Friday, July 31, 2009

That @#!%ing stupid censorship

Let's keep it clean out there

The San Francisco Chronicle gave a little boost to freedom of speech this morning by publishing an opinion piece by Nick Danforth. The writer took note of Turkey's two-year ban on YouTube. It's a relatively unsuccessful ban, made all the more pathetic by the way Turks have taken to mocking it. Danforth points out that the notice “Access to this site has been blocked by order of the court” is no longer limited to popping up on the screens of Turks trying to access forbidden Internet sites. It has now been printed out on banners that protesters use to decorate urinals, escalators, and anything else that an enterprising free speech advocate might see fit to substitute for the word “site” in the original notice.

The Chronicle is to be praised for bringing this situation to the attention of its readers. I nodded my head in silent approbation when I read Danforth's article over breakfast.

Then I switched my attention to the Chronicle's Datebook section. Mick LaSalle's review of Judd Apatow's Funny People was on its front page. I like reading LaSalle's reviews and plunged right in. He was saying nice things about an Adam Sandler movie, which challenged my credulity just a little. (A good Sandler movie?) Then I got to the end of the review and spewed Cheerios as I read the notice (in bold!):
Advisory: This film contains sexual situations, strong language and multiple jokes about the male member.
Excuse me? “The male member”? Can't we just say the movie contains several penis jokes? Or doesn't the Chronicle allow the word “penis” in its entertainment section?

Access to this penis has been blocked by order of the court!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Booster shots for your blessings

Sound doctrine comforts the soul

Michael in Omaha had a question for Patrick Madrid, who was serving as the religion expert for the July 23, 2009, broadcast of EWTN's Open Line. Michael got in just under the wire, at the 51:10 mark. Here is a transcript of their conversation, with just a tiny bit of added emphasis at the end:
Michael: If a rosary breaks, and it's been blessed, and there are pieces missing and one wants to make, say, a small chaplet out of it. Or if a rosary breaks and one has to add new parts. I know we're not supposed to have a rosary blessed more than once, but what do you do in terms of blessing it again?

Patrick Madrid: Well, the first thing to do is get it out of your head that you can't have a sacramental blessed more than once. You can have any sacramental blessed any number of times. It doesn't become more holy. In other words, it doesn't gain more grace in that sense. So if that's what you mean then, yeah, people shouldn't be superstitious.
Wow. Just wow.

Any comment would seem superfluous. Patrick, however, wasn't quite done.
But you can have any holy object blessed as often as you might want. You may be wearing a Miraculous Medal and your parish priest blesses it and then you happen to go to the Vatican and meet the Holy Father and have him bless it, too. No problem with that.

If you're asking whether or not by adding new beads to a rosary whether or not you'd have to have it blessed all over again, the answer's no. Because the blessing that a priest or bishop would give to a rosary or some other sacramental, that's integral to the thing itself. So it's not as if now that you have twenty percent replacement beads suddenly now you've got a blessing that's out of warranty. It doesn't work like that. So you don't have to worry. If that's the question you're asking, you don't have to worry about that kind of thing.
Sound doctrine has a way of putting one's mind at ease, right? I don't know about you, but I'm pretty pleased with the numerical example. What a relief to learn that a rosary retains its original blessing even with a 20% replacement of beads! Imagine having to go to your parish priest and asking him to bring your 80%-blessed rosary up to full strength. How awkward!

And silly, too. Right?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Don't lie to your students!

Do as I say ...

Mike O'Doul was my college roommate back in the seventies. He was working toward a master's degree in teaching. I was working toward a doctorate. It didn't quite work out as planned. Mike ended up earning a Ph.D. long before I did and became a professional mathematician, while I took a detour into state government. It took several more years before I finally ended up back in academia as a teacher and a retread grad student. In the meantime, Mike had racked up teaching experience at the elementary school level (during his master's program), high school (after earning his master's and earning a secondary credential), and college (during his subsequent doctoral program). He had also moved into the consulting business and had jetted about the world, working on U.S. Navy contracts and sailing as part of the civilian complement of carrier groups. He climbed the corporate ladder in the consulting business till he reached the top-level management position of chief information officer. His year-end bonuses were more than half my annual teacher salary.

I was impressed. My old roomie had lapped me on the track several times.

Some good things come to an end. During a period of contraction and corporate acquisitions, Mike's company was purchased by another consulting firm. He found himself working under a manager whom he had once dismissed from the company. His new manager was eager to return the favor and Mike was handed his walking papers.

I've already established that Mike O'Doul was no dummy. He was mathematically acute, articulate, and extremely hard-working. During the fat years, he had tucked away big chunks of his earnings in preparation for possible future lean years. The lean years had arrived and Mike was pleased to discover that his preparations would permit him to retire at a comfortable middle-class level without ever working another day in his life. That prospect, however, did not completely satisfy him. He and his wife had young children, some of whom might actually want to go to college. Mike decided it would be nice to continue earning some wages, both for the satisfaction of staying active and to widen the margin between prosperity and penury.

Dr. O'Doul dusted off his secondary credential and found a job teaching high school math. He enjoyed being back in the classroom, but he was less than delighted with the many hoops he was required to jump through. Even so, he applied himself with his characteristic diligence and established himself as a major resource in the math department. Soon the department chair tapped Mike to teach the AP calculus class in their high school. It would require Mike's enrollment in an orientation and training seminar, but Mike didn't anticipate any problems. He consented to the assignment and put the seminar on his summer calendar.

