Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The blue dawn

Or is it red?

My father is anguished over the state of the world. Sometimes he cheers himself by considering that he'll be dead soon, so only his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to deal with the impending disasters that President Obama will wreak upon us. Other times he thinks he has one more good fight in him. That's apparently what happened when one of his right-wing buddies forwarded him an exposé of Democratic atrocities in Illinois. Surely not even his libtard son could withstand such damning evidence. To the computer!

This is what dropped into my in-box:
I am very worried about the future of our country. I have never been so narrow minded as to vote for someone just based on party, But qualifications are more important. I had hopes for Romney But he pulled out even thought he had good credentials. The Liberal media Keeps telling us that Palin has no experience-- As governor of Alaska Palin has more experience than the other three jokers combined.

I know that capitalism, in just over two hundred years has made this by far the best country in the world and the Liberals want to turn it into a socialist country and that would be a disaster. I do not want the government intruding into every facet of my life. I have sweat many buckets of sweat and some tears too, to provide for my family and I would not have it any other way.

The reason I am sending the article is that in the decades that I have lived on earth I have seen that where Liberals are in control in this country there is corruption, lawlessness and poverty. Free to live your life is a lot better than government control!!!



That's my father at his hand-wringing best. What “article” did he find so compelling that he had to forward it with such an emotional preamble to his eldest son the moonbat? Sad to say, it did not live up to its advance billing. It was, in fact, nothing more than a sorry piece of political porn, the kind of Internet spam that true believers forward back and forth among themselves to reinforce their preconceptions. I guess the point of this one was that Sen. Obama was the product of a corrupt Chicago machine that was bent on destroying us all. Or something like that.

I confess that I have dialed it back just a bit by shrinking the scare-headline font size, which was just a bit much. I have, however, preserved all the exclamation points, that unfailingly accurate warning sign of heated inaccuracy. The misspellings remain in place, too.











ALL DEMOCRATS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!









Can you imagine finding this persuasive? My father thought it was so good that he risked my wrath (or at least my pique) by breaking the ban I imposed on my family on forwarding Internet spam.

One good turn deserves another, so I wrote him back:

Dear Dad:

Thank you for your message. It contains an undeniable truth: Every day of your life has been devoted to your family and no one can deny that. It is as solid a fact as the sun coming up in the east in the morning.

Nothing else in the message, unfortunately, approaches that standard. It is, in fact, a patchwork quilt of errors and misstatements. The forwarded item about Illinois is especially absurd, a house of cards ready to collapse at the slightest puff of truth. People should learn that forwarded messages from the Internet are almost entirely worthless, and this one is no exception. People pass them around to feed their preconceptions and never seem to bother to check them. As a service to my loved ones, I will check it for you and demonstrate what's wrong with it. Although you routinely dismiss my opinions as those of someone who is naive and brainwashed, please allow me to point out that I deserve just a little credibility. I have genuine experience in government service and I know how it works. I've been a news reporter and I know about fact-checking. Let's do some fact-checking, both on what you say and what you forwarded to me. It'll be an education, which you know is my line of work anyway.

You say, “The Liberal media Keeps telling us that Palin has no experience-- As governor of Alaska Palin has more experience than the other three jokers combined.”

It's not just the opinion of the so-called liberal media that Palin was a bad choice for running mate. It's the opinion of Peggy Noonan ("[I]t is a mark against John McCain"), Christopher Buckley ("What on earth can he [McCain] have been thinking?"), George Will ("Palin is obviously not qualified to be president"), and Colin Powell ("I don't believe she's ready to be president"). Except for Powell, who served in the Bush cabinet, these are all conservative writers and columnists.

I think you also meant to say executive experience when talking up Palin's qualifications, because otherwise she has a lot less experience than McCain (26 years in the House and Senate) and Biden (35 years in the Senate), and exactly the same number of years in office as Obama (8 years in the state legislature, 4 years in the Senate). Palin's twelve years of elective office break down into 4 years as a city council member, 6 years as mayor, and 2 years as governor). I won't denigrate Palin's executive service, because leadership experience is valuable. I will, however, point out that I was for several years an elected officer for a regional computer club with thousands of members. Until last year, when Palin began serving as governor of Alaska, it seems that I had about as much executive experience as she did, at least in terms of the number of people we presided over and the number of years we did it. And I'm not quite ready to be president of the United States.

You say, “the Liberals want to turn it into a socialist country.”

No, we don't. We're liberals, not socialists. Learn the difference. We don't suggest that workers should necessarily own the means of production (though we have nothing against co-ops) and we aren't interested in a police state that controls every facet of our lives. George W. Bush is the guy who's been going in that direction, not liberals. We like civil rights and think that the government should get warrants before eavesdropping on us. It's in the Constitution.

You say, “where Liberals are in control in this country there is corruption, lawlessness and poverty.”

Nonsense. Want to talk about corruption? Nixon had Watergate (spies, bribes, and dirty tricks) and Reagan had Iran-Contra (illegal arms deals with Iran and money for Nicaraguan death squads). Clinton had Monica. Not much of a contest. Lawlessness? Crime statistics have dropped steadily during the past twenty years, during both Democratic and Republican administrations. There was a slight increase during the first Bush presidency, but that came to an end when Clinton took office. See the FBI table for specifics. For example, violent crimes have dropped from 640.4 per 100,000 in 1988 to 466.9 in 2007. The table has several other categories, with the same basic conclusions.

Poverty? That's a Republican specialty. Check out the poverty rate from 1959 to 2005. When did poverty drop the most steeply? In the Kennedy/Johnson years. It rose again in Reagan's first term and then slowly dropped, rising again during George H. W. Bush's one term. It dropped during Clinton's two terms and has been slowly rising during George W. Bush's administration. There's probably going to be a spike in 2007 and 2008 because of the economic crisis we've been in. George can try to blame it on the Democratic Congress he's had to work with for two years, but they've done pretty much everything he wanted in terms of legislation. He's having trouble shifting the blame from his administration. Even John McCain has started blaming him.

Now what about that Chicago business? It took me only a few minutes to discover that this forwarded message is as bogus as any other piece of Internet spam.

First off, 292 murders in Chicago versus 221 deaths in Iraq over the same six-month period. How foolish does someone have to be to take this seriously? They're comparing murders in the Chicago area with American troop deaths in Iraq. That's not a fair comparison at all. There are a lot of other people dying violently in Iraq. Iraq is not a safer place to be than Chicago. According to the Chicago crime statistics, 442 people were murdered in 2007, so perhaps the 292 number for six recent months is correct. According to Iraq Body Count, which works directly from published accounts, in 2007 there were 40 civilian deaths per day from gunfire and executions, plus an additional 21 deaths per day from suicide attacks and vehicle bombs. In six months, therefore, nearly 11,000 Iraqi civilians die. On the whole, I'd rather take my chances in Chicago.

According to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 208 American soldiers were killed in Iraq during the first six months of 2008, so the claim about 221 seems reasonable enough. I'm not sure, though, that “reasonable” is a word I want to use to describe a body count that includes my cousin.

Still, it's just not a valid comparison to Chicago.

