Posts Tagged ‘ Not Gaming Related ’

Conferencing in Austin, Texas

So, Wednesday through Friday of last week, I was in Austin attending a classical education conference spearheaded by the Circe Institute. Lots of smart people talking smartly about smart things related to the best way to educate children. I sat in on some fascinating sessions, including one that explained a basic lesson format that encourages something at least approaching Socratic discussion in math classes as an aid to memory. I have hopes that implementing those ideas will help my students this coming school year.

Unfortunately, there were some downsides. I woke up at about 0430 each morning with a migraine that I still haven’t completely shaken, but at least the pain is down to a very dull throb that is easy to ignore if I keep occupied. The conference was held in the Hyatt Regency. For the price, the rooms seemed small, especially my second room that I ended up sharing with a fellow teacher. The hotel-provided breakfasts and lunches weren’t that good. I ate out for breakfast one day and for lunch another day.

For breakfast, I had the French toast and coffee at Snooze: An A.M. Eatery. The food was good, but pricey for French toast. The menu of alcoholic breakfast cocktails was intriguing, but I abstained. For late lunch, I hit Polvos and had some tasty enchiladas and several glasses of water. I was on foot hoofing it about 3.4 miles round trip from the hotel to San Jose Catholic Church for evening Mass in a charming yet simple chapel. I walked around the parish grounds a bit, visting the small shrine to Our Lady of Fatima before walking back to the hotel.

I was about 1930 by the time I made it back to near the hotel. I stopped at Aussie’s Grill & Beach Bar to knock back a couple pints of local Live Oak Brewing Company‘s HefeWeizen with bourbon chasers. After this, my headache was mostly gone, so I went to bed to get a few hours sleep before the pain would wake me up again.

Thursday evening, I drove down the road to Tribe Comics & Games for Thursday-night games. Beforehand, I popped into the Kerbey Lane Cafe for some shrimp and grits. Tasty.

After dinner, I walked across the parking lot to Tribe Games & Comics. I was dropped into a group of six at a table getting ready to play four hours of D&D’s most recent edition. I’d not played 5E before, and I’d not done anything d20 System related for years. I don’t own a single 5E book, nor am I likely to unless someone just gives them to me.

I was given an already-made, some what generic human barbarian to play. I named him Anarch Greywulf. Player and character introductions were made all around. I was remiss and made no notes, so I can’t tell you who the people in the pictures are. They played a cleric, a fighter of some sort, a paladin, a bard, a sorcerer (I think), and a luchador-style monk. Our adventure revolved around breaking a bandit out of jail so that we could get information about a pending meeting between a bandit chief and a wicked sorceress that threatened the peace of the region.

It was an enjoyable four hours in a way-crowded gaming space. It was loud, and I’m pretty sure I missed more than one key point because I couldn’t quite hear what the DM or the other players were saying. Still, we had fun. Our characters rescued the bandit, killing an enraged and escaping minotaur in the process while the tower burned down around them. Anarch walked boldly into the bandit camp, dropped a few names, and was escorted to a tent where he was told to wait. While this went on, the rest of the party snuck up on the meeting point. Anarch befriended “Little” Eric, one of the bandits. The monk was spotted after getting too close. Chaos ensued.

Anarch convinced “Little” Eric that owl-omened treachery was afoot, and thus that NPC aided our party against the sorcereress’s kobold, orc, and owlbear minions. During the battle, our characters ran roughshod over the enemies on both sides, preventing any sort of evil alliance and probably collecting a nice bunch of treasure as well. I’m not sure on the latter since it was getting late. I didn’t stick around for the postgame report in the parking lot.

As I’ve said, it was a fun game. It’s not going to make me rush out and buy 5E books or find a local 5E game to play in. Not really my cup of tea any more. Games like Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, and Fate Accelerated fit the bill more nowadays, and shortly my little gaming group here in Houston, Texas, will start a new campaign using Barbarians of Lemuria.

Also, it’s good to be back home. Austin is a nice place to visit, but it’s not where the heart is.

