Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pride and Prejudice

I read Pride and Prejudice while I was in Europe this summer. Contrary to my expectations, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that John wanted to read it too. The characters were vivid, the story was interesting, and Jane Austen is an excellent writer. I had to watch the BBC movie production of the book in high school, and couldn't stomach it; the book was much better. Who knows—maybe I'd even enjoy the movie now.

This isn't a well-conceived essay on the book; rather, it's a few quotes and words that stood out to me while I was reading. Maybe something will stand out to you, too.

First, some new words I learned:
  • supercilious: disdainful
  • profligacy: extravagance
  • querulous: full of complaints
  • panegyric: a formal public speech
And now, a few of my favorite quotes:
...more than commonly anxious to please, she naturally suspected that every power of pleasing would fail her.
—the narrator, on Elizabeth
"You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner."
"A man who had felt less, might."
—Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, on why he didn't do more earlier to win Elizabeth

I was happy to find these two quotes, because they very eloquently describe how I feel so much of the time. It's easy to be myself around everyday friends, but it's hard when I'm around girls that I'm interested in—which is when I most want to be myself. Cruel irony, isn't it?
It is a compliment which I never pay to any place if I can avoid it.
—Mr. Darcy, on dancing. He and I agree. :)
To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either.
—Mr. Darcy, on agreeing just because a friend wants you to.
It was not in her nature, however, to increase her vexations, by dwelling on them. She was confident of having performed her duty, and to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, was no part of her disposition.
—the narrator, on Elizabeth. I wish that I were more like her.
Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humor, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.
—the narrator, on Mr. Bennet

I think this last quote is one of the saddest, and yet most insightful in the book. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is obviously humorous, but it's also obviously emotionally dessicated. They survive together, but there is an invisible wall between them. In contrast to Mr. Bennet, I want to marry someone amazing—someone with a vibrant mind, self-confidence, insight, and compassion. Youth and beauty may catch the eye, but thoughtfulness, maturity, happiness, and spirituality catch the heart. Perhaps more importantly, I want to be that kind of person for my wife.

Birch Hollow and Orderville Canyon

I went to Zion National Park this weekend with some friends to go canyoneering. We had a great time, but the trip was filled with unexpected adventure.

I drove down with Amy and Tyler on Friday. We missed the Zion exit (each of us thought that the other two were paying attention) and so we decided to take advantage of our time in St. George by stopping at Jack in the Box. I had misheard the backcountry office hours earlier that day, so by the time we got to the park, it was closed. We would have to wait until the next day to pick up our permit. We explored a possible new campsite, decided it was no good, and headed back to my usual Zion hangout: Mosquito Cove.

We waded around in the soft, fine mud of the Virgin River for a little while—until Tyler and I felt some mystery critters started nibbling on our toes, that is. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing, watching for shooting stars, and talking on the hood of Tyler's truck. (Note to self: bring camp chairs next time.) Although not action-packed, I really enjoyed the evening.

Cherise, Mike, and Channing showed up late in the evening, and we set up camp and tried to go to sleep. Another group not too far from us was up until about 1:30 talking around the campfire, and I couldn't fall asleep until they did.

We got up early on Saturday morning to pick up the permit. When we got to the backcountry office, the updated weather report predicted a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. There had been nothing but dry, blue skies predicted all week, and now this? Since we were getting started on our already-tight schedule later than expected, and since the flash flood potential had risen, and since there are a couple of sections of Englestead that are pretty committing with respect to flooding, I reluctantly made an executive decision that we weren't going to do Englestead.

I told the backcountry office that our spot would be free, and then went to tell the rest of the group. They were all disappointed, as expected. Mike suggested that we could do Birch Hollow instead. It was shorter and less committing, and dumps into Orderville, which has more places to run in case of flooding. I decided that Birch would be safe enough to do, so after reviewing it in the guidebook, I walked back to the backcountry office and picked up a permit for Orderville. (Birch is outside the park, so no permit is required for it. If you exit up Orderville, you don't need a permit at all.)

We all piled into Tyler's truck and headed to the trailhead, which is about 45 minutes from the visitor center. We got our gear ready and headed down the drainage. After five or ten minutes of hiking, I came around a bend and Cherise and the others were stopped on the side of the trail. As I looked closer, I realized why: she had a bunch of plant splinters sticking out of her eyelid.

Some of the splinters were in pretty deep, but Amy stepped right up and started pulling them out. Cherise was a great sport about the situation, which may have been helped by the fact that there are apparently no nerve endings in her eyelids. After a while we managed to pull out most of the spliters, and Amy and I ran back up to the truck to grab some Neosporin (note to self: bring that next time, too). It looked like Cherise would be fine, and we were only delayed by about 45 minutes.

At 9:30 we started down the canyon again, and soon came to the first rappel: a drop off a shelf of loose rock down into a big bowl. There was a group in front of us, so we waited for them to rappel down and pull their rope. It took a little while to send everyone down since it was the first rappel, but everyone did really well.

