Monday, December 31, 2012

ultimate spider-man

I can't help it. I love the new Spider-man, and I can't stop defending him out in public.

Last year, Marvel Comics announced it was introducing a new character to fill the shoes Spider-man. This new web-swinger is named Miles Morales, and unlike Peter Parker, he's not white. He's half-black and half-Hispanic, and represents part of Marvel's overall shift at Ultimate Comics to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of their superheroes.

Predictably, people were upset about the change when it was announced. People complained that Marvel was getting rid of the traditional Spider-man, and accused the company of kotowing to political correctness.

A few things surprised me about this. First is that Miles is not replacing the Spider-man who Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in 1962. He's replacing the Spider-man whom Brian Michael Bendis created in 2000 for Marvel's Ultimate Comics line.

Second is that even if he were, so what? It's not like there is a dearth of white superheroes, and death in comic books is about as permanent as a haircut. If Marvel can create a superhero who speaks to the experience of its readers of color, I'm all for it.

Spider-man as a character has grown stale because of his pop culture success. He's not allowed to age, to marry and have children or otherwise significantly change, because the editorial powers at Marvel would rather milk their cash cow until it goes dry than risk killing it. Reinterpreting the character as an inner-city person of color rather than as a white teen from Queens is bold and opens up new avenues of storytelling.

What amazes me is that people still are upset about it, more than a year later. Two people at the comics shop the other day criticized Miles when they saw I was buying my daughter a collection of Ultimate Spider-man that included Peter. A friend of mine complained about him last night. Hel-lo, people! Miles rocks.

Miles has a lot of the traits that have always made Spider-man a hero, aside from the obvious spider powers like strength, spider-sense and sticking to walls. In many ways he's every bit as reluctant and outcast a hero as Peter is.

Peter first tried to make money with his powers, and only realized how he was wasting his gifts when a burglar he had failed to stop earlier, later killed his Uncle Ben. Miles used his powers to save some children from a fire, but was so unsettled by the experience that he didn't use them again until after Peter had died.

But the defining characteristic, the one thing that makes Miles stand out from Peter and makes him worth reading is this: He's not Peter. The Ultimate Peter Parker is dead, killed in a battle with the Green Goblin, and remembered by the entire city as a hero.

Miles is trying to honor Spider-Man's memory, but it's going to be ages before he's able to step out from under the shadow of his predecessor and gains legitimacy in the eyes of the New York. (And from some comic book fans, obviously.)

And just as importantly, Miles knows that he can die. One Spider-man already has, and unlike in the mainstream Marvel Universe, the Ultimate Universe doesn't seem to have a revolving door on heaven.

If Miles were simply a case of brown-washing -- if he were from Queens and had the exact same origin story and personality as Peter -- I'd probably agree with my friend who dissed Miles before I explained his story to her. But he's not a black Hispanic superhero for the sake of having one, and when Marvel debuted him, they didn't just create a black Peter Parker. They created a new character, one worth reading for his own sake, and one worth starring in his own movie some time.

He's also a racial minority, a bright kid from a neighborhood a lot worse than the one Peter Parker grew up in. As far as I'm concerned, that's just icing on the cake.

Miles isn't just a black Spider-man. As far as I'm concerned, he is Spider-man, hands-down: fresher and more fun to read about than Peter Parker has been in years.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


I'm trying to pare down the amount of stuff in my house lately. A few days ago, I found a copy of "Angelwalk" that I bought twenty-four years ago.

Written by Roger Elwood, "Angelwalk" is probably one of the angriest books I've ever read. It tells the story of Darien, an angel who considered Lucifer a friend before the war in heaven, and who now is exploring the world of men to see what Lucifer has been doing since his departure. When he finishes his journey, if Darien concludes that God was wrong, then the war will be over and God will allow Satan and all the fallen angels to return.

It's certainly an unusual setup, and I've got to give Elwood points for creativity in the concept. Still, if you thought the next 189 pages would deal with symptoms of humanity's brokenness, like our petty-mindedness, our indifference to the suffering of others, our sometimes open lust for power, or even some big sins like the exploitation of illegal immigrants, or human trafficking, you'd be mistaken.

