Saturday, March 29, 2008

Don't Call It Science!

I happened upon a discussion precipitated by a blog entry over at Day by Day Discoveries. I found the blog post through this post over at Doc's Sunrise Rants.

The discussion was began due to Dawn's ( of Day by Day Discoveries) reaction to a new homeschooling blog opposing the teaching of the theory of evolution by homeschoolers. The discussion involved proper and improper definitions of a scientific theory and law, and also discussion of the controversy about teaching alternative viewpoints in science class.

I wrote a short comment on this entry at Day by Day on Thursday, just before going to give a presentation on some interesting new results in the neurophysiology of ADHD at the university. In this post I want to expand my comment a bit in order to present my view about this whole issue.

To begin with, my credentials as a scientist, with a background in evolutionary biology, ought to make it clear what I think about this issue. To put it quite plainly, I oppose the presentation of 'alternative viewpoints' in science class. People taking classes in science expect to be taught science, and are paying to be taught science, and deserve to have this expectation met. Neither so-called 'creation science' nor the new take on it--intelligent design--are scientific theories and therefore should not be taught in science classes.

To understand why these ideas do not meet the criteria for science, we must first understand what science is and what it is not. A simple and accurate definition of science is that it is the investigation of the physical world using the scientific method. By 'physical world' we mean the observable world of matter and energy. Observations can be made with the senses or with extensions of the senses, through instruments that allow us to see the very small, the very large, and the very far away; instruments such as microscopes and telescopes. Other extensions of the senses would include the instruments through which we ascertain the properties of the physical world. These would be instruments of measurement.

The scientific method, invented during the enlightenment, is a procedure through which observations can be systematically qualified and/or quantified to make predictions about what we would expect of nature. Not all observations count as scientific observations. Only those gathered for the purpose of hypothesis testing count. For example, Van Gogh made some very detailed observations of nature when he painted his beautiful Sunflowers still-life. But even though his observations were very accurate and beautifully rendered, we would not his work science. He was certainly observing the physical world with his senses, but he was not using the scientific method. He was using the sensitivity and tools of an artist and not those of a scientist. He was doing art, not science. And I think the great Impressionistic artist would be insulted if we called his work 'science.'

Science is, after all, only one way of human knowing. It is limited to making obervations about the physical world through use of the scientific method. Scientists, when they work as scientists must limit themselves to these objectives as well, although as human beings, they can enjoy a range of human endeavors different than science, and see that they all have value. I enjoy and recognize the value of great art and literature, and I appreciate the usefulness of rational human endeavors such as philosophy and ethics. None of these is science, however, and the world would be poorer if we tried to shoehorn them into being what they are not.

Creationism, and the new expression of it called Intelligent Design are not science, either. Creationism posits apriori that species originated by a singular act of a supernatural being. In so doing, Creationism puts itself outside the realm of science by an appeal to the supernatural, which by definition exists outside the physical world. Such an appeal cannot be tested by any means within the scientific method, nor can it be observed by the senses or extensions thereof. It is, in the language of the philosophy of science, unfalsifiable. Therefore, although the concept of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), as is expounded in the first creation story in Genesis chapter 1, is really intriguing as a priestly story to explain the goodness of the physical world, and the goodness of embodied being, it does not meet the criteria for science. It does make a mythic statement and a moral implication. But it does not make a scientific statement.

Religious statements about origins from a supernatural being cannot be tested. They must be taken on faith and so are not falsifiable. This is why one can talk about 'belief' in creationism. Scientific theories must be built from evidence that has been tested by the scientific method. This, by the way, is why it is wrong to say that one 'believes' in evolution. Such a faith statement only confuses the issue. Rather, one should say that the evidence supports the theory of evolution of species by natural selection. (And there is a plethora of such evidence coming from such scientific fields as geology, biochemistry, genetics, and physics, to name but a few).

The statements and implications of Genesis (and that is what we are really talking about as the so-called 'scientific creationists' do not make arguments against evolutionary theory for the sake of the Cosmic Egg story) are all well and good, and quite interesting to discuss, as a religious statement about the world that comes from a particular world view and challenges another ancient world view. I could happily discuss these ideas with other knowledgable people all day, as religion.

Creationism's pedigree comes to us through religion and theology. Advocates of scientific creationism go further by making the false claim of a scientific pedigree for their religious belief. Pseudoscience is the false claim of scientific origins for an idea that has none. So this claim that creationism, which appeals to the supernatural origin of the material universe, is pseudoscience.

Now my view is this: this is a free country. If people want to take the Genesis Creation stories (there are two such stories in Genesis) literally, that is their right. And if they want to believe that the world was created as the result of a cosmic battle of gods and goddesses, in which the body of Tiamat the Dragon Goddess was split in half to make the heavens and the earth, that is also their right. And I have no argument with it, so long as I am not asked to believe in Tiamat. And I also respect a person's right to teach his/her children those beliefs. Again, as long as I may teach my own children my take on B'reshit (which is what Jews call the book of Genesis), and as long as I am free to teach my children science, I have no problem with such people. Mind you, I think they are wrong about it, but it's a free country. I have no argument with them.

But I do have a problem and an argument with those who go beyond an honest belief in a religious idea, to a claim that creationism has a scientific pedigree when it does not. This kind of claim is false, and it also dishonest. Such a person is going beyond his/her own freedom to believe as they think is right to an attempt to foist unscientific ideas upon others who are paying for and expecting to learn what science teaches.

Everyone in the United States, even the Evangelical Christians, have a right to adhere to and teach their children their own religious world view. Just be honest about it. Call it what it is: religion. Don't call it science.

PS: The Cartoons were forwarded to me from a Biochemistry Discussion List with a great but suggestive title along the lines of: If Helicase Can Part DNA, Can I Unzip Your Genes? The other pictures are from Wiki Commons.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's the "S" Word Again! Carnival of Homeschooling 117

PHAT Mommy has got me thinking about it again! She's organized this weeks Carnival of Homeschooling around it!

