Friday, October 30, 2015

The International Language

In Better Off Dead, Ricky's mom says her son speaks "the international language" with the French foreign exchange student, which she specifies is the language of love. Teaching in my school's "international" department leads me to believe that the true "international language" is Mandarin Chinese. Because that's all anyone ever uses around here.

At my first orientation I was told we would have special stamps to award students who speak English in the corridors between classes. I've never had to use such a stamp. A co-worker of mine is going slowly insane as he fights a losing battle on WeChat with our IT department to get the computers' operating systems' language settings to remain English. My top classroom rule is "只有英文," which means "English only" (expressed in Chinese for irony). It is continually ignored.

Last week we went on a field trip. Before releasing us into the museum, they made an announcement. "十点五十," I heard. I thought, "That means '10:50,' but surely if they were changing the departure time from 11:30 to 10:50, they would follow that announcement in English." They were changing the departure time, but they did not make an English announcement. I thought maybe it was because the woman with the megaphone spoke no English, so later in the day when I needed her help finding my bus, I held up the Chinese hand-signal for "Six" (which we recognize as "hang loose"). She said, "Bus Six is that way; walk about 30 meters."

Yesterday my family accompanied me to the department's Halloween party. I was certain that it was a national department event because every announcement was made in Chinese, as was the handout showing where different activities were occurring. My wife assured me that the e-mail announcement said it was for the international department only. The people running the event gave one of the handouts to my kids.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Almond Milk and Resource Prices

This week I read a few articles about the environmental impact of plant-based milk, specifically almond milk. Evidently, if you are thinking of drinking some almond milk, you might as well just kick in Earth's door and take an upper-decker in its toilet.

I wish these articles' writers would differentiate between costs borne by the consumer and uncompensated costs borne by society. To say that something uses a resource is meaningless; all items use resources. The question is, did the consumer pay for the resource used?

When a product uses a resource, that resource is no longer available for use in any other product. We use price offered to evaluate value of competing claims. I want to use the same gallon of water as you. I think it will bring me $2 in value. You think it will bring you $4 in value. So you outbid me and you get the water. This is desirable because it allows for our limited resources to go where they produce the most value.

If a single California almond takes over one gallon of water to grow, as claimed, this is not in itself evidence that almond milk is "bad" for the environment. Perhaps California is an inefficient place to grow almonds. The price of almond milk should reflect that. Consumers will stop buying as much almond milk if the price increases. More-efficient growing locations will begin producing almonds. Price does all this for us. No one has to write bombastic moralizing screeds to make this happen.

The more-likely problem is that the price of almond milk will not reflect the water used because water is a necessity and so is subject to price controls, because we live in a world where people think you're better off being able to afford something you can't find for sale than having to buy less due to a higher price. All of my students say poor people are helped when a price ceiling makes a necessity scarce. Funny, I thought poor people would be harmed by starving. But what do I know, I'm just an economist.

"But the problem is, smart guy, that we're using up resources that won't be left for our CHILDREN! Won't you PLEASE think of the CHILDREN?!" Okay, I'll think of the children. And so will the owners of the resources. They can pull the resource out of the ground now and sell it for money which they then invest at the prevailing interest rate, or they can allow the resource to sit unharvested until a future date when they pull it out of the ground and sell it to the children. They will do the activity that has the higher present value. That's why no one ever pumps all the oil now. There will be water for our children, because they will be willing to pay for it. When water becomes more scarce, future water becomes more valuable, meaning you will have to pay me more money to sell you water now. The current price of almond milk will increase and you will economize. Not because you love "the children," but because you love yourself.

Again, this only works if the price of water is the market price. Once we screw with the market price, we shouldn't be surprised that it no longer works as a motivating factor for us.

It would be great if everyone loved all unborn generations, but they don't and with price, we don't need them to. So instead of brow-beating you into drinking less almond milk, we should allow the price of water to do it for us.

A Day at the Races

Somehow I ended up with a son who loves auto racing. And because I'm a good dad, I don't spend a lot of time telling him that auto racing sucks. Often his reward for doing a good job at school is getting to watch a NASCAR race online.

The plutocrats behind Formula 1 racing have developed a new series of races for electric vehicles called Formula E. Last fall the inaugural Formula E race was in Beijing. We found out about it after it happened, but we made plans to attend following year.

