Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Death and Evolution

As I understand it, there are a few reasons the Genesis creation story cannot coexist with evolution. One is that Adam's transgression brought death into the world, but evolution requires a long string of successive generations, which means death. Another is that Adam is created as the first man, but evolution would have produced a long string of humanoid creatures that has led to our modern selves.

Here's a theory that I think satisfies the requirements of both Genesis and evolution.

Life evolved over a long period of time, leading to a number of humanoid creatures. At some point, one is sufficiently advanced for God to say, "I can interact with this being as a potential heir." This being is Adam. He is the first entity to get a human spirit. Thus Adam's body was the result of evolutionary processes, but God created Adam as the first man.

As the first being with a human spirit, Adam is given commandments that the rest of creation had not received, as they were merely animals. Through his transgression, Adam brought spiritual death--the only type of death that matters to God--into the world. (See Doctrine and Covenants 29:41-43, where God says Adam's transgression made him spiritually dead, and Doctrine and Covenants 101:29-30, where God says "there is no death" in the Millennium and then talks about "an infant shall not die until he is old"--so people are dying during the Millennium but this isn't what God considers "death.") Thus evolution had its long string of successive generations but Adam brought death into the world.

Adam's posterity was commanded to not intermarry with the humanoid creatures around them, and Satan tempted the sons of Adam to ignore this commandment, which gives us the formulation from Genesis 6:2 and the Book of Enoch about "the sons of God" and "the daughters of men." Those who didn't intermarry were given to the alternate extreme, extermination. This fits with the archaeological record which shows Homo sapiens killing and interbreeding with other humanoids, most notably Homo neanderthalensis.

I think this way of looking at things allows for the aspects of human history that have the most-compelling scientific evidence while not doing such violence to the concepts of "creation" and "death" that the Bible is rendered meaningless.

In Defense of Celebrities

I'm not generally sympathetic to celebrities, especially actors. I think there's something fundamentally wrong with your ability to accept who you are if you make a career of pretending to be other people. But maybe I just feel that way because I don't have the acting bug, myself. My point is, I'm not going to reflexively defend actors from accusations that they suck. There's a reason this blog's only tag about celebrities is "crazy celebrities."

However, I've seen a few people responding to the rapidly-growing number of disclosures of sexual abuse within the entertainment industry with statements along the lines of "I guess you wanted to be famous more than you wanted to see justice done." And that's just stupid. People in every industry experience abuse, and people in every industry are hesitant to report it. A harassed dental hygienist, say, doesn't keep quiet because of any desire to be "famous." Victims are concerned about professional repercussions and character assassination, and just because in some industries the professional repercussions and character assassination happen in the public eye doesn't mean that those victims are somehow complicit in their abuse in a way that this theoretical dental hygienist isn't.

"So you're saying a silent dental hygienist who suffers sexual abuse is complicit?" Oh, shut up. You know I'm not saying that. I'm saying that, given we all accept that such a dental hygienist isn't complicit, we should recognize that an abused actor is in the same position and so is also not complicit.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

E-mail Is Not a Passing Fad

My wife recently served in a ward calling that involved young men and young women between the ages of 12 and 18. Something we learned during that time was that our children are unique in that you can communicate with them via e-mail. The other youth of the ward either 1) don't have an e-mail address at all, or 2) have one that they never check.

Now, they nearly all have phones. Our kids were in the small minority of those without phones. (Our daughter now has an actual phone, and our son has a phone that has no SIM card.) And every phone has the capability of being linked to an e-mail account. But most of our youth can't be bothered to interact via e-mail.

This means that, for fellowshipping of a new member, for example, you have to 1) find out the new member's preferred social media platform, 2) find out which youth also prefers that social media platform, and 3) hope that youth has some sort of personal connection with the new member. If the new member prefers Snapchat and the youth who has the most in common with her prefers Instagram, though, they will never communicate with each other, because they don't use e-mail and they don't place phone calls.

If we had a large group of youth who were oblivious to the dictates of personal hygiene, we would have a personal hygiene night, where we would brief them on the ways of the mature world. Should we not also have a communication night, where we break it to them that mature-world communication is not based on Snapchat?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Level of Difficulty of Different Ward-Level Callings

A few days ago, when I wrote about having multiple callings, I realized that not all callings are equally difficult. I thought, "There should be a list of ward callings ranked by level of difficulty." But that raises the question: should we compare innate calling difficulty that can't be shirked, or should we compare calling difficulty when the calling is performed as it should be? I'm going with "as it should be," because one thing I've seen in my church experience is that every calling can be almost entirely shirked if you want to. I'm going to be charitable and assume that you don't want to.

  1. Bishop
  2. Relief Society president
  3. Elders Quorum president
  4. Ward Mission Leader
  5. Primary president
  6. Scoutmaster
  7. Ward Clerk
  8. Cubmaster/Den Leader (For some reason, it seems lots of packs use Cubmaster as an administrative position that doesn't really interact with the boys much. I'm not using it that way, because that way is stupid.)
  9. Bishopric counselor
  10. every-Sunday teacher (Sunday School or Primary)
  11. Executive Secretary
  12. Activity Days leader
  13. Young Men president/Young Women president
  14. High Priest group leader

Friday, October 13, 2017

Announcing My Candidacy for President of U.S. Soccer

Sunil Gulati needs to go, and there's a danger that he won't lose re-election because there's no one articulating an alternative vision for U.S. Soccer. So let me here announce my candidacy and outline what my priorities will be if elected.

America qualifies out of CONCACAF, so we have to prioritize development of CONCACAF knowledge and dominance. This means we have to play American teams. Friendlies against Asian or European nations are pointless. "But we want to play the best, right?" There's an entire continent of fantastic soccer-playing nations on our side of the globe. We should be scheduling CONMEBOL teams every international break. They would be willing to come play in America, because they have expatriates and descendants of expatriates here, which will drive ticket sales. Every South American federation would be interested in the payday they could expect from a friendly in America. This was why the Copa America was played here last summer. It's good for time zones, too--no one is playing in the middle of the night when their fans are asleep. Just about every team from CONMEBOL will be a great challenge for us.

And this is my second point: we should be losing every friendly. If you win a friendly, your competition was too soft. It's along the lines of Alexi Lalas's advice to youth players: if you're the best player on your team, find a different team. If we played friendlies against CONMEBOL opponents, we would be learning how to play American soccer (which would help us in CONCACAF qualifying) against the best teams around (which would help us progress and grow).

A focus on North and South America doesn't sound appealing to some soccer fans, who evaluate all things soccer by how European it is. This is stupid and needs to end. Why are we sending our best kids to Europe to learn how to win in UEFA. We don't need to worry about UEFA until we can win in CONCACAF. We will never play a meaningful game against, say, Germany, until we can consistently defeat Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico (not to mention Trinidad and Mother[redacted]ing Tobago). Our young players need to play against the best, but the best can be found in South America as well as in Europe. (I was surprised to learn that the Colombian domestic league is ranked the second-best league in the world. How many American nationals do we have playing in Colombia? Why do we care how many we have playing in England? Send them south to learn an American style that will help us in CONCACAF.

What changes does MLS need to make? Only one. I'm not concerned about MLS making CONCACAF teams stronger, because it does it by bringing their players to the U.S., where our players get to compete against them. If we want to win in CONCACAF, bringing their players to MLS will help that happen. So keep it going. No, the only change I want MLS to make is to prioritize the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). We will not be able to beat Mexico consistently if MLS squads can't beat Liga MX squads. The league needs to do whatever it needs to do to give MLS teams the best chance they have of winning in the CCL.

Finally, we have to end pay-to-play. Soccer in the U.S. was built on rich white suburbanites, but those families are leaving soccer for lacrosse and other conspicuous consumption sports. Soccer is now too mainstream to sufficiently signal your superior income-earning skills. If we are going to survive--let alone progress--now that parents aren't using soccer-playing kids as status symbols, we have to open the ranks to all children. "But how do you fund youth sports if you aren't charging the parents?" To some extent, this problem is bigger than just youth sports: everything in the U.S. is prohibitively expensive. But we can't expect U.S. Soccer to slay the U.S. cost disease problem single-handedly. Here's how U.S. Soccer can have the money necessary to fund youth soccer in this country. First, use federation money. I'm seeing a lot of media reports about a $100-million surplus. Spend it. Second, save money by not having to defend lawsuits from the women's team. "How do we do this?" Stop doing things that make them sue U.S. Soccer. Third, save money by integrating the U.S. soccer pyramid. No more competition between MLS and NASL. Fourth, expand the lower tiers of the pyramid into underserved sports cities. People enjoy live sports entertainment. Give people in micropolitan areas local teams to support. "Why would they bother supporting the small local team?" Promotion and relegation, which stops being impossible with an integrated pyramid. I know MLS wants to crush NASL instead of buying them. That attitude doesn't grow soccer in the United States.

