Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The unfunny uncle

Who won't shut up

Most families have one. It's the relative who just has to share his “latest” joke (although, unfortunately, it's more likely a “late” joke — as in dead). He is a reliable blight on family gatherings and there's always jockeying for position at dinner tables and picnic blankets so as not to be the one who has to sit next to him.

This week—God knows why—Bill Donohue decided he should demonstrate his comedic talents. I was immediately and powerfully reminded of my unfunny uncle. And—just to make the package complete—you can tell that Bill is powerfully proud of his cleverness. The preening just oozes from his prose:
Bill Donohue's Open Letter to Maureen Dowd

March 23, 2012

My Dearest Maureen,

In today’s New York Times, you write the following:

“The church insists it’s an argument about religious freedom, not birth control. But, really, it’s about birth control, and women’s lower caste in the church. It’s about conservative bishops targeting Democratic candidates who support contraception and abortion rights as a matter of public policy. And it’s about a church that is obsessed with sex in ways it shouldn’t be, and not obsessed with sex in ways it should be. The bishops and the Vatican care passionately about putting women in chastity belts.”

I have a confession to make. While some may think you sound like a delusional weepy woman, don’t listen to them. You see, I was in on those meetings with the bishops when we hatched plans to stick it to women and sabotage the Democrats.
This, you see, is side-splittingly funny because Donohue is pretending to be a sexist bastard. See how good he is at it?
We met over drinks. Plenty of them. Except for one bishop who said over time women could become our equal, all of us agreed that you gals need to be kept in your place. As you properly note, this means being subjugated to the lower caste, just the way we snookered Mother Teresa.
Now this part is funny because we've all heard that Mother Teresa eventually admitted that she lived a life of acute clinical depression. In case you've forgotten the details, here are her own words: “In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is terrible separation. I don’t pray any longer.” This is not, of course, the lesson we are supposed to learn. As Mother Teresa became more inured to her condition of dead faith, she prostrated herself before God's will: “I want it to be like this for as long as he wants it.” God didn't bother to answer back or ease her pain, but Teresa's reward is secure, since she's on the fast track to canonization by the Vatican. It's the perfect posthumous consolation prize after decades of misery.

Naturally, the heartwarming story of Mother Teresa's life makes her the perfect foil for Bill Donohue's winsome sense of humor.
You are only partly right about the Democrats. In fact, starting last year our goal was to rig the Republican primary so that Romney would win. Why? Because then we could pull his Mormon strings without being accused of running the government. So far, so good. Just don’t tell Mitt.
Not even Twain could have penned a more cleverly wry paragraph. Why, at times it almost sucks you into believing it and forgetting the writer's satirical purpose. Gasping for breath in the wake of uncontrollable laughter, we soldier on:
We are obsessed about sex. Indeed, when I meet with the bishops, it’s the only thing we talk about. Admittedly, it sometimes feels like I’m at a frat party, but boys will be boys. There is one difference: at frat parties, chastity belts for women are never discussed, but with the bishops, nothing is more important. The goal is to make a “one size fits all” belt, one that is not removable. Velcro works for all sizes, but it comes off. Not to worry, my dearest Maureen, we won’t give up. That’s because, quite unlike the stately New York Times, we’re obsessed about sex.
One wipes the tears from one's eyes while shaking the head in stunned admiration at the clever juxtaposition of bishops and chastity belts. The Velcro punch-line has all the impact of a sudden blow to the stomach.

I say without fear of contradiction that Bill Donohue's mastery of humor is all but unparalleled in the annals of political writing. We shall seldom—if ever—see its like again.

So give thanks.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

But gay sex is icky in my head!

Whiny-ass bigots 

 “Serena Locksley” was a classmate of mine in graduate school a dozen years ago when we were both enrolled in a doctoral program. Another thing we had in common was our day jobs as teachers, although she was dealing with high school and I had the advantage of dealing with (ostensibly) adult college students. President Obama's mild-mannered and rather halting endorsement of equal marriage rights for all Americans—and the apoplectic reaction of the religious right—reminded me of Serena's serene response to a related controversy in her secondary-school classroom.

