Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Last Question

For its 200th episode, the Drabblecast just came out with a rendition of Isaac Asimov's 1958 short story "The Last Question".

They did a great job. Listen here.

I read the story long, long ago. Listening to it on the Drabblecast was my first exposure to it in over a decade. I enjoyed it again - while at the same time I wondered if maybe one aspect hadn't aged well.

It's not that in Asimov's future, computers will go through a stage of being massively intelligent electronic brains the size of cities. That was a common bit of 1950s prognosticating. Nowadays the giant, hulking, clacking machine the size of a skyscraper with an IQ of 3,000 is a classic staple of retro futures.

It's not Asimov's frequent use of the word "Man" to mean "humanity", which would probably rankle some listeners if he were writing today.

No, what got me was that a huge chunk of the dialogue consists of characters explaining things to each other. Sometimes the dialogue actually reaches "As you know, Bob" levels.

Now, it never gets so bad as to be wince-inducing, and I'm not saying I could write the story better than Asimov did.

But I have to be honest. If this were a new story by a new author in the year 2011 and it showed up in an online fiction magazine, it would face some heat from commenters for its AYKB-ness.

But when I popped over to the Drabblecast forums, there was none of that. Instead, there was fairly universal praise for the story, including many people who were encountering it for the first time on the Drabblecast.

Is there a sense that science fiction has evolved as a literary genre since the late 1950s, so that writing from back then isn't held to the same standard as what's being produced today? Or are people holding Asimov to a different standard? Is it universally acknowledged that Asimov was a brilliant idea man who could write clear and lucid prose, but had a tin ear for decent dialogue?

No, I don't think so. I think it's that Asimov delivers his expository dialogue with such assurance and confidence that the reader/listener can't help but go along with him. As I said, as I was listening to "The Last Question" I was very well aware that Asimov was flouting one of the great guidelines of speculative fiction writing by having his characters explain the universe to each other a lot. But it didn't ruin the story for me. It was part of the style, and it was OK.

Norm Sherman and his podcasting buddies did a great job over at the Drabblecast. Go and listen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nonfiction 8: Eat My Globe by Simon Majumdar

Simon Majumdar is a British person who traveled around the world, eating enormous amounts of food everywhere he stopped, and wrote about it all in a hilarious, highly raunchy book.

I absolutely enjoyed this book, even as I wondered just what the impact was on Majumdar's health as he repeatedly ate enormous amounts of meat, generally several times in one day (and usually accompanied by alcohol). He does appear to walk a lot, and by the end of the book he's developed a stress fracture in one foot. Health tip: Exercise cancels out gluttony.

His style reminded me of Anthony Bourdain. It's a comparison that Majumdar brings upon himself. He has the experience of visiting a small eatery in Hong Kong that turns out to be fantastically good. He's convinced that he's stumbled across an unknown gem, but as he gets up to leave he realizes that the eatery prominently displays a photo of Bourdain sitting on the premises, eating much the same meal Majumdar just finished.

Besides the love of food and the bawdy writing style, Majumdar and Bourdain also share a lack of both standard snobbery and reverse snobbery. Majumdar loves good cooking and fine meals at expensive restaurants, but he also loves eating his way across a traditional market going from street stall to street stall. And he doesn't romanticize street food, either. If it's bad, he tells it like it is. (Stir-fried rat. From a street stand in Yangshuo, China. He doesn't pretend he likes it.)

Majumdar is one of those Europeans who are able to write hilariously about American culture without coming across as a snobby little snot. I appreciate that.

He never made it to Taiwan, or to Central America (where we spent our honeymoon), but with his reports from every continent, my wife and I now have plenty of tips and recommendations. And I must say I loved his description of India, particularly Mumbai, the one city on Earth that has left me feeling truly intimidated.

The extremes of my own eating adventures:

I have eaten dog once, in Korea. Boshintang. It wasn't terrible -- it tasted something like lamb, and was served in a flavorful broth alongside a peppery powder mix that you dip the meat into.

Not long after that meal, I was in a rather decrepit part of Seoul where I saw a dog store. It sold large dogs, who sat outside in cages. They were panting in the hot sun. They weren't being sold as pets. That didn't exactly do wonders for my desire to eat dog again. There are also plenty of markets in Korea where you can see no-nonsense older ladies carving up dog carcasses for consumers.