"Angelwalk" was written for an evangelical or fundamentalist readership, and as such it is preoccupied with issues that offend those readers. Thus we're treated to a narration of an abortion from the perspective of one being aborted; we attend a funeral for a gay man and get to overhear attendees discussing having an orgy and possibly involving the corpse, and so on. (Elwood is vague on whether this scene occurs in Sodom or in San Francisco.)

There's no sense of moderation here, not even an aside that this particularly abhorrent sort of behavior is extremely deviant. There are two groups of people Darien encounters in his travels: the utterly depraved, and evangelical Christians.

This sort of strident, circle-the-wagons sort of thinking, which views those outside the evangelical church as abhorrent and a threat to decent church-going sorts, is outrageous. I'd like to think Elwood didn't mean for the book to be taken seriously -- but given the content of later books in this series, and the warm reception I recall this book getting in the late 1980s, it's safe to say that he did.

Because it deals with angels and demons, and the effects of sin on our world, "Angelwalk" when it was published regularly was compared to C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" as a book about spiritual warfare. If only that comparison were warranted.

Lewis' book, which purports to be a series of letters from a devil to a junior tempter on how to lead a man away from faith in Christ, is at times witty and thought-provoking, and always thoroughly original. The difficulties faced by the unnamed human in the book are common enough to the human race, and easily related to.

"Angelwalk" pretends to raise questions about God's justice and mercy, but the examples of sin the book presents are so extreme that its answers are meaningless; and the book is so full of anger that there's nothing to think about, nothing to remember, nothing to savor or comment on.

Ultimately, the book is rather like a hellhouse, that horrifying evangelical alternative to Halloween. If you're inclined to agree with the message of "Angelwalk," then you'll like it. If you don't, you're probably going to be revolted, feel a little sick after reading it, and never want to talk again to whoever convinced you it was a good idea to try it in the first place.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

quitting time

I've quit Facebook.

I've laughed at witty things my friends have said or shared, but it's time to stop. I've enjoyed sharing things of my own that people have liked, and I've enjoyed seeing the odd thing or two that I write go viral. But at the end of the day, I've had to add up the time I've spent on Facebook and other web sites, and ask myself if there aren't better ways to spend my time.

And so I quit. At the moment, my account is only deactivated, but if I don't change my mind by Jan. 5, I'm probably going to take the nuclear option and close my account entirely.

The day after I deactivated my Facebook account was Christmas. That morning I got up, I ate breakfast with my family and we unwrapped presents. My children and I played with their new toys together, we talked about what they had been reading lately, and at the end of the day I shredded some old financial documents before going to bed.

It was a refreshing day, filled with family and with real-world experiences. In the days since, I've watched “Doctor Who” with my children, played with the youngest, and read a book. I've even written a blog entry, in what I hope is the first break in a long and painful logjam.

It's not a change I expect everyone will want to make. My friend Jeff, for instance, is always quick to stress the value he perceives in social networking for building and maintaining relationships.

I confess, I've never seen this value, no matter how much Jeff has stressed it.

Relationships just don't happen over an Internet medium, except in the most bare-bones, utilitarian sense. Which of us, in talking about the great times we've had with friends, ever stops to recount a meaningful status update? We may share, away from Facebook, things that we saw or read there, but those are always sidebars to the main events of our lives.

I've always enjoyed the pictures my friend Ruth shares of her children, but the memories I treasure are from the visits I've had with her and her family. I recall with great clarity the Saturday afternoon we went to lunch in Port-au-Prince then caught up with one another in their living room.

Facebook lets me know when my brother has gone for a ride on his horse. Seeing him in person or hearing him on the phone, I get a fuller measure of his experience. His shoulders will slump with that so-good fatigue, and his voice will carry his excitement as he shares where he's ridden and what he's seen. You don't get that on social media. Conversation isn't just a two-way exchange of words; it's a dynamic system, where one person's enthusiasm and interest feeds the other's.

Break it up and remove that direct interaction, and you're left to interact with the cold text another person has left, often hours earlier.