Her students were doing a unit on human rights in their senior social studies curriculum. The amicable consensus that human rights are a good thing was beginning to unravel as students began to draw lines in the sand. Sure, it was wrong to discriminate on the basis of race or religion, but sexual orientation? Trying to avoid crossing the lines of politically correct terminology, the dissenters made the point that “queers”—oops! uh, gays—were different from “normal”—oops! uh, most—people.

“But, Mrs. Locksley, what they do isn't natural!”

Years of experience had made Serena all but unflappable.

“What they do isn't ‘natural’?” she replied. “If it's inborn, how can it be unnatural? It is your argument that some people don't know their own sexual impulses?”

Students on both sides of the gay-rights aisle were writhing in agony, praying for the clock to run out on the day's excruciatingly sensitive topic. One student took a stab at making an irrefutable argument:

“Mrs. L, I don't care if people want to be gay, but I don't like it when they make a spectacle of themselves! That's not fair to the rest of us!”

Serena probed for more information.

“You mean, like prancing around in gay pride parades?”

Several students nodded their heads. One went further:

“Or hold hands in public!”

“You find it offensive when people hold hands in public?” asked Serena.

“Well, not when straight people do it. But when two guys hold hands, that's like flaunting it in your face. Then you can't help thinking about the stuff they do, and that's gross!”

“You have to think about what they do? You mean, besides holding hands?” asked Serena.

The student hesitated.

“Yeah ... cause, like, you can't help it. And it's icky!”

Serena let the moment stretch out for several seconds, but the students remained anxiously quiet.

“That's an interesting reaction,” said Serena. “So what about when a man and a woman hold hands? That doesn't force you to think about what they ‘do’? All of you call me ‘Mrs. Locksley’ or ‘Mrs. L,’ meaning that all of you know that I'm married. That doesn't force you to think about what my husband and I do together?”

Ewwwww! Mrs. Locksley!”

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It's a headache!

And that's not all

A friend of mine is (figuratively) banging his head against a brick wall. The results are similar to what they would be if his activity were literal.

Interestingly enough, his medical condition began quite misleadingly. Eventually his doctors figured out that his symptoms of disorientation, dizziness, and weakness were the results of “silent” migraines. While migraines are most commonly associated with acute, debilitating headaches, this is not the only case. The headaches might be absent, while the victim nevertheless experiences the distorted vision and weakness that migraines induce.

The diagnosis of silent migraines resulted in my friend's introduction to the extensive pharmacopeia of anti-migraine medications. Problem solved!

Sort of. Temporarily, anyway.

Things began to change. For one thing, my friend's prescriptions worked for only a limited time. As he became inured to the therapeutic effect of one drug and the symptoms ramped back up, the doctors would move him on to another. He was now working his way through the list of drugs, wondering how long this could go on. For another thing, the pain showed up. Classic, stabbing, excruciating headaches. “Silent” no more. Fortunately for my friend, the sharp, stabbing headaches are intermittent—triggered by loud noises (he suffers from hyperacusis). Only the dull pain in his head is constant, day in and day out (and denying him sleep, because there's no longer any such thing as a soft-enough pillow).

Now he was getting passed around in the medical community. The UC San Francisco headache clinic looked into his case and shot him up with drugs to “reset” his pain level. It failed. UCSF was on the verge of confining him to a hospital bed for a days-long infusion of a drug that required 24-hour monitoring when a bad reaction to a milder form of the medication provided a very serious contraindication.

The UC Davis Medical Center subjected him to a series of tests, none of which proved definitive. It was clearly something more than just a migraine condition. My friend was wobbling about with a cane and it took a regimen of physical therapy to help him relearn how to stay upright and walk like a sober person. The migraines had laid waste to his balance system.

The standard migraine drugs were used up and then recycled at higher and more dangerous levels. Relief was still merely temporary and palliative. His doctors began a series of off-label prescriptions (where “off-label” means using medications to treat conditions for which they are not formally approved). It was, in a word, a series of experiments. Each experiment lasted as long as a month or two. Much shorter, of course, in the case of hallucinations or other serious reactions. Recently the doctors started mumbling about using botox, but I'm not sure what that's all about.

