Friday, November 30, 2007

A Little Something To Add To the Blogger's Bag Of Tricks

As I was web-surfing one day, I came upon this post. It was a typical post on a political topic at I site I frequent. But...

The blogger included a poll at the end. And it turns out, the poll was hosted at a site that lets you set up polls for free!

Cool. So, just to see how it works--and inspired by this post and the comments therein--I decided to create one. Here goes:

What is your favorite food?
Bacon
Chocolate
Haggis
Sauerkraut
Liver and Onions
Kimchee
Escargot
Lutefisk
Spam
Pickled Pigs' Feet
pollcode.com free polls

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another Literary Contemplation

So my wife took the munchkins to the Library today, and among the books they brought back was Dr. Seuss's early classic Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. I read this book to the girls tonight just before bedtime.

So, tell me: do any of you out there see Ayn Rand-esque philosophy underlying the story, or am I the only one?

I decided to ask Google, and it appears I'm not the only one....

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Beef With Social Studies

Another Update: Ever read your own writing after the fact, and think to yourself, "Who writes this stuff? I could do it so much better!" Well, I decided that a few edits were necessary to clarify and emphasize my main point, which previously was getting lost in all the caveats.

Update: fixed an embarrassing misspelling. They are known as the Elgin marbles, not the Eglin marbles. Sheesh.




All right, time to poke the hornet's nest again and see what comes out. :-)

Here's a thought experiment.

Let's say that an educational reformer somewhere decides that our kids aren't learning enough about "Culture," and designs a curriculum to remedy this fact.

The general idea behind the Culture curriculum, is that all all aspects relating to culture will be folded into this one subject area, which can then be taught in a systematic way, instead of being taught in a scattershot manner as a collection of unrelated subjects. So for instance, Literature classes will be folded into the new Culture curriculum, because Literature is one of the major ways that a culture expresses itself.

So along this vein, all the following subjects--which can be seen as expressions of the Cultures of the societies that manifest them--get folded into the new Culture curriculum:

  • Literature
  • Music appreciation and music performance
  • Art appreciation and practice
  • Civics/Political Science
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • P.E. (After all, sports are a form of cultural expression!)
  • Foreign Language

And of course, in the interest of providing insight into other cultures, at least as much time is given to Literature, Music, Art, etc... of these cultures, especially non-Western ones.

Now, let's say this whole idea catches on, and schools across the whole land start replacing their relevant existing courses with Culture classes. And because this subject is clearly of monumental importance, school districts everywhere start making Culture a course required of all secondary school students, who must take an hour a day for the entire four years they are in high school.

So, tell me: under this arrangement, how much Literature are they actually going to learn? How much Foreign Language? How much Philosophy? How much exercise will they actually get?

My guess is, this would be a disaster. Simply stated, the above list of subjects is simply too big to be covered in a one-hour class each day, even over the course of four years. In my own high school career, I had four years of choir , four years of English/Literature/Philosophy, three years of Foreign Language, one year of AP American Government, and two years of P.E. If I add all that up, it averages three and a half hours' classroom time each day for four years, and that doesn't even cover all the topics on the above list. (And I still didn't learn my German very well. Of course, that was more an artifact of my own lousy study habits than the fact that I only had an hour a day for three years....)

The Culture course that supplants all these subjects only gives one hour a day. By aggregating all these subjects together and making it all fit between period bells, the result is to cut down drastically on the amount of time spent on each of these subjects, and thus cut down drastically on the depth of knowledge actually passed on to the pupils.

Well, consider everything that went into the course called "Social Studies" when I was in high school (some of which may actually be off the list by now, which is a good thing):

  • World History
  • American History
  • Anthropology
  • Geography
  • Archaeology (to the extent that we covered it)
  • Civics/American Government/Political Science
  • Philosophy (although, to be fair, I got more of this in my Literature classes than in Social Studies)
  • Economics
  • Health--including First Aid, Drug Education, and Sex Ed (with a rather bracing unit on STDs)
  • Drivers' Training

And clearly, since this is such an important topic, we'll assign all students to one hour every school day for all four years of their High School career.

So, tell me: under this arrangement, how much World History are they actually going to learn? How much Economics? How much American History or American Government or Political Science or Political Philosophy? How much Geography?

Do you start to see what my beef with the idea of "Social Studies" is? As my wife puts it, Social Studies courses were just another side dish in the educational buffet our schools put up. It was also something of a dumping ground for all kinds of short courses that the schools were required to teach, when there wasn't a better place to put them. After all: Drivers' Training for crying out loud! What's that got to do with the Articles of Confederation?

The course matter that goes into what we call "Social Studies" should be more than just another side dish: it's the main course. The subjects that go into social studies tell us, in no small part, who we are; who else is out there; how we relate to them; how we're all organized; how we got to be where we are; how our government is organized, and what our rights and responsibilities are; how other societies and governments are organized; what works and what doesn't in each system; and so on. It's a big chunk of the core curriculum that we're trying to pass on to our children.

So we throw all our history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, economics, government, political philosophy, and a host of other stuff together into one class; give it one class period a day; and then expect our students to come away with an in-depth understanding of the way all this stuff works? Color me highly, highly skeptical.

Now, I need to insert a few caveats here. First, I'm not in the least opposed to the idea of "aggregating" subjects. Some subjects are taught together very well: history and geography, history and archaeology, history and philosophy, history and literature, literature and philosopy, US History and American Government, physics and mathematics... the list goes on. I like the approach used at some universities (or at least, used to be used at some universities before being declared politically incorrect) of having a Western Civ course of study--which covered history, literature, philosophy, geography, economics, and religion together as one massive subject--which constituted the core of each student's education for the first two years or so of their university experience. So I'm all for aggregating subjects as appropriate--so long as we recognize just how big the aggregated course is, and give it enough time and energy to make sure it gets taught and learned properly.

Second, I'm fully aware that some students are simply not made for some subjects. I have a brother-in-law who's great with computers, but never got into great literature or history, being more of a science fiction kind of guy. Frankly, for someone like this, his time is better spent brushing up on his technical skills and on knowledge of trends in his industry than it would be reading about eight-hundred-year-old battles (although I think he'd most appreciate the ones that involved massive siege engines--we're kindred spirits that way). So some allowance clearly has to be made for students whose talents primarily lie in other fields.

Third, I realize that there are only so many hours in the day. The amount of knowledge out there worth knowing is huge; no one gets out of high school knowing more than a fraction of that which would be useful and/or edifying. So much of planning a curriculum is deciding what one will not be covering, simply because there isn't time. What can we afford to let slip through the cracks, and what can't we?

But with all these caveats granted, I've been thinking for some time about the kind of education I want to provide for my children. We will not be treating "Social Studies" as one topic, requiring one hour a day instruction time. The topics that make up "Social Studies", along with the topics that make up my hypothetical "Culture" curriculum, will in fact make up the core of our children's education, and will most likely require most of the educational day, at least by the time the children enter high school.

Now, we do intend to teach these topics in as integrated a fashion as possible. It just seems reasonable to read Greek myths as we study the history of the ancient Greeks, while we're learning the geography of the Mediterranean basin, while we're learning about Socrates and Aristotle and Plato and Euclid, while we're studying pictures of the Elgin Marbles and the Parthenon. But we intend to keep in mind the fact that this aggregated subject is the core of their curriculum, and give it the weight and energy needed to do justice to the fact.

Oh, and one other thing--we aren't the first homeschooling family to think along these lines. These ideas show up a lot in Charlotte Mason's writings; they show up in books on Classical Homeschooling theory (such as The Well Trained Mind, which we're using); and they show up a lot among those who use a Unit-Study approach. So, while we're as crochety, ill-tempered, and independent-minded as any homeschoolers out there, it's still nice to know that we aren't actually alone in thinking this way. :-)

(And one more thing, before anyone else complains: no, we're not neglecting math and science. I may talk about these later, depending on what the muses have to say...)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

100th Carnival of Homeschooling is up!

