Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Advice to Myself: What Twitter is Not

Twitter is not a tool to gain the favor of people by praising them or their work. Nor is it a place for you to maneuver your own work to their attention. Your blog likewise ought to be inhospitable to such flattery.

Such use will reduce the purpose of everything you write to gaining popularity, either for fame itself or for money, and all the more often will you turn away from your life and toward these online places for satisfaction.

Look to what foolishness even solid minds and good men have been reduced! Picking fights with strangers, spending hours crafting insults, arguing with no hope of resolution, betraying their life's privacy. . . if only they could see what the vain hope of popularity has taken from them, or perhaps the void which such pursuit has filled.

So what is Twitter and your blog to you? A place to reflect wisely on what matters most to you. Let not reflecting on life—a very good and necessary thing—become all of life, and let not the business of sharing those reflections overshadow them.

Even the philosopher, if you are such a thing, is not only a philosopher.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Advice to Myself: Splinters

One of the most necessary lessons of moral philosophy is contained in this question: why do you see the straw in the eye of your brother and not in your own? It is, however, a great and ongoing challenge to apply this lesson wisdom.

On the one hand, it is very easy to pardon the errors of another when they are the same as yours. This is so first because such errors are obvious to us and second because by forgiving others we hope to welcome our own absolution. Yet it is no less important, and much more difficult, to forgive a man for falling into those errors from which you have yourself steered clear. It is easy to look at a man overcome by lust or gluttony and say, "What a weak-willed fool!" simply because you have overcome such weaknesses, if you were even tempted by them.

Yet what about your inability to curb your tongue or your temper? Or to treat others generously or be patient? "What a weak-willed fool!" you should be called for those struggles of yours if you fail to see that each man struggles with a different part of life.

On the other hand, it is easy from this position to fall to the facile conclusion that no judgments are possible. Given the gravity of man's life, it would be desirable if we could abdicate judgment and permanently defer to a higher authority. For man's soul we can do this, for it will be judged by a perfect wisdom.

We do not, however, have recourse to that perfect wisdom regarding every matter on this earth, and to defer all judgments would lead to utter immorality and disorder. The affairs of this world require choices, so instead of refusing to judge, undertake the responsibility of judging wisely, that is to say, with clemency, impartiality, and the humility to realize that even the wise and good do not sit so high above others that they may not err in judgment, especially if they judge without the aforementioned virtues or if they judge without full knowledge of the facts.

Both of those situations are quite likely, too, so also be not so eager to throw down the fates of others, but judge to bring about the good. That is, neither judge nor spare judgment to flatter your sense or superiority, but do each in the service of some other good.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Alt-Right Owns Antiquity?

I've been meaning to write about this matter for a while, but this article by Curtis Dozier of Vassar College in Eidolon, an "online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship," edited by Mark Zuckerberg's sister, Donna Zuckerberg, got me thinking anew: where is the politics of Classics in 2017?

Eidolon's article, in its jejune way, raises some red flags when it asserts that, "the alt-right owns antiquity online," as its justification for compiling a database "to stand up against hateful appropriations of antiquity online."

On the one hand, this seems like a tempest in a teapot. My sense of the situation, unscientific to be sure, is that the left, especially the academic left, is spooked by the political rumblings of the last year and is trying to exorcise and purify its domains. With great reluctance it is realizing that it does not own the internet.

On the other hand, the matter may be quite serious.

First, the statement that "the alt-right owns antiquity online" is a probably a substantial exaggeration. Classics online, or anywhere, is not vital at all, it seems to me. (By vital I mean something that is healthy, active, and growing.)

Second, with respect to interest, it might be possible that the alt-right is right now more passionate about classics than is the left today.

Third, I'm not sure whether compiling a database will do more harm than good. A few weeks ago Jordan B. Peterson asked via a Twitter poll whether a website, and I am paraphrasing from memory, that would catalog neo-Marxist courses online, would do more good or harm. The giddy, hysterical, adolescent tone (and content) of the Eidolon article suggests to me the creators of "Pharos" have not publicly asked this crucial question.

Will a database work, ultimately, for or against debate, for or against free speech? Dozier wrote that he wanted to respond "Not to try to change the minds of those we were responding to, but so that the curious public would have access to a better way of understanding the past," but to what demand of public curiosity will Pharos respond? Too, in the absence of such curiosity, what will Pharos become?  Finally, why not try to engage people and change their minds? Why wouldn't that be preferable?

Maybe instead of compiling a database for the explicit purpose of not engaging ones adversaries, Dozier, Zuckerberg, and the staff of Eidolon should get out in the trenches, summon up the blood, bring their vaunted knowledge of the ancient world to their tongues, and debate their opposition in public in the real world in the spirit of antiquity.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #7: Five Cheating Anecdotes

To close out the topic of cheating in this series, here are a few cheating-related anecdotes from my years teaching Latin.

1. in flagrante delicto

One of the most memorable incidents occurred early in my teaching career when a student tried to cheat using his cell phone. When I walked toward him he proceeded, hilariously frantic, to pull the phone out from its hidden position, rip off its cover, and pluck out the battery. Even he chuckled when he realized what he had done. I wish I had taken the opportunity to teach the phrase in flagrante delicto.

2. A Pair of Nickers

I once taught two juniors who were thick as thieves and, as I look back, alarmingly devious. When I contemplate their antics, today I would cross the street to avoid them. The catch is that one had a grade of A and the other was failing, with the former abetting the other. As a neophyte teacher I fell prey to some clever gimmicks. The funniest was when the failing student completed a test so sloppily that it was illegible and who, when questioned, replied that he completed the test with a monstrously broken pencil, which he produced in all its mangled glory. The worst scam was when that same student didn't hand in a test and alleged I had lost it. Both I and an administrator were taken aback at his temerity.

