Sunday, August 29, 2010

Science saves volcano virgins

The Sunday funnies

Sunday mornings are a good time for enjoying the funnies. I am not, however, limiting myself to what I discover in the comics section of the daily newspaper. Some of the most entertainingly amusing stuff is on television, where religious broadcasters present surreal comedy routines that they deliver with astonishing earnestness. (I marvel at how they manage to keep a straight face.)

This morning's entertainment was provided in part by Shawn Boonstra, an earnest and soft-spoken television preacher who styles himself as the “speaker/director” of his It Is Written ministry. He had set himself the task of discussing Einstein's brain and using it as an example of the insufficiency of natural processes to explain the existence or intelligence of humanity.
You know, on paper, sometimes the theory of evolution makes pretty good sense, but don't you find there's this nagging doubt in your heart that tells you this place couldn't possibly have come into existence by accident? How in the world does a cosmic accident develop to the point where we can generate nuclear power? What can we learn from a literal chunk of Einstein's brain?
Ah, yes, the “cosmic accident.” Time to pull God out of the hat as a convenient explanation.

If that were all, Boonstra's presentation would have passed by, unremarked and unremarkable. Fortunately, however, for the sake of my morning entertainment, he had a compelling argument for God's existence based on morality. Without a divine lawgiver, you see, anything goes! While I had heard that before, too, I hadn't heard his precise example before:
If we accept the atheist view of our origins then we have to admit that ideas like good and evil or right and wrong are nothing but human concoctions, the products of our culture. And if you accept that morality is something invented by human beings, you run into a pretty big problem. If one culture says that it's okay to throw young virgins into an active volcano in order to appease the gods of the underworld, then who's allowed to say that's wrong? By what authority can they possibly critique that behavior?
By the authority of science, of course! Science amply demonstrates that volcanoes are not propitiated by virgin sacrifice. The virgins thus spared can then be employed in more productive ways.

Yay, science! Boo, volcano gods!

But Boonstra had worked up a head of steam, so he kept rolling along:
Not only do I believe in a creator God, I also believe in a moral God, a great lawgiver who gave us a perfect moral code. And far from being a outdated set of do's and dont's from some ancient outmoded religion, the Ten Commandments still remain God's standard for right and wrong today. They're laws that just make sense.
A perfect moral code? I'll bet that Boonstra can't define it. Or, at least, he'll have a hell of a time explaining why it's important to avoid eating shellfish while stoning one's recalcitrant children. Or raping virgins that belong to enemy tribes (assuming you don't need them for the volcanoes).

And the Ten Commandments make sense? Excuse me, but I think George Carlin has persuasively demonstrated that they are terribly overwritten and fraught with the insecurities of a compulsively jealous deity.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Small steps, big goals

Big talk, small deeds

Despite the variations, every semester strikes the same themes: how do you learn? how do you study? how do you succeed? how do you pass?

And there's always a few students who want the secret—the magic short-cut that will put them on the royal road to learning math easily. Apparently they think we are hiding some sort of trade secret that enabled us to become math teachers. We must guard it jealously lest we lose our strangle-hold on algebra!

While I disdain one-size-fits-all solutions to students' problems, there are some fairly uniform basic principles. For example, success is usually proportional to effort. Different students must put in different amounts of effort to achieve equivalent success, but the basic principle still holds. Thus I tell my students they have to gauge for themselves how much effort (which translates significantly into allocation of time) they must put in.

In an attempt to encapsulate the idea in a simple bite-size aphorism, I have told my classes, “Do a little every day.”

They blink at this, of course. It sounds deceptive.

“Only a little?” they ask plaintively.

“Gosh, no,” I tell them. “At least a little.”

It's a good lesson, and one that I learned later than I should have. During my last encounter with grad school, trying to teach a full-time load at my college while carrying a full-time academic load as a university student, there wasn't a lot of slack in my schedule. Determined not to let things slide (at least, not too far), I solemnly resolved to do a little work on my dissertation every day. Every day. No exceptions. Without fail.

I didn't slice my hand with a subtle knife and swear a blood oath, but I did the next best thing.

I told my grad school classmates.

It became an enjoyable game that anyone could play.

“So, Zee, what did you do last night?”

Occasionally I was reduced to paraphrasing Oscar Wilde:

“I was working on the methodology section of my dissertation all day, and took out a comma. In the evening I put it back again.”

And, sadly enough, that was often too close to the truth. Other times, however, an interesting thing happened. I'd be exhausted and ready for bed and then I'd realize I still had to discharge my solemn obligation to tinker on the dissertation. At least a little. Resolving to postpone sleep for just a few minutes, I'd sit at the computer and fire up the word processor. A paragraph. Let's just get one more paragraph in there.

And then, magically, I'd awaken from a trance to discover that half a dozen pages had been written in a two-hour altered state. (Perhaps elves had slipped in and moved my fingers over the keyboard.) Not that this occurred every time, of course, but still often enough to provide the quantum jumps that really advanced my progress toward graduation.

As with any project, completion won't occur without participation. You have to do something.

And that's what I tell my students.

“So choose whatever works best for you. It might be at eight o'clock each evening. It might be when you get home from your morning classes. Whatever. Just plan to sit down with your book and read the latest section or solve the first three, four, or five homework exercises. Pick something and do it. Maybe you'll promise yourself to do at least fifteen minutes of work at that same time every day. Yeah, that's not enough. Fifteen minutes. Maybe if you're a math genius that would be enough. But that's not the point. The point is that you commit yourself to working on it every day. And some days you'll find yourself digging in and getting a lot more done than you might have thought you would—maybe even a couple of hours. Now you're talking! Build a pattern of working every day and keep it going.”

When it's early in the semester, students tend to be in a hopeful mood and try to nod their heads agreeably when their instructor says something. However, the last time I gave an algebra class a harangue similar to the above, one of my students seized on the “math genius” comment.

“But what if you are a math genius?”

The speaker, a lanky kid sitting near the back of the room, was instantly the center of attention.

“If you're a math genius,” I replied, “then you should definitely talk to your math teacher. I know very few and I welcome the opportunity to meet another. Are you indeed a math genius?”