So my five-point plan for U.S. Soccer is this:

  1. prioritize American soccer
  2. lose every friendly
  3. end the European focus
  4. prioritize CCL games to MLS leadership
  5. end pay-to-play

I humbly await your coronation.

Natural Obsolescence v. Forced Obsolescence

A few days ago when I finished running, I took off my Garmin watch and dried the sweat off the connection points on the back. I always do this because I remember reading in the owner's manual that the salts in human sweat corrode the connection points and that Garmin says, "There's nothing we can do about that, so don't complain when your watch eventually stops working because you bathed it in your disgusting sweat." (Paraphrasing there.)

This made me think about the ways in which my Garmin watch is being made obsolete by Garmin decisions. When I first bought the watch, I could plug it into my computer and transfer the data to MapMyRun directly. Later, I needed a Garmin interface to allow my watch to talk to MapMyRun. And now I need a Garmin program and my watch can only talk to it, but I can sync my Garmin account with my MapMyRun account, so data shows up both places.

Eventually, Garmin will stop supporting interface between their program and my watch, and at that point, I will not be able to get data off my watch at all. It doesn't matter if my connection points are still un-corroded, the watch will behave as if they aren't.

It seems to me there is natural obsolescence, which is what most physical products experience, and then there is forced obsolescence, which is what digital products experience. The physical watch will experience natural obsolescence, when the materials wear out and stop working. When my sweat corrodes the connection points, that will be natural obsolescence. But when someone at Garmin decides to make certain keystrokes which then renders my watch unable to function how it used to function, this is forced obsolescence.

When that happens, Garmin will have taken a product I own and removed value from it, possibly so much that it becomes worthless. This is a new state of the world; in the pre-digital world, the manufacturer couldn't do anything to remove value once you owned the item. They could possibly engineer the item to have an expected lifespan, which was called planned obsolescence, but there was no guarantee they got it right.

I think Garmin's response to my complaint would be, "Our calculations show that the item has depreciated to a value of zero by this time, so we owe you nothing." But it doesn't seem logical that I can take a working item you own, perform actions that then make the item non-working, and say that I took no value from you. And I think that's reflected in the fact that we accept natural obsolescence as an unfortunate result of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but we feel cheated when we experience forced obsolescence.

(NOTE TO SELF: never again write a blog post that requires you to type the word "obsolescence" so much.)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Take a Calling, Any Calling

Just a short note of complaint. I'm currently filling three callings (two formally, one informally) and my wife is filling two (one formally, one informally), and it makes it really hard for me to be charitable when members of my ward with zero callings repeatedly decline invitations to serve. If you are a Mormon and you don't have a calling right now, please go to your priesthood leader and ask for an opportunity to serve. You need it, and your ward definitely needs it.

I Like America

Recently I was lecturing on investment and capital accumulation in developed and developing nations. I told my students about the experience I had going for a long car trip on an American road after living in China for two years. I said my impression was, "This place used to be rich." "Rich" because you can see the enormous investment that the American highway system was, and "used to be" because it's all crap now.

There were two reactions. The Trump supporters in class were offended that I had anything bad to say about the country. Their default setting is "I love America."* The Trump-delusional haters in class thought I was agreeing with their default setting, which is "I hate America."

I don't love America and I don't hate America. I like America. I'm not blind to its faults, but I don't think its faults somehow invalidate the entire place.

There are things wrong here. Fewer things than in most other places. Things that are serious and need immediate attention. Things that don't mean America is terrible. All of those statements can be true at the same time.

I see the "I like America" view as being rejected by both extremes. Because I don't completely love the place, I'm suspect. Because I don't completely hate the place, I'm suspect. I'm rejected by both sides. My wife was recently telling me about an acquaintance she has, and she said, "I can tell we wouldn't agree politically." I said, "How? We don't agree with Republicans or with Democrats these days."

I want there to be more acceptance of the "I like America" view. Maybe that name would be better for the political party I always wanted to start, instead of my previous planned name, the Classical Liberal Conservative Party (CLCP).

* = In class a few weeks ago, I somehow ended up asking, "Where would you rather live, the nicest neighborhood in Orlando or the worst neighborhood in Paris?" It seemed most of the class would prefer the worst neighborhood in Paris, but one guy said loudly, "I'd never live outside the United States." I reminded him that I had lived in China, that it wasn't that bad, and that I'd do it again. He disengaged from the class and has spent the last few lectures reading Stephen King's It or sleeping.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My Experience As an Adult in Youth Soccer

I don't want to talk about last night. And I don't know when that will change.

So instead, I'll talk about part of the problem that led to last night: youth soccer in the United States.

I played soccer for probably seven years or so when I was growing up. I didn't really enjoy it. The game we were playing was very rigid (this is your area of the field you're allowed to range in) and our practices were designed to help us win games, not gain skills. I started as a defender, but when I got a little older and grew into an endurance runner, I got moved to midfield. Which required an endurance runner because the defenders never left the back third of the field and the forwards never left the front third. I had to run after every ball a defended cleared into space, but I didn't have any ball-handling skills to do anything if I every actually got to a ball. My birthday is in the last week of the calendar year, and our teams were determined by birth year, so I was consistently the youngest kid on my team. My parents wanted me to play two sports a year, and when I got to be about 12, I talked them into allowing me to switch to basketball in the fall. I spent the next five years of my life thinking that soccer was a lame sport.

When I was 17, I went to a church activity where we played an informal game of soccer. Running around, not worrying about tactics and positioning and outcome, I really enjoyed it. What's more, it turned out I wasn't bad. There were three boys from our high-school team there, and they were very complimentary, telling me I should try out for the team that year. I didn't end up doing that, but it was the cause of a realization of mine: I didn't hate soccer, I hated youth soccer.

About fifteen years later, I had children of my own who wanted to play soccer. The first season they played at a local church because we couldn't afford the recreational league, but then the league shut down their sports program because they didn't want to become a giant rec league for the city's poor people. Then it took us a year to be able to plan our finances so that we could afford the registration fee for three kids to play recreational soccer. This wasn't the travel team or anything, this was neighborhood kids in the local park. My son was assigned to a random team, which evidently hardly anyone in the league did. Most players asked for their previous coach, and there was no draft or random process to even-out teams. The coach of the all-star team was a coach of one of the regular teams, and he had the all-star kids from the previous year make sure they were on his regular team "so they could get practice playing together." My son's team was heavy on positioning and tactics, and I saw that nothing had changed in youth soccer in 20 years. Except the cost was now five times what it was when I was younger.

The next season (the league ran two seasons so kids could be year-round soccer players, unlike when I played in the fall and then had to play baseball or run track in the spring), my son's age group needed another coach. I had notified the league that I was willing to be an assistant coach, figuring after a few times doing that, I'd be ready to be a head coach. But they needed a head coach, so they talked me into it.

That's when I found out that the problems I had with youth soccer weren't really based on the league (aside from the astronomical cost). The league was great. They had technical directors who worked with the coaches to teach us what we were supposed to be teaching the boys, and it wasn't positioning or tactics at all. It was all skills drills. The league wanted us to not worry about winning games with eight-year olds, but instead to worry about creating the American Messi. ("Messi is American, jackass!" Yeah, not how everyone else in the world understands the word "American.") A kid with skills can learn tactics later, but a kid taught tactics will never have the skills to implement them. They did a great job holding training sessions, teaching us the skills and the drills to reinforce those skills, so that we could share them with the kids in practice.

The problem: parents aren't interested in their kids learning skills, they are interested in their kids winning. I would rotate kids through positions and the parents would get angry. They wanted the "good" kids playing forward every time. I would split playing time evenly and the parents would get angry. They wanted the "good" kids on the field as much as possible. I would evaluate games based on skillful play and the parents would get angry. They evaluated games based on winning. We didn't win any games I coached and that made me a bad coach (and the fact that they won the game I wasn't at was conclusive proof).

I only coached that one season. I would have done more, but I couldn't afford to register our kids for soccer again. My kids are now 15, 13, nine, and five. The three oldest kids only played three seasons of soccer (one in the church league, and two in the recreational league). The youngest has never played. I was going to register them for this fall, but when I went to find out information in August, it turned out that the season that began in September had registration in June. And it would be over $600 for all four of our children to play. And for what? For an emphasis on positioning and tactics? So they can grow up thinking that they hate soccer? I don't need to go broke for that.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reintroduction to Chinese Culture

I learned some lessons from my two years spent living in China. The biggest one was this: it doesn't matter that they've promised you food at this meeting, you still shouldn't go. Because the food will be 30% great, 30% weird, and 40% downright disgusting, and you won't even get to the food until after so many speeches! And every single meeting will be hosted by a panel of people like you're watching the New Year's Gala, and they will signal the end of each segment by saying something in unison.

