Monday, December 28, 2015

Our Star Wars Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas we made time to watch a few Christmas movies as a family. As usual, we watched A Christmas Story and the musical Scrooge. I brought nostalgia for these films into our marriage years ago and now they are Christmas favorites for (at least some of) our children.

Some of the kids watched the live version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I was pleased to have missed out on yet another viewing of that frenetic film. We have a stack of DVDs of other Christmas movies, including a number of animated and live action films. The kids have seen the various Tim Allen Santa Clause movies enough that they rarely watch those anymore. Not one of my kids likes The Polar Express, likely due to the uncanny valley effect.

Due to the way things worked out this year, we enjoyed Christmas morning with all seven members of our nuclear family and nobody else, for the first time in many years. I figured that since we no longer had small children, we'd be able to sleep in a bit. But apparently our junior high and high school kids still found Christmas morning magical enough to make the rest of us get up at 6:30 am.

The middle of the day was filled with family and food. As evening settled in, it was back to our nuclear family. Our two youngest insisted that we sit down and watch a Christmas movie together as a family. But then bickering ensued about which film to watch.

After the two main parties went back and forth for half an hour, I thought I'd play the funny man by suggesting that we watch Star Wars. Instead of laughter, one child noted that our youngest had never seen the first Star Wars movie (now episode IV). As a family Christmas gift, my wife had purchased tickets to see The Force Awakens the following day. She thought it would be good to review A New Hope before going to see the newly released film. I looked around the family room and saw a lot of head nodding.

Soon the lights were turned down, popcorn was popped, and the family was watching Star Wars IV. I said something to the effect that this must be a great Christmas movie. After all, more than one family in the neighborhood had some kind of Star Wars themed inflatable Christmas yard ornament.
For the record, the connection between Christmas and Star Wars continues to elude me. As does the appeal of inflatable yard ornaments of any kind. We didn't make it far into the movie before I realized that I had forgotten how whiny Luke Skywalker was in that movie.

OK, so Star Wars isn't much of a Christmas movie. But the family seemed to enjoy watching it together sans contention. Maybe that's more important.

The following day after lunch we sat in a packed movie theater to watch the new Star Wars movie. Don't worry, I'm not going to reveal any serious spoilers here. Besides being exciting, it had good special effects, fun callbacks to other Star Wars movies, acceptable acting, at least one gut wrenching scene, and unanswered questions that set up sequels. C3PO and R2D2 played more minor roles than they did in the original trilogy. C3PO's initial appearance was deliberately annoying. I laughed when one of my kids leaned over and whispered, "Worst human-cyborg relations droid ever!"

The entire family enjoyed the Star Wars excursion. It caused me to reflect on the enduring nature of the Star Wars franchise. I first saw Star Wars in a movie theater in Honolulu, after having spent the summer working in the pineapple fields on the island of Lanai, which was pretty rustic back in those days. Given the nature of our work, schedule, and surroundings, we hadn't heard much about the Star Wars phenomenon. But our entire 17-member group waited in a line that was several blocks long to watch the film.

Within a short time after returning home, it became clear that Star Wars was a pretty big thing. I saw the second movie by special permission while serving as a missionary in Norway. Given that Norway had a population of less than five million and a high rate of English proficiency, they rarely dubbed films into Norwegian, relying instead on Norwegian subtitles. I still remember being sorely disappointed at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

Critics were happier with episode V than with episode IV, but I walked out of the cinema feeling that I had been robbed of an episode IV-like strong positive ending and a knowledge that I had to wait another three years to see the conclusion. Return of the Jedi finally provided the positive thrill I had hoped for with episode V, but I still feel conflicted about the whole Darth Vader deathbed repentance thing.

I watched the Star Wars prequels as a father seeing them through the eyes of my children. Frankly, I was appalled by the bad acting and brain dead writing in Revenge of the Sith. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had endured the film simply to finish a series I had started watching nearly three decades earlier. I consoled myself by telling myself that my expectations were likely too high and that I wouldn't have cared much for the first movie if it had had a 28-year build up. But even then I knew that wasn't completely true.

It would seem that many agree that JJ Abrams has produced a much higher quality film this time around. But even after seeing it, I still think that my favorite film from the Star Wars franchise to date is the short Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace. It is chock full of quirky humor and callbacks to other Star Wars works. (Not everyone will appreciate this kind of work, but I think it's great.)

After getting home from the movie, the two older boys left to return to their apartment near the University of Utah campus, where they are majoring in different engineering disciplines. Our family Christmas gathering, which had begun on Christmas Eve, was done for the year.

With one son leaving in a few days to serve for two years as a missionary and the older boys working toward graduation and life thereafter, we may never have another Christmas with just the seven of us. Life is meant to progress like that. But I will long cherish this year's Star Wars Christmas — not so much for the movies, but for the shared experience.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sometimes I hide from my inner Good Samaritan

I felt a familiar surge of irritation as I noticed that traffic was backed up at the busy intersection ahead. This intersection is noisome even on good days, at least when I'm on my way home from work. You are prohibited from turning right on a red light, even if there is no oncoming traffic. (In Utah you can generally turn right on a red light after stopping and ensuring that the way is clear.) So I was preconditioned to have a somewhat surly mood as I approached the intersection. Seeing the traffic backed up only enhanced that sentiment.

As vehicles slowly moved through the intersection, I finally got close enough to see the source of the problem. A lone man was pushing a pickup truck across the wide intersection. As I rounded the corner, I saw a car parked at the curb. It suddenly dawned on me that the man pushing the truck was the driver of the car. A woman was steering the truck as the man strained to push it, while other vehicles zipped by.

"You could pull over and help the man push the truck," said the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37) that lives somewhere in my mind. "Yeah, I could," I responded, "but by the time I got there, the truck would already be pulled to the shoulder on the other side of the intersection. Besides, traffic is heavy enough that trying to get to the truck would be dangerous."

A moment later my inner Good Samaritan said, "You might not get there in time to push, but maybe you could provide some other kind of assistance." "What, me?" I shot back. "You know I'm no good with mechanical stuff, especially when it comes to cars and trucks. It's not like they need my phone; everyone's got cell phones nowadays. It would be awkward. Besides, I frequently serve others. Do I really need to do it this time?"

The intersection was receding in my rear view mirror as I was having this conversation. As I accelerated, the Good Samaritan voice I had been hearing became quieter. I cruised my way home, but I knew inside that, like numerous other drivers that had passed the scene, I had been the priest or Levite while the sole man pushing the truck had been the Good Samaritan.
It's not like I haven't been steeped in the doctrine of service to others throughout my life. It's not as if I haven't deliberately gone out of my way to serve others. Often. It's not as if I don't belong to organizations where I actively reach out to serve. But sometimes I excuse myself from unplanned service, especially when it seems inconvenient.

A few days ago I happened to be working from home when my wife came in and said that a neighbor lady's car battery was dead. I may not know that much about cars, but I have successfully jumped dead car batteries many times. At my wife's importuning, I got up and went across the street as my wife pulled her car up along side the one with the dead battery. I soon attached the battery cables as the lady started the car and brought it to life. She was very grateful as she hurried away to pick up some relatives from the airport.

I went back across the street, stowed the battery cables and returned to my computer. Although the task had taken only six or seven minutes I  grumbled at the interruption, because interruptions can really throw someone doing a deep thinking task like software development completely off track.

I was just starting to get my head back into my work when my olfactory senses started to pick up on some undefined foreign scent. I sniffed my hands. Nothing. looked at my shirt. It looked OK. I checked my pant cuffs. Nothing there. Just then my mental classification system kicked in. "If I didn't know any better," I thought to myself, "I'd think that odor smells very much like ... cat crap!"

