Saturday, October 30, 2010

The dollar-sign alternate universe

Not always for sale

Remember California's Governor William Matson Roth? You probably don't. How about U.S. Senator Norton Simon? (I know: you're thinking, “Isn't there a museum named after him in Pasadena?”)

Here's a pair of easier ones: Governor Al Checchi? U.S. Senator Mike Huffington?

You're catching on, aren't you? Let's clinch it:

Governor Meg Whitman?

Yeah, right.

While Ms. Whitman still has an outside chance of beating former governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday, most people are now aware that her attempt to purchase California's governor's mansion is falling short. (The joke is on her! Jerry rejected the governor's mansion during his first term in the 1970s and the Reagan-designed mediocrity in Carmichael was sold as a white elephant.)

All of the people cited above were (or are) multi-millionaires who decided the best route to elective office was a self-funded campaign. While Whitman is taking the cake with over $140 million having been dug out of her deep, deep pockets, her predecessors were pikers only by comparison.

Norton Simon accurately appraised U.S. Senator George Murphy as a light-weight party hack out of touch with the California electorate and decided to challenge him in the 1970 Republican primary. Murphy was a former Hollywood song-and-dance man who had won the seat in a kind of fluke in the Johnson landslide year of 1964, breasting the Democratic tide by beating Pierre Salinger, the short-term placeholder senator who had been appointed when the elected senator died in office.

Simon's dollars, however, could not dislodge the “senator from Technicolor.” Sen. Murphy won the GOP nomination (although he lost in the general election).

In 1974, former University of California regent William Matson Roth decided on a similar good-government tack. Once again, a millionaire spent freely to gain political office. As a self-funded candidate, Roth would of course be beholden to no one, since there would be no financial strings on him. (Sound familiar?) As it turned out, he would not be beholden to many voters, either, since they cast their ballots for other candidates. He came in fourth in the Democratic primary. The winner? Jerry Brown.

For a while, it looked like U.S. Rep. Mike Huffington, a Republican from a California coastal district, might be the exception to the rule that rich candidates can't buy political office. He had displaced his predecessor, a long-serving Republican congressman from Santa Barbara, by washing him away in a tidal wave of money in the 1992 GOP primary. All told, Huffington spent $5.4 million dollars for a congressional seat (but at least he got it). Naturally political consultants and media outlets rejoiced and salivated when Rep. Huffington began to gear up in 1994 for a U.S. senate race against incumbent Dianne Feinstein.

Again, money flowed like water—$28 million this time. But Mike never became a U.S. senator. In rapid succession, Huffington lost to Feinstein, announced he was gay (or at least bisexual), and divorced his wife Arianna. (She probably didn't mind, though, since it was now clear that Mike was not her ticket to becoming First Lady.)

These lessons were lost on former airline executive Al Checchi, who thought it would be nice to be California's governor. He never made it to the general election. In 1998 he dropped $39 million into the Democratic primary, but lost to Gray Davis, who spent “only” $9 million.

Enter Meg Whitman, today's self-funded, no-strings-attached candidate. If nothing else, she is a walking and talking (but not very much) one-woman stimulus for California's political economy. She could have gotten a lot more bang out of her $140 million if she had spent half of it on charity instead of those incessant, aggravating, and mind-numbing advertisements. (Meg, ever heard of diminishing returns? How about diminishing election returns?)

Is it ironic or merely amusing that Whitman's opponent in Tuesday's election—the once and future governor Jerry Brown—made his political career back in the 1970s by sponsoring the Fair Political Practices Act, which created the reporting mechanism that tracks all of this wacky campaign spending and established the state's disclosure rules (which the federal government would do well to emulate)? The Fair Political Practices Commission recently released a report that makes for some sadly entertaining reading: Breaking the Bank: Primary Campaign Spending for Governor since 1978. Shake your head and cluck your tongue while scanning the cost-per-vote data for the losers, who clearly had more dollars than sense (or votes).

Let's give Jerry Brown the last word. From an article by Bill Boyarsky in the Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1973, when Brown was California's secretary of state and gearing up for his first successful gubernatorial run:
Democratic Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr. proposed Thursday that he and the other prospective candidates for governor spend no more than $750,000 each in the 1974 primary election.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Defective dossier

Failing to get the straight poop

One of my favorite restaurants offers—pushes, even—a “frequent-flier” program that offers discounts to its regulars as well as e-mailed coupons and birthday greetings and promotional materials in your mail. I'd rather not, thank you, despite having received the sign-up forms about a dozen times over the last couple of years (usually whenever some new server has yet to learn that Professor Z is not a joiner). I do not want to stuff yet another card in my wallet, get more junk mail in my mail box, or more spam in my e-mail.