I neglected to point out that the density of math geniuses in college-level introductory algebra classes is extremely close to zero, but no doubt a math genius would have understood what I meant by that.

He nodded his head.

“Yeah, I am,” he modestly admitted. “This stuff is very easy. Very easy. No one should complain about having to take algebra because it is, like, totally easy to do.”

His classmates regarded him with keen curiosity. So did his instructor, for that matter.

“I'm glad to hear that you think so,” I said. “I'm inclined to agree with you, but most of your classmates probably have differing opinions. May I ask how you arrived at your conclusion that algebra is super easy?”

He nodded his head again.

“Yeah, sure. I took it during the summer at the extension center. Like I said, totally easy!”

Everyone paused for a long moment, considering what he had said.

“That raises another question,” I pointed out. “Why are you enrolled in this class if you've already taken algebra during summer school and found it totally easy?”

He regarded me with a trace of exasperation.

“I said it was easy, Dr. Z. I didn't say I passed!”

Apparently it was so easy that it failed to capture his attention.

“Oh, good point,” I said agreeably.

I turned my attention back to the rest of the class.

“Okay. Are we clear, everybody? Even math geniuses can occasionally have trouble with algebra, so commit yourself to working on it—at least a little!—every day of the semester. Let's see how successful you can be.”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Freaky Friday

Saturday was pretty weird, too

The four high holy days always find me back at Mom & Dad's in California's Central Valley. It's the ingrained behavior of a dutiful son. Besides, I don't want to miss the nice dinners that occur at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (even if the religious aspects may get a big cloying). I can visit with family members and catch up on the latest developments—and latest additions (six of them in the last six years). Name tags might help.

I did say four, but I mentioned only three. Were you keeping count?

The fourth high holy day is a slightly movable feast that occurs between the end of summer school and the beginning of the fall term. It's associated with the birthdays of my mother and my goddaughter. A joint birthday party is held on some convenient weekend (bundling in some other, less significant, fall birthdays). The combination of both Mom and Becky reaches critical mass for me, so it's practically a command appearance. And there's usually a nice picnic, cookout, or barbecue, so it doesn't fall too far short of a holiday feast.

Timing is everything. This year I rashly headed south on a Friday. My usual pattern is an overnight Saturday-Sunday visit, but the birthday celebration was being held at my youngest brother's home on Saturday. It was easier to travel down on a Friday, stay at Mom & Dad's, and then head north for home after the Saturday event.

That meant, of course, that I was at my parents' on Friday evening, which for them involves a standing dinner date with a coterie of friends. The Four-Wheelers have scarcely a four-wheel vehicle left among them, advancing years underscoring the imprudence of gadding about in Jeeps and muscle trucks, but the label has stuck. Having devolved into a kind of once-a-week supper club, the Four-Wheelers assemble religiously on Friday evening to break bread and bust the chops of the great Communist-Democrat conspiracy to destroy America.

Naturally Mom & Dad insisted I join them as their guest at the Four-Wheelers gathering. Oh, goodie.

On the road again

We did not go directly to the restaurant selected for that evening's event. My parents chose to leave early to allow time for a social call at the home of my father's widowed first cousin. My octogenarian father insists on being the driver instead of a rider, so I climbed into the passenger seat and Mom relegated herself to the back seat. (This is the configuration they insist on whenever I'm down there.)

Fortunately, Dad has preserved an unblemished driving record and is still fairly trustworthy on the road (except when he wants to show off how much horsepower he has under the hood, but then he has to listen to Mom grumbling like Marge Simpson from the back seat, so he usually refrains). On this particular occasion, Dad waxed eloquent about the many improvements being made to long-neglected county roads. Miles of old macadam were being built up, repaved, and restriped. The smooth, dark surface flew past beneath the car's tires as Dad nattered away.

Then he abruptly shut up, pressed his lips grimly together, and squeezed his hands like vises on the steering wheel. A bright green sign had come into view. The road projects Dad so dearly loved were being funded by President Obama's stimulus package. Apparently he had forgotten about the sign that said, “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” He waited tensely for his radical-communist-socialist son to make some mocking quip and he did an unusually good job of keeping his eyes on the road—a good way to avoid seeing the small smile on my lips.

I let a few seconds trickle by. They were long seconds. Then I let him have it:

“The curves are nicely banked, too. You won't have to worry about standing water during the rainy season.”

No, the tension didn't suddenly drain out of my sire, but he did ease up just a fraction and began to tell us of the days when the roads were all dirt or gravel and how he could date the period because he remembered riding through the area with his uncle, who returned to the Azores when Dad was still a young child.

The maestro

We reached his cousin's house. She and my father are first cousins by virtue of having fathers who are brothers, hence sharing a family name. She had always been ferociously proud of her Ferox heritage, even to the point of making invidious comparisons between the accomplishments of her father's family and those of her husband's. It seems especially odd in retrospect, given that her husband built up and maintained a dairy farm every bit as large and as successful as our family's.

But de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Her late husband had achieved a posthumous canonization in her mind and become the exemplar of Azorean pluck and diligence. Dying in a nasty farm accident can do that to one. We all spoke glowingly of his accomplishments during our short visit and admired the memorial display of photographs in the living room, many months since he shuffled off the mortal coil. There is no nice, neat “closure” after such an unforeseen end to a six-decade marriage, so Dad's cousin is certain to mourn for however many years are left to her.

We made small-talk and she got distracted, which I'm sure was at least part of the reason my parents wanted to visit her. My rare appearance could also be counted upon to cause some gushing from Dad's cousin, because my professorial rank (even in the modest station of a community college) apparently evokes prideful recollections of our mutual family heritage. The label faz tudo is applied to someone who “does everything” (the literal translation of the phrase). My father and his cousin share a faz tudo great-grandfather who sported the island nickname of “mestre Francisco.” (Nicknames are important in the Azores, where it seems that ninety percent of the men share the names António, Francisco, João, José, and Manuel.) The most mundane translation of mestre is “teacher,” but to American ears that lacks the weight of the Portuguese connotations, which are better matched by “master” or even maestro.

