Thursday, December 29, 2016

Aramaic: The OTHER Bible language

I've talked to a number of Christians over the years who were surprised to learn that the New Testament was not originally written in Hebrew, but in Greek. This blows their mind, because people associate the Christian Bible's original language with Hebrew. This is understandable, because most of the Christian Bible really was written in Hebrew - the Old Testament (or "Hebrew Bible," if you prefer) was written almost exclusively in Hebrew - all but about 250 verses of it, which were originally written in Aramaic. Besides Hebrew and Greek, there is one other language for Christian scholars, who want to read the Christian Bible in the original. (And you thought your mind wasn't blown enough ... )

What the heck is Aramaic?

I can guess what most of you are probably thinking: "What the heck is Aramaic, and why did the authors of the Bible choose to write in it?" If the ancestral language of the Jews was Hebrew (and it was), why did the Jewish authors of what we today call the "Old Testament" not write everything in Hebrew?

Map of the Ancient Near East

Thursday, October 27, 2016

So what exactly are the “Federalist Papers,” anyway?

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

- Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 1)

Frequently Asked Questions about the “Federalist Papers”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A review of PBS's “The Abolitionists”

"No person held to service or labour [a. k. a. "slavery"] in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

- Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the original Constitution  (a. k. a. the "Fugitive Slave Clause"), later superseded by the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865

The meaning of the word "abolitionist" was kept secret from slaves ...

The future abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a young slave boy when he first heard the word "abolitionist." He said it was some time before he found out what the word meant, even though "it was always used in such connections as to make it an interesting word to [him] ... If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition." He did not dare to ask any one about its meaning, he said, because he was "satisfied that it was something that they wanted [him] to know very little about"; and the dictionary afforded him little or no help, because it said only that it was "the act of abolishing," without mentioning what it was that was to be "abolished." (He was entirely correct that his masters didn't want him to know about it, and would have punished him severely if he had made any inquiries to them about its meaning.)

Frederick Douglass

... because it referred to the abolition of slavery

Thus, it was not until later that he finally discovered the mysterious secret of the word's meaning: "I got one of our city papers," Douglass said later, "containing an account of the number of petitions from the north, praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and of the slave trade between the States." (He was a literate man, it should be noted; in an age when slaves who knew how to read could be punished severely for the "offense" of literacy. He was thus one of a number of slaves who risked their lives just for the knowledge of learning how to read.) "From this time," he said, "I understood the words abolition and abolitionist, and always drew near when that word was spoken, expecting to hear something of importance to myself and [my] fellow-slaves." This early encounter with the abolitionist movement for Frederick Douglass, although brief, would have an enormous effect on his life; giving him the courage to escape from slavery once and for all (even after a first escape attempt had resulted in severe punishment), and to join the abolitionist movement as one of its most distinguished supporters - contributing much to the cause of black freedom, before and after the Civil War.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan didn't go communist (like mainland China did)

One of the basic facts about China today is that most of it is communist - the part that most of us hear about. Thus, it surprises some people to know that some parts of it are not communist at all; but have free-market capitalist systems like those found in the West. Why is this, you might ask? Why did these parts not go communist, when the rest of China did?

Flag of the People's Republic of China

China has two "Special Administrative Regions," which are Hong Kong and Macau

To answer that, you have to examine a little of the history; which explains why the country has two "Special Administrative Regions" (which are Hong Kong and Macau), and lays claim over still another region which is not communist, which is Taiwan. Why is this, you might ask? Why were these particular regions spared the cataclysmic forces that engulfed the rest of the Chinese-speaking world?

Map of the People's Republic of China

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The United States Constitution: The secret of America’s success

Great Seal of the United States

As I set out to write a general post about the Constitution of my country, I have the problem of any writer who speaks to a general audience: I speak to those familiar with my culture (including many fellow Americans), and those who know it not at all (since the Internet knows no political boundaries). Even when speaking to fellow Americans, I write to fellow adults who have the power to vote, to a rising generation not yet blessed with the opportunity to participate, and perhaps even to those yet unborn, who will run the country in a distant future. I speak to those who know these things now, to those who once knew these things (but have since forgotten), and to those who never learned them at all - often because the educational system failed to teach them the things it should have; and who, through no fault of their own, have never had the opportunity to hear the message of the Constitution.