I know it's hypocritical for an omnivore like me to be grossed out by that. I eat pork, I eat mutton, and I know where it comes from. Shall I mention the widely believed story that dogs are often beaten before they're slaughtered to make them taste better? I've heard from sources I trust that that's only a rumor, started by Westerners who were disgusted that Asians ate dog at all. And I've heard from other sources I trust that it's no rumor. I don't know what to believe.

I have eaten silkworm larvae. In Korea it's called bundaegi, and it's usually sold from outdoor stands in markets. You eat them with a plastic spoon from a cup, and they taste something like boiled nuts.

That was the only time I've knowingly eaten insects, although I wouldn't refuse to try them again. Here in Taiwan they feature in Aboriginal cuisines, and I've seen hornets on the menu at Aborigine-owned restaurants.

I've eaten cephalopods, cooked, raw, and whole. Honestly, in East Asian cooking they're nothing special, and the sense of slight disgust I felt growing up at the thought of eating tentacles just seems embarrassingly provincial now.

I have eaten camel. Once, in Beijing. I don't remember much about it.

I have eaten sashimi so often that my provincial Western childhood disgust at the idea of eating raw fish has completely evaporated. I tried raw chicken once, in Japan. My dining companions and I decided that, if any nation could be trusted to prepare raw chicken so as to be safe to eat, it was the Japanese. Unlike Majumdar, I have not tried horse sashimi.

I have eaten snake, at Snake Alley in Huaxi Night Market in Taipei. Make no mistake, if you eat snake there you've fallen into a tourist trap. You're about as daring as if you'd gone on a particularly scary ride at Disneyland.

I have eaten most varieties of Taiwanese stinky tofu, chou dofu. The fried version's not so bad -- there's a lady near our apartment who dishes out tasty servings of fried tofu and oyster soup. And the tofu on sticks available at the market in Shenkeng is pungent and flavorful. But I've also had serious chou dofu. The kind that's not for beginners. I have been to Mama Dai's House of Stink, the restaurant that humbled Andrew Zimmern. It isn't the flavors at Mama Dai's that I remember from my visit. It isn't the textures. It is the scents. The scents that waft over to you if you're sitting on the downwind side of the table when she places a hot bowl of soup in front of you are what I imagine it smells like to be downwind of a pack of shuffling zombies.

Despite living in Korea for two and a half years, I never tried cheonggukjang jigae, which I understand to be something of a Korean equivalent of chou dofu.

I have eaten durian. I don't dislike it, not exactly, but let's just say a little durian goes a long way. I have eaten durian ice cream. It tasted like durian. I had a factory-produced durian hard candy once, and afterwards my wife said she could still smell it on my breath.

I have eaten chicken feet. Ironically enough, it was in a dim sum restaurant in Virginia, not anywhere in Asia. I was not impressed. Not enough meat. The sauce was decent, but I felt like I was slurping it off the bones.

I have eaten congealed pig's blood. It's a common ingredient in soups and stews here in Taiwan. I wouldn't say I like it, but I don't find it revolting either, and I can slurp it down with a spoonful of broth. I had some deep-fried blood sausage in Nicaragua; it was so-so. Simon Majumdar sings the praises of a good English black pudding, and I suppose I'll give it a chance if I get the opportunity.

I have a complicated relationship with organ meats. As a good American, growing up I thought they were gross. That mental block did not really begin to crack until just in the last few years.

I've eaten intestines a few times here in Taiwan. I have nothing against the taste, but the texture leaves something to be desired. I don't like feeling like I've got meat-flavored chewing gum in my mouth. If it's prepared in ways that don't make it chewy, though, I have nothing against eating any portion of an animal's digestive track.

I've never knowingly eaten brain. I suppose I will eventually. Simon Majumdar writes so lovingly of eating brain and heart and lung and spleen. Look, I tell myself. I have no problem eating small fish whole -- they must have most of these organs, only in miniature. Why do I erect these totally arbitrary mental blocks preventing me from enjoying certain parts of animals?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nonfiction 7: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I visited Beijing for a few days in August 2003. That was my one and only trip to China (not counting Hong Kong and Macau -- they may be ruled from Beijing, but they seem too different, too separate). Yet China has lurked as a great barely-known entity at the edge of my consciousness. Living in Taiwan, one can hardly help thinking about the PRC fairly often.