Oh, no! The neighbor I had helped owns cats. A quick check of the bottom of my shoes revealed the telltale yellowish greenish goulash of feline excrement firmly embedded in the well defined tread pattern of my fairly new hiker shoes. Although I immediately pulled the shoes off my feet, I realized that I had likely tracked pussycat poop all through the house.

The next few minutes were occupied by cleaning the bottoms of my shoes and cleaning spots on the flooring where I had stepped while wearing poopy shoes. This took much longer than the original car starting task had taken. I re-grumbled as I again tried to reengage my software developer brain.

There are lessons I can learn from both of these events. I really do enjoy serving others. But I like to do it on my own terms. It's best if it's planned and on my schedule. Sometimes I don't respond well when service opportunities inconveniently present themselves suddenly.

Years ago, Elder Rex D. Pinegar (then of the Seventy) told the following story.
One morning several years ago I was driving with my family to Disney World in Florida. Our four young daughters were excited as we approached the turnoff to that famous park. The laughter and happy chatter stopped suddenly, however, as our rented station wagon sputtered and chugged to an unexpected stop on the exit ramp. Many cars sped by us in the rush-hour traffic as I tried unsuccessfully to get the car running again. Finally, realizing there was nothing more we could do, we got out of the stalled car and huddled together off the road for a word of prayer.
As we looked up from our prayer we saw a smiling, handsome man and his son maneuver their bright red sports car through the lanes of traffic and pull off the road beside us. For the remainder of the morning and into the afternoon these men assisted us and cared for our needs in many kind and helpful ways. They took us and our belongings to the receiving area at the park. In their small car, it took several trips. They helped me locate a tow truck for the stranded car; they drove me to the rental agency to get a replacement vehicle. Then, because there was some delay, they drove back to where my family waited to let them know where I was. They bought refreshments for them and then waited with my family until I returned several hours later.
We felt that these men were truly an answer to our prayer, and we told them so as we said good-bye and tried to thank them. The father responded, “Every morning I tell the good Lord that if there is anyone in need of my help today, please guide me to them.”
Elder Pinegar went on to explain that planned and institutional acts of service are "important and commendable. They are the mark of a Christian people." But these opportunities "cannot fulfill the responsibility you and I have for personal acts of Christlike kindness. These lift our soul and renew our relationship with our Heavenly Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ."

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently detailed the following discussion between an 11-year-old girl name Eva and her Great-Aunt Rose.
Eva ... said, “But surely being busy isn’t what made you happy. There are a lot of busy people who aren’t happy.”
“How can you be so wise for someone so young?” Aunt Rose asked. “You’re absolutely right. And most of those busy, unhappy people have forgotten the one thing that matters most in all the world—the thing Jesus said is the heart of His gospel.”
“And what is that?” Eva asked.
“It is love—the pure love of Christ,” Rose said. “You see, everything else in the gospel—all the shoulds and the musts and the thou shalts —lead to love. When we love God, we want to serve Him. We want to be like Him. When we love our neighbors, we stop thinking so much about our own problems and help others to solve theirs.”
“And that is what makes us happy?” Eva asked.
Great-Aunt Rose nodded and smiled, her eyes filling with tears. “Yes, my dear. That is what makes us happy.”
Service by itself doesn't make us happy. The pure love of Christ makes us happy. While we often feel this love when serving others, those filled with this kind of love naturally serve. If I had been filled with this charity (see Moroni 7:47-48), I would have loved the woman in the stalled truck and the man pushing her truck enough to stop and help, instead of giving excuses to my inner Good Samaritan.

I didn't know about my neighbor's dead battery until my wife alerted me to the problem. Still, even if I had known, would I have gotten up off my duff and done something about it without my wife's encouragement? I would have if I had been filled with Christ-like love. Sometimes an invitation can help us get outside of ourselves and help others.

What about the cat crap on my shoes? If you're going to follow Jesus Christ, you have to accept the fact that you're going to have to deal with some crap when it comes to serving others. Service can be inconvenient, problematic, and even dangerous.

But I suppose that it was pretty inconvenient for the Savior when He bled great drops of blood for me in Gethsemane and when He allowed himself to be tortured to death on the cross for me. But He has a fullness of joy. And He wants you and me to have it too. I'm sure that in the long run we will see that the trade off is well worth it.

I want to go there. But I still often find myself listening to my inner priest or Levite on the road to Jericho, instead of listening to my inner Good Samaritan. Like Nephi, I am sometimes frustrated with my own wretchedness (see 2 Nephi 4:17-18). But God doesn't want us to think of ourselves as hopeless cases.

Pres. Uchtdorf recently said, "God will take you as you are at this very moment and begin to work with you. All you need is a willing heart, a desire to believe, and trust in the Lord." Like the desperate father that cried out "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:23-24), I feel like crying, "Lord, I am willing; help thou my unwillingness." If I keep working at it, I know that God won't give up on me.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

You can learn a lot about people by going to a buffet

I took my son to lunch yesterday. What better way to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving than to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet? It seems that our culture has determined that the proper way to give thanks is to gorge ourselves on loads of comfort foods on the fourth Thursday in November. So going to a buffet the day after Thanksgiving must show double gratitude.

We chose a nearby buffet because my son was famished, having missed breakfast that morning. One of the advantages to a buffet is that everyone can get something to eat right away. There's no looking at menus, waiting for someone to take your order, etc. You just grab a plate, put some food on it, sit down, and start eating.

Actually, I noticed that many diners didn't wait to get back to their seats before sampling the fare. At a buffet it's no problem if you end up picking something you don't like. Just leave it and someone will eventually come by and whisk it away while you go back for more food.

My son noted that the word buffet (meaning self serve meal, pronounced buh-FAY) and the word buffet (meaning to strike a blow, pronounced BUH-fit) are spelled the same way. I pondered on the deeper of meaning of this coincidence as we chose a table and then went to select food from the bounteous spread.

Before long I decided that this type of restaurant would provide great fodder for another son that occasionally does stand-up comedy. I watched one painfully thin girl spend 10 minutes at the salad bar carefully crafting a huge pile of well ordered leafy stuff. Now, I like salad as much as the next guy — which is not that much. I mainly eat it to ensure that I get some roughage in my system. But I could never understand spending dollars on a buffet only to eat cents worth of leaves.

In the neighboring booth was seated a family with young children. The problem with sitting in a booth at a buffet restaurant is that anytime someone that isn't seated at the open end wants to go back to the buffet, everyone between that person and the end of the bench must first exit. They must again exit when the diner returns.

Perhaps this is thought by parents of young children to be an advantage, because mom and dad can act as gatekeepers. I think that's what these parents were thinking. The plan seemed to work well for most of their children. But not so much for Jackson, who appeared to be four or five.

During the 20 minutes or so that we spent dining, I must have heard Jackson's dad call Jackson's name at least 200 times. When the dad told Jackson to do something, Jackson would do pretty much the opposite. After the fifth, sixth, or seventh repeated demand, Jackson would finally sort of do what his dad had demanded, but definitely not in the way the dad intended.

I had not discussed the Jackson situation with my son. After all, what needed to be said? Wasn't it obvious to everyone in the restaurant? At one point I quietly said with intended understatement, "Jackson doesn't seem to be very obedient." My son returned a sly grin, as we heard the dad say, "Jackson, get back over here!" for the umpteenth time.

We then glanced down at the floor to see Jackson doing an army crawl past our booth. The exasperated dad then repeatedly said, "Jackson, get up off the floor!" Which Jackson, of course, did not do. "Well," I said to my son, "someone has to clean the floor in this place. He seems to be doing a nice job of it."