Like most things in China, there was very little information available about the event. I don't know if that's because everything here is sketchy so they don't publicize something that might not actually happen, or if it's because most people are too poor to attend expensive events, or if it's because they figure the people who should know do know, and everyone else can get lost. Whatever the reason, it is virtually impossible to find out information about anything before it happens. And it's not just a language barrier thing; the Chinese-language website for the event venue never had information about the event.

It turns out a friend from church went to last year's race. We asked him how to get tickets. He said last year they never actually sold tickets to the general public. They gave them all away to corporate sponsors who kept what they wanted and unloaded the rest through scalpers, which here are called "huángniú," or "yellow cows." So we planned to buy tickets from a scalper on race day.

But when was race day? It turned out to be delayed a week, which meant that it coincided with a weekend that my boss was requiring us all to work (in violation of our contracts, natch, because China). When enough people complained, he passed out a sheet of possible compensation options. Option 1 was to skip the school field trip on Friday and call that our weekend. Option 2 was to take one day off in the next two weeks. Option 3 was to take two days of flexible time where we would only be required to be at work for the classes we teach. And Option 4, which he heavily promoted, was to do nothing and just work when he wanted us to.

The problem with Option 1 is that the school field trips are things we look forward to. It allows us to see things we wouldn't otherwise know about or get to visit. The problem with Option 2 is that we don't use substitutes here, so taking time off makes your colleagues cover for you. When they take time off in return, you cover for them. So the end result is you work the same amount. And notice that we'd be getting one day off in exchange for two days worked. The problem with Option 3 is that being allowed to go home for two hours in the middle of the day isn't that big of a deal. Most teachers live off campus, and we all have work we have to do. The problem with Option 4 is that we're not indentured servants.

I turned in my form with an Option 5 selected: I'm not available that weekend. I was a little afraid they'd get really angry, and then I was a little hopeful they'd get really angry, but they didn't get angry at all. (We'll see if my paycheck this Friday is for the correct amount.)

We showed up at the venue just as the first practice laps were taking place. We couldn't find a scalper anywhere. I was looking for shifty-looking single men with small shoulder bags, but everyone who fit the description didn't want to talk to us. We asked some of the (literally) hundreds of security guards who were standing around where we'd buy tickets, but they answered either with vague directions to somewhere else, declarations that we couldn't buy tickets, or amusement that we were speaking Chinese. Eventually, Jerome noticed a ticket office marked on a map of the event. The office was located on the complete opposite side of the course from everything else--at least a mile away from the gate. We headed in that direction.

When we finally got to where the ticket office was supposed to be, we found some scalpers. (Maybe that was what they meant by "ticket office"?) They offered two tickets. I said we needed three. They said Jerome didn't need one. I happened to know he did. They pulled out a third ticket. I inspected them closely, since everything here is counterfeit, including Apple stores and bottled water. I told the guy I didn't know if they were real. He said he'd walk us through security to show we were fine. So we walked with the guy until we were inside the event, and then we bought the tickets from him.

The boys liked that every vendor booth had a version of remote control race cars for them to play with. When it came time to find our seats for the next round of practice, though, we started to have problems. First, what was my fault: the third ticket the scalper sold us was in a very different seating section from the other two. That could be a small problem or a large problem, depending on how far away the seats would be. Here, it was an enormous problem, because of how the event was laid out. The third ticket was about a half mile away from the other two, but because of how the crowd was directed, it was 1.3 miles of walking from one seat to the other. And that walk involved leaving the event and coming back in a different entrance.

We decided to just pretend Jerome was a lap child (the typical cut-off in China is 1.2 meters and he's about 1.35 meters tall, which, to express that in a more-usable form, is 0.00072894 nautical miles). He was worried because he's a good kid and he thought I was telling him to break a law. When you tell your kid, "Just be cool and everything will be okay," that's as good as telling them, "Why not freak out and confess to all and sundry?" But I explained to him that we weren't stealing anything: the event organizers were compensated when they released three tickets, and the scalpers were compensated when we bought three tickets. We weren't dishonestly buying low-end tickets and then stealing a high-end experience, we were doing the best we could with our limited Chinese (I had to say "Wǒ xiǎng mǎi sān zhāng piào" a lot and not much else). If this wasn't going to work, I was going to send the two boys in and I'd wait outside.