It's over at Mom is Teaching. There are a lot of really good, thought-provoking articles this week (although, alas, none from me).

As the daddy of two daughters, I was particularly affected by this post. It deals with the rather unrealistic standards of beauty that our society tries to cram down the throats of our young women. It contains two very thought-provoking short videos that illustrate clearly what our daughters are up against. The first one shows the process by which a model, who's actually a normal-looking young lady, gets turned into an unobtainable goddess through make-up and digital enhancement, illustrating how our daughters really are up against an unattainable standard of beauty, since not even the models can reach it without Photoshop. The second video, which is more than just a little disturbing, shows a rapid-fire montage of beauty-product advertising that directly assaults a woman's sense of her own attractiveness.

Anyway, there's a lot of good stuff there this week. Check it out!

All I Want For Christmas Is....

Unfortunately, they're out of stock, for now. But I suspect that among a certain percentage of the population, this is this year's equivalent of Tickle-Me-Elmo; When they finally get it back in stock, they'll make a zillion bucks.


Only a hundred bucks! Santa, if you're listening, I'll need their size "Large".

Oh, and from the same site, I like these too.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Civics Test!

I was surfing around on some Homeschooling websites today, and came across this Civics Test. I couldn't resist. I did pretty well, missing three out of 60, for a score of 95%. My wife did rather well, too, getting 88.33%--as she missed 7 out of 60. She did well on the history questions, but was tripped up on several of the economics and political philosophy questions.

Apparently, four-year college grads score just under 55% on average. The average among on-line test-takers is 70%.

On one of the questions I got wrong, it was because I misread the name of the president in the question: I read Andrew Jackson for Andrew Johnson, and so completely misidentified the major political issue of his day. And the one on suffrage, I could have gotten if I just paid more attention to the Schoolhouse Rock video we show our kids from time to time.

All in all, I enjoyed the quiz. If you take it, let me know in the comments how you did!

Hat tip to Why Homeschool? on this one.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Story With an Unexpected Ending

Well, I know I should actually put in the time to write another "meaty" post, but somehow my IQ tends to take a precipitious dip over the course of long holiday weekends. It's probably Carbohydrate Poisoning or something like that.

So instead, I thought I'd let my firstborn daughter regale you with another of her stories. I personally think the plot has a few loose ends that need tying up (like, what happened to the boy?), but I like the unexpected twist at the end.

Here we go:


(Note: I suppose this is pretty, in a Sinead O'Connor sort of way. I'm trying to figure out how she's keeping that bow in place without any hair. Spirit Gum, maybe?)


(That's the Yo-Yo from Fantasia 2000. It seems my daughter thinks that flamingos do nothing all day but throw Yo-Yos around and get into trouble with each other. She should know better: we've been to the Sacramento Zoo, and we know from personal experience that all Flamingos really do all day is chase each other into the bushes and try to mate.)


(I had to ask for a little help with this one. The Pillowfight Fairy says these are the rocks that she's throwing into the pond.)


There it is: the unexpected ending. I can genuinely say I didn't expect that, and I probably let out a goodly-sized snort when I first read it.

Wow. Just, wow. So there really is a light at the end of the tunnel! And we only have to wait 23 more years to get there. ;-)

I'm still curious about what happened to the boy. I shall try to remember to ask the Pillowfight Fairy, so I can give you an update sometime soon.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day of Rest

If you can stand a little more meta-blogging, this is a post to say that I don't have a whole lot to say. We're still digesting yesterday's meal.

It's been a while since we've had a true day of rest. For the last several months, every time we've had a day off, I've used it to work on the Never-Ending Backyard Project. Well, since we finally have all the stones in place, I decided not to try to go on to the next phase yet, and just spend the day loafing. (Ok, I did mow the lawn--but I actually find mowing to be a relaxing experience. And Tonya went to the mall--on this, the most fearsome shopping day of the year--but she actually found it a relaxing experience too, because all the kids were at home with Daddy, and she could actually find something like solitude (ironically, in the middle of really, really big crowds. But at least they were adult crowds. O.K., there were plenty of kids, but they weren't hers).

Turns out the guy who came to fix our 'fridge really did save our bacon, literally; so we fried it up for lunch today. The kids had somehow gotten the unusual notion into their heads that they needed pancakes for lunch. Well, it was a quiet, relaxing morning, so I thought: why not? So I made up a bunch of pancakes, and then fried up the bacon, which was still good. Oh, it was so, so, so, good....

Sometimes it's worthwhile to spend a day doing a whole lot of nothing.


P.S. I have to make a correction to an earlier post. I said in my post on Beowulf that the Old English word ða eventually became the Modern English word the. Turns out, this isn't correct. The word ða eventually became the modern word though; but it actually meant either then or when, depending on the order of the words that followed it. Just thought you might need to know that. :-)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

'Twas The Day Before Thanksgiving

...and all through the house, everything stopped working at the same time, including my left knee.


...


When I woke this morning and started to get ready for work, I noticed our pitcher of fruit juice was nearly empty, so I went to the freezer to get more concentrate...

...and the freezer was completely defrosted. In fact, it was nearly room temperature in the freezer. We would have done better to leave all our food on our rooftop; at least it was cold outside last night.

The freakin' ice cream had separated into about two inches of water-based liquid at the bottom of the tub, and a fatty white-creamy substance floating on top of it. We've all seen ice cream melt, but I suspect that few of us have ever seen ice cream go that far, before.

We had to throw out most of what was in the freezer, and a good portion of what was in the refrigerator; and we don't yet know that we've dumped everything we need to.

Well. Among the things in our freezer were all the pomegranate seeds that we've been preparing to use to make jelly. We figured that they were probably fine; they don't go bad all that quickly under normal circumstances. Besides, we're making jelly with them; the high temperatures kill off any bacteria present. So long as we can get the jelly made fairly soon, we'll be just fine. So we decided that Tonya would juice the seeds today. Then we'd be prepared to make several batches of jelly before the weekend.

So, I got a call from Tonya at work today.

The blender died too.

It was one that we've had since we got married, over seven years ago, and we've gotten a lot of good use out of it. But it was rather an inconvenient time to have it go, no? So anyway, Tonya figured that instead of juicing the seeds in a blender, she would do it the old-fashioned way: put them in a sealed plastic bag, and smoosh them. Works like a champ, especially given that the seeds were already defrosted. (Although when she was straining them later, she would occasionally come upon an un-smooshed seed, which she would then squish with a spoon to get the juice out. This, of course, put a large number of lovely red-purple spots all over the wall near the stove.)

Well, work wasn't very productive today, what with half the people already off on their vacation, so I talked my boss into letting me take a half-day off so I could go home and help deal with crises. Dad to the rescue! Right? Um...

Well, sometime between 10 and 11 this morning, my left knee started to hurt. No obvious reason, no obvious cause; it just started aching. Then it started aching worse. Then, by One O'clock or so, it became excruciating to put any weight on it. I managed to get home--driving a stick-shift, no less--then had to put on a knee brace we had lying around, and took a few Tylenol. My wife made me lie down and rest (although it didn't take much coaxing, actually. After writing that huge post about Beowulf last night, I was sleep-deprived and needed the nap).

Ultimately we got through the day. The Sears repair-dude showed up at about 5:00 (turns out, Thanksgiving Eve is one of their busiest days of the year! Go figure), and the refrigerator fix was a fairly simple one: an electric switch that regulates the starting of the compressor had shorted and needed to be replaced. It's a common repair, and he had the necessary part in the truck. As for the blender, we've decided to give it the Extreme Unction and send it off; they're fairly cheap, actually. And my knee is feeling better, though the kids kept trying to climb up on it (ow...) and I had to drive to a local Chinese restaurant for takeout (ow...) and work the parking brake with my left foot (Ow!Ow!Ow!Ow!Ow!oooooh....) I might be limping around a little at my extended family's Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow.

