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.


Identity and the State

President Obama made headlines recently for a speech in which he emphasized the societal foundation of any person's success.  Unfortunately for him, though I believe revealingly, he fell victim to the soundbite era: "If you’ve got a business - you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen."

"And Mr. President, if you become the president, who made that happen?"  This would be a weak question: I believe that Mr. Obama's strongly stated beliefs originate in his own experience, that of accepting and working in the machine.  I suspect his irritation - at "guns and religion", at those challenging ACORN and other interest groups, at the steadfast unwillingness of the American people to give in to his vision - is honest, that it is the bafflement of one who has accepted a view of the world and found it not held as widely as he expected.

On a superficial level, the President's viewpoint is attractive and reasonable.  It contains some idea of a community, working together, holding to a common good; it presents some echo of the polis which, idealized by Plato and Aristotle and Cicero (if in different ways), resounds through the centuries of Western history and still informs the world today.

But Mr. Obama's view has a weak point: a crisis of mis-identification, or at the very least a crucial identification which he has failed to convince the United States' people is either crucial or a true identity - and perhaps more damningly, he has failed to understand that the point is still under debate.

For Mr. Obama, as for much of the academic, legal, and political elite he has grown to belong to,  the people, and specifically the will of the people, is identified with the government instituted by the people.  He does not follow the earlier understanding, where the government was the representative of the people; or even the older idea that the government stands above the people (by breeding or divine will - or both) and is therefore responsible for them.  A representative who represents poorly can be changed.  A father, judge, or a commander, held up as such by the thinnest string of theory or tradition, can be called to account and shamed - or deposed.

Instead in this modern conception, the government cannot be held in check by theories.  A government defined as "the people's will" simply by the fact of its existing as the government has nothing that can be called up against it except natural or divine law, and those having been busily undermined in the name of "reason" and "tolerance" and "relative morality" because everything originates with the people's will - which is, as we already found, simply the government.

I believe President Obama is confused by backlash against his policies.  As the chief executive, he appears is the supreme embodiment of the popular will which is to be enshrined, and he has been busily enacting all the policies he knows are best.  The fact that law and tradition stand in his way is not to be considered an obstacle, in his view: laws change.  In the President's view, I suspect reality changes.  He does not understand, does not know what to do with, a people who believe in lasting truths, in an actual rule of law because it is the law, in not a good or good policy or today's best option but in the Good.

Yet this philosophical confusion is not really the most damning indictment of his speech and his policies.  After all, if he is right - that is to say, if my speculations about Mr. Obama's worldview are correct, and that worldview is itself factual - then he is doing the right thing, and is merely a poor politician, or at least a tactless one.

The worst problem with his attempted solutions is that even on his own terms, it ends up either backwards or tyrannical.  If we take the more positive view, we stop to ask him who these people were that helped.  Certainly, a state of peace is maintained by the government, the servants of the people: the soldiers, police, road crews, and so forth.  But these are for maintenance only.  The next question leads us to the practical problem faced by these bureaucratic-faced dreamers: who takes us beyond subsistence, and who pays the ones who help us to subsist.  The awkward fact that President Obama has yet to acknowledge is that it is the successful men - the Mr. Romneys and Mr. Gateses and, yes, Mr. Obamas of the world - who help the rest of us: by paying outsize shares of taxes, by hiring and training workers, by providing necessities and comforts and then even luxuries.

This puts us in their debt: it is not right to go demanding that "the rich" pay "their fair share" when they already pay, relatively speaking, that and more; when they not only provide those moneys to the government but in the private sectors hire and pay us who are not so wealthy - and to return to the public arena they largely, for good or ill, provide our government from their number.  It may happen, in this day or in a time of war or or stress, that we need not only a normal contribution from these men but an unusual one: but justice demands that, even if we ask it, we ask it - however formally and with whatever force of law behind it - recognizing that we take from them for a common good or need, and not as if demanding a debt owed to us personally.

This is the charitable view: that President Obama, used to seeing so much given out regularly, has forgotten it is given, and sees it only as taken and that by right.

The uncharitable view - which I hesitate to ascribe to him, but you will see argued by others, I have no doubt - is one that reduces to serfdom any private person who is not himself an agent of the government.  More than mere forgetfulness, or blowing on some wind of the age, this would assert that the government has the right and duty to demand whatever is "necessary" - and has forgotten the older theories of reciprocal duties, so that now all is owed to the government, and the government's dole is charity.  And here we find the sinister descendant of what I mentioned above as Mr. Obama's probable political philosophy: we observe that the government has become the State, and the Will of the People, and the actual people reduced to so many resources to be commanded to produce.  No doubt Mr. Obama considers his a benevolent guidance, but he gives no indication that he sees any right of anyone to disagree with that guidance.


Statue Stupidity

Evidence presented during the trial and conviction for child abuse of Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator of the Penn State football team, all-but proved - as had been suspected already from new reports - that there was substantial cover-up of Sandusky's crimes by university officials and staff, probably implicating the late coach Paterno among others.

Some hooligans are suggesting that Paterno's statue be taken down.

Absurd as it is for Paterno to have had a statue on campus while still alive, not to mention still coach, it was and is a measure of what he has meant to the image and idea of the institution.  The image is tarnished, perhaps forever, but taking down the statue is not going to help things.

Should the United States remove Thomas Jefferson's memorial from its capital because the man kept slaves, and perhaps abused them?

Should Nelson's statue come down from Trafalgar square because he was an adulterer?

Should you have to put on your resume that you've "borrowed" supplies from your office, exaggerated your hours, gossiped about your boss, encouraged and laughed at stories that weren't true, yelled at your children because you had a bad day?

