Monday, May 31, 2010

When you're (extreme) right, you're (extreme) right

Do unto others?

I was rereading parts of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis for a forthcoming blog post when I ran across some interesting lines in the sixth letter. Screwtape is discussing the advent of the European war (Lewis was writing during World War II) and hopes his nephew Wormwood will not rely too much on the hatred that the war is likely to inspire in the British subject Wormwood is trying to lead astray:
The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.
We should be pleased, I'm sure, that during the Bush administration we decided that Americans are not such milksops as to stop short of torturing their prisoners of war—oh, excuse me! I mean to say, “applying enhanced interrogation” to them.

Yeah, that's what I meant.

And KSFO's Rabbi Daniel Lapin wishes to agree, except that he's worried we might be milksops after all. Here's a conversation he had on Sunday afternoon, May 30, 2010, with a caller from San Jose:
Carla: I called because my son has had fourteen months as a medic in Afghanistan. What the liberal press does not let us know is how our military medical people will treat anybody. Seriously. If it's a civilian that is in need they don't care, they take care of them. He sent me an e-mail when he first got there about a woman who had been shot in her nine-months-pregnant belly by her husband.

Lapin: A Moslem woman shot by her Moslem husband.

Carla: Correct. The doctors thought the baby was dead so they just removed it from her belly and laid him aside and they went to work on the mother. My son was in the operating room at the time. He saw that baby's lips move.

Lapin: Oh, my goodness!

Carla: He notified the doctors and the doctors immediately went to work on that baby and both mother and son made it out alive.

Lapin: Yeah.

Carla: So my thought is that our military medical people don't care. What they care about is saving life.

Lapin: And what do you think would happen if a wounded American soldier fell into the hands of an Iraqi medical unit, if there was such a thing.

Carla: They would not have a chance in hell.

Lapin: They'd cut off his head.

Carla: Of course!

Lapin: Yeah. And so, look, I understand how proud it makes you feel as a mother to have a son like that and I understand how proud it makes me to feel as an American that we are that compassionate, that good, that loving, but it also makes me very sad, because it means we will lose the war.

Carla: You know, it makes me sad to know that they don't have that capability. Some of those people don't have the capability for that kind of compassion.

Lapin: And therefore we should defeat them and impose our view of morality upon them, if we had enough conviction in it ourselves.

Carla: Well, I'm afraid that our liberal authority is not going to allow us to do that.
Lapin and Carla continued to discuss how law-abiding Americans were hobbled by their respect for the Geneva conventions and international law, as if George W. Bush hadn't flouted both and Barack Obama hasn't been slow to walk it back.

Lapin returned to this theme with a later caller when he referred to America's enemies as “fierce fanatics and frenzied fiends,” adding that “They have absolutely no doubt about the rightness of their cause.”

Sound like anyone you know?

I know, of course, exactly what needs to be done. Daniel Lapin should be kidnapped by some of Obama's secret stormtroopers and smuggled off to one of FEMA's hidden concentration camps. Once there, we can deprogram him and re-educate him à la Clockwork Orange. Eventually he'll abandon might-makes-right and the notion that moral certitude excuses barbarism. Of course, it might require extreme abuse, deprivation, and “enhanced” persuasion. That shouldn't, however, be a problem.

As long as I am absolutely certain that I am in the right, I'm sure that Lapin can't object on moral grounds.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Magic fingers

A half century of practice pays off

Check it out. Jealous? Yeah, well, maybe you had a life, but I can type fast!

(If you take the speed test yourself, let me know in the comments how well you did.)

86 words

Okay, I just had to try again. Last time I misspelled three words while clocking 86 wpm. This time it was 96 wpm with only two misspellings! I could have also recorded a pathetic 79 wpm with six errors, but let's not brag. (Time to rest my fingers.)

96 words

Martin Gardner, 1914-2010

Founder of the modern skeptics movement

Sometimes little fragments of memory get stuck in your mind with preternatural clarity. I recall one such episode from 1970. It was a late spring afternoon and I had some time to kill before a scheduled meeting with a college friend to wrap up some class project. I was sprawled on my bed (the bedspread had a multicolor rectangular grid pattern on a black background) and I was paging through a book. This was not in itself particularly unusual or remarkable. I read books everywhere and at all times.

On this occasion, however, I was propped up on my elbows reading a Dover edition of Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies. I was utterly fascinated. I already knew Gardner's work from Scientific American, eagerly reading his “Mathematics Games” column every month. His book, however, was figuratively shaking me by the shoulders and waking me up. I had read J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée on their UFO theories, which had seemed quite intriguing on first glance. Now I saw that Gardner had preemptively refuted them years before they began their careers as pop icons of the UFO cults.

