Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Prissy Percy protests politely

Don't go there!

It was an informal after-hours gathering at a colleague's house. We lapsed into talking shop, cheerfully describing the foibles of absent colleagues and the sins of wayward students. I began to recount the tale of a peevish student who got upset near the end of the semester that I would not guarantee his A in the class.

He was one of those extremely bright and extremely lazy students who had never had to break into a sweat in any of his previous classes, so he was offended that matters were proving to be just a little more difficult in calculus. He also liked to arrive late or skip class, so it was extremely unfair of me to average in zeros for all the assignments and quizzes he had missed. He was at risk of getting a B if he did not blow the doors off the final exam. It made him very unhappy.

Could I guarantee his A? No. Could he withdraw from the class? No; too late. He did not come back to class after our discussion and I noticed that he had magically vanished from my class roster. Somehow he had finagled special permission to wipe the slate clean despite having missed the drop deadline. I was deeply dismayed that someone had been willing to pull strings on the little prima donna's behalf, ensuring further postponement of a lesson in responsibility that he seriously needed to learn. In fact, I was more than dismayed. I was angered by his success at gaming the system. I told my colleagues:

“That little shit worked some angle and managed to talk a lamebrain flunky in administrative services into preserving his delicate little butt from the risk of getting a demerit on his transcript.”

My complaint was greeted with knowing chuckles. My colleagues had all met such students. One of my listeners, however, had a bemused smile on his face for a different reason.

“Hey, didn't anyone notice? Zee said ‘shit.’ Jesus Christ, Zeno, how much did that little fucker piss you off if you're starting to swear now?”

Busted! My exceedingly observant colleague was correct. I probably have the cleanest mouth in the math department. Perhaps the entire school. Hell, in all of North America, with the possible exception of a few convents. It rather sets me apart from my fellow math professors. It sure as hell sets me apart from my students. (Notice how I use “hell” for emphatic stress as if it still retains some currency as a profanity? Heck, how sad is that?)

My students, both male and female, litter their language with the f-word and don't even bat an eye. They stroll by with their cell phones stuck in their ears and the profanity flows freely and casually. Fascinating. That's how denatured profanity has become. F-bombs used to create shock waves in my youth. Today there's barely a tremor.

I never use the f-word myself (see how demurely I use the euphemism?), with minor exceptions for when I'm quoting others (see above, for example, or Dick Cheney). And the time when a young friend died as we sat vigil in the intensive care unit. On that occasion I combined it with some suitable blasphemy, which might have offended God if only he had remembered to exist.

It's perhaps even worse that I am a liberal blogger. I don't fit in. My leftish peers are decidedly more pungent in their prose than than those who describe themselves as wingnuts—I mean, conservatives. (Sorry.) The right-wing blogs even take quite a bit of pride in how clean their language is. Frankly, I think they should pay more attention to what they say than how they say it, but that appears not to concern them. (I guess it's okay to support torture if you say it nicely.)

My Listerined language is yet another item on the tally sheet that suggests I could be a repressed right-winger. I don't drink. I don't use drugs (except for those which are duly prescribed by a physician). I don't sport any tattoos or piercings. My hair is short. I often wear ties. I am thoroughly white-bread retro-conventional. I could infiltrate a Republican gathering without anyone being the wiser. (Of course, I'd have to bone up on my profanity if I were slipping into a meeting of McCain's campaign leadership.)

I was even mistaken for a Mormon once.

Even so, I have no big plans to change. I'm perfectly happy with my clean-mouthed lifestyle, supplemented as it is by a simply enormous vocabulary. There may even be advantages. For example, an epithet like “shithead” would just roll off my kid brother's back, but “microcephalic imbecile” always seemed to offend him quite satisfactorily.

My avoidance of Carlin's notorious seven dirty words may be a slight handicap, and will surely prevent my becoming a celebrated rap artist, but I'll manage somehow. And frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Naked bankers

And no dollar bills for figleaves

The whole family was quite surprised when my nephew grew up to become a Washington Mutual mortgage broker. My nephew not excepted. After all, “Mike Chamberlain” had had a stellar career as a college clown and academic cut-up. Truly, we never saw it coming.

He recently send me a message from within the dyspeptic bowels of the American financial industry:
Hey uncle,

Well, yesterday was indeed very difficult... I realized that I was out of “Laughing Cow” brand cheese, oh yeah, and my company folded.

For now, it's business as usual. On Chase's investor call last night, I learned that they maintain a similar model to ours with a focus on home loan origination from bank branches. The question at hand is whether those loan consultants report to the branch managers or if they have separate management (i.e. - me).

A sharp operator like me always has a back-up plan... I have a firm offer from Wells already. Time will tell...
Mike was remarkably successful in his career in the financial sector. Even before turning thirty he had been elevated from the cubicle farm of the office drones into the ranks of junior management. Mike had dark suspicions about why there was so much room at the top. He figured that incompetence was thinning out the executive ranks. It seems likely that he was correct. Unfortunately, plenty of incompetents were left.

I recall that Mike was puzzled at the fondness among his colleagues in the loan division for poorly secured adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs). He regarded them as dicey instruments and described the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage as “the gold standard of the industry.” (I have, mercifully, a gold-standard mortgage. Thanks, Mike!) He did, of course, understand what was at the bottom of the enthusiasm for creative financing. ARMs made it possible for more prospective homeowners to persuade themselves (with the help of a friendly broker) that buying a home was feasible.

