Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy birthday, Carl

Only 232 years old and doing fine

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1777. Although we claim him for the mathematicians, lots of people share in Gauss's legacy. He did pioneering work in celestial mechanics, geodesy, and physics as well as mathematics. Fortunately for many mathematicians (but perhaps not for mathematics), Gauss did not publish all his results, allowing them to get credit for discoveries he had long since made on his own.

By the way, some people insist on writing Gauss's first name as “Karl.” That's the German way, right? Don't be fooled. The man himself favored “Carl” when he signed his name and I render his name as he preferred. The only catch: He wrote his last name as Gauß, of course, but we Anglophones have difficulty following him there.

Happy Gauss's Birthday, everyone!

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Win some, lose some

“It really puzzled me at first, but then I figured out it was a proofreading error.”

“You're kidding! Is this like the infamous ‘butterfly ballot’ in Florida in 2000?”

“Oh, it's much, much worse. The candidate in question vanished! And so did his election hopes.”

I thought “Steve” had reported to me all there was to say about the student council election at American River College in Sacramento. My friend (and former student) had served as a poll worker during last week's balloting and thus enjoyed a front-row seat during the battle between the right-wing Christian incumbents and the “Change” coalition that challenged them.

The Change slate won a sweeping victory, taking six out of seven positions for student association officers and eight out of ten positions for at-large representatives. On Friday, when Steve sent me the link to ARC Students for Change, I noticed that Change candidate Cody Lathe was the only candidate for a leadership office who lost his race to the right-wing candidate (the so-called “ARC Students 4 Liberty”). Poor sucker. All his friends win, but he's left out in the cold. How did he lose when he was part of a very successful slate?

There's the rub! Are you really part of a slate if you're missing from the slate card? Steve gave me a scan of a flier that was widely distributed on campus last week. It's the Slate change card. Check it out:

Yep. Cody is missing. Someone forgot to list the Change candidate for director of public relations. That opened the door for the victory of Slavik Gurmeza, the extremely lonely sole member of the “Liberty” gang now represented among the officers of the ARC student association.

Now I'm just guessing here, but I expect that the other student association officers will give a very close reading to any press releases that Slavik prepares on behalf of the ARC student government.

Proofreading. It's a good thing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Who did Jesus elect?

God smites Christians

The student government at American River College in Sacramento has been having difficulty telling the difference between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God. (They get the two of them mixed up.) That confusion has now been resolved, the students at ARC having voted to sweep the dominant Slavic Christian coalition out of office. A slate of students calling itself ARC Students for Change triumphed in an election that boasted a staggering 9% turnout. (Yes, we're grading that on the curve because a typical school election sees ballots cast by only about 1% of the student body.)

My friend and former student “Steve” is a professor at American River College. He served as a poll worker in the two-day election. The college administration decided it would recruit faculty members to monitor the voting and validate student registration before handing out ballots. Since the student council incumbents were not particularly careful about following rules or discharging their responsibilities as elected officials, it was probably a prudent move by the ARC administration. Steve said that many voters had Russian-language fliers, indicating that they were probably supporters of the highly organized Ukrainian immigrant community that dominated campus politics during the past year. A joke going around on the Sacramento campus was that ARC stood for “A Russian College” (although Ukrainians are not necessarily fond of being described as Russians).

During the ascendancy of the extremely conservative Slavic Christians, the student council endorsed the anti-gay Proposition 8, decried the pro-gay National Day of Silence, and opposed a fund-raising rock concert on campus (most musicians being satanists and all). The recent campaign featured a pledge by ARC Students 4 Liberty (the slate formed by the incumbents and their allies) to support a Student Bill of Rights. That sounds harmless enough, until you find out that their notion of a student bill of rights is one that gives them the right to decide what the correct answers are in their classes. Does your astronomy professor say that the earth is 4.5 billion years old? Not a problem. You have a right to say it's only 6000 years old because God told you that. Did your anthropology professor try to teach you about human evolution? Scratch out Cro-Magnon in your textbook and write in Adam and Eve. See how that works?

