American Revolution/History Posters

Five posters I would include in my ideal classroom, were I an American History teacher.
All are available for purchase here.




Why Using Parsecs Makes Sense For Han Solo and the Kessel Run

Han Solo: It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs…

Nerd: Mr. Solo, isn’t a parsec a unit of distance?

Solo: Yes, it’s about 3.26 light years.

Nerd: Then how does it make any sense to brag about your ship because of a distance it travelled?

Solo: You see, Tommy—

Nerd: Timmy.

Solo: Whatever. Traveling through space is like driving from your house to a nearby store. You can’t just go in a straight line. There are things to avoid, like houses.

Nerd: …and cows.

Solo: Sure. Staying on the road allows you to avoid running into these things, but there are many routes that you can take. Let’s look at this helpful visual aid.


Solo: Here are three routes that you can take, outlined in orange, red, and blue. There is an unlimited number of potential routes you could take, and all will get you from your house to the store, but the orange one is clearly shorter than the other two.

Nerd: What’s this got to do with space? There are no roads there, so you don’t have any houses to run into.

Solo: Well, there are things like planets and in the case of the Kessel Run, there is the Maw Black Hole Cluster, which would kill you if you got too close. The big ships would plug their destination into their Universal Positioning System, which would probably give them a route like the red or blue one. But the Millennium Falcon has a navigation system, which I built, to give me an even shorter route, that still won’t get me sucked into a painful death. It’s like if you built a GPS that had twice as many roads as the standard models.


Nerd: Can I fly your ship?

Solo: No.

Nerd: Your wife is hot.

Solo: I know.

Why I Stopped Believing in Ghosts, and Started Believing in Science

“Science is not a thing, it’s a verb. It’s a way of thinking about things.”
– Michael Shermer

Your friend says to you, “I can move things with my mind.” Your first response would probably be to wonder what they ate for breakfast, but your likely response would be, “Show me.”

This is science. Nobody would say, “OK, I believe you. Want to help me move Saturday? It’ll be easier if you can carry boxes with your mind.”

When somebody makes a claim, we want to see him back it up. Without science you would have to take everything anyone says at face value, which could have disappointing consequences when your friend tries to carry your piano down the steps with something other than his arms.

There are many lacking elements of the schooling system, but the biggest is perhaps my opportunity to earn a high school degree without a complete grasp of the importance of the scientific method. Sure, I learned the steps, but nobody ever stopped and said, “If you pay attention to one class this semester, it’s today. This scientific method thing… it’s really frigging important!” Kids often question the applicability of what they learn in school to the real world. The scientific method is Exhibit A.

Footnotes of the Scientific Method

“Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. They beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Most people have learned the steps to the scientific method at some point. Define your question, gather info, form a hypothesis, run an experiment, analyze data, draw conclusions based upon the results, publish results, have other people retest your claims. But there are a few other points that people often miss–I certainly did–that lead to many of the beliefs that we form in everyday life.

The most important aspect is something I did not learn until college (and it still did not completely sink in until later), which is that you must assume the null hypothesis. Being that science is about a lack of assumptions this might sound weird, but what this means is that we do not believe there is a connection between X and Y until it has been demonstrated in a test. This is like being ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ in that it is assumed there is no crime until evidence is presented that there has been a crime. The responsibility of providing evidence rests with the person who makes the claim. It is not for others to disprove a claim that has no evidence in the first place.

The consequences of not assuming the null hypothesis leaves us with chaos in that we must accept anything that anyone says. As we will look at later, many people appear to be more willing to accept conclusions despite weak or no evidence in some topics, but not in others. Skeptics and scientists simply demand sufficient evidence before they are willing to believe claims, regardless of the topic.

The next thing to remember is that not all claims are testable, and if a claim cannot be tested it is not science. Consider our telekinetic friend. If he claims that he threw a pencil across his bedroom with his mind when he was alone last night, he has not made a scientific claim. We have no way to test this and therefore do not have any reason to believe him (though we may want to question our decision to continue to be his friend). However, if he claims that he can throw pencils with his mind whenever he wants to, this is a claim that we can test. But we must assume that he cannot do it until he shows us that he can. And even if he can, we will want to do further testing. If he is able to throw pencils on demand, under many difference circumstances, then he will want to contact a guy named James Randi (we will get back to him in a few sections).

