Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Rite of Confirmation Bias

How golden is your rectangle?

Catholic adolescents in the United States typically go through the rite of confirmation in their early teens. The diocesan bishop comes to your local parish and randomly quizzes some of the confirmation candidates to verify that they have been properly catechized (I say “randomly,” but no bishop goes out of his way to create an incident by calling on the visibly clueless). For many young Catholics, the confirmation quiz, whether they were called upon or not, is a kind of exit interview. Attendance at both catechism and mass drops dramatically after achieving confirmation. All done! (Except maybe for Christmas and Easter. And weddings and funerals.)

In my day (45 years ago), after the quiz and the formal administration of the sacrament, the bishop would also give each candidate a limp little slap on the cheek in token of the pain of human existence. Perhaps it's still done, but I haven't been to a confirmation in decades.

Two years ago, I read Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. It is a very silly book, loaded down with distortions of Catholic history and dogma (which I wouldn't have thought needed any additional twisting or distortion). Brown likes to titillate his readers with revelations of supposedly factual esoterica. It's the old “based on a true story” marketing gimmick. Not content to confine himself to religious fiction, Brown also dabbles in mathematical fiction. After reading The DaVinci Code, I wrote a post about the golden ratio nonsense it contains. In Phi: Good to the last decimal, I explained in some detail that Brown's main character offered many demonstrably untrue statements concerning the golden ratio as if they were recognized scientific facts. The golden ratio, or “phi,” is supposedly deeply embedded in our esthetic sensibilities, but it's all a crock.

Nevertheless, like any popular myth, the golden ratio canard continues to have plenty of believers. An anonymous commenter posted his testimony in a response to my original article. Read it closely. It is a marvelous example of confirmation bias.
I use phi alot. Not because it somohow magically looks good, but because it WORKS ON PEOPLE. Just look at ALL apple products. Open your photoshop, tak some golden ruler made of golden rectangles, blend it and start some measuring. Old ipod is best for this, not iphone. You will see very quickly how they do their GREAT design, which looks easy on the first look, but many people says, there is some hidden beauty in their products. And yes, there is. All their measurements are based on phi. Sometimes not exactly to spice it up, but many times yes. Check spaces around keyboard on the new macbook pro, just check it. And don't tell me now, that phi doesn't work. It works if you know how to use it and where. My opinion is that phi in art is redundant. Nothing more, nothing less. I could live without it in art. But in graphics which is supposed to make me some money? - Here is the right segment for it
Anonymous declares that golden rectangles (those whose sides have the proportion 1 to 1.618) “works on people” in some mystical (though not “magical”) fashion. Presumably this exact proportion elicits involuntary appreciation from viewers and is Apple's secret weapon. Secret weapon, that is, if one considers the iPod, not the iPhone. (Pity, that!) Does Anonymous care that Apple strays from the golden ratio even in its iPod family?

Anonymous is already busily filtering the data. “All their measurements are based on phi,” he says. Unless, of course, they're not: “Sometimes not exactly to spice it up but many times yes.” And therefore many times no.

Martin Gardner famously debunked the same sort of nonsense about the Great Pyramid in Giza by whipping up a similar whole-cloth mythology for the Washington Monument in D.C. It always works the same way: One collects huge amounts of data and then filters out anything that doesn't fit. If the original collection is large enough, the residue is certain to be quite impressive to those who don't know any better.

Anonymous made his task easier by laying claim to golden ratio efficacy even in the absence of the golden ratio. That really opens things up. Consider what happens, if we are allowed to fudge the ratio in a golden rectangle by 5% or 10%. We get an impressive array of rectangles that are “close” to golden. With a loophole that big, it becomes easy to generates lots of compliant examples. The variation comes perilously close to turning even the iPhone golden. Behold!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

ICR prepares a fall-back position

A back door to science truthiness?

The July 2009 issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research provides a heaping helping of your minimum monthly requirement of creationist goodness. In addition to the warmed-over offerings of the ICR's late founder, Henry M. Morris, the new issue contains exciting developments in the Institute's educational mission:
The Institute of Creation Research announces its new School of Biblical Apologetics

M.C.Ed. with a joint major in Biblical Education and Apologetics

Choose from four targeted minors:
  • Genesis Studies
  • Creation Research
  • Christian School Teaching
  • Sacred Humanities
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? You might, if you recall that ICR has failed to get the approval of Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for its graduate program for a master's degree in science education (or “science so-called,” to borrow a phrase from the creationist lexicon). Had ICR succeeded, it could have churned out “science teachers” with master's degrees from an accredited institution of higher learning.

