Various Bitlets

I’m subscribed to a couple of hundred feeds over at Newsgator, but I have been seriously, seriously behind on nearly all of them — including the feeds of some close friends. I was just overwhelmed over the past year or so, and fell behind on everything. Anyway, in the past few days I chopped the items in the feeds from over 10,000 to just about 800 at present. That’s not bad, and I’m sure I’ll have to cull some more feeds and drop things I’m not reading, but if I can get it to 200-300 items a day, I’ll be able to keep up from now on.

But man, going through it, I found a ton of interesting stuff. Here’s a roundup, with credit when I can, and if I don’t credit my source, well, er, sorry:

Your Chance to Help

You could give money to the EFF, the people who are fighting to protect your freedom online.

Or how about helping this grad student pay off the flight home to say goodbye to her dad, who just passed away? I, too, lost my father from far, far away: it sucks enough, without having a big debt come of it. Got this from Pharyngula, so maybe she’s already in the black. Who knows?

Politics & Economy

(Can’t have one without the ooooo-ther. You know the tune, right?)

An Oral History of the Bush Administration. In case you didn’t already have a bad taste in your oral cavity mouth. And the great legacy? It’s all over the net, but what the hell: Muslims are apparently banned from wanting to (or expressing a desire to) sit in safe seats on a plane.

Government bails out those who got us into this mess. But the arts?

And does this look like the 1930s to you? Some people are comparing it to the late 70s and 80s. Hm.

David Galbraith has the recession in graphs, and the fact is, it’s sweeping the world: factories are cutting back or shutting down not just in the US, but all over the world, and there are concerns about even the juggernaut Chinese economy. (Latter link via Left Flank, and an interesting post that is with way more links to various thing. Not, not just the Jennifer Lee photoshoot.) Well, if dirt-cheap labour can’t save you, what can? Certainly not Russian Banks.

Here’s a Nicholas Nassim Taleb essay on the misuse of his ideas. Featuring section titles like, “How My Warnings were Received By Parasites/Economists.” (Yes, I’m occasionally reading bits of that Black Swan book of his these days, and thinking, yeah, this is sort of what SF authors try to think about a lot, so it’s not all so new to me.) Oh, and some papers on recession and recovery that Taleb, I’m sure, would hate!

Why Wall Street Always Blows It, by Henry Blodget. (This one yet to read, but it looks interesting, if bitter.) Also via Metafilter. The picture Jim Kunstler paints is pretty dark, but then, the present is pretty dark too, and his story is not without hope.

Tech & Science

Adaptive Eyewear: water-bladder glasses for the world’s poor.

Dogs can tell when life’s unfair. (Or at least when you are.) (via mefi)

How cats land on their feet — and why relatively longer falls let them do it better than relatively shorter ones.

There’s no such thing as free software, kid. (Luckily nobody trusts their teachers anymore.)

Star Maker — not the Stapledon version, either. (But I love that book and am happy to see it online. Free. I got my copy from Stefan Jones, one of the most interesting people from my long-ago mailserv days.)

Spend some quality time with Dr. Feynman. It’s a good cure for being tricked by a trio of charlatans. Oh, and more inoculation: Derren Brown talks about chicanery with Richard Dawkins.

(I’d embed the video but it’s in six parts, and I can’t seem to find a playlist embed function.)

Still doubting evolution? Creationism never produces new evidence of its model, but science does. Hmm. Never mind, if you don’t believe it by now, you will never, never never know it… no, woah-woah-woah-woaaaaah!

Third hand smoke. This is why I don’t like sitting beside you even if you smoke outside. Ya stink something toxic. But then again, the processed food we eat may also increase chances of lung cancer. (Either way, it’s bad for us.) But at least fresh blood from pretty young things is good for you after a cancer op. Huh! Vampires we shall all become. And with our heads full of debunked medical myths.

Worldchanging is doing a bunch of Year-in-Review posts. Excellent stuff, see the list at the bottom of the post.

Global warming? Do we even have a plan B? Well, responsible reporting might be a nice start. Or we could just let the insects take over.

Science Fiction

(I’m short of SF-related links here, but there are more on my other computer. I’ll do another link dump from that one sometime soon.)

SF and Shanghai: fascinating stuff.

And this sounds SFnal, but though it isn’t, it’ll have to turn up in something I write someday: Chinese farmers are settling in parts of Africa. (It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this. People where I grew up love Ukranian food because of a similar — though different — displacement pattern.) (That last link is via Thomas P.M. Barnett.)

Whim Seek blogged (somewhere) about Repo: The Genetic Opera and Repossession Mambo, two films just so crazy they might work. While I’m at it, I’ll watch Avatara.


Paul Graham on credentials vs. performance, and why Korea’s reliance on the former and very weak focus on the latter is a big problem here now (as it was in America decades ago). This is something I’ve been very interested in for a while. Related: an interesting meme shifting the work ethic from “hard work” to “mastering distraction.”

Brian Deutsch: I like his blog again. He posted on the attitude that English teachers in Korea are interchangeable, the fact that pop singers seem interchangeable (I sense a bigger pattern forming in the entertainment industry, leasing songs into language-specific versions for different stars in various places, instead of having them waste time learning foreign languages and tour those countries singing translations of their “repertoire”), about discriminatory banking practices directed at foreigners in Korea, about how some Koreans find the worst part of Itaewon is the foreigners (wait! I agree!), and he linked to this really, really bad video that is being used to abused teach English to underaged victims public schoolchildren in Korea.

Thought Brian linked this, too, I got the link from Scott Burgeson himself (author of the book Bumgarner is so proud of appearing in). Bumgarner’s been completely off my radar for years now, but I have to say he is reacting better than I think a lot of people would be doing to the story that ended up being published about him.

“The Korean” posted a couple of interesting links about Korea-related American stuff here.

Lee Myung Bak promises what amounts to a super-secret planning session to fix the South Korean economy. (Funny how when Josh Lyman said that in The West Wing, it was a gaffe, but when it’s the Blue House, wel, what else do you expect? Then again, The Lee Administration’s approval ratings are in the potty anyway.) He also says North Korea says, with typical adolescent idiotic exuberance ignorance, “screw it,” and invites South Koreans to stage a revolt, while working in a little friendly promise of denuclearization for the US. Hey, maybe flunkyism will see us through after all? By the way, the Psychopath King is still alive… or a look-alike, just as likely. And I was hoping to sing and dance that munchkin song from The Wizard of Oz… you know, the one that goes “Ding, dong! The Witch is Dead!”

Wait, that’s what Kim is: not the Psychopath King, but the Witch King! Yay! Now to figure out how many hit dice he has, and roll up his stats. Comeliness: 2. Charisma: 3. Dexterity: ha!

Back to the economy: maybe everyone should just keep doing the same thing as before, but, y’know, like, better? For some people, it’s not so much thinking outside the box as it is noticing there’s a box outside of which thinking could occur.


Wanna see if you’d be nuked? Try Ground Zero.

Unreliable, maybe, but some people seem to have successfully unlocked their iPhone 3Gs with this Yellowsn0w thingie. I’m considering getting one when they come out in Korea this April, but I’m also leery. I explain why in the comments section of this post by my pal Marvin.


Lolbrarians. No, really. Check it.

You think your brain hurts?

Sexist? I just thought this Orangina commercial was weird, but in a sort of campy-clever way. Forgive me when I say this, but the sexuality in it is, er, cheesball and silly, slightly drag-queen-cabaretesque; not, in my opinion, something to get your knickers into a twist over. Circus sexuality, or something.

Some (dated) visions of the future really do amuse me.

As noted at the source, this is kind of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” for rappers. Trippy:

For Writers:

Writing gigs at Whisperjobs, if you’re not too busy or want some spare cash. (I don’t.)

There might be something useful here for you, like, say, Notesake. And try One-Two-Fiver for a neat warmup exercise! (I used it to sketch a strange meeting between a yuki-onna and a wide-eyed expat in Osaka, for a story I’ve been thinking of writing for a while now.)


Poilly Toynbee wishes you a Merry Godless Xmas.

Those who’ve read Shake Girl — tons of info on acid attacks at Metafilter.

Curious about African Rock? Also at Metafilter.

Running WordPress? Want to ban someone from visiting or trolling your site? WP-Ban might be the plugin for you.

Wanna kill some time? Left 4K dead. (Zombie shooter arcade minigame.)

Westerners like me love to complain at how Korean Chinese food is nothing like “real Chinese food.”) But, of course, what we think of Chinese food is, pften isn’t. For example, one dish I personall have been craving since I left Montreal is “General Tao Chicken”. But that’s no more real Chinese food than is jjambbong or jjajjangmyeon. Jennifer 8 Lee (yeah, that’s her byline) gave a great talk at TED about Chinese food localizations, specifically Americaized ones, and even called it “Open Source” which is a real interesting way of thinking about it.Maybe I should make some General Tsao’s Chicken for myself? Pretty greasy stuff, though.

The Commons: The world’s shared photo album, @ Flickr.

