Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stewie exposed

Who is Stewart Gilligan Griffin?

It has long been apparent to even the most casual observer that there is something disturbingly odd about the youngest offspring in the family of Peter and Lois Griffin. Despite being a toddler somewhere between the ages of one and two, Stewie Griffin speaks the Queen's English with an effete Rex Harrison accent and a vocabulary that eclipses those of the other family members. Stewie is familiar with such old-fashioned notions as box socials but is out of touch with his contemporaries. For example, he sketches blueprints for time machines, but is at a loss when expected to act like a child (“Blast! What do kids draw these days?”).

The conclusion is inescapable: Stewie Griffin retains many of the traits and faculties of a previous life. Peter and Lois have spawned the reincarnation of a totalitarian autocrat. But who?

The study of past lives is properly the endeavor of trained parapsychologists. I fear that I am but the merest of dilettantes in this field, lacking any professional qualifications. Nevertheless, I will forge fearlessly ahead, striving to adhere to the rigorous standards one would find in any psychic research lab. I will follow where the evidence leads me and I will never ever fudge any of the data (unless, of course, I can't get positive results otherwise; this, too, is a psi lab tradition).

Let us therefore regard the treasure trove of circumstantial evidence before us and home in on Stewie Griffin's previous identity. It was probably male, since totalitarianism has not been a hobby readily accessible to females in the past. (And we can't consider Margaret Thatcher, since she was still inconveniently alive when Stewie was born.) He was almost certainly British, if not specifically English. The obstetrician who delivered Stewie at birth noted the curious presence in the afterbirth of a map of Europe (marked with “bomb here” annotations). That makes one think of Hitler, of course, but it's more likely that Stewie was once a British-born Nazi sympathizer.

The noose tightens. We should search for Stewie among Britain's homegrown version of National Socialism—namely, the British Union of Fascists.

Who among the members of the BUF was a Nazi sympathizer with his own dreams of dictatorship? While virtually all members were Nazi sympathizers (customarily although not officially anti-Semitic), the likeliest individual who fancied himself a future Führer was none other than its founder and leader: Sir Oswald Mosley.

What the deuce?

As a member of the British aristocracy, Mosley certainly had the accents of privilege in his spoken voice. Several of Mosley's speeches are available on-line at the website. Sir Oswald started his political career as a Conservative member of parliament, but he was not content as a Tory MP and eventually went into opposition as an independent. He signed up as a member of the Labour Party after the Tories lost their majority and a Labour government was installed. Mosley, however, was never entrusted with the kind of high-level ministerial position he coveted. After half a dozen years as a socialist radical in Labour's ranks, Mosley left the party in frustration and his pendulum swung toward the extreme right.

His next move was to found the New Party, which embodied many of the principles of Mussolini's Fascist Party in Italy. Mosley had visited Italy in 1931 and found much he liked in Mussolini's approach to government. When the New Party was unable to win any seats in parliament, Mosley decided to found the British Union of Fascists. The BUF's bully boy enforcers were known as the “Blackshirts” after the paramilitary uniforms Mosely selected for them (in apparent homage to Mussolini's preferred fascist garb).

Mosley favored a corporatist approach to government. Members of the House of Lords would no longer have life peerages; rather, the upper house of parliament would be replaced by a body representative of major industries and the Church of England. You would have, for example, a member of the upper house representing Rolls Royce in lieu of a lord. If a similar practice were followed in the United States, there'd be senators from Exxon and IBM instead of senators from states. (One wonders, rather unkindly, what would have happened to the senators from Enron and Bear Stearns under such a system.)

The BUF was a force in British politics during the 1930s but fell short of accruing any parliamentary representation. The big rally at Earls Court in 1939 was both a high point and the swan song for Mosley's organization. While over 10,000 British fascists turned out to cheer their leader, a year later the BUF was suppressed as a threat to national security in the face of World War II. Mosley and many other fascist leaders sat out the war under internment, which was later reduced in his case to house arrest.


How confident can we be that Sir Oswald has been reborn in Stewie? While the argument is plausible enough, there are problems with the identification. Stewie, of course, is a fetishistic cross-dressing latent homosexual with sadomasochistic tendencies. His relationship with the family dog Brian is intimate to the point of bestiality. These qualities mark him out as an individual of peculiar characteristics.

Do these traits conform to what is known of Sir Oswald's life? There are significant discrepancies. Although Mosley liked to dress up in basic black to address his fascist comrades, that's not quite the same thing as a passion for wigs, dresses, and lipstick.

By contrast with Stewie, Mosley was a notorious philanderer who constantly pursued women. He had affairs, for instance, with both the sister and stepmother of his first wife. However, this may not be a disproof of the link between Sir Oswald and Stewie. Fears of latent homosexuality may provoke an exaggerated acting out of the heterosexual role in overcompensation. Then, too, there is the undoubted impact of the genetic heritage of the new incarnation; we cannot expect to find a precise one-to-one correspondence in all respects. We might also note that it is unavoidably premature to discuss Stewie's sexuality, as it is unlikely to be fully formed in one so young. He is ambiguous in his nature and has on a number of occasions seemed inclined to seduce female companions or engage in “sexy parties.” It is, of course, uncertain whether Stewie really understands the implications of such parties.

Rigorous proof of the identification of Stewart Gilligan Griffin with Sir Oswald Mosley is beyond our reach. We have only sifted the possibilities and found a plausible candidate for Stewie's earlier life. Extensive further research must be done before we can be certain, in which case we should be cautiously alert for the first stirrings of a Quahog Union of Fascists. The ominous signs cannot be denied.

Pure McCain sugar

Dogging a candidate

Sen. John McCain manages with the help of a compliant mass media to cling to his reputation as a straight-talking maverick. That's a good trick, considering how regularly he has backed away from his positions whenever they conflict with the party line as laid down by the Bush White House. McCain has turned into the president's faithful old lapdog as his campaign has devolved into a crusade for what amounts to a third term for the policies of George W. Bush.

Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake thinks people should pay more attention to McCain's current policies, as opposed to those he once espoused during his maverick days. Since people love to go to the Internet for information, Jane suggests a constructive campaign of Googlebombing. For the uninitiated, Googlebombing consists of relentlessly linking someone to something else in one's Internet postings. If one is diligent enough, the number of links will earn high visibility from Google. (If you don't believe this can work, ask former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum about Dan Savage.)

Jane suggests a modest bill of particulars concerning McCain's Bush-compliant policies. It would be most appropriate if they were to pop up whenever someone googles Sen. McCain. I'm doing my small part to raise their profile in the blogosphere. Herewith the list, a collection of nine telling headlines:
  1. McCain: US economic woes 'psychological'
  2. McCain housing policy shaped by lobbyist
  3. Bush, McCain plug Social Security
  4. McCain blasts Obama's and Clinton's attacks on NAFTA
  5. McCain in NH: Would Be “Fine” To Keep Troops in Iraq for “A Hundred Years”
  6. McCain: Bush right to veto kids health insurance expansion
  7. Senate passes expanded GI bill despite Bush, McCain opposition
  8. McCain says overturn the law that legalized abortion
  9. McCain Defends Bush's Iraq Strategy
Don't hesitate to spread it around, folks! (No, Sen. Santorum. Sorry. Not talking about you.)

Life and death in black and white

More like shades of gray

A twenty-year resident of San Quentin's death row has been using his time in limbo to create art. He's had some success. A showing of his work is being hosted by San Francisco's Braunstein/Quay Gallery. In an article published by the San Francisco Chronicle on May 28, 2008, gallery owner Ruth Braunstein said, “Someone told me this was the most unbelievable use of black-and-white they'd seen in years.”

William Noguera's monochromatic oeuvre is eye-catching and has pushed into the background the crime that put him on death row. Noguera is a murderer, having been convicted of the 1983 slaying of his girlfriend's mother. His girlfriend Dominique Navarro was also convicted in her mother's murder, the jury accepting the prosecution's argument that she and Noguera had a financial stake in her mother's death.

