The Teaching Company

Perhaps I paid just enough attention in college to retain my love of learning. Or maybe my fascination with the law in law school rekindled a passion that had gone momentarily dormant while I used my college years to grow other areas of my person, like the social skills that came with joining a fraternity and the maturing responsibilities that came with ROTC. Either way, I've emerged from law school into the practice of law, and yet retain a vibrant interest in areas of learning from one end of the spectrum to the other, the sciences, the arts, the theoretical, and the practical. But where to get my fix?

I mentioned a couple weeks back that my daily commute (roughly 25 minutes each way) and my weekly return to Atlanta had created a block of 5-10 hours per week that needed to be filled by something other than mindless staring at the pavement ahead.

Back while I was in Charlottesville for the JAG Basic Course, my wife brought along my mail on one of her visits. Included in the pile of loan consolidation and credit card offers was a catalog from The Teaching Company, which claimed to offer college-level classes on a whole host of subjects that piqued my curiosity. I vaguely remembered seeing similar offers in the back of Popular Science type magazines, and few of the programs seemed to offer a level of quality that could trump my own reading of a good book.

But The Teaching Company seemed different, and with my newfound expanse of driving time (in which I obviously cannot read a good book), I thought I'd give one of their many courses a try. Fortunately, they have a large sale section, where every course is on sale at least once a year, so I could buy my trial course at a substantial discount.

After reviewing the options, I decided to go with the "Classical Mythology" course offered by Elizabeth Vandiver, a classics professor at Whitman College. I picked the class for a multitude of reasons: I love the Greeks and their mythology, and have ever since I read snippets of Bulfinch in high school; I will soon begin my journey through Homer, and a background in Greek myth will be of great help; and finally, because Professor Vandiver offers other classes that look appealing, including courses on Homer, Virgil, the Greek Tragedies, and Herodotus. If I like this class, I figured, I already know what to buy next.

I'm almost half way through the course, and it is fantastic. It consists of twenty-four 30 minute lectures:

  • Introduction
  • What Is Myth?
  • Why Is Myth?
  • "First Was Chaos"
  • The Reign of the Olympians
  • Immortals and Mortals
  • Demeter, Persephone, and the Conquest of Death
  • The Eleusinian Mysteries and the Afterlife
  • Apollo and Artemis
  • Hermes and Dionysos
  • Laughter-Loving Aphrodite
  • Culture, Prehistory, and the "Great Goddess"
  • Humans, Heroes, and Half-Gods
  • Theseus and the "Test-and-Quest" Myth
  • From Myth to History and Back Again
  • The Greatest Hero of All
  • The Trojan War
  • The Terrible House of Atreus
  • Blood Vengeance, Justice, and the Furies
  • The Tragedies of King Oedipus
  • Monstrous Females and Female Monsters
  • Roman Founders, Roman Fables
  • "Gods Are Useful"
  • From Ovid to the Stars
  • As you can see, Professor Vandiver begins with several lectures establishing the means and methods of mythology, as well as its boundaries. She then goes into Greek creationism, using Hesiod's Theogony as the primary source, before devoting individual lectures to several of the key Olympian gods. The structure is good, her delivery is clear, and she ties the lectures back to previously covered material, so the learning is cumulative as the course progresses.

    The quality of the recordings is also quite good, especially considering I bought the download version of the course, which allowed me to download the lectures in MP3 format and then put them on my iPod and/or burn them to CD. The download version was also the least expensive, and $35 seems an incredible bargain for 12 hours of top-notch academic lecture. All in all, I could not be happier with the quality of this course and I am brimming with the anticipation of choosing my next purchase.

    My Best Friend's Wedding

    My best friend from college is getting married this weekend in Dallas, so I'm heading out there tomorrow and will be off the web for a few days. Hopefully I'll have time to finish off Flaubert's Parrot, which is probably the strangest, most innovative novel I've read in some time. My wife is reading it as well, and it will be interesting to see where our reactions to the book align and diverge.

    Arsenal v. Barcelona

    solI can barely stand the agony of "watching" the Arsenal/Barcelona Champions League final on ESPN's Gamecast, but that's the best I can do from the office. A horrific start saw goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, the hero of Madrid, sent off after 17 minutes, leaving Arsenal with only 10 men against Barcelona for more than an hour of soccer. Yet beyond all hope, we've gone into the half with the lead, thanks to Sol Campbell!?! The erstwhile stalwart of our central defense has seen his place in Arsenal's first team disappear this year, but he has returned with a vengeance in place of the injured Phillipe Senderos and certainly all will be forgiven should Arsenal hold onto this lead for 45 more minutes. Expect unbridled joy or unconsolable anguish to appear on this page within the hour.

