Country vs People

Would people in Germany today be better off if the Nazis won?
Would people in Japan be better off if Imperial Japan had won?
In both cases I think it very unlikely.
It is an easy mental shorthand to think of what a country “wants” by the actions of their government, or what is good for the country as being what the will of the current government is. But it is important to keep the people seperate from the country, of course the government has a large part to play in the lives of the people, but the desires of the elite in control are not the same thing as what makes life for the average citizen good, and certainly not the will of all of the people in a country.
What people anywhere need to flourish is safety and freedom, there are cultural differences, group differences, differences of all kinds, but in the end we are so much more the same than we are different.

Some Thoughts on Teaching

The longer I have taught, the more I agree with the sentiments of Socrates, that it is impossible to truly teach. If by teaching, one means the direct transference of knowledge from one person to another, it is an endeavor that is at best fruitless.

Knowledge cannot be transferred for two reasons. First, true learning comes from the inside. It must occur within the minds of the students themselves, as they gradually learn to make connections and wield theories in appropriate contexts, driven not just by extrinsic incentives but, more importantly, by curiosity. Second, true learning does not occur by plain duplication. If students memorize the definition of what a chair is, it does not allow them to understand the concept of the chair right away. Instead, to truly learn what a chair is, they have to see a thousand chairs in different shapes and forms, touch them, and then sit on them. The reasoning appears obvious for a chair example, but it works the same for all subjects. Direct transference of knowledge through memorization of facts and definitions may work well in the short term for exams, but only true learning benefits students for their whole lives.

Guiding true learning versus transferring knowledge is like training a chef versus a cook. A chef knows all the taste profiles of various ingredients, how to balance tastes, can improvise, can invent, can explain why they make the decisions they make. A cook follows recipes and orders, doesn’t understand the reason behind them, can under familiar circumstances produce good results, but if things change would be at a loss. A chef can always create no matter what situation they are in, while with powerful search engines and advancements in robotics and AI, a cook can be easily replaced.

It is of educators’ job to promote the chef-way of learning among students, although this is not nearly as easy as it seems. A common mistake is to interpret good test results as being good results for learning. To illustrate the difference, there is a thought experiment in computer science called the Chinese Room I start the school year with. In the experiment, a monolingual English speaker is placed in a room full of Chinese and English translation guidelines, Chinese writing is then slipped under his door to translate. Theoretically, with the help of the instructions, the English speaker would make the Chinese person believe him as a native Chinese speaker, while only algorithmically following instructions with no real understanding of the language. In the same way, it is possible on many assessments for students to get do well following simple memorized heuristics with close to zero actual understanding.

So what recipe have I found to try to make my students more like chefs than cooks? A combination of novelty, difficulty, iteration, and feedback.

Can you feel your teeth? Research shows that humans actively tune out things that remain the same for too long, which is the exact reason why you didn’t feel your teeth until it was brought up. We ignore things that don’t change, things that are boring to us, so a class design needs to have frequent novelty to keep the students engaged and intrinsically curious.

From novelty, difficulty naturally stems, but it is also essential in order to change the way students approach learning. Students are like water–they tend to follow whatever path that has the least resistance. In a game, you can build all the fancy systems you want, but players will never realize any of them if simple, familiar strategies can lead to success. At a school, if students can easily pass all tests with their strategy of memorization, most of them will just keep repeating it, no matter how hard you say “understanding is important.” It is not up to what educators say that change students’ behaviors, but to what methods of evaluation are designed. To encourage real understanding, educators need to create assessments that are difficult for students who use the default study mode. Only when students feel enough resistance using their old method, they may switch to a new one.

Difficulties, however, can be frustrating. In fact, the transition from old to the new way of learning is often tough for my students, and it is very tempting just to give up. One key to helping them is to let them understand that you do not wish to torture them arbitrarily, but instead, want them to improve and to reach their best potential. The best way of doing this is to care for the students genuinely, and your attitude will show through your actions. Another key is to provide enough resources for your students. This often means making yourself available to students, there is no short cut, training chefs is hard work for both the educator and the students. Despite the hardship of the process, I have found that any of those who try can become successful, and they almost universally look back at the experience as positive and transformative. Former students who visit me years later consistently surprise me with the degree to which they still understand.

Not just difficult, learning is also a long and slow process. It takes place with direction, trial, and error. No matter it is to learn painting, cooking, writing, coding, or anything else, there are general theories as a guide, but no one can read a book or hear a lecture and become a master. Instead, what is required is many trials and errors, where each time you get a little bit better, even if in the end you cannot explain why. Feedback during this process is critical because otherwise, you won’t learn from practice and just reinforce mistakes.

While a teacher can be a fount of knowledge, an educator can be more like a guide: illuminating the path, encouraging weary travelers to continue on, and perhaps most importantly, keeping them from the shortcuts that seem expedient, but ultimately rob the journey of its usefulness.

Why I Live in China

Things I’ve gotten used to living in China that make it hard to leave

-My students are an incredible cohort, many of them are deeply intellectually interested, they are honest, real, and they are very bright (my advanced class has an average SAT of 1510), I feel as if my teaching methods have largely developed to work well with the clay I have now and I am always afraid it wouldn’t port well to different clay…

-I can get anything I want, like anything off Taobao. Is Taobao better than Amazon? Let me put it this way, I bought a book once on Taobao, it came in Amazon packaging turns out it was from Amazon’s taobao store…

-I can bike anywhere and feel pretty safe (well so long as the air isn’t poison on that day, which is less and less often!), but taking a taxi across town through an app is extremely fast and cheap, going to my friend’s place 22km away is usually about 10 dollars or less. I have had countless days of just totally randomly exploring the cities and the nearby mountains without ever having to concern about my safety (other than the whole avoid cars thing which since there are so many people on bikes here is easier than most places).

-I can get any groceries delivered to me in 30 minutes, vegetables are so much cheaper, and groceries in general are much cheaper than they would be in most countries.
-My phone is all the money I ever need, carrying cash or cards just feels… like an unnecessary hindrance at this point.

-Medical costs are unfathomably lower than in the USA

-China’s free trade agreement with Australia means I get to be knee deep in delicious Australian meat!

-One problem I had in Japan and Korea is they are so very polite, but it doesn’t come off overly genuine… I have met countless warm genuine people in China, maybe not always so polite or orderly, but warm and real. I have more Chinese friends than foreign at this point though… (I don’t have many friends)

-It is very hard for me to stand for any significant period of time due to medical problems, I also can’t eat outside because… different medical problems! So I have a lot of dishes that need cleaning but that would require a lot of standing to clean. Luckily I can have a really nice person handle all my deliveries and clean my dishes and do my laundry for me who has worked with me for seven years and whom I have  a genuine friendship with(for instance once when I was sick and she thought I was sleeping(I felt too miserable to try to speak Chinese), she tucked me in).

-This is a small thing but I don’t have to wear a seatbelt, I know that is unsafe, I have even read some studies on the matter but… it isn’t in my nature to prioritize safety, and I always feel really resentful when I am forced to do things “for my own good” not saying this won’t eventually change but in general, not having to worry about “health and safety” regulations is a thing I do appreciate though I could understand how many others would be horrified.
-Of course there are a bunch of annoyances and downsides of living in China in general and Beijing in particular. But while they might be the focus of western media, to be honest they don’t effect day to day life all that much, some just require small adjustments don’t publicly discuss politics, stay inside with air filters on bad air days etc. Others you just deal with, the fact it is 30c indoors during the winter probably bugs me the most, oh and the umm internet intranet, the occasional cultural difference, having to deal with the odd flare up of nationalism. No place is perfect but for me the scales tip heavily in favor of living in China. I recognize that is partially my privilege in being who I am in China, but this isn’t a list of why it is great to be a random person in China, instead it is a list of why I find it so hard to leave even after this being my 8th year here.

Learning Economics as a Way to Curb Resentment

I think one of the most important reasons to learn economics is that if it is done properly, it can help you extend your empathy. Also knowledge of economics, specifically that other’s gain is not your loss, consistently helps me curb my natural feelings of resentment.
I was standing in line to pay for my insulin, usually the lines are short because I could just pay at endocrinology, but policy change due to new ownership (PLA) everyone now had to stand in line together. I had debated bringing my cane as for me standing in line is… unpleasant and now faced with a snaking line I regretted being cane-less. About half way through, after putting in 15 or so minutes of grinding my teeth, suddenly there was a flurry of movement. A new line had opened up, but I had missed my chance. Surveying the victors of this sudden disequilibrium event, I noticed that a lot of the people now well ahead of me in line used to be behind me. My first instinct was to be upset at the perceived unfairness, but then I snapped myself out it, and realized that, those people who now have to wait less don’t make me have to wait more and in fact, the line in front of me had also appreciably shortened in the melee, besides how would a fairer way even work? The new line was actually beneficial for everyone, it would be silly to be mad about it. With this realization I felt better, thanking economic insights that make it easier to carry less resentment I slowly worked my way through the line, really regretting the absence of my cane.
After another 15 minutes of waiting in line, my legs nearing their threshold of endurance, it was my turn in line and… a Chinese man from far away came charging at me in the cashier booth, I am, I should mention the only foreigner that was at the hospital. My Chinese is far from perfect, very far in fact, but in this instance it proved ample enough to understand what he was saying. He was Chinese, he had been waiting in line, his legs hurt, and they were going to serve a foreigner before him? It was an uncomfortable situation for all involved, while at first the lady at the register tried her best to just ignore him, his mounting anger, his shrill piercing screaming were too much, she took his documents and started to process him. Anger was my first response, I had waited in line just like everyone else after all, my legs didn’t feel great either, and his characterization of me wasn’t overly kind. But soon the anger turned to pity: what must it be like to be such a man, so filled with resentment, lashing out, not even thinking of the discomfort of all of his fellow citizens whom he had just cut in line in front of. Even though he got his way, I couldn’t help imagine just how painful such an existence must be.
And once again I thanked economics.

