Night shot, Kolob Reservoir Road (Zion National Park)

October 20, 2016

Cousin Amanda Holland sends snapshots from her science work.

“Evening drive along Kolob Reservoir Road, west end of Zion NP.” Photo by Amanda Holland; used with some permission, all rights reserved

Scientists in the field find beauty denied the casual visitor or even serious tourist — which is one of the great attractions of a science job, in the field.

Another view of why we love the American West, why we love the mountains, why we love the deserts.

300 Spartans, led by Leonidas died August 11, 480 B.C.

August 11, 2016

It’s a different Leonidas, but Michael Phelps yesterday tied a record for winning 12 solo events in Olympics previously held by a man called Leonidas of Rhodes. The record had stood, as best historians can tell, for 2,168 years.

That was August 10, 2016. On August 11, we remember Leonidas of Sparta, for events in war, not peace.

300 popped up on some movie channel back in 2008 as I was preparing to teach world history again.  I did not major in history, and my high school history instruction featured no AP courses (Pleasant Grove High, in Utah, didn’t offer such things then; I assume they do now, but I don’t know).

What I knew about Sparta and the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae came from my reading encyclopedias as a child, and culture.  Never had an occasion to write a speech about the events, though had I known the history better, I might have found some opportunity.  Sen. Orrin Hatch would have loved a compare and contrast speech between the stand of the Spartans and his work against the labor law reform bill in 1977 and 1978; more likely, we could have used the simple historical facts that the stand of the 300 at the same place today would be impossible due to poor soil conservation practices of the local farmers, which has created a plain broad enough for a Persian Army to march through with impunity, never fearing drowning in the sea that no longer exists there.  Thermopylae is a grand historical metaphor for a good orator.  The simple facts of history are important, too — Churchill knew Herodotus’s stories well, and considered them when planning military actions in the area in two world wars.

The movie came up from students in the previous year; it offered, perhaps, a hook for an introduction to world history, explaining why we bother to study it at all.

I got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly.  Interesting stylization.  Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it, more than an instruction about history.  We might doubt that the Persians had trained and armored rhinoceroses in their armament.  Dialogue — well, this is Hollywood.  It would have been in some dialect of Greek, and no Hollywood scriptwriter would have been able to reproduce it.

What about the battle itself.  World history courses in U.S. high schools should pay attention to this battle, I think.

A monument to Leonidas I - Inscription, Molon Lave, which roughly translates to Come and get it!

A monument to Leonidas I – Inscription, “Molon Lave,” which roughly translates to “Come and get it!”

Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2,493 years ago. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)

World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester.  Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year.  As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell!  How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”

At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary.  But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day?  And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?

The short answer is “Herodotus.”  The longer answer may resonate better:  This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world.  The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae).  So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks.  Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The IliadThere’s an entré for discussion.

Turning points in history:  Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different.  The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)

How do we know?  How do we know?

How do you handle that question?  (Tell us in comments, please.)

I like this battle for the way it ties together many of the loose threads that vex high school sophomores.  Is history exciting?  It can be, as the Frank Miller graphic novel and and the Zack Snyder movie demonstrate.  How important is accuracy in making the story exciting?  (Do the rhinoceroses improve the story of the courage of the Spartans, or merely offer a good graphical metaphor for the overwhelming forces of the Persians?)  What happens when one nation invades another — who has the advantage?  Is knowledge of geography important — in battle, for example?  The philosopher Santayana notes that those who do not remember history are “condemned” to repeat it.  Xerxes tried to apply the lessons of the history of his father’s failed invasion; was he successful?  Remember this point:  Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia in 1812; Adolf Hitler assigned his generals to study Napoleon’s failure, for Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941; so convinced were the Germans that they knew the lessons, they invade Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion.  Did it go any better?  George Washington consciously patterned his life on the great Roman warrior and leader, Cincinnatus — especially in turning over rule once the task was done, as Washington did twice.  What if Washington had, instead, patterned his life after Leonidas?  How might the American Revolution have turned out, and how might the United States have developed, had Washington sacrificed himself as Leonidas did?

The story of the Battle of Thermopylea, the bravery and cunning tactics of Leonidas and the 300, the wars between Persia and the Greek City States, form a good foundation for a study of history at any point after.  It is the stuff of great history, and the stuff of great rhetoric.  It could be the stuff of great AP essays and good writing exercises in general.   Damn the Common Core State Standards*, and damn the misguided Texas critics of CSCOPE, this is a topic I wish more world history teachers would spend some good, profitable time on

Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:

More: map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Note that, in purple, the map shows where a plain now exists, which was an ocean the Spartans could use to squeeze the Persian Army, about 25 centuries ago. What a difference 25 centuries can make.


