Thinking Out Loud

all of my ideas are works in progress

Children's Television and Other Observations

These days, I'm watching a lot of PBS Kids on Roku. Occupational hazard. Emma has a few favorite shows, and I still have no idea what drives her preferences, but now she'll scream if I try to introduce something new unless I sneak it in.

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Political Identity Crisis

I think I'm turning Libertarian or something?!

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Code Word: Conundrum

When I have teenagers, I will have a policy in place. At any time, my kid can call me up and say, "Conundrum". This translates to, 'I'm in a bad situation that may be my own fault and I need to be rescued right now,' and under the Code Word: Conundrum procedure, I, as a parent, will immediately drop everything to extract my offspring from the situation and I am explicitly forbidden from saying, 'I told you so,' ascribing blame, or even being outwardly angry for a specified period (probably 6-24 hours). Oh, we will talk about this later, but when Code Word: Conundrum is invoked, I shut it for the time being.

This occurred to me back when I was reading Queen Bees and Wannabees. For this to work, I need to start laying the groundwork way before adolescence, so that my offspring know this is a reliable safety net. You are free to try this with your own teens. Tell me how it works.

Yes, this is also a reference to the corny late-90's sci-fi TV show Seven Days.


Crazy Week

It's been a bit of a crazy week.

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This Kind of Offer Does Not Make Things Easier.

I got a...I think we can safely call this a job offer at this point.

Government contractor, mostly does IT and cybersecurity, found an old resume of mine from when we lived in Texas floating around the on the Internet. They want to hire an English teacher.

To teach the Saudi Royal Air Force. In Riyadh.

Starting December 7.

Emailed me yesterday. Had a phone interview today.

Pros: Housing + transport + benefits + US$40K doing what I'm good at for at least a year.

Cons: By default it's an unaccompanied position, meaning Stephanie and the kids either stay in America or if they come with me, visas, housing, and transport are all on our dime. One of Stephanie's major complaints about Japan is that she was stuck at home with little social contact and couldn't drive - it would only be worse in Saudi Arabia. Taking this job would severely curtail my attempt to make it into the Foreign Service, and if/when this gig ends, we'd be back at square one for finding a job in the US.

So, signs point to 'no', but still worth mulling over. Only 2% of applicants make it into the Foreign Service. If we were in Glasgow, this would be a godsend, but in Lynchburg we've got a pretty good situation. We're open to improvements, but we're not desperate to jump ship for a situation that's only marginally better in some ways and objectively worse in many others.

Where I'm at on America these Days

So, more than ten years after the idea was originally presented to me, I'm applying to the United States Foreign Service. There's an exam, which I'm studying for and expect to ace, and a personal narrative at the entryway to a months-long process of interviews and background checks.

This move will come as a shock to some, and with good reason. The tenor of my writings has veered several times in directions that could easily be construed as anti-American. I didn't become an Eagle Scout because I refused to get the required Citizenship in the Nation merit badge on principle.

As I understand it, the keystone of the personal narrative is explaining why I want to work for the Foreign Service, and the challenge for me will be to be clear and honest without sounding like a liability or a crazy person. This post is sort of a rough draft/thinking out loud for that, and an explanation to my friends and family about why I would consider working for The Government and supporting policies I may personally disagree with. (If anyone is visiting as part of my background check/security clearance process, thanks for reading!)

I firmly and sincerely believe that in all important respects, all humans are basically equal, and have essentially the same wants, needs, and problems, and deserve the same rights and privileges. As such, I consider patriotism, nationalism, and exceptionalism deeply problematic if not actively harmful ideas. Patriotism is one flower saying to another, "I'm sure glad I was planted in this pot of dirt and not that pot of dirt." Nationalism is the idea that some white dudes can draw some lines on a map, and if your ancestors were inside those lines by arbitrary date x, you are entitled to participate in a meritocracy, no questions asked, but if they weren't, you can't without jumping through a special set of hoops. Exceptionalism is no less than valuing the lives, jobs, values, and rights of Americans as greater than those of other peoples. In an age of globalization and interconnectivity, the idea of the nation-state as a meaningful construct worthy of loyalty is starting to show its age.

But the flip side of this is that if America isn't God's Favorite Country, it's also not the Great Satan. Main idea: America is not particularly special. It has good things and bad things, just like every other country. The most 'patriotic' thing I can say with any conviction is that I think America at present is probably significantly less evil than average in most regards.

So here's how I can reconcile my beliefs with a job that, on paper, looks like projecting American will and protecting American interests: "American interests" don't exist. There are only human interests. All non-coercive relationships and exchanges we [humans] enter into, we enter into because they're mutually beneficial. A move that benefits America also benefits the other party. Opening up country x to be a marketplace for American businesses also opens them up as a marketplace for every other country's businesses. America didn't just walk in and take Iraq's oil, though it probably could have. America [through less than ideal means and under questionable pretenses] created an atmosphere in which Americans could trade dollars for oil without ignoring institutional human rights violations, and Iraqis could turn around and trade those dollars for things they need, like food, because, last time I checked, Iraqis can't eat petroleum.