In the end Facebook, like most of the rest of the Internet, involves sitting alone by the computer or with your phone, interacting with what you imagine the other person to be. It is the shell of a conversation, an echo of a relationship trying to emulate the real thing.

God knows we want the real thing. Relationships these days are so impermanent. Children move hundreds of miles from their parents when they move out on their own, and then move regularly with the demands of work. Even marriage isn't what it once was. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average marriage will last seven years.

Facebook gives us the illusion of permanency and connection. Thinking about your college roommate? Look him up. Want your parents to know what their grandchildren are up to? No problem! It's a piece of cake to share the contents of your digital camera in an album they can look through at their leisure. Feeling nostalgic for that guy in high school who used to look down his nose at you? Hey, no problem – he'll be sending you a friends request any day now.

Facebook has kept us networked with one another, but it hasn't brought us any closer together, and that's the difficulty I have with it. Too often, in fact, it tears us apart where we expect it to pull us together.

If you're my friend on Facebook, after the events of Sandy Hook, you probably saw me voice some thoughts on the subject of gun control. If you agree with me, you might even have clicked Like. But if you didn't, it's just as possible you got annoyed at what you saw as an attack on your Second Amendment rights.

Being the polite sort, you didn't say anything then, but it stuck under your craw. You've heard the gun control rhetoric before, and it's never impressed you. But when you came back to the site, my comment was still there, still obtrusive, and still annoying to you.

If we'd been in the same room, we might have had a conversation on the subject. We would have known when each other wanted to speak, and we would have paused and allowed for the back-and-forth of a proper discussion. In the process, we would have moved beyond the surface arguments to some of the deeper issues.

But since this exchange would have happened on Facebook, each of us would have said all that we wanted to, with no modulation for interruption or discussion, after the initial comment was made without having you specifically in mind. And so, though neither of us intended to, we've driven a little wedge between us.

It gets even worse when our friends get involved, because often they have no relationship to provide context at all. Disagree with someone's post, and you may be called delusional, or worse. Like the rest of the Internet, the Facebook platform just doesn't support actual dialogue and understanding as much as it does strong language and hard feelings.

As my friend Indigo once observe, “Social networking just brings people together. It doesn't guarantee what happens next.”

Facebook goes on, but it will go on without me. As much as I have loved George Takei's page, as much as I have loved the ecards I have seen, as much as I have enjoyed the clever fan pages and all the witty graphics that get passed around, and as much as I love hearing about Jeff's trip to the supermarket to buy some mustard, it isn't worth it.

If I take everything Facebook delivers, and I weight it on a balance against the other things that could be done with the time, particularly the value of the relationships that we sacrifice to use the service, Facebook cannot measure up. Most things in life are better in moderation, but Facebook? I have found that for me, at least, it is like the proverbial obese man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There's nothing wrong with the buffet, but perhaps it would be better to go home and have a salad.

I'm setting down my tray and I'm walking away from the building, with no plan for the foreseeable future of going back.

This entry is a blog response to "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish."

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Never ready

One of my traveling companions called today and asked if I was ready to go to Haiti on Monday. "I'm never ready," I answered truthfully. "I just go."

I've traveled to Haiti three times in the past two years, and each trip was preceded by language study, sleepless nights, lots of prayer, reams of introspective blog and journal entries, and a general sense of inadequacy. The need is so overwhelming, and I am so inadequate.

On my first trip to Haiti in January 1991, I held a 2-year-old boy named Samuel who was starving to death. His hair was orange, an advanced stage of malnutrition. He hadn't eaten in three weeks. What did our team leaders instruct us to do in the face of this great need? We handed out bouillon cubes as we went house to house in an attempt to convert people.

Quisqueya Christian SchoolThe trip changed my life. I returned to Haiti after graduation, and worked first with STEM Ministries and then at Quisqueya Christian School. While I worked with STEM, we took teams to Jacques Fourcand's Mission of the Trinity and helped serve lunch to the children of  Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most wretched slums in the nation. My clearest memory: We sat about 500 children, then discovered we only had enough food for 300.

We turned the rest away.

