Monday, July 13, 2020

Sufficient Levels of Meta

I've been watching a show on Netflix. It's an animated series called Disenchantment, and it's rated TV-14. This means that, when characters are naked, they are always strategically obscured. One scene takes place on an island full of mermaids. All the topless mermaids are covered, by hair or seaweed or whatever. But then a little bit later, another scene is taking place in a room with a painting of a mermaid on the wall. And that mermaid, the one in the painting, has nipples. So a drawing of nudity isn't okay, unless it's a drawing of a drawing?

This reminds me of when South Park explored the prohibition on drawings of Muhammad by having a guy in a bear suit that within the episode is said to contain Muhammad. Is a drawing of a bear suit a depiction of Muhammad? What about Robert Downey Jr.'s blackface character in Tropic Thunder? Is it offensive because he's in blackface, or is it okay because he's playing a character who is in blackface?

Monday, June 29, 2020

That Someday Court Majority

Talk to any Republican about Donald Trump's fitness for office and you will end up hearing the same response: "Sure, he's terrible, but we have to vote for him because of the Supreme Court." As this article from the New York Times pointed out last month, a large number of Trump voters are abortion voters who hate Trump. There is widespread belief among Republican voters that a vote for the Republicans is a vote against abortion. This might seem reasonable, as the party platform has been anti-abortion since 1976, the first platform after 1973's Roe v. Wade decision. But today, over 47 years later, in June Medical Services v. Russo, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits requiring abortion-providing doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. If this procedure were anything other than abortion, no one would bat an eye; what other internal procedure can be done outside a hospital and without the possible use of a hospital if things go wrong?

"And this is why we need to vote Republican!" Really? Let's look at that premise.

Justice's NamePresidentPresident's PartyReplacedR/D SplitRoe/Casey/Russo
William O. DouglasRoosevelt 33DemxxxxRoe
William J. Brennan, Jr.EisenhowerRepxxxxRoe
Potter StewartEisenhowerRepxxxxRoe
Byron WhiteKennedyDemxxxxRoe, Casey
Thurgood MarshallJohnson 36DemxxxxRoe
Warren E. BurgerNixonRepxxxxRoe
Harry BlackmunNixonRepxxxxRoe, Casey
Lewis F. Powell, Jr.NixonRepxxxxRoe
William RehnquistNixonRepxxRep 6-3Roe, Casey
John Paul StevensFordRepDouglasRep 7-2Casey
Sandra Day O'ConnorReaganRepStewartRep 7-2Casey
Antonin ScaliaReaganRepBurger*Rep 7-2Casey
Anthony KennedyReaganRepPowellRep 7-2Casey
David SouterBush 41RepBrennanRep 7-2Casey
Clarence ThomasBush 41RepMarshallRep 8-1Casey, Russo
Ruth Bader GinsburgClintonDemWhiteRep 8-1Russo
Stephen BreyerClintonDemBlackmunRep 7-2Russo
John RobertsBush 43RepRehnquistRep 7-2Russo
Samuel AlitoBush 43RepO'ConnorRep 7-2Russo
Sonia SotomayorObamaDemSouterRep 6-3Russo
Elena KaganObamaDemStevensRep 5-4Russo
Neil GorsuchTrumpRepScaliaRep 5-4Russo
Brett KavanaughTrumpRepKennedyRep 5-4Russo

* = replaced Rehnquist who replaced Burger as Chief Justice

When Roe was decided on 22 January 1973, the decision was 7-2. The two dissenters were Byron White and William Rehnquist. White was a Kennedy (Democrat) appointee, so only one dissenter was a Republican nominee. The court, however, was comprised of SIX Republican appointees. And at no time since then has the court NOT been composed of a majority of Republican appointees.

"Well, you know, Republican didn't always mean the same thing." Fair enough; maybe we shouldn't expect Eisenhower (Republican) appointees to guess party ideology 20 years into the future. So let's ignore William J. Brennan and Potter Stewart. But I think it's not out of line to expect post-Goldwater (1964) Republican appointees to reflect the anti-federal lean of the current Republican Party. So the three Roe-majority Nixon appointees don't support the thesis that Republican presidential votes lead to abortion restrictions. Switch those three votes, add in White and Rehnquist, and Roe's creation of a Constitutional right to abortion doesn't exist.

