Saturday, February 28, 2015

The ISIS Countdown Clock Is Running

Here's an article about how ISIS is trying to help Jesus come back sooner. Wait, say what?!

Here's what I like best about the article: ISIS internal communiques about how hard it is to recruit informed Muslims, and the acknowledgement that they recruit best among the "loser" demographic.

And the second-best thing about the article is the seven-year countdown. I can hold out for seven years. Bring it on!

Of course, I'm not sure why I'd think that when Jesus said, "that day and hour knoweth no man," he meant to add, "Except ISIS; those dudes totally have it all figured out."

It's Kind of Not a Funny Movie

Last night my wife picked the movie we watched: It's Kind of a Funny Story. And while we watched it, I liked it all right. But afterwards, I decided I didn't like it much at all.

So this boy, Craig, has a recurring fantasy about suicide, and one time it is vivid enough that he worries he should do something about it, so he rides his bike to the local hospital and has himself committed to the psychiatric ward. He spends a week there, then is all better.

That's admittedly the Reader's Digest version, but it's sufficient for our discussion.

Here's what bothered me about it:

  1. I felt the movie trivialized depression. Which I know seems like an unfair criticism, because it tried hard in many places to not trivialize it. At one point Craig says he'd be embarrassed if his friends found out where he was, and the doctor in charge of the ward says, "You're being treated for an illness. Would you be embarrassed if you had diabetes?"

    And yet. And yet Craig seems to not be that depressed. It's almost like he was misusing the term. He thinks he is depressed, until he gets put in the psychiatric ward, sees what actual mental illness patients are like, and tries to talk his way out of it. If it seems miraculous that a week in the psych ward cures him, the truth is that ten minutes in the psych ward cures him. He's a teenager who is stuck in his own head, thinking that all his problems are the only problems in the world. His depression is just vanity. Instead of teaching that labeling such feelings as depression is a misuse of the term, the movie seems to show that all depression is really just vanity. As such, it falls into the "if you really cared about me and the kids you'd stop having cancer" school of depression response.

  2. To show that the main character doesn't really understand this, they have him take it as a compliment when his best friend tells him, "You know, I get it too, sometimes. The whole depression thing." No, what you "get sometimes" isn't depression, and an actually depressed person wouldn't think it's kind of cool that his friend could relate. Again with a cancer analogy: would you tell a cancer patient, "I know how you feel because last week I had the flu and I felt really awful for, like, almost a whole day!"?

    I guess you could say it's an attempt to remove the stigma of depression if we show it's more common than we suppose. But it also trivializes it if we equate your "bad mood" or "case of the Mondays" with clinical depression. Why? Because you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and "snap out of" your case of the Mondays. So why can't your depressed friend do the same thing? After all, we've established they're equivalent, right?

  3. Craig is anxious because of pressure regarding his future. The pretty girl in the psych ward cuts herself, we never find out why, and at the end of the movie, she's out and living a normal life, we never find out how. But Bobby, a six-time-attempted-suicide, is the biggest worry for me. We're shown Bobby's desperation regarding his interview to be admitted to a group home when his stay on the psych ward ends. Bobby tells us that, unless he's admitted, he'll be homeless. No other character refutes this. But then Bobby feels he blows his interview. Next thing we hear, Bobby's been admitted. But we never have independent corroboration of this. Craig's last night in the ward is also Bobby's last night. Craig orchestrates a pizza party. Bobby shows up, watches from the door, smiling wanly, then leaves. The next morning, Craig asks after Bobby and is told he left already, very early.

    Am I the only person who thought Bobby left the doorway of the party room and went to throw himself off the roof of the hospital? I'm not convinced he actually got accepted to the group home. I guess we're to take his word for it because we overhear him on the phone describing the place to his daughter, but given how much his daughter means to him, is it really believable that he would tell her anything else? Bobby is the only person who seems to get that what Craig has isn't depression, it's vanity. One week of "get over yourself" and he's cured. And presumably the girl just needed to be told, "The world's not so bad." All the trite depression "cures" get trotted out, and they all work like charms! But Bobby, who is actually depressed, might be dead by the end of the movie. Not to worry: the young beautiful people survive.

Probably nothing but unfair criticisms. I shared them with my wife, who has read the book, and she thinks the book wasn't as flippant and generally develops Craig's depression better. But to me, it seemed like a movie that reinforced unhelpful views.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Church Talk Plan

My oldest son, Articulate Joe, has a healthy disregard for reading. To try to break him of this, we often have a book he and I are reading together. Most recently, it was a junior novelization of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.

