Thursday, January 28, 2016

No One Expects the Gothic Invasion

In reading In Search of Zarathustra I'm seeing more-clearly than ever before the extent of European demographic upheaval during the Migration Period. The Celtic and Germanic inhabitants of central and northern Europe were pushed to the margins by the arrival of immigrants from central Asia.

Two things strike me as interesting about this. One is the implications for my ancestry. My known ancestry is primarily German and Czech, with Greek and Irish components, as well. The invasion of Europe by Asian groups means I'm probably much more Asian than I would otherwise think. So when my wife and I moved to China last year, we were just completing our DNA's circumnavigation of the world.

The second point is the timing and the extent of the European upheaval. I remember reading in Ancient America and the Book of Mormon a few years back about the pre-Columbian destruction of then-native Mesoamericans; the authors' point is that Mormons who see fulfillment of prophesied destruction in European contact are looking too late. Is it possible that Late Antiquity Europeans were similarly destroyed and replaced by Asians?

Kriwaczek notes of Europe's Asian arrivals:

There was little resistance. Europe had lost about a third of its population since the Roman heyday. Huge tracts supported fewer than twenty people per square mile, about the same as the Amazon rain forest today. [Loc. 1678 of 4637]
When European immigrants came across a similarly-emptied continent 1,000 years later, they figured God had wiped it clean for them (and where His thoroughness wasn't to their liking, they helped Him finish the job). Could this state of events in Europe be the result of the receptiveness of the people to Christianity? Most people see Late Antiquity Europeans as embracing Christianity, but from a Mormon perspective, what they embraced wasn't Christianity. It could be termed Christ-themed barbarism, Christ-themed paganism, or Christ-themed statism, but it was not the Christianity of the Christ-contemporary disciples, as attested to by the Early Christian Fathers' bewilderment at the rapid change the gospel underwent when the first-generation Christians had died.

Here's my thinking: Europe gets the gospel preached to it by Paul and his companions. Those who accept it are typically martyred. Enterprising sociopaths see the life-risking dedication of Christians and want to co-opt the religion for their own megalomaniacal purposes. These new "converts" don't necessarily risk death because they aren't above changing their teachings to suit the state; this isn't their "religion," it's their "faith tradition." By the 300s, Europeans have completely bastardized Christianity. Bring on the Asiatic hordes.

I realize I'm not a trained theologian or historian. This is just a connection I think I see. I'd be interested now in re-reading Nibley's There Were Jaredites for a better understanding of my Asian ancestors.

More Church Cartoons, Now With MSG!

First up, a sister in our branch was giving a talk on gratitude, and immediately after telling a story about her car breaking the day she expressed gratitude for it, she told us she was grateful she had working legs.

Next, a different sister in our branch told us a story about when she was a missionary and they came across a drunk man lying in the gutter.

Then we had a guy whose accent made it sound like he was talking about Joseph Smith's pet reptile.

Our youngest son is obstinate and lazy. I think if the kid doesn't know how to or can't be bothered to put the sacrament water in his own mouth, he's too young to participate in the sacrament. Our son doesn't want to drink from the cup himself, but doesn't want to be left out. I sent my wife this note, which she then responded to, which I then responded to.

Every branch or ward has someone who has no concept of time. This was the note I sent to my wife one testimony meeting when the first speaker had been going for at least 15 minutes.

A few months ago, we had a returned missionary from another branch come speak to us. I'm sure the guy is a great guy and his mom loves him and all that, but he bothered me. A lot. His talk seemed way too self-congratulatory. His topic was scattered and needlessly deep. Many of his sentences began with, "And if you think about it," implying that none of us had had these great insights because we were all too stupid to put in the thought that he had put in. I sent my wife this note.

The next week, we arrived at district conference to find this same speaker on the program.

Evidently, God is a southpaw.

The Appeal of Modern Islam?

One last section of In Search of Zarathustra (for now).

Why would such a hopeless, life-denying faith, one that could see no good at all in any aspect of creation, convince so many people, not just here in the Midi, but in so many parts of Europe? What problem could only be solved by believing in a world created by the Power of Evil? The answer must surely be found in the conditions under which most people had to live. Their ultra-pessimistic heresy only makes sense if they were desperate people clinging to a despairing belief. "Continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," was Hobbes's familiar rendering. Fear of plague and sickness, fear of childbirth, fear of drought, fear of crop failure and famine, fear of arbitrary injustice, of torture and execution, fear of war and the devastation it left in its wake. And the Church must have failed, in its wealth, arrogance, corruption, sinfulness and decadence, to offer any consolation worth the name. A world of which one could expect no good demanded an explanation. A king, merciful and loving God could not possibly have been the author of such a cruel and frightful place, as the Church insisted He was. Only Stan could have created such a miserable existence. [Loc. 1324-1332 of 4637]

To be completely fair to Kriwaczek, he's not writing about Islam at all. He's writing about the 12th-century heresy of Catharism. I'm sure the dude doesn't need a fatwa on his head. But when I read this description of the medieval world and the failure of contemporary Christianity to satisfy the concerns of the people, I see a perfect explanation for the rise of radical Islam in the modern world.