Well, I've been back in the U.S. for over a year now, and maybe it was time away, or maybe it was the fact that I'm not in China, but I forgot this lesson when our family had the chance of going to the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration hosted by the Confucius Institute. I was eagerly anticipating the event.

Here's the good news: the event per se was not bad, aside from long (five hours?! by the end they should have called it the Late-Autumn Festival, amirite?). There was only one MC, not four, and he kept the speechifying to a minimum (which, for a Chicom, means under 15 minutes). And the food proportions were an unbelievable 85/15/0. But the Chinese audience members were crazy rude, ignoring all directions, talking over top of the program (including three grade-school kids reciting Confucius--how heartless do you have to be to talk over top of a kid doing a recitation?), and crashing the food line that required an RSVP that many of them did not provide.

Eventually, my wife and I ended up in a battle of wills with the assistant director of the program, who was dishing out the pepper chicken. She and I both tried several times to get more out of the guy, and he tried to hoard it all for later. 中秋节快乐!

The Walmart Equilibrium

Walmart has increased the pay of employees, with the following results: better customer service ratings and higher revenue, but stagnant profit. So basically customers are pleased to pay the money needed for the wage increases, but the shareholders are not seeing a benefit.

Anecdotally, our local Walmart has fewer front-end workers than ever. No matter the time of day, no more than four of the stores 30 registers are open, and on my last three trips I have only had two registers available. The line now takes longer than the shopping. "Just use the self-checkout line." On one of the trips, the self-checkout line was just as backed up, and on another of the trips, the entire self-checkout area was closed.

More troubling to me, though, is the amount of wasted food I see around the store. Customers are regularly taking refrigerated or frozen goods, carting them around the store for a while, and then leaving them in another location. With the increased labor costs, it seems "go-backs" are a thing of the past. When I was a bagger at Albertson's, go-backs were my favorite part of the day (a break from bagging), and perishable items were put back immediately. If a customer decided to not buy that gallon of milk, the cashier got on the phone to announce a bagger was needed ASAP. But now at Walmart, the clerk just sets it aside, where it will spoil. Walmart is losing less money from food wastage than from hiring enough staff to put the food back.

Would that that was the only problem. No, the real problem is this: what if they eventually do put the food back, after it's sat out for an hour or so? On our most-recent Walmart trip, my wife and I saw three packages of turkey breasts that had been abandoned around the store. Who knows how long they've been there. Assuming an enterprising Walmart employee finds them and returns them, they are now available for a customer to purchase and consume. So perishable items at Walmart now come with a non-zero probability that they've spoiled and been re-refrigerated. In the past two months, my wife and I have had two containers of sour cream that, upon opening, were already moldy.

Walmart is all about keep costs as low as possible. For most of its recent history, that meant sticking the employees with worse outcomes. Now that social pressure is mounting to increase the employees' outcomes, it appears Walmart is shifting the losses onto the customers. This appeases the social groups mounting the pressure, since they aren't really from the Walmart target demographic, anyway. The core customer base is probably not going anywhere. My wife and I are now talking about doing more shopping at a grocery store with prices about 5% higher, because the chance of buying rotten food there is zero. And all of this means that, if Amazon can deliver non-spoiled perishable items for anywhere near Walmart prices, their purchase of Whole Foods can be a giant success.

Monday, October 09, 2017

What My Community Believes to Be True

Somehow we ended up getting the local newspaper last week. Since I don't check any local news sources, here's an event I otherwise would never have known. After a late-night city council meeting, a member of the council was pulled over because his license plate was in a registry of stolen tags. He had reported the license plate stolen last year after receiving red-light-camera tickets while his car was in the shop, but when he was asked about it this night, he had forgotten that. So an officer from Jacksonville Sheriff's Office sees a license plate reported stolen and the driver says he didn't make such a report--that's going to take some time to straighten out.

However, the city council member, Reginald Gaffney, pulls the DYKWIA card, telling the officer he shouldn't harass him because Gaffney helped increase the sheriff's office's budget last year, then calling the sheriff on his cell phone and handed it to the officer. Because Gaffney was leaving a late-night city council meeting, his traffic stop was witnessed by other council members leaving the same area. One of them, Katrina Brown, also stopped. She can be heard in the background of the video captured by the officer's body camera, claiming racial profiling (both Gaffney and Brown are black).

So we have a DYKWIA card played and a race card played, all within the span of a legitimate traffic stop. (Honestly, the most unbelievable part of this entire story is that anyone from JSO pulled over a driver at all.) But the part that angers me the most is what happened later, after someone from JSO leaked the body-camera footage to the media. This was when citizens learned that Brown comes upon a white officer stopping a black motorist and immediately claims racial harassment without knowing anything about what's going on. When asked if she wanted to apologize for her accusations of racism, Brown "refused and said she was reflecting what her community feels."

The standard by which we measure truth should be, you know, truth, not what a community feels to be true. Part of the reason her community feels this is because of a tendency to see all police interactions in this light. I'm not saying there are no racial problems in American law enforcement, but such accusations should be saved for legitimate instances to help preserve the outrage we should employ to address such actual instances. A guy driving a car with a license plate that has been reported stolen is not racial profiling, and calling it such does two negative things. First, it leads to outrage fatigue, making it less likely we can marshal social opinion against actual instances of police misconduct. Second, it contributes to a community feeling that can sometimes--like this time--be at odds with the facts.

I know we're in a world where a white guy can't have an opinion about police treatment of minorities, but here's my opinion: police have to turn their adrenaline up to 11 at a moment's notice, and then cut it off just as quickly, and physiologically that's pretty impossible to do. As a result, you're going to have a lot of amped-up cops around, and if you're going to get shot by the police, it's going to be an amped-up cop who does it. So knowing that any police interaction has the potential of turning violent for seemingly no reason, it seems a citizen should go out of his way to calm the officer and deescalate the situation. Basically, we all have to be hostage negotiators when we interact with the police. Now, what's the best way of deescalating a traffic stop: complying with everything the officer asks, or beginning the confrontation by threatening the officer's job with accusations of racism and phone calls to the sheriff?

I know there's this counterargument: comply with the officer and he plants evidence on you, or uses your statement against you. I'm a libertarian-leaning classical liberal, so I'm sympathetic to the "never talk to the police" argument. But I think the likelihood of a truly bad cop is much lower than the likelihood of a good cop amped up on adrenaline. Both will ruin your life, but it makes sense to respond in a way that, much more frequently, will be the logical response. And it never makes sense to undermine our rational society by insisting that truth is whatever your community wants it to be.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Trial By Combat in Academia

One more point about any field that can be categorized as "an unusually monolithic community" written about by Lee Smolin and applied to macroeconomics by Paul Romer. A few months ago on Twitter, environmental reporter Alexander Kaufman tweeted about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposing a plan to have competing teams of climate scientists debating each other. Emily Graslie, a sort of scientist/spokeswoman for Chicago's Field Museum (I'm not sure how to succinctly categorize what she does, and her own categorization of Chief Curiosity Correspondent probably doesn't help anyone who's not already familiar with her work), responded, saying, "This system already exists. It's called peer-review. We move forward when we work together- not by creating combative teams inspiring doubt."

This view of Graslie's strikes me as so antithetical to the scientific method. Peer review within an unusually monolithic community cannot be trusted. Romer writes of examples, like when Robert Lucas espouses views in conflict with those of Ed Prescott, but writes in favor of Prescott's views when they are explicitly associated with Prescott. Yes, I'm aware of the structure of the peer-review system, where the referees are anonymous to the author and vice versa, but the authors and referees are not anonymous to the editors, and the editors are not sequestered away from the community as a whole. A climate scientist wanting to have a successful career knows the conclusions a paper should reach and knows not to reach other conclusions and knows not to point out holes in logical arguments, even if the whole process is anonymous.

I replied to Graslie, "Peer review should be based on doubt, not working together. Peer review advances science; working together advances careers." Graslie replied, "Well-reasoned scientific doubt- yes. Unnecessarily fanning the flames of public mistrust- no."

I still don't see the harm of Pruitt's approach. As the scientific community is supposed to be pursuing objective truth, not consensus, then it resembles another system for determining truth, the legal system. Courts operate on the principle of having combative teams, one of which is specifically supposed to fan the flames of public mistrust. When defenders defers to prosecutors because "I'm sure they know what they're doing," injustice is done. A vigorous defense is necessary to have confidence in any decision for the prosecution. What harm is done by having a public debate between climate change factions if, in fact, climate change deniers are wrong? Isn't it better to have their best arguments soundly defeated? Remember the climactic scene of Inherit the Wind (did everyone watch that movie in junior high as much as I did? I feel like it was our permanent substitute teacher for two years), when Bryan's case falls apart precisely because it is heard in public in its entirety.

