Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On Gaining a Quality Education At Home

So here's a question that is frequently asked of homeschooling parents:

How can you possibly think you can give your children an education to match what the local schools give them, when you're not as educated as the teachers at these schools? After all, every one of the teachers at the local school has a college degree, and every one also took the additional post-graduate education needed to get a teachers' credential. A good number of the teachers have masters' degrees in the subjects they teach, and a few have doctorates. A child in the AP track at the local high school is especially likely to have several such highly-educated teachers. Even if you have a degree--even a Masters'--in one subject area, what makes you think you can teach all the other subject areas as well as the local school teachers?

I happen to think this is a fair question. I also happen to think this question has some good answers, but to get at these answers it's first necessary to unpack some assumptions underlying the question.

First, there's one approach I don't want to take in answering this question. There are undoubtedly homescoolers out there who would directly question the educational attainment claimed of the teachers in the question above. I think this is an unproductive argument to make, for the simple reason that there are plenty of counterexamples--schools filled with dedicated, well-educated, hard-working teachers who really do care about their students. Making the argument that too many of the teachers are lousy--as some homeschoolers are wont to do--will inevitably lead to charges and countercharges of ignorance and bad faith, and undercuts the chance that anyone outside the homeschooling community will actually listen to the homeschooler's arguments. For the sake of this answer I want to assume that the teachers know and understand what they're actually doing in the classrooms, which I actually believe is true in most cases.

And yes, I did have some lousy teachers when I was a kid. But in my experience there were far fewer of those than there were of the good ones.

So, how can a homeschooling parent who didn't have a strong background in math, say, hope to teach a student as well as or better than a high-school teacher who has a Masters' degree, and has been teaching in the local high school for the last ten years, by all accounts effectively?


Here's the first part of the answer.

Consider a thought experiment. Let's say that this math teacher has a 10th-grade student who's struggling. At the beginning of the semester, he was getting Cs on his quizzes and tests. As the semester progressed and the new material built upon the un-mastered earlier material, the student's grades progressively worsened, until halfway through the semester he was getting Ds and Fs.

Now let's say that this student decided (at the urging of his parents and the teacher) to get a tutor. After asking around, the local guidance counselor gets him set up with a 12th grader who's taking AP Calculus. They set up tutoring sessions a couple of times a week. And we'll say that, within a month or so, our student is back to pulling reasonable grades in the math class--say, B or B-.

Is this a true-to-life scenario? I think it is. After all, private tutoring is a commonly advocated remedy when a student is falling behind; and it wouldn't be commonly advocated if it didn't have some record of success. And it's not uncommon for talented high schoolers to become tutors for those in lower grades. I did a little tutoring as a high schooler; so has my wife.

But consider the following. Our teacher has Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Math; he has likely been studying on his own since he left college, for his own personal and professional enrichment; and he has ten years' experience in the classroom. Our tutor hasn't even finished AP Calculus yet, and doesn't even have a high school degree.

How is it that the tutor was able to achieve success at getting the struggling student to understand the concepts, when the teacher--with far greater qualifications--wasn't?

The answer to this question is not hard to see. The teacher must deal with an entire classroom full of students--in fact, several classrooms full of students--and so has some serious limitations as to how much individual attention he can give to any one struggling student. His responsibility is to his entire class. Even if there are a few students struggling with a concept, at some point the teacher must move on for the benefit of all the other students. And if a student doesn't get a concept during a lecture, the teacher is unlikely to figure this out until the next quiz. Tutors, on the other hand, necessarily pace their instruction to the student's needs. If a student isn't getting something, the tutor knows this immediately, and can start looking for alternate explanations or additional exercises.

Furthermore, the tutoring model of education is much more mentally intensive than the classroom model. After all, if you are the only student, every question the teacher asks goes directly to you. In the classroom setting, some students can be lulled into passive learning by all the mumbling at the front of the classroom, and even tune out entirely and start daydreaming (which happened to me a lot). This is less likely to happen in tutoring environments; after all, if the student starts to drift away, the tutor knows it immediately and can pull the student back to the present.

So while the teacher may well have an educational and experiential advantage over the tutor, the fact is that the one-on-one environment is in fact much closer to what the struggling student actually needs--so much so that a diploma-less, uncredentialled high-schooler can out-teach someone with far, far greater qualifications. This has nothing to do with credentials, or breadth of knowledge; this has to do entirely with the shape of the educational environment.

And this fact isn't even very controversial--after all, the very fact that just about everyone recommends tutors for struggling students is testament to the fact that just about everyone acknowledges, at some level, that one-on-one learning has some major advantages over the classroom environment. If it didn't, then tutoring would be widely regarded as a waste of time.


Here's the next part of the answer. Consider this question: what is the limiting factor to how much a student can learn on a topic during, say, an academic year?

Consider another thought experiment. In this one, there are two students. Student X doesn't particularly care for history. He does his homework (most of the time, at any rate), but he sees it as busywork and more of a duty than anything else; he does enough to get a passing grade, but not much more. Student Y loves the subject of history; he reads works of history in his spare time; he discusses it with his parents and with whatever other friends he has who are also history buffs; he fact-checks his textbooks.

Now it's pretty obvious who's likely to get the better grade in a history class. And much more important than mere grades, Student Y is likely to learn more and retain more. But one thing to notice about this, is that this is true regardless of the educational attainment of the teacher.

Let me put it this way. If you have a history teacher much like our math teacher above--Bachelors', Masters', credential, 10 years teaching experience, lots of personal and professional enrichment--there is no way that this teacher can pass on everything he knows to his students given the short time he's with them. It took him years and years of motivated, interested study to get to the point he is now; he has one year to teach the subject to his students. Now if this teacher chooses to learn even more, this may well be a good thing for him personally, but it's unlikely to have an impact on what he can push through a classroom in one academic year.

So as long as the teacher has a certain required minimum level of knowledge in his subject, his own education attainments are not the limiting factor in how much the students learn. The limiting factor--as illustrated by the examples of Student X and Student Y above--is the amount of work each student is willing to do to learn the subject matter. In fact, if you get a true Student Y on your hands, you don't need a particularly talented teacher at all. All the teacher has to do with Student Y is point him in the direction of a carefully-selected pile of well-written history volumes, and he will educate himself.

In fact, the greatest teachers that we remember from our own time in school, we remember not so much because of the knowledge they had (although the truly great ones had that in spades), but because they were inspiring. That is, they were the ones that could actually infect the Students X with a love of the topic of study, that they were motivated to go out and do the work to learn the subject. They were the ones that could transform Students X into Students Y. There were plenty of other teachers around who had the knowledge, but couldn't pass on the passion; therefore their students didn't work as hard, because they weren't as interested, and they didn't learn as much.


And this brings us to the third part of the answer.

This is a point that British educational reformer Charlotte Mason made a central part of her philosophy: since the acquisition of knowledge and understanding is far more strongly affected by the efforts of the student than the efforts of the teacher--since the best that a teacher can do is to inspire a student to do the work to learn, the responsibility of education actually falls on the shoulders of the student. The job of the teacher is to assist the student in his or her own education, by pointing the student in the right direction more than anything else. And because of this, Miss Mason saw personal character as one of the most important prerequisites of a real education. A student must actively choose to learn, and must be self-motivated--by a hunger for knowledge, and not from fear of punishment or desire for good grades or love for a teacher--in order for real education to take place. If a student wants to learn something, and has the work ethic to do the study, then all a teacher has to do is present the student with enough reading material of sufficient quality, and the student's own hunger for knowledge will accomplish the rest.

Here's what it looks like in the real world. My first job out of college was about twenty or thirty miles from my apartment, and I was fortunate enough to be able to take the train. The commute was about 45 minutes each way. I quickly realized that this was a whole lot of time that could be spent reading. I was starting to feel, in those days, that my knowledge of the canon of Western culture was a little lacking, so I started reading. At first, I started reading out of a sense of duty--"Everyone needs to know what happened in Beowulf"--but after a while, everything I read increased my hunger to know a little more... and a little more...

By the time I left that job four years later, I had read through the Bible (four times), Beowulf, the Divine Comedy (Dante), Churchill's History of the English Speaking People, a history of Croatia (since the Balkan wars were in full swing then), a work of sociology on China, the Federalist Papers, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (William L. Shirer), Albion's Seed (David Hackett Fischer), a history of the naval action of World War 1 (I wanted to learn about Jutland), Lord of the Rings, a couple of novels by Connie Willis, Jerome K. Jerome's short novel Three Men in a Boat, a history of the Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville, Black Holes and Time Warps (Kip Thorne's book on cosmology and physics), and a whole bunch of other stuff that I had never been exposed to in school. I learned all this because I wanted to.

(Incidentally, this was also about the same time that I was learning to play the harp.)

It never occurred to me, as a high schooler, that I might consider reading the Federalist Papers for fun. As a high schooler, I was a Student X in most subjects. How did I change from a Student X in high school, to a Student Y after I got out of college? Yes, I'm more mature now, seeing as I graduated 18 years ago. But I'm still the same basic person. What changed?