The only defense against Islamic terrorism is an ideological defense, it is changing the minds of its supporters. Before you tell me that this is cultural or religious intolerance on my part, I'm not saying they must be converted away from Islam. If there is a variety of Islam that allows for pluralism, tolerance, and Islam, then let's get the Muslims who believe that branch to begin proselyting. But we have to be done with the idea that annihilistic Islam is just one acceptable choice out of many religious systems, because a faith that teaches there is nothing worth saving in life is one that approves the destruction of all living.

Stupid Articles

Most articles are stupid, but these two are stupid enough to warrant mention.

First, I read this article about analyzing Disney movies by percentage of dialog delivered by males and females. The article calls out The Little Mermaid in particular, but makes NO reference to a particular plot element: Ariel spends half the movie mute.

But plot elements be damned: Ariel isn't talking and that harms girls. Ignore what really harms girls in The Little Mermaid: you should risk your life and your family's well-being for the chance to win the affection of a boy you saw from a distance once. No, I guess that's fine. But we can't have you silent while you're doing it.

This entire article is a train wreck, from the title that says The Little Mermaid seems empowering at first glance (no it doesn't) to it's complete dismissal of girl-empowering movies like Mulan and Frozen because of the sex of the speaker. Are the researchers implying that girls discount all information from males, or are they suggesting they should?

Mulan spends a period of time speaking as little as possible so she won't give herself away as a girl in an all-male army. How many girl voices are supposed to be involved in the dialog then? And why does the large amount of male speaking time discount the basic message: a girl can hold her own in a role traditionally unavailable to her? Only an idiot would have the nerve to say, "A movie about a girl saving her nation and breaking sex-specific barriers is harmful to girls because not enough girls spoke during the movie."

(I'm curious if the researchers counted Mulan's dialog delivered when pretending to be a boy as delivered by a boy or by a girl. If they count that as boy dialog, they're idiots. If they count it as girl dialog, they hate Caitlyn Jenner.)

Aladdin is called out as the "worst offender" (as if there is something offensive in all this), but Aladdin is a boy, and once they decided to make Jafar and Genie be boys, that's your movie right there. Jasmine is unapproachable to Aladdin. Frankly, the amount of time she actually is in the movie is just pandering to girl viewers. Could Jafar or Genie have been female characters? I guess; I don't know a lot about jinn. But if the original source material had a male genie, and Disney had Robin Williams lined up for the role, they're not going to change Genie's sex.

The researchers are fixated on how much air time women's voices receive. This is what the modern world has become: all form, no substance. A woman telling girls to always please a man is better than a man telling girls to pursue self-actualization.

The second article full of stupid was this one: the Denver Broncos are going to wear white in the Super Bowl. The article's writer implies that this is just a dumb superstition, that laundry color isn't responsible for the times Denver has lost previous Super Bowls. NFL teams typically wear their colored jersey in home games, and Denver is the "home" team for this game to be played in San Francisco, California. But then later in the article, the writer notes that, this year, the Broncos are 8-1 in orange and only 5-2 in white, and he presents this as evidence that they should wear orange. What he's really saying is, "The Broncos are 8-1 at home this season, so they should get this game moved to Denver."

Either laundry doesn't matter, so they should wear whatever color they want, or laundry does matter, so they should avoid the color in which they've never won a Super Bowl. But don't get all uppity about how superstitious they're being and then say, "But they should follow this other superstition."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Modern Maturity

Another section of In Search of Zarathustra that got me thinking was this:

It's tempting to see the mentality of early medieval Europeans as rather childlike, marked, like infants, by innocence, ignorance, irrationality, fatalism, thoughtless cruelty, extraordinary credulity and unquestioning acceptance of authority and of "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate." By and large, it was enough for the illiterate masses that something had been written down in a book, or even spoken by a priest or Bonhomme, to make it certainly true. ... In general, a wide and deep intellectual fault separates the medieval mind-set from our own. [Loc. 1333 & 1340 of 4637]
To which I say, you lost me at the conclusion.