Actually, I was somewhat proud of Jackson's father. I well remember the frustrations of going to restaurants with young children in tow. The dad never physically corrected his child. And while he was clearly frustrated throughout the meal, he never really lost his cool. Although, I must admit that if his goal was to have Jackson behave, he pretty much failed. Maybe this hefty fellow's parenting style differs when he's not in public.
There's something about buffets that tends to make people notice the more corpulent diners. Is it just my imagination, or are there really more obese folks at buffet restaurants than at other styles of restaurants? Maybe it's just human nature to fear that these folks will eat more than their fair share, leaving inadequate pickings for the other diners.

I noticed one particularly bulky couple conversing with several of the workers at the restaurant. "Tony," one of them said to a young man who was working hard behind the counter, "we haven't seen you here in the evenings lately." From their conversation, it became clear that these folks were very regular diners. I got to thinking that if a customer knows a lot of the staff at a buffet restaurant on a first name basis, it might be a sign that they're spending too much of their time there. Their steadily increasing girth might be another sign.

Have you ever watched the blocking strategies some buffet diners employ to hold other diners at bay while they consider their potential quarry? I notice that most buffet diners approach the counter with a kind of lustful gleam in their eyes. As they make their approach you can see their faces change. Their breathing goes from even to intense. When you see a kind of wild look in their eyes, it should be taken as a caution to avoid getting between those people and the food.

For a few of these folks, the whole event is clearly a competition of some sort. Most manage to keep it from turning into a contact sport, but they're not above using physical methods if necessary. I watched one 300-lb fellow deftly shift his weight in such a way that young Jackson, who was again on the loose, ran headlong into the man's fleshy leg. Jackson rebounded away from the dessert counter and back toward his frustrated father, who was saying something about being unable to understand what Jackson was saying with his mouth full of food.

As I was pondering all of this, my son said, "I think I'm done." "Don't you want to try the..." I began asking. "No," he cut me off, "I really think I can't eat another thing." The look in his eyes told me he was quite earnest. He apparently had more than made up for missing his morning meal. He also clearly had more discretion than some diners at the establishment.

As we walked from the restaurant, I realized that going to an all-you-can-eat buffet is an interesting study in human nature, with parallels to both domestic and international relations. Not all those that have plenty of weight are good at throwing it around, but some clearly are. Just before the door to the building closed completely, I was pulled out of my reverie by the sound of a man's voice once again calling, "Jackson!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I was a stranger ...

"I've read most of the Koran," said the man, "and I can tell you that Islam is not a religion of peace." I knew that this man claimed to take his claims of being a disciple of Jesus Christ very seriously. So the next words out of his mouth rather shocked me. "I think it's time that we just eliminate the whole bunch of them."

Really? And how, pray tell, are "we" going to eliminate 1.6 billion people, roughly a quarter of the people on this earth? Yes, there are Islamic fundamentalist terrorists that are intent on inflicting harm on what we define as the civilized people of the earth. But even if you add up all of their atrocities, how — under anyone's moral compass — can the mass extinction of billions of innocents to get at a number of terrorists be justified? Is it right to judge an entire religion by the extremists among them?

Realizing his rashness, the man backpedaled, saying that he really only meant the elimination of ISIS. That's a relief. But nobody really knows for sure how many people are members of ISIS or who those people are. Estimates range from about 20,000 to more than a quarter million. The area controlled by the group is very fluid.

Even if we had better intelligence, how would "we" accomplish the goal of completely destroying ISIS? Bombing is not enough says one favorite LDS politician. We need to be "willing to devote whatever resources are required to win", including putting "boots on the ground." I guess the US needs to start another war in the Middle East because that strategy has worked out so well in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Going back to my friend's desire to eliminate Muslims based on what he reads in their scriptures, I can't help but wonder if he has paid much attention to what he has read in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. I love these scriptures. But quite frankly, I could easily find plenty of fodder in these documents to claim that Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism are evil, blood thirsty religions. Maybe those of us that live in glass houses ought to be careful about throwing stones at others' houses.

Noting that there could be (and probably are) terrorists among the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, hoards of 'good Christians' are insisting that our nation refuse to admit any of these refugees in the name of national security. Unlike what Donny Osmond sang, they insist that a few bad apples do spoil the whole bunch.

This seems to make a mockery of the words of Emma Lazarus' poem emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
It's true that acceptance of others should not go so far as to constitute a suicide pact. But consider what Jesus Christ said in Matthew 25:31-46. "I was a stranger and ye took me in." He doesn't seem to mention qualifiers in that statement. In fact, admonitions to embrace and show hospitality to foreigners pepper the scriptures.

During the winter of 1838-1839, Mormons were driven from Missouri. Many lacked adequate food, transportation, clothing, and shelter. As they trekked toward Illinois, most residents along the way refused to help the suffering Mormons.

Part of the problem that resulted in the expulsion was that there had been actual terrorists among the Mormons. They were only a fraction of the total number. But the fact that there might be terrorists among the fleeing refugees was adequate excuse for refusing to help any of them. (The expulsion from Nauvoo was no picnic either.)

Are we now using the same kinds of excuses to refuse to assist refugees from the Middle East? Modern prophets have directly admonished Latter-day Saints to "contribute to the Church Humanitarian Fund" and "participate in local relief projects, where practical." I've heard some say that doing so is fine, as long as those refugees stay away from here.

While we now recognize the atrocity of the Holocaust, bear in mind that most Americans were completely opposed to helping Jewish refugees before World War II (see WP article). It was feared that these people would bring their problems with them and inflict those problems on the rest of us.

Wide disparities exist in estimating how many extremists there are among the worldwide Muslim population. This site, which appears to be somewhat favorable toward Muslims, along with other resources, suggest that roughly 7% of Muslims harbor extremist views. That's actually quite a large number. But this doesn't mean that many of this number are willing to actively enact or support the kind of violence we saw in Paris last week.

Besides, Adam Taylor claims that being inhospitable to the refugees from the Middle East is exactly what ISIS wants. Do we really want to come down on the side of helping ISIS further its larger goals?

I'm not claiming to be any guru on how to solve the problem of radical Islam. Nor am I suggesting that bringing refugees into the US and other Western countries won't bring with it problems and dangers. But I do think that the gospel of Jesus Christ requires disciples to be willing to shoulder some of those burdens, and even dangers. The inconvenient commands in the scriptures aren't just ideological gas. It's what you must grow to love doing to become a celestial citizen.

Are security and hospitality really such diametrically opposite goals? Or are we perhaps harboring less sanguine fears about those that are different from us? Even if hospitality impacts our security to a degree, how would Jesus come down on that question?

Perhaps we should not let our fears run our lives too much. John Meuller points out that the chance of Americans being killed by terrorism (even including the 9/11 attacks.) is so rare that it is about the same as your chance of being struck by lightning.

Mueller quotes John McCain as saying, "Get on the **** elevator! Fly on the **** plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You're almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you're not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That's not a life worth living, is it?"

This same logic can be applied to helping Middle Eastern refugees, who also happen to be God's children, even if some of them are legitimate terrorists. The chances of any individual in the US being directly impacted by the baddies among the group is pretty low. So suck it up and do what Jesus would do. Help those refugees.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Our dog hates the dog park

Earlier this year our city opened a dog park near our home. I very much appreciate the volunteers that spearheaded this effort and the city leaders that worked to make it happen. The original location proposed for the park was about a mile from our home, but they settled on a location that is just a couple of blocks away.

The first few times I took our dog to the dog park the place was deserted. That was likely due to timing. The park seems more popular in the late afternoons and early evenings. Saturday mornings seem to often draw a handful of dog owners as well.
When nobody else was at the park, our dog seemed to enjoy wandering around off the leash, sniffing the perimeter. But he also tended to stay pretty close to me. Then one time when we were at the park, another owner showed up with a couple of small to medium sized dogs. They seemed quite content to frolic and run around.

