Monday, April 24, 2017

"Fake It Till You Make It" v. Moro. 7:6-8

Another scripture with which I have a problem (or maybe again it's just the common reading with which I have the problem) is Moroni 7:6-8.

For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.

My first mission president once gave a zone conference talk based on this scripture, the gist of which was, unless we really, truly wanted to be there we were wasting our time and perhaps accruing strikes against ourselves. But is this an accurate reading of this scripture?

Spencer W. Kimball shared this story in a General Conference talk from 1975.

There is the story told of Lord George Hall of an earlier time. It is a mythical story. Believe it or not, but at least take the lesson if you find one there. “Lord George had led an evil life. He had been a drunkard, a gambler, and a cheat in business, and his face reflected the life he had led. It was a very evil face.

One day he fell in love with a simple country girl to whom he proposed marriage. Jenny Mere told him that she could never marry a man whose face was so repulsive and so evil-looking; and also that when she did marry, she wanted a man with a saintlike face, which was the mirror of true love.

Following a custom of the day, Lord George went down to Mr. Aeneas in Bond Street, London. Aeneas made waxen masks for people, and his skill was so art-perfect that the person’s identity was completely hidden. As proof of his skill, it is said that many spendthrift debtors, equipped with his masks, could pass among their creditors unrecognized. Aeneas went to his storeroom, selected a mask, heated it over a lamp, fixed it to Lord George’s face; and when Lord George looked in the glass, he had the face of a saint who loved dearly. So altered was his appearance that Jenny Mere was soon wooed and won.

He bought a little cottage in the country, almost hidden in an arbor of roses, with a tiny garden spot. From then on his entire life changed. He became interested in nature; he found "sermons in stones, books in brooks, and good in everything." Formerly he was blasé and life had no interest for him; now, he was engrossed in kindliness, and the world around him.

He was not content with starting life anew, but tried to make amends for the past. Through a confidential solicitor he restored his ill-gotten gains to those whom he had cheated. Each day brought new refinements to his character, more beautiful thoughts to his soul.

By accident, his former companions discovered his identity. They visited him in his garden, and urged him to return to his old evil life. When he refused, he was attacked, and the mask was torn from his face.

He hung his head. Here was the end of all; here was the end of his newfound life and his love dream. As he stood with bowed head, with the mask at his feet on the grass, his wife rushed across the garden and threw herself on her knees in front of him. When she looked up at him, what do you suppose she found? Lo! Line for line, feature for feature, the face was the same as that of the mask. Lines of beauty—regular features.

Isn't the point of this story that the way to change the heart is to change the behavior and the heart will follow? Isn't this the underlying principle in just about all parenting? You use your position of authority to set your child's behavior with the hope that he will internalize the behavior before he assumes full control of his own agenda.

A quotation of Brigham Young contained in this lesson seems to support the idea of doing something you don't immediately want to do. It is: "It matters not whether you or I feel like praying, when the time comes to pray, pray. If we do not feel like it, we should pray till we do."

I think too many church members interpret the original teaching from Mormon the way my mission president presented it to us, and I think that's wrong. It creates situations where the member says to himself, "I don't want to help that family move, so there's no reason for me to go help that family move; I've already messed it up with the bad desire, and since I will be 'counted evil before God' if I go now, it's best that I stay home."

Last year, Christmas was on Sunday. We attended church, then returned home to open presents. One present we received was The Force Awakens. We were all excited to watch it, but it was Sunday, and in keeping with the ongoing mini-Reformation of how we should honor the Sabbath, we were not going to watch it on Sunday. But to have our behavior "count" as righteous did we need to lie to ourselves about our initial desire to watch it?

I jokingly said to our kids, "Christmas on Sunday is lame!" When I shared that on Facebook, an acquaintance snarkily commented, "And with that attitude, you get the same credit as if you had watched it! Right? Double lame!"