They lost that battle when the THECB voted down their application for accreditation. ICR, however, did not lose heart. It filed a lawsuit to force the Texas authority to grant their accreditation and, just in case, prepared what appears to me to be a fall-back position.

If they don't get accreditation from the Texas authority for secular education, why not set up a program that qualifies as religious education, but with a dash of “science” to spice it up? ICR is now accepting applications for the new School of Christian Apologetics. Can you say “yes” to the question “Do you want to use this program's education to better prepare yourself for glorifying God?” (see question #26 on the application for admission). Then this might be just the indoctrination program you're looking for!

If you study diligently, even you might be able to come up with closely reasoned and logically air-tight arguments such as those advanced by ICR's leading lights. For example, just try to refute Frank Sherwin (ICR's Senior Science Writer) when he says (also in the July 2009 Acts & Facts),
Since there is no evolutionary pattern inherent in any biological information, Genesis must be accurate.
My goodness! See how Sherwin has us wriggling in the crushing grip of reason?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dress rehearsals

Uh ... line?

She possessed the serenity of the clueless. Nothing seemed to disturb her as she sat immersed in obliviousness in my statistics class. I kept writing “See me” on her disastrous quizzes, but she didn't bother. Finally I managed to catch her at the end of the period.

“We have an exam next week and I need to ask you what you're doing to get ready.”


“Yes. Ready. Because you're not. Ready, that is. You've flunked every single quiz so far and you need to get your act together if you're going to have any chance on the exam.”

“Oh, I already know that I'm not going to pass the exam.”

“You do? Well, that makes two of us. But you seem awfully calm for someone who actually knows she's flunking a class.”

“Yeah, but that's okay. You see, Mr. Z, I'm not really taking the class.”

“Really? Then it may be a problem that your name is on my class roster and I'm going to have to assign you a grade.”

“Oh, I can explain. I'm really taking the class next semester. I enrolled in your class this semester for practice.”

I mulled that over for a moment. Some students must have more time than they know what to do with if they deliberately plan to take a class twice. It's not a typical student problem, most of whom wish the days had 30 hours instead of only 24.

“You are planning to flunk?”

“Yeah! This is just so that I can see what's in the class and get familiar with the material. Then next semester I'll do really well.”

I considered what to say and then just said it.

“That's a remarkably foolish plan. And a real time-waster, too. I'm glad you have time to burn. But apart from all that, it's not working. You haven't familiarized yourself with anything so far. On the last quiz you didn't even know that x-bar stands for the arithmetic mean—the average—of a sample. How can you not even recognize a symbol that we've been using for two weeks in class every day? You are really and truly wasting your time.” And mine, too, but I didn't mention that.

She recoiled with an angry expression on her face and stalked off. Fortunately, she didn't bother to come back.

Unless, of course, she was reincarnated as the calculus student I had this year:
Professor Z,

Now that the last day to drop class to qualify for a enrollment fee refund has passed, I would like to check about something with you.

Since I won't be in town the whole semester, I will have to drop the class at some point. But, instead of dropping and getting a grade of "W", I would prefer to drop the class without a notation on my record by dropping by the early drop deadline if and only if I can continue attending the class afterward. Can you let me know whether I would be able to continue attending class if I drop by drop deadline to avoid getting a grade of "W"?

Clueless II
Oy. She's gaming the system and wants me to help. I'm afraid she's come to the wrong place:
The first thing I need to point out to you, Clueless, is that unenrolled students are not allowed to sit in on classes at a community college. While universities may choose to permit auditors, the rules governing community colleges forbid them. If you're not on the roster, you're not in the classroom.

My second point is about choosing to enroll in a class when you know you cannot finish it. I had a very long waiting list of students eager for the opportunity to take calculus. You signed up with the intention of dropping the class later, thus denying a spot to a student who could have stayed all semester. This does not please me and seems a poor use of educational resources at a time when we are experiencing severe shortages. My class is an actual college course, not a "rehearsal", and I caution you never to do this again.
History then repeated itself. The game-playing student went away and did not come back.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

A tale of two offices

A far, far better office

Professor Porfirio Gigante was preparing to throw his weight around. He carried a lot of it, both figuratively and literally.

“Professor Gigante? The president will see you now.”

The professor and the president had a lot of history together, going back to an earlier era when she had been his faculty colleague. He would now carefully explain to her the circumstances that had prompted him to seek a special audience with her. If all went well, Gigante would manage to salvage his master plan, which had unfortunately begun to unravel.

