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27 February 2013

Celebrating Washington

The more I learn about Washington, the more I am amazed at the kind of man that he was, and I want my kids to know about him. About America's "Indispensable Man." It being George Washington's birthday this week (well, it's last week now), it seems like a good time to do some of that teaching. Here's what we've been up to:

We read a basic biography about Washington. It's very simple, but it's got the basics and is a good starting point.

We watched a cute video clip:

This sort of thing is right up Hero's alley, so I looked up the story of Washington's miraculous protection in the battle with the Indians near Fort Duquesne. In case his survival when nearly all other officers were quickly shot down, and he himself lost 2 horses and had 4 bullet holes in his coat was not evidence enough, The Real George Washington, by Parry and Allison, includes this quote from the Indian Chief who commanded the forces that Washington faced that day:

I am a chief, and a ruler over many tribes. My influence extends to the waters of the great lakes, and to the far blue mountains. I have traveled a long and weary path that I might see the young warrior of the great battle.

It was on the day when the white man's blood mixed with the streams of our forest that I first beheld this chief. I called to my young men and said, Mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red-coat tribe - he hath an Indian's wisdom, and his warriors fight as we do - himself is alone exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies. Our rifles were leveled, rifles which but for him knew not how to miss -'twas all in vain; a power mightier far than we shielded him from harm. He cannot die in battle.

I am old, and soon shall be gathered to the great council fire of my fathers in the land of shades; but ere I go there is something bids me speak in the voice of prophecy. Listen! The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies - he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire! (Page 49)

The final thing we did was these Washington mobiles. I didn't come up with the idea, but I think I've lost the link, so I can't credit it properly. In any case, we had a good time. I have tons of scrapbook paper leftover from when I used to do paper scrapbooking. (I've switched to digital now.) I let the boys choose a couple pieces to use, and we did this craft. Hero did basically a short narration on his; I helped him write three interesting things about Washington. More and more, Dragon has to do what Hero does, so I helped him make a mobile too, and he drew circles on his pieces. Both of them turned out cute.

18 February 2013


Daddy: You're awesome, Dragon. Did you know that?

Dragon: Yek. (He can't quite manage his S's yet.)

Daddy: Do you have any idea how awesome you are?

Dragon: Chocolate!

Oh yes. This kid knows what awesome is.

13 February 2013

The State of the Union(2013) and the Constitution

So, the other day I started to compare the State of the Union address (SOTU) to the Constitution. Only, I was a day early and ended up looking at last year's SOTU. This worked out ok; I got a little side-tracked and shared some fascinating things I've been learning about paper money and our Constitution. Today I'm going to try again, but with the actual 2013 address, again using a transcript from the Washington Post.

Once again, I'll admit my bias and my limitations up front: I don't like Mr. Obama. I think he is very bad for America. I am, however, doing my very best to be even-handed with this. If I find that he needs to be praised for something, I'll do it. If I find that he's doing it wrong, I'll say that too. I am neither Republican nor Democrat; I am a Constitutional Originalist. That is, I think that the Founders got it right, and we should, as a general rule, do it the way they outlined. If we want to make changes, they should be made properly, through the amendment process, and never through usurpation. Doing business by usurpation undermines all our various freedoms and the very concept of Rule of Law.

George Washington: If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
Farewell Address, Sep. 19, 1796

I believe that our Founders were not only good and wise men, but that they were inspired of the Lord when they worked out our government. I am still a student of their writings, though I have been studying for a number of years now, and this comparison is, to the best of my ability and understanding, a comparison to the Founders' original intent.

So. What is the State of the Union. Mr. President?

