Sunday, August 27, 2017

Changing Minds

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

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Life Is Hard

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

One-Dimensional Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Variance of Speed in the Fast Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Arkansas Provincialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


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

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

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

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

Taylor Swift's Love of Bad Drivers

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

Taylor's boyfriends are terrible drivers. Evidence:

  • "Style"

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


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

  • "Out of the Woods"

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

  • "All You Had to Do Was Stay"

    All I know is that you drove us off the road

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Everybody Sounds Old

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

That's because all the voice actors are old.

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Parallel Stories

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

"No problems here."

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

"Whoa, slow down, racist!"

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

"Preach on, brother!"

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

"Wait, wut?"

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

"Exactly right."

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

Least-Completed States

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Nexus of Wussification and Anthrotheism

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

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Faith in a Faithless Time

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Time Constraints

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

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

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

I still have four kids.

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

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

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