Eventually I had them figured out, but in the end they got the better of me when they conspired to cheat during the final exam, correctly surmising that they could pull the wool over the eyes of the proctor. The failing student hadn't passed many tests that year, but he did manage to score 100% on the final!

3. New Leaves

The same year I taught the above juniors I caught two freshman cheating a few weeks before the end of the year. My clever ruse, of which I was very proud, was that, having spied their cheating off of paper on their seats, I would ask them to get up and open a window. They were, in fact, good kids who had made a bad choice to cheat but they were not deceitful by nature, so when I deployed my scheme they complied and let the chips fall. They were mortified and apologized repeatedly and profusely, but they grew up to be gentleman and scholars I'm proud to have taught.

4. Lost Keys

I handed out the key with the test not once, but twice. The first time it was promptly returned to me by a first rate student who was holding it at a distance, averting his eyes. His integrity impressed the whole class. He also was, I think, one of the best students and young men who walked through the doors of that school in my years there.

Now for the cheating. The second time I handed out the key I had to retrieve it, but also from an A+ student. He was otherwise a good kid, but he had that key tucked under his test and blushed when I came to get it. Still disappoints me.

5. Quintus Cicero's Guide to Engineering

At the very beginning of one student's freshman year, I accidentally left review material projected on the board as I handed out the quiz. It was the frantic attempt of this student greedily copying down answers that alerted me to my error.

Later, in his junior year, I returned a guided reading assignment on Cicero. All the student had to do was fill in the blanks of a summary of an article on Cicero. The article included a comment on Quintus Cicero, the brother of the famous orator, and the pamphlet Quintus had written about how to get elected, aka the process of electioneering.

I had known something odd was going on with the take-home assignments, but I could not pin down exactly what it was until I graded the project of this particular student, who had filled in one particular blank, "Cicero's brother Quintus wrote a guide to engineering for his brother..."

Upon reading that I realized that the odd answers I had been noticing on the projects were the results of students copying the work of others, but misreading their sloppy handwriting and thus writing down answers that read as nonsense in the context.

If there is an upside to cheating it is that the results are usually futile and quite funny.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Quote: The Carthaginian Who Said No to War

from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita. Book 21.

Translation by Bruce J. Butterfield

21.3 ... The soldiers led the way by bringing the young Hannibal forthwith to the palace and proclaiming him their commander-in-chief amidst universal applause. Their action was followed by the plebs. Whilst little more than a boy, Hasdrubal had written to invite Hannibal to come to him in Spain, and the matter had actually been discussed in the senate. The Barcines wanted Hannibal to become familiar with military service; Hanno, the leader of the opposite party, resisted this. "Hasdrubal's request," he said, "appears a reasonable one, and yet I do not think we ought to grant it" This paradoxical utterance aroused the attention of the whole senate. 

He continued: "The youthful beauty which Hasdrubal surrendered to Hannibal's father he considers he has a fair claim to ask for in return from the son. It ill becomes us, however, to habituate our youths to the lust of our commanders, by way of military training. Are we afraid that it will be too long before Hamilcar's son surveys the extravagant power and the pageant of royalty which his father assumed, and that there will be undue delay in our becoming the slaves of the despot to whose son-in-law our armies have been bequeathed as though they were his patrimony? I, for my part, consider that this youth ought to be kept at home and taught to live in obedience to the laws and the magistrates on an equality with his fellow-citizens; if not, this small fire will some day or other kindle a vast conflagration." 

21.4 Hanno's proposal received but slight support, though almost all the best men in the council were with him, but as usual, numbers carried the day against reason. 

21.10 The result was that, beyond being received and heard by the Carthaginian senate, the embassy found its mission a failure. Hanno alone, against the whole senate, spoke in favour of observing the treaty, and his speech was listened to in silence out of respect to his personal authority, not because his hearers approved of his sentiments. He appealed to them in the name of the gods, who are the witnesses and arbiters of treaties, not to provoke a war with Rome in addition to the one with Saguntum. "I urged you," he said, "and warned you not to send Hamilcar's son to the army. That man's spirit, that man's offspring cannot rest; as long as any single representative of the blood and name of Barca survives our treaty with Rome will never remain unimperilled.

You have sent to the army, as though supplying fuel to the fire, a young man who is consumed with a passion for sovereign power, and who recognises that the only way to it lies in passing his life surrounded by armed legions and perpetually stirring up fresh wars. It is you, therefore, who have fed this fire which is now scorching you. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Advice to Myself: Spare Yourself

Spare yourself concern for the comings and goings of inferiors. To follow them and resent their unwise but carefree wanderings is a dark path. So is resenting them the praise that other fools lavish upon them. What do you want with the praise of fools? Spare yourself this madness.

Yet driven as we all are by desire for praise, seek neither to court the favor of great men. You will grow to resent a life you do not understand and which is complete without you.

Instead, seek out those who are good and alike to you in virtue. In them, or in that one, you will have nothing sweeter. Wherever you turn, it will be present for you. So supported you will raise each other's spirits.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Quote: Vox Populi, Vox Dei

from Our Culture, What's Left of It, by Theodore Dalrymple

The crudity of which I complain results form the poisonous combination of an ideologically inspired (and therefore insincere) admiration for all that is demotic, on the one hand, and intellectual snobbery, on the other. In a democratic age, vox populi, vox dei: the multitude can do no wrong; and to suggest that there is or ought to be cultural activity from which large numbers of people might be excluded by virtue of their lack of mental cultivation is deemed elitist and, by definition, reprehensible. Coarseness is the tribute that intellectuals pay, if not to the proletariat, exactly, then to their own schematic, inaccurate, and condescending idea of the proletariat. Intellectuals prove the purity of their political sentiment by the foulness of their productions.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Six Frames from Stranger Things 2: Episode 6


I was skeptical of this thread thread introduced in the pilot, but it fit fairly well with Eleven's search for a family. The urban environment is cliché, yes, but the director made clever use of the background text, mostly graffiti, to comment on the scenes.