All of us are familiar with the "S" word. Since homeschoolers have demostrated academic competence, this word has become the new objection to how we choose to raise and educate our children.

But maybe we ought to take a look at a couple of definitions.

Here is the definiton that we tend to think of when the term is brought up:
Socialize (Verb): to make social; make fit for life in companionship with others.

But consider this one, from the American Heritage Dictionary (online):
Socialize (Verb): To place under government or group ownership or control.

Maybe this is the one that our critics have in mind?
After all, the overwhelming majority of homeschoolers do tend to take care of the first, and in fact, we could argue that we do it better than government schools do it. Our children, after all, are out in the community, interacting with a variety of people of all ages, both genders, and a multitude of diverse ways of living.

Head on over to the "S" Word Edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling to see how many of us are dealing with the first definition.

As for the second, to quote Nancy Reagan, "Just say 'No!'"

Sunrise, Sunset

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Take a journey of sunrises and sunsets with me, as we watch the sun apparently move north from the time of the Winter Solstice to the Vernal Equinox.

"The Eternal is the Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness, and darkness from light..." (Siddur, Ma'ariv Aravim)

Sunrise on the Winter Solstice 2007.
The sun rose that morning south of east,
along the eastern horizon.

Sunset, the day before the

Winter Solstice 2007, taken from
the Great Room window.
It was snowing on the Solstice.

Sunrise, on February 2, 2008, the late-winter or early-spring Cross Quarter day. In the Old Calendar, this is the first day of spring. The sun is rising south of east, but less so than on the Winter Solstice.

Sunset, a few days prior to the
early-spring Cross-Quarter day,
also taken from the
Great Room Window.

Sunrise on March 20, 2008, the Vernal Equinox.
Here the sun is rising almost due east. As it appears to travel north
along the eastern horizon, the days are getting longer.

Sunset on March 21, the day following
the Vernal Equinox. This picture was
taken from the patio outside
the French doors, a different
perspective than the others.

"Blessed is the Eternal...whose wisdom opens heaven's gates, and makes the ages pass and the seasons circle through the year..." (Siddur, Ma'ariv Aravim)

Pictures copyright 2007 - 2008 by N. and Elisheva Levin, Sedillo, NM.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Road Construction: A Real Life Learning Experience

Contractors have been working most of the past month to complete a new road that will access the new phase of our development in the high meadow. The road is an extension of our road, Los Pecos Trail. It runs south of our house, where it will join a new road, Los Pecos Loop, that will access the hillside east of the end of Los Pecos, and the meadow west and south of it. N. and I have decided to make the best of the noise, dust and inconvenience in order to learn about how developments are planned and roads are built.

Neither N. nor I have seen a road completely built, and since our developer is a civil engineer of great skill, we are seeing a road built RIGHT.

Last fall, before the snow, the worker cleared the right-away of vegetation, and rocks, and created the road bed.

To do so in our area, they had to stabilize the clay soil by mixing it with lime.

In our mountains, the soil is a clay-loam neosol that sits on top of the Pennsylvanian Madera Formation limestone, which is faulted, cracked and pitted with solution basins. The soil on top of the Madera is full of expandible clay minerals that hold cations on the surface of each crystal. The anionic lime attracts and bonds with these cations and makes the clay less likely to expand in the presence of water. This is important to keep the road bed on top of it from cracking and slipping and slumping.

Another important part of building a road from scratch, is the job of bringing utilities along it and up to the property lines of the new lots.

According to the East Mountain Plan, all utilities must be brought in underground for added safety and to preserve views. So in the past two weeks or so, five-foot trenches have been dug along one side of the right-away, along the entire new road.
In this trench, you can see the conduits through which run electrical lines, and fiberoptic cable for telephone and internet service. Cable television is not available in this area, so if folks want luxury TV, they get satellite networks installed.

The water lines were installed separately last fall. We actually had a trench across our driveway for a little while for that job.

In most of the East Mountain communities, there are no sewer systems nor is there a municipal treatment system, because most of us do not live in municipalities. So each homeowner installs a septic system and leech field. Some communities do gray-water processing, and those residents put in a partial, black-water septic system. One community here has an organic waste processing system that recycles both gray and black-water. They use it to support a golf course.

Here in the high meadow, the utilities can be seen at the property lines. In the center, are conduits that contain electrical wires and fiberoptic cables. On either side, the white cylinders are protective casing for water line check-valves, that will eventually be hooked up to water meters. Here, our water is provided by a water co-operative, and each lot owner must buy a membership.

Yes, even here in the boonies, we have fire hydrants. They are required as part of the East Mountain Fire-Wise Plan. Each development must not only install hydrants, but also puts together a fire plan that includes rules about vegetation, and also an evacuation plan in case of wild fire.

In our neck of the woods, natural gas lines are also uncommon. Most of us have a propane tank leased from a proprane company, and many of us have alternative heating, such as passive solar and/or wood and pellet stoves.

We also learned a lot about drainage issues that come with the development of roads. Dirt roads drain more naturally, but become rutted and impassible during mudtime in the spring. And even the grade of dirt roads can block arroyos and small drainages.

Asfalt roads are more convenient but creat greater drainage problems because runoff is rapid. The head of the Sedillo Canyon drainage runs right through our development, and the new road crosses it. The drainage itself will be open space, so as not to impede the movement of water downstream. But the road needs a culvert, about 100 yards above the canyon proper. The upstream side is pictured.

This is the most serious culvert I have seen in our development. The pipes are about four feet in diameter. The rocks are placed on a liner in a sag-pond arrangement, that will slow down the flow across the culvert in times of heavy rain, rationing the water that runs into the canyon in order to preserve a more natural flow rate.

