Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas/Birthday/New Year's/Vacation/Medication Slow-Down

I'm just going to call a wrap on 2017 here. I've paid less attention to my blog for the past few weeks. This post's title gives the five reasons that's happened.

I have some good plans for 2018. Maybe we'll have to go back to calling this blog "A Random Stranger Is Kicking Life's Ass."

Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Take on "The Last Jedi"

Last week, I took my two oldest kids to see the new Star Wards movie. Then, having satisfied myself that it wouldn't be inappropriate for my 10-year-old son, I went back with him this week. (Tuesday matinees are half-price, and the two older kids had gift cards, so it's not like we're spending a ton of money on movie tickets.) So I've seen the movie twice, and I watched a bunch of YouTube reviews in between the two viewings. I had these thoughts after my second viewing.

Thar be spoilers ahead.

Most of the critical reviews I saw or read were focused on things like "we were promised we'd find out who Snoke is and instead he just died" or "we were promised we'd find out who Rey's parents are and instead they're nobodies." And I thought those complaints were warranted after one viewing, but now I don't feel that way. Because I think the way it took three times for us to get the truth about the Luke/Ben confrontation was priming us for an unreliable narrator. I now think we have to wait until the next movie to find out just how much of what we saw or were told in "The Last Jedi" turns out to be true.

Also, a lot of people are hung up on "The First Order is just the Empire with a different name," which was also something I thought after seeing "The Force Awakens." I thought, "It's pretty lame to just rerun the plot of 4-6, but it could have been a lot worse--they could have rerun the plot of 1-3!" But I now think that the First Order is an outside element that has conquered to Republic/Empire/Victorious Rebellion political entity. My evidence for that is the destruction of the capital in "The Force Awakens." (I thought it as Coruscant but a Reddit thread says the New Republic moved the capital off Coruscant.) Think of the difference between the barbarians that wanted to take over Rome versus those that wanted to destroy it. Those seeking to destroy were from completely outside the Roman social order, not just a segment of society that wanted to take over the structure. It would be a better explanation than "the Empire came back, but different," but it's not something we're going to get until we get an explanation of where Snoke came from, since he was leading the First Order. And I think we'll get that explanation, even if he's dead (but I don't know if he's really dead, because Darth Plagueis learned how to master death).

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Verbing of Nouns

I don't like when nouns get used as verbs, especially when there already exists a verb with an identical meaning. For instance, this Christmas season there's a television ad that says something like, "We'll give you two phones: one to gift, and one to keep." This new verb, "to gift," has no appreciable difference from the already-existing verb "to give."

In the past 10 years or so, the world of business has made a verb of the noun "task." So now, instead of "assigning" someone to do something, which sounds harsh and autocratic, we "task" someone to do something, which means the same thing, but hasn't had time yet to pick up the same negative connotations.*

The absolute worst is the verb "to utilize," which means, "I wanted to say 'to use' but I wanted to sound super smart at the same time."

Anyway, I was thinking today about the grammatical construction "I fooled you" and I realized with horror that the verb "to fool" probably began as the verbing** of the noun "fool." (Merriam-Webster's website says the noun "fool" is from the 13th century, but the verb "to fool" is from 1593, around 300-400 years later.) If we've been verbing nouns since the 1500s, I can't really get uppity about tasking someone to gift a phone and utilizing nouns to describe the action.

*: I suspect this is why we're constantly inventing new terms to refer to things like racial minorities and handicapped people. It used to be kind to call someone retarded. Now it's an insult. The problem isn't with the term, but with the mindset that wants to insult someone who is mentally handicapped. Instead of trying to change someone's mindset, which is hard, we just take the words away he's using to express himself and gain a respite until the new term carries the same connotations the old term had.

**: I'm using the noun "verb" as the verb "to verb" ironically. I would hope that's obvious, but you never know these days.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Quick Thanksgiving County Trip

The day after Thanksgiving, we drove around rural central Georgia. I got 24 new counties.

We wanted to stop for lunch, but the towns we were driving through had almost nothing. ("How DARE you?! Eat local, jackass!" Yeah, we tried that once, in Hanksville, Utah. We couldn't tell if the place was long-abandoned or currently open, the service was slower than the Chinese Internet, and the food was disgusting. Franchising allows for known quality levels, and franchisees are often local business-people, while the employees definitely are locals. So eating at a chain restaurant is eating local.) We were about to make do at a supermarket in Soperton, Georgia, but we pushed on. Eventually we ended up at a McDonald's in Louisville, Georgia. Aside from our time in China, when we ate at McDonald's about once each month, we are really not a McDonald's family. Our go-to food on driving trips is Subway or Chick-Fil-A. But all we could find in Louisville was McDonald's, so we stopped there.

