Saturday, February 28, 2009

Out of pocket

Cocoon man can

It's happening now and it's happened before. California has a budget again, one of those jury-rigged jobs created by tacking on just enough vote candy to squeeze out the constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature. It's never pretty.

The cuts are percolating down to the local level as school districts make out pink slips to send to teachers who might be laid off. The state education code requires that public school teachers be informed by March 15 if they won't have a job in the fall. I remember a few years ago when one community college district pink-slipped virtually the entire faculty, just to be on the safe side. It was eventually able to rehire them (except for those who decamped for better funded districts) when state funds rebounded in the interval, but I'm sure it was traumatic.

The current financial crisis in California and the country reminds me once again how I live my life enfolded in a cozy security blanket. In a tenured faculty position with years of seniority, I'm in a comfortable cocoon. My school district would have to cut a majority of its permanent staff before I'm at risk.

Not going to happen.

I guess the only people in a better position are those top executives who get to reduce costs by firing their underlings. And even when their companies go bankrupt, those guys float away on golden parachutes or scarf up bonuses funded by bail-out money. (Dare we even question their entitlement to those wads of cash?) I suppose I'm really not in their league, even if my position among mortals is enviable. Every day I am grateful for it.

I dig, but not too deep

As I was saying, the current crisis seems familiar. Once again, the low people on the totem pole are the first to get it in the neck. Our student help is being laid off and our part-time staffers are losing some of their hours. It sucks.

It wasn't that long ago that one of my colleagues, just appointed to an administrative position, lamented that she had had to dismiss all of her student assistants. She was telling me about it because she felt bad, but she was also explaining why she had no one to spare for a joint project we were working on. I had a bunch of transcription work to shuffle through, and it would have gone much more swiftly with a student aide to read things off while I sat at the keyboard and banged in the data.

I told her not to worry about our project or to commiserate with me over the tedium of doing the transcription as a solo job. I'd check with the mathematics department about getting some student help. She brightened at that suggestion, but wondered aloud whether my department would have any student help hours to spare after her office had lost all of its. I shrugged and indicated it wouldn't hurt to check.

Actually, I had no intention of asking the math department chair for any assistance. I was simply going to ask my students if any of them wanted a short-term job. Soon I had a couple of students eager to earn a few bucks for some simple number reading. The job came off without a hitch, vastly simplified by the presence of the student aides, and I dug into my own pocket to pay their wages.

That's right. I was sufficiently exasperated with the situation to cough up the funds to pay the student help. That will certainly teach the school a lesson, won't it? When you tick off Dr. Z, he'll get even by spending his own money.

“Ha! I'll show you all! I'll pay the students myself.”

Seems silly, in a way, yet great was my satisfaction at getting the job done and my students paid. I could afford it and the results were excellent. The students seemed pleased, too.

There was, of course, one tiny complication. The administrator was pleased that I had completed my part of the project so quickly and just a little surprised to hear I had been successful in lining up student help. She asked me whether she should write a thank-you note to the math chair. Oops! The math chair knows nothing about it. I merely smiled and said it was all taken care of and not to worry.

And there it sits, fading into the past. It appears that the administrator and the math chair have never crossed paths or, if they did, never compared notes on that project. If they had, the math chair would have told her the department didn't have any student help and that Dr. Z never asked for any.

It's my little secret.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

More creationist lies

You'd think God would mind

Why is it that devout creationists don't feel bound by the absolute truths of God's word? No matter how you divide up the tangled text of Exodus 19, the Ten Commandments always end up containing a rule against bearing false witness. Nevertheless, those who purport to take the Bible seriously barely hesitate before lying about evolution, Darwin, or any other target of their disdain. Apparently it's okay to lie if you're doing it for the greater glory of God.


The second 2009 issue of Answers Update from Answers in Genesis continues AiG's struggle against Darwin in particular and reality in general. The newsletter depicts Lincoln's visage as portrayed by the statue in his memorial in Washington. Across Lincoln's chest they've printed the words, “Our focus this month should be on Lincoln, and not a racist man like Darwin.”

