Sunday, January 29, 2012

Eschew Obfuscation; or, Politics as Usual?

One of my all-time favorite humorous bits is one that I first saw in Mad Magazine when I was 14 (does it cause you to think less of me that I read Mad Magazine when I was 14?).  Just in the interest of giving credit where it's due, I found it here.  It's a wonderfully obfuscatory piece of vocabulary-stretching brilliance (although I promise you, when I was 14, I had no idea what 'obfuscatory' even meant).

Since 2012 is a presidential election year, we are already well into 'all politics, all the time'.  So, as a brief, subversive respite from the exaggerated self-importance of all things political, I offer it here for your enjoyment and edification.  (OK, 'edification' might be a stretch; but I hope you'll find it enjoyable. . .)


Guaranteed Effective
 All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech
(By Bill Garvin; MAD #139, December 1970)

My fellow citizens, it is an honor and a pleasure to be here today. My opponent has openly admitted he feels an affinity toward your city, but I happen to like this area. It might be a salubrious place to him, but to me it is one of the nation's most delightful garden spots.

When I embarked upon this political campaign I hoped that it could be conducted on a high level and that my opponent would be willing to stick to the issues. Unfortunately, he has decided to be tractable instead -- to indulge in unequivocal language, to eschew the use of outright lies in his speeches, and even to make repeated veracious statements about me.

At first, I tried to ignore these scrupulous, unvarnished fidelities. I can do so no longer. If my opponent wants a fight, he's going to get one!

It might be instructive to start with his background. My friends, have you ever accidentally dislodged a rock on the ground and seen what was underneath? Well, exploring my opponent's background is dissimilar. All the slime and filth and corruption you could possibly imagine, even in your wildest dreams, are glaringly nonexistent in this man's life. And even during his childhood!

Let us take a very quick look at that childhood: It is a known fact that, on a number of occasions, he emulated older boys at a certain playground. It is also known that his parents not only permitted him to masticate excessively in their presence, but even urged him to do so. Most explicable of all, this man who poses as a paragon of virtue exacerbated his own sister while they were both teenagers!

I ask you, my fellow Americans: is this the kind of person we want in public office to set an example for our youth? Of course, it's not surprising that he should have such a typically pristine background -- no, not when you consider the other members of his family:

- His female relatives put on a constant pose of purity and innocence, and claim they are inscrutable, yet every one of them has taken part in hortatory activities
- The men in the family are likewise completely amenable to moral suasion
- My opponent's second cousin is a Mormon
- His uncle was a flagrant heterosexual
- His sister, who has always been obsessed by sects, once worked as a proselyte - even outside a church
- His father was secretly chagrined at least a dozen times by matters of a pecuniary nature
- His youngest brother wrote an essay extolling the virtues of being a homosapien
- His great-aunt expired from a degenerative disease
- His nephew subscribes to several phonographic magazines
- His wife was a thespian before their marriage and even performed the act in front of paying customers
- And his own mother had to resign from a women's organization in her later years because she was an admitted sexagenarian

Now what shall we say of the man himself?

I can tell you in solemn truth that he is the very antithesis of political radicalism, economic irresponsibility, and personal depravity. His own record proves that he has frequently discountenanced treasonable, un-American philosophies and has perpetrated many overt acts as well.

- He perambulated his infant son on the street
- He practiced nepotism with his uncle and first cousin
- He attempted to interest a 13-year-old girl in philately
- He participated in a seance at a private residence where, among other odd goings-on, there was incense
- He has declared himself in favor of more homogeneity on college campuses
- He has advocated social intercourse in mixed company -- and has taken part in such gatherings himself
- He has been deliberately averse to crime in our streets
- He has urged our Protestant and Jewish citizens to develop more catholic tastes
- Last summer he committed a piscatorial act on a boat that was flying the American flag
- Finally, at a time when we must be on our guard against all foreign "isms", he has unashamedly announced his belief in altruism -- and his fervent hope that some day this entire nation will be altruistic!

I beg you, my friends, to oppose this man whose life and work and ideas are so openly and avowedly compatible with our American way of life. A vote for him would be a vote for the perpetuation of everything we hold dear.

The facts are clear; the record speaks for itself.

Do your duty!


And, just because I'm kind of a geek on history, and my home state. . .

