5 Biggest Fears for using Facebook as a forum for Political Debate

October 31, 2008
Facebook NewsFeed

Facebook NewsFeed

5 Biggest Fears

My 5 biggest fears about the use of the internet, particularly Facebook, for researching and debating political candidates are as follows:

1. I fear that I will sometimes give in to repeating partisan rhetoric gleaned from partisan websites and blogs as if it was gospel truth.

I actually did this for a while (briefly) in the past few weeks. As I described in the previous post, I made a sweeping conclusion about Obama’s stance on the abortion issue based primarily on one bill he voted against in the Illinois State Senate. At the time, I didn’t even realize it was a sweeping conclusion, and that there were other possible conclusions from the known facts. Unlike my usual self, I took Robert George’s claim that Obama was a pro-abortion extremist at face value, perhaps on the basis of the article’s seeming authorititaveness. I think the problem here was my unwillingness to wrestle with the article. Maybe I was too fearful that my own beliefs would be overthrown by alternate conclusions. I shouldn’t have held my beliefs so delicately. Solid beliefs are not arrived at overnight. I should be willing to criticize and evaluate arguments rather than taking other people’s words as a substitute for thinking about the issue for myself.

2. I fear that political debates online will usually devolve into emotional reactions and will not increase intellectual understanding.

There is a good reason to be passionate about your fundamental beliefs. They are, after all, core convictions, part of who you are, and democratic society depends on people advancing and contending for their own core convictions in public. But there is no reason to get emotional and weak mentally, to the point of shutting out opposing viewpoints. This is mostly a matter of patience.

One of the inherent weaknesses of the internet medium is that you cannot see and hear intangible, personal things like facial expressions and tone of voice when engaging in a debate. All you see are words typed on a page! A lot, therefore, depends on your ability to remain patient and calm in the face of heated debate. Another sensible solution would be to attribute charitable motives to the people with whom you are debating. They are, most of the time, not out to waste your time or debate for the sake of debating; if they are debating with you, chances are it is because they sincerely believe something that conflicts with something you sincerely believe. Thus, you can assume that it is an opportunity for growth in your own understanding.

Another solution is to interrupt public internet debate and send a personal e-mail to the person you are debating with. Midway through my first round of debating on Facebook, the Obama supporter I was debating with sent me an in-house Facebook message. Here is the text from that email:

Hey — perhaps now would be a good time to communicate what body language and expression might convey in a face-to-face conversation. I’m very interested in what you’re saying and am enjoying having the chance to debate with someone whose views are different from but still connected with mine. I’ve enjoyed your frankness on Facebook on these issues, and have merely been attempting to participate in the same wise.

This email, and my response to it, gave me a sense of personal contact, and made me realize that we were, if nothing else, old college buddies who merely had some conflicting opinions!

3. I fear that political bloggers and other political internet content producers will often write dishonestly, publish misinformation, and otherwise try to take advantage of me as a reader, for the purpose of advancing a partisan agenda.

This is a tough one, because it is not directly under your control, as my first two points were. Many bloggers may misinform, and in a free country there is no stopping them. Misinformation may even characterize 9/10’s of all political blogs. Because of the anonymity of the internet especially, writers may publish things they would not even attempt to say in personal conversations. And even if they do not publish anonymously, the internet may encourage this type of behavior because it is less likely that people who read their statements from thousands of miles away will know who they are, or have any personal relationship to them offline.

But it is not impossible to find more balanced, nuanced sources. Again, it takes time, discernment, and patience. A possible solution would be to think over the political statements you have read online, discuss them frankly and in person with a friend, and weigh them before even considering believing them or repeating them yourself.

4. I fear that the “star quality” of a candidate may serve to bias me against that candidate.

I confess, for the past two months or so I have suffered off and on from an irrational bias against Sen. Obama. It has nothing to do with him, his views, or his identity. It has to do with the star quality that surrounds him. He is in fact a star, a rock star of Democratic politics. He is a charismatic individual, appealing to many people on many levels. I have myself called him the Michael Jordan or Nirvana of politics — the one person everybody knows about in a particular field without having to know anything else.

For example, anybody who really knows something about NBA basketball will also know who
Jason Kidd or Carmelo Anthony are. But absolutely everybody will say they know who Michael Jordan is! So I begin to think of “Michael Jordan” as a code word for “I don’t really know anything about basketball.”

But just as Michael Jordan was in fact one of the best, most talented basketball players ever to play the game, so, many times, well-known people also have legitimate merits. Obama’s celebrity does not in any way amount to an argument against his intelligence or his qualifications to serve our country.

