Friday, December 26, 2014

One page at a time

The importance of packaging

He seemed smart enough, but he was an extremely unreliable student. He confided to me that he was under treatment for an anxiety condition, but his therapy had clearly not resolved his problem. Still, he started off the semester by powering through the lessons and it looked like he would be all right in the long run.

But looks can be deceiving. His scores on the exams eroded steadily throughout the term, and the erosion was eating away at his chances of passing the class. We met during office hours. We conferred after class. He e-mailed me questions, which I tried to answer promptly. Nothing worked. On top of all that, anxiety feeds on itself, so his emotional condition was not improving.

Of course, we tried that old stand-by of extending his time and letting him linger over the exams, but there was no significant pay-off. The situation was desperate—and so was he.

Despite decades of teaching, I was slow to recognize the significance of an anomaly in my student's performance. Although his exams were increasingly disastrous, his quiz scores remained persistently decent, hovering between B's and C's. It was nearly too late when inspiration finally struck me.

“We're going to do something different on the last chapter test,” I told him.

My announcement did not please him. He mistrusted change. However, he was docile enough and desperate enough to cooperate with whatever I wanted to try.

“I will dole out this exam to you one page at a time,” I continued. “You won't get page two until you return page one to me. If there's time at the end of your extended period, you can ask for individual pages back, but only one page will be on your desk at a time.”

His eyes widened. “It'll be like quizzes!” he said. “A series of quizzes! I can do quizzes!”

“Yes, you can,” I agreed.

On exam day, we followed the one-page-at-a-time protocol rigorously. He never had multiple sheets of paper simultaneously on his desk. When I graded his exam, his score soared into the nineties. I was both astonished and gratified. It had worked ever so much better than I had dared hope.

We did it again on the final exam. He broke discipline this time and filched old pages from my desk when he came up for new pages. I noticed that he sometimes had two or three pages on his desk. He did a lot of flipping between them, making clear to me for the first time what he had been doing on the exams when he had crashed and burned. The one-page approach permitted him to stay focused. Under its restrictions he couldn't compulsively jump back and forth between problems, aborting each solution before he finished. I began to monitor him more closely when he came up to swap pages.

Although he never had the entire final exam on his desk at one time, his occasionally divided attention cost him and his final exam result was not superior. Nevertheless, it was good enough to secure him a passing grade for the course, much to his (and my) relief. He learned a new way to manage his difficulty in expressing his knowledge.

And, obviously, I learned something, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Econ 101

Teabaggers are experts

A special interest group called the California Drivers Alliance is sounding the alarm. We in the Golden State are in imminent danger of assault:
On January 1, 2015, a new hidden gasoline tax will go into effect. ... There is still time to stop it, but we must act now. Contact state officials today and urge them to put the brakes on this new hidden gas tax!
A “hidden” tax? Scandalous! I did some research.

First of all, the California Drivers Alliance is one of those industry-funded “astroturf” organizations. The faux grassroots movement is bankrolled by the California Independent Oil Marketers Association. Second, the so-called hidden tax is nothing more than the state's cap and trade program, administered by the California Air Resources Board. I could not resist posting a snide comment on the California Drivers Alliance's Facebook page:
How can a gas tax be “hidden” if was enacted by Assembly Bill 32, a 2006 measure that is public record and was defended by the voters' overwhelming rejection of Proposition 23? Besides, oil companies who are eager to compete in the free market could choose to trim their profits a bit to maintain the attractiveness to consumers of their product.
People hastened to educate me. Here are some paraphrases, edited to correct misspellings and delete expletives:
Why can't stupid libtards understand that corporations don't pay taxes? They pass them on to us and we pay them!

Tax, tax, tax! That's socialism for you.

The tax is hidden because people don't know about it!!!!!

Take an econ class, you idiot! Higher taxes kill jobs!

Taxes on gas producers are taxes on drivers!
The immediate lesson I learned is that we should do away with the personal income tax and stick it to the corporations. It shouldn't matter, since we're going to pick up the tab anyway when we purchase goods and services from those corporations. Right?

I also learned that the free market doesn't function very well. The members of the California Independent Oil Marketers Association have no choice but to pass along the entire 10 cents per gallon (usually misstated by the California Drivers Alliance as 16 cents to 76[!] cents per gallon). If anyone dared attract more customers and more revenue by eating part of the AB 32 surcharge, evidently it would not be enough to restore their profits, which can never be high enough.

That's econ for you.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Waste water

Drought denialism?

The Porterville Recorder is a local newspaper down in my home turf of Tulare County. You may have heard of Porterville. The New York Times featured it prominently in a story about the great California drought and its impact on the Central Valley. The situation is grim, with wells running dry and people limited to bottled water for the necessities of life. Farmers with crops had already been told that irrigation water would not be available from the state's interconnected water projects. Hundreds of thousands of acres lie fallow, waiting for the uncertain return of water in this third year of intense drought.

Last month the Recorder published a guest editorial by pistachio grower Lee Cohen that fingered a popular culprit: radical environmentalism.
Water issues seem to have been hi-jacked, ransacked, and co-opted in California by the environmentalist radicals. There is a cavernous, endless void of common sense.

Let me explain. Two hundred percent of the entire Central Valley’s annual agricultural water needs are being flush[ed] straight to sea for a variety of different esoteric environmental reasons. The Central Valley is reeling from the devastation this policy hath wrought.
Anyone who drives down U.S. 99 or Interstate 5 will have seen the signs demanding an end to the “Congress-Created” drought. It's an article of faith among many down in the valley that the water shortage is all some kind of extremist environmentalist plot to coddle a tiny fish.
This water is being diverted to save nonindigenous smelt in the San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of millions of gallons went to this cause. Zero gallons to the Central Valley’s people and farms.
There are pumps at the top of the Central Valley water canal infrastructure which are restricted from running due to an old Endangered Species Act ruling, an outcome crafted, championed, and orchestrated over decades by the environmental movement to protect these minnows.
If only the pumps could be turned on, the Central Valley drought would be over! Those stupid little fish would die, but farms would live!  But “diverted”? No, it's the natural flow through the Delta. Diversion occurs when it's pumped elsewhere. Nevertheless, Cohen reiterates his key point:
The immediate water crisis has been fomented by the environmentalists since there is plenty of water in the north (Remember the 200 percent outflows to the Pacific ongoing today?). The current crisis in the Central Valley could be mitigated immediately if the pumps were turned on and the canals filled.
Apparently Cohen believes that half the water currently being “flushed” into the sea could be diverted from Northern California's abundant supply and shipped south to thirsty farmland. What would happen to the San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Bay Area if the water flow were cut in half from its currently drought-depressed levels?