Mike wasn't surprised on the day of the seminar to discover that it included another series of hoops. In addition to outlining the content of the AP calculus syllabus, the seminar leader was going to tell Mark how to do his job. Perhaps it wouldn't be a problem. Mike would keep his light under a bushel basket and listen quietly. During the preliminary introductions, he didn't mention his doctorate, his previous teaching experience, or his career in research mathematics and consulting; Mike simply said that he was a second-year instructor in the school district who had been assigned his first AP calculus class for fall. He was willing to pick up some tips from more experienced AP calculus instructors.

Mike was encouraged by the way the seminar leader launched his presentation:

“Be very careful not to lie to your students! It's much too easy to offer level-appropriate answers that mislead your students by being stated too definitively. For example, do you tell your beginning algebra students that no one can take the square root of a negative number?”

The teachers smiled appreciatively.

“You need to qualify such statements, mainly by providing the appropriate context. Negative numbers do not have square roots in the real numbers. You don't have to offer your students a premature explanation of the complex plane, but you have discussed the real line and your point is that square roots of negative numbers do not exist there, on the real line.”

So far, so good.

Mike wondered whether he should ask about cautioning students against “distributing exponentiation,” as in the notorious (x + y)2 = x2 + y2. Should we tell them that it never works, except over a field of characteristic 2? Mike decided he didn't need to push the envelope quite that hard, so he keep his question to himself.

The seminar leader moved briskly through the AP calculus topics, offering insights on presentation and cautions on possible overstatements. Mike was pleased at the level of the discussion and ready to concede that this seminar was better than average. Then the discussion move to polynomials and power series.

“Don't hesitate to write polynomials in ascending order. It can significantly raise the comfort level of your students when you get to power series, which are always written in that order, and prepares them to see power series as a natural generalization of polynomials. They already know that polynomials are easy to differentiate as often as you want, so it prepares them to understand the point that functions with derivatives of all orders can be written as power series.”

Mike pricked up his ears at the presenter's fumble and waited to see if the speaker would catch his own mistake and offer a correction.

“Remember that the term for functions with derivatives of all order is analytic.”

Double oops! thought Mike. We're dealing in real variables. He interjected:

“You mean smooth, right?”

The presenter paused, looked at Mike, and blinked.

“No, analytic is the right word. If it has derivatives of all orders you can construct a power series that represents it. A function that can be represented as a power series is called analytic.”

The presenter turned away as if to continue, but Mike was not done.

“Excuse me, but it's not the same thing. Yes, a function that can be represented as a power series is called analytic and it does have derivatives of all orders. However, the converse is not true. Functions that have derivatives of all orders are called smooth”—Mike decided not to mention C—“but it doesn't follow that the function can be represented by a power series.”

The presenter didn't exactly glower as the junior faculty member (an older guy, yes, but a very junior faculty member) who had dared to contradict him, but he did seem a bit piqued. The man who had warned people not to lie to students proceeded to tell a presumably inadvertent untruth:

“You're missing a very obvious point, sir. If you have all the derivatives, you can easily construct a Maclaurin or Taylor series to represent the function.”

“Very true,” agreed Mike. “But the series might not work. Consider the function f(x) = e−1/x2, where we also define f(0) = 0. The function is infinitely differentiable at 0 but the Maclaurin series does not represent the function. The derivatives are identically zero and so is the series, while the function manifestly is not.”

The presenter decided he had encountered a teachable moment. He turned to the board and began to sketch out a derivation of the derivatives of the function Mike had offered as a counterexample. While the audience fidgeted a bit anxiously, the presenter scribbled away. While Mike had been surprised that the presenter had stumbled over the analyticity of real-valued functions, he noted that the fellow was doing a pretty good job of checking the counterexample. With an occasional suggestion from Mike, the presenter was discovering that every derivative of f(x) was indeed equal to 0 at x = 0. Eventually he turned back to the seminar attendees.

With a somewhat awkward smile, he said, “Okay, you see what we have here. It's a definite counterexample to the notion that infinitely many derivatives are sufficient to ensure the existence of a representative power series. The good thing is that you probably shouldn't go quite this far in a high school calculus class. I imagine that I don't have to underscore the lesson here.”

“No, I remember,” said Mike. “Don't lie to your students.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Can you hear me now, God?

New vistas in god-bothering

Are you looking for a new angle on your prayer life? A young man in California has a suggestion and is hoping you might pitch him a few bucks in return. He's devised an iPhone application for petitioning God and is awaiting Apple's approval to sell it via the computer company's apps store.

Here are some excerpts from a news article in the Sacramento Bee:
Fair Oaks teen devises prayer app for iPhone

By Hudson Sangree
Published Tuesday, Jul. 21, 2009

For eons, people have reached out to the Almighty with prayers and supplications. Soon they might be able to use their iPhones.

Fair Oaks teenager Allen Wright thought up an application for the Apple iPhone called “A Note to God.”

It lets iPhone users send prayers into cyberspace and allows them to read the prayers of others. The messages are stored in a database, and users remain anonymous.
If you're anonymous, how will you get credit from God for your prayer? (That omniscience thing is going to have to kick in.)
Wright, 17, submitted his proposal to Medl Mobile, a Los Angeles startup that is developing apps for Apple to sell on its Web site. It selected “A Note to God” from 20,000 proposals.

“It's so simple, it's brilliant,” said Andrew Maltin, one of the co-founders of Medl Mobile. “We think it's going to be extremely successful.”

Wright, a junior at Del Campo High School and regular churchgoer, said he came up with the idea while lying in bed and feeling lonesome.