I think this "wanting to do a bad thing is the same as doing the bad thing" interpretation of Moroni 7 is dangerous and wrong. Dangerous because it undermines righteous behavior. Remember your incredulous reaction to the beginning of Dr. Faustus when Faust reasons that, since he's once done at least one thing wrong in his life, he might as well make a pact with the Devil? It's that same specious reasoning that says, "Watch a movie on Sunday if you once wanted to watch a movie on Sunday."

And wrong because I don't believe this is what Mormon is saying. In Verse 10 he writes, "Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift." I think the wrong reading of the previous verses would lead us to read this as saying, "Your desires establish that you are evil, and your evil nature removes the goodness from your behavior." I believe the true reading of this should be, "Given that you are giving a good gift, you cannot possibly be evil." The fact that, despite your natural inclinations, you are doing a good thing is the proof that you are not evil. The "real intent" of my Sunday worship had to be there or else I wouldn't have produced the behavior. I didn't accidentally not watch The Force Awakens; I did it with real intent.

"Fake it till you make it" is a true principle and the average Mormon's reading of Moroni 7:6-8 is misguided and damaging.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Two Things That Bother Me Right Now

The good old days are back! At least, for this post they are.

I've tried to be more charitable in my life (which you probably know means I've tried to stop paying attention), and that has led to a sharp decline in "look at this idiot"-style posts. But there are two things that bother me right now.

The first thing: my wife's calling at church is in the Young Women organization. Several of the girls are hesitating committing to attend Girls Camp because they are waiting to see who their "camp mom" is. The argument is that a "fun" camp mom makes camp fun, and a "mean" camp mom ruins camp.

How is this a thing? Why is no one saying to these girls, "Maybe a 'mean' mom is mean because she just had to give up a week of her life to spend with a bunch of unappreciative brats"? Instead of telling the girls this is an opportunity for them to learn charity and selflessness and appreciation for the sacrifices of others, we're telling them, "Your self-centered attitude is appropriate; keep it up, ladies."

The second thing: church sports is still a thing here in Florida, and a really big thing, at that. And the problems are, well, all the problems that led to the demise of church sports 30 YEARS AGO. Our youth dislike the youth from other wards because of long-running sports rivalries. Given that stakes are supposed to be stakes of Zion, I don't see how any program that leads to ill-will within the stake is appropriate. ("It would be much better to have stake-level teams so the ill-will is directed outside the stake, right? Then we can bond over our mutual hatred of those jerks from the South stake!" Um, sort of.) Aside from the injuries (one of my students from the YSA ward blew out his knee and a girl from our ward injured her knee last week), I don't think we should be building ward camaraderie through stake animosity.

Here's my modest proposal that I bet would be widely opposed: when the schedule says "Ward A is playing Ward B," instead of having a team from Ward A play a team from Ward B, we have players from both wards show up at the same time and pick teams from a common pool. Thus some of your teammates are from the other ward and some of your opponents are from your ward. This makes it harder to hate the other team and easier to get to know people from outside your ward. (How well do you get to know the opposition in the current set-up?)

Here's why I think it would be resisted: without static teams, win/loss records are meaningless and you can't end up with a "champion" team at the end. So it seems church sports exist to serve the natural man's proclivity towards enmity. That doesn't seem like an appropriate use of our time and efforts.

Also, as I mentioned to my wife this morning while she was driving me to work, the callings associated with church sports take real time and effort from able-bodied, active members who could be doing something productive with that time. She said, "But all of our coaches have other callings, too." I said, "Assuming they only have a fixed amount of time in their lives that they can designate for their church callings, if we're wondering why they're half-assing it in the other calling, their sports calling can be the reason."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wherein a Student Misunderstands My Gender

My school's course management software assigns each class an unhelpful string of letters and numbers. While the program allows me to change the name of the class, it doesn't display this changed name anywhere useful. To help me manage my classes, I assign them pictures of famous economists. It's easier for me to think, "Milton Friedman is macro and Esther Duflo is micro," than it is to remember a string of letters and numbers.

