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Friday, March 13, 2015

New Blueberry Muffin Recipe

Blueberry MuffinI've just posted a new recipe to the How To & Recipes portion of my site, Blueberry Muffins.

To describe this reciple, I'll just quote what I put on that page, "Usually when making a staple like muffins, I'll just go to the Joy of Cooking (or the 1975 Edition) and follow the recipe there. But for the first time ever, after dozens and dozens of successful recipes, the Joy of Cooking let me down a bit. The muffins were only okay. So, we tweaked the recipe - a bit more leavening agent, a bit more sugar, and some raw sugar sprinkled on the tops, and the modified muffins came out much better. We've also had a head-to-head competition in the kitchen between these muffins and ready made mixes (just add water and fresh blueberries), and these muffins were the winner."

In fact, my wife took a few to work the other day, and one of her co-workers said it was the best blueberry muffin she'd ever had. I suspect she might have just been hungry.

I'll add a special note on the image source here. Usually it's just a small note at the end of the entry, but I stole this image from another site with their own blueberry muffin recipe, Diva Entertains - Best Blueberry Muffins, so I felt like I had to give a little more of a call out here. Her recipe does in fact look very good - a bit more complicated than mine, perhaps, but good. I think I might actually give it a try the next weekend we get a bunch of blueberries.

Image Source: Diva Entertains

Friday Bible Blogging - Ecclesiastes 1 to 12

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleWow, has it really been over a month since the last time I posted in this series? Well, given my recent history of not really keeping up with weekly posts, this is the last time I'll apologize for being late. I will earnestly try to post every Friday, but if the past is any guide I won't actually keep that schedule, and I don't really feel like apologizing every post. In my defense for today, though, I think this may be the longest entry in the Friday Bible Blogging series, so it's taken me a little while to write.

Today's entry is the book of Ecclesiastes. It's rather thought provoking, and actually quite a bit different than pretty much every other book of the Bible. To quote a bit from Wikipedia:

There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to just what Ecclesiastes is about; is it positive and life-affirming or deeply pessimistic? Is Koheleth coherent or incoherent, insightful or confused, orthodox or heterodox? Is the ultimate message of the book to copy Koheleth, the wise man, or to avoid his errors? Some passages of Ecclesiastes seem to contradict other portions of the Old Testament, and even itself.

This was my favorite book of the Bible so far. As such, I've found many more passages to copy than normal, and my excerpts are often a bit longer than what I normally do. Sorry, but you'll just have to deal with it. I've finally found a book of the Bible that I'd recommend for its own merits, and not just historical or religious perspective.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1

First, let's address a translation issue depending on which translation you're reading. In several translations, like the NRSV that I'm reading or the King James Version, a certain Hebrew word is translated as 'vanity'. So, for example, we get a passage like this:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), the Hebrew word, 'hebel', "literally means 'breath' or 'vapor'... In Ecclesiastes, it is used as a metaphor for things that cannot be grasped either physically or intellectually, things that are ephemeral, insubstantial, enigmatic, or absurd." It certainly helps to understand the meaning of those many passages by knowing what's meant by 'vanity'.

Here's a passage that I particularly like. In fact, I've quoted it a few times myself (such as in a footnote in my self-published book).

What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun.

The NOAB notes that the phrase 'under the sun' only appears in the Bible in Ecclesiastes, but is used elsewhere in ancient Near East literature. Additionally, it refers to the land of the living, as opposed to the land of the dead, unlike the related phrase, 'under the heavens', which refers to pretty much everywhere.

Here's another one that I like.

The people of long ago are not remembered,
   nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
   by those who come after them.

It reminds me very much of Shelley's Ozymandias, and the somewhat melancholy inevitability of mortality.

Here's the next passage.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

This verges on anti-intellectualism, but I prefer to interpret it a bit more charitably. It's kind of the opposite of ignorance is bliss. It's not so much that knowledge in itself brings sorrow, but that you learn sorrowful things about the world that you can't unlearn. How much happier I'd be if I knew about nothing but my own home life, job, and local community. But I can't ignore ISIS, North Korea, past atrocities like the Holocaust, etc.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 2

If you notice, the passages I quoted up above were all in verse. But Ecclesiastes jumps around between verse and prose, and this chapter is mostly prose.