1. Spiritual Isor

As we see the vengeful anger of Eleven's "sister."

2. Pawn

As we see Eleven about to be used for her powers.

3. Wicked

4. Mek

That is, meek: with great power but choosing not to exercise it, after Eleven does just that.

5. O' Bedlam

Bedlam, that is, an insane asylum, from the popular name for the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London.

6.  Multidirectional Arrow

This image recurs and reflects Eleven being pulled in different directions, one of which is deformed.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #6: Why Cheat?

Now that we have discussed why it is necessary to prevent cheating in the classroom we ought to address the next important matter on the subject: why does a student cheat?  One factor chiefly figures in determining whether a student will cheat, namely, whether it is easier than the alternatives.

Yes, before you ask, many kids find cheating abhorrent. They have been well raised and I have been honored to teach many such students. Of those who will cheat, some are devious and immoral and others simply succumb to despair and temptation. The former will always consider cheating a possible option and the latter will weigh with greater care to see if it is a viable alternative.

The first and most infamous of those alternatives is failing and needing to attend summer school. Don't underestimate how many summer school programs know this and make short and easy, and thus popular, summer courses. Those courses make failing a class a serious option for kids whose parents can afford it. For many though, the embarrassment and inconvenience of summer school is a deterrent.

The next alternative is the penalty for cheating. If either the amount of effort it would take to get away with cheating or the penalty for getting caught, which includes becoming known as a cheater, are too high, many students will reconsider trying to cheat. I say many and not most because cheaters are notorious for spending such amounts of time on ludicrous methods of cheating that it would have been easier simply to learn the material. Yet they may be tempted if left the opportunity.

If you are known not to care or if the administration is known to not support teachers' policies, cheaters have the opportunity. If you are known to police cheating but they think they can get away with it when, say, someone else proctors your midterm, cheaters have the opportunity. If you give a lot of work to be completed at home, that's their opportunity. If you don't evaluate assignments in detail, that's their opportunity. If you park yourself at your desk and browse the internet when you give tests, which is sadly very common, that's their opportunity.

The final alternative is learning the material. Because some classes and teachers are so bad it is necessary to say one thing bluntly: don't make your class such a mess that the students are bewildered and, having no idea what's going on, grow desperate to pass and turn to cheating. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't say it.

Worse is that many of those bad teachers know their classes are disasters and instead of making improvements, simply make the classes so easy that no one can fail. Administrators often know this too but don't care because they don't get complaints from parents, and they don't get complaints because parents rarely complain about anything besides failures. It is easy to see a kid caught in a dilemma between parents and teachers who should know better.

Most students who cheat, however, simply find themselves in hot water and then see cheating as a way out. Such is why students tend to cheat a few weeks before the end of a marking period or before some kind of evaluation is sent home to parents, that is, they cheat when they realize they are doing poorly but there is not enough time to learn the material. At that time, kids get desperate; so tell them often how they are doing. Teachers are notorious for not posting grades, not giving work back, and not being clear and objective about how students are doing. What's a kid supposed to do? So tell them, either verbally, with evaluations, or with progress reports, but tell them. It's part of the job: help them learn and help them know that they are learning.

In conclusion, make that learning the most attractive option. There are enough natural barriers to learning such as the difficulty of the material, student ability, and the vicissitudes of life, so as obvious as it sounds: do everything you can to facilitate learning. Have such quantity, quality, and variety in your teaching and evaluating that cheating becomes unnecessary. Be so persuasive and enthusiastic that cheating becomes unattractive.

The more attention you give to teaching, the less you will have to give to the problem of cheating. The situation is as with lawns: the best defense against weeds is healthy turf. You'll never be able to drive cheating out completely, but you can create an atmosphere in which it cannot thrive.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #5: Policing Cheating

When it comes to dealing with cheating, teachers fall into three categories. The first consists of those who refuse to do anything about the problem. Sometimes these teachers say that they are taking the high road, that to police cheating is to detract from teaching. Other times such teachers frankly admit the task is beneath them because it is unrelated to teaching. We should ask, then, whether it is necessary to police cheating.

I propose it is necessary for a number of reasons. First, you might not like giving grades, but you are responsible for making them accurately represent student competence. That's a tall order and you need to fill it a variety of ways, one of which is policing cheating. Second, students prospering by cheating is an injustice against good students. Additionally, if you make good students look like fools for trying hard, you'll tempt them either to cheat or to give up. Third, you don't want to deal with dishonest people in life in general. Can you really have a good conversation in class, or even look at a student, whom you permit to cheat with impunity?

Fourth, students prospering by cheating will check out of class and damage class discipline. Fifth, you may be contractually obligated to police cheating. Sixth, you'll develop a reputation for not caring that will spread and be hard to erase. Seventh, you skew the student's statistics such that parents, guidance counselors, administration, and other teachers wonder why a student is doing well in your class and failing others. The answer is, "Because you let him cheat!" Eighth, you poison the student's expectations because he becomes resentful of the other teachers on whose tests he cannot cheat.

Ninth, you consign yourself to permitting cheating into the future, not only because you'll lack the credibility to start policing, but also because if you start, then parents, administration, etc. will wonder why students suddenly started failing your class. Tenth, you damage the credibility of the whole school and its graduates when the school is known to send students out into the world with a diploma which you have made, in part, a lie.

