Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
Heal the rift between Christians and public schools
Pro-child, not just pro-life
Aberrations of the human eye
The hangman paradox solved?
Where did www.ai.uga.edu/mc go?
Taming a hot prop rod (automotive)
What makes a good Bible translation?
Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques
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What makes a good Bible translation?

The highlight of the week was meeting, and attending a talk by, C. John "Jack" Collins, who is the Old Testament editor of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. This is actually the translation I have preferred for a long time. In what follows I'll share Dr. Collins' thoughts and expand on them a little with my own thoughts, which are very similar.

Dr. Collins says the usual classification of translations, from "literal" on one end of the scale to "dynamic equivalence" on the other end, is too simple.

Because the Bible wasn't originally written in English, and no two languages are alike, you can't translate "literally", or if you do, you'll produce bad English, and people will find it puzzling or even misunderstand it. Your real choices are to produce something that is "essentially literal" or something that is more of a paraphrase.

The difference is that a paraphrase tells you what the translator thinks the Bible is trying to tell you, whereas an "essentially literal" translation tries to give you the same interpretive possibilities that exist in the original language without making up your mind for you. This cannot be done perfectly, of course, but it's the goal. Key idea: If a verse can mean more than one thing, or ties together more than one idea, the translator should pass this along to the reader, as far as possible.

Here's an example. The Ten Commandments say, "Do not covet [a list of things] or anything else that is your neighbor's" (ESV). The Hebrew is literally "and all that is to your neighbor." We don't use "to" that way in English. But the TEV says "anything else that your neighbor owns," which is misleading. You've just been told not to covet your neighbor's wife, and nowhere does the Bible say your neighbor "owns" his wife. The ESV gets it right by using the language of belonging in a loose sense, not ownership. Dr. Collins calls this respect for the words of the original.

This means, for instance, that the modern reader is going to have to learn a little about how the ancient languages express things. Gender-neutral language is a particular problem. In Greek, "brothers" always potentially means "brothers and sisters," but it is not always clear whether the original writer has a mixed group in mind in any particular case. Rather than make the English clumsy (and make decisions about inclusiveness that the original writer left unstated), the reasonable translator will expect the modern reader to pay attention and be willing to learn a little about how the ancient book expresses ideas. We do this when we read translations of Homer, Plato, or anything else written in ancient times. To expect the Bible to talk exactly like us would be to deny that it has a history.

Dr. Collins classifies the King James Version, the RSV, and the ESV all as "essentially literal." (They differ in other ways, of course.) The ASV and NASB are, by his criteria, a bit too literal, sacrificing clear understandability in English in order to stick closer to the Greek and Hebrew wording.

Moving in the other direction, the NIV (very popular in evangelical churches) is a small step in the paraphrase direction; the New Living Translation, the old Living Bible, the TEV, CEV, and Phillips are bigger steps in the same direction. Many people my age remember the big green Living Bible that was so popular with high-school students in the 1970s. I actually never had one and didn't like it, although such things are useful for people who have never read the Bible before and want someone to explain it to them.

Compared to the RSV, the ESV takes more conservative positions on some controversies. This is partly because of better archeology — we now have the Dead Sea Scrolls and similar material to confirm that the traditional Old Testament has been handed down intact. And it's partly due to a principle that Dr. Collins calls respect for the process by which the Bible reached us. That is, the goal is to translate the Bible, not something that we imagine predated the Bible as we have it. The ESV does not conjecture or speculate. It follows the best archeological evidence, which is sometimes different from the text people had in earlier days, but unlike the RSV, the ESV never goes beyond evidence.

This is as it should be. In any ancient book, there are going to be a few words and phrases that seem unusual or obscure. That's because we don't know everything the original audience knew. It is a mistake to assume that all the obscure parts are "corruptions" and need "emendation."

Dr. Collins also advocates respect for readers and preachers — by which he means translate readably but don't oversimplify. He doesn't want the Bible "dumbed down." Passages that require thought in the original should still require thought when you're reading a translation.

And his final plank is respect for the English Bible translation tradition. The King James Version in particular has shaped the English language, and (like other translations with "standard" in their titles) the ESV aims to preserve familiar wording as far as possible. Memorable passages should be kept memorable if there is no loss of accuracy, even if the wording comes out slightly old-fashioned.

