Friday, July 31, 2015

God Likes Irony

Sometimes I think God likes irony. I get that impression from the timing of certain news stories. Is it just a coincidence that the week after Planned Parenthood executives have been videotaped admitting that they alter their abortion procedures to preserve marketable fetal tissue (in violation of federal laws) that the annihilists have flipped their collective lid over the shooting of Cecil the Lion?

This contrast is becoming increasingly absurd. Today I saw that a Planned Parenthood executive admitted that they kill already-born babies who were born faster than the abortionist could work. At the same time, that bastion of post-intellectual thought George Takei wrote on Facebook, "I'd like to take a moment to honor Cecil in a different way--how I believe he would want to be remembered."

Cecil was a lion, and as such was incapable of the complex thoughts being attributed to him. Cecil had no way he wanted to be remembered because he didn't understand death and existence the way Takei does. He could never understand rational thought. But you know who would be able to understand rational thought, if allowed to mature? Completely born human babies. But those get to be sold for body parts.

Randomness to End July

At my school, some of the employees live in an on-campus apartment building and some live in off-campus apartments across the main road. We live on-campus because all the off-campus places are one- or two-bedroom places. My colleagues who have allowed me to use their apartment as an office this summer live in an off-campus place. In their complex, they have this sign displaying some notice to the residents.

What's weird about it is the date. Everything else we've seen that has a date on it has four digits and the character for "year," like, "2015年." This date, though, is written like, "Two 0 One Five Year." Not all in digits, but also not all in characters, since it doesn't use "零" which means "zero." It's also not like they wrote out "Two thousand fifteen." It's just weird.

Here's a photo of what the boys were doing the other day when I was home alone with them. It raises the question: am I terrible father, or am I a genius father?

Answer: I'm a terrible father.

Here's an interesting bit of a blog post from Arnold Kling:

I am becoming increasingly concerned that sending children to college is dangerous for their intellectual health. I am afraid that instead of being told how to think, students are being told not to think. They are being [given? - ARS] ideological role models, not intellectual role models.

Had someone expressed such sentiments to me fifteen years ago, I would have dismissed that person as a paranoid right-wing nutjob. I infer that in the meantime either I have turned into a paranoid right-wing nut job [sic] or there has been a significant erosion of intellectual integrity at American colleges, or both.

Kling misses a third explanation: the "nutjobs" weren't nutjobs. That one's harder to see because we get attached to our uncharitable views. In some senses it's easier for us to think "well, I must be crazy now" than to think "I guess I was wrong about those people I thought were crazy."

I noticed the other day that the Feedly view of my blog posts doesn't display anything in block quotes. So if you care about that kind of thing, now you know.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

To My European Readers

My Blogger stats tell me that I have some European readers. (It looks like 33 page views from four EU countries in the past week.) My Blogger dashboard tells me that I'm legally responsible to tell you this information:

European Union laws require you to give European Union visitors information about cookies used on your blog. In many cases, these laws also require you to obtain consent.

As a courtesy, we have added a notice on your blog to explain Google's use of certain Blogger and Google cookies, including use of Google Analytics and AdSense cookies.

You are responsible for confirming this notice actually works for your blog, and that it displays. If you employ other cookies, for example by adding third party features, this notice may not work for you. Learn more about this notice and your responsibilities.

I've never decided whether or not to use cookies on my blog; Google made that decision and didn't notify me or allow me to opt out. Then Google is all, like, "The legal burden is yours, dude." What other legal burdens is Google going to pawn off on me?

Anyway, Europeans, this blog might use cookies. I don't know if it does or not.

Dark Chocolate

Since we've moved to China, I've decided to only eat dark chocolate. Not that I'm a food snob--remember, I wish my wife would believe me when I say that I want to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner once a week--but it seemed like behaving as if I were a food snob would help me eat more-healthful food. After all, dark chocolate is harder to find and more expensive. If I resolve to only eat dark chocolate, I'll end up eating less chocolate, and that should be good for me. (Also, I've seen a few articles that suggest dark chocolate is supposed to be good for depression, but then other articles say chocolate is bad for your skin, but then other articles say it's not. So, so many articles.)

Anyway, my school's convenience store used to carry Dove chocolate bars in a few varieties, and occasionally one of those varieties would be the 66% dark chocolate variety. But my school's store has crazy inventory turn over, even more so than a typical Chinese store, which has a crazy amount. (Found a product you like? Good luck finding it at that same store ever again.)

I'm intrigued by just how "dark" I can go. If 66% tastes good, what about the imported Swiss bars at the grocery store that are even higher? Yesterday I bought a 72% bar at Walmart. My wife said, "Pretty soon you're going to end up with baking chocolate." But I ate the 72% bar and I liked it. She tried some and hated it.

The people who are letting me use their apartment as my office this summer have a bar of 80% dark chocolate in their refrigerator. I want to try some, but I'm worried they know exactly how much remained when they left. (I was raised in a weird environment where such things happened.) Eventually I'm going to end up eating some of that dark chocolate from The Simpsons episode "Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner" that's so dark that light cannot escape its surface. "Groin-grabbingly transcendent!"

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Annihilism Road Trip

Sometimes I have to really hunt around for blog post material. And other times it finds me. This is an instance of it finding me.

Motorists in Minnesota endangered humans to help save ducks. And at the end of it all, the spokeswoman for Minnesota State Patrol, Lt. Tiffani Nielson, is probably going to have to apologize for her insensitive comments.

