Monday, March 30, 2009

The wrong kind of green

Just say “Uncle!”

My uncle and I should have gotten along better than we did. As eldest sons in our respective families, we had some important things in common. Primogeniture may be an outdated European concept, but the eldest son retains pride of place in traditional Portuguese families. He's the heir apparent and his wishes count for more than any sibling's.

It could be a sweet gig.

We handled the opportunity in different ways. I left the farm and went off to college. Uncle Ev preferred to stay. He stepped into his father's shoes when my grandfather became an invalid and proceeded to destroy the family business. He did it in stages. First, Ev carefully ignored any suggestions from his younger brother. My father's ideas might have been good, but my uncle refused to consider them until Dad gave up in disgust. After one of Dad's ideas had been ignored long enough, chances were that my uncle would “think” of it on his own.

Naturally enough, Dad got tired of the situation, cashed out his interest in the family business, and went his own way. The dairy farm was now entirely subject to my uncle's tender mercies. When he used up the backlog of his brother's ideas, he was on his own. Things soon got interesting.

Uncle Ev's personal brainstorms were of two kinds: the merely unsuccessful versus the expensively unsuccessful. A remarkable example of the latter was my uncle's brilliant scheme to save the farm thousands of dollars during harvest time. It had to do with cotton.

Every year, as cotton-growing season drew to a close, Central Valley farmers would hire professional defoliators to spray their fields. The defoliators would fly their crop-dusters over the cotton fields and lay down a chemical mist. Within a few days the leaves of the cotton plants would dry up and fall off. The cotton bolls would burst open, silky white fiber ready for the picking.

Uncle Ev begrudged the defoliators their annual fees. He decided one year not to pay it. The family farm would forgo defoliation and save the money. The cotton bolls would open anyway, Uncle Ev figured, and he would run the cotton-picking machines through the fields without regard for the lingering leaves.

In a way, my uncle was right. The cotton emerged from its bolls and the barbed spindles of the cotton-picking machines successfully snagged the fibers and drew them into the wire-mesh storage basket. However, the spindles also snagged the still-succulent green leaves and drew them in as well. The leaves were torn by the spindles and their pulped remains were mixed in with the cotton. The baskets filled with green-tinged cotton.

The first wagon-load of my uncle's green cotton was rejected by the local cotton gin. The gin manager informed Uncle Ev that he would not risk his processing machinery on leaf-laden cotton. The entire crop was banned.

My uncle did the only thing he could. He suspended his cotton harvest, swallowed his pride, and contacted the defoliators. Could they be prevailed upon to defoliate one more cotton field? Yes, but at a premium price. They were on the verge of retooling to do other crop-dusting, the usual time for defoliation having passed. My uncle's bright idea had cost him dearly and delayed his cotton harvest by precious weeks. He barely got the crop in before the mandatory plow-under deadline (enforced by the federal and state agriculture departments to disrupt the breeding cycle of the boll weevil).

It was a notorious disaster. My uncle's fame spread throughout the county and beyond. Farmers gossiped at local coffee shops and in the fields about Ev's expensively unsuccessful gamble. They agreed that it would be years before anyone managed to top it. They would have been right, too, except for Uncle Ev. He pondered his mistake for a year and could not figure out exactly where he went wrong.

So he repeated the exact same mistake again the next cotton season.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Catching another z

Been there, done that

On the one hand, my students never fail to surprise me. On the other, they can't help replaying the evergreen mistakes of the past. They have certain recurring problems.


Yes, I know it may be on the verge of becoming a lost art, but in most math classes you still need to write stuff. By hand. We don't (yet) allow you to submit your answers by texting. You have to write stuff on paper. If you can't read your own writing, you are in big trouble. Each semester I inveigh against sloppy writing practices that permit students to confuse their own symbols with each other. I have students who sometimes cannot tell the difference between their own 4's and 9's. Their own 3's and 8's. And, of course, their own z's and 2's.

It is that last problem that just manifested itself in a big way again. As before, it sabotaged a student as she was trying to solve an equation for the variable z. The results are similarly disastrous.

The problem involved a proportion containing an unknown. As you can see, the student briskly applied cross-multiplication, even indicating her calculation with swoopy arrows to mark the source of her factors. Unfortunately, the product of 2 and z magically morphed into 4. When she copied the proportion, she wrote 2 and z as indistinguishable (even to her) symbols.

Careless handwriting is hardly the entire story. Faced with a nonsensical equation stating that 40 equals 4, she promptly divided both sides by 4. She concluded that the answer had to be 10, which she promptly wrote in the answer blank. Funny. Why didn't she pick 1? Perhaps because in her experience 1 is so seldom the answer. The 10 just looks better.

Of course, “looking better” is an odd criterion for someone who can't even read her own writing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The wanted nail

Did I do that?

The pine cone was lying the middle of the path. Without slackening my pace, I gave the cone a sharp kick when I reached it, pitching it to the side. I was now a hero, having spared some future pedestrian or biker a nasty—perhaps even fatal—fall through the agency of a pine cone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But then a thought crossed my mind and broke my stride. What if I had done the wrong thing? For example, suppose a young woman should come strolling along behind me. Suppose a biker should come pedaling furiously down the path. The stroller would step off the path to give him (and herself) the safety of a wide berth. But then, by mischance, as she steps off the path, her foot comes down on the pine cone I had thoughtlessly kicked there. It rolls out from under her and spills her directly into the biker's path. The resulting impact cripples her for life and the biker goes sailing through the air, breaking his neck when he hits the ground and dying instantly. One life is ended and another is forever burdened by the deadly pine cone.