I am aware that much of the following criticism of McDonald's makes me sound like an old man, but I'm going to share it, anyway.

The menu boards were all dynamic, so we had to stare at a board for 30 seconds to wait for the information we were reading to come back. Also, they were full of pictures of food, but not actually full of information needed to order said food. After several minutes of staring at the menu and not finding any useful information, we asked the clerk, "Does McDonald's not have a dollar menu anymore?" She turned and silently pointed to one of the menu boards. When it cycled around, we saw a short list of items. We asked, "It doesn't have cheeseburgers anymore?" She pointed to a picture of a cheeseburger next to the list of items. But the list didn't include a cheeseburger, and there was no indication anywhere that an item called a cheeseburger is available for purchase or how much money it costs. But aside from deficiencies such as that, the menu was LIT.

I'm not opposed to using a picture menu to order--that's how we ordered everything at McDonald's in China. But the Chinese picture menus featured everything for sale and listed prices. Also, the clerks in China spoke with us more more the clerk in America, even though (theoretically) we speak the same language as the American clerk (whether that is true in reality, sadly, we'll never know, as she maintained her vow of silence throughout our transaction).

AND...McDonald's is expensive now. If I want to pay $7 for a burger, I'm going to get a good one, not a McDonald's one.

Later, we ended up on this bridge.

Farther down the road, we stopped for gasoline in Abbeville, Georgia. The gas station attendant was a South-Asian woman who appeared to have immigrated very recently. She was very nervous about our interaction until the end, when she nailed a perfect, "Thank you, have a nice night!"

After hours of driving through the least-impressive parts of Georgia (read that again to understand just how damning the criticism it contains), we came upon the hometown of a friend of ours: Douglas, Georgia. We were prepared to be underwhelmed, but Douglas benefited heavily from the low expectations the rest of rural central Georgia had established, and we thought it was really nice.

The next day, some workers came to do something at our house. One of them saw the red mud on our car and said, "You look like you've been driving around in Georgia recently."

Desperation and Inspiration

I've been reading Revelations in Context lately, and a week or so ago I read one particular part that got me thinking. Of course, I can't find it now. It had something to do with the mother of an injured child being inspired how to care for him. When I first got to the account, I thought it was going to be about Amanda Smith and her son Alma's hip, but it wasn't. Anyway, at the time I thought, "The similarities are interesting."

A few days later, when I woke up, I was thinking about the role that desperation plays in inspiration. Unfortunately, we often don't rely on God until all our other options have been exhausted. Desperate Nephi "was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do." Desperate Moses parted the Red Sea. Desperate Gideon, desperate Abraham, desperate Elisha, desperate Nephi (son of Nephi)--the scriptures are lousy with tales of miracles brought about by faith brought about by desperation.

I think of when Jesus told the Nephites, "Blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me.... And again, more blessed are they who shall believe in your words...." It seems you could blend these ideas together with the paraphrasing, "That's great when you are desperate enough to have miraculous faith, but it would be even better if you could have miraculous faith without the desperation."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Things As They Really Are

We've had kids who take video games so seriously that they sometimes get to enjoy a video game ban. At least once, before returning to video game action the kid had to read and discuss David A. Bednar's talk "Things As They Really Are."

Our youngest seems to be on the same path. He woke up this morning and I said, "Good morning, [Screamapilar]." He said nothing in return, but he then said to our older kid's stuffed dolphin Splash, "Good morning, Splashy."

I said, "You won't say hi to your father but you'll say hi to a pretend animal?" He said, "Splash is real." I said, "No, he's a collection of fabric and stuffing fashioned by a Chinese political dissident. Relationships with real people matter. Your parents and your siblings are real. Focus on those relationships first. Then, if you still have emotional bandwidth remaining, go ahead and have a relationship with a stuffed animal."

The saddest part of this is that I think our kids are way better than other kids their age when it comes to screen time, social media, and living in the real world. The inability of other families to limit their children's digital addictions is so bad that it's made libertarian me think, "There might be some wisdom in banning children from cell phones."

Monday, December 11, 2017

Pittsburgh's Bad-Luck Charm

I'm responsible for the Steelers almost losing their game last night. Let me explain.

I know American football is terrible, but I grew up a Steelers fan, so I still take an interest when they are playing. For most of the past 16 years, I haven't had access to much live sports on television, but with the advancement of online streaming and with our ISP giving us TV access as a package deal this year, I can watch any game that's not on the NFL Network. But I also know I'm not supposed to watch football on Sundays, so I don't get to see very many Steelers games. Last week they were on Monday night*, so my sons and I got to watch a man potentially become paralyzed for life, which was a real treat for us.

