Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 30

The promise of throngs at Gettysburg (and being home with two wonderful kids) prevents me from visiting the battlefield over the next few days. I'm drawn to it, anyway, and have been immersing myself in the story of the battle for the last few weeks.

Allan Guelzo's recent book has been my main source of reading this past week. Some reflections about the battle based on what that reading has made me think follow.

Guelzo's account of the armies' nature fascinates me. The two armies consisted of infantry whose training was, at best, uneven. These infantry constituted the bulk of the armies. They were accompanied by disproportionately large elements of artillery and relatively sparse cavalry (at least compared to European armies of their day). And the armies were led by officers who were relatively (again to the Europeans) blind due their small staffs and lack of maps of the terrain in which they operated.

I'm gaining new respect for Michael Shaara's novel, The Killer Angels. Shaara really engaged in some decent scholarship about the battle to make his fictionalized account of the battle feel real. Certainly that novel can be deceptively close to the truth, and it is fiction not history. But it's brilliant historical fiction.

There are meaningful intricacies about the nature of combat at that time. Brigadiers usually marched with their soldiers, and Brigadiers were the officers who seemed to have most discretion and efficacy as combat leaders in the heat of battle. The logistical needs of moving these armies were daunting. Divisions would take up miles of space along roads (and divisions made up corps, and there were three corps fighting on side and seven on the other!), simply getting them to the site of a probable battle was a triumph of planning and foresight.

Gettysburg represented a compromise of the commanding generals' preferred places for battle. Meade, certainly, was set on battling along Pipe Creek in Maryland. The decision-making of division commanders (good for the Union, bumbling for the Confederacy) is what lead to the battle being fought in Gettysburg.

Favorite Reads from Today's Opinion Pages

Ross Douthat offers an interesting spin on the Supreme Court's decision regarding the Voting Rights Act.

An interesting opinion-analysis about America's power relative to that of other nations.

Steven Mufson writes a compelling piece on the political leadership of Nelson Mandela.

One of my favorite quotes from Ken Burns' The Civil War

Shelby Foote recites a line from a William Faulkner work (Intruder in the Dust) when the documentary nears the end of its coverage of the Battle of Gettysburg. I'm quoting it in what appears to be its entirety below. For me, it's a line that beautifully captures the allure (not entirely positive) of history.

“It's all now you see. Yesterday won't be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world's roaring rim.” 
― William FaulknerIntruder in the Dust

Friday, June 28, 2013

This was a day that made me tired

6:00 - work out by jogging to / from gym and doing weights
7:00 - watch TV with kids
8:00 - eat a breakfast I mangled with kids
9:00 - swim lessons
10:00 - use the computer to accomplish various finance and church tasks
noon - watch a classic movie with kids and nephew - The Princess Bride
2:00 - take daughter to friends' house, son to park with bike
3:00 - buy lumber
3:45 - pick up daughter, go to pool
5:00 - pick up wife, leave for friends' house
5:45 - drink and be merry
6:30 - eat
7:30 - play and lose two games of Ticket to Ride 
9:30 - return home; feed an angry cat
10:00 - here I sit
10:02 - read
11:00 - go to bed

That's a fun day.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

De Facto

The most meaningful commentary on the recent Supreme Court decisions is this one, by Paul Butler, at The New York Times. I'm not sure I agree with all of what Mr. Butler is arguing. He offers a very astute observation, however, as to the stubborn nature of de facto racism, something I often work with helping my students understand. Informal practices that may be prejudiced (or which fight to correct racial imbalances) are crafted at the micropolitical level. Local governments and boards reflect the wishes of the stakeholders who form them. Liberals and conservatives will implement policies that reflect their broader goals which guide the gray areas after the de jure elements are stripped away.

That being said, our Constitution is well suited toward obliterating overt forms of discrimination, as long as there are at least two branches of government willing to make efforts at using the Constitution to do just that. It took the Judicial Branch and the Executive to bring down de jure barriers in the 1950s. It took the teamwork of the Executive and Legislative in the 1960s. (But when one branch is out on its own, as the courts were on busing and rights of the accused in the 1960s, success isn't guaranteed.)

Over the past year I've come to appreciate how important local politics are. A consistent thread in the Supreme Court's recent decisions seems to be a respect for states' prerogatives on matters of civil rights and civil liberties. Therefore, it's increasingly important for us to look carefully at our choices at the local level and to vote with our conscience in those elections that, sadly, are plagued by the lowest level of voter turnout. On matters of civil rights, the real battles might be fought, won, and lost during elections that sound as unglamorous as "municipal primary."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Continuing the Documentary

By the way, the images offered by the documentary about that first mall in suburban Minneapolis were truly wonderful. I am saddened at how the ideals (naive as they might have been) of the mall gave way to the crassness and over-priced ho-hum that became the mall food court.

