Thursday, March 31, 2011

Classic ARS

Time was the only people coming to my blog were searching the Internet for "world's youngest grandma." Long-suffering reader JT spotted a news story a few weeks ago and sent it to me.

This grandma is 23, according to the story. I look at this article with a bit of a jaundiced eye, seeing as The Sun is the source for stories of the "woman has 30 orgasms a day" variety, and the story is about eastern Europeans, who are the hillbillies of Europe. Billy Bob's claim of alien abduction seems legitimate until you realize all his purported alien quotes end with, "Sherr nuff."

Despite the source's credibility issues, this is still a wonderful, wonderful news article that will renew your faith in the human spirit.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sticking My Neck Out

I'm still at that phase of my learning where I assume any disagreement between me and a professor is probably due to my error. After all, the professor's a professor, and I'm the student. When I finish my degree we'll both be doctors, and then I can disagree with impunity.

I know that's sort of foolish. The sheepskin doesn't make me any more correct than I was the day before earning it. I should be transitioning into being comfortable in disagreeing. I'm trying, but I still feel a little unsure.

Mark Thoma's blog has highlights from a post by David Andolfatto wherein he argues that Ron Paul is "absurd" when he writes, "We might say that the government and its banking cartel have together stolen $0.95 of every dollar as they have pursued a relentlessly inflationary policy." Andolfatto says Paul is wrong because nominal wages have outstripped inflation, so real wages have grown. He speculates that nominal wage growth in a world with stable prices would have been the same as real wage growth has been.

That would be fine if Paul was talking only of wage income. He's not. Yes, wages include inflation expectations, but savings do not. (The nominal interest rate can be decomposed to real interest and inflation expectations, but the nominal interest rate isn't set by this summation, as witness the negative real interest rate from 1974-8, and modernly.) And given Paul's world-view, I would guess he wants a financial system that doesn't require investment for an item to maintain its value. A shoebox of 1913 cash can now buy 1/20 what it could buy back then. The $50 bond my grandmother bought me when I was born buys substantially less than the labor required for her to buy the bond.

Andolfatto's argument seems to be that work today is compensated for higher prices today, which is true. However, work today is not compensated for higher prices in future. Since most wage income is spent at some time other than when it is earned (unless you're an anecdotal Germany factory worker of 1923), the difference between your inflation-adjusted wage (which is typically set to cover past inflation, not expected future inflation) and future inflation-increased prices is the erosion of value mentioned by Paul.

The typical response to this argument is to refer to non-invested saving by some pejorative term like "hoarding." For some reason I can use all my assets in non-productive ways except my earnings. I don't "hoard" my TV or my baseball glove, but as soon as I try to hold my cash, I'm "hoarding" money unpatriotically.

Wages represent labor, and removing the value of previously earned wages (through lowering the number of things they can be traded for) is stealing labor. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations,

The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper, without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty, both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him.
(I'd tell you a page number, but I'm quoting from a Kindle edition, so all I know is it's at 12%.) The federales can't come enslave me, but if they wait until I trade my labor for money, they can raise the prices of all goods and services, thereby lowering the share I can purchase with my previously-earned wages, and the difference is the labor of mine they've stolen. Andolfatto seems to see no problem with this because future wages will be higher to account for past inflation, but since no one is infinitely-lived, it never balances back to zero.

I'm Not a Luddite

Earlier this week I complained about needless technology in schools. Here's an example of technology enhancing learning, not just replacing it with shiny equipment.

Are They Really Independent Events?

I know I'm a few weeks late on this one. Stick it up your nose. I'm finally getting around to reading some blog posts written about Rep. Peter King's hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. Bill Easterly uses Bayes's Law* to argue that King's hearings are ridiculous. But Easterly's argument is based on the idea that being a terrorist and being Muslim are independent events.

Politically correct, sure, but I don't know that there's evidence to support that. King's hearings are looking into the possibility that the events are not independent; that being Muslim increases the probability that you are a terrorist. Is this terribly inconceivable, given that a strident subsection of Islamic clerics advocate and recruit for terrorism? Not only does Easterly ignore this possibility, he also compares serial murder victim totals to terrorism victim totals, even though the crimes are different in their targets, their intentions, and their outcomes.

Easterly seems to be of the school that will defend the notion of these events' independence to their death, because multiculturalism teaches that anything else is jingoistic and evil. King is willing to take the "racist" label in pursuit of evidence to support a claim. One approach is ideologically driven, and the other is driven by scholarship. And which is which is not what Easterly would have you believe.

* = I will defend this correct apostrophe usage against all critics, because it is correct. A singular noun receives the singular possessive suffix, irrespective of how the singular noun is spelled or pronounced. The only exceptions are those of historical usage, such as Jesus, Moses, or Xerxes. Writing James' means one of two things:

  1. There is a thing called a Jame, and more than one of them collectively own something.
  2. The writer is an idiot.
And unlike Bill Easterly, I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility that these two events are not independent in their probabilities.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jayhawk Family Night

All of us Jayhawks have different ideas on how to spend Family Night. For my last Family Night, we had a lesson from my oldest son about temples, we ate some sort of peanut butter and chocolate cake with an incredibly long and ridiculous name, and then we played Sleeping Queens.

That's one way to handle it. Former Jayhawk Aqib Talib has a different idea. It involves pistol-whipping your sister's boyfriend and then taking turns with your mother firing shots at him.

I'm not saying one of us is right and one of us is wrong. I'm just pointing out the breadth of Family Night diversity in Jayhawk Nation.

Monday, March 28, 2011

You Can Actually SEE the Test Scores Increasing

This article about a school that uses laptops instead of textbooks casually mentions that the change happened seven years ago, but makes no mention of the result on test scores, or the district's spending.

Is the district saving money this way, or not? If they are saving money, where does the savings go? If they are spending more, how much more? What is the change in standardized test scores? How are New Jersey schools funded, locally or from the state? If locally, is this just a version of a regulated industry buying itself extra nice office equipment? If on a state level, why is one of the most-affluent districts in the state giving laptops to families that can buy their own, while elsewhere in New Jersey schools are closing to cover budget deficits?

But those questions have no place in journalism. Look, shiny laptops for everyone! Google Docs and digital flash cards! The future is here!