A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

In talking about it, I would be remiss to leave out that it is the greatest success story of the United States; and may well be the greatest secret of its more than two centuries of uninterrupted democratic success - the reason for its current greatness. I will try to be (at least somewhat) brief, that I might not burden the audience with an excess of words and analysis; but I will try to be thorough as well, that I might not leave out anything that is essential to why it has worked as well as it has.

Interior of Independence Hall

Why do we have a Constitution, and how does it work?

Great Seal of the United States

As I set out to write a general post about the Constitution of my country, I have the problem of any writer who speaks to a general audience: I speak to those familiar with my culture (including many fellow Americans), and those who know it not at all (since the Internet knows no political boundaries). Even when speaking to fellow Americans, I write to fellow adults who have the power to vote, to a rising generation not yet blessed with the opportunity to participate, and perhaps even to those yet unborn, who will run the country in a distant future. I speak to those who know these things now, to those who once knew these things (but have since forgotten), and to those who never learned them at all - often because the educational system failed to teach them the things it should have; and who, through no fault of their own, have never had the opportunity to hear the message of the Constitution.

A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

In talking about it, I would be remiss to leave out that it is the greatest success story of the United States; and may well be the greatest secret of its more than two centuries of uninterrupted democratic success - the reason for its current greatness. I will try to be (at least somewhat) brief, that I might not burden the audience with an excess of words and analysis; but I will try to be thorough as well, that I might not leave out anything that is essential to why it has worked as well as it has.

Interior of Independence Hall

Congress controls the purse strings, and has power to declare war

"All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."

Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution

United States Capitol, the building where the Congress meets

The Congress is divided into two houses

The division of the legislature is one of the most important "balances" in the Constitution; because like the British Parliament it was modeled on, the legislative body of the United States is divided into two separate houses - analogous to the "House of Lords" and the "House of Commons" in British parliamentary government. This "bicameral" (or two-house) legislature is a big part of the reason why the Congress's power is as limited as it is, because it is sufficiently divided among multiple members to make it hard for any one "special interest" to gain control of it. (More on how each one is elected here, and how representation is determined here; if you seek further information on the subject.) The Constitution also says that a smaller number of members from each house "may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties as each House may provide." (Source: Article 1, Section 5, Paragraph 1) The Constitution even says that "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member." (Source: Article 1, Section 5, Paragraph 2) Both houses thus have some power to keep their affairs in order.

Parliament of Great Britain, the model for the U. S. Congress

The president enforces the laws, commands the military, and conducts foreign diplomacy

"The Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold office during the term of four years ... "

Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution

The White House, where every president of the United States has lived (excepting the first)

Unlike the Congress, the executive branch is controlled by a single individual, who is usually referred to in the masculine in the linguistic style of that time; although there are no prohibitions on a feminine president anywhere in the Constitution, so it is possible to have a female president (although I should note that at the time I write this, it has not happened yet). With this gender clarification in mind, I will give the portion of the Constitution establishing the executive branch: "The Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold office during the term of four years" (Source: Article 2, Section 1) There is usually also a Vice President of the United States, who is first in line to become president (more about that subject here). The Constitution says that "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided." (Source: Article 1, Section 3, Paragraph 4) However, the Senate does have some power to elect its own leaders, because the Constitution says that "The Senate shall choose their other officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the office of the President of the United States." (Source: Article 1, Section 3, Paragraph 5)

The federal judiciary serves for life, and can strike down laws

"The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may, from time to time, ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office."

- Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution

The part here about "good behaviour" is effectively a lifetime appointment, since it means that the judges can hold their offices for life unless convicted of a crime (which is fairly rare for American judges, possibly because of their being subject to removal in this way). Just as the executive branch is subject to impeachment, so is the judicial branch; and judges can be removed by the exercise of this power.

Alexander Hamilton

De facto lifetime appointment

The de facto lifetime appointment here is among the most criticized parts of the Constitution, but was defended by the Founding Fathers as making them independent of having too much influence from the other branches (which could erode the separation of powers), or the popular prejudices of the people, who might otherwise have the power to retaliate against those who enforce laws against them - even when those laws are just and have actually been broken by the people who were judged against. In the words of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, "The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments" (Source: Federalist No. 78) This is why Hamilton correctly quoted Montesquieu as saying that "Of the three powers above mentioned, the judiciary is next to nothing." (Quoted in footnote to Federalist No. 78) Hence, the radical mechanism of a de facto lifetime appointment, to protect against the improper influence of the other branches.

