Fall of Rome & Schooling

One may ask: is there nothing this dude cannot link to schooling?

No, there is not.

Reading the totally excellent and highly recommended Fall of Rome by R. A. Lafferty – maybe 25% through. Gripping as any novel and elegantly and wittily written, it’s how history should be written if historians want regular people to care about history. Just reached the part where Alaric, at age 17, is called from his schooling under the Emperor Theodosius in order to raise and provision 10,000 men and rendezvous with other troops in defence of the Empire – to a location over 1,000 miles away. He is given 6 weeks.

He pulls it off. (He had help, but still – 17 year old kid? Impressive.)

Alaric, leader of the Visigoths
Big Al. Not sure how historically accurate this is – probably not very.

But today let’s take a brief look at the school he was attending. Theodosius wanted to ensure the future of the Empire, and knew such a thing would take strong skilled leadership. So, he recruited boys from among the leaders of the barbarian tribes, and brought them together to learn, among other things, half a dozen languages, civil engineering, military strategy, and all the requisite martial arts – use of the various weapons and horses – as well as instilling in them the idea that the Empire was a good and holy thing worthy of a man’s life and efforts. These boys were told that any one of them might be called upon to lead the Empire, and so must be prepared for war, peace, diplomacy and intrigue.

Alaric was 12. He spent 5 years traveling from place to place to see first hand how all this worked in practice. He and the other boys were instructed by a number of experts, including the Emperor himself, and well as Stilicho, the great Master General of the Empire. They were introduced to and made a part of the Imperial court and family.

It worked, at least to the extend of creating a cohort of extremely competent leaders. Alaric was himself the most outstanding of the group, but the others were no slouches.

I’ll do a review of the book when I get done with it. What I want to do now is point out that what Theodosius did in setting up his school is both amazing and obvious. His foresight and thoroughness is amazing. Once he had a goal in mind, he chose the obvious way to educate those boys, indeed, the only way to truly educate people for a particular role: immerse them among the experts in that role. This is how we today teach such things as musical instruments and car repair: learn to play or to repair by actually playing and repairing in the presence of experts.

Alaric was by all accounts a very intelligent and driven boy. By 17, he had achieved a level of mastery of languages, engineering, diplomacy, warfare, and so on very probably out of reach of most of us – but we’ll rarely find out, since teaching such mastery is almost never tried.

A modern exception did spring to mind: the Russian School of Mathematics

Rifkin trains her teachers to expect challenging questions from students at every level, even from pupils as young as 5, so lessons toggle back and forth between the obvious and the mind-bendingly abstract. “The youngest ones, very naturally, their minds see math differently,” she told me. “It is common that they can ask simple questions and then, in the next minute, a very complicated one. But if the teacher doesn’t know enough mathematics, she will answer the simple question and shut down the other, more difficult one. We want children to ask difficult questions, to engage so it is not boring, to be able to do algebra at an early age, sure, but also to see it for what it is: a tool for critical thinking. If their teachers can’t help them do this, well—” Rifkin searched for the word that expressed her level of dismay. “It is a betrayal.”

Rifkin doesn’t have an Empire to preserve, so I’d imagine there’s less pressure in her schools. Yet notice the key feature: students are having direct personal contact and even relationships with stone experts in what they are supposed to be learning.

Imagine that.

These kids, and others educated in similar ways, then go on to dominate the world Math Olympiads for their age groups. Recap: math is awful, horrible, and hard, and we’re WAY behind the rest of the world – except for those taught it in a manner that is related to how people actually learn, who seem to both enjoy it and do it exceedingly well.

While math talent varies greatly among individuals, our school’s failure to produce many graduates competent in even basic math is not, I think, due to the nature of math itself. Rather, to see how it is taught in the standard schools, one would imagine the goal is to turn off as many students as possible to math. That’s how it works, at any rate.

Plato taught that true education can only take place between friends. We today lack not only the most basic understanding about how children and all people truly learn, the sort of intense, even passionate, friendship that has characterized great men and women through the ages is rare, denigrated when it does appear, and mocked as somehow unclean.  Thus, it seems, even the more restrained friendships that should be characteristic of the relationships between teachers and students is rendered almost unimaginable.

