Jan 14, 2015

Talking Down to the Terrorists (Charlie Hebdo pt 1)

I had a debate a while back about whether or not atheism is a religion; my interlocutor took the side of Kent Hovind and Conservapedia in insisting that it is, and that therefore I’m religious.  Invalidating someone’s choices and narrative for cheap rhetorical points is par for the course in such discussions, and unfortunately the R-worders are at it again.  This time, they insist--in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings--that terrorism really has very little to do with religion.

Apparently to finally be acknowledged as non-religious I'd have to shoot up a building full of people in the name of religion.  I'm not quite that desperate, but I now have the dubious honor of an irritating commonality with the terrorists: liberal religionists talk down to us.  They know better than we do who we really are, and why we really do what we do.

There are a multitude of factors behind many terrorist acts--Western imperialist bullshit has long fertilized the ground in which the seeds of extremism grow.  But imperialism doesn’t just mean dropping bombs, it also means thinking that we know other people better than they do, and refusing to listen to them.  When white Christians in Ireland bombed each other for years, did well-meaning liberals take them by the hand, give a patronizing little smile, and explain why they were really fighting?  When Scott Roeder murdered George Tiller over abortion, did we hear a chorus of voices echoing, “Now, now, we all know better than that”?

Are white Christian terrorists really so much more articulate than brown Muslim terrorists?

Admittedly, the account that they give of themselves names one of my personal favorite bugbears as the culprit, which doesn’t incline me to critical reflection.  It’s axiomatic that beliefs have consequences, and that beliefs like jihad, martyrdom, and thoughtcrime will have bad consequences.  The terrorists professed such beliefs and acted upon them, and while that’s not case closed exactly, it’s the necessary opening deposition.

I realize that it’s ultimately necessary to complicate this narrative, and we might even come to disagree, albeit with a great deal of effort.  But instead of engagement we get dismissals, and the dismissals have been just that: dismissals.  Incidental dependent clauses blithely asserting the contrary with all the intellectual heft of Dick Cheney’s “greeted as liberators”.

Of course not all religion advocates terrorism.  Most of it, in fact, does not, and you’d be a fool to say otherwise.  But this curious assertion that a system of morality inculcated by childhood indoctrination, forbidding criticism and justifying itself on the arrogated word of the divine, could never go this badly awry?  Please.  That is no less foolish. I know from the painful personal experience of having marched in pro-life rallies, stridently opposed civil rights, and attempted to vote for the Shrub (and failed due to a registration mistake) just what religion can accomplish.  No thinking person should be surprised that a more virulent form--especially combined with disaffection or mental illness--could do far worse.

Nov 24, 2014

Growing Up in Missions, Memoir Project Excerpt 4: Our New Computer

When we announced our call to missions, a wealthy family in the Morristown Church gifted us our first computer: a 486 dream machine with a 33MHz clock speed, 2 megs of RAM, DOS 6.0 as the primary operating system with a bonus of the most impressive Windows 3.1. Its 200MB hard disk came preloaded with the very latest and greatest in gaming technology: a lot of Shareware, to be sure, but a complete Wolfenstein 3-D (which we deleted due to violence), and Carmen Sandiego, and Castle of the Winds, an addictive little Roguelike (which we deleted because witchcraft).

It also had Monkey Island, which also had witchcraft, but it’s a puzzle-based adventure game. We had never encountered the genre before, and at ages 5, 9, and 11 we were so bad at it that it took us well over year of intermittent playing to actually get to the witchcraft-y bits. By that time we were already in Bulgaria and Mom and Dad had stopped noticing anything that didn’t impinge on their ministry directly. Even so, it required some soul-searching. There’s a voodoo priestess who has a fortune-telling shop on the town’s main street; inside is a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle that you need to zipline over to another island where you would then touch a fearsome parrot to prove your bravery to Meathook before he would join your crew. We didn’t know all that at the time, but we had been everywhere else, and a friend finally told us that the missing piece to the puzzle was indeed in The International House of Mojo.