Places We Almost Moved, But Didn't

2001: Las Vegas, NV

2003: Sahuarita, AZ

2004: Camdenton, MO

2005: Provo, UT

2009: Chicago, IL / Boston, MA / Philadelphia, PA

2011: Having found no work in northern Virginia, I'm thinking about expanding my search to a three-hour driving radius of my school. If I can work four ten-hour days, I can finish my last semester of coursework this fall on Fridays, and then I can do my dissertation work wherever. This means we could be just two or three months away from moving to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Richmond, or Wilmington. Or we could end up with just another place on the list of places we almost moved, but didn't.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Schoolmates

When I read P.G. Wodehouse's book The Pothunters (1902), I couldn't get over the way the headmasters immediately ruled out boy involvement in the stealing of the sports trophies when they discovered that the thief also made off with money. Boys might pull a prank, but no boy from their school would stoop to outright robbery. This wasn't a case of the headmasters being naive: the two pounds were stolen to let the reader know it couldn't have been one of the boys.

I'm reading Thomas Hughes's book Tom Brown's School Days (1857) right now. Right now, I'm at the part where Tom's father is taking him to Rugby for the first time. Squire Brown says, "If schools are what they were in my time, you'll see a great many cruel blackguard things done, and hear a deal of foul, bad talk." (I'd tell you what page that's from, but I'm reading the Kindle edition, and wanting page numbers on a Kindle makes me a wuss. It's from 19% done.)

What kind of blackguard things were going on in public schools in Squire Brown's day? By the time Wodehouse is writing school novels, the antagonists are smoking and sometimes swindling younger boys into unknowingly ragging a master. Quite blackguard, indeed!

What about today's students? In the toy section of Target with my children last week, I noticed Halo toys. I thought, "I'm pretty sure that game is rated 'Mature.'" When I looked it up online, I found this interesting exchange on Yahoo Answers:

Why does Halo 3 have a [sic] M rating and is it ok for a 10 year old to play it?

I think it would be okay, but I'd think twice before letting him play online.

Not "don't let him play online." Just think twice about it first. (If an M-rated game is okay for a ten-year-old, I wonder if anyone is even thinking once.) Which type of schoolmate do you want your kids to have, Squire Brown's blackguard, or Yahoo Answers's ten-year-old Halo player?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

American Idiots

Dear Americans,

I know you are freaking out about education spending cuts. "Oh noes!" you hyperventilate. "Little Daqoetuh will be at a disadvantage!"

It is not a lack of education spending that is making little Daqoetuh stupid. It's your horrible parenting that is doing it.

This nation used to produce geniuses in a time that the entire school learned from one book that only the teacher got to hold. Now the mark of a good school district is the laptop-to-student ratio being greater than 1, yet test scores continue to fall.

The mother in this article says, "It took so long to get our schools where they are." Presumably she thinks where they are is a good place to be. She is wrong.

What makes schools bad? Mandatory attendance, which makes the classroom a juvenile holding cell. Teachers unions, which make education spending someone's largesse to be manipulated. Technology, which replaces actual learning with learniness. Social education, which replaces real curriculum with love-ins about bullying. Co-education, which makes school into a sex-coordination clearinghouse. Parents, who think paying someone a slightly-less-than-subsistence wage absolves them of responsibility to oversee their children's learning. Students, who think knowledge is gained by sitting in a classroom texting friends and using the Facebook ap.

All of these things are in America's schools, and so America's schools are bad. Eliminate all of these negative influences, and cut education spending by 50%, and test scores will rise. Keep these negative influences, and raise education spending all you want, and test scores will continue to fall.

Sincerely, A Random Stranger

Passport Workers

Last year my wife and I planned to get passports. We filled out the applications, got our pictures taken, and set aside the money. So why don't we have passports? Passport workers, that's why.

We went out of town for The Holidays, and when we came back, our held mail was all delivered, except for a package. Our package tracking service told us it had been delivered, so we called the post office to ask about it. They put me on hold, told me it was lost, put me on hold again, told me it was delivered, then put me on hold again, and told me it was lost. Then they called me back to say just kidding, they found it and I could come get it.

That part of the story is necessary to establish the trustworthiness of the workers who then told me I had to surrender my original birth certificate and wedding license to their care. They were going to mail them to Washington and then mailed back to me. As flawlessly as they had mailed my package? When I expressed doubt concerning their ability to accomplish this, the woman told me I could always get replacements from the county governments.

My wife had previously had a passport, but it was expired. She didn't want to surrender it, because it had the stamps of the customs offices she had passed through. There is a box to check on the passport application to indicate you have an old passport that you are certifying is still in your possession. When the woman saw my wife had checked that box, she told my wife she couldn't get a passport. Why have the box to check? So we said, "What if it's lost?" Then she told us we had filled out the wrong application, even though there was a box to check for having lost a previous passport.

Ultimately, we decided we would go to the office in Washington (an hour away), so our documents would not be in the care of postal employees. The woman was very rude about our decision, as she had been rude about everything else.

Today I was reminded of passport workers when I read about this man, who found out he is not an American citizen. The article includes this bit of information:

Schoolcraft says they tried to dissuade him from pursuing the matter. Employees at the local passport office scared them, telling her father "If he pursued it, (he could) possibly be deported or at risk of losing Social Security."
Yep, that sounds like a passport worker, all right.

By the way, the Postal Service is on the verge of bankruptcy. Personally, I can't understand it, in light of their award-winning customer service.

Poor Decisions

Last night my wife and I listened to a podcast from a couple who had an unassisted home birth of a breech baby after a previous Cesarean. After listening to the podcast, I had some thoughts on seemingly crazy behavior.

Let's say there's a man making a life decision, and there's me, a nearby observer. The man can receive guidance from God regarding the best choice, but observers cannot. So the man can make low-probability choices, while all I have available when I try to figure out what he "should" do is go with probability. Thus, his decision looks foolish to me, even when you account for the fact that I believe in the possibility of being guided by God.

When he plays his trump card--"I felt like this is the right decision"--I can't verify that, because God won't give me guidance regarding the actions of another. I can wait and watch for the outcome, but that's assuming my understanding of the desired outcome is the same as God's.

Regarding this home birth, it seemed needlessly dangerous to me. The couple on the podcast assure the listener that it was what they were supposed to do. The outcome is that everyone lived, so it seems believable to me. But what if the outcome was one I'd consider "undesirable," would that mean they weren't supposed to take this risk?

When I quit my job in California, I expected my coworkers to not really understand my reasoning, but I thought friends from church and family members would be on board. However, their response to my "it was the right decision for me" was a "we'll talk again once everything sorts itself out." That really bothered me. I thought I should be able to expect support from this group, and it turned out I couldn't.

Since that time I've made plenty of seemingly poor decisions, and I always have the same frustration. Just last week, after complaining about my financial situation, I turned down a temporary work assignment. I expect my friends and family are busy thinking how stupid I am. But that's just the way these things go.

Life isn't a relay event, with a support staff to pick up the slack. If you're living correctly, you'll spend plenty of your time completely alone. Everyone will think you are dumb (and your spouse is not exempt from this phenomenon). I believe this is related to what St. Paul meant when he wrote of enduring the cross while despising the shame of it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Home for the Holidays

This year we spent the Holidays at home, mainly because we have no idea what's going on in our financial lives.

