Saturday, December 17, 2016

Memo Received

Remember this? In a fit of confidence I applied. And I was so underwhelming that they cancelled the search and began a new one.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Be Very Afraid of This Efficiency Juggernaut

This Chinese DVD of Monsters University has it all:

  • The movie information at the bottom starts by identifying the film as Leaves of Grass.
  • Which probably explains why the name "Walt Willtman" appears in large red letters.
  • The special features advertised are all from the movie Tomb Raider.
  • All the movie information after the title is from the film Twilight.
  • There's a large, attention-grabbing graphic that warns the film Monsters University is not suitable for anyone under 18 years of age.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Popular Music and Theology

This week in our family's reading of the Book of Mormon, we read 2 Ne. 19:10, which is Nephi's quotation of Isaiah 9:10. That verse of Isaiah has a nice bit of conspiracy theory behind it, since Isaiah is condemning the Kingdom of Israel but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle quoted it approvingly on the Senate floor on September 12, 2001. In talking about it with my family, I pointed out the interesting question contained in Bastille's song "Pompeii": Where do we begin--the rubble or our sins?

It seems Isaiah supports beginning with our sins, Tom Daschle supports beginning with the rubble, and Bastille is noncommittal.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Righteousness Vis-a-Vis Prosperity Metrics

Brigham Young said once

The worst fear that I have about [members of this Church] is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches.
In his novel Empire Falls, Richard Russo writes of his character Tick,
It was easier to believe in God, she said, or at least the possibility of God, on Martha's Vineyard than it was in Empire Falls. Miles knew what she meant, understood the bitter irony. Half the cars in the Vineyard chapel's lot were either Mercedes or Lexuses. No surprise that their owners believed that God was in His heaven.
So which is it: do riches make you more believing or less believing? If we use obedience to commandments as a proxy for belief, we can regress tithing payment, Word of Wisdom compliance, Sunday worship, and temple attendance on income. (Other variables of interest might include education level, education venue, family size, marital status, legacy of membership (how many generations ago was the first convert?), missionary service, employment, and years spent living in a heavily-Mormon environment.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Keynesian Yuppies

In a recession, demand for business output declines. Businesses respond to lower revenue by seeking to cut expenses. With wages exhibiting downward rigidity, businesses cut their wage bills by firing workers, which swells the ranks of the unemployed.

The Keynesian response would include transfer payments to the unemployed, but it would also include stimulus spending, which goes to firms and then to the workers who have retained their jobs. This increase in wages during a recession is on top of the real wage increase they already received by keeping their jobs at their old pay rates.

Unless we're saying that the share of stimulus spending that businesses pass on to labor is used ENTIRELY for new hires, and that unemployment benefits fully offset lost spending power of the recently unemployed, the Keynesian response to a recession exacerbates economic inequality.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to think this, but I wonder why many of those who most-loudly advocate a Keynesian response to a recession are the same lot that most-loudly bemoans economic inequality, and they never see fit to justify the one view with the other.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grading Tales

My school uses a course management software where I record scores and students can track their progress. It allows students to turn on notifications so they get a message as soon as I have made a change to any graded assignment.

The first step to determining students' final grades is to input their scores on the last exam. Then I have to spend some time looking at numbers and determining if I am going to use the traditional 90-80-70-60 grade breaks or if I am going to move them down somewhat, and if so, how far. But as soon as I entered the exam scores, students were notified of the change. Before I was even finished, I had three e-mails from students with scores in the 79 or 89 range, complaining that they deserved the next higher grade.

Which is baffling, because NO GRADE HAS BEEN ASSIGNED AT ALL at this point. It's not like the student has a 79 and the program is calling this a C. All that's happened is the student has a 79, and on the basis of that alone, the student is e-mailing me all the reasons I should give him or her a B.

