longerthoughts

Longer thoughts from @david_shane

Walking the bulk of future writing over to Medium

How long can we stay in one place in the 21st century?  I seem to be migrating over to Medium for new writing.  I like the layout and community there, the simplicity of the stats, and the integration with Twitter.  Already have a couple articles up:

Yes indeed, I do write about everything.  I will keep this blog “open” for especially personal posts – but usually I write with a larger audience in mind (not a terrible thing on the internet, where that larger audience is always present.)  Anyway, keep tabs on me there to follow my writing – or follow me on Twitter, I almost always tweet what I write.

Learning for the joy of it

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Here at Lansing Community College we recently finished out first, hopefully annual (or biannual?) showcase of student work, which we named “Starscapes” since LCC’s mascot is the “Stars”, and we seem to name everything Star-something! We had about 25 student groups sign up to show off their work, which isn’t bad at all for a first run, and attendance was good enough that we ran out of cookies on the first day! (The event was two days total.)

I was quite impressed with how well my presenting students did – this was probably their first poster presentation for many of them, yet they seemed quite at ease. I was proud of them. But what impressed me even more was the crowd – some people attended because they were members of classes, and the professor brought the whole class, but many other people, a surprising number of people to me, just drifted in because they were curious. It reminded me of something the founder of Khan Academy said,

There’s a lot more demand for people who want to just improve themselves than anyone would have guessed.

These weren’t people getting course credit or anything, they were just curious, they just wanted to learn. And they were an encouragement and a joy to talk with – I answered quite a few questions, even though I hadn’t personally put together any of the presentations! We have a great community of learning here.

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G.K. Chesterton on the difficulty in defending a philosophy

What follows is a great quotation from chapter VI of Orthodoxy.  Every time I want to share it with someone I cannot find it, concisely, anywhere on the internet.  Therefore I am putting it here!

It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness.

The book is highly recommended.

Albert Einstein on science and religion

I think most of us have heard the quotation “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. I don’t think most of us have heard it in context – indeed, a quick web search revealed a lot of questions about whether the quotation was even validly attributed to Einstein. From Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, then…

Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Feel free to click through and read the whole thing – I can just about guarantee to you that you will disagree with some of it, but it is an interesting read. I especially appreciated…

But when asking myself what religion is I cannot think of the answer so easily. And even after finding an answer which may satisfy me at this particular moment, I still remain convinced that I can never under any circumstances bring together, even to a slight extent, the thoughts of all those who have given this question serious consideration.

I’ve said before – we just need to abandon the world “religion”. Our tendency to categorize belief systems which are very different from each other all as “religious” confuses discussions (no wonder it is hard to define “religion”). I would prefer the term “worldview”, which also makes it clear that everyone has one, whether yours invokes God or not (as indeed, even some worldviews usually called “religions” have little to say about a god or gods).

And also,

For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.

Here here.

Cheap camera obscura photo of our dining room

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Hey, looking good.  See if we can do better tomorrow.  Wikipedia has a nice short explanation of how this works.  The way I made this one was just to take two cardboard tubes…

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…cover the end of one with tape to form a “screen”, cover the other with aluminum foil with a tiny hole created by a tack.  Then…

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…just slide one over the other, and you’re off.  Look through the uncovered end – for the photo, I aimed my camera down the uncovered end.

A good prayer

…we would humbly entreat of Thee that we may each one be permitted to do some great service for Thee before we go hence: we do not mean great in the wisdom of our fellows, but let it be all that we can do. If we cannot build a house for Thee, yet we have set our hearts upon doing something; and if it be Thy will, direct our minds to what it shall be, lest our minds should not be Thy mind: but let not one of us be barren or unfruitful. If we have indeed been redeemed by the blood of Christ, may we reckon that we must live to Him; may the love of Christ constrain us, and may something come of our lives that shall be a blessing to the sons of men, ere we go hence.

By C.H. Spurgeon, via this book.