Well, it didn't work. The Change slate took 14 of the 17 elective positions, including the presidency. The so-called Liberty slate tried its best to smear Change presidential candidate David L. Fisher by distributing a flier accusing him of drunk and reckless driving. Steve didn't know if there was any truth to the allegation, but it was a remarkably swift descent to the gutter. He pointed out that the Liberty candidates were quick to rip off the platform of the Change slate, since Change had made a textbook rental program a key campaign plank. The Liberty slate embraced it as if it was its own idea. (Apparently “Thou shalt not steal” does not apply to your opponents' political programs.)

The losing presidential candidate on the Liberty ticket, Yuriy Popko, declined to concede gracefully. He was quoted in the Sacramento Bee's on-line report as saying, “The administration and faculty have conspired to remove us from office since they don't approve of the image of ARC as having a conservative student body.”

The college president issued a statement Friday afternoon with some mild comments about the election:
This was a highly contested election with some strong disagreement among the candidates on the purpose and direction of student government at American River College. There were healthy discussions, and some less than positive, in which students learned directly about the nature of the democratic process and freedom of speech.

There is no doubt that debates and differences on issues will continue at ARC. While we promote open expression within the bounds of courtesy, sensitivity and respect, not all students have learned or exhibited these values. Our education process continues.
As you can see, the college president was careful not to identify those who behaved badly during the campaign.

Steve agrees that the administration and faculty were probably pleased to see the defeat of Popko's slate. He, personally, was delighted. As far as any conspiracy goes, however, Steve said it was simply a matter of getting out the vote and monitoring the election to prevent cheating. Students received an e-mail reminder about the two days of voting (Tuesday and Wednesday) and the polls were kept open both days from 9:00 in the morning till 9:00 in the evening. Some teachers announced the start of balloting in their classrooms and a few offered extra credit for voting. Steve says that might be appropriate in a political science class, but he didn't offer any points to his algebra students. The Liberty slate immediately accused the faculty of offering extra credit for voting against the Liberty candidates, but Steven is certain no professor was foolish enough to do that. Just getting out the vote was likely to dilute the support for the right-wing Christian coalition—unless, of course, they were truly representative of the ARC student body.

It seems they weren't.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who would Jesus elect?

Sandbox politics in Sacramento

The Sacramento Bee reports that student body elections are being held this week at American River College, the biggest community college in northern California. During the past year, ARC's student government has been notorious for endorsing the anti-gay Proposition 8 and opposing the national Day of Silence. That's what happens when student apathy allows a small but vigorous group of anti-gay bigots and religious extremists to take over the student association.

It's easy to characterize the ARC student politicians as comical—especially when a member of their coalition takes the trouble to write his college newspaper to denounce nudity in art as pornographic—but the unfortunate truth is that they're dead serious. And one of their targets is science. They really hate it. Their leader, Yuriy Popko, who is the Christian cabal's candidate for student body president, told the Bee that he opposes “any kind of political, religious or anti-religious indoctrination in the classroom.” That's the way Popko spins it. One of his running mates provides more specifics:
Christian students feel like they can't speak their mind in class, said Viktor Choban, a student council member who is running for re-election as part of Popko's slate. He said he is tired of professors' support for feminism and science teachers whose tests ask how old the Earth is.

“It depends on your religion,” said Choban, 25. “I would say 6,000 years based on my religion. The evolutionists would say 2 million years.”
No, Viktor, the age of the earth does not depend on your religion, although your religion may prevent you from accepting any evidence more current than Archbishop Ussher's extremely literal arithmetic exercise on the Bible.

But perhaps it doesn't matter. Viktor gets to flunk no matter what he says. He won't get any more credit for an answer of 2 million years than he would for 6000. Viktor's paid so little attention in his science classes that he doesn't know the actual answer is 4.5 billion years. Way to close your mind!

