Thursday, January 19, 2017

We're the Monsters of Sci-Fi Movies

When aliens come to Earth in science fiction films, they treat us like animals, slaughtering us so they can use our resources or enslaving us because we are resources ourselves. And we get indignant and say in a shaking voice, "How could you?!"

What if there's life under the ice on Europa? What if the Em drive is crazy effective and we can get to Europa? What then? Do we REALLY think we're not going to take some Europa lifeforms back to Earth zoos? Of COURSE we will. But it's okay, because science.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What Makes Hard Brexit So Hard?

It appears increasingly obvious to me that what will make "hard Brexit" so damaging is the ill-will of the European Union. The EU is in a position to punitively harm the UK and most Europhiles on the Continent (who comprise most of those interested enough in the EU to run it) are going to use the opportunity for all it's worth. If Brexit supporters thought the UK would be better outside of Europe, the EU can ensure that's not true by setting incredible standards for exit.

Is Britain eventually going to find that a negotiated settlement won't work and they'll have to unilaterally declare their independence? When that happens, I promise to not snicker derisively. (But I will say, "SEE?!?!")

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reading to Last the Rest of My Life

Here's what I have sitting around on my side of the bed waiting for me to read it.

This will take me approximately forever.

  1. A Lesson in Secrets, by Jacqueline Winspear. Are Maisie Dobbs books only for ladies? I suspect they might be, but I keep reading them.
  2. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read it once before, but now my kids want to listen to it. At over 1,000 pages, I plan for this to be the only book I read to them this year.
  3. Ukridge, by P.G. Wodehouse. Making my way through all of Wodehouse, taking advantage of the fact my university has many of the volumes from the collector's edition series (and I get to check out books for four months at a time).
  4. Meet Mr. Mulliner, by P.G. Wodehouse.
  5. Piccadilly Jim, by P.G. Wodehouse.
  6. Uneasy Money, by P.G. Wodehouse.
  7. Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu. I bought this at the Foreign Language Bookstore in Beijing for my flight home, but then I ended up sleeping and watching movies. I'm now about one-third through it. I hate that all the names are presented in Wade-Giles, which I don't know, so I end up just reading them as "Chinese Name," and then there's a large dinner party where five or six different people named "Chinese Name" are conversing.
  8. Drawing on the Powers of Heaven, by Grant Von Harrison. Re-reading again.
  9. Fathers as Patriarchs, by Grant Von Harrison. Re-reading again.
  10. Seeing with an Eye of Faith, by Grant Von Harrison. Re-reading again.
  11. Open Water Swimming Manual, by Lynne Cox. Remember in 2009 or so when I decided to learn how to swim (as opposed to the "not drowning" that I had been doing up to that point)? This is a continuation of that process. I know I can't rely on running as my exercise for the rest of my life because it's tough on joints. I'll have to transition to swimming more over the next 10 years or so.
  12. The Book of Mormon, Language Study Edition (Mandarin). This presents the text in three columns: English, Pinyin, and traditional characters. But since I'm learning simplified characters, I have to read it in connection with...
  13. 摩尔门经.

This stack doesn't include my church lesson manuals for this year. Basically, it's going to be months before I read anything not in this picture.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Reality Bites Is a Terrible Movie

Last night I got around to watching Reality Bites for the first time (just 23 years late). It's a terrible movie that quite possibly made it so I can never watch Gattaca again, and I love Gattaca.

My wife got it from the library because she thought it was Singles. Let me tell you, people, I know Singles. Singles was a friend of mine. And Reality Bites is no Singles. Why do I say that? Let's compare.

Both movies feature 20-somethings learning to manage in the adult world. In Singles they do it. In Reality Bites they think they do. Both movies feature a slacker musician who takes a woman for granted. In Singles Janet realizes (with the help of Cool Dr. Jameson) that she doesn't need Cliff, and this makes Cliff realize he has been taking her for granted and he starts trying to change to be a better person. In Reality Bites Ethan Hawke's character (whatever his name was) is an unmitigated asshole from start to finish. Winona Ryder's character thinks so little of herself that she doesn't mind.