The math department was in the midst of a hiring process to fill a vacancy created by a retirement. Gigante had volunteered to serve on the hiring committee the moment he discovered that one of his former students was applying for the position. He would move heaven and earth to ensure the appointment of his protégé. Gigante's advocacy had carried his fair-haired boy through the screening process and put him on the interview list, but the interviews had not gone according to Gigante's scenario. His candidate's flaccid teaching demonstration threatened to knock him out of contention and prevent him from getting to the final round.

The committee members were not supposed to discuss the candidates among themselves except in closed session and not until the end of the interviews. Nevertheless, Gigante had quickly picked up on the committee's favorites among the candidates and he knew that his protégé was not among them. He would vote strategically in the final ranking vote, awarding first place to his favorite and deliberately offsetting the popular choices by ranking them last. But as the committee recessed for a much-needed break, he feared his machinations would not suffice.

Thus Gigante's quick secret mission to the president's office.

The hiring committee had reassembled after its afternoon break to make its final recommendations to the president. The faculty members were all in place except for Gigante, the senior member of the math department, but he finally bustled in, a small smile on his face. A few minutes later, the dean of instruction arrived and took his position as chair of the committee. The dean had an odd expression on his face.

“Okay,” said the dean. “Let's get down to work.” Long pause. “First of all, I have an announcement. The president has requested that we send her five names.”

The committee members exchanged quizzical glances. They looked to their senior member to ask the obvious question on their behalf, but Gigante seemed surprisingly unperturbed by the announcement and remained silent. While they were sorting out the order of precedence, one of the brash newbies blurted out the obvious question.

“I thought we were supposed to give the president three names. Why the change?”

“Yes, Zeno, I asked her about that. It's the president's prerogative to interview more than three finalists if she chooses,” answered the dean.

The faculty members shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They had taken seriously the opportunity to winnow the candidates down to their three favorites, after which the president would interview the finalists and choose one. If she intended to interview as many candidates as she wanted, she could in effect dramatically diminish the committee's role in choosing a new colleague. Gigante poured some oil on the troubled waters:

“We need to recall,” he said unctuously, “that five is the number of candidates the president customarily interviews if she is considering the appointment of two faculty members.”

People sat bolt upright in their seats.

“Two?! But the department has only one vacancy!”

As committee chair, the dean tried to get everyone back on track:

“Porfirio is right, of course. The request for five names suggests that the president is considering the appointment of two math professors from this pool. In light of that, I need to verify that the committee agrees that it can find five qualified candidates from the applicant pool to recommend to the president for her consideration.”

The dean was greeted with a babble of assents. It was, indeed, a strong applicant pool. Some committee members had grown uncomfortable with Gigante's obvious favoritism toward his former student and had been worrying that Gigante would erupt in dismay if his favorite was eliminated. Now people were glancing suspiciously in his direction. If there were going to be two slots, Gigante's constant ranking of his protégé as #1 would almost certainly push him into the final round of interviews with the president.

When the balloting was over that afternoon, and five names had been selected to forward to the president, Gigante was quite satisfied with his day's work.

Two weeks later the dean of the math department sat at her desk, pondering the memo that an administrative assistant had just hand-delivered from the president's office. Gigante's fair-haired boy and one of the hiring committee's favorites would be joining her staff. She moved to the door of her office and called down the corridor:

“Zeno, I need to talk to you. Get in here.”

After a few seconds, a reply came back down the hallway:

“I'll be right there, boss.”

The dean returned to her desk and awaited the faculty member's arrival.

“Close the door behind you, Zee. And congratulations.”


“Yes, congratulations. You've been bumped up two notches on the departmental seniority list.”

“Whoa! So it really happened? The president appointed two new math profs?”

“That's right. I'll be issuing a notice to the entire department later today. In the meantime, though, I have some things to figure out. I need to construct a second full-time schedule for fall for an unanticipated new hire and I need to find a place to house that person, too. Zeno, do you still have that information list that you compiled the last time we did office assignments?”

“Sure. Give me a few minutes and I'll dig it out from my files. I have copies of the original architect's plat of the building and the square footage of each office. And I corrected the numbers by actual measurement of some of the offices that turned out not to be built quite to spec.”

“Good. That'll be handy. Once again it's going to be useful to have an obsessive-compulsive on staff.”

“I think you'll find there's more than one of us here in the math department, boss. But how are you going to use the information?”

“You can probably answer that for yourself, Zeno. The president has given me an extra math professor but she isn't giving me any extra office space to accommodate him. One of our single offices is going to have to become a double. The only reasonable way to do that is to identify the biggest single and convert it.”

Several contemplative seconds passed in silence.

“Uh, boss? There really isn't any question about it, is there? The biggest single office is obviously the one occupied by the senior faculty member. Porf glommed on to the biggest office ages ago and has occupied it since time immemorial. Way before I ever arrived here.”