The message claims that Democrats fill all of the leadership positions in Illinois and mentions Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. How did they miss Reps. Roskam, Kirk, Weller, Biggert, Johnson, Manzullo, LaHood, and Shimkus, all Republicans? Yes, there are more Democratic congressmen than Republicans from Illinois, but there are still plenty of Republicans.

It's true that the governor of Illinois is a Democrat, although his name is Blagojevich, not Blogojevich. His predecessor, however, was a Republican named George Ryan. He went to prison last year on federal corruption charges. And, by the way, the murder rate in Chicago has been lower during Blagojevich's term than they were during Ryan's.

Do you see now that there is almost no worthwhile evidence in the Chicago hit-piece?

I'm tired of all this, Dad, but my main point is simple. Stop believing stuff you get from the Internet. Stop worrying that the liberals are going to destroy civilization after the November election. Republicans are losing because they've done a terrible job. We've had eight years of miserably bad leadership. Obama will probably be better and I expect that he will be.

Take care, Dad.

Your liberal son,


Monday, October 27, 2008

Boot to the head

A martial arts expert sneers at experts

I was trying, but failing, to walk past a bookstore. This happens all the time. Accepting my fate, I let myself get sucked inside. I wandered the aisles for a few minutes to see what books were being promoted in stacks on the front tables. I like to pick up the most ridiculous books and page through them, just for laughs. Did you know there's now The Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012? It is perfect for the complete idiot who thinks 2012 will be replete with mystical cosmic events, perhaps involving Mayans or space aliens (who—you never know—might be the same thing). It's a really accurate book title. And one of the authors claims to be the world's foremost expert in crop circles.

I put down the book for idiots and found another one. Book for idiots, that is. This time it was a book of trenchant political analysis by that well-known trenchant political analyst, Chuck Norris. The title is Black Belt Patriotism, and I nearly didn't bother leafing through its pages. But the impulse overcame my good taste (and good sense), so I dipped inside. Pay dirt! On pp. 90-91, Chuck tells us the sad tale of his nephew's encounter with the evils of public education (What, Chuck didn't help his nephew get into a proper Christian academy?):
My nephew Andrew Cox, who is a strong young Christian man, was in the fifth grade when his teacher, a young lady who had graduated from the University of Berkeley, told the class to write a report about evolution. Andrew said he couldn't do that because he didn't believe in evolution. He went on to say that he believed God was our Creator and creator of the heavens and the earth. The teacher gave him an “F,” instead of allowing him to write about what he believed in based on his own convictions.
Oh, horrors! The unfairness of it all!

Young Andrew was cleverly trying to establish a precedent that would have proved most useful in his future education, if only the edu-fascist from Berkeley hadn't thwarted him. (By the way, Chuck, it's the University of California at Berkeley, not the University of Berkeley. Make a note of that for the paperback edition.) You see, if Andrew had gotten his way, he could later have refused to write a report in humanities class about the Greek gods (because he doesn't believe in them), or an essay on Marxism in econ class (because he's not a Marxist, and only Marxists can do that), or even a term paper on Islam in a comparative religion class (because he's not a Muslim, praise be to Allah!). Andrew is a clever cookie, but the teacher didn't fall for it.

Chuck likes to think, though, that he and Andrew got the last laugh. And I fear he may be right, giving us the last groan. For now, at least.
[R]ather than believe that he was a glorified ape, he believed that he was a child of God made in His image. He is in Army Intelligence now, serving our country in Iraq.
Oh, damn.

While I sincerely hope that Andrew Cox comes back intact from his tour of duty in Iraq, you can understand that I might be a bit conflicted about the professional role he plays. A man with his critical thinking skills—a creationist—is helping to compile the knowledge base on which our Iraq policies are founded.

Oh, damn.


You know what they need over at I'll tell you. They need a check box on their search function so that you can tell it to forget your search after it's been accomplished. An “I didn't mean it” button. Having gone over to Amazon to refresh my memory about the pertinent pages in Norris's manifesto, I am now being offered other lovely items “for the Chuck Norris fan.” Hey, Amazon, I come to bury Chuckles, not to praise him. I guess I'd better go search now on lots of science and science fiction books to flush the martial arts out of Big Brother's memory. And the New Age crap, too. Preferably before 2012.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A fond look back at the Palin dip

The surge that didn't work

Remember what I said back in August? I said Obama was “building his base.” That was when I noticed an encouraging trend in the electoral vote tallies over at (You can click on the image in the sidebar, too.) While McCain appeared to be closing the gap with Obama at that time, the senator from Arizona seemed to be specializing in “soft support.” By contrast, the senator from Illinois kept adding to his solid base. The Votemaster at, Andrew Tanenbaum, calls a state's electoral vote “solid” for a candidate if the margin in the polls is at least five percentage points. In terms of solids, Obama has scarcely ever looked back. As shown in the latest graph, Obama's solids now total more than the magic 270 needed to elect him president of the United States.

You can, however, see the scary period during which the stately progression appeared to unravel. Let's take a nostalgic look back at the days when the campaign was thrown into turmoil by the surprise announcement that Sarah Palin would be John McCain's running mate. The political ferment was intense as people speculated whether McCain had finally stolen a march on his more nimble opponent. For the days between the end of the Republican National Convention and the first presidential debate, it looked like McCain had kicked over the chessboard and started a new game. The “Palin dip” in Obama's numbers caused the first substantial disruption of his climb to 270 solid electoral votes.

The Palin dip was the result of excitement in the GOP base, the right-wingers who had never warmed to McCain. The hardcore conservatives were now willing to support McCain in the hope that he would die soon after taking the oath of office and make Sarah the neocon queen of America. Unfortunately for them, Palin was not ready for prime time. It was difficult to avoid mocking a candidate who said “All of them” when asked which newspapers she read. It was an unequal contest, rather like an Alaskan wolf on the ground wondering what to do about the gun-toting crazy person in the helicopter. But Sarah turned out to be the wolf.

The dip is gone now, of course. (If you feel an impulse to say the dip won't be gone till after election day, please try to control yourself.) The famous “game changer” wasn't, except perhaps in the sense that McCain's attempt to be a queen-maker came to naught. Palin turned out to be a pawn a few ranks short of promotion. But for a few days in September, we weren't sure.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Palin the apostate

She's a heretic, too!

My first reaction to Sarah Palin's professed views on abortion was, “My, how Catholic!” She thinks life begins at conception and that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances unless it's necessary to save the life of the mother. That's remarkably close to the Catholic position, although Rome's loophole requires that the death of the fetus be an accidental concomitant of the medical intervention, as detailed in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
However, if medical treatment or surgical operation, necessary to save a mother's life, is applied to her organism (though the child's death would, or at least might, follow as a regretted but unavoidable consequence), it should not be maintained that the fetal life is thereby directly attacked.
I haven't heard Palin express her position in such a Jesuitically nuanced way, but she and Catholicism are nearly on the same page.

Is it because she used to be Catholic?

No one has made much of a fuss about Gov. Palin's abandoned Catholicism, but she did actually start life as a baptized Roman Catholic. At age 12, however, she joined the Wasilla Assembly of God church and was baptized again, this time by full immersion in Alaska's Beaver Lake.

