Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lie Detectors?

I’ve always been very curious about the concept of lie detectors. One Christmas when I was in my early teens I got a Radio Shack 150 in one electronics kit. It was a big board about 11”x17” that had all sorts of electronic pieces mounted to it. Next to each piece there were two springs. Also included in the kit was a big mess of wires and a book with 150 schematics. The idea was you looked at the schematics and placed you wires in the little springs and you could build what ever you liked. The most complicated project in the whole book was a “Lie Detector”. I bypassed all of the other schematics and went straight for the big one. After about a day of insert tab a into slot b and so on I finally had it complete.
The input from this device was two bare wires taped to my forearm about an inch apart. The output was a simple analog meter set to measure the skin resistance. It operated on the premise that people sweat more when they lie. The wires measured this galvanic skin response and the meter showed you the results. I was very disillusioned with this device. I tried it on many members of my family and was only to get and ever so slight change in the needle. I had grand visions of strapping it on my brothers and asking them, “Now were did you hide my legos?” and getting instant confessions, just like Wonder Woman’s golden lasso.
Later on I realized the “real” lie detectors measure several different things that are believed to be associated with lying; heart rate, blood pressure, respiration etc. These many measurements make up the modern polygraph test.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that the polygraph was better described as a nervousness detector than a lie detector. If somebody could control all of these factors then they could “pass” a polygraph test even though they many be lying. On the other hand if a certain subject provokes a nervous response then the subject could fail the test. What would happen if a person who was a victim of child molestation years earlier were accused of committing child molestation? I dare say that the question alone may cause enough nervousness and stress to fail the test.
Later on in life I learned that in some states it is ground for a mistrial if the phrase “lie detector” is ever used in a trial. Many states are realizing that it does no such thing.
This week on NPR they have been running a three part series on detecting lies. I found it very eye opening that in the final episode they referred the research of Dr. Paul Ekman who I have blogged about several times in the past. I doubt that a device that accurately detects lies will ever truly be developed. In fact I've come to realize that this device is not modern at all an it is more closely related to folk magic like dowsing and palm reading than it is to any real science.
So in the future if I ever decline to take a polygraph test please know that it is not because I know that machine works and I am afraid of having the truth revealed. It is because I know that the device is little more than witchcraft and I don't trust the results at all.

If you are interested in learning more about the controversy around the “polygraph test” check out the following links.
NPR Episode 1 Episode 2 Episode 3

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Natural Man

For about the last six years I've had a hard time concentrating in Sunday School. I pretty sure most of this started right about the time I really began to delve into the history of the church and the obvious whitewashing of many facts and events. I think that up until that time I was very guilty of falling victim to the argument from authority. Basically, I went about things incorrectly. Rather than examine the facts and then make my own conclusions I accepted what I was told as facts and then looked for evidence that supported those facts. Once I started looking at theology and life in the correct order I began to question most if not all of the assumptions that I previously had held to.
Yesterday in Sunday School was no exception. We were studying Ephesians and somehow we got on the subject of putting off the natural man. Most of the other students just accepted this premise and moved on, but for some reason I got stuck on it and couldn't concentrate on the rest of the lesson. What bothered me was the premise that man is naturally evil. I don't recall that as a tenant of LDS doctrine. In fact we take it further than most and even reject the idea of original sin. Philosophers have debated the idea for millennia. Is man naturally good but easily tempted to do evil? Or is man naturally evil and needs the fear of punishment to turn him good? I don't know what the answer is. And it is likely different for each person. However, I think that since the instructor didn't elaborate any more on this scripture that she believes that we are naturally evil. Personally I don't take this pessimistic approach to humanity. I believe that if left to their own devices they will choose good over evil more often than the opposite. Ironically, after reading the Lucifer Effect I am even more convinced of the inherent goodness of humanity. It is only when we surrender our choices to a perceived authority and act as a mob that we become evil.
Years ago in a business setting a supervisor told me that you could separate all employees into two groups: those that are motivated towards a good result, and those that are motivated away from a bad result. Although it may sound the same, since they are both going the same direction, in practice they are very different. One is a pessimistic approach and the other is optimistic. The first group will respond to a statement like, "Good job, this is top quality work." But the second wouldn't but be just as motivated by "be careful. You don't what this think to blow up."
Although I can see elements of both in myself, in my heart I just cannot accept that humanity is naturally evil. If we are actually the offspring of deity I find it much harder to believe that we are naturally evil. It's much easier for me to accept that we are naturally good but just stuck in a tough situation to see how we will choose.
It saddens me to think that so many people have such a dim and pessimistic view of humanity in general and themselves in particular.
I avoid expressing these points in class simply because I have my own doubts about how relevant they are to the topic at hand and in many cases I admit that they are at best a tangent to the main lesson. But it does provide me with something to ponder about and post to my blog. :)