Are we really that different from the ancients? Well, we're less fatalistic about who gets to be the rich man in his castle. Before it was determined at birth, but now you can claw your way in. And we're no longer illiterate. But replace "a priest or Bonhomme" with "a professor or a TED talk" and you've basically described 90% of the Western world.

Every age thinks they've got it all figured out and their ancestors were hopeless rubes. But Kriwaczek's description of medieval people is more a description of people than of the Middle Ages. We live in an age when most Westerners oppose killing the most vile of criminals in completely painless ways, while also supporting the right to kill unborn infants (who are known to feel pain) by literally pulling them limb from limb. Tell me again, Paul, where the irrationality and thoughtless cruelty has gone.

I don't believe the modern world is all that different from the ancient one. We just have different influences we treat as a god now. Back then it was the pronouncements of church leaders, and now it's the pronouncements of social leaders. There is no intellectual fault separating the medieval mind-set from our own. It just has a different name.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Not Gnostic, But Not Agnostic, Either

I've been reading Paul Kriwaczek's In Search of Zarathustra lately. Today I came across this:

The Great Heresy was a Gnostic faith: higher ranks would be initiated into secret knowledge and hidden interpretations not available to ordinary folk. [Loc. 1235 of 4637]
This made me think about the fact that many people view Mormonism this way. Heck, the entire time I was growing up Mormon, I viewed Mormonism this way. But I don't think Mormonism should be considered a Gnostic faith.

Sometimes you'll hear Mormons make the distinction between "secret" and "sacred." What happens in the temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not secret. I'm not just saying that because you can probably find websites of disaffected Mormons "disclosing" the "secrets" of the temple. I'm saying that because, after attending the temple for the first time, I thought, "Absolutely none of that was new."

Which is the way it should be. After all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is plain enough for children to understand it. There's no big reveal where "true" Mormonism gets shown to you. (Unless I just haven't reached that level yet! [dramatic music!]) The general summary of temple ordinances has been publicly disclosed by church leaders for over 100 years now. You make covenants to follow the same basic gospel principles you've been following since baptism.

I guess one way to think of it is to think of the escalation that happens in a personal relationship. When I started dating my wife, I was promising to treat her well and be exclusive to her. That didn't change when we got engaged, and it didn't change when we got married. Each of those steps, though, was a deeper commitment to the same principles. And as a result, with each deeper commitment, more privileges were exchanged. But if someone said to me, "How is your promise to be a good husband different from your promise to be a good boyfriend?" my answer would be, "It's just more serious and all-encompassing."

I get people not getting this about Mormons because I didn't get it myself. The adults in my life didn't get the memo about "sacred" not meaning "secret," so a lot of my questions were answered with, "You'll find out." I guess they were probably just erring on the side of caution, but I wish they would have sought clearer directions instead of just winging it. Problems arose that didn't need to. Again, an application of Hosea: ignorance leads to destruction.

When I was a missionary, we knocked on the door of a woman who wanted to save me from the evil cult she supposed I had joined. She explained that I was nice and honest, but the church was sinister and duplicitous, and at higher levels they let you in on the secret. I told her, "There's nothing to learn in this church that I don't already know." She leaned in and asked confidentially, "Do you know about the funny underwear?" I leaned in, too, and replied with equal confidentiality, "I'm wearing it right now." She made a quick excuse and closed the door.

This passage of In Search of Zarathustra made me think about the ways in which some people might consider Mormonism a Gnostic faith, but I don't think it warrants that description in the conventional sense. We'd probably do well to make that point clearer to the world.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Two Thoughts on the Tree of Life Vision

Our family scripture reading has accidentally lined up with this year's Sunday School curriculum (at least for now), so I seem like an awesome Gospel Doctrine class member because I've read the lesson ahead of time. Anyway, as a result of reading the same chapters twice in the past week--once with my family and once for the Sunday School lesson--and then hearing a lesson about them, I have some thoughts. I'm not claiming they're original or correct or anything, but they are of interest to me.

First, I am struck by the make-believe nature of the great and spacious building. It "stood as it were in the air" (8:26) and is "on the other side of the river of water," a river we are later told is "a great and terrible gulf" (12:18). We are also told that the building represents "vain imaginations" and pride, which are also make-believe items. And I noticed that nowhere are we told that those who set off for the building ever reach it. Instead, they are lost.

Basically, we can pursue worldliness and gratification of pride, but we can't ever actually reach it. We are divided from it by the justice of God. Those who leave the path don't actually get the items that enticed them off the path.

