Monday, December 27, 2010
On Christmas Eve I received in the mail a card from my parents. To my astonishment, it wished me Season's Greetings. Since Mom & Dad have been inducted into the Bill O'Reilly school of obstreperous observation of “Merry Christmas or Else!”, this was an unprecedented departure. I have never before received a holiday card from my parents that was not overtly religious. It gave me pause.
A positive omen?
Having ascertained from Mom (I'm not speaking to Dad, after all) that dinner on Christmas day would get under way shortly after 11:00 a.m., I timed my arrival at the family homestead to a nicety, turning onto their county road at a quarter of. To my horror, however, not a single vehicle sat in front of their house. I was unmistakably the first to arrive. I considered looping around the block (that's a four-mile detour out in the country, where each block consists of 640 acres), but decided instead to take advantage of the opportunity to secure the pole position in the driveway for my later departure. I placed the car so that no one could block my escape. (It also meant that my Barbara Boxer and “No on 8” stickers were on prominent display.)
I entered the house. The tables were set up and the place settings laid out in the dining room, but the room was empty. Mom & Dad were in the family room, being (further) deafened by the television (tuned to Fox, of course). I cleverly entered the house with my hands full of gift bags for my various nieces, nephews, and grand-nephews. (No grand-nieces yet.) Mom grabbed me and hugged me anyway, but Dad had to wait till I had deposited the gift bags in the living room and then accosted me with an out-thrust hand. Interestingly, Mom chose that moment to give me another hug and got in his way. An accident, perhaps—or she feared I might snub him. But Dad tried again and I deigned to shake his hand. (Mom was right to be concerned. I hesitated a moment.)
I fetched a second batch of gift bags and fussed over grouping them according to recipient families for a while, killing a few minutes. I stepped outside to snap some photos of the dairy and, in the opposite direction, the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, which were remarkably sharp and visible after the series of rainstorms. With the air in the valley having gotten rather bad, the mountains are usually obscured by a pervasive haze. When I was a kid back in the sixties, the Sierra was spectacular on a daily basis, so of course we hardly paid them any attention.
A nephew finally arrived with wife and son in tow. Then a niece and assorted grand-nephews. (My parents currently have five great-grandsons, some of them older than their youngest granddaughter.) The house began to fill up. All of my siblings eventually showed up, along with all of their spouses (save the one estranged wife) and all of their children and children-in-law. Even my godson from out of state was present, as well as one cousin who is my parents' godson. Twenty-nine people in all, which was not a record-breaking crowd by any means.
Still, my sister's grandson—an only child so far—was slightly overwhelmed. My sister tried to put the two-year-old at ease by identifying me and her other brothers to the little guy. “See? I have three brothers. See how lucky I am?”
“That's certainly not what you used to say,” I observed.
My grand-nephew was uncertain why my brothers and I were chuckling, but he took it as a good sign and broke into a grin. His parents have told him he'll have a little brother or sister by the end of spring.
Mom cut back (a little) on cooking this year because it's started to overwhelm her. Sensible move. Therefore she fixed only one turkey for Christmas—along with stuffing, potato salad, mashed potatoes, torresmos (fried pork), cranberry, and dinner rolls. One brother broiled a batch of steaks, my sister-in-law provided a shrimp salad, the cousin brought a ham, and my sister provided her weird but tasty orange Jell-O marshmallow-cheddar salad, plus pumpkin pies, cookies, and brownies for dessert. No one went hungry, although a vegetarian might have been a little overwhelmed. (I'm not aware that we currently have any in the family. It's an omnivorous group.)
In the aftermath, adults took turns keeping track of the hyperactive children (preventing things like cliff-diving off the piano in the living room, where two of the little ones were pounding out a random-key duet). A niece's spouse tried to talk sport vehicles with me (I asked him when in the seventies American Motors had taken over manufacturer of the Jeep from Willys—which established my street credit that I even knew it had occurred—and launched him on a happy discourse). Dad showed off his gargantuan project of digitizing old family photos and slides, which is supposed to result in a DVD album to distribute in the near future. (I'll need to turn down the sound: a loop of Mozart's “Eine Kleine Natchmusik” is sprightly and entertaining background music only the first twelve times you hear it.)