And I was being deprogrammed. So much for little green men (and their twisted ass-freak leaders).

Gardner overcame a fundamentalist upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to become the founder of the modern skeptical movement. Although he never abandoned theism itself (he styled himself a “mysterian”), Gardner tirelessly promoted a questioning attitude toward religious claims and irrational beliefs. It is sad to note that some of Gardner's targets, like Scientology and homeopathy, continue to ensnare millions of people decades after he punctured their pretensions. Nonsense can be robust.

Fortunately, Gardner has inspired a legion of successors and the skeptical movement continues to defend rational thought against the inane nostrums and delusions of the day. Let us continue to defend his legacy of sanity and reason.

In addition to his millions of written words, Gardner was recorded in a number of interviews over his long life. The 1979 interview was just unearthed in unexpurgated form in the wake of his death and in that sense is new. The others represent Gardner in the later stages of his career and demonstrate his undiminished sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for recreational math and science.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sisterhood is powerful

Noisy, too

Three sisters sat in a cluster in my prealgebra class. I was puzzled. Two of them clearly did not need to be there. They casually aced all the quizzes and exams, looking bored as they did so. The third sister was doing fine, but she was not gliding above the fray. She had to get dirty occasionally, struggling with the concepts and the calculations. I expected her to get a good or excellent grade in the long run, but it was clear that she was properly placed in the class that she needed.

As for her sisters, they didn't seem to match the two classic cases of under-assigned students. Most students who are in classes below their preparation level are either timid, afraid to take the class they should be taking, or opportunists, deliberately aiming low so that they can pad their GPAs with easy A's. It turned out that the girls were traveling as a cohort to ensure the success of their youngest sibling. The two older girls had no need of prealgebra (in fact, they were simultaneously enrolled in algebra!), but they were watchdogs shepherding their younger sister through the travails of math.

Well, that's family unity, I guess. I've seen other cases where siblings take charge (or try to take charge) of a student's education. If the sisters were willing to go slumming in prealgebra for the sake of their little sister, who was I to protest? (Even if they were taking up spaces that could have gone to students who actually needed the course, of course.)

There was another little problem. The middle sister loved to participate in class. Oh, my, did she love to participate! I could not get her to shut up.

“Okay, class. Let's start the unit on percentages with a simple example. Suppose we take a look at seventy-five percent.” I wrote it on the board. “What if we wanted to express that as a frac—”


“Uh, thank you, Linda, but perhaps you could wait till I actually ask the question. Okay?”

I was going to put 75% on the board, tell them (or elicit from them) that “percent” means “per 100,” rewrite the percentage as 75/100, and reduce it to 3/4. And then I could mention the noncoincidence that seventy-five cents is equal to three quarters of a dollar, as they well know, so we're tapping into knowledge they already possess in part.

Sure grateful to have been spared all the bother.

It also happened when we were solving a simple equation and we were about to divide both sides by 2 (to eliminate the coefficient of 2x). Linda yelled out, “Why don't you just multiply both sides of the equation by the reciprocal of the coefficient?”

And why don't you just shut up? (No, I didn't say that. I just thought it very loudly.)

This went on all semester. I tried everything.

“Please let others have a chance, Linda.”

“I distinctly said that people should raise their hands if they have the answer, Linda. You pay such close attention that you should have heard that.”

“How about letting someone else have a chance, Linda?”

“Linda, you know that I know that you already know this. Try giving it a rest.”

“Linda, I've looked into the matter, and it appears that modern-day teachers are discouraged from stashing their students bound and gagged in the back of the room. I'll keep checking to see if there's a loophole.”

Yeah, I really said that. It actually kept Linda subdued for the remainder of the period. And a little more restrained in subsequent class sessions, but by then the semester was all but over.

We were probably both glad that it was over. Linda had no impulse control and I was rapidly losing mine!

And now for a bit of entirely pertinent entertainment from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kidding on the square

Lessons unlearned

My teaching career began with sporadic part-time assignments in the seventies and finally became my full-time profession in the eighties. Of course, with decades of teaching experience under my belt, nothing can surprise me anymore.

Yeah, right.

During a prealgebra final exam, a student came up to me with a question. My students know that they can ask me questions at any time, even during tests. It's possible, of course, that I might respond by saying, “I can't tell you that,” but it doesn't hurt to ask. Sometimes all a student needs is the tiniest nudge, after which the light comes on in their eyes and they demonstrate their knowledge instead of their confusion.

That's the theory, anyway.

In this instance, my prealgebra student comes up to me with a question about finding the area of a rectangle. She points to a figure on her exam, and says, “Dr. Z, is this a square?”

I'm sure you know what happened next. I calmly prompted her to give me the definition of a square, after which she quickly perceived her mistake and returned to her desk prepared to solve the problem.

