Friday, May 30, 2008

Good reads/random cool sites (5/30/2008)

Esquire asks, Is John Yoo a Monster? (I think you already know how I'd answer the question.)

Mark Schmitt thinks the Republican Party will turn to identity politics now that it's run out of ideas. (h/t: The G-Spot)

Glenn Greenwald on a roll with the "liberal media's" deference to the Bush Administration, news anchors who are more like government stenographers than journalists, and corporate pressure on newspeople to adopt a pro-Bush, pro-war tone before the Iraq invasion.

Kathy G gives some reasons Democrats should hesitate to jump on the James Webb for VP bandwagon.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Looking you in the mouth

In Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, John Elder Robison writes extensively about his struggles making eye contact. From about the time he was in the first grade, he was constantly criticized and nagged for not looking people in the eye, with rather devastating effects on his self-esteem. The fact that he gave that title to his autobiography is testament to how deeply it bothered him.

I've never had Robison's genuine inability to look people in the eye. I can make myself do it, but it doesn't come naturally. Like Robison, "I don't really understand why it's considered normal to stare at someone's eyeballs." To me, the normal thing to watch when someone is speaking is the speaker's mouth. It's the mouth, after all, that's making the sounds. It seems to me that one is much less likely to miss any words if one sees them spoken as well as hears them.

The other normal way for me to listen is to stare off into space. Once in awhile, if something really interesting comes into view, I can get distracted that way, but usually if I'm not looking at you when you're talking to me, it means I'm listening really hard. I guess it looks like I'm not listening, though, because sometimes when I do it, people say, "Are you listening to me?" Since I have a good memory, I can usually repeat what they just said back to them more or less verbatim, which seems to convince them that I am listening. But it seems to bother people, so usually I avoid doing it.

I know that I'm "supposed" to be looking people in the eye when I talk with them, so I try. I don't really know how, though. I tried really hard when I was younger, but I think I overdid it. In my early 20s, a couple of people told me my gaze was "piercing" or "penetrating." Other people told me that I looked "right through" people or that they felt I was looking "right inside" them. Since I didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable, I stopped staring at people's eyeballs so much.

I still haven't really figured the whole thing out. I read in a magazine once that a good trick for shy people is to look at a person's forehead just above the nose -- supposedly, the person you're looking at can't tell you aren't really looking at their eyes -- so I tried that for awhile. It didn't really work for me. I found it distracting -- I kept noticing how many little hairs and wrinkles people have there, and things like that -- and my problem isn't that I can't look people in the eye, it's that I don't know how to look them in the eye. I don't know how long, or at what points in a conversation, things like that.

So now I just muddle along as best I can. I make eye contact during conversations, but it doesn't come natural to me. I'm like someone who's just learned a new dance step, but instead of "1-2-3-kick, 1-2-3-slide," it's "1-2-3-look at eyeballs, 1-2-3-not too long, 1-2-3-don't look into space..." It's a lot to remember. I can't just go with the flow, I have to think about it all the time. But I think I manage to come across as fairly normal. I hope so, anyway.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

So I think he can dance

Robert Muraine pops and locks in his audition for "So You Think You Can Dance." Simply amazing. (And I don't know who the judges are, but the one in the middle has one of the most annoying cackles I've ever heard.)

Good reads/random cool sites (5/26/2008)

Here's what happens when celibate priests are in charge of determining sexual ethics for married people, at least during the Middle Ages. (h/t: Savage Planet)

Popular Science counts down the World's Spookiest Weapons. (h/t: Bad Science)

Speaking of spooky, Naomi Klein writes about surveillance technology in China (h/t: Hullabaloo):
Remember how we've always been told that free markets and free people go hand in hand? That was a lie. It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American "homeland security" technologies, pumped up with "war on terror" rhetoric. And the global corporations currently earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a neighborhood near you.

More China: This is almost a year old, but I hadn't seen it before. A fascinating NY Times article about Chinese sweatshops that send players into massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft to collect virtual "money" and "tools" for real-world resale. (h/t: News of the Weird)

Monday, May 26, 2008

The insidious paisley scarves of the nefarious Left

Take a look at this picture:


As a normal person, no doubt you see Rachel Rachael Ray with a black-and-white paisley scarf around her neck, holding a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Whatever your opinion of Rachel Rachael Ray or Dunkin' Donuts or black-and-white paisley scarves might happen to be, that's all you see, because that's all that's there.

But the Bizarre Mind of the Right-Wing Fringe sees something quite different. The Bizarre Mind of the Right-Wing Fringe sees Rachel Rachael Ray wearing a keffiyeh, a symbol (to that mind) of hatred, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.

A reasonable response from Dunkin' Donuts on multiple blogs pointing out that it's an American silk paisley scarf, not a Palestinian chainlink-patterned cotton/wool keffiyeh, had absolutely no effect. Of course not. Once the Bizarre Mind of the Right-Wing Fringe is made up, it is invulnerable to reason. The comments sections of various right-wing blogs quickly filled with angry speculation about who was the responsible "Marxist": Ray, Dunkin' Donuts, the stylist, the photographer, etc.

With no hope of convincing the Bizarre Mind of the Right-Wing Fringe of anything as simple as the truth (a. it's not a keffiyeh and b. it's effin' paisley anyway FFS), Dunkin' Donuts pulled the ad, stating (I'm paraphrasing), "It's a lot easier to just pull the ad than to argue with stupid people."

Thanks to the Bizarre Mind of the Right-Wing Fringe, America is safe once more from the insidious paisley scarves of the nefarious Left! (As long as John McCain doesn't become president, anyway.)

