Sunday, May 22, 2016

Comparing Joseph Smith and Emanuel Swedenborg

A while ago I was in a discussion with someone and they were trying to downplay the importance of Joseph Smith, and the movement he started, in history. To back up their claim they gave the example of Emanuel Swedenborg and stated that Swedenborg has had just as much impact as Joseph Smith.

At the time I thought this was an odd claim. This person then continued to argue that there were many other restorationist movements in the 1800's, and that the movement started by Joseph Smith just happened to be one of many. I was familiar with Swedenborg and the other restorationist movements, but what I found odd was his assertion that Mormonism had had very little impact in history, especially compared to the other restorationist movements.

I was unable to really conclude the discussion (it happened online somewhere), but it sort of always stuck with me. Sometime later I was in the main library at UNC looking for a book when I noticed something interesting. Below is a picture of the "Mormon" section of UNC's library. Everything from top to bottom, to the end of the stack is about Joseph Smith and movement that he started.
Here is one more picture of LDS topic books that didn't fit in the previous shot. This is just off to the right of the picture above.

Directly below that I noticed this, it is all the books that the library has on Swedenborg. But, I should point out that half of the top shelf is actually books about Brigham Young.

When I saw both sets of books dramatically juxtaposed in the library like that, I recalled my discussion where someone insisted that Swedenborg was just as influential as Joseph Smith. Comparing the two sets of books it is plain to see that Joseph Smith has had a much greater impact on the world than Emanuel Swedenborg by several orders of magnitude. Keep in mind that this is the library at UNC, which has a strong religious studies program, hence the large collection of books, but it has no particular tie to either Joseph Smith or Emanuel Swedenborg.

If we take a look at Google's Ngram viewer we see a similar trend, with Joseph Smith and Mormon being orders of magnitude more common than Emanuel Swedenborg.

I'm sure you can find a library somewhere where there are more books about Swedenborg than Joseph Smith, but it is also the case that the influence of the movement started by Joseph Smith will continue to grow until it has filled the whole earth.

So, to the random commenter out there, we were never able to finish our discussion, but in answer to your statements: No, Joseph Smith, and the movement he started, was not a common run of the mill restorationist movement, and Emanuel Swedenborg has not been, and will never be, just as influential as Joseph Smith.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: Crash Course

Crash Course is a YouTube channel run by Hank and John Green. John Green is a famous author, most well known for his novel The Fault in Our Stars. I began watching Crash Course almost since the very beginning with their first series on world history. The first video I watched was Mesopotamia: Crash Course World History #3. Since then they have covered topics such as Biology, Chemistry, U.S. History, and Literature. They have also branched out with more presenters to cover topics such as Astronomy, Economics, and Physics.

The topics are presented at about the high school level, and in some cases roughly correspond to the associated AP classes. I do not watch all the shows, there are some topics that I enjoy more than others (history), and some that I can't watch because, well, I teach it (physics) and I go, "Oh, yeah that. Skip!". But for people who are just learning it, they present a good introduction, while also being engaging and interesting.

There is some high school level humor in some of the shows, but that should be expected. I recommend this for high schoolers or for anyone who wants a good introduction to a particular topic.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: Extra Credits

Much like my last post, this YouTube channel recommendation may make you go, "Really? But it's all about computer games."

Extra Credits is a channel devoted to computer games. And that may make some people automatically assume that there can be no educational value to the shows, but this is a channel with surprising depth. The topics they cover are all related to computer games, but they touch on psychology, graphics design, economics, education, and history. Here are just two examples of shows that may surprise you.

They approach the topic of games in such a way that their shows are interesting, even for those who do not play computer games at all. When they cover topics such as game mechanics, they also cover things such as writing and good story telling, and those shows have made me reconsider how I write and sometimes how I interact with my students. Some of the shows have changed how I approach teaching, so while they are all nominally about games, the applications go far beyond computer games.

What introduced me to this channel actually wasn't the shows on computer games, but their shows about history. A couple of years ago a computer game company, wanting to promote one of their games, decided to fund a few episodes entirely about the history of Rome. Since then Extra Credits have done a number of history episodes about a variety of topics, including the story of John Snow, the father of epidemiology, a history of the Zulu empire, the South Sea investment bubble, and a brief history of the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1500's. One of their more interesting series was a short biography of Mary Seacole. If you have heard of Florence Nightingale, but have never heard of Mary Seacole, then you need to learn about Mary, and this is a very good introduction.

