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Archive for April, 2015

This is the second part of my thinking.  Is it related to the first? Do I completely contradict myself?  Probably. If my experience with my parents tells me anything, that’s what happens when you get old. 

A few things have happened in the last few weeks which have made me thinking about the ways in which we communicate with each other.

The first involved meeting K’s parents last month, where we shared no languages in common. They were very nice, but we will never really know what the other is thinking unless Google Glass invents a subtitle function. It was so different because as an English speaker, I am so accustomed to people accommodating my language requirements that I am not often presented with cases where this can’t happen. It does become taken for granted. On a side note, I think this subtitles thing could be a wicked function, Google.

The second was at work. One of the partners at my firm looks kind of like my mom, and I think if my mom had more money growing up or was born ten years later, she may have ended up with the same kind of life – Beijing University, Oxford educated, the works. We were in the kitchen during free fruit Wednesday and she was talking about the challenges of trying to get her daughter to speak Mandarin in a house were she is the only speaker (her husband is English I think), and despite her best efforts, it was difficult to teach a language to a child when she doesn’t have the opportunity to constantly hear it being used in context. I pointed out, that even as that child, in a household with two native Mandarin speakers, I’d lost a lot of my potential ability to speak in that language the second I went to an English speaking school.

The main value of language, and why it is so hard to create a desire to save small ones, is that the value doesn’t come from knowing it, but from the sharing of it between two people who are already at a minimum level of fluency. For example, me and K:

language venn diagram 1

And only those located at intersections are maintained.  It becomes a critical mass effect where over the course of many years (and especially with the internet), it’s not that the common piece of the intersection is shrinking in terms of language options, it is just that more and more people are adding their own language circles to the mix, which is reducing the number of languages that can be considered universally shared.

language venn diagram 2

When a two parent family where each parent is from different language cultures then decides to raise children, the effect is probably amplified since communication happens at the intersection (as in the case with the partner at work). The next generation then has an over-exposure to the intersection of the diagram and not enough at the edges. Not to say it is impossible, but since fluency is something that requires a lot of constant exposure, it would most likely come from the language that parents are most frequently using for communication themselves. Maybe fluency at the fringe languages  requires a Herculean effort to expose children to mother tongues.

When I was a kid I never understood why my parents used to make me go back to China for the summers. Besides being a relief from babysitting, it was a great opportunity for them to expose me to the language that I came from, without having to battle the constant influx of English language influences that I would face at Canadian summer camp. I used to hate it, but now I am grateful for their concerted effort not to give up on me. At several points in my childhood they also cancelled cable and started exclusively streaming Chinese shows off the internet, which also used to annoy me because it wasn’t MTV.  I’ve lost a lot of the ability to speak now, but sometimes, I listen to a show or something in Mandarin and it feels like being in the house again. I wonder if I will be strong enough to have the same kind of commitment to teaching anyone else Mandarin that my parents had with me, especially if I’m alone in that regard.

I’m not sure what the future will hold, but maybe it will look something like my dinner table last night. There was sweet potato noodles (japchae, I know, it is Korean, but I love it), sitting next to a baguette and about six different types of cured Spanish sausages. None of it was consistent, but we will each bring what we like to the table, meeting at the intersection, and figure out our lives as we go.

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Mathematicians like to take the fun out of everything, according to non-mathematicians. I like think more of this as a fun-replacement, with a new language of fun that most people hate. This may be because the only thing I got for Christmas from Santa were math books. For example, K bought me this book, Things to do and make in the fourth dimension, which takes all sorts of mundane topics, like knots, and bubbles, and adds a fun-jection of math.

The Secretary Problem goes something like this: you are interviewing potential candidates for a secretary position, and there are twenty lined up outside the office waiting for their turn.  The interview is done one at a time.  We live in an archaic world where email communication is not possible, so your only chance to provide feedback to the candidates is to give them a yes or no at the end of their interview. We also live in a seller’s market, in the sense that once you say no, a candidate becomes so angry that he/she will storm off with a permanent grudge, never to return again. So you better be sure your ‘no’ is justified. You are also afraid that if you say yes to a candidate, there may have been someone further down the queue, who may have been better suited for the job.

This has (well, I think) a more direct application in the romance market. It also been called the Marriage Problem, which makes sense in a world where people date sequentially (assuming you aren’t dating multiple people simultaneously), and also that once you break up with someone, they will never come back. Once you marry someone, you are committed to them forever. That means you stop dating. You are also afraid of this:

Amirite?

. . . .

So obviously, math came in and found the least romantic way to optimally find happiness by avoiding the situation above, but also the one where you date 20 people, reject all of them out of risk averse-ness and end up alone forever. Not that being alone is some horrible life sentence anyways! Who decided that? Ugh. The point is, based on an assumed distribution the quality of your potential mates (I forget which one, probably normal?), the optimal strategy would be to take your entire useful dating life (let’s assume, you are planning on dating from when you are 18 to when you are 33), play the field without committing to anyone for the first 1/3 of that period (date until you are 23 sans commitment), and then choose the first person who comes along after this period which is better than anyone you observed previously. Obviously, there are risks, but without any foresight, this is theoretically the optimal way to maximize your chances of finding the best partner.

There are some potential caveats to why the direct transposition of the Secretary Problem onto the Marriage problem doesn’t make sense, so don’t run off and breakup with your person just yet:

  • Unlike interviews, your observations of eligible candidates can occur while you are still in a relationship. Well, take from this what you want, but I mean in the sense that while you are with someone, you are observing people around them, and are free to make passive evaluations on whether or not they would be a good partner without anyone being the wiser. This should mean that your search time goes down, since you are collecting information on what’s out there all the time.
  • Unlike interviews, your pool is changing. Sometimes, rapidly so. In the interviews, your pool of 20 candidates is captive, sitting there and waiting for you to make decisions. In romance, I’m going to assume that as you get older, and making a very simplifying assumption that you are looking for someone around your age (ahem), you are going to find that this pool is shrinking from death/marriage and commitment to people who are not you. I feel like once I hit 23 (which is ridiculous), the number of weddings popping up on Facebook started to blow up my newsfeed. Do these people know about the optimization? Did they all meet the best person right after their evaluation window ended? That means that you may have to spend more time searching before you find someone suitable.
  • Unlike interviews, you can observe what other people are doing and apply their experiences to your own search. Based on those previously mentioned weddings, your friends, what your family is telling you, you probably have a lot of research done for you on what a happy relationship looks like. You also have a lot of information on what a crazy relationship looks like.  You will probably use this in some way to better your understanding of what you are looking for, which makes your search time go down.
  • Your secretaries are interviewing their own secretaries. They may be applying the exact same type of optimization simultaneously, which makes the whole problem kind of a problem within a problem within a yeah . . .

Which one of these competing forces will win? I’m not sure, but I think that the last two are key.  I more than anyone would love a well-reasoned approach to all my living sources of happiness, but who really knows what they are doing?

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