The solution here is to realize that star quality comes and goes, and usually says more about a person’s fans and the culture he lives in than about the person himself. If he were just a pop singer or basketball player, I could choose to tune him out. My life has not been any worse for avoiding Britney Spears’ albums. But a politician, especially a Presidential candidate, is much different. If I have a negative gut reaction to a politician simply because a cult of personality seems to surround him, I may be missing out on his real merits and substance.

The solution to this problem is easier. I think the internet is actually well-equipped to help get us past celebrity. Since blogs are a two-way street, it is much easier to talk about the substance behind the real person in a blog than it would be to talk back to the television set about a popular entertainer.

5. Pride, coupled with a well-known internet persona, may bias me against being willing to change my mind publicly.

After I had engaged in debate on Facebook with this old friend for a few days, I began to realize that I was leaving a very public, very readable trail of words — sitting there in the plain sight of all of his friends and all of our dozens of mutual friends, mostly from college. If I ended up changing my mind now, it was a potential embarrassment. I would be recanting on passionately held positions I had advanced no more than a few days ago!

Facebook is a very public medium. In the past I have found out, to my chagrin, about friends’ relationship problems and all manner of dirty laundry through the NewsFeed, so much so that at one point I changed the privacy settings for my Newsfeed to cut down on what gets shown to me.

One solution to this problem is to debate somewhere less public, or under a pseudonym, or in person, where there are not dozens or hundreds of people watching and reading your comments! Another solution is simply to be less prideful and be willing to admit a change of thought undergone through learning new information. In the long run, those heated exchanges will be buried under new material. But they will still be frozen in cyberspace, virtually on the public record, and anyone who wants to embarrass me by digging them up will always be able to do so! How weird! Words in the virtual age can now never be completely unspoken, and can always be dredged up for future use! I’m glad I have no aspirations to run for political office!

Facebook as Catalyst for Improving Thoughts about the Candidates

October 31, 2008

Sen.'s Obama and McCain


In this class, we have discussed the idea of weblogs as a “two-way street” that promotes the aims of democracy by fueling healthy debate. Positions are stated by blogs’ authors, and then comments allow readers to question the positions, poke holes in the arguments, and make counterpoints.

We have also looked at blogs as “citizen journalism.” The goal of citizen journalism is to “read between the lines” of mainstream newspaper and magazine articles. The mainstream media provides a starting-point for bloggers to reflect and analyze what is going on.

I’m centering this project on how Facebook has served as a catalyst for me to develop my own thoughts about the candidates in the 2008 elections. Several of my Facebook friends have used their Facebook pages over the past few months as a kind of personal blog, including a blogroll filled with articles about the candidates and their positions. As you will see, I have undergone a personal evolution in my thoughts about the candidates — including two important stages.

Born Alive

The first stage was when I was debating for John McCain, as the more acceptable pro-life candidate. I wasn’t so much a supporter of Sen. McCain as I was an opponent of Sen. Obama. I debated hotly, mostly parroting existing allegations against Obama that I now regret, and generally embarrassed myself! I used external articles as support for my pre-conceived opinions (no pun on the word “conceived” intended!).

Sen. Obama had voted against the Born-Alive Bill in the Illinois State Senate. This bill, to my understanding, would have given protection and rights to babies who are born alive in abortion clinics after failed abortion attempts. This disturbed me greatly. I linked to an article about this on my Facebook page by a Catholic author named Robert George. This article, and I, interpreted Obama’s vote to mean only one thing: that Obama was more than merely a pro-choice candidate; he was decidedly guilty of supporting infanticide. This was an incredibly weighty charge to make or believe.

Then I began to sense, through debate with one particular Facebook friend who is a pro-life Democrat, that there were holes in my argument — or at the least, that Obama’s vote on the bill did not support the sweeping conclusion I had drawn. I was shown evidence that there were other considerations for Obama’s vote against the bill. First, the bill might have been a deliberate set-up by politically organized pro-lifers to smear Obama as a “pro-abortion” politician.

The bill’s wording was more complex than I had realized, and included a redefinition of fetal viability, criminalizing any doctor who did not provide life support for what he judged to be a non-viable fetus. Some pro-lifers may indeed support this kind of criminalization, but they should admit that it goes beyond merely providing rights to born-alive, viable babies. To vote against the bill, then, is perhaps only a vote against criminalizing abortion doctors, not necessarily a vote to kill born-alive babies.

