Thursday, July 31, 2008

Central Florida replies

We get wafer mail

Remember Benjamin Collard? He's the non-Catholic friend of Webster Cook who accompanied him to mass. Collard got rather lost in the shuffle when attention focused on Cook for his “kidnapping” of a communion wafer. It was, however, reportedly to satisfy Collard's curiosity that his friend brought the wafer back unconsumed to his seat. We don't know whether Collard got a good look at Cook's cracker or not, since loving Christians physically assaulted Cook and drove him from the house of the Lord. Well, actually, they drove him from the University of Central Florida Student Union, since religious services are conducted on campus.

Most of the fuss has centered on Cook's initial action (questionably characterized by many Catholics as deliberately disrespectful), the reactions to it, and the reactions to the reactions. Etcetera. You get the drift. Collard just about vanished from sight. Not everyone forgot about him, however. Catholic Campus Ministries of UCF was good enough to file a formal complaint against Collard for “disruptive conduct.” A hold was placed on his student registration and it was reported that he would not be permitted to register for fall classes. Last weekend I zinged off an e-mail message to the UCF president. Today I got a reply from his assistant.

This is what I wrote:
Dear Mr. President:

The on-line media reports that UCF student Benjamin Collard is being harassed by Catholic Campus Ministries for his supposed role in the incident involving his friend and fellow student Webster Cook. Does UCF have a policy of "guilty until proved innocent"? Why, otherwise, would Collard find a hold placed on his student account and be unable to sign up for classes? Certainly any complaint filed by any competent source should be investigated promptly and appropriately, but it seems that Mr. Collard is already suffering negative consequences simply because a complaint has been lodged against him. How does he merit this kind of treatment?

I hope the UCF administration removes the hold immediately, allows Collard to register for classes, and spares him further mistreatment unless evidence of actual misconduct is discovered. This pre-emptive penalty is disrespectful of due process.


Zeno Ferox
Professor of Mathematics

And here is what the UCF president's office sent to me in reply:
Date: Thu, 31 Jul 2008
From: PresComments []
Subject: Re: Fairness for Collard

Thank you for your e-mail.

Laws regarding student privacy prevent us from commenting about individual UCF students. But, in general terms, when a student allegedly violates student rules of conduct, his or her student account is placed on hold.

The student is notified of this action and informed that the hold will not prevent registration for classes. A student is allowed to register after making a request to release the hold. The Office of Student Conduct follows this procedure for any student who is referred to it.

More information about the entire Golden Rule and the student conduct process is available on our Web site, Please be assured that UCF is committed to following its standard procedures to ensure fair outcomes in all student conduct review cases.

Additionally, it is the university's policy to treat all people with dignity and respect, without regard to race, creed, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, veteran status, or political opinions and affiliations.

Amy J. Barnickel
Senior Executive Assistant to the President

From Promise to Prominence:
Celebrating 40 Years

I presume it's a form letter, but it's better than most. I am even somewhat mollified, assuming that Ms. Barnickel is correct in saying that the hold does not prevent registration for classes. Preventing a student from signing up for classes can be severe punishment indeed, especially when competing for those courses that fill rapidly and may be graduation requirements for one's major. Benjamin Collard still has to deal with the investigation of the complaint against him, and I'll be interested in learning how that turns out, but at least he isn't being held in academic suspended animation.

Say, do you think Collard is still curious about Catholicism? The next mass service on the UCF campus will be on August 24 at the beginning of fall semester at 6:00 PM in the Student Union. I suggest you don't go, Benjamin.

Normal, Minnesota

A visit to an outlier

U.S. Representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota was a guest on Laura Ingraham's show this morning. Bachmann and Ingraham together. It's a wonder the radio didn't melt in my car's dashboard. Bachmann claims to be excited by McCain's chances in the land of 10,000 lakes. The key to a McCain victory? “Normal people have to vote. The nation is full of normal center-right people.”

“Normal”? What does Bachmann mean by “normal”? She helpfully provides a counterexample: members of the Sierra Club are evidently not normal. Bachmann fears them because “The Sierra Club has been going door to door in my state for months.” No wonder Bachmann fears for the fate of our nation. Environmentalists are encouraging people to get out and vote. “Normal” people must rise up and save the country from them!

I am so scared!

It's a matter of perspective, of course. From where Bachmann sits, environmental extremism is extremely easy. I imagine that dropping a plastic bottle in a recycling bin would be enough to send her into a frenzy of finger-pointing, lip-frothing, and denunciatory shrieks of “eco-freak!” This is, after all, a woman who can't tell the difference between the conservationists of the Sierra Club, the militants of Earth First, and the saboteurs of the Earth Liberation Front. They're really all the same aren't they? I mean, just like all Republicans are bribe-taking influence peddlers who hang out in airport restrooms. Right?

Bachmann says that her “internal poll”—which I suppose is a euphemism for “guess”—is that McCain is five percentage points ahead of Obama in Minnesota and that he's going to win. (The Rasmussen poll currently has Obama up by 13 points over McCain.) Whatever demon resides inside Ingraham caused her to remind her guest of the 2006 general election and the assurances she had personally received from Karl Rove that private polling indicated a GOP win—mere days before the balloting wiped out the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Bachmann's optimism was thereafter badly deflated and had to be put on life support.

At least both women were happy that Al Franken was certain to lose his senate race against incumbent Norm Coleman. (Rasmussen has Franken trailing by only three points.) Ingraham declared that “Franken has failed on radio and now he's going to fail in politics.” She then cattily observed that Franken has a terribly whiny and nasal voice, a charge she delivered in mocking emulation of the supposed Franken sound. She hardly had to change her voice at all!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Truth in labeling

A gay old time in California

Voters in California can write new state laws or amend the state constitution by means of the initiative process. Each general election ballot typically offers several measures that were placed there by the signatures of registered voters on initiative petitions. The November 2008 ballot is no exception, featuring in particular Proposition 8, an attempt by the religious right to overturn the recent decision by the California Supreme Court to allow same-sex marriages.

The state attorney general has the job of providing a legal description for each proposed initiative. This official description must appear on the petitions that are circulated for signatures. It also appears on the ballot so that voters are reminded of the content of the measure as they make their decisions. Attorney General Jerry Brown has recently created a fuss by altering Proposition 8's legal description. Supporters of Proposition 8 are terribly upset and claim that Brown's action is politically motivated, since the attorney general is believed to be planning a return to the governor's office (which he previously occupied from 1975 to 1983).

While it was being circulated, the initiative bore the description “Limit on Marriage. Constitutional Amendment.” No one said anything to either praise or decry this description. Then the state Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling, establishing the right of same-sex couples to be married in California. Shortly thereafter, the California secretary of state's office announced that Proposition 8 had qualified for the ballot. Attorney General Brown issued a new description: “Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry.”

The hue and cry erupted immediately. McClatchy News columnist Dan Walters, grand old man of the Capitol news beat, called Brown's relabeling “a pretty cynical act” and claims that now any defeat of Proposition 8 at the ballot box “will carry an asterisk of illegitimacy,” since the attorney general is our “referee” and “shouldn't misuse the rules of the game to favor one side over the other.”

Frankly, I'm shocked that any politics should be involved in an election campaign, but I'll set that aside for the moment. The question is not simply whether Jerry Brown has political motives (he's a politician; of course he does), but whether his position is rationally defensible. And it is. After all, circumstances have changed. Before Proposition 8 qualified for the ballot (before it even had a number, in fact), same-sex couples had no right to marry in California. Now they do. Passage of Proposition 8 would now eliminate an existing right, a right reflected in hundreds (thousands?) of same-sex marriages performed since the Supreme Court ruling became effective in June.