Salt-water incursion, of course. The Delta would die. The Pacific Ocean waters that currently mix in the bay would move further into the Delta. Would it reach the pumps and cause them to start shipping saline solution to the south? I don't know. The damage might not extend that far, although the Delta would suffer severe degradation. But quite apart from the fate of the tiny smelt, the Bay Area fisheries could be taken off life-support because they could not survive with the flow cut in half.

No one should understate the suffering of California's farms and farmers under the continuing drought. Livelihoods and family traditions are being destroyed and only the strongest manage to survive. But the debate over remedies for the drought has been poisoned by paranoid fantasies.
The environmentalists are trying to, in their own words, return the Central Valley to the natural condition it was 200 years ago—a vast ecological basin. They are trying to dry the place up, starve it, reverse the development—a form of radical anti-progress, if you will.
Cohen does not share with us “their own words,” the words of the extremists who supposedly have the state legislature and the court system at their beck and call. If he dredged up a quote—and surely one could be found somewhere—espousing a radical return to “unspoiled nature” before the advent of farming in the valley, Cohen would necessarily find himself citing some fringe figure of minimal authority and negligible influence in today's debates over water policy. The real issue is that water is in catastrophically short supply and farmers are in competition with many others who want and need Northern California water. Cohen says “there is plenty of water in the north” even as the north state's reservoirs have fallen to record lows in water storage.This delusion will not advance the state of the debate.
They take our water and say we can’t dig for more. They care not about the people. They care not about the communities. They care not about the jobs. They care not about the farms. And by dumping water to the sea, they care not about the water. Indeed, environmentalists even care not about the trees.
Cohen rings the changes on his talking points to make sure we don't miss them: “our water,” he says; “dumping water to the sea.” Any drop that makes it to the San Francisco Bay is evidently wasted.

And lest we miss Cohen's qualifications to speak on behalf of “small family farms, which represent more than 90 percent of agriculture in California,” he drops this nugget on the table:
I, a true environmentalist, who grows and cares for 1.5 million pistachio trees, say to all, indeed, these radicals, care not about the trees.
Thank you, small farmer, for enlightening us.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fingers crossed

The Eighth Suggestion

In the Roman Catholic numbering of the Decalogue, No. 8 is the commandant that forbids lying: Thou shalt not bear false witness. However, this unambiguous rule can apparently be overcome by the higher law of “the means justify the ends.” Catholic Vote has sent me a questionnaire that amply demonstrates its zealotry in doing God's work is not impeded by minor considerations like honesty. First of all, the survey's outcome is foreordained: “[T]he purpose of this survey is to send a strong and clear message to every politician running for election or re-election in the 2014 mid-term Congressional Elections, that the overwhelming majority of Catholic voters demand ObamaCare be repealed.” (By contrast with the predestined conclusion, the superfluous comma is merely a venial sin.)

It has been frequently observed—often with gnashing of teeth—that American Catholics differ little from their Protestant brethren when it comes to attitudes relating to abortion and contraception. The laity is scarcely ready to enlist in an anti-abortion jihad at the behest of the clergy. Nevertheless, Catholic Vote is willing to make it look like they are. The survey questionnaire is replete with leading and misleading questions. For example,
ObamaCare regulations now require all Americans—including Catholic and pro-life Americans—to purchase health care insurance plans that include abortion-inducing drugs. In other words, under ObamaCare, pro-life Catholics are required to pay for abortions in violation of Catholic doctrine and moral teachings.
This statement insists on construing as abortifacients many contraceptives that physicians deny induce abortions, but doctors avoid speaking in absolutes, so Catholic Vote seizes upon the loophole to declare, “Aha! They do cause abortions!” (Not that most Catholics agree or even care.)

Other statements are even less defensible. One question seeks to inspire outrage over the president's proclivity for baby-murder:
As a state lawmaker in Illinois, Barack Obama voted twice to deny life-saving medical care to babies born in botched abortions.
An outright lie. It is not legal in Illinois to deny care to a survivor of a mishandled late-term abortion. There was an attempt when Obama was a state senator to enact legislation to amend and strengthen the pertinent provisions of law. Although initially inclined to support the measures, Obama ended up opposing them when concerns were raised that anti-abortion activists were waiting for the opportunity to use the enhanced language to accuse doctors of infanticide when inadvertent live births did not survive. Obama did not vote to deny care to inadvertent survivors because that remained illegal under Illinois law. Despite the legislative record, political opponents have not hesitated to accuse the president of aiding and abetting infanticide (which rather makes the point that motivated his vote in opposition).

Catholic Vote and Priests for Life are two anti-abortion organizations that work the same turf. Priests for Life mailed out a similar questionnaire during the summer. The surveys had several questions in common and all were devised to produce a desired outcome, no less mendacious than any other politically motivated campaign document. Catholic Vote gives its respondents the opportunity to check off such answers as these:
  • the pro-abortion movement wants to maximize the number of abortions in America
  • ObamaCare is a weapon President Obama and the Left are using to attack America's moral and religious heritage
  • [Obama and his allies] are mostly using the government takeover of health care in America as a way to expand government and move America in the direction of Socialism
  • I believe President Obama knew about the crushing cost of ObamaCare for families across America, and was just lying about the shocking cost to get ObamaCare passed into law

The “crushing cost”? Catholic Vote declares that health care insurance costs for “the typical American family” has risen by $3,000 per year. Where did they get this number despite Congressional Budget Office reports that ObamaCare costs are falling below original projections? The likely source is a Kaiser report on premium increases from 2008 to 2012 (a period during which the Affordable Care Act was only starting to get off the ground and the soaring health care costs that motivated it were still in full swing). The latest version of the Kaiser report notes that premium increases had moderated significantly in recent years, falling below the double-digit increases that had been typical in the past. Catholic Vote either hasn't caught up with the latest news or prefers to pretend it doesn't exist.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The UFO letter

The truth is way out there

Oh, look what I found in the archives! While rifling through a stack of old print-outs (yes, some of them even had perforated tractor-feed margins), I discovered one of my unpublished letters to the editor. We all know what happens to our unsolicited expressions of concern, outrage, agreement, etcetera: nothing, usually. As a rule, unless you're writing to a small local newspaper, your letter to the editor will vanish without a trace. Despite examples like that of one of my mentors, who actually got a letter published in the New York Times, writing to a newspaper is usually a waste of time (although the process of venting might be salubrious).

In this instance, however, my unpublished letter garnered a surprising response from the editor of the Letters section: “I really LOVE this letter. But I'm still not going to publish it. Sorry. We just don't have space for stuff like this.” I was charmed, of course, and regretfully but stoically set my missive aside.