Did the second baptism wash away her Catholicism? Some Catholics don't think so.
If indeed she was baptized a Catholic, then she remains a Catholic. In fact, she remains a Catholic in a state of excommunication for having formally joined another denomination.
But that's just Internet chatter among lay Catholics. What does a professional think? Michael Sean Winters is the author of Left at the Altar, a book about the Catholic exodus from the Democratic Party, and a contributor to America, a monthly magazine published by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Winters observes that a double baptism is not sanctioned by Rome:
[T]he Catholic Church does not recognize the ritual the Times called “re-baptism.” More importantly, it is difficult to see how submitting oneself to a “re-baptism” would not be a renunciation of your prior baptism. And the technical term for renouncing one’s baptism is apostasy.
Uh, oh! Is Palin an apostate?

Perhaps not. She was a pre-teen at the time of her formal reception into her local Assembly of God church. Sarah didn't do it alone, either, since her mother and sisters got dunked at the same time. If she hadn't been a practicing Catholic anyway, it would be difficult to imagine her clinging to her neglected religion. It would be unkind—un-Christian, even—to describe Palin as an apostate, even if she may satisfy the technical definition.

No, it's more accurate to say that Sarah Palin is a heretic. All that's required for heresy is “the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.” I'm sure we could find quite a few. No doubt this will be fatal to the hopes of the McCain/Palin campaign to dominate the Catholic vote.

Sua culpa.

A dispatch from the culture wars

Christian cabal survives recall

It's a neverending story. It took several attempts, but the right-wing Christian students who sought political power at American River College finally succeeded in taking over the campus student association and holding on to it. Previous efforts had failed because candidates were disqualified for lack of academic standing or resigned after being politically outmaneuvered. For a while, though, it looked like they overplayed their hand when they put their college's student government on record as endorsing Proposition 8, the ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriages in California. Opponents of the student association majority successfully petitioned for a recall campaign, resulting in a brief but furious period of electioneering on campus. The ballots were counted this week, and the recall failed by a narrow margin. All nine targets of the campaign will retain their student council seats for the rest of the academic year.

One of my former students is a professor at American River College. “Steve” filled me on this week's events at his college:
Sorry to tell you this, Zee, but the bastards won. There were lots of signs on campus, including “Save ARC” (from recall supporters) and “Vote No on recalling your fellow Christians” (I'm not kidding; sorry I didn't have a camera with me to snap that one). The local NBC affiliate, KCRA, had live broadcasts from the college on Tuesday morning, the first of two days of balloting. The reporter found plenty of confused people who weren't sure of the issues involved. Some students said they didn't support the recall because it would disrupt the student government. (I don't know how much more disruptive the student government could be.)

Supporters of the student association majority were out in force on Tuesday, with a big anti-abortion display of dismembered fetuses (“Warning: Genocide Photos Ahead!”) in our central pavilion. Their power base is the local anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian community supported by recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They came to the U.S. for religious freedom, but found too much of it, so they're trying to cut it back. Opponents of the student association majority were also all over on Tuesday morning, working the student crowds and handing out pro-recall fliers. (I scanned one for you. It's attached.) Too bad they vanished on Wednesday, the second day of voting. I suspect that's when our Slavic Christians rolled up their victory margin, because they didn't slack off. There's a lesson there, isn't there?

Now watch them say that ARC students support Proposition 8. I don't think that's really the reason they survived, but that's what they'll say. Sorry I don't have better news.

Steve's right. It didn't take long. This morning's Sacramento Bee has the story. Jorge Riley, one of the surviving recall targets, was quick to draw the wrong conclusion:
Riley said he hoped the vote will lead to more involvement in campus politics. In the last election, 545 students voted.

“I'm happier about the number of students that voted than staying in office,” Riley said. Riley said he felt the vote reflected the community support for Proposition 8, which is on the Nov.4 statewide ballot. “This just shows that those judges had no place overturning the law.”
Clearly ARC is not requiring that students pass a logic course for eligibility for student government.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The high cost of bigotry

Ain't stupid no bargain neither

A family in Folsom has dug deep into its pockets in order to save California from the horror of same-sex marriage. Rick and Pam Patterson are Mormons who heeded the call of their church to support Proposition 8. The Sacramento Bee reported that the Pattersons are people of modest means, a single-income household with five children to take care of. That's why it was an act of faith for the Pattersons to cough up $50,000 for the sacred mission to overturn the state supreme court ruling that established marriage equality.

It's not exactly an investment. That money is gone whether Proposition 8 passes or is defeated. The Pattersons will raise their sons with dramatically reduced personal savings because they have faith. It's interesting what faith can make people do.

The Pattersons, of course, would argue that their $50,000 contribution is an investment.
The Pattersons, who have been married 14 years, say there were thinking about their children's future when they decided to tap into their savings to contribute.
If the Pattersons have their way, their sons will be protected from same-sex marriage in the future—even if they want one.

The Pattersons have five boys. People argue about what fraction of the population is gay, but let's use a relatively conservative number like 5%, just for purposes of argument. Consider any random group of five kids. The probability that all five will grow up to be straight is therefore (0.95)5, which equals approximately 77%. That is, the probably of having at least one gay child in a group of five is the complement: 23%. That is, the Pattersons have nearly one chance in four of preventing one of their children (or more) from getting married.

I know. I'm a terrible person for pointing this out. After all, Rick and Pam Patterson will never have a gay son. It's simple. If one of the Patterson boys ever has occasion to come out of the closet, he will promptly discover that he is no longer considered a son. Because of his sinful “choice.” It's the Mormon way.

Problem solved.

An inspiration to others

I'm not quite as crazy as the Pattersons, preferring rational thought to submission to arbitrary authority, but I did draw some inspiration from their example. I dug into my budget and sent the No on 8 campaign a contribution for $500. I consider it an investment. Maybe for one of the Patterson boys.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Creationists discover Wikipedia

But don't actually read it

The October 2008 issue of Acts & Facts has been published by the Institute for Creation Research. In addition to a querulous editorial about the unfairness of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board turning thumbs down on ICR's plan to offer graduate degrees in “science” (as they define it), Acts & Facts presents a tribute to that famed creationist and anti-Darwinian, Gregor Mendel.

Surprised? I was. While I'm sure that Mendel was essentially a creationist, having been a Roman Catholic monk in the days before Darwin published The Origin of Species, I didn't realize that the good Augustinian abbot was on record as being an unfriend of Charles Darwin. Nevertheless, that's what Christine Dao claims in her article Man of Science, Man of God: Gregor Johann Mendel.

Ms. Dao is identified as the magazine's assistant editor and bears no academic initials after her name, so we may presume she is not one of ICR's scientific superstars. We should still, however, be able to expect some simple journalistic competence, perhaps seasoned with just a dash of fact-checking. And by “fact-checking,” I mean more than cutting and pasting from Wikipedia.

Let's beginning with a brief review of the key scientific achievement of Mendel's life, his experimental discovery of the laws of inheritance. This is what Wikipedia says:
Between 1856 and 1863 Mendel cultivated and tested some 29,000 pea plants (i.e. Pisum sativum). This study showed that one in four pea plants had purebred recessive alleles, two out of four were hybrid and one out of four were purebred dominant. His experiments brought forth two generalizations which later became known as Mendel's Laws of Inheritance.

