Monday, December 10, 2007

A smile's worth a thousand words - or is it?

Think you're an ace at figuring out when people are genuine, when they're insincere? Decoding body languages, expressions, and gestures is one of the most natural things for human beings, but it turns out we're not always that good at it (or some people are just really good at dissimulating). The BBC UK has put together an online test to judge how good you are at discerning whether a smile is fake or genuine. Try it here.

I got 80% and of those I got wrong, it was evenly split between fake smiles I thought were genuine and vice versa. How'd you do?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Second Earth

Lest you think that this post is advocating the use of a new Second Life product, let me drag you back to the real world. Astronomers have found the most Earth-like planet ever discovered.

So my main question, apart from how we can get there (20 years of astronaut ice cream and beef jerky seems too much to ask of anyone, just to get there), is about the year. Their year is 13 days long. Imagine that? One day per month, just about - so what's that? three days of summer, three days of fall, three days of winter, four days of spring. So it could snow one day and then five days later be mid-summer? And we thought we had an ADD epidemic...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fury over Nazi Fashion Bags

The Spanish clothing chain Zara recently pulled a whole line of handbags that were embroidered with little swastikas. My first reaction is "what the hell were they thinking to sell bags that have swastikas on them" - in Europe no less. The hubbub over the bags started in Britain when a woman returned a bag to the store after discovered the swastikas.

On second glance however, the mistake is easier to understand. The handbags were made in India. In India, the swastika is an ancient sign symbolizing the sun, strength, and good luck, much as it is an ancient symbol for fertility in other cultures. The designers in India were using that connotation to the symbol, rather than any anti-semitic meaning it could have imparted. Apparently, the buyers at Zara approved a mock-up without any swastikas (though you'd think someone would check before they actually went on the shelves).

Now, it's unfortunate that the Nazis appropriated a symbol which used to be so positive and turned it into something evil. It's unfortunate that Zara didn't realize its mistake. And it's unfortunate that people bought handbags that had symbols with such negative connotations and that have such a history (especially in Europe). But I highly doubt that it was an attempt on the part of Zara to legitimize fascism.

Term Limits for Marriages?

A Bavarian politician has come up with the intriguing idea of putting a 7-year expiration date on marriages.

Now, on the one hand, my thinking is that if it ain't broke, don't go breaking it. It's true some people (as she says) stay in marriages just because it's safe, or just because of the kids, or they're just afraid of the unknown. But if they're relatively content, that's their prerogative to forgo passion. It would just create an unnecessary amount of paperwork to make people file to renew their marriages every 7 years.

However, on the other hand, I can see some benefits to this - some people are just in bad marriages, but divorce is an expensive process. This might also force people to come up with pre-nuptial agreements (since the marriage would just expire, I'd imagine there wouldn't be the bickering as to who gets what, so you'd have to say in advance how you'd split it should you decide not to renew the marriage). But more importantly, it's a good way to check in with your spouse, it would serve as a starting point to discuss some of the issues in the marriage and make sure it's working for both people. Sometimes people go for years without ever talking about what's not working. If they were given the option to get out without the hassle of divorce lawyers, it might actually help to solidify marriages that are working because each person would have to think about what they wanted and communicate it to the other. But hey, perfect world, right?

I don't think this is the threat to marriage that the Christian right is necessarily painted it. Sure, there would be people who would decide to let the marriage expire, but those are probably the people who shouldn't be married anyway, and are providing an unhealthy view of marriage to their kids. It could help to bolster communication. But it could also just create headaches for everyone involved - the need to file paperwork just keep the status quo, the extra tax dollars needed to fund the department which processes the paperwork (or would there be an extra renewal charge, or just a "let it expire" charge?), then there would be the almost inevitable battles over property, especially if one person wants to renew and the other doesn't.

I'm on the fence, but tipping into the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" camp. What do you think?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Your Real Age

Take this Real Age Test. I have no idea what their credentials are, but I'm none too sure of their accuracy. Because, get this, while I may be 28 chronologically, apparently I'm 12.6 in my real age. Yes, you read right, I'm really an 8th grader. I find this vaguely disturbing. But the upside? It says I'll live til almost 90. I'll hold it to that, yes sirree I will!

What's your real age?

Monday, September 10, 2007

One Laptop per Child

I was watching 60 Minutes the other day and they had a segment about the One Laptop Per Child program, spearheaded by faculty members at the MIT lab. What they've done is to work with technology companies to create a cheap ($100) laptop that is virtually indestructible - there are no ports or holes in the plastic, so you can literally pour a glass of water over it and not harm it. There are little ear-like antennae sticking off the top, which just about triples the strength of the WiFi. The battery life in somewhere in the range of 10-12 hours, and then they have hand wound battery rechargers that can be used when the kids have no electricity at home (as most of them don't in the targeted areas).

In some countries where they've started this program, school attendance has shot up to 50% as the word of mouth gets around among the kids to tell them about the fun computers they get by going to school. The kids can then take the computers home with them and teach their whole families how to use them.

One of the controversial aspects of this program is that the program backers contend that the computers can be used in place of education (if they are not able to attend school themselves). And computers are definitely better than nothing. But what the critics have said is that, while the kids may learn to use the basic functions, they won't learn the savvy and depth they could get in school.

But my take on it is that in many of these 3rd World countries where education is hard to come by, self-taught education by computer will vastly expand the horizons of these kids beyond anything they could have achieved on their own.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Pee-Powered Batteries

Yes, there really are urine-powered batteries out there. But let me ask you something - since these batteries also run on water, what in god's name would bring someone to actually use urine to power these things? I mean, unless you're stuck in the desert, or on a life raft (I'm thinking salt water might be somehow corrosive to the batteries), and you have a desperate need to use something battery-powered (like a flashlight, what were you thinking?), why the hell wouldn't you just use water to recharge?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Food in schools

Take this junk food quiz first.

I'm just at a loss for words here. Complete loss. Seriously, it's no wonder that we're reaching a 30% obesity rate in this country if our schools consider water worse for you than sugary drinks, popsicles are banned but not snickers, and they don't take into account sat fats, calories, or gee, well really anything that's bad for you, focusing instead on only whether the food has nutritional value (ie vitamins and minerals - the lack thereof being why water gets the bad rap).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hole in the Universe

Astronomers have just discovered a gaping hole in the universe. Apparently, there's nothing inside of it, no galaxies, stars, or dark matter. And it's nearly a billion light years across.

Now, I've never studied astronomy - I couldn't explain to you what exactly is meant by dark matter or string theory (though I do have vague impressions I've gotten from books and tv). But if I'm not mistaken, then this hole is basically outer space without all the detritus of planets, stars and galaxies.

Now, I'm curious what causes a big empty space like this. Did one of the marble-toting aliens (think Men in Black) take a vacuum to our universe? In any event, can you imagine how absolutely boring it would be to travel through that hole, even at warp speed? (Totally disregarding the fact that there would be no fuel, food, or sunlight to be had for a billion years, but hey that's just practicalities, right?)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

18 Men Arrested for Cross-Dressing

So it seems that recently, 12 states in Northern Nigeria passed stricter Sharia laws (based on Muslim precepts). The power of these laws has remained active for centuries, but had been curtailed under British colonial rule. Now they're back in force. The sharia courts "impose strict punishments such as death for adultery or sodomy and amputation for theft."

Ok, hold on a second. I consider myself to be very tolerant of different cultures and understanding of customs that differ from my own - different practices are often quite intriguing and can tell me a lot about that culture and the ways they think. But I just can't get on board with death for adultery or amputation for theft. Sure, these things are not good to do as they hurt other people (either emotionally or monetarily). But whatever happened to prison (for theft), or exile as a feasible option if somebody does something that doesn't fit with your culture's mores (make it someone else's problem)? What about the Amish practice of shunning? Just pretend the person isn't there, they don't exist for you.

Do you think that the laws against adultery are equally applied to men and women? I'd be really surprised if they were. Historically, women committing adultery have been treated MUCH more harshly than men.

We watch movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and think "oh my god, they're cutting people's hands off" but we "know" that it's a story about a past era, that we've reached a more "enlightened" time (if I can say that without sounding condescending - I don't mean enlightened as in how "we" do things. But rather, enlightened in that we don't force our will physically upon someone else, unless they've done something unmentionable like murder, rape, that kind of thing). But it's still really happening.