Yesterday, the Steelers were the Sunday night game. After we got our kids to bed, I was sitting around, marking our recent travels on our county-tracking maps, and I thought, "I could be watching the game while doing this." Of course, I knew I shouldn't, but I'm an idiot, so I turned it on.

The Steelers had scored the first 14 points of the game. When I turned the game on, Baltimore was adding an extra point to their first touchdown. So Baltimore didn't score at all until I thought, "I should turn the game on."

Then I watched the game for two quarters. By the end of the third quarter, Baltimore was winning, 31-20. My wife asked, "How much longer are you going to stay up?" I said, "I should turn this off because while I've been watching the Steelers went from winning by 14 to losing by 11." My wife said, "Hurry up and turn it off so they can win."

My wife is a very superstitious sports fan, having been raised by a very superstitious sports fan. So she wasn't kidding or make a lame excuse to get me to turn the game off. She really wanted to influence the game, and she knew God was cursing my team for me watching the game on a Sunday.

So I turned it off. We went upstairs and got ready for bed. I checked the score on my Kindle, and the Steelers had scored nine points, and were attempting a two-point conversion to tie the game. But while I watched the update, the conversion failed, then failed again after a Baltimore penalty led to a do-over. I told my wife, "The Steelers have scored nine points and are only losing by two now." She said, "Good job, it's working." I said, "I want to go watch the rest of the game." She said, "Don't do that, they'll lose. Just go to bed."

So I went to bed. And when I woke up this morning and checked the score, the Steelers had won, 39-38.

Dividing the game into two parts, the part I watched and the part I didn't watch (or check the score), ends up like this:

While I Watched: Baltimore 25, Pittsburgh 6.

While I Didn't Watch: Pittsburgh 33, Baltimore 13.

* = "Monday night is Family Night, fool!" Yeah, except my daughter has Girl Scouts every-other Monday night, so when that happens, we have Family Night on Sunday night. Last week was a Family-Night-less Monday night because of Girl Scouts, so my sons and I started watching the game while my wife and daughter were gone for Girl Scouts. We watched until the final possession of the first half, when Cincinnati was winning 17-0. We turned it off, sent the kids to bed, and then my wife and I went to my office to make exam copies. (Unfortunately, "exam copies" is not a euphemism for "adult shenanigans.") The Steelers ended up winning that game, too, 23-20. Similarly dividing that game produces this:

While I Watched: Cincinnati 17, Pittsburgh 0.

While I Didn't Watch: Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 3.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Three Pictures From Lately

Last Sunday was stake conference. That led to this comic, which all my kids liked.

Later, one of the members of our stake presidency asked the question, "What if all 900 of us went to visit one of the lost sheep today?" That led to another comic. Then one of the local temple matrons shared a story about "102 Brazilian members" going to the temple. So another comic.

Part of homeschooling a kindergartener is finding random kindergarten things in every room of the house. I came home from work and found this sticker book on the floor of my bedroom. I thought it was called "First World Stickers," and I thought, "What's that, a book with stickers of pumpkin-spice lattes and screenshots of the iTunes store?" But it turned out to be called "First Word Stickers." And, evidently, I could stand a refresher on how to read some of those easy words, like "word."

Friday, November 17, 2017

Solar Eclipse from Columbia, South Carolina

What's the benefit of homeschooling and having a flexible work schedule* if you don't take advantage of it? With the solar eclipse approaching, I started reading some online about what we could expect in the seventh-best swamp city in northeastern Florida. We were going to get 90% obscuration. That seemed pretty good to me. But then I read a bunch of quotes about how seeing a 99% eclipse is like seeing 1% of the event, and how seeing a 99% eclipse and saying you saw the eclipse is like standing outside a concert hall and saying you heard the performance. I thought, "Geez, pretentious much?" But since the eclipse was on a Monday, and I don't teach on Mondays, I decided we'd drive up to South Carolina to see the whole deal.

My wife read online that traffic would be terrible and everyone would die from interminable traffic jams, so we were a little worried about what we were getting into. I figured we could drive up very early (I usually aim for waking up at 3 a.m.--why is another story), and just chill in a Walmart parking lot or something. My wife read online that Columbia was trying to attract eclipse travelers, so we figured we'd go there.

Our plan to leave very early hit a snag because Crazy Jane had Seminary that morning. So we all drove her to Seminary and then, while she went to that, we went to Walmart to get gasoline and snacks. When my wife ran inside, I talked Jerome Jerome the Metronome into cruising around the parking lot on a mobility scooter that had been left outside. But it had a dead battery. And a Walmart employee saw us and sent out someone to gather up the scooters.