By the next day, when I was ready to upload actual grades to the official program that reports actual grades, I was up to 20 e-mails from students. I uploaded the grades and sent a message to all my students saying that final grades had been uploaded. Instead of stemming the complaining, it stoked it. Still no one had bothered to check HIS ACTUAL GRADE, but they all sent indignant e-mails based on their percentages. They earned the next grade. They deserved the next grade. The next grade would better reflect their effort. They couldn't afford to not get the next grade, either because they would lose their scholarships or they would have to retake the class.

I sent another message that told them to not e-mail me about a grade they haven't checked. I told them they were looking at their percentages and not their grades and they needed to check the grade program, not the course management software.

This morning I had a message from a student telling me I needed to give him an A because he had earned it. He had defended me in class (which he didn't) and he understood the material so well that he discovered places where I had presented the material incorrectly (which he never brought up). But the thing is, of course, I HAD GIVEN HIM AN A.

Who asks for a favor by demanding that justice be satisfied? And who writes such messages without even checking his grade first?

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Recording of the Prayers for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

In my reading of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, I'm struck by the veiled nature of the references to the words spoken by Jesus when he institutes the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. It seems that none of the writers want to record the actual prayer, but instead record Christ's explanation of the prayer, until we get to Moroni, who records the entire thing verbatim. Why is this?

First of all, my contention that the actual prayers aren't recorded needs some support. In Matthew we read:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
Notice he "blessed it" and "gave thanks," but the words recorded are his instructions to the Apostles after he did that, not the actual words used in the blessing or the giving thanks. The event is recorded in Mark nearly identically, and also in Luke. John does not record the event at all, which I'll return to later.

When Jesus visits the Nephites, he also institutes this sacrament. Not only do we also not get a record of the words used to bless the emblems, we get a fuller explanation of the ordinance, and this explanation closely parallels the words of the prayers we receive later from Moroni (and that we use today), so much so that a reader might not realize at first that, once again, the scriptural scribe has not recorded the prayer itself.

So it seems as if the words used to bless the sacramental emblems are not to be recorded, until we get to Moroni, where he writes them completely. What's up with that?

I believe Moroni "ended" the Book of Mormon three times. The first time he finished the work of his father soon after the final battle at Cumorah. In Morm. 8:1 he tells us he has "but few things to write, which things I have been commanded by my father." In Verse 5 he writes that he has little room left and he has no ore to make more plates. This doesn't line up with the fact that he wrote the sealed portion of the plates (see Ether 4:4-5), which represent something like half to two-thirds of the total volume. Clearly he finishes the little Book of Mormon (meaning Morm. 8 and 9) in very different circumstances than he faces while writing the Book of Ether. In Ether 13, Moroni tells us he will "finish my record," and he starts Moro. 1:1 by telling us, "I had supposed not to have written more." What types of things does he write in the Book of Moroni?

It's a grab-bag of every remaining bit of information he can remember. He's the last person around who knew how the believers operated and he knows that anything he doesn't record will die with him. The first six chapters are short because he's following the "oh, yeah, I should write that down, too" method of writing. Then he copies a sermon and two letters from his father. The only original bit of the Book of Moroni is when he tries, for the third time, to bring the record to a close.

I believe that Moroni would have never written the sacramental prayer if he wasn't convinced that it would be otherwise lost. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Mormon all had an opportunity to write it down, they intentionally demurred. They explained the prayers, but they didn't record them. This seems to indicate that the words of the sacramental prayers were seen as too sacred for recording like everything else.

And this helps explain John's complete failure to mention the ordinance at all in two ways. First, if John felt the prayers were too sacred to record, he wouldn't have written them down unless he thought he had to. Second, John knew he wasn't going anywhere, so he didn't have to write them down.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Profit, Intention, and Quality - SPORTS EDITION!

And another thing!

Isn't this exactly what happened to sports that makes die-hard sports fans so ambivalent about their favorite sports? When the NFL was a football league, they produced great football and they happened to make a ton of money doing it. Now that they're a football-themed profit machine, the product is non-compelling and the fans are all thinking, "I wish I knew how to quit you!"

