Sortition

Back in 1979, James Bovard wrote an op-ed in the New York Times proposing that Congress be composed of conscripts rather than volunteers who choose to run for office. This Independence Day, he revived the notion on his blog.

July 4th is my Independence Day, regardless of how depraved the government has become. Forty-two years ago, the New York Times printed a satire I wrote on the failure of the All-Volunteer Congress.  Some congressmen wanted to revive the military draft in order to have a higher quality army.  I showed that the same argument could be used for drafting members of Congress because “it is only the ego-starved who volunteer for Congressional duty now. These people are forced into Congress by their psychological or mental poverty, as no real alternative or treatment exists for their condition.”

Unfortunately, conscription is now fashionable – and the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages are leading the charge.  Two months ago, the Times editorialized on the benefits of forcing all young people to “serve.” Two days ago, NYT published an article by the president of Rutgers calling for “compulsory national service for all young people” in order to “make us more self-reliant” and to “secure the blessings of liberty.” NYT editorial page has apparently gotten rid of both its fact checkers and its BS radar.

The fact that the nation’s most respected media and many prominent officials are calling for imposing conscription epitomizes the growing contempt for individual liberty.  I’ll write more on that shortly.

Here are some excerpts from the original article:

The All-Volunteer Congress has proved to be a failure. Its cost is extremely high and there is not a proportional representation of minorities. There are also many doubts about the honesty and intelligence of the recent volunteers. Many of Congress’s recent failures are owing the low quality of its composition.

In a society with 50 percent women and over 10 percent black and Hispanic populations, these groups are very underrepresented in Congress. When we consider the injustice of these statistics, superficial objections against conscription are easily swept away.

A viable democracy needs to have a racially, sexually balanced set of representatives. The latest statistics issued last November proved that this lack of representation is worsening.

It is only the ego-starved who volunteer for Congressional duty now. These people are forced into Congress by their psychological or mental poverty, as no real alternative or treatment exists for their condition. Naturally, Congress is psychologically off-balance, because of the nature of the people who currently volunteer.

Most of the members of Congress are between 30 and 60 years of age. There is no group that enjoys the benefits of society more than this group. They have the highest salaries, the nicest homes, the largest cars, and the most power. However, this group is deeply entrenched in hedonism, and has thus far turned a deaf ear to the needs of the country.

Mr. Bovard explains how the new system would work.

With a service-oriented Congress, every man and woman would be required to register with the Selective Service Commission on their 30th birthday.

Every second year, everyone’s name would be placed in a giant basket, and the Secretary of Labor would pull out the number of names needed for that session of Congress.

The new members would receive a subsistence allowance (an honorable precedent established during the Revolutionary War), as it would not be right to overpay someone for what he owed to society.

The moral caliber of Congress would be improved by conscription. The environmental and personal background of many of today’s volunteers appears to be conducive to fabrication. Randomly picking people off the street would give a much higher level of honesty and responsibility.

Mr. Bovard wrote this article as satire, but the proposal that Members of Congress, and perhaps other government posts be selected by lot is not as crazy as it sounds. That is just what they did in ancient Athens and some other Greek city-states. Government by randomly selected individuals is called sortition, dymarchy, or stochocracy. Strange as it may seem, sortition has been used to select government officials of states in various times and places, with varying results.

We call ourselves a democracy here in the United States, but a citizen of fourth-century Athens would disagree. He would point out that the definition of a democracy is a state in which the people themselves make the laws and would state that our system of government by elected representatives is really a kind of elective oligarchy. Electing representatives is not all that democratic, as our Athenian friend would argue since the already wealthy and connected would be more likely to have the leisure and means for pursuing a political career, the elected representatives would not be representative of the citizenry as a whole. In time, an Athenian might argue the officeholders and representatives would tend to form a closed elite excluding outsiders from offices and political power forming political dynasties If he were of a philosophical bent, our Athenian friend might note that the people most likely to seek office and power are the very people who ought not to have it.