Part of it is that I wasn't under pressure to learn these things. When you're being forced to read stuff on which you will be tested, that tends to suck the joy out of learning it. After six or seven hours a day in a school environment, you'll be unlikely to find too many students left who actually would choose to read the Federalist Papers on their own initiative. But part of it is that teen culture tends not to respect academic pursuits. After all, if a student did actually choose to read the Federalist Papers on his own personal initiative, for his own personal development, without being assigned to do so, how would his peers react? They think it's just weird, even a little intimidating.

A personal example: One of my classmates was a military history buff, and could answer from memory just about any question on military matters you could put to him--down to the unit numbers of the brigades and divisions involved in various given military actions. He was a useful guy to have around in our history classes, where the teachers would occasionally consult him before their own lecture notes. But needless to say, he was widely seen as a total geek; his ability to answer these questions engendered stunned disbelief in his classmates, but it sure didn't enhance his popularity any. Now I was a geek, but I wasn't that big a geek; even I thought it was weird and uncanny. Now that I've grown up and am no longer immersed in the teen culture, I just think it's really cool, and I wish I could do that. He was a true Student Y, at least regarding military history; and he didn't learn all that stuff in any classroom.

So the holy grail of education is to create students with the intellectual curiosity to seek out new information on their own, and the self-discipline to see a self-directed course of study through to the end. And these are matters of character development. If you can instill these character traits in the student, the student is almost guaranteed to gain a good education, regardless of whether he has good teachers--or whether he has a teacher at all. Although it is possible to cram information in students' heads when they haven't developed these character traits--through threats of bad grades, or through inducements like awards and other honors--the student is much less likely to master the material than if they were motivated to learn it through their own desire and initiative; and furthermore, there is a danger they will stop learning the moment they leave the classroom and these inducements go away.


So here's the summarized answer to the original question, about how homeschooling parents of moderate education levels can hope to educate their children as well as or better than the professionals at the local public school.

First, the parents can provide a educational environment much better tuned to the needs of their children--much as a tutor can provide a better educational environment, one-on-one, than even the best of teachers can with a 30-student classroom to manage. Even when the parents don't know a subject particularly well themselves, the much greater amount of time they have available for one-on-one work with their child gives them the opportunity to learn the subject matter themselves--say, from a pre-prepared curriculum or reading list--right alongside their children.

Second, the sheer amount of time the children spend around their parents in a homeschooling household--along with the inherent academic flexibility that homeschooling provides--strongly facilitates the education and training of the children's character. I myself am a firm believer that character must be passed on through deliberate training, as I implied in this post; if it is not deliberately passed on, it doesn't generally happen on its own. But character training is considered an integral, inseparable part of education in much the Homeschooling community, especially among those who have been influenced by the philosophies of Charlotte Mason; and this emphasis on character development leads to an increased chance that homeschooled students will grow up to become disciplined self-educators by the time they reach college age.

After all, consider this news item from the AP that came out a little over a year ago, describing how many colleges are now actively recruiting homeschoolers. Here's the opinion of one admissions director, explaining why they're doing this:

Home-schooled students _ whose numbers in this country range from an estimated 1.1 million to as high as 2 million _ often come to college equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in higher education, said Regina Morin, admissions director of Columbia College.

Such assets include intellectual curiosity, independent study habits and critical thinking skills, she said.

"It's one of the fastest-growing college pools in the nation," she said. "And they tend to be some of the best prepared."

And there was a similar AP article written last March. I particularly liked the attitude of the student in the last couple of paragraphs:

Now a freshman, he is adjusting well to college classes and shrugs when his peers complain about the way a professor teaches.

“You are already used to teaching yourself,” he said about homeschooling. “Forget the teacher, forget the class, I am just going to read the book and figure it out myself.”

Now that is a textbook example of a Student Y.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

96th Carnival of Homeschooling is up!

The 96th Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Spiritbee. I didn't have a post in it this week, due to my feeling Sunday as though my body was falling apart. And when you feel like that, you don't generally want to blog.

I'm feeling mostly better now, by the way, although I'm not quite back to 100%.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Eine Kleine Kunstwerke

The Pillowfight Fairy, who loves to draw (have I mentioned she loves to draw?), has been making more and more elaborate pictures lately. I'd thought I'd share some with you.

This first picture is one that my wife wrote about here. The Fairy had just been reading the book If You Give Your Mouse a Cookie, and was inspired to draw and color a picture with mice. She then wanted to tape it to the refrigerator, just as did the aforementioned mouse; Mommy said no. So, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Fairy solved the dilemma by... drawing a refrigerator and taping this picture to it. Problem solved!


For the Fairy's birthday, one of the items she received was a portable carrying case for art supplies. We decided to try it out at church yesterday. Sunday-Morning worship service lately had come to resemble a wrestling match, with harried parents trying to stifle the natural exuberance of the little ones, who we're supposed to be suffering to come unto Jesus. We were hoping that at least one of the little ones could be induced into a little more serenity.

I think our tactic succeeded. So far as I can tell, someone is imagining a scene with ladybugs and blue and red flowers on a sunny day. That sure beats the Grim Reaper, who made an appearance in our sermon....

(Really, it wasn't that bad. No, Really.)


Speaking of the Grim Reaper, the Fairy hasn't done any more examples of Backyard Ballistics yet of which I'm aware. But she seems always to be looking out for something to give her a battlefield advantage.

We particularly like this one, especially because we haven't actually read the story of the Trojan Horse to her yet. After all, it's in the Aeneid, and that's a bit stiff for a five-year-old. But we like the fact that she's thinking about tactical deception already. (We'll just have to tell her that it's already been done. But perhaps she could try a large wooden badger....)


And I think this last one is pretty self-explanatory:

Yup. One thing that the Fairy hasn't learned much of yet is tact. One illustrating event: this last Sunday, when we picked her up from her Sunday evening Bible class, it was obvious that she'd been crying. I asked the teachers what had happened. Apparently they'd been making cards to send to people, and making "chocolate spoons" (with sprinkles!) to go with them. The cards were intended to be given away as class gifts. Well, her first offering was deemed inappropriate to be included in the class gift, because she had blithely written the words GO AWAY on the card. So she had to make a second card. This one was much better. But when the end of class came, she had to leave it behind, because--after all--the teachers were going to be sending out all these cards. The Fairy didn't want her precious card going to some stranger, she wanted to keep it herself!

Ah, well. She's only five; we still have a little time to teach her some social graces.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Someone Just Had Her Birthday

For the last few weeks I've had a bit of a dilemma while writing on this blog.

You see, I wasn't sure of the best way of describing the age of the Pillowfight Fairy. After all, she was officially four years old, but was within a few weeks or so of turning five, and was acting more like a newly-turned five-year-old than a newly turned four-year-old. How does one describe this state both accurately and succinctly? I alternately described her as a "four-year old," "five-year-old," "nearly five-year-old," "not quite five-year-old," and occasionally as a "munchkin".

Well now the situation is much more clear. She's five. (She's still a munchkin too, but that's apropos of nothing....)

She actually turned five yesterday, but we had her birthday party today. We had three families over for the party. However, these were some really fertile church families. By the time we counted up all the kids--ours plus our guests--we had fifteen kids. Of these:

  • probably about six were still in diapers
  • two were under the age of one
  • there were eight girls and seven boys

As you can imagine, the party was a bit of a madhouse. I think all three of our frisbees are now in the neighbor's yard (and one of them is smashed up into little tiny plastic bits).

Things were most peaceful (or, rather, least chaotic) when all the kids were in the yard playing. When they all came inside for lunch, however, the energy level went up. It's like what happens when you use a piston to compress a gas sample: it heats up. All those kids underwent adiabatic excitation when we forced them all inside and into our dining room/living room at the same time. Good heavens....

We have about 1.5 pizzas left over. But they did manage to polish off all of the cupcakes.

Good times were had by all. And we didn't have a huge crush of presents this year, in particular because the families--at our request--didn't bring a huge amount of stuff. And what they did bring is exactly the kind of stuff that the Fairy gets the most use out of--art supplies! You can rarely have too much of that on hand, and it all gets used.

Anyway, congratulations are in order for the Fairy completing a very eventful year.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Now, I hate the prefix "meta". It's become something of an industry buzz-term, so it's everywhere. Most of the time it's used to create sophisticated-sounding gobbledy-gook by people who want to sound smart.

(In a way, it's a little like the suffix "-phobia"; people who want to force you to think like them will take this suffix, attach it to the name of their their pet cause to create a sophisticated-sounding neurosis, then accuse all their political or cultural opponents of being [pet-cause]-phobic.)

Now within the software and data-mining industries, the meta- prefix does in fact have a specific meaning: "meta-[concept]" means "[concept] about [concept]"*.

So the term meta-data literally means "data about data". In practical terms, this means: for your data--say, stock prices from the markets--the meta-data is: when was the data collected? How much data did you collect? How reliable is the data? What vendor sold you the data? What pieces of information are available for each individual stock? And so forth.

