The Dark Knight's Tax Bracket Rises

Photo by themichaelminer

So here I reveal an important theme of the forthcoming Batman movie. Not that I have any inside informationit's just a hunch. Read on.

But first go back to the previous film The Dark Knight. This was a really good movie. One thing that makes it stand out from the typical run of comic book movies are the extra layers to the story. Er, I suppose that's two things. You get Bruce Wayne's personal sacrifice and his struggle to find the right path. (This is what makes a real hero.) And you get the social commentary. Batman's fight is against terrorism in the person of the Joker. And it is a highly nontrivial issue just how far one is justified in going to fight terrorism. This is clearly an important issue in the movie; various characters spend no little time discussing it amongst themselves. I think it is no coincidence that this theme appeared in The Dark Knight just at the time it was being discussed in society at large. Or, to be more exact, at a time when it should have been discussed but was generally ignored.

Which brings me back to the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. I just saw the new trailerthe one that opens with the boy singing the Star Spangled Banner. And these words, spoken by Selina Kyle, were of particular interest.

You think this can last. There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches 'cause when it hits you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.

Doesn't this resonate with another issue that's been in the news latelythat of rising income inequality? I bet you this will be a theme of the new movie. Remember, you heard it here first.

And it also points up the big messaging issue the Democrats have. I imagine they would get much more traction on the issues if they got Anne Hathaway to whisper their message into John Boehner's ear.

Post-release update: I consider my prediction verified.

Today's Exercise in Heresy: In Defense of the Traditional Language Course

Hey, check out my guest post on the aforementioned topic over at Street-Smart Language Learning.

Product Review: Remembering Traditional Hanzi, by James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson

Hanzi is the Chinese term for Chinese ideographs. Reading the Chinese language entails being able to recognize three to four thousand of these. There is a far greater number than this (to paraphrase Clinton, depending on what the meaning of "is" is). At least one Chinese dictionary listed 100,000 characters. But Zipf's law indicates that the vast majority of these would never be encountered in a typical human lifetime. I like to imagine some mischievous Chinese scribes living a thousand years or so ago playing a little joke, only to get their inventions immortalized in the dictionary.

So don't feel bad about your measly three or four thousand. Of course, learning even three thousand characters is no picnic. Thus the demand for anything which can smooth the process. Heisig and Richardson's Remembering Traditional Hanzi is one of several competing books promising to ease the memorization process. I like this one the best, for reasons given herein.

This particular volume appears to be adapted from Heisig's Remembering the Kanji ("kanji" being the Japanese equivalent of "hanzi"). Although the Japanese borrowed the idea of writing, and almost all their ideographs, from China, they simplified some of them and pronounce all of them differently. And the Chinese later went through their own round of simplificationalthough (as I have discussed elsewhere) not all Chinese use the simplified versions, and of course the earlier documents printed in "traditional" hanzi did not disappear. So one with ambitions to read both Japanese and Chinese may need to cope with as many as three versions of a single character, such as:
Versions of this book exist for all three forms. I chose the traditional hanzi because I think it provides the best basis for learning all three.

Learning several thousand characters would scarcely be possible did not most of them consist of combinations of simpler components (there are still more than enough "simpler components" to keep the student occupied for a long time). In some cases the meaning of the character can be explained by the meanings of the component parts. For example, a "man" standing by his "word" represents "trust." I have no idea whether this etymology is historically accuratefor this purpose history is beside the point.

There are several books out there which use the etymology approach to help the reader remember the characters. Heisig and Richardson's version adds a couple of unique wrinkles which I find extremely helpful. Here is a sample entry from the book:

As you see, the character is assigned a keyword send out. (A keyword is usually, but not always a single word, but is always a single concept.) This particular character is explained in terms of the keywords of the parts appearing within: missile, bow, and teepee. A little story explains how the meaning of the whole is derived from the meanings of the parts. I think it safe to say this particular etymology is not historically accurate.

One of the particular characteristics distinguishing Heisig and Richardson's book is the use of the single keyword. Many or most Chinese characters have meanings which cannot be captured in an English word. This one for example, has a meaning similar to "send out" but appears as part of words with meanings as diverse as "explode", "discover", "departure", "vivacity", "put [a product] on the market", or "run [a fever]." The typical dictionary will run a long list of words with alternate meanings. Sticking to a single keyword means all the nuances of meaning cannot be captured, but I find this is more than outweighed by the cognitive advantage of having a single clear-cut labelto look at this character, either alone or as part of a still more complex character, and say "Oh yeah, that's send out." And moreover the expression send out refers to one and only one Chinese character. The nuances of meaning will sink in over time as one learns various compounds and expressions containing the character.

A second distinguishing characteristic of the book is the order chosen for the characters. They are organized not alphabetically, nor according to the order in which they are taught in Chinese schools, nor according to frequency of usage, but according to the method. So immediately after a given character appears you might see several others which use that character as a component. Frequency of usage might be better if you planned on quitting the book part-way throughso don't.

A final advantage is that Heisig and Richardson also define keywords for several elements which do not constitute characters in their own right, but do appear as elements of several characters. The keyworda mental peg on which to hang the image of the componentis tremendously helpful.