Supreme Court of the United States

How are constitutional amendments passed?

"The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importations, not exceeding 10 dollars for each person."

- Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 1 (a. k. a. the "Slave Importation Clause"), which contained one of the few parts of the Constitution that was temporarily immune to constitutional amendments

Slave who was brutally whipped

Compromises over slavery are a thing of the past

The original Constitution included many compromises over slavery - such as the Three-Fifths Clause (Source: Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3), the Slave Importation Clause (whose full text and citation are given above), and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Source: Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3) - perhaps the most detested power of them all in the Constitution. These compromises, however, are no more; because slavery has been completely abolished in American society, by the mechanism of constitutional amendment. How are these amendments, then, to be done?

Abraham Lincoln, the president who abolished slavery by means of a constitutional amendment

Monday, August 29, 2016

Did John Locke really claim that societies exist to protect private property?

The English philosopher John Locke was a vocal advocate of private property, and gave an eloquent defense of it in his "Second Treatise on Government." (More on that here.) Perhaps owing partially to that, it's sometimes been claimed that he said that this was the main reason that societies exist. It might even be claimed that he said capital punishment was an appropriate penalty for violating it through stealing - something which is vastly far from the truth, but which may seem (emphasis on "seem") to be supported by an actual quote from Locke's work - at least, when that quote is taken out of context.

John Locke

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How women got the right to vote (and how PBS covered it in a documentary)

"Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of Electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a State, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."

- Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified 1868), Section 2 - a major barrier to the enactment of women's suffrage before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, because of the word "male"

I had a sort of request from one of my female readers to do something about women's history. Up until that point, I had thought that women would not like hearing things about women's history coming from a man (such as myself); but considered at that point that women might also dislike the idea of their history being left out - which is not a fair perception for my particular blog, I might suggest (since I have talked about it indirectly, in posts about other things), but one that might be perceived nonetheless on the part of some women, if I didn't actually go out and write something specifically on women's history. Thinking "darned if I do, darned if I don't" (or something along those lines), I thought "What the heck?", and decided to write about women's history after all. (If you don't like the idea of women's history written by a man, then by all means, don't read this; but if you're not bothered by the masculine coverage of feminine history, then you're entirely welcome to read this post.)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: The central figures of this documentary

Thus, I set out to write a post about two of the great feminists of the women's suffrage movement, which are Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. These were both depicted in a Ken Burns film called "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony" (which was later broadcast on PBS). I imagine that Ken Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward (both men) also found themselves in the same uncomfortable position that I described for myself, which may have been why they dedicated this film to their daughters, and the other women in their lives. In that same spirit, I set out to give my review of this film; perhaps one that will be read by my future children and other descendants - which will likely include females, who will wonder what I said about their gender's history; and who I cannot let myself disappoint in my coverage here.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her two sons, 1848

Susan B. Anthony, 1848

Monday, August 15, 2016

A review of Michael Wood's “The Story of India”

"As from the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent Dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan."

- Indian Independence Act of 1947, as passed by the British Parliament

I should give a disclaimer for my international readers that I am from the United States (and not from India), and that none of my ancestors are from India, either - just from European countries like Britain, the country that financed this documentary. Thus, I do not claim to be an expert on India, as I am just a layperson in North America who is an outsider to this culture. With that disclaimer in mind, I will give an opinion on Michael Wood's "The Story of India," and how it compares with some other country histories I've seen on television.

Monday, August 8, 2016

United States Census can influence a state’s votes in Congress (and the presidential elections)

"Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed."

- Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Section 2 (ratified 1868)

The census is mandated by the Constitution

So we have a year ending in a "0" coming in a few years (2020), which means that the United States Census will be taking place again at that time. Most of us have heard of the U. S. Census before; but since many of my Facebook friends have never heard before that this is explicitly mandated by the Constitution, I thought it might be good to explain that there is a part of the Constitution that mandates having a census every ten years - not only because it's good to have accurate information about the population (for purposes of comparison with other countries), but also because the number of votes each state has in Congress - and also, the presidential elections - is determined by the official population count from the census. (Since the number of votes each state has in the presidential elections is dependent upon the number of votes each state has obtained in the Congress, I will first discuss the particulars of the Congress votes, before transitioning into how voting in the presidential elections works.)