Another aspect that testability entails is that the claim must be falsifiable. Psychics sometimes claim that their predictions did not come true because the person in question did not truly believe that they were psychic. This is an awfully convenient claim, as there is no difference between people not believing and the psychic not actually having the abilities they claim they do.

Some people argue that we are living inside a simulation, ala The Matrix. With no way to actually test this most would not consider this a scientific claim. Something that currently lacks the ability to test, but is still in development, is the Multiverse theory, which posits that there are multiple universes. There are a few vague ideas as how we could actually test the theory, at least they are vague as I write this, but there is some mathematical evidence that suggests it is possible. Still, until an experiment is conducted, even the incredibly smart people who work on the math behind the theory would not say there are other universes.

Finally, our findings must be repeatable. Some studies done on a connection between smoking and lung cancer have not found a link between the two. However, these results have not been replicated anywhere near as often as the studies that have linked them. This does not mean that any single study was flawed, but we must be willing to look at all of the studies and consider how much evidence we actually have before making assertions based on it.

Scientists Are Know-it-Alls

“Throughout history every mystery ever solved has turned out to be: Not Magic.” – Tim Minchin

I have seen people claim that scientists act as if they know everything, and refuse to discuss anything that contradicts their beliefs. This could not be further from the truth. As we have seen in the scientific method, it is only useful if we do not know something. The point of science is precisely to learn something new. It is always legitimate to ask what evidence led someone to their conclusions. To say, “I don’t know” is a much more acceptable answer in science than it seems to be in the rest of society. Unfortunately every topic can lead to its own in-depth discussions and findings that might be difficult even for other scientists to understand.

Some of these accusations could stem from a misunderstanding of how something was stated. Findings so far in history have given us a view of the universe and how it works. We therefore make conclusions and proceed forth based on these findings. Simultaneously we admit that there is a great deal that we do not know. Thus every conclusion could be stated, “Based on the current evidence…” This goes back to the inability to prove a negative. It also stems from the way the word “proof” is used. A hypothesis can be confirmed, but nothing can be completely, 100% proven. This being said, many things have gotten to the point where supporting hypotheses have been confirmed over and over and over again. The conservation of energy, evolution, living things being made of cells. These have been tested repeatedly and have prevailed. As far as we know gravity has always existed, but there is always a ridiculously miniscule chance that you will get out of bed tomorrow morning and fall to the celling. Just because something has not been shown to exist does not mean it is impossible, it means that there is no evidence for it. It is a fine line; but just because it could possibly exist, if all the evidence so far says it does not exist, there is no reason to conduct ourselves as if it does.

Another misconception is that there is some type of scientific hierarchy. There are indeed scientists who are well known in the media or public eye, but they are in no way in charge. It is the evidence as found through the scientific method that ultimately should form opinions, regardless of whether it comes from someone who has been around for years or a student. Scientists and skeptics do not—or should not—root for one theory or anther to be true. They merely wish to grow our knowledge of the universe.

by KTR2, CC 3.0
by KTR2, CC 3.0

My Experiences: Leave Mulder Alone!

There was an episode of Larry King Live a few years ago that discussed one of my biggest interests: UFOs. Two of the guests were Stanton Friedman and Michael Shermer. I had watched Friedman on many shows about UFOs and for my money he is the best Ufologist out there. But no matter what they threw at him, this Shermer guy refused to buy into the arguments that aliens from other planets were visiting us. I could not figure out what he wanted. He claimed he was a skeptic, but the others continued to label him a “debunker.”

I also could not figure out what believing that UFOs were extraterrestrial hurt. I had a belief in the paranormal, but I was not climbing to mountaintops to meet the mother ship, so what difference did it make if I thought these were ships from another planet? Shermer was standing in my way of quality entertainment. I didn’t like him.

I came across Shermer a few times after that, he was always saying things like that there is no such thing as ghosts or psychics. I did not have personal experience with these things, but their existence seemed plausible. Just consider how many people believe in such things!