Gareth Lacy, a spokesperson for the attorney general, provided Brown's perspective: “We carried out our statutory duty to accurately summarize the measure. In this case, we take into account an extremely important Supreme Court decision that affirms the right to same-sex marriage.”

Does the new description hurt Proposition 8's chances of passage? Almost certainly. Did Jerry Brown try to make the language as inflammatory as possible? If so, he didn't try very hard. I would have suggested “Promotes discrimination and cruelly invalidates existing marriages.” (Perhaps that's why I'm not attorney general. Not enough nuance. And no law degree, either.)

Proposition 8 would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to get married. That is its intention. That is its description.

Jerry Brown hit the nail on the head. The pain rippling through the ranks of the state's homophobes is merely a side benefit.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Continuing indoctrination for nurses

The papal nurse will see you now

In the continuing observance (celebration?) of the fortieth anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, the St. Anthony of Padua Institute and the Diocese of Oakland are sponsoring an all-day conference on August 9 at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. No, I won't be going. But if I were a nurse, I could get continuing education credit by attending. That's right: The California Board of Registered Nursing has rated the conference as being worth 4.6 contact hours for purposes of continuing education.

Ain't that a kick in the head?

Let us at least consider the possibility that the Humane Vitae conference will indeed be educational and not simply a day-long indoctrination on Catholic birth control dogma. After all, nurses have many Roman Catholic patients and one can imagine a secular purpose in learning about the things Catholics believe so as to understand their concerns better. We could list it under “cultural sensitivity,” which I'm sure is a good thing. Right?

Abandon all hope. Here are some highlights of the conference program:

After 9:00 mass (with a bishop!), Janet Smith delivers a plenary address on the Connection between contraception and abortion. She's followed by Christopher Kaczor, whose topic is Humanae Vitae explained and defended. After the lunch break, the final plenary address is Joel Barstad's presentation on Primacy of conscience. (Since many Catholics cite personal conscience as an excuse for using birth control despite Church teaching on the issue, I'm guessing Barstad is going to explain why it's a sin to substitute personal conviction for Church dogma. [But Kevin Keith has a better guess than mine; see the comments.])

If you haven't had enough by this point, just look at dessert. You have three choices for breakout sessions: Choose either Dr. Mary Davenport's Seven myths regarding “reproductive” technology and women's health (held in, of all places, Galileo Hall!), Father Brian Mullady's talk on the Theology of the body (no doubt based on John Paul II's writings on the subject), or Dr. Raymond Dennehy on From contraception to abortion to the death of democracy. (The Catholic Church is understandably really big on democracy and would hate for it to die and be replaced by any kind of autocracy.)

If that's not 4.6 contact hours of continuing education, it's at least an endurance contest. Strangely enough, it's probably the sort of thing I could sit through quite easily (assuming comfortable seats), even though I would undoubtedly have to master occasional impulses to yell “Are you kidding me?” at the speaker. I'm not by nature a disruptive person. (My mildness notwithstanding, I imagine it would incite chaos if I wore a Pharynguloid T-shirt. Are there such things? Just a thought. In any case, it sounds more like a coat-and-tie affair.)

Apparently the California Catholic Women's Forum is the organization that is certified by the California Board of Registered Nursing as a provider of continuing education. CCWF boasts Provider Number CEP 15002 and offers this course description for the Humanae Vitae conference:
Culturally conditioned views of human sexuality influence behavior and subsequent health care outcomes. New and emerging reproductive technologies reframe the connection between intercourse and pregnancy, and affect the marital relationship. This seminar is designed to give nurses the understanding of various views of sexuality and how these views profoundly affect sexual health, marital relationships, and the pursuit or avoidance of fertility.
As someone whose scholarship resides in other fields, I cannot say definitively whether the announced conference schedule is likely to meet these course objectives. I'll admit, though, that I am struck by the phrase “understanding of various views of sexuality.” One can be relatively confident in concluding that the various views will indeed be discussed—and conveniently labeled as right or wrong in terms of their agreement or disagreement with Church teachings. That's just a tiny bit problematical, isn't it?

And yet this somehow cleared the bar established by the California Board of Registered Nursing for acceptable course content. Perhaps it's classified under “Cultural and ethnic diversity,” because I'm pretty sure it's out of the running for “Theoretical content related to scientific knowledge.”

Oh, well, if nurses can get continuing education credit for Therapeutic Touch voodoo, why not for training in Catholic doctrine? One shouldn't discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, disability, age, or wackiness. That would be wrong.

Old School: Greenberg remembers

“Hey, you kids get off my quad!”

Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is a regular columnist at, which tells you about all you need to know concerning his reliability. These days, anyway. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing back in 1969 (when he said he was guided by the rubric “Is it worth saying?”), later coined the epithet “Slick Willie,” and now devotes his time to chasing unruly kids off his lawn. That's what he was doing when he penned Academe Then and Now, a nostalgic look back at the days when schools were ivory towers of erudition rather than today's whited sepulchers of political correctness.

Greenberg is not the first right-wing commentator to remark on this perceived development, so he embellishes his statement with anecdotes from his personal experience. His history professor at the University of Missouri was a Virginian and a devoted Jeffersonian. However, in those heady days before the oppressively liberal groupthink of today—pause here to shudder delicately—Greenberg's liberal-minded professor dared to assign as reading the less than adulatory tome History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison by Henry Adams. Greenberg was promptly seduced (by the book, of course; in those days professors certainly did not seduce their students).
Henry Adams' beautifully crafted words—his book is not only history but literature—reached across time and turned me into an Adams/Hamilton Federalist, which led to my becoming successively a Henry Clay Whig, then a Lincoln Republican, right through the whole successive conservative chain of ideas in American history to the present day.
The present day? Greenberg wanders off at this point to complain further about contemporary academia and discards the thread that links today's great neo-conservative theoreticians in an unbroken chain to Abraham Lincoln himself.

But I can't let it go. Is Greenberg suggesting a continuity of political thought and philosophy from Lincoln, the country's first Republican president, to the era of George W. Bush, the last? That proposition is suspect. The Democratic Party, for example, still embraces Jefferson as an icon for his establishment of the original political organization and his devotion to personal liberties, but today's Democrats are certainly less enamored than Jefferson with the notion of nation of yeoman farmers. The pastoral is passé. As for Republicans, the man who freed the slaves and successfully presided over the bloody reuniting of the states is a rather radical figure to hold up as a conservative ideal. The notion of “less government” and laissez-faire should have translated into a policy of “Wayward sisters, depart in peace” (to borrow Winfield Scott's words). But let's not deny the GOP's claim on the Great Emancipator, even if they have lost his legacy.

Let's instead consider some candidates in Greenberg's great chain of being conservative. What comes after Adams, Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln? We should probably pass quietly over Andrew Johnson, since he was originally a Democrat before becoming Lincoln's running mate and accidental successor. Ulysses Grant was more fortunate in his military endeavors than in his political career, which was tarnished by multiple scandals. In this sense Grant may well be an iconic member of the GOP presidential pantheon, but a tolerance for high levels of corruption has never been an explicitly Republican trait (wink, wink).

Rutherford Hayes was famously pilloried as “Rutherfraud” for his ascension to the presidency by rigging the vote of the Electoral College in multiple states (including Florida!). Election fraud, however, is not in the mainstream of accepted Republican thought (nudge, nudge).