One of the first things that jumps out at me, looking at this, is that Mr. Obama can scarcely complete a sentence without being interrupted for applause. This bothers me. It's actually one of the reasons why I prefer the transcript over the live speech. Although Mr. Washington gave his SOTUs as speeches, Thomas Jefferson felt that this was too much like the monarchal practice of giving the Speech From the Throne, and he sent a written report to Congress. This was the custom until Woodrow Wilson. Things began changing with the advent of mass media; the Constitutionally mandated information on the state of the union to be addressed to Congress became an address to the people, given in the presence of Congress. (See Wikipedia.) I think it would be advisable to return to a less ceremonial model for this address. It's a set-up nearly guaranteed to give the speaker a big head and exaggerated sense of their own importance. It's also an invitation to indulge in propaganda, rather than the informational, factual reporting that is supposed to be happening. I found this ThinkQuest list of  several specific propaganda techniques, and I will be keeping an eye out to see if Mr. Obama has used any of them in his speech. (To be fair, I would expect to see some or all of them used in most or all SOTU speeches going back at least as far as they've been carried to the People by mass media, and quite probably further back than that. It's not just Mr. Obama that uses propaganda.)

Mr. Obama: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, fellow Americans, 51 years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress.”

Here in the first sentence is something that I would consider propaganda: "the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress." I'd call this a glittering generality. Here's how the ThinkQuest folks describe glittering generalities:

ThinkQuest: Glittering generalities are words that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts. When these words are used, they demand approval without thinking, simply because such an important concept is involved. For example, when a person is asked to do something in "defense of democracy" they are more likely to agree.

The avoidance of being power-hungry, or in Mr. Obama and Mr. Kennedy's words, "rivals for power" is a powerful cultural image, and I have yet to speak to anyone who wanted to impede progress, on any side of the debate. Progress seems to fit exactly the definition of a word that has "different positive meaning for individual subjects, but [is] linked to highly valued concepts." However, if we look at the Constitution itself, the Preamble will tell us what the purpose of the document is:

US Constitution: We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Nowhere in this list does the Constitution claim to be creating partners or promoting any concept as mushy and as poorly defined as "progress." What is "progress," anyway? I rather suspect that the progress I would most like to see -movement toward a small, even tiny, government using an original interpretation of the Constitution- would likely please our president very little, given his previous comments on how the Constitution is a charter of  "negative liberties."

Moving on. It appears that Mr. Obama is still quoting Mr. Kennedy, though the applause has broken the continuity of his thought.

Mr. Obama: “It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union.

This is a true statement. His duty to do so is outlined in Article 2 Section 3:

US Constitution: He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measure as he shall judge necessary and expedient; ...

He goes on:

Mr. Obama: “It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union. To improve it is the task of us all.”
Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home.

To improve our union... I'm thinking this is more propaganda, another glittering generality. While Article I Section 8 does lay out a number of specific powers which are to be employed to "promote the general welfare," It is my opinion that promoting or encouraging the overall health or "general welfare" is considerably different from making actual improvements. It seems to me that improvements should be the exclusive territory of the private sector.

It is notable that Mr. Obama announced the "end" of the war last year in his SOTU address, and in very similar terms. It also seams like a stretch to me to call it a war at all, since Congress declined to declare war on anyone, and the declaration of war is their exclusive prerogative. (See Article I Section 8) Certainly the Commander-in-Chief can order troops around, even in the absence of a declaration, which has been done from time to time since the beginning of our nation. The first instance that I am aware of is the conflict with the Barbary Pirates at the beginning of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. According to Wikipedia's article on the conflict:

Wikipedia: In response, "Jefferson sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression, but insisted that he was 'unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.'" He told Congress: "I communicate [to you] all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of this important function confided by the Constitution to the Legislature exclusively their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight." Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify."

Maybe it's splitting hairs, but I think we should make a linguistic distinction between an actual, official, declared war, and a conflict we participate in without ever bothering to properly define. I think it is also worthy of note that Congress did act, and did authorize the actions Mr. Jefferson took. I don't know one way or the other if Mr. Bush either sought or received any similar authorization for the various conflicts which he started and Mr. Obama continued. I do know that Congress has enacted a couple laws which abdicate their responsibility for war to the president; it's just the sort of power-gathering that Washington warned against in his Farewell Address:

George Washington: It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free Country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its Administration, to confine themselves within their respective Constitutional Spheres; avoiding in the exercise of the Powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power; by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, & constituting each the Guardian of the Public Weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient & modern; some of them in our country & under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.

And, I think that will do for today. I didn't make it very far into the speech, but hopefully I can have a look again soon, and get a bit further then.