Friday, October 26, 2007


People frequently ask Victoria and me how we met. So for those of you who haven't heard the story, the following is a selection from my personal history that I started writing in 2000.

"Whenever people ask us how we met our standard response is for Victoria to look over at me and pause... Then I say something to the effect of “She has had a crush on me since she was 9 and she finally caught me.” Which is true but that sounds a little too one sided.

Victoria, her mother and step-father joined the church in 1979. Jim was called to work with the Cub Scouts in the Ward and I was assigned as the Den Chief over that Den. Den meetings were at Jim’s house. I was only 12 years old at the time and I was very interested in Jim’s HO gauge train set. It took up an entire room. Jim soon began to trust me enough to babysit Victoria’s older brother Denny. Denny was older than me and bigger than me, But he was Autistic. My instructions as a sitter were to “Stay away from my daughter and if Denny has a fit let him beat on you while Victoria calls for help.” Jim would frequently sign my checks as Combat Pay. I can’t remember ever even seeing Denny and after a while I told Jim to stop paying me just to come over to his house and play with his trains.

The first couple times I “Denny-sat” I didn’t even know that Victoria was home. She usually stayed in her room. After a while she started hanging out with me. I think it started shortly after a ceiling fan was pulled down, Maybe she felt like she had to baby-sit me. ( I’ll let her tell you the ceiling fan story. It’s rather embarrassing and she’ll be much more colorful than I would be.) Well anyway, soon Victoria and I would talk, play monopoly, and fight over the remote control. We became good friends. I was rather naive at the time and had no idea that she had a crush on me.

When we were both old enough to go to the church dances Victoria and I used to dance together a lot. Everyone else that I hung out with saw the dances as places to get phone numbers for future dates. Victoria went to dances to dance. I know it sounds like a novel idea but she actually danced at dances. She danced to every single song until the dance was over. She was a lot of fun. If a fun song came on I could always count on her dancing with me.

A friend of my dad’s gave me some tickets to go see the Atlanta Theater do Great Expectations. I wasn’t really into the dating scene yet and I was nervous about calling anyone. My parents were insistent that I go out on a date. I called one girl and was rejected immediately. My parents suggested another girl, they looked up her number, and her parents said no. My very first date was starting off in the worst possible way. I then tried to talk my folks into using the tickets instead of me. My mom’s response was to try to set me up with yet another girl. I decided to call Victoria. After I called and asked her she stepped away from the phone and I could hear her talking with her mother. I was sure that she was going to come back and reject me again. When she came back and said “sure” I felt even worse than if she had said no. Now I actually had to go on this date. I don’t remember if I even said anything to her at all that night. I was so afraid that I was going to do something wrong. I don’t think we went out to eat. I don’t think I held the door for her. I don’t think I walked her to the door when it was over. My parents had never taught me how to date, so I did everything wrong. That is probably why to this day Victoria claims that it was not a date it was just two friends going to a play. I wish I had known that it wasn’t a date at the time. I’d have probably been more relaxed and we’d have both had a better time.

After my mission Victoria was one of the first people to come and visit me. I was severely jet lagged but she stuck with me and told me everything that had happened in the last two years. She introduced my to all of her new friend that she had met at Young Adult dances. I was quickly accepted into her little clique.

