"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for August, 2011

Chesterton on the Khan Academy

I’ve been slacking off a bit on posting Chesterton excerpts over the past couple weeks.  Fear not, however.  Now the man comes back with a roar to comment on the Khan Academy,  ‘flipped classrooms’, and other recent trends in education.

The trouble in too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they have never passed through the Parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace. Obviously, it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the last ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience. But this, as I say, is all due to the mere fact that we are managed by a little oligarchy; my system presupposes that men who govern themselves will govern their children. To-day we all use Popular Education as meaning education of the people. I wish I could use it as meaning education by the people.

– G. K. Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World

What happens when your boson goes missing?

That’s the question that physicists around the world will surely be asking after they read the news after seeing the results from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC):

Running continually at an unprecedented energy level of seven trillion electron volts since March 31, 2010, the LHC has been amassing petabytes of data that are being analyzed by a grid of interlinked computers worldwide in search of the missing boson. And yesterday, August 22, at the Biennial International Symposium on Lepton-Photon Interactions at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, the bombshell was dropped: CERN scientists declared that over the entire range of energy the Collider had explored—from 145 to 466 billion electron volts—the Higgs boson is excluded as a possibility with a 95% probability.

Now the fight ain’t over yet.  First of all, 95% percent probability is not 100%; the Higgs might still pop up tomorrow.  There’s also the possibility that it exists at different energy levels than the ones tested, though other particle accelerators have searched at lower energy levels.  But at the moment things aren’t looking too optimistic for Boso the Particle.

Personally, I’m very much in favor of these results.  I think there should be some unsolved problems in physics and in other sciences as well.  How are we supposed to hold the interest of children–or adults, for that matter–if we already know everything.  A little bit of mystery in the physical universe is a good thing.

Algebra is a Dish Best Served Cold

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about kids learning math and science from the Khan Academy.  Now I’m sure that to many people, including myself, this brings to mind images of Ricardo Montalban dressed in rags at a starship control panel saying, “From the heart of trigonometry, I stab at thee!”  It’s actually something quite different, though.  It’s about Salman Khan, an entrepreneur from California who’s going to single-handedly revolutionize our failing education system.  Now you may be skeptical.  You may point out that at any given time in the past forty years, there have been a dozen revolutions going on in our education system, and yet somehow the results have just gotten worse and worse.  You may even think that the surplus of revolutions is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  If so, I say unto you, this time is different.  Khan actually has the ability to teach our kids something.  Specifically, he can teach them how to distinguish between actual facts and hype.

Just consider these snippets from the article in the Washington Post which I linked to above: “be more creative”, “an optimal experience for students and teachers”, “hailed as revolutionary”, “a useful tool to individualize learning”, “has caught on like wildfire”, “a world-class education for everyone”, “have struck a chord among students and educators”, “world-changing ideas”, “a grass-roots, bottom-up thing”, “taking ownership of our learning”, “it opens doors to new resources and learning techniques”, and the list goes on.  All of that is pure hype.  Nowhere in the article is there any scrap of solid evidence that the Khan Academy helps kids to learn more.

But obviously we should not be satisfied with just one article explaining the concept of empty corporate hype.  Fortunately Khan and his movement are spinning off numerous examples.  For example, over here we have a list of the many advantages of the “flipped model”, which is where students watch video lectures at home and do ‘homework’ in class.  Among them:

  • Establishes dialogue and idea exchange between students, educators, and subject matter experts regardless of locations.
  • The content becomes more easily accessed and controlled by the learner.
  • Prepares students for a future as global citizens. Allows them to meet students and teachers from around the world to experience their culture, language, ideas, and shared experiences.
  • Allows students with multiple learning styles and abilities to learn at their own pace and through traditional models.

Now if that isn’t hogwash, I don’t know what is.  A video “establishes dialogue”?  You can talk to a video screen all you want, but it won’t hear you.  The content is “controlled by the learner”?  True enough, and I imagine most learners will start by not watching the video.  Watching videos constitutes “experiencing the culture”?  I can’t even come up with a witty response to that one.  Video lets students “learn at their own pace”?  Don’t we want all students learning at a fast pace, regardless of whether or not its their own?

I could bash the concept more broadly, but I’ll focus on the second point.  Those wise people who write the Washington Post and other leading venues apparently think that it’s wonderfully new for students to have access to school material at home.  In fact, we already have a way for students to access material at home: it’s called a textbook.  It’s worked just fine for tens of millions, but the problem is that kids these days don’t read textbooks because they don’t care about the material.  If they don’t read textbooks, what makes anyone think that they’ll watch videos.  Has it ever occurred to anyone that there’s no way teachers can force the students to watch videos any more than we can force them to read textbooks?  Is this not obvious?