Advice to Myself: Eager Martyrs

When choosing a course of action, do not choose a path simply because it forces you to relinquish something significant: this purpose flatters your vanity. You will probably become resentful because in your eagerness to sacrifice you overestimate what your sacrifice means to others.

Sometimes we act to prove we are martyrs regardless of what good is actually accomplished. Choose your path in accordance with reason, aiming at virtue, and for virtue risk what you judge to be beneath its value.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quote: A Roman Military Blunder

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Ayrault Dodge (1842-1909), military historian and United States Army officer of the Union during the American Civil War, describes in his 1889 study of Hannibal Barca the first major engagement between the Romans and the Carthaginians under Hannibal in the Second Punic War at the Battle of the Trebia River, December 218 BC:

The day was raw; snow was falling; the [Roman] troops had not yet eaten their morning meal; yet, though they had been under arms for several hours, [Roman General Tiberius Sempronius Longus] pushed them across the fords of the Trebia, with the water breast-high and icy-cold. Arrived on the farther side, the Roman soldiers were so chilled that they could scarcely hold their weapons. 
Hannibal was ready to receive them. His men had eaten, rubbed themselves with oil before their camp-fires, and prepared their weapons. He might have attacked the Roman army when half of it was across, with even greater chances of success. But when he saw his ruse succeeding, he bethought him that he could produce a vastly greater moral effect on the new Gallic allies, as well as win a more decisive victory, by engaging the whole army on his own terms.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #4: One Chance

One of the great delights of teaching is growing old with the craft. Every year you get wiser, you know the material in greater depth and with greater subtlety, and you perfect your style. Most of all, you learn to teach a greater variety of students. While not a given, some improvement is probable for even the weakest teachers. The flip-side to this rich opportunity is the temptation, in your ability to improve next year, to put off improving until next year. Or the year after, or the year after. Especially if you are making a career of teaching, you may feel that you have all the time in the world. So why work now? Yet as the horizon continues to recede, you will find yourself stale and listless. Old but not matured.

Worse is the crime against your students who, unlike you, do not have years and years to improve. In fact, they may only study the subject of your course once in their lives. You may be their only hope and opportunity of gaining this knowledge!

As a Latin teacher, I always that knew few if any of my students knew much about Latin coming into my class and few if any would ever read Latin again. Whatever I did with them was all they would know, and I wanted it to be good. My responsibility was twofold.

First, I resolved never to waste their time. Mainly this means two things: always show up and never show up unprepared. Regarding the first point, it's sad how many teachers are eager for any interruption to class time. Snow, sports, assemblies, late buses, some teachers welcome any intrusion. The pinnacle of this malaise is the jaded teacher--and who hasn't known a few--who is already counting down the days until June when it's only October.

Regarding the second point, once everyone is in class, make it count. Don't waste time–and teachers are notorious for this–by being inefficient when you do things like give back tests, hand out materials, put problems on the board, and so on.

This requires a great deal of organization and planning, but it doesn't mean you should be a task master. Neither you nor the students should be frantic trying to get too much done, but all should know what they need to do and be working on it at a pace appropriate to the class, material, calendar, and common sense adjustments to life. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, know when to ease up and when to push on. A good test of your success is whether you and they are proud of the day's work.

Second, don't disrespect the material. I appreciated the potential and history of the Latin language, the genius of its finest authors, and the importance of their writings, far to much ever to risk letting my students see them in a negative light. So no fumbles. Never let your work look shoddy or cheap. Don't cut corners or let things be out of date.

Don't ever give the impression that you don't care, because that impression will spread like poison through your class and even, possibly, through your career. Of course you must understand that students have many hardships and obligations, as do you, but during the class the material has to feel as if it were the most important thing in the world. Never give the impression–and disgruntled employees in all jobs are notorious for this–that you would rather be doing something else. If you would rather be somewhere else, they will too.

Some days will go bad, but you can make up for mistakes. Don't be obsessive and oppressed by the weight of your goals, rather let them urge you.

They only have one chance. Don't screw it up.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Quote: A Poet In Your Pocket

From John Adams, by David McCullough

[Adams] read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the "labyrinth" of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket," he would tell his son Johnny.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Imperfect Knowledge

After wisdom and love, knowledge is perhaps the most sought after of human values. For such a precious thing, though, it is amazing what you can do without it. After all, most of what we do we do with imperfect knowledge. I'm not talking about ignorance of natural laws and phenomena which all proceed without any consideration from me whatsoever, but the deeds of daily life.

When I walk or drive down the street I don't have the positions of every other person constantly mapped with perfect accuracy. Rather, I have learned through trial and error how far apart everyone should be; what things look like when they are going as they should, and what things situations look like when they are dangerous.

When I shop, who can say what book will strike my fancy? When I eat, I don't really know what or how much I should consume before I sit down. I don't know just when I'll need to sleep or just how tired any given activity will make me. I do know all of these things, though, just well enough to get through the day.

Dealing with other people, of course, is a greater challenge. I know what kind of behavior most people will tolerate, so I smile, give thanks, hold doors, leave people their privacy, and so forth. Now some people need more or less of these things, and customs for observing such norms vary from time and place, but generally most of us can navigate society.

This sounds dreary, but perhaps ignorance is bliss, for who would want to know exactly how much he should eat, and just what book to read, and just how much a person does not really appreciate your gratitude or that you held the door for him? This is not so for intimates, though.

Habit fortunately fine tunes this heuristical, trial-and-error learning, and we know our loved ones well, so well do we read their signs. I can tell from the slightest look or intonation whether my wife or daughter are not themselves and, in the privacy of my home, I can scarcely camouflage my true feelings.