Can we talk about the Ben Stiller character for a minute? What exactly is wrong with him that Ethan Hawke's character is supposed to be the one we're rooting for? The only thing wrong with Ben Stiller's character is that he's successful. But if we had to ask which character cares about Laney more, there's no way we think it's Ethan Hawke's character. He says he loves her (he only says this when it's inconvenient for her), but Ben Stiller's character is constantly doing the right thing. He's not responsible for the New York executives ruining Laney's videos, and when he realizes how much it means to her, he commits to taking her to New York to fight for her artistic integrity. He's willing to sacrifice a successful career for what matters to her. But Ethan Hawke's character isn't willing to miss an 8:30-a.m. band practice for a band that just plays at a coffee shop (and sucks) for her, and how does he feel about the videos? He's constantly belittling them, as he's constantly belittling Laney herself. He's emotionally abusive and like many abused women, Laney makes excuses for him (it's okay because his dad left him). I feel really uncomfortable with how we're expected to root against Ben Stiller's character with no explanation needed, like there must be something wrong with me if the people behind this film thought I would do that with little encouragement.

Both Laney (in Reality Bites) and Steve (in Singles) suffer professional setbacks and spend time on their couch depressed. Steve gets out of his by realizing what matters to him and going to fight for it. Laney gets out of hers by stealing $900 from her father, another guy whose major fault is being professionally successful.

The friends in Reality Bites are lame. The woman (I don't remember her character's name and don't know how to spell the actress's name and don't feel like looking up either) engages in borderline-psychotic promiscuous sex (well after AIDS is known and in the heyday of everyone telling you "sex will give you AIDS and then you'll die"), has an AIDS scare, and then, what? Is happy she tested negative. That's it. And Steve Zahn's character, given what we now know about his comedic genius, is a waste. He's just a zero-dimensional gay guy (he'd have to actually have his character developed to have at least one dimension).

Singles is from 1992. Reality Bites is from 1994. In tone, though, they are at least a generation apart. The characters from Singles are definitely from Generation X, trying to move into the adult world while frustrated by the obstacles placed in their ways by the Baby Boomers before them. The characters from Reality Bites, though, are premature Millennials, whining about how life is hard and using drugs and sex to undermine themselves, and then tells themselves, "It's all somebody else's fault." This is the worst movie I have seen in years and now I have to watch Singles next weekend to try to forget this terrible event ever happened.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Overly-Ambitious Students Create As Many Headaches As Unambitious Ones

Last semester I discovered that one of my top students was a server at one of my favorite restaurants. While eating there, a co-worker of his introduced himself and asked if he could come by my office to talk economics. I said sure. Now it's a new semester and that co-worker is enrolled in one of my classes.

Tuesday after the first class meeting he asked if he could take the four exams once each week and take the final exam at the end of January. I told him no.

Thursday after class he said he completed the entire semester's homework during the application's free trial period and he wanted to know what happens in three weeks when the free trial expires. I told him the software needs to still be reporting his grades in May. He said he'd hate to pay $65 just to record his homework scores. I told him if that's the cost of having his homework scores recorded, he'll have to determine if that's worth it to him.

Why can't good students just be good? Why do they have to develop new ways of being terrible?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Chinese Class Anxiety

My school has a Confucius Institute, which is the Chinese Communist Party's way of teaching Mandarin to Americans in exchange for the Americans occasionally listening to propaganda. I'm fine with it because it's no different from the propaganda I had to hear while I was in China. But others find it controversial.

Last semester they offered Mandarin classes that could be described as Level 1 and Level 2. This semester the Level 1 teacher is re-teaching Level 1 for any new students (or for anyone that wants to review the material), while the Level 2 teacher is going on and offering a Level 3 class. I no longer need Level 1 instruction, but I'm unsure I'm ready to make the jump to Level 3. Since those are the only options, though, I've made the jump and I figure it'll be good for me to be really challenged.