Saturday: we went to hike in Prince William Forest Park, a national park by a different name that does, in fact, smell as sweet (if by "sweet" you mean "much like a pit toilet"). My wife wanted to go on a 2.5-mile loop that led past a beaver habitat, but we didn't bring the hiking backpack for our youngest kid, so we stuck to the one-mile loop instead.

Our kids got their Junior Ranger badges, which is their favorite part of national parks.

That night we went to a "ward friendship dinner," and had a pretty good time getting to know some ward members better.

Sunday: Our ward meets early now, and with nice weather when we came out of church, I wanted to go do something outside. First we thought we might go to a nearby battlefield, but it had an entrance fee, so my wife didn't want to do that on Sunday. Another nearby battlefield was free, but it was further away than the park we went to the day before, and our pass was still good, so we went back for more hiking.

Our kids were surprisingly excited about more hiking. I am trying to get them to agree to hike the Appalachian Trail, so I was happy they had such a good time. This time we brought the hiking backpack, so Jerome Jerome the Metronome was on my back the whole time. This was a problem when he decided to obsess about bears getting him, with his mouth just inches from my ear. I told him bears would hear us coming and leave us alone, that bears mostly attack when they are startled. That didn't work. Eventually Super-Hot 111 convinced him that bears would see his ranger badge and leave him alone.

Monday: There were lots of museums near Chinatown that we hadn't been to yet because they were further away from the Mall. We took the Metro into town and visited the National Building Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the American Art Museum.

We walked past Ford's Theater, and went to walk past the White House, but Pennsylvania Avenue south of Lafayette Park was closed. Not just "stay away from the emperor" closed to traffic like it has been for over 10 years; it was "stay away from the sun god" closed to pedestrians, too. The police said they were "working on something," and that they might reopen the street in 45 minutes. We just wanted an unobstructed view, so we walked around the block to look down 16th Street.

When we got there, police started blocking cross streets in anticipation of the president's motorcade passing through. Super-Hot 111 asked, "Is the president really going to drive by right now?" The street was lined with interested onlookers just like us. I said, "If only he'd throw gold coins out his window, we'd be completely like medieval peasants!" She said, "The Secret Service are going to shoot you." Shortly afterwards the Spectator-in-Chief rolled by, visible through the tinted glass only as a long-fingered waving silhouette.

So now I've seen two presidents.

Tuesday: I woke up and tweaked my plans a little, moving a temple session from Thursday to Tuesday, partially offsetting the cost of driving to the temple with the fact that I was getting paid to drive in that direction to tutor later that afternoon. When I left the temple, I had a phone message to call the temporary agency I've dealt with, and they had a completely underwhelming offer for me. They could take all my time so I could fail at school, and in return they would pay me not quite enough to cover my rent alone. I turned them down. (I'll have more to say about this type of decision in a later post.) Then while tutoring, the maid and the personal trainer were there at the same time. It was neat being a domestic servant in an aristocratic household. It was good preparation for our trip the next day to an old-timey plantation.

Wednesday: We went to Thomas Stone National Historic Site. Thomas Stone was the youngest of Maryland's signers of the Declaration of Independence, and was involved in the drafting of the Articles of Confederation. He was a political moderate who only came around to supporting independence reluctantly, and his house is one of the ten-least-frequently-visited units of the National Park System. It is in a part of Maryland that my wife and kids had never been to before, so it was very easy to combine this trip with visiting the last few counties they needed to complete the state (my wife and daughter's third completed state, my sons' second).

We began the visit to Thomas Stone's house with a hike around the plantation grounds (Maryland was a slave state, mind you). When the map mislead us, we ended up crossing some marshy grass, and then I explored to see where we could cross a creek. As we neared the tree-lined bank, Jerome (on my back again) said, "Monkeys could be in here." We moved some large logs to create a bridge, and began to cross. With one step left to go, the log rolled and we fell in. I landed on my feet, the water up to my thighs. Jerome said very earnestly, "My pants almost got wet! And my boots!"

I was nervous the rangers would be on my case for not sticking to the trail, but the place is so unpopular they probably didn't want to frighten away the few visitors they manage to get.

After a tour of the house and another Junior Ranger program, we drove to Saint Mary's and Calvert counties.

Then, since we were very close to the shore, we went to Chesapeake Beach.

It's not much of a beach (being hundreds of miles from the ocean), but it was enough to satisfy my California-born wife's withdrawal symptoms.

Thursday: We drove in to Arlington, where we stopped at the Marine Corps Monument.

Then I dropped my family off on the Mall to visit the Air and Space Museum (our previous visits have only been to the tourist trap one at Dulles) while I went to my school's Arlington campus and despaired over my upcoming assignments. Eventually I drove back in to pick them up, and we visited the George Mason Memorial, and saw the installation work on the new Martin Luther King monument.

We came home to watch BYU basketball on the Internet.

Friday: I had a school event to attend in Arlington, so my family dropped me off at the Metro and then went to a homeschool diorama fair.

Crazy Jane's diorama was about the season of Spring, while Articulate Joe's diorama was about the tallest buildings in the world.

When I finished they picked me up and we came home for more Internet basketball watching, and I ran three miles.

Saturday: A family trip to Target, which I followed up with a 10-mile run. Then we went to a get-together some people in our ward were having. (I know, the week after I complain about our ward, we go to TWO dinner parties; I think it's just a trap.) We came home from that to watch more BYU basketball.

Sunday: Church again, and although the weather was nice again, our home teachers were coming in the middle of the afternoon, so we couldn't really go do anything. I read with Articulate Joe for the first time all week, and I was nervous that he'd be out of practice, but he had greatly improved. I think he's finally cleared the hurdle of reading when there's no one around reminding him to read. Instead of "looking at books" in bed, now he actually reads books in bed. I tried doing some genealogy work, which led to me telling Super-Hot 111, "Irish people named 'Daniel Madigan' and 'Ellen O'Neal' might as well not have names at all."

So there was my holiday. Except actually it has continued; my Monday class was canceled, and my Wednesday class was too. I'm going to end up with two weeks off. Super-Hot 111 said, "We could have gone to Europe." Aside from the poverty, and her vow to never travel again so long as Janet Napolitano's "security" measures are in place, she's exactly right.

"Anything You Can Do"

I've written before about my former coworker The Friendly Jerk, and how he thought so little of me that anything he found out I did in my life immediately made him think, "If that guy can do it, anyone can." After I ran a marathon, he began making plans to run a marathon. After I was accepted to graduate school, he began making plans to attend graduate school.