We picked up Crazy Jane early and left town around 6:45. Everyone fell back asleep as we drove north through Georgia. We stopped at a rest area right after crossing into South Carolina, and it was full of eclipse travelers. When we got back on the freeway, the traffic was really bad, and I thought, "If we're going to be in stop-and-go traffic all the way to Columbia, we might not get there in enough time." As long as we were in the area of totality, we could just pull over and view it from our car, except South Carolina Department of Transportation had set all their changeable-text signs to read "DO NOT STOP ON ROADWAY TO VIEW ECLIPSE."

After about 10 miles, the traffic cleared up some. It was still congested for a Monday morning in the rural South, but the speeds were a lot closer to freeway speeds. We got to Columbia around 11 a.m. We parked in a city garage and started walking around with some lawn chairs and blankets, looking for a place to sit. We ended up on The Horseshoe, the old quad area of University of South Carolina. We set up our blankets and had nothing to do for several hours.

Weather-wise, the forecast for our area of Florida was for solid cloud cover, and as we drove north, we were underneath a solidly cloudy sky. But when we turned inland, the clouds started to break up. In Columbia, the clouds were intermittent, and as the day wore on, the clouds dissipated. By the time of the eclipse, there were no clouds left. People who stayed in Florida told us that they couldn't see the sun at all, or else they barely saw it briefly.

Articulate Joe and I needed haircuts, so we decided to make good use of our time by getting haircuts while we waited. We walked over to an area called Five Points and found a Supercuts. But they were severely understaffed because one stylist had called in "sick" and her replacement was stuck in eclipse traffic. She ended up being 90 minutes late because they closed the freeway down to land a helicopter on it for an air evacuation. By the time we got our haircuts, the eclipse had begun. We hadn't brought our eclipse glasses with us because we figured there was no way two haircuts would take several hours. As soon as we got outside, though, a guy walking past offered us two pairs of eclipse glasses, so we could look and see what it was like before we walked back over to The Horseshoe.

Jerome has a habit of photo-bombing our pictures. See here for more.

The Screamapilar was freaked out from our warnings to only look at the sun through his eclipse glasses, so he decided to not look at the sun at all. Eventually we did get him to look when the sun was obscured enough that you could tell something was going on, and of course he looked during totality, when he didn't need glasses.

Having experienced a total solar eclipse now, here's my take on the pretentious Internet things I read beforehand: they are accurate. Having been there for 90% obscurity and then being able to compare that to totality a few moments later, I can support the claim that 90% obscurity is a pile of puke compared to the real thing.

And then totality ended and everyone tried to act like there was still something to see, but after a few minutes most people had left. We got back to our car and were in pretty bad traffic on I-26, so we exited to eat at Fatz, a restaurant I first saw advertised when we were driving our moving truck through South Carolina two summers ago. Since then it has been my white whale, haunting my dreams and visions. And, just like Ahab discovered, sometimes getting your white whale sucks. Fatz wasn't that good, and it was pretty expensive. AND, it didn't even save us from bad traffic. The "four-hour" drive home from Columbia took about eight hours.

Finally, to those asking, "Why have you taken three months to blog about this trip?" Well, there's a very good reason, smart-ass. It's because I couldn't be bothered getting the pictures off my phone until last week. So there.

* = I'm not actually sure I have a flexible work schedule. I mean, I know I only teach and have office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but does that mean that they're cool with me not being there on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday? I haven't asked because I don't want to find out if the answer is no. (I'm writing this from my bed on a Friday afternoon.) I'm confident I'm not cheating my employer--I work over 40 hours each week. But we'll see if they ever want to know where I am on the occasional day I don't go in.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Revelation v. Declarations of Revelation

I had to substitute as the Gospel Doctrine teacher yesterday. The lesson was (partially) about Official Declaration 2. I realized that, when I was younger, I didn't really understand why 138 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants get to be sections, but two of them only get to be official declarations. I think I understand better now, and I think it's worthwhile pointing it out to others.

The official declarations are declarations that revelation was received, but they do not contain the revelation. Notice in Official Declaration 1 Wilford Woodruff says that "I hereby declare my intention to submit to submit to those laws" banning polygamy, but he doesn't specify why. As an appendix to the declaration, we have some idea of what the revelation entailed, but that's not part of the original declaration.

The same thing happens in Official Declaration 2. It specifies that "a revelation had been received" and it says the revelation was shared with the General Authorities and what the gist of the revelation was, but that's it.

The reason I bring this up is because some members are uncomfortable with "The Family: A Proclamation to the World". They point out that it has never been presented to the church for a sustaining vote as scripture. However, in this last General Conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, "I feel obliged to share what led to the family proclamation for the information of all who consider it."