A student came to see me yesterday. She's in my micro class. That led to this conversation.

STUDENT: At the beginning of the semester I thought you were transgender.

A RANDOM STRANGER: I'm sorry, what?

STUDENT: Transgender. A trans person.


STUDENT: Because your picture on [course management software] is a woman.

A RANDOM STRANGER: No, it's me as a child.

STUDENT: No, it's a woman. And I thought, 'I guess he used to be a woman.' And I thought, 'Good for him because he must have been a quite tall woman.' But then you talked some about your wife, and I wasn't sure. Then you talked some about your kids and I thought, 'Maybe not.'

A RANDOM STRANGER: Well, it was good of you to be so accepting, but I was never a woman. [shows student the picture of me as a child] This is my picture on [course management software].

STUDENT: No, it's a picture of a woman.

A RANDOM STRANGER: [shows student the picture of Esther Duflo] This one?


A RANDOM STRANGER: No, that's just for my convenience telling the classes apart.

Until this student said something, I never would have thought that I look like Esther Duflo, but now I think I see similarities. Do we look like we could be related? No one has ever mentioned it to me before. The usual celebrity-doppelganger I hear is Drew Carey (since Drew Carey lost some weight and I got thick-framed glasses around the same time).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Origins of the Intimacy of Sleep

Why do we attach intimacy to sleep? Whether it be sleeping with someone (in the literal sense of the word) or watching someone sleep, there's a feeling of intimacy fostered by these actions. It's not necessarily tied to modesty, because a person could be wearing shapeless, cover-all pajamas and be buried under several blankets and the intimacy would still be there.

I can think of two answers: one is tied to vulnerability and the other is tied to our animal natures.

First, vulnerability: when sleeping you're defenseless. People (or saber-tooth tigers) who have access to you in your sleep have the ability to harm you, so allowing someone to be there when you're sleeping is signalling a deeper level of trust, and thus signalling intimacy.

Second, animal natures: sleep happens in our personal animal dens that we verbally sanitize by calling them "beds." Whatever we call it, it's still an animal den. We go to great lengths to hide from each other the aspects of our animal natures (like how none of our myriad terms for "restroom" convey a sense of "this is where the defecation happens"), but the more intimate we become with someone, the more likely we are to end up having discussions about our stool. ("Nope, not me!" When was the last time you discussed your stool with someone who wasn't a doctor? Wasn't it with the person you'd say you are most intimate with?) Well, not only is the façade covering our animal natures dropped with those with whom we are intimate, a way of fostering intimacy is to drop that façade. As such, allowing someone to sleep with you, or to watch you sleep, or to know something about your sleep, is intimate.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Physical Anomalies

Last summer while driving across America, we had two weird things happen to us that I can't explain. One was near Justiceburg, Texas. We had come down off the Llano Estacado and ended up in a bit of a hollow, where we clearly picked up a Los Angeles, California, radio station until climbing up the other side of the hollow. The distance between Justiceburg and Los Angeles is over 1,100 miles.

The second was when we were driving east through Forrest City, Arkansas, and we saw the skyline of Memphis, Tennessee, which was still 45 miles away. While Forrest City is on Crowley's Ridge, the math says the farthest we should have been able to see at that point is 28 miles. The farthest you can see from the top of the tallest building in Memphis is 24 miles. While those two numbers sum to something more than 45 miles, it seemed strange to me that we could see so much of the Memphis skyline (not just the top of one building, which we probably wouldn't have even recognized).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Reading for My Second Lifetime

Yesterday I came home from work and had a few minutes until we were going to eat. I realized I was out of books to read, so I went through our shelves and pulled a collection of books to work on next.

