Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Question: How did marionettes get their name?

Although Asia has traditions of puppetry that may go back thousands of years, it seems that puppetry as we know it in the West is a relatively recent phenomenon that we can trace back about 500 years.  This is not to say that nobody had any sort of puppets before the 16th century -- using dolls or stuffed animals to tell stories seems like an obvious activity -- but we don't have much historical information about these local folk traditions.  Puppetry seems to have become a widespread cultural phenomenon quite quickly, spreading from the cultural centers of Europe, particularly France.  While most folk puppets were dolls on sticks, French puppet masters promoted the use of wooden puppets with articulated joints, which became the predecessors of our marionettes.

As is the case today, puppets were seen as both a way to entertain and educate.  Roman Catholic leaders were particularly interested in using them to educate the masses, many of whom were illiterate, about religious stories and theological concepts.  This was tied to a movement we now call the "Counter-Reformation," which emphasized the need to educate all believers in proper doctrine.  It seems that the most common type of puppet show taught about the inevitability of death and the need to resist temptation, and the puppet shows were essentially performed versions of the danse macabre, which we discussed in class.

Other shows, though, taught theological concepts such as redemption and virgin birth.  Puppets representing Mary were common enough that the term "marionette," which is derived from French and means "little Mary," became the generic term for puppets suspended from string.  Since puppetry itself was spread from France, it is not surprising that the term "puppet" also has a French derivation.  "Popee" means "doll," and so "puppet" means "little doll."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Question: Who came up with the idea of money?

The Greeks believed that money originated in Lydia, an ancient kingdom of Asia Minor, and it does seem likely that coinage in the West originates with silver coins minted in Lydia in the sixth century BCE.  By this time, though, the Chinese had already been using coins for about 500 years.  The Chinese had long used cowrie shells as a type of currency, and it seems that the first coins were in the shape of these shells.  The Chinese also used other valuable items as "trade markers," and they made replicas of these before they developed the idea of round coins.  Throughout Chinese history, coins typically had holes in the middle so that they could be held on a string.

In the East, coins tended to be made of base metals, and the value of the coins was not completely tied to the value of the metal that makes up the coins.  In the West, early coins were essentially developed as a convenient means of determining how much of a valuable metal you actually had. The early Lydian coins were made of silver, which was a metal that had long been used for trade.  The coins were standard sizes and were stamped with the insignia of the issuing authority, originally the King of Lydia.  If you trusted the king and were sure that you did not have a counterfeit, then you would not have to weigh the silver you received in payment, which was useful because people often argued over the accuracy of various scales.  Some coins were even made in a such a way that they could be divided into pieces if you were buying something at discount; our terms "pieces of eight" and "two bits" originate from this practice.

Another question is suggested by all this: When did people decide that the value of money should not be based on the value of the metal but on some other, less tangible, value? This is something that took longer than you might expect, particularly in the West.  Today, all major, international currencies are what we call "fiat currencies."  A US dollar, for example, is not worth a dollar because it is made of something valuable, but because the US government says it is worth a dollar.  As long as people trust that other people will continue to value the currency, then they will use them and accept them as payment.

When I was born, the currency was still "tied to" gold.  In other words, each dollar bill presumably had the same value as a dollar gold coin, and each dollar was supposed to correspond to some amount of gold held by the United States.  In other words, the dollar bills were essentially representations of actual gold currency.  Of course, the US did not have gold backing up all the money, which is essentially what is meant by "inflation" - an increase in the amount of currency available resulting in the lowering of value of the currency.  In 1971, the US gave up the pretext of backing money using gold.

In the East,  a pure fiat currency was instituted in the 11th century CE.  Why wasn't the original coin currency of China considered a fiat currency?  It seems that historical economists don't consider it a fiat currency because the coins were thought to have some intrinsic value, although their value as currency was not limited entirely to this value.

