Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Counties Visited, Southeast Asia Edition

Easier than finding GIS data for countries with crazy-ass alphabets is going to be just posting pictures of doctored maps. So first we have the map of Bangkok on which I placed district boundaries and labels. The orange outline shows the districts we visited.

Bang Phli, Samut Prakarn, Thailand
Lat Krabang, Bangkok, Thailand
Prawet, Bangkok, Thailand
Suan Luang, Bangkok, Thailand
Bang Kapi, Bangkok, Thailand
Huai Khwang, Bangkok, Thailand
Watthana, Bangkok, Thailand
Khlong Toei, Bangkok, Thailand
Yan Nawa, Bangkok, Thailand
Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand
Khlong San, Bangkok, Thailand
Samphanthawong, Bangkok, Thailand
Phra Nakhon, Bangkok, Thailand
Thon Buri, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok Yai, Bangkok, Thailand
Pom Prap Sattru Phai, Bangkok, Thailand
Pathum Wan, Bangkok, Thailand
Saphan Sung, Bangkok, Thailand

Next, we have the tourist map of Siem Reap, to which I've added district boundaries and labels. This one was more difficult because most of the information on the Internet about district boundaries in Siem Reap Province is wrong.

Puok, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Cambodia

So 19 districts (in two provinces) in Thailand and two districts (in one province) in Cambodia.


We got to Thailand, and Cambodia, and back home to China. Blog posts will be coming soon.

Monday, December 22, 2014


We're going to the airport tomorrow to go to Thailand, but given our horrific experience coming to China, I have no confidence we'll actually go anywhere. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised tomorrow. I'll let you know.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Two Unrelated Thoughts

1. There's a need for an adjective meaning "having brought a situation to a resolution." In math, the term used is "resolvent." I think there's room for this term outside of mathematics.

2. There are two ways of looking at the North-Korea-v.-Sony conflict. One is the TMZ approach, which sees it as celebrity news. In this approach, the main take-away is that Angelina Jolie was insulted, or that Jennifer Lawrence is underpaid, or that Channing Tatum writes funny e-mails. But the more-noteworthy take-away shows up in what I'd call the Foreign Affairs approach: the United States just had its ass handed to it in cyber-warfare. Most Americans will take the TMZ approach.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What's My Name?

Sometimes when people move to a society that speaks a different language, they keep their last name intact. Other times, they translate their last name. One of my German ancestors came to America with a name that meant "horse herder" and kept his German name, Pferdehirt. Another of my German ancestors came to America with a name that meant "cathedral" and took the English translation as his last name, which is now my last name.

We have no plans to be long-term Chinese residents, but I've been wondering what we would do if we were here for the rest of our lives. Would we keep our English last name, or would we translate it to Chinese (大教堂, pronounced "dà jiàotáng")?

Some people might think that's not really an option if your last name is just a sound with little meaning, but you can pick a similar-sounding-but-easier-to-pronounce sound. This was how Mannahatta became Manhattan. That's how my given name would translate. My family name, though, has a meaning.

I think I would prefer to translate my name if I had to choose. Maybe I'm influenced by the fact that my ancestor already did it once in the past. If my family name had been set in stone for millennia, I'd be less cavalier about changing it, but since it's only been my family name for somewhere around 300 years, and I know what it used to be, I don't view it as something inviolate.

Chinese Scale

I began 2014 in marathon training. After the race, though, I loaded up on western food that I would be unable to find in China. I spent my last two weeks in America eating In-N-Out as frequently as possible. I boarded the plane the heaviest I'd been in over 10 years.

After a month in China, I had returned to what for me is a more-typical weight. At least, it looked like I had. I wasn't sure because we didn't have a scale. So in the weird upstairs part of our local grocery store, where you can buy everything from sporting equipment to underwear, we bought a scale.

As an aside, the over-abundance of labor here means every possible segment of the store is lousy with clerks waiting to perform some service you can do yourself. Many times we've arrived at the register ready to check out, only to then remember that we needed to have our vegetables bagged by a professional vegetable bagger, who then applies a sticker for the clerk to scan. We then abandon our vegetables.

Anyway, buying the scale was the same way. They can't trust you to present the scale at the register in front, I guess, so the nearest clerk takes it from you, writes a slip which you then take to a nearby register in the middle of the store for just such a reason, and then gives you the scale once you return with a receipt.

Here's why our Chinese scale is better than our American scale we left behind. Kilograms are larger than pounds--over twice as large! So my weight is immediately less than half what it used to be. And before you tell me that nominal changes don't matter, I'd like to remind you that nominal changes are the only thing that makes central bank activity meaningful. If people can make a successful career out of advocating for nominal gross domestic product targeting, I can base my fitness goals on nominal weight targeting.

Also, larger weight units mean less volatility in measurement. Over the course of a day, I move from one kilogram to the neighboring kilogram, not from one end of a ten-pound range to the other.

Of course, it makes weight loss a slower prospect. I've spent several weeks now working my way down through my current kilogram. (I could tell you which one it is, but I prefer to wait for some magical future day when I reach my ideal weight by following a strict diet of +C and dark chocolate.) And when I was so sick two weeks ago, I spent my time moaning in bed (not good moaning, not even disappointed moaning) thinking, "At least I'm losing some weight," only to be unpleasantly surprised by how little weight I actually lost. "Less than a kilogram?! But I pooped, like, 80 times!"

A Scottish colleague was talking about his summer weight loss and gave his figures in stone. An American colleague said, "I have no idea what that means. I'm not a caveman." I don't think I'd like weighing in stone because the units are too large. I could lose a forearm in an industrial accident and not even drop a stone. Good luck using haircuts to feel good about your food choices, too. In the past, I've lost a pound just from personal grooming. That would barely register on my kilogram scale, and be imperceptible if I weighed myself in stone.

Overall, as we approach the end of the year, I am down 1.3% from my weight last New Year's Day. Virtually unchanged, but with significant different 52-week highs and lows.

Santa Claus Is in His Panopticon

I hate the Elf on the Shelf. For starters, he's creepy looking. Sure, he's smiling, but it's the vacant smile of a sociopath about to strike. The Elf on the Shelf wants to watch you bleed, for the lulz.

Second, he's creepy acting. He's a voyeur. He's a narc. In a police state using informers, all people must be viewed as potential agents of the state. Even Winston Smith at least had a corner of his apartment that the telescreen couldn't see into. When you have to interact with people, though, even your spouse can inform against you.

The Elf on the Shelf does for children's toys what undercover informants do for interpersonal relationships. Some of your toys are watching you. There's always someone watching you, kids. Merry Christmas.

Some might argue that this isn't actually a bad thing. "How can you object to the Elf on the Shelf if you raise your children to believe in God? Isn't God just a giant mystical Elf on the Shelf?" I guess the way that most people present Him to their children, He is. He's aware of all your behavior, judging you for everything. Anything you think is secret isn't really secret. He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake.

God's omnipresence and omnipotence isn't motivated by negative reciprocity as is often presented. "God so loved the world," not "God so hoped to entrap the world." State surveillance isn't motivated by finding out misdeeds to help their doers reform. The Elf on the Shelf isn't trying to help your child be better, he's trying to frighten your child into toeing the line. God wants to change hearts. The Elf on the Shelf, the state, and the popular idea of God wants to teach you to hide your heart.

Here's an article where the authors argue that the Elf on the Shelf normalizes the panopticon and prepares children for life in a surveillance state. By doing so, it is just another element of modern culture designed to make the next generation's citizens easier to control.

Some people might say, "Calm down. It's just a fun game." So is playing war, but many modern parents don't want their children playing shooting games that involve killing. And I don't want my kid playing a game that involves docility in the face of surveillance.

Family Christmas Letter Availability

Anyone I know (even if only through semi-regular blog contact) who wants a copy of our family Christmas letter e-mailed to you from China (since I'm too cheap to pay international postage), leave a comment with your e-mail address. I won't publish the comments.

May the rest of you enjoy the blessings of the seas--no, you're dead to me.

Mail Bag: Sexy Disappointment Edition

I recently wrote about orgasmic-like disappointment noises. Loyal reader Alanna (who can list my entire family's real names, names on my blog, and names on my wife's blog), wrote:

Or, your wife is really disappointed all the time.

I don't doubt that's true, but I can tell you that her disappointment noises are distinctly different from those I hear around here. (I have more to say on this subject, but it doesn't pass my wife's censorship.)

It's the End of the World As I Know It

Here's some baseless speculation for you (because if you take away this blog's baseless speculation, what does it have left, really?): what will precipitate the end of the world?

I believe we are not that far distant from technological advancements that will make possible the ending of hunger, disease, and poverty. And God will be fully justified in destroying the world when we use this knowledge to enslave each other for power and profit.

A future world with unchecked growth of knowledge and technology will be one where all men are eventually exposed to subjugation. Eventually, the world will be too advanced for all of us to withstand the attempts of its directors to ensnare us. Only if those with authority limit themselves, because of charity, will the world escape judgement.