There are at least two problems with the implications of AiG's declaration. Was Darwin a racist while Lincoln was not? The case of the Great Emancipator is a complicated one. Although he abhorred slavery and was the instrument of its abolition in the United States, he was enough a creature of his times that he was willing to go on record in support of the superiority of whites. In the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, he said, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.... I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Thus Lincoln is not the perfect foil with which to skewer Darwin for any alleged racism. What about the other half of AiG's claim. Was Darwin truly a racist? Answers Update notes that Darwin referred to “degraded” people who were “savage.” That's neither remarkable nor particularly significant, since any well-to-do English gentleman could be expected to so characterize the living conditions of the native of Tierra del Fuego and other primitive lands. (Oh, oh! I just said “primitive”!)

Furthermore, Answers Update tells us that Darwin would rather have descended from a monkey than from a dark-skinned savage. Is this really what Darwin said? The source of this item is a passage in The Descent of Man, in which Darwin said:
For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
It seems that Darwin is merely citing man's well-known inhumanity to man and pointing out that humanity is not the exclusive possessor of virtue.

After this bit of quote-mining, AiG offers the following additional evidence:
Also, the subtitle of Darwin's main work On the Origin of Species further reveals his racist beliefs: “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”
(AiG added the emphasis to “favoured.”) There is it, then. Darwin stands condemned by his own choice of words.

Except that we know better. And, we suspect, so does Ken Ham, who leveled these accusations against Darwin in his AiG radio program and then echoed them in Answers Update. Darwin is not using “race” in its narrow sense as applied to humans. The word is used in The Origin of Species in a much broader sense. Ham is almost certainly consciously lying when he spins the subtitle of Origin to tar Darwin with the brush of racism.

Consider, if you will, the following excerpts from Darwin's Origin:
Nevertheless, as our varieties certainly do occasionally revert in some of their characters to ancestral forms, it seems to me not improbable that if we could succeed in naturalising, or were to cultivate, during many generations, the several races, for instance, of the cabbage, in very poor soil—in which case, however, some effect would have to be attributed to the definite action of the poor soil—that they would, to a large extent, or even wholly, revert to the wild aboriginal stock.

When we look to the hereditary varieties or races of our domestic animals and plants, and compare them with closely allied species, we generally perceive in each domestic race, as already remarked, less uniformity of character than in true species.
You see that? Darwin even applies the word to cabbages. Is he therefore wickedly insulting the Cruciferae (and we could therefore denounce him as a “cruciferist”)?

I don't know what Darwin thought about cabbages in general, so I won't venture an opinion. I will, however, venture the opinion that Ken Ham belongs to the species known as Homo prevaricator.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The paper chase

Please sign here!

“Ellen wants to talk to you,” said Dr. Stone. “Hold on a sec.”

“Okay,” I said, but my former professor was already off the line. I heard some muttering in the background and some momentary fumbling.

“Zee? Hi! I've got news!”

It was Ellen's chirpy voice. My former classmate was still in grad school, but I had been out for a few years. She, of course, still had a shot at a degree, while I had decamped without one.

“Hi, Ellie. Good to hear from you. What's going on? Why are you hanging out with Josh?”

Dr. Joshua Stone had surprised me with his phone call from his beach cottage. He would escape to it between school terms to get out of the Central Valley heat. I hadn't spoken with him recently and his phone call was from out of the blue. Now I was talking with Ellen, one of his grad students.

“I got a job offer! The state university offered me a tenure-track position!”

“That's great, Ellie! Excellent! Congratulations!” My enthusiasm was entirely unforced. Ellen was a wonderful teacher and her arrival at a state university would automatically raise the level of its classroom instruction. As to whether she would raise the level of its research program—that was less clear. The moment I thought of that, I had to ask:

“Does that mean you graduated? You finished your research? You completed the requirements for your doctoral degree?”

I was on the verge of offering some additional effusive congratulations, but there was just a bit of hesitancy on the other end of the line that gave me pause.

“Um, yes. I'm just about all done. Um. Zee, I kind of wanted to talk to you about that.”

I waited for her to continue. I had no idea where this conversation was going.

“That's why I'm here with the Stones,” she said. “Josh and Judith have been putting me up in their guest room the last couple of days while Josh and I have been checking over the pages of my dissertation. He just signed off on it this morning and said it's ready to go.”