Secondly, there was a 1975 law already in place to protect born-alive babies, and Sen. Obama thought at the time that this other law was sufficient. Third, I learned that Sen. Obama has since changed his mind and stated that were he to vote again, he would have supported the Born-Alive bill.

Spreading the Wealth

A second plank in my opposition to Sen. Obama was a statement he made on the campaign trail about “spreading the wealth.” A believer in free-market economics, I saw the idea of redistribution as incompatible with economic growth and prosperity. Debate ensued. I was given the opportunity, by the Obama supporters I debated on Facebook, to learn more about progressive income taxes and what they are intended to accomplish.

I was offered a link to an article by blogger Andrew Sullivan making the serious, Aristotelian argument that a free-market democracy requires progressive income taxes to balance outcomes and keep the poor from revolting. Here I was faced with a pro-Obama argument that was based on support for the capitalist system of economics. My friend was not only a pro-life Democrat, I found out, but a free trade Democrat. To make matters even more difficult for me, I was presented with the following words from Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . .The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . .It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” [italics and bold text mine]

Now I was in a real pickle! With the 700 billion-dollar financial bailout spear-headed by McCain only a few weeks behind us — a clear example of spreading the wealth from the people to huge corporations — I began to consider, for the first time in my life, that, no matter what the usual rhetoric is about the Republican and Democratic parties and their respective ideologies, the Democrats may be — in a very practical sense — doing more than Republicans to promote the values of market economics that I believe in!

So my thoughts circled and swarmed, and I began to doubt for the first time that I was on the right side of the debate — given my own conservative ideals! To top it off, the online version of the free-market British magazine The Economist came out the next day with a cautious and balanced endorsement of Obama. This gave me even more food for thought.


I have tried to highlight in this story how virtual interactions centering on Facebook but branching out to blogs and the mainstream media allowed me to improve and sharpen my understanding of each candidate, especially of Sen. Obama, getting rid of some irrational biases I held when I started. Specifically, I can now see a believable argument for considering Obama to be the preferable candidate from a traditional, conservative standpoint.

The potential problem with using the internet to research a candidate is that you will amass an army of partisan articles and blogs only to support your pre-existing opinions. There is nothing wrong with partisan articles and blogs as such, especially in politics, where nothing is really neutral. What is a problem is looking at them as a weapon, rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. The hope and promise of internet debate — the two-way street of blogs — is that each person may arrive at a more nuanced, factually-correct understanding of the candidates.

“In The Loop”

October 21, 2008
Bloglines Screenshot

Bloglines Screenshot

By popular demand, the “Filtering the Web” genre now continues! Here are those original three questions:

  • How does technology ease or make difficult the dissemination of information?
  • What problems or issues have you encountered in reading blogrolls on various weblogs?
  • What issues have you encountered in incorporating a blogroll and web filtering into your own weblog?

Dissemination of information

One of the benefits of JOMC 713 for me so far has been the encouragement to dive into the blogosphere — to read opinions and views in blogs as part of my daily routine. I have bookmarked dozens of them and consulted them even on important topics.

I have picked up on some fairly offbeat political stories, generally put forth by partisan sources but still interesting and flying under the radar of mainstream media. One example was the apparent controversy surrounding the construction of the Palins’ home in Alaska, questioning whether Todd Palin inappropriately used state government resources in building his home. This story was put out by “Stef” of DailyKos.

Another story thread came from across the aisle, concerning the fate of author Dr. Jerome Corsi in Nairobi, Kenya as he pursued the nature of the connection between once-Illinois Sen. Obama and Kenyan politician Raila Odinga. Corsi was deported by a not-so-tolerant government for trying to dig up dirt on a Kenyan hero. This story made it to YouTube under the title of “Deported: American author declared persona non grata“.

These stories are attractive because, to me, they’re categorically richer and more detailed than the bland, sentiment-gushing fluff that now constitutes much of the election narrative of the mainstream American media. With the attraction, of course, comes a need for skepticism about the claims. But in the end reading these types of blogs is a win-win situation. If the story’s facts end up checking out, I will have heard of it long before the media picks it up; if it was a fairy tale, I’ll know which blogger to distrust the next time around.

Reading blogrolls

One problem I have faced in exploring blogs and their blogrolls is their grossly disconnected locations on the web. They seem to be sprawled out all over cyberspace, and either isolated on self-contained islands like WordPress and Blogger, or else embedded deep within the bowels of websites of every genre.