Mendel read his paper, "Experiments on Plant Hybridization", at two meetings of the Natural History Society of Brünn in Moravia in 1865. When Mendel's paper was published in 1866 in Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn,it had little impact and was cited about three times over the next thirty-five years.
Christine Dao heartily concurs in her Acts & Facts article:
Between 1856 and 1863, he cultivated some 29,000 pea plants (Pisum sativum). The study showed that out of four plants, one received recessive alleles, two were hybrids, and one had the dominant alleles. His experiments were the foundation for two generalizations known today as Mendel's Laws of Inheritance. Based on his work, he produced the paper Experiments on Plant Hybridization and read it to the Natural History Society of Brünn in 1865. The society published the paper in its Proceedings in 1866.
We all know, of course, that facts are facts, so there are only so many ways to recount the same facts. And, if you have to tell the same story, it's just more efficient to use essentially the same words, too. Ms. Dao is efficient.

But not thorough. At the end of the excerpt I quoted, Wikipedia notes that Mendel's discoveries languished for several years. In a later paragraph, the on-line encyclopedia reports one of the reasons for Mendel's initial neglect:
At first Mendel's work was rejected, and it was not widely accepted until after he died. The common belief at the time was that Darwin's theory of pangenes were responsible for inheritance. The modern synthesis uses Mendelian genetics.
Ms. Dao should have clicked on “pangenes” to discover the nature and timing of Darwin's theory of pangenesis, because the Wikipedia article does not make the sequence of events entirely clear. That extra bit of effort would have saved her from the following embarrassing claim:
Mendel's paper was rejected at first, since he evidently produced it as a counter to Darwin's theory of pangenesis, which was popular at the time and accepted as being responsible for inheritance.
Excuse me, Christine, but Darwin published his theory of pangenesis in 1868, while Mendel published his paper in 1866. You see the problem?

Ms. Dao is good enough, however, to cite a paper by B. E. Bishop as a reference. In Mendel's Opposition to Evolution and to Darwin, Bishop argues that Mendel could have been familiar with the 1860 German edition of Darwin's Origin and therefore viewed his paper on heredity as a contribution toward the fixity of species and therefore opposed to Darwin's views. This, at least, is a defensible thesis, although Mendel never mentions Darwin or evolution (let alone the future theory of pangenesis) in his paper.

As for Ms. Dao's time-disordered account of events, there is no defense at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blowing Riemann bubbles

They pop in your face

My student was frantic. She was hyperventilating. It was the evening before our calculus exam and she had called me at home.

“I really, really need your help! This has me totally confused, Mr. Z!” (This was before I earned my doctorate in truthology.)

I tried to calm her down.

“I have no idea why you're so worried, Monica. You've been doing fine all semester. There's no reason to panic.”

She wasn't buying it. The words tumbled out.

“Yes, I know, and I was feeling okay until this afternoon. But then I talked to Jay. I had a doctor's appointment this morning and missed your review session, so I asked Jay what you had covered. He told me you introduced a whole new way of doing Riemann sums and that it would be on the exam!”

I sniffed a rat. Jay was a good student, but also a high-spirited prankster and class clown. I suspected the worst.

“Okay. Well, what exactly did Jay say?”

Monica had just about caught her breath. She paused a couple of seconds and then reported her conversation with Jay.

“He said that we didn't have to do Riemann sums with rectangles when we're trying to approximate area. He said we can use different shapes. He said you were going to ask us to do Riemann sums with circles. Because, you know, you can fill up a space with circles and add up their area, just like with rectangles. And then take a limit, I guess.”

I was glad we weren't face to face, because I had a huge grin on mine. Jay was a little bastard, but he was a clever one.

“Okay, you can calm down, Monica. There will be no Riemann circles on the exam. No such thing, actually. He made it all up. He probably thought you would call him on it, but I guess he made it sound realistic enough that you fell for it. We'll have a Riemann sum with rectangles, but no other shapes. Okay?”

There was silence at the other end of the phone for several seconds.

“For real? That was his idea of a joke?”

“Well, I guess so. Though I doubt you find it all that funny.”

“I'm going to kill the little creep the next time I see him! I swear!”

“No, Monica, don't do that. It would be bad if you killed a classmate on the day of an exam. It would probably rattle the other students. Tell you what: Don't say anything to him, okay? Leave it to me.”

“What are you going to do, Mr. Z?”

“It'll be a surprise. Okay?”

Monica agreed not to kill, abuse, or otherwise assail Jay in class the next morning. Her initial outrage had already faded and she was almost giddy with relief that she didn't have to learn something entirely new on the eve of the exam. Besides, I had told her to leave things to me. An authority figure had stepped in.

There was the usual amount of pre-exam anxiety in the classroom the next morning. Student attendance was high and most of them arrived early. Jay was sporting a big grin as he sat at his desk, but Monica refused to let him catch her eye, although he kept looking across the room at her. He had not confessed to his crime and Monica had not confronted him. There was a bit of buzzing in Monica's neighborhood and I figured her friends in the class were aware of the scare he had given her, but the murmuring died away as I pulled the stack of calculus exams from my briefcase.

I delivered my usual patter as I strolled down the aisles and dropped an exam face-down on each desk. (Please read each problem. Check your solutions for reasonableness. Don't dawdle over any particular problem.) I reached Jay's desk, but he didn't notice that I dealt his exam from the bottom of the deck.

Everyone had an exam now. I returned to the front of the room.

“Okay, everybody. Turn your exam over and please fill in your name right now. Then please check that you have all five pages.”

Students scribbled their names and began to riffle the pages. Jay turned the pages of his exam until his eye fell on the Riemann sum problem. He froze.

They say that people's eyes can bulge out of their sockets when they're shocked, but I never thought I'd see it outside of a Tex Avery cartoon. Jay, however, did his best impression. “Oh, my God!

All heads swiveled in his direction. Jay brandished his exam at me.

“Mr. Z! How I am supposed to do this problem?”

I smiled at him.

“I don't know, Jay. But since you told Monica last night that we were doing Riemann circles, I thought you'd like to demonstrate the technique.”

The class burst into laughter. Jay shot a guilty look at Monica, who was clapping her hands, and a sickly smile formed on his face. The class settled down and got to work, punctuated by the occasional chuckle, as I walked over to Jay's desk and swapped his bogus exam for the real one.

I think it was one of those teachable moments.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Deafened by the echo

A more imperfect Union

I seldom watch political debates on television or listen to them on the radio. Why should I? Except for the delightful “You're no Jack Kennedy” back in 1988 (Come back, Dan Quayle, all is forgiven!), nothing interesting ever seems to happen. And it's not like I'm going to learn anything new from hearing chunks of the candidates' stump speeches, sliced and diced into little morsels that can be jammed into their responses no matter what questions the moderator is trying to ask. Yawn!

I'll admit, though, that I watched the Biden-Palin debate. There was at least the possibility that Palin would disgrace herself, although I thought it more likely we would get what actually occurred: an overtrained Palin dutifully and perkily delivering her set pieces and talking-point nuggets, repeating them relentlessly even if they didn't fit the questions she had been asked. No disgrace, but no win either. The snap polls showed a significant victory by Biden and once again the McCain campaign was denied the “game changer” it was desperately hoping for.