“Way before I ever got here either,” said the dean. “But I need the square-footage numbers to wave in his face. Prying him out of there is going to take all the leverage I can get.”

Later that day the dean informed Porfirio Gigante that he was moving into the small single about to be vacated by his retiring colleague. Gigante's office would become a double accommodating the two junior faculty members arriving in the fall.

Within minutes Porfirio was again in the college president's office.

“She can't do that to me!” he complained to the president.

“Oh, Porf! You know better than that!” said the president. “Just as I have the right to appoint faculty members, the department dean has the right to allocate office space as she sees fit. Oh, and congratulations on your new colleagues.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

This, too, will pass

But will the students?

Professor Porfirio Gigante was accustomed to doing things his own way. As the department's senior faculty member, he had been accustomed to doing things his own way for a long time. Only a very foolish junior faculty member would dare cross him.

Enter yours truly.

I had dutifully substituted for Professor G several times during my first two years at the college. Since he routinely exceeded the department's budget for substitute teachers, he avoided hassles with the dean by keeping his subs “off the books,” vaguely offering to square things by returning the favor at some indeterminate time in the misty future. I was warned by the older hands in the department that the misty future would never arrive, but I was unperturbed. From one perspective, an untenured faculty member doing unpaid substitutions is being taken advantage of. From my own perspective, it was an investment, ingratiating myself with the senior member of the department.

As soon as I achieved tenure, however, I became unavailable for any further unpaid substitution services. Professor G was philosophical about the loss of his pinch-hitter and smoothly transferred his attentions to the newer arrivals on the faculty roster. It was an old game to him and he was its past master.

Perhaps both of us welcomed the transition. It had become increasingly difficult for me to smother my light under a bushel basket in his presence. He certainly noticed when I could no longer treat his oracular pronouncements as received wisdom. He had an oblique manner that made it much too easy for me to blurt out my unvarnished opinions.

“You know, Zeno, some people feel there's valid evidence in favor of reincarnation.”

“Yeah, I do know that, Porf. I've got some people in my own family who take that sort of nonsense seriously.”

I realized even before the grimace appeared on his face that I was inadvertently mocking him as well as my woo-woo family members. Oops.

But there was worse.

The dean on one occasion remarked to me, “There are time, Zeno, when you really remind me of Porfirio.”

“I beg your pardon? How is that even possible?”

“It's the way you talk,” she explained. “You and Porf are always using big words.”

I paused for a full beat.

“Okay, I can see where it might seem that way, but there is a definite difference. I use the words correctly.”

My witty riposte blazed through the departmental grapevine to Professor Gigante's ear. He was not pleased. Thereafter, it seemed to me that he was adding just a bit of extra stress to the more uncommon words in his speech, as if daring me to contradict his usage. I resisted the temptation.

But, yes, he was still wrong.

The end of the semester arrived and finals week began. The usual schedule was out the window and class times were rearranged to accommodate the longer periods devoted to final exams. I peeked into my classroom in advance of the appointed time to verify that the previous class had finished its exam and I could get ready for my own students' final. I observed that a few stragglers were still at their desks trying to finish up. I also noticed that the problems for their final exam had been written up on the board, immediately identifying the class as one of Professor Gigante's. He never handed out exams on paper, preferring to write the problems on the board at the beginning of the period. From my vantage point outside the entrance, I did not see the professor himself, but I assumed he would soon appear to wrap things up and clear the room for its next occupant.

Silly me.

I went to my office to pick up the copies of my final exam and returned several minutes later to the classroom. The previous exam period was now officially over and my class was due to start in a few minutes, so I ventured serenely into the room. Three students were still scribbling desperately away, their teacher not yet having collected their exams. I noticed with dismay that Gigante's problems were still distractingly scrawled all over the boards. And then I noticed that the man himself was actually in the room.

Gigante had repaired to the back of the room and pushed a bunch of desks together to make himself a kind of fort. He was ensconced in his citadel amid stacks of exams, which were spilling across the multiple desks he had commandeered. He had, in fact, started to grade the finals as they were being handed in. He was still grinding away as I stood hesitantly at the front of the room. Before I finally decided to say something, Gigante deigned to look up.

“You aren't going to use the board, are you?” he asked.

“Actually, Porf, I am,” I replied.

Gigante grudgingly extricated himself from his bastion and attacked the boards with the eraser. It took him a couple of minutes to clear the whole thing, since there was an entire final exam written up there. I had no intention of writing more than a line or two about when final grades would be done and where I would post them, but I wasn't telling my colleague that. It was my room now and I wanted the boards cleared of distractions.