A few months later I broke off a relationship with another girl when I realized that she was just not at all the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was feeling kinda bummed about life and Victoria called me to remind me that there was a dance that night. I went. She was teasing me because I was not exactly the life of the party. I told her to lay off ‘cuz I’d had a bad week. Victoria brought me out in the hall and we just talked. We walked around the building and I showed her the font that I was baptized in. She told me about her plans to go on a mission. How could I have been so blind? Every girl I had dated up to that point did not measure up. One was Jewish and not the least bit interested in converting, one was completely morally bankrupt, one was shallow, and the few others are not worth noting. Here she was right in front of me my whole life and I didn’t even see her until now. She’s beautiful, she has a twisted sense of humor, she loves camping and the outdoors, she wants to be married in the Temple, and now she’s being sensitive and compassionate. And best of all “she likes me”.

From that day on we spent every possible moment with each other. She’d drive to see me at work for just a 30 minute lunch. I’d come home from school and stop by to see her at 10:00 or later. Sometimes we’d fall asleep on the couch and I’d get up and go to work from her house. I can’t believe that either of our parents allowed that. One night in December we ditched out of a Young Adult activity and went to Stone Mountain at midnight. It was raining and the Park was closed so I talked her into climbing over the fence and climbing the mountain anyway. It was a full moon so there was plenty of light, but Victoria’s eyes are bad at night and the rock trail was slippery so she held my hand tight the whole way up and back down. Never before in my life had anyone trusted me as much as she had that night. After our little trespass we went to the Krispy Kreme and got donuts and hot chocolate. I don’t know when I got her home but it was well into the next morning.

I proposed to her a couple of months later in my apartment after I had cooked her a nice dinner. It wasn’t that fancy. In retrospect I wish that I had had the Blue Angels skywrite “Will You Marry Me?” over her house, but I was still rather akward and scared.

We just celebrated our Tenth Anniversary. We pawned the kids of to all of the Grandparents for a long weekend and we ran down to a cozy little Bed and Breakfast in Charleston. We signed up for a walking tour of the town but we were the only ones who showed up so we had a 4 hour private guided tour of all the homes in Charleston. Later on we took a ferry out to Fort Sumter. I will always have fond memories of this trip."

Our eighteenth anniversary is coming up soon. I'm trying to plan a little get-away for the two of us. Not a day goes past that I do not reflect on the joy that she has brought into my life. I need to do a better job of telling her and showing her how much I love her.

"There is no remedy for love but to love more."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Simple Monk

I left work a little early because I was expecting it to be a little bit of a frenzy downtown. As it turned out we didn’t need to be quite so fast but I’m glad we did. Aaron reviewed the history that he’d learned today in school. So I got to hear all about Egyptian history and theology on my train ride downtown.
We got to the park so early that we were able to get front row seats. I mean that literally. If we’d have sat any closer we’d have had to stand up to look over the barricade. The weather started out looking a bit gloomy but I think it helped to keep the crowds small and we could sure use the rain in Georgia so I didn’t complain.
Apparently the Dalai Lama likes jazz music. Along with some traditional Tibetan groups, he asked a really nice jazz trio to play before his speech, The Gary Motley trio.
During his speech I took a few notes on my blackberry. I was most struck with how universal most of the concepts he spoke about were. They seemed to apply to almost any religion. He even stated that these concepts where essential human concepts and they were more important than any specific theology. Here are a few of the notes I took:

We should all strive to see each other as brothers and sisters
I am nothing special. I am just a simple monk.
Identify destructive emotions and reduce them.
We are born with the seeds of compassion. We get it from our mothers. At birth we are entirely dependent upon the care of others. We need to remember this and help care for others. He learned more from his mother than he did from Buddhism.
World peace must come first from inner peace. It will then flow from us to those around us and eventually the world.
Give your children maximum affection. Of course I'm a monk so I'll leave that up to you to do.
Modern education alone is not adequate to develop warm-heartedness. I want to educate entire humanity the importance of love and compassion.
It is a mistake to try to relegate love and compassion to religion alone. We need to apply it in all aspects of our lives.
As much as you love God you must also love your fellow beings.
Compassion is the foundation of self-confidence. Self confidence reducers fear. Reduced fear brings peace of mind and health.
If you do this there's not much else for me to talk about.
First we need Inner disarmament. That will lead to outer disarmament. The concept of war is outdated. Destruction of enemy is destruction of yourself. Let's leave bloodshed in the last century. Make this, the 21st century, a century of dialog. Commit to a non-violent way. Work for the middle way even in world events. Not a compromise but a true win-win situation for all.