At other points along the road, small rock walls, small dams, and artificial rills have been created on the upstream side, in order to slow the flow of water onto the road. This will prevent pooling and flooding, and also will prevent mudslides onto the road. (Yes that is snow above the rock dam. It is taking a long time to melt even with the recent warm weather).

Mother nature destests unnatural flat zones on hillsides, and will use weathering to even out the slope again. So roads on hillsides require constant maintenance to keep them clear.

What is really cool about this project, is that no rocks have been brought in. All of the rock used for preparing the roadbed and for drainage was dug out of the hillsides to make way for the roadbed.

Unschooling means that we can take the opportunity to learn from what is happening right here and now. In fact, not only is N. studying numerous subjects in unconventional ways, but I am learning something new every day. Through our talks with the work crew and our study of the new road, we are learning about Geology, Geomorphology, Hydrology, Civil Engineering, Physics, and more. Think of the social skills N. is practicing by asking intelligent questions of the work crews, and seeking to know about their lives and work. And he is learning about difference cultures and languages, too. Many of the workers speak excellent Spanish. I never thought I'd learn how to say 'front-end loader' in Spanish.

This is all, as N. puts it, "Way too cool!"

Friday, March 21, 2008

Happy Purim! Happy Spring!

It's been a busy week here in Sedillo.

UNM is having Spring Break this week and I have been taking advantage of it to accomplish some things that NEED to be done. Because...

Spring is coming, and so's Passover!

Actually, Spring is already official here!
It started for us here in the Mountain Time Zone at bedtime Wednesday night, with the equinoctical sunrise on Thursday morning here in this picture.

(Yes, that's a traffic barrier by our driveway. The road to the south and west of our house is being paved, and the water co-op is putting in pipes).

And here is the equinoctical sunrise over the house from the designated quarter-day photo spot on the meadow.

The weather here is cooperating for the official coming of spring, too!

It has been a little below freezing at night, but it has been warming up nicely during the day. Yesterday it was in the 60's here, and the 70's down in Albuquerque.

Of course, with the coming of spring, and the coming of Spring Break (which must always be capitalized to indicate its importance), the time has come for Spring Cleaning. (This too is capitalized because of the work involved). Normally, Spring Cleaning begins after Purim, but that is because Purim normally comes before Spring Break. So this year, despite my worries to the contrary, I actually started my Pesach Cleaning (also capitalized for the same reason as stated above) early!

On Sunday, I cleaned all of our bedding and hung it outside to dry. I so love the outdoor smell in clothes! On Monday, I tackled our closet, and on Tuesday, I did the cabinets in our bathroom. That was actually the biggest job as my Bruce is a Packrat as well as a Geek. Many things that are not ordinarily stored in a bathroom (three rolls of electrical tape???) were stored under his sink.

Wednesday, I took care of my office. And yesterday, the Great Room (as the realtor Geeks call it) got the royal treatment. It was in that state where it looked like a few minutes of vacuuming or dusting would do it up nice, but appearances can be deceiving. It took about six hours of work--cobweb knocking, couch cushion removing, window sill dusting, furniture moving work! By 4 PM yesterday, it was in that really deep-down, pop-corn-kernels-out-of-the-upholstery, leather-soap-smelling CLEAN! Which is good because...

...yesterday at sunset, we began the holiday of Purim, the Feast of Lots. Last night was a big synagogue night, because not only was there a reading of the Megillah (in this case, the Book of Esther), but it was also our congregation's week to host homeless families for IHN. So Bruce and I spent the night in a Hebrew classroom on two roll-aways made 'comfy' by pushing them together and putting our feather bed on them.

Purim is a half-holiday, on which no work is done in the evening and morning, as the Megillah is read, and we drown out the name of 'that evil Haman!' (Boo! Hiss!).

Last Sunday, N. and I also volunteered at the Sisterhood Purim Carnival--which was one of the best! (I know, I know, we say that every year, but this year...). When the kids were little, we took them to play the games and eat the hammetaschen (three cornered cookies pictured at the right in the basket).

When we arrived, did I get a surprise! One of my lovely adult Hebrew students had ordered a beautiful Mishloah Manot (gift basket) for me! It is the custom to send (the root of Mishloach--which means 'that which is sent') gifts of food and goodies for Purim. So we've had goodies, and tonight and tomorrow we'll have Shabbat. And I will rest up!

Passover is now just one full moon away!
Thank goodness I have started getting ready. Once I begin cleaning, the Pesach Panic subsides, and the Pesach Pondering can begin!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A March Walk in the Hidden World

Nearly Wordless Wednesday
The Walk with Me Edition

This month, as early spring creeps across our mountains, take a walk with me into the hidden world just north of our meadow.

North of our house is the meadow, and north of the meadow is the woods.

Looking across them from the house, you might think that the land goes on rising towards the high meadow and the mountains.

But if you enter the woods, you enter a hidden world...

The sky is that deep New Mexico blue as you
descend from the vacant lot by the road,
down into the Sedillo Creek drainage.
Here, the scrub Oak is brown, and the brush
is bare beneath the taller trees.
We seem to go back in time to winter
here in the canyon.

Down the side of the canyon,
we walk. The dogs on a short leash
as we wend our way across the rock.
The rising sun beckons us,
shining on the pines and juniper.
The air is soft, as the winds cross above
the canyon, which shelters us from the blow.

Here in the creek bed, Ponderosa Pines
rise high, nourished by the hidden water
that flows below the surface.
The ground rises on both sides, and
Pennsylvanian limestone tumbles toward us,
as float, down the steep flanks of the canyon.

Here in the hidden world,
snow lingers on the hillsides,
and makes frozen pools among
the tumble of rock.

Uphill, we walk now, toward the meadow
and the rising sun.
A tangle of scrub,
a field of broken rock,
between us and the open space.

And as we crest the canyon top, the open meadow and home is before us.

Hot coffee and breakfast await us, as the sun gains height in the morning sky.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

COH: Oh, The Things That You'll Do!