Mortality is a frequent theme of Ecclesiastes. Here's one passage that I like, about death being the great equalizer.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?' And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Here's another one, not just about your own memory, but about what's going to happen to all your possessions and wealth when you've died. Despite all the work and toil you put into building your estate, there's no guarantee that whoever inherit it will put it to good use (particularly if you consider a few generations hence).

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me --and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

This following passage is an attitude I adopted myself after becoming an atheist. It's not abject hedonism, but appreciating the moment and enjoying it.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.

Granted, that passage was followed by a statement about this enjoyment coming from God, but I'll look past that.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3

I find it nearly impossible to read this passage without singing The Byrds in my head.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Here's another version of the 'eat, drink, and be merry' line.

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

This next one reminds me of the expression, 'qué será, será'.

That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

I suppose you could look at it pessimistically, that we have practically no power to alter the world, but I prefer to look at it more optimistically, such as the view typified in the Serenity Prayer - that we should focus on things where we can make a difference, and not stress out about the things beyond our control.

This is a rather skeptical passage to be in the Bible.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

The NOAB described it as, "The author is apparently skeptical about the belief in survival after death, an idea which was beginning to be developed." That's interesting. It's certainly obvious from earlier Old Testament books that the ancient Hebrew idea of the afterlife was very different from the modern Christian one, so it's interesting to see someone writing on the issue in the midst of that evolution.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4

Ecclesiastes can certainly take some cynical turns. Consider this passage.

And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

From a purely political point, I wonder how the anti-choice crowd would respond to this passage, since it could be taken to mean that it would be better for people to never be born. (I'm sure they'd just say that type of interpretation was out of context, and it's more about how bad living people can be.)

Here's another passage that I particularly like:

Better is a handful with quiet
   than two handfuls with toil,
   and a chasing after wind.

I can think of a few people who would benefit from this advice - don't work so hard just to acquire material things if you're never going to have the time to enjoy them.

I rather liked this passage as well.

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice.

It's a bit anti-authoritarian for a Bible verse, as well

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 5

Here's some good, practical advice, even if I think the 'God' part is a bit superfluous.

When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfil what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfil it.

Here's another interesting one.

Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

It does seem a bit idealized, that those simple, poor labourers are just plain folk who are happy with what they have, while the rich are all Scrooge's more concerned with money than anything else. And it's not really true in a literal sense, either, since most studies I've read about indicate that up to a certain point, people do tend to be happier the more money they have (e.g. Wall Street Journal - Can Money Buy You Happiness?). But there is a grain of truth to it. It is better to enjoy what you already have than to worry too much about getting more.

Here's another quote on a common theme in the book - you can't take it with you.

As they came from their mother's womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?

The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn't just seem to take this as a given, but actually considers it 'a grievous ill'.

And here's yet another of the eat, drink, and be merry passages.

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.

This one adds on that we should also take enjoyment in our work.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6

Here's another passage that I like, along a similar theme to ones I've already quoted.

A man may beget a hundred children, and live for many years; but however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life's good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes into vanity and goes into darkness, and in darkness its name is covered; moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything; yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good--do not all go to one place?

What's the point in a long life if you don't even enjoy it?

And another one:

Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire; this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I believe the modern day equivalent of this would be a warning not to keep up with the Joneses.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7

I like this one, because of how much I value honesty. Just ask my daughter how much emphasis I put on always telling the truth and maintaining your good name.

A good name is better than precious ointment...

I like this one, too.

Do not say, 'Why were the former days better than these?'
   For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It reminds me of the Franklin Adams quote, "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory."

This next one reminds me of the Buddhist Middle Way. I suppose a less mystical way of putting it is 'everything in moderation'.

In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.

Here's another bit of good advice.

Do not give heed to everything that people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you; your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.

Despite all the passages in this book that I do like, here's one that's a bit troubling.

One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.

The NOAB has the following footnote for that verse, "this notoriously difficult sentence may be a gloss prompted by misinterpretation of v.26 as referring to women in general. The first part of the verse refers to the elusiveness of wisdom..."

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 8

Here's a bit of pragmatic advice.

Keep the king's command because of your sacred oath. Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, 'What are you doing?' Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way.

We may not have kings in most of the world, today, but there are still powerful people who can make your life difficult. The advice here seems to be that at times it's easier just to keep those people happy.

Here, the writer makes an observation that can be summed up simply as 'life's not fair'.

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.

Here's another eat, drink, and be merry passage.

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Here's another of the few passages I didn't like.

