Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hero or Professional

*For those of you who haven't seen Casino Royale, be warned that I give away the ending ahead.*

So, imagine you're Bond. At the end of the movie, Vesper Lynd is trapped in the elevator, which is sinking into the Venetian waters. Do you save her? Keep in mind this is before M spoils it all by tacking on the fact that she's being coerced into doing this.

I posed this question to my girlfriend, who said, "Of course." You know, standard hero-thing where you save the woman you love (and were recently about to shoot).

I said that I wouldn't. She had betrayed me (as Bond), stolen the money, and was about to transfer it to criminals. As a professional, you let her die. You can't trust her to be honest with you, and you have too much baggage to be objective in your assessment of her. At the most, I would save her to see who she had handed off the money to, but that could probably be achieved by mining her cell phone.

Probably cold-blooded of me, but then again, it's a movie and there's a reason I don't want to be a spy.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pardon me...

A quick post before the weekend. Right now, there's a national fawning for Gerald Ford, with lots of talk about how his pardon of Nixon was the right decision to solidify the country. As one of my friends put it:

"An in depth and public investigation about all the bad things that Nixon did would have torn the political fabric of this country up to an alarming degree. Ford made the right choice."

Of course, healing the national fabric wasn't exactly why Ford made that choice. And I believe the Soviet ambassador at the time said (privately) that only the U.S. had a strong enough system to take such a hit to the government's credibility and survive.

I personally think the U.S. could have done with even more soul-searching, and it would have done much more for anti-corruption efforts and bipartisanship at this current stage. In essence, Ford was wrong. What is more damaging to the political fabric of the country is seeing a crook get away it, of having someone be above the law because their political connections.

Ford reinforced this message by signaling that, even if you commit a crime, you can still get away with it if you have the right friends. Genuine national healing would have been prosecuting Nixon. Healing would have been publicly airing grievances, and seeing punishment and just done. What Ford did is not national healing: it was a breakdown of the rule of law.

What the U.S. public needed to do, and what it still needs to do, is to take responsibility for keeping their leaders accountable. The passive "all politicians are like that" attitude is precisely what corrupt politicians rely upon to make their illicit funds or perform their unethical actions. When Nixon resigned, there was public protest and outcry over his actions. The public will was there. The will of the President was weak. This is a great contrast to the sycophancy on display now in Washington (but maybe not elsewhere).

But, I do get an extra day off because of the national day of mourning, so this isn't a complete wash.

Fury and Fearless

I watched "Jet Li's Fearless" yesterday. I think it's only right to include the complete title, if only to firmly put Jet Li's stamp on this product, which, incidentally, came packaged with trailers for Balls of Fury and Hot Fuzz. I - strangely - cannot wait for the second.

But the fury in the title of this post is at the blatant pinko Commie propoganda on display in the movie. And this has been happening in popular Chinese movies for the past few years. Recall "Hero," which was a paean to the glory that is the state and its eternal wisdom. And this from a director that should know better.

What I really mean is that I hate the Chinese (government). So many potentially good movies, corrupted into the service of their propoganda.

Take two scenes from Fearless. First, the one where Jet Li really screwed up planting rice, and Yueci (a.k.a. Blind Girl with Weird Cowlick) helps him to replant them in straight rows. She says something like, "Rice can't be placed too close together. They're like people, which is why we need to respect others." Second, the inane tea thing between Jet Li and the Japanese guy, where Li refuses to judge the quality of tea, saying that as long as tea is tea, he'll drink (accept) it.

First, anyone who can't distinguish good tea from bad tea is missing out on a lot. Similarly with wine or (so I'm told) coffee. It's like saying McDonald's is the same as an Angus steak. It's just a god-awful lack of taste (and, I would argue, intelligence). As an English friend of mine said, "Why have cotton when you can have silk?"

Second, this whole message is very much in line with the CCP's political perspective. Don't judge us, and we won't judge you. Don't talk about our human rights, stay out of our "internal affairs," don't mind our oppression of our own people, the abyssmal labor conditions. And don't mind the fact that Chinese companies regularly "export" these practices to other countries (e.g. Zambia), or that the lack of internal democratic procedure makes all your neighbors wonder whether your external policies will be fueled by a similar lack of restraint and appreciation for democratic values. And of course, don't mind the fact that we've signed the international conventions on human rights, but interpret them in such a way so as to have no impact or meaning.

