Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blog Slowdown

Well, this is awkward.

I don't really have anything to say. Nothing terrible "new" is in the news: the president dictated a new law over the weekend (again), but you already know I think he's a dictator. The administration has accepted Iran's nuclear weapons program and called it "peace," but you already know I think this regime is undermining the security of the nation. American soccer is winding down, but "Go Sporting Kansas City!" doesn't take an entire blog post to say.

Usually I blog about things that have happened to me or that I've read. But nothing much happens to me anymore, and my reading lately hasn't been worth noting. I let things sit in my Feedly and Pocket accounts for future blogging, but right now both accounts are completely cleaned out. And on top all that, I'm feeling more and more dysthymic.

In the past when I've stated on my blog that I was going to dial it down for a while, that was when a bunch of bloggable opinions came along. I'd post, "Don't expect too much from me for the next few weeks," and then I'd have three posts per day for the next three weeks. But this isn't a post stating I have other things going on, this is just a post saying I don't have much blogging going on. So we'll see what ends up happening here.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Hastings, Nebraska: Caller, You're On the Air." "Am I On?" "Yes, Caller, You're On Now."

Fact: everybody loves a good Larry King post every once in a while.

Fact: Larry King hasn't had a newspaper column in over 12 years, so nobody understands why these posts are called Larry King posts.

What are people doing with all the pictures they're taking these days? At the zoo on Saturday (I'm nearly thawed out now), a guy was using a tripod to film the light-and-music display. Is he EVER going to watch that video again?!

Speaking of light-and-music displays: nobody born after 1960 has ever said to himself, "You know what would sound really good right now? A little Mannheim Steamroller."

I used to have a calculator with a "fraction" button. You could press 3 "fraction" 5 "equals" and the display would read 0.6. Or you could press 0.75 "fraction" and the display would read "3_4." It also worked with improper fractions. I think calculators should have a similar button for time. If I travel 45 miles at 63 miles per hour, I've traveled for 45/63 hours. I should enter 45/63, then press "time," and the calculator would multiply the fraction by 60, take the decimal figures and multiply them by 60, and the display would read "42 m 51.4 s."

When people find out I keep track of the counties I visit, their first reaction is, "What a weirdo," and then seconds later their second reaction is, "I wonder how many counties I've been to?" This is why a country-tracking app would sell. But I don't know how to build apps.

Something else that would sell modestly but well enough to warrant the time to create e-reader files: my novels.

A few weeks ago I realized that my running times shouldn't be compared to my high school times because my body now is equivalent to my high school self running with a midget on his back. Of course that would have slowed that guy down.

Several weeks ago I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall on Oprah's TV network, so it was edited for content. I tried reading the parents guide on IMDB to see how much I missed. Worst. Parents guide. Ever. In the description of the movie's sexual content are warnings like, "We see women in grass skirts and we can see their bare legs as they dance and move their hips." That would be acceptable in a G-rated movie set in Hawaii. Here's another actual quote from the parents guide: "We see men hugging one another in several scenes and in one scene two men are lying in bed next to each other, fully dressed." What?! Men HUGGING?!? Oprah didn't cut THAT out!

Of the parts of the movie I did see, I think the most-important line is when Peter says, "I didn't know it was a comedy, but then someone told me and it really just opened things up." It describes his puppet rock opera, his breakup experience, and--one could argue--the human condition itself.

I was really hoping Blu-Ray would die, but my most-recent trip to Target left me disappointed on that count. The realism of DVDs and sub-60-inch TVs wasn't that bad. Maybe we'd all be better served by putting in the effort necessary to make our lives nice enough that they don't require so much escapism.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Testimony Meetings No Longer (Just) for Testimony Bingo

I had a thought last night regarding the whole "church not experiencing spiritual gifts" issue. I realized that around 25% of our sermons are completely unscripted, impromptu discourses as directed by the Holy Spirit (i.e.: testimony meetings). Wouldn't this mean, then, that the quality of our testimony meetings is the best barometer of the influence of spiritual gifts?

This is a big concession from someone who has previously ranked testimony as the #1 worst idea in the church. Testimony meeting now seems to be much more important that I had previously thought.

Just for fun, where do I now stand on the Top Five Worst Ideas?

  1. Testimony Meeting: I'm not saying I enjoy it, but I now think it's very important.
  2. Mountain Meadows Massacre: Based on my reading of John W. Turner's Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, I don't believe this was a church idea. It was the idea of church members, like television. Of course it was a bad idea, but it doesn't qualify for a list of worst ideas in the history of the church.
  3. Martin and Willie Handcart Companies: catastrophe-survivor Francis Webster brooked no criticism, although he conceded that it was a mistake. Regardless, it, too, was the decision of church members instead of the decision of the church, so it joins the list of other mistakes made by church members, like Project Orca and Julie being on The Real World.
  4. Ward Activities: Severely curtailed with the elimination of activities committees.
  5. Teenagers: a social construct.