Second, I am intrigued by the placing of the end of the rod of iron. Notice that, in both 8:24 and 8:30, people are described as first "pressing forward" and then catching hold of the end of the rod of iron. In other words, there was a period of the journey where they were advancing but had not yet reached the iron rod.

This might be meaningless, just the result of Lehi's or Nephi's or the angel's or Joseph Smith's word choices. But it also might mean something. Does this correspond to the beginning of Lehi's vision, when he's in a dreary waste without guidance? Does this help explain new converts who quickly fall away? Does this correspond to the period between baptism (getting on the path) and the reception of the Holy Ghost, which must be sought after?

These are the two things that stood out to me on this reading, that the great and spacious building as actually an unreachable mirage, and that part of the journey along the path happens before reaching the rod of iron.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Thoughts on 1 Nephi 7

Two things struck me as interesting when I read this chapter a week or so ago.

  1. Separation from the church as self-damnation.
  2. Dissent is intolerable to the wicked.

First, separation. In Verse 13, Nephi says, "Ye shall know at some future period that the word of the Lord shall be fulfilled concerning the destruction of Jerusalem." This made me think more about Laman and Lemuel's point of view. Here they were, having just finished their second trip back to a completely fine city that their father said would be destroyed. They are probably saying to themselves, "We have mounting evidence that our dad is crazy." Nephi tells them that, if they are faithful, they'll eventually get evidence that the prophecy was true.

When does the evidence come? About 400 years later, when the people of Mosiah meet the people of Zarahemla. The Mulekites left Jerusalem post-destruction; they can attest to the prophecy's fulfillment.

Notice who gets this evidence: the Nephites who followed Mosiah. The Lamanites had said, "We don't think the prophecy is true," so they separated themselves, and then they didn't get the confirmation when it came later.

It seems to me this is applicable for modern church members who say, "We think the leaders are crazy old men who are wrong on social issues, so we'll disassociate ourselves from the church until we see evidence that they aren't wrong." When the evidence comes that the leaders aren't wrong, the critics won't be in a position to receive it. This is related to what I've written before about Hosea 4:6 and how people are destroyed for their ignorance.

Second, intolerance. In Verse 15, Nephi tells his brothers to go back to Jerusalem if they want. That seems like that would be the end of the argument. They want to go back, he says, "Fine," end of story, right? Except it's not the end the story. They don't just want to do what they want, they want to remove all dissension. Because he's letting them go with a statement that they're wrong, they tie him up and plan to kill him.

I see parallels to modern "social justice" warriors, who don't just want to win the issue, they want to destroy the opposition. It's not enough for me to say, "Get gay married if you want, but I'm going to tell my children they shouldn't get gay married themselves." I have to actively want what they have. This is a major element of Michel Houellebecq's Submission (as I read it). The main character fears the Muslim majority, then he tries to co-exist with it, but he has to fully submit to ever be right with it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Greatest Hit(s?)

Today on Twitter economist Bryan Caplan wrote, "Long-term bloggers: spend more time re-publicizing your classic posts! New readers show up all the time, and old readers oft forget."

I think after 10 years and 2,500+ posts, I count as a "long-term blogger." But I don't know which posts I should re-run. If anyone has a favorite older post, let me know. Otherwise I might get through these doldrums by just re-posting random past posts.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Sometimes I have a lot to post. But not lately. Not that things are terrible right now. They're just pretty routine.

My wife took our two oldest boys to see the new Star Wars movie this morning. Before I left for work, I told them, "When BB-8 pushes R2-D2 into a pit of lava, it's important for you to remember that it's just a movie." They didn't believe me. They also didn't believe me when I said Poe Dameron and Chewbacca are C-3PO's parents.

That's what happens when your life gets boring: you fake-troll your own kids.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This Is the Street That Never Ends

Several years ago, I became aware of the books of a particular Mormon writer. I think his books have a lot of wisdom in them, but they're not the pronouncements of church leaders speaking in a leadership capacity, so one should take care to treat them accordingly. I think the writer himself totally got that, but some of his fans make me wonder.

More recently, I became aware of this writer's blog. The writer has since died, and his blog transitioned to posting older writings he'd done. When that source was exhausted, a spin-off blog began for his fans to post their work of a similar mien. Some of these things are helpful, but some of them seem too hagiographical for my taste. The writer's no longer here to say, "Stop it, dudes, you're getting weird," so some of the fans' weirdness has increased.

It's tricky criticizing the fans' writing because it is mostly very personal thoughts and experiences about their interactions with the Spirit of the Lord. I'm not saying anything they relate isn't true; I'm just saying there are times when I think, "I'm not sure you should have shared that."

