Au Revoir

For anyone who regularly (or irregularly, rather, considering how uncommonly I post) reads my blog, I have moved the thing over to Wordpress, under the same title.  You can find it here.  There is also a brief summary of my reasons (for the curious among you) on the new blog's info page.

This site will remain up as an archive (unless Google takes it down).


An Awkward Fact About Life

There is this internet poster floating around on facebook right now, quoting Sandra Fluke as saying, "Nobody - politicians, bosses, or anybody else - should be able to block your access to essential care."

This sounds lovely, and as far as it goes I don't think anybody would disagree with it - except perhaps Obamacare's sponsors, what with its boards to determine "appropriate levels" of whatever - but if I learned nothing else in school I learned that you need to define terms, and one term in particular is left awfully vague here: "access".

So how does one get "access" to "essential care"?  As it turns out, "essential care" is a thing provided by other people, who have spent large sums of money and long hours of work in training to acquire knowledge that will allow them to take care of you.  Like most other people with jobs, they in return expect to be paid for their services.  What is "access" to healthcare, then?

Money.  Someone has got to pay for these things.

Now, it may be that we as a country or a society have the resources to provide "your access" if you cannot do it yourself.  This is a point worth debating.  But if it is decided that we do not have this, or should not do this, nothing is being "blocked".  Nothing is being "denied".  You did not have it to begin with.

So, let us please conduct this debate on the terms of reality.  You do not have any "right" to the services of someone else whom you cannot recompense.  (It is a more interesting question whether the ability to help another in need brings a duty to do so with it: I would argue it does, but only clearly on a personal level.  Social answers to the question are murkier.)  You cannot proclaim that I, as a teacher, am obligated to help you, who cannot afford a school, simply because of your need.  (You may by all means ask for help, and if possible I should do what I can: but this is charity, not a right of yours.)

(If we are going to provide "essential care" publicly, we should, by the way, do just that.  Public schools may be rather a mess in this country, but their purpose is at least clear.  A public hospital system, I am inclined to think, would also be rather a mess, but at least we would know what to expect.  The current mess of trying to play silly games by over-regulating and (necessarily) increasing the cost of insurance is the most absurd way possible to go about fixing whatever problem exists.)


The Problem With A Secular World

First, please go watch this YouTube video, linked by Gawker.  Read the write-up there, while you're at it.

This video clip is just over a minute long.  No substantial debate could have been conducted in that time.  No link is provided to a transcript, or a longer clip of the interview (testimony before committee, it appears).  This tells us we're being shown this material in an attempt to convey, not information, but an impression.
What impression?  Well, as Gawker goes on to explain, we still have these rubes in our government who cannot deal with and have no idea of scientific fact, while the beatific academicians try in vain to save them from themselves.

Alright, now I am summarizing and exaggerating in order to create an impression myself.  It is true, the senator is grandstanding - he is trying to lead in to the question of getting "here" from "there" - but study the clip for a minute.  Gawker sums the situation up as, "...Walsworth interrupts with another question... the teacher manages to soldier on.  Let's give this woman an award."  Remember again - impression, impression.  Where is the mention of the teacher interrupting the senator's question to begin the clip?

Suppose this clip were summarized as follows: "Walsworth never actually has a chance to phrase his entire question, as the teacher runs him over with a pat answer which avoids the main thrust of the senator's concern".  I would argue that is an equally accurate (or, to be fair, equally inaccurate) summary of what we see here.

What is that concern, anyway?  Following my hypothetical sympathetic-to-the-senator coverage, he is clearly trying to bring up the biggest problem people have with evolutionary theory: how did nothing turn into something turn into life turn into intelligence turn into consciousness?  This is at the very least a legitimate and troubling philosophical question; in the face of entropy it ought to be one posed by and to science - but to my knowledge the best answer, apart from the barefaced, "Well it had to have happened like this," is the hypothesis that all of existence as we know it is a mere eddy of random chance which happens to have produced us.  This is unsettling at least, but it is also what any naturalistic theory of abiogenesis and macroevolution comes down to in the end, since any Purpose is denied.  This is the question the senator is trying to ask, and he is eventually hectored into asking - as the canned speech rolls on (remember we're being sympathetic here) - whether this experimental e. coli evolved into a human.

Which is met, of course, with the blank "what".  The question, everyone knows, is manifestly absurd.  Everyone knows that it takes time and mutations and infinitesimal steps and stuff.  Now, there was an idea that floated around for a while arguing that added time does not make the improbable more probable.  This is true in one particular case - the impossible - and, speaking strictly of probability, is always true.  But time - which, speaking mathematically, can be considered repeated experiments - makes the improbable more likely to happen eventually.  You would expect, rolling a die 100 times, to turn up more sixes than if you only rolled it 10 times.  So if this evolution - recognizing that science uses several terms here, I am still going to stick with the popular usage - is merely improbable, then added time is an entirely reasonable way to account for Things Happening.