I'll add one last word of advice of my own, which I discussed with Dr. Collins and with which he agrees. Don't shop for a translation that suits your opinions and tastes. If a passage comes out different in different translations, that's because it can genuinely be taken more than one way, or at least it's genuinely difficult. You don't want to be unaware of this fact. In fact, I don't spend much time worrying about whether the translators are doctrinally conservative Christians. I mostly care about whether they are knowledgeable, honest scholars.

[Addendum:] Although I think the King-James-Only movement is sadly mistaken about many things, they do get one thing right. They advocate only the King James Version and are against all modern translations. What they get right is the fact that the Bible is an ancient book, and its writers don't think or talk like modern Americans. We need to learn how they express ideas, rather than assume that they are just like us. Fundamentally, they object to modern translations for trying to force-fit the Bible into modern ways of living and thinking. Some modern translations do indeed have this problem.

[Addendum:] Here is a detailed review of the ESV (first edition; corrections have been made in the second edition). What is striking is that the points on which the ESV comes in for criticism are so minor.


Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques

Just after midnight this morning (August 23) I managed to get a picture of Comet Jacques, though it's not a great picture, but it didn't take a lot of effort, either. Single 30-second exposure with dark frame subtraction done in the camera, Canon 60Da, ISO 1250, Sigma 105-mm lens at f/4, iOptron SkyTracker. This was taken in town under a hazy sky, and someone east of me was using searchlights to advertise something. (I want to know who, so that I can refrain from giving them my business; the sky is not a billboard!)

The Canon raw file was processed in superpixel mode in PixInsight, and subsequent processing included automatic background gradient subtraction to remove some of the effect of city lights.

This is a seventh-magnitude comet, apparently a nice view in a telescope (I didn't use one), but so compact that it almost looks like a star in binoculars. It is moving across Cassiopeia and Cepheus in the coming days. The brightest star in my picture is Epsilon Cassiopeiae.


New keyboard

As a retirement present, I was going to buy myself a new keyboard for my home desktop PC, but for various reasons I hadn't gotten around to it. For many years my preferred keyboard was that of a PS/2 Model 25 (top picture) — a classic IBM "click, clack" keyboard that allows me to keep the mouse close by, so that my arm doesn't get tired. I don't like reaching across the never-used numeric keypad that takes up so much space on the right-hand side of an ordinary keyboard.

I bought some surplus PS/2-25 keyboards about fifteen years ago, and they work fine, but they don't have the Windows key. They're also a bit too noisy to use during Skype conferences. And they have a PS/2 interface, of course, because USB hadn't been invented yet.

Yesterday (August 20) I moved to a keyboard made in this century, an HP USB mini keyboard that preserves the PS/2-25 layout, is just as compact, but adds some modern conveniences such as volume up and down buttons. (It also has buttons that launch the web browser, the search box, and Outlook. I detest Outlook. I hope I can make it launch Thunderbird.)

(Fixed. In the Registry, remove all the keys under
except the mail client(s) you actually use. The first one in the list is the one that will open.)

This is strictly speaking a "tenkeyless" keyboard (lacking the numeric keypad). Most "mini" keyboards are smaller, arranged like laptop keyboards (which is probably what they're made out of).

People recommended various unusual ergonomic keyboards, and quite a few have been telling me to get an Apple keyboard. (For Windows 7?) But I give this one my recommendation. The price is right, it's quiet, and I can type fast on it.


On being a moderate

On the political spectrum, I often describe myself as moderate or moderate-conservative.

That does not mean I don't have strong convictions. It means my strong convictions do not always line up with the existing liberal-to-conservative scale.

Old cars and HDTV

Thought for the day: There are automobiles that actually run and are 100 years old.

I saw one of them on the TV show Fantomworks the other day — actually a 97-year-old automobile. Some parts, such as the differential housing, looked almost exactly like their modern equivalents.

I've never watched much TV, but since we got cable with HDTV, I've enjoyed some shows about technology and artifacts, such as several automotive restoration shows, plus American Restoration (about restoring technological antiques of all kinds) and Pawn Stars (about the antiques and curios that come through a major pawn shop).

I like these shows because they give me information without drama. I don't watch sitcoms because they are tiresome; they often insult my values and everyone else's. I don't have the attention to spare for crime dramas, though I like them. Political and scientific "fact" shows usually add way too much drama — they are trying to push someone's opinionated perspective and trying to make the content look more important than it actually seems to be. But shows like Pawn Stars simply deliver facts about interesting things, with no axe to grind.

