Tag Archives: thoughts

That’s me in the corner

I really do feel that I’ve lost my religion–lost my faith. It was precious to me, and now it’s essentially gone. I don’t feel I made any evil choices that led to this situation, or at least none that I could have done differently and still been me. In that way, I suppose it feels kind of inevitable, but I hate those implications. Continue reading

10 Things [my spouse] Should Never Do… Amirite?

Have you seen  this “article” on the Yahoo! front page?


It was pointed out to me earlier this week, and though I thought there were some good points (e.g., the silliness of caring for one’s own children being called “babysitting”), the article annoyed me. Its tone is bellicose, critical, and patronizing. The author plays both sides of the fence to score cheap “you go girl!” points with the readers. No big deal; stuff like this comes up all the time. But when it started to pop up on the social media sites I occasionally frequent, well, that was it.

Me being me, I immediately reversed the gender role criticisms and wrote a “10 things wives should never do” article. My intent was to show how vicious, petty, and unhelpful the original article was. Alex (my wife) read the draft of my list and noticed that things didn’t always “fit.” You can’t just reverse all gender role stereotypes; they don’t always match up like that. Some do (e.g., stereotypes about both men and women talking about things the other isn’t interested in, spouses not showing appreciation for each other’s hard work on meals/household projects, or each gender believing their traditional role takes more work), but others don’t. If I wanted a list about female stereotypes, I’d have to list actual stereotypes, and then I’d have to write my own belittling insults, instead of using the ones Diane Oatis wrote about men. I was not really comfortable with that. And there were some doozies. Just read through that list and you’ll see them screaming at you. Let me tell you, if I learned one thing from that list, it was that I am thankful to no end that I married Alex instead of Diane Oatis.

If you’re looking for female stereotypes, they’re not hard to find. As Alex pointed out, in our grandparents’ day these stereotypes were dropped casually in conversation and assumed in professional publications. She suggested looking at old magazines for a list of annoying wife habits to counter Diane Oatis’ list. And those old media have them by the dozen: women are incapable of rational thought, terrible at driving, overly emotional, less intelligent than men, unable to make difficult decisions, incurable gossips, etc. It seems that Ms. Oatis and her readers have failed to grasp the point that swinging the pendulum the other way is an investment in pendulum swing, when we should be trying to get away from pendulums altogether.

Thanks to consultation with my media naranja, I didn’t write the list (though I still might, I guess). So maybe I didn’t sink to Ms. Oatis’ level, this time. Such writing does not help anything — it makes problems worse — but it’s a constant temptation. We are different, we boys and girls, and it’s easier to bust out the gender-based one-liners for guaranteed laughs from our homeboys or -girls than it is to work out how best to cooperate for higher goals.

Men and women do have important differences (if you don’t know this, I’m not the one to explain the details). But we have far more similarities, in the final analysis, and exaggerating our distinctions — especially in divisive, sabotaging ways — is not good for any of us. Whether the message comes from the Right packaged as family values or from the Left packaged as feminism, any message that unnecessarily divides men from women and encourages unneeded conflict is bad for us.

Perhaps Ms. Oatis will think about this the next time she feels the urge to make a buck from thoughtlessly fanning the flames of the gender war (I’m sure I couldlearn this lesson a little better, too). And maybe Ms. Oatis would be surprised to learn that few actual feminists would find anything useful in her list.

Hey Middle East, I’ma Try Somethin’

(Map ganked from TheKurds.net)

I have no degrees in history, political science or comparative religion. I have no diplomatic or military experience. I do, however, sometimes think relatively logically, and I try to check my sources most of the time. Therefore, in matters of Resolving Intractable International Problems, I feel I am more qualified than, say, Sarah Palin, and significantly less qualified than, say, everybody else. But I get a thought and it wants to be shared, so here it is:


The Kurds have an incredibly raw deal in many ways. There’s that business with Saddam Hussein killing thousands of them with poison gas, but that’s just the icing on a large, ugly historical cake. They’d really like to have their own nation, apparently. So what about this:

Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia all give up some of their most Kurdishest of regions, temporarily. Say, for a fifty year trial period. Draw up a contract and everything. The Kurds get to govern this region. It’s only limited sovereignty, though. Certain powers, including the power to Take It All Back If The Kurds Don’t Deliver, are reserved for the donor nations during the trial period.

During those years, the Kurds do the following two things:

  1. Prove that they can govern their new territory by way of some economic, political, and other progress metrics, including human rights (i.e., how do the Kurds treat the people who are suddenly the minorities in their region?)
  2. contribute guerrilla-fighter know-how, lots of policepersons and/or soldiers, diplomatic skillz, negotiators, community-builders, liaisons, and whatever else might be useful to anti-terrorism efforts in the donor nations. Thus, the amount of land conditionally donated to the new Kurdish state by each nation might depend on how much they needed fifty years of highly motivated Kurdish human help in reducing terrorism.

This would need to be funded. The donor nations would have to pony up proportional to their ability and need, of course, but the UN (probably with lots of US funding) would need to foot a large part of the bill. The UN could also be the watchdog, making sure everyone held to the contract. This “bill” would not only include outfitting and training the Kurdish personnel (which would be LOTS cheaper than doing the same for American personnel), but would also have to involve a lot of state-building within the hoped-for Kurdish region.

As the fifty (or whatever) years drew down, the UN would evaluate whether the Kurdish proto-state had kept enough of the conditions of its bargain. If not, then power would revert to the original donors, but the Kurds would now have a much-improved place to live, even though they didn’t really run it anymore. Or maybe someone would renegotiate the contract. But if they had done what they said they’d do, the Kurds would gradually return to their new homeland, now with full autonomy.

I think there could be lots of benefits, such as:

  • The Kurds get a homeland
  • Maybe a civil war or two gets prevented, down the line
  • Anti-terrorism efforts are advanced (by people who are a lot more local than us)
  • Ties are formed between the Kurdish state and its neighbors, as well as between the neighbors themselves
  • The Kurdish state gets infrastructure, human-capital, and other support to get off to a good start
  • I get a lucrative consulting job in Washington because of my awesome idea to fix part of the Middle East, thus assuaging my fears of becoming an unemployed ex-junior-professor

Does this sound expensive? It is. But my less-educated-than-everyone-but-Sarah-Palin guess is that the long-term cost would be less than the costs incurred by fifty more years of business as usual. And seriously, we are going to be in Iraq another half century, anyway, so why not make some kind of a reasonable long-term plan for improving things while we’re there, in ways that will make everyone (including us) safer? Maybe not this plan. But some plan.

Sometimes I think American foreign policy is like my housecleaning habits: short-sighted, based on fantasies about messes cleaning themselves up.

Science in its underwear is still science

[flickr width=200 align=right float=right]3980267537[/flickr]So some hackers hacked some scientists’ email accounts and found that science is messy. The scientists can be petty, personal, wounded, angry, and are not always nice people. The science in question is the hot (heh heh) topic of human influence on global warming. Those who done the hacking, or at least done profited from it, claim they’ve found evidence of a global conspiracy. I doubt it. Scientists don’t cooperate enough to pull off a conspiracy of that size.

What seems to have been found is a lot of good science and a little bad science, with plenty of human foibles thrown in. Of course the negative aspects are exaggerated on websites run by climate change skeptics, and minimized by people on the other side of the debate, but it’s really just science in its underwear.

Humans make judgments based on the wrong kinds of information in many circumstances. For example, we sometimes base our judgments of the quality of a group’s arguments on our perception of how consistent the group is in communicating those arguments. That is, we decide how right people are by how consistently they agree. Many groups, aware of this bias, have learned to emphasize consistency and consensus above almost all other virtues. Civil rights groups have implemented this principle for decades. Nancy Pelosi imposed it on the Democrats, after seeing the political benefits of the Republicans’ emphasis on party loyalty. Science has also felt the pressure to unite behind a single message, knowing that the public would find the science itself to be more credible if there were fewer visible disagreements among scientists. Keep the arguments in the family. Don’t air your dirty laundry.

But that’s stupid. People disagree, and their disagreements, per se, have nothing to do with the quality of the ideas they are discussing. In fact, in areas where we don’t actually know for certain what’s going on (e.g., all of science), the disagreements themselves are an important element of the method for approximating the truth more and more closely. Science can never be perfectly certain about anything, but imperfect certainty is not the same as total ignorance; imperfect certainty leads to working suspension bridges, space shuttles that don’t always blow up, cures for diseases, and therapies for mental disorders. Science doesn’t discover Truth, really; it formulates working models. And the models, in most fields, have worked better and better over time.