I must say that I really felt what Paul Ekman was speaking about. This man honestly felt every emotion and his countenance showed it. At one point during his introduction Dr. Martin Luther King’s name was mentioned. The Dalai Lama reached next to him and grabbed the arm of John Lewis. The look on his face was so honest and caring that you could see the true compassion that he had for both Dr. King and Mr. Lewis. It wasn’t some photo-op. It was real. I need to work much harder to develop this kind of love and compassion for those around me.
I found it more than a little ironic that as I listened to this man of peace I was sitting only a few feet from an act of violence. In 1996 Eric Rudolf set off a bomb at this park during the first night of the Atlanta Olympics.
The only real damper on the event was as we were leaving. A couple women were handing Christian witness cards. (I use the term Christian only to indicate their confessed belief and not their behavior, which was anything but.) I took the card and started to read it. It had a gory image of a mangled body and car after a traffic accident. The text said that if I got into a car accident and died on the way home that I would go to hell. Then there was a paragraph written in much smaller type that I didn’t bother to read. I simply crumbled the card and placed it in the garbage can near the two women. It really saddens me that these two could listen to this man speak the same truths that the Bible teaches and still think the way they do. I could find Biblical support for nearly every sentence that he said yet since they seem to feel that since he is a Buddhist that he is from the devil.
I had heard that security was going to be very strict. They advertised no backpack or even umbrellas. I was worried that they would confiscate it so I left the camera at home. Ultimately his words will mean more to me than his image. Still, It would have been nice to have the images too.
I continue to admire and look up to this humble man, who refers to himself as just a monk. His example and loving nature are best described as Christ-like.

The best part of the event was just hanging out with my social conscious 13-year-old for half a day. Thanks for going with me Aaron.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Dalai Lama

Buddhism has always been close to my heart. Even as a young boy I cherished the Buddhist values of living simply, reducing suffering in other beings and looking inward to find peace and harmony. On my mission in Japan I had a problem with asking devout Buddhists to reject their faith when so much of what they believed was good and true. Friends of mine have even called me the first Buddhist Mormon they’ve ever met. I take that as a compliment. I’ve always felt that the truth was completely independent of theology. Or to quote the bumper sticker, “God is too big to fit into just one religion”. Now there are a few times when I think that one religion or another may be a little off base, but rather than criticize those aspects I’ve found it more satisfying to celebrate when they get it right.
A few years ago while reading the Dalai Lama’s book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness, about halfway through they mentioned a meeting between His Holiness and Paul Ekman. Ekman is considered the world’s foremost expert on emotions and the human face. He's like a body language expert who focuses solely on the muscles of the face. He recently made the news for interpreting some of the Al Qaeda videos. Ekman commented that when the Dalai Lama felt any emotion that he felt it 100% and that based on his expressions he was the most honest and genuine person he had ever met. I have felt this same sense of humility and honesty in all of his books and when I read his lectures.
Friends and family members have quizzed me on whether or not I believe that he is really the reincarnation of Buddha and other such detailed questions. Personally I find those of secondary importance. Here is a man who has learned to love his fellow man. And I believe is doing everything in his power to foster and promote that love. I would be doing myself and those around me a disservice if I chose to ignore his teachings simply because they didn't come from Salt Lake.
Last week I mentioned that he was going to be in town and my oldest son asked if we could go see him. I was a little taken aback. I hadn’t realized that he had been paying so much attention when I shared my views with Victoria. Aaron’s wisdom and maturity on ethical an moral issues greatly out paces his years. I shouldn't have been surprised.
Monday I will be taking a day off to go downtown with Aaron to hear the Dalai Lama speak. He has been in town for a few days and I tried to get tickets to see some of his other, less festival-like, appearances. Sue actually got a few tickets for me only to find out that they were only valid with an Emory university ID. Thanks for the attempt. I really appreciate it. I realize that the pop culture aspect of the Dalai Lama will bring out large groups who don’t fully appreciate the lessons that this man can teach. Ideally, I would like this experience to turn out very similar to attending General Conference on the lawn at Temple Square. Realistically though, I’m expecting the atmosphere to be somewhere between that and a “Dead” show.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

