Monday, December 13, 2010

Stepping off my soapbox

I wrote an article about communication a little while ago. I have strong feelings about communication because it is crucial to the success of relationships and relationships are what life is all about.

To be perfectly fair, my temperament puts me on one extreme of the spectrum of communication styles: I’m direct. This, I’m sure, will not surprise anyone who knows me. It’s not that I can’t pick up on unspoken messages or read between the lines; it’s that I’m always uncertain if I’m interpreting things correctly (that is, in a way that harmonizes with reality). My inability to discern the meaning behind veiled communications has caused me no end of trouble and I’ve chosen to rebel against the system.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How to spot errors in political (and other) arguments

Introduction

There are several logical fallacies (or errors) that are lamentably common in political discourse (and normal conversation) today. What's worse, people - even educated people - seem to be persuaded by these fallacious (that is, flawed) arguments. This post will point out a few common ones and will conclude with an assignment designed to challenge the reader to apply his/her new knowledge.

Before diving into the details, I should explain the structure of a logical argument. First, the speaker (for simplicity, I'll assume that the speaker is female) explains premises, or the facts and ideas that are the basis of her argument. She then applies reason - formally, argument forms - to reach some conclusion. The use of valid argument forms and true premises guarantees that the conclusion reached is true. It is possible to disagree with an argument on the basis of a premise or on the basis of an error in reasoning.

It is also important to note that most debates actually center around things that aren't rigorously provable. For example, many political arguments cite statistics that may or may not consider all of the possible causes and outcomes. The studies provide evidence but do not provide proof. In many cases, the arguments can't be disproved, either. The room for debate is what makes political discourse interesting and this post won't make everyone agree. I hope that the information in this post will help to improve the quality of our conversations.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Peace in times of trial

I sang a solo in church today. I was incredibly nervous as soon as the meeting started, and I sang about 40 minutes into the hour-long meeting. I wasn't physically sick, but I kept wondering if I'd be able to coax the higher notes out of myself as I sang and had a bit of trouble concentrating. I prayed that I'd be able to sing well. I felt reassured that I'd do well enough to not send the Holy Spirit packing, but not that I'd hit the notes.

When I went up to sing, I was shaking (as is my habit - yes, I still get stage fright after more than ten years of public singing). During the entire song, I was shaking. It wasn't just my hands; I remember noticing that my knees were shaking and that my vibrato was different.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Walls within walls

I returned home in 2006 after living in Brazil for two years. I reveled in being able to shower without needing sandals, in the foods I missed, and in being around my family. But there were things I missed about Brazil. Perhaps most unsettling to me was how rude Americans are.

It’s not as if everyone got in my business or said nasty things to me. On the contrary, everyone was kind and left well enough alone, which was precisely the problem. There was far too much personal space. I’d felt lonely for two years because no one called me by my first name: everyone called me by the title Elder because I was a missionary. By the time I was heading home, I missed my first name and the familiarity that goes with it more than flirting, dancing, or ranch dressing. But when I got home, I was an island.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Social norms

As children grow, they learn to speak and understand the language or languages that surround them. In a very similar way, they learn a set of societal rules: when it’s okay to speak, what to wear, what is most important, etc., etc. Typically, people learn these rules by breaking them or following them in noticeable ways. When they do so, the responses of the people around them indicate whether their actions are acceptable or not. This reinforcement, negative or positive, informs future decisions.

The learning of such expectations usually peaks as preteens and teens begin to assert their independence by increasingly seeking approval from their peers and decreasingly from their parents. The need for peer approval raises the stakes considerably: a strange kid in elementary school is a little different, but it makes little difference; as the teenage years approach and commence, eccentricity becomes frighteningly dangerous to social standing and is shunned. To the social late bloomers, such a change is startling; after all, they have been wearing sweats for years. Why does it matter now?