This was a grave moral dilemma. On the one hand, you want to beat the game. On the other, this is Voodoo—and divination! These are evil spirits we’re talking about, here. Guybrush Threepwood stood staring at that door for a long, long time as the inner struggle raged, and then—a brilliant compromise. We would go in, grab the chicken, get out as quickly as possible, pray forgiveness, and save the game. Then, on any subsequent playthroughs, we would play through right up till the spot that the plot forced you to put your immortal soul in danger, and from there just load the save on the other side.

It was decided. With hearts pounding, we began the clicking: “Open” “Door”. The interminable load … We were in! Our eyes scanned the darkened room, where pixelated skeletons lurked in the corners, illuminated only by the ghastly green light of the priestess's cauldron ...  there! “Pick Up” “Rubber Chicken with a Pulley in the Middle” “Open” “Door” … and we were out. We could breathe again. We prayed forgiveness, just in case, and immediately created the brand new save file, kept sacrosanct for any future use.

Nov 19, 2014

Google is your Friend

Oh, Reza ... why do you get under my skin so? Is it the smug confidence with which you play the reasonable, sophisticated believer talking down to me from out your ass? Is it that exact mix of well-researched points delivered in polished phrases and "the first damned link on google lists a bunch of people who said what you just claimed no one ever said"-level stupid?

Whatever the reason, here we go again:
[D]o you think that the Church fathers who in the 4th century decided to put both Matthew and Luke in the canonized New Testament didn’t bother to read them first? They didn’t notice that they have different dates for Jesus’ birth? They didn’t notice that the gospel of John absolutely contradicts the entire timeline of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? They didn’t notice that there are two completely different genealogies for Jesus in Matthew and Luke? Of course they did! They didn’t care, because at no point did they ever think that what they were reading was literally true.
Either you're lying, or you don't know the first damned thing about this question--as in, you literally did not google this. Did not type the words "genealogy of Jesus" into the internets.  Did not click on the first thing to come down the tubes.  Did not give it a quick once-over. Did not encounter the 3rd century references to Levirate marriages as a means of reconciling both genealogies as literally true. Did not discover Augustine's initial objections to the faith (4th century) on the grounds of the impossibility of it being literally true.  Did not learn of Augustine's propagation of the adoption theory for reconciling both accounts as literally true.

Literally. Did. Not. Google. This.

This is creationist-level stupid.  Demonstrably, verifiably, empirically, embarrassingly, and categorically false.  Aslan does for church history what Ken Ham does for biology: doctrinal denial of known facts, with just enough truth mixed in to make the pill go down easy.  But then, you're talking about someone who says that:
We think that truth and fact mean the same thing. Indeed, science tells us, ‘that which is true is that which can be factually verified.’ But that’s not what the ancient mind thought. They were not as interested in the facts of Jesus’ life as they were in the truth revealed by Jesus’ life. When they constructed these stories about Jesus, and I mean that quite literally, they constructed these stories. If you asked them, ‘Did this really happen?’ they wouldn’t even understand the question. What do you mean did this really happen? You’re missing the point!
Uh huh.  Perhaps if we take Aslan's statement that "at no point did they ever think that what they were reading was literally true" and ask, "Did that really happen?" then he, too, might misunderstand the question and accuse us of missing the point.  But we didn't even need to go to wikipedia to know this is horseshit: we could have just read the Bible--specifically, 1 Corinthians 15: "if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ ... if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain [and] we are of all men most miserable."

If only Reza had been around to set him right.

Nov 9, 2014

A Depressing Coda on #GamerGate

With the obvious out of the way, everyone go grab your clutching pearls, because I’m going to say something vaguely sympathetic about #GamerGate.

Well, not #GamerGate--the movement and the ideas can go to hell--but the sort of gamer that comprises it.  The thing that I’m going to say is that they’re pathetic, basement dwelling virgins.  The sympathetic part is that that’s a low kind of place to be.

These are guys that by-and-large haven’t had any female attention in years.  Most of them tried real hard at one point, failed, tried again, failed again, and at the end of the trying and the failing either gave the whole thing up in triage or else ran out of people to try with.  Without commenting on the accuracy of the impression, this is the impression.

