Thursday, June 30, 2011

An incident at the opera

Coming soon to a stage near you

In 1999, I picked up a pair of tickets to the San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. None of my friends are opera aficionados to the degree that I am, but by the end of the 20th century it had become standard practice at the San Francisco Opera to project supertitles during performances. It was now possible to follow the sense of an opera production without actually knowing the words or the language of the libretto. Under those circumstances, one of my college buddies agreed to accompany me to the Ring. An assiduous reader of fantasy and science fiction, he wanted to see how Wagner compared to Tolkien (recall that this was well before the movies). He managed to remain attentive and engaged throughout the entire operatic marathon.

This year the Ring has returned to San Francisco and I grabbed a pair of tickets. However, my old friend assured me that one exposure to the 16-hour extravaganza was quite enough for him, thank you very much. No problem! I have other friends, of course. And all of them were quite capable of informing me that they had other plans.


Then came a big surprise. One long acquaintance tipped me off that the son of mutual friends had just declared himself to be a music composition major in college. This was news. I called up his parents, whom I had known since before he was born, and discovered two things: (1) their son was spending the summer back in town with his parents and (2) he would be thrilled to attend the Ring. Thus I became a patron of the arts, sponsoring a young music student's first exposure to Wagner's epic composition.

While the new San Francisco production of the Ring has plenty of weird quirks, it was also a thrilling success. The key factor was the brilliant Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, a wholly successful Brünnhilde. The audience screamed its approval during her solo bow at the end of the fourth and final opera (you know, after the fat lady has sung and the opera is over—except that Stemme is not your traditionally over-upholstered warrior maiden).

What is it about Sweden, anyway? The most famous Brünnhilde of the latter half of the 20th century was also from Sweden. Birgit Nilsson, whom I was privileged to hear in the role in 1981, was unrivaled during her long reign as the leading Wagnerian soprano. During an intermission visit to the opera house gift shop one evening, I made the happy discovery that Nilsson's chatty autobiography has been published in an English translation. When I picked it up, I was startled to see that it had been published by the University Press of New England. I nudged my companion.

“Hey, look at this! I'm sharing a publisher with Birgit Nilsson! These are the people who are bringing out my novel later this year.”

My young friend was polite enough to feign interest and to be pleased on my behalf.

“That's pretty good,” he said.

I shrugged self-deprecatingly—which I don't do often, so it was a chance to try something a little different.

“Well, yeah, but it's not as though the opera gift shop is going to have any interest in carrying my book in its inventory after it's published,” I said.

My companion grinned and waited one full beat before delivering his pitch-perfect response.

“On the contrary. They will definitely want to keep it in stock after I base my first opera on it.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

War stories for boys

No gurlz aloud

I joined the Library of Science back in the sixties, when I was in high school. The book club seduced me by offering me a membership premium in the form of the MIT Press edition of Mathematics: Its Content, Methods, and Meaning, translated from the original Russian of authors Aleksandrov, Kolmogorov, and Lavrent'ev. You can imagine how jealous the other high school seniors were. (That is, not at all.)

Today the Library of Science is represented by its successor, the Scientific American Book Club. The monthly arrival of new offerings in my mail box is not quite the event that it was in my college years—I'm perhaps a bit jaded now—but I still enjoy flipping through the catalog booklet and shuffling the sheaf of special offers. These latter are often from affiliated book clubs and do not usually focus on the science, technology, and math that are the bread and butter of the Scientific American Book Club. One such affiliate is the Military Book Club. Its flier was in the most recent SciAm mailing. Behold:

What are we to make of this hot-pants aviatrix? She certainly appears respectful and ready to take orders. And who at the Military Book Club decided that it was 1930 again (from the waist up, at least)? And that girls aren't interested in military history? Some boy, no doubt.

I mean, it couldn't be a grown-up.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why there are so many nuns

And all my students become math teachers!