At first I thought a solution to this problem of scatteredness might be using Google’s Blog Search feature. This, I thought, would give me a common frame of reference to keep returning to while reading several blogs on the same topic. But I have found one serious drawback to Google’s Blog Search. Because of PageRank prioritizing, the more interesting, spicy, completely personal blogs, such as those maintained by members of my class, almost never show up. The list of results ends up being full of corporate blogs and blogs attached to mainstream media sources.

Luckily, over the weekend, a friend told me about Bloglines. This turned out to be much nearer to the mark! This is an application that allows you to import your blog feeds to one place, where you can create running “playlists” of the most recent posts. I’m just getting started using this service, but already I’m finding that it tends to venture away from the mainstream and into the more flavorful and offbeat. It may turn out to be just what I was looking for: one virtual “place” to organize and read all of my blogs on a daily basis.

Incorporating a blogroll

Incorporating a blogroll into Socratic Questions has been a continual joy for me. WordPress makes it super-easy to create and organize link categories. I have collected and “rolled” dozens of URL’s that lead not only to content on education proper, but also to many areas of my personal, eclectic interest — from inspiring ADHD stories to readable math tutorials to a dissident blogger in Cuba to my classmates’ blogs and back again.

KLowrance Wants You To… Run A Marathon!

October 14, 2008
Eric Liddell, The Flying Scot (image from www.virginmedia.com)

Eric Liddell, The Flying Scot (image from http://www.virginmedia.com)


I recently stumbled onto classmate Katie Lowrance’s blog which is all about marathons, their history both in Greece and in the modern Olympics, why people run them, and how they can benefit organizations like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Add what Kirk Hathaway said in his recent comment about “the hurdles of the assignment” being “thrown onto my track” — a clear running metaphor — and I knew I had to review Katie’s site.

Running is one of the oldest endeavors known to man. Whether it be for military purposes, or competitive sports and games, or simply for fun and exercise, people have literally been running for millenia.

In her page, Learn About 26.2, Katie mentions the story of Pheidippides. In legend, Pheidippides was an Athenian messenger who ran about 150 miles over the course of two days, initially to solicit the neighboring Spartans’ help in fighting off the invading Persians. After the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran his final 26.2 miles just to announce triumphantly:

Νενικήκαμεν!” (“We have conquered!”)

After he uttered this one word, Pheidippides fell down and died. The verb he used is based on the noun νική, Nike, victory. With one long run and one word, Pheidippides became the inspiration for both the Modern Olympic event of the marathon and the very shoes that runners and athletes everywhere wear to this day!

One question we have not yet addressed in JOMC 713 is this one: With the ease and ubiquity of new communications technologies in the home, on the cell phone, in the car, and everywhere, will people in the future simply become less physically active?

My Dad has a running joke (no pun intended) about how the people of the future will evolve huge eyes, larger brains, and tiny, shrivelled legs because they will sit at their computers all day long being homebodies and keyboard warriors.

Katie’s Blog

Katie’s blog suggests otherwise. She says running a marathon on June 1 of this year was “my biggest accomplishment thus far in my lifetime.” She gives a clue as to her own motivations for running:

I have come to realize that the endorphins of running contribute to a “runner’s high” that is so unique and worthy of the challenge. The more I have pushed myself to work harder and longer, the more gratifying the experience is to cross the finish line.

Katie says there is a joy released when we strive to run, and the harder we strive, the greater it becomes.

Katie seems interested in making her site a kind of depot for information about and for runners. She tells us about the Team in Training program, which trains people to run marathons, half-marathons, and other events to raise money for Leukemia awareness and treatment. A program like this seems easy enough for any of us to sign up for, runners or not.

Kirk Hathaway suggests that by narrowing her focus to regional events, Katie could provide ongoing information about runs in her local area. I second that. I would like to see Katie writing about runs that she attends in the future, telling us the stories of who she meets, why they were there, and maybe even giving us some pictures!

Katie’s design motif is a light tone of pastel colors that is easy on the eyes, warm and friendly. I like the design. Her “About” pages are well-written and are personable. In her “Weblog/Blogroll Questions Answered” article she speaks in an honest, open, first-person voice that tells us about the struggles and successes she has had in adapting to a new technology. She even gives us pictures of herself as a runner and with her boyfriend, a U.S. Marine.

I would only recommend that Katie find a way to list her favorite links higher on her blogroll, as currently her Bottom 5 comes out on top because of WordPress’s bad habit of organizing blogroll categories alphabetically.

