Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bon Voyage

I'm off to Italy for the next two weeks, and will probably have little time to blog over that time. I'm leading a group of middle schoolers on an exchange program to Florence, and even upon my return the posts should be sporadic because their Italian partners come home here and we'll be busy with other activities. I hope to have time to post some Quotes of the Week tomorrow morning before I leave. We're also supposed to incite thoughtful discussion on world issues with the kids when we're all together, so maybe I'll have some extra Underage Thoughts upon my return. Until then, ciao!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Funny: Terror Threat Levels

If you can laugh at one country, you have to laugh at them all! Not sure who wrote it, but it's funny nonetheless.


 ANNOUNCEMENT

 The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent
 terrorist threats and have therefore raised their security
 level from "Miffed" to "Peeved." Soon, though,
 security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or
 even "A Bit Cross." The English have not been "A Bit
 Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly
 ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from
 "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance." The last time the
 British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was in
 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.


The Scots have raised their threat level from "Pissed Off"
 to "Let's get the Bastards." They don't have any other
 levels. This is the reason they have been used on the
 front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its
terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide." The only two higher
levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender." The rise was
precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's
white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country's
military capability.


Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout Loudly and
Excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more
levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change
Sides."


The Germans have increased their alert state from
"Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing
Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels:
"Invade a Neighbor" and "Lose."

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the
only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of
Brussels.


The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to
deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass
bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at
the old Spanish navy.


Australia , meanwhile, has raised its security level
from "No worries" to "She'll be alright, Mate." Three more
escalation levels remain: "Crikey!","I think we'll
need to cancel the barbie this weekend," and "The barbie
is cancelled."

And finally Canada is at "That's not nice and please stop"
threat level, and has passed a bill in the House of Commons to
never raise the level any higher so as not to offend the terrorists.

The Power of the Pentatonic Scale


Music is truly a universal language. For those of you who don't know who Bobby McFerrin is, he was kind of a one hit wonder, who is famous for his A Cappella song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" (which happens to be one of my favorite songs).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Color Conundrum

A few years ago, somebody confronted me with an odd concept. “What if colors were different for everybody?” he said. “What if what you think is blue, I think is red, but we just call it the same because that’s what we’ve been taught to call it? Nobody could ever know!” At first I was skeptical, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. Since nobody can enter another’s conscious, or see things through another’s eyes, each us could associate different colors with the same word. My eyes could perceive an object in a different shade than your eyes perceive it, but since birth we would both have been taught at a young age that the color of that object was a certain word, we would associate those different shades with the same word. So for instance, we all know grass is green. Since birth, we’ve been taught to associate the color of grass with the word green. But what if the color you associate with the word green is different from the color I associate with the word green? What if I could hop into your brain and see things through your eyes, and found that what you call green, I call pink? Nobody could ever tell, because we’d both gesture to the same grass and we’d both call it green, but we’d still perceive it differently. Weird, huh?

Monday, June 20, 2011

What does it mean to exist?

Today, I'd like to ponder how it is that you can read this blog. Not how you can bear to put up with my silly rants; that's the topic for another post! No, I'm talking about literally, how you can understand the "meaning" of the words on your screen.

There is, of course, a simple explanation. Humans communicate using language. Language is a series of sounds which convey a certain meaning. Written language is the symbols used to represent those sounds. Each series of sounds/symbols is a word, and these words are strung together in sentences. When both the speaker/writer and the listener/reader understand the same language, meaning is conveyed through these sentences.

In any language, the meaning of any individual word may be found in a dictionary. But ultimately, all of those definitions are circular logic, because each definition uses other words. If somebody from another planet came here, a dictionary would be of no use to them in learning our language. They would be forced to learn it just as babies do; by observing the sensual perceptions associated with certain words. The word ball, for instance, could be associated with a small, round toy, because when people use the word ball they gesture to such an object, or are playing with it or whatever. "Mama" is that nice lady who feeds you, "Dada" is that nice man who cleans your diaper, "food" is what Mama gives you on a spoon, etc. This is how we learn the meaning of words.

But what is meaning? Once we've learned to speak and write in sentences, we use some words to explain the "meaning" of other words. Whenever there is a concept we don't know how to express, we invent some new word to express it, giving it meaning. Yet this, too, is mere association. We take something we can perceive through a sense and simply assign it some letters. Let's look deeper than that. Meaning is not always observable through a sense, sometimes it's only conceivable through thought. There are some concepts that we all claim to understand, because we use the word associated with that concept in our everyday lives. But most of us would be hard pressed to articulate definition for those words. For example, try to define the below words without using it or the others in the definition. It's quite a challenge.

truth
exist
is/was
am
are/were
being
meaning

What does it mean "to be"? To exist? Yes, we know that Mama IS nice, the stove IS hot, the sky IS blue, water IS wet, but what IS is? We can associate words with perceptions and give them meaning based on what our senses can observe, but it's much more difficult to give meaning to meaning.

