Saturday, June 27, 2009

problematizing xkcd

At this point, I've been reading online comics (so-called "webcomics") for over ten years, and still make time in my daily schedule for the habit of dropping by a handful of sites more or less frequently. In that time, I've seen several comics come and go; as some increase in popularity and quality, others begin to wane in both (sadly, often the quality goes before the popularity).

One such comic on which I started to pick up around 2004 was xkcd, Randall Munroe's self-described "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." Given my background in mathematics and science, and ties to nerd/hacking culture, I was fascinated and amused by Munroe's quirky insights on life, romance, and "common sense" notions.

As my academic pursuits and interests drifted away from the hard science side of things and further into the liberal arts/humanities, I continued to read xkcd. However, in recent years, I've begun to regard its humor as increasingly less amusing, and, simultaneously, more a matter of concern.

I was interested, upon a quick web search, to find the blog xkcd sucks, not a blind critique of xkcd, but actually a thoughtful criticism on xkcd's particular flaws. All the points which I would raise in a commentary on xkcd have already been raised there, and quite thoroughly.

As an example of my issues with the strip and a subset of its devoted followers, however, consider the following shirt:

(reproduced from the xkcd store)

What is the message of this shirt? In his store blurb, Munroe claims
"We finally figured out that you could separate fact from superstition by a completely radical method: observation. You can try things, measure them, and see how they work! Bitches."

My translation of his message is this: Science Works, and, by implication, Your Methods Don't.

It's a great slogan, except for the awkward fact that it's overly simplistic, and often simply untrue.

"Science: It Works." Works for what? The best answer that I can think of is, Science Works if I am trying to generate a scientific theory. Well, except when it doesn't. Superstring theory, a current promising candidate and hot topic in physics, is often criticized for being untestable and, hence, unscientific.

And even assuming that science always works to accurately generate good scientific theories, it must still collaborate with other disciplines - engineering, marketing, business, and sales - in order to make an impact on the greater scope of humanity. In fact, one could argue (I might argue) that the average individual's incomprehension of scientific advances is as much due to science's inability to disseminate information widely and simply as it is to the average person's apathy towards it or inability to wrap their unscientific minds around advanced scientific information.

I might be criticized for reading too much into Munroe's t-shirt: after all, it's just a handful of words on a tee, why raise my hackles for it?

The answer is twofold:

First, I'm not convinced that Munroe is simply making the claim that Science Works As Science; that is, I am not sure that he is saying "If you want to get scientific results, do science." I strongly suspect, based on the context of his strip, that Munroe is saying "If you want to get results, do science."
If you want to figure out love?
-Do science.
If you want to live a good life?
-Do science.
If you want to make an impactful, caring contribution to humanity?
-Do science.
Maybe this is too strong a reading; but even caricature is grounded in real observation. And my observation is that Munroe seems to be a man who holds the belief that society would be so much simpler, better, and more fun if we could just Do Science and be silly (in a "quirky, zany" way) and stop being such silly (in a stupid, unscientific way) complicated irrational beings.

The problem? Complicated irrationalities are not obstacles to humanity; actually, akrasia and cognitive dissonance lie at the core of humans' special cognitive identity. These complications Munroe seems to disdain are actually what make us human, a fact with which he seems to go back and forth on agreeing.

Second, even assuming that Munroe's intent in this shirt is to present a limited critique of the efficacy of "science vs. superstition" in the realm of generating scientific fact, I am concerned by how Munroe's fans will interpret this shirt.

I obviously wouldn't claim that anything except science has any role to play in, well, doing science: that's simple logic of identity (which, as a matter of fact, is not only a mathematical field, but actually lies well within the realm of philosophy). Superstition is an easy target, a straw man. But the polemic thrust of the shirt seems to be towards something rather less defenseless, proclaiming, in spirit, that "Doing anything except science doesn't work/works less effectively/is useless."

This is quite simply untrue. Even in the life of the most scientifically-minded and capable person, holistic well-being must be based on something other than the Scientific Method: Science, a perfectly good approach to theories, ideas, and empirical observations, is significantly less useful, or even outright disadvantageous, when applied to relationships, aesthetic interests (films, books, art, music), and the like. There are realms of the human experience which science is not meant to address, and testing claims to the contrary, while they are perfectly good hypotheses (it's scientific, after all!), does not result in emotionally and descriptively positive results. According to its own criteria, this thesis fails.

Unfortunately, I think this shirt promotes a unilateral valuation of one's approach to life, a point of view whose traces I've seen in some of my scientifically-minded friends and acquaintances. It saddens me to think of someone valuing any one discipline to the point of allowing themselves to adopt a one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all approach to the many splendors of life, whether the (obviously smart and thoughtful) Randall Munroe, or any of his fans.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bluechoice Carefirst: An Insurance Nightmare

An acquaintance of mine recently won a years-long battle with his old insurance company, Carefirst.