As archaeologists continue to explore ancient sites, it seems likely that they will find that the idea of currency arose slowly rather than being developed all at once.  For example, there are prehistoric carved obsidian objects found in sites in Asia Minor that may have been used as coins.  They are typically found in collections near places of trade, and analysis does not indicate that they had been used for any practical purposes.  It seems that they were likely first used to keep track of trades, and that the notion of using them as a means of purchase developed from that.

Write me a note to let me know if I answered your question.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Question: Did Triton have a Roman form?

Triton is a Greek god that was also worshiped by the Romans under the same name.  Triton is typically shown with a fish tail, and he oversaw some sea people known as "Tritons," which were essentially merpeople.  Other cultures have some form of merpeople, but Greek Tritons are clearly one of the main sources for myths of fish-tailed humans living in the depths of the oceans.  It seems that Triton was once the god of the sea in some regions of Greece.  As worship of Poseidon became dominant, mythology transformed Triton from being a rival god to being a son of Poseidon.  Triton looks really cool, and he was a frequent subject of Renaissance sculpture, particularly in Italy.

Emperor in the US

Question: Do you think that a Roman-like emperor could ever take over the United States?

It does seem that republics have a limited lifespan.  After the Roman Republic, there were several Italian city-states that existed as republics (Florence, Pisa, Verona, etc.), but none of them lasted forever.  In the past 200 years, we have seen nations in all the continents start to shift towards some sort of representative democracy.  People today, particularly in the West, tend to see this as a natural progression, and that some sort of representative democracy will be the dominant political mode of the future.  The problem with this assessment is that none of these republics has lasted very long so far.  Regardless of what date you give to the founding of the republic (the signing of the Articles of Confederation?  The Declaration of Independence?  The Constitution?), we can safely say that United States is less than 250 years old.  This is roughly half the age that the Roman Republic was when it started to be replaced by the Roman Empire.  It is possible that one day in the future people will look back at this era as representing a failed experiment carried out by nations around the world.

This raises a question, What might happen to bring about the end of the American Republic?  Many writers and political philosophers have looked for parallels between the United States and the Roman Republic, and there are hundreds of different opinions about what elements in our country resemble those that led to the beginning of the Roman Empire.  It is hard to pinpoint a single cause for the end of the Roman Republic because there was so much going on, but the following are contributing factors:

  • The Republic depended on constant military expansion to acquire land,
  • Rome conquered many regions where Roman power was resented,
  • Roman citizens, particularly in the city of Rome itself, resented giving any amount of control to conquered people and immigrants,
  • There was a strain on the food supply that was caused by many different factors, including drought and farming practices that depleted the soil,
  • The strain between the classes, which had always been a feature of the Republic, became increasingly dangerous after the Marian Reforms, because military service was expanded to include people who did not have any property.  This opened the door for people who saw the military as an opportunity to gain property, which was typically given out by the generals after successful campaigns.  These new soldiers tended to see their generals themselves as their benefactors; they became more loyal to their military leaders than to the state of Rome.  This is what allowed Sulla to march against Rome, and was an essential element in the rise of Julius Caesar and Augustus.
In the end, it seems the deciding factor is that people stopped being loyal to Rome, but instead focused on their families, classes, centuries, generals, and so on.  In other words, Rome became factionalized.  Whenever there was a need for austerity, everybody thought it was somebody else's job to be make the sacrifices.  In the early days of our republic, people were very aware that the Roman Republic had failed, and many people thought this was reason enough not to try such a radical form of representative democracy.  In response, the founders of our republic decided that they would mitigate the threat of factions by making political parties illegal, thinking that this would prevent one type of factionalism that was already problematic in the English Parliament.  The Federalist Papers, many of which you will read in ninth grade, make the argument that having divided loyalties will naturally lead to the downfall of the republic; these essays argue for a strong central government which will counterbalance the tendency towards loyalty to factions based on party, state, class, region, etc.  The Federalist Papers hold that there is always a sense in which people must give up some of their self-interest in service of the state, and that the unwillingness to do so will lead to the end of the republic.  

