barnabas_truman: (army)
Have you ever wondered why songs and jokes and stories have always been the tools of the resistance?

Flyers can be torn down.
Graffiti can be painted over.
Picket signs can be confiscated.
Books and pamphlets can be burned.
Printing presses can be smashed.
Web servers can be turned off.
Guns can be out-gunned.

But if you compose a catchy song, a funny joke, an inspiring story, and you tell it to enough people, and they tell it to enough people, then you create a message that cannot be shut down.

Why does the resistance use songs and jokes and stories?
Because they are unstoppable.
barnabas_truman: (young whistler)
Today I met a bunch of new (to me) students and talked with them for most of an hour about temperature and heat flow and conservation of energy and graphs and equations. Afterwards three of them independently came up to me to tell me that my teaching style is "outstanding." I'd call that a successful first day of class.

Later, in office hours, a familiar-looking student came in for some help with the same subject matter, and to get my advice and opinions in general on physics classes, learning about logic, a possible philosophy minor, and how to apply all of this towards an eventual career in emergency medicine.

He then told me that three years ago he was in the summer orientation algebra review class I taught, and apparently what I wrote on his final exam had had a huge impact on him. It seems he hadn't really applied himself much during the summer orientation program, and during the final he felt totally lost and wrote a rather emotional note to me on the back apologizing to me, the instructor, for doing so badly. He tells me I wrote a very long and thoughtful response (I just barely remember this myself) telling him that he doesn't need to apologize to me; that the only person harmed or helped by his studying habits is himself; and that it's going to be okay--that a big part of the reason for this summer program is to give him a chance to make mistakes and learn from them in a safe space without huge negative consequences. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but apparently this was exactly what he needed to hear.

It's always nice to find out, even years later, that what I've done has made the world a little better for somebody.
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
This evening I went to the awards ceremony that concludes a summer orientation program that my department offers for incoming first-year students. I was primarily there to give out balsa wood gliders as trophies to the teams that had scored the most points in a Physics of Paper Airplanes workshop a few weeks ago... but after doing so, I realized that I had a moment in the spotlight with a captive audience of over 200 cheerful students who already think I'm pretty cool. I launched into an impromptu speech (because it turns out that what I'm really best at is making stuff up on the spot) about science, technology, and social responsibility. I'm going to try to type up as much of it as I can remember while it's still fresh in my mind...


I'm a firm believer in the idea of salvation through technology; salvation through knowledge; the notion that we can make our lives and our world better by understanding the universe and finding ways to manipulate it.

It is amazing how powerful technology is in the modern world. We can communicate with people all over the globe instantly. We can travel to the other side of the continent in mere hours. We can survive injuries and illnesses that, a century ago, would have been assumed invariably fatal. We can produce enough food by having 1% of our population working on farms instead of 90%. Amazing advances.

But technology comes with dangers as well. We can kill each other with a twitch of a finger. We can destroy entire cities in the blink of an eye. We can poison our own air without even trying.

We need the technology, but we also need to learn how to use it responsibly, and how NOT to use it. The advances in what we CAN do must be paired with careful thought about what we SHOULD do.

So by the power vested in me by nobody in particular, here is what I wish for all of you, whether you're going into the sciences or not:
the perception to learn about the world around you,
the cleverness to design amazing new things,
and the wisdom to use them to make the world a better place for everyone.

And if you EVER need any help in ANY math or science class... you know where to find us.


That's it as near as I can remember. It seemed to go over remarkably well with the students. (And no, I didn't actually say "With great power comes great responsibility," but I was thinking it pretty hard.)

See, I've been thinking a lot recently about my own responsibilities as a physics teacher who strongly believes in peace and social justice. I've known for years that it is my responsibility to teach physics to all who request it... but I also feel a need to be a paragon of pacifism. I have often worried "what if I teach physics to some students and then they use what I've taught them to design weapons?" Now I realize what I must do: pair my direct teaching of physics with some subtler teaching of ethics, using my mythic reputation as leverage. Good to know.
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
Just had a thoroughly invigorating shouting match with a hellfire-and-homosexuality street preacher out on the quad. I started by trying to counter and/or question the claims he was shouting about God's attitude towards sex, marijuana, and modern sinful college students; realized I wasn't getting anywhere; noticed that there was actually a sizable audience; and decided to fight fire with fire by shouting right back.

I paced around him while shouting (louder than he could; thank you projection workshops) that he was a terrible preacher because he's only shouting and not listening; that the first thing any teacher, preacher, actor, or politician MUST learn is LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE; that he just seems to walk onto a college campus thinking he knows everything about the students already and yells at them without listening; then I turned to the audience, gestured broadly, and shouted "Here's your audience, so listen! Audience! What do you want to tell this fellow?"