Paterno's legacy before this scandal was that of a great coach and an upright man; if it turns out he was more human than we realized, then Diogenes is right once again.  While we cannot trivialize the evils committed, it would be willfully ignorant and vindictive to pretend not to see the case from Paterno's side; what should you do when a good friend and subordinate is charged with something this abominable?  If you prefer to believe Paterno's motives were more venal, it is still not difficult to understand the desire to sweep under the rug something which would threaten his prestige - and maybe even his job: coaches have been fired for less cause than crimes committed by a subordinate.

If Penn State takes down the statue, what they say is that they refuse to acknowledge the good he did that earned him his place; that they want to disassociate themselves from something like the last sixty years of their sporting history.  If the crime was Paterno's, then such a heinous act might deserve the erasure.  But when the misdeed is not even his, and in fact evidence suggests that what allegations he knew he dealt with as required legally - even if he failed morally by not ensuring justice was timely - then we are looking at overreaction.


No, But Thanks

About a year ago, a passed a high school student I had never seen before on the sidewalk while meandering around my neighborhood of Del Ray.  He stopped and asked me how I was doing, which I thought was a little odd, before he continued, "Didn't you used to teach science at T.C. Williams?"  To which I had to answer that I had not.

Last week, I was picking up students from the airport for our second session, and one particular plane I was waiting for also contained a contingent of young Marines, in what the sci-fi books call "civvies" but which the Corps no doubt has an idiosyncratic term for, clearly looking for a handler, I mean superior.  Of the dozen or so, nearly every single one took a couple steps towards me before correctly identifying me as Not A Marine.  (I realized later this might have had something to do with the khakis and blue t-shirt I was wearing -  equally it might have had something to do with my parents teaching me to stand up straight.)

At contra on Friday, an older woman I was talking me remarked that she could tell I was "obviously a dancer" from the way I moved, which I found amusing considering the students I teach and the fact that all my family I have almost certainly done the least dancing.  (Once again, perhaps all those admonitions to stand up straight and not scuff my feet had some effect?)

I seem to be a person who looks like people.  Perhaps I should have been an actor - or at least a stunt double?


Notes on Giselle

On Thursday evening I went to see the Paris Opera Ballet's performance of Giselle.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of everything I know about ballet I have learned some time in the last ten months by osmosis, so this is more a ramble than an actual review.  I have now reached the point where I can usually spot the big mistakes, of which there was one: the male lead stumbled badly during a variation in the second act.  The third male dancer with a solo (if you have a solo, but your character does not have a name, where does that put you in the hierarchy? I have no idea) also was somewhat unsteady during his pas de deux.

I still find it mildly confusing that ballets are often, if not usually, referred to as [choreographer]'s [ballet].  I realize that the dance is the main thing, but I am much more familiar in most cases with the music.  For instance, the Mariinsky will be in town in October with what I would have naively called Prokofiev's Cinderella, but the playbill calls it Ratmansky's Cinderella.

At any rate, Giselle's music was composed by one Adolphe Adam, a French composer who I happen to know now was almost exactly a contemporary of Berlioz, though musically less ambitious (and perhaps therefore less famous).  For the most part the score is good but not superb - fairly unremarkable, in fact.  However, at one point a climax of the dance of spirits in the second act is marked in the choreography by a repeated figure of what I will call a traveling arabesque.  Physically it is incredibly impressive; and the music here abandons its quiet eeriness for a dramatic build.   Unfortunately, Adam's score is here, if not actually in a major key (and I think it might be), still somewhat martial rather than ominous, making the effect somewhat comical, which breaks the mood rather thoroughly.  It was, true, not helped by the stage of the Kennedy's opera house, which registers every footstep, and thus had the effect of emphasizing the beat and therefore the marche of the music.  (I imagine that is a common problem though - I can not think there are too many stages anywhere in the world specifically designed to deaden the sound of pointe shoes.)

On the whole, though, the show was excellent.  The company struck me as a very technically focused one (where the Bolshoi, which did Coppelia a while ago, seemed more dramatic - though the ballets themselves are also very different).  The set was superb - I am still accustomed to college and community theater sets, so I find these fancy professional ones especially striking by comparison.  I particularly noticed the acting: while ballet acting is by necessity somewhat stylized, the "style" here was not overwhelming the story.  I imagine that there has to be some tendency similar to the actor who keeps trying to "do Shakespeare" instead of focusing on his part, but it was not evident here.


Incidents in the Life


A student was telling me about something "only our class knows".  In the middle, one of her classmates came up, overheard, and started panicking.  "What do we know?  I don't know what we know!"  I managed not to laugh.

Diminishing Returns

A chain clothier is advertising 4-for-1 suits for their "valued customers", aka people who got on their email list by buying something from them once.  Which I suppose is a good deal - but I don't need or want even one suit.  I already have two!

Nature vs. Nurture

I turned on the radio, on my drive home, in the middle of the second movement of Brahms' 1st Symphony.  Much to my chagrin, it took me a couple minutes to determine whether the composer was Brahms, Beethoven, or possibly Dvorak; I then failed to remember whether it was the 1st or 3rd symphony until the third movement began.  I suppose this is a silly thing to worry about, but the way I was raised I should have known it practically in my sleep.  (Not a silly thing to worry about: I apparently don't have a recording of any of Brahms' symphonies.  I am really quite confused as to how this could have happened.)


Review - Prometheus

Fans of previous Alien-franchise movies seem to be widely disappointed with this prequel, and I can make a guess why.  It is not really a horror-suspense film like Alien, or a basically straight up action movie like (I gather) the near-equally acclaimed Aliens.  In fact from what I can make out from vague memories of Alien (the only one I've seen) and recaps of other films, Prometheus has little to do with the franchise apart from being set it the same 'verse and featuring a Plucky Female Lead.  Calling it a "prequel" may even be misleading because I am fairly certain the events depicted in Prometheus virtually guarantee a continuity screw-up somewhere, if only in terms of what characters ought to have known "later".  So, for someone invested in the franchise, I can see lots of issues coming up.

