Monday, March 31, 2008

Now 99.6% Profanity-Free!

All right, so today I ran into the Cuss-O-Meter, and I decided to see just how profane my own blog is. The verdict:

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou - Free Online Dating

Additionally, the Cuss-O-Meter site declared:
Around 0.4% of the pages on your website contain cussing.
This is 96% LESS than other websites who took this test.
Actually, I was hoping to get 0.0% cussing, less than 100% of other sites who took this test. Well, poop.

I rather wonder about those 4% of sites with less cussing than me. My wife is probably one of them. The rest spend their time talking about rainbows and puppies and the like....

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I'm Not So Sure I Like Where This Is Heading...

Last Thursday, I heard the news that the court which decided the recent California Homeschooling Case, In Re: Rachel L, has decided to void their original ruling and grant a re-hearing. In general this decision to void and re-hear has been widely hailed in the California Homeschooling community as a good thing.

I'm not so sure about this.

First, for those who haven't been following the story closely, a little background is necessary. I wrote about my views of the case, and what it means, here. I then went on to write a post entitled Homeschooling and Constitutional Rights, in which I explored the concept of Natural Rights and how these rights are recognized in the founding documents of our nation, and how this should apply to homeschoolers today (but doesn't always).

A couple of weeks later, the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction weighed in, explaining that the Department of Education had run a legal review of the ruling, and had determined that it didn't affect the legality of homeschooling as currently practiced in California. That is, those parents who had duly filed their affidavits establishing their families as unaccredited private schools were still in full compliance with all pubic education laws. If they were in compliance with the laws before the ruling, and the vast majority were, they remained in compliance with the laws after the ruling.

Through this all I've been much more sanguine about the meaning of the In Re: Rachel L. ruling than many. To this day I read in newspapers and on the sites of other bloggers that the ruling "outlawed the practice of Homeschooling by parents not possessing Teachers' credentials", which is absolutely not the case. This misconception is very widespread, by people on both sides of the issue. Even the home page of the HSLDA currently states (as I write this):
A California Court of Appeal recently decided that homeschooling is illegal in California unless a parent is a certified teacher.
Now, after reading the decision myself, I'll say it's certainly possible that this is what the court intended to say; but that's not what the actual text comes out saying, when taken in context with the applicable laws. And as I mentioned above, the State Superintendent had a legal review done and concluded that the ruling did not outlaw homeschooling by uncredentialed parents.

So anyway, until this last Thursday, I was pretty confident that things would work out for homeschoolers. But then the court voided their previous ruling and re-opened the case.

Unlike the HSLDA, who's rather happy about this decision, I'm not so sure it bodes well. I could be wrong, and I'd be very, very happy if I was in fact wrong. But consider the following.

This is from the SFGate story I linked to above:
It is not unusual for appeals courts to reconsider decisions, and the result is often a minor revision that leaves the original conclusion unchanged. But the three-judge panel in the homeschooling case hinted at a re-evaluation of its entire Feb. 28 ruling by inviting written arguments from state and local education officials and teachers' unions.
Emphasis added.

In other words: the court has decided to re-open the case, and has specifically asked the teachers' unions and officials in the public schools and the Department of Education for their opinions. It's pretty common knowledge what the CTA thinks of homeschooling.

And from the website of the HSLDA, we have:

The Court of Appeal has solicited a number of public school establishment organizations to submit amicus briefs including the California Superintendent of Public Instruction, California Department of Education, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and three California teacher unions. The court also granted permission to Sunland Christian School to file an amicus brief. The order also indicates that it will consider amicus applications from other groups.

Home School Legal Defense Association will seek permission to file such an amicus brief and will coordinate efforts with a number of organizations interesting [sic] in filing briefs to support the right of parents to homeschool their children in California.

Emphasis added again. In other words, the court has asked specifically the teachers' unions and various public school officials to weigh in on homeschooling, and has not specifically asked HSLDA (or, from what I've seen, any other homeschool advocacy group) to provide briefs; so the HSLDA has to seek permission from the court to file its brief.

So in summary, a little timeline:
  • The In Re: Rachel L. case involves a family with a long history of involvement with the state's Child Protective Agency for alleged abuse, who were homeschooling in a way that definitely stretched the law--in a way that most homeschoolers don't.
  • The court issues a broad decision whose language goes far beyond the needs of the immediate litigants--making sweeping statements about the intent of the legislature and appearing, at first glance, to outlaw homeschooling by uncredentialed parents.
  • The State Department of Education performs a legal review and determines that, in fact, the language of the ruling does not affect those who are homeschooling, so long as they continue to do the correct paperwork and get those affidavits in on time.
  • So the court then decides to reopen the case, and actively solicits briefs from organizations and interest groups that are openly hostile to the practice of homeschooling. Organizations that represent homeschoolers do not at this time appear to have been similarly solicited.
I hope I'm just being paranoid here, and I will most happily eat my words if I'm wrong; but with all the above, it's looking to me a little like the court intended to use this ruling to end the practice of uncredentialed parents teaching their own children; and seeing that their ruling wasn't being universally interpreted that way, they're having a go at making a more strongly worded ruling that leaves no doubt as to what they think of homeschoolers.

Am I just being paranoid? I sure hope so. If you're more optimistic than this, please explain why in the comments; I really want to know.

Offering a Little Husbandly Support

My wife decided to write a blog post today about something that caught her fancy yesterday. Apparently, when we all (all five of us!) went to the grocery store yesterday, we wound up charming some of our fellow shoppers--who told us it was really cute the way we were talking to our children. Tonya wrote about it here.

Actually, we've gotten comments like this from other parents on occasion, like when they've agreed to look after our brood while we run certain errands. We had one parent tell us that our then-four-year old sounds like she's quoting Shakespeare all the time. He said he started talking like that back to her ("Forsooth!") until he realized she wasn't just playing, that this is the way she really talks.

I guess that my family just uses a lot of those Latin roots that the commenters to my last post were talking about. Which is rather ironic, considering how much I like the sound of the Anglo-Saxon part of the language. I need to teach the Pillowfight Fairy how to use the word Hwæt! in everyday conversation....

Anyway, given that Tonya hasn't been posting a whole lot lately, I figured I'd better send some traffic her way. Just being a good husband.

Of course, part of the reason she hasn't been blogging is that I've been on the computer so much of the time....

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Brief Description of Why I'm Ignoring Y'All

I mentioned a few posts back that my blogging would be erratic, and I gave a couple of reasons. One of those reasons had to do with the fact that we started watching a video lecture series entitled The Story of Human Language, which was part of Tonya's birthday present last July. We just hadn't gotten around to watching it yet.

Tonya is finding it rather interesting. I, on the other hand, am finding it very, very interesting. You know those cases where someone gives a present to his significant other (or his kids), where he really got it because he wanted to play with it? This was almost one of those cases. I was able to justify putting it into her present because she had expressed a decent interest in it too; but that was almost just an excuse; the fact is I really really wanted to see it myself.

Since we started watching it about a week ago, we've watched lectures from the series on four different nights. On three of those nights, Tonya drifted off sometime during the last half-hour we watched. I, on the other hand was glued to the screen the whole time.

