abandoned by the Romish popes (who are therefore disqualified from office and not true popes at all). After staging a papal election in Montana (in which he was the only candidate), Pulvermacher adopted the name Pius XIII, making explicit his claim of being the successor of Pius XII, whom he regards as the last legitimate pope.

Pulvermacher is reportedly living quietly and out of the public eye in Washington State. His followers are few in number and it's unlikely that Benedict XVI loses much sleep over the activities of his obscure rival.

The young guy

If Pulvermacher is not your cup of schismatic tea, then perhaps David Bawden has that necessary extra bit of amusing eccentricity. Bawden lives in Kansas and was elected pope with the assistance of his parents and a few friends. His wackiness has attracted more media attention than Pulvermacher's low-key antipapacy. Bawden uses the papal name Michael I and doesn't fret unduly over his lack of holy orders. While Pulvermacher is at least a renegade priest, Bawden has never been authorized to celebrate the Catholic mass. He missed out on ordination when he was dismissed from a seminary. One might think this would handicap someone who aspires to the papacy, but nothing daunts David Bawden. He presides from a throne in his parents' thrift shop.

Michael I generated some excitement in 2006 when he hinted that he might move from Kansas to relocate near some of his devotees in Colorado. That all came to naught when it was decided that it would be better for the antipope's followers in Colorado to move to Kansas instead. Unfortunately for the Colorado schismatics, they have been unable to sell their homes despite efforts on their behalf by their preferred pope. In flogging one of the properties, Bawden unselfconsciously wrote “This is where Pope Michael stays, when he is in Colorado. This is a fine family with young boys.” But still no sale.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Numb and number

Jobs & number games

Spring is the traditional hiring season for teachers and professors. Eager job-seekers file their applications, a lucky few are called in for interviews, and an even luckier fewer are called back for a second round. The sad condition of the state budget (and the governor's suggested cuts in education spending) puts a damper on the process this year, but our schools still set their hiring priorities and we work our way down the list as funds become available.

At my school, as at most colleges, the business of hiring faculty members is an intense multi-level survival-of-the-fittest contest. Each department carefully monitors the retirement plans of its members and crunches its enrollment numbers, ready at any opportunity to justify how many replacement or expansion slots it needs to fill. All sorts of factors come into play, although some of the most important cannot be voiced aloud (like the crying need to hire a tie-breaking third faculty member for the two-person department whose two professors hate each other).

Numbers play a huge role: enrollment, productivity, full-time equivalents (FTE), weekly student contact hours (WSCH), etc. It's never clear whether the less numerate departments are actually at a disadvantage in their quest for new faculty hires; their inability to crunch numbers sometimes produces spurious but impressive data that gives them the appearance of outpacing other academic areas. There is, naturally, constant second-guessing and auditing of each other's numbers. I suppose that's the main reason that departmental hiring request forms now require as much cross-checked information as your basic 1040 form.

Some of the numbers, however, are subjective in principle. These are the ranking scores from faculty members and school administrators who set priorities for the college. (It doesn't matter if your electronics department has the best productivity numbers if the campus as a whole elects to become a fashion and design school.) The ranking numbers have, on occasion, been used and abused to distort the process. One abuse was sheer innumeracy, which wiser heads (belonging to math faculty members) caught in time to avoid scandal. A different abuse was of the more numerate kind, and was perpetrated by a math professor with an impaired conscience.

Hurray for zero

The innumerate mistake was obvious once it was pointed out, but it came as quite a surprise to many participants in the ranking process. Each year the college's faculty senate meets to pass judgment on a stack of departmental petitions for faculty positions. The senators pore over the petitions, listen to brief presentations from each petitioning department, and then cast ballots that rank the petitions in priority order. The ranking numbers for each petition are added up and these totals are used to create an aggregate ranking by the faculty senate of all of the hiring requests. As in golf, a low score is better than a high score, since low scores indicate a lot of senators ranked you as 1, 2, or 3 rather than as 18, 19, or 20.