The Internet, however, has plenty of room for “stuff like this”! Therefore today I share with you not only my previously unpublished letter, but the original letter to the editor to which it was a response. The year is 1998:
UFOs are real

Re “The reality of UFOs,” letters, March 1: It is amazing that we are still discussing whether UFOs exist. It has been more than 50 years since the UFO crash at Roswell, N.M., not to mention sightings over the past several hundred years. My own observations and interest go back to 1953, when, with several other skeptics, I co-founded one of the first “flying saucer” groups in the United States. Our club was called Civilian Saucer Intelligence and was based in New York City.

Whether the letter writers are part of the government disinformation coverup, I do not know. I do know, as do millions of others, that UFOs exist.

I recommend that doubters read “The Day After Roswell” by a former Pentagon official, Col. Philip Corso (Ret.). It contains a foreword by Sen. Strom Thurmond. It is doubtful that a man such as Thurmond would lend his name to any hoax.


Upon first reading this letter, I naturally reacted to the writer's use of “skeptic” in a way I found original and amusing. In his mind, “skeptic” obviously meant someone who refused to accept the debunking of flying saucer stories and was ready to embrace the notion of aliens joy-riding their round spacecraft all over the earth. I sat down at my PC keyboard and banged out the following:

Dear Editor: Little suspecting the dramatic events about to transpire, I was minding my own business while reading the Letters to the Editor in Friday's paper (March 27). I found “UFOs are Real” especially fascinating, particularly his speculation that letter writers who scoff at flying saucers might be “part of the government disinformation coverup.” Naturally I was trying to figure out what government disinformation was being covered up.

Of course, I was somewhat distracted by the irritating noise of a helicopter flying overhead. I could tell from the sound that the chopper had those extra-wide blades that are quieter than most. These are great for stealthy night missions, especially when the helicopters are painted the right color.

It was a relief when the chopper noise stopped, but shortly afterward my doorbell rang. On the front porch I found a tall man wearing a dark suit. I couldn't see his eyes because he was wearing opaque sunglasses.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, very politely, in a clipped voice that reminded me a bit of that actor Tommy Lee Jones. “I see that you're reading the Letters section of today's paper. Would you mind if I point out some things about the letter about UFOs?”

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “I was just reading it. What an amazing coincidence!”

The man gave me a tight little smile. “How fortunate,” he said. “Did you notice where the writer referred to 'the' UFO crash at Roswell, even though there are presently three alleged crash locations? Doesn't this suggest that the evidence is a little bit questionable?”

“You got me there,” I admitted, “although you know people found metallized fabric unknown to modern science anywhere on this planet except among balloon manufacturers. That's pretty compelling evidence. And the descriptions of alien bodies match pretty closely the appearance of the test dummies that the Air Force was tossing out of planes in parachute experiments in those years. I think this proves the degree to which aliens are willing to disguise themselves to fool us into thinking they don't exist. And don't forget that millions of people believe in UFOs.”

“Interesting point,” said the man. “Of course, millions believe in Islam while millions of others believe in Christianity. At least one of these groups has to be wrong. And millions of people believe that The X-Files is a documentary. Facts aren't really subject to popularity contests.”

“You got me there,” I admitted, “but how about that book that the writer mentioned? It's by a retired colonel and was endorsed by Sen. Strom Thurmond. That's pretty impressive, you know, with an endorsement by an authority like Thurmond.”

“No disrespect intended, sir, but these days 95-year-old Sen. Thurmond isn't even much of an authority on what day of the week it is. Besides which, he has issued a retraction of his book blurb, which was written because of his acquaintance with the colonel, not because he approved the unseen contents of the book manuscript.”

“You got me there,” I admitted, “but I'm sure that your cool and reasoned explanations must have some flaw in them. It's not as if retired colonels or other UFO enthusiasts would make up stories, delude themselves, fake alien autopsies, or observe bogus anniversaries in Roswell just to make money, acquire fame, or spice up their humdrum lives. I'll have to think about it.”

“Please do,” the man said. “And don't forget to write a letter to present these explanations to the public. As a concerned citizen, it's the least you can do, right?”

“Of course,” I agreed, but when I started to say something more, I noticed that he was suddenly gone. Anyway, I've been thinking about what he said and I've concluded that the man in the dark suit must have been wrong. UFOs must be real, because “The truth is out there.” I know, because popular media, tabloid television, the National Enquirer, and David Duchovny tell me so.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Automotive expression

A peculiar perspective on politics

We've all seen those cars that have been plastered with indicators of the drivers' passions and concerns. Many are the unimpressive tributes to offspring who manage to be “scholar of the week” at a local elementary school. Other people “heart” their dogs (or, less often, cats). My attention is caught, however, by political signs, especially time-worn emblems of campaigns past. Why do people retain these stickers on their cars?

I, for one, kept my Al Gore 2000 sticker on my car for the duration of George W. Bush's first term. When my father smirked and asked if I still hadn't gotten over losing yet, I replied that I hadn't gotten over winning and then being cheated of victory. Dad naturally considered me a sore loser (but seems not to recall this as he continues his hand-wringing over the electoral imposition of a black-power, totalitarian communist government in the 2008 election; apparently only Democrats can be sore losers—Republicans are instead in mourning for America). Later the Gore sticker was replaced with a “Worst President” emblem in which the W was fashioned to match the Bush campaign logo. (More sneering from Dad: “Oh, is that a tribute to Carter?”)

I similarly preserved my “No on 8” bumper sticker until the anti-marriage measure met its judicial demise. In fact, I never removed it. The sticker accompanied my car to its final resting place and my new(er) car has yet to acquire political detritus.

My mind was jogged in this direction when I parked next to a vehicle whose driver was evidently a disappointed Republican. The car sported two battle-torn campaign insignia. One was for McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. I noted that it was the original McCain sticker, not the McCain-Palin sticker that arose after the senator's ill-fated choice of running mate. For some reason, the driver had failed to upgrade her sticker.

But here's what struck me as odd: The second sticker was not a memento of the Romney campaign in 2012. Our unknown Republican driver had not found it in herself to announce her support of the Romney-Ryan ticket. Interesting.

What was the second sticker? A 2006 remnant of California's general election. The driver had supported Chuck Poochigian for state attorney general. The average reader is unlikely to have much recollection of that epic campaign. The incumbent attorney general was Jerry Brown, who blew Poochigian away without even breathing hard (which he is now about to do again with Neel Kashkari, the Republican nominee in the current campaign for California governor).

