When Do We Turn Bad & Why?

April 2nd, 2014 No comments

According to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, the most evil people are babies because they lack empathy and are racist. Listen to his interview on Ira Glass’s This American Life.

Or you might consider checking out — by this I mean from the library — his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. The following quote is from an interview posted on Amazon.com:

Q) What’s up with the title?

A) It’s meant to be playful, because it has two quite different meanings. Just Babies can express a reasonable skepticism about the abilities of these tiny creatures—what do you expect of them, they’re just babies? But of course “just” also derives from justice—as in “a just society”—and so the title captures one of the main arguments of the book, which is that we are born as moral creatures. We start off as just babies. I know this sounds like a remarkable claim, but I hope that my book will convince people to take it seriously.

Q) What made you choose to write this book at this moment?

A) These are exciting times for anyone interested in morality. There are major developments in areas like social neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and moral philosophy. And several research teams—including my own at Yale—are making surprising discoveries about the moral lives of babies and children. I think that now, perhaps for the first time in history, we have scientifically informed answers to some of the questions that matter most: How is it that we are capable of transcendent kindness—and unspeakable cruelty? How do evolution, culture, parenting, and religion conspire to shape our moral natures? How do we make sense of people’s strongly held opinions about abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, and torture? And how can we become better people? Just Babies tries to answer these questions.

Categories: Education, Science, Society

Some Sherman Alexie Interviews

March 10th, 2014 No comments

A student in one of my classes mentioned that there was an interview with Sherman Alexie during which he said that his father had been an alcoholic, so I decided to look around. Sure enough, he mentions the tragedy of his father’s early, alcohol abetted death in his interview with Time magazine. He also mentions the cultural significance revealed by juxtaposing Chief Wahoo and Sambo, which relates to my previous post regarding Glynn Washington’s powwow story.

There’s also an interview in The New York Times in which he answers this question:

Did you grow up with a lot of books? What are your memories of being read to as a child?

My father read all the time. Our house was filled with cheap paperbacks. But I don’t recall anybody ever reading to me. Instead, I’d grab a book and read alongside my dad.

And while I could only watch a few minutes of Bill Moyers’ interview, I wanted to watch the whole thing.

So check out one or all or more of the interviews and write a response. Alexie is certainly one of the more fascinating literary figures of our time.

Categories: Education, English, Society


February 27th, 2014 No comments

Click the image to see the Gif animation

For all of you who have been waiting, this makes Spring Training even sweeter. Sure the A’s beat the Giants 10 to 5, but that doesn’t really matter this early in the season. What does matter is that A’s right fielder Josh Redick climbed the wall like Superman wearing a baseball cap instead of a cape.

He actually took two over-the-wall, should-have-been home runs away from Michael Morse, but this first catch was the more spectacular.

Categories: Baseball

Cultural Juxtaposition Shock

February 26th, 2014 No comments

Since we’re reading Sherman Alexie, I thought you might be inspired by, shocked by, horrified by — well, actually, I’m not sure how you’ll react to Glynn Washington’s latest Snap Judgment, Snap #504, Pariah.

As I’ve frequently mentioned, juxtaposition can be used to make us laugh when cartoonists juxtapose pigeons and cigarette butts or storytellers juxtapose princesses and frogs, but juxtaposition can also shock us as Glynn Washington does in this story about his trip to a powwow at the University of Michigan.

Categories: Society

Sherman Alexie

February 24th, 2014 No comments

Here’s a link to Sherman Alexie’s website FallsApart.com.

If you’re interested in the walk Arnold Spirit, Jr. takes from Wellpinit, Washington to Reardan High School in Reardan, Washington, you can get directions from Google Earth or Google Maps and learn that it’s 20.6 miles, which Google estimates will take 6 hours and 51 minutes, roughly a 3 mile/hour pace. But Junior is young and motivated, so perhaps he can knock an hour or more off this time.

Categories: Education, English

The Emotional Power of a Plot

February 24th, 2014 No comments

Active military in millions from 1940 to 2010

According to Monday’s NY Times, “Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup . . .”, which is certainly news, but I was struck by the plot of active duty military personnel over time, beginning with our involvement in World War II.

