Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The time-traveling student

Backward, turn backward

My student was upset. I had posted a grade breakdown on the classroom bulletin board. She was not pleased with what she saw.

“Dr. Z, why do I have only 64% for my quiz score?”

“I'm not sure, Iris. Let's check.”

I flipped open my gradebook. (Yeah, I still keep a hard copy gradebook. My students' scores are not solely entrusted to digital form.) I ran my finger down the column till I found the line for Iris's scores.

“Okay,” I said. “You missed a couple of the quizzes and got zeros for them.”

“I thought I only missed one,” replied Iris.

“No, you missed the first quiz and the seventh quiz.”

“The first one?”

“Yes, remember? That was the one I actually sent out by e-mail to everyone on the enrollment roster on the first day of class.”

“Well, I couldn't do that one. I didn't have e-mail.”

“Iris, all students have e-mail. You got a campus e-mail address when you enrolled and your student information packet explained how to check your e-mail in the library or student center if you didn't have a computer to check it at home.”

“I didn't know that,” she said, defensively.

“It's not really an issue, Iris. I also handed out a hard copy of that quiz in class on the first day. You certainly got that along with the syllabus.”

“Oh,” she said, in a very small voice.

“Okay, let's not make too much of it. You need to do a better job of scanning the materials you receive from the college or from your instructor, but my gradebook says your quiz score is actually 80%, not 64%.”

“No, Dr. Z, it definitely says 64% and I want to know why.”

I pondered for a moment.

“Did you look at the right entry? Are you using the correct student ID number?”

Iris told me the number she had used. It was the right one. I was puzzled. I flipped my gradebook around so that she could see it and pointed at her entry.

“See, Iris? You have 80% for quizzes right now.”

She frowned.

“But you posted 64% up on the bulletin board!”

I followed her to the back of the room and the bulletin board where the gradesheet was posted. I found the line with her ID number and ran my finger across to her quiz score.

“There it is, Iris. Eighty percent!”

Iris scowled in exasperation. She reached for the gradesheet and flipped it up.

There!” she said. “See? It says sixty-four!”

I gave her a long look and took a deep breath.

“Iris, that's the old gradesheet I posted a couple of weeks ago. You did have only 64% then. You currently have 80%.”

She let go of the top sheet, letting it fall back down over the one it had concealed.

“So I shouldn't look at the one underneath?”

“Only if you want to see how much your score has changed since the last grade report. That's why I left it up.”


“You see? You've improved quite a bit since the previous report. Maybe you're smarter than you think.”

Finally she smiled.

But maybe not, I thought to myself.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Vatican played for a sucker

Simplicio takes the bait

I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. After this week, however, I may have to cut the clever beggar a bit of slack. It's possible—just possible—that he just out-maneuvered the slick operators of the Vatican with a slick operation of his own.

Schönborn probably fancies himself as one of the Church's papabili—the contenders for St. Peter's throne in the next papal conclave. He has devoted a lot of time to speaking out on the issues of the day, polishing his pastoral reputation, and even has a fan club devoted to him and his career. Unsurprisingly, given that the Catholic Church's stance on biological science necessarily embraces a form of theistic evolution (it wouldn't do to leave God out of the equation), intelligent design creationism has attracted a following among its prelates. Schönborn happily became an apologist for ID in 2005 when he published an editorial titled “Finding Design in Nature” in the New York Times. It was widely suspected that the Discovery Institute had ghost-written the cardinal's editorial, for the institute's fingerprints were all over it.

The editorial and Schönborn's subsequent book, Chance or Purpose?, were part of a campaign to walk the Church back from the earlier statement of John Paul II that evolution was “more than a hypothesis.” Inconvenient, that. Embracing evolution as scientific fact is more than conservative Catholics can stomach. As they are in the ascendant in Church ranks, Schönborn and his rivals seek ways to garner their support. Intelligent design offers them a refuge from godless evolution, so they shout their hosannas as they clutch it to their bosoms.

However, the Roman Catholic Church has a lot more on its plate than the hyped-up controversy over evolution versus creationism's flavor of the week. The ongoing scandal of child-molesting priests and the Church's weak response to it is a problem that doesn't seem to be going away. While Church apologists can point to other offenders and yell, “Look over there!”, most people don't fall for it. When a self-appointed arbiter of morality is caught cheating, the blatant hypocrisy is an irresistible media attraction.