“Great, Ellie. That's good news. But why do you need to talk to me about it?”

“Well, you see, Zee, it's in manuscript. Really. Literally, manuscript—as in handwritten. It's almost two hundred pages of work that needs to be on high-quality bond paper with one-inch margins and ready to file at the graduate division office on Monday.“

“Ellie. It's Wednesday night. You have less than five days.”

“I know! And my faculty appointment is contingent on my having completed all my degree requirements before the start of fall semester. If I miss this filing deadline, my next opportunity will be too late to allow me to qualify for my university job. That's why I need you to help me.”

Now I had figured out what was coming next.

“So you see, Zee, I need someone who can read math and can turn a manuscript into a clean typescript. That's you!”

It was true. I had learned to use a scientific word processing program that ran on an IBM PC. It was a significant step up from the classic IBM Selectric typewriter with its interchangeable golf-ball typing elements. I had logged thousands of hours on the Selectric. I had several hundred hours on the word processor. I knew I was good. But ... two hundred pages in a single weekend?

Ellie would be back in town Friday morning. On Thursday I arranged with my supervisor at work to take Friday off. Ellie arrived at my house with her stack of dissertation manuscript. It was readable, although Dr. Stone's annotations were more difficult to decipher than Ellie's own handwriting. We sat down at my computer and the marathon began.

We worked late into Friday night and then broke for a few hours of recovery. Ellie returned the next morning with a friend in tow. He would provide an independent set of eyeballs to proofread the pages as they came out of my laser printer in batches. We'd squeeze out a bunch of pages, nosh on endless slices of pizza, and raid my refrigerator for caffeinated soft drinks. The stack of handwritten pages got thinner while the stack of laser-printed pages got taller.

Sunday was the big final push. I had put in a bunch of corrections on Saturday night after Ellie and her friend had left. When Ellie returned Sunday morning, she proofed the new pages and I slogged through the last dozen sheets of her manuscript. We were both goofy and disoriented, but by mid-afternoon on Sunday it appeared that the deed was done. We loaded up the laser printer with high-quality bond paper and generated the final copy.

Handwritten prose tends to become condensed into fewer pages when word-processed. Not so with math text. Ellie's symbols and equations caused her lines of exposition to take more room than plain words would. Her two hundred pages of manuscript had turned into almost the same number of finished pages. A pristine stack of gleaming white print-out sat on the desk before us.

It was time for the finishing touch. Ellie dug a manila folder out of her backpack. She extracted six sheets of high-quality bond paper from the folder. Each sheet was blank except for Joshua Stone's carefully written signature. Josh and Judith were planning to stay at the beach cottage for another few days and so he would not be available to sign Ellie's signature page in person. Instead he had laid each blank sheet of paper on top of a sample dissertation title page and signed it right where he saw the dissertation committee's chairman's name should go.

I carefully mocked up the obligatory signature page and printed it out. We put it behind one of Josh's signed pages and held it up to the light. Not quite in the right place. I tweaked the signature page and tried again. When we held it up to the light this time, Josh's signature appeared right on the line designated for the committee chair. With just a bit of trepidation, we printed it out again, carefully positioning the signed sheet of paper in the feeder tray, hoping we had it turned the right way.

“It worked!” squealed Ellie. It had worked indeed. The sheet in the laser printer's output tray looked as if Dr. Joshua Stone had signed it right on the line (instead of the line having been printed right on his signature). Ellie added the cover page to the pile of papers that was her dissertation and carefully bundled it up. Now she had to seek out the other two members of her dissertation committee. They fortunately were in town and had been notified to expect her.

“I can't thank you enough, Zee. What a great job! I owe you like crazy!”

“You're welcome, Ellie. The whole thing was crazy, of course, but it was fun to have pulled it off.”

Ellie grinned at me.

“That's what Josh said.”

“Beg pardon?”

Ellie's smile widened further.

“It's exactly what Josh said. When we were talking about how we could possibly make the filing deadline for my dissertation, Josh said I had to ask you. ‘Ask Zeno,’ he said. ‘He will want to do it just to prove that he can!’”