So, ok, I'll bet you that cutting people's hands off would be a deterrent for certain kinds of theft (white collar, armed robbery, that kind of thing), unless someone just figured that their plan was so perfect, they wouldn't get caught. But it's the really poor people who are stealing food for their family to eat that will be hit hard. No, I'm not condoning theft. But if the kids are hungry and crying, and there's no work to be had, I don't think that possible amputation (if caught) is going to prevent the theft of some food.

I understand that most religions have a problem with homosexuality. I don't agree with their negative view of it, but they're entitled to feel that it's wrong, I suppose. Just like abortion - people are entitled to be pro life. But my take on it is this - if you don't like it, don't do it. As long as it's not harming anyone, why should they get all in a murderous snit about it? If it's not accepted in their society, that's fine, do the whole exile/shunning thing. But to kill people for being homosexual?

Ok, so this is the extreme. It does say in the article that only one man, a convicted murderer, has been hanged under sharia law since it was enacted in 2002. So it could that adultery, sodomy and theft are punishable by death and amputation on the books only - much like there are some states in the US where there are anti-sodomy laws still on the books (couldn't tell you what the punishment for that is, or what states, just that I've heard that they're there....). But it looks like they are taking these 18 men to trial for dressing as women. Now the question is, if they didn't catch them in any homosexual acts, could they enforce the sodomy laws? I certainly hope not, because death for cross-dressing just seems so far out of proportion as to be ludicrous.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Matrixology - Are you really a Sim?

The New York Times recently reported on a new theory held by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, that there is a 20% chance that our world is really the Sims. "Some computer experts" (which ones, I ask you?) have projected that, based on trends in processing power, we will have a computer system by mid-century that "could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems." This boils down to making us into an extended game of the Sims. Unlike the Matrix, where people could disconnect, "wake up" from their simulation, it would be nothing be a virtual network made of nothing but virtual brainpower.

Now, let me ask you, 20% chance?! I mean, seriously. It's a very intriguing idea and appeals to me in a philosophical and sociological way. However, to take it seriously, I really don't think so. I think that it certainly could soon be possible to run grand scale simulations in worlds (like Second Life - for more SL info, see my previous post on the subject) from our ancestors eras in a similar way to how we currently enjoy fantastical worlds (take, for instance, the popularity of the World of Warcraft or Ultima Online). Second Life has definitely taken on a whole life and economy of its own, but not to the extent this philosopher is talking about.

It would have to be a seriously powerful computer beyond all imagining to not only control a world of this size (and multiples for different eras), but to also imbue the virtual residents with emotions and with a self-awareness so they would feel like they were in control of their life. I'm picturing a Terminator 3 scenario here, where the virtual minds somehow gain their independence from their puppeteers and nuke the world.

In any event, not likely in my opinion. But an interesting philosophical discussion. Might we now see some "I'm a sim" defenses in trials like all those "Neos" out there who thought the world wasn't real so they could do whatever they wanted?

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Science of Insulting Women

The Freakonomics blog just moved over to The New York Times website. One of their first posts was about studies that have been done about negging - "a move that involves interjecting an insult during an initial conversation with a woman. The motivation behind the insult is to “lower her self-esteem, thus making her more vulnerable to your advances.”" This post has gotten the most comments I've seen on a Freakonomics post in a while, and I couldn't bring myself to read through all of them. After the first three or four posts by men saying that "all women" are attracted to bad men who insult their sense of self esteem, and that women never are interested in nice men who treat them right, I'd had enough.

Sure, there are women out there who like dangerous guys, guys who aren't interested, men who don't treat them right. Sometimes it's a result of their childhood - I have a relative who married a man who insults her quite often, but she's been married to him at least 30 years, perhaps in part because her father was not always the nicest when speaking with her mother. If it's something you grow up with, it may seem like the norm, that may be the example of a "successful" marriage. Who knows?]

But to generalize to say that that's what all women want, it sounds like that commenter thinks he's a nice guy, and has been burned by women interested in "bad boys." Some comments have said that women don't like to be complimented, or treated right. Now, I'm telling you right now, for all the men out there reading this post - yes, we do like to be complimented and treated right! (At least those of us with a healthy sense of self-respect and no bad boy complexes). And no, this doesn't mean we want compliments in every other breath, presents every other minute, and a man hanging on our every word. Because that's just damn slavish and sycophantic. But a man who knows how to use a well-placed compliment, have an intelligent conversation, and has his own interests in life is infinitely more appealing than either of the over-aggressively rude or sycophantic stereotypes.

The other thing I take issue with is the idea that women are only interested in men with status. That that's why they stay with men who insult them. No. No. No. Sure, perhaps women who stay with men like that feel like the men have more status, that's possible. But I think it's also in large part because the men have cut down their self esteem (or preyed on women who already have low self esteem) to such a level that the women feel like they don't deserve any better, or they don't want to be alone and don't have faith in themselves enough that they could find someone better.

I think the idea of trying to teach men who aren't comfortable interacting with women is a good one, but the way this Mystery is going about it just kind of turns my stomach. Teasing a woman just to let her know that you're on the same level as her is one thing, that she's not on a pedestal. But going beyond that into insulting (and to the "mate retention" behaviors also mentioned, such as her around to make sure she's not meeting other guys) sounds to me like it's the guy who has the low self-esteem - he's uncomfortable just being himself and let his conversation and looks attract women, so he has to resort to preying on the vulnerable. And there's someone out there actually making money for teaching men these tactics - books and a tv show, blech!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Strapped - Part 1: Education

Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead by Tamara Draut (ISBN 9781400079971)
Rating: 10/10

This was an absolutely fabulous book, the best I've read in a long time. It actually got me underlining passages, which I never do since it defaces the book. It takes a three-pronged view at why it's so hard for today's 18-34 year olds (in this book, those born between 1971 and 1987) to not only get ahead, but to break even and not sink into debt.

The first issues she brings up is the high cost of education.

"Borrowing one's way through college just wasn't the norm. In 1977, college students borrowed about $6 billion (2002 dollars) to help pay for college, compared to the $28 billion borrowed by students in 1993. By 2003, the amount of borrowing had doubled, to $56 billion. The rise in loan volume cannot be completely explained by increases in college enrollment. The number of students enrolled in college grew by 44 percent between 1977 and 2003, but student loan volume rose by 833 percent."

Yes, you read that right, 833 percent! Student loan debt was a fairly non-existent phenomenon until the 1990s (not that it didn't exist, but it wasn't the epidemic it is now). Then it absolutely exploded. And given the number of really good schools that don't give merit-based aid, many students have to rely on need-based aid, which generally comes in the form of loans.

"A 2002 survey of college borrowers found that 40 percent [of students] had delayed going to college or had gone to a less expensive college to avoid the burden of large student loans." Given the currency that the big name schools play in some professions (medicine, law, architecture, design, etc), the fact that more and more students are choosing to go to community college does have a definite impact on future earning potential. The book lists several real-life examples of students who wanted a certain career (for example, physician's assistant), but were unable to pay for their education and so had to settle with a lower paying degree (nursing, or I can't remember right now, whatever the stage below nursing is).

Now, perhaps in some of these fields, the gap isn't quite so pronounced - getting a medical degree will stand someone in good stead, whether it's from Harvard or the state or community college. But take, for instance, someone who wants an arts & sciences degree. Many students go for arts & sciences as a more general knowledge base, and once they get there they decide what they want to major in. The career path isn't laid out, and the job after graduation isn't as easy to pin down.

Take me, for instance. I have a double major degree in French and Anthropology. I use neither in my chosen profession (publishing). I attend social functions which allow me to use my French, but don't use it for work. I view my college degree as a good base formation for me, teaching me to think critically, educating me broadly, that kind of thing. And I am extraordinarily lucky that I have no student loans. But if I were burdened with several hundreds of dollars of loan payments every month, I could very well start questioning what the hell I was doing in college studying subjects that ended up having no relevance on my professional career. Sure, having the degree definitely helps me getting a better job and a better salary, and will stand me in good stead if and when I decide to go back for a grad degree. But many students don't have the luxury of going for a general degree and paying for room and board at college. Sometimes at the same time holding down two or three jobs and perhaps supporting children as well.

"A bachelor's degree is clearly what a high school degree used to be in terms of basic education for an economy based on knowledge."

