Using Plain Language, Politics, and Abstaining When Appropriate

But sometimes it’s really hard to not say something, isn’t it? Especially when you’re in a group and you want to contribute something to the conversation to indicate that you’re participating, so you just throw some random comment out there and, a moment later, you realize that what you said sounded out of place, or worse, derails the conversation. Or is that just an introvert problem?

I suppose you could apply this quote to a lot of political speeches too, now that I think about it. Overly verbose language and long winded nonsense where the person doesn’t really commit to anything or say anything concrete. The whole point of the speech is to give the appearance of competency and “getting things done”.

Maybe that’s the bedrock of modern American politics though. Nothing ever gets done. I mean, look at today. We had the Daylight Savings Time adjustment again because Congress won’t do even something simple that a majority of people would appreciate. I know I’d appreciate not having to get up what is essentially an hour early tomorrow, because I know I won’t fall asleep on time tonight.

I was looking at the list of courses available on Joint Knowledge Online, an education site for military and government employees, called (iirc) “Using Plain Language”. I think I’m going to enroll in it. When you’re in the Army, you’re encouraged to use basic, plain English so as many people as possible understand what you’re saying. I’m not in the Army anymore, but I can see how the course would be helpful to me. I still interact with the public, after all, and in New York City quite a few people only have a basic English proficiency because they’re still learning.

Bible in Pop Culture Week 1: Creationism in Schools

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible

Image Attribution:By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) – originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Creationism and Schools: Youngstown, Ohio Opts for Science Only

News articles published between September 8th and 10th, 2016 noted that Crish Mohip, the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer has stated that schools are obligated to follow the 344-page science standards developed by the Ohio Department of Education, which present the evolutionary view of biological development. Beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, “any reference to intelligent design, creationism, or any like concepts are eliminated from the science curriculum,” Mohip stated.[1] The memo that Mohip sent out was prompted by the use of a video in a science class that claims to present evidence for creationism based on the proliferation of species starting 500 million years ago. Complicating the issue is the fact that the video was produced by a Turkish Islamic televangelist named Adnan Oktar who is reportedly a Holocaust denier and the leader of a sex cult.[2]

The teacher who showed the video in class stated that he was presenting different views and that students should be able to clearly identify and weigh the merits of various arguments.[3] This, however, contradicts Ohio state policy. Creationism is the theory that the universe was intelligently, or purposefully, designed by God as described in the Abrahamic tradition of religions. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible as well as the Quran describe existence as having been formed by God. Modern science presents the theory that the universe was compressed into a small bit of matter surrounded by nothingness and, for reasons unknown, that pinpoint of matter suddenly exploded and began to expand into all of existence as we know it today.

The fight over the teaching of creationism in schools has been taking place for decades, with the common consensus shifting from creationism to evolutionary and scientific theories. In the American context that fight has revolved primarily around the Christian, literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story. In 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law making it illegal to teach evolution in a state-funded school. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools without also teaching creationism.[4] In more recent years, the tide has turned in favor of the teaching of evolution over creationism. The recent decision of the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer is just the most recent event in this ongoing trend and serves to show that a text compiled approximately 2200 to 2900 years ago still has meaning and significance in to modern societies.


Brown, S. (2016, September 8). Creationism Booted From Ohio Public Schools. Retrieved September 11, 2016, from Americans United For Separation of Church and State:

Gauntner, M. (2016, September 10). CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms. Retrieved September 11, 2016, from


[1] Mike Gauntner, “CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms,” Locally Owned, published September 2, 2016, modified September 10, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016,

[2] Simon Brown, “Creationism Booted From Ohio Public Schools,” Americans United For Separation of Church and State, published September 8, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Gauntner, “CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms,” Locally Owned, published September 2, 2016, modified September 10, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016,

It’s Science!

The Inorganic Carbon Cycle
The Inorganic Carbon Cycle

And I’m just not that into it. I was having a conversation with a friend recently and we agreed that humanities are better than science any day of the week. I realize the irony of conveying that message using a device and medium created by modern science, but I suppose I’ve always enjoyed studying ideas and social constructs more than things.

I’m studying climate change this summer in the last required “core” course for my BA. I had a few choices. I could have taken biology, chemistry or an earth science course on global warming and climate change. I wanted to take biology, but the course was too late at night. Chemistry I would have failed, I’m sure. I hated chemistry in high school. Something about memorizing the periodic table and atomic weights seemed completely pointless to me. When would one be doing science and not have a copy handy to use as a reference guide if needed, really?