They all shouted as one: "GO HOME!" Couldn't have said it better myself. That stunned the preacher just long enough for me to step in front of him, face the assembled students, and give a one-minute impromptu sermon on the Gospel of Fred Rogers, a far better Christian than this so-called preacher, telling the students that today is a better day because they are here, that nobody should tell them they are bad for being themselves, that Mr Rogers and I love them just the way they are, and that it is indeed a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Walked off just in time to be out of sight before the adrenaline wore off. It's not so great to nearly collapse when the audience is watching.
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
If soldiers all were pugilists there would not be a war,
For pugilists would want to know what they were fighting for.
For instance:
If Tommy Atkins had been told to beat up Herman Schmitz,
And Herman had been told to blow the other into bits,
And if they had been pugilists they would have answered "No!
We will not fight unless we get a section of the dough.
We will not risk our arms and legs and shed our ruddy gore,
While you who fatten on the fight make millions by the score.
Although it is a noble stunt to redden hill and dale,
We will not fight unless we get a section of the kale."
And thus the world-wide warfare would be ended in a minute,
For bankers would not start a war if there were nothing in it.

("Yellow-Legs and Pugs," quoted in the May 1917 "Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators" and attributed to "a wise wage-slave somewhere"; later recited by Utah Phillips on his album "I've Got to Know")
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
My grandmother had a lot of children's books about peace and cooperation that I read often when I was young, and (since normal is what one grows up with) I did not realize until much later that most of them were books from the 1940s that nobody else had ever heard of. One of them is called The Goolibah Tree, by Joe Gunterman. There is very little information about it to be found on the internet, and some of you have expressed an interest in hearing what it's about, so here's what I remember about the plot.

Mr Spinglespangle went on a walk through the forest, and found a tall goolibah tree with plenty of delicious-looking fruit. He piled up a bunch of empty crates to form a stack he could climb, and sat on a branch picking fruit and eating his fill.

Presently he heard footsteps approaching, and saw two others, Mr Krinkle and Mr Wrinkle, approaching the clearing. He worried that they might climb the tree and eat some of the fruit, and he wanted it all for himself, so he kicked down the pile of boxes and continued eating.

Messrs Krinkle and Wrinkle noticed Mr Spinglespangle in the tree, and asked if they could have some fruit. Mr Spinglespangle apologized and explained that there probably wasn't enough fruit for everyone, and besides, there was no way up the tree. Messrs Krinkle and Wrinkle noticed the boxes, realized what was going on, and started to stack them up again.

However, some of the boxes had broken during the fall, so Mr Krinkle walked off to search for more boxes. While he was gone, Mr Spinglespangle began convincing Mr Wrinkle that Mr Krinkle should not be trusted--don't you see that he's different than you? have you seen how krinkly his hair is? do you imagine that perhaps he wants all the fruit for himself?

By the time Mr Krinkle returned with some boxes, Mr Wrinkle did not want to cooperate with him at all, and told him that maybe they'd better just divide up the boxes and each work separately to build his own pile. Mr Krinkle was confused but agreed, and began building his pile with the new boxes while Mr Wrinkle walked off to find more boxes for himself. In the meanwhile, of course, Mr Spinglespangle ran the same lines past Mr Krinkle to convince him not to trust Mr Wrinkle, with similar effect.

Messrs Krinkle and Wrinkle continued building their separate piles of boxes, each worrying (and rightly so) that he didn't have enough, and then began to argue about which boxes were whose, to the point of fighting. Meanwhile Mr Spinglespangle sat up in the tree, eating more and more fruit and watching with amusement.

At some point a dove landed on the tree and asked "What are you doing?" Messrs Krinkle and Wrinkle explained the situation (while Mr Spinglespangle tried to get the dove to go away), and the dove laughed and said "You're all being silly. Mr Spinglespangle, there's plenty of fruit for everybody; stop being so greedy. Messrs Krinkle and Wrinkle, if you work together you can easily build a pile of boxes high enough; don't let Mr Spinglespangle play you for fools."

Messrs Krinkle and Wrinkle looked at each other with guilty embarrassment, worked together to build the pile of boxes, and there was indeed plenty of fruit for everyone, even Mr Spinglespangle.

I didn't realize until YEARS later that the whole thing is a rather obvious metaphor for the wealthy overlords kicking the ladder out from underneath themselves and pitting the lower classes against each other. I suppose that makes May Day a good time to post this. :-)
barnabas_truman: (army)
Today I gave an impromptu speech at an anti-hate rally on the Quad that some of you might need to hear as well...