  1. 摩尔门经.
  2. The Book of Mormon, Language Study Edition (Mandarin).
  3. 69 A.D., by Gwyn Morgan. There are some history periods that interest me more than others. One is late antiquity, one is Arthurian Britain, and one is Late Republic Rome. I've owned this book for over 10 years, probably, but have never gotten around to it.
  4. Don't Mess With Travis, by Bob Smiley. My brother-in-law read this and liked it, then mailed a copy to us. My wife read it and liked it.
  5. The Castle, by Franz Kafka. I read his Trial and liked it enough.
  6. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. I read his Loved One, and it was pretty good. This is taking the place of the Wodehouse book in my life, which is there to mitigate depression. I think I remember reading before that Waugh is funny. The Loved One was funny, I think, but I read it almost 20 years ago.
  7. The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. I feel like I should read more Victorian literature, but it takes SO LONG. These guys were getting paid by the serial installment. Vanity Fair was over 800 pages to tell a 200-page story. I think I will enjoy this, but when controlling for time spent, I'm not sure I'll find it worth it.
  8. Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum. My one son doesn't read as much as we'd like, so we have to search for different types of books that might appeal to him. We find he likes non-fiction adventure somewhat, so I picked up this book for him. He hasn't read it yet, and I figured I should read it to see if it's late-19th-century origin is going to make it too inaccessible for him.
  9. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Currently on page 287, two pages ahead of schedule for completion on Dec. 31.
  10. Freddy Goes to Florida, by Walter R. Brooks. While I've decided that Tolkien is the only book I'm reading to my older kids, my youngest son has progressed enough that he needs longer books read to him. While browsing a used bookstore, I found this. I've read a Freddy book by Brooks to my kids before and they liked it, so I figured a Freddy book set in Florida, where we now live, would be a good fit for us.
  11. Freddy the Detective, by Walter R. Brooks. When I decided to read Freddy Goes to Florida, I thought I should read the first book to introduce the characters. That makes sense, probably. But I was wrong about what the first Freddy book is. It turns out it's Freddy Goes to Florida. So I'm reading Freddy the Detective out of order, for no real reason. That sounds exactly like something I'd do.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Reading Update: Was This "The Rest of My Life"?

Back on January 17th, I wrote this blog post about all the reading I had on deck.

So how have things gone?

  1. A Lesson in Secrets, by Jacqueline Winspear. FINISHED JAN. 30
  2. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Currently on page 287, two pages ahead of schedule for completion on Dec. 31.
  3. Ukridge, by P.G. Wodehouse. FINISHED MAR. 13
  4. Meet Mr. Mulliner, by P.G. Wodehouse. FINISHED MAR. 24
  5. Piccadilly Jim, by P.G. Wodehouse. FINISHED APR. 14
  6. Uneasy Money, by P.G. Wodehouse. FINISHED FEB. 13
  7. Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu. FINISHED MAR. 5
  8. Drawing on the Powers of Heaven, by Grant Von Harrison. FINISHED FEB. 17
  9. Fathers as Patriarchs, by Grant Von Harrison. FINISHED MAR. 23
  10. Seeing with an Eye of Faith, by Grant Von Harrison. FINISHED MAR. 13
  11. Open Water Swimming Manual, by Lynne Cox. FINISHED MAR. 31
  12. The Book of Mormon, Language Study Edition (Mandarin).
  13. 摩尔门经.

During this time, I read some things off the list, also. It's gratifying to have completed (nearly all) of such a giant stack of reading.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Did Britain Cause Indian Malaise, or Did Indian Malaise Attract Britain?

Here's a blog post summarizing an article that quotes from a book. My question is about the book material. As such, I should probably read the book before I pose my question. But I've got things to do, nephew.