And I think HDTV made these shows possible. It's hard to imagine enjoying any of them on the blurry black-and-white screen of 1960s NTSC television. You just wouldn't be able to see enough fine detail to appreciate what you're looking at! That goes for both the automotive craftsmanship and the appraising of antiques.


Web site moved

As I was indicating the other day, my University of Georgia web pages have moved to http://www.covingtoninnovations.com/mc.

Pages for group research projects, namely ProNTo, CASPR, and ARC, are still hosted by the University.

They didn't kick me out. They reorganized servers, introducing a distinction between www.ai.uga.edu, maintained by the Franklin College to institutional standards, and ai1.ai.uga.edu, the server in the AI Lab itself.

Since many of my URLs were changing, I decided to move everything, once and for all.


A hot (prop) rod

Today on Covington's Auto Hints: The prop rod that holds a car's hood open can be almost too hot to touch if the engine has been running, such as when you check the oil during a road trip.

To make it comfortable to grab, take a piece of stiff plastic tubing, cut a slit in it, and fit it around the middle part of the prop rod. If the tubing shows any inclination to come off, you can glue it back together along the slit, but I did not find this necessary.


Highly recommended: Xenu's Link Sleuth

It's unpretentious and doesn't have a fancy web page, but Xenu's Link Sleuth is the handiest piece of software I've come across lately.

I use it to do two things:

  • Check a web site (on the Web or on disk) for broken links;
  • Check a web site (on disk) for "orphan files" (files that can't be reached, in any number of steps, by following links from the start page).

The dead-link checker has the option of checking only internal links, not external ones. That is what I chose when quickly working over my UGA web site. I can't take responsibility for other people's web sites, but I want all the links within my own site to work. The others, if they're obsolete, are kept for historical reasons until someone can work out what they should change to.


Where did www.ai.uga.edu/mc go?

Due to changes in the University's web servers, to my dismay most URLs starting with www.ai.uga.edu/mc and www.ai.uga.edu/~mc no longer work.

That means you cannot find my academic work at the locations where Google, or Bing, or other people's web pages think it can be found. Most web links to my papers, software, and research projects are broken.

Regardless of what happens, all my University of Georgia pages are now mirrored at www.covingtoninnovations.com/mc and I plan to keep it that way. Google will soon index the mirror site and, I hope, will lead people to the files at their new locations.

[Update:] What has happened is that the Institute now has two servers, an official one maintained by the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and an internal one that can easily be updated by users. The latter is ai1.ai.uga.edu and contains most of the content formerly on www.ai.uga.edu. Some redirections are being set up, but apparently the redirection will never be more than partial.


Do your glasses feel tilted?

Here's a practical optical fact that I stumbled on last night.


  • your glasses feel tilted, as if one eye were higher than the other, or the image seen through one eye is higher than the other; and
  • your glasses are nonetheless level on your face; and
  • the lens prescriptions are appreciably different in your two eyes,

then the problem may be that your glasses are at the wrong height.

The height error has a different effect in each eye because of the different lens prescriptions.

You can check by moving a hand back and forth quickly to block the view from one eye and then the other. Objects in the distance should not jump up and down as you do. If they seem to, then you have this problem and should try changing the height of the eyeglasses relative to your face (by adjusting the nose pads). It's hard to predict whether they should come up or down; try moving them both ways by hand before adjusting anything.

If you have a mild version of this problem, your eye muscles will compensate and you'll see OK, but your glasses will be tiring to use.

This is a problem that you won't have with glasses properly fitted by an optician. You may encounter it (as I did) with old glasses that may have gotten bent, with mail-order glasses, or conceivably with glasses that were adjusted by an optician other than the one who ordered the lenses.


GPS firmware update stopped my car (?) [No.]


This morning (Aug. 9) I couldn't start the Ford. It had a dead battery.

After some sleuthing, I thought I found out what was running the battery down: My Garmin Nuvi 50 (or as they say it, nüvi 50) GPS device, whose firmware I had recently updated.

The update stopped it from mispronouncing the name of the street I live on, and for that I am grateful. But it also changed its behavior in response to brief power cutouts and voltage dips. I haven't pinned down the details, but the GPS turns itself on when it wouldn't previously have done so.

However, that wasn't the problem. The next day, with the GPS and its lighter-socket charger disconnected, the car again wouldn't start. Investigation is continuing.