Please join me in raising a celebratory glass in observance of the 175th anniversary of Michigan statehood, this past Thursday.  January 26, 1837; God bless Andy Jackson, for signing the statehood bill just before he left office (and even though we got jobbed out of Toledo, the Upper Peninsula is more than sufficient compensation; just imagine if it had taken two governors, and two state legislatures agreeing, to build the Mackinac Bridge. . .)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It's Personal

Today is the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade, so I'm giving you, one more time, a (lightly edited) re-post of my 'Abortion' post.  In past years, I've tended to put it up around the time of the anniversary of my reunion with my birth-mother, but it might be even more appropriate today.  It's one of my better items, if I may say so myself; perhaps even the best I've ever done. Whether or not it was my best, though (by whatever standard such a question might be decided), the topic resonates with me at a deeply personal level. . .


Sometime when I was in college, the realization dawned on me that, as an adoptee, I had been somebody’s ‘unwanted pregnancy’ once upon a time. And in the fullness of time, especially once Jen and I married and began having children together, that became one of my strongest motivations to search for my birth-mother – I wanted to thank the woman who, though I had never met her, had carried me in her womb for nine months, and seen me through to the beginnings of my life in this world. (And just as an aside, for me as an adoptee, even such a basic concept as that I'd been carried in someone's womb once-upon-a-time could be disconcertingly abstract).

Along with that realization, I came to understand that, all things considered, I was probably fortunate to have been born before 1973 and Roe v. Wade. I had never particularly staked out a firmly-held position on abortion (My younger self was probably mostly ‘pro-choice’, without having given it much thought), but once I understood that, had I been conceived in another time, I would have been a pretty likely candidate for abortion (white college women abort roughly 98% of their ‘unwanted pregnancies’), the question took on an entirely different, and personal, aspect.


I recall a conversation I had with my birth-mother some time after our reunion. She was talking about her life as a pregnant-and-unmarried woman in the 1950s, and how difficult it had been for her, and she said something like, “I just wish I’d had the choices that women have today.”

I nodded sympathetically. . . until the penny fell all the way to the bottom.  Ummmmm. . . you understand, right, that we're talking about ME here? I mean, we’ve had a really, REALLY happy reunion, and both of us are glad for the opportunity to know each other, and our respective families. If you had exercised the ‘choice’ you’re alluding to, none of that would be even a remote possibility. You might still wonder who I’d been, but without any possibility of ever knowing. . .

She understood. Not that she was wishing that she’d aborted me; only that she’d felt so trapped when she was pregnant, and wished that she’d had anything at all she could have done about that. Now, I could understand how trapped she felt. Frederica Mathewes-Green has written and spoken insightfully about women who “want an abortion the way an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg” (and I would highly recommend her book which is the source of that quote; it's an utterly unique book, just for her refusal to take part in the standard shouting matches.).

And I get that. I have the utmost compassion for women who are pregnant when it is nigh unto catastrophic for them to be so. My daughter was one of those women, not so very long ago. And my heart ached for her, wishing there was something, anything, that I could do to make it easier for her. . .


But, back in 1955-56, that was ME in my birth-mother’s belly. Not merely a clump of cells, or a faceless ‘fetus’ (honestly, as we sit here, you and I and every other human being are living, breathing clumps of cells; but of course, we're much more than that, and so we were in our mothers' wombs, as well) – it was me, with my own genetic code, distinct from my birth-mother's (or my birth-father's). And if my birth-mother had had an abortion, it was me who would’ve died.

And the ripples go out from there. My adoptive parents might’ve adopted someone else; who can say? But they wouldn’t have adopted me. My classmates and friends and Little-League teammates could scarcely be said to have missed me – how do you miss someone who, as far as you know, never even existed? – but something of the life we shared together would never have happened. Jen would most likely have married someone else (I mean, she’s an amazing woman; she'd have had guys standing in line for her); but she wouldn’t have married me (and who can say how that might have gone for her?). And our children would never have come to be – her children, if she had any, would be someone else entirely (I've occasionally gotten a chuckle from the thought that I'm the personification of the 'population-control' movement's worst nightmare - an 'unwanted pregnancy that turned into eight more mouths to feed). . .

And so it goes. In fact, those of you who were born after 1973, have you ever wondered how many children who might have been your friends or classmates or Little-League teammates, or heck, husbands or wives, were never allowed to be born? Cold statistics tell us that, in the US alone, the number would be on the order of 50-60 million by now - a sixth again of the population of our country (worldwide, the number would be many times that).  Do you ever wonder who those people might have been?

But just to cite a number misses the point. What music was never made, what literature was never written, what cures for which diseases never came about, for want of the men and women who might have done those things, but were never born?