One can't say much about James A. Garfield, who served barely half a year in office before being succeeded by the hapless Chester A. Arthur (celebrated patron of the civil service, surely not a favorite of contemporary Republicans). Then there's Benjamin Harrison, another minority-vote one-term president who lost the election in the popular vote tallies but squeaked out a win in the Electoral College. It wasn't, however, nearly as scandalous as the Hayes “victory.”

William McKinley was an adventurer who annexed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. He successfully prosecuted the Spanish-American War, but successful prosecution of wars is not a particularly Republican skill, as shown by the examples of Nixon, Ford, and Bush the Lesser. (Reagan was successful in his mini-war on Grenada and disastrously unsuccessful in his incursion into Lebanon. His successor, the first Bush, was successful in the 1990-91 Gulf War by knowing better than to try to proceed into Baghdad. Later events have already served to elevate the reputation of Bush I at least as far as military engagements are concerned.)

Could Greenberg take his political philosophy from Theodore Roosevelt? One thinks not, especially with TR's emphasis on trust busting and conservation of natural resources. Those planks have long been missing from the GOP platform. Taft? Harding? Coolidge? Hoover? I doubt it.

Then we have Eisenhower, who today would be smeared as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Remember Ike? He warned us against the influence of the military-industrial complex. A Republican did that! He must have been a bad one, because today's Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the military-industrial complex (cough [Halliburton!] cough).

Nixon's name is synonymous with sleaze, dishonesty, and corruption. He was the apotheosis in his day of all of the failings of his GOP predecessors, all wrapped up into one ungodly bundle. Nixon appears to be the model emulated by George W. Bush, who lacks Tricky Dick's literacy but fully embraces Nixon's theory of the imperial presidency. I'm sure that Bush hopes his successor will be prepared to emulate Gerald Ford, the happenstance president who assumed office upon Nixon's resignation and then promptly pardoned his predecessor. George W. Bush could use someone like that.

Despite my head-scratching, I still don't know who Greenberg is referring to when he talks about “the successive conservative chain of ideas.” Frankly, conservative thought seems bankrupt, much like the nation. Once upon a time it may have been true that Republicans really favored responsible, thrifty, and nonintrusive government, but the presidencies of Reagan and the two Bushes have put paid to that misconception (“overpaid” is more like it). Our history since World War II shows that the national debt fell steadily under the stewardship of both political parties until it began to soar under Ronald Reagan. While the Clinton administration was a brief return to budgetary responsibility, George W. Bush immediately began to throw it all away even before the excuse of the national emergency of September 11.

So tell us, Paul. What embodies conservative thought today? Did I make a mistake by expecting any of it to be represented by the policies of Republican presidents?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Humanely ignoring Humanae Vitae

We have sinned

My niece is an abomination. It's not because “Becky” credulously forwards random bits of stupid and ignorant Internet crap. (She's actually eased off on that.) In fact, it's not because of anything that she has done herself. It's her parents' fault, in the fashion of Jeremiah 32:17, which is full of praise for God's tender mercy: “You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the fathers' sins into the laps of their children after them.”

My niece, you see, is the product of artificial insemination. While it's true that my brother is her father and my sister-in-law is her mother, infertility problems early in their marriage prompted them to seek intervention by a physician. As good Catholics, they should have known they were committing a grievous sin. Nothing gets the Church's panties into more of a bind than violations of its archaic sex code, even if it's in pursuit of starting a family. Funny thing, too, since every Catholic couple is harangued on the occasion of their marriage to “accept Children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.” God forbid that you employ the techniques of modern medicine to promote or prevent pregnancy. That really ticks God off, for some reason, and either motivation is wicked. Or so says Rome.

Not everyone is privy to the family's deep, dark secret. I suspect even Becky doesn't know, but we elder family members recall the clandestine doings of the past. (I even know about my nephew's childhood electrolysis to correct a unibrow and how his cousin's accidentally broken nose became an opportunity to sneak in a little rhinoplasty in addition to the repair job.) And then, of course, there's the biggest sin of all—or maybe it's a miracle: the long stretches of fertility during which no children appeared. How the heck did that happen in a devoutly Catholic family? (Or perhaps I should say, “How the heck did that not happen?”)

July 25 is the anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the famous encyclical promulgated in 1968 by the late Pope Paul VI, of unhappy memory. The corrosive effect of that papal letter was immediate and has now had forty years to eat away at the Catholic Church.

There were plenty of other distractions for American Catholics in 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been murdered in April. Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of our only Catholic president, was murdered in June. Nevertheless, Humanae Vitae came as a bit of a shock even to a benumbed Catholic population. It was widely known that the majority of the members of a papal commission had recommended a relaxation of the Church's strict stand against birth control, making the argument that contraception was not intrinsically sinful and could reasonably be chosen by Catholics in accordance with the dictates of personal conscience. Paul VI, however, accepted the argument of a minority report, which strenuously opposed any change in Church practice. It was a stunning bump on the road to reform and modernization that had begun six years before with John XXIII's convocation of the second Vatican Council. Many Catholics, including several clerics, resisted the pope's proclamation and embraced the majority report's suggestion that personal conscience was paramount in such matters.

Today, only a small minority (31%) of Roman Catholics in the United States believe that artificial birth control is a sin. American Catholics are in a “soft schism,” embracing a nominal Catholicism while in reality acting with about as much freedom from Church dogma as if they were Protestants. Rome may insist that there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition,” since the Catholic Church is a top-down organization whose hierarchy brooks no disagreement, but in fact the Church appears to be tolerating a huge amount of dissent in order to preserve its numbers. In its claim to have over a billion adherents in the world, the Vatican is counting many people who do not embrace all of the Church's teachings. Depending on whether my home parish has ever bothered to purge its roster, they might even be counting me! If Rome were ever to crack down and enforce its rules as strictly as possible, the priest shortage would be solved overnight, since at least half of all Catholics would be abruptly disqualified from membership and many parishes could be consolidated. Even the Vatican is not that dedicated to doctrinal purity.

In reflecting on the encyclical's fortieth anniversary, I do believe that Humanae Vitae has left my family a legacy other than the secret shame of my niece's anti-immaculate conception. In doing the math, I note that my brother is thirty-seven years old. He is the baby of the family and arrived a dozen years after his other siblings. What happened to disrupt my parents' long string of birth-free years? That's right. The pope in Rome shook his admonitory finger at my Catholic parents and they decided to “take one” for the pontiff. It appears that I have a Humanae Vitae kid brother. In looking back over his life and my parent's experiences in dealing with a teenager during their middle-age years, it does appear that obedience is its own punishment.

But at least he's not an abomination.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Thermonuclear war

If you recognized the title of this post, congratulations. You are a true übernerd, a geek among geeks. It's the launch code from the movie WarGames, which Boing Boing reminds me was the greatest geek movie ever and was originally released twenty-five years ago. Did you miss the silver anniversary celebrations in May? So did I, but Wired magazine offers a nostalgic retrospective for all of us who miss the days of 300-baud dial-up modems and 8-inch diskettes.

WarGames was a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence and human stupidity. The sermon was a timely one, albeit delivered in a candy coating of teen angst, love, and adventure with lead roles played by Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. In 1983 the president of the United States actually believed it was possible that Bible prophecy might require him to play a leading role in the battle of Armageddon. Certainly launching a nuclear war would be an excellent way to set off the Apocalypse—in accordance with God's divine plan (and love and mercy and all that). We tended to avoid thinking about it too much back then because it was difficult to function if you were shuddering all day.