I stared blankly back at her and Ellie began to worry that she had said too much. I sighed.

“I have to give the devil his due, Ellie. Josh was right. I really did want to show that I could do it. And he knew that I would.”

We were silent for a few seconds. Then I picked up the sheaf of unused pages that Josh had signed with his name.

“Look at this, Ellie. Josh gave us a bunch of extras in case we goofed up. He should have had more faith in us.” I fanned them out. We had five sheets of otherwise blank paper that bore only his signature. “Want to have some fun, Ellie? We could dummy up a nice bill of sale for his beach cottage and put it in our names. We can have him sell it to us for one dollar. And I'm sure we can think of four other things we'd like to do with his signature.”

We smiled and imagined the possibilities.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

You just call out my name

Smile when you call me that

His name was Mark Merienne.* Perhaps it had a French origin. During the start of each semester, I always ask my students to correct my pronunciation if I mess up their names while taking roll. Fortunately, Mark seemed satisfied when I pronounced his name as mare-ee-EN. Soon, however, I had learned my students' names well enough that I stopped taking roll. I now called out their names only when I wanted to ask them questions or return their quizzes or exams.

I mostly stopped using their last names, too, except in the few instances where students shared a first name. Even then I sometimes preferred to call them things like “Ryan-sub-1” and “Ryan-sub-2.” If you can't get away with that in a math class, then where could you?

Mark Merienne was a scrawny boy with a shaggy haircut and a quiet demeanor. He seldom volunteered any answers in class, although he did all right when I called on him. He seemed skittish and uncomfortable most of the time, but lots of students tend to be unhappy in math class. I didn't worry about it too much. He seemed to be in stride with his classmates, somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Then the incident occurred.

I was returning a stack of quizzes. I started calling out names and handing out the papers as students took turns coming forward. I had an old quiz that a student hadn't picked up before because she had been skipping class, but today I saw that Mary Ann Jepperson was present. Therefore I called a name I hadn't called in a couple of class sessions.

Mary Ann!

Ms. Jepperson looked up uncertainly and hesitated in her seat. Then she saw that Mark had gotten up. He thought I had called him? I quickly pulled his quiz from the stack of papers. He approached my desk with a slight hunch to his shoulders and a sullen expression on his face. He took his quiz from me and sat back down, his lips pressed tightly together in a thin line of resentment.

I knew that Mark had thought I had called his last name, but then I realized the rest of the story, and the reason he was so dismayed with me.

Mark Merienne had probably gone through all the years of high school with the half-wit bullies delighting in calling him “Mary Ann.” Here he was in college now, and some jerk of a math teacher was apparently making the same old joke and mocking his last name. He had had a secondary school flashback. I was sure of it. Poor bastard.


I had to make it good without making too big a production of it, which would only have embarrassed him further. The opportunity soon arose. It was a couple of days later. I had another stack of graded papers to return. I started calling names. I was looking in Mark's direction when I got to Mary Ann's paper.

“Mary Ann!” Mark's head snapped toward me. He noticed I was looking at him and his eyes widened. “Jepperson,” I said. Mark's mouth fell open and I saw a spark of recognition in his eye. He got it.

A few seconds later: “Mark! Mare-ee-EN.”

Mark came forward, a slightly sheepish half-smile on his lips. He muttered “Thank you” when he took the paper from my hand, but I don't think he was talking about getting his quiz back.

*It wasn't, of course. The names in this post have been carefully changed to preserve the point of the story while protecting the anonymity of my students.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Denying Darwin

Massive ignorance helps

The Tulsa Beacon is disinclined to join the celebrations in honor of the bicentennial of Darwin's birth (and the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species). Instead, the Beacon chose to mark the occasion by publishing an editorial decrying the state university's involvement in Darwin Day festivities and the expected arrival of the Antichrist Richard Dawkins as a featured speaker.

The Beacon's editorial writer chose an interesting strategy with which to combat the enthusiasm of Oklahoma's intelligentsia for Darwin's legacy. How better to combat pointy-headed intellectualism than with slope-browed creationism and a display of densely concentrated ignorance and misinformation? By that token, the Beacon editorial is a brilliant success.
Evolution indoctrination at OU

February 5th, 2009

What is the difference between education and indoctrination?