Fake Insurance Is Dead, Long Live Insurance

In an alternate reality where Obamacare became law five years sooner than it did, would my third child be dead? Given that Seattle Children's Hospital has been dropped by many insurances because of Obamacare incentives, I'd suspect so. Jerome Jerome the Metronome had heart surgery at Children's Mercy Hospital of Kansas City when he was one month old. What would happen today?

Insurance only works mathematically for large-cost, randomly-occurring contingencies. This is why people buy fire insurance for their homes and not lawn maintenance insurance. Medical insurance has been required by law to cover many things that don't fit the large-cost, randomly-occurring criteria (such as hair prosthetics and wellness checkups). The very insurance plans that DO fit the model have been outlawed by Obamacare because the young and healthy who only need catastrophic coverage must be required to buy coverage they don't want or need to provide the money to cover everyone else. This is why I recently received notice that, for the second time in three years, my insurance plan is illegal and will be discontinued. My insurance premiums have literally doubled since 2006, and if I buy another plan to replace the one that's being taken away from me this time, my premiums will rise more.

I was not a morally-hazardous free-rider; I bought insurance for myself like a responsible person. I can no longer afford that. Obamacare has dramatically reduced my family's financial well-being. This isn't a racist response to a black president, as Oprah Winfrey insists. I have been intentionally impoverished and rendered unemployable by a president with outright contempt for individualist Americans and the Constitution they were left by their forebears. Now we're learning that my children's safety and well-being has been reduced by the president's signature legislation.

His race isn't a factor in that. In fact, those who deny there is any reason to oppose Obama aside from racism are showing that they cannot conceive of Obama as HAVING policies or programs or behaviors or ideologies that might be a basis for opposition. If he doesn't have any reason to oppose him other than his race, he must not have anything AT ALL other than his race. They have reduced the president to nothing but a black man. They racistly objectify him, then loudly accuse others of that very behavior.

So where do I get off complaining about something that "levels the playing field" if I'm so interested in Zion?

First, I support the reduction of inequality through voluntary methods. I believe for us to answer before God for our stewardships, we must have individual command of resources. I believe in private property. Property laws must be respected, which means the transfer from the rich to the poor must be voluntary.

Second, this law was sold as a correction for those who don't have insurance. Why don't they have insurance? Either they don't want it or they can't get it. If they don't want it, respect for private property requires us to allow them to not have it. If they can't get it, why can't they get it? We were told it was because of insurance company restrictions on "pre-existing conditions." But remember what I said earlier about "randomly-occurring contingencies." If you already HAVE cancer, cancer is no longer a randomly-occurring contingency. There's no probability to plug in to the formula; you have cancer with probability P = 1, so P falls out and your costs are your costs. Insurance isn't supposed to spread your bill around--it's not a fancy version of passing around the hat.

The problems with insurance came from government involvement. Costs were rising because of government requirements that insurance cover treatments that don't require insurance, and people with pre-existing conditions were moving from insurance to insurance because of employment decisions, but insurance was only offered through work because of World-War-Two wage freezes. I need food every day but I don't expect my job to be involved, so why would my job provide my insurance? Monetize insurance benefits and have employees buy catastrophic insurance in a private marketplace and pay for all medical care outside of large-cost, randomly-occurring contingencies. Prohibit insurers from dropping customers after diagnoses, and provide socialized catastrophic care to those who currently have pre-existing conditions (estimated at less than 100,000 people). Eliminate Medicare, as the entire program is based on a flawed assumption of geriatric poverty (the elderly are the richest among us, else whence retirement?). This collection of changes is the correction to the health insurance problem.

This isn't just libertarian laissez-faire thinking. It involves socialized medicine and insurance regulation. But it also reduces what insurance is called upon to do, and empowers individuals to make their own healthcare choices.

These reforms would probably have to go hand-in-hand with tax reform, as most people would see a large increase in their salary if their employer-provided health insurance were monetized. Instead of creating tax-free accounts and exemptions for healthcare spending, complicating the tax code, a simplification would be in order. But tax questions shouldn't stand in the way of this health insurance correction. This year people like me on the private market are losing their health insurance; next year it will be the other 90% of insured Americans when the employee mandate kicks in. There's time to fix this, but it will have to be done over the veto of the president. I don't believe that's likely, and that's why next year when your insurance is cancelled you're going to understand what I already know: this president is a terrible threat to your health and economic well-being, irrespective of his race.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

What Do You Know About My Friends? Would You Like to Know More?