For example, the keyword study is given to this important character:
This is part of the Chinese words for school, university, institute, and so on. The bottom part of this character:

is a character in its own right, and gets the appropriate keyword child. The top part:
is not an independent character, but gets its own keyword anyway. Since this component always appears at the top of a character, like others variously labeled roof, hat, teepee, etc., but is far more elaborate, it gets the apt (but probably historically inaccurate) name Carmen Miranda hat.

And now for some criticisms. My biggest problem with this book is the failure to include the Chinese pronunciation of each character in the entry for that character. This practice is probably carried over from the Japanese version of the book, where it makes more sensesince in Japanese a single character usually has at least two, and sometimes as many as seven or eight different pronunciations. But in Chinese almost all characters have one and only one pronunciation. Moreover, in many many cases, part of the character is an indicator of the sound. So, if the pronunciation were known, rather than concoct an elaborate story for why a particular component appears in the character, one could simply note that it has the same or similar pronunciation. But the book includes a simple numbered index of all the characters with their Chinese pronunciations, so this oversight is easily remedied with a ball-point pen.

My other complaint is that this is Volume I, and only contains 1500 characters. I would cheerfully buy Volume II and any that come after, but they don't exist.

In summary, I would definitely use this book as one of my tools if I were studying Chinese. To be more accurate, I am studying Chinese, and I am using this book.

Alvy Singer Wants to Stop Your Kids from Killing Aliens

A recent Wired Science article compared two bodies of research on the possibility of a link between violent video games and violent behavior. Quick summary of the story: A recent California court case examined the constitutionality of a law outlawing the sale and rental of violent video games to minors. Group X of scientists submitted a brief claiming that such games lead to aggressive behavior. Another Group Y submitted a brief disputing the claim to a link between game play and aggressive behavior. (Note: I myself am agnostic as to whether such a link exists.)

The court ruled the law unconstitutional. One could say that Group Y won and Group X lost, although it's not clear from the story what role the briefs played in the decision. I don't know what other evidence was presented; I don't even know necessarily that the judges even read the briefs.

But here's the other part of the story. The Northwestern Law Review later published an article suggesting that the court should pay more attention to the claims of Group X than Group Y because Group X had published more articles and had published more in "top-tier" journals.

There is a venerable term for this type of argument: ad hominem.

The article doesn't claim to have found an error in the analysis in Group Y's brief, or pick bones with the way Group Y collected their data. No, the argument presented is we're bigger big shots than the big shots on the other side, so the court should have believed us instead of them. This is by definition an ad hominem argument because the identity of the disputants is made an issue rather than the content of the argument.

The Northwestern article includes this amusing footnote: "In the interest of full disclosure, note that we disagree with much of the information contained in the Millett [i.e., Group Y's] Brief." This is amusing because a full disclosure would have mentioned that not only do the three article authors "disagree" with the Millett Brief, but two of them were actually members of Group X that authored the opposing brief. Instead they present themselves as merely concerned bystanders.

With this in mind, I can't help but be reminded of the ending of the movie Annie Hall, wherein Woody Allen's Alvy Singer rewrites his real-life break-up with his girlfriend Annie as a play, only changing the ending so that Annie comes back to him. To be fair, the authors might be less concerned with stewing over past losses than influencing the upcoming Supreme Court review of the case. I still think their time would be better spent in coming up with more persuasive data and analysis than attacking the reputations of their opponents.

Starved for Irony

Picture shows a notice posted in a college restroom in Japan. Translation runs as follows:

  • Thanks to you, the toilet is always maintained in a clean condition.
  • Let's continue to use the toilet in such a way that the next person can feel good about using it.
  • Let's avoid wasting toilet paper and water.
  • Smoking is prohibited in the toilet.
We request everyone's cooperation.

[In the lower-left corner, next to the drawing of the toilet, surrounded by little stars, is one of those peculiarly Japanese expressions which serves as a sound effect for something that doesn't really have a sound: pika-pika, or in other words, "sparkle sparkle."]

The only thing that could make this any more Japanese would be a cute cartoon animal pointing to the text.

Now consider hypothetically a similar notice (but in English, of course) posted in a restroom on an American college campus. What would be the effect? For the assorted reading audience, standing at the urinal, surely reactions ranging from befuddlement to raucous laughter. Is this for real? Within a matter of hours, defacement by some sort of crude graffiti. Within a matter of days, the notice is flung to the ground and trampled upon, and most likely soiled with a selection of bodily fluids.

So here we see an interesting aspect of Japanese society (or perhaps it is an interesting aspect of non-American society): the incredible sincerity. Japan is a place where you can actually say things like "It's a shame that a few bad apples have to spoil a good time for everyone by breaking the rules" and no one will snicker.

As an American of the sarcasm-prone variety, I am acutely conscious when in Japan of the need to watch what I say. Sarcasm is still possible, but must be carefully calibrated. Otherwise leads to befuddlement on the part of others, or in the worst cases, offense.

The advantages of the sincere society are pretty much what you would expect. The restrooms are in fact remarkably clean. As are the streets—all the more remarkable when you consider there is hardly a trash can to be found. Properly disposing of a plastic soda bottle entails separating it into three components—the bottle, the cap, and the label—and putting them in three separate locations.