Haiti is one of the most special places in the world to me. I feel the closeness of God in that country in a way I rarely feel it here in the United States, and each time I have returned there the past two years, I have known with ironclad certainty that I was where I needed to be, and doing what I needed to do.

But Haiti has never let me be in peace. Every time I look in the mirror, I feel the morality that ties my weight problem to Samuel's. Every time I hear Americans whine about the Republicans and the Democrats, I think of a land that is still suffering from a culture of corruption and oppression nurtured under the Duvaliers.

I remember rows of people who lost arms and legs when the earth shook and their houses fell.

I remember the prostitutes who tried to get me to have sex with them, and then finally just begged for a couple bucks so they could buy food.

I remember the hunger that peered out from the eyes of every man, woman and child I passed in the streets; that followed me to restaurants I visited with friends; that looked in from the street outside the school where Georges al Reyes was throwing out a plate of food because he'd rather eat junk from the snack bar; that haunted my dreams and still haunts me today.

I think about Haiti every day. Sometimes I dream about it, and the smell of diesel fumes is so strong that I can step out my dream and be there, at the top of Route de Delmas by the sign that promises better musculation. Sometimes the dreams are nightmares, and I wake, wondering whether anything has happened to Sarah, to Nakosa or to Christina.

The need is overwhelming, and I want to be like the one who cried out
Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
I want to be like the one who feeds the nation with himself, the one who promises that one day every valley will be filled and every mountain will be humbled. I tremble when I think of him, because I am a wealthy man headed into one of the poorest nations in the world, and I know that God is just.

The need is so great. I am so small. How can I possibly meet it? I cannot.

I am going back to Haiti on Monday. I am not ready, and never will be. But I am going.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Going for a walk

During summer and winter breaks my first two years of college, I had the misfortune of working at a fast food restaurant.

Now I know that career counselors remind us that there is no such thing as a bad job, and that we should view every job as a learning opportunity. They say this because they never had to work in a fast food restaurant, where the chief lessons are that people will buy terrible, tasteless and unhealthy food if it's priced cheaply enough; that your hard work will never be recognized because the manager is either talking on the phone the whole day or just doesn't care how hard you work because he's bitter about working there too, and at his age; that sexual harrassment of female co-workers is acceptable; and that major corporations pay their executives massive salaries by underpaying the hourly workers who make their profits possible. (Today I would add the further lesson that there is nothing like a bad economy for humiliating intelligent adults by forcing them to compete with teenagers for unskilled labor positions.)

All that said, for someone in college who wasn't able yet to land an internship or a work-study arrangement, this wasn't the worst way to make a little pocket money. (Please note the emphasis on "a little.") A typical work day would see me working from 5 or 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon.  This in itself was not a Bad Thing. Work usually was busiest during the breakfast and lunch shifts, and there was consequently little time to think about how much I hated my job.

One day on Christmas break my freshman year, I drove home and shambled upstairs to my room.  ("Shambled" is a fairly accurate description of how I walked around after getting up at five in the morning and rushing to work.) After I finally crawled into a change of clothes, I walked downstairs to vegetate in front of something mindless, like "The Squire of Gothos," one of those Star Trek episodes that can be appreciated properly only from a state of mental vegetation.

Star Trek, alas, was not available, but I was not to be denied. Due to the wonders of TV programming, there is always something being broadcast that is suitable for inducing brain death. Admittedly, because it was early afternoon, my choices were limited to soap operas like "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives"; watching the muscle  men of the Power Team rip phone books in half for God's glory; or something educational on PBS, like Sesame Street.

Something educational it was, but it wasn't "Sesame Street," which admittedly has some really jamming tunes like "Put Down the Duckie." Instead, it was an episode of the spectacular, original run of "The Electric Company," the show that is remembered for gems like Arthur Crank, Easy Reader and "Fargo North, Decoder," as well as for launching the career of Morgan Freeman with his portrayal of a giant glowworm.

The episode on that afternoon was a gripper. Silent E was committing a host of outrages. As viewers watched in horror, Silent E vandalized the kitchen sink by turning the water tap into a roll of tape. From there it leapt to a hapless boy's head and changed his baseball cap into a cape.