“If you want to send a message, and you don't have anybody to talk to, you could send a little prayer,” he said.
Don't have anybody to talk to? I thought you could talk to God at any time. Perhaps not. But at least we can be sure that God is eagerly waiting by his iPhone.
Successful apps can generate thousands or even millions of dollars for developers. Any proceeds from “A Note to God” would be split between Apple, Medl and Wright.

If his app becomes a big seller, Wright said he'd like to use his share of the profits to go to college.
This actually sounds like it might be more effective than praying for a scholarship.
The application is not a joke, but a sincere way for people to reach out to the divine and to each other, [Maltin] said.

Users can read each others' prayers and be supportive by clicking on a “thumbs up” sign, he said. Otherwise, they can't leave feedback or respond, he said.
Responding, after all, is God's job.
Religious scholars contacted by The Bee on Monday welcomed the concept, although one offered a note of caution.

The Rev. James Murphy, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, agreed the iPhone app “could be a high-tech form of prayer and an authentic way to express our desires to God.”

“There is in each one of us the need to communicate with the divine and to reach the transcendent," he said.

But he cautioned would-be users to question their motivations.

“Prayer is direct to God, and God should be the primary motive,” he said. “If the motive is to be seen by others, be careful. There's a sense in which prayer is private.”

He said whatever the form, prayers are heard. “God will hear it," he said. “You don't have to have his e-mail address.”
One must give Father Murphy credit for cheekiness. The Catholic Church is often criticized by non-Catholic Christians for encouraging the practice of praying to the saints in heaven, choosing to invoke intermediaries instead of praying directly to God (or Jesus—one of God's more popular avatars). But here we have Father Murphy warning people that prayer is direct to God and that they should be careful about broadcasting their pleas to the deity. (Sorry, Virgin Mother, I forgot we were on a conference call. Would you mind hanging up so that Jesus and I can chat in private?)
Darleen Pryds, an expert in medieval religious practices at the Franciscan School of Theology—part of the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley—called the app “a brilliant use of technology” that brings to mind the 13th-century bells summoning people to pray.

“This application sounds to me like a call to prayer,” she said. “It creates a community of prayer, and by seeing other people's prayers, it is a reminder to pray yourself.”
Or a muezzin's call to prayer from a minaret!
Wright, a lanky fair-haired teen, said he prays regularly and attends the New Life Community Church in Fair Oaks.

His favorite iPhone app is one that calls up quotes from Scripture.

In his suburban home on a quiet cul-de-sac, Wright demonstrated the working model of “A Note to God” on his iPhone.

He said the need to write a message focuses his prayer. The messages can be as long as you want, he said.
No limit on length? Excellent! I presume one could copy and paste 53 copies of the “Hail Mary” and get credit for a rosary, right? (Oops! That's my Catholic roots showing. The BVM just muscled back in.)

Allen's father, Tod Wright, is pretty certain his son has latched onto something good.
The 44-year-old Wright said people need a way to reach out when they are grappling with heartache, trouble and tragedy. His son's app might provide an outlet for their prayers.

“It's going to do something for a lot of people to help them through," he said. “Having a place you can send a message to your lost and loved ones—people you believe are your guardian angels.”

“All of us could use some place to reach out,” he said. “I think Allen's is perfect.”
Up next: A Tibetan prayer-wheel as an automated iPhone app. It'll pray even when you're too busy!

Amen. I'm hanging up now.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Eagle has landed

History from a front-row seat

July 20, 1969, was a Sunday. Therefore we went to 8:30 mass in our parish church. Our fire-and-brimstone monsignor was no longer pastor and our new parish priest had yet to hit his stride. While Monsignor could whip through a mass in 35 minutes, Father clocked in at about 50. (We were supposed to offer up our sufferings as penance.) I was fidgety through the whole ceremony and got a couple of nasty looks from Dad and a elbow-nudge or two from Mom. Finally the mass was ended and we could go in peace to love and serve the Lord—and to get the hell out of there.

It just so happens that our home and our parish church form a nearly perfect east-west line, several miles in length, but there is no through road there. We would normally travel north from home till we hit the major east-west thoroughfare (such as it was, given the standards of county roads), and then jog back to the south once in the neighborhood of the church. The north route was the better road and the faster route, but on July 20, 1969, Dad decided to return home along the south route.

Fear gripped my heart. Was he planning to drop in on his sister? Dad's brother-in-law had a dairy farm on that road. We could be stuck there for hours. Would the television be on? Probably, but I couldn't be certain. Our car headed south and made the turn onto Dad's chosen route. A man in a pickup truck waved at us and Dad pulled over. He clambered out, strolled over to the pickup, and engaged a fellow farmer in conversation.

I was practically vibrating in my seat. Mom turned around and gave me a look. My siblings simpered.

It was only a few minutes, but it seemed like eternity. Dad finally walked back, climbed into the car, and we were off again. The next danger point was my uncle and aunt's dairy farm, but we blew past it without slowing down. I didn't start breathing regularly, though, till we turned the corner of our street and home was directly ahead.

Under normal circumstances, the standard practice in our home was to ask a parent whether or not it was all right to turn on the TV. (Imagine that.) But it was July 20, 1969. I was in high school and history was unfolding. I rushed into the family room and turned on the television on my own authority. Sure enough, Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra were there to comfort me. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was not yet 10:00 in the morning, Pacific Daylight Time. The moon landing was scheduled for approximately 1:00 that afternoon. We had plenty of time to spare. However, I grudged every minute of live news coverage that I had missed due to Father's slowpoke mass and Dad's leisurely return home. I wanted to be tuned in to Walter Cronkite as much as sports fanatics insist on watching every minute of Super Bowl pre-game programming.