So what's The Story of the Human Language? What's the plot? Do they all die in the end?


The course consists of 36 lectures, each a half-hour long, on six DVDs--for a total course length of 18 hours. We're about a third of the way through the series right now, so I can't describe the whole thing yet, but here's something of a highly embellished synopsis.

The course started by describing what language is. After all, animals are often quite capable of some forms of communication. Bees, for example, are capable of telling each other the direction and distance to a decent spot for flowers and pollen. Dogs are capable of understanding human spoken commands--sometimes, dozens of them. There have been various attempts to teach sign language to apes, and some decent communication has resulted. And then there are parrots--who have such an ability to put together human speech sounds into meaningful sentences, that it's creepy--they seem to be able to express sarcasm, for example.

However, these forms of communication fall short of the ideal of human speech in a couple of ways. Obviously they are very limited in vocabulary, and so are not capable of functioning as full-featured languages. Furthermore, they tend to be highly context-specific. An ape may "talk" about bananas, but only if there are bananas present, or if the ape is hungry. Apes typically can't sign things as sophisticated as, "You know those bananas we had last Tuesday? Those were nasty." The lecture presenter included a quote from an earlier linguist who said something to the effect of, "No dog, however smart, could communicate something like 'My parents were poor but honest.'"

From this point the lecturer started to talk about the Chomsky Hypothesis. (Yes, this is named for the selfsame Noam Chomsky who's the hard-left political activist. The reason he has the political audience he does, is that he first made a name for himself as a very influential linguist, whose contributions have in some ways revolutionized the field.) Chomsky has argued that humans' ability to use speech is built into the human genome; there are specific gene variants that humans have that no animals have, that give us the potential for speech. And, pretty much, humans have been talking ever since these genetic mutations entered the genome, way back in the paleolithic past. There are some differences of opinion as to exactly when this happened: there appears to be a point about 50,000 years ago where tool use suddenly became widespread, and where cave paintings and other forms of art started showing up; but there are some other arguments that it happened much further back in time than that.

The question then becomes, how did this ancient capacity for speech turn into the 6,000 or so languages we know of on earth today? And it appears that the rest of the course is going to try to chart out an answer.

Several lectures dealt with language change over time--how one language changes into another. I've posted about the Old English epic poem Beowulf before, and I included the opening lines of the poem:

We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
In one translation, this is:

We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
In the old days, the kings of tribes--
how noble princes showed great courage!
Now, at first glance, these look totally different. But if you stare at the poem long enough you start to notice little interesting bits. Take the word cyninga, which derives from the root word cyninc. If you pronounce the first letter as a hard C, and you pronounce the Y like many European languages do, similar to the German Ü, that root word sounds a lot more like Künink--which bears much, much more than a passing resemblance to the German König (meaning King, of course). And one can eventually start to see other little similarities, like how the word we didn't change over time (except for some pronunciation differences), how the word hu turned into how.

And then if you look really closely, you notice the word gear-dagum. Dagum is related to both our word Day, and the German word Tag, in plural form. And if you pronounce the beginning G as a Y, as happened a lot in Old English, you will discover that gear turns into year--which was actually pronounced more like the German word Jahre than the modern English Year. This word also happens to be the source of our modern word Yore, making the term gear-dagum literally mean days of yore.

And then look at Gar-Dena. Have you ever noticed how many names have the Gar figure (or something similar) in them? Edgar, Alger, Hrothgar, Garfield, Garfinke, Elgar, Garibaldi, Gary, Gerald, Gerard... Well, if you look them up in a good baby name book sometime, you will see that every one of these names has something to do with spears.

Gar-Dena is, literally, Spear-Danes.

Now, we look at the text above and can't make heads or tails of it; but when we start to pick through it like this, we suddenly discover that it's not all that different from what we're currently speaking. It has hints and echoes of our own language in it, and of similarly-related languages like German. While there's a fair amount of material in the old language that never made it into our own, there's much, much more that made it--albeit in highly modified form. For example, consider the word Silly. This word began as Old English gesælig, meaning happy. But then it changed. As the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary states:
The word's considerable sense development moved from "blessed" to "pious," to "innocent" (1200), to "harmless," to "pitiable" (c.1280), to "weak" (c.1300), to "feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish" (1576). Further tendency toward "stunned, dazed as by a blow" (1886) in knocked silly, etc.
Now, as fascinating as all this is, what I find even more fascinating is that these processes by which languages change, are the same processes by which one language becomes many languages. Typically what happens is that two or more populations with the same language become isolated from each other, and then these natural language change mechanisms kick in independently, and after a century or two the populations can no longer understand each other. After a few thousand years or so, the languages are sometimes so different that it takes some serious linguistic study and a whole lot of comparative philology to determine that the languages were the same to start with.


The course lectures have spent a good amount of time covering the Indo-European language group--in part because it's the language group that we belong to, in part because it's the most widespread on the earth, and in part because it's the best understood. After all, modern linguistics started in the West, and we Westerners started by comparing our own languages.

The story goes that British judge Sir William Jones, who was stationed in India, made the observation that:
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
He'd discovered (among other things) many cognate words between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. These are words that have been in both languages, in one form or another, ever since they diverged from a common ancestral tongue. Later scholars all decided to pile on the bandwagon, identifying as many cognates between as many languages as possible, and trying to tease out what the original language (dubbed "Proto-Indo-European") looked like.

Here's my favorite example. It is guessed that the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) culture was polytheistic. There are plenty of linguistic clues that this was the case, including the names of gods that worked their way into plenty of daughter languages. It appears that the Chief God of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon was named Dyeus or Dewos, which is closely related to the words for Shining and for Daytime. (In fact, our word day derives from one of these roots). This name was often combined with the PIE word for Father, pitar (from which our word Father is a direct descendant), to create the term Dyeus Pitar--"Sky Father".

Look what happened to this term. Those Indo-European ancients who migrated to India and established the Vedic religion brought Dyeus Pitar along with them. Vedic has a minor deity named Dyaus Pita, also called "Sky Father", who was eventually killed and supplanted by his son Indra.

Those Indo-Europeans who migrated to Greece and formed the Hellenic culture brought Dyeus with them. The Dy sound at the beginning of the word morphed to Z, giving us Zeus, King of the Olympian Gods, and God of the Heavens and of Thunder.

The Indo-Europeans who migrated to Italy and formed the Latin/Roman culture, brought Dyeus Pitar along with them, in a couple of ways. For one thing, the word Dyeus eventually became the root word for god, Deus, with all its forms--Deo, Dei, Deum, Deus, and so forth. For another, The Dy sound at the beginning eventually got replaced with a J, the s at the end of Dyeus got dropped, and Dyeus Pitar became Jupiter.

The Indo-Europeans who eventually became the Gauls (part of the Celtic branch of Indo-European), had a God they called Dispater, who was the God of Wealth. The Romans came along, and--since they liked to establish connections between foreign gods and their own--connected him with Pluto, the God of the Underworld. (The connection between the Underworld and Wealth is a straightforward one, since precious metals come from mines, which are dug underground.) Eventually the word Dis--derived from Dispater--came to be used as a synonym for Hell. In Dante's Inferno, Dis is used as the name of the City of Hell, and is used later as another name for Lucifer.