    UPDATE: Oh, well. I'm actually not too upset, since I think Arsenal put on an impressive display with a backup goalie and 10 men on the field. It would have been nice to see how these two teams would have fared had there actually been an 11-on-11 match, but sometimes that's not to be. Frustration and sadness will be felt all around the world by Arsenal fans tonight, and the wound will surely fester should Thierry Henry make the much-discussed move to Barcelona this summer. But there is much to be hopeful about, not least that there was no reason to believe at the start of this season that Arsenal would even be in this match today, and it is only the tremendous growth shown by our youngsters, from Fabregas to Flamini, Toure to Eboue, that got us this far. That gives something to look forward to after the move to Ashburton Grove. Thanks for the ride, boys.

    Immigration

    After years of being shoved under the carpet, an immigration brouhaha has rather suddenly descended onto the national scene, and I find myself without a sturdy set of opinions to rest on. I spent years working in a diner kitchen alongside illegal immigrants. I've also known a fair number of immigrants who went through the long process this country requires for legal status. I do legal work for soldiers who were motivated to join the military because it can significantly expedite the citizenship process.

    This country prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, and there are countless historical iterations of the cycle wherein immigrants come to America, establish themselves, and then throw stones at the next group that dare attempt follow the same path, be it the Irish, the Chinese, or the Eastern Europeans. But how does that translate to the specific issues at hand? I just don't know.

    President Bush is in a tough spot, because his party seems more fractured on this issue than any other, and fractured right down to the base, amongst party loyalists who can usually be counted on to set aside their differences this close to an election. The President's ability to lead has been further weakened by his poll numbers and by the incentive potential 2008 candidates have to swing to the extremes on this issue to curry favor with the base voters who control the primaries.

    Adding to the problem is that there is little agreement as to what the real problem is. Is the problem the fluid border, posing as many questions about national security as immigration? Is it the effect that illegal immigrants have on employment opportunities for U.S. citizens? Is it the burden illegal immigrants place on social services provided by taxpayers? Different answers to these questions lead to different priorities in solving "the immigration problem."

    So the complex issue facing politicians is twofold: what is the real problem that needs to be solved, and how should we solve it? It seems to me that half of the opposition to President Bush's proposals are that they are the wrong solutions addressed at the correct problem. But half of the opposition does not think the President is even targeting the real problem at hand. It's going to be well nigh impossible to reconcile those positions.

    It almost leads me to wonder whether the issue could be resolved by the center, a la the Kadima/Labor coalition in Israel, with Democrats and moderate Republicans providing the necessary support for a compromise plan endorsed by the President. I say "almost" because there are only so many times we moderates can rest our hopes on a centrist compromise without getting rather cynical.

    And this is, after all, an election year. I don't see how a hard drive to the center will help the Republicans much, unless it boosts the President's poll numbers enough to keep him from dragging down the ticket. That said, I'm not really sure how this immigration issue plays out well for Republicans in 2006 in any case, since any solution seems destined to alienate a good chunk of the party loyalists. Perhaps it will shift some focus from Iraq, however, and that is probably a good thing considering the poll numbers right now.

    UPDATE: Maybe I was being too cynical. The Senate just rejected Sen. Isakson's attempt to require that national security issues be resolved before any other immigration reform move forward, and it did so on a 55-40 vote. Those numbers don't sound unusual with the present makeup of the Senate, but look closer at that majority: 36 Democrats, 18 Republicans, and one Independent. I'm sure some of the votes were skewed by the proximity of re-election for particular senators, but the result makes me think a centrist position might be holding steady for now. I doubt any bill will emerge from the House/Senate conference in such good shape, but who knows?

    Dar and Civ4

    mybetterselfThough I was a bit harsh on Dar Williams' latest album when I discussed it last fall, I have definitely started to come around to it. Between my daily commute to work and my weekly drive to Atlanta, I am in the car between five and ten hours every week. So I have plenty of time to listen repeatedly to an album (and maybe soon, to one of The Great Courses). The familiarity that comes with repetition has inspired another look at an album I initially found disappointing.

    My Better Self still does not live up to the consistent greatness of Dar's best album, Mortal City, but it has enough smatterings of the old Dar to make repeated listenings worthwhile. The opening track, "Teen For God," does not rise to the level of "Alleluia" or "The Christians and the Pagans," but at least it is in that ballpark. And "Empire" is definitely one of the better political folk songs of recent years.