The inspiration identifying the need for a proclamation on the family came to the leadership of the Church over 23 years ago. [...] [W]e felt the confirmation and we went to work. [...] Prayerfully we continually pleaded with the Lord for His inspiration.... [...] During this revelatory process, a proposed text was presented to the First Presidency, who oversee and promulgate Church teachings and doctrine.

So Elder Oaks tells us that the proclamation is not a revelation but the result of a revelatory process. Like the two official declarations, it's sharing information on the strength of revelation it does not in itself contain.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Rebellion, Becoming and Unbecoming

For two years, now, I've been planning to blog about D&C 134:5. While most Mormons take Article of Faith 12 to say we have to comply with whatever requirement a political leader wants to impose, I don't see it that way. Sedition and rebellion are only unbecoming of citizens who are protected in their inherent and inalienable rights--remove such protection and you remove the criticism of rebellion (and "unbecoming" is pretty weak criticism to begin with).

Somewhat related might be the apparent contradiction between the church's response to illegal immigration and the reading most members give to Article of Faith 12. Notice at the end of D&C 134:9 that we only believe we should bring the offenders against good laws to punishment.

Can God support law-breakers? Well, what about my favorite scripture story, when an angel appears to Gideon who is in the middle of tax-evasion and tells him, "The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour"? As Benjamin Franklin said, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."

That Didn't Turn Out As Expected

Yesterday I wrote a blog post. I was adding the appropriate labels to it when I saw I have a label called "Carly." I thought, "How in the hell could I have so much to say about a Disney Channel show I've never watched?!" Then I realized it was about Carly Fiorina. Remember her, back when America wanted an outsider president but before we decided to go with the worst possible outsider president? When I decided she needed her own blog label, I certainly wasn't seeing things playing out this way.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Dieting Through Snobbery

A few years ago, I decided to become a dark chocolate snob. It's not that I'm really opposed to milk chocolate (although living overseas has made me see that American chocolate is crap), it's just that I see it as a way of limiting my chocolate intake. Dark chocolate is harder to find, and usually more expensive. So I'm less likely to get a chocolate bar every time I'm in the grocery store line.

Yesterday, my wife and I were driving behind a Royal Crown distribution truck. She was struck by the inclusion of the 7-Up logo on the truck ("I didn't know 7-Up owned RC," she said), but I was struck by the inclusion of the RC logo on the truck ("I didn't know you could still get RC Cola anywhere"). I decided to help limit my soda consumption (which I've already cut down to just on driving trips, basically) by committing to only drink RC Cola. If I don't even know where I can get it, it should help me not buy it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Overstated Inflation and Declining Productivity

Here's a post summarizing work that argues inflation is overstated in the consumer price index (CPI). If this is true, and most people receive cost-of-living increases based on CPI, then most people are receiving real wage increases independent of any increased productivity. This would mean that workers will end up with a wage above the value of their marginal product. It would also mean that worker productivity would appear to decline when you pay more money for the same skill-set.

Assuming workers know this, they have incentive to stay in their jobs longer than they otherwise would, because every time you switch jobs, you create an opportunity to bring your wage back in line with the value of your marginal product. Your existing job won't do it because wages display downward rigidity. They will just overpay you until the inequality becomes intolerable, and then you'll get fired.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Book Review: Part-Time Dog

Our family owns a copy of Jane Thayer's Part-Time Dog. The story is from 1954 but it was published as its own book with illustrations in 1965. It was one of my wife's favorite books when she was growing up. A few weeks ago, I was browsing the local library with some of my kids and saw a version of the book with updated illustrations. We checked it out to compare the two.

The first thing I noticed was the dearth of children. In 1965, Seymour Fleishman illustrated eight children living on Maple Street. By 2004, Lisa McCue illustrated only two children living there. Well, maybe only two children are walking to school and the rest are being chauffeured the block-and-a-half while they watch in-headrest DVD players.

Other illustration differences include the fact that, in 1965, Mrs. Atkins wore an apron pretty much all day long, and she ate her supper with a man. In 2004, there are no men living anywhere near Maple Street. Also, in 1965, Mrs. Tweedy was hot, like a real-life grandma who's got it going ON. Modern Mrs. Tweedy is just old, like a cartoon grandma who's purpose is to sell you cookies.

When I compared the texts, I found a number of changes between the 1954 text and the 2004 text. Now, this might be the result of targeting a different audience: the 2004 version specifies it's for children between preschool and third grade, while the older version has no such range given. So instead of dwelling on vocabulary or syntax changes, I'm just going to note instances where the meaning changed.