It took no effort on our part to get Dad's cousin to recount once more the legend of mestre Francisco, who bundled up his family in the 1860s (or thereabouts) and sailed to Brazil. “Sailed” is not quite right. Francisco and his family booked passage on a paddle-steamer, which unfortunately broke down before making port in Rio de Janeiro. The ship remained becalmed in the Atlantic for two weeks while the crew unsuccessfully sought to repair the damaged drive train for its paddles. Eventually my great-great-grandfather presented himself to the captain and offered his services. In desperation, the captain let him try his hand at repairs. The mestre then spent two long days working on the ship's warped and broken gears—wooden gears—while his son fetched tools and supplies for him. When the mestre succeeded and the ship steamed into Rio, the captain gave him letters of introduction that set him up in business as a highly recommended craftsman in Brazil. Mestre Francisco prospered in Rio and eventually took his family back to the Azores with a tidy nest egg.

This was the first time I had heard the story from Dad's cousin, although it was familiar to me from tellings by my paternal grandparents. It was a good story, foreshadowing as it did my own grandfather's decision to gather up his family and seek his fortune in the New World—except that the mestre returned to the Azores after his Brazilian sojourn while my grandfather's family put down American roots too deep to transplant back to the islands. I had included it in my unpublished novel, taking advantage of the parallelism between the lives of my grandfather and my great-great-grandfather. To my surprise, the version told by Dad's cousin included details that I thought I had made up in fleshing out the tale in my manuscript. Perhaps I had heard them before and had forgotten. In any case, I was smiling at the end of the story. Our cousin showed us a photograph of her grandfather, who as a boy had helped his faz tudo father repair a paddle-steamer.

The theme of man-versus-machine runs through the manuscript of my novel, which should not surprise anyone familiar with farm life. While my great-great-grandfather experienced it in a different context, farmers spend daily life among potentially lethal devices. This my father's cousin knows all too well, but she was cheered by our visit and I kept to myself my thoughts about the travails of mestre Francisco amidst the gearworks of a paddle-steamer and the fate of our cousin's husband amidst heavy farm equipment.

She waved happily at our car as we left and turned back onto the communist-funded county roads.

Dinner among the ruins

The Four-Wheelers circulate among a handful of favored restaurants. I was familiar with the evening's choice. My family used to go there frequently during my adolescence. The subsequent forty years have not been kind to it. The plastic booths, Formica tables, and linoleum floors all look to be what's left of the originals, however patched or worn they may be. A policy of deferred maintenance has been religiously adhered to, although I assume certain minimum steps have been taken to assuage the concerns of the local health inspector.

I was surprised to see no condemnation notice posted in the window.

The real proof of a restaurant, of course, lies in its meals. Therefore, in fairness, I have to report that my cheeseburger earned a passing grade. In the tradition of old-fashioned family restaurants, the portions were generous, too. My parents and their friends—at least, those not under doctor's orders—ate hearty.

By happenstance (I think), I was seated near one end of the table, sitting next to Chuck and opposite his wife Darla. Chuck's name is familiar to me, since it appears on most of the execrable, crazy-ass, wingnut spam that my father sometimes forwards to me. (It's the kind of dreck immortalized at No doubt Dad has complained to Chuck and the other Four-Wheelers that I do not belong to their coterie of conservative conspiracists, so Chuck looked just a little uncomfortable at my presence.

I was, of course, as sunny and cheerful as ever. Darla seemed rather taken with me. Chuck eventually relaxed a bit, perhaps surprised that I had not insisted on singing the Internationale before dining or interrupting all conversations with pithy quotes from Chairman Mao. Nope. I just hunkered down and endured the occasion, munching on my burger and refraining from any action more overt than declining to guffaw with everyone else when a quip was made about the obvious hoax that is global warming. Hilarious. (They are, of course, also concerned about the completely unrelated gradual decline in average rainfall in California as average temperatures tick upward and both plant and animal species adjust their preferred ecological niches northward.)

Chuck and Darla are exactly the sort of people that Mom & Dad would have once avoided with a disdainful sniff and backward tilt of the head. I forget exactly who has what, but Chuck and Darla have seven marriages between them. The family values clique is overloaded with people who apparently value marriage over and over again. To quote Candide's Doctor Pangloss:
Why, marriage, boy,
Is such a joy,
So lovely a condition,
That many ask no better than
To wed as often as they can,
In happy repetition.
A brilliant exposition, even if I do say so myself.

The dozen or so people in attendance at the Four-Wheelers' dinner had a good time and no one appeared to glance askance at me too often. Even so, I expect the conversation was much more mild-mannered than usual and I would love to have an audio recording of the next week's event. No doubt Dad hung his head and confessed he did not know where he had gone wrong.

Silly Saturday

Since so little steam was let off at Friday's dinner, I suppose the built-up pressure was too much to withstand by Saturday morning. Dad was in high dudgeon.

“I see where Obama has endorsed the Ground Zero mosque!”

I was having breakfast in the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the table with me. Dad was yelling from the adjacent dining room, where the computer is set up.

“Indeed?” I said. “I hadn't heard.”

I turned back to the Fresno Bee, not intending to say more. There was no point in mentioning that it wasn't really a mosque and wasn't really at Ground Zero. But now it was Mom's turn.

“That's not a surprise. He's a Muslim, after all.”

I started. This was much worse than usual. Caught by surprise, I was unusually blunt.

“No. He's not. Don't say stupid things, Mom.”

Her feathers were ruffled, but she wasn't backing down.

“He is, too! He's even admitted it himself!”

“Don't be silly. He's done no such thing.”

“I heard him myself!” she declared.

Now I was angry.

“No. You. Didn't. You can't have heard it because he never said it.”

Dad is fairly hard of hearing (especially when he wants to be), but we had raised our voices. Naturally he came to his spouse's rescue. Obama's voice came booming out of the speakers of Dad's computer:

“I know, because I am one of them,” said the president's voice.

I got up from the breakfast table and stalked into the dining room.

“Now this is just crazy! I'm supposed to take an out-of-context excerpt as proof of this idiocy? What's the antecedent of the pronoun, huh? What does ‘them’ mean, huh?”