I'm concerned, though, that I'll be so far behind the other students that I'll be hurting the class, so there's some anxiety there for me. I went to the first class and the students were two people who had been in Level 2 and a new woman with some extensive Mandarin learning under her belt. A little later a woman from my previous class joined us. She and I are probably very close in terms of our skill.

But then we were joined by another guy from my previous class, and he is TERRIBLE. So, so terrible. He was possibly the worst student in Level 1 (of those that came the entire term). He has no ear for tones and almost doesn't even know that tones EXIST, given how unconcerned he is about them. He ignores the ways in which Pinyin letters differ from English letters, so anything he says with a C, Q, R, X, or Z in it is unintelligible. He might be expected to mumble a bit, then, but instead he is very loud with his terrible pronunciations. The teacher asks us to repeat "qi" and we all say "qi" while he yells, "SHY!" Or "QUY!" Or anything, really. It's all a possibility with this guy.

He wants some camaraderie with us Level 1 graduates because he thinks we're in the same boat. We're not in the same boat. I'm clinging to the side of the boat, while he's still on the shore, fully dressed, walking inland.

I know a charitable person would befriend him and try to help him and whatnot, but I don't have the time, skill, or disposition to do that. I just want to make sure that our teacher doesn't say, "Everyone who tried to skip Level 2 isn't ready and needs to go back."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

I Can't Save the Students TOO Much Money, Obviously

One thing I learned as a college student was that the school bookstore is always the most-expensive option. At my undergraduate university there were two off-campus college bookstores, and they were both constantly cheaper than the campus bookstore for all textbooks. (Cheaper yet was ordering my books online from India, which is what I did most of the time.)

This semester I have selected a textbook that has an e-book option. When I notified my department that we'll be using an e-book, they told me I didn't need to give the particulars to the bookstore. But yesterday, the first day of class, the campus bookstore told me that some students are required to buy their textbooks through the campus bookstore, so I have to facilitate the bookstore's selling of the e-book.

I guess these students are using financial aid to purchase their textbooks. Still, this is bogus. When I received financial aid for textbooks, they gave me money and I spent it as needed. This meant I used some of it on Indian textbooks and the rest on food. If the concern is, "Well, if you can buy your books and have money left over that means we've given you too much money for your books," then require excess funds be returned. Don't require students to buy more-expensive books.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New County Strategy to Consider

I keep track of the counties I visit. I've currently been to 1,774 of America's 3,133 counties (or county equivalents). But now that I live in an extreme corner of the country, it's time I start considering a new approach: flying and renting a car in a distant city. This will help me avoid spending days driving through areas I've already completed to be able to reach the areas I have yet to visit.

My local city has non-stop flights to 28 domestic destinations, but only 11 of them are of interest to my county gathering.

  1. Asheville, NC
  2. Atlanta, GA
  3. Boston, MA
  4. Charlotte, NC
  5. Dallas, TX
  6. Houston, TX
  7. Memphis, TN
  8. Minneapolis, MN
  9. Nashville, TN
  10. New Oreleans, LA
  11. New York, NY/Newark, NJ

Of these, I think Dallas and Minneapolis would be my top two choices for a first attempt. I don't think this is going to happen this year, but in the next few years I expect I'll do this for the first time.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Tyranny of the Elite: Movie Edition

Over the past month, I've seen two movies that feature tyrannical elites imposing their decisions on those they consider lesser creatures. They are Tomorrowland and Still Alice.