Last week I wrote that missing spiritual manifestations in your own life isn't a sign that something is wrong, just that something could be better. Think of the recent General Conference talks by Dallin H. Oaks about good v. better, and by Dieter F. Uchtdorf about living below your privileges.

One side effect of a majority of the church living below their spiritual privileges, however, is that the church begins to look spiritually dead. A common criticism of the church is that it looks and feels like a business. I don't get that one. To me, it looks and feels a lot more like a social club. People continue coming to church because they are life-long members of the social club, and new members often stop coming to church because it's difficult to elbow your way into an established social club. But how many people come to church because they think it will get them closer to God? Aside from in a "I did what He asked and attended church" type of way?

When I think about places where I feel closer to God, I'd start my list with "the temple," follow that up with "home," then maybe "nature," and then I'd start cheating and listing things like "the temple for the neighboring temple district." But I don't think I'd ever list "the church," unless it was possible to visit the church when there wasn't a church meeting scheduled.

I don't attend church for the socialization, and since there's often little else there, I usually get very little from church. (I have been known to spend the second hour sitting outside on a folding chair reading scriptures, which can be so much better than attending Gospel Doctrine class.) As long as church remains primarily social instead of spiritual, proselytizing efforts are really just invitations akin to, "You should stop hanging out with your friends and start hanging out with my friends." To which most people would respond, "I already have friends." There needs to be something at our church that you CAN'T get anywhere else. The increased missionary force is there to contact the interested. Now we just need to live up to our privileges so there is something there to keep them interested.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Criticisms of Undergrad Econ

Here's an article (sent in by alert reader-slash-sister Heather, who knows the more boring the article, the more interested I'll be in it) about economics students upset with the poor state of undergraduate economics.

A few points are exactly right: economics is primarily a field of applied mathematics. Most mainstream graduate programs would prefer you major in math and come in with little-to-no economics knowledge. You will spend your time taking underidentified real-world events and throwing out variables until your model is solvable. But for undergrad students who won't be moving on to graduate school, you just need training in how to solve the models created by others. This doesn't require any idea of how to pronounce Keynes (spoiler alert: long A), let alone a notion of who he was (spoiler alert: a moustachioed rapper).

I'm sympathetic to the argument that models should be evaluated on their predictive power, but undergraduate economics is not trying to predict the future. Condemning the field because (it is said) it didn't foresee the crisis is a little unfair. Firstly, many economists did have a problem with the bubble in property values. Secondly, classical economics doesn't have to be thrown out to explain the problem--in fact, it's an assortment of tools that should be taught in undergraduate economics (principle/agent problems, collective action problems, moral hazard problems, political economy, and others) that are used to evaluate the problem. But when undergrad econ has become "solve these problems that others have written," there's little capability of analysis. Thirdly, it's disingenuous of a Nobel laureate with a widely-read blog to wait until 2009 to complain that economists got it wrong. As pointed out recently by Niall Ferguson, when he had the opportunity to lessen the coming crisis, Paul Krugman thought everything was fine.

The real problem in economics education isn't the theory, it's the lack of space for teaching context or competing theories. Why is there a lack of space? Because students don't come to the program sufficiently prepared. Elementary and secondary education teaches a variety of things that used to be taught in Sunday School or in the home (such as sex, driving, child care, values, and self-image), so students aren't coming into college with the tools necessary to learn nuance. Now these students don't understand the crisis and think it must be because economics was incapable of explaining it. Economics could explain it, but most of the professors weren't trying because they were busy staring at their mathematical navels, and most of the students weren't listening because it was all Greek to them.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Money for Nothing

As an economist, I get asked for financial advice. I say, "Buy and hold." The questioner turns away in embarrassment, as if I was too stupid to understand the question. The questioner finds someone willing to take his commission fees to execute valueless trades and everyone goes home happy.

Finance accounts for 8% of GDP. Not all of this is the deadweight loss of rent-seeking, but neither is all of it the earned return of a needed service. Yes, the financial sector steers investment funds to proper enterprises, but it also diverts from those enterprises when investment returns are divorced from productivity gains. And I'm inclined to believe that most finance activity has little to do with productivity gain and all to do with return on investment (hint to those wondering what's wrong with this: they should be the same).

The problem, as Caplan points out, is self-interest and collective action. Being the only person gaming the system would be incredibly lucrative. Others would join you and erode your profits to normal profits, where there is no longer any incentive to join the gaming. But everyone in finance helping investors profit by gaming the system has been diverted from a productive pursuit, not only siphoning off GDP to non-producers, but reducing GDP as well. This is attractive to those who view their fellow man as adversaries standing between themselves and gain, but it certainly reduces overall welfare (especially when one considers the declining marginal utility of money).