The book, Jon Wilson's India Conquered, finds that "economic growth and institutional dynamism" was strongest in the areas of India that escaped direct British rule. And here's my question: isn't it possible that institutional dynamism was a contributing factor to Britain being unable to directly rule those areas? Two Indian states, one with robust institutions and one without, would have different likelihoods of falling under direct British rule. Post-1946, the cultural traits that were the foundation of the institutions are still in place, and so this is where you see subsequent economic growth. It's not that British rule killed the chance of later economic growth, but British rule flourished in places that had the things that would kill the chance of later economic growth.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"There's Too Much Sex"

I wrote a novel that got poor reviews (among the two people who read it). Many of them (all two) mentioned that there was "too much sex."

Now, I wasn't seeking to write an erotic thriller or anything. But I also think that sometimes sex is necessary to tell a story about the human condition (a condition which involves sex), and that there's a difference between sex with meaning and meaningless sex.

Take, for instance, Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. (NOTE: Before we go any further, I am NOT saying, "I wrote a novel which can be compared to a novel that may well end up being one of the classics of our time." Let's just be clear on that. I wrote a novel that was begun by five readers and finished by two, and which was unliked by either of its two completers.) Now, I wouldn't say Submission features a lot of anal sex, but I feel most readers would agree that anal sex is like sriracha sauce: a little goes a long way.

Couldn't Houellebecq have written the novel without any anal sex? I say no, not really. Because the anal sex is an important figure for the total submission that the narrator wants from his sexual partners, which in turn is an important figure for the total submission that the Islamic rulers of France want from the narrator. Submission doesn't contain anal sex because Houellebecq is a perv; it contains it because he's trying to say something about the relationship between European non-Muslims and Islam.

Maybe I don't do a good job saying what I mean to say. That's very likely. But it's also possible that the sex is there for a reason, and if our reaction is to say, "Eww, sex! Skip it!" we will be missing the reason.

Monday, April 10, 2017

If Church Isn't for Drawing Comics, It Must Be for Solving Math Problems

Yesterday in church I asked myself this question: if I had a square piece of paper that I folded in half on an angle, and then folded the tip back to the crease, and then repeated that over and over, what equation would describe the placement of the tip after n folds?

If the square has sides of length equal to one, then the tip will always be on a diagonal line that has length equal to radical two. So I wanted to write an equation where I plugged in the number of folds and what I got back was how far along that diagonal line the tip would be.

Well, I'm not good enough of a mathematician to do that. Instead, all I could do was write an equation that requires you to know position from the previous fold. What I ended up with was this: the position (as measured along the diagonal line) can be represented by the fraction

where l is 2 to the (n-1) and k is the previous value of k, multiplied by 2, then with one either added (for even-number folds) or subtracted (for odd-number folds). So this would look like this:

This works for all n greater than zero. I can't quite figure out how to get it to work for n=0. I know the answer needs to be radical two. The denominator (l of zero) would be two raised to the negative first power, which is one half. So I need the numerator to equal one half. But now I need to know the position of the tip for fold (n-1), which seems like it should be negative radical two, but negative radical two multiplied by two and then added to one doesn't equal one half. So I gave up on being able to have my equation give the position for the zeroth fold.

Also, it appears this sequence is limiting to one third, though I don't remember how to solve that. Like I said, I'm not good enough of a mathematician to do that.

Meanwhile, my Sunday School class was defining "miracles" to be whatever they are currently experiencing in their lives so they didn't have to deal with the implications of Moroni 10:24. And thus we see why I set myself math problems during church: it's much harder to be charitable when you're paying attention (Fundamental Truth of Life #7).

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Greek Life Signalling

A quick look at the Greek alphabet will show that some letters are the same as in the Roman alphabet (or at least look like a Roman-alphabet letter), while others are distinct. Let's call these two groups shared letters and distinct letters. If I'm in a country that uses the Roman alphabet (like the United States) and I go around wearing a shirt with three shared letters on it, you will probably read them as Roman letters. If I want to signal to you that they should be read as Greek letters, I have to include one or more of the distinct letters.