And I sure don't want them encircling my table on my birthday and singing to me.

The regular prices on the menu are reasonable and I am fortunate enough not to have to cut every possible corner (or I'd stay home on Saturday mornings, scramble my own eggs, and read my newspapers at my dining room table instead of at my usual corner booth).

I admit, however, that I do already have a couple of these special “loyalty cards.” One is from Borders Books and the other is from Safeway. The Safeway card was a fluke. One day the checker asked me for my discount card and I replied that I didn't have one. Since he recognized me as a semi-regular, he was surprised. He reached into a drawer under the cash register, pulled out a card, swiped it through the card reader, and handed it to me. He didn't collect any data from me. No name, no birth date, no address, no phone number. Nothing.

I stuck the card in my wallet and it's resided there ever since, one of the least intrusive loyalty cards ever. The less I carry around, the happier I am, but the Safeway card takes little space and its discounts have added up without snooping into my life (unless Safeway has figured out another way to tap into my personal business).

But what if they did? What would the consequences be? One possibility provided me with a peculiar moment of amusement while reading The Clan Corporate, the third volume in “The Merchant Princes” series by Charles Stross, a writer whose work I always enjoy. An undercover agent from a parallel universe accidentally exposes his presence in our world through an act of carelessness:
He doesn't own an automobile or a pet dog or a television, or subscribe to any newspapers or magazines. He uses his credit card to shop for groceries at the local Safeway twice a week, and here he screwed up—he has a loyalty card for the discounts. It turns out that he never buys toilet paper or light bulbs. However he does buy new movie releases on DVD, which is kind of odd for someone who doesn't own a DVD player or a TV or a computer.
Busted! Because a Safeway loyalty card showed a pattern of purchases at odds with a normal existence. No toilet paper or light bulbs. Obviously a visitor from a parallel dimension.

To be fair, the person being described has other peculiarities that had drawn the attention of the spy agency that ends up snooping through his purchasing record at Safeway. Too bad for him that he didn't have a blind card like I have.

And good for me that I do.

I have, you see, never purchased toilet paper from Safeway. Never. A few light bulbs, yes. But no toilet paper.

I'm not sure why the inter-dimensional agent didn't need bathroom tissue—easier to pop over to the loo in his home universe?—but I can explain my own situation. I just hope our national spy agencies find it persuasive and don't subject me to hideous medical experiments on the theory that I have world-walking powers embedded in my brain tissue.

It's simple. I go to more than one supermarket.

Shocking, I know. But it's allowed, you see, even if you have a “loyalty” card. My business is divided between two local supermarkets. Safeway is within easy walking distance in my neighborhood. The other is on my commute route between home and school. All bulky purchases are made at the store on my commute route. I have my car and a handy trunk to store things in. Plenty of room for large 9-packs of toilet tissue purchased at long intervals.

Safeway, on the other hand, is where I pick up small random items as the need arises. I stroll by on foot, think of something I need, and pick it up. No big items. Hence no multi-pack bundles of rolls of toilet paper to juggle on the walk back home or for Safeway to record in its corporate database.

So you see, I'm actually not a world-walking secret agent from a parallel dimension who is here to collect data on you people. Honest!

And I'll bet you one hundred of your Earth dollars that you can't prove otherwise.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Laughing at what you don't understand

Entertainment at tea time

The anti-intellectual culture of the day must be quite a treat for the subomegaloids who watch Fox News and frequent Tea Party gatherings. One of the country's major political powers is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the know-nothing right wing, indicating a kind of high-water mark for bumptious ignorance and anti-science. Still, it remains something of a disappointment when the waves slop over onto New York magazine. You'd think that a publication naming itself after the cosmopolitan Big Apple would keep a stiff upper lip and refuse to frolic among the scum-sucking bottom-dwellers.

Well, you'd be wrong.

This past week New York magazine decided to go for some easy yuks by mocking some math classes. It was a piece of cake. A group of five people—yes, it took five people to do this—pored over the course offerings at several American liberal arts colleges, found some math courses they didn't understand, and merrily made fun of them.

What a treat for New York's readers. (The ignorant ones, at least.)

Let's join the fun, shall we?

October 19, 2010

Every year, liberal-arts majors anxiously scour their college's course listings looking for classes that will fulfill their math requirement but aren't so, you know, math-y. Here's what they're signed up for this year.