If you tell a guy with that kind of self-image about--let's say--the damage that male notions of attractiveness are doing to women, you won’t get a good response.  It would be like explaining to some poor redneck who just lost his job, his dog, and his trailer about white privilege.  At best, you might wind up with a blank stare; more likely, you'll get an inchoate snarl about the damage that female notions of attractiveness have done to him.  Without commenting on the accuracy of the gut response, this is the gut response.

I know this because, having once had that impression, I still retain that gut response.  A friend of mine recently posted the image at right of Amanda and her hairy legs; the first damn thought in my head was, “I should totally support this, for the sake of all the girls who overlooked my departures from conventional attractiveness ... oh wait there weren't any. People who lose the genetic lottery or flout the rules aren't found attractive the end.” In the context of talking about weight loss, Andrew Sullivan linked to this article.  The gist is that a girl turned down an unattractive guy; now he's finishing law school, slimmed down, and dating someone more attractive than her. My gut reaction? The first thing that my brain contributed to the conversation?

Not the word "justice," not the thought "justice"--literally that clip. As before, I'm reporting my reaction, not defending it. But it was my reaction.

I'm not entirely sure how to fix this.  As a brain-having person and self-styled feminist I absolutely get the harm that negative, stereotyped, and objectified portrayals can do.  And I get that we should accept and value everyone no matter their gender or orientation or attractiveness.  And I've still got that raw, ex-basement-dwelling-virgin part that responds, "You first."

Oct 15, 2014


Oct 13, 2014

A Deeper Criticism of the Maher-Harris/Affleck-Aslan Debate

First, the obvious:

Now that we're all done wetting ourselves and googling Dogma clips (which I note in passing may be the greatest Christian movie ever made), the beef.  The debate consisted of four men--all rich, three white--spouting off about Islam.  We can talk about what each of them got right and wrong--Affleck doesn't seem to know anything; Maher's not exactly a paragon of feminism, himself; Harris is largely on-target; Aslan is an apologist and shares the prerequisite difficulties with honesty inherent to that profession.  While his New York Times article admits that "people of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community, often denying that religious violence has any religious motivation whatsoever", it steadfastly refuses to draw any conclusions whatsoever from this "savagery and ... religious bigotry", instead claiming that "People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures ... scripture is meaningless without interpretation".  The ability of the violent and bigoted to find such easy, plain-meaning-of-the-text, "thus saith the LAWD" justifications in scripture is apparently not an issue that others claiming allegiance to said texts need address.  As I told the door-knocking proselytizers the other day: "I'm an apostate, and the Bible says I should be killed.  That fact tends to color my perception of the rest of the things it says--and of the people who quote it."

But I digress.

What's missing from the discussion are the voices of women.  The voices of victims.  The voices of apostates living under death threats from followers of the religion of peace.  Let's correct that--in my own, small, maybe-five-people-will-read-this sort of way. First, we have Heina Dadabhoy, 'Bill Maher / Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck / Reza Aslan: I Choose Neither':
I would be remiss if I were to continue without a reminder that more nuanced discussions and arguments about this very topic have happened and will continue to happen among people far more qualified to talk about the issue. As the participants aren’t famous white men making soundbite-ready generalizations on network television, you probably won’t hear about them and most people will continue to not care about them.
I disagree with both the racialized criticism of the Maher/Harris types and the gloves-on “Not All Muslims” tactics of the Aslan/Affleck types. The former reinforce the kind of generalizations that make my life as a non-white person of Muslim background more difficult in the Western world, since racist bigots who target me hardly pause to ask me if I’m an apostate before they harm me. The latter overemphasize the “nicer” Muslims and parts of Islam in a misguided attempt to respect collective beliefs in a way that harms individuals.

