Trippin’

I made my usual trip back to Texas over the winter holiday.  The first thing I saw after landing in George Bush International Airport was a Fox News Store, and I just about got back on the plane and asked to be taken home.

As the season keeps reminding us, what’s important is the people important to us, so instead of talking about what we did (which was attend a lot of holiday dinners), here’s an update on my family.

After some initial resistance, my mom has settled into retirement.  She’s spends her time making sure family is taken care of and then enjoying herself.  For my dad (B) it’s just one crisis after another.  Every time I’ve seen him for the past decade, he’s never failed to impress upon everyone how little sleep he’s getting or what he’s had to do because something has gone wrong or someone is trying to scam him.  There is always a crisis, or otherwise he and his outdated knowledge and skills would no longer be relevant.  What would be nice if people actually wanted his help, instead of having to tell each other, “he means well” or “just humor him.”

When he and my brother (S) talk, B will lecture for several minutes until S interjects with a comment or anecdote.  You know, like how some people have a conversation.  But B isn’t really interested in a conversation or dialogue.  Instead, he’ll nod and say, “All right, let me talk.”  Other people’s input — whether additional information he might be aware of, different perspectives, or opinions / suggestions about the problem at hand — only interferes with the goal, which is to proclaim what he has decided and why it’s right.  People may read that and think it’s exaggeration, but unfortunately it’s not.

S sometimes goes into mentor mode.  I think it may be because his daughters aren’t interested in the same things he is, so he has limited opportunities to talk about things like Raleigh scattering or a mathematical proof he once did.  That must feel isolating, when there is no one in your family you can speak to naturally.  He works some pretty crappy hours too, but it means his family doesn’t have money worries.

His wife (I) also works hard.  She spends most of the day taking care of two girls and the house.  When the girls are finally asleep, only then does she have time to practice (she’s a pianist).  I heard her stay up til 2 or 3 am practicing, only to wake up early to take care of the girls.  Insert comment about women making concessions with their career in order to raise a family or in deference to their husband’s job.

But when we drove to the airport to send me off, I surprised the girls by saying they were going on an impromptu trip to Disneyland.  I planned the whole trip since S works crazy hours, even during the holiday.  She’s all right in my book.  S says he’s usually so tired after work that, if it were up to him, they wouldn’t do much, just eat dinner then watch TV, so it’s good that I is spontaneous and keeps the family active.

My eldest niece (E, 11 years) spent most of the break reading.  I’m assuming it’s because she likes reading and not just for the reading points she logged (or whatever they’re called these days).  This year, she says she wants to be a professional violinist, but it’s clear she isn’t currently practicing hard enough to make that happen (it doesn’t take conservatory-trained I to see that).  I did get to talk some math with E, but it appears the cursory understanding that passes for math education in most schools is good enough for her right now.  S notes that she is very much about following directions (E follows recipes or doesn’t cook at all.  Lego means instructions you follow to get the designed product; it’s not a kit for imagination.), which unfortunately means she doesn’t really think for herself or follow her curiosity.  But she’s still young, so maybe she will grow out of it.  Or maybe the family’s affluence shelters her.

If my elder niece is about following rules, the younger one (M, 7 years) is about pushing the limits.  She’s the baby, and plays to “the cute one” role by talking in baby voice and acting for the audience.  M gets away with a lot, pretty much as soon as people’s backs are turned, and has started treating most directions as mere suggestions (use your indoor voice, shut the door when using the bathroom, don’t play with mom’s phone, etc.) and generally ignores them until an adult raises their voice.  The one person she does listen to is her older sister because she looks up to E and wants to be like her.

The story is that M’s piano teacher is quite famous and sought after, the sort whose students train for competition.  Meanwhile, when the teacher tries to show M how to play, M pushes her away and goes on playing how she wants.  The teacher says she generally drops students like M, but she keeps teaching her because it’s clear that M genuinely has fun playing the piano.  And I just realized this sounds like Nodame Cantabile.  Perhaps M’s willful impetuosity will be her strength one day.