About the Picture

Eric Liddell was the 1924 Paris Olympics runner who famously refused to run the 100 meters because of the qualifying heat on a Sunday, which conflicted with his belief in the Sabbath as a day of rest.

Instead, he ran the 400 meters, winning the gold medal. He went on to become a lifelong missionary in China. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” Liddell says to his sister Jenny, in my favorite quote about running:

“Jenny, I know God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

The Autodidact and the Web

October 13, 2008
Jackson Pollock painting in his studio, Springs, New York, 1949 © Time Inc

Jackson Pollock painting in his studio, Springs, New York, 1949 © Time Inc

Kirk Hathaway, Jackson Pollock

Many thanks to classmate Kirk Hathaway for his substantial comment on “Checkered Trousers,” my review of Randy Burton’s guitar blog.

It is illuminating and, most of all, educating, to be seen through the eyes of another; and this is what Kirk sees in my blog approach:

… here Ramsey goes into dissecting routine and examining inspiration.

In Math Wars, I examined the routine of how mathematics is taught in the elementary school classroom, searching for the substance of what was being taught. In Faith and Science, I proposed writing about famous scientists and their spiritual beliefs, what made them tick. In ADHD, I looked at swimmer Michael Phelps’ ability to use ADHD to his competitive advantage. Now Kirk is treating me by my own standard, dissecting what I’ve been doing to trace the pattern of my inspiration.

A classroom assignment, such as the one I have been given in JOMC 713 — to read and review at least three of my classmates’ blogs, is a kind of routine, which leads Kirk to ask next:

… and so when the hurdles of the assignment [are] thrown on his track, and he must, for class, produce posts that review other blogs, does he hold true to his artist’s inspirations?

Kirk likened my blogging to artistry, specifically to the painting style of Jackson Pollock.

I like the reference, for two reasons: Pollock’s apparent disdain for tradition and his love for his underlying medium. These qualities allowed him to step back and create something that was wholly his own.

With his “drip method of painting,” Pollock created a kind of beautiful pattern out of randomness. I would aspire to do that with writing about things on the Web, especially on my topic of education, where we find a chaos of information that, with a little artistry, can become a supply of raw material for our own Socratic canvas.

Filtering the Web

So let’s approach the following assignment with a painter’s eye. My assignment for “Filtering the Web” is to write about one or more of these questions:

  • How does technology ease or make difficult the dissemination of information?
  • What problems or issues have you encountered in reading blogrolls on various weblogs?
  • What issues have you encountered in incorporating a blogroll and web filtering into your own weblog?

Technology plays right into the hands of the autodidact, the self-taught person. No one can teach you how to filter the Web; you have to dive in and experience it for yourself. Sure, someone can teach you the nomenclature of blogs, what each thing is called, such as the blogroll.

But the experience has to be wholly your own; and experience is so much more than information. Information can be the raw material – the paint. Through experience, the artist shapes it into an expression of who he or she is, an outgrowth of his or her soul.

In examining other websites and blogs, I have tried to pick and choose which threads may be useful for weaving together the tapestry I have wanted to create, according to my interests.

Technology obviously increases the overall amount and variety of information I can dive into. I have had no trouble finding a plethora of relevant sites and blogs, even by simply Googling the keywords I listed in my Research Plan. At first the sites came pouring in in waves like a Tsunami.

But I am learning to hone my searches by starting with better keywords, using search sites other than Google — such as internal searches on bookmarked blog depots. Finally, I let some of my favorite blogs do the work for me by thoroughly investigating their links and blogrolls. I found a number of good so-called “edublogs” (blogs on education) simply by learning that new piece of vocabulary — edublog — and then searching for it.

My style is eccentric and, at its best, serendipitous. The idea for “Math Wars” actually started several weeks ago when I was on YouTube enjoying some videos about fractals and happened to stumble on the video “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth.” The video was talking about some of the novel approaches to multiplication and division that I had been exposed to as a student teacher, so I was intrigued; I immediately followed up the video with the responses by James Blackburn-Lynch.

Googling “Blackburn-Lynch” led me to that professor’s personal website at Berea College, where I happened to find a whole mini-site devoted to Faith and Science, which played beautifully into the idea I had already written down for my next blog entry!

This is my own, eccentric, approach, and I cannot prescribe it as a model for anyone else to follow. I have tried to show that by seeking to educate myself on topics of personal interest– autodidacticism — I have gotten surprising results that have influenced the direction and enriched the content of my blog posts.

