Friday, May 27, 2016

The Family That Shaves Together...Is Weird

Last November I grew this sweet moustache.

Behold its glory!

Of course, everyone in my family hated it, like they hate it every time I grow a moustache. So on November 30th, I came home from work and let them each have a turn shaving 1/5 of it.

The joke's on them: thanks for the free shave, suckers!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hot Moms of Children's Literature - New Champion!

I've written before about the hottest moms in children's literature. Until today, the winner was the mom from Blueberries for Sal. But that was before I read Go, Little Green Truck! by Roni Schotter.

Hotchy motchy!

Never let anyone tell you that you shouldn't read to your kids.

PS: My Kindle's screenshot function involves the volume button, which is why this screenshot includes a view of my volume setting.

Random Pictures from my iPad

My school gave me an iPad to use while I work for them. Preparing to leave means emptying it of pictures.

Crazy Jane and Squidgems messing about in our hotel room in Tianjin two years ago.

Crazy Jane drew this life-size picture of Squidgems. This was back when he made initial-B sounds for all his initial-S words, including his name, so this illustration came to be called by the initial-B version of his name.

Space considerations (and poverty) have led our two oldest boys to sharing a large bed here in China. One morning when I went to wake them up, I found them like this, with the oldest completely covered and the younger one lucky to get his feet tucked under some blanket.

Crazy Jane drew this picture of me after we worked on math together.

Squidgems likes to do yoga any time we have the yoga mats out. Here he is in downward dog.

Crazy Jane likes to mess with the various photo settings when she gets a hold of the iPad.

We have plenty of pictures of me passed out next to each of our kids, but it doesn't happen often that I get a picture of my wife like that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Make Yourself Attractive

I remember when I first realized that anyone can become reasonably attractive. I was a missionary in Wisconsin and there was a woman in the ward who was nowhere NEAR my "type" of woman, but who did such a good job presenting herself with her dress and grooming that I thought, "My goodness, she's made herself really pretty!"

"You sexist PIG!" No, I'm not saying she was grooming herself for male approval. After all, heterosexual women still groom themselves before spending time with other heterosexual women. "That's because they're all secretly comparing themselves on a scale of likelihood of male approval!" Jeez, are you always "on"? People look at sunsets because they are beautiful. People look at flowers because they are beautiful. People look at beautiful women because they are beautiful.

In economics we sometimes talk about the beauty premium. (In Greg Mankiw's textbook, it's an excuse to include a picture of Keira Knightly.) While some people complain about the beauty premium as evidence of rampant sexism, here's an interesting finding: it's all accounted for by grooming (for ladies, at least).

I suspect this finding will be completely ignored, like the findings that most versions of the "gender wage gap" don't hold up to scrutiny. It's easier to tell yourself your boss is sexist than it is to find out if you're an autumn or not. (I'm serious: I don't even know what it means to be an autumn.)

The Arrogance of Modernity

My sociopath colleague (which one?) has struck again. He has this giant poster up in a stairwell which shows students' responses when they were asked to "define their own values."

Humans have existed for at least tens of thousands of years. Human society is millennia old. Perhaps one thing that has helped humans stick around so long is the culture humans developed. But now we're so hell-bent on throwing away anything that is even remotely constrictive. "How DARE you tell me how I am expected to behave?!"

Thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, versus a couple decades (if that!) of personal feelings, and we all line up on the side of feelings. Who are you to say you know better than every human who has lived before you?

This reminds me of something else I've noticed: the curious tendency people have to be embarrassed of their pasts but not of their presents. See, there was a day in junior high when you thought, "I really need my picture taken today because I look freaking FABULOUS!" And when you see that picture today, you are mortified. You look nothing LIKE fabulous. The things that were important to you ten years ago might be a little embarrassing for you now. In 2006 I was very much convinced I wanted to be a contestant on a particular reality TV show (I won't tell you which one--it's too embarrassing).

I think we all have experiences like this. But for some reason no one can generalize this to understand that the things you're doing right now are just as embarrassing as the things you did ten years ago. You just won't realize it for ten years, but that doesn't mean it takes ten years to become true. It's true today, right now.

