Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In Eve's Mind

A mutiny
A rebellion
A betrayal
A crime
A wound
A desecration
An impurity
A sin
A transgression
A mistake
An error
A guess
A deviation
A choice
A change
A chance
A decision
An opportunity
A journey

A vision

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Teasing the King

After King Benjamin died (~121 BC), the first thing his son Mosiah did was send out a search party for the long lost Zeniffite pilgrims. We are told he did this because, his subjects "wearied him with their teasings." (Mosiah 7:1)

Am I the only one who gets a kick out of this image? A nerdy, neurotic kid-king in the royal cafeteria, with the jocks/courtiers throwing crumpled up bits of parchment at him, calling him names like "mostly-magisterial Mosiah" or "little Mo Peep" or "the seer who can't even see the end of his nose."

And finally, after three years of just taking this crap he's like, "no, Biff! Lay your hands off my mom! I'm gonna FIND the lost city and I'm gonna PROVE they're still alive!"

And he rallies a rag-tag group of sixteen guys led by Ammon to go up into the mountains to find them! And it's the Goonies.

Apart from the great cinema that would be, the image just doesn't jibe with a real-world setting. So I looked up "teasing" in Webster's 1828 dictionary (the version of the English language that was used when Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon) and it said:

TE'ASINGparticiple present tense Combing; carding; scratching for the purpose of raising a nap; vexing with importunity

Then I had to look up vexing and importunity. And nap.

Anyway, "vexing for importunity" back in 1828 merely meant pressing for something persistently. Doesn't say anything about sophomoric hazing.

Not, as dictionary.com today has:
to irritate or provoke with persistent petty distractions, trifling raillery, or other annoyance, often in sport.

So, the mystery's solved!
Our language evolved.
The peasants involved
wanted issues resolved;
it never devolved
into petty ribald.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Essential Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives

Several years ago I was chatting with a young, atheist, and fairly liberal friend about a mutual friend who had recently been sent home early from his Mormon mission. When he asked me why Elder R. had to come home, I responded that it was for immorality. He paused silently for a moment, then asked, "What does that mean? Did they put him alone in a room with a cat and a hammer and see what he would do? ... And he failed?"

I've long wondered what the difference is between liberals and conservatives. Not just platform and policy differences. Not just the mud that gets slung. What is at the root?

On Being's Krista Tippett recently interviewed social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt and he outlined a revolutionary (to me) new concept: liberals have a different morality than conservatives.

Haidt describes the five foundations of morality in these words:
  1. Compassion
  2. Fairness
  3. Authority
  4. Loyalty
  5. Sanctity
In his research, he found that conservatives prioritize all five. Together they constitute morality. Liberals focus exclusively on compassion and fairness and reject the last three foundations, even classifying them as immoral:
  • For a liberal, obedience to authority may be characterized as blindly following, like a sheep or a Nazi private who was "just following orders." Thinking for oneself coupled with independent, courageous action are held up as superior standards (think Edward Snowden).
  • Loyalty to one's group creates firm boundaries: exclusionary boundaries that might marginalize outsiders -- this is where racism and other bigotry begins. Better to be inclusive, they say, and just drop the insular group identities.
  • Sanctity relates to maintaining the purity of sacred objects, spaces, events, and ideas. Sexual purity is one example of a sacred concept liberals reject as parochial and oppressive (and what my friend mistook for a cat-and-hammer test). Sanctity of unborn life and traditional marriage are others.
By rejecting these last three foundations, liberalism puts all its weight on the first two, which means the two sides can talk about the "morality" of some decision and not understand one another at all. A common argument in our day is that religious fervor has been a major impetus for violence globally. Tippett brought this up in the interview and Haidt had a really striking answer:
Ms. Tippett: It’s also true, and we certainly have this specter in the 21st century, that religious energies are at the center of a lot of the, well, morally justified violence, ... moral anguish. So how would you explain the fact that this seeming contradiction that religion — that religions...
Dr. Haidt: Oh, it’s easy.
Ms. Tippett: ...are carriers of morality and also...
Dr. Haidt: Yeah, easy.
Ms. Tippett: ...that — that, uh, that those very same energies become most destructive.
Dr. Haidt: Well, if you think that morality is being nice and kind to people, well, then, yeah, boy it sure looks like a paradox. But if you go with me that — that morality is these many things, and a lot of it is, "are you a good group member or are you pursuing your own interests?" And those group interests often are about intergroup conflict. So, if you think about religion as functioning to bind groups together, well then, it’s no paradox. A lot of that is nasty stuff.
In trying to meet the demands of five pillars of morality instead of two, conservatives tend to be viewed by liberals as lacking in compassion and fairness. This, in addition to getting the blame for blind obedience, racism, and prudishness, make for a pretty uphill battle in the war for public acclaim. Add to this the fact that liberalism currently has quite an edge on messaging. Hollywood, academia, and most media outlets, especially the rising internet culture give a generous nod to compassion and fairness, while generally shying away from authority, loyalty, and sanctity.