Gigante's lingering students noticed that a new instructor was taking possession of the room and hastened to deliver their finals to him. He gathered them up, strolled back to his desk-fortress, and sat back down.

Now I was really nonplussed. My students were arriving and finding their usual places in the room, ready for their final exam. A few, however, were hovering anxiously. They were the students whose customary desks had been pushed together to create Professor Gigante's exam-grading ramparts and they didn't know what to do. Eventually they tired of waiting for the senior professor to notice their anguish and settled for the remaining unoccupied guests. Fortunately, the room had capacity to accommodate all my students, despite the loss of the territory annexed by my colleague for his own purposes.

I distributed the final exam, gave my students a few pointers, wished them luck, and started the test. They got to work while I took roll. Two students were missing. One was a certain F and I was not surprised that she had decided to skip the final. The other was a surprise. My office was nearby, so I ducked out of the classroom to check my phone messages. (We didn't have desktop computers in those days, so e-mail was not an option.)

On my way, I ran into Sam, another senior faculty member. I unburdened myself to him.

“Sam! You will never guess what Porf is up to!”

He smiled at me in his mild-mannered way. “I'm sure you're correct, Zee. I can never predict what Porfirio will do.”

“He had his final exam in the same classroom as mine. My final exam started several minutes ago and he's still in there! He pushed a bunch of desks together to hold his tests and he's sitting there grading them while my students are taking their final.”

Sam's smile broadened while he slowly shook his head. “Well, Zee, there's something you might want to keep in mind. Eventually you're going to retire, and then you won't have to deal with him anymore.”

He delivered his advice in a perfect deadpan. I blinked at him for a couple of seconds and then burst into laughter.

“Thanks, Sam. I appreciate the perspective.”

My equanimity restored, I calmly presided over the remainder of my final exam, ignoring the occupying force in the back of the classroom.

And I swear (I swear!) that it was merely a coincidence that the next year Professor Gigante got relocated to a much smaller office.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Completely transparent

Seeing right through it in SF

Did you make it to last weekend's crystal fair at San Francisco's Fort Mason? I didn't, but Steve Rubenstein did.

Rubenstein filed a report on the Great San Francisco Crystal Fair with the San Francisco Chronicle, which published it in last Wednesday's Datebook section. Datebook offers comics, media news, movie reviews, and “soft” news—the kind of news that is exempt from the tenets of hard-nosed journalistic skepticism. It's where newspapers like to tuck items about psychic fairs, seers, mediums, and ... crystals!

Rubenstein, however, can't help himself. It appears he is just too rooted in the traditions of old-fashioned journalism to give himself over entirely to the gee-whiz credulity that characterizes much of today's media coverage of all things woo:
What you do at a crystal fair is wave crystal wands, hold crystal amulets, buy crystal necklaces and put little pieces of crystals in your shoes, which can either relieve foot pain or cause it, depending on your level of commitment to the program.
It doesn't sound like Steve is really getting into the spirit of the thing. He even sneaks in some actual science:
With crystals, structure is all. In most substances, atoms are scattered in a hodgepodge. In a crystal, they are lined up in neat little rows. Perhaps you cannot see the neat little rows but they're there. The neat little rows also exist in an ice cube and a speck of salt, either one more affordable than a crystal bowling ball, but the crystal sellers made scant effort to point that out.
The aforementioned crystal bowling ball? It carried a $25,000 price tag at the crystal fair and is supposed to generate wealth. Well, perhaps. At least for the seller.

Rubenstein wasn't the only fair attendee who regarded the proceedings askance. Some folks go to the fair simply to enjoy the beauty of the minerals on display. They aren't looking to attune their psychic vibrations to etheric crystal tuning forks.
And yet through the ages there are those who insist that rocks don't do much besides sit there and be rocks. One such fellow was Chuck Zuspan, a retired oil company geologist from Oakland who comes to crystal fairs to admire the specimens for their own sake, not for any punch they pack. He declared himself to be levelheaded when it came to rocks, which must be drilled through in order to get to the oil but which otherwise are worthy of respect just for being what they are.

“Rocks pretty much just sit there,” he said. “That's been my experience.”

He was standing in front of [Barbara] LaRocca's booth, admiring her crystal wands, and LaRocca felt the vibrations and sensed an opportunity to make a believer from a skeptic. She grabbed the nearest $4,000 wand and asked if she could wave it over Zuspan's chest, where LaRocca said she sensed there was some tightness—perhaps a pending heart attack, perhaps not, but you can never be too careful.
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Very difficult to argue with that, I admit.
After several minutes, LaRocca asked if Zuspan felt any better and the geologist smiled and said that he certainly did not feel any worse, and both parties walked away pleased.

