Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Dangers of Homeschooling

Our youngest kid, Screamapilar, spends days at a time in his pajamas. Often he will get dressed twice in a week: Mondays at 3:15 for his online science group sponsored by our library, and Wednesdays at 3:15 for the library's online art group. Some Wednesdays he can't immediately change back into pajamas because he has a Zoom call Primary Activity at 6:30. Those days are trying for him.

One of the unfortunate side effects of allowing him to dress every day like it's Saturday is that he's come to believe it actually IS Saturday on days when it is not. Or whatever day of the week he wants. A few weeks ago he woke up on a Thursday and declared it was Friday. We could not convince him otherwise. Since it was "Friday," he refused to do his Thursday school courses. I told him, "Mom finishes work at 1 on Thursdays and at 2 on Fridays, so when Mom walks in at 1:30, you'll know it's Thursday." But then my wife made some stops on her way home and didn't get here until after 2, which he declared proof that he was right all along. He said, "I know it's Friday because when I woke up I said to myself, 'Tomorrow is Saturday.'"

Today there was a minor disturbance in the dining room. Crazy Jane kicked open my door, carrying a hysterical Screamapilar. She dumped him on my bed and said, "He won't do school because he thinks it's Saturday." Now, just yesterday I had read a Twitter thread from a guy who advocated betting against his children. (I'd link to that but searching Twitter is a fool's errand. If you didn't note the tweet's URL at the moment you saw it, you'll never find it again.) Anyway, the guy's point was that he was using wagering to teach his daughter about knowledge and certainty. So I said to Screamapilar, "I will bet you that it's Thursday, and if I win you owe me a dollar, but--"

"I don't have a dollar!" he said.

"How much do you have?"

"Fourteen cents."

"Fine. If I win you owe me 14 cents, and if you win, I owe you $1,000."

"No, because then I won't have any money."

"So you acknowledge that you will lose this bet?"


"If you are correct and I am wrong, you should turn your specialized knowledge into money. You will be performing a service by educating me of the error of my ways."

"I don't even know if you have a thousand dollars."

"What, I've got to login to my banking app and show you the balance? Fine." I got my phone and showed him my current bank account balance. "So now you'll take the bet?"


"Listen, [Screamapilar], you need to do one of two things right now: either take my bet, or stop saying it's Saturday."

He burried his head in some pillows and made angry noises for a while. But when he came out from under the pillows, he stopped saying it was Saturday, and now he's doing school.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Human Fragility and Evolutionary Advantage: A Possible Answer

Last week I wondered why humans are so uniquely fragile. Since then I've read Elizabeth Kolbert's book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and she has something to say that might be related. With regard to humans causing the extinction of prehistoric megafauna, she notes that species gain from gigantism by being too large to have a predator. Such animals have longer gestation periods, which makes them more susceptible to extinction. (I'd reference page numbers but I already returned it to the library, so you'll just have to trust me: it was in the last couple chapters.) So humans are threatened by childbirth because we have giant babies so our adults are too big for most predators to eat.

Meh, maybe. But why does every wound get infected and kill us? It's not just childbirth fragility that seems odd. Another explanation from Kolbert's book might be that these viruses and bacteria have emerged too recently for our immune systems to have learned how to fight them, but wouldn't that be true for all animals' immune systems? Why are we alone in dying from wounds at so high a rate?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Nobody's Mad at Mosiah

Nephi takes the records and the other accoutrements of leadership and departs into the wilderness (2 Ne. 5:12). Four hundred years later, Mosiah does the same thing (Omni 1:12-14; see Bradley, p. 265). A generation later, Zeniff leads some Nephites back to the Land of Nephi, and he tells us that the Lamanites hate the Nephites because of the actions of...Nephi (Mosiah 10: 12-17; see Belnap, p. 25). Not Mosiah, who stole the same stuff, and much more recently. Mosiah might not even have been royalty, just some dude (Omni 1:12; see Bradley, p. 245). Why are the Lamanites still worked up over Nephi's actions and not Mosiah's?

Works cited:

Belnap, Daniel L. (ed.). Illuminating the Jaredite Records. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2020.