Uh, no.

The first thing I really said, as best as I can reconstruct it, was “Gak!” After recovering my equilibrium and taking a deep, calming breath, I added, “Why do you think it's a square?”

She wasn't sure. She just wanted to know which area formula to use. Which was better, A = LW or A = s2?

Maybe it was my fault. I had focused on the notion of length times width for the area of rectangles, letting the area of a square fall out as a special case of no special interest. Besides, we were already used to the word “square” to indicate the product of a number with itself. Did we have to belabor it?

Evidently we did.

One of my students has made it to adulthood without ever learning the definition of a square. I remain capable of surprise.

I was pleased when—without undue prompting on my part—my student decided that she wanted to use A = LW to find the area of the rectangle. As I discovered later while grading the exam, she had proceeded to add L and W to get her answer. She gave me half the perimeter instead of the area.

Oy. I am a really bad teacher.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Draw Muhammad Day

No artistic skills needed!

Having never missed Draw Muhammad Day in the past, I wanted to make sure that I observed the occasion this year, too. Of course, in my day we used to call it Draw Mohammed Day. Or Draw Mahomet Day.

One loses track.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bill Donohue is my pen-pal

So many questions he has!

I keep getting mail from Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It flows into my e-mail in-box in electronic form and into my post office box as hard copy. Bill tries hard to attract my attention and to keep me entertained. It's a thing that we have.

On previous occasions I have mentioned the piquant humor in Bill's role as Catholicism's most public face in the United States. You'd think the Church would have anticipated some downside to being represented in the mass media by a whining, histrionic, and mean-spirited curmudgeon, but perhaps there's a lesson in this. God moves in mysterious ways his blunders to perform.

This week I discovered that Bill wants my opinion on a variety of matters relating to the representation (or misrepresentation) of Catholic values in the news and entertainment media. He began with a series of yes/no questions:
Prior to receiving Bill Donohue's letter to you, were you aware of any other Catholic organization or spokesperson that denounced the episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Larry David urinated on a picture of Jesus for the disgusting example of anti-Catholic bigotry in the media that it was?
The media poll was accompanied by an 8-page cover letter from Bill, who wanted to make sure that we would be properly briefed before answering the questions. I'm sure it makes it more likely that the Catholic League will get the answers it wants.

As it happens, I saw the episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in question and found it quite easy to—um—curb my enthusiasm. The humor was too broad and and I didn't find many laughs in it. The pee incident was an unintentional accident occasioned by an excessively effective diuretic medication, not an act of deliberate desecration. Furthermore, I detected nothing that was specifically anti-Catholic about the episode. (Are Catholics supposed to be more likely than Protestants to unwisely hang pictures of Jesus in their bathrooms? My Catholic family never did.)
Prior to receiving Bill Donohue's letter to you, were you aware of any other Catholic organization or spokesperson that exposed the New York Times's refusal to print Archbishop Dolan's indictment of its anti-Catholic bigotry as proof of that very same bigotry?
Dolan and I have a lot in common: The Times refuses to publish my letters, too. I suspect the Times is prejudiced against Portuguese-Americans. Or mathematical-Americans. Not sure which.
Prior to receiving Bill Donohue's letter to you, were you aware of any other Catholic organization or spokesperson that exposed the anti-Catholic bigotry involved in the Washington Post blog providing a forum for atheist Richard Dawkins's diatribe against the Catholic Church?
I admit that this one upsets me just a little. Why was Dawkins relegated to the newspaper's blog? His views should have been prominently displayed in the editorial section. It's a shocking suppression of the views of a prominent international spokesperson for millions of nonbelievers. Yeah, I'm a little upset. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Bill!
Prior to receiving Bill Donohue's letter to you, were you aware of any other Catholic organization or spokesperson that documented Bill Maher's repeated, decade-long expressions of contempt for the Catholic Church and the beliefs of all Christians?
Actually, Bill, I've seen plenty of religionists complaining about Maher's denigration of fatuous faith—including Islam, which takes a little chutzpah. Maher has his own fatuities (mostly in the field of health and medicine), but it's not exactly news that Maher pokes fun at religion and religious people don't like it.
Do you agree with Catholic League President Bill Donohue that these examples prove that anti-Catholicism is widespread in today's news and entertainment media—the last and only remaining “allowable bigotry”?
Do you agree that the writers, editors, producers and on-air personalities responsible for these examples of anti-Catholic bigotry should have been fired or otherwise disciplined?
You're kidding, right? Nobody expects the American Inquisition! (You want a nice red uniform, don't you?)
Do you agree that the fact no one was disciplined in any way for these expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry shows that anti-Catholicism is acceptable to the owners and management of the media in question, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Viacom, Time-Warner, and Disney?
Nope. (1) Calling it anti-Catholic bigotry is reaching too far. (2) It actually denotes a modicum of respect for free speech. (3) Shut up. (I decided to leaven this post with a little humor!)
Do you agree that if these examples of bigotry had been against another religion, such as the Jewish or Muslim faith, those responsible would certainly have been disciplined?
In the case of actual bigotry, or imagined bigotry?
Do you agree that being bombarded by such bigotry against and contempt for Catholicism in the media threatens the spiritual well-being of our younger generation?
The younger generation? You mean, like altar boys? Wow, Bill, bringing up the well-being of young people in a Catholic context demonstrated how thoroughly ballsy you are. You crack me up! You'll go to any length for a joke, won't you? (I bow to the master.)
Do you support the Catholic League's campaign to reach at least l million Catholics with this Survey and to publicize the results as widely as possible in the Catholic and secular media?
Since when does “survey” merit capitalization? Is it a proper noun? It is a sacred text?