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes a similar argument.  While he realizes that political parties are a "necessary evil" (a phrase he actually uses), Tocqueville argues that "great political parties" are those that "cling to principles," while more destructive political parties "display the selfishness of their characters in their actions."  About 30 years after Tocqueville wrote, the country did become divided, the southern faction warring against the northern.  As the country underwent change and turmoil, people allowed regional loyalties to overtake their commitment to the commonwealth.  

I think the danger of factionalism is also demonstrated by the political activity the seventh graders did in the last quarter of ancient history class.  7C was much more successful at forming a government, mostly because the students were dedicated to the idea of making it work.  In 7A, the students were so worried about people watching out for their own friends that very few were really willing to commit to the activity.  For an undertaking like that to work, the participants must have some amount of belief in the "rightness" of the activity.  Without that, the only way to assure participation is to find some way to force students to take part, which is very hard to do, and it would not teach the appropriate lesson.

The worry that I have about the US is that people have widely differing ideas about the purpose of a nation.  People on the Libertarian end of the spectrum see the role limited largely to national defense, while more socially-minded people think that the government should have a role in providing health care, a social safety net, cultural enrichment, and so on.  I don't want to get into an argument about whose view is "right."  I think either approach has its advantages and disadvantages.  I also tend to think that people have different dispositions, and many of their beliefs about the proper role of government arises from this.  Arguing about what form of government the Founding Fathers wanted seems to miss the point; what we really need to do is to talk openly about what sort of government we want, since we are the people using.

What I am worried about is that people get so caught up in their own vision of how the country should work is that they give up on the notion of service and self-sacrifice that makes it work.  Although some people, such as Ayn Rand, believe that the best economic and political systems are based on self-interest, I don't see that history supports this.  The times when our country worked best were times when people surrendered some of their self-interest for a common goal.  While I fear collectivism and see the danger of blind patriotism (look at North Korea), I don't know of any country that thrived without some sense of unity among its people.  I think we are at a crisis now because we are divided about who we are and what the our purposes should be.  It is possible that war could give us that sense, but I wish that we could focus on a more humane purpose than killing other people.  

Another factor that seems to point to the possibility of an emperor is economic inequality.  Americans love the rich, largely because so many believe that one day they will be rich, too.  This becomes clear when people are debating things like the estate tax, which affects only quite wealthy people.  Americans tend to think that, although they wouldn't have to pay it if they died now, by the time they actually get around to dying they probably will be that rich.  I do think, though, that this attitude could change.  Think of all the talk of the "1%" in the most recent presidential election.  If people start to think of themselves as somehow permanently disenfranchised, somebody akin to the Gracchus brothers might seize the opportunity to shake up the established order.

That being said, I doubt that a single emperor will ever rule over the entire US.  I think that the country would fracture first, and that various sorts of rulers would arise in various regions.  The only reason the Roman people supported the emperors is that they thought it was in their own best interest to do so; most Romans were better off under the Roman Empire.  I doubt one person could convince enough people that the whole nation would turn over control to him/her.  

Let me know what you think by posting a comment.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Question: What is your favorite Disneyland ride (I'm guessing it is Indiana Jones)?

I have never been on the Indiana Jones ride.  I have been on most rides, but the line was long and the kids were not enthusiastic about having things flying at them, so we skipped that one.  The rides I like best are the ones that have some fantasy element.  I enjoy the experience of being taken out of the ordinary world for a while.  My favorite rides are the Haunted House and Pirates of the Caribbean.  I don't really like the changes they made to both of these rides, but they are not horrible, either.  I like things that are kind of creepy and macabre, but also whimsical.  This is why I think Johnny Depp was a good choice to star in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  I have only seen one of these movies, and thought the plot was rather boring, but I thought Johnny Depp was good.  I have a theory that he is a relatively normal guy who has cultivated sort of a creepy persona for commercial benefit, but I could be wrong.

I don't know about you, but the more I know about how the rides are designed and how the illusions work the more magical I find them.  If that describes you, check out www.doombuggies.com. 