I'm not suggesting that everything is awesome always, and I'm not trying to excuse the bad things that people do/have done to other people in all countries throughout history. A lot of our relationships and exchanges are coercive, exploitative, and adversarial, but that kind of goes with the territory known as 'the real world' in which people on both sides are in the wrong and in which, again, America is not particularly exceptional. America threatening to brandish a stick differs only in degree from Canada threatening to withdraw a carrot, if certain conditions are not met.

So much for 'Why Mark needn't avoid working for the Foreign Service.' Why do I want to work for the Foreign Service, as opposed to teaching or any of the other jobs I theoretically could get. And not just, 'They'll pay me money to use skills that I have, and also fly me around the world.' And why should they want to hire me with all of my baggage when there are more traditionally 'Rah, rah, America!' applicants to be had?

I believe in internationalism (well, maybe technically postnationalism, or something). Globalization is not without its downsides, but I think in the final sum it's a net benefit for everyone. Encouraging and simplifying the flow and exchange of people, ideas, and capital across national boundaries enriches everyone and promotes peace more often than not. Whether I become a Foreign Service Officer or not, I'm not in a good position to create foreign policy. But I can be a damn good gear in the system.

I don't know what background most prospective Foreign Service Officers come from. I imagine most apply straight out of college (even though a degree isn't technically required). I've worked overseas. I've applied for visas. I've registered the birth of a child abroad. I've tried to get documents notarized in a foreign language. I know what a pain it can be. I'm not just a language nerd with mad customer service skills, I'm a language nerd with mad customer service skills who has been on the other side of the system and can empathize with the people I'm serving. Not to be blasphemous, but I have descended below a lot of things that I may know how to succor my people.

I may not have the power to reduce the amount of paperwork people have to do, but I am highly motivated to go out of my way to help ease people through the process, not just dismiss things as "not my department", because I believe that by making it easier for people to travel and do business around the world, even if only on an emotional level, I am doing a small service to all of humanity. And that's something I can really get behind.

Can I enforce policies I don't agree with? If my track record at GEM School and Walmart are any indication, yes. Don't I have a moral obligation to do what I think is right, no matter what? Well, I also have a moral obligation to provide for my family and not lose my job over this if I think I can do more good for more people in the long run by working inside the system than fighting against it. Because I have the bad combination of compulsive honesty and a vivid imagination, I can get tripped up by questions like, "Can you think of any reason you might try to circumvent protocol and issue a visa against regulation?" Yes. Yes, I can. But that would be in a Schindler's List-level situation. I am currently working on a mathematical formula to express the stakes and circumstances under which I'll break rules, and it's just not coming together. Suffice it to say that I don't break any rules without careful consideration (or ignorance!), and only when the risks to myself and others are negligible or the potential benefit overwhelmingly outweighs the risk.

If I Ran the Schools

Over the course of my training in the teaching arts, there were several independent occasions when I was forwarded an editorial, or assigned to read an article, or there was a section in a textbook, or somebody shared something on FB about the critical importance and value of teachers. These were supposed to be inspirational/motivational. They all heavily implied - or some even came out and stated explicitly - 'The only thing that makes any difference in student performance is teacher attitude, preparation, and skill.' It doesn't matter what your space is like or how much funding you have. It doesn't matter if your student is a pill or parents are actively undermining you or if your administration doesn't give you the time of day. Good teachers make all the difference, and they're the only thing that makes a difference.


Teacher attitude, preparation, and skill is the only thing that makes any difference in student performance that teachers have any control over. Students have free will. Teachers can't intervene in student poverty or medical situations or bad home environments, and if they could we would demand that they don't because privacy. And that's fine, but could we maybe not expect all teachers to be The Miracle Worker, or stop guilting them when they're not?

As a culture, the United States can't make up its mind whether public schools should be glorified daycares or robust educational institutions, so what usually happens is we fund facilities and pay teachers like the former and set standards and expectations by the latter and then wring our hands and act confused when schools fail and we can't get more teachers.

So, since I've had time to think while I've been busy not getting hired as a teacher, here are some things I would fix about the way school is done in the US were I in charge:

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My Case Against Vaping

All of the talk I've read about whether or not to ban vaping or e-cigarettes in the same places and ways conventional tobacco smoking is banned focus on whether vaping is as harmful to the user as smoking - as if the only reason we banned smoking in public was to protect smokers.

You're taking a drug - medicinally or recreationally doesn't matter to my argument. If you take it as a pill or an injection or a gum or a patch or a lotion, it has no biological effect on bystanders - whether it has other economic or social effects doesn't matter to my argument. But if you're creating a cloud of smoke or vapor to transmit your drug, guess what? You're now putting drugs in my system without my permission.