“Second Life” in education, and other tools

We had our first “Innovation Exchange” at Lansing Community College today – basically just a bunch of professors sitting a room for 1.5 hours, talking. But it was interesting (I wasn’t sure how it would go). Maybe the “strangest” idea I heard was from a writing instructor who uses Second Life to help him teach an online course. Apparently the Michigan Community College Association Virtual Learning Collaborative (say that fast) owns an island in the game specifically for this purpose. He has his students “meet up” in the virtual world at a designated time, and then he holds class in a similar manner to his face-to-face classes, incorporating lecture, group activities, etc. He had one student, who has only taken online classes in college, write him and say that this was the closest thing to a community she has ever experienced in a college class. I guess you can decide whether that is a happy or sad statement – I am certainly glad all the classes I’ve taught have been face-to-face so far! I wondered, though I did not ask, if there was any problem with students getting access to computers capable of running the virtual world.

Aside from that, if there was one big theme of the meeting it was probably that students are more engaged when they feel they are working for more than just the grade. That feeling could come naturally – some students can see their future five years out and they know exactly why they want to learn whatever you’re teaching, after all. But it could also come from explicitly giving them another audience – presentations at a local (or even college run) symposium, or at least in class.

Some other tools that were mentioned! I haven’t had time to really look into these yet.

    Scratch – billed as an “anyone can program” tool. Or you can just steal stuff other people have made.

    Hot Potatoes – specifically mentioned for making crosswords, but a quick glance at the website and it looks like it can do more.

    Omeka – to create an online exhibition of student work.

    Animoto – described as allowing students to upload an image, then “tag” different parts of the image with information or links.

    Padlet – students can upload items (photos of themselves was specifically mentioned), and then you can organize them as you wish, visually.

That’s it! I will say I came away from the meeting wishing there was more time available to try new things – much less work just to reteach a course the same way it was taught last semester, after all. I even remember one instructor in the meeting saying something like “they cut back my teaching load a few years ago, and that’s when I came up with all this cool stuff”. Yep.

From Lansing to San Diego, and back again

Starting about a week ago I took a trip from Lansing to San Diego (by plane) for the wedding of a friend (Matt), and returned shortly thereafter (mostly by train). I took photos along the way to create a sort of travel log – here is that journey. Higher resolution versions of all these photos are available on Flickr.

The trip began with a 5:30 AM flight from Lansing’s Capitol Region International Airport, destination Chicago. Not a super-busy airport, served mostly by regional jets (though Sun Country Airlines flies 737s) – saw one large UPS aircraft land while we were loading.

The flight to Chicago goes over Lake Michigan, of course – here is the shoreline on the Michigan side. I never gave much thought to the “in the event of a water landing” part of the safety briefing before living in Michigan.

And then I was in the much larger, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, waiting for a flight to Phoenix. Had breakfast at Johnny Rockets! Flying west, it was breakfast time for a very long time.

And then we were off! Much larger plane for the flight to Phoenix, TVs in every seat. What a terrible idea. Most people turned them off. You had to pay for most content.

Played tic-tac-toe over Kansas, seeing circles from all the irrigated fields below.

We also flew over the Capulin Volcano National Monument in northeastern New Mexico. (Thanks @kelly_lave for identifying it.)

And then I was in Phoenix, where I had to leave security to transfer from United to US Airways. Ugh. Not so bad, I guess.

And then I was off to San Diego, where Matt picked me up at the airport.

I guess I made it! Took lots of beach photos while there, of course. Some beaches were sandy, some rocky.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the beach.

These guys lived in holes dug into the side of cliffs. Signs warned not to feed them, but given how friendly they were toward people, I’m guessing the signs didn’t help much.

Lots of palm trees, of course.

Saw lots of birds, too. Was surprised to see herons flying in formation.

The neighborhood we stayed in was known as La Jolla, and had the La Jolla cove.

Many of the wedding party, and guests, stayed in a rental home with pretty typical architecture for the area, including a rooftop patio.

The wedding was at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, which had quite a sizable campus.

It was beautiful on the inside.

We also got to enjoy the La Jolla nightlife. The rehearsal dinner was at Bernini’s Bistro.