But there is another way the question is absurd: the researchers would be extremely surprised if these mutating e. coli ever turned into something that was not a bacterium.  This is a step that is essentially necessary to demonstrate the possibility of the Theory of Evolution so confidently taught - and a step which is, to my knowledge, still conspicuously missing.  Small-scale evolution, noted originally by Darwin, has been observed and confirmed, even the development of new "species" of the same kind of animal - normal mice become six kinds of mice - but beyond that?  It is not so clear.  Of course, under the current theories, truly unique changes would be the result of multiple mutations building up on a long time-scale, so it is early to rule out the theory as an explanation of origins (especially considering the apparently correlating evidence of the fossil record, not that that is without questions either); but it is also extremely premature to have established this theory as accepted scientific gospel, the way the Gawker piece - and a vast number of other people and texts - treat it.

Even if the science were on more solid ground than it actually is, the philosophical question would remain: "So we did not need god - if he exists - to get here.  Now what?  So what?"  Look at what we see as the result of the secular worldview.  The same texts which confidently preach an evolutionary origin which, due to time constraints, cannot possibly have been confirmed yet by observation, are commonly fond of declaring the backwardness of Medieval society, the tyranny of the Puritans, and the prudishness of the Victorians, and tend to blame these things on superstition, which an intelligent reader quickly comes to realize is a polite term for religion.  Well, the Christian church has had its faults, and must bear blame in our accounting for the excesses of the Inquisition and the Crusades and the like.  But if this is the case, then secularism must carry its burdens, too: the tyrannies of socialist and communist states in the 20th century, the massacres perpetrated by their dictators, the eugenic experiments carried out by over-enthusiastic scientists - and here lies the final problem.

To sum up the problem neatly, in the secular world chivalry dies and there is nothing to replace it.  I am of course using the term chivalry loosely here.  It would be more accurate in some ways to speak of natural law, but I am looking at effects - results, actuality - and so the general code of manners of Christendom will do service.  Any society will have its unique manners, but in these supposed darker ages, there was the understanding - and this is true whether we appeal to Confucius or the Thomists - that proper manners, customs, and justice come from a correct understanding of the nature of things (to steal a phrase, perhaps inappropriately, from the atheist Lucretius).  The materialist may attempt the same thing, but comes up short on the question of authority.  A nebulous principle - Google's "Don't be evil", perhaps - comes in as a stopgap measure for society in the short term, but good and evil themselves become subject to the whims of - well, of whoever.  The more enlightened may attempt to deduce such rules of behavior from science - an acquaintance of mine champions one such endeavor and Heinlein's Starship Troopers imagines a society built on such a structure - but all these attempts have a common problem: "What if I don't want to?"  What if I can swindle my way to millions and get away with it?  What if I can drink and sex myself into a cheerful haze?  The "advice" once given, "Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse" comes to mind, but it is useful, if that is the word we want, only to the individual.

Nothing is left to the secularist as a system of control except for the strong arm of society, against which there is no appeal but a stronger arm.  It should not be a surprise that the tendency of a secular age has been to tyranny by despots or by bureaucracy.  The only answer left for the majority of people who want (for whatever now mysterious reason) to get on with an ordered life, is, "Behave, or we will make you."

(This is not to deny the possibility of religious tyranny.  "Do this because god says you should (and I have an army)" is equally as persuasive as, "Do this because I say so (and I have an army)".  But there is this difference: the religious tyrant can never establish himself as an ultimate authority.  If one interprets the Imperial Papacies of the late Renaissance as such tyrannies, we see resistance dressed as Reformation, as, "But god actually says...", where a secular revolution could be driven by nothing other than, "But I would prefer..."  Yes, this is oversimplification as well.  The worst of the Popes had their opponents within and without church councils, and were resisted by civil authorities in their overreaches.  The Roman church itself generated a movement of reform which, due to the vagaries of history, got itself dubbed the Counter-Reformation.  But if anything, this only strengthens my point.  Compare the "reforms" of Communist China, and you see a program carried out by officials determined to remain in charge, and embracing merely what seems to be a more useful form of godlessness.)

And as to the morals of this secular society?  We are seeing a breakdown of traditional morality being celebrated as "tolerance" - and that breakdown pushed beyond the bounds of logic.  A homosexual relationship - which to be fair, is a thing allowed by many past civilizations (although the Athenians and Spartans, both practitioners, apparently amused themselves by calling each other gay) - is supposedly the same as a fruitful marriage, despite the obvious differences between a person who can carry a child and one who cannot.  A person of male sex who thinks he is a woman is allowed - encouraged, sometimes - to call himself one, rather than being considered insane, which is what the facts of the case would suggest.  A supposedly tolerant society, protesting careful regard to human life and the rights of baby seals (or whatever fad is current), is perfectly happy to be cavalier with the lives of the most vulnerable of humanity, the unborn.  Some few are willing to admit that they take life, and while couched in terms of relative value, the fact that that "value" is being determined by the more powerful individual in the case is impossible to avoid.