I suspect that the naming of fraternities and sororities is affected by the need to include at least one distinctly-Greek letter in the organization's abbreviation for the purposes of signalling the nature of the organization. And the list of fraternities and sororities at the bottom of this Wikipedia page shows fewer than five names without a distinct letter from a list of more than 100 names. Given that shared letters make up 14/24 (58%) of the Greek alphabet, there's a 19.5-percent chance that you would select three random Greek letters and end up with all shared letters. This is four times more than what we actually see.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Career Path Pitfalls

I'll be the first to tell you that I didn't get into teaching because of any passion for teaching; rather, it was the job that was available when I needed a job. My passion is for economics education. Where that coincides with teaching, I'm a happy, effective teacher. But that coincidence can be rare, and it seems it is becoming increasingly rare.

I have a lot to say about students who don't follow directions, don't read the syllabus, don't take responsibility for their learning outcomes. But I probably can't say it without getting in trouble if it was ever discovered. Let me just say that I find it increasingly difficult to respect the high-school teachers and parents of students who have reached adulthood without ever having to be responsible for a decision they've made. I'm not sure they realize they are making decisions; they speak as if they are constantly backed into a corner with only one way out. I would love to require students to couch all their e-mails to me in "I decided" language, meaning this fairly-typical (fictional) e-mail:

I will be unable to come to class today because of my grandmother's death.
would be written like this, instead:
I decided not to come to class today because I decided to attend my grandmother's funeral instead.
While it still ignores my policy of NEVER E-MAILING ME ABOUT YOUR ABSENCES, it at least presents the student as a rational free-agent instead of a helpless recipient of Fate.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The Broken System of Academia

Here's an article about a guy who solved a long-unsolved mathematical problem and was ignored by the mathematics academic community because he:

  1. didn't use the correct word-processing program.
  2. proved something that people had lied about proving in the past.
  3. was not incentivized to participate in the byzantine peer-review process.
  4. published in an obscure journal of which he is an editor.
One man said, "It was clearly a lack of communication in an age where it’s very easy to communicate." But was it a lack of communication? He typed up his paper, posted it to an appropriate website, e-mailed it to people working on the problem, and published in an academic journal. Communication was happening, it just wasn't happening in the way the system prefers. Perhaps it's the system, not the communication, that's at fault.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

I Am Freaking Akela!

Our Cub Scout pack is running on fumes. I don't mean this as a criticism, just an observation. Our Cub Scout leaders are three single mothers, all of whom work full-time jobs, and two of whom are enrolled in night school. I'm not trying to be critical of how they run the pack; I'm amazed and grateful that it is running at all.

But the fact is, a lot doesn't get done, such as going to the council office and buying awards. I was going to that side of town this morning, so we contacted one of the pack leaders and asked if she would want me to get the pack's awards while I was there. She gratefully said yes.

One of the awards I needed to get was my son's Wolf badge. When I got to the counter, the worker told me I can't buy that without documentation that it was earned. I could fill out a form that said it was a replacement, and they would then check to make sure it was actually earned, but if the leaders had not previously come in to declare the legitimacy of the award, it would appear to be unearned.

What's more, she told me that rank advancements are to be given once each year, at the Blue-and-Gold banquet. I said to her, "I would not participate in a program like that." She didn't appreciate that.

Is this seriously the approved program? We tell a nine-year-old boy to wait up to 11 months to receive an award he earned? And this boy is supposed to be excited to be in this program? Where else in life do we make someone wait 10 percent of his life to receive the benefits of his completed accomplishments?

And what documentation is really necessary when I AM AKELA!?!?! Give me a paper and I will create the documentation. If a parent can sign off all the requirements of the Wolf badge, then keeping a parent from buying the badge is just asinine busy-bodyness.

On Monday I will be writing a letter to the local council and the national organization about the stupidity of making rank advancements a once-each-year thing, and the odious, needless bureaucracy that keeps Akela from buying the badges that Akela can award.