-The Dalai Lama-


I just got back from a fun weekend at scout camp. Well not exactly. There were no boys at this scout camp. The Church has been encouraging all scout leaders to get as much training as possible. Woodbadge training is coming up in the spring. Last year they wouldn’t let me take Woodbadge because it had just been too long since I had taken the basic training classes. Never mind that I had actually served on training staffs several times, they still wanted me to re-take the basic training class. It was four Tuesday nights and then the weekend campout to apply what we had learned.
The patrol they put me in was really good. We all got along pretty good and all seemed genuinely excited about learning as much as possible to take back and apply to our troops.
The courses kept us moving constantly so I’m due for a good nap. I must confess that much of the reason I’m so tired has little to do with the planned activities but with what happened afterwards. A couple of my fellow trainees are rather accomplished guitar players. After the official activities ended they pulled out their guitars and we all stayed up far too late trying to remember lyrics so we could sing along.
After this weekend and the weeks before of being trained the official way to do things I’m even more convinced of the need to apply every possible principle into my troop. I think I’ll have a little bit of a struggle doing this but I’m up to the challenge. Without exception the greatest scouting experiences I’ve had have been when the boys were in charge and running their own program. I confess that I’ve been letting it get away from that in the last year. With the recent leadership changes and additions in the troop I feel like this is the right time to make sure that we are doing things right.
I’m looking forward to this spring so I can take Woodbadge. But for right now, its just good to be back home with my family.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Political Action

A few days ago I wrote a post about how my pro-freedom opinions frequently make me feel like an apologist for behavior that I do not agree with. That post was prompted by an email that was circulating to try to get our county library to censor and filter the material that can be viewed from library computers. I sent the following email to the library board to voice my opinions on the subject.

Dear Gwinnett County Library Board,

In response to the attached email I wanted to let you know that I agree with the current policy on internet use at the public libraries.

My family of six uses your library system pretty much daily. I am also a Boy Scout scoutmaster over a small troop that meets at a church that is less than one mile from a library branch. I serve in a leadership position at the same church. I personally find pornography repugnant and degrading to both men and women. I have a real vested interest in the morality of our society and am working hard to teach all those in my charge the value of making correct choices.

With these credentials you may find it surprising that I support your internet use policy. The truth is I get very scared when any one group tries to decide what is moral and correct for somebody else. Book burnings and restricting information access is historically one of the first steps toward tyranny. Karl Marx said that controlling the media was an essential early step to creating a communist state.

I respect your use of internet filters that would prohibit illegal images to be displayed. I draw the line when it comes to legal websites that may simply contain material that may be objectionable to someone else. I find most images of warfare to be objectionable but I do not expect the library to restrict access to this information simply because I object to it.

On the other hand in the past year I have read many books about the evils of polygamy. I have recently read a book which details the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I have even borrowed books that are very critical of mainstream Christianity. I am sure much of this material would be very objectionable and even pornographic to someone who was just looking over my shoulder while walking around the library.

Please continue to allow me to be in control of what I decide to view while using library resources. Our founders would be proud that you have chosen to stand up for the first amendment and refuse to censor this media.

On a religious level, I believe that our free agency is a sacred trust that was given to us by God. We honor God by choosing as he would wish, not by restricting the ability of others to choose good over evil.

Thank you,
Michael Taylor

In response I received the following invitation:


Thank you for your comments and support.

Given our current board and their reactionary policy, they are already working with the county to change the policy to allow librarians to look over your shoulder. I suspect this policy will be changed at the November board meeting. I urge you and anyone else you know to come to the board meeting on November 12th at 6:00pm and voice your opinion. You may want to request to address the board by e-mail before hand to be sure you get a spot on the agenda. These spots are filling up fast with people that have the opposite views.

Brett Taylor
GCPL Board Member

I realize that there will be many people at this meeting who will not understand my position. I hope that I will be able to convince you that I agree with the moral values you are trying to teach, but just disagree with your strategy to teach them. I just feel too strongly about this issue to remain silent. As a Mormon, if I allow censorship based on a public opinion how long will it be before anything sympathetic to LDS causes is removed from the library?