Several years ago, a few innumerate senators (most of whom didn't bother to attend the faculty senate at other times of the year) cast ballots to favor their own departments' requests (not an unknown phenomenon). Having accomplished their mission of ranking their parochial interests as number 1 (and 2 and 3 if multiple positions were requested), some of them got bored and left the rest of their ballots blank, as evidence they didn't care about the other positions. Just their own. By the logic of the aggregate ranking system, however, they thereby scored all the other positions with zeros ... and zeros outrank ones! In effect, all the positions they left unranked were treated as their top choices—beating out their own departments' positions.

They never made that mistake again, either because they learned better or because their departments chose to elect different senators the next year.

And the last shall be first

A canny member of the math department twisted the ranking system in the opposite direction, using his insight into the process to attempt to hijack it. He was an outspoken technophobe and dreaded the growth of our computer science department. One year the computer science people got ambitious and requested four new faculty positions for the next school year. While most of us chuckled at computer science's audacity (and agreed that the department's numbers justified two hires, but probably not three and certainly not four), my technophobic colleague was outraged. I think he took it as a personal affront.

As the senators filled out their ballots, most of us were ranking Computer Science #1 right near the top of the priority list and Computer Science #2 somewhere in the middle. Computer Science #3 and #4 were often relegated to ranks in the twenties (which was at or near the bottom because there were only 25 requested positions to rank in priority order). My sly colleague, however, voted to give Computer Science #1 last-place priority, writing a 25 on its ballot line. He similarly voted to give Computer Science #2 the next-to-last place by ranking it 24th. By giving the worst possible vote to computer science's first hiring request, my colleague had dramatically increased the score it would get when its rankings were totaled. He thus single-handedly pushed Computer Science #1 down several positions in our aggregate ranking, since most of us had given it 1's and 2's, so his 25 was like an elephant in the room.

Alas. His cleverness was for naught. That year our budget was good enough to cover most of the hiring requests and we worked our way further down the list than usual. Computer science got their two faculty positions. Another factor frustrating my colleague's machinations involved the actual disposition of the priority list generated by the faculty senate. It was submitted to the president's office, which then compared the faculty's priorities with a separate ranking created by the college's deans and vice presidents. A compromise priority list was then created by melding the faculty and management rankings, producing a list that looked the same as the management list.

They had already decided we were going to hire two computer science professors.


My clever colleague's ploy was banned the following year, when it was agreed by the faculty senators that no one could rearrange the rankings of multiple requests from a single department. Shortly after that the math department voted him off the senate.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

So right it's wrong

Racism & sexism included for free!

I'm not exactly hiding in the liberal closet. I've been “out” since I bought myself an ACLU membership in high school. Richard Nixon had just been elected president and I was already looking forward to Watergate. Since Nixon was never a popular figure in my family (we had all been Kennedy Democrats at one point), my acting out of my leftish tendencies was tolerated. No doubt I would grow out of it.

Nope. No such luck. I even supported McGovern in 1972. I suspect my parents didn't vote that year, although they remained nominal Democrats for a few more years. They were just waiting for Reagan and Bush to sweep them off their feet. Mom and Dad have been supine dupes of the right-wing spin machine ever since. I, meanwhile, voted for Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry. My vehicles sported bumper stickers for all of them. While my parents were admiring closeted Republican Michael Huffington as he campaigned against Dianne Feinstein, I was holding banners at Feinstein rallies. (Later I graduated to the harder stuff, participating in the campaign events of of Barbara Boxer.)

Therefore I think my family suspects I'm a liberal. So why do they send me egregiously offensive stuff? For a while, it seemed that no wingnut rant was stupid enough to prevent my family members from forwarding it to me as soon as it came to their attention. Presumably some of the forwarded messages were intended to educate me, while perhaps others were supposed to amuse me and feed the prejudices they assumed I shared.

My practice of responding to right-wing spam-mail with detailed refutations and reference links did eventually discourage my correspondents, but every so often my family members can't help themselves and they swing back into action. In recent days I've been surprised to receive two idiotic and offensive messages in rapid succession from the family. One is an inane defense of George Bush that carries my father's stamp of approval and the other is a racist and sexist compilation of campaign slogans from my sister-in-law.