First, she says motorists shouldn't stop on a freeway to save baby ducks. Then, in an attempt to implicate the entire legal system in her wanton heartlessness, she says, "if there was a crash which resulted in a fatal or serious injury, a driver who stopped for ducks potentially could face a criminal charge." I knew it! Institutionalized anthrocentricism! Every annihilist who thinks animals are more important than people because "at least animals aren't destroying the planet" did one of those gag spits with his morning local grown sustainably-raised coffee. "Someone needs to put the THYTH-tem on trial!" lisps Pajama Boy.

Here's Nielson's self-damning conclusion:Nielson said it becomes the value of a person versus the value of an animal or wildlife and that a person outweighs the value of ducks.How could you, Lt. Nielson?! How COULD you?!?!

Just a reminder: this incident occurred in Minnesota. I watch that video and I count 11 separate drivers who made a terrible driving decision that risked human life to save duck life. Ducks descended from a duck mother who a)led her brood into the middle of a freeway and b)tried to get them all run over by 11 separate drivers. In other words, ducks with the genes of an idiot. The Minnesota duck population is now stupider because the progeny of this idiot duck survived. But anytime you feel the need to kill a human baby, well, who are we to stop you? It's your God-given right to kill babies. Benjamin Franklin spat in King George's face to make sure you could kill every baby you might ever want to kill (so long as it's not a duck baby; duck babies deserve protection).

Friday, July 24, 2015

Two Bits From My Morning Reading

This morning I was reading Chapter 45 from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. Two things struck me as interesting.

  • ...but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.

    We might read this and think, "Well, I don't have any weird traditions that the church contradicts; I'm an Nth-generation Mormon!" What about traditional thoughts, also known as "assumptions"? Evidence comes along that contradicts our (individual or collective) assumptions and we have a sizable apostasy.

    (And I know one response to this could be to assume that I'm sitting here smugly, looking at people dropping off around me, thinking, "Some people just can't hack it!" I'm not. I read the parable of the ten virgins and I'm worried sick I'm one of the five foolish ones. I once heard a guy who survived D-Day describe how the leadership wanted to impress upon the enlisted men the seriousness of the situation by telling them, "Half of you will not make it," but the guy said later, "When you're 19 years old and you hear that half of the soldiers won't make it, you look at the guy next to you and think, 'That's tough luck for you, pal.'" Only spiritual teenagers read the parable of the ten virgins and think it's a sad story about the weaklings around them. Spiritual adults read it for what it is: a sobering warning.)

  • Some people say I am a fallen Prophet, because I do not bring forth more of the word of the Lord. Why do I not do it? Are we able to receive it? No! not one in this room.

    Think of that when you read the Huffington Post or Salt Lake Tribune article they run every six months about how something's wrong with President Monson because all he said at General Conference was that we should be nicer. Perhaps the current membership won't tolerate any correction more strident than that! I remember reading before that Brigham Young once received a revelation that he circulated among the apostles and they didn't like it, so he didn't declare it more widely. If the prophet seems weak, it means we are only capable of following weak direction.

    I'm about ready to declare a new Truth of Life: all perceived leadership problems are really just reflections of followship problems.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Passive and Active Verbs

In a recent blog post of mine, I said, "No one was lying to you, even if what they were saying wasn't true." A commenter named Morris replied, "Whether intentional or not, being misled is being misled." I disagree strongly.

The heart of my disagreement comes from the use of the passive verb. While the subject of the sentence is not performing the action of a passive verb, someone is performing the action, since verbs are action words. If I have "been misled," someone somewhere was misleading me. I read the word "mislead" literally. "Mis" implies "wrongly" and "lead" means "guiding to a location or conclusion." So "mislead" implies malice, a desire to get the person where they ended up.

Not every misunderstanding is a result of being misled. Here's an example: I screwed around in high school and did not graduate with the rest of my class in June. I had to take a summer class at a community college and transfer the credits back to my high school district. I received my diploma in October.

Now, if you asked me when I graduated high school and I said, "I was in the Class of '96," that is sort of true, but also misleading. I know you will assume I graduated in June with the rest of my class and I'm not stopping you from assuming that. But if I say, "I received my diploma in October of 1996," and what you take away from that is that my high school weirdly handed out diplomas in October, I didn't mislead you to that false assumption.

How much of a burden is on me to make sure you don't make such an assumption, or to clear it up once it happens? It depends on the harm done, I think. If you say, "Oh, how weird that your school did that," I might correct you, but if we're in a large crowd and the conversation has already turned to something else, is there really any value in saying, "Now just hold on a minute! You seem to believe my high school's schedule was the culprit when in reality, it was my failure to attend class!"? Probably the only result of that would be a lot of people standing around thinking, "This guy doesn't know how to converse in a crowd." (And that assumption would be true.) If you turned to my wife and said, "So what was it like not graduating until October?", then there would be a reason for me to let you know that she graduated in June like a normal person.

Church members have made all kinds of assumptions about church history or Book of Mormon claims. I don't think God is supposed to correct our harmless assumptions. Go ahead and think that a clean-shaven Moses led sacrament meetings from a pulpit in a dark suit while singing along to an organ. You're wrong, but go ahead and think it, because it doesn't do any harm.

The harm of these false assumptions has come in having them cleared up in less-than-helpful ways. It's less-than-helpful when conspiring men and women who seek to destroy your spiritual well-being get a foot in the door with a morsel of truth that allows them to follow it up with a mountain of lies. It's less-than-helpful when you ignore saving truths because the source didn't clear up all your prior misconceptions so now you think the source is untrustworthy. So the church doesn't need to correct our misunderstandings of Nephite weaponry because we can't be saved with a false concept of "sword," but when the false concept of "sword" allows people to lead you astray, the church has a responsibility to act.