But over the last few years, I have increasingly found it more and more difficult to figure out how anyone could possibly disagree with Michael Shermer. Here’s why:

The Supernatural

“Uri Geller may have psychic powers by means of which he can bend spoons;
if so, he appears to be doing it the hard way.”
– James Randi

Is there something more out there than what we encounter on a day-to-day basis? For years there have been books, movies, and television shows about supernatural and paranormal phenomenon. Ghosts and psychics, UFOs and Aliens, Chupacabras and Bigfoots; maybe not every sighting is real, but given how widespread the claims are surely there is something real behind all of this!

The first thing we should do is define exactly what we are talking about. “Supernatural” literally translates from Latin as ‘above nature’ and the dictionary states that it is “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” Paranormal is “of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation.”

Many would claim that ghosts are supernatural entities, which is why we have yet to find scientific evidence for their existence. It would appear that, by definition, science is powerless to test claims of the supernatural or paranormal. This is odd though when people often claim to believe in ghosts because they have seen or heard them. They tend to ignore that seeing and hearing are observations of the natural world. Any light that can be seen, whether or not it is a ghost, is indeed natural. Why then, would we classify this entity as supernatural?

Regardless, people who claim to possess psychic or telekinetic powers seem convinced that their abilities work just fine in the natural world, even if they are conversing with the supernatural world. In order to test their claims we must first define what their claim is. Next, we put that to the test.

The best example of this is James Randi who has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate they have abilities that cannot be scientifically explained. Some might accuse Randi of making the stakes too high, but Randi and the individual mutually agree upon all test procedures in advance. Since 1964 over one thousand people have come forward claiming that they possess “psychic or mediumistic powers, ESP, dowsing, magnetic humans, astrology, faith healing” abilities and more. To make a long story short, not one has been able to back up their claim.

Usually they just end up looking silly.

Harm of Belief Without Proof

“We should be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brain falls out.”
– Richard Dawkins

Nobody believes every claim that they hear. Society no longer burns witches; not because people have ceased to claim they have supernatural powers, but because there has never been any evidence that the supernatural can affect the natural world that we live in. And therefore many have ceased to take such claims seriously. If you want to continue to believe in a supernatural world I cannot stop you, but realize that you are professing belief in something that is not of the world we live in, nor can it ever be demonstrated within the world we live in. Still despite a lack of evidence, some people are willing to take people who claim to have the ability to talk to the dead or ability to read minds seriously.

Thus we return to my original question: What is the harm in believing in UFOs, even if there is a lack of scientific evidence? The first thing that Michael Shermer said to Larry King on that episode is important. Before investigating anything, we need to clarify what the claim is. To “believe in UFOs” does not really mean anything. UFOs do exist. Videos and photos exist of flying objects that have not been identified; this is not controversial. However, it is a different claim entirely to say that UFOs are piloted by aliens from other planets.

Here is my moment to stop and say if you are going to pay attention to one thing in this article, make sure it is to constantly ask two questions: What is the claim? What evidence exists to support the claim?

I never acted on my interest in UFOs in any way other than watching a bunch of TV shows about them, but this is not the case for many other people who believe in things that have no evidence to support them. I cannot explain this better than James Randi:

The potential harm is very real, and dangerous. Belief in such obvious flummeries as astrology or fortune-telling can appear — quite incorrectly — to give confirmatory results, and that can lead to the victim pursuing more dangerous, expensive, and often health-related scams. Blind belief can be comforting, but it can easily cripple reason and productivity, and stop intellectual progress. We at JREF never try to impose our beliefs or philosophies on others; we only try to inform them, and suggest that there are alternate choices to be made. Examples of personal tragedies resulting from an uncritical embrace of supernatural claims, are plentiful.

I did also believe though, that aliens from other planets piloted some UFOs. I was not assuming the null hypothesis. And though I was not acting on my belief in any major way, but I was shortchanging myself. Everyone uses science to some extent; we insist a certain amount of evidence in order to believe claims. To demand evidence on one topic, but none on another is illogical. It also does not help anything to assume a supernatural answer when a natural one has not been found.