Saturday, October 13, 2007


I just finished well earned shower.
After about 12 hours in the garage and driving back and forth to Lowes the old dripping water heater is out by the curb and the brand new one is in the spot that the old one vacated. It didn't go completely without a hitch but nothing beyond what I'd expected. The new heater is about 5' taller than the old one. There wasn't enough slack in the pipes to accommodate so I had to move the Hot water out, the cold water in and the gas connections up to make enough room. The first time we tried it it leaked all over the place. I suspect that the solder flux that I'd used just wasn't wicking it into the connections properly. So I took it all back apart and used a different flux. That seemed to solve the problem.
Well hopefully I won't have to do that again for another 15 or twenty years. But if the occasion arises I'm glad I now know how.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Water water everywhere...

Well it appears that the puddle inside our furnace/air conditioner is actually being caused by a small leak in the water heater. I looks as if my Saturday is going to be spent replacing a water heater. We've done a little bit of research found that a tankless water heater would cost close to $1000 not counting installation. If we just replace what we have it'll be around $400 without installation. Consumer reports that most houses save $40 to $50 a year on gas costs with a tankless water heater. That means that it'll be 12 to 15 years before the additional cost of a tankless heater is offset by the savings. So we'll probably just install a traditional water heater.
I've had good experiences and bad experiences with
tankless heaters. The good experiences were in Japan where the homes were designed specifically around tankless heaters. We had a heater directly over the kitchen sink and it was only about 10' of pipe from there through the wall to the shower. So we only had to let the water run for a few seconds before the hot stuff came out of the shower.
On the flip side of that a family member put a
tankless heater in a house that was previously designed around a traditional heater and it takes 5 to 10 minutes before even tepid water makes its way back to the shower. More than likely the water gets relatively hot at the source but just cools down too much on the long trip. In this situation, I'd be willing to bet that any savings from not having a tank are quickly lost in extra water costs while you're waiting for the water to get hot.
Two years ago I went down to Florida to help people in Orlando area put tarps on their roof after being barraged by three
hurricanes in a row. Since we were having to work around their solar water heating panels I took the time to ask the home owners about them. Being a hippy at heart the idea had always appealed to me. I was glad to have the chance to ask some first hand users what they thought about the technology. For the most part they all seemed to enjoy it. The biggest complaint they had was that is was too hot in the summer and just that it was hard to regulate.
All of these
experiences have me considering that the best option was probably a hybrid of all three solutions. You could have solar system that was used to preheat a storage tank. Then you could have an inline a.k.a. tankless heater after that. This would basically just be a regulator. When the water entering it was too cold it'd give it a little boost. Then after that you could have a very small reserve tank that would do nothing more than provide the first couple gallons of hot water so you didn't waste water waiting for the other systems to kick in. If I built something like this it'd probably be at least twice that cost of any one of the individual solutions. But it'd be fun. Truth be told it be the financial planner, Victoria, who decides what I have to build tomorrow and not the tinkerer experimenter, me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Libertarian Dilema

As a libertarian I typical take the side of an argument that allows more freedom and liberty to those involved. Suppose somebody wants to restrict another person’s ability to, let's say, play soccer because they feel it is unsafe. They may have a valid point and can show loads of reports on broken ankles, head injuries and mangled fingers. Some would be tempted to allow legal restrictions to be put on playing soccer. But what if the activity is only harmful to those who are participating in it, as is the case with soccer? Do I as a non-soccer player have the right to tell others what they should or should not think is safe? I would say no. Whether I choose to play it or not I don't have a right to restrict other's freedom to participate.
The dilemma I have with taking this pro-liberty, pro-freedom stance is that all too frequently a libertarian may appear to be defending the decision of another rather than just their right to have that decision. If I think that kids should have the right to play soccer that does not mean that I would have chosen the same way.
Granted this soccer analogy is not quite to the point. Few have serious concerns about whether or not people should be allowed to play soccer. However, please keep this analogy in mind as I attempt to make my next point.
What if the choice goes against my personal morality? Should I be allowed to restrict someone else’s freedom in that case? Let's take smoking for instance. I can provide reams of evidence that shows how dangerous it is. But should I be allowed to restrict another’s right to hurt themselves? How about harder stuff like narcotics? If somebody wants to toke it up in their home and they don't drive while high why should I have the right to force my moral decisions on them? I don't believe that I do have that right.
I fear that because I take this position I end up alienating people on both sides of the issue. I don't condone the use of narcotics but I believe that the choice should be left up to the user. I don't condone accessing internet porn but I also don't think it's my job to force my morality on others and suggest censoring.
I have given a lot of consideration to the morality of this issue. And I have made peace with my decision. In LDS theology we have a story about the War in Heaven. Lucifer proposed a plan that would force everybody to be obedient and Christ proposed a plan that allowed us to choose whether or not we would obey. The Father then chose Christ's plan. This story always comes to mind when I hear attempts to limit the freedom of others. All too frequently I get little pangs inside me that say, "This sounds similar to Satan's plan".
So in those situations where I chose to allow others to potentially choose differently than I would prefer I am comforted by the fact that I believe restricting their right to chose would be even more immoral.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Still More on Situational Evil

I'm still reading the Lucifer Effect. It's not exactly the type of book you'd want to skim or just give a rough read. I've been reading a library copy but I think I may go buy a hard copy. I'm having to resist the urge to highlight and make notes in the margin.
As I read I'm becoming increasingly aware of the "situational" forces that work around me. Zimbardo describes several situations where otherwise good people refused to speak up when their own morality was telling them they should. Instead they relied on the judgment of their supposed superiors to make the moral decision for them. If I've learned anything from this book it's that my own silent refusal to respond can and most likely is interpreted as agreement. I've found that since this fact is front and center in my mind that I am increasingly intolerant of immoral and unethical comments. When friends, family members or coworkers make comments that I find morally repugnant I used to lean towards just ignoring them. However, I have since become aware that this passive attitude is only marginally different than an endorsement of their comments.
I've never been good at confrontations. I'm doing my best to figure out how to balance these two conflicting forces inside me. At what point is okay to say "I don't agree and I want no part of this conversation"? And when I do respond is my response proportional to the initial comment? In the past I think I've waited far too long before I made my voice hear and then I respond too strongly. I fear that now I may be reacting to strongly too fast. Be patient with me as I wrestle with this dilemma. I'm working to find a balance that with accomplish both goals, not alienate everybody around me, and yet let them know that there are certain moral and ethical bounds that I will not cross.

I've been especially surprised at the comments I've heard from family and friends about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
"Well if wearing women’s underwear on you head is torture there are a lot of fraternities that should be shut down too."
"They were just using these Muslims weird beliefs against them." Etc etc.
(I debated posting sevarla of the Abu Ghraib images that were clearly much worse than frat house hazing. I decided against it. if your interested just do a google image search for Abu Ghraib and your see more than you wanted.)
The analogy to a frat house is common one but the two situations are very different on a number of major ways. In a frat house the 'victims' are there because they want to be and are trying to do thing to get into the organization. In Abu Ghraib the victims were prisoners who did not want to be there and wanted to get out of this prison. This twisted "frat house" analogy only holds water if we ignore the conditions of servitude and the desires of the victims. Without these two conditions what's the difference between rape and consensual sex? There is none.
As far as the comment about using their beliefs against them goes, I agree. But it's also worth noting that the guards were also making these prisoners do things that went against their own moral beliefs. That is where they violated not only the morality of the prisoners but their own as well. I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that these soldiers would not want to have the same actions forced upon them.
Most of the comments I've heard defending the guards actions come from people who have done little to no research into what they actually did. Many of the sexually explicit images never made it on the broadcast news. And all too frequently people are just waiting for their talk radio spin doctors to tell them how to believe. So I'm not really surprised that I've heard the "frat house" analogy from more than one source. They all got it from Rush Limbaugh.
I don't believe that we have to behave like a terrorist in order to defend ourselves against them. Zimbardo's book is forcing me to become more vocal in my opposition to the situational forces around me. As he points out it isn't easy to stand up for your personal morality. But I believe that by remaining silent on these issues I become part of the system that is influencing others to do evil things.

Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Banned Book Week

Apparently this week is banned book week. A friend of mine pointed this out on her blog. After reading the top 100 list of banned books I found that I had read twelve of them. Here is my current reading list. It wouldn't surprise me if many of these books are also on somebody's banned list.

