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Archive for April, 2007

Weekend Reading: 4/28

Apologies for posting a day late – real life events were particularly demanding on Saturday. First, I spent the whole day cleaning… then, my family learned that the son of a friend (fifteen years old) had just died. Of mono. This was the third death due to illness of a kid under 16 in my community this week… that I know of. There have probably been others. First I hear about another tenth grader at another school dying of meningitis, then a toddler at my parents’ church of the same, and now this friend of ours losing a son to mono of all things. It’s just so sad.

On that depressing note, here are this week’s links, and there are a lot of them.

Best of the Week – It’s a TIE! Politics/Psychology: The Ideological Animal (Psychology Today)
Similar (but not plagiarism) to an article in the New York Times a couple of months ago. Basically, political orientation isn’t a decision… it’s a lifestyle. Psychologists discovered that liberals and conservatives actually act and think differently, even from their preschool years. Dems and GOPs have completely different personality types. Consensus? The more open-minded and less fear-ridden, the more liberal. Seriously.

AND - Neurology: The Five Biggest Neuroscience Developments of the Year
Yes, neurology. I’ve recently developed a great interest in neurology, but I assure you this article isn’t purely esoteric on my part. It’s worth a read for anyone. Some of these developments are just crazy… some plain scary. Mind-reading, morality, sexual orientation, vegetative consciousness, AI… it’s all there. Go read it.

Web 2.0: Welcome to the Blogosphere (Discover Magazine)
This is just COOL. Discover Magazine has a 3-D “map” of the blogosphere, based on links, with labels and explanations… this is definitely a must-see.

Genetics: Gene Explains Why People Are Night Owls (UK Telegraph)
People who consider themselves “night owls” may in fact suffer from a genetic mutation called the “after-hours gene”. The article isn’t very clear about its role in humans, but it does say that the gene causes mice (humans too?) to run on 27-hour days instead of the normal 24 hours. Hence, with the internal clock lengthened, they become night owls. Interesting.

FUNNY: The Official Winner of the “Not My Job” Contest
A picture. This must be the laziest guy on Earth

Productivity: Six Tips for Tackling a Dreaded Task
They’re actually very, very helpful.

Financial/Business: 15 Ways Stores Trick You Into Spending (MSN Money)
Some of these you might not have suspected… some you may have already noticed. The article also offers advice on how to counter them.

Intelligence/Psychology: A Wealth of Smarts Does Not Guarantee Actual Wealth (Scientific American)
A new study shows that there is no correlation between wealth and IQ. To be clear, the article assures us that intelligence does often lead to more earning power, but not to wealth when wealth is defined as “the difference between a person’s assets and liabilities… income plus home value plus investments (plus fun, valuable stuff like stamp collections) minus mortgages, credit card debt and other debts.”

Education: Mathematics Set Chinese Test (BBC)
Wow – this article offers a comparison between math questions on a university entrance exam in China and math questions at a first-year British university. I hope us Westerners are ready to cope with this.

Interesting: Which Are The World’s Cleanest Cities? (Forbes)
My city is #10, which says something baaaaad about the rest of the world… Vancouver is actually very dirty, especially downtown and East-anything. If it’s both downtown and an East-something, you’ll probably be tripping over homeless people and used needles just walking up the street. No, really.

Gender/Psychology/Sociology: The Male Privilege Checklist
Um, this depresses me.

Web 2.0: The Latest on Virginia Tech, From Wikipedia (New York Times)
Okay, this was pretty cool. If you’re tired of hearing about Va. Tech in the news, well, this isn’t about Va. Tech. It’s about Wikipedia’s awesome coverage of the event, and how it always had the breaking information first. (Wikipedia was actually the first place I turned after I learned about the shootings that day… they had the most complete information at the time.)

Politics/Literature: Books by Presidential Candidates (New York Times)
What the books by the 2008 presidential candidates tell us about their personalities… a very good article, albeit long.

Education: Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard (New York Times)
This just came into my feed reader just this afternoon. A Harvard alumnus writes about his experiences trying to help future generations get into his alma mater, and the changing standards for admission. “Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them. I took one AP course and scored 3.”

Psychology/Genetics (?): Sex ID: Brotherly Love (Psychology Today)
I stumbled on this one by accident, but I thought it was interesting. Apparently, there’s a correlation between having many older brothers and being gay, if you’re male.

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I usually try to save my links until Saturday, but holy crap.

BOSTON – An adjunct professor was fired after leading a classroom discussion about the Virginia Tech shootings in which he pointed a marker at some students and said “pow.” (Yahoo! News)

This just came to my attention via Digg. Listed in the page comments was the video of the professor defending himself (it’s actually part 1 of 4) on YouTube. I’ve only watched a small bit, but it’s there if you’d like to see it.

Here are a couple of things that just irk me:

“During the demonstration, Winset pretended to shoot some students. Then one student pretended to shoot Winset to illustrate his point that the gunman might have been stopped had another student or faculty member been armed.”

So clearly the students weren’t disturbed, and in fact were actively participating in the discussion. This wasn’t a professor just trying to freak out his students (if it ever was). In further support of that:

“Student Junny Lee, 19, told The Boston Globe that most students didn’t appear to find Winset’s demonstration offensive.”

I can’t imagine who would.

Also:

“He said administrators had asked the faculty to engage students on the issue. But on Friday, he got a letter saying he was fired and ordering him to stay off campus.”

Isn’t that just funny? If the whole thing wasn’t so pathetically horrifying, it would be.

In personal news, I get to teach my Social Studies class tomorrow morning – at least, for a little while. Today we were given a chart of the political spectrum, and if you recall from an earlier post of mine, I know my political spectrum. This chart that they gave us, I kid you not, was literally right-wing propaganda. Listed on the left side were traits of communism, and there was clear distaste for it (“Unjust conditions exist because power and wealth are not shared fairly”? That does not sound like an unbiased point). On the right side of the chart, however, the author did their best to represent rightism as the land of the free and righteous. I thought McCarthyism had for the most part ended (this is Canada, for God’s sake), but the chart we were given as a reference still seems to think that left = commies and right = freedom.

I approached my teacher about it and she agreed that the chart had a very unfair bias, but that it had come to her from another teacher and she wasn’t responsible. So, I told her, “Just give me ten minutes at the board, and I can give a better explanation,” and she offered to reserve time for me at the start of the next class. I’m also planning to highlight the difference between socialism and communism, since my classmates often use the terms synonymously, and the question has come up several times before.

Later on the same day, I get to give a speech in favor of a (Canadian) political party of my choice as part of a class project. I love these rare occasions when school and my interests blend!

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Weekend Reading: 04/21

Yes, it is indeed a rare two-post day. Shocking!

This week, I have a couple of fun links, some business/productivity related links, and some sobering links, among others. It’s been a very well-rounded week in my del.icio.us account, a welcome break from a plethora of links about education and gifted education (which often don’t make it here because I like to present a variety). Also, starting this week, I’m adding the ‘Best Thing I’ve Read All Week’, the most highly recommended thing on the list.

Best Thing I’ve Read All WeekReligion/Atheism/Philosophy: Atheist’s Wager
An atheist’s response to Pascal’s Wager. If you’re not familiar with Pascal’s Wager, it goes like this: it is better to ‘bet’ that God exists because there is a chance you may go to heaven, whereas if you believe he doesn’t exist, there is a chance you may go to hell (the Wiki article I already linked has a better explanation). I won’t spoil the atheist response by summarizing it here, but it’s terribly clever and great read.

Offbeat: Google Declares Stephen Colbert As Greatest Living American
Okay, this one is just funny – I’m a big fan of the Colbert Report (and even more so of the Daily Show). During an interview, Colbert was asked what search term he’d like to come up first for on Google (ie, a Google bomb). His massive fanbase has complied, and now Stephen Colbert’s website ColbertNation.com is the first result for “greatest living American”!