I didn't own my own computer yet when WarGames came out, but I already knew about modems and punch cards (almost—but not quite—obsolete then) and computer terminals. The local university had a connection to the ARPAnet, the Internet precursor sponsored by the Defense Department, and my nerdiest friends were on it daily. Although I had my doubts about WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), the computer that could control the entire United States nuclear arsenal, the scenario seemed realistic enough. Yes, it was science fiction, but not beyond the limits of credulity. Suspension of disbelief was all too easy.

That is, until the grand finale. That's the scene in the command bunker where WOPR begins to crack the secret ten-character launch code so that it can follow a teenager's inadvertent command to play out a thermonuclear war. Fortunately for the dramatic impact of the movie, WOPR flashed its progress in code-breaking on the large screens in the command center. Ten-character alphanumeric strings flashed past the eyes as WOPR searched for the launch key. The audience in the movie theater was rapt.

I, however, got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Damn!

WOPR was being allowed to riffle through the ten-character strings without any limitations. There was no one-attempt-per-second rule. No three-tries-and-you're-out. WOPR was jamming through the ten-character strings without hindrance. With 26 characters in the alphabet (uppercase only it seemed) and 10 numerals, WOPR has 3610 possibilities to check. That's between three and four quadrillion. WOPR was presumably a state-of-the-art military supercomputer capable of sophisticated war game simulation. I imagine it would have had massively parallel computing architecture. If it could crunch billions of possible codes per second, WOPR would crack the launch security barrier within perhaps a year or so by simple brute force. If it could crunch trillions per second, then perhaps hours or minutes. Not very secure.

Even back in 1983 the IBM Personal Computer boasted a microprocessor clocked at 4.77 MHz. Sure, that was just a microchip, but it indicated the low end of the computing power of the day. Yes, I was mildly disgruntled at the ease with which WOPR would be able to crack the code. Not very reassuring or realistic.

But then things got worse. Dramatically worse. Suddenly the first character of the launch code was frozen on the display screen: C. WOPR had figured out the first character. People in the command room were horrified. Then: P. Oh, no! WOPR was getting closer!

Now I was really disgusted. If you were allowed to figure out the code one character at a time, then I could do it myself, in a couple of minutes, without any massively parallel computing power. It's boring, but it's easy. You do it like this, beginning with the first character:

“Is it an A?”
“Is it a B?”
“Is it a C?”


Then on to the second character:

“Is it an A?”
“Is it a B?”
“Is it a C?”

Yes, this one would take longer. If you make it all the way through the alphabet, then rattle off the ten numerals, one after the other.

In a few minutes you'd have the whole thing. Thermonuclear war. Boom!

No, it didn't actually ruin the movie for me, but I was rather disgruntled. To make matters worse, none of my friends cared. Sure, the nerdy ones merely agreed that it was a dumb mistake—but what did you expect from Hollywood, anyway? The less nerdy ones simply pointed out that it made the ending more exciting. Yeah, I got that.

It was probably only the math geeks like me that were really irritated. But we don't count.

Monday, July 21, 2008

This is my bread

Making it perfectly clear

Immaculate Heart radio blankets most of California with its stations. It's hard to miss when browsing through the AM dial and I often pause on it when something meets my own highly idiosyncratic standard of “interesting.” That's how I ran across the installment of Catholic Answers Live, originally broadcast on Thursday, July 17, that dealt with the question of PZ Myers and his deadly threat to disrespect a communion wafer.

The caller was an earnest and concerned citizen from Reynolds, North Dakota, where she listens to Catholic radio on KWTL (Grand Forks). The respondent was apologist Jimmy Akin (who also posted the exchange on his blog).
Joyce: My question for Jimmy is, there's a professor in Minnesota who is vowing to desecrate the blessed sacrament.

Jimmy Akin: Right. His name is PZ Myers.

Joyce: And I don't know if you've already talked about him, but he said that the response that he's getting on his blog—I assume from Catholics—that they're full of hatred and the comments are irrational and he said no one has presented him with a rational argument as to why he shouldn't desecrate the blessed sacrament. He calls it a cracker. So my question is, what would be your rational argument for this person?
The best rational argument is to suggest to PZ Myers that he stirred up more trouble than it's worth. It's gotten pretty old. Taking PZ's provocative statement at face value is like denouncing Jonathan Swift for suggesting that the hungry Irish alleviate their famine-induced hunger by eating their babies. Well, PZ is not Jonathan Swift and his supposed pledge to “desecrate” a “frackin' cracker” is no Modest Proposal, but it may be more to the point to note the nature of the reaction. It proves that fanaticism is not the exclusive province of any one particular group. (Didn't we already know that?)

Jimmy Akin, by the way, misses the opportunity to do the rational thing and bases his reply on the assumption that PZ is seriously planning a sacrilegious spectacle.
JA: Well, I would say a number of things. Number one: I am very doubtful that he has the personal integrity to respond appropriately and not desecrate the eucharist even if he's given a rational reason. Because if you read his blog, he shows nothing but contempt for people who don't agree with him. He heaps scorn on them. Now, okay, sure, maybe he's got some comboxers and so forth mouthing off against him, but you can't take the people who are acting ridiculously or going over the line, like threatening his life or something—he says he's gotten death threats, so let's assume he has—that's not a rational response here.

You shouldn't be threatening his life. But the fact that some people threaten his life does not mean that all Catholics who would be offended by this—which should be all Catholics—are in that camp. And so he needs to look past the people who he has frankly provoked—I mean, that's why he's doing this, you know, he's wanting to provoke people—and he's provoked certain people into irrationality, but that's par for the course with human beings. He needs to look past that and realize that regardless of his personal beliefs about the eucharist, he is desecrating something that other people hold sacred. And charity, and just common human decency, should tell him that it is wrong to—for no good reason, just to honk people off—to desecrate what others hold sacred, even if you don't hold it sacred.
Akin says that Myers has “provoked certain people into irrationality,” but one suspects they were already there.
JA: I'm not, for example, a Muslim, so I don't hold the Kaaba in Mecca to be sacred, but that doesn't mean I'm going to go to the Kaaba and spit on it, you know, even if there was no threat to my life. Now, of course, if I did that I would be slain instantly, but even if there was no threat to my life I'm not going to go and spit on the Kaaba, you know.

Similarly, I'm not Mormon. Mormons hold their temples are sacred. I'm not going to go spit on a Mormon temple. I'm not going to go spit on a Jewish synagogue. I'm not going to go spit on PZ Myers' office door, you know. Just because this is how humans who have different opinions about things treat each other. They treat each other with respect, and even if they don't share somebody else's belief that a particular thing is sacred they don't go out of their way to deliberately insult the deepest held sensibilities of other human beings. That treats the other human beings in a dehumanizing fashion and PZ Myers needs to realize that that is what he's doing. He is behaving like the people who treat other people's religions with scorn.
Excuse me? “He is behaving like the people who treat other people's religions with scorn”? I'm thinking you'll get no argument for anyone on that account, let alone PZ himself. There's a germ of a clue in that sentence, but Akin skims right past it. Yes, scorn is exactly the issue. Nonbelievers have scorn for those who overreact on the basis of beliefs founded on faith rather than reason, such as those devout Catholics who pummeled Webster Cook because he didn't eat his bread right away and their coreligionists who later threatened to kill him (and PZ, too). PZ was rude and impolite to people who were violent or espoused violence because of a piece of dry bread—a communion wafer. Even if he laid it on too thick (which I'm inclined to think he did, because I am by nature not very obstreperous), it would be nice if the offended parties would give it some thought before denouncing PZ for treating them as caricatures—and then acting exactly like those supposed caricatures.