I can't help but feel, however, that sarcasm and cynicism have their advantages as well. Life in Japan has provoked a lot of introspection. Why do I feel a frequent urge (by no means always indulged in) to play the devil's advocate, particularly if I can flavor my cynicism with a little humor? There are two obvious justifications:

1: I get to show off my sparkling wit.

2: I get to brighten the day of those around me.

But I think the real basis for American cynicism is something more philosophical. We recognize that no one is perfect, that even the most virtuous among us have a guilty secret or too. And therefore, when we hear someone or something praised extravagantly our automatic reaction is oh yeah? Well, what about....
Japanese people, if pressed, will admit that everything has its dark side. But they don't share our compulsion to point it out constantly.

Lest anyone misunderstand, my intent here is not to claim that America is better than Japan, or vice-versa. I think of different societies as representing different strategies for social organization, and am rather fascinated by the many different possible approaches to solving the same problems. Somewhat in the spirit of Arrow's Theorem, I rather think every approach is going to have serious drawbacks some of the time.

Hello, Kitty!

I got off of writing for awhile...been on the road—still on the road, actually—in Japan, that is. It's been seven years since I was here last The place has changed a lot, and I myself have changed even more. I find myself little interested in going to the "Japanese" places that I used to put on my list and am far more interested in seeking out the little Japanese things (without the quote marks) that open at least a small window into what is going on.

I was rather stunned to see the obvious difference in atmosphere between Tokyo and Osaka, and marvel at my own obtuseness in not noticing it on earlier visits. In Tokyo, a goodly proportion of the women seem to have taken the inspiration for their dress from the pages of a manga book (quite enjoyable for the onlooker) and everyone walks extremely fast—though I've heard there is a strong correlation between city population and walking speed. Tokyo is at the extreme end of the spectrum by both measures.

There is also something of a fad for wearing surgical masks. So you get the incongruous sight of a young woman dressed to the nines in a frilly microskirt and seven-inch heels, elaborately applied make-up and hair ribbons, and then gilding the lily with a surgical mask. I myself would die a premature death rather than wear one of those things.

In Osaka, on the other hand, about half the people on the street dress like refugees from a homeless shelter. The difference was obvious the instant I hit the sidewalk. And the taxi, was by no means meticulously clean like those in Tokyo. The trunk was half filled with the driver's own weird crap.
There was a thought-provoking scene in Osaka. A girl, obviously profoundly hard of hearing, was trying to get service in a shop and the guy behind the counter was wearing one of those damn masks. You're really screwed in this country if you rely on reading lips to get around.

The lights are out in the big cities—at least the big neon advertising signs—reflecting the ongoing power crisis in Fukushima. But the cities are still far sparklier than any place I ever lived.

Practical Joke #10

1. Get a friend and drive down the road together.

2. Keep driving around until you see someone standing by the side holding a sign that says "Honk 4 Jesus."

3. Drive a further 50 yards.

4. Park the car and stand by the side of the road holding a sign that says "You should have honked."

5. Your friend stands yet 50 yards further down with a sign saying "Now you're going to hell." Make sure both signs are lettered in bright colors.

6. Remember to smile and wave at all the cars!

Language Learning Tip: Avoiding the Embarrassment of Gender Confusion

Photo by garryknight

Not your problem, you say? I don't mean the problem of wandering into the wrong restroom. Wait until you undertake to study one of the world's many languages which arbitrarily assign genders to inanimate objects. This includes most European languages (English being the most prominent exception) and others besides—Arabic, for example. Swahili has "noun classes" which work like a multivalent version of gender.

I have heard that French schoolchildren, for example, can predict with uncanny accuracy the genders of objects they have never seen before. This seems hard to believe (what about the case where two different words denote the same object but have opposite gender?). And by what possible logic is a spoon masculine, a fork feminine, and a knife neuter (as is the case in German)? Another argument against the inherent character of grammatical gender is the lack of consistency across languages: for example, "the moon" is la lune (feminine) in French but der Mond (masculine) in German.

Some languages, like Russian, or Arabic, make it fairly easy to predict the gender of a word, not by the nature of the object but by the form of the word (does it end with a?). Others, like German, have essentially no connection between the form of a word and its gender. In such cases we have no alternative but to remember the gender of each word.

This is a perfect situation in which to apply the techniques of memory training, as I have previously described. The key is to use vivid mental images to impress the gender of an object on the mind.

For a language like French, or Italian, with (only) male and female genders, an obvious approach suggests itself: visualize the object with a sex characteristic: a phallus for masculine objects, a large pair of breasts for feminine objects. (To forestall an avalanche of hostile comments, let me declare that I have nothing against small-breasted womenthis merely reflects the principle that vivid, exaggerated, sexual, and even scatological images stick better in the mind).

Once you get into more than one language, you need a distinct set of visual tags for each to avoid confusion. For that matter, some languages have more than two genders: German, Russian, or Sanskrit have three, and Swahili has sixteen (though sadly, these do not reflect sixteen distinct varieties of human sexuality—that would be fun).