In Tomorrowland, Hugh Laurie plays David, the leader of a group of global elites who have created utopia in a parallel dimension. It's unclear to me if the point was to eventually bring all humanity there or to showcase to humanity what is possible to encourage them to turn their existing dimension into something better than it is. Nevertheless, the elites never come out and tell humanity what is happening, and David eventually decides to sever the project from the irredeemable world and instead take refuge there. Maybe it's just my anti-elite bias talking here, but I think the film doesn't cast the elite in a positive light. They constantly make decisions on behalf of others and those decisions are self-serving. Just like real elites.

In Still Alice the elite/pleb distinction is between newly-diagnosed Alice and severe-dementia Alice. (Bee tee dubs, spoilers ahead, but I'm probably the last person in America to see this movie, so I don't think I'm going to spoil anything for anyone.) Newly-diagnosed Alice (as an Ivy-League professor she's as elite as they come) misleads a doctor to get a large number of potent sleeping pills, then leaves an instructional video for severe-dementia Alice to kill herself with them. ND Alice never asks if SD Alice is going to want to die; when it actually comes time for SD Alice to implement the plan, she appears to still enjoy her human connections. "Never mind," says ND Alice. "Because she isn't going to enjoy her human connections the way that I do right now, I'm not going to allow her to enjoy them at all."

It's disturbing the way ND Alice knows she is tricking SD Alice into her death. She explains in tones one would use with a child, "There are a lot of pills, but it's very important that you take them all." If she had begun the video with, "Hey, SD Alice, do you want to die right now? If so, here's what you do," I think SD Alice would have answered, "No." ND Alice's elitism leads her to plot the death of a non-elite. Because it appears to be herself, most viewers are probably sympathetic instead of properly horrified. (Killing herself would have been coming home with the pills and taking them all right then. She instead plots to kill someone else, someone whose cognitive ability isn't up to scratch.) The title conveys the dignity of all individuals (despite the dementia she is still Alice), but ND Alice's actions are based on the notion that those with more insight get to make important decisions, including life-and-death decisions, on behalf of the benighted, and the elite are justified in using trickery to bring about the results.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Non-Conspiracy Explanations First, Please

It's been proven so many times now that I should just include it in the Fundamental Truths of Life: You cannot listen to NPR for more than 30 seconds before hearing some asinine comment that requires you to refute it aloud.

It happened again this morning. Two guest experts in cyber-security were commenting on a listener question. The listener, Woman X, was talking with her friend, Woman Y, about a new accessory on Y's phone. Later that day, X saw an ad for that accessory on her Facebook feed. She wanted to know if her phone overheard the conversation and influenced which ad she saw.

The first cyber-security expert answer the question correctly, which is to say, he said no. He started talking about confirmation bias, where you notice things that support your pre-existing world-view and don't notice conflicting evidence as readily. But then the other expert interrupted him to say she had to disagree. And why did she have to disagree? Because she'd "seen this happen too many times" and she'd even had this happen to her. She said (paraphrasing), "When you ask the large data companies they say, 'Well, technically that can't happen, but....'"

This is baseless speculation that, when done by a news entity NPR doesn't like, NPR calls "fake news." I can immediately think of two non-crazy explanations for what happened.

POSSIBILITY 1: COINCIDENCE. If Y bought something recently, the chances are many people in America are buying that thing right now. And the types of things you see advertised are the types of things many people are buying right now. It's not a conspiracy when you see new products enter the marketplace, which is what X is experiencing.

POSSIBILITY 2: HOW MARKETING WORKS. Y bought the new item, which is recorded in Y's consumer profile. Companies buy access to these profiles, and they buy access to social media connections. The manufacturer of the new item could have paid Facebook to advertise the new item to the friends of people who recently bought the item. Creepy and frustrating, but not a violation of privacy.

Here's the thing: when the cyber-security expert said large data companies tell her these things can't happen "technically," since they are technology companies, they are saying these things can't happen. They're saying it this way to be nice, but they are essentially saying, "Crazy lady, your idea is insane." It reminds me of the scene from Dumb & Dumber when Lloyd hears "one in a million" and says, "So you're telling me there's a chance!"