The Indo-Europeans who eventually became the Germanic peoples of northern Europe took Dyeus along with them. Their version was based on the Dewos variant, and was named Tiwaz. Over time, the name was shortened to Tiw or Tyr, the God of Courage and of Single Combat. For a time he was the Chief God in the Norse pantheon, before the cults of Odin and of Thor overshadowed his. In one of his more famous myths, he used his own hand as bait, to distract the monstrous wolf Fenrir while he was being bound; when Fenrir found that he had been trapped, he bit off Tyr's hand; so images of Tyr are often shown with him one-handed. Now, the god Tyr is not well known nowadays, but his name still shows up in the names of the days of the week. Four of our days are named after Norse gods:
  • Tyr's (Tiw's) Dag became Tuesday.
  • Woden's (Odin's) Dag became Wednesday.
  • Thor's Dag became Thursday.
  • Frigga's Dag became Friday. (Or it might have been Freya's Dag. These were two different goddesses in later versions of the Norse religion; but they started out as the same. Interestingly, some Germanic languages had the day named after Frigga, and some had it named after Freya, and it really doesn't make that much of a difference....)

So after the course shows us how one language becomes many (primarily by following the Latin and the Romance languages), it then traces the splitting of Proto-Indo-European into all its subgroups. It is believed that the people who spoke PIE lived as illiterate, semi-nomadic horse tribes in what is now southwest Russia, north and east of the Black Sea. They were obviously a very successful culture. When they migrated out of their ancestral homeland, their language split to become:
  • Proto-Indo-Iranian: parent tongue of Persian, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashto, Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, and a bunch of others.
  • Proto-Slavic: parent tongue of Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and more.
  • Baltic: parent tongue of Lithuanian, Latvian, and the now-extinct Old Prussian. Interestingly, these languages are the least changed from their PIE roots; they're the closest you can get today to the original PIE tongue.
  • Proto-Celtic: parent tongue of Gallic, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Breton, Welsh, and a few others. Most of these are on the edge of extinction today.
  • Latin: classical language of Rome and of Medieval Europe, and parent tongue of French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian, and Romanian.
  • Greek: classical language of the Hellenic and Hellenistic worlds, and ancestor of modern Greek.
  • Proto-Germanic: ancestor tongue of the Scandinavian tongues (Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish--all except Finnish, which is related to Hungarian and is just weird), of German, English, Frisian, and the extinct Gothic.
  • Albanian: Weird language. Enough said.
  • Armenian: Another weird language.
  • Anatolian: extinct branch that contained the ancient Hittite language.
  • Tocharian: extinct branch that existed--of all places--in Western China. This is especially weird because the Tocharian people, who were known to Herodotus, had many European features--they were very tall (their mummies go up to six-foot-six), often had light hair and eyes, long European-style noses (very unlike the Chinese/Mongolian style flatter, smaller noses), and full facial hair. Also, their language had many more features in common with the Western branches of Indo-European than with the Indo-Iranian sub-family. Anyway, the Tocharian branch died out several centuries back.

Well. That's what we've been doing with our free time. As I mentioned, we're about a third of the way through the course. What's up next appears to involve trying to move back in time before the Proto-Indo-European language. Where did PIE come from? The presenter has already broached the idea that the original human languages were probably a lot like the click languages indigenous to southern Africa. It looks like he's going to present the cases for and against this hypothesis soon, and attempt to trace the rise of all the other language groups on earth from this hypothetical first language.

I happen to think it's all absolutely fascinating. So, as you can see, our time for blogging has been very limited lately. :-)


Oh, and by the way: the "Y'All" in this post's heading? English is one of the few languages out there that doesn't have a distinction between second-person singular and second-person plural pronouns. We used to have one, but we don't anymore, and we need it. People like to dump on the South for being unsophisticated; but in this case at least they're actively trying to improve the language. ;-)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Maybe a Career in Advertising?

Well, the Pillowfight Fairy has given us clues that she may yet go in an entirely different career direction than those she's expressed interest in before.

She might not actually go into airborne sheep rustling. She may go into advertising. Behold:

No, we didn't put her up to this. She did it entirely on her own. She doesn't even like the things. But she makes them sound sooo goood.....

Although I actually have to wonder about her business plan here. After all, "Peep Store. Open at 2 AM" gives a bit of a shiver down the spine, no? I mean, this is the store for people who really want their peeps bad. These are the people who would be mainlining them, if they could only figure out a way to squish them through the syringe.

And it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Me'n my peeps will be hangin' out at 2 AM."

And I note that some of those notes contain what look like GPS coordinates. Hm.

Hmmm. This is actually much darker than I originally thought. She may not be considering a job in advertising so much; she may be trying for the life of a pusher.

I wonder: how many "Fun Little Peeps" are there in a kilo? (Answer: a whole lot. They're pretty hard to smuggle--that is, unless you smoosh them first.)

You Learn Something New Every Day

So I ran across something today that made me giggle, until I realized it was real, and then it made me giggle even more.

I present to you the horrors of Uncombable Hair Syndrome (Note: this is a PDF file).

I didn't actually believe it at first, until I started looking at it a little closer, and looking around for corroboration; and yes, it is in fact a real, honest-to-goodness genetic syndrome. Apparently it affects (among other things) the cross-sectional shape of each hair, making it triangular or kidney-shaped instead of round. This causes hair that has the consistency of spun glass--and in fact, that's one of the common names of this syndrome, spun glass hair. It's also called ectodermal dysplasmia, pili trianguli et canaliculi, loose anagen hair syndrome, Bork Syndrome, and a bunch of other things as well.

I found this picture through this site, which I swear I've never visited before today. (I don't even visit it just to read the articles, really.)

So it's a genuine disorder. And apparently it's a soft indicator that there may be some other genetic issues that are more serious. Still, I'm just immature enough to be unable to stifle a snicker when I read the following, in a serious academic paper:
Uncombable hair may become first apparent from 3 months to 12 years of age.
Somehow, I don't find that the least bit surprising.
The hair is normal in quantity, and is usually silvery-blond or straw-colored. The hair stands out from the scalp, and its wild disorerly appearance totally resists any effort to control it with brush or comb.
Y'know, I've rather wondered about the Happy Boy. He always looks a little like Calvin on Picture Day.

Of course, there's some good news.
The eyebrows and eyelashes are normal.
Well, um, that's good to know, but actually this is the good news:
In later childhood a considerable degree of spontaneous improvement may occur.
So maybe there's some hope for the Calvins of the world after all. Happy Boy may be a little frizzy, but he'll grow into his head eventually. And through it all, he'll have normal eyebrows.


I ran across the above article at The Volokh Conspiracy, which is a group blog of (primarily libertarian) legal experts. I suspect they ran across it because of its references to "Bork Syndrome". Come to think of it Robert Bork did have fun hair, didn't he?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

117th Carnival of Homeschooling is up

The 117th Carnival of Homeschooling is up over at PHAT Mommy. I'm so proud--my post on Easter Egg Economics was the very first one featured in the carnival!