“I'd love to say I felt something,” Zuspan confided later. “But come on. It's a rock. I'm 60 years old. I'm not about to change my belief system.”
One wonders if the 60-year-old retired geologist was wearing a digital watch. Purveyors of crystal woo delight in pointing out that digital watches mark out time using quartz crystals as oscillators (creating vibrations!). Of course, digital watches also cheat by using electricity instead of tapping into psychic energy, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time before researchers into psychic technologies are ready to market psi-powered timepieces.

Rubenstein closed off his article with some rueful remarks from wand-merchant LaRocca:
LaRocca admitted that scientists do not make the best customers for her $4,000 wands and was not surprised that Zuspan did not buy one.

“He's a geologist, for goodness sake,” she said. “I should have demonstrated this with one of these wacky new age people wandering around here. That's who I get the most response from.”
By golly, I agree with her. The demonstration would have been much more effective with a true believer. More entertaining, too. As for the geologist, he was burdened with too much actual knowledge and not enough true faith. Sounds like he had a good time, though.

And so, I think, did Rubenstein.

Photos by Paul Chinn for The Chronicle

Friday, June 05, 2009

All over coffee

Would you like a splash of bigotry with that?

When I was a bored youngster, tagging along in my mother's wake on shopping trips, I used to pay more attention to the labels in the grocery story. It was the only reading material at hand. At some point, I asked Mom the meaning of the little logo that was discreetly included on many, but not all, of the packages.

“Mom, what's this mean? Is the cereal made from oats grown on the Circle K ranch?”

She looked where I was pointing and quickly smothered a laugh.

“No, honey. That symbol means the food is kosher.”

I was still in the dark. Until that point, I had thought that kosher was a word used only in negation (“That's not kosher!”), such as when you caught your brother cheating at a game. It occupied a very small spot in my vocabulary.

“I don't get it. What does it mean if food is ‘kosher’?”

“The kosher symbol tells Jewish people that the food is prepared according to their dietary rules, but I don't know what those rules are. It can be complicated.”

“But it's okay for us to buy it, too?”

“Sure, sweetheart. Anyone can buy kosher food. In fact, some people like to buy kosher products just because the rules are awfully strict. They figure the food will be better.”

That made sense, because otherwise the store shelves were loaded down with more kosher products than our synagogue-free Central Valley town could support. Most of the “Circle K” stuff was being snatched up by goyim, no question.

For some reason, I didn't ask the logical follow-up. At least, I have no recollection of doing so. I did not ask my mother if any of the labels or symbols indicated that the products were intended for Catholics (or more generic Christians, for that matter). It was probably besides the point anyway. I already knew that Catholics could eat anything they wanted, except for meat on Fridays. Only a silly little boy would have asked such a question.

Oh? Well, guess what! The happy day of Catholic labeling is at hand. No joke!

That is, as best I can tell it's not intended to be a joke. The risible aspects of the scheme, however, are undeniable. Check this out:
The mission of The OVerus Organization is to mark products and services that respect Christian values with The OVerus Emblem, enabling good stewards to choose those consistent with their values.
Can you guess what it takes to “respect Christian values”? (I'll bet you can!) OVerus president Keith Miklas offers some happy-talk about how his company is taking a positive approach. That is, OVerus is in the business of encouraging the purchase of certain items rather than discouraging purchases of certain items.

That's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. OVerus is really all about boycotting companies that support equal rights (or rites) for gay people or any formulation of reproductive rights that includes abortion. In their own words,
RESPECT FAMILY VALUES. A product or service must respect family values with its community involvement policies and charitable contributions:

(1) RESPECT LIFE. Contributions to abortion providers are prohibited.
(2) RESPECT BIBLICAL MARRIAGE. Contributions to non-Christian marriage groups are prohibited.
I used to think it was just a little bit tacky when some businesses would include a Jesus fish in their advertisements in the Yellow Pages, but OVerus is taking Christianity to entirely new levels of commercial endeavor. Imagine being able to limit your purchases to products from anti-gay and anti-choice companies!
The vision of The OVerus Organization is to offer an OVerus product or service in every category.
The OVerus website dangles the prospect of heaping up earthly treasure before the corporations it hopes to lure into the fold. Miklas uses the power of his college degree in math (yes, I know; this embarrasses me) to run the numbers:
Per 2001 U.S. census data, 77% of adults in the U.S. identify themselves as Christian (159,506/207,980). In 1999, the size of the U.S. retail coffee market was 108 million people, and valued at $9.2 Billion. It follows that the Christian coffee market is (0.77)(108) = 83 million people, and worth (0.77)($9.2) = $7 Billion annually.