*  Common Core State Standards in social studies actually would support what I’m asking here, if only they weren’t filtered through state school boards who do not value scholarship, but instead wish history to be a checklist of faux-patriotic bullet points to regurgitate.  Here in Texas, we are not affected by Common Core — but we are affected by meddling in history standards by people whose agenda does not include making history exciting and good.  Common Core standards — technically — do not mention Thermopylae.  However, this is the sort of material, including the original texts of Herodotus, whose study the Common Core standards encourage, especially for analysis of the sort I think Thermopylae invites.  Texas TEKS allow mention of the battle, though the Battle of Thermopylae has been purged from the actual standards; Texas lesson plans frequently suggest “watching a film on the Battle of Thermopylae,” and “Answer questions on the battle; trade and grade.”  Teachers infuse those dull words with life — we hope.  Teachers’ actual practice in the classroom is the saving grace for this important history, in Texas; Texas world history teachers face their own Xerxes.  The Texas Lege recently removed the requirement that students study world history, instead giving them a choice of either world history or world geography.  And so the dumbing down of history by (probably well-meaning, but not well-thinking) legislators continues.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Cold day sunrise under Mt. Timpanogos

February 12, 2016

Tweet from @CharBailey5479: Sunrise shroud on Mt. Timpanogos - have a great day! #utwx #utah

Tweet from @CharBailey5479: Sunrise shroud on Mt. Timpanogos – have a great day! #utwx #utah

Utah’s Mount Timpanogos rises on the east side of Utah Valley, in Utah County, over Utah Lake.

At about 6,000 feet above the valley floor, the mountain can make its own weather at times. On a cold winter morning, sun struggling to climb over the peak can expose clouds from sublimating ice on the mountain, or clouds from ice crystals blown off the top slopes.

Any way they form, it can be a spectacular start to another day.

Much of my childhood was spent about five miles south and east of the spot this photo was taken (American Fork?). The mountain filled most of my bedroom window. A sunrise like this one would look like a forest fire in my room. But film was expensive, and my camera was a snapshot special.

Thanks to @CharBailey5479, whoever you are.

School in distant, difficult classrooms: Kenya

December 4, 2015

Photo from Heidi Totten, who is spearheading a campaign to get desks for schools like this one in Kenya:

Tenkees School, in the Mau region of Kenya. Photo by Heidi Totten

Tenkees School, in the Mau region of Kenya. Photo by Heidi Totten

Ms. Totten, working with a group called 100 Humanitarians (Entrepreneurs Changing the World), posted this in November, for a November 27 fundraising project.

Our next $5 Friday Fundraiser will be for additional desks for this school in the Mau region of Kenya. This is a very remote area that we visited. The school serves over 300 students with very few desks that they cram into.

They also have two latrines for each gender. With 300 kids you can imagine the sanitary conditions.

*   *   *   *   *

Our hope is to start with adding more desks, then rebuilding the kitchen and adding latrines. Just $5 can go far!

Please feel free to click over to this group and contribute.

How well would you or your kids learn in this school?


Trump says China? Let’s go see

October 26, 2015

Kenny sent an e-mail, with a link to Donald Trump, saying “China.”

So, we went to see.

Among other things, Kenny’s brother James, our younger son, was getting married in Beijing.  Good excuse to travel.  Keeping with the rule that one should spend at least a day in a destination for every hour of travel it takes to get there, we planned 13 days.

I don’t think Donald Trump knows China.

After 13 days and a few thousand miles, and perhaps a few hundred supreme dumplings and two Beijing ducks, fugu, and noodles of nearly endless variety, with gallons of stout vinegars you won’t find in a U.S. supermarket, I know I don’t know China.

(I don’t think Trump knows much of anything, a very little in any depth; this is funnier now than it was when Kenny sent the link before the trip.)

Following, not always consecutively, some reports on some of the things we saw. Please stay tuned.

Wikipedia photo, by the way:

We saw the ancient city of Pingyao, Shanxi Province, where wheelers and dealers have been mincing people like Donald Trump for millennia. I’ll bet Trump didn’t go there. (This is a Wikipedia photo, by the way: “Pingyao-oldtown” by Benzh – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –


A new day: Sunrise at Rooster Rock

September 9, 2015

We seek renewal in wilderness, and find that wilderness itself renews with every sunrise.

Mike Scofield photo, Sunrise at Rooster Rock in Table Rock Wilderness, Oregon

@BLMOregon: Rooster Rock #sunrise from the Table Rock #Wilderness near Molalla, #Oregon – photo: Mike Scofield #camping #hiking

Mike Scofield is a lucky guy to have been there to get that shot.


Milky Way over New Zealand

August 3, 2015

Screen capture of one frame of Mark Gee's short film, "After Dark."

Screen capture of one frame of Mark Gee’s short film, “After Dark.”

Great little .gif, of the night sky in New Zealand.

From a Tweet by BBC Earth.  It’s taken from a slightly longer film put together by Mark Gee.

1440 individual photographs captured over 13 hours cut together into one incredible time-lapse video.

Photographer and videographer Mark Gee shot this breath-taking footage of the southern skies around his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. The stunning one-minute clip is a collection of Mark’s most memorable night sky moments over the past year.

The majority of the video was shot on Wellington’s South Coast (watch out for air traffic) while the campfire and the camping scenes were filmed in Cape Palliser and the Tararua Ranges.

From Gee’s Youtube site, the longer film (1 minute!):

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