The 115th Carnival of Homeschooling is up over at Janice Campbell's blog,
Taking Time for Things That Matter.

It's called Oh, The Things That You'll Do! as a tribute to Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places You'll Go!

The art above is from Dr. Seuss's 50th anniversary of publishing, and seems to be ubiquitous on the web.

And, "No, I do not like Green Eggs and Ham!"

I'd rather read the COH while knitting a Thneed. "You need a Thneed!"


And, ah...warn me if you run into Thing One and Thing Two.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Spring of Our Discontent

We've been talking and thinking about politics around here lately.

It makes sense.
N. and I are studying the founding of the United States and the Constitution.
And it's an election season.
And then there is the economy and the way our politicians are (not) dealing with it.
And the war. Oy. This is truly a discontented spring for the American electorate.

And since we are studying the founding documents of the US--in our haphazard and conversational, unschooling way, I also have gotten interested in reading about that time in our nation's history. When I was a schoolgirl, it was the Civil War period and aftermath that really captured my imagination. After all, I grew up not 60 miles from Springfield, Illinois. It was the "Land of Lincoln." Somehow, although I had read the founding documents, and could recite the Preamble to the Constitution, my study of the first years of the United States got short shrift.

Last week, when I was browsing the new books shelf at one of our branch libraries, I found an interesting looking book: A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson. So I picked it up, figuring that if I get nothing else from it, it would at least provide background for our conversations about our country's early history. But when I picked it up and started reading it this weekend, in between Shabbat and Purim Carnival activities, I realized that it was going to be much, much more.

It is the story of the end of a friendship. It is the story of the beginnings of partisanship in the American election process. It is the story of a fundamental controversy that has been with us since the ratification of the United States Constitution. And, although I have not finished the book, I can see already that there is much wisdom for us, the primary-weary American voters, in knowing what has gone before. And in knowing what has been survived. I am enthralled.

But this is not a book review.
I can't do a review until I finish the book.
And in between the beginnings of cleaning for Pesach, and preparing for Purim, and writing papers, there is precious little time this spring break to sneak in a few pages but for my morning and evening reading.
But my reading so far has got me thinking.
And I wanted to write a little bit about this spring of our discontent in light of what I have learned thus far.

One piece of my musing is about the Federalist-Republican/Democrat controversy that made the election of 1800 so wild and woolly, and has been with us ever since. The Federalist position (simplified) was (is?) that a strong federal government is necessary and that the Constitution did not make it strong enough. Coming from the dour religious views of our Puritan founders, Federalism assumed that people with too much individual liberty were liable to fall into sin, becoming frivolous and dissolute in their personal and political behavior. The Federalists at the time of the "electioneering" for the 1800 presidential election looked to the French Revolution, and seeing the extremes of the reign of Terror and Jacobinism, were determined to restrict the individual liberties of the hoi polloi in the nascent United States, in order to prevent such chaos. The High Federalists toyed with the idea of having the Senate and President of the United States serve for life, and together with the more moderate Federalists such as President John Adams, managed to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts in direct violation of the Constitutional guarrantees for Freedom of the Press, because of the danger to the country of a possible war with France. Sound familiar?

The Republicans, the party of Thomas Jefferson (not the party of Lincoln--the first Republicans later called themselves Democrats), believed that a weak and contentious federal government, whose power should be contained by checks and balances among the branches, was vital to the protection of the rights and liberties of the citizenry. Sons of the Enlightenment, our Republican founding fathers looked to the French revolution as a confirmation of our own struggle for liberty. They thought that the citizenry would only lose their liberty if their rights were restricted by elites. They opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and it was the editors of the Republican newspapers that courageously went to jail, and then continued to inform the American public about the restrictions placed on their liberties, in defiance of what they termed the "tyranny" of the Federalists.

As I have been reading, I have been thinking that the Federalists and the Republicans are still with us, to this day. Since the Civil War, and even more so since the Progressive era, it has been the 'Federalists' who have been gaining in power, and the Federal government has been strengthened at the expense of the liberties of the citizenry. The Federal system now includes a central bank, the Federal Reserve, that was once opposed by the Jeffersonian Republicans as the sure road to tyranny. The Federal government has taken an increasingly large role in telling the states how they may govern, as well as in directing the economic, social and personal lives of individual citizens. The Nanny State is well on the way to removing our remaining liberties, all for our own goods, of course.

And so we find ourselves, in this 'the spring of our discontent,' dealing with a falling dollar, a housing market in chaos, 'billions and billions' of dollars in unfunded entitlements strung like an albatross around our childrens' necks, and in a costly and bungled war, wondering what in the world our self-appointed leaders are planning to get us into next. (Oh, but we are being told that the check is in the mail. Of course it's our money, but we'll have to pay it back).

It is somewhat comforting to know that we are not the first generation of ordinary Americans to deal with this kind of fight. And although we are much nearer to tyranny now than the citizenry was before the election of 1800, we do have the example of those who went before us to strengthen our resolve.

It is a balancing act. That is what maintaining a cohesive national government and at the same time maintaining that government as the servant of the people requires. In 1800, the revolution was still fresh in the memories of the people. The failures of the Articles of Confederation demonstrated that a stronger central government was important, but the Alien and Sedition Acts showed that if the government become but a little too strong, the bright and shining experiment upholding the rights of man would certainly fail.

As I read, I am comforted by the fact that those people, our political and spiritual ancestors, did not meekly follow one or another of the parties. Vigorous dissention, strong debate, and an ongoing argument--these were the order of the day. But I know how it came out. Jefferson was elected and the excessive restrictions on the liberties of the citizenry were halted. But the question was not settled.

It will never be settled.
The balance must be maintained.
Stray but a little one way, and tyranny will ensue.
Stray but a little the other, and anarchy will prevail.