Considered as a film standing on its own, though, it is a good one.  The only major problem is the final scene, which is an unnecessary continuity nod.  The visuals are superb; the scenario is intriguing; the conflicts are carefully set out; the resolution follows relatively well from the premises.  On the downside, the movie is disjointed in places, and will likely not be winning any awards (especially with Avengers coming out this year, unless we still have awards people insist on only giving to "serious movies").  Apart from the leads much of the acting is adequate only.  I would not be surprised to find out production was rushed: the end of the film relies more on impression than polish.  It also feels rushed, and I cannot tell whether this was an artistic choice to communicate characters' emotions, or forced on the director to wrap up in time.  If the former, it is less than entirely successful.

I consider my $11.50 well spent (and the extra four dollars to see the 3D likely would have been worth it), and would probably give the film an overall B or B-.

[Here There Be Spoilers]

The conflict in Prometheus really does not have anything to do with the aliens or the scientist's "Engineer" hypothesis.  The movie, in my interpretation, really follows the different reactions of Dr. Shaw, human archeologist, and David, android linguistics expert, to the unfolding discoveries and then disaster.  David, in fact, seems to sabotage the operation, whether from curiosity or malice - revenge?  Shaw is an odd combination of curiosity, determination, and faith - seemingly unable to see past the questions she wants answered, but also capable enough to be the only survivor.

The unfolding horror element of the film is a scenario, a setting to watch reactions.  A disturbing setting, which overshadows some of the more thoughtful elements and makes them lose their punch, unfortunately: fewer special effects and more "character time" would have improved the movie, if I am reading it correctly.  The movie seems to set out to explore the question, "What does it mean to create, or be created?" - but even though the discoveries overwhelm the philosophy, I do not think the intended message is, "Let well enough alone," as attested by the end: continue the search.

The plot, here, concludes; but the questions remain.  I find myself intrigued by this film, but unable to say exactly what my question is, even.


Words With the Meaning Removed

"[FDR] knew that fascism is capitalism without boundaries, that both fascism and communism (with a small "c") are apolitical, and that economics trumps politics every time."
- Bonnie Blodgett for the Twin Cities Star-Tribune
First, let me admit that Blodget does have the right of the case, in material terms, in one particular.  She has figured out that "reckless spending at all levels of society" is largely to blame for the current fiscal problems and credit crunch.  The bubble always bursts.

You would think this would probably make her a Tea Partier - but you would apparently be very, very, wrong.  Actually cut spending?  Maybe reduce taxes to encourage the economy when the spending cuts start making us able to afford it?

Nope: Blodgett just wants to hammer "the [Republican] elite" some more.  After all, if it was not for their "spin", everyone would know overspending is bad.  (Again, I do not want to be too hard on her, because it sounds like she really would make a good Tea Partier if she had any idea what the current argument was actually about.  Her factual deductions are reasonable, but her causes are wildly misunderstood.  The temptation is to blame "the mainstream media", but since my acquaintance with CNN is maybe monthly 10-minute segments at McDonald's, and any other television even less, I would be talking about I-know-not-what.)

But the real problem here, as cited at the top of this piece, is that Blodgett has no idea what her vocabulary means.  Facism as apolitical?  Name the world's three most (in)famous facists: that would be, yes, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco.  Facism is not just political but overwhelmingly political.  It is totalitarian; it is total control.

Communism can claim to be apolitical in final goals; but it would be more accurate to call even that goal anti-political.  And in the reality, outside of small communes (largely protected by the rule of law imposed by traditional societies) or the interactions of families and friends, communism has never attained to any "height" beyond socialism - to the point where the two in practical terms are synonymous, though conceptually different.  Socialism, as I used to assume everyone knew, means the state has control of the means of production (either by ownership or heavy regulation).  Anything that involves the state is political by necessity and definition.

Capitalism, on the other hand is only incidentally political.  Of course it is more comfortable and possible in some political climates than others, but a capitalist, considered only as a "capitalist" and thus speaking only with regard to the economy, is unconcerned by anything about government that does not affect his market; I suppose this does make him a bit heartless but it does not make him particularly political.  But in conversation, on the one hand, "capitalism" is (mostly Leftist) short-hand for "people who are more successful than I think they ought to be", or sometimes, "not paying me what I think you should".  (Okay, I guess maybe it is more commonly, "You don't pay that guy what I think you should.")  On the other hand, we use the word capitalism more technically to refer to the system of a free market which is essentially unregulated.  Of course, this means a capitalist economist will stand against, politically, socialism, fascism, mercantilism, etc. - any system designed as or with elements of a "command economy".  A capitalist is therefore likely to support some political views and reject others.

What one real problem is, of course, is so-called "crony capitalism", where the businessman goes to Washington to get regulations passed that favor him, or to pull down contracts by quietly greasing palms.  This practice is apparently as old as civilization itself - but it is worth pointing out that in a deregulated market it would be nearly entirely pointless.  "This legislation would really help my business, and I'm carefully not mentioning that it would hurt my competitor."  "And you want us to regulate the market why?"

Blodgett ends up blaming risky finance not on, for example, government regulations enforcing and subsidizing cheap loans, but on "deregulation".  She talks about rises in campaign spending, but does not ask who is spending, or on whom.  "Economics trumps politics", she says, while protesting that the economics winning the political argument are bad economics, "reckless spending".  She clearly is looking to beat up on the crony capitalists, but does not realize how the environment of regulation enables interference with governance (after all, the government started the interference first).