Underlying all this is another (false) assumption that church leaders are always in a position to clear up false assumptions because they see all false assumptions as false. In reality, they are just people who are also making some number of false assumptions. Mormons don't like to hear this, but the leaders have never said otherwise. There's a bon mot about "Catholics say their leader is infallible and don't believe it; Mormons say their leader is fallible and don't believe it." Maybe none of your leaders have cleared up what a Nephite "sword" looked like because they were all thinking, like you, that "sword" means sword. Someone signed off on Arnold Friberg's paintings. (And I know this week I've come to be an Arnold Friberg critic, and that's not what I want to be at all. Dude could paint. He had to make assumptions that, at the time, seemed logical to everyone around him. I hope someday to be ridiculously-rich enough to have one of those "George Washington praying at Valley Forge" paintings in my living room like all Mormons who've made it.)

To say "I was misled" implies someone is doing the misleading, or at least could have stopped it from happening. It's the language of one struggling with feelings of betrayal. To help overcome those feelings and forgive those you think wronged you, start with using less-charged language. You weren't misled. You misunderstood. Even if you perfectly understood the speaker, that just means both of you misunderstood together.

American Food

My family is craving all the American food that we've been missing for a year now. Part of our plan upon returning is to eat like gluttons (or, in other words, like Americans). But we're also aware that we're currently loading our bodies up with every possible known toxin (and several currently-unknown toxins, I'd bet), and the first thing we're going to need to do when we get back to America is to do one of those aggressive cleanse diets.

I'm familiar with viewing American cuisine as unhealthful. I wasn't prepared for viewing it as clean and nutritious, too. Sure, China has fewer processed foods, but what processed and packaged foods they do have, we eat disproportionate amounts of them. This is because they tend to be the only things we can figure out exactly what they are and how to eat them. Also, with four kids who display varying levels of food pickiness, we can't just throw them into lamb treasure and congee.

What's more, the fruits and vegetables are suspect. What pesticides and fertilizers do they use? One local grocery store has a picture of a smiling woman holding just-dug potatoes, and I can't help thinking the "mud" clinging to the spuds is, in fact, the woman's own night soil. I see her face and imagine her saying, "I pooped on these potatoes special for this photo shoot! Now my poop's FAMOUS!"

"Just wash them off," you say. Using what, the water that has cadmium, nickel, and cobalt in it? We could open a battery factory using just the water that comes through our tap. My wife washes all our produce in vinegar and then rinses that off with water delivered from a bottling service. However, 20% of the bottling services in Beijing use tap water to fill the jugs....

As much as I'm really looking forward to eating a Double-Double every day for a month when we get back, I know we should take advantage of the fact that we're eliminating our taste for and our conditioning to high-fat, low-nutrient foods. I've even developed a plan to help us eat well when we return: I've been building a collection of healthful, delicious recipes on my Pinterest boards. When we get back, I'm going to take over cooking and work my way through the recipes. At first I thought I'd try to do a different one every day for six months or so, but now I'm thinking we can have a food tournament. Five new recipes each week and a vote to see what was that week's winner. Then we'll end up with monthly winners, and eventually, the Best Meal Ever.

Spoiler alert: the Best Meal Ever award is going to be won by a Double-Double.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When Mormons Get Answers to Their Church History Questions

In 2007, I bought Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. I was a little afraid of it and didn't read it at first. After all, I was vaguely aware that there were some crazy things in Joseph Smith's history and I wasn't sure I wanted to know them. Eventually, though, I decided that I couldn't ignore unpleasant things forever.

And it wasn't that bad. For many of the more-controversial issues, even when we know (or think we know) the fact, we know less about the context and even less about the reasoning. Now, I'm not a Mormon studies scholar (if I was, there'd be a job waiting for me at the Maxwell Institute (Zing!)), but I think that, since 2007, I've read more extensively in Mormon history than the typical member and I can tell you that there's nothing I've come across that made me question my testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. But I'm aware that for some people, this isn't the case. When they find out something troublesome about the life of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, they sometimes have trouble rectifying that with continued involvement with the church.

A book that helped me understand this a lot better was Shaken Faith Syndrome by Michael R. Ash. The first half of the book explains that many people's problems with troubling items don't come from the item itself, but from the feeling of deceit and betrayal they get. "How could they have lied to me?" or "What else aren't they telling me?" is what leads them away, not "I can't believe that dude had so many wives!"

This pointed out to me the importance of teaching correct, unvarnished history to my friends and family, and of the duty to learn for myself. It gave new meaning to Hosea 4:6 as I watched my relatives leave the church because they had done a poor job reading their Gospel Doctrine lessons. (It's amazing the number of items that "the Brethren don't want you to know" that have actually been included in Gospel Doctrine manuals for years.) We had a Family Night lesson where we made sure our kids understood that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. Our kids said their Primary teacher had explicitly told them just the week before that he did not. We've since had Family Night lessons about translating by looking at a stone in a hat while the plates sat off to the side under a cover. (About this issue I once read, "If you were a scholar, then you knew that Joseph used a seer stone. If you were a regular Church member, then you knew that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters.[p.180]" A woman makes model golden plates for kids with stone-in-the-hat depictions shown on them, available here.)

It reminds me of a story I believe I've shared before: I'm all for new-age "you are a special snowflake" parenting, except for when it's dangerous. So before my kids knew how to swim I would tell my kids, "You can do anything you want, except swim; YOU CAN'T SWIM!" And my kids would say, with typical kid bravado that turns a half-assed attempt into accomplished proficiency, "I can swim," and I would get in their face and tell them, "YOU. CANNOT. SWIM. You can drown, but you can't swim."