I've got a few more chores tonight, but hopefully I'll be safely in bed before anything else goes wrong today. ;-)


Postscript: It occurs to me that the first sentence of this post would make a halfway decent entry in the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest, in which the contestants compose just the first lines of the worst novels never written. Imagine a novel that begins with the line:

'Twas the day before Thanksgiving, and all through the house, everything stopped working at the same time, including my left knee.


Methinks it has possibilities!

First People, Now Sheep

Regular readers of this blog know that my eldest daughter has developed a fascination with the concept and design of People-Launchers and other assorted siege engines. See, for instance, this post, this post, and this post.

Well! Her little engineer's mind is constantly seeking to apply existing solutions to new and various problems. So today, I came across this proposal she had written:


Having already developed the Mark 1 People-Flinger, she decided to adapt this technology to new and different problems, by introducing a new Conception of Operations (CONOPS).

The new idea is that this system can be used to pilfer sheep.


Here's the new CONOPS, as illustrated: the user grabs the big rubber band which is stretched between two trees; then, he/she stretches the rubber band over to the nearest sheep pen, in the lower right side of the above diagram; then he/she grabs the first sheep that happens to wander within reach; then the sheep is inserted in the rubber band, and off it goes. With a little luck (and some really dumb livestock), one can get one's own Black Sheep Squadron going.

(Note that I used the term "he/she" in the above paragraph. If we were dealing with adults, I would have just used the term "he", as most women I know wouldn't have thought to do this. However, considering that this whole scheme was dreamed up by a female, I figured I needed to inlcude the possibility in my choice of pronouns.)

I asked the Fairy what the purpose of this contraption was. She said something about making "sheep stew".

Although, the way the Fairy described it to her little sister, the rubber band is supposed to launch both the sheep and the sheep rustler at the same time. The rustler stands in the rubber band holding on to the sheep as the rubber band is released, and they both go flying. Intriguing concept, no? Perhaps the purpose of the sheep is to provide some nice wooly cushioning upon landing. Or maybe it's just an ingenious getaway device, of the sort that Wile E. Coyote might have used to abscond with his quarry from that big sheepdog.

Ingenious....

Except for the obvious fact that the Pillowfight Fairy hasn't given all that much thought to the landing part. Which, come to think of it, was Wile E. Coyote's problem, too. These super-geniuses all seem to think alike.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

So They Made Another Beowulf Movie....

Well! Now that I've beaten the subject of Valkyries to death, it's time to move on to another topic. So now I get to beat Beowulf to death, too.

For all you pedants out there (like my wife): No, I didn't actually beat Beowulf to death. He's already been dead a really long time.

About a year ago, I read somewhere that film director Robert Zemeckis--who did the recent Polar Express movie, and (more well-known to my generation) Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, was putting together a version of Beowulf. I was very intrigued.

Now, it's not that Beowulf hasn't been done before. There are at least two previous adaptations to the big screen that I know of (although I haven't seen any of them). The problem is, neither of these adaptations actually try to tell the story straight. The first of these films, released in 1999, set the activity in a post-technological future-fantasy setting, and was roundly panned by critics. The second of these was an Icelandic production from 2005, and did everything in its power to "humanize" Grendel by giving him a tragic back-story, and to turn Beowulf into a reluctant hero, who sympathizes more with Grendel than with the violent, barbaric Danes. This one fared marginally better with the critics, although it was still described by at least one reviewer as having dialogue that puts the viewer in mind of a bad Monty Python sketch.

...

Now, my first introduction to Beowulf was in an excerpt that showed up in one of my English textbooks in Junior High. It was a re-written and dumbed-down account of the battle between Beowulf and Grendel, that started about the point where Grendel entered the hall to eat the people he found there, and ended just after Beowulf pulled off Grendel's arm, and Grendel fled away to die. Sad to say, there really wasn't anything compelling in this rendition, other than the draw that blood and guts has for your typical Junior-High-School boy, to make us more interested in the story or its literary background. I mean, we'd already learned a lot about Greek myths and legends, and a little about the Norse; but Beowulf? Where did that fit in? It had no context. I knew nothing about the work, or the culture it came from, or who wrote it. It was just a weird story.

Fast forward to the mid-nineties, when I was out of college and commuting to work every day by train, forty-five minutes each way. I decided that my knowledge of Western Civ needed a little beefing up, so I started working my way through various classical works. I figured that I needed to read Beowulf and find out what all the fuss was about. After all, even though I'd had no context for my earlier reading, even then I could tell that the story was considered a classic of the English Language (though I'd had no way of understanding why, at that point). So I picked up a copy of this edition.

It's a good edition. The core of the book is of course the epic poem itself; but it's presented with the Old English text on the left page, and a poetic translation on the right page, so one can compare. The preface contains a textual synopsis and criticism, explaining what modern scholars believe the themes are that play out in the poem; there's also a "Guide to Reading Aloud" for those who wish to attempt to tackle the Old English. After the poem, the book contains a section describing the historical and cultural context in which the poem was written, followed by a running commentary on the entire poem, and a brief glossary of Old English terms.

I fell in love with the poem.

I can't explain it, but it was while I reading and studying Beowulf, from this volume, that I gained an entirely new appreciation for Epic Poetry.

I found myself fascinated by Anglo-Saxon culture: what was a thane? How did bonds of loyalty and obligation work? How did kings in the Anglo-Saxon world maintain their authority?

I found myself fascinated by the theological background of the poem, which took place in a time when Christianity was still very new in the land, and the theology was still strongly influenced by the older pagan sources. I think about the view expressed in the book of God being stern, but benevolent; but the pagans in the poem, though depicted as very noble, lived in a harsh, unforgiving world, and were obviously pitied by the author for their unfortunate, hopeless state. And I'm intrigued by the concept of the "Curse of Cain", who (in the poem) is described as the progenitor of all the monsters, the demons, the wicked things that torment Man--including Grendel himself.

I found myself fascinated by the Old English Language itself:

Hwæt!

We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Part of this, of course, comes from the idea that this language--seemingly so alien to our own--is, in fact, really early English. This was before the Norman Invasion, so we hadn't had the influx of French words and grammar into our language yet. So Old English actually resembles the Old Saxon dialect of German. But still, if one looks closely enough, one sees words that are destined to become Modern English: cwen will eventually become queen, ða will eventually become the; the German König becomes the Old English cyninc (which is pronounced almost the same), which eventually becomes king.

And, of course, there all all those funny little letters that we don't have anymore, but should: þ (thorn) and ð (eth), both of which are eventually supplanted in Modern English by the th digraph. Learning to read these things, makes one feel like one is reading ancient runes. Hey, look at me! I'm a lore-master! ;-)

And then there's the story itself, which (now that we've been fortified with knowledge of the world in which the poem was written) is a ripping good yarn. Not only that, but it contains occasional insights on the human condition which are really quite profound. Here's one that caught my attention when I read the book. After Beowulf has dispatched both Grendel and his Mother, and has returned from the land of the Danes to his own king, he gives an account of the Danes. It seems the Danes have attempted to secure peace, through the use of an alliance through marriage. Beowulf comments that he doesn't think this arrangement will work out, and he gives this little bit of reasoning:

The Scylding king has brought this about,
the guard of his kingdom, accepts the opinion
that with the young woman he'll settle his share
of the killings and feud. But seldom anywhere,
after a slaying, will the death-spear rest,
even for a while, though the bride be good.
The lord of the Heathobards may well be displeased,
and each of his thanes, his nation's retainers,
when the Danish attendant walks in their hall
beside his lady, is honorably received.
On Danish belts swing shining heirlooms,
sharp as of old, the Heathobards' ring-treasures
for as long as they could wield those weapons,
till they finally led into that shield-play
their beloved companions and their own lives.
Then at the beer-feast an old fighter speaks,
who sees that ring-hilt, remembers it all,
the spear-death of men--has a fierce heart--
begins in cold sorrow to search out a youngster
in the depths of his heart, to test his resolve,
strike blade-spark in kin, and he says these words:
'Can you, my comrade, now recognize the sword
which your father bore in the final battle,
under grim war-mask for the last time,
that precious iron, when the Danes killed him,
controlled the field, when Withergyld fell
in our heroes' crash at Scylding hands?
Now some son or other of your father's killers
walks in this hall, here, in his pride;
exults in his finery, boasts of his slayings,
carries that treasure that is rightfully yours.'
He continually whets the young man's mind
with cruel words, until a day comes
when the lady's retainer, for his father's killings,
sleeps bloody-bearded, hacked by a sword,
his life forfeited. The slayer will escape,
get away with his life, he knows the country.
Then, on both sides, broken like swords
the nobles' oath-swearing, once deadly hate
wells up in Ingeld; in that hot passion
his love for the peace-weaver, his wife, will cool.
So I count it little, the Heathobards' loyalty,
friendship so firm, peace-sharing with the Danes,
think it less than the truth.
...and when I read this, I thought: some Anglo-Saxon writer, probably over a thousand years ago, has managed to diagnose the central issue of the entire problem in the Middle East today.