You can't psychoanalyze someone on the basis of two bumper stickers (unless you're a Fox News pundit, of course). Therefore I can't quite decide what the tale of two stickers implies. She rallied to an attorney general candidate whose fate was all but foredoomed. She then gave her support fairly early to a presidential candidate who had a fighting chance (at least until the economy tanked and Sarah Palin was revealed as a joke candidate; or perhaps our unknown driver came to McCain later but refused the McCain-Palin version of the sticker). She didn't bother to enlist in the effort to prevent Jerry Brown's return to the governor's office in 2010 nor the Republican presidential campaign in 2012. Disheartened? One might think so.

She hasn't given up pining for Poochigian and McCain, though.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Happy Nixon Resignation Day!

Pretending to draw lessons

It's the 40th anniversary of the resignation of our much-unloved 37th president, the only one of the nation's chief executives to have departed in this manner. Therefore it's natural to look back on Nixon's shameful example and attempt to draw lessons that we might usefully apply today. Of course, if you're a right-wing pundit you might prefer to distort things beyond all recognition as you declare that Nixon's crimes are ever-so-similar to what Barack Obama is currently doing. Here's how Ben Boychuk does it:
Public opinion all but guaranteed Nixon’s impeachment and ouster 40 years ago. Public opinion all but guarantees Barack Obama won’t be impeached today....

Whether Obama deserves impeachment is another matter. Here Nixon’s case remains instructive.
Cue the imaginary scandals!
Nixon broke his oath of office. He disregarded “his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” He “repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens.” In particular, Nixon used the IRS, the FBI and the Secret Service to harass and punish his political enemies, alleged the second of three articles of impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee approved in 1974....

Perhaps the same could be said of Obama. His IRS singled out tea party and other conservative groups for excessive scrutiny, although nobody so far has managed to turn up the proverbial “smoking gun” linking the president to those abuses.
That's right. Boychuk is flogging the multiply-discredited “IRS scandal,” neglecting its origins in the cherry-picked factoids disseminated by the deliberately dishonest Darryl Issa. As a result of a deluge of new political groups claiming 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, the IRS gave a lot of attention to so-called “tea party” groups—and liberal groups, too, though you wouldn't hear that from mission-driven Issa.
Obama has been lax, at best, about taking care that “the laws be faithfully executed.” From waivers to the Affordable Care Act’s mandates for unions and politically connected businesses to invoking “prosecutorial discretion” to exempt 1 million illegal immigrants from deportation, Obama has pushed executive authority to the limit.

Now the president is mulling an executive order that could, in effect, grant amnesty to some 6 million illegal immigrants. Yet the Constitution clearly reserves the power of “naturalization” to Congress, not the president. Does that matter anymore?
Boychuk spins the notion of “waivers” from the ACA as if they are exemptions handed out as political favors, rather than executive decisions based on easing the implementation process (something President Bush also did for Medicare Part D and which the Supreme Court deems within the president's executive authority).

Note also Boychuk's invocation of the N-word: naturalization. Whether or not Obama issues executive orders affecting the status of undocumented residents, he will certainly not be offering them “naturalization,” which entails citizenship and voting rights. That, however, is what Boychuk wants to imply, causing tea-partiers to clutch their pearls and swoon. Given complete inaction by the House of Representatives while a continuing crisis percolates on our southern border, the president will have to act without the assistance of the derelict legislative branch. It is well within his authority to declare that no one will be denied due process and summarily deported.

Although Boychuk claims that the president is pushing his authority “to the limit,” it is an obvious and necessary perquisite of his position to set priorities. Shall we haul the so-called Dreamers into court and prosecute them as illegally residing in the country where they've spent their lives since childhood and deport them back to native lands many of them don't even remember because of their youth when their parents brought them across the border? The Department of Justice has enough to keep it busy without also taking on foolish and unfair prosecutions of life-long residents.
Violating the oath of office? Usurping congressional authority? Using the might of the presidency against political foes? Not trivialities. Or, at least they weren’t 40 years ago.
And they're not trivial today, either. They're merely nonexistent.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Baying at the moon

The “Get a life” edition

On July 24, 2014, Daily Kos observed the forty-fifth anniversary of the conclusion of the Apollo 11 moon mission with a photo taken shortly after the command module's splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The photo was labeled with some text:
At 12:51 p.m. (EST) on July 24, 1969, the Apollo 11 module landed in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii. This completed the first mission humanity ever made to another celestial body.

That statement is straightforward enough, but I thought it gave short shrift to two other missions that preceded the historic first moon landing. On Facebook I offered the following comment:
Clarification: The first manned mission to *land* and return. Both Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 went all the way to the moon and back, but they were lunar orbital missions only (the latter including a jaunt with the lunar module that came within ten miles of the surface).
Another FB user promptly offered a kind of rebuttal:
ABR I think the word humanity speaks to that.
Huh? I casually replied:
Humanity was aboard Apollos 8 and 10 as well.
Soon others got into the act:
BA Bet you are a real fun guy at parties.
DG There is no ambiguity in the graphic. The word "made" means "landed". Get a life.
Unchastened by the dictionary revisionism (and the slight against my party suitability), I replied:
I think the Apollo 8 astronauts felt like they had "made" a mission to the moon, which they orbited ten times before returning home. It takes nothing away from Apollo 11 to acknowledge that.
Finally, someone chimed in to defend my point:
CL Agreed. My outstanding memory of the Apollo missions was, at the age of 14, listening to Anders, Borman and Lovell aboard Apollo 8, orbiting the moon, giving a Christmas (1968) message to the people on earth. That was just awesome - and the furthest that men had ever been from earth. There is a tendency to simplify history to 'spot facts' and glib milestones. Apollo 8 was first to the moon. Apollo 11 was first to land. Equal achievements, I'd say.
Unfortunately, despite this positive reinforcement (although I never claimed that the orbital missions were equivalent to the landing missions), my original simple statement of clarification remained a sticking point for a Facebook user with the initials MN:
MN You can't go TO the Moon If you don't land on It. As defined during the 8 and 10 mission, they ORBITED the Moon, Just like John Glenn ORBITED the Earth. Chris, They are NOT equal achievements, by any stretch.
This remark is a perfect headdesk opportunity, especially in its creative use of the word “defined.” Is MN prepared to tell Borman, Lovell, Anders, Stafford, Young, and Cernan that they did not go “TO” the moon because they neglected to land on it? Lovell was also the commander of the Apollo 13 mission which aborted its moon landing because of an explosion in its service module. Should we tell Lovell that, nope, he did not go to the moon twice because neither of his missions landed? Sure, he never got to set foot on the lunar surface, but Jim Lovell definitely made two missions to the moon.

Let's not forget the epic moon missions that preceded Apollo 11 in the excitement over the anniversary of the first landing. Some of us remember those thrilling days and rue their passing.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Turning the tables

By ninety degrees

My old office had a Steelcase desk in one corner and two single-person study tables tucked alongside. When the math department moved into new quarters, my new office had a desk unit complete with an extension that left no room for my student study tables. One of the tables quickly found a new home as study location in the hallway just outside my office. The second was soon claimed for the men's restroom, stuck in the corner of the entry way, a convenient place to drop off books and binders before doing one's business. Everyone was happy as we settled into our new digs.