Capitol Dome, at the building of the United States Congress

Number of votes each state gets in the House of Representatives is dependent upon this census

The number of Congressmen (or Congresswomen) each state gets in the House of Representatives, specifically, is proportioned to the populations of each state respectively. Thus, although it may be done partly for purposes of comparison with other countries' populations, this is not the only reason that it happens; since the most important reason is determining how many votes each state has in Congress - which is a big deal in determining the balance of power in the legislature (and by extension, the electoral college - but more on that later).

The Constitutional Convention, 1787

Friday, July 8, 2016

A review of “The Men Who Built America” (History Channel)

"The Men Who Built America" is something of a rarity in the world of documentaries, because it is one of the few history programs out there that actually focuses on the private sector. Most history programs focus on either heads-of-state or wars, and there's nothing wrong with this - public-sector history is definitely worthy of study; and it is well that our schools spend so much time teaching it. Nonetheless, there is much of importance that happens in the private sector as well; and our focus on "politics and the military" should not preclude us from talking about these things on occasion, if not frequently.

In that spirit, I set out to talk about this remarkable program; which is one of the few programs that talks sympathetically about the contributions of businessmen. When liberals talk about businessmen at all, it's usually in a negative sense, to paint them as greedy "robber barons" who will stop at nothing to make a buck. Fortunately, however, this show seems far enough to the right that they don't slow down the narrative with inappropriate rants about capitalism, and instead focus on the human story of what happened - showing the considerable accomplishments of these men, while not omitting the more sordid details of how they sometimes went about getting their massive fortunes.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Actually, John Locke DID influence the U. S. Declaration of Independence

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

- The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (first paragraph)

Some have claimed that John Locke didn't have much influence on the Founding Fathers ...

John Locke once wrote an eloquent defense of private property, which liberals enchanted with socialist ideas have long resented. Because of this, there have been some who have claimed that he did not really have much influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States, who are still quite popular in my American homeland.

John Locke

... so it might be helpful to correct the record

Because of this, it seems like it would be worthwhile now to correct the record; and give the evidence that Mr. Locke did indeed have an influence on the Founding Fathers. Most notably, he had a great influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence; and it can be shown that some of the language within it (not to mention the ideas) are a direct borrowing from John Locke.

Thomas Jefferson

Specifically, he influenced the Declaration of Independence, as these quotes will show ...

I will now present the quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which are well-known), followed by the quotes from John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government" (which are lesser-known). These will help to show that not only are the ideas the same, but in some cases, the language is as well.

John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A review of Ken Burns' “The West”

"Nevada Territory is fabulously rich in gold, silver, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver... thieves, murderers, desperadoes ... lawyers, Christians, Indians, [Chinese], Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes, poets, preachers and jackass rabbits."

- Samuel Clemens, who would later become known as "Mark Twain"

I have had a strong love-hate relationship with Ken Burns' "The West" ever since I first saw it, perhaps having more mixed feelings about it than any other documentary I've ever seen. There is so much good in it, and there is so much bad in it. I sometimes remember parts of it fondly when coming into contact with the history that it covers, but I also remember an overall negative impression that I received from much of the series. This is one of those series where political correctness is taken to levels that are a bit on the extreme side, which is strong enough to detract from the quality of some parts of it. Some parts of it are also quite good, which makes it hard for me to reject it outright; but my overall impression of this series has been generally negative since first watching it. It has much of value in it, but my memory of this series has tended to be negative.

Hernán Cortés

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How the Constitution was almost not ratified

"The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution between the states so ratifying the same."

- Article 7 of the United States Constitution

The Constitutional Convention

Our national debate over the Constitution is as old as the Constitution itself, with origins to be found in the events of the Constitutional Convention (where its particulars were first debated by the men present at the convention). The framers of the Constitution disagreed with each other vehemently on exactly what the document should say and do (and how it should say and do it); and a number of the men present at the convention refused to even sign the document after the debates at the convention. As many of them well knew, though, the national debate over what they had written was just beginning; since with the strict secrecy of the convention's proceedings at the time it was still going on, the nation didn't know what was in the document until after the finished product of the convention was presented to the nation; and many of them weren't all that happy over the things they found in it (to put it mildly).