I think that now, in this spring of our discontent, as the party ends and the fiddler's bill comes due, we are leaning a little too insistently toward tyranny. We have been for much of the last century. We want someone else to pay the fiddler for us. And the presidential candidates we have to choose among seem happy to promise to do so. They all want to solve our problems for us, bail us out of our present difficulties, and stave off economic problems for a while longer (at least until the election is over) using quick fixes and expensive programs. They want to give us stuff to distract us from the loss of our national sovereignty and our individual liberties. And if we accept then we are sacrificing our children on the altar of the expediency of the moment.

As I read, I keep thinking of those people who were "rocked in the cradle of the revolution." They were hardy people, and prudent. If our ancestors could face pain and sacrifice in order to make a better world for their children, surely we have the same strength to do so. They did not prematurely give up the argument, and allow tyranny to prevail. Nor did they sit back and let chaos ensue. We can do the same, and maintain the balance in order to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity."

So I am feeling a little better. I feel that I am gaining some strength and resolve to face the coming wake-up call. And it is coming, no matter how many times we roll over and hit the snooze. But a look at history can strengthen a person. And listening in on the arguments and battles of our founders, can make one realize that contentiousness is our lot.
And it's a good one, if we can keep the balance.

"Wasn't that a time, wasn't that a time?
A time that tried the souls of men?
Wasn't that a terrible time?"
(The Weavers)

"We cannot choose the time we are born to, we can only choose what to do with the time we are given."
(Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring, Movie Version)

Now I just have to figure out who to write in next November.
Thomas Jefferson is not an option.

Friday, March 14, 2008

More Rebellion Against Overzealous Grammarians (But Not By Me)

Grammar serfs, unite! All you have to lose are your copies of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves!

Or is it Eats Shoots and Leaves? I guess it depends upon whether you are talking about a panda in his natural habitat or one that walks into a bar with a gun. (If you don't get it, I respectfully suggest the book, however it's punctuated).

Disclaimer: Actually, I did read the above mentioned book and I did enjoy laughing as I did so. I am not a complete grammar 'Philistine.' And I am a Yekke myself--oh, not literally, no ancestors of mine come from Germany--but my Yekkeism has to do with shoes!
We all have our...erm...foiables.
So if you are weak of heart, or get high-blood pressure at the mere thought of differences in usages, why then, just surf on by.

I had to laugh at the Grammar priggishness that is home grown right here in New Mexico. Who'd have thunk it? On Wednesday I opened our local and independent Albuquerque Journal Newspaper to read this headline:

"1 in 4 Teenage Girls Have Sexually Transmitted Diseases."

Being that I was rather shocked by the information, (Oy), I did not prepare myself for the letters to the editor and e-mails to the editor the next day. Not about how very serious this problem is for a multitude of reasons, mind you. No, the messages to the editor were about the grammar in the headline. And it provoked this response:


"Wednesday's headline...touched a nerve among offended grammarians who said it was just plain wrong. Many grammarians agree, taking the position that the verb in such constructions should be the singular "has" to agree with the subject "one."

However, other grammarians say such phrases as "one in (a larger number)" should take a plural verb in keeping with "notional agreement" of subject and verb, because the phrase carries the notion of a larger number rather than an individual.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says:
'This appears to be a case where actual usage (emphasis added) is more often governed by notional agreement than by grammatical agreement; the writers who use the construction realize that it represents a statistical proportion and thus stands for a multitude of individuals.'

...Who's right? It's debatable...."

Steve Williams, News Editor
(The Albuquerque Journal, Thursday, March 13, 2008, page 2).

Did you notice the emphasis I added?
Actual usage.
In this case, as in the one I wrote about a few days ago, actual usage appears to trump the picky rules. I have been accused of having "difficulties with people" because I pointed this out right on my blog. It's probably true. But if I do, so does Steve Williams, News Editor of the local Newspaper.

Viva la compagnie!

And have a great weekend, everyone: grammar serfs and grammar yekkies alike!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Glacier Advancing

Nearly Wordless Wednesday
The nearly 11 inches of snow we got between Wednesday night March 5 and Friday morning March 7 produced quite a load on our 'New Mexico Farmhouse' style metal roof.
As the sun warmed the roof on Friday, the snowpack began to creep down and curl over the eaves.

Here is the "Kitchen Dooryard Glacier" on Friday morning.
The icicle stalactites are curved toward the house wall, not due to wind, but due to the movement of the snowpack above around the eave of the house.

Here is the same 'Kitchen Dooryard Glacier' Friday near sunset. It has crept down further, and some new, straight icicles have formed from the snowmelt.

The setting sun has given the snow load a golden tinge.

This is the 'Master Bedroom Corner Glacier' on Friday morning.

It has already crept out over the eave, and has a fierce ice-age look about it. Above and to the right, you can see the heavy snow load in the pine needles. It took more than twenty-four hours for the trees to shake off the snow.

Here is the 'Master Bedroom Corner Glacier' on Friday near sunset. As it crept down with the warming of the roof,
it also curled inward.

It fell with a mighty crash on Saturday morning.

We had avoided walking under it. We do have some common sense!

"Doomed! Doomed, I tell you!" --Snoopy

This monster icicle, photographed on Friday at sunset, formed at the corner of the eaves right by the kitchen door. Icicles like these, have formed 'glaciers' right outside the kitchen door all winter.

This one did the same on Saturday, but with the coming of warmer weather Monday, the latest "Kitchen Door Glacier" has gone the way of all flesh.

We are crossing our fingers, hoping that this was the last of its kind, until next winter.

Yesterday it warmed up to 55 degrees here! Today, it should be even warmer.
Can we hope? It's early yet for our elevation, but it's possible that we have seen the last of the glaciers.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

And Now For Something Completely....Purple

Last week, N. fulfilled the requirements to test from 11th Gup Yellow Belt to 10th Gup Purple Belt in Taekwondo.

He has been a very eager student at the Dojang, although he had to miss several sessions this quarter due to bad weather. Still, he managed to learn all of the right moves, and he has been practicing with his DVD at home.