Anyway, recently I read a blog post from a man sharing his family's experiences with having some of their children die. In that post, he shared some thoughts of post-mortal missionary work (see 1 Peter 4:6). This man said it was his opinion that one of his children died in part to provide additional labor in the missionary effort among the dead ancestors whose names he had submitted for temple work.

This got me thinking about the nature of post-mortal missionary work, because his assumption of how it operates was so different from my own. He seems to think there's a backlog of work to do in the spirit world. I wasn't so sure. First, I thought, we are told that whatever temperament you obtain in this life will be your spiritual temperament in the next life (see Alma 34:34). This leads me to believe that missionary work among the dead is no more and no less successful than missionary work among the living. However, I think the credibility of the philosophies of men will take a big hit when you open your eyes after death and see that most of them were wrong. Honorable people who had been blinded by the craftiness of men (see D&C 76:75) no longer will be. That should mean a large increase in missionary effectiveness. So I guess the deciding factor in which way I lean in this would be whether I feel large amounts of my temple work has been efficacious. I have never really had that feeling. That could be as large a condemnation of me as it is an indication of my ancestors' receptiveness (probably a larger condemnation of me, actually).

Anyway, I came to the conclusion, as with so many other things in life, I'm projecting into the post-mortal life my understanding of the conditions of mortality. It makes sense; I have no other frame of reference, so I have to bring it back to the things I know. It's like telling a child that an airplane is a big car that goes in the sky; an aeronautical engineer would be aghast, but it communicates to the child the essential elements of what's happening when you're in a plane.

So I'm projecting my earthly experiences, and my earthly experiences with missionary work lead me to believe that post-mortal missionary work is an eternal string of broken appointments and tracting. So, so much tracting. Imagine tracting a street that never ends. That's how most streets on my mission felt, but now we're talking about how it will actually be.

Other people had different experiences on their missions (they're the ones who go around saying actionable untruths such as "the best two years"), and so they will project a different picture. Which of us is right? Well, I'm almost never right, so you should bet on the other dude.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Star Wars Movie Review

When I first got to China, my work orientation featured a presentation by a woman who took as her theme the mantra "just go." The point was, "Get out of Beijing and explore China every chance you get."

Of course, my school only gives us the legal holidays, when everyone in China is off work and traveling is nearly impossible. And of our weekends, they typically claim a day for work about once each month. So the opportunities to "just go" are very limited.

And then the experiences you have when you "just go" are terrible. This was how we ended up spending six hours sitting on the floor of Beijing South Railway Station. We decided to "just go" to Tianjin one weekend.

What my work should have told us was, "If you don't have a Mandarin-fluent friend to sort things out for you, just stay home. Yeah, I know lots of things are in English and everywhere tends to have at least one employee with pretty good English skills, but that's not enough. You need a Mandarin-fluent friend. Oh, and the guy on staff we've hired to be that Mandarin-fluent friend feels overworked, so he's not going to do it for you."

So this was why we didn't see any movies our first year here. But last weekend I took my daughter to see the new Star Wars movie.

Remember how I've hired a student to function as my personal assistant? Well, she bought the tickets for us online to see the movie at the theater in our second-closest mall. We got an e-mail with two codes that we were supposed to present at the box office to receive our tickets. So Saturday morning, Crazy Jane and I went to the bus stop. But the signs designating which buses could be expected to stop there no longer listed the bus that used to stop there that went right to the movie theater. We had to go down the road and turn left, so we figured we'd just make it a two-bus trip and transfer at the left-hand turn. But every Chinese intersection has eight bus stops at it, and we didn't know which of the two going our direction would be correct. We saw an empty taxi sitting at the red light, so we signaled to the driver and he waved us over.

We got in and I showed him the paper with the theater's address in Chinese characters. (Our experience is that nearly everyone in China cannot understand Chinese spoken by a foreigner with even the SLIGHTEST accent, so it's pointless to try.) He wasn't wearing his glasses, so he just squinted at the paper, hoping it would feel guilty and confess the information it contained. When that didn't work, and the cars behind him kept honking since the signal had changed, he found a place to pull over and don his glasses. Then he drove off confidently in the right direction. For half a block. Then he asked for the paper back. Then he got out his phone to tell his GPS program the address.

