Just Because You Don’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t There

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This phrase, one of my great lines that I use for Japanese instruction, apparently applies to astronomy as well. Forget dark matter: 90% of the universe’s distant galaxies were there all along, but our method for seeing them was inadequate.

A very enjoyable read.


The Flawed But Awesome Majesty of the Law

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The law is not perfect. This is a basic truth about all societies that are based upon concepts of law and order. However, today I read the most remarkable argument, which I will post in summary form from Talkingpointsmemo.com without alteration:

What’s Really Troubling

Thanks to John Roberts’ comments yesterday I suspect we’re about to go through another round of hand-wringing about how the Supreme Court needs to be more insulated from the political brawls of the day.

Before it begins in earnest, let me make a distinction that will be quickly lost. The courts should be independent and free of political taint, and I’d man the barricades shoulder to shoulder with Roberts to defend that principle. But there’s no good reason to insulate the courts from the rough and tumble of politics and the complex world we live in, protecting them like a fragile flower.

To the extent the Supreme Court has been demystified by modern media and contemporary politics, that’s been a good thing. To the extent that it has lost some its institutional authority, it need not look beyond its own marble walls for the cause.

–David Kurtz

With all due respect, this is shockingly wrong.

In a Republic, there is no King but the Law. This is an ancient principle at the root of the country. People may disagree about what the law should be; indeed, the entire Civil War can be summarized as a dispute about who shall lay down the law of the land, and how.

What President Obama did was not about “demystifying” the Supreme Court. It was not about afflicting the decisions of the Court with political taint, though this writer says on the one hand the Court should be free of such taint, yet on the other hand argues that had the Court simply made rulings in line with what the Democratic Party wanted, the Court would not be of such supposedly ill repute. Finally, what President Obama did was not removing the court’s insulation from the “rough and tumble of politics.”

What President Obama did was make the Court a public laughing stock in a setting where even the slightest response to this mockery and derision would be assaulted as interference with the noble practice of politics by mere judges. Indeed, with the case of Justice Alito, that is exactly what happened; and now, weeks later, Justice Roberts’ intervention (link at bottom) is being spun on Talking Points Memo as “Roberts Slams Obama,” an inappropriate perversion of the political order.

The point is this: the President attacked people who were expected to just stand there and take it, using the bully pulpit to bully, and using the gallery to emphasize the derision placed upon the Court for having defied the President’s political and personal beliefs in a matter of law. The President tarnished the majesty of the law, and sought to make politics king instead.

If a President wants to change a Supreme Court decision, let him pass a constitutional amendment. That the restrictions on corporate contributions were contrary to the First Amendment in principle was no secret; people simply argued that the political case behind it was so strong that it must be so. Once a party was wronged that actually had such narrow interests that it sued all the way to the Supreme Court rather than deferring to political reality, the court made the only decision the law, properly followed, favored. Yet clearly, there was a larger point to what the President did, and what Talking Points Memo is doing today: making the Court just another tarnished institution that need not be paid attention to, and legitimizing politics as the greater source of majesty.

I do not believe that this will resonate with the public at large; nor do I believe that it should. The law has never been perfect, but it has always been grand and great; its power is awesome and the respect given unto it, while not perfect either, is far greater than in tinpot dictatorships and countries where personal authority matters far more than the strict letter of the law, amounting to a principle of, “if no one stops me, it isn’t illegal.” If you will, “If the President does it, it is legal.” That is a principle that the United States never quite accepted; nor is it particularly ready to accept this idea now, as far as I can tell.

The law may be flawed, but it still has majesty. Flinging mud at the law and making a laughing stock of it may be rooted in deeply seated and entirely honest beliefs, but I do not see that it is wise big-picture politics. To change the law is a noble endeavor. To tear down the law itself, and a country’s embodiment of that law, and to blame that embodiment for having in essence tarnished itself by not making the “right” rulings, is simply destructive to society in its entirety.

For more information concerning the debate, and what TPM and its readers are saying about it, see for yourself without me as a middleman: http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/03/battle-over-citizens-united-case-leads-to-white-house-v-supreme-court-spat.php?ref=fpa

Japanese tutoring: Taking stock

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(This post uses a little bit of Japanese text. If your browser can’t handle it, my apologies. Most will, but I’m not using images as a work-around this time – it’s of interest to actual learners or Japanese literate people, not everyone and anyone.)

Hi, it’s been a while. Instead of blogging, I’ve been using what “free” time I had to pound out Japanese lessons for my online tutoring for http://learnoutlive.com . Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

After a few weeks of putting together more material, and testing my kanji teaching in the field, there are a few things I can report on.