Not everyone saw it that way, of course. Palin supporters were particularly vociferous in declaring their girl the winner. Sacramento Union columnist Katy Grimes shared her joyous debate-watching experience, recounting in the October 12, 2008, edition of the paper how she and her friends cheered Sarah on to a stunning victory over the hapless and dumbfounded Joe Biden. Grimes and her companions were apparently watching a different debate.

In fact, they were. Grimes had her GOP-colored spectacles on and they protected her from unpleasant reality. It's all part of living in an alternate universe, an echo chamber in which you hear no voices but your own. In the echo chamber a complete lack of self-consciousness appears to be a survival skill, otherwise one might die of embarrassment.

In celebrating her new political heroine, Grimes makes some interesting remarks. I've taken the liberty of highlighting some of her words:
From the PTA to large and small city and county councils, all the way to Washington (except for San Francisco, Los Angeles and Manhattan), people all over America relate to Sarah Palin. She is not Hillary Clinton, whose desire for power and control has been as starkly eye-catching as her favorite orange pantsuit. Palin is not a left-wing nut like Rep. Maxine Waters or California Sen. Barbara Boxer. She is not a Nancy Pelosi-type whose liberal bitterness, nonsensical rhetoric and phony agendas are as prominent as her tight face. Sarah Palin speaks from her heart and conscience, not from a vindictive, bitter position, as do most liberals.
That's right, Katy. Democrats—especially the liberal ones—are nasty and vicious creatures who wallow in vitriol. Thank goodness that God-fearing Republicans are too nice to be vindictive or bitter (let alone make catty remarks about a woman's appearance).

Grimes and her friends were delighted with Palin's performance and admit that they mostly ignored Biden's, making it easier for them to consider her the winner. “We found that we mentally tuned Joe Biden out.” (Clever!) There was an exception, however:
Moreover, when he called the people of Bosnia “Bosniacs,” he left us gasping for air—laughing.
How cheerful and superior their laughter must have sounded! Oh, silly Joe Biden! I recall being surprised by Biden's use of the term, too. Instead of laughing and sneering, however, I merely said, “Huh? ‘Bosniak’?” Unlike Katy and her crowd, I didn't assume a term I had never heard before was an incorrect word. When I hear new words, I look them up. Well, what do you know?
Bosniak (plural Bosniaks)
  1. A person belonging to autochthonous South Slavic people living mainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Sandžak region of Serbia and Montenegro.
  2. A person typically characterized by their tie to the Bosnian historical region, traditional adherence to Islam, and common culture and language.

Oh, oh! Silly Joe Biden was correct! Sorry, Katy, but your derisive laughter was misplaced. (And you spelled “Bosniak” wrong!) I presume you'll be running a correction and an apology soon.

Kay Grimes probably knows by now that Palin has become a drag on the Republican ticket while Biden continues to be an asset to the Democratic campaign. I have faith in her, though, and I'm confident that she'll keep fighting. She's a scrappy one, is Kay, and that's probably why she can relate to Sarah Palin so well, even if more sensible people cannot. As Grimes puts it herself,

“I’ve fought ridiculous battles for my family ideals.”

Oh, I bet you have!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Candidate equivalencies

Hey, all my friends are doing it!

I laughed heartily when the locomotive version showed up in my in-box. Now it's made its appearance over at Pharyngula. Many other versions are on display at Fark. Well, if everyone else is doing it, how can I resist? Running with the crowd and trying to blend in is my absolute favorite thing to do. (Right.) Still, this time I couldn't resist. The real gag, of course, is the one devoted to Sister Sarah. The others are subject to more nuanced interpretations. I have some in mind. What are yours?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Dollars against Darwin

Getting ready for Darwin Day

Have you made special plans for February 12, 2009, yet? It's not just the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. It's also Charles Darwin's, and the latter's anniversary is setting off a worldwide celebration.

Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis is not a big fan of Darwin, but he knows a fundraising opportunity when he sees one. He sent me a letter warning me about the looming threat of Darwin Day and his need for money with which to combat it. His prose is typically apocalyptic (with lots and lots of bold). The scientists are coming to get you—and your children, too!
Dear Friend,

There’s no question we have a fight on our hands.

I wrote to you recently about Darwin Day, the new global holiday proposed by the worshippers of human reason. Their goal is to indoctrinate the world with molecules-to-man evolution and deny the troth of Genesis chapters 1-11—to undermine Christianity itself. But next year, it will get much worse.
Human reason has “worshippers”? Perhaps I should pause to genuflect and bow my head. Chest-thumping is optional (though our simian heritage gives us a yen for it).
Although Darwin Day will be February 12, 2009, we know many atheistic organizations will make the whole year a special push to get their ideas into every school and church. You see, next year will be Darwin's 200th birthday, and his book Origin of Species will be 150 years old. Darwin will be “everywhere” next year!

I'm most concerned for our nation's children attending public schools, who will be bombarded with even more evolutionist propaganda than usual in 2009.
See? Our children are in danger!
We've got the biblical and scientific ammunition we need to stand before the world—and the children of the world—with the truth, especially the gospel. But we do need your continuing help to do it.

It's one thing to have the knowledge and another to distribute it all around the globe, in many languages and many different forms. That takes the dedicated financial support of a lot of people committed to preserving the integrity of God's Word.

With your gift this month, you will help create two new Creation Museum exhibits that help destroy the foundations of evolution ... free-of-charge “Answers for Darwin” conferences that spread the news about Darwin's errors to abroad audience ... radio broadcasts, videos, and more that can rescue thousands of people from a faith-killing belief in evolution.
It didn't take him long to get to the money-grubbing, did it? But one has to wonder whether sending money to Ken Ham is a good investment for your average creationist. Didn't Ham “destroy the foundations of evolution” a long time ago? Then why won't the damned thing just fall down? The creationists keep tolling evolution's death knell but it continues robustly onward. The Rev. D. James Kennedy chortled as he declaimed, “My friends, evolution is dead coming out of the starting gate,” but Darwin's vigorous offspring is still here and Kennedy is the one who is gone.
And to show you how much I appreciate your support in this critical time, I'll send you our gorgeous 2009 Calendar in thanks for your gift of any amount. The 2009 Calendar itself is a powerful weapon against not only Darwin Day, but all year long, as humanists celebrate throughout 2009. This year, we've filled every month with beautiful color photographs and important information you can use to talk to your children, coworkers, friends, and church about the fallacies in Darwin's theories and confirmations of life's creation by a loving Creator.
Have you ever armed yourself with a weapons-grade calendar before? The Answers in Genesis calendar for 2009 is evidently a weapon of daft instruction.
For example, in the May page of the calendar, you'll learn how modem scientific studies actually refute Darwin's idea that genetic traits—like the long neck of the giraffe—develop on their own. We know that God created a wide variety of animal kinds with unique traits like the giraffe's, to bring glory to Himself and increase our wonder at His power!

This is the kind of information we need to share with our kids and grandkids: and encourage them to share with their friends—who are regularly bombarded with evolutionary teaching that attacks God's Word.

In fact, this calendar could be one tool God uses to equip a child you love with effective answers to defend their faith and reveal the errors of Darwinian evolution.