  • 1954: there's an explanation of how Brownie got lost. 2004: Brownie materializes on Maple Street; there is no loss suffered by someone else.
  • 1954: Mrs. Tweedy hangs up her husband's shirts. 2004: Mrs. Tweedy rakes her yard.
  • 1954: Brownie is a squatter on Maple Street for a long time before being noticed by the ladies. 2004: Brownie gets noticed the first night.
  • 1954: When Mrs. Butterworth finds Brownie on her best blue sofa in her parlor, she exclaims, "You wicked dog!" 2004: When Mrs. Butterworth finds Brownie on her best blue sofa in her living room, there is no value judgment.
  • 1954: The ladies twice mention that Brownie is breaking the law. 2004: There's no legal justification for their decision to call the dogcatcher.
  • 1954: The ladies grab their pocketbooks. 2004: The ladies grab their bags.
  • 1954: Brownie rides in the back seat of the car with the three ladies in the front seat. 2004: Brownie rides in the front passenger seat of the car with two ladies in the back.

One thing nice about the new version's illustrations is they haven't been graffitied. When my mother-in-law taught school, some kid used a red pen to make blood coming out of the nose of everyone in the first half the book. He either was caught or lost interest before completing the task.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Drunk Paperboy

My work gets copies of the Wall Street Journal delivered, but it's not clear why. Are they for faculty, grad students, or just anyone? Well, at the beginning of this semester we got an e-mail asking for our home mailing address for the Wall Street Journal to be sent there. I submitted my address and...nothing happened for over a month.

But then...we got the local newspaper for two weeks. And then that stopped.

And then I finally got my first copy of the Wall Street Journal delivered at home. It was a Friday. And that was it, just the one day.

Two weeks later, I got a Saturday delivery. And that was it.

Yesterday, I got a Sunday delivery of...the New York Times.

Maybe I misunderstood, and what I was signing up for was a random schedule of remainder newspapers. My house is now functioning as the Big Lots for the local paper delivery guy.

I Don't Need to Help Because I'm Woke

I know someone whose wokeness is especially grating. I was thinking the other day about what is appealing about wokeness to an upper-class white person. I realized that wokeness allows you to feel better about your advantages without actually having to give up any of those advantages.

I see a poor person. In relative terms, I'm rich. Charity requires me to use my (relative) abundance to alleviate the suffering of others. But being woke allows me to "know" which segments of society and which political parties are responsible for the poor person's condition. It's palliative in nature, designed to ease my mental suffering rather than ease others' actual suffering.

How do we know that wokeness is false charity? Because it creates prescriptions for the behaviors of others, never for the self. When I'm woke, I get mad at Donald Trump or the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department or at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But I never get mad at me. What is there to get mad about? I've already done all I can do: I got woke.

In the words of Michael Jackson, "If you wanna make the world a better place / take a look at yourself and then make a change."

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Poverty and Conscientiousness

Friday my wife was driving me to work. We passed a sign taped to a utility pole. The sign had a number to call to buy mattresses. My wife expressed dismay that someone would ever consider buying a mattress via a random telephone number displayed on the side of the road, especially when the price is not significantly lower than the cheapest mattress you can buy from a legitimate mattress store. It's like, "Spend $99 and get a real mattress, or spend $79 and get a bedbug infestation." If you can save up $79, why not save a little bit longer and get the $99 mattress?

I said, "I don't want to be one of those people who is dismissing the spending choices of the poor as being stupid when in fact they are the necessity of being poor. It's easy for me to say, 'Why not just spend $99?' but maybe they'd love to spend $99 if they could, but they can't. However, it's impossible to separate poor spending choices that are the result of poverty from poor spending choices that are the result of a lack of conscientiousness."

Again, we are left with the conclusion: judge not. I can never know whether someone buying a sketchy mattress is destitute or stupid, so the charitable take is to assume destitution.

But the world would be a better place if more poor people were taught to be conscientious. I mentioned to my wife a few weeks ago, "If you don't show up at work once every two weeks, you can only do that a few times before you get fired. But the people who do that think, 'I was there 90% of the time! That's an A!' In reality, you can probably only get away with that one day a year. They don't understand that the real world doesn't require 90% attendance, it requires 99.9% attendance." People who view 90% as sufficiently conscientious are in for a life of poverty.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Panhandling Firemen

Yesterday morning my wife drove me to work. At a busy intersection traffic was moving slowly because firemen were panhandling in traffic lanes.

Can't we all agree that the prime directive for public safety officers is to not decrease public safety? And standing in between two lanes of traffic that's supposed to be moving at 45 miles per hour certainly doesn't increase public safety, does it? If the police in our city could be bothered with traffic violations, I would love to see all these firemen receive jaywalking tickets.

Am I a bad person because I routinely give money to panhandling homeless people outside Walmart but when I see a panhandling fireman (who makes more money than just about all of us driving by) I say, "Aww, HAYLL no!"?

Friday, October 27, 2017

"A Weak-Kneed and Unbelieving Religionist"

Last week I wrote a post about a possible reconciliation between creationism and evolution. Long-time reader Gayle commented:

This is essentially the same explanation that my sister told me a few weeks ago. I'm perfectly comfortable with it -- in fact, I'm grateful for it, since I believe in science and evolution, and am bothered by the arguments that science and religion are incompatible. (I'm totally bugged in SS or RS when someone bemoans the teaching of evolution in the schools.) I am wondering how you came to this liner o [sic] thinking; is it prompted by anything in particular?
I think what first started me along this line of thinking was being struck by D&C 101:29 as a missionary. I was reading Section 101 because I wanted a better understanding of what the Missouri Saints did wrong, because I'm probably doing the same things wrong. I was struck by the idea that sorrow is predicated upon death because I'm a depressive person, so I would say I experience sorrow most of the time, but I wouldn't necessarily say that sorrow is related to death. In what way would the absence of death remove sorrow? When death is understood as spiritual death, separation from God, then you see how only spiritual death creates sorrow.

"But I was sad when my grandma died!" Yeah, but provided you and your grandma have a hope of salvation, there's not really anything to be sad about. Physically dying is then akin to going on a long trip. "But haven't you been sad when you went on a long trip and not seen your family for a long time?" Sure, but if I was as close to God as I'm supposed to be, I would take His decisions regarding when we go on a long trip as the best decisions. I've written before, I think, about the priest in Camus's Plague teaching that we should want what God wants, so when someone in town dies of the plague, we should want them to die of the plague. (Yep, five years ago.) It's the sense in which Islam uses the term "submission" (and why Michel Houellebecq's book of the same title, while not for everyone, is such a great exploration of the concept).

This started as a post about evolution and has become a post about French novelists. Let's get back on track.

Notice one verse later in Section 101 when the Lord notes "in that day [the day when "there is no death"] an infant shall not die until he is old...." So people are continuing to die, even though "there is no death." If there will be a time with dying but without death, could it be that such a time previously occurred? Could the pre-Adamic-transgression world have been a world with dying but without death? Could our concept of Adam's transgression bringing death into the world be reconciled with evolution's need for a string of dying generations?

And, in the words of Drake, now we here.

Interestingly, two Mormon bloggers I follow have written about evolution this week. The first was Bryce Haymond (who is, admittedly, far off the plan right now). His post links to some thoughts on evolution from Joseph Fielding Smith and Boyd K. Packer wherein they make the case that a belief in evolution guts the entirety of the gospel. Haymond's M.O. is to argue that current church leadership is wrong because they have taken figurative things literally, so he wants the reader to conclude that Presidents Smith and Packer were wrong when they went after evolution, therefore the current church leadership isn't to be trusted.

What Haymond is missing, though, is that the system allows for Presidents Smith and Packer to be wrong; we have no guarantee that every word our leaders say is 100% correct, only that we won't be led astray from salvation by following the leaders. Given that most proponents of evolution are not trying to make a case for its coexistence with belief, but rather using it as a cudgel to destroy belief, it makes sense that leaders would oppose it, even if the truth is somewhere in between.

President Smith, though, makes a distinction between atheistic and theistic evolutionists, and then goes after both of them.

But the Theistic evolutionist is a weak-kneed and unbelieving religionist, who is constantly apologizing for the miracles of the scriptures, and who does not believe in the divine mission of Jesus Christ.
I don't agree with this characterization. Sure, it's true of some, but it's not necessarily true of all. Nothing in my post last week apologizes for the miracles of the scriptures. God created man through some sort of process; to give a name to that process is not to discount it. No one can create a man through evolution, so saying God did it is not in any way saying it was not a miracle. And as for the divine mission of Jesus Christ, that is needed because of sin and death, which are still realities of the human experience. So President Smith's summation that "if evolution is true, the church is false" is predicated upon an understanding of "evolution" that does not necessarily include all possible senses.

Think of it this way: let's say there's a political party--we'll call it the America Party--that has a false statement in its party platform, something like "all brown-eyed people are at least five-foot-ten-inches tall." And I know this statement is untrue, because my son has brown eyes and is shorter than 5'10". Can I say, "The America Party is wrong"? Can I say, "Everyone who identifies with the America Party is wrong"? Is it possible to be a registered member of the America Party while not agreeing with the platform position on the height of brown-eyed people? How many of us are prepared to say we agree with 100% of the platform statements of the political party with which we're registered, or the last candidate for whom we voted?