When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one's eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

In this sense, this book reminded me of the Tao Te Ching. While there were many parts that were interesting or thought provoking, there were also a few passages that run counter to Enlightenment ideals. Now, I'm not saying people will ever understand everything, but this passage from Ecclesiastes seems especially pessimistic.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9

Here's another passage that illustrates how this writer's concept of death and an afterlife was much different than the modern Christian's.

But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.

In fact, while this passage seems a little too pessimistic to me, I think there's good wisdom in it. We only get this one life, and there is no after for us (at least, not in any conventional sense of self - look for the section on 'materialistic reincarnation' in Does Religion Really Answer the Tough Questions?).

Here's a passage that's interesting not just for its message but also for its probable source.

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

According to the NOAB, "A similar passage in the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the advice to enjoy life in the full knowledge of certain death was a piece of folk wisdom."

Here is a very famous passage from Ecclesiastes that I particularly like.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

It speaks to the element of chance in everything that we do, that no matter how talented or well prepared we might be, shear bad luck may dash our hopes. Here's how the NOAB describes this passage, "The author disputes the cause-and-effect or act-and-consequence logic that characterizes Proverbs' view of life. Outcomes are not predictable."

Again thinking purely politically, I think this is a lesson that certain elements of the right wing should take to heart, recognizing that people in dire straits are often there through no fault of their own.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10

Here's another passage I like, a more ancient version of 'one bad apple spoils the bunch.'

Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a foul odour;
   so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.

Since I've mentioned politics a few times in today's entry, here's one for the right wingers.

The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
   but the heart of a fool to the left.

Of course, I take a bit of issue with that (if I used emoticons, there'd be a little smiley here). I guess this just comes down to the long standing mistrust of left-handed people.

Here's another good one.

Whoever digs a pit will fall into it;
   and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones will be hurt by them;
   and whoever splits logs will be endangered by them.

Actually, I'd like it a bit better if it just stopped after the first couple lines, since they seem to be implying just desserts, or a type of poetic justice. The latter two lines make it seem just like occupational hazards.

Here's one that didn't jump out at me particularly until I read the commentary in the NOAB.

Through sloth the roof sinks in,
   and through indolence the house leaks.

According to the NOAB, this might be "subversive political commentary in the guise of an innocuous proverb. The saying appears to be about the ruin of a house because of the owner's laziness, but the house may have political overtones, suggesting the incompetence and indiscretion of the leaders. Similarly, v. 19 may be read as a proverb affirming life's pleasures and rewards, or as a critique of the irresponsible lifestyle of the elite."

Here's another piece of pragmatic advice concerning kings and the wealthy.

Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts,
   or curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
for a bird of the air may carry your voice,
   or some winged creature tell the matter.

Some people think this might even be the origin of the expression, a little bird told me.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 11

Here's another passage interesting for its probably origin.

Send out your bread upon the waters,
   for after many days you will get it back.

According to the NOAB, this is "a parallel from an Egyptian wisdom test" about "spontaneous good deeds".

Here's another bit of good advice. In modern language, I think we'd call it diversifying your investments.

Divide your means seven ways, or even eight,
   for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth.

This passage struck me.

When clouds are full,
   they empty rain on the earth;
whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
   in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.

It seems to be about people's powerlessness over nature.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 12

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this line.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

I certainly agree with the first part - there is no end to learning, so no end to making new books. I'm not sure if the second part is derogatory towards studying, or just saying that it can be tiring.

According to the NOAB, the book originally closed with the very next phrase, "The end of the matter", but then a few more lines were tacked on at some later date. Moreover, those extra lines having to do with obeying God's commandments aren't really consistent with the rest of the book.


Ecclesiastes is by far the best book of the Bible I've read so far. It's very thought provoking and has plenty of good advice. My only worry now, though, is that I've already read the best of what the Bible has to offer, and it will only be downhill from here.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Blog Facelift

Men at WorkI've given the blog a minor facelift. It was mostly changes to the CSS to give what I think is a cleaner look. The other big one was that I made all the pages on the blog the two-column layout, whereas before most of the pages, including individual entries and archives, were a single-column layout. This gives me a chance to put a few more links in the right-hand column of each page, maybe getting people a bit more interested in some of the other content I've got on the site, getting them to stick around a little longer.

If you want to see what the blog looked like before, you can see the front page on the Wayback Machine. And for a direct comparison of individual entries, here's one of my most popular ones, Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?. And here's the old version on the Wayback Machine.