Racism that calls itself criticism of religion or racism that hobbles efforts to extend human rights to all people in all cultures? I pick neither.
Taslima Nasreen's 'Gun in One Hand, Quran in the Other':
ISIS will not be destroyed if you do not allow critical scrutiny of Islam, if you do not stop brainwashing children with Islam, if you do not stop building Quranic schools, and if you do not abolish sharia laws.
Sadaf Ali guest-blogs for PZ Myers:
I have a personal appeal to Ben Affleck, after his participation on Bill Maher’s show, because it is attitudes like his that have historically made little to no room for ex-Muslims, secular, reformists, liberal or progressive Muslims to own a dialogue that is supposed to be ours to discuss.
One: Muslim is not a race. Two: Islam is an ideology. Three: Islamophobia is not real. Four: Anti-Muslim bigotry is.
The Middle-East and Central Asia is comprised of several ethnic and cultural identities with a range of religious affiliations (and like in my case, no religious affiliation at all). In the same way one conflates the criticism of Islam as a racial issue – i.e. treating all Muslims as one and the same – Affleck himself is treating all of the Middle-East and Central Asia, where the US intervenes often, as a monolithic race of people.
When bombs drop and when bullets fly, how does one know the religion of a target or civilian? I am an Afghan Tajik and I am an atheist. Afghanistan and Iraq consist of Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, Zoroastrians, Bah’ais, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and more. So, chances are, not every person that has been a victim of these conflicts are Muslim. Shame on you, Ben. It is people like you who are complicit in denying our diversity.

Affleck uses the death and suffering of my peoples as a tool to suffocate the discourse of Islam and as an Afghan-Canadian, I am upset by this. How dare you? Islam as an ideology is not flawless. No ideology is. Much in the same way Affleck played a part in the film ‘Dogma’ to satirize or criticize Christianity, others are allowed to criticize Islam. Furthermore, Islamists must be confronted. Those who preach the death of apostates and LGBTQ peoples, and seek the inequality of genders and wish to marginalize minorities must be condemned.

Sep 29, 2014

Karen Armstrong on 'The Myth of Religious Violence'

It's not every day you see an article decry colonialism while praising western leaders for their pronouncements on the true nature of Islam.  Take a moment to savor that contradiction before moving on.  I find it instructive.  We aren't really objecting to westerners telling other people what their religion 'really' is, we're just using that objection as a cover to put forward our own preferred definition.

For myself, during my years as a liberal Christian, what I was mainly clinging to were the fuzzy godfeels--not the vomit-inducing praise-and-worship 'feel the spirit!', but other ideas, such as justice, correction for the evils of this world, and an elision of my own mortality.  To maintain these fuzzy godfeels, I had to distance myself from this extremist elements--my personal pleasure in religion is greatly diminished by coming at that price!--usually by denying that the evils of religion were both necessary and endemic.  This was true in the epistemological sense, as well: if the methodologies of faith and revelation could lead to such horrors and not just to my happy place, then I had built my house upon the sands.

A further bit of personal history: I know Baptist pastors who have been brutally savaged by mobs led by Orthodox priests screaming about the one true religion.  Those priests seemed to think it was about religion.  And the mob seemed to think it was about religion.  And the victims seemed to think it was about religion.  And I, simpleminded, colonial atheist that I am, look at that and go, 'Huh!  Maybe this was about religion!'

Enter Karen Armstrong to set everybody straight.

I guess I could fisk the rest of it--"it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics."  To paraphrase CS Lewis on toothache, ten minutes of Southern Baptist preaching will cure of you of all that romantic claptrap.  "The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive."  Not since ol' Ronnie Raygun claimed Russian had no word for freedom has a stupider claim been made about the contents of foreign languages.  Or perhaps you'd like to claim Bulgaria, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, as Western?  Thus sending everything you've said about 'western' religion tumbling into incoherence?  There are even a few valid points, like 'secular is not automatically good', or 'religion properly understood is a totalizing ideology that seeks to dominate every aspect of personal and public life', but these are ultimately incidental.

Karen Armstrong drives me batty, because she refuses to engage either with the strong forms of her stated opponents' arguments, or with the actual words of actual religious people by which they themselves describe their beliefs and motivations, and because she refuses to say what she really thinks, or why.  What's the topic sentence of this essay?  What thesis is she defending--or attacking?  I have literally hurt my brain thinking about this, and the best I can do is "the most caricatured and overstated version of the link between religion and violence is overstated."  The second-best--"secularization won't necessarily fix the problems of the Middle East"--is also a no-brainer, but completely belies the serious article promised by that fine-sounding title.  Also conspicuously absent is a cogent definition of a 'secular' or any proposed alternative.  Sure there are problems with secularism--yeah, we know that secular governments are themselves often repressive, and we know religions violently oppose changes to the social order, a point which seems out of place in an article entitled 'The Myth of Religious Violence'--but there's nothing better.  Having been a religious minority in a non-secular country, I can say with some authority that decrying secularism as I understand the term positively reeks of privilege.  Let her spend some time as a Druze in Palestine, or an evangelical in Bulgaria, and then we'll have a nice long chat about the desirability of secular government and the true nature of religion.

