Thursday, October 08, 2015

Notes on Babbitt

Here are the parts of Babbitt that warranted moving my finger across the screen to highlight them.

  • "He could, on ten hours' notice, appear before the board of aldermen or the state legislature and prove, absolutely, with figures all in rows and with precedents from Poland and New Zealand, that the street-car company loved the Public and yearned over its employees; that all its stock was owned by Widows and Orphans; and that whatever it desired to do would benefit property-owners by increasing rental values, and help the poor by lowering rents." (p. 25)
  • "He prepared to taste that most delicate of pleasures of the host: making fun of his guests in the relaxation of midnight." (p. 129)
  • "Babbitt was an average father. He was affectionate, bullying, opinionated, ignorant, and rather wistful. Like most parents, he enjoyed the game of waiting till the victim was clearly wrong, then virtuously pouncing." (p. 226)
  • "It was coming to him that perhaps all life as he knew it and vigorously practised it was futile; that heaven as portrayed by the Reverend Dr. John Jennison Drew was neither probably nor very interesting; that he hadn't much pleasure out of making money; that it was of doubtful worth to rear children merely that they might rear children who would rear children." (p. 273)
  • "Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd." (p. 292)
  • "Thus it came to him merely to run away was folly, because he could never run away from himself." (p. 300)
  • "In matrimonial geography the distance between the first mute recognition of a break and the admission thereof is as great as the distance between the first naive faith and the first doubting." (p. 351)
  • "In both cases [metaphysics lectures and drinking in roadhouses] they're trying to get away from themselves--most everybody is, these days, I guess." (p. 359)
  • "They were large, resolute, big-jawed men, and they were all high lords in the land of Zenith--Dr. Dilling the surgeon, Charles McKelvey the contractor, and, most dismaying of all, the white-bearded Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Advocate-Times. In their whelming presence Babbitt felt small and insignificant." (p. 371)
  • "He was not quite sure there was a Heaven to be attained, but Dr. John Jennison Drew said there was, and Babbitt was not going to take a chance." (p. 393)

The penultimate quote is included because of the use of the word "whelming," which answers Bianca's question in 10 Things I Hate About You, "Can you ever just be 'whelmed'?"

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Predicting Revelation

I know a guy who likes to make General Conference predictions on Facebook. It strikes me as distasteful, and it's not just because he's one of those people who are so similar to me that I completely hate him (although that's true, too).

"But wait a minute, A Random Stranger, don't you make such predictions?" It is true that before receiving my mission call, I thought I would be called to the Florida Jacksonville Mission. (Instead I got called to the Pray for Death's Merciful Oblivion Mission.) I've also guessed that the Three Nephites are Jonas, Jonas, and Isaiah, and that the Second Coming will happen on 21 September 2033. But those are random guesses that have very, very little chance of being right (12 choose 3 = 220). This acquaintance of mine, though, presents his Facebook predictions as, "check it out, people, I'm smart enough that I've figured out stuff that the rest of you schlubs wait around to hear announced."

I follow a blog about LDS church growth (with the whimsical title of LDS Church Growth), and at first glance it might appear that the blogger's predictions are just as crass, but they're not. The blog predictions are given in the spirit of "if church leaders are interested in some of these metrics, here's what they'll see, but sometimes they make decisions not based on these metrics."

Am I seeing differences where none exist, just because I hate people who are exactly like me? Probably. But I wish this acquaintance of mine would present his predictions with a little more humility and a little less disrespect of revelation.

The Credit Scores Have Eyes

Here's a blog post about Chinese credit scores being based on political opinions...of your friends. To me, the end of the current regime just became a lot more certain, a lot further in the future, and a lot more violent.

As I've recently told my wife (who has to listen to all the crackpot opinions that are too insane for my blog--think about just how saintlike this woman actually is), I don't see what China offers to American businesses that India doesn't also offer. India also has a massive potential middle class, while having a lot more English capability and nowhere near the political baggage. I guess China is a 20 years further down the road of economic development, but what you pay for that is being plundered by industrial espionage. If I wanted to get in on an emerging market, I'd skip the hassle that is China and go to India.

By the way, the comments section of an ACLU blog is a parody of Internet comments sections. Alternating comments between "That can never happen here!" and "It's already happening here!"