(Initial h/t: alicublog)

Let's Ecology! 4: Ginza English Conversation School

My evening school was located in the prestigious Ginza district and was one of the older schools in the country, having been founded in the 1960s in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. With this background, one might have expected that Ginza English Conversation School would be one of the better run schools. One would have been wrong though. Quite wrong.

This probably had a lot to do with the man who ran the school. He was a shifty-eyed, sweaty, balding, middle-aged man who always seemed to be wearing the same light-blue polyester suit. He went by the name Mr. Hayashi, but that wasn't his real name. Rumor had it that he changed his name either to hide his Korean origins or because his birth name was numerologically unlucky. Or because he was wanted by the police and/or yakuza gangsters under his real name. Nobody knew which story was true.

The teachers were a motley collection, ranging from exchange students like me to ex-sailors, from Japanese-Americans seeking their roots to Chinese-Canadians seeking temporary employment, from former lumberjacks to former DJs, from wannabe Japan hands to the "visa status challenged." Hayashi hired them from among the dozens of applicants who would answer the help-wanted ad he placed in the Monday edition of the Japan Times. Those who struck Mr. Hayashi's fancy were asked to teach one class as a test; if the students liked them, they would be hired, often with a "Can you start tomorrow?"

That's how I got my job there. I called the number in the help-wanted ad and set up an interview for Monday night. I must have done okay at my test lesson, because Mr. Hayashi offered me a job. He seemed to like that I was a student at Waseda, and, he thought, UCLA. During our interview, I tried to explain that I was from Cal State LA, not UCLA, but Mr. Hayashi didn't really care. He wasn't interested in my educational background because he thought it made me a better teacher, but because he thought it would impress prospective students. It would help him sell English lessons if he could tell prospective students that he had a teacher from Waseda working there.

That didn't stop him from trying to lowball me on my salary though. He asked me to start working there that week, and we went through what my hours would be, when I could start, and so on. No mention was made of how much he would pay me, though. This is not unusual in Japan. I've actually known a few Japanese people over the years who took jobs without knowing how much they were making until they got their first paychecks. That was one local custom I wasn't going to follow, though.

The going rate for native-speaker English teachers back then was ¥2,500 per hour. That's how much I was getting at my other school. So when we got to the end of the interview, and Mr. Hayashi asked if I had any other questions, I said, "Well, yes, how much does the job pay?"

"It pays ¥1,500 per hour to start."

At this point, my social awkwardness probably stood me in good stead, because I said, "Oh. I can't work for that," and I got up and started to leave.

"Wait! Wait, how much do you want?"

I sat back down. "Twenty-five hundred yen."

"OK, sure, that'll be fine," he said, the cheapskate. He was ready to pay that all along -- maybe more -- but he'd obviously figured it wouldn't hurt to try something a lot lower. You know, just in case I was fresh off the boat and didn't know the going rate; you never can tell.

I started teaching later that week. Training was non-existent. Teachers could, however, choose from several textbooks. Since many teachers also taught private classes on their own, they often chose to sneak the textbooks home and keep them for their own classes. This was a constant source of aggravation to Mr. Hayashi, who had to replace the books and who seemed to dislike spending money on anything related to teaching English. Students weren't required to buy textbooks; if there weren't enough extra books lying around for the lesson, teachers just made copies for them on the office's portable copier. Until, that is, the copier broke, and Mr. Hayashi decided it was too expensive to replace. After that, students usually had to share textbooks.

But it didn't really matter very much, because no student of Ginza English Conversation School learned anything anyway. The school's only real concern was keeping the students coming back for more. The best way to do that, without spending a lot of time and money on training and/or highly qualified teachers, was to hire entertaining teachers. The definition of a good teacher at Ginza English Conversation was a person with the ability to keep a group of from one to four Japanese people entertained for one hour, in English if possible, but with Japanese mingled in if and as necessary. This could be fun for us teachers, at first, but usually after a couple of months, it turned into a grind trying to think of ways to entertain the same people week after week. For most of us, there was a little guilt involved, a nagging sense that the students were being ripped off because they were paying to learn English, not to be entertained. On the other hand, many of the students did seem to prefer being entertained.

Turnover among teachers was high, with most leaving for greener pastures within three to six months after starting, but there was always a core of two or three veterans who'd been around for a year or more because they couldn't find better jobs. Better English teaching jobs were available, but what these veterans wanted was a Real Job -- in import/export, business, writing, editing, translating -- in other words, in just about anything other than teaching English. Between-class conversations among these teachers tended to be rather depressing. Usually they ran to discussions of what interviews they had lined up, what interviews they'd been to, and what companies they'd been turned down by. Eventually, I turned into a veteran too.

Next week: The "gaijin hierarchy"

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Movie review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

As an exercise in nostalgia and entertainment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull works well enough, though it certainly never approaches the greatness of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are some good things in it. The action is sometimes exciting, the stunts are excellent, and the computer graphics are mostly very good. The return of Karen Allen is a delight, for both the audience and Allen, who is clearly enjoying herself more than anyone else in the theater. Her expression shouts, "I can't believe I'm in an Indiana friggin' Jones movie again! Whoo-hoo!" and her enthusiasm is contagious. Cate Blanchett does well with her rather stereotyped KGB agent role (in the tradition of Natasha Fatale and Ninotchka), and Shia LaBeouf does a good job as the youth interest and humorous foil for Indy. And there are any number of nostalgic callbacks to the previous movies.

On the other hand, Harrison Ford is just too old for this kind of role. There's a reason why there aren't many 65-year-old action stars: they're not very believable. Ray Winstone's character doesn't work very well either. Several times, what are apparently meant to be funny lines by or about his character simply fall flat. There are cheesy animal gags that don't work at all.

I can forgive Ford's age. We all wanted to see an Indiana Jones movie, and Ford is Indiana Jones. No one else could possibly play the part now. I can forgive a minor character that doesn't work. I can forgive failed gags. What really disappointed me, though, is that I found the plot unbelievable.