Here Cardinal Schönborn has staked out the high ground, distinguishing himself from his head-in-the-sand colleagues. European Catholics (and others) have given Schönborn a lot of credit for his vigorous pursuit of justice for the victims of clerical child abuse and sanctions against the perpetrators and those who abet them. He recently criticized his colleague, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for the latter's Easter Sunday homily, which contained a sentence addressed to the pope: “The people of God are with you and do not allow themselves to be impressed by the petty gossip of the moment.”

The remark was widely interpreted as dismissing criticisms of the pope's conduct of child-abuse allegations within the Church. Schönborn dared to suggest that Sodano's words were ill-chosen. The Austrian Kathpress reported that Schönborn claimed that Sodano had done “massive harm” to victims of clerical abuse by dismissing as “petty gossip” the criticisms of the Church for not acting more vigorously to rectify matters. “The days of cover-up are over,” Schönborn said.

Whereupon the Vatican summoned Schönborn to Rome so that he could apologize in person to Benedict XVI for the terrible things the cardinal had said. You see, Sodano had been effectively quoting the pope himself when he borrowed the “petty gossip” phrase for his Easter homily. In a Palm Sunday address, Benedict had similarly denounced criticisms as gossip. The Vatican issued a statement in defense of Sodano that made the point that he was following the pope's lead. Sodano's remark “was taken literally from the pontifical homily of Palm Sunday and referred to the ‘courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip of prevalent opinions.’”

Schönborn had effectively stuck his thumb in the pope's eye. It was therefore necessary to treat the world to the spectacle of the Austrian cardinal abasing himself before Benedict and begging for the pope's forgiveness. The cardinal was forced to “clarify” his remarks, lest they be taken as critical of the Holy Father. Schönborn did not disappoint.

One could be forgiven for assuming that this public censure means that Schönborn is now spoiled goods, his dreams of the papacy irrevocably beyond his reach. But I suspect such a conclusion is premature. In fact, I suspect Schönborn knew exactly what he was doing and was not at all surprised by the reaction. I could be wrong, of course, but the Roman church is a kind of meritocracy in which only the most subtle campaigners and manipulators rise to the top.

It is almost inconceivable that Cardinal Schönborn did not know the content of the pope's Palm Sunday homily. Therefore he must have recognized the antecedents of Cardinal Sodano's Easter diatribe. Nevertheless, Schönborn sought out the Austrian press and gave them some acerbic comments. I wonder: Was he thinking of Galileo when he did that?

Galileo is the Church's most famous victim, forced to abjure belief in a heliocentric solar system and confined to house arrest for the last years of his life. The Church had permitted Galileo to treat heliocentrism as an amusing hypothesis, but not to teach it as reality. He went too far—in the opinion of the Church fathers—when he published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The three-cornered dialogue features Salviati, who presents the Copernican world view; Sagredo, who is initially neutral, waiting to be persuaded by argument and evidence; and Simplicio, defender of Ptolemy's geocentric system. As penned by Galileo, the debate is a rout. The simple Simplicio is humiliated and wise Sagredo throws in with Salviati.

It was rather unfortunate that, in the course of the dialogue, Simplicio gives voice to arguments that were favored by Pope Urban VIII. The pontiff was not amused to discover that Galileo was putting his words in the simpleton's mouth. Bad things immediately followed.

I don't want to over-extend the parallel, but Schönborn is a clever rascal. These days, you can't become a cardinal unless you're a survivor in the Vatican's internal politics. (In the old days, you just had to be one of the pope's “nephews,” born of one of his mistresses.) By placing himself in mild opposition to the pope, and receiving a disproportionate dressing-down, Schönborn is now in an interesting position. Benedict XVI is an old man (83 last April) and was elected as a transitional pope after a very lengthy papacy. There is no clear choice for his successor and no one stands out from the crowd. If Benedict does not manage to resolve the continuing scandal of clerical sex-abuse of children, he may be deemed a failure in the eyes of the world and—even more important in terms of papal succession—in the bloodshot eyes of the red-robed cardinals..

That would make the College of Cardinals nervous indeed about electing a successor with too many ties to the old order. While fidgeting about, waiting for some manifestation of the Holy Spirit to whisper the next pope's name in their ears, the cardinals might very well look to someone clearly separated from the policies of Benedict XVI.

Now who could that be?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

God is bread

Let us pray: for money!

