Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Digging My Own Grave

Part of me is worried that, when I die, this picture caption is going to be one of the pieces of evidence against me. But it made my daughter crack up in sacrament meeting, so I think it was worth it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Tibetan Slavery

(This post is going to be quick and to-the-point because I had a longer, developed post on this topic that my computer caused me to highlight and delete and then Blogger immediately saved the deleted version.)

A former student of mine from China is now a university student in the United States. He posted something about the Dalai Lama supporting forced labor and China's occupation of Tibet being a humanitarian mission to save the Tibetans from slavery. I asked for clarification if he thought China was opposed to forced labor and if he thought Tibet would experience more forced labor as an independent country, and he said yes to both questions.

That's just insane to me. The sources of information on China's use of forced labor are wide and varied. For instance: American citizen Charles Lee was imprisoned and made novelty slippers. Periodically Americans find pleas for help shoved into the packages they open. It can't be said this is a Western conspiracy to discredit the Chinese government because that ignores the breadth of agreement in non-Chinese sources; much of Western media is controlled by those sympathetic to state-run socialism. In the past, these people would have been called "fellow travelers" (or "useful idiots"). If this is indeed an anti-China conspiracy then it stands alone as the ONLY thing that EVERYONE outside of China can agree on. Remember, for years claims of a Soviet Gulag were said to be hysterical, and then they were shown to be pretty much spot-on.

In 1999, I started a personal boycott of items made in China. This was because of the structure of Chinese exports, where export companies are branches of the People's Liberation Army, so a cut of every item purchased from China goes to their military. That wouldn't necessarily be terrible, except I'm from Los Angeles, so the periodic Chinese threats to destroy Los Angeles with nuclear weapons are disagreeable to me.

My personal boycott ended in 2001 because 1) it became impractical as China replaced nearly all other sources of manufactured goods sold in America, and 2) I got married and my wife wasn't as dedicated to the boycott as I was. My father gave me a pair of Homer Simpson slippers and jokingly blacked out the tag where it noted their Chinese origin. A few years later I read that Charles Lee spent his prison sentence making this exact style of slippers. I could no longer wear them.

Now, Tibet was a feudal society before the 1950 invasion, and there's not much difference between a serf and a slave. So the argument can be made that the Dalai Lama was a slaveholder and that Tibet had widespread slavery before 1950. But the idea that China brought liberalization with them is wrong. The Danwei system was as all-controlling as serfdom, and its phasing out didn't start until the 1980s. Some aspects of illiberalism persist today, such as the two-child policy. (Serfs and slaves don't need government approval to reproduce.)

What's more germane to this argument, though, is whether a Dalai Lama ruling over an independent Tibet would return the nation to pre-1950 feudalism. Given the nature of the modern world, I just don't see that happening. Of course, we can't know right now, but there's no indication that Buddhism requires it, as the world's predominantly-Buddhist nations aren't feudalistic.

My former student had a number of friends who attacked my post, telling me that I can't know the truth because I can't read the Chinese sources they can read, and that I was disrespectful for attacking China. I didn't respond, as it wouldn't change their willingness to accept the story they've been told by their government, and it would only hurt their credit scores. But Occam's razor would lead us to believe that arguments which require a conspiracy of all non-Chinese media personnel should be disbelieved. There's nothing we in the West can do to discredit the Chinese government more than what the Chinese government already does itself.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Bizarro World Presidency

Lots of people have strong opinions about what's going on in American politics right now. Instead of writing about that, I want to write a little about what might have been.

What if....

What if Mitt Romney had won in 2012? He probably would have faced Hillary Clinton in 2016 (she was the 2016 nominee ever since 2008), and given what we know about the re-election rate of sitting presidents, and what we now know about how terrible of a candidate Hillary was, I think it would be safe to assume that he would have been re-elected. So what I want to know is how many of Donald Trump's most-adamant critics would take that trade: change the outcome of the 2012 election to prevent Trump winning the 2016 election?

Maybe you think this isn't reasonable, that the two elections have little relation to each other. I don't think so, though. I think the core of the Republican Party was open to Trump because they thought: "We tried a compromise candidate, someone who should have been tolerable to a vast majority of Democrats, and they decided to paint him as 'Mormon Hitler.' Well, we'll show 'em...not 'Hitler,' of course, because that comparison lacks civility and reason, but something not quite a zero on the Hitler Scale."