I haven't had the time to go all the way through the carnival yet, but there is one post in particular I have seen that I wanted to point out in particular. From the Not Quite Crunchy Parent, we have a post entitled Today Class We Will Draw An "Action-Life"-Encouraging Drawing In Boys. Now, my son is still very young, so it will be a while before this kind of thing becomes of immediate importance for us; nevertheless, we want to be prepared for when it happens. The fact is, boys and girls often do have different interests and aptitudes. There is a strain of thought that gender is a social construct--that is, the only differences between boys and girls come about because of the way they are socialized. This line of reasoning, if taken to its logical extreme and applied to educational environments, can lead to boys being required to read Judy Blume, to write sonnets, and to paint floral still lifes.

Not that there's anything wrong with that....

While every child is an individual, and there are certainly exceptions to every generalization, it is
nevertheless usually the case that boys are more interested in non-fiction, in adventure stories, and legendary stories of great heroes doing great things; and they tend to be less interested in stories involving the exploration of emotions, and the expression thereof. If you want to get a boy to read, and--more importantly--to instill a love of reading in him, you're probably better off giving him Ray Bradbury or Robert A. Heinlein than Jane Austen or Emily Brontë. And note that this has nothing to do with the relative literary merits of those authors--it's entirely a matter of differing interests.

The Not Quite Crunchy Parent makes a similar point about introducing boys to art. To lift one of the quotes she uses:
Under Sax’s leadership, teachers learn to say things like, “Damien, take your green crayon and draw some sparks and take your black crayon and draw some black lines coming out from the back of the vehicle, to make it look like it’s going faster.” “Now Damien feels encouraged,” … “To say: ‘Why don’t you use more colors? Why don’t you put someone in the vehicle?’ is as discouraging (to a boy) as if you say to Emily, ‘Well, this is nice, but why don’t you have one of them kick the other one — give us some action.’ ”
Bearing this in mind, here's a question. And I do not just intend this as a rhetorical question, since I did a few things like this in Junior High. How would a typical art teacher today respond to boys in class who draw--or sculpt--militaristic scenes? Knights in armor dismembering each other, Beowulf pulling off Grendel's arm, Blue army blowing up Red army, that sort of thing? My own art teacher didn't mind, but that was early '80's, and the Junior High was located on the grounds of Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. What kinds of things would happen in schools today if someone did this sort of thing?

Anyway, it's food for thought. Check it out.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Look! Slugs!

Today we introduced our children to Marshmallow Peeps.

Or rather, today we introduced the Happy Boy to Marshmallow Peeps. Both sisters had been introduced at younger ages, and decided today that they'd take a pass.

Anyway, earlier this week the girls were given little containers of bubble solution that were shaped like peeps; and when they pulled them out of their goody baskets, they happily declared, "Look! Slugs!" So we've decided to refer to them now as slugs. There is a bit of a resemblance, after all.

Well, as we got out the peeps earlier today, the girls decided they didn't particularly want to put them in their mouths. I'm not sure I blame them one bit, actually. But the Happy Boy is at the age where he puts anything in his mouth that he can get his hands on. He is much more like this than his sisters ever were; we can't put him down outside for more than twenty seconds before he's dining on a clump of dirt he found in our garden, or an odd stick, or (we presume) real slugs.

So how did he take to these marshmallow marvels?

Well, apparently he was intrigued enough to keep taking bites and chewing on them. He was not, however, intrigued enough to swallow. Much clean-up was required.

While it should be apparent from previous posts on this blog that I have a strong respect for societal and familial traditions, um... I think this is a tradition that isn't going to survive too many more years.

But in the meantime, we can certainly enjoy all the humor there is to be found about these creations of Modern Nutritional Technology--for example, the fact that they're nearly impossible to dissolve. And check out this page, describing a tricky medical procedure...
Quintuplet Peep siblings, conjoined at birth, have been separated through this daring application of modern medicine!


Anyway, I hope you all had a happy and joyous Easter. I suppose it's ironically appropriate that we should celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and our hope of eternal life by feeding our kids a food that is nigh indestructible....

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Erratic Blogging

My regular readers may have noted that my blogging has become a bit more erratic over the last few days. I've been trying to maintain a rate of one post a day, but there have been many days this month that I haven't posted at all; and a few days where I've posted a lot.

Expect this pattern to continue. For one thing, those books we ordered from finally showed up, so I have been at least partially immersed in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism for the last couple of days now. For another, my wife and I recently started watching this video series, entitled "The Story of Human Language"--part of Tonya's birthday present from last summer, which we'd never gotten around to watching until now. We think it's fascinating.

But both of these activities really have to be done in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed--which is also, coincidentally, the only time of day that I can do blogging. Something's going to give, and I'm afraid, it's all of you.

Blogging may be light and/or erratic the next few weeks. Or not. Who knows?

...And the Agony of Defeat...

We took the kids to our church's open-to-the-public Easter Egg Hunt today.

Now, Easter Egg Hunts are tricky things to organize, especially when they are open to the public. For one thing, while I am generally of the opinion that our society's tendency to segregate kids into different age groups is a net negative, this does not hold true for full-contact sports.

And, um.... Yes, Easter Egg Hunts can in fact become full-contact sports.

Blessedly, our church had arranged separate hunts for the under-3's, for ages 3-4, for ages 5-7, and for 8 and over.

For another thing, you don't know how many people are going to show up. And when that's the case, it's hard to judge how many eggs you should prepare in advance. (And it certainly doesn't help when, as one of the other parents told me, "They can't find one of the boxes of eggs....")

But then, there are hunts where you're actually hunting, and there are hunts that are more like round-ups. My family has hosted treasure hunts in our backyard as part of birthday or Easter parties before, and the way we hid the goodies in these hunts favored those kids who were careful and deliberate in their searching. We like to hide our packets of goodies under orange trees, in the middle of bushes, behind rocks, in the middle of patches of weeds, or in crooks of trees four feet off the ground--where most kids don't see them, because they're looking down so intently. So Easter Egg Hunts that we host truly are hunts.

Unfortunately, our church's need to run four different Easter Egg Hunts simultaneously meant that some of the hunts needed to be staged on open patches of ground, with all the eggs just lying there, their garish colors screaming out, "Come get me! I'm over here!" while entirely too many kids line up on the starting line, pushing and jostling, like the mass of people waiting for a marathon's starting gun. And when the word was given, the crowd surged, and the eggs got hoovered up as fast as the greedy little kids could elbow each other out of the way.

This was a Wild Easter-Egg Roundup.

Now, the Adrenaline Junkie (age 3) did pretty well. Their hunt was staged in a playground full of playground equipment, so the eggs actually had some good hiding places. There were a few cheaters, of course--much older siblings of the tykes who came in with them and "helped" them collect the eggs that should have been for the other 3- and 4-year-olds to find. But even with all that, there were enough eggs to go around, and the Adrenaline Junkie managed to get eight of them before she got bits of redwood bark stuck to her tights and had to sit down to take off her shoes.