Let us suppose that the repression of past religious cultures was as bad as advertised.  What can you show me that indicates our new bureaucratic overlords have, in their wisdom, given us anything better?  If the materialist proposal had been shown to be true beyond a doubt, it is not even clear why we should accept the results - in the name of a truth which has no final relevance?  But when the position does not in fact have such a sure foundation, why should we be in such a haste to embrace the annihilation of concrete good and morals?


What Price Freedom?

Yes, this post is going to be about guns.

Let me start by stating three obvious things:

First, if the gun had never been invented there would be no mass shootings using guns.  Similarly, if guns were effectively removed from a society completely, the same would result.

Second, guns are not the only weapon which have been used in mass attacks - other weapons have ranged from fertilizer-based "IED"s to planes.

Third, if a civilian - say, one of the teachers who died in this most recent shooting - had been armed, trained, and firing back, the casualties would have been far lower: resistance would at least have slowed to gunman.

The Facts (As Best as I Can Tell)

It is sometimes supposed that, since modern weapons are so much more effective than 18th century weapons, different principles must apply.  Here is an example of the question, posed in large friendly letters (but unfortunately without saying, "Don't Panic").  In fact that comparison gives about the highest possible potential for a musket, which - due to size and muzzle reload - would not actually have been at all a practical short-range weapon.  It would be more accurate to compare the potential of a semi- or full-automatic weapon with the damage of a saber or bayonet, which would make the contrast even more stark.

In countries which have followed this logic, it is certainly the case that mass attacks with firearms are much rarer.  Not unknown, as events in Norway last year showed, but relatively rare.  And attacks made with other weapons do less damage - as argued by a CNN piece here.

On the other hand, the numbers of guns in a country does not demonstrate any particularly strong correlation to overall murder rates.  If we can trust wikipedia more or less here, we find that the highest homicide rates belong to countries with underdeveloped economies and infrastructure.  Although the page on number of guns is probably less accurate, these countries with high murder rates are fairly low on the list of gun possession - which seems to be more strictly a count of all guns, but this does not really affect the point.  This lack of correlation is summarized by the Guardian here.

That point is this: while modern weapons make the potential for catastrophic crime much higher, they have little effect on people's willingness or ability to kill each other.

The Alternatives

There are two reasonable solutions proposed.  The first is that more people should probably go armed; the second is that as much as possible no one should be armed.  Either one, if carried out extensively, would probably have some good effects.  The first principle, deterrence, seems intellectually unpopular today, but its common sense is, I think, obvious: the armed woman is in less danger - being herself more dangerous - than the unarmed man.  The second, although it has seen success in countries with strong centralized governments and populations willing to accept regulations, is not really in line with traditional American thinking on weapons.  Further, gun control may not be the only issue in play: various outlets have recently highlighted problems with American attitudes and methods for dealing with mental issues present in many shooters.  All of this is seen argued, for example, here.

The American Legal Situation

The American nation, founded as it was as a direct result of revolt against previous government, was naturally more concerned with maintaining independence and its citizens' rights than with potential problems that might arise with higher technology - and also belonged thoroughly to the school of deterrence.  It is worth noting two things about the American Revolution's armies.  First, the revolutionists immediately went and found all the cannon they could, in order to face the British troops on equal footing.  Second, the guerrilla tactics used in the southern and western arenas were possible due to better marksmanship - and sometimes, with early rifles, better weapons - than the official army.

This experience and concern naturally led to the inclusion, very quickly, of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.  True, its reasoning is somewhat oddly phrased, not to say ambiguous (does the "Security of a free State" refer to foreign aggression, tyrannical government, or both?); the early modern reliance on militia seems strange to most of us in Western culture - but it should be noted that this is after 150 years of one war or another has made the part-time soldier seem obsolete.  Not exactly a ringing commendation of our cultures.  But its requirement that, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," is clear.  Together with the Fourteenth Amendment, which places similar restrictions on individual state governments as the Constitution and its first amendments placed on the Federal government, there is virtually no way an American governmental body above the county level can legally restrict any weapons.

This is to say, unless the law is changed - in this case, an amendment would be legally required, though I belong to that class of people who suspect this requirement will be ignored - the recourse in the United States has to be to deterrence; disarmament is not a feasible option when others can freely find weapons.