In contrast, our Athenian would point to his own city as a perfect example of democracy in action. In Athens, the laws and basic decisions of government were made by the people as a whole in the Ecclesia, the body of adult male citizens. A six thousand man body would be somewhat unwieldy so there was a sort of executive committee of five hundred called the Boule or council. This Boule was made up of fifty men over the age of thirty and selected by lot from each of the ten Phyle or tribes of Attica and ran the day-to-day affairs of the city. Members of the 501 man juries and many other officials were also selected by lot, though, notably, the ten Strategoi or generals were elected.

The Athenian system worked well enough, though it was not without its flaws and perhaps we should consider adopting certain elements of the Athenian constitution for ourselves. Of course, An ecclesia of a hundred million would be impossible to manage, and our Athenian friend would certainly argue that democracy is only possible on a small scale, but we could select Congress by lot, as James Bovard suggests satirically. The drafted members of Congress would be more representative of the Congressional districts they represent, the states the selected Senators would represent, and the nation as a whole. The people drafted for Congress would not become isolated from the needs of the citizenry, as politicians are wont to do in our current system and politics would be open to the people, not a self-selected elite.

The major objection to drafting Congress is that the people selected might not be experienced or competent enough to serve in Congress. In response, I would point out that we are not exactly sending our best and brightest to Congress.

 

I’m sure a brief search could find many more instances of Congressional idiocy. Surely ordinary people off the street could do at least as well, without the greed for power that animates many people in politics. Besides we need not include the whole population in the lottery. Perhaps exemptions for physical or mental incapacity could be granted, just as they were when men were drafted to serve in the military.

No system of government is perfect and sortition has its own set of flaws, yet I think that on the whole drafting ordinary people to serve would make a better, more responsive government. The people selected would be more focused on doing the job of legislating so they could get on with their lives, rather than focusing on winning the next election.

Seriously, I think sortition is worth a try. The result couldn’t possibly be worse than our current system.

 

Independence Day

The Fourth of July is the day on which the American people celebrate their independence from Great Britain. It is not actually clear why Independence Day is the Fourth. Congress actually passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It has often been thought that the Declaration was signed on the fourth, but that doesn’t seem to be true. There wasn’t any one time when the members of Congress signed the Declaration and there were a few who didn’t get around to signing it until August. Nevertheless, the fourth is the date that stuck. As John Adams wrote to Abigail.

English:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

And so it has been, for the last 245 years. May God bless America and grant us many more years of freedom.

Happy Independence Day.

Of Masks and Queues

Our governor here in Indiana has lifted the mask mandate. It is about time. We, Hoosiers, have been asked to wear a mask for about a year now and if there ever was any legitimate health reason to require citizens to wear masks in their daily lives, it has long since passed. The Chinese COVID-19 epidemic is receding. Vaccines are now available and probably the entire population has been exposed to the virus. There really is no reason to continue the mask mandates and lockdowns.

Yet, the order to lift the mandates has been surprisingly controversial. Those governors which have lifted their states’ mask mandates have been derided as science-denying Neanderthals even as COVID vaccines have become available and cases have been dropping. There is clearly no current justification for continued mask mandates and lockdowns if indeed there ever were. Why is there this insistence on compelling people to wear masks? I have a sort of a theory based on Chinese history. 

In 1644 the Manchus invaded and conquered China. Who are the Manchus, you might be asking? Well if you look at a map of China, the north-eastern part of China, north of Korea used to be called Manchuria.

These days it is called other names for various historical and political reasons, but never mind. The Manchus are the people who live in Manchuria.

The Manchus were a semi-nomadic steppe people much like the Mongolians. As is often the case when a less sophisticated people live alongside a more advanced nation, the Manchus came to admire the Chinese and began to adopt Chinese culture, settling down into cities and farms and importing Chinese artisans. Eventually the Manchu royal family, the Aisin-Gioro clan decided that they admired China so much that they should be the Emperors of China. They began to call themselves the Qing Dynasty and their king proclaimed himself Emperor

So, as I mentioned, in 1644, the Manchus invaded China. At the time China was beset with the usual political unrest, rebellions, and natural disasters which signified the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven from one dynasty, the Ming in this case, to the Qing so the Manchus were able to conquer China.

