Wednesday, September 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

Where Reading Stands Now

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

That's What Little Girls Are Made Of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sentence Ambiguity

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

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

Ulturalcay Evolutionray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It was about Tibet."

"Let's talk about something else now."

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

High School Geometry = Sexytime?

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

"Do you know this person?"

"No."

"What about this person?"

"I think that might be a tenth grader."

"What about this person?"

"That says 'WeChat'."

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now you know the rest of the story.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Aberdeen, South Dakota, You're On the Air"

Yesterday I gave all my classes an in-class writing assignment. So if I didn't interact with them, how did each section manage to piss me off so much? I often get the feeling that they must be punking me, because there is no way they can do such a legitimately terrible job following directions.

On the productivity front, my noise-cancelling headphones have arrived.

A lot of my recent posts have been about church and religion. I'm not actively trying to turn this into a church-topics blog, but my old standby topics have not been in my focus as much. I don't want to pay too much attention to American events because I'm already uneasy about returning in the middle of the 2016 presidential election build-up. I don't want to pay too much attention to Chinese events because the only thing I can do about them is get in trouble for publicly expressing an opinion. I used to blog a lot about the idiots around me, but in an effort to implement my seventh Fundamental Truth of Life ("It's much harder to be charitable when you're paying attention"), I try to not notice them so much anymore. Besides, my work environment has changed. I see my coworkers a lot less. I interact with my supervisor a lot less. I come to school and teach, then I go home. My students bother me, but they're not worth getting worked up about.

I'd be mortified to arrive at a meeting of Christians in a chauffeur-driven car. Yeah, I know what the extenuating circumstances are. Still.

Listening to Portishead's "Dummy" right now.

Last year the teachers-versus-students football was organized by a student who appeared to have substantial authority on the pitch. This year that same kid can't get anything organized and can't manage to clear a space for us to play. I've shown up twice now and both times we kick a ball on the side of the pitch while we wait for some goals to clear out.

Another "fried chicken quarter" moment in my recent life: several months ago I read a story I wanted to share with my kids, but I couldn't find the blog post it was in. Then, the next week, the blogger posted a link to it in a post that summarized many similarly-themed posts.

Some people are going to bemoan Scott Walker's dropping out of the presidential race. But as far as I can tell, all Walker had going for him was some political successes in Wisconsin. His supporters were very excited about the prospect of implementing similar successes nationally, but you don't need a particular individual to implement a particular agenda. A presidential candidate needs to be able to generate support for his ideas in the general election, and a good measure of whether he can do that is how well he does generating support for his ideas in the primary elections. If Walker couldn't excite the people who were paying attention in 2015, why should we believe he could excite the people who aren't paying attention in 2016?

I'm thinking of spending Christmas in Vietnam this year, and Spring Festival in the Philippines.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Fried Chicken and Page Numbers

In October 2011 General Conference, J. Devn Cornish gave a talk about finding a quarter when he wanted to buy some fried chicken, and the Blogernacle flipped its lid. "People get cancer and DIE, and God can't be bothered to help, but one dude on a bicycle wants to eat some fried chicken (which probably isn't even in keeping with the Word of Wisdom!), and God's on the scene?!?" Because some Mormons are reasonable like that.

Anyway, here's a little experience I had recently.

I keep track of the number of pages I read, because I'm an idiot. Here in China, I have used PDFs and e-books much more than I did in the U.S. Sometimes these files have pagination, but sometimes they don't. For my "morning scriptures" I've been reading non-scriptural lesson manuals, so I guess I've been reading "morning devotionals" instead, but something about that terminology makes me uncomfortable, because I'm an idiot. Anyway, I've been working through the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series (in historical order, not publication order) in the Gospel Library app. The newer manuals have page numbers in the margins, but the older manuals don't have that.

I was approaching the end of the Joseph Smith manual and I didn't have a way of knowing how many pages I had read. I could find general publication information, but often that only reflects the number of pieces of paper in the book, not how many had words for reading. I was thinking I could e-mail my parents, who could look it up in their copy, but my parents are getting to the point where fairly simple instructions are surprisingly baffling. I checked the church library, but they didn't have a copy of that particular manual.

The day I was supposed to finish the manual was a Sunday. We went to church and there on the "free" table, where people place all the crap they don't want to cart back to the U.S. when they move, was a copy of the manual. I could look through the book and see how many actual pages it contained.