Let's take German as an example, which has three genders. How about the tags chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry to represent the three? Chocolate is feminine and vanilla masculine, of course (because that's yin and yang), which leaves strawberry to be neuter. Eventually, you'll need to remember these three on your own.

So let's take lists of nouns of various genders:

Masculine: Mond (moon), Hut (hat), Brief (letter)

Feminine: Sonne (sun), Jacke (jacket), Wand (wall), Maus (mouse)

Neuter: Haus (house), Hotel (hotel)

We could certainly go with longer lists, but this post is getting long enough as it is. The conclusive step is to form a vivid mental image linking each object with the appropriate flavor.

Start with moon and vanilla (masculine). Picture yourself eating a vanilla ice-cream cone, only the scoop of ice cream is actually a miniature moon. There's even a tiny spacecraft landed on it with astronauts waving a tiny flag, while the tiny command module buzzes around your head like a fly.

Now hat and vanilla: You are wearing a hat made of vanilla beans. Make sure to see it in your mind's eye.

Letter and vanilla: You receive a letter printed on vanilla ice cream. You struggle to read it before it melts.

Sun and chocolate (feminine): The sun in the sky is a huge ball of chocolate. The rays are covering you with a brown, sticky coating.

Jacket and chocolate: You are wearing a jacket made of chocolate bars—a little gooey, but oh so stylish.

Wall and chocolate: The wall of your room is an enormous chocolate bar, still in the wrapper.

By now you see, I hope, that it takes no special creativity to come up with these images. There are a few standard tricks.

Mouse and chocolate: You open a chocolate bar wrapper, and a mouse scampers out.

Now house and strawberry: Imagine returning home one day and finding your house has transformed into a giant strawberry, still with doors and windows.

Finally, hotel and strawberry: You are waiting in line to check in at a hotel and you notice all the other guests are giant ambulatory strawberries, each holding his or her suitcase.

Now it's quiz time. Keeping in mind the code (chocolate=feminine, vanilla=masculine, strawberry=neuter), what is the German gender of each of these words?

Brief (letter)
Haus (house)
Hotel (hotel)
Hut (hat)
Jacke (jacket)
Maus (mouse)
Mond (moon)
Sonne (sun)
Wand (wall)

With practice, you will find this works as well for a hundred words, or five hundred, as with the nine given here.

An alternative way to select a symbol to represent a particular gender (or other grammatical categories) is to pick one example word from the class—let moon represent masculine and sun represent feminine, for example

Memory Training Crash Course, Part II

Okay, so it's been two years since Part I. Super-quick review: images are easier to remember than symbols or words, and you can help yourself recall images—by making them absurd, outrageous, or offensive. I'm still weaker than I want to be at remembering people's names (notwithstanding theoretically having learned the secret years ago), but I have noticed it works better if I allow my brain to indulge in childish impulses that I had left behind. As George Carlin says, "I always felt sorry for guys whose names were Dick and Peter." Next time you meet a Dick or Peter, recall this comment and allow yourself a (secret) mental snigger at the image it brings to mind. See if the name doesn't stick in your mind.

For abstract information such as numbers or playing cards, more sophisticated tools must be brought into play as well. The Major system is a simple but powerful tool for translating numbers into words—and hence into concrete images—that can then be memorized by other means.

It is simplest to explain by starting at the reverse endtranslating words into numbers. One must invest the time to memorize the following phonetic code:

s, z become 0
t, d, th become 1
n becomes 2
m becomes 3
r becomes 4
l becomes 5
ch, sh, j become 6
k, (hard) g become 7
f,v become 8
p,b become 9

Anything not on this list—w, h, y and any vowel sounds—is ignored. Any word or phrase can be translated into a unique sequence of digits using the code. Take the word "fan", for example. F becomes 8, a is ignored, and n becomes 2, so "fan" becomes the number 82. Keep in mind these are sounds, not lettersso "phone" also becomes 82. This example also shows that a single number can correspond to more than one word (or phrases). On the other hand, (a crucial point) two different numbers will never correspond to the same word.

The game gets more interesting when you play it the other way around: find a word or phrase to correspond to a sequence of digits:

0 becomes s, z
1 becomes t, d, th
2 becomes n
3 becomes m
4 becomes r
5 becomes l
6 becomes ch, sh, j
7 becomes k, (hard) g
8 becomes f,v
9 becomes p,b

This can test your vocabulary. Consider for example the number 102. This translates into dsn or dzn or tzn or tsn. We could use the single word "dozen", but this has the drawback of being difficult to visualize (as well as inviting confusion with the number twelve). I prefer "hoatzin". I just happen to know what this is (an atavistic species of bird with claws on its wings) thanks to my abnormal predilections in childhood reading. Every two-digit number can be expressed as a single word (usually in several ways); most three digit numbers have single-word equivalents; with four digits or more it's hit-and-miss. I have, by the way, found the 2Know freeware program to be an extremely useful tool—it allows you to enter any sequence of digits and searches a rather deep dictionary for equivalents or partial equivalents.

So, for example, if you want to memorize the first several digits of Pi:


you can convert it to the phrase:

moderately paunchy, lamely phobic bahamian amphora.