I understand why Obama and Cameron (and Bush and Blair before them) have to say the things they have to say, but I keep waiting for the moderates to seriously take on the serious versions of the religious violence argument, to wit, that beliefs influence action and that beliefs such as: 1) God gave me ALL the land; 2) martyrdom = VIRGINS; 3) infidel-killing is part of god's plan; and 4) heretical ideas and sinful actions will bring about an infinite bad, so nearly any finite bad is justified--even merciful!--in stamping them out--will tend to promote violence, curtail freedom, and stunt negotiations and compromise.  I wait in vain.

Sep 22, 2014

Growing up in Missions, Memoir Project Excerpt 3: Arriving

The political situation settled down, the best-we-could-do language lessons around Grandma’s table came to an end, and we got ready to fly.  All our stuff that wasn’t stored, sold, or crated went into oversized suitcases and heavy-duty gray-blue footlockers.  We got on the plane and headed over the ocean--it was a big 747, and in those pre-9/11 days, the Air France stewardesses woke me up and took me upstairs to see the cockpit.  “How neat!” said Dad.

We landed in Paris for a twelve-hour layover--I’ve since been back to Charles De Gaulle and hated it, but at the time it was too big and too much on too little sleep to form anything like an opinion of the structure as such.  Architecture aside, the experience was amazing.  Barely had we gotten off the plane when we saw a Givenchy billboard, a blue-tinted artsy thing in which the model held up a bottle of perfume next to her naked breast.  Welcome to Europe!  My passport received its first stamp, which I looked at with great admiration.  As we wandered through the place debating a course of action, we got to stand behind police lines and watch airport security destroy someone’s unattended luggage with a heavy blast cover and some kind of small detonation, and across from the detonation?  Another Givenchy billboard.

From bombs to breasts the airport was amazing, but my first encounter with jetlag wasn’t going well.  The original plan had been to get a hotel room, leave our stuff there, and spend a few hours in Paris.  The first two bits went all right, but when it came time to leave, everyone was asleep, and even making it back to the airport on time was a struggle.

We flew in dress clothes.  I’ve since learned that this custom was a carryover from the days when flying was a luxurious experience reserved for the upper class.  By the time we flew, the back end of a 747 was about as far from that as you can get without sleeping in the luggage bin.  At first I just accepted that you flew in dress clothes because you flew in dress clothes.  Later in my teens I rebelled against it and demanded a reason; Mother replied, in so many words, that this way if the plane went down I wouldn’t die looking like a plebe.  I envisioned the charred ashes of my corpse in the mangled remains of an airplane and tried, not to care whether there were buttons melted into the blackened ruin of my shirt, but to imagine what it might be like to care about such a thing.  Couldn’t quite manage it, funnily enough.

At the time Bulgaria was a cash-based economy.  There were no personal checks, no one knew what travelers’ checks were, not a single establishment in the whole of the country accepted credit cards, attempts to describe ATMs were met with blank stares.  Wire transfers from the West were a tortuous affair, in-country transfers between competing banks were often impossible, and even at the bank where we eventually settled, the simplest transactions were a bureaucratic nightmare of running back and forth between various counters, windows, and cashiers to dot all the i’s on triplicate authorization forms.

These two asides intersected with the story at hand when Z and I found that certain pockets of our nice flying clothes were sewn shut.  We felt them, puzzled, worried.  “Mom there’s something in my pocket!” said Zachary.
“Shhht!” came the replied, in wide-eyed, panicky anger, as if that wouldn’t draw way more attention.
“Mom I think it’s--”
“SHHHT!” louder this time, eyes opened wider, head quivering.