We laugh about our ancestors who thought the world was flat, or who thought sickness came from a surplus of blood, or who--I don't know--thought biological sex was a real trait. But we're completely convinced that there's nothing crazy going on in our modern society; we've got it all figured out now.

Personally, I bet that in 100 years our descendants will be horrified to learn how much time we spent with wireless devices held securely against our bodies. "Why didn't you just save time and swallow some mercury?" they'll ask. But, hey, go ahead and define your own values, you precious snowflake you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"Lighten Up, Francis" - Middle School Teacher Edition

We know a family here in China with several kids. One of their kids is in ninth grade. At her school, ninth grade is in high school, but her school runs the IB curriculum, where ninth grade is in the Middle Years Program. So basically her school content is middle school content.

Anyway, this family has a relative getting married in America. The mom talked to the kids' teachers about missing some time during final exams. The younger kids' teachers were okay with it, but the ninth-grader's teachers said absolutely not. So the family has to make a trip to the other side of the world fit into a single weekend.

Here's a friendly reminder for all you middle-school teachers out there: you're reciting scripted content, not curing cancer. The same goes for high-school teachers, and college professors, too. Life is more important than stupid exams that don't mean anything. "Oh, they mean something, all right! Your scores in middle school affect which high school accepts you, and that affects which college accepts you, and that affects the entire rest of your life!" And the shirt you didn't wear today is why you'll die alone. Instead of chaos-theory-ing middle-schoolers into neuroses, tell kids that: 1) no one's life is completely optimized, and 2) that's okay. You don't need to go to THE best college, and you definitely don't need to be there for EVERY middle-school exam.

This is related to my dust-up with my sociopath colleague a few months ago. When you understand declining marginal utility, you know that the optimal amount of anything is never "as much as possible." My colleague thought this meant I'm not passionate about education. Instead, what it means is that I have no cognitive dissonance between my ideals and my behavior. If there comes a time to call it quits on some activity (and despite the words you say, I guarantee you call it quits at some point on all activities in your life), then you've already conceded that a sub-maximum is optimal. Spare us your moralizing; it's out of place here. This isn't a battle of "right" and "wrong," it's a difference of opinions.

On a somewhat-related note, when we started homeschooling, it was really something I very much supported and my wife wasn't that much against. However, at least once a month or so, my wife spontaneously expresses gratitude that we homeschool and don't have to deal with insane social justice warriors or pocket tyrants controlling our lives through our children. If I were in my friends' position, I would not have asked the teachers for permission to miss a middle school exam, I would have informed them of what would be happening, and when they objected, I would have said, "That's hilarious that you think I care." But then, I guess I'm just lacking in passion, right?

And Now...Deep Thoughts

I was walking to work behind a girl today and I thought, "She has really long arms--her fingertips reach halfway between her hips and her knees!" Then I thought, "How far do normal people's fingers reach?" I straightened my hand against my leg to find out. When I realized that my fingers were well past halfway to my knees, my brain let out a silent scream.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Summer Plans

They tell you not to post about upcoming travel because thieves will target your home while you're away. Well, the joke's on you, sucker; I don't even have a home! Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha. Ha. Oh, wait.

Anyway, here's our plan for the next while.

This week we're going to the Great Wall, camping at the Ming Tombs, and I'm taking the HSK-1 exam. I'll probably figure out a way to get a trip to my favorite Indian restaurant, Ganges, in there, too.

Over the next few weeks, we're going to visit the Forbidden City, Dingdu Pavilion, and Ganges (several more times). Later in June, we're having another Birthday Extravaganza for my wife. Then my family returns to America on June 29th.

I, however, have to stay until July 8th. Even though students stop attending school July 1st. Our school very much believes that, if they're paying you, you better not be doing anything else. Sit at your desk and stare at your hands? Fine. Leave early? NEVER.

Last year, many of the non-returning staff stopped attending after they were paid on July 1st. To "solve" that "problem," they now have this check-out procedure non-returning staff must complete between July 1st and July 8th. So my original plan to spend the week traveling around China has been replaced with a plan to sit at my desk and do nothing. Somehow this is seen as a "win" for China.