All this because you shouldn't judge the quality of tea.

I would argue something quite different, and let it be a lesson to anyone who thinks China is less threatening than the U.S. (I'm looking at you, Europe). Some things you justifiably cannot judge, because there are no meaningful criteria - whether objective or subjectively agreed upon. The "power" of a certain type of martial art, for example. But human rights, how governments treat their own people - those are issues which you can take a meaningful stand on.

Judge, and be judged, and that should extend for all countries in all the relevant behaviors. None of this respect for respect's sake. There has to be a value in the practice being respected, not a cover abhorrent practices. Man, I hope we start seeing less of these wusha films, or at least that people start thinking about the messages and ridicule them.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

man in a bed, bug in a bed

Festivities in my family were at the Pennyslvania branch this year. We just lost gift-giving (my family gatherings get big, and the financial strain combine with our generally creeping age knocked out a half-hearted practice as it was), and post Christmas eve pot-luck buffet (especially good this year, I think. Popo's scallion pancakes being fresher than usual.), my cousins and I, the nearly all post-college kids table, were left to our devices for entertainment.* The tradition is now a game of Pictionary, which I've come to enjoy in creeping fashion, despite losing every time. Wasn't much of a fan when it started, actually, but who wants to rain on the parade? Anyway, we didn't have the board game itself this time, but scrounged up a die, a timer from Balderdash or something, and pez dispensers (Batman, C3PO, and Kermit) for pieces while someone studiously made a paper board. Then we all made "cards", 3 objects, 3 person or place, 3 difficult, and 3 all play.** Good times.

It's not in any particular order, though the first one did come first. We allowed "with", which is a freaking preposition, and we did discard a few which either seemed to hard or the picker didn't recognize. George Clooney and durian respectively, though the former doesn't seem that bad. Here's what we ran with:

Auctioning Parents' Antique Collection
margaret cho
3rd reich
endangered species
white lies
mr. miagi
jane goodall
Christmas tree

*We tried to start a poker game for Popo money, but I admit to being one of the ones unwilling to commit to that.
**I'm not sure we actually know the rules, not that that matters much. But you pair up (evens anyway), and whoever rolls highest goes first. The team that has a turn then pulls a card from the deck (hat). One person draws, which alternates (or is whoever didn't write the item in question) while the other person guesses, hopefully correctly, before time runs out. Occasionally you'll get an "All Play" card or a regular one with an all play symbol, which means every team goes without a timer, and whoever guesses first wins and rolls the die and moves. Everyone waits their turn, but the last space has to be reached exactly, and you have to win an All Play.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Obviously, the plan was flawed.

Hmm...starting a blog thing in the middle of holidays seems to not have panned out. I did have a series of preplanned posts to keep content up, but the lack of timeliness took the fervor out, and any other posts would be about how the other night, I tripped on the flat broad surface that is the street, and walked down the street shamefacedly, and then a car drove by and the people inside laughed at me. True story that.

Didn't anyone get presents to present blog or something? I got a lovely toiletry bag, which is something I needed. The family actually decided no presents, starting this year, so what we got was technically illegal. That and a red pouch from grandma.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Job Blogging

From serious back to...well, at least not so serious. I have a question for all of you. We're hiring a project assistant on my team right now, and we came across a resume of an individual who is a mirror image of our current project assistant. Same undergrad, although two years apart. Same graduate school, same year, same program (and they surprisingly haven't met before). Solid credentials working in the Middle East.

Because of all those similarities, our current project assistant was able to locate this applicant's facebook page and her blog. It made for interesting and sometimes funny reading, but I couldn't help feeling a little...unscrupulous in reading her blog. As if I were prejudging her interview. That said, it was painfully clear from what she wrote that she would be bored stiff as a project assistant, and would likely jump ship after 4-6 weeks on the job. This definitely came out in the interview, but that just reinforced those particular impressions from the blog.

So, several questions:
  1. How much could I have legitimately considered the information from her blog to make a hiring decision?
  2. Also, are there any rules of thumb for what's safe to put on a blog when you're looking for work and how deep you should bury it? What I mean is, if it weren't for the fact that she shared a lot of similarities with our current project assistant, should she have felt safe in posting that kind of information on her blog? By the way, she did "mask" her posts by fudging names, like "Brook!ngs".
  3. If she shouldn't have felt safe about doing that, is there a nice and discrete way to send her a message telling her she probably shouldn't start a blog post with "Unemployment Watch: Day 79"?