Our dog watched the dogs with quite a bit of interest, but he only interacted with them when they approached him. When they did, he seemed very uncomfortable. He stood rigid and resisted their attempts to engage him in playful behavior. In fact, he ultimately snapped and snarled at them — not in a playful manner like he does when playing tug-o-war at home, but in a way that clearly communicated, "I don't like this. Stay away."

The next time we went to the dog park when other dogs were present, our dog started drooling while at the park. I had never seen him drool like that before. I am told that excessive drooling is a symptom of anxiety. Although there is water available, our dog will never drink while at the park. He usually loves chasing water hoses that are squiring water, but he won't do that while at the dog park either.

This behavior has become increasingly prevalent as we have visited the dog park throughout the season. Only once has our dog engaged in playful behavior with other dogs. Then he seemed to enjoy scrambling through the mud puddle. (The park was built in an existing drainage basin, so there's a perpetual mud puddle.) This required us to clean him when we got home, but I think this was really the only time our dog enjoyed his experience at the dog park.

As the season has rolled on, our dog has demonstrated decreasing desire to have anything to do with the dog park. When we go into the entry area, he gladly lets me take off his leash. He sniffs the entry area. But then he wants to leave. He can see the dogs on the other side of the fence and he doesn't want anything to do with them.

I have spoken with many other owners at the park. I have repeatedly been assured that our dog will become more acclimated to the park as we take him there more often and as he gets more opportunities to socialize with other dogs. But the exact opposite seems to be the case. The more we go to the park and the more our dog gets to interact with other dogs, the less he likes it and the less he wants to be there.

I have wondered if part of the problem might be the layout of the park. It's just one large fenced area, unlike a park a few miles away that has several areas for different activities and different sizes of dogs.

Not all dogs that visit our local park are well socialized or well managed by their owners. On our last visit to the park, another male dog that initially seemed very affable kept trying to mount our dog. Our dog didn't know how to handle that situation. He snarled, barked, and nipped, but the other dog didn't get the clue. Nor, apparently, did its owner, who failed to do anything to manage the aggressor.

The Imo-Inu breed is known for its fastidiousness. Our dog doesn't like to get or stay dirty. But our dog took to sitting his white hind end in the dirt every time the would-be rapist dog came by. Our dog kept hovering near the park exit. He just wanted to get out of there.

It wasn't just that one dog that was the problem. Our dog just didn't like hanging out with any of the dogs at the park, regardless of how congenial they were. Our dog's general behavior and body language told me that he had had enough of the dog park. I felt like our visits had become a form of torture for him.

I haven't taken the dog back to the park since that visit. Nor do I plan to return anytime soon. I just can't bring myself to subject to the dog to something he has clearly come to hate. The main purpose of the dog park, as I understand it, is to provide a venue where dogs can socialize together. It seems to work well for many dogs. But not for our dog. If anything, our visits to the dog park have made his canine socialization skills worse.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The fear of self-driving cars

Big Think recently published this article provocatively titled, "Would You Drive an Autonomous Car if It Was Programmed to Kill You?" (If you go to the non-Facebook link, the article is more sensibly titled, "Here's the Math Self-Driving Cars Will Use to Decide if it Should Sacrifice Its Passengers.")

Let's get the symanical nit-picking out of the way first. You would not drive an autonomous car. You would simply be a passenger in the car. Now let's get on to the meat of the matter.

The article points out ethical and legal issues surrounding decisions the technology must make in determining how to handle situations where some people are likely to die. Should it try to preserve the lives of the car's occupants at all costs or should it be more altruistically programmed to try to save the highest number of lives? A linked video asks, "If your robot commits murder, should you go to jail?"

While these are interesting questions, Google consultant Brad Templeton argues in this blog post that they are largely the domain of philosophy class debate. Such questions, he contends, are so far from reality that they don't rank "anywhere high on the list of important issues and questions." He notes that most drivers never face such decisions, thus implying that the same will be true of the vast majority of autonomous cars.

Judging from how things have worked in the past, it seems that social acceptance, ethical viewpoints, and legal interpretations will evolve as these questions arise in real time. I do not believe that all of these things need to be fully determined in advance, nor do I believe it is even possible to adequately anticipate many of these things in a realistic manner until the issues arise in the context of that day and age.

Besides, we regularly turn our safety over to much more fallible human machines today. Every time you are a passenger in any kind of vehicle operated by a human, you are at the mercy of their fallible capacities. Perhaps even more importantly, you are at the mercy of every other vehicle operator you encounter along the way. This is true of travel by ground, sea, or air. I don't see the shift to more technology as a hugely different issue.

Technological advancement has always been both welcomed and feared by humans. The term Luddite is commonly used to refer to those that fear technology developments. (This Smithonian article explains that the Luddites were fine with machinery; they just wanted to preserve high wages for machine operators. Still, the term is used the way it is used today.)

In my (admittedly limited) experience, Luddite well explains the initial reaction most people have to autonomous cars. When the subject is brought up, people seem to respond with the following fears:
  • The loss/reduction of personal freedom.
  • The imperfect technology will cause some crashes, injuries, and probably deaths.
These fears are not always expressed in that order but both are usually mentioned. I find it interesting that people seem to respond with their fears first. Most seem to only reluctantly consider opportunities and improvements autonomous cars will likely bring, such as:
  • A massive reduction in driver error, the #1 factor in the vast majority of crashes. ( reports that "Over 95% of motor vehicle accidents ...involve some degree of driver behavior...."). More on this later.
  • Getting problem drivers (elderly, distracted, impaired, novice, etc) out from behind the wheel without limiting their transportation.
  • Freedom of people with driving limitations to get around. Frankly, I'm hoping that autonomous cars are ubiquitous by the time I am no longer capable of driving safely.
  • Increase in Über-like services that allow people to get rides when needed and only paying for what they use, instead of paying 100% for a car that is parked 95+% of the time. This will mean that most places that have parking lots today will need smaller lots but perhaps larger dropoff/pickup zones.
  • The ability to use your time commuting doing something other than driving the car and worrying about other drivers. How would it be to sleep during a long trip to a vacation spot?
One thing I find mind boggling is that people seem to simply accept the status quo, which includes more than 5.5 million car crashes, 2.3 million injuries, and 30,000 deaths each year (see USDOT database, NHTSA overview). While the rate of crashes, injuries, and deaths per 1,000 has steadily declined, this still represents a huge amount of property loss, injury, and death.

Pretty much everyone agrees that self-driving cars will radically cut the number of crashes over time. But most people speaking from a fear base seem to demand zero crashes caused by the new technology. This is not even remotely realistic. With systems designed by humans to move humans around humans, some crashes will occur. But demanding zero crashes from new technology while accepting 5.5 million crashes involving human drivers each year makes no logical sense, whatever level of freedom one thinks operating a car brings.

Most experts agree that crashes involving autonomous cars will be highest during the crossover years, when there are still lots of human operated vehicles on the roads. At first autonomous cars will be very unusual. But just as gasoline powered cars overtook the horse and buggy, autonomous cars will eventually become the rule. The time will come when human-driven cars are considered unacceptably dangerous on the public roads. As it is with horses today, there will be places where people can go to drive cars, but those places will mostly be off the public roads. As this change occurs, infrastructure will morph to address new realities.

Don't worry, this change isn't going to happen all at once. We will be eased into it a little at a time. Automobile manufacturers have been adding "driver assist features" for years. We've had cruise control since the 70s. You can already buy high end cars that find a parking spot and park for you once you pull into a parking lot.