Now, why was I being a jerk to my kids? (Aside from the obvious reason of "because you're a jerk to everyone"?) Because if my kid scribbles on a paper and thinks he's drawn a masterpiece, meh, no harm done. But if my kid thinks flailing in water is swimming, he will die. (One time at the pool with my brother's family, his daughter just was all, like, "La-dee-da, into the water," and had to be pulled out by the lifeguard.) Anyway, it turns out that misunderstandings about church history are as important to set straight as whether or not a kid can swim. Because if your kid gets his Book of Mormon knowledge from the Arnold Friberg paintings, he's going to have troubles when he learns that Mesoamerican cities didn't have 80-foot-high walls and the Armies of Helaman weren't extras from the battle sequences of the film 300. "Sword" and "horse" might not mean what he thinks they mean. "Nephite coinage" is a term that only appears in a non-canonical chapter heading. Many of the book's grammar errors aren't actually errors at all (and Moroni gives a smirk and a nod). Official Declaration 1 wasn't as absolute as it is sometimes presented to be.

The second half of Shaken Faith Syndrome is a great reference for faith-assuring answers to troublesome questions regarding church doctrine or history. Much of that material is also available at FairMormon.org. If you wished FARMS hadn't wasted away to nothing, you should check out Interpreter. And maybe someday, if there's any reader interest, I'll share the list of Mormon blogs I follow. The point is, you've got to learn, but learn from faith-building sources.

So my advice to those who are reading the gospel topics essays or finding things out on Wikipedia (at least have the common sense to not research topics on Exmormon.org, okay?): settle the question with some research in official church publications and from sources that attempt to answer your questions while not undermining your testimony. Then, when dealing with the "betrayal" feelings, recognize that the fault was partly yours (for not studying fully), partly your parents (for not teaching you correctly), partly your fellow members (for not magnifying their teaching callings), partly your local leaders (for not ensuring strong gospel teaching), and partly church leaders (for not prominently including difficult topics in the church lesson curriculum), but it was never a matter of willful misleading or betrayal. No one was lying to you, even if what they were saying wasn't true. Please forgive, and work to make sure you can help stop the ignorance that threatened you from spreading.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Things Have Gotten Out of Control

When it comes to books, I feel like a drug addict. I'm reading a book, but it's not enough. I need to read two books, of different genres. Then I add a third. I can handle it. Why not add a fourth? And when I get to ten books, well that's when I can no longer maintain.

  1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith
  2. Working Toward Zion, by James W. Lucas and Warner P. Woodworth
  3. Knowledge and Coordination, by Daniel B. Klein
  4. The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen
  5. The Eleven Comedies, Vol. 1, by Aristophanes
  6. The Mindfulness Solution, by Ronald D. Siegel
  7. An Incomplete Revenge, by Jacqueline Winspear
  8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  9. The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell
  10. Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

I hearby swear that I will not start another book until I'm finished with all 10 of--actually, when I finish five of them, I will allow myself to start The Gold Bat by P.G. Wodehouse, but then I'm not starting another book until I'm finished with all 11 of them. (Possible exception: once I'm done with the Rowling book and the Orwell book, I will probably start reading Catch Your Death by Lauren Child to our kids, but that's just because it seems mean to make them wait until I'm done with TMS.)

I can handle six or seven. Ten is too many.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Helpful Decline of Media

When I was a kid, only cranks avoided media. One kid in my elementary school didn't have a TV at home and he made damn sure to mention it at least once a day.

TEACHER: Who can remember the quadratic equation?

JERK KID: I can, because we don't have a TV at home.

LITTLE-KID A RANDOM STRANGER: What the what?

At my first real job, I worked with a guy who didn't "have TV," although he had a TV, so his crankness was even more insufferable.

OFFICE WORKER: Did you see Survivor last night?

JERK WORKER: I haven't seen a TV show since Cheers.

YOUNG-ADULT A RANDOM STRANGER: Dude, we get it; you're the king, all right?

He watched videos and, when his family checked in to a hotel, he let his kids watch TV, but anytime I mentioned The Simpsons (which I do a lot), he'd say, "Is that show still on?"

For most of our married life, my wife and I haven't "had TV," but that's been because we've been poor. Internet progress has brought us more TV options as the years have passed, but it's nothing like having a TV with a satellite package. My wife and I probably watch about four hours of TV or movies each week, which seems much lower than I remember adults watching when I was younger (and is much lower than I myself watched when I was younger).

Weird aside about adult TV watching from days gone by (that I'm allowed to indulge because I've been up all night being productive and now I'm somewhat loopy): when I was 17, my mom's boss took all his employees' families on a vacation. We were sharing a condo with one of my mom's coworkers and that lady's husband. My mom suggested I watch TV. I said, "I don't know what's on." The other couple then rattled off from memory the entire primetime lineup for that day of the week of all four networks.

My perception, though, is that TV isn't as good as it used to be. I know I've read articles about this being a "golden era of television," but all the shows that are cited as evidence are shows that are inappropriate for me to watch. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men: is there a recent critically-acclaimed show that doesn't feature pervasive sex, violence, profanity, or the undermining of traditional morals?