Bradley, Don. The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon's Missing Stories. Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019.

Skousen, Royal (ed.). The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Impossible Over the Improbable

Last month when I was reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion, I came across this argument from G.K. Chesterton with which I was unfamiliar. In his short story "The Curse of the Golden Cross," Chesterton writes this:

"Well," said Tarrant, "it's refreshing to find a priest so sceptical of the supernatural as all that."

"Not at all," replied the priest calmly; "it's not the supernatural part I doubt. It's the natural part. I'm exactly in the position of the man who said, 'I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.'"

"That's what you call a paradox, isn't it?" asked the other.

"It's what I call common sense, properly understood," replied Father Brown. "It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don't understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr. Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr. Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it's only incredible. But I'm much more certain it didn't happen than that Parnell's ghost didn't appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand. So it is with that tale of the curse. It isn't the legend that I disbelieve--it's the history."

This has applications, obviously, to religion, which was probably Chesterton's intent. Does it also apply to conspiracy theories? How would something like QAnon line up with this? Wikipedia summarizes the main idea behind QAnon to be "a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles...running a global child sex-trafficking ring...." I think the order of likelihood of the existence of each element would be something like this:

  • Satan-worshippers pretty conclusively exist--they're raising funds for a statue at the Oklahoma capitol building
  • Pedophiles exist--that's what Jeffrey Epstein was arrested for
  • Child sex-trafficking exists--most of us don't know much about it and we don't want to learn more, but I don't know that anyone would claim it's fiction
  • Cannibals exist--but mostly just random people arrested in Germany every once in a while
  • Do cabals exist? It depends on what counts as a cabal, I guess. Also, any cabal we all knew about would be a pretty lousy cabal.

So none of the elements is impossible, but I think the probabilities compound, like two engines with a ten-percent chance of failure will have both failed only one percent of the time. The probability that QAnon is real is very low. But, according to Chesterton's reasoning, we should become more cautious in our dismissal if they add in an element our personal experience tells us can't be true, like time travel.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Thomas Jefferson, Murderous Psychopath

I started reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. In the second chapter, she writes of mastodon bones discovered in Kentucky in 1739. No one knew what they were for a while, and one European doctor called the animal the incognitum. And this is where psycho Thomas Jefferson comes in.

Writes Kolbert:

Jefferson concocted his own version of the incognitum. The animal was...the largest of all beasts--"five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant."...The creature...was probably carnivorous. But it was still out there somewhere. If it could not be found in Virginia, it was roaming those parts of the continent that "remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed." When, as president, he dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to the Northwest, Jefferson hoped that they would come upon live incognita roaming its forests. [p. 27]

Say what? Jefferson thought there was a carnivorous animal six times the size of an elephant and he sent Lewis and Clark to GO BE EATEN BY IT. That is some straight-up psychopathic scientific discovery. Imagine his disappointment when they returned.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Human Fragility

How did evolution leave our species so fragile? A lion can grab onto a wildebeest and give it a few bites before losing it, and the wildebeest will be fine. Calvin Coolidge's son stubbed his toe and died.

Seriously, what is the maternal mortality rate in the animal kingdom? A gazelle drops a kid and is, like, "Whoa, I feel a lot better now," and walks away. No one is worried about whether the mother gazelle is going to survive. In fact, I can't get any relevant results when I Google "maternal mortality in the animal kingdom." It's all about human maternal mortality. Are we the only species that is SO threatened by childbirth? What's the evolutionary explanation for that? Thrill-seeking women (you get more babies out of a lady who's more likely to die from childbirth because YOLO)? Motherless children grow up to be sexier?

This isn't a "so evolution isn't true!" post; I just don't understand why something as fundamental as reproduction is so dangerous uniquely for humans.

PS: Remember, "math" is the science label.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

The 46th President of the United States

On 12 April 2020 I tweeted, "So I think someone in a #BettingMarket who knows a lot about Cabinet members should be sellings options on the #25thAmendment. Like, is it even REMOTELY likely? NEVER going to happen? How do the odds fluctuate?" And then, because nobody follows me on Twitter, nothing happened. And I don't know anything about which Cabinet members are sycophants and which aren't, so I didn't do anything.