Future Possibilities

The question remains whether gun control is in fact an effective solution.  I find myself sympathetic to the argument; and in fact I have never felt any need to carry weapons myself.  On the other hand, it has the difficulty of the universal negative - it is hard to "prove", that is, enforce - and it still leaves the question of the citizens' relationship to government.  I will honestly admit that I see governments, in the US and across the world, growing and regulating and intruding, and I believe eventually this will provoke revolt.  In that case, I would like to have the recourse to defend myself - from one side or the other or both.  And in the meantime -

Well, Japan and Switzerland have comparably low rates of violent crimes.  What I believe this really points at is the necessity of a cohesive society; the US is currently looking at unintegrated "multiculturalism".  (Yes, I am suggesting that the crime rate would probably fall if English was the official language of schools and the Constitution was taught as the next best thing to a secular gospel.)  I also suspect the necessity of strong local - that is, available - government.  The modern trend is towards top-heavy micromanagement, when what I would really like is for city hall to be on top of things.


A Psalm for Thanksgiving

On the day established in the United States for giving thanks - to God, for His marvelous providences, and by reasonable extension, to all those we depend on - here are a few of the things I have to be thankful for:

  • A loving, peaceful family (even if we are scattered across the country): parents who raised me well, siblings who care, and an extended family that has stayed fairly close.
  • A good job with useful work to do; good coworkers and (mostly) well-behaved and studious pupils.
  • A place to live in comfort and security.
  • Good friends: I may not be as demonstrative as some, but I do appreciate the companionship.
  • A government still, despite its faults, dedicated to the ideas of peace and promoting prosperity.  I know I sound like the grinch here sometimes, but I am truly thankful that we live largely free from fear.
  • A loving, welcoming church family: they even let me sing in the choir, and Pastor Holliday knows everybody's name.  I have no idea how he does it.

On that note, I also want to share one of my favorite psalms, the one hundred thirty-sixth:

O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good: for His mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks unto the God of gods: for His mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him who alone doeth great wonders: for His mercy endureth for ever.
To Him that by wisdom made the heavens: for His mercy endureth for ever.
To Him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him that made great lights: for His mercy endureth for ever:
The sun to rule by day: for His mercy endureth forever.
The moon and stars to rule by night: for His mercy endureth forever.

To Him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And brought out Israel from among them: for His mercy endureth for ever:
With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him which divided the Red Sea into parts: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for His mercy endureth for ever:
But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea: for His mercy endureth for ever.

To Him which led His people through the wilderness: for His mercy endureth for ever.
 To Him which smote great kings: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And slew famous kings: for His mercy endureth for ever:
Sihon king of the Amorites: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And Og the king of Bashan: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And gave their land for an heritage: for His mercy endureth for ever:
Even an heritage unto Israel His servant: for His mercy endureth for ever.

Who remembered us in our low estate: for His mercy endureth for ever:
And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for His mercy endureth for ever.
Who giveth food to all flesh: for His mercy endureth forever.

O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for His mercy endureth for ever.


The Modern Pharisees?

I have been contemplating recently one of the odder passages in Christ's teachings.  In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, we find Him discoursing on the state of Israel's ecclesiastical leadership.  I excerpt the following:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men...

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren... But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in."

Then follows a list of the Pharisees' misdeeds and errors: abusing the poor, misinterpreting the essence of the law, and coming up with creative legalisms which miss the point entirely.

As a Protestant, it has always been easy to look at this passage - and similar ones in the apostolic epistles - and find an analogy to the practices of the Roman Catholic church.  To take a few of the more obvious: what else is penance - especially once established as a sacrament - but a "heavy burden grievous to be borne"?  Now, the instructed Catholic will look on and defend it as a discipline leading to virtue, but the practice has no Biblical warrant, neither does salvation depend on it, but on Christ: where is the use to be found?

Or take again the Roman practice of forbidding priests to marry.  While justified with the pious-sounding "be more like Christ", it flies in the face of Christ's choices and the apostolic teaching.  Christ, it should be noted, for the head of his church on earth (if we accept the papal claim for the apostle Peter), chose a married man.  The apostle Paul, giving instructions to his under-ministers Timothy and Titus, told them to find men as elders and deacons who were married and - to give the lie to later ideas of "celibate marriage" - had children.  Well-behaved children, of course.  The position of Paul, himself unmarried, has to be seen as the anomaly: he recognizes it, and defends his own right to marry should he want to to the Corinthians: "Have we [Paul and Barnabas] not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?"  He goes on, true, to imply this is something he has given up for the profit of his ministry, but we must recognize Paul's place in the early church as the great traveling missionary, and one often in jail: Paul's private considerations should not affect church policy on the whole, and especially are much different from those of the pastor of an individual church.

These are the two most blatant problems: there are of course also the invented "days of obligation", the whole problem of images, and more.  But I point these out to make the point that the issues exist.  All of this criticism is relatively straightforward: Christ - Himself or through His inspired ministers - says to do this, and you don't.

