Elias presents ... a worm!    Thoughts on family, philosophy,
and technology


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Book review: Education for a New World

Here is my review of Maria Montessori's Educaton for a New World, as posted on Amazon:

5 out of 5 stars

This book seems to be a shorter presentation of much of the material found in The Absorbent Mind, which requires a good deal more persistence. At less than 100 pages, this book is easy to take in, while still containing fundamental principles of Montessori's theory of education, especially as relevant to 3- to 6-year-olds. The writing is engaging, not academic. I can easily recommend it to be the first or only book by Dr. Montessori for the parent of a toddler to read. There is not much here specifically relevant to the nature of elementary-level Montessori programs, however.

Perhaps the foundational concept of Montessori's overall theory is that of the young child's "absorbent mind": "the child has a type of mind that absorbs knowledge, and thus instructs himself." The universal example is that of language acquisition, which is flawlessly and gleefully accomplished by 2-year-olds who cannot read books or ask questions or attend lectures, while the same entails a very laborious and error-prone effort for adults. The child's mind is, from birth, forming itself and its "organs" (drawing an analogy to embryology) by its own natural impetus and direction. Environment is key. "[T]he child who, making use of all that he finds around him, shapes himself for the future." Up until age 3, the child's mind is "unapproachable by the adult, who can exercise no influence on it." From 3 to 6, the child is able to tirelessly concentrate upon an environment carefully crafted with his or her psyche in mind, absorbing its lessons.

Another fundamental concept in the theory is that of the "normal" child, the "true" child which is revealed only when the environment is right. Defects of character which may have been present before age 3 are resolved during the ages of 3 to 6, if the provided environment plays to the power and nature of the absorbent mind.

The title of the book reflects the author's belief that the world which "has been torn to pieces" (presumably these words were written during or soon after WW2) can only be fundamentally reconstructed through education. Children create themselves, they create adults, and thereby they are the creators of culture and civilization and the whole world -- they are all-powerful in this sense, and therein lies the fundamentality of education as a cause of history.

Montessori also presents a notion of cosmic harmony, such that every organism is performing the role it was perfectly designed, through evolution, to perform. There is both a sense of a normally pleasant universe here, as well as a questionable assumption of some important extra-personal purpose for each of us. Not much in Montessori's program for 3- to 6-year-olds relies on this latter point, that I can find.

Some other points discussed: the importance of using the body, especially the hands, in learning; the stages of physical and mental development, and of language learning; the small child's healthy motivation to complete tasks which may seem pointless to adults; the construction -- not "teaching" -- of moral character; obedience as obtained through freedom, not fear; and what is required of the Montessori teacher or guide.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

The Island

7 out of 10

Amy and I watched The Island on DVD. I think my friend got it right when he summarized: "It's bad, but it's awesome." The plot is not unique and the drama never really gets past second gear, but it's a well-done sci-fi action movie which mixes some intriguing elements of prior works to form a compelling experience.

The movie Signs is essentially a rehash of an old movie and a very old book: War of the Worlds meets The Book of Job. But whereas Signs ends up completely unsatisfying despite these proven roots, The Island re-uses good stories to good effect.

Basically, The Island is Logan's Run plus Robin Cook's Coma. Amy said it has an element of Run Lola Run, too -- that is, lots of running with appropriate music. And there are other obvious comparisons to be made. The dystopic desperation and fleeing is reminiscent of Gattaca, Minority Report, and especially THX 1138 -- which may have inspired Logan's Run, come to think of it. A highway chase scene seems borrowed from the second Matrix flick (if only the latter could have had a point). And like the Matrix franchise in general, the action here is ridiculous -- specifically, it's of the crashing, smashing, how-did-they-survive-that sort of preposterousness. Something I like on occasion, if the plot can keep up.

The worst part of the movie can be summed up in two words: Steve Buscemi. Although it's hard to blame the actor when the part he is given is such a tired rehash of his previous characters: a sardonic, pained, blue-collar barfly. The very existence of this character is probably the biggest hole in the plot, although the bigger problem for the audience is that one of Buscemi's jobs is to give us cheap laughs in the middle of the story, just as the protagonists have their lives turned upside-down. I'm all for having a break in the action, but how many cheesy romantic outfits in a girlfriend's closet are actually funny? Surely less than three.

Ewan McGregor's acting is sufficient, I thought, with Scarlet Johansson coming in a bit weaker, though admittedly there's not much to her character. Britney Spears probably could have stood in.

So long as no one ruins the plot for you, The Island can be a satisfying movie despite its basic unoriginality. It actually went on about half-an-hour longer than I was expecting, and that was enjoyable. It should be worth a second viewing in a few years.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Conservatives criticizing Bush Doctrine

I am no conservative, but it is nice to see all these conservatives taking the question of Bush's war strategy head-on. This is where the political conversation should be -- not wasted on the left's inability to cast objective moral judgement.