I know "unbelievable" sounds like an odd thing to say about an installment in a series that has featured artifacts like the Ark of the Covenant, magical Indian stones, and the Holy Grail, with their attendant mystical properties, angels, ghosts, and so on, but those things all seemed to fit Indiana Jones's world. To avoid spoiling, I won't give any details, but this movie goes off in another direction, and it doesn't work for me. It feels wrong somehow. It doesn't fit.

After all that, why do I give it a 7/10? Because it's Indiana frickin' Jones, for crying out loud. The worst Indy Jones movie ever is still better than a lot of what's out there. It's still entertaining, though not magical like Raiders, or as intense as Temple of Doom, or as funny as Last Crusade. Watching Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is like watching your favorite band on a reunion tour. You enjoy the band not because of what they are now, but because of what they were back then. Because of what you were back then. They're not going to change the world anymore, and neither are you, and there are new bands that are much more relevant, but every now and then, for a couple of minutes at a time, they can still rip it up and really rock, and that reminds you that you still can too. And that's why I give Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a 7/10 despite its flaws. Every now and then, for a couple of minutes at a time, the movie rips it up and really rocks.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Great Moments in Academia

From "Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities," in "Procedings of the Joint 9th WEBKDD and 1st SNA-KDD Workshop 2007" (h/t: Bad Science):

We find that people use microblogging to talk about their daily activities and to seek or share information.
That's quite a finding: "microblogging is used for microblogging." I don't think I've ever read a paper before where the authors define a term and then call their definition a "finding." (OK, technically, I didn't actually read this paper either. I read the abstract and skimmed part of the paper, and only so I could make fun of it.)

But wait, there's more.

[We] analyze the user intentions associated at a community level and show how users with similar intentions connect with each other.

Among their astonishing findings about user communities:

People in friendship communities often know each other.
Friends who know each other?! It must take years of academic training to uncover such subtleties.

Studying intentions at a community level, we observe users participate in communities which share similar interests.
Communities that share interests?! The mind boggles! Groundbreaking work like this deserves publicity! Grants! Book deals! A series on PBS!

Friday I'm in love...

...with Amy Winehouse.

Seriously. I mainly knew of her as someone who makes a spectacle of herself with her substance abuse problems, but I'd also heard her music was good, so I finally gave Back to Black a listen, and wow, just wow, Amy Winehouse isn't good, she's friggin' genius. What a revelation.

Here's a couple of songs (lyrics may include some naughty words):

"Back to Black"

"You Know I'm No Good"

"Tears Dry on Their Own"

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

kuri's home life

Here are some pictures of me and my family.

This is me. I've been slacking off on my workouts, so I've lost a little weight in my arms and legs lately.

Here I am with my spouse and children. As you can see, we're a very long-legged family.

This is our house (interior view):

We don't have any pets, but sometimes the Easter Bunny and Dumbo come to visit:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

People like free stuff, I guess

Apparently Oprah sometimes does a show called "Oprah's favorite things," where she gives away thousands of dollars worth of free junk to the audience. The audience seems pleased by this.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Food Fight!

"An abridged history of American-centric warfare, from WWII to present day, told through the foods of the countries in conflict." Awesome.

Here's an explanation of the battles, but it's more fun if you watch the movie first and try to figure it out as it goes along.

Let's Ecology! 3: Teaching English

In order to support myself while I was going to school, I had begun teaching at English schools in Tokyo. Most of the other students in the International Division at Waseda also taught a few English classes to earn spending money; I was one of very few, only two or three that I knew of in my cohort of about a hundred people, who had to support himself by working while going to school there. The pay for English teaching wasn't bad -- the hourly rate was about twice what most Japanese students could make doing part-time jobs -- but job satisfaction was non-existent.

My students had almost all had six years of English in high school; some of the ones who were college graduates had taken another four years after that. Rote memorization was a specialty of the Japanese education system, so students often had very large English vocabularies. But the national curriculum, designed by the Ministry of Education, was so pathetic that most of them could not speak English at all. They couldn't understand natural-speed pronunciation, and their own poor grammar and pronunciation left them unable to speak English except at the most basic level. Their six to ten years of classes were mostly a waste of time.

Into this gap, supposedly, would step the private English school, emphasizing conversation and communication and thus making up for the deficiencies of the school system. There were hundreds of these English schools in Japan in the late 1980s, running the gamut from major international chains like Berlitz to classes given by illegal aliens in their living rooms. With some exceptions, English schools in Japan were just a big money-making scheme designed to take the students for all they could get. Depending on the school, students could be any kind of person: schoolchildren, housewives, teenagers and college students, business people. There were classes for almost any category you can imagine, and for almost any purpose.

The schools worked hard, milking the students for all they could get. Most places charged big fees to join the school, with long-term contracts and additional fees for each class attended. Some schools hired only qualified, well-trained teachers, but others were willing to hire any native English speaker they could get (or any non-native speaker, as long as they were white), regardless of experience, qualifications, aptitude, intelligence, or visa status. Others were slightly choosier: they only hired people who had visas allowing them to work legally in Japan. The better schools, if they were unable to find qualified teachers, at least provided training, but many schools just gave their teachers a selection of textbooks to use and said, "Go to it."

Not surprisingly, few students learned much English. Sometimes it was at least as much the student's fault as the school's. I always asked my own students during our first class together "Why do you want to learn English?" Many offered practical reasons: "I like to travel," or "It will help me at work." Others, despite the hefty sums they were paying, gave vague or unrealistic reasons. One young woman told me, for example, "I think it would be cool if someday when I have kids I could talk to them in English." Another woman was married to a Japanese-speaking American, and, by coming to English class for one hour per week for four months, wanted to "surprise" him by suddenly speaking to him in fluent English. Many just seemed to think it would be cool if they could speak English. Most students were extremely passive; they seemed to expect to just come to class for one hour a week and have the teacher somehow insert English into their heads. Few of them seemed to have any idea of the hard study involved in learning a foreign language, and even fewer showed any inclination to work at it.