Oh, damn. I should go put that pine cone back before I kill someone.

I don't, of course, because I recognize the irrationality of my thought patterns. It makes no sense to spin ever more unlikely scenarios while choosing a course of action. I really don't want to qualify for the Worry Wort Hall of Fame, but I've got an honorable mention in the bag. In addition to being a believer in the law of unintended consequences, I'm also blessed with a vivid imagination. It's not always an advantage, since it can immobilize a person to see too many possibilities. While I'm not immobilized, I'm always playing out unlikely situations in my head. Does that happen to you, too?

It's a drag.

Perhaps my fretful nature is genetic, most likely inherited from my mother (courtesy of my wacky grandmother). Or maybe it's partly due to my being a farm kid. If you grow up on a farm, you see, sometimes you notice that not everyone gets to grow up. It's not unique to farm life, but dangers are real and small errors are easily magnified. The law of unintended consequences has a nasty little corollary. We can call it the principle of disproportionate retribution. It's like getting the death penalty for jaywalking.

Farms have many opportunities for teenagers to learn about the principle of disproportionate retribution, except it's difficult to learn a lesson when you don't survive the experience. One high school classmate put his foot wrong while dumping a load of grain into a silo; he suffocated under that load. A neighbor boy gave a kick to a jammed hay-baler; the unjammed baler grabbed him and baled him. My kid brother got to be a pall bearer at the funeral of a friend who rolled his tractor when he tried to make too sharp a turn. One of my father's acquaintances climbed down into an empty sump hole to open a jammed valve; he never climbed out of the methane cloud that rushed out to surround him.

It doesn't seem fair that you make a tiny mistake and then you die. That's because it's not fair. It's just one of those things. If you worry too much about it, you'll never do anything.

I try not to worry too much about it. But these things flit through my brain whenever I go for a stroll and my mind is free to wander. Maybe it's because those darned pine cones keep falling onto the path. I keep kicking them off.

So far, no reports of dramatic injuries.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Up, up, and away

Tall tales to small people

It was some special occasion, probably a holiday weekend, that found me sitting in a pew in my family's long-time parish church. Or perhaps it was a summer visit for the occasion of my godson's birthday. If so, then it was his fifth or sixth. The little man was sitting next to me, his much-loved uncle, and his younger brother was sitting next to him. Next came their mother, my sister, and her non-Catholic husband, who dutifully accompanied her to as many religious observances as would a true son of Rome.

The nephews were fidgety during the mass service, striving to behave while their eyes darted about. My sister, the most devout among us by a fair margin, had her gaze resolutely fixed upon the activities at the altar, where the priest was tidying up after the communion service. Most of the congregants sat serenely. My gaze wandered in emulation of my nephews. I was as bored as they with the overly familiar ritual. I no longer attended regularly and lacked the endurance of the believers.

Some changes had been made to the church since my last visit. The pastor of my childhood, the redoubtable Monsignor, has been succeeded by the current priest, a more cheerful and rotund fellow who had busied himself with renovating the premises. Father's additions included a battery of wide-vaned fans suspended from the beams of the ceiling. They seemed a prudent investment for an old church in the Central Valley, where summers are reliably stifling.

My godson followed my gaze upward. He looked at me quizzically, eyebrows raised. I smiled at him.

“You see those, Chuck?”

He gave a vigorous but tiny nod of his head. My godson had been schooled to hold his tongue during mass and said nothing. I pointed up at the fans discreetly, not raising my arm.

“Do you know what they are?”

He shook his head slightly.

“Those are propellers,” I said.

“No!” he breathed at me, the word startled out of him.

“Yes!” I whispered back. “They're propellers. Whenever he wants to, Father can turn on the propellers and fly the church up to heaven!”

A huge grin split Chuck's face. He was delighted by the fantasy of an airborne church. He turned toward his younger brother.

“Mikey, Mikey! Guess what Uncle Zeno says!”

His brother looked up with his eyes wide. “What?”

Chuck bent his head down and whispered in his brother's ear, whereupon the younger boy burst into laughter. My sister's head suddenly swiveled about.

“Boys! Shh!” She fixed her level gaze on me and gave me a small frown. “Don't rile up the boys, Zee. Don't.”

Another quarter-hour passed and Father finally said, “The mass is ended.” The congregation gave the entirely appropriate response, “Thanks be to God,” and everyone stampeded toward the doors. No sooner were we outside than my sister rounded on me.

“I swear, Zee, the most frightening words in the English language are ‘Guess what Uncle Zeno says.’ Why do you do this to me?”

I assumed an aspect of total innocence. She scowled.

“Just think about it a moment, Zee. Can you imagine what's going to happen the first time I bring the boys to church and Father has the fans turned on? I'm going to have a riot on my hands!”

My brother-in-law cracked a grin, standing safely one step behind his wife. The nephews burst into giggles. The hilarity did not cause my sister's irritation to abate.

“The boys are going to go nuts, Zee. You know how little it takes to set Mikey off. The fans will be spinning and he'll be shouting ‘Going to heaven! Going to heaven!’ Damn it, Zee, it's going to be a panic.”