All of this is all well and good, then: we know how to interact with our friends and family very well and with strangers well enough, but what about when we have a lot of new variables we need to process quickly? Let us consider, for example, the seemingly daily onslaught of allegations of sexual misconduct in the news.

On the one hand, so many of these charges are so heinous that they trigger an immediate disgust response, bypassing our desire to evaluate the situation any further. One avoids anything associated with such matters as one does a contagious disease or poison. Is it legitimate to let our visceral reaction be the judge or are we obliged to use reason? If we are obliged to reason, then we have to consider the method. What should, for example, Alabama voters do in choosing between Doug Jones (D) and Roy Moore (R), the latter facing "an accusation that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a minor years ago."  (Also via The Washington Post)

Generally we rely on a large system of established protocols, aka the criminal justice system, to navigate these complex issues. It is a great luxury to be able to declare someone innocent until proven guilty and to defer judgment to a legal system that will adjudicate the matter based on objective, or at least defined, premises and processes. This system takes time, however, and what if we ourselves need to choose?

In assessing an accusation it seems our judgment will be based on three things. The first and most ideal would be evidence, but evidence needs to scrupulously to be gathered, verified, and analyzed, a time-consuming process. That process would be an investigation and a fine thing, but absent it, we stitch together the evidence in our own way, a way which will usually be cursory and unsystematic since we rarely have the time, inclination, or ability to do better.

Usually, we simply try to piece together what type of person or incident, a process invariably based on our experiences. If the accused is a lawyer, our judgment will be based on our experience with lawyers. If the other is tall it will reflect our experiences with tall people, and so on. We all make such judgments, though they are far from scrupulous and unbiased. Such processes may help us cross the street, but are unreliable in dealing with situations with so many new variables. Yet such methods are not unreasonable if better options of inquiry and investigation are unavailable.

Consider a few variables based on recent news:
  1. Do multiple allegations make guilt more or less likely, or neither?
  2. Does the fact the press seeks out potential victims and not the other way around make either party more or less trustworthy?
  3. Does when the accusers come forward make them more or less trustworthy?
  4. Do a person's gender, look, occupations, etc. contribute to anything?
  5. Does denial make the accused look innocent, or admittance better?
  6. Are the witnesses, and witnesses in general, reliable?
  7. Do ridiculous defenses harm the defense?
  8. Is the reporting source more or less credible from particular sources?
That's a lot to evaluate systematically or heuristically, but Alabama voters, for example, are deciding. Considering that case: is it preferable to presume Moore is innocent and risk bringing the upset to governance that a trial against him as a sitting official would bring, and worse, a disgrace to the office, state, and people and offense to the victims, if he is guilty? Or do you rule Moore out, and risk setting a precedent that such an accusation is sufficiently grave that it can can be used as a weapon. The middle path is the toughest: wading through all the facts you can gather and judging as best you can. It is a necessary if imperfect task we usually leave to jurors, who fortunately have more time and guidance, and a difficulty whose price we rarely bear ourselves, both in terms of the responsibility of getting the verdict right and in terms of defending our judgment.

We evaluate complex matters casually all the time and such informs our sense of life, that is, our basic appraisal of things. Such is why trials that become public tend to provoke strong responses, because disagreement is not merely about the facts of the case, but about the facts of life. Indeed, my eight questions above probably seem biased. Disagreement here is as meaningful and acrimonious as debate about taste in art, which also reflects one's sense of life.

When a verdict comes, will we revisit the case and change our judgment? What if all these accusations of recent months fade away and we never examine them? We may find that we tune out accusations like noise, which has its benefits. Is it better to live in a society where all accusations and epithets were hurled with abandon, and thus are routine and discounted, or one where such accusations are rare, but then in need of great scrutiny?

We seem to be somewhere in between, which is usually the hardest place to navigate.

P.S. This article in the National Review is some of the worst writing I've seen in a long time, but I think it illustrates a number of my points.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Advice to Myself: Don't Lash Out

Wise men urge us to know ourselves, and this is certainly true. They too give many fine reasons why, but here is one in particular you should heed: know the cause of your negative emotions--anger, enmity, fear, shame, indignation--and take great care to direct your attempts at resolution toward the just and proper ends. It is of course wise to know the cause of all of our emotions, but the negative ones--excepting enmity--flare up without warning and easily hurt the innocent.

Before you know the cause you will be tempted to lash out at the wrong people or remedy the wrong situation. In fact, you will often be tempted to lash out at something very good in blind reaction to that which has disappointed you but which you have yet to identify.

After you identify the cause, you will be tempted again. On the one hand, you may be tempted to act rashly. On the other hand, you may wish to avoid confronting an unpleasant truth. (In reacting deficiently, sometimes we concoct mealy excuses that we an others scarcely even believe, but sometimes we are too clever for ourselves and create elaborate rationalizations.) Both of these extreme reactions show that you do not have one or more of your priories arranged clearly enough.

If what is troubling you is important, you may need to pursue its solution with vigor, perhaps even risking other goods, whose value you also need to know in order to risk them. If what troubles you is not important, then you recognize it as inferior to other goods, which outweigh your trouble such that you may endure it.