So, a big “Thanks!” to the folks at Tribe Games & Comics. If I’m ever back in Austin on a Thursday, I’ll try to fit another game into my schedule.

July 23rd, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

Apples, Oranges, Arguments

From October 2013 (with some edits):

“You can’t compare apples to oranges.”

They, whoever “they” are, say this a lot, often, in my experience, without giving much thought to what the saying means. Instead, this common idiom seems to be used most of time as an expression of contempt, of dismissing what a person just said as if it were not worthy of a serious response.

Properly used, the apples-to-oranges idiom reminds us to be on guard against false analogies. It reminds us that two things that appear superficially similar in some regard may still be importantly different in other ways. For example, I can compare the solar system to an atom. I could say, “Just as planets orbit the sun, so to do electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom.” While this comparison may help a student visualize the structure of an atom, as science per se the comparison is less than helpful. Electrons can jump from orbit to orbit, or even leave orbit entirely. From this observation, I cannot reasonably conclude that planets do the same thing. Or, taken the other way, from the observation that planetary orbits tend toward stability and regularity, I cannot conclude that electrons behave the same way planets do. To do either of these things would be to make a false analogy.

Consider another example. I have former students who are now married and have children of their own. I can remember that this former student, when he or she was in my class, exhibited certain characteristics, such as laziness or honesty. I cannot reasonably conclude from that memory that the student’s children will exhibit the same characteristics. Just as I cannot compare apples to oranges, meaning I cannot convict an orange for not being an apple, I cannot assume that a child will exhibit the same characteristics that the child’s parent did in my class more than 10 years ago.

Now, all of that said, it is important to realize that “You can’t compare apples to oranges” is only contingently true. It is only true if certain preconditions apply. Otherwise, the idiom cannot be fairly used. After all, anyone can sensibly note that, yes, apples and oranges can be compared because they’re both fruits. They are both part of a larger set that includes strawberries, bananas, papayas, and mangos as well. Therefore, any comparison between apples and oranges that relies on characteristics common to the larger set of fruits, such as the presence of fructose or seeds, would not be a false analogy.

To speak zoologically, I can fairly compare any member of the family Felidae so long as I limit my comparisons to traits common to that family. I cannot claim that they are all the same in that they can purr, for example. Animals in the genus Panthera belong to the family Felidae, but they cannot purr. That is a characteristic of genus Felis, another member of the Felidae family. To say that Felis, part of Felidae, can purr means Panthera, also part of Felidae, can also purr is to compare apples to oranges. To say that members of the genus have fur or claws or are carnivores is not comparing apples to oranges.

So, what’s my point?

Well, my point is that trotting out a clichéd idiom is no substitute for an honest argument. An honest argument requires that, at a minimum, I seriously consider the truth of whatever my interlocutor states. This requires humility on my part. Even if I am not wrong about whatever issue is under consideration, I need treat the other side as if I could be wrong. Otherwise, I run the risk of being dismissive. This might get the other person to stop talking, but it isn’t going to demonstrate that I am correct.

Of course, humility and an honest effort to view someone whom I disagree with as worthy of respect can require effort, and I think that is probably why the apples-to-oranges idiom is, in my experience, used as a way of shutting down conversation. It’s a mildly clever way of saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about so you should stop talking.” Dismissive rhetorical devices aren’t anything new. Socrates, for example, in the 400s B.C. waged philosophical battles against people who were merely clever rather than genuinely thoughtful.

In classical education, we don’t want our students to be merely clever. We want them to struggle toward the transcendentals: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Contrary to popular opinion, whether something is true, good, or beautiful isn’t just a matter of opinion. Some things really are objectively true. To think otherwise isn’t to express an equally valid opinion, but instead is to be in error. This is most obvious in mathematics. Two and two are four. The reciprocal of one-half is two. These statements, and many others, are true regardless of what I think or want. Likewise, some things are good. Period. Some things are beautiful. Period. As I’ve told my students more than once, someone who says a rose isn’t beautiful is incorrect. Someone who claims that all moral statements are matters of opinion or societal convention is likewise incorrect.