I blinked at my sister and sought to comfort her. “Don't worry, Sis. If you keep talking like that, you're in no danger of flying up to heaven.”

It was quite some time before she forgave me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The once and future scapegoat

Twisting Clinton's legacy

Most people thought it was just a clever joke when The Onion greeted the inauguration of George W. Bush with the headline “Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over.” It was, unfortunately, perfectly prescient. Although Bill Clinton left office amid complaints that he had failed to live up to expectations, his successor burnished Clinton's reputation to a high and resilient shine. When graded on the curve, Bill looks damned good.

Clinton haters are left grasping for straws when they try to pin all the ills of the world on the 42nd president. After eight years of the 43rd, you'd think those matters would have been resolved. Instead, any problem that existed during the Clinton years pales in comparison with the pratfalls, fumbles, and outright disasters of the Bush years. But never fear. The dedicated Clinton hater will spring to Bush's defense anyway, peering back over the years for the tiniest scrap of evidence to shift blame from 43 to 42.

Dad didn't like it when I gently mocked his I-told-you-so message about Newsweek's silly “socialist” cover. Although my father is not the biggest Bush fan in the world, he took offense when I said, “The housing market and the nation's banking system were just the most recent disasters under his administration. [Bush] must be proud of the smoking ruin he left behind for others to clean up.” Dad thought he had me now. He issued a weary wiser-than-thou rebuttal to his ignorant young left-wing son who, unlike himself, evidently did not experience the horrors of that ancient era known as the nineties:
I wish it were that simple. I remember Janet Reno threaten to sue any loan company if they did not loan money to anyone just because they were poor or minority. so the banks had to loan. That was a liberal policy and it kept growing until it burst. you can not blame that on W. tho he acted more like a liberal than a conservative.
Oh, yes, Bush's failures are due to his liberal policies. Right. And then there's Janet Reno. She insisted that banks lend money to anyone. I have heard legends of her reign of terror and dimly recall news accounts of her exploits back when I was a downy-cheeked lad in my forties.

Geez, Dad. Give a grown-up son a little credit, why don't you? To the keyboard!
Nonsense, Dad. You're remembering something that didn't happen. The Clinton administration opposed the discriminatory practice of redlining, which automatically denied you a loan if you lived in certain areas. Automatically! Banks wouldn't even bother to look at your application if you came from a Zip code they didn't like. The U.S. Department of Justice under attorney general Janet Reno went after banks that used redlining. Nothing in the legal settlements between the DOJ and various banks required anyone to issue loans to unqualified applicants. Instead the settlements stopped the banks from issuing automatic denials. Individuals had to be permitted to apply, no matter where they lived. They were still, however, subject to nonarbitrary lending qualifications.

Did some banks issue loans to people who couldn't afford them? Definitely. We know they did. But it's not because the feds made them do it. It's because the banking institutions got greedy and figured the housing bubble would continue to expand forever and they could write more paper indefinitely.

Ask your grandson if you don't believe me. He saw first-hand how people in his office were giving loans to unqualified applicants because they thought they could get away with it (and simply offer a refi when the loans became untenable). And under the Bush administration the federal regulators didn't raise a finger to stop them.

Go ahead and blame Janet Reno, if you like, but I know enough about what really happened to not fall for it.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth is the e-mail of an informed child.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Looks like I picked the wrong week

To stop smacking my lips

I gave it up cold turkey in February. I simply stopped dabbing ChapStick on my lips, ending a habit that must be over forty years old. (I remember having a tube of ChapStick—the old metal tube—in my pocket in high school.) Just like that I rang the curtain down on an addiction that has seen several clothes-ruining episodes of ChapStick tumbling about in the washer and dryer. Just like that I gave up the sensuous comfort of wax-slickened lips.

For the most part, anyway. There's still a tube in my pocket, just for safety's sake. Just in case the withdrawals become too acute.

I've slipped only once. No, really, only once. It happened without thinking. It was cold early in the morning, the wind had picked up, and I bustled into my office sniffing and snorting. My lips were dry and I was entirely on autopilot as my hand snatched the ChapStick from my pocket and I was swiping away at my everted epithelium before suddenly realizing that I was falling off the wagon.

That happened last week. It was my one slip during the past six weeks, which means I lasted over four weeks before the unconscious backsliding. If I had been brave enough to banish the ChapStick from my pocket it would not have occurred.

But it's still there, there in my pocket, tempting me.

I fell into this long-term habit quite innocently, of course. My mother noticed that I had given up chewing my nails (a grammar school habit) and moved on to chewing my lips. Chewed-up nails might be unattractive, but chewed-up lips are even worse. It was Mom who took me in hand and introduced me to the sleek enamel-black tube with the white cap. Soon a tube of ChapStick was my constant companion and I was routinely repairing my labial damage with anointings of processed beeswax and petrolatum. Bliss!

Not even the annoyingly perky Suzy Chaffee commercials of the 1970s (“You can call me ‘Suzy ChapStick’!”) could drive me away from my new addiction. I was hooked and loving it.

Over the decades, though, I began (very slowly) to consider the nature of my chemical bondage and the degree to which ChapStick had enslaved me. What it popped up in a Katy Perry song (“the taste of her Cherry ChapStick”), I realized how ChapStick had become an unremarked element of our social fabric and environmental background, taken completely for granted. Perhaps that sparked an element of rebellion and helped me recognize my dependency. I stopped using it. Next, I'll stop putting it in my pocket every morning. No more ChapStick.