In light of my new views, I am not against studying UFOs whatsoever. To the contrary I am still very interested in the topic, but we must be sure to always assume the null hypothesis. It does appear that the US government is hiding something when it comes to UFOs, but that something could be aliens from other planets or it could be nothing. Are there beings from other planets piloting UFOs? I don’t know, but it is only logical to assume it is nothing until we have proof of something.

We must constantly question our beliefs. People change their minds every day, but it is unpopular in our culture to admit doing so. Switch your opinion and you are labeled a flip-flopper. And why should I believe anything you say if you are just going to change your mind again tomorrow? We need to realize that opinions are only as important as the chain of reasoning used to reach them. If presented with new evidence we need to reanalyze everything we think on the topic. To ignore a new discovery to cling to what you have always believed means that you will remain in the same spot while the rest of the world passes you by.

My intent in writing this was to give the view of someone outside of academia who has come to understand the importance of thinking scientifically, which is perhaps different than the traditional attempts of science education from well-established scientists. I encourage you to seek the views of well-established scientists and people smarter than me to confirm everything I have written.

Further resources

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truth by Michael Shermer

NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos

Stephen Colbert Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson

James Randi: Homeopathy, quackery and fraud

James Randi on his $1 million challenge

City of Fans

That old phrase about getting back what you put in? That’s what it means to be a fan.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins were very bad in the late 90s, nobody went to their games (except my friend Jeff, I’ll give him credit at least). The team, not to mention the entire league at that time, sucked. The Penguins were a bad team who played in a bad arena. Their Zamboni probably only had three functioning tires. You could not even watch their games on TV. Not because they were blacked out, but because they did not have a television contract.

The franchise has turned things around dramatically. Their team is good, their new arena is shiny, and unsurprisingly attendance has risen as well. I’m told this is because the people who cheer them on are Fair Weather Fans, who go to the games just because the team is good.

I ask you then, Mr. Decider of Who FWFs Are: What should the people of Pittsburgh do?

Not go to the game? Like they do at baseball parks in Oakland or Tampa Bay? The Rays went through a similar trend to the Penguins. A decade ago they were terrible and nobody went to their games. Now they consistently put a competitive team on the field and nobody goes to their games.

Is this the model that is to be followed? Clearly, these cities are not full of FWFs. They have gone so far to prove that point that they have driven their teams to the brink of moving to a new city. And yet I never hear anyone complimenting them for it. Should these people, who sit at home while good baseball is being played down the street, be applauded?

Why limit it to people at the game? Plenty of folks will follow their team online and voice their opinions across any medium they can get their keyboards on. A great deal of what is put out there has to do with the negative side of things. Winning is nice, but it makes for boring reading. Kobe fighting Shaq. T.O. causing a ruckus in the locker room. A-Rod going down in flames. That’s what sells newspapers and that’s what people talk about the most.

The opportune moment to call a fan base “a bunch of bandwagoners” is after a big loss, preferably on national television. Just look at all the negative comments they made throughout the night about their own team!

Again, oh Judge of Fandom Quality: What do you do when your team is getting destroyed? Sit passively? Doesn’t sound like much a fan to me. Cheer? Of course not, your team is losing. So is it not appropriate for you to criticize the team you have sworn yourself to? Or should you go blindly along with every play call and roster move that they make?

The Pirates are criticized a great deal. These people take time out of their day to post a message—often on the team’s official Facebook page—about how much they suck. This is in a season when they were barely supposed to win more games than they lost, and they made the playoffs.

It’s not much different for the other teams in the city—who are expected to make the playoffs every year. I used to frequent a Steelers forum where people would discuss the team’s backup long snapper at 2am. Three hours after the Steelers won the Super Bowl and hoisted the Lombardi Trophy over their collective heads, there were people making comments about how poorly the offensive line played.

But isn’t this absurd, when the goal is to win the championship? This is something we have been fortunate enough to witness in the City of Champions (a name probably not coined by you, who calls us a City of Bandwagoners). Winning does not make you happy for the rest of your life. It does not solve your problems. It does not pack your arena.

The Edmonton Oliers of the late 1980s won five Stanley Cups in seven years. But every year their attendance number struggled to remain at the level it had the previous season, wrote Jon Spoelstra in his book Marketing Outrageously.

The goal is not really winning. Many of our most exciting moments as fans come from being in the moment.