#7) The Seagram Building in New York City . . . I need to see this.

Oh, I found the PBS website for this documentary.

#8) The Dulles Airport Terminal. Yes, it's majestic. I remember flying from there before I was ready to appreciate it. Then I saw it after I was ready to get it.

#9) Is from Philadelphia, the Vanna Venturi home. I have to admit to being more curious than enamored. The excerpt quotes the architect: "Don't trust an architect who's trying to start a movement."

#10) The Walt Disney Concert Hall. This one I don't know about. It lacks the elegance of the other forward-thinking public building, Dulles. It seems busy more than forward-thinking. However, the interior of the concert hall seems exquisite. Is it possible to want to see a building for the inside rather than the outside?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ten Buildings

I'm enjoying my first day of the summer by watching a PBS documentary with Sam. It's profiling ten architectural wonders of the U.S.

#1) The Virginia Capitol, Richmond: We've been there! We visited it the day before Easter when we last visited Sherry's brother. It was the product of Jefferson's micromanagement and his zealous desire to avoid vestiges of monarchy. Even the statue of George Washington in that building shows small un-king-like details to differentiate us from our ancestors across the pond.

#3) Wainright Building, Chicago: I vaguely remember this building. Sherry and I visited our friend, Brian, in 2005 and took an architectural tour of Chicago. That was one of our favorite ways to traipse around a city for an afternoon. We saw some neat buildings, though I can't say I particularly remember that building.

#4) The Robie House, Chicago: Never seen it. But visits to Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Springfield, IL and in southwestern Pennsylvania were quite memorable. Kentuck Knob was a gem. I'm a little frustrated I must wait another few years before taking the kids to Fallingwater (they have a minimum age requirement for tours).

#6) Apparently the first modern indoor mall was designed by an architect who had very idealistic views on what the mall could be, as a meeting place that would bring people together and offer something more aesthetically pleasing than the vulgar commercial displays of strip malls. Having driven through Fredricksburg, Virginia and it's mecca of big box stores, I think that architect might have been right.

Uh oh. I have need to pause and watch the rest of this later.

Monday, June 24, 2013

If you're going to sin . . . sin boldly

Have I confessed yet what kind of a thrill I get from reading Radio Free Babylon's Coffee with Jesus?

That's not the reason for this post's title. The post's title has everything to do with Star Trek: Into Darkness. One could easily paint me the hypocrite for liking that film (went to see it with Sherry last night). After all, I'm the father who insisted my kids watch IV, V, and VI before the prequels. Am I not supposed to be the purist? The historian? The preserver of all things past.

If a movie adheres to orthodoxy and is boring in the process, why should it be made? Star Trek has captivated my imagination for years, though I must admit that at times it became bureaucratic and institutional. When Deep Space Nine was at its best, it was pushing limits. But it was also prone to predictability, too.

Star Trek: Into Darkness doesn't just sin, it sins boldly. It resurrects and rearranges the story line of one the more compelling TOS episodes as well as the consensus pick for best of the original cast movies. It drops the ball at a few points (Jim Kirk apologizing to his crew?) and gets a bit predictable (Oh, so Jim loses command of the ship again (and we're only two movies into Abrams' reboot of the series)). But when it blasphemes, it does so with provocation and edge. Splendidly fun. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

More from Guelzo

I'm 10% of the way through Guelzo's book! I guess e- readers give us a more useful but less romantic way of sharing progress in a book.

I've read of the long campaign by Confederates to invade Pennsylvania. They operated without difficulty west of Gettysburg, almost being welcomed in Carlisle.

Guelzo often reminds us of the understaffed nature of the armies. He paints a picture of armies hampered by a to small corps of general staffs and cavalry that are ineffective compared to European allies of that era.

I enjoy reading of the Rebel armies spread in an arc radiating from Gettysburg. While living there I often thought the nature of roads' radiation from the town unique. In fact, I wonder why the town has remained as small as it has give how the roads connect it to so many points around it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

News Blackout Continues

The Week did not arrive today. Nor did The Economist. Splendid! The news blackout continues.

My wife is so thoughtful. She purchased a game for me for Father's Day, 1989: The Dawn of Freedom. Think of it as a sequel to Twilight Struggle. She even offered to play it with me. Now that is devotion.

I'm drawn to games like 1989. The idea behind it is to have two players re-create a historical era or event. In this case, it's a re-enactment of the year in which the Iron Curtain fell. One player tries to hasten its fall and the other tries to maintain Soviet control over the six countries of the East. I look forward to playing it.

Game makers  have tried this type of game with other eras in history. I know of one that tries to recreate the Reformation (Here I Stand). Another does the Civil War. Labyrinth tries to replicate the War on Terror (which is too raw for my taste).