...

So what of the latest movie?

A word of warning: while I have not seen the movie, I have read everything I can about it online, and so I need to deliver a...






SPOILER WARNING
Go no further if you want to see the movie, before a semi-coherent bloviator blows the plot for you.




Well, I was intrigued when I heard how Zemeckis was planning on filming the thing. He figured that the art of computer animation is advanced enough, that the entire film can be done in motion capture. This is an intriguing idea; it means that you don't need sets, you don't need makeup, you don't need lights, you don't film while filming; all you need to do is capture the sound of the characters' voices and some realistic-looking motions, and then set the animators to work on it. Basically, every character is animated the same way that Gollum/Smeagol was in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And this method of film making has several potential advantages over traditional filming. For instance, they were able to age the character of Beowulf 50 years between the second and third acts of the movie, and have it look more realistic than if it was a standard make-up aging. This sort of thing saves a whole lot of time; you can get a whole lot more filming done in any given day if you're just doing motion capture, and not having to have your main character sit in the make-up chair for six hours a day.

Of course, this opens up other possibilities, as well. For one thing, you can take a screen vixen, such as Angelina Jolie--who was three months pregnant at the time of "filming"--and give her a nude scene without her even realizing it.

What!? I don't remember that in the epic poem. Maybe I need to go read the thing again....

No, seriously. This is where the thing starts to go off the rails, actually. In this new telling of Beowulf, they do a fair amount of reading between the lines. After all, there isn't any sex in the original poem, but our society is obsessed with sex, so no sword-and-sorcery flick can be considered complete without it. Basically, the producers decided to make a couple of leaps with the original story:

  • Both Grendel and his mother are depicted as being of the monstrous race of Cain--but nothing is ever said about Grendel's father. Who would mate with such a hag to produce this spawn? Well....
  • The text is apparently unclear about whether Grendel's mother was actually a hag. The term aglæc-wif has traditionally been rendered "monster-woman"; but the aglæc- prefix in other contexts simply means "hero" or "warrior", and is apparently used to refer to Beowulf himself on occasion. So it's not completely out of the range of possibility that Grendel's mother was not an ugly hag. So, let's go with the idea that she's a beautiful, seductive, she-devil-type creature....
  • Who is obviously trying to mate with Men of Mighty Stature, such as... let's see... How about King Hrothgar? Yes, that'll work. So she's mated with Hrothgar, and so Grendel is actually Hrothgar's son.
  • Now, when Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel, the mum needs another man with whom to produce another offspring. Any other eligible Men of Mighty Stature around that would fit the bill? Hmmm...
  • Yup, you guessed it. That's why she drags Wulfie down to her cave under the swamp.
  • Now, the poem says that Beowulf cuts off her head. But how do we know that for sure? After all, the only two people in that cave were Beowulf and the mum. So anything that happened in that cave, we only have Beowulf's word to go on. What if he lied about it? After all, people lie about sex all the time....
  • ...which ultimately gives us the origin of the Dragon that shows up fifty years later, at the end of the poem. Yup, it's another of mum's offspring, sired by our favorite Man of Mighty Stature.

So anyway, Angelina Jolie apparently didn't realize that she was going to look like that until she saw herself vamping around onscreen at the premier. She described herself as feeling rather, um... exposed, and felt the need to call home to her family about it.

Sigh...

So, how's the movie doing? Apparently it was #1 at the box office last weekend, so it's not doing too badly. The reviews are mixed about it--some good, some bad. I read this review by someone else who loves the poem, and it pretty well realized my fears about the movie. Though to be fair, by all accounts it's better than those first two stinkers I linked to above.

I'm still curious to see it, though. However, as a parent of three kids ages five and under, I don't get to go out to the movies much--especially not the kinds of movies where giant ogres get their limbs pulled off. I think Tonya and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movies we've seen since the Pillowfight Fairy came along five years ago. If I expressed a desire to see this one, I would have to explain to my wife exactly what reason I could possibly have for wanting to seeing a naked, demonic Angelina Jolie.

I mean, what good reason I could possibly have....

Thanksgiving Edition of Carnival of Homeschooling Is Up!

The Carnival of Homeschooling is being hosted at HomeschoolBuzz this week, and it has a lot of good stuff.

My recent post, Update On Our Musical Experiment, is featured.

There are also a couple of posts there that I found particularly interesting. Dana from Principled Discovery writes here about her experiences attempting to raise self-learners, following the rule of thumb that "A child should be self-educating by twelve". I find this post very interesting, in no small part because I touched on the topic of student self-education in this post, and had it kick off quite a discussion in the comments section. Anyway, I'm thankful to Dana for giving a description of how this process looks from her perspective. (And I also think many of the comments are very interesting, too.)

Another interesting post, by Crimson Wife, talks about invented spellings, and asks about how to get kids to spell correctly without killing their love of writing. There's a good discussion going in the comments there, too.

Yesterday, the Part of Me Was Played By...

...Nobody. I wasn't able to post yesterday, because my wife had the computer all evening. And she had priority. For one thing, she is the financial coordinator for our local MOPS chapter, and had to get the finances up-to-date. For another, she hadn't blogged in a while, and I had; so she figured that it was her turn. That's life, when you only have one computer in the household.

She keeps threatening to get a laptop.

Anyway, her post from yesterday is here, if you haven't seen it yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Update on our Musical Experiment

Welcome to the 100th post on my humble blog! I started doing this just over three months ago, and I've managed to average about one post a day since the beginning. The lack of sleep is beginning to tell, I'm afraid. ;-)

Four weeks ago I wrote a post entitled Music for My Munchkins, in which I described our plans for teaching piano to our five-year-old. I'd like to update you on the progress we've made since then.

First, when I started teaching the Pillowfight Fairy how to play the piano, the only piano-texts we had were adult-level. They really weren't adequate for teaching a five-year-old, a limitation we fully expected when we started out. For one thing, adult-level texts start by throwing lots of abstract concepts around (like "circle of fifths") right at the very beginning, and five-year-old beginners don't have the background necessary to make any sense of these things whatsoever. Then there are the mechanical issues, stemming from the fact that a five-year-old has really tiny hands, and the fact that if they sit properly on a piano bench, their feet don't reach the pedals and their arms aren't parallel to the floor. (And our girl is a really tall one; we suspect most kids her age would have it much worse.)

So I had to pick and choose things out of the adult-level beginner text to show her, and I had to skip a whole bunch. This led to a very scattershot approach--which, of course, the Fairy began to resist. Of course, some of that resistance came about because of the typical cussedness that comes of being five.

Well, at her fifth birthday, some of her grandparents (at our suggestion) got her a couple of age-appropriate piano texts. They picked out Teaching Little Fingers to Play from the John Thompson series, and Teaching Little Fingers to Play More from the same series. My beloved sister-in-law mentioned that she was taught to play with these methods.