The election results will be posted later this week. Shall we all pray that the religious extremists running the ARC student government suddenly find themselves with a lot more time to spend on their religious devotions?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The old wife's tale

Listen to your mother

My grandmother had a base of operations. It looked suspiciously like a mere chair, overstuffed and tucked in a corner next to a window overlooking the farm, but it was really a kind of observation station. When she wasn't cleaning house, washing dishes, or attending to her invalid husband, Avó would be at her post. She might also be tending to her sewing or penning a letter to family back in the Old Country (the Azores), but nothing outside escaped her eyes. From her favored vantage point she could see the driveway that passed her house and provided access to the dairy barn and the workshop. The front of the barn was in her field of vision, as were the corrals next to the barn and the long haystack at the perimeter of the farm yard.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother became the senior partner in the family business. My uncle, however, did not deign to include her in anything but the most superficial discussion of his schemes and plans (some of which were spectacularly unsuccessful). Avó endured Uncle Ev's information-free visits with long-suffering patience, keeping a pot of coffee available so that he would have something to do with his hands while he mumbled a few pleasantries before dashing off about his (actually, her) business.

Farm life is characterized by routine. Twice a day the pumps in the dairy barn started up as cows were herded into the shower pens and the milking salon. The tanker truck arrived to take away the day's results at the same hour every evening (weekends included). The grandsons would feed the cows both morning and afternoon, pitching hay from a trailer into the mangers or driving the silage wagon to fill the mangers with partially fermented corn silage. Feeding was faster with the silage wagon than with the hay trailer because the wagon hooked up to the tractor's power take-off shaft and spewed out the silage without human intervention. My cousins strongly favored it.

Avó was used to the routine and quick to notice when it was disrupted. A small white pickup truck went cruising past her window. Some kind of company logo was on its door. The driver parked near the barn, climbed out, and began to wander around. Occasionally he jotted something down in a notebook. Avó kept an eye on the visitor, who eventually returned to his pickup and drove away. Uncle Ev came by for his afternoon cup of coffee, but said nothing about the visitor.

The process was repeated the next day. The small white pickup sat next to the barn while its driver wandered about, notebook in hand. This time he was still poking around when Uncle Ev dropped in on his mother. He was sipping his coffee when the white pickup drove past on its way out. Although Avó made a point of watching it leave, my uncle studiously ignored it.

The small white pickup made its appearance on three consecutive days and then was gone. My grandmother waited a few more days and decided she had waited long enough. It was time for direct action. If Uncle Ev refused to confide in his mother—the senior business partner, after all—then she would confront him.

She waited till he was halfway through his coffee before raising the topic.

“I haven't seen the white truck today. I haven't seen it in a few days.”

Ev grunted and took another sip.

“Is he coming back soon?”

“Uh, no,” Ev mumbled.

“Oh? Why not?”

“Uh, he's finished. Nothing more to do.”

“I see. And what exactly was he doing?”

Uncle Ev sighed. His mother was trying his patience and it was unusual for her to be so insistent. He decided there was no harm in explaining what was going on. It wasn't as though it was a big secret. He simply feared that he might establish a precedent of consultation, which was sure to be a nuisance and certain to prolong his perfunctory filial visits. There was, however, a glimmer of hope. If he made the topic as boring as possible, he might discourage his mother from bothering him further about business.

“The man is a dairy consultant. He gives professional advice to dairymen.”

Avó was neither deterred nor satisfied. She pressed on.

“So what kind of advice? What was he doing here?”

Uncle Ev shrugged dismissively, as if it didn't really matter.

“Oh, I just asked his professional opinion on increasing milk production. That's all. It's a reasonable thing to do, right?”

Avó pursed her lips for a long moment.

“I see,” she said. Another pause. “Well, I certainly hope he told you to feed the cows more hay and less corn. All the boys ever feed them is corn silage. The cows need more roughage from dry hay, even if it takes the boys longer to feed the cows that way. I hope he told you that. And I hope you tell your boys.”

Uncle Ev bobbled the coffee cup as he raised it to his lips, but it was almost empty and he didn't spill any of the contents. He sipped, swallowed, took a long, slow breath and set the cup down.

“Yeah, okay. Thanks for the coffee, Mom. I'll go talk to the boys.”

Avó watched her son leave, aware that she had upset him, but she didn't know that Ev had in his pocket a letter from the consultant. Along with a bill for a $1500 consultation fee was a report that told him he needed to feed the dairy cattle more dry hay and less corn silage. By contrast, his mother's unsought advice was free. And it came with a coffee service.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Living in bookcase land

A forest by any other name

A comment by a student started me looking for my copy of What is Mathematics? by Courant and Robbins (mostly by Robbins). I've owned a hard copy of the book for decades and I used to be able to retrieve it almost instantly from its customary niche in the bookcase in the library (actually, the spare bedroom, but there's no bed in it). While I was hunting, it occurred to me that my ability to retrieve volumes from my library had become severely impaired by both a proliferation of locations where a book could hide and a deterioration in my filing system. My book collection had fallen prey to the gradual increase of organizational entropy.