In contrast, doctrinal problems are more difficult to chase down.  Paul says that we are justified by faith.  James says a man who trusts in faith but does not do good works is fooling himself.  If both were inspired - as all churches agree - how can this be reconciled?  The Protestant churches tend to teach Paul, with James as a footnote: this matches the content provided, in amounts if not in exactness.  The point here is that I have become less and less comfortable arguing specific doctrines, the more so as I have become aware of my own lack of knowledge.

None of this criticism, or refraining from criticism, though, addresses the way Christ begins this section - which is to instruct his disciples to obey the very Pharisees he then criticizes for the rest of the chapter.  Let me say that again: Christ instructed his disciples to obey the corrupt leaders of Israel, because they were the leaders of Israel, the ones who "sit in Moses' seat".  The apostles also instruct us to obey those in authority over us.

So the question is, how does this apply to us today?  Does - to take the possibility I find most disturbing - the Roman Catholic church really have Peter's seat", as they claim, regardless of corruption, scandal, and false teachings?  Or, to look at a more general view, if you go looking for authority how are you supposed to tell the "authentic church" from those with clear trails to the early church: the Orthodox, Roman, or Coptic?

I do not see any perfect church.  I do not even see any church with a perfect system of doctrine and practice which would be amazing if only fallen humans were not human.  I see a number of churches running around making various errors - the Reformed churches I attend, for instance, have concocted Presbyterianism somewhere, I am not sure how - with no clear best option.  I have reached the point where, if I had been raised Orthodox, say, or Anglican, I do not know how I would justify leaving that communion; but then the same argument applies to my own, which is part of the reason I stay.

But remaining wrong does not seem like a good option, either, if it is possible to be more correct.  An odd problem.


And Picking Up Speed

My favorite piece of political writing is a poem by Kipling, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings".  I do not know his motivation for writing it, but I can hardly imagine it was not intended as political, or at least societal, commentary.  I normally post the entire thing before elections, though I did not this year.  You can go read the whole thing, but I will excerpt the ending stanzas:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
 As President Obama has won re-election - I do not know if votes have been fully counted, but Governor Romney has conceded the election, and I assume he knows the writing on the wall better than I do - the immediate question is, "So what now?"

I had thought Romney would likely win the presidential race; I under-estimated - this is based on exit polling - how determinedly liberal the majority of young voters appear to be.  Some of this is probably the climate I mostly live in: the majority of my friends are conservative; the majority of my co-workers are not, but that is a much smaller group; DC is of course staunchly political and, believing in government, tends very liberal, but that makes predicting overall trends difficult.  All of this is without taking into account the habits of those who vote by party, with no regard to issues - a trend which historically seems to have favored the Democrats, for reasons beyond my knowledge.

Still, there were some indications that this would happen, even in my experience.  A sampling: several liberal friends thought - or just assumed - that the Democratic candidates won all the debates, even while most news sources thought they favored Republicans.  Political bases like to have their ears tickled, and the President's party apparently succeeded.  A casual acquaintance argued, with a straight face, that because a "great president" like FDR could not resolve a depression quickly, we should not expect President Obama to have done much either.  This is what bad history gets you.  (Is there a good biography of Calvin Coolidge?  It should be required reading for all high school students.)  And finally, the most emotional issue - that of sex and avoiding its real results - obviously was much more motivating to the liberal side.

It is this last that concerns me most.  By any reasonable standard, we are a libertine society and becoming more so; and the President's policies encourage this beyond reason.  Not only do the shapers of thought think we are supposed to accept abortion, and embrace the "diversity" of immoral lifestyles - notably homosexual and so-called "transgender", but the people in those categories are a tiny minority compared to those doing what used to be called "living in sin" - but now we are supposed to pay for the contraception and abortion which these people use to avoid the responsibilities their lifestyle ought to bring them.  And religious groups which object - remembering that this country was founded in a series of attempts to preserve religious liberty makes this more of a travesty - get the tiniest of protections from such governmentally-imposed thuggery, and private believers get none at all.  This has been said repeatedly and loudly, and the majority of the media - who ought to be hounding such abuse - have ignored it.

That is the most disturbing long-term trend.  But as a moral issue, some will argue it should be kept out of politics.  I defy anyone to manage to run a government with no moral ramifications, but for the sake of argument I will move on to the next biggest problem, the one that originally motivated my interest in politics: our national finances.  They are a mess.  We spend more than we have, borrow more than we can afford, and when it is suggested that we maybe stop with the money-wasting, we just re-elected a president whose party thinks the bright idea is to "tax the rich" more.  Never mind that "the rich" already pay most of the taxes, and by percentages more than their share; never mind that taking the money from the haves will only result in a society where - as the USSR found - there "are no rich no more" (except the political elite managing the extortions).  We like austerity and responsibility no more than the European states that are already foundering having followed the same path we pursue.  And for the future?  The government's bailout/buyout of GM has produced a stagnant (at best) company.  The investment in "clean energy" that the President's party pursued has resulted in a series of failed companies, while proved methods of energy production - and the prosperity they might bring - are rejected: and all this in a recession, where the short-term problems are the most pressing.