As most of the world uses these technological advancements for dominance, in Zion they will be used in righteousness. The contrast between the two approaches will be extreme.

This brings us to my personal prediction for my own future: since I won't qualify for Zion, my family will be tortured, murdered, and eaten by roving bands of annihilists. And they'll probably eat me last of all so I can have the realization, "This wouldn't have happened to your wife and children if you had just developed the proper attitude towards money and things."

Once You Get Past Caring, You Can Get Past Anything

The first very cold morning in November, my pants clung uncomfortably to my legs because of static electricity. In the past, faced with this problem, I have used dryer sheets when drying my clothes, but we don't have a clothes dryer here. I've also found that rubbing a dryer sheet on my legs works, but I'm not sure we'd be able to find dryer sheets, since almost no one has a dryer here. So I could spend the winter uncomfortable, or I could solve the problem in a fairly-simple way.

My wife is mortified. I told her no one would see. She insisted she would see. But if that's what I have to worry about, she sees parts of me that are much less attractive than my hairless shins. (Like my now-comparatively-hairy knees.)

She made me promise I would not wear shorts in Thailand next week.

P.S.: It has worked perfectly.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

One Problem With a 19th-Century Book of Mormon

The argument has been made that the Book of Mormon is a product of the 19th century. As such, the warnings about "secret combinations" are examples of anti-Masonic rhetoric then current.

My objection: if warnings about "secret combinations" are examples of historical anti-Masonry instead of predictions of current/future cabals, the rhetoric doesn't really matter to our day. This approach says, in effect, "Don't worry about secret combinations, because Masonry has subsided as a political phenomenon in modern America."

I don't believe the warnings are the product of the 19th century.

"I Was a Lot Happier Before I Knew Dame Edna Was a Man!"

In 1979, a handful of Mormon scholars began an organization called the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, known as FARMS. It existed outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church or LDS church), even though many of the scholars were church employees through the church's university, Brigham Young University (BYU). It was a side project, but one that quickly grew in scope and importance. Eventually, in 1997, FARMS became a part of BYU. In 2006, FARMS became a part of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (MI).

More recently, tension has risen between the original direction of FARMS and the direction of MI. In 2012, a major shift occurred. Many points of contention exist, but one of them is the assumption of the Book of Mormon's historicity. Classic FARMS work assumed the Book of Mormon "is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas" (Introduction), while more-recent MI work has backed off that assumption.

Those who support classic FARMS work see this as troublesome because it appears to be a denial of the church's claims of Book of Mormon authenticity. Joseph Smith never said, "Here's some inspired fiction meant to teach true principles in allegorical form." Those who support the new MI approach say they are not abandoning truth claims when they bracket them for broader scholarly appeal. They say, "Some non-LDS scholars don't take the truth claims seriously, and this stands in the way of dialogue, so if we just lay aside the truth claims for the moment, we can work together on things that don't require the other scholars to convert to Mormonism."

Think of biblical scholars. Some might use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a guide to archeology, hunting for actual historical cities. Others might view the story more as legend, based on factual cities that were once destroyed, but not by miraculous raining fire. Others might say it's all a metaphor for how God deals with people. Others might say it's a story invented by man to teach proper behavior. Now, if the first group, the historical group, and the last group, the morality group, want to work together on something they both accept, like the biblical account teaches proper behavior, they might be prohibited from cooperating by their different ideas of truth. So the historical group might say, "To help us work together, we'll ignore the historical aspects of our beliefs for now." They're not saying they've changed their minds, only that the results don't depend on their truth claims.

There's room for both views. Some work doesn't require a truth claim, but some work does. The problem with the 2012 shift, as most supporters of classic FARMS understand it, is the suppression of work assuming an historical Book of Mormon because it gets in the way of other work, work that doesn't require an historical Book of Mormon, getting accepted by non-LDS scholars. It is, in effect, caving to the bigotry of non-LDS scholars who say, "I won't hear anything you have to say if you spend any time associating with people who believe crazy things." So MI scholars have said, "Look, we drove away the people who believe crazy things." Which then makes some people question if MI scholars believe the "crazy things" themselves, or if they've internalized the "crazy" adjective.

I side more with the classic FARMS approach. I find value in work made with "bracketed truth claims," but I question how necessary they are. I have read biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Martin Luther, Mohammed, and Buddha, all written by "non-believing" scholars, and all say, "Look, it gets tedious to always write 'he claims.' Since he behaved like this was true, I'm going to write like this was true." The eagerness with which MI jettisoned the classic FARMS approach makes me nervous that some of the people at MI appreciate the opportunity to view the Book of Mormon as non-historical. And the connection between MI and BYU makes all this more confusing and more troubling.

Last week this issue received new attention because the first issue of the new-direction MI journal debuted. In it, the editor makes a few statements that give supporters of the classic FARMS approach reason to pause. I wrote a tweet about my rejection of MI scholars' new approach.

One of my readers responded angrily that I was spreading the problem. Imagine someone says, "X!" and I say, "Not X!" My reader was saying, "Whoa, people in the world say 'X'? I didn't need to know that! Shame on your for bringing it to my attention!"

I strongly feel I have a responsibility to support truth and counter error. I do not have a responsibility to only do this if you are fully informed, or to not bring troubling false claims to light. Such an approach requires me to be silent in the face of falsehood because at least one member of my audience might not be aware of the untruth and my refutation then gives the false claim greater circulation. And I will not be silent in the face of falsehood.

The Book of Mormon is a true "record of God's dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas." It has context as both a product of its translation era (19th-century frontier New York) and as a product of its creation era (ranging from pre-Tower-of-Babel Middle East to pre-exhilic Judea to pre-Columbian Americas). Contextual analysis that ignores the creation era is at best misleading and at worst dishonest. The Moe Szyslak objection yields the argument, and I will not accept it.

Chinese Disappointment Sounds Hot

About once each week, while students are coming into class and talking to each other, I will suddenly hear the most authentic-sounding fake-orgasm noise. I'll quickly look up in shock. Invariably it is a girl making a noise of disappointment to her friend. They are discussing grades or homework or something. It is the noise Luke Skywalker would have made before saying, "I was going to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!", had he, in fact, made a noise before saying that.

Here's the intriguing bit: nobody else in the room thinks this is a sexual noise. At least, no one even looks up. Which must mean one of two things: either my students are completely unaware of what an orgasm sounds like, or Asians sound different when they have sex.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

We're All Our Own Santa Claus Now

First we went for cognitive dissonance, placing the biggest shopping day of the year the day after the day of thanksgiving. But these things could coexist, right? I'm shopping for gifts to show my friends and family how thankful I am to have them in my life.

Then we went for subtle irony, moving the shopping day to actually begin on Thanksgiving. But this was still justifiable, maybe. I'm punching a lady in the face to make her let go of a flat-panel TV, sure, but it's only because I'm so thankful for my family that anything less than the best "door-buster deals" will be like a punch in the face to them. (A metaphorical punch in the face, not a literal one like I'm busy administering in Walmart.)

Now we're going for gonzo irony, like if Alanis Morissette guest-starred in the Seinfeld series finale. Now an increasing number of us are engaging in self-gifting on Thanksgiving. I'm not behaving badly because I'm thankful for someone else; I'm just behaving badly.

We probably already have the national justification ready. "I'm so thankful I have these resources available to me. I'm showing that gratitude by using them."

Here's a different approach to Christmas.

Questions Raised By Morning Scriptures

D&C 66:11 - "...push many people to Zion...."

Is there a difference between "pushing" someone to Zion and "pulling" him to Zion? Here the Lord makes pushing someone to Zion sound not only like a good thing, but also as something that is possible. How do we go about pushing people to Zion? What would I be doing right now to make this happen?

D&C 67:3 - "Ye endeavored to believe that ye should receive the blessing which was offered unto you; but behold, verily I say unto you there were fears in your hearts, and verily this is the reason that ye did not receive."

Dude. There's a term for this, but I think I'd go to hell for using it. I guess I get it; fear shows doubt, which shows belief that the Promiser could be a liar, which is not a view that gets rewarded. But still.

How My Narcissism Presents Itself

I walk in the middle, all the time. I will subconsciously calculate the middle of the path and I will walk that line as much as possible.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ugly Accents - Now With Science! (Actually, Just With Poll Data)

Remember a few weeks ago when I speculated about ugly accents? Well, British people were asked too and some received negative scores.

One interesting thing to contemplate is whether regional accents are recognizable to others with sufficient inexperience listening to them. I'm struck by how many working-class British accents appear in American media as "sophisticated" accents. American people, Super Nanny and the Geico Gecko are not refined, they are the British equivalent of hillbillies. The Queen doesn't say "innit," even as a joke at family gatherings. I think many of these accents would receive favorable scores from Americans just because they are British.