I would add that even though I have chosen what some may call a “serious” topic, I have not shunned “popular” websites such as YouTube, in favor of only rarefied academic journals. Similarly, when Jackson Pollock embarked on painting with his “drip” method, he tended to prefer cheap household paints because he could drip them better! If I may squeeze out a comparison, I likewise found a popular YouTube video that just seemed to flow!

Checkered Trousers and Guitar Solos: Randy Burton’s “Players and Pickers”

October 8, 2008

My JOMC 713 classmate Randy Burton has written a rockin’ blog on guitar-playing styles called “Players and Pickers.”

Randy’s Blog

On his About page, Randy lists his credentials: he is a self-taught guitar player and picker, with over 30 years of experience in diverse genres: “rock, blues, folk, and jazz styles.” He has played in a number of bands over the years, including playing lead guitar for a blues-rock band called “The Trousers,” who released a self-titled CD in 1997.

I named this post “Checkered Trousers” because when I listened to a couple of songs from The Trousers I was struck by the comfortable, laid-back style, and also the diversity of genres: like a well-worn pair of checkered trousers…

Like other students in JOMC 713, Randy wrote about how he evaluates websites. I agreed with his guidelines, in which he mentioned useful content, appealing design elements, and active use. On the last point, I liked this quote:

There should be evidence of use from other viewers; if there is a bulletin board or forum and only a few people have visited, then the value of the site is questionable.

Evidence of use could include comments, an active discussion board, or links or pingbacks from other bloggers.

I also like how Randy lets you know which websites are trying to sell you some kind of instructional program, like many guitar sites are, versus which others are completely free.

Keep up the good work, Randy!

Are Guitar Solos Dead?

In Randy’s post for last’s Friday’s best and worst links, he links as the best site a blog called “Guitar Licks.”

I enjoyed the post in Guitar Licks called “Is the Guitar Solo Dead?” The post says guitar solos seemed to have “skipped a generation,” as they are completely absent from today’s Top 40. I agree that there is a dearth of good guitar solos in today’s music, even in what passes for rock.

However, I disagree when the author blames the death of the guitar solo on the advent of grunge and alternative rock in the 90’s.

Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge

Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge

Some not-quite-top-40 bands and guitarists out there –including those influenced by grunge — are producing excellent-quality guitar solos! One example is Mark Tremonti of Alter Bridge (see picture at left).

Since Mark and the other former members of Creed let singer Scott Stapp go and acquired the more versatile Myles Kennedy, Tremonti has introduced a number of hard-hitting guitar solos into his songs. For example, listen to “Open Your Eyes” on YouTube.

An added benefit is that Kennedy is a stronger guitar player than Stapp, which leads to some better support for Tremonti.

Friday’s Links: ADHD and Michael Phelps

October 3, 2008

Variety is the spice of life.” — proverb

I think this proverb should be amended for those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to read, “Variety is the meat of life.”

I honestly think that ADHD people have so much trouble in school because they are expected to think linearly about one topic at a time, in isolation from everything else.

I have ADHD myself, and I know that I thrive most when I balance two or three things at one time. And when my learning and actions have a purposeful context, and meaning.

This morning I enjoyed an article on swimmer Michael Phelps from the Edge Foundation. It is titled “Michael Phelps is not an Attention Deficit.” His mother says the following about Michael’s childhood:

“In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.’ I said, maybe he’s bored. The teacher said that was impossible. “He’s not gifted,” came back the reply.”

Not gifted! Let’s look at what really makes Michael Phelps thrive in competition.

First, he listens to music on his Ipod while he’s gearing up for races. This is getting him “in the zone,” actually into a zone of what psychologists call “hyperfocus,” (the real H in ADHD). Hyperfocus is a gift, a special ability to tune out the rest of the world and pour all your energy into one thing that you really care about.

Next, Michael doesn’t just swim one event! He swims relays, sprints, and middle-distance events. I suspect that the variety of those different events keeps him engaged, the energy and enthusiasm from each event feeding into the others.

The other article for today is from WebMD and is called “ADHD Medications and Treatments.”

I’m sure the author of this article, Dr. Richard Sogn, has good intentions and thinks he is helping people. But the article assumes that ADHD is a problem, and goes on to recommend the best medications for how to eliminate the problem.

I was encouraged by the Edge Foundation to look at my ADHD as an opportunity rather than a problem.

The opportunity is to string together interesting combinations that may otherwise go unnoticed. To bounce around from one subject to another, and see familiar patterns wherever you go!