The line between conveying information with an open mind and a mindset that parallels religion is being crossed this year at The University of Oklahoma with a 12-month celebration of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin.

While devoting huge resources to a campaign to “prove” that evolution is not a theory, the scientific brain trust at OU will virtually ignore parallel theories of the origin of man—including Creation Science and Intelligent Design.
If indeed the University of Oklahoma has set out to “prove” evolution, it must be the only educational institution in the world doing so. Scientists don't “prove” evolution. They seek out and compile the results of experiments and field work. Do the results strengthen the theoretical framework in which they operate or do they argue for changes? The framework (the “theory”) within which biology operates is evolution (and has been for more than a hundred years). The Beacon editorial writer is evidently of the “only a theory” school of thought—although “thought” is probably the wrong word. He doesn't know that theories are organizational principles for the organization of observed facts.
OU will trot out Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, to try to convince students and the public that there is no God and science has all the answers.
We can be quite certain that Dawkins will give no aid or comfort to the god-botherers while he's in Tulsa, but we can be just as certain he will not argue that science has all the answers. No scientist argues that. None.

Of course, so far science has all the good answers; that is, the answers that do anyone any good. Answers derived from religion or faith are notoriously weak, unreliable, and disputed by the thousands of contending sects. Pity, that, but true.
Darwin became infamous 150 years ago when he wrote The Origin of Species. He speculated that all life evolved from lower forms and that men were derived from the apes.

His unproven theories were all that the humanist movement needed to attack the Bible and any belief system that hints at the existence of a supreme being.
One more time: Darwin did not say that we descended from apes. He argued that humans and apes have a common ancestor. The ancestor certainly had many apelike characteristics, but it wasn't a gorilla or chimp or orangutan. Could we finally get this right, pretty please?
OU has a website devoted to this worship of Darwin and evolution. It’s clear from the content of that website that organizers believe that evolution is a fact and that if other theories are mentioned, they will be discounted or ridiculed.

Do things change? Certainly. But species don’t evolve into other species. Dogs don’t turn into cats. Monkeys don’t turn into men.
The “worship of Darwin and evolution”? Excuse me while I take a moment to genuflect.

It's not worship, Mr. Editorial Writer. It's acceptance of a successful theory. “Other theories”? Sorry: there aren't any. It's simple: no results, no acceptance. Those who prate about intelligent design and irreducible complexity and curiously warped versions of information theory won't get any respect until they produce some results. That's the reason for the well-deserved ridicule. Sad, perhaps, but completely understandable.
In fact, even secular scientists are doubting the viability of evolution concerning the origin of life. The laws of thermodynamics and common sense tell us that things don’t get better—they deteriorate.
In a word: No. Even the tiny, tiny handful of credentialed scientists who deny evolution know better than to use the laws of thermodynamics. They leave that to the hardcore creationists (some of whom probably also know better, but can't resist an argument that still stirs up the troops).

While we're at it, how about a nice list of those “secular scientists” who doubt evolution's viability? Unless you count a batch of goofy engineers, an addled semi-mathematician or two, and the occasional wacky physician, you don't have any, do you?
The biggest case against Darwin’s evolution is the fossil record. There are no viable transition fossils when there should be millions if you buy into his theory.