The scariest ride I went on there was the Ferris Wheel at California Adventure.  It was scarier than the Tower of Terror to me.  I think because it was easy to see how the thing worked so that it was easy to imagine it failing to work. I talked to some people who will not go on roller coasters, but who find the Ferris Wheel to be fun.  Not me.  I have never been on a roller coaster that left as terrified as the Ferris Wheel.  Also, I find the roller coaster at Schnepf farms to be scarier than any of the big ones because it seems like something that a guy put together in his garage.  It also jars my spine, and so I may not ever ride it again.

If there is anybody still reading this, add a comment.  I have a big collection of questions, but don't want to work on it all summer if I am the only person who is going to read it.

Monday, June 3, 2013


An eighth grader asked why we root for the underdog in our society, while other cultures do not have a bias towards the underdog.  This question reminded me of an excellent radio show I heard on just this topic.  Click here to go to the show's webpage, then click on "listen."  It is such a great show that I am not even going to try to answer the question myself.

Real Numbers

I received quite a few questions, including some very reflective and cerebral ones.  Since I am a teacher, and I sometimes need to be circumspect to avoid offending people, I will let my friend Anjo answer the questions that delve into the dangerous areas of religion and philosophy.

Question #1.  Why are are numbers real numbers, even the imaginary ones?

A real number is a number that exists on the number line.  It includes positive numbers, negative number and irrational numbers.  An irrational number is essentially a number that cannot be expressed as a simple ratio.  The best-known irrational number is pi, which also called a "transcendental number" because it cannot be expressed as the result of a mathematical formula.  This reminds me of a frustrating story that conveys an important life lesson.  My eighth-grade math teacher was named Mrs. Brownell.  She taught us that if we were calculating using pi, we could use 3.14 if we wanted, but if we wanted to be absolutely accurate we should convert our decimals to fractions and use 22/7 for pi.  She said that 22/7 was pi exactly.  A student pointed out that mathematicians try to calculate pi out to more and more decimal places.  Mrs. Brownell said that they do this by dividing 22 by 7 and carrying it out to more and more decimal places.  I figured that this is something that even I could do, so I did the division and soon realized that the number I got was both different than the standard expression of pi (starting in the thousandths place) and started to repeat (which everybody knows pi does not do).  I told Mrs. Brownell who said that I must have divided wrong.  I asked her to try it on the board to show me, but she got angry and said it was a waste of time to teach me how to divide in 8th grade.  I redid my calculations and showed it to her.  She refused to look at it and told me that I should probably argue with her husband, who is a mathematician at Los Alamos lab.  The bell rang and she stormed out of the class.  Instead of looking at my calculation, she became defensive and angry.  The moral of the story is that children are expected to question assumptions unless those assumptions are made by people in authority.  Also, adults tend to dig themselves into incredible intellectual ruts - try your best not to that.  I realize that teachers are the worst, because we want everything we say to be authoritative, and we don't like to analyze our own assumptions.

Back to the number.  Pi is considered a real number because it sits somewhere on the number line.  While nobody knows pi in its entirety, we know that it sits on the number line between 3 and 4 (closer to 3), and it can be used like a regular number.  The square root of 2, likewise, is an irrational number because it can't be expressed as a ratio, but we know it is sitting there somewhere.

Imaginary numbers are something else, and they are NOT real numbers.  The term "imaginary" was invented to distinguish it from real numbers.  The problem that they address is that negative numbers cannot have a square root, because any number multiplied by itself yields a positive result (a negative number multiplied by a positive number shows that you have a certain number of that negative number, so the solution is always negative).  In some cases you want to know what the square root of a number would be if it were not impossible to have one, so they came up with imaginary numbers.  Imaginary numbers yield a negative result when multiplied by themselves.  They are mathematically useful when you are dealing with things like non-linear forecasting or calculating impedance.  More on this later. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013


Thanks to everybody who has checked out this blog.  I now have a long list of questions, most of them very good.  I will start answering them when I am done with evaluations.  I want to let you know that I am working very hard on these evaluations, and I write each one independently.  I try to be positive, but also show one or two areas in which the students can develop.