All this demonstrates is that we have rejected responsibility and freedom.  The trade-off, apparently, is supposed to be security.  A "security blanket" for the less fortunate.  The powers that be sell us on domestic libertinism by assuring us that at least our defense spending will be fine.  We have mostly forgotten what the wise men of old said - which one exactly said it first is not clear - that the nation which trades liberty for security will have neither.  What the conservatives have been shouting - not nearly loudly enough, apparently, nor from high enough rooftops - is that the whimsically-justified government may start by "helping" the unfortunate and sponsoring "noble" causes, but it depends on the views of the elite - and if those change, well, all the infrastructure is in place to produce fascism and tyranny.  A government equipped to play bodyguard is equally well equipped to play prison guard - let's call it house arrest

This is why, among other things, I - despite being conservative - was not particularly bothered by that stupid HHS pamphlet advertising right-wing groups as security threats.  They are "security threats" to a modern nanny-state.  They are armed - as allowed for in our very Constitution, among other reasons, to be a threat to would-be tin gods - and it is anybody's guess how long it will be until continued usurpations by the Federal government drive them to action.  I put it at 30 years, give or take.  The question is, though, are they truly threats, or patriots?  It will be impossible to tell until it happens, and maybe after.  Our Civil War, the one we already had, was a mess of arguments; I tend to think the Union was less wrong, but I am not comfortable in passing judgment categorically.  King George's government no doubt warned him - or the relevant ministers - that the hotheads in Massachusetts and Virginia were a threat to the peace of his dominion.  History by now has largely agreed that it is those hotheads who were - with qualifications - in the right.  But of course, it is easier to accept that a successful rebellion long since over was justified than it is to look forward to a (probably badly provoked) revolt and find the situation appealing.

That is a long-term prediction: that we are bound for another civil war, this one provoked by the impossibility of surviving in the real world as a "liberated" society, and the resentment that that will generate.  (And to be honest, my evaluation would be the same - though this piece might not have been provoked exactly - should Romney have won: he seems to me a manager, not a reformer.  I might up my projection to 40 years - or he might have been better than I imagine.)  In the short-term, the question is what to do about the next election.  After 2008, I was of the opinion that the Republican party is doomed.  They had reduced themselves to a series of candidates parroting Democratic and liberal lines, with just enough defense, America, and God panacea thrown in to placate the base.  After the last two elections, I am not so sure.  The Republican's energized base has become (or returned to) those holding right-wing, small-government, social conservative views - the (oddly villified) Tea Party.  On the other hand, the political future may well belong to the libertarian conservatives; in which case, the Republican party will continue to lose votes in upcoming years, until a shift takes place - suddenly.

I do not know if the two-party system can be truly broken.  It has been a feature of American politics since the beginning of the country.  I am not even sure it is a bad thing - like democracy, it might be one of those things that is worse than any system except all the others.  What I would like to see, though - two parties or twenty - would be a de-emphasis on party.  The most likely way to break the two-party stranglehold?  Take party names off ballots.  Get the state governments out of party politics.  If you want primary electiona, take all the candidates, put them on a ballot, and take the top five as the candidates for the general election.  (This is an off-the-cuff suggestion.)  As it is, the two major parties are invested and intertwined in the system in a way that prevents significant change, or at least makes it more difficult.

Regardless of the system, important things can be done, whether you agree with my evaluation or dislike it.  Pay attention to local politics.  Go to school board and city hall meetings.  I admit, to my embarrassment, that I did not do significant research on the city elections for Alexandria - something I can change and improve next time.  Run for office.  Ask candidates questions.  And, yes, pray.  Truth be told, the re-election of President Obama does not really worry me - I worry not that much anyway, but by faith I know God reigns, and if the Apostle Paul could tell his congregations to pray for the Emperor Nero, and Christ could tell his disciples to pay their Roman occupiers' taxes, I can survive and even rejoice under a less-than-ideal government.


Another One of My Periodic Discourses on Mathematics

I was linked today to this article by a Dr. Frank Quinn employed by Virginia Polytechnic University.  Dr. Quinn outlines a philosophical split among mathematicians about a century ago and discusses its outcomes.  He then writes briefly on how the advances made might be introduced into mathematics education with profit.

Dr. Quinn's major contention is that mathematics, understood in a modern sense, is entirely rule-based, with no demand that the rules match any physical results exactly.  When applied educationally - as it commonly is in Geometry - this results in a system which while difficult to learn leaves room for entirely logical conclusions and is therefore in a sense "easy to master" if unlikely to ever be anything remotely close to fully explored.

