Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Few Quick Notes

  • Reading between the lines of this article, the reporter comes across as terrible. Note the opening sentence: "Skim through Wednesday night's college basketball scores, and you might have the same two questions I did a few minutes ago." So the incubation period between stimulus and article was "a few minutes." In other words, "Here's some crap I just thought up right now." Which could be the title of just about any of my blog posts, but I'm not a professional. Am I idealistic about my journalism? No, I just want my journalists to help preserve the mystique.

    Later, the reporter writes, "None of that is clear at this point because Carter did not immediately return messages seeking comment." The reporter called Carter for comment while writing, got a machine, left a message, kept writing, and submitted his article (or, more likely, clicked on "post"). How much time elapsed between leaving the message and publishing the story? Does the reporter give us an indication with his choice of the word "immediately"? I imagine Carter comes in the back door while the machine is beeping to signify the end of a recording, he hits redial, and the reporter lets it go to voicemail because it's all moot now.

    The last paragraph of the story is a synopsis of the movie "Coach Carter," which is sort of like a summary of Ken Carter's life, but without all the annoying nuances. Spoiler alert: not everyone in real life "came to appreciate his tactics."

  • Here's an article about a nine-year-old girl discussing with her teacher his choice of sexual partners. Not my idea of the "sweetest letter," but then, that's just me.

    I understand how this came up in class, and I respect that the teacher asked the principal for guidance when he contemplated what to say to the class. I think the tolerance lesson could have proceeded just fine without the personal angle.

    I get what the teacher says about his colleagues freely discussing their spouses. I just think there's a difference between a man saying, "My wife and I..." and a man saying, "I am sexually attracted to women." A gay teacher who just references his husband is closer to the first, but a gay teacher who says "I'm gay" is closer to the second.

    I don't know. I just think there should be a way to have this discussion that doesn't invite imagining the teacher in a sexual setting. Maybe, as long as this is relatively new to society, there's no way to mention it that doesn't invoke sexual images. But I think, with nine-year-olds, there is.

    Again, I don't know. The teacher was responding to the class reaction to gay people, so there was some value in saying, "Well, you know me and I'm not like that." I still think, though, there's a way to handle this that doesn't involve a sex discussion with kids incapable of really understanding a sex discussion. But I think when it comes to thinking that some kids are too young for a sex discussion, I'm in the minority these days. (Hell, I'd be in the minority in the household in which I grew up.)

  • Here's an article about the passing of Peak Driving in the U.S. and its ramifications. I initially wanted to share this because of DOT's continual refusal to acknowledge this change. Since 1999, not only has DOT ignored the change, but they haven't even updated the projected growth rate. Maybe I could see a gradual decrease in the slope of each subsequent projection, but they continue to insist the real world will be brought into submission to their model.

    Generally, I continually tell my students to be wary of any graph that shows a dramatic change in slope when the T-axis moves from the past to the future. Unless there's a really compelling reason to believe the future will be very different from the immediate past, lines with a sudden kink at T=today are really just saying, "We'd like this to be true." For a good example of such graphs, look at every budget projection ever produced by the Obama administration.

    Another interesting point about this article is that nowhere in America are jurisdictions planning for the new post-peak reality. And the sky-high cost of infrastructure construction means it will only get worse. DC just spent a billion dollars for a subway to the airport that doesn't go to the airport. You want your subway to the airport to actually go to the airport? That'll be another billion.

    Bryan Caplan recently retweeted someone noting how every description of infrastructure is "crumbling." But there's this alternative description: missing.

  • Of interest to me lately: students who take notes on computers think it helps them learn and they are wrong. Most of my students sit in absolutely stillness until I've written something interesting on the board, at which time they get out their phones and take a picture of it. (Who am I kidding? Their phones were already out.) Related: people who think they are good multitaskers are actually bad multitaskers. And depressed people have more-accurate worldviews. This is a theory that I like to call, "See everyone really does want you dead."

That seems like enough for now.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Animals Are Better Than People, Even In Literature

I'm reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to our kids. Here's a passage about Dementors.

“Azkaban must be terrible,” Harry muttered. Lupin nodded grimly.

“The fortress is set on a tiny island, way out to sea, but they don’t need walls and water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’re all trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought. Most of them go mad within weeks.”

“But Sirius Black escaped from them,” Harry said slowly. “He got away....” [186-7]

The detached, surreal attitude towards Azkaban is fairly typical for all the characters throughout the book. Dementors are supposed to inhumanely punish prisoners, and anyone who spends any time thinking about it ends up concluding, "Ain't it a shame?" Harry hears that prisoners go insane and responds with, "Well, it can't be all bad if Sirius Black was still sane enough to escape."

Meanwhile, here's Hermione's reaction to the execution of a hippogriff.

“How--could--they?” she choked. “How could they?” [332]

The three protagonists spend the entire book trying to save the life of a mute animal they met once, and they nearly break down when they think they've failed. All the while, they are trying to send a human back to the horror house with a shrug and a "good thing it's not me!"