I once had a business communications professor who was sort of cute until she started speaking with her New York accent. It was very awkward when she railed against the Philadelphia accent in class, not realizing that many of the negative attributes she associated with saying "wutter," her students associated with EVERYTHING she said.

My Arm Is Falling Off of My Body

Okay, not yet. But only because my skin is holding it on. I look like a mannequin in long sleeves that had its shoulder joint give out; I guess it sill has two arms, but in name only.

Here's what happened: I don't know what happened. My arm just up and died.

I woke up last Thursday and did some exercises, which involved push ups and holding a plank position while on my elbows. Then I went to work. I spent a little time leaning on my right elbow while I graded some papers, but not a lot of time and not too violently leaning. In fine, my elbow usage for the day was decidedly average. But when I came home that evening, my right elbow was a little sore. By the time I went to bed, it was tender to touch and visibly swollen throughout the entire joint.

Friday morning, nothing was better. Friday night, the swelling was even worse, and the end of the elbow was red. I used a marker to draw two circles outlining the redness and the swelling. Saturday morning, the swelling had extended and the redness now filled the outer circle. While my wife and I were out shopping, I bought an elbow brace and wore that for a few days.

Tuesday it seemed things were beginning to return to normal. I nearly had my full range of motion back, and I could do things that caused pain over the weekend, like donning a coat or carrying a child. But today I woke up and it was quite painful again, and getting into my coat this morning was painful.

I don't mind having a temporary injury, but I don't know what caused this, so I don't know that this is indeed just temporary. I keep thinking of Calvin Coolidge's son who hurt his toe playing tennis and later died. My elbow looks a little weird. Yesterday it finally looked like the other arm again, but today it's back to looking sort of dead.

I take it as a good sign that it hurts: dead body parts don't have working nerves. But my wife wants a medical professional to look at it. I have health insurance through my work, but like everything else here, it's impossible to figure out and those who know what you need to know can't be bothered to divulge. Plus, we'd have to pay everything up front and get reimbursed later, which isn't a good idea right before Christmas.

I'm kind of past worrying about it now, because it stopped getting worse and seems to have started (slowly) getting better. But if anyone knows what to do for an elbow that becomes sore and swollen with little to no provocation, feel free to leave a comment.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

"That Ain't Workin'"

A few weeks ago, I was at the restroom sink next to a colleague. I tried to get some soap from the wall-mounted dispenser to my right. I reached over with my right hand, palm up, fingers under the dispenser. I pressed the heal of my hand against the button to release some soap. The pressure from my hand forced the soap dispenser upward, off its bracket. It shot through the air, landing on the counter, spilling soap everywhere.

Then my colleague said, completely unironically, " I think you're supposed to push the button." As if I thought I was supposed to wrestle the soap out of the dispenser like an animal (an animal that washes its hands, like a raccoon).

I said, "Yeah," trying to convey a sense of "of course I know this already." My colleague's expression said, "You say that, but I just watched you bandy it about like a frustrated bear."

Friday, December 05, 2014

Chinese Cell Phones

After the bank, we took our clown car to the cell phone store.

There are two major cell phone providers here, China Mobile and China Unicom. Our kids were hoping we'd end up with China Unicom because, if you erase just a tiny bit of the letter M, it reads China Unicorn. (Okay, I was hoping.)

The good news: we ended up with China Unicorn. The bad news: everything else.

My wife's phone had stopped working just before we left America, so we knew she needed a new one, but we had hoped I would just need a new SIM card for my phone. But my phone doesn't work like that, because that would be allowing the customer to retain some consumer surplus. So we both needed new phones, a rather large expense to cover with just the money we had on hand until my first paycheck. My colleague said he'd been instructed to strongly recommend we limit ourselves to Apple, Samsung, and HTC. Translation: you Westerners are going to be thoroughly unimpressed with the quality of Chinese cell phones. Then they showed us the top-of-the-line phones which we couldn't afford.

Meanwhile, Leenoose, who couldn't open a bank account because he hadn't been told to bring sufficient cash for the minimum initial deposit, was being told that he couldn't just buy a Chinese SIM card for his iPhone, he'd have to buy a new iPhone. And he wouldn't be able to call Germany. He went outside to smoke until we were done.

Which was hours later.

Finally, they showed us the mid-range phones. We picked a model of Samsung phone. They didn't have it. But they didn't take the floor model off display. So we picked an HTC phone. Then they wanted us to pick our phone numbers from a list of available numbers. We said we didn't care, which seemed impossible to them. Finally, the clerk picked for us, giving us two numbers that are heavy on 4s, since 4 is an unlucky number here, so she had extra ones to give to people who weren't hung up on that.

So, so much paperwork later, we left with two cell phones with incredibly-limited plans. We cannot call internationally, we have 46 minutes of talk each month, and we have 240 text messages. Also, we have almost no mobile data before overages apply.

Evidently billing is not really a thing here. We signed a two-year contract, but we also had to pre-pay for a period of time. If we had paid for all two years at once, we would have received a discount, but since we didn't have cash for that, we paid for six months.

Immediately, we began receiving Chinese texts and phone calls we couldn't understand. We asked the Chinese colleague whose job it is to help with these things, but that was before we had learned that he wasn't actually going to help with these things. We were concerned that, with our severely-limited plan, these calls and texts were a real hardship. Finally, I got him to help remove me from the calling list. He took my phone, called a number, talked for a while, and then asked me for my passport number.

What? You need my passport number to not receive spam texts? After doing this once, he handed my phone back to me like he was done, even though the screen clearly showed several others that needed attention.

As best we could tell from the texts, my wife was close to going over her data limit towards the end of our first month here. I mentioned this to the woman who sits next to me at work, and she said she actually had gone over that month, and her phone had been turned off, even though she, like us, had given China Unicorn a giant pile of money. Evidently they do not apply your account credit to your account debit.

My work changed their wi-fi system, which made it so my phone says it's on the wi-fi network except that it's not. I became aware of this when my phone got turned off. We asked the Chinese colleague who's supposed to help us if he could translate the text messages for us. He said, "Call the phone company." At what number? And how would we speak to them? Finally, my colleague ended his reply e-mail with, "Let me know if I can help."

I went to see him. I said, "You say to let you know if you can help, be we did let you know exactly how you could help and you wouldn't do it." He said, "You still don't know what the texts say?" He told me quite condescendingly to call the text address (even though all other phone numbers here are 11 digits and the text address is five digits) and they have a menu option for speaking English (which we were supposed to assume, I guess, even though it's uncommon, and it's the mark of an "ugly American" to expect foreigners to speak English).

The woman on the phone told me to go to a newsstand and buy a pre-paid phone card, then call a different five-digit number, pick a different menu option for English, and enter the code to have the money applied to my past-due balance. But at the newsstand, they had a fancy-schmancy machine that just applied the money directly to my account. I got a text right then confirming that the money had been applied.

Unrelated follow-up: I saw Leenoose the other day, and he introduced himself to someone as Linus. But I still don't know if he ever got a bank account or a cell phone plan.

Chinese Banks

My school had all the employees open accounts at the same Chinese bank. They told us they chose this bank because it was closest to campus and because this bank would have English-speaking employees who could help us. Except the branch closest to campus can't do international transfers and doesn't have any English-speaking employees.

Anyway, the day that we were sleeping on the floor of the Houston airport, the other new-arrival teachers were on a mass exodus to the bank with school employees to shepherd them through the process of opening accounts. Since we arrived late, we would have to do this later.

After my first week of work, I had an appointment with one of my Chinese colleagues to go open a bank account. He would then take us to the cell phone store, so my wife had to come along, which meant that my entire family had to come along. I talked with him to make sure he knew about this.

That morning, he pulled up in his five-passenger car to drive us to the bank. And he had added another new-arrival teacher to our trip, a German kid named Linus (who introduced himself with a German pronunciation of "Leenoose"). Just the first of many, many instances of incomplete communication.

I sat in the front passenger seat with Jerome on my lap (China's cool like that). My wife sat in back with Screamapilar on her lap. Next to her was Crazy Jane with Articulate Joe on her lap. And next to them was Leenoose.

The reason we had to go with this colleague was because he could translate for us and help us understand the process. Except he couldn't. He knew enough English that it would be insulting to tell him his translating wasn't working, but not enough English to actually help us or the bank teller understand each other. We spent over an hour trying to describe a joint account. Next thing we knew, my wife had her own bank account. We hadn't brought enough money (still just with whatever we had exchanged at the airport) for two initial deposits. More talking ensued. It turns out, as best we can tell, Chinese people don't have joint accounts. If they just would have told us that, we would have stopped asking for it right away.

Leenoose was just as surprised as we were. "My parents have one bank account back in Germany," he said, making us feel super old. Thanks for equating us to your parents, Leenoose.

The only bit of information our Chinese colleague translated well for us was when a female bank employee wanted to let Leenoose know she thought he was very handsome. (The dude is. Seriously.) But it wasn't all poor translating: he also managed to leave necessary documents on his desk at work and have to go back and get them.