Courant & Robbins was not on any of the shelves of the seven bookcases in the library. Yes, seven. (You see why there's no room for a bed in the spare bedroom?) Five of the bookcases are tall things that stand seven feet tall. Two are low bookcases, though one of those (the one under the window) is a double-wide.

I continued my search in the computer room (okay, the other spare bedroom; no bed in there, either). Five bookcases, all tall, none containing Courant & Robbins. I do a lot of my work in the computer room, so the shelves groan with a bizarre and eclectic collection of whatever was needed for a particular job at any given time. And a stash of old, old paperbacks that used to live in Mom & Dad's basement, many of them dating back over forty years when I was in high school. (Maybe I should box them up and put them away.)

I'm not counting as bookcases the shelves in the computer room closet or the shelves mounted on the wall above the computer desk. Those are full of old manuals and a miscellany of computer parts. (It's possible I could assemble an Intel computer out of the scraps.)

I looked at the three bookcases in the hallway (two tall, one short; the short one is under the whiteboard where I scrawl reminders to myself, some of which I can no longer decode). Lots of books from grad school. No Courant & Robbins. Frankly, I knew it wouldn't be there. The hallway is the newest location for bookcases and my latest acquisitions are on those shelves.

How about the bedroom? I don't remember having dipped into What is Mathematics? recently, but if I had perused it any night during the last decade, perhaps it had migrated to the bookcase next to the bed. Or the matching bookcase on the opposite wall. Only two tall bookcases in the bedroom. (The bed gets in the way. It really does.) And I looked into the alcove where a short bookcase was built in. Nope.

Seventeen bookcases checked so far and no Courant & Robbins. To the living room!

The living room has seven bookcases. Of course, I'm giving the living room credit for the two small bookcases in the entry way. One is a tiny thing I acquired from my parents. It has only two shelves and family folklore asserts that it was once the home of my father's complete set of The Book of Knowledge (the bookcase tossed in as a premium during a special sale in the 1940s). The five other bookcases are tall, though the lawyer's cabinet with glass doors isn't quite as tall as the others.

There are no bookcases in the bathroom. That's a mercy. But there is one in the utility room. It's a low and simple affair made of unfinished particle board and its job is to hold dozens of back issues of old science fiction magazines. It does the job just fine. No books of any other description are on its shelves. Certainly no Courant & Robbins.

How about the dining room? It has five tall bookcases along one wall. Very impressive. They contain math books (lots of calculus here), religion (not, for some reason, filed under fantasy), politics, and history. Courant & Robbins is nowhere to be found.

Damn. Thirty bookcases and no trace of What is Mathematics? Could it be in one of the bookcases in my office at school? In one of the boxes in the storage shed next to the house? In one of the three shelf units in the garage? Darn! I had been so certain I knew where it was! I trudged back to the computer room to send an e-mail confessing my failure to retrieve the book I had recommended to my student.

As I passed the library, an irresistible force sucked me into the room. (This often happens.) Right there, sitting next to Royden's Real Analysis, was Courant & Robbins. What was a popular expository book doing on the shelf with my thirty-five year old graduate textbooks in mathematics? I had looked right past it during my first search of the room.

I swear. This summer, I'm sorting the books and imposing some order on my thirty bookcases.

Only thirty? Perhaps I should count again.

By their fruits ye shall know them

Already forgiven?

This morning Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby is in custody of San Joaquin county authorities under suspicion of the kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, California. She's presumed innocent until proven guilty (something folks on the right often forget), but her arrest raises some questions that it's not too early to examine. Is it irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to! (A great and searing tragedy has occurred.)