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

My New Hog

When I first saw The Green Hornet, I fell in love with Kato's motorcycle. For a while, I had a picture of a Harley-Davidson V-Rod as my desktop image, until my wife told me that I was not allowed to ride a motorcycle.*

Now I'm here to tell you that my wife has relented and allowed me to finally purchase my dream ride.

Okay, so it's more of an e-bike than a motorcycle. That's because it's totally an e-bike and definitely not a motorcycle.

My wife and I rode it to Sam's Club and back, cutting the travel time in half and completely eliminating the need to convince a taxi to take us back home to a neighboring district. My daughter and I rode it to breakfast and back, and on that trip we discovered the battery's range and how easy it is to pedal it home (not easy at all).

It's a little small for our family of six, but I did take three boys with me to supper on it last week (two boys sitting on the back seat and the littlest standing on the runner board and holding on to the handles with me; China's cool about traffic laws like that). While we drove he sang, "Four guys on a scooter!"

My wife wasn't home to take our picture (or to stop us, actually), and we didn't all fit in a selfie, so we'll have to recreate it later.

* = It seems everyone's reaction to hearing of spouses who "won't allow" something is to think, "That marriage's got PROBLEMS." I think it, too. But every spouse has such things they won't allowed, including me. Just relax, people. We've got this under control.

Homeschool Hysteria

Two nights ago when I was out with my wife, I said to her, "When I taught university and my colleagues learned that we homeschooled our kids, their response was, 'Oh, that's cool.' But now that I'm a high school teacher, when my colleagues learn that we homeschool our kids, they say, 'You're severely unqualified to do that and your children must not be learning anything.'"

Of course, that's a paraphrasing, but their line of questioning belies such a thought process. Despite the fact that I'm a professional teacher and that my wife is even more of one than I am, my colleagues just can't get around their love of credentialism.

I had a post a few months ago about a conversation with a colleague where she expressed feeling unqualified to teach 6th graders because her credential is for teaching grades seven and above. In a more-recent conversation, she has told me that she is going to pay her own money to get some sort of "level one" training, even though she already has the next two levels of training, because she feels her resume looks suspicious without it. She can't get our school to agree to pay for it because she already has the next two levels of training.

Economist Bryan Caplan has begun homeschooling his junior-high-aged sons, and he had a blog post recently about the hysterical questions he gets from regular people compared to the relaxed question he gets from his colleagues. It reminded me of the reactions I get at work. I think the hysterical reaction comes primarily from the quasi-educated. Like the graph you sometimes see of the uncanny valley, there's a gulf of ignorance through which everyone must pass as they become educated. In this gulf you know enough to know there are experts and to understand the desirability of relying on expert knowledge, but you are too ignorant to judge expert knowledge on its merits, so you look for markers of merit, and thus you come to rely exclusively on credentials. You've been educated just enough to be a complete idiot.

There's a lot of room for discussion about just how intentional it is that nearly all Americans these days are educated just enough to leave them in the deepest depths of this uncanny valley. For now, my purpose is merely to point out that it is from this group of quasi-educated that our educators come. As Arnold Kling would say, have a nice day.

Monday, October 05, 2015

"I Feel Like I'm Taking Crazy Pills"

A few weeks ago I had a post where I noted how my blog has inadvertently turned from a conservatarian critique of American government to a Mormon perspective on modern society. I outlined then a few reasons this might have happened, but one I didn't get into is my declining interest in American politics. That might seem weird, since more and more aspects of American life are being politicized (if you want to make it with the smart set, there's an approved list of films, musical acts, books, and television shows from which you will need to select your favorites), but as the world ramps up its "us against them" dichotomy, it is becoming more obvious to me that the answer doesn't lie in "us" or "them," it lies in "me."

No leader is going to retard the progress of decay. It doesn't matter who runs for president in 2016, let alone who wins. The rot will stop only insofar as each of us decides--individually--to stop being rotten.

So I've turned from political to social issues, and from macrosociety problems to microsociety problems. The problem isn't that abortion is legal, it's that people want abortions, and the only part of that problem I can control is whether I want an abortion and whether I make the case for not murdering defenseless infants. In a sense, I guess it's narcissist politics: only I matter.