The party started to break up at 2:00, with people trickling away. I dug out a copy of my unpublished book and gave it to Mom, who seemed mildly surprised but did not react very much. I wondered if my sister had already spilled the beans to her about the book's existence. She said no, that Mom was still in holiday-overwhelmed mode and it would sink in later. When my sister got out the door, I also made my escape. No overnight stay for me this year. I told Mom good-bye and hit the road. Dad was otherwise occupied (probably back at his slide show) and I didn't seek him out. No point in tempting fate.
The trip home was accompanied by some rain, but nothing spectacular. It was a long day with several hours of road travel (scenic Highway 99!), but it was also a rather successful day.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
My day began. It was still dark, but that's winter for you. I tend to wake up rather slowly, so I dragged myself to my computer to check my e-mail. Hmm. Nothing since 1:30 in the morning. Slightly unusual.
Then I noticed the error messages from my e-mail program. They indicated that both my personal and school in-boxes could not be accessed. I looked at the modem.
Rats. The Internet light was out. I rebooted my computer and watched the modem lights start to blink as the operating system reloaded and began polling the computer's peripherals. I relaunched Firefox, which splashed my home page on the screen very nicely, but I soon saw that it was just the cached version. No new information was being downloaded. The modem lights were flickering between red and green. It wasn't settling down to the nice steady green I was used to.
Time for breakfast. Let the modem fuss with its DSL access while I scan the morning newspapers and take on some fuel.
When I returned, my Internet connection was still on the fritz. I powered down the modem, powered it back up, and rebooted the computer again. The very Christmasy red-and-green light show returned, but no DSL.
I called the AT&T support line. A very friendly recorded voice told me the number I was calling from. “Is your call related to service on this phone number?” I replied in the affirmative and entered the maze of twisty little passages, all alike, that constitutes AT&T's automated help system. By answering several questions, I eventually managed to get the system to understand that the problem involved my DSL service.
“I have finished the tests,” announced the original friendly recorded voice at last. Despite our long-established friendship—or at least working relationship—it could not be troubled to tell me what was wrong with my line. Instead it informed me that one in five connection problems could be resolved by powering down the modem and rebooting my system. Had I done that recently?
It suggested I try it again. Grudgingly, I did. With mechanical patience, the disembodied voice waited for me while various commercial messages assured me that AT&T could sell me services that were much better than anything I currently had from them. But I was already quite sure of that.
And it was still no-go. No green Internet light. My life as a denizen of the computer world was in jeopardy.
The recordings suggested visiting a local AT&T store or rebooting my computer. (I did that already! More than once!) It suggested that after visiting a local AT&T store and/or rebooting my computer, I could call back the help line in 24 hours if the problem persisted. Considering the length of time I had been on the line, I wondered if calling back in 23 hours would be considered a trifle hasty.
I hung up the phone and immediately redialed. (Actually, I hit the Redial button on a phone that doesn't even have a dial. Modern life is weird.) The whole process started again, but this time I mashed the zero key for Operator and was rewarded with the digital miracle of a live human voice.
The young woman ascertained that I was having a DSL problem and ran some line tests. She asked me if I had reset the modem and rebooted the computer.
Oh my yes.
She got her test results. She was getting a null response from my modem. She asked which of the display lights were lit up. I looked at the modem again and did a double-take.
Whoa! None of them.
Not even the power light?
Not even that. They're dark. All of them. No red. No green. Nothing.
My modem had gone completely dead. Stone cold. Perhaps the problem was now identified.
The young woman suggested I switch the power cord to a different power source. I did. Still no lights. I reported the same back to her, wondering whether she had put me down as one of those goofballs who don't even notice when they're unplugged. But there were lights earlier. I swear! (The modem had died while waiting in AT&T's emergency room.)