For all the problems authority, loyalty, and sanctity might cause (and I do acknowledge them), there are many positive outcomes as well. The leftist aphorism to "question authority" should be applied to itself once in awhile, because authority, loyalty, and sanctity are also the pillars of stability, cooperation, and institution-building. Consider how much would get done at your workplace without a boss, or how your family would fare without loyalty. We need these elements, and they need to be included to some degree in everyone's moral code.

We need both camps for a checked-and-balanced society. Liberals are well equipped to challenge entrenched corruption. Conservatives are able to establish enduring social structures. What we most desperately need today is to better understand one another. I hope this essay gets us one step closer to that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Axioms

Every argument you encounter begins with axioms. Axioms are assertions that are perceived to be so evident as to be accepted without controversy. In general, they are described as claims that can be seen to be true without any need of proof. They are accepted without demonstration.

For example, Euclid's first axiom is that it is possible "to draw a straight line from any point to any point." We have a hard time imagining two points that cannot be connected by a straight line, so we grant this assumption and he moves on with a bunch of proofs about triangles. But he could not proceed with his proofs if you do not grant him that initial toehold.

When Sir Isaac Newton formulated the physical laws of motion, one of his chief axioms (which he probably never thought to question) was that time moved forward at a rate of one second per second, regardless of your frame of reference.

After 200 years, Einstein proved Newton's axiom was flawed. It turns out time flows slower for moving clocks than for stationary clocks. Space and time are intimately related, but none of us had ever felt that before because none of us had moved so fast as to observe it. (We still haven't moved fast enough to feel it, but the effects have been measured by very precise clocks).

In mathematics, axioms are treated very thoughtfully and documented well. In other disciplines, the underlying assumptions are very often invisible to everyone, including the arguer. This can have treacherous effects.

Star Trek made hay out of the apparent disparity between logic and emotion (Mr. Spock vs. Capt. Kirk, Mr. Data vs. Counselor Troy), but actually each worldview is both logical and emotional. They just have very different axioms guiding them.

Our society, of late, emphasizes mathematics and the hard sciences: the technical "logical" worldview. Quite often in my physics classes, my professor would begin by describing a scenario, and in order to fit the problem to the set of equations he was teaching, would make "simplifying assumptions."

"If we assume the cow is a frictionless sphere..."

"Imagine this one-inch thick plate is infinitely long and wide..."

"We assume that all pulleys are mass-less and frictionless..."

"Consider a circular pipe of infinite radius..."

While these were very helpful in uncomplexifying my homework, I believe it also had a subtle effect on my worldview. The unstated axiom that seemed to seep in is that all things are reducible to sterile abstractions. And the corollary, if every thing is a sterile abstraction, each thing has equal value.

"Trees are merely particular configurations of protons, neutrons, and electrons like you or me or that mountain."

"Grandpa's bedsores are fascinating epidermic reactions to sustained friction."

"There is no logical reason to cover our nudity in public."


In contrast, the human-centric "emotional" worldview accepts the following assumptions: people are real and people are more important than things. It also takes into account the entire, complex human system, an obstacle the technical worldview tends to discard.

The human-centric worldview is just as logical as the technical. For instance, there is a very logical reason to eschew public nudity, given their axioms: seeing another naked human has real psychological and physiological effects on the human system that may be difficult for some people to manage. (Granted, the words "psychological" and "physiological" come from the technical domain, and these technical fields are catching up to the human-centric worldview in many important ways, but from an incompatible axiom.)

Similarly, in the debate on curse words, the technical world cannot see any qualitative differences between the words "sass" and "ass," since they are merely composed of a rearrangement of the same two phonemes. That is perfectly true in a simplified universe populated with no humans, but as soon as you collide those words with a human (English-speaking) ear, you will find a qualitative difference in her reaction. And because people are important, we choose which word we use with care.

Emotion is an integral part of the human system and it is also perfectly logical within the human-centric worldview. It is through emotion that human needs and wants are communicated, comfort is given, stress is managed, and decisions are made. Emotion only appears illogical to those who apply simplifying assumptions to the human system.