Aside: another great thing about St. John’s Great Books program: a whole bunch of kids with widely varying degrees of math training and talent are all thrown together to study Euclid. In small classes (12-15 people) lead by a ‘tutor’ (professor) everybody has to grapple with math from an angle almost certainly completely foreign to how they’ve ever been taught math before. (Among people who have the hardest time are often those good in analytic geometry – the beauty of the non-numeric, non-algebraic proofs is hard for them to see.)

Even the least mathematically gifted student will have that ‘a ha!’ moment, when it all clicks. They discover that it’s not math they hate, but the way they’ve been taught.

Science! Secret Science Reform

It’s been too long since we’ve done any Science! here at YSotM. Let’s get to it!

Over at the grave and ponderous, yet jig-dancing John C Wright’s blog, a discussion broke out over Secret Science Reform:

“Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) reintroduced a bill known as the Secret Science Reform Act that would prohibit the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based on science that is not transparent or reproducible.”

Now, an appealingly innocent person, still moist aft of his auricular helices, might wonder why such a law would be needed, let alone controversial. Ha, we old guys gently guffaw. Here is what I posted there:

Eisenhower’s farewell address is remembered for his ‘military-industrial complex’ warning, a warning beloved in my youth by all opposed to any military growth or action, but strangely forgotten in the age of cruise missiles and drone strikes – at least, when it’s their guy doing the bombing. But in the very next section of that address:

“Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocation, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet in holding scientific discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.[1]”

In less flowery terms (if only our presidents spoke even this well!): he who pays the piper calls the tune. That’s why citizens should insist on honest, open and tested science, and carry an extra dose of skepticism toward the claims of government-funded science. While privately-funded science has its risks as well, there’s just vastly more money and power and thus more temptation and opportunity for abuse with government funding.

Image result for knife to the throat movie
Funny how suddenly logical and convincing your Science! has become, now that you can kill me. Or at least, kill my career.

Some, whose good intent we will of course assume, tried to make the point that transparency, and therefore replicability, is often not possible for areas where the EPA is called upon to rule. To this I replied:

I hardly know where to start, so let’s start at the beginning: an honest man owes loyalty to the truth, and thus owes a provisional loyalty to scientific findings because the represent an honest, open, tested effort to get closer to the truth of things.

Insofar as ANY of those conditions fail – the effort is not honest, or open, or tested – an honest man owesd NO loyalty to the claims. There is too much detail involved in showing how a nonspecialist can still offer criticism and judge the validity of a claim made in the name of science to cover in a comment, but let it suffice for now to point out that a little bit of philosophical education allows an honest man to judge the overall structure and nature of any claims made in almost all science even if he may not have the technical expertise to judge the details. There are things that might be true, but require X, and things that can’t be true because of Y. Our host has often explored issues of this type.

So, calling science on a claim when a) the political climate is charged (bringing honesty into question); b) the methods are hidden; and c) your critics cannot duplicate your results is, simply, FRAUD. No, personal and financial records don’t enter into it, as others have pointed out. No, you don’t get a pass because your work is so, so important that we need to act NOW. Tyrants always need to act now.

If the EPA is doing stuff where they HAVE TO make rulings but CANNOT reveal the science behind it, then those are exactly the activities an honest man and patriot wants stopped. Now.

So, still waiting for anything like a serious argument why the EPA needs the ability to, effectively, enact laws and bring the police power of the state to bear on people without having to first back it up with actual science. Then I remember (think I might have even blogged on it) a case where a True Believer rejected technological solutions to CO2 accumulation on the grounds that then we wouldn’t need a global totalitarian government – not in those exact words, of course, but that was the gist of the nub. I’m expecting that an argument along the same lines will be made for the requirement that the EPA show its cards and submit to scientific rigor before passing bans and shutting people down – because then it would not be able to ban stuff and shut people down unless they can prove it is necessary! Oh no!

Progress versus Progress

Progress with a small ‘p’ is like a certain kind of good story, one with a clear beginning, middle and end, where things are left better in some way than they were at the beginning. A protagonist is faced with a problem or challenge – the beginning – and takes action and faces challenges – the middle – until a state in some way better is achieved – the end.