The Cold War might just have ended up being the best subject matter for the game. Perhaps that is because one can play it knowing that the dreadful nuclear climax never took place. Perhaps that is because we know the good guys won. Perhaps it taps into nostalgia about a time when a monolithic enemy had a distinctive style and way of life that seemed so different but which, paradoxically, existed alongside. I'm itching to play it again.

I'm itching, period. Mosquitos are nasty tonight on this longest night of the year. I tried to stay out through to dusk but I think I have to give in. Time to retreat.

Oh, the Battle of Gettysburg book remains good but I'm not as far with it as expected at the end of news blackout week.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Good Day

It took until 10:30 to draw this conclusion but it was a good day. Here's the list:

  • Two laptop carts that would've gotten me fired if lost were found.
  • I've lost enough weight to get colleagues to begin teasing me about it.
  • Someone who I thought was upset probably isn't.
  • I solved a problem my wife was struggling with.
  • Two expensive things I thought were lost were found.
  • Something dumb that I thought was lost was found.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Another Year Ends

School years end in melodrama. There is fatigue which leads to some giddiness and some rushes to judgment. But I take delight in seeing seniors exude the confidence that they have accomplished something. I'm gratified at the nice things kids say to show you that you've done the right thing by becoming a teacher.

Monday, June 17, 2013

News blackout, Day 1

I was good today. I didn't even check my Twitter feed. Okay, so I launched Twitter on my phone, but quickly pressed the back button before it opened.

A colleague of mine was a bit perplexed today when I told him of my annual news blackout. He insisted I should know about Ben Bernacke's impending announcement Wednesday about the Fed's practice of buying $85 billion per month in bonds. He's right. It's ridiculously relevant to an AP Macroeconomics teacher. Too bad this event is happening in the midst of news blackout week.

A Father's Day surprise: Sherry got what is perhaps the geekiest board game imaginable: 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Words cannot describe how eager I am to find time to play it with someone. It is a sequel to the best board game I've ever played, Twilight Struggle. I'm grateful that a few friends of mine share my joy in re-living famous epochs from the 20th century.

And now I look forward to ending my day reading about the Battle of Gettysburg. A good thing about leaving AP U.S. History is that it'll re-kindle my enthusiasm for using recreational time to do history.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

News Blackout is Beginning Soon

I like to inaugurate my summers my taking a one week vacation from the news. The courses I teach requires me to stay on top of what's happening in politics, the economy, and global relations. By this point of the year, I'm no longer enjoying the news, but I'm reading it anyway, going through the motions with news stories and topics that aggravate me rather than intrigue me. The NSA big data scandal, for instance, should inspire me to take a clear stand one way or the other on this important issue of national security and civil liberties. Instead, I vacillate between ambivalence and irritation.

My last day with students is Wednesday. My last day of work is the 24th or 25th. But I'm starting the news vacation now. The toughest part of this will be turning away from the Twitter feed for a week. Oh well, that's an itch I'll just have to not scratch.

As an added twist this year, I'll dedicate time that would have gone to news digestion to instead read a book. I started Allan Guelzo's new account of the Battle of Gettysburg today. So far, it's been quite enjoyable. One interesting observation comes from Guelzo's quotes about officers at that time: contemporaries in the mid 19th century were so much more inclined to make allusions to animals when describing others. I found the anecdotes likening General Longstreet to a pig (his eyes) or General Ewell to a pigeon particularly fun.

More substantively, Guelzo makes a fascinating point about how utterly unprepared the nation was for war. We relied on "volunteers" rather than standing armies or conscripts (at least to begin the war). Our officer corps was woefully under-trained and under-manned relative to European armies of the time. Two chapters in, and Guelzo has left me with a powerful impression as to why the war stalemated and lasted four long, very bloody years.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A painful development to watch

I've been somewhat ambivalent about what the U.S. should do in Syria. For some reason, this morning's news coverage in the Washington Post is tempting to wake me from my ambivalent stupor . . .

This paragraph, in particular, from a June 14 article woke me up.

Then, this paragraph disheartened me.

And this infographic angered me.

How patently irresponsible the great powers have been! Confusion, fear, hesitation, lack of political will, self-interest . . . it has all led to the persistence of a conflict the kills more and more. No great power wants to risk their own people's lives, but they're willing to let this ugly, messy conflict persist.

Friday, June 14, 2013

What can we do with all this stuff

A somewhat long-winded column in the Washington Post made an interesting point: "Unfortunately, “data-driven” has become a conversation-ender, rather than a conversation-framer." The revolutions in computing and the internet have made it possible for us to aggregate and save massive volumes of data, more (perhaps) than we can really comprehend. That data can make us arrogant. After all, data can point out with statistical precision what is going on. Data can offer predictive powers to target advertisements to audiences most likely to act on those messages. 

But doesn't "margin of error" come up as an indispensable concept in interpreting data? 