At the beginning of Teaching Little Fingers to Play, there is a "To the teacher" note that explains a little about how to use the book. It gives a sample approach to teaching the first three lessons in the book, and a few pointers for handling the rest. In the first three lessons, they cover all the note names, where they fall on the piano, and where they fall on the treble and bass cleff (within an octave containing Middle C, at any rate); and they introduce the fingering numbers: 1 for the thumb, 2 for the index finger, and 3 for the middle finger, with 4 and 5 left for later lessons. The book also stresses learning the early lessons by rote, since that allows the child to start making music--which is, of course, the enjoyable part--right at the beginning.

With these texts in hand, I started to be a little more systematic: we have now decided that I'm going to give her a little piano time after dinner each evening, four nights a week; these lessons will be very short, no more than ten minutes or so; and we're not making her do any additional practice yet (since she's only five).

In the process of instructing the Pillowfight Fairy on the piano, I've discovered a few things.

First, she resists it. She'd rather just go elsewhere and play with her toys. And she is often neither very attentive nor cooperative. However, this is frequently the case with the Fairy whenever she is learning a new skill, and often her interest in the skill starts to pick up when she begins to get some mastery over it. For instance, she used to hate drawing; she wanted to dictate to Mommy what she wanted drawn, but Mommy insisted that she draw things herself. Then she started to get better at it, a bit at a time. Now, she uses roughly one ream of 8.5" x 11" printer paper, 500 sheets, each month. And I'm seeing evidence that this may well be the case when she starts to figure out the piano. Occasionally, when we're not making her do it, she will want to play by herself (with us out of the room, so presumably we can't tell her that she's doing it wrong), and we'll hear her playing out her lesson--and sounding quite good at it.

Second, the book recommends that the student sings along as she plays. My own observations confirm the wisdom of this advice. The act of singing encourages her to maintain the tempo and rhythms. When she just plays it without singing it, it turns into nothing more than a sequence of arbitrary notes; but when she sings it as she plays, all the rhythms start to fall into place, and the thing becomes a bit smoother--less choppy. (Not to mention the obvious added benefit, that she is learning how to sing and play at the same time, which is a very useful skill to have--and something I've never learned to do with any proficiency. It engages many more parts of the brain simultaneously, requiring--and building--some serious mental stamina.) Furthermore, the book also recommends that the student sing the note names, not only the words of the song, as she plays; this helps her learn the names of the notes.

Third, the book does have a bit of a steep learning curve for the earliest students. Within the first three lessons, the students have to learn the names of all the notes, the positions of one octave's worth of notes on the staves, the difference between the bass and treble clefs, the numberings of the fingers, the rhythmic values of whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, and the meaning of the upper number in time signatures. So while we've gotten to the point that the Fairy can play the pieces of the first three or four lessons in the book, she can't always tell where on the keyboard the pieces are supposed to start. She can't look at the music, for example, and tell you that this piece begins on the A below middle C, on the third finger of the left hand. If I manually position her fingers and tell her where to start, she does much better.

Incidentally, one of the reviewers at the Amazon link I posted above made a very similar observation about this book, and therefore only gave it three stars out of five. I'm happy with it so far, but I can see where these objections come from. I am strongly considering doing some supplemental exercises. Specifically, I need to get her to the point where she associates that line on the page of printed music with that note on the piano. To be fair, many of the early lessons have a diagram showing the notes of the keyboard, with little arrows pointing to the corresponding notes on the treble and bass clefs; but I think the Fairy would benefit if I just went ahead and had her memorize it. She's very good at memorizing this sort of thing.

Fourth observation: although the Fairy resists her lessons, that resistance has been weakening as the lessons have become more and more part of her routine. Resistance also goes down the better the Fairy does. If she has played a line of music wrong the past three times, she doesn't want to do it again; but when she has done it once or twice, beginning to end, without problems, she doesn't complain as much, and I can direct her to the next one without as many cries of "Can we be done yet?" I see this as a good sign; perhaps, as she gains some proficiency, she'll want to do more and more of it.

For now, we're not making her do additional practice. We don't think she's old enough yet to have the patience for regular practice sessions, although she might be in a year or two.

So, I have a question for my loyal readers who are either still teaching their own kids piano, or have successfully (or unsuccessfully!) taught their kids: Do you have any additional advice for a parent in my position--one who, specifically, doesn't have money to shell out for a piano teacher? Is there anything in our plans mentioned above that you would advise against, or do you think we're on the right track; or do you have any additional suggestions we haven't yet considered? I'm always looking for different ideas on this sort of thing.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

It's Done.

I finally managed to get the last of the stones in place! The never-ending backyard project might not be never-ending! Behold:

Compare that picture to the first one one in this post to get a sense of why I'm so proud of myself.

...

When I started work on it earlier today, I was a few bricks short of a full load.

So, the Pillowfight Fairy and I drove up the road to the yard where we had ordered all the stone in the first place. We only needed about fifteen or so of the dark grey ones for the border, but I also picked up some lacquer sealant that we'll use when we're good'n ready. Then after lunch, I managed to put in all the remaining needed stone, which was about the last four feet or so of the patio. This required doing angle cuts on several of the stones to get them to fit.

When I was done, I sprayed down the entire patio (in part to get off all the leaves that were falling on it from our neighbor's Chinese Elm), then went and got the camera.

The following picture shows the patio from the opposite direction (with the Pillowfight Fairy swinging around a cluster of flowers she picked while she was outside):

Now, this shot is from a weird angle. The patio is shaped like a tall, narrow trapezoid: three sides are square to each other, but the fourth is angled to parallel the property line. I took the above picture from the short end of the trapezoid. The far end of the trapezoid is much longer than the near end, but the foreshortening due to perspective tends to obscure this fact.

But check out the angled cuts to all the stones along the right-hand side of the patio in the above picture. See those? I cut every one of them with a hammer and chisel. And no, I don't have a right forearm like Popeye. I'm not entirely sure why that didn't happen, but my right forearm is still normal.

My back, however, is killing me.

So the title of this post refers to the fact that the stones are all in. However, there is still a bunch more stuff to do before the whole project can be considered done. First, I need to rent one of those vibrating tampers to get all the stones as level as possible. Then I need to sweep sand in between all of the stones. This will lock them in place. (And I have already swept sand in between a few of the more loosely-fitting stones, like where I made an uneven cut with hammer and chisel, leaving a gap; the sand really does lock them in place, and makes it look more finished, too.)

After that, the next job will be to apply the sealant. However, this may have to wait until January or so; the problem is that this is fall, and there is a constant precipitation of leaves anywhere near the many deciduous trees that dot the landscape around here. It doesn't take long for the patio or walkways to get covered with the leaves. If I painted all the stones with lacquer-based sealant before the leaf-fall ends, these leaves would become part of the walkway décor for all time. No--I have to wait until all the leaves are down before doing the sealant.

After the sealant, all that remains is the back-fill. All the edges of the walkway and patio have the black plastic edge barrier currently exposed; it all needs to be covered, and the walkway blended into the landscape. Besides, all the back-fill dirt is sitting in what will be our garden for this coming spring, and I need to get rid of it by February or so or my wife will be quite put out. You can see a little bit of it to the right of the Pillowfight Fairy in this picture:

I rather like this picture. It makes it look as if we live in a tropical paradise.

...

One more picture. This has nothing to do with the walkway or patio; I just thought I needed to take a picture of our Red Maple tree:

We got that tree about two-and-a-half years ago. There was a blank spot in our skyline, and we wanted something to fill it--preferably, something that would turn lovely colors in the fall. We found this tree at the nursery. It's a Red Maple, Acer Rubrum, of a variety called October Glory. The tree wasn't in very good shape when we bought it; the leaves looked a little bit sick, there was a gash on the trunk, and all the branches on one side of the tree had been broken off. But it was the only October Glory in stock at the nursery, so we decided to take a chance on it.