However, Noguera's art agent, Cassandra Richardson, sees a crime of passion, as she explained to the Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin:
He'd been sent up by a jury that believed he killed for financial gain because Dominique Navarro stood to inherit some insurance money and the home of her mother, who'd been brutally beaten and choked. The more she learned about it, Richardson said, she came to agree with Noguera's appellate lawyer, Robert R. Bryan, that Noguera deserved a new trial.

“What I'm comfortable saying is that he was in love with this girl and he never had a good relationship with her mother,” Richardson said. “The girlfriend got pregnant and the mother basically forced her to get an abortion. William is a devout Catholic. He walked in and lost it and killed her.”
The religion excuse. William Noguera is so pro-life that he was provoked into a homicidal act. Anyway, he never had a “good relationship” with his victim, so perhaps his crime isn't that surprising.

Feel better now?

I have never supported capital punishment. Except for the one true argument in its favor (recidivism is zero among executed felons), the death penalty is destructive of time, resources, and respect for the process of law. Even with the expensive and time-consuming safeguards required before the death penalty's imposition (except, apparently, in Texas), we still keep finding innocent people on death row. A life sentence without possibility of parole is in every way a more efficient and less draconian penalty—and has the advantage of not being irrevocable. In Noguera's case, still under appeal, who can deny that his presence on death row adds a certain cachet to his art? Perhaps people would be less interested in buying his art work if he were merely a lifer.

Noguera says he rues the crime for which he was convicted: “I have regret, remorse, and I'm terribly sorry for what happened.” Perhaps he feels he can get some consideration for acting out his devout religious convictions. The sob story appears to have worked on his agent. Will it work in a new trial? Or will a new jury find the religion excuse as noisome as I do?

In A Stone for Edmund Dantes, which appears to be a self-portrait, Noguera evokes the plight of the Count of Monte Cristo, a man condemned to languish behind the rough-hewn blocks of a bleak prison. In Noguera's version, the stones of the Chateau d'If become clean, precise rectangles with stippled patterns. There's another difference, too, but one that the artist might prefer to ignore: Dantes was an innocent man condemned to prison by the machinations of a jealous rival. Whatever he may be in his own mind, Noguera is not the Count of Monte Cristo.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The new California quake

Gay times in the Golden State

This has never happened before. A well-respected state poll has found that a majority of Californians accept same-sex marriage. The Field Poll just published a survey showing that 51% of respondents agree that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. It's a seismic shift.

Opponents of the recent California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the ban on gay marriages now have reason to fear the electorate will not go along with their efforts to reimpose the ban by means of a constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot. They must be quaking in their boots.

The Field Poll has been tracking the issue for several years. When its pollsters first asked Californians about same-sex marriage back in 1977, the results were unambiguous: 59% disapproved of the idea and only 28% favored it. It was a better than two-to-one margin against gay marriages. In the year 2000, the gay marriage ban in Proposition 22 was approved by a whopping margin of 61% to 39%. Nevertheless, the trend line was running counter to the results of the Proposition 22 campaign.

The Field Poll found that 38% of respondents in a 1997 poll said they supported same-sex marriage. That number rose to 42% in 2003. If we average the results to approximate same-sex marriage support in the midpoint year of 2000, we obtain 40%, a close match to the actual Proposition 22 balloting. Over the same six-year period, opposition dropped from 56% to 50%. If we do the math on those two numbers, it suggests an opposition level of 53% in 2000, whereas the actual anti-gay-marriage vote was 61%. To me, this simply suggests that all of the people who described themselves to the pollsters as undecided came down hard on the opposition side. This isn't too surprising: Even people with strong convictions may be unwilling to express themselves on an issue that carries a taint of prejudice and bigotry.

A crazy-quilt state

While the headlines are stripped down to the bare bones of the news story (San Francisco Chronicle: California Majority Backs Gay Marriage), the customary devil is in the details. The Field Poll determined that the state is a patchwork of pro and anti regions. The anti forces are concentrated in the bright red counties of Central California, the San Joaquin Valley region that still unaccountably thinks that George W. Bush is a pretty dad-gummed good president. Opposition in the Central Valley is 55% while support is only 38%.

Old people don't much like gay marriage either. The Medicare crowd is 55% to 36% against. As elderly Central California residents, my parents are undoubtedly doing their share to add to the opposition numbers. By contrast, my region of the states (termed “Other Northern California” by the Field organization) is dramatically different from the counties immediately to the south: we're 60% to 33% in favor. Even my age demographic, the 50 to 64 cohort, manages a narrow margin of support: 47% to 46%. Every younger group is even more supportive, and therein lies a tale. The people who will dominate tomorrow's elections think same-sex marriage is no thing to be afraid of and they support it by as much as 68% to 25% in the 18 to 29 group.

We are on a cusp, folks, and the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment in the November election is the last hurrah of the state's homophobia lobby. If they can eke out a victory, it will take more work and an unknown number of years to uproot the ban from the constitution and toss it out. The antis know it is their best rearguard action. If they fail, same-sex marriage will be in place immediately as voter-sanctioned state policy.

The homophobia lobby is playing for time. Will they lose now, or later?

All politics is local

I think they're going to lose now. My aforementioned parents are in the sweet spot of state political demographics, at least as far as the homophobia lobby is concerned. Nevertheless, their vote in favor of the anti-gay constitutional amendment is far from a sure thing. Mom and Dad are concerned about the impact of such a vote. They just witnessed the bitter break-up of a nephew's longtime relationship. (And not just any nephew: a cherished godson, too.) They know he did not have the full legal protections of a married man going through a divorce. They know he lost his home in the process. Sure, he might well have lost it anyway, but my parents know that my cousin was on treacherous ground as he dealt with the consequences of the dissolution of a relationship that was not fully sanctioned by the civil authorities.

When their mail-in absentee ballots arrive, my parents will hover over the entry for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. How long will they hesitate? It's entirely possible that they'll shake their heads in dismay while reluctantly voting against it, unhappily muttering, “Oh, we just couldn't do this to Johnny.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Fragile heterosexuality

Is straightness brittle?

I heard it again today on the radio: If California goes ahead and allows gay people to marry, it will destroy civilization. It was a religious radio station I was listening to, so I expected, quite naturally (or is it unnaturally?), that the on-air prophets of doom were about to invoke the specter of God's wrath. (God, you see, hates immorality except in those instances where he expressly condones it.)

But I was wrong. Their point was that marriage was ordained by God for purposes of propagating humanity. Without marriage, no more children.

I'm pretty sure that's not true.

Nevertheless, the talkers on the radio were insistent. Reproductive heterosexual marriage would be devalued if same-sex marriage were permitted and the human race would then die out. It's an interesting theory. I suppose lesbian couples, who appear to raise children more frequently than male couples, could end up saving humanity when the heterosexual couples lose heart and give up, but that would be putting quite a burden on the sapphic cohort. And I still can't quite figure out why straight people would give up on marriage and reproduction just because same-sex couples are allowed to tie the knot.

In fact, it sounds positively childish: I really enjoyed my bicycle until the kid down the block got one, too. Now I don't like it anymore!

Is it like that?

I admit I'm mincing around the other obvious possibility: Once heterosexual relations are no longer privileged, everyone will just give them up as a bad business. Divorce rates and any given installment of Dear Abby show that straight relations are unstable, unrewarding, and well-nigh impossible to maintain. Heterosexuality is quite fragile and perhaps folks are just looking for an excuse to abandon it in droves.

That could be it. Scary!

The preservation of humanity demands that vigorous steps be taken to protect fragile heterosexuality. One potential remedy is the wide dissemination of training videos, such as this timely offering from Goodie Bag, titled Protecting and Maintaining Your Heterosexual House of Cards. It's aimed at young men because their straightness is apparently the most easily threatened. Watch and learn!

(A doff of the fedora to Flosch, on whose blog I first encountered this video.)

Touched in the head

Mainstream mysticism

Remember Emily Rosa? Lots of people would probably rather you forget. Emily was only nine years old when she devised an experiment for her local science fair. Twenty-one practitioners of “therapeutic touch” participated in Emily's double-blind study of their ability to detect the energy aura that supposedly emanates from every living human's body. Despite the practitioners' confidence that they could detect and manipulate such supposed human energy fields, the results were no better than random chance. They could not tell the difference between human presence and absence when screened from visual cues.