Being around my nieces meant being subjected to a lot of bad children’s programming.  There was an old Strawberry Shortcake where sounded like the director told the voice actors to talk down to particular dumb four year olds.  And then there was the incredibly trite Disney special called Santa Paws that shouted, “We couldn’t think of anything original, so here are some talking animals and a slice of Annie.”  Makes me appreciate shows that don’t treat kids as mindless sheep who need to be distracted.

They say it’s not really a trip unless it changes you.  (And if they don’t say it, then I say, so there.)  The holidays have generally been a time for introspection for me, a time to reflect on not the year ahead or the year behind, but on my life and how it’s going.  And I would really like someone to share my life with, someone to come home to and make plans with.

And it’s not because several people asked me if I had a girlfriend (M asks “when,” not “if,” I’m getting married).  Or that my cousins all have spouses and babies.  Or that most of my coworkers are either married or in stable relationships.  But, as much as I like being in charge of my own life, it feels like there’s something missing, something that can’t be filled with games or even a bunny (though he is adorable).  So maybe it’s time to stop using, “I’m busy.  I just bought property,” as an excuse and get out there.

I dreamed last night…

… I got on a boat to heaven.  No, not really.  I don’t remember my dreams that often, so here’s the one I remember from last night.

So first off, my family (at least my mother) and I were going on a trip.  A cruise.  And it was the night we left to drive to the dock.  But wait, who was going to feed the bunnies?  I hadn’t arranged for someone to take care of them.  There was also something else that needed to be taken care of before we left.

I was frantic for any way out.  Could I find someone at this hour and then arrive at the dock late?  Maybe there was some shuttle service for people who missed the boat (yeah right).  Maybe I just shouldn’t go.

I was also trying to pin the blame on others for not giving me warning, and I wrote on the whiteboard a note to myself.  But looking at the dream in cool light of three hours past dawn, if I didn’t remember to find a bunnysitter, that’s my own dashed fault.

I think the bunny sitter crisis is a stand-in for the current panicky state the teaching assistant scheduling is in.  I have no idea what the cruise represents.

Milgram experiments

This weekend’s Radiolab was on Evil.  In particular, why people do things that they know to harmful or deadly to others.

The first third of the show or so was on the infamous Milgram experiments, and every HP:MoR reader knows the role it plays in the fic.  Every psych undergrad knows the experiment for its result on obedience: that normal humans will inflict potentially lethal shocks to another human because someone tells them to.  This is probably because the context for the Milgram experiments is the war crimes and crimes against humanity of the Nuremberg trials.  “Just following orders” is now known as the Nuremberg defense.

However, the guest make two important comments.  First, Milgram’s follow-up experiments altering the scenario show that level of compliance varies depending on the circumstances.  In particular, compliance is lowest when the subject witnesses disagreement about whether the experiment should continue.

Second, Milgram scripted four prods to see what was needed to get compliance:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

The guest noted that the fourth prod, the direct order, never made any subject continue.  If the subject resisted continuing the experiment, the most forceful wording did not change his mind.  From this, he concludes that the real lesson in the experiment is not that humans obey orders.  Rather, there’s something else that caused normal people inflict potentially lethal shocks: namely that they were helping to further science.  That people will do bad things if they think there is a for a good cause.

I readily accept that humans use “the higher cause” as a justification for their actions.  Look at pretty much every war and atrocity perpetrated in the name of religion.  However, I think prod #3 is pretty forceful: “absolutely essential” is very strong wording.  The “must” in #4 is not as strong.  The difference in #4 is the “you have no choice.”  It may be that using the word “choice” reminds the subject that this actually is a choice.