The young woman asked for my Zip code and gave me the addresses of the two nearest AT&T stores, suggesting I take the modem and its power adapter to one of them for testing.
I disconnected the modem from the computer, unplugged the power cord from the power strip, and conveyed the modem and power adapter to the nearer of the two AT&T shops. The assistants looked at my modem with goggle eyes and said, “Oh, we only do cell phones here!”
I went to the second AT&T store. It was a much bigger facility. I took the modem and power adapter up to the counter and explained the situation to a company rep. She carried my distressed equipment to the inner sanctum where they keep their technicians sequestered. A few minutes later she came back out.
“Your modem is fine. The power adapter has failed.”
I felt a sense of relief. Just the power adapter!
“Okay, good. How much is a replacement adapter.”
“Sorry. We don't carry separate power adapters.”
“Thank you for your help. I think it's time for a visit to Radio Shack.”
“Oh, that's probably a good idea,” she admitted.
Soon I had a Radio Shack replacement power adapter, matched to the specs of the original device. Instead of spending $100, I had spent under $20. (I later discovered that the AT&T on-line shop carries the adapter as a separate replacement item for a list price of $10, but the company's fancy service center in my town can't be troubled to have it in inventory.)
Back home, I reconnected the old modem with the new power adapter and was soon rewarded with bright green lights. Hurray! Problem over!
AT&T had reset my password after my service call. After all, my modem had failed and it would be necessary for me to log in as a new user with a new modem and initiate my service anew. When I opened my browser, it informed me that additional log-in information was required before I could access my Internet service. It switched me to an automatic log-in system on the AT&T support page that offered a swift and sure re-initiation process—which failed multiple times. (Perhaps it was upset when it discovered I was using the same old modem.)
I tried one more time, choosing the “manual” mode over the “automatic.” It had me punch in the access code on the bottom of my modem. It asked me for my new password. Did I have one? Was it in the support e-mail that the on-line technician had told me she was sending me (that I couldn't access until after I was logged in)? I dug out my steno pad, where I had been scribbling notes all during the on-line support sessions. (This is one of my very best habits.)
In the midst of all the hassles, the young woman had had me write down a six-character network access code. Was that it? I wasn't starting a new account, so I had not worried too much about it at the time. I didn't really expect to need it. But I tried it.
It was only six hours after the original discovery that my connection was down. Life was good again.
Friday, December 24, 2010
The math department used to have a clerk for whom the holidays were irresistible opportunities to tart up the office with festive paraphernalia. I particularly remember a Christmas when wreathes and cut-outs and posters adorned the hallways and all of the office doors.
“Nice pixie you've got there,” I said to a colleague, admiring the colorful cut-out figure that bore an embarrassingly close resemblance to the aforementioned colleague. Short and baby-faced math professors have a rough way to go, let alone getting confused with elves and pixies. We speculated on whether the selection of the pixie figure had been deliberate or fortuitous*.
I escaped with a nondescript wreath, although I pushed it aside because it was obscuring the final exam schedule I had posted.
The current staff of the department is a little more restrained, for which I am grateful. Most of the decorations remain in the staff office and don't invade the faculty precincts. There are, of course, colleagues who put up their own decorations, but at least they don't put anything on my office door.
For some reason, I have not the slightest impulse to mark holidays with decorations or special outfits. I marvel at the people who have the time, patience, and inclination to festoon their homes with elaborate displays of holiday lights and animatronic Santas. It strikes me as peculiar, while I guess most people regard it as perfectly normal behavior.
No doubt I am the peculiar one.
Some things I don't need to know.
Have a nice holiday, whether you dress up or not, and whether or not you have strobe lights in your front yard that are keeping the neighbors up at night. (I'll be the guy with the blanket pulled over his face.)