But I still want it!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Overcoming sanity

It's not crazy when they do it!

Remember “Bush derangement syndrome”? Right-wingers were quick to hurl that charge at anyone who dared criticize the most incompetent administration in American history. They didn't like it when people pointed out that George W. Bush was continuing as president the unbroken line of failure and underachievement he had established as an Air National Guard pilot, oil man, baseball team owner, and state governor. To criticize him was to hate him, they said, and a clear sign of Bush derangement syndrome (BDS).

I did not and do not hate George Bush, although I did despise him and his policies. That's different. It appears, though, that Bush's departure from office has opened the door to a new and more virulent syndrome. I speak, of course, of “Obama derangement syndrome.” Those who suffer from it don't so much suffer from it as wallow in it. The on-line asylum known as Free Republic is the perfect place to see the ODS brigade in gibbering action.
Yes the usurper is truly frightening. I find it difficult to look at him. I am not kidding. I think he has very cold cold dead eyes. He is a back stabber. Smiles at you and then knifes you. He knows exactly what he is doing. His mistake is implementing his plans too quickly. He has shown his hand and even politically unaware people are taking notice. I really can’t stand the sight or sound of him. I avoid him as if he were Satan himself. I need not hear a word he says. It is all lies.

9 posted on Sunday, March 15, 2009 4:58:21 PM by TheConservativeParty
(Democrats are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling.)
Fascinating, isn't it? I remember thinking, every time that I saw Bush's simpering face in the newspaper or on television, how embarrassing it was that he was our nation's chief executive. I considered him a shallow and ignorant man who pandered to the most narrow-minded constituencies in the country. I did not, however, think George W. Bush was evil incarnate—pure malice walking among us in human form. (Dick Cheney has that job covered.)

But the ODS crowd is right up there with the paranoid John Birch Society members of the 1950s and 60s. You know, the loonies who considered Dwight Eisenhower (of all people) to be a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” Today the inheritors of the wingnut legacy spew their hatred at the new man in the White House, delighting in calling him “Hussein” and spelling his last name with a zero in place of the O. They really think he has a plan to destroy the United States.

The insanity may be just beginning.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pat Boone's excellent adventure

But it was only a dream

To be fair about it, Pat Boone was the first to admit that his dream could have been caused by something he ate. (I'm guessing it was a pineapple, green pepper, and anchovy pizza.) For him, though, it was anything but a nightmare. No, it was total wish fulfillment, fraught with epic craziness right from the beginning:
News Bulletin: In a stunning, unprecedented civilian uprising, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid were recalled and sent packing. Practically overnight, responding to the national emergency, an extraordinary election propelled entertainer/activist Pat Boone into the White House.
That's the way dreams are, of course: entirely independent of reality. There are no constitutional provisions for recalling the president, vice president, House speaker, and Senate majority leader. And if Boone is thinking of impeachment, that doesn't apply to legislators. It's a fantasy, right along with the notion of a special election for president—yet another thing that is not in the constitution. There's an order of succession for the presidency and it leaves no room for Pat.

First of all, I wonder what Pat has been smoking. Second, why doesn't the U.S. Constitution exist in his dreamland? It's strange how much contempt the super-patriotic demonstrate toward our founding documents. (They're not really patriots at all, are they?) He fantasizes about having Newt Gingrinch back in his old job as Speaker of the House. I guess Boone's alternate universe allows U.S. presidents to appoint the congressional leadership. Does the man who thinks President Obama is a socialist hunger for the opportunity to be a fascist chief executive?

Pat Boone rushes through his frenetic extremist agenda, giving the military absolutely everything it wants and then imagining the revocation of the economic bail-out measures. President Boone fantasizes how happy Americans will celebrate the collapse into Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the country's banks and lending institutions and automobile companies. They won't mind, you see, because the national debt won't be as large under a Boone administration—unless, of course, the prostrate economy pulls the rug out from under the federal government's revenues.

But President Boone is ready. He and his fantasy-league secretary of the treasury, Steve Forbes, ride to the rescue with the flat tax:
With Secretary Forbes' guidance, we instituted the long-sought flat tax, greatly simplifying the whole process and making it much fairer to everybody. Nobody would pay more than 10 percent, and with family deductions, lower-income folks would pay little or nothing. Amazingly, by ridding ourselves of a 700-page code and all the loopholes still in it, and by taking undue burdens off businesses, statistics showed that the government would do better than it ever did before with all its labyrinthine complexity.
Boone commits the usual sin of pretending that a flat tax is required for tax simplification. Nonsense. It's an entirely separate issue and there's no inherent reason that a progressive tax structure has to be as complicated as the one we have.

As for “long-sought,” Boone is talking about the plutocrats who relish the thought of shifting the tax burden toward people with lower incomes. That's what the flat tax would do. He tries to finesse the issue by offering a family deduction that would wipe out the tax obligation of some low-income families, but it's an implicit acknowledgment of the key idea behind progressive tax rates: poor people pay less. Dollars may be created equal, but they don't stay that way. A dollar in the pocket of a poor person is subsistence. That same dollar in a millionaire's pocket is negligible. As described, even Boone's cherished flat tax contains two de facto tax brackets and lacks ideal flatness. No one dares support a truly flat tax.