Where is the missing link? There isn’t one in the fossil record.
The “missing link”? No “transition[al] fossils”? If we were playing creationist bingo, there's hardly any possible configuration of entries on a bingo card that wouldn't have scored a win by now. The writer has packed so many tired old creationist talking points into one editorial that it must be under tremendous pressure. Surely we must be close to the point of a massive explosion.
Evolution science is not really science but a religion. That is why it cannot stand honest scrutiny or tolerate other views. It takes more faith to believe that men came from monkeys or a primal soup struck by lightning than it does to believe that God created the Earth and mankind in seven days.
Boom! Ka-pow!
Both are religious beliefs. Oklahoma students should be exposed to both theories (including Intelligent Design). Instead, the public school system in Oklahoma has bowed to the pressure of secular humanists and insisted that there is only one theory to explain the origin of man—evolution.
Now we're back to worshiping Darwin some more.
Incidentally, the origin of life cannot be proven by the scientific method, which requires observation and testing. No one was around when life began and no scientist—no matter how many degrees he or she has—has been able to recreate life in the laboratory.
“Were you there?” Ken Ham would be so proud!
Here’s the worst aspect of this story. State tax dollars are going to support the celebration of a mad scientist who infected the world with a new religion that teaches that God cannot exist.
Damn those schools who use tax dollars to teach science when they could be teaching religion! The writer began by asking the difference between education and indoctrination. He is firmly on the side of indoctrination, isn't he?
OU has stacked the deck for humanism and against other religions. Creationism and Intelligent Design should get equal time in this huge “celebration” of Charles Darwin.
That's right: humanism is a religion, too. And see how “equal time” just slipped in? Other creation myths need not apply, though. There's only two theories!
There is a God and that belief is held by the vast majority of Oklahoma taxpayers. Withholding that truth from our students does them a disservice and damages our society.
This just in: Tulsa editorial writer proves the existence of God by simple declarative statement. Nice job! Let me try:

Evolution is a fact. Evolution is a very successful theory. Evolution has no credible competition. Get used to it.

I slipped into imperative mode at the end there, but the simple declarative sentence is fun to write. It's harder to prove the assertions that simple declarative sentences contain, but the content of my sentences derive from a vast intellectual enterprise known as science. The Beacon's editorial writer prefers faith, so in a debate over scientific matters, he loses. Sorry, guy, but science is evidence-based.
When we tell our college students that they are nothing more than animals, why do we act surprised when they act like animals?
Who is acting surprised? Young people have always acted like animals. Of course, it's just possible that Mr. Editorial Writer was a virgin all the way through college and alcohol never touched his lips during the entire four (five? six?) years he was an undergrad. Unlikely, but at least possible. Unlike any of the arguments in his editorial.

A brave new numbering system

It depends on many factors

My friend Steven insisted that his colleagues had missed a golden opportunity to adopt a thoroughly rational system for numbering their courses. When his college embarked on a program to renumber all their courses, Steve had proposed a brilliant new scheme:

“It makes total sense, Zee. Instead of assigning numbers practically at random, you begin by assigning prime numbers to the elementary introductory courses.”

“Okay,” I said, “at least you don't have to worry about running out of primes.”

“Right!” he replied.

“And,” I continued, “I infer that you intended to use composite numbers for the non-introductory courses—namely, those with prerequisites.”

“Right!” repeated Steve. “You get the idea, but do you know how the composite numbers would be assigned to the more advanced courses?”

“No. Tell me. You have a scheme for this?”

“More than a scheme. It's a thoroughly rational system. You see, the factors of the composite numbers would correspond to the prerequisite courses!”

I reflected on Steve's idea for a moment.

“Okay, Steve. I get it. Like trig, for example, which requires both geometry and algebra as prerequisites.”

“Yeah, that's the idea. If algebra were Math 2 and geometry were Math 7, then trigonometry could be Math 14. You can tell from the number what the prerequisites are.”

“Nice. But what about precalculus, which requires trig as a prerequisite? Since trig isn't prime, factoring the calculus number wouldn't necessarily tip you off that trig is a prereq. It's a problem, isn't it?”

“Well, the system isn't perfect yet, but it has potential.”

“Perhaps, Steve. Certainly students would be warned when a course has a large number attached to it. Can you imagine something like Math 343?”

Steven pondered for a fraction of a second.

“Okay. I'll bite. What would that be? Three hundred forty-three is just seven cubed.”

“Exactly. And if Math 7 is algebra, that would mean they'd have to take algebra three times before they're ready for Math 343.”

Steve laughed.

“Big deal,” he replied. “Many of my students are doing that already.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

His fondest fears come true

Dad sees red

If you incessantly forecast doom and gloom, it must be quite a pisser when the sun insists on coming up in the morning. But at least you have some nice light in which to repaint the letters of your “The End Is Near!” sign. Still, it would be so much better if the apocalypse would finally show up.