Graslie works just six miles up the road from maybe the most-famous site of combative colleagues, the University of Chicago's Department of Economics. "Go along to get along" will not be something you see in their new museum. What fields like string theory, macroeconomics, and climatology need is more combative teams inspiring doubt.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Conservation of Belief

In U2's song "The Last Night on Earth," Bono sings "the less you know the more you believe." I think most people, both believers and non-believers, would see this as a criticism of belief, but I don't think it necessarily is. After all, isn't this basically what Alma is saying to the Zoramites when he says "your knowledge is perfect in that thing and your faith is dormant"? Knowledge and belief are substitutes, and when you have more of one, you have less of the other. Moroni says of the Brother of Jared, "he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting." This trade-off between faith and knowledge is what Jack Johnson (the singer, not the boxer) is getting at in his song "It's All Understood" when he sings, "even if we don't understand / then let's all just believe." But the common perception that this view is a criticism of belief is what makes Johnson finish the song by singing, "There you go once again / you missed the point and then you point / your fingers at me / and say that I said not to believe."

Yesterday when I was reading Paul Romer's article "The Trouble With Macroeconomics," I thought of this when I read Romer summarizing the characterization by Lee Smolin of string theorists. Many in the intellectual community wish to present themselves as being sufficiently enlightened that they no longer rely on belief, to the point where believing academics feel like they have to explain their intellectual deficiency. (In the past week I've read Russ Roberts writing about this, but I cannot find it anywhere right now.) However, it appears as if they still believe in stuff, it's just different stuff. String theorists and macroeconomists might be nearly-universally agnostic on religion, but not on the assumptions of string theory and macroeconomics.

Is there a conservation of belief? If there is a basic human need to believe in stuff, then when "rational" people stop believing in whatever they determine to be baseless fairy tales, they will adopt new beliefs in some other field. So many left-leaning agnostics and atheists have just shifted their beliefs from God, which is "foolish," to the state, which is "rational." And many right-leaning agnostics and atheists have shifted to a belief in "markets," which are rational.

I don't know enough to tell you if anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, but I can tell you that people arguing on both sides of the issue have all the markers of believers, but only one side looks down their nose at those they consider "believers." If even the world's most hard-core rationalists end up with dogmatic belief in rationalism, maybe there's an element of human nature that won't allow us to jettison some belief without replacing it with another.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

"Everybody Knows Macroeconomists Are Just Witch Doctors, Anyway"

One of my grad school professors (a well-known economist whom I won't identify here because I haven't checked with him to see if he wants this quote attributed to him) once gave us career advice. He said,

When you go on the job market, tell everyone your field is applied micro, because everything can reasonably be said to be applied micro, unless you're a macroeconomist, but even then don't tell people that, because everybody knows macroeconomists are just witch doctors, anyway.
I thought of that quote as I read Paul Romer's article "The Trouble With Macroeconomics."* Now that I've read it, here are some interesting bits I wanted to make note of for later. "I don't care about your notes, fool; this is Blogger, not Evernote!" Can it. I don't care.

  • "The noncommittal relationship with the truth revealed by these methodological evasions and the 'less than totally convinced...' dismissal of fact goes so far beyond post-modern irony that it deserves its own label. I suggest 'post-real.'" (p. 5)
  • "The current practice in DSGE econometrics is feed in some FWUTV's [facts with unknown truth value] by 'calibrating' the values of some parameters and to feed in others [sic] tight Bayesian priors." (p. 6)
  • "The software package barfed. (Software engineers assure me, with a straight face, this is the technical term for throwing an error.) [...] The accepted usage seems to be that one says 'the model is identified' if the software does not barf. [...] So in the absence of any additional information, the elasticity of demand produced by each of these identified-in-the-sense-that-the-softward[sic]-does-not-barf models is meaningless." (p. 9)
  • "The Smets-Wouters model, which has 7 variables, has 72 = 49 parameters to estimate and only 7 equations, so 42 FWUTV's have to be fed in to keep the software from barfing." (p. 10)
  • "It is better to have a meaningful estimate with a larger standard error than a meaningless estimate with a small standard error." (p. 11)
  • "In practice, what math does is let macroeconomists locate the FWUTV's farther away from the discussion of identification." (p. 12)
  • "With enough math, an author can be confident that most readers will never figure out where a FWUTV is buried. A discussant or referee cannot say that an identification assumption is not credible if they cannot figure out what it is and are too embarrassed to ask." (p. 13)
  • "One meta-question is why macroeconomists started invoking imaginary driving forces to explain fluctuations. [cites seven points Lee Smolin gives for "distinctive characteristics of string theorists" as follows] 1. Tremendous self confidence 2. An unusually monolithic community 3. A sense of identification with the group akin to identification with a religious faith or political platform 4. A strong sense of the boundary between the group and other experts 5. A disregard for and disinterest in ideas, opinions, and work of experts who are not part of the group 6. A tendency to interpret evidence optimistally, to believe exaggerated or incomplete statements of results, and to disregard the possibility that the theory might be wrong 7. A lack of appreciation for the extent to which a research program ought to involve risk
  • "In physics as in macroeconomics, the disregard for facts has to be understood as a choice." (p. 16)
  • "A model that explains why I make different choices should trace them back to different preferences, different prices, or different information." (p. 20)

* = Fun fact: I printed this article to read over a year ago, and it wasn't until today that I was sufficiently un-depressed and non-anxious that I could sit down and read it how normal people sit down and read the things they want to.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Mindfulness and Temptation

Mindfulness is said to teach you how to notice your thoughts and resist inhabiting them. Most people are subjects to their thoughts instead of masters of them. The idea is to practice thinking of nothing (or of one thing, such as your breathing), and this will help you develop the ability to dismiss counter-productive thoughts when they come.

I've written a little about a blogger I follow who seems to be going off the rails. Because my wife is an amateur cyber-stalker, when I mentioned him to her she immediately looked up his Facebook page, where he recently acknowledged that he was no longer associated with his church because his recent line of thinking--mainly about mindfulness and meditation and the experience of God through mysticism--had led him away from positions espoused by the church leadership.

Isn't this exactly what mindfulness is supposed to help with? Dismissing counter-productive thoughts instead of embracing and inhabiting them? Instead, he's had some heterodox ideas about mysticism and he's decided to remake his identity around them.

For what it's worth, here's my take on meditation and mysticism: I think meditation is probably practiced by many more church leaders than speak about it publicly. Doctrine and Covenants 138:1 describes Joseph F. Smith's meditation, and 138:11 is a dictionary definition of a mystical experience. I've written before about the notion that Joseph Smith's First Vision might have been a mystical experience instead of a physical event seen with his eyes (my conclusion: we don't know, and it doesn't matter). Meditation can complement any religion without conflict. Hugh Nibley's essay Zeal Without Knowledge mentions the benefit of having a brain that can only entertain one conscious thought at a time, and meditation helps you control what that conscious thought is at a given moment. After all, the process of resisting sin is the process of having a thought and not inhabiting it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Lying Profile Pictures

We have a guy in our ward who has a small profile picture associated with his e-mail address. The picture is easily 20 years old. You don't look at it and think, "That's what that guy looks like." Instead, you think, "I guess that's what that guy used to look like a long, long time ago."

It made me start worrying about the truthfulness of my profile pictures. The picture associated with this blog is from 2007. Is it dishonest of me to still use it? Am I approaching the same situation that the guy from my ward is in?

My Twitter profile picture is not much better--it's from 2009. Only my Facebook picture is from the past five years, and that's because it's an illustration of me my daughter drew three years ago.

Last night when I got home from work, I turned on the television and on came an episode of Wild Kratts. My kids had already seen it, so they went out to play on the driveway, and I couldn't be motivated to change the channel or turn off the TV, so I watched Wild Kratts. And it made me feel a little better about my profile picture situation, because if my pictures are slightly dishonest, the Kratt brothers' cartoon avatars are criminally misleading.

The man on the right is 48 years old. The man on the left is 51.

I get what's going on, with trying to make the cartoons relateable to their target audience. And gone are the days when kids would watch Bob and Gordon on Sesame Street. When I was a kid, I was fine with it. Everyone over 15 was all equally ancient, so they might as well have filled the show with a dozen Mr. Hoopers. So I'm not criticizing the Kratts. I'm just saying that, if they can get away with their avatars, I'm going to keep my profile pictures for at least another decade.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Ode to the "Middle Man"

I've written before about the slowly-unfolding train wreck that is Bryce Haymond's new blog. (It's recently gotten worse. "I believe all of our intelligence, memories, and DNA code are found in our physical body, and when that physical body dies, all those things die and go to the grave with it." Um, D&C 93:29-30 and D&C 130:18-19 immediately come to mind.) Anyway, a few weeks ago, Bryce wrote a post about the seemingly needless complexity of the modern economy. And I disagree with virtually all of it.