On 6 January 2021 President Trump incited a riot, and now I really wish I knew more about which Cabinet members might be in favor of the 25th Amendment.

Interestingly, back in the 90s I came home one evening and my mother was watching some made-for-TV movie about the president and vice-president both trying to use the 25th Amendment, so I've known about this possibility since then. Short version: if the vice-president and majority of the Cabinet tell the Senate that the president is unfit, the vice-president becomes something called "acting president." Here's the actual amendment.

So who counts as "the principle officers of the executive departments"? The White House website lists 23 people as holding Cabinet-level positions, but differentiates the heads of the 15 executive departments--these are the positions that are in the formal line of succession. Wikipedia says these are the folks:

  • Vice-President Mike Pence
  • Sec. of State Mike Pompeo
  • Sec. of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin
  • Acting Sec. of Defense Christopher Miller
  • Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen
  • Sec. of the Interior David Bernhardt
  • Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Purdue
  • Sec. of Commerce Wilbur Ross
  • Sec. of Labor Eugene Scalia
  • Sec. of Health and Human Services Alex Azar
  • Sec. of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson
  • Sec. of Transportation Elaine Chao
  • Sec. of Energy Dan Brouillette
  • Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos
  • Sec. of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie
  • Acting Sec. of Homeland Security Chad Wolf

Before we go on, can we acknowledge the Sec. of Homeland Security should ALWAYS be someone named "Wolf"? Who are you sending after the terrorists, Mr. President? "Get me The Wolf."

PENCE: I think his behavior yesterday shows he's on-board with this. He presided over the certification of his electoral defeat, and sources say he deployed the National Guard. I say he's a YES.

POMPEO: A guy I know who knows more about the State Dept. than I do has categorized Pompeo as a "snake." NO.

MNUCHIN: People like to make fun of that picture of him and his wife inspecting new sheets of money, but Mnuchin's support for economic stimulus to the citizens instead of big businesses makes me think the guy's all right. YES.

MILLER: Do "acting" secretaries get to vote? Probably; they're the "principle officers" for their departments. Biden's transition team has accused Miller of obstructing. I say NO.

ROSEN: William Barr recommended Rosen to Trump, and Barr didn't like what happened yesterday. YES.

BERNHARDT: He's had several different positions at Interior under two different presidents; does that mean he's "deep state" enough to vote against Trump? YES, I guess.

PURDUE: Former governor who isn't looking to use Agriculture as a springboard to anything (where does Agriculture springboard to? Interior?). YES.

ROSS: New-York businessman who's been in the Cabinet the whole term. NO.

SCALIA: Antonin Scalia's son just CAN'T be a Trumper, can he? I hope not. YES.

AZAR: Anyone associated with HHS, CDC, or FDA right now is suspect. NO.

CARSON: In 2012 Carson seemed like a rational dude. I think Pence could talk some sense into him. YES.

CHAO: She just resigned, but it's not effective until Monday. She's the wife of the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and I think she quit because the two of them would be in an impossible position no matter HOW she voted in a 25th-Amendment situation. Currently the Deputy Secretary of Transportation is a guy named Steve Bradbury who developed legal justification for "enhanced" interogation techniques. NO.

BROUILLETTE: Definitely the Cabinet member with the longest last name. A dad of nine homeschooled kids should probably do the right thing. YES.

DeVOS: She also resigned today. I can't tell if it was effective immediately or not. Her deputy is a guy named Mick Zais, who was a general in the Army and is named after the damned dirty ape who wouldn't keep his hands off Charlton Heston. YES, because Army generals don't appreciate Trump's shenanigans?

WILKIE: Confederate apologist? NO.

WOLF: If we can't rely on The Wolf, who CAN we rely on? But seriously, he supports separating immigrant children from their families, and DHS personnel accompanied Trump on his walk-to-church photo op this summer. NO.

So there you have it. My totally-scientific-in-every-way analysis says that a 25th Amendment vote in the Cabinet would pass, eight to seven.