After they had consolidated their control, the Shunzhi Emperor decreed that every Chinese male must show his loyalty to the Manchus by wearing his hair in the Manchu fashion; his head shaved in the front and long in the back, gathered into a braid or queue. This decree was not popular, except among the toadies and collaborators among the Chinese. The Chinese viewed the Manchu as barbarians and had no desire to emulate them in any way. Moreover, Confucius had taught that as a person’s hair came from his parents, it was an act of disrespect to one’s ancestors to shave to cut one’s hair or beard.

After some initial resistance, the Chinese complied with this decree for the next two and a half centuries, as long as the Qing remained in power. For Westerners, the queue was the stereotypical Chinese hairstyle. Why was this? The Chinese outnumbered the Manchus by more than ten thousand to one. Why did Chinese men continue to wear their hair in a fashion they despised as a mark of their subjugation to a hated occupier? Well, for one thing, the Manchus were fierce steppe warriors, and the Chinese weren’t. Any man who refused to wear the queue was likely to be summarily beheaded as a traitor. A village where the men stopped complying could be destroyed.

Aside from that, China has never been a country that prizes individual liberty or great initiative from the masses. China has been a culture in which the common people were expected to obey their betters and let the Emperor and his Mandarin scholar-officials do the thinking for them. Obedience to their superiors had been pounded into the heads of the Chinese for two thousand years. And yet, the Chinese did resist. As the dynastic cycle progressed and the Qing began to decline, rebellions against the Manchus become increasingly common. The first thing the Chinese did when rebelling was to cut off their queues or let the hair in the front of their heads grow out. 

It seems to me that this insistence on continuing to mandate masks is less about controlling the COVID pandemic at this point and more about compelling a visible sign of submission to the regime, just like the Manchus required Chinese men to wear their hair in a queue. Why else should there be this insistence that everyone wear a mask, regardless of whether they have been infected? It seems to me that in a free country, the decision to wear a mask ought to be up to the individual. If you feel it is necessary to wear a mask to avoid contracting the coronavirus, by all means, wear one. If I believe that having had the coronavirus and been vaccinated believe that I am in no danger and therefore do not believe that wearing a mask is necessary, I shouldn’t be made to wear one. Why the name-calling and mask shaming? 

Maybe you think this is going a bit far. Well, consider this:

Wearing a mask is presented more as a gesture of loyalty to “President” Biden and his agenda than an actual health measure. 

The Chinese wore their hated queues under the threat of superior force and lived in a culture that emphasized conformity. We Americans allegedly have a culture that emphasizes freedom and individualism and no one is threatening to chop off our heads for not wearing a mask, at least not yet. So what is our excuse? Why are we being intimidated into continuing to wear masks even as the pandemic ebbs? Are we really that easily frightened? What happened to the people who wear willing to fight for their freedom?

If you want to wear a mask go ahead. If you don’t want to wear one, don’t. That is what people do in a free country. We don’t let our betters tell us whether to wear a mask. We decide for ourselves. Let’s take off the masks and be free. 

Easter

We left the story of Jesus of Nazareth last Friday. He had been executed in the most painful and degrading way possible. His closest followers were dispersed and in hiding. It must have seemed that Jesus and his movement had ended in utter failure. But then, something remarkable happened. This something is commemorated by the Easter holiday. Although Christmas is the more popular Christian holiday, Easter is actually the most important holiday in the liturgical year as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection is theologically more important than his Nativity. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gospel of Mark has the most concise account of what happened that first Easter.

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

9 When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,out of whom he had driven seven demons.10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these sign swill accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:1-20)

Mark 16:9-20 seems to be a later addition. At any rate, the earliest manuscripts do not have those verses. Whether the original ending has been lost or Mark intended to end his account so abruptly is unknown.