The next day I started the Brigham Young manual. It also does not have page numbers in the digital version. I checked the church library and found no copies. One Sunday I was completing an aspect of my calling as branch clerk where I count the number of people at the meeting. I counted in the chapel, then went out to count stragglers in the hallways and classrooms. We have one family with particularly high-spirited children (yesterday at the end of district conference, one of these kids screamed in the unguarded microphone), and they spend a lot of sacrament meetings in the nursery. We have two nursery rooms, but only one ever gets used during sacrament meeting because the other one is just a table and some chairs. Anyway, I looked around and counted everyone. On my way back into the chapel, I noticed that the unused nursery room door was open. I thought, "I should look in there for people." I didn't expect to find anyone, but I looked anyway. I looked through the door and I found...no one. And then I stuck my head all the way in and looked around the corner, and sitting on a table inside the door was a physical copy of the Brigham Young manual. I was able to look through it and see how many pages it had.

There are two ways I can respond to these events: one is the faithful way and one is the non-faithful way. (I didn't use the word "unfaithful" because to me that means something entirely different.) I know about both of these ways because I've had both of these responses, in oscillation, since having these experiences.

The non-faithful way would be to think this: "Seriously, God? All the things I really need in my life and what You come through with is two random books?" The faithful way would be to think this: "Wow, so if God is going to come through for me with two random books that I don't even really need, then I totally don't have to worry about the things that actually matter. He's got it all covered."

I'd expect a completely unhinged response from Internet Mormons, except none of them read my blog, anyway.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Your Republican Primary Primer

Back on July 11th, I tweeted everything you need to know about the Republican presidential candidate field.

Bush & Christie are establishment candidates. Rubio is even more but tries to hide it. Paul's foreign policy is even worse than BHO's. ... Trump is changing the convo. on issues, but low-info. crowd has been convinced he's racist. Carson is somehow even less refined. ... Huckabee: Christian-themed demagogue. Kasich: more establishment. Walker can't stop flirting with the establishment. Perry is empty. ... Serious, principled, polished champions of liberty: Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. Those are your two candidates. The rest is a sideshow.

I'd add this: a large portion of Trump's appeal is how much the Republican establishment hates him. Backing Trump is a way for Republican voters to tell Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to go to hell. If the establishment really wanted to cut the legs out from under Trump, they'd go to the press and say, "We don't necessarily like him, but if he's the nominee we can work with that."

Mormons Should Know This Stuff By Now

Okay, so there are some Mormons that think disaster may be coming this month. And some other Mormons are all, like, "Nuh-uh." But the first bunch of Mormons are all, like, "Yeah-huh, so there."

What is the go-to quote of the "nuh-uh" crowd? Both here and here, reference is made to Boyd K. Packer's 2011 General Conference talk where he counseled young people to not worry that the world is going to end soon.

Why does it seem like I am the only person who sees that this doesn't address the question at hand?

The disciples of Jesus asked Him about "the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world, or the destruction of the wicked, which is the end of the world". What is Jesus's answer?

And thus cometh the end of the wicked, according to the prophecy of Moses, saying: They shall be cut off from among the people; but the end of the earth is not yet, but by and by.
The destruction attendant the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is not "the end of the world." The disciples' question had a flawed assumption, and today many Mormons are making the same flawed assumption.

For those who survive the destruction, life continues, so we should make decisions appropriate for long lives, such as marriage and education. But telling me that I'm going to live to see my grandkids has NOTHING to do with whether or not the Abomination of Desolation will happen between now and then.

When I was younger, I didn't really understand the implication of the Parable of the Ten Virgins; how can half those expecting the Bridegroom be caught unprepared? What's the point of expecting if there's no preparation? But now I'm beginning to see.

The Prosperity Gospel and Its Malcontents

That's the title of a book I'm going to write someday. Here's the outline: Section I details what is contained in the teachings of the prosperity gospel. Section II shows how this attitude is embraced by the typical Mormon. Section III spells out how the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ contradicts the prosperity gospel. Section IV is about the harm done by believing the prosperity gospel, especially the self-harm done to those who would be defined by the world as less successful. Section V would give advice on how to keep yourself from falling into this false worldview.

That said, a lot of good information about all these points is in this blog post by Max Wilson. This is a common problem I face: I come up with a good idea, and then while I continue to not do it, someone else does it, better than I could. Like how many plot elements from my second novel became plot elements of the movie The Adjustment Bureau.

One issue I will need to address in Section IV is how rejection of the prosperity gospel looks like sour grapes (and often is). When my local nemesis referenced his cousin losing "both his houses," I guffawed at the idea of feeling sorry for a guy who had two houses, but a lot of that is only because I don't have two houses. When I get my second house, then I will realize that it's a serious problem.

Our local unit of the church functions quite poorly because everyone who is rich enough spends large portions of the year at the American home, and everyone who is phenomenally rich enough lives in a tiny gated enclave with its own church unit. Everyone who doesn't abandon their callings for six weeks at a time knows that church is terrible because of the lifestyles of these rich church members, but as soon as someone joins the ranks of the rich church members, he stops criticizing them and starts going "home" for Christmas in October.

Our daughter's Young Women group wants to take a youth temple trip that will cost us hundreds of dollars and "ideally" won't involve our daughter being alone in a sleeper compartment with strangers on an overnight train. Why do I have to be the bad guy who says, "I have a two-part response: no, and hell no"? And the whole time the idea is hanging over us: if you'd been a little more righteous, A Random Stranger, you could afford for your daughter to have this nice thing.

Last week I heard two branch members discussing the anti-Mormon sentiment they feel at work from non-Mormons who are defensive about the high concentration of Mormons at their organization. One of them said, "They think everyone's getting hired and promoted because they're Mormon, but they don't know that the idea of 'the Mormon mafia' is overblown. The connection doesn't matter as much as they think it does."

In my experience, this is true. Mormons don't hire other Mormons; in fact, they often actively avoid doing so. (I've written about this before.) But another issue is that Mormons who subscribe to the prosperity gospel care more about the success of the business than the success of an individual fellow Mormon. This is why Mormons get along in business so well; you don't have to worry about what will happen if your Mormon hiring manager becomes his ward's employment specialist. You'd only end up with the farcical situation of a guy leaving his job looking for workers to go to his church calling which he understands to be telling unemployed men, "You should try praying more."

Again, probably sour grapes. Until I'm in a position to hire someone, we'll never know. The thing about the prosperity gospel is that everyone believes it, only some people can't afford to live it (yet).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The End Is Near(er Than It Was Just a Moment Ago)

I've written before about conspiracy theories and apocalyptic Christianity. To summarize my views: Christ tells us He's coming back, but He also tells us no one knows when; He tells us some things that will happen first but also tells us that half His followers will fail to prepare; He tells us "secret combinations" are in operation, but their "secret" nature means we probably won't be able to find out about them by just reading the criticism section of the Bilderberg Group's Wikipedia page.

Okay, nothing new for regular readers. What's new is that, this week I've seen a little more activity from "The End Is Now" Mormons. Firstly, I read this post about this news story about this book. I thought both the church's caution and Julie Rowe's response were reasoned and sound. I was a little sad that Mormons require an official rejection of faith promoting rumors, but I was glad to see that it had been over a year since the last one.

Next, I saw a Huffington Post article about Mormons who think calamity is coming this week. I've heard some people argue before that the Second Coming will coincide with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but I keep coming back to "But of that day and hour knoweth no man...." If you want to use this week to prepare for disaster, that's probably a good idea. But if you aren't planning to pay your bills due this October, that's probably a bad idea.

Several years ago, I read some national media venue story that referenced raving right-wing conspiracy-theory lunatics, with a particular mention of a specific blog. I started following that blog because, hey, I like to stay informed of the latest conspiracy theories. This week the blogger had a blog post referencing a video where "a retired military man" says a two-mile wide comet is going to hit Earth in the next two weeks, causing destructive tsunamis*. What's interesting is that the blogger lays out everything wrong with this theory. When even nationally-recognized conspiracy theorists won't touch your conspiracy theory, you've got a problem.

Here's why I even bring this up. In my Facebook news feed someone shared an article similar to the Huffington Post article, and this person wrote, "As a Mormon I'm a bit embarrassed."

What reason is there to be embarrassed? Some people who send their kids to your kid's school started buying school supplies in July. You did not. Did you feel embarrassed about your association with them? What if they did it because they thought school started six weeks early, but they were wrong? Is that any reason to feel embarrassed? The only reason I can see for embarrassment is if the preparation is just completely unwarranted, like a person who buys school supplies for a child he doesn't know he doesn't have.

I don't think the Second Coming is happening this month, but I'm not going to begrudge these people their preparation, and I'm certainly not going to be embarrassed by sharing a religion with people whose only fault is erring on the side of caution. I will, however, be embarrassed of sharing a religion with someone who is so antsy about mainstream acceptance that he needs to make sure he criticizes any Mormon who does anything that could be construed as being based on a belief of prophets, scripture, or continuing revelation.

P.S.: I am feeling a tiny bit anxious about scheduling this post to appear tomorrow. What if I'm wrong and we're mid-End Times tomorrow when this goes live on my blog? Ideally, electronics have stopped working by that point, so no one will ever know.

* = A two-mile wide comet wouldn't just cause tsunamis, it would destroy the planet, right? I remember being at a science museum in Richmond and seeing a display about asteroid collisions. I believe the display said an object the size of a car hitting Richmond would cause thermonuclear-like destruction of everything up to 100 miles away. The heat generated by the atmospheric compression of a two-mile wide comet would kill us all, and boil the oceans before any tsunami could get started.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Family Holiday, Ten Years Later

On 14 September 2005, my wife and kids (then just two) flew from California to join me in Kansas. This is the event commemorated in our family celebration of each anniversary of this day.

Ideally, I'd be able to say, like Teddy Roosevelt reflecting on his time spent in North Dakota, that all my great accomplishments can be traced back to this decision. Maybe someday.

We wanted to start actively trusting God, to stop taking counsel from our fears. After moving to Kansas without a confirmed job, we've had two kids without health insurance, went to the good graduate school instead of the cheep one, and moved to China. We're trying to be examples to our kids of how to do what's right, not what's easy. I'm not sure if it's just coincidence or not that we're also turning out to be examples to our kids of how to be poor.

ARS-Fest II: The Wrath of Lethargy

Whoops.

Remember ARS-Fest, my declared festival last year? Well, if you did, my hat is off to you, because I didn't. In fact, I didn't even realize until now that I had forgotten it in April.

So maybe we should just say ARS-Fest is every two years. Except that will possibly increase expectations. And if anything, everyone should be dialing their ARS-Fest expectations way, way down. Like, "below zero" down.

Seriously, dial that crap down NOW.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

There's Atheism and Then There's Atheism

A recent article in The New Yorker was entitled "All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists." I agree with the title, but I heartily disagree with everything the writer, Lawrence M. Krauss, has to say.

Krauss wants to argue that, by definition, a true scientist is not wedded to any theory. I agree. But then Krauss makes the case that popular atheism is just such a worldview. It decidedly is not.

First, let me argue that a scientist should hold all his opinions as contestable. How can I support that view while maintaining my religion? Because I don't feel any of us has a True (with a capital T, meaning "true according to God) view of religion. We all have an interpretation that is accurate in some places and inaccurate in others. As Paul writes, "For now we see through a glass, darkly...." (This week I read an interesting blog post arguing that one thing Paul saw through a glass was the historicity of Adam.) My point is that I believe my religion, but I'm not prepared to say that any of my interpretations of my religion coincide with any of God's interpretations of my religion.

So science can bring new insights that will help me develop new interpretations that are possibly closer to God's interpretations (or Truths).

This isn't the type of small-A atheism that Krauss wants. He wants capital-A Atheism, the type that knows there's no God and so dismisses all God-based worldviews as benighted and wrong. This is the kind of thinking outlined in this profile of neurobiologist Catherine S. Woolley.

For 20 years, Woolley actively avoided studying sex differences in the brain until her own data showed her that differences between females and males were real. Her discovery, reported in 2012, that estrogens decreased inhibitory synaptic transmission in the brains of female rats but not in males, changed her thinking.

“Being a scientist is about changing your mind in the face of new evidence,” Woolley said. “I had to change my mind in the face of this evidence.”

I became aware of this profile because someone on Twitter thought it was a great example of open-mindedness. Woolley herself seems to think that this story is praiseworthy. But is "being a scientist" about spending 20 years dogmatically avoiding areas of study? How much sooner would human knowledge have been advanced had she not refused to look into questions she "knew" were wrong?

Little-A atheism is a good worldview for scientists and is compatible with religion. But capital-A Atheism is as dogmatic as any religion it seeks to condemn.

NB: The "math" label has been expanded to cover "science," remember?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Everybody's Talkin' At Me

My new office has a south-facing window. My colleague across the hall has lots of plants and no windows. (She's the colleague who was a little freaked out that I don't have a no-foolin' teaching credential.) She has started sending her plants through my room on a rotation to get sunlight. When she was making a switch yesterday, she asked how things were going.

"I looked up in my contract to see how much the penalty is that I have to pay for quitting," I said.

She paused to look at my face and then said, "You're not joking."

We ended up talking about the ridiculous requirements of my current assignments, but then I also mentioned the unknown future revaluations of the yuan. I said, "If the yuan resets 20-to-30 percent before January, how many teachers come back from Spring Festival?"

She asked if I had talked to an administrator about these concerns. I said I hadn't, but in our discussion we decided that maybe I needed to share some economic expertise with some of our bosses.

In a separate conversation, I also discussed some economic concerns with an economist colleague. He said a bigger concern for him is the imposition of capital controls. If we can't send money home, none of us can afford to be here at all. I said I was hopeful that capital controls would be tightened on citizens before they laid them on foreigners. He said he thought it more likely that they would start with foreigners because it would be more politically acceptable to punish non-citizens.

And just to prove that not all my conversations are economic in nature, my wife and I had the following WeChat conversation.

MY WIFE: You have to re-read the harry potter series aloud. it turns out the t in voldemort is silent. #frenchie #rowlingneedstokeepquiet

A RANDOM STRANGER: Maybe she should have decided that before being an Associate Producer for 8 movies where every actor pronounced the T.

MY WIFE: That's what I said!

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Wherein Our Hero Signs Up for a Struggle Session

I have five classes this year. Four of them have very similar official names, so to tell them apart, I assigned them each an economist, calling the sections Smith, Hayek, Coase, and Friedman. My fifth class has unique enough of a name that I didn't assign it an economist.

When that fifth class was meeting yesterday, I decided I'd be a fun teacher and allow them to pick a section economist, even though they don't need one. So I asked for suggestions. I said, "You can name your favorite economist, or you can agree with one that a classmate has already named."

The first student named Adam Smith. The second student named Isaac Newton. The third student named Warren Buffett. So far, one I'd already used and two non-economists.

We seemed stuck, so I added one of my own: Esther Duflo. The fourth student said, "Is John Nash an economist?" I said, "Well, no, but then he won the Nobel Prize for economics, so once you do that, you get to call yourself an economist no matter what, so sure." The fifth student said, "Can it be a Chinese economist?" I enthusiastically supported that idea, because I wanted to be more inclusive and allow them to have it be something they could relate to. He said, "Lín Yìfū." I wrote the name on the board. The sixth student bargained for more time to think. The seventh student named John Maynard Keynes. When I went back to the sixth student, she said, "Lì Yĭníng."

I wanted them to end up with maybe two or three to pick from, not eight. A student suggested we vote, but I said, "Don't you think everyone will vote for his own suggestion?" So to help focus our thinking, I eliminated Smith, Newton, Buffett (the student who suggested Buffett pushed back on the suggestion that Buffett wasn't an economist, citing a biography he'd read), Nash, Keynes, and Duflo. The students would have to choose between the two Chinese economists, Lín and Lì.

I asked for "candidate speeches." Each nominator could tell us a little about each economist. Lín's nominator said, "He worked for the World Bank." Lì's nominator said, "I don't know anything about him, just that I've heard his name." After those rousing bits of campaigning, I called for a vote. "All in favor of Lín Yìfū?" Four students raised their hands, including the girl who nominated Lì Yĭníng. I thought, "That's strange," but I didn't make anything of it. Then I called for votes for Lì Yĭníng. No one voted for him. So I said, "Okay, we have a winner. It's provisional, though. If I look this guy up and find out he's a mass-murderer or something, we'll have to go with someone else."

Class continued. When it ended, I went back to my desk and looked up our winner, Lín Yìfū. His Wikipedia page starts by noting that he was born in Taiwan. I thought, "That's interesting that my student nominated a Taiwanese economist." That could be a subtle bit of civil disobedience (supporting the ROC over the PRC), or it could be a result of strong nationalism (thinking of ROC citizens as really PRC citizens who just don't know it yet). But then I kept reading, and I got to the section entitled "Defection."

As a captain in the Republic of China Army in Taiwan, he defected to Mainland China on May 17, 1979, to the nearby island of Xiamen of Mainland China with sensitive materials. ... While an officer in the ROC Army, Lin was held up as a model soldier; after his desertion, the ROC originally listed him as missing but in 2000 issued an order for his arrest on charges of defection.
I began to suspect that I had stumbled into something I didn't want to deal with.

Then I looked up the Wikipedia page for Lì Yĭníng.

He has been a leading voice for the privatization of state-owned companies.... [He] was hired as a faculty member [of Peking University] after graduating in 1955. However, only two years later he was labeled as a "rightist" when Mao Zedong launched the Anti-Rightist Movement, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) he was again persecuted for his ideas and banished to a rural village where he performed manual labour for six years.
Yep, I didn't want to be involved in this at all.

I began to understand why Lì's nominator failed to support him in the election. If you have to choose between a Communist darling and a "rightist," you choose the Communist darling every time.

I went to a faculty meeting where, while we waited for stragglers, I asked for advice. As soon as I said "Cultural Revolution," my Chinese colleagues in the room started side conversations to keep themselves from hearing any more. Some of my colleagues told me I should tell them that Lín was disqualified. I feel I can't do that without having to explain why, and I don't think I should do that. One of my colleagues said, "If the students wanted to be named the Hitler group, you'd stop that." I said, "If you were teaching in Germany in 1943 and your students wanted to be named the Hitler group, you'd stop that?" He said he would. I don't doubt him, but I think he'd be dead by 1944.

Anyway, a lot of talking, most of it telling me that if I'm uncomfortable with having a group named after Lín I should stop it from happening, but not much advice on how to present that to the kids after Lín very publicly won an election. (It would be ironic to have kids from China telling the American that he should respect election results, right? If I was an English teacher, I might do it just for the good teaching example of irony.)

And so I give you my fifth section's economist: Esther Duflo. Because women are under-represented in economics and whatnot.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Look Who's Mr. Popular

Last week when all my colleagues came back from their summer break, after the usual greetings, many said, "I need you to explain to me the RMB revaluation." It started on the first day, and while I was answering that colleague's question, three more came in the room and quietly listened. Another colleague asked for a primer while we were on our trip to the Great Wall.

So here's the primer: we're all screwed.

With this caveat: only probably.

A few weeks ago I shared here a link to a story about anonymous forecasters (since accurate forecasts get you jail sentences) who are using eight-to-one as the expected exchange rate by the end of 2016. That's a 25% pay cut. Here's an economist who feels that the start of that revaluation might be only three to four months away. If we take a 10-20% pay cut this December, no one is going to come back from Spring Festival.

Meanwhile, the government says GDP growth has slowed, to seven percent. A few cautious figures have called for the government to have the courage to tell us the "true" number of five percent. There's possible evidence that it is actually negative. But who needs to pay attention to evidence when we beat Japan in a war 70 years ago? (Well, at least somebody did.)

I expect to get a lot more attention from my colleagues for a while, before they all disappear in February.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

An Intervention Is in Order

Here's a blog post quoting a bit of a book. Evidently the Chinese used to wager on the frequency of surnames on the list of those passing an imperial exam. Something like, "I bet twice as many people named Zhou pass the exam than people named Li."

There's a simple name for this kind of gambling: insane. Wasn't there an episode of NewsRadio where Jimmy went around betting on ridiculous items? Actually, a similarity between 19th-century Chinese and Jimmy James would explain a lot of things going on in the world today.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Charity and Time Constraints

In his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith speculates that what keeps us from have perfect affection for all around us is mortality. He defines affection as habitual sympathy; we come to care about those people with whom we spend a lot of time sympathizing. We just don't have the time necessary in this life to think about everyone well enough to care about them the way we should.

Scott Sumner ended a recent blog post with this idea:

PS. Suppose you had time to read 33 million 6 volume novels about each of those 33 million lives. Karl Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante-type novels. Do you think that might change the way you regard those 33 million people?
Again, the idea that perfect affection is laudable, but unattainable given our current mortality constraints.

Zion requires us to be "of one heart and one mind," which can be interpreted as perfect affection. But our moral philosophers are telling us that perfect affection is impossible in our current state. I believe the solution comes through Christ. Instead of developing a relationship with each other human on Earth, I only have to develop one relationship with Jesus. He is outside time, and so has perfect affection for everyone. I can come to a point where I treat others with charity not because I have developed charitable feelings towards them, but because I understand Christ's love for them and I seek to reflect that. I will come to trust His judgment, and when He loves someone, I can then treat that person as if I love him, too, without having to take the time to actually come to love him.

Immigrants

I've written before that my preferred solution to immigration is a much stricter oversight process paired with a much more liberal entry allowance. So we should know exactly who is coming, from where, and when, but we should have many more of them come.

Entire families are desirable to single men. Single men are much more likely to commit crime and much more likely to send remittances home. If you're one of these "immigrants take our stuff" people, remittances are your real worry. Immigrants who stay here and keep their earnings here (as entire families would be more likely to do) help grow the economy, not contract it.

Refuges not only are more likely to be entire families, they're also more likely to be talented and enterprising. I mean, they figured out how to move their families from their homelands to your country, didn't they? Chances are that type of ingenuity can help your economy.

So while I favor much broader allowances for Syrian refuges in western democracies, I stop short of using self-congratulatory hashtags such as #TheyCanLiveWithMe, as my one social media acquaintance is wont to do. Because do you actually have any refuges living with you right now? It's not like there aren't any floating around. They're not all camped outside the Budapest train station. Stop using hashtags that are supposed to make you look pious and start actually helping refuges. Which, you might say, I am not doing right now, but given my situation, the most I can do is argue in a publicly-accessible forum for more-liberal immigration policies. Which I am doing right now. They can't live with me, not right now, but they should be able to live, not drowning in the Mediterranean or being executed by Islamic State.

"There Was a Young Lady Named Bright"

Two days ago I wrote a blog post. I finished it and posted it. It showed up in my Feedly feed. But it didn't show up on my blog. When I went looking for it in my blog dashboard, it's a half-finished draft without a title.

How did the completed thing show up in my Feedly?

Just now I copied the post out of Feedly and pasted it into my draft, then published it. It shows up on my blog now. Did I just plagiarize myself? Or maybe the explanation lies in time travel. When it comes to time travel, I'm like Luna Lovegood with nargles: if in doubt, you should probably blame time travel.

Post title from a limerick used on an album by some band my brother liked in the early Nineties, something like Alphaville or Erasure.

Friday, September 04, 2015

What's Weaker Than a Photo Montage? A Collection of Links

Wang Xiaolu wrote on July 20 that China's Security Regulation Commission was thinking of ending its market intervention. A news article about Wang's situation says, "The Commission immediately denied the report. It regularly made interventions up to mid-August." Is it so hard to believe that the commission was discussing in late July whether to end a policy that ended in mid-August? But he must be guilty because he's already confessed.

An Islamist's Sophie's Choice: is it okay to destroy a bit of Quran if that bit of Quran calls into question the authenticity of the Quran? Honestly, though, I'd hate to see a bunch of Christians use this finding to attack Islam, since Christians (rightly) dismiss such stories when they are used against Christianity. Firstly, supposing we can carbon date something to within a decade is foolhardy. Secondly, disagreeing with a widely-held popular assumption is not the same thing as disproving anything. If the fragment really is from Muhammed's lifetime, all that shows is that the assumption that the Quran wasn't written down for several generations is incorrect. Yes, maybe that means it didn't come from Muhammed, but it doesn't require that to be true.

More on the theme of rich Chinese kids attending university in the U.S. As a teacher at "the international division of select schools to chart their path to higher education abroad," I can tell you that there's a lot of truth here. The top four reasons my students studied economics last year were: 1)They'd been told that's how you get rich, 2)Their parents wanted them to (Why? See #1), 3)They'd been told it would get them into a good college (So what? See #1), 4)They'd been told smart people study economics and they wanted to signal their intelligence. Only a handful studied economics because they wanted to learn economics. Now that the word is out around campus that I make my students actually learn economics, interest in my class is dramatically lower this year.

Unschooling can be awesome if you do it the way Laurie Couture describes it here. But every unschooler I've actually known just ends up playing 21 hours of Minecraft every day. You can't remove structure without also removing media. (We're not unschoolers, bee tee dubs, so there's no need to call CPS, as many meddling friends of unschoolers actually do. I used to half-jokingly say, "Thomas Jefferson Education families make our family look like Asians.")

Chinese police enforcing Chinese laws in the United States aren't spies, they're invaders. (That doesn't mean there aren't Chinese spies around, though.)

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Circumcisions and Marriages

When our first son was born, the hospital told us that the circumcision would be performed by the on-call obstetrician. When she came through to see our son, we asked her about scheduling the circumcision. She said she didn't do circumcisions; it was against her religion. We had to wait until our son's first appointment with his pediatrician to have her perform the circumcision.

(Aside: If you're going to be there for your son's circumcision, don't actually WATCH the slicing and dicing. Just sort of look over his shoulder and offer moral support. Trust me.)

Rowan County (Kentucky) Clerk Kim Davis is refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone. She says issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples is against her religion, and to comply with the recent Supreme Court decision requiring equal treatment for gay couples, she has stopped issuing licenses to heterosexual couples, as well.

I get the argument that she should perform her job, and if the duties of her job violate her religion, she should find a new job. I can't get hired as a bartender and then refuse service to everyone on religious grounds, right? But Davis's job changed with the Supreme Court decision. If she should leave her job now, it would be because of her religion, and religion is one of the protected characteristics that is prohibited from being the basis of an employment decision.

Also note, please, that no one HAS to get a license from Rowan County. Kentucky, like most states, requires a marriage license from ANY county for a marriage performed in ANY county. Citizens of Rowan County can get licenses elsewhere and get married wherever they want in the commonwealth.

That's important to me because that shows that the people who are continually appealing for licenses in Rowan County aren't as interested in getting married as they are in making Kim Davis follow their religion, not her own.

What if every county clerk in Kentucky refused to issue marriage licenses? Well, then, the state would stop recording marriages. What's the big deal with that? It's what many libertarian-minded folks think is a more-elegant solution, anyway. Davis is an elected official, so if the voters feel she is no longer qualified to serve as county clerk, she will be replaced. And if the voters prefer the county stop being involved in marriage, that's their prerogative. This is a religious-conscience matter masquerading as an equal-rights fight. Stop trying to convert Kim Davis at the point of a sword.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

"Anyone Want to Guess Where I Got the Money?"

In the episode of The Simpsons entitled "Trash of the Titans," Homer fills a hole in the sanitation department budget by allowing other jurisdictions to dump their refuse in Springfield's abandoned mines. His family, however, assumed he was selling drugs.

Today I was helping my future officemate move a desk and we accidentally opened the desk drawer. Inside was a fair amount of drugs.

Okay, fine, it's medicine. But it sounds cooler when you say it's drugs, and since they're the same thing, I'm going to say it's drugs.