I acknowledge my opinion of China is skewed. My wife lived in Guizhou for a year -- to read her highly negative opinion of the Chinese government, see here. I know plenty of Westerners who have lived in China, but I acknowledge that living in Taiwan, there is a selection bias. Taiwan tends to attract Westerners who want to live in a Chinese-speaking place infused with Chinese culture where people write in Chinese characters, but who don't want to live in China. It's easy to find Westerners here who have lived in China and didn't like it much.

As a result, with less than a week's lifetime experience spent in China, I tend to associate the People's Republic with:

- gray, polluted skies;
- a government that abuses the dignity of its own people;
- police who intrude into your daily life for reasons that make no apparent sense;
- and a massive bureaucracy that makes the common person's life a pain.

Yes, you can find any of the above all over the world, but China is the great big country right next to Taiwan, so it's China upon which my negative judgement lands.

Besides, China-Taiwan comparisons are inevitable for anyone who lives in Taiwan, and at least on the latter three negatives above, Taiwan just seems the better place hands-down.

Make no mistake, I don't see China as a great big Mordor-like cesspit of evil. There's some exciting stuff happening in China, and if they figure out how to encourage more innovation and true creativity, it could become one of the great engines of development in the 21st century. I wouldn't mind returning to the PRC to visit, just to update my years-old impression. I'm a big fan of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan food, and I could see myself going on a culinary tour of those provinces. But I'm very cautious about living in China as an expat.

That's why I gravitate towards writings about China. Peter Hessler is a journalist with several years' experience in the country, and his latest book, Country Driving, was a fascinating read. The book is divided into three discrete sections. The first third, the one that inspires the book's title, is about Hessler's road trips across northern China in a rental car (which he technically wasn't supposed to take out of Beijing, but the laid-back folks he rented from are amazingly forgiving).

This section is bleak and depressing at times, as Hessler transverses a part of the country that the recent economic growth has left behind. I can't forget Hessler's account of the villagers in one parched area who dig holes all day, so that when people from the World Bank drive by in their fancy cars, they see the re-forestation campaign that is well underway. The villagers are paid entirely in halal instant noodles. (Why halal? Because it's cheaper.) The holes are purely for show; there will never be any trees.

The second section deals with the village of Sancha, where Hessler spent much of his time to escape the bustle of Beijing. He got to know the locals, and stayed long enough see substantial development as prosperity began to accumulate. He provides a fascinating glimpse of what is probably typical small-town Chinese politics.

(The isolated rural village of Sancha is, astonishingly, located within Beijing city limits. Chinese special municipalities can extend over amazing amounts of territory, the most extreme being Chongqing, which is larger than Taiwan, and three times as large as Massachusetts. It's not that China is vast; it's that the bureaucrats draw the borders of the largest cities to include massive hinterlands.)

The final third of the book takes place in one of China's richest provinces, Zhejiang. A manufacturing center full of ambitious startups, Zhejiang is an amazing contrast to the sleepy desert towns Hessler visited in the book's first third. Hessler has a gift for character portraits, and he vividly describes both migrant workers and ambitious businesspeople (the former often become the latter). This is the modern China that outsiders generally think of. Yet for all the entrepreneurial energy on display, you can't help but feel that something is holding the people back. It's not just the bureaucracy, although that's certainly part of it. (When the factory whose fortunes Hessler chronicles gets a visit from representatives of the tax office, you feel like they're members of the local Mafia come to shake the factory down for money.) It's also that you get no sense of innovation. If there's a Chinese Silicon Valley, Hessler doesn't take us there.

Zhejiang Makes; The World Takes. No doubt about it. My apartment is probably full of little gadgets and doodads that were made in Zhejiang; your home probably is too. But how many were invented or designed in Zhejiang? My iPod was physically put together in Guangdong province by ambitious young Chinese workers, but they were working for a Taiwanese company to build a product that was designed in California.

When a real spirit of invention and innovation takes hold in China, it will not only be good for China as a country; it will be good for the entire world.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Khan Academy

Not long after I wrote that piece on education-oriented TED talks below, the TED website posted a video by Salman Khan, in which he talks about his project, Khan Academy.