Back to the first point, I think this underlines the importance of people being able to express their disagreement with the government and authorities, especially to other citizens.  Edward Snowden is still in the news.  The NSA might read what I write more closely because I included those two words.  Snowden is a guy who said no, the experiment should not continue.  (Note: in debriefing questionnaires, many Milgram experiments didn’t say all experiments should be stopped, but that they personally would not continue being a part of them.)  However, he could have picked secrets that didn’t put people’s lives in danger.  That seems to be what the US government thinks is Snowden’s and Bradley Manning’s worst crime: “aiding the enemy.”  Was there evidence that embarrasses the US out of some of its more heinous acts (done for the greater good, I’m sure) without putting operatives at risk?

Relax, we understand j00

Megatokyo hit 1337 comics this week, so for old time’s sake, I did an archive binge.  This is equivalent to burning through 6 volumes of a manga.  More or less literally, as I still have the first 5 volumes.  I must have bought some volumes after I came to Berkeley, as book 5, covering through chapter 8, came out in 2006.

However, at some point I stopped following the comic.  Fred’s infamous update schedule (many webcomics in the early 2000s have poked fun at his schedule slippage and/or Fred’s high standard for his own art; see this early xkcd) has slowed even more as he has a kid and now a sick wife.  Because of Fred’s tendency of 1) each page no longer being self-contained; 2) spending many panels on the emotional state/reactions of his characters; and 3) flipping between A and B plots on successive pages or even successive panels, it’s hard to hold the narrative thread when new pages come so irregularly.  That, and I had trouble telling some of the character designs apart.  I am not the only one, as tvtropes lists Only Six Faces on the MT page.

Now that I have a better eye for such things, I can generally tell the characters apart.  At least Kimiko vs. Erika and Yuki vs. Junko.  I’m also somehow better at understanding the characters.  I would like to start following the comic again: I want to learn what happens to these characters, and the art is good.  However, the update schedule and narrative structure is such that I think I’d rather read a whole chapter in one go.  The problem with that: the last chapter took 2 years to finish.

The title of this post is taken from the comic’s tag line, and I can see why it had such a following in the early days of web comics. The comic has a certain appeal to a demographic well-represented on the internet. Piro has trouble with 3d girls and so insulates himself in the fantasies of dating simulations. And Largo regularly runs into ninjas, zombies, zilla-sized monsters, mecha police, bfg-toting Sega agents, and magical girls. And they both find themselves in relationships with cute seiyuu, though the comic looks past this obvious otaku fantasy scenario to ask if emotions are real even if the escapist fantasies are not. Nowadays, web comics about otakus and girl troubles are a dime-a-dozen, but MT holds up well.

The Verona Project

I went to see The Verona Project at CalShakes last night.  I overheard that this is only the 2nd time in their history that they’ve put on an original play.  For a given value of put on, as I don’t think any of the usual cast were in the show, though technical crew probably were.  Instead, the cast was a hand assembled group of musicians and artists.  The show did have, however, CalShakes’ usual quirky sense of humor.

From what I gather from the program, the idea was to do a rock concept album based off Two Gentlemen of Verona, the parallel being that love and life are never quite as simple as rock or theater portrays it.  Yet somehow through this simplified half-truth, we know the real truth better.

Before I get too philosophical, some more on the show: it was entertaining.  There was some good indie music and acting and imagery (of the sort that makes me wish I understood the symbolism better, but I don’t, which then makes me suspect that people are just making crap up).  They took the original plot and made it theirs, injecting a sense of humor into the production.   For example, the actors used tin cans tied with twine to talk to each other, but also to show the connection between people.  The scene where Proteus leaves Julia, he physically breaks the cord and walks off the stage.  He was being a douche (well, that’s how he spends almost the entire show), but it was done in an amusing way.  Oddly, the whole tin can symbolism disappeared before Act II.  For some songs, I do wish they had enunciated better.  The weirdest thing in the show was that characters would narrate what they are doing: “Julia looks down into the sink,” etc.  When the entire cast is doing this, it could be avant-garde, or it could be an utter failure of Show, Don’t Tell.