The rest of the canyon was filled with seven or eight rappels, all of them bolted, and many of them quite breathtaking (with beauty, not fear). The people ahead of us, a group doing an advanced canyoneering course, kindly let us pass, and we were making quick progress down the canyon since we had two ropes. On one of the last rappels, Channing got her long hair stuck in her ATC and had to chop off a big chunk. I was at the top, so I couldn't see what was going on. When I finally made it down, it looked like she had chopped off a small furry animal!

The rest of Birch was pretty uneventful, and we reached Orderville Canyon at about 12:30, so we had spent a little over three hours in the canyon. As we walked down Orderville, we passed the exit of Englestead and took a look up at where we might have been. I would have loved to do the entry rappel and seen the inside of Englestead, but I was pretty happy with Birch. It was a fun, beautiful canyon.

After a while we hit our first puddle in Orderville, and the water just kept getting deeper from there. There were a couple of swimmers and lots of beautiful slots. Tyler and Channing jumped down a small waterfall into one of the pools. We felt a couple of raindrops once, but there was no evidence of flooding at all.

As we neared the end of Orderville we were getting chilly (we didn't bring wetsuits), so we kept moving faster and faster. We stopped around 4:30 at the Orderville-Narrows confluence to talked to a couple of groups who had just come out of Imlay, but soon were on the move again to stay warm.

We reached the Temple of Sinawava around 5:30, and were back at the visitor center a little after 6:00. When we arrived, we discovered that our adventure would be extended a little longer, since the keys to the car we had left at the visitor center were locked in the car we had left at the trailhead. Ironically, I usually bring and extra key on trips like this, but I had forgotten this time—the only time so far that it would have come in handy.

Fortunately, I always bring my phone and wallet with me everywhere, so was able to call Zion Ponderosa (the ranch near the trailhead) and have them send a shuttle down to pick me up. $35 and a little over two hours later, I was back at the visitor center with Tyler's truck—and the keys to the other car.

We stopped at a Mexican restaurant in Springdale for some much-needed dinner and then headed back to Provo at around 10:30. I drove home, and I'm really glad that Tyler stayed up to talk to me—both because it helped keep me awake, and because we had a good conversation.

Despite a few (mis)adventures, I thought the trip went really well. I was really impressed with Cherise and Channing's cool in tough situations, and everyone else's calm reactions. No one got mad about the keys, and everything worked out just fine in the end. I couldn't have asked for better company, I got to know my friends better, and the unexpected events gave me some good stories to tell. Verdict: definitely worth it.

See also:

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Zion and Behunin Canyon

I went to Zion three weekends ago with a bunch of friends. Nic, who came along, wrote a blog entry on the trip.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Noisy eaters

I'm usually a pretty easy-going guy, but for some reason, loud eaters absolutely drive me crazy. It's like there's a direct link between the sounds of people eating and the pain center in my brain. Sometimes I have to plug my ears or leave the room because it bugs me so bad. Sometimes it makes me irrationally angry.

I'll leave analysis of my warped culinary auditory psychology up to the experts, but maybe this will help you understand how I feel:


I don't usually read the comics, but I saw this one today in the newspaper, and it made me laugh out loud.

Dangerous password recovery questions

You probably saw recently that someone hacked into Sarah Palin's personal email account and posted some screenshots of a few messages on the web. The news has stirred some noise among government accountability proponents, who argue that public officials should use only official email for official business, so that it can be properly retained and audited. Those questions are interesting, but another point piqued my interest.

As a curious technologist, my first question was, "How did they do it?". The article linked to above provided an explanation a day after the story broke: the attackers used Yahoo!'s password recovery system. You know the drill: when you set up an account, you have to fill in in the answers to one or two questions, like "What was the name of your favorite teacher?" or "What was your first pet's name?". Then, when you lose your password, you go to the site and fill in the answer, and then they'll unlock your account.

This password recovery method started gaining popularity a few years ago. (Before that, password recovery was almost always done by sending a new password to the email account you have on file.) Although it avoids the insecurities of email (which is usually transmitted in plain text over the internet), it has an even bigger problem: knowing the answer to password recovery questions is just as good as knowing the password itself.

As the person who hacked into Sarah Palin's account has shown the world, answering password recovery questions can be significantly easier than guessing a password. Anyone who knew me well in elementary school would probably be able to answer most password recovery questions.

Because of this inherent insecurity, I never answer password recovery questions truthfully. (If you're wondering, my first grade teacher was Ms. Pierce.) Instead, I take one of two approaches:
  • If it's a throwaway account at a site I don't really care about, I do something like this: "Q: What was your first pet's name?. A: woierhjasldkfna;osighaw;ljkgnas;dflligha;sgfh." Try guessing that one!
  • If it's an account that I may want to recover my password from in the future, I enter a different password as my answer to one of the questions. Ideally the site allows me to make up my own question, which is "What's the password recovery password?". If I can't make up my own question, then I just fill in another password as the answer to one of the dangerously obvious questions.
Next time you set up an account, be smarter than Sarah Palin and don't fill in obvious, easily-discovered answers. Remember that answers to password recovery questions are just as good as a password itself.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Apostrophes, language change, and "correctness"

I just found an example of apostrophe usage that I'd like to point out to the world:
Starbucks's plan for global growth has stalled and may never be realized...
(From a Washington Post article titled "4 Captivating Companies and What They Share" that Cindy pointed me to.)