I get like this sometimes. It's not one of my more attractive features and I am usually careful to avoid intellectual bullying, but I was white hot. It also feeds my father's martyr complex about the over-educated with their fancy degrees looking down their noses at him. When I catch myself doing it, I try to ease up, but I didn't parse my question into little one-syllable words for Dad. My father's not stupid and his vocabulary was equal to the task. Was he just a bit shamefaced when he scrolled back the video clip?

Dad had the YouTube video “Obama Admits He's a Muslim” on his computer screen. He had neglected to play the preceding six seconds of the president's address to the Turkish assembly. Now it came out of the speakers:
Many other Americans have Muslims in their families, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know because I am one of them.
“Some proof!” I scoffed. “He's just saying he has Muslims in his family and has lived among them—things everyone has known for ages! Some proof!”

But Dad left the video run a bit longer. Unsurprisingly, there was the truncated clip from candidate Obama's interview with George Stephanopolous:
You're absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my “Muslim faith.”
The quotes aren't visible in spoken dialog, of course. (If only he had used “air quotes”!) But the intent was obvious (even if not to poor little George) and I wasn't having any of it:

“Good grief! Obama was just saying the McCain wasn't going around claiming that Obama was a Muslim, unlike some of McCain's supporters. That's all! Damn! It's embarrassing when my parents go around saying stupid things!”

I marched off before it got any worse.

Later, of course, I wondered if Dad even bothered to read the candy-ass cover-your-ass disclaimer at the beginning of the video. I suspect he just bleeped across it:
Legal Disclaimer: The writers, producers, editors, and publishers of this video are not stating, claiming, or implying that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, or that Obama himself claimed or admitted to being a Muslim. Rather the writers, producers, editors, and publishers of this video are only examining the evidence surrounding the rumor that Barack Hussein Obama might be a secret Muslim.
Yeah, right. This is about as persuasive a disclaimer as those at the beginning of half-hour paid-programming adverts for miracle cures:
The statements made in this program have not been evaluated by the FDA. The products offered here are not claimed to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Now let's learn how to cure cancer!
(Naturally my mother has a copy on her shelf of a pseudoscientific cancer-cure book by renowned health expert Suzanne Somers. I'm afraid, she's a sucker for this kind of nonsense, which infuses the health-related stories on most of the right-wing news sites. It's not just the left-of-center Huffington Post.)

Fortunately, the cooling-off period took hold and the afternoon birthday party came off without a hitch (even if I had to circle a couple of identical-looking blocks in my baby brother's neighborhood before finding the home I visit an average of less than once a year). Most of the attendees were lineal descendants of my parents or spouses of those descendants, but my sister and brother-in-law brought an old friend of theirs who quickly button-holed me and quizzed me about my novel. He had read my sister's copy of the manuscript and wanted to know when it would see print. Out of my parents' earshot, I explained that it was under review and no decision would be made till later in the year.

One of my cousins was also present. I took the opportunity to inoculate him against possible future distress in the unlikely event that he ever starts reading books—in particular, mine. I mentioned that I had written down many of the family stories in fictional form. I recounted our visit the day before to Dad's cousin and her retelling of the mestre Francisco story. I explained that I covered the big family blow-up from nearly thirty years ago, when we battled over our grandmother's estate. My cousin shook his head in recollection of those dreadful days. And he seemed unperturbed at the thought that his counterpart was in the pages of my book.

“If you wrote it as fiction, then people can't assume that real people did what your characters do.”

Yeah. Do please keep that in mind. Did I mention your father is the bad guy?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A course of miracles

The clarified Real Catholic

Michael Voris has noticed that his call for the United States to become a Catholic dictatorship has provoked some criticism. He is unmoved by the attacks on his divinely inspired support for a popish theocracy, although he issued a mild “clarification” in his latest video: He admits that he should have said “Catholic monarchy” instead of “benevolent dictatorship.”
Western civilization would be better off if it were a Catholic monarchy.
Surely that will still the voices of his critics, no?


Most of us don't appreciate how perfect life was under Their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella in Inquisition-era Spain. And we've all but forgotten the idyll that was Mary Tudor's reign as England's beloved “Bloody Mary.”


Mr. Voris, who glories in the academic initials S.T.B. after his name (Sacred Theology Baccalaureate: he graduated from college!), disavows any revolutionary intent.
The point wasn't to publicize a battle plan for overthrowing the secular humanist government.
No, indeed not. Voris just wants us to realize that we are already living under the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” (which he says is a phrase he borrowed from Pope Benny Hex).

That's right: Our benevolent dictatorship of relativism—which provides neither fear, surprise, efficiency, nor nice red uniforms (and certainly not an almost fanatical devotion to the pope)—allows us relative (tee hee) freedom in choosing our personal philosophies and ethical perspectives. We are forced to make up our own minds on a wide range of things.

The boot heel of such tyranny grinds us down!

Michael Voris just knows we would be better off under the “freedom” of a one-size-fits-all Catholic ethos, a sort of papal Snuggy (but I presume all of them would be bright red; it stands to reason).

As someone who is himself quite mild-spoken, I can appreciate how offended Voris was by the language used by some of his critics in the atheist community. (Go to 1:52 in the video.)
It only takes a couple of postings for all of the vile to come spewing forth.
I think he means “bile.”

This is from a man who calls us “the vocabulary-challenged atheist set.” Unfortunately, he used this phrase immediately after decrying “course language,” which is the [sic] way he expressed it on screen.


There's something Voris appears to have missed in the invective and criticism directed his way after his crazy endorsement of benevolent dictatorship. It appears to me that his critics are not so much upset as they are ... amused. Voris is cosmically and comically stupid. He would be regarded as a joke even at a teabagger rally. Most of us are ridiculing him rather than lashing out in anger. That's what the pointing and laughing are about, Michael, if you need a clue. You are so out there on the fringe that you're in danger of falling off the edge of the earth.

I mean, you do believe in the edge of the earth, don't you? Of course you do!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The questions answer themselves

Why can't I quit you? (You can!)