I'm asking you to send a gift today so we can get the calendar in the mail to you. The pages start with December 2008, and I don't want you to miss a single month.
The AiG calendar has thirteen months. Hmm. I'm not sure, but I suspect it's a sin to tamper with time.
But even more, I'm asking for your generous support right now because we have a lot to do to prepare for the Darwin onslaught next year and these attacks on the very foundation of Christianity.

I believe that we can turn the enemy's plans for 2009 inside-out, responding with an overwhelming demonstration of God's sovereignty over human reason. How many people—especially the children—can we show the truth and turn their hearts to their Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ?

Sincerely in Christ,

Ken Ham

P.S. Don't forget to request your stunning 2009 Calendar when you send your gift of support today! Your gift will help Answers in Genesis create resources to combat Darwin all year—just as the calendar will prepare you and your family to refute the claims of evolutionists throughout the coming year. Thank you for standing with us at this critical time!
Thanks anyway, Ken, but I've decided to get a Far Side calendar instead.

Teddy and torture

When Republicans hated waterboarding

During the past month my nightstand reading has been Edmund Morris's magisterial two-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. The second book is titled Theodore Rex and covers the (nearly) eight years that TR was in the White House. Early in his presidency, Roosevelt had to deal with a scandal involving American troops in the Philippines. The United States had acquired the islands four years earlier in the wake of the Spanish-American war and was involved in a battle to pacify local insurrectos and to establish an American protectorate (which remained the status of the Philippines until independence was granted in 1946 during the Truman administration).

The war in the Philippines was a nasty affair. American soldiers who were captured or surrendered to the insurrectos were roasted alive, dismembered, stoned, or otherwise tortured. U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had a long bill of particulars which he read out to his colleagues, sickening the members of the upper house. Lodge, however, had recourse to this extraordinary device because he was trying to quiet the nation's outrage at decisions by U.S. Army officers to respond to torture with torture. A hundred years ago, it was still considered improper for Americans to lower themselves to the least common denominator.

The following excerpt begins on p. 99 of the paperback edition of Theodore Rex and ends on p. 101:
[Senator Henry Cabot] Lodge's committee on the Philippines reluctantly published the Gardener Report on 11 April [1902]. It caused instant national outrage. Two days later, the Anti-Imperialist League released the even more shocking confession of a Major C. M. Waller, on trial for genocide in Samar:

Q Had you any orders from General [Jacob H.] Smith to kill and burn? If so, state all that he said.
A “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me.” Not once only, but several times...
Q Did you ever ask General Smith whom he wished you to kill?
A Yes. He said he wanted all persons killed who were capable of bearing arms, and I asked if he would define the age limit.
Q What did General Smith say?
A “Ten years.”

Waller also quoted a written order from the general: “The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.”

No sooner had the phrases kill and burn and howling wilderness registered on the American conscience than a third, water cure, came out of the Committee hearings. Witness after witness testified to widespread use by American soldiers of this traditional torture, developed by Spanish priests as a means of instilling reverence for the Holy Ghost:
A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit on his arms and legs and hold him down and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin ... is simply thrust into his jaws ... and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose ... until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious.... His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown.
Other reports spoke of natives being flogged, toasted, strung up by their thumbs, and tattoed “facially” for identification.

Amid mounting cries of revulsion, the President swung into action. He met with his Cabinet on 15 April, and demanded a full briefing on the Philippine situation. [Secretary of War Elihu] Root said defensively that one officer accused of water torture had been ordered to report for trial. Roosevelt was not satisfied. His entire insular policy was in danger, not to mention his reputation for decent governance. He directed Root to flash a cable to Major General Adna Chaffee, Commander of the Philippines Army:
Roosevelt also ordered the court-martial of General Smith, “under conditions which will give me the right of review.” These gestures, which coincided with the surrender of Miguel Malvar, the last uncaptured Filipino guerrilla leader, relieved pressure on the White House, if not the War Department. Tired and depressed, the Secretary sailed for a working vacation in Cuba.

Calls for Root's resignation followed him across the water. When General Smith admitted, on 25 April, to having authorized the slaughter of Filipino boys, even loyal Republicans were revolted. “It is almost incredible,” the Philadelphia Press commented, “that an American officer of any rank could have issued an order so shameful, inhuman, and barbarous.” Root was accused of a cover-up, or at least a reluctance to prosecute Army cruelty. “If we are to ‘benevolently assimilate’ Filipinos by such methods,” remarked the New Orleans Times-Democrat, “we should frankly so state, and drop our canting hypocrisy about having to wage war on these people for their own betterment.”
“[E]ven loyal Republicans were revolted”? Well, it was a long time ago!

General “Howling Jake” Smith's court-martial, by the way, ended with a slap on the wrist and an admonishment. The president regarded the results as insufficient and ordered the general's dismissal from the military. (It was a long, long time ago.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Read the fine print

My mother has a firm policy about comic strips: If there are too many words, she won't look at it. (Peanuts and Doonesbury have therefore never been her favorites, even before she developed a right-wing allergy to the latter's political bent.) Mom comes by this inclination honestly, having inherited it from her father.

My maternal grandfather was the last member of the family to be illiterate. Despite this, my grandsire was a great fan of the Sunday comic strips. He would pore over the funny pages and guffaw at the caricatures he found most amusing. With a cheroot wreathing his head in aromatic smoke—and keeping the grandchildren at bay—Grandpa would chuckle heartily at wordless favorites like Henry and smile at the funniest looking characters in the strips with dialog.

I don't mind wordy comic strips, especially since my favorites include Pearls Before Swine, where the humor has much more to do with the dialog than the exquisite art. Piraro's finely drawn Bizarro, however, is an example where the artist's skill is a key component of the reader's enjoyment. Piraro famously embellishes his one-panel comic with recurrent icons, so the daily reader can keep an eye peeled to see where the cartoonist inserted the stick of dynamite, the slice of berry pie, the alien in his flying saucer, or the eyeball.

Bizarro's cartoonist also likes to embed secondary jokes in his panels, today's entry being a good case in point. While the ape responds to the woman's envious observation concerning the greater usefulness of his feet, he reads a newspaper containing the headline “Global Village to Lose Idiot.”

This secondary joke gave me a bigger laugh than the primary joke, but then I paused. The joke, after all, has been on us for eight long years. That part of it hasn't been much fun.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Tripping through Palinstine

Oy gevalt!

They really ought to have a warning label. Perhaps something along the lines of what South Park uses: “All characters and events in this newspaper—even those based on real people—are entirely fictional. All political analysis is simulated ... poorly. The following columns contains absurd language, and due to its content, should not be read by anyone.” Of course, if the Sacramento Union had been honest enough to provide such a disclaimer, I might not have spent several hilarious minutes enjoying the surreal imaginings of Karen Russo, the Union columnist who mystically perceived what no one else could see: Sarah Palin is the second coming of Golda Meir!

That took chutzpah! Or ergot-laced bread in her cucumber sandwiches.
Sarah Palin: Alias Golda

Karen Russo, Sacramento Union Columnist —
Published: September 25, 2008

In 1956, Golda Meir was appointed as Israel’s foreign minister. Predictably, a reporter gushed, “So how does it feel to be Israel’s first woman foreign minister?”

“I don’t know,” Golda replied. “I’ve never been a man minister.”

You can almost hear Sarah Palin saying the same sort of thing.