And the term meta-strategy literally means "strategy about strategy". This means: How do we go about getting a strategy? Where did our current strategy come from? How valid was our process by which we settled on our current strategy? And so forth.

It should be pretty obvious from the above descriptions that companies that spend too much time thinking about meta-data and meta-strategies ultimately spend less of their time doing work, and more of their time doing, well.... meta-work. For a deeper understanding of meta-strategy, make a regular habit of reading Dilbert, and you'll get it.


Well. One of the things that happens to any blogger trying to blog on a regular basis--say, once a day--is that we start running out of ideas. Now, for sane, sensible people, when they run out of things to say, they simply stop talking. Then they wait a little bit, and when the muse strikes them again, off they go.

But for those of us who want to keep up some kind of schedule, we don't have that excuse. We may not have anything to say, but we have to say it anyway, with gusto, so that our fan base remains appeased. So many of us develop strategies to prime the creative juices. Some of my strategies:

  1. Read some news. Anything strike my fancy? It gets blogged about.
  2. You been working on some half-formed philosophical notion over the last few weeks? Write it down.
  3. Anything interesting happen in my children's education during the previous week?
  4. Pick anything from the Muppet Show and post a link.
  5. Find anything about Vikings and post a link.
  6. Find anything about Muppets + Vikings and post a link.
  7. Read all your friends' blogs. Find something interesting. Then post a link to it.
  8. Look through a catalog. Find something that you want, that your spouse would never let you have. Blog about it.
  9. Go find a quiz. Figure out which of the Village People you're most like.

But one of the most fertile sources of ideas for blogging is... you guessed it: Meta-blogging!

Meta-blogging is of course, blogging about blogging. Examples:

  • You could deliver a treatise on the history of blogging.
  • I'm too tired to blog today, so have a good night.
  • You could spend a post fretting about however in the world am I going to make it through NaBloPoMo?
  • You could deliver a message about your own blog, for example, when you get your x-thousandth hit or your eleventy-first comment, or when you write your Hundredth Post.
  • You could write a post saying "Here's how I get my ideas." For a good example of this kind of post, um... you're already reading one. But for another example, here's one.
  • This post, in fact, could be described as blogging about meta-blogging. Technically, we can't call it meta-meta-blogging, because that would literally mean meta-blogging about meta-blogging, and if you're meta-meta-blogging, that would mean you have way too much time on your hands.
So! Um... I've noticed three things in particular since I started blogging. First, I've gotten better at noticing noteworthy things during the day, and thinking, "I'm going to blog about that." Second, I've gotten better at taking a small idea and turning it into a huge essay. But third, I've gotten very good at writing about a whole lotta nuthin'. I'm really rather proud of myself tonight that I've managed to write several hundred words about the fact that I didn't have anything real to say.

(Incidentally, this was a skill that served me very well in school.)

*--This doesn't, of course, explain Metamucil. Nor does it cover the meanings of meta- used in the physics world. In physics, something that's meta-stable is barely stable, such that the slightest perturbation will cause the system to collapse. Think of a pencil balancing on its point; it's stable, but the slightest breeze that causes it to deviate from its vertical orientation starts a process that that increases the deviation until the pencil falls over. Typically, meta-stable situations only remain stable if some external force is carefully, selectively applied to counter whatever perturbations naturally occur.

Another Spoonerism

Well! My friend Jason (the very same who Googled the answer to my trivia queston about Valkyries last month), saw my earlier post about spoonerisms, and decided to send me a link to his favorite one.

The video clip is of a youth minister named Blake Bergstrom, who was giving a sermon to a whole bunch of high-schoolers. The theme of his sermon, so far as I can tell, involves keeping ourselves far away from the temptations that our culture has for us; not putting ourselves in positions where we can be easily drawn by our peers into immoral courses of action. And the Biblical passage he was using was the one in the book of Genesis, where Abraham is dividing the land between himself and his nephew Lot. Lot, of course, took the better-looking land, and pitched his tents toward the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (which God would later destroy with fire and brimstone).

He couldn't quite get the words "pitched his tents" right. I should warn you, the result is not language that we Christians should be using on an everyday basis. But man, was it funny.

And I have to say, after the fact (both onstage, and in his written explanation at the linked post) he shows himself to be a pretty classy guy. I've decided that I like him, and not just because he delivered one of the classic spoonerisms of all time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nothing to see here, move along...

Well! One of my regular readers commented on my previous post:

Good heavens! My brain is tired.

Well, pal, how do you think I feel, seeing as how I wrote the durn thing?

So I stayed up way too late last night carefully polishing each word of that behemoth (except for the glaring grammatical error I discovered this morning--"imbalance of matter of antimatter" should have been "imbalance of matter over antimatter". As a result, I could barely function at work today. I'm going to bed. Sorry I didn't give you a real post today. (Y'all are so demanding.)

If it means anything, my lovely wife is going to write a post right after I get off the computer. If you need your fix tonight, go there instead. Her link is in the sidebar. I'm too lazy to put it here now. Good night.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

I read a very badly-written news item today.

The news item, on the Fox News website, headlined Scientists Generate Powerful Antimatter Ray, is a small little story with a big headline. I mean, after all, what green-blooded geek doesn't get his heart pounding upon hearing that they've made an Antimatter Ray!

Basically all that happened was that the North Carolina State University Nuclear Reactor Program ran an experiment and managed to create a stronger positron beam than the previous record-holder, which is an outfit in Munich. And this is the way that science progresses; one little milestone at a time. Kudos are of course in order for the team that accomplished this....

...but Fox News made it sound as though we were about ready to start vaporizing Klingons.

But more important than the disappointing headline, was the fact that the article contained a statement that is flat-out wrong. In fact, it's so wrong that anyone with a passing familiarity with current theories of cosmology--not just the physics geeks, total math-phobes who took the Science for Poets college courses to satisfy their GE requirements--could pick it out. Behold:

Theoretical physicists believe there are equal amounts of matter and antimatter in the universe, but few antimatter particles have been found "in the wild."
Um.... no.

Our best understanding is that there's a whole lot more matter than antimatter out there. If there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, standard cosmology predicts that it all would have annihilated each other just after the Big Bang, and there would be nothing left in the universe but photons. And even if this didn't happen, and there were non-annihilated clumps of antimatter still out there (say, entire antimatter galaxies separated from normal matter galaxies by many light-years of space), we would expect to see places in the universe where matter and antimatter were coming in contact and annihilating each other, giving off certain tell-tale frequencies of light.

And, in fact, this imbalance of matter of antimatter in our universe has been a source of great debate for decades, pretty much since Dirac predicted the existence of the positron back in '28. For a long time there was no understanding of how the imbalance could have come about, since it was believed that all physical processes treated matter and antimatter exactly the same. Then in 1964 a couple of physicists discovered a condition called CP violation--which, in layman's terms, meant that certain interactions involving the Weak Nuclear force favored matter over antimatter. This discovery earned its discoverers the 1980 Nobel Prize for physics, and led directly to our current cosmological models, which rely heavily on CP violation to work.

So while the math and physics behind it is pretty exotic, it is not hard for us laymen to grasp the fact that there is a lot more matter than antimatter out there. That much really is common knowledge even among those of us whose only ongoing contact with science comes from the National Geographics we read when we go to the dentist.

Of course, this brings up a question about Fox News. How'd they pick their science correspondent? Who wrote this thing? The article doesn't say. But it's pretty apparent that both the jounalist who wrote it, and the editor who let it through, reach for either People or Ladies' Home Journal while waiting to get their teeth cleaned. And while it would still be unfortunate, this wouldn't be such a bad thing if they weren't actually trying to inform the public on science matters. Yes, the public doesn't have the patience or expertise to handle all those differential equations, so reporting of scientific explanations has to be simplified somewhat; but there's still an obligation to make sure the explanation isn't actually total bunkum.

And before you think I'm bashing Fox News, no.... This happens to every news outfit. It's not just Fox News, because sooner or later every news outfit does this. And it's not just scientific reporting, it's pretty much any technical field. I remember watching CNN back in January of '91 when we launched Operation Desert Storm. Some reporter was standing at the side of a flightline "Somewhere in Saudi Arabia" in the middle of the night as F-15s were streaking down the runway with a deafening roar and bright streaks of white flame trailing the engines. And the poor hapless reporter was standing there watching this, and telling us, "We're seeing more aircraft coming in for a landing now...." Anyone who had spent any time around military aircraft, or even just reading about them--and I grew up the son of an Air Force officer, so this included me--could tell that those planes weren't landing. A plane that's screaming down the runway in full afterburner is not landing. The reporter was completely clueless about military affairs.

(And sure enough, about 45 minutes after that wave of planes launched, Bernie Shaw in the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad started recording explosions. Let's see... if we know roughly how fast an F-15 cruises, and CNN just told us when the planes launched, and Bernie Shaw told us when the bombs fell, we can get a pretty good guess how far from Baghdad the airbase in question was. See how this game works? Funny the reporters couldn't figure it out....)