After I finished my year at Waseda, I stayed on in Japan. I continued teaching English, working at two schools, one in the morning and the other in the evening. My morning school was a mom-and-pop operation run by a couple in their mid-thirties. "Pop" was a Waseda graduate who had left his secure but boring job at some major company to follow the dream of running his own business and, never quite able to make ends meet, also worked part-time at some other English related jobs; "Mom" spent most of her days working at the school as secretary and generally running things. The teachers were mainly students from Waseda's International Division, and the owners were unusual in being sincerely interested in their students. They didn't offer extravagant false promises of instant fluency at high prices, but rather an opportunity for cross-cultural communication and modest increases in English ability at a relatively low price. No formal training was given to the teachers, but an effort was made to match the proper teacher and the proper textbook with each student or class. The atmosphere was friendly and sincere.

My evening school, though, was something else.

Next week: Ginza English Conversation School.

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Manly skills

From CV Rick and a couple of other places:
My manly skills are in bold.

Esquire Magazine – 75 Skills Every Man Should Master

A Man Should Be Able To:

1. Give advice that matters in one sentence.
I've done that a couple of times, I think.

2. Tell if someone is lying.
I think this may be a function of my strange brain or something, but I can usually tell. It makes it hard to vote for people.

3. Take a photo.

4. Score a baseball game.
I think I still remember how. I used to do it for fun, back when kids still liked baseball.

5. Name a book that matters.

6. Know at least one musical group as well as is possible.

7. Cook meat somewhere other than the grill.

8. Not monopolize the conversation.

9. Write a letter.

10. Buy a suit.

11. Swim three different strokes.
Not well, but yeah.

12. Show respect without being a suck-up.

13. Throw a punch.

14. Chop down a tree.
I never have, although I bet I could.

15. Calculate square footage.

16. Tie a bow tie.
Isn't tying a regular one enough?

17. Make one drink, in large batches, very well.
Not my specialty.

18. Speak a foreign language.

19. Approach a woman out of his league.

20. Sew a button.

21. Argue with a European without getting xenophobic or insulting soccer.

22. Give a woman an orgasm so that he doesn't have to ask after it.
My specialty.

23. Be loyal.

24. Know his poison, without standing there, pondering like a dope.

25. Drive an eightpenny nail into a treated two-by-four without thinking about it.

26. Cast a fishing rod without shrieking or sighing or otherwise admitting defeat.
I'm just not interested in fishing. Or hunting.

27. Play gin with an old guy.
Nothing against old guys, I just don't know gin.

28. Play go fish with a kid.

29. Understand quantum physics well enough that he can accept that a quarter might, at some point, pass straight through the table when dropped.

30. Feign interest.
Like I said yesterday, I used to be pretty bad at that. I think I'm getting better at it... maybe not.

31. Make a bed.

32. Describe a glass of wine in one sentence without using the terms nutty, fruity, oaky, finish, or kick.

33. Hit a jump shot in pool.

34. Dress a wound.

35. Jump-start a car (without any drama). Change a flat tire (safely). Change the oil (once)
I've never changed my oil, but I know how. The other two I've done more than once.

36. Make three different bets at a craps table.
I don't enjoy gambling. Maybe I'll write about why sometime.

37. Shuffle a deck of cards.

38. Tell a joke.
I've even gotten paid for it.

39. Know when to split his cards in blackjack.

40. Speak to an eight-year-old so he will hear.

41. Speak to a waiter so he will hear.

42. Talk to a dog so it will hear.
Out of the three, talking to the waiter is hardest for me.

43. Install: a disposal, an electronic thermostat, or a lighting fixture without asking for help.
I'm pretty sure I could do a disposal or a fixture; don't know about a thermostat.

44. Ask for help.
I've done it, so I guess I could do it again.

45. Break another man's grip on his wrist.

46. Tell a woman's dress size.

47. Recite one poem from memory.
"There once was a man from Nantucket..."

48. Remove a stain.

49. Say no.

50. Fry an egg sunny-side up.
That's not enough. A man should be able to ask someone, "How do you like your eggs?" and then cook them that way. IMO.

51. Build a campfire.

52. Step into a job no one wants to do.

53. Sometimes, kick some ass.

54. Break up a fight.
Remind me to tell the story of how I broke up a fight on the subway in Tokyo sometime.

55. Point to the north at any time.
It's on my left now.

56. Create a play-list in which ten seemingly random songs provide a secret message to one person.
OK, I can do that, and I have, but mix tapes are teh lame. They just are. The people who get them never care about them as much as the people who made them.

57. Explain what a light-year is.
The distance light travels in one year (thus, a distance, not a time).

58. Avoid boredom.
That's what blogging is for.

59. Write a thank-you note.

60. Be brand loyal to at least one product.
I dispute this one. I think being anti-brand is more manly.

61. Cook bacon.

62. Hold a baby.

63. Deliver a eulogy.

64. Know that Christopher Columbus was a son of a bitch.

65. Throw a baseball over-hand with some snap.

66. Throw a football with a tight spiral.

67. Shoot a 12-foot jump shot reliably.

68. Find his way out of the woods if lost.
If you're lost, doesn't that mean you can't find your way?

69. Tie a knot.

70. Shake hands.

71. Iron a shirt.

72. Stock an emergency bag for the car.

73. Caress a woman's neck.
"I got my technique down and everything, I don't be ticklin' or nothin'."

74. Know some birds.
I actually know most of the local birds.

75. Negotiate a better price.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday I'm in love...

...with Bill O'Reilly freak out videos. Language definitely not safe for work/children/prudes. (h/t: Runnin' Scared and many others.)