The small man has little and is angry at many because, insecure, he is easily reminded of his smallness and thus is easily threatened. The magnanimous man, however, not only expresses anger sparingly, but rather is beneficent, so wisely and harmoniously has he arranged his soul, and his soul with his actions.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Quote: Joseph Campbell on 'The Magic of the Rite'

From Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By:

For it is the rite, the ritual and its imagery, that counts in religion, and where that is missing the words are mere carriers of concepts that may or may not make contemporary sense. A ritual is an organization of mythological symbols; and by participating in the drama of the rite one is brought directly in touch with these, not as verbal reports or historic events, either past, present or to be, but as revelations, here and now, of what is always and forever.
Where the synagogues and churches go wrong is by telling what their symbols "mean." The value of an effective rite is that it leaves everyone to his own thoughts, which dogma and definitions only confuse. Dogma and definitions rationally insisted upon are inevitably hindrances, not aids, to religious meditation, since no one's sense of the presence of God can be anything more than a function of his own spiritual capacity. 
Having your image of God–the most intimate, hidden mystery of your life–defined for you in terms contrived by some council of bishops back, say, in the fifth century or so: what good is that? But a contemplation of the crucifix works; the odor of incense works; so do, also, hieratic attires, the tones of well-sung Gregorian chants, intoned and mumbled Introits, Kyries, heard and unheard consecrations.
What has the "affect value" of wonders of this kind to do with the definitions of councils, or whether we quite catch the precise meaning of such words as 'Oramus te, Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum?' If we are curious for meanings, they are there, translated in the other column of the prayerbook. But if the magic of the rite is gone. . . .

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mini-Review: Stranger Things 2, Ep. 4


Netflix's runaway hit Stranger Things gained its popularity in part by patiently building a foreboding tone and slowly dipping into the horror well. Season 1 nurtured a buildup not unlike the great season-long slow-burns of Homeland. Season 2 has the same content, but it doesn't seem stitched together so well. The fourth episode of Season 2, however, broke the mold of the show by adding drama that was too good for the surrounding stories.

By now Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) has taken in secret the orphaned Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), hunted by the scientists who know of her telekinetic powers, as ward. In fact, he has taken his job at safeguarding her so far as to have essentially imprisoned her in a far off cabin in the woods. On the edge of adolescence, however, Eleven has grown impatient and not only ventured out, but been seen. Their ensuing confrontation is far more frightening than any supernatural boogeyman the show has yet thrown at us.

As in all arguments, the two start off justifying their positions and blaming the other for violating their agreement. Then they construe the worst of the other: one is lying, the other is willful. Each step of they way they cut off the path to peace. Punishments become threats, complaints turn to epithets.

We grow more and more afraid because both characters have power over each other. Hopper, as the adult and sheriff, has great power of authority, physical strength, and the ability to be cruel. Yet Elven too is a threat since she is not powerless but, untutored, in the possession of potent telekinetic abilities. As we see both in the grip of anger and frustration fail to calm the situation and allow themselves to get provoked into anger, we fear what each might do.

We also pity them, for both characters hurtle toward voluntarily destroying someone who has filled a painful emptiness in their lives. In their new relationship as father and daughter they have begun to make a life together.

Yet the past skews their new roles. Hopper in his outburst becomes tyrannical, like Eleven's real father, overcompensating for the protection he could not provide his own daughter. Eleven, in turn, flies out of Hopper's control–as did his real daughter, in effect, by her death–overcompensating for her suffering under her tyrannical biological father. Both turn into monstrous forms of themselves, abusing the unspoken love which has been given them and which they have begun to cherish.

This scene is great drama and by its end I could not have cared less about the supernatural monsters. The real ones are far more frightening.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Advice to Myself: On Challenges

Some men seek out challenges because they expect to grow stronger, wealthier, or wiser by the doing. This is necessary and good if done with prudence, but do not, even if you have the wisdom to gain from failure, meet so many challenges that you exhaust your mind and body. He who undertakes too much grows weary and worn in body by excessive exercise and his mind grows febrile because of care and constant change. He is bloodied by his relentless pursuit of progress.

Other men refuse all challenges in the vain hope of protecting their life as it is. This man may wisely avoid ill-considered progress, but his inertia withers him until at last the most basic functions of life are tortuous routines. He is reddened not with blood, but rust.

Just as a tree protected indoors without breezes will never grow to full health or will grow and topple, and just as it needs wind to press its trunk and compel it to grow the new wood that with strengthen it, so man needs adversity to spur his maturation. Yet as a great wind will topple a tree, too much strain will topple a man.

Unlike a tree, though, man is not stuck in place, fated to suffer and endure whatever chance weather blows at him, rather by his prudence and intelligence he may seek some challenges and avoid others. His fate is to choose his challenge: good from good, good from bad, bad from bad.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Quote: Three Theories on Postmodern Jargon

Jordan B. Peterson:

After explaining how the zebra's stripes camouflage it not against the foliage but against the herd, which confuses predators who, unable to distinguish one zebra from the other, constantly lose track of their
targeted prey, he continues:

One of the things that academics seem to do is congregate together in herd-like entities and then they share a language and the language unites them. And as long as they share the same set of linguistic tools among themselves they know that there isn't anybody in the coterie that's going to attack them or destabilize the entire herd.
And that seems to me to account for that impenetrable use of language. It's group-protection strategy...it's the search for security within a system and not the desire to expand the system. [Link to Source]
Camille Paglia:

Instead of quoting Paglia's famous discursive style verbatim, permit me to paraphrase:

The inscrutable texts are, first, blatantly careerist attempts at grabbing power in academia: the postmodernists created an impenetrable language whose complex technicalities only they could understand. Second, that language was an, "absurd, absolutely ludicrous" imitation by "amateurs" of Lacan's attempt by to break up neoclassical French formulations, an attempt unnecessary for the vital English language. [Link to Source]

Roger Scruton:

It is an exercise in meaning Nothing, in presenting Nothing as something that can and should be meant, and as the true meaning of every text. . . Meaning is chased through the text from sign to sign, always vanishing as we seem to reach it. . . The effect of such cryptic ideas is to introduce not a critical reading of a text, but a series of spells, by which meaning is first imprisoned, and then extinguished. . .  
Deconstruction is neither a method nor an argument. It should be understood on the model of magic incantation. . . The deconstructionist critic is. . . the guardian and oracle of the text's sacred meaning. . . the god of deconstruction is not a 'real presence', in the Christian sense, but an absence. . . The revelation of the god is a revelation, so to speak, of a transcendental emptiness, an unmeaning, where meaning  should have been.
A 'substantified void' is the Real Presence of Nothing: and this is the content of this strange religion.
(Selections from pages 137-144 of Scruton's, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture. St. Augustine's Press. 2000)

Advice to Myself: Know Your Role

We are inclined to glorify our circumstances when we fancy them the products of our own design–usually this is when life goes well–and likewise demonize them when we feel weak. Therefore first distinguish your role in arriving at present circumstances from other causes such as fortune and the influence of others. Give no cause more or less credit than it is due.