Cowboy Dan

Tourists taking photos next to a picture of a kitschy cardboard cowboy… Dan pats his pocket, takes out a cigarette and lights it, inhaling deeply, the smoke mixing with the dry desert air filling his lungs and unceremoniously exiting through his nostrils with a huff. He stood there soaking in the artificiality of it all. A man, younger than he appeared with a face battered by the elements, tanned by the sun, and covered in coarse dark stubble from neglect. A lean man, a hard looking man, he always wore his dusty old tattered cowboy hat, an anchor to who he was. He had moved away from people into the vast expanses of the wild west, but the people found him all the same. What once was a harsh unforgiving land, a land that tested him amongst his solitude, now boasted three Starbucks per square mile. Stomach churning with disgust he enters his pickup and speeds back to the only place in the area he could not feel like an alien, or worse, a relic.
The humble shack that he had built himself, considered an eyesore by the “locals” had to be grandfathered in. What had once stood as a proud testament to man’s resilience in the vast desert, now only served to disharmoniously interrupt the endless rows of cookie cutter houses. Inside, he lights another cigarette, empties another bottle into a chipped glass and throws it down into the pile of bottles and cigarette butts strewn about the floor. God damn that freeway, god damn the people, and god damn this town. At a little past midday in a drunken stupor Dan closes his eyes and passes into unconsciousness.

Awaking at midnight he hears the distant howls of coyotes, he staggers out of bed and realizes the only reason he isn’t hung over yet is because he is still drunk. No matter how much he drank, sleep wouldn’t stick, how he yearned to just have some way of making today into tomorrow, tomorrow into the next day, and so on and so forth.

Grabbing his keys and throwing on his cowboy hat despite the noted lack of sunlight, he once again enters his truck, putting the pedal to the floor heading for the nearby reservation. There is a bar there filled with members of the local tribe. The people that would be there at this time of night would be just as resentful, just as full of hate, just as lacking in purpose, just as clinging to romantic images long since faded as Dan was. He was a regular at the bar, but not a well-liked one. Truth be told, if the community was not in such dire straits he would have been banned long ago, but it was, and his money was still green.

He came there to soak in the bleak atmosphere, to feel a kinship in suffering, to escape the saccharine sterilized modern world that had no place for a man such as Dan. And maybe, just maybe to make a connection with someone, anyone, a reason he would never admit, not even to himself.

There he drank and smoked, his pathology oozing out of him, daring anyone to so much give him a sideways glance. Until someone did, another regular, just as drunk and just as resentful. A gruff exchange took place; “this is a place for members of the tribe, I told you before we don’t need the presence of you drunk thieving white men here.” Dan swung his fist and connected it with the speaker’s jaw, only to be jumped by the remainder of the patrons. He hit his shoulder hard on the ground as he was tossed out of the bar. His face was bloodied, he for an instant reflected on his life, he was overcome with the desire to sob, to cry, to breakdown there laying on the cold hard earth. But he was a man, a real man. Screw them, screw them all, he doesn’t need anyone, he hasn’t ever needed anyone, he is fine alone, he is better alone.

He lights another cigarette and drives into desert, the empty desert.
There Dan looks up the stars
Cowboy Dan fires his rifle into the sky
God if I have to die, you will have to die
Impotent undirected rage, boundless hidden sorrow, a veneer of pride and self importance that he could not ever dare to try to look under.
Cowboy Dan was a major player in the cowboy scene.
He didn’t move to the city, the city moved to him.

Based on the song found here

A Happy Ending for Gordon

Weeks had passed. Gordon’s self loathing from his failure in the river was a crushing weight that visibly sank his shoulders. He had started consuming more and more, trying but failing to sleep more and more, just wishing for the days to pass. Drinking from a standing pool Gordon looked at himself, looked into his own eyes, the self loathing made him recoil but he forced himself to stare at the bear like creature gazing back at him. He headed back through the glade, back for the river. This time he stayed in the water longer, this time he almost caught a fish. But eventually, despite the screaming in his head to tough it out born from the hard won knowledge of the horrors of quitting, he did not persevere, he had failed again. But the next morning when he awoke surrounded by snack wrappers and bottles he thought to himself, I might not be good at being a bear, but I am better at being a bear than I was the day before. With renewed vigor he once again trekked to the river, and he did so almost every day until he became proficient at catching fish, and hardened against the cold. In the glade he caught a deer, in the forest he ate from bushes. He still slipped from the path occasionally, raiding the humans and drinking their fiery water. But he did not fill himself with loathing when he did so anymore, he knew nothing good lay down that path. Instead, Gordon focused on being a little better, a little more of a bear every day, tolerating his mistakes without justifying or excusing them. He would no longer let himself be miserable, or at least stay that way. Gordon was a bear and it was early April, mating season would be soon.