Yes, that's Bill Gates on stage with him at the very end.

So I checked out Khan Academy, and I have to say I am very impressed. Khan's "lectures" -- I hesitate to call them lectures, though, because they're quite informal, conversational, and Khan doesn't bother to polish them up, which is probably helpful for students who feel intimidated by the material -- are engaging and hit just the right note. They don't feel dumbed-down, nor do they make unwarranted assumptions about what the student knows. Whether he's teaching advanced calculus or how to add and subtract fractions, Khan aims his lectures perfectly at the student's likely level of knowledge.

Although the lectures go all the way up to very advanced mathematics and also cover areas such as physics and finance, Khan Academy's practice modules are limited to pure mathematics. They start (literally!) with 2 + 2 = 4 and continue up through high school math. Not much calculus and other advanced math, but the site is continually creating new modules, and I think new ones may have appeared just in the past two weeks. Problems are randomly generated, and once you solve ten consecutive problems correctly, you are declared proficient in that module. Make one mistake, and you have to get another ten in a row right.

Practice modules are arranged on a knowledge map which reminds me of upgrade trees from turn-based strategy computer games. The student gets awarded various badges, for such distinctions as solving ten consecutive problems within a short span of time, or earning proficiency in a certain number of modules.

This brings me to what impresses me most about Khan Academy. Make no mistake, the site is intended primarily for schoolchildren. The video game mechanics I alluded to in the previous paragraph will appeal to kids. Khan wasn't invited to speak at TED for helping adults re-learn arithmetic they'd forgotten years earlier. But there's nothing cute or childish about the presentation. As the site's blog says, "Kids are smarter than we give them credit for." An adult can start the modules with the most basic addition exercises without feeling strange or self-conscious.

I'm working my way up through the practice modules. Right now I'm at 34 completed out of 107, but that makes my progress sound more impressive than it is. Basic arithmetic modules are behind me, while precalculus is still ahead of me.

I find that working through these modules without using a calculator brings an unexpected side benefit: I can practice focus. Like many people in this day and age, my attention span feels damaged due to easy Internet connections and mobile devices. When I let my mind wander while I'm working my way through a Khan Academy module, I make careless mistakes. If I make even one careless mistake, my streak gets reset and I have to start all over, correctly answering ten more problems in a row before I'm declared proficient in a module.

I've also downloaded Khan's finance lectures to my iPod Touch -- with all of the Taiwanese finance experts I train in English in my job, I feel I'd better have a more thorough knowledge of the field.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Novel 7: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

There have been times in my adult life when I went on a South Asian literature kick, blazing through several novels from the Subcontinent in a space of a few months. Looking at the unread books on our bookshelves now, it's fair to say another of these kicks may be about to begin.

Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke centers on Daru, a young Pakistani man in Lahore in 1998 who culturally identifies with his country's elite, although he lacks the means to live like them. While his friends went off to be educated in elite schools in the UK and the USA, Daru remained in his home country, got a degree, and got himself an unremarkable job at a bank. Then he gets fired because he refuses to tolerate the condescension of his bank's local clients. Finding a new job is difficult, because he refuses to take work that he thinks is beneath him. His life spirals rapidly downhill.

It's very clear from the first pages that things are not going to end well for Daru. But you don't hope against hope that he's going to turn his life around; instead, you read with horrified fascination as his train wreck of a life unfolds. This is a tragedy in the old sense of the word, where Daru's downfall comes about precisely because of his own failings. You may feel sympathy for him in an abstract intellectual sense, but he's clearly not deserving of sympathy on a personal level. For all his delusion that he is morally superior to his acquaintances in the Pakistani elite, Daru is not a nice man. His hypocrisies are numerous enough to be catalogued and classified.

I raced through Moth Smoke last weekend -- I probably could have polished off the whole book in one sitting if my surroundings had been free of distractions. Kudos to Hamid's writing style.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

I first heard of the “Axial Age”, a term invented by German philosopher Karl Jaspers, in an episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I was unconvinced. To say that there was an amazingly creative age of philosophical and religious thought is all well and good, but the Axial Age lasted six hundred years! (From 800 to 200 BC.) Six hundred years ago Europe had barely launched the Renaissance and China had overthrown the Mongols within living memory. Six hundred years ago India and southeast Asia were still proudly independent of Europe, because Westerners hadn’t yet figured out they could sail around southern Africa. Six hundred years is a really long time period to attach a label to.