He used to have a particular practice to communicate his disdain for reading: when he was reading the last page of a book, he would get up and walk to the door as he said the final words, making sure that he didn't have to read for one extra second more than necessary.

My wife and I are speaking in sacrament meeting tomorrow, and I just had a vision of how awesome it would be if I borrowed this routine. As I start closing my talk, I begin to walk away from the podium, until, as I walk through the doors at the back of the chapel, I call out, "Amen!"

I don't think that would go over very well, but it would be pretty cool. At least, no one would forget that sacrament meeting talk.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Grammar for the Year of the Ram/Sheep/Goat/Chupacabra

There's some debate about whether this is the year of the ram or the sheep or the whatever. Our local grocery store is selling stuffed llamas, which I think is a pretty liberal interpretation.

Anyway, here's another set of words that share a spelling but have different pronunciations.

Diagnoses: plural form of the noun "diagnosis."

Diagnoses: conjugated form of the verb "to diagnose."

He diagnoses diagnoses for a living.


I've started reading Joseph M. Spencer's For Zion, and here are some preliminary thoughts.

1. I know very little about the apostolic period. Very, very little.

2. For a dude who never seemed to get along well with Peter, and who maybe even didn't really have that high of an official calling, Paul certainly ended up having a lot of influence over orthodox Christian doctrine. Some of that is the result of history; Paul's work survived more completely. Of course, that wasn't just an exogenous event; which writings were preserved and which were suppressed were heavily determined by human favor and disfavor, not just which scrolls didn't fall apart. But Paul's prominence in the New Testament seems incongruous with his prominence in his lifetime. I think all we can definitively say about him is he was a super gung-ho high-profile convert given some missionary assignments. Who just happened to completely reshape Christianity.

3. What if Paul's teachings can best be understood as the higher-level instruction that, without the underlying foundational teachings, can be misleading? Spencer writes about how Paul's time in Corinth was (sorta maybe willfully) misunderstood by the Corinthians, and his first epistle to them was trying to set things right. If Paul's personal ministry could be problematic, what of his mail-order ministry, and what of his posthumous mail-order ministry?

Paul comes along, supposes everyone gets the gospel core, and teaches a bunch of advanced material like the pointlessness of the law. His non-advanced listeners say, "Sweet, licentiousness!" Paul says, "You're misunderstanding me." But once Paul's dead and he can't refute the misinterpretation, his work could have been favored precisely because it was possible to misinterpret it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Competitive Devaluations

The vast majority of the world's nations used to have money convertible to legally-specified amounts of gold (and, for a few, silver). This is usually called "the gold standard."

What was nice about the gold standard was that it provided a check to inflation. A country could print more money, but when holders of the money began to worry about the value being undermined by the increased supply, they could trade the money in for gold. The central bank (the gold standard didn't require a central bank, but at the end, most countries had one) could either buy more gold to support the exchange rate of money to gold, or it could reduce the money supply. The government could also legally change the specified amount of gold, but that wasn't really they resorted to in normal circumstances, since a regularly-changed rule isn't really a rule at all.

What was not nice about the gold standard was that it restricted the government's ability to inject money into the economy when conditions justified it. Make some money, see your gold reserves dwindle, soak up the money, get back to where you were. Because the gold standard was seen as a good thing, countries tried to stay on the gold standard while creating money, which meant they had to devalue their currencies. The United States went from $20.87 for an ounce of gold to $35 for an ounce of gold, an expropriation of over 40% of all Americans' wealth.

The thing about devaluations, though, is that it only makes you look good in comparison to countries that have no devalued. When your economy begins to recover through increased demand for your exports, other countries can stop this by also devaluing their currencies. This is called "competitive devaluation," and it's generally agreed that it sucks.

Like I said, countries shouldn't resort to devaluation in normal circumstances. The Great Depression, however, wasn't normal circumstances. In his book Golden Fetters, economist Barry Eichengreen shows two things: 1) that "Eichengreen" is an awesome last name, and 2) that countries who left the gold standard sooner experienced recovery from the Great Depression sooner.

But leaving the gold standard was just gonzo devaluation. It was a declaration that no convertibility rate would be too crazy for use, and it only looked good when not everyone had done it.

Beginning with Abenomics, we are now re-entering a world of competitive devaluations. Switzerland, Denmark, and now speculation builds about China. (Maybe China just heard the "competitive" part of the term and their knee-jerk reaction took over. Airport, mall, bridge, et cetera.)