Alas, the Pillowfight Fairy (age 5) wasn't mentally prepared for combat.

You see, she has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. In fact, it's not even a drummer; whatever it is she marches to, no one else can tell. Maybe it's bagpipes or nose-flutes or something. Anyway, she's always been introverted; always been more interested in what goes on in her own mind than in what goes on around her. Often when she plays a game--any kind of game--she decides that the rules aren't satisfying enough, and so she makes up new ones. These new ones may be more or less restrictive than the originals, but they're always more interesting to her (and frequently to me, as well).

Furthermore, the Fairy has always had a strong aesthetic sense. I've posted many of her pictures in previous blog posts. She likes lots of color in her pictures. She doesn't always use the color one expects, but she always has a reason for doing what she does. She has a strong sense that the world needs to be this way, and any other way is unacceptable.

She recently has been reading books about living things, and she rather liked the idea that many birds (like robins) come out of blue eggs. Little ones. In fact, a few days back, we actually found an empty eggshell in our backyard, that was maybe half an inch across and an inch long. We looked at it, and studied it....

And so today, she decided that she wanted to collect only the blue eggs. She was rather intrigued by them! She noted that they are bigger than robin eggs, and the blue is much darker, but they are still very pretty. Yes, I will collect just the blue eggs today.

And then the event started, and a flood of five- through seven-year-olds swarmed the field and started vacuuming up anything looking vaguely plastic. When the dust settled, the Pillowfight Fairy, who had been carefully checking each egg to see if it was just right--like an experienced gourmand selecting just the right cantaloupe--had managed to land exactly two eggs (both of them blue, of course).

She was heartbroken. She was downright despondent.

Of course, Mommy is on record as having no mercy. Her attitude was simply, "That should be a lesson to you not to be so picky. You were too picky when you had the chance to collect perfectly good eggs of different colors, and your lousy haul is just a natural consequence of your pickiness." Note that the Pillowfight Fairy wasn't comforted in the least by this line of reasoning.

And, of course, Mommy is right, as Mommies usually are.


I have to think to myself about all the wonderful life lessons this experience has taught her. Little girl, you have to be much more aggressive if you're going to get everything out of life that you can! Because if you don't get it first, someone else is going to take it away from you! You have to be aggressive, so you get it before they do! And you shouldn't worry about finding just the right one, because they're going fast; so you need to grab what you can now, and... um... hm. Let me think about this.

The Pillowfight Fairy wasn't mentally prepared for this game. As she so often does, she rejected the rules of the game, because that wasn't the game she wanted to play. And the more I think about it, the less I blame her. True, she was being very picky, and that is a tendency in her that we need to curb. And for the sake of her social life, she does need to learn a bit more to be sensitive to the needs of those around her, so she can occasionally accommodate them. The world does not revolve around her; she does have a very stubborn streak, and could stand to learn a bit more humility.

But on the other hand, think for a moment about the game she wanted to play. She wanted to sift leisurely through the field, picking and choosing which eggs to keep and which not to keep. She wanted to search; to look under bushes, to root around, to find them in unusual spots, to giggle at the clever way that the egg was hidden in a pile of old walnuts or balanced on the top of a fencepost. She didn't want to push and shove, or be pushed and shoved. She's stubborn, but not particularly aggressive--certainly nowhere near as much as most kids her age. You know what? I don't blame her one bit.

Now, I didn't go telling her this. The fact is, she needs to learn a bit more sense about games. When she's playing a public game, she needs to follow the rules of the game--and she does need to learn a bit more strategic thought, and not let herself be intimidated so easily by aggressive kids and big crowds.

Anyway. Being a Daddy means always looking for teachable moments, and this little event had them in spades. And perhaps because of the long comment thread on my recent Beatrix Potter/Economics post, I happened to see an economics application.

Now, the very fact that I could see an economics lesson in an Easter Egg Hunt rather makes me laugh at myself. No wonder my daughter isn't normal--look at her genetic material! ;-)

Well, here's the opening line of the Wikipedia entry on the Tragedy of the Commons:
The Tragedy of the Commons is a type of social trap, often economic, that involves a conflict over finite resources between individual interests and the common good.
The Tragedy of the Commons is this: resources that are held by society and made freely available to all tend to get overused and destroyed. The classic example is pasture land: if there is public pasture land available to everyone in a medieval town, then everyone with animals has an incentive to graze their animals there since they don't then have to pay to feed their animals. Wikipedia continues:
The herders are assumed to wish to maximize their yield, and so will increase their herd size whenever possible. The utility of each additional animal has both a positive and negative component:
  • Positive: the herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal.
  • Negative: the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal.
Crucially, the division of these costs and benefits is unequal: the individual herder gains all of the advantage, but the disadvantage is shared among all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for an individual herder weighing these, the rational course of action is to add an extra animal. And another, and another. However, since all herders reach the same rational conclusion, overgrazing and degradation of the pasture is its long-term fate. Nonetheless, the rational response for an individual remains the same at every stage, since the gain is always greater to each herder than the individual share of the distributed cost.
I explained to the Fairy that since there were a limited number of eggs, all the kids were extra eager to snatch them all before anyone else did, lest they not wind up with any. And I went on to explain how this can be a problem that shows up in other places--like the fact that my parents, who love abalone, haven't been able to eat it in decades. Why? Because there are only so many abalone out there; and the abalone fishermen were collecting them a lot like those kids were collecting Easter Eggs--If I don't get them, someone else will; so I'd better get all I can before they're gone--and as a result, abalone stocks fell so low that they are now a protected species.

I have no idea whether my impromptu economics lesson penetrated her consciousness, although she did appear to be listening. But then, she was still mourning the haul of eggs that she was supposed to have but never got; my lesson may not have made it through. The trouble with these Teachable Moments is that so often the kid is such an odd emotional state that you have no clue what part of your lesson actually gets in. I like the way the Adrenaline Junkie put it on the way home. She had asked the Fairy, in her sweet little three-year old voice, why she was crying; the Fairy was too weepy to answer, so the Junkie relayed to us the news (bearing in mind that she tends to pronounce the word "saying" the same as "sane") that "Sister's not sane!"

We've been wondering about that, at least since she turned five or so.

Carnival of Homeschooling Was Up Four Days Ago

Well, I've been slacking a little on my blogging, mainly because there have been so many other things to be doing lately. And I recently noticed that I hadn't yet blogged about the most recent Carnival of Homeschooling! It went up last Tuesday at Janice Campbell's blog.

My post on Beatrix Potter's story, The Tale of Ginger and Pickles--and its economic lessons--is included.

Oh, and Henry Cate, the founder and tireless promoter of the Carnival of Homeschooling, has been holding a contest to come up with some new standardized graphics for the Carnival. He is soliciting votes. If you have any interest in this, check it out here and here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Things to Do in Northern California

Well! Chris, one of my long-time readers (as long-time as one can get when one's blog is only seven months old) and resident of rural Georgia, will be taking a trip to Northern California in the next few months with his family. He will be visiting San Francisco, Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, and Sonoma (where they will be attending a wedding). He has asked my advice for inexpensive, family-friendly things to do while here, as they will be here for a few weeks.