If every Christian in the U.S. switches to OVerus brands, then the OVerus market will equal all $7 Billion. Conservatively, this projection is based on the assumption that one out of five will switch, resulting in an OVerus Retail Coffee Market Value of (0.2)(83) = 17 million people, or (0.2)($7.0) = $1.4 Billion.
It's a compelling prospect, isn't it? (Assuming, of course, that Christians drink coffee at a rate proportional to their numbers within the population.)

Did you perhaps wonder, just for a moment, why Miklas chose coffee for the product in his example? It's not a bad choice, certainly, but one doesn't have to search too far before discovering it's the only logical choice.

That's because a brand of coffee is currently the only OVerus-approved product.

The coffee in question is Esthers Coffee. It's not available in stores, although Miklas has big plans for it.

He should. Miklas is the founder of Esthers Coffee. OVerus is actually a spin-off from the effort to market a “pro-life” brand of coffee. For some odd reason, Esthers Coffee has yet to win the business of one-fifth of Christian coffee-drinkers and the $1.4 billion represented by that market niche. It may have been wakeful coffee-laced nights that brought Miklas to the realization that he needed to play in a larger arena. OVerus is the peculiarly sectarian result.

OVerus. Probably not coming soon to a market near you.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I get borking mail

Slouching toward equality

You remember Robert Bork, don't you? Before he turned into a verb, Judge Bork was a member of the bench for the U.S. Court of Appeals. He was also the last nominee to the Supreme Court to have been denied confirmation by a vote of the U.S. Senate (58 nays to 42 ayes). As a result of losing his first choice, President Reagan ended up appointing Anthony Kennedy to the high court. Thus we acquired an unpredictable swing vote in the Supreme Court instead of an absolutely reliable exponent of right-wing jurisprudence. And to everyone's surprise, Kennedy later penned a majority decision in the Lawrence v. Texas decision that struck down sodomy laws. Kennedy also declined to overturn Roe v. Wade, which Bork would happily have done.

Close call.

So whatever happened to old Bob? He dropped any pretense of sweet moderation the moment he was denied the brass ring, began playing the martyr before meetings of conservative political groups, and even favored us with such book-length screeds as Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

And now he's become my pen-pal.

Or, more to the point, Bork has been shilling for the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, which is devoted to making sure that family & human rights don't get extended to people of whom Catholics don't approve. But perhaps it's best if I let Bob tell the story:
Dear Friend,

Let me introduce myself. I am a former federal appeals court judge. Since leaving the bench I have been occupied as an author, teacher, and lecturer in defending our Constitution and the Republic it supports.
Bob considers me his dear friend. I feel all warm and fuzzy.
I write today to warn you of a major threat to our constitutional republic coming at us from the United Nations. There are groups of nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pressing radical social and political policies that would undermine both our sovereignty and our culture. They have had some success.
Oh, oh. Now he has me frightened!
Three years ago, for example, the Supreme Court made homosexual sodomy a constitutional right.
By golly, he's right! The Supreme Court gave gay people the same right to engage in sodomy as straight people used to enjoy exclusively. Did making it legal take some of the thrill out of it?
In 2005 the Court made it unconstitutional to give the death penalty to a killer, no matter how vicious, who was a juvenile at the time he murdered.
Imagine that. We have been denied the right to execute children. No wonder Bob's upset! He has both a bee in his bonnet about the ban on killing juveniles and a burr up his behind about legal sodomy.

Where is he going with this?
Neither of those decisions is justified by the Constitution. But in both cases a majority of the justices used UN documents to justify decisions that undercut our sovereignty and override the democratic decisions of Americans.
Well, tsk tsk say I! Tsk tsk! Imagine the high court taking seriously the notion of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” in drafting its decisions. I am frankly shocked. Surely there can be no precedent for such an evil doctrine.
The good news is that there is a group at the UN working full time to expose and stop radical UN policies and thus help preserve our Constitution and Republic.
Is it the Justice League of America?
The group is the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) headed by my friend Austin Ruse. I strongly endorse their effort and urge you to support it.
So ... not the Justice League of America?
C-FAM was founded in 1997 precisely to stop UN radicals from foisting anti-life and anti-family policies on the United States. They have had many victories and no other organization is doing their work.
The UN has “anti-family policies”? You mean that UNICEF business is just a front?
Much of the radical UN agenda is aimed directly at Christianity and particularly at the teachings of our Catholic faith.
Now this is scarier than ever. What could the UN possibly be up to that would be more damaging to Catholicism than the activities of its priests and bishops? Surely something pretty damned heinous!
Please help Austin and his faithful team with the most generous gift you can give today.