Meanwhile, we were approaching the movie theater, so I wasn't too worried. Eventually, he let us out right where I wanted, at the mall's only door I know. We went in the mall's door and met a security guard and a crowd-control rope. The mall wasn't open yet. We showed the guy the paper with the theater's address. He started telling us very elaborate directions that involved a lot of left-hand turns. I was concerned he was going to make us walk all the way around the block, which is massive, and we'd be late, so I asked him if we had to go to Xicui Road. I might as well have saved my breath: beyond the typical problems with speaking Chinese to people, this word has a letter C in it, which is this weird sort-of-TS-sort-of-Z noise. He reiterated his directions. I told him I don't understand Chinese. He repeated himself verbatim.

His boss came over and asked what was wrong. We showed him the paper. He looked over his shoulder at the empty mall in the direction of the movie theater, but then thought better of letting us through. He made the same left-hand turn signals. We embarked on our long walk full of left-hand turns.

Eventually we ended up inside the movie theater, at the mostly-empty bank of registers. One guy took our paper, looked at it, and left. Like, full-on left, not just the employee area, but around a corner and onto an escalator. Gone. We waited. Another guy started helping people around us. We signaled to him that 15 minutes to read a paper was a little excessive. He got a walkie-talkie to call his coworker.

It turned out they just needed to get the one lady on staff who can read English. (Remember, all these people had many, many years of English classes in school.) She printed our tickets and the other guy handed them to us. We had to ask where to go from there.

Eventually, we ended up inside our theater, where we had to put on 3D glasses because movies are pretty-exclusively offered in 3D here in China. A few months ago my family went to see The Peanuts Movie and they had to pay ¥100 each ($16) to see it in 3D. To me, the 3D movie is always and everywhere a loss of utility. It becomes a distraction and makes me more aware that I'm watching a movie, not real life. But in China, it appears, it is unavoidable.

To prepare for this movie, we spent the previous evening watching the original trilogy back-to-back-to-back. So the Star Wars storyline was fresh in our minds. It appears that was unnecessary. This movie starts about 30 years later, and with little connection to the completed story arc of the original trilogy.

I liked the movie. It was enjoyable where it should have been, and it avoided all the unenjoyable parts of the second trilogy. (Poe is a great pilot, we are told, and we're asked to accept it instead of being shown 20 minutes of pod-racing to establish the fact.) Where the movie was most enjoyable was where it was original; the times it felt derivative (like blowing up a Death Star totally NOT just a Death Star, or the "I'm your father" moment on a catwalk in a seemingly-bottomless industrial space) were a little lame, but it was scattered and infrequent, so it didn't undermine the entire film or even a significant portion of it.

As a father of a 12-year-old boy and a seven-year-old boy who stayed home, I was also interested in why it was rated PG-13. As best as I can tell, it's because one storm trooper bleeds when shot, so that he can mark Finn to help the audience keep track of which one was Finn. (It's possibly also related to an unexpected death in intimate circumstances, too.) Anyway, I felt my boys could see this movie. (For comparison's sake, we've shown them the following PG-13 movies with the edits listed: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with skipping over Wormtail cutting himself, Voldemort's naked-baby phase, and Cedric Diggory's arvada-ing; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with skipping over the dementors attacking Dudley and Harry's being possessed by Voldemort; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 with skipping over Voldemort feeding a teacher to a snake, Harry and Hermione's night of wild passion in Ron's mind, and a giant snake jumping out of the corpse of an old lady; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 without anything skipped, as I remember it; and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith with skipping over Anakin killing a bunch of children and Obi-Wan dismembering Anakin.)

Crazy Jane liked the movie, too, except for the actions of Kylo Ren, so after the movie, she wanted to have her picture taken punching the statue in the lobby.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Mandarin Characters and Thought Restrictions

I was riding home from a church meeting with three other guys. Two of them were from a distant branch, and the driver was from my branch presidency, so we were sort of two groups of two, and we were becoming familiar with each other. The other guys asked about our Mandarin abilities. I have virtually none, while the driver speaks fluently. They asked about his reading ability, because reading is so difficult that it's often something that learners ignore. The one guy said, "Like, can you read the newspaper?" The driver said, "It depends on the topic. A general news story or a story in my field, yes. A specialized story about something in science, for instance, no."

I thought some about this over the next few weeks. I realized the nature of Chinese characters prohibits (or at least greatly restricts) independent learning in new fields. See, if I wanted to read an English article about, say, molecular biology, I could get the article and read it. When I got to a word I didn't know, like "epistasis" (courtesy of the Wikipedia entry for "molecular biology"), I could at least closely approximate its proper pronunciation. I might learn its meaning from context, or from further study, or from asking someone, "What does 'epistasis' mean?" But when someone wants to read a Chinese article about molecular biology, when they get to the word "epistasis," it's this impenetrable black box. They can memorize the picture and recognize it later, so that might help them learn the meaning from context, but they can never talk about the word, which included talking about it in their own heads (without giving it a different name), which is what thinking is.