After several hours sitting in a bank, we left with two bank accounts, one of which had been drawn down to $0.16, and several hungry and annoyed children (including Leenoose). Of course, we then had the opportunity to go spend several hours at the cell phone store, but for artistic purposes (do you like how I just claimed to be an artist there?) I will leave cell phone encounters for a different post.

All the foreign teachers at this school have to transfer money to their overseas bank accounts to pay their bills. So it's only natural that there is no instruction available on how to do this. My boss's boss, who is also brand-new this year, went and stumbled through the process, taking notes, so the rest of us would know what was needed.

To transfer money, I need a tax form showing I legally earned the money. But I wouldn't get a tax form until I'd had taxes withheld. So for the first three months, if we wanted to have money transferred, we had to have a Chinese colleague do it for us. We would give him cash, he would deposit it in his account, then send the money to his American friend, who happened to be right there with him. This has some different limitations on it, though, so the Chinese colleagues had to take turns. When I needed to transfer money, I got to go with the guy who had taken us to the bank the first time.

Because he seemed to be under orders to make everything as difficult as possible, he had a different bank than all the other teachers. So we had to go to his bank, where the ATM let me withdraw nearly $2,000 with no ATM fee*. Then we went through a process that was completely unique to his bank, so I could learn nothing for future reference when I needed to conduct a transfer on my own. He told me the transfer fee would be ¥150; I gave him ¥200 and received no change.

The next month, with my newly-printed tax form in hand, I went to the bank on my own. Only the newest bank employee spoke English, but she didn't know how to do anything yet, so she had a supervisor standing over her shoulder training her. She declined some information that my American bank told me was vitally necessary, but my transfer went through, so I guess it was okay. Finally, she charged me a transfer fee of ¥100.

This past week, I returned to transfer some more. My employee from last time still only had "TRAINING" on her name tag, but she was busy, so I got the guy next to her, who said he could speak English, but then couldn't really. (He also wanted to know if the 6 I wrote was a 4.) He did not charge me any transfer fee at all.

So what generalizations can I make from my encounters with Chinese banks? For starters, nothing is uniform. The "fee" to do anything is completely fluid. Also, there will come a time in every transaction when the clerk's actions, expression, and body language make you believe that your request cannot be met and you're about to be arrested for even asking. This usually means you're almost done. And don't let the computers fool you: everything is still very much done by hand. The computers are only there to print out the pile of papers. Seriously. And you might think it is helpful to tell them how many yuan you want to transfer out, since that is how your account is denominated, but what they are really doing is first buying dollars and then transferring the dollars, so it's actually best to tell them how many dollars you want to buy. Finally, banks have a large collection of chairs where you wait for your number to be called. VIP customers get to jump in line, so you never really have a good handle of how many people are in front of you. You can think "my number's next" and have six people helped before you. But at least you get to sit and do something instead of standing on queue.

* = I withdrew $2,000 from another bank's ATM and my bank only charged me a fee of $0.33. The next month I withdrew $160 from my bank's ATM in a different city and my bank charged me a fee of over $4. The next month I tried to withdraw $650 from my bank's ATM and I received an error message because this exceeded my maximum daily allowance.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

I've Been Sick

Earlier this week I was quite sick for a day, then exhausted the next day. But things are looking better, now.

Our third kid, Jerome Jerome the Metronome, felt sick this morning before I left for work. In case I didn't feel bad about that, he made sure to tell me on my way out the door, "I think I got it from you."

Thanks, bud.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Worst Things About China

I'm trying to stay positive about life in China, but some things just suck. Does it make them suck less if I ignore them? Probably, but I'm not that good of a person.

When we first got here, our apartment building was top of the list. My school has undertaken a bunch of cosmetic changes that were not completed before our arrival, so everything was dusty and filled with toxic odors. Going outside was a terrible inconvenience, and even when we just stayed in like trapped rats (or carrots, as Russ Cargill would say), the toxic fumes would seep inside. More than once we had to abandon the living room because of paint fumes.

Mercifully, those repairs are done now, and our building isn't too bad.

Still on the list, though, are bathrooms, undisclosed information, and, sadly, church attendance.

Bathrooms all smell terrible here. Even the fanciest bathroom in the nicest establishment is going to smell like an open sewer. I thought it was due to squat toilets having open holes to sewer pipes, but the church bathrooms have recently been remodeled and have only ever featured sit-down toilets, yet they still smell terrible. Is it from the tap water? I don't know. When we went to Tianjin, our hotel bathroom was so nice that I decided we would, once each month, spend the night in a hotel, even if it's just down the street from our apartment, so we could take a hot shower that didn't look like it was set in a post-apocalyptic horror film's torture hospital set.

I've already written about undisclosed information. For instance, our school has a pool. How do we use it? No one has told us. So we ask. And they say, "You go to the pool." Hours, entry cards, regulations? No disclosure. An e-mail references something called a "deep water card." I ask what that means and no one can tell me. My wife and I go to look around and we get chased out of the pool because (as best we can tell, anyway) we are wearing street shoes on the pool deck. Evidently there is a rule posted somewhere about that. A rule that could be translated and shared with people who want to use the pool. How many other rules are posted? But when we ask, we're told, "You just go use the pool."

Finally, church. I understood coming here that church would be more difficult than it is in America. But I didn't really expect it to be so disproportionately difficult for different church members, and I really didn't expect that a source of the disproportionality would be those with little burden shifting some of their burden onto those with more. I feel many people in our branch have no idea what church is like for some of us, and they will never have any idea as long as they continue to have no contact with us. Now our building is going to have four branches using it every Sunday, and preliminary word we heard yesterday is that our meeting will start at 8:30. This means we have to leave our house no later than 7 am, which means we have to wake up our kids no later than 6. We will either have to eat while we're out, bring food with us to eat during church, or not eat until returning home at 1 pm.

I've read some online recently about the success of member groups in West Africa. I wish we would be allowed to have a member group. As it is, how am I supposed to do missionary work among my non-Chinese-national colleagues? "I know you know nothing about this church so far, but do you want to skip some meals and spend three hours standing up on the subway so you can find out more?"

There's an aspect of class distinction at play, as well, but I'm ignoring that for now. I just don't want church to be such a terrible experience every week, and instead of getting better, it is promising to get much worse.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In the Academy But Not of the Academy

Here's an article about Brigham Young University professor Ralph Hancock's concerns over secularism's sway over Mormon intellectuals.

From its beginning as an anti-Mormon newspaper, the Trib is maybe no longer married to the format, but they have never given up flirting with it. So I read this article more as having a "look how close-minded and reactionary Hancock is" attitude than a Deseret News attitude of "Hancock warns of serious problem" or a neutral attitude of "Hancock says there's a problem."

The reason I link to this story is this paragraph here.

And here is Hancock’s deepest concern: The "dominant orientation" of the so-called bloggernacle — the universe of Mormon blogs — "assumes the moral superiority of intellectuals to church authorities."
I wouldn't say that the "dominant orientation" of the bloggernacle is secularist, but then I perhaps don't read as many different types of Mormon blogs as he does. I read a lot of old-school FARMS blogs, not new-school MI blogs. I don't read Feminist Mormon Housewives at all, and most of the material there that makes it to my attention meets with my disapproval. I don't listen to Mormon Stories, and the "personal attack" of John Dehlin by Gregory L. Smith that precipitated the MI restructuring seemed reasonable, balanced, and--above all--important. So while I might disagree with Hancock's analysis of the breadth of the problem, I completely agree that the problem exists and is a problem.

So here's my part, as a tiny corner of the bloggernacle, to fix this problem. If I have not in the past been explicit in these opinions, that doesn't mean I didn't espouse them.

  • God the Father is a real being, of tangible parts.
  • Jesus Christ is His physical Son, the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind.
  • The Gospel of Jesus Christ was lost through apostasy after the early apostolic period, and is being restored to Earth, starting in 1820.
  • Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God, just like Abraham, Moses, or Isaiah.
  • The Family: A Proclamation to the World, perhaps is nothing more than a policy statement, but policy cannot be changed without direction. Although the proclamation has not been introduced in General Conference for acceptance of the church as scripture, it has been quoted again and again by leaders whose formal statements are taken as teachings from God.
  • Too many members of the church today seek to counsel the Lord and refuse to take counsel from his hand (see Jacob 4:10). We believe church leaders may have faults, but finding fault with church leaders is not helpful to anyone, especially the fault-finder.

I would probably write a clearer, more-complete blog post, but I'm home on a Saturday afternoon with four kids who are constantly yelling, and who can't be turned out-of-doors because the air quality is terrible today. So this will have to suffice for now.

Do Blind People Arbitrage?

The other day I was talking to my class about compensating differentials. I mentioned lower housing prices near airports as an example. I also mentioned the fact that negative externalities only exist where there is uncompensated harm. If a loud apartment dweller has two neighbors, one of whom hates the noise and one of whom doesn't care, only the one neighbor is experiencing a negative externality.