Sick: Group Plans to Picket Va. Tech Funerals (CBS News)
Sickening. A fundamentalist religious group known for their “God Hates Fags” and “Fag Soldiers” protests plans to picket the funerals of Virginia Tech victims. “…Shirley Phelps-Roper, said the Virginia Tech teachers and students who died on Monday brought their fate upon themselves by not being true Christians. ‘The evidence is they were not Christian. God does not do that to his servants,’ Phelps-Roper said. ‘You don’t need to look any further for evidence those people are in hell.'”

Offbeat/Sociology: Why Are Americans Afraid of Being Naked?
In some areas of Europe, it’s perfectly acceptable to publicly swim, exercise, garden, etc. in the nude – why not in the U.S.? A great, thought provoking article about the prudeishness of the United States, and how nudity should =/= sex.

Productivity: 12 Tips for an Organized Desk
A practical guide to keeping your desk neat and organized for optimal efficiency. Some are more obvious, some are less.

Neurology/Health: When a Brain Forgets Where Memory Is (New York Times)
A great article about “dissociative fugue”…. ie, amnesia. Some people literally just walk out their front doors and forget who they are, only to be found months later wandering around homeless or living another life altogether! It’s not a case of forgetting the memories altogether… it’s a case of forgetting how to access them.

Humor: Six Life Lessons from Chain Email Stories
The same strange stories you can sometimes find in your inbox, but with actually quite practical morals attached. Very funny.

Business: 12 Breeds of Client and How to Work With Them
Advice geared towards freelances, but can be applied to anyone who has to work with multiple clients. Illustrations (and humor!) are included, and despite my lack of experience in the freelance business, I think I can still say that it’s all too true.

Web 2.0/Blogging: Fear of Blogging and Developing Blog Topics
A couple of articles from two different bloggers about blogging itself. The first looks at a few common fears of new bloggers (and how to overcome them), and the second is a great list of sources for blog topics. If you blog (or are thinking of blogging), they’re worth a look.

Intelligence/Psychology: Are You a Scanner?
A ‘scanner’ is a personality type that loves to dabble. How to identify scanners (in others or yourself), tips for, and the history of scanners.

That’s it for this week – as always, links are added daily to my del.icio.us page, which also has its own feed on my blog’s sidebar (to the right).

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At the moment, I’m studying both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. I bring this up because until I became immersed in the world of Asian languages, it never occurred to me how little English and other European languages actually connect with the world. The imagery and abstract thinking involved in these languages is astonishing… and in a purely linguistic way, quite beautiful. So, in this post, I’d like to share some examples from the world of the Chinese language that I think are particularly clever.

First, a quick introduction to Chinese. As probably everyone already knows, Chinese is a pictorial language. Words are made up of a combination of symbols that are called ‘characters’, with each character representing a word or idea. Each character is composed of radicals, which are smaller, simpler characters that also represent an idea. Here’s a picture to help explain:

Nihao - hello

That’s the gist of the structure of words and characters. Now, for the more fun stuff.

Some of the more simple (ie, one or two radical) Chinese characters often (but not always) resemble what they represent. For instance:

Examples of Chinese characters that look like the object they represent

Often, the radicals that make up a character can help you determine what that character means if you don’t already know. However, it’s not always obvious. Sometimes the radical combinations relate to the meaning in a completely abstract way, and sometimes background knowledge of Chinese culture and history is required to make sense of characters this way. Sometimes, the radical combinations just don’t seem to make sense at all.

Some radical combinations that make sense (Example 1), make sense with background information (Example 2), and don't make sense at all (Example 3)

In Example 1, the meaning of the character is very obvious… composed of the radicals for “not yet” and “woman”, it clearly means a young girl. Example 2 is a little less obvious, and could be figured out with some knowledge of Chinese values. The character means “good” and is composed of the radicals for “woman” and “child (specifically ‘son’)”. This is because it is implied that if your life is “good”, you will have a wife and child (more specifically a son). With Example 3, I can’t even begin to wonder how that character was formed.