Again, maybe it's unfair to expect Nixon appointees to reflect later Republican ideology. The next Supreme Court justice was John Paul Stevens, a Ford (Republican) appointee. "Still not fair because it was 1975; the Republican Party didn't adopt an anti-abortion platform plank until 1976." Fine, give Stevens a pass, too. The next five justices were Republican appointees in the anti-abortion-platform era. That alone creates a majority. By Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the court was comprised of eight Republican nominees and one Democrat nominee. The one Democrat nominee was Byron White. So if Republican presidents create abortion restrictions, Casey should have been 9-0. If we don't expect Blackmun to change his opinion, or Stevens to be bound by a then-future ideology change, it's still 7-2. And today, after nearly 50 years of anti-abortion Republican Party platforms, the court comprised of a majority of Republican appointees can't put together an anti-abortion court majority. In fact, while Republican presidents have been in office for 28 of the 48 years (58.3%), Republican presidents have nominated 10 of 14 Supreme-Court justices (71.4%).

If abortion wasn't an election issue, how would you vote? Because, despite what the Republican Party wants you to believe, abortion is not an election issue. They just get your votes by making you think that it is.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Where Should We Live?

I'm in the process of ranking the 19 U.S. metro areas we could possibly care to live in, on 18 different metrics. I'm still missing data for three of the categories, so it's still a work in progress. Nevertheless, an interesting fact is unfolding before me.

Here are the 19 locations: Cedar City UT, Charlotte NC, Chicago IL, Cincinnati OH, Columbus OH, Indianapolis IN, Jacksonville FL, Kansas City MO, Las Vegas NV, Louisville KY, Philadelphia PA, Phoenix AZ, Pittsburgh PA, Raleigh NC, Rexburg ID, Richmond VA, Saint George UT, Tallahassee FL, and Tucson AZ. And here are the 18 categories: church presence, temple access, airport connectivity, professional baseball, professional soccer, library quality, park access, volume of crime, proximity to family, desirability of climate, cost of living, traffic, natural disasters, university presence, transit options, homeschooling ease, dual-enrollment options, and family history ease. A location earns a score between 1 and 5 in each category, so a perfect location would get 90 points and a veritable Hell-on-Earth would get 18 points. (Three categories--library, park, and dual-enrollment--are still missing data, so right now the range is 15 to 75.)

As it now stands, the top areas are Cedar City, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Raleigh, which are all tied at 56 points. (Pittsburgh's score will go up by one point when the announced temple is constructed.) And at the bottom of the list we find Jacksonville, with 41 points.

Yes, the place where I currently live is the worst possible place for me to live. I knew I didn't LOVE this town, but I didn't know it sucked so much. It turns out this place is pretty terrible. And that's before it even gets its score of 1 for park access.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Largest Metro Areas in the US without a Temple

I've been reviewing metro area populations lately, thinking about better ways of organizing state government. That led me to wonder what were the largest metro areas in the United States without a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And so here they are, together with the metro area's ranking, population, and distance to nearest city with a temple.

  1. Cleveland, OH (#18): 3.6 million people / 134 miles to Pittsburgh, PA
  2. Tampa, FL (#21): 3.2 million people / 84 miles to Orlando, FL
  3. Charlotte, NC (#23): 2.8 million people / 93 miles to Columbia, SC
  4. Cincinnati, OH (#33): 2.3 million people / 100 miles to Louisville, KY
  5. Austin, TX (#34): 2.2 million people / 80 miles to San Antonio, TX
  6. Milwaukee, WI (#37): 2.0 million people / 92 miles to Chicago, IL
  7. Virginia Beach, VA (#38): 1.9 million people / 107 miles to Richmond, VA
  8. Greensboro, NC (#39): 1.7 million people / 77 miles to Raleigh, NC
  9. Jacksonville, FL (#40): 1.7 million people / 141 miles to Orlando, FL
  10. New Orleans, LA (#41): 1.5 million people / 82 miles to Baton Rouge, LA

I'm not complaining about any of this, I just think it's interesting. I mean, if anyone's to blame, it's probably me: I was a missionary in Milwaukee and I live in Jacksonville. And compared to the rest of the world, all of these metro areas (and distances) are like farts in the windstorm. Here are the top three in the world.

  1. Jakarta, Indonesia (#2): 34.4 million people / 1,234 miles to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  2. Delhi, India (#3): 28.1 million people / 1,088 miles to Bengaluru, India
  3. Mumbai, India (#6): 23.6 million people / 528 miles to Bengaluru, India

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Legless Turtle Is My Spirit Animal

Remember when I took a premature victory lap for finishing a one-year project in four years? And then took another victory lap when I actually finished? Well, feast your eyes on this record of ineptitude!

