Monday, December 26, 2016

Ethics, Marcus Aurelius, Harvard and Success

I believe courtesy is the doorway to ethics.  I used Marcus Aurelius to empathize courtesy to my son.  In the opening of his book, the Roman Emperor Aurelius wrote, "Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from  my grandfather Versus." (Translation by Maxwell Staniforth, the best of all the translations.)  I pointed out to my son when we studied the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius that this was the emperor of the Roman Empire, a wealthy and powerful man, a general who waged war, and his first thought expressed in his book was about courtesy.  So the next time you hold a door open for someone and say, "after you," you can remember that courtesy was important to one of the most famous of the Roman Emperors.

Some of my Christian friends will undoubtedly wonder why I used anything other than the Bible to teach ethics to my son.  There are many people in this world who are not Christians and we need some common reference points to navigate through the seas of moral challengers we all face.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are well known and widely respected.

There are a number of people in Plano who wish their children to be successful in life.  Some Plano parents hope their children get admitted to the major Ivies (Harvard, Princeton and Yale).  Everyone who hopes their child can go to Harvard should give their child the best education possible before their child goes to Harvard, and this includes the best possible moral education.  If you want your child to go to Harvard you might read this book:  Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class by Ross Gregory Douthat.  You can see in this book that Harvard provides a poor undergraduate education.  Harvard is all about connections.  Remember Steve Ballmer became president of Microsoft because he played poker with Bill Gates at Harvard.  I suspect that Harvard provides a fine education in mathematics and the hard sciences and that their weakness is in the liberal arts.

What good is success if it lands you in jail?  There are so many successful people who end up in trouble with the law that Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes has written a book on the topic:  Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal.  I highly recommend a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal:  The Psychopath in the C-Suite by Philip Delves Broughton (Dec. 14, 2016).  Here is a snippet from this book review:

Mr. Soltes tells the story of Computer Associates, a once-mighty software company. In 2004, the SEC charged its chief executive, global head of sales and general counsel with misrepresenting their revenues to meet Wall Street’s earnings estimates. (The CEO, Sanjay Kumar, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.) Their crime was to pre-print the dates on customer contracts in order to book revenue in one quarter even though a sale was actually closed in the next.

It is important for our children to know that breaking accounting or SEC rules can land them in prison.  Hopefully, a good moral education can strengthen our children's resolve to do what is right and avoid the lure of getting ahead by cutting corners.  Avoiding doing wrong has to be instinctive.  One has to avoid even considering cheating.  (I won't get started on cheating in high school.)

Will your children, looking back on a happy and successful life, say like Marcus Aurelius that from their parents or grandparents they first learned courtesy?  They learned a moral life that steered them safely through the storms of life?

Your friend and neighbor,

PS: If you read and like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and want another book on Stoicism,
I recommend On Duties by Marcus Tullius Cicero (Author), E. M. Atkins (Editor), M. T. Griffin (Translator).  I found it an amazing book on ethics.  You might hear about the Enchiridion of Epictetus.  I don't care for the the Enchiridion, but I do recommend this exposition on it:  Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior by James B. Stockdale.  Admiral Stockdale won the Medal of Honor and was the Vice-Presidential candidate for Ross Perot's run for the Presidency.  If you are looking for non-Christian literature on ethics, I prefer Confucianism to Stoicism. I wrote a book on Confucianism:  Achieve Lasting Happiness: Timeless Secrets to Transform Your Life.  I believe Confucianism is more positive and encouraging than Stoicism.
Here is an article on the Translations of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (  There are a number of translations available

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sheridan Baker's Keyhole Diagram for Essays

Sheridan Baker's book, The Practical Stylist, has a keyhole diagram describing a design pattern for essays. I saw this diagram when I was a young man in college and the diagram stayed with me forever.

I made this sketch from memory (click on the  image for a larger version).  You can see the original in The Practical Stylist.  Dr. Baker credited Mrs. Fran Measley of Santa Barbara for creating the diagram.  Here is another blog post about the diagram:
The diagram as made an impression on many people.