The rest of the story: The second time I tried to recharge the battery, it wouldn't go above 11 volts. Somehow, it nonetheless managed to start the car. Obviously, it had a shorted cell. It was still within its 3-year free replacement warranty period, so Ford replaced it, free. Kudos to Athens Ford for handling this on short notice.

Success with cheap mail-order eyeglasses

In January I wrote about a disappointing experience ordering glasses from Zenni Optical in China. They were optically good, more or less, but fit terribly.

Since then I've discovered that there was an error (fortunately not fatal) in the eyeglass prescription on which they were based; that is, the eye doctor apparently caught my eyes having an odd day, and the preceding two prescriptions (very similar to each other) are more accurate.

More importantly, the frames were way too small for my face. Most of Zenni's fashionable Chinese frames don't fit my full-size British face. (I wear a size 7 3/4 hat, for what that's worth.)

Using a more accurate prescription and selecting Zenni's largest frames, I got a very successful pair of astronomy glasses that fit right out of the box, without adjustment.

I'm changing my astronomy work style. At one time I used special bifocals with a large distance-vision segment and a small near-vision segment. Those were expensive and still didn't do quite what I needed. My new approach is to wear glasses that focus on infinity, and simply take them off to look at the camera, the telescope controller, or the map. My nearsighted eyes do just fine in that situation; I hold the map or instrument eight to ten inches away from my eyes and can see even the minuscule details of a Canon camera display.

Next step: to get a strap so the glasses can hang around my neck when I take them off.

"The printer put a watermark on my paper"

Today's computer troubleshooting story is definitely out of the ordinary.

I was told that the printer seemed to be putting a "watermark" on the paper. Sure enough, looking at an example under a strong desk lamp, I saw a streak that was dark when lit one way, and light when lit another way, running all the way across the paper. This recurred on several sheets in the same position and extended outside the printable area. The printing itself was perfect.

My first thought was that something was wrong with the paper. We inspected several sheets of paper, made sure they didn't have this flaw, and then printed on them. Voilà — there is was.

Next I wondered if something inside the printer was oily and was getting a bit of oil on the paper in just that position. Hmmm... The paper path...

Looking again at the paper, I suddenly realized that it was a wrinkle, not a watermark. The paper was slightly bent.

So... Was the paper set for the wrong type of paper? Yes. It was an HP inkjet, set up for glossy photo paper but printing on plain paper. Not only did it stop wrinkling the paper when this was corrected, it also printed much faster.

Athens Maker Fest

This afternoon Melody and I went to the Lyndon House Art Center (my first trip there ever!) for the Athens Maker Fest. This is not actually one of the Maker Faires sponsored by Make magazine but is very similar in spirit. We saw everything from spinning wheels in use to 3D printing. It's going to be an annual event, and I hope to go regularly.


The hangman paradox solved?

A few years ago I wrote about the hangman paradox, a classic logic puzzle that has occupied philosophers as distinguished as W. V. O. Quine (who was my thesis advisor's thesis advisor, so he must be great).

The paradox goes as follows:

Suppose a judge tells you that: (a) you will be hanged at noon on one of the next seven days, (b) the hangman will come to get you shortly before noon on that day, and (c) you will not know which day it will be until the hangman comes to get you.

You follow this chain of reasoning:

They can't hang you on the last day, day 7, because if they chose day 7, you'd know their choice as soon as you lived through noon on day 6.

And if day 7 is eliminated, then day 6 becomes the last day, and you can rule it out the same way. (Take a moment to think it through.)

And the same thing happens to days 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.

And then you conclude that they can't hang you at all.

But then the hangman comes — say, on day 4 — and they do hang you. The terms of the judge's sentence are fulfilled, because, sure enough, you didn't know on which day you'd be hanged. So where did the contradiction go?

Quine's observation is that your conclusion that you won't be hanged at all contradicts what you were told, so it must be wrong.

But I have another insight.

The chain of reasoning is valid. It doesn't prove they'll never hang you; it proves that no matter what they do, they cannot fulfill (a), (b), and (c) with all their implications. That is, (a), (b), and (c) add up to a contradiction, although it takes several steps of reasoning to show it.

When they come and hang you on Day 4, they still haven't fulfilled (a), (b), and (c). They have only fulfilled the part that was obvious to you before you did the chain of reasoning. If they hang you on Day 4, they have nonetheless given you information that implies you cannot be hanged that day (or any other day). They're not keeping their word.