Even though "Starbucks" ends in an "s", since it is a singular noun, the authors still add an "s" after the apostrophe to make it possessive, just like "James's". This is the style preferred by most style guides (and by myself), but the acceptable way to form the possessive of a singular noun that ends in "s" is slowly changing: some modern writers accept a single apostrophe, without a subsequent "s" (e.g. "Starbucks'" or "James'").

If you want more details on this rule, Purdue has a nice summary of apostrophe usage, and Wikipedia has a whole section on forming the possessive of singular nouns that end in "s". Or if you just want to laugh, check Bob the Angry Flower's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots.

Language Change

There is a more general principle that underlies this example: language changes all the time, and so does the idea of "correctness" in language. In fact, most linguists would say—and I would agree—that there isn't really a "correct" (or "incorrect") way to speak or write. Rather, there are ways to speak that are acceptable (or "prestigious", in the parlance of linguists) among certain groups of people. For example, if I spoke like a poor rural Southerner while giving a presentation at Oxford, people might have a hard time taking me seriously. On the other hand, if I spoke like a Londoner while eating at a small town diner in the South, the waitress would probably think I was stuck up (or at least "citified", as one rural Texan I met referred to it). If I spoke that way to some inner-city gang members, I might get shot.

The point is that there is no absolute definition of linguistic "correctness", only social acceptability within a certain group. In fact, the idea of fundamentally "correct" language is almost laughable, since language changes so frequently, and since some rules are literally invented out of thin air.

Other silly rules

As a final example, let's look at a couple of ridiculous rules that most kids learn in school:
  • You shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition (e.g. write "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put" instead of "This is the kind of nonsense that I will not put up with"). This rule was invented, apparently out of thin air, by Robert Lowth, an 18th-century bishop who published an influential grammar book that argued that English grammar should be like Latin grammar. Somehow, his bad advice caught on, and has been making English sound awkward for over two centuries. Kingsley Amos calls this rule "one of those fancied prohibitions dear to ignorant slobs", so the next time someone "corrects" you for violating this rule, feel free to call them names.
  • You shouldn't split an infinitive (e.g. write "To go boldly where no man..." instead of "To boldly go where no man..."). Guess where this one came from? Latin, again via Lowth. In Latin, it's impossible to split an infinitive, since the infinitive is a single word (like in Spanish). Lowth decided that since Latin was the "pure" language, and you couldn't split infinitives in Latin, you shouldn't be allowed to in English, either. Languages arts teachers across the globe now drill this wacky rule into their unsuspecting students' heads.
So, the moral of the story is to not believe everything that your grammar teacher tells you. And the other moral is that if this stuff interests you, you should take an introductory linguistics class (like Ling 330 or ELang 223 at BYU) and a class on language change (like Ling 450). They'll change how you think about the world.

(This post brought to you by the legislative division of the department of superfluous verbiage, and the letter "K".)

[Bonus for grammar nerds: forming the possessive of plurals of words that end in "s" is even more fun than forming the possessive of singular words that end in "s". For example, let's say that we know a family with the last name of "Jones", and let's say that we want to talk about all of the members of the Jones family: we would be talking about the Joneses. (Rule: to form the plural of a word that ends in "s", add "es".) Now, let's say that we want to talk about something that belongs to the Joneses, like their house: we would call it the "Joneses' house". (Rule: add a single apostrophe, without an "s" to form the possessive of a plural.)]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How economists vote (and why they matter)

Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert comic strip, so you shouldn't take him too seriously, right? Not true—at least not today. Adams recently commissioned (out of his own pocket!) a quite-serious survey of the political opinions of over 500 economists. Today he released the results.

The findings are interesting. Here are a few tidbits:
  • 48% of economists surveyed are Democrats, while only 17% are Republicans.
  • Not surprisingly, those surveyed favored Barak Obama over John McCain.
  • Economists think that education is the most important economic issue.
Take a look at the full results. I bet you'll learn something.

(Scott Adams also recently wrote about why economists matter. It's a good read.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The new iPod Nano

Yesterday Apple held a media event to announce its latest iPod products, and I proudly wore my iPod Engineering shirt in celebration. I don't usually care too much about media events, but this one was exciting for me because Steve Jobs announced a product that I worked on during my internship this summer: the new iPod Nano.

It's exciting to see the launch of a product that I worked on, and it's pretty satisfying to have played a part in making a well known product that everyone likes. When I was traveling in Europe this summer, every time I saw an iPod, or an iPod ad, I thought, "I'm part of the team that made that. Even all the way over here on the other side of the world, they love the products that my team in California made."

One of the downsides of working at Apple is that the company is ridiculously fanatical about secrecy, both inside and outside of the company. When friends asked about what I worked on, all I could say was "iPods". When they asked what the new iPods were like, all I could say was "they're cool". When friends asked when they were coming out, all I could say was "in the future".

Well, now you can see the coolness, and the future finally came.