The envelope bore a stern warning: Portrait Enclosed. DO NOT BEND. Naturally, I was excited. A portrait? For me? Oh, what could it be?

Such mail usually comes from politicians seeking contributions and contains cheap mass-produced prints of the candidate on the stump or posing in front of a flag. I guess that the pictures are called “portraits” because they're printed on card stock instead of regular paper. However, I quickly discerned that this was not a political solicitation. The return address on the envelope declared that this was a missive from the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

Praise be! Surely I would be spared the usual money-grubbing appeals that typify political mailers. This packet was about culture, which I'm all in favor of.

I tore it open and found a letter inside. It quickly became apparent that the JP II Cultural Center managed to hire a writer that usually composes money-grubbing political appeals for politicians. The differences between the JP II letter and a campaign mailer were not just small—they were nonexistent. See for yourself. All emphases are from the original:

Dear Mr. Ferox,

What wonderful news — our beloved Karol Wojtyła is closer than ever to being declared Blessed and among the saints. On behalf of The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, I want you to have a special commemoration of this joyous occasion.

Enclosed you will find a limited edition Collector's Portrait of Venerable Pope John Paul II by Andrzej Gosik from the Cultural Center's private collection, given to us in 2002 by Jolanta Kwasniewska, the First Lady of Poland. It is embossed with December 19, 2009 — the date upon which he was declared Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI, and recognized as a man who lived a life of “heroic virtue.”

I believe you share my love of, and admiration for, this extraordinary man. That's why you have been selected to be among the first to receive this unique commemorative portrait.

Well, thanks, but you shouldn't have gone to so much trouble.

And because it is a collector’s item, I am keeping close track of each portrait I send out. I would hate to think that yours was lost in the mail.

So please, take a moment to complete the enclosed Portrait Receipt Verification and return it to me today — that way I will know that your portrait arrived in excellent condition.

Yes, I can imagine that you must be waiting fretfully by your mail box. Too bad about my having opened the envelope, though. Collectibles are more valuable if you keep them sealed in the original container. The still-in-the-box G.I. Joe will help fund my retirement some day.

Mr. Ferox, I hope you will also include a special tax-deductible contribution of $35, $50 or even $100 or more, if you can, to support The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. With your generosity, we will continue to honor the extraordinary work and ministries of our late Holy Father — a living witness that has now earned him the title of Venerable.

That's “Dr. Ferox,” to you, buddy. And now I see that the special Portrait Receipt Verification contains check boxes where I can indicate how much money I'm sending you. Hmm. I guess that would make sense if I wanted to help promote the views and policies of JP II. (Looks like a miscalculation on your part.)

Let this Collector's Portrait of Venerable Pope John Paul II serve as a reminder that our late Holy Father is now one step from beatification. Let it serve also as a reminder that, by supporting our Center and making our work possible, you will be helping us share the timeless teachings and Christ-like leadership of the Servant of God John Paul the Great.

Shouldn't there have been a comma in there somewhere?

We honor the wisdom and courage of Pope John Paul II through exhibits and events that celebrate his life, and the teachings of the Catholic faith.

At the Center, we offer special art exhibits, such as our annual showcase of hundreds of Nativity Scenes from around the world. Highly anticipated each year and covered extensively in the media, this unique crèche exhibit reminds us all of Pope John Paul II’s love of Mary, our Blessed Mother, exemplified by his words of devotion: “Totus Tuus.” Thousands of people came to see them at Christmas and thousands more saw them on television!

This may come as a shock to you, but the promotion of cheesy Christmas displays is not high on my list of priorities. Devotional kitsch is my mother's hobby, not mine. I recall in my home parish that the Christ child would be omitted from the manger scene until the day of Christmas itself. I pointed out that this was a miracle because Mary didn't look pregnant in the lead-up to this event. My theological musings were not appreciated, as best as I can remember. Actually, I think Mom hit me and told me to shut up.

Through our Catholic Intercultural Forum, we welcome scholars of many faiths for interreligious dialogue, and discussions on the intersection of faith and culture — topics that were of great interest to John Paul the Great. He gave so much of himself in working to bring peace among the world's religions, and to bring our Catholic faith to a greater audience. We honor his work by continuing it, as Pope Benedict XVI told us to do!

Those scholarly discussions with members of other faiths sounds very positive. Everyone should be allowed to worship Jesus in his own way.