Mike tells me that many of his senior colleagues have had their retirement plans shattered by the failure of Washington Mutual, their 401(k) accounts stuffed with now-worthless WaMu paper. It may well be a condign punishment, if the people who hoped to profit by pushing clients into untenably creative financing are now beggared by the collapse of same. As Mike says, “They were wiped out”

And what about Mike and his own 401(k) portfolio? Not to worry. The boy knows a poor risk when he sees one, both in potential mortgage customers and investment opportunities:
Fortunately for me, I had only bought a handful of [WaMu] shares years ago and selected other investments… which have been growing at a rate of -15% ytd. Yeah!
Minus fifteen percent? That's a hell of a lot better than a wipeout, isn't it? Whoo hoo!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Vote for me!

The return of the crypto-Republican

Not since the 1950s has the California legislature been a hospitable environment for Republicans. Since the election of 1958, when the Democrats under Pat Brown surged into power, the GOP has seldom commanded a majority of the seats in either house of the Golden State's legislature. The only significant exception is a pair of years, 1969 and 1970, when Republican Bob Monagan held the gavel as Speaker of the Assembly and Howard Way and Jack Schrade took turns presiding over the State Senate as presidents pro tempore. In addition, there was a comical interlude in the State Assembly in parts of 1995 and 1996, when three different Republicans served as Speaker of the Assembly; two of those were GOP renegades installed with Democratic votes and the third utterly failed to consolidate his power before the Democrats regained their majority.

During one point in the 1970s, when Republican legislative fortunes were at a particularly low ebb, the Democrats enjoyed a two-thirds majority in the assembly. Even the arrival of the so-called “Proposition 13 babies” in 1978 merely trimmed rather than toppled the Democratic majorities. In the early 70s, therefore, it was an amusing but trivial game to identify the political affiliation of legislative candidates by examining their signs and posters. Democratic candidates simply said “Democrat for Assembly” or “Democrat for State Senate” on their placards. If no party affiliation was given, however, you could be certain it was a Republican hoping to sneak into the legislature. Being a member of the GOP wasn't exactly poison, but it wasn't any big help outside of Orange County. Not in those days.

Have those days returned? Greg Aghazarian is an incumbent assemblyman and the Republican nominee for a state senate seat. His campaign website, however, is stripped clean of any sign that Aghazarian is a proud member of the Republican Party. His campaign bio does not mention the GOP at all. His latest campaign spot, a television ad being broadcast across a big chunk of northern California, not only neglects to mention he is the Republican candidate, the ad itself is a pitch to formally remove partisan labels from legislative elections.

Is that even a good idea? Aghazarian argues that legislative races should be like those for county boards of supervisors or city councils—officially nonpartisan. I suspect it wouldn't work. In the big cities, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the candidates are well-known by party affiliation, even if their party's name is absent from the ballot. Nonpartisan legislative races would not be any more neutral than that. Perhaps Aghazarian just wants the potential advantage of not being labeled a Republican. Under current law in California, his party affiliation will appear next to his name on the election ballot.

It's true, of course, that the rising numbers of independent voters make party affiliation less valuable than it used to be for the Democrats. I checked out the campaign website of Aghazarian's opponent, Democratic assemblywoman Lois Wolk. It's fairly easy to detect that she is a Democrat by virtue of blurbs like “Wolk easily wins Democratic nod for 5th District Senate Race,” quoted on her endorsement page. Nevertheless, Wolk does not go out of her way to highlight her partisan bent, the way a Democratic candidate would have done in the days when it was literally the majority party in California (and not just the plurality party).

Perhaps we are moving into a post-partisan political environment. Perhaps Aghazarian is on to something. More likely, though, he's trying for a political upset in a senate district that contains a big liberal Democratic community clustered around the Davis campus of the University of California. I think he's a duck-and-cover Republican in the mold of those stealth GOP candidates of the 1970s. The election returns next month will indicate whether his move was a wise one.

If you live in the 5th Senate District in California, don't forget to vote for Wolk.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tissue of truth

As opposed to tissue of lies

Theologians are familiar with the Kleenex box as one of the more compelling proofs of the existence of God. After all, if there is no God, then who keeps pushing up the next tissue? It makes you think!

I was thinking about tissues recently. Or, more correctly, I was stanching a nose bleed and thinking about why so many people insist on mistakenly saying “staunch” (hearty or solid) in place of “stanch” (quell or block). The words are even different parts of speech. I crumpled up the bloody tissue and reached for the next one—but it was not there. Had God failed me? No. The box was merely empty.

I fumbled around in the cabinet under the bathroom counter and found a box that had been pushed toward the back. I winkled it out, tore out the perforated slot, and pulled out a fresh tissue. As I did, the next tissue popped up. (Thanks, God!) And a savings coupon for my next purchase of Kleenex also fluttered out. (Thanks, Kimberly Clark!)

Then I noticed something. Date of expiration: October 31, 2000.

Okay, this was one coupon I wouldn't be using. The box of Kleenex had evidently been lurking in my bathroom cabinet since the final days of the Clinton administration. The notion seized me and wouldn't let go for several minutes.

Eight years ago George Bush was not president and none of his disasters had befallen us. My cousin was alive and in high school, thinking of joining the military after college. The twin towers of the World Trade Center stood in New York City and I was going to see them the next summer, just before they were brought down. John McCain had lost all credibility by embracing the man who had abused him during the primary campaign and was due to retire in luxury and obscurity. And I had never heard of an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. I didn't have a doctorate. My one-year-old nephew was in the middle of a custody tug-of-war that would continue till he was two. My colleague in the math department was robustly healthy and had no idea her pancreas was going to betray her.

Then I wiped my nose. The bleeding had stopped.