I find myself having the same reaction lately to a guy I've never actually met. I'm aware of his web presence, and the things he posts on the Internet make me think, "I could totally do that!" I know that this seems a lot like The Friendly Jerk, but I think there is a key difference: The Friendly Jerk thought I was a fool that was setting a mark that any non-fool should be able to beat, while I think of this Internet guy as doing things I had never really thought of. Is there a difference there? I think so, but maybe I'm just fooling myself.

Anyway, one of the things he does is a podcast. I did some research on what it takes to podcast on my blog, and it seems incredibly easy. Now I'm super tempted to begin a podcast.

The biggest obstacle to my podcast: a lack of interesting things to say. Who's going to listen to my random ramblings? I don't even know what my random ramblings are. Maybe I don't even want to hear them.

The second biggest obstacle to my podcast: technical ignorance. I don't really know how to do cool radio production stuff. My podcast would sound like a kid with a tape recorder (and I spent a lot of time as a kid making fake radio shows with a tape recorder, so I totally know what that would sound like).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Low-Probability Events

So there are multiple ways things can happen in your life, but most people experience the high-probability versions. For instance, you could meet your spouse through a traffic accident, or by becoming trapped in an elevator with the person; there are actually people in America who had those experiences. However, most people meet their spouses through mutual friends or social groups like classmates or coworkers. Those are the high-probability ways to get hitched.

The same is true for work. Some people have crazy-ass stories about how they got their jobs, but most people applied, got called in for an interview, and received an offer. Which isn't to say that the low-probability ways can't work out; they obviously do work out for at least some people, or else we'd be calling them zero-probability events. But everyone would agree that waiting on a low-probability event is not a strong life plan.

The thing is that sometimes God rolls with low-probability events, or even seemingly-zero-probability events, which He calls "miracles." And if He blesses us according to our faith, He might have a low-probability event waiting for us that we're not receiving if we only adopt a conventional outlook.

Jairus's daughter died, and having a dead daughter revive could judiciously be categorized as a low-probability event, but God plus a low-probability event equals a certainty. The question is, which low-probability events is God on board with? I mean, is going after only high-probability events "putting your trust in the arm of flesh"? Or is it just smart, seeing as you only have a finite amount of time and attention to apportion out?

Monday, March 21, 2011

All Aboard the Facebook Train

One of those stories that's probably not true (but everyone wishes it was) is about Joseph Kennedy getting out of the stock market in the fall of 1929 because shoeshine boys were giving stock tips. "He figured that when the shoeshine boys have tips, the market is too popular for its own good...." In Manias, Panics, and Crashes, Charles Kindleberger writes about the same phenomenon occurring in England, only over there the bellwether is the local vicar. When he starts giving investment advice, you know the market is in a mania.

Last week I opened my yogurt and saw the following printed inside the lid:

My yogurt has a Facebook presence? And not just a "like" option, but a place to connect with thousands of people and get tips and tools? How long until Facebook looks like this classic website?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Life Theme Music

My life has had a lot of official theme songs. This week I realized that, and thought it might be worthwhile to catalog the changes. A good blogger would write a better intro than this.

Lyrics are a big part of music to me; songs I like invariably have a lyrical line or two that cause the endearment. Theme songs have lyrics that are really important to me in the current phase of my life.

The first time I ever really thought of a song being the theme song for my life, it was Fall 2004 and I was flying to Missouri to interview for a job. I was anxious about the interview because I really wanted to get out of California and I thought this was our best chance. I fell asleep on the airplane listening to the album "Give Up" by The Postal Service, and woke up a short time later to the song "Recycled Air." The lyrics that stood out to me were, "Calm down / Release your cares."

In August 2005 we decided to move to Kansas for a job that wasn't finalized yet. On top of that stress, we were leaving the town we'd lived in for over 20 years. I was moving my in-laws' youngest daughter away from them for no apparent reason. Much of the lyrics of "Move On" by The Rentals seemed to fit the situation, particularly when they sing, "It don't matter where we go / Anywhere is better I know."

With the uncertain work situation I had, I could feel a strong connection to the lyrics, "You know you gotta help me out / Don't you put me on the back burner," from the song "All These Things That I've Done" by The Killers. The entire time we lived in Kansas I had the low-tech polyphonic version of the chorus as my cell phone ringtone. Now enjoy a video I don't understand at all.

When it was time to leave Kansas, none of us really wanted to go. The first several months we lived in Virginia, I'd listen to "Campfire Kansas" by The Get Up Kids and say to myself, ala Gob Bluth, "I've made a huge mistake."

Lately I've come to have a new theme song: "Kids" by MGMT. The lyrics "Control yourself / Take only what you need from it" succinctly detail my struggle with poverty and materialism.

What do I expect you to gain from reading all this? Nothing at all. (Maybe Truth Week will never really be over from now on.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

I Take Back My Glowing Review

Last July I wrote a post about Safeway's wonderful customer service. Today I take it all back.

My refund was supposed to take two-to-three weeks. Four months later, I called them again and they issued a new voucher to replace the one that never arrived. The replacement voucher is similar to the original in that neither of them has ever arrived.

Safeway is now on my enemies list, right below GustBuster.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Optimal Stranger Information

If we accept Adam Smith's argument from Theory of Moral Sentiments that affection is habitual sympathy, then the way we get strangers to treat us affectionately is to get them to sympathize with us, right? As long as I'm a stranger, I'm easier to hate, but as soon as you find out we have similarities, you start to temper your hatred. Even if we're not similar, making you know me better should make you more civil. This is why you tell the mugger holding you at gun-point, "I've got a wife and kids!"

If all of this is true, then bumper stickers can lessen road rage by making the other drivers less anonymous. The guy who cut me off is a bastard, until I find out he likes the Outer Banks or he has a stick-figure family. Then he's just a guy who sometimes makes bad driving decisions. If his favorite NASCAR driver happens to be the same as mine, well then maybe the near-accident was all my fault.

Of course, you have to reveal information that is likely to increase sympathy, not lessen it. The other drivers' reactions need to be either positive or neutral. Negative reactions aren't really helpful, so political bumper stickers aren't doing the trick. Tell me that "Virginia is for Lovers," not that you supported Gerry Connolly. Also, the correct information to reveal might be area-specific. A Dallas Cowboys sticker probably does well in Dallas, but not so much in DC. License plates are a start, as they let you know who is from your state.

This is the crap I came up with while I was merging down to one open lane on 66 this morning, behind a car driven by a guy who went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University, and who used two different stickers and his license plate to inform me that he enjoys visiting Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

Worst Gift Ever

My parents went to some marriage seminar in Utah one summer and came home gushing about how wonderful the presenter was. (I know his name, but since I'm going to rip on his philosophy, I figure I shouldn't include it here.) That Christmas as a gift for each of their married kids' families, they bought a set of his CDs.