And now you say, "Oh, come ON, A Random Stranger! When did Republicans ever try to show their goodwill by embracing a candidate from the opposite party to show they can be reasonable?" Um, how about Obama's first election? The week after the election his favorability rating was 75% and it peaked at nearly 80% at his inauguration. It's been 50 years since a president has hit 80% without a war or terrorist attack. The story of the racist Republicans who were always opposed to Obama is false. Trump won the presidency because of Obama/Trump voters in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. I know Obama lost me and others like me when his response to the recession was to nationalize healthcare. It's not racist to oppose statism.

Anyway, that's getting too far afield. The point is this: there's an argument to be made that a Romney victory in 2012 would have cuts the legs out from under any Trumpism groundswell in 2016, not just delaying it four years, but snuffing it out. And so I wonder if Trump's most-strident critics would be prepared to accept an offer: we can completely avoid a Trump presidency at the cost of a Romney victory in 2012.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Automation, Displacement, and Social Welfare

A key tenet of economics is the benefit of what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." The idea is that the displacement caused by technological advancement is what frees resources from their now-inefficient uses so they can be redirected to new uses that lead to economic growth. Before the Industrial Revolution, somewhere over 90% of the workforce was involved in food production. Now that number is under 10%, but we don't have 80% unemployment. The automation in agricultural production that heralded the start of the Industrial Revolution made it so the labor necessary for factory jobs was available. The same could be said of the Digital Revolution. Computers displaced workers, and those workers can now do things that were previously going undone. Human existence is nicer because of technological advancement.

But what if the rate of technological advancement outpaces humans' ability to adjust to it? The McCormick reaper and other inventions made most farm labor superfluous, so those workers learned how to become factory workers, and that change lasted for three or four generations. The vacuum tube and other inventions made most factory labor superfluous, so those workers learned how to become office workers, and that change lasted for two generations. Some people tell us to not fear the coming AI Revolution because it's just the latest in this string of technological revolutions that have drastically improved human life. I worry, however, that the pace of automation has surpassed the ability of humans to learn their new roles in the economy. With the past revolutions, there was someplace for the workers to land on their feet. Currently, though, a displaced worker might leave a retraining program to find that his newly-acquired skill has also been displaced.

What will never go away? Things we only want humans to do. But that list of tasks is shrinking rapidly. And besides, most of us have an aversion to entering service. We can't square "all men are created equal" with a nation consisting of a handful of satraps and their personal courts. And what's the ROI from retraining when education costs continue to outpace inflation but careers have now become gigs?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Change of Mentality

In the Maisie Dobbs book I read most recently (A Lesson in Secrets--the eighth novel in the series), Maisie hires a young widow, Sandra, to help in her office part-time. Sandra suspects her husband's death was not an accident and goes looking for evidence. She gets arrested after breaking into an office to go through some files. Maisie is out of town, so she asks her friend Priscilla Evernden to take Sandra in and look after her. Sandra runs away and leaves a note explaining that she couldn't stay at the Everndens' house because she's a known criminal and as such a threat to the Everndens' young boys.

Sandra would not be a supporter of Ban the Box, and I doubt her actions would be understandable to Jack Crowley.

Eighty years ago, people discounted their personal knowledge of circumstances and made decisions based on the assumptions they supposed a member of the public would make. Today people criticize the assumptions the public makes and insist others gain more knowledge than can be gained in a single lifetime before forming an opinion. Both are insane behaviors.

Monday, February 13, 2017

(Other People's) Marriage Is Stressful

When I got married I was, like, "There's nothing to worry about because I know I'm not a terrible person and I'm pretty sure she's not a terrible person; I mean, just look at how HOT she is! God wouldn't let a terrible person be hot--it wouldn't be fair!" And my marriage has turned out all right (so far). But when I hear that other people are going to get married, I am overcome with anxiety on their behalf. Because, really, no matter how sterling your vetting process, it's pretty easy to slip through. Just look at all the wack-jobs you know who are (or have been) married. Most people's due diligence consists of "s/he looks great in those jeans I like, and s/he professes affinity for the same bits of popular culture I happen to like."

I was reminded of this when reading Wodehouse's Uneasy Money today. One character's subconscious is attempting to convince the man that he was lucky to have been released from his engagement.

