Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sibling Solidarity

(This is another personal post that will likely upset some readers.)

I love my kids. Sure they can frustrate the hell out of me sometimes but I still love them. I didn’t enjoy being a teenager and I can tell that my two teenagers aren’t exactly digging it either. It seems that most of their troubles come from peer pressure; so-called friends attacking them, frequently physically, for their opinions and beliefs and trying to get them to just go along with the crowd. What’s really upsetting to them is that most of this criticism comes from people whom they think should know better, members of our church. As a parent few thing make me more proud than when one kid stands up for the other, especially in a situation where they really don’t have anything to gain my doing it. We had just such a situation last night. And although it was very traumatic for her, I couldn’t have been more proud of my oldest daughter.
A little back history: Aaron hasn’t been attending church at our ward for the better part of a year now. He has been arranging, on his own, to get rides back and forth from the Brocket Ward. He gets along with the kids in that ward better, they accept him and genuinely love him. In stark contrast, the kids in our ward tease him, call him a Satanist and frequently physically assault him. In his own words it is rather ironic that the least spiritual hours of his week are spent at church. He doesn’t participate in the Varsity scout program on Wednesday night. We’ve moved him to another troop that is a real community troop where sharing the same religious upbringing is not a requirement to hold positions. He gets along much better with these guys. On Wednesday he even arranges for rides over to Brockett to hang out with the kids from that ward that he gets along with so well. In the entire time that he has been attending that Ward only one person from our ward has asked about Aaron. He was genuinely concerned and I thanked him for caring and not forgetting about him. Not a single other person has given us the slightest clue that they’ve even noticed his absence. In stark contrast, the leaders from Brockett comment to us about how they enjoy having him there and miss him when he’s gone.
Well last night I dropped Rachel off at the church for her Young Women’s activity. She typically doesn’t have the same issues as Aaron so I was a little surprised when Victoria brought her home and she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong. Rachel then proceeded to ask if she too could attend Brockett Ward rather than our ward. Apparently even in his absence Aaron is still a topic of conversation. A few of the kids were making fun of him and it really upset Rachel. I found a bit odd that their primary criticism of Aaron is that he “believes in evolution”. Rachel has never been one to gossip and hence she refused to tell me which kids were involved. But she did say that it really surprised her because she had though that these kids were above that. Apparently she had spent half of the meeting outside crying and just waiting for us to come pick her up.
Rachel didn’t openly defy these kids, that’s just not her style, but she did refuse to be a part of what they were doing. They still fight like, well brothers and sisters, but when the chips are down it’s really nice to see them standing up for what they know is right. Rachel didn’t want to tell anybody, especially Aaron, about what happened. I thought that he needed to hear it. After he was dropped off from his activity at Brockett we talked about it and he gave his little sister a nice big hug.

I chose to post this in order to add my name to Rachel’s. I stand behind my family. You criticize one of us you criticize us all. And we won’t tolerate it.

As far as the chief complaint lobbied again Aaron goes, Evolution is a fact. Get used to it. It used to be a theory but it has long ago graduated to a fact as far as I am concerned. I would even go so far as to say that evolution is more of a fact than gravity. Gravity is still lacking a clear definition of how it works. Like evolution gravity has been tested and tested and tested thousands of times but gravity is still lacking a carrier. We don’t quite know how it works. We have hypothesized the existence of the graviton, but haven’t actually seen one. In contrast we have found DNA and natural selection, the elements that make evolution work. So in a very real sense there is more evidence supporting evolution than gravity. In the past when people have asked me if I “believe” evolution I’ve had to rephrase their question in my answer. Because belief requires faith I don’t think it applies to evolution. Faith is a belief without evidence or even in spite of the evidence. You just aren’t looking if you don’t see evidence of evolution. So I respond something like this, “I accept the overwhelming evidence that life evolved via natural selection.”

"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality." The Dalai Lama
Wise words. It's a shame more people don't apply this same idea to thier own beliefs. I'm glad my kids are.