  1. The Promised Messiah, by Bruce R. McConkie: 27 January 2006
  2. The Mortal Messiah, Book 1, by Bruce R. McConkie: 29 August 2010
  3. The Mortal Messiah, Book 2, by Bruce R. McConkie: 24 February 2012
  4. The Mortal Messiah, Book 3, by Bruce R. McConkie: 12 February 2019
  5. The Mortal Messiah, Book 4, by Bruce R. McConkie: 18 September 2019
  6. The Millennial Messiah, by Bruce R. McConkie: 10 June 2020

Yes, I took 14.5 YEARS to read a single book series. Although for two of those years, I was in Asia while the books were in America. (I'm not sure if that makes it better or somehow worse.)

Another book series that took me a long time is Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books.
  1. Maisie Dobbs: 16 June 2013
  2. Birds of a Feather: 7 August 2013
  3. Pardonable Lies: 22 February 2014
  4. Messenger of Truth: 6 July 2015
  5. An Incomplete Revenge: 5 August 2015
  6. Among the Mad: 23 February 2016
  7. The Mapping of Love and Death: 2 November 2016
  8. A Lesson in Secrets: 30 January 2017
  9. Elegy for Eddie: 20 July 2018
  10. Leaving Everything Most Loved: 3 October 2018
  11. A Dangerous Place: 27 October 2018
  12. Journey to Munich: 8 March 2019
  13. In This Grave Hour: 8 April 2019
  14. To Die But Once: 7 July 2019
  15. The American Agent: 7 February 2020

More than twice as many books and it took me half as long! And I even stuck with it after reading that terrible first chapter of A Dangerous Place. ("Hey, as Harvey Danger says, 'Happiness writes white.'" - Jacqueline Winspear's probable response to my criticism)

I'm currently working on a book series that I will probably never finish, because my kids are aging faster than I can read to them: Walter R. Brooks's Freddy series.

  1. Freddy Goes to Florida: 5 June 2017
  2. Freddy Goes to the North Pole: 31 December 2018
  3. Freddy the Detective: 26 August 2009 and 27 May 2017
  4. Freddy and Freginald: 14 November 2019
  5. Freddy and the Clockwork Twin: 15 December 2019
  6. Freddy the Politician: 28 March 2020
  7. Freddy's Cousin Weedly: 26 January 2020
  8. Freddy and the Ignormus
  9. Freddy and the Perilous Adventure
  10. Freddy and the Bean Home News
  11. Freddy and Mr. Camphor
  12. Freddy and the Popinjay
  13. Freddy the Pied Piper
  14. Freddy the Magician
  15. Freddy Goes Camping
  16. Freddy Plays Football
  17. Freddy the Cowboy
  18. Freddy Rides Again
  19. Freddy the Pilot
  20. Freddy and the Space Ship
  21. The Collected Poems of Freddy the Pig
  22. Freddy and the Men from Mars
  23. Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars
  24. Freddy and Simon the Dictator
  25. Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans
  26. Freddy and the Dragon

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Fantasy Church

For years, now, I've been saying to my wife, "Eventually it'll be too dangerous to go to church or something, and we'll get to have church at home, and it'll be awesome." And, for three months, now, that's what we've been doing. And it's been just as wonderful as I dreamed it would be.

I know there are people who aren't in the same circumstances in life as me, and to many of them, this probably sucks. I'm not trying to make light of their difficulties. We all have different trials, and for some, home-based church is a trial. It's just that, for me, it's not.

Here's how our Sundays have been going. We sleep in, then get up and get dressed for church. Our youngest son is in charge of bringing some chairs from the dining room into the living room. Our daughter brings the keyboard from the family room. She picks some hymns and our youngest son writes their numbers on a whiteboard. Our oldest son gets a plate with one piece of bread, and six plastic cups, and gives each cup a small squirt of water from the refrigerator door. We have two white pillowcases, and one goes on the coffee table* and one goes over the plate and cups. We start church at noon. We check to see if the ward or stake has e-mailed us any announcements. We have our opening hymn and opening prayer. We usually have no ward or stake business to conduct (they send it in an e-mail to read, and we sustain the action by not e-mailing back an objection within 48 hours). We sing our sacrament hymn while our oldest son and I tear the bread into six pieces. Then he and I bless the sacrament and our middle son passes it. After the sacrament, we have a talk of sorts. Sometimes one of us has prepared something, or sometimes we read or listen to a conference talk that seemed like a good idea. We read a chapter of a Spencer W. Kimball book once. We watched Elder Bednar's and Sister Bingham's #HearHim videos. Or we have testimony meeting on Fast Sundays. Then we have our closing hymn and closing prayer, and we're done. It takes a half an hour.