Sadly, the way many members of the general public see science seems more like religion or theistic monarchy, and that creates problems. Scientists are supposed to be the infallible high priests handing down wisdom from on high. With that setup, any perceived inconsistency is assumed to invalidate the entire enterprise. Always h the baby with the bathwater.

  • A skeleton is found with weird features: throw out a century of evolutionary research.
  • Climatologists can’t explain ten years’ tree ring data: throw out half a century’s findings on climate change.
  • Red wine drinkers in the Mediterranean live longer than other people elsewhere: throw out all we know about the negative effects of alcohol.

Scientists don’t think like this; only certain non-scientists do. Individual findings almost never invalidate an entire body of work (though there are notable exceptions). Science cannot be held to some arbitrary rules of consistency completely divorced from the realities of what science is. Science, although sometimes requiring quite a lot of expertise and knowledge to carry out, is inherently mundane. The steps are humble and unpretentious. You change one thing to see if another changes. You measure two things and see if they are related. You seek the opinions of other people who understand the issues and look for a consensus. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t, but you almost never find unanimity.

Finally, heed the wisdom of Gavin A. Schmidt, a NASA climatologist: “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice. Newton may have been an a**, but the theory of gravity still works.”

Contradictions bugging me today

Contradictions — even (or especially) my own — bug me.

  1. The congresspersons opposing a government-run option in the currently-proposed healthcare reform plan are all beneficiaries of a lavish single-payer healthcare plan funded at taxpayer expense.
  2. Al Gore’s monster mansion and constant airline flights continue to create, like, a thousand Pakistani peasants’ worth of carbon emissions.
  3. We still claim to be a nation interested in peace, but we spend more on our military than anyone else. In fact, we spend about as much as all the other military budgets in the world, combined.
  4. The people pushing for the harshest punishments for illegal immigrants are often the same ones who celebrate our immigrant forefathers. Said forefathers settled here, usually without the permission of the American cultures and nations that were already in place, and often in direct violation of the wishes of the legitimate inhabitants.
  5. Our current President was elected largely as a reaction to the excesses of his predecessor, but he has since followed Bush 43’s lead in his use of executive powers, his capitulation to our oligarchy, his treatment of suspected terrorists (with the arguably small exception of the prisoners in Guantánamo), and even our overseas military involvements.
  6. Several of the lawmakers in the healthcare debate — both pro and con — are accepting donations from organizations with a vested interest in making sure any new program serves corporations rather than American citizens, and it shows.
  7. And finally (drum roll please)…. The GOP’s health care plan for its employees covers abortions.

That last one surprised even my cynical self, I gotta say.

Letters to My Body Parts: Butt

Dear My Butt,

I know we don’t often speak personally like this. Ours is a relationship between gentlemen: we coexist, we do our jobs, and we rarely talk. However, I must tell you how much I appreciate what you do for me. Day after day, there you are: protecting my tender bits and raw bones from hours and hours of being crushed by my upper-body weight. Sofas, hard floors, dirty ground, grass, concrete, my bicycle saddle, and never forget the office chair. Ah, the office chair. If it weren’t for you, Mr. Butt, I would have the synthetic fabric pattern of this chair permanently impressed into my colon. But there you are.

We are men of inaction; lies do not become us. You and I both know you are more corpulent than you have been in the past. I take full responsibility for this. Instead of climbing glaciers and swimming ocean swells, I have been overusing you, in this chair and others, for decades. And I have eaten — oh, how I have eaten! Despite all this, you valiantly work nearly every day to expel as much of my gluttony as you can. But Mr. Stomach and the Intestine Brothers do their jobs too well, and my fat layer grows. And still, under even these circumstances, you manage to grow only in proportion to the rest of me, always perfectly sized to cushion my increasing bulk.

I know you get sore from being sat on. I know you occasionally suffer other maladies brought on by my occasional unwise eating choices. I’m truly sorry for this. Please accept my sincere apologies, and I ask you to remember what we’ve gone through together, especially the two years in Mexico. You remember the two or three weeks of salmonella/typhoid/whatever? Do you remember the horrible “restroom” we spent so many of those days in? The outhouse on the hillside, with crumbling walls and no roof? I certainly do, and you were there with me through all of it. You’re a trooper.