At our Center, we serve causes that were of great importance to Karol Wojtyła. For example: Each year The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is a popular gathering place for those who pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life. People come here to rest and to pray — and to learn about John Paul's commitment to defending the sanctity of all human life.

You are being too modest here. John Paul's devotion to life went well beyond human life. He supported life for the human immunodeficiency virus, too, strictly forbidding men to frustrate the HIV reproductive cycle by using condoms to protect their sexual partners. Every sex act must be open to the possibility of infection.

Your support will help The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center sustain these and other programs that promote our faith and advance the teachings of our late Holy Father. We emphasize his personal sanctity — and we see to it that the teachings of John Paul the Great are never forgotten, and that these teachings will continue to inspire our world and enrich our culture.

The Collector's Portrait of Venerable Pope John Paul II which I've enclosed for you honors your commitment to the legacy of John Paul II. His sainthood will make that legacy complete — and on the date embossed on your portrait, the day of his having been declared Venerable, sainthood drew closer to reality. Now, all of us wait with great anticipation to learn of a miracle that would confirm beatification for John Paul II... for us and for the world!

I'm having a miraculous vision right now! I see the Vatican announcing that some lucky Catholic will experience a spontaneous remission of cancer and attribute it to the intervention of the dead pope. (With a billion nominal Catholics in the world, I like those odds!) I also have a prediction: The Church will not announce that a double-amputee has miraculously sprouted new limbs after praying to the dead pope. (I may not be pope, but I'm pretty sure I'm on infallible ground here.) No, spontaneous remission is definitely the way to go.

Our Cultural Center will provide you with full details of each step the Church takes in this continuing process — and we will faithfully use your generosity to share the holiness of his life. After all, he called each one of us to be saints of the new millennium!

Will each step be accompanied by a new solicitation for funds? (How many portraits did you order from the printer, anyway?)

Please let me know that our Center can count on you for your support — and, using the Portrait Receipt Verification I've enclosed for you, please let me know that your Collector's Portrait of Venerable Pope John Paul II, embossed with the date of his having been declared Venerable, arrived in good condition. Thank you.

Sincerely yours in the Lord,

Father Steven C. Boguslawski, O.P.
Executive Director

The Church teaches that one can sin in one's mind without actually committing the act. It beefs up attendance at confession that way, so it's good marketing.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I laughed when I read your name and thought it was highly appropriate. That wasn't nice. Your name is not your fault.

But the letter is. And I'm not too crazy about the enclosed portrait, either.

Dollars for scholars

Race to the bottom with SB 1143

My college is a public school. The taxpayers and their elected representatives control us. Most of the time, they exercise a fairly light touch, although they understandably want some assurances whenever we ask the voters to pass a bond issue. Sometimes they agree with our plans, and sometimes they don't.

Usually, however, voters and legislators don't try to micromanage the school. The California community college system may be the largest public system of higher education in the entire world, but we're broken up into dozens of districts and over a hundred individual colleges, each of which has its own locally elected board of trustees and campus president. Sacramento sets broad general education policy and appropriates our aggregate budget (unfortunately stingy in this era of the Great Recession), but details are left to the various boards and presidents. Most of the time, anyway.

Now, however, the bright lights in the state capital are thinking about reaching into the classroom level and creating incentives to improve course completion rates among our students. “Improve,” of course, means only one thing: increase the number of students who earn passing grades.

The legislators might be surprised to learn (and they appear to need some teaching on this subject) that student success rates are an abiding concern among faculty members and teachers never stop trying to raise student performance. They apparently intend to encourage us, but I fear that more often their mercurial policies interfere with the teaching process. At least at the college level, we public school teachers have so far been spared the stream of K-12 mandates coming out of Sacramento, decisions that move the academic goalposts and tweak the high-stakes testing program every couple of years (often confusing “activity” with “progress”).

State senator Carol Liu is the author of SB 1143, a measure which would somehow incorporate course completion rates in the formula for computing state funding for community colleges. Think about that for a moment. (Try giving it more thought than our legislators do.) Colleges that pass more students through their curriculum will get more funding. Colleges that pass fewer will get less. At first blush, that might seem reasonable.

Liu forgot, however, to include any quality standards in her bill. Schools that are willing to become diploma mills will prosper under her dollars for scholars program. The pressure to lower standards will be intense.