My first question is very simple: Will people now warn parents about letting their children associate with Sunday school teachers? Somehow I suspect that Sunday school teachers are unlikely to be stigmatized as a group because of the alleged crimes of one of their number. Narrow-minded folks are quick to blame entire segments of society (atheists, gays, immigrants, blacks, liberals) for the real or imagined failings of a few. I'll bet that Sunday school teachers will not suffer the same fate.

It's fair to bring up the case of Catholic priests, who were painted with a broad brush because of the child-molestation scandals of the past few years. Only a small percentage of their brethren were involved, but in so large a group that meant hundreds of cases. I think, however, that the real trigger in that case was the decades-long involvement of the Church hierarchy in covering up the problem and concealing rather than addressing the compulsive criminal behavior of certain clerics. It is a grave but self-inflicted wound.

As for Sunday school teachers, they undoubtedly have the same foibles and shortcomings of the population at large. Assuming, however, that they're probably more religious than the general populace (a safe assumption, no?), we might examine some of the possible consequences of their enhanced religiosity. In particular, is Melissa Huckaby a believer in the doctrine of “once saved, always saved” (OSAS, pronounced “oh-sass”)? That's the dangerous notion that one is guaranteed salvation and eternal life in heaven as soon as one accepts Jesus as one's personal savior. No subsequent crime, however heinous, can strip you of that get-into-heaven-free card.


So is Sandra Cantu's accused killer an OSAS Christian? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Huckaby's grandfather is the pastor of the Clover Road Baptist Church in Tracy, which says it embraces the New Hampshire Baptist Confession as its articles of faith. While individual Baptist churches are largely independent of each other, creeds such as the New Hampshire confession provide some commonality within the aggregate of the Baptist religion(s). The New Hampshire formulation says,
We believe that such only are real believers as endure unto the end; that their persevering attachment to Christ is the grand mark which distinguishes them from superficial professors; that a special Providence watches over their welfare; and they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
As with most religious texts, this can be read in multiple ways. The “special Providence” suggests that God will keep you out of trouble, so if you get in trouble you weren't really a sincere Christian. It's a useful escape clause that brings New Hampshire Baptist Confession churches closer to the mainstream of Catholic and high-church Protestant doctrine, where the sinner can cast away salvation by sinful acts. Congregants of the Clover Road Baptist Church need not be OSAS Christians (although they might, of their own volition, choose to interpret their doctrine so).

The New Hampshire Baptist Confession also contains the statement (unremarkable among Christian churches) that “nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth but his own inherent depravity and voluntary rejection of the gospel.” I wonder how Huckaby interpreted that declaration when teaching her Sunday school classes. Did she see it as the perfect excuse for any excess she might commit? We don't know and there's no guarantee we will ever find out, even in the event that she is convicted of the murder charge.

In the meantime, don't expect anyone to warn parents that they should keep their children away from Sunday school teachers, a group inherently dangerous because of their belief that they can be forgiven anything. Religion has yet to lose all of its special privileges in our society.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Club of Rome

Look what the pope dragged in

Jesus is criticized in chapter 15 of the gospel of Luke for hanging out with sinners. Given the company he's been keeping lately, Jesus may be in for some more negative publicity. Newt Gingrich has been born again as a Roman Catholic, having been received into Christianity's oldest sect on March 29, 2009.

By becoming a Catholic, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has joined the religion of his third wife. It's just a little bit complicated, now that Newt belongs to a church that does not recognize divorce. During his religious instruction, Gingrich was undoubtedly confronted with the necessity of regarding his first two marriages as retroactively nonexistent, as sacramentally invalid. The Catholic Church normally recognizes Christian marriages as binding, which could be a problem if Newt participated in church weddings. The details can be complicated. It would be much easier if Newt married his first and second wives in civil ceremonies, but I don't know if that was the case. If it wasn't, then the Church authorities had to determine that the first two marriages didn't count. Fortunately (by the grace of God and all that), they have ways and dispensations to deal with difficulties of this nature.

Presumably Newt's current marriage to the former Callista Bisek (who was also his mistress during his second marriage) has been regularized in some fashion. The sacrament of penance can come in very handy in such circumstances and I expect that the happy couple are now properly shriven and bathed in the light of forgiveness. One recalls that Jesus responded to the criticism of his keeping company with sinners by recounting the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd's joy at bringing it back into the fold. It's a story with a happy ending, although Jesus neglected to comment on what the shepherd would have done if he had instead found a wolf in sheep's clothing. Gingrich is part of the flock now, but the pope might want to keep a wary eye on him. (I'm certain that Callista should.)