Thank you for doing what you do,


Gay Marriage Issues: Response to Laine

This post is a response to Laine’s thoughtful post/essay on some of the issues involved in the “gay marriage” debate(s). She was interested in a religious person’s POV, and I figured I fit the bill. It’s a monstrous response, and didn’t fit in LiveJournal’s character limit. So, after the cut, the whole way-large response.
Continue reading

“Is There Anything Good About Men?”

Roy Baumeister is one of the most respected social psychological researchers alive today, so when I saw that he had given a talk with the title of this post, I had to read it. It has given me much to think about, and of course I’m going to share.

Baumeister starts by noting the obvious: there is a strong thread of man-bashing in the world (especially in academia). But the talk isn’t just a balance-the-scales exercise; it’s a thoughtful look at why various gender differences might be the way they are, from an evolutionary perspective, and whether the things that make men men might not play an important part in the success of cultures (the answer is yes, if you want to skip the rest of this post).

Dr. B suggests that culture is a higher-level strategy developed for improving our odds of surviving. Thus, whatever works for a culture must also help its members reproduce… at least on average (it’s evolution, yo). The history of gender then shifts from men versus women to men and women in groups versus other groups, and against the harsh realities of the physical world. Many gender differences — biological, social, cultural, psychological — can be seen as adaptations resulting from this struggle.

So, how does culture use (exploit) men to perpetuate itself? Baumeister’s answers are embedded in a “radical theory of gender equality. Men and women may be different, but each advantage may be linked to a disadvantage.” This leads to some very thought-provoking evidence and implications, many of which I’m about to summarize (warning: lots of content after the cut): Continue reading

A post for the kind of people who will never read it

We’re all afraid of the political middle, or so it seems when I look at what passes for political dialogue out there in the blogosphere and on TV. We sometimes want to be able to claim centrism, but most of us don’t have much centrism in our dialogue. Here’s a hypothesis about why this might be so: maybe we’ve bought so fully into the two-party system that we truly see the political world in America as a war between two factions. If you’re not one of us, you’re against us. If you’re not clearly, unquestionably one of us, then you’re also not one of us. So, you darn well better make it clear just how radically left/right you are. Say nothing that could be construed as giving an inch to the enemy.

The nasty secret is that we’re not actually afraid of the enemy; we’re afraid of being branded traitors. The enemy can’t hurt us, in this situation; only our allies can. Continue reading

Mormons, Religion, Democracy, & Capitalism

I just read a thought-provoking opinion piece by Harold Myerson, about U.S. businesses systematically pulling their investments out of westernizing nations like China, and committing to countries like Vietnam, which still have communist economic systems, no unions, no labor laws, low wages, and economic predictability. Communism (in other countries) is good for (our) business. Mr. Myerson ends his piece by suggesting that the American soldiers killed in the Vietnam war “…whose names are on that wall on the Mall probably didn’t realize how compatible with global American enterprise Vietnamese communism would turn out to be or how the cause of democracy would turn out to have been of no real importance at all.”

This essay got me thinking, as I often do, about governments, economics, and religion. The connections here might not be totally apparent at first, but bear with me. Perhaps this will all hang together by the time I’m done.

We Mormons believe that the Founding Fathers of the USA were inspired to develop the system of self-government that was established in New England in the 1770s . We also have a book of scripture detailing struggles between self-government and totalitarian rule in two precolumbian civilizations. Some of us even remember that the ancient nation of Israel had a similar struggle ((The system of judges that was — against the Lord’s wishes — supplanted with a monarchy)), early on. Unfortunately, in the talk about the inspired nature of democracy, we seem to gloss over the issue of economics, lumping it in with the politics.

If you spend any time in LDS groups in the US, you will encounter many people who vigorously defend capitalism and the pursuit of individual wealth. It’s clear that modern revelation allows for this system (I don’t think there’s any special circle of hell reserved for capitalists or business owners), but the scriptures provide much more endorsement of noncapitalist economic systems as the ideal for the Lord’s people. Ancient Israel, the so-called “Primitive Church,” the Nephites (and Lamanites) at their most righteous — all had property systems distinctly different from our modern American/European capitalist system. Even in the mid-19th century, the Church briefly practiced a communal form of property ownership and redistribution ((Notably, this modern implementation failed, because of human greed and short-sightedness. Also notably, there has always been an understanding that the Church will someday be required to try it again.)) with the express goal “…that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low” (D&C 104:16).