Sure, upright defenders of truth and justice and beauty like yours truly will adamantly refuse to prostitute ourselves to state demands. We will bravely uphold standards of excellence and continue to flunk those students who do not measure up to them. Yes, I could bravely (oh, so bravely!) hide behind my seniority and job security and remain magisterially unaffected by the petty carping of the state capitol crowd. I, after all, would not be paying the price of budgets compressed by the maintenance of meaningful standards. It would be my junior colleagues who would get laid off during the financial contractions. They could end up going out the door right after the last of the part-timers were let go. I would not be entirely happy about surviving under such circumstances (and my college's administration wouldn't be too happy either).

Practically speaking, I don't expect it to come to anything that draconian, but I have to wonder why Senator Liu thinks she can mandate student success from outside, urging teachers to do something they're always trying to do anyway. Even if she amends her bill to impose a uniform statewide testing program (to hell with local control) in order to gauge the maintenance (or deterioration) of academic standards—good trick, that—Liu would be adding all kinds of complications to college funding.

It's not a good idea. SB 1143 appeals to those who view education through business-model eyes: students are the input and degrees or certificates are the output. But some things don't fit a business model. The nation's recent MBA president proved that beyond all reasonable doubt.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The ghost in the exam

Consider looking at the problem!

Millions of people cheerfully and indiscreetly post details of their personal lives on the Internet, forgetting that Internet posts have a kind of digital immortality. Thanks to archiving and caching systems, erasing a post doesn't necessarily make it go away.

It's also true of education websites, such as the one where I have occasionally posted exam keys for the benefit of my students. One diligent young fellow nosed about through the Intertubes till he dredged up a cache of some of my old posts, although they had been deleted from the original website. Eureka!

He took careful note of his discovery. In fact, the evidence suggests he memorized some of the indicated results. He must have been quite proud of his achievement when he encountered and quickly recognized the following graph on his math exam:

It looked so familiar! When the accompanying problem asked him for the values of f(−5) and f(3), he promptly and confidently wrote down 5 and 7. Amazing! And both wrong!

I tend to rewrite—or at least tweak—my exams. He didn't notice that I had changed the figure from the one he had seen:

Yeah, that was the one where f(−5) = 5 and f(3)= 7. His on-line explorations had led him astray.

He really should have spent the time studying instead.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bad Answer

Not wrong, just bad

The enrollment at Large Community College tends to go up in bad times. Unemployed and underemployed people decide to get some low-cost education or training at California's open-admission provider of postsecondary education. Our classrooms fill up and our waiting lists swell. (And meanwhile our legislature considers fee hikes to try to discourage people—brilliant timing.)

This simply exacerbates a continuing problem. Waiting lists are a fact of life for most instructors at the beginning of each school term. I think it's particularly bad in math and English, where students line up for required courses (whether they really want to or not). The process of trying to get into an overbooked class tends to separate the real students from the poseurs.

But perhaps “poseur” is the wrong word. It may be that I should have said “clueless” instead. There are fundamental lessons about being a student that these people have managed not to learn on their way to college. As a result, their chances of success are greatly reduced.

Let's consider some typical cases.

Student A writes a frantic e-mail to the instructor before the semester begins:
I need to take your algebra class and its full. I cant get on the waiting list because its full too. Please send me an add code. Thnx. **Desperate Student**
I write back, of course.
Thank you for your message, Desperate Student. I do not issue add codes to anyone till after the first day of class. That's when I'll know how many no-shows I have and how many students I can admit to take their places. In the meantime, keep trying to enroll in the class. If someone drops out before the start of school, that will create an opening that might let you get on the waiting list.

Zeno Ferox
LCC Math Dept
Student A never shows up on my waiting list, although other names appear as previously enrolled students change their schedules and spaces open up sporadically. Student A doesn't show up on the first day of class either. No, he shows up on the second day—for an excellent reason!

“Hi, Dr. Z, I need an add code to add your class.”

“Hi. Who are you?”

“I'm Student A. I wrote you last month that I needed to add your class.”

“Oh, hi. I can pencil you in at the bottom of the waiting list, but it doesn't look good. Why weren't you here yesterday?”

“Well, you said you'd know how many openings you'd have after the first day of class, so I came on the second.”

“Not enough to go around, that's for sure. And there are twelve students ahead of you from yesterday.”


Student B is smart enough to show up on Day One. She even got onto the tail-end of the waiting list and has a shot at getting into the class, especially after I purge the roster of no-shows. After a couple of days of prerequisite checking and paper shuffling, the magic moment arrives and I call her name to get an add code so that she can register in the class.