The primary drawback to such an understanding is of course easy to spot: if it does not actually describe anything, what is the use of mathematics anyway?  It becomes little more than a convoluted and peculiarly abstract art form, at least to the common understanding.  I happen to be attracted to logical puzzles and purity of logic, but in teaching I have been made aware - sometimes more forcefully than others - that many students have no real interest in such things, and more importantly little use for them.

Now Dr. Quinn makes the fair observation that elementary education is still dominated by an earlier view of mathematics, using the teaching of fractions as an example.  That being noted, though, I want to say that there remain at least two possibilities I can come up with:

First, he might be right.  Perhaps at least one part of the reason for, say, falling educational results is that early education goes blithely on with outdated methods while the higher mathematics - starting in, say, high school, where the teachers teaching algebra and calculus have probably at least studied mathematics - is relying on the new framework.  In which case, it would clearly be beneficial to unify the system and use the new and improved math throughout.

On the other hand, the older methods may persist (outside academia) because they are superior in a general sense.  Mathematical proof may frown on analogy, but experience does not.  In a related field, the fact is that elementary science remains mostly Newtonian even though it will yield errors of fact to varying degrees.  Why?  Accounting for relative or quantum effects is simply too difficult.  When we are attempting to train nuclear physicists, then by all means we try get the science correct.  But even an engineer rarely has to worry about such complications, far less a plumber or an accountant.  Similarly, professional (which is at least largely to say, academic) mathematics is certainly very useful as its own thing, but it is hardly a field which everyone needs to be prepared for.  If it turns out that Johnny and his friends can be taught to balance a checkbook more easily by considering half of an apple than by learning about the properties of the ratio of the integers 1 and 2, so much the worse for the integers.

In fact, I suspect - both because I am a cynical person, and from experience - that the old methods have been partly discarded while the new ones have not been fully adopted; or perhaps worse, both methods are attempted simultaneously and the result is confusion.  Let me take a concrete example.

Is a half, after all, a part of a thing, or an arithmetically constructed ratio of two integers whose idea is (almost) entirely man-made?  Even the latter definition is hardly rigorous and results, for instance, in mass confusion when fractional exponents - also known as roots - are introduced.  It now becomes apparent that for these "higher" relations, it would be best if we could have gone back and made sure that the part stressed in the introduction to fractions was their reciprocal relationships - which is not even ratio, per se, but an application of ratio and multiplication.  Meanwhile, three students divide two candy bars equally, and the complete abstraction is suddenly of limited value.  "Three parts of a candy bar" is a simple idea.  "A part of a candy bar which if you could have three candy bars each split into similar parts would make a whole candy bar" is a bit unwieldy, and attempting to ignore the actual candy in order to keep the definition manageable and the numbers pure is not helpful either.

Now, I confess I was not particularly aware there had been any radical changes in the understanding of what mathematics is and how it should be conducted before reading this article.  I would have said that there has been a gradually progressing tightening of definitions, standards, and proofs over the centuries, and certainly "modern" - twentieth century - mathematics is more enamored of these closed system, definitionally-based, completely logical approaches than most, while also yielding some impressive constructions, many of which have even proved useful.

So, maybe for that reason, I fail to see how this "crisis" is to be resolved, or even that it is much of a crisis.  I suspect the problem is not that Johnny and Susan cannot define fractions in a "mathematically correct" fashion, but that they are in ninth or tenth grade and cannot add them because a calculator does their thinking for them, or possibly for worse reasons.

In short I am hesitant about prescribing "modern mathematics" as a solution, for the very reason Dr. Quinn finds it so appealing: its lack of connection to the actual world.  If we are going to set up "science" and "core mathematics" as rivals, I am more inclined to the scientific approach in anything serious.  But even more importantly, Dr. Quinn's worries strike me as those of someone who would complain that each and every driver is not able to design an engine: of course it would be fantastic if it could be managed, but it is also a truly impossible request.


Bankers are All the Same

No one, to my knowledge, has remarked that the modern rhetoric about "capitalists" and "one-percenters" and "monopolists" and "big money" is remarkably similar to Medieval denunciations of the Jews - and for the same reason: people with the money inspire resentment, justified or unjustified.

Of course, I will not just leave that statement hanging there.  There are qualifications that must be made.  "Capitalists" are not widely regarded as guilty by association in the death of Christ.  (The death of Iraqi civilians, on the other hand...)  "Big money" is not disliked on racial grounds, mainly (though there are the wild ranters out there).

I suppose it is an improvement that we are lining up targets by class rather that race.  No one can change their genes, but class distinctions admit change and improvement with hard work.  On the other hand, many of the tomato-throwers would hastily mutter about "not fair" and "born to wealth", and propound theories about how the wealthy are lucky - so if they are right, there has actual not been any moral improvement in whom we choose to abuse.