More and more features will become available, first in high end cars, then moving down to the mid-level cars, and finally pushing their way into low end cars. People will use these features for the convenience they bring. Then one day they will be sitting there using their mobile device as the car hauls them somewhere, thinking how glad they are that they no longer have to pay attention to traffic.

Autonomous cars are coming. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when. You can fear it. But that won't stop it from coming. And like our ancestors, you will eventually find yourself using the new technology, even if you continue to express misgivings about what it is doing to society.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I saw a child tormented and did nothing to help

Childhood social structures can be brutal. Mary (not her real name) entered my 2nd Grade classroom partway through the year. It was clear from that first day that Mary would fall low in the classroom pecking order, mostly due to factors far beyond her control.

We had some kids in the class that were on the heavier side. But Mary was obese. It's hard to keep a growing child dressed in properly fitting clothes. Mary's corpulent frame made the problem worse. Anything she wore looked oafish.

The thin hair on Mary's head was so blonde that it was almost white. It might have looked better if it had been completely straight. But it had an uneven waviness that refuted attempts at taming it, making it seem unkempt even when well styled.

Some girls looked cute wearing the cat eye glasses that were somewhat popular at the time. Unfortunately for Mary, that style of glasses only added to the whole sorry ensemble. Naturally, Mary seemed to lack any sense of self confidence. It didn't take the kids in the class even 10 minutes to home in on all of this.

The new girl in the class was treated to ostracism, rude comments, pranks, and outright bullying. Some girls were good about inviting her to spend time with them on the playground, but it seemed painfully obvious that this was only because they thought her pathetic and themselves morally superior for deigning to allow her to join them.

I hardly thought about most of the kids at school over the summer, when the kids in the neighborhood became the center of my social world. As the glory days of summer wound down, the thrill of the impending new school year built. (That usually lasted until about two days after school started.) My elementary school only went through 3rd Grade back in those days, so my class was going to be at the top of the social heap.

Desks in my 3rd Grade classroom were aligned in pairs. The first day of school started with an empty desk to my left. We were told that another classmate was out of town and would join us a few days later. When my desk mate arrived, I was horrified to see that it was Mary. Over the summer I had forgotten that Mary even existed.

Some kids made rude comments or openly gloated over how unlucky I was. Many that didn't join in the verbal ridicule still gave looks revealing how pitiful they thought my plight to be. The snotty boys were the worst, repeatedly making the obligatory accusations of Mary being my girlfriend.

As the days passed, we all got quite used to sitting and working with our desk mates. I was frankly rather shocked when Mary came out of her shell from time to time, revealing intelligence and humor hidden beneath her insecure surface. I'm ashamed to say that each time I enjoyed these moments, I quickly pulled back, lest the crowd lump me in with her and punish me as it did her.

Desk assignments changed after a couple of months and I was no longer seated next to Mary. Frankly, I hardly gave her another thought. She was just another kid in the class — one that was particularly unfortunate and was regarded as something less than fully human by most of the other kids.

In my memory (which may admittedly be tamed to hide some of the darker elements of my past from myself), I never openly abused Mary the way some other kids at school did. But I also was never truly kind to her. I never cared about her as a human soul. It never crossed my mind to do anything to help her. I was just trying to survive the merciless realities of 3rd Grade life myself.

Although I never had classes with Mary after 3rd Grade, I saw her around school. The pattern I had seen in that 3rd Grade classroom pretty much followed Mary through high school. I remember one guy being proud of the fact that he mocked her during her testimony at a seminary religious meeting for graduating seniors. This guy would leave to serve as a missionary a few months later. Yes, Mary was even abused by people that professed to be disciples of Christ.

I haven't seen Mary or heard anything about her since graduation day all those years ago, so I have no idea what became of her. It would be sweet if she had somehow managed to dig her way out of the misery heaped on her during her school years. I wish her all the best.

Schools, churches, civic organizations, and parents have developed a much greater awareness of bullying than they had back when I was a kid. But I'm certain that our schools are still filled with Marys for whom the realities of childhood social life entails a great deal of pain.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The internet: a place of wonder and waste

The internet is a funny place. Actually, it's kind of a funny word. Back in the day, everyone used to capitalize the word Internet. It was a proper noun that seemed to demand that mere mortals cower in awe of its very existence. Now it's just a common utility that no one under 25 can ever remember being without.

There's more stuff available on the internet than humans have ever previously had access to. I use the word stuff deliberately, due to the broad variability in the quality of content. Sometimes it's surprising what ends up going viral. Less surprising is the dreck that people try to force to go viral.

I have a personal policy of refusing to click on any link that includes some variation of the following hyperbolic language:
  • You won't believe.
  • Stunned.
  • Made her jaw drop.
  • One weird trick.
  • Nothing could prepare me.
  • Absolutely incredible.
There's much more to that list. But you get the idea. There's even a browser plugin called Downworthy that turns "hyperbolic viral headlines into what they really mean." The phrase "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment." "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horse****." And so on.

The internet's incessant hyperbole is annoying, but it has become so common that my mind mostly automatically ignores it — after registering its annoyance. Some of the other more common time wasters bother me much more.

Consider the multiple videos/photos depicting crafty or handy things that you can 'easily' do yourself. Food projects seem to hold a special place among this genre. When it's a photo, the food always looks worthy of a spread in Better Homes and Gardens. When it's a video, not only does the food look like it was expertly prepared by a gourmet chef, the video is sped up and/or skips the tedious parts to conceal the fact that it took 14 hours to make the concoction.

Whenever I try to replicate any great looking dish, let's just say that the presentation of my recipe and the internet representation of the same differ greatly. I know what looks good. It's just that when I set out to make that delicious looking highly symmetrical dainty I saw on the internet, it comes out looking like an irregular pile of something or other.
How a Thomas the Tank cake looks on the internet

How a Thomas the Tank cake looks in real life
- when crafted by someone else
- mine would not look this good
This is also true of just about anything else that you have to look at. Crafts, construction, yard care, etc. It would appear that I missed out on some of the basics necessary for  making something visually appealing. Perhaps that's why all of these do-it-yourself videos irritate me so.

Or, maybe it's just the fact that all of those DIY videos entail work that I would be required to do. Car repair is the absolute worst for me. I watch the guy show how to do something that takes maybe 30 seconds in live time. Two hours later, after several trips back to the computer, skinned knuckles, sweat, grime, and scarred car parts, I put my tools away and vow that I will never again attempt car repair on my own.

People also seem to enjoy posting inspirational quotes that are intended to ennoble. But sometimes you see the same quote so many times that it becomes pedestrian. The same is true of overused jokes. Worse are the posts showing the results of insipid online quizzes/tests that people have taken. Really, folks, this is just pathetic.

The internet is also full of more wonderful things than anyone can ever access or even know about. As is the case in real life, you still have to sift through a lot of mundane material and various levels of rubbish to get to it. Alas, increased quantity does not make it easier to apprehend quality. The opposite seems to most often be the case.

The internet is a place of wonder.
Or maybe not so much. It's your choice. Enjoy surfing the web.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I love it when a product continues to provide delight

I have seen workplace dress standards change over time. I once worked for a company in the petroleum business where guys had to wear dress shoes, slacks, a conservative dress shirt, and a necktie. Gals had to wear nice dresses or business suits. Casual Friday clothing amounted to not having to wear the necktie.

The company was in a growth mode that turned out to be the prelude to its collapse. But at the time they were working on transitioning from the old outgrown headquarters building to a larger office some distance away. Our team was among the first that relocated to the new space. As the months went by, bosses and workers at our location started to relax on the necktie thing. Then one day the big boss showed up at our office and pitched a fit. The neckties went back on.