But it did work, with no problems at all, even though I later found out that the event organizers had announced that there was no allowance for lap children. Every spectator required a ticket. And it turned out that getting to the seats was where the real check of ticket authenticity would occur, so the scalpers walking us through security was all just for show. But the tickets were legitimate and we got to watch the race.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Elder Uncle Rico of the Fifth Quorum of the State Championship

A few days ago, I wrote my review of President Nelson's visit to Beijing. Another blogger I follow wrote his review of President Nelson's visit to Shanghai. One is all faithful and spiritual and mature. And the other one is my review.

We didn't get told the story of how President Nelson was given the task of overseeing the introduction of the gospel to eastern Europe. Instead, we got told, "We get asked when there's going to be a temple in China, but there are already temples here, because your body is a temple."

Seriously, sometimes it seems like if I'm in the audience, the audience is getting the "shut up and accept it" version of the story. Like how, two district conferences ago, the visiting general authority responded to my question about the possibility of using member groups in China by telling me to quit coming to church if I didn't like long commutes.

I mean, I get it, and it's true--"to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life." But why, for over 15 years now, when I have questions my leaders always give the Uncle Rico response: "You know what, Napoleon? If you don't like it, you can leave!" Maybe what they're saying is that I'm too much like Napoleon, who got that response from Uncle Rico by saying, "This is pretty much the worst video ever made!" So if I'm going to call it the Elder Uncle Rico response, I need to acknowledge that I'm being Brother Dynamite (which is actually an awesome church name).

Monday, October 26, 2015

We Do Regional Conferences A Little Differently Here in China

We had a busy weekend that started on Thursday. That was when we had an evening church meeting with some visiting church officials. One of them was President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was especially cool to me because when I was a little boy I remember attending a regional conference at the UCSB Events Center with then-junior-most apostle Russell M. Nelson. (By "I remember," I mean I sat on a folding chair in a basketball arena and endured a long car trip before and after. I have no recollection of the actual meeting.)

Wednesday night when we were eating supper, I noticed that it was exactly the same time that the meeting would start the next evening. I said to my family, "At this exact time tomorrow we'll be sitting in church, and the lights will go down and [regional authority] Elder Toronto will get on a microphone and say, "Mormons of Beijing, ARE...YOU...READYYYYYYYYYYY?!?!?!" and they'll start playing that 'y'all ready for this' song. Then President Nelson will come in the back door in a black silk boxing robe with the hood up, hanging over his face, and the back will be embroidered with 'The Prez,' and he'll come up the aisle to his walk-up music, which is probably some rap song by 2 Chainz."

Jerome looked uncertain of whether I was telling the truth, but by the end of the story, he seemed pretty certain that I was making it up. And in fact, the next night, almost none of those things actually happened.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Textual Emendations

When I read books to our youngest son at night (because I'm interested in screwing over other people's children), it's usually Kindle library books on my iPad. That's just the result of living in China while our extensive collection of children's books is in the U.S. What this means is that we have a collection of six or seven books from which to choose, and as their loans expire, we replace them. This can mean that we read a book into the ground sometimes. When we do that, occasionally the text finds itself undergoing emendation to keep it interesting.

For instance, while reading OLIVIA Loves Halloween last night, we found the book slightly changed, as follows.

"Can we use red and black decorations?" asks Olivia. "Red is my favorite color!" Francine says, "Red is not a Halloween color. We must use orange and black." "This is why you don't have any friends," says Olivia.

If Olivia cannot have the perfect decorations, she's going to burn the school to the ground. I mean, she wants to find the perfect costume. But what should she be?

"You could be a cow," suggests Mom. "How could you say such a thing? It's going to take years of therapy for me to overcome the implications of that," says Olivia. "Or a lemon!" says Dad. "Are you suggesting you think I'm a lemon of a daughter?" asks Olivia. "Or an astronaut," adds Ian, "like me!" "Well, you're definitely a space cadet," says Olivia.

"I want to be different," says Olivia. "Different how?" asks Dad. "Different like we want to emulate you or different like we use you as a cautionary tale?"

At this point, my wife threatened to take away reading time. But just a little while later, the emendations returned.

"I am dressing up as a musician," says Julian. "I want to be a musician when I grow up." "Not me," says Olivia. "I want to be able to afford food."