I know there are dictionaries that let you look up characters you don't know based on their composite strokes, but that's a really unwieldy way of going about something. The end result is that, except for the very dedicated learner, Chinese characters prohibit people from learning about and speaking about (and greatly hinder their thinking about) new ideas.

Mormons are prohibited from talking about the church with Chinese nationals while here in China, but we can discuss it with foreign passport holders. Some of those passport holders are most comfortable speaking in Mandarin. Some church members who know Mandarin know it from serving as missionaries in Taiwan, but some (like my driver that day) didn't learn Mandarin in a church context. As such, they can't speak about church. We have a young man in our branch who has been learning about the church, and the plan was to teach one of his lessons with his parents there for them to have a better idea of what their son was getting into. However, the teacher had to be someone who learned Mandarin as a missionary, and even the young man's native-speaker parents had to learn new terminology that they would have been unable to read on their own.

It reminds me of the story about "Constantine and Constitution." If you don't even have a word for something, it's a lot harder for you to think about it.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

This Day Won't End

It's not even noon yet.

I try to sleep from 8 PM to 3 AM. In practice, though, I'm more of a 10-to-5 kind of guy. But last night I wasn't sleeping that well, so when my wife came to bed around midnight, I got disturbed and never really got back to a good, deep sleep. After a while, I figured I might as well get up. It was 1:30.

I still have at least eight more hours of being awake. This day is taking forever.

Talking About My Joys

A Facebook friend shared a quote the other day about sharing your joys instead of your complaints. Okay, here was something that got me really happy for a brief moment yesterday.

A coworker and I share a secret: we're both done working here at the end of the year. So he WeChats job openings to me all the time. (Seriously, the dude is doing a better job looking for my next job than I am.) Yesterday, he sent me a screen shot of a listing for my job, with the start date listed as "February 2016." I wrote back, "Wow, that certainly looks like I'm about to be fired."

He eventually figured out his mistake (he thought he'd found it on our school's website, but it turned out to be from a website aggregating all job postings in Beijing). But for about 10 minutes, I contemplated what I'd do if they told me, "Don't come back from Spring Festival." First, I'd make the argument that giving me so little notice prohibited me from working for the rest of the school year, so they needed to pay me the rest of my salary. And if they agreed to that (and they covered the fees of moving my family's tickets from June to February), we'd happily leave immediately. (I'd also want to make sure I got paid in small payments over several days so my Chinese bank account never had more than $10,000 in it at a time, because that keeps me from having to file a bunch more paperwork with the Federales.)

We'd land in Los Angeles with 12 suitcases and we'd have our car waiting there for us, and then what? We'd want to live somewhere cheap but nearby, and I'd spend the next six months finishing my Ph.D. My first choice was west of Cedar City, but the more I thought about it, I think a town in Sanpete Valley would be better. Cedar is kind of expensive because it's a retirement destination, and their temple isn't done.

Anyway, it doesn't matter now. I'm stuck here through July, watching my paychecks become increasingly insignificant (yesterday at the bank I got 6.53/1, a seven-percent decline from when we arrived). But for a little bit, I was very happy.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Two Aspects of China I Don't Understand

Of course, there are more than two aspects of China I don't understand, but I'm only going to write about two today.

One is the dramatic turnover of inventory composition at Chinese retail locations. When you find something you like, don't make the assumption that this store now carries this item. They only have a shipment right now. Whether or not they are going to have a replacement shipment next month is anyone's guess.

The second item is the lack of reluctance to temporarily close a business for a period of time. When we moved in, we became regular customers of our local newsstand, but then winter came and the newsstand closed for four months. (It's not like all newsstands close in winter; all the surrounding newsstands stayed open all year.) We developed different shopping patterns, and when the newsstand reopened, we never really got back in the habit of shopping there.

This month, a full-on restaurant (with a sign and everything) in our neighborhood has been closed for at least two weeks now. It's not closed like "out of business," just closed like "we're quite busy at the moment."

I don't understand businesses with very little profit margins inviting their customers to get out of the habit of shopping there. In the U.S., it's a big deal when a business closes for repairs or remodeling; you do everything you can to make sure that you stay open. But here, businesses shut down on a whim and order inventory randomly. I don't get it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Ushered Out the Door

My school meets with the teachers whose contracts are expiring and reviews whether the school would like to offer the teachers another contract, and whether the teachers would like to accept. Well, I guess I should say that's what they normally do. That's what they do for everyone else, but I guess I'm special, because I received different treatment.