After a few years, the social pressures seem to diminish.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The need for self-imposed morality

I spend a lot of time thinking about internet security, what with coursework that deals with it and my own nearly constant use of the internet for school, business, and recreation. Many of the nasty things that people do on the internet have exact analogs in the real world; for example, stealing someone’s credit card information and buying stuff with it isn’t too different from stealing someone’s wallet and buying stuff with the cards in it. Other things have analogs that are far more strained; for example, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is similar to a sit-in, but the absence of the human presence makes it more like a prank or vandalism and less like a significant political statement.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The unlikely role model

Author’s note: This post refers frequently to the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series. It may be difficult to appreciate without first becoming familiar with the series – in particular, with its characters. I have made no effort to avoid revealing what happens. When I say Avatar, think of the little, bald Airbender. At no point in this post will I refer to blue people with USB ports to their brains.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched half of the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series with my roommates. We’ve followed Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph in their adventures as they’ve met several other characters, including Zuko, Azula, and Iroh. It struck me recently that the characters are archetypal; probably, this was intended by the creators of the series. Aang is agile of body and mind and embodies gentleness. Katara is kind and determined and learns quickly. Toph is stubborn, direct, and a little boorish. Zuko is hot-headed and impulsive. Azula is calculating, precise, and completely unscrupulous. Iroh is ridiculous and lazy on the outside, but his actions reveal that he is compassionate and patient. Each one has a background that makes his or her personality plausible.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Picking fights without trying

A friend of mine said something recently that might be true, but that I thought unlikely. Since I could hardly disprove what he was saying and since our difference was merely one of opinion, I simply said that I disagreed. I didn't think anything of it, but my friend started to express his frustration with me: I disagree with things he says all the time. In particular, he disliked the fact that I disagree so frequently with his political statements because he studies political science. If he were to disagree with everything I said about computers, we'd get nowhere fast.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Everyone's special: another way of saying no one is

I’ve been going through the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender with my roommates recently. It reminds me of all of the great adventure movies, books, and shows that I have enjoyed and that I still enjoy. There’s something fantastic about watching or reading about someone who uses fantastic ability (super or not) to accomplish great things. I get a huge rush out of vicariously saving the world, especially when it requires stupendous skill to do so. The more I think about it, though, the more I think that the rush comes from the illusory satisfaction of my colossal vanity.

I keep thinking of the conversation that Dash has with his mother in The Incredibles:

Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone's special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.
(Source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317705/quotes)

Friday, November 5, 2010

That stupid Cheshire Cat won't leave me alone

I missed another homework deadline yesterday. As I typically do when I’m frustrated, I took a minute to think about what I’ve been doing, what I wish had happened, and what I could have done better. As I did a personal accounting of my time, I thought about what I’ve been doing during the day. I really have been pretty disciplined about working on homework or research. Even when I’m traveling, I do a decent job of thinking about the task at hand. As I thought about the research topics I’ve considered in an attempt to find something I really want to do, I kept thinking of what President Hinckley said: it was something to the effect of “I don’t care what you do as long as it’s honorable.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Filling in the gaps with feeling

I’m uncomfortable with uncertainty. Actually, I’m absolutely terrified of it. In a sense, I spend every minute of every day trying to eradicate the specter of uncertainty – and to ensure that the certainty is what’s desired. For example, I am virtually incapable of relaxing about a class’s coursework until it is mathematically impossible for me to receive a grade lower than what I’d like. I consider things carefully and reason thoroughly. It’s no wonder, then, that I’ve been told that I can seem cold or heartless or that I’ve had frustrated friends tell me that logic isn’t everything. Of course, I had as much trouble appreciating their point of view as they seem to have with mine.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hyperopia, or trying to see the end from the beginning

As part of my continuing efforts to choose a field for research, I’ve considered more topics than I care to count. Over the course of the last year or two, particularly in the last six months, I’ve become excited about several different topics, only to have that interest diminish after a short time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

People keep saying I'm a flirt...

It seems like everyone I meet thinks I’m a huge flirt. I used to be a huge flirt, but I’ve toned it down since I was a freshman. Maybe that’s why I don’t understand it. I do talk with people a lot, but the fact that I’m talking with a girl doesn’t mean I’m trying to ingratiate myself with her. Whatever the reason, my reputation as a flirt has persisted for many years, even among different groups of friends and in different cities that I’ve lived.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Busyness: the new drug

I've heard that a lot of people use their drug of choice to escape their painful life. Maybe their family isn't doing well or someone they love is in pain. They might feel lost, without a direction to follow. They could just be bored. Whatever the case, drugs provide a welcome escape from their problems, small or large.

I've noticed in the last few years that I have a similar habit, although mine is fairly subtle. Instead of ingesting or inhaling, I act.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I still haven't found what I'm looking for

I didn't give a lot of serious thought to my career before my mission. I enjoyed the introductory digital systems class and decided to be an electrical engineer. A year or two after my mission, I realized that although I enjoyed electrical engineering, I didn't care enough about it to spend my life with it. After some considerable investigation and consideration, I decided to become a medical doctor. Because of some other experiences I've had, I also wanted to get a PhD so I could do research to improve the world.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why I no longer fear rejection

When I got home from my mission, I was so absorbed in just living a non-mission life, finding a job, and then working at a job, that it hardly occurred to me that I might go on a date for a while. I'd been home for about four months when I decided that I needed to make some time for dating and asked someone out.