12 February 2013

Snow Experiments

I wrote this mid-January, but didn't get it posted right away because of all the craziness with Baby Girl's birth and hospital stay.

I read a while back a distinction between experiments and demonstrations that really made me think about how we do science. The book is called "Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method," and the author discusses the advantages of experiments over demonstrations and observations when working with critters she captured in her backyard, but the ideas she's talking about are easily applied to other types of inquiry as well.

Why not just keep animals in a terraria in  your classroom and observe them? I spend a lot of time just watching animals, feeding them, talking to them and in general regarding them as pets. It's fun and it's valuable. I don't routinely do experiments with the animals that live in terraria around my house. I just enjoy them.

The classroom is a different situation. Some children will spend a lot of time watching gerbils or fish in a classroom. Others have less interest. But when a child makes a prediction about that fish's response to something, like covering half of the aquarium with a dark towel, that child invests something of him- or herself in the fish's behavior. It may greatly increase the child's interest in the fish. Say the child then observes that this particular type of fish avoids the dark part of the tank. If the child writes down his or her discovery and shares it with others, the child's going to feel pretty proud. ...

Another important difference is that posing questions, predicting answers and testing the predictions all develop higher level thinking skills. Experimentation develops the habit of following observations with questions, a trait that adult innovators all possess.

A third and perhaps most important advantage of experimentation over observation is that by conducting experiments, the children learn the meaning of the word science and think of themselves as scientists. I never did any science at all in biology until I got to graduate school. That is, I never did an experiment until then. I read a lot and I learned a lot but I didn't feel like a scientist until I started doing experiments. (page 1)

So, this idea of doing experiments - encouraging my children to come up with questions and things that they wonder about and then trying to find out the answer to their questions - has been stewing in the back of my mind now for several months, since I got this book. Creepy crawlies are tricky for our family right now, but last week we had snow, and when I asked Hero did he want to do some "snow science" he jumped at the chance. So that's what we did.

We started with ideas I'd borrowed from The Tiger Chronicle. First, we played in the snow. We were so sick over Christmas that, although the snow had been laying there for a week or two, it had hardly been stirred up at all. Fortunately, it hadn't crusted over, and the boys had a blast playing in it. My coat doesn't zip around the belly anymore, but this particular day the Daddy was home and so I borrowed his and we all could stay outside a little longer.

Then we brought some snow inside, and I asked Hero a question: "How long do you think it will take it to melt?" He guessed that, since it takes a very long time for snow to melt outside, it would take a long time inside. We talked about what is a theory (the thing you think is going to happen), and we wrote down his theory, and made a schedule for checking on the snow hourly, and went about our afternoon's business. Business which ended up including a whole lot of contractions - I wondered for a while if we were going to get a little sister that afternoon. She changed her mind; the contractions stopped, but the snow wasn't quite water when I stopped being able to concentrate on science. Happily, we'd done enough for Hero to come to a conclusion: the snow did not take all day to melt; it was much faster.

So I asked him another question: "Why do you think the snow melted faster than you had predicted?"

He came up with a theory: "Because outside there is a lot of snow, and inside we only had a little."

And then I asked him, "How can we test your theory?"

He decided that we needed two containers of snow, one big and one little, to see if the little one metled faster, so that's what we did.

State of the Union (2012): Examined

Looking at the debates between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, and comparing them to the Constitution was a useful exercise, so I thought I'd try doing it with Mr. Obama's State of the Union address. Ideally, I'd like to do it to the opposition response as well, but I have a three-week old, sooo... we'll see how far I get. Please note that I am not fact-checking, and for the most part I'm also not pointing out the (many) places where I think this president is wrong. I make no bones of it: I think that Mr. Obama is very bad for America. But my propose here is to compare his comments to our Constitution, according to my best understanding of the document, as the Founders intended it to function, and that's all.

The Washington Post has the transcript I am using.