My father's already suffered the crushing disappointment of having spawned a liberal. I hope my sister-in-law's children grow up to be liberals who marry minorities (by which I mean minorities other than the one we already belong to!). Perhaps then she'll rue ever chuckling over a sophomoric campaign button that refers to Sen. Obama as “Half Honkey, All Donkey.” Despite its tastelessness, racial insensitivity, and offensive message, my sister-in-law saw fit to send the image to me in an e-mail message.

What is wrong with that woman?

Making fun of Barack Obama is not enough, of course. If you're going to indulge in some petty racism, why not also toss in some good old American misogyny? The message forwarded by my sister-in-law also delighted in insulting Sen. Clinton, variously calling her a whore (that's sweet) and a bitch (how witty!). And it's just winsomely amusing to refer to her presidential campaign as “Tits & Ass 2008.” I pause to dab the tears of laughter from my eyes.
Hello, Brandeen. Send stuff like this to people who appreciate it. Not me.


Your liberal brother-in-law,

So far she hasn't forwarded anything further. Will she think twice before doing it again? I'd be happy if she bothered thinking even once.

Recycled wisdom from Dad

The address headers identified the usual suspects from my father's circle of Central Valley right-wingers, people who forward each other nuggets of nonsense as if they are chunks of the true cross. They especially enjoy shocking facts (We're winning in Iraq!) from the likes of Fox News (The weapons of mass destruction were smuggled into Syria!) and Rush Limbaugh (My friends, the liberals want us to lose!). Dad sent me a message titled “You aren't going to like losing...” He added his own preface:
This is so hard to take, But it is so true! I remember all that as if it were yesterday. SO TRUE!

Love DAD.
What is this great truth that my father is about to share with me? It seems that George W. Bush is today's version of FDR. Well, Dad has tried to equate Bush the Lesser with JFK in the past (“They both cut taxes!”), so it stands to reason he should be susceptible to other ridiculous comparisons:
President Bush did make a bad mistake in the war on terrorism. But the mistake was not his decision to go to war in Iraq.

Bush's mistake came in his belief that this country is the same one his father fought for in WWII. It is not.
That's right. It's not. This is the country that learned some sad lessons in Vietnam, the war in which George W. Bush refused to fight as he bravely shirked his responsibilities in the Texas Air National Guard.
The people stuck with the President because it was their patriotic duty. Americans put aside their differences in WWII and worked together to win that war.

Everyone from every strata of society, from young to old pitched in.
So true! Unless, of course, you were ordered to take a flight physical that might reveal your cocaine habit, in which case you could ignore the mandatory physical and just lose your flight status. Everyone pitched in, except pampered children of privilege.
You never heard prominent people on the radio belittling the President.

Interestingly enough in those days there were no fat cat actors and entertainers who ran off to visit and fawn over dictators of hostile countries and complain to them about our President. Instead, they made upbeat films and entertained our troops to help the troops' morale. And a bunch even enlisted.
That's certainly true. No one would even dream of saying bad things about the president back in those days. Except for Charles Lindbergh and the America First people, who said FDR was a warmonger. And Father Coughlin, of course. And Henry Ford. But nobody important or famous or significant. Not a one.
No, President Bush did not make a mistake in his handling of terrorism. He made the mistake of believing that we still had the courage and fortitude of our fathers. He believed that this was still the country that our fathers fought so dearly to preserve.
Bush made no mistakes in his war on terror except for (a) attacking the wrong country, (b) using too few troops, (c) demolishing the Iraqi government when nothing existed to replace it, (d) disbanding the Iraqi army and turning its members into highly trained insurgents, and (e) saying “Bring it on!” to the insurgents and terrorists, just like the inane frat-house bully-boy he is.

I replied to my father:
The president's big mistake was to attack a country that didn't attack us. And to take troops out of Afghanistan before the job was done. Now we have problems with our soldiers stretched thin in two places. That's what incompetent leadership will do for you.

My father has not seen fit to respond.