So, the facelift was nothing major, but do I think it makes the blog look a bit better.

Image Source: ClickForSign.com

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Wrap Up

Ben CarsonThis is the final entry in my series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series. I've also copied it below.

As I wrote in the first entry, the few things I'd heard about Carson before I began this series were enough to turn me off from him. Now that I've looked into his positions in more depth, my opinion of him has sunk even lower. I haven't covered all of his positions in this series, but I tried to be fair by taking a 'snapshot' of the articles on his own homepage. There are other issues he's written about that I disagree with, some very strongly. And he's made some huge factual errors that I would love to point out. But including this entry, I've already devoted twelve blog entries in total to Dr. Carson (2 previously, 10 in this series). How much time should I spend writing about a single person that I disagree with? I don't want this blog to become the anti-Carson blog. There are other, more interesting things I'd rather be spending my free time writing about. So for now, this will be my last entry about the man. Unless he does something particularly noteworthy in the future, or actually has a chance to win the presidential nomination, I'm done writing about him.

But since this is my parting shot, I figure I'll provide a brief summary of some of those other positions I didn't already cover (or only covered in passing). The table below lists the issues, provides a link to Carson's position, and then another link to my position (something I've written if available, or an external link otherwise). When possible for long articles, I've linked directly to the relevant section. For many of Carson's positions, I've used the RunBenRen site, which provides links to the original sources. And keep in mind that this still isn't exhaustive, but like I wrote above, I think I've put enough time into responding to Carson's positions.

Issue Carson's Position My Position
Gold Standard I couldn't find a link, but here's a quote from print, One Nation, Page 75, "Since Franklin D. Roosevelt decoupled the U.S. dollar from gold, our currency has been backed only by our good name." The 2014 Texas Republican Platform.
Abortion RunBenRun Abortion
Second Amendment - Interpretation & Effectiveness RunBenRun Thoughts on Gun Control - New Studies on Effectiveness of Gun Control Laws
Second Amendment - The Hitler Argument Washington Times Thoughts on Gun Control - The Hitler Argument
Wealth "Redistribution" / Welfare Expansion RunBenRun Response to 'I'm Tired' E-mail
Marijuana RunBenRun Time - Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die
IFL Science - New Study Finds Marijuana Safer Than Alcohol Or Tobacco
Flat Tax* RunBenRun Houston Chronicle - Steffy: Why the flat tax is flat wrong
Citizens for Tax Justice - Who Pays Taxes in America in 2014?
School Vouchers RunBenRun Economic Policy Institute - Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Economic Policy Institute - School vouchers don't make the grade
Marriage Equality GLAAD Another Part of Me - 12 reasons gays shouldn't be allowed to marry
The 2014 Texas Republican Platform

And even though there's already a separate entry for the index to this series, I'm going to repeat the index here, to make a one stop location on this site for issues dealing with Ben Carson.

Series Index

Previous Entries

It's actually a bit hard to pick the position of Carson's that's the worst. Out of the individual entries I wrote, I can pick three of Carson's positions that stand out as particularly bad - his disgusting apologism for torture, his non-acceptance of climate change, and his irresponsible scare mongering over Ebola. If I consider some of his other positions, his opposition to marriage equality ranks pretty high, as does his nearly constant conflation of religion and politics. But it's not just that there are a handful of big issues where I disagree with him and then a lot of other issues where I agree. In practically every article of his that I've read, I find myself in disagreement over the positions he's taken**. I'd be tempted to say that I couldn't imagine a politician I'd agree with less, but most of Carson's positions are typical right-wing positions, so they're not really all that different than any potential Republican or Tea Party candidate. In fact, it's when he shifts a little more to the left that I agree with him more. So, I suppose about the best I can say about Carson is that at least he's not Rick Perry, faint praise that it is. If he somehow does manage to become a viable candidate, I certainly hope there's a reasonable candidate opposed to him.