At 1:17 PDT, I wasn't moving a muscle as Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the moon in the Eagle lunar module. “Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

I remember Cronkite's reaction, but I don't remember mine. My best guess is a slightly slack-jawed “Wowwwwww!” There was a babble from other family members, along with a yell from my kid brother. We were really on the moon!

That night, I scribbled some brief notes in the five-year diary I was keeping at the time. You have only a few lines to record the notable events of the day, and this is what I wrote:
Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed the “Eagle” in the Sea of Tranquility; moonwalk: 2 hours, 13 min.
I see from other sources that the first moonwalk was later logged as lasting 2 hours, 36 minutes, and 40 seconds. I don't know what accounts for the discrepancy. Perhaps I was tired. (Perhaps the official timekeepers decided to include the time that Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the lunar module's porch and ladder.) The diary also notes that I didn't get to bed till 1:45 in the morning. You're allowed to stay up late on Moon Day.

I did mention that it was a five-year diary in which I took note of the epochal Apollo 11 moon landing. Having dug up this ancient document, I could not resist perusing it for a while. I was amused, in particular, to see what I had been reading on previous 20ths of July. In 1965, I wrote that I was reading The Deep Range (one of Arthur C. Clarke's non-sf novels). In 1966 my reading material was “Sunjammer,” Clarke's much-admired short story of an inconclusive light-sail race. Perhaps I had run out of Clarke's books by 1967, when I read John Brunner's Secret Agent of Terra. Considering that Brunner also wrote Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider, I think we must concede that Secret Agent is one of his lesser works. In 1968, I was in the midst of Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection.

And what was I reading during the time of the moon landing in 1969? I didn't mention anything specific on July 20, but later that week I made an entry that I was working through The Riddle of Gravitation by P. G. Bergmann. Just a bit of nonfiction for variety.

Funny thing, though. For all the reading I did—and I did a lot of it—not even one of the sf stories or novels about space exploration ever suggested that the first moon landing would be a live broadcast event. That's a curious failure of the imagination. In 1969, the revolution was televised.

I was (am!) a child of the Space Age. As a teenager during the Apollo program, I fully expected that it would be completely reasonable to book a lunar vacation for my fiftieth birthday, which would not occur until the 21st century. Silly me. I forgot to take into account that Richard Nixon was president and was eager to dismantle the program that had become a monument to the memory of his late rival, the man who defeated him for the presidency in 1960. Nixon had insisted on having his name included in the plaque that remained on the surface of the moon as part of the lunar module landing stage, but he had squeezed as much p.r. as he could out of the event and was ready to wash his hands of the whole thing. Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were cut and only one actual scientist (Harrison Schmitt) made it to the moon before the program was cancelled.

And we still haven't gone back.

Well, I don't like to travel that much, but I do rather wish we were a truly spacefaring race by now. It's taking longer than I thought.

Perhaps I should not complain too much. I remember watching coverage of subsequent missions with my grandmother. She was bemused by the entire experience. Wilbur and Orville Wright had yet to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk when my grandmother was born in the Azores. She lived to see jumbo jets, moon landings, and the start of the space shuttle program. When she was a young girl, next year could be relied upon to be very similar to last year. You would probably end up doing what your mother or father did, and probably in the same place. Her expectations were quite contrary to the resulting reality, which transplanted her thousands of miles from home and presented her with a dizzying acceleration of history.

It was that dizzying acceleration that had become my default expectation when I was a youngster, but I still don't have my flying car, rocket belt, or lunar vacation. After the 0 to 60 pedal-to-the-metal spike of acceleration, I guess it's cruise time.

Friday, July 17, 2009

God is a scientist

Except for the science part

Do you read the Daily Mail? Neither do I. But perhaps I should. The entertainment value of Britain's foremost right-wing tabloid seems to be rather high. In a “news” story published this month, the Daily Mail reports on the scientific message embedded by God in the Bible. The subtle message was supposedly uncovered by Oxford University research fellow Andrew Parker, who has been moved to publish a book on his discovery.

Here are some excerpts from the Daily Mail's report, which is a kind of combination news-story/book-review:
The Genesis enigma: How DID the Bible describe the evolution of life 3,000 years before Darwin?

By Christopher Hart
Last updated at 12:13 AM on 18th July 2009

The revalation [sic] came to Professor Andrew Parker during a visit to Rome. He was in the Sistine Chapel, gazing up at Michelangelo's awesome ceiling paintings, when a realisation struck him with dizzying force.

‘A Biblical enigma exists that is on the one hand so cryptic it has remained camouflaged for millennia, and on the other so obvious one cannot miss it.’

The enigma is that the order of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis, and so powerfully depicted in the Sistine Chapel by the greatest artist of the Renaissance, has been precisely, eerily confirmed by modern evolutionary science.

Yet how on earth could this be possible? And why had nobody noticed it before?

Such was the starting point of Parker's jaw-dropping new book, The Genesis Enigma: an astounding work which seeks to prove that the ancient Hebrew writers of the Book of Genesis knew all about evolution—3,000 years before Darwin.
And poor Darwin never realized it. He thought his principal rival was Alfred Russel Wallace, when in actuality it was the divinely inspired authors of the Bible who had scooped him by a few millennia.
Andrew Parker is a leading scientist in his field: a research fellow at Oxford University, research leader at the Natural History Museum, and as if that weren't enough, a professor at Shanghai's Jiao Tong university.