A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

Why did so many people suspect the Constitution was "dangerous"?

Part of this may have been that they got all their surprises about the document at virtually the same time; since they had not been witness to the deals and compromises that had taken place so gradually during the events of the convention; and a gradual revelation of the document's contents was simply not possible after the nation's curiosity had been whetted by the "secrecy rule." (Which is not a criticism of the "secrecy rule," I should make clear; but it was natural for the people to wonder about it; and many of them assumed that the convention had something to hide in this regard, after the secret proceedings had been continuing for some four months without news.) The supporters of the Constitution all knew that they faced an uphill battle when they presented the final document to the people, and this uphill battle is today known as the debates over ratification (or the ratification debates) - arguably the most important debates in the nation's history, because of the sheer number of issues that it affected (then and now). If I might point this out, it affected the very democratic process by which all future political issues would be debated in America - and by extension, in a number of other places as well.

Newspaper advertisement for the Federalist Papers, 1787 (a part of the ratification debates)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reflections on learning about history of the Ancient Near East

"The term 'Near East' is not widely used today. It has survived in a scholarship rooted in the nineteenth century when it was used to identify the remains of the Ottoman empire on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Today we say Middle East to designate this geographical area, but the two terms do not exactly overlap, and ancient historians and archaeologists of the Middle East continue to speak of the Near East, as I will do in this book."

- Marc van de Mieroop's "A History of the Ancient Near East (ca. 3000 - 323 BC)", 2nd edition (2007), page 1

So I recently finished reading a book called "A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000 BC - 323 BC" (2nd edition). This book is by Marc van de Mieroop, and it is one of the few books to cover this time period that is available on Amazon.

So why did I study this particular time period, you might be wondering? What exactly is the "Ancient Near East," anyway; and why would anyone read about it?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Reflections on learning about Spanish linguistics

So I recently finished reading "El español a través de la lingüística: Preguntas y respuestas" ("Spanish Linguistics: Questions & Answers"), edited by Jennifer D. Ewald and Anne Edstrom. You might guess from the Gringo names that this book is written by Gringos for Gringos. If so, you'd be mostly right - this book is written largely by American scholars of Spanish, for American students of Spanish linguistics, at American universities.

This book is written largely by Gringos for Gringos

This book actually has about 30 different authors, only about one-third of whom have anything resembling a Spanish name - for either their first or last names. These chapters are written almost entirely in Spanish, and are thus geared towards students of Spanish beyond the beginning levels, who are already familiar with the basics of Spanish grammar. Nonetheless, these essays are, by and large, written by Gringos for Gringos - explaining difficult Spanish words with the equivalent English words in parentheses, and answering the kinds of questions that are most likely to come from Gringos learning Spanish as a second language - rather than from native speakers of Spanish, for whom the grammatical features discussed are familiar and taken for granted, and not something that would be looked upon as strange (as might be the case for an English speaker). Why, then, did I place such value on learning it? Put differently, if the Spanish of native speakers is the most instructive for second-language learners (and it usually is), then why would I read something written largely by people who aren't that way at all?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

David Hume and “The Wealth of Nations”

Most people today have never heard of the philosopher David Hume, a great figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. But many people today have heard of the man who was probably his best friend - a man who was greatly influenced by his philosophy (political, economic, and otherwise), and influenced him in his turn. That man was Adam Smith.

Statues of David Hume and Adam Smith

This is not to say that Mr. Hume's accomplishments were just in economics, or that Adam Smith was the only person that he influenced - he influenced many people, in the natural sciences and elsewhere. However, I shall focus this post on economics, and his influence on Adam Smith; and will leave the coverage of his empiricism - and his other contributions to the philosophy of science - to others.

Adam Smith

Monday, May 2, 2016

Latin America became independent because of Napoleonic Wars – (well, partially)

What does Napoleon have to do with Latin American independence?

When Napoleon's troops went to occupy Spain and Portugal, they set off a chain reaction of events that had massive effects on the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America - including, eventually, independence. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Saturday, April 23, 2016

My search for the Hebrew Bible in the original

I am an amateur Biblical scholar (emphasis on the "amateur"). I have been trying to learn Greek so I can read the New Testament in the original one day. (Any observations about being a shameless nerd are readily agreed with.) Many are surprised to learn that the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament were originally written in Greek (rather than Hebrew), and a number have asked me why. The reason is actually that Greek was the international language of the time. It was the language that people published in if they wanted to reach a wide audience, and that was the case with the early New Testament.

