Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rainbow High Five Wedding

Last weekend two of my friends got married.  It was the least traditional wedding I have ever been to, and also one of the most fun.  It was held in a state park, with the couple taking their vows by the edge of a lake.  It was a beautiful setting, and completely appropriate to who they were.  Neither the bride or the groom was wearing anything like traditional wedding attire.  They were both, in fact, wearing cargo pants.  This was somewhat disconcerting to me, but again, it was appropriate to who they were.

About an hour after the vows, when we had finished eating the barbecue and were hanging around talking, there was a brief rain shower.  When it was over, there was a very nice rainbow over the lake.  Very few people can say that there was an actual rainbow at their wedding.

Everything was completely unrehearsed.  The groom did not know what finger the rings were supposed to go on.  After the vows, when the priest said 'you know what time it is' they looked at each other for a split second and then gave each other a high five.  Everyone cheered.  This, too, was their personality.

They met at martial arts class, and we were their primary circle of friends.  Between a third and a half of the wedding guests were from the dojo.

The tables were decorated with rubber ducks.  Some of the ducks were ninja ducks, and some of them were dressed in 1920's style attire.  I kept several of them.

My friend and I did not recognize the clerical garb of the preacher.  He was wearing some kind of holy symbol that looked like a grid carved from a single piece of wood.  Being totally fearless in matters like this, we went up to him and asked, "What kind of priest are you?"  It turned out that he was a Lutheran, and he was wearing a Jerusalem cross

There was no wedding cake.  Instead, there was a ten-square-foot brownie, covered with slices of banana, strawberry, and topping.  It was absolutely the best wedding 'cake' I have ever eaten.

Some of the other guests had never been to a wedding before.  Those of us who had been to weddings had to tell them that all of this was not normal.

Good Advice

How to like people on purpose

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Choking Hazards

This article says that, each year in the USA, about 10,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for choking on food, and about 100 children die from choking on food.
This makes me wonder several things:
Are human infants uniquely vulnerable to choking?  Do we observe these kinds of problems in wild animals?
Did infants in earlier human societies have the same risk of choking?  Is this choking a problem related to modern diets and processed foods, or has it always been like this?
If choking has always been such a problem, why has natural selection not resulted in infants who are less likely to choke?
If it is only a recent problem, what has changed?  Could we solve the problem by feeding our children food that is closer to what a paleolithic child would have eaten?
It seems hard for me to imagine that modern diets would be such a larger choking hazard than paleo diets.  I know that children spent a lot more time nursing in early human societies, they still ate solid food, presumably the same nuts, berries, fruit, and meat that the rest of the tribe was eating.
Now that I write all this, I think I read somewhere that the shape of the human throat, which gives it the ability to make the wide range of sounds needed for speech, also makes it more likely to choke on food.  But still, choking can be reduced by changes in eating behavior and food choice, and those changes should be instinct by now.  Maybe the deaths from choking are so small, as a percentage, that there is not much selection pressure, compared to other things like diseases and famine that have haunted humans for most of our history.


I am glad I am not the only one annoyed by the habit of people greeting you by asking questions they do not care to know the answer to.  Those of us who actually care about honesty in language face a neverending battle.
Sometimes I will greet someone with my customary "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" only to get a reply of "Fine thanks, and you?"  It is obvious that the person is completely clueless, running on habit rather than engaging with reality, but these encounters still leave me somewhat disoriented.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Legal Permanence

The last email from contains the following. They are complaining about the libertarian position on business rights. Paul believes that it is not fair to force someone to associate with people he or she does not want to, just because that person is operating a business.

According to Paul, the market's free hand would eventually have forced most businesses to serve black people.
But Paul is badly in need of a history lesson. Even after Jim Crow laws were reversed, those businesses that actually served blacks were still subject to threats and outright violence - often sanctioned by local and state governments. The market would never have eliminated slavery, and it's not going to eliminate racism, either.

But, by their own description of the history, profit-seeking businesses wanted to serve all people equally, and were prevented from doing so by the power of the state. They make the Libertarian case themselves, obviously without realizing it. The government is the main problem.

Actually, they are partially right. Much of the business community wanted this legislation passed, because it gave them 'cover' for doing what they wanted to do anyway: serve all customers.

The Civil Rights Act is an example of a bit of legislation that was needed in its time, but is no longer necessary in its current form. We may need some version of it, but not the version we have now. It should be changed to fit modern times.

It is a mistake to make all laws permanent. This means that the legal code just keeps growing in size and complexity, slowly choking the country. I believe that all laws should be limited, say to ten years, so that it automatically expires unless renewed. That way, most of Congress's time would be spent arguing whether or not to renew old laws, and how to change them, so the total complexity of our laws would not grow as quickly.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

School Observations

Working with these groups has radically changed my opinion on the merit of private school.

The private school kids, be them sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, are a pleasure to work with.  They are attentive and polite, they really by gosh do encourage each other, they make truly insightful comments while climbing or during processing, they make references to Winston Churchill and physical laws.

The public school kids, on the other hand, have to be constantly told to pay attention; are full of such witticisms as "this is gay" and "hahaha, you fell"; trying to facilitate discussion with them is like pulling teeth; and an alarming number of the evaluation we ask them to fill out fail to display an adequate grasp of the concepts of sentence, subject, and predicate--much less provide any specific or helpful comments about what could be improved.
This is from an excellent post from a friend of mine.  Go read the whole thing. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Human Ingenuity

This is facinating and horrifying.  There are dozens of professionals in Japan who manufacture situations to put people at fault in divorce proceedings:

But Rika was the victim, not of a straightforward womaniser, but something more chilling: a meticulously planned professional sting operation.

Everyone involved in that wild evening — from the young "friend" who invited her, to the guests in the restaurant — was an actor, an employee of an agency that specialises in sexual entrapment. The chance meeting with "Kaori" weeks before, the dinner invitation and the act of seduction were commissioned and paid for by someone Rika has never met — the lover of her husband, a woman who yearns for the failure of Rika's marriage.

In many ways, Japan is a glimpse at the future.  As advancing technology makes it easier and easier to meet people's basic needs, more and more economic activity will be focused on these kinds of social games.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Behavior and Expectations

On May 15th a ship dredging the site of the attack on a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 seamen made a spectacular find: propellers, motors and a steering section that international investigators say "perfectly match" those of a CHT-02D torpedo that North Korea sells abroad. What's more, the blue marking was similar to one on a previously captured North Korean torpedo. This was as close to a smoking gun as the South Koreans could have hoped to find.

The discovery, combined with intelligence reports indicating North Korean submarines were out of port during the attack, allowed the investigators to conclude on May 20th that the Cheonan "was sunk as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea."


Indeed, despite a national outpouring of grief, the senseless attack aroused surprisingly few public demonstrations of wrath with the North. Brian Myers, a writer on North Korea, notes that there was more palpable anger in 2002 when an American army vehicle ran over two South Korean schoolgirls.

from this article

So basically, an accidental killing of two people generates more anger and protest than a deliberate killing of 46.  Why might this be?  There are several possibilities:

1) The people of South Korea think that the lives of two schoolgirls are worth more than the lives of 46 sailors.

2) The people of South Korea expect bad behavior from North Korea and are not surprised by it, so there is no emotional impact, while they are shocked by anything bad the USA is responsible for.

3) The people of South Korea calculate that public protest is much more likely to change the actions of the USA and prevent future tragedies.

4) The people of South Korea are inherently racist and/or anti-American and therefore look for an excuse to bash us.

My initial reaction was to assume #2, but after considering it further I think that #3 is the best answer.  It makes sense to protest things that your protest actually has a chance of affecting.  Therefore, while it seems unfair to protest small things while ignoring big things, it is actually rational, because protesting a small thing that you can have a real impact on improves the world more than protesting a big important thing that you cannot change at all.

But it may also be true that you can get away with more things if people expect no better from you.  The USA, and developed Western European countries, are held to a higher standard of behavior than most other countries.  Rather than complain about this, we should be proud of it.

Marriage Name Changing

In the past, in most European societies, women always changed their last name when they got married.  This was never questioned.  But nowadays, it has become optional.  Hyphenated names were used for a while, but now it seems that an increasing number of women simply do not change their name.

This may be for economic reasons as much as cultural ones.  Our society has become much more bureaucratic over the years, with the result that changing one's name is more of a hassle than ever before.  I have heard detailed complaints from a fellow grad student of just how much work was required to change her name.  She was talking to another grad student, who got married later and decided not to change her name.

Of the five women I know from school who have gotten married in the past few years, two of them decided not to change their names.  There does not seem to be any social pattern to this.  One who decided not to change her name was a die-hard libertarian, and the other comes from a fairly traditional farming family.

Maybe there are some women who change their name because it is expected, but increasingly the only relevant consideration seems to be "Do I like my husband's last name?"

I have always thought that the ideal pattern of naming would be as follows:  Nobody changes their name when they get married.  Daughters inherit the last name of the mother, and sons inherit the last name of the father.  This seems logical; everyone has a chance to continue the family name and nobody has to do any paperwork.  The only adjustment would be that we would have to get used to siblings with different last names, but there are already a lot of families like that anyway.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Unfair Universe

We live in an unfair universe.  Like all primates, humans have strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness; thus we find this fact stressful.  There are two popular methods of dealing with the resulting cognitive dissonance.  First, one may change one's view of the facts - deny that the unfair events took place, or edit the history to make it appear fair.  Second, one may change one's morality - deny that the events are unfair.

from this post

Monday, May 10, 2010

Star Trek

I recently saw the new Star Trek movie.  I did not like it.  This is not because they 'messed up the world'.  I know that it is an alternate reality where the continuity changed.  I think that it is simply a bad movie.  I could rant on at length about its many stupidities, but I do not feel like giving it that much time so I will only focus on one.

There was one scene in the middle that was particularly dumb.  Kirk had been marooned on a frozen snowball of a planet, and was trying to get to a Starfleet base, when he was randomly attacked by one alien monster, and then another one.  There are maybe five pointless minutes of him running from these monsters.  This did nothing for the plot, and had no drama or suspense at all.*  We know that Kirk is not going to get killed by a random alien monster in the middle of the movie.  Even if you had never heard of Star Trek, it would be obvious by this point in the movie that this was a Main Character that was not going to get randomly killed.  The scene was completely boring; I was just waiting to see what plot device would rescue him and how long it would take.

And then there was the fact that the actions of the monsters was senseless.  The second monster started chasing Kirk after it killed the first monster.  Why would it abandon a large, free food source to waste energy chasing a smaller one?  Predators do not act like that.  If it was just defending its territory, it would have been content to warn Kirk off with a threat display.  Even their existence was questionable.  There was simply not enough food on that section of the planet to support such a density of large, energetic monsters.  Even aliens on another world should follow the basic rules of ecology and animal behavior.

This is not a minor or incidental complaint.  Star Trek is supposed to be a science-based show.  In the past, things did make sense.  Whenever there was an alien monster in the original TV series, it would have good reasons for its existence and actions.  It would be a lone survivor of a dying world craving salt, or a silicon-based lifeform trying to protect its eggs from miners.  These kinds of things were what made the original series good.  Many of the episodes were decent science fiction, thought-provoking and original, set in a world that actually tried to follow the laws of science rather than the laws of Hollywood. 

Some of the episodes of later series were as good, and many of them were high-quality entertainment.  But in general, the new stuff has been a shallow, cargo-cult copy of the original, degenerating into a space soap opera with almost zero trace of the qualities of good science fiction.  This new movie is particularly bad.  It is a zombie, trying to cling to life by stealing the life-energy of the original characters.  I found it quite ironic that the last words of the movie were 'to boldly go where no one has gone before' when it is nothing but a low-quality rip-off of a genre, a world, even characters that have been done so many times before.

*The only way to consistently deliver real suspense is to cultivate a diverse collection of good, well-rounded, sympathetic secondary characters that both the audience and the main characters like, and then to kill off one or two of them each season.  This has to be done carefully.  If you kill them too often, the audience sees them as disposable and refuses to connect with them.  A good percentage is perhaps one real death for every five or six times a secondary character is put in a dangerous situation.

Stargate:SG1 managed this trick.  I was watching our DVD collection recently, and was reminded how good that show was, at least in the middle few seasons.  It is still one of my favorites.  There are a few bad and mediocre episodes and scenes, and the whole thing started to fall apart near the end, but the ratio of good stuff to bad is consistently high.  I especially like the way that they do a good job of exploring moral questions, and how characters make mistakes and must deal with the consequences.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Feathered Karaoke

There is a very loud Brown Thrasher outside the window, and he has been going through his routine all week.  Brown Thrashers are large birds related to the mockingbird; they mimic the calls of other birds for two or three seconds per bird, before moving on to a different call.  This one likes to perch at the top of our pecan tree.  There are a lot of birds in our yard, so this thrasher has quite a repertoire.  I am hearing short versions of every birdcall that has been heard in our yard for the past several years.  In many cases, this is the only time I have heard the call, because the thrasher is much bolder, louder, and more persistent than most of the birds it copies.

My mom can identify most of the calls, but sometimes she cannot.  Often this is because the thrasher has gotten the call wrong, mangling it beyond recognition.  But the female thrasher does not seem to mind.  The male is advertising his memory, stamina, lung capacity, and fearlessness.  Some human mating rituals are not so different.