An example – and it is typical of such small ‘p’ progress that the example is small and personal – is my front porch. The Beginning: the 1940s vintage concrete slab that lead from the driveway to the small concrete porch had been lifted a good 4-5 inches by walnut roots, making it something of a trip hazard. The porch itself is ugly, if inconspicuously so. The Middle: plans were made – we could take out the concrete path and replace it with brick (after removing the ancient walnut tree that caused the uplift) and clad the porch itself in matching brick. It would be much more level and attractive. Of course, this involved Plot Complications: hiring professionals to take down the tree, gathering bricks (with Craig’s list, and a lot of elbow grease, bricks are ‘free’) and taking out the slab (21 year old son, a strapping, clean limbed and clean living young man, volunteered and did it, Abe Lincoln style), cleaning out the offending roots, for which the 13 year old son volunteered. (Daddy is pushing 60 hard – my sledge and axe swinging days are behind me. To 21 and 13 year old suburban punks, it sounds like fun – which it is, in small doses, when you’re young).

The Caboose, swingin’. This path/porch thing is a sub-project to the grander 4 year Front Yard Project, of which the foreground bricks and potting soil are a further sub-project.

The End, which I’ll need a week or two more to finish, will be a pretty and more useable front walk and porch.

That’s how small ‘p’ progress works. Somebody notices a problem or opportunity, enlists the aid of others in finding and executing a solution, and then executes it. Having fixed one thing, people will then have the opportunity to work on something else. Multiply this process by millions and spread it over centuries, and you have accounted for much of what sane people mean by progress – things getting a little better over and over again. Small ‘p’ progress doesn’t solve, and doesn’t pretend to solve, giant problems. But it gets a septic tank put in, a road paved, a house built and a garden laid out. It is of such things as these that real progress is made.

Small ‘p’ progress is the only sort of progress that works.  Capital ‘P’ Progress, on the other hand, doesn’t have a Beginning, a Middle and an End. Problems to be addressed by believers in Progress are always described in the most vague terms possible: the problem is Injustice, or Oppression, or Bigotry or some other amorphous and fluid thing. No end is really an end, but is rather only another step on a road to – someplace. A Progressive is in favor of making Progress without making much of anything else.

Example – and it is typical of such capital ‘P’ Progress that the examples are large, the goals vaporous but high-sounding, and the end indefinite and unmeasurable – health care reform. Eight years ago, something like 42 million Americans did not have health insurance, and the cost of health care was increasing every year. Note that often the problem or challenge was phrased, not as “how do we provide health insurance to these 42 million people?” but rather as “Healthcare is broken and we must do something!”

It was continually asserted that one way healthcare was broken was in ever-increasing costs. Note that ever-increasing costs are also characteristic of education, and of government in general. Somehow, schooling and government are not characterized as broken, at least, not by the same people who describe medical care that way. No serious attempt at controlling education or government expenses is ever made. In those cases, the only solution is to add more money – this is the simple historical fact.

Thus, the year the ACA took effect, when we had our annual health insurance review at work (we’re an odd company – we bring in a pro every year to explain to us what’s going on with our health insurance), the woman whose job it is to understand what’s going on mentioned in passing that there were, effectively, no cost control measures in the ACA. Events have since shown this to be true.  Just as with education and government in general, the solution to increasing costs is to merely shovel more money at the problem. This creates a moral hazard, to put it mildly- why not see how high you can raise prices, when the buyer is likely to pay you no matter what? That’s how you end up with $60K/yr undergrad education and $1,000 hammers. Under what theory would healthcare be any different?

We start  with a gigantic ill-defined problem, propose actions which do not address even the problem as defined, and end up – where, exactly? With better healthcare, in general or in particular? How? For whom? The number of uninsured people has decreased less than a third, leaving nearly 30 million uninsured. Costs continue to rise. And this is setting aside that only the seriously math impaired could believe this model is sustainable.

There seems to be a counterexample for every example of improvement. For example, the people in my company were well satisfied with our insurance coverage, yet had it yanked out from under us and changed into something we like less. This seems to be a common occurrence. We weren’t being asked to sacrifice for the common good – there’s no logical connection between making coverage people were happy with illegal and providing coverage to the uninsured. If there were, then all those union and government plans exempted from the ACA rules would need to change as well – and they weren’t. (1)

A practical person in favor of small ‘p’ progress would first ascertain *why* people don’t have insurance, to see if, in fact, people not having insurance is ever or always a problem that can or should be solved. Maybe it’s a bunch of different problems, maybe it changes over time for different people. Maybe some people don’t want to pay for health insurance. Maybe there are lots of different causes that cannot be addressed with a blanket solution. Small ‘p’ progress could be made by identifying and addressing as many different problems as could be addressed with comparatively small projects with definite ends. At that point, we’d stand a better chance of seeing what, if anything, is left that requires vast action.