"What do you want to be, Olivia?" Julian asks. Olivia wants to be lots of things! That's because she hasn't yet been placed on prescription medicine to help improve her standardized test scores.

"You are a really good artist," says Julian. "Not for long," says Olivia, "because the district is about to cancel art funding."

At the end of the book, because adults have ruined the modern kid experience, Olivia trick-or-treats long before dusk. When I called attention to this, my son said, "You trick-or-treat at night time!" And I was, like, "Yeah! I know!"

This post might make it seem like I don't like Olivia books. I actually do. It's just this one lent itself to a little more honesty. It could have been entitled OLIVIA Feels Like She's Taking Crazy Pills (in a Halloween Setting).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Greed Is Not ACTUALLY Good

Here's an article that argues the aunt who sued her nephew is actually a fine, upstanding individual who just wanted to bilk her relatives' home-owner's insurance.

I don't actually think it's commendable to sue your nephew to get to deeper pockets. If the problem is her health insurance, as claimed, then either the health insurance provider violated your policy and should be sued or you need to get a better policy for the future. But paying low premiums for inadequate insurance and then suing someone else when the inadequate insurance proves inadequate is not honorable behavior.

On an unrelated note: here's a terribly sad photography project of what people look like when they use technology to disengage from the people around them. I want to get a print framed of the picture of three kids sitting lined up on the couch.

School Posters

After several weeks of seeing this poster in a stairwell at school, I asked, "Can we take down the poster that glorifies gun suicide?" I got a lot of questions about which poster I meant. When I pointed it out to co-workers, they said, "I wouldn't have seen it that way." What other way is there to see that? One guy said, "I'd have to know the cultural context, because this hand signal means 'eight' to some Chinese people." Yeah, that's exactly what they're doing, they're holding a number eight next to their temples, sticking out their tongues and rolling their eyes back in their heads. Those things go together. The poster is still in the stairwell.

Elsewhere in my school is a map showing where all the top universities in the U.S. are located. Not all of the locations are exactly correct, but at least they're in the correct state. Except for Johns Hopkins University.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Omniscience, Autonomy, and Control

Here's a blog post where economist Tim Smeeding's ideas on reducing income inequality are summarized.

What is the reason for taxing asset transfers and capital gains? If there was a social cost to the ownership, why wasn't the tax assessed at purchase? Either we did assess a tax and it wasn't of efficient size (so change the tax), or we didn't know the eventual valuation at purchase. But if we didn't know it, neither did the buyer, so it's not like he is gaining unfairly. It's a windfall, and windfalls are going to be unevenly distributed.

The main thing that these taxes would be trying to do is eliminate windfalls. It's the uneven ownership that's being targeted. Buy whatever you like, but if we later find out that you accidentally bought the "right" things, we're coming for "our share."

I could see an argument that would justify this: future generations would rather live in a world with equality, and we tried our best to create it, but when inequality starts to return, we're doing future generations a favor by not passing the problem on to them.

This could also motive his proposal to make all companies employee-owned (profit sharing). After all, firms are free to share profits right now if they want to, and if that was more efficient, more firms would do it. But if we require firms to do this, we must be saying the future wants no inequality and we're going to make sure they get what they want.

Who can make such definitive statements about the wants of the future? Who can even make definitive statements about his own wants right now? And even if the future doesn't want me to be comparatively richer than my peers, maybe I do. Why do the rights of actual living people have to take a back-seat to the hypothetical wants of possibly-never-to-be-born people?

Relationship Harmony

I have a former student with whom I've remained friends. We decided we were friends when, one day in class, I was talking about low-quality socks I had just bought. I said, "I got ONE WEAR out of them and now there's a hole over my big toe!" He said, "Maybe if you ever trimmed your toenails...." I said, "I'll have you know that I had just trimmed them that morning, smart-ass!"

Anyway, this friend of mine is married to a Filipino, so he's posted Facebook pictures before of his husband being very excited to eat at Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food restaurant. Think about how normal people react to eating at In-N-Out; that's how this guy reacts to finding a Jollibee.