Matthew has more details.

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The Guards’ Report

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:1-20)

Luke and John have more to say of Jesus after His resurrection but I won’t quote them here.

The date of Easter has been a matter of some controversy in past centuries. The date of Easter is related to the date of Passover. The calculations on which the date of Easter is determined are based on a lunisolar cycle like the date of Passover but the cycle is not the Hebrew calendar. Generally, Easter falls about a week after Passover but it occurs about a month later in three years of the nineteen-year cycle. Various groups of Christians have had different methods of calculating Easter over the years and these differences have led to bitter disputes. There is still a different date for Easter among the Eastern churches since they use the Julian calendar for the liturgical year while Catholics and Protestants use the Gregorian calendar.

Among Catholics and some Protestants, Easter is generally celebrated by an Easter vigil beginning the previous evening. At dawn, a mass or service begins, etc.

And, of course, many people celebrate Easter by finding Easter eggs and eating candy delivered by the Easter Bunny.

 

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. It may seem strange to call it “Good” Friday since being crucified wouldn’t normally be considered as part of a good day but the word good is used in an obsolete sense meaning holy. Good Friday is generally celebrated with fasts and vigils. In the Roman Catholic church, no mass is held on this day.

Once again, I will be using the Gospel of Mark to tell the story.

Mark 15

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:1-15)

It would seem that this meeting of the Sanhedrin at night and before Passover was highly irregular and some have questioned the historicity of the Gospel accounts on that basis. I think that if the elders and priests of the Sanhedrin believed Jesus to be on the point of declaring himself the Messiah and leading a rebellion, they might not have been too concerned with fine points of legality in the face of a national emergency. Little is known of Pontius Pilate but in the historical accounts of Josephus and others, he does not seem to be the sort of man who had any scruples about putting a trouble maker to death even if he wasn’t certain of the man’s guilt. It is possible that he was impressed by Jesus’s force of personality. On the other hand, Josephus makes it clear that Pilate was a tactless man who did not like the Jews much. He was eventually recalled because his actions seemed likely to cause rebellions. Perhaps Pilate resented having the High Priest and others, who he might have considered semi-barbarians, insist on his crucifying a man he believed to be innocent. He might have refused just to be obstinate.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28][a]29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.(Mark 15:16-32)

Luke has one of the thieves taking Jesus’s side.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[d]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Crucifixion is probably the most painful method of execution ever devised. The victim is slowly asphyxiated as he hangs on the cross. It was not uncommon for a man to linger for days writhing in pain the whole time. In addition to the pain, crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating, shameful punishment. Only the lowest of the low were crucified, which might have been a stumbling block to early Christian proselytizing.

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died,[c] he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph,[d] and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Those words were the first verse of Psalm 22. Matthew’s account parallels Mark’s but Luke and John report different last words.

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[e] When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:46)

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.(John 19:28-30)

John adds another detail.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”[c]37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)

Strange as it may seem, the breaking of their legs was an act of mercy since they would die sooner. It was surprising that Jesus had died after only being about six hours on the cross.

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

To anyone on the scene, this must have seemed the end of the matter. Jesus of Nazareth was dead and his followers scattered. It would seem that, at best, he would only be a minor footnote in history.

 

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the climax of his earthly ministry.

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:1-11)

 

Palm Sunday is often celebrated by palm leaves to worshippers in churches. If palm leaves are not available locally, then other tree branches may be substituted. In many churches, the priest or other clergy blesses the palms and they are saved to be burned at Ash Wednesday the following year.

The actual date of Palm Sunday, like Easter, varies from year to year because the date is based on a lunisolar cycle like the Hebrew calendar. The date differs between Western and Eastern Christianity because most Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar for their liturgical year, even though the Gregorian calendar is universally used for civil purposes.

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week or the last week of Lent.

 

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey
Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

St. Patrick’s Day

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.