I weened myself of football about five years ago, but the same thing is true of my replacement drug sport, soccer. Every soccer fan loves soccer and every soccer fan hates FIFA. And it's because FIFA went from the group that runs soccer to a soccer-themed money-laundering front organization.

Baseball jumped the shark BEFORE they cancelled the World Series; it was the three-divisions-with-a-wild-card move that made it so sub-500 teams can make the postseason. Later came the tied all-star game, the idea that the all-star game should affect the World Series, and the expanded playoff round that tells fans, "You were suckers to pay attention to any of the regular season games."

Sports league's whose intention becomes profit generation see a decline in quality. "But A Random Stranger, baseball metrics have never been better! Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout are all-time greats!" I'm talking about fan satisfaction after viewing. Fans are increasingly frustrated with the business decisions of sports leagues because they are just that: business decisions. The "Monday Night Football" post-scoring-play commercial rate (touchdown, commercial break, extra point, commercial break, kick-off, commercial break) is not done to make the product better. Starting World Series games after 8 p.m. on school nights is a great way to make money now and make sure no adults 20 years from now care about baseball. I would guess that fan satisfaction after viewing is tanking, and most sports leagues don't care because their viewers are emotionally invested. No one with a team-logo tattoo is ever going to stop watching, right? But how many people are going to get team-logo tattoos in the future?

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Profit, Intention, and Quality

A few weeks ago, I read this listicle of ways in which dog breeding has ruined dogs. This morning I realized that this idea gives structure to some nebulous thoughts I've had about media in general and the Internet in particular.

Sometimes when some ancillary product of behavior becomes the intentional product, that kills the product itself. Sometimes in class I tell students that the "animal spirits" idea of economic recessions is like when you're learning to ride a bike; the first time you are actually riding, things are going okay until you think, "Holy smokes, I'm doing it! I'm riding a--" and then you crash. It was the conscious verbalization that killed it. That's why you can say "banana" every time you need to until you need to say it 15 times fast.

Dogs owned by associated people would breed, and this produced breed variation. But when the breed variation became the focus, all hell broke loose. We used to watch a Saturday-morning show about dog breeds that would describe the breed, tell what made them desirable, and tell what health problems they had. And every segment would end with our family saying, "Let's not get one of THOSE!" Did you know that pugs can have their eyeballs FALL OUT OF THEIR FACES?!?!?! (Warning: that link has a stupid video that plays with sound.) I guarantee you NO pug owners knew that before getting a pug!

There have always been people trying to monetize media, but that didn't make it bad. In fact, that made it awesome. Because people will provide services to you if they think that there's a benefit for them in it. But I feel there's a distinction between "I run a radio station because I want to make a profit" and "I make a profit and my particular method is running a radio station." In the second case, the ancillary product has become the intentional product. When this happens, when a suitcase manufacturer, for example, becomes a suitcase-themed profit manufacturer, quality declines and customers become frustrated. The brand has "jumped the shark."

So this is why the Internet of 2009 was superior to the Internet of today. Sure, in 2009 there were people trying to monetize the Internet, but because they didn't quite know how to do that yet, they were trying a bunch of different things, providing a huge range of services and information. But now profitable things are behind paywalls and non-profitable things are neglected.

It's not just the Internet this applies to. People have drawn attention to Hollywood only rebooting franchises and making sequels; others have shown that popular music is homogenized; the rise of reality TV is another example. I once read an article from a long-time TV writer who said people complaining that prime-time TV is over-sexualized aren't realizing that sex jokes are all TV writers are allowed to make anymore because of political correctness. Recently Jerry Seinfeld has complained that PC-ness has weakened all comedy in general. And while it might seem these anti-PC arguments aren't related to mine, I believe they are, because the automatic compliance with the tenets of PC-ness is a result of the "don't f*** with the formula" outlook of modern media. Everything has to be something that a corporation would feel comfortable sponsoring, which means it all has to offend no identifiable group, which means it has to be saccharine and repeated.