If only everyone could say that.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Puddinghead Union

The Twain never met

In the 1970s and 1980s, I used to see the Sacramento Union among the newspapers stacked in the lobbies of most legislative offices in the State Capitol and on the desks of most bureaucrats. In those days one used to read the Sacramento Bee to get a moderately liberal perspective on state government and the Sacramento Union for the moderately conservative alternative. The handwriting, however, was already on the newsprint.

The Union was devolving into a propaganda organ for the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. When Richard Mellon Scaife purchased the paper from the Copley News Service, the Union became less and less like the pioneering journal that once published the dispatches of a roving reporter named Mark Twain (whose bronze bust once dominated the entryway of the Union building on Capitol Mall). The news articles became more and more difficult to distinguish from the hectoring editorials on the opinion page. Scaife lost money as Union circulation suffered in head-to-head competition with McClatchy's Bee, which had switched to morning publication.

Scaife finally bailed out at the end of the 1980s and the new owners delivered the coup de grace by installing the wacky Joseph Farah as editor. (Farah now presides over the on-line dispenser of right-wing talking points known as WorldNetDaily—though referred to fondly as WorldNutDaily by its admirers.) The Union never recovered either its senses or its circulation. By 1994 the newspaper was dead.

While the state capital had effectively been a one-newspaper town for a few years before the Union officially expired, its formal demise had a bad impact on its rival. The Sacramento Bee lost its editorial focus now that it was the region's only major daily newspaper, trying to be all things to all people. California's conservatives, however, bereft of their steady diet of Union rants, were in no mood to accept a pallid substitute that dutifully published conservative columnists as a sop to their sensibilities. To this day they continue to decry what they call the Bee's left-wing bias. It's a figment of their imagination. In its declining years, the Bee is just another struggling middle-of-the-road rag owned by a media corporation. A little red-meat liberalism would do the paper good.

Since its tragic death, there have been several attempts to revive the Sacramento Union, perhaps in hopes of saving California's capital from the forces of tepid Sacramento Bee liberalism-lite. The current Union revenant is a mewling Voldemortian weekly tabloid that occasionally appears in the free-to-take newsracks next to its much more robust rival, the leftist Sacramento News & Review. Both newspapers have Web editions that permit those of us who live outside the capital's immediate sphere of influence to enjoy their reports and editorials. But be wary. You'll never get back those minutes that you devote to reading a Union editorial, and brain damage is definitely a risk.

An editorial featured in the September 19, 2008, edition of the Sacramento Union gives us a good sample of what passes for thoughtful opinion in today's neocon press. Please pick up your shotgun and approach the barrel of fish. This isn't going to be pretty.
Sarah Unmasks the Democrats

Democrats believe that some people are poor because others are rich. They propagate the notion that theirs is the party of the average working man and woman and that the GOP empowers only elite, wealthy males.

Ha! They forgot “white”!
This is an enormous lie, exposed in excruciating relief by John McCain’s selection of a working-class running mate.
That's gutsy: a right-wing publication criticizing lying in political campaigns. Did John McCain approve this message?
In election after election, the Democrats have nominated for president the elite, wealthy males they pretend to disdain. Al Gore was a U.S. senator’s son raised in the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. and educated at the exclusive St. Albans prep school and Harvard University. He became a newspaper reporter after starting, then quitting, both divinity school and law school. John Kerry, a wind-surfing Yale University graduate, worked briefly as an attorney before entering politics. His first wife was wealthy, and his second, Theresa Heinz, is said to be worth over $1 billion.
Truly it is outrageous when presidential candidates are cushioned by the vast wealth of their spouses. These shamefully “kept men” should refrain from inflicting their spoiled lifestyles on the public and be content to lounge about in the many, many houses that their wives buy for them.
The latest in this chain of easy-life Democratic presidential nominees is Barack Obama, a graduate of Punahou, the top prep school in Hawaii. Later, he graduated from Columbia and Harvard. A one-time associate in a law firm, and a one-time college lecturer, Obama identified himself as a “community organizer” before his election to the U.S. Senate. His salary as a U.S. senator is $169,300, but last year the Obamas reported an income of $4.2 million.
Certainly it's embarrassing to the entitled Republican establishment to find themselves challenged by a young man who was raised in the absence of his birth father (and sometimes without his mother) and parlayed hard work and scholarship into an Ivy League education, enabling him to become uppity. Shocking! And then he dares to write bestselling books that earn him millions of dollars. It's just offensive when Democrats make money, you know. Money belongs to Republicans, who are more deserving of it.
Obama is a member of Chicago’s political nobility. He could afford to buy a 96-year-old South Side home with four fireplaces, a wine cellar, and bookcases made of Honduran mahogany because a since-indicted campaign contributor, Tony Rezko, helped him meet the $1.95 million asking price by purchasing a $625,000 side yard. Exclusive connections also helped the Obamas snag a mortgage at a discounted interest rate no working man or woman could ever obtain.
As previously noted, Sen. Obama is a bestselling author. Your average working man or woman cannot qualify for a mortgage that a bank would eagerly offer to a wealthy writer. (Did the Union forget that they just criticized him for being rich? Guess what? Rich people are courted by banks and financial institutions. Surprise!) As for the gibe about Rezko: I know it's cruel to take away one of the GOP's favorite teddy bears, but this plush toy is full of sawdust. Obama clearly did not need any special favors from Rezko to help him purchase his home in Chicago.
Just when it seemed that the Democrats might continue to get away with feigning a connection to working people while choosing another white-bread, millionaire candidate, the Republicans nominated for vice president a woman without elite roots or family or political connections who has had to work for everything she’s gotten.
Yeah, I saw that, too. They just called Barack Obama a “white-bread millionaire candidate.” The Union editorial writer must have had a completely successful shame-bypass operation. I presume that John McCain feels slighted by the assignment of this descriptor to Obama, when surely it should belong to the senior senator from Arizona, the Wonder Bread of U.S. politicians. And is the Union suggesting that Palin had to “work for” the nomination that was handed to her by McCain's caprice? Gee, what did she do?
The embarrassing contrast between Palin and Obama has left Democrats sputtering. Palin graduated from rural public schools and the University of Idaho. Her husband, Todd, is a member of the United Steelworkers union. She is a former commercial fisherman, one of the toughest jobs in the world. The salary of this full-time governor and part-time mother of five is $125,000 per year.
The Union continues to manifest the tin ear that made its editorials so hilarious during its death throes in the nineties. (They're slaves to tradition, they are.) Does Gov. Palin want to be described as a “part-time mother”? This would seem to be inconsistent with the Republican position on family values.
Palin has unmasked the Democrats as poseurs and they hate her for it. Sacramento News and Review columnist R.V. Scheide called Palin’s selection “insane.” He dismissed her as “little known,” someone who “looks pretty and eats moose meat.” The paper carried a cartoon claiming that Palin’s only foreign policy experience is having eaten once “at the International House of Pancakes.” Accompanying it was a blog by Melinda Walsh that belittled Palin as someone with “minor-league experience and smarts.”