Zooming past the wedding (which I have no photos of anyway because I was in it), soon I would be leaving.

On Friday morning, I caught Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner.

It departed from the San Diego Amtrak station, obviously a former Santa Fe station.

Seating was unreserved, but there were plenty of seats available.

The Surfliner is, of course, known for it’s ocean views.

Passed through several intermediate stations, until we eventually arrived in Los Angeles.

The LA station had many, many tracks in operation.

They were connected by a long tunnel underground. Felt rather airportish.

But here is the main waiting area.

I had a bit of a layover, so I took a walk through the city. Found a Mexican cultural festival going on outside…

…and a very busy marketplace….

…where I had some fish tacos for lunch.

And then I walked downtown. Here is the quite sizable LA police department.

And here is the LA Times!

I found myself wondering if anything was made in America any more.

I also heard a car accident happen. Matt had previously said “everyone says that drivers where they live are crazy, but in California it’s actually true”.

I also saw some sad signage. Can you imagine getting married in a place that advertised divorces?

But then I was in downtown proper.

I hung out in Pershing Square for a while and called Bec.

And then I had some crepes made by a genuine Frenchman.

Then it was back to the station to board the long train to Chicago, the Southwest Chief.

There was a little Amtrak style security theater before we left. Not sure if you can tell, but there is a lot of legroom on these superliner trains.

And then we were rolling. California was looking like California.

We passed through other stations, including this one in Fullerton.

And another in San Bernadino.

I spent a lot of my time in the sightseer lounge car, definitely one of the perks of the superliner trains, and a great place to meet people.

And at some point I realized my phone knew where I was, which is nice.

Arizona was passed mostly in the dark. And then we were in New Mexico. This is a view out the back of the train – they just wouldn’t let me drive, you know.

First stop was Gallup.

The whole region was quite beautiful, of course.

And uninhabited to an incredible degree.

I had breakfast in the dining car. Somehow they knew my name from then on.

French toast.

Many people waved at us when we went by, though they are rather hard to photograph at 90 mph.

And we passed jackrabbits and coyotes.

And donkeys, who knew where the water came from.

Because even where there was supposed to be water, there often wasn’t.

Eventually, we arrived in Albuquerque.

We had a longer break there, while they did a maintenance check of the train.

And also washed the windows.

We were not the only train in station.

But eventually we were on our way again. I had lunch in the cafe car.

A modest repaste.

We went by churches.

And eventually reached Lamy, New Mexico.

Sir, you are a stereotype.

Sometimes the walls closed in.

Hi there, engineer!

The “NM” is critical here.

The soil also turned more red as we headed east.

And then we found ourselves in a brief but walloping hailstorm!

Immediately afterwards, we thought there might be a tornado to our east, but I think it was just a tiny spot of very heavy rain (colors enhanced for contrast here).

And soon thereafter we were in Raton, NM.

Followed by the Raton tunnel. We were in the tunnel for 1 minutes, 20 seconds.

And then I had dinner in the dining car. Ate with a couple that had been married for 62 years. (Communal seating on the dining car.)

Colorado!

Eastern Colorado was looking a lot like Kansas. Kansas itself was passed mostly in the dark. Look at all that green.

Next morning, we arrived in Kansas City, MO.

Where they unloaded all the trash.

We also saw the train to St. Louis in station.

And then we were off again.

We passed over the Missouri River.

And the Missouri countryside.

Eventually arriving in La Plata, MO. Ah, long time no see. I used this station often when I attended Truman State University.

Next came Fort Madison, Iowa.

After which we passed over the Mississippi River.

And then we were in Illinois. Love all the conversations between strangers that happen in the lounge car.

And then we pulled into Galesburg.

Many of the Illinois stations had old trains parked nearby.

Sometimes we caused quite the traffic snarl.

We eventually came to Naperville.

And then Chicago’s Union Station, probably the most used Amtrak station in America.

Where the air was thick with diesel smoke.

The Grand Hall.

I had a bit of a layover before my final train, so I took a walk over the Chicago river.