Why on earth do you think that you would have been happy with this girl? What do you know about her except that she is a beauty? I grant you she's that, but are you aware of the infinitesimal part looks play in married life? My dear chap, better is it for a man that he marry a sympathetic gargoyle than a Venus with a streak of hardness in her. (p. 208)

I knew my wife for 17 years before we got married, and I STILL regularly think, "Man, I got lucky that she turned out to be okay." I guess we should all be grateful that so many people subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Four Points to Begin the Weekend

  1. Here's a really long blog post (I mean a "think of the longest blog post you'd be comfortable reading and then triple it" really long blog post) about how Americans are paying four times as much for everything but getting the same quality of services. Scott Alexander, the writer, ends with a series of possible explanations. I would add maybe one more: mission creep. Schools aren't just schools anymore, they offer meals and child care and psychological counselling, among other things. And the same is true of hospitals, universities, and every other public service. But that can't explain why building a subway in America costs almost seven times what it costs in Germany. America is broken, but the Trump sideshow isn't going to fix anything.
  2. In Uneasy Money by P.G. Wodehouse, an auto manufacturer who is always thinking in terms of cars has his attention for a gorgeous woman described as "experienc[ing] disturbing emotions when he beheld her perfect tonneau and wonderful headlights," which is pretty cheeky for a novel from 1916. It made me laugh.
  3. Speaking of Uneasy Money, I'm frustrated by this portion. A woman named Elizabeth has a brother nicknamed Nutty. Nutty meets a man named Bill and they go to dinner in a restaurant, where a woman named Lady Wetherby performs a dance she calls Dream of Psyche. Later the narrator tells us
    In her heart Elizabeth knew perfectly well that this was because Nutty, when in the presence of the bees, lost his head completely and behaved like an exaggerated version of Lady Wetherby's Dream of Psyche, whereas Bill maintained an easy calm....
    I don't like that it seems Elizabeth knows that Nutty's behavior is like Lady Wetherby's dance, since Elizabeth has never seen the dance.
  4. Here's a fun paper: "College As Country Club: Do Colleges Cater to Students' Preferences for Consumption?" Spoiler alert: yes. But it's not like you couldn't figure this out on your own, right?

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Truth Week: Alma 39:5

Yesterday I wrote that today's post would be about a scriptural verse that is not troublesome in and of itself, but in the widespread interpretation. That verse is Alma 39:5:

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
This has been widely interpreted among church members and church leaders as referring to the enormity of sexual sin. This, also, is not a stand-alone problem, but when we categorize the entire catalog of sexual sin as being nearly as terrible as murder, it becomes a giant problem.

Awkward paragraph commencing; consider yourself warned. I spent a good deal of my teenage years pretty sure I was going to hell. Here's the logical progression. 1) Murderers go to hell (D&C 132:27). 2) Sexual sinners are next to murderers (Alma 39:5). 3) I was a sexual sinner because I occasionally masturbated (my personal experience). Ergo: I was probably going to hell. I know there's a Doctor Faustus quality to this scriptural reasoning, but that was what I thought. I wasn't helped by the fact that I couldn't talk to anyone about this ("Hey, I'm nearly a murderer, but I have a question and I was wondering if you could answer it...."), and the one time I did tangentially ask in Sunday School class about it (I said something like, "What happens to someone who knows what he's supposed to do but repeatedly doesn't do it?"), the teacher supported my theory by telling me that such people will not be saved from their sins. Awkward paragraph concluding.

(Actually, now that I've written the rest of the post, I realize the awkwardness doesn't end there. Oh, well. Deal with it.)

Before you say, "Well, you're the only person who ever reached that conclusion," I would tell you that I have recently learned of many instances to counter this claim. Natasha Helfer Parker, an LDS marriage and family therapist, writes

within the last 6 months I’ve known of two LDS adolescent boys referred to the addictions program offered by the church because they masturbate 1-3 times a week and three LDS adolescent clients tell me they believe their masturbatory behavior to be a sin next to murder!!!
In an article entitled "Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Conterrevolution, and Emerging Reform," Mark Kim Malan and Vern Bullough recount the tale of Kip Eliason's suicide, which was fueled by his masturbation shame. His LDS psychiatrist paid a malpractice settlement when sued for endorsing Eliason's bishop's abstinence attitude (pp. 98, 101, 107-8). Clearly, I was not some lone wacko jumping to conclusions no one else would even consider.

In the past two years I've come across more material presenting a saner view of such matters. It began when a friend shared this thought-provoking article from LDS therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife about whether single LDS members can have a complete mortal experience if complete abstinence from all sexual activity of any kind is the watchword. I was interested to learn from Parker's blog post that For the Strength of Youth and the Bishop's handbook no longer contain the word "masturbation." Malan and Bullough also write about changes in teachings. Just a few months ago, this was highlighted by the church's decision to stop producing a pamphlet of a General Conference talk by Boyd K. Packer on the subject.

Some might say, "Well, A Random Stranger, the fact that you felt so terrible about it is the reason they told you to not do it," but that's getting the causation backwards. I'm not going to detail here why (any interested personal friends can ask and hear the story offline), but I am personally convinced that the truth is a lot closer to what Parker and Finlayson-Fife are suggesting than to what I was told when I was growing up.