*My colleague even understood that “fortuitous” means “by chance” rather than “fortunate”—or at least it used to.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
One of the symptoms of the derangement of today's right wing is innumeracy. I'll grant that this is a broad-based problem not confined to the ranks of teabaggers and other exponents of troglodytic conservatism, but these people have a peculiar talent for making a hash of math and then solemnly assuring each other of the significance of their screwed-up calculations. Today I ran across a characteristic pair of examples from Free Republic, the Fresno-based sink of deranged teabagging. They occurred in comments in a thread devoted to bemoaning the ratification of the New Start treaty, which apparently entails the unilateral disarmament of the United States and its immediate surrender to
By an amazing coincidence, the 71-26 vote in the Senate is almost exactly the same percentage as the Parliament’s vote in support of Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement (369-150).Let's check StanFran's math, shall we?
28 posted on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 1:24:45 PM by StanFran
A total of 97 senators cast votes on the New Start treaty. The ayes were 71/97 = 73.2% and the nays were 26/97 = 26.8%. (Amazingly, these add up to 100%!) Now let's consider the British parliament's vote on the Munich agreement. The ayes were 369/519 = 71.1%, while the nays were 150/519 = 28.9%.
Do you believe that 73.2% is “almost exactly the same” as 71.1%? If you don't, then you don't qualify as a Freeper. Furthermore, you must seek dark significance in the purported (but actually nonexistent) equality.
It would actually be more accurate to point out that Ronald Reagan was almost exactly 71.1 years old when he delivered his Indianapolis speech in 1982 on the New Federalism, thus proving (proving!) that he was secretly inspired by Neville Chamberlain and actually intended the New Federalism to serve as a disguise for the New World Order ushered in by his successor, George Herbert Walker Bush. Subtle! And scary!
The second example of bad counting was provided in an angry observation about ratification having been accomplished in a lame-duck session of the Senate:
Why are FIRED employees still making decisions that affect the health and well being of the company (country)?“Fired” employees? Let's check the roster of New Start supporters. Recall that there were 71 of them. How many were actually rejected by the voters last November (as opposed to retiring of their own volition)? The first senator who fits the bill is Bennett of Utah, a Republican who was denied renomination by his own party. Next is Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who will be sorely missed. Continuing down the list, we find Lincoln of Arkansas, the hapless Democrat who unfortunately survived a primary challenge and flopped spectacularly on election day. Finally, there's Specter of Pennsylvania, the long-time Republican who switched to the Democratic Party in a futile attempt to survive.
They should be shown the door with a swift boot to help them along the way.
26 posted on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 1:23:45 PM by SunTzuWu (Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred. - Barzun)
Count them up. That's it. Four. New Start would have gotten 67 votes even without the support of the “fired” senators. For the benefit of Freepers and other ignorant types, that's the two-thirds majority required for ratification of treaties. New Start was not nudged over the finish line by supposedly discredited legislators.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
A plastic crate sits in one corner of my dining area, where newspapers get pitched into it every morning. The crate gets to gobble newspapers in two servings. First I strip the newspapers of their sports sections, classified ads, and sales inserts. I never look at those, so they get dumped immediately. The rest of the newspaper follows later, after I've had a chance to peruse my favorite sections.
The comics are also included. I like those. And the editorial and news pages. And, of course, the sections on style and fashion. You really can't beat the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle's style section for the latest word on what the fashion-conscious beautiful people will be wearing.
I'm not sure, however, exactly where these beautiful people are or when they will be wearing these new fashion creations. Not around here, apparently.
I don't flip through these sections for my own sake. You understand, I'm sure, that math professors are exempt from all of the rules of style and fashion. One of the beauties of the academic profession is that you can get away with just about anything, from ties to T-shirts. Hardly anyone cares or notices.
On the other hand, our students are mostly in the target age-demographic for the fashion shows reported by the Chronicle, but mine seem peculiarly immune to fashion-forward trends. I am fairly certain that none of them will be sporting Feng Chen Wang's outré offerings from a recent show at the San Francisco Arts of Fashion Foundation. Although the show was titled “Uniquely Untrendy,” I suspect they were being just a bit insincere. The results look plenty trendy to me.