What do you all think?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Schools, witches, and jock-ocracy

So, this article a fairly long, fairly biased rant against the current U.S. education system. Now, I'm by no means of a system did the Simpson's put it?..."smart kids powerless before mindless jock-ocracy," (sic) but this author takes things a little far. Here are two points:

1. He trashes the "blank slate" theory. So, human beings are not blank slates when they are born. Great, I don't really know of anyone who disputes that. However, the author goes off into flights of genetic fancy, and where the shrillness is at its worst, you get:

"These undesirable outcomes—these mysterious test-score gaps, these dropping-outs and delinquencies—arise only because we are chanting the wrong spells!"

Leaving aside his comparison of modern teaching methods and witchcraft, I bring this up because, while I don't think that humans are blank slates, we do have a remarkable individuality, not to mention an (almost pathological) ability to change and learn. I agree that no one's a blank slate. But no one starts with everything programmed either. And I'd much rather start from an educational principle that assumes that people can learn, rather than one that would give up on certain people for the sake of preconceived biological or cultural notions. And the problems that emerge from this point of view come out in the article itself.

"One wonders if there has ever been an education theorist who has actually raised children, or retained any memory of his own childhood."

That may be fair, but I've got to wonder if Mr. Derbyshire retains any memory of being a teenager. I think we can safely say that questioning, change, learning - all of which happens in a social setting - are hallmarks of that period of our lives, not slavish following of supposedly biological imperatives.

2. This leads me to my second point. Because there are educational systems where they assume that some people just "can't learn." And those students are either punished or sent off to vocational schools, which invariably suck. And all of this within a "school voucher" supporters' wet dream. I am of course speaking about East Asian school systems.

Oh, the memories of corporal punishment and stress positions gleefully copied by the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, the gulags, and some undisclosed location in Burma. Okay, so I never went to an East Asian elementary school and I exaggerate, but I do look at my cousins, some of whom had to leave Taiwan because they would be stuck in a dead-end school with the expectation of a dead-end job. All because he doesn't take tests well. Or my mom, who is very intelligent, but also doesn't take tests well, and was forced to do law (which she hates). Or my dad, who takes tests very well, and was forced to do chemistry (which he passive-aggressively hates). Or the brother of an ex-girlfriend, who has been taking and retaking the Japanese college entrance exam for 4 years, studying nonstop in between, and still can't get into a good school that will allow him to pursue, in some small way, the career that he wants.

So, when I hear people say that we should adopt a more East Asian model of education, I shudder. When I hear people talk about school vouchers and merit-based admissions, I shudder. Because it's fine when you're on top, but if you're in the middle or the bottom, the resources to provide you with a solid education just aren't there. As I said, there is no profit in poverty, and forcing a "merit"-based system on something as complex as intelligence or learning is inevitably going to leave behind many individuals who could succeed if they are given a chance. Hence, my cousin(s) coming to the U.S.

And of course, as James Fallows just reported, no one, not even the Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans, like their school systems either. They think it deadens creativity, which is a threat to innovation and the service economy.

MacGuyver...for Christmas!

Admit it, you all wanted a Swiss Army knife as soon as you saw MacGuyver. Oh, the dreams of stopping a smuggling ring, shutting down a drug baron, or (in my personal favorite episode) going back in time (or another dimension), helping Merlin (yes, that Merlin), and showing him the wonders of matches and scissors - all accomplished through the miracle of a rubber band, a paper clip, and..the Swiss Army knife.

Well, the Swiss Army company (?) has created a knife that would put MacGuyver to shame. Or, looking at it another way, allow him to SAVE THE WORLD.,,1965050,00.html

You're all on notice: this is what I want from Santa.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Astronauts vs. Cavemen

It appears that majority sentiment holds that the animalistic savagery and the dark heart of our souls would allow cavemen to somehow beat astronauts in a standup fight. This is despite the superior fitness required to go to space, a diet with better nutrition, and the basic training being Air Force officers would provide over, well, people who live in caves. Bah, romantic sentiment and thematic convenience isn't enough.

Astronauts win.