First of all, we have a State of the Union address because of the Constitution. Article II Section 3 requires of the Executive: "He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient..." That's the purpose of the exercise. Back in the day, Wikipedia tells me, it used to be submitted as a written report, rather than the three-ring circus it is today, where he can't even complete a sentence without being interrupted for applause. I find that particular practice odious. Not only is it intensely annoying to try to listen to a speech like that, but it reinforces the exaggerated sense of importance attached to the Presidency. He's a guy. A guy with a big job, to be sure, but reading the Constitution reveals that it is Congress, not the Executive, that is really the first among the three branches. The Presidency has been, for generations, accumulating power and customs that smack of the monarchy our Founders tried so hard to avoid.

So. On to what he actually said.

Mr. Obama: " ...last month I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought, and several thousand gave their lives.

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world."

The Preamble tells us that one of the purposes of the Constitution is providing "for the common defense." I have issues with the idea that we are defending America when our troops are in Iraq. If the shoe was on the other foot, if Iraqi troops were in America, deposing an American president and defending Iraqi "interests," I don't think that many would have a hard time calling it imperialism. It would be called an invasion, and a threat to our sovereignty, and rightly so. I can't think that it's anything different when American troops go around doing the same thing. So, while I approve of bringing home the troops, I don't buy the pretty language that it's inevitably wrapped up in. I don't think for a minute that we were safer here in our own land because our troops served there. Once again, be considering the situation, were it reversed, it becomes much more clear. If the Iraqis were here on American soil, "defending" Iraq, would their people and their land be safer, on the other side of the world, for their efforts? Or would it stir up hatred, and create a big fat target for those who are inclined to extremism? No disrespect to the troops themselves, but I think that our Commander-in-Chief (as well as many of his predecessors in both parties) has done them and our nation a grave disservice, and spent their precious blood on something other than the common defense our law provides for.

Mr. Obama: My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill.

I'd like somebody to show me a Constitutional rationale for this sort of benefit. I see that they have the power to "raise and support armies (Article I Section 8)," and to "provide and maintain a navy (IBID)," but both of those speak of troops in the present tense: troops now serving. I can't find authorization for the extravagant benefits enjoyed by vets. Perhaps I am missing something.

Mr. Obama: ...but most hard- working Americans struggled with costs that were growing, [and] paychecks that weren’t...

This is inflation that he's describing, and inflation is interesting. Perhaps it's a bit of a side-track away from the address, but I think it's interesting enough to go there. First, what is inflation:

a persistent, substantial rise in the general level of prices related to an increase in the volume of money and resulting in the loss of value from currency (from Dictionary.com)

Basically, when there is more physical money in circulation, that money has less value. Counterfeiting is forbidden because it devalues a currency; when our government does the same thing it's called "quantitative easing." We're currently on QE3 - that is, they've done this "quantitative easing" three times now. Used to be, when we had a gold or silver standard, that the number of dollars in circulation was tied to the value of the precious metal that backed it, but our nation did away with that; there's been no huge stash of gold in Ft. Knox for quite some time. Now our money has value because... the Federal Reserve Bank said so, and our people believe it. But it works a bit differently when the money is backed by some actual commodity, or, better yet, is a precious commodity itself. William Blackstone explained it this way:

Money is an universal medium, or common standard, by comparison with which the value of all merchandise may be ascertained: or it is a sign, which represents the respective values of all commodities. Metals are well calculated for this sign, because they are durable and are capable of many subdivisions: and a precious metal is still better calculated for this purpose, because it is the most portable. ...

As the quantity of precious metals increases, that is, the more of them there is extracted from the mine, this universal medium or common sign will sink in value, and grow less precious. ... The consequence is, that more money must be given now for the same commodity than was given an hundred years ago. And, if any accident was to diminish the quantity of gold and silver, their value would portionably rise. A horse, that was formerly worth ten pounds, is now perhaps worth twenty; and, by any failure of current specie, the price may be reduced to what it was. Yet is the horse in reality neither dearer nor cheaper at one time than another: for if the metal which constitutes the coin was formerly twice as scarce as at present, the commodity was then as dear at half the price, as now it is at the whole.
-William Blackstone, quoted in The Founders Constitution, vol. 3 pg. 2

This same process happens with paper money, but without the limits that are natural to metal. Paper currencies caused a whole lot of problems in our post-revolutionary history. Shay's Rebellion was, at least in part, related to terrible inflation problems. In studying the process of ratification of the Constitution, I discovered that paper money and its attendant problems was a factor in the ratification debates. Delaware was the first State to ratify, and money was among the reasons for their rapid and unanimous ratification:

"And as everywhere else, there was the matter of paper money. Many Delawareans supported the Constitution because it prohibited both the states and Congress from issuing paper money and because it upheld the sanctity of contracts." -Ratifying the Constitution, page 46.