Emily won a blue ribbon in her science fair and her research study was later published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, making her the youngest person ever to have a JAMA publication to her credit. Thereafter, of course, the practice of therapeutic touch was thoroughly discredited and its practitioners slipped silently away into obscurity.

Are you kidding? Scientific refutation never truly discourages the pseudoscientist.

Therapeutic touch is bigger than ever. The currently preferred term is “healing touch.” It's an extremely popular technique among nurses who can actually get continuing education credit for taking courses in this imaginary therapy technique. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a big story on healing touch on the front page of its B section this morning. Stanford University is taking healing touch therapy seriously enough to embark on a three-year clinical trial of its efficacy. The results will be out in two more years.

Are you psychic enough to predict the results? I suspect that healing touch will prove to be no more effective than a placebo. That, nevertheless, will be enough to produce shouts of triumph from the imaginary medicine community. After all, it could be working. What more do you need?

Here are some excerpts from the Chronicle article:
Energy therapy: Where mysticism meets science

By Carrie Sturrock
Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, May 26, 2008

Anne Broderick believes she can use her hands to alter the energy fields of others to help them heal, taking away fatigue, stress and nausea.

A clinical trial at Stanford University aims to prove it. The university is testing whether an energy therapy called Healing Touch can reduce the debilitating effects of chemotherapy on breast cancer patients.

It's the juncture where touchy-feely New Age mysticism meets hard science.

Healing Touch is a noninvasive energy therapy program founded by a registered nurse in Colorado in 1989. Its following has spread nationwide. Advocates stress that it isn't a cure but a way of easing the stress, fatigue and nausea of radiation and chemotherapy.
It's “energy therapy.” Could someone tell me what form the “energy” takes? Can you measure its strength in joules? (The answers are “No” and “No.”)

Ms. Broderick is a “Healing Touch certified practitioner.” That basically means taking some course work from the people who invented and promote therapeutic touch. You pay your tuition of $300 or so and sign up with the Healing Touch Program: “The Healing Touch Program offers a series of energy-based therapy classes in which students use a variety of hands-on techniques that facilitate energy balance for wholeness within the individual, supporting physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing.” Simple as that.

Healing touch is offered at several major medical clinics. The provider at Stanford is Healing Partners, the director of which is one of the investigators in the clinical trial.
Healing Partners has paired more than 100 breast cancer patients with Healing Touch providers since the free program began three years ago at Stanford.

That success prompted its director, Kathy Turner, a registered nurse, to prove its effectiveness in a randomized, controlled clinical trial that started last year. As all undergo chemotherapy, one group of breast cancer patients receives Healing Touch for 20 minutes, a second group listens to a relaxation tape, and a third gets nothing. Researchers haven't yet analyzed the initial data.
Turner gave the Chronicle a summary of the notions behind healing touch:
“It's based on the belief that our bodies are surrounded by a field of energy and our bodies themselves are a denser form of energy,” Turner said. “The belief there is that once the body's energy is cleared and balanced, our bodies have the innate capacity to heal themselves.”

The underlying technique is age-old, advocates say, and intends to balance and align people's energy fields so they become “whole in body, mind, emotion and spirit”—although no one knows quite how it works.
Or even what the words mean. Denser form of energy? Balance? Align? Age-old? (Therapeutic touch was invented in 1989 by the late Janet Mentgen,RN.)

Although Anne Broderick presents herself as originally skeptical in an interview with Palo Alto Online (“I thought it was pretty 'woo-woo' stuff”), she now has the faith of a true convert:
Broderick, a former corporate executive turned psychotherapist, provides Healing Touch to Lydia Li every week. Both survived breast cancer and took part in Healing Partners at Stanford.

Earlier this month, Li arrived at Broderick's Palo Alto office with shoulder pain and a headache. She lay on a massage table, and Broderick covered her fully clothed body with a white sheet. Broderick, 69, then silently told herself, “I set my intention for the highest good,” and began methodically touching Li to the sounds of running water and quiet music, occasionally sweeping her hands above her. At times, she firmly held a foot, knee or wrist. At others, she seemed to play an imaginary piano on Li's back.

Often, Broderick begins sessions by holding a crystal (although she said a “lifesaver on a string” would work just as well) 4 inches above Li and watches it circle over the seven chakras—energy vortices—that run along the length of the body. Clockwise is a good sign. No movement or one that's counterclockwise means the person could use some help getting healthy energy flow, she says.
Chakras? I think we just found the “age-old” part. Healing touch contains a healthy dollop of repackaged Eastern woo. Deepak Chopra would be proud. (Or jealous.)

The Chronicle illustrated its news article with a large photo of Broderick in action, waving her hands over Lydia Li. Thanks to the skills of photographer Kat Wade, Broderick is captured in a nimbus of light. You want an aura? Move around in front of a light source while the practiced eye of a professional photographer captures the perfect moment. It's all in the hands.

Of the photographer.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Danger: steep grades

No traction

This semester I managed to be simultaneously cruel and clueless. You could ask my students. Well, some of them anyway.

Most of the math students who took the opportunity to review our classes had nice things to say. (“This class is the best.” “Your [sic] doing a great job.” “Dr. Z is the best teacher ever!” “Math isn't as difficult as I thought it was.” “I learned that learning can be fun.”) That's gratifying, of course, but no teacher is going to please all of the students all of the time. Spring semester provided solid evidence to that effect.

How dare you!

Perhaps it's different in other courses, but math classes always contain a few paranoid students who think you are out to get them. I sinned by both omission and commission in my prealgebra class. Although I adopted a custom-published text that was pared down to the chapters we really needed, it still contained a few sections that we skipped. Anxious students inquired multiple times whether it was really okay to ignore those pages. “Won't we need this later?” If you do, it'll be covered then. It's not part of our course syllabus. Most of them calmed down. (Most of them. Not all.)

My sin of commission was far worse. I decided to add a unit on weighted averages. Lots of teachers give grades based on weighted averages, but lots of students have no idea what that means. I was going to help my students understand their grades. They were understandably horrified because it was not in our textbook. Was a teacher allowed to do such a thing? My students seriously doubted it. I forged ahead anyway.

“All of you know about regular averages, right? When you just take two numbers, add them together, and divide by two?”

All the heads nodded. They knew. Or were willing to pretend that they did.

We had just done the unit on percentages. I showed them that adding 50% of one number to 50% of a second number produced a result equal to the customary average. Then I tweaked it. How about 30% of one number plus 70% of a second number? The result will be closer to the second number because of its greater weight, right?

More nodding.

Some of them got it. We did several problems. As long as the weights added up to 100%, we could choose whatever weights we wanted. We could even distribute the weight over more than two numbers. I was delighted with the responses. A couple of students expressed relief that they now understood how their grades were computed.

Some of the students were just humoring me, of course, as I discovered on subsequent quizzes. And the students who attended only occasionally were left entirely in the dark, but didn't even know they had missed something extra. That ensured that they didn't complain—at least not until they showed up for the next exam and were taken entirely by surprise.

Then they complained. My sympathy was not overwhelming.

Not the grade I wanted

I can always expect a few urgent e-mail messages after semester grades are posted. These seldom have any relation to reality:
i have received the grades and i found out that i got D in the class. please i dont want to retake the class again help me out to get C
You know, with a weighted average of 61.0% for your course grade, I don't think that's going to translate into a C.

Of course, I could have told him that sooner. In fact, I had told him that before. Before the final exam I posted target scores for the final exam. This student had been failing exams all semester. The posted target score for him was 144% on the final exam if he wanted to get a C in the class. That was certainly not going to happen. I thought he showed up for the final exam just for the experience. No. He thought he still had a shot at a passing grade. (That shows how poorly I taught him.)

Another student was a master of understatement:
I was wondering did I really do that bad on the final and in the class, overall?