More and more of my colleagues were having their meetings and coyly discussing the results, but my meeting was still unscheduled. I mentioned to my office-mate that it seemed like they didn't want me back and just couldn't be bothered to tell me. He said there was no way that was true. (He's only been here four months.) He said it was much more likely that either I was accidentally overlooked because I'm in two different programs and both academic principals thought the other was handling my interview, or the school didn't know yet what to offer me because some higher-up teachers weren't decided yet about whether they were returning. But as the time for my interview became more and more overdue, I eventually decided I needed to initiate it.

I asked my more-competent academic principal if he knew why I hadn't heard anything yet. Thanks to his competency, he went to his boss and had an answer within a day. Then he asked me to come meet with him.

Remember when Undergraduate U. made me come in for an in-person rejection of my graduate school application? That's what this felt like. So to start the meeting, I said, "I wasn't trying to orchestrate an in-person rejection. I've been working under the assumption that the school is not going to offer me a renewal, but I just need to know if the way I'm reading the school is accurate." He said, "I asked [his boss] and said I just needed a yes or a no and she said no."

Maybe someday I'll write about the ways in which this school and I were a bad fit for each other. But for now, I just know that I'm done working at this school in six months.

This Is Also Not a Pipe

Saturday, January 02, 2016


How many things have I done for ten straight years? Be married (coming up on 15 years), be a dad (over 13 years, now), and be a failure (just over 38 years on that one), but most other things in my life, I have not done for ten straight years. So today I come to praise A Random Stranger, not to bury him.

How much has my blog changed in ten years? Well, not much, as you can see here. After a first year where I was still developing the habit of blogging, I've settled into an average of just under 21 posts each month (curiously, the average month has 21 work days in it). Here's a handy graph that helps you see all my psychological changes at a glance (look how much I hated myself in 2014!).

I used to think this blog would die when I became a public figure of slight renown. Now I think it's much more likely that my blog will last until Google says, "Blogger's just hemorrhaging money," and pulls the plug. Either way, no one will notice at all.

What do the next ten years hold in store here at A Random Stranger? Fake identity reveals, where I tell you I'm the guy who played Marshall on Alias? Celebrity weddings? I think it's almost my turn to marry a Kardashian, or at least one of Honey Boo-Boo's relatives. (Here's hoping I don't draw Mamma June.) Well, whatever comes in the next ten years, you can be pretty sure I'll write 21 blog posts each month about it.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Upcoming Reading

Well, it took me over six months, but I finally got to a point where I'm only reading one book right now. I don't know that I've been in this position in at least 15 years. It feels weird.

Anyway, here's my reading plan for 2016. I know book titles should be italicized, but I don't feel like making that many HTML tags.


  1. The Pothunters (re-read to my kids)
  2. A Prefect's Uncle (re-read to my kids)
  3. The Gold Bat
  4. The Head of Kay's
  5. Mike at Wrykyn (re-read to my kids)
  6. Mike and Psmith (re-read to my kids)
  7. Psmith in the City (re-read to my kids)
  8. Psmith, Journalist (re-read to my kids)
  9. Leave It to Psmith (re-read to my kids)
  10. Uneasy Money
  11. Piccadilly Jim
  12. Jill the Reckless


  1. Jane Eyre
  2. The Moonstone
  3. Vanity Fair
  4. Wuthering Heights
  5. Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  6. Bleak House


  1. Man of the Family (Ralph Moody's second book)
  2. The Home Ranch (Ralph Moody's third book)
  3. Mary Emma & Company (Ralph Moody's fourth book)
  4. Grk and the Phoney Macaroni (the eighth Grk book)
  5. The Magical Fruit (the fourth "Dr. Proctor" book)
  6. The Moomins and the Great Flood (somehow we read the second and third Moomin books without reading the first)


  1. Among the Mad
  2. The Mapping of Love and Death
  3. A Lesson in Secrets


  1. Moonraker
  2. Diamonds Are Forever
  3. From Russia, With Love


  1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments
  2. How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World
  3. America-Lite
  4. Crossing
  5. The Servile State
  6. In Search of Zarathustra
  7. Heaven on Earth
  8. Not a Suicide Pact
  9. The Tyrannicide Brief
  10. Coming Apart
  11. Scarcity
  12. The Collapse of Complex Societies


  1. The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow
  2. The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith
  3. The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant
  4. The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith
  5. The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay
  6. The Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith

Forty-eight books. We'll see how this works out. Usually when I make a reading plan, I don't even follow half of it. Not that I only read half as much as I planned, but that I go off the plan a lot.