If so, it's a pity I'm about to desecrate it with the recycling bin.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Home boy

I've never been “home”

President Obama poked some gentle fun at several targets during the White House Correspondents Association dinner last week. He tweaked Biden for his use of profanity and Jay Leno for his recent ratings. And he tossed a barb in the direction of the birthers, the wacky people who refuse to accept the evidence of Obama's birth in Hawaii:
It's been quite a year since I've spoken here last—lots of ups, lots of downs—except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down. But that's politics. It doesn’t bother me. Besides I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.
The fringe element that populates the Free Republic website seized on the president's comment:
gooleyman: Am I the only one to notice that Obama admitted on this video that he was not born in the United States.

He actually admits he wasn’t born in the United States.
Some folks can't quite grasp the concept of a mocking comedy routine—even when they're the butt of it (or perhaps especially when they're the butt of it). These crazies were also excited when Michelle Obama spoke in August 2008 before the a conference of LGBT delegates at the Democratic convention (“The World as It Should Be”):
Barack has led by example: When we took our trip to Africa and visited his home country in Kenya, we took a public HIV test for the very point of showing the folks in Kenya that there is nothing to be embarrassed about in getting tested.
Oh, my God! She said her husband's “home country” is Kenya! Oh, no!

I hope that the president's health care reform package includes increased coverage for psychiatric treatment. The birthers need help from competent brain-care specialists. The concept of “home country” is neither obscure nor difficult to understand—and it is not identical to “birth country.” I have reason to know.

The following paragraphs are a short excerpt from a novel I wrote last summer (still unpublished as of this writing, but I'm working on it). The manuscript recounts the travails of a contentious Portuguese immigrant family living in central California. (By a strange coincidence, I grew up in a contentious Portuguese immigrant family in central California. Weird!) This particular episode includes the following exchange between two pre-teen cousins:
Tia Odette told me that my avô came to this country when he was still single. He was engaged to a girl back home.”

“In the Old Country. The Azores.”

“Yeah, back home,” said Ferdinando.

Paul thought it was interesting how they had picked up the expression “back home” to refer to a place that neither of them had ever seen. They had learned the phrase from their grandparents and it was a natural part of their language.
It's true. All my life I heard family members referring to the Azores as “back home.” I've said it myself.

But I've never been there.

People who misunderstand this expression out of ignorance or idiocy are probably beyond help. The lights are on, but no one is home.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Fun with trolls

Basket cases

The Internet is a wonderful gift to the mentally deranged. It enables them to share their warped perspective and grandiose delusions with the world. PZ Myers highlights a special case over at Pharyngula. John A. Davison is a sorry-ass crackpot who pelts PZ with e-mail about his cranky collection of “science” essays. It's another idiot who thinks he's a genius.

I'm currently having just a little bit of fun with a similarly loopy—but less coherent—nutjob whose self-regard has to be experienced to be appreciated. Let's call this fellow “Smith” for the sake of discussion. His reasoning skills are orthogonal to reality. For example, check this out:


Shermer - Harris - Myers - Dawkins - Randi VS. NOSTRADAMUS - EINSTEIN - SMITH

It's another idiot who thinks he's a genius, ranking himself with Einstein. The Nostradamus comparison I can almost see, especially if you equate obscurantism with delusion (and I suspect Smith can't tell the difference).

It's just sad that Smith thinks Einstein was a theist. A regard for Spinoza's concept of god as the embodiment of nature does not make one a believer in any traditional sense of the word.

Too bad for Smith.

Each time he weighs in with one of his irrational rants, I smile and gently delete it. No doubt he chuckles mischievously as he reposts his nonsense time and again, but it's all for naught. He posts and chuckles. I delete and laugh.

Ha, ha, “Smith.” See how I mock your self-regard?