I miss Pauline. While I still tend to read Dear Abby when I run across it in the pages of a newspaper, the advice seems to be missing the snap and ginger that the original “Abigail Van Buren” brought to the agony-aunt business. Daughter Jeanne may be an example of regression to the mean. She's like Siegfried Wagner to Pauline's Richard.

An item in one of last week's columns reminded me why I feel that way:
DEAR ABBY: My daughter recently told us she is attracted to women. I feel she has been unduly influenced by her mentor/professor at her college, as she quoted this woman several times when she “came out.”

My daughter has always been quiet and shy. She finds it difficult to make eye contact with anyone. How am I to accept this, especially since I feel her mentor took advantage of the situation? I am finding it difficult to function at all. I love my daughter very much. This just hurts. —MOM AT A LOSS IN OREGON

DEAR MOM AT A LOSS: I understand this has been a shock for you, and for that you have my sympathy. It is possible that your daughter has always been quiet and shy because she was wrestling with who she is, so the fact that she told you her feelings is a good thing.

Because you are hurting, it would be helpful for you to talk to other parents of lesbians and gays. They can help you through this period of adjustment. You can find support by contacting PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) by calling (202) 467-8180 or logging onto If you do, you'll be better able to support your child.
That's right, Jeanne. Ignore the elephant in the room. The advice to contact PFLAG is good, but you're completely silent about Oregon Mom's idiocy. I'm not suggesting that you should have called her an idiot, but remaining silent gives the appearance of taking her statement at face value.

Which statement? This one, obviously: “I feel she has been unduly influenced by her mentor/professor at her college.” Oregon Mom is telling us that she thinks her daughter's professor turned her gay. And you're just going to leave that lying there on the page for readers to see and fret over? Sure, PFLAG will explain to her that she is full of crap, but the opportunity to address it in the column was missed.

Here's my suggestion for a replacement for the first paragraph of Jeanne's answer. It may be a bit more blunt than what Pauline might have said, but I like to think it's in her spirit:
If your daughter's mentor helped her to recognize her lesbianism, you owe her a debt of gratitude. Now your daughter has a chance to live a less confused life. If you think your daughter was seduced into “the gay lifestyle,” you need to get acquainted with reality.
Then the recommendation to contact PFLAG is a smooth segue. Read the letters a little more closely, Jeanne. You're missing important stuff.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Television's snipe hunt challenge

High rewards for low standards

The so-called “reality” genre of television has explored such topics as survival skills, spouse-swapping, weight-loss, courtship ritual, and cohabitation with losers. In an exciting breakthrough for this “art form,” free-lance psychic investigators are soon to be rewarded for having the sloppiest experimental protocols and the lowest standards of verification. How else are we to interpret this wry report by Kevin McDonough in his Tune In Tonight column?
A new series “Paranormal Challenge” 9 p.m., Travel) offers the untrained and apparently “unaccredited” a chance at an apprenticeship of sorts.

Hosted by Zak Bagans of “Ghost Adventures” fame, “Challenge” invites amateur spook sleuths to “haunted” sites, arms them with gadgetry and sets them loose amid the ectoplasm.

The team that returns with the most “evidence” is declared the winner. The winner's sole compensation will be a newfound “respect” in the community of paranormal believers. And we all know that's worth twice its weight in pixie dust!
I think McDonough suspects that this could be an entertainment goldmine of unintentional humor. I suspect he's right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fixing California education

USC puts in the fix

Saturday morning's edition of the Sacramento Bee treated us to an opinion piece by Dr. William G. Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California. Naturally it caught my eye, especially when I noticed the title: Simple changes would make college degree easier and cheaper. My eyebrow quirked with skepticism and I steeled myself for disappointment.

I was not disappointed—about being disappointed, I mean. Tierney is not completely out to lunch, but he certainly overreaches and oversimplifies. Here are some pertinent excerpts from his article, along with my comments:
Viewpoints: Simple changes would make college degree easier and cheaper

By William G. Tierney

Special to The Bee
Published Saturday, Jun. 11, 2011

How can California produce the number of college graduates its future economy will need when its public higher education system is staggering because of the ongoing budget squeeze? Unfortunately, the state's public universities and colleges won't receive any of the unexpected surge in new tax revenue and will continue to scale back their enrollments. If the tax extensions sought by Gov. Jerry Brown are not approved, enrollments will likely shrink further.