Advice to Myself: Plants and Habits

Like the plant that from a seed grows, so do our habits. Tend them so they provide shade and beauty for your character. Some plants, though, outgrow their pots, and so some habits overtake the man.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Quote: The Humiliation of the Britons

1066 and All That. Chapter II: Britain Conquered Again.

The brutal Saxon invaders drove the Britons westward into Wales and compelled them to become Welsh; it is now considered doubtful whether this was a Good Thing. Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse). The country was now almost entirely inhabited by Saxons and was therefore renamed England, and thus (naturally) soon became C. of E. This was a Good Thing, because previously the Saxons had worshipped some dreadful gods of their own called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Advice to Myself: On Seizing Days

Some time ago I began to write down, like the venerable Marcus Aurelius, exhortations to myself in the hopes of urging myself toward the good. These writings were not intended for publication because I hoped that by abandoning scrupulous reference and explication I might distill a variety of learning into simple, practical wisdom I could regularly revisit and follow.

I have decided to post them here, with the additional caveat that they were conceived in Latin, so please pardon the fact that they feel somewhat stiff and translated. I make no pretense of originalityyou will find many familiar thoughts throughoutbut only claim an often desperate desire to correct what often seems to be the incorrigible, that is, myself.

Fix the tempo of the day by your design and do not let it be set by the mood in which you wake up. Contend with the variations and challenges of the day to make your mark. That said, some days are unlucky and go against you: do not fight such days and attempt to impress your designs on the wind and water crashing about you. Get out with your skin intact!

Most days are an admixture: seize a morning, afternoon, or evening, but do not demand all three.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Quote: Mises on Socialist Control of Industry

Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Translated by J. Hakane. Liberty Fund, Inc. 1981. p. 187

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #3: Test Wisely

Idiom, sir?
Many teachers resent giving tests, not because they are onerous to make and grade, but because they have to give so many evaluations in general. Any teacher worth his salt knows exactly the capabilities of all of his students all the time with relatively few and simple evaluations. It's not even that hard to know even a roomful of students, if you pay attention. There has been much-deserved pushing back against excessive testing, but so much that pedagogical trends have gone in the opposite direction and to an equally foolish degree. Reasonable tests and testing accomplish three things.

First, they give otherwise unmotivated students the impetus to commit skills and facts to memory. Second, they make the teacher accountable for progress and objectivity. Third, they show you what a student can do with only his own abilities under reasonable time constraints. Many students and teachers strenuously try to circumvent these features, often ingeniously, because they wish to conceal what is often the truth: that there is no learning going on in the class. In a world of ideal students and teachers, then, tests would not be necessary, but utopia is a fantasy.

The following little list of advice regarding tests clusters around balancing two ideas: what is right generally and what is suitable for your particular class.

First, be consistent about everything test-related, especially: how many per marking period, how many points certain types of questions are worth, how many points tests are worth, and how questions are to be answered. Consider also length, difficulty, how long students have to complete it, whether you review beforehand and afterward, whether they get review materials beforehand, at what intervals in the text and course you give tests, and of course how you grade. Quite fairly, students are bewildered when these factors vary far and wide.

Second, you have to finish teaching the material before giving a test. This means you need to give back homework and quizzes, for example, before the test! This also means you shouldn't give a test on one chapter when you've already started the next one. The class is cumulative, but moving forward.

Third, don't be the teacher whose attention to tests consists of slapping the publisher's book of test masters onto the copy machine and hitting, "Start."

Aside from the consistently poor quality of pre-made tests, no one teaches exactly the way any book does. Students get thrown off–and fairly so–when some test in a completely different style is thrown at them. You need to make your own tests, adapt tests, or diligently search for ones that suit your teaching idiom.

Fourth, make evaluations useful. Don't give tests in which students can work around the task by memorization, repeating the exact questions you've given before, or by giving you vaguely the type of information they know you typically want. (The lazy, students and teachers alike, secretly prefer vague questions because it means many answers can be construed as correct.)

Fifth, you have to accentuate the negative, but kindly. Students love to put the A+ grades on the refrigerator, but it's the failures that they need to work on, and those tests go in the garbage or get buried at the bottom of the schoolbag. You need to reinforce the good while attending to weaknesses.

Sixth, update your tests right after you grade them. Was one question unclear? Did even good students bomb out on one section? Was it too long? Did it have to much new or old content?

If you don't review your tests, next year's students will suffer the same fates as those of last year. If you wait until too long to update the test, you won't remember what you needed to change.

Seventh, take your test, and even if you don't take every test, take one regularly. You may only realize you made a few typographical errors, but more importantly you'll realize that physically writing out the responses wearies your hands and eyes. It is easy to get wrapped up in the intellectual business and forget what it feels like to be as physically confined as schoolroom students.

You may also realize one of the hardest things for a teacher to notice, namely that you are answering the questions with knowledge and experience you have but which they have yet to learn.

Finally, write precise directions and don't answer too many questions while administering the test. Some students possess a genius for swindling information from teachers. If you made a mistake in making the test, tell them not to waste their time in confusion but to do what seems best to them. Then deal with the issue fairly and generously when you grade.