Related Links

  • Forbes - Ben Carson's Odd Notion Of The Constitution And Same-Sex Marriage - I came across this one after I posted Part 7. So, I added the link there, but just in case anyone's been following the series and isn't likely to go back, I'm putting it here, too. It's another example of Carson not understanding how government works (thinking Congress has the power to overturn court rulings).
  • Washington Post - The folly of term limits - I could have sworn I read or heard somewhere that Carson supported term limits for elected officials, but I couldn't find any quotes of him saying so. Still, I've seen it from his supporters in many comment threads under articles by or about Carson, so I figure it's worth the link. This article echoes my opinions on why I think term limits are a bad idea. (Basically - people with experience at a job do better than inexperienced people, and legislating is no different. We already have a process, voting, to get rid of the people we don't think are doing a good job. There are several issues giving incumbents too much of an advantage that should be addressed, but a measure that guarantees inexperienced legislators isn't the solution.)
  • CNN - Ben Carson: Prisons prove being gay is a choice - I'm including this link because it just made the news today. It's not the most offensive thing Carson's every said about homosexuality, but it seems like just about every time he speaks about homosexuality, he sticks his foot in his mouth.

*Actually, a flat tax is one I've thought about a bit, and want to comment on a little more. A true flat tax might not be horrible (the liberal in me still would prefer progressive taxes, since I realize that I can afford to pay a higher percentage of my income compared to some of the less fortunate people I know, and that people wealthier than me can afford even more - the other way of looking at it is that those that have benefitted the most from this system should put the most back in), but a true flat tax would be a huge overhaul to the entire tax system and possibly even government in the U.S. Right now, the federal government has their taxes. State governments have theirs. Local governments have theirs. Even different departments can have different taxes (just read the fine print on where all your money's going when you buy an airplane ticket). Many of these taxes are regressive in nature, hurting the poor more than the wealthy, so federal income taxes are progressive to offset that, resulting in an overall tax burden that's fairly proportional to income. If taxes were going to be made truly flat, where each person paid the same percentage of their income, you couldn't just make federal income taxes flat but leave all the other taxes the same, or else overall tax burden would be very regressive. The only way to actually implement it would be to make people pay only one tax, and then distribute that one big pot of money to all the levels of government. And like I said, that would be a huge change to the current system, and one I doubt many state or local governments would be too happy about.

**Not quite every article. His position on vaccination, at least, seems pretty good (Washington Times - Ben Carson: Vaccines are good medicine, not political issue), even if he blames the anti-vax movement on liberals, when the only official party platform I've seen endorsing an anti-vax stance is the Texas Republican Party Platform. (I'm not saying that there aren't liberals that are anti-vax, but rather that the problem crosses party lines. A related issue is the general anti-science position of the right, which I discussed in The Progressive War on Science?.)

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for February 2015

Top 10 ListIt's time again for my monthly look at the server logs, to see which pages were most popular on this site. Every page on the list had made it before, so no surprises. It was nice to see my Autogyro History & Theory essay make the list again - it had been a while.

Traffic's down a bit, partly due to February being a short month. It's always tough to tell, though, what fraction of the traffic is spam, and what's real people (especially since I only skim over the logs and don't delve into the junked comments on the blog or how many 'likes' the different entries get). And it seems like the spammers sometimes lag my attempts to thwart them. i.e. When I do notice a swell in spam comments and institute some change to the commenting policy to stop them, the attempted spam comments will take a little while to die back down. It makes me wonder if spammers share information, and once they figure out how to spam my site, they let others know and my site becomes a target, but then it takes a while for all those new spammers to realize that their method isn't working anymore (not that my security is particularly sophisticated, but it does block the vast majority of attempted spam).

Anyway, here's the list for last month.

Top 10 for February 2015

  1. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  3. Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore
  4. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  5. Autogyro History & Theory
  6. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  7. Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution
  8. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  9. Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  10. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 9 - Shoddy Scholarship

Ben CarsonThis is a continuation in my ongoing series to take a closer look at the views and positions of Ben Carson, mainly by looking at articles he's written. The index contains links to all of the entries in the series.

For this entry, I'm actually going to look at a very short excerpt from his book, America the Beautiful, dealing with the supposed inadequacy of modern education.

To gain a real appreciation of what children were expected to know in early America, one has only to look up an exit exam from middle school grades during the nineteenth century. I suspect that many, if not most, college graduates today would fail that test. Some sample questions:
  • Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
  • Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865.
  • Show the territorial growth of the US.
  • Name and locate the principal trade centers of the US.
  • Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
  • Describe why the Atlantic Coast is colder than the Pacific at the same latitude.

As a matter of fact, I recognize all those questions, because I've seen them before in a chain mail. In fact, I wrote a blog entry about it, Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam. It turns out that the test was almost certainly administered to teaching candidates, not students, so Carson's example of nineteenth century middle school education was wrong.

