Civilzation: The Skin of Our Teeth

On the strength of my recent enjoyment of BBC documentary, a British friend recommends to me this 13-part series from the BBC on Western Civilization. I am told it is from 1969, twelve hours long, and one of the finest examples the BBC ever produced.

You may think you're having trouble committing to a 12-hour documentary. Don't. Give it three and half minutes, starting at 5:58 into this video.

Now that you've seen that, and since you're the sort of person who spends his or her time in the Hall, I expect you'll probably watch a bit more. Some of you will probably find time to watch it all.


Playing off the popularity of the BBC's excellent production of "Wolf Hall," about Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church, the Catholic Herald website imagines what England would have looked like if the King's infant son by Catherine of Aragon had lived to become Henry IX.  Would England have avoided war with Spain? Would the North American colonies have been less Puritan and obstreperous?  There would have been no Elizabeth, no Stuarts, perhaps no beheading of a King, no frantic search for continental monarchs to bring reliable Protestantism.

Bach on boomwhackers


When you're a scientist, sometimes it's good to be the king, if it means you get to look under a different rock from the one that all the smart people agree is the right one to be looking under.

Selling Nuclear Material and International Affairs

So, the question that I am curious about in the wake of this latest Clinton scandal is about options for fixing things should we determine that it is actually undesirable to have the Russian government owning a significant amount of US uranium output. (How much output is that? 4.8 million pounds was the total figure in 2013.)

Let's say we decide that's a bad idea. However, the sale was approved by all the appropriate parties, including the Clinton State Department. The sale is presumably perfectly legal and settled, then. What happens if we determine that Russia is using energy resources to leverage its position in an attempt to dominate smaller neighbor nations? What if it should decide to sell uranium to Iran, or for that matter to a Saudi government bent on developing a bomb to counter Iran?

I don't know the answers to those questions. Do any of you know what might be done, were we to decide that something ought to be done? The only thing that occurs to me is nationalizing the mine via eminent domain, presumably paying Russia some fair market value for it.

Hurrah the Feast of Saint George

The image is a photo I took of a tile in Jerusalem last December. If I were to have a patron saint, I should think it would be St. George. Today is the Feast of St. George, patron saint of cavalrymen and horsemen generally, of Dragonslayers, and I trust of bikers.

There is an impressive list of 'Alternative Second Readings' today, for those of you who keep up with such things. They all have to do with being prepared for persecution for being a Christian.

Romans 5:1-5

Romans 8:31-39

2 Cor. 4:7-15

2 Cor. 6:4-10

2 Timothy 2:8-13,3:10-12

Hebrews 10:32-36

James 1:2-4,12

1 Peter 3:14-17

1 Peter 4:12-19

1 John 5:1-5

The Gospel reading, if you are still inclined after all of that, is John 15:18-21.

Taxes Are About The Public Good!

MSNBC hosts lecture on the democratic glories of tax season, dodge tens of thousands of dollars in taxes.

The video at the link is glorious.

Plays on Words

Today's game: does the headline match the statement?
"[If] we have to give some Christians refugee status given that with Iraq and Libya there's almost nowhere for them to go then fine but Europe can't send the message that everyone who comes will be accepted," he told BBC Breakfast.... Asked whether this meant only Christians should be accepted by Europe, [Nigel Farage] replied: "I am saying we can make a gesture and we could give refugee status to a few people and I am highlighting the plight of the Christians."
Headline: "Refugee crisis: Only take in Christians insists Nigel Farage."

Now, one of UKIP's long-standing interests is limiting immigration to preserve the character of its nation. Farage is being asked if he'll make an exception to that principle for humanitarian reasons. He says yes, but a limited exception for cases in which they have nowhere else to go. Muslim refugees are being accepted elsewhere, but where except Europe might Christian refugees go?

Well, to the United States, I suppose. Except...
At the end of World War II, the Jewish survivors of Europe’s Holocaust found that nearly every door was closed to them. “Tell Me Where Can I Go?” was a popular Yiddish song at the time. Decades later, the Christians of the Middle East face the same problem, and the Obama administration is keeping the door shut.

America is about to accept 9000 Syrian Muslims, refugees of the brutal war between the Assad regime and its Sunni opposition, which includes ISIS, Al Qaeda, and various other militias. That number is predicted to increase each year. There are no Christian refugees that will be admitted.
So why are we asking Farage if he isn't prejudiced against Muslims for wanting to offer a safe haven to Christians that is lacking elsewhere? Shouldn't we be asking everyone else if they aren't prejudiced against Christians?

Add This One To The List Of 'Things To Avoid'

'Get your gang together, and break into the house of a professional MMA fighter.'


Obesity and the Military

Major General Allen Batschelet, CDRUSAREC, says that only thirty percent of American youth ages 17-24 are fit enough to join the US military. The trend lines, he goes on to say, are for that to decline to only two in ten.

That's OK. The Dempsey Rule shows us the way forward. 'If [an obese person] cannot meet a standard, senior commanders better have a good reason why it should not be lowered.'

The Hour of the Sea

"And in the last eclipse the sea
Shall stand up like a tower,
Above all moons made dark and riven,
Hold up its foaming head in heaven,
And laugh, knowing its hour.

"And the high ones in the happy town
Propped of the planets seven,
Shall know a new light in the mind,
A noise about them and behind,
Shall hear an awful voice, and find
Foam in the courts of heaven.
An hour is only a little while, and in time it comes to an end. Laugh while you can.