Then we change back into our pyjamas and eat lunch. And we try to remind the kids that they can just hang their church clothes back up, since they didn't get them dirty in 30 minutes. Our youngest son has to watch a YouTube playlist of Primary songs so he doesn't forget the words, and the older kids are all in presidencies, so they usually have to watch some sort of training video about once a month.

When we go back to regular church, that "I can't believe it's over already" feeling we had for all of 2019 will be replaced by a "why is church SOOOOOOO LOOOOOOOONG?!" feeling. And what will it be like when we go back to getting a tiny piece of bread and a mostly-empty water cup? Already in the past I've passed a note to my wife that read, "Does the ordinance count if your mouth absorbs the water before you get to swallow any?" And don't even remind me about testimony meetings with crazy people! Can't we just keep church like this forever?

* = are we going to Hell for preparing the sacrament on a coffee table? Maybe we should call it the caffeine-free-soda table.

NOTE: Blogger had an update, and it no longer has spellcheck. So prepare for an increase of spelling mistakes in my posts. (And labels are sorted A to Z and then a to z, so "Zion" comes before "blog housekeeping." Lame.)

Monday, June 01, 2020

Faster Than a Falling Plane

Last weekend I watched GoldenEye with my two oldest kids. I remember thinking it was a great movie, but that was before Jason Bourne came along and changed spy movies forever. Now, it sort of feels more like an Austin Powers movie. But it was still pretty good, although there were two major problems.

First, Sean Bean's character gets killed in the first five minutes, and then when the opening credits roll, Sean Bean gets second billing. So it's not THAT much of a surprise when he comes back later in the film.

Second, James is riding a motorcycle after a pilot-less airplane down a runway that ends in a cliff. The airplane goes over the cliff, and then James follows it. The airplane has maybe a five-second headstart. As the airplane plummets, James slowly gains on the airplane, climbs inside, and pilots it to safety. Now, gravity is a constant, so in a vacuum the airplane and James Bond will fall at identical rates. If the airplane had a five-second headstart at the top of the cliff, it'll go splat five seconds before James does. But the world isn't a vacuum, right? (That's a good title for a future James Bond film: The World Is Not a Vacuum.) So a bowling ball falls faster than a feather. So the question is, what provides more wind resistance, an airplane or James Bond? Or, to ask it a different way, what is more AEROdynamic, an AEROplane or...James Bond? AND, an airplane with it's motor running! But James manages to somehow make himself more aerodynamic than a running airplane, and it's all good.

I thought Alan Cummings was better in Josie and the Pussycats, and Minnie Driver was better in...anything else, but generally speaking, the Pierce-Brosnan films are the least cringe-worthy of the pre-Daniel-Craig James Bond canon in this post-Bourne world.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Different Views of Homogeneity

Today I finished reading Charles Murray's 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In the book, Murray notes what others have found: that diversity undermines community formation. The worry is that a nation as diverse as America will have a hard time re-forming (i.e.: forming again) a cohesive social core.

I think it's true that society cannot be based on diversity, but I also think you can have a diverse society if some OTHER common factor exists. For example, when the common trait was support of the American experiment, we were able to take millions of ethnically- and linguistically-diverse people and form a society. You don't look like me or talk like me or worship God like me, but you value personal freedom and personal responsibility, and so do I, so we will work together to support those values.

What about now, when most of the people who are coming to America couldn't care less about ideology, and they are drawn by either economic or safety concerns? Can we base a society on "we both want to get as rich as possible"? Murray writes about what Edward Banfield called "amoral familism," which is basically the plot of the entire Fast and Furious franchise: nothing matters but family. I would argue that the current view of America, as the place you can get richest, is an amoral familism base on which society cannot be built. There has to be something common about the product, not just the motivation. Knowing you're out to get yours, just like I'm out to get mine, doesn't engender trust. It probably undermines it, actually. Just look at all the reality-TV figures who "didn't come here to make friends."

What is the likelihood that we can get a third of a billion people to agree on some underlying principles? I think the size of the American political entity undermines the commonality necessary for societal formation or preservation. Not in the sense that there should be 50 sovereign states, but in the sense that there should be 500 of them. A thousand. Basically a collection of city-states. Within the city-state, there's the homogeneity necessary for community. Outside the city-state, the required homogeneous elements become just the bare minimum required for the type of public goods that would have to be provided by a federal government. Could we get 1,000 city-states to agree on deterring a North Korean military threat? I think so. Can we get them to agree on a third-grade curriculum? Why do we need to?