My father doesn't carry a doomsday sign, but he's been carrying on for several years now about our nation's inevitable plunge into communism. It's what “the liberals” want, you know. And “those liberals” control practically everything, so our doom is certain.

Dad is now taking bitter satisfaction in being vindicated—at least that's how he sees it—by the cover of the latest Newsweek. It's not communism yet, but what else is socialism besides communism in sheep's clothing? Anyway, we're sufficiently doomed so that Dad can proclaim that his dire predictions have come true. It's right on the cover of Newsweek, after all—a magazine that Dad disdains except when it suits him to do otherwise:
Date: Mon, 9 Feb 2009 20:53:36 EST
Subject: I saw it comming!!!!

Dear son,

Hope things are going well for you, the rest of us are very worried. The environmentalists want to take our water and keep on piling on regulations that you have no time to do any thing else. and then I saw the cover on newsweek and my heart sank. I saw it coming but it came sooner than I thought.

Wishing you the best, Love Dad.
Coming from Dad, this is nothing new. I had not, however, seen the latest Newsweek, so I needed to find out what had elicited this reaction from my father. The cover story was titled “We Are All Socialists Now,” and that made it all clear enough. I fired back a mildly mocking reply:
Date: Tue, 10 Feb 2009 18:28:20 -0800
Subject: Re: I saw it comming!!!!

Well, gee, it must be true if Newsweek says it is. Cover stories of magazines are never wrong.

And to think that President Obama managed to pull it off in only three weeks. The man is a political miracle worker.

Of course, to be fair we really should give credit where it's due. The free market system was actually discredited by the worst president in American history. His eight years of mismanagement and neglect of government regulation permitted one sector of the economy after another to crash and burn. The housing market and the nation's banking system were just the most recent disasters under his administration. He must be proud of the smoking ruin he left behind for others to clean up.

As a dutiful son, I refrained from correcting Dad's spelling or being deliberately rude. I even fought down the impulse to quote to him from some of my current reading material, and that was a challenge.

By an extremely curious coincidence, I am in the midst of reading Interface, a 1994 novel by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, originally published under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. I ran across two paragraphs this week that would have certainly gotten Dad's goat. He would have been mortally offended had I suggested that these two paragraphs apply to him, but they do:
“Well, of course you're right,” he finally said. “The economy of this whole region is built on subsidies and federal programs. But people refuse to admit that because they want to believe in the cowboy myth. That their ancestors came out and made the desert bloom solely through their own hard work and pluck.

“Now, they were plucky, and they did work hard. But there are a lot of plucky, hardworking people in other places who have gone down the toilet anyway just because they were pursuing a fool's errand, economically speaking. The people who came here sort of lucked into a situation of cowboy socialism. Without federal programs they'd go broke—no matter how hard they worked.”
Exactly. These words were put in the mouth of a crusty old Colorado senator, but they apply just as accurately to central California, where the desert blooms because of state and federal water projects (and subsidies). But don't tell Dad that. He'd burst a blood vessel at the thought that he is a “cowboy socialist.” Besides, he's still angry that others (such as cities or “the environmentalists”) dare to compete with farmers for the water in California's reservoirs. The government built those dams for him and his fellow farmers. But the water is running low. Any solution will inevitably involve significant government intervention in the stalemate between competing interests, but who has the will to do it? The growing cities aren't waiting: They continue to nibble away at agricultural lands throughout the Central Valley.

Maybe the end is near after all.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

When liars figure

Although the figures don't lie

Misleading numbers are everywhere. Is it innumeracy or mendacity that spawns them? Sometimes I think it's both. Remember the bogus argument that autoworkers were making $70 an hour? That grotesque exaggeration was spread by right-wingers who embraced its propaganda value. Some of them probably knew it was false but didn't care.