The Zion outlook would realize that claims to wealth should be based on more than "I bought at the right time," which necessarily means someone else sold at the wrong time. Is there a reconciliation between an economy based on competition and self-interest and a moral code based on cooperation and communitarianism?

Missing Miracles

I first became aware of Denver Snuffer's book Passing the Heavenly Gift in September when I read this blog post on LDS Alive in Christ. In it the blogger, Jared, attempts to counter Snuffer's claims that the current leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lacks heaven's favor. Then in October I read Jeff Lindsay's blog post on Mormanity which also argues against Snuffer, and a two-part article by Gregory L. Smith at the always-excellent Mormon Interpreter detailing the shortcomings of Snuffer's book (part one here, part two here).

Reading two articles and two blog posts about a book and not actually reading the book doesn't qualify me to comment extensively on the book. I'm not going to address Snuffer's claims, but what interests me is why Snuffer's argument might resonate with church members, and what the appropriate response would be.

In short, Snuffer's arguments of a non-miraculous church resonate with members who have no miracles in their lives. Such a member reads the history and knows the scriptures that say spiritual gifts will follow those that believe, but then he looks at his own life and sees nothing at all that even remotely resembles these signs. He feels a little embarrassed of his shortcomings until someone says, "None of us have miracles!" This "emperor has no clothes" moment sets his mind at ease; it's not he who has done something wrong, it's a problem from 1844.

There's a problem with this view that both Jared and Jeff Lindsay seek to point out: accounts of miracles abound in this church. We can't say "it's Brigham Young's fault I don't have miracles in my life" when Thomas S. Monson's conference talks continually detail miracles he's experienced well after 1844. I don't argue for a moment that these critics are wrong about the lack of miracles in their lives, only that they err when they seek to excuse themselves by saying no one experiences miracles anymore.The Book of Mormon (which was translated during the brief window in which Snuffer agrees God's approval rested on the church) reminds us that "the reason why he ceaseth to do miracles among the children of men is because that they dwindle in unbelief, and depart from the right way, and know not the God in whom they should trust."

The fact that Snuffer's book is finding a sympathetic readership shows that one aspect of his argument is true: a large group of members don't experience the gifts of the spirit they expect and are distraught over it. But his argument that this is the result of the church leadership's loss of divine approval is baseless. Not only do I not need membership in a church with God-pleasing leaders to experience spiritual gifts (see the experiences of non-Christian Jews at the Day of Pentecost, non-Christian Lamanites in the prison of Shilom, and non-baptized Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove), the leaders of the church continually demonstrate their own experience of spiritual gifts. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

As a child I would often hear the saying, "When we point a finger at someone else, we point three fingers back at ourselves." I took this to mean that when I point out the fault in another, I invite retaliatory scrutiny of my life, or that I show I have the greater fault of criticizing. These could be considered macro readings. I've since come to learn this statement is true in the micro reading as well; when I accuse you of X, I show that my mind is disposed to thinking of X. Those who argue that the entire church is lacking the signs of the spirit are really just showing that they lack the signs of the spirit. Now, there's nothing wrong with that per se (a subject that needs addressed in a different post), but it's not grounds for condemning the church as a whole.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Hell Is Other People

As a depressive, I have made a lot of effort trying to understand Moroni 10:22.

And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity.
Thanks a heap, Moroni. That's just what I need when I'm feeling down: a reminder that I caused all my own problems.

Lately I've been having a difficult time feeling any hope for the future. Work and school and health and finances and family are all endangered because of the Idiot Constituency that dominates at the polls. I see nothing changing as the nation proceeds to double down on stupidity. I'm awash in despair, but I'm not iniquitous. So does Moroni 10:22 not apply?

I think I saw a fuller picture when I remembered Mormon 3:12.

Behold, I had led them, notwithstanding their wickedness I had led them many times to battle, and had loved them, according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart; and my soul had been poured out in prayer unto my God all the day long for them; nevertheless, it was without faith, because of the hardness of their hearts.
Mormon's lack of faith comes from iniquity, but not his own. It's the iniquity of his wicked people that undermines his faith.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A World Without Sharp Corners

Here's an article from a mother who finds the book Pinkalicious sufficiently threatening to require bowdlerizing. Seriously.