The student's first message at the beginning of the term was fraught with portents of doom. He had sent me a response to my initial assignment, which was to send me an self-introductory e-mail:
hello Mr Z this is Angus from your calc1 class.. I was the last one to leave your class this morning. Iam a social science/economics major at state u, and the reason i want to take calculus is, i really have an interest in math, even though iam kind of weak at it.
Calculus is not a course for the faint of heart or the weak of math. The message filled me with trepidation for the student's sake. Furthermore, he was enrolling in our heavy-duty calculus sequence for scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Most econ majors are tracked into our social science calculus class. Perhaps Angus wanted to keep his options open, but that assumed he could surmount the challenge of grown-up calculus.

He faded gradually throughout the term. Occasionally he would seem to catch fire for a couple of days, but then he would fizzle out again. Just before the drop deadline, he came up after class and told me he had to bail. I commiserated, but agreed that he was probably making the right decision, both for himself and for the other courses he was trying to pass. Then he asked me one of those questions:

“Uh, do you mind if I kept coming to class?”

California community colleges have a strict rule against auditors. It has something to do with the fact that we are funded (when we are funded, that is) on average daily attendance—and ADA is accumulated only for enrolled students. Angus was clearly asking to do something that was not permitted.

“Sure,” I said. “It won't be as if I don't have room for you.”

He thanked me earnestly and went away—never to return.

I'm quite certain that he was sincere in his plans to sit in on the remainder of the class in hopes of giving himself an edge when repeating it during the next term. In reality, however, he quickly (instantly!) discovered that he couldn't force himself to roll out of bed in time to attend a morning class in which he no longer had a vested interest. Despite his teacher's willingness to allow him to flout the school's sacred rules, he never took advantage of it.

And to think I could have painfully explained the rules to him and turned down his request. He could have ended up nursing hurt feelings. This way, no harm done.

Perhaps you're thinking, “Oh, there goes bleeding-heart Dr. Z, running roughshod over the school regs with reckless abandon because of his tender feelings for the downtrodden.” Well, I do have tender feelings for those of my students who are downtrodden, but I answered Angus with the voice of experience. No student attends class more than once or twice after dropping. It just doesn't happen.

No need to bar the door when no one is trying to come in.

Jumping the gun

Another student approached me from a different direction. In his case, the semester had yet to begin. To give my potential students fair warning, I had e-mailed everyone the syllabus two weeks before the first day of class. (That usually creates some quick shuffling as a few decide that my approach is too rich for their blood.) A couple of students wrote me to express their thanks for the advance copy of the syllabus. A few other students send messages seeking clarification about the edition of the textbook we were using. (One asked if he could use a different author's text that he happened to already have. Sorry, buddy, that hardly ever works. You should have passed the course you purchased it for.)

The most interesting message, however, was the following:
Dr. Ferox;

Thank you for the Syllabus. I have already been working problems on Sec. 1. I have encountered a few questions. May I e-mail you my questions.

The answer is obvious, right?

“Dear Rory: I suggest you wait until after I try to teach you the material, okay? The semester hasn't even started yet. Your instructor is not in a position to provide individual tutoring to all forty of the students in the class. Sorry!”

And then I could embed a winking smiley face.

But that's not what I said. Nope. I send Rory this message instead:
You are welcome to contact me at any time, Rory, although my availability may be limited until after the semester actually begins.

Once again, my reasoning is simple. No, there is no way I could find the time to provide individual hand-holding service for all of the students in my classes. Realistically, however, how many are going to be forging ahead on their own? In my experience, the number can reliably be expected to be less than two. In fact, it's usually less than one.

Rory did actually follow through with one homework question before the semester began. I answered promptly, taking only a few minutes. If Rory goes on to be a math whiz in his transfer university, I trust he will remember me kindly. One should always avoid discouraging the eager beavers. If they stretch a little too far, they'll regroup soon enough and fall into step with their classmates. If, however, they can maintain a racer's pace, then I want to give them free rein.

If you tell your students “yes,” the “noes” are likely to take care of themselves. You don't have to say them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Based on a true story

A befuddled eyewitness account

Weird things happen sometimes. A year ago at this time I was immersed in a weird thing myself. You'd think I would have a clue why it occurred, but you'd be wrong. Perhaps it was like the pressure building up inside a containment vessel until at some point the vessel ruptures and the contents spew out in a sudden, uncontrolled pulse. Maybe it was like that.

Whatever the explanation, the result was that I spewed out 110,000 words of text in 20 days.

It was pretty awesome.

I have witnesses, too. They watched in bemusement as the pages poured out of my computer. One of my victims was my friend GW:
You've got a lot of nerve, Zeno, sending me pages from your upcoming novel, thereby totally knocking out a good half-hour of my day. How dare you!

I can see the family flames beginning to ignite.
Yeah, GW was instantly aware that I was writing a roman à clef based on my family's history. He started the guessing game. Was this particular character based on my grandfather or my uncle? Is this person based on your dad?

It was immediately obvious that the boy desperate to run away to college was me.
It seems like the character Paul might be playing your role in the story, being a puzzle and a weird mix of genes, and liking Wagner and books. Yeah, in a story about dairymen in Tulare county, that starts to sound like you.
So tell me, did the real trial over your grandmother's will involve a handwriting “expert” and, if so, did you simply pull the dialog from the court transcript? I know, that would be cheating and unnecessary for Zeno, but it's so crisp and logical that it made me think, well, that you copied out of the transcript!
No transcript. It was all cobbled up from memory and make-believe, although it might have been nice to have a transcript for reference purposes.

You see, my family really did rend itself into warring camps when my grandmother died and deprived us of the great peace-making matriarch whose disapproving glance could turn the blood in our veins into ice water. We flew to flinders in the absence of the binding force of that formidable center.

That great cataclysm occurred nearly thirty years ago. Some family relationships were gradually repaired. Others never recovered. (My godfather and I never spoke another word to each other.)