Anyway, July 8th I fly to Vancouver and have a seven-hour layover. I intentionally picked a very long layover so I can see some things in Vancouver. That night I fly to Los Angeles and join my family.

The next week we will be at my in-laws' cabin in the mountains above Cedar City, Utah. This week will probably involve a day trip to Provo and Salt Lake, and maybe a day trip to Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

The next weekend is our high school's 20-year reunion. The closer we get to this thing, the worse of an idea it becomes. We're paying $60 each for an open bar that we won't use. This feels like a high school group project all over again: the responsible kids are picking up the slack for the kids with substance abuse problems. And for what? So I can see who got fat? (Spoiler alert: the answer is "me.")

The next week, we drive across the country again. This time, we'll be taking the southern route, through Phoenix, El Paso, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock. I will visit the last six counties of New Mexico.

We'll spend the next two weeks at my parents' house in western Ohio. This will involve sorting through the things we left there, preparing to move them to...we don't know where. It will also involve day trips to Findlay, Ohio (to see a library book there I need for family history purposes), and probably to Pittsburgh, too.

Then we're into August, when my family is having a get-together at a lake in Tennessee. (This is another event that looks less-enjoyable the closer it draws.) On the way there, we will go camping in North Carolina and Georgia, visiting five more state high points (Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee).

When the family reunion ends in the middle of August, we return to my parents' house to get our things and move. We have no idea where we'll be going, though. Lately I've been on Zillow saving homes in Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Troy, Ohio; Emporia, Kansas; Topeka, Kansas; Coolidge, Arizona; Coos Bay, Oregon; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like I said, we have no idea.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The New Cultural Revolution

It's not just Pet Sounds that our culture seems unable to replace 50 years later. The Cultural Revolution also turned 50 this week.

Barack Obama decided to commemorate the occasion by declaring his unscientific concepts of "gender" the new standard for acceptable speech in all American schools receiving government funding.

How revolutionary is this? Well, imagine a male student declares his gender is changed. The school cannot require any evidence beyond this declaration before allowing this student access to girls' restrooms, locker rooms, dormitories, and hotel rooms on overnight school trips. Teachers and students will be guilty of harassment if they don't change the pronouns they use when referring to the student. But teachers also are not allowed to disclose to the student's parents that their erstwhile son is now their daughter. So as his teacher I have to call him "her" in class but "him" at parent/teacher conference night.

Meanwhile, the student's DNA has not changed.

My wife and I have been discussing this and we've both been surprised at the reliance on sex stereotypes necessary for transgenderism to make sense. I must have a rigid, narrow definition of what it means to be a man or a woman if I think, "I'm a woman trapped in a man's body." Back in my day, boys could like sewing or cooking and still be boys. Now, though, they're told, "That's because you're really a girl inside."

Maybe you're thinking, "When's this homeschooler going to gloat about his prescience?" Well, never. Because I know that homeschooling is just a temporary reprieve. Those bent on overturning society won't allow conscientious objectors to sit on the sidelines for long. I suspect increased opposition to homeschooling to accompany this march into the sea.

Cultural Stagnation

Yesterday I saw a tweet that said it was the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds. (I remember how much I made fun of a student who said he got his news from Twitter. I stand corrected.) The author of the tweet suggested a listen, and predicted listeners would still find the album fresh and innovative today.

So I listened to it last night while falling asleep. I'm not here to criticize Pet Sounds; it still sounds great. If it were released today, it would probably be exactly what it already is: a commercial failure that is critically praised for generations. But I began to wonder about the culture that has progressed so little that something 50 years old is still avant-garde. When Pet Sounds was released in 1966, was there anything from 1916 that people were still praising as progressive and interesting? What does it say about us that the great touchstones of our culture are aging and not being replaced?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The End of Critique

It is now impossible to criticize anyone because the subject of the criticism will appeal to his minority status in defense. Thus Obama can't be a bad president because you're racist. Hillary Clinton can't be a crook because you're sexist. Gender-neutral bathrooms can't be a bad idea because you're transphobic. If you find you can't identify any privileged group with which to claim affinity, just ascribe the critic's comments as being a personal attack.