Today I work with people that daily dress in casual attire that would have been considered unthinkable in office environments back at the beginning of my career. Instead of trying to look 'professional,' folks choose to be comfortable. But many still make fashion statements.

As a software developer, I work among techno-geeks. It is common for these people, including my boss and my boss' boss, to wear T-shirts that display various things. Today I am wearing a black T-shirt from ThinkGeek (slogan: stuff for smart masses) that my wife and kids gave me a couple of years ago. The simple white letters on the shirt read:
$DO || ! $DO : try 
try: command not found
This probably makes no sense to most folks. But to people that deal with computer code — and that have at least some Star Wars knowledge — it's pretty funny.

$DO is a variable. The double bars mean "or." The exclamation point means "not." The colon is a statement delimiter. The word try is the name of a command that is to be executed. The second line is the system responding that the try command can't be found in the system.

Thus, the statement is programming code for Yoda's famous admonition in Star Wars episode V, "Try not! Do or do not. There is no try."

ThinkGeek's website is entertaining enough. But I think you need to actually own a ThinkGeek product to understand the finer points of that company's humor.

Today as I was about to don my shirt, I casually glanced at the tag. Something seemed unusual, so I checked it out and noticed something that had previously escaped my attention. The tag read:
Not dishwasher safe.
For external use only.
Contents may be hot.
The first three lines are funny enough. But the final line really gave me a chuckle. Anyone that has dealt with any tag based language like HTML or XML will recognize that anything inside of angle brackets that starts with a slash represents the closing tag of a block. The real humor here is that the physical tag itself opens the block, while the printed slash-tag enclosed in angle brackets represents the end of the block.

Moreover, the tag itself is what is commonly referred to in the industry as an Easter egg. This is when developers put hidden messages — usually jokes — into the systems they build. I find it delightful that ThinkGeek managed to hide an Easter egg in my shirt. I didn't even see it until I had owned the product for a couple of years.

OK, so not that funny if you're not a geek. But pretty funny if you are. At least, it made my day a little brighter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Our home is plenty big enough for the size of our family. But it's still pretty cluttered. We have stuff all over the place. And it constantly needs to be policed. It seems like every horizontal surface naturally accumulates a proliferation of stuff that rarely moves once it comes to rest.

The collections on the horizontal surfaces in our home's public spaces are particularly annoying to me. The seat side of the kitchen island fills up with loads of paraphernalia so rapidly that it requires a major project to get it cleaned off, even if it was cleaned off just a few days earlier.

Right now the locker bench is giving me fits. Each child has a locker in the family room. The carpeted bench in front of the lockers is currently piled so deep with junk that you'd have to do archaeology to get to the bottom of it. I have repeatedly requested that the kids remedy this situation, but my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The kids generally won't do anything about it until I get to the ultimatum level, where I promise to eradicate anything I find on the bench after a given date and time. (And I would do it too.)

When the kids actually do move this stuff, it is often only to shift it to another horizontal surface where it doesn't actually belong — whatever requires the least effort at the moment. But when they do this chore, they are always surprised at what their excavations reveal. Stuff that they hadn't thought of for a long time pops up. Even money. And of course, junk that should long ago have been relegated to the rubbish bin. Cries of "I wondered where that had gone," "What is this thing?" and "That's not mine" are common.

And don't even get me started on our storage spaces. Sometimes I think we could brand our house Clutter-R-Us.

So, on a recent visit to the home a friend that is an empty nester, I gazed about the pleasantly uncluttered and well ordered public areas of the house. I wondered if our home would eventually look like that in the future when our kids are on their own.

Thinking about the times our clan would visit my parents' home when our kids were younger, I thought out loud that my friend's home probably didn't look that nice after a visit from the grandkids. My friend responded that this was rarely a problem for him and his wife because "nobody visits anymore." Although I knew that some of his kids lived out of state, I thought that surely his local grandkids visited with some regularity.

My friend responded, saying, "The younger generation doesn't feel a need to do things like that because they figure that everything they need is right here." He cupped his hands as if he was holding a smartphone, moved his thumbs as if he were tapping an imaginary screen, and stared at his hands.

He commented that he sees the same thing when he visits his children and grandchildren that live out of state in "an outdoor adventure wonderland." He noted that they had off-road vehicles, motorcycles, canoes, kayaks, and plenty of outdoor gear. But when he suggests doing those kinds of activities during his visits, his grandkids mostly stare into their mobile devices and mumble something about being busy.

Our kids have grown up with bicycles, skateboards, scooters, and roller blades. But it has surprised me how little they have tended to use these things. My friends and I veritably lived on our bicycles during the warmer months. Not so much with my kids. Their bikes go unused for weeks at a time.

Not long ago when I chided one of my children about this in an attempt to encourage him to spend some time doing outdoor activities, he responded that the only reason we did more of those kinds of things as kids was that we didn't have the "awesomeness" that is now available indoors. He went on to compare the indoor activities I had available to me as a kid with those available to kids nowadays. "If you had then what we had now," he said, "you'd have done the same things we are doing now." That stung a little bit, because I knew he was right.

Still, it seems kind of problematic when we exchange time that once was spent interacting with family staring into various electronic screens. The scriptures teach that in the celestial realm, "the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory..." (D&C 130:2). It's difficult to imagine people in heaven shutting out those closest to them in favor of entertainment and shallow relationships on a screen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

LDS Church Members Strongly Support Church Staying With the BSA

One of the big news items this past summer in the circles I travel in was the kerfuffle between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts of America. After the BSA denied the LDS Church's request to briefly delay a vote on dropping the BSA's general ban on gay adult leaders, the Church issued a strongly worded statement suggesting that it would consider other options when top leaders reconvened following their July recess. (See my 7/27 post and my 7/30 post.)

This was a big deal because the LDS Church provides significant membership, support, and income to the BSA. It is the BSA's largest single sponsor.

Near the end of August the Church issued a statement saying that it would continue to sponsor BSA units "at this time," but that it would "continue to evaluate and refine program options that better meet its global needs." (See my 8/26 post.)

In past posts I opined that the major issue between the LDS Church and the BSA was likely the nature of the relationship between the two entities rather than the resolution about gay leaders — a warning that the BSA needed to engage in some relationship improvement with the Church. A friend of mine who is a lifelong Scouter disagrees with this assessment. He doubts that the church would "be so petty" and feels that the Church's statement was sincere.

During the interim between the Church's original dour statement and its later statement that the Church would continue its relationship with the BSA, I noted that "a poll found that a strong majority (63%) of "very active" LDS Church members felt that the church should probably (25%) or definitely (29%) leave the BSA (See Utah Policy Daily article)." UPD writes (in this 9/22 article), "Apparently, church leaders didn’t follow the wishes of most of their active Utah members in deciding to stay in the Boy Scouts, at least for now."

UPD has released the results of a new poll that was taken a few weeks after the LDS Church decided to stick with the BSA. The poll "finds that “very active” Mormons say – following their leaders’ decision – their church should stay in the scouting program – 81 percent in favor, 17 percent opposed, 2 percent don’t know."

UPD bluntly states, "When the Brethren speak, loyal Mormons listen – which we knew all along." For the uninitiated, "the Brethren" is cultural code referring to top LDS Church leaders. It is a well documented fact that church members look to top leadership for, well, leadership on issues like this when forming their own opinions.

When the Church's official statement seemed to put the BSA in a negative light, nearly two-thirds of active members were ready to throw the BSA on the trash heap. As soon as Church leaders said they were sticking with the BSA, members strongly sustained the action.

Still, not all active or very active Mormons are happy that the LDS Church will continue to sponsor BSA units. This time around pollsters asked why.
  • 9 percent said it was too costly financially.
  • 47 percent said their church could devise a better program than scouting that would teach young males character, leadership, proper morals and other church-related ideals.
  • 0 percent said scouting was unfair because LDS girls don’t have a similar strong program within the church.
  • 22 percent said recent Boy Scouts national decisions – including the gay leader board vote – no longer reflect the values of the LDS Church.
  • 11 percent said “all of the above” were reasons they want their church out of the Boy Scouts.
  • 11 percent mentioned some other reasons.
  • And 0 percent didn’t have an opinion on why they wanted their church out of scouting.
So church members that want out of Scouting have a variety of reasons for their opinion. But since more than three-quarters of those that consider themselves at least nominally Mormon support the church's continuing relationship with the BSA, it is uncertain how much sway anti-Scouting opinions will have in the church.

People can say what they want. The real proof of how Church members feel about the Church sticking with the BSA will be in how well they support the decision by their actions. More than a few will refrain from wholehearted engagement, constantly expecting the Church's "at this time" statement to reach it's expiration date before long.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Revelation, Authority, and Popular Prepper Prophets

I recently had a rather disturbing conversation with a friend. Through people in his LDS ward, he has begun listening to and reading material of an alarming nature regarding cataclysmic events that are prophesied to occur in the very near future. Prophesied by whom? In the answer to that question lies the rub.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long history of being guided by divine revelation. The church's earliest origins lie in revelation. Today revelatory experience is encouraged and is to be relied upon at every level in the church from the youngest Primary child to the president of the church.

This central feature of the church, however, comes with a qualifier. It is not simply revelation that is important. It is authoritative revelation that is the church's guiding principle. In D&C 132:8 the Lord said that His house (i.e. church) "is a house of order ... and not a house of confusion." Accordingly, church members are authorized to receive revelation on behalf of those for whom they have authoritative stewardship, but not for others. Elder Boyd K. Packer said:
Revelation continues in the Church: the prophet receiving it for the Church; the president for his stake, his mission, or his quorum; the bishop for his ward; the father for his family; the individual for himself.
Of course, revelation doesn't just come to men. Last year Pres. Henry B. Eyring explained how his mother received revelation for her family. A few days ago I listened as a ward Relief Society president described revelation she had received for those for whom she has responsibility.

My friend finds some of the people to whom he has been listening to be very convincing as they describe their revelations and give their interpretations of those revelations. I do not doubt that these people have received revelations. But I do question their sources and their insistence on broadly publishing their experiences.

Joseph Smith had to tackle the problem of well meaning church members teaching unauthorized revelations when the Church was less than half a year old. The Lord revealed how this was to be handled in D&C 28 (consider especially verses 2-3, 6-7, 11-13). Joseph Smith taught (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 21):
[I]t is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one [else], to receive instruction for those in authority, higher than themselves.
Later in D&C 42:11 the Lord said:
Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.
My friend is quick to point out that the prophets he has been listening to — he didn't call them prophets, but they fit the definition of a prophet — admonish church members to listen to their priesthood leaders. They say they are only telling people to get their emergency kits and food/clothing storage ready, just as church leaders have admonished for decades.

Oh, and "listen to me and buy my stuff." Even if fortune is not involved, fame surely is. I doubt my friend would countenance my crass take on the matter, insisting that these people only want to use the gifts the Lord has given them to help others. But there is a name for setting oneself up as a light outside of the authorized pattern. It is called priestcraft.

Elder Boyd K. Packer also warned, "Know this: There are counterfeit revelations which, we are warned, “if possible … shall deceive the very elect, who are the elect according to the covenant.” (JS-M 1:22)"

Over the years I have seen many popular but unauthorized prophets come and go. Frequently they have forecast dire events in the near future, often right after the next general conference. I think the first time I listened to one of these people was in the late 1970s. This person interpreted their visions in the framework of the Cold War, insisting that it would become a hot war that would doom all but the few that were prepared. It worked out differently.

In the 1980s I became aware of several of these prophets that foresaw the rapid demise of the US monetary system. When Black Monday 1987 shook up investment markets, followers of these prophets were certain that the prophecies were coming true. I watched one man destroy his retirement savings in an attempt to ensure that his family could weather the coming storm. He achieved the exact opposite of what he intended.

These prophets sometimes suggest that the church is undertaking unusual emergency preparations. From time to time Church spokespeople have denied that the church was doing anything other than what it has always prudently done. But this does not stop the popular prepper prophets from regularly popping up and drawing a following, often preaching to standing-room-only crowds. It seems that Paul was right about church members turning away from "sound doctrine" to those that they think can scratch their "itching ears" (1 Tim 2:3-4).

Church leaders have made it clear that even when people do receive revelations that seem to be useful to others for whom they have no official stewardship, it is incumbent on them to keep it confidential within their stewardship. Some may have grand and glorious visions, but these are generally given for the private enrichment and perhaps for close family members.

Those that receive such revelations open themselves and others up to Satan's deception when they publish these private experiences. At any rate, we ought to see red warning flags anytime we see somebody violating this principle. One church leader has suggested that "God does not reveal himself to blabbermouths."

FAIRMormon has a good page that deals with this topic. Among the quotes from Joseph Fielding Smith listed on the page are the following:
  • If a man comes among the Latter-day Saints, professing to have received a vision or a revelation or a remarkable dream, and the Lord has given him such, he should keep it to himself.
  • Now, these stories of revelation, that are being circulated around, are of no consequence, except for rumor and silly talk by persons who have no authority.
  • There have been individuals, from time to time, who have been invited to go into the wards, in the sacrament meetings, priesthood classes, Sunday Schools and Mutual Improvement organizations, and at times, for their special benefit, cottage meetings have been held where they might come and relate remarkable visions or revelations claimed by these individuals to have been given to them. All this is wrong.
One of the reasons that personal revelations are private is that telestial beings are rarely qualified to interpret them for others. It has been helpful for me to think of our telestial faculties as existing in a two-dimensional realm, compared to celestial beings that exist in a three-dimensional realm. Yeah, I know that's a very imperfect analogy, but bear with me here. After all, I am dealing with a telestial brain.

When God grants a revelation to a human, it's as if that 2D person is granted a limited glance into a 3D space. Not only does their 2D mind have difficulty comprehending it, they lack the 3D vocabulary to adequately describe it. Even prophets have challenges with this. That's why Lehi and Alma II said said, "... methought I saw ..." when describing their visions (see 1 Nephi 8:4Alma 36:32). Some revelations were crystal clear to Joseph Smith, yet our finest scholars still don't understand parts of them. Joseph puzzled about other revelations for years. Some he never recorded or spoke of to others.

When I received my patriarchal blessing (a revelation for my personal benefit), the patriarch explained that no one other than me — with divine aid — was qualified to interpret the words of the blessing. That included him (the patriarch), my bishop, my parents, and even the prophet himself. The same is true of other revelations given for personal use.

Nor do revelations that seem crystal clear always mean exactly what the prophet sees. A quick read of the Revelation of John ought to sufficiently reinforce this concept. John Taylor recorded an apocalyptic 1877 vision that certainly was never fulfilled as he clearly saw it. The Lord often communicates in symbols, analogies, and metaphors. Just as the patriarch was not qualified to interpret the blessing he gave me, those receiving private visions are likely unqualified to interpret their visions for others.

I can't say that the people my friend is listening to have it all wrong. Maybe the world will go down the tube right after October general conference. At any rate, it doesn't hurt anyone to prudently put together emergency plans and supplies as church leaders have long taught. Unless they are acting out of fear rather than faith.

But even if these people are right, I still have a problem with listening to them and giving them credence, because their pattern goes against the order of God's Kingdom on earth. Satan has a lot of practice leading people astray with large doses of truth promoted in the wrong way.