Vaping is less harmful than smoking, both to users and to bystanders, that is almost certainly without question (though there is still more research to be done). You can't make the same arguments against e-cigarettes as you can about tobacco and expect them to stick. But this isn't something nebulous like air pollution, where my right to clean air is balanced against the rights of millions of other people to drive and have electricity. This is about me and my right not to have nicotine in my blood if I don't want it vs. you and your right to have nicotine in your blood if you do want it. If you can engage in your right without violating mine, don't you have an obligation to not violate my rights?*

I recently applied to a hospital job that screened applicants for nicotine. Not just, 'You can't smoke at the hospital.' 'You can't work here if you use nicotine gum or a patch.' I don't think occasional proximity to people vaping in Walmart would affect that, but you see where I'm going with this. Vaping should be banned in the same public places that smoking is banned, not because it's carcinogenic (because it's (probably) not), but because non-vapers have the right not to be exposed to drugs they're not choosing to put into themselves.

*This phrasing of social morality may have unforeseen applications in other areas. Discuss.

Baby Food Biochemistry Hypothesis

Kaylee's starting on solids. I make my own baby food by just pureeing fruits and vegetables. This is what we did in Japan with Emma. However, in the past week two batches went from baby food to slime and ethanol seemingly overnight. This has never happened to us before, and I don't know why it's happening now.

But I have some guesses.Ethylene Signal Transduction via Wikimedia

When fruit cells are damaged, such as by bruising or pureeing, they release ethylene, which signals other cells to start breaking down. This is why all the fruit in an orchard ripens at about the same time, and why one bad apple can rot a whole barrel. There must be an enzyme that moderates this process. Most enzymes only operate within a specific pH range, and can be rendered or destroyed by exposure to heat.

Raw banana-apple blend didn't go bad, but raw apple puree did. The blend must have had a pH that messed up the banana-ethylene enzyme and the apple-ethylene enzyme. The other batches we made recently that didn't go bad were all blends: nectarine-banana and apple-peach. But the cooked sweet potato/raw banana blend did not keep well. The pH of banana and sweet potato must not have been different enough to disable the enzymes in question. I think in Japan we always cooked the fruits and vegetables in some way, which also would have disabled enzymes in question.

Evolution and Earworms

Someone suggested I blog this, so here it is:

I participate on Quora, and someone asked the question, "What is the evolutionary purpose of having a song stuck in your head?", which is admittedly a question loaded with misapprehension, or at least poorly worded, and a lot of answerers pointed that out. Rather than being a jerk, I answered the question that I assume the asker intended, 'What are the environmental circumstances and evolutionary adaptations that make humans susceptible to getting songs stuck in their heads?'

Songs aren't the only thing that get stuck in your head. We involuntarily obsess about all sorts of things. Ever have an emotionally-charged conversation that ran over and over in your head for hours later?

Dopamine is usually described as a pleasure chemical, but in reality it's a learning chemical. Whenever we have a strongly positive or negative experience, dopamine is released in the brain, reinforcing newly-formed neural connections. What's happening is we're trying to identify a pattern of sensory inputs that led up to that experience so that we can repeat or avoid that experience in the future, and there is a pleasure rush with figuring out the pattern. Organisms that enjoyed figuring out patterns did so more often, and were more likely to survive to reproduce by securing more food and avoiding poisons and predators.

Human evolution has also preferences sensitivity to the subtle variations of tone and rhythm that we use to communicate information-dense social and emotional information. Humans are pack animals, and those that communicated and listened well outperformed and outsurvived those that didn't.

Music hits a whole lot of sweet spots for high dopamine production. We like the sound of musical instruments precisely because their timbres are similar to those produced by the human voice, but off just enough that we feel like we're missing something, like hearing the voice of someone you know among the noise of a crowded room, you really focus and concentrate to try to pick out what they're saying. Music tricks your brain into thinking there's an important emotional message that will help you socially coordinate with your peers (and sometimes that's kind of true).

Then the rhythm and repetition is just complicated enough to seem really worth paying attention to. Very simple patterns are boring, and total randomness in meaningless, but complexity tells us we can figure out the pattern if we just pay a little more attention. This is why gambling can be so addictive: the illusion of a pattern. In music, verses with the same melody and different lyrics, or reprises with different instrumentation, excite the brain something fierce.

So, we have been programmed by evolution to get emotional rewards from ferreting out patterns in complex stimuli and responding to aural information in the range of the human voice. Music punches all of these buttons and your brain lights up like a Christmas tree, flooding itself with dopamine, reinforcing those new connections and urging you to do that again. You get a similar rewarded every time you replay it within your own skull. It doesn't matter how much you think you hate One Direction, your brain is hooked on a chemical level and keeps going back to it like a junkie chasing the next hit.