They had sewn thousands of dollars in crisp new hundreds into our pockets.  Welcome to missions!  You are now a helpmeet to your parents’ calling; your identity, time, social life, personal space, and possessions are now irrelevant, and just forget about trifles like “right to be told what’s going on around you” or “input,” let alone “consent.”  If Mom and Dad need you to smuggle currency, then smuggle currency you shall, and it’ll be a funny story to share with their supporters in the decades to come.  “Hey kids!  Remember that time when we first came to Bulgaria and you found the money in your pockets!  *Snrk*!”  A day of awakenings: I saw my first tit AND played currency-mule for Jesus.  At least it was sewn pockets and not condoms up the ass.

It was a long flight in the dark from Paris to Sofia, and mostly empty.  In one lucid interval between naps I moved to the front of the plane, ahead of my brothers, so that I would be the first one across the border and the first Southern Baptist MK in Bulgaria.  The plane touched down close to midnight on the second night of our trip.  Passport control is a blur--I vaguely recall trying to be the first one through here, as well, but couldn’t tell you if I succeeded.  We got to the luggage carousels, and James Duke met us.  James was the pastor of the International Baptist Church in Sofia, a heavy-set, 6’3” Texan in a trenchcoat who had the habit of flashing his American passport amidst a torrent of thick Southern banter to circumvent whatever rules he found inconvenient, such as ‘wait for passengers on the other side of customs.’
Our luggage didn’t come.  And didn’t come.  And didn’t come.  It was getting close to two o’clock, and I was staring around the dingy room reading and rereading the Cyrillic signs.  Паспорт контрол.  Obvious enough.  Митница, said another--’Customs’ read the English above it.  Мит-нит-са, I sounded it out to myself (not entirely correctly), trying to remember it.  “Can you read them?” asked James.  I nodded.  “That’s good,” he said.  “It’s a good start.”  Through the occasional openings of the clouded glass doors we caught glimpses of the rest of the welcoming party: a middle-aged American woman of the Southern variety--big brown hair, affectionate and hospitable--Audrey Duke, James’ wife.  Teodor Angelov, a darker-skinned man with a large stomach and average height, bald on top but with ample grey hair in the back and sides and the deep brown Byzantine eyes so typical of the country--pastor of the Sofia Baptist Church and President of the Bulgarian Baptist Union.  Ani Angelova, his wife, almost as tall as he was, with her shock of short, thick black hair and pale, severe, almost Russian face.

We made inquiries about the luggage--it was coming, it wasn’t coming; it was on the plane, it wasn’t on the plane.  James spoke no Bulgarian, we spoke even less, and what few of the hired-under-communism customer “service” folks who were still around at two in the morning were neither knowledgeable, helpful, or particularly versed in English.  The carousels stopped; still nothing.

Around 2:30 or so the problem was discovered: the unloading crew had thought that our footlockers were some kind of shipment rather than luggage, and hadn’t sent them up the conveyor belt.  The carousel kicked back on (we were the last flight in that night) and up they came, at last.  We stepped through the doors to customs like caravaners with our baggage train, finally met the rest of the welcomers, loaded everything in the Baptist Union van and took off.

Sofia was a city at night--sulphur-vapor lamps turning empty streets orange and gray.  I’ve no head for directions and was half-asleep, but I learned the layout in the years to follow, and we went straight through the middle from the south-eastern airport to our apartment in the west-southwest, about a block back from Стамболийски where the 10 tram used to run.  At the time it was a blur--a random parade of turns past the ugly, rectangular Communist architecture that was still utterly new to me.

We made it “home” at last, staggered in the front door, and piled in the elevator.  It wasn’t big enough for all of us, the single, exposed light bulb was forty watts if that, and there were no inner doors.  No. Inner. Doors.  I was twelve years old, it was three o’clock in the morning on the second night of my first intercontinental flight, I had just moved to Eastern Europe (in 1994, mind you!), and there were no inner doors on the elevator.  The push-to-open doors to each floor ambled lazily by as we ascended, separated by concrete slabs.  You could just reach out and touch it!  You could drag your finger along it!  You could get your finger caught in something!  Of all the things I had seen since liftoff, that was the detail that broke my mind.  I extrapolate that Dad, Teo, James, and the Baptist Union driver must have brought up the baggage, and I must have gone to bed at some point, but my memories of the evening end with staring bug-eyed out the open nope-totally-not-a-door-here of the elevator as the wall rolled slowly past.