This past week, I've really noticed how rapidly the quality of the Internet is declining. Forbes articles have become click-bait slideshows. Yahoo News articles have become About.com-style plagiarism-lite. I just tried to read two articles, one of which turned out to be a slideshow of unabashed advertising copy for Sandals Resorts (except the slideshow was broken and just had random pictures accompanying the text), and the other bemoaned that, "these days, airlines aren't about the customers anymore, they're about making money" (as if there was once a time when airlines were okay with losing money so long as the customers at least had a good time).

As media continues to decline (and I've completely refrained from writing about the septic tank that movies have become; why are people spending $15 every three months to see the same super hero movie over and over again?), it becomes less appealing as a use of time. I'm not finding myself in a terrible struggle to waste less time on media. I'm finding media is helping make the decision to cut back incredibly easy.

Strange Phonemes

The other day I was walking home, reviewing some Chinese with an app on my iPad. The app was trying to teach me to say "Rìyǔ," which means "the Japanese language." The problem was, even though it clearly starts with an R, the app certainly sounded like it was saying "ZHR."

I decided to take advantage of the fact that my school's campus is lousy with guards (I was approaching a group of three of them), and I showed them what the app showed (日语) and asked, "ZHR-you? R-you?" They all nodded. I tried again, holding up one finger and saying, "ZHR-you," then holding up two fingers and saying, "R-you." They all nodded. When they could tell that I wasn't satisfied, they called over another guard (who must have a reputation among his colleagues for speaking English) who said, "Japanese." Finally, I prevailed on one of the guards that I was making two different noises, and he gave "R-you" a thumbs up.

I suspected the thumbs up was equally likely to mean "You said that correctly" as to mean "What do I have to do to get you to stop making weird noises at me?" Unsatisfied, I decided to try again on my elevator lady. She also thought I was just making the same sound twice in a row. I said to her, "Yī, ZHR. Èr, R." She said, "Yī, èr, sān, sì, wǔ, liù," like I was just trying to count for her.

So I'm not going to talk about Japanese to anybody while I'm here.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Every Binary Choice Is a Lie

I'm not saying this is official doctrine or anything, but it's something I've come to believe is true. Any time you are given an "either/or" choice, both options are wrong.

It's a great tool of Satan's, because when you find out the one option is wrong, you assume you should oppose it by supporting the other option. Don't like Democrats? Vote Republican! (Except Republicans are terrible, too.) Don't like terrorism? Support the War on Terror™. (Except war won't work.) Whenever someone comes to you and says, "If you oppose X you should favor Y," you can know that Y is just as terrible as X.

This attitude makes it impossible for me to take online political affiliation quizzes, because most of my answers are "it depends." (Remember, "it depends" is always a correct answer.) I recently took this quiz and wished I could choose "it depends" about half of the time.

Specifically, I disliked the statement, "Immigration to my country should be minimized and strictly controlled." This is the great divide on the open borders debate. But the correct view is that immigration should be maximized AND strictly controlled.

A country without a border isn't a country. Some people who try to come to America want to harm Americans. A nation should restrict the ability of criminals to prey on its population. This is why I support strict control of immigration. But the greatest humanitarian aid project of the 1800s was the lax immigration restrictions of the United States. Six of my eight great-grandparents were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Our Founders wanted to create a land of liberty, not a rent-seeking project to enrich their posterity. Wealth should accrue to those with skills, not to those born on the correct side of an imaginary line. This is why I support maximized immigration.

Protectionist arguments are ignorant, almost intentionally so. Millions of additional Americans means millions of additional consumers who need their demands met, not millions more unemployed workers. And if your skill-set can't withstand competition from uneducated peasants who don't speak the common tongue, you've got bigger problems, friend.

I hate that the immigration debate is a binary choice between Donald Trump and La Raza. No one in the public space is saying anything in between, though. The true answer is in between.

PS: How'd I do on the quiz? Well, I've taken it twice now, and both times I ended up on the X-axis, more than halfway between the origin and the right-hand side of the graph. This is why I self-identify as "conservatarian" on Facebook.

Friday, July 17, 2015

I Don't Yet Know the Characters for "Is That Wall Load-Bearing?"

We live in a 14-story building (counting American style). The bottom two floors are cafeteria space and the rest is apartments. This summer while school is not in session, the cafeterias are being remodeled. This means that this past week was jackhammering from 7 AM to 6 PM, and then refuse salvaging until midnight.

Yesterday afternoon I was in our bedroom, talking to my wife as I was getting ready to leave the apartment after having come home for lunch. Crazy Jane came to us and said, "There's a Chinese dude at the door." One of the construction workers had come upstairs and needed us to show him if our gas stove still worked. When all the burners ignited, he showed himself out.

Hmmm.

So the workers thought maybe they had severed the gas line for the building? My wife said, "They wouldn't have come all the way up here [we live on the fifth floor] to check." I said, "Maybe we were the first apartment that had someone home," since our international colleagues all went back to their home countries and our national colleagues were all at work during the day.

Around the same time, the Internet stopped working on all our devices. Now, the Internet is a tricky thing in China, and it can get trickier depending on the news of the day. So the resumption of the stock market collapse and the week-long round-up of civil rights lawyers could have been factors in our Internet going out. But the cable TV was out, too. That seems like a revolution-level step, not just a bad-news-level step. My wife e-mailed our lifestyle coordinator dude and he wrote back that the workers had accidentally severed the Internet and TV connection to the building. There's no word when it will be reconnected.

These guys aren't really inspiring our confidence. I'm pretty sure that, if they collapse the ground floor, we're going to have some serious ramifications up on Floor Five. Not just, like, "Oh, now we're Floor Four," but, like, "Oh, now we're at ground level with nine stories of rubble atop us."