Akin may be missing the main point while wallowing in his sense of grievance, but we can at least give him credit for not threatening violence—or even the salivary baptism of PZ's office door. Let's rewind the replay one sentence and consider the end of the Akin's answer:
JA: He is behaving like the people who treat other people's religions with scorn. He's one of them. So if he thinks fundamentalists are bad for treating nonfundamentalists with scorn, he needs to realize that he's an atheist fundamentalist that is doing exactly the same thing.

Joyce: Well, I appreciate your comments, sir.

JA: No problem. Thank you.
So that's what is going on! PZ is not simply a rude atheist who makes fun of sacramental bread, he is a fundamentalist. Christian name-calling really clears things up. Thanks, Jimmy, for straightening that all out for us.

Another modest proposal

PZ has a bunch of communion wafers now. Some are presumably consecrated. Some are probably not. It's even possible that some are both unconsecrated and poisoned, since at least one devout Christian has told PZ he's sending him a wafer laced with death—the better to dispatch him to imaginary hell, no doubt. (Hmm. “No doubt” is undoubtedly part of the problem.) What should PZ do with these wafers if he's not really planning a three-ring desecration event?

My suggestion is to embed the wafer(s) in Lucite. A nice block of clear Lucite. Then PZ will have a sacred (or semi-sacred) keepsake that can serve as a nice paperweight. The beauty of my plan is that the wafers will then be very thoroughly protected from the dangers of physical abuse or destruction. It would be like a reliquary, those ornate boxes used to preserve holy relics. Catholics everywhere could sigh with relief. What's more, they could console themselves with the thought that the emanations from encapsulated Jesus will soften PZ's hard heart and turn him toward God (although brain-softening is probably a better way to accomplish this).

Everybody wins! And if, after three days, the wafers burst out of the Lucite, I promise to go to communion the next Sunday.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Creationism evolves again

AiG responds to selective pressure

When anyone accuses Ken Ham of being pugnacious, the creationist guru of Answers in Genesis knows what to do. He gets in their face and escalates!
Some time ago, a secular reporter accused me of promoting violence. It was because he saw AiG’s classic “castles illustration” we often use, which really sums up the spiritual battle AiG is fighting.

The two castles illustrations are labeled “Problem” and “Solution.” Notice the use of cannons on the castle. Now, I wonder what the same reporter might say if he saw some of the newer diagrams I use in my talks—today I’m using missiles!
That's right. Ken Ham's slide show has been brought up to date. It's evolved.

Until recently, the canonical version of Ham's castle illustration featured cannons. That's what you see in the accompanying color slide that Ham used in his presentations until recently. It's been around a long time. For example, here's how it looked as a more primitive black-and-white figure from the 1987 edition of The Lie: Evolution, Ham's “classic” broadside against modern science:

As you can see, Creation Castle has been losing ground, going from bad to worse. The 1987 illustration depicts a single piratical figure (a secular humanist, no doubt) aiming Evolution Castle's only cannon at the foundations of Creation Castle (the bedrock afforded by Christ). An ineffectual sidekick hovers in the background, apparently puffing on more sinful balloons to add to euthanasia, homosexuality, divorce, pornography, abortion, and racism. Fortunately for the swashbucklers of humanism, the clerics of Castle Creation are a feckless lot. One of them is firing in the wrong direction while another is drawing a bead on the only creationist aiming at the citadel of evolution.

In the later (color) cannon version, divorce has given way to “family break-up” and homosexuality has become the more specific “homosexual behavior.” There are now two buccaneers on balloon duty and three are blasting away at creation's foundations. The tide is clearly flowing against the forces of godly superstition. What's more, although the number of occupants of Creation Castle have also increased, there is still only one who is fighting the good fight for creationism. Does Ham identify with that lone hero? The Christian ranks are rife with treachery and sloth. (I note that the Christians are now in more secular garb.)

Ken Ham mentioned missiles. Indeed. Check out the new metaphors for the battle between creation and evolution, shown in the accompanying figure. The little creationists and evolutionists are no longer to be seen, presumably having returned whence they came (which I suspect was Akbar-and-Jeff land). Creation Castle has been replaced by a conventional looking church and a weird bunker identified with Answers in Genesis. The bunker is even bigger than the church, and both are dwarfed by the huge cross (with roots!). The Scud missiles of secular humanism and evolution are roaring toward the Genesis foundations of Christianity, but the bunker's parabolic dish tracking device improbably has the power to emulate Ronald Reagan's most unlikely “Star Wars” fantasy, zapping the enemy missiles in mid-flight. (Ah, yes. Fantasy.)

In the words of Ken Ham:
[W]e do see ourselves as supplying the “troops” with ammunition. As I've often said, the books, DVDs, etc., are really “Christian Patriot missiles” to battle those who fight against God's Word.
I don't know if Ham likes to end his presentations with a rousing chorus of Praise God, and Pass the Ammunition, but I suspect he doesn't. That hymn is a bit too overt. Ham is already on record as objecting to being portrayed as militaristic. Ham suspects this secularist agenda was at work in Alexandra Pelosi's Friends of God:
Pelosi may have had an agenda to portray Christians as militaristic, for that aspect is weaved in and out of the documentary. That type of claim is increasingly becoming more public as opponents of conservative evangelical Christianity are turning more vocal. For example, this thesis is found in a just-released, anti-evangelical book entitled American Fascists. The author, Chris Hedges, a respected newspaper journalist formerly with The New York Times, believes that evangelicals (the “religious right”) are poised to take over America, fascist-style, during the next 9/11-like crisis. He particularly notes the use of military metaphors used by many evangelicals, who often apply Ephesians 6 terminology in their messages (e.g., phrases from Ephesians such as the following: “put on the whole armor of God,” “the shield of faith,” “the sword of the Spirit,” etc.). In the HBO program, Ken is seen describing AiG’s books and DVDs as “Christian patriot missiles” that can counter evolutionary teaching. It feeds the false belief held by Hedges and others that evangelicals are militaristic in a very real sense, not just spiritual.
That certainly is a dirty trick, using Ken Ham's own words. Militaristic metaphors do not necessarily indicate that religious people will engage in violence. I mean, whoever heard of “holy war,” right? No such thing!

By the way, I find it peculiarly apt that Ham describes his defenses against the enemy as “Patriot missiles.” People who remember anything about Raytheon's Patriot missiles in the first Gulf war probably recall the flush of triumph when they were initially credited with bringing down Iraq's Scud missiles. They're much less likely to remember the aftermath, when it was discovered that the Patriots had actually failed. Ham might want to keep this in mind when he intelligently designs his next metaphor for the conflict between science and superstition.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Take a little turn on the catwalk

The ghostwriter

The math department secretary was even happier than usual to see me. (People are always happy to see me.)

“Professor Madison was looking for you. She's in quite a state.”

The secretary had enough to do without dealing with distraught faculty members.

I headed down the corridor toward Lillie Madison's office. For some years now I had been her eminence grise, a sounding board for problems great and small. Previous crises had dealt with her children or her spouse or her pedagogy. The pedagogy part was okay; I was, after all, a fellow math instructor. As for the other stuff, I was not sure how a childless bachelor became a valuable counselor on family and marital issues. Perhaps I should have been a priest like my grandmother wanted.

Lillie's office door was ajar. I tapped on it. Before I could say a word she had grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me inside, closing the door behind me. A trap-door spider could not have done it any better. I sat down on the chair by the side of Lillie's desk. She leaned toward me and whispered, “I got a message from the president.”