Her Pinkalicious problems come from raising her child in a Groupthink culture: he's completely unprepared for the idea that there are multiple valid opinions on some things. There's "right" and there's "wrong," and her son needs protection against the presentation of the "brussels sprouts are yucky" theory because he might embrace it as the new "right." A normal parent would say, "Some people don't like brussels sprouts, like how you don't like [Food X]; isn't it funny how, if you were in the protagonist's position, you'd think it was a tasty treat? Some people think that when they get to eat [Food X]." But then no parent writing in today's New York Times can be accused of being "normal."

Her Harry Potter problems are something else entirely, a weird combination of giving her son everything and giving him nothing at all. We have also recognized that our children are too young to read scenes of torture, so--here's the totally weird part--we don't read those books to them. Why can't she say "no"? As in, "No, you can't read that book yet." It's not like kid culture is building up an irresistible urge; the seventh Harry Potter book has been out for over six years and the movies have been out since 2011. The moment of "I've got to read this book by Monday or I'll be a square" has long since passed.

But for some reason her son can't be denied something. And so what he gets is not the thing at all. Recognizing that her son is too young for the things she won't keep from him, she changes the thing instead. When her son is ready to learn about true evil in the world, the fact that it doesn't always leave you alone just because you're fairly young and pleasant, and that it must be confronted instead of ignored, there will be no story to help teach it because Harry Potter has been turned into tales of magical whimsy and little else.

This is like when modern adults recognize teenagers can't handle long-term, stable, deeply-committed relationships, but they also want to have sex, so the adults change sex to a recreational pursuit. Then should the teenagers ever become prepared for a deeply-committed relationship (which isn't a given anymore, but still), there's nothing left for them to use as an expression of it.

In creating a world without sharp corners, the kids are left unprepared for the real sharp corners that can't be removed. Thus sometimes the best protection against sharp corners isn't removing them, but keeping them away until the kid is better prepared to address them.

Friday, November 08, 2013

"The Results Are in, Amigo; What's Left to Ponder?!"

Last night during halftime of what turned out to be the LA Galaxy's final game of the season, Alexi Lalas finally did what I've been asking someone to do since May: analyze the Mike Magee/Robbie Rogers trade on their strengths as soccer players, and not on their sexuality. And the results aren't pretty.

Mike Magee is on most short lists for league MVP this year. Rogers doesn't play every day, doesn't go 90 minutes when he does play, and doesn't score in the minutes he gets. This would be like trading Adrian Peterson or Calvin Johnson for some guy you've never heard of. Or trading Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen for some guy you've never heard of. Or trading Derrick Rose or Stephen Curry for some guy you've never heard of.

Do you see a trend? Robbie Rogers would be a guy we've never heard of had it not been for his sexuality. Now, I read the Rogers interviews post-unretirement, and I understand what he's trying to do. I think it is important for homosexual celebrities to give hope for the future to homosexual teens. I encourage that. And it's not Rogers's job to make sure he gets traded for a player of comparable skill. But Galaxy management saw Rogers first as a homosexual and only secondly (and distantly?) as a footballer.

I feel bad for Robbie Rogers. He's a bit of an affirmative action hire, with all the performance scrutiny that comes with that. He's not entirely blameless, as he parlayed his social status into a trade to the league-champion team from the media capital of the world, but it's his job to get the most-favorable deal for himself he can get. It's the Galaxy's management's job, though, to field a winning team, not a socially-progressive team. As I wrote six months ago, Jackie Robinson's breakthrough was effective because it was legitimate. He was good enough of a player to get the chance. The LA Galaxy didn't trade for Rogers to make the team better, they made the team worse to further a social cause. This artificial use of sport as a tool of social engineering leaves both sport and society worse off.

Title quote from Hansel (who's so hot right now).

Thursday, November 07, 2013

"Dance Like Just the Government Is Watching" Isn't a Very Motivating Motivational Slogan

A typical response to those opposed to the surveillance state is to say, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide." Here it is in its most-naked form, but related responses include "You're safer when someone's watching over you" and "Why do you hate America?"

This "just don't do anything wrong" response is based on flawed views of human nature and privacy. Humans naturally do things wrong. Everyone, every day. The only way this isn't true is when we respond to our failures to meet our ideals by reducing our ideals. As pointed out in Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things, many people have a false understanding of hypocrisy which leads them to abandon all ambitions beyond their current capacities lest they be considered hypocrites. Think of the standard TV-character Christian: he says he's for morality, but he does immoral things! Hypocrite!

I contend that not only is it not hypocrisy to advocate behavior you don't meet yourself, but it is proper. This is how you become a better person. For instance, a smoker will never become a non-smoker without first recognizing that being a non-smoker is superior to being a smoker, and then trying repeatedly to become a non-smoker. Along the way, the person is a smoker who says non-smoking is desirable. To many this is hypocrisy. In reality, this is improvement taking place in real time.