10. Topology: The Nature of Shape and Space: “In geometry we ask: How big is it? How long is it? But in topology we ask: Is it connected? Is it compact? Does it have holes?” [Sarah Lawrence]
Topology is not a trivial topic. By what metric do the writers gauge this to be a “ridiculous-sounding” course? They're off to an embarrassing start (assuming they're capable of embarrassment).
9. The Mathematics of Chance: “Most topics are introduced in a case-study fashion, usually by reading an article in a current periodical such as the New York Times.” [Bard]
And already it gets worse. Probability and statistics pervade our technological culture but are often misunderstood. If people had better number sense, they would be fooled less often by nostrum-peddlers and dishonest politicians. Scanning a periodical is an excellent way to find numerical arguments (e.g., polling data, unemployment figures, medical claims) that should be subjected to some critical thinking.
8. Mathematics in Many Cultures: “Mathematical ideas are found in many cultures, among both literate and non-literate peoples. This course examines both mathematics and the role it plays in the cultures. Examples chosen from the mathematical ideas of present-day peoples of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, as well as historic Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Islam and China.” [Pomona]
Mathematics is a human endeavor that spans cultures and exhibits the variety of our thinking. The course title is straightforward and the description apt, yet the New York contributors deemed this another “ridiculous-sounding” math class.
7. The Magic of Numbers: “This course will explore the beauty and mystery of mathematics through a study of the patterns and properties of the natural numbers 1, 2, [and] 3." [Harvard]
I clicked through to the course link on this one. Sure enough, the writers had “improved” the course description by omitting the ellipsis after the numerals. (The natural numbers go on forever. And what does Harvard say about this “ridiculous” course? Here's the rest of the description: “We discuss various special classes of numbers, such as prime numbers, factorials, and binomial coefficients, and the many ways they arise in mathematics. We will discuss questions in probability (such as: the likelihood that two people in a class of 25 have the same birthday). We also study modular arithmetic and secret codes based on it.”

Yeah. Sounds stupid, doesn't it?
6. Models of Life: “In particular, we will ask such questions as: How do you model the growth of a population of animals? How can you model the growth of a tree? How do sunflowers and seashells grow?” [Kenyon]
This terse description is sufficient to identify exponential growth as one of the topics (for population, naturally) and Fibonacci sequences for sunflower growth (and other cases, too), and probably the over-hyped but still nontrivial golden ratio.

So inane. The New York contributors must have dislocated their jaws from yawning (when they weren't sniggering, of course).
5. Mathematical Origamist’s Toolkit: “Topics include modular origami and how this models the creation of polyhedra and coloring of graphs, comparison of origami-axiomatic constructions to straight-edge and compass constructions, the combinatorics of possible crease patterns, the mathematics of origami design (circle packing, optimization), matrix models for paperfolding, spherical geometry, Descartes’ Theorem, and Gaussian curvature.” [Hampshire]
I can think of only one possible reason for the inclusion of this course: The writers (and I use the term loosely) thought that “origamist” was just too funny for words. This course is full of clever and subtle stuff that a good instructor could have a lot of fun with—and I don't mean the kind of mocking fun that New York magazine is trying to have at its expense.
4. Mathematics and Narrative: “Many literary works (Arcadia, Proof, and Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture) use mathematics as an integral part of their narrative. Movie and television narratives such as Good Will Hunting and Numb3rs are also mathematically based. Nonfiction works about mathematics and mathematical biographies like Chaos, Fermat's Enigma, and A Beautiful Mind provide further examples of the connection between mathematics and narrative.” [Vassar]
Sir Tom Stoppard? David Auburn? Apostolos Doxiadis? Heck, no one has ever heard of these writers. Right? At least, the New York writers appear to have failed to see the value of exploring the mathematical underpinnings of major recent literary works. Why, they didn't even appreciate Good Will Hunting, which was a movie they could watch in slack-jawed amusement while munching popcorn (while ogling Matt Damon). I doubt, however, that they would appreciate the accuracy of the mathematical boardwork that appeared in the movie. (I did!)
3. Borges and Mathematics: “Jorge Luis Borges was one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Many of his short stories and essays were concerned with philosophical, metaphysical, and mathematical questions. The thesis motivating this course is that if we know the mathematics that Borges referred to, then we will read him differently, and we will read him better.” [Bennington]
The inclusion of this course is beyond outrageous. The New York magazine ni kulturni don't recognize the significance of mathematics in the work of Borges, who famously imagined “The Library of Babel” and thereby created a fascinating combinatorial icon that has persisted in literature and mathematics.
2. Mathematics and Science as Art in Contemporary Theatre: “Playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Rinne Groff, Michael Frayn, and others have effectively explored mathematical and scientific themes for artistic purposes. Through readings and exercises, and by conducting labs and staging scenes, this class will gain some first-hand insight into the complementary ways in which science and art aim to seek out their respective truths.” [Middlebury]
Aha! A theme! (And three in a row.) These people don't like any explorations of the connections between lit and math. And they were also getting desperate to pad their list out to ten.
1. Meaning, Math, And Motion: “Quoting a charming articulation by Kinsman (a mathematician-turned-oceanographer, in the preface to Wind Waves): 'To the beginner, science is a conversation that has been in progress for a very long time.' Our collective work is to catch up on the conversation.” [Evergreen]
At this point, my patience is exhausted and I'm unwilling to give the benefit of any doubt to the writers. This one might be just a little light-weight and silly, but I've come to regard their disdain as a mark of distinction. Go ahead and take the class, students of Evergreen College. It's probably better than its rather vapid description.