I read a very long essay, an entire newspaper page, that impressed me as well written. I went back through the essay, comparing it to the diagram, and I found the article did indeed follow the pattern.  Your children might benefit from this diagram.  As a visual aid it does make an impression.

Your friend and neighbor,

I last mentioned The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker in a post-script to my article, Grammar for Your Child  April 3, 2015.  I just realized I have not written a full article about this book.  I'll do that some time.
If you are curious about Dr. Baker, here is his obituary:
I recommend his book The Practical Stylist, but if you become curious about another of his books called The Complete Stylist, I recommend you avoid this second book. It is a theoretical book, not a practical book.  Here is a review of The Complete Stylist

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Helping Your Child with Writing and Grammar

I think it is harder to teach your child to be a good writer than to teach your child to be good in math.  Mathematics is more orderly, more logical, more objective and systematic.  It might seem as though writing would be easier because you can just write down what you say.  But our conversational speech is short and interactive.  It is fleeting so your grammatical or logical mistakes are easily overlooked and forgotten.  We give little thought to what we say in conversation because these words are transient.

However, when you commit extended thoughts down onto writing you might then find yourself in the unfamiliar position of searching for the right words to turn your feelings into coherent, logical thoughts.  You might find yourself wondering about punctuation:  does a comma go here?

Your child will experience this puzzlement and you cannot count on the public schools teach your child to be a competent writer.  Even if your child has a competent English teacher (a big if), and even if the English program at your child's school is a good program that is consistently followed (another big if), then you must understand that a teacher has too many students to provide personal attention to each student's writing.  In high school, e.g., your child will most likely see a letter grade on his paper, but no corrections.  Then the paper will be collected back by the teacher so your child cannot take it to you to ask for help in improving his writing.  If you rely entirely on the public school to teach your child to write, then you are rolling the dice with your child's future.

You can help your child with writing.  First, I suggest strongly that you use the SAT and ACT Grammar Workbook by George Ehrenhaft.  I used this book, the 2nd edition, with my son and I can say it did raise scores on the grammar part of my son's SAT and ACT tests.  However, you do not want to use this book too early.  Your child should complete this workbook a week or two before the test.  With too many weeks between the completion of the work book and taking the test, the knowledge will slip away. That is my experience.  This is a study aid for the test. It cannot actually replace the years of second rate grammar instruction in the schools.  It is an aid to get past the test and is most effective when completed near the test date.  I gave a link to the 2nd edition, because we used that edition so I know it. This old edition can be purchased cheaply because there is a new edition.  At this time the latest edition is the 4th edition.  Your child might not get into the school of his choice if the English portion of the SAT/ACT tests has inadequate scores.

For many reasons, middle school is when you need to focus on your child's writing instruction.  Writing sentences and paragraphs is for elementary school.  Writing paragraphs and essays is for middle school.  There are some free, online aids you can use to help your child.  One is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).   I think the best part of this resource is its OWL YouTube channel, organized into playlists.  The videos are short and useful. Kahn Academy also has video material on grammar.  You have to make sure in high school that your child is ready for college and the SAT/ACT exams, but your over-all efforts will be more fruitful in elementary and middle school.

For your convenience, here are earlier blog  posts related to writing.
Vocabulary in the Plano ISD  July 26, 2014
Grammar for Your Child  April 3, 2015
Coaching Writing with Strunk and White  May 21, 2016

I wish you well in your efforts to provide your children with a good education.  Plano schools are good, but not perfect.  By helping each other we make Plano a great place to live and rear our children.

Your friend and neighbor,

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Smoking Pot Can Make Kids Lazy

Does smoking marijuana make kids lazy?  Scientific evidence says, "yes."  Marijuana Makes for Slackers? Now There’s Evidence by Susan Pinker says,

"... marijuana’s two psychoactive ingredients, tetrohydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have contrasting effects on the brain. “THC makes you feel high,” said Catharine Winstanley, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who does research on marijuana, while CBD “is responsible for its analgesic, antiseizure and purported anticancer effects.” 