"A big part of the reason why I wear this cape is that I value the fact that people can be different; that I acknowledge that the diversity of our species is a strength, not a weakness. It would be a very boring world if we were all the same. So if anybody tells you that you shouldn't be different, if anybody tells you that you should feel bad for being who you are, know that you have the support of the Man in the Cape, and that Mr. Rogers loves you just the way you are."
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
If you think that the police are always right,
or if you think that the protesters are always right,
or if you think that the newspapers are always right,
I ask that you please set aside your prejudice
and watch what actually happened.
Use your eyes. Use your ears. Use your voice.

A brief summary:

I was in North Hall when the pepper spray hit the fan, so all I knew about it at the time was the sound of distant shouting, but I've been following it closely since then. It's pretty clear from the eyewitness video footage that the Chancellor's letter is all self-serving damage control and the statements from police leadership are largely fictional.

This video actually displays what was going on for the two minutes before the attack began.

This one shows (towards the end) the power of peace and unity as the protesters peacefully escort the police to the edge of the quad and tell them that they can go

Lots of photos on the Aggie website here.

A written account of the events.
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
How can a pacifist teacher justify teaching math and physics to students that are going into the military?

As a pacifist, it would be unethical to act in a way that strengthens the military. (If asked to use my skills to design a bomb, for instance, I would instantly refuse.)

But as a teacher, it would be unethical and unprofessional to refuse to teach any student that needs my help.

What am I to do? The obvious answer is "teach them anyway," which is what I am doing, but nonetheless I am troubled in my conscience.
barnabas_truman: (Default)
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.

--Howard Thurman
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
Christianity has been so politicized and so corrupted by those on all sides who seek to twist it to benefit their own agenda that it is easy to conclude that that's all it's ever been. It is refreshing to receive an occasional reminder that, buried deep under layers of foolish myth and hateful rhetoric, there really is a shining message of love and peace and humanity that we all so desperately need to hear. What better way to remember this than the story of a poor homeless migrant couple bringing new life into the world one cold night many years ago?

Last night I went to a Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Brethren, the first time (apart from a certain wedding) I'd been there in years. It was quite nice and really got me thinking. I think that the Brethren have a better understanding of Christ's message than anyone else, although the Quakers, Unitarians, and Methodists seem to have a pretty good grasp of it too.

Remember that the Light of the World is born not only on one night two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, but all around us every day. Peace in your mind, peace in your home, peace in our cities, and peace in the world.
barnabas_truman: (Default)
In recognition of National Coming Out Day, I'm coming out.

I'm an atheist. I'm happy with that, and unashamed.

I believe that there is no god. No Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah, no Zeus, no Thor, no Osiris. (No goddesses either, in case you thought I forgot.) In fact I believe that there is no supernatural element to the universe at all--no ghosts, no leprechauns, no unicorns, no auras; life ends at death, creationism is nonsense, and astrology and tarot have utterly no predictive power. Moreover, I find it equally easy to disbelieve in all of these things.

I'd also like to dispel a few ugly and all-too-common stereotypes about atheists.

* I'm a deeply ethical person. I am quite capable of choosing to do the right thing without any reliance on an imaginary friend telling me what to do.

* I see immense beauty and wonder in the natural world. I feel more in awe of natural phenomena when I understand how they work (or at least am making progress towards understanding), not when I tell myself comforting lies. I know how rainbows work; I know they are not feathered serpents spanning the sky--but does this make them any less beautiful to me? No: it simply tells me where to find them.

* If you want to believe in fictions, that's your prerogative and I won't judge you for it. I may judge you for your resulting behavior, though, especially if it involves pushing your beliefs on me.

* I will not evangelize atheism, but I will urge you to think deeply about whether your beliefs are consistent with reality or not--I do this myself all the time. Fiction may be comforting, but truth is better!
barnabas_truman: (kimiko)
I broke up a fight today at the junior college on my way to office hours.

I had just walked past a group of maybe half a dozen guys hanging out on the patio of a building smoking and chatting, and after I stepped inside I heard a scuffle behind me. Turning around, I saw two of them on the ground attacking each other. I stepped back outside, and another guy in the group stepped forward; we each grabbed one of the fighters and pulled them apart. While we held them away from each other, I tried to talk them down; their attitude changed somewhat when they realized I was a teacher. ("Wait, you're not a teacher, are you?" asked one of them at one point. "In fact I am.")

Anyway, as far as I could tell (they weren't very interested in sharing information) one of them had been trash-talking the other, who then attacked him. I mentioned that that's no way to resolve an argument, and the aggressor's buddies convinced him to go sit down in the cafeteria for a while. I advised the other guy to avoid aggravating potentially violent people, and suggested he go somewhere else and stay away from the other fellow for a while.

I had no idea how high on adrenaline I was throughout the whole thing until it wore off a minute later and I nearly collapsed. Bizarre experience overall. The rest of the day went pretty well though.

Oh, did I mention I was wearing my badass longcoat and wizard hat at the time?


barnabas_truman: (Default)

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