Variations on the Trolley Problem

I'm sure we've talked about the famous 'trolley problem' many times. Classically, there's no right answer to it, but it exists to expose the fact that moral intuitions differ. You ask a group of people to consider this problem:
There's an out of control trolley speeding toward a group of people. If it rushes in amongst them, it will kill a number of them and injure others. You are near a switch that would allow you to redirect the trolley away from those people, onto a track where there's only one person. Do you pull the switch?
What we learn from the problem is that some people feel very strongly that it would be wrong to pull the switch, because that implicates them in guilt for killing the one man. The world as they find it is not their fault, but electing to act means taking responsibility for the choice. Thus, they will let many people die to avoid being personally guilty for one death.

Others -- myself included -- feel that not acting is also a choice, and the desire to avoid responsibility is thus a false choice. Even here, moral intuitions differ. Some will pull the switch, believing it better to choose to save more lives. Others will refuse, believing that their chief duty is to refuse to commit murder. Roughly speaking, these choices break you out into the two leading contemporary schools of ethics, consequentialism (i.e., that morality means doing what has the best consequences for the most people) and deontology (i.e., that morality means doing your duty).

Now that I've told you all that, in case any readers weren't familiar with it, we can all enjoy the joke together.

UPDATE: Still more variations.

Unspeakable Adventures

The original classic.

Now, featuring David Hasselhoff!

No, I don't know how this happened.


Well, it's good to know that the fine law enforcement folks in Minnesota are taking care of the most serious crimes facing their communities.

The Primary Mission and First Priority of the US Army

The commanding officer of the US Army ROTC program in Arizona has required his training battalion to wear their uniform in a manner violating regulations and the dignity of his cadets as part of a training exercise on sexual harassment. (I consider that it is a violation of dignity, even for female cadets who might otherwise wear these shoes of their own free will, to be required to wear sexualized attire with their service uniform.) The command's Facebook page describes this as a voluntary show of support for women by cadets. A little different story comes from the cadets themselves (brief harsh, but entirely deserved, language):

This commanding officer should be relieved and disciplined. Imagine what this does to the very recruitment of fine potential officers that is his chief responsibility. With the current leadership, however, it is as likely that he will be taken to be a good example. In addition to giving lip service (or foot service?) to the Army's new "primary mission," it's sure to be effective in the pursuit of the #2 priority of shrinking the Army.

Any other mission is harmed, if we still have any other missions. I can imagine Putin is distributing propaganda posters of US soldiers marching in drag even now.

Another Run at Moral Truths in Education

I didn't handle the previous post on this topic well, but I feel like there are some important issues at stake so I'm taking another run at it. In the last few years there have been a number of schools and school systems with mass cheating problems, most infamously in Atlanta where the teachers themselves were participating, and I believe that the incidences we know about are just the tip of the ice berg. There are almost certainly a number of factors at work in explaining the recent problems with cheating, but my chief concern is that rather than teaching critical thinking, our schools are destroying students' ability to think critically, that there are some terrible results of teaching this way, and that we as a society must do better.

I will again begin with professor of philosophy Justin P. McBrayer's New York Times article on the topic.

What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from.

 He goes on to describe his discovery that his 2nd grade son was being taught the following definitions for 'fact' and 'opinion' and that part of learning critical thinking for his son's class meant sorting claims into the categories of either fact or opinion.

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

He did some research and found that this was standard across the Common Core curriculum, including in higher grades.

What does he claim is wrong about this? First, these definitions conflate truth with proof: truth is "a feature of the world" and proof is "a feature of our mental lives." Something can be true but unprovable, and sometimes we "prove" something that turns out to be false. Second, students are directed to sort claims into a list of either facts or opinions, but many claims are both: If you believe something that is true, then it is both a fact and an opinion.

How does this connect to the amorality or moral relativism of today's freshmen? According to McBrayer, schools that use Common Core spend 12 years indoctrinating students with the idea that claims are either fact or opinion but not both, and that all value statements fall into the opinion category. In doing so, they are thoroughly convincing students that there can be no moral truths. Thus, the idea that cheating or murder are wrong is just someone's opinion, and if someone has a different opinion, that's OK.

Additionally, this way of teaching critical thinking produces a powerful doublethink in students' minds. Schools do teach morality in their codes of conduct, such things as academic integrity, student rights, student responsibilities, etc. But according to their own critical thinking instruction, these are mere opinions, and many students see that. Many others, I believe, are taught not to see the difference at all and doublethink becomes normal for them.

What is the answer? As McBrayer points out, the actual Common Core standard is to sort things into facts, opinions, and reasoned judgments. However, apparently teaching 'reasoned judgment' is being left out, but that is exactly what we should be focusing on. He states:

We can do better. Our children deserve a consistent intellectual foundation. Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.

While there are other factors at work in the recent glut of cheating scandals, I agree with McBrayer that this is one factor, and I think it's important that we be aware of this failure in our education system. To the extent that we can, we need to advocate for changing the way this is taught in our local schools. And, to the extent that we have the opportunity, we need to correct this idea in students, whether we are teachers or not.


PS I'll make another run at whether there are moral truths or not, and if so whether we can ever prove them, in another post.

Scythe Beats Brushcutter

And a video that shows the scythe-work up close: