Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Books

Happy New Year! I suppose before 2015 begins I should clear the 2014 book queue.

Here is New York, by E.B. White - Even at nearly a hundred years old, this extended essay perfectly captures the allure of New York City.

Think Like a Freak, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Cute.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield - Disappointing. He needs a more aggressive editor. No one reads books by astronauts to hear grumpy lectures on the same life lessons their grandparents scoldingly ramble about. We want more awesome stories about space travel! Unfortunately, the title is accurate.

Going Solo, by Roald Dahl - Followup to Boy. Roald Dahl has even more ridiculously awesome stories, this time from working in Africa and being a fighter pilot.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace - DFW is an unmitigated genius. The way he captures the over-analyzing brain is scary.

The Armchair Economist, by Steven Landsburg - Steven Landsburg is amazing at explaining things such that they seem completely obvious. But in this book he often oversimplifies, not by presently incorrectly simplified arguments but by ignoring important side issues.

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe - Best book I read all year; I could not put it down. If you want awesome stories about space travel, you can't do any better than this. It covers the Mercury NASA program and the selection and training of the original seven astronauts, starting with their test pilot days, and now I desperately wish he would do the same for Gemini and Apollo and Skylab and the shuttle and anything else space related. This also isn't a dry scientific topic; it's entirely character driven, wonderfully.

Digital SLR Cameras and Photography for Dummies - This was surprisingly fairly useful; I knew a lot of it already but it tied everything together for me and had lots of new useful bits and pieces. I recommend it for photography beginners who have played around with cameras a bit but want to improve.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson - Very engrossing story about a serial killer in Chicago during the 1892 World's Fair. Not always well written but the story is good enough to compensate.

How to Fight Presidents, by Daniel O'Brien - This appears at first glance to be a silly book about how to beat any of the American presidents in a fist fight but is actually chock full of the most interesting and entertaining American history I've read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cuba

As you've surely heard by now, big news about Cuba!

Seems like an appropriate time to finally write about my brief visit to the island. First of all, you should definitely visit, and do it as soon as possible while it's still such an incredible, incredibly bizarre place. It's obviously beginning to change as restrictions on private property and investment are relaxed.

Havana is a beautiful colonial wealthy 1959 city, frozen in time and subjected to half a century of decay and extreme poverty. Every building is in serious disrepair, and the cars are either carefully maintained 1950's American imports or sadder looking Soviet vehicles sent over when the Cuban economy survived on aid from the USSR. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, unlike anything else I'm aware of, and is simultaneously gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Beautiful, decaying Habana Vieja

Except, there is also a smattering of new renovation and high-tech infrastructure, such as LED stoplights and new vehicles imported from Asia by the government, most of which (I infer) has shown up in just the last couple of years as some restrictions have loosened. As if things weren't surreal enough, this leads to such juxtapositions as driving down the highway in a brand new air conditioned Korean tour bus adjacent to a desperately poor tobacco farmer in a horse-drawn carriage.

Speaking of desperately poor, the communist dictatorship has not only kept its people in poverty by disallowing most legitimate enterprise, it has indirectly destroyed the country's (or at least, Havana's) social capital by forcing so many individuals to resort to dishonest means of making a few cents off of clueless tourists or just anyone who can't bear to spend every minute of every day saying "no". (At least, I really hope this is the explanation, rather than that Cuba was always full of con men. I don't think it could have gotten as wealthy as it once was, if it was.) It is a safe assumption that anyone you talk to will try to take your money before you can escape, usually by directly asking you (after being friendly for just long enough to make you feel guilty saying no) but very often through more insidious tactics, such as the common scam of striking up a friendly conversation with a tourist, suggesting continuing the conversation over lunch or drinks, and taking them to a restaurant where they will end up paying $80 for toast and coffee. This is true of 99.99% of people who initiate conversation with you, but also a large majority of the people you initiate conversation with. It didn't take long for me to be as wary of every Cuban as I am of every American cop. I anticipate that this will be a major roadblock to future development.

The motivations are easy to understand, though. Wages are paid through the government and average less than $1 per day, often much less. Prices for daily necessities are also very low (6 cents for a glass of fresh mango juice, 40 cents for a personal cheese pizza, etc.) but not low enough to make that salary truly livable. And certainly not enough to mitigate the temptation of scamming a buck off of any tourist for whom a little pocket change is worth it to get rid of the scam artist following you around (or in better circumstances, for whom it's a cheap tip for a friendly cemetery worker who acted as a tour guide before revealing his main motive.) When a foreigner's pocket change constitutes a week's wages and other legitimate options are not available, it's not surprising that seemingly every person in the central district of Havana is exclusively focused on taking it off your hands.

The constant deceit made it very difficult to find out any trustworthy information about Cubans' opinions of their own country, attitudes towards the U.S., etc. Traveling with a Spanish speaker didn't help. We started playing a game of answering a different country every time someone trying to sell us on something asked where we were from. We were pleasantly surprised the first time, at "Oh you're American? I love Americans! All the animosity between our countries is just a problem for Castro and Obama. We love the Americans." But then next came "Oh you're Canadian! That's so great, you people are so much better than the awful Americans." Et cetera et cetera...

One of the most memorable and pleasant experiences I had was, after having my reference point for personal interaction decimated for three days, somehow having one conversation with the one Cuban without an ulterior motive, just before catching the cab back to the airport. I didn't even believe it was happening until I'd actually walked away without a single request or sales pitch. A teenage boy stopped me on the street and asked where I was from. "The United States." "Oh that's great! Which part?" "Oklahoma" "Oklahoma! Kevin Durant is the best!" I tried to get away by saying I was about to get a beer in the corner bar, but he persisted and asked if I would bring it outside to talk for just a couple minutes, and I reluctantly played along. I was even more pleasantly surprised by the rest of the conversation than when he recognized my state for something other than the OKC bombing, deadly tornados, and a certain musical that I would accuse of being even worse than the first two options if that weren't wildly politically incorrect.

His beliefs about Americans consisted of the following: We are subjected to the horror of having to pay for everything, like schooling, housing, utilities, health care, etc. As a result, everyone has to work three jobs. We're all workaholics and rely on anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants to cope with the stress. But then we come home at the end of the day and watch big screen TV from recliner chairs.

I clarified as best as could, and asked him about his own experience in Cuba. He works selling knickknacks from a cart, every day starting early in the morning. His dream in life is to visit the United States, or really anywhere else in the world, to glimpse existence outside of the Cuban island prison. His wide-eyed curiosity was admirable, and then the wistful defeat in his voice when he said he hoped that one day he would be allowed to travel was fairly heartbreaking.

Despite the fact that people seem to be quite unhappy with their government, there is definitely no shortage of up-to-date propaganda. We saw an unlimited amount of "53rd anniversary of the revolution" graffiti, Che iconography everywhere, and the ubiquitous national rallying cry for justice for "Los Cinco", the remaining three of whom were just released as part of the deal between Obama and Raul. I really wish I knew how much of this is an advertising campaign by the government, and how much comes from civilians.

The ubiquitous Che (appropriately affixed to the resulting decay of the communist dictatorship).

One of the most interesting encounters with Cuban propaganda was the Museum of the Revolution. Or I should say, most meta-interesting. The museum is in the beautiful former presidential palace, but the exhibits look like history class posters made by 5th graders 40 years ago. There wasn't a clear presentation of the history, but there was a large collection of spoons, cufflinks, hats, etc, used by various people associated in some way with the revolution. These were labeled with bits of age-yellowed typewriter paper stapled to the posterboard that the knickknacks were attached to or sitting in front of. In the midst of this surreal (sorry to abuse the word, but it's the only apt description for many things Cuban) presentation were comical bits of misinformation giving the CIA far too much credit. Americans grew up learning about US Cuban intelligence operations as the inept efforts they have been, from the Bay of Pigs failed invasion to this ridiculous and ineffective 50 year embargo. But to the Cubans, we apparently intentionally introduced dengue fever to the island, among many other evils. Castro, however, is a national hero for such wonders as ending professional baseball, the "profitable business that had enriched a few to the detriment of the athletes." My economist self obviously did a lot of cringing before we made it to the 3-story Cuban flag at the end of the exhibit.

Mural in entryway of the Museum of the Revolution (way too new and creative and interesting to be part of the main exhibit): The Four Cretins. From left (all typos exactly copied from the signs): Batista (thank you cretin for helping us to make the revolution), Reagan (Thanks you cretin for h lped us to strengthen the revolution), Bush Sr (thanks, cretin because you've helped us to consolidate our revolution) and Bush Jr (Thank you cretin for helping us to make socialism irrevocable).

Other miscellaneous things: the food is terrible, confirming the guidebook's description of it as "easily the worst in the Caribbean." That 40 cent personal pizza I mentioned consisted of a thick piece of strange bread-like material, covered with ketchup, a few shreds of cheese, maybe some bologna if I upgraded, and in one case, a chunk of glass. Strawberry ice cream, which I was initially thrilled to get on a hot afternoon for about 9 cents, tasted like, if anything, bubblegum. The fresh fruit (including one magical mango I can't even describe, and huge red guavas) was fantastic, and the meal we had the first night on the very forceful recommendation of our guest house keeper (I can only assume because she's in cahoots with them) was quite delicious, and the mojitos are great, but the everyday food you would survive on is just godawful.

By the way, I should also mention that those low prices are mostly only available to Cubans. It's a bit tricky, although doable, to convert the tourist currency into the regular Cuban currency, which is about 25 times less valuable but accepted in equal nominal amounts for goods at most vendors.

Art: I am utterly clueless about art but there seemed to be quite a bit of it, including a couple statues I absolutely love, including this one that I would really love to have explained (the limited information I've found indicates that there is no explanation):

An inexplicable statue in La Plaza Vieja, of a naked woman in high heels with a giant fork riding a rooster.

The music, on the other hand, is as fantastic as you would expect.

Outside Havana: If you go, stop by any one of the big fancy hotels and ask about a day tour to Viñales (they're all the same). It's the epitome of an engineered tourist experience, but it was still very nice and only $59 for a full day including lunch. Viñales is a breathtaking world heritage site west of Havana in a strange landscape of luscious cliffs, and the tours also stop in a rum factory, a (fake, for show) cigar factory, some caves you take a boat through, and a (not fake, but carefully manicured for tourist consumption) small countryside town. 

Viñales

Last but not least, we also stopped at the strangest tourist attraction I've ever seen, the mural of prehistory, a 180x100 painting on a cliff depicting lifeforms that have occupied that area through the ages. A couple snails, some vaguely humanoid creatures, and a dinobear, all in bright primary colors, create the effect of a child's painting projected to massive proportions.

The mural of prehistory.

In short, go visit. Now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

teaching (rantish)

Am I allowed to defend the classic talking-and-writing-at-the-blackboard-style university lecture?

I keep hearing about all these various teaching techniques to "engage students" and make learning "fun" and I can't help thinking, why should I waste time on dumbed-down content (and these techniques universally involve doing so) when, at the university level, students are there optionally taking time and money out of their lives in order to get an education? The ones who aren't, who are there because of parental pressure or because they haven't thought about what they'd rather do, shouldn't be running the show.

To be sure, I do only think this philosophy applies at the University level. As much as I hated the ridiculously slow pace of grade school education, I recognize that a major purpose of public gradeschool education is to create a generally educated population (and to educate kids who are too young to consciously choose to become educated). If that requires, in effect, bribing kids to learn and holding their hands as you spoonfeed each logical step to them, then so be it. The best teachers and best schools provide learning opportunities for more skill/motivation levels than the core of the distribution (which I was very lucky to be a part of). That's an enormous challenge and all the research on teaching methods can be valuably applied to it.

But in a university, it is a betrayal of the serious, paying adults to cater to the kids treating college like a four year vacation.

Sure, part of what they're paying for is a real dedication to making information as easily digestible as possible, with the best explanations and resources possible. And yes, that means for the struggling students along with the ones who barely need more than the textbook to grok the lessons. But there's a big difference, I think, between clearly articulating a difficult concept in various ways compatible with multiple learning styles and levels, and playing silly games that waste time and only serve to coerce lazy minds to understand a concept without having to put any effort into thinking themselves.

And that has to be one of the most important skills you learn in college! How to stare down a difficult problem or concept, ponder it deeply from every angle, without any linear idea of how to get at the answer, without any idea what angles it even has to be stared at, until you finally, sometimes almost magically, break through. It constantly astounds me how university students not only aren't capable of this, but don't even realize it's a thing you're supposed to try to do. Next time I teach game theory I might just start the class with some classic math/logic puzzles so that solving a 2-player normal form game doesn't seem too overwhelmingly nonformulaic in comparison...

So why is there so much hype about "engaging students"? A majority of lecturers share my views, I'm certain. But the teaching pedagogy types honestly don't. And they perpetuate ridiculous teaching metrics like student evaluations that everyone knows reflect the views of the mediocre students who care only about getting the easiest A possible and being told that they're great regardless of the pain this will cause when their bubbles are burst in the real world.

To be fair, higher education is a business and businesses have to cater to their customers even if a majority of their customers are being forced to consume the product and their views have nothing to do with the quality of the product offered.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't think many kids should be going to college so soon after high school before they have an idea of its value or their goals. Who knows. In the meantime, I'm going to continue focusing on providing clear lectures, useful homework and resources, fair exams, and telling kids what they want to hear when I have to to have any chance of getting good evaluations.

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(Any views stated on this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer :)