July 28, 2011

The God complex

Tim Hartford succinctly sums up the scientific process (not the cargo cult it has become of late), and what intellectual exploration is actually all about. Perhaps his most important point is that we live in a world where even the most basic social and economic interactions are too complex for any "great man" (or bunch of self-styled great men) to comprehend. So a little awe and humility is in order.

Related posts

"Pathological" and real science
Scotch tape X-rays

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July 25, 2011

Death to high school English

A new genre of academic essay has emerged of late, in which college professors grumble that their students "don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay." Complains Kim Brooks:

For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.

The genre strikes me as a way of criticizing the teacher's unions without coming right out and saying so, because then people might assume you're in league with Scott Walker or Chris Christie or other fiends from the bowels of hell.

Though in this case, I wouldn't blame the unions. The problem begins in the universities and their "schools of education," where professors, believing that their students are blank slates, convince their students in turn that teenagers are blank slates, empty vessels into which they can pour "culture."

Even if they could, it ends up being all the same culture. All the same liberal arts education monoculture. The most important question Brooks asks is: "[Is] it really so essential that [high school] students read Faulkner?"

As for the students who did make it to more accelerated English courses, their recollections are a little less disheartening, but only a little. They read Shakespeare, they tell me, usually Romeo and Juliet, sometimes Macbeth. They read Catcher in the Rye or Huck Finn, The Sound and the Fury, a little Melville or Hardy. They read these works and then they talked about them in class discussions or small groups, and then they composed an essay on the subject, received a grade, and moved on to the next masterpiece.

The whole problem is encapsulated right there. I got good at composing those essays, and yet can't remember a book "taught" in high school English that I cared about. Most I loathed. The one thing that high school English classes do very well is make students hate reading, especially writing about reading.

Could there be a more useless real-world skill for everybody that isn't a humanities student (practically the entire population)? Or even those who are? In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton offers for our consideration the prototypical hard-striving daughter of middle-class parents who

goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother--who was never very good at school--makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)

As Car Talk's Tom Magliozzi (he graduated from MIT) says about high school math courses: "The purpose of learning math, which most of us will never use, is only to prepare us for further math courses, which we will use even less frequently than never."

The goal of math should be to add, subtract, multiply and divide. And balance a checkbook. Geometry would consist of identifying a radius, diameter, right angle and hypotenuse. Work in somewhere a simple primer on statistics.

"English" would consist of reading books the students would read if they weren't stuck in a high school English class. Want to learn about Shakespeare? Watch a movie. The goal of composition would be a one page, three paragraph essay.

That's it. Make everything else an elective.

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July 21, 2011

Literary fiction defined

1. Literary fiction is whatever English professors can teach without being ironic or apologetic. Novels will move in and out of academic fashion according to the prevailing intellectual trends.

2. Genre fiction that has become sufficiently obscure, inaccessible and fossilized in the public mind turns into literary fiction. (Shakespeare, Dickens and Chandler being three examples.)

3. People who read and write literary fiction attend "conferences" and read and publish in "journals." People who read and write genre fiction attend "conventions" and read and publish in "magazines."

4. People who write literary fiction earn tenure. People who write genre fiction earn royalties. (Though in purely monetary terms, the former is often more valuable than the latter.)

5. Literary fiction is whatever can be taught in high school without anybody getting in trouble with the parents, the school board, or local politicians. (Although 5 is a subset of 1, not all of 1 qualifies as 5.)

6. Literary fiction is that which everybody is expected to respect, but nobody actually reads. Genre fiction is that which nobody is expected to respect, but everybody actually reads.

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July 18, 2011

Netflix flak

I got on the Netflix bandwagon almost six years go, abandoning GreenCine mostly because the latter's sole distribution center made the turn-around times interminably long. Netflix had that fabled "long tail" (meaning: lots of anime titles), low prices, and a two-day turn-around.

Now it only has the last (thanks to a distribution center in Salt Lake City), and one out of three ain't good. Netflix seems to have adopted the technological Peter Principle: the penchant to keep "improving" a product until it's useless.