In the subsequent years, two small problems have arisen with the restroom table. For several weeks in a row, the table would mysteriously vanish from the men's room and reappear in the entry alcove of the women's restroom. A stealthy tug-of-war ensued. The table was quickly stolen back by the men each time the women absconded with it. No culprits were ever identified, but I claim credit for having resolved the matter. I bravely visited the warehouse in the college's maintenance yard. Amidst the broken bookcases and banged-up desks I located a small cast-off table that I promptly requisitioned for the women's restroom. Once it was delivered, peace reigned.

The second problem arose during the past year. Despite years of being positioned with its long dimension aligned with the restroom's door, suddenly the table was positioned perpendicular to its old orientation. Naturally I switched it back. A week later, it was turned again. Grumbling, I restored it. You can anticipate the sequel. For several consecutive weeks, the table oscillated back and forth.

Just as mysteriously as it began, the table twisting came to an end. Did the miscreant simply give up or did something cause him to decamp. What will happen when school resumes in the fall? The anticipation is killing me.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Count my votes, please!

Been there before

The photo-finish in the race for the Democratic nomination for state controller in California has prompted observers to invoke the controversy over the vote-counting scandal in Florida's presidential election in 2000. I prefer, however, to invoke 1980. That's the year that an extended recount resulted in a reversal of the original results. The initial tally of votes from election day awarded a seat in the state assembly to Republican candidate Adrian Fondse. The Democratic candidate, Patrick Johnston, refused to concede and pursued a recount. The process took long enough that Fondse was sworn into office as an assembly member and took his seat in Sacramento, the recount hanging over his head like a dark cloud as Johnston narrowed the gap in incrementally released results.

Fondse, however, found a silver lining. He noted that he had done quite well on election day in the precincts yet to be recounted, so he was confident that his victory would be sustained. Despite his optimism, Fondse found himself trailing at the end of the recount and lost his assembly seat to Johnston in January. (I was in the assembly visitors gallery on that contentious day and observed the desperate last-ditch political maneuvers, including a motion by Fondse's own Republican colleagues to oust him from his seat—a motion sure to fail because it required a two-thirds vote. The Democrats instead insisted on a simple-majority motion to accept the recount results, resulting in Johnston's swearing-in as the winner of the election.)

What's the lesson we should learn from the Johnston-Fondse recount battle? Has John Pérez taken it into account in his decision to demand a recount in his razor-thin loss in the controller's race to nominee-apparent Betty Yee? Pérez had exercised his right under state law to cherry-pick the counties in which recounting is done. He chose those in which he had beaten Yee by the greatest margins. Yee's supporters immediately cried foul, clearly indicating their belief that Pérez has stacked the deck. Let's examine this assumption accepted by both camps.

Suppose there's a precinct in which Pérez enjoyed 100% support. No votes at all for Yee or anyone else. What could happen during a recount? Examine a ballot. It was counted for Pérez. If a mistake is found, Pérez loses that vote. It must then go to Yee (or one of the other candidates for controller). It should now be clear that Pérez's strategy of recounting only his strong precincts causes his own votes to receive greater scrutiny than others' votes. It's a “please double-check my votes” strategy. The degree of risk is directly proportional to the size of his original vote.

We can put an asterisk on this analysis, because nothing is ever simple when it comes to vote-counting controversies. In our imaginary 100%-Pérez precinct, suppose a new and uncounted ballot is discovered in a ballot box. Chances are that it's a vote for Pérez, given the nature of the precinct. If previously uncounted votes are turned up during the voting process, then Pérez has chosen the right strategy, having a decent expectation of turning up neglected votes in his favor and thus increasing his total. If not, Pérez and company are spending a lot of money to put his votes at risk.

An interesting choice, but all of the political commentators seem to endorse it as obviously advantageous to Pérez. It ain't necessarily so.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Future of the Supreme Court

An actuarial look

Those disappointed in recent Supreme Court decisions will, I hope, refrain from simply accepting defeat. Issues like corporate personhood and religious privileges for family businesses are not settled for all time. In the Hobby Lobby case, for example, anti-abortion and anti-contraception groups will be trying to maximize the family-owned business exception from the Affordable Healthcare Act's coverage mandate. Defining the limits of this exception will inevitably result in future court cases that will gradually percolate to the level of the High Court, giving the Supremes an opportunity to revisit the issue.

Since the justices are normally loath to overturn their previous decisions, especially recent ones, opponents of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby need to be patient, even while striving to correct the injustices. Also, we need some time to elapse so that the best of all possible reversal opportunities can arise: new justices. The following chart displays the current ages and the years of service of the nine justices. Scalia and Kennedy are the longest-service justices, while Ginsburg is the oldest.

Nothing in this chart, however, is as important as how much longer the individual justices are likely to serve. To that end, let's turn to Table 7 (Life expectancy at selected ages, by race, Hispanic origin, race for non-Hispanic population, and sex: United States, 2010) in the CDC's Volume 61, Number 4, of National Vital Statistics Reports. Looking up the life expectancy for each justice and interpolating between tabular values when necessary, I created the following chart.

As you can see, Ginsburg, Scalia, and Kennedy are estimated to have about nine years left. Of course, this is not a hard number, but it suggests that even if they decline to retire to spend more time with their families—as the traditional explanation goes—we can reasonably expect a number of vacancies in the vicinity of 2023. Thus the president elected in 2020 would have some openings to fill. It's entirely possible that the president elected in 2016 would have no opportunities to nominate a Supreme Court justice, just as Jimmy Carter did not in his single term, nor Bill Clinton in his second term and George W. Bush in his first.

Patience, right? In other words, Hillary Clinton would need a second term to make it really likely that she could select successors to Ginsburg, Scalia, Kennedy, and perhaps Breyer.

What is missing from this scenario? The obvious, of course. A Democratic president elected in 2016 would encourage Ginsburg and Breyer to step down with the assurance that their seats would not go to nominees dedicated to overturning their judicial records. Scalia, by contrast, would hunker down and strive to outlast the Democratic administration (assuming he can continue to withstand the toxic overproduction of his bile gland).

The case of Sotomayor is special, and I made no attempt to take into account her diabetes, which argues against her supposed expectation of lasting till 2040. I also have no idea whether Roberts, who came to the Chief Justice's position at an unusually young age, will strive to set a new record at the top of the court's hierarchy. That would require that he serve more than the 34 years and 5 months achieved by John Jay. Whatever occurs, it seems unlikely that the string of Republican-appointed Chief Justices will end anytime soon. Harry S. Truman was the last Democratic president who enjoyed the privilege of appointing the Chief Justice when he nominated Fred Vinson in 1946.