And even still - to talk in terms of 'who might have done what' misses the point, too. It's not so much that, eg, the late Steve Jobs (an adoptee like me) was so worthwhile for what he did, but that every human life is intrinsically valuable in-and-of-itself. And 'humanity-at-large' benefits from every one of its members, whether they 'accomplish anything' or not. Certainly, we've all benefitted from the fact that Steve Jobs, or Beethoven, or anyone else, were born and not aborted. But we'll never know, in terms other than bloodless, colorless statistics, what 'humanity-at-large' has lost for those tens of millions who were never born. . .

My point here is not to guilt-trip any woman who has ever had an abortion; my heart absolutely goes out to those women, for they, too, have had violence done to them; they've been sold a bill of goods, given a false promise. I only hope to put a more ‘human’ face on the question, and challenge anyone to think of ‘unwanted pregnancy’ not as a ‘problem’ with an easy technological solution, but as something real, and human, and flesh-and-blood. And life-and-death.


I don’t think my birth-mother is terrible for wishing she’d had more choices available to her (honestly, on one level, it’s easy for her to say; she’ll never bear the cost of having chosen otherwise) (but, to be utterly clear - the very last thing I mean is to trivialize what it cost her for me to be here).

No, I actually think she’s pretty cool; as birth-mothers go, she’s definitely one of the best, and I am as happy as I can be that we’ve known each other for all these years. I understand how trapped she felt 50-odd years ago, and I absolutely appreciate, and am utterly grateful for, the sacrifice it was for her, for me to be here today. It’s personal for her in an entirely different, but analogous, way to how it’s personal for me. And I understand that.

Existence itself is a gratuitous gift, the only fitting response to which is gratitude.  I am as grateful as I can be for my life, my family, my wife and children, and all of my friends, including those of you who are reading this; for existence in this rich and fascinating Universe, and for the Hope of the World to Come.  And none of that could ever have come to pass for me, if I'd been snuffed out before I could be born.

So you see, it's personal - it involves persons, created in God's image and likeness, with inherent worth and dignity not conferred on them by any other human being. Mothers and fathers and children - persons, one-and-all. And my birth-mother is one of them. And so am I. . .

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When Math Nerds Dream. . .

Ever since I was a pretty young kid, I've been a lover of mathematics.  Numbers, and the many and varied things that can be done with them, caught my fancy at a young age, and never left me.  By the time I was in college, I came to perceive something stately, elegant, and intrinsically TRUE about mathematics, as though it was built into the Universe on a foundational level.  As someone once said, Mathematics is the language with which God called the Universe into being. . .

I remember learning to add and subtract pretty quickly, when I was in kindergarten or first grade, then going to my dad and asking him what came after adding and subtracting.  So he taught me how to multiply, and how multiplication was just repeated addition, except you could do it all at once, without having to go and do all those additions, which I thought was pretty cool, and really powerful.  Then he showed me how to divide, and how it was 'reverse multiplication', similar to how subtraction was 'reverse addition'.  When I asked what happens when you try to subtract a larger number from a smaller one, he showed me negative numbers (I didn't know the 'minus sign' notation, so I would just write an 'n' next to the number, to show it was negative).

Once I'd mastered multiplication and division (at least enough to convince myself that I understood how they worked; I wasn't doing five-digit division problems just yet), I was pretty happy with myself, and figured I must have learned just about all the math there was to know.  So I went to my dad (I was in the second grade at the time) and asked him, heh-heh, if there was anything else besides adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, half-expecting him to tell me that, no, that was about all there was.  So imagine my surprise when he showed me how to raise numbers to powers, and how it was repeated multiplication, just like multiplication was repeated addition.  At that point, I was starting to suspect that there might just be more math available for me to learn than I was going to master in the next few days, at any rate.  Once I'd gotten the hang of doing powers, I showed my teacher how to do it; 'cuz, you know, all she ever did was add and subtract, although she did seem to have some inkling of how to multiply and divide.  She looked at me (2nd-grader that I was) a little funny, and expressed a degree of amazement at what I was showing her.  For my part, I was just happy to help her out. . .

(As a side note, I eventually got around to the idea of extracting roots as the 'opposite' of taking powers, much like division is the 'opposite' of multiplication.  I learned how to extract square roots by hand, which actually looks pretty similar to doing long division.  I'm told there's a similar method for extracting cube roots, but I've never seen it.  In the fullness of time, I learned about imaginary numbers, which arise from the problem of extracting roots of negative numbers in like manner to how negative numbers themselves arise from subtraction.  Man, there's no end to this stuff. . .)