Boone natters away at various other ideas, such as returning to the gold standard, revoking foreign aid, and fighting abortion. Then he turns his magisterial attention to education:
As a man who intended to be a teacher myself, I issued an ultimatum to the teachers' unions: They would return to basic math, including arithmetic, and basic English (the mandated official language), and basic science devoid of unproven theories like evolution, sticking instead to factual evidence and not discounting “intelligent design” as the more scientific basis for life and existence. All history books would again detail the reasons America was founded, and tell the stories of our Founding Fathers and national heroes—not latter day revisions. Teachers' pay and advancement would depend on the test scores and comprehension of their students.
What a teacher the world lost when Pat Boone was diverted into the entertainment industry! How fortunate we are that the end of his singing career has freed him to become a political pundit and teach us all how the world should be.

Too bad he's an idiot, prating about intelligent design as if it bears any relationship to science or reality, insisting on turning the Founding Fathers back into brightly colored two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and creating a situation in which teachers have to teach to a state-mandated test to preserve their careers. It's a Republican paradise!

Having created the plenipotentiary presidency of George W. Bush's dreams, Boone ends his own nocturnal emission with an edict to the judiciary, which he expects to tremble before him:
And a final ultimatum was directed to the courts, from the Supremes on down to local judiciary: “Hands off religion, as the First Amendment dictates. And you will no longer legislate from the bench. Keep your personal ideas to yourselves, and enforce the legislated will of the people.”
Hey, Pat! You want the will of the people? Then pay attention! Last year the people gave Barack Obama 365 electoral votes and a popular-vote margin of several percentage points in making him president of the United States. The people also gave the Democratic Party large majorities in both houses of congress. The people have spoken.

You really ought to wake up and listen.

Pi in the sky

And God says ‘hi’

I've always suspected that I was one of God's favorites. Even decades of disbelief have failed to dislodge that suspicion from its perch deep within my psyche. Of course, it needn't be “God” in whose favor I bask. Perhaps the universe just likes me. At least, that's what the weight of the evidence suggests. Things usually go right for me.

March 14 is duly celebrated each year as Pi Day, as well it should. Special festivities are conducted at precisely 1:59 in honor of the transcendental number whose decimal expansion begins with 3.14159. True devotees choose 1:59 in the morning for their rites (and they're usually still up anyway, since staying up late is a common trait among nerds and math geeks). Less hardy pi celebrants settle for 1:59 in the afternoon, although true believers may dismiss them as heretics for choosing the doctrinally unsound 13:59.

It was in the digits of pi that I discovered incontrovertible evidence of God's favor. It occurred at position 100,518,702, counting the digits beginning with the 1 after the decimal point. To my surprise, there was the string 72739070. Perhaps it doesn't mean much to you, but it easily parses into a string of decimal ASCII codes:

72 73 90 70

If, for some reason, you have forgotten your American Standard Code for Information Interchange (or, more forgivably, you memorized only the hex equivalents), then you may be puzzled. Eventually, though, you should figure out that pi is spelling out the letters HIZF. This string undeniably stands for “Hi, Zeno Ferox!” There's nothing else it could possibly be. (I reject out of hand the silly notion that it could possibly involve Zermelo-Fraenkel in some way, a suggestion that is the epitome of absurdity.)

No, it is clearly and self-evidently a personal greeting to yours truly. And let's not ignore the fact that God (or whatever) chose to use the initials of my blogging pseudonym, just to make it more convenient for me to brag about it without exposing my true identity. Like the horse shoe that is lucky even if you don't believe in it, God is polite even when you don't believe in him. It's a win-win situation.

Still don't believe it? Then how do you explain the redundant greeting 89799070 at position 50,220,792? That's right. It's “Yo, ZF.” Proof positive!

Happy Pi Day!


Thanks to the Science Punk for bringing to my attention this musical celebration of pi. The guys in pointy hats have perfectly captured the cadences of my typical lecture style!

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Norwegian blue diskette

This is ex-data

“I knew he was trouble the moment I saw him walk in. It's a kind of sixth sense that you develop when you're in tech support.”

Lawrence and I were sitting in a Sacramento restaurant to fuel up the hour before a computer club meeting. I was a mini-bureaucrat in one of the state's mini-bureaucracies and Lawrence worked for a university. It was 1986 and we had converged on the capital city from different directions for some user group fun. A motley crew of regulars and semi-regulars would convene each month for burgers and sandwiches before taking in the featured speaker of the month and playing the usual “can-you-top-this?” game during the Q&A. Tale-swapping before the meetings was another regular feature and Lawrence had the floor.

I was not immediately impressed with Lawrence's story. Wasn't nearly everyone who walked into a tech-support office an occasion of trouble?

“But you must be used to that, Lawrence.” I said. “Don't you get weird problems all the time when you work tech support? And it must be even worse doing tech support at a university. Lots more opportunity for wacky cock-ups by clever people doing stupid things.”

Lawrence grimaced.

“Well, yeah,” he admitted. “That was certainly the case with this guy. He was a teaching assistant in the economics department and he had a data problem.”

A diskette problem, to be specific. In the high-spirited early days of personal computing, the Apple II and the IBM PC had established the 5¼-inch floppy diskette as the standard digital medium. By the time of Lawrence's incident, the newer 3½-inch was catching on, popularized by the Macintosh and newer model PCs. That's what the hapless grad student had in his hand when he visited the tech-support office.