There's a specific problem here, and a more general problem. The specific problem is that the journalists in question lack a basic familiarity of the subjects they cover. But to be fair, the world is a mighty big place. It is not possible for any one person to learn so much that he or she can carry on an informed, technical conversation on any topic you throw at him or her. Anyone, no matter how well-informed, will eventually get stumped if you play that game long enough. But if someone is tasked with passing on knowledge to an audience, and the audience is expected to make decisions based on that knowledge, then that person has a responsibility to bone up on the basics of the topic in question:

  • A reporter who is reporting on economics needs to know and understand Adam Smith, Keynes, Galbraith, and Milton Friedman; he needs to understand what the Fed actually does; he needs to know the basic facts of the economic history of the US and of the rest of the world.
  • A reporter who is reporting on science probably needs to get himself a subscription to National Geographic and or Smithsonian, and read every issue through twice. He should also get subscriptions to several of the major scientific journals, and at least be able to skim the articles for the main points, even if the math is a little too deep.
  • A reporter who is reporting on military matters needs to understand strategy, tactics, logistics; needs to understand the equipment our forces use, and why; needs to understand the meanings of enfilade, defilade, raking fire, and a bunch of other terms; needs to know the facts of famous battles and campaigns, especially (in this day and age) counterinsurgency; and needs to know when and why an airplane uses its freakin' afterburner!
That this sort of stuff doesn't happen enough is a serious problem in the journalistic profession. In order to do their jobs well, journalists need a broad base of factual knowledge in history (especially military history), science, literature, philosophy, religion, art, music, and geography.

And this is true for aspiring educators, too. Like journalists, educators are tasked with passing on knowledge and understanding; so like journalists, they need to develop a broad base of factual knowledge in all those subjects as well.

But this brings us to the more general problem (and, at long last, the point of this blog post): in modern educational theory, the learning of facts is disparaged, in favor of critical thinking skills. The idea is that learning facts, rote memorization, is the lowest form of learning; that a person who spends his or her time memorizing facts isn't actually learning to think. Just in the few years that I've been a parent and thinking about education, I've seen numerous schools and other educational establishments proudly announce that "we don't spend all that time on kill-and-drill. We don't make our kids do all that rote memorization. From an early age, we teach them to discover the facts on their own, through their own process of discovery; and we teach them to use their own powers of reasoning, to think critically."

Forgive my cynicism, but I tend to think this kind of reasoning directly leads to people that can't tell when planes are landing or launching. They haven't learned the plain, dull, boring fact that afterburners are there to produce tons of thrust, needed in takeoffs; and that landing aircraft are trying to bleed off energy, so they don't use the afterburners. (Although the Navy lands planes a wee bit differently, but I'm not going to get into that right now.)

Critical thinking skills certainly have their time and place; but without a large store of basic, factual knowledge about the way the world is, those critical thinking skills have no data on which to operate. If I tell you my pet theory about why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, how can you tell whether there's something worth considering in my theory, or if I'm just pulling your leg? The only way you can judge the truth or falsity of my theory is if you know something about the course of events of the battle of Waterloo. If you have the facts, you can evaluate my theory. If you don't have the facts, you have no frame of reference from which to say what's right and what's wrong.

This has ramifications for education. As the book The Well Trained Mind puts it:

Young children are described as sponges because they soak up knowledge. But there's another side to the metaphor. Squeeze a dry sponge, and nothing comes out. First the sponge has to be filled. Language teacher Ruth Beechick writes, "Our society is so obsessed with creativity that people want children to be creative before they have any knowledge or skill to be creative with."

Especially with the younger kids--whose minds are designed to soak up knowledge, we need to expose them to as much of the real world as we can. They need to hear stories from literature; they need to know history facts, and geography facts, and math facts, and grammar facts, and language facts, and nature facts--preferably drawn directly from nature, and only secondarily from books; and on and on. Without having a large store of knowledge, they won't be able to judge whether the philosopies and theories they hear about are valid, or complete bunk; they'll wind up susceptible to what the Bible refers to as "every wind of doctrine".


It's a common complaint that both journalists and educators often come out of their schools with all kinds of theories about how they should do their jobs, and even with social agendas that have been shaped by their time in school; but that too many of them don't come out with a good, down-to-earth understanding of the way things work in the real world. It would seem to me that the best education aspiring journalists and educators could recieve to prepare them for their jobs would consist almost entirely of general education--as mentioned before, history (especially military history), science, literature, philosophy, religion, art, music, and geography. Too often college students (and I was guilty here) see these subjects as unwelcome distractions from our real education in our respective majors; but that is absolutely the wrong way to look at them. These subjects are not distractions from one's education; if we wish to be well-informed citizens, they are the core of one's education. And journalists and educators, of all people, need to be well-informed.

95th Carnival of Homeschooling Is Up

It's up at the blog At Home With Kris. The post just below this one is featured. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Music for My Munchkins

A few weeks back the Carnival of Homeschooling included a link to a post entitled Learn to Play the Piano on a Shoestring.

The author of this post, who uses the handle lindafay, described her problem: she wanted to teach her children to play piano, but she had no piano; she couldn't play herself, and didn't have a strong background in music theory; and she didn't have a budget to hire a teacher. And yet she still figured out a way to get her children decent training in piano, so that now--many years later--all of them are reasonably proficient. Her post explained how she did it.

Judging from the number of comments left on this post, a lot of people were inspired by it. And if you are in the same boat as this blogger was--and a lot of people are--I would highly recommend you take the time to read it.

I myself was inspired by this post, and since I read it I've been giving a lot of thought to our children's musical education. You see, music is a big deal in my family. On my father's side, I had a great-grandfather who was a magnificent cornet player and bandmaster. His daughter, my grandmother, played piano and violin beautifully, sang beautifully, and wrote and arranged numerous pieces of music--many of which we still have. I have many fond childhood memories of my dad playing Debussy's Claire de Lune at the piano to help him unwind after a hard day of work. He also occasionally arranged music for weddings. My maternal grandmother played steel guitar during a time when this was a ubiquitous instrument in all the local bands. In fact, she once had an opportunity to appear in (I think it was) a Bing Crosby movie; they were looking for a young, attractive woman who played the steel guitar. But she turned down the opportunity--this was during the Depression, and taking the gig would have required her to quit her job, which (given the scarcity of good jobs) she was loath to do. I have memories of my mother playing Scott Joplin at our piano. My brothers and I really liked the Crush Collision March, which was (no kidding!) written to describe a train wreck. We kept pressuring her to play it over and over again. I myself was briefly involved in Opera after college; I learned to play the harp in my late '20's; and I arrange and direct music at our church. When the whole family gets together we usually wind up singing lots of four-part hymns, Christmas Carols, and whatever else tickles our collective fancy.

This is obviously a legacy that we want to pass on to our children. And I've regretted the fact that I never learned to play the piano; it would come in very handy with my compositional work, or just when I wanted to relax after a hard day. (While the harp could assist with this, I haven't gotten good enough yet that playing the harp relaxes me. Playing any musical instrument only becomes relaxing after you've achieved a certain level of proficiency; before that point, playing well takes such intense concentration that it becomes yet another source of exhaustion. At least, that's my experience.)

Before I read the above post, we had been struggling with the fact that we really can't afford piano lessons--and we especially won't be able to afford them when the two younger kids get to be that age. So reading that a dedicated mother was able to teach her children piano, when she herself didn't know how to play it, when they had next-to-no resources, was quite a revelation. If she could do it under the constraints that she had, we've got to be able to do it with the resources that we have. Or, so I've been thinking.

After all, we have a piano in our house; I did briefly take lessons in college, so I'm not a complete newbie around the instrument; and I know a fair amount of music theory--enough that I can compose music to give to our singing group at church, that's sophisticated enough to make them all complain. :-)

(Tonya says: "I've come to the conclusion that singers just like to complain." Very true.)

So I decided this last week to run a little experiment. I called the Pillowfight Fairy--who will be turning five this week--over to the piano, and I pulled out an adult-level instructional text (because that's what we have on hand. This was just an experiment, remember). And I started teaching her two things from the very beginning of the book.

First, I started teaching her how to tell the names of the notes on the piano. They go from A to G, and then repeat. And you tell the identity of a white key based on its position with respect to the black keys: if you have a group of two black keys, the note in between them is D; If you have a group of three black keys, the note just above the highest is B; and so forth.

So far, the Pillowfight Fairy hasn't mastered this to the point that she can just look at key and tell what it is; but she's starting to get the concept. She has figured out that A is the bottom key on the piano; so if you ask her to play an F, she will count "A, B, C..." up from the bottom, find the F, and then go up by octaves to play every F on the piano. So this is a start; she's beginning to figure it out.

Second, I decided to try to get her to hold her hands in the correct positions, with curved fingers. Up until this point, every time she's goofed around on the piano, she would stick her fingers straight out, except for the one that was hitting a note, which would be pointed straight down. She would of course play very randomly, because she wasn't trying to play a tune. But I took a cue from a diagram in the book, and got out a couple of rubber balls; I held one in my hand, and put one in the Fairy's hand, to demonstrate how the fingers should be curved. Then, once she could show me how the hands were supposed to be held, I had her start doing little five-note runs with each hand--C, D, E, F, G, then back down--with her hand maintaining its curved-finger postion, and with an effort to eliminate extraneous movements. She's already started to get the hang of this.