I would tell you that the Chinese writing system is inefficient, but this article points out that any such criticism is racist. Evidently, the only reason to think that rote memorization of 10,000 symbols is less efficient than rote memorization of 26 symbols is because you hate Asians.

The article has a lot of criticism of Western mockery of Chinese typewriters without actually specifying how a Chinese typewriter works. There are a few different systems, but the most common involves...an alphabet. Specifically, typing in the Pinyin and then selecting from the characters that share that Pinyin spelling. So critics say "characters don't work well with keyboards" and this writer says, "How DARE you?!" and then doesn't admit that characters don't work well with keyboards.

Chinese is inefficient because you must be educated in a field to read anything to do with that field. I know a man who has perfect command of Chinese. Someone asked him if he could read a newspaper. He said, "It depends on the topic. If it was about finance, yes. If it was about chemistry or biology, no." When you come across a word you've never seen before, with an alphabet you can sound it out, but with characters it's an inaccessible black box of meaning.

I'm going to continue learning Chinese, but don't tell me that I'm racist because I have legitimate criticisms of the inefficient way written Chinese accomplishes its purpose of facilitating communication.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Recent Pictures From My Life

This year for Spring Festival there were these public service announcement posters telling you to not set off fireworks because of the pollution they create.

The last of the three trains we ride to church every week. We get on at the terminus of the line, so we can get seats. We ride one stop like this. Most of the ride is like the next pictures.

Many of the church members who live in the westernized eastern suburbs talk about how difficult it is to have events at the church building because traffic can be bad and a drive to church could take over an hour. This is our typical Sunday morning commute. It's 90 minutes each direction. But please, tell me more about why next week's fireside needs to be at your home that's an additional 60 minutes away from me, so my family can't possibly attend. It must be SO TOUGH for you to sit in a car for [gasp] almost an hour!

Before you leave for church, you have to decide if you are going to carry Squidgems the entire way there or none of it. Once his feet have touched the ground in the filthy outdoors of China, you cannot have his shoes come anywhere near your clothing. For most of our time here, I've carried him from door to door, but he's larger now, and we don't always get seats (although signs tell passengers to give up seats to children, not everyone does, because they need to be sitting down to watch their TV shows on their phones). So Squidgems rides his scooter to church most weeks now. It helps with the transfers (which can be hundreds of yards long), and it helps him have a place to sit when no one gives up his seat for him. This is what his ride is like most weeks.

Our local Korean place is full of jerks who can't understand anything we say or gesture. So when I wanted bibimbap a few weeks ago, we had to go to the next-closest Korean place, which is called Cosmic Korean Restaurant (their translation, not mine). While there we were served water bottles with large labels reading, "Hotel Exclusive." We were nowhere near a hotel.

Lots of these little two-seater cars are around China. This one, evidently, is three-quarters of an Audi.

We had lunch one Saturday at a Japanese place called Udon & Tempura (not the most imaginative name, but highly accurate; we ate both udon AND tempura while we were there). One fun thing: every time we go to a new restaurant, Jerome Jerome the Metronome says the food was really good and it's now his new favorite restaurant. He's done it with Haosaozi, Xiaodou Noodles, Babala's Kitchen, Ganges, and now Udon & Tempura.

That evening we were still out and about, so we ate at our third-closest Korean place. It's possible to get bibimbap in this town without having a terrible experience. It's just not possible at the place near us.

Last week, my wife and I rode our electric bike to Walmart. On the way we saw the "no horse-drawn carts" traffic sign as we were approaching Fourth Ring Road. We commented to each other how it seemed that sign was no longer necessary. That evening, on the way home from Walmart, we saw this horse-drawn cart, parked two blocks from our house. People were selling red Bell peppers out of the back. The horse was just, like, "Whatever."