Off the soapbox.  What I am trying to point out here is that even trying to analyze this piece is almost pointless.  The words are misdefined and then misused even in their redefinitions; isolated examples and broad generalizations are used to evoke a worldview, rather than an argument; logic is attempted but muddled beyond recognition.  I am sure there are better examples, maybe even good examples, of writing making a similar point, if I only knew for sure what the point was.  There are probably equally horrible examples of work attempting to make an opposite case.  But my point is that this column of gibberish got published, and that fact means that American journalism, particularly the Star-Tribune, ought to be ashamed of itself.


Notes from a Concert

Last night I went to the NSO concert, which began with Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" overture and featured the Cello Concerto in D minor by Lalo (recordings at the link are filed by composer's name).  But the "second act", and the real reason I went, was the performance of the 5th Symphony of Tchaikovsky, of which I will speak in glowing terms to any and all interested or uninterested parties.

The Berlioz was a typical Berlioz piece: which is to say, beginning (fairly) quietly, dramatic in spades, and carrying an air of being unfinished: perpetually in action and therefore incomplete.  Given a hint from Barzun's biography of the composer, I have been noticing that Berlioz' work often features the flute, his own instrument, prominently; much more prominently than I would have suspected from his violently romantic reputation, as I tend to think of the flute as a more sedate instrument.

The cello concerto I had not heard before; in fact I am completely unfamiliar with Lalo's work apart from his famous Symphonie Espagnole, otherwise known as "one of the staples of the violin concerto repertoire".  Like the Symphonie, the cello concerto features the solo instrument prominently, being in fact almost entirely cello-with-accompaniment, a thing in my knowledge more common in shorter sonata works.  While a solid piece, I did not find it particularly striking.  The third movement features a slow introduction leading to a fast and elaborate conclusion, but it seemed to me poorly handled: whether the composer or the interpretation was to blame is beyond me right now.  Since I haven't bothered to go find five other recordings to listen to, that is.  At any rate, the concerto's chief claim to fame seems to be in being one of the first concerti written for the cello.

Tchaikovsky's 5th is my favorite symphonic work.  I do not say it is the best; even the composer's own 4th is, I think, more technically excellent.  Other composers mastered the expectations of the form in its Beethovian re-incarnation much better: Beethoven himself, of course; Brahams despite his humility; maybe others.  Others, pre-eminently Mahler, took the form in other directions consciously, rather than emulating Tchaikovsky's habit of writing unusual third movements, so the story goes, not for artistic reasons but because he was never happy with his scherzos.  At any rate this performance was excellent, despite the unfortunate oboe player who decided to test his reed during a rest.  The only particular note I will make is that, hearing the performance live for the first time - and this after the Lalo concerto - I noticed that the first movement of the symphony is practically a bassoon concerto: the instrument gets little rest and is featured prominently.

In fact the performance, perhaps partly due to being the last of the weekend, earned a standing ovation which provoked a double encore; the first was - I believe but am not sure - a part of Georges Enescu's 1st Romanian Rhapsody - the fast part at the end, of course, but the whole is good.  The second was Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Thunder and Lightning Polka - a childhood favorite!


Monument District

Last Thursday I went to the Kennedy Center.  I was there merely to pick up tickets, but in the early morning it was quiet except for a lawnmower and a minimum of the unavoidable DC traffic.  I was struck for the first time by the monumental quality of the building.  Of course I can read, inscribed on the side, that the full name is the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts - no wonder it is commonly shortened! - but I had only been there before after dark.  In the sunlight, it stands out brilliantly: a curious fusion of modern design and classical references.  In its form it draws on the architectural traditions dating to Greek temples; in material it is often modern: the columns are steel, not marble.  And the interior, of course is the series of lovely theaters, making the entirety a temple of sorts in form and function to Art in its Modern-Romantic conception.

The Lincoln Memorial is more familiar to most people; the striking outside, again reflecting classical temples; less remembered is the quiet inside.  Where the Kennedy celebrates - gilding, and flags in all colors hanging from the ceiling - the Lincoln reflects.  In a strange way, the interior of the Lincoln Memorial is an intimate space: a fitting monument for a great man who was, at least in legend, also very much a man of the people.

I also visited the World War II Memorial.  It is different once again: an open-air space, proclaiming and preserving in wind and weather the uncommon achievements and valor not of one great titan but of thousands of "ordinary" people.  A simple oval, with columns standing over it and water running through it; not the cheerful bubble of the Kennedy fountains, or the calm of the Reflecting Pool, but grandeur evoked by a small artificial fall and a single large pool with fountains arranged in classical patterns.

Today, four days later, is Memorial Day.  Where I have briefly noted the contrasts between these three great structures, all are meant to endure - and more than that, to suggest endurance and timelessness by their very construction.  Stone for the buildings, or steel: things meant to last.  Water: essential for life.  Gold: the symbol of timeless value.

We know the greatest monuments crumble in time, and the greatest human actors have had their flaws, but.  It is appropriate for these buildings to be the best, the longest lasting, the most beautiful and stately, in order to commemorate great men and their accomplishments: men who achieved great human things and stand for us for virtues we should value: courage to do what is right, vision of lasting ideals.  We do not remember these men, leaders and soldiers, for being "pretty okay people" but for what they did.

The challenge is not admiring the men, or their monuments.  The challenge is not the artistic evaluation of these piles of stone.  The challenge is to live up to the model.


Not Even as a Scribe

One comment I have gotten on my refereeing over the Spring - as I move on to the bigger and better world of high school games - is that I lack "confidence".  It has taken me quite a while to figure out exactly what this (probably) means, because in one sense confidence is not a problem for me.  I am, for the most part, quite capable of carrying on in my opinions regardless of what anyone thinks.  So, confidence as such is not exactly the problem.

It would be more accurate, I think, to say what is lacking is presence, in the stage sense.  I came to this conclusion following a sequence of two games, at the same school, dealing with the same coach.  The first I centered; the second I was on the line.  The comments the assessor gave me at the end of my game were generally positive but focused on this lack of confidence and some problems with what we call mechanics - the signals used to communicate fouls, goals, restarts, and so forth.  The coach was not happy with me in general - but then, he lost.