A college degree is the basic currency of the economy nowadays, and it is difficult to get a well-paying job without one. The author points out that starting in the 80s and 90s, the corporate world turned into an hourglass - lots of workers in the bottom, a bottleneck in the middle, and higher up the top level jobs. Without a college degree, it is definitely much harder to move up through that bottleneck of middle management into the upper tier.

The percentage of college tuition has also shrunk over the years. I can't put my finger on the exact page in the book, but the percentage of tuition actually covered by the government in grants as need-based aid has not kept up with the explosion in tuition costs. If I remember correctly, the average grant was in the ballpark of $4000 per year. Taking the private colleges out of the pictures (which are upwards of $30K/year), state school can run to the low five figures per year, which leaves those students of modest economic background in a definite bind.

The lore in America is that you can pull yourself from modest beginnings up by your bootstraps to the corner office making a six figure salary. And that dream does happen for some people, but the whole paradigm of education and the economy has vastly changed over the last two decades. When students graduate from college with an average of $20K in debt, grad school with an average of $45K in debt, and phd with an average of $100K in debt, it's hard to save money and get ahead, difficult to invest in our future when we're just concentrating on squeaking by with what we have.

Economists have written at length about the epidemic among this generation of not saving, or of going into debt. It is often blamed on "kids" not being able to control their spending, buying unnecessary luxuries, that kind of thing. And for some of us, that'd certainly true. But then you look at the others, the ones breaking their backs in two or three jobs to try to pay back those loans, their rent, their car payments, food, insurance, perhaps child care, and you can say how small their luxury spending actually is, if they have any.

More posts to come at a later date about the other topics in the book - child care/health care costs, credit card debt, home ownership, and apathy to politics.

I recommend this book to anyone in this age group, to get perspective on why we're all so strapped for cash and what we can do about it. Also, greatly recommended to all of our parents, to help them understand that things are considerably different for us than it was when they were our age.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Eyeball Tattoos

It seems that in the world of tattooing, we have not yet reached the final frontier. Just when you thought that we had discovered everywhere you could possibly tattoo someone, here they come and hit us with eyeball tattoos.

Corneal tattooing has been used for patients who have suffered an eye trauma, to cover a scar or to help people with leucoma. But there are now patients asking for elective corneal tattooing. Three people were chronicled on their search to tattoo their eyes blue. Not their irises. Not their pupils. If I'm not mistaken, the cornea is the white part of the eye. Can you imagine? I mean, to each their own, and if they get their kicks walking around looking like they're going to shoot lasers out of their eyes, then more power to them (have I watched too many episodes of Charmed? Perhaps...). But wow, I don't think I could do that.

I'm hesitant even to consider Lasik surgery. It would be great to not have to mess with contacts or glasses, but just the prospect of having my eye open and seeing a big sharp knife coming at it is enough to freak me out. My eyes aren't bad enough yet for that. But to do it without having some kind of optical enhancement in vision, no thank you. And considering all the potential problems, I think I'll hold off on getting my eyes tattooed for now.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Woman Pregnant for 10 Years

No, not with one child, silly. But over her lifespan, she has been pregnant for a total of 10.5 years. Can you imagine? The Duggars (in Arkansas, why am I not surprised?) just welcomed their 17th child into the family (17th!!!). This woman must be an absolute saint to be able to deal with that many young children at once, either that or she's cracked up and nobody's noticed yet. I'll be the older ones help out a bunch, but still, can you imagine how much laundry there must be to do in that house? How much cooking, and for that matter their grocery bill every week? They probably spend more in food in one week than I make in a month, especially with 10 of those kids being boys. And they want more kids!

How are they paying for all of these kids? They're apparently on the Discovery Channel, so maybe they're using all this media attention to their advantage to help pay for everything. Either that or that father is the highest paid former state representative ever.

All the kids are home schooled, which I suppose makes sense given the number of them, the cost of child care (and private schools), and such. I hope they get a chance to go out amongst the rest of the world - that's the main problem I find with home schooling (apart from not being able to confirm the quality of education, I mean anyone can home school their kids, but do they know what's they're talking about?), the insularity of it and the reduced interaction with other kids of their age (who aren't related to them).

On a final note...what possessed these parents to name all their kids with names starting with J? I mean seriously. As if it's not going to be hard enough for all the in laws they're going to have once their kids start getting married, the in-laws are going to have to remember all their names when they all start with the same sound? I suppose they'll get used to it after a while, but man, I mean it's bad enough when twins have similar names!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When It's Good to be an Absentminded Professor

A man and his wife in London play the same lottery numbers every week. Perhaps for months, perhaps for years. The numbers have some special significance - their birthdays, their anniversary, the birthdays of their dearly departed relatives. Ever week, without fail, the husband goes down to the little corner store, buys his lottery ticket, and fills out those numbers. Puts the receipt in his wallet. Only on this day, he was distracted by a pretty woman walking in, or a traffic accident outside, or someone dropping a fistful of change on the ground by accident. For whatever reason, he puts the receipt into the other pocket of his wallet, the one he doesn't normally use. Later on that day, he opens his wallet and notices that there's no lottery ticket in its usual spot. He stops on his way home to buy one, because he knows that if he doesn't, that will be the day when his numbers hit the jackpot. Only maybe this is his lucky day anyway, Murphy be damned.

They win! The pot of 2.4 million pounds, split amongst four winners wins them a pretty penny. They're quite content with their share. But then (then!) a week later, he opens his wallet and finds the second lottery ticket with those same numbers. Thanking his lucky stars? No! That was for the first ticket. Kissing those lucky stars is more like it!

Now this sounds like a nice fairy tale, doesn't happen to the average Joe Schmoe on the street, certainly not to the nice absent-minded British gentleman in the next flat. Well, it seems that it very well did happen to one lucky couple, who netted a million pounds (2 million dollars!) because of a happy accident. Man, if I could win just one lottery ticket, I'd be happy! But then, I suppose I'd actually have to buy one to win...

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Power of Place

The Power of Place by Winifred Gallagher (ISBN 9780061233357)
Rating: 6/10

This is a very intriguing book about the power of context and environment on our psyches. The subtitle is How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. There's a good bit of the book which discusses Alaska and the effect of light on the psyche (all night or all day, every day). It dips into the psychological issues which impact people in these areas. Personally, I wouldn't do well in Alaska - I'd be depressed six months of the year with no sunlight to speak of. Different people react differently to the stimuli - some people have problems with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which would make the endless night so hard to deal with. Interesting also is the discussion of the all-day summers. These are the most productive parts of the year, where people work a lot more, and their social drive is kicked into high gear.

Then there's temperature. Some people are born cold and some are born hot, with all the gradations in between. That much be the reason why it's so damn cold in my office - the evil mastermind who sets the temperature was born a hot person. Some people naturally feel more awake and alive when it's cold, or when it's hot. And when it's the opposite, they can get a kind of seasonal affective disorder also, or just not feel quite right.

She also gets into discussions about the environment of the womb and the effect of outside stimuli (Mozart, anyone?) on a fetus. An interesting aspect of this discussion is her discussion of premies, how they are overstimulated in the NICU, they hear tons of noise around them, yet there is no visual stimuli to go with the noise, so they don't learn to associate noise with action (for example, someone says something, and you turn and look at them talking).

One of her most interesting topics is about territoriality and the power of community. When people in a community are invested in their surroundings, upkeep their area, interact with neighbors, etc, there tends to be a much lower crime rate. Take, for instance, the small town where everybody knows everyone else. It's much harder to get away with anything in a town like that, because there are more social pressures to conform because there are more personalized interactions between neighbors.

In a city, however, this becomes more difficult. The author stipulates that in areas with people of different financial means (lower class and middle class together, in an area which may be gentrifying, or on the other hand, going downhill), it can be much harder to create a sense of territory. She points to homogeneous societies (like Tokyo and Hong Kong) that she says run fairly smoothly, whereas melting pots like New York, Chicago and LA have a much bigger crime problem. Having never been to either of those Asian cities, I can't speak to the veracity of that. Any idea whether this is actually the case? What could be other factors which could make Hong Kong and Tokyo less crime-filled? Japan, at least, definitely has a culture founded politeness and respect, and because everyone comes from the same culture, perhaps this encourages lawfulness. America was founded on rebellion and encourages free-thinking and independence. This can be a positive thing in many respects, but perhaps also leads itself to more crime.

She points out the snowball effect - one person has a broken window and it creates a sense of disrepair and lack of care for the territory. So perhaps someone else doesn't have the cash (or the time or the inclination) to paint their house and it starts peeling. Fairly soon, the street starts to look more run down. And crimes moves in. On the flip side, on a run down street, one neighbor might put out a flower box, another clean up their garden. And fairly soon it starts looking more cared for and less like a forgotten street where crime won't be noticed.

It was a very interesting book - a bit slow to read, but with many thought-provoking ideas. I'm glad that I read it, though it wasn't as much of a page turner as, say, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics or Blink.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rowling Not a Murderer


JK Rowling did it on purpose.

She purposely created all the hubbub about Harry being killed off. Props to her, it did definitely boost the marketing and make people even more rabid about getting the book. So, mission definitely accomplished. She also definitely succeeded in getting the idea across that anyone was up for grabs in the kill-'im-off spree.

I think I'm going to have to call BS on her that her audience didn't affect who she DIDN'T decide to kill off. Because the fact that she didn't kill any of the major (protagonists off (Harry, Hermione, Ron, Luna, Neville, Hagrid, with the exception of Snape) I felt was a definite nod to her young readership and the fact that lots of people would have been angry had she killed off any of those characters. But as one of my friends so aptly reminded me, Harry Potter is a classic example of a Romantic fairytale. I suppose I never should have really expected any ending other than this sugary one.

That's it for Harry Potter. Moving on to the next of the hundreds waiting for me on my shelf...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling (ISBN 0545010225)
Rating: 9/10 majority of the book, 4/10 ending - average 7/10

This weekend welcomed one of the most widely anticipated books in recent memory. Hard to miss it, with everyone and their mother walking around reading it, sunning themselves and reading it, drinking coffee and reading it, etc. Major what? moment when I told a co-worker I was up until 1am reading last night and she asked me what I was reading. What ELSE would I be reading until 1am? I guess this weekend was a little Potter-centric, and I have to remember that not everyone got the fever :) Honestly, I kind of wish I'd stopped at 12am and not continued, because then I could just not have read those last couple chapters.

I think it's great that one of the biggest cultural events of the summer has been the release of a book. A book that millions of people read over the span of a weekend. Our short attention span nation actually sat down and read a 750 page book, expended the energy to carry the damn heavy thing on the subway with them, and in a big city, actually brought strangers together to chat about it as they were walking here and there. Massive cheer on friday night when we all got on the bus holding our books, cheering from those already on the bus who had it.

Now on to the spoilers. IF YOU HAVEN'T FINISHED THE BOOK (and plan to), you may want to stop reading now and go finish the book first, as I'll be talking about who died, who survived, and all that jazz.

Ok, all good? Those of you still with me either have read it or don't care to....

WTF was JK Rowling THINKING???!!! Did she drink Spielberg water or something? Ok, I'm calm [breathe in, breathe out].

To start from the beginning. Most of the book was what I would expect from a Harry Potter book - very engaging, a fast read, building to a big climax at the end. Mad-Eye Moody dies straight off the bat. I can deal with that, it's not like he's a big character anyway, not a lot of emotional investment there.

Harry, Hermione and Ron wander around for a while, but honestly, I think that's fairly realistic, I mean, if they knew what to do off the bat it just wouldn't seem real (I can't believe I just said that about a magical fantasy book...but I guess I'm talking psychologically real here). But that's all part of the build-up to the end. Things start moving about 2/3 of the way through when they start finding horcruxes and the sword.

Then you get to face-off #1 between Harry and Voldemort, when Harry is going to his death. At this point, I'm really liking this story, and it just feels right to me that Harry is going to sacrifice himself to kill Voldemort. Not that I want Harry to die, but it just seems to fit (the reasoning given in the book, that Harry is the 7th horcrux and as long as he lives, so does Voldemort). And going into it, I told everyone (and their mother) that I'd much prefer it if Harry died than Ron or Hermione. Plus, I was also convinced after the last book that Snape really was a good guy working with Dumbledore. So after I found out he, in fact, was a good guy, and it looks like Harry's actually going to die, I'm feeling good about the book, like JK Rowling is actually going to make it an interesting ending rather than a cotton-candy one.

No. What was I thinking? Ok, so I realize that this book is a young adult book, and is targeted towards a younger audience than me. However, it's not like she doesn't have a history of killing off main characters (ahem, Sirius, Dumbledore). Let's review who was killed off in the book:

Mad-Eye Moody - ok, yes, he was a good guy, he had a part in an earlier book. But do I really care that much? Not really.
Crabbe - yay
Lupin and Tonks - yes this is sad. But the problem with their deaths is that they didn't mean anything in the book. I mean, Rowling told us that it affected Harry, but she didn't show us. It felt like "look, Lupin and Tonks are dead, how sad, running out into the woods to continue the fight." It's not like I wanted him to fall to pieces over them. But if they were going to die, it just felt like it should have some kind of emotional impact and it didn't really - I felt like the whole thing with Lupin and his son was kind of shoved down my throat from the beginning, just to set me up for him being killed off at the end. I didn't feel like it created a real sense of emotional intimacy with the character. When Sirius and Dumbledore died, there was that sense of loss and sadness as I was reading it (not that I was just being told it was sad), and that sensation was just absent here. Maybe they're just not big enough characters.
Fred - see Lupin and Tonks above
Snape - he kind of had to die, big part of the plot. No issue here.
Dobby - I take serious issue with the fact that we see the most emotional impact on Harry being the death of Dobby. Yes, Dobby saved him from the Malfoys. Dobby was a good friend, and I don't mind that Harry was so saddened by his death. But the fact is that this is the ONLY death in this whole book that I really felt was adequately shown to affect Harry.

Maybe the book was just built up too much. Everyone kept saying the 7th book was going to be a bloodbath, that lots of characters were going to die. And as much as I like most of the characters and have built up a connection to them over the years with these books, I feel cheated. Cheated, I tell you! I was expecting some kind of emotional impact, emotional scenes, and rather than the drama I was expecting, I just got rip-roaring action instead (and lest you think I'm one of those tear-jerker chick-flick women who never watches action, I must tell you that 3/4 of my dvd shelf is action movies).

Have you seen A.I.? That movie exemplifies exactly how I felt about this book. For this movie, Spielberg and Kubrick collaborated, but they couldn't agree on an ending, so the movie wasn't made for several years. Then Kubrick died. Which left Spielberg to make his own ending. There was a point, about ten minutes from the end (SPOILER), when Hayley Joe Osment's character is at the bottom of the ocean. I'm not sure if this was Kubrick's ending, but I sure wanted it to end there. But no. Spielberg had his tentacles in it, so they had to find Hayley several hundred years later, when society accepted AIs and he could be a little boy like he always wanted. Happy ending? Yes. Contrived? Hell yes.

Now let me vent a little about the flow of the book. The book takes about 600 pages to build to its climax, and once it gets going, with the battle at Hogwarts, explosions everywhere, it seems there's nowhere to go but up. Harry goes out into the woods to face down Voldemort. Harry dies (sort of). Then there's a random, completely unnecessary chapter with Dumbledore in the train station of Harry's mind. It completely destroys the flow, is completely cheesy, and implodes the climax in upon itself. I didn't feel a need for this chapter. At all. Because when Harry goes back to his body, the climax has just had the air taken out of it (yes, this could also be partly because I've realized that Harry is not, in fact, going to die). So the last chapter with Neville killing the snake and Voldemort killing himself (this was kind of cool, that Voldemort was his own downfall) just didn't have the same impetus that the story did before the extraneous chapter.

And the last chapter. Talk about cotton candy. Spielberg. Cheesy. Campy. Come on! I mean, seriously, 19 years in the future? Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione sending their kids to Hogwarts? Ok, so I know they're turning this book into a movie, and that it's aimed primarily at a teen and pre-teen audience, that they want to have a happy ending, and tell people what happened to the characters after the battle ended. But seriously. This is like the French-dubbed version of Last of the Mohicans, when at the end, instead of their quiet grieving, they start saying stupid things like "Where are we going to go now?" "We're going to go to Kan-tuck-ee and summer with my father." Ugh.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book until I got to those last four chapters. I should have stopped reading at midnight, instead of continuing on until 1am. But it's still worth the read, especially if you like the Spielberg endings and don't go on crazy rants like I do when I come across an ending like this (especially when I was expecting something different).