The results? “Whether they were workers or slackers to begin with,” Dr. Winstanley reported, “even small amounts of THC made them all slackers.”

“Thinking that it’s harmless, that you can smoke cannabis and you’ll be fine, is a false assumption,” said Michael Bloomfield, a University College London professor in psychiatry and one of the UCL study’s authors. “THC alters how willing you are to try things that are more difficult.”

Our children need to know that while 25 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for various purposes, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers marijuana as illegal as heroin.  Companies with good jobs and high pay sometimes do drug testing, both in the hiring process and in the work place, doing random drug tests.  I have been drug tested, so this is personal testimony.  Smoking pot can cost your child a good job. On more that one occasion I have had to submit to lie detector tests and I was asked about drug use in these tests.  Even if your children wait to get the drugs out of their system, they might still be tripped up by a lie detector test.  There is an economic incentive in addition to a health incentive to avoid marijuana.

This article appeared in the printed edition on Saturday Sept. 17, 2016, page C2.  This should be available in your public library if you have trouble reading the article online.  Susan Pinker has a column called Mind & Matter in the Wall Street Journal.

We cannot assume our children will absorb our values because they are in our home.  We ought to explicitly state and promote our values to our children, in my opinion.  We need to speak against drug use to protect our children from harm.

Wishing the best for you and your family,

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Coaching Writing with Strunk and White

A friend of mine was telling me how hard it was to coach his daughter on writing.  He was coaching her by red-lining her compositions and explaining why he marked up sections.  When I asked what book or guidelines he used to teach her, he said he had none.  I asked him if he had a copy of Strunk and White and found he had not heard of the book.

For all you parents who are helping your children with their writing, I recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.  William Strunk, a professor at Cornell, taught E.B. White, one of America's better known writers.  Dr. Strunk's concise notes on writing style, used in Cornell starting in 1918, are a great starting point for teaching competent writing because the small amount of material for a student to master makes the teaching and learning of the material manageable.  It is brilliant.

I still have a copy from my college days and I got a copy for my son when I coached him on writing.  The second edition is 78 pages long, but the first edition was only 26 pages.  You can download a PDF copy of the first edition from this website:  Being only 26 pages long, you can easily print the entire 1st edition.  I recommend you start using the book in middle school.  Children are more cooperative in middle school.  High school age children can be very temperamental and hard to coach.

At some point you will want a book on grammar when you coach your child on writing.  As I mentioned earlier Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliot is excellent for middle school grammar

Children need personal attention to improve their writing.  They will not get personal attention at school.  A teacher with over 100 students will not be red-lining child's compositions and explaining the markups.  If you can coach your child in writing, that would be a blessing to your child.


Among the blurbs on the back of my copy of Strunk & White is one by Dorothy Parker:  "It is a book to put alongside Fowler's works, and I can think of no higher praise."  So who is this Fowler?  Henry Watson Fowler is probably the source for much of Strunk's stylistic guidelines.  There is certainly some overlap in their advice.  The King's English by Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler (brothers) was published in England in 1906.  However, The King's English is much longer than Strunk's work.  The 2nd edition of The King's English, 1922, is 392 pages long.  Strunk at 26 pages is a godsend!  Here is a PDF online for Fowler's The King's English:

Canadian lawyer Julian Burnside said this in his tribute to The King's English:  "My  affection  for  this  book  began  50 years ago, when my father decided that my English education needed to be supplemented." Notice his father coached him on his writing!  There is an online copy of The King's English here:'s_English

Later, Fowler wrote in 1926 a follow-on book, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.  This is the book referenced by Dorothy Parker.  This book is usually called Fowler’s Modern English Usage or Fowler’s for short, as Dorothy Parker said.  This was the book educated people turned to for a reference on rhetoric.  It is said Winston Churchill directed his officials to read it.  Fowler's is even longer than The King's English.  Fowler's is 899 pages.  That is right, it is almost a thousand pages long.  Thank heavens for William Strunk! You can download a PDF of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd revised edition) here:'s+Modern+English+Usage.pdf

I love writing so I think I will enjoy perusing these older style guides.  If you love writing you too might enjoy exploring them.  As free PDF files, the price is certainly right!