As a scientist he never paid much heed to the Book of Genesis, assuming, like most of his colleagues, that such primitive mythology—which is believed to have been compiled from several sources between 950 and 500 BC—has long since been ‘disproved’ by hard scientific fact.

But after his Sistine Chapel moment, he went back to look at Genesis in more detail. And what he read astonished him. It was even, he says, ‘slightly scary’.

Somehow—God alone knew how—the writer or writers of that ancient text had described how the evolution of life on earth took place in precise detail and perfect order.
It sounds as though Professor Parker found himself a pair of Bible goggles. Everything looks different when you look at the world through your Bible goggles. For example, the Flintstones turns into a science documentary. (Ken Ham would be so proud!)
It is always disturbing and haunting to encounter an ancient wisdom that seems to anticipate or even exceed our own.

More fanciful writers immediately start to theorise wildly: that those who built the pyramids, or Stonehenge, must have been guided by super-intelligent aliens, that sort of thing.

Andrew Parker, a scientist and proud of it, has no time for such twaddle. But he does gradually come to understand, in the course of his investigations, that our ancestors of thousands of years ago, though they may not have had iPods and plasma-screen televisions, nevertheless possessed a wisdom that was, quite literally, timeless: as true now as it was then.

In the Book of Genesis, God first and most famously creates heaven and earth, but ‘without form’, and commands: ‘Let there be light.’ A perfect description of the Big Bang, that founding moment of our universe some 13 billion years ago, an unimaginable explosion of pure energy and matter ‘without form’ out of nothing—the primordial Biblical ‘void’.
Wow! A cosmic epiphany! “Let there be light” is indisputably a “perfect description” of the origin of time and energy and matter. Of course, it doesn't actually mention matter or hint at mass-energy equivalence, but let's not quibble. If we don't quibble, we can agree that the description is perfect.
He then creates the dry land out of the waters, but it is the water that comes first. As Parker points out, scientists today understand very similarly that water is indeed crucial for life.

When ‘astrobiologists’ look into space for signs of life on other planets, the first thing they look for is the possible presence of water.
Another hit! A most palpable hit! Today scientists search for water as a prerequisite for life on other planets. That is certainly why God made it first! (On the second day. After light.)
On the third day, we are told: ‘God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”’

Now factually speaking, grass didn't evolve until much later. In the Triassic and Jurassic epochs, the dinosaurs knew only plants such as giant conifers and tree ferns. But since grass did not in fact evolve until much later, a sternly literal-minded scientist would declare the Bible wrong, and consign it to the nearest wheelie bin.

But wait a minute, says Parker. If you take ‘grass, herb and tree’ to mean photosynthesising life in general, then this is, once again, spot on.
Parker is indisputably right: If you ignore the errors, then the Bible account in Genesis is correct!
The very life forms on earth were single-celled bacteria, but the first truly viable bacteria were the ‘cyanobacteria’—those that had learned to photosynthesise.

As a result, they began to expire oxygen, creating an atmosphere that could go on to support more and more life. They were the key to life on earth.

Naturally, says Parker, ‘the ancient Israelites would have been oblivious to any single-celled life form, let alone cyanobacteria’, but ‘grass’ as a loose description of life forms that photosynthesise?
Parker is really slacking off here. I have it on good authority that all of the letters required to spelled out “cyanobacteria” and “photosynthesis” occur in the first chapter of Genesis. Parker is missing some really compelling evidence!
On the fourth day, Genesis famously becomes confusing. On the first day, remember, God has already created light, and made Day and Night. But it isn't until day four that he makes the lights in heaven, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser the night.

Hang on—so he made ‘Day’ three days before he made the Sun? Houston, I think we have a problem.

Yet the writers of Genesis were just as well aware as us, surely, that the sunrise causes the day. You don't need a degree in astronomy to work that one out. What on earth did they mean?

Here, The Genesis Enigma comes up with a stunningly ingenious answer.
Brace yourselves, folks. Here it comes. Biblical exegesis at its most eye-opening!
For Parker argues that day four refers to the evolution of vision.

Until the first creatures on earth evolved eyes, in a sense, the sun and moon didn't exist. There was no creature on earth to see them, nor the light they cast.

When Genesis says: ‘Let there be lights... To divide the day from the night,’ it is talking about eyes.

‘The very first eye on earth effectively turned on the lights for animal behaviour,’ writes Professor Parker, ‘and consequently for further rapid evolution.’
Didn't see that one coming, did you? How could we have been so blind! (That may have been a joke, but you'll forgive me if I'm just a little bit befuddled right now.)
Almost overnight, life suddenly grew vastly more complex. Predators were able to hunt far more efficiently, and so prey had to evolve fast too—or get eaten.

The moment that there were ‘lights’, or eyes, then life exploded into all its infinite variety.

And yet again, that's what Genesis says happened, and in the correct environment too. In the sea.

For on the very next day of Creation, the fifth day: ‘God said, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.”’

That is exactly what happened. Life that had hitherto been lived in the dark, by simple, slow-moving, worm-like creatures, erupted into dazzling diversity. We know all about it from the world famous Burgess Shale fossils.

They were discovered in the summer of 1909 by one Charles Doolittle Walcott, on holiday with his family in the Canadian Rockies. Walcott began to chip away at the shale with his geological hammer, and quite by chance stumbled upon one of the greatest finds in all science.