Note by the way that if (c) had said "you will not be told" rather than "you will not know," there would be no paradox. In thinking about this paradox, we are tempted to mix up what you're told, what the you know immediately, and what you know after prolonged reasoning. They're not the same.

What do paradoxes mean? That the world is illogical? That thinking is futile?

Not at all. The simplest paradox is a single sentence, "This sentence is false." What it proves is that human language is versatile enough to express incomplete and even defective reasoning. If it were not, we would not be able to express any thought before figuring out whether it was logical. Because logic takes time, and because our minds are limited, and because we are creative, we don't want that kind of limitation.



For two decades, at least, a standing joke in our house has been that when we say "the food secrets of Mexico" we mean this jar of nails.

Picante, ¿verdad?


Aberrations of the human eye

The latest thing in eyeglass technology is correcting aberrations of the human eye — that is, using aspheric lenses to correct optical defects beyond the traditional ones.

Conventional eyeglasses, little changed since the mid-1800s, correct only three things:

  • Focusing error — the eye focuses at the wrong distance (nearsighted or farsighted) because the lens is too thick or too thin.
  • Astigmatism — a lens or corneal surface has ellipsoidal rather than spherical symmetry — that is, it's stretched, and as a result, the image is slightly smeared. This will make some of the spokes of a wagon wheel look sharper than others that slope in a different direction.
  • Prism — the eye isn't pointing in quite the desired direction, as in crossed eyes, wall eyes, and other muscle problems. Most eyeglasses do not include prism correction.

Of these, only astigmatism is actually an aberration, and as you might guess, it becomes a catch-all for other optical errors. More complicated distortions of a corneal or lens surface are managed by pretending that they are astigmatism and matching them as best you can.

The higher-order aberrations that are now being measured are mainly:

  • Spherical aberration — the outer parts of the lens focus differently than the center (as shown in the diagram).
  • Coma — the effect of a lens element that is off center, when the center of curvature doesn't match the center of the lens.
  • Trefoil — like astigmatism, but with triangular rather than elliptical shape. (For astigmatism, imagine yourself grabbing a big lens-shaped piece of rubber with two hands and pulling, making it into an ellipse. For trefoil, grab it with three hands.)

Trefoil is one I hadn't heard of before. But I've seen it; telescopes can get it when a mirror is held in place by three screws and they are all too tight

How do higher-order aberrations look? Essentially, they make you see a low-contrast, slightly blurred image superimposed on a sharp one. For instance, a distant, small light will look like a sharp point with a bright patch around it.

Do we want to get rid of higher-order aberrations? Coma and trefoil, yes, definitely. They are very much like astigmatism (in fact, coma, which is uncommon, is easily approximated as astigmatism).

Spherical aberration — not so fast. Spherical aberration can actually improve the image quality if the lens needs to focus over a range of distances, as the human eye does. In fact, some people undergoing cataract surgery choose "multifocal" intraocular lenses, which enable them to both drive and read without glasses. These lenses use lots of spherical aberration to produce images that are sharp at different distances, superimposed on each other. Many people live well with this. I suspect I wouldn't, so when the time comes, I'll want a monofocal intraocular lens.

How well do eyeglasses correct higher-order aberrations? The jury is still out. Zeiss has a new aberration-correcting lens called i.Scription but few eye doctors prescribe it; special equipment is needed. I've heard of earlier attempts at similar technology that left doctors and patients unimpressed. Let's see where it goes.


Two ways words change meaning

In a 1977 paper, my graduate-school advisor, Rulon S. Wells III, pointed out two ways in which words change meaning, metonymy and metaphor.

Metaphor is the deliberate application of a word to something that resembles what it first referred to.

Consider for example dial. The word originally meant 'sundial,' a gadget that tells you what time of day (dies) it is.

When clocks were invented, the face of a clock looked rather like a sundial (simplified) and served a similar purpose, so it, too, was called a dial.

Then, mid-20th-century telephones introduced a strange rotating control, not much like anything ever seen before, but marked with numbers not unlike a clock face. That, too, was called a dial.

In short order, dial, as a verb, started to denote any way of entering numbers into the telephone network — usually by pushing buttons, sometimes in other ways. By a long series of metaphors, dial went from sundials to an action that I can perform by speaking commands to a computer.

Metonymy is more or less accidental change in the criteria that determine how to apply a word.