#1: Yes, Grammar Mattered

Some grammar is indispensable for learning Japanese that is useful in the classroom and in real life. What I taught was the abridged version: pronouns, sentence structure, proper particle usage (a poltergeist that haunts many students well beyond the beginner level), a thorough and representative sample of verb conjugation, and enough other vocabulary to keep things fresh and provide a lot of opportunities for katakana and hiragana reinforcement.

Yet an anecdote my regular student told me today, in the context of previewing the next class (which will focus on asking, and being asked, questions such as ‘What is your name?’ etc.), that he had been taught the following formulation in the cafeteria of a residence he was living in by Japanese language school students sharing the same residence:


I was using kanji for the pronoun “watashi” at the start only but “namae” for name would be 名前 in kanji. Anyway, this reads akin to, “I name is” or “Me name is.” The correct version is below:


My name is ___”

I’m above pointing fingers, but I feel a non-casual sense of relief that I started teaching this guy before he’d been “taught” too much stuff that would have had to be unlearned later.

2. Kanji Are Concepts, Not Letters of the Alphabet

Lately, I’ve been using a term I call “kanji logic.” For example, “four” plus “corners” equals “square” in Japanese: 四角. This isn’t something created with an “alphabet.” It’s something that comes from blending two concepts together to form a further concept. This is how the language gains its richness and depth.

3. Kanji Are Indeed Best Learned Visually

By the end of today’s review lesson, my student was seeing that the “dai” in “daigaku” (college, the ‘big school’) is the same kanji for ‘ookii’ (‘big’). That’s right. That’s exactly how it is. Showing different looks to reinforce the same kanji worked. These are the neural pathways that will lead to long-term success.

4. Like Leading An Army, Ask What Can Reasonably Be Delivered

I didn’t expect my student to remember everything and get everything right for this review lesson. That would not have been sane or productive. What I expected was a) for him to seriously think his way through and give his best effort, which he most certainly did; b) to make tangible progress towards remembering things he’d seen a few times before, which he most certainly did; c) to learn, inch by inch, the thought process behind the language, which he was doing just fine.

Conclusion: Results Not Perfect, But Still Excellent

After I finished my “basic Japanese” unit, which overall did a fine, fine job, I was at a loss for a short bit of time. I tried to introduce vocabulary that would be useful for the EJU (a test for entry into Japanese-language universities, which is this student’s long-term goal), but my student found the content to be above his level. Now, why did he think of this in terms of “his level”? That’s because he was studying vocabulary “at his level” on smart.fm and so forth. Well, fine. I decided to stop trying to re-invent the wheel and started teaching things from smart.fm lists directly (but with 3 to 4 times the depth), conjugated verbs like “hanashi” (to speak) and “motsu” (to hold) rather than just the kanji themselves, spread to more of the “Kyouiku kanji” (the grade school kanji taught in accordance with Japanese Ministry of Education guidelines), and I kept things focused.

I also worked on introducing adverbs and adjectives more and how to deal with them… but in the context of using kanji to make things not stay just a wall of kana. (My student wanted a change of pace from that, and that was fine with me.) I’m going to slow down the kanji a little to focus on color nouns/ adjectives and “questions” for the next lesson, and similarly for the near future, reinforcing more of what’s been learned rather than get too hasty.

I mean, it’s only been a month, and I’ve already taught this guy stuff that puts him on, in many cases, an equal or better position than people who’ve been learning in a regular classroom for a whole year. That’s progress.

Oh, one last thing…

5. Information Overload Is Indeed Best Avoided.

That’s really the key to this whole process. I’m doing my festina lente bit, breaking things into distinct pieces, not overwhelming the student, asking the questions that can be fairly responded to and make the student think without crushing him, and creating a lot of visible progress that the student feels in his bones and brain cells. Thus, by explaining things slowly, and slowly repeating a lesson or two or three later, the material slowly becomes learned. Once learned, rather than simply memorized, it becomes retained much, much better.

The main question now is spreading these successes outward and doing it for more people. I mean, I had to develop A+ lesson materials through individual effort alone, nailing down explanations for things which are, I think it is fair to say, poorly explained in much of Japanese language education.

The successful stuff is 10 lessons comprising “Basic Japanese,” four Kanji-oriented lessons, and one Kanji review lesson (which was a big hit too). It’s a start. I didn’t begin this process to be second best… and I feel like I have not compromised. My theories are being validated and my teaching is working. Now I’d like to rinse and repeat for a lot more people.

Look at it this way, though. If you can’t teach a complete beginner from scratch in an effective and efficient way, how do you expect to teach everyone else, former pro translator or not? It’s not just what you know – it’s what you can explain in plain English (and Japanese).