Anyway, I like going to the theater because it makes me think about stuff that I ordinarily don’t think about when I run in my usual circles.  For example, Proteus asks how do you know you’re in love?  Sure, you meet a girl and everything seems perfect, but if you haven’t seen the world, do you really know this is it, or is this just what you think love to be based off what little you’ve experienced?  Then you do leave your little town, and you see your best friend blindingly happily in love.  Is love supposed to be something out of a poem?  Is comparing your love and his love like comparing apples and oranges?

And the thing is this: I (James, not Proteus), have spent almost my entire adult life bouncing between okay being single; not okay being single; struggling with ultimately doomed relationships; jealous of others’ happiness; or relearning how live without a person I depended on.  There may have been some months when I was happily floating along, but not a lyrical poem, rock & roll kind of love.  Part of me has watched too many musicals and movies and expects love to be announced by a lightning strike or a fanfare of angels.  Part of me remembers what happened when I became too attached to one person and now keeps everyone at a distance.  And because of that distance, I don’t think I’ll let myself feel poetry; if I do, I will second guess and dampen my feelings.  And given that, that second part of me says don’t wait for lightning, grab the first girl who’ll do, and try to make it work.  But the first part of me wonders, while I’m settling for what’s there, maybe I’ll miss the person I’m supposed to be with.  It’s not like I have years to spend on doomed relationships.

Then the rational part of me says I don’t exactly have them queuing up.  I should date who I can and see if it works out.  And if it doesn’t, then it’s practice for when I do find someone.  That would be rational, but since when do love and rationality go together?

A night at the theater

Caught the last week of Titus Andronicus at CalShakes today.  I picnicked on polenta (with red and yellow bell peppers) and roast chicken, a slice of potato casserole, a couple macaroons, and a banana, all homemade except the chicken and, of course, the banana.

CalShakes still has a keen sense of humor, even in a play as bloody as Titus.  During the final scene, Titus came out in apron and toque.  The lewd characters made relevant gestures during any innuendo.

It’s cold at night, on the other side of the hills, even in June, so I did Charlestons and Shirley Temples in the Bart station.  I wonder if it’s better to only ride the Bart one station to Rockville and bike home rather than four to Downtown Berkeley.

I got stopped by campus security for not having lights on; apparently there has been a spate of late night collisions.  Got home and melted chocolate to dip the macaroons in.

Project Implicit

So I heard about Project Implicit run by some Harvard people from an episode of Scientic American Frontiers (5 years old, actually).  I believe they study unconscious connections in our minds by measuring how the time delay to make various associations.

The setup usually goes like this: they first train you in the terms (associate these terms with Good, these with Bad, with Forward, with Backward, etc.).  Then they’ll put, say, Good and Forward on the left side of the screen and Bad and Backward on the right side.  A word will pop up, and you’re supposed to assign them as fast as possible.  Then, for comparison, they’ll do a second set but pair Good-Backward and Bad-Forward.

So far, it has told me:

  • Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for Forward compared to Backward.  (I took a similar test later that night and instead got “moderate automatic preference.”)
  • Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for Change compared to Preserve.  (A couple days later, I got “no automatic preference.”)
  • Your data suggest a strong automatic association of Religion with False and Science with True.
  • Your data suggest little to no automatic preference between Straight People and Gay People.
  • Your data suggest a slight automatic association for 2050 with Safety and 1950 with Danger compared to 1950 with Safety and 2050 with Danger.
  • Your data suggest a moderate automatic positive association with Society.
  • You data suggest a strong automatic preference for Phosphate detergents compared to Non-Phosphate detergents.  (This was after reading a blurb from a trusted information source, like a government consumer protection agency, instead of from a detergent company.)
  • Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for white compared to black.

I think these results have noise, as they seem to affected by fatigue (I did most of these around 1am) and the order of experiments (i.e. if you’ve learned that Good is left, Bad is right, you’ll press them a little faster in the second set of experiments).  However, assuming they know what they’re doing (they have training and calibration runs), the above seem to be consistent with an educated, moderately liberal, agnostic.

Except that last one.  So apparently I’m racist, at least subconsciously, which is what these experiments were designed to study.  Luckily, our brains have a governor which can override such thoughts from becoming reality.