In a larger sense, this is just one more example of how I come to think something, only to have almost the entire world around me continually tell me that I'm wrong. This first happened 11 years ago, when I began thinking that maybe I was supposed to quit my secure, well-compensated job in city government for...well, I didn't know why. And every family member, co-worker, or ward member I talked to told me this was a terrible idea. But I read books by motivational speakers who made the case for pursuing my passion, and I read the scriptures that counseled me to trust in God. I had one guy in my ward who was of the same mind as me, and everyone in the ward thought he was a fool. When I started talking to him more, my family members grew concerned. One time this guy and I had to perform a church duty together, and as we rode in the car we talked about our discontent with the wisdom of the world. He said to me, "What did your wife say [about quitting your job]?" I said, "She was okay with it." He said, "Aren't great wives so important?"

I wrote earlier "almost the entire world" was in opposition. Remember the Sliding Scale of Belief? Over the past decade, I've been able to find blogs that help me feel less crazy. Now, I know the danger of getting doctrinal ideas from blogs. But as I continue to check the concepts presented there against the scriptures and the words of the prophets, I feel I'm being brought closer in my relationship with Jesus, not farther away, and that's the standard by which we are to judge.

Over the past three years or so, I've been reading more about the Mormon concept of Zion, and I've come to understand that Zion is not something that Jesus will bring with Him upon His return; it is to be built by people here on Earth to meet the Lord when He comes. And if I apply narcissist politics to Mormon Zionism, I get this: only I can build Zion.

Of course, the world is setting up its dichotomy again. The forces of annihilism versus the Constitution. And here I am, saying I'm growing less enamored of the Constitution every day. Does this mean that I'm an annihilist? Of course not. It means that no paper document can stop annihilism. Only people deciding to not be annihilists will do that.

It was reassuring this past week to read this blog post about another Mormon who has come to see the Constitution as a useful tool that isn't the panacea some make it out to be. And the feeling of taking crazy pills abated slightly, for another week or so.

The Modern World: More or Less Book Learnin'?

I've recently finished reading Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and I'm nearly finished with Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Although separated by nearly a quarter century, they are describing the same social behaviors. What Veblen saw in 1899 as an emerging trend, Lewis saw in 1922 as established orthodoxy.

What is that trend? It's the establishment of the leisure class, the socially dominant heirs of the priests and gentry of the past. George Babbitt lives in a world of amoral opportunism as the lower class tries to become middle class and the middle class tries to become leisure class.

What struck me as interesting was the disagreement between Veblen and Lewis on the change to education. Veblen writes that modern education emphasizes esoteric pedantry as a way of valuing the conspicuous consumption of useless information that only the upper class can afford. (I find it most interesting that he concludes a book of stilted, non-conversational vocabulary with a criticism of the leisure class's emphasis of stilted, non-conversational vocabulary.) To hear Veblen tell it, education will become more and more focused on items more and more trivial. As Dale G. Renlund said this past weekend in his introduction to the press, "A specialist learns more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing at all."

In Babbitt's world, though, everything old is suspect and everything new is praiseworthy. Mozart, Shakespeare, and Dante are all deplorable unless they can be used to establish one's refined status for social climbing. Babbitt's son wants nothing to do with school. Eunice Littlefield is the daughter of a professor but she dedicates herself to learning facts about movie stars. In Zenith, and hence in Lewis's picture of America, no one who wants to move up in the world will be in danger of learning something unnecessary, but according to Veblen, the upwardly mobile will show their advanced status through acquiring Latin (or Klingon) language skills.

So what do we have, more pedantry or less? Is it possible we have both? While there's a group of people who attempt to show their advanced status through meticulous familiarity with useless knowledge (think hipster pontificating on artisanal microbrews or on 1960s Indian cinema), they are equally likely to show their advanced status through loudly-declared ignorance of anything old or traditional (think hipster use of text-speak, or refusal to acknowledge that anything older than Sonic Youth could be categorized as "music"). How do they know whether an old thing should be embraced or ridiculed? It depends on you. Whatever you're already doing, the hipster will do the opposite. They're cool because they're not you. This only works if everyone is secretly inwardly convinced of his own un-coolness.

In this sense, Lewis's description is closer to the world we now inhabit. Babbitt's world is filled with discontent, with a maddening assurance that, whatever is good about the world, it doesn't include you. Not yet, anyway. But it could, if only you could sell that next house/get that new car/get invited to that desirable dinner party.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I Don't Feel Like Putting Any Time Into Thinking of A Good Title for This Post

The other day I had a terrible day at work (I'm having a lot of those this school year), and when I came home, my daughter told me a joke she'd read online somewhere. "My grandfather has the heart of a lion, and a life-time ban from the zoo."

It reminded me of a headline I once saw on about a memorial service for a man killed by a bear. "Man killed by bear had tender heart say friends, family, bear."

Related only because it also makes me laugh a lot is this joke: a man walks into a psychiatrist's office completely naked and wrapped in cellophane, and the psychiatrist says, "I can clearly see your nuts."

Finally, this bon mot that makes me laugh: in theory there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Where Reading Stands Now

I'm an idiot. And one of the ways my idiocy manifests itself is in my incredibly slow reading speed.

Several weeks ago I was reading a blog post where the author wrote, "I intend for this to be a quick introduction to the issue that will only take seven minutes of your time." I quickly scrolled down to see how long it was. It would have taken me at least 30 minutes to read that entire post.

My point is that these books are taking me forever, and you don't have to feel the embarrassment that comes from watching someone who doesn't realize the truth, because I realize the truth.

  1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith - 17%
  2. Working Toward Zion, by James W. Lucas and Warner P. Woodworth - 47%
  3. Knowledge and Coordination, by Daniel B. Klein - 83%
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen - 69%
  5. The Eleven Comedies, Vol. 1, by Aristophanes - FINISHED 8/1/15
  6. The Mindfulness Solution, by Ronald D. Siegel - FINISHED 9/1/15
  7. An Incomplete Revenge, by Jacqueline Winspear - FINISHED 8/5/15
  8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling - FINISHED - 8/12/15
  9. The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell - FINISHED - 9/22/15
  10. Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis - 27%
  11. Couple Skills, by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg - FINISHED - 9/6/15
  12. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - FINISHED 7/26/15
  13. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - 73%
  14. Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes, by Lauren Child - FINISHED - 9/6/15
  15. Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski - FINISHED - 9/26/15
  16. Ruby Redfort: Take Your Last Breath, by Lauren Child - 50%

Sunday, September 27, 2015

That's What Little Girls Are Made Of

Because it's my duty to bring you absolutely insane things that people say on the Internet, here's an article by a grown-ass man who admits that he consistently sits down to pee, and he gives reasons every other man should, too.

He says 1/3 of all men are doing this now. Which is completely false. How do I know? Because nothing like 1/3 of men in a restroom are heading into the stalls. When a guy goes into the stall to pee (because the line for the urinal is too long), he leaves the stall door open and uses the toilet like a urinal. If you doubt this, spend some time in an arena bathroom between periods of a hockey game.

Why? Because pooping in public is weird and, like all weird things, shameful. So a guy goes out of his way to make sure you don't think he's pooping in a public restroom.

The guy who writes this article says he'll give us ten reasons, but he ends up giving the reason "you can't miss" about three different ways. I understand the desire to not miss when it's your home toilet. So I guess I can't speak about what a guy does in the privacy of his own home. But I can note that sitting down is not a guarantee that you can't miss. How many guys have been unpleasantly surprised to find that they have peed between the bowl and toilet seat?

Also, the author makes the ridiculous claim that it's easier to urinate with an erection if you are sitting down. Yeah, once you've jerry-rigged that thing inside the toilet seat and had the head of your penis pressed up against the inside of the toilet bowl. Because that is the textbook definition of "hygiene," right? Nothing gets the ladies in the mood like offering to swab their insides with something you've just run around under the rim of a toilet bowl.

This article is another example of how a "solution" creates a problem that we're then told needs more of the "solution." Why do little boys not aim correctly when they pee? Part of the issue is that they've been told they can't touch their penises. Proper aim requires more than a directing of the hips, more than a single finger providing the lightest of pressures. Don't start telling your sons at age two that their penises are dirty and then express amazement at age five that they can't manage to aim the things.