When we refuse to reduce our ideals, we will spend time doing things wrong. And the next problem comes from a misunderstanding of the proper role of government vis-a-vis wrong-doing. It is improper for government to seek to end wrong-doing. Not even God does that; He expects us to reduce it ourselves. Government does not exist to make us better people, but to protect us from damages caused by others' wrong-doing. If I cook my own food with poison, that's one thing. If I cooked food for others with poison, that's quite another. Because of expanded socialism, nearly every decision is now the proximate cause of someone else's harm. Me poisoning myself is now seen as within the purview of all fellow citizens, as it will raise my medical bills, which they pay. Abdicated responsibility for the self comes with loss of freedom for the self.

So now we think the fact that everyone is doing something wrong should change, and we think it's within the proper scope of government to bring about that change. This is how we end up thinking the surveillance state is a good thing. But that still leaves the issue of privacy for the preservation of intimacy. In the abstract you're all aware that I have sex with my wife (four kids and all), but I've never invited any of your over to watch. (Yet.) Removing my ability to control what I share with whom forces a standard level of intimacy for all interactions: there's nothing I can share with only my closest people, and there's no one I can keep from my most intimate experiences. It is a misapplication of democratic equality, making me be as close to anonymous government observers as I am to my wife. It places government at the pinnacle of my relationships by allowing it to horn in on any relationship I have which I might have otherwise placed higher. Verily, the government your god is a jealous god, and will brook no slighting.

Privacy is not un-American, nor is it the mark of someone doing something wrong that requires outside correction. It is necessary to preserve the logical framework for self-improvement and to preserve a hierarchy of relationships that does not place government at the apex. The preservation of both being desirable, the surveillance state is undesirable.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A Girl at the Zoo Last Week Asked Her Mom, "Can I Make a Duckface in This Picture?"

A couple years ago on a blog I follow I saw a recommendation for another blog, Dusk in Autumn. Since then, I've been following Dusk in Autumn, whose blogger calls himself agnostic (hurray for the edginess of a lower-case name!). If someone asked me to describe this blog's main feature, for a long time I would have answered, "It only sends the first few lines through a blog aggregator, so you either have to click through to read the rest or ignore the rest." Lately, though, I'd answer, "agnostic believes he can identify celebrity homosexuals through Google Image Searches, and then he uses highly-offensive terms when he blogs about his 'findings.'"

Anyway, agnostic has a running thesis, that Americans began "cocooning" in the 1980s, which fundamentally changed all aspects of our culture in the 1990s. And I mean all aspects, ranging from "how well R-rated movies do" to "how large is the modern female escutcheon." There's hardly anything that agnostic won't attribute to cocooning (including, interestingly, falling success rates among Mormon missionaries).

The other day agnostic had a post about selfies at funerals wherein he describes American culture as having "grabbed at its chest and dropped dead, rotting on the ground for 20 years now." He says those born after 1992 (1990 births are safe, but 1991 births are borderline--seriously) have been ruined by growing up in such a terrible culture.

Where he goes completely off the rails, though, is in blaming nuclear families for the problem.

Can it come as any surprise, then, that they don't have the slightest intuition for what is inappropriate, what is disrespectful, what is blasphemous? Their paranoid helicopter parents, especially their smothering mothers, have kept them from ever coming into contact with the real world and its moral codes, especially social interactions outside of the nuclear family.
To use a pre-1992 reference I'm sure agnostic would understand, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

I asked in a comment, "So American culture has been rotting on the ground for 20 years, but parents should allow more contact with that culture to get normal children? I don't understand." He replied:

Parents should allow more contact with their children's peers. When kids have their own life, they don't pay as much attention to toxic culture or depend on it for some kind of grounding for their identity or meaning in their lives.

They're going to come into contact with mass culture at some point, and a weak sense of social and communal belonging is the main "risk factor" for getting sucked into the duckface-selfie culture.

And that toxic culture is an effect of all this anti-social, distrustful behavior. Cocooning began in the late '80s and early '90s, but you don't see hostile caricatured culture until later.

A follow-up reply summed up thus: "More simply: social isolation leads to self-absorption."

I completely disagree. The duckface-selfie culture is learned from peers. The desire to be accepted by peers who value the culture is what leads to culture adoption. Children aren't kept in isolation tanks, but are accultured with the parents' culture instead of the duckface-selfie culture. I find the assumption heroic that a child raised with extensive parental contact necessarily ends up with "a weak sense of social and communal belonging."

I think the problem is the idea that reduced contact with peers is reduced contact with society. That does happen, of course, when the kid's parents both work and watch TV and movies every night. But an involved parent provides social contact. The purpose of parents is to function as a model of adult behavior. This is true whether you think parents came from God creating a system to foster children, or whether you think evolution produced children incapable of surviving on their own for so long after birth. There is something beneficial from families over peers.

I commented again:

I'd say self-absorption is the infant's natural state, and that the maturation process is learning to put off self-absorption. Exposure to large numbers of people who aren't maturing teaches there's no need to mature. How does immersion in a group of 12-year-olds teach a 12-year-old to think and behave like an adult? If our problem is a continuation of youth culture beyond youth, isn't a possible solution the prevention of youth culture in the first place?
agnostic replied:

Children respond dynamically (mature) in each other's presence, they don't just continue on in their initial bratty ways. Why? Because the other kids will refuse to play with them, tease them for acting like a baby, ostracize them, or even beat them up if they're self-advancing enough.

They fail to change their bratty ways when their primary / only interactions are with genetic relatives. Blood is thicker than water, so kin will never give children the wake-up call that they need to sense that their behavior isn't going to fly.

Like ostracism -- are the parents going to throw the kid out of the house just for acting selfish? His peers will cast him out, but his parents won't.

Yes, peers are a maturing influence to a point. A kid at school is embarrassed of having the teacher tie his shoes or of crying when he loses at recess, so the social group provides motivation for maturation. But what of the early teen who thinks of sex as private and special, who then spends time with a late teen who views sex as a spectacle of superiority? Why do children and adults oppose smoking much more strongly than teens do? A modern teen hears all the wrong messages regarding maturity from his "mature" peers. Forrest Gump survives to adulthood; Jenny dies from her supposed maturity. [NOTE: the movie is post-1992, but the novel is from 1986, and as such is acceptable American culture.]

Finally, agnostic left a comment that tipped the hand of parody: "Hanging around the age group just above them would do the trick better, since they care more about what the 'cool older kids' are like." Now I knew he was having a go at me. Because no one seriously thinks that the culture will be healed by allowing impressionable children to hang out with older kids without regard to which older kids and what they are doing. Age-stratified children's groups didn't just turn up accidentally. My wife and I were in a freshman health class with a girl who had a graduated boyfriend in the Marines. We weren't in awe of her like, "Wow, she's so cool," we were in awe of her like, "Holy crap, that girl's going to be pregnant in a few weeks." And like, "Holy crap, her parents must be dead or on drugs."

Children need examples of how to mature. The best case is when mature parents provide those examples. When parents are immature, kids learn maturation (a difficult process) is unnecessary, and no one does an unnecessary difficult thing. When parents aren't examples because of absence, kids learn from those around them, typically no-more-developed peers, so maturation is arrested. When parents limit contact with peers to prohibit this, kids learn from celebrity examples, which produces the duckface-selfie culture. To say the problem is parents limiting peer interaction misses the first two steps of the problem and proscribes a solution that isn't a solution at all.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Tragedy and Statistics

What's sadder, a tragedy for a small group of people or one for a large group of people?

Joseph Stalin is said (by some) to have remarked, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." And the logic of his statement is why displays at the National Holocaust Museum try to personalize the suffering as much as possible. When you're told that millions of Jews died, it doesn't mean as much as when you develop a connection to a single victim and then extrapolate the human suffering borne by the entire group.

At the same time, public reaction to tragic events follows a "more is more" reasoning; as death tolls mount, so does media coverage. The mass-murder events of our time are ranked in importance largely on the basis of numbers killed. To some extent we feel the more people victimized the greater the tragedy.

This week I became aware (via Marginal Revolution) of a paper by Lamar Pierce, Todd Rogers, and Jason A. Snyder entitled "The Intense Well-Being Consequences of Partisan Identity." From the abstract:

...we show that partisans are affected two times more intensely by their party losing the U.S. Presidential Election than both respondents with children were to the Newtown Shootings and respondents living in Boston were to the Boston Marathon Bombings.
In looking through this paper, I feel it will resonate with those who have an ax to grind. "Republicans are worse losers than bombing victims!" But I think a less-hostile interpretation is possible: partisans view losing an election as a large-scale tragedy. The number of victims is massive, so the suffering dwarfs that of other localized incidents.