6 thoughts on “Various Bitlets

  1. re:credentials vs. performance – this is something I’ve been interested (semi-professionally) for nearly a decade now – I’m continually trying to find a way to test my hypothesis empirically. My hypothesis is that due in part to lack of ability by employers to determine who will be good worker or not; and due in part to the difficulties of firing people, especially in large companies (which in turn is due partially to culture, and partially to labor laws and regulations), companies turn to what seems to be relatively objective and transparent – namely credentials. If the new worker turns out to be a dud, the person responsible for hiring him has an excuse – namely, “he had great credentials.”

    Korean education industry plays to this weakness, and thus the overemphasis on credentials which “signals” that the student can be a good worker; as opposed to “real learning” or in econspeak “building human capital.” However, to determine whether he really is a good worker with high human capital, it requires that you actually work with the worker for a while, and be able to fire him if he turns out to be a dud. If the culture and laws prevent that, then people will try to fake being a good worker, or signal that he is a good worker by getting impressive credentials.

    If this hypothesis is true, the optimal answer – to reduce overreliance on credentials, emphasize “real learning” and improve economic efficiency, is to make the labor market more flexible – i.e make it easier to fire workers.

    If you can’t make the labor market more flexible, then making choices based on credentials actually ends up to be a socially optimal result, since (even though it is imperfect), it does allow you to distinguish between good and bad workers.

    Thus, while I cannot yet show it empirically, I believe that the only way Korea will get over its obsession with credentials and make a true education reform is if Korea fixes the labor market first.

    Another consequence (if my hypothesis is true) is that more transparency will *not* help. If you make the hiring process more transparent, then because credentials are a fairly transparent measure of a person, it will become even more important in the hiring process (unless you make the labor market more transparent). As someone who wrote papers on transparency, and advocates more transparency in general, I found this is a truly disturbing consequence, but it follows naturally from the hypothesis.

  2. Concerning my previous comments, I should emphasize that these ideas are from economics of imperfect information – especially the ideas of Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz.

  3. Junsok,

    I don’t know Spence and Stiglitz, but the stuff about making it harder to fire workers surely sounds like a piece of the puzzle that had never quite occurred to me, though now that you point it out, it makes sense. (I’ve long noted that incompetence doesn’t seem to get people fired so much here, but always attributed it to overemphasis on credentials over real ability alone. The fact it’s hard to fire people once you figure out they’re incompetent pretty much clinches it.)

    Everything you say sounds believable, though the transparency also requires the majority of people to buy into the demonstrable value of credentials. I suppose relying on them might be optimal, though I have doubts. (It depends on how broken the credentialing system is, I guess. TOEIC, for example, I see as a widespread credential, but also as a completely broken system. Completely, throw it out the window and start again, broken system.)

    If businesses were seriously going to embrace practical ability/skill, they’d probably also have to not just deemphasize, but in fact sideline any credential measures as broken as that, to make room for measures more reflective of, well, anything besides ability to game the system. I can’t see that happening in the short term, though, since the people who’d need to push for it probably wouldn’t want to lose the security of their own credentials, too. Plus designing a new measure, and fighting social norms, is a time-consuming pain in the ass, and who wants to be the first to experiment with a new system? :)

    The likely route in terms of hiring is that businesses, mired in traditional job interviewing — not just in Korea — will slowly start trying to find ways to have applicants demonstrate practical skill. I flagged this article months ago as interesting in that it highlights some of the ways in which interviews are quite poor at helping managers pick out who’d be a competent worker in a given position.

    If recruitment were at least a little more focused on ability from the get-go, maybe greater transparency wouldn’t need to result in more focus on (easily-gamed) objective credentials.

    But of course, since people would still game that system (I can see people paying someone to design the PDF mentioned in the post above), I suppose the real key would remain the ability to fire people who turn out to be less competent than the employer originally thought.

    And here I was hoping changes in education could positively affect the labour market. Does that mean a benefit gap will creep in, if and when this happens? (ie. a certain generation of workers would be left out in the cold, or stuck retraining, if the labour market were ever to be fixed in this way?) Or would it be so gradual that this wouldn’t become an issue?

    (Yes, you can hear the SF-writer wheels turning in my brain.)