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad there's a happy ending. Voldemort had to die, of course, and Harry had to come out victorious. I just feel like it was a bit TOO happy of an ending.

What was your reaction to the whole thing?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Scambaiting the Scammers

This just takes screwing with peoples' heads to an entirely new level! (this will take some time to read, be forewarned)

I didn't even know there were people out there scamming the scammers. I've heard anecdotes of people having fun with telemarketers, but this is so far beyond that, it's like Van Gogh compared to a 5 year old's drawing!

I must admit, I did have some twinges of sympathy for the poor guy, and if the scambaiter hadn't reminded me several times during the whole transcript, I probably would've forgotten that this guy was originally a scammer using a poor dying man's photos to garner sympathy (and hard cash). But I definitely give props to this scambaiter for following through with this, over a period of about 10 months, I believe! That's commitment!

Given all the money these guys have probably squeezed out of the unfortunate gullible, this is just a drop on the bucket, a few hundred dollars and some time costs for all the email exchanges. But that time spent writing email, creating the wooden head, the video, and so on is less time the scammer has to take grandma's life savings.

I'm also amazed that there are still people who fall for that Nigerian money scam. Hasn't it been thoroughly outed already? Besides which, even if it were the real thing, who would actually send their bank account information over email? That's one of the cardinal rules of the internet and identity security, not to provide personal details.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Anti-French-Basher Strikes Again!

I feel like I've spent the last five years defending the French. Ever since the explosion of anti-French sentiment surrounding the administration going into Iraq, people have jumped onto the French-bashing train (but not the Germans or any other state which didn't support Bush).

Why is it that Americans hate the French? They always say it's because the French hate us. But could it be a projection? Americans go over there expecting the French to hate us, and they act in such a way that just ends up creating the very situation they fear. For instance, they go into a restaurant. The waiter doesn't speak very good English, so it's a bit difficult to communicate. The waiter doesn't check in at the table every 10 minutes or so, so the Americans get very angry because they think they're being snubbed, and they act rudely to the waiter. Now, honestly, if someone acts rudely to you, are you going to be very sugary sweet back? No. The waiter is going to return the rudeness, because honestly it's not in the French culture to be friendly just for the hell of it, especially in the face of rudeness.

Some things to keep in mind when you're traveling in France (yes, French culture is in fact different than American culture, and you can't expect it to be the same as here):

1. Meals are not a quick affair. Gastronomy is a serious thing in France. And even if you're not at a gourmet restaurant, it is normal for French people to spend a hour or two or three at their dinner. Eating, drinking, and enjoying eat others' company and conversation is the reason they're there, not just to run in, eat something so they don't feel hungry later, and run on to the next planned event. The waiter does not check in every 10 minutes as it would be disruptive. He takes the order, brings the food, maybe checks in once or twice during the whole dinner to make sure nothing else is needed. He's probably not going to respond well to a loud "Garcon!" with a waving, snapping hand.

2. The French are not deaf. They also do not all speak English. Yes, English is the most popular foreign language at present (the current Lingua Franca, or should I say Lingua Anglica?). But this does not mean that they are trying to be rude or difficult if they don't speak it well. Please remember, if you are in France, you are the one speaking the foreign language, and they will appreciate it greatly if you at least make an attempt to speak French, or let them know you don't speak it. Just using bonjour, merci and au revoir will really warm the French up to you. And please please please, if someone isn't understanding what you're saying in English, this is not because they have a hearing impairment. It is because they don't understand what you're saying. So don't raise your voice, because that's only going to make them think you're an ass and cause them to act rudely to you. Try using gestures, simple words, and talk slowly. That will get you much farther than shouting.

3. There will always be rude people. Try visiting NY, LA, Boston, Chicago, or any other big city. There are many pleasant people in each city, but there are always the bad apples who are going to be rude, aggressive, nasty, and haughty no matter where you go. It just makes it harder when there's a language and culture barrier as well, so don't bring ego into it. Just remain pleasant and don't feed into the obnoxious American stereotype.

4. Definitely try out new things. You didn't go all the way to Paris to eat in Pizza Hut or McDo and get coffee from Starbucks, did you? You can get plenty of that when you get home. The French are very proud of their culture, especially their food, wine, and art. If you make an effort to try to learn French culture and interact with them on a level they're familiar with, that can only endear you more to them (as long as you're not picking the food out of your teeth, getting drunk off the wine, or talking about how the paintings would look great in your local Olive Garden).

5. If you do speak some French, try talking to them about the current events going on. For instance, if there's a presidential election happening (like recently in May), then ask who they think will win (and why). Other topics of interest might be social issues like unemployment (very high at the moment), immigration, or the cost of living (which skyrocketed after the Franc changed to the Euro). If you're not comfortable with such serious topics, or your French is a bit more limited, try asking for a recommendation for a current French movie they enjoyed, or what their favorite part of Paris is that you could visit. The French love to talk. Once you get them started, they're happy to chat for hours on end, even in retail stores.

The French do recognize that they have a bad reputation as being rude to tourists, even though they feel they do try to be friendly. There's a big push at the moment for everyone to become just a bit friendlier and more helpful to tourists, since it is such a big industry for the city. So they are trying their best to meet us halfway. But it's not going to be all peaches and cream if Americans don't bring their half to the table too.

Bounty of the Flies

Besides sounding like a William Golding-inspired Mel Gibson movie, I find this new law in a Chinese suburb to be funny just in its ludicrousness.

The article makes a good point, that this law basically just treats the symptom, rather than treating the disease. Wouldn't paying citizens money for dead flies actually encourage them to be less hygienic? That is, if they want to collect money for the dead flies they're turning in, wouldn't they want there to be more flies, so they might create an environment which would draw more flies - cleaning less frequently, leaving food out, etc.

Now honestly, I don't think this is going to create a culture of unhygienic families just to make a few cents off of a dead fly. Most people take pride in living in a clean house (or at least a passably clean one, which in my case means at least you can't really see the dirt). But it's not going to solve the problem that already exists. It's not going to encourage people to clean up their environment more than they already do.

It's like the age-old problem of feeding the hungry - do you give them a food drop, which will feed them for this week, or do you teach them how to grow their own food, which will feed them forever (hopefully, given environmental conditions)? If this suburb in China has a problem with flies and wants to get rid of them, wouldn't their money be better spent on street cleaners to clean up any insect-attracting detritus in the street, street sweepers, water flowing through the gutters (like Paris)? I don't know what the trash disposal system is in China. Is it like the American system of trash cans and dumpsters and disposal trucks coming around once a week? If residents must take their trash to a dump, it's possible they aren't doing this frequently, which would create flies around the collecting garbage bags. If there is trash pick-up, wouldn't it cut down on the flies to have the pick-up happen more often?

There are so many other ways to fix this problem than just throwing money at the result of the problem, rather than finding a working solution so the flies don't proliferate in the first place.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Cool Commercial

Watch this commercial

I'm not going to give any spoilers on this. I'll keep it short and sweet and you're welcome to comment after you've seen it.

Company and Jennifer Government

Company by Max Barry (ISBN 1400079373)
Rating: 7/10

This is the latest book by writer Max Barry, satirizing corporate America. He seems to have taken the Six Sigma model, applied it to a company (rather than technological system), and run away to an extreme with it.

The book is about Stephen Jones, a new employee at a corporate company. He is immediately promoted past people who have been working at the company for years. The thing is, none of his co-workers in Sales seem to know exactly what the company does. His department sells services to other departments within the company, other departments support yet other departments. A self-sufficient ecosystem of a business. But he starts to question what the company actually does, where they get their money, how they pay their employees, etc. As the company institutes harsher and harsher policies aimed at turning their employees into cogs in the machine, headcounts rather than happy, productive workers, Stephen gets recruited on the six-figure salary management team. As he undermines from within, Stephen has to navigate office politics and find a way to expose the company's secret underbelly. This includes a plot twist that I won't spoil, but it worth reading to find out about!

This book is well written and, while escapist, not without food for thought. Are we happier carrying on with our lives as they are, or would we want to know the whole truth about what goes on in our companies and our lives? The Matrix covered this question quite well. I honestly don't know how I would answer this question - would I want to wake up to reality if it meant I had to live in a sun-less world with slop for food, no creature comforts, and a need to fight it out with the machines? Or would I want to live a lie, even if it was real in my head (and if it were real in my head, isn't it, in fact, real?).

Jennifer Government by Max Barry (ISBN 1400030927)
Rating: 8/10

I enjoyed this book even more than Company. In this dystopian alternate reality, American corporations literally run the world. Workers take the last name of the company they work for (Jennifer works as a police officer, therefore Jennifer Government. The antagonists are John Nike and John Nike). Nike hatches an evil plan to release a new lines of shoes, while simultaneously hiring an someone to assassinate kids purchasing the new shoes as a stealth marketing technique (to add a certain amount of danger to the purchase, the idea that you shouldn't go buy something makes the desire to do so even stronger, doesn't it?). And no, this is not a spoiler (you'll learn this in the first few pages of the book).

Even before publication, this book was optioned by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. It's set to release in 2008. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Garner were the top choices for the lead, but IMDB doesn't have full details yet.

Definitely escapist, not perfectly written, but nevertheless this book reached out and grabbed me in the first couple pages. I couldn't put it down until the very end.

Why is Yawning Contagious?

Why is yawning contagious?

Sure, there's no hard and fast reason why it's contagious. It may remain one of those mysteries, like how to cure the hiccups. But there are several theories.

First mentioned is that it's a method of cooling the brain, to help stay alert and detect danger. So, before you get into a fist fight, try yawning to cool down your brain (hey, who knows, maybe with a cooler brain you'll start thinking more clearly) and give you an edge up on the competition. Just don't let them see you yawn, or they'll do it too and you're leg up will instantly become a level playing field.

Yawning might help maintain vigilance, especially in groups. Does this mean that in my next business meeting, I can yawn openly and widely, and tell my boss that it's a compliment, because I was making sure I remained vigilant in the meeting? On an unconscious level, we realize that our attention is wandering, we're not paying as much mental attention as we should to the task at hand. So we start yawning, not as a means of displaying how tired we are, but as a way to bring our attention back on target.

It would be interesting to know how many times I yawned while typing this post. It didn't occur to me to count until halfway in. How many times did you yawn while reading it, and the article?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Forget about it. Men's preferences will never change. Fit Light Yogurt" - wtf??!!

Read this article about Brazilian yogurt advertisements.

This is one of the worst ad campaigns I've seen in a while. The fact that they're so overtly playing into the confidence issues of their target audience is just beyond the pale. American advertisers also play into the fact that many women seem to feel the need to diet down to Nicole Ritchie size. But they do it in a more subtle way - focusing on being healthy, enjoying their food (think those yogurt commercials with the two women discussing how good the yogurt is "shoe shopping good" "first kiss good" etc). The ads here are focused more on women getting fit, slimming down, and eating right for their own well being. A process of self improvement.

These Brazilian ads externalize this, they make being skinny a question only of pleasing men. It makes a woman's self-worth dependent upon what a man thinks of her, rather than asking her to be healthy for her own sake. And honestly, those pictures weren't that bad! Especially American Beauty. She just looked full figured.

What really irritates me is the assumption that (1) men won't be attracted to you unless you weigh 100lbs, (2) all men are the same, (3) men won't like us unless we're slim.

First of all, there are plenty of healthy and happy women who aren't beanpole thin. Some women's body types are just naturally more voluptuous and it is unrealistic to expect everyone to conform to the same standard - some people will achieve without batting an eyelash and others will bust their asses trying to squeeze into that size 8 and not be able to enjoy because they're always focused on what they aren't (instead of what they are).

Assumption two - it's just as ludicrous to assume that all men have the same tastes as it is to expect all women to conform to the same body shape. Some men like round women, some like voluptuous women, some like slender women, others like petites, and others like tall women. It's all a matter of taste, environment, and that hard-to-define sense of attraction. And, at least for most of the men I know, I think they would prefer a women who wasn't model thin if it meant she was more comfortable and confident about herself.

Assumption three - men won't find us attractive unless we're slim. For both men and women equally, I find confidence to be much more attractive than whether someone is a size 6 or 12 (or whatever the equivalents are for men's sizes). I've met slim people who are so focused on their weight, or their clothes, or their makeup, that that talk just dominates their conversations to the detriment of all the other (non-self-centered) topics out there. Men sometimes really appreciate a woman who can hold an intelligent conversation.

I think the more important thing to focus on is being healthy. If you eat healthy foods in healthy portions, exercise to maintain your cardiovascular and respiratory health and get enough sleep, you're already on your way to a healthier mindset. And if you happen to weigh more than is the average but are confident about yourself, then there will always be men would will be attracted to you.

One final thing - forget the idea that you have to eat certain foods or be a certain way because of what men (or women) will thing. What's most important is to be happy with yourself and create your own sense of identity. If you do that, you have more to bring to a relationship and less likelihood to feel like your worth is pinned on what other people think of you.

"Sticky Rice" Romney and "Idiot" Menino

Please read this article.

It would be incredible (and awesome) if they could transliterate the presidential candidates names into characters which expressed some of their character (the closest listed is Menino with "Imbecile" - not that he isn't a good mayor, that's just the way he comes across sometimes). I think they got Menino's wrong though with "Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own." That should have been Bush.

I wonder if translating their names into Chinese characters could easily render itself to bias. I mean, which translation do you use, "Imbecile" or "Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own"? Which would be more negative to a Chinese person? Would the candidates get the final say as to how their name was depicted on the ballot? If, for instance, they used "Imbecile" for Menino, would that affect his chances of being reelected Mayor, regardless of how good a Mayor he has been? If voters aren't familiar with a politician's history (in any demographic), they're either going to vote party line or they're going to vote in the moment. And who would choose "Imbecile" for public office? This is not to say that those voting off the Chinese names would not know what they were doing. If they are able to vote, they've obviously gone through the naturalization process and care enough about the process to come out and vote, so they are possibly even better informed than the apathetic Americans who stay home in droves on voting day. But would having a negative transliteration work against the candidates in some subconscious way?

Don't most Chinese people also learn pinyin (Chinese words with English letters and accent marks) in school, and could the candidates' names be written in pinyin instead?

To go off tangent, one of the things I find fascinating about Chinese and Japanese (kanji) is the fact that their written language is linked to the meaning of the word and not just to the sound. Written in furigana (phonetic characters rather than pictorial), the Japanese word hana can mean "nose," "cherry blossom," and "story" or can be turned into a verb meaning "speak," depending on what character is used. In English we distinguish homonyms through context (think present (n) and present (v)). We do also spell words different according to definition (your and you're, too, two and to) which would be the English version of this Japanese convention. But in English, they're just letters on a page, and many people confuse them (pet peeve, pet peeve). But in Japanese, even if the word sounds the same to the ear, if you look at it, you're not going to confuse a character with radicals for a plant with one with radicals for speaking or a part of the face. It seems much clearer that way.

Languages that have some kind of pictorial element seem vastly more rich to me, even as they can be harder to learn. I don't remember much of the Aeneid from my years of Latin in high school. But one phrase has stuck with me through the years (and I've been looked for the exact Latin and very frustratingly I can't find it now). It basically was something like: in the dark Dido and Aeneas took shelter cave (purple-verb, blue-subject, green-prepositional phrase). There were some other mixed in adjectives that I'm not remembering. But the point being, the sentence structure literally put Dido and Aeneas in the cave, for visual as well as contextual emphasis. It creates a richness of meaning, an artistic way of conveying exactly the meaning you want and placing the reader right there with you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Wicked by Gregory Maguire (ISBN 0060745908)

Rating: 5/10

I will never be able to watch The Wizard of Oz the same way again. It was the first movie I ever watched as a child, captivated from start to finish. And now the wicked witch of the west just doesn't have the evil cachet that she used to have. She is, in fact, a rather heart-wrenching character.

I thought the storyline of this book was quite well done. The author spent time to really think through his interpretation so that it would dovetail perfectly with the original movie, making it that much more "believable." The fact that he also explores the psychology of the wicked witch and the sociological dynamics of their cultures just makes it all the more fascinating. And less like science fiction - the characters act in very familiar ways, similar even to our own society, just with the added fantastical element. The themes threading through the book are those of discrimination, tyranny, protest, and loss.

I was, however, disappointed by the execution of this storyline. It took me a very long time to finish this book. I really had no drive to pick it up and read it, unless I just didn't have anything else to do at the moment. I can't quite pinpoint the reason, but Gregory Maguire's books are very difficult to really escape into. I also read his Snow White (using the Italian Borgia family), and felt the same way about that book. I'm not hopping up and down to read his next one, and have in fact had Son of a Witch (ISBN 0060747226) on my shelf for months and not been tempted to pick it up.

Glaireous - Word of the Day

Glaireous adj. - Slimy, viscous

In honor of National Indian Pudding Day, shall we take a moment to bow our heads and give thanks for the glaireous concoction of milk, butter, molasses, spices, eggs and sugar (the recipe is here) which has graced absolutely none of my family gatherings through the years. Have any of you even actually tried Indian pudding? If so, is it good?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Deer Sushi

Given the shocked faces I get when I tell people I ate horse meat in France, imagine what they'd look like if I had (raw) horse meat sushi!

Japan is known around the world for its sushi - if you ask the regular person on the street what Japanese food is, odds on they're going to say sushi. The increasing rarity of high quality tuna has got to be greatly unnerving for the restaurant industry, rather like it would be for Boston to run low on lobster.

This opens a couple of cans of worms. First, there are the environmental ramifications. With the world's population soaring, people packing tighter into cities (after this year, the majority of people will live in cities). With continued advanced in medical technology, people are living longer and healthier than ever before. As we have more mouths to feed, we put even more strain on the environment (can we say carbon emissions and global warming, anyone?). It's only to be expected that we start to stress our current stocks of fish (both by overfishing and through the mercury contamination from power plant waste). The old adage "survival of the fittest" just isn't appropriate anymore. Seriously, with the technological resources at our disposal, can you honestly tell me that cattle in an abattoir have a fighting chance, and would survive if only they were fit to?

Animals (and plants, for that matter) are becoming endangered right and left. It's impossible to know whether their endangerement, or extinction, will go out quietly, or whether there will be a Butterfly Effect). So, as much as I love eating maguro at my local sushi bar, the fact that it's become harder to come by will perhaps have a positive effect - sushi chefs will start to focus on other fish, meat, and vegetables and help to keep the tuna stock in control and not overfished. Sounds like they've had a good start by passing the lows to reduce fishing already.

The other major issue is one of innovation. And this is huge. Malcolm Gladwell gave a fascinating talk on innovation (as pertaining to spaghetti sauce). If you don't recognize his name, he is the author of two of my favorite books - The Tipping Point (ISBN 0316346624) and Blink (ISBN 0316010669).

The fact that tuna is less available will force sushi chefs to seek out new interesting maki. While I'm not totally convinced about raw horse meat or venison rolls, I'd be very interested to try it, because it's so different. The same things all the time create stagnation of creativity. Granted, sushi is an art form and it's often about simple and clean flavors (I think it's just us crazy Americans who create all these wacky rolls like the Red Sox Maki and Matrix maki). But it seems that any chef who doesn't keep up with the times and strive to innovate will often fall by the wayside (see my blog post on the French haute cuisine environment). While people will always enjoy the classics, it is important to keep the menu fresh and new, the make people cock their heads and go "oooh!" Without innovation, we would not have made the huge strides in nearly every field (especially technology) in the past century.

It's refreshing to see a country taking positive measures to protect the resources it uses, rather than just turning a blind eye and saying "the fish will always be there if we will it to be so." I hope that the rest of the world (especially the US) follows their lead to prevent the mass extinction of the vast number of resources we consume (or waste) on a daily basis.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Debel - Word of the Day

Debel v. - To conquer in war

June 25, 1947 is the day that The Diary of Anne Frank was published

Also the day of the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876

And the day that France formally surrendered to the Nazis

Given the number of wars the world has had in the whole span of human history, I'm guessing that the wiki is missing a couple of the major events.

Last year on June 25th, deaths in Iraq topped 50,000

Where will June 25, 2008 take us? Can we foresee a more peaceful world or will the conflicts in the Middle East only escalate? Will a new president make any difference in the grand scheme or things, or has this administration already pushed it too far past breaking point?

Shakespeare's English

I came across the website discussing Shakespeare's contributions to the English language:

This is a list of words allegedly invented by Shakespeare. You can also follow the link in the main post to another page listing phrases coined by the Bard. I'm a little dubious about the attribution of some of these to Shakespeare. But what I found the most intriguing were the comments (debate) following the post.

Most of these posts make good points, though I don't agree with them all. One poster says that Shakespeare didn't invent these words because they were words in other languages (accuso from Latin, bandito from Italian). These words may very well have derived originally from other languages, but if Shakespeare was the first to use them in English, he can be accurately described as the coiner. I wouldn't go so far as to say inventor - to reach that status I would think it would have to be a totally unique word used and understood in English (think Kleenex, which everyone uses interchangeably with tissue). Shakespeare wouldn't have been as popular as he was he if he had gone about inventing random words all over the place. Nobody would have understood his plays because all his newly invented words would have no standing in English and no comprehension to the ear. Instead, he took existing words from other languages, or even from English, and used them in new and inventive ways. It's in this way that his plays are so genius (if he was even the one who wrote them)

One of the wonderful things about the English language, in my opinion, is just how flexible it is, and how many languages it ties its roots to. 50% traces back to Latin, and a considerable portion back to German ancestry as well. The Latin was greatly helpful in learning French - the basic words are mostly different, but once you get to the intermediate and advanced words, you can with some confidence (if you don't know a word in French) say the English word with a French accent and it often comes out at least close (idiosyncracie-idiosyncrasy, recidive-recidivism). Of course, this also creates some very funny (and embarassing) moments when the word isn't quite the same thing (preservatif-condom).

English is still evolving, though much, much slower than it was in Shakespeare's day. Hopefully, it won't be evolving towards the bad grammar conventions that the internet world has created (misuse of your and you're, I and me). I remember learning in school that "all right" was correct, but apparently the language has evolved in the last 20 years such that "alright" (blech) is now in the dictionary. And then there are the grammar rules that everyone was doing wrong (overuse of "me" where "I" should have been used), so everyone had "I" "I" "I" drummed in, and now everyone says "I" instead of "me" ("just between you and I"). One of my major pet peeves.

But another of the main points on the website is the overfocus on the detail instead of the grand scale. The genius of Shakespeare is the way he strung words together, more so than the actual words he used. The fact is, in an age when the language was still gaining its footing, and most people did not read for fun (or even read at all), Shakespeare was able to write plays for the masses with such inventive use of language and be perfectly understood. Students may struggle today with it a bit, and not understand all the nuances of his speech, but overall, his plays remain fairly timeless. It's the themes, the storylines which still remain relevant (as indicated by the plentiful modern adaptations of his works) and not just the language which makes Shakespeare one of the greatest writers in history. Had he created as many phrases and words as he had, but churned out the drivel we often see in hollywood now, I bet you he would not have endured. So as much as we may admire his writing for his creative use of words at his fingertips, it's the whole of the works which truly cast him as the genius author he was.

I read an interesting novel a while back Harvard Yard, by William Martin (ISBN: 0446614505). This novel is an interesting read - drawing in both researched historical data about both Shakespeare and Harvard, and tying it in to the modern-day speculations (with slightly thriller overtones) about the true identity of Shakespeare. I would recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the lore surrounding Shakespeare, or just for a fun read in historical fiction.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Virtual Job Interviews?

Imagine going into a job interview, reaching into your briefcase, and handing your interviewer a beer instead of a resume. Then getting a good laugh with the interviewer about it. Sound like an interview gone well? Could very well be.

Back to that in a second. Second Life is like a genie bottle - you rub on one issue and three more come out. So let me divert my attention to a couple other Second Life issues, and then I'll come back to the interviews in a bit.

In the grand tradition of the Sims and Ultima Online, Second Life is the newest incarnation of the interactive role playing game. Come home from work at night, log on, and you've got a new life there at your fingertips. Always wanted to be a shopkeeper? Adventurer? (fill in dream job here)? Second Life is a fast growing economy and some companies are capitalizing on the monetization of the RPG community.

There's been a lot of brouhaha created by these gold farming companies and individuals, but I say more power to them. If they want to sit there and spend five hours fishing to build up a skill, or four hours breaking rocks to quarry rock to build a house (etc, you get the point), then I think they've deserved whatever monetary recompense they can get. Sure, it probably puts the rest of the players at a disadvantage since they don't have the time to put into it. But, if they're willing to pay for the fruits of that skill (buying a posh Second Life house, that kind of thing), then isn't that just the definition of capitalism? It also speaks to the question of work vs. leisure:

If someone is going to sit at their computer all day long, building up their skills and creating a salable commodity, doesn't it then become work rather than fun/leisure? If it's tied into their pay structure and they have to do it to pay their rent, then it can easily become just another job. But just like paying someone to clean your house, do your cooking and laundry, mow your lawn, if you can free up time for yourself, you have more time for other things and there is less of an opportunity cost to that activity.

There have also been cases of crime and violence online. I'm a bit torn on this issue. Rape, in any form, is just not acceptable. And I could see how somebody who was raped in real life could be very traumatized by this happening to them online, forcing them to relive their real-life experience. On the other hand, it is just a game - there are rape scenes in movies which don't have the same backlash as this on Second Life seems to have gotten. I'm sure that people identify with their online characters and feel that they are a bit an extension of themselves. But honestly, I don't feel it would be appropriate to make an online rape a criminal offense. What I feel should happen is for there to be some kind of online judicial system. Perhaps Second Lifers could become sheriffs and judges and have trials and such. If someone is found guilty of rape in the game, they get sentenced to prison time in the game. And that doesn't go by the clock (if they're sentenced to one year, they don't get out one year from that date), they're in prison for one year of the time they're online. If they don't log a year's worth of time in a five year span, they stay in prison. I think that would be a good method to prevent recidivism, because who wants to "play" an online game by sitting in a jail cell?

They could just switch to another game. But if their conviction were solid, the companies could create a kind of IAFIS for IP addresses/email addresses to try to prevent someone convicted in one game hopping to another and doing the same thing. However, this could cause problems is someone is wrongly accused, and then they're cut out of all the games.

Back to the job interviews (and lighter subjects). It's an interesting idea to vet job candidates online. It would definitely be less pressure than a face-to-face, or even a telephone, interview. There wouldn't be the awkward pauses if the interviewer asks a difficult question, and you would have a few moments to compose your answer before replying. At this stage of the game, when Second Life is still fairly new to everyone, it definitely lightens up the process when they can't quite control their avatars to their full potential (floating above the seat, beer vs. resume).

Also, if the job is for a technical position which requires computer savvy, it would definitely filter out the chaff - the avatars which were the most fluid and natural would stand out from the pack. But if this process were used for not technical jobs, I feel it could create a false sense for the interviewers - they might be impressed by how the tech savvy people come across (after all, visuals are very powerful, perhaps as much so as the words they're hearing) and the highly qualified candidates who aren't as familiar with Second Life would not make as good of an impression.

Another potential problem is one of tone (posted by Ohio State University). The actual words you say are the least communicative of all - about 55% of communication comes through non-verbal communication (making eye contact), 38% from the tone of your voice (no whispers in a job interview), and only 7% comes from your actual words. Now, a part of me thinks that it's great that they're vetting people for the actual content of their interview, rather than just their appearance and their non-verbal communication. But the realistic side of me says that no matter what it is they say, what you have to deal with primarily is their personality, their drive, their sense of self and how they interact with others. But hopefully this type of interview will cut down on the number of people who get through the first interview on charisma alone (and have no knowledge base).

Above are many criticisms or potential problems with using Second Life for job interviews. But on the whole, I think it's a great idea for these companies to be embracing this new technology like this. It shows that they're forward thinking, flexible, and they're reaching out to a younger market (and watching their bottom line). As an interviewee, I would be very impressed by a company which had Second Life interviews. Generation Y grew up with technology and has no problem with IMing, watching a movie, talking on the phone and reading all at the same time. Companies are starting to realize that GenY is a force to be reckoned with and that they should talk to us on our level rather than always bringing us to their GenX/BabyBoom trough.

If you're interested in finding out more about Second Life, check out the upcoming book Second Life: A Guide to Your Virtual World by Brian White (ISBN 0321501667), published by Que/Sams in August 2007. (For purposes of full disclosure, I work for the publisher of this particular book)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Doogie Reincarnated

The Over Ambitious Parent has struck again!

Let's scroll back the years to some centuries ago. Medicine certainly wasn't the same science it is now, what with bloodletting to balance the body's humors and the not-yet-discovered link between bacteria and infection (doctors wash their hands? Whyever for?). I don't know exactly when the first medical school opened, or when it became required to attend, but I'm sure prior to that, doctors-in-training had to undergo an apprenticeship with a doctor so they could learn "everything" they needed to know. This is, in a way, what this 15 year old boy has been doing.

However (and that's a BIG however), the fact that this boy has been assisting and performing surgeries for three years (since he was 12?!) is wrong on so many levels.

First (and most straitlaced) of all), we do now have medical schools which are a requirement to be a doctor (nevermind a surgeon!). These medical school provide the most current knowledge available in medicine. Let's just assume that the father in this situation is about 35-40. That means he went to medical school at least 10 years ago, followed by his internship and residency. Even if he does spend all his time reading the current journals and keeping up with the cutting edge technologies, nobody has enough time in their day to follow everything.

Second, who's to say that this father isn't passing on bad practices to his son? There are quality
controls that go on in med schools and teaching hospitals and supervision by both the attending and resident for each intern, in addition to peer supervision.

Third, and in my mind one of the most important issues, I don't think that a 15 year old would necessarily have the maturity for this. 15 year olds should be out with their friends, crushing on pretty girls/boys, doing homework, and working through the mega-dose of hormones that adolescence gives them. Most teenagers haven't experienced enough of life to really understand, or consider all the implications of, these life and death circumstances. Granted, teens who have lost close family or who have had a life threatening disease themselves might have more reserves of understanding. But with all of the hormonal issues going on already (first loves, self esteem, building a unique sense of identity), I'm convinced that surgery would only add another layer of problems. How would an adolescent deal with having been responsible for a patient dying? It's hard enough for adult doctors to deal with this, let alone a 15 year old. And if it didn't bother them, then what does that say about their emotional development that they've learned so early to be so callous?

Fourth, what pregnant woman in her right mind would allow a 15 year old to do a caesarian on her? No matter how much faith you have in the father as a doctor to supervise the surgery, wouldn't any mother want the best for their child? What if there had been complications created by the 15 year old's technique? And if she didn't know that he would be performing the surgery, how can the father justify that deception? Unless all she wanted was to be the patient listed in the Guiness Book of World Records who had the youngest ever surgeon to operate on her.

It sounds like the father has a serious problem with understanding reality. He says that his son was just handing him instruments. But if that were the case, WHY was he trying to submit the video as an example of the youngest surgeon to perform a caesarian? That seems a bit fishy to me. The investigation will bear it out, I suppose. The fact that the father believes that the censure he has received is due to jealousy just shows how disconnected from reality he is. The fact that he can't understand the ethical and legal ramifications of allowing a 15 year old to (help) perform a surgery speaks volumes for his state of mind - he wouldn't hesitate to do it in the future since he doesn't understand why everyone is reacting badly to it.

I don't know what the Indian process of medical censure is, but I certainly hope that he goes through it and comes to realize the true problems with his behavior.

Cachexic - Word of the Day

Cachexic adj. - Having an unhealthy physical or mental state

Today is "Recess at Work Day"!

It's a day to rid yourself and everyone else of all the cachexic humors that have been building up over the long winter and rainy spring. Take your lunch break and go for a walk, get down on the floor in your cube and do some yoga, do sprint trials around the office hallways. Tell your neighbor about your morale boosting efforts and maybe you can start a marathon office circuit (how many times around the office can you go before you drop?).

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Non-Dollar

First, read this article:

This alternate US local currency idea is very intriguing to me. True, it could be a logistical nightmare to businesses, since the infrastructure isn't yet set up to deposit the BerkShares into the bank and not all vendors will accept them as payment.

The great thing about it is the support of the local economy. I feel pretty strongly about supporting independent businesses (especially bookstores), and with the influx of Wal-Mart, B&N, Borders, Home Depot, KMart and whatever else into every little town's market, the incentives given to local stores is refreshing. Big chains get so many incentives from their vendors (since they can buy in bulk), that this may just be a drop in the pond. But it's better than nothing, and certainly helps to acknowledge the value of the small business to the community.

Here's my plug for some of my favorite indies:
Whippoorwill Crafts (Boston, MA)
Porter Sq. Books (Cambridge, MA):
The Harvard Bookstore (Cambridge, MA)
Left Bank Books (St Louis, MO)