Carl Banks' Blog

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Blog Back Up

Well, the greatest nightmare the Internet has ever seen is finally over: my blog is back up.

Let that be a lesson to me never to trust programs that say they will still work when something is suddenly upgraded.

Tags: blog
Last Edited: 5 September 2012, 5:16 PM
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Harry Potter

I generally don't buy books that aren't available in an ebook format; therefore, I didn't read Harry Potter (in English [1]) until a couple months ago, when it was finally released as an ebook. I immediately purchesed the whole series and it has been my B read [2] up until I finished in about a week ago. Here are my thoughts.

This does contain spoilers.

One thing most people agree about JK Rowling is that character is her best skill, and I agree wholeheartedly. Which is why I'm going to begin by discussing what I didn't like about her characters.

For the most part, the characters are tenaciously consistent in their behavior to the point that it comes off as almost juvenile, until something happens that reveals their underlying motives. Snape is shamelessly biased against Harry and for the Slytherins, doesn't make attempts to rationalize his bias, and at no point is seen going against this for appearance's sake. The Dursleys outright hate Harry, to the point of abuse, and don't even try to pretend otherwise. Draco is completely mean-spirited and doesn't show a hint of a greater aim (good or evil) beyond putting others down.

The insidious thing about this is the shameless consistency is completely superficial. Dig beneath a character's facade and a being with complex motivations appears. The problem with that is, you never know who is secretly evil or good: nothing about their behavior foreshadows it. So for instance, nothing Draco does until the very end of the fifth book suggests that he is anything more than a petty ostracizer, so it seems that Draco's character inexplicably changes in the final two books. And yet it's not so: then more complex Draco that emerges in the final two books is completely congruent with the Draco of the first five books. Petty ostracism is exactly what we'd expect an insecure, glory-seeker would do until pressed by circumstance to move beyond that. So, although the characters are drawn up well, every character development is a random surprise rather than something that was set up previously, and I didn't like that.

Other than that quibble, the character was very good, and I can't remember a book where I had more unexpected in-character moments. (For example, Luna's question, "Is that why you dyed your eyebrow, for the party? Should I do mine too?", came out of nowhere but was so totally Luna.)

I believe that Harry Potter will be studied as a classic for how it does character alone (and especially the way dialogue supports the character).

Now for other aspects of the books.

The style of Harry Potter was natural-sounding and easy to parse, rather pleasantly concise I would say, if not spectacular. You can tell she tried to reflect the pace of the action in the prose (for instance, using shorter sentences and omitting details in the Quidditch scenes to reflect the quickness of the game); this is successful but other writers have done it much better.

The style did have an odd quirk. I once read a review that pointed out that Rowling tends to avoid using the word "said" to mark quotations, replacing it with other words like "cried", "exclaimed", "quipped", etc., and rather formulaicly, as if it were an eighth grade writing assignment. I didn't notice it before I read that review, so the overuse of words other than "said" doesn't sound overly stilted, at least. However, now that it's been pointed out to me, I do notice it quite a bit, and it does seem a little silly in many places.

The story itself it had strong and weak points, but it passed two crucial tests for me. One, I was hooked. Whenever I got near the end of a book, I found I couldn't stop reading because I had to see how it turned out [3]. Two, I regularly go back to reread sections.

The main weakness of the stories is that many plot turns are hard to swallow, even allowing for a reasonable suspension of disbelief. The fourth book, Goblet of Fire, was the one I found particularly dubious; I simply found it too contrived, and didn't find anyone's reaction to the odd circumstances believable. This, nevertheless, didn't stop me from reading through to the end once I got to the late chapters, so I suppose it wasn't a deal-breaking weakness [4].

The system of magic was surprisingly consistent, given how many seemingly random effects pop up. I wasn't expecting that.

My favorite character is Phineas Nigellus Black. My favorite living character was probably Luna Lovegood. There really weren't any significant characters I didn't like in the whole series; I would say the least interesting character was Cho Chang (and she gets a pass because she was understandably upset about her boyfriend dying).

One fascinating thing is the similarity of Harry Potter's home life with Jane Eyre's. In Jane Eyre, Jane was (like Harry) orphaned at a young age and adopted by her aunt. Like Harry, Jane had a fat, spoiled, abusive cousin. And like Harry, the reason Jane's relatives detested her so was because of her refusal to conform to their way of thinking. Jane was intelligent and creative (more of a Ravenclaw) while Harry was noble and open-minded; this was a stark constrast to their vehemently banal adoptive parents.

Speaking of Ravenclaw, that is definitely the house I'd belong to myself. However, on a lark I went to JK Rowling's Pottermore site and underwent the Sorting ceremony there; the site sorted me into Slytherin.

[1]A few years ago I purchased the Latin translation of Harry Potter, and read through about half of it. Yes, there is a Latin translation of Harry Potter. I was surprised to see how many nuances I caught when I read it in Latin.
[2]My A read at the time was The Last Temptation of Christ. I guess I'm burning in hell either way.
[3]My advice on how to put Harry Potter down: stop reading in the middle of a chapter during a transition. The chapters usually end with some drama that makes you want to see what happens next.
[4]For an example of a deal-breaking suspension of disbelief, see the movie Signs.
Tags: character, harry_potter, jane_eyre, literature
Last Edited: 7 July 2012, 12:20 AM
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Stuff I Argued with Teachers About

One of the great cynicisms in my life is the educational system, especially at the lower grades. One reason for the cynicism is my experiences when disagreeing with teachers. The educational system is supposed to be about learning the truth, but a lot of teachers can't handle being corrected by a student.

Then again maybe it's not the educational system but rather human nature that's the problem. Not a single time, not once, did a fellow student ever take my side whenever I publicly disagreed with a teacher. Maybe some of them privately agreed with me. I expect most didn't care one way or the other, and just wanted me to shut up so we could get on with it (which is understandable). But a few students were openly hostile to the fact that I would dare even question the teacher.

If, as a teacher, you are faced with a crowd who doesn't care if you're teaching the truth, and a few who are hostile to the truth, why bother even teaching the truth? You might as well go for forsake the truth for to keep things orderly, and it's not the vast majority of students are going to care.

But I can't help feeling that if the system encouraged students to speak up and have dialogue with teacher, rather than unilaterally accept whatever the teacher says, students would be more open and everyone would learn a lot more.

Anyway, here's a list of disagreements I can think of off hand.

  • In Kindergarten, the whole staff at my school insisted that my name was spelled "Karl", with a K. I protested that it was spelled with a C, and every time I protested they rebuked me for it. This went on for weeks, as far as I can remember, until one day my Mom came in for some reason and I got her to confirm that my name was spelled with a C. My memory is vague, but I don't remember being all that satisfied with their apology. They did correct the name tag on my desk though.

    Now, I'm not saying that you have to believe every five-year old kid who gets an idea to try to trick a teacher. But if the kid keeps insisting on it for weeks, don't you think it at least deserves a phone call to the parents? I guess not if you're a teacher who believes that students should obey anything they say--even if told to spell their own name wrong.

  • In third grade, I was taught that Mercury is the hottest planet. It's not, though; Venus is [1]. I took a moment to show our teacher a citation I had on hand (a little astronomy book I bought at a book fair) that Venus was actually the hottest planet; she looked at it and flatly told me that I was to just ignore that and learn the untruth she was teaching.

    I didn't, of course. Even at age eight I had a conception that the truth was something worth fighting and maybe suffering for, and I defiantly wrote down the correct answer, Venus, on the test. Of course, the had the nerve to mark me down.

  • Also in third grade, I was taught that snakes aren't vertebrates (and, moreover, that it isn't necessarily true that fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals were vertebrates--cladists in the room feel free to cringe).

    Apparently, snakes don't have a backbone, so they can't be vertebrates. It was obvious to me that snakes had something that was like a backbone, whether you want to call it a "backbone" or not, and so they were vertebrates. But my dimwit teacher thought animal classifications really should hinge on accidents of terminology.

  • This is a tricky one. In fifth grade I was taught that that to estimate a sum you round each term to the highest digit and add, even if one number had five digits and the other had three. This is not wrong, per se, but I did spend quite a bit of time arguing that it was silly to do that, since the amount you round the larger number could be much greater than the entire smaller number. (For instance, to estimate 22946+317, I was taught to add 20000+300=20300. What is the point of adding the 300 in, though, when you're already off by 2946?)

    My argument hit a brick wall. My teacher simply told me repeatedly that that what I was proposing wouldn't be correct rounding, not even conceiving that my objection wasn't about how to round numbers.

  • In seventh grade, the One I Do Not Name viciously chastised me when I was absolutely correct, just for using different terminology than it used.

    "How do you solve this equation for x, Carl?" "First subtract five from both sides." "NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! You add negative five to both sides."