If you read about a Chinese building collapse this summer, maybe you should read a few paragraphs to find out where it was before you assume we're safe.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

And the Rest Writes Itself

Here's a book that needs to be written: From Pravda to Prada and Back Again: How Post-Communist Commercialism Paved the Way for the Return to Totalitarianism.

Bam.

Seriously, though, the thesis is that rampant consumerism after the fall of Communism desensitized the citizens in a Brave New World sort of way, so that subsequent curtailments of freedom were accepted as the trade-off necessary to maintain higher living standards.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Review of an Attitude Mentioned in a Review of a Book

The title of this post should tell you how qualified I am to say what I'm about to say. But then, you are aware you're reading this on a blog, right?

Harper Lee has a new book coming out. I guess real life is turning out to be a lot like the end of Finding Forrester, except without the "you're the man now, dog" line. Anyway, from what I gather from reading some reviews, this book is a lot closer to what Lee originally wrote as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but after substantial editing, the works are distinct enough to warrant separate publication (at least in this age of commercializing every minutely-distinct product).

In one review I read of Go Set a Watchman, the journalist noted that fans of Mockingbird will be upset that Atticus Finch is now a racist. People have named their sons after him, they have built him into this godlike figure of pure equality. They aren't going to take kindly to take kindly to finding out that he was (gasp) a fallible human.

But why shouldn't they? No one is perfect. And we all say that when we are excusing our own shortcomings, but none of us believe it about others. As soon as a celebrity or politician steps out of groupthink line they are anathema. We can not tolerate shortcomings, so we either allow them to swamp everything noble about a person (rendering Churchill a Not Great Man because he was wrong on India) or we hide them so we can maintain our veneration (so every January we have a federal holiday commemorating the birthday of a Communist).

A long time ago, I read a book I really like entitled For Common Things by Jedediah Purdy. It was the first time I really understood the way ironic detachment undermined morals. Irony renders modern Americans incapable of holding an ideal they do not meet, so they abandon their ideals. Unless I'm perfect, I'm open to the retort that wins all modern debates, "Who are you to talk?"

I've written before about how this comes up every time a church lesson discusses hypocrisy. The teacher will ask, "What is hypocrisy?" A class member will say, "It's saying one thing and doing another." The teacher will say, "Yes, thank you." And then I will say, "NO, YOU JACKASSES ARE ALL WRONG!" (And I wonder why I don't have friends at church.)

We should ALL be "saying one thing and doing another," because saying is how we start doing. But when we're deathly afraid of being called a hypocrite, we define our current behavior as the ideal. And thus is born every reality TV star.

We refuse to accept that anyone is better than anyone else. This process leaves us wanting heroes, and since real-life people can no longer qualify, we have to turn to fictional characters. So Jack Bauer is a greater American than Chris Kyle, and Atticus Finch is the civil rights crusader par excellence. I think this is a result of the establishment of atheism as the social religion. Without a God there's no One to forgive, so our heroes must need no forgiveness.

So Atticus is a racist. Good. And he's a racist after the events of Mockingbird. Even better. Maybe it will be the start of loosening irony's death-grip on American morality.

Terrible Handwriting

Since about fifth grade, I've had nice handwriting. I made an effort that year to make my writing look better and since then, I receive many compliments whenever people see my writing. I'm not telling you this so you also compliment my writing or something. For the purposes of this story, I have to establish that my handwriting is nice.

However, comma, it turns out that my nice handwriting does not carry over to Chinese. The other day I had to show my wife where I'd written our address in characters for her. She laughed and said, "It's fun to see you have messy Chinese handwriting."


The problem is, of course, that I have no idea how to write anything, so I'm constantly looking back and forth while I copy random line segments. Ideally, when I get around to knowing what I'm doing (assuming that ever happens), it will look nicer.

The times that I've had to show my Chinese writing to Chinese people, they have complimented me, but they've also laughed. A lot. Most recently, when I turned in a restaurant order with a handwritten request for "cold water" (which they honored with hot water, then tried to serve us beer, before finally bringing us iced tea, but not cold water), the waitress kept my handwriting sample at the register and showed it to all her coworkers when they walked past. Everyone had a good laugh that day. Except my wife and I, who had to drink hot water.

Monday, July 13, 2015

When Can I Do That Crazy Thing Instead of the Crap I'm Supposed to Do But Prefer Not to Do?

Our church has a lot of restrictions placed upon it here in China. Because the members do a good job complying with the restrictions, the church isn't as restricted as it could be (i.e.: prohibited from meeting). But continual compliance with the restrictions is very important.

Because of this importance, every meeting begins with a reading of the restrictions. And the branches that are on-the-ball enough to have sacrament programs (our branch isn't one of them) print the restrictions in the program. Every week.

It gets to the point where you think, "Settle down, people. We get it already!" And then you attend a meeting where the members are allowed to ask any questions they want, and you realize that we don't, actually, get it already.

It's a lot like members who would read the record of the Ten Tribes from cover to cover but who won't read the scriptures on their nightstand. Or who would pull a handcart to Zion but won't pull their rears to church. And I know I do similar things, but at least I'm self-aware enough to realize it. Before we start demanding new opportunities, let's make sure they're not just additional opportunities to fall short.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Year Later, These Ideas Still Stink

Last summer around this time, we were driving across America. I'd have small ideas for blog posts and I'd ask my wife (when she wasn't busy sleeping, which was most of the trip) to write them down for me. Then I lost track of the paper for a long time. Now I've found the paper and I searched my blog to make sure I haven't already written these posts. It seems I haven't, so here they are.