And what's more, in this Sunstone article by Michael R. Ash (oh no, my six-month countdown has begun!), he makes a strong case that Alma isn't even talking about sexual sin when he is discussing the sin next to murder. This article was shared on Meridian Magazine, but indicative of the widespread member acceptance of the prevailing interpretation of Alma 39:5 is the reader's comment at the bottom, where he doubles down on the murder/sex nexus. We're more interested in making sure that the story we've told ourselves for years continues than in properly understanding truth, and in reaching that proper understanding saving unsuspecting youth a lifetime of problems. Because I can pretty much say that at least 90% of the trouble in my life has come from Alma 39:5 and the way it's read and applied by most Mormons. Regarding this cultural use of the scripture, Parker writes

If this is what we are teaching our youth – then we are emotionally abusing them. And it needs to stop. I will no longer be a compliant witness to this type of psychological assault. I know my language is strong and I intend it to be. The numerous stories I could share about masturbatory shame run in the thousands and I find it unnecessary, harmful and life altering.
While my depression problems started around 10 years old or so, before this became an issue in my life, and have continued after this stopped being an issue in my life, there's no doubt in my mind that the severity of my depression is tied to the cultural interpretation of this scripture and how it has impacted my life. Like I said, 90% of my problems are tied to it. It would be the top thing I would like to see changed in our church culture. But as the reader comment at Meridian Magazine shows, it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Truth Week: Moro. 10:22

Remember Truth Week? Well, I guess it's back, six years later.

I feel like there's no room for honesty in Mormon discussions sometimes. For instance, I have never been in a priesthood lesson where we talk about dealing with being attracted to someone other than your spouse. We act like it doesn't happen, or if it does it's a sin. I think we'd be better served by acknowledging that it DOES happen and that the attraction itself is NOT a sin; otherwise we're all left floundering in the face of this universal phenomenon. ("It's not universal--I never experience it!" Oh, cut it out. You're exactly whom I'm talking about.)

Another example: every Mormon book on GoodReads has to get a five-star rating. Can't we acknowledge that some Mormon books are just okay? (And by the way, you know what GoodReads rating corresponds to "okay"? TWO STARS, PEOPLE. Stop the star inflation!)

Well, today I want to write about something that I feel is another suppressed topic: scriptures that I have a problem with.

Why might we not acknowledge that some scripture is unhelpful? Because we're worried it's the first step towards chucking it all away and going on a coffee binge. It's like subscribing to Sunstone: you haven't quit yet, but you will in six months. (Yeah, I said it.) But scripture can cause me problems without me apostatizing. (Or maybe that's just what the editors of Sunstone WANT me to think!) It can be a result of inelegant wording (as in today's post) or wrong-headed interpretation by modern readers (tomorrow's post, insha-Allah). I don't think this makes me a terrible person that I have a hard time with some scriptures. It's the million OTHER things I'm doing wrong in my life that make me a terrible person.

So what is this verse? It is Moroni 10:22, which reads, "And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity."

I'm fine with the first half of it. I read that and I'm, like, "Moroni really gets me." Because I am in despair pretty much ALL THE TIME. At least since I was about 10 years old. But then Moroni kicks me in the teeth with, "And it's your own fault, sinner."

Listen, just about the last thing a despairing person needs to hear is, "Your iniquity is why you feel this way." Because we already are telling ourselves that. Why can't I be happy? Because I'm too stupid to do it, or I'm too sinful to do it, or I'm too irredeemable to do it. These thoughts are the soundtrack of my life. And then Moroni comes along and says, "Don't forget iniquitous!" Uh, thanks, Moroni; I think I covered that one with "sinful".

Maybe he doesn't mean what we all think he means. Maybe he means it like how D&C 101:29 means "death causes all sorrow." At one level the reader thinks, "Not really; I sorrow about a lot of things that aren't death," but at a deeper level, all sorrow is removed when we overcome spiritual death. Separation from God is what allows sorrow to grow and continue, and when we are reunited with God, there will be no more sorrow.

So is Moroni saying "you've caused your own unhappiness," or is he merely saying "we currently live in a world where despair can fester because we are temporarily separated from God"? It would be nice if he was saying the latter, but those aren't the words he uses. And although Moroni says three different times to cut him some slack because he's not a good writer, I don't think this extends to "reinvent my sayings to make them easier to take." I have it in the scriptures that "despair cometh because of iniquity." All I have arguing on the other side is the thought, "It would be nice if he meant something else."

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


Yesterday in my Chinese class the teacher said, "ATM 机," which means "ATM machine."