YES: Mnuchin, Rosen, Bernhardt, Purdue, Scalia, Carson, Brouillette, Zais

NO: Pompeo, Miller, Ross, Azar, Bradbury, Wilkie, Wolf

That's a pretty slim margin for something as monumental as this. So, short of an expedited impeachment, I do not think we're going to end up with a two-week Mike Pence interregnum.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Equality for Me, Dystopian Hellscape for Thee

Last month I wrote about the implied inequality (between men) in gonzo patriarchy. In reading through the footnotes for Leonard J. Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom: Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, I came across this bizarre take on polygamy.

"So far is polygamy from being opposed in spirit to democracy, that it is impossible here, in Salt Lake City, not to see that it is the most levelling of all social institutions--Mormonism the most democratic of religions. A rich man in New York leaves his two or three sons large property, and founds a family; a rich Mormon leaves his twenty or thirty sons a miserable fraction of his money, and each son must trudge out into the world, and toil for himself. Brigham's sons--those of them who are not gratutitously employed in hard service for the Church in foreign parts--are cattle-drivers, small farmers, ranchmen. One of them was the only poorly clad boy I saw in Salt Lake City. A system of polygamy, in which all the wives, and consequently all the children, are equal before the law, is a powerful engine of democracy." Sir Charles Dilke, M.P., Great Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries..., (2 vols.; 2nd ed.; London, 1869), I, 179. [p. 481, fn. 18]

That's fine for impoverishing the polygamist's heirs, but what about the fact that he has "twenty or thirty sons" while others now have none because they can't get a wife? And as for the effect on democracy, given the inheritability of political affiliations, and the negligable effect of money on political outcomes, isn't the concentration of heirs at least as much of a burden on democracy as the concentration of money?

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Efficiency Isn't a Divine Virtue

I remember a bit of a General Conference talk from a few years ago, but I can't find the talk, so I'll have to paraphrase. The speaker was giving advice to people in leadership positions, and basically said, "Don't bring to your church calling the focus on efficiency that you've developed in your professional career." He pointed out that God is not interested in efficiency, since the most-efficient way for a perfect Being to do something is to do it Himself. Instead, He uses us, who are very inefficient, because our learning how to accomplish the task is just as important as completing the task. The speaker warned not to do things yourself that you should be allowing youth to do.

Well, I thought of this when I read a portion of Great Basin Kingdom: Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, by Leonard J. Arrington. In writing about paying tithing in kind (which was acceptable until 1908), Arrington included this passage.

Produce tithing, such as dairy and poultry products, was usually used to support laborers on church public works. For example, an announcement was made in the Deseret News, on July 24, 1852, that a total of 5,046 pounds of butter, 2,254 pounds of cheese, and 1,151 dozen eggs had been received during the preceding fifteen weeks at the General Tithing Office in Salt Lake City. All of this had been given to the families of 320 laborers. The amount of butter tithing would have been greater, it was said, but the merchants had been paying higher prices for butter than those allowed at the tithing office, and thus the Saints had sold their butter to the merchants and paid their tithing in other forms, "forcing the public hands to eat dry bread." [p. 136]

The members probably thought they were performing a good service, getting the highest price available for their items and then contributing 10% of that higher value as their tithing. But tithing isn't about maximizing the Lord's income. Equal access to butter was more important than getting the highest tithing valuation possible.

More evidence that, in my long-running feud with a worker in our local temple baptistry, I'm probably in the wrong.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Our Ward's Liberal Bogeyman

Shortly after moving into our ward in Florida, I caused a stir by interupting a Gospel-Doctrine-class discussion about gleefully shooting robbers to suggest that life trumps property. That was sufficient to make me the suspected liberal that worries the other ward members. My preference for soccer over American football and my lack of support for President Trump has seemed to seal the deal. I'm basically a Communist in their eyes.

Early this year, no one was really sure about the correct response to Coronavirus. To me, this seems like the textbook scenario where it helps to have a prophet. When it is impossible "to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong" (JS-H 1:8), my money is on following the prophet. And what a fortunate coincidence that the current prophet, Russell M. Nelson, is a medical doctor by profession. And my wife and I have taken the long suspension of worship services, the profound changes to both April's and November's General Conference, and the continued closing of temples as a pretty clear guide to follow.