Because human systems rely on emotional signalling to place weight on ideas, and because humans comprise the majority of those who think technically, the technical worldview is very highly emotional. Think of the sense of pride you get when you solve a difficult problem, the disappointment and frustration that follows checking the answers in the back of the book. The superiority you feel when you leave a comment on an internet message board. We humans are driven by emotion, whether we accept that fact in our worldview or not.

Having a technical outlook is good and helpful for certain situations. So is a human-centric point of view for many more situations. There are myriad other ways of viewing the world, too. The important thing is to recognize your underlying axioms and take stock of how they may be influencing your arguments and decisions. And understand how someone else might choose their axioms.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Large numbers

We don't have enough experience with large numbers to hold them in our minds. A million, a billion, and a trillion are all just abstractions for "many" that we tend to equate with "more than I would care to count."

But they are hugely different!

Here's a simple illustration: count to ten. That's roughly ten seconds and easy to grasp. Have you got that length of time in your head? Okay now, how much is a million seconds?

One million seconds = 11.57 days, or more than a week and a half. That's a lot of seconds! A million seconds might measure the amount of time between laundry loads or of a pretty good vacation.

One billion is one thousand millions.
One billion seconds = 31.69 years. That's a big chunk of a person's lifetime. A billion seconds ago it was 1982 and John Belushi died. Michael Jackson released Thriller. Madonna's musical career began in earnest.

One trillion is one thousand billions or one million millions.
One trillion seconds = 31.69 millennia. One trillion seconds ago it was about 30,000 B.C. and earth was in the Pleistocene epoch. Glaciers covered 30% of earth's surface. Mammoths, mastadons, saber-toothed cats, and Neanderthals were about to become extinct.

Compare a laundry cycle to Madonna's career. Compare both of those to the time of the last ice age.

Example:
The current national debt in America is over $17 trillion dollars (usdebtclock.org).  
In 2012 PBS received $27 million from Congress.
I have heard some conservatives claim that cutting PBS's funding will restore balance to the debt (or at least reduce the burden somewhat, "sorry, Big Bird"). You'd need to cut half a million PBS's before you'd start really noticing any change to the debt.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Etiquette for Moving

It's Saturday morning. You're in your pajamas, enjoying Life cereal, watching the Road Runner effortlessly thwart another attempted homicide. You get a text: "Hey I'm moving today. Can I borrow your hammer and drill?"
"Sure. So are you asking for help moving, too?"
"Yeah that would be great"
Umm... ugh... Could you have asked a week ago? Of course you can't just leave your friend in a lurch, so you text back, "sure when" with no punctuation, to suggest a deadpan glare.
"right now. Rental truck's timer is ticking"
Sigh. You put on pants, get in your car and arrive to find a house in disarray. Clothes scatter the living room. Dirty dishes stacked two feet above the counter level in the sink. Watermelon rinds are inexplicably stuffed between sofa cushions. "NOTHING IS IN BOXES!" you scream inwardly.
"Glad you could make it, you're the first one here!" your friend says, as you put air quotes around the word 'friend' in your mind.
Your anxiety inflates as you count the furniture and compare it to the number of lifters (2) and to the size of the truck (too small). How many loads will this take? He's moving to Hyrum, a twenty-five minute drive, one-way. Does he have any help on the other end to unload?
Thirty minutes pass as you carry drawers full of things you never wanted to see (or smell) down the stairs into a bad Tetris game of a U-Haul. "Who else is coming?" you inquire, politely.
"Uh I don't know. I put it on Facebook this morning, so..."
"Yeah, but who else did you text?"
"Oh, should I do that?"
"Yeah." You almost let yourself trip on the stairs, so the desk will land on you and you can go to the emergency room.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Journal entry 18 Feb 2010

I woke up to an alarm this morning and I felt energized and motivated for the day. Yesterday was the opposite -- I languished in bed and finally pulled myself vertical. It seems counter intuitive but I think I like restricting myself.

"Restricting" is negative word. Maybe it's more about making my decisions ahead of time instead of in the moment, when I feel vulnerable and I second-guess myself.

Second-guessing comes mostly from not knowing. Lack of information prevents good planning and that makes me wonder why we passed through the veil of forgetfulness. Surely we can use all the knowledge we can get, right?!

This is agency. Being a successful agent is more than just having freedom to choose. It means knowledge-gathering and planning. Deciding early what you want, remembering that desire, and acting swiftly and confidently in the moment.

What about spontaneity? Those who believe they preserve their freedom by saving decision making for the last minute are actually becoming things to be acted upon (objects), for it is at the last minute when we confront our most limited selections and we may be forced into a choice of two or more bad options.

Agency is not only a means to salvation. Ripened agency -- the fortitude to inform oneself and decide your course deliberately -- is also the very fruit of salvation. It is godliness.