Since it had been about two and a half years since my last date (maybe more), I was very out of practice. To say that it was awkward would be a gross understatement. I tried to be proper and polite and ended up being so formal that our conversation was almost nonexistent. I don't remember who won the game of bowling, but I do remember that some girl in the next lane kept bowling in our lane.

The next day, my date went on a date with a guy in our ward. They began dating shortly thereafter.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Seeking the good

I remember resenting the fact that I wasn’t allowed to watch certain movies as a kid. The other kids watched them, and they seemed to be doing just fine! I wondered what I was missing out on, being as insatiably curious then as I am now. My parents were also involved in decisions about the TV shows I watched, the video games I played, the music I listened to, and the books I read.

As I matured, I gained an increased appreciation for the effect that media have on our thoughts. I began to avoid unsavory themes, messages, and visuals of my own volition. As I did so, however, I frequently found myself waging internal battles. I’d ask myself if a movie, book, etc. was okay. Not having seen it, I couldn’t know. I had to weigh my desire to never miss anything against my desire to avoid things that would harm my mind and spirit and the likelihood that a particular piece would actually be harmful.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Immodesty in ballroom dance as a symptom of a larger societal epidemic

Author's note:
Please don’t take this as a criticism of ballroom dance as a whole. I love ballroom dance and have seen many fantastic dancers, beautiful and handsome costumes, etc. This is a criticism of a movement in today’s culture that is exemplified by a movement within ballroom dance.


A few years ago, I attended the BYU DanceSport nationals to fulfill a requirement for my social dance class and to compete in the smaller class competition. I arrived at the Marriott Center to an ordinary dance scene. People were practicing in the hallways, looking for teammates, and relaxing. As I went downstairs to get my number, I saw a teenage boy with his dark hair clicked back and a thick rubber mask. I looked again and realized that he wasn’t wearing a rubber mask; it was just a thick slab of makeup that completely covered his face.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Being acted upon

As my friends are aware, I’m a consummate social butterfly. The combination of gregariousness and a short attention span has created in me a talent for becoming familiar with the individuals in large groups very quickly. It has also made it more difficult for me to develop deep friendships, as I rarely spend large amounts of time with the same person or few people. Since my life plan included marriage by around the age of 23 (which was two years ago), the challenges that inhibit me from forming deep friendships have merited considerable thought. My conclusion startled me and is best explained with a phrase from the Book of Mormon: I was being acted upon rather than choosing to act (see http://scriptures.lds.org/en/2_ne/2/26#26).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hints are bunk

For those who aren't familiar with hints, they are hopeful but ineffective communication. They are typically used when one person is obliged to say or do something, but doesn't want to say or do anything offensive to anyone else. If there weren't advantages to this form of communication, no one would bother using it. But their detrimental effects far outstrip their benefits. It's time for our communication to mature into clarity and honesty.

As a single man in a culture (that of Utah) that aggressively pursues the abandonment of singlehood, the examples that readily come to mind center on dating. Please apply the principles here to other aspects of life as appropriate.

The most important reason that hints are a negative is that they're so frequently dishonest.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Nate vs Petey

Once upon a time, a young man named Petey was working as an EFY counselor for the first time. Being an astute young man, Petey couldn’t help but notice that the lady counselors were beautiful, accomplished, and fun. He particularly noticed a lady counselor by the name of Nora (no, her real name is not Nora), who stood out to Petey as particularly beautiful and fun.

Petey made a point of paying some attention to Nora and was richly rewarded in kind; once, when he surprised her, she called him Sweetie Petey. Petey didn’t mind the attention one bit.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Goodbyes

I don't think that it's hit me yet that I've left Provo. I have reasons to visit from time to time, so I'll see people. And there's always Facebook and cell phones, but it's never the same.

I won't be in the daily life of my friends and they won't be in mine. I won't be around when Marie has a story to tell about something amazing from her life. I'm unlikely to be the first one to hear about the dates that Peter and Weston and Scott go on. And I won't have happy daily encounters with Kim, Taralyn, or Emily. Countless other people won't be in my day-to-day life and that saddens me.