Remember that whatever new directions you issue will confuse some and be ignored by others. Even simple impromptu directions may prove confusing.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Movie Review: The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock (2016)

There is something satisfying about a simple character piece. No complex plot obscures the crisp lines of the arc and no subplots complicate the drama. In the case of John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, not even any style or spectacle attempts to amp up the drama: the movie is all plot and character. The character is Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, and the plot is of his ambition to raise to greatness the California burger joint of the cautious McDonald brothers and in doing so raise himself.

The manner in which the script plunges us into the plot without lengthy introduction and backstory is a reminder–and a needed one given Hollywood’s obsession with the origin stories–that detail can sometimes be disposed of without loss. We don’t need fifteen minutes of 1950’s nostalgia a la Happy Days, nor do we need the backdrop of the Cold War against which our capitalist drama can unfold, nor do we need the whole life story of the protagonist. We need to know that Ray Kroc was having a lousy time hocking his wares and that in 1954 he saw that the ingenious efficiency and homely charm of the McDonald brothers’ restaurant was a river of gold that only need to be un-dammed.

Actually it needed a new course plotted too, and the path needed to be cut and dredged, and the boats on the river needed to be captained and then managed. The whole project needed to be financed too. The movie’s introduction is then not perfunctory preface but Ray’s struggle to wrest just enough control from the McDonald brothers to franchise the restaurants. The script draws fine lines between the different types of creators. We have the inventor, Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman), who created the systematization that introduced the world to the 30-second hamburger, shown distinct from the manager (Mac McDonald), who runs the brothers restaurant like clockwork. In contrast to both we have Ray (Michael Keaton), who has the tenacity and most of all the unbridled desire to turn McDonald’s into a national chain. No one plays all the parts well.

To the fussy, conservative brothers Ray brings guts and a vision for greatness. While Dick and Mac pour over minutiae like fry-time, Ray is out breaking ground on new restaurants and hustling to find the best managers for new franchises. Yet as Ray’s success grows so does his ego, no longer obscured behind failed sales pitches for mixers and folding kitchen tables. So grow both until at list his egotism gives way to hubris when he identifies himself as the founder of McDonald's, beginning his moral decline.

The faithful wife (played by Laura Dern), who endured his failed salesmanship, spent months alone while he traveled, supported his efforts to franchise McDonald’s to clients, and even scouted for potential couple-owners with him, he divorces–and for the wife of one of his franchisees. The contract, which the McDonald brothers signed in good faith that they would be able to uphold the standards of the restaurant they founded, Kroc flagrantly disregards, declaring that they don’t have the legal muscle to enforce their claim. Kroc's fall culminates in a full end-run around the brothers, buying them out and then fleecing them out of their royalties.

Yet intertwined with Kroc’s tragic moral fall is his heroic climb to the top. He overcomes the stifling conservatism of the brothers, whose restaurant employed only a few dozen, to franchise McDonald’s into a company that let thousands, who had been scraping by just barely paying the bills, grow and prosper as franchise owners. Kroc walked into a new McDonald’s not to cries of disdain for his galling deception, but rather to a hero’s honor with the newly employed cheering him triumphant.

It is this juxtaposition that creates the tension of The Founder: we both admire and deplore Ray. If his chicanery were not intermixed with good and if he had not overcome great adversity, we would judge him a terrible man without exemption. Yet greatness complicates our moral vision, and Kroc’s triumph intertwined with tragedy refuses to resolve in a neat verdict. The sentiments of Ray's speech are lifted right from the same cheesy self-help records he played when he was a failing salesman, but has he not ennobled and vindicated them by his success? When we see Ray emblazon "founder" upon his business card and proceed to humiliate the McDonald brothers by running their original restaurant out of business, we see something unjust and wrong, but his empire and the people it serves are no less real.

It is moral all the more striking because the film is so slender, that often the good and evil men do are inseparable.

A Humble Return

A few months after the birth of my daughter in March 2016, I resigned my position teaching high school Latin, and a few months after that, my wife and I moved from my hometown of the Bronx, NY to her hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. During the day she works and I care for our toddling bundle of joy and mind our home.

I certainly expected to take a hiatus from writing after those changes, though I did not intend it to be so long. I waited to return to the blog for intertwined reasons: the less I wrote, the weaker my powers of writing, and the weaker my powers, the longer the next essay would take. Absent the time to write, I fell silent.

My delay was also extended, unexpectedly for me, by my advances in reading Latin. So much has the language worked its way into my head that I have not yet assimilated it into my style, such as it is. I have grown, but require pruning.

On the flip-side of style, though, I have much to say, especially about my education as a husband and father. In particular I hope to live up to the name of this blog, which I stubbornly refuse to change although I am sure it is a source of confusion and keeps the blog in relative obscurity. Some plants, however, grow in the shade.

Oddly, I feel myself in a better position to live and reflect on a vita literati than I was eight years ago when Mr. Tyrell Northcutt invited me to this curious blogging project. Obligations have since taken him from the halls of this blog, and while he may return here at any moment, you may likewise seek him at the Philosophical Farmer.)

For my part, I intend to write often, but briefly. It will likely be the case that ideas spread unplanned over various and disparate reflections rather than in systematic articles.

I intend to make some use of Twitter, with, I hope, great restraint. The sight of many respectable people making fools of themselves has been a great caution to me and, frankly, I find the platform's arbitrary restrictions to be quite insulting. I would sooner bend my ideas to fit into hexameters than tweets.

Finally, if you are a long time reader, please accept my thanks and apologies. I hope that my future work here will redeem my absence and prove a small help or pleasure to you!