It would be one thing if this was a remark Carson made off the cuff during an interview, but that's not the case here. This was a published book. He had plenty of time, and an ethical responsibility, to research any factual claims he was making. But he got it wrong, and it appears as if his source was chain mail that could have been easily debunked (or at least piqued his suspicion) merely by visiting Snopes. That's really rather shoddy scholarship, and certainly not the type of ethic I'd want in a politician.

But beyond who the test was administered to, Carson was trying to make the larger point that modern education has gone downhill, with negative impacts for the U.S. Here's what he wrote just a couple paragraphs after the above excerpt.

In the mid-twentieth century, however, a series of things began to happen that negatively impacted the quality of public education in the US. Public prayer was banned in school, and the educational agenda began to expand significantly beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.

So, how does a 19th century education compare to a modern one? If you actually take the time to read that test and consider the questions, it doesn't look particularly difficult. To quote myself from that previous entry I wrote about the test, "My daughter has had a much broader education than the hypothetical one from this test, and she won't finish with 8th grade for another year (and this is Texas, which doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation for education)." And if you consider that the test was administered to teaching candidates, not middle schoolers, this difference becomes even starker. And not only that, but that Snopes article I linked to above described a very similar test from the same period that was definitely administered to teaching candidates, and noted that the potential teachers didn't do that well on it. So, what this test really shows is that modern day middle schoolers would do as well or better than 19th century teaching candidates.

As another point, let's take a look at some hard data, using literacy rates as a rough indication of how good education is in the present day compared to the past. Literacy can be measured multiple ways, and I couldn't find a single source with a single methodology that went all the way from the 1800s to the modern day, but I did find one source that went from the 1870 to 1979 (National Center for Education Statistics), and another for recent years (CIA Factbook via Wikipedia). I combined them into the graph below, noting which curve is for which data source.

U.S. Literacy Rate by Year

I think it's pretty obvious that as a nation, we're doing a much better job of educating people, especially in basic reading and writing, as Carson would put it.

So not only did Carson get his scholarship wrong, but if he'd dug a little deeper, he'd have realized that his example didn't support his larger point, and that additional data certainly doesn't indicate that modern day education is worse than that in the 19th century. This may not be the most important issue out of the entries I've written about Carson, but it's just one more in the long list of reasons why I wouldn't vote for him in an election.

Continue to Wrap up

More Info:

  • The website, Uppity Wisconsin, has a little more discussion on this issue, making a few points on the absurdity of trying to say that nineteenth century America was better educated than modern day America, RoJo: Education Was Better in 1830s, But Dems have "Dumbed-Down Our Population" to Get Votes.
  • Simple literacy and functional literacy aren't the same thing. Earlier measures of literacy were very basic - the ability to read short passages or write your own name. Functional literacy is about reading and comprehending enough to get by in society. That's why using the older measures of simple literacy (the type I plotted in the graph), the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99.9%. However, using newer measures of functional literacy (for which data doesn't exist going back much more than a few decades), the functional literacy rate is between 60%-90%, depending on exactly how functional literacy is defined. While this is comparable to the rates in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it's worse than other countries like the UK and Ireland, so there's certainly room for improvement. However, if even simple illiteracy in the U.S. was at 20% back in the 19th century, functional illiteracy was almost certainly higher than today, so simple literacy still supports the idea that modern education in the U.S. is better than in the past. For more discussion, take a look at the Wikipedia article on Functional Illiteracy.
  • Carson also discussed how the average scores by U.S. students in international tests tend to be lower than many other countries. However, Carson saw this as an indictment of the education system in general, when in fact, much of the problem has to do with the high proportion of U.S. students living in poverty compared to other countries. Socioeconomic status plays a huge role in how students perform in school. When you take this into account, comparing advantaged students in the U.S. to advantaged students in other countries, and disadvantaged students in the U.S. to disadvantaged students in other countries, the scores are more similar. The U.S. still lags the best countries, so there is certainly still room for improvement, but it ranks much higher this way. So if you want to fix the problem with U.S. education, you must recognize the true nature of it, and a major part of the problem is the high poverty rate in the U.S. A big way to improve average U.S. test scores would be to improve the social safety net, improving students' home life, which in turn would allow them to better focus on their education. (Of course, we can certainly try other improvements at the same time, since not all of the problem is down to poverty.) To read more, here's a good article/study from the Economic Policy Institute, What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?. Here's another good article, PISA: It's Still 'Poverty Not Stupid'. And finally, here's a commentary from Nature, Making the grade.

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