Yours truly,

Robert H. Bork
Damn. Bob isn't going to tell me. He's grubbing for money for his buddy Austin. (And here I thought that I was his “Dear Friend.”)

Fortunately, Austin sent me a letter in the same packet. Maybe Austin will tell me some details about this UN threat to our society.

Yikes! It's six pages long! Austin is a loquacious fellow, isn't he? Let's see if he cuts to the chase somewhere. (I grow weary, since it's difficult to sustain a state of righteous terror and indignation for more than a couple of minutes. Bork and Austin have clearly had a lot more practice than I have.) Let's see. Austin says,
Right now, so-called homosexual-rights groups are demanding the United Nations advance their radical agenda.
“So-called”? I think they actually tend to call themselves “gay” rights groups, but perhaps Austin has researched this more carefully than most people.

And the actual agenda? At last Austin spills the beans:
  • Homosexual marriage
  • Homosexual adoption
  • Repeal of laws against sodomy
Wow! I support all those goals. I guess I'm on the other side. Sorry, Bob! Sorry, Austin! (No contribution for you.)

Maybe I'll send some money to GLSEN instead.

Monday, June 01, 2009

It quacks like a duck

The old wives strike again

The speed of light allegedly limits the rate of transmission of information. When it comes to bad news in my family, I'm not certain the limit applies. Sometimes I get reports of tragedy before they even occur. It's a gift that my family has.

Mom was on the phone. She had news about my niece's cousin's husband.


“He's married to your sister-in-law's niece.”

“Okay, I guess I could parse that out, Mom, but Phyllis has a whole bunch of nieces on her side of the family and I don't know them, let alone the spouses of the married ones.”

“His name is Kyle and he came down with multiple sclerosis.”

“Well, damn, that's a tough situation for a young man, Mom, but the news really doesn't mean that much to me.”

Mom paused for a few seconds. Had I offended her by my lack of interest in the poor fellow's plight? When she broke her silence, it did not immediately clarify the matter:

“I know you're not going to want to hear this.”

Now it was my turn to be silent. Then the light hit me and I understood. I knew exactly where she was going:

“You're absolutely right, Mom. I don't want to hear it. You can just drop it.”

“Phyllis got Kyle to go to her doctor.”

She went there anyway.

“Mom, Phyllis's ‘doctor’ is not a doctor.”

Short of sticking my fingers in my ears and yelling “La-la-la-la,” there was nothing I could do. Mom insisted on telling her story.

“Pat is too a doctor. She's the one who figures out illnesses by looking in your eyes.”

“She's not a doctor, Mom. Iridology is not a medical technique. It's quackery. You cannot diagnosis illnesses by looking at the colored part of the eye. She's not a doctor.”

Mom was talking right over me. The woman is relentless.

“She looked at Kyle's eyes and told him he had to stop using artificial sweeteners.”

“Fine, Mom. No harm there. But that's just semi-pointless advice from a new-age practitioner.”

“But Kyle got all better! He stopped drinking sodas with artificial sweeteners and took the medicine Pat prescribed for him and he's all better!”

“Yeah, right. She cured Kyle's MS by getting him off aspartame. Mom, she's not a doctor. And she can't prescribe drugs. It's against the law.”

But now it was Mom, of course, who was going “La-la-la-la.”

“Well, she did. She told him to take mega-vitamins and gave him some herbs, too.”

“Vitamins and herbs are uncontrolled supplements, Mom. Anyone can recommend them. Anyone can take them. They're not prescription drugs. She can't prescribe drugs because she's not a doctor. Am I not making myself clear?”

“I knew you would say that, which is why I didn't want to tell you about it.”

(Who called whom, Mom?)

“Mom, was Kyle actually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis?”

“That's what everyone said he had. I don't know if he went to a doctor for a formal diagnosis.”

Mom makes “formal diagnosis” sound like a foolish and expensive indulgence.

“You don't know if he went to a real doctor or not? Then it looks like Phyllis's fake doctor gave Kyle fake drugs for a fake cure for his fake disease. And what do you know? It fake worked!”

“You know, Zee, there's just no talking to you when you get like this.”

“Well, Mom, here's some advice for next time: I am always like this! Take some ginkgo biloba so that you remember that your son is not interested in stories of credulous acceptance of quackery. The ginkgo doesn't actually do anything except perhaps induce a placebo effect in the gullible. In your case it should be pretty powerful.”

“Oh, honey, you are so close-minded!”

Half of my genes are from that crazy old lady. Oh, dear.