Monday, March 22, 2010

How Stuff Doesn't Necessarily Work

Years ago I had a friend try to explain to me how a clutch-less manual transmission works. I wasn’t quite getting the picture so I googled it. The first website that was suggested was The explanations were sufficiently “dumbed down” that you didn’t need to be a mechanical engineer to understand them, but technical enough that they satisfied my curiosity. The pictures and even the animations worked very well to give supporting explanations and imagery. So I bookmarked the site on my browser and began using it for just about any topic when I needed to break things down to more easy to understand terms. I was even pleasantly surprised that their section on telecommunications has come in handy in explaining to other engineers certain aspects of our job. So I signed up for their email newsletter. A couple times a week I would get updates to the site. It was a neat way to keep up on the latest technology and other topics.
Well I recently sent an email requesting that they unsubscribe me from that newsletter. I don’t know if they hare under new management or what but the focus of the site seems to have drastically changed. I’m kind of a stickler for certain things. Staying on topic is one of them. I don’t like it when politics strays into religion. Nor do I like it when religion strays into politics. I got annoyed when a channel called the History channel started airing programs about UFOs and ghosts. How in it world does either qualify as history? I now have a very similar criticism with
In my mind, before you give any pixel space at all to a topic on a site called How Stuff Works you have the burden of proving that it works. So I really got annoyed when last week they did a feature on the most compelling ghost photos. Huh? Why in the world would this qualify as how stuff works? So I got poking around and also found that they had a whole sections on complimentary and alternative medicine, the paranormal, and even reincarnation and other religious and mythological topics. I decided to read a few to see if they gave more than just the token sceptical treatment on the last few paragraphs. In a few instances they did give some skeptical treatments. One even gave a link to a lecture by Michael Shermer. But I still felt they gave these topics too credulous coverage.
In today’s page they had a cover story about acupuncture and hypnosis treatments for infertility. The benefits to infertility are only based on the fact that hypnosis and acupuncture reduce stress levels. Perhaps I missed it but nowhere in the article did they point out that just about anything else that lowers your stress levels would have that same effect, yoga, meditation, or just playing with a puppy.
I’m not gonna be one of those who disingenuously claims that I’m “never gonna go to this site again.” But now that they have tipped their hand and shown a desire to post anything that’ll get them web hits, regardless of weither it "works" or not, I can’t say I’d endorse it with the same enthusiasm as I used to. And they definitely will not be the final authority on any of my research from now on.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Manly Sweaty Doll Blogger Award.

I typically don't pass along these silly memes on my blog but what the heck.

I have been challenged to answer at least four of the following questions: Tell a couple of things about yourself, the name of your favorite guy book, your favorite sports moment, favorite MANLY MAN movie, favorite manly music, and your Favorite Food with No Nutritional Value.

1. I once swapped drivers in a moving car by going across the windshield Dukes Hazard style. Of course it was in a VW Rabbit and we weren't going all that fast.
2. I had a the coolest job a High School kid could have in 1983. I built and tested arcade games.
3. Favorite Guy Book: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, the most griping armchair mountaineering book every written. This book will either inspire you to climb big mountains or scare you to a life of sitting behind a remote control with little grey in between.
4. Favorite Sports Moment: Sid Bream outrunning Barry Bond's throw and just sliding in under the catch of Mike LaValliere to win the 1992 NLCS for the Braves.
5. Favorite Manly Movie: The Hunt For Red October, no explanation needed.
6. Favorite Manly Music: Lately I've been really digging Apocolyptica
7. Favorite Food with No Nutritional Value: That chocolate raspberry stuff at Brusters.

I'm not gonna tag anybody specifically but If you feel like participating knock yourself out.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More on Logical Fallacies: Begging the Question

A few weeks ago I witnessed a wonderful demonstration of this logical fallacy at our weekly Boy Scout troop meeting. Our Senior Patrol Leader wanted to remind the older scouts about the importance of wearing our uniforms. It was also a good opportunity to inform the newer scouts how we do things. So at the end of the meeting he asked the entire group of boys and the adults as well, “When do we wear our class-A scout uniform?” I was very proud of him for taking the time to do a little educating and reinforming. But I share his frustration over what came next.
One after the other the boys and even a few adults started giving the vaguest answers possible.
“We are to wear our class-A uniform whenever you tell it is appropriate.”
“Wear it unless our leadership tells us it is inappropriate.”
“ The uniform is to be worn according to local troop policy.”
All of these answers are technically correct but can you see the frustration our Senior Patrol Leader must have faced? It’s as if each person was so worried about getting the answer wrong that they didn’t provide any information at all. They just restated the question in fancier language. None of the responses actually provided an answer. The question started with the word “when” and none of the responses gave a specific time or event. This is the logical fallacy know as begging the question. If the question itself is the only source you have for your response you are likely just begging the question.
Another quick example:
“How do we know if psychics can talk to dead people?”
“Because they are psychic.”