Patience. Probably quite a lot of it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hard data

Make up your own numbers!

My in-box is an unending source of delights. I really should unsubscribe from right-wing mailing lists, but how else would I learn shocking facts about the Muslim Marxist Dictator in the White House? For example, The Political Insider breathlessly informed me that Speaker John Boehner has boldly moved to bring President Obama to account—by filing a lawsuit accusing him of exercising his executive authority. In the comments section the most common response ran along the lines of “about time!” and “I'd rather have impeachment!” Of course, these comments were accompanied by solid, reality-based arguments and supporting evidence:
Jim: He has what well over 1,000 executive orders now? While the most any president before him had like what 45? Which I think was FDR, in his 16 year term.. It took congress long enough.. Talk about being asleep behind the wheel…
Since I am aware that Obama has been remarkably self-restrained in his use of executive orders, I knew immediately that “Jim” was full of crap. I clarified the matter for him:
Zeno: The reality is a little different. Obama has issued fewer executive orders than any president in the 20th century except for one-term presidents Ford and Bush. Obama has 180 to date. Reagan, for example, issued 381. More recently, George W. Bush had 291.
I included a link to the Wikipedia page where a tally of presidential executive orders is displayed. Nevertheless, I was quickly put in my place:
Mitch: Wrong Zeno.
(I presume he meant “Wrong, Zeno,“ but the appositive comma has fallen on hard times, so perhaps “Mitch” was merely being conventionally illiterate.) A most excellent and compelling refutation, no?

Whence came Jim's egregiously wrong but confidently cited numbers? It was as easy to discover that as it would have been for Jim to learn that he was ridiculously incorrect, but that would have ruined his argument. I got the details from Snopes, the indefatigable debunker of Internet nonsense:
The President signed 923 Executive Orders in 40 Months. It is all over the net. These sites include commentary on what the executive order is for and what it does. If this is the truth, I'm scared to think about it. Most of the past presidents have allegedly signed around 30 of them. At the end of the day an executive order circumvents the congress and senate. Fill in the blanks. Someone credible needs to research and report on this.

[Here follows a list of specific executive orders attributed to Obama, but almost all of them were actually issued by John F. Kennedy in 1962. —Z]

Feel free to verify the "executive orders" at will ... and these are just the major ones ...


Teddy Roosevelt: 3
Others Prior To FDR: NONE
FDR: 11 in 16 years
Truman: 5 in 7 years
Ike: 2 in 8 years
JFK: 4 in 3 years
LBJ: 4 in 5 years
Nixon: 1 in 6 years
Ford: 3 in 2 years
Carter: 3 in 4 years
Reagan: 5 in 8 years
Bush 1: 3 in 4 years
Clinton: 15 in 8 years
Bush 2: 62 in 8 years
Obama: 923 in 3+ years!

During my lifetime, all Presidents have issued Executive Orders, for reasons that vary, some more than others.

When a President issued as many as 30 Executive Orders during a term in Office, people thought there was something amiss.



Even some Democrats in the House have turned on him, plus a very small number of Democrat Senators question him.


This is exactly the sort of Internet spam that credulous right-wingers like my father immediately swallow whole and proceed to pass it along to their e-mail lists of fellow travelers and family members (although usually not me anymore, since I tend to respond with unappreciated but detailed refutations that irk my male parental unit). Although it's a tissue of lies, this denunciation of the president appeals enormously to those who have already decided that he is some kind of evil mastermind and would-be dictator, so it is not subject to any sort of critical examination before being further disseminated via the Intertubes. And thus the lies spread.

I think it's fair to quote Ronald Reagan, that great conservative icon, in this context: “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.” Turnabout is fair play, right? Reagan said this in 1964 while campaigning on behalf of Barry Goldwater (who in retrospect doesn't look half so insane as today's teabaggers).

Of course, Reagan stole it from Josh Billings.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stay of execution

City College gets an extension

The biggest community college in California will not have to shut its doors this year. All of that work in preparing a schedule of classes for fall 2014 was not in vain. As announced this week, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is promulgating a rule change that will grant the City College of San Francisco a two-year extension in its efforts to resolve the deficiencies identified in the college's most recent accreditation reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed the news with a front-page headline and a detailed article by Nanette Asimov, who has been closely documenting the years-long story.

The innocent bystander may be unaware that the arguments in the City College controversy were as much about the deficiencies of the accrediting agency as they were about the college itself. Make no mistake: City College had plenty to answer for. The ACCJC found that City College was deficient in its planning, accounting, and management processes. The institution's teaching mission was threatened by its inability to track its assets, collect student fees, and address developing needs. Furthermore, CCSF had been warned about its shortcomings in a previous accreditation process but had not bothered to correct them. The college was begging to be disciplined.

Unfortunately for everyone, including itself, the ACCJC proceeded to demonstrate its own inability to manage a difficult case. It imposed the death penalty on CCSF and then stubbornly refused to cooperate with the attempts to implement an emergency rescue of the institution. Nothing underscored this more clearly than the ACCJC's insistence it could not grant an extension even after the federal Department of Education released a stated confirming that it could. As Asimov reported
Last month, [commission President Barbara] Beno and commission Chairwoman Sherrill Amador and Vice Chairman Steven Kinsella refused to extend the revocation deadline despite public assurances from Lynn Mahaffie, a senior accrediting director with the Department of Education, that federal regulations permitted doing so. Nevertheless, the full commission, which meets just twice a year, changed its policy during its meeting June 4-6 in Sacramento. The agency is private and details about its internal decision-making aren't known.
Despite the Chronicle headline, “victory” is too sanguine a conclusion. City College has a lot of work to do before it can be considered fully compliant with ACCJC accreditation standards which other community colleges (like my own) are required to meet. At least the reprieve gives it the opportunity to continue the process under the new leadership that took over in the midst of the debacle. I also expect a painstaking internal review by the ACCJC of its punitive practices. At least, I hope so. If the ACCJC fails to do so, it is merely mirroring the failings of the institution over which it sat in judgment. Anyway, the internal review is necessary in terms of self-defense. Rigorous external review will be imposed by California's state legislature and the Department of Education, so the ACCJC had better get ready.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Dear Abby, dinner party planner

An apple distance record?