I can see where I slipped up a few times.
A “few” times? She had missed more than half of the in-class assignments. She simply hadn't been there. My student had apparently decided that showing up on exam days would suffice. Close, but no cigar. No passing grade, either. Especially not with a score of 54% on the final exam.

I wrote her back: “If you had skipped class less often and taken more of the quizzes, your in-class score would not have been so low. That 33% score on in-class work did not help you at all.”

Hey, I'm a master of understatement, too.

Happy Towel Day!

Do you know where yours is?

Every May 25 is Towel Day, a holiday in honor and memory of Douglas Adams, the British humorist who penned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As holidays go, it's mostly harmless and largely neglected. Nevertheless, it's worth recalling that “any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

Have you hugged your towel today?

Douglas Adams was a nonbeliever, so don't bother offering up any memorial prayers on his behalf (although you can do it if it's going to make you feel better; Adams is in no position to object and probably wouldn't have cared anyway). We can, however, go more respectfully to our shelves of favorite books and pull down one of the five entries in the no-longer-increasingly misnamed Hitchhiker's trilogy and spend a couple of hours in rapt towel appreciation.

And consider giving a visit to the Towel Day website, where you'll find useful suggestions for appropriate observances.

Towel Day :: A tribute to Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Lots of first black presidents

Obama's secret weapon?

Five years before he became the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones became the first black president of the United States. In the 1972 film version of Irving Wallace's novel The Man, Douglass Dilman (Jones) is a U.S. senator serving as the upper chamber's president pro tempore when the President and Speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident. Dilman is next in line of succession when an ailing Vice President (Lew Ayres) refuses to take the oath of office. Dilman is sworn in and takes charge. Not everyone is happy about it. As the movie's promotional material advertised: “First They Swore Him In. Then They Swore to Get Him.” The scowling Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith) drawls to a colleague, “Tonight the White House ain't near white enough for me.” Despite the forces of racism and political opportunism (and sexual intrigue) arrayed against him, President Dilman weathers the siege and the movie ends on a triumphant note as his party's political convention nominates him for a new term in his own right.

The Man is all but forgotten today, but it pioneered the notion that the nation might one day be grown up enough to accept an African-American as chief executive. In some ways, Hollywood has been preparing the ground for the ascendancy of Barack Obama. The possibility of his presidency is not unthinkable. It could be next year's mundane reality. His fictional predecessors have been increasingly visible and decreasingly controversial. While The Man was all about the shock waves attendant on the president's unprecedented race, later fictional works treated it as incidental.

In Deep Impact (1998), President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) organized the nation's response to the threat of a major comet strike. The planet is faced with a possible “extinction-level event.” If humanity survives at all, it could be in the form of the hobbit-like future offspring of the Elijah Wood character and his teenage girlfriend. (Did I mention it's a horror film?) No one bothered to include any lines in the script where one actor turned to another and said, “Um, did you notice that the president is, um, black?” If there was any special message in Freeman's portrayal of the president, it was implicit: Here's a leader trying to save us from extinction. If his plans don't work, we're all going to die. Does anything else matter?

Beginning in 2001, Dennis Haysbert portrayed President David Palmer in 79 episodes of 24 during the first five seasons of Kiefer Sutherland's hit television drama. Week after week, month after month, American viewers saw a U.S. president who was black. It was not played for shock value (although many other things in the show were). The trials and tribulations of President Dilman were decades in the past and President Palmer paid more attention to the problems of terrorism than those of residual racism.

By the time 2003 rolls around, Chris Rock is playing the notion of the first black president of the United States for laughs in Head of State. (“The only thing white is the house.”) His portrayal of D.C. alderman Mays Gilliam as an accidental candidate for president did not set a new standard for profiles in leadership (nor, unfortunately, for comedy either), but in the span from President Dilman to President Gilliam we have run the gamut from melodrama to farce. We have now seen every kind of “first black president” that the entertainment industry has to offer. What more is there to do?

Elect a real one.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

No Bones about it

Ben Stein as Zeitgeist
[S]cience leads you to killing people.
—Ben Stein

Vernunft ... ist die höchste Hur, die der Teufel hat. (Reason ... is the greatest whore that the devil has.)
—Martin Luther
The season finale of Bones revolted me.

No, it wasn't because Bones specializes in scenes of graphic gore and I'm squeamish. (I am a bit squeamish, despite the helpful influence of a farm upbringing.) One can forgive a certain amount of sensationalism in a program whose lead character is an adamantly nonbelieving scientist. If it weren't for the shock value and the excitement of each week's mystery, how many people would tune in to the musings of a relentlessly logical and minimally emotional protagonist? Atheists seem to need a lot of window dressing if they're to be cast as heroes in a TV series. (In the case of Bones the openly secular scientist is counterbalanced with some conventionally devout costars.)

My revulsion at the last episode came as a delayed reaction, once I reflected on the illogic and tacit assumptions of the surprise ending. For the sake of melodrama, the writers decided a perversion of logic would provide the exciting twist they needed for a jolting conclusion to the third season's big story arc.

Fans already know that the Bones finale unmasked Dr. Zack Addy as the mole hidden inside the Jeffersonian Institution's laboratory, the new apprentice of the cannibalistic serial killer called “Gormogon.” Zachary Addy (Eric Millegan) had been established in earlier episodes as a kind of counterpart to Temperance Brennan, the lead character portrayed by Emily Deschanel. Both Brennan and Addy are scientific and logical to the point of compulsion, although Brennan is somewhat more successful in her social relations. She, after all, is a bestselling author and has a relatively normal sex life, while he is the quintessentially awkward nerd. (When interviewed, his neighbors are certain to say, “He seemed like a nice, quiet type and he always kept to himself.”)

The crimes of Gormogon were a continuing thread throughout the third season, sometimes fading into the background, other times taking center stage. Gormogon kills people and eats them, assembling bits and pieces of them into a composite skeleton. (Since each victim presumably comes with a complete skeleton, it was never clear to me why it was necessary for Gormogon to create a slow and tedious composite. Perhaps my attention nodded off during one of the less interesting expository scenes. Or maybe the writers didn't bother with an explanation any more than they bothered to write a sensible season closer.)

Gormogon is not only a serial killer, he's multigenerational. Each Gormogon recruits and trains an apprentice to take over the responsibilities of killing and eating people. The apprentice, of course, is expendable, and one is expended earlier in the third season in a jail house suicide. It's assumed that Gormogon has recruited a new apprentice, but his identity and activities are mysteries to the members of the Jeffersonian team (or, rather, to all but one member).

Addy, of course, was part of the effort to unravel the earlier crimes of Gormogon and his late apprentice. Despite this exposure to these macabre atrocities, Zack proves astonishingly susceptible to the killer's blandishments and falls under his influence. By day he works at the Jeffersonian in a team effort to expose Gormogon, but by night he's available to do his master's bidding, even to the point of murder. (In a weird bit of amelioration, we learn later that Zack had yet to graduate to the cannibalism level of his initiation, preserving some modicum of his boyish innocence and reducing the viewer's disgust. That's only-in-television convenient.)

The final episode's conclusion is supposed to reveal the subtle logical cantrip that ensnared the cerebral young Dr. Addy. As Dr. Brennan explains in the scene where she and Booth (David Boreanaz) confront him:
Brennan: Zack responds to logic, Booth.

Booth: Really? Because I'd love to hear the logic of killing and eating people to change the world.

Addy: The master's logic is irrefutable.
Oh, this is going to be good, right? Sorry. Here is the word-for-word transcript of Brennan's brilliant counterargument, as she discerns and unravels Zack's highly logical motivation:
Brennan: I've never met anyone more rational or intelligent. But there's a fault in your logic.

Addy: With all due respect, you aren't cognizant of his logic.

Brennan: Assumption No. 1: Secret societies exist.

Addy: Accepted. Hodgins has been explaining this to me for years.

Brennan: Assumption No. 2: The human experience is adversely affected by secret societies.

Addy: Accepted.

Brennan: Assumption No. 3: Attacking and killing members of secret societies will have an ameliorating affect on the human experience.