So I once again stand atop the train of events and try to make the “experts” stop and think for a minute, presumably to no avail as always.  But if we do have to have science fiction villains teaching our children mathematics, then may I suggest:


The end of terrorism

No, unfortunately I am not writings about terrorism ending.  Our friends in the mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan have not spontaneously had an attack of conscience and decided to stop blowing up schools and cars.  Rather I am writing about the end of terrorism as a rhetorical device in America.

Strange as it may seem, people used to not care about terrorism.  For instance, on Oct. 23, 1983, Islamic Jihad blew up a Marine Barracks in Lebanon.  Rather than starting a war over this, President Reagan simply pulled American troops out of Lebanon.  In the 90’s, terrorists struck targets including U.S. embassies, warships, and the World Trade Center, which was bombedon Feb. 26, 1993.  The public was not aroused, and when President Clinton launched missiles at Al Queda camps in 1998, his enemies responded by implying that he was only trying to distract attention from the Lewinsky sex scandal.

That all changed, and of course it’s not hard to pinpoint the date of the change: September 11, 2001.  From that day forward terrorism was the rhetorical device of choice for both parties, but most particularly the Republicans.  The party line was that we were in a war for the future of civilization.  Based on this, the Republicans justified invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, massive military build-up, the Department of Homeland Security (which they had opposed when the Democrats called for it in the 90’s), attacks on Constitutional rights, and so forth.  Even irrelevant things like agriculture subsidies were put forward on the basis of protecting us from terrorism.

Perhaps must notably, Repubs used the threat of terrorism to keep their own people in line.  Repubs were strong on terrorism while Dems were weak, the theory went, so you had to vote Pub even if President Bush and Congress were spending trillions, regulating business, and generally violating conservative principles right and left.  This political rhetoric worked pretty well for a couple election cycles.  Even in 2008, the Republican Presidential candidates were trying to one-up each other by vowing to torture suspects the most mercilessly, double the size of Guatanamo, and so forth.

What a difference three and a half years makes!  Today, as the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack approaches, not a single Republican anywhere is focused  on terrorism.  Even though some of the candidates today are the same people who were mouthing off about it in 2008, they’ve changed their tune.  Terrorism is rather like disco music or Friendster; it still exists, but the cultural mainstream no longer cares about it.

Back from Yosemite

I have returned from my backpacking trip sunburned and bug-bitten but otherwise quite all right.  As a member of the blogging community it seems I’m obligated to post about sixty pictures of the places I visited.  Unfortunately I don’t have a single picture because my camera ceased functioning shortly before I departed.  Some of my fellow backpackers took pictures and presumably I’ll be able to see them on Facebook eventually.  Meanwhile I’ll just substitute photos from Google Images:

Mt Banner rises above Thousand Island Lake.

Donahue Pass, 11056 feet up.

With that done, I’d rather offer thoughts about backpacking than pictures.  Backpacking offers lots of discomforts.  There are bug bites, aching feet and legs and back and shoulders, sun burns, chapped lips, heat in the valleys, cold on the mountaintops, lousy food, and the need to ford freezing cold streams, just to name a few.  From a strictly rational perspective, it’s inexplicable that anyone would ever do it.  But those of us who have done it know the risks beforehand and yet we do it anyway, again and again and again.  Why?

Well, for starters there’s the beautiful scenery, as demonstrated above.  Then there’s the chance to” get away from it all”, to not have to hear about plunging stock markets and gas prices and the latest thing that Michelle Bachmann has said.  Third, there’s the chance to prove how tough and hardcore one is and collect stories related to these points for future bragging.  Fourth, there’s the chance to spend time with one’s fellow backpackers.

I think this final point is the most important one.  It’s a fact that in civilization we all play roles while in public.  As Rousseau observed, civilization requires a veneer of good manners to function at all.  (That may be the only thing Rousseau was right about.)  But when a group of a dozen or so heads into the wilderness, trudging up and down mountain and through freezing rivers while carrying thirty pounds per person on their backs, things start to change.  Their is no longer the energy or the necessity to play artificial roles.  The veneer falls away and the real personalities underneath it emerge.  And that, I would argue, is something that one can experience on trips through the wilderness but rarely anywhere else.

Some Chesterton to tide you over

I am once again departing for a space of about a week.  This time I will be backpacking in California.  To keep you entertained until my return, I offer another poem.



My eyes are full of lonely mirth:
Reeling with want and worn with scars,
For pride of every stone on earth,
I shake my spear at all the stars.

A live bat beats my crest above,
Lean foxes nose where I have trod,
And on my naked face the love
Which is the loneliness of God.

Outlawed: since that great day gone by–
When before prince and pope and queen
I stood and spoke a blasphemy–
‘Behold the summer leaves are green.’

They cursed me: what was that to me
Who in that summer darkness furled,
With but an owl and snail to see,
Had blessed and conquered all the world?

They bound me to the scourging-stake,
They laid their whips of thorn on me;
I wept to see the green rods break,
Though blood be beautiful to see.

Beneath the gallows’ foot abhorred
The crowds cry ‘Crucify!’ and ‘Kill!’
Higher the priests sing, ‘Praise the Lord,
The warlock dies’; and higher still

Shall heaven and earth hear one cry sent
Even from the hideous gibbet height,
‘Praise to the Lord Omnipotent,
The vultures have a feast to-night.’

– G. K. Chesterton

Reliability of the Gospels: Secular historians (with bonus Chesterton!)

A few months back I wrote a post about errors in the gospels.  I’ve been meaning to write more on the topic but I never got around to it, which is hardly surprising given how much other fun stuff I’ve had to write about.  However, the topic was brought back to my attention last week in an internet discussion.  I had  once again encountered a vociferous online atheist who claimed to have rock-solid evidence that the gospels were false.  His evidence was this: that if they were true, then secular historians would have written about Jesus as well.  So how shall we respond to this?

Firstly, there were no secular historians in the first century A.D.  There was no secularism at that time; the concept of a viewpoint independent from religion had not been invented yet.  (I’ll write more on that topic later.)  This may be a minor point but it’s important to note why ancient historians wrote what they did.  Consider Josephus, whose books Antiquities and Jewish War give us the best historical records of Palestine in the first century.  Josephus was Jewish.  He wrote with the intention of defending and promoting Jewish interests.

And what about historians other than Josephus?  There weren’t any.

This seems to surprise some people, particularly among the atheists.  They seem to have the idea that a large swarm of historians was carefully recording stuff that was happening in Palestine from 30 to 33 A.D.  (Christ’s ministry probably took place in those years.)  They are incorrect.  We have exactly two written sources from the first century for things taking place in Palestine around that time.  Those two sources are the New Testament and the works of Josephus.  There are no others.  It is possible that other historians existed, but their works have not survived.  So if the gospels are true, Josephus is the only non-biblical source that we’d expect to say anything about the life of Jesus.

And Josephus does that, of course.  Antiquities, his sweeping history of the Jews through the first century, contains a paragraph detailing the life of Jesus, as well as a short mention of Jesus’ brother James.  In the past some claimed that these passages were forgeries inserted by later Christian authors.  However, in recent years scholarly opinion has turned decidedly against this thesis.  The forgery claim has withered.  I won’t bother giving all the evidence in this debate, but will instead provide the following link for those who want to see it: Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?

So that settles the issue, right?  Well, actually not.  My atheist naysayers has further complaints.  After all, if the things the gospels said were actually true, Josephus would surely have written more than a paragraph about them.  For some reason, this fellow had a fixation on the Slaughter of the Innocents by King Herod as described in Matthew 2:16-18.  If this event had occurred, the argument goes, ” it would have been the most spectacular event in Herod’s reign”.  That Josephus wouldn’t mention it is “impossible”, “unbelievable”, and “inconceivable”.  (You keep using that word, but I don’t think…)

Actually Jospehus not covering the Slaughter of the Innocents is quite possible, believable, and conceivable.  Josephus, like other ancient historians, wrote about powerful people and major events.  He did not write about things that affected only a town of peasants.  In his mind, that was not history and wasn’t worth recording.  Moreover, slaughters were frequent in those days.  The Roman Empire ruled by violence.  They killed people, in numbers small or large, in war or in peacetime, without any hesitation.  They did not need a reason to do it; they just did it.   So there was nothing irregular about the Slaughter of the Innocents that would demand that Josephus take note of it.

To wrap up, for comic relief, I offer Chesterton’s take on the Slaughter of the Innocents:

A nice little poem

I’ve been on a rather negative spree of late, both on this blog and in real life.  I don’t think you can blame me.  The world has been on a negative spree of late.  Plunging stock markets, mass shootings in Norway, lethal heat waves, economic turmoil in Europe, ridiculous compromises on federal spending, …  In any case, I need something to cheer myself up and you probably do too.  Here’s a nice little poem that I remember from childhood.

Alphabet Stew

Words can be stuffy, as sticky as glue,
but words can be tutored to tickle you too,
to rumble and tumble and tingle and sing,
to buzz like a bumblebee, coil like a spring.