Bookish kid that I was, I read a lot, and my parents always kept me supplied with new and interesting books to read.  But my favorites (aside from anything by Dr. Seuss; who, by the way, shared his birthday with my friend Suldog) were always the math books - the ones showing how the ancient Greeks and Egyptians used math to prove the earth was round (and to make a pretty good estimate as to its size), or to build the pyramids, and all that good stuff.

From that point on, I was just a voracious math nerd.  When I was in 6th grade, our school district (backwoods northern hicks that we were) started a pilot program to identify kids with math talent and run them through an 'accelerated' math program.  So, when I showed up for my first day of 7th grade (which was,coincidentally, also the first day that I had separate 'classes' taught by different teachers, where we students had to move from classroom to classroom in the course of the day), I went to my math class, and the teacher handed us 8th-grade math books.  At first it seemed a little scary, like we were going to be in over our heads all year (and bright kids really hate feeling like they're in over their heads; they don't like it at all), but the teacher reassured us that we were gonna be just fine, and in the fullness of time, we were.

When I was in 8th grade, we had algebra, and I had one of the best math teachers I ever had (Mr. Lewis, if you're reading this, thank you).  When we were doing a unit on graphing, and I was just loving it (the visual aspects of math have always held a special fascination for me).  Once I'd gotten the hang of graphing lines and parabolas, and absolute-values, and all that stuff, he took me aside and gave me an equation that we hadn't seen in class, and asked me if I could graph it.  I took it home and worked on it, and played around with different approaches to the problem (as much as my 12-year-old brain was equipped to do), and eventually figured out that it was a circle.  My teacher was pleased that I'd been able to figure it out, and gave me a few more circles to practice on.  Then he gave me another equation, a little different from the circles I knew how to do, and had me play around with that.  I spent probably a week or so, but I couldn't figure it out, so I went back to my teacher, and he showed me that it was an ellipse, and then he gave me a few more ellipses to play with.  The entire school year was like that - every couple months, Mr. Lewis would give me something to stretch what he was teaching us in class, and just let me play with it, feeding my own sense of having fun with math.

As the years went on, the number of kids in the Accelerated Math program got smaller; some kids just weren't all that interested in math, regardless of whatever 'aptitude' they might've had, and some of the  'marginally gifted' kids (if I can say it that way) just didn't want to run with such fast company.  By the time we got to high school, there weren't enough of us left to fill a whole class anymore, so instead of having separate sections for the 'accelerated' kids (the kids from the accelerated program; we didn't move any faster than anyone else; if anything, we were probably more sluggish, as far as that goes; but, I digress), they just put us in classes with the older kids.  Which was a little weird, at first; especially when I walked into my first day of Advanced Algebra, and the teacher, who was also the basketball coach, addressed the class.  "I see," he began, with a slightly menacing tone, "that we have (here he paused for dramatic effect) sophomores in the class this year."  (he said 'sophomores' with an air of utter disdain)  "Well, let me tell you my philosophy of what to do with sophomores - Fail Them.  Fail Them ALLLLL. . ."  Of course, it was all a joke.  Heh-heh-heh.  Funny guy.  But once again, there was the slightest sense of wondering if I was getting in over my head, again.  But again, once we got used to the new surroundings, we were fine.  My senior year, I finished third in a statewide math competition, which won me a small scholarship for my university studies.

The Accelerated program basically put us a year ahead of the 'regular' math program, which meant that, when we finished our junior year, we'd taken all the math that there was to be taken at our high school, and what to do with us as seniors was an as-yet-unresolved question.  The resolution was to dual-enroll us in the junior college, so we could take Calculus at the college our senior year.  Which was all sorts of cool.  First, we got to leave the high school campus in the middle of the day, to drive across town to the JC.  And we were taking a real, live, bona-fide college class, taught by a real, live, bona-fide college instructor.  And again, immediately, on the first day of class, I was confronted with the fact that this was something new and different than what I'd seen before.  I was young, even among my own class - 16 at the beginning of my senior year.  And sitting across the aisle from me was a 29-year-old Viet Nam vet.  At least, at the high school, everyone was within a year or two of my age (and social maturity level, altho that might have covered a slightly wider range).  But this was like my first step out of the 'protected' world of school-as-I'd-known-it, and into something more like Real Life.  Which, once I'd gotten used to it, was really pretty exciting.  I also found that college classes move along at a significantly quicker pace than I'd been used to in high school - when our family moved, two months before graduation, I was placed into the high-school-level Calculus class at the new school, but I was already considerably farther along than they would be by the end of the school year, so I basically ran an independent study with the teacher on the side, and acted as a tutor in the class.