Several hundred years ago, a quiet, introverted, and very smart Frenchman named Rene Descartes was troubled by these thoughts. He decided that since everything he thought he knew was based on the meaning of other things he thought he knew, he would scrap everything and start over. He began with a simple statement which is truly the foundation for all human knowledge. In 1637, he wrote the following in his book "Discourse on Method":

Je pense donc je suis.

Hey, I told you he was French! But  since you probably don't speak French, I will translate. In Latin, as it is most commonly referred to around the world, it translates to "Cogito ergo sum". And in English, it means "I think, therefore I am.

The implications of that logical deduction cannot be overstated. The closest we humans can come to articulating the meaning of existence is to express that we ourselves think, and so therefore we must exist. That is as far back as it goes. There is no other way to confirm our existence, let alone explain what existing means. If you were to trace every thought, every logical chain of our society back as far as it could go, it could all be traced to that assertion. It's essentially the foundation of all human knowledge in one sentence. How powerful! And how intriguing, that our whole lives are constructed around this one flimsy premise! How humbling, that we have such a limited and incomplete understanding of our own existence.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Quotes of the Week, 6/19-6/25: Henry David Thoreau Edition

About once a month, I devote my "Quotes of the Week" post to one great thinker who has several quotes I really admire. This month is Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century author, philosopher, and co-father of the transcendentalism movement (alongside his more famous best friend Ralph Waldo Emerson...must be something about having 3 names!) Thoreau wrote "Walden: Life in the Woods" about his experiences living in the woods for over a year in a cabin he built at the price of a meager $38. He was a champion of being unorthodox, living simply and not encumbering oneself with the complicated stresses which so often seem to dominate our lives today. His writings and philosophy influenced several prominent 20th century leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Enjoy his wisdom!


“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

“I have accepted the motto…that government is best which governs least."

“Beware of any endeavor which requires new clothes.”

“It is a rare qualification to be ale to state a fact simply and adequately. To digest some experience cleanly. To say yes and no with authority--To make a square edge.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Funny: Paraprosdokians


Paraprosdokian - "Figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently used in a humorous situation."

A few examples (who says grammar can't be fun?):

    1. Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

    2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on my list.

    3. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

    4. If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

    5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

    6. War does not determine who is right - only who is left.

    7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

    8. Evening news is where they begin with 'Good Evening,' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.

    9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

    10. A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

    11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.

    12. Whenever I fill out an application, in the part that says, 'In case of emergency, notify:' I put 'DOCTOR.'

    13. I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

    14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

    15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

    16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.

    17. I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

    18. You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

    19. Money can't buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

    20. There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.

    21. I used to be indecisive. Now I'm not so sure.

    22. You're never too old to learn something stupid.

    23. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

    24. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

    25. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

    26. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

    27. A diplomat is someone who tells you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.

    28. Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even when you wish they were.

    29. I always take life with a grain of salt. Plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.

    30. When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.

31. Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Thoughts on Education


As someone who just graduated from a public high school, it may sound odd for me to say I am opposed to public education. And practically, I recognize that simply abandoning public education outright is not a politically viable possibility. But nevertheless, ideologically, I do not believe that anybody has a “right” to education, any more than they have a “right” to healthcare, or a house, or even food or water. Each of those things are necessities of life, but they are not rights. People must pay for them. They are not inherent at birth. They are not “unalienable”, which is the metric our Constitution uses to define rights. They do not come from our Creator, they require manpower, resources, and expertise to provide. So does education. For these reasons, I am opposed to the concept that the government may forcibly take money from some people in order to pay for someone else’s education. That is an encroachment on people’s rights to property to fund an unconstitutional government activity.

Our nation survived, in fact thrived, for the first 70 years of its existence with no public education system, and the public education system we have now hurts the poor most because it is a monopoly. I am convinced that any product is produced at the highest quality, at the fairest price accessible to the most amount of people when it is sold in a free market with competition. The product of education is no exception. A government monopoly on education eliminates that competition. Consumers of education (aka parents of students) have no choice in where their student goes to school, assuming they cannot afford private school. Poor people cannot afford private school because the government has restricted the supply, keeping prices high. Even worse, since most schools are funded by local property taxes, and poorer school districts have less property tax revenue, poorer people are automatically handicapped. This is part of the reason inner city schools are of such low quality, in addition to the cultural challenges faced in poorer areas (drugs, crime, lack of parental involvement, etc.). So not only are the poor stuck in a public school under our current system, they are stuck in a broke, ineffective, understaffed, and crime-ridden public school. And we wonder why inner-city dropout rates are so high.

The solution to this problem is not to just dump lots of money into these failing schools and hope they’ll turn around. We’ve tried that for decades, and it has failed. Per capita government spending on education has doubled since 1970, while test scores and most other measures of student achievement have remained utterly stagnant over that time. 