    I've also finally decided to give her credit for her cover of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." At first I was disappointed to see so many covers, when Dar's poetry is usually the main event. But after all, my favorite song she sings is a cover of The Kinks' "Better Things," so credit where credit is due. The Neil Young original is better, but I won't deny singing along to Dar's version.

    Strangely enough, my favorite song on the album is one which has gone largely unmentioned in most reviews I've read of the album: "Beautiful Enemy." I love the upbeat tempo and the oh-so-Dar playfulness with words, seen in the written lyrics and heard in the quirky vocalizations:

    Oh, my enemy, beautiful enemy
    Hail to your vast hegemony
    You're not innocent
    I'm not innocent
    No one's innocent

    civ4Speaking of vast hegemonies, I have been spending way too much free time playing Civilization IV. I bought it in January while I was at Fort Lee, hoping it'd be a nice distraction in the evenings. Unfortunately, my laptop did not have sufficient graphic power to run the game, and I did not get a chance to install it on my desktop until this last week. Man, it is a great, great game.

    I have played every version in the series, dating back to a copy of the original that a friend made for me (he had to make me a copy of the manual too, since the copy protection scheme required you to identify which symbol appeared on a particular page of the manual before you could play). And this is the best of the series, which is saying a whole lot considering the quality of the earlier games. Every aspect of the game is improved, from diplomacy to combat, scientific research to resource allocation, and it has never looked or sounded better.

    Hopefully I will tire of it soon so that I can return to my real life.

    Amsterdam

    amsterdamI finished Ian McEwan's Amsterdam this weekend as part of my continuing journey to make sense of the Booker Prize, and have decidedly mixed feelings about the book. There were clear moments of brilliance, particularly when discussing the creative process of Clive Linley, a composer in the midst of writing his masterpiece. I thought the characters were reasonably well-drawn for such a short book, and even enjoyed most of the plot weaving the characters together. Bits of political intrigue, macho jealousies, journalistic ethics, questions about when to engage with the outside world and when to huddle in our cocoons—all deftly handled, with due credit to McEwan on these counts.

    But the ending. How many times do I have to say that about a book? But the ending: too cute, too clever, too silly. Just not worthy of what came before. In such a short novel, with such deliberate plotting, McEwan needed to do better. Ignore the end, shove it aside, and the book is wonderful. That's an awfully strange way to think about a book, though, especially one that does not reach 200 pages. The flaw is not fatal; I still appreciate what was good, even excellent about Amsterdam. So I'll read more McEwan, and I imagine I'll find what I'm looking for.

    Quilts, Chuck Close, and the Gilmore Girls

    Of course the thing about blogging is that you have to, you know, write stuff. There's no denying that while I've been doing this for more than three years now, I have yet to fully escapefrom having too much to say and no sense of how to say it. So I'll try and go a bit more free form for a while, and see how that goes. I'm shooting for one entry a day, with no requirement that the contents of the entry be internally consistent or relevant or interesting.

    At least some credit for this burst of written perspiration is owed to the High Museum of Art, which played host for my wife and I to take a whirlwind two hour Sunday afternoon tour of the latest special exhibitions: The Quilts of Gee's Bend and Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967–2005 (As an aside, how exciting is the upcoming 3-year Louvre Atlanta project!?!). Being immersed in art left be longing to be an artist, or at least to create, or at least to throw something of myself out into the world. I've flirted with writing, and the blog has survived its intermittent lapses. I've flirted with photography, and sooner or later I'm going to put that Nikon D50 to good use. I also dream of woodworking, though that may have to wait for the post-condo era.

    Visiting the High was also a big help in my continued recovery from last week's catastrophic season finale of The Gilmore Girls. Alright, alright. Yes, I watch that show. In fact, it was the only thing I watched on television until I found Fox Soccer Channel on my new cable system. My wife got me hooked during our last year of law school, after years of my having derided the show mainly on the basis of the concierge's French accent. That said, the show has been on a crash course for most of this season, and the season finale was as awful as we all feared. Television Without Pity has the gory details for those fortunate enough to have missed it. Good riddance to the show's creators who are leaving after a ridiculous contract dispute, and let's hope that somehow the 7th (and likely last) season redeems these characters and give them the finish they deserve. I demand it, and will bring the full wrath of A Handful of Sand to bear on anyone who fails to satisfy this demand.

    A Philip Roth Fan?