Addy: Accepted.

Brennan: All of your assumptions are built upon a first principle, Zack. To wit: The historical human experience as a whole is more important than a single person's life.

Addy: Yes.

Brennan: Yet you risked it all so that you wouldn't hurt Hodgins.

Addy: There's ... You are correct: There is an inconsistency in my reasoning.
Yes, he had risked his mission to spare a colleague from danger. Zack sheds a tear as he realizes he was wrong to agree to become the secret apprentice of a cannibalistic serial killer. He has been defeated by the very logic he worshiped. Ironic, no? The silly boy was ready to join a small secret society dedicated to eating the members of other secret societies. It's, like, poetic.


As the ensemble stands around wondering how Zack got caught up in the Gormogon conspiracy, Dr. Brennan underscores the episode's theme with one word: “Logic.” (Shudder.) At least U.S. prosecutor Carolyn Julian (Patricia Belcher) offers a facile refutation: “This happened the way this always happen: A strong personality finds a weak personality and takes advantage.”

That's the slender straw we're left to cling to at the show's end: It was domination by a criminal mastermind of a hyperlogical nerd boy. Nevertheless, we must remember our lesson: Logic kills.

Especially its absence.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Trump card

See you, and raise you

One of my senior colleagues, a professor in the humanities division, was telling stories at a casual faculty gathering. For reasons that will become readily apparent, let's refer to him as “Donald Trump.” He began to reminisce about a former fellow instructor who was much given to bragging. Professor Bigmouth was always ready to share stories about his great accomplishments, and those of his family. Professor Trump grew weary of the constant brag barrage and finally decided it would be more fun to play along than to merely endure it.

“Hey, Don,” said Professor Bigmouth on the first day of the semester. “What a great summer I had! I started a workout program and lost 20 pounds!”

Professor Trump smiled. “Sounds good, Bigs. I'm impressed! And I really know what you mean because I lost 25 pounds on my own exercise program. Never felt better!”

Don is rail thin and doesn't have 25 pounds to spare (unless there's still some cash in his pocket from his last trip to England). But Professor Bigmouth was too disappointed at having been trumped to notice. He subsided with some mumbling and went his way to his next class.

A week later

“Hey, Don. Did you hear about Yahoo? Their stock went up several points right after I picked up a bundle of shares. Nice timing, huh?”

“Excellent, buddy! Congratulations! It can get confusing, though. I remember when Microsoft declared a stock split how much more difficult it got to keep track of how many shares I had. Suddenly you have twice as many. And it happened more than once, you know.”

Professor Bigmouth developed a sickly smile and was suddenly and conveniently distracted by someone else he needed to talk to.

A month later

“Hey, Don. Guess what? My wife won a blue ribbon at the county fair for her flower arrangements. It's a really tough competition, but she ran away with it!”

“Wow, that's super! Flowers! Nice. My wife scored a pair of blue ribbons for her baked goods at a regional competition last spring. That's riskier for hubby, you know, when the wife bakes like that. Good thing I'm on that fitness program or I'd be blimping out. Maybe it would be better if she took up gardening and flower arranging. Easier on me, anyway.”

“Uh, yeah. Um.”

Professor Bigmouth needed some lilies to clasp to his chest.

Just before finals week

“Get a load of this, Don! It's my Speech 101 roster. This term I'm going into finals with a 75% retention rate. That's pretty amazing for a killer course like Speech 101. I'm going to set some kind of departmental record.”

“Wow, Bigs, congratulations! That's almost as good as the 80% retention rate in my class last semester.”

“What? You held 80% in 101 last spring?”

“Oh, wait a minute. Sorry, Bigs. My mistake. I got 80% retention in Speech 102 last spring, not 101.”

“But 102 is an even tougher course, Don.”

“Yeah, you got that right. That's why I remember the 80% retention. Pretty proud of pulling that off in 102.”

The speech teacher was speechless.

End of semester

“Hey, Don. See my new car in the faculty lot?”

“That yours, Bigs? Nice!”

“Yeah, super mileage. I'm getting 37 mpg on the highway.”

“Excellent! That can really make a difference. Mine gets about 42. I got it a year ago, so I've racked up a lot of savings in fuel costs.”

“Oh. That's really good, Don.”

“Definitely. Top of the line.”

Professor Bigmouth was running out of gas.

Spring semester

Donald is walking toward the faculty office building when Professor Bigmouth comes charging up. His colleague looks rather exercised.

“God damn it, Don! You son of a bitch! I just figured something out!”

“Really, Bigs? Well, I just figured two things out!”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Doctor, doctor

We are not worthy!

Deputy district attorney Zach Williams (Terry Kinney) had the perfect put-down for his nemesis, defense attorney Elizabeth Canterbury (Julianna Margulies), who was being accused of jury tampering. Predicting her disbarment and a stint in jail, he delivers the ultimate rebuke: “You're going to be lucky getting a teaching job at Massasoit Community College!”

Ow! That clip from Canterbury's Law is just brutal! Imagine being being reduced to the point where your highest aspiration is a junior college teaching job. Sad!

As we all know, anyone can have a community college faculty position for the asking. It's just that easy, right? Even for ex-felons!

Not exactly. In reality, you need to beat odds of about 30 or 40 to 1. That's approximately how many qualified applicants vie for each opening. Our hiring process is cleverly designed to attract the attention of dozens of good people and then disappoint the vast majority of them.

I have had lots of experience on both sides of the community college hiring process. Fortunately, it's been several years since I've been on the applicant side, although I remember it well. Applicants get lots of stress and suspense. Members of the hiring committee get hours and hours of reading applications, sitting through multiple interviews, and ranking finalists. It's fun for everyone.

Some of the applications are more interesting than others. They appear to come from people who share the point of view of the television scriptwriters who crafted the Canterbury's Law scene. It's clear from their cover letters that these applicants consider themselves vastly overqualified for our positions. They are willing, however, to lower themselves to our level—at least temporarily:
I am prepared to serve on the faculty at your institution until a more suitable university position becomes available.

The members of the screening committee passed that letter around for some hearty chuckles. The writer held a doctorate in mathematics and had enclosed a nice list of publications as part of his curriculum vita. (Frankly, we prefer a one- or two-page résumé with an emphasis on teaching experience.) We don't mind when candidates have doctorates and a list of publications, but we are a teaching institution. Some applicants don't get that.

In fact, lots of people don't get it. Last year I ran across this comment at Thus Spake Zuska:
I know someone who thought a masters would be enough to get a job at a CC, which is the person's dream job. Nowadays, the competition for Ph.D. level jobs is so fierce that the person is unlikely to get a CC position without a PhD. It's sad that someone with a PhD, trained in research (not teaching) and who probably looks at a CC as a consolation prize will get a position over a person less trained in research but who really wants it as a first choice. When research is not even part of the job responsibilities.

Although the commenter explicitly recognizes the community college's teaching mission, she goes off the rails in drawing her conclusion. Perhaps it's significantly different out there in the big wide world of postsecondary education, but I doubt that my community college is particularly out of step. A master's degree is enough. A Ph.D. is not a get-on-the-faculty-free ticket.

In the case I just cited of the supercilious Ph.D. who was willing to go slumming for a while in the backwaters of the junior college system, his degree was an active liability. He clearly knew nothing about our mission and was utterly unsuited for a position on our teaching staff. (He might have been unsuited for a university position, too, if he was naïve enough to think that taking a community college position would not reduce his future appeal to upper-tier research institutions.)

To be fair, though, I must admit that I once took a healthy bite from the apple of over-qualification years ago when a doctorate-bearing applicant tempted me beyond my ability to resist. The application packet was impeccable and most impressive. I had little experience at that point in serving on hiring committees and had yet to develop the sixth sense that enabled my senior colleagues to distinguish the gilded from the golden. While I had ranked Dr. Superstar as my top choice, my colleagues placed him decidedly lower in their tallies. My advocacy, however, was enough to boost Dr. Superstar over the hurdle that separated the paper-screening phase of the process from the personal interview phase. He was going to get a chance to impress us in person.