The list of “ridiculous-sounding” courses ends with a bit of snark:
This is why Asia is winning, by the way.
I have a better suggestion, but the New York contributors won't like it (even though they consider mockery an art form).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All for none

And none for all

When I was a teaching assistant during a stint in graduate school, one of my assignments involved an undergraduate abstract algebra class. The professor in charge was keen on teaching (unlike many of his colleagues) and routinely collected and paid attention to student feedback. One day, while he was shuffling through a sheaf of student comments, he burst into laughter and waved a piece of paper at me.

It said, “More small groups!”

“I don't know what it means!” he said. “Do they want me to break them up into small discussion groups more often, or do they want me to spend more time on groups of small order?”

I strongly suspected the former (student groups of four or so) rather than the latter (the two groups of order four—Z4 and Z2 × Z2).

Not all students like having the class broken up into small groups. It lessens one's anonymity to be in a group of three to five rather than in a classroom of thirty to forty. It intrudes on one's ability to blissfully zone out or catch a catnap.

Quite a problem.

It also inspires resistance on the part of some of the best students, who resent carrying the load for their particular group while easy-riding slackers loll about.

But I like the occasional disruption of the standard lecture format with some desk-scooting, semi-organized group babbling, and a bit of cooperative effort. It just refuses—on occasion—to work as intended.

That's a classroom truism, isn't it? As Clausewitz, Moltke, or Powell once said, no battle plan—or lesson plan—survives its first encounter with the enemy. (Not that I mean to characterize my students as the enemy. At least, not usually.)

And what is my (small-group lesson) plan? It has several components:
  • A dash of variety
  • A bit of cooperation
  • A chance to explain to others
  • A chance to learn from others
  • A rising tide to lift all the boats

It's that last item that frustratingly doesn't seem to work very well. Most students like the break in routine. Some relish the opportunity to explain things to their peers (especially those who have grasped that explaining something to someone else is about the best possible way to test your understanding of it). Several are eager for assistance from their peers (who are generally less scary than the mean old professor). And some really need it.

These latter are the ones who too often bravely run away. It's a kind of “running in place,” though. They'll scoot their desks into a cluster with their neighbors (although sometimes extra prompting is required). They'll keep their eyes open while worksheets are passed around and they'll fill in their names on their copies. They'll make noncommittal murmuring noises during discussion to indicate their presence.

And at the end of the period they hand in blank worksheets. Or nearly blank.

I'm aware of this, of course, so I roam about the room noting the progress of various groups and individuals and doing a bit of selective prodding. For example, I did this in a calculus class:

“Did you get the same derivative as the other members of your group?”

“Uh, I think so.”

“Perhaps it would be good to check, don't you think?”

“Um, I guess.”

In a louder voice to the whole group:

“Remember that I want the entire group to agree on each step before proceeding to the next, okay? Cross-check each other.”

I wander over to another group.

“Did everyone get the same critical numbers?”

Various responses come back: definite ones from people sitting close together who are working in tandem and less certain ones from those who are hanging back a little. The loners may be totally lost or they may be forging ahead on their own, impatient and unwilling to wait for their less gifted classmates. (Or they just don't play well with others. Sometimes they break out of the pack early, brandishing a filled-out worksheet that they want to be the first to hand in. I send them back to their groups to assist the stragglers, which they don't always appreciate. And sometimes the stragglers don't either!)

“Well, see that you agree and work out any differences.”

I keep moving, trying not to hover.

“All right, guys. How far have you gotten?”

“We're trying to figure out if these are maxes or mins.”

“Okay. Are you agreed on what points you're checking?”

One student leans forward to conceal the blankness of his worksheet. Others are nodding their heads or voicing their agreement. I lean down a bit and speak quietly to the student with the blank paper.

“Your neighbors are on the right track. Copy down their work and ask them for help if you get stuck.”