This channel is another unexpected gem. It may be all about computer games, but if you watch it you will realize just how much educational material goes into developing and producing games. Even if you do not watch any of the shows about computer games, at least watch their shows about history, you will definitely learn something.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: Forgotten Weapons

This is one that will surprise many people, but the YouTube channel Forgotten Weapons, run by Ian McCollum, is perhaps one of the underappreciated gems of YouTube. Yes, the channel is all about guns, but he manages to pack in an incredible amount of history, engineering and weapon design into each video. I started watching because he had some interesting videos demonstrating some cool historical weapons, but I stuck around because of the incredible history behind the guns. For example, did you know that that Norway developed a combined knife-pistol for their mailmen in the mid 1800's? I didn't.
Or take this early Browning harmonica rifle (which sold at auction for $120,000).

This gun channel is not like others which emphasize the "macho" aspect of guns. Ian is more like the Bob Ross of guns. He keeps it calm, informative, and well researched. If you watch this channel for a while you will learn more about guns than you ever though possible (for example, ever wonder if a gun with a curved barrel would actually work? Well you can watch a video and find out.).

This is one of those channels where some parents may be concerned because it is all about guns, but there is an incredible amount of firearm history and gun engineering, presented in a non-sensational way, that I highly recommend it. You will also learn how different guns work and along the way learn about some of the most innovated solutions to mechanical problems in history. The thing that really blows me away (haha) about this channel is learning about how guns have evolved over time, and seeing all the failed designs. Watching a lot of these videos you really get a sense that the development and progression of gun technology was not direct and straight forward, but had a lot of false starts and incredible solutions to problems you never knew existed.

This channel can also serve as a kind of nerd sniping. If you are concerned that a certain loved one may secretly have the knack, try showing them this channel and if you come back and find them watching all the videos, then you know that they will be an engineer.

Note: A very small number of his videos have incidental swearing, usually when he demonstrating the most powerful guns.

Some interesting videos:
Firing a German anti-tank gun.
4-Bore Stopping Rifle in slow motion. (he nearly gets his shoulder dislocated)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: SmarterEveryDay

A while back I wrote about web comics that I like, and since then I wanted to do something similar about YouTube channels that I like. So, because it is easier to write about educational YouTube channels than it is to write about things like the Late Bronze Age Collapse, or Hamlet's Mill, I will write brief reviews of educational YouTube channels. You may already know about some of these, but there will definitely be a few you have never heard of, and there will be some that will surprise you.

Several years ago I came across a channel run by Destin Sandlin called SmarterEveryDay. That was back in the day when YouTube was mostly cats and dumb videos, so it was a breath of fresh air to find an interesting channel. I think SmarterEveryDay was the first channel I ever subscribed to back in 2011. The first video I remember watching was #15, which was about lightening. Since then he has put out videos about acoustic levitation, tattooing in slow motion, the direction of toilet swirls in the northern and southern hemispheres, and has even interviewed President Obama.

Destin's videos are educational, but he also brings in much more than just "education" into his videos. I appreciate that he shows his family and shows that he loves them in his videos. He also ends each video with a Bible reference.

Perhaps the most interesting video he ever did was about learning, and unlearning, how to ride a bike.
This video, and the insights he gives, are incredibly deep. You will be surprised how insightful learning how to ride a bike can be.

This is perhaps my favorite YouTube channel, and I highly recommend it to everyone of all ages. If parents are looking for good quality educational videos for their children to watch, this is the best place to start.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Blog is not Dead

I know I have not been posting on my blog a lot lately, but this is because I have spent so much of my writing time on my research, writing papers, and my dissertation. That has been occupying my time, and when I get home after spending 8+ hours reading, writing and computing, the last thing I feel like doing is writing a blog post, and I am not into writing fluff.

When I write something for my blog I try to research it fully to make sure I know what I am talking about. This means that many of my posts never make it to a final product. I have 30+ drafts from the last year alone that never made it past the initial research stage, several of which I am planning on finishing. But my first major research paper, my dissertation, and now a second major research paper are taking up all my time and writing effort. Sometime in the next few weeks I may have more time to write, after I get my second paper submitted. Stay tuned.