I can't make out why Victor Davis Hanson is suggesting Bush's strategy is preferable to the "old calculus," circa WW2, of achieving absolute victory before setting up the government of our choice. I do know what motivates this view in general: the altruistic feeling that it's our duty to sacrifice ourselves for the masses in the Middle East, and the refusal to believe that mysticism and statism are as popular with those masses as proven to be by their actions across several decades. This last is further demonstrated by the Bush Administration's now famous miscalculation on how long there would be bombs and bullets flying in Iraq. The Middle East is not inhabited by a Jeffersonian Virginia public which just happens, through no fault of its own, to be controlled by Koran-thumping or AK47-raising tyrants.

Hanson: That contemplation and forbearance [of Bush's strategy in Iraq] are both too complex and too much to ask of a post-September 11 public...

In other words, the American "public" is too stupid and emotionalistic to grasp how all this sacrificing of 20-year-old enlisted men and women -- for a people who put adherence to Islam right in their constitution and who continue to despise Israel -- is in our interest.

Hanson: On the Right the politicking works out with cynicism and disgust...

How is it "politicking" to be disgusted that more American lives have been spent than absolutely necessary to secure American liberty?

The unspoken notion that US soldiers rather than, to the greatest extent possible, just Middle Easterners should die in the course of defusing the Middle East's many nefarious power centers repulses more than a few Americans, and that is, I believe, a great deal of what Bush is up against in US public opinion.

(As usual, I found these articles about the war by subscribing to PrairiePundit.)


Birthday pictures

Elias flanked by his great grandmothers on his second birthday.

Shaun, Amy, Dahlia, and Grandma Margaret.

Elias, a few days later, getting to know his new tricycle by pushing it down the sidewalk. So far, sitting on it doesn't seem that interesting.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006


My favorite guy on the planet turned 2 today. His party was actually a couple days ago, with a big turnout and lots of friends and sun and fun. He was very brave when everyone sang and clapped loudly for him. This is something that would have really scared him a few months ago, but Amy has been visualizing it with him, so he was prepared. He and I faced-off with the candles, though I had to do the blowing. (Is it the last time he needs me for that?) The experience made quite an impression, because now if we say "Happy Birthday!" he immediately starts explaining how "everyone sings happy birthday to you and then you blow the candle out."

Elias is fun, funny (he likes to wear our shoes), happy, brilliant, and loving, and I honestly can't imagine the slightest improvement on him.

Writing this makes me want to wake him up and hug him.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Silliness: a cigar-off

I've been experimenting with cigars lately, a new thing for me. Tonight I round-robin'ed three of different brands in order to decide which I like the best.

These three specimens are of similar price, and are what I, in my ignorance anyway, would consider mid-level cigars.

The first, a Torano "Reserva Selecta Madura" (top; multiple countries), was the least surprising, with a smooth, somewhat mild taste for a madura. Pretty good, but not intriguing.

The second, a Padron "3000 Madura" (middle; Nicaragua), had an unexpected harshness. I have to admit I snipped it too far, so the draw was very fast, but even accounting for that it had an overwhelming, superficial, spicy blast to it. I'm exagerrating a little; it was not horrible, but I wonder what the fuss is about.

The third, an Avo Uvezian "Domaine 60" (bottom; Dominican Republic), was the pearl. It's somewhat sweet scent first threatened to turn me off, but as it turned out this aspect was mild and a welcome contributor. Like the Torano, the Avo was smooth and approachable, but it also contained a deep, rich flavor, not unlike a very good cup of coffee, with an indescribable, transcendent yumminess that reminds you why we have vices anyway.

If it sounds ridiculous to smoke three cigars in one night, that's because it is, and I in fact cheated and put each stogie out after sampling for several minutes, lopped the burned end off, and returned it to a plastic bag for later usage. Aficianados would no doubt scoff at this: the hot smoke would have dried out the remaining tobacco, spoiling the flavor of any "seconds." But I am neither enough of a smoker to finish three in one sitting, nor enough of a man of substance to toss away half a cigar.

No animals were harmed researching this blog post -- the Torano web site did throw an unhandled ADODB exception, however.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Things are looking up

Very good news in ARI's latest fundraising letter:
During the 2005-06 school year alone, we received requests for more than 340,000 copies of Anthem and The Fountainhead from educators throughout the United States and Canada. ... [W]e now anticipate that over the next five years, more than two and a half million high school students will be introduced to Ayn Rand's novels and ideas in the classroom. ... [O]ur estimates indicate that Ayn Rand is being taught in 17,000 classrooms nationwide.
At the time of her death in 1982, her novels were probably being taught in less than 100 classrooms. I'll hazard to guess there is no historical precedent for a new philosophy being disseminated with such acceleration. Bravo to ARI -- though, of course, what fundamentally makes this progress possible is the tremendous appeal of the novels. Ayn Rand's irrepressible genius is going to light up the world.