Middle men add value because they have specialized knowledge that the manufacturer and the consumer either don't want to learn (knowledge is costly to acquire) or can't learn (knowledge is not concentrated; see Hayek's The Use of Knowledge in Society). When, as Haymond contends, a bottle of lotion is manufactured for $0.30 per bottle but retails for $7 per bottle, 96% of what you're paying isn't the spoils of capitalist roaders, but the returns to specialized knowledge held by the middle men.

Haymond claims, "there are also *many* in the supply chain that are simply buying the product and marking it up 40-50% and reselling it to the next guy, and doing little to nothing to add value in the process." This is just impossible under conditions of competition. Such arbitrage cannot persist without stiff barriers to competition. If I could buy a resource, add no value, and resell it for 40-50% more, what insane trading partner of mine would not go buy the resource from my source and save himself the giant markup?

It's especially curious that Haymond is worried about commodities, where the product of each supplier is as close as possible to a perfect substitute for the product of his competition. Maybe there's room to argue, like John Kenneth Galbraith, that brand-name product differentiation is wasteful. And I find it naive at best (and disingenuous at worst) for Haymond's recommended solution to the current capitalist model, Public Goods, to claim they bypass the brand, distributor, and retailer (when in fact they just include all three of those functions within their firm) and that they "sell all our products to you, with zero profit!" Accounting profit is the return to entrepreneurial talent, so if they are taking zero accounting profit, their management is not being compensated for their abilities. If instead they mean economic profit, any industry in equilibrium is experiencing zero economic profit, meaning, ceteris paribus, the firm is making no greater accounting profit than is available in any other industry. So either the management are fools who will starve and die, or they are hucksters stating a truism.

I agree with Haymond that the Internet is killing some of the traditional "middle man" roles. Haymond doesn't seem to understand that this then either leads to a decline in price or the accrual of those middle man profits to the owner of the Internet resources that have assumed that duty. The competitive marketplace has long solved most of the problems Haymond imagines to plague it. We don't need a special startup to save us from middle men, because the middle men do it for us themselves.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The American Republic Completed

For a country that got its start complaining about lack of access to democratic institutions, we sure aren't as worried as much as we should be about Americans who still don't have access to democratic institutions. I've written before about my proposed solution (Puerto Rico becomes a state, the residents of the District of Columbia get representation through Maryland, and the other territories--Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands--either get added to nearby states like Hawaii and Puerto Rico, become independent, or join nearby countries or territories like Northern Mariana Islands, Samoa, and the British Virgin Islands).

The problem with Puerto Rico has always been a paralysis caused by the presence of three options: continued commonwealth status, independence, and statehood. Their current budget problems can be seen as both enhancing the independence argument (a sovereign state can default on its debt) and undermining it (good luck borrowing money in the future when your entire raison d'être is debt repudiation). Tyler Cowen pointed out this week that the transition period would see the island's young people empty out even more than they already have. Does Puerto Rico remain the second-richest Caribbean nation as an independent state? I say no way. Especially considering Spanish-language Caribbean nations lag far behind English- and French-language nations in tourism and trade.

If independence is not a valid option, and continued commonwealth status is not in keeping with our democratic ideals, the only choice left is statehood. (Cowen wrote this week about the option of adding Puerto Rico to an existing state, but given how ossified American political boundaries are--try splitting a county or city sometime--and the governing challenges such a state would be assuming, I see that as a non-starter.)

Why aren't more Americans upset about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico? Well, because nearly half of Americans don't know Puerto Ricans are Americans. This makes it even more important for Puerto Rico to leave its special status and assume statehood, so Puerto Ricans get the attention they need and deserve.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Variation on the Lane Merger Optimality Argument

Driving in Jacksonville gives us plenty of opportunities to witness terrible drivers. For instance, here's an experience I had this morning.

Of course, when I put up my hand to signal, "Maybe you should rethink driving on the wrong side of a major highway and trying to run me over with your car," the driver put up his middle finger to signal, "I disagree."

Another recent experience I had can be used in the argument about the proper place to merge out of a lane that will be closed ahead. As I think I've mentioned before, this is a major source of contention in my extended family (and not just, "Ha ha, it's funny that you think that" contention, but "Why do you have to ruin Thanksgiving?!" contention). Here's the set-up of the question: when you are driving along a highway and see a sign that your lane will be closed ahead, when should you exit your lane? When you see the sign (Point A)? Or when the lane is closed (Point B)?

I argue for Point A. Here's my reasoning.

  1. Why did the highway department notify you at all? If the best place to merge is at Point B, they could have just let you stumble upon the lane closure.
  2. At Point A, you're traveling at normal speed. After the lane closure (Point C), you're traveling at close-to-normal speed. So it's not the absence of the lane that causes the standstill at Point B, but the transitioning from two lanes to one lane. At Point A, you can decelerate slightly (to the prevailing speed at Point C) and merge into an opening in the other lane. Thus we could move through Point B at Point-C speeds, if only drivers would merge at Point A.
  3. This would not merely move the standstill to Point A, because we're talking about merging when you have the chance while moving at close-to-normal speed, which is an option for every driver when he first sees the "Lane Closed Ahead" sign.

My family members who disagree espouse an argument, as close as I can tell, something like this:

  1. It eats me up inside when some other driver uses his car to take away my choice of whether to merge at Point A or Point B.
  2. Why would I sit in traffic from A to B when I can drive around the traffic?
  3. Screw you.
Now, here was my experience in Jacksonville. Traveling south on Philips Highway and preparing to turn right on Baymeadows Road, there is a very long right-hand turn lane.

I entered the turn lane when it began, at Point A. The lane was full and moving very slowly. Some drivers continued in the mainline lane to Point B, where they came to a stop and merged into the turn lane to complete their right-hand turn.

I realized that the existence of turn lanes is further evidence that my argument about lane mergers is correct. Refer to the following diagram, if you will. (And you will. This is my blog.)

As before, we have two lanes moving forward at Point A. And as before, we have only one lane going where you want to go at Point B. So if I'm not correct about the optimality of merging at Point A, we should all wait until Point B to get into the turn lane, right? But most of us don't do that, and most of us become angry at those who do. If it's improper to wait for the last moment to get into the turn lane, then it's improper to wait for the last moment to get in the still-open lane.

The Poverty of the Good-Enough

There are people who don't have anything to do with God, and succeed just on the strength of their talents, hard work, luck, and determination. And there are people who fully comply with the word of God, and succeed through the blessings of heaven. And then's there's me. I'm not talented enough to succeed on my own, but I'm not obedient enough to receive divine assistance. I'm just a mostly-good guy, and that doesn't get you anywhere in life.

Monday, September 25, 2017

My Auto Insurance Company Is Gaslighting Me

Our auto insurance premiums rose from $94 per month to $106 per month after a year of accident- and ticket-free driving. When we called the insurance company and asked why, they told us that it was the result of a change in Florida law, and that everyone in Florida experienced a similar increase.

You know how I know you're lying? A 13% increase in every Florida driver's auto insurance bills would have been something I would have heard about. It would have been a news story. My friends and acquaintances would have talked about it. This is not something everyone in Florida experienced. Stop lying to me.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Pre-Announced Visits by Church Leaders

Two weeks ago, Jacksonville experienced significant damage from wind and flooding associated with Hurricane Irma. Since then, our church has been heavily involved in the clean-up and recovery effort. Church on the 10th was cancelled because that was the day of the storm's arrival and it could be unsafe for people to leave home. Beginning on the 12th, we have been regularly working on debris removal. Most people were off work on the 12th and 13th, so those days it was an all-day effort, but since returning to work, it has been mostly evenings and weekends. Last weekend, local members were joined by members from throughout the Southeast, who camped on the church's back lawn and worked all day Friday through Sunday.

My current calling is in a ward leadership position where I receive planning and scheduling notices that are later shared with the ward members. Thursday the 14th, we received notice that President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency would be in Jacksonville that coming Sunday and attend a special stake-wide sacrament meeting. We were asked to publicize this information among the stake members.

Now, I'm sure the leadership knows what they're doing, but it seems to me there's a strong argument for NOT publicizing a visit like this before it happens. Here's my reasoning.

Where are stake members supposed to be on Sunday? In church. Not "in church because a high-up church leader is visiting," but IN CHURCH. If you're where you're supposed to be, you are there for the visit of President Eyring. But pre-announcing this turns it from a reward for faithfulness into a celebrity spectacle. Some people were there to see President Eyring, not to hear from the Lord's servant.