A sample of posts I am working on:

  • Philosophical Fallacies in the Wild: They do exist!
  • Actual Legal Controversies Involving Religion
  • Chiasmus in Moses 2
  • Side-by-side comparison of Moses and Genesis
  • The Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Exodus
  • The Hypostasis of Faith
  • Returning to Hamlet's Mill
  • The Fallacy of the Incomprehensibility of God
  • Why Troy?
  • God as a Gardener

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Escaping the Paradox: Heaps, Pirates, M. C. Escher and Language

There is an ancient paradox that goes something like this:

Imagine you have 10,000 grains of sand. If you had that much sand you would call it a heap of sand. Now imagine you remove one grain of sand so that you have 9,999 grains left. Is it still a heap? Yes, it still is a heap.

Remove one more grain of sand. Do you still have a heap of sand?

Keep removing single grains of sand. Each time you do you still have a heap of sand. When you are left with only two grains of sand is it still a heap? No? At what point did the heap of sand stop being a heap? Was it with three grains? or more?

That is the paradox. 10,000 grains of sand are definitely a heap, and if you take away one it is still a heap, but if you keep taking away single grains of sand when does it stop being a heap?

This paradox has plagued philosophers and students for over 2000 years and it keeps discussions going in introductory philosophy classes, which provides much employment to professional philosophers. But before we resolve this paradox I wanted to write a little about the art of M. C. Escher, because some of his most famous art can also be paradoxical. Below is his famous drawing entitled "Waterfall".
Image from
What is paradoxical about this image is that the water at the "bottom" appears to flow "up" until it reaches the "top" where it falls "down" to begin the process all over again. Additionally each bend in the stream appears to be directly over another part of the structure, thereby creating an apparently impossible structure. This paradox, or optical illusion, how ever you want to call it, both confounds and delights all who see it.

While most people consider the work of M. C. Escher, appreciate it, perhaps hang a copy in their house or office, very few stop and take the time to consider why it is a paradox and ultimately escape the paradox.

If we just consider a single part of the image, say just the waterfall part, or one of the bends, by themselves there is no problem, nor a paradox.

Removed from the larger context these constituent parts are not paradoxical. So how did these individual parts go from non-paradoxical to paradoxical when put together?

The answer is that the paradox only exists because we assume more than there is in the image. The image itself is only a two dimensional collection of lines and shading that all together we interpret as a waterfall, a stream, and a brick structure with columns. The structure does not exist in three dimensions. The collection of two dimensional lines and shading create an image of what we interpret to be a three dimensional structure. If the structure really was three dimensional then it would defy the natural order of the universe, but it is not, so it does not.

The paradox only exists because we take each individual part, the waterfall, the bend in the stream, and we can imagine a real three dimensional structure like that, but when we try to fit the imaginary three dimensional parts together, we fail, and thus we have a paradox.

But if we remember that we are only looking at two dimensional lines and shading which only imply flowing water, columns and a brick structure, the paradox does not create a problem, and definitely does not trigger an existential crisis. If we do not make the leap from representation to actuality what we are left with is an interesting picture that does not break the laws of physics and geometry.

So now we can return and resolve the heap paradox. The reason why it creates a paradox is because each individual part is logical and non-paradoxical. There is nothing illogical about considering either 10,000 or 9,999 grains of sand to be a heap of sand. So if we have 10,000 grains and take away one we still have a heap. Much like a single bend in the stream in "Waterfall", it does not create a paradox. But it we then group a series of individual bends together we are left with a paradox.

With the drawing the paradox was created by mistaking a 2D representation for a 3D reality. In the heap paradox the mistake is extending words and language beyond their representations. In this case extending the definition of the word "heap", which is by definition inexact, to mean an exact value. Yes 10,000 grains of sand can make a heap because 10,000 grains of sand would be hard to count and thus for all practical purposes we cannot distinguish between 10,001, 10,000 or 9,999 grains. Hence we use the inexact term "heap".

The heap paradox only remains a paradox if we commit an equivocation and alter the definition of the word to mean an exact number. An exact number implies an exact boundary between "heap" and "not heap", which did not exist in the original definition.

So should we insist on the eradication of all paradoxes from our language? Heavens no. These paradoxes, much like the drawings of M. C. Escher add richness to our language and are the basis to our humor and entertainment. But if we forget the nature of language we might be confronted with a paradox and conclude that the nature of reality is broken, when it is only our understanding that is limited. We must remember that our paradoxes are rooted in a misuse of language. If we remember that then we can escape the paradox and it can be humorous and entertaining, but if not, then, like Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance, we will be slaves to a misuse of language.