Suddenly, I had a question: do deaf people take advantage of compensating differentials tied to noise?

If you're deaf, you should live near the airport. Your housing payments will be lower, but that won't be offset with the negative externality of the noise. I guess that might end if landlords near airports come to realize the area has become a deaf ghetto, but if deaf people played it cool, they could totally be getting the mythical free lunch.

A researcher should map the houses of deaf people and overlay a map of ambient noise.

Friday, November 28, 2014

When Soccer Sucked

I've reached an age where I regret things that are passed and can never come back. One is playing soccer. Students at my school play every day, but the faculty has a terrible time trying to coordinate a once-a-week game, and the time favored by my colleagues is one I can't make. I've come to accept the fact that I am basically done playing soccer in my life, and I'm sad about it.

But it's not like I didn't have plenty of chances to play when I was younger. But back then, soccer sucked. Soccer was the worst sport on Earth, and I begged my way out of it when I was 12. At a church youth activity when I was 16, I joined in a soccer game and was shocked to discover that, actually, soccer didn't suck at all. But by the time you're in your mid-teens, you're either really good at a sport or you don't play it anymore.

Why did soccer suck when I was young? Well, one of the biggest reasons was because it was organized. I began playing organized soccer when I was about six years old, and from the beginning we were categorized and assigned roles. I was a defender, not because I was good at defense, but because my coaches felt all I offered the team was the ability to kick the ball away from someone else. The actual enjoyable parts of defense were not acknowledged. It was well understood that, if you were a defender, you were not very good.

Another big reason was the other kids. Constantly hearing the assessment of self-determined superior teammates was tiresome. I hated soccer practice because of my teammates and the coaches who failed to control them.

And the tactics sucked, mainly because there were tactics at all. The game was coached as a series of one-on-one confrontations. Passing was a sign of weakness. Skills were ignored. Winning games mattered. We played on regulation-sized fields from the beginning, which meant soccer was a lot of kicking the ball into empty space, especially when everyone went to the ball.

One year my team had a get-to-know-you event at a teammate's home. His parents had a foreign soccer game on TV to create ambiance. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to watch soccer. Wasn't it at least as boring and pointless as playing soccer?

When I returned to soccer at 16, after the game my friends on the high-school team said, "You're really good. Why haven't you tried out for the team?" Because until then, I hadn't known I was good at soccer. I had been playing a soccer-themed game called running-and-hierarchy-ball and I wasn't any good at that.

I would like to think my boys are actually experiencing soccer. Joe is a natural defender, and so we present defense as a desirable position, not the lot of the also-rans who can't be removed from the field because of rules about minimum number of players. Jerome is a natural attacker, so he has had plenty of opportunities to play defense, because he's only six.

Recently I've read some criticism of the pay-to-play system that permeates American soccer leagues more than some other sports. The good thing about raising the stakes is that coaching increases in quality. The bad news is that more kids are excluded, the best of the poor athletes go to other sports, and the hierarchy aspect of running-and-hierarchy-ball is increased. My kids have many, many fewer opportunities to play soccer than I had growing up. I guess the hierarchy aspect of the game extends to parents, too.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

It's the Little Things

Nothing really went “wrong” all day--not much ever does at Morgan and Patel--but not much went right, either. Traffic wasn't bad, but it was still traffic. I didn't have to drive past the three idiots on the billboard, but I could see them in my rear view mirror. A couple of projects I thought I had finished had come back to my desk, marked up with asinine questions in Grant's illegible scrawl. Paul let slip that he had Bucks tickets for the game that night, but he'd asked a new guy from his department, some young new college grad that all the older guys had a man-crush on. Jenna adjusted her breasts and looked up to catch me mid-ogle. Shelby called three times, once to tell me she couldn't find her keys, once to tell me I would have to come home at lunch to give her my key to the car, and once to tell me that she found her keys right where I had told her to look the first time she called. Some heating and cooling guys were working in the ceiling and were using an access point immediately outside my cubicle, blocking my entrance with their ladder. I got a phone call when I was on my way out to lunch, and I had to be back in time for a meeting at one, so my lunch hour was barely twenty minutes. When I got to the deli, the line was too long to wait. My one o'clock meeting turned out to be canceled. The company network was down for almost an hour. Shelby called me from the road to tell me she had forgotten to turn off the sprinkler in the back yard, so the grass would probably be swamped by the time I got home. I was going to recoup my lost lunch time by slipping out early, but Grant told me I had to stay until five because he was leaving early. Traffic again on the way home. The mocking billboard. Nothing good on the radio. Four bills in the mail. One of the boys had broken the leg off the piano bench. The cat had deliberately pissed next to the litter box. (Vanishing Vapour, pp. 54-5)

A common complaint among the readers of my novel--all four of them--is that the main character's motivation seems inadequate. "He has one bad day and he kills himself?" they ask. (Not really a spoiler alert; it's revealed in the novel's first sentence.)

To me, that part seems most authentic. Giant challenges in life can elicit a fighting response, but a sea of tiny annoyances just wash you down to oblivion.

I read an article entitled "Little Daily Stresses Can Kill You, Science Says" and although the author is writing about a different mechanism of death, the idea is the same. It's the little things that you can't fight back against, because there are a billion of them.

Every time my melancholia rises, it's the result of an hour-long parade of tiny setbacks. For instance, yesterday I had to work on Thanksgiving. At 7:45 a student rushed into my office to tell me why his score on his most-recent homework was low and that I should allow him to rewrite it. He returned an hour later to see what I had decided. Immediately outside my classroom smelled like a turkey dinner. A student presentation was a five-minute tirade on the arrogance of white people. (She was supposed to discuss the connection between minimum wage laws and unpaid internships.) I returned to my office to have my boss say, "Everything on your to-do list is crossed off so neatly," which, to me, sounded an awful lot like, "I read through your to-do list while you were out."

Many of my readers are probably thinking, "Geez, what a baby." I know because many of my readers have said as much to me in person. Oh well. I probably won't win any additional readers by telling you, "Why don't you suck it?"

So I'll just think it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Travel, Past and Future

Yesterday I saw a slideshow (it's like a news story, but easier on the brain) of the world's largest cities. Some of them I've visited, some I plan to visit, and some I probably will never see.

28. Jakarta, Indonesia (10.1 m.): I have the feeling I'd die there.
27. London, England (10.1 m.): Not as threatening as Jakarta, but also not as close. My wife has been there and loved it, and I always promise I'll "make up" any accidental pregnancy with a trip to London, so maybe we'll end up visiting there before we're through.
26. Shenzhen, China (10.6 m.): I expect we'll end up visiting there before we leave China, if only because it's the border crossing to go to Hong Kong.
25. Paris, France (10.7 m.): Poland's most-beautiful city (that's a little trolling of any far-right French readers I might have), Paris has a lot of stuff that I recognize, so I should probably go one day.
24. Tianjin, China (10.8 m.): VISITED.
23. Kinshasa, D.R. Congo (11.1 m.): Another place I would expect to die. And not near anything that attracts westerners to Africa (unless you're Kurtz).
22. Guangzhou, China (11.8 m.): There's a really good chance we'll visit there, since nearly every flight from Beijing to Southeast Asia is routed through Guangzhou. (Less obvious is why they all have 28-hour layovers.)
21. Moscow, Russia (12.1 m.): Maybe as dangerous as Kinshasa. I recently read a tweet from someone who was assaulted on the Moscow Metro for wearing a shirt with an English slogan on it, but his attacker became his best friend when he responded in fluent Russian. I don't have the language skills to placate the xenophobes.
20. Los Angeles, CA (12.3 m.): VISITED.
19. Lagos, Nigeria (12.6 m.): I'd probably die before I got off the plane.
18. Manila, Philippines (12.7 m.): I think we might visit the Philippines before we leave China. It seems like a cheaper, less-dangerous Thailand (and since we're going to Thailand next month, we should visit the Philippines and see if my supposition is correct).
17. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (12.8 m.): Who doesn't want to visit Rio? But I don't have the body for it right now. Or probably never again since I was 17, really.
16. Chongqing, China (12.9 m.): There's a really, really good chance we'll visit here, since it's near Chengdu, Panda Flophouse of the World.
15. Istanbul, Turkey (13.9 m.): I'd like to see Hagia Sophia and walk across a bridge between continents, but I wish Turkey made an effort to change the English-language name of their country to something less ridiculous, like Turkia, and the government's lack of commitment in the fight against Islamic State gives me pause before I turn the browser in Expedia's direction.
14. Calcutta, India (14.7 m.): I like the idea of India, but I knew a guy who went to India and was hit in the head with a brick thrown at his van. It turns out Indians love the lulz just as much as the next ethnic group. My wife has no interest in visiting India (also a safety concern, I believe), and I don't really know what there is to do in Calcutta aside from seeing poor people. Well, they have a Black Hole there. I guess that's something.
13. Buenos Aires, Argentina (15.0 m.): It's so far away. It just seems tiring.
12. Karachi, Pakistan (16.1 m.): We've had a lot of fun joking about dying on trips so far this post, but let's not kid ourselves: there's only one city on this list where I'd really die, and that city's Karachi.
11. Dhaka, Bangladesh (16.9 m.): Less open defecation than Calcutta. When that's your selling feature, you need to reevaluate your life.
10. Cairo, Egypt (18.4 m.): Sure, pyramids, but what else? It doesn't seem worth the trip. All the good stuff's in the British Museum anyway, right?
9. New York, NY (18.6 m.): VISITED.
8. Beijing, China (19.5 m.): VISITED.
7. Osaka, Japan (20.1 m.): My wife visited Japan when she was younger and she would like to go back while we live in Asia.
6. Mumbai, India (20.7 m.): All the poverty of Calcutta with the added annoyance of its stupid name change. No thanks.
5. São Paulo, Brazil (20.8 m.): Brazil without the beach? Whose idea was that, and how quickly was he fired?
4. Mexico City, Mexico (20.8 m.): I've already been to several large Mexican cities (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, et cetera). I've already experienced pollution tourism. What else does Mexico City have to offer?
3. Shanghai, China (23.0 m.): An excellent chance we'll visit soon.
2. Delhi, India (25.0 m.): Delhi will see your rampant poverty, Calcutta, and raise you worse air than China (seriously).
1. Tokyo, Japan (38.0 m.): Another city we will probably visit in the next two years.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Member Missionary Work?