Sep 9, 2014

Dear Frustrated Parent

Dear Frustrated Parent,

Feel bad.  I have a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, and five seconds is three too many.  However, if you actually read the problem (see?  English Degree!), what is asked of you is to spot the mistake, and then verbalize what the person did right and how to fix the mistake.  For example:
Dear Jack,
To subtract 316 from another number, you need to jump back three hundreds, one ten, and six ones.  You got the 'hundreds' and the 'ones', but you forgot the 'tens'.  Just remember it next time and you'll be fine!
Someone Who Read the Problem and Can Count
You don't get to tout your calculus credentials if you can't tell the difference between '306' and '316' on a number line.  But this is a very well-constructed problem: children are not asked to display the mere technical mastery of mechanically producing the right answer, they are asked spot how that process can go awry, and to verbalize their understanding of the conception and the mistake.  Good, good stuff.

Now: ignoring the fact that this has nothing to do with Common Core, and ignoring the fact that our parent's frustration mostly stems from lack of reading comprehension, the 'new method' is more or less how I taught myself to do math in my head when I abandoned the clunky, overcomplicated, counterintuitive bullshit they taught me in school in favor of something that not only made more sense to me, but that was faster, more likely to be correct, and generally wrong by a smaller margin when I screwed up.  Sure, the old way looks simple in those neat little lines the way that you write it out.  But let's try a different problem.  Let's say, 426 - 327.

First do it my way.  We start by taking away three hundreds, 4 - 3 = 1, leaving us 126 - 27.  Then we take away twenty, 2 - 2 = 0, leaving us 106 - 7.  Then we take away seven: count back six to 100, then count back 1 more to 99.  426 - 327 = 99.  This is an intuitive, left-to-right approach, like the way that we read, and it consists of two one-digit subtractions and one counting back: three operations, and as errors are more likely to compound the further into the problem we get, we're more likely to get an error in the 'ones' column than the 'tens' or 'hundreds'.

Now let's try it your way:


6 is less than 7 so we have to borrow:


16 minus 7 is 9, so:


So, 1 minus 2 ... whoops have to borrow again!


11 minus 2 is 9, so:


and three minus three is 0, so ...

Thus we have: two multi-digit subtractions, one single-digit subtraction, and two complicated borrowing operations, all going in a counterintuitive, right-left direction, with the hundreds column coming last, meaning that compounded errors will have a vastly greater effect on the magnitude of any wrong answer.  Got all that, kids?  In the real world, simplification is valued over complication---this might be why it takes you more than twice as long as me to do arithmetic.  I certainly hope that wouldn't result in my termination, but if one of my engineers couldn't figure out a number line--or understand a word problem, or spot the difference between 306 and 316--it certainly would result in his!

Bemused English Major

Sep 3, 2014

Growing up in Missions, Memoir Project Excerpt 2

When my parents went to the States to fundraise, they would leave me to hold down the fort in Sofia. On one such parental trip, my cell phone rang--an odd occurrence.  It was Petko, who had semi-officially taken over the Rakovitsa church after Ivan got kicked out for accepting bribes from political figures (a car and perhaps a keyboard from the King’s party) to sway the congregation their way.

“Andrew!” he began, out of breath, and then proceeded to tell me the story of a child.  A recent birth from a couple in their church had come with severe complications, and the child had had one operation and was waiting on a second, but needed some special medicine not available in Bulgaria and my parents were in the States so couldn’t they please do something to help?

As far as I got, it was spinal bifada, and possibly hydrocephaly.  Petko didn’t actually say the words for either of those conditions, it just sounded like it based on the description, which came to me via the telephone game: the doctor to the couple in their second language, they to Petko in everyone’s native language, then finally Petko to me in his and my second language on a cell with a bad connection.

It caught me by surprise, but I thought to ask: what is this medicine that they need?  “It’s one of four things,” he replied in a rush.  “Any of them will do--I’ll send you the names!”