For example, I recently heard someone quoted as saying, "I need someone to take a selfie of me." She wanted a mug shot for her web page. In her mind, "selfie" did not mean 'self-portrait' (picture taken by the person in it) but rather 'picture distributed by the person in it.'

The way the metonymy worked is obvious; most selfies are both, and a person learning the word by looking at examples of its use could easily 'learn' something different from what others had in mind.

That is, metonymic changes of meaning are uncorrected misunderstandings, while metaphors are intentional.


Pro-child, not just pro-life

[Revised to improve organization.]

A very intelligent friend who is on the opposite side of the abortion controversy from me has pointed out that the present vogue for abortion is part of a more general hostility toward children and childbearing, and we need to address the whole problem, not just part of it. In fact, if we address only part of it, we risk doing things that are (or look) counterproductive in other parts.

Now I want to distinguish this from a false accusation that I hear fairly often and is not too well thought out. People say, "If you're against abortion, then you have to support all the unwanted children and their mothers." Point 1: We do have organizations to assist single women who are unexpectedly pregnant; they're in every town; stop saying we don't. Point 2: Don't people have some responsibility for their own actions?

What I want to address is this. Around 1950, modern society, especially in America, decided to treat children really well, for a change. I'm one of the beneficiaries of that decision. I think it may have been spurred by a drop in infant mortality (so that parents could have confidence that their children were here to stay) and the desire to hand on postwar prosperity to the next generation.

Society was very supportive of parents at the time. The public school system was greatly built up, as were other resources for young people and parents. Having children was the thing to do. The ideal of the one-income household, although it was a hindrance for women's rights, was aimed at ensuring that children were well taken care of. Employers were expected to pay a living wage and give good benefits.

Around 1970 or 1975, we collectively lost our enthusiasm for supporting families and children. Popular culture no longer held up stable marriage as the ideal; instead, it was much more glamorous to be perpetually adolescent and live a life of flirtation, not commitment. (Look at the people depicted in magazine ads for almost any product, 1955 versus 1975 or 1980.) Public schools slid backward as communities started being hesitant to fund them adequately. There was constant chatter about overpopulation and about how, if you had children, you were just using up the earth's resources. Better, people thought, to be single and selfish.

We need to at least start envisioning what it would look like to turn this around. How can we make society more supportive of children and parenthood again?

Here are some suggestions.

  • Don't talk as if childbirth were undesirable. Folks, overpopulation didn't happen, and now, Europe is facing, and America will soon face, serious problems from too little population growth. What if you've developed a successful country, culture, and economy, and there's no one to hand it on to? We don't want massive population growth, but we don't want shrinkage either.

    It is surely a shallow kind of feminism that would say that women would be better off if deprived of their unique ability to give birth. (Essentially, the reasoning would be, "Men are better, so let's make women better by making them more like men." You call that feminism?) Yet much advocacy of abortion and contraception seems to come from this kind of thinking.
  • Don't over-glamorize singleness. Whole cultures have grown up where people are expected to be single and able to work round the clock. I'm thinking of Silicon Valley, which isn't even sexually promiscuous, just work-obsessed. Management experts need to point out that too much work without rest or family life is inefficient; you don't actually get more done that way. And those of us who know the benefits of lifelong faithful marriage need to get out the word that being loved for 30 years is better than being thrilled for 30 days!
  • Expect employers to be family-friendly. Here Obamacare works the wrong way by setting up incentives to employ people only part-time. (But that's another rant.) If the best workers expected more of their employers, they'd get it, and they could be a force for widespread reform.
  • Support the public schools, whether or not you use them. I want both public and private education to flourish and not be adversarial toward each other. (That was yesterday's entry, below.)
  • Find ways of making day care affordable. The quality of day care seems to have come up remarkably during the past fifty years, but what good is it if it takes the mother's whole salary? I'm not sure what the answer is; maybe something could be done with tax deductions.
  • Support the social safety net to shield children from their parents' misfortunes. We don't want unlimited handouts for everyone, but it is not only humane, it is economical to spend some money to catch people when they are on the way into poverty (typically after a family breakup or medical crisis) and prevent them from plunging right in.
  • Reform the divorce laws so they say more than "just walk away." I don't think the civil law can or should narrow divorce down to the limited circumstances in which conservative Christians would permit it. But surely we can move away from "no-fault divorce." Currently, a marriage can be terminated by mutual consent — which means by pressure of either one on the other. But marriage is a commitment to society, not just an arrangement between individuals. Unfaithfulness should not be rewarded.
  • Above all, stay tuned in to facts. Good decision making requires actual knowledge, not just speculation or rumors. Be well-informed, and encourage others to do some digging. Don't let casual rumors and chit-chat substitute for information.