“Here,” he told Lawrence, handing him the diskette. “I need you to recover the data from this PC disk.”

Lawrence took the diskette and looked it over. There was no obvious damage to it. He carried it over to a desktop computer that sported an array of different disk drives, inserted it into a 3½-inch drive and typed a command to list the disk's directory.

Error message.

That was only to be expected. Lawrence ran Norton Utilities on it. He tried to scan the diskette's sectors for recoverable data. After several minutes with several different diagnostic software tools, Lawrence ejected the diskette and handed it back to the teaching assistant.

“This,” he declared, “is a dead diskette. The directory is nonexistent and the bytes on it are indistinguishable from gibberish. Sorry. I couldn't recover anything at all. That happens sometimes when a disk really gets scrambled.”

The grad student was aghast.

“You don't understand,” the TA said. “You have to fix the disk. It has the gradebook for Economics 101 on it. I need the grades for the professor.”

“Sorry, but perhaps you don't understand,” rejoined Lawrence. “The data has passed on. It is no more. I can't recover what's not there. You are simply going to have to dig up your backup copy.”

A moment of silence became uncomfortably prolonged. Finally the student spoke.

“Um. This is the only copy.”

Lawrence gave him a weary look.

“Okay. Then you have no digital copy. You're going to have to re-enter all the scores from the last time you printed them out and recreate the gradebook from scratch.”

Now the grad student looked completely devastated.

“But there is no print-out! I was using the disk to prepare a grade list to post in the classroom before finals. The professor wanted to let students know their current grades going into finals week. That's when the disk crashed and I got a read-error from the computer. We didn't put up any previous grade reports. There's no other disk and there's no print-out. That's why you have to fix this disk. You just have to!”

Lawrence regarded the graduate student assistant with long-suffering patience.

“This is tech support. We do technical work. We don't perform miracles. I can't recover what no longer exists.”

The TA left Lawrence's office with his head bowed and shoulders slumped, the useless diskette clutched in one hand. A moment later he heard the sudden sound of the diskette's plastic case shattering against the concrete wall of the corridor and the slam of the door behind the departing TA.

“Rather dramatic,” I said to Lawrence as he finished his story. Other people at the table were grinning at its conclusion.

“Shortly thereafter I got a call from the Econ 101 professor complaining that I had failed to help his TA. I had to explain all over to him that you can't get data from a scrambled diskette. He was particularly upset because there was only one week left in the quarter and all the scores from the previous eight or nine weeks had been on the diskette.”

“So what did they do for grades?”

“That I don't know. No one told me. It I were to guess, though, I'd bet there were a lot of students who got surprisingly good grades in that section of Econ 101.”

I thought about it a second.

“Yeah, I wouldn't take that bet. I think you're right. It was the professor's safest option. Generous grades would prevent any student from filing a complaint and causing the department chair to adjudicate the dispute and ask for the grade records. We could have a bunch of econ students out there who got passing grades they never earned.”

And later they all went to work in the financial sector.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My fellow Americans

Probably an 8-year term

There is a flurry of interest in the national media about the president's hair. In a dull period of world peace and universal prosperity, it's understandable that such an issue should seize the attention of American journalists and political pundits. Is President Obama going gray? It happened to Bill Clinton! Inquiring minds want to know!

Some people dismiss the significance of the graying of our presidents. After all, the median presidential age upon assuming office is about 55 years. During a man's progression from 55 years of age to 59 (or to 63 in the case of a two-term president), the choices about one's hair are reduced to “go gray” or just “go.” Absent hair dye or a wig, you're either bald or gray by the time your fifties have run their course.

That's why i was not particularly shocked by Don Asmussen's graphic journalism in the San Francisco Chronicle. President Obama may be only 47 right now, but it's clear that he is already on his way to Anderson-Cooper-ville.

Nevertheless, it gives me pause when I dare to mock the national media. Perhaps it is I who fail to appreciate the significance of Obama's life transition. We should consider the possibility that the burdens of presidential office are uniquely powerful hair-whiteners that go beyond the effects of mere natural aging. That would explain, of course, why major national media outlets would devote so much attention to the matter.

I must admit, though, that I fear to face the implications of that possibility. I have done a bit of investigation myself and the evidence is unambiguous and compelling. There is an excellent chance that I was secretly president of the United States during the past eight years. Hair doesn't lie.

Friday, March 06, 2009

It only looked progressive

The breakthrough that wasn't

James Flournoy is dead. I was a little surprised to learn that he had still been alive. The former Republican candidate for statewide office in California reached the age of 93 before passing away. Tributes poured in from all quarters, including the warm words of erstwhile rival Jerry Brown, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “He was a wonderful man and a true gentleman.”

I will not quibble. No one had a harsh word to say about Mr. Flournoy and I think it likely he was exactly the even-tempered and delightful man portrayed in the news reports of his death. However, there is less to the James Flournoy story than meets the eye, although press accounts would seem to argue otherwise. Here is what Jon Thurber says about him in the Los Angeles Times:
James Flournoy, the Republican candidate for California secretary of state in 1970 who was the first African American nominated by either major party for a partisan statewide office, has died. He was 93....

Flournoy, a prominent lawyer in Los Angeles for decades, was one of the few black politicians in the GOP at the time.
However, no one bothered to provide the context for Flournoy's campaigns—a context that saps the man's political career of much of its pioneering significance, for all that Flournoy himself was a gracious and accomplished man.