Finally the patrol leader restated the question in such a way that didn’t allow for any non-answer responses, “Give several specific examples of times when, according to troop policy and what our leaders have told us, we should be wearing our full class-A uniform”. At last he got some responses that actually educated the newer boys and reminded the older boys. “At all Troop meetings and Courts of Honor.” “While travelling to and from any campout.” “At evening assemblies during summer camp.” etc.

On a side note: Most people misuse the phrase begging the question. Rather than use it in the context I’ve just described they use it as if it is synonymous with “brings up the question” . If my daughter says “Noah won’t let me play with the snake.” That brings up a bunch of questions but it doesn’t beg any.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Where Men Win Glory

My Review of Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

(Warning: There are a few spoilers)

First of all, I must confess that the only reason I chose to read this book was because I love Jon Krakauer’s work. As I pointed out last week I think he is an excellent investigative reporter. Even when the events he’s reporting on are partially concealed by the Alaskan back-country, the deadly slopes of the highest mountain in the world, secretive polygamist societies or in this case by the chaos and fog of war. I had made up my mind about Pat Tillman and was not really interested in devoting my reading time to this poster-boy of the war effort in Iraq. It was only my history with Krakauer’s work that made me reconsider my prejudices. And my preconceptions about Tillman couldn’t have been more wrong.
Since I don’t understand football I didn’t have any clue who Pat Tillman was before the Bush administration chose to make him the poster boy for the war effort when he turned his back on a $3,000,000 contract to join the Rangers and do his part to help out in the war in Afghanistan. I don’t think that football players are a special class of people so I saw his sacrifice as just the same as any other person who chose to put their life in danger to protect my rights. And I got a particular bee in my bonnet after his death when the right wing media tried to spin his death as meaning more than any other soldier’s death. Tillman put himself in harm’s way to protect my liberties. He literally gave his all. Yet so did thousands of other soldiers. Their future earning potential is irrelevant. They gave their lives for this country.
So I had pigeon-holed Pat Tillman, without any research on my part, as a mindless jock who just jumped behind the war effort because he’d heard Toby Keith’s song and wanted to go act it out. Indeed that is the way much of the talk show noise spun his enlistment. If you still believe this distortion of who Pat really was you will be very disappointed when you read the book.
Pat was probably one of the more literate people to ever wear an NFL jersey. When the other players on his team were buying the fanciest cars they could and just partying, Pat was being teased about driving his used Volvo to practice and spending most of his spare time completing his Master’s degree. Pat was a voracious reader. Among his favorite authors was Emerson, Thoreau, Homer and Noam Chomsky. The title of the book is a quote from the Odyssey, which Tillman particularly like and had a copy of it with him in Afghanistan.
Pat kept meticulous journals. Much of the book is quotes taken straight from these journals. At a couple points Krakauer used phrases that I thought were unnecessarily partisan. I thought that he was just putting his own opinions into the book which wouldn’t have been appropriate for an investigative report like this. Then I stepped back and realized that these weren’t Krakauer’s opinions, they were Tillman’s taken straight from his journals. With my preconception of Pat I just hadn’t expected him to make statements like, “the neo-conservative brain-trust in The White House” and “that cowboy at the helm”. Those were some of the nicer things that Pat said about his Commander-in-Chief. You see Pat really didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t think we had any business in Iraq at all. He and his brother, Kevin, had enlisted to assist in the war in Afghanistan. They were both very vocal and upset and felt tricked into fighting in a war they didn’t agree with.
Krakauer departed strictly from Tillman’s story for a little bit to give a history of U. S. friendly fire accidents. Although the press didn’t dwell on it too much the first confirmed deaths of the Iraq war were friendly-fire accidents. This short history of accidental fratricide in the military was necessary to show the predisposition of the military to covering up the facts. In a friendly fire death the investigative agency is the military itself. There is no other agency involved like there is with other accidents. In a plane crash the airline doesn’t investigate themselves. That task falls to the NTSB in order to avoid a conflict of interest. So with the military there is a serious conflict of interest and tendency to push the blame as far down the chain of command as possible. This section seemed hauntingly familiar and I kept thinking about Zimbardo’s work on situational evil.
The descriptions of war in this book are quite graphic and not for the squeamish. The day I finished the book I was so emotionally jarred by it that when I came home and saw my son taking joy in a war video game I just couldn’t stay quiet. He deserved to be criticized for his behavior, but I was definitely responding more to my feeling about this book than I was to his behavior.
“When the military is confronted with the fratricidal carnage that predictably results, denial and dissembling are its time honored responses of first resort.”
After Tillman’s death the extent to which the military and the government took to spin and cover up the specifics was particularly unnerving. The members of Pat’s unit were sworn to secrecy about the incident even from Pat’s brother, Kevin who was in the same unit. The doctor who performed Pat’s autopsy was denied the details of his death and ultimately refused to sign the official report because his investigation had been so hindered that he knew his autopsy was incomplete. Pat’s brain was never actually recovered. Pat’s uniform, body armor and personal effects were removed and burned in open defiance of military protocol. Along with the uniform was a notebook that Pat had been keeping his journal on while they were deployed. Of the two letters written for Pat’s posthumous Silver Star one was edited so much in the final edition that the author didn’t even recognize it and the other was unsigned and the alleged author did not remember even writing it.
I’m glad I read this book. It put a face on the men and women who are dying in our country's wars. I’m glad I got to know Tillman better. I still think it’s a shame that there isn’t a similar book written about every single soldier killed in action. The Bush administration unashamedly tried to spin Tillman’s story into a ideal of post 9-11 patriotism. Instead Tillman’s story became a story of unnecessary sacrifice, inept leadership and cover-up. But Pat’s legacy is stronger than that. Thanks his mother, brother, wife and this book Pat still refuses to be reduced to a stereotype and lives on in the lives of those he inspired.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven

I initially read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith when it first came out six or seven years ago. That was before several recent high profile polygamy cases and the HBO series “Big Love”. These recent events prompted me to read it again. I also had a friend tell me that he was interested in hearing what I thought of the book. I couldn’t find my original review so I’ll do my best to cover all those details as well as post some of my impressions from reading it the second time.
Krakauer has a very easy to read style. His books feel like the in depth investigative reports that they are. All of them have a similar approach that works very well. He starts with quick overview of what hit the news. Then he goes backwards as far as he has to on each line to explain why the events unfolded as they did. I’m currently reading Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. He’s using this same format to tell Pat’s story and it’s working very well.
In Under the Banner of Heaven the news story was the savage 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter, Erica by her two brothers-in-law Dan and Ron Lafferty. The Lafferty brothers were members of a polygamist sect of the LDS church. The details of the murders were very tough to read. But had Krakauer stopped with the events of that year it would have been very incomplete. It was important to explain what lead up to the murders and what caused these murders to believe that they had the right and even the duty to murder innocent family members.
To get those answers Krakauer had to go back to the early 1800s and pull a lot of skeletons out of a lot of closets. This is the primary section that most Mormon readers will be uncomfortable with. The history of Joseph Smith is presented based on the contemporary evidence. Most LDS readers would not be familiar with this since they are likely used to the whitewashed “official” versions of the history of the early church. That being said I did not think that one sentence of the history was mean spirited or could honestly be classified as persecution. But if you’re the type that refuses to accept any imperfections in the people you have chosen to follow you might want to stay clear.
The simple truth is that polygamy would not exist to anywhere near the extent that it does in the United States if it were not for the actions of one man, Joseph Smith. Giving an accurate account of the Lafferty murders without mentioning Joseph Smith would be like writing a book about September 11th, 2001 that did not mention Islam. Like it or not, the LDS Church will be forever linked to these polygamist sects who, incidentally, all believe that it is the Salt Lake church that has gone astray and they are preserving the true teachings of Joseph Smith.
I’ve detailed some of my own opinions on polygamy previously on this blog and explained how it’s a mathematical recipe for child abuse. And here is a link to some of my Great-Grandfather's journals. He grew up in a home that still practiced polygamy long after the 1890 declaration by the church stating that it was a forbidden practice. One of the next books I have on my reading list is Lost Boy. Victoria just finished reading it and from her report it seems to validate my mathematical theory.
In my humble opinion Under the Banner of Heaven should be read by every Latter Day-Saint. The practice of polygamy never should have been officially sanctioned by the church and I believe that Salt Lake should take much more drastic measures to apologize, make amends and distance themselves from this evil practice. Simply saying “Yeah but that’s in the past. We don’t do that anymore.” is seriously inadequate.