Anyway, photos like this one are a good reason to refrain from tossing away the style section when I reduce my morning papers to their essentials. It's funnier than the comics section, even at the risk of snorting coffee out my nose every time I turn a page.
I just hope this young couple doesn't turn an ankle.
Monday, December 20, 2010
In 1968 my family supported the Humphrey-Muskie ticket against Nixon-Agnew. My parents had not yet lost their minds to right-wing nonsense. Back then, Nixon was political evil incarnate. (Today, Dad dismisses Nixon's transgressions—subverting the nation's electoral process—as trivialities compared to Clinton's dalliance with Lewinsky or Obama's health-care reform “death panels.”) Even back then, as far as Dad was concerned, it didn't do to wear one's political heart on one's sleeve. He promptly peeled off the Humphrey-Muskie bumpersticker that I had affixed to the family car. He disapproved of stickers on cars.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when last year Dad applied a “We Say Merry Christmas” sticker to his vehicle. I guess the war on Christmas is an occasion even more fraught with peril than a Nixon presidency. You have to admire the sentiment, too: A Christian refusing to turn the other cheek by hurling “Merry Christmas” in the faces of people who dare to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season's Greetings.” It's time to take it to the enemy!
The pseudo-intellectual talk-show host Dennis Prager was holding forth on his program this morning on the importance of public observation of Christmas in this Christian nation. As a practicing Jew, Prager brings a special éclat to the mistimed celebration of the birth of baby Jesus. It must surely delight Prager's arch-conservative Christian listeners to hear him endorse their positions, even as it must occasionally taint their joy slightly to think that he will surely burn in hell one day.
Intelligent Design creationism whole. He likes arguments based on personal incredulity and he can't imagine life occurring without God to create it and guide its development.
Therefore I was less than impressed when Prager lamented the death of “Merry Christmas” as a holiday greeting. He declared, with great assurance, that pressure from anti-religious pressure groups had brought nonsectarian greetings like “Happy Holidays” into prominence in preference to speaking of our (not his) dear savior's birth. Instead of taking Prager's word for it, I decided to do a little checking. What does Google's Ngram viewer show?
If one searches through Google's textual database for American English publications between 1900 and 2008, we discover that writers in the United States have favored Happy Holidays by a wide margin over Merry Christmas. (Season's Greetings is a sorry also-ran.) Only twice has the primacy of Happy Holidays been threatened: the era of World War II and the period of the Vietnam War. Both lengthy conflicts coincided with an upsurge in the use of Merry Christmas. (One wonders why.) Of course, it may be that spoken greetings were entirely at variance with authorial word choices during the past century, but I think it's rather more reasonable to expect some parallels. Certainly this tends to run contrary to Prager's claim.
I'm sure, however, that Dennis Prager could find something to like in this data—as unused as he is to looking at any—by homing in on the rise in Happy Holidays in recent years. He could put his finger on 2003 and say, “See, this is the war on Christmas taking hold!” (It would be impolite to point out that Merry Christmas also experienced a spike. In fact, in relative terms its growth is even greater. But that would spoil the narrative.)
If Dennis wants a slam-bang finish, I'll point out that at the end of the chart, in 2008, just as Obama was winning the presidency, Happy Holidays reached its highest peak since about 1917, just as Lenin seized control in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution. Coincidence? Impossible!
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Henry Morris III has enlisted in the ranks of the defenders in the war on Christmas. In the December 2010 issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research, Dr. Morris presents us with “Xmas: Removing the Reason for the Season”:
Sometime during the last century (it is difficult to find an actual beginning), the word “Xmas” began creeping into public correspondence and advertisements. It was a little thing, hardly noticed by anyone, but it set the stage for a profound movement away from “Christ” in any public discourse. X is, of course, the universal symbol for the unknown.2Scary, isn't it? Morris sums up:
Quietly and unobtrusively at first, but rising to a crescendo of legal and governmental attacks against Christianity, the words and the symbols of the gospel message are being purged from open expression.Permit me, however, to register a mildly dissenting note. When it comes to scholarship, creationists have the advantage of not having to respect factual data. Morris follows this template himself, but stumbles slightly by letting the truth slip in. If you go to the bottom of his article to check out footnote 2, you'll see that Morris admitted to something that vitiates his entire argument:
2. X has long been a mathematical symbol for an unknown variable. X later came into use as an abbreviation for the name Christ because it is the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” To the vast majority of people in our culture, however, the X in “Xmas” would be completely meaningless, effectively removing the Reason for the season.Indeed. I was quite used to seeing the “chi-rho” in my parish church when I was a child. The chi looks like an X and stands for the “Ch” in “Christ.” It does not stand for “the unknown.”