  • When I first heard the Bob Dylan song "Maggie's Farm," the line "she's 68 but she says she's 54" meant nothing to me. Old was old. But now that I'm approaching 40, I see a big difference between 68 and 54.

    This reminds me of when I was six and we moved next door to an older couple. They stayed the same age in my mind for the next 30 years. When I stop to think that I've known them for 30 years, I realize that they were probably middle-aged at best when I met them. I mean, the husband wasn't even retired yet (and that was back when people could retire!).

  • It is impossible to come up with a B-word that rhymes with "goth." I guess you can approximate it with something like "bawth," but that only works for some American accents.
  • In the first verse of the song "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver sings, "He was born in the summer of his 27th year / Coming home to a place he'd never been before." The protagonist's migration to Colorado is presented as integral to his self-discovery. Imagine if he hadn't made the trip; he'd have spent the rest of his life never having lived.

    But then in the third verse, the narrator complains of those who "try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more / More people, more scars upon the land." What if this view had predominated before the protagonist got there? In the late 1970s, John Denver championed development restrictions on Alaska that would make the self-discovery lauded in "Rocky Mountain High" harder for everyone else. But at least we can listen to a song about what it would feel like it we'd been allowed the chance. That's almost the same thing, right?

  • In 1599, William Shakespeare wrote

    "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players"

    In 1926, Dave Dryer wrote

    "You know someone said that the world's a stage / And each must play a part"

    In 2007, Rivers Cuomo wrote

    "Somebody said all the world is a stage / And each of us is a player"

    These three variations on the same theme have very different meanings.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

All the News That's Fit to Retweet

In May 2012, I was talking in class about a generational shift away from newspapers to websites for news gathering. A student volunteered that he gets his news from Twitter. To me, that kind of seemed like waiting until Ariana Grande or Tyga picked up a story. I and his fellow students made some jokes at his expense.

Now here I am, three years later, and Twitter is one of my most-important news sources. And I don't even follow Ariana Grande (who looks like a sexualized pre-teen) or Tyga (whose name is too stupid for me to say aloud, like the Rootie Tootie Fresh and Fruity breakfast). Feel free to make some jokes at my expense.

Lucille Austerity

Paul Krugman is a critic of fiscal austerity in the face of economic recession. But then he was a big advocate of voting "No" in the Greek referendum. And as a result of the "no" vote winning, Greece is going to be forced into a whole lot of austerity.

Here in China, the stock market closes down 5% almost every day now. (Theoretically, this can go on forever; it's like how a door that repeatedly gets closed 90% of the way will never actually end up closed.) The Redefales (you know, Red Federales) announced that they were going to prop up the market, since that's all they've got going for them right now, and that announcement worked for about half of Monday. The market opened today and immediately dropped 10 percent. At one point today, 89% of stocks on the Shanghai Stock Exchange had trading suspended because they had reached their maximum-allowable drop for the day.

China already has a debt problem that some folks believe makes Greece's problem look like a fart in the windstorm. Chinese external-debt-to-GDP ratio of 282% is much higher than Greece's ratio of 174%. Of course, the Chinese are productive, while the Greeks, uh, not so much. So it's not like China's creditors anytime soon are going to say, "We don't think you're good for it," the way Greece's creditors have. And China has its own currency, a currency that it likes to keep undervalued.

I'm not predicting anything crazy. But then again, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition (or, as I've turned the phrase in my classes, the Industrial Revolution). While my colleagues are making plans to go home for the summer and my family plans to stay here, a tiny part of me has this worry that things might get nuts soon. The Redefales get away with a lot by making people richer. Now that they've stopped making people richer, but they've upped the impositions, this could be a volatile combination.

Monday, July 06, 2015

It Gets Worse

Last fall the British government overhauled its passport office because some would-be tourists were inconvenienced. Last week the American government seized $75,000 in cash from an airplane passenger who was accused of no wrong-doing (other than holding a bunch of cash, the depraved criminal!).

We know about the cash seizure because a TSA agent felt so little compunction that she tweeted a picture of the cash to make a joke of the man's supposed stupidity. Now, being stupider than a TSA agent is indeed scandalous, but it's not (yet) a crime.

There's a theory in economic history that government had its origins as "stationary bandits." Now the American government's attempts at global taxation have removed the "stationary" part. They're just brazen bandits now.

What connects these two stories? Well, in the one, an inefficient government agency was held responsible to its owners. But in the other, people are too busy getting worked up about a battle flag. Not one that actually threatens people today, like the IS flag. No, a nineteenth-century battle flag. Because if those slavers ever get their hands on a time machine, look out!

Until Americans take real threats more seriously than fake threats, things are only going to get worse.

"The Part of the Story I Didn't Like...."

I bore my testimony at church yesterday. I used to not do it that often, then I decided that I should regularly do the things that make me uncomfortable until they become comfortable. Then I realized that nobody wants to hear what I have to say, so I'm back to almost never doing it.

But I went up and did it yesterday. And then a few minutes later, a different guy in the branch got up to basically respond to me. It wasn't like I had said something wrong that he couldn't let go unchallenged; he just wanted to re-bear my testimony the way that it should have been done.