In closing I will mention that Strunk & White is a great book for basic writing, but it is not the ultimate book on writing style.  This masterpiece is not the end of the road, but the beginning of the road to great writing.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Our Culture, Our Poetry

While talking with some programmers this week I exclaimed, "Excelsior!"  It dawned on me that my own son might not know the meaning of this expression.  I used it in the fashion described in the Urban dictionarya phrase often shouted after successfully completing a mission.  According to Your Dictionary, it means higher; always upward: used as a motto (as on the New York State seal).  The word comes from a Latin root that means "higher."

Common expressions are part of the social infrastructure we call American culture.  I learned the term from a poem that I had read in my youth:  Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  You can read it here at the Poetry Foundation.  I actually got a copy of a book of poetry for my son, A Treasury of Golden Memories by Kenneth Giniger.  This book has a lot of classic poems, like Excelsior, that were taught to me when I grew up, but which have been abandoned by today's teachers.  It is important to pass along our heritage, our culture, to our children.  If you are like me, we are busy.  It is so hard to juggle all our responsibilities and then find time to oversee our children's education.  But it is important to pass on down to our children those poems that are part of our culture.

Years ago I read  Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch Jr.  The author recounted how his father would only need to say, "There is a tide!" to convey the need to act.  The quote is Brutus speaking to Cassius in the play Julius Caesar (Act 4, scene 3) by William Shakespeare.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

American culture is part of what has made America great.  If we lose our culture, we will lose our greatness.  Bombers and armies project power, but greatness lies within the heart!


Friday, March 11, 2016

Dad, They Towed My Car!

One day I got a phone call at work:  "Dad, they towed my car!"  My son parked in teacher parking at his high school and thought he would get a warning if he got caught.  It does not work that way.  The student handbook specifically says that no warnings are issued.  Put yourself in my shoes.  How do I get the car back?  Where is it?  I call the Plano Police department and learn that the tow company working my son's school is Signature Towing, 1204 Municipal Ave, Plano, with a phone number of 972-423-4010. So I call and confirm his car is in their possession.  I had to ask my son what the license plate number was because that is how they track the towed cars.  He knew the license plate number, fortunately, because I did not.

Getting a car back from the towing company is tricky.  Image you have given your child a card with the name, address, and phone number of the tow company.  Your child's car is towed and he goes there with cash to get the car back.  Well, that won't work.  The car title is in your name, not your child's name and they do not take cash.  The owner of the car needs to show up with proof of ID and pay with a credit card.  Perhaps the tow company will release the car if your child has a car insurance card that has his name on the card along with the VIN for the vehicle, but your child still needs a credit card to pay the tow company.  Be prepared to drive to the towing company to retrieve your child's car, and be warned that towing is not cheap!

I do not know if Signature Towing works all the high schools or just my son's.  It seems to me a good idea to coach your child  on how towing works in the schools if your child drives.  The lessons are (1) there is no warning ticket, (2) you or your child must know the license plate number, (3) it is not the teachers who call the tow company, (4) the police prowl the school parking lots and call the tow company if they find a car that can be towed, and (5) the tow truck will be there very quickly.  Perhaps the tow truck is even following the police!  One of my daughter's friends told me she parked in teacher parking, dashed into the office to drop off paperwork, and dashed back out to find her car already towed.

Forewarned is forearmed!


PS:  The staff at Signature Towing were courteous and professional.  I have no complaint against the towing company.