Most of my family has yet to see the manuscript. I quietly shared it with my sister. She called me up to say she had had difficulty putting it down. “It brought back a lot of memories,” she said. Even though I wrote it as fiction, the outline of the story is faithful to our family disaster. My sister was also very concerned that I was going to stir up old resentments and spark recriminations. Her son perused the manuscript, but was less concerned:

“The good thing for you is that the characters who would be most insulted by an accurate depiction of what they really are like are dead, incompetent, or almost illiterate,” he said.

I can't imagine where my nephew got his sharp tongue. Such a rascal.

He's heard several of the family stories before. The weird and tragicomic anecdotes are staples at family gatherings. (Some of them have trickled onto this blog.) My sister would often comment after the nth retelling of a family fable, “Someone should really write these down, but it would have to be as fiction. No one could believe they actually happened in real life.”

Every time I heard her say that, I would think, I could do that. But I never did. At least, not until last year. That's when the stories that had been percolating through my brain for decades burst loose and spilled onto the pages of a book-length manuscript. In a way, I had been rehearsing the saga for all those years, so perhaps it's not so surprising how the episodes poured out at a rate of 5500 words per day.

I was rather stunned when it all came together like that, with the fictional mortar binding together the real-life incidents. Thanks to the comments of GW and a few other readers, I revised and expanded the manuscript in a more leisurely fashion over the subsequent months, reaching a “final” product last spring. It tilts the scale at nearly 125,000 words now and that's what is in the hands of a publisher's team of reviewers.

GW was pensive at the end of last August's exercise in prolixity:
Phew, so we're done? I actually read a whole book in a bit less than three weeks, must be some sort of record. I'm really glad I got to participate in this bit of madness. I enjoyed it for the reading, but also to see you crank this stuff out, day after day. I'd say Where does it come from, but we mere mortals don't really want to know.
I shared the manuscript with my college president, under the heading of “What I did during my summer vacation.” He was dutifully amused (one must give moral support to one's faculty members), but then—who saw that coming?—he read the whole damned thing. He sent me a message:

“I got goosebumps, a tug in my heart, and chuckled out loud with the close of your book.”

Damn. That's going in the cover blurb.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Need-to-know basis

What they don't know won't hurt you

“How is your blood pressure?”

“It's fine, Dad,” I said. That seemed to be a better response than, “None of your business, old man.”

“So what is it?” he persisted.

“Like I said, it's fine. I don't carry my readings around with me.” It was in the 120s over the 80s, which is pretty fine, all right, but I was not in full disclosure mode. I should never have told him when I was diagnosed as hypertensive. Once you give him something like that, he'll never let go.

“Let's check,” he said.

I looked up. My father was brandishing his home blood-pressure kit, complete with inflatable cuff. He looked eager to spring into action. Instead of recoiling, I schooled myself to keep a neutral expression on my face.

“No, thanks, Dad.”

He looked disappointed, but not surprised. I never cooperate with his intrusive fact-finding missions.

It's one of the ways in which he and I are different. He delights in sharing gruesome details, occasionally spoiling meals. (“No, Dad, we don't need to know what they found when they lanced that boil. Please let us slurp our soup in peace.”)

Maybe it's one of those small-town things, where everyone knows everyone else's business. If it is, that's rather funny. Except for my grandparents, who lived next door, the nearest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away. We couldn't lean over our fences and gossip.

Or maybe we did. Except it was more a matter of leaning out the driver's window of your pickup for a few minutes to chat up an acquaintance who was working the field next to yours. Or shooting the breeze at the local coffee shop where the farmers take turns getting their morning infusions of caffeine.

In a sense, we did all live close together. It was like our yards were all part of the village commons, even though disaggregated and scattered in chunks throughout the county. At any time someone might park a pickup or tractor alongside your house, stroll over to the garden hose, and take a big drink or indulge in a cooling face splash. It would have been an exercise in excessive scrupulosity to knock on the door first to ask if it was okay. Of course it's okay. No question. We do the same at your place.

We also grew up in a drop-in culture. Calling ahead was entirely unnecessary. At completely random intervals, vehicles would pull into your driveway and aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and acquaintances might come tumbling out. If they knocked on your door and found no one home, it might be because you were pulling into their driveway at the same time. These things happen.

My unexamined acceptance of these practices underwent a complete collapse when I moved out to go to college. When I was still living close enough to home base to make drop-in visits feasible, I discovered how impossible it was to protest that tomorrow's real analysis exam prevented me from dropping everything and going out for a spontaneous but leisurely dinner with my family. Their faces would fall if I insisted that I merely planned to wolf down a sandwich while poring over measure theory. (It was I who was being rude by demanding or expecting prior notification.)

Fortunately, the problem was solved quite naturally once I was living over two hundred miles away. Impulse-driven drop-in visits became impossible and all was well. By then, however, I discovered that the process of individuation had produced someone unlike anyone else in the family.

I had become a private person, perhaps in a kind of weird rebellion from the well-established practices of kith and kin. I began to starve the information mill—or should I call it the “gossip machine”?

Part of it was to avoid arguments, I think. There was no benefit in sending certain bulletins home:
  • “Hey, I'm a member of the ACLU now!”
  • “Guess what? I stopped going to mass this spring.”
  • “I gave Howard Jarvis a bad time during a Q&A in Sacramento.”
  • “I went to Jimmy Carter's campaign rally at the capitol.”
  • “I protested Jerry Falwell's appearance at a Moral Majority rally.”
  •  “I spoke at an AIDS memorial service.”
  • “I'm going back to grad school.”

That last instance is one of my more notable examples of keeping my mouth shut. After a dozen years of full-time teaching, I got itchy to return to grad school to earn a doctorate, not having stayed the course in my previous attempt. However, when I was admitted and began to take classes, I never told Mom and Dad. Instead, I'd occasionally comment to my parents about some seminar or another that I had attended at the local university. All very casual. I didn't report that I was formally enrolled.

It was a lesson learned from my bouts of high blood pressure and life under the microscope (or sphygmomanometer). Once my parents (especially Dad) were aware that I was taking another run at an advanced degree, I would be boxed in. Regular progress reports would be demanded (ever so nicely, of course). I'd be committed. Any decision to bow out would be viewed as a crisis or failure rather than a personal judgment that grad school had become too big a distraction or detour from my teaching career. Thus I didn't tell any tales out of school until I had completed the degree requirements and calmly informed Mom and Dad that the university had approved my dissertation and was awarding me a degree.