Soon afterwards, I found myself with a long weekly commute, so I decided to listen to these CDs to better myself as a husband. (I later found out I was the only one of the six gift-recipient spouses to actually listen to them.) What I discovered was that I completely hated the guy's philosophy.

He's all about treating your spouse as an equal, not adopting a superior-subordinate attitude. Okay, I am completely on-board with that. He's also about "owning your words," meaning being responsible for honest communication. Okay, I can support that, too.

The way he recommends implementing the second, though, completely undermines the first. Let's say the wife is giving non-verbal cues she's upset. The husband asks, "What's wrong?" The wife sighs and says mopingly, "Oh, nothing." Now, something is obviously wrong. But this guy says using words this way kills effective communication. So his recommendation is to make the wife own her words by taking them at face value. She said nothing is wrong, so treat her like nothing is wrong.

But this puts the husband in a superior position. "I know you are upset, but I'm going to teach you to use words 'correctly' by making your experience unpleasant." This is not a relationship of equals; one spouse is "training" the other.

There is more to communication than the dictionary definition of words. The wife's response communicates not only that there is something wrong, but that she doesn't feel comfortable talking about it. The husband knows all this; therefore, it's been communicated. If the wife has successfully communicated information to the husband, why does she need to communicate in a different way, and who is he to "teach" her how to do it?

No wonder my parents loved this guy's teachings. My dad has been known to say to misbehaving children, "If you need attention, say, 'I need attention,' don't act out just to get attention." Yeah, a kid is really going to say that, let alone realize that that is his motivation.

I give this marriage counselor nine thumbs down.

Recent NASCAR Events From My Life

  • The Sunday School teacher giving an example of an excuse one might use for not attending church: "The Rednecks are turning left on Sunday." While I will never be confused with a NASCAR fan, I thought it was poor taste to say something so potentially insulting to a class member.
  • Last week driving through town I was behind a car with the license plate "DJR8T8." In case I needed help deciphering the encrypted message, the license plate holder celebrated the illustrious life and myriad accomplishments of Number 88, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  • While researching the origins of the term "winner winner chicken dinner," I came across this mesmerizing definition on Urban Dictionary:
    A slang term used to down-play a first place finish by NASCAR's Jeff Gordon. Often this term is used by mid-westerners who, for obvious reasons, feel threatened by the prowess of a driver from California. The ultimate use of the insult is to train a child under the age of 4 to yell it in the presence of #24 fans.
    Wow. That guy's got some conspiracy issues that even Charlie Sheen would consider "excessive." (Mad props on waiting two weeks for my first "Charlie Sheen is crazy" reference! Woot woot!) Can drivers even have prowess, and what are the "obvious" reasons a California driver threatens Midwesterners? I figured an adult fan of Jeff Gordon would be able to withstand the vicious verbal barbs hurled by four-year-olds, but I guess not.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Truth Week: Blessings

In late 2004 I wanted to leave California. I figured the way to do it was to flip my full-time-work/part-time-school schedule. In two years I would finish school and we could leave the state. Instead, we got to leave the state within nine months.

In early 2005 I wanted to find a job in California that would allow me to be a full-time student at CSUCI. Instead, by late 2006 I was a full-time student at the much-better University of Kansas.

We accidentally left a vacation a day early, not even realizing anything was wrong until that night when our hotel reservation in the next town wasn't valid. This made it so I was home when my brother needed me to come to Kansas to help his family, where I interviewed for the job I ended up moving for.

In late 2005 I had to work at AAA for a month because the job I wanted didn't work out. In July 2009 my family car got stuck in a ditch in rural Kansas in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm and I thought, "Imagine how much more stressful this experience would be if you didn't have AAA, which you wouldn't have if they hadn't given you a free year when you worked for them."

I wanted to make enough from part-time work to provide for my family while I finished school. Because my employer made a computational error, I made as much in 29 hours as I previously made in 40 hours.

Despite four years of constant firings and associated workplace drama, I kept my Kansas job as long as I wanted it.

My wife and I got tricked into having our third kid, with promises of insurance coverage that never materialized, and we were able to devise a way to pay for it.

Our obstetrician noticed a murmur in our third kid's heart that turned out to be a critical case of aortic valve stenosis.

Our third kid's balloon valvuloplasty went exceptionally well, and instead of needing two more before his third birthday, he's had zero.

The grades I earned at KU were good enough to get into my first-choice graduate school, but not good enough to get into better programs, which could have led me to pick a different school that wouldn't be as good for me.

I wanted to not work my first year of graduate school so I could focus on my classes and make sure I passed my qualifying examinations. My historically-stingy parents became uncharacteristically generous with their loan offers, and our federal tax return was an order of magnitude larger than expected.

We gave our notice to move out, because we had plans to move elsewhere. Those plans didn't work out, and we were able to renew our original lease with very little notice.

I passed my qualifying exams.

I've been unemployed for nearly two years with little actual hardship on our family. In early 2009 when we were deciding to go to graduate school, I sat our kids down and asked, "Do you think we're poor?" They said, "No." I said, "Well, we're about to get a whole lot poorer." But that dire warning hasn't actually turned out to be true.

BLESSINGS THAT ARE IN THE "STILL UNEXPLAINED" STAGE: why I haven't been hired by any of the jobs I've applied or interviewed for, why I haven't received a department position that would give me a tuition waver, why we couldn't move last summer due to a foolish mistake.

Truth Week: Poverty

When I was a kid, I had vague dreams of being incredibly rich. Like richest-man-in-the-world rich. I had plans to buy two gold BMWs (like the one Bruce Willis's character drove on "Moonlighting"), one with a manual transmission and one with an automatic. I don't know why I needed two of them. I just did.

I would plan houses that had one of everything in them, like a full-size basketball court, a water park, a library, and a 50-car garage. It would be big enough that it required a train to get around (like on "Silver Spoons"; evidently my life plans were heavily influenced by 1980s television).

How was I going to pay for these houses? Well, I was going to go to Penn, and the rest would take care of itself. When I didn't actually go to Penn, I began to scale back my plans. They still had lots of bedrooms, because I was going to have a lot of kids, and they all had an enormous library (sometimes half the house), but they were situated on less than 100 acres and they didn't involve boat houses or baseball fields.

Now I drive past 3,000-square-foot houses and don't even think of them as a possibility; they're as unreal to me as the 50,000-square-foot fantasies I used to draw. My current "dream" house is a 1,600-foot townhouse with one reserved, uncovered parking space, in our "Bakersfield-Near-the-Potomac" suburb. My dream car is a Volkswagen Routan, and on the off-chance I contemplate owning such a luxury as a second car, it's either a Jetta or a Myers Motors NmG.

Even these plans make me feel horrible about my decadent desires. Every fall I wish I had TV so I could watch the World Series, and then I think I must be a horrible person for wanting such a frivolous thing as TV, even though I know plenty of not-horrible people who have TV. I don't know the correct lesson to learn from my poverty, which means I'm probably prolonging the experience.

Truth Week: Marriage

My wife knows everything wrong with me.

I don't know how other people stay friends for long periods of time. I figure I have about four years before I do something horrible enough that my friend either can't forget it or I can't stop being embarrassed about it. I'm pretty sure most other people don't behave this way, but my brain associates all people with the worst thing I've ever done to them. My friend Erik's dad is probably the nicest guy who ever lived, but once at the park I broke Erik's bike in a poorly-conceived trick and Erik's dad sort of yelled at me (only "sort of" because I don't think that guy knows how to yell). Now I hate seeing him because I figure that's what he's going to be thinking about.

I read a book about Mormon commemorations of Jewish holidays and I wanted to give it a try. We got together with another couple for the event, but I got the feeling they were less-than-impressed with the effort I was putting into it. Now I can't interact with them without feeling bad about my underwhelming Seder.

My father was big on identifying manipulative tactics and refusing to be controlled by them, meaning my teenage depression over my ugliness was "really" just a manipulative attempt to get someone to tell me how good looking I was, and was identified as such. To hear my parents tell it, depression was nothing more than a sneaky ego boost. Having internalized this, I now can't talk to my friends about the things I did wrong to them, because I worry they will think I'm just out to get compliments. So I just stop being their friends.

My initial relationship with my wife followed this four-year maximum. We knew each other since we were six, but really only started interacting once we were 14. Within a year we dated, broke up, and I said an "I love you" that she did not return. The next year I got punched in the nose while she was standing next to me and by the time I could see again, she was very far, walking away. Her best friend didn't like me and that turned into my wife and I not speaking for over a year.

What saved our friendship from the four-year limit was the fact that she did some dumb stuff, too. The dumb stuff canceled out, and we could become friends again. We dated, we made plans to get married, then I went to be a missionary and she broke up with me. A sign of how badly she wanted to get away from me: she left me for a boy who was going to get home from his mission after I got home from mine. Again, we lapsed into silence. But again we ended up agreeing that our dumb stuffed canceled out (which wasn't quite true this time; mine was more numerous, and dumber).

The problem is, since we've been married, it's only been me who's been doing the dumb stuff. (Or at least it's only my dumb stuff that's become common knowledge.) This means my interactions with my wife are like my other friendships, where all I can think about are the reasons she has to hate me. And she has a lot of those.

When we were 18, she told me me she didn't want to be married to a depressive because she couldn't handle always having to convince him that he was good. Now she would say, "I was 18 when I said that," but does that mean she's changed her mind, that she wants that kind of relationship? No, no one wants that kind of relationship. She's just stuck in it now, so she's going to pretend she's fine with it.

Truth Week: Church

I fell behind on Truth Week. Good thing I can't sleep tonight, so I can get all caught up.

Our local church congregation, which is called a ward, is the unfriendliest I've ever experienced. Ironically, the problem is that the members are all too friendly with their ward BFFs.

There is a large group of ward families that do everything together, and there are periphery families that don't pass muster. If your family possesses the required je ne sais quoi, you can expect to be included immediately. If you are easily categorized as "different," though, fat chance.

My wife is incredibly shy, but has the type of shyness that can sometimes come off as aloofness. I am intimidated by groups, but easily meet people one-on-one. When the entire ward is constantly one big group, my opportunities are limited. The fact that my family can be summed up as "grad student homeschoolers" was the kiss of death to our chance of acceptance.

I know a legitimate response to being ignored by others is to take the initiative and introduce myself, but I think we all realize most of us won't do that when confronted with a large group of friends who project hostility to (only certain) new-comers. And I know there's something weird about complaining a ward gets along too well. I mean, isn't that what we're trying to do? But it's not with everybody, and I think the ward itself knows there's something not-quite-right with it by the way they cover it up. Think back to the junior high party you weren't invited to; everyone was "busy" that night, but they wouldn't quite say what they were busy doing. That's how our ward functions.

I know, I know: they can't invite everyone to their get-together. Their behavior is perfectly rational, and my hostility is irrational. But the fact remains, irrational or not: I feel like this ward has collectively decided there is no need to interact with my family, and they are busy ignoring us until we move away.

Since we've moved in, every new family has spoken in church except us. Nearly two years later, people routinely tell me they don't know who we are--often much more accusingly than apologetically. My employment situation has been largely ignored (because for a long time the person with the official responsibility to help me was me), while members of the "in crowd" who might soon be unemployed get regularly checked up on.

I know this all sounds stupid. I can't explain it any better. But more importantly, I really think I'm not the only one who feels this way. On a Home Teaching visit last month, I spoke with a woman who was making cryptic comments about the "dryness" of the ward's personality. I said, "It took us a long time to adjust to this ward." And then, because I figured honesty is a virtue, I said, "That's probably the polite way to say it. The correct way to say it is, 'We hate this ward.'" The woman immediately said, "It is SO GOOD to hear someone else feels that way!"

What would I have be different? I would have one of us be allowed to speak in church. I would have the "long-time ward member" families take an interest in families outside their own clique. I would have new families NOT be lumped together as each others' home teachers. I would have ward leadership that followed up on issues instead of requiring me to repeatedly make initial contact of an "I need help/I still need help/I still need help" nature. I would burn all the round tables everyone thinks are so wonderful for ward activities, but which actually don't seat more than one family per table. But more than anything else, I just want to move away from here and never, ever come back.

REAPPRAISAL (Apr. 2012)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Truth Week: Academics

I don't have the best academic record. Some of this is because I'm not that smart. Some of this is because of events I can't control. And some of this is because I'm poor.

First: I'm not that smart. I was incredibly bored in elementary school. My teachers weren't teaching things I didn't already know until junior high algebra. I thought, "Huh, I should learn that," but didn't really know how. I'm still horrible at algebra. Whenever my calculus professors would say, "And we know this next step from algebra," that would be where I would go wrong. In addition to not knowing basic math, I can't remember things well, either. Econometrics is difficult for me because I have forgotten everything I learned in statistics. Differential equations is difficult for me because I have forgotten everything I learned in linear algebra.