When I finally got to the University, I started as a Math major.  It was what I liked, and I was good at it, so it seemed obvious.  By virtue of my year at the JC, I was already through all the freshman math classes, so by the end of my own freshman year, I was starting to take classes for my major.  Without trying to bore you all to tears, I'll just say that I encountered my first Abstract Algebra class, and I realized that, if I was going to be seeing significantly more of this stuff (and I assuredly was), then Math wasn't really what I wanted to study after all.  Looking around for another plausible field of study, I settled on Mechanical Engineering.  I considered studying Physics, but when I thought about it, that could take me into realms just as abstract as Mathematics.  So Engineering, I reasoned, would involve me in lots of good math problems, of a suitably concrete nature, that I might even get paid to solve, someday.  I kept taking math classes 'on the side' (with my 'elective' credits), and by the time I finished my Bachelor's Degree, I had more math credits on my transcript than my roommate, who was a Math major (I've occasionally thought about going back to see if I could finagle a 'second major' in Applied Math, or somesuch, out of the classes I'd already taken).

(Another side note. . . when I took my GREs, in preparation for applying to graduate school, I was initially undecided as to whether I wanted to study Engineering or Applied Math, so I took the exams for both, and had the results sent to the corresponding departments.  By the time the results came back, I'd decided in favor of getting another Engineering degree.  But the Math department still got my test results; and I did well enough that I got a letter from the Math chairman, saying that they'd gotten my test results, and they were really good, and they wanted to admit me, but there was a small problem - I hadn't applied yet.  So. . . would I please apply?  Which was nice for my ego, but I'd already made my choice.  I probably should have written back, explaining my decision - or heck, just walked across the street and told him myself - but I was still a little too green for that.  *sigh* )


All of which makes for a nice story, and a nice insight into my life and psyche (if you're remotely interested in such things; God only knows why you would be), but it's really only background for the story I set out to tell you (I hope you don't feel deceived) (and Lord knows, this post is already long enough). . .

When I was in high school, I rather enjoyed my reputation (such as it was) as the school's 'Math Whiz'.  But, as noted above, I mainly did it out of my own enjoyment and love of math.  I did all the 'Extra Credit' problems, and sometimes, just for my own interest and challenge, I'd do the 'hard' problems at the bottom of the page, even if the teacher hadn't assigned them.  Of course, those 'challenging' problems were often, um. . . challenging.  Even to me (hard to believe, I know, but it happens. . .).  And sometimes, I'd become the least bit, uh, obsessive about 'conquering' them.  Sometimes, I'd spend an hour or more, trying as many different approaches to a problem as I could think of, in order to crack the problem, and make it give up its answer to me.  And sometimes, I'd go past my bedtime banging away on a problem, without success, and go to bed frustrated that I hadn't been able to beat the problem into submission.

I don't remember the first time it happened, but I clearly recall several of them, all when I was in high school.  There might have been a few in college, but I clearly remember the times it happened in high school.  I went to bed, and fell asleep, still agitated that I hadn't been able to solve the problem.  Then I began to dream.  And I dreamed the solution to the problem I'd been working on.  I remember those dreams, even today.  I'd be right back where I'd been, at my desk, grinding away at the problem, staring at the page in front of me.  Then I'd have a crucial flash of insight, and work the problem through to solution.  I'd check and double-check my work, until I was satisfied that what I had was really right.  Then, at the end, still in my dream, I'd remind myself to wake up and write it down, before I forgot it.  Then I'd wake up, excited, still remembering the 'key insight' that had come to me in my dream, and write down the solution, which was invariably correct.  Shades of Kekule?

I don't know if that's indicative of how deeply I was obsessing over the problem, or if, once I was relaxed enough to sleep and dream, my brain (mind?) could work more efficiently, or what.  But I still get a chuckle from the very idea of dreaming the answers to math problems. . .

Has anything like that ever happened to any of you?

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Truth Is Out There. . .

Since it's Epiphany. . .

I think that this cartoon has an interesting/cute/clever take on the Incarnation, and how we 'moderns' think of the Universe, and our place in it.  What do you think?