Then in the second game I noticed the center was, probably, worse than me in some ways mechanically.  His positioning was better than mine; but his signals were largely muted and occasionally inaccurate.  What he did have, though, which I find hard to hold on to, was control of the game - a parent said afterwards it was the best refereeing he'd ever seen, which almost certainly is not true but speaks volumes for the game control he did have.

There are, I think, three ways to referee a soccer match and still maintain control.  From worst to best, you can enforce The Rules, you can call "Your Game", or you can call The Game.  Learning and enforcing the rules is where anyone has to start, of course; without the rules - at least in essence - anything higher is impossible.  This is where I find myself most of the time, still - and it is problematic for two reasons.  If you make mistakes (as I do with some regularity) you call your understanding and judgment into question.  Or, if your understanding does not match the expectations the spectators, or worse, the coaches' - or worse yet, the players' - you can lose their goodwill: especially dangerous if your expectation has let the game become too "loose", that is, violent.  But the second problem is that, even when done right to exacting standards, you run the danger of coming off as, for lack of a better term, a legalistic jerk.  But at least you have the game under control.

It is therefore necessary to move on at least to the stage of being able to call "Your Game".  I would say - as an observer - that this is where the other ref I mentioned is.  The central hallmark at this stage is that the referee has internalized the rules and more importantly the flow of the game, so that the result is a consistent standard resulting in clarity and control.  The important word there is "consistent".  Many stupid mistakes are forgiven if you make the same stupid mistake for everyone.  Lack of precision is okay if you are consistently imprecise, and do not miss anything big.  For myself, the diagnosis to get here is, I think, either to watch many more games or start playing again - probably both - and of course to continue to referee, and more carefully.

Finally I suppose a referee can call The Game.  The rules are known; consistency is achieved; the mechanics are there; and the game is allowed to play out as it should.  A well-called match on the premier or international level will, I think, reach to this ideal (though poor decisions may reduce a crew to trying to call "Their Game" or even "This One Game That How Did We Get Here?")


False Premises

South Carolina amended its state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  I am still not sure why this requires a Constitutional amendment - a dictionary, a world history course, or a biology textbook should any of them be sufficient.  But here - especially with that last - we reach a problem.

After fighting for "sexual liberty" and so forth for lo these many years now, the liberal left has reached the point where suddenly they cannot talk about sex within the one context it has always been approved because the biological facts of sex ruin the case for their cause du jour - "gay marriage".  Two men cannot have a kid.  At this point, the homosexual lobby is falling back on rhetorical silliness.  I have been told to "stop focusing on the sex" - what, are we to be repressed now?  I thought that was bad - and realize that marriage involves more than just sex.  Love, affection, friendship, and so forth are the keys.

Speaking historically, we could (sweeping generalization here!) say this is largely a legacy we owe to the ideals of the late Medieval courtly ("romantic") love affair - usually very much extra-marital, whether or not merely Platonic (and mostly not) - being co-opted by various people and applied to marriage.  This is not a bad thing by itself.  Even on Biblical grounds, we are told that, "It is not good for man to be alone."  (Yes, I am a bachelor.  Obviously I think the statement is a generality.)  Even without children, marriage is a good thing.  But when passion is the measuring stick and the expected number of kids is 1.4 or something, we see where the argument for homosexual marriage comes from.  Two children per family will not maintain the human race or the culture producing them; clearly something else has become more important.  (To say nothing of divorce.)

If this is the only criterion, that "two people love each other very much", then of course there is no reason to object to homosexual "marriage", especially as a civil institution.  It is little more than a formality, an affirmation, a legitimizing token - the $500 tie, as it were, to proclaim that here stands a wealthy man.

So I find it impossible to get extremely upset by the "gay marriage" lobby and its nonsense, because it is a symptom, not really a cause (and Paul's description in Romans of the progression of cultural decline and depravity is consistent with this view, if not specifically laying it out).  The other reason I find it hard to get upset about it is that I am still somewhat bemused by the phenomenon.  It is somewhat like arguing with a fifth grader, and not just any fifth grader, but the fifth grader who had somehow never heard the rhyme that runs,
First comes love, then comes marriage,
Then comes the baby in the baby carriage.
Banal and terrible verse, of course, but at least it knows the order in which things naturally work - the order which makes homosexual "marriage" not an abomination so much as an absurdity.


Pragmatic Politics?

Rev. Doug Wilson, whose blog I read regularly, has recently been writing a bunch of posts arguing that a vote for Mitt Romney, presumptive Republican presidential candidate, would be immoral.  Meanwhile, my roommate Trent, who recently moved his blog, has been proclaiming up and down for I believe the entire last year or more that Romney will win the nomination (check) despite being a poor-to-middling candidate (I agree with reservations, having been myself most taken with Santorum) who will lose in November (the jury is quite obviously out) - and that he, Trent, would vote for him, Romney, anyway on the basis of pragmatism.

Rev. Wilson's position is basically that Romney has no principles whatsoever and that moderation is not the way to go.  Despite his dismissal of the point, I cannot help but think that he would consider things a little more seriously if he did not live in Idaho.  Meanwhile my roommate, like many people voting for Romney, will be (presumably) voting for him as the not-Obama - strangely like many people voted for Obama as the not-Bush, except that Obama's economy is at least as bad and no one with a major media voice - except, sometimes, FOX - is blaming him.

I tend to side with my roommate on this one.  Not for lack of principles, as Rev. Wilson suggests must be the case, but perhaps for a different set of priorities.  Let me review the bidding.

The incumbent President has the solid backing of his party and all the votes that entails.