On the appointed day at the appointed time, the chair of the hiring committee ushered Dr. Superstar into the conference room where interviews were being conducted. The candidate was nattily turned out in coat and tie. The committee chair directed the candidate to his designated seat and told him to make himself comfortable as the committee members introduced themselves. Dr. Superstar promptly shed his coat and pushed his chair back into a reclining position. (He certainly took direction well.)

The candidate maintained a remarkably relaxed demeanor throughout the entire interview. He answered our questions casually with an occasional wave of the hand. It was all too, too easy for him. We committee members tried to avoid exchanging glances during Dr. Superstar's soigné but insubstantial performance. The looks I couldn't quite avoid from my colleagues were accompanied by barely perceptible smirks. My No. 1 pick from the applicant pool was drifting lazily about and not impressing anyone.

Then came his great opportunity to redeem himself in our eyes. His reasons for wanting to work at our institution were perfunctory and his explication of his teaching philosophy was too terse and abstract, but we had arrived at the obligatory teaching demonstration. Surely he would put the entire panoply of his pedagogical skills on display!

“Oh, you mean the calculus problem that you sent me in the mail?”

Yes, that one.

Dr. Superstar pushed his chair back a bit further and put his feet up on the conference table, crossing his legs at the ankles. “Well, as I recall, the goal was to find the extrema of a cubic polynomial.”

You can use the chalkboard to present your solution.

“Thank you, but it's not really necessary.”

(It is is if you want the job.)

“After all, conceptually it's quite simple. The derivative of a cubic polynomial is a quadratic polynomial, so the existence of two zeros of the derivative is guaranteed. Suppose we assume the zeros are distinct real numbers, since that's the most interesting case for our purposes.”

(‘Assume’ nothing! We gave you a specific problem and the zeros are distinct real numbers. We want to compare how our candidates present their solutions of the same problem. You're showing us nothing!)

Dr. Superstar's hand went up into the air a bit and he waved it gently as he declaimed. “Of course, one zero will be a relative maximum and the other zero will be a relative minimum. You can check which is which with the second derivative. It's really quite a standard situation. No big surprises.”

Yes. Thank you. (Actually, I think there may be a surprise after all.)

Dr. Superstar did not pass on to the next round. If I recall correctly, we ranked him as the least desirable of all the candidates we interviewed. And I helped.

Outlook cloudy

Try again later

What would you bet that most viewers of today's Bizarro cartoon will miss half the joke? Dan Piraro depicts a man earnestly beseeching God to improve the reliability of his Magic Eight Ball. That's rather amusing, of course, because we all know that the Magic Eight Ball is just a playful gimmick.

The joke goes deeper than that. The man is praying to his big imaginary friend to impart some actual magic to his oracular toy. The petitioner has about as much chance of getting a substantive response to his prayers as obtaining a useful prediction from his Eight Ball.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Destroy them all!

Republican Jesus will sort them out

Hugh Hewitt is a second- or third-string radio ranter who may be best known in the on-line community for writing an entire book to try to force the digital revolution into the narrow mold of his right-wing perspective. I never bother to listen to him.

Today, however, was an exception. After the California Supreme Court handed down its decision on same-sex marriages this morning, I could not resist scanning the AM radio dial for the sweet sound of exploding right-wing heads. Hugh Hewitt was particularly obliging.

Hugh was simply furious and was stamping his little feet in rage for the entire duration of his program. No, no; I was not insane enough to listen to the whole thing. Rather, I dipped into his program a few times over the course of the afternoon and it was all he was ever talking about. I even took a couple of hours off to go see Iron Man (great fun; I recommend it) and found Hewitt still screaming when I turned on the car radio again. I wonder if he even drew another breath.

He kept referring to our state's justices as having “seized power.” It was, he said, a stark judicial coup. Amusingly enough, the California Supreme Court is stacked with Republican appointees. Six out of the seven justices owe their position to GOP governors. The seventh, who served as the tie-breaker on today's decision, is the lone Democrat. The ruling in favor of same-sex marriages was crafted by conservative appointees. The majority decision of written by Chief Justice Ronald George.

Hewitt claimed to have read the entirety of In re Marriage Cases and mocked the court for having devoted so many pages to “side issues” such as the scope of Proposition 22. (One might be forgiven, I would think, for imagining that the anti-gay-marriage initiative enacted by California voters would be a relevant issue for the supreme court to consider.) Hugh insisted it was all window-dressing to disguise the justices' power grab. Clever of them! Hewitt quoted a big chunk of Justice Baxter's dissent, although in more heated tones than Baxter probably intended.

Here's the really great thing: First Hewitt demanded that California voters recall the four “activist” judges. Then someone apparently informed him that none of the four evil-doers were on the ballot this year. Then Hewitt fulminated that Californians should quickly enact a constitutional initiative measure to allow the “coup leaders” to be removed from office and banned for life from public service. (Hugh was just a little intemperate.) No doubt he will soon be selling pikes and staves on his website for when he leads the outraged citizenry against the court.

Finally, as I dropped in on him for the last time to hear a few minutes from near the end of the show, Hewitt declared that the problem was too big to allow for a targeted response. (Hugh's listeners are, in his apparent opinion, too stupid to make distinctions.) It was necessary, he concluded, to recall all judges. Just vote “no” on all judicial confirmations. Yes, even Justice Baxter. I'm not imagining that: Hewitt mentioned him by name as a regrettable but necessary casualty of the nuclear anti-judge option. That's right: vote “no” on Baxter, the justice whose dissent Hewitt had praised to the skies. Kill them all and let God sort them out!

Ever see the John Cleese skit in which he portrays a broadcaster so overcome by his hatred of commies that he goes into a writhing fit? It was like that. I had better things to do than listen to rest of Hewitt's program, so I didn't learn whether the guys with the straitjacket and tranquilizer darts finally showed up. It would have been the perfect ending.

Note: I wrote most of this post originally as a comment on Pharyngula. After writing it, I could not resist reworking it into a blog post. Lucky you, dear readers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Son of Tricky Dick

The elephant graveyard

Harry Fox, Robert Vander Laan, Willis Gradison, and James Sparling. Ring any bells? It's been 34 years, but I still remember how these men were harbingers of Republican doom in 1974. Each ran in a special election to hold a congressional seat that had been vacated by a Republican in a GOP-oriented district. Each one lost. In the November general election, the Republicans took a shellacking that cost the party 43 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives—where they had already been the minority party anyway.

The Vander Laan loss in Michigan was especially embarrassing, because he was trying to hold on to the seat of Gerald Ford, who had resigned from Congress to accept the position of vice president (the felonious Spiro Agnew having pled nolo contendere and departed the scene).

Sparling's loss, also in Michigan, wasn't much better. He actually invited Richard Nixon to campaign by his side in the district, thumbing his nose at the controversy generated by the Watergate scandal as he campaigned with the president in the small towns of Michigan's “Thumb.” Democrat Bob Traxler welcomed the opportunity to turn the special election into a referendum on Richard Nixon and became the district's first Democratic congressman in decades.

Is history repeating itself in 2008? It's not an exact comparison, but the parallels are fascinating. The recent special election in the 14th district of Illinois resulted in a repudiation of the Republican Party when Democrat Bill Foster frustrated the efforts of Jim Oberweis to hold it for the GOP, although it had been the seat of former Republican speaker of the house Dennis Hastert. The analogous case from 1974 was Gerald Ford's congressional seat in Michigan. He had been minority leader in the House of Representatives. Even the seats of members at the top of the GOP leadership became vulnerable to the Democrats when the special elections rolled around.

While this is a presidential election year, 1974 was not. The president's popularity, however, played a major role in 1974 and it is clearly having a similar impact in 2008. George W. Bush, despite not being under threat of impeachment, rivals even Richard Nixon's record-low popularity poll results. Like Nixon, Bush is spending the last year of their presidency as an object of public contempt. (Of course, Nixon didn't know it was his last year; he had expected to serve till the beginning of 1977, not resign in the summer of 1974.) In reaction to the failures of the occupant of the White House and a growing eagerness to see him gone, the electorate seeks opportunities to rebuke him by proxy.