The original freakout:

Bill O freakout remix:

Bill O freakout dance mix:

And in a perfect world:

The sad state of our political discourse

A couple days ago, President Bush implicitly compared Barack Obama to pre–World War II appeasers of Hitler. That in itself is bad enough, but yesterday a right-wing talk radio host named Kevin James appeared on Chris Matthews' show. After James yells "Bush good! Obama bad!" for about five minutes, Matthews decides to ask Kevin James what "appeasement" is. He asks him what, specifically, Neville Chamberlain did wrong.

And obviously, James doesn't know. He tries to respond by shouting his talking points over and over again, but he clearly has no idea what he's talking about. He doesn't know what appeasement is, and he doesn't know what Chamberlain did. All he knows is that "appeasement" is the Republican word of the day to attack Obama with.

It's very funny to watch, but unfortunately, it's also all too typical of our political discourse today. Context doesn't matter. History doesn't matter. Accuracy doesn't matter. Just get your talking points and keep shouting them. Don't worry if you don't even know what they mean. That's not the point. The point is to make lots of noise and make the other side look bad.

This is also, to digress a little from politics, all too typical of American education. Kevin James isn't just some guy who dropped out of high school or something. According to his Wiki entry, he has a BA and a law degree, and used to work as a prosecutor. (God help any defendant, guilty or innocent, who had to face a blustering ignoramus like that in court.) How does anybody with an education like that manage to be completely ignorant of such a key turning point in 20th century history?

Oh, and here's a special Unintentional Comedy Bonus: the slogan of his home radio station, KRLA 870 in Los Angeles, is "Intelligent. Conservative. Talk Radio." Two out of three ain't bad, I guess.

I snubbed Neal A. Maxwell

In Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robison wrote, "I don't know if it's an Aspregian trait, or it it's just me, but I was never affected by celebrity." I don't know either, but me too. Celebrities mean nothing to me. I've never understood, for example, what could possibly motivate someone to wait for hours just to see somebody famous pass by. What's the point of that? Certainly, I'm interested in people who are talented and do interesting things -- which describes many celebrities -- but I just don't get what fame has to do with anything. To me, it doesn't make anyone more interesting.

So this brings me to the time I met my first Mormon "celebrity." I joined the LDS Church when I was 20. There were lots of activities for singles my age, and I made lots of new friends in the "Young Single Adults" program, or YSA as it was called. A few months after I joined, there was a giant YSA conference for all the young LDS singles from San Diego and Imperial Counties. That meant several hundred people would show up. It was a very big deal.

It was such a big deal that one of the LDS Apostles was going to speak at it. To Mormons, an Apostle is a very important person, considered equivalent to one of the old-time Apostles like Peter, James, John, Andrew, and those guys. So he was a very big deal too. The Apostle who was going to speak was (the late) Elder Neal A. Maxwell.

All my new friends were very excited to see him. I wasn't. In my typical way, I thought, "Some famous dude is coming. BFD." (Although actually, as a newly-minted Mormon, I probably omitted the F and just thought, "BD.") I was looking forward to the conference though. It sounded like fun -- driving from San Diego out to Imperial County, going to workshops and a dance, staying overnight, and then all going to church together the next morning. Above all, I would be spending the time with my new friends, who I already felt pretty comfortable around. That was what I was looking forward to most.

I went on Saturday, enjoyed being with my friends, learned some stuff in the workshops, danced a lot at the dance, met some cute girls I was too shy to pursue, and generally had a nice time. Sunday morning, I ended up getting to the church way early, probably more than 20 minutes before the services were to start. I walked into the foyer, and there he was: Neal A. Maxwell in all his conservative-business-attire glory. And it was just the two of us. Nobody else seemed to be around. He approached me with a friendly "Good Morning!" and his hand outstretched for a handshake.

As I realized later, to a typical Mormon, this would have been a great moment. A chance not just to shake hands with an Apostle but to chat one-on-one with him for probably 5 or 10 minutes is a once in a lifetime experience if you don't live in Utah or something. It's the sort of story Mormons pass on to their grandkids. For a Catholic, it would be better than talking to a Cardinal (although not as good as talking to the Pope). It would be like a Buddhist meeting -- well not quite like meeting the Dalai Lama, but maybe like meeting the Panchen Lama. It would be a seriously big deal.

But not to me. To me he was just "some famous dude." Of course, I said, "Good morning" and shook his hand -- I wasn't that rude -- but I kept walking and didn't even fake being interested in talking to him. Feigning interest in someone I'm not interested in is something that I have to work at, and I wasn't very good at it back then. My social skills weren't so poor, though, that I didn't notice that he seemed kind of startled, and I thought, "Oops, I guess he expected me to talk with him. I wonder if that was rude," but I didn't stop or anything. I wasn't interested in him; I wanted to see if any of my friends were already inside the chapel.

After a moment, I realized I had been pretty rude -- I didn't actually say, "Yeah, whatever" out loud to him, but my body language might as well have -- but I also thought it was kind of funny. "I guess Elder Famous Dude is used to people fawning all over him. It must have been a bit of a shock to have somebody blow him off like that. Oh well." So I got a chuckle out of that as I went in to look for my friends.

And that's how I snubbed Neal A. Maxwell.


There's also an epilogue to this story. During the actual meeting, Elder Maxwell impressed me. He gave a sermon, or "talk" as we call it in the LDS Church, and not surprisingly was a skilled public speaker. But that's not what impressed me. Church that morning included a testimony meeting, where any member of the congregation who wants to can get up and go to the pulpit to talk for a couple minutes.

All kinds of people got up and spoke that morning. Some of them obviously hadn't been to church for a long time -- they weren't dressed "properly," or they didn't know the "proper" words LDS use when bearing a testimony. I watched Elder Maxwell as he watched them, and I saw something. I saw that he loved them and didn't judge them. I'm sure he knew, as even I did, that a lot of us were caught up in the moment and wouldn't come close to living up to the idealized feelings we were expressing in the meeting.

But I could see that that didn't really matter to Elder Maxwell. He just seemed to radiate love for the people who were speaking, and especially for the ones who were a little "off." And maybe that love, I thought, makes this man someone special, and not just "some famous dude."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I'm seriously thinking...

...of giving Provigil a try. What do you think?

YouTube favorites (May 2008)

Time for more YouTube favorites: Dean Martin mocks the Rolling Stones on his show in 1964, Brother Theodore on Letterman, Charlie the Unicorn goes to Candy Mountain, mountain goats and golden eagles battle, sumo wrestlers split the Earth in half, some guy compiles the top 10 Jackie Chan stunts, and Bruce Springsteen proves it all night in 1978.

This 1964 clip from Dean Martin's show "Hollywood Palace" featuring the Rolling Stones is interesting in a couple of ways. It's a snapshot of the young Stones before Jagger/Richards came into their own as a songwriting team, when the band mostly did R&B covers -- here they do "Not Fade Away" and "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" -- and before Jagger really came into his full Satanic majesty as a performer. It's also a picture of a generational shift. In 1964, Martin is still big. It's his show, and he cracks jokes at the Stones' expense (skip ahead to about 3:40 if you don't want to listen to the music), but they had the last laugh. They became bigger than he ever dreamed of, filling stadiums and relegating dinosaurs like Martin to the museum that was the Las Vegas stage in the 70s.

Our Dead Comedian of the Month is Brother Theodore.

Charlie the Unicorn goes to Candy Mountain.

I think I've finally figured out the symbolism: Charlie is America, Candy Mountain is Iraq, the pink unicorn is George Bush, and the purple unicorn is Dick Cheney. Oh, and the liopleurodon must be the CIA.

If you're a mountain goat and there's a golden eagle in the area, stay away from the edge of cliffs. Warning: This video includes the deaths of cute furry animals.

When I lived in Japan, I was a big sumo fan, but I haven't watched it for a long time. It seems to have gone high tech or something.

The Top 10 Jackie Chan stunts

Back in the day, believe it or not, Bruce Springsteen used to rock like hell. And he'd give you your money's worth: his concerts would run close to four hours. Here's "Prove It All Night" from 1978.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Losing the logic vote

All right, not to turn this into a political blog or something, but the Oregon primary isn't until May 20, so I'm being exposed to lots of political commercials until then, and many of them are unintentionally hilarious.

Here's one from Senator Gordon Smith:

It's the usual "Don't vote for the other guy (Jeff Merkley), because he did something bad" negative stuff, which is sad, not funny. The funny part is the tag line: "More of the same... when it's time for a change." It's a good line, except for one thing: Gordon Smith is the incumbent. He's been a senator for 12 years.

So this commercial is telling us "If you don't want more of the same... if you think it's time for a change... vote for the guy who's already been there for 12 years"? Why not just run an ad that says, "Vote for me! I make no sense at all! But I have good slogans!"?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Political/pop culture irony

So, last night when I was watching the teevee, a bunch of political ads came on. Among them was this one, which, if I get the gist of it, says "Don't vote for Steve Novick, because he insults everybody. Vote for Jeff Merkley instead."

Of course, the ad itself is ironic/hypocritical because it's a negative ad saying that negativity is bad, and it tears a candidate down to say that tearing people down is bad.

But I think the funniest thing was that the Merkley campaign ran this ad saying, "Don't vote for Steve Novick, because he insults everybody," during House, which is a show whose hero insults everybody. That's one of the things that's cool about House -- he insults people left and right, deserving or not, and gets away with it. So maybe all the people who saw that ad said to themselves, "Hey! That Novick guy reminds me of House! I think I'll vote for him!" One can only hope.

Edit: "One can only hope" means "One can only hope that stupid/hypocritical negative ads will backfire, although unfortunately one can't count on it," not "One can only hope that everyone will vote for Novick in the primary." I haven't decided who I'll vote for in the Democratic Senate primary, although I suppose it'll be one of those two guys.

Good reads/random cool sites (5/13/2008)

Pixeloo is the world's greatest maker of untoons. What's an untoon? It's turning a cartoon into a "real" person. So far he's done Homer Simpson, Mario, and Jessica Rabbit. Other people are doing this kind of thing too, but Pixeloo is by far the best I've seen.

Among the Things Younger than John McCain: Spam, Kodachrome, Alaska, Hawaii, and Barack Obama's parents. (h/t: Ezra Klein)

Speaking of McCain, the "liberal" media give him a Free Ride.

Urban legend: You can trust (h/t: Bad Science)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mitt Romney no longer hates atheists

From a new speech by Mitt Romney:

Several commentators, for instance, argued that I had failed to sufficiently acknowledge the contributions that had been made by atheists. At first, I brushed this off — after all this was a speech about faith in America, not non-faith in America. Besides, I had not enumerated the contributions of believers — why should non-believers get special treatment?

But upon reflection, I realized that while I could defend their absence from my address, I had missed an opportunity…an opportunity to clearly assert that non-believers have just as great a stake as believers in defending religious liberty.

If a society takes it upon itself to prescribe and proscribe certain streams of belief — to prohibit certain less-favored strains of conscience — it may be the non-believer who is among the first to be condemned. A coercive monopoly of belief threatens everyone, whether we are talking about those who search the philosophies of men or follow the words of God.

We are all in this together. Religious liberty and liberality of thought flow from the common conviction that it is freedom, not coercion, that exalts the individual just as it raises up the nation.

It's refreshing to see a politician admit a mistake. I mean, his original speech is still wrongheaded at its core, but at least he's capable of some reflection. (h/t: Cosmic Variance)


The only way to get rid of an earworm is to give it to someone else.

Tangerine Speedo

Please get me a towel
Mr. Tangerine Speedo
You're all over town
Tangerine la-la la-la la-la la-la

The talk of the town
Mr. Tangerine Speedo
How you get around
In your tangerine la-la la-la la-la la-la

BTW, what's with the "Embedding disabled by request"? Heaven forbid someone should actually promote an obscure band on a blog. That might end up making Universal Music Group some money or something.

Let's Ecology! 2: The road to Ecology

I spent the 1988 - 1989 academic year at Waseda University in Tokyo, entering the school through the California State University International Program, which, in conjunction with several other groups of universities, had an "exchange student" center there. I say "exchange" in quotes because as far as I ever heard, nobody from Waseda ever went to a California State University campus in return. Waseda is one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, probably tied for third with Keio University, below only the Olympian heights of Tokyo University and the somewhat less lofty but still rarefied Kyoto University.

I came from California State University at Los Angeles, which was not even the third most prestigious university in Los Angeles. Far from it. Most of the students at Cal State LA seemed to be there because they lived nearby and because they'd had their applications rejected by UCLA. A common pattern of conversation when meeting someone new at Cal State LA could have been "What's your name? What's your major? How come you didn't get into UCLA?" The International Program, however, being run by the California State University system as a whole, was as good as most programs of its type, with centers in many countries around the world.

Universities in Japan receive their popular rankings not because of the brilliance of their academic programs or the scholarship of their professors, but because of the difficulty of their entrance examinations. Their reputations, generally earned well before World War II, are immutable and everlasting. In Japan, only a few American universities have reputations at all, with the names Harvard and UCLA being known to most people, and a few other major schools being known to many. The Japanese people I met inevitably confused Cal State LA with UCLA -- understandable enough, I suppose, since both are state-run universities located in Los Angeles and few Japanese really know what the initials UCLA actually stand for. But after I would explain that UCLA is the University of California at Los Angeles and that my school is California State University at Los Angeles, people would look even more befuddled. Some Japanese people I have known for 20 years still think I went to UCLA.

Waseda's International Division was a sort of American ghetto on campus. Other than the classes on the Japanese language itself, which are not bad at all, almost all International Division classes were conducted in English, and unless you had connections you couldn't even audit ordinary courses in another division of the university. Entrance into the Cal State International Program had some modest basic requirements -- 3.00 grade point average, letters of recommendation, an interview and so on -- but of course it was nothing like the legendary "examination hell" that Japanese students go through to get into a place like Waseda. Few of the Japanese people I would meet, however, were aware of that, and when I said I was a student at Waseda I would often hear, in tones of deep admiration, "Wow, the entrance exam must have been really hard." At which I would just smile modestly and say, "No, not really."

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Good reads/random cool sites (5/8/2008)

Irvine Housing Blog documents the collapse of the housing bubble in and around Irvine, California. It's strangely fascinating, like a train wreck you just can't look away from.

The Peoples News is "a satirical look at the lives of Black folks." It's pretty funny no matter what color you are. They're best known for their hilarious "Federal Judge: Enough With the Stupid Names" post and its follow up, "Condi Calls for Removal of Detroit 'Naming Rights' Judge." The comments by people who apparently didn't read all the way to the "This article is satire" disclaimer at the bottom are almost as good.

"The Revolution Will Be Fabulous" is a one-man art show by Peter Gronquist (h/t: murketing). It's a collection of weapons and other dangerous objects dressed up in high-end brands. It includes a Louis Vuitton electric chair, a Chanel rocket launcher, and the Ultimate Chav Weapon:
Photobucket has the 50 Greatest Commercial Parodies of All Time. It's a little SNL-heavy, but loaded with funny stuff.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Every now and then we do get desperate

I can't stop laughing at this. First, The Field has this piece about the Clinton campaign's constantly-moving goalposts (h/t: Atrios), complete with this Olbermann video detailing the hilariously convoluted series of claims made by her campaign to "prove" that losing is really winning:

Today, right on schedule, Clinton chief strategist Geoff Garin "argued that the North Carolina contest, which Obama won by 14 points, represented 'progress' for Hillary because she did better among white voters there than she did in Virginia." FFS. She's lost. It's over. Just give up already.

Don't vote for John McCain


Loco beer?

My colleague and friend Charles, or "Chaz" as I like to call him sometimes, and I were in London on business. It was a warm, sunny afternoon in May. In between appointments, we ducked into a small restaurant for a snack. There was a little placard on our table. "Hey look," I said, "they have strawberries and ice cream."

"That sounds good," Chaz said. "I thought they ate strawberries and cream here, though, not ice cream."

"Yeah, me too. It sounds good though."

The placard had a picture with vanilla ice cream. "I wonder if it just comes with vanilla, or if you can get different flavors."

"I don't know, let's ask the waitress. Here she comes."

Our waitress turned out to be a very pretty dark-haired girl named Gabriela. She had an accent, so we asked her where she was from. She told us she was from Spain and was waitressing while she studied English. I guess she hadn't been in England long, because we had a little trouble communicating.

I tried asking her about the strawberries and ice cream. "Do the strawberries and ice cream come only with vanilla ice cream, or are there other flavors?"

"Ice cream?"

"Yes... the strawberries and ice cream... what flavor ice cream do you have?"

"Strawberries and ice cream?"

I gave up. "Um, we'll have two dishes of strawberries and ice cream."