Today I saw an article about Jollibee buying 40% of Smashburger, so I shared the article on my friend's Facebook page and asked, "Exciting news for you guys?" His public comment was "LOL I'm sure it will be!" But his private message to me was, "I hate that g--d--- restaurant."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mormons, Marriage, and Sex (In That Order)

Here's an article about the male/female imbalance in Mormonism and orthodox Judaism. The author says the problem for Mormons is increasing rates of male apostasy. However, it's not just within religious communities that the problem exists, as witnessed by the universal blight of "hook-up culture." Americans are increasingly likely to only marry their like, increasing income inequality. Women with educations aren't marrying men without educations, and women are progressively more educated than their male peers. I remember an article from National Review sometime between 2005 and 2009 (I remember it was while I lived in Kansas) about boys getting treated as "adults" by their parents sooner, meaning they were responsible for financing their own educations, so they were attending college less frequently. Less-educated boys and more-selective girls will create a marriage problem in any group; throw in the apostasy issue and you have what Time calls a "crisis."

One ramification of this issue is changing attitudes towards sexuality. Faithful single members who follow church teachings about sexual activity face what Daniel Klein has called "demeanedization," meaning they demean themselves. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife has spoken about the problems that come from this type of perpetual adolescence. How can we deal with an existence that gives all of us a sexual impulse (Emily Nagoski would not like it if I called it a "drive") and requires us all to learn to live with it, but gives some of us opportunities to learn and some of us get told "ignore it"?

I have some thoughts about this that are probably too personal for any of you to feel comfortable reading, so I'll just stop there, I guess. They deal with the distinction between what is taught as acceptable and what my personal experience has lead me to believe is acceptable, and why they might differ.

Of course, a continuation of this sex imbalance (I hate using the word "gender" to mean what the word "sex" already means) might look like justification of polygamy, which is a crazy-loaded issue with Mormons. It might be of interest for some to find out that there are plausible explanations of early polygamy that are not as troubling as some of the more-commonly accepted explanations. [UPDATE 10/22/15: A critical response to the explanation found at that link can be read here.] Of course, evidence is lacking, so it's really a question of how much benefit of the doubt do you want to give the old timers. I just want to draw attention to the fact that earliest polygamy maybe didn't involve anything untoward, so a resumption might not be as trying as believed.

When I Finally Hang Up My Life Coach Shoes, I'll Become a Futurist

Second only to life coaching, being a professional futurist is the biggest crock of crap there is. That's why I want to get in on the action in both fields.

Here's an article with much speculation regarding the future of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The writer identifies three problems that he thinks aren't being addressed. One is the potential for terrorism, one is the potential for hacking, and one is the problem of deployment scale.

The terrorism concern, that AVs greatly increase a potential terrorist's capabilities, I say is unfounded. An AV is going to be lousy with privacy-invasion devices. The government will know in real time who is using which vehicle and for what. The camera in the trunk will notify police when you load the explosives and the government kill switch will disable the vehicle before it reaches its destination. Civil liberties 0, imagined risks neutralized 1.

The hacking concern is legitimate, and along the lines of ransomware will probably be the actual method in which terrorists use the vehicles. "Give me your PIN or your car drives off a bridge" will be an effective fundraising technique.

The scale problems are unknown. When you have the only AV on the road, is the advantage worth the cost? A lot of the projected gains of AVs don't show up until most (all?) cars are AVs. But not all. I'd be fine with the exact same speed of traffic if it allowed me to do something else while in the car. So I think that even a slow arrival of "peak benefit" will not dissuade users from adopting AV technology.

I agree with the economic analysis that lowering the marginal cost of a mile driven will increase the number of miles driven. I don't know enough about the AV predictions being criticized here to know why they don't predict such an increase. But remember that, while AVs make exurbs more accessible, they also make urban land more plentiful by allowing for road and parking repurposing. What's the overall change? I don't know; I'm not a professional futurist, you know? But I know that three hours in the car watching TV is still three hours in the car. How do my kids respond to long car trips? After all, that's what we're talking about: living life like our kids do. You have a Kindle, a DVD player, your phone, a Sudoku book, but you still get antsy after an hour or so. Even adults will be asking, "Are we there yet?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Everybody's Suing Everybody

Here's an article about an aunt who sued her then-eight-year-old nephew for an over-exuberant greeting at his birthday party that resulted in her breaking her wrist. "I remember him shouting, 'Auntie Jen I love you,'" she testified. The good news is, she's probably not going to have to listen to that anymore.

And here's an article about Mormon missionaries who get sick wanting to sue the church for the missing or inappropriate medical care they received.