Interestingly enough, Sarah Palin, the first female GOP vice presidential candidate, and Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister, have a lot in common. Not their politics, of course—Golda was a staunch Socialist, while Palin is the ultimate conservative.

Even so, each is a child of her times.
Right. Palin is a right-winger and Meir was a left-winger. Meir was the prime minister of Israel and Palin is a candidate for vice president. I see the similarities!
A Pair of Pioneers

Golda was born in Kiev in 1898, immigrating to Milwaukee with her family as an eight-year-old. Coming out of a hotbed of Socialist Zionism as she did, being a socialist was perhaps inevitable.

Sarah grew up in Alaska, the last bastion for rugged individualists anywhere in America. For her, being a conservative seems equally inevitable.
You know that old saying: “Geography is destiny”!
Both were real pioneers. Alaska in the 1960s was a wilderness almost as remote and primitive as was Israel in 1921, when Meir arrived as a newlywed. Luxuries were limited in both countries. Life was harsh, physically demanding and downright dangerous. Perhaps as a result, both became strong, self-confident women, leaders with clear convictions, strong opinions and confidence in their own abilities.
Israel didn't actually exist in 1921, but that matters only if you care about accuracy. That is not, however, the focus of this article.
Both married men who didn’t share their passion for elective politics—or so it appears, in the case of Todd Palin. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Sarah’s “First Dude” seems perfectly willing to stay home and bake cookies, if that’s what it takes. Golda’s husband, Morris Myerson, was also quiet and reserved, more interested in theory than politics.
This is unfair to Todd Palin, who is always more than happy to dabble in state government despite his lack of any official capacity. And someone might remind Russo that Hillary Clinton's “First Dude” used to be president of the United States. Why would anyone expect him to have kitchen skills like those of Todd Palin? (Assuming, that is, that Todd Palin actually has any.)
Both women led regular lives before the political bug bit. Sarah’s “PTA hockey mom” status is well known, but she also learned to shoot, hunt and field dress a moose as well as any man. Golda, who started as a teacher and bookkeeper, worked right alongside the men on Kibbutz Merhavyah, digging, planting and harvesting.
Oh, it is so true! Golda Meir lived a completely ordinary life until becoming active in the Labor Zionist youth movement—when she was a teenager. Sarah Palin waited until her late twenties to get involved in politics, but her life is otherwise a virtual mirror image of Meir's!
Sarah will be the first Alaskan to serve in the executive branch, while Golda was the first American citizen to serve as prime minister of Israel.
I'm just making a wacky prediction here, but I foresee that Sarah will not be the first Alaskan to serve in the executive branch of the federal government (even assuming that the vice presidency is part of the executive branch—something that I understand is still an open question in some circles).
Both had to overcome knee-jerk negative reactions to their abilities. Sarah constantly battles the media’s assumption that she’s a reasonably well trained airhead. When Golda and Morris first applied for kibbutz membership, they were rejected. No one believed that the “American girl” would be able to work hard enough.
That battle, at least, has been won. After the vice presidential debate, the media no longer assumes that Palin is a reasonably well-trained airhead. She is now viewed as unquestionably well-trained.
Personal Integrity Wins Out

The most interesting parallel between the two is their character, their congruity—what you see is what there is. Each is exactly what she holds herself out to be, nothing more, nothing less. Neither has a pretentious streak anywhere in evidence. Having that deep core of self-knowledge and confidence in themselves, each has a unique way of stripping away superfluous commentary and boring directly into the heart of any issue.

One of my favorite “Golda stories” took place when there was a serial rapist running loose on the streets of Tel Aviv. After several women had been assaulted, Golda’s advisors came to her with a suggestion: place a curfew on women, to keep them off the streets after dark.

“I don’t understand,” Golda said. “It’s a man who’s doing the raping. Why don’t we put a curfew on the men?”
That's an elegant solution that Golda came up with. We eager readers, however, demand to know more. Why didn't Russo tell us whether Israeli rape victims had to pay for their own rape investigation kits?
Sarah’s practicality was obvious throughout her acceptance speech. The Alaska jet?

“I put it on eBay,” she quipped. (Agreed, the jet was ultimately sold by a broker, but it had been listed on eBay, a populist idea calculated to horrify the Washington elite.)
Yes, the attempt to sell the jet on eBay failed, but the story is just too darned cute to let go. There's no need, either, to mention that the jet was sold at a loss to the state. It's all about intent and symbolism.
Much has been made of Sarah’s five children, and how she’ll care for them. Golda had two children, and suffered criticism from her own mother and sister for working. Golda heard their concerns, and in her autobiography, My Life, she wrote, “I stayed up at night to cook for them. I mended their clothes. We went to concerts and films, we always talked and laughed together…but I was never free of the feeling that I was injuring them in some way...

“Being able to vote for your mother isn’t nearly as good as having her at home when you get back from school. Women who want and need a life outside as well as inside the home have a much, much harder time than men because of the heavy double burden they carry...”
That's the problem with women who want to “have it all.” They neglect their children! (I'm sure I saw that somewhere in a list of Republican talking points.) I hear, though, that Sen. McCain has arranged visiting rights for the Palin children. They can see their mother whenever she is not being sequestered to protect her from journalists who might interview her. Things are looking up for the kids once November 4 rolls around, because mommy is going to have a lot more free time after the concession speech.
Echoes of Golda

They share a unique ability to simplify complex issues. Sarah, in her acceptance speech, emphasized the need to drill for oil in Alaska, rejecting arguments that drilling won’t solve all America’s energy problems.

“The fact that drilling won’t solve every problem is no excuse to do nothing at all,” she said.

For her part, Golda summed up Israel’s problems with the Arabs in one sentence: “We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”
The parallels keep piling up! That Russo is one clever writer. I would never have thought of mixing children and oil like that. Oil and water, yes, but not oil and children.
Ben Gurion once called Golda “the only man in my cabinet.” In the U.S., liberals moan about the “pit bull” John McCain set loose.

Sarah Palin, alias Golda. Two smart women, two tough cookies, ladies who refuse to be intimidated. For Israel and America, Golda and Sarah, exactly the right women at the right time.
Cookies! Yay! Cookies! I never saw that coming. The earlier comment about “First Dudes” and cookies—which seemed like a throwaway—was foreshadowing. And tough cookies? That's a sly poke at macho men and their stereotypically poor baking skills, isn't it? Oh, well played, feminist humorist!

Until the punch-line, I admit that I had been taking Russo's column seriously, thinking she was genuinely arguing that Palin and Meir were similar. Silly me! It was all an astonishingly elaborate shaggy-dog story designed to set up a cookie joke.


Even losers get numbers

And the last shall be third

The hiring committee was in a grumpy mood. A long day of interviews had come to a conclusion and we were trying to rank the finalists. The crop of candidates had turned out to be unexpectedly thin. I tallied my score sheets, scratched my head a little, and paused after inscribing “1” and “2” on my top two choices. I was pleased by this pair, but the other finalists had not charmed me. Not at all. I was particularly unimpressed by Ms. “Hopeless Lackluster,” who had, in my humble opinion, firmly demonstrated that she deserved last place on my ballot.

Except for pencil-scratching, the conference room was silent. Finally, the committee chair gathered up our ranking sheets and departed to confer with the dean of students.