Does Bill Saracino care when he peddles bad numbers? Does he even know that he's doing so? He uses simple arithmetic to calculate his misleading results, so it's possible he has great confidence in their accuracy. It's difficult to say. It's not, however, difficult to discern their bogosity. Check this out, from the February 5, 2009, installment of the Sacramento Union:
The stimulus bill gives the Coast Guard $572 million for “acquisition, construction and improvements.” It is claimed that these funds will create 1,235 new jobs. Grab your abacus and do the math. The cost of “creating” each of these occupations comes to $460,000 per new job.
We see that Bill cared enough to put “acquisition, construction and improvements” in quotation marks but not enough to read the words. “Acquisition” suggests buying property or matériel; that doesn't go into the pockets of the workers. “Construction” says that things are going to be built. Labor is by no means the only cost of construction projects. The results will be new Coast Guard facilities with a useful lifetime of decades. “Improvements” are in this same vein.

But Bill isn't done:
The Department of Defense gets $200 million to install plug-in car stations for its plug-in cars, of which it has 53,526. We taxpayers get each plug-in station for the bargain price of $3,700 per car serviced.
He evidently has a key on his calculator that permits him to do division. Good for him! But once again he neglects the minor consideration that the plug-in stations will create jobs for construction workers and electricians, that the stations will used for decades, and that the DoD's need for such stations will undoubtedly grow in the future. It's a long-term investment with immediate job-creation aspects.

One more:
The bill proposes $600 million for the federal government to buy new cars. The feds already spend $3 billion a year on a fleet of 600,000 vehicles. America’s Big Three automakers got more than $25 billion in December’s $750 billion pork-fest. Do they really need $600 million more? Does the federal government really need $600 million worth of new cars?
If only Mr. Saracino understood some of the more arcane functions of his calculator, he would see that $600 million is 20% of $3 billion (assuming he gets the troublesome decimal place right; percentages are tough). I'll admit that $600 million is real money (as Everett Dirksen might have said), but 20% is not staggeringly large. (I'd like a 20% pay increase, please, but it won't make me a millionaire.)

Bill eventually has mercy on us: “I could go on—oh, how I could go on—but I think you get the ugly picture.” Yes, we get the ugly picture. You're an innumerate propagandist for the right wing. But just to show there's no hard feelings, here's a nice calculator trick that you'll enjoy.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


Milestone & millstone

The Site Meter widget told the story. My blog was approaching a quarter of a million hits. It had taken three and a half years and about 600 posts. I thought to myself, “Wow. If I only had a dollar for each hit, I'd be one-fourth of a millionaire.”

Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I do.”

Yes. I did. It was sitting there in my checking account. It was a stunning sight: a six-digit number (plus two decimal places) right there on my computer screen when I logged on to my bank account. Damn. Look at that. I have more money than the FDIC insures. It would be a bad idea for my bank to fold right now.

It was a fluke, sort of.

Years ago I managed to pay off the mortgage on my residence. My lack of expensive vices allowed my salary to outpace my expenses, creating a growing surplus. It finally reached the point where I purchased an investment property and allowed the rental income from it to cover most of the monthly mortgage payments. Good deal.

Thanks to the virtuoso management of the nation's economy by our beloved 43rd president (my hero!), mortgage rates have dropped significantly. I decided to try to refinance.

Oops. All the good deals are for one's primary residence. Investment properties don't qualify.


Then: inspiration! I could get a really good loan deal on my paid-off residence. I could use the proceeds to pay off the mortgage on my rental property. In effect, I was shifting my mortgage from the investment property to my residence. The numbers worked nicely, too, since I'd be saving a few hundred bucks each month.

I did the paperwork, signed the application, and got approved. I gave the bank the information for the mortgage company that serviced the loan on my investment property. Then the money showed up.

In my checking account.


It was an awkward situation. Almost dangerous. I visited the bank.

“I have too much money in my checking account.”

The bank rep called up my checking account on his computer screen.

“Whoa! Yes, you do. We deposited the loan in your checking account? Why didn't it go directly to your mortgage company?”

“Beats me. But let's get it out of there and on its way to where it needs to go.”

The bank rep worked his magic, filled out forms, got my signature. A wire transfer was effected. My checking account was restored to its real-world level, comfortably inside the FDIC ceiling (very comfortably inside the FDIC ceiling, I'm afraid). I was a mere mortal again, although one with a paid-off rental property and a brand-new mortgage on my home. That's acceptable.

And today I'm on the verge of attaining a quarter of a million hits on Halfway There. The excitement mounts. Who will be number 250,000?

An eager world awaits.