It appears that, in our ward, we're pretty much alone in this. My wife says the bishop regularly sollicits her opinion in Ward Council on matters of social distance, and I said, "It's because they think we're the only ones who care."

I recently read a post on Millennial Star that reflects the (wrong) thinking of many Church members on this issue. Entitled "Ye Shall Not Fear," the money quote is this:

We are also in favor of the Church policy against fear. In fact, if you search on, you will find dozens of talks urging Church members to have faith and not fear the world around us. I have never seen a talk that says that you should not fear, except when there is a virus with a 99.5 percent survival rate if you are under 70 years old.

Now, the Church doesn't have a "policy against fear." What we have is a scripture (Doctrine and Covenants 38:30) that says "if ye are prepared ye shall not fear." That's conditional, not a blanket prohibition. And in the case of Coronavirus, perhaps adequate preparation includes wearing masks. In fact, just eight months after revealing Section 38, the Lord told us, "let the rebelious fear and tremble" (Doctrine and Covenants 63:6). It seems to me that a good indication of rebeliousness is a tendency to listen to President Trump over President Nelson.

I mentioned to my wife the other day that nationally we're experiencing about 3,000 deaths per day, which is the same death toll as the September 11th attacks. A 9/11 every day seems like it would merit a public response. One out of every 500 New Jerseyans has died of Coronavirus. I said, "If we said, 'We're thinking of letting ISIS go through New Jersey and murder one out of every 500 people,' I don't think these folks would be cool with that. They would not be out there saying, 'There's a 99.8% survival rate, so it's no big deal.'"

For the record, I like Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. If that makes me a Communist, I have a hard time believing anyone to the left of Mussolini would satisfy them.

Saint Adjacent

A few years ago, I read an argument along these lines:

Middle-class students believe education is the gateway to the elite class, so they get the degrees that lead to elite jobs, but what they didn't realize was that the degrees are just a smokescreen for the elite children who have the inside track to those elite jobs.

And I cannot find that article anywhere now.

A similar-but-not-quite-the-same argument can be found in this 2015 Marianne Cooper article from The Atlantic, and a similar premise is behind Daniel Markovits's 2019 book The Meritocracy Trap, although I'm pretty sure I read this mystery article before then. I thought maybe I read it (or at least a response to it) on Arnold Kling's blog, but I can't find anything there. So I guess I'm plagiarizing the theory, but at least I'm letting you know that.

Basically, you can imagine three students in an art history program. There are two jobs as museum currators awaiting them. Two of the students are children of the ruling class who will get the jobs as a result of their connections, but you can't just give jobs out, so they are in college getting the degree that will justify their hiring. The third student is an earnest middle-class student who thinks if she gets an art-history degree from an elite school she has a two-in-three chance of getting a job as a museum currator. She thinks she is in a competition and she doesn't know that the winners were chosen before the game even began.

I have been thinking about this for a few days now, the idea of being successful and merely being success adjacent. In any endeavor, there is a group striving for some goal, and within that group are those who will succeed, mixed together with those who are doing all the same work but won't end up with the same success. Originally, the idea came to me because professionally I am success adjacent. But I realized that this idea can be generalized to other areas of life, particularly religious areas.

Two people have the same experience, but only one learns the lesson. Paul was on the road to Damascus with others, but only he saw the Lord. Both Cain and Abel made sacrifices to the Lord. Laman and Lemuel went through all the same character-building trials that Nephi experienced, but without building the character. And in modern times, there are those experiencing mortality and participating at church who will learn the lessons and come out transformed into the saint the Lord wants them to be, and there are those right next to them who have all the same experiences and come out the same as they had been. You can call these people "saint adjacent." And I am saint adjacent.

Ultimately, my being success adjacent isn't going to matter at all, but my being saint adjacent is a problem with eternal ramifications. But I don't know how to fix this. I don't think the explanation is the same for the saint adjacent as for the success adjacent, that they're playing a rigged game without knowing it. Nephi tells us "the way is prepared for all men" (1 Ne. 10:18). There is some difficiency in me that makes me saint adjacent. And it's depressing to realize this but not know how to correct it.