California's private nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities, by contrast, are in relatively good financial shape. Enrollments in most institutions are holding steady or are up. Endowments and philanthropic giving are on the upswing. Tuition is still higher than in the public schools but is rising at a slower pace.
We should be careful not to overstate the situation relative to public versus private college education in California. The Great Recession has caused a dramatic spike in tuition costs at the California State University and the University of California. The steep rates of increase cannot be sustained without the destruction of these institutions (so I predict it won't happen). It would be misleading to make too much of the “slower pace” of private-school tuition in the state.
If these two higher-education systems would put aside their long-running competition for students, faculty and resources, and cooperate to boost graduation rates, they could go a long way toward turning out the 1 million more credentialed individuals—according to one study—the economy will need in 2025. Heresy? Hardly.
Here I pause to climb onto one of my favorite hobbyhorses: I hate the expression “according to one study” and similar unhelpful non-references. What study? I realize that this is an opinion piece published in a newspaper and not a peer-reviewed research article in an education journal, but the Bee falls short in its mission to inform the public when it expects us to take unsourced statements at face value. I don't know whether to blame Tierney as well. Did he try to include a citation, only to have the Bee editors complain about the fusty academic prose?

In any case, I have done the leg-work for you, should you want to check whether the claims are well supported. Tierney is referring to the work of Hans Johnson, who published two papers in 2009 with the Public Policy Institute of California:

Johnson, H. (2009). Educating California: Choices for the future. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.
Johnson, H., & Sengupta, R. (2009). Closing the Gap: Meeting California's need for college graduates. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

Johnson's more recent paper may also be of interest:

Johnson, H. (2011). California workforce: Planning for a better future. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

While I'm at it, I'll point out that Tierney's article appears to be a public-consumption version of a more extensive report titled Making It Happen: Increasing college access and participation in California Higher Education: The role of private postsecondary providers. Tierney coauthored it with Guilbert Hentschke, a colleague at the USC school of education.

Now let's get back to Tierney's argument:
There are three important ways the public and private sectors can work together to produce more graduates.
  • Shifting the remedial burden to the private sector: California's public schools and universities are lousy at remedial education. Sixty percent of entering Cal State students have to complete at least one remedial course when they arrive at college. It's a task that consumes professorial and student time, and is ill-suited to the mission of graduating students.
For certain private nonprofit and for-profit schools, however, remedial education is a forte. They have experience in dealing with learning deficiencies and are adept in tutoring and some forms of special education. Unencumbered by competing missions, they can focus on the remedial task at hand. And monitoring their success rates would be as easy as grading exams.
Did a warning flag pop up when you read that? Here we have a professor at a private university recommending that more of California's education program be shifted to private institutions. Of course, he's not suggesting that the remediation work be allocated to the University of Southern California, which is presumably above all that. Instead, Tierney is arguing that certain profit-based schools excel at making up educational deficiencies and should be encouraged to do what they do best. I have my doubts.

For-profit schools tend to report high success rates, but these statistics can be misleading. Such schools have a vested interest in retaining their paying customers. Students and colleagues of mine who have taught at profit-driven schools are amazed at how difficult it can be to maintain standards or drop non-performing students. (“Hey, I paid for this class. Now give me my passing grade!”)

Are public schools any better? Tierney says we “are lousy at remedial education.” In my long experience as a college teacher who often teaches elementary algebra (a course that used to be standard high school freshman fare), I can report that my success rate hovers between sixty and seventy percent. In general, my colleagues and I find that one-half to two-thirds of our students pass algebra.