First, do not confuse Sonoma with Sonora. They're different places. They're both good to visit, but they're a few hundred miles apart. :-)

I've already given the following advice:
Welcome to our beautiful state! I should warn you, it's pretty big. If you're doing San Francisco, Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Sonoma, you're going to be spending a lot of time in a car. Nothing wrong with that--we Californians do it all the time--but rent a comfy one.
That being said, here's a list of stuff that's just off the top of my head.


First, Northern California's most famous historical event was probably the Gold Rush. In downtown Sacramento you will find, among other things, Sutter's Fort--the place where the first nugget of gold was discovered in 1848. The white people who were already here got filthy stinking rich. But by the time news trickled back to the East Coast and kicked off the Gold Rush in '49, most of the best claims were already staked out. The ones who got rich at that point weren't the gold-hunters, but the people who mined the gold-hunters: the merchants and tradesmen who made and sold the clothes, the tools, the booze....

While you're in Sacramento, there are plenty of other things to do. One that my family has enjoyed is the Railroad Museum. It has many locomotives on exhibit, and many different kinds of railroad cars--including some very lavishly appointed dinner cars. Next to this, airplanes just don't stack up as a very civilized way to travel. And apparently there is a 6-mile steam train excursion that follows the levees along the Sacramento River, open from April through September.

Aw, heck: here's the website for the Sacramento Museum Guide. You can find stuff to do in Sacramento for yourself.

Of course, the Gold Country is much more than just Sacramento. There is a one-time boom town, that was one vote away from becoming capital of California, before it went bust. That town is Columbia. The town has been maintained in its 19th-century state so you can see what it looked like during the Gold Rush.

Of course, before us Gringos came, there were the Spanish. They didn't settle the land in the same way that the Anglos did; they primarily left small military outposts surrounded by large rancheros and lots of open land. Aside from that, civilization in the state centered around the Catholic Missions for quite some time. There were twenty-one of these, mainly located on the "King's Highway" (El Camino Real) which ran from what is now the Mexican border all the way up to the border between Spanish and Russian California. Incidentally, the northernmost of these is Mission San Francisco de Solano, located in the town of Sonoma. Several of these twenty-one missions are still in use as churches; most of them are still around as state parks and are open to the public, although some are in poor condition.

Speaking of Russian California--yup, it's true. For a while Northern California was lightly colonized by the Russians. The Russian colonists even had some contact with John Sutter (the guy who founded Sutter's Fort); but they were gone by the time the Gold Rush started. They were mainly trappers and the like, who didn't put down roots. But they did leave some important historical sites--most notably, Fort Ross, which is also in Sonoma County.

If you get tired of historical sites and want to check out geologic sites, California has a whole lot more geology than is really safe. We've got some active volcanoes, including Mount Lassen, which last erupted in 1915. It's absolutely beautiful country; but if you go, beware that most of the really cool stuff (fumaroles, mud pots, that sort of thing) will still be under snow in late April. (They'll still be under snow in late June. Tonya and I know this first hand; we visited some of these sites on our honeymoon.)

There's also Mount Shasta, which is one of the most beautiful cinder-cones you could ever hope to see. Mt. Shasta City is a beautiful little spot about three hours north of Sacramento. Be warned: the town is a veritable Mecca for the sorts of people who like to use crystals to channel the lines of energy that converge harmonically on the Sacred Mountain. If you meet them, smile at them and think peaceful thoughts, m'kay?

A little north of Sonoma, in the Napa County town of Calistoga, there are a few interesting geologic features. For one, we have our very own Old Faithful Geyser here in California! It's not as famous as the one in Yellowstone, of course, but ours actually goes off a bit more regularly and a bit more frequently. The town of Calistoga was built as a spa resort in an area that has many natural hot springs. And where you have hot springs, you occasionally have geysers as well.

(An interesting anecdote. As the spa was being dedicated, its founder was supposed to christen it "Saratoga of California", naming it after another famous resort location. The trouble was, he was drunk out of his mind at the time, and he wound up christening it "Calistoga of Sarafornia" by accident. There is, of course, a restaurant in Calistoga named Sarafornia, as you can well imagine. That's one of the really cool things about this state: so many of the people who settled it were manly men, with lots of brawn and enthusiasm--but who were dumb as rocks. This theme seems to show up in our history quite a lot, actually....)

There's a petrified forest not too far from this spot. The petrified forest was primarily of California Redwoods (although I do remember one pine tree that had been preserved), which all got buried when a nearby volcano erupted. Geologists place the eruption about three and a half million years ago.

Of course, the thing that Napa County is really famous for, is all the wineries--which produce some of the finest wine in the world. Unfortunately, I can't recommend that for people who are traveling the state by car, with children, on a budget. The Wine Country attracts a very wealthy and sophisticated clientèle; expect prices to reflect this fact.

Of course, California has its characters too. A little further south, on the outskirts of Fresno, you can find the work of someone who was quite persistent (and also quite eccentric). A Sicilian immigrant, Baldassare Forestiere, moved to Fresno as a young man after spending some time digging subway tunnels in New York City. He bought up a decent-sized farm, then discovered that (A) the ground was really, really hard, and (B) it gets awfully hot in the summer in California's Central Valley. So he decided to build his estate... underground. For decades, he dug, and dug... and built quite a comfortable little place below ground, out of the heat. He discovered that fruit trees planted in a deep hole are easier to manage; you can pick the fruit from the highest branches just by walking up to it at ground level--and because it's cooler down there, you don't need to use as much water (which can get scarce here in the summer). There are some beautiful pictures of what this guy did at the link listed above.

And then there was Lady Winchester, wife of the guy that invented the (Winchester) repeating rifle. She became quite wealthy from the sale of these weapons--but felt very guilty at the bloody source of her wealth. She was quite superstitious, believing in the sort of spiritualism that was very common during the Victorian Era. She believed that her life would be claimed the moment that work stopped on her mansion. So she used up huge amounts of her wealth building a monstrosity of a mansion, with the work continuing, non-stop, day and night, for decades. This place is weird: it has doors that open onto blank walls, doors that open into nothingness (ten-foot drops), staircases that go up to the ceiling and then stop, hidden doors, one-way doors, trapdoors, rooms for seances, secret rooms.... It's the kind of place where they do their best business on Halloween, when they conduct flashlight tours. The Winchester Mystery House is located in San Jose, about an hour's drive south of San Francisco.

If you're willing to go a little farther south, there's Hearst Castle in the hills near San Luis Obispo--about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. William Randolph Hearst was the Newspaper Magnate after whom Citizen Kane was modeled. He was ridiculously wealthy, and he liked to live the good life. Hearst Castle was built to be the centerpiece of a huge estate, which Hearst had stocked with exotic African wildlife. The Castle itself would have done Louis the Fourteenth proud. Hearst was also an art connoisseur, who packed his palace full of classical artwork--some of it dating back to the early Hellenic period. The whole place is gaudy and ostentatious--but it's also very, very beautiful.