Well, it really liked being out of that pot and being in a yard where it was watered all the time, so after a few months to get its roots established, it really started growing. The gash in the trunk is healing quite nicely, and its bare side (which we turned to the south when we planted it) has all kinds of young branches growing out of it now, though the tree will still look a little lopsided for the next few years. And we've discovered that despite its name, the tree is more of a November Glory; it tends to turn very late in the season, probably because we don't usually get frosts that early around here.

But look at that picture, and imagine that tree at its full-grown height: forty feet tall, forty feet across, easily reaching over both of the fences visible in the picture (and blessing our neighbors with its autumn leaves). That thing will be a sight to behold.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Pair of Quotes

First, from the Pillowfight Fairy (age 5), from last Tuesday: as she was greeted by one of her teachers from church, who said, "Hello, [Fairy], how are you doing today?" she mystically responded:

I pronounce myself the Kiwi Princess.

Anyway, this particular teacher loves the odd things that come out of the Fairy's mouth. She liked this one so much she is apparently now using this as her tagline on her Facebook page.

(Incidentally, the Fairy knows about kiwis because a certain uncle introduced her to this youtube clip, which she and her sister both love. )

...

Second, from the Adrenaline Junkie (age not-quite-three), from earlier today: she was pretending to be a rabbit, as she and her sister have been greatly impressed by the stories in the Beatrix Potter DVD collection (Peter Rabbit, plus several other stories), which I blogged about a few days ago. The Fairy was pretending to be Tom Kitten. Mommy asked the Adrenaline Junkie which rabbit she was playing: Peter? Floppsy? Cousin Benjamin? No. She enthusiastically declared, in her cute little two-year-old voice:

I'm Killda Wabbit!

Who says that homeschoolers' kids are culturally deprived? ;-)

Natural Law and Societal Evolution

I made a point in this post and in this one that I've been meaning to return to. Specifically: it seems to me that the rise and fall, growth and decline of societies across history occurs by mechanisms very similar to those accepted in the theories of biological evolution.

No, I'm serious. Hear me out on this one....

Evolution needs two things to occur. First, it needs a source of variation: some mechanism whereby a system can spawn variations of itself. Second, it needs a source of selection: some mechanism by which variations that are less fit for survival are eliminated.

In the theory of biological evolution, variation is provided through genetic mutation, which introduces random changes into the genome; and selection is provided through the process of natural selection, in which less fit members of a species are just that much less likely to survive to reproductive maturity to pass on their genes. Over time, those mutations that make an organism better adapted to its environment get passed on; and those mutations that make an organism less adapted to its environment eventually get edged out, as the organisms carrying them are out-competed by their rivals. And the standard line is that this process needs no reasoning intelligence to guide it. (Remember that point--it will come up a bit later.)

But notice: similar mechanisms exist in human societies as well. People--individually and collectively (as societies, as states, and as nations)--have worldviews (religions, traditions, institutions, and outlooks) that affect their actions. But the actions of the people strongly affect how likely they are to pass their worldviews on to their progeny. Because of this, some worldviews inherently don't get passed on very well, and some do.

A few examples will illustrate this point. The American religious group known as the Shakers believed in strict celibacy--even between husband and wife--and managed to create a society that successfully upheld this ideal. Because of this, they produced no offspring, and could only grow through conversion. As a result, the success of the movement was highly, highly dependent on conditions in the surrounding society from which they drew converts. While they had little difficulty attracting new converts in the early 1800s, this changed as the social mores and economy of the United States changed during the century. According to Wikipedia, there were only twelve honest-to-goodness Shakers left as of 1920, and only four left as of 2006.

On the other hand, consider the Jewish Kosher Law. This law outlaws many kinds of meat, limiting them to meat from cloven-hoofed cud-chewers (cows, sheep, goats, deer, antelope, bison, water buffalo, and--believe it or not--giraffes), certain kinds of fish, certain kinds of birds, and a smattering of insects (grasshoppers, locusts). Note that this list effectively rules out everything else--including pork, shellfish, rabbit, ostrich, escargot, and eel (no Unagi, I'm afraid). The Kosher Law also gives certain rules as to how the animals should be slaughtered, and how the food should be prepared. Now, I'm not going to claim to know why God chose to limit the foods they were permitted to eat. But we can note, through modern eyes, that these restrictions actually produce a fairly healthful diet. Someone maintaining a Kosher diet is much less likely to wind up getting Trichinosis or liver flukes, because the diet avoids the foods most likely to harbor the parasites.

As a result, ancient Jewish society would tend to be made more healthy by following this diet. And in turn, this would help its population growth, thus bestowing a survival advantage upon the society. Again, I'm not sure that this was part of God's reasoning--it might have been, or God may have had a whole bunch of other reasons. But for the sake of this argument, let's pretend for now that the Kosher laws were given for health reasons.

Now consider this: how much did the ancient Jews understand about microbiology? How much did they understand about germ theory?

In fact, it's highly unlikely they would have made the mental connection between the dietary laws and their improved health. I doubt they even noticed they were healthier than they would have been. After all, the ancient Hebrews wandering in the desert didn't have much of a scientific tradition. I don't read much about double-blind dietary studies in the Bible (although the first chapter of Daniel comes pretty close; but that wasn't until centuries later).

The point to be seen here is that obeying a Natural Law brings benefits--even if the Natural Law is not even recognized or understood. And disobeying a Natural Law brings penalties, regardless of whether people understand what happened. It is the obeying of a Natural Law that brings the benefit, not the understanding of the Law (except insofar as understanding the Law causes people to start complying with it).

So let's go back to the evolutionary model: societies are made up of humans with their own worldviews. And these worldviews change over time, pretty spontaneously. New religions and new philosophies are dreamed up; fads come and go, both in the world of fashion and in intellectual life; societies have collective experiences (wars, famines) that change the ways they think about their existence. All these changes constitute the variation that I mentioned earlier, that was one of the mechanisms required for evolution.

And of course, societies are in competition with each other; states are in competition with each other; religions are in competition with each other; and individuals are in competition with each other. The borders of every nation on earth have moved forward and backward over time. Empires grow for centuries, then fail--often because of their own internal decadence. Entire industries rise and then go bust. Religions start small, then occasionally grow huge, then sometimes (as in the case of the Zoroastrians) begin to dwindle in numbers to the point where everyone else sees them more as a historical curiosity than anything else. This ebb and flow of society, this cultural competition, becomes the engine of selection, which is the other mechanism required for evolution.

So both of the mechanisms required for Darwinian evolution exist among human societies. And what does that mean?

Well, here are some ramifications:
  • Societies tend to adapt over time to the niches they inhabit. And societies that don't adapt go extinct.
  • A great part of this adaptation is expressed through the worldviews of the society as a whole, and of its inhabitants individually.
  • If a society has existed with any degree of stability for many centuries, there's a pretty good chance that its institutions and worldviews are in compliance with Natural Law.
  • As I mentioned before, theories of evolution hold that a guiding intelligence is not required--that is, species become adapted to their niches quite nicely purely through selection of beneficial mutations. This would hold true of human society as well. A society may be completely superstitious, constructed of institutions that were assembled haphazardly, embodying traditions that no one understands, and that no one ever did understand, and this society can be quite successful, thank you very much.
  • This is because a society doesn't have to understand the Natural Laws in order to obey them. A society may feel a need to educate their children, based on some cockamamie story about frolicking gods and nymphs that happens to show up in their national mythology; nevertheless, they will still enjoy the benefits that accrue to an educated society, even though their reasons for providing this education weren't driven by Reason in the least.
  • There's a pretty good chance this means that we don't know what all the Natural Laws are. We're already obeying them, because if we weren't, our society would already have collapsed. But we can really only determine empirically what the Natural Laws are by performing post-mortems on societies that have already collapsed, and figuring out where they went wrong.

And here's the scary one:

  • When social reformers decide that their society is corrupt, and start planning to throw out all existing traditions and institutions and rebuild it from the ground up, it's time to emigrate. There's a good likelihood that they don't know what all the Natural Laws are, and their reforms will destroy the very things that keep the society habitable. Textbook examples of this include the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution.