I get why someone might think this is still okay: come to see a church celebrity and now you're in the room to hear the Lord's servant. But I think of the Nephite experience recorded in 3 Nephi. Jesus arrived unexpectedly at the temple in Bountiful, not to a pre-announced meeting. The ones who got to have the experience were those who were at the temple because that was where they were supposed to be. Everything that Jesus teaches from Chapter 11 through 18 is only heard firsthand by those who were where they were supposed to be. Then, in 3 Ne. 19:2-3, the "come see a church celebrity" news is spread around, and the next day the larger crowd is taught by those who received the teachings firsthand the day before. And in the parable of the 10 virgins, the arrival of the bridegroom is immediate and only those already prepared are able to participate in what comes later.

My wife said, "If they didn't make it know, afterwards they'd have a lot of people mad that they missed it." And I said, "That's a pretty tough argument to make, saying, 'If you would have told me it was special, I would have done what I knew I was supposed to do.'" Isn't that what integrity is, doing what you're supposed to do ALL the time? And the reward for integrity is when one of those times turns out to be special. But it's not integrity when you say, "With advance knowledge of which time is special, I'll dust off my special behavior."

I get that this is probably jerky of me. Everyone has somethings that are easy and some things that are difficult. For me, being in the church meetings I'm supposed to attend is not difficult. Then, like a jerk, I say, "Screw the people who can't handle this as easily as I can!" But I sure don't want anyone to say, "Screw the people who can't handle the stuff A Random Stranger can't handle yet!" In THAT case, I say, "Give me some practice getting better, guys!" Like I said, I guess I understand that side of things: to get a child ready to be a responsible adult, you create a bunch of artificial scenarios for practice. Pre-announcing a visit can help people start a habit of being where they're supposed to be, so when it REALLY matters, they'll be there. But I dislike turning spiritual experiences into entertainment experiences, and I feel pre-announcing a visit from a church leader does just that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Real-Life College Students

Yesterday I was in my Chinese class. The instructor is a Communist Party hack from China (she's great, but she's still a Chicom shill), and the students are me and three college students. The instructor wanted to give us practice saying the numbers from zero to 10. She wrote the words on the board in numerical order, in both characters and Pinyin (the romanization system). We spent three minutes or so reading them in order. Then she had us give our telephone numbers in Chinese, then had some other students read them in Chinese.

The first student could not read the numbers, even though the words she needed were written on the board, in numerical order. The instructor pointed at the digit "1" and the student could not figure out that the word "yī" was written on the board in numerical order. If you can't remember "yī," just move along the list to the number one and read it.

Then, the instructor wanted us to practice saying various years. Surprise surprise, she "randomly" picked the year 1949 for us to say. Then she explained, "That is the year of the founding of New China." She invited, "Tell me in Chinese the year America was founded."

The "in Chinese" component was immediately ignored. The rest of the conversation occurred exclusively in English. The second student said, "I know it was sometime in the 1800s." The third student said, "No, the 1700s," but that was all he could add. The instructor wrote 1 and 7 on the board and awaited the rest. The students were stumped. The instructor tried to prime the pump with another 7. Yes, the Chinese lady knew the date of America's founding and the three American college students did not. Finally, I decided to end the misery by answering, "1776."


Monday, September 18, 2017

The Seventh-Best Swamp City in Northeastern Florida

We've been living in Jacksonville, Florida, for a little over a year now. I wouldn't say we hate it, but I would say we would happily move somewhere else if God saw fit to stop inflicting the punishment of making us live here.

Recently, my wife and I watched The Good Place on Netflix. One character is from Jacksonville, which led to this exchange.

Full disclosure: I have seen neither a Jet Ski nor a manatee since arriving in Jacksonville, but I have no doubt that, if both those things were in this town, they would be crashing into each other all the time. This is because the drivers are straight-up sociopaths. The actual number-one reason I don't want to live in Jacksonville anymore is the fear that we will die in an accident caused by a reckless driver. I have driven extensively in Los Angeles and Washington, two high-traffic metro areas, but it is only in Jacksonville that I am afraid of other vehicles every time I drive.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Great Moments in Female Positivity

I wrote sort of recently about how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is female positive (as opposed to feminist). Another example of female positive is Wonder Woman. Specifically, how Diana is a total bad-ass who saves all the men around her, but who goes gooey when she sees a baby in the street. She can be strong and still be female; she doesn't have to deny her biology. Instead of seeing the ideal female as a dude with boobs, female positive action heroes see the ideal female as still female.

Hurricane Eminent

It turns out my wife is a terrible person to have around when a natural disaster is coming. So maybe my whole "bring on the Apocalypse because this world sucks" attitude needs to change; if the Apocalypse were coming, she'd be very unpleasant to be around.

In the face of NEAR CERTAIN DEATH (as media reporting on Hurricane Irma would have me believe), I had this thought yesterday: does anyone use those sanitary toilet seat covers? 'Cause I'll be honest: I never do. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? It's not like I place an orifice on the toilet seat; it's just skin making contact with whatever is on the seat, and then I cover that skin back up for the rest of the day. I find it impossible that I could ever get sick from sitting my bare ass on a public toilet seat. And so there's no reason to use the cover. It's wasteful, and it is a hassle.

Sharing a toilet seat is like intertemporally pressing your bare ass against another person's, which would be weird, but no more dangerous than pressing your bare hand against another person's, which is something we do all the time. If you're worried about getting some human waste on you from the toilet seat, get some toilet paper and wipe down the seat before you start. I do do that if the seat is visibly soiled. But when it comes to the covers, I think they're stupid and pointless.

Am I wrong here? I'd be interested in your best counterargument.

REMINDER: The "math" label is the "science" label is the "healthcare" label. Deal with it.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Solar Eclipse Conspiracies

Our ward's gospel doctrine class can get, well, sidetracked. Quite easily. My favorite was when the teacher started the lesson by saying, "Once when I was in college there was a church member who was distributing pamphlets claiming to know when the Second Coming was going to be, and the church leaders in that area stopped that because it's inappropriate and untrue," and then ended the lesson by saying, "Personally, I think the Second Coming will be [a specific date!!!!!]."

Since then, it's just gone off the rails. For a while I would try to bring the conversation back to the lesson, but the thing is all the class members don't want to discuss the lesson material. They like it better this way. A friend of mine summed it up thus: "They want to be entertained."

A few weeks ago, the lesson was even more derailed than normal. Someone made a comment that there might be significance in the coincidence of both the eclipses of 2017 and 2024 will pass over portions of Missouri. I sighed so loudly my wife had to tell me to be quiet. The next day, my wife sent me this link about how the solar eclipse passed over seven locations in America called Salem. The author sees significance in the fact that the eclipses of 2017 and 2024 will both pass over Salem, Kentucky (although the actual centerlines of totality cross south of Carbondale, Illinois, over 50 miles away), and the proximity of Salem, Kentucky, to the New Madrid Seismic Zone and the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone (although not actually in either).

I told my wife that, if she brought this up in Sunday School, I would either applaud her or disown her. I can't decide which.

Further Tales of the Church Hobo

One feature of having our church in its surrounding neighborhood: a lot of interaction with hobos. For instance, the ward clerk routinely has to shoo away a hobo from the steps when he unlocks the building at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings. He's even gone so far as to tell the guy to sleep on different steps that won't need to be cleared off until 8:30, but the guy doesn't do it. Is that because a different hobo has already claimed those steps?

Once an enterprising hobo entered the building one evening during youth activities and camped out that night. He was discovered by a Seminary student using the restroom the next morning. So now Seminary students go to the restroom in groups, or else hold it until they get to school.

For some reason, these hobo stories have really captured Crazy Jane's imagination. She loves hearing a new church hobo story, and she often draws comics of her friend marrying the church hobo. Any unexpected change at the church she attributes to hobo action.

Today Crazy Jane came home from Seminary and excitedly reported that the ward owns a trailer, which we used to keep in the shed in the parking lot, but one time someone went to use the trailer and found a hobo living inside it. So now the trailer is kept at a member's house in a non-hobo-infested neighborhood.

In closing, before you get all "your church is so un-Christlike that you won't let hobos use your building like a resort spa," you should know that we HAVE mechanisms in place for helping needy people, but allowing them to use whatever they want is not one of those mechanisms.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Changing Minds

The on-going political rancor, and more recently the confrontations over Confederate monuments, has really brought home to me the need for sympathy and validation when trying to persuade people to change their minds. If you are unwilling or unable to acknowledge their current position as a valid response to their past experiences you will never gain their trust sufficient to allow them to change their minds. There's an element of vulnerability in conceding an argument, and I cannot be vulnerable with people I don't trust. You must be trying to convince me to think differently because you have my interest at heart, not your own.