Anyway, there are things about this class that I find interesting. First of all, I agree with the basic premise that global warming is a real and happening (not in the fashion sense) thing. The planet is getting warmer. It has done this in the past, but this time it’s different because we’re converting all of the carbon that used to be underground into carbon that’s in the atmosphere, which causes the planet to retain more heat. I have a hard time understanding how people can look at the multiple data sets available for temperature change, change in carbon in the atmosphere, and see the huge spike associated with increased human activity (burning fossil fuels, creating gases) and brush it off as a joke or hoax. When Miami is underwater, I wonder if people will still be claiming it’s a conspiracy?

Beyond that, it’s pretty cool to see how volcanoes and the El Nino weather pattern affects global temperatures. Or to examine the what-ifs of climate change. Famine, drought, flooding, shifting coastlines and floating cities. It might even be sort of cool, except for all of the people that would die along the way.

The actual mechanics and math of climate change is tedious. It is painful to sit down and look through long charts of numbers, plugging them into formulas and whatnot to get measurements of changes in temperatures.

Anyway, there are about two weeks left in this class. Then I’ll start getting myself together for Fall semester.

History in the “Confessions” of St. Augustine

St. Augustine in his study.
St. Augustine in his study. Source: Wikipedia

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book about the early life and conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous Christian scholars of antiquity. The book starts off with a description of childhood, then moves on to describe Augustine’s quest for knowledge both among the Manichees and through study of the traditional liberal arts, including oratory and rhetorical skills. An intensely personal account by design, Augustine reveals his internal struggle as he reminisces about the loss of his childhood friend, whose name he does not reveal, as well as his struggles with sexuality and his doubts about the nature of God. Essentially, the book is meant to show Augustine’s path from a confused childhood to a position of solid conviction in the Catholic faith, but Confessions can also be used as a source of historical information. This essay will examine the first seven chapters of Confessions to discover what it implies about the late 4th and early 5th century Roman society that shaped Augustine’s life.

One of the more interesting things that can be discerned from the book is the potential for mobility available in Roman society, both in terms of physical and social movement. Of course, Augustine’s case is not indicative of the norm, but he was able to advance from being the son of a modest family in Tagaste (in modern day Algeria) to being a well-respected and socially connected professor of rhetoric in Milan, before his conversion, which is related in chapters outside the scope of this essay. Augustine’s reasons for leaving his home village were originally related to study opportunities and a need to leave a place that reminded him strongly of the death of a childhood friend. His ability to travel within the empire for education purposes is interesting because it implies that there was a system in place that allowed for the boarding and education of students during his time. His ability to rise through the ranks of society based on his intellectual abilities shows that class distinctions were not set in stone and he specifically mentions that many Roman offices were available to anyone with the right amount of money. In a modern context, this has a negative connotation, and perhaps it did in Augustine’s time as well, because in his writing he felt the need to explain that as a system it allowed the state access to needed revenues and acted as a pathway to success for those born to lower classes.

In his writing, Augustine mentioned that not all families were willing to support their children’s education outside of their local towns, even when they were better-off economically than Augustine’s own family. Augustine did not go into detail about this point, but it leaves the reader wondering what motivations a family might have for not wanting to promote the education of their children at all costs, as Augustine’s did, when it might lead the family to greater success. If the story about Alypius and the responsibility of a “house” for a crime is any indication, the Roman family unit probably shared equally in success as well as culpability for crimes and failures.[1] Was it a cultural expectation that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents, leading to a lackadaisical attitude towards aggressive social advancement, or was the lack of interest in education outside of Tagaste something specific to that locality?

Much of Augustine’s writing in Confessions deals with education, because he wrote about both his time as a pupil and as an educator. His writing makes it clear that corporal punishment was a well-used form of discipline that acted as a motivator for children to pay attention to their studies. The fact that Augustine and, presumably, other children endured caning as a punishment and prayed for respite instead of abandoning school indicates that there was some measure of compulsion in attendance, either from families or from the state. Also, unless the phrase was added by the translator, the inclusion of the “three Rs” as a figure of speech (reading, writing, and arithmetic) shows that areas of study for primary school students in the late 4th century were fairly consistent with modern education standards.[2] His later education reveals a break with modern ideals about the purpose of studying the liberal arts, however. According to Augustine, forming logical arguments that revealed the truth about a matter were of secondary importance to style and delivery. Eloquence and the ability to convey a sense of conviction were more important than being able to logically argue a truth.