For the shale records what happened on our planet around 508 million years ago, long before the first dinosaurs: the ‘Cambrian explosion,’ which most scientists now think was indeed the direct result of the evolution of vision.
Poor Stephen Jay Gould wrote an entire book on the Burgess Shale without ever realizing it contained a vital key to the truth of Genesis. Professor Parker is running rings around him with his superior intelligence.
How does Genesis describe the teeming aquatic life of the Cambrian explosion? ‘And God said, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.”’

How did the writer/writers know that life suddenly diversified into this rich and staggering variety, under the oceans, not on land? Why would a very much land-based people, pastoralists and shepherds, even think like this?
These are excellent questions. Assuming, of course, that the Bible scribes intended “bring forth abundantly” to indicate variety as well as quantity, and assuming further that God's holy stenographers also implied an “explosion” of sea life, and assuming even further that they did not simply flip a coin in deciding to discuss sea creatures before land animals, then we must confront the issue head on: How did these harmless rustics have the imagination to write about (by implication, anyway) suddenly burgeoning varieties of innumerable sea creatures arising before life on land? God must have whispered in their ears, right?
And after the sea monsters come the birds, the animals, cattle, and finally, homo sapiens. All present and correct, and all still in the right order.
Don't forget, we're still awarding God a mulligan on that unfortunate business with the premature citation of “grass,” which has been known to muddle the recollection. I'm not sure, either, how “cattle” got separated from “animals,” but I'm a farm boy who is aware that cattle can be sly little rascals.
Once again, ‘In describing how the planet and life around us came to be, the writer of the Genesis narrative got it disturbingly right’.
Except, of course, where he (they?) got it wrong, in which case we forgive them.

The Daily Mail finishes up its report on Parker's Genesis Enigma with a few words of caution from the author, who does not want to be mistaken for a creationist:
So what should we make of the extraordinary findings of The Genesis Enigma?

Professor Parker is clear on this subject. ‘It would be a great shame if my findings were either misused in an attempt to suggest that scientists themselves are unsure about science, or pounded out of all recognition into support of the seven-day creation premise.’

Nevertheless, when Parker comes to explaining how the writers of Genesis knew what they knew, he can only conclude that it was due to ‘divine intervention’, or ‘a lucky guess’. Since the odds of the latter seem fantastically remote, Parker tentatively suggests the former.
He leaves out post hoc apologetics and special pleading, but he's a busy man who can't be expected to anticipate everything. (God may have divinely inspired Genesis, but he was less generous in the case of The Genesis Enigma.)
Parker clearly demonstrates what an extraordinary text the Bible is—and even more so, not less so, in the light of modern science. But he is surely wrong to think that the only way of coming by knowledge is either through science or ‘divine intervention’.
Oops! Where did that come from? Daily Mail reporter Christopher Hart gave Professor Parker a lot of leeway in laying out the argument of The Genesis Enigma, but Mr. Hart has been keeping some doubt in reserve.
The writers of Genesis didn't possess scientific knowledge, they didn't have Darwin, or the earth-shattering findings of Victorian geology. They didn't, as Parker himself says, have ‘so much as a magnifying lens’.

But that doesn't prove divine intervention either. Instead, they possessed an ancient, intuitive wisdom of great poetry and beauty.

One could compare this with the wisdom of other, pre-scientific cultures, which often turns out to correspond closely to the findings of modern science.

Darwinian evolution teaches us that all life on earth is related. We human beings are 99 per cent genetically identical to chimpanzees and orang-utans. But as the great Professor Steve Jones always loves to point out, we are also 90 per cent mice, and even 50 per cent banana.

Don't worry, Jones adds reassuringly. This doesn't actually make you half-banana—nor for that matter does it make bananas half-human, or the ethics of eating banoffee pie would just get too complicated.
The invocation of the name of Steve Jones certainly raises the level of the discussion, but the article is still sputtering to an awkward conclusion.
But the surreal comedy of this science aside, there is serious matter here. For just as Darwinian evolution confirms much of the Book of Genesis, it also confirms other, supposedly ‘primitive’ ways of looking at the natural world.

To appreciate the power of pre-scientific wisdom is not for a moment to downgrade the achievements of modern science. But it does emphasise incredible power and, more surprising still, the accuracy of more ancient, ‘poetic’ ways of seeing. As an ancient proverb has it: ‘The mountain has only one summit, but many paths up.’
Sorry, but that's just a little too evocative of Robert Jastrow's goofy coda to his book God and the Astronomers: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting here for centuries.”

Yeah. Right.

And the writers of Genesis knew about the Big Bang, evolution, and the Cambrian explosion.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Let's not shake hands

A completely clean fable

Friends who were present will recognize the liberties taken with the following story and the embellishments that punch up the narrative and highlight the unsubtle message it contains. When you get to recount the incident yourself, you can repair the lapses that produce l'esprit de l'escalier. I take my cue from a statement attributed by Mark Twain to the learned historian Herodotus: “Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.”

There we were, having a friendly chat over burgers at a local restaurant, when a hostess bustled over and seated a party of four at the booth adjacent to ours. It looked like a gaggle of college students—late teens or early tweens. I didn't recognize any of them and took no particular note. Except for one thing.

The red hair.

My paternal grandmother used to wax eloquent about the redheads in our family, especially (as best as I can recall) her twin sisters. The gene for red hair, however, appears to have been lost. There are no redheads in any generation I'm familiar with, and I know four: Dad's, mine, my nieces' and nephews', and that of their children. Not one ginger child in the bunch.