These people who sit there night after night and criticize Clint Hurdle when he screws up a steal attempt or mismanages his bullpen are fans. Not because of what they are saying, but because they are there night after night, on the couch watching the Pirates. They may hide it under negativity, but regardless of what they are tweeting, they are having fun being there and experiencing the whole thing. They do ultimately want the team to succeed.

It can be taken too far. There is a line at which legitimate criticism of strategy turns to mindless and offensive personal insults. There are people who seem to honestly think they know more than the manager who works with his team 100 hours a week. I don’t understand these people either. But this is not your typical ‘negative’ fan.

The guys who watched the Pirates year-after-sucking year are getting it all back this year. A lot of them are critical of the team, but they would be just as critical if the Bucs won every game 10-0. Sometimes being a fan sucks you into the moment and forces you to forget about the big picture. In-game commentary, which the internet allows to do now with ease, is in a separate category than well thought out blog posts on the team when considering the bigger picture.

It wouldn’t be fun to root for that team who wins every game. I rarely hear the FWF tag brought up when it comes to the Yankees, but rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the sun to come up in the morning. People whose franchise made the playoffs 17 of the last 18 seasons are hardly in a position to appreciate nice weather.

And yet, there are people who sit in front of their televisions night after night and watch the Yankees and root for them just the same. Is that guy who is trying to really understand the thought behind Joe Girardi’s lineup construction a fan? Absolutely.

Categorizing the quality of fans is an absurd thing to do. There are not FWF and true fans, or good and bad fans. There’s a whole spectrum, from people who heard about football once and went on to do important things with their life to those who played in high school and haven’t missed a week of Monday Night Football since it started. These people and everyone in between exists in every city across the world. Trying to quantify the degree of dedication that any single fan or city or team has is a waste of time.

Now, there probably are people who only show up when the home team has been on a winning streak. We should not look down on these people, but help their knowledge of the game grow to the point that they can enjoy it regardless of the score. It is much more exciting, and rewarding, to dedicate your time to a single team than to an entire League. Watching the Pirates struggle over the last two decades helped me appreciate baseball more than had they just been murdering teams.

When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup a few years ago, the people who showed up for the first time during the playoffs perhaps were glad to see their hometown team win, but they only got so much out of it. And it was not nearly as much as those who had put in the hours of paying attention to them any way they could through the rough years. That’s the way the world works. That’s the way fandom works.

Only when people put more in to understanding a team will they get more enjoyment out.

How Word Counts Ruin Writing

“It’s not as if we simply are taking a plate out of our heads and laying it down on paper and printing from it, we’re not. Writing is an act of discovery. And the moment you start, you start with a character, you start with maybe yourself or someone else, but you start with that character and you learn about that character by writing about that character and you wind up in places you never thought you were gonna go when you started out. That’s the whole reason for writing, is for discovery.” – Garrison Keillor

Good writing never came from a writer who did not know what he was trying to say. But most school writing assignments not only miss the point, they emphasize the wrong thing. The culprit: word counts.

You know, Write an essay analyzing a short story by Franz Kafka. It must be at least 500 words in length.

You could write a paragraph on “A Hunger Artist.” You could also write a book about it. So we do need some kind of depth gauge, if you will.

But most students do not write 500 word essays. They write 400 word essays with one-hundred unnecessary words.

The first couple of essays I had to write for English 101 had to be 500 words long. The next few had to be 1000 words. Nobody can get away with adding 600 unnecessary words, so a higher word count will make you think more.

But this is missing the point. The value of an essay is the idea behind it. Word count should merely describe the depth at which idea is explored. The strength of an idea is difficult to quantify though, so word count has become the goal. Which makes it unsurprising that students give word count precedence over the quality of their writing.

Many students wrote entire essays four hours before the assignment was due. Intro, body, conclusion. 350 words. Think a bit more. Add a few sentences here, a few more words there. 503 words. Done. No need to read it over. Print. The teacher would correct it and hand it back three weeks later, but they were not going to read the corrections if the score was at least 80%. (If it was under 80% they would not read the corrections because they were too depressed.)