I have always read Dear Abby for the humor. I still do. Of course, when the column's originator, Pauline Phillips, was writing it, I felt as if I were laughing with the columnist. These days, however, it's more often that I laugh at the columnist. This morning, Jeanne Phillips struck again:
DEAR ABBY: I just found out my husband was arrested for being with a hooker. My in-laws (whom I love and adore) bailed him out of jail. No one said a word about it to me. I don't know how to confront all of them with the fact that I know about this “dirty little secret.” What should I do? — BETRAYED WIFE

DEAR BETRAYED: First, visit your gynecologist and ask to be treated for every STD known to man. Then invite your in-laws to a “family dinner,” tell them the cat is out of the bag and ask why this was kept from you. And while you're at it, ask your mother-in-law (whom you love and adore) how SHE would feel if your father-in-law had possibly exposed her to an STD and it had been kept from her. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
This is extraordinarily good advice, no? No. Give it just a second's thought. A second second shouldn't be needed. Just imagine Betrayed's adored in-laws sitting down for a cozy family dinner at Betrayed's invitation, only to discover that the first course is an accusation, served with a side of recrimination. Will we ever get to the just desserts*?

The notion of raising the topic at a family dinner is just absurd. Jeanne is apparently not bothering to read her own advice before publishing it. Can't she afford a competent minion to save her (and her advisees!) from herself? Surely Betrayed would be better off in a less structured setting, like sitting down with the guilty parties for coffee (perhaps even at a coffee shop, if a public venue were desired in hopes that fear of “making a scene” would keep reactions mild and voices low and under control; Betrayed knows her family better than Dear Abby). Once everyone is settled, Betrayed could share “good news”: “All of the lab tests are back and I'm pleased to announce that each one was negative. George didn't infect me with any sexually transmitted diseases, so I'm much relieved!” Alternatively, Betrayed might instead need to announce, “Good news! My gynecologist says that the gonorrhea I contracted from George is responding to treatment.”

In either case, the rest of the script writes itself. And there's no danger of leaving a lovely roast untouched on the dinner table. There's also less risk of having edged cutlery too close at hand.

Jeanne concluded her misbegotten advice with the homey aphorism that “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.” Maybe so, Jeanne, but there appears to have been quite a bit of rolling in your case.

*Yeah, I know all about “just deserts” versus “just deserts,” but when it comes to lost causes ... So don't even bother.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Tea Party is not dead!

Just very, very sick

One of the joys of Facebook is stumbling across long-lost friends or relatives and renewing acquaintances. The downside is the discovery that an old friend or cousin has gone completely around the bend. Last year I ran into an nth cousin I hadn't seen since we were both teens. It was nice to swap family photos and do some catching up. But what do I find on her Facebook timeline? Stuff like this:

 Now THAT was a commander in chief

Yeah, one hell of a commander-in-chief, all right. Did he also hug the many widows and widowers he created with his military adventurism?

Of course, my cousin pays tribute to our current president, too:

Hilarious! This implies, of course, that Obama's economic record is nothing to brag about. His job-creation record must be much worse than that of his glorious predecessor, right? Funny thing, though, about reality. George W. Bush took two terms to eke out a job increase of 0.21%. (Actually all the growth was in the second term, because it was 0.0% for Bush's first term.) Obama managed 0.23% in a single term, and it's still increasing during his second term.

This naturally inspires a question: Who from among the GOP's leading lights could be as great a president as the much-missed George W.?

Who would you like to see as a presidential candidate?

Frankly, the gray silhouette strikes me as the most qualified and inspires the most confident. Of course, my cousin wants a Republican president who will finally get to the bottom of the Democratic president's many, many scandals. Like Benghazi:

It would be much too easy for the GOP merely to accept the many answers they've already received. Besides, they didn't like those answers. Obama and Clinton have simply refused to cooperate. They stubbornly won't admit that they deliberately arranged to have Americans killed by Muslim terrorists. If they would just confess and volunteer to go to jail, we could finally put Benghazi behind us. So clearly it's the Democrats' fault that this just keeps grinding on.

It appears that my cousin is concerned that her children are targets for terrorists—probably foreign, but possibly domestic. You can also tell, quite clearly, that the guards in the photo are packing heat. I presume it's merely a detail that these guards (a) are not at the Sidwell Friends school attended by Obama's daughters and (b) Sidwell guards do not carry firearms. My cousin, you see, has a strong aversion to fact-checking, which is likely to destroy an otherwise perfectly good story, just like most of the other posts that my cousin “liked” and “shared” from The Tea Party page on Facebook. (Today's special treat: Nutcase Allen West calls for Obama's impeachment. What? Again?)

My cousin intersperses saccharin pieties among the right-wing memes. Apparently God loves us (at least since 1954) and wants us to be happy, which is in odd conflict with the many miseries he's visited upon us, all “documented” by the right wing. Perhaps we're in the End Times!

One Nation, Under God

The end.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Extra credit

Is Jesus stingy?

My least favorite teaching task is the assignment of final grades. You can count on it: There will always be a couple of students teetering on the brink between two grades. Some of my colleagues solve the problem by being very strict constructionists: “A grade of B requires 80%. That's 80%. Not 79%. Not 79.9%. End of story.” Others are conditional rounders: “If the student's semester average is 79.5% and the final exam score is a B or better, I'll round it up to a B. Otherwise it remains a C.” There are many decision mechanisms.

You can probably anticipate the problem. Sometimes two students have the same borderline score, but one of them did it with an exemplary effort on the final exam and the other did it by squandering a better grade with a final-exam pratfall. You can't really drive a wedge between their semester scores when both of them have 79.0%. They rise or fall together. What to do?

This recently happened in one of my classes. One of my students closed strong while the other had steadily lost ground. They ended up in a numerical tie. Both were aware that they had fallen short of an outright B because I had released their final exam scores. It all came down to the grade brackets and my judgment on what decision would be the most equitable and most reflective of their accomplishments. I compared notes with a couple of colleagues and both students ended up with Bs, which rewarded the diligent student for her strong finish and didn't punish the student who had lost some of his drive in the last weeks. I picked the “nice” option.

I could still argue for the other outcome, but I was comfortable with the decision to award both students “good” grades. At least, I was comfortable till one of them reacted with the following message:
THANK YOU SO MUCH !!!!!!!!!!

That you decided to give me a B!!!!!!!! God bless you for doing it!!!
I was in church on Saturday and the pastor was talking about God's power to answer our prayers. He told us how he was asking God about parking in a very busy time when there never any available spaces. He was driving and praying to God when he saw that one person was taking off from his parking spot. He was so happy about it because God gave him a parking spot. He said that if you believe in God and ask him whatever you want, He will always answer. So after church I asked Jesus to give me a B for my math class. And now I see that HE answered my prayer. Isn't it amazing!?
Oy veh. I have only one question: Why didn't she pray for an A?