Liberals said the same thing 30 years ago about another governor who grew up in a small town and graduated from an undistinguished college. But Ronald Reagan proved to be the greatest president of our times.
I'm not inclined to defend Ronald Reagan's political record, although the U.S. Treasury was looted at a much more modest rate during his tenure than during those of his Republican successors. I will, however, point out that Reagan had completed two terms as governor of California before he was elected president in 1980. Palin is the half-term governor of Alaska. Alaskan politics may be as bizarre as in California, but the 49th state is large only in terms of land area. Fifteen of California's fifty-eight counties have more people than Palin's entire state. Alaska has about as many people as Kern county, whose county seat is Bakersfield. Palin is not quite on the same level as even Bakersfield mayor Harvey Hall when it comes to being a national candidate, let alone Ronald Reagan.
What really bothers these critics is that Palin does not measure up to the exacting royalist bona fides the Democrats expect of a presidential or vice presidential contender. She did not attend an exclusive prep school, let alone an Ivy League university. No family fortune financed her career-surfing, as it did for Gore. She did not marry into money. Unlike the Obamas, the Palins could not afford a mansion—with or without the help of a crooked campaign donor—nor could they score a discounted mortgage rate.

The Yellow Pages show that there actually is an IHOP in Wasilla, Alaska. The Palins probably eat there a lot.
Can you see Russia from the Wasilla IHOP?
Palin's road, like most of ours, has been rough. Obama's has not. That alone could cost the Democrats this election.
Obama has obviously had it easy, especially since Harvard is known as the “safety school” of the Ivy League, a refuge for legacies and layabouts (I'm looking at you, George W. Bush, MBA) who want gentlemen's Cs as their due reward for merely existing and blessing the world with their wonderfulness. Barack probably just had to check a box on his graduation petition to get that magna cum laude from Harvard Law. Lazy bastard couldn't be bothered to get a summa.

I told you it wasn't going to be pretty.

The Obama-Heinz incident

It's vegetable politics

Okay, it was probably a mistake to get Dad a high-speed Internet connection. He's stumbled into tubular truth and cannot resist sharing his discoveries. He sent me the ancient and absurd Clinton Body Count list, along with the tag, “It makes you think, doesn't it?” My response was, “Yes, it makes you wonder how gullible people can be.”

Dad has now moved on to sly political humor, the kind that pokes fun at a candidate while revealing some dangerous truth at the candidate's expense. His latest find is almost contemporary, dating back only as far as last May, when a tired Sen. Obama fumbled his words while talking about the states he had visited during the primary campaign.
Obama said he's going to campaign in 57 states, and it turns out that there are 57 Islamic states.

There are 57 Islamic states!

So did Obama just lose his bearings, or was this a more telling slip, ladies and gentlemen?

KEEP IT GOING, FOLKS! Our future is at stake ... Make no mistake about it.
Our future is at stake? Because Obama got a number wrong? (Then a McCain administration would be the equivalent of the apocalypse, wouldn't it?) But right-wingers cannot resist Freudian interpretations when it comes to the verbal gaffes of liberals (even though they themselves have nothing but contempt for the psychoanalysis they so desperately need).

Dad passed along this particular nonsense with a mordant, “I wondered where the 57 came from.” That's not true, of course. I'm certain that he had never even heard of the incident until it came to his attention wrapped in several layers of wingnut Obama's-a-Muslim spin. Nevertheless, since Dad was bold enough to forward the item to me as worthy of my attention, I favored him with a reply:
Goodness! Are folks still talking about Sen. Obama's verbal slip from last spring? It has long since been known that the senator was tired and looking forward to supper, where Heinz (57 varieties) ketchup would be served. Ketchup is endorsed by the Ketchup Advisory Board and it used to be a vegetable during the Reagan administration. Sen. Obama is particularly fond of Heinz ketchup, the Democratic condiment that people across America enjoy with their freedom fries.