“We didn't know you were in school!”

“Oh, it was just a part-time thing. The units gradually added up. No big deal.”


My parents were quickly reconciled to the idea that I had puttered my way to an advanced degree. It was a new bragging point to share with their friends, so no harm done.

I imagine, though, that Mom and Dad have learned over the years that their eldest is a close-mouthed fellow who keeps his cards close to his vest. They're probably wondering what new revelation I might suddenly spring on them next. Have I secretly gotten married? (Fat chance.) Have I received some fancy political appointment? (No, they turned me down for the citizens' redistricting commission.) Have I pierced my ears? (Heck, no, although it would be funny. Poor Dad lost sleep when my kid brother did.) Have I endorsed another left-wing cause? (Oh, too many to tell!)

Nope, none of those things will be the next big surprise. The next big surprise is going to appear in book form. Only my sister won't be surprised, because she got to read the first draft. I have told my family's epic history in fictional form in a novel and a publisher is currently scrutinizing it. All the names have been changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent, although my sister has warned me I'm going to get into trouble anyway. I doubt it's going to be a problem. Besides, the characters based on Mom and Dad come out pretty well and are definitely not the bad guys.

Still, maybe I should consider what the surprise will do to Dad's blood pressure.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Motes and beams: Gingrich on Catholic television

Whore & whoremonger

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was kind enough to tape an endorsement in 2008 for Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that placed a ban on same-sex marriage in the California state constitution. He used the cant language of “protecting marriage” and declared, “I can't overstate the dangers of tyranny from elitist judges who believe they have the right and the power to dictate their values to the American people.”

It's good to know that Newt is firmly in favor of “values,” but one wonders just what those “values” might be.

One can derive a clue from Gingrich's appearance last April 30 on “The World Over,” a public affairs and news program from EWTN, the Catholic broadcasting network. While Raymond Arroyo, the program's earnest and epicene host, fawned over them, Newt and his third wife promoted their documentary on John Paul II and spoke humbly about Newt's conversion to Catholicism.

Callista Gingrich, who was Newt's mistress during his second marriage, is a devout Catholic and church choir member who seduced the former House speaker into Rome's arms. I presume this must be one of those “situational ethics” affairs where little sins can be forgiven in the achievement of a noble goal.

“Callista is very, very faithful,” said Newt to Arroyo, giving his former mistress credit for his conversion. (He says this at 14:18 in the video below.)

Faithful? Then I must presume she obtained some kind of fornication dispensation from her local priest. Otherwise Callista would have been committing mortal sins on a regular basis, even if each occasion of sin was very brief.

Newt Gingrich is quite angry about Judge Walker's ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. He cherishes the sacred institution of marriage and characterizes Walker's decision as a grievous affront to those Americans who have “affirmed that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” Just to be clear, since Newt did not expand on this point: While a man might seek after multiple women, he should be married to only one at a time. The others have to be mistresses—at least until it's their turn to be the wife. (Keep looking over your shoulder, Callista!)

It's God's sacred plan.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Could Dr. Nicolosi change?

Only if he really wanted to!

The buttons on my car radio provide a very broad cross-section of the broadcast (and political) spectrum. This week I punched the one corresponding to the far right of the AM dial and found myself listening to a rebroadcast of the August 3, 2010, installment of “Catholic Answers Live.” Host Patrick Coffin was praising the hour's guest, one Joseph Nicolosi.

You may recognize the name. Along with the late and unfortunate Charles Socarides, Nicolosi is known for founding NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality. That is, Dr. Nicolosi is one of those psychologists who offers “reparative therapy” to turn unhappy gays into unhappy straights. (He would, of course, dispute that.)

It helps, naturally, that there are no homosexuals. They don't exist! Dr. Nicolosi makes no bones about it when confronted with potential subjects to confess to being homosexual. “You are not homosexual,” he tells them. “You are a heterosexual with a homosexual problem.”

In case the patient is not persuaded, Nicolosi hits them with scientific reasoning: “Your body was designed for a woman. You are a heterosexual.”

It would be unkind of the patient to explain real life to Nicolosi at that point. One assumes that most don't try.

Nicolosi says that his fees are higher than those of his associates in the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, but one assumes he's worth every three-dollar bill he gets.

I listened in fascination as Nicolosi trotted out 19th century Freudian doctrine. He scoffed at the idea that sexual orientation might have a genetic component. (The correlations between identical twins must be a gigantic statistical fluke.) To Nicolosi, talk of a “gay gene” is arrant nonsense. (He's probably unintentionally right on that one: the biological components of sexual orientation seem exceedingly unlikely to reside in a compact unit on one gene.) Since he refuses to allow nature to be involved, it has to be all about nurture:

“There's so much more evidence for what we call the classic triadic relationship.” Nicolosi declaims. “Triadic as in visualize a triangle. In one corner you have the over-involved mother, in the other corner of the triangle you have the distant detached or critical father and in the other corner you have the boy who may be temperamentally sensitive, artistic, introverted, that sort of thing.”

And I presume if we reverse the sexes in the triadic relationship to posit a daughter's alienation from her mother, then we get tribadism. Hmm. Triad. Tribad. A coincidence? I think not! (Drop me a note if your university wants to confer an honorary doctorate on me for my discovery.)

Coffin spent much of his time anticipating Nicolosi's remarks and fawning on his guest, who commented, “You've been studying Freud.” Eventually, however, Coffin turned to the phones and welcomed a caller named Monica. She was concerned about her brother, who had declared himself gay and walked out of a twenty-year marriage. Monica hoped that Dr. Nicolosi could help her steer her brother back onto the straight and narrow. She commented that she had been listening to the broadcast and had recognized her family in some of Nicolosi's remarks.

“I'm very much like my mom and we're very strong women,” said Monica.

Nicolosi pounced.

“Yeah, well, typically, you know, a number of studies show that the youngest child tends to be more inclined to be homosexual than the older.”

But he had jumped too soon.