Of course, this is nonsensical, but as explained in Part I, that hardly interferes with committing it to memory.

By the way, I see that this code was devised in almost the same form by Gregor von Feinagle in 1808. I would have thought it was some person named Major, but there you go. This leaves the name of the system as something of a mystery.

Most who make frequent use of this system use a set of "peg words": standard terms representing the numbers up to 100. This spares even a moment's hunting for a suitable word in the easy cases, and also allows one to associate particular items with each of the numbers up to 100 and reliably recall them later. For example, for me, the number 56 is always "leech" (unless I have a specific reason to choose something different). I can associate anything with the number 56 by mentally connecting it to the concept of "leech." That wouldn't help if the next time I think of 56 I convert it to "eyelash"—but I won't, because by now when I think 56 I instantly think "leech." In a future post, I'll give my own list of peg words for numbers from 00 to 100.

Of all the various self-help gimmicks I've tried over the years, I think memory training must be the best in terms of cost-benefit ratio. I routinely use this to remember phone numbers, account numbers, and so on.

And This is How Brain Cells Get Used Up

Photo by Max East

Check out this nifty video that shows a whole hike along the more than 2000 miles of the Appalachian trail, compressed into five minutes. One particular instant (literally) that caught my eye was the appearance of a stile.

In case you don't know what a stile is, it is a set of steps used to cross over a fence. I presume that animals don't care to climb up and over the steps.

And in case you do know what a stile is, then I have one question for you:


This was the question I was asking myself after watching the video. Why do I know the name of this thing? I can specifically recall in distant childhood my parents explaining it to me. Out of all the words they could have chosen to explain to me—"diabetes", "micromanagement", "bagels", etc.they chose the word "stile." I can only assume that they expected my adult life to be filled with various and sundry stile-related activities, but in this as in so many other respects, events did not develop as expected.

So, as it turns out, I have some number of brain cells devoted to remembering this word, describing an object which I have encountered maybe once in my life, and which could just as well be described by a phrase "a set of steps used to cross over a fence," and which in fact lies dormant for years (except for occasional Julia Stiles-related thoughts). How do I get those brain cells back?

Scurvy of the Soul

In this scene from the 1960 Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt meets several new volunteers, escaped slaves, including the house slave Antoninus whose talents include singing songs and also juggling. Spartacus's skepticism is apparent. Later on, Spartacus comes to embrace the singing of songs as a necessity undergoes a change of heart and embraces the singing of songs as a necessity even for a rebel army.

This little bit of byplay came to mind when I saw the recent heartwarming (aww...) story about the chorus from a New York city working-class elementary school that was invited to perform at the Oscar ceremony, and also while reading Kelly Tyler-Lewis's book The Lost Men, about Shackleton's Ross Sea party. Many have heard of Shackleton's failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, and the various heroic efforts by which he managed to bring back the entire crew alive.

Well, not quite the entire crew, it turns out—if you take into account the second of Shackleton's parties, who sailed to the opposite side of the continent in order to lay down caches of supplies for Shackleton, whom they expected to be trekking across. Three of that party did not make it back.

Scurvy was one of a thousand problems Shackleton's Ross Sea party had to deal with—even though by that time it was well known that scurvy could be prevented by drinking lime juice, or even (I didn't know this) by eating seal meat. The problem was the expedition cut corners and didn't drink nearly enough juice, or some just refused to eat seal meat because they didn't like it. I like to think I myself would just eat the damn meat and deal with it (especially since food overall was fairly scant), but then again, I've never tasted seal, so who am I to judge? (Update: as of 2012, I have tasted it, and it's really not that bad.)

Scurvy provides a useful metaphor for a more widespread paradox worth keeping in mind: Cut back to the bare essentials, and you will find something essential missing.

This is the problem with the current mania for schools to cut out art and music programs, or physical education, or even recess. Bean counters may have a difficult time distinguishing such "non-academic" pursuits from mere amusement. But an academic program stripped down to the absolute essentials is like a diet stripped down to essential bulk foods—the brain is doomed to suffer a slow, wasting death, particularly when it comes to curiosity about the larger world.

Take another look at those kids from New York P.S. 22? How easy it to get any bunch of 6-to-12-year olds to buy into a program which demands discipline, and teamwork? And how many such programs can demonstrate clearly that discipline and hard work pay off?

Zen in the Art of Hypocrisy

(Warning: major spoilers about the plot of Atlas Shrugged follow. This is in addition to the usual spoilers about the meaning of life and stuff.)

This little video snippet shows my namesake explaining his path to Zen enlightenment—the buttering of French bread. Robert Pirsig's picked a killer title for his 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the reader who looks for much of anything about Zen is going to be disappointed (as is the reader who looks to learn anything about motorcycle maintenance). My bookshelf holds another book Zen of Code Optimization, which I suspect to be almost the exact opposite of Zen, in that it relies on meticulous analysis. Leo Babuta's Zen to Done productivity system is Zen-like in spirit inasmuch as it tries to simplify as much as possible, but as far as I can tell has no real connection with Zen philosophy.