This guy was already on my nerves from the previous week, when he said I should be able to feel God's love for me (which I can't) if I just read my scriptures and prayed (which I do). So I wasn't exactly in a charitable mood when he corrected my testimony presentation.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Animals Are Better Than People, Movie Edition

I've written before about people who value animal life above human life, and how such people are completely insane. A guy I worked with 10 years ago told his co-workers once that if he had to choose between running over a dog and running over a person, he'd run over the person, provided he could be reasonably sure he'd get away with it. A woman I worked with eight years ago heard about a woman in an abusive relationship and she wanted to make sure that the woman's dog found safety. I believe I've even noted how my sister pointed out that, once when we took my baby and her dog for a walk, most of the people passing by ignored the baby and fawned over the dog. And I had an experience last year where I was in a room of 30 people who took turns introducing themselves, and two of us had kids and most of the rest had dogs, and the ones who mentioned their kids got no reaction but the ones who mentioned their dogs got excited follow-up questions about the dogs' names and ages.

Anyway, the world is nuts. You didn't need my blog post to tell you that. All just further evidence of my annihilism theory.

Last week I came up with this idea: get two cars and secretly air-condition them while parking them in the sun. In one is a baby, and in the other is a dog. Place hidden video cameras and see which situation gets the intervention of strangers first. Sociology GOLD, Jerry! GOLD!

Last night for Family Movie Night, we watched The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Two elements of the plot are related to this "animals are better than people" world-view. (Minor spoilers follow.) A pterodactyl flies off with the dog of the president of France. Care is taken to set the viewer at ease about the dog's safety. Later, the pterodactyl saves a condemned man from the guillotine and knocks the executioner into the guillotine in his place. Care is taken to make sure the viewer knows that the executioner is executed.

Two characters are threatened by random death. The animal escapes and the human does not. Perhaps the human is judged worthy of death because of his profession. If the movie were set in modern America, he'd be a tobacco lobbyist or a gun manufacturer. But whatever the reason, his humanity was seen as less worthy of preservation than the dog's caninity. That had to be preserved at all costs.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Remember That Personal Assistant I Hired?

For several months now, I've felt like we needed to hire a personal assistant to do the things that my school's helper was supposed to be doing but wasn't. (The school helper is a weird situation where the guy does nothing for me, but does quite a bit for my wife, so my wife thinks I'm being a jerk when I complain about him. Yesterday I found out that, when the helper told me to get a Chinese friend to buy my soccer tickets, he bought tickets for a group of co-workers. While I was finding this out, the helper was taking my wife and youngest kid to the hospital and facilitating getting our kid's ears checked for infection, then paying for the cab ride back home.)

Two months ago, I became aware that one of my best, friendliest, most-mature students, Linda, was trying to raise money for a post-graduation trip to Japan. I asked if she would like to work for us and she was very excited about the chance. She did a few odd jobs for us and was very grateful for the amount of money we paid her for these jobs. As her final day of classes approached, I asked if she would still be available over the summer. She said she would be very happy to help us all the way until she went to America for university at the end of August. She took a picture with me and promised to send it to me, then she said she would see me at graduation and say good-bye to me then.

I sent her an e-mail with the next batch of assignments and she didn't reply. A week later, I WeChatted her to ask if she got my e-mail. She said she was currently on her Japan trip and that she would answer as soon as she got back. She did not. At graduation she did not make an effort to say hello and even, when she accidentally found herself face-to-face with me, quickly turned away.

My wife thinks that maybe she lost her enthusiasm for work once she had been on the trip to Japan. I think that my students' attitude toward me took a giant dive over the past six weeks when all their other teachers allowed them to stop working and I required them to still attend class and complete assignments.

I also noticed something during my time as a university professor: people are subconsciously attracted to people in positions of authority. You seem smarter, funnier, and more handsome when you have authority. When the authority is removed (like after final grades are submitted), the authority bias is removed and, all of a sudden, you just aren't as attractive as you used to be.

This is why I can't understand professors having affairs with students. Sure, the student gives you validation you might not be receiving elsewhere, but only until the term ends. Then she suddenly sees that you are old and she is not.

Anyway, there are three possible explanations for what happened with my personal assistant: 1) she didn't need the money anymore, 2) popular opinion turned against me, or 3) I stopped being someone she wanted to help when I stopped being in a position of authority. Whatever the reason, my family is back to having no personal assistant.

That would be fine except I recently found out how to buy train tickets online (something we should have been taught our first week here), and it involves reading Mandarin character captchas and clicking on corresponding pictures. So we're going to need another personal assistant.

Enter Vicky, a great student who lives in our neighborhood and still has a year left in school. So maybe Vicky will pull a Linda, but it should still be several months away.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Let the July Craziness COMMENCE!

Several months ago, I read this blog post outlining a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Swedish island of Gotland. "Craziness!" said the only people who deigned to give it attention.

Then we finished June with this article about Russia "reviewing the legality" of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) leaving the Soviet Union. The crazy train can't be stopped by your stupid CALENDAR MONTHS!

Of note: all three Baltic nations are members of NATO (but then news of the recent opinion poll that showed NATO would not defend these members from Russian aggression could not have gone unnoticed in Moscow). Also: I applaud Putin on his desire to follow the law (something Obama no longer has, if he had it at all), but I wonder why he's concerned with the 1991 independence and not with their illegal 1940 annexation. I mean, if we're going to be sticklers about things, why not do it right?

Aside: when I was in fifth grade, my teacher had a fiat currency for classroom usage. We'd earn money for doing things well, we could be fined money for doing things poorly, and periodically we'd have auctions where we'd bring something from home and sell it to our classmates. I opened a bank (which received no deposits because I couldn't pay interest because I had no investment opportunities available to me, and my bank vault being my desk, it was no safer than my classmates' desks). Anyway, to differentiate my bank, I refused to recognize the 1940 Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. The First Bank of Bob (a nickname I tried to get kids to use for me, to no avail) recognized the sovereignty of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1989.