What muddies the waters, especially when discussing the Good and the Beautiful, is that it is often difficult to arrive at a firm conclusion. Even after careful consideration, doubt may remain. “It is wrong to X,” where X stands for some activity, is a common claim. Demonstrating the truth of that claim is not as common. It is easy to assert. It is harder to present a reasoned demonstration that takes seriously the objections of those who disagree. And, because it is harder, many people just don’t bother. Instead, people substitute volume for reason.

“It is wrong to X!” is countered by “No, it isn’t!” Few people seem to advance their arguments much beyond just trying to shout the other side down. This is dangerous. If we abandon the conviction that the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are objective categories that can be discovered, however imperfectly, by human reason, then we reduce all arguments about truth, morality, and art to shouting matches. The winner is whoever shouts the loudest, whoever can apply the most force to get the other side to surrender. Throughout human history, societies have abandoned human reason in favor of force. The results — from the Reign of Terror to the killing fields of Cambodia and beyond — have never been pleasant.

As a teacher in a classical education school, encouraging the reasoned search for the transcendentals is my hardest task. I find myself working against so much of what passes itself off as popular culture, which isn’t really culture at all, but instead is just mass marketing aimed at conformity. I not only have to try to get my students to discover the power of their own reason, but I also have to try to get them to respect that same power in others, especially when they disagree.

July 21st, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

Ordinary Greatness

From back in September 2013, now with minor edits:

A few years ago, I watched Puncture starring Chris Evans, Mark Kassen, Marshall Bell, and Brett Cullen. (Caveat: This film has a well-deserved R rating.) The plot revolves around Mike Weiss (played by Chris Evans) and his partner Paul Danziger (played by Mark Kassen in a story co-written the real Paul Danziger) trying to bring suit against medical suppliers to get safety syringes into hospitals.

During one scene near the end of the film, Weiss confronts Nathaniel Price (Brett Cullen). Price represents the company trying to keep the safety syringes off the market. During their conversation, Price says something to effect of, “You think you’re here to accomplish something great, but everyone thinks that. It’s the most ordinary thought in the world.”

Price was right. Thinking that I’m here on Earth to accomplish something great is an ordinary thought. I can easily believe that at some point in time, everyone ever born thinks the same thing. Of course, Price’s intent was to convince Weiss that the ordinariness of this thought means the thought is false.

In other words, Price was saying, “Maybe some people are meant for greatness, but you are not. Give up.”

Of course, Price misses something important. His cynicism blinds him to the full truth. Yes, it is perfectly ordinary for me to imagine that I’m meant to accomplish something great. What Price doesn’t grasp is that the perfect ordinariness of a thought does not mean the thought is wrong. Everyone truly is meant to accomplish something great. When I consider this truth, I must avoid two equally destructive errors.

First, I must ignore the Nathaniel Prices of the world. Other people don’t get to limit my life with their lack of vision. Second, I must avoid becoming my own Nathaniel Price. I am meant to accomplish something great, but my something great may not be the same as or as great as your something great. I’m not likely to cure cancer, be the first man on Mars, or bring peace to the Middle East. Those great somethings are meant for someone other than me. My something great probably won’t be anything greater than being a father, husband, and teacher.

Those three roles are rather ordinary, but, again, ordinary does not mean unimportant or insignificant.

July 15th, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

The Search

A movie review I wrote way back in August 2013 (with some edits):

I watched The Bothersome Man, an unrated Norwegian film. The film’s protagonist, Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvåg), finds himself in a clean, efficient city after being dropped off by a bus at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. He’s given a job as an accountant, and a clean and efficient apartment which comes fully furnished, to include a wardrobe full of clean, efficient suits. His co-workers are polite and well-groomed.

Andreas’s first clue that something is wrong with this new world happens when he finds himself in the men’s room of a nightclub. An unseen man in a stall laments loudly, sadly that no matter how he drinks he can’t get drunk. He complains that hot chocolate no longer tastes or smells good. Andreas, curious about this sad man, follows him home to where the man lives in a basement apartment.