I've been intrigued with the cultural differences in perception of beauty. It seems the Chinese women that Western men find beautiful are not the same women that Chinese men find beautiful. Which I guess is a win-win: Chinese guys get their "hot" wives and Westerners take the "homely" old maids off the market. My wife said, "I don't see any Chinese men that I find attractive." I said, "I see good-looking guys, but they aren't the ones China thinks are good looking. They are rugged, fit manual laborers with messy hair and stubble. They'd be male models in the U.S., but here they are ignored because they are poor." Male beauty here is very much tied to wealth. This subway ad features an "attractive" man. How do I know? Because look at that expensive cat bag he has!

Or you can just go the Japanese route of making viewers say to themselves, "Wha?!" Somehow this llama is supposed to make you want to buy shoes.

This nonsensical statue at least got anatomy right where it counts.

Our local lingerie store is selling these pajama sets. I'm not sure what the emoji is supposed to signify. Is Islamic State genocide all about the lulz here? China is very lax on blood and violence. While a recent TV show was re-edited to obscure the historically-accurate cleavage, R-rated violence is shown on the subway TVs all the time. One Sunday our ride to church featured all the "best" kill shots from the film American Sniper. A TV show I was watching last week had CGI-added blood spurts. Public TVs in China have aired Islamic State beheading videos on repeat. I think this clothing company is taking the 21st-century's closest thing (so far) to the Holocaust and has turned it into a marketing slogan that's supposed to make young women feel comfortable.

Most international schools in China got the Friday before May Day off. Our school limits all weekends to three days, requiring us to work on Sunday if we would have ended up somehow with a four-day weekend. So instead of giving us the day off, they made us take a field trip to a park or cultural site. So the same amount of learning happened (zero), but they got to feel like we were still under their control. Nice.

Anyway, we were given three choices: a section of the Great Wall, a bird sanctuary, or the local steel mill. About 90% of the students selected the Great Wall or the bird sanctuary. About 80% of the Western teachers selected the steel mill. Why? Because the published ending time was 2 PM (the other options weren't supposed to return to school until 6:30), and when you factor in the terrible traffic that should be expected but is never allowed for (because doing so would be insulting to the nation's transportation planners, I guess?), we Westerners were going to get our weekend started about five or six hours earlier than those kids. I took this picture during the five minutes that we were actually inside the steel mill. It's no longer functioning; the hard hat was in case it collapsed on us.

This sign reads, "Don't spit for the sake of your health." While I disagree that spitting makes ME unhealthy, and I find laughable the idea that this sign will have any effect at all on a nation of champion loogie hockers, it makes me happy that at least one Chinese person is trying to address the problem.

This is Yongding Tower. We were supposed to mill around it for the last hour of the field trip. Instead, I went to lunch down the road with two colleagues. ("You culturally-insensitive jackal!" Relax, it was built in 2012. Anno Domini.) Beijing's "crack-down" on indoor smoking was honored by a table of five gentlemen who chain-smoked throughout their meal. Our final bill included a dish we ordered but they never brought to us. When we asked them to remove the charge, they offered to make it real fast. We declined. They got surly.

My wife and I were supposed to meet some colleagues for dinner at a new Indian restaurant. I felt like I was cheating on my favorite Indian restaurant, but my love of Indian food made me go. Before dinner, we saw the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. This is us with the Bell Tower. While the first Bell Tower was built in 1272, this version was built in 1745. (Verdict on the Indian restaurant: nicer restaurant than my favorite, but slightly worse food, comparable prices, and much more difficult to get to. I'll stick with my favorite place.)

Walking home from church on Sunday, my wife went full Chinese and had her toddler pee in the bushes on the edge of the sidewalk.

A lizard on a support column on the fifth floor of my office building. Later in the day I doubted it was real, so I sort of poked at it and it ran around for a while.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

China: Poster Child For or Against Self-Regulation?

The other day I mentioned to my students that living in China is a healthcare gamble for foreigners. They were offended. "Why is it so dangerous living in China?" they demanded. Well, first of all, because I have no idea how I'd call for medical assistance. Then, once I do get through to someone, there's no "press 2 for English." And since there's no E9-1-1 system, all that will happen is I'll have a person speaking Mandarin in my ear while I bleed out and die.