Similarly related to education, student culture in Roman society is revealed through Augustine’s writings. Bullying was alive and well in the 4th century. Schoolyard gangs even had nicknames, like “The Wreckers”, who would find “shy and unknown freshmen… to persecute…by mockery…to feed their own malevolent amusement.”[3] Augustine dealt with this group as a student by staying on friendly terms with them, but refused to participate in their mockery and acts of vandalism. Augustine wrote that in Carthage, students would burst into a classroom and purposely disrupt it with “mad behavior.”[4] Later, as an adult, Augustine complained of a practice common among Roman students, who would sit with a teacher for a number of classes and then transfer en masse to another instructor to avoid making payment.[5]

Augustine’s writing reveals quite a bit about religion during the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Roman Empire, most obviously because the book is about his journey to conversion to Catholocism, but the first seven chapters of the book also discuss the Manichees and give an example of religious syncretism among professed Catholics. Augustine wrote that he spent nine years as a follower of the Manichee religion and through his writings, we can see that it was institutionally similar to the Catholic Church, including having Bishops, but professed very different concepts of God. The instance of religious syncretism that Augustine took time to mention was his mother’s practice of tomb veneration through the offering of plates of fruit and the ritual sipping of wine at the burial sites of Catholic martyrs. Augustine mentioned that his mother was not alone during these ceremonies, so the practice must have been widespread. I also make this conjecture based on the fact that in later centuries, and continuing up to the present, Islamic scholars in the Middle East have been condeming the same practice among Muslims regarding veneration of the tombs of saints, martyrs and especially Sufi pirs.

This brief selection of information from the first seven chapters of Saint Augustine’s Confessions shows how historical information about an author’s society can be revealed by analyzing that author’s work, even when recording historical information is not the main purpose of the work. This essay examines the chapters on their own, but by comparing what Augustine wrote to other available information, one could further the process of reconstructing Roman society and elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Augustine’s life and conversion to Catholocism.

[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Ibid., 86.



Saint Augustine. 2009. Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics). Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.


Lies My Teacher Told Me, An Excellent Call To Action

Lies My Teacher Told Me is a book that doesn’t try to correct everything wrong with our history, as portrayed in textbooks, but one that gives examples and then challenges the reader to take that information and use it in the future to find real truth in what we’re fed by public education institutions.  The book encourages people to think about what they’re being told, why they’re being told it, and to consider how and when it was presented.  It also offers a few intellectual tools for interpreting the information we’re presented with today, and how to understand why our history is relevant to our current situation.  For example, why do so many people in the world hate the US?  Is it because we’re just so damn good, like our textbooks would have us believe?  Or is it because of actions in the past that are morally ambiguous at best, or completely contrary to the ideas our nation was founded on at worst?

One of the biggest problems Mr. Loewen presents, in regards to textbooks, is that they’re meaningless jumbles of facts, put together by a mass of authors (sometimes not even the ones on the covers).  That jumble of meaningless factoids turn into a tome of confusing rubbish that leaves the potential learner entirely dissatisfied.  While reading the book I kept thinking back to when I learned American history in high school.  Honestly, it didn’t take long, because I don’t even remember learning American history in high school.  This supports the information he presented which says that most students won’t even remember what they learned, mostly because of the way the information is presented.  Mr. Loewen consistently reinforces the idea that history should be taught as a causal structure, both to make it interesting and to make it relevant.  I completely agree.  Up until recently I had no interest in history, because all I remember of what I was taught, in a middle school class that I only remember vaguely, was that it was horribly boring.  We were presented with lots of names and dates and place names that we had to remember, and not much else.  There was no content.  There were no real people or real actions behind the factoids.  We never focused on the ‘why’ of the situations, or the human aspect.  Instead, we were forced to memorize these factoids and regurgitate them onto paper for tests.  What does that teach me about history?  That it’s boring and irrelevant to what I’m doing today, that the actions of the past and the people responsible for them don’t matter, and that it has no bearing on what I might do in the future.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  After taking a personal interest in history and learning on my own, I find history to be incredibly interesting.  The things I read about are often situations that still occur today, or explain current problems.  Not everyone takes a personal interest in history, though.  Not everyone gets beyond that meaningless factoid stage and really tries to think about the ‘why’.  They memorize, they regurgitate, and then they forget.  That’s why high school history textbooks are a problem.  They turn people off to history, leaving them without a firm foundation to stand on in when trying to forge a better future.

Another problem with textbooks that Mr. Loewen presents is the affect they have on maintaining the status quo, both on a personal, state, and national level.  He goes into some detail about the textbook adoption process and how that process is affected.  For example, Southern states have more often than not tried to make sure the textbooks that reach their classrooms are not overly negative in terms of the Civil War or slavery.  Textbooks as a whole leave out information on Native Americans, the European diseases that left them decimated, or the forced relocations.  Textbooks also continue to teach the primitive vs. advanced society theory, which has been debunked by recent research.  High school history textbooks also perpetuate the idea of constant progress, even though the resurgence of racism against blacks during Reconstruction obviously was a step in the wrong direction. Textbooks try to avoid mentioning social class, religion, or anything that might be offensive.  Who isn’t offended by something?  History isn’t all peach blossoms and pleasant views.  The truth is more important.  We can’t learn from history if we’re only taught history that makes us feel good about ourselves, or that won’t offend anybody. Mr. Loewen argues that new work in fields like anthropology and sociology should be introduced into history textbooks to better inform students about how our history has affected who they are.  Again, I agree.  History as a set of facts is meaningless, especially when it’s a list of biased facts that don’t tell the whole story.  History as a set of facts is also boring.