My officemate said, "Is it Viagra?" Because he's Slovakian, it sounded funnier. I said, "This is like the beginning of every terribly depressing gritty crime movie. We're like, 'Oh, ha ha, we found some--oh no, our lives are RUINED!'"

I tried to translate the packaging with my phone, but it wouldn't work. Then I realized it was Korean. I went to a guy on staff who went to graduate school in Korea, and he told me that the labels gave instructions on when to take it, the name of the company that made it, and when it was made, but not what it was.

I took it to my academic director (who up and quit this week, effective this Friday), and he said, "Hold on to it. Don't put it where students can find it." I took it to his soon-to-be replacement and he said, "Why don't you let [Unhelpful Liasson for Chinese Bureaucracies] know." I WeChatted that dude and now he's come and taken the drugs away.

What if it was that Limitless drug that I've always wanted?!?! I totally should have taken some!!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The Photo Montage Is the Weakest of Blog Posts

An alley market near our apartment had a collection of small busts. You know, all the great leaders of history.

Wait, what?

The safest spot to be in event of a fire. Unless the fire extinguisher collection is itself on fire. Then we're all screwed.

In the alley market, you can also buy pet chipmunks. (They also had squirrels, but the squirrels were so lethargic that their picture was just sad, so I didn't include it.)

Recession never looked so good!

Who says poor people never have anything nice? This bungalow that houses our campus guards has had a swanky rooftop pool for the past two weeks now. Consider me jealous.

Just-Okay Wall of China (Name Adjusted for Chinese Government Statistic Inflation)

My school allowed the teachers to attend a "cultural outing" instead of actually working yesterday. I could choose the Summer Palace or the Great Wall of China. Since we're close enough to the Summer Palace to go on our own, and my family had already been to the wall without me, I decided to go to the wall.

The section we visited, Mutianyu, is a well-restored section. Part of the restoration was the installation of a cable car that can take you up the mountain in just four minutes.

However, comma, it costs ¥150, and our automatic deposit for August didn't go through until later that night, so none of us opted for the cable car. Instead, we walked up the steps.

So, so many steps.

Half an hour later, we were on the Great Wall of China.

My wife had only one requirement. (Well, she probably had a lot, like, "Don't have an affair on this trip," but she only thought one needed saying.) I had to take a picture that was actually me at the Great Wall, not just a bunch of pictures of the wall.

I spent a total of about 10 seconds taking around four or five selfies. Remember that for later.

The characters on the mountain translate to, "Be loyal to Chairman Mao." Seriously.

I came up behind three guys with Trinidad and Tobago credentials hanging from their backpacks. (The IAAF track and field world championships are going on in Beijing right now.) I said, "I'm just going to tell people the four of us are the Trinidad 4 x 100 relay team." One of the guys said they are actually 3/4 of the 4 x 400 relay team and that they'd won the silver medal the night before. I congratulated them and shook their hands. Later, I realized this story would be more fun if I had a picture with them, but I thought it would be lame to ask for a picture so much later, so I just took a creepy stalker picture of them instead.

Then I took some more pictures of the wall.

The air was actually great (part of the IAAF world championships and the coming military parade); the sky is overcast. It rained the night before and again the night after. So the pictures don't look that great but hiking wasn't terrible like it would have been with bad air quality.

After a while, I stopped for lunch. I was with four colleagues at that point, but I spent most of the day alone.

We were there on a very uncrowded day. I came across a scene I wanted to photograph, but I had to wait for a guy taking a selfie to finish up. I thought, "How long could he take, since I'd just seen him take about ten selfies not 30 meters away?" Answer: he can take a long-ass time. I sat in the middle of the wall, waiting for about three minutes, for this guy to take the perfect selfie. Fortunately, no one came along and ruined the shot while he was preening, so it wasn't a big deal. But still, dude. Three minutes for a selfie?

Most of our group paid ¥80 to take a sort of bobsled down the mountain. They had lots of signs and recorded announcements declaring that you couldn't take pictures, but all the other tourists were taking a LOT of pictures. A lady with the Trinidadian group held everything up for several minutes. We began to gently chide her, "No photos!" She said in a sort-of-playful-but-underneath-it-all-deadly-serious way, "Who paid for dis phone?!" After she left an Italian lady tried to take a selfie and the Chinese guy running the slide said, "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

One of my colleagues was very worried about the safety of the slide. I said, "If this was in America, I'd tell you, 'If anyone had died they would have shut it down,' but since this is China, I'll tell you, 'If a lot of people died they would have shut it down.'"

Then they shut the slide down temporarily because one of my colleagues fell off his sled. He got a large road rash on his arm.

Eventually, it was my turn.