“Thanks, Dr. Z. Does this mean I should get the textbook now?”

“Excuse me? We've been through the first week of class. How have you been doing the homework?”

“Oh, I didn't think I had to do any of it until I was officially in the class.”

“That means you're a week behind your classmates. Didn't I tell everyone still on the waiting list to ‘act like you're in the class’ while we resolved the enrollment?”

“Did that mean doing the homework?”

“That's what students do when they're in a class, I hope.”

She added the class, but flunked the first exam. And, eventually, the class.

Student C wanted to “challenge” the intermediate algebra prerequisite for spring semester business applications math, the lack of which was about to bounce him from the class. We have a process for that, of course. The student fills out a prerequisite-challenge petition and provides evidence that he or she is prepared to succeed in the course in question without formally having the prerequisite on his or her transcript. Acceptable forms of evidence include letters of support from the student's teachers in classes similar to (if not exactly equivalent to) the missing prerequisite or good results in relevant placement/assessment tests.

Student C had difficulty with the concept of “evidence.” He attached a personal statement to the petition:
I am going to Cal State U in the fall. I need to take business applications math to satisfy my transfer agreement with Cal State U. This is my last semester at LCC so I don't have time to take intermediate algebra first, but I will work hard to pass business applications math. Thank you.
Sorry. That's not evidence of preparation for success. That's evidence of lack of preparation. We get a handful of these petitions every semester. Some of them are much more belligerent, along the lines of “It will be your fault if I don't get into my transfer school!”

You know, I'm not feeling the guilt.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A date with Microsoft

which will live in infamy

Is Bill Gates to blame? I don't know. But the heavy hand of Microsoft Word continues to plague me.

My office computer was recently upgraded (good!), which means I have a system which has reverted to all of Microsoft's defaults (bad!). I had subdued Word 2003 to my grudging satisfaction, but my new copy of Word 2007 has all of the bad habits back in force. The examples are many.

For instance, someone at Microsoft decided that its users really need the copyright symbol more often than they need to enclose the letter “c” in parentheses. Thus any attempt to write “(c)” instantly auto-corrects to “©”—a symbol I need approximately never. I am much more likely to (a) type in a list of items, (b) avoid Microsoft's intrusively clumsy outlining function, and (c) get a copyright symbol when I least want it. Naturally, I go into the auto-correct defaults and rip out the preset substitution for “(c).”

Even worse, though, in my estimation, is Microsoft's insistence on foisting superscripted ordinals on the world (which appears to have happily embraced them). Word won't let you write “1st” without turning it into “1st.” Ick. Whose bright idea was that?

The Associated Press Style Guide offers straightforward advice about dates: “Always use Arabic figures, without st, nd, rd or th.” Sounds good to me. Those are understood, aren't they? After all, when we look at a date like December 25, do you say “December twenty-five” or “December twenty-fifth”? I think most of us provide the ordinals automatically.

Unfortunately, my more literal-minded colleagues insist on the ordinal endings and—thanks to the default use of Word as their Outlook text editor—I get lots of e-mail sprinkled with dates written in superscripted ordinal form. Oh, good. Then, as is often the case, if formatting is lost in bouncing the message through various e-mail clients and servers, you get default plain-text messages with extra lines embedded to accommodate the ordinal superscripts. And for what? To accommodate an unnecessary formatting flourish, courtesy of someone's decision up in Redmond.

I can't be too harsh on geeks and nerds because that would be to accuse myself, but we do have some excessively soft spots for pointless gimmicks. When I first began to receive letters printed on monospaced dot-matrix printers with right-justified margins, I considered it to be a sign of the Apocalypse. Are you old enough to remember those? The only way to right-justify a monospaced text is to pad the lines with whole spaces to make the right margin come out even. Weird rivers of white space ran through the text as these interpolations were made. People were doing it simply because they could, ignoring the fact that such text was ugly and more difficult to read than ragged-right documents.

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Speaking of things I can do ... a few more forays into Word's default settings and I will have ripped the guts out of the stylistic peculiarities that drive me nuts. When it comes to breaking in a new copy of Word, that's always one of the things I do 1st.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

How you say—?

Tongued pickles

I heard one of my colleagues tell a student during office hours that he was “spot on.” It made my antennas quiver. Later I caught him using the word “rubbish.” My suspicions grew. Then he mentioned his brother. That tore it.