The stab in the back

My family is a known quantity: namely, a lost cause. I expect a little better, however, from my former comrades-in-arms at the state legislature. Therefore it was a grave disappointment to open an e-mail message forwarded by Jolting Joe, who was one of the senior staffers to the liberal state legislator for whom we both worked. Jolting Joe's message carried the subject line “This explains it” and offered as its content a Parker & Hart cartoon:

I was mightily displeased and promptly told Joe so:
Beg pardon, Joe, but what the hell is wrong with you? What makes you think I would appreciate an anti-Democratic cartoon by the late Johnny Hart? He was a narrow-minded right-wing creationist who thought nothing of mocking Jewish symbols for supposedly comic effect. I don't need lessons in politics from bigots like that.
Jolting Joe was taken aback and quickly replied:
Sorry, Zeno, I think the cartoon is funny regardless of party. Politics is a contact sport.
To me, the comic strip in question is about as creative and clever as children calling each other names on the playground, but who can account for taste? Furthermore, Joe was unaware of the cartoonist's controversial reputation. And, frankly, it's difficult to stay angry at a man who knows how to use appositional commas. I did not fire back.

Jolting Joe, however, nursed just a bit of a grudge over my treatment of him, as he noted the next time we were both at one of our regular lunch groups: “You cursed me, young man! You damned me for my taste in humor. You shouldn't be so sensitive!”

“Don't worry, Joe. I've forgiven you. Anyway, politics is a contact sport. You shouldn't be so sensitive.”

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlatanry made easy

Anyone can do it!

I recently attended a no-gift birthday party. (My favorite kind!) The celebrant did not want any presents, but asked instead that attendees bring “birthday cards that conform to local community standards.” I noticed that some of the guests construed those local community standards rather broadly—and hilariously—as we passed the cards around, spooning up ice cream as we read the cards and laughed at the punch lines.

Some of the cards were homemade, with inside jokes that had to be explained to the uninitiated. One of the homebrew cards, however, was more puzzling than the others. It passed from hand to hand while people pondered its obscure message. As luck would have it, I was sitting next to the author of the mystery card. He eagerly prompted me to try to figure out its obscure significance.

The card was decorated with photographs of several flags. Was it significant that all of the pictures included Old Glory? Did it mean something that the photographs had clearly been snapped right there in town by the card's creator? Did it matter that the flag in the picture of city hall was at half staff? (That one actually distracted me momentarily, especially since I had recently traveled to Sacramento to photograph the State Capitol flag flying at half staff in memory of a cousin killed in Iraq.) Meanwhile the brains behind the card was cheerfully prompting me and nearby guests to discern its hidden meaning.

Frankly, I just wanted him to keep quiet as I thought about it for a while. My solution was to pass the card to the next person and contemplate the matter in peace. It turned out I didn't have to think too hard. The hubbub continued around me and I heard the card creator's wife giving broad hints to other guests. In fact, she gave it all away and I heard her do so. Her husband was now focused on the current holder of the card and did not realize that his spouse had spilled all the beans. Instead of blurting out what I had heard, however, I bided my time.

The flags you see, are standards. The photos were taken in the neighborhood; that is, in the local community. The flags were therefore local community standards. This punctilious attention to the birthday boy's request would have been fairly funny if the joke had been left to ripen on its own. As it was, I don't think the punchline was robust enough to withstand the weight of our expectations. Pretty clever, though.

The card continued to circulate with the other birthday greetings, eventually coming back around to my vicinity. The card's creator homed in on the guest currently holding the card and was on pins and needles awaiting her solution of the puzzle. He had been sorely disappointed thus far and was almost vibrating with anticipation. I leaned forward and said to the card holder, “Think of synonyms for flags.”

The card's author looked up with a startled expression: “Oh, you did figure it out!”

I maintained my composure and offered a small, thin smile. He immediately concluded I had divined his intention all along and was merely holding out before revealing the gag. He had no idea I had overheard his wife's prompting of other guests.

Monstrous clever, I am.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Ma vie en prose

Many, and over-ripe!
If this young man expresses himself
in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
this deep young man must be!
Life has been kind to faux mathematician David Berlinski. Reviewers praised the turgid but high-flown prose of A Tour of the Calculus to the skies, fooled by the author's ruffles and flourishes into thinking they were learning something about mathematics. I'm jealous, of course. Perhaps I should learn a lesson from him and tart up my writing.