Lately, of course, the GOP presidential campaign is backing off on trying to make too much of verbal mistakes by Democrats because otherwise people might take too seriously Sen. McCain's gaffes about staying 100 years in Iraq, bomb-bomb-bombing Iran, considering $5 million to be the dividing line between middle class and upper class, and admitting to knowing almost nothing about economics during an election year in which the economy is tanking and Wall Street is crashing. Of course, verbal gaffes are more innocent than outright lies, as I'm sure we can all agree.
Dad appreciated my riposte so much that he's rewarded me with several days of e-mail silence. But the truthiness is still out there, and at some point I know he'll feel compelled to share it with me again. Some people, you see, never learn.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thinking outside the cell

Yin meets yang

He wasn't one of my students, but he knew who I was.

“Hey, Mr. Z, you're a computer guy, right?”

Well, kind of. At least, I was on the college's information technology committee. It was 1990 or so and computers were increasingly percolating into the campus.

“Yeah, I guess so. What can I do for you?”

“I have a problem with my computer and maybe you can help me. Do you use a Mac or a PC?”


“Damn. Okay, sorry to bother you.”

As anyone knows, of course, personal computing is divided between the two great religious sects: Apple and Windows. Or Hatfields and McCoys. Montagues and Capulets? It's difficult sometimes for me to remember, partly because I don't have much patience with sectarian wars or family feuds. The gap cannot be bridged.

“No, no,” I said. “Go ahead and tell me your problem anyway. Who knows? Maybe I can help you.”

He was using the Wingz spreadsheet program on his Macintosh. Although largely forgotten now, Wingz was a powerful spreadsheet from Informix that eventually lost out to Microsoft's Excel (as did all of the other spreadsheets in the world).

“I have a six-page spreadsheet in Wingz but it won't print except for the first page. I've tried printing the whole thing and get only page one. I've tried printing just page two and nothing comes out.”

“Can you edit pages other than the first?”

“No problem. I can change stuff and save the changes, but nothing I do prints out anything except the first page. I used to be able to print it all, but something happened and I'm really stuck now.”

He had saved and reloaded the file. He had rebooted the system. He had done all of the usual jiggery-pokery to get things going again, but he was still stuck.

“Does Wingz have import/export options?” I asked.

“Yeah. Definitely.”

“Good. Can you save your spreadsheet as a Lotus 1-2-3 file?”

“I think so. Yeah, I'm pretty sure.”

“Okay. Save your file as a Lotus 1-2-3 file using the export feature. Then use the import feature to bring it back in. See if the conversion process clears up the printing problem you're having.”

He seemed just a little skeptical, but he said he'd try my idea.

A day later the student caught up with me again in front of the math department building.

“Hey, Mr. Z! It worked!”

“Great! Thanks for letting me know how it turned out. I guess some gimmicks work across platforms, eh?”

Knowledge. More portable than you might think.

Computers. Weird and demon-possessed no matter what the logo.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Men in dresses defend marriage

Do as I say, not as I do

Religion was simpler when I believed in revealed truth. Unfortunately, revealed truth was often manifest stupidity. That makes it more difficult to cling to, so perhaps we should be impressed by those whose faith can overcome the sheer inanity of it. After all, don't we admire people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a sacred cause?

Yeah. Not so much anymore.

The Catholic Church is trying to throw its weight around in the battle over Proposition 8 on the California general election ballot in November. If it passes, Proposition 8 overturns the state supreme court ruling establishing same-sex marriages by placing a ban in the California constitution. That would trump the state supreme court and end the Golden State's experiment with marital equality. The Catholic Church is an enthusiastic fan of traditional marriage and its celibate priesthood is girding for the fight to pass Proposition 8.

Yes. Unmarried men in dresses are among the Church's shock troops in the war to enshrine the one-man/one-woman definition of marriage. Clever.

Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Oakland diocese is one of the generals trying to lead Catholic voters into the polling stations to cast their ballots for Proposition 8. He issued a pastoral letter in the wake of the supreme court ruling that politically minded Catholics are citing as an inspirational blast of the trumpet of traditionalism. Vigneron warns his readers of the consequences of losing in the attempts to re-establish monogamous heterosexual marriage as the only sanctioned marital union:
If such efforts fail, our way of life will become counter-cultural, always a difficult situation for Christians—one our forebears faced in many ages past, one that the Lord himself predicted for us.
“Counter-cultural”? Does His Excellency actually think that old-fashioned man-woman marriage will be abandoned in the wake of Proposition 8's defeat? No doubt society will rise up in opposition to the marriage of straight couples. Heck, the fifty percent failure rate shows that it doesn't work very well anyway. May as well give it up. Counter-cultural.

And what's this “our way of life” business? Vigneron's bachelorhood is part of his career; the wedded way of life is entirely foreign to him. (Of course, he can see married couples from his vantage point in the episcopal see of Oakland, sort of like Gov. Palin can see Russia from her perch in Alaska.) It seems we must construe “way of life” broadly if it is to include bishops.

Finally, Vigneron points out that Christ himself predicted that the Church would fall into the “difficult situation” of opposing the dominant culture. Does His Excellency think he can avert Christ's oracular pronouncement? Maybe Catholics can learn a lesson from the Protestants who cheer every report of famine and disaster and war because they consider catastrophe a prerequisite for the Second Coming. Embrace same-sex marriage (though not too literally), Your Excellency. Otherwise you risk making Jesus a liar.

Vote No on Proposition 8!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

God's situational ethics

His means can be mean

In the words of William Cowper's hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Furthermore, the Bible assures us that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). Good thing, too. Otherwise some of God's stunts might persuade us that he's just a sociopath. With enough faith, you can find rationalizations that permit you to forgive God for practically anything.