I am concerned at the monolithic arrogance that comes with data. That columnist is right: often big data is an end to a conversation rather than a contribution to one. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A long, slow turn

I'm being reminded of something that I notice with kids. Namely, how difficult it can be to turn around some entrenched patterns of behavior. For instance, students will come to me saying they feel lost in a course. I give them advice on how to turn that around. They undertake steps to do just that. But the grades don't change right away. Perhaps it's because there is residual work that gets graded after they've started the turn. Perhaps it's because there's some lost comprehension from before the turn. Regardless, it's dispiriting for many kids to feel like they've changed what they needed to change, but the results seem to be lagging.

I can't help but think of how long it takes for a mighty warship to turn

The 2012-13 school year didn't see me do my best job balancing life as a father with life as a professional, and I look forward to summer and 2013-14 as a chance to adjust. But it's been a dispiriting week, as I see some residual drag from a few weeks in which I wasn't there to nudge my son as much as I should. Humbling.

Even more humbling: How much of a hero I am in his eyes, and the eyes of my little girl. We're our own worst critics. I see faults, warts, blown calls, and rookie mistakes. They see a tower.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


After my fourth year of teaching I had the chance to move on to a new building as a teacher leader. Instantly I was able to shed my image as "a kid" (which I really was in my first building . . . most of my colleagues were the same age as my parents) and become a "gray hair." It was a fluke. Usually 26-year-olds don't get such positions. But someone had confidence in me, and I had the courage to jump.

- - -

I'm thankful that my year of teaching is over in two weeks. This has been a challenging year for finding balance between work and home. I look forward to better handling that next year. I think I'll look back at 2012-13 as a year of growing up: for my wife and I professionally and for my son first-graderly. My daughter had the easiest year, and I'm thankful for her disposition as the rest of the family underwent growing pains.

- - -

I'm thankful for my cat. I don't quite know why he is so insistent that I sit in the position that I sit, but it seems to make me happy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My History B.A.

Their accursed paywall might prevent you from reading it, but The Wall Street Journal has had some interesting an infuriating pieces about unemployment rates for graduates holding humanities degrees. Read it here, if you are able.

So, I have a history degree. Two actually, a B.A. earned at Gettysburg College and an M.A. earned at Villanova. I'm very proud of them both. I also cringe when I hear of pundits talk of technical degrees as the be-all and end-all of education. WSJ's coverage about unemployment rates amongst my kind prompts me to think of what skills I have as a result of my academic history training. I can distill the most important skills to these:

  • The inclination to triangulate evidence - I rarely act on just one bit of supporting information. I need three or more substantiations before I truly believe something. Perhaps this explains my resistance to simple Google searches and Wikipedia. It might also explain why I cycle through my news sources daily, hesitant to rely on any one. 
  • The inclination to credit where I found something - which might annoy those I'm with. I cannot just pass on someone else's ideas as my own, and I habitually say "according to" when I share ideas I came across (or even jokes I've heard). 
  • Humility in asserting historical truth - Historians act with the knowledge that we'll never be absolutely certain that something happened the way we think it did. It's impossible to recreate and capture every detail of an important event or trend. And we author historical works that will someday be challenged by others. 
  • Oh, and can I write (though my blog posts might not be the best evidence of this).
Those of us who have earned liberal arts degrees in the humanities learned a discipline, internalizing its lessons and methods. That discipline frames what we do, whether what that is is directly related to the title of our B.A. or not. 

Ironically, I will next year be teaching courses that aren't historical at all. I'll be a teacher of civics and education, subject areas I've largely taught myself. The discipline I learned as a historian informs my ability to do that. 

When I say farewell to my students at the end of their 12th grade year, I urge them to find a degree program that they love and build expertise in it. Expertise, evinced by sophisticated scholarship and a good GPA, will always have a market value, which skills (necessities in economic life) might not always have. 

The practical skills of which so much is made now come and go. I'm right now typing on a program that with a computer that not too long ago would have been something only the highly trained could use. Who is to say that the computer programming and financial aptitude touted so much today won't become part of the standard k-12 curriculum someday in the future. 

What I say now for history is applicable to so many other fields: in learning the discipline of history, I came into touch the with thoughts, dreams, and demons of people long gone. That gives me a grounding and a proclivity to think that informs what I do, and what I can offer to my employer and my community. We call fields of studies like mine humanities for a reason, because it does connect those of us venturing into the future with what in the past has made us what we are. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brief news update

I've stopped subscriptions to two services that had long been part of my life. Here's how it's going:

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer. Don't miss it. I'm now getting used to Twitter for following the news I used to get from there. Verdict: How did I live without Twitter? 
  • Satellite Radio. Don't miss it. Replaced with Google's music service. Verdict: Google has a ridiculously good product. 

Next victim of the Johnson household austerity project: It doesn't look good Verizon.