That's what occurred in 1974. That's what's happening now. Perhaps in several years someone will write an article about Jim Oberweis, Woody Jenkins, and Greg Davis, the Republican losers from Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi, discussing their role as harbingers of impending electoral disaster for the GOP. Of course, the first such article should appear on November 5, 2008.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Many infallible proofs

Because I said so

My library contains a slightly ragged copy of Father McGuire's The New Baltimore Catechism and Mass. Its cover proclaims that it is “No. 1” and an “Official Revised Edition” from Benziger Brothers, Inc. The copyright date is 1942. It is a sacred relic of my Catholic youth and a testament to the prompt-and-response training that characterized our religious instruction before Vatican II.

It's just a little bit startling to discover the degree to which many of the rote responses are still embedded in my brain:

Q. Why did God make you?

A. God made me to show his goodness and to share with him everlasting happiness in heaven.

So there. God sure must be good, especially with that everlasting happiness stuff.

It's not very persuasive, though, is it? God the altruistic philanthropist. That God doesn't put in a lot of appearances in the Bible, although there's some hinting at him in the final chapters (though not the final chapter, which bears all the earmarks of a really bad acid trip).

My old copy of The Baltimore Catechism contains an appendix titled Why I Am a Catholic (which the observant reader will recall was borrowed by author Garry Wills for the title of his book-length contortionist act on remaining faithful to a church that he constantly questions). The appendix is in the standard Q&A format and addresses certain fundamental questions. Even giving some allowance for the fact that this catechism is intended for adolescents, question II is a particularly lame instance of the first-cause argument for God's existence:
II. How can we prove that there is a God?

We can prove that there is a God because this vast universe could not have come into existence, nor be so beautiful and orderly, except by the almighty power and the wisdom of an eternal and intelligent Being.
A student armed with this “knowledge” may be at a slight disadvantage upon encountering John Allen Paulos's rebuttal from his new book Irreligion:
Of someone who asserts that God is the uncaused first cause (and then preens as if he's really explained something), we should thus inquire, “Why cannot the physical world itself be taken to be the uncaused first cause?”
Uh, because?

Having thus established the existence of God through unassailable logic, The Baltimore Catechism moves on to man's immortal soul:
III. How can we prove that the soul of man is immortal?

We can prove that the soul of man is immortal because man's acts of intelligence are spiritual; therefore, his soul must be a spiritual being, not dependent on matter, and hence not subject to decay or death.
Intelligent acts are proof of an immortal soul? I have to admit this is a little embarrassing, since here I am using my intelligence, such as it is, to poke gentle fun at gods and souls. Boy, is my face red!

There's the possibility that woman may also have an immortal soul, but she's not much in evidence in the pages of The Baltimore Catechism—except in those passages where she's blamed for leading man astray with that apple business. Apparently we would have been better off without her, a position espoused by much of the Roman Catholic clergy.

(One might also note the likely consequence of Father McGuire's argument that intelligence is a marker for soul possession. Animals exhibit varying degrees of intelligence but are normally excluded from the ranks of the ensouled. It would be quite difficult under this rubric, however, to deny souls to the great apes whom studies have shown to solve problems by cogitation and reasoned action. There are probably quite a few chimpanzees in Africa who worship Dr. Jane Goodall as a goddess, and they have better evidence for her power and existence than Christians do for their god. Is this proof of their souls?)

Now that God and man's immortal soul are firmly established by rigorous reasoning, let's move on to the crucial next step:
IV. How can we prove that all men are obliged to practice religion?

We can prove that all men are obliged to practice religion because all men are entirely dependent on God and must recognize that dependence by honoring Him and praying to Him.

Perhaps I'm expecting too much from The Baltimore Catechism. After all, it keeps saying “We can prove...”; that's a lesser claim than declaring we have proved the assertions. Yes, that could be it: The actual proofs will be provided later....

Still waiting!

A weird postscript: The Imprimatur for my copy of The Baltimore Catechism is by Francis J. Spellman, cardinal archbishop of New York. The cardinal was an ardent supporter of Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s and near the end of his life was just as vigorously in favor of the war in Vietnam. The very image of rectitude and moral advocacy, Spellman was protected from the exposure of his own peccadilloes by the carefully averted eyes of the authority-respecting culture of his day. In his spare time the cardinal was a solicitous patron of various Broadway chorus boys, his official episcopal limousine often spotted parked at stage doors at curtain time to whisk Spellman's current favorite to the diocesan residence. Boy, some things never change!

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Friday, May 09, 2008

More equal than others

Wobegon math in Washington state

A friend up in Washington state—I'll call him “GW”—writes with exciting news he received from one of his U.S. senators. Patty Murray is irked that her state's citizens are being shortchanged in Medicare reimbursements from the federal government. She says Washington state is being punished for its highly efficient Medicare program. Murray may have a point: It's much too easy to fund certain programs based on percentages of prior expenditures, meaning that every dollar wasted today becomes an extra bit of funding tomorrow.

The senator's remedy, however, comes straight out of the Lake Wobegon playbook (where “all of the children are above average”):
Last week, I joined with Congressman Adam Smith (WA-9) to introduce the Medifair Act, a bill that aims to fix national Medicare reimbursement disparities that hurt Washington state. The bill raises Washington state's Medicare reimbursement rates to the national average and ensures that all states receive at least the national average of per-patient spending. This will encourage doctors to provide Medicare in more areas and will improve access for our state's seniors.
GW is, of course, delighted by Sen. Murray's determination to help him and other Washingtonians obtain better health care, but he admits to being puzzled by her larger objective:
[S]he says that the act “ensures that all states receive at least the national average of per-patient spending.”

How can that be? You can't have some states or some doctors getting more than the average, while everyone else gets the average! Is that just typical wishful thinking (i.e. pandering) on the part of a politician?
Hmm. Is it wishful thinking? Is it pandering?

Can't it be both?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Contrapositing Berlinski

Derbyshire gets it right

The columnists who hang out at National Review Online are a peculiar assemblage of right-wing flacks who can be relied upon to distinguish themselves from the reality-based community. John Derbyshire, however, occasionally breaks ranks. In addition to being a conservative columnist, The Derb is also a mathematician. I have read and enjoyed Prime Obsession, a history of the Riemann hypothesis, and Unknown Quantity, a history of algebra and the iconic “x the unknown.” Mathematicians tend to respect the formal aspects of argument and proof. This may be why Derbyshire recoiled in horror from Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

He must pay for this apostasy.

And today here comes David Berlinski to take Derbyshire to the woodshed. While Berlinski is also a popularizer of mathematics (of the snob-appealing obscurantist school of overwriting), he has also aligned himself with the Discovery Institute and serves as one of Ben Stein's shills in Expelled. What better nemesis could intelligent design creationists hope to sic on Derbyshire than Berlinski? It is a grudge match made in heaven (although both combatants decline to affirm belief in heaven's existence).

Topping off the bile reservoir on his word processor, Berlinski gets right to work in his rebuke of Derbyshire:
John Derbyshire has declared that the documentary Expelled contains a blood libel against Western Civilization. His is an exercise of striking vulgarity, the more so since, as he insouciantly admits, he has not “seen the dang thing.” A blood libel, one might recall, refers to the charge that the Jewish people are irredeemably stained by their occasional, if modest, need for Christian blood. Some terms have acquired through their historical associations a degree of repugnance that persuades sensitive men and women not to use them. If Derbyshire has been repelled by the smell of blood, it is a revulsion that he has successfully overcome.
For the uninitiated, permit me to point out that Berlinski has unleashed here the powerful reflexive-rebuttal rhetorical device, also known in less sophisticated circles as the “I know you are, but what am I?” argument.