Maybe they just have a lot of confidence everyone in Azkaban is guilty and deserves his punishment. Except their friend went there unjustly only months previously. And they haven't forgotten it. (“Is it awful in there, Hagrid?” [222].) Hagrid's answer brings Hermione to tears, but she doesn't start a morality campaign against Azkaban. No, she saves her indignation for the treatment of house elves. And hippogriffs.

I am bothered that no other character questions this perverse morality. In the wizarding world, some people are less than human, less than animals, even. And this is the viewpoint of the heroes. The treatment of Buckbeak is a terrible tragedy while the treatment of Sirius Black only becomes wrong when it's learned he's not guilty.

Rest assured, I, as the reader, questioned it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Technological setbacks keep afflicting me. Every time I get things in order to blog regularly, authoritarians flex their muscles and I'm left with near-useless pieces of equipment. Here's a protip: when you feel the need to keep your people from their soccer score apps, you are showing the weakness of your intellectual position. "Our system is so desirable that every conceivable way of undermining it will be used to undermine it."

Anyway, my blog is languishing, but it's not my fault. I will find a new way to get things back to workable.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I'm Playing the Bad Cop, Here

So people I know continue to look for opportunities to disagree with the church. Now one of them has stumbled onto John Dehlin.

There are legitimate reasons to agree with Ordain Women on some issues, which could then lead to supporting them (which I feel is incorrect). But there's nothing about Dehlin to agree with. The dude is bad news, through and through.

Now, I could pussyfoot around it and try to befriend my acquaintance away from apostasy. And there's a real need for someone to fill that role. But that's not really playing to my strong suit.

I'm more of a "call the truth the truth" kind of guy. Other people in my acquaintance's life are more fitted for the "overflowing with compassion" role. (Of course, this would require my acquaintance to have not severed ties with the compassionate role-players. But I digress.)

The way I see it, every good police questioning requires the good cop and the bad cop. One dude doesn't play both roles. I'm playing the bad cop. Some might say, "But it's the good cop who gets the results, so let's all just good-cop it." But the good cop gets no results without the bad cop. You need both.

Chinese Hand Signals

I believe I've never gotten around to writing about the hand signals Chinese people use for numbers. Before we knew our numbers very well, we'd ask how much something cost and instead of writing it down or typing it into a calculator, the clerks would tell us a number and then, if we didn't understand, use a hand signal.

One through five are straight-forward enough, but six through ten are esoteric. Our local newsstand guy said, "Ba," then held up his hand with his index finger and thumb extended in the (I thought) universal signal for, "I have a gun." It turns out that making a gun out of your hand means, "eight." (Naturally.) And "hang loose" means "six." And "I'm about to tickle you" means "nine." It's all very intuitive.

Anyway, we had to look up the hand signals on the Internet. This was how we became aware that, for simplicity's sake, multiple hand signals correspond to a particular number. So there are two ways of showing seven, and three ways of showing 10. (Too bad there aren't 10 ways of showing 10; I think I'd like the recursiveness of that.)

Saturday I took three of the kids to lunch. (The other kid was busy doing something else. I didn't leave him home because I'm a jerk. My jerkiness manifests in other ways.) As we walked past an alley market, we saw a guy selling pineapples. One of our family's favorite parts of Thailand and Cambodia was street pineapple, so I said, "If he's still here on our way back, when I have change from lunch, remind me to get a pineapple from him."

He was still there on the way back, so I stopped and asked, "Duōshao?" He held up a single finger, which, according to everything we've seen online, all our previous experiences, and all God-given common sense, means "one." But one yuan for an entire pineapple didn't seem like a believable price. Even in Thailand, they start at 30 baht, which is about five yuan. So I said, "Yī yuán?" and the man nodded and held up his solitary finger at me again. He bagged our pineapple and handed it to me. I pulled out some bills and offered him a one-yuan note and said again, "Yī yuán?" Finally, he pointed at the ten-yuan note in my other hand. Because one finger by itself means "ten"?!

As for him not responding with words or responding correctly to my words, I've found that many Chinese people are so unaccustomed to encountering a foreigner that speaking Chinese with any accent AT ALL is unintelligible to them. Especially lower-class workers. It's just like all my frat-boy classmates at Kansas who couldn't understand any non-American professors. But my pineapple salesman had to know I wanted to know how much it cost, and for some reason he thought one finger was an excellent way of communicating "ten."

It was really good pineapple.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Apostasy and Scripture

Here's an idea I've had for the past few days. I could put some effort into formulating it, but screw that, that's not how I roll. I'mma dash off some barely-coherent crap.

I can remember the feeling I had as a child of anticipating additional scripture. I wanted to read the record of the Lost Tribes of Israel and the Book of Ether (assuming the whole record was named after the final compiler the way Mormon's record was). But then Moroni went and threw this bucket of cold water on my plans:

For the Lord said unto me: They shall not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord. And in that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are. [emphasis added]
So the Jaredite record won't come forth until the recipients have one-of-a-kind faith. Hmm, that's a pretty tall order.