Now there are of course some challenges. First, the Fairy is only five years old (give or take a week), and is right in the middle of the "I'll do it myself" stage. While she has an excellent attention span for things she wants to do, she doesn't have as much patience for "direct instruction". If one sits down with her to explain things for more than five or ten minutes at a time, she starts to resist. I don't want to teach her to hate the piano forever. So for now I'm keeping the lessons very short--five to ten minutes at the most--and then I let her do her own thing at the piano, and hope that some of the lesson sticks. So far, it's looking like this is happening. When I've let her off to do what she wants, she has generally continued for a while afterward doing the five-note runs, with her hands in more-or-less the correct positions.

We'll worry about about required practice times at some point in the future. For now we're only doing this as an experiment, using only the adult-level materials we have on hand. When we start doing this for real, we'll pick up a piano instruction book that's more age-appropriate. And as the Fairy gets a little older we'll start working up bit by bit to a practice regimen more closely resembling the one lindafay recommended.

But the other challenge comes from the fact that I, the Daddy, will be taking this part of the home education as my responsibility. Most of the academic work is being directed by Mommy, since I'm at work the whole day. We only have a few hours in the evenings, between when I get home and when the kids go to bed, just to be a family. So it's an as-yet unanswerd question as to how the music training will work within our schedule. How many times a week will I sit down with the kids? For how long? How are we, as a family, going to enforce practice time discipline--and do we start practice times now, or do we wait a few years for our children to mature a little first? We--and I in particular--have a whole lot of trial and error coming up on the horizon.

Still, the results of our experiment to date are highly encouraging. The whole thing may not work out, to be sure, but before I was exposed to the above post it never even occurred to us to give it a try in the first place. For that, I'm very thankful to lindafay for sharing her experiences with us.

A Little Light Diversion, Part II

A few more entertaining items have come up which I would like to share with you.

First, Tonya and I have a running game: we try to identify things we say that no sane person would ever say unless they were dealing with small children. The classic of the genre, which we have used ourselves, is "Give me that booger!"

Well, Tonya came up with another one today. Or rather, she said it; then I started to giggle, and only then did Tonya realize what it sounded like. Her little gem: "Check his bottom for french fries."


Second, Tonya and I were looking through the blog of one of my occasional commenters, and came across this post. Toward the end of this post there is one of the most wickedly funny spoonerisms that I've seen in a long time. So Tonya and I were laughing at the spoonerism; and just for kicks, we followed the link from the post to the Wikipedia page on spoonerisms.

Oh, my stars and garters....

We are not usually in the habit of laughing at encyclopedia entries, and especially not until our sides hurt, until the tears are streaming down our faces, and until we're so incoherent that we can't even read them out loud to each other, because our composure breaks down halfway through the sentence (as our eyes scan ahead and see what's coming).

(I particularly liked the one about the British anchorwoman who breathessly reported the discovery of a bag of hypodeemic nerdles.)

Incidentally, I would recommend that--for full effect--you should try reading the spoonerisms in this Wikipedia entry out loud to someone you love. Things are always funnier if you're trying madly not to laugh. :)

Friday, October 19, 2007

A little light diversion

With a great big tip 'o the hat to The Anchoress, I would like to point you to some of the funniest things I've seen on the internet in some time. Do not read these while drinking beverages.

First comes the post A Tale of Two Essays, which posts two allegedly college-level essays, and asks the commenters to judge which is worse. I'm not sure; it's a toss-up for me. But I suspect that the first was written at least a little bit tongue-in-cheek--after all, how else could one compare and contrast Abraham Lincoln with Andre the Giant?--but the second was obviously by someone who's completely clueless. She was giving a review of a classic novel (which she never names, leaving the guessing of its identity as an exercise for the reader), comparing it unfavorably to the movie that was made from it. I especially liked her line: "I also wondered things like where the **** are all the pirates?".

After all, I've often wondered myself where the **** all the pirates were; I can relate.

(Be forewarned, though; the name of the blog is itself vulgar.)

The other one, entitled It's natural but it's rated R, relates the story, from the point of a Christian mother, of how their "facts-of-life" talk went with their oldest son (and the quite understandable effects said talk had on the dad). And note the truth in advertising: this post is not for the squeamish. But it's freakin' hilarious, in my humble opinion.

Enjoy, if you dare.

In Which I Agree With the Pillowfight Fairy

"I wish that everyone was attractive."

You and me both, girl.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not-Quite-Five-Year-Old Logic

So the Pillowfight Fairy had cleaned the food off her plate tonight, and wanted some additional fruit. Specifically, she's developed a taste for the pitted dates that we buy bulk at our local grocery store. She asked for some of these. Then, just as Mommy was about to put several on her plate, she unlocked her word-hoard and pulled out the grammatically cringe-inducing:

"I do not want no dates."

Well, that's gratitude for you! I knew that little girls could be finnicky, but to change one's mind in just the time it takes for Mommy to move from the kitchen to the dining-room table, indicates that someone is perhaps a wee bit spoiled. Not to mention that it was very rude to make Mommy get up, go get something, and bring it all the way in, and then just to reject it.

Except, that none of this was the case. And the Fairy was in fact being completely grammatically and logically consistent.

You see, she was using the literal meaning of the double negative, "I do not want no dates"--or worded slightly differently, "It is not the case that I don't want any dates." Meaning, of course, "I want dates."

I admit I don't understand all the ways that a five-year-old mind works. But I remember experimenting with the English Language in exactly this way when I was a kid--so in some strange way, this little incident made sense to me. And it probably means that my little girl already has a very well-developed left cerebral hemisphere. :-)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Yet Another Thing We're Not Allowed To Do

I mentioned in my post Lawnmower Maintenance Blues from last month that there are many things that our parents and grandparents could do just fine when they were our ages, that we either are incapable of doing, or aren't permitted to do.

Tonya and I just ran up against another one of these. You see, since our minivan reached out and touched someone this weekend we've been trying to figure out how we're going to work the repairs. In addition to the minivan, we have one other vehicle: a 1998 Toyota Corolla. And we have three kids. Some constraints:
  • The minivan will go in to the shop either Monday or Tuesday morning, and be in the shop for about a week. It is unknown at this time if this is a business week or a calendar week.
  • By law, each child must be in an approved child-safety seat.
  • You cannot get all three of these things in the backseat of the 1998 Toyota Corolla. The car is just too small. I've tried; it doesn't work.
  • Therefore, we can't just rely on the Corolla to get us through the week, unless Mommy and the girls commit to not going anywhere--not to MOPS, not to the Pillowfight Fairy's doctor's appointment on Wednesday, not to church, not to grocery runs--for the whole week.
  • I've got to go to work the whole week, with the exception of next Friday, which our whole company gets off (since we're on a 9/80 work schedule). I took so much time off during my lovely wife's Cast Caper last month that I can't afford to do any more.
  • We've also been relying so much on friends at church for child care lately, that we're getting embarrassed to go back to them and ask for more help. I mean, you do what you have to, but you certainly don't want to press other people's generosity too far.
  • If we rent a vehicle for the week (since our auto insurance policy doesn't have a rental reimbursement clause), it will add at minimum $500 to our expenses, on top of the deductible (not to mention the water heater we had to replace this weekend, and several hundred dollars worth of dental work for one of our cats that had to be done last week). We'd really like to slow the cash outgo, if only for a little while.

So, given these constraints, how do we manage to get through next week?

Hmmmm.... Tonya could take the... No, that wouldn't work.

Well, I could meet her at the body shop--but then, we'd have to find a babysitter...

You know, this whole thing would be a lot easier if we could fit all three kids in the back of our Toyota. Just like my parents fit my two brothers and me in the back of our Vega in the mid-70's! I mean, I realize that we're a more safety-conscious society now than we were then. And that Vega was ultimately rear-ended and totalled, with the three of us in the back seat at the time, in an accident that ruptured the fuel tank (but thankfully didn't set us all on fire). We know more about so many risks now, and so cars today are designed to be much safer. And if the statistics are to be believed, our roads today are also much safer than they were in the '70's; there are a lot fewer accidents per capita now than there were then. And people are more likely to use their seat-belts. Yes, yes, yes. I know this.


I get the distinct impression that all this safety has come at the expense of our freedom to be flexible; the freedom just to figure out how we're going to get through the day. After all, while a child riding in a modern booster seat is unquestionably well-protected, most of that protection would be afforded from nothing more than a lap-belt. A lap belt may not provide quite as much protection as a modern booster seat, but it's not that far off. And while I--as a parent who loves my children and wants to see them survive to adulthood--dutifully put them in their booster seats and strap them in tightly, it would sure help us get through the next week if I had the freedom to use a lap belt on even just one of my children to get us through one week. After all, this only means I would be protecting this child in exactly the same way that my parents protected me when I was growing up. (In fact, my children would be safer, because '98 Corollas don't have nearly the danger of detonating on impact as Vegas did.)

