Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Validation Memories

I rarely blog when I am visiting my parents.  I just don't spend much time on the computer or thinking deep thoughts, and not much happens to me.

So, in order to avoid going too long without a post, here's a random memory brought to mind by this blog post

I was on lunch break at the company I worked for before going back to school my advanced degrees.  Two people were reading horoscopes.  They were not the prediction-type horoscopes; they were the kind that describe who you are.  It may or may not be relevant that they were both middle-aged women, and both worked in our marketing department. (Actually, they were the marketing department.  It was not a large company.)

They asked me what my sign was.  I told them I didn't know.  They asked me what my birthday was.  I told them a date.

They then read the horoscope out loud, and said, "Oh yes, that is you."

I started to laugh.  They asked what was funny, and I told them that I had lied about my birthday.  I had deliberately chosen a date several months away from my actual birthday.  The horoscope associated with my random date had been so vague that they were able to fit me into it.

I don't know if this did them any good.  Probably not.  But it does make a good story.

As an aside, they both were in the habit of buying lottery tickets.  You would think that people who make it their job to manipulate consumers would have some resistance to being manipulated, but I guess not.

Friday, June 25, 2010

State of Nature

Life among our primate relatives is more nasty, brutish, and short than life among any human society:

Can chimpanzee skirmishes tell people anything about their own violent tendencies? One lesson, which may surprise cynics, is that humans are more peaceful than chimps. The rate of killing Dr Mitani reports is between one-and-a-half and five times that seen in human agricultural societies—and between five and 17 times higher than attrition due to warfare among hunter-gatherers, who could have less need to defend territory than farmers. 


Studies like this have been accumulating for years.  And yet people still believe the myth of an idyllic life before civilization.  People like Rousseau were simply wrong, about almost everything.  Life without economic growth is a horrible Mathusian grind that leads to all kinds of bad behaviors.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tonfa Versus Blackberries

My blackberry picking has been taken to the next level with the addition of another year of martial arts training and a tonfa:


I have used the staff in the past. It is good for peeling away the outer layers of fresh thorny vines with no berries, to get to the fruit-bearing vines. I will stick it in the ground at an angle, then use it as a lever to move all of the vines around in a big clump.

The tonfa is excellent for close-in work, allowing me to move and rearrange the thorny blackberry vines in order to more easily grab the berries. In the past, I was doing this by hand, but the tonfa allows me to easily, quickly, and safely manipulate things. As a result, I was able to gather the blackberries more quickly than in the past, and with fewer scrapes.

The tonfa was originally an agricultural tool, a handle for grinding stones. Nowadays it is seen exclusively as a weapon, but I have taken it full circle by using it as a tool to collect food. I like the symmetry of this.

I will also mention that martial arts kicks are very useful for clearing out and stomping the vines, especially crescent and reverse crescent kicks. When roaming through fields full of blackberries, you have to be willing to destroy and flatten some of them. If you do not cut paths, the berry vines merge into a giant impenetrable tangle of thorns. These briar patches do not even produce many berries, because the sunlight never gets to them. Selective culling with kicks and the staff are needed to keep the right density and ensure that there will be lots of berries each year.

The blue thing in my pants pocket is a nifty mosquito-repelling machine that my mom had and asked me to try. It works well.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Touring New York

On Monday, after a nice weekend of family gatherings, I visited New York City.  

I had thought about going to a museum, but then I decided that I did not want the experience of being in a museum.  I wanted the experience of being in New York City.  And I never even considered any of the main tourist landmarks; those things are almost always a waste of time.

I arrived via train in Penn Station around 10:30 AM, and then walked up 7th avenue to Central Park, looking at the city and its residents.  Along the way I saw a lot of people doing Yoga in Times Square.  After spending a little time in Central Park, I walked to East Midtown for lunch.  

My plan, guided in part by my uncle's advice, was to wander around until surrounded by office buildings and lots of restaurants, look for a restaurant selling some kind of cuisine not available in my hometown, and then order something exotic from the menu.  I was trusting both my adventurous palate and the selection pressure of a hyper-competitive business climate.  My uncle had told me "They are all good.  They have to be good.  If they are not good, they go out of business in months."

I spotted a tiny restaurant in a basement selling Middle Eastern food.  The clientele was split about evenly between middle easterners and men in suits on lunch break, which looked like a good sign.  I ordered a 'Kefta Kebab Wrap' made with lamb meat.  It was very, very good.  The proprietor of the restaurant, who occasionally emerged from the kitchen, was a gnomish middle eastern man, short and stooped but full of energy.  Every time I saw him I wondered about his life history.  There was one waitress, but a swarm of delivery men kept entering and leaving. It was, in short, a very typical and very good New York eatery.

After this, I wandered back to Central Park for a siesta.  As I lay in the grass, I thought, "If you sold the patch of grass I am lying on, it would probably sell for more money than I would make in my entire life.  This bit of turf is worth more than I am."  I later calculated that this was not accurate; the land in Central Park is valued at about $14,440 per square foot and I was occupying about 24 square feet, so my resting spot was actually worth about $350,000.  Still, that is one expensive resting place.

After my siesta, I wandered around Central Park a bit more.  Near the theater, I saw a statue of Romeo and Juliet.  The statue portrayed them both as horribly thin and anorexic.  This was not some kind of artistic caricature; it was meant to look realistic, and it seemed to be a glorification of that body type.

There was a woman singing opera on top of a little hill, and at the bottom of that hill a group of bohemian-looking Japanese were filming a movie, with a Japanese actor and actress playing a romantic scene while laying on a blanket in the grass.  I am almost certain that these were unrelated; the filmmakers were probably only after the image. Every so often a woman would scurry out from behind the camera to fix the blanket or the actress's hair.

After seeing most of Central Park, I then walked up 'Museum Avenue', then west on 'Cathedral Street' to meet my cousin for dinner.  We ate in a 'Malaysian Grill' that was decent, but not as good as where I had lunch.

After dinner, I walked down Broadway back toward Penn Station.  That part of New York is a grid, but Broadway cuts diagonally across the grid, and where it splits from West End Avenue there is a little triangular park.  In that park there was a man performing what I could only describe as 'drum kata'.  He was wearing white tabi boots and playing a large drum mounted horizontally on a wooden stand, and his movements and use of the drumsticks had an obvious resemblance to the martial arts moves I am familiar with.

He was really good, both with the drumming and the movement.  After he finished, a group of musicians moved the drum, added more drums, and started a group performance.  It too was excellent.  Almost everyone who walked by stopped to listen and watch, and soon the park was filled with spectators.  Several little children started dancing to the drums.

I watched them perform from 7:00 to 8:00.  When it was done, they made no effort to talk about who they were; it was only by looking at the back of someone's shirt that I saw the name of the group: Soh Daiko.  They accepted compliments gracefully.  There was a drum case with a 'tips' sign ( I tossed in a $5 bill ) but nobody asked for anything and this was quickly packed up with everything else.

After that, I walked down Broadway towards the bus terminal.  The sights and people were again very impressive, and a good experience, but there was nothing specific to write about, except that there were a lot more panhandlers at night than there were during the day.

I got a 10:20 PM bus ticket back to my uncle's beach condo in New Jersey.  It was a good day but an exhausting one, much like my backpacking trips through European cities.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Conference Notes

This academic conference I have been attending was not really worth the trip.  Some of the philosophy talks were good, but mainly it was stuff I already knew or stuff that was completely pointless.

One especially bad talk was devoted entirely to things that Roosevelt had done to his political opponents in the New Deal era.  It had no intellectual content at all; it was simply an hour-long ad homeneim attack.  It did nothing to advance our understanding or appreciation of liberty; it was just a shrill, lowbrow attempt at partisan point-scoring, a weak attempt to discredit progressive thought by associating it with something unpleasant.  It was especially bad when you consider that many of the conference guests had come from other countries and had no reason at all to care about this episode in American history.

I always get a bad feeling when people who agree with my political positions start to act like this.  It discredits the position, and it discredits me.  I get more upset at this than at similar things from the other side.  I know this is not logical, but I expect 'them' to be shrill and irrational, and I expect people who share my ideas to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior.  Good thinkers care about ideas and rational discourse, and should not stoop to partisan hackery.

My association with this organization started when the department chair handed me a brochure and encouraged me to apply for their fellowships.  I won $2000 in cash and have been invited to two free conferences, but I am starting to think that all of it, even taking the money, was a mistake.  I will not be going to their conferences in the future.  My time would be better spent on other things, and I do not want or need any support from them.

Now, some random, and more lighthearted, memoirs from my time here:

There was a fire alarm during one of the lectures.  Within seconds of the alarm going off, I had packed up my stuff and was heading out of the building.  I could have been faster, but I spent about a second making sure that it was actually the fire alarm going off.  I did not feel any desire to leave that lecture, nor did I actually believe that there was a fire.  I was just making sure to get out, because that is what one should do during a fire alarm.  The second person out of the building took about twice as long as I did to get out the door.  Others took several minutes more.

Since I was sitting in the front row, everyone saw me leave.  Two people came to talk to me while we were waiting outside.  One said "You have really good survival instincts."  The other said "You sure set a good example for the rest of us."  It was an interesting example of how people can make such different assumptions about the same behavior, and both be wrong.  I was not thinking of either survival or example-setting; I was just following the rules as I understood them.

I also noticed, during this fire alarm, that several dozen people started smoking immediately after coming outside.  It was like a pavlovian reflex: leave building, start smoking.  Their bodies could not have been actually desiring nicotine on any schedule, because under the normal course of events they would have sat through the lecture without smoking.

They served drinks and snacks during breaks, but the desks were tilted so that everything would slide off them.  I quickly figured out how to eliminate the angle by putting my conference binder on the desk, and started sharing this knowledge.

During one of the breaks, I would go outside to a grassy area to stretch and get fresh air.  The doors would have locked behind me, but I stopped them from closing by pitting small twigs on the ground in the doorframe.  Stopping doors from closing by putting things in them is such a common tactic that I think nothing of it, and people do it all the time in every American college I have been to.  But one Indian attendee looked at me and said "Oh, that is clever."  This is a good example of cultural knowledge that we take for granted.  You will never see this tip in a book, it only spreads by seeing other people do it.

After a break, the presenter called out an audence member.  I forget what the professor said exactly, but we all turned and saw that the student had decided not to mess with cups and pouring; he had simply grabbed a half-full carafe of orange juice and taken it in with him.  I commented to my neighbor that this was a perfect demonstration of chutzpah.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bryn Mawr

I have been exploring the campus during my rare periods of free time.  It is a nice place to relax and wander around.  The architects did a good job; it really does remind me of the castles and monasteries in Europe.  The 'cloisters' area behind the great hall is almost an exact replica of a monastic courtyard.  The Great Hall itself is especially nice, and it is almost always empty, so it is very calm and stately.

I am pleased to report that there are more benches and water fountains than I saw at first; you just have to know where they are.  But even though it is a nice place to visit, I would not want to live here.  The dorms are strange and not that comfortable, and I have seen better bathroom facilities at campgrounds.

In the great hall there is a large statue of Athena.  The students here have a tradition of leaving 'offerings' at this statue for good luck on exams or to 'atone' for breaking a campus tradition.  I recorded the following offerings:

a very nicely constructed mobile, hanging from the statue's outstretched hand
a 7-11 lighter
two pennies, one placed in a fold in the statue's clothing
a tube of lipstick
a wine glass
a pack of twizzlers
a white and pink bra
five roses
four cans of food: corn, peas, beans, and tomatoes
a purple foam sun visor
a single-use pack of eye drops
a bus schedule
a ceramic statue of pooh and piglet
2 candy bars
a deck of 'karma cards'
a Czechoslovakian newspaper
a metal candle holder, shaped like a lamp, with stars cut out of the lampshade part
a glow stick
a 'think' bookmark from banned book week
a nickel
a piece of gum
a pair or earrings

Also, someone had added a layer of lipstick to the statue's lips.

This led me to wonder, if I were Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, which offering would I have been most happy with?  Probably the Czechoslovakian newspaper.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Trip North

For the next week, I will be at an academic conference at Bryn Mawr college.  I am typing this from one of their library computers.

Bryn Mawr looks and feels like Hogwarts.  All of the buildings look like castles and there are interesting cravings everywhere.  The dorm rooms are a convoluted maze.  Some inspection reveals why.  Each room has a fireplace.  From the outside, you can see the chimneys.  Each room's fireplace feeds into a shared chimney, and the dorms must have been designed around these chimneys.

According to the conference program, most of the talks will be given in 'Park Science 25'.  I am in the Park science building now, and have been all over it, and have yet to find a Room 25.  All of the rooms are three-digit with the floor number, and the basement is nothing but maintenance stuff.  The librarian here had never heard of Room 25.  This will be interesting.

The campus also suffers from a severe lack of benches, trash cans, and water fountains.

Random travel notes:

Last night I stayed with my great-uncle in Virginia.  He is a retired manager of a gasoline terminal, so he had a lot of good stories about the oil industry, and comments on the current spill.  It was interesting to hear him discuss all the safety precautions and drills he had to do, while wondering why similar drills were not in place on the rig that caught fire.

I spent 30 minutes in a traffic jam caused by a badly designed toll plaza on I-95.  I now have bad feelings about the state of Delaware.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Aussie Ninjas

This is old, but too good not to post:

Australian Ninjas chase off muggers

This is not too surprising.  Dojos tend to be located where rents are really cheap, and that often means the bad part of town.

I can imagine the scene:  Three guys start mugging the tourist on a dark alley.  One ninja lurks in the shadows, spots the attack, then goes for reinforcements.  The muggers see something out of the corner of their eye, then they see five shadowy shapes looming out of the darkness and rushing toward them.  The shapes resolve into ninjas, and the muggers go running off.

Gender Equality

This article about Sweden brings up some interesting economic points.  I will discuss one:

Women earn less than men because they take more time off work to take care of children.  In the USA, women with no children earn as much as men.  The only way to equalize pay is to give men the same parenthood benefits and time off that women get.  Sweden has done this, and the result is that men and women have pay and positions that are much closer than in most countries.

It is impossible to legislate equal pay for women, while giving them more benefits.  If you want gender equality, the only way to do it is by mandating more benefits for men.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Scapegoating

It really annoys me when I read about anyone implying that Obama 'should be doing more' about the current oil spill, or that he 'is not handling things well'.  The oil spill should not be his problem.  He should not have to spend any time thinking about it.  His time would be much better spent doing some kind of international diplomacy.  That, and not some domestic technical issue, is his job description and his comparative advantage.

Katrina was not Bush's fault.  The BP spill is not Obama's fault.  It is utterly irrational to blame the president of the USA for accidents or natural disasters.  It reflects a stupid, primitive, magical-thinking, priest-king mentality that modern science should have driven out centuries ago.

It is true that, in each case, employees of the federal government could have done a better job.  But the primary culprits were local governments or private companies.  There are things we can do to reform the system to make bad things less likely to happen in the future.  But these things have almost nothing to do with the head of state.  They are boring details of ethics rules and incentives and should be dealt with via careful thought, not panicked reactions.

It is fundamentally misguided to expect the federal government to protect us from everything.  The world is a dangerous and chaotic place, and it always will be.  If we ask the government to waste its time on things that it cannot really control, then it will have less time and resources for the things that it can do and that are important. 

Anything that Obama does about the spill will be at best a waste of time and at worst actively dangerous.  But if he had spent the last month focused on foreign affairs, then he might have been able to prevent some kind of political or terrorist crisis 20 or 30 years from now.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Facebook and Privacy

Recently there has been a big stink about Facebook's privacy settings, and I just saw on the news that the founder of the company got grilled at a tech conference.  He was made 'visibly uncomfortable' and most of his answers are rambling.  These are the classic signs of someone who knows he is not being honest but is afraid to tell the truth.
 
Here is what he would have said in a rational world:
 
"Yes, of course we are making money by using your personal information.  We have to.  We are giving you all a valuable and expensive service for free, so we have to make some money somewhere or shut down.  Running a massive website with millions of users is expensive.  We have to pay millions of dollars for web hosting and bandwidth and technical support.  Untargeted ads bring in alomost no revenue, so the only way we can stay in business is to run targeted ads and make deals with other companies.  If you don't like it, you can go somewhere else.  Good luck finding or making something that is as useful as my site."
 
Personally, I never saw what the fuss is about.  Changing the privacy settings is easy, and I have done so.  In addition, I only put things on Facebook that I would be comfortable with the whole world seeing.  Facebook was never meant to be a private system; it was explicitly designed as a way to broadcast things about yourself and make it easier for other people to learn about you.
 
But having said that, I have no problem with people who choose to leave Facebook.  If you do not like something, then you should stop using it.  That is the right and proper response to a company doing something you do not like.  Just don't whine and complain and make it a political issue and try to get the government involved.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Movie Reviews: 'Pi' and 'Night of the Living Dead'

I recently saw these two successful, inventive, independent, low-budget films.  Aside from the details of their production, they may seem completely unrelated, but they share some notable similarities.

I will not discuss the plot details of either movie.  If you have seen them, it would be pointless, and if you have not seen them, it would be a spoiler.

As an action or horror movie, 'Night of the Living Dead' was slow and boring.  It is really of no interest to modern audiences, except as a cultural and historical document.  However, from that standpoint, it is good to see.

For example, I noticed that all of the characters placed a lot of importance on keeping a working television and radio so someone could tell them what to do.  They all had an amazing, naive, faith that following whatever instructions were given to them would be the right thing to do.  I do not know if the filmmakers intended this as a deliberate comment and satire on contemporary society, or if they simply reflected the current social norms, but it was noteworthy.

The violence was also amazingly tame, by modern standards.  I could not see how anyone could get upset by it, until I saw on the Wikipedia page that it was shown, unrated, in the matinee hour, where it was watched by little children.  Now I understand the reaction.  I would not want pre-teens to see that.

I will take this as an opportunity to say that, unlike many Libertarians, I strongly support labeling laws of all kinds, from movie ratings to food packaging labels.  You should be able to make and sell almost anything you want, as long as the contents of your product are clearly and honestly labeled on a universally understood standard.  There would be a lot less political pressure for restricting things if we had better ways of communicating product characteristics to consumers.

I also find it noteworthy that dozens of filmmakers copied the 'zombie' aspect of the film, which was the worst part, rather than the interpersonal conflict, character studies, and psychological tension, which were quite well-done.  After this movie, people tried to break into the film industry by making low-budget horror films, and mostly failed.  This is an example of 'cargo-cult' thinking, where people copy only the superficial aspects of something successful, and ignore the underlying causes of the success.

Pi, however, was a good film, because it succeeded in being inventive and engaging.  It was everything that an independent film should be.  Despite the name, it is not really about math or science.  It is basically an exploration of a strange kind of mysticism and its consequences.  It does a very good job of portraying the Lovecraftian idea that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, that mere knowledge can warp both reality and your brain.

I will note that, in terms of blood, gore, and shock, 'Pi' was actually more intense than 'Night of the Living Dead'.  It was also scarier and more disturbing.  And yet it is not labeled as a 'horror' film, nor should it be.

There were a lot of things in 'Pi' that I did not really understand.  Maybe there was some deeper meaning behind them, but the cynic in me thinks that a good way to fake intelligence and depth would be to do odd and interesting things at random in order to trick people into looking for a hidden meaning, 'finding' it, and then congratulating both themselves and the filmmakers for intelligence and sophistication.

Both films were successful because they did things that were not being done by mainstream production companies.  They explored new ideas at a time when most mainstream entertainment was based on a predictable formula.

The science and logic in both movies was equally bad.  If you are looking for a coherent or believable story, go elsewhere.  But of you are looking for things to ponder and thing about, there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than to watch these movies.