But that was merely prelude. This year his condition escalated in a completely unexpected way. Let him tell it in his own words. It's a total mystery:
In early March I started to experience swelling in the front center of my neck. A couple of days later there was a small lump on the back of my neck. The lump in the front of my neck has continued to swell and the swelling has grown into my jaw. This past weekend a new, fairly large lump has appeared at the intersection of my jaw and neck just below my right ear. The swelling in my neck has put enough pressure on my neck to cause difficulty swallowing, occasional difficulty breathing, and the loss of my voice. (I can only talk in a whisper.) I have also had swelling in both underarms and in my groin, but the doctors can’t feel anything in those spots that would warrant more testing.

Blood tests suggested that I have hypothyroidism, and I’ve been taking levothyroxine (50 mcg/day) for over a month to combat that potential cause. The levothyroxine has lowered my thyroid stimulating hormone level to normal, and I’m still taking it per my doctor’s orders, but that drug hasn’t lowered the existing swelling, kept existing swollen areas from growing, or prevented new growths from forming.

I’ve had three ultrasound tests of my neck and though these tests have found a slightly enlarged lymph node that hasn’t grown or shrunk in the subsequent two tests, the node is too small for a biopsy. I’ve also been to the ENT and to a gastroenterologist without any success or insights. My primary doctor is now at a loss about what to do next.
While lymphoma has been suspected because of the swollen lymph nodes, nothing has ruled it definitively in or definitively out. The constellation of symptoms is totally confusing.

And Hugh Laurie is busy wrapping up his final season of House and isn't taking new patients.

Any ideas, anyone? Know anyone who might? Perhaps you have a better clue than any of my friend's doctors. They keep passing him back and forth like a hot potato, cheerfully suggesting to him that his life isn't really at risk because they can always resort to intubation if his throat becomes too constricted to permit adequate breathing. It's a comfort, isn't it?

Please feel free to pass this post along, link to it, or otherwise bring it to the attention of medically savvy professionals who can solve this puzzle. It's a headache—and then some.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Come back, Harold Stassen!

All is forgiven! 

Once upon a time, an exciting young politician was elected governor of Minnesota. The 31-year-old “boy wonder” was clearly destined for great things, and within two years was giving the keynote address at his party's national convention—at which point he peaked.

Harold Stassen's high-water mark was that 1940 Republican National Convention, where he was part of Wendell Willkie's successful insurgent campaign for the presidential nomination. In 1944, Stassen was himself a presidential candidate. And in 1948. And 1952. He took a break in 1956, the year an incumbent Republican (Eisenhower) was seeking re-election, but Stassen was back at it in 1964 and every four years thereafter (except for 1972, when Nixon was seeking a second term). Harold Stassen died in 2001. However, his death had almost no impact on his election prospects. Those had predeceased him by nearly fifty years.

Today Ron Paul wears the mantle of perennial Republican presidential candidate, although he has a ways to go before he has as many lost crusades under his belt. In another distinction from Stassen, Paul is blessed with a visible and noisy coterie of devout supporters—supporters who live in their own special alternate universe. A letter to the editor of the Sacramento Bee is a case in point:
Don't count out Ron Paul in GOP presidential race

Re “Ron Paul wins majority of Maine GOP delegates” (Nation in brief, May 7): There's heated race going on in the Republican primary right now, but you wouldn't know it from the reporting by the mainstream media.

The MSM is reporting as if Mitt Romney has locked up the nomination already, which simply isn't true. The media is not reporting that there are huge turnouts of thousands at Ron Paul events all across the country; that Ron Paul has been winning delegates in many states, and that he has secured his name on the ballot at the Republican National Convention in Florida later this summer.

Ask yourself why the media is not covering this newsworthy information. Romney can barely draw 100 people to his rallies. It isn't over until it is over. Mitt Romney does not have 1,144 delegates yet, and Paul is gaining on him, fast.
—MN, Sacramento

By golly! You know what? Letter-writer MN is right! According to a recent Associated Press tally, Romney has only 966 delegates. As for Ron Paul, why, he has ... 104! (Note to mathematicians: the exclamation point is for ironic emphasis—not factorial notation.) As illustrated in a New York Times chart of the AP data, there are 821 uncommitted delegates. Given that Ron Paul is “closing fast,” we can easily see that a sweep of all remaining delegates will boost Paul to a staggering ... 925!