But there are two ways to raise the average faith rating of a group: get everyone more faithful, or lose the below-average. Of course, no one says, "Your testimony must be this tall to enter." But what does happen quite a bit is those with insufficient faith remove themselves from the group.

Over the past few years, I've been growing increasingly frustrated with the dwindling faith of those around me. The Maxwell Institute problem is a big deal to me because I think a number of people are very wrong and what's even more disturbing is the refusal of those in authority positions to set them straight. When John Dehlin says he can call Church headquarters and get a Mormon Studies Review article yanked, even if that's not what happened, the fact that the story is sort of believable (after all, something got the article yanked) is perhaps the most-troubling aspect of it all.

So I'm tired of feeling like I'm taking crazy pills. I want to be done with it. I feel like a Nephite on the first Christmas Eve: I know I'm right, but I'd like to get past the "But are you really right? REALLY?!?" that the world--increasingly so from fellow Mormons--brings up daily.

I got to thinking about the Nephites in the time of Mosiah the First. Sure, the record is spartan, but we can read between the lines.

  1. Mosiah didn't lead the Nephite nation to Zarahemla, he led "as many as would hearken". This seems to me to be a major division among the people. Those who viewed the Brass Plates as "inspired fiction" and those who thought Mosiah was just a member of the oppressive privileged patriarchy (and possibly suffering from dementia) stayed behind. Only those who demonstrated their faith by following their prophet-king into the woods were there for what came next.
  2. What came next was the discovery of the people of Zarahemla (in the Columbus-discovering-America sense of "discovery"--Zarahemla wasn't the one who was lost in the woods). The first part of their faith, that they would still be safe in a reduced group, was rewarded with the addition of a group larger than their own.
  3. Then came the first information regarding Jaredites: a record made by the last Jaredite king. And then, because the people desired more information, Mosiah's grandson translated the Book of Ether.

The Book of Ether was "another testament of Jehovah (Jesus Christ)," and probably faced opposition from those who said, "Brass plates! Brass plates! We have got brass plates, and there cannot be any more brass plates." It also functioned for the Nephites as the Book of Mormon is to function for us: a record of the previously-favored inhabitants to point out for us the causes of their destruction so we don't repeat the process. It was immense, and just as the Book of Mormon introduced Nephite names into Mormon culture, the Book of Ether introduced Jaredite names into Nephite culture (proper names show a notable shift from the time of Alma onward). During the tail-end of Helaman, when the Nephites bastardized everything about their religion, there was probably as much Book of Ether artwork and memorabilia as there is Book of Mormon merchandise in our day (think Emer action figure).

My point is that the Nephite process of receiving the Book of Ether shows a pattern for receiving additional scripture. First, there's a winnowing, removing those who are dragging down the faith of the group. The remaining rump then receives the desired blessing in reward for their perseverance.

Of course, there's more required than just desiring the record as an intellectual curiosity. President Ezra Taft Benson was adamant about the need for the church to take the Book of Mormon seriously before we will be blessed with anything else. Perhaps it's no accident that we will (at least, we should) hear that message repeatedly this year in Priesthood and Relief Society. And only those who have not winnowed themselves away will be there to hear it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

You Said That Last Month

Since our Chinese cellphone plans have about three-quarters of a text each month, my wife and I rely pretty heavily on an app called WeChat, which is like instant messaging, except with the encryption keys shared with the Chinese government. (Maybe. Some people suspect.) Among WeChat's delightful features is its "Thoreau Experience," a periodic refusal to send new messages, replicating the complete lack of communication experienced on a winter's evening in the cabin by Walden Pond. Another is its "Greatest Hits" feature, when it randomly re-sends chat messages from the past.

Two days ago, I tried sending my wife a message from work and it wouldn't go through. "WeChat's being dodgy," I thought. That night, while my wife was taking our daughter to Young Women, I got a series of messages.

Kao leng mian guys are back

We are here. Sorry, forgot to tell you when we arrived.

Waiting for train number one.

Exiting station

When she got home, my wife said, "I sent you a bunch of messages, but you never responded." I said, "I didn't know if they were from tonight or from the past, because I'm pretty sure you've send me all of those exact messages every week when you're out. You're going to have to start WeChatting me pictures of you with the day's newspaper."

Tonight, my wife sent me a WeChat that read, "I'm here. At book club. January book club. :)"

Monday, January 12, 2015

Hey, Remember Me?

Just when I think I've solved my technology issues, a new one arises. Right now my main computer has some performance issues (We've all been there, computer, am I right?) that render it less-useful for Internet activity. My work computer had, how shall I say, government-imposed connectivity issues. My iPad had no access to the pictures of our recent vacation.

I'm back to a workable state now, I think. So blog posts will be coming from now on. But at some point I have to start wondering if perhaps all these difficulties are God's way of telling me I'm not supposed to have a blog. If my typing finger falls off, I'll know for certain.