It seemed unbeatable, until it finally met its match in Uncle Sam, who stayed the same and showed that even then, the Children's Television Workshop had a big-government liberal agenda to push.

That was Silent E, but for an episode of "The Electric Company," which had been created to help struggling readers, Silent E was just the beginning.

In one of the most compelling segments of the show, the Evil Spellbinder had just turned Letterman into a pound cake, and all hope seemed lost for our hero.

I heard the Evil Spellbinder cackle in triumph when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my grandmother scouring the living room. The Evil Spellbinder and Letterman would have to wait.

"Grandma, what are you looking for?" I asked her.

"I can't find my hat.  Do you know where my hat is?"

My grandmother had been living with us for the better part of a year. Now in the early stages of senility, she sometimes developed the urge to leave, even though she had nowhere to go. I was at her side in an instant.

 "Uh no, Grandma, I haven't seen your hat for some time.  Why do you want it?" I was stalling for time, trying to find some way to distract her. I have never been very good at this, as my distractions usually help people focus on what they're trying to do, with the result that they finish it much more quickly.

"I'm going for a walk," she said, and with that she turned and headed directly toward her hat.  Just then, my brother Steve came downstairs.

"Step Hen, have you seen my hat?"  Grandma asked him.

Now, my brother's name is spelled "Stephen," with a ph, but it is pronounced the same as "Steven." Because of this, people either spell his name incorrectly, with the result that the post office sends his mail to a Steven Learn serving a life sentence in Cuba, or they pronounce his name "step hen," as in "step on a hen."

This tragically happened to him when he was a child and our parents had taken him to a popular children's pizzeria for his birthday. One of the manager's responsibilities at this particular restaurant was to read over a speaker the names of children celebrating their birthdays.

After flawlessly wishing happy birthdays to awkwardly named children like Yehudah ben O'Shaugnessy, Rado Prbic and Alksandr Raskolnikovichamazov, the manager choked.

"We'd also like to wish a happy birthday to Step Hen Learn, who is eight today," he said.

Steve, who would burst into tears every time he heard the theme song for "The Incredible Hulk," began screaming at once.

"Waaahhh!" he cried. "He called me Step Hen."

He cried so loudly and for so long that the manager finally gave us our meal for free. And now Grandma had called him "Step Hen" and reopened that ancient wound. Already tears were pooling in his eyes, and I had to act quickly to save both him and our grandmother.

"Grandma, isn't that your hat over on the dining room table?"  As she turned to look, I grabbed her hat, and whisked it behind her head to Steve, who snatched it from the air and  tossed it on top of a bag sitting on the top shelf of the coat closet.

"No, I don't see it," she said, and she began walking toward  the closet.  "I guess I'll go for my walk without the hat."

"Grandma, you can't go for a walk without a hat, it's too cold!"  I lied -- it was 65 degrees outside.

"And it's snowing, too," Steve said sadly, still dwelling on being called Step Hen.  Iit hadn't snowed more than half an inch in the past year, but Steve was understandably disoriented.

"Well, then I'll go in the car," my Grandma said.  I deftly positioned myself between her and the door.

There was no need to point out that driving the car without a license is not quite the same as taking a walk.  In fact, since the whole point of going out was for a walk, driving defeated the purpose.

"The cars are both out, Grandma," I lied again.  The car I had driven home from work sat docilely in plain sight in the driveway.

"Well, I'll walk, then."

"Gee, Grandma, why not just wait until my mother comes home?" Steve asked. "She can take you for a walk in the car."

This succeeded where all subterfuge had failed. She could get both her walk and her car ride at the same time. It must have seemed quite a deal, because she took off her coat and went back to her room, just as the hat fell off the bag.

We had managed to keep our grandmother safely inside.  Steve went upstairs and cried until someone finally gave him a free pizza, and I watched the remaining five minutes of the Electric Company.

I never did learn how Letterman was saved from being sold for a dollar seventy-five at the bakery.  I may never know; it continues to be one of life's little mysteries.