Long story short, Jason (not me; Jason-my-friend, not Jason-myself) and his family moved away from Maryland around the end of summer in 2007. They had been covered for medical insurance by Bluechoice Carefirst, a local independent Maryland health insurance provider; but, as they were moving away from the area, Jason decided to cancel his account with them. After jumping through several hoops, they still didn't take him off their books, and he was stuck with a $900+ monthly charge on his credit card for over a year and a half.

After further legal wrangling on his part, uncovering further action in bad faith on their part, and involving the state government, Bluechoice Carefirst has finally been ordered to repay all his bills, plus 6% interest. Congrats, J.

For Jason's full account of the story, head on over to his blog.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I've said it before...

...and I'll say it again, this is the best picture on the internet.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Visions of Korea I

It's 4 PM on a Thursday afternoon, and the sun's harshly fixed midday glare has softened into an unkindly warm stare. I'm running around Lake Park, my t-shirt already clammy and lungs aching gently, throbbing to remind me of my foolishness in exerting myself thusly. As I run past two ajumas - well past 50, with over-permed over-dyed hair - headed the other way, eying my flailing limbs suspiciously, I see this slogan emblazoned on a flimsy, oversized t-shirt layered under a thin black wool cardigan:


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2 windfalls

(1) Winding my way towards home today after I finished grading a pile of homework (for my summer, SAT essays, as with pancakes, come in stacks), I discovered that, while the beloved fried snack outpost next door to our academy has since moved to greener pastures (no matter: I still find my super corn dog at any one of the innumerable, and now government sanctioned, stands in the area), one of the other nearby shop fronts I frequented last summer still stands sessile and open for business.

A tiny footprint on one of the jam-packed rows roughly two blocks down from my workplace, it seems, as far as I can tell, to essentially run as a one-woman operation: in the back, a fairly-sized kitchen containing freezers filled with precooked and modular ingredients; in the front, a tiny room large enough for the cook-cum-cashier to stand and take an order, fronted by a glass window with the halves perpetually slid aside and a glass display case showing off rows of fundamental-if-ornate Korean basics: a matrix of permutations on curry, tonkatsu, and the like.

This display case is, I've come to realize, inseparable from my affections for the place: without it, I'm faced with the awkward and halting process of expressing my culinary desires through mimed gestures and sheer fortune. But at this stand, of all places, my meagre stash of Korean is expended and found adequate:

Me: 안녕하세요 [Anyong haseyo; "hello"].
Shopkeeper: 안녕하세요.
Me: (pointing at display case) 하나 [Hana; "one"].
Shopkeeper: [something in Korean] (goes back into kitchen; returns in 2-3 minutes)
Me: 고맙습니다 [komapsumnida; "thank you"]. (bow; exit stage right)

Cost, too serves as a major selling point: all dishes go for under 3000 KRW (~$2.50USD), and several for under $2USD. Coming with meat, rice, kimchi, and drenched in sauces, I'm sure I'm consuming the Korean equivalent of an American $5.99 "Chinese" lunch buffet. But complaints are slow to come, if at all. As I sit in a nearby park shortly afterwards, squeezing out soy sauce and mayonnaise onto my pork, strips of scrambled egg, rice, and kimchi, I watch salarymen pace along the walkways while elementary school children flit about, playing on what I assume to be their lunch break; or perhaps in transit from school to 학원 (academy).

(2) My supervisor/work buddy Jae called me today in the midafternoon. Having ducked out early due to my afternoon student reportedly having been a no-show, my first thought, naturally, was of alarm: was I supposed to be at work? But no, apparently my bosses just wanted to move some items from a recently-departed teacher's apartment (Fritz, for those of you keeping score at home) into mine.

And thus, a few minutes later, my doorbell rang (buzzed, rather), and Jae turned up with a TV, accompanied by stand, and laundry rack. Of course - for those of you who know me - you know that my mind quickly raced through some steps of swift deductive reasoning, and arrived at the conclusion that Fritz's apartment might contain other abandoned items well worth my salvaging efforts.

So, throwing on a pair of shoes, I tagged along up to the 6th floor, behind Jae and Mr. Yang, ransacking the room (what, I take it, the crime shows refer to as tossing a room) for anything and everything remaining of value. After four trips back and forth to my 5th floor room, I proudly surveyed my new possessions, feeling far more materially wealthy than had I ever before been in Korea:

2 bags of (unspecified) frozen meat;
1 bag of frozen french fries;
1/4 bag of frozen tortellini;
9 frozen hash browns;
a scattered handful of frozen chicken nuggets;
several pieces of assorted hard candy;
3 chocolate bars, and 2 Kit-Kats;
2 large boxes of corn flakes;
a bag of onion rings;
a bag of tortilla chips;
a matching container of salsa;
several packets of gravy and sauce mixes;
a large tub of brown sugar;
a tin of chocolate milk mix;
a box of Nerds;
2 tins of Danish-style cookies;
2 bottles of water;
a complete set of eating utensils (highly desirable, as I'd forgotten to bring any with me);
2 pans (for the first time ever in Korea, I may cook);
a bowl;
a plate;
two pots, including lids;
a copy of Bleach Vol. 1, in English;
2 5-pound weights;
a glass mug;
and a (what I assume is fake) Louis Vuitton shoulder bag.