Whoa. Hold the show. The Constitution forbids both State and Federal governments from issuing paper money? But the dollar - the familiar cash we all use - is paper money! I haven't figured out how that works, but I did figure out what the author was talking about in Ratifying the Constitution when he says that it's forbidden to both State and federal governments. Finding the part where the States are forbidden was the easiest part:

"No State shall... coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts... (Article I Section 10)"

I suspected that "bills of credit" meant paper money, so I went looking in the Federalist Papers. There it was, in Federalist 44.

The extension of the prohibition to bills of credit must give pleasure to every citizen, in proportion to his love of justice and his knowledge of the true springs of public prosperity. The loss which America has sustained since the peace, from the pestilent effects of paper money on the necessary confidence between man and man, on the necessary confidence in the public councils, on the industry and morals of the people, and on the character of republican government, constitutes an enormous debt against the States chargeable with this unadvised measure, which must long remain unsatisfied; or rather an accumulation of guilt, which can be expiated no otherwise than by a voluntary sacrifice on the altar of justice, of the power which has been the instrument of it. In addition to these persuasive considerations, it may be observed, that the same reasons which show the necessity of denying to the States the power of regulating coin, prove with equal force that they ought not to be at liberty to substitute a paper medium in the place of coin."
-James Madison

Note Madison's very blunt commentary on paper currencies: they are "pestilent" in their effects. Once you realize how little there is by way of natural limitation to the supply of money when its paper rather than metal, it's relatively easy to see why that would lead to problems.

It took me a little longer to figure out how the Constitution forbids paper money to the Federal government. It does it by not delegating the power to them. The Bill of Rights spells it out in the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

So, if the Constitution doesn't say the federal government can do it, they can't do it. At least, not lawfully. The fact is, they do an awful lot of things that they're not authorized to do, and neither the States nor the People have been able to call them on it. Some of that arises out of the fact that the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment took power from the States' legislatures to hold Senators directly accountable for encroachments into State sovereignty. Part of it, I believe,  is ignorance and indifference on the part of the people, including those elected to both State and federal offices.
In any case, the Constitution permits Congress to coin money, but delegates no power to print paper money, therefore, they are forbidden to do so. Additionally, the Constitution requires that all State debts be paid in gold or silver, which I don't believe has happened when I have been aware of things!

So where do our paper dollars come from and how do they work? I don't know the whole story. I do know that the Federal Reserve Bank that issues them (and incidentally also sets our interest rates) is a private institution, not a governmental entity. I also understand that, although they are entrusted with the care of our money supply, they don't tell Congress what they're up to. Hence the "Audit the Fed" movement.

Oh. And now I notice that this is the 2012 State of the Union. Don't I feel silly. I thought all this time I was working on this year's address!

08 February 2013

Weekly Wrap-up: She's Home Now!

So, Baby Girl is home now, and we are absolutely loving having her here with us, rather than at the hospital!

She actually came home from the NICU last Tuesday, at 10 days old. Nine of those days were NICU days. This week, the Daddy went back to work and we started trying to figure out how to be a family of 5. So far so good! Sleeping is, predictably enough, unpredictable. That's life with a newborn, though, and it's getting better. We even got a little bit of school done this week. Just the basics, but with all that's been going on, I feel like getting the basics done is huge.
We spent a lot of time doing this:

And this:

Hero practiced his reading, writing, and math facts. And we started doing some Mango Japanese that we can get free through the local library. Just a little bit, but for where we're at, it's still an accomplishment. We're working our way back up to the full load of work. School. Cleaning. Stuff That Needs To Happen.


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