I gather that some students don't transcribe the joint work of their group because they have nothing to contribute and they don't “own” the results. I appreciate that sensitivity (if indeed that's what it is), but I'm explicitly giving the students permission to help each other across the finish line. On such occasions I routinely say, “All right, everybody! Today is a day for lots of perfect scores! Check with your classmates to verify your work and your answers.” (The subsequent solo exam will show if anything stuck.)

Usually that elicits a bunch of positive responses. One student chortles, “Ten out of ten, here I come!” She has a big smile on her face. But others look worried.

Sure enough, at the end of the period, the boy who hid his paper hasn't finished filling it out. For whatever reason, he kept dawdling instead of piggybacking on his classmates. The girl who was eager for a perfect score looks like she achieved it, transcribing with particular care the detailed consensus solution from her group, making up for some of the difficulties she was having earlier. Most of the class will be keeping company with her at the high end of today's grade distribution. Others will manage to hand in incomplete work or even worksheets on which their incorrect calculations end in hastily substituted correct answers borrowed from classmates. (I read the work, guys. Don't just copy answers!)

Some of my colleagues use group work as the default instructional approach in their classrooms and do their best to avoid the lecture format. It's not, however, a universal solution to the problem of the droning dispensation of knowledge. (Nothing is.) There are as many ways to go wrong in the classroom as there are little knots of students. Since there's no one-size-fits-all solution, all you can do is to keep offering different learning opportunities. You try to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but most of the semester may have slipped by before you discover how to do that with a particular class.

Then a new school term begins and you start all over again with a new batch of students. If you view this as a sequence of constantly renewed opportunities to foster learning and to learn more about teaching, then life is good. If, instead, it puts you in mind of the labors of Sisyphus, you may be in the wrong line of work.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A too-easy question

Ooh! Ooh! I know! I know!

The October 2010 issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research is emblazoned on its cover with a colorful display of astronomical images, including the planet Saturn. Text is laid over the cover art, spelling out the question, “Why does the universe look so old?

I think I know the answer to this one:

Because it's old.

Poor creationists. They have to labor so diligently, so faithfully, and so blindly, to rationalize their God's duplicity. He may have implied in his holy book that the universe was created a scant few thousands of years ago, but then he went and made it look billions of years old. Either their God is a liar or he is a prankster. Loki or Coyote. It's not a very satisfying choice, is it?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

California going to pot?

They have a proposition for us

I know that the proponents of Proposition 19 aren't really talking to me when they cry “Just Say Now!” and try to appeal to my generation's long and intimate acquaintance with marijuana. It's not my thing. And I am not at all representative of “my” generation. Nevertheless, I am almost certain to vote in favor of Proposition 19 on California's general election ballot next month. If it passes, the state's various legal proscriptions of pot will be expunged and a new era of good feelings will be ushered in.

Not bloody likely.

Passage of Proposition 19 is a fair bet to set off an overreaction by the federal government, whose laws misclassifying marijuana as a narcotic would remain on the books and whose zealotry in the unending war on drugs appears to be unabated under the Obama administration. The main reason to vote for Proposition 19 is to poke one's thumb in the eye of the people who scream constantly about our always having been at war with Eurasia. (Or is it Eastasia? I forget.) Criminalization of pot has merely lumped the moral equivalent of beer with the physiological equivalent of eye-blinding bathtub gin. Does anyone except the misinformed and the professional narcs really believe that marijuana deserves to be classified with heroin?

They must be on drugs.

The San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper of record for the geographical region centered on the Haight-Ashbury, offered a carefully reasoned and detailed editorial explaining why Proposition 19 is a flawed measure that deserves a No vote. As an exponent of reason myself, you'd think I'd be more susceptible to the Chronicle's laundry list of potential problems:
  • The proposition's ban on pre-employment drug testing would conflict with federal law.
  • A citizen's new right to grow pot in the backyard would be exempt from local control, reasonable or not.
  • Drivers would still be prohibited from driving under the influence, but passengers enjoy the right to have a nice traffic toke. Oops?
  • Proposition 19's free-for-all approach to county-by-county taxation and regulation of marijuana cultivation would induce chaos.
I think these are all valid concerns, yet I care about them about as much as a chronic pothead. “Yeah, wha—?”

Let the lawyers and the courts sort it out. They'll be happy to.

Drug policy is already chaotic and already stupid and Proposition 19 would merely underscore that. I fear, of course, that teenagers will begin to reject pot once it becomes just another garden plant in grandpa and grandma's backyard or window box. Serious uncoolness is about to set in.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Clash of the petty titans

Immovable objects

I wonder. Did Dad cheat when he and his brother played Cowboys & Indians? Perhaps you know what I mean. The kid who, when you draw a bead on him and shoot him at point-blank range, yells “You missed me!” and runs away. That's how my father seems to me. No matter how much well-grounded data supports my refutations of his inane right-wing arguments, he runs away entirely unscathed to repeat his Beck-embellished falsehoods as if they're gospel. Reality is an irritant and irrelevancy in his smugly ossified perspective on the world.