The Republican candidate - we can assume it is Romney - has the only natural voter base to challenge Obama.  Two notes here: First, this is the reason I am still convinced that, had he won the primary, Santorum (or, to take even more of an outlier, Ron Paul) would have been a creditable challenger.  He would have the party machine behind him - and either of those two men would have the further advantage of being more clearly men of some principles (whatever their failings).  Romney is for all practical purposes, by damning reputation if not actual fact, nothing more than a good politician.  Granted this is better than being a proven outright liar - or at least overseer of liars - like the current President.  There is, I believe, a moral difference between Playing The Game and The Big Lie.  Second, either way, the way forward will lie in Congress.

For good or bad - I think it is mostly bad - we have a two-party system.  I believe the Republican party, at least in its modern incarnation, is on the way out.  Its base is already split between managerialists and what we call the Tea Party - which is to say, limited government Constitutionalists - while the Democratic party drifts determinedly Left.  But for the time being, the GOP is the game in town.  When the ChiSox and the Braves are playing in the World Series, everybody loses no matter who wins, but the games still get played.  (Insert your own most hated teams to achieve the desired effect.)

Now, maybe the time has come to step out of the game.  Maybe we are looking at the Black Sox, and an accounting must be made.  There is only one problem with taking that line now.  It is far too late in this cycle to form any alternative scheme, short of getting a Medal of Honor winner - or other person who simply cannot be ignored - to run.  Is this happening?  Does Rev. Wilson have the clout to make that happen?  If the litmus test was the immoral mainstreaming of the Republican party line as he makes out, then the alternative plan should have been begun the moment the returns revealed McCain won the last primary - or before.  Say, somewhere about the time the first Bush reneged on taxes.  Pick an event you dislike.

The saying runs that offering criticism is easier than offering solutions.  Filling a pointless dot in on a ballot is even easier.  Nevertheless, if you want to turn down what appears to be the only viable candidate, it is, in my opinion, incumbent on the one going outside the system to have an alternative plan.  Rev. Wilson, as far as I can tell, has no plan.  He has decided that Romney is not moral enough to vote for - I wonder what he would make of the apostle Paul's advice with regards to the emperor Nero? - and that is that.  Whom he will actually vote for, I do not know: he, I would guess, does not know either.

In summary, Rev. Wilson is trying to make into a moral judgment something that is a practical problem.  I am not saying there are not moral issues at stake.  Obviously there are.  What we are looking at is application of the morals.  That there are no good solutions at present is as obvious as the problems.  To plagiarize or at least appropriate Aquinas, one of the conditions of a just political policy has to be that it actually stands a chance of working.  Electing Romney might happen; Romney elected with a competent and responsible Congress as well would likely be reasonably effective; Romney elected with another overspending farce of a Congress might be willing to pull a Coolidge and start vetoing things.  Electing [unknown] will not happen in today's media climate; even a competent and responsible Congress will clearly get nothing done in the face of a re-elected Obama's intransigence.

I, for now, unless I am persuaded to do something else, am planning to vote for Romney.  I do not trust him; I do not trust power; and I think the important thing is Congress, anyhow, since they pass the laws (though things like that goofy HHS mandate should be alerting us that not everybody thinks so, and by "not everybody thinks so" I mean "President Obama thinks he can just issue orders which amount to law", which is why a second term in office could end in more disaster than we have seen already).


In Honor of the Day

Here.  I am going to overhaul the Federal tax system.  What is more, my solution is practical, workable, and fair - or I think so anyway.

The I Am Not Actually Part of Congress Act [Amendment?] to Reform and Simply Tax Laws of 2012

I.  The Act

All perpetual Federal revenue shall derive from a single-rate income tax levied on the basis of the wage-earnings of each household, this tax to be determined, applied, and and excepted as follows.

II.  Conditions

II.A.  The tax rate shall be determined by an act of Congress [may I suggest 15-20% in the first place, accounting for our current expenditures but hopefully to be reduced], and that rate shall be subject to change by other acts, but shall not change twice in any six years [the length of a Senate term, the longest term in the Federal government].

II.B.  No household shall be required to pay tax if the earners' incomes were in total below the Congressionally recognized [what figures should be recognized is, I realize, a tricky issue] subsistence income for the household's numbers and situation.  Households with income above that amount shall pay the full tax amount or that amount which would bring them to but not below said subsistence income in total, whichever amount is smaller.

II.B.1.  "Income", for the purposes of this act, means all monies received for work or services performed, from investment or other speculation; in summary, all monies from activities normally conducted for gain and profit.

II.B.2.  No exceptions shall be made to this tax on any basis other than insufficient income.

II.C.  This act shall not be taken to outlaw tariffs etc. leveled internationally for the protection of the national interest; nor to affect any such fines as may be applied as appropriate penalties for crimes and misdemeanors.  This act shall be understood to prohibit any additional fines, penalties, or taxes which might be levied on any otherwise legal trade in the interior of the country.

Done.  Tax law fixed.  Wonder how many lawyers I just put out of a job?

Potential issues:

- The whole income tax thing.  As far as I am concerned there is more or less no universally "fair" basis for taxation, and income taxes are frowned upon by various people.  At the same time, they do provided a reasonable basis, and with reasonable exceptions taken, seem the best workable principle except property taxes... which establish another whole conundrum of "renting from the government".

- A certain segment of the commentariat might suggest I am guilty of corporate cronyism.  Not at all.  Corporations are not persons (despite periodic legal sophistry) and funds held by or for the corporation as such are not doing anything immediate - and will be taxed when spent (and therefore earned).  If you really object, pass a law specifying that corporations must not hold more than x% of their material net worth at any given time, or otherwise limit the exact possibilities of action open to corporations.

- I am sure there would be all sorts of practical issues implementing this law, and that there are better ideas out there.  I'm just trying to demonstrate, mainly, the absurdity of our current tax code.  Even if we left other taxes and simplified the income tax on this basis or something similar, it would be an improvement over the doctoral thesis current law forces the IRS to hand out every year.