Don't get me wrong. All the foregoing are worthy products, and it doesn't bother me that the "Zen" buzzword has become something of a marketing gimmick—although a Zen priest might take a different view. It seems a harmless and possibly amusing superficiality, like the legendary Japanese department store that used a crucified Santa Claus as a Christmas decoration.

Then again, the word Zen has passed into common usage as an everyday adjective, difficult to define precisely (which is what makes it useful), but generally referring to that which is holistic, surprisingly indirect or even seemingly paradoxical, as when Mr. Miyagi teaches karate through car-waxing. Come to think of it, this doesn't bother me either.

What will make me snort and spit out my coffee is when someone claims with a straight face to be a Zen adherent when all they have done is read a book or two, or perhaps not even that. It's as if watching every episodes of "Hogan's Heroes" qualifies one to march in the Veteran's Day parade.

This came to mind again recently when I saw the trailer for the new Atlas Shrugged movie coming out on April 15. From the trailer I can't tell whether the version of Objectivism presented is the genuine, Ayn-Rand version, or the superficial version that's been going around for the past few years, which we might call the Glenn Beck version.

Among Atlas Shrugged discussion group I discovered that two people might agree on a certain tenet of the book but disagree diametrically on how to map that point into the real world. Is Bill Gates a John Galt or a Wesley Mouch?

In the aftermath of the stock-market crash a couple of years ago, we were presented with the spectacle of incompetent investment bankers, who got tired of reading bad stuff about themselves in the newspapers, threatening to "Go Galt"—that is, renounce their chosen profession and leave the rest of us to struggle along without them—to which my unforced reaction was always Yes, please! Put that in writing and we'll sign it.

Will Wilkinson put it neatly: The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. Zen and Objectivism, though very different philosophies, seem to share a common misfortune of attracting dilletantes who like the charisma factor but reject (or more likely are ignorant of) the discipline demanded of real adherents.

One of my friends who is a genuine Objectivist remarks with amusement on the many politicians and pundits these days who claim to be both serious Objectivists and devout Christians. I mean, have you read Atlas Shrugged, people? (In all seriousness, I suspect probably not.) It would be difficult to find a more implacably contradictory pair of philosophies.

But then again, such people seem to flunk the Christianity test as well as the Objectivist test—that inconvenient business about selling all you have and giving to the poor, or refraining from casting the first stone. One benefit of embracing two contradictory creeds is that one can piously cite a justification for whatever shallow, self-indulgent whim possesses one at the moment. I guess that's the point.

The Dark Side of Positive Thinking

As a long-time cynic, I found this little ten-minute lecture (from the RSA series) most rewarding. Take a look.

Lip Reading Concluded

Photo by kavehkhkh

So I'm here to report I finished the Read My Lips! DVD series. I have little to add to my earlier observations. I think the series is effective to a certain extent. I feel decidedly more proficient than when I started--but, just as language classes in school seldom bring you to fluency, I am not ready to go out and be a spy just yet.

I intend to go back to the DVD's occasionally to maintain what proficiency I have. I haven't decided on whether to attempt some further formal training. There isn't much out there, beyond some YouTube videos.

I'm pretty sure I could create a lip-reading course that would take it to the next level--if only I didn't have too many other things to do that sound more interesting.

To wrap it up, here are a few of the more memorable quotes from the "Read My Lips!" series. I am not making these up:

You've had too much to drink.

That rhinoceros reminds me of your mother.

Behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law.

I took a butcher knife from the kitchen and went down into the basement.

The Secret Alien Agenda Behind Feminism

Between 1966 and 2001, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by women in science and engineering fields roughly quadrupled. Even so, the number is less than half the number of similar degrees awarded to men. Lots more data is available here.

A lot of discussion goes on about the reason for the disparity—whether it's discrimination, some inherent gender distinction, or something else. One phenomenon that probably plays a role is a misguided belief that for women, professionalism in math, science, and engineering demands sacrificing one's femininity. This idea strikes me as rather ludicrously old-fashioned, and I would be disinclined to believe that anyone buys into it any more—if I had not witnessed some tension over exactly this issue among some of my own acquaintances who happen to be both female and scientists. The Nerd Girls movement is explicitly dedicated to helping women choose careers in science and engineering and stay girly at the same time. See Erin Cech's interesting discussion here.

There is a place, however, where women are entirely free to become scientists and engineers and celebrate their femininity at the same time. It's the world of the 1950's science-fiction B-movie. We don't think twice about Dr. Ellie Satler in Jurassic Park (1993)—although she explicitly mentions sexism—but it's interesting to see paleontologist Lee Hunter appear in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms during an era (1953) in which women in real life were expected to stay home, wash windows, and change diapers—and none of the characters finds her gender at all incongruous.

And these are not the girls who stayed home and studied because they couldn't get a date on Saturday night, either. They wear skirts and heels, their hair is nicely done, their nails, too—in fact, any of them could take up a second career as a lingerie model if that whole science-engineering thing failed to work out. I wonder what effect these figures on the screen had on young girls sitting in the audience?

That question will likely never be answered. But if the movies teach us anything it is this: integration of women into the ranks of scientists and engineers is a prelude to alien invasion. You have been warned.