According to my colleague, his brother was named “Harry,” but when he said it, it did not sound like “hairy.” No, when he said it, it came out this way: /ˈhær.i/

But true-blue Americans say it this way: /ˈher.i/

See the difference? (I guess I really mean “hear.”) You can listen to the corresponding sound clips at the on-line edition of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

I braced my colleague in the faculty room and demanded to know which of his parents was the British one. He confessed. His father was a son of Albion and the source of the Britishisms that had crept into his American son's manner of speaking. I knew it! (It was either that, or my colleague was excessively fond of PBS rebroadcasts of British comedies.)

I was reminded of such peculiarities of spoken language when reading the comics page this morning. The Frank and Ernest strip gives us an example of three homonyms—or does it?

How say you? Does “Dalai Lama” come out as “Dolly Lama” when you say it? How about Salvador Dali's name? I think I say all of them differently.

But I'm kind of weird when it comes to language. As is that colleague of mine.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Fear of dead peeping Toms

Or Thomasinas

Sometimes I can't resist getting into the act. I see an advice column in my morning newspaper—for the Internet generation, be advised that a “newspaper” is a sheaf of large sheets of paper with printed news on them—and I want to rewrite the responses. Yesterday's Dear Abby is a case in point:
Woman Fears Being Watched by Ghosts of her Loved Ones

Dear Abby: I am in my 40s and have never lost anyone close to me. Unfortunately, my darling mother-in-law has terminal cancer. I am now preoccupied that people's spirits are near us after they die.

Please don't laugh, but it gives me the creeps. I don't want to think my mother-in-law will watch me making love with my husband, that my father will watch me in the bathroom, or that my mother will be critical of my spending more time with my kids than cleaning the house as she did.

Am I crazy to think I might not have any privacy after my loved ones die? — Spooked in Spokane

Dear Spooked: Calm down. The departed sometimes “visit” those with whom their souls were intertwined, but usually it's to offer strength, solace and reassurance during difficult times. If your mother-in-law's spirit visits you while you're intimate with her son, it will be only to wish you and her son many more years of closeness and happiness in your marriage.

As to your parents, when they travel to the hereafter, I am sure they'll have more pleasant things with which to occupy their time than spying on you. So hold a good thought and quit worrying.
Now doesn't that set your mind at ease? Abby sure is an expert on souls and what happens after you die. The afterlife will have too many distractions to make it likely that your dearly departed will hang around and watch you as you rut like bonobos with your love interest, or go to the bathroom, or pick your nose, or vote Republican. They won't spy on such shameful behaviors.

Good to know.

Of course, if I were to try my hand at replying to Spooked in Spokane, the response would have come out a bit different:
Dear Spooked: Calm down, Spooked. Being dead is a full-time occupation. The deceased lie mouldering in their graves, settling in their urns, blowing in the wind, or lost at sea. Whatever. Once they've passed on, they're just dead. Finished. Kaput. They lack senses and cognition and any trace of prurient curiosity. They're gone forever and can't bother you.

In the meantime, you're not dead yet, so consider getting a life and outgrowing the fantasy stories of youth and religion.
I guess I could offer my services to Dear Abby as a ghostwriter, but I don't want to spook her.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

No separation of church and press

God takes credit for doctor's work

Oleg Savca is a lucky boy. According to the Sacramento Bee, Oleg is an 11-year-old Moldovan who has undergone successful brain surgery to remove a tumor. The medical procedure, conducted last month at Sutter Memorial Hospital in the state capital, almost certainly spared him from a painful death. Oleg is feeling well enough now to return home, thanks to the doctors whose skills saved his life.

Oops. Sorry. Did I say “doctors”? I meant to say “God”! That's who saved Oleg's life, you see. I know because I read it. Here are some direct quotes from the Bee's article (emphasis added):
He was first diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid inside the skull. When doctors found the tumor, they told the family they did not have equipment to remove it.

“They didn't even have the microscope—didn't have the ability to see what they needed to see,” said Dr. Samuel Ciricillo, medical director of the Sutter Neuroscience Institute and the neurosurgeon who would eventually operate on Oleg.

Left alone, the tumor would put Oleg into a coma and ultimately kill him. What happened next Zina Savca can attribute only to divine intervention.