I'm not saying they are right in this; after all, it ends up an unsolvable utilitarian equation (What's worse, cutting off 500 million right pinkies or 25,000 left hands?). [NOTE: I added a zero to the number of pinkies because the original comparison was a no-brainer. So I guess some utilitarian equations aren't THAT unsolvable.] But I think this points us towards a non-nefarious explanation. I routinely tell my students, "Look for non-nefarious explanations. Your answer shouldn't come down to, 'Because the other guys are jerks!'" I think a paper that many will read as "the other guys are jerks" doesn't need to be read that way.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Save the Date

A while back, I received an e-mail from my county supervisor, Corey Stewart, inviting me to the 3rd Annual Corey Stewart Fall Festival. I thought, "Why don't I have a festival named after me?!"

So I'm announcing the 1st Annual "A Random Stranger" Spring Festival. We have to wait until spring because it's already colder than a witch's teat here. Since my birthday is in December, I figured we should just skip to my second-most important day, my anniversary. So the 1st Annual "A Random Stranger" Spring Festival (hereafter known as ARSfest, pronounced "arse-fest," which should attract a lot of interest from the wrong crowd in Britain) will be Saturday, 26 April 2014. Probably somewhere in the Upper Miami Valley. Details to follow.

"My Love for You Is Ticking Clock"

You can either view this post as logically inconsistent with my last post, or logically consistent. I happen to view it as consistent. But I can see how someone else might not.

I'm opposed to the idea of daylight saving time*. I don't like coordination for dubious social gains, especially when the coordination just acclimatizes the populace to following arbitrary orders.

So far, so good. You know this about me by now. But where do I get off liking this proposal to not only end daylight saving time, but reduce the number of time zones in the contiguous U.S. from four to two? Well, time is a social construct, so it's appropriate that it would be controlled socially. The question is, controlled to what end? Daylight saving time is trying to engineer your life, but reducing time zones is trying to simplify your life. Simpler travel and simpler coordination. No more twice-yearly exercises in compliance with arbitrary orders. All of this seems desirable to me.

Like I said, I can see how you might think I'm inconsistent here. But I don't think I am.

* = Like "safe deposit box" and "PIN," "daylight saving time" is something that most Americans say incorrectly. Screw you, I'm not doing something I know is wrong just to make you feel better. One of my second son's most-endearing features is his habit of (correctly) leaving out the word "and" from complex numbers such as 132.

Title from "Berserker" by Love Among Freaks, as seen in the film Clerks.

Cancelling Halloween

Halloween here in Ohio was expected to be cold and rainy. People were checking the news to see if Halloween was going to be cancelled or rescheduled.

Now, if I said to you, "When's Halloween?" would you answer, "October 31st," or would you answer, "It depends"?

Halloween is October 31st. There's no way of cancelling that. That's just the facts of the business. You go to bed on October 30th and you're guaranteed that, when you wake up the next day, it'll be Halloween. You can't cancel days. You can cancel an activity, but not a day.

So what is the activity of Halloween? It's trick or treating. I cannot think of a more decentralized, organic activity than trick or treating. I don't get anyone's permission to go to houses or to have things to hand out if people come to my house. It's uncoordinated activity at its simplest. Those who wish to beg candy do so, and those who wish to accommodate them do so. The beggars signal their participation through costume and going door-to-door. The benefactors signal their participation through pumpkins and porch lights.

Trick or treating cannot be cancelled. And the fact that Americans now think it can is the surest sign that this nation is beyond hope.

The average American has been conditioned to being a subject. "They" tell us if we can do something. Open the paper and find out if "they" have cancelled trick or treating. Don't make your own determination about whether your kids should go out. Don't make your own determination about whether you should be prepared for someone coming to your door. Just get your orders from your local authorities and comply.

Who the hell is "they" in this instance? Who has authority over Halloween? Did my township's board of trustees get together to look at Weather.com and decide if they should pull the plug on Halloween? The afternoon newspaper came with the news that Halloween was still on in our town, from 6 pm to 8 pm. There was no reference to who told the reporter that this was true. "They" decided it, and the newspaper reported it.

My parents insist this was always so. "Because sometimes Halloween is on Sunday, so they'd move it to Saturday." This was not the case when I was a kid. Maybe by the time my younger brother came around, but I distinctly remember the Halloween of 1982 being a weird day of trying to justify spending the Sabbath celebrating a Satanic holiday.

If Halloween is on Sunday, you have a decision to make. The last time it was on Sunday (2010), our ward asked who would be agreeable to handing out candy on Saturday night and then printed a list for parents who cared. We took our kids around Saturday night, then spent Sunday night at home. Why? Because we are sovereign individuals who don't require direction from authority to live our lives.

We wonder why TSA's violations of liberties continue, and then we wait to be told whether Halloween has been cancelled. After 40 years of running an education system designed to teach homogeneity of thought and docility in the face of authority, we now have a nation of adults who need a nanny state because they would be helpless without it.