You may not know this, but at most schools “hiring committee” is a misnomer. We're really just a screening committee. Dozens of applications come in for each faculty position. We winnow those down to the top ten candidates or so whom we really want to meet. Of those ten or so, eight or nine will accept the invitation to be interviewed. (One or two will have already been hired elsewhere or changed his or her mind for some reason.) Once the interviews are done, the individual rankings of the committee members are pooled and a small subgroup of the finalists is forwarded to the college president for consideration. It is the president who makes the final call, presumably taking into account the comments of the “hiring” committee concerning the strengths and weaknesses of the chosen few.

The committee chair returned to the conference room with the dean of students in tow. The dean had a few remarks:

“The president and I really appreciate your having taken all day to interview the candidates and to rank them. The chair and I have compiled your rankings and identified the top three candidates. Normally these three would be scheduled for interviews with the president, who would then offer one of them a faculty appointment. There is, however, a problem this time, which we'll discuss after I put the names up on the board.”

The committee members exchanged quizzical glances. The dean of students was not known for exaggeration. If he said there was a problem, it must be a significant one. We watched as the dean began to write. I smiled as the names appeared. There was my Number 1 candidate. Good! Then there was my Number 2 candidate. Great! My top two choices are in the final round. The dean wrote one more name:

Hopeless Lackluster.

“What!?” I was half out of my seat, blurting my dismay, when the dean turned back to face the committee and looked directly at me.

“I did say that there was a problem, Zeno. Let's talk about it.”

I sat back down, but I was on the point of gibbering. Ms. Lackluster was dead last on my tally sheet and here she was as one of our last-round finalists. It was absurd! How could my colleagues be so wrong-headed as to rank her so high?

The dean of students heaved a deep breath.

“Okay, this is really unusual. The committee agrees unanimously on the first two names. Everyone loves those candidates. Unfortunately, the committee did not like anyone else. After One and Two, your rankings are essentially random. We require that you rank all the candidates, so you did, but there's no correlation among your rankings beyond the first two.” He looked directly at me again. “Someone had to be Number Three, of course. There's no avoiding it. But it was anyone one's guess which of the also-rans would accidentally end up in the Number Three slot.”

I calmed down. As far as I was concerned, the dean was right. Except for my top two candidates, the others had scores that clustered closely toward the low end of the scale. While I had singled out Ms. Lackluster as the worst of the lot, the truth was that the other low-score candidates on my tally sheet had earned scores only slightly better than hers. With my colleagues in the same boat, trying to rank unimpressive candidates, our tally sheets had little rhyme or reason beyond the first two slots. Even losers get numbers, and someone had to be Number Three.

The dean told us that, if we agreed, he would take the first two names to the president. If the president asked why there was no third name, the dean would explain that the hiring committee had found no acceptable third candidate. The president would then have the option of terminating the hiring process (insisting on the president's prerogative to have three finalists to consider) or going ahead on the basis of only two finalists.

We agreed to the dean's plan. Soon thereafter, we were informed that the college president had interviewed the two finalists and appointed one of them to the faculty. Had the president balked, we would have had to repeat the entire hiring process again, hoping for a stronger applicant pool. We were relieved that it didn't happen that way.

And I've been grateful that we've never seen another crop of candidates as weak as the group that included Ms. Lackluster. (I wonder. Do you think she ever got hired?)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A rationale for Sarah Palin

No, it's not entirely rational

Adlai Stevenson was criticized during the 1952 presidential campaign for being an “egghead.” The voters chose Eisenhower instead, a man whom no one would call a smartypants. George Wallace ran for president in 1972 inveighing against those “pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight” (which probably included people who use words like “inveigh”). He didn't win, fortunately, but the incumbent vice president was Spiro Agnew, a man whose campaign duties included denouncing “pseudo-intellectuals” (though he didn't appear to like the real thing either, except perhaps when he needed a defense attorney).

George W. Bush famously made a successful political career on the basis of being a theoretically superior beer-drinking buddy. Al Gore, by contrast, reminded everyone of the smartest kid in class, the boy you always resented (especially if you grew up to become a journalist). And John Kerry could speak French! Thus it made more sense to vote for George, a dried-out alcoholic, because it would be more fun to hoist a brew with him (though he couldn't have one) than with Al the brainiac or John the linguist.

The past eight years have been the price paid by the United States for its stubborn anti-intellectualism. We prefer the dumb guy as long as he strikes us as nice, and we think we can relate to him. Americans seem to have an excessive fondness for good old common sense—whatever that is—instead of fancy book-learning. We disdain expertise.

In my own haut-intellectual style, I cannot help but be reminded of the forging scene in Act I, Scene III, of Wagner's Siegfried. (Please pardon me for choosing so obvious a reference.) The eponymous Siegfried is determined to refashion his late father's sword from the shards possessed by Mime, his evil guardian. In his bumptious confidence, Siegfried spurns Mime's expert advice and goes to work at the forge. Mime, the master craftsman, watches in dismay as the boy hero's unlettered enthusiasm succeeds where Mime's expertise had failed. As Siegfried melts, recasts, and hammers his father's sword anew, Mime mutters to himself a tribute to the power of ignorance:

Hier hilft kein Kluger,
(No cleverness is helpful here,)
das seh' ich klar:
(that I see clearly:)
hier hilft dem Dummen
(Here the fool's help)
die Dummheit allein!
(comes from ignorance alone!)

Sen. John McCain has not been very successful playing the Siegfried role this year. His straight-talk schtik wore thin and he was left without any effective just-plain-folks gimmick. Since he couldn't do it, he risked everything on the wacky choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Surprisingly enough, it seemed to work for a while.

John McCain's post-convention bounce was almost entirely due to the shock value of his selection of Palin. It is accepted as conventional wisdom that Palin energized the despondent hard-right conservatives of the Republican Party and gave them a reason to line up behind their party's unloved presidential nominee. Although some of the bloom is now off Sarah's rose in the wake of her tongue-tied interview ramblings, don't expect all of Gov. Palin's supporters to peel away. Sure, it appears that she didn't know about the Bush doctrine and she can't offer a coherent appraisal of the nation's financial crisis, but that simply doesn't matter. Why did you think it would? Her residual popularity is not based on any sort of expertise. It's based on who and what she is.

Conservatives eager for something to believe in have embraced her without reservation. Her interview pratfalls do not matter, especially since her supporters don't care about that sort of thing. They care that she is a pro-life hockey mom. They like that she appears to be a no-nonsense take-charge kind of citizen politician. Any suggestion that she does not live up to her image is dismissed as quibbling and petty carping. Palin is authentic enough for them.

Would she face difficult problems if saddled with executive authority? Sure! But her supporters know that a sensible woman like Sarah will instinctively make the right decisions when her aides lay the options before her. And she would pray about it, too! Yay for Sarah!

So, while Sarah Palin's support has been pared back to its basic core, nothing is likely to shrink it further. To those people, now manning phone lines in McCain/Palin offices in hopes of installing Palin one hinky heartbeat away from executive power, her performance in the vice presidential debate is largely immaterial. As long as she doesn't drool or fall down during the debate, Palin will be acclaimed a winner. The anti-intellectuals set a low bar for their heroes, and Palin is the beneficiary.

The nation, however, is not.