The Savcas' doctor, Andrey Plesco, visited Sutter Memorial in late April on a professional exchange. He saw Ciricillo operate and realized Ciricillo could save the boy.
Apparently Dr. Plesco realized in some kind of divine vision that Oleg needed a brain surgeon and that Dr. Ciricillo is a brain surgeon. Nice of God to intervene that way. It's not as though Dr. Plesco could have recognized the connection on his own.

Thanks, God!

Next time, though, consider not giving the boy a tumor in the first place.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned

Sinners in the hands of an overworked God

It was my grandmother's idea. That's what made it so surprising. You expect the matriarch to be punctilious in her devotion to rituals of the family's longstanding religion. The Ferox clan had been fiercely Catholic for hundreds of years.

Nevertheless, she was getting a bit exasperated with the long lines of breast-beaters at the confessional in the back of the church. As we sat patiently in the pews, it seemed that once again the over-zealous penitents would delay the start of Sunday morning mass by relating to Father every minuscule detail of their trivial trangressions. Perhaps they derived a thrill by imagining themselves to be living sinfully sordid lives.

“I know how to speed it up,” said my grandmother.

My ears pricked up in sudden attention. This was unusual.

“Speed it up? How, Avó?” (That's the Portuguese word for grandmother.)

My grandmother looked me in the eye, her lips quirked in a shape that was not entirely unlike a smile.

“Father should stand up in the front of the church and read a list of sins. Just the most popular sins. Stealing. Cursing. Drunkenness. Adultery. Each time he calls out a sin, you raise your hand if you committed it. When he's done with the list, he gives everyone absolution and we all say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. Very fast. Start mass on time.”

My smile was less subtle. In fact, I was grinning back at my grandmother like an idiot.

“That's a great idea, Avó! I'm afraid, though, that it wouldn't be as fast as you hope. People would slow it down by looking around all the time and checking out each other's sins.”

Now my grandmother's smile was breaking out into the open.

“No, of course not,” she said. “Looking around. That would be a sin.”

Problem solved.

I told Father about it later. The old Irishman laughed till his face turned purple. He never gave it a try, though. Too bad. I was willing to say an extra Our Father and Hail Mary if I got to look around.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Não conta

Innumeracy abroad

My faithful reader and commenter João Paulo has shared with me the results of a 2008 hearing in the 8th District of Lisbon's Civil Court. (How else would you translate 8.o Juízo Cível da Comarca?) My ability to read Portuguese is limited and not enhanced by the legal terminology in the report on the court's proceedings, but I think I've puzzled out the key points.

Here is the summary of the court's decision:
8.o Juízo Cível da Comarca de Lisboa

A fls. 189 vem o executado apresentar um requerimento intitulado de "oposição a penhora", em que alega ter sido ordenada à penhora de 1/6 do vencimento que aufere, sendo que atentas as despesas correntes que apresenta ter, o deixa numa situação de grave carência económica.

Conclui, pedindo a isenção de penhora.

Notificado o exequente, vem este requerer a manutenção da penhora.

For ordenado a elaboração de um relatorio sócio económico do executado, o qual se mostra junto a fls. 213.


O Tribunal deve ponderar entre o interesse do exequente em ver o seu direito assegurado, e o do executado em cumprir o pagamento da quantia a que se encontra vinculado, interesse esse que tem de ser proporcional.

Pese embora os factos relatados pelo executado, e sendo certo que não competindo ao Tribunal restringi-lo de refazer a sua vida como entender, também não pode o Tribunal prejudicar os compromissos anterioremente por aquele assumidos.

Assim, determina o Tribunal proceder à redução da penhor dò vencimento do executado para 1/5 do vencimento.
You see, some hapless guy got slammed with a “penhora,” which translates into English as “distrainment”—the seizure of personal property to enforce the payment or discharge of an obligation. In this particular case, the subject of the distrainment had suffered the seizure of 1/6 of his assets (garnishment of his wages). He petitioned the court for relief, claiming that he was suffering grave economic hardship.

The court solemnly pondered the petitioner's request, noting the necessity of proportionately balancing the petitioner's well-being against his responsibility to discharge his legal obligations. Upon consideration, the court ruled that the distrainment of 1/6 of the petitioner's assets had been too severe and ordered a relaxation of the order. The new order instead stipulated a seizure of 1/5 of his assets.

And thus is justice done by those with limited skill in matemática.

Muito obrigado, João Paulo!