But my grandmother loved red hair and admired it immensely. To this day, although she's been gone for a quarter-century, I cannot see a redhead without having a nanosecond's recollection of my grandmother. Funny how persistent these odd connections can be.

Anyway, one of the kids at the next booth had red hair, which he had cropped close and looked rather like red felt. It gave me a tiny smile as I thought how my grandmother would have taken special note of it (as indeed I was now doing) and then I consigned it to the memory hole as I returned to the conversation at my table. It was entirely possible that my brain's next attempt at garbage collection would wipe out the memory forever. But later something else happened to make it stick.

Thanks to my primary-care physician, who decided that I should be on a diuretic, I heartily appreciate Churchill's dictum that one should never miss an opportunity to empty one's bladder. It was almost time to leave the restaurant and I excused myself to make a quick pit stop. Having taken care of business, I was at the sink scrubbing my hands when in the mirror I saw the bathroom stall behind me open up. Out popped the redheaded kid, who made a beeline for the exit without sparing even a glance at the unoccupied sink next to me.

I returned to my table. The redheaded boy was back at his own table, chatting cheerfully with his companions.

“We ready to go?” asked one of my friends.

I pondered for a long moment.

“Um. Just give me a minute, okay?”

I often lug my briefcase around with me, just in case I have some downtime and there's an opportunity to correct some papers. I often have a steno pad in my briefcase, a practice that goes back many years. A pad in hand gives one a reporterish aspect (in, I admit, a retro sort of way). I dived into my briefcase and pulled out the pad. I flipped it open to a blank page, got up, and sauntered over to the neighboring table.

“Excuse me,” I said. “If you don't mind, this will interrupt you only a minute or two. I'm a faculty member at a local college and I have a couple of questions I'm collecting answers to.”

The young people paused in their conversation and blinked curiously at me, puzzled. But I was an older guy who was wearing a tie. A nicely conventional authority figure. I turned to the redhead and pulled a pen from my pocket.

“The first question is, do you know what E. coli is?”

The boy made a vague sound and shrugged his shoulders. His friends tittered.

“That's okay,” I said, jotting a note on my pad. “Lots of people don't know that one. E. coli is a bacterium that often causes food poisoning, among other things. So now you know what E. coli is. My second question is, do you know how E. coli is spread?”

The redhead narrowed his eyes just a bit, perhaps getting suspicious. They were hazel, I think, but I'm the wrong person to ask about that. Practically everyone in my family has dark-brown eyes and dark-brown hair (if it hasn't gone gray or fallen out). I have no expertise in the nuances of eye color.

“I don't know,” said the boy. His friends were exchanging glances. One of them volunteered: “Contamination?”

I nodded my head and scrawled another note on my pad.

“Yes, food contamination is one way. E. coli is commonly found in the lower digestive tracts of warm-blooded animals. That includes humans.”

“You mean in shit,” exclaimed one of the young people, to general laughter.

“Yes,” I agreed. “I do believe that is the correct technical term for it. One last question.”

I looked the redheaded boy in the eye (hazel- or whatever-colored). He was looking just a little bit pale, which is a good trick for someone already so white, but he was clearly anticipating trouble from the inquisitive professor.

“Please tell me if you don't bother washing your hands in the restroom because (a) you didn't know that dirty hands spread germs, (b) you don't believe that dirty hands spread germs, or (c) you just don't care.”

I poised my pen above my notepad. The boy went crimson (but not quite enough to match his hair). His friends had been looking at me as I asked the final question. Their heads snapped back toward their friend and their hands pulled back sharply from the finger-food appetizers in the middle of their table.

“No! I always wash my hands!” he blurted.

I did a little more random scribbling.

“Fascinating,” I observed. “I ask these questions only of guys I have personally seen leave a restroom stall without washing their hands.” (A true statement, even if I had never asked those questions before.) “A majority always seem to lie about it, so I guess that means they actually know better, but couldn't be bothered to take the time to wash their hands. Fascinating.”

I wrapped it up.

“Okay, we're done here. Thanks for letting me interrupt your meal. You'll forgive me, I trust, if I don't shake hands. Now go wash your hands before you eat lunch with your friends or touch anything they might touch. So long!”

I flipped the notepad shut and shoved it back into my briefcase. I gave the agitated young people a cheerful nod and headed toward the door. As we got outside, one of my friends said, “Talk about a dirty trick! You humiliated that poor kid.”

“It was a teachable moment,” I replied. “Other than that, I wash my hands of the whole thing.”

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pining for Palin?

A mule for Sister Sarah

Jeanne Phillips inherited the Dear Abby column from her mother, Pauline Phillips, several years ago, after a transition period during which she and Pauline were coauthors. Jeanne also seems to have inherited her mother's sensibilities. Her answers to her correspondents' questions are not that different from what we might have expected from Pauline. Sometimes, though, you wonder if Jeanne's spider-sense is as strong as her mother's. Do you think Pauline would have run this letter, which appeared on July 10, 2009, in Jeanne's column?
Dear Abby: I live in a small town in Alaska. A relationship with a woman I loved more than I have ever loved anyone has ended. I'm left with only pain, misery and suffering.

I keep trying to move on, but everything I do makes me think of her. I have asked friends for advice; they all tell me to “man up and get over it!”