Update: It may seem odd to update a post like this, but I submitted the above after reading only the first page of ARI's fundraising letter. Even more amazing to me is what Yaron Brook had to say towards the end of the letter:
I am utterly convinced that, in a matter of a few short years, we will have reached the "tipping point" with regard to the firm entrenchment, and serious advancement, of Ayn Rand's ideas throughout the culture.

With more than a million young people reading Ayn Rand each year (and thousands of educators teaching the novel annually); with tens of thousands of students going further, and submitting essays for our annual contests; and with hundreds of college students enrolled in the OAC, the mission of the Ayn Rand Institute will be on a virtually unstoppable forward trajectory.

When that happens -- and it will, very soon -- the battle for the culture will have shifted decisively in our favor.
I've been receiving these letters for about 15 years, and I have never heard such an ecstatic expectation of achievement from ARI. These people are objective and intellectually responsible: they simply do not exagerrate. Usually the light at the end of the tunnel is assumed to be quite a ways off. But now ARI seems to be unofficially projecting that in less than 20 years (my translation of "a few short years") the effect of Objectivism upon American culture will be (a) significant and (b) unstoppably growing. And if you "do the math" on what it means when one million American teenagers are reading The Fountainhead and Anthem each year, I think it makes sense, and I've made similar predictions in the last few years, as have my Objectivist friends.

The coming event which may best mark the turning point will be when a top philosophy program accepts Objectivist ideas as a suitable topic for doctoral dissertations. That will indicate that the walls of Kantian anti-reason have been resolutely breeched in acadamia.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Unending moral equivocation

I don't normally pick out a particular foreign policy argument on the Internet as the object of my criticism, but I am making an exception here, because I want to record why I am removing Tim Bray's blog from my list of recommended links.

Bray states: "That Israeli document paints a picture of an armed truce that had been holding pretty well since May of 2000. The number of incidents was ...." [link added]

Bray tells us 21 murders ("incidents"!) of Israelis over six years should be acceptable to Israel, and should not be interpreted as acts of war. If a string of murders by a foreign military is not an act of war, then what is? And if Israel should accept the ongoing murder of its own without a fight, then what exactly should it reject with force? The implication is: Nothing.

Bray: "The "hiding among civilians" myth offers solid evidence that in fact Hezbollah does not do this down south where the fighting is hottest."

Bray seems to think it is important that there are some places where Hezb'Allah does not (supposedly) use human shields. As irrelevant as that is, the truth is that Hezb'Allah's entire strategy and existence rests upon Israel being blamed, even by most of its "friends," for Lebanese casualties of war. PrairiePundit calls it the "victim offensive." And it is a strategy that works. Ironically, Bray wants to minimize the importance of this aspect of Hezb'Allah's behavior, while it has completely won him over.

Bray reserves his highest contempt, not for those who seek to slaughter every Jew in the Middle East (as a start), but for those "individuals right here in the civilized world who are egging on one side or the other": "they'’re willing to fight to the last screaming bleeding victim, as long as it's a couple of continents away from their comfy chair. ... They're not just scum, they're cowards."

In other words, it is immoral and cowardly to intellectually support a friend who is fighting a war. If you're not willing to move to Israel where the katyushas are falling, you have no right to talk about Israel's right to militarily defend itself. Well. I feel helpless to do other than point out that this is a bizarre conclusion.

But altogether Bray's position sort of makes sense -- provided you turn off the part of your brain that makes moral judgments. Ignoring that Hezb'Allah is an oppressive, theocratic, militant state-within-a-state, using Lebanese civilians as shields, existing primarily to destroy Israel, being in no danger of disarmament by anyone besides Israel, building up its cache of arms year after year with Syrian and Iranian aid, continuing to murder Israelis year after year, and threatening to murder many more Israelis with tens of thousands of rockets on any given day -- then, yes, Israel is wrong to take up arms against Hezb'Allah.

Bray's blog has appealed to me in the past because he says many smart things about software engineering. He cuts through a lot of the field's nonsense. And besides content, I also like his writing style: he's not trying to be a fancy writer, his posts aren't wordy or cute or apologetic, he is straight-forward and blunt.

However, when it comes to moral issues, being a smart engineer is no help. Bray spouts amoral, pacifist, lethal nonsense on his blog like this from time to time, and I'm ready to unsubscribe. So be it.