It makes more sense when you think of what an enormous expanse of time our notion of “ancient history” entails. We think of the Middle Ages starting roughly 1,500 years ago; written history in parts of the world goes back 3,500 years before that.

How old is Egypt? We like to think of the Pyramids being built by Jews, but the fact is that when the Jews were in Egypt, the Pyramids were already fifteen hundred years old. Think of what any given area of the world was like fifteen hundred years ago, and all that's happened since then.

How old is Egypt? Ancient Egyptian history gets divided into the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. When the Old Testament talks about Egypt, it’s talking about the New Kingdom. Even in Genesis.

So before the six-hundred-year Axial Age began, we had at least two thousand years of written history in Sumeria and Egypt; less in China. Where are the pre-Axial philosophers? Well, we can point to religious figures such as Zoroaster and Abraham, but a smattering of prophets seems a bit sparse for a two-thousand-year span of history.

You see some people claiming human minds were quantitatively different before 1000 BC (see bicameral mind), although I think it more likely has to do with the fact that writing was far less widespread back then. Keeping track of payments, maintaining lists of kings, recording religious rites, and fortunetelling (think Chinese oracle bones) -- was writing used for anything else, really, three thousand years ago?

And then, starting around 800 BC in various places around the world, writing comes into its own as a means of transmitting information, creating a number of positive feedback loops as individuals develop ever more sophisticated philosophies. And Karen Armstrong’s book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions documents this.

Armstrong puts in parallel the religious and intellectual traditions, from 800 BC to 200 BC, of four areas: China, India, Israel, and Greece. Her book can, of course, be read as a guide to ancient philosophy. Armstrong would rather you read her book as containing a coherent thesis on the Axial Age philosophers and what they can teach us.

Armstrong is very pro-religion, anti-fundamentalism. She admires the Axial thinkers for not focusing on dogma. As she writes in the introduction:

If the Buddha or Confucius had been asked whether he believed in God, he probably would have winced slightly and explained -- with great courtesy -- that this was not an appropriate question. If anybody had asked Amos or Ezekiel if he was a “monotheist,” who believed in only one God, he would have been equally perplexed.

And toward the end of the book, she reminds us repeatedly that the Golden Rule, that you should not do to other people what you wouldn’t want others to do to you, was the central tenet of so many Axial philosophies. The last section is a warning against the religious fundamentalism and lack of empathy she sees in modern society. Now, she writes, we should remember what the Axial sages taught.

Karen Armstrong gives her TED Prize speech. And in another TED talk, here she talks specifically about the Golden Rule.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Best of TED: Business

The TED talks that have really stuck with me, really gotten under my skin, that deal with the realm of business:

Dan Pink talks about how to motivate people in jobs that require creativity. The "monetary rewards fail miserably at motivating people to be creative" theme recurs among several talks at TED, including Tom Wujec's analysis of the Marshmallow Challenge:

The Marshmallow Challenge (one of two marshmallow-centered TED talks; not to be confused with the other one) forces people to collaborate constructively in a very tight timeframe, and there are all sorts of interesting lessons to be gleaned from who tends to do well at the challenge and under what circumstances.

Here's my favorite talk that's specifically about marketing and branding:

Simon Sinek makes a lot of sense. Still, it's hard not to be cynical about his mention of Apple Computers. "Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo." Simon Sinek gave this talk in 2009, I'm writing this in 2011, and while Apple would dearly like to have us believe that they are challenging the status quo, the truth is that for the last few years they have been the status quo.

Finally, Jason Fried's great talk. I've had a lot of fun showing this to Taiwanese office workers. Ordinary office workers generally agree with everything he says. One student of mine, a senior VP at the Taiwan Stock Exchange, found quite a bit to quibble with, but it was great to see he still engaged with the talk fully.

I like Fried's style. Not a single PowerPoint slide, or indeed any visuals whatsoever. I think this talk should be required viewing by everyone in a position of authority at large organizations. You can disagree with points he makes, but at least you'll have to think about his message.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I saw The King’s Speech the other day. I enjoyed it a lot, despite the story’s adherence to Hollywood formula.