    Without warning, I have found myself to be a fan of Philip Roth. I can't pinpoint the exact moment, but I think it was about fifty pages into The Plot Against America, which I finished last night. Though it was the fourth Roth book I've read, it was the second that I thought was very good (the first being I Married a Communist, which I read last summer). That's my baseline standard: one great book or two very good books, and I'm a fan.

    I had already read Operation Shylock and Portnoy's Complaint, and while I recognized Roth's obvious talent, I found the former a bit too clever, and the latter a bit too dated. Plot and Communist suffered from neither, and while they will not make any short list of my favorite books, they have left me with a strong desire to read more Roth. That's a pretty good recommendation.

    Buying a Hybrid

    A new report out today shows a sizeable upswing in the number of hybrids being sold in the United States:

    U.S. hybrid vehicle sales more than doubled last year, according to new data released Thursday, although they still only comprise slightly more than 1 percent of U.S. vehicle sales.

    Registrations for new hybrids rose to 199,148 in 2005, a 139 percent increase from the year before, as more models came on the market, according to R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Mich.-based firm that collects and interprets automotive data. The Lexus RX400h and hybrid versions of the Toyota Highlander and Mercury Mariner were among the new models from which consumers had to choose.

    Hybrids accounted for 1.2 percent of the 16.99 million vehicles sold in the United States last year. In 2004, the 83,153 hybrids sold were 0.5 percent of the 16.91 million vehicles sold. The U.S. hybrid market has grown exponentially since 2000, when 7,781 were sold.

    Though I'm not much of a car person, I admit to lusting after the hybrid SUVs because of the ideal compromise they seem to present between the importance of fuel efficiency and the convenience of expanded trunk space. I hate having to worry about whether the new piece of furniture or electronics is actually going to fit in my Pontiac Grand Am (which has actually served me well 95% of the time I'm hauling stuff).

    The funny thing is, whenever I tell people I think I want to buy a hybrid, the reaction is "but I've heard you don't actually save any money overall." As if the only reason to buy a hybrid is to save on gas. Well here's a thought: I'm actually willing to pay more for a car just to use less gasoline, even if I don't break even on the cost of gas. The mere fact that less gasoline will be used and fewer noxious fumes will be emitted is enough justification for me to spend the extra dollars to get the hybrid model.

    I'm Back

    So when I said I might have something to say at the end of January, I wasn't lying. I just did not anticipate that the combination of 8 hours a day of Powerpoint slides, 4 days a week of PT, and the more social aspects of the JAG officer basic course would take so much out of me.

    At the end of the day, I simply did not have the energy to blog. The dial-up internet did not help. Nor did the fact that I was essentially cut off from the outside world, having little knowledge about current events or time to make progress on my Great Books Project.

    That's not to say that I did not greatly enjoy much of my OBC experience. First and foremost are the great friends and colleagues I came to know over the 14 weeks at Fort Lee and Charlottesville. There is just something about spending so much time together in such unpleasant circumstances (whether it's conducting stand-to on a cold January morning or sitting through the aforementioned Powerpoint torture) that forges hasty but strong friendships. I continue to be in touch with more than a dozen, and hope that continues indefinitely.

    Of course I also made the most out of being back in Charlottesville. Three years of law school there had given me just enough expertise to be a local guide in the first few weeks before everyone got their bearings. From Christian's Pizza to the South Street Brewery, I made sure my JAG friends experienced the very best that C'ville had to offer. It was bittersweet at times, since all of my memories of Charlottesville were memories made with my wife, who had to stay behind in Atlanta working the big firm life while I was in Charlottesville. Fortunately she was able to make several weekend visits, including a visit on our first anniversary to Veritas Vineyard, the site of our wedding.

    The curriculum at JAG OBC was a mixed bag. The content was good. Most of the professors were very good. But the relatively short duration of the classroom portion, a mere 10 weeks, necessitated a delivery that was alternately called (by the professors) the "firehose" or "death by Powerpoint." It's not the ideal way to learn, and the stated goal of many professors was merely give us the ability to recognize the questions in our practice that might be answered by the course materials we were given. In that limited ambition, they probably succeeded.

    And now here I am, working away. I took a week of leave after our April 7 graduation, found an apartment, moved my stuff down, and have been slowly learning the tricks of the trade. I'm assigned to the Legal Assistance section, which I requested, and am quickly becoming aware of the myriad legal problems that soldiers deal with (and create). I'm am very much enjoying the work, and my colleagues in the office are every bit as excellent as the friends I made at OBC. So things here are good. Very good.