That's a damning graphic. There is no association between spending on education and student achievement. No matter how much of other people’s money we dump into public education, our kids are not being any better educated for it.

The real solution to this problem is school choice. If students can choose which school to go to, it will somewhat even out the disparity in opportunity between the rich and poor. Ideally, the ultimate choice is a free market, in which consumers could choose between several different schools each competing for their business. If all our nation’s public schools were privatized, private school tuition would be much more affordable for everyone, because the supply of private schools/educators would be much larger. Also, since private school teachers make much less than public school teachers, less money would be lost in overhead, and teachers would be paid whatever wage was fair for their value to the school; private schools wouldn’t be bound by tenure or all those other labor-union rules that public schools must obey. If the government returned all the money it takes from people to allow them to pay for their own education, people would be able to afford a private school. While it is true that some very poor people could not afford a school of the same quality that a rich person could, they’d be no worse off than they are now because competition would increase the quality of education for everyone. This is, in my opinion, the fairest and most effective way to educate the masses. But since that’s not happening anytime soon, I favor several more practical steps in the short term, including:

  • School voucher programs, charter schools, homeschooling, tax credits, and any other program which enhances school choice. In addition to the cost and quality control benefits I detailed above, choice has the benefit of allowing people to tailor their education to meet their needs. As author and University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene said in a recent interview, school choice “allows people to get the type of education they need for them. We're not all the same. We don't all have the same goals for what our education should be. Choice allows us to customize.”
  • Combat teachers unions in any way possible. Teachers unions are the greatest impediment to school choice, because it would cost them money and power. They wouldn’t have as much say in how things go down, and they would be stripped of their monopoly on the teaching market. Also, teachers would be paid according to the market, rather than according to inflated collective bargaining agreements made with a government that has no incentive to hold down taxpayer costs.
  • Teacher salaries should be determined by merit pay, rather than tenure, just like they are in every other business. It is the only way to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students, and the only way to keep them accountable as they get older. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a teacher for 40 years, if you’re failing as an educator, you should be fired. At the very least, you shouldn’t be paid as much as a younger teacher who’s getting results. This is another element of school choice. As the brilliant Veronique de Rugy of Bloomsburg TV writes, "If reform is to be defined by something other than the amount of money flushed down the toilet, it is time to reverse the flow of power from the top (administrators, school districts, teachers unions, governments) to the bottom (students, their parents, and taxpayers who want their money spent wisely). A first step in that direction is to change our teacher labor market practices in terms of both hiring and firing. On the hiring end, there are too many restrictions on who can become a teacher. On the firing end, we need to restore the relationship between job retention and job performance." To those who say that this would cause teachers to give easier tests, I have two words: standardized testing. Kids don’t like it, but it’s necessary. Give them an incentive to do well. Once again, teachers unions are the largest impediment to this practice, because it means their members aren’t guaranteed inflated salaries regardless of performance into retirement. Boo hoo.
  • Stop shafting the high achieving students in an attempt to help pull up the low achieving students. Steve Chapman explains this trend in better detail here: http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2010/12/steve-chapman-american-education-curbing-excellence. As I said earlier, education is not a one-size fits all entity. It is okay for some students to do really, really well, and for others to do really, really poorly. That does not necessarily mean something is wrong with the school. Clustering together the successful students with the unsuccessful will not encourage the unsuccessful to do better, but it will limit the pace at which the successful can learn.
  • Repealing all compulsory attendance laws, so that the kids who don’t want to be there (or, rather, the kids whose parents don’t want them to be there) cannot impede those who do want to be there. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And you can force a kid to show up to school, but you can’t force him to learn. You can’t teach anybody anything unless they want to be taught. And in inner-city schools where there’s often over a 40% dropout rate, it would probably be a much better, safer learning environment for the other 60% to not have the dropouts around them from the get go. Besides, it’s unconstitutional for our government to force people to do things they don’t want to do. Freedom to do what you like includes the freedom to make bad decisions.
  • In the budget battles that are going on across the nation’s school boards right now, the answer almost universally is to cut spending, not raise taxes. As I showed above, there is no association between school funding and student achievement. John Stossel shows this better than I could here: http://townhall.com/columnists/johnstossel/2010/09/15/money_is_not_what_schools_need. The only variable which has been shown to impact student achievement is parental involvement in the child’s education. Loving, caring parents who reward success and do not tolerate failure, who instill a pride in academic accomplishments, provide the incentive a child needs to apply himself in school. If a student has that motivation, he will succeed, no matter how old his textbook is. And if a student does not have that desire to learn, he will not learn, no matter how well funded his extracurricular programs are.

School choice enables those families who care about learning, who take school seriously and cultivate willing and motivated students, to thrive. It allows those students to reach their full potential at a school of their choice, unencumbered by the cultural restrictions of their environment. And choice on an open market would allow all of this without footing the bill on taxpayers, whether they have children being educated or not. We’re not ready for that yet, but the closer we can get to it, the better.