Needless to say, I'm keeping an eye on the China situation with a keen interest. I think a very effective way of teaching my students macroeconomics would be to respond to a 30% pay reduction with a 30% effort reduction, but I don't know if my overlords supervisors would agree.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How Do You Say "Afternoon Delight" in Mandarin?

In my current Mandarin lesson, the recording features a conversation between a man and a woman regarding where they would like to go for lunch. The man asks, "Where would you like to go to eat lunch? To a restaurant?" After the woman answers, "Yes, I'd like to go to the Beijing restaurant," the recording then takes a turn towards the sensual when she changes her answer to, "No, I'd like to go to your place."

MAN: "To my place? I too would like to. But later, okay?"

WOMAN: "Not okay."

Wow, Chinese ladies don't play, son.

How to Secede From America (Without Really Trying)

One of the arguments you hear against secession is, "Even if the rest of the states agreed, there's no provision in the Constitution for secession."

Ignoring for a moment how adorable it is that you think what the Constitution says still matters, I contend that the mechanisms that would allow for secession have already been used, lots of times.

Firstly, Congress can cede sovereignty over territory, which it does every time a new embassy opens. The United States even ceded control of José Martí Park in Tampa, Florida, to Cuba in 1956.

Secondly, the federal government functioned during the Civil War without participation from several states. Congress still functioned without the states' delegations present, and a presidential election was held without counting electors from those states.

So there's no Constitutional provision for, say, Texas quitting the Union. Fine. But Congress can cede sovereignty of Texas to the Texas state government, and then Texas can stop sending members to Congress and stop participating in American presidential elections. How is this not the exact same thing as secession?

One could argue that Congress has no authority to cede sovereignty over any territory that has citizens, but isn't that what happened with Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau? Why can't Texas become a state in free association with the U.S.?

The Honduran supreme court ruled out charter cities, but that wasn't quite the same issue. There, the Honduran government had agreed to remove territory from the jurisdiction of their constitution while still maintaining it as Honduran territory. I agree that this shouldn't be allowed (although, at this point, is it really going to surprise you to find out that America has already done exactly that to 2/3 of its people?). But if the Federales ever agreed to give up control (I know, I know [wipes tears of laughter from eyes], I've got to stop so you don't get kicked out of the library for laughing too loudly), there's no reason that anywhere in America can't secede.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Family Limits

We got to go to church early yesterday for me to get a calling. Then sacrament meeting started and they released the branch presidency councilors. I thought, "I wonder what my family is thinking right now."

We came home and I said, "I knew I wasn't getting called to the branch presidency, but what did you guys think?" It turns out no one thought that was a serious possibility for me. Articulate Joe said, "When I heard them release the clerk [which happened later], I said, 'That's Daddy's new job.'"

They know my limits.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Crazy Candor

I recently read a blog post at The Millennial Star responding to John Dehlin's criticisms and critiques of the church. I think it's very good, but some parts of it were sort of jarring in their honesty. For instance:

Are some people attracted to others who are of the same gender? Heck yes. Am I one of those? Surely have been. I am more attracted to men, statistically, but I could have been happy with a “right person” who was the same gender I am.

If you aren't Mormon, you might not know that such a statement would stand out as a Sunday School comment.

Now, I'm not criticizing. I really believe church members need much more candor. We project these images of being thisclose to perfect while we know we aren't. Then we go to church, see everyone else's images of near-perfection, and wonder, "Well, what the crap is wrong with me then?!"

It’s a bit like a married person who finds themselves possessed of a burning desire to bed someone to whom they aren’t married. That desire, in my experience, can be overwhelming, a passion that displaces almost all, that can leave one insensate, hardly able to respond.

Again with the candor!

Of course we've all experienced attraction to someone who's not our spouse, right? But none of us ever talk about it. So instead of saying, "Here's what I did to deal with it," we pretend it didn't need any attention at all, because the second we said "I do," everyone else in the world magically turned into hideous hags. And then here comes a lady telling us, "I've experienced a burning desire to bed someone to whom I wasn't married," and we all go, "Uhhhhhhh, did she just...say...?"

I love the candor. I love the honesty, the self-contentment that allows one to say, "I can acknowledge some of these personal thoughts and still be a perfectly normal person." It's just something so unusual in my culture that I kind of don't know how to respond.

I tried Truth Week once, but the real truth is that I had a planned blog post that I decided to not write that week, about being attracted to people outside your marriage, about how it's wrong, but it's common, and how some people say, "It's common and you deal with it," while others say, "You're the worst person EVER!" I spiked that post because I know where on that spectrum some of my more-important readers lie. (Does it count as "lying on the spectrum" if you go to the one extreme end, get in a car, and keep driving that direction as fast as possible?)

The problem with gonzo candor, so to speak, is that there are two normal distributions (imagine the X-axis is measuring "deviancy"): the one we inhabit, and the one we profess, which is systematically-skewed to the left. So when we declare Practice x1, which is right in the middle of the inhabited distribution, it is in the extreme tail end of the professed distribution. I say, "I engage in x1," and you all think, "So do I, but I don't say it!" And then you realize that, if you don't condemn my deviancy, everyone will know you also engage in x1, which will make you a deviant, too. So we all end up publicly condemning a lot of stuff that we privately do.

This can be good, if the professed distribution is aspirational. We don't want to normalize, say, drug use, so even if most of us use drugs, we condemn drug use and the world is a better place for it. The entire movie Pleasantville, which I hate, is based on declaring all morality is merely bigoted skewing of the professed distribution, making deviants out of normal people. I don't agree with that at all, but I do feel some of what we tell ourselves is improper to say in public might be more helpful if it were said in public.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Scenes From Life

Three pictures with some quick notes.

First, walking back from the bank the other day, I wanted to take a picture of our street. In the ten seconds I tried operating the camera while walking, I was almost run over twice by cars and twice by passers by. And what turned out was basically just a shot of a bunch of cars parked alongside a curb. Ooooh, exciting!

Second, my school is closed for the month of February for Spring Festival. I've been going to work every day to work on my dissertation. The heat in my office was shut off for the month, so I've been using my classroom. I thought, "I should take a picture and entitle it 'This is where the magic happens,' except it would be more accurate to call it 'This is where the sausage is made, or rather supposed to be made.'"

Last month, right before I rearranged my classroom, someone stuck an unused Chinese flag in the back corner of the room. So when I cleaned everything up and moved the desks around, I moved the flag to the front. The combination of the cherry-stained desk and the Chinese flag to my right made my students think I was trying to mimic the setup of President Xi's office that they had just seen a few days before in his New Year's television address.

(For this to be fair-use, I have to comment on the actual work by Reuters itself, right? So here goes: modern copyright is infuriating to me, and this picture is an example of why. This is a still frame from a video that was not recorded or produced by Reuters. It was a product of Chinese state media. I don't see how that then becomes copyrighted material of a different company. Like how I cannot legally tell my friend what happened in a Champions League game, because the performances and any accounts thereof are owned by FIFA. But everyone know that it is acceptable for news programs to run small segments of politicians on other television shows when the content of the segment is newsworthy. End of fair use.)

One of them even took a picture of me at the desk and created a side-by-side image, which they then WeChatted to each other for a while. But I don't want the Chicoms coming after me for co-opting their president. (In my classroom picture, you can also see the changing caricature of me one of my students maintains. Currently I am wearing warm-weather clothes and holding a Chinese lantern and some candied tomatoes on a stick.)

Third, yesterday was a great combination of clean air, warm weather, and no wind. I left work a few minutes early and met my family on the soccer field (my commute is walking diagonally across the field, so they were literally exactly on my way home).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Excommunication: What It Is, And What It Isn't

I have a relative who has recently become a vocal supporter of John Dehlin. As such, she shared the following scripture on Facebook in response to Dehlin's excommunication this week: "Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister.... (3 Ne. 18:32)"

I find it interesting that she truncated the rest of the verse, which follows a semicolon: "for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them." Jesus commands to continue ministering on the grounds that perhaps the errant will repent. My relative is not concerned about Dehlin's responsibility to repent, only on his leaders' responsibility to continue ministering.

But this verse is not even applicable to the situation at hand, because excommunication is not casting someone out of the place of worship. I wrote the following response (which I then had to record somewhere else in case it went "missing," as most posts contrary to my relative's thoughts happen to do).

Excommunication is not casting out of the place of worship. It is removal from the membership list. Dehlin is invited to continue (or, in his case, resume) attending. Excommunication is the first step in the repentance process. As such, his local leaders are continuing to administer to him, following the scripture you've shared [3 Ne. 18:32].

The Book of Mormon also counsels leaders "whosoever will not repent of his sins, the same shall not be numbered among my people" (Mosiah 26:32).

Excommunication is release from covenants the member no longer intends to keep. It allows the member to get back to a place where he is not every day further violating his promises. It is hoped that the member will recommit to the covenants and return. To be able to do that, he must be allowed to continue attending. This is why Jesus counsels church leaders to not prohibit anyone from attending. Excommunication is not an order to stop attending. My relative is, again, misguided.