As both Lance Ulanoff and Bill Wyman have pointed out, Netflix is at the mercy of an industry still running on empty when it comes to "protecting" intellectual IP. As Wyman puts it, living out the sad remake of a old script "very similar to the one the music industry just acted out."

But now Netflix has taken that weak hand, shown its cards, and bet the house.

I started losing confidence when most of the new anime titles were only available streaming. There's a lot not to like about DVDs, starting with the Neanderthals who apparently use them as coasters. So I might have sprung for a converter box--except that every single title is dubbed.

It's like going back twenty-five years to the VHS selection at Blockbuster: a smattering of random titles, incomplete series, and only available as lousy dubs. Not to mention their still-lousy search engine and DVDs that disappear from the listings for months on end. This is an improvement?

For the time being, I've switched to the cheapest, two-a-month plan. Between TV Japan and my own DVD library, Netflix isn't worth a premium price. If I suddenly had tons of un-wasted time on my hands, there are several specialty anime DVD rental outfits that would get my business instead.

I don't understand people who pay for premium cable channels either, but Netflix may succeed for the same reason: make the incremental costs low enough that subscribers blithely fork over the money without doing any kind of cost-benefit analysis.

Related posts

Hey, watch this!
Blockbuster goes bankrupt

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July 11, 2011

The end of books

This witty exercise in prognostication in Scribner's Magazine begins with a report of Sir William Thomson's calculation of the age of the sun. Unfortunately for Sir Thomson (Lord Kelvin), the publication of the special theory of relativity was a decade away. The math was fine, the results were useless.

Thomson's erroneous number--reported with great confidence--is a telling metaphor for the human inability to forecast how fast scientific advances--and errors--can upset the technological applecart. And yet conceptually, Octave Uzanne manages to predict the Walkman, the audio book, and television.

Keep in mind that he did so in 1894.

Parts of this article would be considered prescient if written in 1994. What Uzanne can't do is see past the limitations of the technologies available to him. He has a especially hard time not seeing technology as a zero-sum game, and dourly predicts that "phonography will probably be the destruction of printing."

However firmly he wedges tongue in cheek, he proves that not only does history repeat itself, but so do the same old arguments about literacy, taste, and the coming technological apocalypse. Nor can he stop himself from writing worshipfully of the past and condescendingly about the future.

We see nothing but copies of all sorts; copies of Old Masters accommodated to modern taste, adaptations ever false of epochs forever gone by, trite copies of nature as seen with a photographers eye . . . nothing that takes us out of our own humanity, nothing that transports us elsewhere.

Uzanne bemoans, "Can we indeed find many painters or sculptors who are truly original creators?" while anticipating in great detail the self-publishing revolution (then as now, it all comes down to distribution), and then fretting that it will generate just too much content for mere mortals to handle.

I calculate that, take the whole world over, from eighty to one hundred thousand books appear every year; at an average of a thousand copies, this makes more than a hundred millions of books, the majority of which contain only the wildest extravagances or the most chimerical follies, and propagate only prejudice and error. Our social condition forces us to hear many stupid things every day. A few more or less do not amount to very great suffering in the end; but what happiness not to be obliged to read them.

What Uzanne couldn't have anticipated is that in the future, the inundation would come as much from all that watching and listening, making reading a refuge.

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July 07, 2011

Blowing bubbles

Burrowing further back into my memories, I find another reason that made my "weirdest two years" so strange.

Shortly after arriving at the MTC, all the new missionaries headed to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea were shown a film (pretty sure it was 16mm, that's how old I am) featuring Spencer W. Kimball. In it he outlined the proselyting strategy in the Far East for the decades to come.

The impression I took away is certainly stronger that my recall of the precise details. The general idea was that the church would pour thousands of missionaries into those countries, baptize zillions, and then an army of Japanese and Taiwanese and Korean missionaries would invade China.

It was world conquering time. Hoorah! (Being a Mormon missionary reminds you why nineteen-year-olds make such good cannon fodder.)

Okay, not in those exact terms, but that's what the Risk board graphics implied. Including both Korea and Japan in the equation was culturally naïve, to say the least. And politically, China—which would be welcoming the church with open arms any day now (thirty years ago)—obviously didn't get the memo.