Now I want to do an article on notable scientists who are thought to have had ADHD!

Thursday’s Links: Photoblogs

October 3, 2008

I think a photoblog is a fascinating idea. Rather than let words speak over time, a photoblogger lets photos do the speaking, from one day to the next.

Today I have found two photoblogs that I both like. So I am unable to say that one is bad and the other is good. They both seem good to me.

The first one is called “Beyond Illusion.” I tried to stick the front page image to my blog, but I was unsuccessful. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure how its author would feel about that anyways, so check it out for yourself.

The About section features a quotation from Albert Einstein that begins:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science…”

This was fantastic to find, especially since I had just written in Wednesday’s post that I wanted to explore the spiritual beliefs of prominent scientists!

I also liked the fact that there was a quotation from former Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley. I enjoyed the music of Alice in Chains in high school, particularly the Unplugged performance they did for MTV. Staley apparently said at some point:

“There’s no huge, deep message in any of the songs. It was just what was going on in my head right then. We had good times, and we had bad times. We recorded a few months of being human.”

“Beyond Illusion” does a lot of contrasting of black-and-white with vibrant color, stillness with motion, old cathedrals with young people. The two most common color patterns in the photos are either black-and-white, or bright, luscious greenery.

The blog also gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between young people and old religious icons, portraits, and statues. One photo is called “Absence of the Sacred,” and features four young men dressed in black, standing inside an old British cathedral, at a sharp angle.

The second photoblog I enjoyed was “Thinking Picture.” The “About” section isn’t as developed (as Beyond Illusion).

“Thinking Picture” focuses on some of the huge, breath-taking landscapes of South Africa. There are several vivid portraits of nature in motion, such as the stunning “Spotted Eagle Owl in Flight.”

There are also several powerful action shots which are apparently from a Seether concert, such as “Shaun Morgan from Seether.”

Wednesday’s Links: Faith and Science

October 3, 2008


My namesake for this blog, Socrates, says in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus,

Wonder is the special affection of a philosopher; for philosophy has no other starting point than this…” – Theaetetus 155D

Faith and Science. Two ponderous ideas about which much has been said. What is my purpose in lumping these two together?

I think if I look honestly at my own life, I find the seeds of both already implanted in me, and the beginning of them is a mystery.


I want to know the answer to many “how” questions. How do computers work? That’s a big one I’ve picked up lately.

How does my brain work — what happens inside my brain when I have what I call a “thought”?

These, to me, seem to be the domain of what we all generally call science.


At the same time, I am full of “why” questions. Why am I here, fundamentally? And why is there a universe around me at all — something, rather than nothing?

Why do I think? Why am I, unlike other animals (as far as I know), capable of generating and expressing a series of thoughts about my life?

This seems to be a different category of questions, and the domain of what many people call faith/belief. (Many people approach these questions from a secular standpoint not related to religious faith. I am not saying that religious faith is the only way to deal with these questions.)

Thesis and Antithesis

Can we afford to dismiss either the “why” or the “how”?

Some people say they have all the answers to the “why” questions, so they can ignore the question of “how.” They look down on science, suspicious of it, because they think it undermines their faith.

Others look down on the “why” questions. They say that in time science will have all the answers we need, so “why” questions are extraneous.


Yet others say something remarkable. They say that as they learn more about “how” through science, their sense of wonder and awe is reinforced, their perception of mystery becomes deeper, and the “why” questions are nurtured.


So I’ve looked up some websites on this topic. I’ll mention two today.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying a website from Berea College called “Faith and Science: Perspectives on Christianity and Science,” written by professor Robert J. Schneider.

Dr. Schneider says some remarkable and surprising things. Even as I glanced over the Table of Contents, I was intrigued to find an essay called “Evolution for Christians.”

In the first essay, “What the Bible Teaches About Creation,” Dr. Schneider says the following:

I shall take the position, common among most Christian scholars, including many evangelicals, that Genesis 1 is not “a straightforward, historical and scientific account of how God created,” the view espoused by young-earth creationists. Rather, this magnificent hymn-like passage is a theological proclamation, a manifesto, a statement of faith about both the creation and the Creator. [bold text mine]

Elsewhere in the essay we find an interesting quotation from Galileo:

“The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” — Cardinal Baronius, quoted by Galileo.

I give this website a hearty thumbs-up — for being knowledgeable, readable, and thoughtfully prepared, and for defining faith and science in contexts that make both meaningful and valuable.