    "How do you convert kilometers to miles, Carl?" "Multiply by 5/8." "NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! You multiply by 0.6." [2]

    "What is the chemical represented by SiO₂, Carl?" "Silicon dioxide." "NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! It's silicon oxide." [3]

    And my favorite: on a "fun" little quiz we had to fill in the names of countries with the consonants removed. One pattern looked like this: ⬜A⬜A⬜. I wrote down QATAR. (The intended answer was Japan.) "NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! There is no country called Qatar." This time I took issue, and the One I Do Not Name relented and gave me the point, because you have to be really, really shameless to argue with a current world map.

    And people wonder why I don't utter this teacher's name.

  • In 11th grade I was taught that cardiac muscle was skeletal, skeletal muscle was smooth, and smooth muscle was cardiac. By this time I was jaded, so when I showed the teacher the correctly-labeled diagram from the textbook, I acted so utterly shocked ("Oh, how could you possibly be wrong?") that the people in my lab group told me to quit acting immature. And they were right; it was immature and uncalled for.

    But still, right after that little epiphany, the teacher went back up to the front of the class and told everyone the wrong answer again. Considering my behavior, I forgive it, but it broke my heart a bit because I kind of liked this teacher.

  • In 12th grade I was kind of dozing off in class when I noticed the teacher was telling everyone to take the square root of each term in an equation to solve it. This was dead wrong.

    The equation was of the form a²+b²=c². Our physics teacher told us to take the square root of each side, resulting in a+b=c, then we would be able to solve it for for the variable we were seeking. The problem is, a+b isn't the square root of the left side. Remember from algebra, (a+b)²=a²+2ab+b², not a²+b².

    A long argument ensued. Meanwhile the kid sitting in front of me just kept laughing at me like it was a big joke.

    Interestingly, the teacher actually conceded that I was right a few days later, privately. I guess that's a start.

[1]It's worth noting that, although Venus has the highest average temperature, it can get hotter on Mercury when the sun is directly overhead than anywhere on Venus. The average temperature of Mercury is much lower, however, since the side facing away from the sun is cryogenically cold.
[2]The actual conversion factor is 0.62137119, much closer to 5/8=0.625 than to 0.6
[3]The official chemical name is silicon dioxide.
Tags: educational_system, rant, teacher, truth
Last Edited: 25 February 2012, 12:54 PM
1 comment:
Rocky Rollinghills wrote: I'm old enough that I've forgotten the lies I was taught in school. In college my wife used the word "thrice" in a paper and the professor marked it down because he said that it isn't a word. And when my son was in 5th grade he gave his science class a presentation on S Fred Singer. Singer had invented the machine that was first used to measure ozone in the atmosphere. Well, my son went into detail exposing some of the fear-mongering over the "ozone-hole" and "global warming". The teacher (maybe I should write "teacher") constantly interrupted him to get her POV in and disrupt his presentation. The next day, as he walked into class she muttered to him, "I checked on what you said and you were right. Unfortunately." The unfortunate thing is that she didn't tell the class that my son's research was correct, and that I'm sure every year since she's shown Al Gore's power point to unsuspecting 10 year olds.

Tax Return Ease

This year a couple of interesting things happened while filing my taxes.

  1. My federal withholding was exactly the same as the amount of tax I owed. Therefore once again I owed nothing, barely.
  2. In 14 or so years of paying taxes, this is the first time I ever had last year's tax return handy, and didn't have to back calculate or guess last year's adjusted gross income so I could file electronically.

Just thought I'd share.

Tags: taxes
Last Edited: 19 February 2012, 12:46 AM
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Next Health Phase

Ok, so back in May I joined the Y and began to work out (for the first time in awhile). It's also the first time I took working out really seriously, for real.

My plan was to try to build upper-body strength first, then, when I reached a goal or two, to switch gears and focus on cardio health and stamina. Because I was really serious for real this time, I actually studied what to do, made a plan, and set realistic goals. One thing I discovered, that pretty much everyone agrees on, is that to build muscle, you have to gain weight. Therefore, on days that I worked out, I would splurge at the only buffet in the Westside, or eat 40 chicken wings during happy hour at Hooters.

This worked quite well. I reached my first strength goal (to bench press 200 pounds), added three inches to my arms, and overall am much stronger, in about six months, while not being all that consistent. The only problem is, I put on 30 or so pounds in the process.

So now it's time to lose it. I'm shifting the workouts to more aerobic exercises, of course, but it's also time to diet. I've never been on an official diet before, although I have implemented temporary eating rules here and there. But this time I am counting calories, with the help of a nice cell-phone app.

I have utterly no hope that I'll be able to stick to counting calories for very long. However, if I stick to counting calories for at least a few weeks or months, I'll get a good feel for how many calories foods really have (which I don't have now), and will make wiser decisions from then on.

Here are the rules I have in place for at least a couple months:

  1. Limit to 2000 calories per day; absolutely no carryover. (If I find out 2000 is around what I eat normally, which I highly doubt, I'll knock it down a few hundred.)
  2. No more ordering additional side dishes when eating out. (This one might depend on me managing to eat breakfast or lunch.)
  3. No sweets. Minor exceptions:
    • up to two teaspoons honey or fruit syrup topping for yogurt
    • bran muffins
    • medium-sweetness fruits

Finally, I get a cheat card for Christmas day.

Update: December 26, 2011

Well, it's the day after Christmas and I am still counting calories faithfully. Am getting a feel for how expensive calorie-wise foods are. Pickles are nearly free, who knew? I had a glorious Christmas Day where I ate a couple small chocolate bars and some cookies, and 3500 total calories. Now back to 2000 a day max for a couple months.

Rule #2, no sides, didn't last long. I found out that I had a lot of trouble eating enough calories if I didn't order an additional side, especially when I eat late in the day.

I guess I should mention that I'm noticeably thinner in the waist. I haven't (and won't) weigh myself, though.

Tags: calories, cardio, diet, health, strength_training
Last Edited: 6 December 2011, 12:18 AM
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Religious obversation of the day

If the Story of Creation were not the first chapter of the Bible, then there would be no creationism. But, there would be whatever-is-the-first-chapter-of-the-Bible-ism.

Tags: bible, creation_science, religion
Last Edited: 12 September 2011, 8:53 PM
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Noam Chomsky: a brief biography in one act

LINGUISTICS COMMUNITY: We iz sad because we have no comprehensive theory of langauge.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Hai guys, I have this really cool theory that explains 90% of language structure using simple rules.

LINGUISTICS COMMUNITY: Wow that iz really cool, you are our new God. [Spends next 50 years turning Chomsky's simple system into a complex, intricate system to account for other 10% of cases]

NOAM CHOMSKY: My work here iz finished. Now I will rage against successful human establishments and support dictators.

Tags: linguistics, noam_chomsky
Last Edited: 20 August 2011, 7:43 PM
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Why you should swap CDs every once in awhile

During my late teenage years, one of the most annoying and soul-crushing things I had to experience was the CDs my family would play in the cars. It wasn't that the music was bad, quite the contrary. It was that generally they would leave in the same CD and play it over and over and over again.

There was a short period of time where we ended up going on several relatively long road trips. The CD during all of these road trips was a single Moody Blues album. For maybe 1500 miles total over several trips, nothing but Moody Blues. So now, every time I hear a Moody Blues song, it brings me back to those long monotonous road trips, where I was trapped in a car with no choice but to listen to the Moody Blues non-stop over and over again.

Here's what sucks about that: the Moody Blues are good. I can tell they are. But I can never enjoy the music, because the sound of it brings me back to those neverending road trips.

So, the moral of the story is, change your goddamn CD every once in a while.

Tags: moody_blues, road_trip
Last Edited: 16 August 2011, 3:35 AM
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A new Power Bar

Ever since I started working out (again) I've been noticing a lot of workout foods like Power Bars and their kin that I never really noticed before [1].

Power Bars are supposed to be a convenient, and non-perishable, source of protein that one can eat to get a quick protein boost in the system [2]. But there are problems with these bars. First, they're expensive: a bar with 30 grams of protein might cost three dollars. Second, they taste like crap and usually have to contain quite a bit of sugar just to make them palatable. Finally, they're just not natural.

I was wondering if there could be a cheaper, healthier, more natural, but just as convenient protein source to use in place of Power Bars. And, after considering it for a while, I realized that there is.

I present to you: Sardines.

Sardines retain most of the benefits of power bars, improve on the problems with power bars, and have their own benefits as well. They're cheap (a tin of sardines will cost a dollar or less). They're tasty (just be sure to get them in mustard or some kind of sauce; they're messy in oil and a litte too bland in water [3]). They're natural. They're high in omega-3 fatty acids. A tin of sardines contains 20-25 grams of protein. They're non-perishable and almost as convenient (obtaining a fork might be a problem in some situations). In other words, sardines are healthy, tasty, cheap muscle food. So next time you're tempted by a Power Bar, consider sardines instead.