Previously I shared with you this story of the type of high-quality medical care completely fluent nationals receive. It did not make me excited about my expected level of care. Here's another article, this one about using taxi meters in ambulances to keep drivers from implementing "surge pricing," so to speak. Of course, the meter won't be visible to the patient, nor will the route selected, nor the proximity of other hospitals.

Many of my colleagues like to point at China as an illustration of just how terrible the regulationless state would be. When talk turns to air quality (as it often does), these Americans basically say, "There but for the grace of the EPA go I." But what they don't get is that it's not the missing regulation that makes China a Hobbesian state of nature, it's the missing rule of law. There's no tort law, basically. Who do you sue when the escalator kills you? The property owner and the escalator manufacturer and the equipment maintenance company will all shuffle blame around, and if you get close to pinning one of them down, they'll declare bankruptcy and re-open under a different name. Only criminal punishment is taken seriously. With nearly zero liability, reputation loses its strength. China's not an example of the market's inability to use self-regulation, it's an example of how self-regulation dies when the enforcement mechanism is destroyed.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

GOP Primary Post-Mortem

Last night at dinner my daughter asked, "Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump?" So we reviewed the history of the Republican Party in the post-Reagan era and the split that grew between the party elite and the voting base. I said, "In 1992, Donald Trump was known as Ross Perot." My daughter said, "Do you mean they are similar, or do you mean that Donald Trump used to be named Ross Perot?" My oldest son said, "No, he used to be named Donald Drumpf."

Anyway, about Republican history. Elite candidates (GHW Bush, Dole, McCain) can't win the support of the base. Base candidates (GW Bush) get marginalized by the elites for fear that they are unelectable. Romney could have been a crossover candidate with the credentials to satisfy the elites but the social-issues street cred for the base, but much of the base is comprised of bigots who refuse to accept that Mormons are Christians.

The Tea Party was an attempt to hijack the Republican Party from a libertarian perspective. It was successfully parried. By the time I attended my first (and only) Tea Party rally in 2010, the Tea Party had been co-opted by the Republican leadership. What they couldn't kill by absorbing, the Obama Justice Department killed for them with extra-legal tax code enforcement.

The Tea Party movement was killed, and what we got instead of was Trump. Instead of correcting the shortcomings of the Republican Party from a libertarian perspective, the fed-up base was open to the idea of correcting them from the authoritarian perspective. (Remember my prediction, two years ago tomorrow, of the coming Great Social Reset? Maybe I should take back my self-deprecating review of my prognosticating powers.) As I explained to my daughter last night, "Trump is the American Putin." A declining nation will always be able to awaken a nationalist response.

So the Republican elite was being hit from both sides in this election: from the Tea Party with Cruz, and from the Great Patriotic Defenders of the Glorious Homeland with Trump. And I believe the elites stonewalled Cruz because they think Trump will lose. In 2020, they have their party back in their own hands again.

For all their talk of conservative principles, the Republicans had a chance to nominate a Reagan conservative and they decided it was more important to them to maintain their privileged positions. For many people in the Republican establishment, being the ranking member on a committee is more appealing than being its chairman under President Cruz.

Last July I had this series of tweets:

Bush & Christie are establishment candidates. Rubio is even more but tries to hide it. Paul's foreign policy is worse than BHO's. / Trump is changing the convo. on issues, but low-info crowd has been convinced he's racist. Carson is somehow even less refined. / Huckabee: Christian-themed demagogue. Kasich: more establishment. Walker can't stop flirting with the establishment. Perry is empty. / Serious, principled, polished champions of liberty: Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. Those are your two candidates. The rest is a sideshow.
So you can imagine my happiness when Ted picked Carly for VP last week. But it was too like bring a seltzer bottle to put out a bonfire.

What am I going to do now? Well, it's not my job to vote for a bad candidate to block a worse candidate. (In this election, that could refer to either voting for Trump to stop Clinton or vice versa.) I'm supposed to vote for the best candidate remaining. Right now, that looks to be Gary Johnson. It looks like, for the second time in three presidential elections, I'll be voting for the Libertarian candidate.