It's shocking, I know. I think our success rates would be higher if we had fewer students in each class and more time to give them individual attention. Perhaps that's what private schools could do (for a price). However, I also want to point out that open-admission institutions like community colleges have to take on all comers, ready or not. We strive mightily with the twin tools of assessment and placement to figure out what students already know and what courses they should take to maximize their probability of success. Still, even the best instructors lose a quarter of their students.

It's my opinion that we can't do much about it. That might be a defeatist attitude, but I'm not one to casually acquiesce in failure. The reality is that every semester brings us students who are placed as best we can manage but who lack any real interest in education. These are the students who are marking time till they find something better or more interesting to do. They may be living rent-free under a parent's roof as long as they're enrolled in school, so sitting in class is like the price they pay for shelter. It would be rude to also expect them to work at the subject material.

Other students have life problems or emergencies that predictably or unpredictably sabotage their academic progress. Many of these people will regroup and try again (and succeed) under better circumstances. Still, they go into the “failure” column when we tote up the statistics. In general, you can assume that ten to twenty percent of your students are doomed to fail because of attitudes or circumstances. As instructors—at least if you are serious about doing the greatest good for the greatest number—you have to guard against snap judgments. Try to foster success for every student, even if you know you are fated to fall short in a unknown number of instances.

Good schools in the private and for-profit sector might also be serious about helping students. I expect that most are. However, it's often apples and oranges when we make these comparisons and I can't quite get on board with Tierney's assertion that public schools are inherently worse at remediation than private schools. Community colleges, in particular, do a lot of remediation. Furthermore, to stand things on their heads, consider that we get over half of our algebra students to succeed. In algebra! The math class from hell!
  • Making it easier to complete required courses: Currently, a student seeking to transfer credit to another school faces too many institutional and faculty hurdles. An “A” in English 101 at Los Angeles City College isn't automatically credited at UCLA.
The state took a baby step this year toward clearing up the uncertainty with the Student Transfer Reform Act, which guarantees junior status at Cal State schools to community college students who earn an associate degree. There is no reason why such a relationship should only exist between community colleges and Cal State.

To facilitate transfers, all accredited institutions would adopt a common course-numbering system that ensures that students learn similar things regardless of where they took the class. For example, credit for completing English 101 at a community college would automatically transfer to a UC or a private college or university. Not only would general education requirements be part of this system but preparation courses for students' majors as well. Arizona has set up such a credit-transfer system, and initial reports are that it is producing more graduates faster.
I agree unreservedly with Tierney's recommendation concerning the transferability of college courses. It should have happened yesterday.

I know, however, why it didn't. And Tierney plows right into the problem without apparently realizing it: “all accredited institutions would adopt a common course-numbering system that ensures that students learn similar things.” How much experience does Tierney have in higher education? Has he been paying any attention at all? California's colleges and faculty will fight tooth and nail against a uniform statewide curriculum. Hardly anything is so precious to a college as its own curriculum. Losing control of course definitions to some centralized authority is tantamount to becoming merely one small cog in a monolithic educational machine.

No thanks!