I mentioned a few posts back about the air museum in Atwater, CA--the town where I lived during my high school years. That'll be right in the middle of a Central/Northern California excursion, if you're into Aerospace. But Sacramento also has a good air museum. It doesn't have the SR-71, and it doesn't have the big bombers like the Castle Air Museum does, but it does have a lot of good planes. I wrote a bit about our trip to that museum here.

Well! This is getting to be quite a long list. I haven't even gotten to all the beaches, or to Long Valley and Mono Lake, or to the Mendocino Coast, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium...

A few bits of advice: California is a big place--about 1000 miles from the Southeast corner, in the desert on the Mexican border, to the Northwest corner, on the coast at the Oregon border. There are huge variations in climate. Southern California is arid; Northern California can get a lot of rain. People have images of big sandy beaches, warm breezes... but that's Southern California. Especially in the spring and fall, weather in Northern California can be downright cold (especially if you go into the mountains), or miserably hot. Prepare for both. Remember Mark Twain's words: "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." That is a true statement--it is not that much of an exaggeration. Be prepared for cold, damp, foggy conditions if you spend any time in The City.

But this is a beautiful state, and there is a whole lot to do here. I've barely scratched the surface, but this is more than enough for a few weeks' trip like what Chris will be doing with his family.

Oh, and Chris: let me know in the comments if you want to swing by our place. We're in a suburb of Sacramento, and I'd love to take some time off work and show you guys around this area. I need a bit of a vacation too, I think. :-) And it's been a while since my wife and I have set up a really good field trip for our kids.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Trio of Powerful Allies

In the wake of the California Appeals Court ruling on homeschooling, In Re: Rachel L, there have been many different opinions expressed about what exactly the ruling means. Some have interpreted the ruling to mean that homeschooling in California has been outlawed for anyone that doesn't have an appropriate credential. I've seen this opinion expressed a lot by those who are in the homeschooling movement--many of whom are pessimistic about state protections of homeschooling rights. (And to be fair, given the kinds of cases that have popped up from time to time in other states, and the legislation and regulations they have to deal with, many homeschoolers have had reason to be pessimistic.)

I suspect there are many opponents of homeschooling who interpret the ruling this way too, although I haven't been following the debate enough to point to any specific examples.

After some initial shock on my part, I took the time to familiarize myself with the ruling and the facts of the case, and I've become a bit more sanguine about the situation. The ruling still appears to be pretty sour on homeschooling in general. However, I didn't actually see anything in the ruling that changed the system homeschoolers operate under. Under state law, private schools are not required to have their teachers credentialed. So if parents follow the laws to establish private schools--with themselves as teachers and administrators, and their kids as the students, they're fine. The ruling said this arrangement probably wasn't what the legislature intended; but it didn't explicitly go on to ban the practice. (And I think the ruling even went too far with the comment about what the legislature intended or didn't intend, as it had nothing to do with the case at hand.)

But my view was definitely at the more optimistic end of the scale. And when you're all the way at one end of the scale, it's easy to start second guessing yourself: Hmmm. everyone else is more pessimistic than me. Is it more likely that I'm the only one right and everyone else wrong, or that I'm the one who's missing something?

So it was very relieving and gratifying to see this official release from the California Department of Education, sent out about a week ago:
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced today that the California Department of Education has completed a legal review of the February 28 California Court of Appeal ruling regarding home schooling. O'Connell issued the following statement:

"I have reviewed this case, and I want to assure parents that choose to home school that California Department of Education policy will not change in any way as a result of this ruling. Parents still have the right to home school in our state....

"As the head of California's public school system, I hope that every parent would want to send their children to public school. However, traditional public schools may not be the best fit for every student.... But some parents choose to send their children to private schools or to home school, and I respect that right.

"I admire the dedication of parents who commit to oversee their children's education through home schooling...."
Edited down by me. Go read the whole thing.

So basically, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, head of the Department of Education, has decided that the ruling changes nothing in the way the law is interpreted regarding homeschoolers. It was legal to do it before, so long as certain minimum requirements (like the filing of the annual affidavit) were met; it's legal now, under exactly the same set of requirements.

It's also nice to know that the Governator is on our side. Now, I know that governors come and go (and for that matter, State Superintendents do too); there's no telling what the next state administration will do on this matter. But for now, it's reassuring to hear what Der Arnold said on this issue about two weeks back:
Every California child deserves a quality education and parents should have the right to decide what's best for their children. Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children's education. This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts and if the courts don't protect parents' rights then, as elected officials, we will.
Now, at the time he issued this statement, the State Superintendent hadn't yet completed his legal review of the ruling. There was still an open question as to what it all meant. It may well be that homeschoolers' rights won't be endangered, even if the ruling stands. Nevertheless, it's still nice to know that we've got the Governator on our side; that's no small thing.

But should the assistance of the State Superintendent fail, and the Hunter-Killer Android with the Austrian Accent be unable to terminate the threat, there's one more hero out there ready to do battle alongside the Forces of Freedom: the Man who can kill two stones with one bird; the Man who can lead a horse to water and make it drink; the Man for whom the boogeyman checks his closets at night.

That's right. We have Chuck Norris on our side--the most dangerous homeschooling father on the planet. The three judges have no idea what they've stepped in here. You do not want to tangle with the Man who can eat just one Lay's potato chip.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

One of my friends from the circle of Harpers that I know has a thing against the song O Danny Boy. She'd taken a solemn vow that she would never, never, never sing it for any reason.

I never actually heard why. It may have been that this lovely Irish song was actually written by an Englishman, which makes it highly suspect (if not downright sacrilegious). Or it may have been that since she'd spent time learning to play the harp in Ireland, that she knew so many better songs; so after all, why not sing them instead?

My wife's theory is that most people over here don't know Irish music from squat, so the only Irish tunes they know to ask for are O Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. (And maybe there are a few who know that tune that the Roadrunner kept trying to plunk out on that dynamite-rigged piano. Anyone remember the name of that song?) After a while, an Irish harper who takes those requests over and over and over again is bound to get sick of them, no?

All the same, though, I found a version of the song on youtube a few months ago that Deborah would probably have found amusing. So at the risk of taking a shillelagh to me noggin' on this fine St. Patrick's day, I present you O Danny Boy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

It Was Totally, Like, The Best Popcorn Ever

So we have a tradition in this family of making up a batch of popcorn on Sunday evenings. This tradition has been going on for a few generations, so we daren't break it now.

Sing it with me:
Will the Circle Be Unbroken....

Ahem. Anyway, we use one of those Whirly-Pop things, with the crank on it to keep the popcorn from burning on the bottom of the pan. To use one of those, you put in a tablespoon of oil and about a quarter-cup of kernels, and you just keep cranking while you heat it on medium-high heat until they're all popped.

The trouble is, we ran out of vegetable oil this weekend. We decided we didn't want to run by a store, because that would have been like work, and keeping the Circle Unbroken wasn't that important. So, let's check to see what we have on hand...

Could we substitute olive oil? Um, no. Olive oil on popcorn? That would just be weird. Try again.

Butter? Well, that might work; but it might scorch and give a burnt flavor to the popcorn. Try to think of something else.

Shortening? Hm. Possibility there. Still kind of weird, but we're getting closer. How about...

Bacon fat.