The latest contretemps began in the usual way. Dad included me in his e-mail distribution of yet another tawdry mass forwarding. The archives at always show his mailings to be the stale tailings of an old extremist quote mine or the whole-cloth rantings of some pseudo-scholar (bogus historians and economists are favorites). But Dad doesn't care how old they are, even if they were crudely edited to replace each occurrence of “Clinton” with “Obama.” He's beyond embarrassment.

This time my in-box contained a call to arms by someone who ostensibly loves the U.S. Constitution so much that he wants to call a constitutional convention to rewrite it. (Remember “We had to destroy the village in order to save the village”?) Once I waded past the innumerable forwarding headers (these people do not know how to forward a message cleanly), I was told that “Governors of 35 states have already filed suit against the Federal Government for imposing unlawful burdens upon them. It takes only 38 (of the 50) States to convene a Constitutional Convention.”

Both of these statements are false. They didn't even get right the number of states required to convene a constitutional convention. Big surprise.

The message then started to rant about Congress—always an easy target. (As Mark Twain famously said, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”)
For too long we have been too complacent about the workings of Congress. Many citizens had no idea that members of Congress could retire with the same pay after only one term
Utter bilge.

Sometimes I ignore these missives. Sometimes I slap them down. It depends on my mood—especially my exasperation level. This particular bit of stupidity was quite irksome and contained extremely easy targets. I picked one and potted it neatly:
At 03:37 PM 9/15/2010, wrote:

Many citizens had no idea that members of Congress could retire with the same pay after only one term

Since it's not true, perhaps it's not so surprising that many citizens had no idea. On the other hand, something doesn't have to be true for lots of people to believe it or to forward it in e-mail.

No doubt Dad would either ignore my correction or yell “You missed!” and run away.

I was wrong. He decided to emulate his hero, the uncouth Rep. Joe Wilson.
You lie!! I never wrote that and I thought that you would NEVER do that.

Perhaps it's a liberal trait because I hear Obama do it all the time and any one that does not see it is deeply indoctrinated

Best wishes, dad..
“Best wishes”? My father has officially turned into a jerk. I replied, but not quite in kind.
Dear Dad:

Name-calling is not an argument. It is pathetic and sad. Have you ever considering using actual evidence to support a claim? Please identify any one-term member of Congress who retired at full pay. You can't, because it never happened. That makes me right and you wrong. Try to deal with reality.

You are entitled to think me mistaken and to disagree with me, but you have a lot of nerve to accuse me of dishonesty. I prefer facts while you embrace any forwarded Internet nonsense that agrees with your preconceptions. Apparently this does not embarrass you in the least, but it embarrasses me.

Don't bother to reply to this message unless it's with the apology you now owe me.

My father was unrepentant. Since a good offense is always a good defense, he responded with his own demand for an apology:
Dear son!!
The fact remains that I did not write that. It was a tiny part of that e-mail. and you e-mail my family and friends claiming that I had written it. So you owe me an apology too. sorry to offend you, Dad.
Oh, boo hoo! Now he's whining that I shared my refutation of his claim to the list of people who received the original spam-mail. Sorry, Dad (but not very). When I'm in truth-squad mode, expect my corrections to go out courtesy of Reply-to-All. He also complains that I picked on one “tiny part.” I doubt, though, that he would have been happier if I had gone point by point through the entire mendacious message.

Note well, however, how the old bastard has a tiny fig leaf to cling to. “I did not write that,” he says. Right, he merely forwarded it. And that's all I claimed, too. But if you go back to my original rebuttal, you'll see how my e-mail program cited the text to which I responded:
At 03:37 PM 9/15/2010, wrote:
That's Eudora's quoting style. Dad has seen it a dozen times before, but now he conveniently forgets and imputes the e-mail program's quote header to me, as if I had personally written it and accused him of personally writing the statement he forwarded. I'm sure it gives him a nice sense of grievance to nurse.

He neglects to consider that every recipient of my correction was also an original recipient of his forwarded message, so absolutely no one is under any delusion that he is the original author of the piece and absolutely no one was tricked by his duplicitously liberal son into thinking he wrote lies. Nope. He never really writes anything. He just forwards delusional right-wing rants and implies his agreement with them.

Take some responsibility, old man.