Second: I can't control some things. Grades take a hit during long periods of depression. My son had heart surgery during a semester. My parents constantly stressed the importance of education, but then started their kids' collegiate careers with minimal contributions and efforts to quickly reduce their share of costs to zero. When school is just a personal trial, like trying to get your best marathon time, then it doesn't matter what those around you are doing, but later on school becomes a contest for limited scholarship, assistantship, or internship positions, and I'm competing with people whose parents have been giving them whatever they needed.

Third: I'm poor. Being poor has an interaction effect with the last part of my second point. It would be great to be writing research papers like I'm supposed to be, but instead I've been working for $7 an hour at a temporary job and applying for night stockboy positions at Toys R Us (which job I didn't get). There's a guy in my program that basically seems a lot like me, only he doesn't have to worry about money. Seeing his success is sort of like seeing what I could be doing, if only I were. I spent Tuesday--my day off from class--going to a job fair and then tutoring a high school girl. I should have been revising a paper that my professor told me was close to ready for publication.

I'm probably going to graduate from my program, eventually. The qualifying examinations last summer were the biggest obstacle. (Yes, I still have a dissertation, but that's more like "keep making the recommended edits until we don't have any more recommended edits," right?) But getting a PhD doesn't mean I'll get a job that justifies a PhD. When I go to the interview and I'm competing with applicants who have presented at conferences and developed a line of research, why would I get hired? I'm going to end up the only doctor on the garage door factory assembly line.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Truth Week: Unemployment

I've been out of work for 20 months.

Sort of. I have done some tutoring, and for a couple months last fall I had a temporary part-time job, but all of that income together might cover our rent for one month. Last week I earned $35. This week I was happy that it was $10 more.

Growing up, I realized that every church ward had one or two of those guys who are marginally employed. Every few months you heard Brother Deadbeat was out of work again. Now I have to come to terms with the fact that I'm Brother Deadbeat.

What others would never know is that it wasn't always this way. A few months after we got married, I began a government job where I earned well above the national median income. My wife quit work and we started having kids. A guy in our ward (a type of Brother Deadbeat, actually) guilted us into allowing him to pitch his financial planning services at us. He came over and went through our numbers with us and declared, "You guys are really well set; there's nothing I can do for you."

A few years later, though, I began feeling like I needed to change directions. Over the course of 2004 I eventually came to understand that I should quit my job and return to school full-time. In February 2005, that's what I did.

We cashed out my 401K and had seven months of money until we had to have something else come along. Seven months later, nothing had come along and we began building up the debt we have been carrying around ever since.

I had applied at places all over the country, since part of the reason I quit my job was because we wanted to leave California. I got an interview in Lawrence, Kansas, a college town where I could work and go to school. The company hemmed and hawed about it, and eventually we took a chance and moved before the offer was finalized. It was supposed to be two weeks until I started.

A guy in the ward ran a temporary agency and asked if I wanted to do some work for those two weeks. I said sure, why not? I began working at a garage door factory. One day while I was at the factory, the other job called and told my wife to pass me the message that they weren't going to hire me.

That was a fairly horrible day. I had decimated our savings, accumulated debt, and moved my family two thousand miles, all so I could work at a garage door factory. Why? Because I had felt strongly it was what I needed to do.

Two months later, that company called me back and said, "Just kidding, we'll hire you next week." That should have been an indication of the type of people they were, but it was much better pay than factory work, so I took the job. It was enough to live on, but not enough to eliminate any of our accumulated debt. I thought I would finish school at night, but it turned out KU had very limited night programs. In negotiating with my work to get daytime hours available for me to attend class, they committed a serious math error, and I ended up working 75% as many hours for 100% the pay. They hated me for that, and when I finished living in Lawrence in 2009, they and I were both happy I was leaving.

Like all rational people in the middle of a severe recession, I quit my decent-paying job. I felt I needed to continue pursuing my economics education. In finally deciding between two graduate schools, I picked the one that offered me no stipend and would charge me out-of-state tuition, over the school that offered a stipend and free tuition.

I wanted to get through my first year without working, if possible, because it would be essential I master the material for future success. We didn't really think that would work, though, and began looking for work as soon as we got to Virginia. Now, nearly two years later, I'm still looking. I used to think my resume was weak and my interview skills were strong; I had to explain away my lack of schooling, but if they accepted my reasoning, I was competent and personable enough to get the job. Now I have the opposite situation: I've been getting plenty of interviews from my resume, and hiring managers go out of their ways to tell me it's strong. Now when I don't get the job, it's not the resume they don't want, it's me.

And I've been not getting plenty of jobs. About once a month something comes together and makes us think, "Oh, this is finally the answer to our problems," and then it falls apart. After two years, it's beginning to be unclear if there is an answer to our problems.

I left my government job in February 2005, unsure what was ahead but confident I was making the right choice. Walking through the parking lot for the last time, I sang to myself the line from They Might Be Giants's song "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" that says, "Quit my job down at the car wash / didn't have to write no one a good-bye note." Since then we've been steadily sinking into a pit of quicksand. Temporary boosts come along, keeping us from completely sinking, but the fact is we're still in the pit. I don't want to bad-mouth the boosts; without them, we would have succumbed long ago. But boosts aren't enough, and the effort and mental energy it takes to secure an unending series of temporary boosts represent effort and mental energy I should have been putting into school. How much of my schooling record is the result of outside problems my classmates don't have to worry about?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Later in Truth Week I'll write about how poor of a student I am.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Truth Week

On my wife's blog, she has a post this week about bloggers sharing an incomplete version of their lives. One of the commenters suggested a detox-like "Truth Week."

I've written before about choosing an honesty level for social networking. It probably says a lot about my psychological makeup that I tend to have the "con" reaction to both types of news: in my book, everyone is always bragging or complaining. Actually, other people can be celebrating and venting; it's just me who is always bragging or complaining.

I've also written before about how I wish I had an Option 1 Blog. This would be where I could vent without having to worry that it was seen as complaining (or, if, hypothetically, I ever had anything to celebrate, I could celebrate without having to worry that it was seen as bragging). I had another missionary once tell me to stop complaining about my companion to my journal. I thought it would help me "get it out of my system" without causing any interpersonal problems, but he said it really was preventing me from forgetting the problems.

I try to not reflect on my real problems here on my blog too much. I complain about things like inconsiderate bus passengers or poor customer service at Wal-Mart, but I don't tell you the real stuff. It has to do with my intense privacy issues, which I've also written about before. Back when video stores existed, I would not discuss movie choices with my wife out loud, because for every movie I like, there's someone who thinks I'm an idiot for liking it. This has to be true, given the number of times I've heard video store patrons yell to their friend across the store something as stupid as, "Do you want to see 'Earnest Goes to Camp'? It's super hilarious!" If we're all embarrassed of ourselves from 10 years ago, that means in 10 years we will be embarrassed of ourselves right now, which means we're all currently embarrassments, we just don't know it yet.