A few weeks ago, I went grocery shopping with my wife. When we turned off the car, the radio was playing a song. When we returned to the car maybe 90 minutes later, the radio was playing the same song. The same station was repeating a song within two hours. This process ends in everyone listening to "Everything Is Awesome" and watching "Where Are My Pants?" ad infinitum.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Soundtrack of Our Long Car Trips

Thanksgiving saw us drive a long distance to my sister's house, which meant I listened to some Taylor Swift again. ("A Random Stranger, cut the crap, we all know you have a Pandora station that's 100% Tay Tay and that's all you listen to at work!") ANYWAY...I was reminded of another lyrical improvement I'd recommend to Ms. Swift. In "Blank Space" when she says "Rose garden filled with thorns" I think the song would be enhanced if she said "Rose garden, pelvic floors." And it gives new meaning to the next line: "Keep you guessing".

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Problem With Entertainment

For some reason this morning I ended up reading the Wikipedia pages for Gorillas in the Mist and Dian Fossey. Later, on the parents guide of IMDb for the movie, I read this:

Sigourney Weaver and her lover are seen in a bathtub together, no nudity is shown.
Which I'm pretty sure isn't true.

Perhaps Dian Fossey and her lover are portrayed in a bathtub together, and perhaps Sigourney Weaver and the actor playing Dian Fossey's lover are seen in a bathtub together, but unless we're accusing Sigourney Weaver of being romantically involved with her co-star, we can't say that she was seen in a bathtub with her lover.

And that's the problem with entertainment: even though we know we're being shown something that isn't real life, we can't help but respond as if it were real life. It reminds me of when I saw Rita Wilson on Oprah's show and an audience member asked Rita if her husband, Tom Hanks, was going to run for public office because "I love him and he'd be great." You LOVE him, rando woman? You don't KNOW him. You love the way he portrays characters but you can't possibly love HIM. And what can you possibly know of whether or not he'd be great as a politician? I guess we can assume Tom Hanks's political positions are similar to those of other politically-involved actors (so somewhere between Elizabeth Warren and Che Guevara), but until he gets specific, we're all just guessing.

Some could say that our inability to distinguish between real life and media is a result of the relatively-recent invention of media. Our brains have evolved to accept the things we're seeing as fact. But I don't think this is so. From the moment the first caveman reenacted an especially-dramatic hunt, we've had dramatic portrayals. And given what we know about the stories of fisherman, we've probably had our first fiction for just as long. It's not like everything we saw was true until the days of Thomas Edison. So why haven't we yet learned* how to distinguish entertainment from real life? And should we expect things to get any better with more people going through real life like this?

* = Probably my finest split infinitive ever.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Psychiatry

"Why don't you see a doctor about your depression, A Random Stranger?" Well, I have nice benefits through teaching at a state university, but even so, there are problems.

  1. There's a stigma attached to mental illness. I read an article once about Thomas Eagleton and the political baggage of his depression. As long as depression is something that some people associate with being weak-willed or self-indulgent, depressed people will continue to feel pressure to hide their condition.
  2. I want to learn to be not depressed, but if that's not possible, I at least want to learn to manage my depression. I don't want to take a pill to mask the symptoms, especially as many of the side-effects of such pills are, in my view, intolerable. I've read many books about diet and lifestyle corrections. Obviously the professional training of a psychiatrist could help, but I don't want a psychiatrist who says, "Oh, you're depressed? Here, take this pill."
  3. Even if I get a doctor who's willing to look at dietary or amino acid supplement corrections, it's a discouraging task. There are scores of potential problems and it could be years of trial and error to find what works.
  4. Meanwhile, I'm supposed to be focused on finishing my dissertation. It's a dilemma, because the biggest motivation I have to seek treatment for my depression is that it would enable me to do the work I have to do, but the biggest discouragement I have is the distraction it would be from the work I have to do.
  5. Finally, my insurance covers psychiatry, but our deductible is so high that I basically regard my insurance as catastrophic insurance. I don't have room in my annual budget for my deductible, so I can never seek medical care.