Catholic radio talk show host Johnnette Benkovic is like Job in her willingness to sing the praises of God while her deity rains abuse down on her head. During yesterday's broadcast of her Women of Grace program, Johnnette favored her listeners with a homily on the virtues of forgiveness. (The on-line archive for Women of Grace stores only a week's worth of programs, so the Friday link will be replaced with next Friday's broadcast in a few more days.) She had received a call from a woman who had been treated badly by a former friend. The woman expressed her concern that God would fail to punish her ex-friend for the offense, so Johnnette explained (at 27:44 into the broadcast) that God might have had hidden motives for allowing the incident to occur:
One time years and years ago, God presented to my mind someone I needed to forgive. I did not want to forgive this person because this person hurt me very, very deeply and really in some ways inflicted tremendous scars on my heart and to my entire being. But the Lord told me I had to forgive and so I asked him to help me to enter into that process, but I sure did not want to do it.

And a wise spiritual director of mine at the time told me, Johnnette, pray for the desire to forgive, and if that's too close, pray for the desire to desire to forgive; and if that's too close, keep backing it up. And I've got to tell you, as I engaged that process against my feelings, you know—and this is a matter of the will, against my feelings—as I engaged that process, the Lord began to show me a whole lot of things and one of the things that he showed me was that this person was probably very bereft of anybody that was praying for him. This person seriously needed prayer and perhaps God permitted this offense into my life so that I could be somebody who would pray for this person.

And then as I began to pray for this person, I began to have a different attitude of heart toward this person. I began to see that this person— Had this person really understood who God was, or a relationship with God, or if this person truly understood the sanctity of the human person or any of these things, this person never could have committed that sin against me. And that person then deserved my compassion, not my anger.
All things considered, I have to say that this example of turn-the-other-cheek Christianity is far superior to today's dominant go-to-hell strain of evangelical and fundamentalist Jesus worship. I doubt, however, that it's any more rational. Still, if it's a choice between a painfully rationalizing God-is-always-good apologist versus a God-hates-fags sign toter, it's pretty easy to give Johnnette the thumbs up. She'd be a much better neighbor, even if cloyingly nice-nice.

But isn't rational thought still better than rationalization?

Friday, September 12, 2008

The investment opportunity of the future!

Loud and clear!

Hearing aids.

Need I say more?

It has become increasingly obvious that the hearing aid industry is absolutely guaranteed to be one of the greatest growth sectors of the nation's future economy. I get more evidence of this every day.

For example, my students cannot whisper. Oh, they think they are whispering, but they really aren't. Yesterday I was standing at one end of a large classroom (about 30-feet square) and easily overheard the conversation of a pair of students on the far side.

Well, maybe they were just rude and didn't bother to lower their voices. Isn't that possible? Possible, sure. But if they were merely being impolite, I don't think they would have been so startled when I joined their conversation from the far side of the room. They were clearly surprised that their elderly teacher was eavesdropping on their private interchange. Aren't old guys supposed to be half deaf?

The iPod generation is going to be the hard-of-hearing generation even before they reach middle age, I fear. Too many of them play music so loud that it bleeds from around their ear-bud headphones and even I can hear it from several feet away. And they've lost the ability to whisper. They're doomed, I tell you.

Early deafness: It's not just for rock stars and roadies anymore. Invest in hearing-aid futures. It's a sure thing.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A firm offer

Would this be hard science?

Few things have delighted me as much as the spam that dropped into my in-box this evening. My prestige as a blogger has risen so high that I am now being solicited to do product reviews! Grand new vistas open before me and my excitement reaches unprecedented levels!

I'm the webmaster of http://www.peloop.com . I wanted to know if by any chance you would be interested in doing an unbiased review of one of our products on your blog http://zenoferox.blogspot.com/

If you agree we will send you a product sample so that you can try it and then write a review about it. Please note you won't have to return the product sample after publishing the review.

Please let me know if you are interested.

Thank you

F. B

The pitch is irresistible. I hastened over to peloop.com to learn the precise nature of my opportunity. What are they asking me to review?

Hey! Check it out! It's a cock ring! But first appearances can be deceiving. It's not just an adjustable plastic tourniquet for your favorite chicken neck. It's a scientific device! Just look at the scientific explanation:
Penis Enhancement Made Simple

Harness the power of
  • Magnets
  • Tourmaline
  • Germanium
To naturally and safely enhance your penis

These 3 materials will constantly provide your penis with amazing benefits. peloop™ is simply worn at the bottom of your penis just like you wear a ring on your finger. It's penis enhancement and penis enlargement made simple.

These materials work by drastically improving the condition of blood inside your penis. Your penis health is as good as the blood health inside it. If you have unhealthy blood in your penis, you will have a weak unhealthy penis BUT if you have healthy blood in your penis, you will have a big, strong and healthy penis. It's that simple.
See? Magnets! And other stuff! Fields and ions!

It's both scientific and simple. This must be the biggest breakthrough in erectile enhancement since Bob started scarfing up Enzyte tablets as if they were breath mints. If only I were both scientific and simple, this would be an ideal match.

Too bad I'm going to have to let this opportunity slide. No doubt the makers of peloop tried to do due diligence before deciding that I was the ideal blogger to evaluate their wares. (Ha! I said “do due”!) Unfortunately, they missed the tiny detail of my being single and unpartnered. (I guess they overlooked my definitive blog post on the topic.) Their tool tool does not fit into my solo lifestyle.

Quel dommage!

Hey! What a coincidence! I just got e-mail from eHarmony. What are the odds?