Friday, May 23, 2014

God's not at all well

The belabors of Hercules

Yes, I slipped in to see God's Not Dead the other day, looking about suspiciously at my fellow movie-goers. It soon became apparent they were there for the Kool-Aid. When Josh Wheaton asks Professor Radisson, “How can you hate someone who doesn't exist?”, the guy a few seats over from me went “Oh, yeah!” Because, you know, it was such a brilliant and devastating riposte to the professor's expressions of disbelief. Theists refuse to believe that anyone actually lacks belief in God; atheists are all sort of pretending, I guess.

The movie has already undergone many trenchant analyses and deconstructions and, yes, it really is an awful piece of tripe. Its cloying earnestness seems to me to be unselfconscious, indicating that the movie's creators are genuinely shallow and lacking in the power of self-reflection. Smug certainty has destroyed their capacity for critical thought.

Since there's no great need for me to add redundant criticisms, let me instead offer some points related to my personal perspective as a college professor, the false notes that regularly pulled me out of the motion picture and made me keenly aware that I was watching a religious tract.

Kevin Sorbo depicted Professor Radisson as a self-important authoritarian, a dispenser of “truth” who hates to be questioned. Such professors are not unknown in academia, but they are rare. Most of us like students to think about what they are told, to question dogma and to discuss these matters with classmates and instructors. Of course, the movie could have merely chosen to depict one of these curmudgeonly professors as a device for conveying a lesson—except in this case it's less of a lesson and more of an unrelenting harangue.

I nearly laughed out loud at the end of the scene involving the first day of philosophy class. The professor adds Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian to the reading list for the next session. Apparently the students had already been assigned David Hume on “The Problem of Induction” (presumably an excerpt from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) and Discourse on the Method (Discours de la méthode) by René Descartes. How often does the class meet? This is a daunting reading list even assuming the students have a week in which to plow through it. Perhaps Radisson had distributed a syllabus in which only certain pages were indicated for the week's reading, but his addition of Russell to the list carried no such limitation. I can imagine the screenwriter congratulating himself on using Russell's book as Radisson's shot across Wheaton's bow: “Heh, heh. This'll raise the audience's hackles! Even though most of them won't know who Russell is, the title will do the trick!”

No one has commented, to my knowledge, on Radisson's office. Although it's made clear that he is considered the prohibitive frontrunner for the position of department chair, he has yet to achieve that status. Nevertheless, his office is large enough to serve as a hangar for a 747 and his desk is long enough to land jet fighters. Radisson must work for one of the most prestigious and most richly endowed universities in the western world. It's like those television sitcoms where impoverished young people live in deluxe apartments while subsisting on ramen and cheap beer. I was most impressed.

Dean Cain's character could have been ripped from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Unbelieving and self-absorbed, “Mark” has no time for altruism. He is a “superman” who rapidly sheds any inconveniences that arise between him and his goals. His girlfriend develops cancer? Ex-girlfriend! His mother descends into the fog of Alzheimer's? Time to forget her just as she's involuntarily forgotten him! (Of course, when Mark is hectored by his sister into paying Mom a visit in the nursing home, Mom manages to emerge from her dementia just long enough to deliver a lucid little sermonette to shame her unbelieving son. A miracle!)

The subplot depicting the Arab girl who converted to Christianity was especially disturbing. Of course, her Muslim father beat her and ejected her from the house. We got to see him cry afterward, so I imagine the movie producers felt they had gone the extra mile in humanizing the devout believer in a false religion. (See, kids! This is how you behave when you follow Allah instead of Yahweh!) I managed not to hoot aloud when a close-up revealed that the girl had been listening to lessons recorded by Franklin Graham. Franklin! A pale imitation of the real thing, but apparently good enough to cost a young woman her family and her home.

I won't dwell on the ghoulish ending, which was embarrassing in the extreme. When the preachers were crouching over the dying Professor Radisson, I was half-expecting them to sprout vampire fangs, they were so eager to sink their teeth into him. Instead I want to point out the ridiculousness of the final scene in Radisson's philosophy class. Since it was foreordained that Wheaton had to win, humiliating his atheist professor, it was impossible that the end of the debate would offer any surprises. And it didn't. Right on cue, the Asian boy who had befriended Wheaton was the first to rise to his feet to declare “God's not dead!” and Wheaton the winner. But then every single student stood up and joined the chorus. Really? Every student? I watched closely, looking for the students who would stubbornly keep their seats, rolling their eyes at their suddenly faithful classmates—all of whom had been willing only a few weeks before to scrawl their names on God's obituary. I didn't see a one.

Fake, fake, fake. Nothing short of a fire drill or the end of class will get every student to pop up from his or her desk. My neighbors in the movie theater may have noticed I was chuckling, but so were some of them. Perhaps they thought I was participating in their joy at Wheaton's David-vs.-Goliath triumph.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

The template student

When thinking is too much trouble

My exams seldom contain surprises, but my students' answers do. Since I'm a firm believer in keeping track of student progress with frequent quizzes, I telegraph my punches. Students have plenty of opportunity to discern what facts, techniques, procedures, and calculations I deem the most important. (They also—most of them—learn the importance of regular attendance so as not to miss these pre-exam rehearsals.)

Of course, some students take it too far. These are the students who have had the unfortunate educational experience of intensely patterned teaching to “the test.” These are also the students who badger me for “practice tests” in advance of each exam. What do they want? Problems that are exactly like the ones they'll encounter on the exam.(I presume I'm permitted to change the numbers a little bit.)

What surprised me most this past school year was the discovery of this tendency among my calculus students. I was used to seeing it in my lower-level classes like algebra, but in multivariate calculus? An example of the behavior of the template-driven student will suffice. You'll see the problem, even if the terms are mysterious.

On a quiz I asked multiple questions about the gradient of a function of two variables. In part (a) I asked them to compute the gradient and evaluate it at a given point. In part (b) I asked them to use the gradient to compute the directional derivative in a given direction. In part (c) I asked them to calculate the greatest possible value of the directional derivative. In part (d) I asked them to find the direction in which the greatest possible directional derivative would occur. Pretty standard stuff.

On an exam I asked my students to (a) compute the gradient of a function of two variables and evaluate it at a given point. No problem. In part (b) I asked them how large the directional derivative could be? Several students were thrown for a loss. They wanted to compute a specific directional derivative, but instead I was asking them for its maximum possible value. There was no way they could do what they wanted to do because I had not provided a direction, so they made one up. They had memorized the pattern in the quiz and insisted on replicating it exactly on the exam. Since I had, in effect, swapped (b) and (c), they were deeply perplexed and forged ahead with the moves they had learned by rote.

Embarrassing! It wasn't a very large number of students, but I had been hoping they had been weaned away from this tendency by the time they arrived in the calculus III class. I learned otherwise.