What do I mean by Hollywood formula? From years of movie-going experience, I knew that Bertie, the stammering Prince who would eventually take the throne as King George VI, would after initial strong doubts gradually come to trust his speech therapist, and then for a silly reason Bertie would almost abandon that trust. But his doubts would turn out to be short-lived, and he would quickly return to his therapist's embrace.

But I'm a sucker for period pieces, and I didn't once wish that the movie would hurry up and end. So there’s that.

Of course the film takes some liberties with the historical record; Wikipedia devotes a whole section to them. The relationship between Bertie and Lionel Louge began in the 1920s, long before the film had them meeting. Bertie’s family life is simplified; he actually had two more younger brothers and one sister who the film never showed or mentioned. And history that’s deemed irrelevant to the plot gets left out. If you didn’t know better, you might get the impression from the film that World War II broke out just weeks after Bertie became king.

(There is also the fact that younger brother Colin Firth, born 1960, clearly looks older than elder brother Guy Pearce, born 1967, a fact that most film critics have been too polite to point out.)

But that’s all easily forgivable. A historical film that’s just as nuanced as real life would probably be unwatchable. Tora Tora Tora, which I remember being shown back in high school, is probably as historically accurate as movies get -- but the events it depicts take place within 24 hours. And even so, it's admired far more for its historical veracity than for being a crowd-pleaser.

But that’s not what has many people riled up. Christopher Hitchens, while praising the fine moviemaking at work, criticizes the film for how it portrays late-1930s British politics, particularly Churchill’s views on the Edward VIII abdication crisis and the new king’s views on appeasing Hitler. (George VI strongly supported appeasement, not that you’d know it from the movie.)

If that bothers you, do what I do: see the movie as pure fiction. Oh, of course it’s inspired by real events. But plenty of fiction is inspired by real events. Then the real events are molded and shaped to fit the narrative.

Like in The Social Network.

I saw The Social Network, I really enjoyed it, but after I learned that the real Mark Zuckerberg has been dating the same woman since before he started Facebook, I couldn’t take the film remotely seriously as corresponding to real events. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has famously said, of The Social Network, "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?" I for one was happy watching Jesse Eisenberg play a fictional character at the movie's center. And I remembered not to confuse the fictional story with real life; as Cracked has pointed out, The Social Network arguably makes Zuckerberg look better and more interesting than he deserves.

Even supposedly nonfiction books are often more story than unimpeachable history. I once read a 200-page biography of Queen Victoria that blatantly skipped over history and reduced supporting characters to caricatures in order to create an interesting narrative. You can hardly blame the author. You can’t fairly reduce a real person’s life to 200 pages, unless you’re dealing with a stupendously boring person. And people want to read, and see, narratives that make sense.

That said, if you don’t know anything about a person or period from history, a movie can at least impress an outline upon your brain, which can be filled in afterward with details of what really happened. After the movie 300, which I would argue is barely a historical drama at all (it’s an adaptation of a highly stylized graphic novel), Zompist helpfully provided some facts about how it compared with actual history, ending with the dry comment, “Despite the film, the Persian army did not actually have orcs”.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Best of TED: Education

Over the past year or so, I've watched a huge chunk of the online talks at Not all of them, but many, and some more than once.

All are worth your time. Many were interesting to watch, but didn't affect me much in the long run. But some lodged themselves in my mind, tenacious, not letting go.

Here are some of the ones that never let go. In this post, I'll look at a few about education.

Sir Ken Robinson gave the above two talks several years apart, but there is one running theme throughout. Think of them as two halves of one talk.

The case he makes that school reform is necessary is, to me, so intuitive, so obvious, that I wish every country's school system could be disassembled, reduced to its component parts, and then rebuilt according to the dictates of Sir Ken and some like-minded friends.

The idea that there are many children who are very bright, very creative, very capable, but don't do well on standardized tests, is an easy one for me to grasp. Because that's basically me, just in reverse. Okay, am I saying I'm not bright? I'm not creative and capable? Not exactly.

But I do seem to have one special talent. One thing that I excel at. One thing that I do really, really, really well. And that is taking standardized tests. Especially the kind where you have to fill in the correct bubble with your #2 pencil. I do great on those.