Learning to write should be about the process of writing. It would help a student become a better writer if he was made to re-write what he had already written. There is nothing wrong with a 500 word essay. But then make them re-write the same essay in less than 300 words, or in 1000 words, or in one sentence. You always have to think when trimming 200 words off an essay without losing important parts. Make them discover what they are trying to say.

If you know what you are trying to say, length is not much of a concern.

This essay is 394 words long. It was 700 words the first time I wrote it. I deleted a bunch and got it down to almost 200, then rebuilt it. Obviously it is not the same essay now as when I started. It was in re-writing it that I was able to get out what I was actually thinking.

Tech-less Classrooms are Missing the Point

College professors across the country have started to ban laptops from their classrooms, because they are drawing students’ attention away from their lessons. Unfortunately, the professors aren’t paying attention to the real problem.

The problem isn’t the laptops; it’s the students and the teachers.

Students who want to be in class will at least try to pay attention, even if they have a laptop, a phone, eight different books on their desk, and David Blaine doing card tricks out in the hallway.

Students who don’t want to be in class—who find the lesson unorganized, uninteresting, or unconnected from the real-world—won’t pay attention, even if they have no distractions.

I wasn’t there, but I assume not everyone paid constant attention in classrooms of the 1970s either.

If students want to pay tuition, skip all of their classes and fail, they should be free to do that. If students want to pay tuition, come to class, distract themselves with Facebook and fail, they should be free to do that. The only line that should be drawn is when students start to distract others who have paid their tuition and are trying to learn.

It is not the teacher’s responsibility—in post-secondary education—to help a student that puts forth no effort, get a good grade. It is the teacher’s responsibility—at every level of education—to do everything that they can to help those who are trying, not necessarily to get a good grade, but to teach them something.

It’s connected to what author Sir Ken Robinson calls “a false plague of ADHD.

“Kids are living in the most intensely stimulating environment in the history of the Earth. They deal with more information in a day than we dealt with in a year,” says Robinson.

“We’re penalizing them from getting distracted, and from what? Boring stuff… We should make the program more interesting.”

Sometimes even the students who do want to be in class have difficulty staying involved in a lesson for an extended period of time. It has to be the teacher’s goal to minimize the time students’ minds are elsewhere, not blame technology.

I take all my notes in a notebook and a pencil, but even if I am interested in the lesson and my cell phone is off, it’s impossible become absorbed into what anyone is saying for the duration of an hour-long lecture.

So if I pull out my cell phone to read the latest Tweet that I have received, it’s not always the teacher’s fault. It doesn’t take very long to read 140 characters; and I’m right back with the lesson.

In a population where the majority of people are visual learners it doesn’t make sense to take away the most visually stimulating items. The key should be to incorporate the technology into the classroom, not eliminate it.

PowerPoint in itself is no longer a good visual aid, it’s everyday life. A good presentation, however, can still be the base for a great lesson.

The University of Texas at Dallas and Purdue University have integrated Twitter directly into classesSkype is being used to teach foreign languages, students are connecting with cell phones, and everyone involved is watching the scores rise.

If studies are done on how eliminating tech turns out, I’m interested to see them, but ultimately it goes back to the users.

I wrote this article for The Cube back in March 2010. It was quoted on Poynter.

Shoot for the Stars

You know those motivational posters that your second grade teacher hung in her classroom? There’s one that says “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you will land among the stars.”

Not only is this astronomically incorrect, it’s backwards (though admittedly more catchy in its current form). If you set a goal for yourself—let’s say you want to get a B in one of your classes and you think, “OK, all I need is an 80%” and you don’t meet that goal, then you won’t get a B.

But if you want to get that B, and you shoot for a 89% you can still get your B… even if you don’t get your 89%.

That’s why if the Pirates goal is to win 81 games, they probably won’t. But if their goal is to win 100 or win the division, there is a better chance that they will win those 81. (Actually, the Pirates shouldn’t think in those terms at all, they should think, ‘The goal is to win today’ every day.)

Even if you don’t reach your goal, setting a higher goal will be better in the long run.

Viktor Frankl wasn’t thinking of baseball when he said this, because it applies to pretty much everything in life. So whether they’re a first baseman, an astronaut, or that kid struggling next to you in class put some faith in them.