Likewise, compound Chinese words (two or more characters) can be combined in the same way. Some are very obvious, and most, I think, can be figured out with reason. There are indeed some word combinations that require a knowledge of Chinese culture or some really funky reasoning, or are just plain odd, but most are manageable. In fact, a lot of the combinations are really, really cool! Whereas in English a word can just stand for a thing, compound words in Chinese usually convey a concept, or something more descriptive about the thing or idea itself rather than being a bunch of words thrown together. Here’s an example of a really cool (IMO) compound word:

liuxing - popular, composed of the characters for 'flow/current' and 'walk/travel'

Since I first learned this word in Chinese, I’ve always loved it. We translate it as “popular”, but it means so much more; I don’t think you can accurately translate something this clever. The word means “popular”, but it captures the concept of “popular” as a flow. Things are “in”, things are “out” – popularity is indeed the flow of trends. Isn’t that such a great way of describing it?

Here’s another one that’s not really a concept, but I have my reasons to like it:

Riben - Japan, composed of the characters for 'sun' and 'origin'... loosely translated, 'Land of the Rising Sun'

This compound word is actually used by both Chinese and Japanese to mean “Japan”. In Japanese, it’s pronounced “Nihon (nee-hone)” (characters are “ni” and “hon” respectively, and each means the same thing as its Chinese counterpart). Japan is often referred to, both by the Japanese and outsiders, as “the Land of the Rising Sun”. Liberally translated, it could be taken as “the sun’s origin”, or “the place where the sun rises”, or indeed, “Land of the Rising Sun”.

Cities, countries, and continents are some of the most interesting words in Chinese. While some that were discovered, founded, or named later (such as Canada, Singapore, Australia, etc.) are simply made of characters that sound like the word in English, a lot have to do with the place itself. It’s more descriptive about places than English. Some examples:

The names of cities, continents, and countries in Chinese can sometimes give a clue about the kind of place it is

As you can see, Chinese is a pretty cool language whose words are often more than mere abstracts – and it goes much deeper than everything I’ve shown above! I just thought I’d bring up a small number of the interesting things I’ve come across in the language. Chinese words are so intriguing because descriptive… they’re concepts… and if you’re just learning the language, you have to really think about meanings and connections when you come across a character or combination of characters you don’t know. They’re not just meaningless arrangements of letters, as English can be sometimes. If you’re looking for a cool language to learn, I’d recommend Chinese, or Japanese, or another pictorial Asian language. It takes a good memory (there are thousands of characters to learn, but knowing your radicals can help), but it’s very manageable, and at least in my experience, it teaches you more about the meanings of English words, too.

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Some thoughts

Earlier this week, I was writing a post for my blog that should have gone up a while ago.  Unfortunately, the time at which I was writing it was at the start of my lunch period on Monday, April 14.  Blogs (the writing and visiting of) are strictly forbidden at my school, so I finished my post in Google Documents and planned to publish it when I got home.  The first thing I did after booting up my laptop was, like every day, to check my RSS feeds in Google Reader.  The number of items I had to read had tripled from the average… and for the first few items, I thought, What’s all this about a university in Virginia…?

Suddenly what I had to say felt entirely irrelevant.  Who can go about things as usual after that?

I followed the aftermath very closely in the news until I realized that it was become all about the murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, instead of the victims or even the incident itself.  In all the major newspapers, I’ve seen maybe one of two stories about the victims, but lately it’s just become feature articles and columns about the killer’s pre-massacre behavior and mental illness and shyness, etc etc.

Imagine my discomfort when, one morning, the front page of every newspaper in my relatively peaceful Canadian city was covered with a picture of Seung-Hui pointing a gun menacingly at his audience.  His name and face are omnipresent in the news right now.  At this point, it’s just getting on my nerves.  The news of a gun massacre on an innocent and unsuspecting college is sad and sobering; humoring the rants of an attention-craving and very disturbed young man is not.  Seriously.