You see, Flournoy's nomination for statewide office on the Republican ticket was a fluke, even though it happened twice. It was not a sign of enlightenment and progressive values in the state Republican Party. In 1970, when Flournoy threw his hat in the ring for the job of secretary of state, his most significant asset was his name. The incumbent state controller was Houston Flournoy, one of the most well-regarded and popular elected officials in California. Although James and Houston were not related, they shared an usual last name. People who liked the state controller were happy enough to pull the lever for another Flournoy for secretary of state (or perhaps they even thought it was the same Flournoy).

The Democratic candidate for secretary of state that year was Jerry Brown. In all fairness, the same thing could be said of Brown that I just said of James Flournoy: His greatest asset was his name. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr., was the son of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the former two-term governor of California who would always be famous for defeating Richard Nixon in 1962 (and sparking Nixon's infamous “last press conference”). Jerry Brown rode his famous name into the secretary of state's office and used that platform to prepare for a later successful campaign for governor.

Jerry Brown's rival in the 1974 gubernatorial contest was Republican Houston Flournoy, vacating his position as state controller to take a shot at higher office. While Jerry and Houston were squaring away against each other, who made a run at the state controller's office? None other than James Flournoy, this time going after the office being vacated by the other Flournoy. It didn't work that time, possibly because Houston Flournoy's profile was even higher as a result of his campaign for governor and James Flournoy was now known as the guy who had lost to Brown in 1970. Another Republican got the nomination that year.

Not one to give up, James Flournoy took a second crack at the controller's job in 1982, this time winning the Republican nomination in a year when no one felt there was any chance of knocking off the Democratic incumbent. Flournoy was buried in a landslide, losing by over 1.5 million votes in the November 1982 general election. It was the end of a political career that never really went anywhere, but gave California's Republican Party the unlooked-for distinction of being the first major political party to nominate an African American for statewide office. But it wasn't anything more than pure political opportunism by the GOP leaders who thought they might be able to parlay the coincidence of Flournoy's last name into an upset victory. And James Flournoy, nice guy that he was, didn't object to taking a chance that lightning might strike.

By an interesting coincidence, back in 1970, while James Flournoy was writing a footnote to California's political history as the first black man to win a statewide nomination from a major party, someone else was preparing to become the first black man ever elected to statewide office. It was in the contest for the nonpartisan position of state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Although the candidates in that race lacked official party labels, everyone knew that incumbent Max Rafferty was the Republican (he had previously run as the GOP's candidate for U.S. Senate) and challenger Wilson Riles was the Democrat. The state Republican Party backed Rafferty for re-election while carefully averting their gaze from Rafferty's deliberately race-baiting campaign.

Sure, they might have had James Flournoy on their ticket as their candidate for secretary of state, but all was fair in love and politics. Right?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Prager's pragmatics

You must agree

It's a pity that he is going to hell because he denies Jesus, but Dennis Prager is still one of my mother's favorite talk show hosts. His conservatism is of a more high-toned nature than that of the general crowd and thus appeals to my mother's gentility. (I swear that's not a pun on “gentile”; it just came out that way.)

Anyway, Prager lacks Limbaugh's overt nastiness and misogyny while still being very conservative, so my mother finds him simpatico. I check out his program every so often to see what the polite right-wingers are talking about these days (and to learn what Mom is listening to). He has some skill at sounding reasonable, but it's mostly just a lower-decibel version of the same right-wing cant.

Prager recently aired a debate with Christopher Hitchens, part of which I heard. Prager trotted out one of his favorite “proofs” that religion is both normative and desirable. Perhaps you know it. Prager asks you to suppose that you encounter ten men coming out of a dark alley. Scary! But wouldn't you be relieved to know that they were coming from a Bible study class?

That proves Bible study is good, I guess. Or that people who study the Bible are good (as long as they don't take too seriously all those passages about stoning people). Or, at least, they aren't likely to be muggers.

Well, neither are people who just came from a PTA meeting, or a night class, or a computer club. Hitchens said he'd rather they came from a seminar on Tom Paine, the irreligious author of Common Sense. Prager and Hitchens agreed that that would be unlikely, but only Hitchens seemed to regret that fact.

Prager's parable is a low bar for establishing the significance of religion, isn't it? He commented on his favorite gambit in his Townhall column, saying, “I have always specified ‘Bible class’ because I assume that in America, anyone with common sense would in fact be very relieved if they knew that the 10 strangers, all men, approaching them in a dark alley were committed to either Judaism or Christianity and studying the Bible.” For some reason, Prager was at pains to exclude non-Judeo-Christian creeds from his roster of goodness. I imagine it would deflate the point he was trying to make. The United States is a (Judeo)Christian nation, you know. “I therefore pose this question to make the rather obvious point that nearly all of us instinctively assume some positive things about normative Judaism and Christianity in America.”

Prager revised his scenario for a show in which he discussed the definition of marriage. Once again, the listener is asked to imagine being approached by a group of unknown individuals. Wouldn't you be worried if it was all guys? Wouldn't you be relieved if it turned out to be a collection of heterosexual married couples walking hand in hand? (I think the hand in hand part is crucial.)