One hears that Gingrich is exploring the possibility of a presidential run in 2012. He may as well give it a try. He can run on a platform espousing traditional family values. Sure, it would take a miracle for him to win, but a sprinkling of holy water from Rome has already transformed him into a member in good standing of an anti-divorce religion. He's had one miracle, so why not two?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How stupid are conservatives?

Really, really, really stupid

Conservative acquaintances sometimes accuse me of not listening to both sides of the political arguments of the day. I've heard this from my parents and from the token Republicans who are permitted to sit in on my Friday lunch group (which is mostly a bastion of hardcore moderates and liberals). The reality is rather different. I actually listen to much more right-wing talk radio than is good for my digestion. It's like a bad habit, but one likes to know what the opposition is up to (or down to).

Rabbi Daniel Lapin is the Sunday afternoon talk-show host on KSFO who puts the Jew in Judeo-Christian. Given KSFO's target demographic, most of Lapin's listeners are probably right-wing Christians who know he is doomed to burn in hell for failing to embrace humanity's Lord and Savior, but he's conservative enough to be tolerated in this life. Of course, Lapin isn't the only Jew who has turned to the dark side of America's political force. One of his fellow travelers called in during last Sunday's gabfest.

Lapin greeted Hannah cheerfully and she wished him a happy Passover. Then she added her two cents' worth to the theme of the day: differences between liberals and conservatives.
Hannah: As far as your topic, well, it might sound simplistic to you, and you're probably going to say that I have a one-track mind, but I blame everything on the liberals. I really do. I think if Sigmund Freud lived today, he would be a liberal.

Lapin: You're right about that. No question. He was and is and always will be a liberal.

Hannah: Yeah. And the problem is that this whole science of—if you can call it a science—of psychiatry, I think is lot to blame for this because instead of just punishing somebody who goes and killing people, they look for reasons. I mean, I'm not interested in the reason. I mean, maybe the guy is miserable, but that's no reason to kill somebody.

Lapin: That's right. And that's how I started this segment, this discussion. Stop inquiring as to why the Binghamton murderer did it. It's irrelevant.
Wow. Just wow.

Who cares what the reasons are for mass murder? It's possible that such knowledge might enable us to reduce the number of occurrences of these violent crimes, but seeking answers is so ..., well, gay, right? Only sissies and liberals (but I repeat myself, of course) want to understand things. Conservatives are willing to wallow in ignorance as long as they get a chance to serve on the firing squad, pull the lanyard on the guillotine, take a swing with the axe, release the trap door on the gallows, or flip the switch on the electric chair. Somewhere along the line they heard that ignorance is bliss and decided to maximize their happiness.

Say, who owns the rights to the name of the Know Nothing Party? I know some people who could make good use of it.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

I can see clearly now

The cheeky student

My students' weird outfits seldom surprise me very much. Young people adopt and abandon various fads with cheerful nonchalance. The bare-midriff craze seems to have run its course. Either the girls got tired of the draftiness or no longer feel obligated to display tattoos on the small of their backs. And the boys have grown weary of pulling their jeans down and exposing their boxers.

Well, most of them have. A few latent exhibitionists continue to sublimate their urges by allowing their trousers to sag around their thighs. I had one in a recent math class. He liked to sit in the back of the room, which was just as well, except for the occasion when it turned out to be an awkward choice.

Usually, when I have papers to return, I call out the students' names and hand them back one by one. It would be a little easier and faster to just toss them on the side table and have the students pick them up for themselves, but I prefer to invest the couple of minutes it takes to return the papers individually, reinforcing my recollection of their names (occasionally a challenge in a forty-student class) and adding a bit of a personal touch. Anyway, my students often need the time to settle down for class, since it apparently takes an incredible number of keystrokes to turn off their cell phones before those devices shut down. (Some of my students even need to keep pulling them back out of their pockets to fiddle with them further. How inconvenient for them!)