(Above: Nuclear physicist Dr. Ruth Adams from This Island Earth pursues some extracurricular activities.)

(Update 15 February) Some late-breaking [I hate that word] news on the issue.

Life Lessons from Danny Ocean

The inaptly named Ocean's Eleven series (better to call it Ocean's X?) is a superior example of the caper movie. I'm referring to the recent version and not to the original Frank Sinatra film, which I regret to say I could not get into. The plots of the original and remake are quite a bit different, anyway.

It's not clear how one would number all eleven of the Eleven, but it is clear that #1 is Danny Ocean (George Clooney), #2 is Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and #3 is Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon). It fascinating to consider how the three characters manifest the three components of the Freudian psyche... aah, who am I kidding? What's great about these movies is the cool.

Danny Ocean perfectly exemplifies Paul Kyriazi's Rule #5: "Always dress up, even at home alone." The guy always has a dress shirt and jacket (even when being released from prison), is never underdressed, and yet always looks comfortable.

Ocean's Apophthegm is also worth remembering (as heard in Ocean's Thirteen):

Always play the game as if you have nothing to lose.

But my favorite principle out of the Ocean's X series is this (not stated explicitly, but demonstrated): When you're cool enough, everything you do becomes cool.

For example, as a rule TV and movie characters set their cell phones to vibrateor else use a neutral "phone ringing" sound. This is to avoid distracting the viewer with contemplating the character's choice of ringtone. Rusty Ryan is a noteworthy exception, as we get to hear a cheesy bubblegum-pop tune whenever his phone rings. He is secure enough not to worry what we think of his ring tone.

Danny Ocean also well illustrates a corollary that certain irritating people I know fail to grasp: The cool need not always be the smartest guy in the room. Consider this discussion from Ocean's Thirteen about the Greco security system, among tech guru Roman Nagel, Danny Ocean, and right-hand man Rusty Ryan:

Roman: The data is analyzed in real time in a field of exabytes.

Danny: Exabytes?

Roman: You know what a terabyte is?

Danny: Yeah, it's a....

Rusty (sotto voce): An exabyte is a million terabytes.

Danny: Right.

Roman: The Greco is housed in an impregnable room. Shock-mounted, temparature-controlled, and it locks down if it even senses it's under attack, If it locks down, they wouldn't even be able to get out of the room.

Danny: Couldn't we just shut it off? You know, cut the wires?

Roman: That could work. Better still, kick the plug out of the socket.

Rusty: Seriously.

Roman: Short of walking into the room with a bloody magnetron around your neck... You know what a magnetron is?

Danny: Something that screws up the Greco?

There is also an amusing bit of byplay later on where Danny is watching Oprah on TV and drinking wine, which in my book is just about the least cool thing a person can do. Most likely the writers wanted to underscore the point with the most extreme example they could think of.

Rough Waters for Huck and Jim

Photo by shimgray

Some friends have asked me what I thought of the latest attempt by Auburn Professor Alan Gribben to sanitize Huckleberry Finn by removing all instances of the N-epithet. (By the way, if you tuned in here hoping to hear me use the the term, you're out of luck. Go buy your own copy of the book, big spender.)

In one sense, there's nothing new to this story, and nothing controversial either. As Jon Stewart points out, previous editors have gone so far as to eliminate the character of Jim altogether. And the book is long since in the public domain. Gribben is legally entitled to recast Jim as a space alien, a hot cheerleader, or anything else that tickles his fancy.

But is it a good idea? Of course not, at least not if one is concerned with preserving the essence of the book. But it is an understandable idea. The conceptual error at heart is to think of Huckleberry Finn as a children's book, which it definitely is not. Even with the language scrubbed, you still have a protagonist abandoned (except for occasional beatings) by his alcoholic father, who turns up a ways into the story as a very unattractive corpse. The confusion arises because Huckleberry Finn is technically a sequel to Tom Sawyer, which is quite accessible to children. A comparative glance at a random page from each makes the difference obvious.

One could speculate what the author himself would think of this. To that end, one may consider the following letter written by Twain to an acquaintance who had taken on the burden of editing a piece that Twain had written:

The time-honored etiquette of the situationnew to you by reason of inexperienceis this: an author's MS. is not open to any editor's uninvited emendations. It must be accepted as it stands, or it must be declined; there is no middle course. Any alteration of it—even to a word—closes the incident, & that author & that editor can have no further literary dealings with each other. It was your right to say that the Introduction was not satisfactory to you, but it was not within your rights to contribute your pencil's assistance toward making it satisfactory. Therefore, even if you now wished to use my MS. in its original form, untouched, I could not permit it. Nor in any form, of course. I shall be glad to have the original when convenient, but there is no hurry. When you return will answer quite well. If you have any copies of it—either amended or un-amended—please destroy them, lest they fall into careless hands & get into print. Indeed I would not have that happen for anything in the world.

Mark Twain and I, at least, have an understanding. Neither of us is going to edit the other's work.

Practical Joke #9

1. Start with a memo you receive from your boss or a colleague.

2. Edit the memo. Replace any verb starting with the letter "f" (like "finalize") by "f___". Replace any thing starting with the letter "s" (like "status") by "s___". Replace any descriptive term referring to an individual who happens to be female that starts with the letter "b" by "b____". Make sure the original author's name stays on the memo.

3. Show the memo around the office and ask your colleagues what they think. With a subtle hint of indignation, explain that you edited out terms you find offensive.


Original memo:

I got a call from Mary late last night. She seems satisfied with the schedule we sent her. Since she is our busiest consultant, my guess at this point is that our project is totally finished.


Edited version:

I got a call from Mary late last night. She seems satisfied with the s___ we sent her. Since she is our b____iest consultant, my guess at this point is that our project is totally f___ed.


Product Review: Paul Kyriazi's James Bond Lifestyle Seminar

Parents of boys could do worse than point them towards James Bond as a role model. Those who think of Bond as a self-indulgent alcoholic womanizer will react with shock. Others merely smirk.

This dismissive attitude is based on the compound error of focusing on minor aspects of the Bond character and then misunderstanding those aspects anyway.

To shift gears for a moment, let me point out that we are facing (and any tone of alarm here is entirely intentional) a looming crisis in masculinity, due to factors both physiological and sociological. Consider some of the trends: (1) American men have been showing a significant decline in both testosterone and sperm count for some decades; (2) while more and more women are going to college (and good for them), the number of male college students is on the decline; (3) according to psychologist Terri Apter, the percentage of young adults living with their parents went from 11% to 20% between 1970 and 2005. I suspect that after decades spent fretting over the (admittedly genuine) problems arising out of male aggressiveness, we are going to find that male passivity doesn't yield the hoped-for utopian outcome either.

Let's take a minute to think of some of the many things James Bond would never do. You would never find him living on his mother's couch and spending his days playing video games. He never spends an entire Saturday watching football on TV. He doesn't go to the supermarket in sweat pants. He doesn't let his weight get out of control. If he has a problem, he doesn't bemoan his fate but takes corrective action. He doesn't wait for opportunity to come to him. He drinks, but in moderation. He demands the best from those around him and from himself. Time and again he saves the world, but savors life while doing so.

So choosing James Bond as a role model isn't crazy. Since Paul Kyriazi first coined the "James Bond Lifestyle" idea it has burgeoned into a bit of a movement.

Now to the product: Kyriazi has produced successively expanded versions of the seminar. The version I used comes on 8 CD's, which consist mostly of narration by Kyriazi himself, with an introduction by two-time Felix Leiter actor David Hedison, and punctuated occasionally with music and interpolations by Hedison and other voice actors (Kyriazi has considerable experience producing audiobooks).

The topics covered range from large to small--but one must understand that the large is the small. To take one example, consider the discourse on the seemingly trivial matter of valet parking, which was an eye-opener for me personally (and includes a most entertaining little audio-play). First of all, there is no question that James Bond always uses valet parking--we see it several times in the movies. Kyriazi points out valet parking's many practical advantages, especially when considered against the cost (usually only a few dollars tip). But there's a philosophical point to be made as well. When you force the woman you're with to walk through the rain or cold in order to save a few bucks on tipping the valet, what message are you sending about the value you place on her? What message are you sending to yourself, for that matter?

Some of the other topics covered in the seminar: Health and fitness, some philosophy about the relationship between one's inner state and the outer world (this reminded me much of Buddhism, but Paul Kyriazi told me there was no overt connection), maintaining your home and car, the importance of planning and taking action (a core principle), how to play craps--both the game and the social customs around the game, much more about tipping, how to check into a hotel properly (yeah, you think you already know, but Kyriazi takes it to the next level, including tips such as how to get a room in a booked-up hotel), what clothes to wear, how to walk, what you should be wearing.

One more topic deserves special mention and that's the Bond girl. For Kyriazi your Bond girl is your wife, your girlfriend, your date, or whatever woman is making up a couple together with yourself at the moment. The phrase "Bond girl" is among the most widely misunderstood. A recurring amusement for anyone who follows the Bond movies is hearing the actress signed for the upcoming Bond film discuss her character: "Oh, she's not the typical Bond girl, she's strong, she's smart, she's self-sufficient, etc., etc."--missing the point that the Bond films have a tradition of strong, smart, self-sufficient women going back to Honeychile Ryder with a knife on her hip.

And though Bond has been labeled a misogynist (and admittedly the early films have a few cringe-worthy moments--I'm thinking of a young lady who gets patted on the buttocks early on in Goldfinger) he actually follows a code of conduct considerably more chivalrous than some guys I know. His vocabulary does not include terms such as "bitch" or "slut", nor by word or deed does he suggest that any woman is unattractive, unintelligent, or not worth spending time with. (Okay, he does occasionally twist arms or even shoot people, but only for the purpose of saving the free world and stuff like that.)

More to the point, I can't imagine any woman being unhappy if the guy she's with follows the guidelines laid out in Kyriazi's seminar, which are based not only on treating any lady with respect, but going the extra mile to be a worthy companion.

In summary, though I originally bought the seminar with an attitude of curiosity, it turned out to be one of the most useful, practical and inspirational pieces of self-help I have come across. You can find it on Kyriazi's James Bond lifestyle at