Community colleges, especially, tailor curriculum to their communities and colleges in general cherish the right to tweak their own courses and experiment with their own curriculum. Ceding that ability to a central authority is a non-starter. Of course, you can never tell what the California legislature will do—or try to do. Years ago the legislature passed and the governor signed a measure mandating that all California community colleges use a uniform course-numbering system. The requirement is still on the books:
66725. (a) It is the intent of the Legislature to facilitate articulation and seamless integration of California's postsecondary institutions by facilitating the adoption and integration of a common course numbering system among the public and private postsecondary institutions. The purpose of building and implementing a common course numbering system is to provide for the effective and efficient progression of students within and among the higher education segments and to minimize duplication of coursework.
It never happened, probably because the legislature failed to allocate funds to pay for it and to establish the mechanism by which it would occur. We do, however, at least have the California Articulation Numbering system, which provides an intermediary for the comparison of courses at different institutions in the community college system. Something along these lines might be a way to advance the positive aspects of Tierney's recommendation without falling into the trap of statewide course uniformity.
  • Encouraging private colleges to admit more students, especially through online learning: To get private colleges to admit more students, the state might pick up a portion of the tuition difference between private and public schools. That, no doubt, would bring howls of protest—taxpayers giving money to well-heeled privates. But consider UC's newest campus in Merced, currently with 4,000 students. The state could surely find cheaper seats for those 4,000 students in California's 79 private institutions than pay $500 million and counting to complete the campus.
While shilling again for his own segment of California's postsecondary education system, Tierney takes an ill-considered slap at the University of California. The Central Valley is a major growth center for the state. The establishment of the tenth UC campus in that region was long overdue. Tierney is recommending a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach of shutting down a growing institution that will be sorely needed by the burgeoning San Joaquin population. Does he want higher education in that region ceded to private institutions? Perhaps so.
But more private admissions can't begin to close the graduate gap. A significant state-led effort to increase online education would have far more impact—and the private nonprofit and for-profit sectors are best qualified to lead it because they are doing it now and want to grow. Given their checkered history, participation by the for-profits would have to be tightly regulated.
I support the expansion of on-line education, although I have reservations about quality control and identity verification (who is taking those on-line exams?). It's interesting that Tierney felt obligated to cite in passing the “checkered history” of profit-driven schools in the on-line sector. Here's an area where we are best advised to hurry slowly.
California's persistent budget squeeze and anti-tax mood erect a high hurdle to increased graduation rates. Only a coordinated effort of its five higher-education systems—three public and the nonprofit and for-profit privates—can produce the number of graduates the economy will need. There's still plenty of room for spirited competition, but California's economy needs all five on the same team to remain competitive globally.
I can't argue with Tierney's team metaphor for addressing the problems in Caifornia's postsecondary education. I'm not sure, though, that I want him to be the captain.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Geese and ganders, pots and kettles


Given my continuing disappointment with the political timidity of the White House (and the Senate leadership), I've always appreciated Anthony Weiner's willingness to speak up for what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” That makes it all the more disappointing to learn that Weiner cannot resist eponymous hijinks. Geez, Tony, keep it in your pants. (And when it's not in your pants, put the friggin' camera away!)

I am not, however, going to cluck my tongue, shake my head, wag my finger, and sanctimoniously call for his resignation. Unless his behavior turns out to involve criminal or unethical actions—and not just chuckle-headed macho display behavior—I leave it to his constituents to decide whether he should continue as their representative.

In addition to being an unwelcome distraction from more significant matters, Weiner's peccadillos have also become an occasion for displays of robust hypocrisy. Right-wing pundits are eager to assure us that Republicans are more inclined than Democrats to acknowledge their transgressions and maintain some shreds of dignity by slipping away into the quiet obscurity of resignation and exile.

Ha! (Remember Larry Craig? David Vitter?)

Tea-party types are, however, ready to listen to them. Some of them can even write, as evidenced by this letter in last Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle:
A cheat is a cheat

Rep. Anthony Weiner is a poster boy for a continuing character deficit in national leadership. He's only sorry he got caught.

He repeatedly denied, on national TV, that he had done anything wrong.

When confronted with irrefutable evidence, he said he would keep his job, thank you, because he's doing such great work for his constituents.

Weiner and his ilk (Clinton, Spitzer, Kennedy, Edwards) are self-centered narcissists who think they are special and can get away with blatantly abnormal behavior, which would be cause for immediate termination in any private business or school, because they think they're some kind of genius.

Both private and public behaviors reflect our character. If you lie, steal, cheat, harass and sext on your own time, you'll do it on public time, too.

Debra Janssen, Morgan Hill
Did Debra forget anything in her roster of shame? It seems that—at least in her mind—only Democrats have ever been guilty of bad behavior. I guess it's okay if you're a Republican.

My memory, fortunately, is better than Debra's. Wanting to be helpful, let me round out her list with Newt Gingrich (almost too obvious!), David Vitter, Mark Foley, Mark Sanford, Daniel Crane, and Chris Lee.