The movie progresses, and Andreas moves from one scene to the next, becoming more aware that no one around him has any real passion for life. The most common adjective used to describe things is “nice”. Andreas’s girlfriend Anne (Petronella Barker) says he’s nice. He has nice conversations with nice people, usually about the nice things they can buy from nice catalogs. Andreas and his girlfriend have nice furniture. Their meals are nice. When Andreas starts an affair with a lady in his office, she also informs Andreas that he is nice. In fact, he’s just as nice as all her other boyfriends. Even in the most intimate of relationships, one person is just as nice as the next.

Driven to the point of despair, Andreas tries to commit suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. Not to give too much more of the movie away, but it doesn’t work. He limps out of the tunnel, is picked up by the ubiquitous jump-suited men who patrol the city, and is taken to Anne’s house. He stands there, broken and bleeding, and Anne informs him they have a date to go ride go-carts.

Andreas lives in a utilitarian world, where everyone’s happiness is maximized, but where there is no yearning for the true, the good, or the beautiful. Indeed, expressing such yearning is met with disapproval. Andreas confesses to his boss that he misses seeing children (for there are no children in a clean, efficient city). The only response Andreas gets is to be quickly ignored, as if he had just said something that no one would ever admit in polite company.

The real world — the world in which at least some things are genuinely and objectively true, good, and/or beautiful — is not a clean, efficient, polite place that can be described by so weak a word as nice. The real world is glorious and tragic and scary and awe-inspiring and depressing and wonderfully full of such a mess of thoughts, sights, sounds, and experiences. The classical liberal arts embrace this apparent chaos, and seek to find the order beneath the mess of contradictions.

I often remind myself, and I remind my students, the search isn’t without hope. Through the proper use of reason, we can discover the true, the good, and the beautiful, and we can at least begin to understand that those three qualities are not always a matter of mere opinion. Some things are truly true, truly good, truly beautiful, and to disagree about those things isn’t to express an opinion. To disagree is to be wrong.

The search for the true, the good, and the beautiful isn’t easy. Many people give up after one too many disappointments. But, I am reminded of the words of a wise man. To paraphrase, those that seek without surrender will eventually find what they’re looking for.

June 23rd, 2017  in RPG No Comments »

Poetry Is Like a Fist

From December 2012 and posted elsewhere:

Years ago, when my children were somewhere roundabout the 1st and 2nd grades instead of the earlier years of high school, I taught 5th through 8th grade English and reading at Resurrection Catholic School out in east Houston. On the weekends during much of the year, the school’s classrooms were used by the church for the religious education of parish children. Supervision of these children on the weekend often appeared a bit lax judging by the mess left in my classroom for me to clean up many Monday mornings.

During one of these Monday morning clean-ups, I found a spiral notebook in one of the desks. Figuring it might belong to one of my 80-or-so students, I opened it up for identifying information. The name inside was a girl’s but not any of the girls enrolled at Resurrection. She was a high school religious education student. The first page in the notebook had a poem written on it. Since I’m nosy, I read the poem, and then turned the page.

More poetry, and more reading, and then on the fourth or fifth page were these words, which I still remember to this day:

“When I close my arms, I feel you not hugging me.”

I can think of no expression of loss more succinct and yet more packed with meaning than these eleven words.

Recently, I shared these words with my students as an example of what good writing can accomplish. There’s an entire story packed into that one sentence. Who is gone? Why are they gone? How long have they been gone? Was the loss the result of a death, a break-up, a divorce? Do these words not reflect the experience of anyone who has ever lost someone they’ve loved?

Not too long ago, one of the people I follow on Google+ was complaining about his daughter’s poetry homework. I understood some of his frustration since he was having to read Maya Angelou, who I am convinced is overrated as a poet. He expressed his opinion that poetry is horrible, and on this point I disagree.

Horrible poetry is horrible. Great poetry — such as what I found on that one page of that misplaced spiral notebook — is something else entirely. Great poetry opens another person’s heart and soul to the reader, and invites the reader to share in the poet’s experiences. Great poetry even demands that the reader do so. As Calvin Hernton explained, poetry can be like a fist beating against my ear.

June 14th, 2017  in RPG No Comments »