Juggle their letters and jumble their sounds,
swirl them in circles and stack them in mounds,
twist them and tease them and turn them about,
teach them to dance upside down, inside out.

Make mighty words whisper and tiny words roar
in ways no one ever had thought of before;
cook an improbably alphabet stew,
and words will reveal little secrets to you.

– Jack Prelutsky

Chesterton on the Rich taking Risks

There was a sense in which “liberal economics” were a proclamation of freedom, for the few who were rich enough to be free. Nobody thought there was anything queer about talking of prominent public men “gambling” in the Wheat Pit. But all this time, there were laws of all kinds against normal human gambling; that is, against games of chance. The poor man was prevented from gambling, precisely because he did not gamble so much as the rich man. The beadle or the policeman might stop children from playing chuck-farthing; but it was strictly because it was only a farthing that was chucked. Progress never interfered with the game of chuck-fortune, because much more than a farthing was being chucked. The enlightened and emancipated age especially encouraged those who chucked away other people’s fortunes instead of their own. But anyhow, the comparison remains continuous and clear. Progress, in the sense of the progress that has progressed since the sixteenth century, has upon every matter persecuted the Common Man; punished the gambling he enjoys and permitted the gambling he cannot follow; restrained the obscenity that might amuse him and applauded the obscenity that would certainly bore him; silenced the political quarrels that can be conducted among men and applauded the political stunts and syndicates that can only be conducted by millionaires; encouraged anybody who had anything to say against God, if it was said with a priggish and supercilious accent; but discouraged anybody who had anything to say in favour of Man, in his common relations to manhood and motherhood and the normal appetites of nature. Progress has been merely the persecution of the Common Man.

– G. K. Chesterton, The Common Man

Do the rich takes risks?

During the recent debt ceiling brouhaha, I stumbled across this post, written by a Republican arguing against even a minor tax hike for the rich.  The argument is not unique.  I’d imagine that everyone  has heard a variation on the same argument, but this one is particularly succinct, so I’ll quote it before I tear it to pieces.

The problem cannot be fixed by “taxing the rich more” because (1) there is not nearly enough money there to fix the problem, and even more importantly, (2) unless there is at least some incentive for people to financially benefit in proportion to their good ideas, there is no motivation to take the risks involved in bringing new and better products and services to market. After all, most of those attempts fail, and people who want more of what “the rich” have, are not willing to share in the failures of those who tried and failed.

Now I’m sure any reasonably adept Democrat could devise a response to this without much trouble.  For instance, they might point out that no one proposes fixing the problem solely by taxing the rich.  Obama’s ‘Grand Bargain’ offered a solution consisting of 83% spending cuts and 17% tax increases.  That’s not very much of a tax increase.  Considering that the wealthiest ten percent of Americans make $3,856,000,000,000 per year, which is more than the entire federal budget, I think they could afford to pay a small sliver of the costs.  But that’s a detail-oriented approach.  I want to take a larger and more philosophical approach by asking the question: do the rich take risks at all?

First we must define “risk”. I shall define it as “putting oneself into a situation where chance and unknown factors affect the outcome, with a possibility of suffering considerable losses.” By this definition, as I see it, the rich basically never take risks, while the poor take risks constantly and the middle class frequently.

Imagine Joe Schmoe has a net worth of ten thousand dollars. Thus he is poor. Now suppose he finds a new job, but he must spend four thousand dollars on a used car to get him to work each day. This is a high risk investment. The car may break down, the job may not work out, are in various other ways he may lose the money. If that happens, he’ll have lost much of his net worth and a great deal of purchasing power.

Now imagine that Jane Bane has a net worth of one hundred thousand dollars. She is middle class. She decides to spend forty thousand dollars going to college and earning a degree, which she hopes will let her get a better job. This is risky, since the job isn’t guaranteed. However, I would argued that it’s less risky than what Joe Schmoe did, because even if the college degree doesn’t pay off, Jane’s loss won’t cut into her ability to buy necessities as much as Joe’s would.

Now imagine that John Dewey has recently retired from his profitable career at the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe.  He has a net worth of one hundred million dollars, which makes him rich. He invests forty million dollars in a start-up company. The worst that can happen is the company going belly-up and his investment disappearing. In that case, he’ll have a net worth of sixty million dollars. With that sixty million dollars, he can still buy anything that a reasonable person could want to buy and have plenty left over. Hence he’s not really taking any risks with that investment.

So the bottom line is that it’s not the rich who take risks.  Even if a rich person invests a good-sized chunk of his savings, he’s not risking a drop in comfort or lifestyle.  A poor person is, on the other hand.  If anything, we should cut taxes on the poor so that they have more motivation to take risks.

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