But such an approach would never be tolerated, even though it has worked – it is very nearly the only thing that has ever really worked – repeatedly throughout history. The mere existence of healthcare is the result of some medieval men and women deciding to care for the sick right there in front of them, organizing others to help, getting some buildings, and – caring for the sick. The descendants of these men and women brought this concept to America, where it spread. That’s how we get so many Mercy or St. Mary’s or St. Luke’s Hospitals, Methodist, Baptist and Jewish Hospitals, and how the major clinics got founded. As we got richer, collectively, and technology improved, hospitals became more professional – and more expensive. (Something rarely noted: if we would accept 1960s level health care, then providing it to all uninsured people would be a simple and cheap program. It’s the fancy stuff that costs, almost all of which has been developed in the last 60 years.)

But as in all things made by man, even the best things, healthcare falls short. It is rarely noticed that it mostly fall short where it has fallen away from its roots. The poor are made to wait in the emergency rooms of the county hospitals, when the Sisters of Mercy used to take in everyone who showed up; fancy clinics with state of the art care charge vast sums to whomever can pay them, drawing their customers from distant lands – a feature as much of English socialized healthcare as of American private healthcare.

In a flat moral universe, failure to be perfect is perfect failure. Thus, America can have the best health care for the largest number of people of any nation in the history of the world, which it objectively does, yet that’s not good enough. (2) The methods by which we got the best healthcare in the world have not produced perfect healthcare, and thus must be abandoned in favor of methods that brought the world Soviet health care (3).

To the true believers and useful idiots, the ACA is Progress. The ACA *IS* affordable healthcare, and opposing or even questioning the concrete law is, to them, hating the poor and wanting them thrown out on the street to die. It simply doesn’t matter what the details are, or even if they actually do anything that they were sold as doing. Pelosi understood her audience when she said we’d need to pass the law to see what’s in it. To supporters, the ACA was not just some bill that would do some particular things in good or poor ways – the ACA was in fact affordable healthcare itself! For doers, for the little people who make small ‘p’ progress every day, such a claim is sheer insanity. But years and years of government education and concomitant social pressure has made the insane seem real to an alarming number of people.

Finally, the small people doing small things that add up to big improvements over time require the freedom and rights to do those things. My little porch project is improving my house, yes, but also my neighborhood. Judging by comments I’ve gotten while laying bricks out front, these little projects can help inspire others to undertake their own little improvements. It’s not much, but, over time, a million such projects end up making for a prettier, neater place to live. Capital ‘P’ Progress invariably consists of forcing many people to do things they would rather not do. To Progressives, this trade-off is invisible: millions of small acts are wiped out in order for a big thing to happen, in the same way that the $20M spent by a million individuals $20 at a time is invisible, but the $20M in tax dollars spent on some pet project or other is a triumph. To a Progressive, there is simply no trade off at all! Individuals are assumed to waste their money, while sweetness and light rule government expenditures.

Orestes Brownson’s observation about the inappropriateness of government schools applies here as well: such behavior would be acceptable under the premise that the wisdom of the nation resides in its leaders, but is wholly unacceptable in America, where the nation is founded on the principle that the the wisdom of the nation resides in the people.

  1. For the sake of this example we’re pretending the ACA isn’t just a massive governmental power grab. Described that way – honestly, in other words – it works just great.
  2. Healthcare is not fungible. Getting your health care at John Muir or Stanford medical center is not the same as getting it in a county hospital, let alone the same as getting it in a clinic in Brazil.
  3. And before throwing Sweden out as the counterexample, note that wealthy Americans go to the Mayo Clinic, or John Hopkins or Stanford when they want the best care, not to Stockholm. Follow the money.

In Search of More Grounded Bumper Stickers

It’s still Easter – He is Risen! – so trying to keep it light(er). Yet my brain is full – it’s the getting stuff out and into words part that’s the challenge. Have been reading Lafferty’s Fall of Rome. Wonderful, wish I had had it years ago to read to the kids – it’s that entertaining, even an 8 year old could get into it.