"Would you like something to drink?" She had that part down pretty well.

Now it was Chaz's turn. He's kind of a beer geek, so whenever he travels he wants to sample some local beers, not just national brands. He asked Gabriela what they had.

"Do you have any local beers?"

[Long pause] "Loco beer?"

"No, local beers."

She just looked at him blankly. We could see the wheels turning. Loco beer? ¿Cerveza loca? ¿Qué es esto? "Beer?"

"Yes, I'll have a beer please."

"I'll just have a glass of water," I said.

Gabriela went off to fill our order. "That was pretty bad," I said.

"Yeah, she can't really speak English well enough to do the job," Chaz said.

"We should actually be pretty pissed off right now."

"Are you mad?"

"No. Are you?"

"Not at all. But I would be if she was a guy. I'd be pretty damn mad at that kind of service."

"Me too," I said. "She's awfully cute though."



Gabriela brought our order. The ice cream was vanilla. The beer was a Carling. When we finished, we left Gabriela a big tip.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Good reads/random cool sites (5/6/2008)

An interesting roundup of the New York Times's coverage of President Bush's "mission accomplished" aircraft carrier landing and speech, back when "American casualties stood at 139 killed and 542 wounded."

If you're at all interested in (American) sports, you've probably heard about the softball player who injured herself running the bases after hitting a home run. Since any help from her own team would have nullified the home run, the opposing team carried her around the bases. Here's some video.

Matt Taibbi goes "Undercover with the Christian Right" and finds some "Jesus Camp" style manipulation for grownups.

Nathaniel Johnson has a fascinating piece on raw (unpasteurized) milk in Harper's. It's good for you, or maybe it's bad for you, and it's illegal, but you can buy it anyway.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Sometimes I don't want to go to bed...

...because when I wake up it will be another day and I'll have to start all over.

Let's Ecology! 1: "They can't fire you"

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

"Don't worry, they can't fire you"

On the train back to Tokyo, people weren't exactly avoiding me, but they weren't going out of their way to sit next to me either. Honda-san came up to me. "Don't worry," he said sotto voce, "they can't fire you."

"Fire me?"

"Yeah, they can't fire you, because they need you."

"Fire me?"

"Don't worry, there's too many things you can do that no one else can."

"Fire me?"

"Don't worry, they need you too much."

I worried anyway. It was the first time firing had occurred to me. Did people get fired for making suggestions about how to improve the company? Then I thought of something else. "What about Charles? He can do most anything I can."

"Charles isn't the same, he just started here last month. Don't worry, they need you."

I suppose this was meant to be comforting, but I had been much more comfortable before Honda went and mentioned getting fired. It was something that simply had never occurred to me. I only spoke out of a sincere desire to improve the organization, because I believed in it and in what it was supposed to stand for. I thought that was the last thing that should get a person fired.

When I got home I told my wife what had happened, and what Honda said. "Do people actually get fired for that sort of thing?" I asked her.

"In some companies, yeah. The boss could decide that if you don't like the way he runs the company you should leave," she answered.

"Why didn't you tell me!" I hadn't known that I was risking my job. I had enough guts to offer my opinion in public, but I wasn't sure if I had enough to put my job on the line that way. "If I'd have known that, I'd have thought a lot more carefully about whether or not to speak up."

"I thought you knew." She didn't seem very worried though, so maybe it was okay.

When I went back to work the next week, there were no immediate repercussions. It seems that I wasn't going to be fired after all. The only direct comment I ever heard about the whole incident came from Murphy-san. She came up to me one day that week and said, "Akemi-chan told me what you did at the training last weekend. I think that was so cool!" Akemi-chan hadn't even been there. How did she know, I asked. Murphy-san said Honda-san had told Akemi-chan, who told her. Apparently the news was spreading, but no one else ever mentioned it to me. Not directly, anyway.

What was I doing in Japan? How did I end up working at a Japanese (sort-of) environmental group? What did I do to get people talking about firing me? And what the hell does "Let's Ecology!" mean anyway? The answers to these questions and more will become clear in the coming weeks. "Let's Ecology" appears every Monday.

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Most unread books

From CV Rick, the 106 (why 106? nobody knows) books most often tagged "unread" at LibraryThing. The idea is to mark the ones you've read in bold, the ones you've started but not finished in italics, and the ones you read for school in bold and underlined. À la CV Rick, I put asterisks next to the ones I plan to read.

I don't tag people, but it seems like a fun exercise if you want to try it.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina*
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude*
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
The Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books*
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales (I read selections for school. I read all the selections, but not the whole thing, so I guess I can't count it as finished.)
The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera*
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel
1984 (I first read this in 6th grade, I think, but I also remember doing a high school book report on it, because my teacher told me to get parental approval. Why? I asked. Because some parents wouldn't approve of the content, she said. It took me a moment to figure out what she was talking about. Oh, I said, my parents don't censor my reading. Well, ask them anyway, she said. Um, OK, I said. I didn't ask, but I did tell my mom about it. As an amusing anecdote of high school life.)
Angels & Demons
The Inferno (and Purgatory and Paradise)
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes: a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present*
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: a novel
Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road*
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Saturday, May 03, 2008

One Sentence Movie Reviews: "Iron Man," "Conan the Barbarian," "Conan the Destroyer"

Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr.'s brilliant performance, seamless special effects, and a deep-enough but not pretentious script make this latest entry in the comic book superhero genre a winner.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Although I suppose there is a "philosophical" undertone to the movie -- Conan as Nietzschean superman -- in the end it's just a movie about musclemen hacking each other to bits with swords, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)
This sequel isn't true to the "barbaric" spirit of the Conan books, comic books, and first movie, but it's reasonably successful on its own terms as a lightweight sword-and-sorcery action flick.