Morris has his history all wrong. In his compendious History of Mathematical Notations, Florian Cajori points out something important in Paragraph 340:
The use of z, y, x .... to represent unknowns is due to René Descartes, in his La géométrie (1637).And “later” it became a symbol for Christ? No, Dr. Morris, you've got it all wrong—unless the early Christians occupied catacombs under the streets of Paris in the seventeenth century.
I'm sure you're accustomed to getting away with falsehoods, Dr. Morris, but you should be more careful about making a fool of yourself in your pseudo-scholarly footnotes. Have a merry Xmas anyway.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Colorado voters went to the polls in November 2010 and rejected Amendment 62, the Fetal Personhood Initiative, by 71% to 29%. The failed initiative was an effort on the part of extreme anti-abortionists to confer legal “personhood” on fertilized eggs (“from the beginning of biological development”) under the state constitution. Under Colorado's constitution, the rights of personhood specifically include “acquiring, possessing and protecting property,” ready access to the courts, and “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” (Certainly it would be an injustice if a fetus were to purchase a choice piece of real estate and then lose it without due process of law.)
Personhood Colorado, the organization sponsoring Amendment 62, was quite forthright in its intentions: “It will make sure that children in the womb are treated exactly the same as children outside the womb.”
That is, abortion is murder.
I know that quite a few people purport to believe that. They accept that a legally entitled person exists before birth and want it recognized in law. And those legal entitlements supposedly exist from the moment of conception, when a human being exists as no more than a one-cell fertilized egg. The conceptus is supposed to be accepted as a full-fledged person.
Unless God kills it, of course. Which he apparently does at least one-quarter of the time. This is, of course, difficult to determine. Other estimates suggest that as many as half of all fertilized eggs perish.
That is, God aborts them.
But he never seems to get credit—or blame—for being the greatest abortionist of all.
A family member suffered a spontaneous abortion last year (and “suffered” is the right word). Early in her pregnancy, she lost the incipient twins she was carrying. The emotional impact was great. She praised God for helping her through the crisis.
This year she has a new pregnancy and it appears to be going better than last year's. She posted a note to family and friends:
we are very excited to announce that we saw a strong heartbeat and a perfectly healthy little baby this morning during our ultrasound. we are expecting a little blessing this summer! thanks for all the prayers, god is so good!All the credit. None of the blame. It puzzles me. Abortion may be murder, but it's okay if you're a deity.
Thursday, December 02, 2010
Are you a fan of the writing of Sir Terence David John Pratchett? I certainly am. Sir Terence is better known as Terry Pratchett, the creator of the Discworld series of comic fantasy novels (and other delights). Aficionados of Pratchett's oeuvre are well aware that humor is an excellent vehicle for treating serious topics—at least in hands as capable as Sir Terry's.
The recent paperback release of Unseen Academicals has put Pratchett on my reading list again. This novel delves into the impact of organized sports on institutions of higher (and weirder) learning and society in general. It's not a topic that would interest me in other contexts, but I trust Pratchett to make the most of it. Once again, I am not disappointed.
A particularly telling nugget is unearthed on pp. 236-237, where Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician who rules over the city-state of Ankh-Morpork as its benevolent dictator, waxes uncharacteristically conversational over a long series of drinks with the wizards of the Unseen University. Vetinari tells his listeners a story:
I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.Here endeth the lesson. Amen.