I did not take his “sorry to offend you” as any kind of apology. I did not respond to his message at all. In fact, he's gotten nothing but silence from me ever since. He called me a liar and I demanded an apology. He still owes me one.

There it sits.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Loon on the run

Resisting anything but temptation

It was too much for him. Montreal was hosting a huge gathering of nonbelievers and Gollum had to climb up out of his squalid cavern to blink in the bright light at the horde of atheists.

Oops! Did I say “Gollum”? It's a natural mistake. I meant to say “Dennis,” as in “Dennis Markuze” (also known as “DM” or “David Mabus” or “Atheist Wars” or even, in a likely attempt to avoid ever more effective twit-filters, “Anonymous”). He apparently cannot help himself as he stalks those with whom he disagrees, particularly P.Z. Myers, who is decidedly Dennis's bĂȘte noire. He's dabbled in harassment here at Halfway There, too, where nearly two hundred deranged comments have appeared under his byline since December 2009.

His venture into the world of humans was not without its consequences. As a result, Tessa Brown is my newest hero. She confronted Dennis Markuze and she shot him.

It was only with a camera, however. You can't have everything.

And now we have a new face of lunacy to contemplate. Yes, it's rather ordinary, but what's going on behind the face is decidedly not pretty. It's chaos back there, and medical intervention is definitely indicated. (Remember, I am a doctor! [Okay, the degree is in math education, but you're just quibbling!])

Dennis needs help. Lots of help. Or jail time. But I suspect the latter would not do him much good. And so far no one has managed to talk him into getting counseling. He's too busy defending his version of God. Back in July, Dennis favored me with the following comment:
DM has left a new comment on your post "Believing your lying eyes":

As I said, we are going to EXTERMINATE you and your entire family if you continue to talk about RELIGION OR GOD....

this your FINAL WARNING...
He then promptly posted another half-dozen incoherent and profane rants. I replied (though one should never reply to trolls) in something less than my most polite manner:
Dennis, you're a dumb asshole who doesn't even understand the meaning of "final warning". No one should listen to what someone that stupid says about god or anything else. (Who let you out of the retirement home for insane trolls?)
Now we all know what Dennis Markuze looks like. It can't be too long before the T-shirt gets updated.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Words versus numbers

My students tell me my job

“You can't do that!”

My student's emotions were an admixture of horror and disbelief.

“No, really! You can't do that! This is a math class!”

Oh, really? I guess I had lost track of that. I inquired as to the basis for the student's convictions.

“Why do you think I can't give you an essay question to answer?“

The student goggled in disbelief at my question.

“Because that's what we do in English class, not in math!”

Another student chimed in.

“Yeah. Math is about numbers and calculations—not about words!”

I've had this conversation a few times now, mostly in intermediate algebra and precalculus. It tends to occur when I hand out a quiz or exam with the following kind of problem:
Rewrite the equation x2 + y2 + 4x − 6y + 9 = 0 in standard form and graph your results. Describe your graph in words.
It's a perfectly ordinary problem that occurs after the students have learned about the basic conic sections and the technique of completing the square. Upon rewriting the equation as

(x + 2)2 + (y − 3)2 = 4,

most of my students (if they've gotten this far) easily recognize that they have the equation of a circle with center (−2, 3) and radius 2. They quickly sketch the circle and then stare in hopeless confusion at the prompt, “Describe your graph in words.”

I've tried amplifying the prompt in an attempt to make it less intimidating:

“Think about how you would describe your graph over your phone to a friend so that your friend could graph it without having seen it.”

(These days I have to add the warning that it's no fair to just send the friend a quickly snapped image of the graph.)

Lots of students leave that part of the problem blank and move on. Others tentatively write “circle” (miffed that I didn't just ask for the name of the conic section and anxious that I used the plural “words”) and nervously move on.

And then there's the handful of students who write dissertations like this:
Subtract the 9 from both sides to isolate the variables. Look at the coefficient of the x term, which is 4, take half of it and square it. Add that to both sides. Change x2 + 4x + 4 into (x + 2)2. Now look at the y term...
Wow. A complete procedural guide to deriving the answer (though seldom as coherent as the mocked-up example above). Where did I ever ask for that? (I'm sure they get a prickly feeling that something must be wrong when they overflow the tiny space I allowed for their answer and they continue their discourse on the back of the page.)

Why do so few of them offer the brief and straightforward response that “The graph is a circle of radius 2 with its center at (−2, 3)”? Wouldn't that suffice to fully inform their imaginary friend at the other end of the phone conversation?

Hardly anyone is pleased when I unveil the answer. The typical reaction is exasperation:

“Is that all you wanted? Why didn't you say so?”

I thought I did.

“You're just confusing us. This isn't English comp!”