Pseudo-Freudian Republicans

True believers of the moment

Despite the crying need that so many of them have for strenuous psychological counseling, most Republicans claim to belong to the school of rugged individualism and mock the theories and therapies of Freud and his successors. Nevertheless, as devout members of the Church of Opportunism, they'll embrace the concept of Freudian slip with ardent fervor if it suits their purpose. That's why they're all over a 13-second sound bite from This Week with George Stephanopoulos in which Sen. Obama supposedly admits to his Muslim faith. It's a misrepresentation, of course, but when did that ever stop them?

The problem is simple: We just don't have enough punctuation in spoken English. And Barack Obama is too dignified to do “air quotes” even when he really should. (No one wants to be mistaken for Dr. Evil.) But as Victor Borge taught us long ago, rabbit ears can be our friend.

Here's a faithful transcript (including the candidate's peroration, truncated in the video) of the exchange between Obama and Stephanopoulos, as the latter insisted that McCain himself was not spreading smears against the Democratic standard bearer:
Obama: You're absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my "Muslim faith" and you're absolutely right that that is not coming—

Stephanopoulos: Christian faith.

Obama: My Christian faith. Well, what I'm saying he hasn't suggested that I'm a Muslim.

[Stephanopoulos: (overtalking) He's suggested connections, right.]

Obama: And I think that his campaign's upper echelons have not either. What I think is fair to say is that, coming out of the Republican camp, there have been efforts to suggest that perhaps I'm not who I say I am when it comes to my faith, something which I find deeply offensive.

But Sen. Obama did not hook his fingers in the air to underscore the sense in which he was citing “my Muslim faith”—a specious claim by GOP operatives and other members of the loony right—and thus we have a video clip certain to warm the bigoted cockles of many a shallow Christian.

Keep this in mind: Most of the Republicans who will cite the short version of the “Muslim faith” clip will know full well what Sen. Obama intended and what his statement meant. Therefore we should not hesitate to bestow upon them the title they so richly deserve: liars.

Notice I didn't put quotes around that.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A political angle

When math teachers go astray

We math teachers are a relentlessly logical and thoughtful cohort of people. So why don't we agree on everything all the time? Anyone who has witnessed the knock-down and drag-out battles of the math wars knows that we don't. It depends on your initial assumptions. Most math teachers will cheerfully agree on whether a conclusion is the logical consequence of a set of axioms, but then they'll fight to the death over the axioms.

Courtesy of the McClatchy Company's newspapers, we have a stunning example of political logic from an old math professor. Shall we see if we can identify the axioms from which his logic flows?
Palin: A home run for McCain

Wow! Talk about a bombshell? Talk about thinking outside the box? Talk about going off the reservation? Let the game begin.

And all the so-called pundits thought John McCain was too old and over the hill to make important strategic decisions in a timely and impactful fashion. This could be a major-league home run; it puts a shot right over the bow of the Democrats and will haul them up short in their effort to bring disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters and independents into the Obama fold.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has the right politics. She is a reformer who has stared down Sen. Ted Stevens, she is a maverick, she is a hockey mom, she is very comfortable in a man's world, she is a hunter who knows the difference between the business end and the butt end of a weapon, she has been to the Middle East and has a son serving in the military, she is pro-life, she is articulate, she is younger than Barack, she is compelling, and she has a strong, comprehensive energy position. In the words of an old math professor, she is a running mate who complements and supplements John McCain to a “T.” Enough said.

Walter Andrews, Folsom
Passing lightly over the disdain-worthy “impactful,” we must consider whether the choice of Palin “will haul [Democrats] up short in their efforts to bring disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters and independents into the Obama fold.” First of all, we're already there. Former Clinton supporters are not looking for an anti-choice, anti-science alternative to Sen. Obama. By what magic are we supposed to be inveigled into voting for a right-wing conservative? Are we suddenly no longer pro-choice? Second, independents are not necessarily charmed by Sarah. She stoked up the base; she didn't expand it.

Palin “faced down Sen. Ted Stevens”? I guess that came after she headed one of his 527 campaign committees and her support of his “bridge to nowhere” earmark. (She really used to like earmarks, you know, but she's over that now.)

Palin can fire a gun. I did not know that was a requirement for the job, unless the vice president is expected to shoot hunting companions in the face.

She is younger than Barack. That's a positive thing? Goodness! Until recently, the GOP insisted that Sen. Obama was a callow youth. Now Gov. Palin's tender years are a campaign asset. The rules of the game keep changing.

Palin “has a strong, comprehensive energy position”? I guess that “drill, drill, drill” is comprehensive because Sarah wants to drill everywhere. Yes?

Some wicked angles

My favorite part of the math professor's letter is the cutesy bit about how Gov. Palin “complements and supplements John McCain.” As you may know, complementary angles add up to 90°, while supplementary angles add up to 180°. The letter-writer is sending a discreet shout-out to his fellow math teachers. As one of his innumerable mathematical colleagues—albeit a liberal one—I cannot resist going off on my own tangent here. Let's puzzle out the possible significance of Gov. Palin being both a complement and a supplement to John McCain.

I begin by schematically indicating where the nation needs to go. It's just an arrow, pointing to the conventional “east.” (Self-described wits might wish to observe that the arrow points to the right, but don't try to make too much of a simple mathematical convention. That's my job.)

Then we note that McCain is not planning to go in the right direction. He's significantly off.

If Palin is his complement, then McCain-Palin together must go off in the 90° direction, at right angles to the nation's best interests. Oops!

Even better: If Palin is his supplement, then McCain-Palin must be heading in the direction exactly opposite to where we should be going—off by 180°. This may an even more accurate representative of McCain-Palin policies.