First, some observations from my mission. Then some talk of how my experience might not generalize. Then some comments on the article itself.

As a missionary, I served under two mission presidents. Both of their wives took seriously the duty of being a type of surrogate mother. They didn't ration care because of meanspiritedness or an over-reliance on faith over medicine. However, they did take the financial resources of the church to be sacred funds consecrated through the donation of the faithful. In that sense, they did budget, but only like an actual mother budgets. Your mom wouldn't approve just whatever medical expense you think she needed to fund out of the family budget.

I had companions with serious medical conditions who always received the necessary care. As I remember it, you called the mission office, where a particular senior missionary couple was in charge of pre-approval. You'd say you felt like you needed to see a doctor and they would find a doctor in your area that took the correct insurance and then you'd go to the doctor.

Most of the missionaries discussed in this article, however, were in developing nations. I was in the United States. So perhaps such things as "calling the mission office" and "doctors that take insurance" don't generalize. (The article specifies that the church doesn't have health insurance, but I remember having a church health insurance card; maybe that's something that's changed in the long time since I was a missionary.) But what should be common is a mission structure, be it the office missionaries or the president's wife, that cares for the well-being of the missionaries.

It's true that some people have the mistaken opinion that "if I just suffer and work harder, my problems will go away on their own." And if those people get moved into leadership positions, they could be bringing that opinion into the hierarchy where it doesn't belong. But again, my mission structure didn't require me to talk to district leaders, zone leaders, or assistants to the president to get approval for medical care.

Also something from the article I found to be true: mental illness is stigmatized. Of course, that's true everywhere, but that doesn't mean it's acceptable anywhere. The fact that "every able and worthy young man" is often taken to mean "every worthy young man" because what counts as "able" isn't clearly specified is a problem. And if you have mental illness and in your discussions with your parents, doctors, and leaders you decide that you aren't "able," you still face pressure from the people around you who have had no reason to put in that extra attention and who will see your failure to serve as an admission of unworthiness.

That's too bad. But it's also nothing you can control. What others think should be irrelevant. But I know it's not; I feel like I had to lie on the "mental health" questions of the missionary interview for fear I wouldn't be allowed to serve otherwise and I had received insufficient counsel on whether that would have been okay. Should I have gone? I don't know. I only know that my mission has turned out to be one of the biggest obstacles I've had to overcome in my life. But what life is supposed to be devoid of obstacles?

Finally, the article has a lot of little factual inaccuracies that make me question the objectivity of the writer and his subjects. Are "all Mormon men encouraged to embark on their missions at age 18"? No; actually, the announcement of the lower age was clearly stated as being available for those for whom it might be appropriate. (Why do Mormons grant themselves exemptions from some rules, like the Word of Wisdom or appropriate entertainment, but then ignore the exemptions offered to them, like not starting missionary service at age 18?) Anyway, other factual problems include who is senior companion (not the older missionary), commonly told faith promoting rumors aren't doctrine, and missionaries weren't prohibited from gathering mail more than once a month in the late 90s (but things sent through the mission office might be distributed differently from direct mail). But where the article comes closest to the truth is in the section on social stigma, not official disapproval, of mental illness and homosexuality.

Can you sue the church for social stigma, though? I guess the first article shows you can sue anyone for just about anything. And where the official functions of the church are controlled according to that stigma, I guess. I just think that sometimes unfortunate things happen to you and you move on with your life instead of trying to make sure those responsible "are held accountable." Leave it alone.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Appropriate Paranoia Needs Its Own Name

If someone told you, "I don't let my kids play the claw games at the entrances of Denny's [Where else are these things still found? - Ed.] because those things are teaching gambling," you'd say to yourself, "Oh, jeez; settle down, wack-job."

Except here's an article about how claw machines let you program their performance according to the value of the prizes. You know, like gambling machines. The article even notes that, in the 1950s, the Federales regulated claw machines just like slot machines. But, you know, for kids.

Why isn't there a name for paranoia that we later find out was appropriate? I'd like to suggest the term "approparanoia." Pronounced "uh-PRO-pa-ra-NOY-uh."

What I'd Do If I Could Do Anything

For over a year or so, now, I've had this idea. I'd like to run a think tank that explores both the Mormon concept of Zion and Catholic Social Theory, and looks for ways they can be implemented in the modern world while respecting individual liberty. We would agree with Pope Francis about many of his goals for the world, but look for voluntary, free-market means to meet those goals.