On the day in question, “Carl” was taking his ease in the back row when I called his name. He sauntered down the center aisle up to my lectern to take the graded quiz I was holding out for him. One of the girls suddenly shrieked.

“Carl! Oh, my God!”

Carl spun around to look at her, making clear to me the reason for his classmate's outburst. His boxers were torn in the back from waistband down to as far as the eye could see (which was pretty far) before they finally ducked inside his pants. There was serious cleavage. Carl stood stock-still for several seconds, trying to process what was going on. Finally a classmate removed all confusion.

“Your underwear, dude. It's torn wide open!”

Carl spasmodically snatched at his jeans and jerked them up to his waist. The full moon vanished from sight. He hobbled back to his desk with his self-induced wedgie and plopped into his seat. The class calmed down and we got to work on some actual math, although it was several minutes before the glances toward Carl and the intermittent giggles died out completely.

For the rest of the semester, for some reason, Carl decided that low-hanging pants were so over.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I play the fool

Is it April 1 yet?

Something was jammed in my mail box in the university math department break room. I bent down to take a better look. A sorry-looking old football had been wedged into it. When I pulled it out, the ball plumped up a bit to an approximation of its normal inflated dimensions, but it was obviously not up to full pressure. I fished out a memo or two that were also in the mail box, tucked the errant football under my arm, and started down the hall to my office.

I was in a curious sort of academic limbo in those days. Although I was no longer a graduate student in the doctoral program, I had been hired by the department chair as an instructor. I was still hanging out with my friends in the grad program, but I was now quasi-faculty. It wasn't a bad job and I knew some people were hired year in and year out as lecturers, making it possible for the real faculty members to do as little teaching as possible. That kind of insecure year-to-year employment didn't appeal to me for the long run. I had other plans. In the fall I would be leaving for a job with the California legislature, a prospect I regarded with mixed emotions.

The first former classmate I met in the hallway said a cheery hello to me and remarked, “Great idea, Zee! Count me in!”


I reached the door to the stairwell and started the ascent to the next floor. A grad student was pounding rapidly down the steps. He gave me an unwelcome but friendly punch on the shoulder.

“I'm on board, Zeno! Definitely!”

Weirder and weirder.

I exited the stairwell at the next landing and started down the corridor. This was TA territory and my office was on its periphery. The occupants of my former TA office whooped as I went by.

“Hup, two, three, four!” they cried.

Oh, right. I had a damned football under my arm.

I was not particularly amused. I stashed the football in a desk drawer in my office and put it out of my mind. Later that day I returned to the mail room. In those days before e-mail, it was possible for important things to show up in memos written on actual paper. Still, I was surprised to see several slips of paper in my box. They were the torn-off bottom halves of a mimeographed form that had been tucked into the grad student mail boxes early that morning. I tracked down the top half in the wastebasket. I instantly recognized the style of a former office partner, although he was pretending to be me:
Date: April 1, 1978
Subj: Math Dept Intramural Touch Football Team
From: Zeno Ferox, interim lecturer

Wouldn't it be a good idea for the math dept grad students to join the fun and form an intramural football team? I would be willing to serve as the manager and my former office partner, who has experience with high school JV teams, has volunteered to be the coach. If you're interested, tear off the form below and leave it in my mail box. See you on the gridiron!

To anyone who knew how little I cared for sports, it was an obvious over-the-top hoax. Of course, that was also its charm. And hadn't I been seeing walking the hallways with a football tucked under my arm?

The grad students cheerfully joined in the fun and pretended to believe that I had solicited them to join a campus football team. They filled out the forms and tucked them into my mail box. And here's what the form said:
Please indicate how you would like to participate in our new math dept intramural football team by filling in the appropriate information. Would you like to be

a linebacker?

Height: _____ Weight: _____

a cheerleader?

Measurements: _____-_____-_____

a tackling dummy?

IQ: ______

There were a couple of other items, too, but I forget. The prank itself, though, will never be forgotten.

And the old football? The friend responsible refused to own up and so never reclaimed his ball, which was evidently an artifact of his younger days. The ball sits today as an odd souvenir atop one of my many bookcases. On the rare occasion when someone spots it, the old story gets retold.

April Fool, Zeno! You're a football team manager now!