Last Wednesday, he tested and did well. Very well. So well that he not only passed to the Purple Belt, but he received an outstanding student award for testing so well. I am really happy for this previously test-avoidant young man!

On Saturday, the Dojang had a graduation ceremony.
In this first picture, he is saying good-bye to the yellow belt. As the kids removed their belts, Master Blackman asked them to think about what work had gone into that belt, and what it meant to them.

And here he is, putting on his new belt.

Again, the Master asked the students to think about what the achievement meant to them, and what kind of dedication they would put into the work toward the next level.

N. seems to be very good at Taekwondo, and he has learned some very important skills there, including the Martial Arts. For one, he has learned a confidence in himself, and he has also been developing leadership skills that have stood him in good stead in other areas of his life. For example, recently, he was challenged to a fight by a rather impulsive boy his age at scouts, and he refused the bait. He knows what he can do, and did not need to prove it. I think that's quite an accomplishment for a kid who several years ago could be easily lured into not so socially acceptable behavior. And of course, his social awkwardness meant that he was the likely one to be caught and blamed.

Here is the happy Purple Belt with Master Blackman, and also his teacher, Mrs. Blackman. We did not catch his other teacher, Mr. Crates, on camera.

It is interesting how as homeschoolers, we choose different curricula, methods and philosophies, not really knowing at first whether they will work out. We have made numerous choices in the past two years, and we have made transitions as necessary. However, the choice of Taekwondo seemed right from the beginning. Placing N. in the Black Belt club was definitely worth the expense, although it seemed like a leap of faith at the time. N. has learned so much more than physical skills.

And, of course, the learning goes on. Tomorrow he will be measured for his sparring gear. And toward the end of this new journey towards orange belt, he will begin breaking boards with his bare hands. I am always impressed by the students I see doing that!

It's so great when a kid finds his passions and strengths, and it is really cool as a parent to watch him grow into himself through them.

Spring into the Carnival of Homeschooling!

Kris, at home over in Tennessee, is dreaming of spring!
And so am I! Ah, sunshine into open windows, butterflies and daffodils! It is coming, I just know it is, despite the two or three inches still on the hillsides up here from the last storm.
But if the spring-like weather has not made it to your corner of the world, at least you can visit over At Home With Kris, as she presents the "Spring into Spring!" edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling, up on Homesteadblogger today.
By the way, it looks promising here today! The sun rose into a clear sky, there was a heavy frost on the meadow, and the temperature has been steadily rising. It might get above fifty degrees here at 7500 feet. I've got my fingers crossed.
ADDENDUM: The Cateses, over at Why Homeschool are running the voting on the second phase of the COH Image Contest. Hop over and look at the images, and choose your favorite medium-sized image and your favorite whatever-sized image!
I dunno, Henry. There were so many appealing images that I had a hard time choosing!
There! I think I've got everything here, now.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Attack of the Grammar Yekke

I received a comment on my last blog entry, Yikes! It's Adar II! from a grammar Yekke* (who uses the handle Muffin) that annoyed me.
The entry itself was quite long, and I realize that the nature of the discussion was probably not of interest to a lot of people, although I wanted to post it for reasons of my own. However, there were many ideas in the piece that could well be discussed and argued that would have been interesting and enlightening. However, this comment was a priggish little poem about a specific English usage that must have offended the commentor.

*Yekke: What the Israeli Sabra calls the German Jew. They are so concerned with 'properness' that they wear a jacket even when it's 100 degrees in the shade. You know the type.

I suppose that sooner or later it was bound to happen. What I wonder is this: Do these people go trolling the blogosphere looking for what they consider to be "incorrect usage" with their copies of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves in hand? What is really interesting about this particular objection is that the usage in question is correct or not depending upon whether the writer is using standard American expression or the Queen's English.

I wrote a reply to the comment, but did not end up posting it in those comments. I thought rather to blog it as a separate entry, because I think it would be useful for all of the grammar prigs out there to think about.

The comment was about the correct use of "who" and "whom," and since the commentor did not actually quote the offending phrase, I am making an assumption--always a dangerous proposition--about what that phrase might be.

The piece I posted was actually the written format of a talk I gave in an informal setting. At several places in the talk, I used the phrase, "Who do they think they're kidding?!" I am guessing that this bothered the Grammar Yekke so much that she was unable to actually digest the content and the meaning of the talk. At least, I choose to believe this more charitable interpretation above other less charitable ones.

Here is my response:

Dear Muffin,

Perhaps you are from England, in which case, you can ignore everything I write below, and go on believing that you are correct. I am assuming that you object to my use of the word "who" in the question "Who do they think they're kidding?" For standard American usage in the 21st century, the writer may choose to use either "who" or "whom" even though in English usage, "whom" is considered to be correct.

In the case to which you refer, I made my choices based primarily on the 'voice' I wanted to convey to my listeners--that's right, listeners--because my purpose for this piece was first that it be spoken in an informal setting. In this setting I wanted to project a colloquial and unaffected voice, as well as draw my listeners in to the rhythm of that phrase interspersed with the other content of the piece. Additionally, I knew my audience and thus was aware that the phrase would likely bring to their minds a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song. Yeah, we are that old!

And, yes, I am aware that 'yeah' is another one of those improper colloquialisms.

When considering how to phrase a piece of writing, I generally consider both the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is intended.

Digression: You should note here that I do know the correct usage of the word "whom." You should further note that the usage for the word "whom" is a remnant of the 'objective' or 'predicate' case, and I also know that cases are no longer normative in modern English. Rather, we use word order to convey the meaning that used to be expressed with cases. Cases are important in Latin and in Russian, and probably other languages, too.

Beyond the issue of voice, you may have noticed that the piece of writing to which you had this objection was also not very elegant in phrasing and had quite a few parenthetical statements. These would all sound better than they look, because eye contact, spoken phrasing, and tone of voice were used to convey meanings. Of course, when relying on the written word alone to communicate meaning, it is a good idea to minimize parenthetical statements, and to clean up the phrasing, so to make the writing more elegant. But, as I said, this was a talk and much meaning was communicated in other ways.

And now, I would like to go beyond your objection to my usage in order to provide you with some food for thought, if you choose to take a bite.

Language is arbitrary. This means that words, phrases, colloquialisms, and rules of grammar are in constant flux as people use language in everyday life to communicate with each other. As language is carried by people through space and time it evolves in order to remain useful to the people who are doing the communicating. Language in use is thus called 'living.' If it was not, it would not be very useful. One can only worship at the altar of perfect and unchanging usage for languages that are 'dead.' For example, the French Academy of Language has a bone to pick with Anglicisms and Americanisms coming into usage in French. One such is the Americanism "le weekend." But if the Academy is honest with itself, its members would have to say that they have not been terribly successful at getting rid of "le weekend'. "Le weekend" simply conveys a precise meaning that would require a more convoluted phrase to convey in "proper French." So ordinary French people continue to use it because they want to quickly convey meaning, and they really don't give a damn about keeping French frozen to some arbitrary level of 'purity' approved by the French 'language police.'
For American English it is even more so. That is because the language is so very polyglot, as Americans have adopted words and phrases from many different languages--and has even invented neologisms to convey meanings important to us in the here and now. Think about the following words: bayou, moccasin, patio, chaps, byte, blog. The first is Cajun (French-Canadian-Indian), the second is Indian, the third and fourth are from Spanish, and Spanish Indian, and the last two are computer-neologisms.

Finally, a confession and a warning.

First, the confession. I am a reasonable typist, but not a great one. When typing fast, I miss letters and sometimes mispell words due to "typos" (another neologism from the American Century. For shame! I am sure that Shakespeare never used that word). I am not a great proof-reader, especially when I am reading on a computer. I know this about myself: I am much more interested in the ideas I am trying to convey, and although I do strive to convey them clearly, I am not fussy about the use of perfect grammar. I will generally bow to local acceptable use and I do not get priggish about the fact that this often differs from the Queen's English. This is why I got a "pro" (another neologism--shame on me!) to type and edit my thesis. I will do the same for my dissertation.

Now the warning: Muffin, if the way I write bothers you so much that you cannot pay attention to the content, you might want to consider taking this blog off of your list. I would hate to raise your blood pressure on a daily basis. But if you are trolling for errors to demonstrate how superior you are with respect to grammar, then please, please do not come back here. I am simply not interested.

As the ubiquitous "they" say: "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wears you out and annoys the pig!"

And for those whose blogs I read regularly, I may notice spelling errors and such, but I do not get huffy about them. It would be, to use an old colloquialism, "the pot calling the kettle black."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Yikes! It's Adar II!

Last night, I celebrated Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon of Adar II, with the Women's Rosh Chodesh Group.
I was a founding member of that group, when N. was a nursling, and I was the first Shliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) for the group in those days.
But my life changed, and I found myself needing to distance myself from the group and leadership of it for a variety of reasons, the most pressing of which was overcommitment.

But I got an e-mail recently asking me ever so nicely if I would be interested in coming back to the group. And, oh, by the way, could I give a D'rash and lead a discussion from the Women's Torah Commentary (WTC). So I agreed, and then wondered if I was getting myself overcommitted again. (It's one of my faults. I put it down to FMS--Fear of Missing Something).
But it turned out to be a great time in a very relaxed setting. The current leaders are doing a wonderful job of it. Better than I did, I think.

Being somewhat of a perfectionist, I spent some time last week putting together a D'rash, and since it pertains to the fact that it's now Adar II, and therefore six weeks (Yikes!) until Passover, I thought I'd post for the edification and amusement of ritual perfectionists the world over.

D'rash for Adar II: Be Happy, It's Adar II?!
Tonight we celebrate and bless Rosh Chodesh Adar II, the last month of the old Jewish year. Next month we will welcome Nisan, the New Year of Months. And it is a leap year, too.

As the Adar of Purim begins, our rabbis teach us to “Be happy, it’s Adar!” And it’s a strange admonishment for me, because when the Adar of Purim comes to my house, I also feel a certain sense of anxiety. Pesach anxiety. If it’s the Adar of Purim, then Pesach is six weeks away. Oy.

I don’t know who is coming to my Seder. Maybe nobody will. What if I make a Seder and nobody comes? Oy vey!

And would you look at my kitchen? Coffee grounds in the drawer. Sticky stuff in the recycle bins. And what is that in the junk drawer? What was I thinking when I saved three hundred and fifty-two twist ties? And just look at the shelves the broom closet! I can’t even find my cleaning supplies in the disorganized mess there. Oy vey ist mir!
Be happy? Who do the Rabbis think they’re fooling?

All of this anxiety brings me to this week’s Torah portion and the Women’s Torah Commentary. The Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is VAYIKRA—“And (G-d) Called”. (It's 3 AM. The red telephone in the mishkan is ringing. Who do you want to answer it?) It is the first portion in the book of VAYIKRA—Leviticus. At first glance, this Torah portion hardly seems relevant to the anxiety at hand. It begins:

“God called to Moses and spoke to him from out of the tent of meeting, saying: (Lev. 1:1)
The human being that wants to come near (the Hebrew root K-R-B is the same as the noun for 'sacrifice', which does not have the same connotation as the Latin meaning. It means "the bringing near") to Adonai...” (Lev 1:2)
and it continues with detailed instructions concerning animal sacrifices. We read about unblemished animals “taken from the flock or from the herd.” We learn about “burnt offerings by fire” and “pleasing odors to Adonai.” (Pleasing odor? A burning animal. I don't think so). We read phrases like “dashing the blood on the horns of the altar” and turning “the whole of it into smoke.” It is, as Rabbi Janet Marder says, “...Torah like a tough grain of gristle that runs through a tender, juicy steak.” (WTC). It is a book of blood-ritual, technically correct priestly ritual that “not only arouse(s) anxiety in the squeamish” but also seems irrelevant to how we modern women seek to come near to the G-d.