But no. I have too much self-respect.

On the other hand, no one else seems to have as much respect for David Berlinski as David Berlinski himself. I inadvertently discovered more evidence of this while innocently browsing the offerings of a local bookstore. There on the table was a paperback edition of Infinite Ascent, Berlinski's venture into the world of math history. Struggling through Tour was all the exposure I felt I needed to his ham-handed treatment of mathematical topics, but I didn't resist the impulse to pick up the book and page through it. On page 106, I encountered a gemlike example of Berlinski's lapidary skill (note particularly the sentence which I render in bold):
Like a Parisian jeweler setting out the rarest of stones, he published only those of his papers that he believed had reached a state of formal perfection and lucidity.

It is a policy that I myself follow.
Berlinski is talking about Gauss (and himself!) here. Carl Friedrich Gauss is a towering figure in mathematics—the Prince of Mathematicians—who took seriously his motto of “Few, but ripe” in his approach to publishing his discoveries.

Berlinski fancies himself cut from the same cloth. He hasn't even the mild grace to say “It is a policy that I myself strive to follow.” Oh, no! Gauss's policy is his own. (Please to overlook the fact that he precedes this claim with a sentence that eloquently testifies to the contrary.)

I laughed aloud in the midst of the bookstore, fished a scrap of paper out of my pocket, and jotted down Berlinski's deadly example of deathless prose for the uncharitable purpose of making fun of it. And now I have done so.

But let us not stop there. Perhaps the passage in Infinite Descent is a fluke, an exception to the author's Gaussian standard. Let's peek into A Tour of the Calculus, shall we?

My copy has 314 pages. The random number generator on my HP calculator suggests I look at page 280. Can I find a silly sentence on this randomly selected page? How about this one?
This simple and dramatic appeal to the area underneath a curve succeeds not only in creating a new function—that was guaranteed by the very definition of the indefinite integral—but in creating a new function with precisely the properties required by the natural logarithm, so that the appeal to the function 1/t and the indefinite integral suggests more than anything else an actor slapping on grease paint in what seems a slap-dash way only to emerge moments later as precisely the character in a Shakespearean play whose vivid features figure in the program notes.
Bravo! Author! Author! Gauss has met his match! [Snicker]

I swear I am not cherry-picking. I really let my calculator select that page. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. My calculator chooses page 227. What ripeness do we find thereon? This ripeness:
“Antidifferentiation is an operation that involves a reversal of form,” I say, “and if a pictorial image is wanted it should be drawn from the world of fencing, as when the fencing master thrusts—differentiation—and with an enigmatic smile playing on his features after his opponent murmurs touché, backs up and retracts his elegant foil—antidifferentiation.”
That's quite a heaping helping of pellucid prose, ain't it? This is what prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to claim that Berlinski's “writing is so clean and powerful.” Touché! (Perhaps in la tête.)

Words fail me, although not in quite the way that they fail Berlinski. People fall all over themselves to declare him an expository genius. We can expect similar paroxysms of delight over his latest book, an attack on nonbelievers: The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. I do not have this new volume (which carries the delightful publication date of April Fool's Day), but it's further evidence of Berlinski's utter inability to catch himself at self-parody. He has been most notable in recent years for his scientific pretensions as a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Despite being a self-professed agnostic, Berlinski specializes in giving aid and comfort to the Discovery Institute's theistic creationists, lending his supposed scientific credentials (degrees in math and philosophy) to their cause. Hence the new book. No doubt The Devil's Delusion is one of his greatest works.

And I mean that entirely sincerely.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The pre-educated student

I'm Professor Superfluous

Either their ranks have increased or I've gotten more sensitive to them. My classes seem to have more than their usual complement of students who are apparently enrolled in courses they don't need. These students attest to this themselves: “I could have taken the next class in the sequence, but I decided to take this one instead.” Two students who recently used this excuse were a pair of brothers who, as I previously reported, indolently earned failing grades in an arithmetic class and then used the excuse that they should have been taking prealgebra. (Therefore their interest waned because the work was too trivial—which I guess is why they couldn't do it.) These boys followed up by enrolling in prealgebra despite having failed the prerequisite. Predictably, they failed the prealgebra, too.