By contrast, the Old Testament really was written in Hebrew - or at least, most of it was. Scholars believe some of it may have originally been written in Aramaic - a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. In the words of my church's Bible Dictionary: "The original language of most of the Old Testament is Hebrew, but a few portions ... were written in what is popularly called Chaldee, but more correctly Aramaic." (Source: Entry on Bible itself)

My church's edition of the Holy Bible

I don't have any plans to learn either Hebrew or Aramaic; as they are difficult languages for English speakers, and my primary Biblical interest is the New Testament; but I thought that as long as I had a copy of the New Testament in the original Greek, I might as well complement it with a copy of the Old Testament in the original as well. Thus, I looked into what version to get; and found that this was easier said than done.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

History's horror stories: The “grand experiments” with communism

Americans have rightly been interested in their own country's history for a long time - both for the moving stories it contains, and for the secrets of its success. But we have long been interested in the stories of less successful countries as well, and we have a never-ending fascination with historical horror stories like those found in Nazi Germany. It is well that we pay them attention; because along with a careful study of the secrets of our own success, it is good to have a healthy knowledge of the causes of other countries' failures; and how the terrible events so tragically found in other countries could have been allowed to happen.

Iron Curtain, 1949 - border between the two Germanies

In that spirit, I set out to talk about another of history's "horror stories" - a story not as well-known as that of Nazi Germany, but one of vital importance nonetheless; which may be even more topical in this day, due to the expanding socialism found within our own country today. I speak of the experiences of other countries with the horrors of communism.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

War of “every man against every man”: Thomas Hobbes and the state of nature

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said that the state of nature is a "war of every man against every man." Many have not wanted to believe it (even great democratic philosophers like John Locke), believing that even if men are better off with civil society, life before civil society wasn't all that terrible. "I'm not violent like that!" many say, taking their own aversion to violence as representative of everyone else. "Humanity by nature is peaceful!"

Thomas Hobbes

And even in the book where Hobbes himself made this statement, he acknowledged that "it may seem strange to some man ... that nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore ... desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience." Thus, he meets this challenge head-on with the following argument:

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A review of “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”

One of the most important figures in black history was a civil rights leader named W. E. B. Du Bois. He was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and had the duty of editing their monthly magazine, which was a publication entitled "The Crisis."

W. E. B. Du Bois

Where does the unusual title of the documentary come from?

He wrote in "The Crisis" once in 1914 about an African-American boxer named Jack Johnson, who was the first person of this background to become boxing's "Heavyweight Champion of the World." Here is the quote that the title of this Ken Burns film comes from:

W. E. B. Du Bois

It comes from a quote by a civil rights leader named W. E. B. Du Bois, which is as follows:

"Boxing has fallen into disfavor ... The reason is clear: Jack Johnson ... has out-sparred an Irishman. He did it with little brutality, the utmost fairness and great good nature. He did not 'knock' his opponent senseless ... Neither he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it. Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black. Of course some pretend to object to Johnson's character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of White America, that marital troubles have disqualified prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness." - W. E. B. Du Bois, in "The Crisis" (1914), with emphasis added

Jack Johnson

The film's title is thus easy to misconstrue as pro-racist (when, in fact, it is the opposite)

With the background established for the title of this film - which is easy to misconstrue, when taken out of context - I will now launch into my review of this film, and talk about this important person from the history of Black America.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A review of Fergal Keane's “The Story of Ireland” (BBC Northern Ireland)

" ... the said kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland shall, upon the first day of January, which shall be in the year of our lord one thousand eight hundred and one, and for ever, be united into one kingdom, by the name of 'the united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' ... "

- Act of Union (Ireland) of 1800, passed by the Parliament of Ireland; and accompanying the Union with Ireland Act of 1800, passed by the Parliament of Great Britain

I should preface this review by saying that I am an American, whose ancestors are predominantly from the "British Isles." Although this includes much English, Scottish, and Welsh; I also have a significant portion of Irish ancestry as well; and so Ireland is something of a heritage country for me. As a disclaimer, though, I will freely say that I have grown up with a generally positive view of the British (although one which recognizes that the British were not perfect people, and did a number of things that complicate their legacy). I will also say freely that all these things notwithstanding, I have not always sympathized with the anti-British rhetoric coming from some in Ireland today, although I have disagreed with a number of things that the British have done over the years - including the way they treated my American homeland, in the years of our own revolution; and the way they treated the other colonial peoples of their empire in the complicated history of British imperialism.