Ron Paul's supporters really can't do the math, can they?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fill in the blanks

Template tests

I was flummoxed. Under normal circumstances, algebra students abandon the complete-the-square technique for solving quadratic equations as soon as they meet the quadratic formula. It is by a significant margin the least-favored of the solution techniques, trailing badly after formula and factoring.

Why, therefore, were so many of my students diligently completing the square when they didn't have to? Even worse, they were doing it on an exam problem, when time is at a premium. Worst of all, they were completing the square to solve a quadratic equation where its use was clearly contraindicated! I was at a loss.

As you may know, the solution of the quadratic equation is the great pinnacle and climax of your traditional introductory algebra class. The end of the semester wraps up with the astonishing revelation that one can now solve any quadratic equation. No exceptions! Such universality is rare, and I try to engender a little appreciation in my students for so powerful a conclusion, the big finish of Algebra 1.

Of course, I also try to get them to approach quadratic equations thoughtfully and methodically. First of all, does the equation factor easily? Then go for it! Is it (or does it appear to be) prime? Then one can apply the never-failing quadratic formula or—in certain specific cases—resort to completing the square. The specific case, naturally, is one in which the quadratic polynomial in question is monic (has a lead coefficient of one) and possesses a first-degree coefficient that is even (making it easy to take half of it and square the result, as required for completing the square).

Otherwise, don't even think of completing the square.

The problem that was puzzling me was monic, all right, but its middle term had an odd coefficient, making it a quite unsuitable candidate for square completion. Why, then, did so many of my students plow right in and start juggling fractions and slogging through more and more complicated expressions? They didn't know and couldn't tell me why they had done it.

The reason finally came to light while I was paging through my collection of quiz keys. I paused to consider the quiz containing the combined-work problem (or “joint effort”—computing the time a job takes if two or more people pitch in and you know how long it takes each person to do the job alone). This was exactly the kind of problem that had caused so much square-completion grief on the exam.

I noticed that I had solved the resulting quadratic equation on the quiz's solution key by completing the square. The polynomial had been monic with an even linear coefficient, so completing the square gave a quick and easy solution ...

... and my students had learned the lesson that combined-work problems are solved by completing the square! After all, the teacher had demonstrated this in a quiz solution key that he had posted on the course website. Did he not constantly encourage them to emulate his example? Follow his lead? Write solutions like he did? Indeed! Indubitably!


They learned a lesson I wasn't teaching. They had studied my solution to a particular combined-work problem and then followed it slavishly when next they encountered a problem of the same type—even though the resulting quadratic equation had different characteristics and argued for a different solution technique.

I failed to banish the template problem. My fault!

You know what a “template problem” is, don't you? I'm sure you do. Lots of books are full of them. It occurs when a section of the text presents a carefully worked-out problem in Example 1, you turn to the homework section, and Exercises 1 through n follow the prompt “See Example 1.” And then all of the problems are exactly like Example 1 except that the numbers got tweaked a little. Or maybe Example 1 was a word problem about Sally and Exercise 1 is about Sam. Trivial changes. You can copy the solution of Example 1 as a template and go through filling in the old numbers with the new numbers.

Hardly any thought necessary.

I don't want to be too harsh. Routine drill problems are useful for building basic skills. They are, however, too bland for a steady diet and do not do much (if anything) for building conceptual understanding. Students, however, often prize them for their dull predictability and lack of challenge. They even ask for more, as when they beg for a “practice test” before a big exam. The most favored practice tests are those full of templates for the real thing. Woe betide the instructor who gives in to the pleas for a practice test and then changes the problems too much in the actual exam! Students will feel betrayed.

I refuse to give practice tests. I decline to channel my students' attention too narrowly to specific kinds of problems solved in specific kinds of ways. I want them to consider each problem independently, with a minimum of prompting, examining their knowledge of solution tools and picking the most appropriate one to apply.

The complete-the-square affair demonstrates, I'm afraid, that I have discouraged template thinking less than I had hoped. Perhaps I should ask my colleagues how they avoid it and then do exactly what they do....