Don’t get me wrong; none of these systems was communism, or really even socialism. But they were also most certainly not capitalism, as we know it today ((The case of ancient Israel may seem an exception, and I acknowledge that personal wealth accumulation was allowed under this system, but consider the following facts: nobody could possess, buy, or sell the land in any fundamental way; wages and certain labor conditions were fixed by divine decree; all debts were supposed to be periodically canceled, no matter their size; and usury was restricted. Also please consider the idea that, like our current American capitalist system as regards the American LDS church, the economic system of the ancient Israelites may have been largely a modification of the system of their previous culture, modified by revelation — not a wholesale new economic system put in place by God.))

Back to the present: many Mormons, in my experience, seem to think that, just as liberal ((Conservatives: do not get upset. The term “Liberal Democracy” refers, here, to most republican/democratic systems in the modern world where individuals have liberal amounts of personal freedom. It doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of tree-huggers.)) democracy is the government system established by God for our time, capitalism is His economic system. The first part (politics) is firmly established by revelation, but I’m not sure they have a leg to stand on, for the second part (economics). Although the Lord clearly tolerates our current American economic system, with its hugely uneven accumulation of individual wealth, I can’t think of a single instance where He recommends it. And I can think of at least a dozen where He either suggests or outright states that inequality in wealth is a Very Bad Thing, especially among the members of His Church.

Why, then, do we hang on to this feeling that our current economic system is inspired (or at least endorsed)? The traditions of our fathers, for one thing. No matter how powerful an ideology or doctrine is, culture often has an influence on people that is nearly impossible to supplant. As my friend Amanda and I were discussing the other day, the flavor of Catholicism is influenced by the cultures in which it has been implemented ((Central and South America are the examples we discussed, and the effect can be striking in those regions)), and the same is true with Mormonism. The Gospel was re-introduced in the fledgling United States, to Americans, and it has had an American flavor ever since. ((Didja ever notice how, when the Gospel was introduced to nomadic livestock-herding tribes in the Middle East, it sorta had that flavor for a while, too?))

Culture can be a harsh mistress. We have mechanisms ((Gossip, mockery, intimidation, shunning, the police, the military, homeowners’ associations)) to pressure cultural deviants either back into the mainstream, or — failing that — completely out of our society as traitors. An unquestioning belief in the divinity of capitalism makes it easier to fit in with friends, co-workers, and fellow students in conservative circles in the US. It certainly makes it easier to feel good about North Americans being the richest people on earth. It makes it easier to buy things we don’t really need at Wal-Mart and Best Buy, while the cultural deviants are going on about consumerism and sweatshops in third-world countries. And it certainly reduces the mental effort required ((Remember, right after 9/11/01, when our government told us that the best way we could fight back against terrorists was to go shopping? Oh, excuse me. I just vomited a little. In my mouth, you know.)) when considering U.S. actions with economic consequences abroad.

Acceptance of our culture reduces the need to think carefully about lots of things.

Of course, acceptance of an alternative culture has exactly the same problems as accepting a dominant culture. Belieeeeve me, I see many of the moral problems inherent in so-called “liberal culture” in the U.S. ((Even though I kinda identify with “liberal culture” at least as much as “conservative culture,” these days.)) I can’t blame anyone who decides that these moral compromises are worse than those involved with “conservative culture,” and puts their eggs in the latter basket.

The world often poses us with untenable options, such as “liberal vs. conservative.” True religion often gives us (and requires of us) outside-the-box choices that don’t fall into any of the prefabricated alternatives presented by our culture. It is my belief that God has — if not a culture, per se — certain critical elements of culture ((You know, kindness, personal integrity, taking care of the poor, etc.)) that He wants implemented in the communities of people who follow His advice, and they don’t always line up nicely behind accepted political opinions. By the same token, there are many aspects of the cultures marinating us that are incompatible with His guidelines.

Although it’s hard for people (like me) who grew up in the Church to realize sometimes, the culture that the Lord would have us adopt may not always seem comfortable or familiar to us.
Human cultures are amazing, complex phenomena. They have emerged over thousands of years, through the fascinating, tawdry, glorious and mundane social processes that we humans wallow in. But to settle comfortably into one of these cultures, and uncritically insist that it is God’s will that we do so is a serious mistake.