My relative changed her Facebook profile picture to an image of Jesus with a large tear rolling down his face. The implication is that Jesus is saddened by the church leaders' decision, since she did not pick this image after Dehlin, say, denied the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ. But Dehlin's statements on the questionable reality of Jesus lead me to wonder: who does Dehlin think is crying in the picture? Is it an idea, a feeling? Or is it a disembodied tear rolling down a nonexistent cheek?

It's a weird picture to choose, and it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what Dehlin believes and, honestly, what he teaches. As a non-Hindu, I don't believe in the god Ganesh. How effective would it be for someone to tell me I had saddened Ganesh? How disingenuous would it be for me to claim someone else has saddened Ganesh? Can I say, "You made Ganesh cry today," when I don't believe Ganesh exists, so I can't believe he's capable of crying? (I'm not criticizing Hindu theology, here. I'm just using it as an example of something others believe that I don't.)

Quoting a scripture (which Dehlin teaches is fiction) attributing commandments to Jesus (who Dehlin teaches is probably not real) to argue that Dehlin's leaders are wrong to ban him (which they haven't done) from attending (which he no longer does), while ignoring the injunction to "return and repent" (which Dehlin's future plans don't include) is a pretty breathtaking combination of errors. But pointing this out to my relative would probably constitute a "personal attack" in her book.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Weekend Thoughts

  • What's the deal with vanity meetings for released church leaders? It seems to me this is a last-decade development. If we've killed the mission farewell and open house (although these are still alive in Virginia), can't we kill this, too?

    I'm probably just a jerk. (What do I mean "probably"?) But I don't feel it's really meeting a need of the congregation. It's more a giant slap-on-the-back, and when you consider that these meetings usually have a visiting general authority, they represent a huge wasted opportunity. I'd bet nearly everyone in the congregation would rather hear more from the general authority than to hear how much the released leader loves his wife. (Spoiler alert: he loves her a lot.)

    Maybe the Straussian reason for these meetings is to undermine the constantly-resurfacing Mormon fetish for ecclesiasticism. People come out of the woodwork for a visiting general authority because they think he is somehow going to tell them something God wants them to hear that they can't get on their own through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. How many times can a GA get up and say, "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I have nothing to tell you that you don't already know"? So they let these vanity meetings get out of control, and now between the entire old presidency, the entire new presidency, and all of their wives, there's little time for the GA to say anything but, "This new guy was called of God."

  • I've been in China for nearly six months now, and I've never once been stopped to have my papers checked. But when I checked into a hotel this weekend, I realized that the immigration bureaucrats aren't missing, they're just disguised as service employees. The hotel desk clerk checked our passports, our visas, and our most-recent entry stamps, recording all the information. I've read before about the comparatively-small size of the Chinese bureaucracy, but that figure could be deceptive if every hotel and airline worker is doing internal migration oversight.

  • It would be very helpful if Chinese people wore small buttons that declared their proficiency with English on a scale of 1 to 10. At least a few times each week, my wife or I will struggle through whatever Chinese we know, only to have the clerk respond in perfect English. Most recently at a McDonald's, I tortuously put together the sentence, "Wŏmen xiăng liăng gè," only for the woman to respond, "You want two?"

    I know my plan can't be implemented, and it's probably rude and jingoistic of me to even want it. But it really would be very helpful.

  • There are a lot of dudes missing limbs around here. I mean a lot. And they are all begging on the street or on the subway. Contrast this to America, where if you've lost a limb, you're either a veteran getting some amount of basic care through Veterans Administration, or you're a workplace accident victim getting workers compensation or a lawsuit settlement. But here, lose a limb and get used to scooting around on your stumps singing into a tiny bullhorn.

    Now, most of my students' reaction to a regressive tax code is one of satisfaction. "If the poor have to pay more taxes, they will work harder to make sure they're not poor," I've read on many, many homeworks. As if the poor are poor because their lives are too easy.

    Anyway, that lack of compassion carries over to the handicapped, too. Almost every time a limbless person is busking in our subway car, we are the only people to give him money. But what's the Chinese explanation this time? "If we just give him money, he'll never grow back his legs"? Or, "If we just give him money, it'll provide incentive for another guy to make sure his legs get caught in some machinery"? People love to talk up Chinese friendliness, but it seems such praise should be heavily tempered in light of their shocking lack of compassion.

  • If the poor internalize their poverty, as research suggests they do, it seems highly likely that the perpetually unused will internalize their uselessness. Spend all season on the bench, so to speak, and you come to think Coach must know something about you that you don't.

  • My "Thai fried noodle" dinner this weekend came with two shrimp that still had their eyeballs. It was creepy, yo. (But delicious.)