(Fritz if there is anything on that list that you need, get at me.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

bene dicta, magister

It's 8:34 AM, and the streets of Ilsan are covered in a fine mist, rendering the pavement slick and slightly cool. Passing cars and buses scatter the puddles, tossing minute particles of water two or three feet into the air.

I'm out for a morning jog. Sequestered for the night earlier than I had planned, thanks to the compound effects of jetlag (despite my casually swaggering boasts of having grown accustomed to international travel, I am still impacted by the long reach of geography) and an afternoon spent out with friends, I woke at 5 AM. Completing some long-overdue tasks and emails, I decided to head out for a run, to clear my head and stretch some sorely-neglected muscles.

As I run, my mind drifts; 36 hours ago, when I was a knotted bundle of anxious tics: would my luggage clear through San Francisco onto my Seoul flight? Would the laminar plywood of my forcibly-checked skateboard (intended to be carry-on baggage) crack under the shifting mounds of luggage deep in the hold? Would my computer, with its finicky wireless connection, work in Korea? (Yes; No; Yes.)

My mind worries back and forth; 2 months ahead, with a host of invented complaints and light neuroses: will I grow prematurely bored of a repetitious summer, as I did my second summer in 北京? Will my students respond, grow, respect in the same way that they did (or did not) last year? How ought I - how must I - speak to them in such a way as to grasp at their attentions, or earn their mustered approval? What does it mean, to speak well?

The Benediction is the closing prayer of the Christian worship service, the opportunity for the presiding clergy to invoke the grace, mercy, love, and care of God for the congregants. Its roots: bene + dictio, which serve as a verbal phrase: adverb + verb: to speak well.

Context. One of the fundamentals which I've already begun drilling into my students, with which they will be well - and perhaps frustratingly - familiar by summer's end (or so I hope). What is the context of a speech made well?

My thoughts flow: a story. Bono, gregarious and irrepressible frontman and lead singer of U2, got his name from a music shop in his Irish hometown. He and his gang of youthful, gregarious, irrepressible friends used to hang around in the streets, staging absurdist plays and existentialist physical comedies. On one of the streets lay a music store, Bonovox; and so his mates began playfully referring to him as Sir Bonovox. The young Paul David Hewson disliked the moniker, at first, until he discovered the latinate roots of the word: Bono + vox, adjective + noun: good voice.

Actions speak louder than words. - American Proverb.

It occurs to me, that the phrase, "speaking well", possesses in itself two meanings: transitive and intransitive. To speak well, intransitively, means simply to speak skillfully or convincingly. "He speaks well", as synonymous with "he's a good speaker."

To speak well, transitive: in this case, however, speaking well of another. "He speaks well of her," as synonymous with "he praises her" or "he admires her."

My life is, of course, ostensibly one endowed with a career of speaking well of another: the most beloved condensation of the Christian creeds, to me, is the old chestnut, "To know Christ and make Him known". To proclaim Him; to speak well of His love for me. And it occurs to me, that, in this case at least, the transitive and intransitive uses of the verbal phrase dovetail: to speak well to those with whom I am surrounded for the summer, the most purposeful preparation is, quite simply, to speak well of the one with whom I have grown - am growing - more and more acquainted.

in nomine patri, et filii, et spiritus sancti

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I begin this work in 5 minutes. Time to get focused.

Our Father Who art in Heaven;

Guide my attitude, that I might not sin against these little ones.
Guide my words, that I might teach them well.

Sanctify my heart; purify my mind; enlighten my soul.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, Amen

Party people!

I just returned from a mile and a half ride around town on my skateboard, taking in the sights and sounds of Ilsan on a Sunday night.

After 24 hours in transit, including a 4-hour layover in San Francisco (the first time my feet have touched Californian soil in nearly 2 decades), I arrived in Incheon International Airport this evening: early Sunday morning for the US.

I begin work tomorrow morning: two 80-minute SAT Critical Reading classes. I feel, in some respects, like I'm trying on a pair of worn in - but recently unworn - shoes. Familiar, and yet my body is unaccustomed to this; or perhaps, a nagging whisper stammers, still too attuned to this.

That is, in some ways, my worry: that I will literally pick up where I left off at the end of the last summer, and, in short notice, grow disillusioned and tired with myself, too careless to innovate; too comfortable to make even casual attempts at motivation.

But that is where faith comes in!

There is a song by the Smashing Pumpkins that I have never heard, but whose title has always impressed itself on me: it is, lamentably, located on the movie soundtrack to Batman and Robin, and it says this:

The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning.

Monday, June 1, 2009

My favorite picture

Waiting for Ben.
(Jason G.L. Chu, Nokia 6126. May 2009)