First Presidency statements on evolution are 1) not canonized, and 2) making assumptions about the use of words like "death" and "man" that are fine to make, but aren't the only ways in which those words can be used. If we make a distinction between "death" and "dying," as I believe D&C 101:29-30 makes, and between "man" and "humanoid creatures," as my post last week does, then there is no conflict between the First Presidency statements and a theory of evolution.

The second Mormon blogger to write about evolution this week was Robert Boylan (whose recent book on Sola Scriptura will definitely be over my head but is nevertheless winging its way to me in an Amazon order even as we speak), who has a post about "young-Earth creationists" and evolution. Boylan sees things more along my lines: past pronouncements of church leaders on evolution being what they are, there is still a way to square the best evidences of anthropology and geology with a belief in God's creation and the divine mission of Jesus Christ.

PS: It was a recent Boylan post about ancient Mideastern swords that made me think, "My word, how antisocial and psychopathic was the first person to create a sword?! What kind of person invents the idea of carrying around something designed to make giant holes in people?" (Notice the ancient swords don't have hilts, so they weren't designed to use against other swords; they were designed to use against defenseless people.) In light of the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress that's been going on lately, I've read some things people have been sharing about the demeanedization that comes from authoritarian states requiring you to say things you know to be false (like Winston Smith having to say 2+2=5). They argue that it's not a bug of the system, it's a feature. The truly free are those that don't have to say things they know to be untrue. Swords for use against defenseless people were designed for the purpose of making you say 2+2=5.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Consequence of Arrested Development

My school is in the news this week because some students posted a racist video. I had the realization that this behavior should be expected to increase in frequency as more young adults delay maturity. Teens don't drive, don't hold jobs, don't engage with human sexuality, don't have experience with enforced deadlines. Well, another missing milestone in maturity is working through their sexist/racist phase. It used to be that junior-high students would say and do offensive things because the novelty of the opportunity was appealing and the ability to empathize was dormant. Later, they developed the skill of seeing things from someone else's perspective and to differentiate between funny unexpected and offensive unexpected. By the time they were adults, we could expect civil behavior from them. But now that maturation is happening in their mid-20s (if it's happening at all--see Borat- and Jackass-style entertainment). These young adults who made this video are as responsible as the 12-year-olds from the previous generation who would say racist things because they were "funny."

"Stop excusing racism!" I'm not. When someone says or does something racist because they think it will be funny, they need to be corrected so they know that it's not. What I'm saying is that that used to happen when the offender was younger and still learning. Now it's delayed until adulthood, when views and behaviors are more solidified, and the consequences are higher because we are less-forgiving of adults who make these decisions. It's unfortunate for the victims of racism, because it means we'll see more racist behavior, and it's unfortunate for the perpetrators of racist behavior, because their opportunities to learn were taken away and now they are faced with adult consequences for their juvenile choices.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Anthrotheism Metrics in Baseball

Last night the National League Championship Series had co-MVPs, Chris Taylor and Justin Turner. This was the second year in a row where this has happened--last year it was Jon Lester and Javi Baez. In the 41 years that the National League has had a championship-series MVP, it has only happened once before, in 1990. (In the 37 years the American League has given such an award, they've never had co-winners.)

As we continue to replace acknowledgement by God with acknowledgement by society, we should expect more co-winners of MVP awards. The generation that grew up on participation trophies will receive them as adults.

I'm not criticizing Taylor, Turner, Lester, or Baez; it's not like these guys are campaigning for a shared award. I'm criticizing the award committee that can't live in a world where someone is declared best.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Conflicting Lyrics

Two days ago, my wife picked me up and was listening to Counting Crows. In the song "Mr. Jones," Adam Duritz sings,

I wanna be a lion

yeah, everybody wanna pass as cats

we all wanna be big, big stars

yeah, but we got different reasons for that

I see a logical inconsistency here.

First of all, the narrator wants to be a lion while everyone else wants to pass as cats. I take that to mean the narrator has ambition (consistent with the rest of the song, which repeatedly talks of having everybody love you, never being lonely, and being a big star) and he feels the average person is more interested in not standing out. Lions are exceptional and cats are forgettable. Saying everybody wants to "pass" as cats implies that we are all unique but for the purposes of social acceptance we try to cover that up.

Okay, I can dig it.

But why then does the narrator say "WE all wanna be big, big stars"? Didn't he just finish saying this isn't true? Sure, the narrator and Mr. Jones want to be big stars--he makes that point repeatedly--but immediately after making a commentary on society, he undermines it.

What if he said, "we both wanna be big, big stars"? This would then be a line about the narrator and Mr. Jones, and be more consistent with the rest of the song and especially with the line immediately preceding it. But as it now is, I think these two lines of the song contradict each other.

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.