My students are like fussy eaters who get upset if their corn touches their mashed potatoes. Food should reside in carefully demarcated regions and college curriculum should reside in strictly disjoint sets. (They're not like my kid brother, who regarded his dinner plate as an artist regards the palette whereon he mixes his colors.)

Eventually, however, I break down my students' reservations and most of them start scooping up the relatively easy points I assign for complete one-sentence answers to simple prompts. By the end of the semester they are rather less startled by questions that require a written response. They still don't, for the most part, like them, but they can do them.

Then the school term ends and I have to start all over again with a new batch. And I know what words will be coming out of their mouths.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Meg Whitman: Too stupid to govern

Three examples

In an era of vacuum-headed candidates (e.g., Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Christine O'Donnell), one would not have expected the former chief executive officer for a major corporation to distinguish herself by her cluelessness. Nevertheless, Meg Whitman has managed to make her mark in the moron sweepstakes. The skills that permitted her to be a successful corporate executive for eBay have not shown themselves equal to the task of campaigning for governor of the state of California. I offer the following evidence:

Exhibit A

No sooner had she won the Republican nomination in the primary election by drowning her opponent in a deluge of money, Meg approached the problem of securing Steve Poizner's support and endorsement in the general election by attacking him some more. The primary was in June. During the first week of August, while being interviewed on the Los Angeles radio station KFI, Whitman heaped additional criticism on state insurance commissioner Poizner by saying he didn't do “what his Republican governor asked him to do to solve the budget crisis.”

Poizner quickly fired back, “The Sacramento Bee audited our books and confirmed that Meg was just plain wrong on this issue in the primary, going so far as to call her attack an outright lie.”

It took another month of cooling down before Poizner finally offered a lukewarm endorsement of Whitman's candidacy. He hasn't, however, been stumping for her during the general election campaign. Poizner has apparently managed to find better things to do.

Whitman never found it necessary to say nice things about her erstwhile rival and to stage a photo opportunity with their hands clasped and raised in the victory salute. I guess she was too busy spending her own money to spend any time making nice to Poizner.

Exhibit B

Fresno is the epicenter of California's central valley, the state's creamy red center. If a Republican candidate doesn't rack up big numbers in the valley, the Democratic candidate rides to victory with Bay Area and Los Angeles votes. No sensible GOP politician would risk diminishing that treasure trove of conservative votes.

So what does Whitman do while chatting with the editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News? She says, “I don't know if you've been to Fresno recently. Fresno looks like it's like Detroit. It's just awful.”

Naturally many Fresnans took umbrage. Whitman and her campaign scrambled quickly to explain that the candidate was actually decrying economic conditions in the San Joaquin Valley—not trashing the pride of central California.

Whitman's excuse is not false. She was talking economics at the time. It's just evidence that even at this late date the candidate can't frame a statement without jamming a foot in her mouth. (Or perhaps she really does disdain Fresno. She wouldn't be the first.)

Exhibit C

Nothing demonstrates Whitman's amateur status more starkly than the current fuss over her falsely documented maid. While some of her supporters may find her naivety refreshing (she's not a career politican—just an idealist with more money than sense!), it doesn't speak well of her potential for handling the job in Sacramento. One hears that politics goes on there all the time, and Meg may not be equal to it.

Right now Whitman is complaining that the timing of the maid's revelations is politically motivated.

Well, duh.

If she had had enough sense, she could have inoculated herself against this back in 2009, when she was launching her campaign, digging into her deep pockets, and learning (allegedly for the first time) that her maid was not in the country legally. While staking out her politically nuanced position on immigration reform and border enforcement (trying to placate Hispanic voters while hanging on to the nativists that fill the GOP's ranks), Whitman could have matter-of-factly noted that prospective employers needed more assurance that potential employees were providing legitimate paperwork. In that context she could have alluded to her own experience as an object lesson in the system's flaws and evidence of the need for more stringent rules.

The controversy would have been minimal. Instead, Whitman appears to have thought that the matter would never arise in the heat of the general election campaign. If so, she's a fool. Worse, she insisted loudly that she and her husband never had a clue about their maid's status and had never seen the letter from the Social Security Administration inquiring about irregularities in the maid's Social Security number—only to discover too late that her husband had written a note on the letter they supposedly never saw.

Amateur hour.

It's a good year to be a Republican candidate and Jerry Brown is not the sexiest candidate the Democrats could have selected as their gubernatorial nominee, so perhaps—just maybe—Whitman and her avalanche of greenbacks will manage to survive her missteps and eke out a victory. But her campaign performance doesn't augur well for her political future. Meg Whitman may just be too stupid to govern.