So we've given little boys neuroses about their penises and then we say, "Why don't we just pretend that they completely don't exist?" That's not a solution. That's more of the problem.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sentence Ambiguity

In the conclusion of Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, I read this:

Everyone does it, from the toddler who falls down while she's learning to walk to the gifted mediator feeling her way through recovery from a sexual assault.
My first reaction was, "Why is the toddler learning to walk to the gifted mediator?" That's a sentence that maybe could have used one more comma.

Ulturalcay Evolutionray

When I have to teach about comparative advantage, one of the conclusions we draw is that if your leaders decide your workers should do "what rich workers do," you're going to have a bad time. Last year I said, "If your comparative advantage is in agriculture, deciding to make steel isn't going to work out very well for you." One student sort of laughed, and then she stopped. (That student is now my informal personal assistant.)

This year I didn't get anywhere near as explicit. I just ended the discussion by noting that you should focus on your relative strengths. One of my students said, "Like in the Cultural Revolution when they made farmers make steel."

Uh, we can sort of talk around that, but we can't really talk about that. I awkwardly said, "Uh, I don't think I can really talk about that."

Immediately, one student put her head down and tried her best to not hear anything else, while another student wouldn't let the subject drop. "What?" asked the curious student. "They told you not to talk about that?"

"No, no one told me not to talk about anything. It just seems like a good idea for my long-term employment if we talk about other things."

The curious student was on a roll, though. "They took our books away and pasted a big sticker over some of the pages. Do they do that kind of thing in other countries? They don't do that in America, do they?"

"Those are two different questions. Yes, they do that in other countries. No, America isn't really one of them."

"It made me want to pull the sticker off and see what was underneath."

"Uh, I wouldn't encourage you to do that."

"It was about Tibet."

"Let's talk about something else now."

"They covered the text but they didn't cover the footnotes, so I could tell."

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

High School Geometry = Sexytime?

Two days ago, I came in a classroom and found a phone someone left behind on a desk. I woke it up to see if I could determine whose it was. The wake screen showed the last several WeChat messages received, which of course were all in Chinese, but I could see the names of the people messaging the phone's owner. If I could figure out who they were, I could tell them, "One of your friends left her phone in my class." So I started writing some of the names on the board to ask my students if they knew any of them.

"Do you know this person?"


"What about this person?"

"I think that might be a tenth grader."

"What about this person?"

"That says 'WeChat'."

As I looked through the list of recently-received messages, one stood out to me, because it had a colleague's name in it. (Some background on this colleague: he lives right across the hall from us, but he's quite reserved and private, so we rarely saw him for the first year we lived here. Our family started calling him "The Unicorn," because seeing him was about as rare as a unicorn sighting.) Anyway, this message said: Chinese Chinese Chinese [The Unicorn] Chinese Chinese Chinese: "I want to stick my finger in your...." And then the message summary had run out of room.

What?! Evidently The Unicorn had said something in class that I very much needed to know the rest of.

The next day I was walking down the hallway and I saw The Unicorn. I told him what had happened and I said, "I need to know what the rest of that message said."

And now, in Paul-Harvey fashion, the rest of the story.

He's a math teacher. His students were learning about discontinuous functions. He was teaching them that, at the discontinuity, one portion of the graph is going to have an open point and the other portion of the graph is going to have a closed point. He told the students their open points would be "holes." Because students sometimes draw ambiguous graphs with the hopes of taking credit for wrong answers that look correct, he told them, "Don't make tiny holes. I need to be able to see your holes. I want to be able to stick my finger in your holes."

He said, "When I said that I thought, 'That was terrible,' but when I looked around, nobody reacted, so I thought I was safe." But he wasn't safe; it was quickly posted on WeChat.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"...And There's a Snake Wearing a Vest...."

Here is my dream from this morning: I am hiding in a Tianjin shipping facility, looking for evidence of the true scale of the explosion they had there this summer. I have to sneak from one end of the building to the other, but when I get there, I have some reason to go back. I'm not sure what it was. When I get back to the other end, I suddenly fall through a trap door. When I come out the other side, I'm Neal Patrick Harris and I just dropped onto the set of Ellen DeGeneres's show. I pop up and start singing some song written special for the occasion. Her studio audience loves it. I don't remember any of the song right now.

Usually I'm pretty good about interpreting meaning from dreams, but this one seems to just be a random firing of synapses.