A modern stained glass window of Saint Patrick (the man who brought Catholicism to Ireland),
whose authenticity I will neither vouch for nor call into question

Catholics and Protestants is a major theme in Irish history

Nonetheless, all these things aside; I felt like I learned a lot from this landmark documentary on "The Story of Ireland," and it helped me to understand the other side of the story - a largely Catholic viewpoint, to be sure - from the one we often hear in my strongly Protestant country. I consider myself a neutral in the wars between Catholics and Protestants, I should note; and as a devout Mormon, I don't feel compelled to pick sides in this argument. (As my dad might say, I "don't have a dog in this fight.") I sympathize with both sides in this struggle to a large degree; and I certainly can understand the Irish side - and even sympathize with some of their grievances against the British - without any feelings of shame about my other "British Isles" heritage.

Union Jack flag, a potent symbol of British union that is controversial in much of Ireland

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Learning Spanish from doing missionary work

I once mentioned to my Spanish professor in 2012 that I was reading the Book of Mormon in Spanish to practice the language. Although this particular professor was not a Mormon herself, she approved of this endeavor on the grounds of its tendency to improve my Spanish; and she asked me point-blank if I had served a mission for my church. I actually got the same question a year later from my employer of that time (specifically, my boss's boss), and the man asking me the question this time around was not a Mormon, either - which is probably an indication of what visible symbols of the Mormon faith its missionaries are; with the young men in white shirts and ties being an internationally recognized symbol of my church's proselyting efforts.

Photo obtained from church website

The answer to their question is actually a complicated one (although it was probably less so then), and this is probably the first time that I have ventured to go into detail on this question. This answer depends somewhat on what your definition of a "mission" is, since it is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems; so I will attempt to explain clearly what my religion means by that term, before I go into any sort of detail about whether my service would qualify for this honor.

Photo obtained from church website

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Reflections on studying the history of languages (and how they change over time)

So I recently read a book called "Historical Linguistics" (3rd edition), by Winfred P. Lehmann - a pretty textbooky title, if you ask me - which talks about the way that languages tend to change over time, and the way that modern scholars investigate this change. There's a strong emphasis on methodology in this book, I should make clear; but there are enough historical examples from actual data that I felt like I learned some interesting historical content as well - particularly from the regions I'm currently interested in most, which are the various parts of Europe (although there is a significant amount of content from India as well) - and I feel like I learned a lot from the book.

The textbook that I read

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A review of PBS's “FDR” movie

"This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself ... "

- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his First Inaugural Address (4 March 1933)

I should give a disclaimer up front that I have not seen Ken Burns' series "The Roosevelts," which includes considerable material on both Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. Although I've heard it's weaved together fairly well (and tells their lives in parallel), I am somewhat put off by the length of the series, and feel no particular need to watch it anyway - at this time, at least - when I have this fine film about FDR (and another about his famous cousin Theodore Roosevelt). Perhaps I will get around to watching it someday - I've heard that it's sometimes available on Netflix - but for now, at least, I'll confine my made-for-television biographies of FDR to this classic one by David Grubin; who is also the maker of PBS's films on Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, and LBJ. (I might also note one other thing about this filmmaker, which is that he made some films about a few notable Europeans as well, such as Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, which are also quite good.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this television biography of FDR is quite good - with plenty of real photographs and footage of him, it manages to tell the story with considerable interest and visual detail. It has interviews with his descendants (along with some former members of his administration and a number of scholarly talking heads); and there's also a notable interview with one of Churchill's daughters, where she comments on this famous relationship between the two men, which was one of the great and important relationships of World War II. FDR actually got us involved in the war long before Pearl Harbor, with the Lend-Lease aid to Britain, and the Navy's involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic. Although not many would appreciate it today, FDR was pushing the envelope on what Americans would tolerate in this area; and he may have helped save Britain by his successful advocacy of (at least some) early American involvement in the war.

Atlantic Charter, 1941 - a meeting between FDR and Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales

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