Pi Day

English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University o...
English: Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics Deutsch: Pi Pie (π-Kuchen), hergestellt an der Technischen Universität Delft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For all of the nerds out there, including me, today is international Pi Day, the day when we celebrate our favorite mathematical constant. Pi Day is best celebrated by pi memorization contests, walking in circles, and, of course, eating pies, or is it pis? I think I will celebrate by writing a little about pi.

Pi or π is, as everyone should know, the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Pi is an irrational number. By this, they do not mean that pi makes no sense but rather that pi is a constant that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Numbers like 2 or .445 or 1/2 can be expressed as a ratio of two integers and so are rational. Numbers like pi or the square root of any number that is not a perfect square, the square root of 2 for instance, are irrational. An irrational number expressed in decimal form never ends or repeats but continues to infinity. Thus, there can never be a last digit of pi.

The symbol π was first used by the mathematician William Jones in 1706 and was popularized by another mathematician, Leonhard Euler. They chose π, the Greek equivalent of the Latin letter p because it is the first letter of the word periphery. Π, by the way, is not pronounced “pie” in Greek but “pee”, just like our p. I don’t think that international “pee” day would be nearly so appealing.

Although the symbol for pi is relatively recent, the concept is very old. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about it. Pi is even mentioned in the Bible.

23 He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits[o] to measure around it. 24 Below the rim, gourds encircled it—ten to a cubit. The gourds were cast in two rows in one piece with the Sea. (1 Kings 7:23-24)

Properly speaking, the line around the “Sea” should have been 31.5 cubits but the ancient Hebrews were not very knowledgeable about geometry and measuring techniques were crude.

There is no particular reason to calculate pi to so many digits. No conceivable application of pi would possibly take more than 40 digits. Still, the challenge of calculating pi to the farthest digit possible has been an irresistible one for mathematicians over the years.

Around 250 BC, Archimedes was the first mathematician to seriously try to calculate pi. He used a geometric method of drawing polygons inside and outside a circle and measuring their perimeters. By using polygons with more and more sides he was able to calculate pi with more precision and ended determining the value of pi as somewhere between 3.1408 and 3.1429. Archimedes’s method was used in the west for more than eighteen hundred years. The Chinese and Indians used similar methods. The best result using the geometric method was the calculation of pi to 38 digits in 1630.

With the development of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660’s, it was possible to calculate pi using infinite series, or the sum of the terms of an infinite sequence. The best calculations with these methods were done by the mathematician Zacharias Daze who calculated pi to 200 places in 1844 and William Shanks who spent fifteen years calculating pi to 707 digits. Unfortunately, he made a mistake with the 528th digit. Meanwhile, in 1761 Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that pi is irrational.

Computers made the calculation of pi much faster so pi could be calculated to more digits. ENIAC calculated pi to 2037 places in 1949. This record didn’t last long. A million digits were reached in 1970. As of  2011, pi has been calculated to 10,000,000,000,050 places.

Pi is not just used in geometry. There are a number of applications of pi in the fields of statistics, mechanics, thermodynamics, cosmology, and many others. Here is a list of just some of the formulae that use pi. It seems you can find pi everywhere.

With that in mind then, happy pi day! For your enjoyment here are the first thousand digits of pi.

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510
  58209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679
  82148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128
  48111745028410270193852110555964462294895493038196
  44288109756659334461284756482337867831652712019091
  45648566923460348610454326648213393607260249141273
  72458700660631558817488152092096282925409171536436
  78925903600113305305488204665213841469519415116094
  33057270365759591953092186117381932611793105118548
  07446237996274956735188575272489122793818301194912
  98336733624406566430860213949463952247371907021798
  60943702770539217176293176752384674818467669405132
  00056812714526356082778577134275778960917363717872
  14684409012249534301465495853710507922796892589235
  42019956112129021960864034418159813629774771309960
  51870721134999999837297804995105973173281609631859
  50244594553469083026425223082533446850352619311881
  71010003137838752886587533208381420617177669147303
  59825349042875546873115956286388235378759375195778
  18577805321712268066130019278766111959092164201989

Valentine’s Day

English: Saint Valentine kneeling
Valentine?