For me, personally, I think the degree of relief would depend on the amount of body art and the fraction of Ace Hardware's inventory dangling from piercings, but perhaps that's just me. We could ask Dennis. He certainly appears to think that Proposition 8 makes us safer at night in California.

But as far as relief is concerned, I'm sure I would be just as much at ease if the approaching group consisted of hand-in-hand gay couples. Gay boys out on the town are not likely to be muggers. What have we to fear? Well, in my case, perhaps some trenchant observations about my complete lack of style sense or fashion knowledge. (I'm sure that Prager understands that all gay boys are obsessed with appearances and superficialities.) It would, however, be mostly harmless.

Is Prager mostly harmless? I wonder.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Oh, Lord, make me good!

But not yet

It's really embarrassing when they make it so easy, but that's not a reason to spare them. Today's e-mail brings one of Bill Donohue's hectoring messages from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (or Donohue's Drop-of-a-Hat Rant Machine, if truth-in-labeling laws applied). As usual, Bill is going hammer and tongs after the enemies (real and imagined) of Catholicism without ever suspecting that he is himself one of Rome's festering boils. If so mean-spirited and nasty a man as Donohue can prop himself up as a spokesman for Roman Catholic values, just how hollow must the Church be? During a rant about the supposed war on Christmas, Donohue famously referred to the putative founder of his church by saying “I've never met him.”

No wonder he never turns the other cheek.

In his latest electronic missive, Donohue waxes indignant over historical mistakes in a movie based on Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. Apparently Brown's work of fiction (it's fiction, Bill!) takes liberties with the historical record by pretending that the Illuminati have harbored a grudge against the Catholic Church since the days of Galileo's persecution for his defense of heliocentricity. Since the Illuminati were actually founded more than a hundred years too late to be involved in the Galileo affair, Brown's plot device is a historical solecism. It's shocking, of course, that a fiction writer would do such a thing and that a major movie studio would permit history to be similarly distorted in the movie version.
The tag team of Dan Brown and Ron Howard would have the public believe that Galileo was a member of a secret society, the Illuminati, and that the group seeks revenge against the Vatican today because of the Catholic Church’s anti-science history. All of which is nonsense.
Clearly Dan Brown and Ron Howard are in league with the devil. Or something like that.
So why do they lie? Because their goal is to paint the Catholic Church as the enemy of science, and what better poster boy to trot out than their favorite martyr, Galileo? The ultimate victim, Galileo’s alleged persecution is cited as proof of the Church’s war on reason.
Is that what Brown and Howard are doing, unfairly depicting the Church as reason's enemy?

The record clearly demonstrates that the Roman Catholic Church is not exactly reason's best friend. It makes a fetish of fecundity, thinks a fertilized egg is already a human being, and recoils in horror at the specter of pregnancy prevention. While Rome is not as brain-dead over evolution as many Protestant sects, it cannot help but make goo-goo eyes at the intelligent design crowd. The Church regards science with suspicion.

But Donohue is adamant:
Had it not been for the Catholic Church, the universities would have died during the Middle Ages. Had it not been for the Catholic Church, the Scientific Revolution would never have happened. After all, science did not take root in South America, Africa, the Middle East or Asia. In took place in Christian Europe.
He's right, of course. Science flourished in Europe (especially during that Enlightenment period in which God was shunted aside as a historical curiosity) and Europeans might not like to be reminded of the role of Muslim intellectuals in preserving the works of Greek scholars during the Dark Ages (thus making it possible for them to be rediscovered during the Renaissance) and adding their own contributions. (Perhaps Bill has never heard that algebra and algorithm are based, respectively, on al-jabr and Al-Khwarizmi. And does he know why the title of Ptolemy's Almagest is in Arabic, although it was originally written in Greek?)

Despite what Donohue thinks (or merely feels), Brown and Howard are not conspirators against the Catholic Church. They traffic in entertainment, the former in vapid bestselling novels and the latter in blockbuster movies. Their thrillers need bad guys. Brown has tapped into a lucrative vein in this period of popularity for New Age nonsense and mysticism. And when it comes to religion-themed mysteries, who better to set up as the heavy than the 800-pound gorilla known as the Vatican? Or—to be less kind—who better to set up as the villain than a 2000-year-old mystery cult which has lost its moral authority with the recent exposure of decades of profound corruption?

It's not as though Nazis (already used Raiders of the Lost Ark) or communists (exploited in dozens of Bond movies) or drug cartels (defeated by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan) or international terrorists (blah, blah, blah, Jack Bauer) are the right bad guys for a modern religion-based novel. What, the Mormons? Jehovah's Witnesses? You've got to be kidding! The Catholic Church can rest assured of its primacy.

Donohue offers this parting shot, still irked at the mention of Galileo as an example of the Vatican's excesses:
Galileo was never imprisoned or tortured. His confinement to house arrest, though unwarranted, was more a function of his arrogance than his ideas: he persisted in presenting his ideas (taken from Copernicus, a Catholic scientist who was never punished) as scientifically accurate, something which scientists of his day scoffed at.
Nice one, Bill! There's nothing like a humorous exit line to leave your audience in a good mood. If you didn't catch it—Bill is being uncharacteristically subtle here—perhaps it will help if I mention that Copernicus withheld publication of his earth-shattering book, De revolutionibus, until he was lingering on his death bed. The Church placed De revolutionibus on its Index of Forbidden Books, but it never punished Copernicus. He was dead.