As I said in my post on Neuroticism I linked to above, reason is overrated. Reason certainly has its time and place, but it's very important when using reason to understand what its limits are. We don't know what all the Natural Laws are. We can be pretty sure that our society has been in compliance with all or most of them, by the fact that we still exist as a functioning nation after the last two-and-a-quarter centuries; but we don't necessarily know how our traditions and institutions have gone about complying with these Natural Laws.

To give one example, cited in the other linked post (The one about demographics): Much of Europe right now is set to have steep drops in population. In Russia, the average woman will have 1.1 children in her lifetime, resulting in a natural population decline (not counting immigration and emigration) of nearly 50% with every generation. While the rest of Europe isn't quite that bad, several nations are close--Italy, Spain, and Germany are all set to have significant decreases of their native populations within the next generation. These kinds of population decreases are unprecedented in history, without something like war or plague or famine causing them. What will this do to their societies? We don't know for sure. My own suspicion is that Europe is going to become a fairly unpleasant place to live before the end of this century.

How did this come about? In a very small nutshell, the Twentieth Century was a disaster for Europe. Between World War I, World War II, Communism, the Cold War, and the ends of the great overseas empires possessed by the European nations, much of Europe reached the end of the century in a highly wounded state. These nations had lost faith in, among many other things, their ancestral religion (which hadn't prevented the catastrophes). Europe rejected many of its traditions and ancient institutions, driven by the desire of getting away from the mistakes of the past once and for all. And when they rejected these traditions and institutions, their society began to drift; old values were no longer being passed down. Many of the mechanisms that ordinarily pass on these values--such as family and the Church--were dying off; and the schools were increasingly pushing a new set of values that rejected judgmentalism and moralism. The result of this is that the very thought of having children to bequeath a legacy to the next generation is seen as nativist, nationalist, unsophisticated, and just plain weird. In short, the things that Natural Law requires for a healthy society, are the very things that this new system fights.

There's enough material here to do a book-length treatment, but it's getting way too late. Natural Law is telling me that I have to go to bed. I'll return to this topic some other time....

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You'd Need a Big Backyard for These Ballistics

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm fascinated by siege engines. I've even threatened to build some and test them out in our backyard. I last blogged about it here. In the comments of that post, my younger brother (probably unwisely) suggested an appropriate use for all those cheap pumpkins left over after Halloween.

Well!

I read the website of the magazine National Review on a fairly regular basis. One of their regular writers--a very colorful character in his understated, eccentric way, named John Derbyshire--started a bit of a conversation on the group blog over there with a post about an observed difference between men and women: men are fascinated by the question of what happens to beer bottles when you put them in a campfire--and will, at the first opportunity, perform experiments to answer the question. Women who observe this behavior think the men are nuts.

As I said, this started a bit of a conversation over there, about all the other things that males do, thinking it's absolutely normal: putting model rocket engines on plastic airplane models; fun with firecrackers; that sort of stuff. Eventually, though, the Derb made his way to the topic that is near and dear to my heart: Giant Pumpkin-Chucking Catapults, some of which have been known to lob a decent-sized gourd more than three thousand feet.

Andy, that's what I'm talkin' about.

Carnival of Homeschooling is up!

The Carnival of Homeschooling is up at Nerd Family. This week, my post On the Seriousness of Children's Literature is featured, as is my wife's post Kids Grow Up and Change. Check it out.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the Seriousness of Children's Literature

One of Tonya's relatives recently gave us a two-DVD set of animated Beatrix Potter stories, created by the BBC. It appears to be a very high-quality production: good animation, and purportedly very faithful to the original stories (although I can't actually speak to that, since I admit to my shame that I've never actually read the originals). The girls absolutely love the stories.

However, the Pillowfight Fairy in particular has reacted to watching these stories in a way that her mother and I did not expect. Tonya wrote about it here. She gets really involved in the stories, to the point of wailing and tears when something dangerous is happening, or when something sad happens. I don't know if it's because the Fairy is at an age where kids just don't suspend their disbelief well; or if it has something to do with the fact that we don't have a TV, so she isn't constantly exposed to scary, suspenseful videos; or whether it's just the fact that we have a kid with a very sensitive streak.

(During all this I was outside, working on our never-ending backyard project, and every few minutes I would hear wails of anguish coming from inside. Like most dads, I just assumed that the spouse would take care of it, and I ignored it and blithely went about my work. We dads are just like that, aren't we?) ;-)

But it piqued my curiosity, and made me think a little. The Peter Rabbit stories don't normally stick out in our minds as scary, suspenseful stuff. And yet, imagine what the stories look like to a five-year-old: the main characters are in constant danger for their lives. There's an offhand reference to the fact that Peter Rabbit's father got eaten: something along the lines of "...an accident happened to your father. He was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor...." In one of the stories, all the Floppsy bunnies are kidnapped by the badger, who has every intention of eating them, until they are rescued by Peter and his cousin; and this rescue was only possible because the badger and the fox got in a fight. There's one story where the duck is rescued from the fox, but her eggs all get destroyed--after which she weeps uncontrollably. And on it goes. Not to sound morbid or anything, but the theme of mortality--the idea that we, or the ones we love, might not be here tomorrow--underlies these stories to an extent that seems very out-of-place in modern children's literature.

Now here's a disclaimer: I'm no expert on children's literature. It could be that these generalizations I'm making are totally wrong, and if you think so, I'd be very happy to hear from you in the comments. But it seems to me that aside from modern writers of children's literature who are intentionally pursuing the macabre and the morbid--for example, Edward Gorey ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears...")--it seems that modern children's literature, especially that written for the younger readers, shies away from topics like pain and death, and shies away from unhappy endings, much more than it used to.

I think it's not hard to establish that there are plenty of classic children's stories out there that are scary, or violent; plenty of stories with cautionary morals about what can go wrong if one doesn't behave correctly. The stories of the Brothers Grimm are, in fact, pretty grim. Many of our fairy tales have some pretty scary bits: kids being put in ovens; witches being put in ovens; giants, monsters, dragons; all the princes that came to rescue the princesses prior to the appearance of Prince Charming, who got eaten by the dragon or smothered in the protective thorn bushes. Think of the giant who fell to his death when Jack cut down the beanstalk. Think of the Little Mermaid, who in the original version, was urged to kill the prince to save her own life: she refused to do it, and so suffered the consequence of losing her life, turning to foam on the waves. Think of the absolutely heartrending story of the Little Match Girl.

And even when you get into the early twentieth century, you still see a fair amount of chopping off of heads, or at least the suggestion of it. The Pillowfight Fairy has just been introduced to Dr. Seuss's prose classic, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. At one point, Bartholomew Cubbins is sent off to the Royal Executioner (who actually happens to be a fairly agreeable chap) with orders to have his head chopped off, because he can't get his hats off. But under the rules, the executioner can't chop off anyone's head until he takes his hat off, which Bartholomew can't do, so he heads back up to the throne room....

Let this sink in for a bit: a Dr. Seuss book that talks about beheadings. Well, it was 1938 when he wrote it; but still, doesn't that seem a bit... incongruous? Things like that don't seem to show up in children's literature much any more--at least not until the kids reach Junior High.

And we think that exposure to this older literature is having an effect on the way the Fairy views the world. Tonya talks some about it in the blog post I linked to above. The Fairy is now asking questions about existence (and non-existence), wondering about death, pretending as she plays that Daddy is Mr. McGregor, pretending as she plays that Daddy is the Grinch (who must be shot, lest he steal Christmas), and on and on.