But as Oddball says in Kelly's Heroes: "Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves?" So thousands of missionaries were sent to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Missions divided and subdivided like bacteria in a petri dish.

Thinking about it now, it was exactly the same earnest spiel that every multi-level marketing business plan spells out: exponential growth is only a lot of hard work away. So when missions started delivering the big numbers, everybody was primed to believe it, proof that God was on our side.

Nobody wanted to know how. Caught up in the heady good times of any bubble, nobody does (except the cynics with the negative waves). Until the whole thing went pop and plop. And then came the inevitable Emily Litella moment: "Never mind."

Related posts

How it began
The evolution
The truth is worse
The weirdest two years
The problem with projections

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July 04, 2011

Life is a sim

Any missionary who has served in Japan quickly learns the expression, "Rusu desu." It means, "Nobody's home." Japan is a nation of 128 million introverts. The novelist Hyakken Uchida summed up the near-universal sentiment when he posted a parody of an old tanka poem on his front door:

There is no greater joy
than receiving a visitor
But I don't mean you

On this side of the Pacific, it's an extrovert's world, so they get to define the terms of the debate, expressed as anything from rolled eyes to "call the men in the white coats" exasperation to unbridled rage at all those activities introverts enjoy doing that don't involve, you know, them.

In Japan, if you shut yourself in your room and don't come out for a year, okay, you're probably an "introvert." Otherwise, you're "normal," and "normal" activities have been extended and refined to introverted degrees that shock extroverted sensibilities all the more, such as the dating sim.

The dating sim evolved out of the "interactive novel," one of those technologies that has forever remained stubbornly over the horizon--except in Japan, where it has merged with the manga/anime aesthetic and narrative style and succeeded amazingly well.

One of the most popular dating sims is Love Plus (Peter Payne touches upon it here), cited in some translated 2ch responses to this by-the-numbers rant about how Japan's whole problem is the "fantasy world of comics, video games and animated pornography."

Oh, and its OK to be obsessed with movies and books then?
• Make reality more interesting than games, please.
• Yeah, I can live on games alone.
• If everybody became obsessed with games, then we would live in a peaceful society.
• Reality does not want to deal with me, you idiot.
• The world in the monitor is reality. The world we live in is just imaginary.
• To be honest, I don't want a (real) woman.
Love Plus IS reality.
• But the 2D world is ideal.
• My [2D] girlfriend is Aika-san. She lets me meet her whenever I want and greets me with a smile if I forget a date, and she does not cost money. Thats all I need.
• I'm 30 and earn 3.5 million yen [$40K USD]--how am I supposed to get married?
• I tried to face reality and it became Love Plus.
• A country of Neets [England] being worried about Japan?
• Girls in games won't cheat on us.
• The solution is simple: make it so that anime and manga characters can get pregnant.
There are too many Japanese people anyway, so decreasing the population would be just right.

As the first point makes clear, as with slams of romance novels, these kinds of criticisms ultimately boil down to snobbery: my ways of wasting time are more refined than your ways of wasting time. Not to mention that wasting it in a group is always deemed more productive than wasting it alone.

That last one is an important demographic point that the "birth dearth" people utterly fail to comprehend: the Japanese are choosing to not gallop mindlessly into a Malthusian catastrophe. Just to make this point clear:

• Japan has a population of 128 million.
• And is the approximate size of California, with less arable land (and even less than that since the March tsunami and Fukushima meltdown).
• The current population of California (37 million) is about that of Japan two hundred years ago.

Even so, as stubborn contrarian Eamonn Fingleton insists, no ostensibly "dying nation" has ever done so well as Japan.

I'm not a game player, so I can't offer any opinions in that department. But Kanon and Clannad--based on dating sims--are in my top ten list. The KimiKiss manga are pretty good too (very Jack Weyland-ish). Game-play imposes a structure on the narratives that lend to solid plotting.

Here is a Love Plus trailer.

Related posts

Understanding Japanese women (and introverts)
Fumiko's Confession (how a dating sim is not supposed to turn out)

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