Eureka. My mother learned to cook from her mom, who grew up in Arkansas. And my in-laws grew up in the rural South. So we know all about bacon fat. Every time you get a package of bacon, you fry it up and pour the drippings into a can or bowl, which is kept sealed in the refrigerator. Later, when you're cooking some vegetables that are threatening to be really bland, you scoop out a tablespoon or so of the drippings (which by this point will have solidified to a shortening-like-substance) into the pan or pot. The flavor improves the vegetables greatly, but doesn't necessarily improve the waistlines of the people who eat them.

Well, I made bacon-flavored popcorn tonight. Strictly from necessity, mind you.

Best. Darn. Popcorn. Ever.

And you know what the best part of the popcorn was? I kid you not--it was the little kernels left in the bottom of the pan that never quite popped correctly: the little things that you crunch on after all the real popcorn is gone and you're trying to derive the last little modicum of pleasure from the bits in the bottom of the bowl. Well, those mostly-un-popped kernels are the ones that were sitting in the baconny goodness, soaking it up, the longest.

And the house was filled with the most wonderful aroma. All that steam from the popping corn carried the scent all through the house. I bet heaven smells like this--or it would, if God wasn't Kosher.

So what did my daughters think of it?

"Daddy, this popcorn smells funny."

Sadly, I think that enough generations have passed, that my girls can't rightly be called Daughters of the South anymore.

An Economics Lesson from Beatrix Potter

A few months back I mentioned that we acquired a set of DVDs of Beatrix Potter stories (Peter Rabbit, and the like). I wrote about it at the time, because these stories--well-written, slow-paced, kids' stories--were actually surprisingly dark for children's literature. That is, they appear dark to those of us accustomed to the modern stuff (which Charlotte Mason would most assuredly have referred to as "twaddle").

We adults are accustomed to giving our kids stuff that is utterly unoffensive. They're fluffy bunny stories, for crying out loud! They have cute little animals hopping around doing cute things! We wouldn't want to see any blood now, would we? But somehow the Beatrix Potter stories contain those dark undertones that exist in so much of the natural world. Bad things happen--or at least, the threat of them is there. Animals get sick. Peter's father had been put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. They may be fluffy bunny stories, but if an overprotective parent is trying to create a world made of Nerf to keep the kids safe, these stories are quite out-of-place in that world.

Well, the kids liked those animated stories so much that Tonya started picking up the books on their weekly library trips. The girls especially like reading the stories they already recognize from the videos; but they also got a few of the books that hadn't been animated.

I picked up one of them and read through it a few days ago. It was entitled The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.

Good heavens.

I mean, Good Heavens.

Now I thought that Dr. Seuss's Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose had shades of Ayn Rand when I read through it; but it's not the only one. The Tale of Ginger and Pickles seriously has that Atlas Shrugged vibe going too.

In case you'd like to take a look at it, here's a link to the entire book, with illustrations.

And as a brief digression, if any of you hasn't yet been introduced to Project Gutenberg, I'd like to make that introduction. The goal of Project Gutenberg is to get every public domain document ever written online. Just about any famous author and document ever written is already covered, from all the Beatrix Potter stuff to everything by Shakespeare to Canterbury Tales (in Middle English) to Churchill's The River War (about the British conquest of the Sudan) to anything by H. G. Wells. I've gone there very frequently when I want to look up quotes by famous authors, or when I decide I want to read a famous old document. It's a resource well worth bookmarking.

But here's a synopsis of The Tale of Ginger and Pickles:
  • Ginger is a tom-cat, and Pickles is a terrier. They operate a general store.
  • Their clients--bunnies, mice, rats--are afraid of them, since they're carnivores.
  • But they don't want to eat their customers, because then they'd have no more customers.
  • And their customers shop there because they offer credit (while their competitor doesn't).
  • The trouble is, they are a wee bit too free with their credit.
  • And no one ever pays them back. Some because they can't, some because they just won't.
  • So they start running out of money, and have to eat their own goods.
  • Then the taxman shows up, and they can't pay, so they go out of business.
  • Then suddenly everyone is worse off, except the competitor, who gets to raise her prices.
  • And Ginger and Pickles decide to go into hunting instead.
  • The rest of the community finds itself having to get its goods from other sources.
  • None of these goods had the quality of those in Ginger and Pickles' store.
  • Everyone suffers until the store is re-opened under new management.
  • The new management runs a decent store, but only takes cash.
Now, tell me: when was the last time you read a fluffy bunny story that presented that kind of economic lesson?

I mean, just off the top of my head, here are a few economic lessons that can be drawn from the above synopsis:
  • Note that the carnivores had a very real incentive not to prey on their customers. The free market has a civilizing influence. After all, you can only thrive in a free market if you're able to meet someone else's needs.
  • It's easy to demonize businesses, and to feel no pity when they go under. The trouble is, their fate is tied to ours; if the businesses that serve us go down, it hurts us too.
  • It's easy to feel pity for those who are in debt. The trouble is, if they can't or won't pay back their debts, it badly hurts their creditors; and that pain gets spread around to everyone in the community.
  • The customers abused their credit; by the end of the book, there was no credit available anywhere.
  • Taxes really do put a burden on business. In marginal cases--where the business is just barely hanging on--the taxes can put the business over the edge into insolvency. This does nobody any good either--not even the government, since the business they were taxing just ceased to exist.
Presenting this stuff to my kids feels, well... a little strange. Not wrong, mind you, just strange. Just as it feels strange to present fluffy bunny stories to our young in which the fluffy bunny is in danger of being eaten, it just feels a little weird to expose our kids to stories in which un- considered generosity results in disaster for the generous one.

We're supposed to be teaching our kids to be idealists! We're supposed to be defending their childhoods from cynicism and disappointment for as long as possible!

Actually, we're supposed to be equipping and preparing them for life. And while I'm not sure yet of the best age to start teaching economics to the wee ones, they will need to know at some point how to handle their money--and how to recognize an unhealthy market situation when they see it. I suspect that a lot more people in this country could have seen the current mortgage meltdown coming, had they just internalized the Tale of Ginger and Pickles at a young age. After all, while I'm no economist, our current economic troubles sure look to me like a case of too-easy credit causing too-big debts causing defaulting debtors causing bankrupt creditors causing no money available for borrowing causing big drop in business across the board. Hmmm...


Well, Tonya and I have decided that these books are worth having around all the time, so we went over to and placed an order for this. And just for kicks, I ordered a copy of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism at the same time, since I've been wanting it for my upcoming birthday. Coincidentally, Amazon was offering Liberal Fascism in a package deal with Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies. I didn't actually order that one too; I suspect that after Beatrix Potter, it's probably a little redundant. ;-)

Oh, and it gave my wife and me a little giggle when we thought about what our order would do to Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought..." feature. I can just see some future political scientist... or some parent of toddlers... seeing Beatrix Potter paired with Liberal Fascism, and seriously freaking out.


In the meantime, we're feeling a little liberated, actually. Who says that fluffy bunny stories have to be saccharine-sweet? I'm just wondering how much longer I have to wait before introducing my children to Richard Adams' Watership Down.