As we understand it, California law currently declares that all kids must be in age-appropriate boosters until they reach 6 years of age and 60 pounds, with a recommendation that they stay in the seats until 8 years and 80 pounds. We hear that there is a push on to make these 8/80 recommendations into requirements, meaning that many kids won't graduate from their child-safety seats until they reach puberty. Certain young ladies of Hmong descent may never actually graduate from these seats until they reach full adulthood and are no longer considered "children".

Now, I recognize the good intentions behind these laws and the efforts to strengthen them. And I certainly don't have the rhetorical skills to answer the retort, "So, you don't care about improving the child fatality rates from auto accidents?" But, for crying out loud--doesn't anyone in our government see the citizens of this state as adults? Doesn't anyone in power think we're qualified to judge the risks in our lives and the lives of our families, to make our own decisions thereon, and to accept the consequences of our actions? Is the imperative to keep us safe, to eliminate anything from society that might possibly harm us, so strong that we aren't allowed to muddle through in our own way?

This kind of political program does, of course have unintended consequences. Anyone in our society who decides to have more than two children now cannot get by with only small economy cars. The child seats we are required to use by law simply won't fit. We either have to go with full-sized cars into which these seats will barely fit, or we have to go up to SUVs or Minivans. I for one would love to drive around a Prius; but I can't get my kids in it. Or rather, I'm not permitted to get my kids in it, even though they'd all fit and all be reasonably safe, too. So when it's time to replace the Corolla, I'm going to have to go with something a lot bigger. I wouldn't have to if I had just a little more freedom than I do now.

I, for one, think we've gone too far in what originally was the right direction. The pendulum has swung too far; if it keeps going in this direction, expect to start seeing some pushback.

So, how are we going to muddle through next week? Well, my parents have decided to help us cut this Gordian Knot. We're going to trade our Corolla to them for the week, in exchange for their minivan. That will solve enough of our problems right there, that we think we can manage the rest--so long as I remember to maintain a little more distance between me and the cars I'm following.

Behold the Bounty of Really Odd Fruit!

It's that time of year! Our pomegranate tree had a most excellent crop this season. And today my lovely bride went and harvested every ripe-looking fruit that was in reach without the use of a ladder. (After all, we'd really rather not have her trying to climb a ladder or step-stool while wearing that walking cast, now, would we?) She bagged upwards of fifty fruit today, and there are about that many still left on the tree. Here's a picture showing today's haul:

So... I realize that these are not the kinds of fruit that most people see on a regular basis, especially if you don't live in a Mediterranean-type climate like what we have in California. If this is you, you're probably wondering what these things are, and what you do with them.

First, you don't eat them. No, really. Most of the fruit simply isn't edible.

The good part is the seeds. Now, these seeds aren't like what most people think of when they hear the word seeds--they aren't hard or crunchy. The actual nut that holds the genetic material is tiny, and is embedded in a juice-filled capsule. So these little seeds are like small berries more than anything else; they are intensely dark red in color (almost purple), about the size of corn kernels; and taste like tart berries. They also spurt juice onto your nice white shirt if you so much as look at them funny. And the juice stains just as well as any berry juice.

But the rest of the fruit, as I said, is inedible. The outer husk of the fruit is tough and leathery. To get at the seeds, the fruit needs to be gripped in two hands and manfully ripped open. This exposes the seeds; but the seeds are at this point still embedded in white pithy stuff that must also be removed by hand.

And as I said, just looking at the seeds causes juice to spurt across the room. So if one is a little bit too manful when one tries to get the seeds out of one of these things, one winds up looking like one has the measels. Or that one has been taking an axe to the neighbors. So usually what I do is I fill a big basin full of water, then rip the pomegranates apart under the water. This prevents the juicy splatters, and also makes it easier to separate the seeds from the pith; the pith floats, and the seeds sink.

So once the seeds are separated, what are they good for? Well, they can be eaten straight, for one thing. Like I said, they taste like tart berries. And I understand they are occasionally used as garnishes in certain varieties of Mexican food. But the most common thing to do with the seeds is to juice them. (And in fact, some people skip the whole part with separating out the seeds--they just crush and press the fruit straight to get the juice.) Then, with the juice, one can either:
  • Add 1 part sugar to each part juice, and let it sit and ferment. This yields grenadine syrup, which can be used as a natural flavoring. We occasionally mix a small amount of our grenadine with club soda or seltzer water to make homemade soft drinks.
  • Use the juice to make pomegranate jelly. This is what Tonya and I do with most of our pomegranates. It makes a jelly very similar to plum or raspberry jelly, only much more vivid in color. In fact, the stuff looks like you have used way too much food coloring, as the jelly winds up more brightly colored than most children's breakfast cereals--but it's totally natural.

With this year's crop, plus all the seeds we have left over from last year's crop, plus the frozen juice left over from last year's crop, we are going to be making a lot of jelly this year. Most likely we'll be giving it to relatives, and friends, and church people, and our mailman, and any other mailmen we run into, and passing strangers....

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

This Weekend's Harp Adventure

I played the harp at a wedding this last Saturday.

Way back here I mentioned that, in preparation for the wedding, I would be cutting back on my blogging to make more time for my harp practice. (Let's see... Should that read: would be? Would have been? Wouldon haven been? What tense do I use for something that I was going to do, but wound up not actually doing? That sounds like it should be called the "Alternate Future Imperfect" tense or something....)

Now, many of you are probably thinking: We don't care about the harpist; how was the wedding? How did the bride look? What did the auditorium look like? Did the bride and groom moosh cake in each other's faces, or were they nice to each other? How was the reception? Were there any stupid ring tricks (e.g., pretending that the ring is lost, until one of the groomsmen "finds" it in his shoe or something)?

Well, fine. The answers to these questions, in random order, are:
  • I couldn't tell from where I was sitting.
  • A little messy, but not too bad.
  • About as good as could be expected given pre-existing constraints.
  • Very nice.
  • Simple. Understated, yet elegant.
  • A lot of fun.
Ok, back to my topic now. My blog, my topic.

So it turns out I didn't cut back on my blogging to make time for my harp practice, I cut back on my sleep. I should have cut back on my blogging to make more time for practice, but I didn't. Y'all are so important to me, I just couldn't neglect you....


I started playing the harp about ten years ago. At the time, my job was located at a financial services firm in Berkeley, CA (long story there), and I was riding the light rail to work every day. I had a friend who also rode the train, and she played the Celtic harp. One day she brought a small lap-harp on the train with her, and showed it off to me. Now, I'm the kind of guy that cannot resist the lure of musical instruments. If you have an instrument of which you are particularly proud, I will be right there to admire it with you--and the more unusual, the better. If she had brought a bagpipe or an alphorn on the train with her, I would have been in heaven. (Though I suspect the physical act of getting an alphorn on BART would have been the most intriguing part of the experience. And playing a bagpipe on BART would probably have set off some kind of anti-terrorist response or something....)

Anyway, I was fascinated by the instrument and decided to try my hand at it. I found an instrument to rent, got myself a teacher, and off I went. I quickly discovered what anyone with an ounce of intelligence could have told me--it takes a lot of practice to be any good at it. The harp is after all a tricky instrument; it's entirely too easy to snag the wrong string with a fingernail, making a loud, sharp-sounding twang; or brush a knuckle against a vibrating lower string, making a loud, unpleasant whaaaangggg; or to throw the wrong sharping lever, so that one of your strings is tuned to F# when you should be playing in the key of C....

And I quickly discovered that, even though I have a great deal of experience singing on stage, that I was terrified by the idea of playing this instrument in front of people. So much of what I took for granted when singing--the ability to control my tempo, the ability to shape phrases musically using dynamic changes--I found next-to-impossible to handle on a harp. Or rather, I was spending so much time and mental energy just getting my fingers on the right strings, that I didn't have any brain cells to spare for the task of turning this sound into music. Of course, those few times that I actually did play in front of people, they were so mesmerised by the sound of the instrument itself that they didn't actually notice that I was sweating through the notes with uneven tempos and utterly flat dynamics. And in this regard the harp is one's ally--it is such a lovely sounding instrument that it melts audiences even when the player misses half the notes.

Anyway, about two-and-a-half years ago word got around at church that I played the harp; and soon thereafter, I received a request to play at a wedding. I agreed, because the young couple were very nice people, and they asked me very nicely, and they gave me five months warning to practice.

So I practiced my butt off for five months. And it took me all five months to get ready. And I played at their wedding, and everything worked. But then, relieved from the pressure of practicing for an impending gig, I slacked off my practice.

And because everything worked, another bride-to-be asked asked me to play at her wedding the following summer (2006). Again, I pulled out the harp and practiced my butt off for about five months, and again, everything worked out. And again, as soon as the pressure was off, the harps were put back in their corner and I did very little practice until early this summer.