My guess is that many moderns see a five-year-old thinking about these things, and think it's unnatural and even unhealthy--that childhood should be carefree; that by exposing children to these stories and ideas, we're making them grow up too fast; that we're stealing their innocence. But that's clearly not the way people thought at least up through the beginning of the twentieth century, as evidenced by the stories they wrote for and read to their children. Why is this?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think I have the beginnings of an answer. Sometimes it's hard for us moderns to remember just how hard life was in the past. My father- and mother-in-law both remember when they first got electricity and indoor plumbing. There was a time, not too long ago, that every child could expect to have a friend or a sibling die before reaching adulthood. It was only in the last two generations or so that we finally eliminated most infectious diseases--polio, typhus, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever--as major killers. And for those of our ancestors who grew up on farms, they saw the realities of life and death on a daily basis: if you wanted to eat chicken, the first step was to chase your chickens around the yard until you caught one; then, you had to get an axe.... And remember too that our nation hasn't suffered military invasion--or even suffered a credible threat of invasion--for quite some time. For most people these days, unless you choose to join the military, you are unlikely ever to see a war first-hand. And we haven't had to face famine in a long time.

I could go on, but I don't want to get too morbid. Suffice it to say that people of previous generations got to see a lot of stuff that we would consider highly unpleasant. It was simply part of life. And since it was part of their lives, it was part of their children's lives as well, and it thus showed up in the children's literature. It was simply too ubiquitous to ignore; it was not that the writers were being excessively morbid.

So what does this mean for how we should educate our kids? Again, I'm not really sure. There are two broad, contradictory approaches: the first is, we expose our kids to the literature of the past, with all the ugliness included, in the hope that it gives us the opportunity to give our children an understanding of some of the tougher issues of life that they will one day face, as a way of preparing them. On the other hand, we could count those stories as part of an older world that we don't inhabit anymore, and look for new stories that are hopefully more appropriate to our new environment.

I tend to lean toward the former of these two approaches. While our environment has changed quite a bit in the last few generations, I don't think that human nature has changed much; and because of that, the relevance of the older literature will remain. I also want my children to understand where we came from. And I see the older stuff as having a seriousness to it that is worth holding on to.

Of course, I think the die is already pretty well cast anyway, since the Fairy is already pretending to shoot the Grinch every time he comes around.

And no, I didn't teach her that. She figured that one out on her own.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Interesting Article on an Impending Demographic Change

Some of you may have noticed that I put "demography" as one of my interests in my profile. And I've been meaning to get around to posting about demography. Specifically, I was going to write about how societies evolve using a very similar mechanism to that of biological evolution.

I was going to say that some societies adopt traditions and mores that strengthen the society; these societies--being thus strengthened--go on to dominate on the world stage, and their successful traditions and mores often find cognates--and often blatant borrownings--in other cultures.

I was further going to mention that other societies adopt traditions, mores, and institutions that are self-destructive; and since these items are destructive to the host societies, these societies usually either drop them sooner or later, or the societies themselves fall apart. So while a student of history may see these things show up time and again throughout history, their appearances will usually be brief, and then they will vanish again, often accompanied by the collapse of the host society. And the student will note--on the principle that "history is written by the winners"--that the great historians of the past all came from societies that rejected these traditions, mores, and institutions, and bias against these things shows up in their writings.

I was going to write about this. But then someone beat me to it. With a hat tip to Mark Steyn, posting in National Review's blog the Corner, I came across this article by Phillip Longman in the magazine Foreign Policy.

The article is entitled "The Return of Patriarchy", and it explains at length how patriarchy--the eternal nemesis of feminism--appears set to make a big comeback in the western world.

The term patriarchy refers to a system of social custom that used to be much more common in the West, and which is still very common in much of the rest of the world. In short, imagine a society in which:
  • Men are the heads of families, and make the rules. Legitimate children "belong" to the fathers. And a big part of the social status of men derives from this role as head of family.
  • The actions of a family's children can either shame or honor the family in general, and the man at the head of the family in particular.
  • Sex and childbearing outside of marriage are strongly stigmatized by society. There are strong social disadvantages to being an illegitimate child.
  • Women don't have many options for employment outside the home. The best that most women can hope for is to marry well and raise children who will honor the family name.
  • Concepts like "heritage" and "legacy" aren't just buzzwords to be manipulated by politicians; they are one of the foremost concerns of any man in good social standing.
  • Marriage is not only done for love, and often isn't primarily done for love; it has the primary purpose of strengthening the family--partly through alliance, but primarily to bring the next generation into existence. To this end, it's important not just that a man marry, but that he marry a woman of proper social standing.

That's patriarchy. And one can see immediately why feminists don't like it.

But here's what Longman points out: this particular system causes men to do two things that have been happening less and less frequently starting about halfway through the 20th Century. First, it gives men--even wealthy, well-educated, well-established men--a strong social reason to father lots and lots of kids. Second, it gives these men a strong incentive to be heavily involved in the raising of those children. After all, if a father's children grow up to be rapscallions, it redounds to his discredit. On the other hand, if they grow up to be financially and professionally successful, the father is honored--and this honor carries social benefits.

Now it so happens that patriarchy has been out of fashion in the West for some time now, at least since the Sexual Revolution. But it hasn't been out of fashion among everyone in the West--there are always some hold-outs, some religious throwbacks (so they are seen), some social conservatives.

The trouble is this: patriarchy is a social structure that (among other things) causes people to have lots of children. If a society's dominant social structure doesn't cause people to have lots of children, then eventually these hold-outs, religious throwbacks, and social conservatives simply start out-breeding the rest of society. Within a few generations, a strong plurality of the population--possibly even a majority--is descended from the hold-outs.

And this doesn't take too long to happen. Take a look at some of Longman's reasoning:

The 17.4 percent of baby boomer women who had only one child account for a mere 7.8 percent of children born in the next generation. By contrast, nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers descend from the mere 11 percent of baby boomer women who had four or more children. These circumstances are leading to the emergence of a new society whose members will disproportionately be descended from parents who rejected the social tendencies that once made childlessness and small families the norm. These values include an adherence to traditional, patriarchal religion, and a strong identification with one's own folk or nation.

...

Now, I don't mean to say this to say I cheer the return of patriarchy with all its trappings.* But if Longman is right, patriarchy may be on the way back, simply as a matter of Natural Law--societies that embrace it tend to thrive, and societies that reject it tend to wither until the patriarchal remnant becomes dominant again.

I think we're looking at some big societal changes coming our way--on at least as big a scale as the Sexual Revolution--within the next few decades. Hold on to your hats.

There's lots more to be said on this topic--especially regarding Natural Law and its effect on societies--but that's for another post sometime.




*While there is a some crossover between the Christian conception of family life and the description of patriarchy that I listed above, there are some big differences as well; in fact, patriarchy can be downright cruel and unjust at times. Considering how Jesus treated those who were at the absolute bottom of the society in his day--such as prostitutes, and women who had had multiple divorces and remarriages--I find it difficult as a Christian to cheer the potential return of stigma toward divorcees, single parents, illegitimate children, and the like.

Now That's Some Recipe

My wife and I have discovered a source of unexpected humor.

We go to the grocery store once a week. During the week, if anyone notices we're running low on anything, we write the item on a notepad that we hang on the refrigerator with magnets.

Note that this means our shopping lists tend to get written in an almost random order.

Then, when the end of the week comes, all that remains is for us to do a once-over on the list to make sure it has everything we need, and off we go. Usually this once-over involves one of us reading the list to the other and asking, "Now, can you think of anything else we need?"

Well, some time back, one of us got the idea into his or her head (we can't remember who started it) that these random lists, read off rapid-fire like that, actually started to sound a little like sick, disgusting recipes for who-knows-what. It's gotten to the point now that we can't read our own grocery lists without breaking into fits of giggles, as we imagine what horrors will be greeting us at the dinner table when the recipe is complete.

So for example, here is today's shopping list. Read this to yourself, and imagine....
Dishwashing detergent
Ramen
Baby formula
Eggs
Tortilla chips
Basil
Bar soap
Sausage
Diced ham
Macaroni
Rotini
Velveeta
Cheddar cheese
Frozen chicken
Frozen fruit juice
Milk
Diapers
Fresh fruit
Cream of Mushroom Soup

...place all ingredients into a large cauldron, and stir continually until the lumps go away. Occassionally cut loose a wild cackle. ;-)