Looking at the population of the US over time, approximately 4.5% of the nation was active in the military during the peak of World War II (6 million/132 million), 0.7% during the Vietnam War (1.6 million/203 million), and only about 0.1% during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (566,000/300 million). This represents a decline by a factor of 45!

While these percentages are critical to understanding how dramatic the change has been over the last 70 years, clearly the plot of active military over time more dramatically helps us see how fewer and fewer have been asked to do more and more.

Categories: History, Society

Love Knows No Grammar

February 16th, 2014 No comments

Valentine’s Day was a couple days back. I failed to remember. My wife forgot. What does that say about us?

In talking with my wife about our inaction I was reminded of elementary school, now many, many years ago when we were required to bring little Valentine’s cards for everyone in class.


This meant that each of us accumulated a pile of cards that we carried home in our lunch pails, cards that meant nothing save for one that I was too self-conscious, too embarrassed to look for while sitting in class, certainly not on the bus.

At home I spread the cards on my bed looking for the one that I knew, I hoped, I feared, I dreaded carried that special message.

As you might suspect, because maybe you’ve had a similar experience, there was nothing. Hers was just like all the rest.

Be my Valentine, Forever yours, etc., etc. The cards were printed in programmed emotions. I had never written anything, so why would I expect she would even know I existed?

I suspect that Valentine’s Day has divided the world into two traumatized groups: those who got the message in elementary school and those who didn’t.

In today’s Modern Love in The New York Times, Jessie Ren Marshall writes about how getting the message we seek has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, for that matter nothing to do with diction and syntax, which she thought were important because she’s an English teacher:

“I can’t stop thinking about you, Aloha!” James wrote, but the handwriting was scrawled and the spelling was terrible. He cares, I thought, but not enough to proofread.

Read her very funny, thoughtful column on finding that one connection that matters by following this link.

Categories: English, Society

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Dogs & Stars

January 27th, 2014 No comments

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is someone you should always seek out if you want to be thrilled by scientific knowledge, which is to say by all the wonderful things in our universe that we partially understand, knowing full well that each discovery raises more questions than answers.

Two of my favorites are his interviews with Bill Moyers. The latest on the importance of science aired last week. And then there’s the amazing Chaser the Border Collie, a dog that I like to refer to as a metaphor machine. Check out both. Write a response to one or both for extra credit. Have fun! Be inspired by the universe of things we don’t yet understand!!!!

Categories: Education, Science

What Drives Success?

January 27th, 2014 No comments

In Sunday’s New York Times Review, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld suggest that the dialectic — my word for the tension they’re describing — between a feeling of superiority and the dread of inferiority can work in a child’s favor if this dialectic is mitigated by impulse control.

As an example, I may have the self-confidence to believe that my piano playing potential is outstanding, but my fear is that unless I practice hard and constantly, I’ll let down those who believe in me. And so I control my desire to perform before I’m ready, thus exercising impulse control. The end result is that I achieve my desire to be considered an outstanding piano player though my doubts and hence my practice and impulse control keep me from ever believing I’ve arrived.

Of course this is a hypothetical example, for I’m really just an amateur piano player who loathes performing in front of anyone. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to claim, as these authors do, that the contradictory notions of superiority and inferiority combined with impulse control can lead to outstanding results. Follow this link to read the article.

Categories: Education, Science

Informed Ignorance Drives Science

January 14th, 2014 No comments

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times science section today, “Over the Side With Old Tenets,” suggests that we take a look at Edge.org, a website that posses an annual question to which its distinguished list of contributors responds. This year’s question is:


Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?

One of those responding to the question, Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT, seems to feel that we could get along just fine, thank you very much, without infinity. I wonder what mathematicians, who love to ponder the different kinds of number infinities, would have to say about such a claim. And then there’s Daniel Hillis, a computer scientist, who claims “. . . we can get along without the notion of cause and effect, which he says is just an artifact or our brains’ penchant for storytelling.”

Well, as Stuart Firestein reminds us in his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science and as Overbye states in his concluding paragraph, doubt is at the core of science: “The true currency of science, after all, is not faith or even truth, but doubt. . . In science, as in democracy, everything has to be up for grabs.” However, there is informed doubt, which is central to science, and uninformed opinion, which has little purchase in the discussion.

Categories: Education, Science