For example, many of Donald Trump's fiercest critics cannot allow his supporters to be anything other than evil or stupid (or both). The critics who do manage to get past this are usually stuck on the next obstacle, which is to condescendingly say his supporters are misguided. This will never change anyone's mind. People react defensively when called evil or stupid, or when patronized. But where is the Trump critic willing to say to a Trump supporter, "Your support of Trump is a logical position for someone who has seen and experienced what you have, and had I experienced your same life experiences, I would probably be a Trump supporter myself"? That would be the beginning of a true dialog interested in bettering the country instead of what we have now, which is just an argument between parties interested in being right.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Life Is Hard

When I was a kid, I would hear people say, "Life is hard." I would think, "What's wrong with you, fool? Life seems downright easy." There's nothing hard about what is naturally happening with no required input. It would be life saying, "The rising of the sun is hard." No, it's completely effortless.

Later, I came to feel my life was hard. Everyone else's lives still seemed effortless to me, but mine was difficult, and at times downright herculean.

More recently, I've developed sufficient sympathy to see that everyone's life is hard. As Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." And now I'm beginning to wonder if maybe everyone's lives are too hard. It seems everyone I know is laboring under a weight too heavy to bear.

Younger me would probably say, "Quit your bellyaching." But this is the way things seem to me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

One-Dimensional Heroes

The hot thing to do right now in the United States is to demand the removal of statues of racists, right? So I figure I'll demand my school remove its statue of Mohandas Gandhi.

"Wait, what?" Well, that's what is going on in Ghana right now.

People are multi-faceted. Terrible people can do wonderful things, and vice versa. But we tend to collapse our public figures down to one dimension, especially once they've died. "Lincoln freed the slaves," we say, and gone is Lincoln the failed businessman, Lincoln the country lawyer, Lincoln the depressive, Lincoln the statist. When anything else remains, it's trivia, like Lincoln the boy who read a lot.

The problem with our myopic view of heroes is when our attention shifts from one aspect of their lives to another. Washington the Father of the Country will be swamped by Washington the slaveholder, and we will either tear down the Washington Monument or re-purpose it.

There was a time when states could resist Martin Luther King Day on the basis of King's Communism and adultery. That quickly went away as King was reduced to one dimension: civil rights icon. Arizona lost the Super Bowl when they refused to submit to the one-dimensional portrayal of King. If King was nothing but a civil rights icon, the only reason to refuse to honor him must be opposition to civil rights.

Does this mean that every statue of a Confederate general should remain? When the people can only see one dimension of a hero's life, and when that one dimension held in the public consciousness changes from something noble to something ignoble, then it appears correct to remove the statue. Otherwise, it looks like we are celebrating the ignoble. But a better solution is seeing multiple dimensions of public figures' lives.

I used to say I had no heroes, because there was always something "wrong" with everyone. If I said Winston Churchill was a hero of mine, would I be supporting his colonialism, his boorishness, his insensitive treatment of Clementine, his weird penchant for nudity? I finally learned the value of venerating not the man as a complete man, but venerating his noble accomplishments. I can say Churchill is a hero of mine for the way he resisted Communist and Fascist tyranny.

This is important for Mormons to realize because, honestly, Joseph Smith did some weird stuff. But being a prophet doesn't mean you never did anything weird. Church members who think recognition of Joseph Smith as a prophet involves approving of everything he ever did, when they find out about something questionable, throw the whole thing overboard. Instead, I see evidence of the grace of God in the weird bits of Joseph's life; if God can work with a flawed man like Joseph, there might be hope for a flawed man like me, after all.

I don't really think my school should remove its Gandhi statue, because Gandhi doesn't mean "racist" here the way it does in Ghana. But the world would be better served if we could learn to be charitable to our public figures, to celebrate their great traits without ignoring their bad ones.

Personally, one benefit I see of statues revering Confederates is plurality of political thought. You don't have to subscribe to the government's view of things in America. What other nation has public statues honoring traitors? If Americans see Confederates as only slaveholders, then we need to replace these statues with some honoring non-slaveholding traitors who can be revered for their commitment to what they understand to be right. Basically, we need more statues of Edward Snowden.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Variance of Speed in the Fast Lane

I know we were only out of the country for two years, so it might seem ridiculous for us to talk about how much things changed, but remember that when we left America in August 2014, Bruce Jenner was a reality TV figure, and when we returned in July 2016, Caitlyn Jenner was a national inspiration. When we left, Donald Trump was a punchline on some of the finest blogs money can buy, and when we returned, he was the presidential nominee of a major political party. My point is, it was a two-year period that saw some major changes.

Not only has the country undergone massive change, but we are living in the South for the first time. As a result, my wife and I find ourselves constantly responding to distressing new events by wondering, "Maybe this is the way America is now, or maybe it's just the South that was always this way." For instance: sociopath drivers. Before we left, you would sometimes have the odd car weaving around in a reckless manner, but all the other drivers were outraged. Now, reckless driving is de rigueur. Is this how all of America rolls now, or is it only the South? Every time we drive to the temple in Orlando, we are driving 80 miles per hour in a 70-miles-per-hour zone and having our lives endangered by a series of drivers who are incensed if they have to go slower than 90.

And Florida's not the worst of it. Going north for Thanksgiving last year, we found each state worse than the previous until we reached North Carolina, where I-95 was reserved exclusively for drivers with a death wish. A few months later, I read this story about a deadly accident on I-95 at the Carolinas border. I don't feel safe driving on highways in the South.

Monday night we were returning from South Carolina, driving on I-95 in Georgia. I noticed that the inside lane, typically thought of as the "fast lane," was experiencing great speed variance. While the slow lane was moving along at 65 to 70, and the middle lane was holding steady at 70 to 75, the fast lane was rapidly changing from 80 to 60 and back again. What was happening?

Sociopath drivers were weaving between the middle lane and fast lane, allowing insufficient following distances when they entered the fast lane, requiring the drivers they'd cut off to brake suddenly. Speeds dropped, then returned to normal until the next reckless driver did the same thing.

What's more, this created additional motivation to participate in this activity. When you're in the fast lane and having to take emergency actions to avoid the car in front of you, and seeing the middle lane moving at a constant speed, you use the middle lane to weave around the cars in front of you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Arkansas Provincialism

Our family likes to keep track of the license plates we see while we're on road trips (and since we are attempting to visit every county in the country, we go on a lot of road trips). One thing I've noticed is that we always end up looking for the same difficult-to-see license plates at the end of each trip. What's interesting is that it's not necessarily connected to state population.

Of course it's easy to see a state's license plate in that state, and should be easy to see it in a neighboring state. But what explains the differing difficulty in seeing an Arkansas license plate and seeing a Mississippi license plate? Their populations are nearly identical and they share a border. Once you are outside their immediate area, you should expect to see their license plates with equal frequency. But I can tell you that Arkansas is substantially harder to see than Mississippi is.

Why are people from Arkansas so much less likely to drive around the country? Maybe they are much poorer than Mississippians. Except they're not. While both states are in the bottom three when it comes to median household income, Arkansas is ahead of Mississippi. My wife thinks it might be a reflection of less urbanization, that city folk travel more than country folk do, so Arkansas must be more rural than Mississippi is. But I don't think that's true. The largest urban area in both states is Memphis, and since that covers parts of three states, let's just ignore it for a moment. The second-largest urban area in each state is the state capital, and Metro Little Rock is larger than Metro Jackson. Arkansas's third-largest urban area, Bentonville, is larger than Mississippi's third-largest urban area, Gulfport. Unless Metro Memphis is substantially skewed towards Mississippi and away from Arkansas, I'd say Arkansas is the more urban of the two states. (Mississippi is a denser state, but that's because it's a smaller state, which is not necessarily an indication of urbanization.)

So what about Metro Memphis? Is that where all the globe-trotting Mississippians live? Well, I don't think so. While it's true that the Mississippi portion of Metro Memphis is larger than the Arkansas portion, we can see here that the total population of Arkansas's metro areas is larger, and this is still true if we limit ourselves to only looking at Arkansas's largest metro areas. ("Arkansas's largest metro areas" is not a phrase that has ever been written before.)

If it's not a matter of affluence, and it's not a matter of urbanization, is it a question of interconnectivity? I don't think so, because I think Arkansas's connection to the Interstate Highway System is better than Mississippi's. I-20 and I-59 aren't providing the access to the rest of America that I-30 and I-40 provide.

Then it must be a result of state taxation regimes, right? Like how lots of truck fleets are registered in Indiana, and all U-Hauls are registered in Arizona. Mississippi must have a much more favorable registration process for motor vehicles. Except it doesn't seem like that's true, either. Arkansas has over 100,000 more registered vehicles. Given that the states are of nearly-identical populations, and that Arkansans have only slightly-higher incomes than Mississippians, that's quite a difference.