My other website for today is “Intelligent Design vs. Evolution,” which I found doing a Google search for “intelligent design and evolution.”

I can’t tell you exactly what the current theory of “intelligent design” is, but I didn’t get a good impression of it from this website. The website itself doesn’t seem intelligently designed; it features loud colors and a huge in-your-face banner announcing “Win $10,000 for Proof of Evolution!!!”

I watched the videos on the site. One of them involves a middle-aged man named Ray Comfort asking college-aged kids probing questions about the scientific theory of evolution. The video makes a big deal out of the fact that the kids respond with words like “maybe,” “probably,” and “I’m not an expert.” I guess we’re meant to notice that they don’t understand the theory of evolution very well even though they believe it is true.

A second video claims to feature a scientist asking British biologist Richard Dawkins, “Can you give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?” Dawkins looks up at the ceiling for a few seconds deep in thought and says nothing. (It is not clear to me that Dawkins was even in the same room with the questioner, because of the way the camera cuts drastically from one person to the other.)  I think the purpose of the video is to try to show an expert being stumped by a basic question, not an approach I find particularly useful because I have made some effort to understand evolution for myself, so I don’t feel the need to either rely on or disapprove of Dawkins.

I don’t think this website really promotes better understanding of either evolution or faith like the Berea College site does. It might have some marginal value in getting people to think through their positions more clearly.  I have read elsewhere, though, that the Dawkins video is a total hoax, which of course would make the website just plain silly to me.

Further Research

The Berea College website got me thinking I’d like to devote a couple of blogs to researching prominent scientists and what we know of their spiritual or religious beliefs. I might start with some great historical scientists like Newton, Pascal, and Einstein.

I remember hearing once that Newton was an alchemist before he revolutionized physics. Pascal, of course, was a mathematician heavily immersed in probability, number theory, and physics before his mid-life conversion to Catholic Christianity. At the time of his conversion, he gave up on math and sciene altogether and devoted his full attention to religious life.

Then I might move to some modern, working scientists. The Berea College website has a Resources section that lists some prominent current scientists who are also interested in questions of theology. I might begin with this list…

Tuesday’s Links: Math Wars part 2

October 2, 2008

Math Wars Continued: “You Cannot Memorize Meaningless Gibberish!”

I promised I would discuss some of the responses to M.J. McDermott’s traditionalist video “Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth” (see Monday’s Links).

My favorite response is by a professor of mathematics at Berea College, James Blackburn-Lynch. Part One of his video response is about 8 minutes long; please watch it now:

Different assumptions

Ms. McDermott begins her video with an assumption: The purpose of elementary math education is for all children to be able to multiply and divide using the standard algorithms by the end of 5th grade. This is the traditionalist point of view: basic skills are to be mastered, through rote memorization and repetition (practice).

If you read my Research Plan, Ms. McDermott represents the Tabula Rasa philosophy of education: fill ’em (with knowledge) and drill ’em (on skills). Not necessarily a bad approach, but we should note that it is just one approach among many, and just one camp in the Math Wars.

If you watched today’s video, you saw James Lynch question Ms. McDermott’s assumption. “Why? What is the big picture here?” he asks.

He says Ms. McDermott and many parents “want math to be what it was for themmemorization of formulas.” So when their child comes home with a cluster problem or an assignment to use the lattice method of multiplication, they balk.

But what is the purpose of those types of assignments? Mr. Lynch suggests it is to make meaning of math.

Different Diagnoses

Ms. McDermott says the fundamental problem with math education today is that students don’t master the basic skills anymore. The solution? More drill and practice.

Mr. Lynch says spending so much time on drill and practice was itself the problem! Students learned to think of math as “a bunch of arbitary rules,” without making meaning of it for themselves.

See why this is a War? Each camp’s solution is precisely the problem, for the other camp.

I give a thumbs-up to Mr. Lynch’s video, for pointing out the shortcomings of Ms. McDermott’s position.

As my other website for today, I recommend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Focal Points website.

The NCTM is probably the best, most organized voice in the Constructivist camp of the Math Wars. This camp believes, with Mr. Lynch, that “you cannot memorize meaningless gibberish,” and that, to best make sense of math, you may need to take a round-about route that involves things like cluster problems and strange algorithms.

I give the NCTM a thumbs-up for its easily navigable, grade-by-grade listing of curriculum points.

I give it a thumbs-down for requiring that you become a paid member before you can interact with the website — i.e., leave comments, ask questions, etc.