Perhaps the brothers sensitized me to other examples of pre-educated students who are taking classes on subjects they claim to already know. One assumes they enjoy education so much that they do not hesitate to enroll in courses whose content they have already mastered. The journey is the reward, or something like that.

Recently I was teaching a unit on multiplying fractions and I was stressing the importance of reducing the answer to simplest terms. Some teachers and textbooks stress “cross-cancellation,” which involves seeking out and reducing any common factor that appears both in the numerator and denominator. After various amounts of crossing these factors out, the product is ready to compute in reduced form. For example, the product of 25/12 and 9/10 can be cross-cancelled as shown, with the common factor 5 cancelled from the numerator of the first fraction and the denominator of the second and the common factor 3 cancelled from the denominator of the first fraction and the numerator of the second. Like this:

I'm not a big fan of cross-cancellation. Too many students, in my opinion, go vigorously cancelling things out and later, if there's a mistake in their work, cannot figure out where it is because they've obliterated the problem. The example shown above is an exceptionally neat example of the practice and not at all representative of what I find on my students' papers in this handwriting-challenged era.

I have instead been emphasizing actual factoring of the numerators and denominators. Cancellation (or reduction) is still our goal, but I also want to make the process a bit more obvious and, perhaps, just a little neater. Hence I encourage my students to write out the factors before they go cancelling. (They don't even have to go all the way to prime factorizations, as the current example demonstrates, just far enough to ensure that all common factors have been dealt with.) The result is something like this:

Many of my pre-educated student are scandalized by my disdain for the traditional cross-cancellation and not at all inclined toward my alternative: “Do we have to do it your way?” “Is cross-cancellation wrong now?”

No. And no. I cheerfully give credit for correct answers and correct work—and cross-cancellation can certainly be done correctly—that are shown in legible form. But my favorite student response is, “Do I need to learn this? I already know how to do it!”

Then why are you here, buddy?

A few push it even further:

That's not how I learned it!”

Well, that's how I am teaching it. Have you considered trying to learn what I'm teaching? There's some evidence you haven't been a roaring success at this in the past. One of my colleagues told me a story about a student who explained how he had learned fractional arithmetic, offering an algorithm that was guaranteed not to work. My colleague patiently explained to his student that he must not remember the technique correctly, because what he had described was doomed to failure. The teacher then led the class through an example, after which the student in question announced that he had used his own technique and his answer did not agree with the teacher's. Was it okay if he continued to use the technique he had “learned”? Yeah. Get a clue, Sherlock.

The funny thing is that I'm quite laissez-faire in terms of technique most of the time. I seldom give prescriptive exam problems that specifically demand the use of a particular technique. I normally ask for a result and allow the student to choose the best way to do it. As long as the work is coherent and the result is correct, full credit is given. Yet I have these pre-educated students who fuss and fume and take it personally that I insist on teaching techniques they haven't seen before, instead of recapitulating their prior experience. Why won't I do it their way?

It does try my patience.

And it's not just students in the more elementary courses. My calculus students have a tendency to arrive with a smattering of high school calculus, which enables them to perform the more routine tasks with a minimum of difficulty. They can differentiate a polynomial like nobody's business. A few of them therefore announce that they already know how to take derivatives and pout when I make them work out the problems from the definition of the derivative (the limit of a difference quotient). They don't realize, although I try to explain, that not all functions are neatly differentiable by means of things like the power rule. Functions in real life may be tables of values gleaned from the output of instruments in an experiment. You have to go back to the basics to estimate the rate of change because no one is going to give you a nice simple function to take the derivative of.

Nevertheless, despite the explanation, when they get to the chapter test there'll be the pre-educated cadre that insists on simply writing down the derivative when told to demonstrate the use of the definition. Oh, no, they're way beyond that.

And next semester, when they repeat the course, will they be pre-pre-educated?