Thoughts On a Confirmation

On the Saturday before Easter - or as some would insist, on the eve of Easter, the liturgical calendar beginning days at night - a previously Protestant friend was confirmed in the Roman church.  I note this merely as background; as explanation or perhaps the provocation of the following.  In itself the circumstance was (for me) hardly unique: I could likely have said the same thing for any of the past five or six years, with regard to the Roman or Orthodox churches, though matching particular names to particular years is more than I can do now.

My own opinion of the Roman church I have probably stated before in this space: however, I will restate it briefly.  While possessing a certain superficial historicity, the Roman Catholic church is wracked by un-Scriptural doctrines and practices.  Any argument which would convince me to join the Roman church would have to either convince me of the validity of the pope's authority (if he has that authority, I am no one to argue doctrine, certainly not from outside "the Church"), or present a sufficient apology for the Roman church's doctrine from Scripture, or represent the conclusion a true reformation within that church.

Yet the point of this post is not to debate Roman views.  If demand requires, I will do so - elsewhere or at another time.  (As for the Orthodox: my knowledge is less, but the second and third criteria would also apply.)  No, this is more a record of self-reflection.  I am Reformed in my own theology, and attend generally churches both presbyterian and Reformed - though I am not a particularly convinced presbyterian.  I spent several months last year attending and studying at a Lutheran church - on invitation - due mainly to this lack of conviction, with additional impetus provided by a growing concern over the general practice regarding the Lord's Supper among Reformed churches: which is to say, in practice if not in confession, we lean too much towards mere symbolism.

The Lutheran experiment foundered, on a double (or perhaps treble) difficulty of its own.  The first: the use of the crucifix in worship, to say nothing of bowing, if not actually scraping, to the thing.  My greatest distaste for the Roman church I found in abridged form in the Lutheran - though at least there were no parades of and towards likely specious relics.  The second: a certain lack of utility - not to say precision - in the Lutheran doctrines of the Church and its governance, at least as presented to me.  To be more accurate, the Lutherans seemed to want all of the exclusivity provided by Roman or Orthodox doctrines of Tradition and infallibility (of church-through-pope or council, as may be), while claiming with Luther that "councils have erred" - and presumably must still continue to do so: a most curious stance.  Perhaps a more thorough investigation would have clarified matters, but I suppose I lack patience.  Also (note my count to three!) the music tends towards the excessively Germanic - and German native rhythms are noticeably different from those which fit English lines.  I suppose I should have been grateful that at least the words were English, but would it be too difficult to reset the tunes - as most other Protestant hymnals have done - to suit the different flow of words?  This is however a highly technical complaint, and not one which holds that much water in light of the rampant banality, not to say occasional stupidity, of many modern compositions spread widely throughout my own Reformed circles.

Once again, I wander fairly far afield.  The crux of the matter, brought home to me this weekend, is that maybe I do not care.

Does this sound strange?  Most people who know me know I am Christian; the rest probably assume so correctly.  I periodically - as now - discuss matters of the Faith here and elsewhere in public.  I can defend my faith, as Peter commanded, both as a Christian generally (all the way to the details of forcing talk of presuppositions) and as to my particular denominational choice (though less certainly here - for example, I have no significant attachment to and only slightly more defense for presbyterianism as currently practiced and taught as a system, Biblical or otherwise, for governing the church) and I do so, when occasion has arisen.

My friend's father remarked - I summarize - that he had been thoroughly impressed, though not a Catholic himself, with the zeal of my friend's friends for Christ.  Myself?

Well, I have some knowledge; a certain confidence; assurance - one might suspect self-assurance, I suppose; but not so much any burning energy.  I have a certain amount of self-discipline even with regards to my religious devotions; but I do not go out of my way to be conspicuous; rather the opposite.  Praying in the closet comes far more naturally to me than taking the pains to make sure my actions will cause others to glorify the Father.

Again, on my own denominational particulars, I accept what I have been taught to accept, but not always with the confidence of complete understanding.  Consider the acronymic summary of the Reformed confessions: the TULIP.  I rather suspect flaws in some arguments for limited atonement; yet those flaws depend on phrasing.  Is it the extent (as some would have it) of the atonement achieved that is limited?  This seems to fly flat in the face of Scripture's proclamation of redemption and love for the world.  Or is it (as others would say) the application that is (or will be, or has been - tenses melt in the face of eternity) limited? - this much at least seems undeniable in light of the testament the Word bears to the goats and reprobates.  And then what is the functional difference?  I illustrate: I could produce a similar contrast or dilemma in interpretation for each point, and then go on to consider problems posed by the phrasing of the formal confessions and catechisms.  I am tempted to believe that the majority of schisms in the Church over the years have been caused by such too-quibbling confrontations over various parties' attempts to explain the ineffable - but then there are battles that needed to be fought, as well, and who am I to draw the line?

On the other hand, in that I try to stand away from public debate on doubtful points. who is to say I am taking a wrong part?  Given my uncertainties, would adding "zeal" do any good?  Lewis writes, in various places, that he did not consider himself one to address any difficult points of the faith - even going so far as to avoid writing at all on subjects he had no knowledge of or temptations he had not experienced.  For me, the state of affairs is such that I simply have no opinion, or only the most guarded of opinions, on many of a wide range of topics.  The Nicene Creed I can defend in detail; an inquisitor refuting the Westminster Confession would find me rather more short-handed in apology.  Should I put in the effort to study further - or simply trusting God accept that I am not called as a theologian and put myself under the teaching of those who sit, as it were, in Moses' seat?  Or both?  The danger to me seems rather to be charging off in approximately the wrong direction - or am I simply too cautious, held back by my own habits and character?