I could go on, of course, adding more Republican names. The only thing I will add, however, is the admonition not to take seriously any claim that all goodness and light reside in one political party while all evil and corruption reside in the other.

Of course, at the rate the Republican Party is going crazy-ass nuts with extremist rhetoric and political brinksmanship, it may turn out that the GOP will corner the market on insanity (and the Democrats would have to be insane not to point that out).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Victory over Google!

I slash my hit rate!

This must be how BP felt after capping the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The Google tsunami is over!

For now, anyway.

As I reported in an earlier post, my blog had become the “beneficiary” of a tidal wave of visitors (speaking in relative terms, of course). My hit rate suddenly doubled or even tripled. According to Sitemeter data, as much as 72% of the new visits were to Where's my money?, a snarky observation on the inanities that characterize San  Francisco's KSFO talk radio. It was all Google's fault. People who searched for “money” were being treated to a strip of “Images for money” that included a clip I had used to illustrate my post. That was enough to divert hundreds of people every day to look at an image of a guy carrying an oversized money bag.

Ordinarily, I would be happy to welcome more visitors. In this instance, however, I grew weary of the flood. Sitemeter reports acquired a deadly monotony as the horde of picture-seekers swamped those who had come to Halfway There to read actual words. I could no longer keep track of who came to see what. Last week I took steps.

First I deleted the image from the post in question. Days passed without Google noticing. The deluge continued. Then I made the post unavailable by saving it as a draft. Success! Traffic returned to normal. After a couple of days, I restored the post. The mob was instantly back. The sought-for image was gone, but Google was still lagging. I took the post off-line again and the hit rate dropped accordingly.

A few days ago I felt brave enough to repost the article. It was still without the attractive nuisance of the money-bag illustration, but now it was also missing the stress of Google's regard. The search giant had found another source for Mr. Money-Bag and the stampede was quelled. My victory was complete.

I got rid of over half of my traffic and I'm happy about it. Should I be concerned about this happiness? Oh, oh. Confused now.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

From the time vault

As it was in the beginning

There may very well be a hoarding gene in my family tree. I seem to have inherited it from my parents. Dad exhibits this behavior in his workshop, which is cluttered with the detritus of decades, including a large collection of old-fashioned vacuum tubes—perfect for fixing up that old Curtis-Mathes television of yours. Mom keeps boxes of stuff in the basement, including virtually every scrap of school work ever brought home by one of the children. In my case, this includes bundles of material from my initial foray into grad school back in the seventies.

Last week I made a quick trip to the old homestead to participate in a nephew's birthday. At one point I took a break down in the basement and ended up riffling through the family archives. I hit a rich vein from my early teaching days, including bundles of punch cards from student surveys. In addition to filling in bubbles on the front of the card, many students wrote comments on the back. One of the first to catch my eye made me sad:
Z very rarely came prepared for class. His lectures were all straight out of the book, word for word. He also wasn't able to answer various homework problems in class.
Damn. That didn't square with my recollection of my first teaching assignments. Did I really get stuck that much? Did I parrot the book? That's hardly my style today. How things have changed! Or have they? The next card said:
Z is usually a well organized lecturer who presents the subject in a clear and illuminating manner. He also takes time in class to discuss difficult problems, as well as to answer questions on the reading.
Ah! That's more like it! Here's another:
Z will sometimes introduce a proof of his own to supplement the book's proofs. Usually, his make more sense.
Ha! So much for “word for word”! Of course, it's not all 100% positive:
Works very hard to prepare for the lectures & exams. Z tends to joke around too much sometimes.
Well, that sounds accurate. What was that first kid thinking, anyway? It happens every school year, of course. You have students sitting side by side in the same class and their reports of their experience sound as if they were on different planets. (Helpful hint, kids: Try really hard to find an instructor on your wavelength!)