Expelled's audience has been less than its producers might have hoped for, box office receipts indicating an outside chance of earning back the costs of production and promotion. Nevertheless, no interested party can be unaware of the specific points being made by Ben Stein's propaganda piece. In a nutshell, Expelled asserts that (a) intelligent design is a worthwhile scientific hypothesis that the research establishment is successfully suppressing, (b) evolutionists are epitomized by atheism and hostility to religion, and (c) evolutionary thinking set the stage for the Nazi atrocities of the 20th century. The movie trailers, reviews, and interviews with Expelled's principals make all of that clear, whether or not one has endured the entire movie itself.

Berlinski does not accept this, and mocks Derbyshire for not going to see Expelled:
Having not seen the documentary that he proposes to criticize, Derbyshire is nonetheless quite certain that he knows what it conveys. “It is pretty plain,” he asserts, “that it is a piece of creationist porn.” Perhaps I will be forgiven for suggesting that John Derbyshire’s late-night scrutiny of the Internet may have corrupted his habitual search for le mot juste. Expelled has nothing to do with creationism, and if it is pornographic, the details have not become widely known.
See how Berlinski pokes gentle fun at Derbyshire for the latter's choice of words and amusingly implies that The Derb has looked at too many naughty pictures on the Internet? Naughty, naughty Derb! Funny, funny Berlinski!
Expelled makes a point far plainer than pornography and points to a phenomenon just as widespread.
Hey! Wait a minute! How does Berlinski know so much about the pervasiveness of porn? By his own reasoning in twitting Derbyshire, Berlinski is admitting to a certain expertise, n'est-ce pas? Let's be charitable and put that down to an inadvertent slip.
After first considering the possibility that Ben Stein was financed by secret Saudi funds—Je m’imagine cela—Derbyshire at once reprises two errors. The first is that the animations in Expelled were copied.

They were not.

And the second is that the brief segment of a John Lennon song used in the film required Yoko Ono’s permission before it could be aired.

It did not.

The facts are easily available from the Expelled website.
It's good of Berlinski to cite such an unimpeachable source as documentation for his statements. It's a good choice, too, because Berlinski would not have found support for his categorical statements had he gone elsewhere. For example, David Bolinsky is the medical illustrator who led the team that created The Inner Life of the Cell for Harvard University and he argues strongly that Expelled's version of his team's original creation is a point-by-point rip-off. (Perhaps, unlike Berlinski, Derbyshire did not limit his reading to the special pleadings on the Expelled website.) And, of course, the United States has a draconian copyright law that severely inhibits “fair-use” claims, so it's not at all clear that Yoko Ono's lawsuit is an inherently frivolous nuisance action.
Derbyshire’s generous conviction that Expelled is an exercise in dishonesty owes much to the charge that those participating in the film were duped. It is an accusation made by both P. Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. I appear in the film, and I read and signed the same release that Myers and Dawkins did. I knew precisely what the film proposed to do. So did they.
In reality, in case Berlinski still cares about such things, neither Myers nor Dawkins knew the intent of the proposed documentary. Both Myers and Dawkins have provided accounts of the dishonest way they were approached.
Myers and Dawkins now regret their appearance. This is because they seriously overestimated their own ability to think nimbly before a camera. They are as result appalled either by how they look or by what they said. A veritable Internet scourge, Myers sits before the camera in solemn stupefaction. He has nothing to say and says nothing. Dawkins goes much further. Without ever once realizing that he is about to topple into the badlands of absurdity, he allows Ben Stein to force him into the acknowledgment that life as it appears on earth may well have been designed by space aliens.
Being mild-mannered is the same as “solemn stupefaction” to Berlinski. (Perhaps P.Z. disappointed by breathing no fire.) I wonder how Berlinski would characterize his own appearance in Expelled, sitting on the back of his neck with his knees up in the air, nonchalantly declaring that Darwin was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the rise of the Nazis and the implementation of their program of mass-murder. Not stupefaction, surely, but stupefying, certainly.

Berlinski also mischaracterizes the response of Dawkins to Stein's badgering him over how intelligent design could be true. Despite having his remarks edited to his maximum disadvantage, Dawkins still manifests his underlying exasperation in conceding to Stein that it is, of course, conceivable that a highly advanced alien race could foster life on a barren planet. (Nothing Dawkins says justifies Berlinski's phrasing: “life as it appears on earth may well have been designed by space aliens.” He spun that version out of whole cloth.) For some unaccountable reason, the editors of Expelled let stand Dawkins's statement that such a science-fiction scenario was scarcely a triumph for ID. It would merely push off the question of origins to a different world—the world where the aliens evolved by natural means. Since there is ample fossil evidence to document humanity's development on this planet, the scenario prompted by Stein is not even a live proposition. Like intelligent design itself, it's a crank hypothesis without substance. Dawkins looked embarrassed while he outlined it in response to Stein's insistence.

Berlinski cranks up the engines of his rhetoric for the home stretch of his essay, confident that he will leave Derbyshire in shreds:
Having found in Expelled an occasion to exercise his organs of indignation, Derbyshire proceeds in his essay to squeeze them until they squeal. The Discovery Institute is a special target. He regards its very existence as an affliction. His indignation has prompted him to impertinence. Knowing nothing of my life, he has nonetheless concluded that I am one of a number of “eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories.”

Non-Christian? There is no need for euphemism. I am a secular Jew, reason enough apparently for Derbyshire carelessly to suggest that I am in it for the money.

Ah, that old familiar smell—blood, I mean.
Observe Berlinski in full martyr mode. It is a deeply affecting spectacle.
As for my eagerness to affirm that the world is flat, I believe it round, and have said so many times.
Berlinski seems to believe that Derbyshire was being literal in his criticisms, or—could it be?—he is cleverly pretending to take them literally.

Berlinski moves deftly from his pose of martyrdom to his pose of agnosticism on the question of ID itself:
Beyond this settled conviction, I have no theories to offer—not even theories of intelligent design, which I have rejected in the pages of Commentary.
Berlinski, you see, is the bad boy of intelligent design creationism. He merely—almost reluctantly—points out over and over again that “Darwinism” is fatally flawed and doomed to reside on the ash-heap of history. What will replace it? Oh, dear, he really couldn't say. And then the Discovery Institute, having discovered an opportunity to demonstrate its own universal tolerance of divergent points of view, snatches Berlinski up and makes him a Senior Fellow (as in “he's a jolly good”).
All this would be trivial, if tawdry, were it not for the single serious charge that Derbyshire makes: That Intelligent Design is a disguised form of creationism.

In the United States, at least, creationism is a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Intelligent Design is otherwise. It is the thesis that living creatures appear designed because they are designed. It is said to be Darwin’s great merit that he successfully dissolved the appearance of design in life. Those who believe that the design of living systems is real believe correspondingly that Darwin’s theory is false, or, at best, incomplete.
Here Berlinski conveniently forgets that Expelled vigorously seeks to link evolution with atheism. That's exactly why the producers insisted on nonbelieving scientists to represent the scientific side of the evolution mini-controversy. While many ID exponents are careful to declare with some frequency that the identity of the intelligent designer is not addressed in ID, others (like Dembski) are quick to acknowledge it's the G-o-d of Genesis. That's creationism, folks, and it pervades the ID movement.
Like so many men who have reached late middle age, John Derbyshire suffers the impression that the “the barbarians are at the gate.” Women no longer topple blood-ripe into his lap. A “gaggle of fools and fraudsters” is everywhere disturbing his tranquility. Things that he treasures are under ceaseless attack.
Berlinski unkindly forgets to mention he is three years older than Derbyshire.
And where awe is merited, none is forthcoming. “And now here is Ben Stein,” Derbyshire objects, “sneering and scoffing at Darwin.”

Stein is, in fact, doing no such thing, and I have seen the documentary in which he appears. He is asking that certain possibilities in thought not be struck from the table prematurely. In so doing, he is offering Darwin the homage that a serious thinker deserves. It is the only homage to which he is entitled.

As for the rest of John Derbyshire’s agitated geschrei, what can one say? A talented writer is entitled to make a fool of himself at least once.

Why not Derbyshire?
And that is why you have to love David Berlinski! Who else could so casually write that a “talented writer is entitled to make a fool of himself at least once”? I suspect he thinks this does not apply to him. Could it be because of the adjective in front of “writer”?