Some Thoughts on Mathematics

It is a well-rehearsed complaint that the United States is "falling behind" the rest of the world in technical studies - meaning mathematics and science.  It is paradoxical, then, that the general United States curriculum features specific study of advanced mathematical topics - Algebra and Geometry.  Sometimes requirements have even advanced up to basic calculus or at least its underlying principles (indignified with the moniker "pre-calculus").  Most other countries teach Mathematics, perhaps glorified with a grade number, throughout middle and high school.

Speculating on the explanation for this oddity, I would suspect something like the following happened in American education: Years ago when "high school" would have been considered fairly advanced education, algebra and trigonometry and other advanced math would reasonably have been studied, possibly as electives; essential math would have been learned earlier.  Mathematics instruction likely suffered from the overall decline in American education over the (later part of the?) 20th century.  The language problems, I suppose, are documented better because writers felt them more critically.  Either the courses were never dropped in name, or people noticing the problems codified the "Algebra" and "Geometry" to be studied; however the rigor of the courses was slackened and the material diluted with the addition of other elements which were no longer being learned earlier - or which were part of newly expanding fields and felt to be "necessary".

As evidence, I have mainly the (I am tempted to say absurd) amount of review contained from year to year in the average modern US mathematics textbook series.  Admittedly mathematics is a subject I have some affinity for, but in my estimation the material generally spread over the three years from pre-algebra to second-year algebra either could be condensed into at most two years; or should be taught earlier; or is (at least from a conceptual standpoint) superfluous to the subject at hand.  An "Algebra II" class - I am speaking here from experience - by the end of the first month of classes can still be reviewing material theoretically learned up to three years before in "Pre-Algebra" (possibly even the first semester of that course) - linear equations.  True, the more advanced course has more detail and harder problems; I am not convinced that excuses the state of affairs.

I do not think - at this point in my career, at least - that the problem is the (nominal) focus of American courses.  The integrated approach adopted most famously by most Asian schools does have its advantages, mainly in maintaining a unity in the discipline; the focused study of a particular branch of a subject has off-setting advantages, mainly in ability to explain details rather than teaching by rote.  In disadvantages, the "subject-based" approach of American textbooks does tend to create artificial distinctions of one thing from another that ought to be known as related; however, an integrated approach obscures the focus achieved by distinguishing between the parts of a field of study.  Beyond that I am not qualified to comment - except to mention that more American textbooks seem to be actually using an essentially integrated approach, while maintaining their supposed subject matter in name only.

A more pressing problem is the study habits expected of students.  When a conscientious American parent wants the student to master a subject, and is willing to sacrifice grades if necessary, all is well and good.  When a lazy parent (to say nothing of the student or teachers) with "high expectations" wants the student to have an "A" but could care less about the subject, there is a problem - and the Asian parent determined that his child will have an A and prepared to expect that and make him work for it creates an advantage.  (I dislike relying on overplayed stereotypes, and can say from personal experience that - which should be obvious to any observer of human nature - not every Asian parent is in this regard an "Asian parent".  Some of them are quite prepared to look the other way on instance of, for instance, cheating; or even to berate teachers who attempt to discipline that behavior.  On a general comparison, however, the stereotype does hold true for fairly clear cultural reasons.  The comparison is therefore useful.  Also, I know next to nothing of European education, which is the other reasonable comparison point.)

So much for the problem.  What about a solution?  One obvious comment is that the best method of improvement must be increased expectations, even demands, on the part of parents and schools.  The effect of this simple change can be most clearly seen in modern America within the home- and classical-schooling community, where concerned parents created a demand - and have often been part of creating a supply - of improved, or at least diverse, curricula for language study both in English and the Classics.  Contrast this with mathematics education, especially in the public schools, where the number of available curricula in print has been steadily decreasing.  I believe there is a total of two courses remaining put out by large publishers, and one has much greater presence as best as I can ascertain.  My knee-jerk reaction is to blame Federal government meddling with standards, together with a human inclination to follow the Next Greatest Thing, but I could be wrong - the point is that with no serious competition and a largely captive market, innovation and diversity seems to be quickly becoming a matter of who has prettier pictures.

My own suggestions are limited by unfamiliarity with lower elementary curricula.  A makeshift solution I would propose as an upper school teacher would be to spend seventh (and maybe eighth?) grade focusing on practical math, starting wherever necessary and working up to whatever difficulty level is needed for scraping by (and hopefully more than scraping by) in life but without particular emphasis on unifying principles of "subjects"; the unifying principle of mathematics generally is (in my opinion - this would require an entire other essay) description and problem-solving.  With that foundation in place, you have a fourteen-year-old student who is capable of doing things like working out a simple budget (say, not overspending his allowance), working out basic problems in compound interest, calculating the price of a room's carpet, or not drawing to an inside straight (for reasons other than every book ever written with a card game in it saying so, not that that is a bad reason).

A high school can then teach those subjects which will be either necessary to a future career (as an engineer, architect, or the like) as electives, and require those useful to the formation of a thoughtful citizen ("Let no one ignorant of geometry...").  The question "how much math?" is a fascinating one I am not prepared to answer in the general case.  I am prepared to say that it would be easier to teach algebra thoroughly if a text did not interrupt - and perhaps need to interrupt - the fairly logical progression through the various variable functions with silliness about translations which should have been learned earlier, and bits of a trigonometry (for instance) which could either be learned later or cheerfully ignored.  Every calculus textbook I ever remember seeing not only confined itself politely to a strictly logical presentation of the calculus, but made assumptions of what the student knows.  If we imagine a calculus textbook written on the same principles as the average "Algebra 2", it would start by presenting methods to solve equations in one variable and would reteach the quadratic formula; in between types of derivatives there would be a discussion on graphing complex numbers.  An actual calculus text teaches a subject; I am not sure what the algebra book is trying to do.