For sheer perversity, the following comment is one of my favorites. Could it be a joke?
Your timing on exams needs some help. I forget the material by the time the exam comes around, therefore, I actually need to study the material.
It might very well be serious. I have had students in the intervening thirty-five years who say very similar things. (Poor babies! Having to study!)

Then there's this:
Z is dressing very well this quarter.
That's what a TA gets for occasionally wearing a tie in the seventies. (It didn't take much to impress them.)

Fortunately, since I couldn't get anything from the multiple-choice side of the punch cards by inspection, I found a folded-up copy of the student questionnaire stuck between two of the card stacks. Most of the questions were perfectly straightforward, dealing with such matters as clarity of presentation, fairness of grading, punctuality, and so on. I racked up good scores on all of these until question #16, when my numbers took a steep nose-dive. Here's what it said:
Whoa! For one thing, lecture is cited twice (and we didn't have a lab discussion session either), but the real point is whether this is even a reasonable standard. Homework as important as exams? You're kidding! I didn't do it then and I still don't do it now. I guess I'm just a rebel.

Still crazy after all these years.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Cartoon character replaced?

What is Beck, after all?

Non Sequitur's Danae has dug out Lucy Van Pelt's old counseling booth and refurbished it into a pundit station. She senses an opportunity in the imminent departure of Glenn Beck from Fox News and is offering herself as a replacement. Nature abhors a vacuum, you know. (Is that why Wiley Miller depicts her father pushing around the old Hoover? Subliminal!) Danae's scheme seems fair: One cartoon character for another. She apparently has a good grasp of suitable topics, too, since Beck and science (or, more broadly, “reality”) were never comfortable with each other.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Cutting remarks

Cosmetic surgery?

Remember the episode of Seinfeld titled “The Bris”? Jerry gets quizzed by Elaine:
Elaine: Hey, Jerry, you ever seen one?
Jerry: Oh, you mean that wasn't ... uh?
Elaine: Yeah.
Jerry: No. Have you?
Elaine: Yeah.
Jerry: What'd you think?
Elaine: [wrinkles her nose] It had no face, no personality. It was like a Martian. But hey, you know, that's me.
I was reminded of this when Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle decided to have some fun with circumcision in her opinion column this morning:
The ballot measure bills itself as a ban on “forced genital cutting” and “mutilation.” Clearly the authors want to confuse voters by equating male circumcision to female genital mutilation, the barbaric, unsanitary butchering of a young girl's private parts in a procedure that has been known to leave girls severely infected and in pain.
Saunders is echoing the remarks of Rabbi Gil Leeds, who similarly complained that “mutilation” is a misnomer. I tend to disagree, since the permanent amputation of part of the penis should not be treated as a trivial matter, even if the results aren't on the same level as the brutality of so-called “female circumcision.”

Saunders tips her hand even while trying to be even-handed. She cites a pediatrician while ostensibly presenting both sides:
[Dr. Erica Goldman] informs parents of the pluses—reduced chances of urinary tract infection and sexually transmitted diseases—as well as the risks—it's a permanent cosmetic change.
Oy! The “risk” of circumcision is that it's a cosmetic change? It's not a direct quotation, so we can't simply blame Dr. Goldman for this conclusion. It's what Saunders picked out as the key item, ignoring all other factors. (Should we tell circumcised boys that the lack of a foreskin is why they need lube? Is Johnson & Johnson—manufacturers of K-Y Jelly—behind the push for more male circumcisions? This calls for an investigation!)

I snorted when I saw Saunders using the words “cosmetic change,” but I guffawed when I read her peroration. Like the dutiful right-wing columnist that she is, Debra has to complain about “nanny state” legislation and frame the anti-circumcision measure in those terms, slipping in an allusion to the city's ban on toy giveaways with unhealthy fast food. It's a poor fit:
A busybody law? Check. Does it address a problem most folks did not know existed? Check. Pun opportunities? Oh, yeah. First they came for the Chicken McNuggets, then they came for my son's ...
No, no, no, Debra. You're missing the point entirely. The ballot initiative says they have to leave your son's nuggets alone!