“But he is the oldest,” said Monica.

“He is the oldest?” said Nicolosi, the dismay evident in his voice. (Reparative psychologists should investigate whether coursework in cold reading would qualify as continuing education. It would certainly enhance Nicolosi's professional qualifications.)

“He is the oldest and I'm the youngest,” declared Monica.

She continued with an extensive description of her family, its ethnicity, and its spiritual life. Eventually, Patrick Coffin got impatient and tried to bring the caller back to the point. He asked her a question.

“Monica, how many kids in your family? Your brother is the oldest of how many?”

“My brother is the oldest of four,” replied Monica. “He's the only male.”

Nicolosi, who had evidently been nursing his wounds, came back to life.

“Oh, the only male, so he didn't have any really male figures. He probably wasn't close to his father. Does this fit the usual pattern of being closer to his mother?”

Eager to play along after having so cruelly disappointed the doctor earlier in the program, Monica answered promptly: “What you were saying, yes.”

Success! Another brilliant analysis by the ace psychologist!

It's science! Ish.

Nobody here but us tea partiers!

Oh, and the occasional racist

The tatterdemalion ranks of the Tea Party movement want it clearly understood that there is no significant racist component to their political activism. They oppose President Obama because of his policies. That's all. Certainly not his race. (But maybe his secret religion. Or his secret birthplace. Or his secret plan to round up white people and sterilize them.)

That's the take-home message: The Tea Party movement is a patriotic political movement without a scintilla of racism. (And no minorities, for that matter.) Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than at Free Republic, the Fresno-based on-line locus of Tea Party activism. For example, consider the measured tones of Free Republic's commenters (you have to be a member to comment) on the matter of the First Lady's trip to Spain.
Does not matter where our taxes take her..she will always look like she just walked off the plantation in Georgia or Mississippi.
Heck. That's just classy with a triple-K.

While it's not an official state visit when the First Lady is traveling privately in the absence of the President, no such excursion can avoid its political overtones. In the matter of the trip to Spain, Michelle Obama has been invited by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia to join the royal couple at their summer palace on Majorca. Naturally the White House was pleased to accept the invitation and Mrs. Obama will therefore be an unofficial goodwill ambassador to Spain.

The press photographers have swarmed the First Lady and Free Republic posted a clip. The Freepers tried to keep it positive, of course, with their acute sensitivity to women's fashions:
Re; blk/white one strap dress
This skank is a stain of the history of First Ladies.
She needs to cover up and try to show some dignity befitting her station.
(How soon they forget how much they hated Hillary.)

Did anyone chide the commenter who made the “plantation” remark? My goodness, no!
“Does not matter where our taxes take her..she will always look like she just walked off the plantation in Georgia or Mississippi.”

You nailed it.
The Freepers also had some concerns for Spain.
Spain is a beautiful country.
By being there, Mrs. Obama spoils it.
Everywhere this trash couple goes is stained forever.
“Forever”? Wow. Not even George W. Bush had that power (except, perhaps, for the permanence of the deaths of the victims of his unnecessary wars).

Some press accounts referred to Mrs. Obama as FLOTUS, a fairly well-known acronym for “First Lady of the United States.” When not describing the First Lady as a human stain, playful Freepers occasionally gave her another nickname.
Frankly, I think the WH has kept Sasquatch relatively under wraps. They probably realize that she is a very polarizing figure, not to mention a big mouth, who would likely reveal her blind hatred of white America in an undeniable fashion sooner or later.
“Blind hatred.” Say, let's go look up “projection” in a psych textbook. I'll bet we are in for an amusing surprise!

Later this month Mrs. Obama is hauling the family to the Gulf coast to encourage tourism in a region of Florida relatively unscathed by the BP oil spill, thereby giving a lift to the local economy. I wonder what the denizens of Free Republic will do then, thinking of President Obama's family in the context of oil slicks and tar balls. Why, it almost writes itself! And that's good, too, because idiotic shit-for-brains racists have trouble coming up with original ideas. They prefer to react reflexively with their unevolved lizard brains.

In the meantime, look at this, bully boys! You'll pee your pants when Sasquatch comes to get you!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

What a deal!

An old dog learns an old trick

When I was merely a teaching assistant in graduate school, the university provided me with a paid homework grader for my calculus students. I collected homework every class day and had it to return within a day or two. Nice. Today, however, as a full-time college professor, I can only dream of such luxury.

Still, I think homework is important and that students need the practice that homework provides. I therefore encourage my students to do their homework by making it count toward their grades, even though I collect it only on exam days. I don't actually correct it. I just scan it for approximate completeness and dole out some points. Most of the students who hand it in do a decent job and get full credit:


These students are happy when they hand in their exams and pick up their high-scoring homework. (At least one part of the day has gone well.) Other students come up to me with tales of woe:

“I did my homework, but I forgot it at home.”

“I left my homework in my car.”

“My friend borrowed it and didn't give it back.”

I tell them all the same thing: Bring the homework to the next exam day and receive late credit for it. Late credit means half credit. Students did not generally seem to appreciate my generosity when I scored their homework:

Late credit: 5/10

“But I did the whole thing, Dr. Z!”

“Yes, but it was late. You should have handed it in on time.”

“That's not fair!”

“The rule applies to everyone. That is the epitome of fairness.”

“The what?!”

After more than three decades of teaching, I finally remembered a simple lesson from the retail sector. Most of us have undoubtedly heard a story about the impulse-purchase items near the grocery store checkstand. The grocer is trying to sell something—ball-point pens, or candy bars, or whatever—for 25¢, but they seem to be nailed to the countertop. No one is going for them. Then the grocer has a brainstorm. He marks them with a sign: 3 for $1. Now they fly off the shelf.

It's not the price. It's the perceived bargain.

I pondered.

The next time I scored late homework, I changed my tack:

Late credit: +5

That's right. The same number of points, but no denominator to remind anyone that it's half credit. I also made the plus sign nice and big. Students were pleased.

“Cool. Thanks, Dr. Z!”

“All right!”

“Whoa! Five more points! Thanks, Z-man!”

The Z-man says you're welcome.