Ultimately, I think we will get the re-creation (i.e.: creating again) of social capital when we stop celebrating diversity qua diversity and start looking for commonality. Is there common ground between a rural religious conservative and an urban transgendered atheist? Sure: they both want to be left alone to do their own thing. That would be one of the handful of bedrock principles the entire federation of city-states could support. The more community we want, the smaller the polity needs to be. Like Hayek said, Bermuda could implement socialism without compulsive methods, but anything much larger than that cannot. Paradoxically, we'd get stronger support of America's core principles if we stopped trying to impose a political system that requires homogeneity onto a heterogeneous society as large as America.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

How I Spent My Isolation

I taught a class that ended the first Friday in March. By then it was clear that Coronavirus was coming to America, and the school had ramped up its hygiene reminders and access to hand sanitizer. My wife continued working at the library for the next week. On that Friday our city determined that the libraries would close at the end of the day. There was a mini run on the library, as everyone of a literary persuasion stocked up on books for an expected lockdown.

Nine weeks later, I've grown completely disillusioned of society. Everyone around me is a sociopath who has no concept of self-discipline. Not only that, but they have taken to actively bullying anyone who displays a trace of self-discipline. Wear a mask in public? That's a shaming. Refuse to eat in a restaurant? That's a shaming. Express concern about the safety of air travel? You better believe that's a shaming.

What have I been doing with my time? Well, not writing my blog, that's FO SHO! I've been working on a project that I've recently promised to never discuss, I've been reading a lot, I've been watching a lot of movies, I've been watching Parks and Recreation (we're more than halfway done now), and I've been doing a lot of family history. I've been finding people with my last name and tracing them back to their immigrating ancestor; right now, I can place everyone in America with my last name into one of 18 families (it's possible that two of those families are actually branches of another one). Here's a table.

Year of BirthImmigrant's NamePrimary DestinationOrigin
1733NicholasPhiladelphia, PAGermany
1800JohnLancaster Co., PA??? (possibly from Nicholas)
1810RobertPhiladelphia, PA??? (possibly from Nicholas)
1815NicolausSheboygan, WIGermany
1818BernardRushville, INGermany
1823CharlesPhiladelphia, PAGermany
1827JohnChemung Co., NYGermany
1839AdolphSanpete Co., UTDenmark
1840MartinStearns Co., MNGermany
1841HeinrichDetroit, MIGermany
1845CharlesLivingston Co., NYGermany
1854FranzChicago, ILAustria
1857FrederickManistee Co., MIGermany
1859FredDelaware Co., NYAustria
1859JacobWestmoreland Co., PAGermany
1869FrankChicago, ILGermany
1885JosephBrooklyn, NYRussia
1887MorrisOakland, CARomania

What's more, the names that are in bold are families whose members ended up marrying each other, creating one large interconnected group.

We've been very blessed to not have financial concerns during this time. I know many people are stressed over money right now, and I sympathize, having definitely been in that position before, but right now things are okay for us. I filed our taxes ridiculously early this year, so we got our refund in February, and my wife started working at our local library in January, and our library system has continued paying all its furloughed staff. We can't stay like this forever, but for right now we're okay, and we can try to do our part to keep economic activity close to normal.

At the beginning of this, I had visions of exercising a crazy amount and eating a super-exacting diet and coming out of this a veritable Greek god, but now it seems that's only going to be true if Greeks embrace Buddhism. And not Young Buddha, either, but Fat-Elvis Buddha.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Decennius Horribilis

Towards the end of high school, I had the thought, "Everything in life lasts about twice as long as you want it to." This thought was basically my first attempt at articulating a Fundamental Truth of Life. It was based on my high school experience, where the first two years were great, the third year was a little tiresome, and the fourth year was terrible. Then I performed missionary service, and my axiom was not contradicted. And since then, whether it be a meeting, or a period of service in a church calling, or a television series, or a song, the generalization I came up with so long ago has held up: everything lasts about twice as long as you want it to.

Except for graduate school, which has lasted about three times as long.

I'm tired of thinking about grad school. And, in keeping with Fundamental Truth of Life #4, ("If something is stressing you out, stop doing it"), I'm not going to think about it anymore. At least, not more than absolutely necessary. So here is my promise to you: I will only mention my graduate program one more time on this blog, merely to note its conclusion. Outside of that, let's just ignore it.

I just discovered that one of my oldest Fundamental Truths of Life isn't even on the list, so I'll add it now. There are now 16 of them.