My school's term calendar showed one Sunday and one Saturday we would be working. So far we're halfway through the term and I've worked three Sundays and two Saturdays.*

When I have to work on Sunday, my family goes to church without me. One such Sunday, while I was at my desk, I got an e-mail notification that my daughter had created a Google Calendar event called "Church!" and had invited me to it.

One Sunday that I was not working, my wife and I were thinking of stopping on the way home from church to see a cultural site or two. So as we were getting ready that morning, I said to my wife, "What are we going to do today?" My daughter replied, and her most scandalous voice, "Go to church!"

Maybe this is why our branch hasn't bothered to give us callings (or even meet with us): they heard from my daughter that we're non-active.

* = These work days are supposed to replace holidays. So they give you the national holiday, then have you work it back the next weekend. Lots of stuff about China is great, and some of it is less-than-ideal, but the only thing that works me into a murderous rage is a one-day weekend.

Atrocity Porn

It seems my school makes a yearly field trip to a World War Two museum, which, in an effort to produce reasoned dialog and international cooperation, the Chinese refer to as "The War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression."

I had no interest in going. I lived in the Washington, DC, area for four years and made sure I never once entered the United States Holocaust Museum, and I was not about to spend an afternoon looking at exhibits detailing the Rape of Nanjing (link intentionally not included).

I've already told you that I hate Holocaust deniers and downplayers. I don't need to see a murdered Jew to fully understand the severity of what happened. Maybe some do, and so I'm not going to generalize to a condemnation of such museums. I just don't see any benefit to my life, while I see a giant downside.

Worst of all would be treating these tragedies as a type of entertainment, or manipulating them for political purposes. Holocaust museums aren't trying to hold something over Germany's head for the rest of history, they are opposed to modern antisemitism.

I feel I'm making my point very poorly. A partial reason is my tiredness. Another is my reticence to criticize the internal workings of my hosts. And another is my desire to not really think about these things more than absolutely necessary. I don't need to watch a rape, or even a rape reenactment, to know it's a terrible thing. (By the way, add "rape" to the list of things I hate, and "rape apologists" to the list of people I wish would die in a fire.)

Denouement: my school allowed the international faculty to opt for a visit to a nearby bridge instead. It was a nearly-unanimous decision.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chinese (Lack of) Toilets

Amidst the raging debate over squat toilet v. sit toilet emerges a sizable party advocating the Third Way: just go in the street.

China has an open defecation problem that is not adequately communicated by this map. When you see that something less than 10% of rural Chinese poop in the open, you might reasonably expect that the cities have, literally speaking, their shit under control.

Tell that to the teenage boy I saw pooping in the planter outside the grocery store yesterday around noon.

The idea of using a store bathroom is anathema here. Although cities have public restrooms (our building is right next door to one), they are less frequent than necessary, and often difficult to find if you are unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

It's not just a matter of poverty or culture or education. Seemingly-similar countries can have drastically different public pooping outcomes.

No one in our family has pooped in the street (yet), but Jerome has peed in the streets several times. The first time, we were sitting in a Subway, eating ham sandwiches that smelled of fish, and he had to pee. There was no public restroom in the building on on the block. My wife hoped we could get some sympathy for a small child, and perhaps some business would let Jerome pee in the employee restroom, but she took him out on the street to stand around and look helpless for a while, then turned it over to me. So we went down the alley behind Subway and found an area of relative seclusion. He resisted at first, but ended up deciding that peeing on a Dumpster was better than peeing in his pants.

The next time, I took the boys to lunch. As we approached the restaurant, Jerome said, "Oh, I forgot that I needed to go to the bathroom." Since his mother wasn't there, we didn't have to start with the false attempts at civilization and modesty; I immediately guided him to an area behind a shrub, on the side of a convenience store near a busy intersection, and told him not to pee on the equipment the store owners were keeping back there or else they would come out and yell at him.

Later in the meal, he had to go again. We were nearly done, so I asked if he could wait until we got home. Since he's six years old, of course he could not. I told him to go back to the side of the convenience store. He's our most adventurous child, so he left on his own without a problem. A moment later, he was back. It seemed there were kids hanging out in his pee location. I thought of giving him the keys to our apartment and sending him home, but he can't unlock the door by himself. I gave him directions to the public restroom outside our building, but it became obvious he would not make it that far. So I told him to suck it up and pee in front of the kids on the side of the building. He came back a little later, happy to report that the kids had left and he had some privacy at his busy intersection.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Chinese Toilets, Part 3

It's about to get awkward up in here.

How many toilet posts can I have before I start sharing things you wish I hadn't? The answer is "two."

I decided to be proactive and acclimate to squat toilets before I find myself in a dire situation. When the time comes that I'm rushing to a public toilet after eating some suspicious street food, only to find a solid phalanx of squat toilets, do I want that to be my first attempt at using one? I'll be much better off if I'm used to them by then.

So one Saturday that I had to work (even though students were not in class--this place makes poor decisions sometimes), I decided to use the squat toilet for the first time.

This is your final warning.

Westerners cannot get into as deep of a squat as easterners because we all stopped squatting when we were two. When westerners squat, our heels come off the ground and we balance on the balls of our feet, still over a foot above the target. Because of this higher placement, aim becomes more important. An easterner can use a squat toilet completely hands-free, I'd bet, but westerners must ensure proper direction. And when you're hunched over in a squat with a shirt bunched up and some extra weight around your midsection, you can't always get a good read on what's going on down there.

I became aware that I had urinated on my own ankle when I felt the dampness of my pants against my skin.

I texted my wife the three words no wife ever wants to receive in a text message: "Squat toilet mishap." I requested she send a kid over with replacement pants, socks, and shoes. And then I waited in the bathroom until I heard my kid out in the building hallway. I changed in the bathroom and sent my kid back home with a bag of my soiled clothes. And I never explained to my coworkers why I changed clothes in the middle of the day.

Since then I've been flawless. My success rate is now over 90%. But it will never again be 100%.

Chinese Toilets, Part 2

A strange phenomenon around here is the sexy toilet ad. One I've seen in a few different subway stations has a painfully-attractive couple standing over a sleek toilet, giving it sultry looks. The man and woman are touching, but I can't help feeling they both have the hots for the toilet. Every time I see the ad and want to take a picture, we're either late going somewhere or the platform is incredibly crowded. I'll keep trying, though.

When we were in Tianjin, we walked past a store selling home furnishings, and I noticed a billboard with a sexy toilet ad. Then I noticed another one, this one for a different brand, above the first. So sexy toilet ads are definitely a thing here.

My wife speculated that such ads are necessary because western toilet manufacturers have to induce Chinese customers to replace their squat toilets with bowl toilets. In America, they don't have to convince you that you need a toilet, they just have to convince you that you need a cool one (like this wall-mounted one, which seems awesome until you realize that all the pee that normally ends up on the tank will instead be on your wall). The initial threshold is a little higher here, so they have to use gorgeous people to help get over it.

Someone who would have a hard time with these ad campaigns would be my former college housemate (who had such a lasting impact on my life that I can't remember his name). He would ask the rest of us in the house, "Do you think a girl's rear is attractive?" If we answered yes, he'd ask, "You know that's where her poop comes out, right?"

Chinese Toilets, Part 1

Back when we first got to China and I had technical issues, I wrote this blog post for later use. In the meanwhile, conditions have changed, but for completeness, I will share this mostly as it was written and add a follow-up post later.

I know what you’re thinking: “He’s going to write about squat toilets.” Well, the joke’s on YOU, sucker: I haven’t even USED a squat toilet yet! Because I have no idea HOW, smart guy. I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I drop my pants and squat, I’m still right over top of my pants. I can think of a less-elaborate way to poop in my pants, thanks.

Actually, I’ve watched YouTube videos about how to use a squat toilet, and I think I have a better handle on how to go about my business. (Think “pants around knees,” not “pants around ankles.”)

“Hold on, fool,” you say. “You watched YouTube videos on how to use a toilet?” Yes. What of it? I know it makes me sound like a giant nerd, but YouTube videos can be really helpful. I basically taught myself effective swimming technique from library books and YouTube videos. I had some Indian students who invited me to play cricket with them, so I checked a book out of the library to make sure I knew what I should be doing. (I never ended up going because they rescinded the offer when I gave them failing grades.) People make fun of me when they hear these stories, but isn’t that what libraries and YouTube are for? (Well, libraries, anyway. YouTube is probably for watching this cat massage video.)

So anyway, if I’m not writing about squat toilets, what AM I writing about?

The stink.

We live on the fifth floor, 50 feet above the sewer, but our bathrooms stink like sewage day and night. You see, the shower drains connect to the toilet pipes, and each bathroom has two floor drains that do the same. So we have four holes in our apartment that conduct sewer gas into our place. We’ve taped up the floor drains, but the shower drains are still a problem. I’m thinking of getting plunger heads to set atop the drains when we’re not using the showers.

I was sort of relieved when I learned that it’s not just our bathroom that stinks. Every bathroom I’ve used has smelled like sewage, even in fancy restaurants and offices. The bathroom at church smells like the bathroom in an American bus station, and it is one of the nicest ones I've seen so far.

Monday, November 17, 2014

China Travels Map

I promised a map, to no one in particular. And here it is.

At the end of August, we landed at the airport, which is mostly in Shunyi. We BARELY (and I mean barely barely) drove through Tongzhou, then through Chaoyang and into Haidian, where we live. Two days later we went to church for the first time. Our local subway station straddles a district boundary, so by the time we got on a train, we had entered Shijingshan. We then rode across Xicheng and Dongcheng. That afternoon, my work coordinated a trip to Ikea for all new arrivals, and that took me through Fengtai to Daxing.

On Halloween, my school took us on a field trip to hike around some mountain. On the bus ride home, we barely entered Mentougou (though not as barely as our entering Tongzhou). Then last week my family took the train to Tianjin. We right across Tongzhou, so the brief visit on the way home from the airport no longer mattered. During our three days in Tianjin, we managed to visit all six of the city-center districts.

This data set has some problems. Since Beijing and Tianjin are municipalities that are equivalent to provinces, their districts are equivalent to other provinces' municipalities. Until I get around to fixing this layer, though, it shows province boundaries in bold dashed lines and district boundaries in thin solid lines. This makes it look like the surrounding province, Hebei, has many more top-level divisions than it really has. It's not that big of a deal right now because I haven't been to Hebei yet (though my daughter has, because of Girls Camp), but I don't want anyone (like my wife) to look at the number of divisions shown on this map for Hebei and freak out that I want us to go to them all. China actually only has somewhere around 400 second-level divisions, and I've already been to 18 of them (almost five percent).

Whisper Sweet Nothings, Which Is to Say, Whisper Nothing

Some accents sound sexy. These are the accents that beautiful foreign exchange students have in teen romantic comedies. But not all accents are so lucky. Some sound like the vocal equivalent of a garbage truck falling off the Empire State Building (which was the worst sound Large Marge ever did hear).

I recently had to talk with a woman who has a terribly strong Upper Midwest accent. It got me to wondering: is there any accent on Earth that is less attractive? Maybe something like a Bronx accent, or a Cockney accent. Russian accents can be okay, but very strong ones can make even the most-effeminate woman sound like a dude in disguise. Appalachian accents are pretty grating, too.

Lots of these accents might be unattractive because of their class implications. Ladies with Bronx accents aren't genteel. But the Upper Midwest is a relatively-middle-class area. Nobody hears someone from Minnesota and thinks, "Oh, you sound poor!" But they also don't think, "Ooh la la!"

I'm aware that, to many people around the world, the American accent is just such an unattractive accent. I'm fine with that. I get how someone could hear me talk and shudder in revulsion. Like I do when I hear people from the Upper Midwest.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Street Food Success!

Right after we figured out that our jianbing guy was actually our kaolengmian guy, he got chased off the streets for APEC. Because so many visiting dignitaries were cruising our neighborhood, let me tell you. All the street vendors had to vamoos, but the rotting garbage substation immediately next to our building was allowed to carry on, no questions asked.

Anyway, last night, in an effort to overcome my anger of having to work on a Saturday (I really should have included our "holiday replacement days" on my list of most-hated things), we went to see if they were back yet. And they were!

We celebrated their return by getting two. And they celebrated their return by making them twice as spicy as normal.

While we stood at the cart, watching the husband-and-wife team work, the guard from the nearby grocery store came over to tell everyone standing around that we have four kids. We don't know this guard, but he knows us. He told them we have a daughter and three sons. The kaolengmian guy was incredulous.

An old lady wanted to chat us up, but we'd already passed the limit of our Chinese language skills. Like most people we've met, though, she was completely undeterred when I said to her, "Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen." Another customer at the cart started translating for us, and the old lady also cut back some to simpler words we could recognize. She wanted to know if I was a teacher at the local school and if we came from America.

As we walked home, my wife said, "How did that guard know we have four kids? I haven't taken all four kids with me to the grocery store in a long time. I usually leave at least three home."

I said, "It's probably a game to him. He's like, 'Here's that white lady again, and this time with a different kid.' He probably keeps track of how many different kids he sees you with."

I had a meal of all the finest things China has to offer: kaolengmian, +C, knock-off Peachy-Os, and a single-serving cheesecake cup. It didn't make up for my one-day weekend, but it helped a little.

What Is the Opposite of Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens?

So what else makes me belligerent? In addition to arguments supporting statism and arguments denying the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I also become Bruce-Banner angry when I hear Holocaust denials (or downplays), support of abortion, or plans to restrict parental rights. Militant atheists frustrate me, but only receive my ire when they aim to use the state to enforce their religion. (And yes, atheism is a religion. Agnosticism is not, but rare is the true agnostic. It is usually a term used by atheists to make themselves more palatable.)

Former Mormons generally disappoint me, but the ones who can't just leave the Church alone get me angry. Pro-Palestinians, invariably fancied-up anti-Semites, also anger me. Generally, anyone who downplays terrorism sickens me. Islamic State beheadings and everyone who is not repulsed by them infuriate me.

A few years ago, a Cambodian woman at church was asked to give the sermon (Mormons rotate through the congregation giving sermons, which are just referred to as "talks.") The typical talk lasts about 15 minutes and is based on scriptures and teachings of church leaders. This woman's talk last about 40 minutes and it was just a recounting of her experiences under the Khmer Rouge. The more I listened, the more I was angered by the 1960s anti-war movement. The line from Country Joe and the Fish ("One, two, three, what are we fightin' for?") was shockingly answered. We were fighting so this woman and millions like her wouldn't have their spouses murdered, their children stolen, and their heads bashed in when they tried to learn the fates of their loved ones (among other experiences recounted). And any 1960s college student could have learned that had they not been so self-centered. "I don't want to save Asians, man; the sexual revolution's beginning!" Every communist apologist in America was in some small way complicit in what happened to this woman. But my greatest anger was towards the two teenage girls in church who we're mocking how emotional the speaker had become.

These are a few of my least-favorite things.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Great Moments in Internet Flame Wars

This title is not an oxymoron.

I can't stay silent when someone is saying something wrong. (Maybe this is the reason I keep blogging.) This leads me to argue with friends sometimes. But I was raised arguing for sport. My wife and my sisters-in-law don't get how my family disagrees so much. To them, arguing means you're angry with the other person. In my family, though, arguing means you respect the other person's intellect.

Some things aren't worth arguing. If you want to post on Facebook that the Atlanta Braves won the 1973 World Series, I'm only going to contradict you if we're good enough friends. But if you advance statism or deny the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I will come at you like a spider monkey. (NOTE: Wikipedia says spider monkeys aren't that aggressive, but Talladega Nights says otherwise. I think we all know which of those sources is more trustworthy.)


About a week ago, I shared on Facebook this clip of President Obama.

I added,

This is highly offensive to me. Children should be raised by their families, not in "high-quality pre-school." It's not always an option for some families, but that doesn't mean it's not the goal. It is an option much more than it's used. Too many assume maximizing income is how to best care for children.

Two days later, a friend shared a "debunking" and wrote,

When teaching writing, especially informative or persuasive writing, we talk about bias and finding credible sources. It is always a hard lesson for students. What I see on Facebook makes me think adults need that lesson too. First, don't believe everything you read online. EVERYONE has bias. A credible source tries to be objective, even if trying to persuade you of something. For instance, take the stories from conservative websites about Pres. Obama's comments on stay-at-home moms. Out of context his comment has enraged many people. In context, he was giving a speech applauding Rhode Island for its family leave programs that allow parents to be at home with the children and allow those who choose to work not to have to choose between a sick child and a job. The comment that has everyone riled up, in context, is about NOT punishing those who choose to stay home with their children. Additionally, it referred to the trend of women and moms getting the shaft in corporate America because their employers think their work will somehow be infringed upon by having children, that women receive lower wages or are skipped over for promotion because there is the POSSIBILITY they may have children, and that women who do take time off to be stay-at-home moms are penalized when they decide to re-enter the work force. Please, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, do a little research before reacting or posting something. It takes a minimal amount of time and will go a long way to bridging the ever-widening us/them perceptions that prevail. For example, A blog attached to The Wall Street Journal (paper known for its conservative bent) has a vastly different perspective on the speech and what it was about.

I read the transcript of the president's speech. Here is the relevant section.

[THE PRESIDENT:] So women deserve a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And Rhode Island has got the right idea. You’re one of just three states where paid family leave is the law of the land. (Applause.) More states should choose to follow your lead.

It was interesting talking to some of the small business owners in the meeting. They were saying how the Rhode Island law actually helped them do a better job recruiting and retaining outstanding employees. And so that shows you something — that this is not just a nice thing to do; it’s good policy. It’s good for business. It’s good for the economy. (Applause.)

Without paid leave, when a baby arrives or an aging parent needs help, workers have to make painful decisions about whether they can afford to be there when their families need them most. Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth to their child. I mean, there are a lot of companies that still don’t provide maternity leave. Of course, dads should be there, too. So let’s make this happen for women and for men, and make our economy stronger. (Applause.) We’ve got to broaden our laws for family leave.

Moms and dads deserve a great place to drop their kids off every day that doesn’t cost them an arm and a leg. We need better childcare, daycare, early childhood education policies. (Applause.) In many states, sending your child to daycare costs more than sending them to a public university.


THE PRESIDENT: True. (Laughter.) And too often, parents have no choice but to put their kids in cheaper daycare that maybe doesn’t have the kinds of programming that makes a big difference in a child’s development. And sometimes there may just not be any slots, or the best programs may be too far away. And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.

So let’s make this happen. By the end of this decade, let’s enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool, and let’s make sure that we are making America stronger. That is good for families; it’s also good for the children, because we know investing in high-quality early childhood education makes all the difference in the world, and those kids will do better. So we need family leave, we need better child care policies, and we need to make sure that women get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. (Applause.)

How can you read that and think his line "that's not a choice we want Americans to make" is about sick leave? He talks about family leave, then he moves on to child care. He bemoans mothers leaving the workforce because "great" places to "drop off their kids" cost "an arm and a leg." Only by tuning out for about a minute can you think he's still talking about family leave when he says we don't want mothers leaving the workforce to care for their children. This is why he follows it up with a proposal for more children in "high-quality preschool." Preschool doesn't solve a family leave problem. There is no way that the president is not criticizing the decision of stay-at-home moms in this speech.

I commented on my friend's post saying as much. I later got notice that she replied, but I didn't bother reading it. It's not my job to make sure you stop being wrong, only to advance the truth.


I've got a sister-in-law who looks for opportunities to disagree with our mutual church. In the past few years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has started sharing in-depth articles detailing murkier or more-troubling aspects of church history and doctrine. The church has displayed an incredible degree of openness, even releasing this video displaying and discussing the temple garment.

My sister-in-law shared a link to a recent church article regarding the practice of polygamy in the Kirtland and Nauvoo eras and added, "Glad that the church is finally admitting this happened. Wish they'd been a little more straightforward."

Now, I'd share what I wrote in response, but she deletes disagreeing comments from her posts. Repeatedly. The only time I've managed to get her to not delete my comment was when I started with, "Don't delete my comment," which she took as a "personal attack." (She takes all disagreement as a "personal attack," which is her reason for deleting disagreement.) So I'm going to have to recreate my comment from memory.

I wrote something like, "What do you mean 'finally admitting this happened'? The church spent much of the late 1800s taking affidavits from Joseph Smith's surviving wives to refute RLDS claims that polygamous marriages were merely spiritual or symbolic. How can you say a church that had old ladies swear legal documents regarding their sex lives has ever done anything BUT admit this happened? Member ignorance is not leader conspiracy."

My wife predicted that my use of "ignorance" was going to get my comment deleted. Whatever the reason, within a few hours, my comment was gone.

Here's why her deleting dissent angers me more than her wrong comments. She says "X" and I say "Not X." Someone reading can then see both "X" and "Not X" and make a more-informed decision regarding the truth. But when she deletes "Not X", she is, in effect, lying. She is implying to her readers that there is no "Not X" position because no one is sharing it. But she knows there is such a position, because she saw it. Instead of confronting new information and adjusting her priors, she just makes the new information go away. Which is fine if she wants to be wrong. Like I said earlier, it's not my job to make wrong people be right. But it is my job to oppose liars.

Do I delete Facebook comments, or not publish blog comments? Only when they contain excessive profanity or (in the case of my blog) identifying information. (Anyone who really wants to find out who I am probably can, but I don't really want my blog coming up on the first few pages of a Google search of my name, and so far I've been able to keep it that way.) But comments that say in not so many words, "Hey, jackass, you're totally wrong," get to stay. Because maybe I am totally wrong. (And I'm definitely a jackass.)

My sister-in-law posts critical comments regarding church policy on same-sex marriage and female priesthood ordination, and then when anyone posts disagreements, she deletes the disagreements. To her casual follower, her specious arguments appear valid because they go unrefuted. She's no longer making claims about the church; she's effectively creating "facts."

My family has taken a "don't get her angry" approach, but that's just not something I can do. I have to say what is true. I take care to not levy an actual personal attack, and to not be needlessly inflammatory, but I will not be silent in the face of falsehood simply because the falsehood is spread by my brother's wife.

Am I being intolerant? By some standards, I guess. By the modern definition, which requires I embrace everything wrong lest I be accused of intolerance, definitely. I recently read a quotation from President Joseph F. Smith in October 1907 General Conference regarding the proper limits of tolerance. I would like to think my actions are in line with his thinking. But then again, I might be a totally-wrong jackass.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"We Don't Update Our Blogs / We Are Train Wrecks"

I've been messing with my Feedly account, trying to get it linked with my Outlook account because Google is usually blocked in China. Anyway, I used the opportunity to take stock of the blogs I follow. And how many of those blogs are still active.

Nearly every blog I follow that is still producing content is either a professional writer or an intellectual (who are just professional writers who don't have to have readers to get paid). My daughter blogs, and my wife maintains a family blog (I think her personal blog has lapsed). The only other active "dude with sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny opinions" blog I follow is Crank Crank Revolution. (Apologies to Steve if he's actually a professional writer and/or intellectual. Perhaps it's a sign of quality that his blog doesn't scream it through endless shilling.)

I began to wonder if it was just the blogs I followed that shut down, or if everyone did. So I conducted a super-scientific study: I went to my blog and clicked on "next blog" at the top. And then I did it a bunch more times. And it turns out that the only blogs still operating on the Internet are mine and some evangelical Christian ministries.

When was Peak Blog? Judging from the most-recent post of each blog I encountered in my research, it was 2010.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? If I am blogging for attention, I now have less competition. But I probably also have a smaller audience. If I am blogging to get "discovered," the "less-competition" thing still applies, but this also could be an indication that I should adjust my expectations. Everyone else who hoped to get discovered gave up long ago, and I just haven't read the memo yet. If I am blogging because I consider myself a professional writer and/or intellectual, I guess I could trick some people into thinking that's true just by association. "This dude must be legit because he's still got a blog 'n' crap, and only fancy book-learnin' homos still blog, right?" But the gap between my ability and those of the real writers should become more apparent the more they are juxtaposed with no buffer. ("Juxta-what?! I just knewed he was a book-learnin' homo!")

So I spent some time asking myself why I still blog, and the answer is, I don't know. I don't think I'm doing it for any of those reasons. I don't do it for the feedback, because there basically isn't any anymore. Aggregators (like Feedly) have raised the cost of commenting on a blog. It was fun for a while to get new "fans," but those fans have all left and I'm still writing this blog. Probably out of duty, like I'd be a public failure if I ever stopped. Probably out of vanity, because I fantasize that I have thousands of lurkers who hang on my every word. Probably out of procrastination, because I can feel like I did something productive when I write a blog post, even though I didn't. Probably out of justification, because I can tell myself that I'm honing my ideas, even when I write about things that have nothing to do with my topic. Probably out of fun, because I like writing.

So I guess it's just me and the evangelicals. Until the Rapture, anyway.

Post title from the Weezer song, "Train Wrecks."