  4. re: interviews
    It’s been known for quite a while that you can game the interviews. (I remember hearing it from my psych 101 class in mid-1980s).
    Also, the way that Koreans (and perhaps other contries) do interviews does not seem to allow us to really filter the good workers from the bad. Just taking our university as an example, for special entrants (e.g. students with recommendations from principals or with high English scores) we interview students twice for four minutes each. Time limits are pretty strictly enforced to guarantee fairness. As a result, we really don’t get to know the interviewee all that well. My experience is that we can filter out the A+ students and the D- and F students (let’s face it, they are pretty easy to filter out); but we really can’t distinguish between B and C students; and as the wise man Chris Rock said (about US, but it applies to Korea as well) – we are a nation of B and C students. I believe it is this ability to distinguish between B and C students or workers, that is crucial.

    How does this affect the education and labor system here: Everybody clearly recognizes the problem. You need creative, flexible students and workers who are skilled, and who can adapt to new skills easily. Problem is, these are precisely the skills that the current education system seeks to dampen. I think Confuscian culture has something to do with it (since it frowns on going against your elders, superiors, and so-called wisemen and intellectuals); but also contributing is the sense of fairness and (regrettably) transparency – since judging whether somebody is “flexible” and has lots of “future potential” inevitably involves subjective judgment; and Koreans nowadays seem to distrust people making subjective judgment (convinced that the judges are being paid off or influenced by outside factors).

    Also, I’ve been doing (and remembering) some stuff on the Great Depression (US) lately due to the global financial crisis, and for workers who did not lose their jobs during the Depression (the unemployment rate for the US was about 25% during the Depression), they lived quite well, since prices were dropping and things could be bought cheaply. As could be expected, the people who were hit the worst were unskilled workers. If performance-based system were brought in very quickly, there probably will be major layoffs. (Korea tends to have lower labor productivity than advanced OECD economies in general – due in part because Koreans work more hours than most other OECD countries, without too many complaints). Also, look at the social problems we are having now with “part-time” or “contract” workers, and the importance labor unions give to job security. I assert (remember, this is my hypothesis that I cannot yet show empirically) that this social system retains Korean tendency for low productivity, (undeserved) job security, and the use of credentials.

  5. Oh, and I forgot to comment on the whole TOEIC/TOEFL mess. The companies in 1980s and 1990s started using these tests as proxies of English abilities because they needed some type of transparent indicator on English ability; and back in those days, Koreans did not score well on these tests.
    Now, Koreans are able to “game” the system (without really learning English) and I notice that the Korean companies and government are looking for other tests that they could use (or trying to create “Korea’s own” English testing system (which IMO is pretty ridiculous).
    I’ll bet that even if Korea decides to use a new English test, they will be able to game the test (i.e. do well on the test, but not really able to speak English) in a decade.

  6. Junsok,

    Yeah, it’s been known interviews can be gamed, but it seems to me like not much has changed. As for student interviews — ha, I wish we were better at filtering the D/F students out… but also think that initial filters are always going to be dicey anyway. (As with hiring, admissions should be a tentative filtration system, with poor performance later on being enough to be flunked out. I don’t know if I’m right in sensing a tension between younger educators who have higher standards, and older ones who are more willing to let things slide, but in any case, it’s so difficult to be flunked out once you’re in that maybe initial filtering is being strained to do what it could never really do anyway?)

    And yeah, again, I agree about the effect of a sense of fairness, and distrust of subjective evaluations. I have plenty of experience with that. And it’s a dicey thing: very hard to work around. The idea that an evaluation can be (a) effective, (b) objective, and (c) rapidly deployable is problematic on so many levels. I’d say you can only ever have two of three, IF you have the right (trained, skilled, talented evaluators on hand) and even then you need to see it only as a rough guide, not a true measure.

    But then there’s the question of filtering people based on useful skills. I can understand my tech-writing translator friend needing to do well at TOEIC, at least in the abstract. But past students of mine who studied TOEIC for a year so they could land jobs that involved absolutely no English whatsoever is a little more questionable to me. It seems like a rather arbitrary filter that, more than anything, wastes millions of man-hours a year. (Which is to say, I figure most people really don’t need to learn to learn English, and using it as an arbitrary filter — and thus turning it into a mega-industry — both muddies the field for the few who really need or want to learn it, and wastes an astonishing amount of human energy and time.)

    I agree that inventing a new English test won’t fix things. I figure people will be gaming the new test in a few short years at most; besides which, the government guidelines I’ve seen for language instruction standards (say, textbooks) are, well… uh, let’s just say that the things highlighted left me scratching my head.

    Funny you mention the status of the employed during the Great Depression, as I’ve just now begun reading this econ-popularization by Jeffry (no sic!) A. Frieden called Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century and I was wondering the same thing about those who held onto employment during the earlier depression of 1873-1896. I figured prices dropping had to be beneficial to someone somewhere…

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