My working name for this is Nibley-Chesterton Institute. Patent pending.

Why don't I do it? Well, I don't know enough about 1) the Mormon concept of Zion, 2) Catholic Social Theory, 3) the modern world, 4) individual liberty, 5) Pope Francis's goals, 6) voluntary, free-market means, 7) Hugh Nibley, or 8) G.K. Chesterton. Or how to support my family from such an idea. But other than that, I could totally make it work.

On a quasi-related point, here's an article about Pope Francis's current synod and some push-back from high-ranking cardinals. I don't know enough about Catholicism to comment, so I'll just say this is intriguing to me and I'd like to learn more.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

One-Day Weekends Kill My Attitude

The United States Men's National Team played Mexico Saturday night and lost. And from what I could tell in the limited portions of the game I could see*, it wasn't as close as the 3-2 A.E.T. scoreline would lead you to believe.

The 2013 Gold Cup and the end of 2014 World Cup qualifying was the best the USMNT has performed under Klinsmann. But here's a guy who markets himself as a system guy who values conditioning, and what we've seen is a clunky system that always seems bootstrapped and the world's most-brittle collection of hamstrings ever assembled. Criticism is deflected by pointing out the shortcomings of "the MLS."

I've grown weary of thinking about this. Let me instead tell you my opinion of Pitch Perfect 2. As a movie, it was pretty bad. But as a vehicle for seeing favorite characters in familiar-yet-new situations, it was good. I feel like Anna Kendrick could have been used more, and Keegan-Michael Key was very good. I especially liked Snoop Dogg's role. As with all movies, I would have been very frustrated had I spent money to see this in a theater, but unlike most movies, I was okay with spending $3.99 to rent it.

* = Why did I only see limited portions? Well, firstly because the Chinese government restricts the Internet in unnecessary ways. Banning social media? Um, okay, I guess, even though the United States Congress only has single-digits approval ratings and is not threatened by cat memes. But restricting sports scores (my soccer scores app doesn't work without a VPN) is pointless. Secondly, Time Warner Cable's web service didn't work most of the time. Trying to log in resulted in an error message. Thirdly, Fox Sports buried the GameTrax for the game. It wasn't on Fox Sports's home page, and it wasn't on the soccer subsection home page, and the game wasn't even listed under "popular scores." Italy v. Azerbaijan was, but USA v. Mexico wasn't.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Infant-Industry Argument: A Dialogue

Part of my duties this year include teaching left-wing economics like it's the gospel truth. I dislike. So in response to the textbook's claim that the infant-industry argument is valid, I created this dialogue for my students.

PROTECTIONIST: We could be the low-cost producers of widgets in the world.

FREE-MARKET: Then do it.

P: The start-up costs are too high. The existing producers overseas have the advantage of already having the necessary capital.

FM: So borrow it.

P: From where?

FM: Capital markets. There are venture capitalists willing to invest their own money in new enterprises. There are investment firms willing to invest on behalf of their shareholders. There are banks willing to invest on behalf of their depositors.

P: They won’t lend to us.

FM [suspiciously]: Why?

P: We don’t have the data to support my initial claim.

FM: So why are you making the initial claim?

P: Because it would be cool if it was true.

FM: So it’s more a wish than a claim? The government shouldn’t use citizens’ money to fund wishes.

P: Okay, we have the data to back the claim, but our country is lacking fully-formed capital markets.

FM [suspiciously]: Why?

P: Our institutions aren’t compatible with an advanced economy.

FM: If your institutions don’t allow for capital market creation, they probably won’t allow for efficient government oversight of this investment program you want. The government shouldn’t use citizens’ money where proper oversight is lacking.

P: Okay, we have good institutions, but our people are too poor to create the high level of savings needed for this investment.

FM: So get the money from overseas investors.

P: We can’t do that.

FM [suspiciously]: Why?

P: We don’t like foreigners. Or maybe we don’t like the optics of “neo-colonialism.” Either way, we can’t allow for foreigners to invest in our showcase industry.

FM: You don’t have a capital formation problem, you have a racism/nationalism problem. Government shouldn’t use citizens’ money to fund bigotry.

Pirates Post-Season Post-Mortem

For the third year in a row, the Pirates won the top wild card spot in the National League. For the second year in a row, they lost to a fantastic pitcher.

First, baseball's one-game playoff series is a failed idea, as anyone could have predicted before it was even implemented. A sport that determines we need to have 162 games and that winning 60% of the time is outstanding has decided to use a glorified coin toss. But oh, what a lucrative coin toss it is.

It's actually worse than a coin toss because it rewards a lower-quality team that has one outstanding player. Again, not a complaint: the fact that the Pirates knew what happened to them last year and didn't go get one of the top three pitchers in the league is their own fault. But everyone should know by now that winning the wild card game depends on one guy, not a team.

"Talk about incentivizing a division championship, huh?" You know what else gave incentive to win the division? Not having a wild card at all. Oh, but we can't talk about that, can we?

In one sense, the Pirates were a better team than the Cubs, finishing the year with the better record. But head-to-head this year, the Cubs won 11 of 19 meetings, so again, the Pirates don't have much room to complain.

Baseball has a ridiculous playoff system, though, when the top three teams in baseball are funneled into the same side of the bracket. The top team, the Cardinals, are now playing the winner of the one-game playoff between the second-best team, the Pirates, and the third-best team, the Cubs. So I guess the World Series is going on right now, and it's a five-game series between two teams who played each other 19 times already this year. Some drama, huh?

If you want to play for the title of "best team in baseball," you should not finish the season the third-best team in your group of one-sixth of baseball. And yeah, that applies to finishing second in the division, too. The Pirates shouldn't have been in the post-season if they couldn't finish the year with a better record than the Cardinals. They had plenty of chances to do it. Three walk-off losses in Saint Louis on the first weekend in May was what separated these two teams. That's harsh, but that's baseball. What's not baseball is guaranteeing that the National League Championship Series will feature either the fourth-best or the fifth-best team in the league. That's just stupid.

"Language Lessons. Inspired Words From a Man Who Knows How to Ski."

We knew coming to China that they speak Chinese here; we aren't those stereotypical English speakers who go around the globe aghast at the temerity of the dozens of non-English speakers in the world. But we can't help being dismayed by the complete lack of English ability displayed by citizens who received 13 years of mandatory English language instruction.

I teach in the international department of a much larger school. When there's a teenager around, chances are he or she is from the national program. When you need their help, about 90% of them refuse to make any attempt in English at all. Last week I had to talk to the guards at our gate about something. Lower-status jobs tend to be filled with people who had fewer educational opportunities, which would mean they are much less likely to have had English instruction. Since the guard and I couldn't understand each other, the guard stopped a teenage girl walking past. I said, "Ni hui shuo yingyu ma?" She looked very nervous and said, "A little." I explained to her what I needed. She looked at the guard, made a nervous noise, and then ran away. This girl has had at least 10 years of English classes.

We had been here four months, and had become accustomed to everyone acting like they knew absolutely no English at all, when we went to Thailand last December. In Thailand everyone we encountered, except for two people, spoke fantastic English. (The two people were a man selling handmade items from a blanket in a train station, and a woman sweeping a bus stop.) And we were not in the "tourist" part of town most of the time. (How "not in the 'tourist' part of town" were we? On one street everyone who passed us stopped to ask if we were lost. And they all asked in English.)

It wouldn't be as big of a deal if the people we encountered could think outside the accent box, but many people don't understand any of our Chinese. A few months ago a guy from church dropped me off near a subway stop that turned out to not be there. I knew I was in the right neighborhood, but I needed some directions. I asked three different people, "Yonghegong zhan zai nar?" They all just laughed and walked away. The first two were old ladies, but one was a guy in his 30s. If he didn't understand my Chinese, he should have said, "I'm sorry, what do you need?" Because he had 13 years of English instruction! I only had five years of German instruction and I can understand someone asking me, "Wo ist der Bahnhof?"

I told this story to my students the next day and they said, "Um, you were looking for something?" A Korean student said, "A train station, right?" All the Chinese students said he was wrong. He wasn't.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Notes on Babbitt

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Predicting Revelation

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

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

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

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

The Credit Scores Have Eyes

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

My New Hog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homeschool Hysteria

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 05, 2015

"I Feel Like I'm Taking Crazy Pills"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Modern World: More or Less Book Learnin'?

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

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

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

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

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

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