Copyright © 1988, 1992, 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Read the Original

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Introducing One Thousand Blank White Cards to the Homeschoolers

You have an hour to go with a group of homeschoolers, and the kids have already played Nomic twice. What do you do? You play One Thousand Blank White Cards, of course!

Like Nomic, One Thousand Blank White Cards is a game that seems tailor-made for homeschoolers. Originating in Madison, Wisc., One Thousand Blank White Cards is a game that provides a basic game structure but otherwise allows the players to create the rules as they go. In this case, they do so by filling in blank cards with whatever sort of action, illustration, penalty or other play that they want.

Aside from the creative aspects, the game is fairly basic. Play begins to the dealer's left and continues clockwise, with each person playing a card on either herself or another player, although players are allowed to respond to others' play with further cards. You're allowed to create, alter and even destroy cards however you want, and you can even create cards that evoke the spirit of other card games.

Another group I played One Thousand Blank White Cards with, for instance, saw cards arise with things like "Lose 50 Points If You Don't Have a Water Card." This immediately led to someone creating a "Water" card worth 20 points, and that in turn to a third, "Anti-Water" card. The potential for silliness abounds.

I introduced the game today to Oldest Daughter's logic club after we had completed the day's exercises in critical thinking. I handed each of the students five completely blank cards, explained the basic rules, and let them indulge themselves. Once they had completed their cards, I shuffled the deck, mixed in a few more blank cards, and dealt the first hand.

We played this last weekend at a friend's house, and since everyone playing was in her mid-30s or later, the cards were silly but tilted toward the witty. We had a few cards that said things like "Swap cards with the person on your left" and "Trade places with someone else," but the majority said things like "Sing a Happy Song About Leprosy" and "Tell a Story About Your Teddy Bear." (I interrupted that one with a card that said, simply, "Shut up.")

Play today reflected the age of the players accordingly. They created a lot of cards that involved mildly humiliating or annoying tasks like "Crawl Like a Worm for a Minute" and "Hop Up and Down Until the Game Ends." (I saved that player after a few seconds with a card that read, simply, "Game Over.")

There were a number of cards that referred to specific players, like "Give Card to Joe," which led to some creative arguments among players as to which card should be given to Joe, that card or another one.

The phenomenon I found most interesting was the way players began creating cards to adapt their playing strategies to one another. Fifteen minutes into the game, there were cards being played that read in part "Play Right Away," thus allowing them to interrupt on someone else's turn; or "Card May Not Be Edited," so the player could be guaranteed her way. (Unfortunately for her, someone else played an Override card that allowed the card to be edited anyway.)

The game was a hit, mostly because the kids kept making one another do silly or embarrassing things. I am curious how things would have gone had someone played my card "Elves Attack Your Village. Lose 50 Points," especially since I always add nifty illustrations to my cards, but no one played that, so we never got to see whether a game would develop with points as a goal, or around a fantasy theme.

The game broke up when everybody had to go home, but I sent the kids packing with starter decks that consisted of the cards that they had created and the cards that were specific to them. (I have no use for a card that says "Mourn Billy's Lost Dignity," for instance, since there are no Billys in my family, though Billy's family may use it at some point.)

As they left, one of the moms told me that Nomic has been spreading. Not only has her family played it, she's seen her children teaching their other friends how to play it as well.

And now they have something else to share.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Introducing needless complexity into Nomic

For those who are keeping track of these things, we continued to play Nomic today at our homeschooling logic club.

Nomic is a game of self-governance, created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber. Like any other folk game, there are a number of variants, but the version I am most familiar with and taught to the children begins with exactly one rule: that it takes a two-thirds majority to change the rules. We played the game last week, and even though I was introducing it to a group of preteens, the game was very well received.

We continued our previous session, and though we passed fewer rules this time than previously, we still had a good time. The new rules passed are as follows.

21. Firstly, if Billy is not present, then the writer must go first. For purposes of Rule 11, the computer counts as paper and the person operating the computer counts as the writer. Secondly, if a rule is proposed, it must be voted on unless the person proposing the rule decides to withdraw it. Thirdly, the turn changes to the next person once the vote has been cast. (This rule represents an interesting development in how the kids were viewing the game. They realized that, according to Rule 5, Billy should go first -- but Billy was absent that day. Additionally, since I had transcribed the rules to the computer and they weren't using pen and ink, they had to confront an unexpected shortcoming of their rules by redefining their terms. But most significantly, this is a rule that addresses multiple, unrelated problems at the same time. That's a huge leap in complexity.)

22. Rules pass by a simple majority. (They were doing the math and realized three-fifths might not always be easy if we didn't have five players.)

23. Turn passes by the roll of a die, rather than to the next person in the circle. (My idea. I keep trying to give the game more unexpected twists and changes, to keep people on their toes.)

24. You cannot have a turn three times in a row, no matter how the die rolls. (Oldest Daughter's suggestion. She had proposed the turn limit last week, but her effort failed when everyone favored the idea of turns rotating clockwise instead.)

25. Rules 2 5, and 7 do not go into effect until quarter past three. (I inject more chaos. Note that only two rules have been passed since my last turn. This is due in part to the X factor introduced by the roll of the die, but also because it was becoming harder to reach consensus on what rules to make, now that the basic fairness issues had been resolved.)

26. E____'s father does not have to vote on any of her rules. (There were a couple failed efforts to pass rules between Rule 25 and this one. Ironically, I was able to get my daughter's blank-check support for this rule by telling her I would support the next rule she proposed.)

27. David Diez and Mary (Joe's mother) may join the game; also, Rule 25 is no longer in effect. (The kids all thought Rule 26 was funny, but they also agreed with my daughter that it was a sneaky sort of thing to do.)

28. (I called for a vote on this rule before Joe could propose anything. The vote passed 5-1.)

The game was a hit the second week in a row, but at this point, I have no plans to continue it. Next time we meet, we will play a similar game a friend of mine in California has introduced me to, called 1,000 Blank White Cards. It looks interesting.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Introducing a group of homeschoolers to Nomic

When you have four children at your house for two hours, and only one hour of planned activities, what do you do? You play Nomic, of course!

Created in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber, Nomic is an exercise in self-governance, quite literally. It begins with only one rule, that it takes a two-thirds majority to change the rules. Given that I was introducing it to a group of preteens who for months had been ending their weekly logic class with games like Munchkin and Pandemic, I wasn't sure if this game would fly, but it was very well received.

The game is still in its early stages of development, but it has the potential to become a major lesson in consensus-building, compromise, and parliamentary procedure -- in short, it's an interesting hands-on lesson in how government works A quick overview of the rules will reveal that the kids for the most part so far have been concerned with being fair and giving everyone a chance to be heard.

Nomic is one of those games you hear about, and tuck away for the appropriate time to play. I had heard about it in 1997 from one of my wife's classmates in college. A friend of mine ran a game on Delphi Forums several years ago, but the nature of the forum made it hard for the game to advance much. When I started homeschooling Oldest Daughter two years ago, I knew I'd have to introduce it to some other kids someday.

Someday was Friday. We played for about an hour, amid a lot of laughter and merriment, without rolling a single die, moving a single token around a board, or playing a single card.

The kids had so much fun that they want to continue the game the next time we meet. I'm wondering how long it will take them to realize that they can introduce more complex rules, and even start making deals with other players to gain support for personally favored rules; or how long it will take them to start arguing over what exactly a rule means, and trying to initiate massive reforms to simplify the rule structure.

I'm also wondering if the game will at some point progress beyond merely passing rules. One adult, after hearing about the game, immediately grasped its potential for a drinking game. (That one, at least, I hope does not occur to the kids for some time to come.)

The rules:

0. A two-thirds majority is required to change the rules.

1. A three-fifths majority is needed to change the rules. (They added this because they wanted me to participate, and thought that a simple majority would be easier than a two-thirds supermajority. Interestingly, they made the rule specify a "three-fifths majority," instead of a "simple majority," which could have implications down the road, should the group increase in size a few people.)

2. Isaac has to write the new rules. (That was my suggestion. The rule immediately passed, 4-1, with Isaac casting the lone dissenting vote.)