I don't deserve to.

I wasn't a great student. By that, I don't mean I was a naturally bright kid who found the material really easy to grasp and as a result didn't pay attention to teachers and didn't bother with homework. I know there are lots of kids like that being served badly by their schools, but that wasn't me.

No, I found many classes difficult, including classes I should have found easy. I seem to have a natural aptitude for mathematics, but I crashed and burned in physics and calculus courses. (I blame myself, but that's a whole different story.) I find it absolutely believable that there are many, many kids out there now who are bright and creative and yet struggle horribly on standardized tests.

Also, let's face it: a university education is right for many people, but it's not necessary for everybody, and people who don't have a bachelor's degree are of no less worth than those who do. I'm all for vocational education gaining more respect in society. I'm not good with my hands. I can't build or repair things. I have awe and respect for those who can. Let's get rid of this phony-baloney animosity in our society between university-educated people and so-called blue-collar workers. That time when a whole class of human beings spent their days mindlessly filling slots on an assembly line is over. Okay, in many parts of the world it's not over yet, but it ought to be made over as soon as possible. All human workers ought to have jobs that call for creativity and skill.

Speaking of education, let's talk about math education.

Arthur Benjamin here points out that math education in our schools is organized in a procession that looks something like this: Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, advanced algebra, CALCULUS! All hail calculus! Calculus, the crowning glory of all mathematics!

Yeah, right.

I haven't used what I learned in calculus class since my last day of calculus class. Which is not to knock calculus -- it's incredibly important in many fields -- but it shouldn't be considered basic cultural literacy. Calculus isn't something every adult with a functioning cortex ought to know.

Statistics is.

Don't believe me? We all use statistics in our everyday lives, generally without even realizing it. Our news media constantly bombard us with information presented in the form of statistics, and we're just expected to understand it. Arthur Benjamin has just enough time in his talk to sing the glory of statistics, but he doesn't have time for specifics.

Which brings us to Peter Donnelly's talk.

Statistics. Is. Important. After initially demonstrating that most people don't know much about the subject, he delivers some absolutely devastating evidence for its importance.

And yet I've never taken a statistics course in my life. Oh, I know the difference between 5 percent and 5 percentage points. I understand that if you raise a number by 20%, and then lower it by 20%, you don't have the same number that you started with. And I can read (most) graphs. But I'm still pitifully ignorant. There are plenty of grown-ups out there who know as little as me AND seem to have no intellectual curiosity, who still go out and vote and serve on juries.

If we're going to have a society that presents information statistically, then let's try to get people to understand that information, 'kay?

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Yes, it's a novel. I feel I have to put my foot down very strongly on that point because, if I get into a reasoned debate with someone over whether or not it constitutes a "novel", I'll probably lose. So let it be said that Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a novel, and will remain a novel for the remainder of this post.

This novel (said with unnecessary emphasis) appeared in bookstores when I was in college, and I remembered it due to that title. For the next decade, I did not read it. I did remember Dave Eggers' name, although for some reason I often got him confused with David Sedaris. Eventually I read his (Eggers', not Sedaris') brilliant The Wild Things, saw him on, and finally read the novel that made him famous.

In The Wild Things, Eggers showed his brilliance at capturing being a rambunctious young boy. (I wasn't all that rambunctious when I was a kid, but Eggers' portrayal had enough verisimilitude for me.) In AHWoSG, the book that made him famous, Eggers brilliantly captures being a financially strapped bright 20-something in a mid-1990s San Francisco that I never experienced, but is so cool that I can only regard it as a legendary place. (How cool and legendary is Eggers' mid-1990s Bay Area? Eggers name-drops Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing long before Frauenfelder or Boing Boing became nationally known. That's how cool and legendary.)

Of course, the novel isn't about the Bay Area of fifteen years ago; it's about how Eggers is thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood on one hand as he becomes his rambunctious little brother's de facto if not de jure guardian, while on the other hand doing his best to live the life of a not-quite straight-laced twentysomething (I am trying hard not to use the word "hipster"). Eggers delves deep into his own character, while creatively departing from the strict historical record just often enough that I don't feel dishonest in calling the book a novel. Novel novel novel!