So then I had two couples ask me to play for their weddings this summer. This time, I was starting to feel like an old hand at this; that, plus the fact that I had another little rugrat crawling around, tempted me to slack off a little from the practice. And I didn't have as much lead-time to practice, this time around; I only had three months warning instead of five. But knowing that I wouldn't have as much time to work on it, I picked easier pieces. And the first of these two weddings, back in early August, went very smoothly.

Now because I had been using a lot of the same pieces at all these weddings, my fingers have pretty well got all the movements memorized. I say my fingers have it memorized, because it's not my conscious mind doing it. In fact, when I start thinking about what my fingers are doing, they immediately get all tangled up. I find I can only play the more intricate passages if I have them absolutely memorized, and if I don't think about what my fingers are doing. So over the last several months, my practices have been shifting away from the object of making my fingers play the right notes, and toward all these features of musicality--dynamic phrasing, tempo that is completely under my control, so that I can intentionally change it, fluidly, to match the needs of the music. And I got pretty good at making the harp sing.


Saturday's wedding was the first wedding I ever played for where I didn't feel frightened going in. It being my fourth wedding in just over two years, I'm starting to feel like I'm an old pro at this.

However, I gave myself a bit of a reminder that I'm not in fact a pro. I wound up completely losing my fingering during the bridal procession, of all places. I was playing Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, and my fingers were on autopilot--which, as I mentioned, is the only way I can play these pieces and not fall apart--when my fingers pre-placed themselves on the wrong strings. Then of course they played the wrong notes. Then my conscious mind jumped in to try to fix things. Then I was thinking about what my fingers were doing, then I lost it. I was able to recover enough to noodle out some nice-sounding Bach-like fluffiness until the bride made it to the front of the auditorium, but that felt like the longest bridal procession I've ever had to play.

Now the nice thing about the harp, as I mentioned above, is that you can miss half your notes and everyone will still ooooh and aaaah and think you meant to do that, and this weekend's wedding was no exception. It's a very good thing that I was playing harp, and not bagpipe or alphorn. The bride and groom were still happy (although I seriously don't think they were paying much attention to the music while the bride was floating down the aisle toward her love-struck groom). And I didn't hear any complaints from anyone else present, and I did have lots of people come up to me and thank me for doing such a wonderful job. And I'm certainly not going to complain about the fact that people appreciated what I did.

But I can tell that I have a lot more skill-building yet to do before I'm ready for prime-time as a harpist. I'm not quitting the day job anytime soon.


I have lots of little things to serve up today (to make up for my not having posted yesterday):

  • My lovely bride wrote a post about some new books she picked up, here, primarily to be used in our home education efforts. I particularly liked the title of the book Drawing With Children. I was musing out loud: is that to be read like Drawing with Charcoal or Drawing with Crayons, where the children are the medium? My wife found this a rather humorous suggestion, and expanded the idea: first, you let the kid eat a really, really gooey brownie or chocolate chip cookie....
  • As you can tell, I really like the kind of humor that results from the ambiguous nature of the English language. If a phrase is grammatically ambiguous--if it can be taken to mean more than one thing--then frequently the unintended meaning can be quite invigorating. (This is one of the reasons I married my wife. What she does to the English language is a never-ending font of inadvertently humorous material.) So I just had to mention the Instapundit's post from earlier today, in which he links to the news item Gun-packing granny shoots hefty home invader clad only in his underwear, and comments: "How she got in his underwear, I'll never know."
  • The 94th Carnival of Homeschooling is up! It is over at The Thinking Mother. My post entitled Of Four-Year-Olds and Chapter Books is in there. There's also a post in there describing the very same Drawing With Children book that my wife described, in a little more detail. (Couldn't make out which gooey snack she recommends, though.)
  • My blog received its 2000th hit earlier today! I first put my hit counter on the site on August 19th--not quite two months ago--which means I am now officially getting just over 1000 hits per month. Now to be fair, that's not entirely true--a fair number of those hits are by me, checking my own site to see how many people have visited, or to make sure that my posts are displaying properly. (Blogging is a very dangerous hobby for those of us with a touch of narcissism.) But I'm still humbled that so many people have decided they actually want to drop by and read my wordy semi-coherent bloviations on sundry arbitrary eclectic topics.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bumper Cars!


Yes, everyone is OK.
No, the airbags did not deploy.
Yes, it is entirely my fault.
No, the other car wasn't hurt anywhere near as bad as ours was.
Yes, we will have to replace the license plate. (Talk about adding insult to injury.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ok, So This Wasn't The Sabbath Either

Last Sunday I wrote a post lamenting the fact that my day had been so very busy, when it was Sunday, for crying out loud: it's supposed to be a restful, relaxing day, that helps recharge us for the working week ahead. And I referred to it as a Sabbath.

And my very sweet but occasionally snarky sister-in-law pointed out the obvious fact that, actually, the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, not the first; and that the previous day had, in fact included a fun and relaxing visit with extended family, with pizza all around.

Yeah, yeah, I know; the Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday. Ya missed my point. Or rather, you probably got my point and decided to needle me a little bit about it.

So for the sake of being pedantic, here goes: The principle of a day of rest has been with us from the very beginning, when God rested from His creation on the seventh day. And He used this example as a template for a bunch of "sabbaths" in the Jewish law: the seventh day is a day of rest; the seventh ("sabbatical") year should see the fields lie fallow; the fiftieth year (the year following the seventh sabbatical year) should be a year when all lands return to their ancestral owners, and when all slaves are set free, and so forth.

Now, mister Paul was quite adamant in his writings that non-Jewish Christians were not expected to follow the Jewish law. And there doesn't appear to be any direct command anywhere in the New Testament that requires us to keep the Sabbath traditions. However, as Jesus said, "The Sabbath is made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath". That is, the Sabbath laws were made specifically to benefit those who follow them; not because God is on a cosmic power trip. He knows who we are and what we need, because He designed us; and if we don't get the rest we need, we eventually drop. He knew this, so he gave us the Sabbath.

Now the Sabbath was more than just a day of rest, it was also the day that most religious devotions were carried out. And in this regard, the closest thing that (most of) Christendom has developed to match the Sabbath, is our typical Sunday: we don't go to our jobs; we go instead to church; and then we (some of us) eat really big meals and sleep for much of the rest of the day. We wake up in the evenings able to sing the third A below middle C, and all is right with the world.

And I didn't get that last Sunday (except for the "third A" part), and I tend to get a little surly when I don't get the rest I need--thus last week's post.

But for the sake of Wendy's argument, let's take a look at how my Saturdays have been going lately, shall we? We'll use today as an example.
  • I got up this morning and helped get the kids up and dressed, like every morning.
  • I then went to on the weekly grocery store run, with two very wiggly girls in tow.
  • Upon getting home with the groceries, I then started work on the Backyard Thingy. The patio is now probably about a third paved with cobblestones. It's becoming quite lovely!
  • This went to 1:00 pm. I then cleaned up, came inside, and got lunch.
  • Then I got into a formal suit, loaded up my harps in the van, and...
  • Went to a local church where one of my friends was having his wedding.
  • I played at the wedding, then went home for dinner.
  • Then I fixed a sink that had been draining more and more slowly for the last several months.
  • After that, I drugged my cat. (No, seriously; one of my cats had some dental work done yesterday, and I need to give her some pain meds for the next couple of days.)
  • Then I gave said two very wiggly girls their baths.
  • After I'm done blogging, I get to do the late-night kitchen chores: cleaning up, and making formula for the Happy Boy for tomorrow.

And lest you think that I'm just giving myself a pity party, I'll go ahead and throw one for my lovely wife:

  • Looked after the Happy Boy while I was at the grocery store.
  • Put the groceries away while looking after all three kids.
  • Looked after the kids.
  • Finalized the MOPS budget for the new fiscal year.
  • Looked after the kids.
  • Made cookies.
  • Looked after the kids.
  • Did laundry.
  • Made lunch for the kids.
  • Looked after the kids.
  • Made dinner.
  • Looked after the kids.
  • Helped put kids to bed.
  • Mended two dresses.

So, um.... Today wasn't much like a Sabbath either.

I'm taking a nap tomorrow, and nobody better wake me. :-)

You Just Can't Escape Product Placement


As many of you know, my wife and I don't have a TV. Now, it's not that we're wild-eyed crusaders trying to eliminate the Devil Box from modern society (although I really laughed when I saw the first Dilbert comic on this page. Incidentally, that was one of the first 50 Dilbert strips Scott Adams wrote, and was part of his "audition" package to the comics syndicate).

We came by not having a TV because of a confluence of circumstances. In my case, just before I graduated from college and got my first job and my own apartment, I broke up with a girlfriend who watched a lot of TV. I had gotten pretty sick of it--I'd go over to her place at the end of a long week, happy to be with her, and she just wanted to watch E.R. So after we broke up, and then when I moved into an apartment by myself with no roommates, I decided not to get a TV.

In my wife's case, she had been a TV junkie all through her growing-up years, to the point where she could tell what time it was by what was on. As she grew into her college and post-college years, she decided this was a habit that needed breaking. By the time I got to know her, she had been whittling down her TV time bit-by-bit for several years. So when we got married and she moved in with me, we didn't feel any need to get one.