These popular prepper prophets may have the best of intentions. I can't see into their hearts. But I can say that their methods are problematic. My counsel to my friend is to leave the unauthorized prophets alone and cling to those the Spirit has confirmed to him to be the real thing.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Increasingly Public Personal Life Fraught With Challenges

Many examples of generational shift are quite apparent to my generation. Not all of it is bad. Some of it seems to be tightly tied to technology. As in, my generation would have done the same thing had today's technology been available. That's why it's hard for me to take seriously some of the generational condescension spewed by my generation.

One thing that has intrigued me is the rise of the "promposal." That's where teens go all out just to ask a date to a school dance. Last spring Main St reported that teens now spend an average of $324 just to ask a date to prom. Many dates spend an equivalent amount responding to the invitation. It has become very common for these promposals to appear on YouTube, where teens hope that their video will go viral.

The total cost of going to prom reportedly hovers around $1,000 "per household," give or take $100 or so, depending on where you live. That appears to include the cost of the promposal. As I understand it, this means that a couple attending prom spends somewhere around $2,000 for one date.

It shouldn't be surprising that the generation that has grown up with this paradigm is following the same pattern when it comes to marriage proposals and wedding receptions. Proposals are becoming increasingly public and expensive. I'm not the only one that thinks there are some issues with this trend. Studio C has a satirical sketch about an attempt to produce a viral wedding proposal video.
I couldn't find data on the average cost of a wedding proposal. But I suppose it can be presumed that the trend is similar to that of promposals. Wedding receptions are going that direction too, currently running around $25,200 for a party that lasts a few hours.

There are likely many reasons for these trends. Some speculate that as marriage rates decline, those marrying feel that it's increasingly important to make a grander statement about their commitment to each other. Others think that all of these grandiose displays are attempts to compensate for the declining rate of marital commitment, which increases the risk of marital failure. We turn the whole thing into a three-ring circus in a vain attempt to recapture the level of couple commitment that has been lost in the wake of increasing personal freedom.

I'm grateful that my generation didn't have to deal with the social media landscape that developing relationships today must navigate. Not only can everyone find out all kinds of things about prospective dates, it would be irresponsible not to do so. But those public personas available on social media can say things about us that may portray an unbalanced picture of who we are.

Recently, friends and family of a young couple celebrated as the couple's courtship advanced to the point of a marriage proposal. The proposal itself was a huge event with many friends and family members in attendance (along with elements you might see at a circus).

The couple went through all of the normal wedding arrangements. Then just as they were preparing to mail out formal wedding announcements, one partner backed out. Not only was the party off, housing arrangements were thrown into disarray. The couple remains friendly with each other, but the sheer fact of the matter is that the defunct romance shared by this couple is now public record on social media that any future prospective date will be see.

It will be easy for these people's future partners to compare themselves with the partner that didn't work out. I suppose that happened in the days before social media. Only now the new partners will have access to the romantic photos, videos, and love notes from the failed relationship for the rest of their lives.

While it would be easy to grouse about the younger generation, all of this is simply part of the culture in which they live. It's the culture that my kids are swimming in. Each generation faces a unique set of problems and this is among the problems of today's younger generation. I wish my kids well. While I will gladly to what I can to help them navigate the world where they live, they will face many things that are beyond my capacity to help with.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Neighbor Passes Away and Almost Nobody Notices

Many years ago we built a house in a developing subdivision. Over the next several years we were joined by a number of new neighbors. The days of newly installed yards are long gone and nowadays the neighborhood is flush with mature trees, seasoned fences, and cracked driveways. Some of the original homeowners (including us) still live in the neighborhood. G was one of those original inhabitants — until recently, when she made the final move from this world.

G and her best friend T came into our lives when they moved into a home near us, along with T's adopted twin daughters. Although not particularly religious, T had tried to talk a pregnant young woman out of aborting her baby. The young woman finally agreed, on the condition that T would adopt the baby — something that had not been on T's list of things she planned to do in life. But she felt strongly enough about choosing life for the child that she agreed to the adoption.

A short time later it was discovered that the young mother was carrying twins. T was suddenly going to be saddled with two children instead of one. T called her lifelong friend G asking what she was going to do. Eventually the two formulated a plan where they would buy a home together and work together to raise the girls.

At the time that T and G moved in, the girls were a year or so older than our oldest child. There were approximately a thousand kids under age 10 in the neighborhood back in those days. Or at least it seemed that way. Toddlers roamed the subdivision in packs. G always exercised great concern about the neighborhood kids. If you heard a kid nearby bawling, maybe from scraping a knee, you could be sure that G would be one of the first adults to attend to the child. Our kids were frequent visitors to T's and G's place and the twins were frequent visitors to our place.

As the girls got older, T and G advanced in their respective careers. When the girls were in high school, finances were such that T could afford to move to her own home. G bought out T's part of the home in our neighborhood. The girls split their time between T's and G's places, but continued to attend the local high school until they graduated. As the girls advanced into adulthood and started forays into living on their own, we saw less and less of them.

Despite her concern for children, G could be somewhat abrasive. More than one neighbor had run-ins with G. But she always treated our family like gold. When G's health began to fail a few years ago, our family started clearing snow from her driveway and walks. In fact, we kind of took over that chore, an activity for which G frequently expressed gratitude. G had a riding lawn mower that allowed her to continue to care for her lawn during the warmer months.

Eventually G took a medical retirement because she simply couldn't do her job effectively anymore. As G's health issues worsened, she mostly confined herself to her house, so we saw less and less of her. Her sister and brother-in-law frequently helped. But since they lived a few miles away, G always felt comfortable calling us and relying on us for assistance.

A few weeks ago, my wife returned from a visit to G, saying that G was in pretty bad shape. One of the neighbors and I soon paid a visit. Although she was not Mormon, she asked us to give her a priesthood blessing. We gladly obliged. The main thing I felt inspired to say was that she would soon get some relief from her challenges.

A couple of days later, I noticed that my wife was making a batch of cheesy potatoes. Around here the dish is commonly called funeral potatoes. I guess this stems from the fact that the dish is frequently served at family gatherings following funerals. Although this is a beloved dish in our family, we don't make it very often — usually only for holidays or funerals.

When I queried my wife as to why she was making funeral potatoes, she said that G had mentioned to her how much she would like to have some. The thought that she ought to make a batch kept coming to her over the next couple of days until she suddenly had a sense of urgency about it.

G's sister answered the door when my wife took the potato dish over to G's. The sister later reported that, although, G hadn't had much of an appetite, she got a fork and ate some right then while it was hot. The following morning while she was chatting with a family friend, G put her head down as if she needed to rest and then breathed her final breath.

We were among the first alerted by G's sister, who expressed gratitude for all of the years we had been good neighbors to G. But the sister explained that, in accordance with G's wishes, there would be no obituary or funeral. A few days before passing, G had even asked my wife to keep her death quiet in the neighborhood when it happened. She didn't want to burden anyone.

Many neighbors have no idea that G is no longer with us. Her home looks the same for now. She had rarely been seen outside during the past few months anyway. And yet, every time I look at the house, I feel a sense of loss. I'm glad that G's years of pain and physical challenges are over. But I still feel like something is missing.

While my wife promised not to broadcast G's death, I made no such promise. It seems somehow wrong for a neighbor to pass away while the rest of us in the neighborhood go on about our lives as if nothing has happened — as if her life didn't mean anything. She might not have been the easiest person in the world to associate with, but G still played a valuable role in the lives of my family members. She was among the ingredients that made up the recipe for our neighborhood — a recipe that will now be forever changed.

Although not religiously observant, G was a woman of faith. I wish her well in her new surroundings.