My only real consolation is the fact that friendships, although not sealed in temples, can still be eternal. I look forward to spending an eternity with my friends, talking and laughing and listening.

In the meantime, friends, please tell me about your lives.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Principles of Communication

Introduction

In the last month, I’ve bothered a lot of people with things that I’ve said. As a result, I’ve thought a lot about what it is that we say and do that bothers people and I’ve tried to refine my understanding of the principles that should govern communication. I hope that they are as useful to my readers as they have been and will be to me. This is not an explanation of things that I do perfectly. It is an explanation of the ideals I strive to live.

These principles are applicable in all communication, but are particularly important when the messages we send are uncomfortable or unwelcome. It is easy to avoid offending people when we’re telling them how much we appreciate them or that they did something well, but easy to offend when we’re correcting, teaching, or disagreeing. It is in these “negative” communications that we are most tempted to violate these principles. However, they are as applicable in difficult situations as in easy ones.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The search for truth

I don’t think it’s always clear to people that when I express my opinion, it’s not always because I’m positive that I’m right and I’m trying to convince everyone else to think like I do. There are certainly times that it seems to me that I’ve found an element of truth that most people don’t seem to have grasped and I try to share it with them. But even in those moments, I often find that my discovery is incomplete and that there is more to learn in that specific area. I believe that the discovery of truth is far more important than my ego, so I appreciate correction. There are times when I fail to be gracious about being corrected and I ask my friends to forgive me for those lapses.

I frequently express my opinion in my blog posts and usually do it emphatically. When I do so, I argue for truth as I understand it. However, I recognize that I do not fully understand the truth. As such, I enthusiastically welcome others’ opinions. I would love to hear from people who agree and from people who disagree. I also welcome explanations to accompany opinions (why do you agree or disagree with me?), because it is frequently in the explanation of why that we find more truth.

I'm going to begin a flurry of posts in the next couple of days, if all goes according to plan. It would please me greatly to see intelligent debate about my ideas. So, gentle reader, please respond after you read.

Monday, May 24, 2010

No more excuses

I just read a couple of news articles about two horrible, violent acts. I realized that my greatest fear is that I'll do something monstrous to someone else and think of myself as a monster, not to be trusted around anyone. I'm glad that I've never had to forgive anyone else for something like what I read today.

But then, I realized that I'd have trouble forgiving myself for the same acts. At first, it seemed natural because they are deemed inexcusable in society. I believed that they were, in fact, inexcusable. And, by extension, unforgivable.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Life lessons from video games

I have played a lot of video games in my day. They are a form of entertainment, pure and simple. But as I look back, I'm surprised to see what I've learned and what I can learn from them.

A few years ago, I played a game on my roommate's computer called Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR). The plot centers around Jedi who lived years before the Star Wars saga began. A people, some of whom are Jedi, work together to stop an evil Sith from taking over the galaxy (to no one's surprise). As I played the game, my characters would "level up," or become more powerful. When they leveled up, I could choose how they developed; they would develop skill with various force powers, such as Force speed, the ability to destroy droids, or Force choke (Darth Vader's signature move).

I was pretty put out when I discovered that I couldn't develop every ability and make a character who did it all. I have always enjoyed making my characters so irresistibly powerful that no foe could possibly challenge them. It's still possible to make the character ludicrously powerful, but not in every way; the player is forced to choose some sort of emphasis.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Engineers and scientists

It’s easy to think of scientists and engineers as the same group of people. Both stereotypically wear glasses and use pocket protectors. Both use words that no one else understands and then has trouble figuring out what wasn’t clear. Both know about (and, for some unfathomable reason, enjoy thinking about) incomprehensible things. They commonly take the same classes and discuss the same concepts, although they sometimes use different terminology or notation; for example, many engineers use j and many scientists use i to denote the second root of unity (colloquially, the square root of -1).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Environmentalism, dirty dishes, and good friends

After I drive a car a few miles, there’s a little less oxygen and a little more carbon dioxide (as well as some partially combusted hydrocarbons and maybe some additives) in the air. The amounts of oxygen and so on are so small that they make no perceptible difference. But when lots of people drive lots of miles, they create a remarkable difference in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

The same is true of many environmental issues today: they are not caused by huge destructive acts. Rather, they’re caused by little things that have almost no impact on the environment. But, in aggregate, they can cause all sorts of change to the environment. For so long, humanity’s numbers and technology have been insufficient for us to impact our world in such a subtle manner, so we’ve generally adopted the attitude that any difference that seems insignificant is actually insignificant, no matter how many times it’s multiplied.