I think the biggest lesson that I can take from Mr. Loewen’s book is that any information, whether from a history textbook or a news article or a book, should be treated with caution, if not suspicion.  Remembering who wrote it, when it was written and what was important to people at the time, what was important to the author and if it’s trying to push an agenda, all these things can help in keeping the information in context.  When in doubt, consult primary sources to find the truth, or at least something closer to the truth.  We’re all biased, one way or another, and the meaning of history is a matter of interpretation.  For example, we can easily say that the US entered the Vietnam War, but why we entered the war and whether it was justified is a matter of opinion that can be supported only by finding facts and then forming them into a coherent argument.

History is a fascinating subject if you allow it to be.  Real history isn’t the same as the meaningless factoids that you’ll find in a history textbook.  It’s alive, it’s vivid, it’s emotional and it’s relevant to today.  Besides teaching me some things about our history that I didn’t know (because I wasn’t taught properly), Mr. Loewen’s book taught me how to better study history.

Children Selling Cigarettes in the Philippines


I was sitting on that same second floor window where I saw the girl with the bag that said “Use Me” when I saw something else interesting.  Does this count as child exploitation?  Isn’t there a law against it?  Maybe there isn’t.  It seems like labor regulation is pretty loose in the Philippines, which can apparently have both its ups and downs.

This reminds me of something else I saw, where children were encouraged to buy tokens for the toy machines in a grocery store at the tobacco counter.


Undisciplined Children on a Singapore Bus

On Friday afternoon I was on the bus, heading to the MRT station so I could meet my wife for dinner. I was on a single story bus in the standing area, leaning against the padded rest.

(For those of you not familiar with Singapore buses, I found the photo at left on Jom Naik Bas!, which seems to be a blog dedicated to reviewing modes of transportation, mostly in the Malaysia/Singapore area.)

So, anyway, I was standing there, leaning against that rest and chatting with my wife via SMS. There were two kids playing around in front of me (towards the rear of the bus). I wasn’t paying much attention to them, but after a brief stop, when the bus lurched back into motion, the kids stumbled. Like I said, they were goofing off, being noisy, and they weren’t holding onto anything. So, one of the kids stumbles and stomps down on my foot. I was only wearing slippers (flip-flops), and the boy had rubber shoes on, so it hurt. I wasn’t that upset about it because it was an accident, so I stood there, looking at the kid, waiting.

What was I waiting for? Can you guess? Well, apparently the boy didn’t know or care, because instead of doing what was proper, he glanced at me briefly and then went back to playing. His mother, who was sitting to my right and saw the whole thing, didn’t bother to speak up either.

Why did I have to be the boy’s parent for a few minutes on the bus that day? Why did I have to teach him a lesson his mother should have already taught him, and should have scolded him for forgetting?

I closed the cover on my iPhone and put it in my pocket and then I leaned towards the boy and said, loudly enough for his failure of a mother to hear as well, “You know, the polite thing to do when you step on someone’s foot is to apologize.

The kid looked at me as if he were shocked. Is it so uncommon a thing to ask people to be polite to each other? No reaction from the mother. Perhaps she doesn’t care about what her child learns? I bet she would have reacted if I had simply reached out and smacked the boy in the back of the head. That probably would have made headlines here. I can see it now: “Ang moh asshole abuses boy on bus for stomping his foot and not saying sorry.”

Anyhow, the boy looked at me, all shocked, and said, “Oh, sorry.” Then returned to playing with his friend. I was satisfied at the time, but later I would remember that honorifics are used in this country. I don’t exactly think of myself as an “uncle“, though I’ve been referred to that way before by kids that are about 10, but a “Sorry, sir” or a “Sorry, uncle” would have sounded much more convincing to me.

The kid is probably already spoiled if he’s that indifferent to other people’s space, or to the fact that he caused injury to another person. I blame his parents, and I blame society. This is where it starts. The kid doing something wrong and the parent not correcting them, or no one correcting them. This leads to a self-centered “me me me” attitude that produces kids who think they walk on water, foreigners are trash, and anyone who does an “un-glam” job is a failure.

There will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth when that bubble bursts.