Today is Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine‘s Day. Who was Valentine and why does he get a day named after him? The truth is, nobody really knows. Valentine or Valentinus was the name of an early Christian saint and martyr. The trouble is that nothing is known of him except his name. He may have been a Roman priest who was martyred in 269. There was a Valentine who was bishop of Terni who may have been the same man. St. Valentine was dropped from the Roman calendar of Saints in 1969 because of these uncertainties but local churches may still celebrate his day.

It is also not certain how Valentine’s day became associated with love. Some have speculated that the holiday was a Christian substitute for the Roman festival of Lupercalia. However, there is no hint of any association of Valentine’s Day with romance until the time of Chaucer. The holiday seems to have really taken off with the invention of greeting cards.

. Valentine postcard, circa 1900–1910

 

The Indispensable Man

It may not be the popular or politically correct thing to believe, but I hold fast to the opinion that our founding fathers, men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and the rest are among the greatest men who have ever lived. Our nation would be blessed to have even one such great men at its founding. The fact that we had so many great men must surely attest that America is under the protection of divine providence. Of these great men, George Washington stands head and shoulders above the rest. For his contribution to the cause of liberty, leading the fight for American independence, and then not making himself a king or president for life, Washington is surely one of the greatest men who have ever lived.

It is no easy task to write a biography of Washington. For too many people, Washington seems to be too distant a marble statue of implacable virtue that normal people cannot relate to. The man, with his very real flaws, disappears behind the image. More recently, there is a tendency, among the ignorant woke, to dismiss Washington as merely a slaveholder, never mind the fact that Washington grew up in a time in which slavery was accepted and uncontroversial, that he came to have misgivings about the institution of slavery, and he, almost alone among his contemporary planter class, actually made a real effort to prepare his slaves for the freedom he believed they would gain when slavery, being obsolete, would die out. A candid assessment of Washington’s life and works runs the risk of seeming to be a hagiography, and yet to focus too much on his flaws, does the man an injustice.

James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensible Man tries to thread the needle of writing a biography of Washington that makes him be a paragon of virtue while not dwelling overmuch on his flaws. In this effort, Flexner is mostly successful doing a passable job of relating Washington’s life and accomplishments and establishing that Washington was, indeed, the indispensable man without whom the American colonies could not have gained their independence. If you want to know about Washington’s life and accomplishments, this is a good book to read.

I cannot help, however, but feel a little disappointed when I finished Washinton: The Indispensable Man. It is a good work but there are some flaws. For one thing, there are no maps. This might be a fatal flaw in the sections dealing with Washington’s military career in the French and Indian War, and particularly in the Revolutionary War. How is the reader expected to follow the movements of the Continental and British armies without any maps? How can we understand the course of the battles? If I were not already familiar with the battles of the War of Independence, I would have been lost.

The lack of maps is somewhat frustrating, but I had a more serious problem with this book, it is too short, or too long. The problem is that Washington: The Indispensable Man is not the right length for what Flexner is trying to do. It is too long for a mere summary, but not long enough to get to know Washington. The author seems to hint at things but then moves on without going any deeper. I learned about Washington’s deeds, but I did not feel that I got to know Washington the man. I do not feel I got to know any of the people Washington interacted with, his friends, mentors, officers, subordinates. Flexner mentions names, tells a little about what they did and how Washington acted, and then moves on. I don’t get to know how Washington really felt about people he shared his life with.

Part of the problem is that Washington: The Indispensable Man is a condensation of James Thomas Flexner’s earlier four-volume biography of Washington. Flexner asserts in the preface that the text in this book is almost entirely new and not a series of patched together extracts, and while I have no reason to doubt his word, the book does indeed read as if he took out selections from his longer work. It summarizes but leaves tantalizing hints that there is more.

As I said, I can recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about Washington, but I fear that the reader is going to end the book unsatisfied. It is a good book to begin to learn about Washington, but not to end one’s study of the great man.