Really?  I thought.  Fucking really?  The doctor can think of four separate things that will work and none of them are available?  It’s not the nineties anymore, you can get stuff, and if there’s four different things that work then surely he can think of a fifth that they actually have in-country rather than pulling the asshole move of telling poverty-stricken gypsies from a small-town ghetto that their mortally ill child desperately needs something from abroad.  “Okay”, I said, “look--there’s a couple issues here.  America isn’t like Bulgaria.  You can’t just go to the drug store and buy whatever you want.  I don’t know what these are, but they might not be available in America (he had mentioned they were French), and if they are my parents might not be able to buy them.  Also: America has funny rules about what you as a private citizen can ship (thanks, Canadian Internet pills!) and it’s not actually legal to ship a lot of medicines.  They’re also travelling and I don’t know when they’ll be able to get to this, but even if they drop what they’re doing and go to a drugstore tomorrow, and even if the drugstore has these meds, and even if it’s legal to buy them, and even if it’s legal to ship them, then it will still take time to get here and be really expensive--”
“We’ll pay whatever they spend!”
“--Yes, but there’s still the time--”
“Whenever they can!”
“--Listen!  Your best bet is to go back to the doctor--or to go to a different doctor!--and to ask him for something that is available in-country.  Got that?  If it’s as urgent as you’re making it sound, then shipping from the States isn’t the best option even if it’s possible.  You need to go to the doctor and demand something that’s available here.”
“Got that?”
“Okay, I’m sorry that--”
“We’re counting on you, Andrew!” he said as he hung up, his voice actually sighing in gratitude and relief.  Fuck me, how do I always get involved in this shit? You’re counting on me. Great. Try listening to me instead.  Now I was actually kinda proud of that response, because I had gotten this out-of-the-blue phonecall with the breathless insinuation that I was all that stood between a newborn babe and certain death, and had still managed to tell them the best thing that I could have told them.

Well I wrote the parents, and they didn’t write back.  They were travelling, and between the nonstop running about and the staying with older friends who only sorta knew how the wifi worked and the schmoozing and their own medical stuff, they almost never checked their email while in the States.  It was too early their time to call, and their weird schedule also meant that they had a knack for either not charging their phone or for turning it off and forgetting it.  I eventually got in touch and they promised to look into it, but couldn’t promise much.  In the meantime I took the list down to my pharmacy and asked the girl if she had ever heard of any of them; she gave me the sort of look normally reserved for elderly relatives’ Facebook politicking; I took this as a ‘no’ and made some face-saving remark as I headed out the door.  

For the next week Petko called me nearly nonstop: “I’ve passed along the message, there’s nothing else I can do, I’ll call you as soon as … yes, I have your number … the one you’re calling me from right now, I can see it if I pull the phone away from my ear … look the best thing really is to go back to that doctor, or to a different one, and to--”
“We’re counting on you, Andrew!” *click*

I eventually found out what the “medicine” actually was: a dietary supplement/super-power formula, basically to fatten the kid up for the next operation.  Mindboggling: all the kid needed was nutrition, and the doctor tells these panicking, uneducated parents that only this stupid French formula will work?  And they go out of their minds--and nearly drive me out of mine--trying to find it?  Truly his dickery knows no bounds, and this was compounded by the Bulgarian attitude towards medicine.  It’s not like the States, where people go off their antibiotics the first afternoon they perk up.  No, in Bulgaria, you have to take the medicine.  Even if it’s two weeks later and it was an antihistamine and you’re no longer stuffed up, the doctor said ‘Take it!’ and buddy you gotta take it.  So when the doctor pulled this French bullshit?  That was the sole possible and magically efficacious cure for their dying child.

After about a week M&D called up to say that they were heading back to Tennessee, and they would try to work something out with [a doctor friend] to see if she could get access to this stuff and possibly ship it over.  By that time I was thoroughly disillusioned with the whole affair--not only in my own power to actually obtain the “medicine” in question, but in the likelihood that doing so would actually affect the situation in any way.  Still, it was something.

Then the next day Petko called and said the kid died.  So … nevermind, I guess.  “But thank you for your help,” he added.  Sure.  Lay it on.  Why not.

The parents called back to confirm something-or-other about the situation: “The kid died, so … don’t worry about it,” I said.
“Oh,” they said.

And then we proceeded to the next item of business.