If you’ve seen the video and images, it’s clear that this guy was very disturbed and saw himself as a martyr (at one point he compares himself to Jesus Christ as having liberated people into taking action).  Is it just me or does it look and sound like he’s reading from a script?  According to many news sources, he was an English major, and wrote disturbing and just plain bad plays that are nothing more than violence and an exercise in using the word “fuck”.  And the pictures he sent aiming various weapons at himself and the camera?  Just plain narcissistic.  He wanted nothing more than attention, and the press is giving it to him.  I think the best way to pay tribute to the victims’ families and classmates is to stop indulging the posthumous wishes of the murderer.

A couple of days after the local newspapers all sported images of Seung-Hui on their overs, I was happy to see that they were full of angry editorials from others who felt the same way and demanded the papers to stop indulging this lunatic.

Actually, if anything, this event has reassured me of human sensibility.  Sure, there have been a few big scares over copycat threats (the most notable being the recent one in Northern California when 36 schools were shut down after a man threatened to “make Virginia Tech look mild.”), but I’m seeing a lot of common sense up here in Canada.  A recent poll was taken across the country, and while a majority of Canadians are worried about another mass shooting here (we just had one last September at Dawson College in Quebec), another majority also believes that if someone wants to commit that sort of mass murder, it’s “beyond the scope of anybody to do anything about it, regardless of what preventative measures are in place” – which is very true.  One of the issues was giving guns to campus security, which was not supported by the majority, but this is Canada, and we don’t really like guns up here.

In any case, it’s so nice to hear that even though horrible things like this happen, people can still be sensible enough to deal with it.

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Weekend Reading: 04/14

The post is a day late because, happily, I was much too busy today for it to cross my mind. The central Vancouver library downtown (seven stories high!) was having a large book sale today that I spent an entire afternoon scavenging with a friend. By the end of the day, we were so broke that we had to pool our change to split a cheap dinner on the run… and so tired of staring at print that we hid our purchases in the park and fooled around the beach until past sunset (and actually gained lots of attention for acting so utterly weird – that’s us!). By and by a fun and exhausting day downtown.

But anyway, this week’s linkage is much smaller and less varied than last week’s. It was a pretty quiet week in the news.

Religion: U.S. Divorce Rates (among faith groups)
ReligiousTolerance.org put up some interesting statistics about divorce rates among religions. Guess which group has the lowest rate… atheists and agnostics! Honestly, I’m not surprised. The study is worth a look.

Health/Neurology: Pas de Deux of Sexuality is Written in the Genes (New York Times)
An argument that the brain structure of women automatically sets their sexual orientation as neutral. I’ve read a similar study in the past that proved all women were bisexual by default (straight or gay by choice), but this was much more interesting and informative.

Education: No Assignments. No Tests. No Grades. (Seattle Times)
WOW. This school in Bothell, WA, actually has zero structure. Students show up and do whatever they want. They can waste their day playing computer games or talking, or study on their own… there are no classes unless the students organize them, and the staff will only help if asked. Can an anarchy-based school actually work?

Sociology (?): Pearls Before Breakfast (Washington Post)
Okay, this article was just really cool – if a bit long. It was a great experiment, with (if you commute by public transit every day or live in a big city) predictable yet astonishing results. The Post arranged for one of the greatest violinists in the world – one who could easily work for $1000 an hour, playing a multi-million dollar Stradivarius – to play to a rush hour crowd in front of a subway station. How much would this famous violinist earn? How many people would stop? Those were the questions, and the results, well…

Education: If We Taught English the Way We Teach Mathematics…
Scary… with a point.

Web 2.0/Blogging: Would You Read Your Own Blog?
Well, would you? Some questions to ask yourself about your blog and its content.

It was a quiet week, indeed.

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04/07: Weekend Reading

I’ve decided to introduce something in the flavor of Lifehacker‘s weekly round-ups and Po Bronson‘s oh-so-misleadingly named “weekly” recommended readings. Every Saturday, I’ll post a selection of some of the best links I’ve found in the previous week. Some weeks, like this one, there will be enough links to make one uneasy… some weeks I might blog about only one. Like my regular posts, the subject matter will often change, though there will be concentrations in some particular areas. And I’ll try to make them as interesting as possible.