Well, yeah.

And then I was on my final train, the Wolverine, to Battle Creek. I arrived in Chicago too late to catch the direct train to Lansing.

What if there is a water landing?

And we were off! Passed the Chicago skyway.

And caught the briefest glimpse of Lake Michigan.

And had a little dinner in the cafe car.

Michigan! No, wait, not quite.

There we go.

Many of the stations in Michigan were quite beautiful.

The Wolverine also traveled up to 90 mph.

Kalamazoo was the last stop before Battle Creek.

In Battle Creek, I transferred to an Indian Trails bus.

And in no time at all, I was in East Lansing!

Where it was finally, a quick cab ride home.

Thus ends the trip!

The death of Herod Agrippa and the reliability of the Bible

Just wanted to share two quotations that speak for themselves from this morning’s sermon by Kevin DeYoung. The first is the Biblical account of the death of Herod Agrippa, from Acts 12:20-25 (ESV).

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

Compare that with an account of the same incident by Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian (referenced here).

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea [...] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor [...] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out [...] that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’

Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, ‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.’

After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.

Oliver Porter on contract cities at the Lansing Center

A few days ago I had the opportunity to listen to Oliver Porter speak at the Lansing Center. If you’ve never heard of him, you could do no better than watch the following fascinating video from ReasonTV.

Oliver Porter helped preside over the incorporation of Sandy Springs, Georgia, a city of about 100,000 where the only services provided directly by the city government are police and fire. Every other service that is commonly provided directly by city government today is instead contracted out, through one major contract with CH2M Hill and many sub-contracts. And the results are impressive – the city today has no debt and no long-term liabilities whatsoever, and has even built up $35 million in savings (assuming I understood him correctly). And before you think, “OK, but it’s probably a debt-free wasteland” – as the video states, in the first election after incorporation every member of the starting city council was reelected with, at minimum, 84% of the vote. That’s a pretty good sign people are happy.

A few other things I learned from his talk that I didn’t already know from the video:

1. We like to hold up Sandy Springs as a sort of market-driven success story – which it is, but Porter also made the point that they almost had no choice. No new city had incorporated in Georgia in 50 years, so they had no model to follow. The referendum to create the city passed on June 5th, and by midnight on Dec. 1st they had to have a fully operational city. So they had very little time – and in the interim period, nobody had any authority to hire anyone, and no money to pay them anyway. So what are you going to do? Nothing traditional.

I also found it amusing that after the city council did meet on midnight at Dec. 1st, one of their first acts was to adopt the county zoning plan pretty much wholesale – because if they hadn’t, there was nothing to stop some developer from starting up some bulldozers at 12:05 and pretty much doing whatever he wanted.

2. Are employees happy under the new system? Porter said morale was high, and that employees told him that under the old system, when they were government employees, they suggested ways to improve the way their job was done for years to the county, but were always ignored. Working now for a private company, the company is actually quite eager to hear their suggestions because the potential for greater profit gives them a great incentive to work efficiently and well, an incentive lacking in government.

3. One idea implemented in Sandy Springs that could easily be implemented in any city is the work-order. He said that if a citizen notices a problem (pothole, for example), they can call the contracted-with company and let them know. That company has pledged to, within two days, call them back with a work-order number for the problem, which is also passed along to the politician overseeing that part or aspect of the city. So there is accountability – if, a month later, the pothole still isn’t fixed, it’s very easy for either the citizen or politician to call back and say, “so, what is the status of work-order number XXX”. Seems like a great idea. East Lansing, where I live, uses SeeClickFix.com, which is a great way to notify the city about problems – but the city doesn’t pledge to respond (and often doesn’t), and there is no easy accountability mechanism.

4. “Did you hear what that fool said?” – what employees of CH2M Hill said to each other after meeting with Porter and learning that he wanted to contract-out the whole city! He learned later. He said they thought his idea was so off the wall they almost didn’t pass it on to their superiors.

If you’d like to know more, a video of the whole event (featuring the back of my head!) is linked at the bottom of this article from the Mackinac Center.

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