The only explanation I have left is this: Arkansans are more provincial than Mississippians.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


I was reading this article about Puerto Rican statehood (because I care deeply about "Despacito"), and I read this paragraph:

Puerto Rico’s large debt might be one factor that makes its quest for statehood unattractive to mainland U.S. citizens. With a population of 3.5 million, the island’s debt load is worth $34,000 per person. That’s from a total of $123 billion in bonds and unfunded pension liabilities, which is expected to top 107 percent of gross domestic product by 2018, according to Forbes.
I immediately asked myself, "How does this compare to U.S. debt-per-person and U.S. debt-to-GDP?" After all, if "the island's debt load" is making Americans unwilling to embrace Puerto Rican statehood, it must be because it is excessive, right?

Well, debt per non-government-employee citizen is over $140,000 in the U.S., and the debt-to-GDP ratio is currently over 104%.

Try again, Roll Call. Puerto Rican debt is actually lower in per-capita terms, and only slightly higher in productivity terms. On these two metrics, Puerto Ricans are about as American as you can get.

Taylor Swift's Love of Bad Drivers

Yesterday was a family road trip (Eclipse!), so that means I have some more insights into the music of Taylor Swift.

Taylor's boyfriends are terrible drivers. Evidence:

  • "Style"

    Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights, long drive


    So it goes, he can't keep his wild eyes on the road

  • "Out of the Woods"

    Remember when you hit the brakes too soon? Twenty stitches in a hospital room.

  • "All You Had to Do Was Stay"

    All I know is that you drove us off the road

In the space of three songs, Taylor's boyfriends have driven without headlights, with insufficient attention to the road, with sudden braking, and without staying on the actual road. My daughter noticed the first two, and then I noticed the next one.

I feel like Taylor should go to traffic school. Not that she needs it, because none of these is about her driving, but she needs to meet the other students so she can start dating boys with better driving skills.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Everybody Sounds Old

Yesterday I watched a clip from a recent episode of The Simpsons. I haven't seen a new episode in three years because we haven't had television in a while. This clip was creepy because everyone, from the adults to the children, sounded old.

That's because all the voice actors are old.

Marge sounded like when they used to have episodes set in the future and Marge needed to sound like an old lady. Same thing with Homer. Miss Hoover sounded old. Even Lisa sounded old. I don't care how preternaturally young your voice sounds, when you get old you sound old.

Why not pull a Doctor Who and just reboot the voices? I just saw a preview for a Diary of a Whimpy Kid movie that doesn't shy away from acknowledging that they've recast all the parts. "New faces," it promised. Well, if The Simpsons wants to believably remain a show about late-thirties parents of three under-13 children, they need to do the same.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Parallel Stories

It's wrong in Les Miserables when Fantine loses her job at the factory because of decisions in her personal life. It has nothing to do with the factory if she had a child out of wedlock [Fantine was not married to Felix in the book; Hugo expected more humanity from his audience than did the musical's writers]. The manager is using public morality in an immoral way, seeking to damage her personally because she dared take an action that didn't comply with prevailing convention.

"No problems here."

It's wrong in America this week when Cole White lost his job at the hot dog stand because of decisions in his personal life. It has nothing to do with the hot dog stand if he marched in a white supremacy rally. The manager is using public morality in an immoral way, seeking to damage him personally because he dared take an action that didn't comply with prevailing convention.

"Whoa, slow down, racist!"

It was wrong when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. These works of art were the largest statues of the standing Buddha in the world, and it was wrong to view them solely as representing the ideology of the Buddha. The fact that Buddhism is part of Afghanistan's cultural heritage might not have been comfortable for the Taliban, but it is an historical fact and should have been preserved.

"Preach on, brother!"

It will be wrong when woke Americans succeed in destroying Stone Mountain in the future. This work of art is the largest bas-relief carving in the world, and it is wrong to view it solely as representing the ideology of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or Stonewall Jackson. The fact that slavery is part of America's cultural heritage might not be comfortable for Americans, but it is an historical fact and should be preserved.

"Wait, wut?"

It was wrong last month when Liu Xiaobo's brother felt the need to issue a statement distancing himself from his own relative and publicly supporting the group persecuting him. It is reflective of the intolerance of the ruling regime that the brother felt such a statement was needed to shield himself from the persecution directed at Liu. Ultimately, the need of the regime to have such a statement shows their inhumanity and single-minded tyranny of all who disagree with them.

"Exactly right."

It was wrong this week when Peter Tefft's father felt the need to issue a statement distancing himself from his own relative and publicly supporting the group persecuting him. It is reflective of the intolerance of the ruling social order that the father felt such a statement was needed to shield himself from the persecution directed at Tefft. Ultimately, the need of the social order to have such a statement shows their inhumanity and single-minded tyranny of all who disagree with them.

"Oh, but this was different because...."

What I shouldn't have to say is this: I do not support racism in general or white supremacy in particular. But these parallels are striking to me. The tyranny we rightly condemn elsewhere is still tyranny when used against racists here.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Least-Completed States

Several months ago, I blogged about which states I would say I'm "most" finished with. I had eight criteria I used:

  1. Have I visited the state?
  2. Have I visited every county in the state?
  3. Have I visited every neighboring state?
  4. Have I visited every neighboring county?
  5. Have I visited every county in every neighboring state?
  6. Have I visited the state capitol?
  7. Have I summitted the state high point?
  8. Have I visited every Mormon temple in the state?
The only political entity of the United States for which I've completed all eight criteria (if applicable) is the District of Columbia. Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia are all next closest (I have 13 more counties in Pennsylvania to visit). Also, I'll be completely done with Indiana once I visit my last 38 counties of Michigan. Ohio is held up by bordering both Pennsylvania and Michigan.

What about states I'm nowhere NEAR finished with? Well, Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Vermont are the only states that not only get answers of "no" for all eight criteria, but also are more than 10 counties away from completion or have more than one neighboring state I've not visited. (New Hampshire should be in this group, too, but since the state only has 10 counties total, it sneaks out. Also, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington would be in this group, but they each only have one neighboring state I haven't visited.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Nexus of Wussification and Anthrotheism

As people become less able to deal with the natural state of the world and more demanding of social attention to replace the attention they would have received from the God in Whom they've stopped believing, I predict the threshold for retiring tropical storm names will continually drop. "Sure, that storm didn't leave much death or devastation, but it devastated ME, so it needs to be treated as a major event."

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Faith in a Faithless Time

I believe I've written before about the difficulty of having an original thought. (Diligent research confirms this.) The vast majority of our thoughts are the product of the prevailing thoughts of our culture. If our language lacks a word for something, it is nearly impossible for us to think about that thing. I had a philosophy professor at BYU who argued that thought could not occur without language. (This is my memory of what he said 20 years ago in a class I failed, so I could be wrong here.) Class members contended infants thought outside language, but the professor said once we learn a language, our thought happens within language.

I believe I've also written before about how a weeding-out process could raise the faith of the average group member by removing those of below-average faith. (Yep, some here and more extensively here.) But it's not just a matter of raising the average of 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 by removing the 3; removing the 3 can allow the 4 to become a higher number.

It's really hard for me to have faith sufficient to be healed of my health problems when everyone around me is talking about how modern medicine that minimizes symptoms is how God heals people in modern times. The scriptures tell us of healings, not management of chronic conditions, and the scriptures are given to us to help us focus our faith. But they can't work when everyone around you is saying, "That's a metaphor."

Notice how Laman and Lemuel are always asking Nephi if scriptures are to be literally understood (like here and here). It's the ploy of the faithless to explain away religious truths as metaphors.

I find a sliver of hope in the life of Abraham. When all his kinsmen in the land of the Chaldeans had turned to the worship of false gods, Abraham remained faithful. So it can be done, but it's awfully difficult to do.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Time Constraints

A few weeks ago, my boss said to me, "Do you think you can teach this class you've never taught before that's pretty much outside your discipline?" When you're on renewable 10-month contracts like I am, there's really only one answer to that question: "Of course I can."

Last week, I got a much more demanding calling at church. (I'm not going to tell you which calling because you'd be all, like, "Really? THAT guy?" What can I say--our ward is pretty small.) I still have my old calling, which was fairly demanding in its own right. And there are some upcoming pressing needs in other areas of the ward, so I'm going to be double-duty-ing it for a while.

I still have my full-time job, and my summer "vacation" (read: unpaid leave) ends tomorrow.

I still have four kids.

I still am trying to learn Mandarin. I was supposed to take the second-level exam this summer, but we pushed it to October so we would have the money to go take it (it's 300 miles away).

I still have a dissertation I'm supposed to be writing.

So blogging has fallen down my list of priorities. Ideally, by the end of the year I have completed my dissertation, I know what I'm doing in this new class I'm teaching (or else I'm done with it and never have to teach it again), and I don't have the older of my church callings anymore. But until then, things might be slow.