Another possibility you may have thought of is good old tuna. It's just as convenient and higher in protein than sardines, but I'd recommend eating tuna less often. Tuna has a few drawbacks. First, it's high in mercury. Sardines are (much) lower on the food chain and so don't contain as much mercury. I doubt a healthy, non-child-bearing person would get mercury poisoning from a few tins of tuna a week, but it's still best to eat it in moderation. Second, the canning process for tuna destroys much of the omega-3 fatty acid. High-end canned tuna, and tuna in plastic sleeves might retain those fatty acids, but they're also more expensive.


[1]It's amazing how when you start something, you notice things you never noticed before. For instance, after I read ''Pride and Prejudice'' I started noticing all the "sequels" to the story in bookstores, even though I knew the basic story and characters before I read it. Apparently my brain was benevolently sparing me from a sense of vicarious embarrassment on behalf of these authors, but after I read the novel it couldn't save me any longer.
[2]The theory of muscle building is basically that you need to saturate your metabolic pathways with protein, so that when your body is repairing from a workout, it ends up building more muscle than it otherwise would have by sheer partial pressure. So it's important to get a lot of protein.
[3]If you want some really good sardines, try fresh or frozen (but not refrozen) sardines. Sardines are great in the can, even if a tad bland, but you'd never guess that they're some of tastiest fish when grilled or pan-fried.
Tags: power_bars, protein, sardines, strength_training, tuna
Last Edited: 4 August 2011, 10:35 PM
1 comment:
SmellsFishy wrote: Sardines and high-oil ocean fishes are also longevity super-foods, something that cannot be claimed by a processed factory protein bar. However, BPA content is a major issue with many canned foods. Seek out BPA-free cans and packages, which are becoming more broadly available, and sustainable fisheries, such as Oregon for albacore tuna.

Jury Service

On Friday, for the first time, I participated in jury service. It was a strange experience. Here is my rambling commentary on it.

In California, when you get a jury summons you have to call in every day for a certain week to see if you have to serve that day. My service was not requested on Monday through Thursday, but on Friday they called me in. (This was irritating because I had off work on Friday.)

I seriously considered not showing up and letting them reschedule me, so I could get a day off work next time I was called. But in the end I decided to go and get it over with. Also, I figured that it was possible I'd be selected for a trial and I'd get to miss some days the following week. (Things are slow-going at work right now; it'd be a good time to serve.)

The courthouse was located in Compton. Yes, the same Compton that has a reputation for being a gang-infested ghetto. I was a little nervous to drive there, and I was surprised that it was quite a nice looking city from the ground (even by LA standards), and there wasn't even much tagging. (Except for the courthouse itself; even though all the graffiti was painted over when I went, you could see that it had been heavily tagged. That's probably because it's a prime target for rebellious youths.)

The Compton Courthouse, surprisingly, had a reputation for being the best place in LA to serve as a juror, since the waiting room is large, clean, and comfortable, and I'd have to agree. I got there and got some work done on my laptop, before being called up to my first jury selection.

Then the strangest thing of all happened: the judge straightaway sent us home, telling us to come back on Monday. This was actually quite a good thing for three reasons. First, we got to go home at 10:30. Second, we don't have to participate in any other jury selections; if we aren't selected for this trial we are done. Finally, even if we are selected, it's going to be a relatively short trial.

And, no matter what happens, I will get at least one day off work.

After being sent away, I took advantage of the location to stop by the Ikea that was in nearby Carson, and got a bunch of needed housewares. So all in all, I'd have to say my first jury experience was pretty good.

Update, July 29:

The trial is over, finally.

I was selected as the alternate juror. The trial only took four days, as the judge said, but it could have been three if the jury didn't need extra time to deliberate, before the judge declared a hung jury. Driving or taking the train from Santa Monica to Compton every morning (20 miles) got on my nerves: and that was a trip with almost no traffic. People in LA who do that every working day (let alone those who do it in traffic) are nuts.

I won't share my opinion on the case (apart from agreement that it was close and I can totally understand the hung jury) but it was an interesting trial in that one of the jurors had a son who was a reserve in the NFL, one of the witnesses was a retired NBA player, and incident happened in the soccer stadium.

Tags: compton, ikea, jury_service
Last Edited: 22 July 2011, 10:57 PM
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