The closed door and the whispering were certainly an excess of caution. It was the lull between summer session and fall semester. The building was almost empty. I considered Lillie's news and made a suggestion:

“You should tell the president to stop bothering you. Even a ride on Air Force One isn't worth getting Laura mad at you.”

She froze for a moment, staring at me, and then emitted a short, sharp laugh.

“No, no, no! The college president!”

“Really? But he doesn't even have an airplane!”

Why does the poor woman even put up with me? She was shaking her head and laughing. At least she was laughing. It tapered off rapidly, however. She really was quite worried.

“The president says I'm on the program for the fall faculty meeting. I'm supposed to be getting a service award. I don't want to go! I've got to get out of it. Maybe I'll call in sick. Yeah, Zee Zee, that's what I'll do.”

Zee Zee. Why does she call me that?

No one loves the fall faculty meeting. The president's pep talk welcoming us to a new academic year usually isn't too bad, but they always feel an obligation to keep us there the entire morning on a day we'd rather be getting ready for the first day of instruction. Still, I didn't understand Lillie's concern. Most teachers are immune to stage fright. Was it something else?

“I can't imagine why you're upset, Lillie. It's nice to be honored and it won't take more than a minute, will it?”

She leaned forward and lowered her voice again.

“You don't understand, Zee Zee. It's a length-of-service award. They're presenting me with a gift for thirty-five years of service.”

I did the mental math. It was true. Lillie had just completed three and a half decades of full-time teaching at our school.

“Wow! Congratulations! The gift should be much nicer than the useless pen and pencil set they give the quarter-century professors.”

But they're going to know how old I am!

Finally the nature of the crisis was clear. As the first order of business for the new academic year, the college president was going to out Lillie Madison as an old lady. She had long taken pride in her age-defying appearance, enhanced by her slender build, fine bone structure, and the high cheekbones of her Asian ancestry. Except for a handful of people who were aware that she had been at the school forever, most of the campus denizens were completely unaware of her seniority. Her true age was a closely guarded secret, and I was one of the few entrusted with the age she admitted to. (She was actually two years older than the age she admitted to, but I never told her I knew that.) Now the president proposed to honor her at the fall faculty meeting in such a way that her age would indirectly but unavoidably be brought to the attention of all of our colleagues.

“But no one will really know, Lillie. No one will actually care.”

I care! And they will know! Even the English professors can do that kind of arithmetic. I have to call in sick! I won't go to the fall meeting.”

“Wrong,” I said firmly. “You will go. If you're not there and the president announces your thirty-five-year award in absentia, everyone is going to say, ‘Where is Old Lady Madison?’ You have to be there. You have to brazen it out. And I know you can pull it off.”

Lillie dithered for several seconds.

“Do you really think so?”

“Absolutely. Without a doubt. Here's what you need to do....”

The fall faculty meeting

Lillie had not been easily persuaded, but she has an inordinate faith in my advice. She followed my instructions precisely, plus an embellishment or two of her own. At the math department on the morning of the faculty meeting, she grabbed me in the hallway.

“I don't remember my line!”

“Sure you do. Recite it for me.”

She rattled it off with only a moment's hesitation.

“See? You're fine! Good work on the outfit, too.”

We traipsed off to the auditorium with a large group of colleagues. Lillie hung back where she was less visible. It was both a strategy and a means to soothe her nerves. She sidled up to me again in the lobby.

“Zee Zee, are you sure about the line? I'm going to forget it!”

“The line is fine. Say it.”

She said it. No problem. We grabbed a spot near the left aisle, where Lillie would have a clear shot at the stairs to the stage when they called her name. The program began with a greeting from the college's information officer. His PowerPoint slides highlighted our slow but steady progress through the morning's events. The president gave his sprightly pep talk. It was about as well received as ever. We've had much worse speakers in the executive office.

The president then stepped aside and was joined by the dean of instruction for the ceremonial handing out of the service awards. The information officer returned to the microphone as emcee and announced the ten-year awards. The recipients filed forward. It was a large group. The president and dean shook hands with each professor and handed out the commemorative gifts. Our info officer worked down the list in five-year increments. The number of people called forward dwindled dramatically at twenty-five and thirty.

The emcee cleared his throat.

“Now we come to the final awards. It's the thirty-five-year service award. We have only two honorees.” He called the name of an English professor, whereupon a fusty instructor rose up and began a slow promenade to the stage. “And our second thirty-five year honoree is a math professor: Lillie Madison!”

Lillie bolted up from her seat as if spring-loaded. Heads swiveled in her direction and quickly took in Lillie's bright blue satin cocktail dress and the sparkling jewelry that glittered at her neck. She grinned nervously and sashayed down the aisle on spike-heel pumps as she waved at her faculty colleagues on all sides. The math department sparked the cheering and clapping, but soon it was taken up throughout the auditorium. As the English professor hovered tentatively at one end of the stage, Lillie swept up the other side, her grin getting wider and less forced. Quick to pick up a cue, the information officer leaned toward the mike and announced, “And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what thirty-five years of math teaching does for you at this college!” The crowd roared its approval as the laughter mounted and the applause got louder.

There had been too many award recipients in the earlier rounds for individuals to thank the attendees, but now there were only two on stage. Lillie accepted her memento from the dean, shook hands with the dean and the president, serenely accepting a peck on the cheek from the latter, and then made a bee-line for the microphone, which the emcee graciously surrendered to her.

The auditorium grew silent. Lillie smiled out at us.

“Thank you, thank you all. I just want to express my gratitude to those wonderful people thirty-five years ago who had enough faith in me to appoint me to a faculty position when I was only four years old!”

Peals of laughter and renewed applause rang out as she shook hands with the emcee, grabbed the befuddled English professor by the arm, and the two thirty-five-year honorees carried their awards off the stage. A giddy Lillie Madison returned to her seat with her math colleagues, who effusively congratulated her.

“Nice delivery of the line, Lillie.”

“Did it work, Zee Zee? It worked, didn't it?”

“Obviously. The only people who didn't applaud are still trying to add thirty-five and four.”

“It's thirty-nine!” she blurted.

“Actually, I did know that, Lillie, but thanks for confirming it.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Building consensus

A case study

Our college president was eager to share her good news with the math department. We had no idea what she was so excited about, but our ignorance soon came to an end. She had found a way to deprive us of one of our classrooms. She was also taking away one of our faculty offices.

We weren't as grateful as she had hoped. Our president had not expected us to ignore the important part of her announcement and instead focus on the trivialities. She had single-handedly negotiated a deal with a state university to bring a science/math tutorial program to our community college. (This was supposed to have prompted cheers and a standing ovation from us.) In return for the tutorial program and its attendant funding, all we had to do was convert a math classroom into a tutorial center and find office space in our department for the new program coordinator. (That, naturally, was the part that seized our attention.)

Oh, and the “single-handed” part. The cheekier and more senior members of the department asked the president very sweetly if it had ever occurred to her to consult with the department instead of autocratically presenting it with a fait accompli. After someone explained the meaning of “fait accompli,” Her Majesty reluctantly admitted that it might have been a good idea. She had simply assumed we would be as delighted as she was with the new development.

We weren't averse to additional tutorial resources for our students. Math students never seem to have as much help as they need. But our math department never seems to have enough classroom space to meet the student demand for our courses. And now our president had promised to give away one of our classrooms. We were also short of office space, with several faculty members doubled up and some squeezed into random spaces scattered across the campus. And our president had promised the sponsoring university that we would hire a coordinator for the tutorial program and house him or her in math department office space.

The math faculty regarded the president with long faces.

She moved into damage-control mode. She promised that one of her senior managers would work with us to mitigate the impact on our office and instructional space. It seemed like a minor concession at the time, but it soon grew into a genuine opportunity.

The senior manager in question turned out to be the dean of instruction. He met with a delegation of math professors and informed us that he had obtained more than enough funding for the remodeling of one of our classrooms into the tutorial center. The dean was a long-time member of the college's management team. We knew him well and caught the slight stress on “more” in his remark. We waited expectantly for him to drop the other shoe. We were not disappointed.

“We can take this opportunity to remodel areas of the math department that are adjacent to the room that's being converted. We can designate all of the modifications as a single project, provided that we meet a couple of conditions.”

He had our attention.

“First, the remodeling of the math department must reflect a consensus of the entire faculty. Second, of course, any alterations you request must be feasible within the available funding.”

We immediately began to try to get some idea of the potential scope of the reconstruction of our department. The dean figured we could, in addition to creating the mandated tutorial center, also revamp our obsolete computer lab and the storage space and faculty offices immediately adjacent to them. He suggested we create a priority list which could be costed-out from the top to the bottom, seeing how far down the list our resources would permit us to go.

The faculty delegation returned to the math department in higher spirits, especially since the extent of the remodeling might permit us to arrange space more efficiently and create an additional faculty office or two. The math dean, however, quickly noticed the potential fly in the ointment:

“Did the dean of instruction say the whole faculty had to agree on the changes? How are we going to get that to happen? I mean, managing the math faculty is like herding cats. And there's two dozen of you!”

Our dean should know. And she was right: The dean of instruction had given himself an out. We didn't think it was a deliberate trick, but he had to be aware that it was possible that the math faculty would never agree on a single remodeling plan. And any plan would inevitably involve disrupting the lives of those faculty members whose current offices were within the potentially affected area. If we failed to come up with a unanimous plan, it might be that only the classroom conversion would occur. The math dean called for a faculty volunteer to organize the development of a consensus plan. No one stepped forward, but everyone except me stepped back.

I had a new job. And what a nice big bag I was left holding!

The solution developed gradually. I was playing it by ear, but I knew it was necessary to get everyone involved at the earliest possible stage. I copied out the current floor plan of the math department's space. Everyone in the department got one, together with my cover memo explaining our opportunity and how we could squander it. I solicited suggestions from my colleagues, asking them to mark up the floor plans with their ideas for modifications and return them to my mail box.

Responses began to trickle in. Some were good and some were mediocre. Some were impractical. (No, I don't think we should try to squeeze in a tiny restroom in the conference room. No, no kitchenette in the storage room.) Not everyone was involved, though, and I was particularly concerned that I didn't have comments from the faculty members whose offices fell within the projected remodeling area. Their support was crucial. But not everyone wants to fiddle with floor plans.

My next idea was to redraw my colleagues' suggestions so that they were no longer just pen or pencil marks on the original layout. Having cleaned them up and made them look as good as possible, I began to post the new floor plans in the corridor outside my office.

Another memo went out, drawing people's attention to the new drawings. Participation rose sharply. Faculty members loitered in the hall outside my office looking at potential futures for our department. Some colleagues photocopied selections from the new drawings, marked them up with further modifications, and gave them to me. As quickly as I could I would create new drawings in accordance with the suggestions and posted them. The corridor gallery began to grow. We soon had more than a dozen proposals on the wall.

Now it was winnowing time. I taped up a faculty roster next to the floor-plan gallery. Each plan had a number on it. I asked my colleagues to fill in next to their names the number of the plan they liked best. Numbers got penciled in.

An interesting phenomenon soon manifested itself. If I had anticipated it, I could claim it was a stroke of brilliance, but it was really just a lucky accident. There were opinion-makers in our department, and their preferences were there in plain view. I had told people they could scratch out their choices and put in new numbers if they changed their minds. (There was, after all, still a trickle of additional plans appearing on the wall.) I noticed that my most influential colleagues would spark wholesale changes in the rankings as people would follow their lead. These were my consensus creators, if only I could get them to agree!

I began to take down the plans that had no votes (as even their creators moved on to new favorites). The most recent plans reflected small tweaks on old favorites. Convergence was occurring. More people abandoned their earlier choices and signed on with the leaders. We ended up with only two competing plans and those two were virtually identical. The only difference was whether a particular office would be big enough to be a double.

I announced a run-off ballot between the two finalists. The ballot was sneaky (in a way) but very public. It was a fresh copy of the faculty roster, taped up outside my office. It asked people to initial their preference but also to check the box that indicated whether they would support the other plan if it received a majority. Everyone checked the consensus box, aware that we needed a strong front in making our remodeling proposal to the dean of instruction.

I had the winning proposal blown up to poster size. I attached the final ballot, complete with everyone's initials, and our delegation returned to the office of the dean of instruction. We laid out our consensus proposal on the dean's desk and led him through the details of it. He nodded his head several times and smiled when he saw the complete set of initials on the final ballot. Even the colleague whose office would be demolished under the remodeling plan had signed. (The math dean helped by promising him his choice of the new offices to be created.)

The dean of instruction seemed just a little surprised that we had pulled it off. He signed off on our proposal and passed it along to the college's building management office. We got virtually everything on our list. The remodeling occurred the following summer, minimizing the disruptions. We were in our spiffed-up quarters when the fall semester began. Even the faculty who remained in unchanged offices (a large majority of us) were impressed by the rearranged space and the improved work room. The tutorial center was open for business. We did, however, make the new tutorial center coordinator share a double office (no way was a brand-new junior faculty member getting a single!).

And the classroom we lost to make way for the tutorial center? The college administration found a new one for us—in a trailer on the other side of the campus.

It can't always be a complete win-win.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Gods and know-nothings

Clueless at KSFO

The departure of Melanie Morgan from the KSFO commute-time talk show may have reduced the variety of right-wing vitriol, but the Bay Area radio station remains a reliable source of nonsense and idiocy. Sometimes word maven Richard Lederer calls in to promote one of his books or bandy words about, but Lederer represents the apogee of intellectualism when it comes to KSFO. Too bad he wasn't on hand this morning when Brian Sussman and Officer Vic (Tom Benner) were highlighting Barack Obama's supposed lies about his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. That's probably because Lee Rodgers was off today and prefers to reserve Lederer's visits to his own segments. Thus the B team was in place in his stead.

Or maybe it was the C team. Sussman and Benner don't know the difference between “precipitous” and “immediately.” They mocked Sen. Obama for denying that he had called for a “precipitous” withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Their evidence was a statement on Obama's website that he would begin withdrawals “immediately” upon becoming president:
Sussman: As of Friday, this was still on his website: “Barack Obama's plan. Judgment you can trust.” In September 2007, he laid out a detailed plan for how he will end the war as president. You ready for the plan?

Benner: Yeah, Brian.

Sussman: It's on his website. “Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq.” Now does that sound like precipitous withdrawal to you?
Excuse me, guys, but “precipitous” means “hasty” or “rapid”; it carries connotations of recklessness, which I'm sure is what you were after. By contrast, “immediately” means “without delay” or “right away.” You can begin something immediately (rather than delaying it) and there is no implication that the process you began is either rapid or slow. Tim Conway could immediately start shuffling across the room like the world's oldest man. His progress would be slow.

We must, however, entertain the possibility that Sussman and Benner know full well the distinction between “precipitous” and “immediately.” I think they don't, but it's possible. They are propagandists for a right-wing radio station, so anything that advances their agenda is permissible. Besides, they can count on many of their listeners to fall for whatever they say. Love and war. And politics. It's all fair!

I admit, though, that I think it's more likely that Sussman and Benner are as clueless as they come across during their broadcast. The key bit of evidence came hard on the heels of their colloquy on Obama's alleged contradictions. Sussman segued from his quotation of a statement from Obama's campaign site that contained the word “immediately” to a discussion of supposedly seditious elements that had been dropped from the website:
Sussman: You can't find this link any longer. It's been off for months now. But I still have the copy, when you could link from his website to their website and from their website to his website. This was Muslims for Obama.

Benner: Yes.

Sussman: Their tag-line was “Donate one dollar for one nation under God.” Now I got news for you. I don't think the God they were talking about is the God of Christianity and Judaism and let's include Hinduism and Buddhism and all the other isms. I think it has something to do with—

Benner: The one that says “submit.” [Laughter] Isn't there one? It seems to me. Let me go up to the catalog, Bob. Let's see, there's one here that says “submit or die”! Yeah, that's the one.

Sussman: In a word, yes. Submit.
Since Sussman and Benner haven't been paying attention, let's clue them in. The world's three major monotheistic religions are closely related. Just as Christians fancy themselves the successors of Judaism, the religion whose adherents supposedly didn't recognize the coming of their messiah, so do Muslims see themselves as successors to Christianity, the religion whose adherents didn't recognize the coming of the new prophet Muhammad.

In brief, Yaweh = God = Allah. You can have fun quibbling about differences in emphasis (whether the Jews may have also recognized lesser gods, why the Christians adopted a trifurcated concept of deity, and if Muslims regard Allah as the perfected version of predecessor notions of godhood), the fundamental notion for all three religions is that there is one supreme god. Arabs who are Christians use the name “Allah” when referring to God and do not imply by that usage that they are adherents of Islam.

But I trust you noticed the more egregious error in Sussman's ignorant rant. He included Hinduism and Buddhism under the Judeo-Christian “one God” umbrella, where they certainly do not belong, while excluding Islam, which certainly does belong in the line of descent of Old Testament monotheism. Hinduism espouses many gods while Buddhism is content to acknowledge none. English vocabulary words aren't the only things the KSFO talkers don't understand.

That's not the point, though, is it? The agenda at KSFO is not fact-based. The intent is to drive a wedge between the United States and Islamic culture. We need bad guys to ensure more electoral victories for the GOP. We're the good guys. Muslims are the bad guys (along with Democrats, liberals, gays, lesbians, atheists, and evolutionists). They're not like us. Oh, and Obama isn't like us either. Vote Republican.

Thank you, no. Republicans and their shills embrace a crabbed and cramped cultural view of us-and-them that reduces everything and everyone to caricatures. Let us laugh them to scorn. Cheekily borrowing some words from Psalm 2:4, I say that we shall have them in derision. They are so easily refuted. But will that be enough? My one concern about these idiots of the airwaves is reflected in the cautionary words of Adlai Stevenson, who was reportedly told by a supporter that he was sure to get the vote of every thinking American. “Thank you,” replied Stevenson, “but I need a majority to win.”

If you're a thinking person, get out there and make a majority. Otherwise the know-nothings win. And we lose.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I am Barack's bitch

Can't help loving that man of mine

Obama owns me. Perhaps he suspects and is taking advantage of it. In recent days he's pissed me off a few times, but signed, sealed, delivered—I'm his!

This FISA crap? Maybe the statute needs revision and updating, but any version that pleases George W. Bush is guaranteed to be bad. We should have let it wait until we have someone in the White House who regards the U.S. Constitution as more than a scrap of disposable tissue. I'm sure, however, that Sen. Obama wants it off the table so that Republicans can't point at him and scream that he doesn't want to protect our nation. (He should protect it from George!) Obama's cover story is that he promised to oppose an earlier version of the FISA bill, not this new improved “compromise” version that's on its way to the president for his signature. Sorry, senator. That fig leaf is way too small. You are showing, bro!

Faith-based initiatives? It all deserves to be swept away with a broad broom. In case no one has noticed, nearly eight years of church-state entanglement has done nothing to bring God's blessings showering down upon our nation. Quite the opposite, in fact. If God exists (perhaps with the sort of twisted sense of humor that would explain George Bush), then he must support separation of church and state. Otherwise why would he smite us with fires in California, floods in the Midwest, home foreclosures across the nation, sky-high gas prices, and surging unemployment?

But Barack says he plans to mend it rather than end it. Oh, sorry! That's Bill Clinton's line about affirmative action. When Bill used it, it made sense. When Obama applies it to Bush's faith-based initiatives program, it doesn't.

It's absolutely inevitable that the mass media will fall in love with whatever narrative they enjoy the most. In 2000 it was mocking Al Gore as a liar and serial exaggerator just because they didn't like him. (Thanks a lot, guys! You stuck us with Bush!) In 2004 it was reporting the allegations of the Swift Boat liars without noting that none of them had actually served with John Kerry or had any first-hand information about Kerry's service in Vietnam.

Precisely what the agreed-upon narrative for 2008 will be we don't know yet. Presumably the press will shy away from anything too overtly racist. Those subterranean rumbles must be discreetly coded rather than broadcast in the clear. We can be sure, however, that the old reliable flip-flopping charge will get another lap around the track. It certainly applies to McCain, though he's been getting off pretty easy so far. Obama has made it easier for the media to latch onto the flip-flop meme because in his case he's actually changed his positions in some bad directions, as noted above. Now he'll be pilloried for changing his position even when he doesn't, as with Iraq. (He's being accused of backing off his 16-month timeline for withdrawal even though he's long been on record as saying it would be done carefully and in consultation with military commanders. How dare he! Obama should commit to a plan that he will follow no matter what!)

In brief, Obama has disappointed me in a few ways, some significant, others not. But he hasn't come anywhere close to turning me away from him. I supported Hillary throughout the primary season and I followed her into her rival's camp last month. Virtually all of Sen. Clinton's supporters did the same thing and are now lined up behind Obama. (The noisiest Hillary holdouts are, in fact, most likely frauds. You can tell from their websites, which exhort dispirited Clinton supporters to vote for McCain, but also sport links to Ha! You GOP shills aren't Democrats at all!)

Hillary Clinton made the point that it's time to end divisions in the Democratic ranks and devote ourselves to electing Sen. Obama in November. She's absolutely right. Our second choice is now the only choice. There is no alternative.

What? Did you say Nader? (Are you an idiot?) McKinney? (Yeah, you are stone-cold crazy—unless you mean Mark, but he's Canadian.) Barr? (I just want him to do well enough in Georgia to deny McCain the state.) Grownups understand that either Barack Obama or John McCain will be the next president of the United States. The fringe candidates are protest votes, and I have no interest in being a smug loser whose political purity is greater than that of the major parties. (Yeah, being purer than the major political parties is such a challenge.)

People have a right to cast a protest vote in some grand political gesture, but that's what helped George Bush claim the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore by half a million ballots. The whole nation has been a loser ever since. I want to win!

And it's not just winning for the sake of winning. There are big issues at stake. For me, one of the biggest is the Supreme Court. I don't want a court that will accept Bush administration policies on executive privilege, warrantless wiretapping, Guantánamo, executive signing statements, intelligent design creationism, gay rights, reproductive freedom, and habeas corpus. If Sen. Obama wants to lose my vote, all he has to say is, “You know, I think we need more Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.” That's what it would take to drive me screaming away and gibbering in my safe place until the election season is over. No more Republican appointments to the Supreme Court! If Obama can save us from that, a lot of the rest is mere detail.

It's that important. I'm voting for Obama. (I hope he doesn't kick me too often.)