This type of thinking manifests itself in other aspects of our daily lives. For example, one plate or cup left out or a few bread crumbs on a table or counter hardly make a huge difference. But several people who live together, each one routinely leaving dishes out and surfaces neglected will quickly find that their living conditions have become unacceptable.

More significantly, we can fail to care for others. Not taking a moment for a friend or loved one once is usually not a big deal. A friend is still a friend, even when we fail to be the friend we should be. However, habitual neglect will destroy any relationship.

So take a minute to talk with a friend. Wash a few dishes. Take a walk instead of driving once in a while. The little positives add up in the same way that the negatives do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fitness of body and soul

I went for a run this morning before the sun came up. There was a moderately hard frost on the ground and some ice on the sides of the roads. Since I'm not much for the cold, it was chilly. I did a few push-ups and sit-ups afterward and then took a shower. It felt great to exercise again.

As I ate breakfast, I was reading an article by President Uchtdorf. He quoted Harold B. Lee, who said that it is what we do about what we know (about spiritual matters) that helps us to maintain that knowledge.

That is, we learn about spiritual matters through the mind and spirit. The evidence of such matters consists largely of thoughts and feelings, which are ever so easy to forget. If we do not act in such a way that we can continue to receive thoughts and feelings from God through the Holy Spirit, then we will lose sight of the evidence that we once had.

After a moment of reflection, I concluded that God gave us our bodies the way they are for a reason. He gave us bodies that require maintenance: exercise, good nutrition, hygiene, and caution. Learning to care for our bodies teaches us how to care for our spirits. We exercise our spirits by doing the things that we know we should do. We nourish our spirits by studying God's words and by praying. Spiritual hygiene involves careful and honest introspection and frank conversation with God, asking Him to forgive us when we fall short. And we should be careful to avoid wounding our spirits through sin.

As we care for our bodies our spirits, we will find similar results: we will be stronger, healthier, and happier. And God is kind enough to teach us about one by showing us the other.

Friday, January 1, 2010

How to be a good gospel learner

My dad taught one of the lessons in church this Sunday. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I raised my hand a couple of times during the lesson to answer questions and participate in other ways. I participated even more than usual and the class participated, or so it seemed to me, even less than usual.

Classmates and teachers frequently say things about how often I comment. Out of respect to their mothers’ instruction to say nice things or nothing at all, most of what people say is congratulatory or grateful. But there are enough comments that are neutral or negative to leave no doubt in my mind that my degree of participation is bothersome to some of the people in my classes.

I have taught the gospel as a missionary, as a summer camp counselor, and as a seminary teacher, in addition to a few other capacities. In each of these capacities, I was told that good gospel teachers ask questions because effective gospel learning means that the learners (students and teachers) are taught individually by the Holy Spirit, which usually takes place when they carefully consider the principles being discussed.

As I thought about my dad’s lesson, I realized that students can choose to be good gospel learners. That is, they can choose to learn about the gospel, independently of their teachers.

Good gospel learning is based on the same principle as good gospel teaching; the teacher is the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit teaches when we are trying to learn.

Students can train themselves to ask the same type of questions to themselves that their teachers are trained to ask. They can look for similarities between a story or scriptural passage and aspects of their own life and they can try to identify good examples to follow or mistakes to avoid. They can identify choices that they can make in their own lives to live according to the principles that they learn. Considering gospel principles in this way will certainly invite the personalized teaching of the Holy Spirit that is the objective of every gospel learning situation.

This sort of questioning does not come naturally to every student, but there are things that students can do to develop this ability. Preparing gospel lessons has developed my ability to ask these questions, especially as I have prepared questions for my students in those lesson plans. Asking the type of questions mentioned above during personal gospel study will also develop this ability. Students may also find it useful to read lesson material before class so that the ideas have time to sink in; it may be that people are good at asking themselves useful questions, but not good at asking them quickly enough to be of any use during a class period.

Finally, I encourage every person in every gospel teaching situation to participate vocally. Every one of a person’s ideas may not change someone else’s life, some will. A person’s ideas certainly cannot benefit others if they are not shared. Also ideas become better developed as they are articulated. Those who give voice to their ideas will find better ways to apply gospel principles in their own lives.

I encourage my readers to participate both mentally and vocally in their classes, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others.