Practically every prosperous person has benefited from loving, caring, hard-working parents and a stable family situation. If we know what's good for us, we should be trying to secure these advantages for more people in the future. Bottom line: Treat children better. Be pro-child.


Can we heal the rift between Christians and the public schools?

Despite last month's preponderance of astronomy pictures, this is not solely a science blog. Today and tomorrow I want to write about the way society treats children. Today, a very narrow but important topic...

I want to appeal to my fellow Christians to try to heal the rift between conservative Christians and the public schools. I think we would all be better off if we did so.

The problem is that a vicious cycle has started up. Christians distrust public schools and withdraw from them. The people who run the schools realize this, and the distrust becomes mutual — they stop trying to serve the Christian part of the community. This makes the distrust worse, and so on.

During my own and my daughters' schooling, I have been sorely disappointed by some public schools, but well served and impressed by others. When public schools let me down, it was not because of hostility toward Christian values. It was because they were having trouble maintaining a safe, nurturing environment in the face of overcrowding and under-funding.

I call on my fellow Christians to do the following:

  • Spread good news, not just bad news. Whenever a klutzy teacher or administrator handles a church-and-state issue badly, a million Christians seem eager to spread the word. But when ten or a hundred wise teachers handle a sensitive issue well, nobody talks about it.

    Not only does this distort the Christian public's impression of the schools, it also keeps the less astute teachers from wanting to emulate their wiser colleagues. They don't see wise decisions being honored by the public.
  • Support ample funding. The single best thing we could do for the public schools, in my opinion, is improve the student-teacher ratio. (Maybe by adding teachers' aides rather than reducing class sizes; there are several ways to do it. The important thing is to get more adults into the schools so they can know the students personally.) This costs money.
  • Stop being anti-intellectual about things like evolution. Ask any teacher, and they'll assure you, "You don't have to believe this, but you definitely have to know about it." It seems to them that we are intellectually lazy — that we don't want Christians to have to learn what other people learn. To develop a Christian perspective on science (or society, or anything else), you have to know more than secular education teaches you, not less.
  • Stop using fringe rhetoric. Are schools really "government indoctrination centers"? That is the rhetoric of the reactionary right wing, not the Christian community. Do you actually see "indoctrination" going on? Or are you just trying to rouse people to hostility?

I call on the people who run public schools to meet us halfway:

  • Make sure teachers and staff know that they are free — in fact they are encouraged — to teach students about the cultures around them, including religious beliefs and practices. No student should be pressured to perform any religious act — not even sing a religious song or make a religious art project — but it is not the schools' job to keep students ignorant or pretend that religion has had no role in history.

    A few lesser minds seem to think that separation of church and state means that schools must be sterile, free of any indication that religion exists in the community. That was the policy of the Soviet Union and has no place in a free country. Here's a more detailed guide to the issue that has been endorsed by a wide variety of groups.
  • Stop viewing private schools and homeschoolers as adversaries. The University of Georgia doesn't object to the existence of Emory University, even though one is public and the other is private. In fact, the two work together on some projects. Relations between public schools and other educational institutions should be equally cordial. Do some reaching out.
  • Move away from command-and-control management and at least move into the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first. The second biggest thing the public schools need, in my opinion, is more opportunity to develop their individuality, take advantage of the unique talents of their personnel, and (if you can imagine it) even compete for students within the same district. (Public colleges let students choose which one to go to; why can't public grade schools?) Teachers tell me that far too many public schools are still commanded from the top down, creating an environment where superiors don't trust their subordinates, nor vice versa, and the goal seems to be to make them all exactly alike.

My experience is that the critical difference between good schools and bad ones is not the curriculum or the teaching; it is whether the students feel safe and respected. A good school is free of physical squalor, bullying by one's fellow students, and bullying by authority figures who don't view the students as fellow citizens and don't try to earn their respect. (Bullying can include mindless "zero tolerance" policies that punish people for circumstances without determining their intent; that is not the American way.)

If private schools have an advantage, it is simply that if they make all their students unhappy, they dry up and die. Every private school has to serve somebody well, or it will stop existing. Public schools can fumble on for a long time with a captive population.

If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months.