3. We have to discuss all rules before they are made.

4. We cannot eat Joe. (The club is about developing logic and critical thinking skills. An hour earlier, I had illustrated false connections with the statements "Pigs exist. Joe exists. Therefore, Joe is a pig." Now as I was asking the kids if they wanted anything for a snack, I mentioned that we had bacon, and let my eyes linger meaningfully over Joe.)

5. We will vote on Billy's rule first. (I had proposed a rule that we take turns suggesting rules. While this was on the table, Oldest Daughter suggested limiting the number of rules anyone could introduce to three in a row. Billy in turn suggested that we vote on my rule before Oldest Daughter's, since mine had been suggested first. Since the rules failed to specify an order for how to entertain multiple motions, it was decided we should vote first on Billy's proposal to vote on my proposed rule. Ironically, this meant that we voted on Billy's rule second, but I didn't want to muddy the waters even further, so I kept that observation to myself.)

6. We vote on the first rule that was proposed (This is where they started introducing a sense of order to how the game would work; up until this point, it had been a free-for-all.)

7. We take turns proposing new rules, going in a circle.

8. The first person to propose a rule is Billy, and we go clockwise.

9. You can change your rule that you are proposing before it is voted on.

10. Every five minutes we switch seats. (This was my idea. I wanted to show the kids that we could make the game about more than just changing rules.)

11. The writer is the person in the chair in front of the paper. (This was Isaac's idea. Poor boy had been writing down rules for about 20 minutes. He was a good sport about it, though.)

12. Whenever a rule is passed, we must clap three times. (One of the kids had started to see the potential the game has for more than just passing rules.)

13. When a rule is suggested, the person on the left calls the end of the discussion -- unless the person on the left is the writer, in which case it is the person on the right. (Here is their first effort to ensure that every proposal gets fair consideration. I plan to demonstrate the flaw in this rule next week, by calling for a vote as soon as the rule is suggested, before anyone has a chance to discuss it.)

14. All rules must be numbered.

15. If your parent has come, you can go. (One of the other parents had come to collect her son and two other boys. I pointed out that there was no provision for people to leave yet.)

16. Amend Rule 15 to say "ride." (This came after I pointed out that under our rules, only Billy could leave, since Joe and Isaac's moms hadn't come for them -- just their ride.)

17. Anyone who breaks the rules must squawk like a chicken. (We realized that no one had been clapping when rules were passed, in clear violation of Rule 12. So here we have our first attempt at enforcement with consequences.)

18. The writer will set the timer.

19. We stop the game when the first person leaves.

20. When you forget to clap, you must take the writer's seat. If multiple people forget to clap, the last one to touch their nose is the one to take the writer's seat. If you forget to clap and you are in the writer's seat, then you cannot switch when the timer goes off.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

open letter to n.j. gov. chris christie

Dear Gov. Christie:

The New Jersey Assembly today is expected to pass legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey. As a person of faith, I am writing to urge you to sign this bill into law once it reaches your desk. Please do not veto it.

I've enjoyed the emotional intimacy and support of my wife for the past 13 years, through good times and bad, and I see no reason that my gay neighbors, relatives and friends should not receive these same benefits under New Jersey law -- including the benefit of calling one another "husband" and "wife," and not just merely "domestic partner."

I realize that you believe this is something that should be put to the general public in a referendum. With all due respect, though, Mr. Christie, this is wrong. Civil rights are neither granted nor denied according to mass consent. They are, as our nation's founders wrote, "endowed by our Creator" and they are inalienable.

Thomas Jefferson even listed among our most basic rights the pursuit of happiness, which for our gay neighbors, friends and relatives is obstructed by our state's refusal to recognize the dignity and value of their relationships with the designation of marriage. The duty of your office is to lead the way in seeing that these rights are upheld, not to defer those rights to the vox populi.

While our religious communities should be free to define and recognize marriage according to the context of their respective religious frameworks, one of the great strengths of our society is that it is nonsectarian, and is not governed by any ideology save a pluralist celebration of our differences. In that vein, and as a person of deep faith myself, I call upon you to sign the bill when it comes to your desk, and not to veto it.

David Learn