It is certainly good that Wall Street bankers are not subject to exile by whim or having their gold teeth pulled, but the tax rates levied for daring to be wealthy are just as high now as then.  (Okay - probably not actually as high (though I do not have the knowledge to confirm this), but proportionally to the rest of the population, I'm sure they are comparable.)

You can draw from this comparison two possible morals.  On the first hand, you can say, "Huh", and possibly feel at least a little sympathy for the Medieval town's crowd of Jew-abusers.  Or if not sympathy, at least understand them better.  On the other hand, you can do your best to make sure the modern debate - and this is the far more important part - stays civil and lawful.  "Occupy Wall Street", however unsuccessful, made about as much sense as "Burn out the infidel bankers!" even if it was after all a bit less destructive (except, you know, in Oakland, where they managed to shut down the port briefly).


"Practical Math"

Unlike many members of the educational commentariat, Andrew Hacker, writing the the New York Times yesterday, is more concerned with finding a solution to mathematical under-performance than wringing his hands about the problem.  In my book, this automatically makes him about five times more worth listening to than your ordinary educrat.  Dr. Hacker suggests that the formal math standard in American schools is largely not useful either to most workers or to the man as citizen.  He proposes that math courses should instead of the discipline of formal mathematics focus on logical and quantitative reasoning and application.

While he has a point - "useful" mathematical knowledge is far from as common as it should be - I think he misunderstands the real problem.  He begins by citing the number of students failing and doing poorly across the United States in these traditional classes.  He observes that most teachers are dedicated and competent.  He concludes that the problem must therefore be the material.  "Algebra is a stumbling block..."

As a teacher myself, I believe Hacker has conflated two problems.  Many students, I think, find algebra difficult because they have not mastered arithmetic.  I inherit seventh graders, half of whom do not know how many feet in a yard, and the other half are too unsure to volunteer the answer.  Tenth grade students new to me have forgotten or never learned their perfect squares.  Students at all levels are incapable of or unwilling to do unit conversions.

Algebra I would define loosely as the art of manipulating and finding the values of unknown numbers.  Two critical ideas in carrying out algebraic operations (by which I mean mathematical manipulation performed on expressions - "clauses", if you will - with variables), can be taught simply and directly from basic arithmetic techniques.

The first is the concept of the variable itself.  A student familiar with measurements and conversions can be introduced to the idea easily: he is used to answering questions like, "How many meters are in 2400 millimeters?"  Arithmetically, we set the problem up in stages: find the starting amount, and then from the final units set up the conversion factors - which should be memorized by 4th or 5th grade but in any case are easy to look up.  Algebraically, we introduce the idea of equivalence, and mathematical symbols as a language.  The student already knows that, for instance, meters in "math" are m.  Now he learns that "question words" are represented by a symbol: a box, a question mark, or an x.  He learns that "are" and "equals" are (in basic algebra) equivalent.  So we reach the algebraic statement "x m = 2400 mm".  The conversion factor still needs to be reintroduced in its algebraic place, of course, and enough practice done to learn the methods.

The second technique which is an easy extrapolation from basic arithmetic is that of variable operations.  Polynomials, which are (simple version) expressions with multiple variable powers, can be added, subtracted, and multiplied (and therefore exponentiated) almost exactly like ordinary numbers, but with the different powers indicating "place value".  (Division, while also analogous, is slightly different and therefore harder.)  So a student who knows why his arithmetic works the way it does, who has been taught the decimal system, will recognize "place value" and make the connection in most cases without significant difficulty.

In short, I believe the root cause of high school failure is far more likely to be inadequate elementary education than difficulty with the material.

While I think Hacker's reasoning as to cause is flawed, his main concern - is this worth teaching anyway? - is a question worth asking.  I think the answer is still "yes", but with caveats.  I have blogged before about the state of mathematics textbooks in the modern United States: torn between traditional American mathematics and the "unified" approach of much of the rest of the world, having to teach or re-teach concepts not taught successfully before high school, fascinated with fiddly properties at the expense of overview, and so forth.

Algebra or Geometry as disciplines, though, are branches of a formal mathematics which exists - as people realized thousands of years ago - not only for practical purposes but as a training tool for the mind and as an art.  Algebra is valuable for much the same reason that a foreign language is useful, or music, or memory: to cultivate the human spirit in all its facilities.  Certainly most people will not use hyperbolic equations or non-Euclidean axioms in their day-to-day life, any more than most people will use French or German.  Certainly you can enjoy the original Hugo novels - you can also dabble in Newton.

The practical mathematics which Dr. Hacker champions is of course still valuable.  It is found in applied form in physics, chemistry, economics - all things which we say should be normally studied as useful.  But its basic tools can and should be provided before high school.