On a completely unrelated note, I wish everyone a very happy Easter weekend!

So, this week’s links…

Web 2.0/Advice: Several Habits of Wildly Successful Del.icio.us Users
This post is quite old, actually, but I’ve only recently discovered it. If you use del.icio.us, it has some very useful advice. Some of the tips are common sense to the Web 2.0-literate (post often, use many tags), but there are some clever specifics about the inbox, networks, and filetypes that are worth a look-through. Using the interface, networking, and ways to find new and interesting links are all covered.

Intelligence/Education: Intelligence in the Classroom (Wall Street Journal)
Also a relatively old link (January 2007), and one that I’ve come across before, but I rediscovered and bookmarked it for the first time yesterday. It’s the first of a three-part series on education by Charles Murray, the other two parts (also worth a read) being ‘What’s Wrong With Vocational School?’ (our culture puts too much emphasis on a four-year degree) and ‘Aztecs vs. Greeks’ (highly intelligent should also learn how to be wise). ‘Intelligence in the Classroom’ has been criticized by many others interested in intelligence for putting too much emphasis on IQ scores, but I still think it’s worth a read and somewhat agree with the main premise.

Politics: An Administration’s Epic Collapse (TIME Magazine)
Yes, I’m sure that everyone’s tired of hearing how the Bush administration’s ship is rapidly sinking, but this article manages to be interesting nonetheless. The article focuses on how the three sins of this administration – arrogance, incompetence, and cynicism – have ensured its demise, and ties them to the three major “scandals” of recent news: the surge, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the firing of the attorneys. It’s an interesting though not particularly shocking article.

Business/Music: Spinning Into Oblivion (New York Times)
I thought this one was particularly interesting. It’s a recent Op-Ed piece in the NYT by the owner of a music store that was forced to go out of business about how the RIAA has killed the industry it has sought to protect. The argument is intriguing, and I have to say, I agree.

Religion: Einstein and Faith (TIME Magazine)
Another article that really captured my attention was this one, about Einstein’s personal beliefs. His reputation as an atheist was undeserved, it seems; he definitely believed in something beyond the physical world. It’s impossible to do this article justice in a quick summary – if your interests include religion, agnosticism, free will, or Einstein in general, and even if they don’t, it’s a spectacular read.

Religion/Politics: Where (and How) Evolution is Taught in the U.S.
It’s a color-coded map of the United States about the quality of each state’s education about evolution. Can we say red-state/blue-state?

Psychology: The Male Brain vs. the Female Brain
Ten neurological differences between the sexes. Some are simply physical (men’s brains are larger but shrink faster, sex-differing ratios of grey matter to white matter), and some are purely psychological (men tend to score a few points higher on intelligence tests, and women use more words per day). It’s incredibly interesting – these certainly explain a lot.

Religion: 30 Days – An Atheist Among Christians (Google Video)
A full-length episode of the show “30 Days” in which an atheist woman goes to live with a Christian family for thirty days. Here’s a disappointing spoiler: no bloodshed. For the most part, both parties are respectful, though feel profoundly sorry for the other and their deprived way of life. Lots of debate ensues, and it’s interesting to note who always seems to leave with the upper hand. I won’t say who – that’s too big of a spoiler. If you have forty-five minutes to spare, it’s definitely worth a look.

Education: A Great Year for Ivy League Schools, But Not So Good for Applicants to Them (New York Times)
Every major newspaper with decent education coverage is running articles on this spring’s record-breaking college rejections, but I happen to like the NYT’s the best. This year has been the most brutal on record for college applicants – most top-tier colleges suffered mind-blowing rejection rates this year. Top Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Columbia now have acceptance rates of 9%, and the most prestigious of small liberal arts colleges are reporting similar rates. Thousands of students with perfect 2400 SATs and 4.0 GPAs are being rejected from their top choices. As a potential college applicant in 2009, these statistics worry me.

That’s all the linkage for this week. If you’re interested in others, my del.icio.us page has hundreds more organized by tag!

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