It's frustrating to be told to “get over her” and accept what is. I know brooding isn't helpful, but it's a natural byproduct of pain. What I need to ask you is this: Is it worth putting your heart and soul on the line with the likely possibility of having them crushed? I hope so, because without hope, then what is there to live for? That thought scares me more than anything I have ever experienced.
Heartbroken Up North

Dear Heartbroken: Of course it's worth it, because without risk there is no reward. I am speaking with the voice of experience. You have plenty to live for. Falling in love is like prospecting for gold. Sometimes you strike the mother lode on the first try, but most times you have to keep digging. I don't know how small the community you live in is, but if it's so small that most of the eligible candidates for romance have been eliminated, then you should consider relocating.
One other question: If you had chosen to run the letter, would you have answered it the way Jeanne did? Here's one possible alternative response:
Dear Heartbroken: Get over it, Todd. Wasilla is too small for her and she's moved on to a whole new set of advisors. You're history. And she belongs to the world now. Well, the fantasy world of right-wing wish fulfillment in which abandonment of one's post is seen as a brilliant feat of political positioning. But don't worry. Your lost love is sure to rake in megabucks for giving pandering political speeches to angry plutocrats and you're certain to glom on to some of that during the divorce proceedings. (Hint: Don't try for custody of the kids. You won't get enough child support to make it worthwhile, especially if random grandchildren keep popping up.)
That's one possible answer, anyway. Perhaps you have a better one (in which case, please leave it in the comments!).

Of course, I could be wrong about all this. Perhaps the writer is just a smitten Republican voter who can't get over the loss of his charismatically tongue-tied idol. Or maybe Jeanne fell for a hoax letter from students at Yale. They used to write to Ann Landers (Jeanne's aunt), but the Landers column is defunct and Jeanne is the new game in town.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

All together now

John Donne says you'll flunk

Back when I was a teaching assistant in a university math department, Professor Joshua Stone was fortunate enough to secure my services as his sidekick in an abstract algebra class. As one of those slightly overzealous TAs, I'd sit in on the actual classes as well as holding office hours and grading exams. Stone liked to break his class up into teams and hand out projects for cooperative work and exploration. One day I was in Stone's office as he shuffled through a pile of comment forms from his students. He suddenly started chuckling and tossed one of the pieces of paper at me.

“Check it out, Zee. What are we supposed to make of that?”

I turned the sheet of paper right-side up and read the words, “More small groups!”

“It's a puzzler,” I admitted, grinning at the professor.

Stone smiled back. “Yeah. Does the student want me to give them more problems involving groups of small order, or does the student want me to break them up into small teams for group work more often? You can read it either way.”

“Or both!” I suggested.

Professor Stone was a big fan of having his students work together in small groups, exploring mathematical questions and pooling their insights and resources. The success of the small-group technique, however, was anything but predictable. It was affected by the aggregate personal dynamics of each class and the weird fluctuations caused by partitioning the students into different small-group configurations. Some classes adapt happily to group work while others resist it strenuously.

So it was at the university back in those days and so it is at my community college in the present day. I've become a little more canny about breaking up my own classes into small groups, trying to balance each team to increase the likelihood of successful cooperative effort. Nevertheless, I keep running into particular students for whom this learning technique is a complete failure.

I really don't know what to do.

The pitfalls of small-group work are obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a moment. You can have a group in which one pushy student takes over and drives everything (including his or her classmates away). You can have a group in which everyone is exactly the same and nothing gets done; a kind of group paralysis ensues. (If you let groups form entirely on their own, it turns out that your weakest students have a remarkable propensity for clustering together in a kind of “reverse” brain trust.) You can have the bright student who resents the possibility (even the likelihood) of the group riding on his or her ability to do the problem—and is happy to complain to you about it at great length.

But my particular problem students are distinct from all of the above situations. They are, rather, the loners who seem unable to connect with what their classmates are doing. It seems not to matter how I set things up. I can encourage a round-table format in which each student takes a turn trying to make a contribution. They either pass or merely mumble something indistinct. I can instruct the class that each team should cross-check each answer among the team members before moving on to the next step or problem. It's to no avail. Certain students deal themselves out and end up alone and doomed—like a caravan traveler left behind in the middle of the desert.

I have two recent examples in mind. One young man was a chronic underachiever who also had difficulty getting to class on time. We did group work only a few times during the term he enrolled in my calculus class, but each instance was a crashing failure for him. I thought it might be a language barrier, although he seemed to understand me when I conversed with him. But even that excuse was swept away when he was in a team with a young woman who spoke his primary tongue and chattered away at him in that language, trying to get him to get to work through the problems with her. Even on that occasion, though, he handed in an incomplete worksheet. It was just too much trouble to transcribe what his teammates were doing. He penciled in some partial results of his own and missed the mark once again.

Every time it was the same story with him: a long period of sitting inertly while his classmates churned away, followed by some half-hearted scribbles that mostly ignored what they had been doing, and submission to the teacher of an incomplete paper.

The same class contained another student for whom group work was an exercise in futility. It didn't matter how loudly (or frequently) I declared, “Confirm your answer to part (a) with your neighbors before going on to part (b)!” The instructions didn't apply to him. He would hunch over his paper like a hungry dog with a bone, afraid that some mangy cur would snatch his prize. This student would triumphantly hand in results that bore no relationship to the right answer. The right answer that every other student in his ignored team had.

When I patiently asked him why he had not followed my instructions to verify his intermediate steps with his classmates before pushing on to the conclusion, he began to explain very defensively how he had done his work. I interrupted the flow of words and asked him again. Why had he not conferred with the other members of his team? He doggedly returned to his explanation that he knew how to do it, refusing again to answer my question. The evidence, however, contradicted his claim of competence.

These are just two of the students I never reached. And I still don't know what was going on. What will I try the next time I see their like?