So obviously the first thing an anonymous blogger (NB: my name isn't really A Random Stranger) should do during Truth Week is reveal his true identity. But I'm not going to do that, not because I don't want my readers to know who I am (I'd say over 90% of my readers know me, and that is why an Option 1 Blog is so appealing), but because I don't want this blog to be returned by a Google search for my name.

But here's some truth I'm willing to share: I'm a depressive. Self-diagnosed only, though. Partly because I don't have the money (my fault) or insurance (also my fault, not society's) to see a doctor about it. Partly because, even if I did have recourse to a doctor, I'm not sure I'd want a paper trail of my mental health deficiencies. Partly because part of me thinks this is the "natural" me and taking a pill to fix it will be like quitting on life. Partly because most medications have crazy-ass side effects I'm not sure I want to deal with.

Because no one wants to hear (or read) the depressive say (or write), "Oh, I'm so depressed," I typically avoid blogging during particularly bad periods. When I only have 10 or so posts in a month, it probably means things were going poorly for me then, but my "venting" might be construed as "complaining" by a reader.

My time as a missionary was easily the worst two years of my life. (The producers of the film "The Best Two Years" need a serious beat-down for false advertising.) When I was six months in and realized things were horrible, I started looking for people who could listen and help. My parents told me to stop complaining in letters home because it would scare my brother off serving a mission. My girlfriend left me. My mission president told me I was arrogant to think I deserved anything better than the worst mission ever. That taught me a lot about how much people want to hear about depression: not at all. The only reason I even got to serve a mission was because I lied in my bishop's interview when he asked, "Have you ever had feelings of depression?" My brain said, "They're not going to let you go if you tell the truth, but it's a commandment for you to go," so I lied and said, "No."

Anyway, it seemed like, especially right now, any Truth Week in my life would have to start with this, because it is inter-related to the other problems I have: unemployment, scholarly shortcomings, unfriendly church members, and my wife wishing she had taken more time to think before hastily accepting my marriage proposal. All of these things and more, this week on A Random Stranger!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Correct Parenting Technique

A Random Stranger: I feel like I'm going to puke.

Crazy Jane: Do you want me to go get you a bowl?

ARS: No, if I puke I'll just make you come over here and catch it in your cupped hands.

CJ: Gross!

ARS: I had to watch you come out of Mom; that was grosser.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

It Should Be True

Today I ended up reading an article by Andrew Gelman and Deborah Nolan in The American Statistician entitled "You Can Load a Die, but You Can't Bias a Coin." Maybe I was drawn to the article because the title reminded me of the lyrics of the greatest song I've never actually heard, Warren Zevon's "Searching for a Heart": "You can't start it like a car / You can't stop it with a gun." No, that wasn't not it. It was the story of how King Olaf of Norway rolled a 13 on two dice.

Because I'm a diligent scholar, I went to Wikipedia for confirmation. Bad news: the anecdote is nowhere on King Olaf's page, and Google says "Island of Hising" means I'm really looking for "island of housing."

I went to Gelman and Nolan's source, The Broken Dice by Ivar Ekeland.

Thorstein the Learned says that there was a settlement on the Island of Hísing which had alternately belonged to Norway and to Gautland. So the kings agreed between them to draw lots and throw dice for this possession. And he was to have it who threw the highest. Then the Swedish king threw two sixes and said that it was no use for King Olaf to throw. He replied, while shaking the dice in his hand, "There are two sixes still on the dice, and it is a trifling matter for God, my Lord, to have them turn up." He threw them, and two sixes turned up. Thereupon Olaf, the king of Norway, cast the dice, and one six showed on one of them, but the other split in two, so that six and one turned up; and so he took possession of the settlement.
This story certainly seems like there were either three kings, two of whom were named Olaf, or the Swedish king rolled twice. It also seems like someone tried to pull a Big Jule, bringing loaded dice to roll with, then trying to dissuade anyone else from trying since he couldn't beat a 12. But Ekeland has a source (Chapter 94 of St. Olaf's Saga), and if the story isn't true, it's good enough of a story that it should be true.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Friend Amnesty

Right now the following people have draft copies of my novel:

I recently heard a tale of a friendship gone bad over a non-favorable reading of a draft novel by the author's friend. I fear the reason my readers have fallen silent on the issue is because they don't want to say anything bad.

If you're still working on it, that's cool, but if you've decided to call it quits, I'd like you to know I'm giving you friend amnesty. You can send back any comments you have and not have to worry about it.

Bring forth the fatted calf: my readers who once were lost are now found. Olly olly oxen free.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Technological Development Slowdown

In the comments on my previous post, Gary brings up a valid question: where is my jet pack?

Seriously, though, this has been a question being kicked around a bit in the libertarian-leaning corner of the economics-related blogosphere (it's a very precise niche, but once you've cornered it, you're home free). This is because of Tyler Cowen's souped-up pamphlet The Great Stagnation. The high-brow economist comments have included an appeal to the authority of XKCD.

Last week when I was talking to Gary, I told him about the most futuristic moment I've ever experienced in my life: while sitting on a bench reading my Kindle, a policeman on a Segway rode by. Other than that, my life is just a more-convenient version of the 1950s.

Cristin wants to know what will replace airline travel. I think telecommunications will replace most of the common person's need for travel. Private planes will become more accessible to the upper reaches of the middle class, and long-distance travel will once again become something only high-status people can do. I believe the number of people regularly traveling will drop below the critical mass necessary to maintain the enormous infrastructure of modern air travel.

Technology Khan

"When Jenghiz Khan overcame the great Merkit nation he left only one man alive--the brother of his favorite wife." - Hugh Nibley, The World of the Jaredites, p. 235.

Advancing technology can be just as heartless. When cell phones overcame your town, they left only one pay phone alive--the one at the gas station that doesn't take credit cards. The same annihilation is happening to newspapers today. I've predicted elsewhere on this blog that the process is beginning with airlines.

I recently saw some television ad for a new piece of technology (I wish I could remember what the product is!), and it shows a video call with a voice-over about how the product can bring people together. However, the actress on the video call then says, "When are we going to get you out here for a visit?"

Is that what video calls are for, to have a face-to-face about how you need to have a face-to-face? (If so, the inventor of video calls is a prime candidate for a leadership position in a Mormon ward, where he can hold meetings about how he needs to hold meetings.)

I stand by my assessment that continued advances in telecommunications will destroy the travel market. Instead of seeing this and trying to counter the trend, airlines continue trying to get blood from a turnip with new and higher fees, and they continue allowing TSA to make flying as unpleasant an experience as possible. Eventually Skype will leave only one airline alive.