To be even-handed, let's consider Sen. Obama's political direction. There he goes, doing the best he can for his country, trending strongly toward all that is good and decent.

Why don't I, the slavishly devoted Democrat, show him heading due east toward the promised land? There's some fine print in the Obama illustration. Let's zoom in to see what it says:

Oh, that's right. Obama ended up supporting a very slightly amended FISA bill (not nearly amended enough!) and he has failed to disavow Bush's motley crew of faith-based initiatives. He may even expand them!

Well, you can't have everything. Any logical person knows that. (I'm not as sure about the letter-writing math professor, though.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A political high

Mainlining, but not mainstream

Like a junkie with the needle still dangling from his arm, the Republican National Convention is pumped up and feeling good. Life was such a downer recently, but things are looking up! It sure is better than feeling down—all that gloom after that damned Democratic convention.

The Republican junkie is assimilating a big dose of uncut Palin. The euphoria is real enough, although it's not based on reality. Quite the contrary. As has been amply pointed out, Gov. Palin's speech was riddled with lies and distortions. Astonishingly enough, the freshman governor of Alaska did not hesitate to repeat several factually compromised statements that had been definitely revealed as false in the days following the announcement that she was Sen. McCain's running mate. In particular, she again claimed as governor to have opposed the “bridge to nowhere,“ although its fate had been sealed before her election and before her election she had expressly endorsed it. (Two lies in one statement; that's efficient!) She repeated the assertion that she disdained earmarks, when as mayor of Wasilla she gobbled them up and bragged about it.

Why lie so transparently?

It's all part of rallying the troops. And in that sense Gov. Palin was extremely successful. She pandered to the worst sentiments of the conventions attendees and they lapped it up. Her snide remarks and sarcastic sallies were the stuff that hardcore Republican dreams are made of.

Less likely, however, to attract the uncommitted.

And that's why in the longer run Palin's well-executed speech will fail. While many commentators were grading her effort with an A, some of her detractors were insisting on a D. Like the English professor that I am not, I would give her both grades: an A for the composition's technique and a D for its content. In the short term, the A aspect of her speech stirred up the troops, who are now enjoying their temporary high. As the weeks progress, however, the D aspect of the speech will alienate fence-sitters who might have been drawn by less specious content.

The folks in the convention didn't care about the truth of what Palin said. They cared about the way she said it. The speech served its purpose as a cheerleading effort for the political party that spawned our current cheerleader president. But a good cheerleader does not make up for a weak team.

The one sure consequence of a junkie's high is the crash that soon follows.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Classroom mulligans

The art of the do-over

Sometimes I think my classrooms have been taken over by the reincarnated souls of golf course duffers. They're an increasing presence among my students. I suspect something is going on in elementary, middle, and high schools that is percolating into college. A conversation will illustrate the point:

“Gee, Dr. Z, I didn't do very well on the exam.”

“Yes. As the person who graded it, I am aware of that.”

“I really need a better grade. Can I take it again?”

“I'm sorry, but for obvious reasons I can't just let students repeat exams. For one thing, I don't have the time to rewrite the exam so you can retake it.”

“Oh, that's okay. You don't have to rewrite it. I could just take the same one over again.”

“Don't you see a problem with that? We just went over the exam in detail in class and put all the solutions up on the board. I can't use that exam again.”

“No, you can! I would do really well this time. I know I would!”

Gee, you think? (I know: Even in this case it's no guarantee.)

This never used to happen. Now it occurs a few times each semester, as disappointed students seek redemption by asking for do-overs. Most of them seem sincerely perplexed when I tell them it makes no sense to give them the same exam a second time. It's a math class. Not a memorization and transcription course. We solve problems. We don't memorize solutions and regurgitate them.

The spam ate my homework

Technology has opened up new vistas for the scholastic mulligan. These days I begin each semester with a simple assignment:
Write your instructor an e-mail by Friday. Include four items in your message:
  • the name of the course in the subject line;
  • your reason for taking the course;
  • the topic of the latest post on the course website;
  • your full name.

That last item is important. Students who don't use their campus e-mail accounts to e-mail me typically have handles that don't match up in any obvious way to the names on my roster. I mean, how am I supposed to know that HellGirl666@evil.com is Jane Doe?

This assignment on Day One is a good way to collect e-mail addresses and to see whether your students know how to follow instructions. By the end of the first week I have replied to each student individually, welcoming him or her to the class and announcing the number of points earned for the exercise (depending on the degree of compliance with the four items):
Welcome to the class, Debbie. To get full credit for this assignment, you needed to include the course name on your subject line, explain why you are taking the course, report that the latest website posting is about peer tutoring opportunities at the Learning Center, and include your full name.

You forgot to report on the content of the course website. Your score is 9 points out of a possible 12.

Professor Z
Whereupon I get this:
Hi Dr Z! I'm sorry I forgot to check the website. It says "Student Tutors Needed at LC Now". Can I have the 3 points now? Debbie Deluded
I'm afraid that Debbie was disappointed. At least she didn't cut-and-paste my message and send it back to me with a request for full credit. She did her own typing!

Debbie and the handful of others who promptly resubmitted their initial assignments after I gave them the answers do not, however, win the prize for my favorite student message of the past year. I have to bestow the palm on someone else, someone whom I've never met:
Hi, it's Sandy No-Show. I'm enrolled in your calculus class. But i didn't come the first week of class, i was wondering if i can still continue taking this class?
“Still continue taking”? In what universe does missing the first week of class position a student to ask about continuing to take it? I wrote back to gently inform her that I had dropped her ass from the class. But not in those precise words.