Beyond reason : eight great problems that reveal the limits of science
by Dewdney, A. K.

Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon
by Dennett, Daniel Clement

Junk science : how politicians, corporations, and other hucksters betray us
by Agin, D. P.

The Lucifer effect : understanding how good people turn evil

by Zimbardo, Philip G.

Mistakes were made (but not by me) : why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts
by Tavris, Carol

SHAM : how the self-help movement made America helpless

by Salerno, Steve.

Thomas Jefferson : author of America

by Hitchens, Christopher

Thomas Paine's rights of man

by Hitchens, Christopher

Why Darwin matters : the case against intelligent design

by Shermer, Michael

More Situational Evil

As I listen to current events regarding the Blackwater Security investigation, I can’t help but see the parallels between this and the events that Dr. Zimbardo describes in the The Lucifer Effect. Having a large security force that is given such broad power and is under such limited oversight surely falls into the category of situational evil. The fact that they are private contractors and therefore more difficult to detain and prosecute just makes the situation more volatile. From what I’ve been reading the average Blackwater security employee in Iraq is making four times what the average US military employee is making. With this in mind it begs the question, “Are they four times more effective?” I doubt it. I just think that they are a deliberate level of separation and a way to insulate those in charge of the war from direct criticism for the atrocities. I believe that those in command knew exactly what they would get if they hired private security and that they are even more responsible for creating this situation that the employees are who simply react as expected when placed in the situation. Even if those in charge didn’t foresee this problem they should have. So, either way the real fault lays a few levels higher than Blackwater Securities.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


This is an inside joke in our family. I think it got started on one of our many road trips. The kids were playing Mad Libs and they kept asking me for nouns, verbs and adjectives. At some point I just started answering "chicken" each time they asked me for a noun. Also, Our 7-year old thinks that the only two food groups are chicken nuggets and ketchup.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Timely Comeback

If you’re anything like me you’ve likely had this scenario happen to you. You get into a situation where you are attempting to persuade someone to com around to your way of thinking. They keep insisting that there is nothing that they can do to help. You reluctantly accept your fate. Then about 10 minutes later you think of the ultimate comeback that would have persuaded them to change their mind, but the moment is gone. Well Saturday I was vindicated. I actually thought of the right persuasive comment at exactly the time I needed it and the situation turned out exactly in my favor. This happens to me so rarely that I felt it was worth a blog entry.
Last week we noticed that our air conditioner was leaking and making a small puddle on the den carpet. So we called for our seasonal service and the repairman told us that he’d fixed the problem. Well a few day go by and Friday I notice that the puddle is actually getting worse not better. We called for another technician to come by. Saturday morning we were trying to plan our day and I called the Estes and asked them to narrow down the time for me so I could plan to be home when the tech showed up. The rude customer service rep couldn’t narrow down the time and insisted that we had to be home all day to just wait for them to show up. Well it was 8:00am on a Saturday and they routineuely show up for service after 5:00pm. I told her that this was unacceptable. I didn’t care what time she picked, we’d work around it, but I wasn’t going to just sit around and wait all day. Then she pulled what she was expecting to be her “Get Out of Jail Free Card” and said, “I’m sorry but that’s our policy.” I could right an entire book about the abuses that this planet has seen because people surrender their personal decision making ability to the “policies” of a superior. But that’s another post. Here can my comeback that I believed got the result I intended.

“Is it your policy for technicians to claim they have fixed problems that they really haven’t”
“Of course not.”
“So your actions have already shown that you were willing to break policy when you created this problem. All I’m asking you to do is break policy again and give me a time that you will be here to fix it.”
“I’m sorry I can’t do that.”

At this point I asked to be transferred to her supervisor and I left a message explaining my request.
Within 10 minutes I received a call that we had been moved to the front of the dispatch list and a few minutes after that I had a call from the dispatcher telling us that the tech was on his way. The problem was quickly solved and we were able to spend the rest of the day enjoying ourselves rather than waiting for a technician.
It bothers me when people don’t treat me the same way I would have treated them. In every job I’ve ever had I’ve found it very helpful to put myself in the other person’s shoes before I respond. Even when there is nothing that I really can do I deliberately avoided the “that’s our policy” line.