Writing about Lafferty a) requires some effort, and b) would be more than a little premature, as I’m only a few dozen pages in. Instead, how about some catchy phrases suitable for bumper sticker use, that reflect a more, shall we say, reality-based approach to life than the ones I’m currently seeing out here in Northern California?

For your possible amusement. Feel free to use and share however you see fit:

BS #1

BS #2

BS #3

Calla Lilies

On the north side of our house is a little concreted in area where we keep our trashcans (or, more accurately, this being California and all, our recycling bin, our yard waste bin and our landfill bin). There are a couple small areas up against the house, no more than a couple square feet each, where the soil is exposed. Why those little areas were not paved I have no idea.

We’ve lived here for over 20 years. In an exhibition of hope triumphing over reason, one of previous owners planted calla lilies in those areas. Somehow, they are still there. To recap: no sun, no care, poor clay soil. The only way they ever get watered is by rain or maybe when I wash off the patio in the back and the water accidentally makes into the beds. Note that I don’t wash off the the patio often, pretty much never when we’re having a ‘drought’, so called. So, for the past 5 years, those flowers have gotten by on only a tiny amount of water at highly irregular intervals. Yet, they will not die.

As you may have heard, it has rained a freaking lot (technical term, that) this year out here in California. It’s raining now. We’ve received well over a foot more rain than is typical, almost 200% of average.

The calla lilies liked it:



Mrs Yardsale of the Mind cut a bunch for Easter and put them on the table, where I snapped these pictures. Over the spring so far, there have been maybe a couple dozen beautiful flowers, totally unearned and unexpected.

Sometimes, life is like that.

Happy Easter! All week!

Happy Easter! Χριστός ἀνέστη!

He is truly risen!

Blessed Fra Angelico has got what you need.  First, we have the women at the tomb greeted by an angel:

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The Risen Christ hovers in the background, as it simply would not do to show merely an empty tomb. This fresco is in cell 8 upstairs at San Marco’s Dominican Convent in Florence, so Fra Angelico paints St. Dominic kneeling to the left – in the brother’s cell, he (almost) always puts a Dominican in the scene, to remind the viewer that he is not just looking at a pretty fresco, but is to see himself in the events portrayed.

I love the way the angel sits rather casually and seems to be caught mid-lecture: He is risen as he said!

The wonderful hymn O filii and filiae captures the moment thus:

 Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Ye sons and daughters of the Lord,
the King of glory, King adored,
this day Himself from death restored.

R. Alleluia

All in the early morning gray
went holy women on their way,
to see the tomb where Jesus lay.

R. Alleluia

Of spices pure a precious store
in their pure hands these women bore,
to anoint the sacred Body o’er.

R. Alleluia

The straightaway one in white they see,
who saith, “seek the Lord: but He
is risen and gone to Galilee.”

R. Alleluia

Next, from cell #1, is the “Do not cling to Me” scene from the Gospel of John:

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The lack of a Dominican is a little unusual – a quick skim spotted only 3 or 4 others cell frescoes out of 36(?) or so cells that do not feature one. I could make up a story about how the text being illustrated – Mary Magdalene, confused and desperate, looking for her Lord, is enough of an Every Person for the artist’s purpose. But I don’t know.

Love the hoe on Christ’s shoulder – mistaken for the gardener, indeed. Here and in his Annunciations, where man’s fall and salvation are front and center, Fra Angelico sets them in a garden and adds much details to the plants and trees. Man’s proper place is, after all, in a garden, a place restored and then some by Christ’s Resurrection.  Ave fit ex Eva, after all.

We’ll end for this year with Piero della Francesca’s awesome Resurrection:

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Aldous Huxley, of all people, describes this fresco thus: “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” Like most masterpieces, photos do it no justice. Piero captured the grandeur of the Risen Lord, and his realistic portrayal of the guards as contemporary Italian men at arms who dropped asleep where they sat is wonderful.

One last distraction: count the guards’ legs. Piero was painting the Resurrection, not guards’ legs, so if he needed to leave out a few…


Good Friday: Bouguereau

Bishop Barron says, in one of his wonderful videos, that happiness lies in surrendering completely to God’s will. He then points at Christ on the Cross, and says: there is a happy man.

With that in mind, praying that you and yours, all the visitors to this humble blog, have a happy, holy and blessed Good Friday.

Since it’s Good Friday and we’ve been discussing Bouguereau:

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880).jpg


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