And this has proved to be a good decision. While there are occasionally things on TV that we wouldn't mind seeing, we'd have to sort through an awful lot of dreck to find it. And if it's really that good, it will eventually come out on DVD and we can just play it on our computer. And we've found many benefits to not having a TV. For one thing, we have a lot more time to do things. (For example: In the three years before Tonya and I got married, I took all that time I would have spent watching TV, and used it to learn to play the harp.) Second, we're not bombarded with all that advertising. We consider this a very good thing now that we have children. Ok, we still have some toys and clothes that have licensed characters on them--it's hard to avoid them entirely--but we don't have too many items like this, and we don't have our kids constantly clamoring for them.

And it's not that our kids are especially pure of heart in this regard, either. On those occasions we go over to friends' houses and they have the TV running, the girls are sucked in by it. And with every advertisement they see, one of them invariably says, "I think we should get that." Thankfully, they don't obsess over it. After we go home, they don't see those ads anymore. Out of sight, out of mind: they go back to doing the kinds of things they always do at home, and don't think anymore about those glowing baubles that were briefly dangled in front of their eyes.

That is, this is true for the most part.

But brand placement is downright insidious. While TV is its primary vector of attack, it isn't its only one. It searches out all our secret weaknesses, and slithers its way into our homes and into our secret thoughts--if not by one way, by another.

Behold how it has worked its nefarious ways upon our innocent daughter:

It's Big Brother, I tell you.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Literary contemplation

So the Pillowfight Fairy, after doing much reading of the books that we picked up at the library today, was sketching on a Magna-Doodle.

"See this butterfly? Soon it will have oobleck on it."


It's been a while since I've read that book. As I read it, it occurred to me that it would actually make a pretty good movie--probably better than any other Dr. Seuss-inspired movie made to date.

Especially if it was directed by someone like Tim Burton.

And the Fairy? She's started to think up some pretty gruesome ideas lately, of which oobleck on the butterfly is but one example among many. So, do you think this is just a natural thing, or is it a result of me reading all those Norse myths and Grimm's Fairy Tales to her? (Not that those options are mutually exclusive, of course.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Consensus ≠ Science

We have a video that the kids ask to see from time to time, containing all of the Schoolhouse Rock songs ever written. Now, most of these songs were written in the 1970s and 1980s, and times have changed since then; as a result, we note that several things said in these songs are a little out of date. It's interesting to read between the lines and note some of the fears that motivated the creation of these songs--like the song Energy that obliquely warned us that we'd all freeze if we didn't start conserving. And the songs about America were completely and un-ironically pro-American and pro-assimilation, which is something frankly refreshing to watch these days. (Although my wife is a little put off by the feminist viewpoint put forth in the song about suffrage. But that's for her to blog about, not me. I'm too chicken.)

Well, the song in the Science section about the importance of a eating well (with the Orwellian title "I'm a Machine, You're a Machine") contains a very interesting line about what constitutes a healthful diet. Schoolhouse Rock recommends a high-protein and low-carbohydrate diet (plus exercise).

When I first heard this song, I wasn't sure that I heard that right. High-protein, low-carbohydrate? Atkins hadn't published his stuff back in the seventies when this song was written! Where did that come from?

It turns out, this is one of those cases where the "conventional wisdom" of what constitutes a healthful diet swings widely from generation to generation, and from century to century. Those big cattle drives we read about from the Old West? They were done because the US developed a huge appetite for meat in the late 19th century. In the lean years during and after the Civil War there wasn't all that much food to go around, and an entire generation grew up slightly stunted growth-wise; that generation in turn developed an obsession with protein. If you have it, better eat it, because you don't know when you'll have it again. All that meat also was a status symbol; eating meat showed that you could afford meat, which meant that you and your family weren't likely to go hungry in the near future.

By the early seventies the scientific consensus was starting to swing in the other direction. I don't remember a whole lot from the seventies--I turned nine in 1980--but I do remember growing up thinking that all that meat and fatty food would make you unhealthy; that the healthful way to eat was to eat lots of fruits and vegetables; eat pasta, potatoes, and breadstuffs for energy; and eat only a little protein and fat.

Aside from the fruits and vegetables--which just about everyone agrees are good for you--this advice was exactly the opposite of what that Schoolhouse Rock song was telling us to do.

I remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of the "High-Protein, Low-Carb diet". One of my co-workers in the late nineties would order a double hamburger, discard the top bun, cut the rest in half; stack the whole thing together, and get rid of one half of the bottom bun. He said his doctor had told him to do this, to help him lose weight. (He did have serious heart issues, and had to carry around the nitroglycerine tablets just in case.) At the time, I thought that was the weirdest thing I'd ever heard of. I'm not so sure about that anymore; I'm no weight-loss expert, and I've never dieted, but I think there's probably something to the idea that cutting the carbs from the diet will actually result in weight loss before cutting the fat will. I'm not going to get into that argument here; that's something for another time, and as I said, I'm no expert.

But a slightly larger point is that the experts don't agree with each other.

And an even more important point that, is that even when the experts agree with each other, it doesn't mean they're right!

I saw an article at the New York Times (hat tip to the Instapundit) that I found highly interesting, entitled Diet and Fat: a Case of Mistaken Consensus. This article looks into how the low-fat consensus came into being and shouldered aside earlier "conventional wisdom" regarding diet, even though there wasn't a whole lot of evidence supporting it. In a very small nutshell, the problem is that scientists are people too, and every bit as vulnerable to social and political pressure as the rest of us poor souls. In fact, scientists may even be more vulnerable to social and political pressure than the rest of us, because in order to do their jobs, they have to convince someone (often the government) to pay for their research--and they have to convince their peers that their research is actually worth publishing. The Peer Review system, which--don't get me wrong--is necessary to weed out junk science--can also weed out entirely legitimate ideas that don't match the consensus. If you make yourself unpopular among your scientific peers, you can't publish your work, and your scientific career goes kablooey.

The article charts the rise of the low-fat consensus. Basically, one strongly-opinionated proponent of the low-fat model wound up getting into positions of authority within the American Heart Association, along with some allies; then, they managed to make a consensus by throwing the weight of the AHA behind research and researchers that supported the party line. Eventually, those scientists that doubted the consensus were marginalized and ignored. All this happened without the weight of scientific evidence in favor of the consensus position.


The problem is that we mere non-scientist plebians don't often have the expertise to determine for ourselves, first-hand, what is good science and what is junk. We have to rely on experts. But there are frequently experts on every side of every argument you can think of. What do we do?

We often try to answer this question by figuring out which side has more experts than the other side. If nine out of ten dentists agree that you shouldn't chew aspen bark, then we assume that's probably good advice.

The trouble is, that's a really lousy way to conduct scientific research. Our knowledge of the world is constantly changing. Theories old and new are constantly being tested, updated, pondered, and discarded. And every new advance in science originated in the mind of some individual scientist who looked at the data in a slightly different way than those who came before, and came to new conclusions. Initially, every advance in science starts out as a non-consensus position.

Consider the recent news item that some scientists have proposed a new theory about the human appendix. As I understand it, this theory rejects the consensus notion that the appendix is just a useless organ, a leftover from far back in our evolutionary past where it actually did something that helped us survive. This theory proposes that the purpose of the appendix is to preserve some intestinal bacteria--which is crucial in helping us digest our food--in times of famine or disease, when our digestive tracts get emptied and/or flushed out. With the appendix there keeping some of these bacteria around, we can start digesting normally again the moment the food supply becomes available.

Is this theory correct? Who knows? I'm in no position to judge it. But the point is, it might be right. And if it is, then it gives a perfect illustration of one scientist having an idea that flies in the face of consensus, and the consensus being wrong.

The author Michael Crichton--who wrote the Andromeda Strain, Jurrasic Park, and many others--delivered a very interesting speech some years back warning (among other things) that the scientific community has been embracing consensus as a guiding principle of late; and that this has been degrading the quality of the science produced, and undermining the faith of the public in scientists and the in institutions of science. The speech, whimsically entitled Aliens Cause Global Warming, contained this section (which we should all memorize):

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

This is something that we all need to remember. Any time you hear a scientist or politician say, "The science is settled!" just think to yourself that this person has lost any credibility to speak on scientific matters. Science is never settled. Declaring that it is, merely makes one impervious to any subsequently collected evidence to the contrary. The most that anyone has the right to say is, "Based on our best understanding and the evidence we've collected to date, the most likely explanation is X." Anything more leaves the realm of science.

And based on our best understanding and the evidence we've collected to date, it's not a high-fat diet that will do you in, it's a diet that consistently takes in more calories than your body burns. And it is often the low-fat diets that do this; the lack of fats leave the person hungry, causing him or her to eat a lot more than he or she would have on a richer diet. But as I mentioned above, this assessment may still change when new research comes in on the matter. In the meantime, don't let anyone browbeat you into eating what they want you to by claiming that 9 out of 10 experts agree with them. Nine out of 10 times, the research will be pointing somewhere else by the time the decade is out.