I know someone reading this will say these are all crap excuses. But, hey, my whole life is crap excuses. Only someone brand-new to this blog would expect anything BUT crap excuses from me.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Depression Update

I've never been to a doctor about my depression (more on that later), so nothing I'm about to write has ever been vetted by a medical professional. This is just the way I think I work based on my observations and some books I've read about depression.

I have depression. I believe I have more of a dysthymia type of depression, in that the type of debilitating episodes most people associate with depression (can't get out of bed of a morning, et cetera) rarely hit me, and when they do they last for about an hour or so, but I have spent probably 80% of my waking hours over the past 27 years feeling terrible.

During that 80% of my time, though, the intensity of the self-loathing comes and goes. And for the past six months or so, it's been pretty strong. I realized a few weeks ago that I was winding down my social connections, and when I realized that, I didn't necessarily think I should stop it. I began archiving my social media posts as a preliminary step to disconnecting from social media. I stopped returning e-mails and phone calls from friends. I foresaw a future where I no longer interacted with my parents or siblings and I didn't see that as a bad thing. I wasn't making friends at church or at work and I didn't mind. I had allowed my blog to putter to a stop.

Part of my brain knew that concluding social relationships is something people do before suicide, and that part of my brain was a little worried, but I decided a few years ago that my wife and children would be very upset if I killed myself. See, even though I believe they'd be better off without me, THEY don't believe that, so their response to my suicide would be anger and pain, and since they would stop interacting with me at that point they would never come to realize that I was right and they were wrong, so they would just continue in anger and pain, and since I like them I don't want to cause them a lifetime of anger and pain. But once they realize that I'm a jerk and that they should hate me, this restriction will be gone. I believe, though, that my children are sufficiently spaced that, by the time the youngest is an angsty teen who wouldn't mind seeing me die, my eldest will either be past that phase or else have some children with whom I can start the process over again. But I'm not sure about this, because my youngest is preternaturally angry and my eldest might delay marriage and childbirth, and that explains most of my reasoning for wanting at least one more kid.

I guess some of my friends and family might read that I wasn't too distraught over ending my relationships with them and take offense, like I'm saying, "You people suck and I don't really mind if you're not in my life." The reality is I am saying, "I suck and they won't really mind if I'm not in their lives."

Anyway, my family went to my sister's in Richmond, Virginia, for Thanksgiving last week. We left on Wednesday morning, and the day before I had floated to my wife the idea of her and the kids going without me to help ensure everyone had a nice visit. She shot that plan down, so I went.

When it came to planning the trip back home, we wanted to observe the Sabbath. Our choices were to stay for Sunday and drive home Monday (I don't teach on Mondays), leave Saturday morning so we'd be home for Sunday, stay for church with my sister's family and then leave and drive all night, or try to fit church into the drive home. My sister didn't want us there Sunday night while her kids were doing their week-prep routine, it didn't seem worth the trip if we'd only be there for Thursday and Friday, and I didn't want to drive all night and ruin my sleeping schedule for several days. So we decided to go to church on our way home.

We woke up Sunday morning at 4 a.m. and dressed for church and left. We went to Raleigh, North Carolina, and stopped for church at 9 a.m. in the Beaver Creek Ward of the Apex North Carolina Stake. We could see that the two sacrament meeting speakers for the day were a companionship of missionary elders. The conducting bishopric member said the topic for the day was "it is not good for man to be alone." I thought it was ironically cruel to make two single young men talk about something that we normally associate with the commandment to marry.

The elders approached the topic from a non-marriage perspective. They talked about social connections and how a Zion people would not be an isolated people. And I realized at this meeting that I needed to actively stop this disconnection that I was watching happen in my life.

So here I am blogging again. And I'm going to return e-mails and phone calls, too. But it's hard, because I still don't want to do it.