This is the priestly book that provides detailed instructions about how to be holy according to the technology of the priest. And yet we know that we—all of us who are Israel, those who wrestle with G-d—we are taught to aspire:

“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests...” (Ex. 19:6). All of us are to act in our lives to bring holiness into the world as priests. Not as prophets—calling the world to justice, not as kings, commanding from above. But it is as a kingdom of priests that we will work our destiny of holiness.

And what is the work of priests? It is the domestic work of becoming “G-d’s housekeepers,” as Melila Hellner-Esched so pointedly calls it (WTC). The kohanim do not have the normative rights of males—land ownership and warrior status. Rather, they sublimate the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination (this actually means agression, and other acts that can lead to evil--which makes me wonder about how warlike the Levites were before they got those priveleges taken away--it clearly was important to domesticate them a bit), to the discipline of "the bringing near", which is so carefully outlined here in the first several parshiot of the book of Leviticus.

But how—now that the temple animal sacrifices are but a dim memory (to which most of us say ‘thank goodness’)—how, as Rabbinic Jews, do we accomplish this calling? To what do we sublimate our aggressions, our self-righteousness, the whole of our evil inclinations? Certainly we are not expected to go out and sacrifice a lamb in our front yards. Thank goodness!

Our rabbis and commentators found a hint in the way that the first word of Leviticus was written. In the Torah scroll, the alef at the end of the word is written smaller than all of the other letters on the page. Since our Rabbis taught that everything written in Torah—every word, every letter—has meaning , the commentators sought meaning for this small change. In Itturei Torah (on Lev. 1:2 IV, p. 10 quoted in WTC) we are told that that small alef means that if we are to “come near” (l’hitkarev) to G-d, we must offer up a part of ourselves, we must offer up the yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination. We must become priests, mindful that our smallest actions are done in the service of the Eternal One.

Traditionally, as Jewish women, we have a unique way to come into this kingdom of priestly ritual. One of my teachers (years ago when I was a young 'whipper'), the anthropologist Mary Douglas, noted something interesting about the exacting procedure of laying out the animal sacrifice upon the altar. The movement of arranging the sacrifice is from the outside of the animal body to the inside, a movement from the ordinary to the holy (Leviticus As Literature). This mimics the movement of person from the outside of the ohel moed, the tent of meeting, through the courtyard, through the outer to the inner sanctum. This movement from the outer, ordinary life to the inner, sanctified life is also a movement from the outer masculine self to the inner feminine self.

This movement has traditionally been the responsibility of the Jewish ba’alat bayit, the mistress of the house. It is signified when a bride circles her groom seven times, drawing him deeper and deeper with each circle, into the inner sanctum of kiddushin, the holiness, the completeness of the inner life. As in the days of the Temple, the priests conducted the rituals that allowed those who wished “come-near” to G-d; in these days, when the Jewish home is defined as the mishkan, the dwelling place of G-d, and the family table has become the mikdash katan, the little altar, it is the Jewish woman who makes it possible for human beings who desire it, to “come near” to the Eternal. We create the “kingdom of priests.”

Who is usually responsible for making the holy days and festivals happen? It is not generally an egalitarian enterprise. It is the Jewish woman who is in charge. And what is the festival that takes the greatest amount of planning, of arranging, of sheer physical labor? So it is that Rebetzin Blu Greenberg, in her book How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, subtitles her chapter on making Pesach 'For Men Only' since, she says, women already know how, having done it for millenia.
No wonder that many of us start hyperventilating at the very thought of making Pesach and organizing the Seder. Oy. Vey. Ist. Mir. Speaking strictly for myself, I start thinking about it shortly after Hanukkah. Just those little niggling thoughts of how it is now certainly coming... And then, in these leap years, Adar I gives me the illusion that I still have lots of time, if only I would start getting ready early. Of course, I don’t. So Adar II catches me napping, and the Pesach Panic starts in earnest.

Be happy it’s Adar?! Who do they think they’re kidding?!

Except that removing the leavening is symbolic of removing all that is “puffed up” in our lives, leaving us to content with being content with the simplicity of who we really are. Pesach is one of those rare times when we can "be in the moment" entirely in our otherwise busy lives. Removing the leavening is to offer in return a part of ourselves, the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination in order to come near to the four promises G-d made to us at the Seder table: I will sanctify you, I will redeem you, I will bless you, and I will bring you into the land.

Be happy it’s Adar? Who do they think they are kidding?

Unless of course, as we scour the kitchen, change the dishes, and remove the leaven, we can remember that the exacting priest-like ritual is done mindfully, so that we become “G-d’s Housekeepers,” and draw our families and friends, and the strangers at our gates, into being a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”

“Do you ponder?” A student once asked me that question. Often, I stay too busy to ponder. But during Adar, and into the beginning of Nisan, if I can breathe through Pesach anxiety, and actually begin the work of making Pesach, I find that the anxiety is mostly an artifact of procrastination and of thinking ahead too much. So, as I move into the act of being “G-d’s Housekeeper” in the little mishkan of my kitchen, I do find that the rhythm of the work is the mother of being in the moment. It's a bit like the exacting ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. And as the leavening is taken out, I find my "coming near" on the altar of the ordinary work of my life. It’s hard to be puffed up and full of yetzer while scrubbing out that sticky stuff in the recycle bin. Or while wiping coffee grounds from the drawers.

I still have a few weeks yet. There’s Purim for hilarity before the pondering work of priesthood begins in earnest.

Be happy it’s Adar? I guess I am. I am happy to ponder the sisterhood of Jewish women, all doing the priestly service of making Pesach.

Be happy it’s Adar? Here’s to the priesthood of Jewish women. L’chaim!